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The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

Since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn. The robot probe (a joint effort of NASA, ESA, and the Italian space agency) received the most press when it launched a flying saucer lander onto Saturn’s planet-like moon Titan, but it is still out there doing amazing work. Last week, while I was busy writing about Halloween themes, the probe made its closest pass yet to Saturn’s ice moon, Enceladus. Enceladus is only 500 kilometers in diameter and it is coated in ice, but it is of great interest to scientists because ice plumes venting from the moon’s south pole seem to indicate a large polar subsurface ocean of liquid water. Warmed above freezing by tidal flux, this ocean beneath the ice probably has a thickness of around 10 km.

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

On October 30th, Cassini flew by the icy moon at the dangerously close distance of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). The probe was directly above the south pole of Enceladus and it collected a little flake of ice to analyze (which strikes me as incredibly amazing and beautiful). It will take some time for the ship’s devices to assay the drop of water from an alien ocean, but Cassini also snapped some photos which we already have. These are taken from point blank range above the south pole. The ocean is down there beneath the scratches and scars. What is the nature of this icy ocean? How long has it been there? Could it possibly harbor life?

Collared Peccaries (Pecari tajacu) by Jim Gressinger

Collared Peccaries (Pecari tajacu) by Jim Gressinger

Ferrebeekeeper has written a great deal about pigs and swine, but the pigs are only half of a larger sub-order, the Suina (artiodactyl foragers with cloven hooves).  The new world equivalent of the pigs are the peccaries (family Tayassuidae) also known as javelinas or skunk pigs. Peccaries are superficially very similar to wild pigs: both groups have four legs, bristling hair, low & wide profiles.  Additionally, like pigs, peccaries have a sensitive nose which ends in a cartilage disk.  Both pigs and peccaries are omnivores though they have different diets.  In the wild, peccaries feed primarily on roots, tubers, grubs, cacti, seeds, and tender grasses.  Although peccaries have complex three-chamber stomachs for breaking all of this down, they are not ruminants (i.e. they do not chew cuds like goats or cows).

Not that cows and goats eat fish like this White-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) photo by Douglas PR Fernandes

Not that cows and goats eat fish like this White-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) photo by Douglas PR Fernandes

There are three (or possibly four) species of peccaries, all of which are native to the Americas (from the southwest of the United States down through Argentina).  None of the peccaries grow to be as large as pigs: the Tayassuidae usually measure approximately a meter in length (3.0 and 4.0 feet) and full-grown adults seldom weigh more than 40 kg (88 lbs). Peccaries make up for their smaller size by being more social than pigs.  Peccary herds can number up to a hundred–at least for the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) which lives in the deep rainforests of Central and South America (the other peccary species tend to form smaller herds).  Peccaries can be dangerous–recent news reports from South America involve humans being killed by large groups of peccaries.

Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri) San Francisco Zoo

Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri) San Francisco Zoo

Peccaries are powerful and can run very swiftly.  Like pigs, peccaries have razor sharp tusks, but peccary tusks are straight and short (whereas pigs have long curving tusks).   When peccaries are distressed, they chatter their upper and lower tusks together as a warning.  Peccaries live only in the Americas and they are concentrated in Central and South America, yet the family is ancient and dates back to the late Eocene.  Ironically, peccaries seem to have originated in Europe, but they died out there sometime in the Miocene, but not before spreading to North America.  Three million years ago, during the great American Interchange (when the Isthmus of Panama formed and linked the long-sundered continents) Peccaries thundered south, and they found South America much to their liking.

Worldwide Peccary Range

Worldwide Peccary Range

Peccaries are heavily hunted for their meat and their heavy durable hides, but populations seem to be broadly holding steady (although habitat loss may threaten some of the rain-forest sub-species) and the Chacoan peccary or tagua has remained thin on the ground since its discovery in the arid Gran Chaco region of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina .  Additionally, humans have taken to domesticating peccaries for food and as pets, although since peccaries are aggressive, they are not entirely perfect for farming (or for snuggling).

Do not cuddle the collared peccary!

Do not cuddle the collared peccary!

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.  At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.

This requires some explaining.

On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula.  Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth).  Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.

A photograph of the actual confrontation--well, that certainly clears everything up!

A photograph of the actual confrontation–well, that certainly clears everything up!

In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another.  North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once.  On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree.  Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight.  The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct.  In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs.  The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack.  With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation.  Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force.   Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group.  The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining.  They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected:  Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever).  In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.

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An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

Here in New York the weather outside is February gray.  The buildings are gray.  The sky is gray.  The trees are gray.  The people are dressed in gray and black.  Fortunately we can beguile away this monochromatic tedium by contemplating the Euglossini, also known as the orchid bees!

