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An Artist's Rendering of Rosetta Approaching the Comet (ESA)

An Artist’s Rendering of Rosetta Approaching the Comet (ESA)

Today a winter snow storm has transformed Brooklyn into a huge ice ball–at least metaphorically speaking–but the weather will surely improve.  Home will not be a ball of ice forever.  The same cannot be said for the Philae robotic lander which is currently aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft (which, in turn, is currently in outer space returning to the inner solar system after 31 months in the dark cold outer solar system).  If all goes according to plan, the Rosetta spacecraft will enter a slow orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in May of 2014.  Once the space probe is in orbit around the comet, it will (eventually) fire the Philae probe onto the comet itself.  Philae is equipped with space harpoons to latch on to the comet’s surface and cling to the hurtling slushball.  Once there, the little robot lander will assay the comet with its drill and ten onboard sensors in order to learn more about the birth of the solar system–when the comet (probably) came into existence.

An artist's rendering of Philae Making a Soft Landing on the Comet this coming November (ESA)

An artist’s rendering of Philae Making a Soft Landing on the Comet this coming November (ESA)

There are many remarkable aspects to this astonishing mission (which launched a decade ago), but one of the most harrowing periods just ended.  Because the spacecraft is powered by solar panels, it did not receive sufficient energy to operate during its long sojourn through the outer solar system.  For two-and-a-half years, the mission controllers in Darmstadt, Germany have been in suspense waiting to see if Rosetta had survived being all but shut down (because of a last-minute mission rewrite, the craft was not designed for any such suspended animation).  Yesterday the spaceship woke up and radioed back to Earth!  The mission is on!  I can hardly wait for May (for multiple reasons).

Rosetta_orbits_comet_with_lander_on_its_surface

The Shore Crab or European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas)

The Shore Crab or European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas)

The green crab (Carcinus maenas) is a tiny brownish green crab native to the European shore line along the north-east Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea.  Although it measures only 90 millimetres (3.5 in) across, it is voracious omnivore which feeds on all sorts of small mollusks, tiny arthropods, and worms (not to mention whatever dead flesh it happens across).  Green crabs are great and all, but this blog is not about crustaceans…Why is this little crab showing up here?

A green crab eating a clam

A green crab eating a clam

It turns out that the green crab is one of the most invasive species of our time.  Like the fiendish zebra mussel, the green crab is capable of traveling by boat (either among barnacles or in ballast).  As far back as the age of discovery they were hitching rides around the world on the hulls of wooden ships.  The little crabs seem to have piggy backed into temperate climes along with the British Empire and they have set up ranges in Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and both coasts of North America.  So far this has not been a big problem: for hundreds of years, cold waters and big hungry fish have kept the little crabs from proliferating.  However as humankind moves forward with its dastardly plans to kill off every fish in the ocean (and as ocean temperatures rise) the crabs are beginning to flourish in places where they were once barely holding on by their claws.

Green Crabs Spreading through the World's Oceans...Yikes!

Green Crabs Spreading through the World’s Oceans…Yikes!

Green crabs eat clams and juvenile oysters—so their success is causing hardship for mollusk fishers (while simultaneously removing filter feeders from the ocean).  Along the Mid Atlantic coast of North America, the native blue crab has proven effective at out-competing (or just straight-up eating) the invasive green crabs.  Similarly the rock crabs and Dungeness crabs of the Pacific northwest can hold their own against the invaders, but humans are overfishing these native crabs and allowing the invaders to proliferate (and seafood enthusiasts in America have not developed a taste for the tiny green crabs).

Not exactly a whole seafood platter...

Not exactly a whole seafood platter…

Will the warming of the oceans cause blue crabs to spread northward to defeat the invaders?  Will humankind stop killing every fish in the ocean so that the green crabs are eaten by sea bass?   Will we introduce a new species which preys on the green crabs (but brings its own problems)?  Only time will tell, but already coastal Maine is being swept by a tide of little green claws (and delicious east coast oysters are becoming more expensive and more rare).

"Dead or Alive", people...

“Dead or Alive”, people…

A smew hunting underwater (by DianneB1960)

A smew hunting underwater (by DianneB1960)

The National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a duck pond over by the parking lot entrance.  There are numerous pretty North American ducks in the pond as well as mute swans from Europe, black swans from Australia, and various fancy ducks from around the globe–but these beautiful waterfowl pale in comparison to lions, pandas, and elephants–so visitors are inclined to rapidly push by the little lake.  One day (when I too was rushing by) I noticed a ghostly white presence flitting around the bottom of the pond.  At first I thought I was hallucinating and then I thought that a penguin or puffin had escaped the Arctic area.  It was an amazingly dexterous aquatic hunter swimming underwater hunting for small fish.  I watched for some time before it popped to the surface and revealed itself to be…a male smew!

