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Here is a gorgeous warm earth color for Thanksgiving week.  Gamboge is a deep yellow/pale orange color of tremendous antiquity.  By ancient tradition, Theravada monks dye their robes this distinctive color to show their devotion to the middle path.  The color is named after the Latin word for Cambodia, “Gambogia”, which was (and is) a center of Theravada spirituality as well as a major source of milky sap from Gamboge trees (genus Garcinia). Such sap is dried into a brown gum resin which is the main constituent of gamboge dye.

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Because the color plays such a large role in the religious life of South Asia, it is well known throughout the world. Gamboge is a lovely and vibrant color in its own right—a perfect medium between orange and yellow.  All sorts of animals, fruit, and flowers can be described as gamboge.  Although Thanksgiving has no color scheme per say, the fallen autumn leaves usually inspire decorations in some combination of gamboge, sienna, and russet.

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Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

The Namib Desert is probably the oldest desert on Earth.  Because of the quirks of plate tectonics and geology, it has been the same hot arid landscape since West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago!  Some of the regional plants and animals of the Namib Desert have had a very long time to adapt to the baking sun and shifting sands of West Africa’s Skeleton Coast.  The sandswimming (and misnamed) golden mole is a prime example of the strange animals which live in the Namib, but an even weirder organism is the ancient monotypic plant Welwitschia mirabilis.  As the sole member of its own genus, family, and order, the plant is a bizarre evolutionary loner.  This suits the strange plant well–since some specimens exist in stupendous isolation, far from all other plants in the midst of great desolate plains.  There, single plants can live for up to two millennia or longer, in environs which would swiftly kill most other living things.  Their distinctive appearance—a huge convoluted heap of withered ancient leaves of immense length—is a sort of trademark of the Namib Desert.

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

But Welwitschia mirabilis is even stranger than its bizarre appearance and lifestyle first indicate.  It is one of the last three surviving gnetales—a division of the ancient gymnosperms (which also include conifers, cycads, and ginkgos).  Botanists are still arguing about the exact taxonomy of the gnetales, but they seem to have evolved in the Jurassic era.  As the dinosaurs came and went, as the seas rose and fell and great ice sheets carved the world and then melted, welwitschia has sat in its inhospitable corner of the globe and quietly prospered (even as all of its close relatives died away).

A young Welwitschia

A young Welwitschia

Each welwitschia has only two strap-like leaves which grow continuously over its long life.  As the desert winds rip into the plant, these leaves become shredded into different ribbons and segments, but they remain the same two leaves—growing longer and longer like some tangled Rapunzel.  The all-important taproot of the plants is just as strange—a huge shallow water collecting disk which has approximately the same radius as the length of the leaves.  Each plant has its own gender and they are pollinated by flies and desert Hemiptera (true bugs).

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Oddly enough, in our world of mass extinction, welwitschia plants are doing fine.  Although collectors have gathered some, there are still plenty left in places where people do not want to go. The plants in tumultuous Angola are better protected than those in democratic, ecologically-minded Namibia (simply because Angola’s many wars have left vast, unmapped zones of landmines where people never venture).  The welwitschia’s hermit-like asceticism is a very good strategy in our hedonistic Anthropocene world.

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The world is a strange place filled with astonishing and bizarre animals. Among the strangest creatures are those which are transparent*—animals which barely seem to be there because the tissues that make up their bodies are permeable to light.  There are transparent catfish, transparent insects, transparent crustaceans, and even transparent frogs (to say nothing of cnidarians, the majority of which are transparent!).  Today’s post however concerns transparent mollusks.  In addition to having transparent bodies some of these incredible invertebrates have transparent shells, can invert their bodies, or can glow.  Check them out:

The Glass Squid (Teuthowenia pellucida)

The Glass Squid (Teuthowenia pellucida)

The Glass Squid (Teuthowenia pellucida) also known as the googly-eyed glass squid lives throughout the oceans of the southern hemisphere.  The creature is about 200 millimeters (8 inches) long and has light organs on its eyes.  Although transparent it has a bluish cast and it possesses the ability to roll into a ball or to inflate itself.  These tricks do not always work and the little squid is frequently eaten by weird deep-sea fish and sharks.

Zospeum tholussum

Zospeum tholussum

Recently discovered in a huge cave system in Croatia,  Zospeum tholussum, is a small delicate snail with a transparent shell.

