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Donut in the Northern Gloom (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Color Pencil and Ink)

Donut in the Northern Gloom (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Color Pencil and Ink)

As I promised, here are some sketches from my little book which I carry around with me and draw in.  The first one, above, is another one of my enigmatic donuts.  This one seems to exist in the gloomy darkness of evening.  A fire burns on the horizon as a grub-man calls out to a woman with a scientific apparatus.  The reindeer seems largely unconcerned, by these human doings.  In the picture immediately below, an orchid-like flower blooms by some industrial docks. Inside the pedals it offers rows of cryptic symbols to the viewer.

Fragmipedium (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Fragmipedium (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Here is a quick sketch of Manhattan’s San Gennaro festival.  I walked to the corner of the street to draw the lights, wile my roommate got her fortune read by a jocular and likable (yet ingeniously avaricious) fortune teller located in an alcove just to the right of the composition!

San Gennaro in Little Italy (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

San Gennaro in Little Italy (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

I sketched a cornucopia with some invertebrates while I was waiting in line at the post office (there was only one clerk who had to deal with a vast line of Wall Street characters sending elaborate registered packages around the world). It was not an ordeal for me–I had my sketch book, and was getting paid to wait in line!  The guy beside me stopped playing with his infernal phone-thingy to watch me draw.  Note the multiple mollusks which flourish in the painting.  I think the ammonite has real personality

Cornu, cornus (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Cornu, cornus (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Last is a seasonal composition which I really like (maybe because I used my new brown pen, which thought I had lost).  A lovable land whale cavorts among autumn plants as monstrous invaders monopolize a cemetery.  For some unknowable reason there is also a bottle gourd.  The ghosts and bats are part of the October theme.  As ever I appreciate your comments!  Also I still have have some sketches (and general observations) from my weekend trip to Kingston, New York.

Autumn Land Whale and Miscellaneous Others (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Autumn Land Whale and Miscellaneous Others (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

Ferrebeekeeper has rhapsodized about Atlantic clams (which grow to fabulous old age) and we have written about pearls—the nacreous sort which come from oysters and the big orange ones from Melo gastropods.  However did you know that ordinary clams can also produce pearls?

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

This fact has been much in the news this week because a Virginia Beach woman bought a sack of clams from Great Machipongo Clam Shack in Nassawadox and discovered an extra consonant—er, I mean a rare clam pearl.  The clams were farm-raised littleneck clams which were about two years old (before they were harvested and cooked, I mean).  When the unsuspecting woman bit into one, she found a 4.5 carat lavender pearl.  The gem is slightly acorn-shaped and lustrous with alternating horizontal bands of lighter and darker purple.

0805md7

National media outlets (which are having a slow week, I guess) are playing up the clam pearl’s value, which could range as high as three thousand American dollars.  The estimation may not be incorrect.  The classic compendium of pearl information The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems (Kuntz, 1908) informs us that:

Pearls also occur in the quahog, or hard clam (Venus mercenaria), of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Although these are rare, they are generally of good form, and some weigh upward of eighty grains each. They are commonly of dark color, purplish, ordinarily, but they may be white, pale lilac, brown, and even purplish black or black. Fine dark ones have a high retail value. They are often referred to as “clam pearls.

I kinda like the quahog pearl—like precious Melo pearls, it reminds me of an alien planet or an exquisite elfen turnip. However if they cost $ 3K apiece you all probably should not expect to get any in your stockings from me.

quahogscaled

An artist’s conception of the shen creating illusions

Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers.  One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities.  Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices.  Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls.  By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.

 

The main character of the manga series “Naruto” fights a Shen (or at least I think that’s what is going on here)

I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast.  Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people.  When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes).  Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs.  If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!

A distant boat distorted into a weird monolith by Fata Morgana

Ferrebeekeeper has written a lot about how long trees can live.  Individual yew trees can survive for thousands of years, bristlecone pines can live even longer, and clonal entities like Pando, a super-colony of quaking aspen, can potentially live for hundreds of thousands of years.  Likewise colonial animals (coral, gorgonians, tubeworms, and so forth) tend to live the longest—although the constituent individuals come and go.  Yet colonial animals frustrate our selfish human perception of the world.  When we talk about an organism we mean an individual, and in this category, the world’s longest living animal comes as a surprise!

Arctica islandica

As you read this, somewhere, off the coast of Greenland or Virginia there is a smug little clam which was alive when Oliver Cromwell was in diapers and before Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. Arctica islandica, the “Ocean Quahog” or “Black Clam,” is believed to live for more than 400 years!  The little bivalve laughs at nations, dynasties, and vampires as short-lived.

The venerable mollusks do not live flashy or extravagant lives. They live under a light drift of substrate on Atlantic coastal shelves at a depth of 25 to 100 meters (75 to 300 feet) although they have been found much deeper.  The species is very successful and ranges from coastal Portugal up around Iceland down to the Carolinas.  The little clams feed on plankton suspended in the water and they only grow to about 12 cm (5 inches) in diameter.  Amazingly these Methuselah mollusks are harvested by dredge for the dinner table, so if, like me, you love spaghetti alle vongole, you might have inadvertently eaten something that lived longer than the United States has been around!

James Fort at Jamestown ca. 1610 (to give some perspective on how long 400 years is)

The secret behind the small bivalve’s longevity is unclear.  Some scientists have speculated that antioxidant enzyme activities and the avoidance of waste accumulation are partially responsible for the clam’s age but the British Society for Research on Aging somewhat dryly remarks that, “Despite interest in this clam’s longevity and the measurement of growth increment series, little research into how this species has apparently managed to defy the onset of the ageing processes has been conducted.”

