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Among today’s dreary and disconcerting news was one item which was almost too sad to read: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a list of 23 species of living things which which have gone permanently extinct. The headliner of the list was the ivory-billed woodpecker which was last seen alive in 1944 and which has been reckoned lost since before I was born. Although optimistic bird lovers have been holding out hope that the magnificent creature would re-emerge from some forgotten grove of old growth giants in Arkansas or something, the woodpeckers’ demise was really a result of early 20th century forestry mismanagement and dates back to those times . The other creatures on the list, however, were doomed by today’s problems of habitat loss and climate change, and the entire funereal catalog should serve as a wakeup call that the biodiversity crisis is gaining momentum as global environmental problems worsen and elide together.

Ferrebeekeeper can’t eulogize all 23 lifeforms, however, since we have a long history of writing about mollusks, I will draw your attention to the flat pigtoe (Pleurobema marshalli), a freshwater mussel from the backwaters of rural Mississippi and Alabama (pictured above). The little mussel was sensitive to water pollution, invasive competitors, and industrial waterway development/degradation. Despite its gross joke of a name (a common theme among freshwater mussels of North America, by the way), the mussel not only filtered fresh water, and buttressed the living things around it in the ecosystem, but served as a canary in a coal mine of sorts. All of that water filtration puts mussels in peril from pollutants and toxins (indeed seven of the other species on the deathlist were freshwater mussels).

Whenever I hear about freshwater mussels I think of how fond Great Grandma Virgie was of her pet freshwater mussel which she kept in a tank filled with guppies (I doubt she had a flat pigtoe, but probably it was a rayed bean or similar analogous freshwater shellfish from the streams of West Virginia). She would sometimes rhapsodize about the enigmatic pet, decades after it had departed this watery world.

Anyway the larger point is that we are soon going to see lots of creatures following the pigtoe to the great beyond, unless we can find better ways to protect and safeguard the natural world. Humankind’s appetite grows ever more insatiable, yet our ability to build consensus and create robust solutions to complicated problems is growing worse rather than better. The Fish and Wildlife Service is soon going to be back with more entries for their permanently extinct list. We need to stamp out the corruption and political deadlock which are impairing our ability to address self-evident problems we are creating in the biosphere.

Earth’s oceans today are defined by the disasters and exigencies of the past. When you dip a net in a shallow tropical sea it does not emerge from the waves seething with conodonts…because they died out completely during the Triassic. You could fish from the beach every night from now until the sun burns out and never catch another belemnite nor see an Archelon drag her 5 meter carapace from the sea to lay her eggs. Past disasters (and the constant ebb and flow of evolution) have removed some of the core cast from the great drama. Yet the oceans are vast: sometimes we find that an organism known only from fossils and presumed long lost has been swimming around the Comoro Islands or living in an ancient grove in Hubei. Today’s post involves a “living fossil” of this sort, but this creature was presumed lost for longer than the lobe-fin fishes or the purple frog.

This is a fossil monoplacophoran, a strange ancient superclass of single shelled mollusks which thrived in the ancient oceans of the Palaeozoic (or earlier) but then was known only through fossils. I can understand if you are shrugging about some primitive snail/limpet thing–but, my friend this is no gastropod–it is an entirely different class of mollusk which was presumed to have died out 380 million years ago. A look at the (long and complicated) taxonomy of monoplacophorans on Wikipedia is like looking at a World War I cemetery (extinct taxa are noted with a funereal superscript cross).

