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H-140-42 Hura crepitans

Today let us appreciate a fearsome tree! The Sandbox tree (Hura crepitans) is a native of the spurge family (like poinsettias and baseball plants). However the Sandbox tree is not a tiny houseplant: it can grow to 60 meters (200 feet) tall and has majestic oval leaves that measure 60 centimeters (2 feet) across.  The tree originated in the super competitive biome of the Amazon rainforest, but it has been spreading North through tropical Central America, and invasive colonies have a foothold in tropical East Africa.

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The bark of the sandbox tree

Perhaps the somewhat  anodyne name “sandbox tree” has you picturing a lovable tree for a children’s nursery or something.  Dispel that rosy picture from your mind!  Hura crepitans is a monster plant in every way.  Not only is it 60 meters tall,  its trunk is covered in enormous sharpened spines which would make a Clive Barker villain cry.  If you hack through the spines to injure the tree, the sap turns out to be a milky caustic poison which has been used by indigenous hunters to tip arrows and (allegedly) to kill fish.  The tree grows a fruit which looks like a vile pumpkin made of hardwood.  These jabillo fruit are toxic, but they are not meant to beguile animals into devouring the seeds anyway.  Instead they explode like hand grenades causing a raucous bang and throwing seeds 50 meters (150 feet) from the tree.

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So why is this giant, spiny, exploding, poisonous tree called the sandbox tree anyway? We don’t call rhinoceroses “playground ponies”.  It feels like there has been a substantial nomenclatural failure here (at least in terms of the English common name).  As it turns out, during the 19th century, the symmetrical green jabillo pods were harvested, dried out, and sawed into little dishes which were filled with pounce.  Pounce is powder made of pulverized cuttlefish bone which was sprinkled on crude paper of yesteryear to size it (i.e. to make it possible to write on) or to dry the heavy ink lines from nibs and quills.  Wow! It is easy to forget that people of yesteryear were as freakish in repurposing natural materials into household items as we are with our endless disposable plastic goods.

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We will get back to plans for a Hart Island memorial in the immediate future, but right now there is something which needs to be dealt with right now.  Eight years ago, Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the nightmarish Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) a 5 centimeter (2 inch) long flying murder machine from East Asia.  The Asian giant hornet’s sting contains neurotoxins and an enzyme which dissolves flesh.  They are capable of stinging again & again & again…and then going home and living long successful lives untroubled by regret (unlike poor honey bees which perish after delivering one sting).  Every year the giant hornets kill dozens of innocent people who aren’t even allergic to bees.

And now they are here…

To quote ABC News,

The hornet was sighted for the first time in the U.S. last December, when the state Department of Agriculture verified two reports near Blaine, Washington, close to the Canadian border. It also received two probable, but unconfirmed reports from sites in Custer, Washington, south of Blaine.

This is obviously bad news for humankind…but, let’s be honest…nobody is really that worried about us.  We are already the Asian Giant Hornet of the primate world (and primates are truly aggressive, cunning animals).  Plus there are billions of us and we have all sorts of diabolical machines and contraptions.  The ones who are really in trouble because of this terrifying invasive hornet are bees.  Asian Giant Hornets live by hunting other insects like smaller hornets, praying mantises, and, especially honey bees.  Washington is the nation’s orchard.  It’s honey bees were already in trouble and they are not ready for this (did yoou click that link to the earlier post).  Gentle, kindly honeybees may never be ready.

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All of this means the giant hornets have got to go. We have a brief window where we could maybe stamp them out (figuratively…even our big feet might not be big enough to stamp them out literally).  So if you see a hornet the size of a goldfinch with Deadpool’s face (except the color of a finely aged, um, schoolbus) kindly call the Washington Department of Agriculture  as soon as possible*.  Do not grab a machete and a flamethrower and try to tackle these things on your own:  you will just end up on the Schmidt pain index.

(*Seriously? It’s only May, how much weirder are public service announcements going to get this year?)

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Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lerviaaoudad

This handsome fellow is an aoudad (Ammotragus lervia), aka a Barbary Sheep. These caprids are approximately the same size as domestic goats and weigh from 40 to 140 kg (88 to 300 lb).  Their original range was the desert and arid scrubland of Northern Africa–the northern margins of the Sahara in Algeria, Tunisia, northern Chad, Egypt, Libya, northern Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Sudan–however as the Sahara expands and grows hotter and more dry, the aoudad is going extinct in its home range.

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Desert Bighorns (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

This is where the issue becomes morally complex.  Bestiary keepers and gentleman hunters of previous eras imported populations of Barbary sheep to other parts of the world which more closely resemble the now vanished ancestral scrublands of the Sahara.  Thus Aoudads might be going extinct in North Africa, but they are flourishing in Texas.  Their success comes at the expense of the endangered native caprid of Texas, the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) a desert subspecies of bighorn which once dwelt in Texas in thriving herds before over-hunting, disease, and habitat loss nearly wiped them out.  The Aoudad is larger and more aggressive (and requires less water) than the bighorn.  The invader is out-competing the native, and Texans are up in arms about it–quite literally, since they are renowned as a gun-toting people.  Aoudads, so precious in their original home in North Africa, are being blasted away as invasive pests in Texas.

