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Melo Pearl

Melo Pearl

The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo.  Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines.  The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body.  The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels).  The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported.  The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.

Melo melo at Birmingham's National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo melo at Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science.  No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices).  A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia.  The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter.  Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine.  Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial.  It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea.  Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me.  It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.

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My favorite mammals are the mighty proboscideans—elephants, mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, moeritheriums, and so on.  I have not written about them more because the only proboscideans we know a lot about are the elephants–and elephants are complicated—they are smart and they have human length lives of great social complexity, all of which makes them hard to write about.  Additionally elephants are tragic—their populations keep shrinking away as humankind grasps for ever more land and poachers kill the great sentient giants for their ivory.  Yet elephants still have a perilous chance to keep on living. What is even sadder than the senseless slaughter of the magnificent elephants are the other proboscideans, which have vanished one by one from earth.  Everyone knows about the woolly mammoth and Cuvieronius, the new world gomphothere, but the last non-elephant proboscideans to have died out were even more contemporary.

Stegodon2

The stegodons (from the extinct subfamily Stegodontinae) evolved in Southeast Asia approximately eleven and half million years ago.  They lived in large swaths of Asia throughout the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs and they survived in Indonesia deep into the Holocene epoch. Radio-carbon dating has dated the last living stegodons to 2,150 BC.  The giants died after the pyramids were built at Giza and great cities had begun to sprout up in Mesopotamia and along the Indus valley.

Stegodons looked much like elephants—a resemblance which has caused much taxonomical confusion. Paleontologists once believed elephants descended from stegondons but It seems now that both stegodons and modern elephants descended from Gomphotheriidae (a sister group to the mammoths).   Stegodons had different molars and their tusks were so close together that their long trunks draped over the sides. There were many species of stegodons, the largest of which were among the largest of proboscideans, far more immense than today’s two elephant species.  The biggest stegodont were 4 m (13 ft) high at the shoulders and had a body length of 8 m (26 ft) which does not even count their 3 meter (10 foot) tusks!

 

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Modern humans reached Southeast Asia 50,000 years ago so we lived in proximity with the stegodons for some time before they vanished.   Certain species of stegodons reached isolated Indonesian islands where, over generations, they shrank into dwarf forms.  These tiny stegodons were hunted by Homo floresiensis, which seems to have been a dwarf species of human (although the scientific community has not reached consensus concerning the nature of Homo floresiensis).  Imagining tiny versions of humans hunting tiny versions of huge elephant-like creatures boggles the mind!  I am profoundly sorry the stegodons dwarf, giant, or otherwise could not have held on for a few more millennia.  I would love to have seen them—or by 4000 years ago were they already as the Saola is now—ever retreating from a world that did not seem to fit them?

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The Paradise Tree Snake (Chrysopelea ornata)

The paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradise) is a very beautiful tree snake which lives in Southeast Asia.  It ranges from the Philippines and Indonesia, up through Malaysia, Myanmar and into India.  The snake particularly enjoys climbing into the crowns of coconut palms where it feeds on arborial lizards (which it immobilizes with extremely weak venom).  The snake lives in a variety of habitats including mangrove swamps, rainforests, tree plantations, gardens, and parks.  It stands out because of its attractive pattern of yellow on black (sometimes tinted with red).

Paradise Tree Snake Flying!

What really sets the paradise tree snake apart from other pretty tropical snakes however is its impressive ability to fly—or at least to glide.  The snake holds onto its launching platform with the end of its tail and dangles the majority of its body into a j-shape.  The daring reptile then swings back and forth and launches itself through the air!  The snake sucks in its stomach and flares out its ribs so as to take the shape of a flying wing and then it slithers through the air making lateral motions with its body in order to cause air pressure underneath it to push its body up.   Smaller snakes (which are better gliders) can glide up to 100 meters (over 300 feet) and are reckoned by biomechanical locomotion specialists to be finer gliders than colugos and gliding squirrels.

A human (black), an African Elephant (gray), a Mastodon (french blue) and a Paraceratherium (sky blue)

The largest land animal alive today is the mighty African elephant, however even the largest adult bull elephants were dwarfed by the largest land mammal ever to exist.  The giant herbivore Paraceratherium stood 5.5 metres (18 ft) tall at the shoulder.  When standing upright the creature’s head (which was approximately the same size as character actor Danny Devito) was about 8 metres (26 ft) above the ground.  Although debate continues about how much the beast weighed, reasonable estimates suggest it could have massed from 15 to 20 metric tons which means that the animals were as large as mid-sized sauropod dinosaurs from the previous era.  Partial skeletons of Paraceratherium were discovered by different scientists at different times–which has confusingly resulted in three different names for the genus: 1) Paraceratherium  which means”near horn animal” in Greek; 2) Indricotherium which was derived from a mythical Russian progenitor-monster called the Indrik-Beast; and 3) Baluchitherium which means “Baluchistan beast”, in honor of Baluchistan, an arid portion of the Iranian plateau, where a fossil specimen was unearthed.  Paleontologists prefer to call the genus “Paraceratherium,” however, thanks to TV specials and museum shows the name “Indricotherium” remains popular with the public.

