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There is some bittersweet news from China.  Well “news” is maybe a somewhat misleading word.  This is a small sad story within a sprawling epic story…within our story, in fact.

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In the geological age previous to this one, China was covered by a stupendous forest of bamboo and deciduous trees (it seems like a lot of our familiar tree families of North America might have originated there).  It was a tree world of pandas, elephants, tapirs, panthers, tigers, orangutans… and gibbons, the exquisite gracile “lesser” apes who are the true masters of swinging through forest canopies.

The vast rich forest was a perfect world for primates…and Africa’s angriest, sharpest lineage, the hominids, showed up 1.5 million to 2 million years ago.  These first hominids were Homo erectus, a comparatively benign lot, but not far behind them came other hominids with darker tastes, and then, approximately 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens showed up,”wise man,” a tragic fire-wielding invasive species with an insatiable appetite for…well for food, actually.  Homo Sapiens brought agriculture to East Asia or perhaps developed it there.  Indeed there are suggestions that Homo sapiens might have evolved in East Asia out of the maelstrom of clever upright apes that were ambling around the place, and, though I don’t find the argument nearly as persuasive as an African genesis, a wealth of peculiar fossil finds and ancient archaeological discoveries mean it cannot be dismissed outright, either.

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Eight thousand years ago farms began spilling across what is now China.  These early Chinese farmers discovered the perfect food for humans–a delicious superlative grain which is still the staple food for most of humanity. But this is not the story of rice (I need to write about that later, because I love rice, and it might be the most important plant in the world); it is the story of what rice-farming did. Cities and kingdoms sprang up, and in 259 BC, the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, truly unified China from the capital of Xi’an in the ancient land of Shaanxi.  Stories of Qin Shi Huang’s cunning and cruelty are as diverse as the stories of his unimaginable wealth and power, yet in the end all of his strength came from rice which sustained the teeming population of the Qin dynasty, and this rice came from the forest, which was cut down to provide agricultural lands and living space for what is still the world’s most populous region.

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We have excavated Qin Shi Huang’s tomb (universally known as the “Tomb of the Terracotta Soldiers”). The tomb compound was a whole necropolis city of wonders and archaeologists and scientists are still unraveling its wonders and unlocking its mysteries.  The compound included the tomb of Lady Xia, the grandmother of the first emperor of China, and, in addition to her corpse, her tomb included her pet, a gibbon. Gibbons were pets of the aristocracy in dynastic China (here is a particularly poignant and sad poem, which you should read after you read this post).  Recently a British primatologist was touring a museum of the finds from the first emperor’s tomb and the skeletal hand of Lady Xia’s pet caught his eye.  Subsequent research has revealed that the animal belonged to a gibbon species which no longer exists.  The first specimen known to science was found in the the tomb of the first Emperor’s grandmother.   The “new” gibbon is named  gibbon was named Junzi imperialis based on where and how it was found.

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There are no gibbons in the wild anywhere near Shaanxi today.  As civilization rose, the great forests fell and Junzi imperialis was surely a victim of habitat loss. The grain we must have to run our vast complicated societies cost it everything…and we didn’t even remember its loss.  In Chinese art, gibbons represent a pure and ideal existence…they are sort of emblematic of a Chinese version of Eden (that ancient allusion is one of the things that makes that poem so plaintive) yet I don’t think we realized just how appropriate is such symbolism.  Humankind has already driven a lot more primate species to extinction than we know about. It is worth remembering the cost of our previous success as we look at the future.   Our strength and knowledge grow greater, but our appetite grows too, and the world is not getting any bigger.  Think about Lady Xia’s gibbon the next time you have a bowl of nourishing rice.  People are reflected in their pets and the empty eye sockets of the little long-dead pet tells about our own greatness and our terrible failures.  What do you see in those dark windows? Is the future just more and more tyrannical emperors crushing peasants and cutting down forests to build luxurious tombs or can we learn something new about our own place in the world and maybe beyond it?

