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Sochi, Russia

Sochi, Russia

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia which is a city on the Black Sea near the Georgia border.   The games will be the first winter games to feature medals competitions in “Slopestyle” snowboard and skiing as well as snowboard parallel slalom.

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Of course the real competitions have already been held: namely the insane International competition to host the Olympics (which came down to a choice between Sochi, Salzburg, and Pyeongchang) and, more importantly, the competition to choose the official Olympic mascots.   You will no doubt recall that the 2012 summer Olympics mascots were “Wenlock and Mandeville”, two cyclopean alien robot monsters.

Wenlock and Mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville (sigh)

In an attempt to end up with less appalling mascots, Russia turned to the time honored Russian solution of…democracy (?).  Wow! The world really is changing.  A list of vetted candidates was drawn up and submitted to the public for consideration.  Some of the shortlisted design ideas included Matryoshka dolls, Dolphins, Bullfinches, snow leopards, hares, bears, a tiny anthropomorphized sun, and Ded Moroz (the Russian “Father Frost” who acts as Santa).

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the anti-establishment furry crowned toad (who was modeled after Futurama’s hypnotoad) was quietly omitted from the final list of candidates as was Ded Moroz, when it was discovered that, if he won, he would become the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee.

Sorry Ded, you must belong to the children of Russia

Sorry Ded, you already belong to the children of Russia

A telephone voting competition was held between the final mascot candidates and the three winners (the snow leopard, hare, and bear) became the official Olympic mascots.  Unfortunately the election was tainted with scandal when Russia’s elected leader and perennial strongman, Vladimir Putin announced that his favorite candidate was the snow leopard.  Subsequent to this proclamation, an immense number of phonecalls were immediately tallied for the snow leopard, which has led to charges of vote-rigging (so maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all).

The winners

The winners

The designer of the 1980 Moscow Games mascot Misha (a bear which nobody saw because of the U.S. boycott) has accused the designer of the Sochi bear mascot of plagiarizing his bear expression.  Certain political groups have also darkly hinted that the bear was chosen because it resembles the mascot of the United Russia political party (which is the dominant force in Russian politics).

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

So it seems only the snow hare and the Paralympic mascots (a snowflake girl and fireboy) are untainted by controversy.  I dislike admitting it, but to my eye, Putin was right and the snow leopard, although not native to Sochi, is the most compelling figure.  They are all pretty cute, so maybe this whole democracy thing actually works (despite the ghastly results we have been getting lately in America).

Better than Congress!

Better than Congress by a lot!

Aplysia californica (The California Sea Hare)

Aplysia californica (The California Sea Hare)

Behold Aplysia californica–an extremely large sea slug which grazes on red algae along the California coast.  The mollusk is rarely found at depths deeper than 20 meters.  It grows to seventy-five cm (thirty inches) in length and weighs a whopping 7kg (15.4 lbs).  Aplysia californica belongs to a family of sea slugs known as the sea hares –so called because the two rhinophores (smelling organs) atop the creatures’ heads are fancifully said to resemble a rabbit’s ears.

Aplysia californica (photo by Chris Nelson)

Aplysia californica (photo by Chris Nelson)

Although this Pacific gastropod is interesting in its own right, the slug is of greatest importance to humankind as a research animal (like the regenerating axolotl).  Aplysia has only 20,000 neuron cells–as opposed to a human brain which contains between ten and a hundred billion–and the slug’s neurons are extremely large.  This allows neuroscientists to easily observe and assess physiological and molecular changes which take place in the cells when the slug learns something.  Aplysia research is thus at the cutting edge of neuroscience.  Nearly everything we know about the molecular basis of memory and learning started out as research with the humble gastropod.

A Cartoon of a Sea Hare Learning

A Cartoon of a Sea Hare Learning

A news piece on CNN today featured Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine & Physiology for neural research (mainly on these slugs) and made immense headway on what is probably the great cellular biology mystery of our time.  It is a pleasure to see a science article on CNN online but it was also somewhat dismaying to see how many comments were basically “why are we wasting money on studying slugs?”  In case it is not self-evident why we are trying to discover the fundamental molecular mechanisms of memory and cognition, here is a brief and not-at-all comprehensive list.

Understanding these underlying biological processes would probably help us find therapy for neuro-degenerative disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease).  It might also allow us to comprehend a number of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression.  At some point in the future, understanding the molecular basis of memories and thoughts might also allow for the engineering of some sort of bioimplant for the nervous system.  You could learn Sanscrit by popping a chip in your head or record your nightmares via wire!   Beyond such science fiction concepts, knowing about how the brain works is an end into itself—understanding the most complicated known structure in the universe is a necessary step to building structures of greater complexity.

brain-storm

Although perhaps the politically polemicized commenters who object to studying the sea hare actually reject the creature’s sex life–which is indeed somewhat at odds with traditional notions of romance and propriety.

edus826016Like all sea hares, Aplysia californica is a hermaphrodite with both male and female reproductive organs.  Because of its physiology it can (and does!) use both sets of organs simultaneously during mating. Multiple Aplysia have been known to form chains of more than 20 animals (somewhat like pop beads) where each animal simultaneously acts as a male and female at the same time with its fore and aft partners.  Copulation lasts for many hours (or sometimes for days). One can see how the creatures’ amorous predilections might not sit well with puritans and fundamentalists, however for providing a window into molecular neurophysiology we owe this gentle sea slug a big round of thanks.

