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We have written about all sorts of jeweled crowns here at ferrebeekeeper (I particularly like spinels and aquamarines), but we have avoided taking about the gemstone which is most often reputed to be accursed–the chaotic & iridescent opal!  Can you imagine a cursed opal tiara? That sounds like it could be the McGuffin at the center of a sprawling fantasy epic…or at least a prop in a cozy mystery set in a sprawling manor somewhere.  Yet sadly, when I went online and started poking around, opal crowns (and crown-adjacent aristocratic headdresses) seemed a great deal less accursed than folklore would make them sound.

Whatever your thoughts about this superstition, opal headdresses are certainly beautiful.  Here is a little gallery of opal tiaras, diadems, coronets, and crowns.  Look at the beguiling rainbow of mysterious supernatural stones…

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Perhaps opal tiaras are just rare.  It has been speculated that the reason opals are reputed to be cursed is because they are fragile.  Trapped water inside of amorphous silica is what gives opals their “fire” but it also makes them prone to unexpectedly breaking.  Semi-precious jade has a similar problem, but jade sellers solved the problem by creating their own myth–that if your jade talisman or jewelry cracks, it has absorbed a dreadful misfortune aimed at the wearer.  Now that is how you do marketing.

Alas, the finest opals are more expensive than jade, and if you spend a king’s ransom on a glittering stone that unexpectedly blows apart into sand and jagged glassy pebbles, it is probably hard to see it as anything other than a curse.

These worries however are for the jewel buying class. We can simply enjoy these opal pieces without worrying about them breaking. Ahhhh, isn’t it delightful not to be overly burdened with fragile costly gemstones?

Fire-Opal-Stone-Meaning-Benefits-and-Properties

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“Hey, wait! What the heck?” This is what you may be saying after yesterday’s post, which featured an unlabeled picture of a mystery sea creature (above).

Well worry no more! The mysterious creature is a “sea mouse”, the colloquial name for a genus of polychaete worms which live in the Atlantic Ocean (and the Mediterranean Sea).  The proper genus name for the sea mouses (mice?) is Aphrodita, after the Greek goddess of love (apparently some exceedingly lonely 18th century taxonomists thought the furry oval sea animal with a ventral groove along its bottom resembled the sacred goddess of sexuality in some generative aspect).

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Sea mouses (mice?) are scavengers which feed on the decaying bodies of marine animals [probably: a few sources thought they were hunters].  They live close to shore in the intertidal zone where they creep and burrow as they try to find carrion and avoid predators. To my mind, their English name is vastly better than their scientific name since they scurry furtively across the ocean bottom and since they are covered in what superficially looks like scraggly hair.  This “hair” is more properly called setae—bristles which protect the worm and or help it to hide or communicate.  The setae around the edges of the mice are covered with photonic crystals so they look drab from most angles but sparkle like gorgeous blue/green/gold opals when held a certain way.

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Speaking of bristles, sea mice move by means of parapodia—bristly appendages which serve as feet and which also look somewhat like hair. The creatures measure from 7–15 centimeters (3–6 inches) long; however, some giants can grow to a length of 30 centimeters (12 inches).

The febrile imaginings of long dead natural scientists aside, sea mice (mouses?) are all hermaphrodites with both male and female gonads and sexual organs [probably…different sources disagreed upon their gender orientation, and given today’s social mores, it was thought impolite to inquire].  The worms are incapable of fertilizing themselves though.

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Of course, some of you might still have some questions about this living technicolor hermaphroditic toupee which crawls around on the ocean bottom eating horrible dead things, but I can help you no further.  My limited knowledge of sea mice is all used up.  They aren’t even mollusks (they are more closely related to…well to us…than to clams and squid). Based on the many bracketed addenda and the numerous weasel words in this article, our understanding of these things is pretty superficial. If you want to make a name for yourself in marine biology this may be your chance, provided you can spend a lifetime underwater watching polychaete worms eat and make love!

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Today’s post is about archangels!  Glistening in the sky above us they are the most…wait…archangels the pigeon breed??? Who is choosing these topics? Sigh…ok. Well, in addition to being quasi-divine winged warriors of insane ferocity second in might only to godhead, archangels are also apparently a breed of fancy pigeon.  Germans call them “gimpels” which strikes me as a less dramatic but somehow more appropriate name.

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Like other domesticated pigeons, archangels are descended from the rock pigeon (Columba livia).  The archangel is a small pigeon with featherless legs.  Its claim to distinction is an extremely iridescent head which glistens like burnished metal!  Why does nobody ever say stuff like that about me? In England, “archangel” refers only to black and copper color birds, but here in America we have thrown off such tyrannically narrow definitions and archangels can be any color (and they can have crests or not).