Monoplacophoran Diagram

Yet, scientists came to discover that not every name on the list had a cross. The monoplacophorans never fully died out. They just moved to the bottom of the oceans and stayed there for the long ages as continents drifted across the world and dinosaurs came and went. As mammals scurried out of burrows and across the world, the monoplacophorans lived their ascetic lives upon the floor of the ocean. They are still there right now, as you read these words! If you look at a picture of the colorless gray ocean bottom, you will see colorless gray ovals–the monoplacophorans (their very name makes them sound like some implacable cthulu-ish monk)

Living Fossil: Tiny mollusc makes big impression on marine biology world |  Inner Space Center

It is funny to me that ancient fossils in 400 million year old rocks were more accessible to scientists than the bottom of the ocean up until about the time I was born. Yet, since then, the bottom of the ocean has become closer as humankind’s ever-grasping arms have become longer. Lately our robot probes have reported a bit of summery warmth at the cold ocean bottom. And mining cartels are eagerly pushing to vacuum of nodules of precious ore upon the distant seabed. I truly wonder if we could look 380 million years into the future whether we will still find these tough little eremites still going about their business in the crushing depths? Or will the field of taxonomical crosses finally be complete, with these ultimate living fossils turning into yet another victim of our insatiable appetite?

Junk Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Ink and watercolor on pape

Ferrebeekeeper’s two week long celebrations of the world oceans continues with…what else? a flounder-themed artwork! Unlike some artists, who plan everything out meticulously, I work from my subconscious–which results in the deepest and most heartfelt works, true, but sometimes also results in the most problematic works which never quite come together thematically. For example, take today’s picture of a grumpy flounder with a Chinese junk atop it. The grimacing sandy flounder reminded me of the water monster “Sandy” (沙悟淨) and also of the preposterous Chinese efforts to claim dominance of the South China Sea by building weird little sand islands everywhere. The junk speaks to the fact that China has always dominated the South China Sea. Additionally I am reading Jin Yong’s “Legend of the Condor Heroes” which has an extended episode of crazy boat antics as the characters leave Peach Blossom Island.

The small picture is filled with stuff–tuna and other fishermen’s fish, a compassionate sea goddess floating around on a pink coelenterate, a big golden clam and a vase from my ex-girlfriend. The little water imps remind me of kappas–aquatic imps infamous for grabbing and molesting swimmers. My favorite things are the ghostly shrimp, the tiny striped goby, the sycee, and the liquescent mountains on the horizon. Oh! Also there is a pony-like water monster from one of my grandfather’s Chinese paintings (Grandpa collected Chinese art)which brings back fond memories of childhood.

But what does this weird amalgamation of East Asian myth and aquatic creatures mean? Does the uncertain allegory about greed, restraint, and coastal power politics really grant me license for appropriating the visual language of Chinese folklore? Is this maybe an illustration for a children’s story which has not been told (which is how it feels to me)?

I don’t know. Sometimes the artist gets lost along the way and can only hope to finish the work and move on. Yet I strongly feel that this painting involves a plea from the oceans (since all of my recent work is about the plight of the seas and the creatures therein in a world which becomes more absolutely human-dominated by the moment). There is also a sense that whatever petition the spirits and fish have made to the goddess, it is not working out to their favor. One of the classic tableaus of Chinese art/literature/everything is bringing a heartfelt petition to a powerful official only to have the all-important matter misconstrued and poorly adjudicated (I have explained that badly–but I think the idea comes across quite clearly in the Chinese weltanshaung). Perhaps the spirits and the sea creatures and the flounder are saying, “Please get this boat off of us!” and the goddess is saying “My hands are tied due to political concerns at a higher level”

Now there is a powerful lesson for the children…

Cryptochiton stelleri, (aka the “gumboot chiton”, or “the wandering meatloaf”)

