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Once again Ferrebeekeeper plunges into the abyssal depths of the ocean seeking a bizarre and barely known cephalopod—the elbow squid.  Elbow squid, also colloquially known as “bigfin squid” are deep sea squid of the genus Magnapinna.  Although they have been known to science since at least 1907 when a juvenile specimen was found and categorized, the strange animals are a real enigma to scientists.  No adult specimens were known until the 1980s and only in the cotemporary era of widespread deep-sea robots were pictures of the living animals obtained.

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But WHAT pictures! These images were worth the wait:  of all Earth creatures which are not microbes, the elbow squid may well be the most unfamiliar and alien in appearance.  Indeed, I have seen plenty artist’s conceptions of extraterrestrial life and precious few looked as bizarre as the elbow squid.  The animals have extremely long tentacles which dangle at right angles from 10 upper arms (which project at right angles from the squid’s cylindrical body.  The visual impact of this crazy arrangement is even more dramatic than it sounds.

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Shell oil used a submersible robot to film a specimen hanging around their deep water oil platform “Perdido” (which is 200 miles offshore from Houston in the Gulf of Mexico) and the squid’s tentacles were reliably 9 to 10 meters (26-30 feet) long.  These animals are different from giant squid—but they are also giant squid.

So why on Earth do elbow squid have such long arms?  We simply do not know.  Some scientists speculate that it brushes along the ocean bottom gathering up sluggish meals with its long arms. Other mollusk theorists(?) think it is like a brittle starfish and lies on the bottom as the tentacles write around.  Yet another school believes the ten tentacles are for active predatory grabbing—the squid is like a fisherman with ten lassos.  Perhaps it combines these and other behaviors.  Other cephalopods are well known for being versatile and clever.

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I would love to tell you about the hopes and fears of this strange denizen of the deeps.  What animals prey on it (Sperm whales and elephant seals presumably, but what else?)?  What is its love life like?  How long do they live?  But we don’t even know what these things eat.  How it would fill out a Zoosk profile is particularly beyond our kin.  The elbow squid is at the tantalizing juncture between the known and the unknown.  Undoubtedly we will learn more, but for now we will just have to be content that we have seen them at all.

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

Exciting celebrity news for Central Florida today! A king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) has decided to forgo its native range—the forests in India and Southeast Asia–and pay a visit to Orlando, Florida.  The king cobra is the world’s longest venomous celebrity with a length of up to 5.6 meter (18.5 feet) (although the one “visiting” Florida is a mere 2.2 meters (8 feet) long).  Unlike many other celebrities, king cobras are known for intelligence, sensitivity, and potent neurotoxic venom.  They (king cobras) also have the ability to rear up the anterior 1/3 of their body, extend their hood and growl loudly. The creature escaped decided to visit Orlando when a tree limb dislodged by a storm crashed open its terrarium.

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King cobras are known for hunting smaller snakes and large rodents.  A ten man team is desperately trying to capture the celebrity before it bites anyone or escapes into the wider ecosystem (like Florida’s famous albeit disreputable pythons).

Hold on…my editor is frantically mouthing that King Cobras are not part of America’s celebrity culture—apparently they are only revered in Hindu and Hinayana Buddhist societies and Christians deplore them (and all other snakes) as taboo. King cobras have never been featured on “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars” (although I think it would really spice up those extremely formulaic shows).

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It is important to distinguish between celebrities and dangerous poisonous snakes, I have failed to do that here and I am exceedingly sorry. Please be sure to make this distinction in your own life (except when feeding rats to Sean Penn).

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A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

Before summer ends I want to write about the cucuzzi, which is also known as the “Indian squash” or the “Italian edible gourd”. One of my friends, a robust native New Yorker (married to a Sicilian-American) brought me one of these long green snake-like vegetables from his garden. It was a remarkable conversation piece—as long as a broom handle and slightly obscene. He averred it was a sort of squash and advised us to skin off its waxy pale green skin and sauté it in olive oil. This lead to a confusing conversation wherein I stated that squashes are from the New World while my friend stolidly maintained that the cucuzzi was some ancient Sicilian farm thing which predated the Romans.

