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When it comes to mollusks, people talk a lot about the charismatic giant squids and giant clams (and for good reason!), yet, to my mind, these are not the strangest—or even the most elusive–giant mollusks. Scientists have long sought a very different creature—the giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia)—which they knew from its bizarre meter long tubal shell. Yet despite the fact that such shells were (relatively) plentiful—marine biologists never found a living specimen…until this spring, when internet clips revealed footage of people eating huge shipworms in the Philippines. Researchers were thus led to a remote lagoon in the archipelago where at last they discovered living giant shipworms flourishing in the foul muck. What they then discovered was the most shocking thing of all…
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But first let’s provide some context. Shipworms are bivalve mollusks (like clams, oysters, and mussels) which eat wood–a surprising amount of which finds its way into the oceans. Wood is extremely difficult to digest, since it contains lignins, cellulose, and such like tough organic polymers. Shipworms digest wood the same way beavers and elephants and termites do—with help from symbiotic bacteria. This made shipworms the bane of pre-industrial mariners (who counted on intact wooden hulls in order to remain alive).

But shipworms are small, and the giant shipworm is…giant. The fact that the giant shipworm is an insane 130 cm long cylindrical clam with a gun metal blue body and obscene flesh gills which lives in a huge calcium tusk the size (and shape) of a baseball bat is not at all the strangest aspect of the creature. What is most odd about this mollusk is how it eats: it doesn’t. The foul anaerobic slime at the bottom of that lagoon in the Philippines is rich in hydrogen sulfide from decaying organic matter.
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The giant shipworm doesn’t eat this decomposing matter (indeed, its mouth is all but vestigial). Instead it has bacteria in its gills which live upon hydrogen sulfide. The giant shipworm survives off of the byproducts of this bacterial respiration. It grows huge off of toxic gas. This strange metabolic cycle is of great interest to scientists for what it reveals bout symbiosis, adaptivity, and metabolism. Perhaps someday it will be useful as well. Maybe future generations of explorers will love giant shipworms for their ability to live on waste product gases just as much as vanished generations hated shipworms for eating ships.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Ferrebeekeeper has written about the giant otter, the largest extant mustelid (which is an alpha-predator of the world’s largest river).  But what about extinct mustelids?  Honey badgers, wolverines, ferrets, and, yes, giant otters, are fearsome animals: was there once a giant honey badger or a huge super-wolverine?

Yes.

The  Megalictis lived in North America during the Miocene.  It weighed as much as a small black bear—somewhere between 50 and 90 kilograms (100—200 lbs), but it had a body (and presumably a temperament like a wolverine or a badger.  Indeed, the picture I have in my “Prehistoric Mammals” coloring book (thanks, Dover!) makes it look exactly like a giant honey badger.

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I wish I could tell you more about Megalictis—where exactly it lived and how.  All we can say is that it was a predator…and not a lurking predator—it caught and subdued its prey by brute strength.  However we do not know why it flourished (although it evolved during the Miocene “cat gap” when North America was low on the most widespread and successful mammalian predator) or what led to its extinction.  Still search the internet and find some honey badger videos—then imagine if they were ten time larger! It is a formidable thought!

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Wow! There is a lot of exciting space news in the headlines lately…it is a thrilling time to have one’s eyes fixed on the heavens.  However, for the moment, let’s tear our eyes from the splendors of the firmament and concentrate instead on the most mundane of wonders here at our feet—the potato.  Originally domesticated in the Andes mountains, the potato is a small starchy tuber which…

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Whoah! What the heck? That’s not the garden-variety potato! What is going on here?

It turns out that this massive potato is a public sculpture by Idaho artists Chris Schofield and Sharolyn Spruce, who specialize in fabricating large custom projects (a job I would dearly love to have).  According to the Idaho Potato Commission’s website, they built this colossal spud to promote “the certified heart-healthy Idaho Potato, and its mission… to help small charities in town and cities with its Big Helping Program.”

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Made of concrete, plywood, foam, and steel, the six ton sculpture weighs as much as 32,346 medium-sized Idaho potatoes (at least according to the PR literature of the great potato mavens who commissioned it). The potato travels cross-continent on a special big-rig with circuslike giant vegetable slogans on it, however now that it has reached the Hudson tidal zone, the truck and the faux tuber have moved aboard a special barge which is being pushed around the city by tug boat.   Now when is that giant duck going to get here?

