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Everybody loves squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses…and we all love all of the crazy belemnites, ammonites, nautiloids, and orthocones which came before them. But, if you are like me, you have probably been sitting around wondering what came before that. How old are cephalopods, really, and what were the first ones like? Yet, although cephalopods are amply represented in the fossil record from the Ordovician onward, their very earliest origins are shrouded in controversy and mystery. Although there are various fossils which might be cephalopods (or their antecedents) at present the oldest animals to be indisputably classified as cephalopods are the Ellesmerocerida. This order of nautiloids flourished at the end of the Cambrian and into the Ordovician 9approximately half a billion years ago).
Although they were definitely cephalopods, the Ellesmerocerida were somewhat mysterious themselves. They were typically quite small—or even minute. They seemingly had ten arms–although this is a conjecture based on where the muscles attached to their shells (and based on what we know of their descendants). The soft parts of the first cephalopods were not preserved and so we don’t exactly know.
Their shells reveal close-spaced septa–closed off interior spaces within the shell, which provided buoyancy. The Ellesmerocerida also had relatively large ventral siphuncles—tissues which pass longitudinally through the septa to allow buoyancy control. So the first cephalopods we know about were more or less built on the same line as the subsequent ones (until belemnites internalized the shells). I wonder what else we will find out about the origins of this fascinating group of animals as we learn more about paleontology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So…hey…what ever happened to that attempt to repopulate Jamaica Bay with lovable good-hearted, filter-feedin’ oysters? Ummm…well…it turns out that the colony failed. The poor oysters who made it to adulthood were unable to procreate (or, at least, their offspring were not able to attach to anything in Jamaica Bay). Fortunately, the oysters’ human friends are not licked yet and have a whole new weird project afoot…but before we get to that, let’s turn back the clock and look at the bigger picture of oysters in our area!
New York was once renowned for its oysters. By some estimates, up through the 1600s every other oyster in the world lived in New York’s harbors and bays! During the early 19th century, every other oyster harvested in the world was certainly taken from these waters. The oysters filtered the entire bay of algae, microbes, and pollutants. They also prevented the harbor from eroding away—it was like the entire waterway was coated with hard calcium carbonate (in fact it was exactly like that). Not only did the tough New York oysters prevent underwater erosion, they also stabilized the coastline and bore the brunt of storm surges. What tremendous mollusks! But alas, we were too hungry and too greedy and too careless…. By the end of the 1800s the population had crashed. Attempts to revive the poor oysters have consistently failed. (just follow that link up at the top).
However ecologists, oceanographers, and oyster fanciers have not quit trying. In fact with the aid of a variety of partners they are mounting the biggest attempt yet to restore Oysters to New York City’s bays and waterways. The New York Times details the agencies which have invested in the project:
The project is funded by a $1 million grant from the United States Interior Department’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program. The Environmental Protection Department, which is contributing $375,000, is working with the Billion Oyster Project, an ecosystem restoration and education project that is trying to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor.
It is good to have money (I have heard), however, there is also a secret ingredient to this project. New York’s education department has been replacing all of the NY Public School’s bathroom fixtures with environmentally efficient toilets. The old porcelain toilets are being smashed to bits to form an artificial reef where the young oysters can get started. Five thousand public school toilets have been broken up and added to the project. These fixtures have served generations of New York’s humans in a necessary albeit lowly capacity. Let us hope they can get a couple of generations of oysters up and going in their second career (as smashed detritus on the bottom of Jamaica Bay)! We’ll report more as we know more so stay tuned.
The Amazon River is the world’s largest river and it has the world’s largest drainage basin—the vast Amazon rainforest, which stretches from the Andes in the west, to the Guiana Highlands to the north and the Brazilian Highlands in the south. The great river drains east into the Atlantic Ocean….but it was not always so. Before the Andes Mountains rose, the river drained west into the Pacific. Throughout the Cenozoic, the mouth of the river moved up around the continent. Thirteen million years ago, during the Miocene, the river drained north into the Caribbean through a huge tropical swamp–the Pebas mega-wetlands–which covered over one million square kilometers of what is now the Amazon Basin.
An illustration of Pebas Corocodilians–Gnatusuchus is underwater, gobbling clams (art by Javier Herbozo)
Like today’s Amazon Basin, the Pebas mega-wetland was a great riverine rainforest. And yet the ecosystem was very different from what is there today. The marshes and swamps were filled with bivalve mollusks that thrived in the oxygen-poor waters. Predators evolved to feed on these clams and mussels…and what predators! This is Gnatusuchus, a caiman with spherical teeth for crushing open shellfish. Can you imagine biting through the shell of a clam? Just thinking about it makes my jaw hurt and my teeth feel broken. Yet Gnatusuchus bit through heavy shells for every meal!
