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I have been trying not to write about flags too much…ever since an impassioned plea for blogging feedback revealed surprising anti-flag sentiments among our general readership.  Yet, Brazil’s flag features outer space AND a golden rhombus.  How could I not write about such a thing?

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The basis of the modern Brazilian flag is the flag of the Brazilian empire.  That flag had all sorts of classical medieval trappings of empire: a laurel wreath, a world-girding cross, a green shield, and big fat green & gold crown, however the backdrop—a bright yellow rhombus on a Kelly green field–was meant to be seen from a distance, and so it had a robust minimalist appearance.

When the First Brazilian Republic supplanted the empire in 1889, the flag changed by getting rid of all the regal trappings and replacing them with vault of the heavens.  The particular stars represent the night sky over Rio De Janeiro on the night of November 15, 1889, when the First Brazilian Republic was born.  The motto “Ordem e Progresso” means “order and progress” (that’s exactly what I would have guessed…hey, do I secretly know Portuguese?).

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There were however other options on the table and some of them are pretty fascinating.  Look at the weird dark mirror of the American flag which was proposed…or that strange black and white monstrosity which looks like it was printed at Kinkos to be handed out by street people.

On the whole though, the Brazilian flag is quite splendid!  Its bold color scheme stands out among all of the hundreds of flags of the world and perfectly represents the glowing dynamism of the Amazon and of the young nation!  Hooray for Brazil!

Brazil-People

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Emperor Dom Pedro I at age 35, 1834

One of the founding fathers of Brazil’s democracy was, somewhat ironically, a king and a colonial emperor.   Born in 1798, Dom Pedro I was the fourth son of King Dom João VI of Portugal and Queen Carlota Joaquina.  When Portugal was invaded by the French in 1807, the royal family fled to the wealthy and vast Portuguese colony of Brazil.   Young Pedro thus grew up on the vast estates of South America.  The prince particularly enjoyed physical and artistic pursuits such as hunting, building, music, furniture making, and horseback riding (although he tended to neglect his academic pursuits and studies in statecraft).  When he reached adolescence he pursued other physical pursuits as well, and his romantic dalliances were a lifelong problem for his government and his wife, Maria Leopoldina, an Austrian Princess.

In 1821, revolution in Portugal compelled Dom João VI to return to Lisbon.  The king left his son Pedro as regent…he also left some valuable advice: if revolution were to come also to Brazil (a certainty in those days of colonial independence), Pedro should join it, rebel against his father and co-opt the movement for himself.  This is exactly what Pedro did in 1822.  On the 1st of December, 1822, Pedro became Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil.   By 1824 the huge South American nation had made a clean break from Portugal and was well and truly independent.

Independence_of_Brazil_1888Declaration of Brazil’s independence by Prince Pedro on 7 September 1822

Alas, Pedro’s constitutional empire was ridden with secessionists. Brazil swiftly began to rip apart into separate nations.  First he was forced to quash the Confederation of the Equator, a secession bid in Brazil’s northeast.  Then he had to fight the Cisplatine War, an Argentine land grab which ultimately lead to an independent Uruguay being carved out of Brazil’s southernmost province.

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Pedro I was the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne (which he rebelled against back up in paragraph 2).  When his father died in 1826, he briefly became king of Portugal before abdicating that throne in favor of his daughter, Dona Maria II.  Unfortunately his scheming younger brother, the traditionalist Dom Miguel, stole the throne from his niece (Dom Pedro had toyed with the idea of marrying them in order to prevent exactly such an outcome). Weary of secession attempts, and recognizing that he was needed back in Portugal, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his 5 year old son Pedro II.  He joined forces with the Portuguese liberals and defeated his brother in an Iberian civil war, but just as this “War of Restoration” was finished he keeled over from tuberculosis.

Among all of those revolutions, counter-revolutions, abdications, and trans-Atlantic crossings, it is easy to lose sight of how remarkable Pedro I was.  In an age of bondage, he despised slavery.  Unable to convince the slaveholding landowners of the Brazilian national assembly to enact a gradual process for ending slavery, he decided to lead by example and freed all of his slaves.  He then granted lands from his estate at Santa Cruz to these manumitted bondsmen.

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He possessed an understanding of people’s shared humanity. This is rare enough among everyone but especially unusual among those who are born to immense privilege.  When adoring Brazilians once unyoked the horses of his carriage and began pulling it themselves, he promptly stopped them and proclaimed “It grieves me to see my fellow humans giving a man tributes appropriate for the divinity, I know that my blood is the same color as that of the Negroes.”

After Dom Pedro’s day, Brazil has sometimes flirted with absolutism (always to its detriment), however the delightfully heterogeneous and chaotic modern democracy owes its real character to this king who was always willing to set aside his own power, prestige, and privilege in order to advance the betterment of all.