Artist’s Conception of Paraceratheriums Migrating (from asecic.org)

Paraceratheriums were perissodactyls.  The giant creatures were most closely related to the living rhinoceroses (although they shared ancestors with tapirs and horses as well).  Paraceratherium’s immense size allowed it to eat the branches and leaves of large trees.  They ranged across what is now Central Asia across Iran, India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China.  The various species of Paraceratherium had long graceful necks somewhat like that of Okapis.  Additionally they possessed nimble elongated upper lips with which to strip leaves off of branches.  These lips were no quite trunks but probably resembled the long grasping snout/lips of tapirs.  Although Paraceratherium was closely related to rhinoceroses, they lacked the rhino’s characteristic horns—their giant size meant they did not need them.  The genus originated in the Eocene and flourished during the Oligocene—a golden age of perissodatyls.  However as the global cooling became more pronounced in the late Oligocene, the great creatures gradually vanished.

Fossil Paraceratherium skeleton in a museum

A Painted Pottery Figure of a Camel (Chinese, Tang Dynasty, from a Christies’ Auction)

Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain.  Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties.  At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia.  Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).

Camel of Earthenware with sancai glaze (Late 7th-early 8th century, The Avery Brundage Collection at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time.  During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace.  The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.

Tang Camel with Turkic Groom/Rider

During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins).  The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.

Gray terracotta camel in a walking stance (from Little River Asian Arts)

Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art.  Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism.  Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on.  A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand.  Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats).   Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.

Another Tang Camel with Triple glaze (and human figure)

Lesser Bamboo Bat (Tylonycteris pachypus)

One of the smallest of all mammals is the Lesser bamboo bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) also known as the bumblebee bat which lives throughout Southeast Asia.  The animals range from India and China down through Myanmar, throughout the Malaysian Peninsula, and across the island chains of Indonesia and the Philippines.  The tiny flying creature is ridiculously small and measures only 40 millimetres (1.6 inches) in length with a wingspan of 150 millimetres (5.9 inches). An adult bat weighs approximately 1.5 grams–only slightly more than a paper clip.

Lesser Bamboo Bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) emerging from daytime hideout

As you will notice from the photo, the bamboo bat has a flat skull.  This is to aid the creature as it crawls into its daytime hideout—a single segment of bamboo—which the bat is capable of squeezing into through cracks of as little as 4 millimeters in width (if you didn’t pull out your desk ruler earlier to assess the size of this bat, you should do so now to remind yourself how small 4 millimeters is).  Like most vesper bats, the lesser bamboo bat lives on flying insects which it catches in the dark night skies by means of sonar and extraordinary flying prowess.  The lesser bamboo bat is said to have a particular relish for termite swarms.

Pomelos and Mooncakes

Once again it is the mid-autumn festival (also known as the mooncake festival), one of the most important festivals of the Chinese calendar.   I hope you and your friends get together to drink rice wine while looking at the jade rabbit who mixes magic herbs on the moon!

Last year Ferrebeekeeper explored the mid-autumn festival through poetry but this year we will concentrate instead on food. The quintessential foodstuff of the mooncake festival is the mooncake, a cake which is crafted to look like the moon [Ed. this is some fine work you’re doing here], however an equally lunar-looking foodstuff is nearly as important for celebrating the holiday.  The pomelo is a beloved citrus fruit which has come to be integrally associated with the mid-autumn festival. The fruit is like a giant green or chartreuse grapefruit with a yellow-white or pinkish-red interior (depending on the variety).  Pomelos can be quite large with a diameter that runs between 15 and 30 centimeters (6 to 12 inches) and they can weigh up to 2 kilograms (about 4 and a half pounds). The fruit is segmented like that of an orange (albeit with a great deal more pith) and tastes like a mild sweet grapefruit.  In some varieties of southern Chinese cooking, the pomelo skin is used as an ingredient in its own right.

Pomelo

Because of its shape, its harvesting schedule, and its delightful taste, the pomelo is a mainstay of the mid-autumn moon festival. To quote gochengdoo.com, a Chines culture blog:

In Mandarin, pomelos are called 柚子 (you zi), a homophone for words that mean “prayer for a son.” Therefore, eating pomelos and putting their rinds on the head signify a prayer for the youth in the family. In addition, the Chinese believe that by placing pomelo rinds on their heads, the moon goddess Chang’e will see them and respond to their prayers when she looks down from the moon.

Aww!