Chitons are back in international headlines again! Or, to be more technically accurate, the overlooked armored mollusks at least made it into the news (perhaps for the first or second time in their 400-500 million year history). These remarkable miniature tanks consist of a muscular mollusk which lives encased in 8 interlocking pieces of hard aragonite armor. The armor is not only a shell–it contains integral parts of the chiton such as aragonite eyes and other sensory cells. Thanks to this robust design, chitons are extremely successful and they can be found living in intertidal zones worldwide. Although they lack the pizzazz of their flamboyant mollusk cousins such as bobtail squid or giant clams, chitons are of enormous interest to a new generation of materials scientists who have been studying the natural world to get fresh ideas for molecular engineering. This weekend’s news story comes from such scientists who discovered that a brown rectangular chiton, Cryptochiton stelleri, (aka the “gumboot chiton”, or “the wandering meatloaf”) contains an esoteric mineral named santabarbaraite never before found in a living creature. Santabarbaraite is an extremely hard and tough mineral (itself only discovered by scientists in the year 2000) which contains a surprising amount of water. In the parlance of chemists, it is an amorphous ferric hydroxy phosphate mineral hydrate. The gumboot chitons manufacture this material as part of their long rows of rock-hard teeth (with which they scrape algae from marine rocks). Coincidentally, gumboot chitons are the largest chitons out there, with a maximum possible length of 36 centimeters (14 inches).

The teeth of the gumboot!

This is undoubtedly fascinating to people with advanced understanding of the chemical structures and properties of matter, but it is somewhat abstruse. The study’s lead author, scientist Derk Joester of Northwestern helps contextualize the importance of the finding by noting that “mechanical structures are only as good as their weakest link, so it’s interesting to learn how the chiton solves the engineering problem of how to connect its ultrahard tooth to a soft underlying structure.” The researchers are already planning how to use the secrets they have gleaned from the chiton to print hard santabarbaraite structures onto soft papers.

Founder/Flounder Galley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor

Here is another image from my little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. This past year I have been trying to become better at drawing an image with a nib and then coloring it with watercolors (the go-to methodology of illustrators who want beautiful diagrammatic details). I am getting better at this technique…but I am still not a master of photographing small artworks with a cellphone camera (the true signature medium of our age). Anyway, here are a bunch of hapless galley slaves rowing along in glum resignation as their captain and officers take the fragile wooden ship through a mermaid-haunted reef. Huge poisonous monsters and weird idols stand on the deck. Hungry seabirds and devilfish size up the sailors as a Chinese junk sails by out in the navigable strait and a German airship floats by like a leaf. I see no way that this small composition could represent our entire Rube Goldberg economic system of world trade. Also there is a flounder, floundering along the sand hunting for worms and copepods. Let’s hope that no larger fish or fisherman show up to hook or spear or dynamite the poor hungry fish!

Oops…better get back to rowing…

Ferrebeekeeper has presented catfish which live beneath the water table, chickens which look like they have no head, 600 pound turtles, clams which have been alive since the 17th century, and turkeys which give virgin birth…not to mention the “King of Herring” the world’s longest bony fish. We are no strangers to strange creatures! But today we come face to face (?) with what might be the strangest creature of them all! Steel yourselves for a creature which is literally made of metal! [crazy metal guitar solo]

And here it is! Behold the scaly foot gastopod (Chrysomallon squamiferum) a tiny snail [5 cm] which lives in the Indian Ocean!

Um, maybe I need to add some context to help explain why this small drab mollusk is so exceedingly strange. First of all, the scaly foot snail is a creature of the deeps: the snails live on (in? around?) deep sea ocean vents which are at least 2,400 meters beneath the ocean surface. Specimens have been discovered as deep as 2,900 meters below sea level. In British Imperial measurement that is 1.5 to 2 miles underwater! And these snails live on/in/around hydrothermal vents where water temperature can reach 400° Celsius (about 750° Fahrenheit) and where oxygen is scarce and yet hydrogen sulfide is abundant. In case all of this was not unusual enough for you, the snails are all simultaneous hermaphrodites (meaning they have complete functioning sets of reproductive organs of both genders and frequently self-fertilize).

Yet the strangest thing about the scaly foot snail is what it eats: nothing! Or to be more specific the adult creatures are obligate symbiotrophs–the snails live on the secretions of gammaproteobacteria which live within their oesophageal glands. The bacteria are extremophiles which metabolize the chemical rich waters of the vents. These snails do not live directly or indirectly from photosynthesis!

