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I wanted to do a short post about a snake from my childhood: Heterodon platirhinos, the eastern hog-nosed snake.  This snake is a harmless fossorial colubrid snake which lives from New Hampshire to Minnesota and ranges from the southern parts of Canada down to northern Florida.  It lives in woodlands and dense meadows where it burrows in sandy and loamy soil and hides in leaf litter hunting for its favorite prey—amphibians–especially toads.

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The hog-nosed snake is mildy poisonous, but its fangs are in the back of its mouth (the better to grip struggling toads) and its venom is not harmful to humans.   The snake is incorrectly known as a puff adder because, when threatened, it hisses, puffs itself up, and flattens its neck out like a little cobra.  Do not confuse the hog-nosed snake for a real puff adder, Bitis arietans, a deadly viper indigenous to Africa south of the Sahal.

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The hog nosed snake also has another theatrical trick for evading predators: it plays dead with such gusto that it begins to reek of death, expels foul slime, and even bleeds from the mouth.  The snake is so very convincing at looking dead that, when I was a boy-scout, we were warned not to harass the entertaining little reptile lest it harm itself with its zeal(although perhaps this was mere PR for the master thespian).

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“He was so young….Whyyyy?”

The hog-nosed snake is also very cute, with beautiful ruddy leaf patterns, a blunt little nose and eyes at the front of its head.  I haven’t seen one in decades—I wonder how they are doing out there in the woods of southern Ohio.

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Last week I blogged about flatfish.  These fascinating benthic predators can be found in oceans worldwide…however my interest in the asymmetric masters of blending in transcends pure ichthyology.  I have been busy drawing a series of intricate pen and ink drawings of flatfish for a project.  I will show you some of these large drawings one of these days, but I have also been drawing a series of small humorous and surreal flatfish in spare moments…during the commute or lunch break.  I am putting these whimsical, comical, and absurd flounders in brightly colored frames for fun.

Here is some of the series:

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This flounder seems to have an industrial refinery in Kazakhstan on his belly.  In accordance with his landlocked status, strange mythical beasts of Central Asia gambol in the twilight skies around him.

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This flounder has Greco-Roman objects around him.  The chameleon above his back reminds the viewer of the true nature of flatfish. The strange quadripeds on his back betoken a different age of agrarian labor.

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This flounder is at home in the ocean (where he is joined by apparitions and animals which look curiously like molecules or primordial forces.  Indeed, Gauss’ Law for electrical fields reminds us of the subtle but ineluctable flux which pervades interactions at all levels.

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I have been trying to garner greater commercial interest in flatfish-themed art, and what is of greater commercial interest (and general prurient interest) than pop-superstar Miley Cyrus?  The famous singer coos atop a stolid turbot in the midst of an exotic and sensuous garden.  A musically literate person can play the musical phrase above the singer for a true multimedia experience. Miley’s cowgirl footwear hint at the true nature of this artwork.

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Trailing streamers of ragged blue plasma, a wild eyed flatfish covered in squirming parasites rides a beam of yellow energy over an elongated pink woodchuck ghost.  What could be more straightforward?

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A radiant orange flounder with the sun in his belly soars above some sort of pumping station or acetylene factory. In the sky above him, an overly eager gundam has fired an air-to-air missile at an endangered crane.  Oh no! What will happen next?

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A long faced flounder made of stitched together toruses looks down upon a futuristic city of arcologies and bioengineered structures.

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Mechanical innovation and the aristocratic southern lifestyle begin to seem increasingly at odds.  Predatory animals stock the riverine boundaries. A flying machine whirrs through the heavens.

The flounder at the top of the post–which features fanciful animals gathering around an elegant flounder with a brittle star on its belly is my personal favorite since I drew it with a dip pen–a style of drawing which generally results in the total destruction of the piece with the final stroke of the pen (as a huge blot of ink falls out), however in this rare case that did not happen so you can see some of the linear elegance of the medium.  All of these flatfish are created with ink and (generally) colored pencil, by yours truly Wayne Ferrebee in this year 2016 AD.  I’ll put up the second batch next week.  Thanks for looking and kindly leave any comments!

