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Thanks so much for your patience while I was working on my art show last week! My first New York solo show was a rousing success (even if it only lasted for a single night). Numerous friends, patrons,and even some strangers showed up to check out the 100 flounder pictures in their fancy Manhattan setting. The fish market was a success as well: far fewer flatfish are back on my walls (and if you reserved a flounder, I am holding it safe in a special secure undisclosed location so it stays fresh until you pick it up). Special thanks to all attendees and well-wishers! I only wish I had had more time to talk about art and the affairs of the world with each of you. Additionally, I really appreciate the emotional support from my readers who couldn’t make it to the Lower East Side. Particular thanks are due to my long-time supporters, Neomys Sapiens, Calender Girl, and above all Mom, who always gets pride of place in any thank you speech! Indeed, thanks to both of my parents for their inxhaustible patience and fortitude. Thanks too to Catinca Tabacaru Gallery for providing a space to grow and experiment (I promised not to use their branding on any promotional materials, but they really helped me out, and their lovely gallery deserves a visit next time you are in the City). My amazing new roommate Stephen Clarke provided this opportunity and did an astonishing job hanging 100 pictures so they look beautiful in a couple of short hours.
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Now I have to figure out how and where to throw the next show. Keep your eyes peeled for art galleries that seem to have a penchant for surrealism, historical tableau, themes of ecology and symbiosis, or fish in general. Here are some images of the show to tide us over till the next time.
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Speaking of moving forwards, I also drew a quick sketch of the solar eclipse as visible from the East River promenade at lunch hour. I didn’t have solar eclipse glasses and didn’t want to stare at the sun too much (also I had to get back to the office), but I think this quick sketch of the partial eclipse is mostly accurate. Hopefully I will have another art show before there is another solar eclipse! I hope to see you at the next shindig, and thanks again!

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Hey everyone, my amazing new roommate works at an art gallery in the city’s hottest art district, the Lower East Side. The famous gallerist who runs the place has embarked on an artistic quest…to Tanzania, but she has generously allowed me to use the space for an evening. I hope you will accept my invitation (above) to a show of my flounder artworks which explore the big-fish-eats-little-fish dialectic of history against a backdrop of larger biological themes.

Because of time constraints, the opening IS the show–we are like a beautiful exotic mushroom which pops-up for a single glorious night–but during that one night there will be glowing multi-media delights to satisfy all aesthetic longings! Since you read this blog, I know you have the most refined and intelligent tastes: I hope you can join me then and there.

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Last week I blogged about the end of the desmostylians, a group of aquatic mammals driven into extinction by competition from the gentle (but implacably hungry) manatees. Since then, I have been worried that people are going to think I am anti-manatee. That is why I would like us all to take a moment to say farewell to Snooty the manatee, the world’s oldest captive manatee who died on Sunday (July 23, 2017) a day after his 69th birthday party. Since 1949 Snooty has been entertaining and educating visitors to the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. His death was not a result of old age, but was instead a tragic accident involving the failure of a protective hatch which closed off a maintenance-only section of the aquarium.
Apparently in the modern era, manatees in the wild usually live less than 10 years (due largely to aquatic mishaps) but a few lucky individuals have made it into their 50s. In his late 60s, Snooty was going strong and was an active, intelligent, and gregarious manatee until that cursed hatch failed. This makes one wonder how long manatees actually live when they don’t get run over with speedboats or eaten up by Portuguese conquistadors (and it also leads to other troubling thoughts about humankind’s interactions with other living creatures). I interacted with the late Ivak the walrus and Grandpa the lungfish, but I never had the chance to see Snooty. Yet I am still upset by his loss. I worry about the future of animals in our ultra-competitive dangerous world where even the world’s most respected and well-cared for manatee can have a fatal accident in his own tank. Let us say farewell to poor Snooty and keep working to better the lot of his brothers and sisters in captivity and in the wild.