Smew Drake (Mergellus albellus) from http://birds-ath.blogspot.com

Smew Drake (Mergellus albellus) from http://birds-ath.blogspot.com

Smews (Mergellus albellus) are the world’s smallest merganser ducks.  They may seem alien because, for modern birds, they are ancient. Fossils of smews have been found in England which date back to 2 million years ago.   The smew is last surviving member of the genus Mergellus—which includes fossil seaducks from the middle Miocene (approximately 13 million years ago).  Smews breed along the northern edge of the great Boreal forests of Europe and Asia.  During winter they fly south to England, Holland, Germany, the Baltic Sea, & the Black Sea.  Like other Mersangers, smews are hunters: they dive underwater and deftly swim down fish (showing ballet-like grace during the process).  Like many other sorts of piscivorous hunters, smews have heavily serrated beaks (which are further specialized with a wicked hooked tip).

Smew party (Norman McCanch, 2011, oil)

Smew party (Norman McCanch, 2011, oil)

The drake smew has been poetically described as having the combined appearance of cracked ice and a panda.  Female smew ducks are plainer—they have gray bodies, chestnut crowns and faces, and a white neck. Although smews are from an ancient lineage and live in a difficult part of the world, they are still not doing badly.  Their numbers have declined somewhat, but they are not endangered (which is good news because they are very lovely and captivating).

Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus).  Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail.  Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.  The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.

Cave painting of a Wisent (from Altamira, Spain, from the Palaeolithic Age ca. 21,000 BC to 13,000 BC)

In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined.  Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared.  The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.

A Wisent Hunt Depicted on a Hungarian Stamp

The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest.  The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there.  Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered.  When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers).  The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.

In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species.  Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time).  Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951.  The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain.  Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.

Wisent herd in Caucasian mountains (Photo by Sergej Trepet)

Last night my roommate told me about bitcoins, a digital currency created two years ago by Satoshi Nakamoto, a shadowy entity who may be a financier, a programmer, or an anarchist (or he/she/it may not even be a person at all).  The name “bitcoins” also refers to the software and built-in encryption features which allow the “coins” to be anonymously transferred while still retaining whatever “realness” they have.  The concept initially filled me with unreasoning anger, but thinking about bitcoins has caused me to reflect more deeply on the notional nature of all money.  Most dollars are no more real than bitcoins: only a tiny fraction of American legal tender exists in the real world (as the paper scraps or metal disks found in cash registers, laundry machines, money clips, dancers’ garters, underground hoards, piggy banks and what have you).  The majority of money is ones and zeros zipping through huge servers run by large financial institutions–not really that different from bitcoins (although the dollar is backed by lots of important guys in suits and by a huge military rather than by the personal assurances of a Japanese cyberpunk shadowspawn).

Stone Money of Yap

Instead of thinking about today’s national currencies I like to reflect on currencies based on real objects but still not pegged to any use value.  The rather beautiful giant stone coins of Yap are probably the most well-known example of such money, however, a more interesting and widespread example is provided by mollusk shells–which have been used as a medium of exchange by different societies worldwide throughout history.  Over three thousand years ago the Chinese were using cowry shells as currency. It is said that the classical Chinese character for money was the same as for cowry (I am going to leave Chinese scholars to argue over the actual characters—trying to follow the vagaries of Chinese etymology left my head spinning).  In Thailand the “bia” was a unit worth 1⁄6400 Baht and was literally a cowry (which was also a common counter used in gambling).  On the East Cost of the United States, Iroquois and Algonquian tribesmen utilized “wampum” belts manufactured from littleneck clams to solidify treaties or as exchange for personal transactions.  Tribes of the Pacific Northwest utilized tusk shells or scaphopods for their shell money.  Different tribes of Australian aboriginal people utilized different shells as money and often regarded the money shells from other tribes as worthless.  Other examples of shell currency are numerous and come from all parts of the world, but one is particularly instructive.

A living Being--the Egg Cowry (Calpurnus verrucosus)

The most infamous use of shell currency may also have been the most complicated and lucrative. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries competing Dutch, Portuguese, English, and French slave traders utilized cowry shells as a common medium of exchange (among several others) to buy slaves along the African coast.  The slaves were sold by local rulers who obtained them in internecine tribal wars or by Arab merchants who specialized in mass kidnappings. The cowrie shells used in such transactions originated from the Maldives and later from Zanzibar.  They were carried to the Mediterranean and to the Sahara by Arab traders and to Europe by merchants from the miscellaneous colonial powers. The potential “mark-up” on such shells was tremendous since one could obtain then easily from living snails in the Indian Ocean and then exchange them for living people in the Bight of Benin.

Cowry Shells being used as Money by an Arab Trader ( Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, 1845, print)

My personal feelings about international trade are not as negative as this grim historical example would seem to indicate (I feel that today global trade is, on balance, more likely to deliver people from slavery than into it). However I feel that this example is a good metaphor for the central mystery of money.  Cowry shells are pretty and have been used for rituals, games, and adornments for a long time–but their value does not seem intrinsic in any special way–except maybe to living cowries.  Indeed the monetized mystique such shells had in the eighteenth century is long gone: I found many web sites which will sell you barrels of money cowrie shells for next to nothing. What is the magic that makes shells worth a human life in one era and a quasi-worthless novelty in another?  I have no answer other than to point at the strange epic that is history.  I suspect that the smug Federal Reserve Board members discontentedly shaking their heads at the tone of this article do not have one either.  Money is a fairly obvious illusion…and yet you will never live your life outside its thrall.

Money Cowry Shells (Shells of Monetaria moneta)

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