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Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by Ólafur Larsen

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by Ólafur Larsen

The Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is an Arctic gamebird from the grouse family. It lives in northern regions of Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China.  The birds are capable of surviving in extremely harsh winter conditions: indeed they do not fly south during the Arctic winter.  Instead they hunker down to last out the 24 hour long nights of bitter ice and cold.  In order to survive in permafrost landscapes, ptarmigans have water and wind proof feathers (which seal the chilling moisture away from their insulating down).  They also have feathered feet which act like snowshoes—their taxonomical name “Lagopus” comes from Greek roots meaning “hare foot”).  Ptarmigans are omnivores and they eat insects, seeds, berries, and leaves during the fleeting summers.  More remarkably, during the brutal winter months they can find food in the form of catkins, twigs, and buds buried beneath the snow and ice.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Not only are ptarmigans adapted to the cold, they are also astonishing masters of camouflage.  In winter they can fledge to become completely white.  In spring and fall the birds are white with black and gray blotches.  During the summer, the birds’ plumage becomes brown and yellow so they can blend in with the gorse and lichen. The following two pictures of brooding mothers should illustrate this point: the mama ptarmigans are hard to find even though they are pretty much the only things in the pictures!

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In spring male ptarmigans find a mate by emitting a guttural croak (although there is also a correlation between the size of a male’s comb and his testosterone level).  Females lay up to six eggs. Even in the egg, ptarmigans are masters of being inconspicuous.  Their eggs are stippled with spots and specks in order to blend in seamlessly with the rocks and tundra for the brief moments that ptarmigans are not sitting their nests.

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During the last ice age, the rock ptarmigan had an even wider range (which is astonishing, considering how widespread the birds are today).  Ptarmigans are a beautiful and timeless emblem of the north. Vikings carved the birds on knife hilts and the creatures are also a mainstay of Sami and Inuit art.

A bronze ptarmigan charm made by the Sami

A bronze ptarmigan charm made by the Sami

Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

When I was a child, my best-loved emblem of the Christmas/holiday season was the reindeer (although, admittedly, I thought they were “rain deer”).  My poor mother had to track down reindeer-themed decorations and jumpers all over the place.  The magnificent antlered beasts were not just my favorite ornaments, but they were also the subjects of my most-preferred songs (in fact, I still find Rudolph’s ascendancy to personal empowerment through effulgent appendages and meteorological coincidence to be quite stirring).  Yet reindeer are not just mythical creatures made up for the holidays—the true nature of these magnificent cold weather specialists is even more remarkable than folklore.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are large powerful cervids native to the trackless tundra of the Arctic and to the taiga and bogs of the subarctic (a vast habitat which encompasses most of Alaska,Canada, Siberia, and northern Europe).  The North American subspecies of reindeer are commonly known as caribou. Although the migratory caribou are rangier (with thinner bodies and longer legs than old world reindeer), they are fundamentally the same creature.  The caribou are the last animals in the Americas to still migrate across the wilderness en masse.  The largest herds number in the hundred thousands (!) and evoke thoughts of the Pliocene or of the Serengeti (although like most other wildlife, the great herds are quickly declining).

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

Adult male reindeer weigh up to 180 kilograms (400 lbs) although a few exceptionally huge bucks have been measured weighing nearly twice that.  The fur of reindeer has two layers: a layer of long hollow outer hairs and a down-like layer of dense fluff.  The fur can be all sorts of shades of stippled and variegated brown, black, cream, and white. Both genders of reindeer grow antlers, and the antlers are the largest in proportion to body mass of any cervid.

Reindeer have many special traits to help them survive the rigorous conditions of their northern habitat. In summer their hooves become sponge-like and flatten out to give them traction on mud.  In winter reindeer hooves harden into sharp wedges for cutting through ice and snow. Unlike white-tailed deer, reindeer can see into the indigo and ultraviolet spectrum.  This ability helps them survive in the grey tundra and the great monochromatic boreal forests.  Many things invisible in the (human) visible spectrum pop out in ultraviolet (most notably fur and urine).