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archangel pigeon (from http://loftone.net/archangels/)

Clearly we are having a bit of fun at the expense of pigeon breeders and the grandiloquent names they give their feathered darlings, but these birds really are cool.  Look at those metallic heads!

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The Green Junglefowl (Gallus varius) photo by NaturePixels.org and BESG

The Green Junglefowl (Gallus varius) photo by NaturePixels.org and BESG

There are four living species of the genus Gallus.  The most familiar (by a ridiculously vast margin) is Gallus gallus—the red junglefowl, aka the chicken! Yet there are some other sorts of junglefowl still out there living in the primordial jungle.  My favorite (for purely aesthetic reasons) is the green junglefowl (Gallus varius), also known as the Javan junglefowl, the forktail or the green Javanese junglefowl.  Like the red junglefowl, the green junglefowl lives in tropical and semitropical forests and scrubland.  It is an omnivore, living largely on seeds, grain, and fruits which it supplements with whatever insects, arthropods, lizards, snakes, and tiny rodents it can catch.

Male Green Junglefowl (Photo by Jeff Whitlock of "The Online Zoo" www.theonlinezoo.com)

Male Green Junglefowl (Photo by Jeff Whitlock of “The Online Zoo” http://www.theonlinezoo.com)

The green junglefowl lives in Indonesia on the islands of Java, Bali, Lombok, Komodo, Flores, and Rinca (and on some smaller islands near to these large landmasses).   The birds live in small flocks of two to five.  Usually a single male lives with a few females which he protects with his sharp spurs and fast beak (although these are poor protection against Komodo dragons and tigers…to say nothing of Indonesian humans).  At day the junglefowl forage through the forests.  At night they roost about 15 feet up in small trees or bamboo.  They are slightly better at flying then the red junglefown of South Asia.  Males fight (sometimes to the death) over hens.

(photo via the featured creature)

(photo via the featured creature)

At first the common name would seem to be a misnomer.  The male junglefowl does not look green, but rather black with orange wings, gold highlights, and a dazzling superman-colored head of bright red, yellow and blue(!).  Yet close up, it becomes apparent that, like the ocellated turkey and the Cayuga duck, the green junglefowl has iridescent feathers which are many colors in different light—but mainly dark glistening green.   Aviary owners and exotic bird enthusiasts are quite familiar with the green junglefowl because of its dazzling appearance and its unique mating call “Cock-a-blargle-ack!”

Male and female green junglefowl (Gallus varius)

Male and female green junglefowl (Gallus varius)

These birds of the Indonesian jungle are shockingly beautiful and yet also oddly reptilian and alien. The undomesticated chickens are a reminder of just how strange our familiar farm animals really are. Although, in some ways the green junglefowl are swiftly becoming green chickens.  They keep interbreeding with domestic chickens to form a peculiar hybrid—the bekisar.

 

Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) by Frupus

Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) by Frupus

Ah glorious summer is here, a time for reflection and relaxation when a person can kick back and…think about really beautifully colored parasitoid wasps. This is the ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) which lives in Western Europe and Great Britain. Although the wasp has a long stinger, it has no sting, so people who are afraid of bees and hornets can stop shuddering and enjoy the lovely iridescent blue-greens and purples of this jaunty little wasp. When the ruby-tailed Wasp is feeling alarmed, frightened, or just plain overwhelmed by modern life, it can curl into a protective ball. Although these wasps are very pretty, their behavior is less than beautiful–for they are a sort of cuckoo wasp. They find the nest of their hosts (ruby tailed wasps parasitize masonry bees) and lay their own eggs among the eggs of their victims. The different clutches of eggs hatch at the same time and the wasp larvae devour the bee larvae before morphing into adult insects. So, like nature itself, the ruby-tailed wasp is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying.

Now I sort of want to curl into a ball too...

Now I sort of want to curl into a ball too…

 

 

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

The blackfoot paua (Haliotis iris) is a species of abalone found in the cool coastal waters around New Zealand (and nearby islands such as Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands).  Coincidentally, the word “Haliotis” derives from Ancient Greek and means sea ear—because abalones superficially resemble human ears.  Abalones are large marine gastropods (sea snails) which have long been prized by humans for having delicious meat and gorgeous shells.  The blackfoot paua is no exception—not only is it fished for its flesh, but the Māori people, who are indigenous to New Zealand, esteem it as a treasure to be used in culturally significant works of art. To quote thefeaturedcreature.com, “Typically, the blackfoot abalone is used in Māori carvings to represent eyes; these eyes are associated with the stars or whetū, the symbolic eyes of ancestors that gaze down from the night sky.”

