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Pangassius Catfish on a fish farm in Southeast Asia

I have written about pangassius catfish (tra, basa, shark catfish, and what-have-you) before in an article about the trade war caused by protectionist legislators responding to the quick growth and success of the Vietnamese catfish farming industry.  However I am doubling back to address the quickly spreading pangassius catfish itself.  The farm-raised fish are currently identical to the fish caught in the wild form, but I wonder if that will continue for much longer.  Pangasius farming has spread from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, and, above all, China.  I have a feeling that the pangassius catfish will escape in all of these places and establish itself as a successful invader.  I also feel like the fish farmers will start pushing the captive fish into new shapes with selective breeding (although the catfish is already a near-perfect farm specimen with its ability to tolerate low Dissolve Oxygen, put on weight quickly, eat anything and survive in fishponds, concrete tanks, fish cages, or fish pens).

Vietnamese Catfish Processing Room

A Gold Moche Headdress portraying a Sea Goddess

The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru.  Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I’m still tagging this post to that category because…well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice.  There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization.  Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru.  From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.

A Sculpture of Ai Apaec, the Decapitator (Gold, copper, and polished stone)

One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple.  Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life.  Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying.  Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:

Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.

In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.

A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background.

In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy.  Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”

We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves.  Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers.  They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures.  They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation.  Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.

A Frog-shaped Moche Vessel (Ceramic with earth glaze)

The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery.  The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century.  Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide.  It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society.  However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD.  The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations.  Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced.  Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.

The stories of the Crommyonian sow and the Caledonian Boar have made me reflect on what intense life-forms pigs are.  I admire pigs–and not just because I love to eat them.  Uncooked and on the hoof, the pig is amazing…and also alarming. The familiar Eurasian swine has two manifestations: domesticated (Sus scrofa domestica) and wild (Sus scrofa).  The former is big and pink and tailor crafted by human to be easily controlled and scrumptious on the table.  However, domestic pigs keep the smarts of their wild kin.  They are the cleverest creature in the barnyard except for the farmer (usually) and that’s saying something considering how cunning goats are. Thanks to their intelligence and their strength, farm pigs sometimes get away from us. Within only a few generations, domestic pigs return to their wild type—bristly, furtive, and angry.  There are feral pigs just about everywhere humankind has been except for the frigid polar regions.  The creatures spread across the entire Pacific Ocean on the canoes of intrepid sea-farers and on isolated islands they have sometimes outlasted their hearty tenders: even in the modern world there are islands with pigs but no humans.

Domestic Pig

As invaders, feral pigs are immensely successful.  They flourish in Australia, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and on innumerable islands.  Swine are omnivorous grazers.  Their tremendous sense of smell, along with their strength, smarts, and speed, allows them to run roughshod over unprepared ecosystems.

Pigs are fecund, breeding quickly and having large litters.  As social animals, pigs communicate via grunts, squeals, and snuffles.  A “sounder” of wild pigs is therefore quite adept at avoiding predators and capitalizing food resources.  Such groups of wild pigs are controlled by one or two big dominant sows (males are either solitary or form small bachelor groups).  Woe upon anyone who backs a wild or feral pig into a corner.  The animals have substantial mass, a low center of gravity, powerful tusks, and a bellicose desire not to be eaten.  Even domestic pigs can be dangerous.  To quote Wikipedia, “pigs can be aggressive and pig-induced injuries are relatively common in areas where pigs are reared or where they form part of the wild or feral fauna.”

So never ever do this with feral pigs you don't know well!

There are well-known taboos against eating pigs in many cultures and religions. Some groups feel they are dirty–and indeed swine are strangely similar to people and can bring a host of pathogens and parasites to someone who handles pork carelessly or lives to close to a pigsty. These similarities have also given pigs a large role as laboratory animals, and when we get easily replaceable artificial organs they may come from transgenic pigs (the super intelligent “pigoons” from Atwood’s Oryx & Crake were among the scarier creatures of contemporary science fiction). Brushing those ideas aside, modern agriculture has excelled at producing safe pork. Nearly 100 million tons of pork was consumed worldwide in 2009 (over half of this by people in China).

That’s a lot of pig butchering!  But to reiterate the point of this post, being delicious has brought success to the pig.  There are over 2 billion pigs worldwide, making the animal one of the most successful large mammals on the planet.  Pigs can get away from our farms and go feral.  It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens often enough that there will always be wild pigs as long as there are people. No matter how many pigs we eat, they will always be successful organisms maintaining a massive cloven footprint on the earth.

A pig (Sus scrofa domestica) swimming in the Bahamas. (Photography by Eric Cheng)

Ocellated Turkey (photo credit: National Geographic)

Everyone is familiar with the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and its domestic descendants.  The wild turkey is a highly successful species which ranges across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. There is however another turkey species, the ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata, which is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico–where it lives in the dense tropical forests.   The bird looks similar to the familiar wild turkey, but it is half the size or smaller (females range up to 6 pounds, while males weight up to 11 pounds).  The ocellated turkey has brilliant plumage and skin.  Its feathers are iridescent green, shining copper, and grey-blue.  The male turkey sports a pattern of peacock-like eyes on his tail.  Neither gender have “beards” protruding through their breast feathers (a familiar feature in their northern relatives).  Ocellated turkeys also have brilliant yellow, orange, and red nodules on their bright blue heads (!).  Males have a crown of brilliant nodules behind their snood.  They have long red legs to run through the jungle.  Like their northern counterparts they have a variety of magnificent vocalizations.

Close-up of a hen's face

The turkeys are secretive in their tropical jungles and their ecology is not fully understood.  Once upon a time, the ocellated turkey existed in both domesticated and wild forms (just like familiar Meleagris gallopavo exists for us today).  They were farmed by the Maya people of the Yucatan who used them as table fowl and as sacrifices.  Their name in the Maya tongue is “ucutz il chican” which means, um, “ocellated turkey” (maybe my Mayan readers can help me produce a finer translation).  Ancient paintings show that the splendid feathers of the ocellated turkey were a major component of headdresses and high fashion for nobles.  Yet as the Maya empire declined and jungles stole over the great temples, the farmbirds slipped from human control back into the wild.

A Maya mural at San Bartolo from 100 BC shows the maize god spilling an ocellated turkey’s blood on the cosmic tree. Two turkeys are tied behind him. (Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic)

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