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Once again, Ferrebeekeeper heads off to the mysterious micro-continent of Madagascar.  This time we are not looking for flags or lemurs, but instead for a newly discovered snake, Madagoscarophis lolo, AKA “the Madagascar ghost snake.”  The ghost snake was discovered this year by an international team of researchers from the American Museum of Natural History, the Université de Mahajunga, and LSU. The gray snake with dark gray stipples was discovered at the limestone Tsingy rocks of Ankarana Reserve.  This instantly explains why the species was hitherto undiscovered: this snake looks like it would be invisible on the polished wooden floor of a brightly lit library–much less in an impassible wasteland of giant limestone spikes the exact same color that it is.  The ghost snake is a species of cat-eyed snakes, little predators with vertical pupils which are active at twilight and at night.  The ghost snake seems to be crepuscular…but so far we don’t know too much about it other than that…

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The Amazon River is renowned for having the greatest diversity of catfish of any river—oh, and it is also the largest river in the world too, I guess.  The river drains half of South America and its branches flows through many many different sorts of regions.  Near Tena in Ecuador, the river’s tributaries flow through a karst landscape of sunken limestone caves, streams and springs.  There, deep beneath the rainforest, scientists have discovered a catfish with a remarkable ability to climb walls—or perhaps I should say they have rediscovered a previously known fish and found out it has unexpected talents.

The cave-climbing catfish (photograph by Geoff Hoese)

The cave-climbing catfish (photograph by Geoff Hoese)

A team of naturalists led by Geoff Hoese found the catfish in a subterranean waterway jauntily climbing up a sheer 3 meter (10 foot) stone wall with a thin rivulet running down it.  Here is a link to a National Geographic article about the catfish—you can go there and watch a video of the catfish shimmying up and down water-slicked rocks. The scientists believe the fish is Chaetostoma microps, a member of the suckermouth armored catfish family (Loricariidae), a group of animals which Ferrebeekeeper has enthused about in past posts (although the fish’s identity remains unclear—since the team had no permit for taking specimens and left the creature unmolested still climbing its underground walls).

An illustration of Chaetostoma microps

An illustration of Chaetostoma microps

Chaetostoma microps is not notably specialized for cave life—it still has pigment and eyes, and lacks the marked asceticism of other true underdwellers like the pink catfish Phreatobius cisternarum (which lives beneath the water table!)  Chaetostoma microps feeds on algae—which is notably lacking from underground caves.  So what exactly is the fish doing down there? And how/why did it evolve its remarkable ability to climb rocks without much water?  The answers are unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume that a fish from the vertiginous yet cave-studded foothills of the Andes would need the ability to climb in order to maximize its habitat (and to prevent being sucked into an inescapable underground grotto).  Maybe Chaetostoma microps is really a mountaineer catfish.  Instead of leaping like salmon, it deals with its rocky treacherous home by suction, barbels, and indomitable spirit!

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

I was a bit hard on China in yesterday’s post about toxic sludge left over from refining rare earth elements (I was actually angry at myself for not being a natural businessman, not at the Chinese for ruining the Earth with industrial poisons). Today, therefore, let’s cleanse our palettes by looking at some exquisite treasures which were found in a medieval Chinese tomb! The grave was discovered by construction workers in Nanjing in 2008, but is just now being showcased to the world. It belonged to “Lady Mei” a noblewoman who died in 1474—just 18 years before Columbus discovered the new world. Lady Mei was 45 when she died. Her epitaph reveals that she was a concubine who was married off to the Duke of Yunnan when she was an “unwashed and unkempt” maiden of 15. Lady Mei outshone the Duke’s two senior wives by bearing a son, but her biography also indicates she had a lively mind and no small share of strategic and political genius. Reading between the lines, it seems like she ran the Duke’s vast household (and possibly Yunnan) for twenty years (during the strife and court turmoil of the feuding Zhengtong and Jingtai Emperors and the mad incompetence of the Chenghua Emperor no less).

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

You can read what is known about Lady Mei’s fascinating life here, but for today’s purposes let’s look at some of the otherworldly jewelry found in the tomb.