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Let’s look back through the mists of time to peak at one of the most mysterious and perplexing of mammals, the desmostylians, the only extinct order of marine mammals (although in dark moments I worry that more are soon to follow). Desmostylians were large quadrupeds adapted to life in the water. They had short tails and mighty limbs. Because of this morphology, taxonomists initially thought that they were cousins of proboscideans and sirenians (elephants and manatees), but the fact that their remains have only been found far from Africa (the origin point of elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and manatees & sea cows) along with perplexingly alien traits has caused a rethink of that hypothesis.
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(Art by Ray Troll fror SMU)

Extant between the late Oligocene and late Miocene, the desmostylians had powerful tusklike cylindrical teeth and dense heavy bones. The smallest (and oldest) were peccary sized creatures whereas the largest grew to the size of medium whales. It seems like desmostylians lived in littoral parts of the ocean—near coasts and shores where they used their pillar like teeth to graze great kelp forests. They scraped or rasped up the kelp and sucked it down their voracious vacuum maws like spaghetti! It must have been an astonishing sight! My favorite marine paleoartist, Ray Troll has made exquisite pictures of these majestic creatures which help us to visualize them. I really hope they looked this funny and friendly (if they were anything like herbivorous manatees, they probably did!).
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(Art by Ray Troll, courtesy SMU)

Speaking of manatees, the gentle sirenians had a hand (or flipper?) in the demise of the poor desmostylians. The dugongs and manatees would never fight anyone or even protect themselves with force—they simply outcompeted the less nimble desmostylians for resources, although one wonders if climate-change and the continuing evolution of different coastal sea plants might also have helped do in the great desmostylians.

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Today features a traditional-style porcelain Russian decanter in elegant blue and white glaze.  The decanter is handmade Gzhel porcelain with traditional Russian folk-art patterns.  However the vessel is not completely traditional—it is in the shape of a rocket.  The piece commemorates Belka and Strelka, two dogs who went in to orbit on Sputnik 5 in 1960 and returned safely to Earth.  They were space pioneers in all sorts of ways!

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I like this sort of object–which combines except it commemorates an even which happened more than 50 years ago.  Our space milestones are receding in the past, and although the robot probes exploring the solar system are learning amazing things, they do not seem to keep the public’s attention the same way that two lovable Soviet dogs did.

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Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re moving to the darkest time of the year.  I don’t have any white robes or giant megaliths on hand to get us through the solstice, but I thought I might at least cheer up the gloomy darkness with some festive decorations!  As in years past, I put up my tree of life filled with animal life of the past and the present (see above).  This really is my sacred tree: I believe that all Earth life is part of a larger cohesive gestalt (yet not in a stupid supernatural way–in a real and literal way).  Looking at the world in review, I am not sure most people share this perspective, so we are going to be philosophizing more about our extended family in the coming year.  For right now though, lets just enjoy the colored lights and the Christmas trilobite, Christmas basilosaurus, and Christmas aardvark.

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I also decorated my favorite living tree–the ornamental cherry tree which lives in the back yard.  Even without its flowers or leaves it is still so beautiful.  I hope the shiny ornaments and toys add a bit of luster to it, but really I know its pulchritude is equally great at the end of January when it is naked even of ornaments.

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Here are some Javanese masks which my grandfather bought in Indonesia in the 50s/60s. Indonesian culture is Muslim, but there is a deep foundation of Hinduism (the masks are heroes from the Mahabharata and folk heroes of medieval Indonesia).  Decorating this uneasy syncretism up for Christmas is almost nonsensical–and yet look at how good the combination looks.  Indeed, there might be another metaphor here.  We always need to keep looking for beautiful new combinations.

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Finally here is a picture of the chandelier festooned with presents and hung with a great green bulb.  The present may be dark, but the seasons will go on shifting and there is always light, beauty, and generosity where you make it.  I’m going to be in and out, here, as we wrap up 2016 and make some resolutions for 2017.  I realize I have been an inconsistent blogger this year, but I have been doing the best I can to keep exploring the world on this space and that will continue as we go into next year. I treasure each and every one of you.  Thank you for reading and have a happy solstice.

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We are swiftly coming up to the United States election and Ferrebeekeeper needs to endorse a candidate. You can probably already guess whether I will endorse the competent and hard-working patriot (the one who is admittedly very ambitious and bit sloppy with finicky data protocols) or the unhinged con-artist who is not only an ignoramus, a bully, and a bigot, but poses an existential threat to the republic itself. However, before we get around to making this difficult choice (and, maybe…finally reaching an end to this ghastly and divisive national contest) we need to think about primatology.

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Specifically there was an experiment conducted by primatologist Frans de Waal with some capuchin monkeys to understand social behavior and social cognition in primate groups.  In the experiment, the capuchins (who are exceedingly bright characters) were asked to do a small task in exchange for a food reward while the other monkeys watched the exchange.  Some monkeys were given grapes…which capuchins love.  Others were given little slivers of cucumber (a far less valuable treat) for completing the same task.

