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Cockerel Cycle

Cockerel Cycle and French Cruller (Wayne Ferrebee, 2014, oil on panel)

It’s National Doughnut Day!  To celebrate, here are two paintings from my Microcosmic Doughnut Series.  Topologists and astrophysicists posit that our universe has a toroid shape—so I have combined my disparate background in history, toymaking, natural history, and Flemish-style painting to craft doughnut-shaped microcosms. Within these intricate cosmological confections, people and animals from throughout time converge in a never-ending circle—in the manner of the water cycle, the Krebs diagram, or an ouroboros.  Thus the individual elements in these paintings not only have metaphorical significance, they are also part of a dynamic larger picture.  Each landscape of dynamically intertwined symbols represents the cycles within individual life, history, or biology.   Each little doughnut painting is its own self-contained world; yet, taken in aggregate, the individual stories of predators and prey, metabolism, historicism, world trade, or biorhythms of organisms signify even larger cycles of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the fixed perspective of an individual life.  For example, the one above is about a classical French bon-vivant…or maybe it is about frogs or about cocks or chicken eggs.  There is also a fertility aspect to it (not to mention a French cruller in the middle).

Furnacemandonut

Furnace Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)

This second painting is less easily explained.  A variety of brightly colored synthetic organisms fly up out of a baker’s furnace.  Above the mysterious swarm, a humanoid figure in an asbestos suit and a blue-hot dragon spray fire on a salamander which basks in the radiant pure energy.  Blue-black gothic stoves dance around beneath the centerpiece of the composition: a glowing lava doughnut congealing out of the primal kitchen…or is it just a delicious glazed doughnut with chocolate icing and an orange squiggle?  The whole scene makes me hungry for cheap baked pastries…and for raw creation.  Now I’m off to paint some more.  Let me know what you think (and enjoy Doughnut Day with your loved ones).

 

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OK, Last week was egg week here at Ferrebeekeeper where we looked at home-made egg-art and astonishing primordial mythology.  Unfortunately, due to budget constraints and temporal vicissitudes, egg week only had 4 posts—yet we also need to keep moving on.  Today’s post is therefore somewhat egg-themed….even if the real theme is more about the changing nature of language.  It is a bridge from past to future—but a humorous one which has eggs at its center.

Here is a story from the late 15th century, when English was changing from Middle English to Modern English.  The author, William Caxton, was a merchant, diplomat, and writer…and probably England’s first printer.  He wrote this story in 1490 to marvel at how quickly the language was changing (indeed he relates how he can’t understand truly old English which seems like a completely foreign tongue).  I have transcribed the story, as best I could, from the Gothic black letter manuscript (try reading some of the beautiful—but incomprehensible–Gothic calligraphy and I think you will appreciate my effort).

eneydos-tl

The story is a vignette about how language changes, seemingly on its own.  This point is particularly poignant to modern readers who don’t speak with quite the same idiom and usage as the upstanding William Caxton!  The story is about some merchants from the north who say eggs in the Norse fashion “eggys” as opposed to the South English way of saying it “eyren.”  Misunderstanding ensues.  It is interesting to note that contemporary English speakers talk about “eggs.”  If I went to the C-town and asked for “eyren” they would probably look at me funny (or tell me where to get an iron or Irish whiskey).  The Norse word for “eggs” clearly won out over the old Anglo-Saxon word when English went global.  Anyway, here is my transcription of the story.  Kindly help me out if you can figure it out better and enjoy the eyreny…err…the irony of Caxton’s words:

Fayn wolde I satysfye every man, and so to doo toke an olde boke and redde therin and certaynly the englysshe was so rude and brood that I could not wele understande it.
And altho my lord abbot of Westmynster ded do shewe to me late certain evydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now usid.
And certainly it was wrton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe.
I could not reduce ne brynge it to be understonden.
And certaynly our language now used Uaryeth ferre from that. Which was used and spoken whan I was borne.
For we englysshe men ken borne under the domynacyon of the mone.
Which is neuer stedfaste, but ever waverynge wexynge one season and waneth & dycreaseth another season
And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one Shyre varyeth from a nother.
In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a ship in tamyse for to have sayled over the see into zeland
and for lacke of wynde they taryed atte Forrlonth, and wente to lanthe for to refreshe them
And one of them named Sheffelde a mercer cam in to an hous and axed(!!) for mete, and specyally he axyd after eggys.
And the goode wyf answerde that she could speke no frenche.
And the marchant was angry for he also could speak no Frenche but wolde have egges and she understode hym not.
And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde have eyren then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel
Loo (?) What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren, Certaynly it is harde to playse every man that is in any
reputacyon in his contre. Wyll utter his comynycacyon and maters in suche maners & terms that fewe men shall understonde theym…

 

 

 

green eggs

Sorry for the empty space here last week.  But now I am back, refreshed, and ready for a whole theme week dedicated to eggs.  I conceived of this theme during Easter as I feverishly dyed goose eggs from my parents’ farm, but now that I start to write, the enormity of the subject hits me.  Almost all arthropods, vertebrates, and mollusks reproduce by laying eggs.  We mammals are in a minority among animals (and even then, there are certain exceptions).  The fertilized offspring of the vast majority of animals develop to viable lifeforms inside an egg.  Eggs consequently hold a huge place in mythology, biology, and agriculture.  A surprising number of cosmologies (and biographies) start with an egg cracking open.  Likewise, an understanding of animals beyond hydrozoans requires one to contemplate differing sorts of eggs (and indeed the universal name for female gametes happens to be “eggs” as well).

483px-anatomy_of_an_egg_svg-copy1

So that is what I will be writing about for the rest of the week, however I am opening “egg week” with this little miniature essay as an introduction…and with the literary allusion pictured above.  Do you recognize it? It is green eggs and ham! It occurred to me as I began to unpeel the eggs that I had accidentally re-created Sam-I-Am’s famous feast. The eggs are really dyed chicken eggs.  This is the only mention I will make of eggs from a gastronomic context—but trust me, those eggs were quite delicious and, if we didn’t have so much ground to cover, we could dedicate an entire blog every day for a lifetime to eggs’ central position in cuisine.  But alas, there is no time for custard pie recipes—we need to move on.  Tune in tomorrow for one of those egg-based cosmologies!

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

In geometry class back in secondary school, there was one happy day, at least—the day we talked about the rhombus. The rhombus is a parallelogram in which the angles of the opposite sides are equal: diagonals drawn through the center of these angles will intersect each other at right angles in the center of the rhombus (see fig. 1). It is a beautiful shape with a stylish name that everyone started saying in amused wonder. Meanwhile, off the coast of Cuba or Tenerife or Okinawa, divers sometimes chance upon a mysterious human-sized blob of diaphanous pink gelatin composed of delicate loops of exquisite pink spheres.  What is the connection between these disparate stories?

Mysterious pink blob in the ocean (photo by

Mysterious pink blob in the ocean (photo by David Fleetham)

The pink alien blobs floating in the tropical and semi tropical seas of the world are the work of Thysanoteuthis rhombus, a.k.a. the diamond squid (which completely sounds like a crime boss name). The species is actually quite large for an invertebrate and some individuals can grow up to a meter (3 feet) in length and mass up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds). Thysanoteuthis rhombus is named for its huge fins which run along the entirety of its mantle and give it the appearance of a rhombus. If you draw diagonals through the center of its angles they would probably intersect at right angles too (although you shouldn’t do this in the real world since T. rhombus is a tremendous swimmer with ten strong tentacle arms–including two extra-long club arms covered with extra-rows of tentacles for grabbing prey or fighting).