A life-sized reconstruction of the gigantic Purussaurus
The crocodilian grew to lengths of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) and had a short round shovel-shaped mouth to focus maximum force on biting through clams. Life in the Pebas was not all basking and clam feasts for Gnatusuchus. The reptile was hardly the only reptile in the swamp, but was instead one genus among a hyper-diverse group of crocodilians including giant toothy predators capable of eating Gnatusuchus. One of these predators, Purussaurus neivensis grew to be 12.5 metres (41 ft) in lengt—making it a rival of the great Mesozoic crocodilians like Phobosuchus (maybe I should have mentioned this horrifying monster first, instead of alluding to him after the clam-eater, but Ferrebeekeeper is interested in mollusks and their predators not in giant crocodiles: this is not Peter Pan, my friend). There were also piscivorous crocodilians with long scissor snouts foll of hooked teeth (like modern gharials), and even little crocodilians on stilt-like legs that ran around plucking up small prey in the manner of pipers or herons.
Seven million years ago, the Pebas began to change from swamps to channels as Amazonian drainage became spread through an even more enormous basin. Still, the diversity of the creature that lived there became a heritage for the contemporary Amazon, arguably the most diverse ecosystem in the world today.
Cockerel Cycle and French Cruller (Wayne Ferrebee, 2014, oil on panel)
It’s National Doughnut Day! To celebrate, here are two paintings from my Microcosmic Doughnut Series. Topologists and astrophysicists posit that our universe has a toroid shape—so I have combined my disparate background in history, toymaking, natural history, and Flemish-style painting to craft doughnut-shaped microcosms. Within these intricate cosmological confections, people and animals from throughout time converge in a never-ending circle—in the manner of the water cycle, the Krebs diagram, or an ouroboros. Thus the individual elements in these paintings not only have metaphorical significance, they are also part of a dynamic larger picture. Each landscape of dynamically intertwined symbols represents the cycles within individual life, history, or biology. Each little doughnut painting is its own self-contained world; yet, taken in aggregate, the individual stories of predators and prey, metabolism, historicism, world trade, or biorhythms of organisms signify even larger cycles of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the fixed perspective of an individual life. For example, the one above is about a classical French bon-vivant…or maybe it is about frogs or about cocks or chicken eggs. There is also a fertility aspect to it (not to mention a French cruller in the middle).
Furnace Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)
This second painting is less easily explained. A variety of brightly colored synthetic organisms fly up out of a baker’s furnace. Above the mysterious swarm, a humanoid figure in an asbestos suit and a blue-hot dragon spray fire on a salamander which basks in the radiant pure energy. Blue-black gothic stoves dance around beneath the centerpiece of the composition: a glowing lava doughnut congealing out of the primal kitchen…or is it just a delicious glazed doughnut with chocolate icing and an orange squiggle? The whole scene makes me hungry for cheap baked pastries…and for raw creation. Now I’m off to paint some more. Let me know what you think (and enjoy Doughnut Day with your loved ones).
In a long-ago post, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about the Ordovician–the age of mollusks–when big predatory cephalopods and gastropods overtopped nascent vertebrates as the apex predators of the world oceans. Cephalopods are fiercely intelligent, incredibly fast, and astonishing at camouflage. They can be infinitesimally small or remarkably large. They can even be transparent. However they don’t last well—they are squishy and even if they aren’t eaten they have very short lives. One of the most vivid memories of my adolescence was watching cuttlefish hover and change colors and feed with bullet-fast grabber arms at the National Zoo. The memory comes with a dark post-script. I returned a few months later with friends, only to find that the cuttlefish had entered a bizarre unnatural senescence and were literally falling apart at the seams. They do not die of old age in the ocean; something always eats them.
But this is no longer the lovely Holocene with its oceans full of fish and skies full of birds. We have entered the Anthropocene—an age of hot acid oceans filled with Japanese trawlers bent on catching every last fish in the sea by means of nets the size of Rhode Island. Suddenly it is not so beneficial to be a big bony ancient fish with hard scales and sharp teeth. The teleosts and the cartilaginous fish are being physically pulled out of the ocean by humans. It takes them too long to reproduce and rebuild their numbers (even as national governments subsidize fishermen to build more and larger fishing boats). The age of fish—which has lasted from the Devonian (420 million years ago) until now—is ending. So a new scramble to exploit the great open niches in the seas is beginning.