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The Amazon is the planet’s largest river.  The great waterway is very much in the news this week as the world turns its eyes to Brazil to watch the Olympics. My whole life I have wanted to visit the upstream backwaters of the Amazon and view its ecological treasures before it is all converted into strip malls and low-cost parking.  Unfortunately, the developers are doing a lot better in this life than I, so I am not sure that will ever happen. Thus, instead of going to Brazil in the real world, we will go there via blog! No need for visas (I hear that Brazil doesn’t really want American visitors anyway). We can check out the amazing fish, snakes, mammals, and, um, emperors of Brazil without ever leaving the internet.

The Piranha TheoryNo!

Speaking of fish, the Amazon is the home of the fearsome pirarara! No freshwater fish is more storied or more…wait “pirarara”?  What the heck is that?\

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The Pirarara is actually a giant extremely colorful catfish which grows to immense size (You knew I couldn’t get through these Olympics without writing about some of the magnificent siluriformes from the place with the greatest diversity of catfish….a place where catfish are actually found beneath the water table).

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The pirarara (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus) aka “the redtail catfish” is the only living representative of the genus Phractocephalus.  These catfish are omnivores which grow to 1.8 meters (six feet) in length and weigh up to 80 kg (180 lb). I wonder if they wear the same sized suits as me?  I am being silly, of course: these catfish do not wear suits since nobody has found a pattern which does not clash with their brown backs, mustard yellow sides, and white stomach….and their bright ketchup-red tails.  The pirarara should really be called the condiment catfish.  The fish are popular in large aquariums, although they are so voracious that they can injure themselves by swallowing aquarium furniture and vomiting it back up.

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Redtail catfish may be the last living members of the Phractocephalus genus, but there were once many species…some of which date back to the upper Miocene (13.5 million years ago).  They lived throughout what is now Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, and Ecuador, in the great series of lakes and wetlands which made up the long-vanished Pebas mega-wetland.  The pirarara has a certain prehistoric look to it.  Can you imagine the crazy color combinations which its vanished realtives must have had as they sw3am among the super crocodiles and crazy alligators of the Pebas?

2004-08-08-107_baldfaced_hornetWhen I was growing up I used to sometimes see these huge black and white hornets which were bigger than my thumb (although I guess my adult thumb is bigger).  These monochromatic monsters were bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculate).  They live across North America from Alaska to Texas, from Nova Scotia to California.

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“Bald-faced” means shameless and undisguised (it is a very good phrase for 2016).  These are shamelessly undisguised wasps.  They are beautiful, in a sort of nightmarish alien shocksoldier way, with cream-colored mouths and ivory abdominal markings contrasting against a midnight black body with purple iridescence.  They have matte black legs and smoke-colored wings.  Adult wasps are 19 millimetres (0.75 in) in length and the queens are even larger.  Dolichovespula maculate is not a true hornet, but rather a sort of yellowjacket wasp—predatory wasps of the genus genera Vespula.

Like the terrifying giant hornet, bald-faced hornets are predatory carnivores.  They smash into the hives of other hymenoptera (like lovable honey big-hearted bees) and gobble up all of the bees, larvae, and honey.  They aren’t just chaotic hunters: they are also weirdly omnivorous. Wikipedia says “They have been observed consuming meat, spiders, fruit and insects. Adults will also drink flower nectar.”  What the heck? That sounds like a banquet for dark elves!

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The creatures are eusocial.  They band together in a hive of 300-700 individuals.  Their nests are built of disturbing grey-yellow paper-type material which seems like it was excreted by a Steven King monster (which actually seems like a pretty good description for the bald-faced hornet).  You are probably curious about where this bruiser falls on the Schmidt Pain Index.  Although the wasps are bigger than their close cousins the yellowjackets, both creatures score the same SPI number: 2.0 (exactly in the middle of the four point scale).  They also are tied with honeybees (which are smaller but pack a potent one-time-use wallop.   The description of a bald-faced hornet sting is particularly poetic and sounds like a restaurant’s blurb for an autumn pie or a painful cup of coffee. According to the pain index, the sting of Dolichovespula maculate is “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.”   I am glad I gave these characters a wide berth when I was growing up…but I am glad I saw them too. They are intense animals.

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Happy (belated) Fourth of July! While everyone was out barbecuing and amusing themselves with colorful novelty explosions, there was big news in space exploration: NASA’s Juno probe, which launched from Earth five years ago, has finally reached the gas giant planet and entered orbit. The robot spacecraft, which is about the size of a basketball court, is now dancing nimbly amongst the system of moons and rings and radiation belts around the giant world.

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The probe is a remarkable spacecraft.  It traveled 2.7 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles) to reach the exact orbit which NASA planned for it.  The secret behind its astonishing precision (even when traveling at 165,000 mph) is the autonomy of its sophisticated navigational computer.  Mission controllers do not have to radio the probe from half-way across the solar system (which would take minutes—or longer. Instead the probe navigates itself. The ship computer is shielded beneath a titanium vault to keep radiation from frying its clever electronic brain.

earth-jupiterOh man!