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It turns out my friend was right (although I was right that true squashes and pumpkins are from the Americas). The cucuzzi is not a squash, but a gourd which is descended directly from the bottle gourd of Africa. There are arguments to be made that the bottle gourd was actually the first domesticated plant of any sort—but it was first used as a container and not as a foodstuff. Our distant ancestors carried it to the Near East and thence to Asia and Europe. It probably traveled across the Bering land bridge with the first American peoples and their domesticated dogs in the depths of time (estimate: ca. 14,000 years ago?), although a few experts instead contend it drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa on its own!

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

The bottle gourd first found use as a bottle (as subtly hinted at in the common name). It grew true from wild seeds into a tough water-proof container which was of profound use to our thirsty ancestors as they trekked across deserts and arid scrublands. Presumably some of these bottles also held whatever elixirs and medicines our nomadic forbears took as they left our first homeland. Since the gourd has been around a long time, generations of farmers were able to gradually selectively breed it into an edible form (although my friend assures me that if it develops to maturity it is not worth eating). The cucuzzi is an Italian form, but the Chinese still keep bottle gourds for bottles (and as ceremonial art objects). I have a Chinese bottle gourd inscribed with a Song dynasty poem in beautiful calligraphy by my ex-girlfriend’s father (I really liked that guy). Other cultures make them into pipes, traps, or decorations.

or even clothing!

or even clothing!

I did ultimately eat the Cacuzzi sautéed with onions and olive oil (with salt and black pepper). The first night, I found them bland and green tasting, but when I reheated them and put them on noodles they were delicious…and now I want more. When I was trying to find out how to obtain seeds for these strange shape-shifting gourds from the remote depths of humankind’s past, I discovered that their name is a (friendly?) insult in contemporary Brooklyn-Italian slang. If a person is not fired by the dreadful engines of ambition, and simply sits around the house getting slowly bigger and duller he is a “gagootz”—the goomba’s way of saying cacuzzi. So, not only did humankind carry these remarkable plants from the cradle of our evolution, but, as technology and globalization take away various employment options, we are turning into them!

Man with a calabash pipe

Man with a calabash pipe

Artist's Interpretation of Sedna (Credit: Gemini artwork by Jon Lomberg)

After the discovery of Pluto in 1930, there was a long hiatus in discovering objects of comparable size. Then in 2003, a team of astronomers led by Mike Brown of Caltech discovered a distant icy sphere which was quickly heralded as “the tenth planet.”  Mike Brown announced the discovery on his website along with his team’s rationale for naming the object.  He wrote “Our newly discovered object is the coldest most distant place known in the Solar System, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid Arctic Ocean.

It turns out that Sedna is only one of many similar snowball-like planetoids beyond Neptune.  In fact, Ferrebeekeeper has already described the dwarf planet Eris (named after the Greek goddess of Strife) which is the largest currently known Kuiper belt object.  Sedna was the first to be discovered since Pluto and it sparked a debate about such objects which ultimately resulted in Pluto’s downgrade to dwarf planet.  Sedna also has some unique features which make it remarkable in its own right.

The orbit of Sedna (red) set against the orbits of Jupiter (orange), Saturn (yellow), Uranus (green), Neptune (blue), and Pluto (purple)

Sedna takes 11,400 years to complete its orbit around the sun and its bizarre highly elliptical orbit has given rise to much conjecture among astronomers.  Although some astronomers believe it was scattered into a skewed orbit by the gravitational influence of Neptune, other astronomers believe it originated in the inner Oort cloud and was never close enough to Neptune to be affected by the giant’s gravity.  Some scientists speculate that its lengthy orbit may have been caused by a passing star (perhaps from the sun’s birth cluster).  A few theorists have gone one step further and conjectured that Sedna is from a different solar system and was captured by our Sun billions of years ago.  A final school contends that Sedna is evidence of an unknown giant planet somewhere in the depths of space (!).

A photo of Sedna taken from a powerful telescope on Earth

We don’t know much about Sedna except that is probably 1,200–1,600 km in diameter and that its surface is extremely red.  After Mars, Sedna is one of the reddest astronomical objects in our solar system.  This color comes from the profusion of tholins covering the methane and nitrogen ice of which the little world is formed.  Tholins are large, complex organic molecules created by the interaction of ultraviolet light on methane and other simple hydrocarbons.  It is believed that early Earth (prior to obtaining an oxidizing atmosphere) was rich in Tholins and they are one of the precursors to the rise of life.

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