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Happy Halloween! Here at Ferrebeekeeper we continue working through a list of snake monsters from around the world.  Today’s monster is from South African lore—but it is a little unclear what tradition it hales from.  Maybe, as in the case of, say, Bigfoot, the legends of indigenous people got mashed together with the aspirations and fears of European explorers, miners, and settlers to create an unsettling hybrid being…At any rate, this creature, the Grootslang, is said to be a colossal hybrid of an elephant and a serpent left over from the primordial building of the world.  The gods created a creature of enormous size, colossal intellect, dark cunning, and insatiable greed…oh and bendiness.  Grootslangs were soon destroying the newly created world, and the gods realized they had made a terrible mistake.  They separated the beings into different categories, giving size & intellect to the great elephants and supple cunning and greed to snakes.

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Yet some (or one?) Grootslang escaped and lived on to trouble humankind.  Myths assert that the Grootslang was even more avaricious, parsimonious, and cunning than diamond prospectors and Dutch colonial merchants (so obviously the stories are fake).  The Grootslang    is said to live in a cave filled with infinite diamonds somewhere in the Richtersveld of South Africa.  It is enormously wealthy and delights in cruelly torturing unwary prospectors to death, however its greed is it weakness and victims can prolong their life by offering it treasure and deals.  Alas, the Grootslang kept not just the cruelty strength and wealth of the ancient gods it also had their unearthly acumen and cunning, so deals made with it tended to go horribly wrong, in the manner of dragon curses from medieval tales.  So, if you run into the Grootslang you can potentially save yourself by offering it diamonds, but probably everything will come apart and you will be in a worse situation than you were originally.

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Hmm, maybe this thing is actually a metaphor for DeBeers…

Elephant in a Roman Mosaic

Elephant in a Roman Mosaic

It is World Elephant Day! August 12th is set aside for the contemplation of the greatest land mammal (and maybe the greatest animal overall) the wise, compassionate, beautiful, imperiled elephant.  Elephants are my favorite animals! I truly love them so much (admittedly at a distance)…yet I only just got home and I have to get to bed so I cannot write the story I want to tell—of heroic Yao Ming trying to save the world’s elephants.  Instead I am going to save that story for a day when I have more time and just do a gallery post of elephant mosaics.

Mosaic elephant from contentinacottage

Mosaic elephant from contentinacottage

Elephants in a replica of the Woodchester Pavement

Elephants in a replica of the Woodchester Pavement

Mosaic Flower Elephant by Diana Jane Designs.

Mosaic Flower Elephant by Diana Jane Designs.

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Indian Elephant Mosaic Sculpture

Indian Elephant Mosaic Sculpture

Mosaic Brown Elephant - Mosaik Elefant - Mosaique Elephant - Micro Ceramic Tiles - Craft By Alea Mosaik

Mosaic Brown Elephant – Mosaik Elefant – Mosaique Elephant – Micro Ceramic Tiles – Craft By Alea Mosaik

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Some of these tile artworks of the noble beasts are pretty good, but none of the works really do the great proboscideans full justice.  Clearly there are going to have to be more elephant posts before next August!  In the meantime, keep talking about elephants and campaigning for them among your friends and peers.  A world without elephants would not be a worthwhile place.  They are a critical piece of the great mosaic of life!

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Forsythia

Forsythia

Spring, spring, spring! Today is the first day that has actually felt like spring. Soon the forsythias will be up and then, suddenly all sorts of spring blossoms will appear in a riot of beautiful color. Forsythias are such a familiar blossoming shrubs that I have never thought to find out where they are from, and how they got here. The instantly familiar yellow flowers grow on long whiplike shoots and appear everywhere in early spring. They are the introductory notes from which the rest of the symphony swells (and yet they are always there beneath the rest of the music). Wasn’t it always that way?

Forsythia in a formal garden

Forsythia in a formal garden

Actually, forsythias are native to East Asia. Out of eleven wild species, only one obscure species had spread from Asia to southeastern Europe prior to the age of exploration. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that western gardeners and botanists found out about them as traders and diplomats visited the great gardens of China, Korea, and Japan.