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This pterotracheid heteropod mollusk is a member of the Carinaria genus.  It lives in the open ocean and flaps through the water scooping up plankton in a modified snail foot. Just as its snail foot has changed into a swimming/harvesting organ, the mollusk’s shell has shrunk into near nonexistence.

0corolla (calceola)Above is an unknown pteropod (possibly of the genus Corolla), which was photographed near Oceanographer Canyon off the coast of Massachusetts.

Vitrelladonella Richardi

Vitrelladonella Richardi

Vitrelladonella Richardi is a deepwater pelagic octopus found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world.  The little octopus only measures 80cm (2.6ft) in length.  Like many of these almost invisible mollusks very little is known about how it lives, but it is certainly beautiful in a very alien and otherworldly way.

*The author of this opinion piece is opaque.  His opinion may not represent the larger community of organisms.

The Minotaur I rocket launches from Wallops on November 19, 2013

The Minotaur I rocket launches from Wallops on November 19, 2013

Last night, the United States simultaneously fired 29 satellites into orbit at one time from a Minotaur I rocket which lifted up from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at approximately 8:15 PM EST.  The launch was visible to viewers hundreds of miles from the launching site.  The main payload of the rocket was the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3, which measures various aspects of the launch and monitors the nature of outer space in an attempt to improve future satellite launches.  The 28 other satellites were “microsatellites” designed by various companies, universities, and other entities to be as small and inexpensive as possible.  One of the small “cubesats” was even put together by a magnet high school from Northern Virginia.  Since the rocket launched from Wallops, it was visible across the Northeast as it streaked into orbit (although not by me since I was at a poetry reading at Dumbo—even if I had been outside there were bridges, skyscrapers, and looming edifices in every direction).

Dangit! Launch another one, Air Force, I swear I'll pay better attention!

Dangit! Launch another one, Air Force, I swear I’ll pay better attention!

Turkey with Fast Food (Wayne Ferrebee, 2013, watercolor on paper)

Turkey with Fast Food (Wayne Ferrebee, 2013, watercolor on paper)

We are quickly coming up to Thanksgiving and it is time to celebrate those magnificent birds, the turkeys.  Native only to the New World, turkeys are large fowl of the hugely important order Galliformes (which includes chickens, pheasants, quail, partridges, grouse, peacocks, and guineafowl).  Although there were once many taxonomic varieties of turkeys, today there are only two species remaining in the wild: the ocellated turkeys (Meleagris ocellata), and the wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo).

Turkeys were originally domesticated by the great civilizations of Mesoamerica and they became an important part of the agricultural base of Mayan and Aztec society.  When the Spanish conquered the great Central American civilizations with smallpox and war, the conquistadors also conquered the domesticated turkeys, which they took back to Spain in chains (probably).  Spanish farmers then further domesticated the birds, which were then reimported back to the Americas.  Today’s turkeys are descendants of Spanish turkeys (with some wild turkey genes mixed in by 18th, 19th, and 20th century farmers).

To celebrate this heritage, I have painted a small watercolor artwork of a domesticated Bronze Turkey visiting a Mesoamerican step pyramid.  The turkey’s splendid plumage fits in quite well with the vibrant colors of Central America, but peril looms! Will the Tom turkey learn in time that our Western continents are lands of unrestrained appetite?  To help him understand, I have scattered the ground with some of humankind’s favorite contemporary treats (which also prove appealing to an obstreperous little shrew).  There is probably some sort of parable here for hungry modern humans, but I will leave it to the viewers to tease it out (hopefully over a delicious holiday dinner).

Faustin-Élie Soulouque

Faustin-Élie Soulouque

Faustin-Élie Soulouque was born as a slave in Haiti in 1782.  He fought as a private during the Haitian revolution and he so distinguished himself as a soldier that he was offered an officer’s commission in the army of the newly formed Republic of Haiti.  Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century he rose up through the ranks to ultimately become a general.  Then, in 1847, Faustin was democratically elected as President of Haïti—his biography is the heroic story of a man who was born as a slave who became the leader of a nation!

Emperor Faustin I

Emperor Faustin I

Unfortunately the rot soon started to set in. Backed by a highly loyal group of military apparatchiks, President Faustin soon began murdering his political enemies.  In 1849 he suspended the Republic and proclaimed himself Emperor Faustin I of Haiti.  His subsequent reign was marked by fanatical crackdowns against real or imaginary opponents within Haiti.  Faustin’s violence became so extreme that he was accused of ritual cannibalism and drinking the blood of his enemies (long before Idi Amin was accused of similar tactics in the twentieth century).   Additionally Emperor Faustin launched a disastrous series of invasions against Spanish-controlled Santo Domingo (which is today the Dominican Republic).  The Haitian army attacked in 1849, 1850, 1855 and 1856 but was soundly defeated each time. Faustin’s dream of a unified Hispaniola never came to fruition.

