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OK, some days, after a long day at work, I am a bit uninspired, but you know who never runs out of endless inventiveness? Nature! So today, as a run up for next week’s Halloween week of creepy art, here is a gallery of natural expressionism—nudibranch mollusks—some of the most vibrant and exquisitely colored animals in all of the world (you can look at an earlier Ferrebeekeeper gallery of nudibranchs here).
Now poisonous strange sea slugs are pretty creepy and seasonally appropriate, but to keep this filler post truly Halloween appropriate I have selected all orange, and black, or orange & black slugs (with maybe a fab or purple and white and green here and there). Behold the glory:
Aren’t they beautiful! Sometimes I wish I was a toxic gastropod that looked like Liberace and lived in a tropical sea…but alas, like so many of nature’s greatest works, they are vanishing as the oceans change.
Today we have a special mystery: a strange sacred underground passage of great beauty which was constructed by unknown entities for unknown reasons. Shell Grotto in Margate Kent is an underground passage constructed entirely of seashells (or, I should say, the walls and ceilings are entirely lined with shells). The passage is 2.4 meters (8 feet) high and 21 meters in length (69 feet) and terminates in a 5 x 6 meter (16 foot by 20 foot) chamber colloquially known as “The Altar Room.” The entire complex is hewn out of the native chalk of Kent and extensively decorated with vaults and decorative mosaics made of local mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters (although winkles from as far away as Southampton.
The complex was “discovered” in 1835 and has been the subject of much speculation ever since. Some people assert that it was a prehistoric astronomical calendar (?), a special space for Templar or Freemasonry ceremonies, or an 18th century nobleman’s folly. The first mention of it in the press is from 1838, announcing its forthcoming opening as a public attraction. My own hypothesis is that the grotto is a Victorian attraction.
Originally the shells had their vibrant natural colors, but after long exposure to flickering Victorian gaslights they had blackened and faded. Fortunately, Shell Grotto is protected as a Grade I listed building of special historical and cultural interest (although no archaeologists seem particularly interested, which reinforces my “Victorian tourist trap: hypothesis). Whatever its provenance, Shell Grotto is certainly impressive. It is estimated that the builders, whoever they were, employed about 4.7 million shells to make the complex. Their initiative and hard work have paid off: Shell Grotto has a mysterious oceanic splendor and beauty all its own. The enigma of its nature only adds to its picturesque (but haunting) charm.
This is Danilia octaviana, a tiny marine gastropod of the family Chilodontidae (the mollusk family Chilontidae—because of a taxonomic mishap, there is apparently a fish family of the same name). Danilia octaviana throughout the Mediterranean Sea (and in the Atlantic near the mouth of the Mediterranean). It is a tiny snail. Adults measure between 7 and 11 millimeters (about a third of an inch). It scrapes up algae and microscopic plants and bacteria with its radula, and is in turn eaten by numerous predators of all different stamps. There is nothing remarkable about Danilia octaviana: there are thousands of small snails like it which live at the margin of our attention (although that perhaps is remarkable, in its own way). Based on information on the internet, is a bit unclear whether the snail is currently alive or not (the photo above makes it seem like it is a fossil, but some sources speak about it today). I post it here because I think it is surprisingly beautiful and interesting as a textured sculptural whirl.
This is Taningia danae, the Dana octopus squid. CNN featured a video of one filmed by some sort of submersible off the coast of Hawaii and I thought I would look up the animal and write about it (since the short CNN video contained almost no information…and was bookended by obnoxious ads for IBM office services and dubious stomach medicine). The squid is a member of the family Octopoteuthidae, a group of pelagic and benthic photoluminescent squid (although some taxonomists question whether the family is valid). Although Taningia danae is not as gigantic as the colossal squid or the giant squid, it is still a very large creature: specimens have been caught which weigh up to 161.4 kilograms (356 pounds) and with a length of 2.3 m (7.5 feet). These highly intelligent and maneuverable squid sometimes hunt together like wolf packs. They live on fish and smaller squids of the mid-ocean depths and are preyed on by large powerful marine mammls like sperm whales.
The squid makes use of intense photoluminescent arm tips for hunting, measuring distance, and communicating with others of its kind. It can emit a brilliant strobe-like flash to stun prey, but it also uses the flashes for mating displays. The squid in the video endearingly came up and hugged the glowing submersible…although maybe that is an unduly cheerful interpretation. Being hugged by an 8-armed sea monster that weighs as much as a linebacker might be less endearing than advertised.