 

Among the planets, Jupiter is a sort of greedy eldest child.  Scientists who study planetary formation believe that the gas giant formed first of all the planets and it took the lion’s share of available matter left over from the formation of the sun. Jupiter is more than twice as massive as all the other planets in our solar system put together: indeed, it is three hundred and eighteen times more massive than Earth.  Yet we know shockingly little about this bruiser. Very basic questions about Jupiter remain unanswered. For example we still do not know whether the planet has a rocky core beneath its vast colorful atmosphere.

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As we learn more about exoplanets which orbit other stars, questions about the formation of solar systems have become more numerous.  Astronomers have been particularly perplexed by the number of “hot Jupiters,” giant gas planets which are extremely close to their stars.  Was Jupiter such a world at some point before moving to its current location, or is it a huge freak?  We simply do not know.  Scientists would also like to know more about the unimaginably vast cloudscapes of Jupiter.  What dynamics move these huge bands of pressurized gas?

As Jupiter formed, it was bombarded by strange radiation.  The depths of Jupiter’s storms must still feature giant lightning strikes. This sort of treatment can cause hydrocarbons and ammonia to form amino acids.  Maybe life has a Jovian origin.  Maybe Jupiter still has life floating around like aerial zooplankton.  Again, we just don’t know much about the giant world…

Did anybody see that amazing episode of "Cosmos"?

Did anybody see that amazing episode of “Cosmos”?

However, now that Juno has arrived we can start to answer some of these questions.  The probe will go through various start-up and test sequences until Oct. 19 when it moves to a 14-day orbit of the planet and really starts scrutinizing our giant neighbor.

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Oh, one more thing—NASA has been getting better at PR to make space more accessible and “fun” for us laypeople following at home (as witnessed by the July 4th arrival).  Juno also has a crew of three Lego astronauts: Galileo, Jupiter, and Juno herself.  This leads me to write about Juno herself, for she is a terrifying figure among the gods.  More about her tomorrow!

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It’s time for a belated Valentine’s Day Post (or maybe this is actually an outright Lupercalia post). The Seattle Aquarium has an unusual annual Valentines’ Day tradition of sponsoring blind dates for their resident octopuses. Sometimes the octopuses ignore each other or even quarrel, but other times throwing octopus strangers of opposite genders into a tank together results in multi-armed passion—a special treat for the aquarium visitors (to say nothing of the octopuses)  This year the aquarium has (or had) a large mature male Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) affectionately nicknamed “Kong” who weighs about 70 pounds. Divers set out looking for potential girlfriends for Kong for Valentine’s Day, but the largest females they could find (um, capture) were all under 40 pounds.

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This was a problem. It was widely feared that Kong might react badly to these undersized females and just straight out eat them. Mating is the final act for giant Pacific octopuses. They are semelparous (their lives end after a single reproductive event). After mating, females lay between 20,000 and 100,000 eggs which they tenderly nurture and care for as they starve to death. Males develop white lesions on their body and wander absent-mindedly into the open where they are swiftly devoured by predators.

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Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) with human diver

Kong is approaching this final stage of his life, but his keepers could not find a worthy adult female octopus for him to consummate his life with…so they let him go. He went back to the ocean to look for love and death on his own.  Good luck out there Kong, you handsome devilfish! Let’s hope it was all worth it.

Funny Sketch of Giants (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Funny Sketch of Giants (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

This year, I have been carrying a small sketchbook and some colored pencils around with me and doodling in it. Here are three small drawings/sketches that I made when I was doing other things. I sketched the mountains with the giant, the fountain, and the goblin on the subway (although I colored some of it in at my desk afterwards). The picture of lower Manhattan comes from the picture window on the 9th floor of the Brooklyn courthouse from my day of jury duty (don’t worry I wasn’t skiving from my civic duty–but there was a lot of downtime). I sketched the donut baby while I was talking to a friend about stickers and Philistines (Biblical and otherwise) so it may have been influenced by that peculiar conversation.

Sketch of Lower Manhattan from Courthouse (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Sketch of Lower Manhattan from Courthouse (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Kindly let me know what you think! I’m afraid have been running around trying to figure out my new job, so please forgive me for my tardy responses to comments during the past week. I love comments & I promise I will answer everybody. Just give me a moment to figure out how everything works!