"Take a bow! Hmm, somebody teach the slug to bow."

“Take a bow! Hmm, somebody teach the slug to bow.”

Magpies and Hare (Ts’ui Po, 1061 AD, ink and watercolor on silk)

Here is an exquisite painting by the Song dynasty master Ts’ui Po which shows two magpies haranguing a passing hare.  It is strange to think that this delicate and refined work was painted 5 years before the battle of Hastings.  The word for magpie is homonymous with the word for happiness—so two magpies represent double happiness–shuāngxǐ—which is one of the most universal Chinese concepts. Lucky shuāngxǐ symbols are plastered all over all sorts of Chinese establishments and goods (I put one at the bottom of this post and I’m sure you’ll recognize it).  Ts’ui Po was famed for his ability to find the underlying rhythm in natural subjects and express it with simple fluid brushwork:  the entire painting is structured as a gentle S-shaped curve, but within that compositional framework the hare and the magpies have their own calligraphic energy.  Also note how wind is blowing back the branches, leaves, and weeds in the painting.   Ts’ui Po captured the tao moving within a small ephemeral moment of natural beauty.

Today (February 3rd, 2011) is the first day of the Chinese year 4709, the year of the metal rabbit. You should go have some dumplings and rice wine and then light a bunch of firecrackers and dance with a giant dragon! If you have any business in China, you should relax—nothing is getting done there for nearly a fortnight.  This is by far the biggest and most important holiday of the year.  For two weeks, the ceaseless seething all-consuming industry of rising China comes to a stop.  Even the meanest factory drudges take time off to leave the manufacturing cities and travel back to the country for some well-earned time with family and loved ones.  When you celebrate the year of the rabbit you will be doing so with more than a billion souls.

The Year of the Metal Rabbit

The rabbit is a mythological figure of great standing in the Chinese pantheon.  The divine jade rabbit is a sage and a potion master capable of mixing the elixer of immortality.  He dwells on the moon with the beautiful and troubling moon goddess Chang’e, but every once in a while he scampers down to earth to perform good deeds and instruct worthwhile students.  In the middle ages he reputedly saved the inhabitants of Beijing from a plague!

The Jade Rabbit mixes potions in front of his mansion on the moon.

According to astrologers and geomancers the year of the rabbit is traditionally associated with the family and the homestead. It is a good time for artistic pursuits, diplomatic missions, and for shoring up the peace (which always needs to be shored up after a dramatic and dangerous  tiger year).   People born in the Year of the Rabbit are ambitious and have excellent taste and fashion sense.  They are frequently financially lucky: their ability to sense danger and flee from it gives them an edge in business.  It goes without saying that they are cautious and careful, never yielding to impulse.  Well—not never–although outwardly reserved, rabbits have their own private life.  You can look to the animal kingdom for instruction…

Speaking of the animal kingdom, this week we are celebrating Furry Herbivore Week here at Ferrebeekeeper (I made the text red since it’s not a real thing), and the rabbit has a place of honor. Few animals are more universally known and more universally successful. The family Leporidae consists of over 50 species of rabbits and hares and, together with the family Ochotonidae (the pikas), constitutes the order Lagomorpha.  But whereas pikas have a limited range, rabbits and hares are found worldwide except for Antarctica (and possibly Manhattan).  The Encyclopedia of Mammals eloquently describes the basic leporidae design:

Leporids are small to moderately sized mammals, adapted for rapid movement. They have long hind legs, with four toes on each foot, and shorter fore legs, with five toes each. The soles of their feet are hairy, to improve grip while running, and they have strong claws on all of their toes. Leporids also have distinctive, elongated and mobile ears, and they have an excellent sense of hearing. Their eyes are large, and their night vision is good, reflecting their primarily nocturnal or crepuscular mode of living.

Together with a quick and fecund reproductive cycle and a taste for readily available vegetation, this is a winning design.  Few families of mammal are more bountiful.  When rabbits and hares were introduced to the continent of Australia, they overran it completely.  Armies of bunnies have subsequently wrecked havoc on the lives of marsupial herbivores with which they compete. It is one of the most disastrous stories of invasive animals in history.

But to the rabbits it was a story of success.  It always is.  Individual rabbit stories end with jaws or talons or steel snares, but the overall story is always a running leaping thriving tale of victory.  You shouldn’t look at one rabbit or hare, you should look at them all.  When you do you will be amazed by the luck and resiliency and beauty of the leporids.  I hope you think about them sometimes as you embark on your own happy and successful year of the rabbit!

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