 

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Isabel II was queen regnant of Spain from 1833 until 1868, when she was forced out by a somewhat muddled coalition of Spanish liberals and republicans.   Her reactionary reign was a long series of palace intrigues, military conspiracies, and church meddling.

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During the 19th century, there was a fashion for European sovereigns to commission small easily wearable coronet-style crowns (a fashion which was greatly promoted by Queen Victoria, the foremost monarch of the day).  Queen Isabel commissioned this beautiful little yellow crown of diamonds, gold, and topazes.  When she was forced out by the “Glorious” (but ineffective) revolution she took the crown into exile with her in Paris, however she willed it to the Atocha Chapel. If my sources are to be believed (and they are internet sources…so maybe they shouldn’t be) the little coronet is still used to adorn the church’s votive statue on high feast days.

Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) by Cowyeow from Flickr

Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) by Cowyeow from Flickr

This endearing little desert snake is Psammophis namibensis, the Namib sand snake. As you may have intuited based on the name, the snake is endemic to the Namib Desert where it lives in the vast sand seas which stretch from the Atlantic coast deep into the African continent. The snake is little—the largest males are slightly more than a meter (three feet) in length and most are even smaller than that. It is whipcord thin with delicate dust-colored stripes running horizontally along the top of its body.

Juvenile Namibian Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis)

Juvenile Namibian Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis)

The snake looks rather spindly and delicate, but don’t let its looks fool you. It lives in a god-forsaken desert and it can move across the treacherous shifting sand with blazing speed.

Aww...poor little guy lives in an enormous desert

Aww…poor little guy lives in an enormous desert

Speaking of which, how does this animal live in such lifeless devastation? Even in the dry dunes of the Namib, life thrives on our glorious planet! Like Grant’s golden mole, the sand racer eats tiny arthropods, lizards, and rodents which make their home in the sparse scrublands along the rim of the dunes or even upon the dunes themselves (the snake clearly manages to traverse this dry sea). The snake is mildly venomous (to us—the venom works better on small prey).

Previously discovered dwarf satellite galaxies (in blue) and the newly discovered candidates (in red)  (Yao-Yuan Mao, Ralf Kaehler, Risa Wechsler (KIPAC/SLAC))

Previously discovered dwarf satellite galaxies (in blue) and the newly discovered candidates (in red) (Yao-Yuan Mao, Ralf Kaehler, Risa Wechsler (KIPAC/SLAC))

We have some new galactic neighbors! Well, actually maybe “new” is not the right term: they have been there for a long time but we only just now noticed. Astronomers are reporting the discovery of nine dwarf satellite galaxies orbiting the Milky Way like remoras stuck to a cosmic shark. These nine miniature galaxies are additional to the well-known Large and Small Magellanic Clouds—two dwarf galaxies which are located right next to the Milky Way (being respectively 160,000 and 200,000 light years away).

The new dwarf galaxies were discovered by a team of astronomers poring over data recovered from the Dark Energy Survey (a super-high resolution digital array which is part of the Victor M Blanco telescope in the Andes). The closest is a mere 97,000 light years from the Milky Way whereas the farthest lies 1.2 million light years away from us. The dwarf galaxies are a billion times fainter than the Milky Way. They are made up of millions (or hundreds of millions or even billions) of stars but are insignificant in size compared to the hundreds of billions of stars which constitute a true galaxy. Scientists believe that there are hundreds of similar miniature galaxies and pseudo-galaxies near the Milky Way, but they are dark and difficult to find (comparitively speaking).

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, near which the satellites were found. (image from European Southern Observatory)

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, near which the satellites were found. (image from European Southern Observatory)

I have been saying “dwarf galaxies” because I like the way it sounds (like the new galaxies live together in the woods in a little hut and work in the mines!), but actually only three of the new companions are definitely dwarf galaxies. The remaining six structures may be dwarf galaxies or they may merely be globular clusters—a far less euphonic phrase which indicates a group of stars which orbits a galactic core as a satellite. Unlike globular clusters, dwarf galaxies are held together by the gravitational mass of large quantities of dark matter (um, assuming it actually exists). Indeed dwarf galaxies seem to contain far greater quantities of dark matter than actual galaxies. This makes the newly discovered galactic neighbors a potentially useful focus for studying the properties of dark matter and refining our model of the universe.

