You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Aquatic’ tag.

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In the popular imagination, marsupials are synonymous with Australia.  Yet, once, in the age of Gondwanaland, Australia was linked to Antarctica (then a verdant land of forests) which was linked to South America.  The marsupials have been a big part of South America’s ecosystems for a long time, but, ever since the place was overrun with placental mammals, they have kept a fairly low profile.  Today’s Ferrebeekeeper post features a tremendously widespread and common marsupial from South America—yet this creature is nearly unknown beyond South America (except perhaps to mammalian zoologists and people who write alphabetical lists of beasts).  The water opossum (Chironectes minimus), also known as the yapok, is the most aquatic living marsupial and the only living marsupial where both sexes have pouches.

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The yapok is a formidable predator of fish, amphibians, snakes, and freshwater invertebrates like crayfish.  In order to pursue these creatures underwater, it has symmetrical webbed back feet, short waterproof fur, and numerous sensory facial bristles (like a catfish! which it slightly resembles).  The possums are small– 30 centimeters (11 inches) long with a 35 centimeter (14 inch) long tail. They have endearing little masks and cute stripes. Yapoks live from southern Mexico down through Central America to Southern Brazil.  They are especially prevalent in Colombia and Northern Peru, but they do not live in most of the Amazon Basin.

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about yapoks is the female’s pouch.  While the mother yapok is taking care of her young, she still must swim and hunt—yet marsupial babies have a lot of development to do before they can be on their own (much less swim through swift streams hunting fish).  Adult female yapoks therefore have a watertight pouch which can be sealed with a muscular ring so that they can take their offspring with them in the water.  For 50 days she carries her brood of 1-5 little yapoks with her everywhere…and even after then, when they detach from the nipple, they still frequent her pouch.

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Of course, as I noted above, male yapoks have pouches too. Wikipedia blandly notes, “The male also has a pouch (although not as watertight as the female’s), where he places his genitalia before swimming. This is thought to prevent it from becoming tangled in aquatic vegetation and is probably helpful in streamlining the animal as well.”  My mind keeps approaching this concept and then reeling back from it.  So I will just leave Wikipedia’s wording as it stands and say no more.

Ray Troll painting large amoonites for "Night of the Ammonites" exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum

Ray Troll painting large amoonites for “Night of the Ammonites” exhibit at Seattle’s Burke Museum

One of my favorite living artists is not interested in the fatuous self-absorption and navel gazing which characterizes most contemporary artwork.  Instead of falling in love with himself, Ray Troll fell in love with aquatic animals—and his art is a pun-filled paean to the astonishing diversity and complexity of life in Earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans both in this epoch and in past geological ages.   Although Troll’s vibrant biology themed art is humorous and fantastic, it also resonates at a deeper level.  Themes of ecological devastation and the broad exploitation of the oceans are unflinchingly explored, as is the true nature of humankind.  Troll (correctly) regards people as a sort of terrestrial fish descendant who still have the same aggressive territoriality, unending hunger, and crude drives that propelled our distant piscine forbears.  This sounds deterministic and grim until one comprehends the high esteem which Troll holds for fish of all sorts.  After looking at the beauty, grace, and power of his fish art, one feels honored to be included in the larger family (along with all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians which trace their roots back to fish-like tetrapod ancestors).

'Crusin' the Fossil Freeway' by Ray Troll (the artist is visible on the driver's side)

‘Crusin’ the Fossil Freeway’ by Ray Troll (the artist is visible on the driver’s side)

Troll is a favorite artist because he endeavors to understand paleontology, ecology, and biology and synthesize these extraordinary disciplines with broader human experience.  The result is a whimsical and surreal mixture of creatures and concepts from different times and places rubbing elbows as though Hieronymous Bosch were having a happy daydream.   Troll is a “popular” artist in that he makes a living by selling books, tee-shirts, and posters rather than swindling billionaire bankers into multi-million dollar single purchases, so you should check out his website.  In keeping with the themes of Ferrebeekeeper,  I have added a small gallery of his mollusk and catfish themed artwork (although such creatures are only featured in some of his paintings and drawings).  Unfortunately the online sample images are rather small.  If you want to see full resolution images you will have to buy his books and artwork (which is a worthwhile thing to do).

