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Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur!  You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?

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Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy.  As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world.  However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.

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Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China!  In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail!  This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.

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The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan).  Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.

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If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room.  Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.

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As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead.  Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations.  What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?

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The spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) is a large waterfowl which is quite common in wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Adults are 75–115 cm (30–45 in) long and weigh up to 7 kg (15 pounds).  The bird is a close relative of both true geese and shelducks (although they aren’t really geese or ducks but have their own genus).  They are intelligent gregarious birds which live in flocks of around 50.  They look somewhat plain—their feathers are dun, sable, and white, and their faces and beaks are red–like geese badly made up to look like vultures. Yet spur-winged geese are amazing animals in several respects (I mean beyond just being geese–which live for decades, have complicated social lives, and can fly across whole continents).

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Spur-winged geese have a habit of eating blister beetles and storing the poisonous cantharidin from the insects within their bodies.  Cantharidin has a long strange history in human society which you can look up on your own (it was known as “Spanish Fly”), however it is principally notable for being poisonous: 10 mg of cantharidin is enough to kill an adult human!  Spur-winged geese–particularly those which live in and around the Gambiaare often poisonous–or at least they have flesh which is toxic to humans.

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Additionally, males have dinosaur-like spurs on their wings which they use, dinosaur-like, to fight each other for females.  These wing-spurs are not trivial.  Poultry keepers who have tried to keep the spur-winged goose with other birds have suffered losses to the fearsome sharpened wrist-spurs (and the aggressive territoriality of the spur-winged males).

Probably the most remarkable thing about the spur-winged goose though is its speed.  These birds are blazing fast.   They appear on shortlists with crazy birds like peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, swifts, and frigatebirds.  Although they cannot dive at speeds approaching the raptors or maneuver like the swifts,  spur-winged geese can really move quickly.  When the goose gets up to speed, it can travel 142 kilometers per hour (88 miles per hour).  It is as fast as the Delorean in Back to the Future (though it apparently lacks time-traveling abilities).

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So, to sum up the spur-winged goose: it is an omnivore which lives throughout the most competitive ecosystems of Africa. It has fighting spurs on its wings, can fly as fast as a World War I warplane, and is toxic. I guess I am saying that you need to respect the spur-winged goose!

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

The principle national symbols for the United States of America are the stars and stripes of old glory and our national animal, the irascible and awesome bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)–but this was not always so. Our search for national icons initially took us in different directions.  To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, I would like to write about some of these early national symbols.  Some of our founding fathers thought like me, and we could have had a tree, a poisonous serpent, or a turkey!

Throughout the eighteenth century, New England merchant vessels flew a pine tree standard (which showed a pine tree on a white background).  This long-standing imagery fit together well with the sons of liberty movement whose members adopted the elm tree under which they first convened as an emblem.  The early American navy from the New England area thus flew tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to God.”  There was a drawback, trees, though very stately, do not make for immense dynamism.  the nation needed a livelier national emblem, preferably an animal.

The Gadsden Flag

Hence, an even more popular early American flag was the famous/infamous Gadsden flag which showed a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike on a yellow background.   Despite the fact that it is the same yellow as signs used for check cashing establishments and liquor stores with lots of bulletproof glass, I really like the Gadsden flag.  That rattlesnake is not kidding around.  It is unclear whether she is a timber rattler, Crotalus horridus, or an eastern diamondback, Crotalus adamanteus (which seems more likely, since the flag’s champion, Christopher Gadsden was a congressman from South Carolina) but whatever the case she is a beautiful snake and she is posed very evocatively. The rattlesnake had been an American emblem for a long time. An early cartoon shows how the colonies must join together or risk being like a chopped up snake.  Rattlesnakes carried a powerful fascination for people of the time, in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a huge fan of rattlesnakes and he wrote about them with perfervid admiration.  Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about rattlers in 1775:

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

Franklin did not succeed in making the rattlesnake the national emblem but the rattlesnake still remain a national emblem.  In fact today the rattlesnake-themed first navy jack is the flag flown by active duty United States Warships.  The timber rattlesnake is also the official state reptile of my home state, West Virginia.

The First Navy Jack Flying on the USS Kitty Hawk

After independence was declared, congress argued for six years about the image which would adorn the great seal.  In June 20, 1782, they finally chose the eagle, which became the official national bird five years later.  Franklin famously did not care for the eagle.  Smarting from the rejection of the rattlesnake, he penned a sarcastic response to the bald eagle seal (which other detractors claimed looked like a turkey):

For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.

This is a grim assassination of the eagle’s character. I think Ben may have been a little too hard on bald eagles which can be fearsome hunters and are certainly magnificent animals, but I do love the idea of a turkey as the national bird and now wish he had pushed harder.   on this sight we have already showed that they are brave, freedom-loving fowl (and capable of virgin birth to boot).

Despite my love of turkeys, I think the national animal needs to be truly magnificent and intimidating.  Therefore, for my own part, I think we should have chosen the killer whale as a national emblem.  These creatures live in all of the world’s oceans and range from pole to pole.  Since they are really giant dolphins, they possess tremendous acute intelligence. They live a long time and form close family bonds, however their strength and ferocity are unparalleled in the animal kingdom (also we wouldn’t be duplicating the Romans who used eagles as their battle standards).

Orcinus orca

Perhaps the truest manifestation of patriotism is to choose all of the above.  There is no reason the eagle can’t share glory with rattlesnakes, trees, and orcas!  It suits the national character to have all sorts of magnificent creatures under one big crazy tent [editor’s note: no, no, no…do not put these animals together in a big tent]. On that note, I hope you enjoy Independence Day. Drink whiskey play with fireworks and pet an eagle to show you love America! [editor’s note: Do not play with fireworks while drinking whiskey. Do not pet eagles!]  Happy Fourth!

Do not pet this animal.

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