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Ming dynasty art is my favorite Chinese art! The artists of the Song dynasty were more inventive (and perhaps had greater raw talent). The artists of the Ching dynasty had a more eye-popping palette and crafted designs with more ornate flourishes. The artists of the Tang dynasty were more cosmopolitan and outward looking. The artists of today certainly know how to make ugly wretched junk which celebrates the dark magic of marketing. But the artists and artisans of the Ming era were unsurpassed at finding perfect proportions and color combinations. They blended the diverse regional and international elements from around all of China into a perfect lavish synthesis of styles which is instantly and indelibly Chinese.

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (“lotus petal” decorations and Sanskrit in gold with sapphires, rubies, and one turquoise. (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Look at how Central Asian decorative motifs mix with Southern Asian religious designs all within a rubric of ancient patterns from the Yangzi heartland! The bold yellow of the jewels is perfectly matched by the equally rich colors of carved rubies, sapphires, cats’ eyes, and turquoises.

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei's Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei’s Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Each of the pieces of jewelry looks like something the queen of heaven could be wearing in a Chinese myth. These pieces are hairpins, bracelets, and a perfume box, but they have the splendor and unrivaled workmanship of crowns. Indeed, Lady Mei might as well have been a sovereign. Contemporary Yunnan has approximately the same population as contemporary Spain. The Yunnan of Lady Mei’s day was likewise probably about the same size as Spain just before it unified and took over the Americas.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

It is astonishing that these treasures have been lying in the earth, waiting for some developer to build a supermarket or condominium. Lady Wei’s opulent grave goods are exquisite—the undying glory of Ming craftsmanship still dazzles like nothing else.

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

It is thirsty work being a deity of the underworld (what with all of the legions of the dead, the dark serpent gods, and whatnot)!  That is why today we are celebrating the Ancient Egyptian brewer for the gods of the afterworld.  The eminently respectable Mr. Khonso Im-Heb who lived (and died) during the Ramesside period of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1,292–1,069 BC) was the head of granaries and chief of brewing for the vulture goddess Mut.   We know all of this because a team of Japanese archaeologists working in the Thebes necropolis (in the Egyptian city of Luxor) just discovered the beautifully preserved tomb of Khonso Im-Heb as they were working on the tomb of an 18th-dynasty royal official.

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offeings from their son

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offerings from their son

An article on CNN described the excitement the tomb’s discovery has engendered among archaeologists and officials:

Egypt’s antiquities minister Mohamed Ibrahim described Khonso Em Heb as the chief “maker of beer for gods of the dead” adding that the tomb’s chambers contain “fabulous designs and colors, reflecting details of daily life… along with their religious rituals.”

The antiquities ministry has put tight security on the tomb (political tumult in Egypt has proven dangerous for the country’s cultural heritage) so archaeologists are looking forward to carefully and methodically studying the beautifully preserved site and discovering more about the life and times of Khonso Im-Heb.  So far, only photographs of the tomb’s painted walls have been released to the public, but the vibrant paintings of daily life are astonishing.

The Goddess Mut

The Goddess Mut

It should be mentioned that in Ancient Egypt, beer was immensely popular with all classes of people, but it was not exactly the crisp tasty concoction of today.  Ancient Egyptian beer was a crude barley or millet-based fermented beverage which was drunk with a long straw (in order to bypass the dense scum which floated to the top of the beverage).  Presumably the vulture goddess liked it that way!  It seems like Khonso Em Heb died as a very successful man.

 

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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An artist's conception of Poebrotherium (an early camel)

An artist’s conception of Poebrotherium (an early camel)

Camelids are believed to have originated in North America.  From there they spread down into South America (after a land bridge connected the continents) where they are represented by llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos.  Ancient camels also left North America via land bridge to Asia. The dromedary and Bactrian camels are descended from the creatures which wandered into Beringia and then into the great arid plains of Asia.  Yet in their native North America, the camelids have all died out.  This strikes me as a great pity because North America’s camels were amazing and diverse!