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

Reindeer/caribou live predominantly on grasses, sedges, and tender tree shoots during the summer, but in winter their diet changes in accordance with the barrenness of their environment.  During the long lean dark times of winter reindeer largely live on lichen.  The reindeer are almost alone among animals in possessing the enzyme necessary to metabolize the tough lichen (only a handful of gastropod mollusks have been found to also produce lichenase).

DENA_ReindeerTundraYoung reindeer are hunted by golden eagles and wolverines.  Mature adults are largely invulnerable to any animals other than polar bears, brown bears, and above all wolves.  Wolves may be the ultimate predator of reindeer and certain packs live mutualistically with the reindeer herds and follow them all winter.

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

Humankind has a similarly ancient and intimate relationship with the reindeer and caribou. Since the depths of the ice age, human hunter-gatherers have stalked the great herds of deer. Some tribes began to follow the herds along their entire migratory routes and eventually the people and deer gradually became integrated.  The domestication of animals began similarly with goats (ibexes), cows (aurochs), and pigs, but, in the case of reindeer, the process stalled in the middle. Certain herds of reindeer are semi-domesticated: but the herders follow the deer as much as the reverse.  The reindeer provide skin, meat, milk, and transportation to the tough herding/hunting nomads of the north (mainly the Sami in the modern world).  The herders protect the reindeer from wolves, bear, and hunters.

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

Although they are not perfectly domesticated (and would probably keep on with their ancient migrations if humankind all dropped dead or decided to emigrate to Alfa-Centauri), reindeer are docile, gentle, and extremely beautiful.  They are a perfect emblem of the season (although Santa’s presumably male herd would shed their antlers before Christmas), but they are an even greater emblem of the last great wilds which can be found in the far north.  I devoutly hope that the great changes of the Anthropocene do not reduce the reindeer and caribou herds to a fraction of what they are today.  I guess I still love them as much as ever.  Where is that sweater with reindeer on it and the old Rudolph record?

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I'll be away for the next couple days...

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I’ll be away for the next couple days…

Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) on Svalbard

Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) on Svalbard

Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) are medium sized Arctic Geese which spend their summers on the Arctic islands of the North Atlantic (in places such as the Northern coast of Greenland or the Svalbard archipelago).  In winter, these places become utterly uninhabitable (actually they strike me as uninhabitable in summer as well, but I am a tropical hominid).  The geese fly south to spend winter in the soft warm lands of Scandinavia, northern Europe, Scotland, and Ireland.

Barnacle geese flying over Tantallon Castle, Scotland (photo by John Downer for ebury press)

Barnacle geese flying over Tantallon Castle, Scotland (photo by John Downer for ebury press)

To the medieval inhabitants of these regions, barnacle geese were a mystery.  They arrived fat and numerous in the coldest time of year, in the northernmost parts of Christendom.  The geese breed in their summer ranges, so nobody other than Sami and Inuit had ever seen them nesting.  They just showed up with more geese every winter.

Unfortunately the natural historians of the day tended to be of the “sit in a library drinking wine and making things up’ school of thought.  Instead of renting an ice-breaker and following the barnacle geese to Svalbard, the scholars of the day just assumed the geese spontaneously generated from driftwood.

An ancient illuminated manuscript from the British Library shows the supposed birth of barnacle geese

An ancient illuminated manuscript from the British Library shows the supposed birth of barnacle geese

To quote the not-very-accurate twelfth century Welsh chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (a Welsh-Norman archdeacon who wrote the Ferrebeekeeper of his age):

Nature produces [Bernacae] against Nature in the most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth.

It seems that poor Giraldus was taken in by observing barnacles on driftwood.  He did not trouble to ascertain that the tenacious crustaceans never actually turned into geese.  Interestingly/stupidly, the English name for  barnacles is derived from the popular barnacle goose. The myth of the barnacle goose’s bizarre underwater larval parthenogenesis was of tremendous interest to medieval churchmen since it meant that the birds were not a prohibited food on various fast days.  Irish and Scottish clergymen would not eat meat on Lent by enjoying sumptuous goose dinners!    Pope Innocent III however was not swayed by the misinformation about the birth of barnacle geese and in the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215 AD) he explicitly forbade the consumption of barnacle geese on fast days.

