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Palomino-Flatfish

Mustang Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2017) Wood and Mixed Media

I got wrapped up working on a strange allegorical fish sculpture and failed to write a post today, so here is a sculpture which I built a few years ago which captures the wild freedom of the west (in, um, the form of a sleek predatory pleuronectiform).  The wheels, the running horse, and the fish all connote mobility and streamlined speed.  The mustang is emblematic of North America, but horses were actually introduced to the continent by Spaniards in the early 16th century.  Equids actually originated in the Americas (back in the Eocene, of course) but through the vicissitudes of continental drift, land bridges, speciation, and extinction they died out here and became quintessential Eurasian animals (we’re not even going to talk about zebras).  My favorite parts of this sculpture are the bend wooden components (which were a pain to steam and glue) and the 1970s rainbow of caramel, cream, and gold colors.  it is one of my favorite fish sculptures…but I am still trying to figure out exactly what it means.

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Ok…there is one last rat post for our musophobic friends to suffer through, and, after that, they can peacefully enjoy the rest of the year (ummm….of the rat).  Yesterday, during the Superbowl there was a delirious moment of joy, when I thought my post today would be truly timely and appropriate, since I saw that the Kansas City Chiefs mascot was a giant rat! (presumably since whatever appalling Chief Wahoo-style mascot they used to have got ushered into sudden retirement before the franchise hit the national stage).  Alas, it turns out that KC Wolf (pictured above) is actually a wolf.  I don’t know how I got the wrong idea about his identity.  It does bring us to the issue of rat mascots though.

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Scabby the Rat (different sizes for different strikes!)

I assumed that despite the fear and alarm engendered by rats there would be some prominent sports franchises and events that adopted the rat as a mascot (since rats are universally known, if not necessarily universally loved.  Alas, how wrong I was–the biggest rat mascot I could find (both in terms of popularity and literally in terms of size) was “Scabby the Rat” an inflatable labor union prop who comes out whenever a picket line goes up.   The other rats, in a big anonymous amalgamated lump are below.

I don’t think any of them are particularly famous.  One or two might even properly be mouse mascots (in which case we could have put Mickey in here and finally gotten famous through the time-honored American rite of being sued by Disney).  They are fun to look at though and they invite reflections on the downright strangeness of mascots.

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There is however one culturally significant rat, whom I want to call out in this mascot post.  Technically he is not a mascot, but instead a vahana–one of the animal mounts/vehicles ridden by the Hindu gods.  Each of the ranking devas has their own particular animal they ride: Indra has an elephant; Brahma has a swan; fierce Durga rides a tiger; while Parvati rides a lion.  However, in a complete reversal of the western myth, Ganesha, the beautiful and beloved elephant-headed god of wisdom, art, and science rides upon the greater Indian bandicoot rat ((Bandicota indica).  It is open to interpretation why Ganesha chose such an unusual and incongruous beast as his loyal accessory.  Some scholars have suggested that the rat symbolizes Ganesha’s ability to overcome all obstacles, while others have opined that the rat represents Ganesha’s ability to master challenges of the physical world (like rat-induced famine).  Some gurus say that Ganesha’s vahana is more symbolic and represents the great deity’s ability to master thoughts which proliferate in crazy ways like rats in the dark.  Based on our last post, though I wonder if it might evoke Ganesha’s renowned compassion and open-mindedness.  Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy compassion and open-mindedness  throughout this rat year.  I feel like we might all need it! Om and Happy New Year, one last time.

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OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (thousands of years worth) of these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are true and, indeed, worthy of great respect), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

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To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or not more than we humans are anyway).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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uhhhh….