“The Encante”, (Ray Troll, 2004, colored pencil on paper, 11” x 30”)

“The Encante”, (Ray Troll, 2004, colored pencil on paper, 11” x 30”)

The Encante is a paradisiacal underwater realm where shapeshifting river dolphins lure humans.  The aquatic creatures are able to be themselves in this realm of magic and dance.  Not only does Troll’s work feature the beauty of the Amazon and the otherworldly magical river dolphins, there are also a host of amazing catfish, including several armored catfish, and a giant bottomfeeder which has apparently developed an unfortunate taste for human flesh.

Got Ink? (Ray Troll)

Got Ink? (Ray Troll)

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Octopi Wall Street (Ray Troll)

Octopi Wall Street (Ray Troll)

Here are a handful of Troll’s pun-themed tee-shirt drawings involving amazing cephalopods.  I like to imagine the populist octopus in battle with the fearsome vampire squid which is so emblematic of Goldman Sachs.

Night of the Ammonites (Ray Troll)

Night of the Ammonites (Ray Troll)

Finally, here is a naturalistic portrayal of how the ancient ammonites most likely came together to spawn on moonlit nights of the Paleozoic (such behavior is characteristic of the squids and cuttlefish alive today).  The long-extinct cephalopods are portrayed with life and personality as though their quest to exist has immediate relevance to us today.  Indeed–that might is Troll’s overarching artistic and philosophical point: life is a vividly complex web of relationships which knit together in the past, present, and the future.

Since I have already written so many mammal posts I am creating a new blog category for mammals (I will leave out human concerns to concentrate on zoologic overviews of other species, but please remember that technically we too are mammals and all of the posts on this and every website could fall under this category).  To make way for the mammals I deleted the “celebrity” topic for good (I had hoped to make fun of our queasy fascination with lackwit celebrities–but other than an one sighting of the disquieting Richard Simmons, I had nothing). Begone vile celebrities! The age of the mammals has dawned.

The Giant Otter, Pteronura brasiliensis

I already have plenty of posts about goats, pigs, wombats, hyraxes, and bizarre intelligent monotremes with which to populate this category, but to kick the topic off properly I am writing today about the alpha-predator of the Amazon.  This mammal is the king of the Mustelidae (also known as the weasel family) and, if you have ever seen a lightning fast stoat hunting a rabbit, or smelled a skunk, or watched a badger drive off a bear, or witnessed a wolverine tear apart a moose, you will know that the weasel family is not joking around. [ed: what? When did you see any of this?] The largest mustelid is a particularly magnificent creature—the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) which lives throughout the Amazon basin and Pantanal.  The giant otter is a long animal and males are up to six feet (2 meters in length) and weigh up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms).  Much longer males measuring nearly 8 feet in length were once reported but it is believed that extensive hunting may have eradicated all of the really giant giant otters.

An Immature Giant Otter held by Wildlife Conservation Worker Diane McTurk in Guyana

Giant otters are tremendously accomplished fishers living largely on cichlids, characins (such as piranha), and catfish, but, as an apex predator they are opportunists who supplement their diet with snakes, crabs, turtles, and caimans.  Although the otters are diurnal predators who hunt at daytime using their large acute eyes to find their prey, their hearing is also excellent and they possess extremely sensitive vibrissae (whiskers) to gauge the faintest water current.  Like other mustelids, giant otters have fast metabolisms and they eat about 10% of their body weight per day.  Their adaptations to aquatic life include webbed feet, ears and nostrils which clamp shut, powerful tails for swimming, and incredibly dense fur.  As with their cousins the sea otters, this valuable fur proved to be their undoing. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were hunted to the very threshold of extinction by furriers (and by fishermen who regard them as a clever nuisance). Their numbers still remain low today: only 2,000-5,000 giant otters are estimated to live in the wild.

Orphaned Giant Otter Cubs

Giant otters form family groups around a mated pair.  Older offspring from years past stay with this pair and help out rearing the young cubs before venturing off on their own. They travel widely through the inundated forest during flood seasons and spend the rest of the year based around a fishing camp which they build beside a lake or a choice stretch of river.  These camps consist of large multiple entrance home dens built under and around tree roots as well as several secondary locations (along with communal latrine areas).  The otters might also alter river beaches to be more to their liking by removing vegetation.  The fur of the giant otter is usually brown, red, or fawn and the otter’s bib is marked with cream and white stipples.  These are for identification purposes: otters “persiscope” up out of the water to get a better view of each other and to learn whom they are meeting.  Giant Otters are also famous for their complicated (and loud) vocalizations.