The Diamond Squid (Thysanoteuthis rhombus)

The Diamond Squid (Thysanoteuthis rhombus)

Diamondback squid jet through the warm parts of the oceans in pairs and tiny schools hunting for swift and intelligent fish. They in turn are hunted by some of nature’s most fearsome predators: cetaceans, sharks, and the Japanese.

20080815-182740The squid hunt near the surface at night, and retreat to middle depths during the day. Somewhat uncharacteristically, they have no bioluminescence. The large enigmatic pink blobs I mentioned are their eggs. Once the female is fertilized, she lays a vast helix of eggs which are embedded in a stickly translucent line. These egg clusters look like salps or siphonophores (or extraterrestrials) but they are actually thousands of diamond squid eggs. When they hatch, they become adorable larval squid which head off into the phytoplankton to hunt.

Closeup of the eggs of Thysanoteuthis rhombus

Closeup of the eggs of Thysanoteuthis rhombus

Hatchling Diamond Squid

Hatchling Diamond Squid

egg2

Today is World Egg Day! At first I had an image of the entire planet splitting open and some giant hatchling slithering out into the galaxy—WorldEgg Day–but a moment of reflection revealed that WED is instead a day for the entire world to celebrate eggs. Indeed the World Egg Day Website reassures us that, “World Egg Day is a unique opportunity to help raise awareness of the benefits of eggs and is celebrated in countries all around the world.”

Ogc3sEcThis website has been unflagging in its dedicated to oviparous creatures. Catfish, turkeys, the vast majority of snakes, all fowl, and even the amazing platypus and echidna are creatures which reproduce by means of eggs. They are all well worth celebrating! Hooray!

Yet somehow, I feel like the World Egg Day High Council (an arm of the even greater International Egg Commission) cares little about ovuliparity (external reproduction via egg). Instead they are concerned only with devouring eggs. They are in fact ovivores of the highest degree—to such an extent that they have built an international organization to promote the continuous eating of eggs to the exclusion of all else. We live in a strange world.

Dasypeltis scabra feeding on a fresh pigeon egg (from exotic-pets.co.uk)

Dasypeltis scabra feeding on a fresh pigeon egg

However, since I am an ovivore myself (although not exclusively) I support the council’s overarching plans—at least to a degree. In order to celebrate World Egg Day, allow me to propose a suitable mascot for the event—the egg-eating snake, Dasypeltis, a delightful genus of reptiles which lives up to the council’s ultimate utopian dreams of eating nothing but eggs. To quote exotic-pets.co.uk, “The Egg Eating Snake must be one of the nicest snakes we have ever come across. With no teeth, a calm nature, [the snake lives entirely] on eggs…no more defrosting rodents!”

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There are 11 species of snake within the Dasypeltis genus and all have evolved to feed exclusively on eggs. These non-venomous snakes live throughout Africa, but prefer wooded areas with large numbers of birds. The snakes possess acute senses which allow them to determine whether an unbroken egg is rotten or too developed for them to eat. Not only are the snakes gifted at hiding and climbing trees, they also have specialized anatomical features for egg consumption including supremely flexible jaws, supple necks, expandable balloon-like throats, and internal vertebral knobs for bursting the egg once consumed. The snakes regularly consume eggs much larger than their own heads. After eating breakfast, the poor creature looks like a maraca! Once the unbroken egg is swallowed whole, the snake’s internal organs burst it open and leech all nutrients out of it. The indigestible shell is regurgitated. Virtually no nutrients are wasted.

Common egg-eater snake (Dasypeltis scabra). Photo by Mond76

Common egg-eater snake (Dasypeltis scabra). Photo by Mond76

Finally, and best of all, Dasypeltis fasciata not only lives entirely on eggs: the snake also reproduces by egg! It is an Oviparous ovivore. Females lay one or two clutches of 6-25 eggs each. The little eggs measure 36 mm x 18 mm (1.4 x 0.7 inches) and are sometimes eaten by rodents or lizards.

dscf0643-300x225You could write to the International Egg Council and explain why this snake would be the perfect mascot to help them popularize eggs. Undoubtedly the exalted high egg commissioners would quickly acknowledge that there can be no purer avatar of the incredible edible egg than this lovable snake. Happy World Egg Day!