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Forsythias are extremely easy to cultivate from cuttings. Low hanging boughs frequently already have rootlets. Europeans wasted no time in bringing the lovely yellow shrubs back home where they fed the public’s insatiable appetite for novelty. Indeed they were part of the 18th century Chinoiserie fad, which also gave us the monstrous invasive tree of heaven [spits on ground and curses]. Soon forsythias were in temperate gardens everywhere. They are coincidentally named for William Forsyth (1737–1804), a Scottish botanist who was the king’s head gardener and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

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Ironically, despite the fact that forsythias have been omnipresent in American and European gardens since the late eighteenth century, they have not permeated very far into western culture. They are a beautiful shrub which is everywhere, but they do not have the same mythical and herbal associations for us as myrtles, redbuds, crocuses or such. Of course forsythias do have such associations in China, Korea, and Japan. They are one of the fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine and their sticks are used to manufacture a classical Korean stringed instrument. The myths and art of East Asia likewise favor the beautiful golden shrubs. The flower exemplify nature’s promise of rebirth.

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One of my personal all-time favorite moments with flora and fauna involved forsythia…and my favorite animal—the mighty elephant. I was at the Bronx Zoo in early spring and their (then) adolescent female Asian elephant was outside appreciating the first nice day. Elephants eat lots of vegetation of all sorts and a thoughtful zookeeper had put a bunch of flowering forsythia fronds in the enclosure as a treat.

Elephants are arguably the most intelligent land animals except for certain problematic primates. They love to play and show off. The little elephant grabbed the beautiful yellow forsythias in her trunk and ran back and forth holding them aloft like a girl with a bouquet. Then, in a moment of pure exuberance, she threw them all high up in the air and raced back and forth in the resultant shower of bright yellow blossoms.

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Since she was such a young elephant, she was still covered with fine downy hairs and the forsythia flowers got all caught up in these. So she became dotted with little golden flowers. She was beaming in delight and had one of the happiest expressions I have ever seen on anyone. The memory is enshrined in my heart as an enduring exemplar of joy.  Although the internet had plenty of other sorts of images, I couldn’t find any happy elephants with forsythias–so I sketched one for you just now above,

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The Congo River is the world’s second largest river by volume of water discharged (which seems like the most worthwhile measure of a river). Portions of its watershed are both north and south of the equator—which ensures that some part will always be experiencing a rainy season. The Congo River flows through the world’s second largest rainforest, and, as you would expect, the waterway teems with exquisite animals of multitudinous variety. There are aquatic mammals, many different sorts of crocodilians, turtles, frogs, snakes, mollusks, insects, crustaceans, and there are fish fish fish! The piscine variety is staggering: stingrays, carp, cichlids, pufferfish, African tetras, and the highly predatory giant tigerfish. There are also some bizarre blind deep water fish—because the Congo is the world’s deepest river (with depths of at least 220 m (720 ft)).

A few Congo River Fish

A few Congo River Fish

Ferrebeekeeper has always been devoted to catfish which thrive everywhere other than the deep ocean or the arctic. Indeed there are all sorts of catfish in the Congo River—particularly squeakers (AKA upside-down catfish). However, as a special treat, let’s take a break from catfish and talk about an entirely different fish—the freshwater elephant fish (the Mormyridae family from the order Osteoglossiformes). According to the World Wildlife Fund, Elephant fish are the dominant fish fauna in the Congo River. And they are downright strange in so many ways.

Campylomormyrus rhynchophorus

Campylomormyrus rhynchophorus

As you might surmise, elephant fishes earned their common name from their long trunk-like mouths (although this feature is certainly not universal among the 200 plus different varieties). Different species vary greatly in size: the smallest elephant fish are only 5 cm (2 inch) when they reach adulthood whereas the largest grow to 1.9 meters (4.5 feet) in length. Like the electrical catfish and ghost knife fish of the Amazon, the elephant fish have electroreceptive sensory organs. These generate an electrical field and “read” the field so the fish can sense the world (and especially other living things) very clearly even in the murkiest waters and in complete darkness.