Lately I have been fascinated by Mesopotamian art–particularly early Sumerian art. Here is an inlay carved into a piece of shell from early dynastic Sumer (circa 2800-2600 BC). It depicts the hero/king/god, Ninurta fighting a seven-headed dragon (ancient Mesopotamians were fascinated with the number seven—which they put everywhere, in case you ever wondered why the week has seven days). Ninurta was a famous hunter and warrior (who some scholars suggest shows up in the Bible as the hunter Nimrod). His attributes include a bow and arrows, a sickle sword, and a talking mace named Sharur! [as an aside, I feel like a mace would be a singularly brain-damaged talking entity] Ninurta killed a sequence of seven heroic monsters in order to receive innovations and magical items (a tale which is echoed in the stories of Hercules and the offspring of Echidna). One of the monsters he fought was this splendid 7-headed dragon which, in this carving, looks like a cross between a leopard and a seven headed snake. This amazing mythological creature was quite likely the original version of the Greek hydra. Additionally a seven-headed dragon has a big scary role in the events of the Book of Revelations—so he is more on people’s minds than Ninurta is, these days. However all of these allusions and myths are not as important as the vitality and beauty of this amazing artwork—which is nearly 5 thousand years old!
As I promised, here are some sketches from my little book which I carry around with me and draw in. The first one, above, is another one of my enigmatic donuts. This one seems to exist in the gloomy darkness of evening. A fire burns on the horizon as a grub-man calls out to a woman with a scientific apparatus. The reindeer seems largely unconcerned, by these human doings. In the picture immediately below, an orchid-like flower blooms by some industrial docks. Inside the pedals it offers rows of cryptic symbols to the viewer.
Here is a quick sketch of Manhattan’s San Gennaro festival. I walked to the corner of the street to draw the lights, wile my roommate got her fortune read by a jocular and likable (yet ingeniously avaricious) fortune teller located in an alcove just to the right of the composition!
I sketched a cornucopia with some invertebrates while I was waiting in line at the post office (there was only one clerk who had to deal with a vast line of Wall Street characters sending elaborate registered packages around the world). It was not an ordeal for me–I had my sketch book, and was getting paid to wait in line! The guy beside me stopped playing with his infernal phone-thingy to watch me draw. Note the multiple mollusks which flourish in the painting. I think the ammonite has real personality
Last is a seasonal composition which I really like (maybe because I used my new brown pen, which thought I had lost). A lovable land whale cavorts among autumn plants as monstrous invaders monopolize a cemetery. For some unknowable reason there is also a bottle gourd. The ghosts and bats are part of the October theme. As ever I appreciate your comments! Also I still have have some sketches (and general observations) from my weekend trip to Kingston, New York.
Yet another summer day has ineluctably slipped through my fingers. What with work, friends, art, and the great human endeavor there was no time to find out about crab-eating seals or exoplanets for today’s post. Fortunately I have my little book of fun sketches for such occasions (for those of you who just walked in, this is the small sketchbook I carry around and sketch in during downtime like the subway or lunch). Above is my favorite of the three selected sketches for today. I imagine it as being the dramatic climax of an unknown ballet where a tribe of sylphs confront the underworld demon-god and wage a tremendous dance battle with him on behalf of their upstanding moral principles (actually I think that might be an actual ballet). In the real world, the pink and blue and yellow all blend together more seamlessly, but I guess I am stuck with what my camera can manage under halogen light.
In the second picture a shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean is the scene for wayang theater, written edicts, and ghostly machinations. It seems like the picture might be about the Dutch East India Company or some other Indonesian colonial enterprise. At any rate, the great flesh colored sawfish who appeared from nowhere steals the scene from the human agencies (although the brain coral seems to also be in the know).
Finally I included a geometric doodle of a colorful cityscape. I sketched this on the train after a frustrating day of work. My colleague was out that day, so I spent the entire workday trying to answer two to six confusing phone calls every minute for hours on end. I was thoroughly frustrated with New York and cursing the entire beastly expensive overrated mess when I got on a train car which had a foul smelling beggar in it. Because of the smell, the train car was unusually empty at rush hour and I opted to remain on it so I could I could sit down and draw. I sketched away furiously as the car stopped underground and lingered forever in a tunnel beneath the East River. The beggar got off in Brooklyn Heights and I kept sketching, but I was still angry at everything. When I was almost home (which is near the end of the 2 line) the woman who had been silently riding next to me the whole time quietly said ‘you are a great artist” which really turned around the bad day. I am not sure the picture merits such a statement, but the comment made me feel great and stood as a powerful reminder of what a large effect small actions and statements can have. I hope that kindly stranger is reading my blog so I can thank her properly for her words. They meant a lot to me.