In order to centralize and legitimize his brutal reign, Faustin created many different orders of nobility to confer upon cronies.  In 1858,  this strategy backfired when General Fabre Geffrard, the “Duc de Tabara” launched a full scale rebellion which pushed Emperor Faustin I from power (President Gerard returned Haiti to democratic rule and proved to be a staunch ally to the anti-slavery United States Union during the American Civil War).  Emperor Faustin tried to seek shelter in his beloved France, but was laughed at and rebuffed.  He ended up living in exile in Jamaica (although he returned to Haiti to die).

The Crown of Faustin I

The Crown of Faustin I

All of this is backstory for this somewhat overbearing crown, “the crown of Faustin I” which was made for the vampire emperor’s coronation in 1849.  The crown was richly ornamented with diamonds, emeralds, and other jewels.  After Faustin’s fall, the crown eventually became a major exhibit in the Musée du Panthéon National Haitien, however even in a museum the crown could not escape the corruption endemic to Haiti.  It was recently discovered that many of the jewels were surreptitiously pilfered from the crown of Faustin at an unknown time.  The entire crown was then removed to an unknown location by unknown entities for safekeeping (which seems to mean that it was stolen entirely)—a fitting legacy for Haiti’s Cannibal Emperor.

Detail from "Medicine" (Gustav Klimt, 1901)

Detail from “Medicine” (Gustav Klimt, 1901)

Earlier this month we featured a post about Robert William’s painting “In the Pavillion of the Red Clown” an enigmatic artwork which showed a sinister red-garbed clown using a golden snake to menace a pretty showgirl.  It’s a powerful painting and it provoked some enthusiastic and thoughtful comments, but it is also a painting with some real gender issues (particularly considering the clown’s menacing attitude and the showgirl’s scanty garb). To rectify the situation and even up the scales, here is an even more beautiful painting by the Vienna Secession master, Gustav Klimt.  Actually this is a detail photograph of a part of the larger painting “Medicine” which Klimt painted in 1901.  Sadly the original painting was destroyed by the S.S. in 1945, but photos and sketches of the original still exist.  The woman in red is the goddess Hygeia, one of the daughters of Asclepius.  Worshiped by Romans as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation, she holds a sacred golden snake, the ancient symbol of healing and looks haughtily down at the viewer.  Her strange lovely red and gold garb highlights her divinity and otherworldliness. Likewise the golden swirls on her dress and the red ribbons in her elaborately coiffed hair suggest a hidden world of medical secrets.

A Stegomastodon skeleton from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

A Stegomastodon skeleton from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

One of the most compelling extinct creatures from South America is not as well-known as it should be because it suffers from an incredibly confusing name.  The amazing Stegomastodon was a mighty proboscidean which lived on the great grassy lowlands east of the Andes until modern times, which is to say until about 9,500 years ago (because  paleontologists have a very different definition of modern than, say, historians or artists).  Proboscideans of course are the astonishing order of large mammals which include elephants and their many extinct relatives like mammoths, mastodons, deinotheriums,  moeritheriums…and stegomastodons.  The stegomastodons first evolved in North America during the Miocene (about 3 million years ago) and they lumbered rapidly down through South America after the Great American Interchange when the Isthmus of Panama formed between the two continents.  In North America, the stegomastodons died out because of competition from the true mastodons, which crossed over from Asia via Berengia, however deep in South America, they found ecosystems which suited them and they lasted for a long, long time.

An illustration of a stegomastodon (from geologiadelparaguay.com)

An illustration of a stegomastodon (from geologiadelparaguay.com)

Stegomastodons are neither stegodons nor mastodons, two famous and well known genera of proboscideans.  Confusingly stegomastodons are the last of the gomphotheres.  Gomphotheres wandered into Asia, became isolated and evolved into Stegodons, which, in turn, are the probable ancestors of today’s still-living elephants (assuming you are still reading this in an age when the Chinese and poachers have not wiped elephants from the globe).  If these relationships are confusing to you, you can use the proboscidean clade below (but remember that the stegomastodons are gomphotheres and they lasted much longer than is shown on the chart).

wpid-photo-aug-10-2012-1957Stegomastodons were grazers: they lived on the immense fields of grass which flourished east of the Andes in what is now Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. The creatures were smaller than modern elephants growing only to 2,8 meters (9 feet) in height and obtaining a mass of 6,000 kilograms (13,000 pounds).  It is not known what wiped out the last stegomastodons, but they died quite recently, just after the Younger Dryas stadial was ending…only shortly after humankind made its way to the southern parts of South America.