 (Image: Carl Hopkin)

(Image: Carl Hopkin)

Elephant fish are extremely intelligent fish with a greatly enlarged cerebellum. In fact the fish have a brain body ratio which is approximately the same as humans (although it seems that they use much of their mental power to operate their electrical sensory organs and interpret the electrical data). In humans, the cerebellum controls movement, motor control, and language so it is speculated that elephant fish may have greater abilities to communicate with each other than we currently understand.

Campylomormyrus alces (from aquaria2.ru)

Campylomormyrus alces (from aquaria2.ru)

Oh, also the elephant fish (and their closest relatives the African knife fish) are unique in that their sperm lack flagellums. Of all vertebrates—from turkey to megabat to axolotl–these strange African fish are the only chordates not to have motile sperm. I wish I could tell you more about that business, but I cannot (and researching it on Google has not made me happier or wiser).

 

Genyomyrus donnyi (George Albert Boulenger)

Genyomyrus donnyi (George Albert Boulenger)

I have tried to show some elephant fish which are endemic to the Congo River, but, alas, I am not an ichthyologist (although that might have been a good career choice) so I may have messed up. Hopefully these photos at least provide some small overview of this incredible family. Humankind needs to learn more about these splendid clever African fish which are so prevalent in the turbid waters of the great tropical river.

Mormyrops anguilloides

Mormyrops anguilloides

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

Today is World Turtle Day when we celebrate all things chelonian. “That is wonderful, but what does it have to do with the fabulous Hindu tableau above?” you are probably asking. Well, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all life, (who appears again and again in the world as different incarnations) was the turtle deity Kurma. The story is told above, but here is a streamlined narration to go with the painting.

Vishnu as Kurma

Vishnu as Kurma

The story begins with an elephant mishap: the great sage Durvasa presented a magnificent garland to Indra, king of the gods, who in turn presented the wreath to his magnificent war elephant. Unfortunately the elephant had limited aesthetic appreciation of the gift and trampled it. Deeply offended, Durvasa cursed the gods to lose their strength, radiance, and immortality. Thus cast down, the gods desperately looked for a solution from Vishnu, who advised them to quaff the nectar of immortality. Sadly there was no nectar available and the only way to produce more was to churn the ocean of milk with such force that the sacred milk clarified into the elixir.

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To complete the task, the gods allied themselves with the demon Asuras (power-hungry beings of near divinity who frequently fought the gods). The gods took the pillar-like Mount Mandara as a great butter churn and, with help from Vasuki, the king of all snakes, they began to churn the ocean of milk. So great was the force of gods and Asuras combined that Mount Mandara begin to sink into the ocean. Vishnu then transformed himself into the vast turtle Kurma and swam beneath the Mountain. His flippers churned the froth. The gods, demons, and great snake all exerted themselves to their utmost, and the turbulent ocean of milk became refined. Fourteen precious treasures arose from the sea, culminating in the sacred nectar of immortality.

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The picture at the top (which you should enlarge!) shows the gods on the left and the Asuras on the right. The king of nagas is acting as a drill rope wrapped around Mount Mandara. Vishnu sits atop the mountain and does not seem especially turtle-like. Fortunately I have included some paintings and drawings of him as a great turtle.

Hopefully you can learn a valuable lesson from this powerful myth! (Do not give treasured wreathes to elephants? Milk is healthy? Be kind to turtles? I don’t know…)

Anyway Happy World Turtle Day!

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Guangzhou China

Guangzhou China

I love China. During five millennia of continuous civilization, the Chinese people discovered many of the most fundamental breakthroughs which have propelled humankind forward: today the Chinese government is rapidly pumping money into research (even as our own leaders decide to turn their backs on science and discovery).  Chinese literature and art are hauntingly ineffable—the saddest and most beautiful in the world.  China is huge and gorgeous and bewildering.  It is its own world of peoples, sweeping vistas, and wonders! Today China is rapidly becoming a paramount global superpower—as befits a nation which contains a fifth of humankind.