01016_RobinEggBlue-lI realized that this blog has done a poor job of addressing the color blue—which is one of people’s favorite colors.  Today therefore, in an early tribute to spring (which may eventually get here this year) we are writing about one of the most beautiful colors of blue there is.  The color takes its name directly from nature—from the nest of one of the most beloved birds of North America, Turdus migratorius, the American robin.  American robins are actually members of the thrush family: they superficially resemble old world robins (which are flycatchers), so European colonists lumbered us with the inaccurate name. Robins are migratory passerine birds which hunt the ground for worms and other small invertebrates as well as fruits and berries. The robin is famous for its jaunty orange breast, its vivacious style of hopping, and, above all, as a harbinger of spring.

robins-nest-web-1There are similarities between humans and robins. We are both bipedal omnivores.  Robins are unusually successful—perhaps more so than any other common passerine bird.  Additionally they are highly social and flock together to stay safe at night. However this blog post is not about the songbird (after all, when it comes to ornithology, ferrebeekeeper is solemnly devoted to galliformes and waterfowl), instead it is about the color of their eggs: robin egg blue.

eb4700e8774c6798119fd6c84a38ce55Robin egg blue is a lovely pale sky blue with a hint of green.  The name of the color has been in common use since the nineteenth century. The color appears everywhere: in crayola crayons, Tiffany jewelry boxes, spring frocks, giant bridges, and Air Force fighter jets.

Robins lay these eggs in nests which are 1.5 meters to 4 meters from the ground (5 to 15 feet).  Because the nests tend to be in low shrubby trees many children have had sad experiences watching things go wrong.  Fortunately robins are prolific parents and can sit as many as three clutches of eggs each season!  They also start nesting and laying early in April.

robin's eggCoincidentally, the aviary at the Bronx Zoo strongly featured the robin’s egg as an illustration of the powers of contingency and fatality in the world.  Visitors walk into a room with a large wall covered in hundreds of photos of lovely robin’s eggs. The next room has photos of robin hatchlings in exactly the same grid layout, but the little birds are far fewer than the eggs were: every space which lacks a hatchling photo features a little obituary of how the egg failed (or was eaten by a predator, or broken in an accident).  The next room features even fewer photos of fledgling birds–as nature continues to winnow out the unlucky.  The final room has only one or two adult robins to produce another suffusion of eggs.

robin eggI was at the zoo bird house many years ago with my then girlfriend and each of us randomly chose a particular egg in the first room to see how we fared.  My ex-girlfriend fell out of the nest and was eaten by an opossum almost immediately (!).  I survived to adolescence (which was quite rare) but was sadly captured and devoured by a hawk—so at least I had a thrilling aerial death!

Sometimes it seems like it's all hawks

Sometimes it seems like it’s all hawks

As I go through life, I often find myself thinking about the room of eggs. Although troubling, it resonates in a great many ways. The zoo meant it as a (quite effective) illustration of nature’s cruelty and caprice (and of the strategy of producing lots of offspring), but it also portrays larger themes of luck, planning, adversity, and perseverance.  In an even larger sense it represents how amazingly lucky any of us are to be here after billions of years of predation, foraging, and trying to impress fickle mates.  Yet we are indeed still here. We are the astonishingly lucky eggs who have survived by pluck and luck.  Spring will come again—and good times with it.  It’s time to buy some jaunty robin egg blue clothes and plan the next series of adventures and projects!

