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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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Last week we checked out the planned city of Palmanova which was built by battle-hardened Venetian egalitarians who were planning for an Ottoman invasion (which never materialized).  Palmanova is shaped like a nine-pointed star and while regular polygons are stylish and exceedingly geometric, if you are like me, you might find them a bit too geometric.   Why couldn’t they build cities in the shape of some magnificent animal like a quoll or a rhinoceros?

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Juba, South Sudan

Well you are in luck! They could very well build a city in the shape of a rhinoceros!  The nation of South Sudan came into existence in 2011 as a direct result of the Second Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1983 to 2005 (that war followed the First Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1955 to 1972…but I am going to elide over some of the history of Sudan so that we don’t become overwhelmed by despair).  South Sudan is a young nation which faces a lot of problems…one of which is that the capital Juba was built for the convenience of the British army (and the Greek merchants who supplied the army) and it hasn’t really proven very suitable as the capital city of a modern nation state.   The most likely outcome is that the capital will be moved to Ramciel, which is closer to the center of the country and not quite so arid, but urban planners came up with a fascinating alternate proposal to build a whole new Juba in the shape of a mighty rhinoceros.  Here is the plan:

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Now obviously, it isn’t right to build perissodactyl-shaped cities just because you can (although cities certainly used to be designed around horses).  The citizens of South Sudan also have needs which are more urgent than the need for a vanity project in the middle of a site which has already proven problematic.  Yet the sheer nuttiness of the proposed rhinoceros Juba, makes me a bit sad that we are unlikely to see it.

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Of course the fact that it is unlikely doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Like the new Indonesian Capital City, the capital of South Sudan is currently in administrative flux. I will keep you updated on the what happens with the move to Ramciel (nothing worth speaking of has happened so far) or of the rhinoceros, if anybody shows up with backhoes and starts scraping it out of the arid plain.  In the meantime, let us wish the very best to the founding fathers of South Sudan as they try to make their troubled new nation prosperous in a time when deserts are becoming hotter and drier.  And speaking of desert cities, tune in tomorrow when we see what other directions city planners have taken to deal with this challenging environment.

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The political crisis which has beset 21st century America generates such a breathtaking number of headlines that it is easy to become numb to the poor choices, the controversies, the hyperbolic invective…and just to the national news in general.   I have mostly chosen not to focus on the wretched litany of mistakes, missteps, idiocy, and criminal misbehavior coming out of the Trump Administration, but today I am making an exception since the program being attacked bears on larger affairs than those of our beleaguered nation.  The Political Crisis of the early 21st Century is one thing, but today’s news potentially affects the Holocene/Anthropocene Mass Extinction of Life on Earth.

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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by bipartisan legislation and signed into law by Richard Nixon. It is the key U.S. law for protecting wildlife. The law can certainly not be repealed in the paralyzed super-partisan Washington of today, but the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law in new ways which undermine the purpose of the Act.  Specifically there are two proposed changes:

The first is that agencies enforcing the ESA are given latitude to ignore projected future changes.  The exact verbiage is “The Services will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis.”  This means that regulators are free to ignore the outcomes of their decisions provided those outcomes are not immediate.  If actions taken now will disrupt or ruin a habitat within a few years, well, that’s no longer the purview of the Act.  Talk to the relevant agency once the bad thing has happened, not before!

The second (and more disturbing) change is an omission.  Decisions about how to protect species were previously based solely on scientific consensus  “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  That phrase has now been removed from the guidelines.  We will see what this means in the real world.  To me it certainly seems like if the choice comes down to protecting the habitat of an endangered frog or protecting the profits of a dirtbag real estate developer, unknown apparatchiks are free to chose the latter for unknown reasons.

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Coming Soon to your favorite ecosystem! Financing available!

Experts suspect that these changes are giveaways to real estate concerns and to mining & fossil fuel extraction industries.  It isn’t hard to see why they think that!  It is worth noting though that the Endangered Species Act is extremely popular and effective.  To quote an article on Vox

The act is generally uncontroversial among the public: About 83 percent of Americans (including a large majority of conservatives) support it, according to an Ohio State University poll. And it works: According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the act has prevented the “extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.”

So call/write to your elected officials and raise a ruckus!  There is a lot going on right now, but any politician who isn’t completely owned by Exxon is likely to at least think about messing up legislation with an 83 percent approval rating.  Is the world going to lament the absence of some hideous prefab condos in the exurbs or are we going to miss the beautiful animals and plants that support the web of life which humankind is part of?

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Tiger Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

Here is another flounder artwork which I just completed.  A majestic Amur Tiger is “hiding” on the pink, purple, and green stripes of a lurking flatfish.  Something which has forcefully struck me about the popular understanding of flatfish is how many people are surprised at what successful predators flatfish are (I guess perhaps people unconsciously thought they were carrion eaters because they live on the ocean bottom?). Anyway, like tigers, flounders lurk in wait, blending in with their surroundings until the perfect moment and then “snap!” they grab up their unsuspecting prey.  Tigers are of course a beloved super charismatic animal which people think about all of the time (although flatfish make up an entire taxonomical order, I get the sense that people who aren’t anglers or ichthyologists don’t think about them quite so much).  Frankly our fascination and love haven’t helped the big cats all that much though: they are rapidly going extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching (mostly for moronic traditional nostrums).  This juxtaposed flounder sculpture hints at the sad fate facing the world’s brilliant animal predators.  It is also a study in the dazzling color and form of stripes!

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