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Happy Halloween! Here at Ferrebeekeeper we continue working through a list of snake monsters from around the world.  Today’s monster is from South African lore—but it is a little unclear what tradition it hales from.  Maybe, as in the case of, say, Bigfoot, the legends of indigenous people got mashed together with the aspirations and fears of European explorers, miners, and settlers to create an unsettling hybrid being…At any rate, this creature, the Grootslang, is said to be a colossal hybrid of an elephant and a serpent left over from the primordial building of the world.  The gods created a creature of enormous size, colossal intellect, dark cunning, and insatiable greed…oh and bendiness.  Grootslangs were soon destroying the newly created world, and the gods realized they had made a terrible mistake.  They separated the beings into different categories, giving size & intellect to the great elephants and supple cunning and greed to snakes.

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Yet some (or one?) Grootslang escaped and lived on to trouble humankind.  Myths assert that the Grootslang was even more avaricious, parsimonious, and cunning than diamond prospectors and Dutch colonial merchants (so obviously the stories are fake).  The Grootslang    is said to live in a cave filled with infinite diamonds somewhere in the Richtersveld of South Africa.  It is enormously wealthy and delights in cruelly torturing unwary prospectors to death, however its greed is it weakness and victims can prolong their life by offering it treasure and deals.  Alas, the Grootslang kept not just the cruelty strength and wealth of the ancient gods it also had their unearthly acumen and cunning, so deals made with it tended to go horribly wrong, in the manner of dragon curses from medieval tales.  So, if you run into the Grootslang you can potentially save yourself by offering it diamonds, but probably everything will come apart and you will be in a worse situation than you were originally.

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Hmm, maybe this thing is actually a metaphor for DeBeers…

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The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvarangam is a colossal temple to the Hindu god Vishnu (or, more specifically, it is dedicated to Ranganātha, a reclining form of Vishnu).  Located on an island in the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu, the temple is one of the most illustrious (and largest) temples in India. The complex includes 21 monumental ornamental towers (including the 72 meter (236 foot)  Rajagopuram), 39 pavilions, fifty shrines, all within a 156 acre complex which includes six miles of concentric walls.  The shrines, walls, and towers are bedecked in stunning stone statuary painted in all of the brilliant colors of South India.

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The story of the temple’s creation is steeped in Hindu myth: Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu completed his devotions to Vishnu by worshiping a mysterious idol.  After killing Ravana and returning victorious from Sri Lanka (as detailed in the Ramayana) Rama gave this sacred statue to King Vibhishana.  The king planned on taking the statue to Sri Lanka, but when he set it down while resting on an island, it became rooted to the spot.

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The temple itself was built by the Chola Dynasty, India’s longest lived dynasty.  There is a further legend of the temple’s construction: a Chola king chased a parrot into the deep forest and found the idol overgrown by jungle.  He built the complex around the statue and the temple was maintained and expanded by the great dynasties of Southern India–the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties.  The oldest parts of the building seem to date back to the 10th century AD, but written sources do not accurately convey the precise chronology.  The great temples of South India are themselves primary historical sources, but alas, they are not as particular about dates as historians might like.

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It is difficult to even begin to describe the sumptuous beauty and complexity of the ornaments of Sri Ranganathaswamy.  The colorful and intricate statues of the figures from Vishnu’s lives and incarnations have an otherworldly and alien beauty not found elsewhere.  Nor will I attempt to  describe the meaning of Vishnu’s iconography (although if you are as smitten by his reclining beauty as I am you can read about Ananta Shesha, the many headed cobra god which serves as his divine couch).

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This is the perfect time of year for delicious pecan pies! Unfortunately, if I made such a tasty and expensive confection, I would eat four slices and then the rest would sit sadly in the refrigerator (since my roommate wants to live forever and thus fears Crisco and corn syrup). So I will hoard my precious bag of pecans for Thanksgiving and instead blog about the magnificent pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)–an Apollo among trees, which is as beautiful and large as it is beloved and useful! Pecan trees are members of the Hickory genus, Carya, which is named for an archaic Greek tree-nut goddess (whom I need to blog about another day). While there are a few Hickory species in Mexico, Canada, China, and Indochina, the majority are native to the United States (which probably indicates that the trees originated here and spread elsewhere). Pecan trees are native to the southeastern and southcentral United States and spread down into northern Mexico. The word “pecan” is a borrow word from Algonquian (!) and it means “nut so hard it takes a stone to crack it open” (Algonquian, evidently, is masterful at compressing hunter-gatherer concepts into extreme brevity). Pecans have been planted and used as a food source by Native American peoples for a long, long time so it is hard to tell where exactly the tree originated within its range.