Baby-Robins-beeing-fedIMG_4104

Have you ever watched a tiny red ant scurrying through the backyard only to be astounded that the ant seems like a giant when it walks by some much smaller black ants?  Such observations have always caused me to wonder how small insects could become.  What are the smallest insects out there and just how tiny are they?   The answer is actually astonishing, and, like most good answers it just brings up more questions.  Most entomologists believe the tiniest living insects are the fairyflies, infinitesimally minute parasitoid wasps which live on or inside the tiny eggs of thrips(well, some fairflies also live inside the brains of other insects, but let’s not think about that right now).  Fairyflies are smaller than many single cell organisms like paramecia, amoebas, and euglenas.    Dicopomorpha echmepterygis,  a wasp from Costa Rica, is an astonishing  .13 millimeters in length.   Although many of these wasps fly, they are so tiny that they don’t have conventional wings:  some of the smaller specimens have long cilia-like hairs which they use to row through the air (the fluid dynamics of which are considerably different for creatures so small).

Fairy wasp with single celled organisms under electron microscope

In fact the wasps are so tiny that the millions of individual cells which make up their tissues and organs have to be very miniscule indeed.  In fact, according to physics, the brains of fairyflies should not work.  Many of the neural axons are smaller than 0.1 micrometre in diameter (and the smallest axons were a mere 0.045 μm).  At such sizes, the electrical action of axons should not work properly.   An article on Newscientist describes the basic problem:

 …according to calculations by Simon Laughlin of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, axons thinner than 0.1 μm simply shouldn’t work. Axons carry messages in waves of electrical activity called action potentials, which are generated when a chemical signal causes a large number of channels in a cell’s outer membrane to open and allow positively charged ions into the axon. At any given moment some of those channels may open spontaneously, but the number involved isn’t enough to accidentally trigger an action potential, says Laughlin – unless the axon is very thin.

So how do the wasps continue to fly around and parasitize the eggs of other creatures if the electrical impulses of their brains do not work?  German researchers speculate that the axons of wasp brains work mechanically rather than electrically.  The tiny axons touch each other physically instead of by means of electrical action.  If this is correct it means the wasps are analogue creatures with little clockwork minds!  If they were any larger or more complex, this would not work, but because of their small size and simple drives, they can manage to operate with slow-moving machine-like brains.

Micrograph of a fairyfly (fairy wasp)

Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) by Richard Ling

The Australian giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is the world’s largest cuttlefish.  Specimens can measure up to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 10 kilograms (23 pounds).  Like other cuttlefish, the giant cuttlefish are masters of color transformation and can use the chromatophores (special transformative muscle cells) in their skin to instantly change the hue, reflectivity, polarization, and even the shape of their skin. They use this ability for hunting, hiding from predators, and for spectacular mating displays.  Indeed, the giant cuttlefish is a remarkable animal in many ways, but, above all, it is notable for its operatic sex life!

Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

Sepia apama ranges in all coastal habitats from Brisbane on the Pacific to Shark Bay on the Indian Ocean (effectively the entire southern coast of the continent).  Thanks to jet propelled speed, color-transforming ability, sharp eyesight, high intelligence, and lightning fast grab jaws (which are located on two extendable arms), these cuttlefish are terrifyingly effective hunters of fish and crustaceans.  Australian giant cuttlefish from different regions of the coast do not interbreed, even though they are genetically the same species.  Like humans, the giant cuttlefish seem to form different sorts of societies with different mating customs:  for example the giant cuttlefish of the Spenser Gulf region are unique (apparently among all cuttlefish) in that they join together for a spawning aggregation in the waters immediately around Point Lowly.

Unlike humans, there are eleven male cuttlefish for every single female giant cuttlefish!  Large dominant male cuttlefish carve out territories with aggressive posturing and insanely bright flashing color displays.  Smaller males (who do not wish to be ripped apart), distract the alpha male cuttlefish by adapting the color schemes of female cuttlefish and courting him.  They then abruptly change color and pay (rapid) court to the polyandrous females. The female stores sperm packets from several males and she chooses the paternity of her offspring only after she lays her eggs.  Cuttlefish are semelparous—they mate only once, and then they immediately die. The whole beautiful horrifying op-art orgy in the waters around Point Lowly is of paramount importance—and is also reckoned to be one of the unrivaled diving spectacles of the world.