 

 

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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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Happy Year of the Metal Rat!  The Chinese new year 4717 really started on January 25th, 2020, however, since the celebration is ongoing (as is the year!), let’s talk about what we can expect from a rat year.  In the twelve year Chinese zodiac cycle, the rat comes first (which means we are starting a whole new cycle).  The folklore reason that the rat is the first year is humorous and instructive: the Jade Emperor hosted a party for the astrological animals and he decided that the order of years would be set by when they arrived at the party.  The rat rode to the party on the stalwart ox’s back but then when he saw the party food (or maybe the supreme monarch of heaven), he distracted the ox and leaped across the threshold first!

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As pictured in this stirring artwork…

In the non-zodiac world, there are quite a few people who have a negative opinion of (real) rats, but Chinese astrology in no way shares this outlook concerning the versatile rodent.  Rats are regarded as clever, successful, optimistic, and likable. Because of their ability to survive and reproduce even in harsh or inimical circumstances, rats are seen as symbolic of resourcefulness and fertility (it seems like Chinese culture-makers were actually paying attention to how rats came by their worldwide success).  People born in rat years are regarded as problem solvers who are good with money and have the ability to turn unexpected problems into opportunities (tigers, like me, are instead gifted with the ability to turn unexpected problems into histrionic emotional events…but fortunately we also have the ability to make everything about ourselves).

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How did this beautiful and stirring tiger get in here?

Metal rats are most famed for…uh having a predictable and stable life (sigh). So I guess children born into this year can expect to live a life utterly unlike this year.  Also, apparently rats’ lucky flower is the African violet and their unlucky color is brownish yellow.  It is extraordinary what can be learned during 4717 years!

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Actual rats are one of the most interesting and successful creatures in existence.  Their strategy…and their fate has mirrored humankind’s own strange journey, and our two species are rarely far apart.  Thus we will celebrate the year of the metal rat by talking more about actual rats during the course of the week.  So steel yourself, real rats are even more intelligent and likable than the fictional ones, but they are more relentless and disturbing as well.

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Before we get to that though, maybe enjoy some hot pot and dumplings while you can!  Humans and rats alike both know to take advantage of any opportunity for food and fun!

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Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lerviaaoudad

This handsome fellow is an aoudad (Ammotragus lervia), aka a Barbary Sheep. These caprids are approximately the same size as domestic goats and weigh from 40 to 140 kg (88 to 300 lb).  Their original range was the desert and arid scrubland of Northern Africa–the northern margins of the Sahara in Algeria, Tunisia, northern Chad, Egypt, Libya, northern Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Sudan–however as the Sahara expands and grows hotter and more dry, the aoudad is going extinct in its home range.

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Desert Bighorns (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

This is where the issue becomes morally complex.  Bestiary keepers and gentleman hunters of previous eras imported populations of Barbary sheep to other parts of the world which more closely resemble the now vanished ancestral scrublands of the Sahara.  Thus Aoudads might be going extinct in North Africa, but they are flourishing in Texas.  Their success comes at the expense of the endangered native caprid of Texas, the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) a desert subspecies of bighorn which once dwelt in Texas in thriving herds before over-hunting, disease, and habitat loss nearly wiped them out.  The Aoudad is larger and more aggressive (and requires less water) than the bighorn.  The invader is out-competing the native, and Texans are up in arms about it–quite literally, since they are renowned as a gun-toting people.  Aoudads, so precious in their original home in North Africa, are being blasted away as invasive pests in Texas.

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My interpretation is that climate change is making West Texas more like the Sahara used to be (and making the Sahara more like the Atacama…or like the sunny side of the moon). Although, there are lots of factors at play when it comes  to whether an organism is successful in an ecosystem, climate change affects a lots of these variables.   Aoudads and bighorns have a relationship sort of like the round goby and the mottled sculpin (remember them) although the Aoudads don’t actually eat the bighorns’ eggs, they just run the males off and pointlessly hoard all of the bighorn ewes.  We are going to see more of these situations involving invasive creatures and we are going to have to start thinking now about how to best manage climate refugee species.  Do we want Aoudads to go extinct in the wild? Do we want the deserts of Texas to have no wild caprids?  Maybe we need to start releasing desert bighorns in Arkansas or Rhode Island?  What even is a natural habitat in a world where humankind has changed every habitat?