The snail’s signature feature may be its armor. The shell is a three level composite of iron sulfide on the outside, protein in the middle, and calcium carbonate on the inside. Like wise the snails’ sensitive feet are covered in composite nodules of iron sulfide and protein. All of this armor keeps the little snails safe from the predators of the vent ecosystem–strange crustaceans which look like furry white lobsters and larger predatory snails. I wrote briefly about this snail about a decade ago, when I concentrated more on the uniqueness of its armor. Back in those days we thought that nothing could possibly harm the scaly-foot snail, a creature which I imagined to be perfectly safe in its own little alien world at the bottom of the ocean (except for occasional predation by those larger snail, of course). But Earth’s greediest animal has a habit of getting everywhere and lately the scaly foot snail has been endangered by deep sea mining operations which aim to harvest the rare and valuable minerals around deep sea vents. It is hard to believe that our arms have grown long enough to harass these poor little weirdos in their little suits of armor a mile and a half beneath the waves, but, frankly I may have misspoke about which animal is really the weirdest

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

The Republican Convention of 1880

In ages past, national political conventions lay at the heart of how American political parties selected candidates.  This made for strange and fascinating stories, such as the tale of the Republican convention of 1880 when the delegates met in gilded age Chicago and cast their ballots 36 times before finally settling on a presidential candidate, James Garfield, who wasn’t even running for the presidency!  Yet, during the progressive era, the right to select candidates was wrestled out of the hands of shadowy party grandees and handed over to rank-and-file party voters.  In turn, the political conventions stopped being real political contests and became vast kabuki-style infomercials (albeit meaningful ones, where the parties try out new messages and launch the careers of aspirant national leaders).  For viewers at home, the net result of all of this was dreadful tv!  All of the political conventions I watched during the eighties, nineties, aughts, and teens were turgid set-pieces with lots of talking heads shouting soundbites to enormous halls filled with screaming followers.  It makes my head hurt to just think about these things, and I am sure if you start reminiscing about Joe Paterno, “swiftboating,” Gary Hart, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, the Astros being thrown out of their own stadium (snicker),  Governor Ann Richards, etc…etc…ad nauseum, you too will start to be overcome by despair at the benighted human condition.

This year, however, the Covid-19 global pandemic has forced some much needed changes on America’s worn-out political conventions!  What I have seen so far from the Republican convention has not been encouraging (unless you are a cannibal lizard person or a devout believer in the same), but last week’s Democratic convention had a wholesome charm which was a tonic in this fragmented and frightened era.  Structural differences in the two parties generally do not favor the Democratic convention.  Because of their big tent , it is easy for endless smaller issues to drag the event in too many directions to easily comprehend a larger theme. This year though, all individual grievances were subsumed into an overarching theme of grief and of how the nation can overcome and allay the disasters and follies of the past few years.  This involved hearing from more actual workaday Americans than in any convention I can recall.   There were small farmers talking about losing their livelihoods, children mourning their plague-stricken parents, and victims of gun violence. George Floyd’s brother spoke with steady eloquence about his dead brother’s gentle spirit.

There were also pointless celebrities like the annoying Julia Louis-Dreyfus Hall, but there is no need to dwell on them.  Celebrities have ruined enough things in America.  If we can drive them away from politics, it will be a huge relief (although I doubt it will happen).

The best part of the convention, unexpectedly, was the role call of delegates pledging their votes to the candidates.  This involved little clips of lots of local figures and local, um, locations, and it was a delight to see so much of the country and its inhabitants for a change (as opposed to the red, white, & blue bunting, confetti, makeup and lies which are the fabric of most conventions).