I didn’t get home until late on Friday night–so I guess this week’s final post is once more going to be drawings from the little book I carry around. The first is a surreal tropical underwater landscape. I wish i had included more jellyfish–but I am happy about the jelly duck and the orange artichoke/balloon thing. I am also fond of the underwater ghoul and the lurking crocodile monster. For some reason, now that I work of Wall Street i have been drawing all sorts of predators and floating ghosts. Speaking of which…
Here are some monsters at a convivial party of some sort. It’s a bit unclear what is going on, but I feel like the hobgoblin in the purple and teal robes might well be the designated honoree. Look at how proud and happy he looks. Another ghoul is there looking super excited too–although the green vegetable guy with gills looks as though he might have a bit of social anxiety. I need to draw more furnaces and fireplaces. They are really dramatic.
Finally here is a summer picture of Prospect Park. All of the parkgoers were bland and ill-dressed so I just drew verdant trees and creamy clouds. Just as I finished a teenager in a hijab walked by and a blackbird flew across the sky. It was too late to put them in the picture, but they are walking through the empty page towards it!
Have a lovely weekend! I am looking forward to next week’s posts.
Here is a beautiful marine mammal which is somewhat underappreciated. The ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata) is a gorgeous medium sized true seal (Phocidae) which lives in the Arctic edges of the North Pacific. Populations of the seal range from northern Alaska down the Aleutians and from the Kamchatka Peninsula down along the coast of Asia to the Koreas and the northern tip of Japan. The ribbon seal is the sole surviving member of its genus and it is notable for its lovely yet bizarre coat—the adult seals are black with undulating ribbons of white running around their entire bodies.
Ribbon seals dive deep into the pelagic depths to hunt their prey. The diving mammals live on pollacks, eelpouts, cod, and cephalopods which they hunt at depths of 200 meters. The seals themselves are preyed on by polar bears, orcas, and large sharks—including sleeper sharks—huge predators of the benthic depths.
The seals are approximately human size: both males and females grow to about 1.6 m (5.2 ft) long, and weigh 95 kg (210 pounds). In ideal circumstances they can live longer than 25 years. Ribbon seals reach sexual maturity somewhere between the ages of two and six (depending on gender, diet, and heredity). They give birth to adorable fluffy white/silver pups who nurse for only four weeks before being forcd to hunt on their own!
Ribbon seals were overhunted by humans for their fur, but they live in such remote regions that they have probably never been in real danger of extinction. Their real numbers of ribbon seal populations are somewhat unknown but are estimated to be around 250,000. I can’t find any information about why they have such remarkable coats, so I will go ahead and guess that it is because they are fashionable!
Happy news from the ocean depths: marine biologists have discovered an endearingly cute deep sea octopus in the cold deep ocean waters off the continental shelf of California. The newfound octopus is about the size of a fist and looks a lot like the ghosts from Pac-man. The creatures’ default color seems to be a rich orange-pink. It has big soulful black eyes and little fins atop its head which look like cartoon cat ears.
Stephanie Bush, an octopus scientist (!!!) from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has spent nearly a year studying the new octopus which she classifies as belonging to the “flapjack” octopuses (a family of animals which sound like they merit additional attention from Ferrebeekeeper). The genus of the octopus is thus pre-established as “Opisthoteuthis” but she is toying with “adorabilis” as a species name (which sounds like a wise choice in the internet era).
So far very little is known about these cute mollusks which live in coastal Pacific waters at depths between 200 and 600 meters. Every one of the dozen specimens thus far found has been female. According to Bush, “They spend most of their time on the bottom, sitting on the sediment, but they need to move around to find food, [&] mates.” I am curious what the male octopuses are like. I presume they are pink and adorable as well, but sexual dimorphism is not unknown among cephalopods. Also, how widespread are these animals? Do they live beyond the California coast?
We need to know so much more. Dr. Bush needs to get back to work, and we are definitely going to need more pictures!