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Rich in proteins and healthy fats and requiring no preparation to eat, pecans are an almost perfect food for humans (in stark opposition to Crisco and corn syrup). Pecans keep fresh within their shells for an entire growing season or longer. The nuts contain protein, sterols, antioxidants, and omega-6 fatty acids. They provide two-to-five times as much food energy as lean meat. Eating a daily handful of pecans lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in a manner similar to statin drugs, and also, “may delay age-related muscle nerve degeneration.” I should probably just eat my bag of pecans and live eternally, but who really wants to be around for the nightmarish robopocalypse (or forgo pie)? Out of convention, I have been calling pecans “nuts”, but the edible part is technically a drupe—a fruit with a single large pit much like a peach or plum. I won’t even mention the rich buttery flavor which is a perfect complement to sweets such as…well, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. Like walnut and hickory (which are close cousins), pecan also makes a magnificent lumber–although it seems a waste to use such a beautiful & useful tree for furniture and cabinetry.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

Unlike most familiar fruit and nut trees, pecan trees get big! A mature tree can grow up to 44 meters in height (144 ft) with an equally wide span. Just imagine a living green sphere the size of a 15 story building. The trees live to more than 300 years of age, so there are pecan trees out there older than our republic (and arguably in better shape)!

A pecan tree growing over George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon

A pecan tree growing over George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon

According to my sources, pecans were not domesticated until the 1880s. However, considering how perfect they are for humans, I can’t help wonder if they coevolved with us quite a bit over the last 14,000 years. Or are we more squirrel-like than we wish to admit? At any rate, today the United States accounts for up to 95 percent of the world’s pecan crop which exceeds 200 thousand tons. The crop is harvested in mid to late October (which probably explains why I could even afford my bag of shelled pecans). Pecans are a perfect food, a perfect timber, a perfect tree. I’m not sure if the Algonquians were right to choose such a spare name—perhaps the pecan tree should be named for a goddess after all. Unlike the monstrous Chinese invader, pecan is the true tree of heaven.

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Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

The traditional narrative of Chinese civilization is that the Han people (who originated on the fertile central plains around the Yellow River) invented cities, writing, advanced agriculture, bronzework, and Chinese civilization in general. The first great era of Han Chinese civilization was the Shang “dynasty” which lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC (although stories persist of an earlier—perhaps mythical—Xia dynasty). After the Shang age, the superior Han gradually spread through all of China incorporating lesser peoples into their greater hegemony (which endures to this day as the mighty nation we call China). This narrative was called into question in 1986 when workers at the Lanxing Second Brick Factory in Sichuan discovered an ancient pit full of exceedingly weird and magnificent bronze statues.

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Archaeologists flocked to the site and began researching the civilization which was behind these strange works or art. It became apparent that the bronzeworks came from a culture which was contemporary to Shang dynasty China, but which was not directly connected. These ancient people are known as the Sanxingdui culture. They flourished in the Sichuan region, but, aside from the self-evident fact that they were gifted bronze artists, very little is known about the. Archaeologists speculate that the Sanxingdui people lived unified under a strong centralized theocracy in a walled city; also some Chinese scholars identify the Sanxingdui with the Shu kingdom (which is mentioned occasionally in extremely ancient Shang-era sources). I would love to tell you more, but since the Sanxingdui left no recorded history, that is virtually all we know about the creators of these exquisite bug-eyed sculptures and masks. It is believed that some natural disaster or invasion wiped out their city-state and the survivors became integrated with the Ba culture which were in turn swallowed up by the Chin Empire.

 

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Whatever the truth about them, they made amazing art. In addition to the huge alien faces, animals such as snakes, fish, and birds abound in Sanxingdui artwork—as do zoomorphic combination animals and fantasy creatures like dragons. Practical items such as axes and chariot wheels were also found.  Naturally there is a vocal minority out there who insist that Sanxingdui culture was influenced by aliens, Atlantis, or whatever other supernatural entity du jour is selling books, but to find out more about them, we are going to have to wait for more discoveries.

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

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.

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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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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?

Bullockornis (with human-size silhouette for comparison)

Bullockornis (with human-size silhouette for comparison)

My sincere apologies for being such a truant blogger last week!  Not only did I fail to post any new articles since Tuesday, I unpardonably left you stuck with nothing but the flimsy Ms. Perry during that time. In order to apologize, allow me to take you on a trip to the island continent of Australia…15 million years ago during the Middle Miocene. During this time one of the largest birds ever lived across Australia: a giant fowl named Bullockornis.

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Bullockornis

Bullockornis was a 2.5 meter tall (8 foot 2 inch) gooselike bird.  The creature weighed in at approximately 500 kilograms (1100 pounds) and scientists believe it was actually related to the modern geese and ducks.   If you have ever met a modern goose, you will realize that a goose the size of a bear would be a formidable creature indeed.  Additionally Bullockornis possessed a razor sharp beak with immensely powerful jaw muscles.  It is hard not to imagine the giant bird nipping off a he-man’s arms like corn kernels or biting through bridge cables with this monstrous beak, but the truth is scientists don’t know what the bird used it for.  The monstrous goose could have been a hunting carnivore (like certain ducks are today) or an herbivore which grazed on heavy dense plants.  Perhaps, like contemporary geese, it was an omnivore which hunted, grazed, and opportunistically scavenged whatever it could get.

