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OK, time to get 2017 started in earnest! I have some resolutions and ideas–and I’m looking forward to hearing your New Year plans too. But first there is extremely good news in the paper, so let’s lead with that: the People’s Republic of China has announced that they are shutting down their national trade in ivory by the end of 2017. The world’s most populous nation is by far the world’s largest ivory consumer: estimates suggest that it accounts for as much as 70% of ivory demand. The tusks of slaughtered elephants reach the nation illegally and then become part of a vast economy of carvers, traders, dodgy antiques merchants, and suchlike sellers. All of this is to feed the growing appetite of China’s new middle class, who are hungry for anything which confers status (but who do not necessarily understand just how sapient, compassionate, and irreplaceable elephants are).
The ban is said to be a direct result of a meeting between the world’s two most powerful men, President Xi Jinping and President Obama, who laid the groundwork for a comprehensive ban when they met in Washington in 2015. Obama tightened up surprisingly lax ivory rules in America in an effort to save the last proboscideans. It is a great pleasure to see China’s leadership follow the same path. The New York Times has noted that the ban is not just sound environmental policy, but also makes sense both politically and economically. Perhaps other ivory-consuming nations will follow suite! I will be sure to praise their far-sighted leaders as well.
However elephant conservationists must not pretend the Chinese ivory ban alone has saved our big gray friends. Elephants are in deep trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, and, above all, poaching still threaten the giants. Powerful forces in China (and even here, in the increasingly reactionary United States) will conspire to restart the ghastly trade. Additionally the mayhem in central Africa which has allowed poachers to flourish is far from over. Yet this unexpected boon from the Middle Kingdom is a cause for great hope. Let us thank our friends in China for their thoughtfulness and use their fine example as a cause to redouble our own efforts. If we keep working together we can make sure elephants are still with us not just in 2017 but in all the years to come.
Today’s post is a follow-up…a follow-up to the Viking age! (and, um, also to this Ferrebeekeeper post). On September 17th, the world’s largest Viking ship, the Draken Harald Harfagre, sailed into New York Harbor and tied up at the North Cove Marina in southern Manhattan. The ship has sailed across the Atlantic from Norway where it was made by master boatwrights in the best approximation of ancient methods. Doughty and fearless sailors have navigated the craft through horrible northern seas filled with giant whales, icebergs, volcanoes, Greenland, and other sundry hazards. When it reached Vinland…er North America, the boat sailed up the Saint Lawrence Seaway, toured the Great Lakes, and now it has come to New York City by traveling through the canals and down the Hudson.
You can see the magnificent vessel for $10.00 (or for $5.00 if you are a child) until this coming Sunday (the schedule and details are here). Don’t delay! Before you know it the Viking age will be gone forever…
Last week, Ferrebeekeeper promised pigeons. So this week, let’s start off with the monarch of pigeons—the magnificent Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria). Native to the coastal forests of New Guinea, this splendid bird not only has a magnificent “crown” of lovely ornamental feathers, it is the largest living pigeon in the world. Adult pigeons weigh up to 3.5 kg (7.7 pounds). The plumage of the Victoria crowned pigeon is blue-gray except for the maroon chest, and pale gray wingtips. Their crowns are made up of little gray fans with white fringes. They have blood red eyes which are surrounded by a little black mask of feathers.
The Victoria crowned pigeon is named in honor of Queen Victoria (who was on the throne of England when the bird was discovered by English ornithologists). The Victoria crowned pigeon is a gregarious social bird. Parties of pigeons walk together around the swampy rainforest floor looking for fruit, which is the mainstay of the bird’s diet (although they also sometimes supplement their diet with seeds and arthropods).
Crown pigeons built intricately crafted nests in trees where the females lay a single white egg. Both parents actively tend the egg and the nestling. The vocalizations of Victoria crown pigeons sound like studio audience noises from nineties talk shows. According to Wikipedia “[mating calls consist of a] hoota-hoota-hoota-hoota-hoota sound. When defending their territories, these birds make a resounding whup-up, whup-up, whup-up call. Their contact call is a deep, muffled and rather human-like ummm or hmmm.”