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Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving from Sumi and me!

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I got home a bit later than I planned…and there is still dinner to be cooked and sculptures to be crafted, but, just so that we don’t have a day with no content, here is a stupid animal meme which I crafted for the impeachment hearings.

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It’s just a joke of course: quolls are marsupial carnivores, they are hardly the sort of debased predators who would blackmail eastern European countries into shameful acts by pointedly withholding cash assistance.

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Ok, I’ll admit it, maybe I still have some “panda-monium” in my system from Tuesday’s announcement about the 2022 Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, an adorable panda wearing some sort of ice hauberk.  To follow up on that post, here is a picture of a baby panda in China which was just born with white and gray fur.  What’s the story here?

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Now everyone knows that pandas are black and white (except for the red panda, which is really a whole different sort of animal), however it turns out there are a couple of mysterious off-color giant panda clans out there in the bamboo forests. Apparently a family from Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sometimes has gray and white cubs.  Pandas from the so-called Gray family look wise beyond their years at first but then turn to normal white and black as they grow into adulthood.  Here is Chengshi, another gray-and-white cub born a few years ago who matured into a lovely black-and -white goofball.

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However, the Gray family of color-changing gray pandas is not the most dramatic clan of differently colored giant pandas.

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This is Qi Zai, the world’s only captive brown and white panda.  Qi Zai is from the distant Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi, where a subspecies of brown and white pandas appropriately known as Qinling pandas are known to reside.  Qinling pandas are rarely spotted in the forest fastnesses of their remote home.  The pandas are reputedly somewhat smaller (and more sensitive) than their black-and-white relatives.  Zoologists are still arguing about how to classify the brown and white pandas (are they a true sub-species, or just an unusual family), but it seems like they are certainly the rarest of the rare.  It is is estimated that only 200-300 exist in the whole world.

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What with all of the excitement over nine sided Venetian citadel-cities and neutron stars, we have been ignoring a big fuzzy lovable (and carefully-orchestrated) component of contemporary life: mascots.  Fortunately, the planners of the upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics have made no such oversight and today (or yesterday in China?) they unveiled the Olympics mascot for 2022–a roly poly panda named Bing Dwen Dwen (pictured above).

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Of course a professional ursologist (which is hopefully someone who studies bears and not just some sort of hissing urologist) might be perplexed by Bing Dwen Dwen’s oblong shape and strangely albescent color.  This is not because he is a mutant bear or incorrectly rendered: Bing Dwen Dwen is encased in a full-body carapace of hardened ice (presumably to represent how cold and hard winter sports are).  Likewise, the blood-colored heart on his paw is not to remind you that even the most adorable panda can be dangerous (which is true, by the way), but rather to represent the hospitality and bighearted generosity of the People’s Republic of China.  Awww!  Bing’s face is wreathed in fine lines of pure color which represent racers whipping around a track and advanced digital technology.  To quote the official Olympics website, “The newly launched Olympic mascot resembles an astronaut, embracing new technologies for a future with infinite possibilities.”

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Oh my goodness, how can it be SO cute?

The Olympics website also generalizes that pandas are deeply loved by people from all over the world…which is surprisingly true, actually.  I think China made a good choice by selecting a supremely popular animal which is the exemplary archetype of all things Chinese. Leave the alien metal blobs for confused and divided nations.  Let’s give an enthusiastic round of applause to the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and Jilin University of the Arts, which chose Bing from a vast pantheon of 5800 aspirant mascots.  These Olympic mascot contenders were submitted by designers from around the world who hoped to participate in the Winter Olympics without sliding face first down an ice mountain.  I wish I had known about the mascot contest: what could be more representative of winter sport than an armless flounder?  But I guess I will save that idea for when the winter games are held in Antarctica (which may soon be the only place cold enough for winter sports).

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