An illustration of the size of Gigantocamelus

An illustration of the size of Gigantocamelus

At least seven genera of camels are known to have flourished across the continent in the era between Eocene and the early Holocene (a  40 million year history).  The abstract of Jessica Harrison’s excitingly titled “Giant Camels from the Cenozoic of North America” gives a rough overview of these huge extinct beasts:

Aepycamelus was the first camel to achieve giant size and is the only one not in the subfamily Camelinae.  Blancocamelus and Camelops are in the tribe Lamini, and the remaining giant camels Megatylopus, Titanotylopus, Megacamelus, Gigantocamelus, and Camelus are in the tribe Camelini.

That’s a lot of camels–and some of them were pretty crazy (and it only counts the large ones—many smaller genera proliferated across different habitats).  Gigantocamelus (as one might imagine) was a behemoth weighing as much as 2,485.6 kg (5,500 lb).  Aepycamelus had an elongated neck like that of a giraffe and the top of its head was 3 metres (9.8 ft) from the ground.  Earlier, in the Eocene, tiny delicate camels the size of rabbits lived alongside the graceful little dawn horses.  This bestiary of exotic camels received a new addition this week when paleontologists working on Ellesmere Island (in Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut) discovered the remains of a giant arctic camel that lived 3.5 million years ago. Based on the mummified femurs which were unearthed at the dig, the polar camel was about 30 percent larger than today’s camels.   The arctic region of 3.5 million years ago was a different habitat from the icy lichen-strewn wasteland of today.  The newly discovered camels probably lived in boreal forests (rather in the manner of contemporary moose) where they were surrounded by ancient horses, deer, bears and even arctic frogs!  Testing of collagen in the remains has revealed that the camels are closely related to the Arabian camels of today, so these arctic camels (or camels like them) were among the invaders who left the Americas for Asia.

Aepycamelus (painting by Heinrich Harder)

Aepycamelus (painting by Heinrich Harder)

The bones are a reminder of how different the fauna used to be in North America.  When you look out over the empty, empty great plains, remember they are not as they should be.  All sorts of camels should be running around.  Unfortunately the ones that did not leave for Asia and South America were all killed by the grinding ice ages, the fell hand of man, or by unknown factors.

An artistic reconstruction of the newly discovered Arctic camels

An artistic reconstruction of the newly discovered Arctic camels

It is unclear whether the subject of today’s post actually exists.  That would not be such a shocking statement if this article concerned angels, true innocence, or honest politicians, but I am not writing about such abstract concepts–instead I am writing about a large ruminant animal from the bovine family!  The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is closely related to other bovines such as the aurochs, the wisent, the yak, and the zebu.  The creature was discovered by taxonomists only two decades ago, in 1992, in the remote Annamite mountains, a heavily forested range which runs along the sweeping curve where Vietnam meets Laos and Cambodia.  Unfortunately the biologists did not find any live specimens of the animal, but they discovered three saola skulls in the houses of local hunters.  An exhaustive three month hunt for the living creature turned up nothing.

A Man holds a Saola skull in Bolikhamxay Province (near the Laos/Vietnam border)

And yet saolas were subsequently spotted—and even hunted—by local mountain residents after that.  In 2010 a live male was captured by villagers, but the creature expired before scientists and veterinarians could reach him.  Scientists and rangers have occasionally captured pictures of saolas by means of remote hidden cameras, but the forest animals are so furtive and remote that we only know what they look like, not how they behave (although mountain people call them “the polite animal” because they are said to be so reserved and calm).

A male Saola photographed by hidden camera in 1999 (William Robichaud)

Saolas are dark brown with a fetching black strike running diagonally along their back and white slashes on their feet and faces.  Not nearly as large as wisents and zebus, adult saolas stand only about 85 cm (3 feet) tall at the shoulder they weigh approximately 90 kg (about 200 lbs). The most noticeable feature of the rare animals are their large antelope-like horns which curve slightly backward and grow to half a meter (1.5 feet) in length.  The saolas look like they descended from a common ancestor of antelopes, bisons, and cattle (although they are more closely related to the latter two creatures than to antelopes).  Based on their small teeth, saolas are browsers who nibble on tender shoots and berries (as opposed to grazers like cows).