Queen Bee (Mark Ryden, 2014, oil on canvas)

Queen Bee (Mark Ryden, 2014, oil on canvas)

Today we are featuring a small painting by a contemporary painter, Mark Ryden (whose work has showed up on this blog before). This is “Queen Bee” a portrait which stands somewhat in contrast with Ryden’s usual style: although the painting does have the jewel-like illustration quality which constitutes half of his trademark; it notably lacks the dark narrative extravagance of earlier works. The best of Ryden’s oeuvre has the feel of a fairytale which has fallen through a dark hole in the world. “Queen Bee” is more elegiac. The emotionally empty pouting expression on the figure’s doll-like face works as a receptacle for whatever emotion the viewer wishes to project into it.

The glorious golden bee who is desperately assembling a hive from hair, grass, and leaves is the true subject of the work. Of course a single honey bee is an anomaly and a failure—honey bees are social organisms which can only survive and flourish as a hive. So the viewer is left to draw her own conclusions about the thematic meaning of the piece.

Although Ryden paints his own paintings (unlike many artworld superstars who leave lowly creative tasks to underpaid interns, apprentices, and assistants), he does hire Asian artisans to build the remarkable frames to spec. Look at how lovely the gilded hive is! Are these bees in the frame the real workers for the bee in the painting? There might be a subtle sting for the entire concept of fine art buried in that question.

Detail

Detail

This particular painting was made for charity. Ryden auctioned the piece off in the spring of last year and donated the proceeds to the World Wildlife Fund. While the piece did not fetch the princely multi-million dollar price associated with works by annointed art world insiders, you could certainly buy several houses in West Virginia with the proceeds. It is very good of Ryden to give to such a meaningful cause. One of these days, I’ll have to host a charity auction of my own paintings for the world’s endangered animals (sometime on down the road when I am not one of them).

Nativity (Pietro Perugino, 1513, oil on panel)

Nativity (Pietro Perugino, 1513, oil and tempera on panel)

Merry Christmas!  Here is a small nativity painting by Pietro Perugino, a non-believer, thug, and “bungler”.  Perugino was also the teacher of Raphael and one of the pioneers of oil-painting.  His religious works are among my very favorites because of their delicacy, color, rhythm, and beauty.  I have been thinking about him a great deal today, but since it is Christmas, you’ll have to wait for a longer post next week!

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata (upper pitcher)

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata (upper pitcher)

Yesterday’s post described the carnivorous nepenthes plants which entice organisms into their slippery liquid-filled depths where the tiny creatures are killed and digested.  The plants however are after different nutrients than carnivorous animals are.  Instead of hungering for proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, and complex amino acids (and all that other stuff nutritionists and zookeepers are always going on about) plants simply want phosphorus and nitrogen.

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia)

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia)

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia) is a tiny vesper bat which lives in Malaysia (the portion on Borneo). The small wooly bat weighs between 2.5 to 4 g (0.08 to 0.14 ounces) and, at most, measures 40 mm (1.6 in) from nose to tail.  It is one of the smallest mammals alive—it is even smaller than the miniscule lesser bamboo bat (which lives inside of single segment chambers in bamboo stalks).  The small wooly bat has found an equally fine home: the tiny creatures live inside a Bornean subspecies of nepenthes– Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata.  The little bats fit perfectly inside the long tapered chambers of Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata—the taper even prevents the tiny aerial hunters from falling in.  In exchange for providing a perfect home for the tiny bats, the plants also get something.  Bat guano is a famous source of nitrogen and phosphorus—so much so that humans have been known to mine old bat caves to use the deep layers of excrement for an agricultural fertilizer.