Brazil-People

*Also, apparently, his grooming was immaculate.  It is a footnote, but everything I have read mentions it.

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This is Wagner’s mustached bat (Pteronotus personatus), a somewhat ridiculously named bat which is a master of echolocation.  The little flying insect hunter is tiny:  bats have a body length of 6 to 6.7 centimetres (2.4 to 2.6 in).  They are strictly nocturnal insectivores.  They fly over rivers at night feeding on moths and mosquitoes.  Wagner’s mustached bat is notable as one of only a handful of Doppler-shift compensating bats in the new world: the little animals.  To quote Michael Smotherman’s article in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America , Wagner’s mustached bats “adjust the frequency of their [Constant Frequency] component to compensate for flight-speed induced Doppler shifts in the frequency of the returning echoes.” This is no mean feat for an animal without any onboard computers or slide rules.

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Wagner’s mustached bat ranges from southern Mexico, down through Central America to the Pacific coast of Ecuador. It is found in a broad swatch of South America in a band through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and across central Brazil to the Atlantic.  Not only does the bat intuitively understand Doppler shift effects, it also exhibits an interesting coloration feature.  The species has two color phases: some bats are sable colored with grey underparts; others are reddish-orange with cinnamon colored underparts.   Ferrebeekeeper needs to talk about polymorphism (maybe later this week) and this little mustached creature is a good start on explaining the concept.

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Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)

When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees.  The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia.  Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood.  Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.

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The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood.  The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.

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Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse.  By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range.  Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.

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Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height).  However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.

5c17c34df71391c4e9bd07fd3bda91bbThe Brazilian Goldsmith Carlos Martin manufactured the Imperial Crown of Brazil in 1841 for the coronation of Emperor Dom Pedro II.  The crown is also known as the Diamantine Crown—because it is covered with 630 diamonds—ooh, so sparkly! I guess, the crown also has 77 large pearls too, but nobody really talks about them.  The imperial crown of Pedro II replaced the unremarkable crown of the extremely remarkable Dom Pedro I, a revolutionary and reformer who was responsible for many of the things which went right for Brazil.  We’ll have more to say about him later this week.

With 8 magnificent golden arches meeting beneath an orb and cross, the crown of Brazil echoes the crown of Portugal…and rightly so, since the great South American nation began as the most magnificent Portuguese colony (although Goa, Macau, Agola, and Mozambique were quite nice too).  Here is a picture of Emperor Pedro II looking exceedingly magnificent (and perhaps a bit silly too) as he opens the annual Parliamentary session in 1872.

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So lovely was the crown of Brazil that is was the central motif of the Brazilian flag until the monarchy was abolished in 1889.  Unlike other crowns which were sold or stolen after independence, the Brazilian crown has remained in posession of the Brazilian republic and can currently be seen at the Imperial Palace in the City of Petrópolis.

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The 2016 Rio Olympics are on their way and already the mascots for the 2016 games have been presented and named!  Ferrebeekeeper has been falling down at monitoring mascot news—the winning candidates were chosen back in November of 2014 (whipping up PR stories for a sports competition which is years away is a long & delicate art).

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The 2012 Olympics in London featured stupid avant-garde alien blobs Wenlock and Mandeville who were rightly pilloried by everyone (including this blog).  The 2014 Russian Olympics featured a mascot election which Vladimir Putin may have tampered with!  So what did Brazil come up with for the big game?  The nation is beloved for its beaches, beautiful mixed-race populace, and, above all, for the unrivaled biodiversity of the Amazon Basin—where the world’s largest river runs through the planet’s greatest rainforest.  Less admirable features of Brazil include deeply corrupt demagogues, insane crime, irrational love of soccer (which is a sort of agonizingly slow version of hockey), and an underperforming economic sector which has always been 20 years away from greatness.  What cartoon figure appropriately represents these dramatic juxtapositions?

2016 Rio Olympics Mascots

2016 Rio Olympics Mascots

This blog wanted a tropical armored catfish to win. Barring that, we were hoping for a beautiful Amazon riverine creature of some sort—maybe a river dolphin, a giant otter, or even a pretty toucan.  However, the committee which came up with the mascots did not want anything quite so tangible.  Instead they chose two magical animal beings which respectively represent the fauna and flora of Brazil.  Fortunately, the mascots are pretty cute (and they are both painted with a bewitching array of tropical colors).

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The Olympic mascot represents the multitudinous animals of the rainforest and his name is “Vinicius.”  Vinicius is some sort of flying monkey-cat with rainbow colored fur and a prehensile tail.  The Paralympic mascot is a sort of artichoke-looking sentient vegetable named Tom (so I guess he is male too—although, names aside, it is sometimes hard to tell with plants).