Crown pigeons are not uncommon in the wild but the live birds are collected for the pet trade and the birds are hunted for meat and for their remarkable head feathers. Humans have a weakness for trying to take their beautiful crowns to build into our own headwear.
My biggest blogging regret last year was not writing more about fish. Ferrebeekeeper has traditionally addressed fish more-or-less exclusively by describing catfish (the order Siluriformes). Only occasionally have I mentioned other sorts of fish–like the bizarre oarfish or the gigantic extinct Leedsichthys, but all of that is about to change! In order to enliven 2015 (and celebrate the extraordinary beauty, diversity, and complexity of the natural world), we are going to write about all sorts of fish from now on! Ichthyophiles rejoice! And, if, for some perverse reason, you do not love fishes—ancient, ancestral, beautiful, and sacred—then Ferrebeekeeper is out to convert you!
To start out on this enormous topic we are starting with an enormous fish—Mola mola, the common ocean sunfish. Some of my American readers may know sunfish as the endearing little freshwater fish which live in ponds and small rivers everywhere. However the ocean sunfish is nothing like bluegills, bass, and crappies (er, except for the fact that it is indeed also a fish). The Mola mola is the largest bony fish in the world in terms of mass. It lives in tropical and temperate waters around the planet ranging from Norway in the north to Patagonia in the south (and continuously east and west). The first time I saw a mola fish I had an unreasoning moment of horror that a huge shark had bitten the poor fish in half! The molidae lack caudal fins—which gives them the appearance of giant truncated heads. To swim, the fish relies on large powerful dorsal and anal fins (although the clavus of the sunfish is a sort of pseudofin). Because of this unique anatomy, the great fish is as taller than it is long. And it can be quite tall indeed: the largest specimens measure 4.2 m (14 feet) from fin tip to fin tip, although they are a more modest 3.3 m (11 feet) in length. The sunfish is very heavily built and weighs up to 2,300 kg (5,100 lb) in mass. Among fish, only the largest cartilaginous fish are bigger.
To reach this prodigious weight, the sunfish is an omnivore. It eats ocean grass, small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, however, most of all, the great fish feeds on jellyfish and salps (free-swimming tunicates). Adults lose the ability to open and close their mouth–which forms into a beak-like structure (with four teeth fusing into a sort of funnel). Sunfish do not have swim bladders. Additionally, they have only 16 vertebrae, the smallest number among all fish (though not among vertebrates: some amphibians have only a single vertebra).
Adult sunfish are too large for most animals to prey on, however they are sometimes eaten by sharks and killer whales. Sea lions will occasionally tear off sunfish fins for fun and then leave the poor finless fish to die! Sunfish fry are smaller and thus vulnerable to a much greater number of predators. To protect themselves, Mola mola fry take the shape of stars covered with spikes! Just try swallowing a dodecahedron, and you will learn how these creatures survive long enough to become the largest teleosts!
Naturally, the practice of swallowing sunfish has been readily adopted by our own voracious species. Sunfish are eaten by humans in East Asia (although there is an unresolved debate about whether they contain toxins like their close relatives the pufferfish). Additionally they are also threatened by plastic bags, which they eat in the mistaken belief that they are jellyfish, and by fishers who catch them accidentally and then throw them away dead as by-catch. Because they are primarily pelagic (living in the deep ocean) their numbers have never been accurately calculated, so we don’t know if they are endangered (!) but there are certainly far fewer these days than there used to be.
Two weeks ago, Ferrebeekeeper presented a post about the smallest known mammal, the Etruscan shrew. Today we head to the opposite extreme: the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is not merely the largest known living mammal, it is the largest animal of any sort known to have ever existed. The greatest dinosaurs, the colossal squid, and the most immense pliosaurs were pipsqueaks compared to the blue whale. The giant cetacean has been measured at lengths of 30 metres (98 ft). A single whale can weigh up to 180,000 kilograms (200 tons) which is about the weight of forty African elephants (or approximately one hundred million Etruscan shrews). Superlatives stop making sense when describing the blue whale: a human could swim through its largest veins; a whale can eat 4 tons of krill a day; it can make a noise louder than a jet engine. When I worked for the Smithsonian Institution back in the nineties, it was said that the longest object in the collection was the life-size blue whale model. It wasn’t until the Air & Space museum acquired a space shuttle that the Washington museums got something bigger (although maybe that’s because they decided not to assemble their Saturn V). If you want a true sense of the size of Balaenoptera musculus, here is a life size poster of one on the internet (be forewarned: unless your monitor is the size of a drive-in theater, you are just going to be scrolling hopelessly around an endless wall of blue-gray).