Innocent III: When he wasn't smiting Cathars he was busy ruining dinner.

Innocent III: When he wasn’t smiting Cathars he was busy ruining dinner.

The actual egg-laying and birth of barnacle geese is nearly as harrowing as the medieval legend.  In order to avoid the arctic foxes and polar bears of the northern islands, barnacle geese nest on jagged cliffs.  When the goslings hatch they do not have wings, but they must jump down from these high cliffs onto sharpened rocks in order to reach the grasslands and wetlands where they can feed. Many of the fuzzy little goslings suffer, um, mishaps during this process (which sounds like the high point of the year for the arctic fox).   This bloody rite of passage has however benefited the barnacle geese in the modern world.  The sharp cliffs of remote Arctic islands are so unappealing that humans have not gone there to build ugly subdivisions or plant soybeans.  In our world of extinctions and endangered animals, barnacle geese are doing just fine and are not even remotely threatened.

Barnacle Goose Goslings
Barnacle Goose Goslings from duckoftheday.co.uk

Barnacle Goose Goslings from duckoftheday.co.uk

An artist's conception of Poebrotherium (an early camel)

An artist’s conception of Poebrotherium (an early camel)

Camelids are believed to have originated in North America.  From there they spread down into South America (after a land bridge connected the continents) where they are represented by llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos.  Ancient camels also left North America via land bridge to Asia. The dromedary and Bactrian camels are descended from the creatures which wandered into Beringia and then into the great arid plains of Asia.  Yet in their native North America, the camelids have all died out.  This strikes me as a great pity because North America’s camels were amazing and diverse!

An illustration of the size of Gigantocamelus

An illustration of the size of Gigantocamelus

At least seven genera of camels are known to have flourished across the continent in the era between Eocene and the early Holocene (a  40 million year history).  The abstract of Jessica Harrison’s excitingly titled “Giant Camels from the Cenozoic of North America” gives a rough overview of these huge extinct beasts:

Aepycamelus was the first camel to achieve giant size and is the only one not in the subfamily Camelinae.  Blancocamelus and Camelops are in the tribe Lamini, and the remaining giant camels Megatylopus, Titanotylopus, Megacamelus, Gigantocamelus, and Camelus are in the tribe Camelini.

That’s a lot of camels–and some of them were pretty crazy (and it only counts the large ones—many smaller genera proliferated across different habitats).  Gigantocamelus (as one might imagine) was a behemoth weighing as much as 2,485.6 kg (5,500 lb).  Aepycamelus had an elongated neck like that of a giraffe and the top of its head was 3 metres (9.8 ft) from the ground.  Earlier, in the Eocene, tiny delicate camels the size of rabbits lived alongside the graceful little dawn horses.  This bestiary of exotic camels received a new addition this week when paleontologists working on Ellesmere Island (in Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut) discovered the remains of a giant arctic camel that lived 3.5 million years ago. Based on the mummified femurs which were unearthed at the dig, the polar camel was about 30 percent larger than today’s camels.   The arctic region of 3.5 million years ago was a different habitat from the icy lichen-strewn wasteland of today.  The newly discovered camels probably lived in boreal forests (rather in the manner of contemporary moose) where they were surrounded by ancient horses, deer, bears and even arctic frogs!  Testing of collagen in the remains has revealed that the camels are closely related to the Arabian camels of today, so these arctic camels (or camels like them) were among the invaders who left the Americas for Asia.

Aepycamelus (painting by Heinrich Harder)

Aepycamelus (painting by Heinrich Harder)

The bones are a reminder of how different the fauna used to be in North America.  When you look out over the empty, empty great plains, remember they are not as they should be.  All sorts of camels should be running around.  Unfortunately the ones that did not leave for Asia and South America were all killed by the grinding ice ages, the fell hand of man, or by unknown factors.