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

The shells of blackfoot paua are not naturally iridescent: craft workers expend a great deal of energy grinding away the inconspicuous neutral colored exterior so that the brilliant whirls and swirling colors of the nacre are revealed.  In addition to its lovely shell and tasty flesh the blackfoot paua can also produce scintillating blue-green pearls which are known as blue eyris pearls.

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Like the giant triton, the blackfoot paua is suffering for its beauty.  New Zealand has many sensible regulations to prohibit overfishing the paua: divers must free dive for the mollusks, and fisherfolk can only collect a limited number of specimens of a certain size. Unfortunately even a first-world nation only has so many resources to devote to conservation, and marine experts expect that the blackfoot paua is suffering from overharvest.  Hopefully humankind can find a way to balance the demands of traditional carving with the needs of conservation:  Māori carving is very beautiful, but so too are the living shellfish…

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

Male & Female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male & Female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis) Photo by René Lausberg

Just in time for the holidays, here is a colorful fancy fowl to enjoy! The Palawan peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis) lives in the humid rainforests of the Palawan islands, a small chain of islands which are part of the Philippines and which are located in the Sulu Sea (to the southwest of Manila and just north of Malaysia).  If you count their splendid tails, male Palawan peacock-pheasants grow to be a half a meter (18 inches) long.  Females are much smaller and plainer.  The pheasants voraciously hunt the many invertebrates which live in the jungle and they live on a varied diet of insects, myriapods, mollusks, spiders, and isopods as well as smaller vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and baby snakes.  They also eat some berries and seeds.

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

In a world of beautiful birds, the male Palawan peacock-pheasant stands out because of his black plumage, his svelte eye mask, his erectile crest, and above all because of the large iridescent green-blue ocelli on his magnificent tail (which he can fan above himself in the manner of a peacock).  From an earlier post, you will recall that ocelli are ornamental “eyes” made of feathers.  The birds are monogamous—which is to say they form tightly bonded pairs which look after the nest together.

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Sadly, peacock-pheasants are tropical birds which do not take well to aviaries and bird farms.  The species is listed as “vulnerable” because of the swift deforestation of the Philippine jungles and because of overcollecting of the magnificent feathers, however the Palawan peacock-pheasant does not seem to be very likely to go extinct soon—which is splendid news for bird-lovers and aesthetes!

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

As mentioned previously, I am a toymaker who crafts the Zoomorphs mix-and-match animal toys (you can check them out here).  I always try to make the characters whimsical but with a strong basis in reality–which means color is one of the hardest things to figure out.  If the animals’ colors are too realistic and drab, children (and other toy aficionados) will not gravitate towards the toys, but if the colors are too bright the animals become surreal.

Zoomorphs Jurassicmorphs! (*cough* available at finer toy stores)

Fortunately I have always been helped out by our magnificent extinct friends, the dinosaurs.  Paleontologists have ideas about what color dinosaurs were (based on the coloration of living reptiles and birds), but the scientists still haven’t found any conclusive answers—which means I can paint my dinosaur characters with all of the gaudy 80s colors I can find in the Pantone book!

Microraptor Fossil with plumage--found in rural China (AP Photo/Mick Ellison, American Museum of Natural History, Science /AAAS) Photo: Mick Ellison, American Museum Of Natural History, Science/AAAS / AP)

Or at least that was true until now.  On Thursday, the scientific journal, um, Science reported that an international team of Chinese and American scientists have discovered the color of microraptor, a small feathered dinosaur about the size of a crow which lived 130 million years ago.  By studying the patterns of pigment-containing cell fragments known as melanosomes which were present in an exceptional microraptor fossil, the scientists determined that the ancient animal was black with an iridescent shimmer—a common pattern for many of today’s birds.  Microraptor apparently also had two long streamer feathers on its tail.  The little dinosaur likely used its iridescence and ornate tail feathers for social signaling with other microraptors over important concerns like territory and mating.

Artist's conception of Microraptor (Photo: Mick Ellison, American Museum Of Natural History, Science /AAAS / AP)

Many of the articles I have read about the microraptor’s coloration have playfully noted that the small predator hews to the fashion adage of wearing basic black with accents.  The articles also compare the tiny dinosaur (which had two pairs of wings—on both its legs and arms) to crows, grackles, starlings and the like.  However it is important to remember that microraptor was not yet a bird—it had sharp claws on nimble little hands and a mouthful of cruel teeth (so the fashion metaphor may be even more appropriate than the bird analogy).

A grackle shows off the same colors worn by microraptor 130 million years ago.

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