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One of the accounts which I follow on Instagram is “newyorkcitywild” which showcases the flora & fauna (& fungi) of New York City.  While I expected it would be filled with pigeons, trees of heaven (gah!), and cockroaches (and maybe the occasional black wasp with fluorescent orange feelers), it is actually filled with an astonishing proliferation of incredibly beautiful plants and animals like owls, frogs, beaver, snapping turtles, garter snakes, and flowers of every color of the rainbow.  The city is teeming with wildlife that finds space in the parks and abandoned corners.  Imagine what we could do if we tweaked the designs for the future just a little bit!

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However, even though the photos have changed some of my stereotypes about the urban ecosystem,  when I looked at this account the other day, I assumed that the creator had fled the city on a yacht.  The pictures were most certainly not of chimney swifts, or treefrogs, or damselflies, but instead featured 30,000 kilogram (35 ton) humpback whales gulping down entire schools of menhaden.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening just beyond Sheepshead Bay until I recognized the unmistakable city skyline behind one of the giants. I have (very gradually) come to terms with the fact that I live near an ocean, but it is still hard to recognize that it is a working ocean which connects to real ocean things and isn’t just filled with plastic garbage and dodgy Panamanian-flagged super freighters.

I was enormously moved to see that our enormous friends are so near…that I share a home with them in terms which are local rather than planetary, but then, immediately, I was terrified for the poor whales. Humans are BAD neighbors.  Most of the amazing wild animals I have seen in the city have been dead–either smashed by psychotic motorists (whose greatest delight is killing all living things with their evil benzene death chariots), or concussed to death from flying into windows, or poisoned by pesticide or weird chemicals.  And, sure enough, yesterday’s Gothamist featured a harrowing tale of a trapped humpback whale slowly and agonizingly fighting to breathe despite being caught in some nightmarish tangle of cables, fishing lines, and sinister plastic garbage in the Ambrose Channel just off the city coast.  You should read the article [spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the whale was freed after a multi-day struggle by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies].  Humankind’s engagement with the greater world ecosystem is improving..in ways. Yet the larger narrative is still one of devastation, peril, and death.

Tomorrow’s New York City could be filled with whales (figuratively or literally...since we live in a world of global warming and a storm is coming) or they could be gone from everywhere.  We humans are the architects of the city and the makers of the deadly cast off fishing nets.  We could make and do things differently.  But can we?

 

We are entering the Yule season, the darkest time of year here in the northern world.  Of course we have Christmas and Kwanza and Saturnalia to distract ourselves from the endless cold gloom, but it is still a bit early to write about those topics.  I need something colorful and splendid…perhaps from the other hemisphere where everything is beautiful late spring majesty.  Behold the stupendous color and masterful dance of the peacock…spider.  I feel this jaunty little spider is a perfect spirit animal for artists.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

The peacock spider (Maratus Volans) is a small jumping spider which lives in parts of Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania. The spider lives like almost all spiders—by capturing and eating tiny invertebrates, while avoiding hungry predators long enough to mate.  However unlike most spiders, the male peacock spider is a mélange of exquisite hues and glistening iridescent color. In the manner of the eponymous peacock, he has a blue, orange, and gold abdominal flap, which he can raise and lower at will. He looks like he fell out of a particularly weird corner of paradise…and, on top of that, he is a great dancer.  The female is rather more drab in appearance, and, ominously, she is much larger….

Big bold color...in a small package

Big bold color…in a small package

Like the Irish elk, the male peacock spider has a sexual selection problem on his (many) hands. If one is a small animal living in the dust-colored scrubland of the outback it is not necessarily an advantage to look like Liberace’s underwear drawer (!).  Yet male spiders who are not sufficiently brilliant and nimble at dancing are liable not to mate…and !

peacock-spider-11[5]

If the male spider is not colorful enough, or if he fails to dance with heart-stopping terpsichorean majesty, the female spider will become “perturbed” and she is likely to attack him and eat him.  Unsurprisingly, this dynamic seems to have produced a feedback loop wherein spiders are in a kind of arms race to be as colorful and flamboyant as possible.  If they are not vibrant and ridiculous enough, the female eats them.  If they are too brilliant and noticable, everyone else does.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

This jaunty little spider should be the mascot of artists everywhere, for, like him (or like poor Marsyas), we are slaves to the fickle whims of an ever-more jaded audience.  At the same time there is stronger competition than ever from all other quarters to be more practical and more buttoned down. I don’t know what the solution is, but the peacock spider seems to have found it.  Look at him go! (Hint: he really starts dancing at 1:46)

Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

I have been putting it off forever, but Halloween is rolling in and we need the A-list material… let’s talk about the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis).  Not only do black mambas have the scariest & sexiest name in herpetology (and maybe beyond), they fully live up to their fearsome reputation.  Black mambas are among the fastest snakes in the world—indeed they may be the fastest (it is apparently difficult to make deadly poison serpents run on a treadmill).  Their venom is a horrifying cocktail of neurotoxins including an exceedingly effective dendrotoxin which attacks the ion channels which allow nerve cells to communicate with muscles.