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Vinicius’ long sinuous limbs and tail make him admirably suited for illustrating the many different Olympics sports—and I really like pictures of him shooting archery, running, and lifting weights.  Tom seems a bit less suited for athletics, but his winning smile and endearing fronds are appealing in their own right.  I guess I am happy with the choice of Olympics mascots.  They do a fine job representing the world’s fifth most populous country (in so much as cartoon nature spirits can represent a place so large and diverse).  I’m looking forward to seeing more of them (even if I might dream sometimes of what could have been instead).

Proposed 2016 Olympics Mascots--a piranha and anteater!

Proposed 2016 Olympics Mascots–a piranha and anteater!

 

An Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) eating an armored catfish

An Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) eating an armored catfish

Among the rarest and most endangered of mammals are the beautiful river dolphins, a group of magnificent freshwater cetaceans which live in certain huge river basins in Asia and South America.  Up until today, science knew about the Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica), the Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), the Bolivian river dolphin (Inia boliviensis), the Yangtze Dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), and the La Plata River Dolphin (Pontoporia blainvillei).  I have a weakness for river dolphins and each of these incredible species is worthy of a much longer post!  In fact my ill-fated toy company, River Dolphin Toys, was named for the botu, the playful pink river dolphin of the Amazon River (but, alas, making good toys is no substitute for being well-organized, ruthless, and severe). China’s Yangtze River Dolphin was one of the prettiest animals alive but it is now functionally extinct (the tale behind the mass death of these beautiful white dolphins is a profoundly sad story of modern China which I will tell some other day when we all feel stronger).  The Ganges dolphin is swiftly going extinct because of…actually, let’s cover the known river dolphins some other time.  Today’s news is about the new river dolphin species which was just discovered: the Araguaian river dolphin, Inia araguaiaensis!

The Araguaian river dolphin (Inia araguaiaensis) eating a fish.  Can you spot the differences? (photo by Nicole Dutra)

The Araguaian river dolphin (Inia araguaiaensis) eating a fish. Can you spot the differences? (photo by Nicole Dutra)

The Araguaian dolphin lives in the Araguaia River (a tributary of the Tocantins River) in a rainforest watershed habitat very much like the Amazon.   Araguaian dolphins look nearly identical to Amazon dolphins and were long regarded as a subspecies.  Both river dolphins are clever alpha predators of the river with sharp wits and long toothy rostrums for catching tasty freshwater fish.  As it turns out however, the two species diverged 2 million years ago when the rivers became separate.  Despite a similar appearance to the Amazon River dolphin, the Araguaian dolphin has a larger brain case and different genetic makeup.  Araguaian dolphins do not interbreed with either of the other two known Inia dolphin species (although I have no idea how scientists discovered this fact).  The “new” dolphins are threatened by deforestation, fishing, and hydroelectric dams.  Indeed, biologists speculate that only a thousand individuals are left in their population.  Hopefully the Brazilian people will find a way to protect the lovely and intelligent animals before they too vanish forever.

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Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Our nation is being invaded!  The intruders number in the millions.  They are wiping out entire ecosystems, destroying electronics, and setting fires.  Fortunately the invading species, Nylanderia fulva, is rather small:  each individual measures only 3.2 mm (.12 inches).  In 2002 the ants arrived on America’s Gulf Coast from Argentina or Brazil where they live naturally. These ants are called Nylanderia fulva because of their brownish yellow fulvous color, but in America they are more commonly known as crazy ants (thanks to their erratic and non-linear walking patterns) or Rasberry ants—in honor of Tom Rasberry a Texas exterminator who discovered them in Texas.

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The crazy ants have spread extensively in Texas and Florida and they have footholds in Mississippi and Louisiana.  They are highly successful foragers and hunters of small arthropods and, like some other ants, they farm aphids (!).  Nylanderia fulva is capable of forming extremely large hives with multiple queens—which gives them surprising immunity from many common American insecticides and ant-killing chemicals.  They are out-competing native fire ants and changing the micro-fauna of the areas where they are flourishing.

Crazy-ants

For whatever reason, crazy ants are attracted to electronics.  Because of their small size, they climb inside all sorts of switches, circuit boxes, and electric gizmos.  If an ant stumbles into a transistor and dies, its corpse emits a chemical which causes fellow hive members to rush to the scene (this is an evolutionary strategy for fending off attackers).  Unfortunately, the reinforcement ants are themselves electrocuted which causes a grim feedback scenario.  These ant death spirals can cause electronics to become disabled, or switch permanently on/off, or just catch fire (since they are jam packed with electrified ant corpses).