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Here in America, we don’t hear a great deal about the Sahel, the great arid scrubland which stretches across Africa from the Atlantic coast to coast to the Red Sea coast just south of the Sahara Desert (I think the only time I have mentioned it, in thousands of blog posts, is when I mentioned the world’s most deadly snakes).  The Sahel is vast: it stretches for 5,400 km (3,360 mi).  It crosses some of the poorest and most sparsely inhabited countries of Earth.  Great droughts have hit the Sahel bringing starvation and horror to the semi-nomadic herdsmen and subsistence farmers who make up most of its population.  It is the scene of sectarian fighting, terrorism, instability and violence.  Most ominously, the desert is coming.  The world’s largest desert is expanding, pushing southwards into the Sahel (which in turn pushes further into the Sudanean grassland which lies south of the scrublands).  Imagine if half the United States was scrubland like the California chaparral (but with lions and Boko Haram); now imagine if turned to insane deadly emptiness like Death Valley or the Rub’ al Khali [shudders].

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The people of the Sahel are tough people.  Their ancestors survived the great drought from 1450 to 1700.  They have conceived a crazy titanic super project to prevent the Sahel from becoming the Sahara.  It is a beautiful and stupendous concept—one of the great endeavors which is being attempted right now, but since it is not being undertaken by the great democracies or by mega-corporations or by the Chinese (who are experiencing one of their periodic scary resurgences under a ruthless and driven Emperor), it has not been much in the news.

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The project is to create a great green wall to keep the desert out.  This wall will stretch across the entire continent and it will be alive, made up of millions upon millions of trees.  The green wall will stretch though 11 countries (but 9 neighboring countries will also contribute). It is envisioned as a living wonder of the world: a vibrant forest where once there was wasteland.  The hard lessons of China’s Green Wall and the Algerian Green Dam have allegedly been integrated into the ecological planning for Africa’s Green Wall.  The project launched in earnest in 2012 and already 3 million trees have been planted in Senegal and Burkina Faso. Eritrea and Ethiopia are said to be making real progress on their forest planting projects too.  If this project succeeds I will have respect for the African Union.

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Of course, I can barely plant an azalea in rich loam in temperate Brooklyn without it croaking: how are nomadic warlords going to plant thriving forests across a vast sun-baked badland and end up with a living forest?  The green wall may well fail or it might cause strange unanticipated problems, but it is wise not to write it off.  Over generations, humans remade the forests and savannahs of the world before we even had our vaunted technology.  Anthropologists and ecologists are coming to realize how much of what we though of as natural forest (or rainforest) was actually the result of thousands of years of human nurture and cultivation.  The Amazon and the Congo rainforests may owe much of their makeup to human activity over countless generations (I need to explain these further in additional blogposts…but one mind-blowing concept at a time!).  If the people of the Sahel are steadfast, determined, and clever, there might someday be a forest like the one the dreamers have been describing.  Wouldn’t that be something—just imagine one of the world’s greatest forests in Sudan and Chad and Mali…

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Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur!  You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?

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Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy.  As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world.  However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.

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Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China!  In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail!  This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.

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The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan).  Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.

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If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room.  Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.

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As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead.  Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations.  What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?

mindanao_bleeding_heart_dov-600x560.jpgIs there such a thing as a Gothic pigeon?  There are a lot of different breeds of pigeond, however the most Medieval-looking member of the Columbidae family was never shaped by human selection. The Luzon bleeding heart pigeon (Gallicolumba luzonica) is a delicate shy bird which lives in tropical forests of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines.  The birds eat berries and grubs of the forest floor, which they almost never leave except when they are nesting.  They are a mixture of barred gray above and cream color below, except for their distinguishing feature, which sets them apart from all other birds.

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Gallicolombe poignardée. Famille des Columbidés. Ordre : Columbiformes

Bleeding heart pigeons have a group of scarlet feathers at the center of their breast which make it look as though they have a terrible bleeding hole in their chest.  In female birds this feature is somewhat subdued, however in males it glows incarnadine like a lurid painting of a Christian martyr.  Male birds even appear to have droplets of blood running down from the terrible heart wound.