The pomelo has long been cultivated in China: the first allusions to the fruit date to 100 BC, but cultivation may go back further.  Many of the citrus fruits we are most familiar with, such as oranges, lemons, and limes, are the end result of centuries—or even millennia–of hybridization and selective breeding. Pomelos are an exception. Native to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, the pomelo is one of the ancestral citrus fruit and the pretty trees grow wild in the jungles of Southeast Asia. It is believed that the first sweet oranges were probably a hybridization of pomelos and mandarins. Grapefruits are probably a descendant (it is hard to tell what the exact relations are since citrus trees hybridize so readily). What is certain is that the pomelo fruit is lovely and sweet and will enhance your ability to appreciate the moon tonight!

Pomelos on the Tree

Happy lunar viewing!

Aurochs Fighting Wolves (Heinrich Harder)

About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not.  Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today.  In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today.  They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet.  Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?

Domestic Cattle

That number would be none.  The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo).  The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns.  An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton.  Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time.  Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.

Aurochs Cave Painting (ca. 15000 BC)

Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons).  For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.

Aurochs Mosaic on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (ca. 575 BC)

The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt.  Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving.  Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century.  Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge.  In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal.  In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great!  They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.

RIP Aurochs

The Giant Ground Pangolin of Africa (Manis gigantea)

The pangolin is one of the most unusual and fascinating mammals of Africa and Asia.  The magnificent creatures have unique strengths and gifts, but because of unhappy superstition (and gustatory whim) they are facing an uncertain future.

A climbing tree pangolin

Despite a superficial resemblance to anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are most closely related to the carnivora family (cats, dogs, weasels, seals, and so forth).  The relationship is not unduly close: pangolins make up their own order of which there is one extant family (Manidae) and one genus (Manis). There are eight species of pangolins, each of which is sheathed in a virtually impregnable suit of keratin scales which act as armor.  All pangolins can roll into pinecone-like balls leaving only the razor sharp edges of their scales to confront predators. Not only does the pangolin possess armor, every adult has formidable claws with which to burrow into termite mounds and root insects out of bark (or to utilize as a defensive weapon) as well as a gland capable of spraying a foul acid onto would-be predators.  Additionally, while they may lack the uniquely acute mental equipment of the gnome-like echidna, pangolins are considered quite clever.  They are gifted at avoiding traps and seem to evince real creativity in seeking out and consuming bugs, particularly ants and termites, which compromise a large portion of their diets. Many pangolins are adept climbers, capable of taking to the trees both to hunt and to escape danger. Tree pangolins even have prehensile tails with which they can dangle from branches. Other pangolins are great burrowers. In fact  in Chinese myth they travel everywhere in a great underground network and their Cantonese name “Chun-shua-cap” means the creature that bores through the mountain.

A lion ineffectively tries to eat a balled-up pangolin (photo by Mark Sheridan-Johnson)

Alas, Chinese legends are not all so kind to chun-shua-cap. Although pangolins are gifted with impregnable armor, mighty claws, keen intelligence, skunk-like acid spray, dexterity, as well as great digging, swimming, and hiding skills, they have a relentless enemy more implacable than any lion or plague. South China’s burgeoning middle class hungers for them with insatiable rapacity. Ancient custom dictates that ingesting their scales somehow magically aids nursing mothers (which, aside from the placebo effect, is a complete fallacy). Additionally pangolins are a prestige food for the newly moneyed millions who do not know what to do with wealth and, like the Very Reverend William Buckland, desire to consume everything that lives. China has eaten its own pangolins and is quickly driving the remaining pangolins of South East Asia, Indonesia, and South Asia to extinction. Additionally, as Africa’s troubled nations become vassals to Chinese cash and commodities-grubbing (and as Africa’s tin-pot dictators abase themselves before China’s moral equivocation) the pangolin trade is starting to gobble-up Africa’s pangolins, which were already facing pressure from the bush-meat trade and deforestation. Pangolins reproduce slowly.  Because of their diet and lifestyle they can’t be farmed. If China’s ever-growing demand for them is not curbed they will vanish from Earth forever.

A smuggled pangolin rescued by police

Chinese police, customs officers, and wildlife officials (and their counterparts in neighboring nations) have begun to strike back at the illegal trade in pangolins and other endangered species.  But as long as Chinese high officialdom turns a (very) blind eye on consumption, the problem will linger.  Come on China! You are always clamoring to be regarded as a truly great world power.  I will acknowledge you as such as soon as you rescue the world’s pangolins (and maybe the rhinos, bears, elephants, and tigers while you are at it). Everyone has these wacky superstitions which get in the way of real greatness (just look at America’s checkered history) but saving the pangolins should be possible for a nation whose government possesses such absolute authority. Or will China’s rise merely present a list of needless extinctions and tacky plastic cities as its heritage to posterity?

A baby pangolin sheltering with its mother

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