Unexpected life forms are flourishing. The sea floors are filling up with lobsters, which have not been so prevalent in a long time. Giant jellyfish are appearing in never-before-seen numbers. However it is beginning to seem like the greatest beneficiaries may be the cephalopods. Mollusks with shells are having their own troubles–as the carbonic acid oceans eat at their calcium shells, but the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish have no such problems. Not only are they well suited for tropical waters, they rcan also reproduce so fast that they can keep ahead of human’s bottomless appetite. A single squid egg cluster can have millions of eggs inside.
Cephalopods tend to be generalists—they eat all sorts of things including booming micro-invertebrates and jellyfish. They are clever enough and malleable enough to slip out of all sorts of hazards. Their swift lives are a boon. Because they reproduce so quickly and prolifically, they evolve quickly too—a necessity in our 24 hour world (as all sorts of out-of-work journalists, lamp lighters, factory workers, and saddlemakers could tell you). I wonder if in a few million years the waters will glow with great shoals of exotic tentacle beasts we have scarcely imagined. Will there be fast marlin-type squids with rapiers on their mantles and huge whale-shark type octopuses skimming the phytoplankton with their own giant nets? Will the skies darken with flying squids and the sea floor change colors as tens of thousands of cuttlefish take the roles of reef fish and reef alike?
It is possible. The world is changing faster than we would like to admit—becoming something brand new—becoming something very old.
Aplacophora is a class of small wormlike marine animals. For a long time they were a mystery to marine biologists: up until 1987 they were classified as sea cucumbers (which are echinoderms). However the shell-free Aplacophorans are not echinoderms at all, no more than penguins are insects. Aplacophorans are tubular and lack shells, but they are actually mollusks—like clams, belemnites, octoposes, and gastropods.
Aplacophorans are divided into two subclasses: (1) the Solenogasters, which are typically carnivores which feed on feeding on corals and worms; and (2) the caudofoveates which tend to be detritovores feeding on leftover bits rolling around the ocean floor (although some caudofoveates eat foraminiferans (which are large unicellular organisms).
All of this talk of small mollusks which look like little worms…or maybe like little echinoderms…or even possibly like little early chordates (which were basically little tubes) sounds unpromising, but some of the Aplacophorans have a subtle beauty. Additionally they throw a light upon a bygone time when the mollusks, cnidarians, sponges, worms, and proto-vertebrates really weren’t all that different. They help illustrate the common bonds of kinship which tie all of the animals together, no matter what airs some of us put on.
Eretria was an Ionian city-state of ancient Greece. The Eretrians were located right across a narrow body of water from Athens and they were generally staunch allies of Athens. They were also eager traders and merchants…and here is one of their coins. This is a silver didrachm of Eretria featuring a very beautiful Octopus. It dates from the early 4th century BC.
The opposite side of the coin (I can’t quite tell which side is “heads” and which is “tails”) features a cow scratching its face with its back hoof. I would love to tell you more about this evocative imagery but, aside from the obvious connotations of maritime and agricultural prowess, I am at a loss. We will have to appreciate these coins as mysterious little works of silver sculpture unless a passing numismatist or classical scholar drops by in the comments and explains what is going on. The lifelike style of the coin does give one occasion to reflect on how busy and stilted modern American coins are. I have a feeling that two and a half millennia from now, nobody is going to be blogging about the Indiana quarter (unless they are fruitlessly wondering what the hell it is even supposed to be).
It’s time for a belated Valentine’s Day Post (or maybe this is actually an outright Lupercalia post). The Seattle Aquarium has an unusual annual Valentines’ Day tradition of sponsoring blind dates for their resident octopuses. Sometimes the octopuses ignore each other or even quarrel, but other times throwing octopus strangers of opposite genders into a tank together results in multi-armed passion—a special treat for the aquarium visitors (to say nothing of the octopuses) This year the aquarium has (or had) a large mature male Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) affectionately nicknamed “Kong” who weighs about 70 pounds. Divers set out looking for potential girlfriends for Kong for Valentine’s Day, but the largest females they could find (um, capture) were all under 40 pounds.
This was a problem. It was widely feared that Kong might react badly to these undersized females and just straight out eat them. Mating is the final act for giant Pacific octopuses. They are semelparous (their lives end after a single reproductive event). After mating, females lay between 20,000 and 100,000 eggs which they tenderly nurture and care for as they starve to death. Males develop white lesions on their body and wander absent-mindedly into the open where they are swiftly devoured by predators.
Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) with human diver
Kong is approaching this final stage of his life, but his keepers could not find a worthy adult female octopus for him to consummate his life with…so they let him go. He went back to the ocean to look for love and death on his own. Good luck out there Kong, you handsome devilfish! Let’s hope it was all worth it.