An artistic reconstruction of the newly discovered Arctic camels

An artistic reconstruction of the newly discovered Arctic camels

Sedna Statue (from GTA Inuit Art Marketing)

Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful. Just as the dialects of the Inuit language differ based on geography, so too many of the sacred stories of the Inuit share the same elements yet also vary from one region to the next. One such story is the myth of Sedna—the goddess of marine mammals, the frozen depths of the sea, and of the spirit’s realm below.  There are many versions of the tale.  Here is my favorite.

Sedna was a beautiful giantess.  Her great size was a hardship for her father, who had to spend most of his time hunting in order to feed himself and his daughter. However, because she was so lovely, she had many suitors.  Sedna was proud of her looks and her strength, so she rejected every suitor as unworthy of her.

One day a well-dressed stranger came to visit Sedna’s father.  Though the visitor’s clothes were opulent and his language was cultured, he kept his hood pulled down so that his face remained in darkness. The stranger talked of his great wealth and the life of ease which Sedna would enjoy if she were his wife.  Then he appealed to the father’s greed with gifts of fish, animal skins, and precious materials. Since hunting was bad and his stores were running out, Sedna’s father felt he had little choice but to comply–so he drugged his daughter and presented her to the stranger.  As soon as she was loaded on his kayak the elegant stranger paddled off into the frozen ocean with unnatural speed.

When Sedna came around to consciousness, she was in a great nest on top of a cliff.  The only furnishings were dark feathers, fish bones, and a few clumps of skin and fur.  The elegant stranger cackled and threw back his hood.  He was none other than Raven, the capricious trickster deity who had arrived second in the world, soon after the creator had shaped it.  Raven kept his beautiful stolen wife trapped in his nest and he fed her on fish (although she kept her ears open and listened to his magic words).

In the mean time, Sedna’s father became unhappy with the bargain he had struck.  He set out on his kayak to find his daughter and rescue her from the mysterious suitor.  Night and day he paddled, till finally he heard her cries for help intermingled with the howling winds.

Sedna’s father arrived while raven was off pursuing his other ventures, and Sedna quickly climbed down to his kayak so they could start back to the mainland.  They paddled hard, but before they could reach land, Sedna spotted a distant pair of black wings in the sky.  Raven had returned home to his nest and found his bride was missing.  In anger at being cheated, Raven called out magic words of anger to the sea spirits.  The winds rose to a gale and huge waves pounded the kayak.

Sedna's Bounty (Mayoreak Ashoona, 1993, lithograph)

Lost in terror, Sedna’s father cast his daughter into the ocean to placate Raven and the water spirits.  Despite the storm and her father’s imprecations, she clung to the gunwale of the kayak.  Then, in fury, her father pulled out his flint knife and hacked at her fingers.  Sedna’s first finger came off and, amidst blood and saltwater, was transformed into narwhals and belugas. Her father hacked off her second finger which transformed into fur seals and ringed seals.  Finally the knife cut through her third finger which transformed into the great walruses.  Unable to grip the kayak with her maimed hand, Sedna fell into the sea. Rather than submit to her raven husband or her greedy father, she let herself sink beneath the waves down to the icy bottom of the ocean.

The Legend of Sedna (Sraiya, ca. 2010, pen and ink)

Beneath the waves she found Adlivun, the Inuit underworld where spirits are purified before they wander on to other worlds.  With the help of her powerful new children she made herself ruler there.  Her legs gradually changed into a mighty tail.  Her humankind ebbed from her and was replaced by divine power and wrath. Sedna is still worshiped as the underworld god by Inuit peoples.  She hates hunters both because of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of her father and because they continue to kill so many of her children—the seals, whales, and walruses.  From time to time she raises a terrible storm to drown seafarers, or she gathers together all of the marine mammals within her long beautiful hair where the hunters can never find them.  It is at such times that the shaman must travel down into Adlivun to beg with her and to praise her beauty and strength. Only then will she reluctantly let the storms abate and allow all of the marine mammals to go back to the coasts–where they are again in danger from Inuit spears.