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The first time I encountered this bird was not in a book (or on a random blog written by some weirdo), but in the Bronx zoo.  I saw a glimpse of a male bird at the back of an aviary and I got all afraid that he had been horribly hurt.  Only when I saw the picture on the exhibit were my fears assuaged.  All of this leads up to the question of why these animals look like they have been shot through the heart. There are lots of folklore explanations (of the dogwood religious just-so story variety), but the real answer is that nobody knows. It is a shockingly metal look for such an unassuming and modest bird.

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Sadly the bleeding heart pigeon is growing scarce as its forest home is cut down and made into plywood. Additionally, people capture and sell the birds into the pet and aviary trade. Like the planet Jupiter, it is valued for its lovely and unnerving red spot. With its mild nature, endangered status, and religious martyr good looks, perhaps the bleeding heart dove is a perfect mascot of the terrible plight of animals in our over-burdened Anthropocene world.

Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (Ива́н Ива́нович Ши́шкин) was born in Yelabuga, in central Russia near the Volga in 1832.  His father was a free-thinking merchant who encouraged exploration of the world and supported young Ivan in his artistic studies.  Ivan became part of “the itinerants” a group of artists who chose to ignore the rigid rules of European art and doggedly pursue their own interests and subjects.  For Ivan this was the magnificent forests of Russia which he painted in all of their splendor with stupendously adroit realism.  He surely ranks as one of the greatest forest painters of all time.  Each of his canvases presents a living forest as its own world. Every tree is as distinct as a person and they are joined as a thriving whole within a larger ecosystem of plants, fungi, and living things.

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Here are three of Ivan’s astonishing paintings.  The viewer can feel how each forest has a completely different character and mood.  The open meadows around the great oaks in the first painting are as different as possible from the brown stream running out of the firs…which is again as different as can be from the dark pine wood filled with woodears and mosses.

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Yet, though they are different, each of his forests is a beautiful and sacred place—a transcendent slice of nature.  Ivan’s work is not as famous as it should be because he chose to take it directly to the Russian people rather than selling it to aristocrats or Europeans (an attitude which was part of the itinerant philosophy).  However his travels through rural Russia kept his mission pure and kept him close to his true love—the Russian woods.  Thanks to his life beyond the limelight we can now travel these erstwhile greenwoods by means of art and learn to see the breathtaking majesty of the forest.

Venus and Anchises (William Blake Richmond, 1889/1890, oil on canvas)

Venus and Anchises (William Blake Richmond, 1889/1890, oil on canvas)

In classical mythology Anchises was a prince of Dardania who found lasting fame as the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite. One day when he was hunting in the forest, she appeared to him disguised as a Phrygian princess. They made love for two weeks straight (!) whereupon she vanished–much to the distress of the besotted prince. Nine months later she reappeared to him in her full glory as the goddess of love…with a baby, Aeneas, who was fated to survive the fall of Troy and found Rome. Here is a splendid, splendid painting of their meeting which was made by William Blake Richmond in 1889/1890 at the zenith of nineteenth century painterly craft.

In the painting, Venus is not working very hard to conceal her godhood (although, uncharacteristically, she is garbed). Flocks of doves spring up at her feet. Sparrows fly everywhere like confetti and the dead winter woods burst into crocuses as she passes. Glowing hawthorn flowers frame her beauty like a halo of stars and a pair of adult lions bound through the woods in front of her to herald her coming. Yet these peripheral details are clearly lost on the gobsmacked Anchises whose focus is squarely on the goddess. His horn hunting bow has dropped to his side (although the top limb juts out in a not-at-all symbolic manner).

This lovely painting is remarkable for the way it merges seemingly incompatible contrasts. The larger-than-life mythical characters somehow fit in with the hyper realism of the forest in early spring. Likewise the glowing white and gold of Venus’ glowing raiment is starkly juxtaposed with the dark earth tones of the mortal world—yet somehow they go together. Her lambent robes seem to form a swirling nebula. Richmond lavished such effort on the details of this picture. Look at each perfect crocus or the endearing little Phrygian hat. You should blow the painting up and look at it full size—it is an appropriate Valentine’s Day treat.