A scroll painting of an elephant and scholar from the 1920s

A scroll painting of an elephant and scholar from the 1920s

Yet modern China has been a poor neighbor (!) and an absolutely terrible steward of nature and the environment. I will leave out details about local wars, nightmarish buffer states, and wholesale toxic pollution of entire regions to instead concentrate on markets for traditional medicine, cuisine, and craft—where so many of the world’s endangered animals vanish for no good reason.  Chinese leaders are quick to point out the high environmental costs of rapid modernization and point fingers at the western world’s excesses during the industrial revolution and the gilded age (and today).  But what do foolish superstitions and flagrantly useless status symbols have to do with these arguments? If contemporary China wishes to be taken seriously as a conscientious nation, it needs to at least take steps to reduce the endangered animal trade which is needlessly driving so many wonderful creatures extinct.

They are so beautiful--and they are going extinct.

They are so beautiful–and they are going extinct.

That actually happened today (also known as yesterday on the Chinese side of the globe)!  China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory.  As tens of millions of consumers become middle class (or affluent…or rich) the demand for intricately carved elephant tusks has risen meteorically.  Africa of course has its own troubles and a small amount of money can seem like a great deal there.  In practice this means that the last great herds of elephants are swiftly being poisoned or shot so that their tusks can fetch a premium in the rising cities of China. It is a heartbreaking tragedy that an animal which lives as long as a person (and seems to feel emotions just as deeply) should be killed for two of its teeth. How absolutely horrifying it is to imagine the extinction of all elephants for petty vanity. What would be the purpose of a world with no elephants?

Yao Ming--hero to elephant lovers (even though he is very small compared to the great animals)

Yao Ming–hero to elephant lovers (even though he is very small compared to the great animals)

The Chinese are not monolithic and educational quirks (excesses?) of the Cultural Revolution generation have meant that many people are ignorant of elephants’ magnificent nature (and slow reproduction).Yao Ming who played basketball or something in America has unexpectedly become one of my greatest heroes by spearheading a public awareness campaign to teach people about elephants and to prevent their extinction. Other pachyderm crusaders have also taken up the cause (along with international NGOs) and the central government has finally taken notice.  Authorities crushed six tons of confiscated ivory into powder in Dongguan, China, on January 6, 2014.

Authorities in Guangzhou with the captured ivory (which equals one fifth of the illegal ivory taken last year)

Authorities in Guangzhou with the captured ivory (which equals one fifth of the illegal ivory taken last year)

Of course it is a bit of an easy question: should the world’s other great order of immensely intelligent social land mammal be killed for stupid ornamental knickknacks? But China has answered it properly (finally) and I offer them my unreserved respect and admiration.  With their growing space program, their rapidly improving universities, and their new environmental awareness, China truly is improving and growing very quickly. Hopefully it isn’t too late for the poor elephants which are still left alive.

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A Stegomastodon skeleton from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

A Stegomastodon skeleton from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

One of the most compelling extinct creatures from South America is not as well-known as it should be because it suffers from an incredibly confusing name.  The amazing Stegomastodon was a mighty proboscidean which lived on the great grassy lowlands east of the Andes until modern times, which is to say until about 9,500 years ago (because  paleontologists have a very different definition of modern than, say, historians or artists).  Proboscideans of course are the astonishing order of large mammals which include elephants and their many extinct relatives like mammoths, mastodons, deinotheriums,  moeritheriums…and stegomastodons.  The stegomastodons first evolved in North America during the Miocene (about 3 million years ago) and they lumbered rapidly down through South America after the Great American Interchange when the Isthmus of Panama formed between the two continents.  In North America, the stegomastodons died out because of competition from the true mastodons, which crossed over from Asia via Berengia, however deep in South America, they found ecosystems which suited them and they lasted for a long, long time.