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My interpretation is that climate change is making West Texas more like the Sahara used to be (and making the Sahara more like the Atacama…or like the sunny side of the moon). Although, there are lots of factors at play when it comes  to whether an organism is successful in an ecosystem, climate change affects a lots of these variables.   Aoudads and bighorns have a relationship sort of like the round goby and the mottled sculpin (remember them) although the Aoudads don’t actually eat the bighorns’ eggs, they just run the males off and pointlessly hoard all of the bighorn ewes.  We are going to see more of these situations involving invasive creatures and we are going to have to start thinking now about how to best manage climate refugee species.  Do we want Aoudads to go extinct in the wild? Do we want the deserts of Texas to have no wild caprids?  Maybe we need to start releasing desert bighorns in Arkansas or Rhode Island?  What even is a natural habitat in a world where humankind has changed every habitat?

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“Northern riffleshell, snuffbox, clubshell and rayed bean” Remember those names for soon they may indeed be nothing more than memories.  An invader has come to America from the mysterious seas of Central Asia.  This interloper stowed away and came to America 30 years ago.  Authorities are powerless to stop the rampage of terror.  It has already conquered the sinister-sounding Lake Erie, a freshwater sea which is found deep in the hinterlands of…wait…Lake Erie borders New York ? [checks notes]

What on Earth is going on here?

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You may think this absurd looking creature is a sentient hockey puck or the ghost of Jim Backus.  It is instead a goby…a tribe of fish which are sort of the prairie dogs of the sea.  This is the round goby (Neogobius melanostomus).  It is a hard-headed omnivorous fish which can live in both fresh and salt water.  Originally native to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the tiny fish is thought to have come to the Great Lakes by stowing away in ballast water of a freighter.  Since its arrival in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, it has made the entire Great Lakes its home and it is now spreading along the rivers and creeks radiating from the lakes.

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This is a pretty impressive feat and nobody is castigating the ugly little fish for being lazy or weak.  In fact it is even sort of endearing in a crude 1970s cartoon sort of way.

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My god, what happened during that decade?

Unfortunately the gobies’ unstoppable appetite is leading to the extinction of indigenous freshwater mussels like the Northern riffleshell and clubshell mussels.  Freshwater mussels were already in trouble because of pollution, habitat loss, and stream degradation.  Now they have to contend with this formidable 9 inch long 2 ounce predator.  I have written this article with a joking touch, but, sadly, this sequence of events is no joke. Ecologists are worried that the gobies will continue to spread (particularly with the help of careless anglers, who use them as live bait).  Understanding and curtailing the proliferation of alien species causing havoc in unprepared ecosystems is one of the defining environmental challenges of our times (which are filled with environmental challenges), but so far nobody has figured out how to do so.  Perhaps in the future the Great Lakes will be filled with the descendants of round gobies eating zebra mussels.  Sometimes it seems like nobody and nothing can keep up with the pace of change.

 

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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.

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The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.

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During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

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There is a scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where James Bond is impersonating a marine biologist (with the fake name “Robert Sterling”!) in order to infiltrate the underwater lair of a sinister supervillain.  Bond has brought all sorts of potentially dangerous luggage, and is dressed in high 70’s fashion…and also happens to be traveling with Barbara Bach, so the villain is a bit suspicious about this new scientist.  “What fish is that?” he quizzes Bond, pointing out the huge undersea window at a magnificent fish covered in poisonous red spines.

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Without hesitation, Bond correctly replies “Pterois Volitans” a red lionfish.  It was a scene that delighted the 12-year old me, since I was a saltwater aquarium enthusiast and, like “Robert Sterling” I knew the Latin name for that fish too.  It was hard not to imagine successfully infiltrating an underwater lair with a beautiful Soviet agent/Ringo Starr’s wife (although that never did end up happening to my 12 year old self).  Also…what was this Indo-Pacific fish doing in Sardinia?

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But The Spy Who Loved Me turned out to be ahead of its time (indeed, in retrospect, the supervillain’s plot to save the oceans from human destruction seems far-sighted too).  Lionfish are clever and aggressive predators which hunt in groups (schools?, prides?, packs?). They are covered in poisonous spines which give pause even to human fishermen with our lines, hooks, poison, and spears. And the beautiful aggressive fish are taking over.  Invasive lionfish escaped from home aquariums and became, uh, feral (is any of this language correct?) and they are now a huge problem in warm seas and oceans around the world.  Lionfish rapidly eat through the delicate tropical fish which form the backbone of reef ecosystems and leave the habitats dead and dying (although climate-change, acidification, and overfishing are probably exacerbating their deadly impact).  As the oceans warm, the fish (which are a sort of scorpionfish) are expanding their territory into what were once temperate oceans.

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However, all is not hopeless.  This article began with ridiculous James Bond stuff and then got serious, but now there is a potential solution to the lionfish problem taken directly from a Bond villain’s playbook.  Concerned marine biologists have teamed up with engineers to build autonomous predatory underwater robots to rid the Caribbean of invasive lionfish. These creepy robots swim through the oceans until they finds a red lionfish. The death machine then sidles up around the invader and zaps it with a mighty jolt of electricity.