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Not surprisingly, monkeys who watched a different monkey do the same task for a much better reward flew into a rage. They hurled their cucumber away and banged on their plexiglass enclosures and shook their little bars and sulked.

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Now, a tiny sliver of cucumber is not a valueless thing for a monkey who spends all day being tortured by scientists and fed bland monkey chow. Probably the rational thing to do would be to take the cucumber and kiss the cruel scientists’ hand and call it a day (then quietly wait for a chance to rise up, bite some faces off, and enslave Charlton Heston).

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But if you were a monkey and reacted with apparent docility to unfair treatment, who knows how you would be taken advantage of next? It wouldn’t just be primatologists who took advantage of you, soon enough your fellow monkeys would too.

What is truly important to social animals is status: this intangible commodity is fungible and it is pegged to a highly complex and immediate relative framework. A cucumber slice, though fine in its own right confers less status than a prestigious grape.  To throw it away and freak out makes sense to capuchin monkeys because larger issues are on the line (even if they are apparently hurting themselves in the short term).  Spite matters for monkeys: it is one way that monkeys can mess with more powerful entities and protest the unfair allocation of resources and rewards.

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Again and again the question arises among the people I know in New York of how anyone could be taken in by an illiterate orange charlatan with a pronounced tendency to molest woman, steal from workers, and cheat on taxes.   Maybe some people truly believe in Donald Trump, but I believe for a larger number of people in the middle of the country he is neither the grape nor the cucumber: Trump is the act of throwing the cucumber away.  High status monkeys should take note and make some immediate changes, but I suspect they will only hide their equities in the Cayman Islands and buy bigger Bentleys. Primates are not great at solving social hierarchy problems without lots of shrieking, biting, and shit-throwing.

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My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well).  One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict.  This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind.  In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city:  the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns.  The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings.  It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops.  On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.

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If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom.  Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots.  This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of.  It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth.  However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher.  The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.

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Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels.  The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous  buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series).  This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).

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We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars).  Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway.  Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs).  That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.  If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).

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I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities).  I want to write a lot more about cities.  The Anthropocene is upon us.  More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.

 

Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.

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Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis.  We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.

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In the popular imagination, marsupials are synonymous with Australia.  Yet, once, in the age of Gondwanaland, Australia was linked to Antarctica (then a verdant land of forests) which was linked to South America.  The marsupials have been a big part of South America’s ecosystems for a long time, but, ever since the place was overrun with placental mammals, they have kept a fairly low profile.  Today’s Ferrebeekeeper post features a tremendously widespread and common marsupial from South America—yet this creature is nearly unknown beyond South America (except perhaps to mammalian zoologists and people who write alphabetical lists of beasts).  The water opossum (Chironectes minimus), also known as the yapok, is the most aquatic living marsupial and the only living marsupial where both sexes have pouches.

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The yapok is a formidable predator of fish, amphibians, snakes, and freshwater invertebrates like crayfish.  In order to pursue these creatures underwater, it has symmetrical webbed back feet, short waterproof fur, and numerous sensory facial bristles (like a catfish! which it slightly resembles).  The possums are small– 30 centimeters (11 inches) long with a 35 centimeter (14 inch) long tail. They have endearing little masks and cute stripes. Yapoks live from southern Mexico down through Central America to Southern Brazil.  They are especially prevalent in Colombia and Northern Peru, but they do not live in most of the Amazon Basin.

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about yapoks is the female’s pouch.  While the mother yapok is taking care of her young, she still must swim and hunt—yet marsupial babies have a lot of development to do before they can be on their own (much less swim through swift streams hunting fish).  Adult female yapoks therefore have a watertight pouch which can be sealed with a muscular ring so that they can take their offspring with them in the water.  For 50 days she carries her brood of 1-5 little yapoks with her everywhere…and even after then, when they detach from the nipple, they still frequent her pouch.

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Of course, as I noted above, male yapoks have pouches too. Wikipedia blandly notes, “The male also has a pouch (although not as watertight as the female’s), where he places his genitalia before swimming. This is thought to prevent it from becoming tangled in aquatic vegetation and is probably helpful in streamlining the animal as well.”  My mind keeps approaching this concept and then reeling back from it.  So I will just leave Wikipedia’s wording as it stands and say no more.

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