An illustration of a stegomastodon (from geologiadelparaguay.com)

An illustration of a stegomastodon (from geologiadelparaguay.com)

Stegomastodons are neither stegodons nor mastodons, two famous and well known genera of proboscideans.  Confusingly stegomastodons are the last of the gomphotheres.  Gomphotheres wandered into Asia, became isolated and evolved into Stegodons, which, in turn, are the probable ancestors of today’s still-living elephants (assuming you are still reading this in an age when the Chinese and poachers have not wiped elephants from the globe).  If these relationships are confusing to you, you can use the proboscidean clade below (but remember that the stegomastodons are gomphotheres and they lasted much longer than is shown on the chart).

wpid-photo-aug-10-2012-1957Stegomastodons were grazers: they lived on the immense fields of grass which flourished east of the Andes in what is now Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. The creatures were smaller than modern elephants growing only to 2,8 meters (9 feet) in height and obtaining a mass of 6,000 kilograms (13,000 pounds).  It is not known what wiped out the last stegomastodons, but they died quite recently, just after the Younger Dryas stadial was ending…only shortly after humankind made its way to the southern parts of South America.

Skull of stegomastodon waringii

Skull of Stegomastodon waringii

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

Today is World Elephant Day—a one-year old holiday dedicated to the preservation of the world’s two remaining species of proboscideans (a great and ancient order of mammals which over tens of millions of years has included 161 different species that we know of including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, stegodons, deinotheres, moeritheriums, and all sorts of other amazing animals–which we will talk about later).   To mark this day and do my part for elephants (which are quickly vanishing from Earth due to insatiable Chinese lust for ivory) , I have spent hours and hours writing the beginnings of various essays about elephant cognition, their importance as a keystone species wherever they live, and their history and attributes.

I have abandoned each of these essays because they have lacked visceral power which I want to bring to the subject of my favorite animal.  Instead of providing a laundry list of astonishing things which elephants share with humankind (things like altruism, awareness of death, grieving, knowledge of medicine, tool-use, comprehension of music and the arts, and the ability to mine salt and clay) I have decided to instead present an anecdote about actual elephants which I have taken from Cynthia Moss, a researcher who has spent her life observing elephants and researching their family structure.

Since 1973, Moss has watched the family of one matriarch, Echo, an elephant living in Kenya. The story of Echo’s extended family reads like Russian literature in complexity and richness (although the reading is much sadder since elephants seem to be living through the agonizing death of all their kind).  Elephants live human-length lives and have intricate social bonds in their own herds and with the herds they encounter.  They bond deeply with their families over the decades they share together and they help each other out even at the risk of death or terrible injury.

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One day a group of poachers ambushed Echo’s herd.  After killing several elephants outright (including a cow who charged straight into the guns in an attempt to save her calf), the gunmen shot a 13-year old cow named Tina in the lung.  Tina’s mother Teresia and her sisters helped her escape, but she was mortally injured.  Moss describes Tina’s death in the book “Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family”

[Tina’s] knees started to buckle and she began to go down, but Teresia got on one side of her and Trista on the other and they both leaned in and held her up.  Soon, however, she had no strength and she slipped beneath them and fell onto her side.  More blood gushed from her mouth and with a shudder she died.

Teresia and Trista became frantic and knelt down and tried to lift her up.  They worked their tusks under her back and under her head.  At one point they succeeded in lifting her into a sitting position but her body flopped back down.  Her family tried everything to rouse her…and Tallulah even went off and collected a trunkful of grass and tried to stuff it in her mouth.  Finally Teresia got around behind her again, knelt down, and worked her tusks in under her shoulder and then, straining with all her strength, she began to lift her.  When she got to a standing position with the full weight of Tina’s head and front quarters on her tusk, there was a sharp cracking sound and Teresia dropped the carcass as her right tusk fell to the ground.  She had broken it a few inches from the lip and well into the nerve cavity…

Elephant use their tusks for everything (and tusks certainly do not grow back).  Just as most people tend to favor one arm,  elephants favor one tusk over the other–usually the right.  Moss goes on to describe how Teresia and Tina’s sisters spent the night with Tina’s body, tenderly covering their fallen family member with sticks and dirt.  In the morning the other elephants reluctantly left, but Teresia was unwilling to depart and kept gently touching her daughter’s body with her foot.  Only when the other elephants repeatedly rumbled to her did she finally move on.

You can find the entirety of Moss’ book online here, but be warned, it is tremendously sad—like an elephant version of “The Road” except with more likeable characters.

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

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