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Lionfish are largely unafraid of predators (although some sharks, triggerfish are able to despine them and some groupers and sharks can apparently gulp them down).  I wonder if they will wise up to sinister predatory robots that appear from nowhere.  Will the robots curtail the problem, or will the lionfish adapt around tehm too? Or will none of this even happen?  Keep your eyes peeled to find out the rest of this story as it evolves.

Ugly-PigeonAs a city dweller, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of pigeons (Columbidae) solely as the rock doves (Columba livia) which are the familiar gray and iridescent birds. Rock Doves originated in North Africa, Central Asia, and Europe.  Humans domesticated these birds in antiquity and carried them everywhere during the age of exploration and colonization.  Like the hero of a dystopian novel, the rock dove then cast off its oppressors (manipulative giant primates who were selectively breeding it to kill it and eat it!) and escaped to freedom and worldwide success.  However the rock dove is not the only pigeon—not at all—there are over 310 species in this family.  They are found everywhere on land except for the polar regions.  Some pigeons are analogous to clever tropical parrots, whereas others live like songbirds, or jungle fowl, or like grouse.  They live in deserts, jungles, forests, sand dunes, scrubland, cropland, caves…pretty much everywhere except for oceans and tundra.  Humankind has destroyed a few species of pigeons like the passenger pigeon, the giant pigeon (A.K.A. the Dodo), and the Socorro dove–an oddity which is extinct in the wild but lives cradled in the arms of pigeon fanciers like former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, however most doves are tough and resilient.  They thrive in our concrete cities.  They make livings as performers in Vegas! They fly into empty niches and expand to fill them out.

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In the Biblical myth of the flood, the first living thing to find habitable land after the flood subsided was a dove—which actually seems right.  Pigeons’ doughty wings have carried them to places where other varieties of bird never reached or colonized.  This omnipresence–combined with a placid temperament and serene beauty–has made the pigeon into a holy bird in both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian myth. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, the most abstruse god in the Christian trinity (which already has some really weird divinities in it) is generally represented as a dove.

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Depiction of the Christian Holy Spirit as a dove, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica

The secret to the widespread success of the Columbidae however does not merely involve their strong flying ability.  They steal a trick from the mammals’ book: pigeons of both genders nurse their developing nestlings with “crop milk” a nutritious (albeit disgusting) foodstuff made of fluid filled cells sloughed off from the lining of the birds’ crops (a crop, by the way, is a digestive apparatus in birds—a sort of muscular pouch at the top of the gullet).  This strategy means that pigeon parents can feed their offspring even if they can’t immediately find food.  While other baby birds can be wiped out by a temporary food disruption, pigeon families have a safety net.

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Pigeons are not technically fowl—which constitutes the galliformes and anseriformes (and most domesticated birds).   It has been a while since I added a new category of animal to Ferrebeekeeper—perhaps I will add pigeons on the side over there.  They are more interesting than I imagined.

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It’s a bit past the holidays, but I wanted to share the Christmas present I received.  A plush catfish!  Look at how endearing it is.  There are too few catfish toys. This is a blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus), the largest species of north American catfish, which reached sizes of up to 165 cm (65 in) can weigh more than 68 kg (150 lb).  The blue catfish does not just make a captivating plush toy, its success in the competitive real world also illustrates why the siluriformes are such formidable lifeforms.

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Although blue catfish can eat almost anything, they are highly competent and aggressive predators (look at its predatory lines). They are capable of living in fresh fast water or in torpid brackish water and they possess all the myriad astonishing senses of the catfish in order to master their river home.    This is a problem in the real world.  The fish was originally native to the Mississippi river and most of its tributaries, but, aided by the fell hand of man, the blue catfish was introduced into the rivers and estuaries of Virginia where it has swiftly displaced native life.  Because of its ability to survive brackish water, the mighty catfish of the Mississippi has been taking over parts of the Chesapeake Bay.  Hopefully it wasn’t a mistake to bring one into the house.

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Here is a stamp which combines two of my fascinations—catfish and Namibia.  Of course Namibia is a vast and profoundly arid desert—literally a sea of sand—so perhaps you are wondering how a catfish made it onto their postage.  Well the African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) has a habit of getting everywhere.  It lives throughout most of Africa and the Middle East and (though ill-conceived aquaculture) has established colonies in Vietnam, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.  The catfish is an air breather.  It can sip pure air without the use of its gills, so it can survive in puddles, mud wallows, and even in filthy anaerobic water.  Some of them have moved into the sewers of big cities.  Speaking of big it is arguably Africa’s largest catfish with an average adult length of 1–1.5 m (3 ft 3 inches –4 ft 11 inches).  Even in a dry land like Namibia this tough persistent catfish manages to find watercourses of one sort or another.  Like its close cousin, the walking catfish of Asia, the African sharptooth catfish is a remarkable creature.

African sharptooth catfish (C. gariepinus)

African sharptooth catfish (C. gariepinus)

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