This shines a poor light on our priorities. Instead of grasping the molecular secrets of the longest living animals on Earth, the people who allocate resources to various things have decided to buy learjets and build a bunch of hokey Mcmansions for themselves.   Argh! Maybe the clams’ sense of frugal austerity is what gives them such staying power.

A previous Ferrebeekeeper post described the largest living bivalve mollusk–the magnificent giant clam which is indigenous to the South Pacific. However there are other large bivalve mollusks out there which are nearly as remarkable (and possibly even stranger looking).  One of these creatures, the geoduck clam (Panopea generosa), causes a unique amount of controversy, pride, consternation, and outright greed along the Northwest coast of North America where it lives

Geoduck Clam (Panopea generosa)

Geoducks are the largest burrowing clams in the world.  Specimens weighing up to three pounds (0.5–1.5 kg) are widely known and 15 kilogram monsters are alleged to exist.  Although the clams’ shells can grow quite large–sometimes exceeding 20 cm (8 inches) in length–the outstanding features of geoducks are their obscene siphons/necks which regularly reach 1 metre (3.3 ft) long (and can reputedly grow to twice that length).  Thanks to these long necks, geoducks can bury themselves deep in the coastal sands while still filtering huge amounts of plankton rich water through their digestive system. .  Geoduck (which is apparently pronounced “gooey duck”) is a word from the Lushootseed language, a tongue spoken by the Nisqually tribe.  It means “dig deep” although the Chinese name for the clams “xiàngbábàng” (which means “elephant-trunk clams”) seems equally apt.

Geoducks of Wasshington and British Colombia do not have many natural enemies (although apparently in Alaskan waters they are preyed on by sea otters and dogfish).  If left undisturbed, the bivalves can live to the fabulous age of a century-and-a-half.  Lately however, the geoducks, which dwell in giant cold-water colonies beneath Puget Sound, are being gobbled up en masse by humankind.  Although Anglo-Saxon settlers to the Pacific Northwest found the suggestive sight of the clams to be unbearable, the mollusks are hugely popular in China and Asia, where price can exceed US$168/lb (US$370/kg). Chinese diners believe that the geoduck’s…manly shape indicates that the unpreposessing mollusk will act as an aphrodisiac for those who consume its flesh. Price has shot upwards as China’s economy has grown.

Wow--Puget Sound is Beautiful.

In order to cash in on this bonanza, aquaculturists are attempting to stake out larger and larger swaths of coastline as geoduck farms. Such use of the tidelands causes consternation to real estate developers. Not only do developers object to the unaesthetic appearance of PVC pipes used as nurseries for juvenile geoducks, but the interests of both parties are entirely opposite.  Coastal land development involves bulkheaded beachfronts, deforested land, and nitrogen waste from gardens and septic systems—all of which are inimical to successful geoduck beds.

As the conflict rages on, some people (figuratively!) embrace the geoduck and its strange appearance for non-financial reasons. The Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington has adopted the remarkable burrowing clam as a mascot.  Although the school’s official seal features a conifer tree, the unofficial coat of arms features a geoduck rampant d’or on a rondel azure (or however you say that in heraldry speak).  Additionally the school’s teams are all named the geoducks and they actually have a guy dressed up like a giant filter feeding clam to root for them.

"Speedy" the Geoduck--don't even ask about the fight song....

A Giant Clam, Tridacna gigas (Photo by Stig Thormodsrud)

Today we celebrate the world’s largest bivalve mollusk, the magnificent and world-famous giant clam (Tridacna gigas).  Native to shallow coral reefs of the South Pacific and Indian oceans, giant clams can weigh up to 500 lbs and measure 50 inches across.  Huge specimens can be very ancient and some have lived for more than a century. Giant clams are hermaphrodites: every individual possesses both male and female sex organs–however a clam is incapable of mating with itself.   They are broadcast spawners producing vast numbers of gametes which they release in response to certain chemical transmitter substances. During these spawning events (which usually occur in conjunction with certain lunar phases) a single clam can release over 500 million eggs in one evening.  Giant clam larvae then swim free among the plankton.  They pass through several mobile transition phases before settling down in one favorite home (as can be seen in the comprehensive life cycle drawing below).

Giant Clam Life Cycle (After H.P. Calumpong, ed. 1992 "The Giant Clam: an Ocean Culture Manual")

As usual for sea creatures, the giant clam has a troubled relation with humankind.  Fabulists have asserted that the great bivalves chomp down on divers for food or out of spite (the clams do slowly shut when harassed, but the movement is a defense mechanism and happens gradually).  They are considered delicacies on many South Pacific islands and naturally the insatiable Japanese pay a premium to eat them as “Himejako”.  Their shells also command a premium from collectors.  Across the South Pacific, giant clams are dwindling away thanks to overfishing, reef destruction, and environmental factors.

Divers with a Giant Clam: Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands

It is sad that the gentle and lovely giant clam is suffering such a fate (although aquaculture is now bringing a measure of stability to some populations).  In addition to being beautiful and useful to ecosystems, they are remarkable symbiotic creatures.  A unique species of algae flourishes in the mantle of the giant clam and the clam gains much of its energy and sustenance from these photosynthetic partners. The clam possesses iridophores (light sensitive circles) on its flesh which allow it to gauge whether its symbiotic algae is getting enough sunlight–and perhaps watch for predators.  It can then alter the transparency of its mantle flesh accordingly. According to J. H. Norton, giant clams have a special circulatory system to keep their symbionts alive and happy. The happy and beneficial relationship between a clam and its algae allows the former to attain great size and the latter to remain alive in the ever-more competitive oceans.  I have concentrated on writing about T. Gigas, but there are many other members of the Tridacninae subfamily which lead similar lives (although they do not attain the same great size).  To my eye they are all remarkable for their loveliness.

Tridacna Maxima (in a home aquarium)

Tridacna Derasa (in a home aquarium)

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