A female Saola captured in 1996. She was apparently very gentle and trusting but she only survived a fortnight in captivity.

The first paragraph of this post was mercifully disingenuous:  the saola almost certainly walks the green earth even as you read these lines.  However the saola population is ridiculously tiny: the world population is estimated to be between a dozen and 250 individuals.  The government of Vietnam has mounted a spirited defense for the phantasmagoric ruminant by creating wildlife refuges and trying to educate native people not to hunt the last specimens, but deforestation and accidental trapping keep taking a toll (most saolas are captured in traps meant for other creatures).  It is possible that, like the wisent, the saolas will again flourish, but more likely we discovered them only to lose them again forever.

One of the Terracotta Soldiers from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (ca. 200 BC)

In the spring of 1974 a group of farmers digging a well in Shaanxi China about one and a half kilometers (1 mile) north of Mount Li stumbled into an amazing find. A life-sized army of terracotta soldiers numbering over 8000 was entombed in the immense necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who lived from 259 BC – 210 BC.  However the story of the despotic Qin Shi Huang (one of history’s most remarkable figures) and his extravagant mausoleum will have to wait.  This post is not about the cruel emperor or his terracotta army, but is rather about the colors found on the terracotta figures, which were originally lacquered with a rainbow of bright colors– pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white, and lilac.  One of the pigments discovered by archaeologists was Han purple, a manufactured pigment which was in use in China from about 1200 BC to 220 AD.  The secret to making Han purple was lost in antiquity and could not be rediscovered until modern spectroscopy helped chemists rediscover the materials used.

A Modern Reproduction of how the figures originally looked--although no two were painted the same (Credit: British Museum/C Roth)

Many scholars believe that Han purple was accidentally discovered by Taoist alchemists seeking to create synthetic jade.  The compound was a barium copper silicate which was fired for long periods of time at temperatures around 900-1000 °C.  The compound was probably produced in kilns north of the city of Xian (which was once known as Chang’an and was the capital city of China during the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties).

Modern Han Purple Pigment

Han Blue was a dark bluish purple/indigo.  It became more purplish over time as the barium copper silicate deteriorated and red copper oxides were formed.  The pigment was used for beads, ceramic vessels, paintings, and for octagonal pigment sticks (which may have had a ceremonial value in their own right).

Han purple had a very similar companion compound–Han blue—which was also a barium copper silicate.  Because of certain quirks of chemistry, Han blue was more lightfast than than Han purple and had fungicidal properties to boot.  This allowed Han blue to last for the long centuries, whereas Han purple is now known mostly from faded traces. Han purple was not fungicidal and compounds (namely oxalates) produced by certain long-lived lichen caused the pigment to turn into light blue powder.

One of the delightful things about the hymenoptera—the wasps, bees, ants, and termites—is that many different species remain unknown to science.  There are times when it seems frustrating to live in a world where most life forms have been categorized and collected, however the fact that some of the hymenoptera make their homes in the most isolated tropical wilderness means that vividly distinctive (and hitherto unknown) bees, wasps, and ants are found from time to time. Last week an entomologist exploring the remote rainforests of Sulawesi discovered a new species of immense predatory wasps with jaws longer than its front legs. The predatory wasp is shiny black with evil gothic barbs running along its abdomen.  Although the wasp’s habits and behavior are still unknown, its size and its formidable jaws would seem to indicate that it is a predator.

Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, discovered the wasp as part of a biodiversity expedition to the remote forests of Sulawesi.  She plans to name the wasp after the Garuda, an eagle-like divine being from Hindu legend which is associated with speed and martial prowess (and with the constellation Aquila). The Garuda is admired and known in many different myths from Southeast Asia but it is particularly associated with Indonesia—and has become something of a national symbol

The Garuda

Sulawesi, the fourth largest island of Indonesia has long been an ecological treasure trove thanks to multiple isolated peninsulas (complicated geology has given the island has an unlikely shape), impassible mountains, and huge wet forests located only a few degrees from the equator.

Sulawesi

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