A Giant Otter "periscoping" (photo by Roberto Fabbri Wildlife)

Although the adult giant otter has no natural predators, young otters must look out for caimans, jaguars, and anacondas. Additionally the giant otters compete for prey with these creatures as well as with river dolphins, large predatory fish, and large turtles.  The otters are always on the lookout for dangerous stingrays and electric eels.  None of these natural threats, however, are particularly significant compared with the threat from habitat loss, logging, mining, and industrial pollution.

Some of the native humans indigenous to the great river basins believed the otters were river spirits who had, once taught valuable lessons to the first humans.  Other native peoples (particularly fishing people) held that the otters were worthless nuisances to be killed or run off whenever sighted.  Such sightings however grow increasingly rare as the giant otter, the longest mustelid, vanishes forever away from all but the wildest places in the rainforest.

A Wild Giant Otter Devouring an Armoured Catfish (photo by Roberto Fabbri Wildlife)

Yesterday’s post concerning the Yuan dynasty was in preparation for today’s post about Yuan dynasty porcelain.  The blue and white cobalt porcelain which has become famously emblematic of Chinese ceramics (to such an extent that “China” became the name of the country and the product in England) was first manufactured in the Middle Kingdom during the Yuan dynasty. The blue and white vases and plates from the Yuan dynasty are more robust and bold then the famous Ming blue and white ware which succeeded them, but the lovely pure aestheticism of great Chinese porcelain is fully there.  The best pieces feature a lovely syncretism of cultural motifs and forms which come together around a central symbol.

Yuan Blue and White "Fish" jar sold by Chistie's (12¼ in. (31 cm.) high; 13 3/8 in. (34 cm.) diam.)

My favorite works of Yuan porcelain are those with aquatic themes like this lovely rare fish jar from the middle of the fourteenth century.  On the vase, four intricately painted fish swim gracefully through water poppy, duck weed, water clover, eel grass, and hornwort.  The neck features waves lapping above a peony border while the base shows flaming pearls.  With unerring skill the master painter who made this jar has noted the details of the natural world.  The fish seem alive.  Their expressions reflect the different personalities of the different species. To explain the complicated symbolic/poetic wordplay which underlies this vase (and many of the images featured in classic Chinese art) I will rely on the Christie’s auction website, where the vase was described prior to sale:

The fish on the current jar provide a…complex rebus, since they appear to be qing black carp (mylopharyngodon piceus); (hongqi) bai predatory carp or redfin culter (culter erythropterus); lian silver carp (hypopthalmichthys molitrix); and gui or jue Chinese perch or mandarin fish (siniperca chuatsi). The names of these fish combine to provide rebuses which suggest either qing bai lian gui ‘of good descent, modest and honourable’ or qingbai lianjie ‘of honourable descent and incorruptible’.

Plate, mid-14th century China: Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration (Diam. 18 in.)

A fish, in this case a sea perch, is also the subject of this magnificent plate from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The perch gapes open his mouth to leer at visitors from a bed of eelgrass.  Around the central scene is a particularly vivid cavetto of lotus blossoms.  Archaeological discoveries indicate that the plate was manufactured at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province.  Fish were a popular motif of Yuan porcelain because of a well-known Taoist maxim which compared people who had found their place in the flux of Tao to fish perfectly suited to living in their watery realm.  The Han literati of the Yuan era had been displaced by Mongol elite and they frequently yearned for a more serene and central place in their world, an attitude quietly reflected by splendid aquatic porcelain.

Guan jar: Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province

The final jar (also made in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi during the mid fourteenth century) shows not a fish but a vigorous fish-eating duck.  His feathers are standing up in a fierce crest and he has a wild look in his eye.  A pair of mandarin ducks is the ancient Chinese symbol for love, trust, and happiness in marriage–however this is not a pair of mandarin ducks but a carnivorous merganser hunting alone among the water weeds (although it seems there might be another one on the other side of the jar).   It’s hard not to wonder whether this unusual duck unconsciously represents the Han’s unhappiness in their marriage to their fierce Mongol overlords.

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