Unfortunately all of the Spenser Gulf cuttlefish tend to be in one place at once.  Since they only reproduce one time, they are very vulnerable to fisherman, who, up until the mid nineties, descended upon the area, captured most of the cuttlefish, and chopped them into bate for snappers.  When one cohort was removed, the next was seriously attenuated!

Fortunately the spawning waters of Spenser Gulf are now a protected refuge, yet hydrological changes, agricultural run-off, and industrial development could still threaten the entire population.  Perhaps the other Australian Giant Cuttlefish (who conduct their romantic affairs in a more disparate manner) are on to something.

One of the Aspredinidae (banjo catfish) species, Bunocephalus amaurus, from Guyana

Banjo catfish are a family (Aspredinidae) of tiny South American catfish which live in the major tropical river systems of the continent.  Most species of banjo catfish have round flat heads and long skinny tails—hence their distinctive name.  Although various sorts of banjo catfish live in many different river habitats (from quick flowing channels, to murky stagnant backwaters, to brackish tidal basins) they generally utilize the same strategy of keeping still and allowing their camouflage to protect them.  Although like all catfish, they lack scales, the Aspredinidae make up for this absence with rows of horny keratin tubercles which break up their profile and leave them well disguised.  Additionally they can shed their skins! As omnivores they hunt tiny invertebrates as well as feeding on whatever they can scavenge.  Members of the Amaralia genera of Banjo catfish are especially fond of the eggs of other species of catfish, which they actively seek out and vacuum up.

Another species of Banjo catfish (Bunocephalus coracoideus)

Perhaps because they are so partial to eating the eggs of other catfish, some banjo catfish have evolved special strategies to protect their own eggs.  Female catfish in the subfamily Aspredininae wait until their eggs are fertilized and then attach the developing eggs to their belly.  Three species of Aspredininae develop specialized fleshy stalks called cotylephores specifically for the purpose of exchanging nutrients and oxygen between the mother and the eggs.

More banjo catfish (Amaralia hypsiura)

A Honeybee Drone

Even though honey bees they mimic humans in some ways (for example with their rigidly hierarchical hive organization), they are alarmingly alien in many respects.  Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the lives of honeybee drones—the male bees which play a role in reproduction but are otherwise alarmingly superfluous to the workings of a bee hive.

Drones are born from unfertilized eggs either laid by queens or by laying worker bees (which can only lay drones).  Because the drones develop from unfertilized eggs they have only one set of chromosomes (a reproductive process known as arrhenotokous parthenogenesis) and each drone produces genetically identical sperm. A fertilized queen can lay female worker bees which have two sets of chromosomes (diploid).   Worker bees are extremely closely related as sisters since they share identical genetic information from the father (as opposed to most other animals where male sex cells are not all genetically identical).

Drones do not posess stingers and can be safely handled.

Drones are different in appearance from female bees.  They are slightly larger than worker bees but smaller than the queen.  They have extremely large eyes, perhaps to help them find a queen while flying.  Additionally, drones lack stingers (which are really modified ovipositors and thus unique to female bees). Drones from different hives congregate at certain locations not far from a given hive (it is unclear how they choose or mark these locations).

Drones do not engage in the useful toil so characteristic of the workers.  Male bees do not gather nectar & pollen, take care of larvae, or build the hive.  Lacking stingers, they do not act as soldiers.  Their only purpose is to mate with a queen—though only one in thousands will fulfill this destiny.  Mating is accomplished in midair and proves fatal to the drone.  His reproductive organs break off inside the queen and the contusion proves mortal.  Drones have no place in an austere winter beehive.  As winter approaches in cold weather locations, worker bees cast all of the drones out of the hive to perish.

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