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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.

Livyatan Melvillei (image painted by Balazs Petheo)

Livyatan Melvillei (image painted by Balazs Petheo)

Behold the terrifying ocean monster, Livyatan Melvillei! This predatory toothed whale lived 12-13 million years ago during the Miocene epoch and grew to 13.5 to 17.5 meters (45–57 feet) in length. A large adult whale could have weighed up to 50 tons. The extinct megapredator is named for Herman Melville and for the Biblical leviathan (“Livyatan” is from the Hebrew word for Leviathan). The great whale’s family is currently listed as “incertae sedis” which means “status uncertain,” a taxonomical place-holder used when biologists are trying to ascertain a creature’s relationship to other related organisms within a larger order.

Livyatan Melvillei

Livyatan Melvillei with smaller baleen whale

In terms of body size, the modern sperm whale is probably slightly longer and heavier, but the livyatan had stronger jaws and much larger teeth. Paleontologists describe the mighty creature as having “the biggest tetrapod bite ever found,” which is no trivial matter, since the tetrapods include all mammals, reptiles (like dinosaurs), amphibians, and birds. Of course plankton feeders (like blue whales and whale sharks) have larger mouths, but the sperm whale and the livyatan have more powerful maws filled with large sharp teeth. The 36 centimeter (1.2 foot) long teeth of livyatan are the largest known teeth from the animal world which were used for eating (which is to say the tusks of elephants, walruses, Odobenocetops, and narwhals tusks were larger, but were not used for biting into plants or animals).

Livyatan Melvillei biting a smaller baleen whale (painting via dino-rider)

Livyatan Melvillei BITING a smaller baleen whale (painting via dino-rider)

Livyatan Melvillei presumably swam the deep blue ocean hunting for seals, dolphins, baleen whales and whatever other sea creature was large enough to command its attention (giant sharks, huge squid, huge fish, and bizarre giant birds?). Like the sperm whale it seems to have had a spermaceti organ in its head although it is unclear if this was used for echolocation, auditory signaling, or aggressive male sexual display (i.e. head-butting).  It must have been quite a (horrifying) sight to see one of these giant monsters biting apart a 10 meter (33 foot) long baleen whale. Sadly, the ever-changing dynamic of ocean life caused the great toothed whale to go extinct at approximately the same time as megalodon, the largest known shark (which was a contemporary of the great whale).  Numerous websites speculate which great animal would have won an ocean duel–which is foolish, since whales are clever animals and thus the obvious victor.

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Snailovation (photo by @seaville)

Snailovation (photo by @seaville)

Last September (2013) Sydney Australia was the location of “Snailovation” a massive public art project featuring 24 giant fluorescent snail sculptures made of recycled plastic. The event was meant to highlight the importance of ecological consciousness (and, of course, to raise awareness of gastropods—and mollusks in general). According to Weekendnotes.com “The gargantuan gastropods were created by international artistic collective Cracking Art Group whose members include William Sweetlove, Renzo Nucara, Marco Veronese, Kicco, Alex Angi and Carlo Rizetti.” I’m sorry I didn’t notice this story in time for you to get to Sydney and check out the huge plastic snails—which came down last October—but you can still enjoy the amazing photos!

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Cracking Artgroup Facebook

Cracking Artgroup Facebook

 

This story is from yesterday and the exiguous details, alas, mean that it will be brief–yet it is too remarkable not to mention (especially considering our longstanding love of catfish here at Ferrebeekeeper). Yesterday (June 17th, 2014) an Italian fisherman, Dino Ferrari, caught a huge Wels catfish (Silurus glanis) in the River Po. The great fish weighed 118 kilograms (260 pounds) and measured 2.6 meters (8.6 feet) in length.

 

Dino Ferrari proudly displays the 260 pound fish he caught

Dino Ferrari proudly displays the 260 pound fish he caught

Although Wels catfish are no match in size and substance to the extraordinary giant Mekong catfish, they are clearly large fish. They also live in a huge swath of Eurasia from England to Kazakhstan where they prey on everything from tiny gastropods to big waterfowl like ducks (although they also eat carrion). The Wells catfish was originally native to central Europe, but thanks to introduction programs by misguided human anglers it has spread both east and west. I wonder what Mr. Ferrari baited his hook with to catch this monster—a piglet?