Playful Sedna by artist Kakulu Sagiatok

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) in Nunavut,Canada (photo by Mark Carwardine)

Today we feature one of everyone’s favorite animals–the great toothwalkers of the northern oceans, the mighty walruses (Odobenus rosmarus).  Adult Pacific male walruses can weigh more than 2,000 kg (4,400 pounds) and grow to lengths exceeding 13 feet.  The huge pinnipeds live in vast colonies ringed around the Arctic Ocean.  Females separate themselves from the fractious males in order to protect their calves from the squabbling and dueling of the bulls.  The tusks (which can grow to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in length) are also used by both genders to leverage their great weight out of the water—hence the name “toothwalker.” The word walrus comes from the Old Norse word “hrossvalr” which means horsewhale.

(photo by Max Smith)

The distinctive face of the walrus is a mass of large coarse bristles properly known as vibrissae.  Like the barbells of a catfish, these vibrissae are extremely sensitive tactile organs which help the walrus find shellfish on the dark and turbid ocean bottom.  Walruses are capable of diving deep to find the invertebrates they like to eat.  Scientists have recorded dives of 113 meters (371 feet) which lasted for about 25 minutes.  Once the walruses have located a food source to their liking, they dislodge their prey with jets of water and then suction up the creatures.  Apparently they are most partial to bivalve mollusks, snails, sea cucumbers, and crabs, but in extreme circumstances they can hunt large fish or even smaller seals.

Walruses can sleep in the water, their heads supported by an inflatable pouch which allows them to bob comfortably in the choppy near-freezing water.  Additionally they change color with the temperature—their surface skin can be pink, as blood rushes near to the surface when they are hot, or they can turn grey brown when cold.

Walrus colony. Source (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

All pinnipeds, including walruses, are in the order Carnivora where they seem to most closely share a common ancestor with bears back in the Oligocene. Walruses are the only species in the only genus of the family Odobenidae.  Once the Odobenidae were a sprawling family with at least twenty species spread across three several subfamilies (the Imagotariinae, Dusignathinae and Odobeninae), but something went wrong and walruses are all that’s left of the saber-toothed seals.

Polar bear attacking walruses (from the BBC's series "Planet Earth")

Walruses’ only natural predators are polar bears and killer whales, but even the world’s largest land predator and the most formidable ocean predator find adult walruses intimidating.  Except in extraordinary circumstances the huge predators only hunt calves or weakened walruses. Predictably, humans are the walruses’ main problem.  In the 18th, 19th, and 20th century immense numbers of walruses were killed for blubber, skin, meat, and ivory.  Today this commercial exploitation has ended and worldwide populations have rebounded somewhat–though certain geographic areas remain depopulated.

Perhaps because they move ponderously on land and because their whiskers suggest comic uncles, some people underestimate walruses. I have been fortunate enough to see a young adult walrus in captivity (he was orphaned as a pup and would have died if not taken in by an aquarium) and it is a mistake to underestimate these animals.  The walrus (whose name was Ayveq) was as large as a midsized truck, yet he could move with shark-like speed but ballet-like grace in the water.  Bull walruses come into maturity at the age of 7, but they don’t usually get to mate with cows until they are 15 or so and have bested many competitors in savage sword duels with their tusks. Ayveq had access to a harem of walrus cows from a much younger age, and his comic attempts to understand himself and his relation to the females was a source of much surprised astonishment among aquarium-goers.  As a peripheral point, I neglected to mention that male walruses have a uniquely large baculum which can measure up to 63 cm (25 inches)—larger than that of any other land mammal.  The apparatus supported by this bone is similarly oversized.

A tame picture of Ayveq the Walrus (he liked to mush his face against the glass)

Ayveq could produce a remarkable series of shrieks, grunts, whistles, bellows—apparently communication is important in the teaming masses of walrus colonies. Whether drinking herring through a straw, mugging for a crowd, or using his back flippers to amuse himself, Ayveq was always remarkable. His death saddened me considerably and I could not write about walruses without mentioning his extravagant personality.  Knowing Ayveq also left me convinced that walruses might be perverts but they are also highly intelligent and gregarious beings.  This conviction is born out by the painstaking work of biologists and zoologists who are just beginning to recognize how complicated walrus society is.  It is no wonder, that so many poets, artists, and musicians have referenced the remarkable tusked creatures.

The Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney)

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