Dendroaspis_polylepis_(14)

Black mambas are diurnal ambush hunters.  They inhabit a giant swath of sub-Saharal Africa from the northern Sahel down to Namibia and Mozambique in the south (although they are absent from certain deserts and rainforests within this vast territory). The snakes live on small intelligent mammals like hyraxes and bushbabies…but surely they must eat other creatures as well.  In turn mambas are preyed on by the fearless yellow mongooses, snake eagles, and cape file snakes–which are seemingly immune to the poison.  Africa has some really intense inhabitants.  It goes without saying that people kill them too, out of dread.

Speaking of which, according to lore, black mambas are highly aggressive and attack with no provocation, but this does not seem to be borne out by evidence.  Knowledgeable herpetologists assert that black mambas are wisely afraid of humans (we are, after all, the most terrifying invasive aggressive species from Africa) and they try to flee us when possible.  Still if you happen upon one of these snakes it might be wise to avoid it rather than trying to impress it into submission with a list of our atrocities. They can strike with extreme speed and sometimes bite multiple times (which is bad news considering that a person bitten even once can keel over in less than 45 minutes and nearly all untreated bites are fatal).

This albino black mamba is not clarifying anything, but is strangely endearing

This albino black mamba is not clarifying anything, but is strangely endearing

In gentler moments mambas mate once a year in early spring.  Females lay clutches of 6-17 eggs which hatch in about ninety days. Baby black mambas emerge from their eggs with fully functioning venom glands, so don’t pick up the baby snakes no matter how cute they are (?).

[contemplates photo, passes out]

[contemplates photo, passes out]

Black mambas are not black! They are diurnal hunters and are thus the nondescript color of dust or contemporary office furniture–the better to blend in to scrublands, forests, and grasslands which they inhabit.  Their name comes from the insides of their mouths which are indeed as black as Goya’s nightmares. I knew a girl in junior high school who said “Oh mamba!” when she was impressed, which I thought was really endearing.  The word is apparently Nguni in origin (although the snake is more broadly known than the tongue it is named in).  Mambas are elipsids–close relatives of cobras.  The other species of mamba are arborial, but black mambas stay closer to the ground.  Black mambas seem to have faintly mocking smiles–so at least they are enjoying themselves [citation needed].

ssssmile!  You only live oncce.

ssssmile! You only live oncce.

Nepenthes hamata

Nepenthes hamata

The Nepenthes are a genus of pitcher plants which live in tropical forests of the old world.  The carnivorous plants occur in a vast range which stretches from South China to Australia, and from the Philippines, to Madagascar, however the greatest diversity of nepenthes plants is found in Borneo and Sumatra.  Although some of these plants are found in environments where it is always hot or always cold, the majority of Nepenthe species live on tropical mountain slopes where it is hot during the day and cool at night.  They also tend to grow in nutrient-poor soils where they face stiff competition from ultra-competitive tropical trees, vines, and flowers.

Nepenthes ventricosa

Nepenthes ventricosa

In order to produce the nutrients they need (mostly nitrogen and phosphorus) nepenthes have evolved an ingenious solution: they capture small animals inside elegant cup-like traps and digest them as fertilizer. To attract prey, nepenthes produce sugary nectars, sweet perfumes, and vibrant colors. Pitcher plants usually trap insects and other small arthropods, however the very largest of these plants can catch lizards, frogs, rodents, and even birds.

A large nepenthe slowly digests an unhappy rat

A large nepenthe slowly digests an unhappy rat (from Redfern Natural History)

The traps of pitcher plants are highly modified leaves (which sometimes have lid-like operculums to keep rain out).  At the bottom of each trap is a pool of fluid containing compounds which prevent the prey from escaping.  In some cases biopolymers make the trap extremely sticky/syrupy, however in other cases the liquid at the bottom of pitcher plants seems watery (although it still has an effect on insects and myriapoda).  The lip of the nepenthe plant is extremely slippery and the waxy throat prevents the plant’s victims from clambering out.