The high Himalayas  seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The high Himalayas seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The world’s largest honeybee, the controversial Himalayan cliff honey bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa) lives high in the Himalaya Mountains among the craggy peaks of Bhutan, Yunnan, Nepal, and the Himalayan provinces of India.  The large honeybees are renowned for building large nests/hives within the inaccessible overhangs of huge cliffs. These nests tend to be found at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,000 m (8,000 and 10,000 feet) built into cliffs which face to the southwest.

Honey-huntingAlthough Himalayan cliff honey bees have complicated lives within a densely layered hierarchical colony, they are not controversial because of their social complexity, but rather because of taxonomical quibbles. Before 1980, Apis dorsata laboriosa was classified as a subspecies of Apis dorsata (the giant honeybee of Soth Asia), but during the eighties and nineties, the Himalayan cliff honey bee was thought to be a unique species (Apis laboriosa). In 1999, the species was demoted back to a subspecies of Apis dorsata (although some genetics-minded entomologists argue that it is a distinct species). Hopefully you followed all of that—it sounds like more vertiginous twists of naming might still lie in the near future.

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Perhaps some of this confusion comes from how inaccessible the bees are.  Only gifted mountaineers and free-climbers could ever hope to reach the lofty hives where the bees deposit their precious honey and larvae.   From their towering homes, the bees are able to forage nectar and pollen from upland meadows of the Himalayas (which burst into extravagant fields of flowers during the brief seasons of spring and summer).

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

Sadly for the bees, there is a terrible catch—the spring honey which they harvest from the high mountains comes partially from the nectar of white rhododendrons (which contain a grayanotoxin).  The spring honey from rhododendrons is red in color and, when fresh, reputedly has a narcotic effect on humans.  Honey hunters risk life and limb to climb high up the mountains.  They then use long poles to rob the bee hives–all while teetering hundreds or thousands of feet above a sheer precipice and being attacked by angry giant bees! The honey fetches a huge premium among the rich of Japan, Singapore, and China even though grayanotoxins are, you know, toxins, and can cause cardiac problems in addition to the soothing intoxicating effects.

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

A Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) on an Indonesian Reef

A Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) on an Indonesian Reef

Yesterday this blog took us to the depths of space to explore the frozen ice-moon of Triton.  Today we atone for that cold voyage with a trip to the inviting tropical seas of the Indo-Pacific.  In these vibrant waters can be found one of the greatest living gastropods, a prince among predatory sea snails, the mighty Charonia tritonis, (commonly known as the giant triton or Triton’s trumpet).

A Giant Triton climbs over a pillow coral in Hawaii

A Giant Triton climbs over a pillow coral in Hawaii

Charonia tritonis grows to over half a meter (20 inches) in length: it is one of the largest living snails in the world (and it is not much smaller than the biggest extant snails). Equipped with a powerful muscular foot, acute senses (particularly smell), and an agile tentacle-like proboscis, the snails are formidable hunters.  Additionally they are protected from predators—even big fierce ones–by their beautiful spiral shells which are vibrantly colored orange, brown, yellow, and cream.  Of course such a shell would become a liability for the snail if an animal ever evolved which killed the snails in order to harvest the magnificent shells solely for their beauty (but what are the chances of that?).

A man sounds a blast on a triton shell--which has spiritual significance in Hawaii

A man sounds a blast on a triton shell–which has spiritual significance in Hawaii

Giant tritons hunt at night.  Their main prey are echinoderms—starfish, which can be large powerful and armored.  Fortunately the snails are not just equipped with powerful muscles and superior brains.  They also have salivary glands that produce sulfuric acid AND a chemical which paralyzes starfish.  The tritons find starfish—even big spiny poisonous starfish like the invasive and all-consuming crown-of-thorns which bedevils the reefs of the Indo-Pacific—then hold them down and inject saliva into them.  As the starfish dissolves from within, the snails rip them apart and feast!