A pair of Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) at Antwerp Zoo

A pair of Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) at Antwerp Zoo

Behold the majestic Congo peafowl Afropavo congensis! This attractive bird is the only member of its genus. It seems to share characteristics with both the famous Indian peafowl and the guinea fowl—so perhaps it is a link between the two respective families. Male Congo peacocks grow up to 64–70 cm (25–28 in) in length and are brilliantly colored. Females are smaller and have duller plumage.

 

Look at that crown!

Look at that crown!

Congo peafowl are omnivores: they feed on fruits, berries and seeds as well as hunting invertebrates such as insects and sundry other arthropods. Both males and females have lovely but chaotic feather crowns. The birds are found only in central lowland forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and they are the national bird of that country.

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Regular readers will have noticed that Ferrebeekeeper’s epic east to west progression across Africa has stalled. We started on the microcontinent of Madagascar, traveled across the straight to Mozambique, moved up the rift valley through Malawi and Tanzania and then cut west onto the lush plains of Zambia. Now we stand at a dramatic crossroads.

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

To the south is the sparsely populated desert nation of Botswana. It is arguably Africa’s most stable democracy and it contains vast arid wildernesses where the San hunt the arid scrub but nature otherwise holds rule. In fact the Chobe National Park has the world’s largest population of elephants although I hesitate to even write it, lest poachers hear. Yet when poachers show up with their helicopters, machine guns, and poisons, Botswana captures them, tries them in a fair court, and locks them up. It is a well-run country with an educated populace (although it is struggling with the terrible scourge of HIV).

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

To the north lies an entirely opposite nation—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a terribly run nation with a history steeped in bloodshed and horror. Whereas Botswana is an empty desert, the Congo is a vast brooding rainforest filled with hundreds of different ethnic groups. The Congo is the second largest nation in Africa by area. It is rich in mineral and natural resources. It has unprecedented amazing biodiversity. Yet it was the sight of the most terrible war of the second half of the twentieth century—a war which left terrible scars in the hearts of the Congolese people (and ushered five million people into an early grave). Even today, shadows of the war lie everywhere on the land, and beneath them are older shadows and scars from the most brutal colonial regime of Africa, and beneath those lie even more ancient hatreds and hurts…but I digress.

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since we are traveling via thought on the internet, I say we head north into the Congo. In fact let’s spend this whole week there among jungles that have never known the axe and in the company of bonobos, okapi, and pygmies, the Congo’s original human inhabitants. In the spirit of this trip, I will start Congo week by describing the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a sky blue field with a red diagonal stripe with gold edges. In the upper left corner is a yellow five pointed star. According to Wikipedia “The red symbolized the people’s blood; the yellow symbolized prosperity; the blue symbolized hope; and the star represented unity.” Perhaps a more realistic flag would be totally red with an exploded star and all of the yellow locked away in some hidden Swiss bank account. Yet cognoscenti say that for all of its troubles past and present The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most beautiful places of Earth. Its people are creative, diverse, and resilient. Hoist up the blue flag of hope, say a prayer upon the star of unity, and come traveling the Congo River. There are wonders and horrors in the offing as we spend some time in one of the world’s most amazing places.

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

Northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles)

Northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles)

Last week we wrote about the strange Monito del monte—an arboreal marsupial which lives in the Valdivian temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina.  This week’s headlines are filled with exciting zoo news related to those strange forests.  A baby southern pudú (Pudu puda) was born in the Queens zoo a month ago (zoos delay the announcement of newborns in order to dramatize public introductions).  Pudús are the world’s tiniest deer: adults weigh up to 12 kilograms (26 lb), although the mightiest stags can sometimes reach 13.4 kilograms (30 lb) and loom up to 44 centimeters (17 in) tall.  Female pudús lack antlers, however the stags have tiny antlers with no forks (which can measure up to 7.5 centimeters (3.0 inches) long).  There are two species in this genus of cervids:  the southern pudú (Pudu puda) & the northern pudú (Pudu mephistophiles) which are similar in appearance and habit (although the northern pudú is smaller, and only gets up to 33 cm (13 inches) in height).

A Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) with a small human for scale (photo by Noga Shanee)

A Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) with a small human for scale (photo by Noga Shanee)

Pudús hide in the low growing vegetation of the miniature forests where they dwell and they feed on the same vegetation by pulling it down with their hooves or by climbing stumps and low branches to reach the leaves.  Their vocalizations are as adorable as they themselves are: the diminutive deer bark when they are alarmed.  If they become angry, their fur bristles and they shiver.  This display of wrath is not especially intimidating and many predators prey on pudús, including owls, foxes, and tiny rainforest cats (and occasionally formidable pumas).  Unfortunately, humans have introduced dogs and red deer to the delicate Andean cloud forests where the deer live and these invaders are respectively overhunting and outcompeting the winsome little deer.

One month old pudú fawn

One month old pudú fawn

I am extremely happy that there is a little pudú fawn living in Queens.  I am also glad another animal from the temperate rainforests of South Chile (the last surviving remnant of the rainforests of Antarctica) is in the news.  I desperately wish John D. Dawson would paint a picture of the eco-region so that I truly could show you how strange and lovely the plants and animals there are.  But, until that happy occasion, here is another pudú photo.

Southern pudu buck (Pudu puda) by Andrzej Barabasz

Southern pudu buck (Pudu puda) by Andrzej Barabasz

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides)

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides)

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) is a tiny arboreal marsupial native to the temperate rainforests of Chile and Argentina.  The name “Monito del monte” means “little monkey of the mountain” and although the tiny marsupials are not even remotely related to primates, they are clever and deft.  During the cold winter months the animals hibernate in little ball-like nests which they build out of waterproof leaves and line with moss.  Like the more familiar marsupials of Australia, the females have pouches where they nurse their litters of up to four offspring.

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with tree snail

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with tree snail

The adult animals prey on small invertebrates which live in the trees but they also supplement their diets with fruits and seeds.  A particular species of Loranthacous mistletoe (Tristerix corymbosus) has evolved in conjunction with the monito del monte and relies entirely on the animal to spread its seeds.  This is noteworthy because “scientists speculate that the coevolution of these two species could have begun 60–70 million years ago.”  The monito del monte is not some rodentlike offshoot of the marsupial line, it is a close analog (and direct descendent) of the basal line from which all marsupials spring.

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with human for scale

Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) with human for scale

In fact, like something out of a gothic novel, the monito del monte is the only species of the sole genus of the last family of the exceedingly ancient order Microbiotheria.    During the dawn of the dinosaurs, South America, Antarctica, and Australia were amalgamated together as a supercontinent Gondwana.  The offspring of the original marsupials spread from South America, across Antarctica, to Australia, but then the continents drifted away from each other and evolution took a different direction in each ecoysytem.  The monito del monte remained in the same sort of forest as its ancestors and changed least over the years.

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Speaking of which, the Valdivian temperate rain forests where the monito del monte lives today are themselves a remnant of the great forests of Gonwana.  The trees and plants which live there now are most closely related to the living plants of Australia, New Zealand, & New Caledonia, but they are closer still to the fossilized forests which lie beneath the glaciers of Antarctica.  The Valdivian forest is the closest thing surviving to the great forests which once covered the iced over southern continent.

Valdivian Temperate Rainforest

Valdivian Temperate Rainforest

The ancestors of the monita del monte—and of all other marsupials—originated in South America and spread through the Antarctic forests to Australia before the continents drifted apart during the Cretaceous.  When the continent broke from Australia and drifted south into the prison of the circumpolar current during the Eocene, the forests died and Antarctica became an otherworldly landscape of ice.   Yet if you wish to know what the sweeping temperate forests of Antarctica were like you can visit Chile and watch the most ancient marsupial among the tree ferns and araucaria trees of the Valdivian forest.

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