Among the 2020 delegates, Khizr Khan was back–older and with one drooping eye–but with the same fierce pride in the United States of America, and radiating the same righteous anger at those who would threaten or abuse our beloved Constitution.

kz

Also compelling was the Rhode Island delegation.  There was a standard leader of some sort pledging his support to Biden, but next to him was a masked calamari chef!  The culinary ninja just stood there silently with a huge glistening tray of fried squid. His physical presence radiated power, and his golden brown seafood banquet certainly won my heart (did you know Rhode island was famous for squid?) Ferrebeekeeper has fantasized about mollusks being the highlight of a political convention, but I never thought it would really happen…

rhode-island-dnc-roll-call-DNC

I am not sure if the convention was satisfying to hardcore political junkies. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and the Obamas all made fine presentations (Bernie talked to us from the woodshed where he maybe wants to take some obtuse Americans), however none of these speeches were really about the granular details of policy or political competition.  That is fine with me.  I think the Democrats were wise to try to make emotional inroads into the unsettled hearts of Americans who are seeking a better life for themselves and their family.  We already know that Biden and his allies have ample experience of public policy and legislating.  We need to see that they care about the whole nation (as opposed to one particular group).

At the end of the event, Joe Biden gave his best speech so far: a homespun but competent and compelling oration which made him seem like what he is: a lifelong public servant who cares about Americans of all sorts.  He said he was willing to work with opponents to get things done for the nation as a whole. I believed him.  There was no balloon drop, but even the awkward final moment of the convention had a certain earnest charm: Biden and Harris clearly wanted to hug each other, but were constrained by social distancing guidelines. Instead of embracing and mingling with their families, they put on masks and stood there awkwardly before heading out into the parking lot to watch some fireworks.   We all know exactly how they feel.

All of which is to say, I liked the Democratic Convention more than any convention I have seen so far.  Although it did not address lots of points of policy with exacting detail, it did not need to.  There is time for such things during the campaign, and anyway, let’s face it, the fact that Joe Biden will not flout the law or sell out our national interest to Vladimir Putin or some murderous Saudi Prince has already won my vote (although I believe there are many actual policy choices which Biden pursues which will be beneficial to all Americans). Plus he will actually show up and do the job!  Although there were plenty of less-than-polished moments in terms of the new format, the convention radiated decency, competence, and compassion.  Obviously we will talk more about the election this autumn, but the Democratic Convention has already surpassed my expectations. It made me feel better.  When was the last time you could say that about a political event?

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Ancient Clam Shell Jewelry from Prehistoric Israel

Intriguing archaeological news from Qafzeh Cave, a prehistoric burial site located at the bottom of Mount Precipice in Israel.  The anatomically modern human remains found interred in the cave are 92,000 years old–among the oldest Homo Sapiens remains discovered outside of Africa.  However the cave did not just contain ancient skeletal remains–indeed the upper levels of the cave (which is to say, the younger/newer layers) were filled with stoves, stone tools, animal bones and all manner of campsite detritus.  Yet, we are interested in the layers below the ancient graves which predate them by tens of thousands of years.  In these strata, anthropologists discovered the shells of Glycymeris bivalves, carried from the Mediterranean Sea 35 kilometers away.

The shells bear evidence of having been prepared (perferrated/polished) and hung on wild flax string.  Some shells even had ochre stains on them.  These were special adornments–jewelry–for the humans who dwelt in the Lower Galilee region of Israel 120,000 years ago.  They are striking in their lack of obvious utility, and are among the first cultural artifacts known.

Alas, we can not know the precise meaning which these adornments had for the hunter-gatherer folks of prehistoric Galilee, but, based on everything we know about subsequent humans we can certainly make intelligent guesses. The shells were ornaments which indicated status.  They could also have indicated group identity or reflected personal beliefs of the wearer.  Another nearby cave had shells from 160,000 years ago–which must also have been carried by ancient humans to that site.  Yet the 160,000 year old shells had no perforations or marks of wear from string.  Somewhere between 120,000 and 160,000 years ago we made some real leaps forward in terms of string and accessories!  It doesn’t surprise me that the phylum Mollusca was involved (obviously clams had been important to us as food and tools for tens of thousands of years before we discovered their use as stringed body ornaments), yet I do find it worthy of comment.