Although there are different groups which have slightly different physical characteristics, blue whales can be found in all of the deep oceans of the world (with the exceptions of Europe’s seas, the great gulfs of the Middle East, and the Arctic Ocean). I would like to tell you more about the lifespan, breeding habits, vocalizations, and social life of the blue whale, but, incredibly, very little is known about these aspects of the creatures. Scientists speculate that blue whales live to be about 80 years old (or possibly older), but they don’t know for sure. How whales choose mates is unknown (although it presumably involves the remarkable range of noises which they make). Gestation lasts anywhere from 10 to 12 months.
Once baby blue whales are born they grow fast! Blue whale calves can put on 4 kilograms (9 pounds) an hour. Adults are masters of the deep: fully grown blue whales can dive for up to half an hour to depths of 500 meters 1,640 feet. They have two blow holes behind a streamlined spray guard. Like the other mysticeti, blue whales are filter feeders. They take huge amounts of water and krill into their mouths and then push the water out through long baleen plates. When adults fully open their mouths the area is equivalent to the volume of a boxcar!
Blue whales are capable of traveling 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph) over short bursts, so back in the days of sail, a blue whale encountering a ship would simply swim away. Only when humankind began to make modern ships powered by fossil fuels could we keep up with the gentle giants. Alas for the whales–we learned to build such ships (and explosively propelled harpoons) and soon we were killing the creatures by the hundreds of thousands so that they could be rendered into oil. Between the 1880s (when the whales first began to be hunted en masse) and the 1920s the whales’ population declined from 350,000 to perhaps a thousand. All nations stopped hunting the whales in the early 1970s. In less than a hundred years, humans almost eradicated the largest animal ever known…yet, in the end we have not yet wiped out the blue whales. They are still here. As you read this, there is a creature the size of a space shuttle eating millions of krill somewhere in the vasty oceans.
This blog frequently describes mammals which are extinct or not well known—creatures like the pseudo-legendary saola, the furtive golden mole, or the long-vanished moeritherium, however today Ferrebeekeeper is going all out and writing about one of the wild animals which people think about most frequently.
The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is beloved, feared, worshipped, hunted, despised, and glorified by humankind. These great bears are arguably the largest land predator alive today (their only rival is their near-cousin, the polar bear). A Kodiak brown bear can weigh up to 680 kg (1500 lbs) and stand 3 meters (10 feet) tall when on two legs. Brown bears can run (much) faster than the fastest human sprinter. Likewise they can climb and swim better than we can. They are literal monsters—mountains of muscle with razor sharp teeth and claws. However, bears have become so successful and widespread not because of their astonishing physical prowess, but because of their substantial intelligence.
Ursus arctos live in India, China, the United States, Russia, and throughout Europe. Because they live across such a broad swath of planet Earth, brown bears are divided into nearly twenty subspecies, but these various brown bears all share the same basic characteristics and traits. Brown bears are primarily nocturnal and crepuscular, but they can hunt and forage during the day if it daylight suits their needs. Since they are ingenious omnivores, they are capable of living in many different landscapes and habitats. Usually solitary by nature, the bears sometimes gather together in large numbers if a suitable source of nutrients becomes available (such as a salmon run, a dump, or a meadow full of moth larva). The bears eat everything from tiny berries and nuts on up to bison and muskox. Although the majority of bears live primarily by foraging, some families are extremely accomplished at hunting. Brown bears pin their prey to the ground and then begin devouring the still living animal. This ferocious style means that humans greatly fear bear attacks, even though such events are extremely rare everywhere but Russia (where all living things continuously attack all other living things anyhow).