Skull of stegomastodon waringii

Skull of Stegomastodon waringii

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

At present, I am in no danger of coming into ownership of a yacht, but if I had one I kow what I would name it–the “Turkeyfish” a magnificent combination of my favorite bird and a lovely fish.  But “turkeyfish” is not just a funny portmanteau or an impossible chimera, there are actual turkeyfish swimming the world’s waters.

The Two-spot Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus biocellatus)

Dendrochirus is a genus of small scorpionfish which live in the Indo-Pacific region: these dwarf lionfish are also known colloquially as turkeyfish. They are members of the Pteroinae subfamily of the Scorpionfish family (a family which includes some of the world’s most poisonous fish) and, like their relatives they have fans of sharp spines coated with venomous mucus.  Because these spines are striped and shaped like the feathers of turkeys, divers fancifully call them turkeyfish (a common name which is sometimes even extended to larger lionfish of the Pterois genus).

Shortfin turkeyfish or Dwarf Lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus)

Shortfin turkeyfish or Dwarf Lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus)

Turkeyfish are formidable carnivores (for their size) with large powerful mouths and the ability to lurk in shadows and stalk prey around a reef.  They mostly prey on small fish, arthropods, and mollusks but occasionally they eat big fish—or each other. The poisonous spines of turkeyfish cause large predatory fish to avoid them and their toxin is also venomous to animals other than fish (like humans which can be badly hurt, or even occasionally killed by the spines). The exquisite colors of these spines serve as a warning to predators, but have also caused the fishes to be popular in the aquarium trade.

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Some species of lionfish have even been spreading around the tropical waters of the globe after irresponsible aquarists freed them into the ocean.  It is unclear whether the turkeyfish have joined their larger cousins in invading non-native reefs but it is clear they are formidable fish.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In the middle of the nineteenth century, oil and gas lamps replaced candles as the main source of indoor illumination.  At the same time, chemists and industrialists were rapidly bringing numerous new dyes and pigments to market.  Because of these innovations there was a great change in interior decorating: gone was the era when walls had to be pale-colored to keep rooms from being gloomy.  There was a tremendous revolution in color! Paints, dyes, and wallpapers became available in shades never seen before. Thanks to the nineteenth century British love of green, few colors were more popular than Scheele’s green, a beautiful yellow green which became the color de rigueur for fashionable bedrooms, studies, and dining rooms during the 1850s and 1860s.  The color was unimaginatively named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who discovered the pigment in 1775.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Unfortunately, the compound which lent the distinctive and vivid color to Scheele’s green was an acidic copper arsenite (which contains the highly poisonous heavy metal arsenic).  Soon rich and modish people throughout Great Britain were falling sick of headaches, nausea, tremors, and other symptoms of arsenic poisoning.  Numerous children died outright (particularly since sick people were confined to their poisonous rooms by medical norms of the day).  In addition to being poisonous, arsenic is a potent carcinogen so wallpaper which did not kill a person outright (or was replaced by newer fashions) might still shorten its owner’s life by decades.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Cheap wallpaper released toxic powder, but even expensive well-made wallpaper could be colonized by various fungi when the paper became damp.  As the fungi metabolized the Scheele’s green dye, arsine gasses were produced.  In case you are not alarmed enough at the idea of people coating their walls with arsenic, Scheele’s green was also used as a food color for candies and sweets (and as a potent insecticide).

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the lengths to which merchants and manufacturers went in order to prove that Scheele’s green was perfectly safe.  Craftsmen and wallpaper sellers would earnestly lick the walls and vigorously swear that nothing was wrong with the color.  Even when the link between Scheele’s green and morbid toxicity was firmly established, some artists and artisans were difficult to constrain.  To quote  suttonplacedesign.com, “The famous artist and designer, William Morris,only removed green arsenic pigments from his wallpapers under protest, writing in 1885: ‘….it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.’” To celebrate Morris’ strong feelings, I have illustrated this post about a horrible toxin entirely with his beautiful designs.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In our era, there is a pervasive sentiment that the stuff in our walls, food, and air is gradually killing us.  At least we can take comfort we do not live in the Victorian era when the word “gradually” was not a part of that sentence!

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

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