A triton kills a crown of thorns

A triton kills a crown of thorns

Tritons have a specific gender—they are male or female.  They seek each other out for courtship and the female then lays a large clutch of eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the young snails become part of the oceanic plankton for a (poorly understood) time before developing into adults.  Triton shells are esteemed by many cultures as sacred musical instruments.  The shells themselves are collector’s items and are arguably better known then the formidable long-lived predators which make them.  Although the snails are not threatened with extinction as such, there are fewer and fewer really big adult ones (or even small ones) on today’s reefs. This is a real shame, since those same reefs are being devoured by the horrible crown-of-thorns. Hopefully a new generation of divers and wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the triton on the reef and leave them to their invaluable hunting.  Resist the urge to buy the beautiful shells and help save the reefs of the Indo Pacific!

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The colossal octopus (Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801, pen and wash drawing)

The colossal octopus (Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801, pen and wash drawing)


The kraken is a giant sea monster from Norwegian and Icelandic lore. Various sailors who wrote epics from the golden age of northern exploration along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland described vast beings, larger than whales. The Örvar-Odds saga from the 13th century describes a being so large that it could be mistaken for a land mass. Its jaws looked like headlands and its teeth like rocks, yet it was capable of submerging and rising. The monster was dangerous for causing great whirlpools which could swallow ships.

Such bizarre sightings might be attributable to the vagaries of weather (or the treacherous volcanic nature of Iceland—where lands do indeed rise and sink), yet sometimes whales would be seen fighting with giant arms. Indeed occasionally 269503these arms would wash ashore. Living in a dangerous and superstitious profession, sailors kept the stories of a huge boat-sinking monster alive.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and biological classification, took these sailor’s tales seriously enough to classify the kraken as a cephalopod in his first edition of Systema Naturae (published in 1735), however subsequent editions omitted the animal. Various eighteenth and nineteenth century armchair natural scientists kept stories of the animal alive, until modern marine biologists untangled the myth from the (even stranger) realities of the giant squid and the colossal squid.
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Today the kraken has moved definitively into the realm of unicorns, leprechauns, quilins, and other mythical creatures, but its popularity has not been affected. The huge squid monster haunts pirate movies and fantasy oceans all while selling rum and fending off the latest Hollywood heroes in CG animation. In fact the beast has even scaled the pinnacles of literary fame. The Kraken by Lord Alfred Tennyson is an irregular sonnet which describes the benthic monster in language which a poetic merger of Victorian gardening and Lovecraft horror. The monster sleeps in the depths of the ocean awaiting the day of revelation! Here is the poem in its entirety:

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His antient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
kraken-art

The Atacama Desert (towards the Andes)

The Atacama Desert (towards the Andes)

The Atacama Desert of Chile is the driest place on Earth.  The desert is bounded in the west by the Chilean Coastal Range, which blocks moisture from the Pacific.  On the east of the Atacama run the mighty Andes Mountains which catch almost all the rainfall from the Amazon Basin.  Thus trapped between ranges, the desert receives 4 inches of rain every thousand years.  Because of the dryness, people are very sparse in the Atacama: they are found only at rare oases or as desiccated (but well preserved) mummies lying in pits.

The high altitude, dryness, and lack of nearby cities (with their lights and radio waves) make the Atacama a paradise for astronomers.  On a mountaintop 8000 feet up on the Atacama side of the Andes, engineers and scientists are working to put together one of the wonders of this age.

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The Giant Magellan Telescope (hereafter the “GMT”) will be a miracle of engineering.   When it is completed in 2019 it will be larger than any telescope on Earth.  The scope is so giant that it will be mounted in a huge open, moving building (rather than the gun-turret-like buildings observatories are traditionally housed in).  No organization on Earth is capable of making a mirror large enough for the necessary purposes, so seven immense 8.4 meter mirrors are being used together to create a single optical surface with a collecting area of 24.5 meters (80 feet in diameter). The mirrors are the pinnacle of optics: if they were scaled up to the size of the continental United States, the difference between the highest and the lowest point would only be an inch.