Bears are serial monogamists: they stay together with a single partner for a few weeks and then move on romantically. The female raises the cubs entirely on her own. Gravid bears have the remarkable ability to keep embryos alive in a suspended unimplanted state for up to six months. In the midst of the mother bear’s hibernation, the embryos implant themselves on the uterine wall and the cubs are born eight weeks later. Remarkably, if a bear lacks suitable body fat for nursing cubs, the embryos are reabsorbed.
Experts believe that brown bears are as intelligent as the great apes. There is evidence of bears using tools, planning for the future, and figuring out formidable puzzles (although they are terrible at crosswords). Their high intelligence can make bears seem endearingly human—as in the case of a beer-drinking bear from Washington State. After drinking one can of a fancy local beer and one can of mass market Busch, the bear proceeded to ignore the Busch while drinking 36 cans of the pricier local brew before passing out. There are famous bear actors with resumes more impressive than all but the most elite film stars. In other cases, bears and people have worked together less well. Brown bears used to live throughout the continental United States, but they were hunted to death.
Humans and bears have a love-hate relationship: although bears have been driven out of many places where they once lived, the practice of bear-worship was so widespread among circumpolar and ancient people that there is even a word for it: “arctolatry”. Bear worship is well documented among the Sami, the Ainu, the Haida, and the Finns. In pre-Roman times, bears were worshiped by the Gauls and the British. Artemis has a she-bear form and is closely associated with Ursus Major and Ursus Minor. Yet bear worship stretches back beyond ancient times into true prehistory. Cult items discovered in Europe suggest that bears were worshiped in the Paleolithic and were probably of religious significance to Neanderthals as well as Homo Sapiens. Indeed, some archaeologists posit that the first European deities took the form of bears.
George Ellory Hale was the sickly (and only) child of a wealthy Chicago elevator magnate. At an early age Hale showed an affinity for science and quickly began thinking of astronomy in much deeper terms than the mere cataloging and plotting of stars (which was the direction of the discipline when he began his career). In 1889, as he was traveling on a Chicago streetcar, Hale had an epiphany about how to build a machine to photograph and analyze the sun. He thereafter invented the spectroheliograph, which revolutionized stellar physics, and he operated the first spectroheliograph from his private observatory in his parents’ backyard. Hale was a master of studying light in order to understand the physical characteristics and chemical composition of stars, which made him one of the first (if not the first) people to be officially called an astrophysicist.
Because of his obsession with starlight, Hale was also obsessed with building telescopes. His dual ties to the world of academic astronomy (he studied at MIT) and the world of business wealth gave him a unique ability to put together observatories and institutions. Throughout the course of his life, Hale was instrumental in building four of the world’s largest telescopes (each telescope substantially outsizing the previous one).
Working as a professor and department head for the University of Chicago, he first spearheaded the creation of the Charles T. Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which featured a 40 inch refracting telescope (the largest refractor ever used for scientific discovery). When his plans outgrew the University of Chicago’s budgetary constraints, Hale joined forces with the Carnegie Institute to build a sixty inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory near Pasadena. In 1908, this telescope, the largest in the world, was operational, but Hale was already building a 100 inch reflecting scope. This larger scope became world famous when Edwin Hubble used it to demonstrate that the universe is expanding. Hale was still not done: he laid plans and institutional groundwork for the 200 inch reflector at Mount Palomar. Although Hale died before the Palomar scope was complete, the final observatory more than fulfilled his vision. The Palomar telescope was the world’s most important observatory between 1948 and 1992.
Because this is a short article I have glossed over the technical, scientific, and administrative hurdles faced by Hale in creating these telescopes, but, suffice to say the challenges were daunting. Each scope was accompanied by breakthroughs in engineering, architecture, and material science.
Hale was not content to merely create 4 of the world’s largest telescopes. He was also one of the founding trustees at California Institute of Technology. Hale’s contacts and savvy were one of the fundamental reasons that Caltech so quickly moved to International prominence (and maintained its status as one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions).