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One of the ongoing horror stories from when I was in middle school was the invasion of the Africanized killer bees.  In retrospect, it all sounds like a xenophobic horror movie from the 1950s, but people were truly alarmed back in the 80s.  There were sensationalist news stories featuring the death of children and animated maps of the killer bees spreading unstoppably across America.  The narrative was that mad scientists in South America had hybridized super-aggressive African bees with European bees in an attempt to create superbees (better able to survive in the tropics and produce more honey).  These “Africanized” bees then escaped and started heading north, killing innocent humans and devastating local hives as they invaded.

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

The amazing thing about this story is that it is all true.  In the 1950s a biologist named Warwick E. Kerr imported 26 queen bees (of subspecies Apis mellifera scutellata) from the Great Lakes area of Africa to Brazil.  A replacement beekeeper allowed the queens to escape in 1957 and they began to interbreed with local bees (of the European subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica and Apis mellifera iberiensis).  The resulting hybridized bees were indeed better able to survive the tropics and quicker to reproduce, but they were also more defensive of their hives, more inclined to sting, and more likely to swarm (i.e. get together in a big angry cloud and fly off somewhere else when they felt unhappy).   The killer bees (for want of a better term) could more readily live like wild bees in ground cavities and hollow trees.  The hybrid bees out-competed local honeybees and spread across the continent.  Sometimes aggressive queens would enter domestic hives and kill the old queen and take over!

Don't make her angry!

Don’t make her angry!

Although Ancient Egypt may have been an early adapter of apiculture, Sub Saharan African societies did not practice beekeeping but hewed to the ancient tradition of bee-robbing.   The African subspecies of honeybees came from a more challenging environment than the European subspecies.  Forced to contend with deep droughts and fiendish predators (like the infamously stubborn honey badger), the bees are more defensive and more mobile than their northern counterparts.  Apis mellifera scutellata is famous for not backing down from raiders but instead stinging them with dogged determination until the intruder flees far from their hive.  This has led to unfortunate instances of children, infirm adults, and people with bee allergies falling down and being stung to death (which sounds like a really bad end) by the American hybrid.  The sting of an Africanized bee is no more puissant than that of a European honeybee (and it also results in the death of the bee) but dozens—or hundreds—of stings can add up to kill a healthy adult.

(largely) satiric

(largely) satiric

The entire Africanized bee event was really a case of anti-domestication.  Imagine if everyone’s dogs were suddenly replaced by wolves or if placid white-and-black cows were supplanted by ravening aurochs.   If you follow that bizarre thought to its logical conclusion, you will anticipate what actually happened.  Although initially dismayed, Brazilian beekeepers began to discover more placid strains of Africanized bees and started to redomesticate them.  The hybrid bees do indeed produce more honey, survive droughts better, and it is believed they have a greater resistance to the dreaded colony collapse sweeping through honey bee population.  Perhaps in the fullness of time we will learn to love the infamous killer bees.

Africanized "friend" bees?

Africanized “friend” bee?

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have reviewed giant catfish, upside down catfish, coral reef catfish, and tiny parasitic catfish.  We have described electrical catfish that jolt their prey with great sizzling bolts of energy and catfish that walk on land. There is such a bewildering proliferation of different catfish that surely we must finally be running out of these magnificent creatures.

Phreatobius cisternarum (photo from Janice Muriel-Cunha on Planet Catfish)

Not at all.  Today’s featured species of catfish is Phreatobius cisternarum, a Brazilian fish which is lives in phreatic habitats.  Hydrologists will be sitting up in alarm because this means the catfish lives beneath the water table: it is literally an underground catfish.  When people in parts of Brazil dig wells they find this catfish is already there!  Although to be fair, the fishes are discovered in shallow wells but do not live deep down in confined aquifers (at least not that we know of).

The Water Table with Confined and Unconfined Aquifers (USGS)

Phreatobius cisternarum lives both to the north and the south of the Amazon River delta as well as on the Island of Marajó (a freshwater island approximately the same area as Switzerland). It is not a large fish.  The biggest specimens grow to 2.2 inches in length (5.5 centimetres). Phreatobius cisternarum also does not seem to be a particularly gregarious catfish: individuals pass their time in the darkness hiding motionlessly in crevices waiting for the macro-invertebrates they feed on (worms being a particular favorite).  With broad heads, vestigial eyes, and vermiform fins, there is something chthonic about these little catfish.

The fish are a distinctive blood red color because they exchange oxygen through their gas permeable skin. Not only do the tiny fish utilize cutaneous respiration, they also are known (like many catfish) to sip air for its gaseous oxygen. Living in subterranean waters which have little soluble oxygen, these catfish have learned to maximize every atom of the precious gas. For a long time Phreatobius cisternarum was the only known member of this genus, but in 2007 two new Phreatobius species were discovered underground.  These two species, P. dracunculus and P. sanguijuela, are entirely eyeless.  Little is known of Phreatobius cisternarum: the creature’s mating rituals, lifespan, and habits remain a mystery.  Even less is known of the two new species.

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