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Colorful Land Snails (artist's conception)

Colorful Land Snails (artist’s conception)

There are all sorts of snails in my Brooklyn garden which range in color from, well, from medium brown to dark brown.  I guess the local mollusks don’t make for a very exciting rainbow–so today we move to the West Indies in search of the most vibrant land snails we can find.  There are numerous lovely air-breathing snails throughout (and around) the Caribbean which can be found in a variety of eye-popping colors, but two particular species outshine the others in terms of brilliant red, yellow, black and orange swirls.  These are the Cuban land snail (Polymita picta) and the Candy Stripe land Snail (Liguus virgineus) of Hispaniola.

Polymitas picta

Polymitas picta

Polymita picta lives throughout Cuba where it eats the algae, mold, and lichen from subtropical trees and shrubs.  The single species of snails appear in a dazzling array of spiral color patterns.

Polymita picta color variation (Harvard Museum)

Polymita picta color variation (Harvard Museum)

Liguus virgineus lives only on Hispaniola (the large island which includes Haiti & the Dominican Republic).  Unlike the Cuban land snail, Liguus virgineus specimens are somewhat more homogenous in color and pattern.  The Liguus genus however is broadly successful around the Caribbean and Gulf coast and the different species have different patterns (even though they are similar tree snails with similar habitats).

Liguus virginus

Liguus virginus

Liguus Map

Map of Liguus Species

Sadly, both of these snails are at risk because of their brilliant color.  The lovely bright colors have proven irresistibly attractive to the world’s most rapacious predator.   Humans use the shells as jewelry or collectibles which has led to both species being over-harvested for collectors.

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A human (black), an African Elephant (gray), a Mastodon (french blue) and a Paraceratherium (sky blue)

The largest land animal alive today is the mighty African elephant, however even the largest adult bull elephants were dwarfed by the largest land mammal ever to exist.  The giant herbivore Paraceratherium stood 5.5 metres (18 ft) tall at the shoulder.  When standing upright the creature’s head (which was approximately the same size as character actor Danny Devito) was about 8 metres (26 ft) above the ground.  Although debate continues about how much the beast weighed, reasonable estimates suggest it could have massed from 15 to 20 metric tons which means that the animals were as large as mid-sized sauropod dinosaurs from the previous era.  Partial skeletons of Paraceratherium were discovered by different scientists at different times–which has confusingly resulted in three different names for the genus: 1) Paraceratherium  which means”near horn animal” in Greek; 2) Indricotherium which was derived from a mythical Russian progenitor-monster called the Indrik-Beast; and 3) Baluchitherium which means “Baluchistan beast”, in honor of Baluchistan, an arid portion of the Iranian plateau, where a fossil specimen was unearthed.  Paleontologists prefer to call the genus “Paraceratherium,” however, thanks to TV specials and museum shows the name “Indricotherium” remains popular with the public.

Artist’s Conception of Paraceratheriums Migrating (from asecic.org)

Paraceratheriums were perissodactyls.  The giant creatures were most closely related to the living rhinoceroses (although they shared ancestors with tapirs and horses as well).  Paraceratherium’s immense size allowed it to eat the branches and leaves of large trees.  They ranged across what is now Central Asia across Iran, India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China.  The various species of Paraceratherium had long graceful necks somewhat like that of Okapis.  Additionally they possessed nimble elongated upper lips with which to strip leaves off of branches.  These lips were no quite trunks but probably resembled the long grasping snout/lips of tapirs.  Although Paraceratherium was closely related to rhinoceroses, they lacked the rhino’s characteristic horns—their giant size meant they did not need them.  The genus originated in the Eocene and flourished during the Oligocene—a golden age of perissodatyls.  However as the global cooling became more pronounced in the late Oligocene, the great creatures gradually vanished.

Fossil Paraceratherium skeleton in a museum

Papaver rhoeas is an annual flower which grows across Eurasia and northern Africa.  The brilliant vermilion flower is commonly known as the red poppy, the corn poppy, or the field poppy.  This plant has an ancient and unmistakable connection to agriculture. The poppy tends to grow in ground which has been broken.  It is fairly resistant to non-chemical weed control mechanisms, and it can grow, flower, and then set seed before barley or wheat is harvested.  All of this means that field poppies were an inextricable part of early grain fields (where they were sometimes more abundant then the grain).

Even though the wildflowers are weeds, they are very beautiful weeds and the ancient Greeks were quick to give divine significance to the red blossoms. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture who legendarily presented humankind with the secrets to grain-farming (a craft which she first revealed to the demi-god Triptolemus).  Her emblem was the red poppy growing among the barley. The flower’s distinctive red with orange undertones gave its name to a color coquelicot (which is the French word for the corn poppy).  In English, the word coquelicot has been used to describe that color (which, coincidentally is one of my favorite) since the 18th century.

As noted above, the poppy sprouts up in broken ground. During World War I, artillery bombardment and trench excavation caused tremendous ground disturbance, which caused the poppies to flourish. All throughout the warm months of the conflict the flowers bloomed profusely in no-man’s land and between the trench lines.  One of the war’s most famous poems “In Flander’s Field” was a short rhymed poem in the form of a French rondeau which described the poppies blowing among the endless lines of freshly dug graves.

The armistice which ended World War I and silenced the big guns took place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In the years after the war, veterans from the Allied forces were honored (and the dead remembered) by the wearing of real or artificial poppies on Armistice Day. In the United States, Congress changed the name of Armistice Day into Veterans Day on 1954 in order to honor all veterans (although, naturally, in other Allied nations today remains Armistice Day or Remembrance Day).  The wearing of red poppies (which apparently started in America) has been largely supplanted by other national symbols like the yellow ribbon and Old Glory. None-the-less this is still a day we share with our allies.

This is a particularly sad and touching Veterans’ Day both because of the wars we are currently fighting in Central Asia and because, earlier in 2011 the last few field veterans of the Great War died.  There is now no one left alive who fought in World War I and saw the red poppies flowering among the mud and steel and bones of no-man’s land. Years ago it struck me forcefully that the Lost Generation was vanishing when I was in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and saw a sign explaining how the last few Armisitice maples (silver maples planted in great sweeping avenues to commemorate the end of the First World War) were being taken down and replaced with Red Oaks to commemorate September 11th.  Even mighty trees wear down. Generations die and are replaced.  New tragedies come along. However the soldiers’ vigilance and sacrifice are never over. I would like to thank all of the men and women who have served in the uniform of the United States or its allies.  If anybody deserves to have the sacred flower of the goddess of grain repurposed to memorialize their valor, it is surely them.

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