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The scope will be much more powerful than the Hubble telescope and take much clearer pictures despite being within the atmosphere of Earth.  In the past decade, telescope makers have used cutting edge engineering to compensate for atmospheric distortions.  To do so they fire multiple lasers grouped around the primary mirrors high into the atmosphere.  These beams of light excite sodium atoms in the sky which fluoresce—creating tiny “stars” of known wavelength, which serve as points of reference for the adaptive optics.  The official website of the GMT further explains the mechanism used to counteract atmospheric turbulence once these benchmarks are obtained:

The telescope’s secondary mirrors are actually flexible. Under each secondary mirror surface, there are hundreds of actuators that will constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence. These actuators, controlled by advanced computers, will transform twinkling stars into clear steady points of light. It is in this way that the GMT will offer images that are 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope is designed to solve some of the fundamental mysteries about the universe. Scientists hope it will help them find out about the nature of dark matter and dark energy (which are thought to make up most of the mass of the universe).   Astronomers also hope to find out how the first galaxies formed and (perhaps) to ascertain the ultimate fate of the universe.  Most excitingly of all, the telescope should be large enough to peek at some of the exoplanets we are discovering by the thousands.  If life exists anywhere near us, the GMT should provide us with compelling evidence in the next twenty years.

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The National Science Foundation was initially going to contribute heavily to the telescope but, since the United States Government has become indifferent to science and knowledge, other institutions have been forced to pick up the slack.  The scope is being built by a cooperative effort between The University of Chicago, The University of Texas at Austin, The Australian National University, The Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, & The University of Arizona (so you can probably help out by donating to any of these institutions, particularly the lovable University of Chicago).

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An artist's conception of Poebrotherium (an early camel)

An artist’s conception of Poebrotherium (an early camel)

Camelids are believed to have originated in North America.  From there they spread down into South America (after a land bridge connected the continents) where they are represented by llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos.  Ancient camels also left North America via land bridge to Asia. The dromedary and Bactrian camels are descended from the creatures which wandered into Beringia and then into the great arid plains of Asia.  Yet in their native North America, the camelids have all died out.  This strikes me as a great pity because North America’s camels were amazing and diverse!

An illustration of the size of Gigantocamelus

An illustration of the size of Gigantocamelus

At least seven genera of camels are known to have flourished across the continent in the era between Eocene and the early Holocene (a  40 million year history).  The abstract of Jessica Harrison’s excitingly titled “Giant Camels from the Cenozoic of North America” gives a rough overview of these huge extinct beasts:

Aepycamelus was the first camel to achieve giant size and is the only one not in the subfamily Camelinae.  Blancocamelus and Camelops are in the tribe Lamini, and the remaining giant camels Megatylopus, Titanotylopus, Megacamelus, Gigantocamelus, and Camelus are in the tribe Camelini.

That’s a lot of camels–and some of them were pretty crazy (and it only counts the large ones—many smaller genera proliferated across different habitats).  Gigantocamelus (as one might imagine) was a behemoth weighing as much as 2,485.6 kg (5,500 lb).  Aepycamelus had an elongated neck like that of a giraffe and the top of its head was 3 metres (9.8 ft) from the ground.  Earlier, in the Eocene, tiny delicate camels the size of rabbits lived alongside the graceful little dawn horses.  This bestiary of exotic camels received a new addition this week when paleontologists working on Ellesmere Island (in Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut) discovered the remains of a giant arctic camel that lived 3.5 million years ago. Based on the mummified femurs which were unearthed at the dig, the polar camel was about 30 percent larger than today’s camels.   The arctic region of 3.5 million years ago was a different habitat from the icy lichen-strewn wasteland of today.  The newly discovered camels probably lived in boreal forests (rather in the manner of contemporary moose) where they were surrounded by ancient horses, deer, bears and even arctic frogs!  Testing of collagen in the remains has revealed that the camels are closely related to the Arabian camels of today, so these arctic camels (or camels like them) were among the invaders who left the Americas for Asia.

Aepycamelus (painting by Heinrich Harder)

Aepycamelus (painting by Heinrich Harder)

The bones are a reminder of how different the fauna used to be in North America.  When you look out over the empty, empty great plains, remember they are not as they should be.  All sorts of camels should be running around.  Unfortunately the ones that did not leave for Asia and South America were all killed by the grinding ice ages, the fell hand of man, or by unknown factors.

An artistic reconstruction of the newly discovered Arctic camels

An artistic reconstruction of the newly discovered Arctic camels

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