Thank you to everyone who played our celebratory contest! I hope you had fun looking at the images and thinking about what they are or where they are.  We will quickly go through the correct answers–or at least we will list my best understanding of what is correct.  At the end I will announce the proud winner of these exquisite mint-condition Zoomorphs toys and we can start to fumble towards the logistics of getting you your toys, hooftales…er I mean “mysterious contest winner”.

zoomorphs-safarimorphs_1_8884ec1b83b19a1d35c2dabe0b4640cc

Wherever possible, I have linked back to original articles and posts, so, if you have a moment and are curious about these strange places and things, why not click all of the links and continue voyaging through vast realms of life, time, and art!

OK, here we go with the answers:

THINGS:

1.

1

A Song Dynasty (or ‘Sung” Dynasty…if that is how you Anglicize ) ewer not wholly unlike this one or these later Mongol ewers.

2.

two

A parasitoid fairy wasp (Mymaridae family) upon a human hand

3.

3

A Melo Pearl, the world’s rarest and most expensive type of pearl!

4.

4

Whoah! It’s an ancient Visigoth votive crown from the fabled treasure of Guarrazar!

5.

5

A Chiton, the armored mollusk

6.

6

Aww! It’s an adorable school of tiny little glass catfish.

7.

7

Roses, tulips, irises and other flowers in a wicker basket, with fruit and insects on a ledge (Balthasar van der Ast, ca 1614-1619) oil on panel.  (Here is a Ferrebeekeeper post about Van der Ast).

8.

8

The Cap of Monomach, a treasure of the early tsars.  I still think Putin wears it sometimes. Hell, he’s probably wearing it right now!

9.

9

It is the brain of an Etruscan shrew, arguably the smallest mammal.  The arrows point to the trigeminal nerve (black arrows) and optic nerve (blue arrows).

10.

10

Hahahaha! These are Polish chicken chicks. Look at that expression!  The poor li’l guy does look a bit down.

11.

11

A lituus, a mysterious Roman divination device.

12.

12

The underworld deity Xolotl, the scrofulous salamander deity of Aztec mythology’s weird death realm.

13.

13

The “Borghese Vase” a colossal Ancient Roman Urn which was one of the treasures of the Garden of Sallust

PLACES:

1.

ONE

The Faroe Islands (Photo by Tom Glancz)

2.2

A Masai giraffe walking by Lake Manyara Tanzania

3.

Three

Standard Poodles in the Ohio Valley

4.

four

 

5.

five

A welwitschia plant in the Namib Desert

6.

Six

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an, Shaanxi.  I need to write a post about this one in the future!

7.

seven

Ovid Among the Scythians (Eugène Delacroix, 1862) Oil on Canvas

I find it strange that this fantasy piece about Scythians (and poets) was painted during the American Civil War.

8.eight

Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania

9.nine

The world’s largest potash fertilizer plant at Lop Nur, China

10.

ten

The Planet Venus, sans clouds. Sigh…someday

11.

eleven

The Armenian cemetery in Julfa, Azerbaijan…desecrated and bulldozed in the 1990s

12.

dozen

A colossal snake swimming in the Trans-Saharan Seaway of Mali during the Eocene

13.

t

The Site of Eridu, humankind’s first known city.

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I can’t believe how well our contestants did! I am not sure I could have identified any of these…and I have written about most of them!  There were a few humorous stray answers, but even the answers which weren’t a hundred percent right were still clever and well thought out.  Our Ferrebeekeeper mental Olympics thus ends with the following champions:

Gold: hooftales

Silver: Vicki

Bronze: eekee

Everyone is a winner (although Hooftales gets the zoomorphs and the national anthem of the hooftales homeland is currently playing as we wipe away proud tears).  I enjoyed putting this together and revisiting these concepts! Should we do another one at some point? Should the images be harder or easier or what?  Talk to me below (Hooftales, we will figure out how to get you your prize) and thanks again for playing and, above all, for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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