Hale was an indefatigable scientist, administrator, and thinker who accomplished a huge amount in his life. His far-sighted observatories and his pioneering work in astrophysics laid the groundwork for humankind’s most profound discoveries about the actual nature of the universe. However Hale suffered terribly from neurological and psychological problems. He was sometimes incapacitated by headaches, insomnia, and a horrible ringing noise. Throughout his adult life he consulted with an elf or demon which appeared to him when the ringing in his head reached an unbearable pitch. Psychologists and biographers have argued that this visitation was not actually a hallucination but rather a sort of allegorical figure used by Hale to personify his manic-depression. Hale’s writings (and the accounts of those around him) cast doubt upon this interpretation. He spent increasing amounts of time in sanitariums and he was fully institutionalized for the last years of his life. Many biographers add this detail as a sort of embarrassing footnote to an otherwise glorious life of innovation and discovery. Perhaps it should not be a dismissive footnote—Hale’s madness and his greatness went together. Lesser men—or saner ones—could probably not have built huge eyes with which humankind stared into the darkness of deep space.
The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province. The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers. So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain. Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds. It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle. The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years. There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.
Lake Poyang did not always exist. In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded. Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.
In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China. Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven. By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze. The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses. The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered over 850,000 men.
Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out. To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line. Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.
Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate. Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure. A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned. On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.
Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous. Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents. Local legend is more inventive. According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake. Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent. The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang. When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself. The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste. A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze. Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers. If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.
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.
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.
The great Southern Ocean which swirls in a clockwise circle around Antarctica is home to many of the Earth’s largest animals. Blue whales come here to gorge on vast schools of krill. Among the icebergs and the towering waves, southern elephant seals (the largest member of the order Carnivora) fight duels to build their harems, and highly intelligent killer whales hunt together in pods. There are populations of sperm whales living in the Southern ocean as well and these leviathans dive to the cold floor of the world hunting for the world’s largest mollusk, a huge cephalopod which can only be found in the Southern Ocean. In fact this bizarre creature, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is also the world’s largest invertebrate. Also known as the Antarctic squid or the giant cranch squid, the colossal squid lives in the abyssal depths. Unlike other squid, the colossal squid does not have tentacles–its powerful arms are studded with sharp hooks (much like the long-extinct belemnites). Some of these hooks swivel while others have three barbs in the manner of a fish spear.
The measurements of the colossal squid are staggering. Its eye alone (the largest of any known creature) measures 27 centimetres (11 in). A fully grown adult squid is estimated to be 12–15 metres (39–49ft) long. Although giant squid have longer tentacles, the colossal squid a long stout mantles and are thus much more massive. Their upper weight limits are unknown but are well over 500 kg (+1000 lbs).
The colossal squid is believed to be an ambush predator, which lurks in the depths waiting for chaetognatha, other squid, and benthic fish (such as the Patagonian toothfish) to pounce upon. It is hypothesized that they have a slow metabolism and do no need great reserves of food (unlike the energetic endothermic sperm whales which prey on them). The colossal squid are believed to be sexually dimorphic—the females become much larger than the males.
There is a reason that so much of this article is couched in ambivalent language such as “estimated”, “believed” and “probably”: colossal squid live in an environment where humankind can barely venture. The colossal squid are fast enough and clever enough to usually evade our nets, lines, and traps (although fishermen trying to catch Patagonian toothfish hooked a 450 kg (990 lb) specimen which was about 39 feet (13 m) long). Additionally our submarines and submersible robots are too slow and noticeable too stalk the squid in the abyssal depths. Other ocean creatures do not suffer from the same problem. Juvenile colossal squid are eaten by beaked whales, elephant seals, sharks, toothfish, and even albatrosses, however the adult squid are so large that only massive sleeper sharks and giant sperm whales can threaten them. Sperm whales are often covered with scars from their battles with the giants but the whales easily have the upper hand. Sperm whale stomachs have been found filled with hooks and beaks (which coincidentally were much larger than those found on the largest squid specimens recovered by humans to date).