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[As a special weekend treat–and in keeping with this week’s theme, kindly find a repeat of a post about brown bullhead catfish from 3 years ago]

The most common catfish in New York State is the brown bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosus) a fish sometimes also gracelessly known as the “mud pout” or the “horned pout”.  The brown bullhead lacks the beauty and charisma of many other catfish.  It is not electrical, has no armor, does not walk, and does not grow to immense size (average fish are usually 14 inches long or smaller).   It has two-tone coloration: unremarkable brown above and off-white below (although, like most fish, it can adapt somewhat to local conditions).

 

The Brown Bullhead Catfish

The fish does however illustrate one of the reasons I like catfish and write about them so much.  It is the most common catfish of New York State, a state marked by extreme differences of population density, landscape, temperature, and water quality. The brown bullhead is a hard-to-kill generalist which does well everywhere in the state (and throughout the east coast, the Great Lakes, the midwest, and the south).  It can be found in Prospect Park, a short walk from my apartment just as easily as in a cold Adirondack lake. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website describes the fish as follows:

Brown bullheads are probably the most adaptable member of the catfish family and live in a wide variety of habitats. They exemplify the hardiness of catfishes in general, tolerating both high water temperatures and low oxygen levels. They are present in many cool Adirondack lakes and often abundant in warm water ponds, lakes, and larger, slow moving streams. They occur in areas with or without aquatic vegetation and can be found over both muddy and gravelly bottoms.

The brown bullhead has the same exquisitely refined senses as other catfish.  Its whole body is covered with taste buds, which are particularly numerous on its eight barbels.  Though not especially large, the creature is strong, agile, and flexible.  An omnivore, the brown bullhead is protected from predators by the extremely sharp spines on its dorsal fin and its pectoral fins.  Both parents builds nests together and together they protect the eggs and even the young fry for a while after hatching.  Most astonishingly, the fish is heartily indifference to water pollution which makes it the foremost city catfish.  Below it is pictured with the other common New York City fish.  It is apparently a reasonably fun sportfish, although some fishing experts think that it is only suitable for child anglers (due to how extensively it can be found).   When not caught in polluted water it makes a tasty meal.

Whereas I usually write about invasive species coming from some exotic locale to the United States, the brown bullhead is the opposite.  When introduced abroad it has been the classic ugly American, stealing food and habitat from native species or eating them outright (which seems even more gauche than my habit of anxiously overtipping). Large populations have now established themselves in Europe, Russia, China, Australia, and New Zealand and the fish keep expanding their range.

“Free me petty human! Soon your world will belong to us!”

When I was a boy I was wandering around in my grandfather’s storage shed when I found a ragged hand woven sack filled with mystery blobs.  These powdery golden-orange nuggets were hard (albeit slightly gummy) and they had a translucent glow.  When I inquired about the alien substance, my grandfather pulled a glowing ember from the fire and set one of the weird nuggets on top of the hot coal.  Immediately an aromatic cloud of smoke welled up from the lump and filled the room.  The glorious smell was simultaneously like lemon and pine but with deep strange medicinal undertones of cedar and some unidentifiable otherworldly spiciness.  It was transfixing. The blobs were frankincense, obtained in Somalia during the fifties (my grandparents and mother and uncle were living there on diplomatic/government business).  The unprepossessing amber lumps turned out to be the incense of kings and gods.

Frankincense

Frankincense has been harvested from the arid deserts of Southern Arabia and Northeast Africa since prehistoric times.  The hardened resin which is also known as olibanum is the product of tiny scrub trees from the family Boswellia.  The sacred frankincense tree Boswellia sacra, produces an especially fine grade (although the same tree can produce different grades of frankincense depending on the time of year).

A Boswellia Tree (Frankincense Tree)

Frankincense trees are tough trees capable of surviving on misty breezes from the ocean, rocky limestone soil, and little else.  Certain species of Boswellia trees are able to produce a disk-like bulb which adheres to sheer rock.  The trees can thereby cling to boulders and cliffs in severe windstorms.  The incense is harvested by carefully scraping a wound in the tree’s bark and then returning later to harvest the hardened resin (although such mistreatment is said to gradually diminish the trees).