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Nepenthes rafflesiana elongate does not need to be an effective hunter.  The bats which live inside its tube shaped pitchers provide it with the nutrients it needs on a continuing basis: the two organisms provide a beautiful example of a symbiotic relationship.

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Between giant planets and small stars exists a bizarre class of heavenly objects known as brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen elements together as do main sequence stars like the sun, however brown dwarfs larger than 13 Jovian masses are believed to fuse deuterium atoms and large brown dwarfs (65 Jovian masses and up) are believed to fuse lithium.  Since brown dwarfs can be very much like planets or like stars, there is a specific definition to describe the objects: a brown dwarf must have experienced some sort of nuclear fusion as a result of mass and temperature, however it cannot have fused all of its lithium (or it is considered a star or stellar fragment).  A stellar physicist reading this blog might object that medium and large stars have some lithium present in their outer atmosphere, or that a very young white dwarf could still have some unused lithium present, or even that an old heavy brown dwarf could have fused all of its lithium.  That physicist would be correct: she deserves some cookies and a pat on the head for poking holes in unnecessarily simple definitions.

Various Classifications of Brown Dwarfs

Various Classifications of Brown Dwarfs

Brown dwarfs were theorized to exist in the 1960s, but no astronomer managed to discover one until 1988 when a team of University of California astronomers who were studying white dwarfs found a bizarrely cool red spectral signature for a faint companion to the star GD 165.  Since then many brown dwarfs have been discovered and sorted into the major types M, L, T, and Y.  They occupy a strange ambiguous area at the bottom of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram—objects which are luminous and massive in comparison to everything else but tiny and dim compared to real stars.

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There are some planets which are known to orbit brown dwarfs and there also brown dwarfs known to orbit true stars.  It is beginning to seem that there a great many brown dwarfs out there: perhaps they are as numerous as true stars (or maybe they are even more common than that).  Since they are hard to detect, scientists do not have a very accurate assay of their frequency in the universe.  The question bears somewhat on our understanding of the universe–since a great deal of matter is  not accounted for.

An artist's conception of a brown dwarf seem from a closely orbiting planet

An artist’s conception of a brown dwarf seem from a closely orbiting planet

My mind keeps returning to the fact that some brown dwarfs have planetary systems.  Imagine these melancholic twilight ice worlds forever orbiting a dim glow which will never blaze into a true sun.   It is a melancholy picture, but not without a certain beauty.

A Brown Dwarf with Planet and Moon (painting by Lynette Cook from fineartamerica.com)

A Brown Dwarf with Planet and Moon (painting by Lynette Cook from fineartamerica.com)

One of the Aspredinidae (banjo catfish) species, Bunocephalus amaurus, from Guyana

Banjo catfish are a family (Aspredinidae) of tiny South American catfish which live in the major tropical river systems of the continent.  Most species of banjo catfish have round flat heads and long skinny tails—hence their distinctive name.  Although various sorts of banjo catfish live in many different river habitats (from quick flowing channels, to murky stagnant backwaters, to brackish tidal basins) they generally utilize the same strategy of keeping still and allowing their camouflage to protect them.  Although like all catfish, they lack scales, the Aspredinidae make up for this absence with rows of horny keratin tubercles which break up their profile and leave them well disguised.  Additionally they can shed their skins! As omnivores they hunt tiny invertebrates as well as feeding on whatever they can scavenge.  Members of the Amaralia genera of Banjo catfish are especially fond of the eggs of other species of catfish, which they actively seek out and vacuum up.

Another species of Banjo catfish (Bunocephalus coracoideus)

Perhaps because they are so partial to eating the eggs of other catfish, some banjo catfish have evolved special strategies to protect their own eggs.  Female catfish in the subfamily Aspredininae wait until their eggs are fertilized and then attach the developing eggs to their belly.  Three species of Aspredininae develop specialized fleshy stalks called cotylephores specifically for the purpose of exchanging nutrients and oxygen between the mother and the eggs.

More banjo catfish (Amaralia hypsiura)

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