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Bullockornis was discovered in 1979 but it only became well known when some PR savvy writer christened it the “Demon Duck of Doom”  (which strike me as a silly 1930s Disney-style name, but I guess whatever gets people involved in paleontology is good).  The scientific name “Bullockornis”  means “bullock-bird” but, even though the bird was the size of an ox, it is actually named for Bullock Creek (a rich fossil location in the Northern Territory).  Bullockornis was not the only giant of the Miocene in Australia.  The Bullock Creek fossil beds also contained fossils of Giant horned tortoises, marsupial “lions” (i.e. thylacoleonids) and grazing Diprotodontids—giant wombats (although nothing so large as the mighty Diprotodon which evolved in the Pleistocene).

Fossil Bullockornis Skull

Fossil Bullockornis Skull

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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My favorite mammals are the mighty proboscideans—elephants, mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, moeritheriums, and so on.  I have not written about them more because the only proboscideans we know a lot about are the elephants–and elephants are complicated—they are smart and they have human length lives of great social complexity, all of which makes them hard to write about.  Additionally elephants are tragic—their populations keep shrinking away as humankind grasps for ever more land and poachers kill the great sentient giants for their ivory.  Yet elephants still have a perilous chance to keep on living. What is even sadder than the senseless slaughter of the magnificent elephants are the other proboscideans, which have vanished one by one from earth.  Everyone knows about the woolly mammoth and Cuvieronius, the new world gomphothere, but the last non-elephant proboscideans to have died out were even more contemporary.

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The stegodons (from the extinct subfamily Stegodontinae) evolved in Southeast Asia approximately eleven and half million years ago.  They lived in large swaths of Asia throughout the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs and they survived in Indonesia deep into the Holocene epoch. Radio-carbon dating has dated the last living stegodons to 2,150 BC.  The giants died after the pyramids were built at Giza and great cities had begun to sprout up in Mesopotamia and along the Indus valley.

Stegodons looked much like elephants—a resemblance which has caused much taxonomical confusion. Paleontologists once believed elephants descended from stegondons but It seems now that both stegodons and modern elephants descended from Gomphotheriidae (a sister group to the mammoths).   Stegodons had different molars and their tusks were so close together that their long trunks draped over the sides. There were many species of stegodons, the largest of which were among the largest of proboscideans, far more immense than today’s two elephant species.  The biggest stegodont were 4 m (13 ft) high at the shoulders and had a body length of 8 m (26 ft) which does not even count their 3 meter (10 foot) tusks!

 

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Modern humans reached Southeast Asia 50,000 years ago so we lived in proximity with the stegodons for some time before they vanished.   Certain species of stegodons reached isolated Indonesian islands where, over generations, they shrank into dwarf forms.  These tiny stegodons were hunted by Homo floresiensis, which seems to have been a dwarf species of human (although the scientific community has not reached consensus concerning the nature of Homo floresiensis).  Imagining tiny versions of humans hunting tiny versions of huge elephant-like creatures boggles the mind!  I am profoundly sorry the stegodons dwarf, giant, or otherwise could not have held on for a few more millennia.  I would love to have seen them—or by 4000 years ago were they already as the Saola is now—ever retreating from a world that did not seem to fit them?

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The tree in front of my house right now (you’ll have to imagine the roaring)

Hurricane Sandy is nearly in Brooklyn: the sky looks like a sepulcher and dark winds are roaring down the street.  The gale is howling in the huge London plane trees outside which are swaying and bending as though they were bamboo.  This is nothing to sneer at since trees are nearly a meter (three feet) in diameter and twice as tall as the two and three story houses.  The trees are probably as old as the neighborhood—which was built about a century ago. Hopefully the trees and I will all be standing tomorrow and not floating out in the Atlantic on our way towards Newfoundland.

A London plane tree (Platanus × acerifolia) at Vassar College

For purely academic reasons I looked up London plane trees and I was gratified to discover that they are “fairly wind resistant.”  I was also cheered to learn that the trees are a strange hybrid of Eurasian plane trees and American sycamores.   Only in 17th century Europe were the new world trees planted in proximity to their old world relatives.  The tree loving English realized what a beautiful and hardy tree this is and they began planting the hybrid plane trees along streets.

The trees really are beautiful.  Like the magnificent rainbow eucalyptus, London Plane trees have mottled bark albeit in muted splotches of cream, gray, brow, and verdigris rather than in insanely colorful stripes.  The trees can grow to 35 meters in height and can be up to 3 meters in circumference–in fact there is (hopefully still) one that big by a nearby church.

London plane trees at Union Square Park (NYC)

Resistant to pollution and able to survive with highly compacted roots, the London plane tree is a perfect ornamental city tree—so much so that the NYC Parks Department tries to limit its planting since the hybrid sycamore/plane makes up more than 10% of the trees in the city.  Ironically the logo of the NYC Parks Department is a London plane tree leaf crossed with a Maple leaf.

Support NYC Parks!

The London plane tree is said to have beautiful wood which looks like freckled pink lace.  The tree also grows ample crops of spiky seed balls which are eaten by squirrels and birds.  The true worth of the tree is as a magnificent living specimen tree.  I am devoutly wishing for the best for the plane trees on my street (and not only because they tower over the stone house I am inside).

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