For countless centuries, bags of frankincense and other aromatic resins were the chief trade products of regions of the southern Arabian Peninsula (in what are today Yemen and Oman).  These compounds were of tremendous importance to the ancient Egyptians for both cosmetic and funerary purposes.  In Biblical times, incense was traded throughout the Middle East and in the classical Greco-Roman world.  The fragrant resins even were exported to ancient India and dynastic China where they became part of traditional medicine and ritual.

An earthenware censer with lead glaze from the Eastern Han dynasty, 25-220 AD

This incense trade was allegedly centered in the quasi-mythical lost city Iram of the Pillars.  In this oasis at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali dunes, the Ubar people dwelled in a beautiful columned city. According to the Quran, the city of Iram met an apocalyptic doom when its ruler, King Shaddad defied the warnings of the prophet Hud .  Shaddad’s impiety caused Allah to smite the entire region into the sands.  All of this was regarded as mythology until space-based imaging systems (including LandSat, SPOT, and shuttle data) revealed that ancient caravan trails did indeed center on a collapsed oasis.  It is speculated that over millennia, the inhabitants had drained the ancient subterranean aquifer, which ultimately caused the ground to collapse—a salutary lesson for the aquifer based cities of Western America! Whatever the cause, the frankincense industry contracted greatly around 300 AD, although plenty of resin still went to medicinal and liturgical buyers.

Frankincense is purported to have many pharmacological uses, particularly as an anti-inflammatory agent, an anti-depressant, and an anti-cancer treatment. Although initial clinical studies of these claims seem encouraging, the safety and efficacy of frankincense is still being tested and reviewed.  Sources on the web suggested that a recent study by Johns Hopkins biologists and doctors from Hebrew University in Jerusalem found that inhaling frankincense incense could alleviate anxiety and depression (but again my sources are unclear so don’t run out and start eating frankincense if you are suffering from holiday blues).  Even if frankincense does not provide us with a new class of wonder drugs, it remains useful for deterring insects, including the deadly malarial mosquitoes.  Additionally, as noted above,  frankincese smells wonderful.  Maybe you should run to your local caravan and pick some up.

Or wherever you go for incense these days...

Lichen (by WiseAcre)

Cast your imagination back half a billion years ago to the Cambrian geological period.  Although Earth’s oceans were seething with strange experimental life forms, the alien continents were bleak and empty.  Huge brown mountains sloughed away into giant canyons. Black volcanoes eroded into naked black beaches. Great flash floods poured over a landscape bare of plants and animals. No horsetails grew.  No dragonfly buzzed.  Not even a miserable liverwort crouched by the empty streams. But were the ancient continents entirely bare? No—bacterial films and single cell algae were believed to have covered the land, and looming above that primitive slime were the first lichens, symbiotic life forms so hardy that they alone thrive on continental Antarctica today.

Red Lichen living in Antarctica (photo by Gerhard Hüdepohl from Atacamaphoto.com)

Lichen is a bizarre composite organism in which a fungus is paired with a photosynthesizing partner (either green algae or cyanobacteria).  The thallus of lichen (which makes up the organism’s body) is very different from either the fungal or algal components living on their own.  The fungi surround and hold up the algae by sinking tendrils through the algal cell walls (in much the same manner parasitic fungi attack their hosts).  By sharing the resources of the two different partners the organism is capable of surviving extreme desiccation, and, when the lichen is again exposed to moisture, a flood of nutrients becomes available to both partners.

Lichen (from "Art Forms of Nature" E. Haeckel)

The partnership makes for an extraordinarily resilient organism which can be found everywhere on land from the rainforests to the deserts to the highest mountains to the harsh frozen rocks of Antarctica. The European Space agency explored the durability of lichen by blasting living specimens into outer space where, to quote the ESA, the organisms were “exposed to vacuum, wide fluctuations of temperature, the complete spectrum of solar UV light and bombarded with cosmic radiation. During the Foton-M2 mission, which was launched into low-Earth orbit on 31 May 2005, the lichens…(Rhizocarpon geographicum and Xanthoria elegans) were exposed for a total 14.6 days before being returned to Earth….Analysis post flight showed a full rate of survival and an unchanged ability for photosynthesis.”

Lichen dot the face of a Song Dynasty statue on Qingyuan Mountain, China.