Strange Priests with Donut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Strange Priests with Donut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

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Orion, the giant hunter, is one of the oldest figures in Greek mythology.  He is mentioned in the most ancient surviving works of Greek literature (well, aside from linear B tablets).  There are various contradictory myths about his birth and about his death (indeed, he seems almost to be from a pre-Ionic generation of gods and heroes), however out of this mish-mash, there is a rough consensus: Orion was an earth-straddling giant, the son of sea-god Poseidon.  Alone among gods and mortals, he found romantic favor in the eyes of the exquisite virgin goddess Artemis, but, because of this affection, her jealous brother Apollo murdered him by means of a giant supernatural scorpion.  Artemis was bereft, but together with Zeus, and with her contrite brother, they hung the giant in the sky as an eternal memorial and as a challenge to future heroes (and as an unspoken threat).  During winter, Orion is arguably the most recognizable constellation from the Northern hemisphere.

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There is a famous myth about Orion before he met Artemis and his doom.  The king of Chios was attempting to bring agriculture and viniculture to his island people, but the howling of lions, bears, wolves, and other wild animals kept him up all night (this is one of those troubling myths about the distinctions between uncivilized hunters and civilized farmers).  The king promised Orion the hand of his gorgeous daughter, Merope, if the hunter could remedy this problem.  Night and day, the giant huntsman slaughtered wild beasts until the island was free of big (loud) predators, yet, when Orion applied to the king to wed his promised bride, the recalcitrant monarch kept complaining he could hear nonexistent wolves.  Orion was wroth at the broken deal, but the crafty king plied him with flattering words and with wine, wine, wine by the barrel until even the giant was overcome and passed out in a drunken stupor.  The king then had his bondsmen blind Orion, who stumbled off into the ocean (which, by the way, he could easily walk upon because of his paternal heritage).  Orion wondered here and there across the Mediterranean, lost, until at last he heard the hammers of workshop of the great smith Hephaestus.  The kind god took pity upon the blinded giant and lent one of his shop Cyclops to sit on the great hunter’s shoulder and lead him to a cure.  With directions from the Cyclops, Orion strode due east until he came to the place of the dawn, whereupon the radiant light of the morning sun cured his blindness.

Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (Nicolas Poussin, 1658, oil on canvas)

Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (Nicolas Poussin, 1658, oil on canvas)

There is a reason I am bringing up the godlike giant Orion (whose likeness hangs so magnificently in the winter sky). And there is likewise a reason I am telling this story of perfidy and blindness at the hands of a greedy king.  Tomorrow at 7:05 AM EST, the American space agency NASA will launch its new Orion spacecraft from America’s principal spaceport at Cape Canaveral.  Orion is a crew capsule designed for deep-space missions—to take humans to the moon (or a comparable destination).  After decades, we are again building vessels which can carry humans into beyond near-Earth orbit.

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For tomorrow’s unmanned test flight, Orion will ride a Delta IV heavy rocket into orbit, but for actual manned missions, the capsule will sit atop the planned SLS (space launch system) rocket, a behemoth built for leaving Earth.  The capsule will rise to 14 times the height of the International Space Station (which hangs near the Earth) and then reenter Earth’s atmosphere at a blazing 32,200 kilometers per hour (20,000 miles per hour). Although it is designed to hold 4 astronauts for a 21 day mission, during its test flight, Orion’s crew will consist of symbolic items such as one of Cookie Monster’s cookies, poetry, a rubber duck, and a piece of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Artist's conception of Orion Spacecraft in orbit

Artist’s conception of Orion Spacecraft in orbit

It is high time we return to manned space exploration! The business and political masters of the United States have been busy building monopolies and gaming the financial markets rather than working on science, exploration, and progress.  We have been blundering around blind for too long.  It’s time to start crafting some long term space goals and working diligently towards them.  Orion is a small step, but it is a small step closer to my fondest dream of colonizing the inviting skies of Venus.

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Noor-ul-Ain Tiara

Noor-ul-Ain Tiara

The Noor-ul-Ain is a giant pink diamond which is mounted in a tiara of the same name currently in the possession of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is believed that the Noor-ul-Ain diamond was once part of a vast Indian diamond named “the Great Table” which was embedded in the throne of the greatest Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled India in the middle of the seventeenth century. When the Mughal dynasty withered and came apart a century later, the Persian shah Nāder Shāh Afshār looted and ransacked Dehli. Evidence strongly suggests that the Shah took the Great Table diamond and it was subsequently cut into two giant pink diamonds which became part of the Iranian treasury.

In 1958, the diamond was selected to be made into a wedding tiara for Farah Pahlavi (who became empress of Iran when she was wed to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the famous shah of Iran). The great American jeweler Harry Winston designed this ornate tiara.

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