Nepenthes attenboroughii

Nepenthes attenboroughii

The name of the nepenthe might be the most sinister thing about this sinister plant.  In the Odyssey (and other classical Greek sources), nepenthe was a magical fluid which erased cares and worries completely from the mind.  The nepenthe does remove all worries from small guests who come to call on it—albeit by killing them and digesting their bodies.

Nepenthes izumiae

Nepenthes izumiae

Unfortunately many nepenthes are threatened by habitat loss (particularly as the great rainforests around the Indian Ocean are destroyed by loggers and farmers). Fortunately human beings are fond of nepenthes (partly because of our shared nature and partly because of the plants’ racy good looks) and fanciers produce great moist greenhouses of beautiful malicious hybrids.

A fancy hybrid nepenthe

A fancy hybrid nepenthe

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Ah, lovely Australia…the land down under is famed for its magnificent coral reefs, its dreamlike wastelands, its proud citizens, and, above all, its innumerable toxic animals. Although the hordes of poisonous jellyfish, spiders, snails, centipedes, and octopi are alarming, humankind is particularly hardwired to be afraid of snakes and it is in this reptilian realm that the island continent especial shines.  In fact, the most venomous land snake in the world, the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) lives in Australia.  A single bite from an inland taipan has enough poison to kill up to 250,000 mice!  Yet the inland taipan is far from the most formidable snake in Australia (indeed, it is a very shy and retiring serpent which lives in the inhospitable dry scrubland of central/southeast Australia).  The snake which Australians truly fear is (slightly) less toxic, but vastly more numerous and also far more prone to bite first and ask questions later (insomuch as snakes ever examine their actions).

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Brown snakes (Pseudonaja) constitute an entire genus of venomous elapid snakes which are found throughout almost the entirety of Australia. There are nine different species of brown snakes which vary somewhat from location to location, however almost all brown snakes can be aggressive and they are apt to bite or even attack a much larger animal when provoked (although hopefully they will overlook the occasional fear-mongering blog post).  The eastern brown snake is the second most toxic land snake in Australia (and arguably the world) and, appallingly it lives all sorts of places—scrubland, eucalyptus forests, woodlands, grasslands, and farmlands (though not swamps, rainforests, or true deserts).  Because it is so adaptable, the eastern brown snake easily thrives in gardens, suburban lawns, and even in urban habitats.  Eastern brown snakes live along the highly populated southeast of Australia, up the coast to the York peninsula and into Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.  They also range through the Northern territories to Western Australia.

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from "Reedy's Reptiles"

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from “Reedy’s Reptiles”

The venom of the eastern brown snake is a heady cocktail of neurotoxins and blood coagulants.  Bites begin by causing diarrhea, dizziness, and collapse—which can then develop into convulsions, renal failure, paralysis and cardiac arrest (symptoms which hold true—although to a lesser degree for the other brown snakes). Fortunately all species of brown snakes have tiny fangs and they do not usually deliver much venom per bite.  Additionally, the snakes can control how much venom they inject per bite and they frequently give a venom-free warning bite out of good sportsmanship (although if you are bitten by one of the world’s most toxic snakes, the fact that the snake might not have injected you with a lethal amount of poison will be scant comfort).   A person’s weight matters greatly when it comes to surviving bites—so small children are particularly at risk.

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Brown snakes eat rodents (which were introduced to Australia), small mammals, amphibians, birds, eggs and other reptiles.  They are a helpful (albeit scary) part of the ecosystem, although considering their honed deadliness, they could afford to be a bit more flamboyant.  Also, humans have effective antivenins for all the brown snakes (so if you are bitten by a modestly colored but oddly insouciant snake while you are down under, you should probably contact some health-service providers).

The Common Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)

This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell.  Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous.  Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests.  The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on.  All aconite plants are extremely toxic.  You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).

Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root.  In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations.  The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals.  The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names).  The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different.  For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.

The Yellow Wolfbane (Aconitum anthora)

Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden.  Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple.  Perhaps their failure was a good thing.  Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.

The flower I planted--Bicolor Monkshood (Aconitum x cammarum, var. Eleanor & Stainless Steel)

My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history.  Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces.  These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life.  Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.

Aconitum ferox (Dr. J. Bhunia)

Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature.  According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life.   The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).

Medea (Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, painted 1866-68)

It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant.  In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression.  Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love.  On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings.  Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own.  Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm).  It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

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