Lichens’ strange partnership also creates strange morphological forms. In many circumstances these organisms resemble exotic corals, sponges, or plants. Additionally, many lichens are brightly colored.  The result is often a miniature landscape of bizarre beauty.  I have included some photos from sundry sources but you should check out the lichen photos at Stephen Sharnoff’s site (even disfigured by the trademark, his lichen photos are the best on the net).

Competing Lichens Growing on a Rock

Since it involves both algae and fungi, lichen reproduction can be complicated and takes many different forms depending on the species and the circumstance.  Some lichens form soredia, small groups of algal cells surrounded by fungal filaments which are dispersed as a group by wind. Others produce isidia, elongated outgrowths from the thallus which break away.  During the dry season, certain lichens crumble into dusty flakes which are blown across the landscape.  When the rains come the flakes burst into full growths.  In the most interesting and complicated pattern of reproduction, the fungal portion of the lichen produces spores (as a result of sexual exchange and meiosis) these spores are disseminated across the landscape and then must find compatible algae or cyanobacteria with which to partner.

 

Community Lichens is in the Sawtooth Mountains (photo by Mark Dimmitt)

Lichens are probably long lived and it is possible that somewhere there are those that make the bristlecone pines seem young and have lasted as long as Pando, but who knows?  We have not explored and documented the world’s lichens very completely…or even fully understood the mechanisms of their partnership.  What is certain is that they are one of life’s most efficient colonizers: in areas such as the Atacama Desert and Antarctica, plants cannot grow unless lichen lived there previously (in fact I am going to include this post in my “invaders” category for just this reason). Lichens are also efficient at exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, and they are a critical link in the carbon cycle capable of fixing elemental carbon back into the soil and into the ecosystem.  When you look at a tundra landscape and savor the beauty of reindeer, mountains, and arctic birds, spare a thought for the ancient lichen, one of the first organisms on the land and still one of the most important.

Lichen slowly colonize a New England gravestone from the 1700's.

The most common catfish in New York State is the brown bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosus) a fish sometimes also gracelessly known as the “mud pout” or the “horned pout”.  The brown bullhead lacks the beauty and charisma of many other catfish.  It is not electrical, has no armor, does not walk, and does not grow to immense size (average fish are usually 14 inches long or smaller).   It has two-tone coloration: unremarkable brown above and off-white below (although, like most fish, it can adapt somewhat to local conditions). 

The Brown Bullhead Catfish

The fish does however illustrate one of the reasons I like catfish and write about them so much.  It is the most common catfish of New York State, a state marked by extreme differences of population density, landscape, temperature, and water quality. The brown bullhead is a hard-to-kill generalist which does well everywhere in the state (and throughout the east coast, the Great Lakes, the midwest, and the south).  It can be found in Prospect Park, a short walk from my apartment just as easily as in a cold Adirondack lake. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website describes the fish as follows: 

Brown bullheads are probably the most adaptable member of the catfish family and live in a wide variety of habitats. They exemplify the hardiness of catfishes in general, tolerating both high water temperatures and low oxygen levels. They are present in many cool Adirondack lakes and often abundant in warm water ponds, lakes, and larger, slow moving streams. They occur in areas with or without aquatic vegetation and can be found over both muddy and gravelly bottoms.

The brown bullhead has the same exquisitely refined senses as other catfish.  Its whole body is covered with taste buds, which are particularly numerous on its eight barbels.  Though not especially large, the creature is strong, agile, and flexible.  An omnivore, the brown bullhead is protected from predators by the extremely sharp spines on its dorsal fin and its pectoral fins.  Both parents builds nests together and together they protect the eggs and even the young fry for a while after hatching.  Most astonishingly, the fish is heartily indifference to water pollution which makes it the foremost city catfish.  Below it is pictured with the other common New York City fish.  It is apparently a reasonably fun sportfish, although some fishing experts think that it is only suitable for child anglers (due to how extensively it can be found).   When not caught in polluted water it makes a tasty meal.

Whereas I usually write about invasive species coming from some exotic locale to the United States, the brown bullhead is the opposite.  When introduced abroad it has been the classic ugly American, stealing food and habitat from native species or eating them outright (which seems even more gauche than my habit of anxiously overtipping). Large populations have now established themselves in Europe, Russia, China, Australia, and New Zealand and the fish keep expanding their range.

"Free me petty human! Soon your world will belong to us!"

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