Despite their Latin name, the Euglossini are not uniformly eusocial.  This means that most species of orchid bees live solitary lives (in marked contrast to honeybees–which live in vast hives more ordered than the strictest totalitarian state).  The orchid bees live in Central and South America, apart from one species which ranges into North America.  They are notable for their brilliant iridescent blue and green coloring.  The females build nests out of mud and resin.

Museum specimens of orchid bees

Museum specimens of orchid bees

The most remarkable aspect of Euglossini behavior is the male bee’s obsession which the aromatic compounds produced by various tropical orchids.  Male orchid bees have a rarified ability to sense these fragrances even in small quantities (like many heady floral/fruit scents the chemicals produced by the orchids are usually complex esters).  The bees harvest the molecules with front legs specially modified to resemble little brushes (and in doing so they generally pollinate the orchids, which are wholly dependent on the bees).  Astonishingly, the male bees store the chemicals in a cavity on their back leg which is sealed off and protected by waxy hairs.

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

The male bees appear to use these compounds when trying to attract a mate but no female attraction to the odors has been proved.  On the other hand, many Stanhopeinae and Catasetinae orchids are absolutely dependent on the male bees to reproduce.  Different species of these orchids rely on specific species of orchid bees to successfully pollinate far-away partners in the rainforest.  Charles Darwin wrote about this pollination system after observing it in the wild and later referred to the highly specialized orchids as proof of the ways in which species adapt to their environments.

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona's Center for Insect Science Website)

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science Website)

The Giant Ground Pangolin of Africa (Manis gigantea)

The pangolin is one of the most unusual and fascinating mammals of Africa and Asia.  The magnificent creatures have unique strengths and gifts, but because of unhappy superstition (and gustatory whim) they are facing an uncertain future.

A climbing tree pangolin

Despite a superficial resemblance to anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are most closely related to the carnivora family (cats, dogs, weasels, seals, and so forth).  The relationship is not unduly close: pangolins make up their own order of which there is one extant family (Manidae) and one genus (Manis). There are eight species of pangolins, each of which is sheathed in a virtually impregnable suit of keratin scales which act as armor.  All pangolins can roll into pinecone-like balls leaving only the razor sharp edges of their scales to confront predators. Not only does the pangolin possess armor, every adult has formidable claws with which to burrow into termite mounds and root insects out of bark (or to utilize as a defensive weapon) as well as a gland capable of spraying a foul acid onto would-be predators.  Additionally, while they may lack the uniquely acute mental equipment of the gnome-like echidna, pangolins are considered quite clever.  They are gifted at avoiding traps and seem to evince real creativity in seeking out and consuming bugs, particularly ants and termites, which compromise a large portion of their diets. Many pangolins are adept climbers, capable of taking to the trees both to hunt and to escape danger. Tree pangolins even have prehensile tails with which they can dangle from branches. Other pangolins are great burrowers. In fact  in Chinese myth they travel everywhere in a great underground network and their Cantonese name “Chun-shua-cap” means the creature that bores through the mountain.

A lion ineffectively tries to eat a balled-up pangolin (photo by Mark Sheridan-Johnson)

Alas, Chinese legends are not all so kind to chun-shua-cap. Although pangolins are gifted with impregnable armor, mighty claws, keen intelligence, skunk-like acid spray, dexterity, as well as great digging, swimming, and hiding skills, they have a relentless enemy more implacable than any lion or plague. South China’s burgeoning middle class hungers for them with insatiable rapacity. Ancient custom dictates that ingesting their scales somehow magically aids nursing mothers (which, aside from the placebo effect, is a complete fallacy). Additionally pangolins are a prestige food for the newly moneyed millions who do not know what to do with wealth and, like the Very Reverend William Buckland, desire to consume everything that lives. China has eaten its own pangolins and is quickly driving the remaining pangolins of South East Asia, Indonesia, and South Asia to extinction. Additionally, as Africa’s troubled nations become vassals to Chinese cash and commodities-grubbing (and as Africa’s tin-pot dictators abase themselves before China’s moral equivocation) the pangolin trade is starting to gobble-up Africa’s pangolins, which were already facing pressure from the bush-meat trade and deforestation. Pangolins reproduce slowly.  Because of their diet and lifestyle they can’t be farmed. If China’s ever-growing demand for them is not curbed they will vanish from Earth forever.

A smuggled pangolin rescued by police

Chinese police, customs officers, and wildlife officials (and their counterparts in neighboring nations) have begun to strike back at the illegal trade in pangolins and other endangered species.  But as long as Chinese high officialdom turns a (very) blind eye on consumption, the problem will linger.  Come on China! You are always clamoring to be regarded as a truly great world power.  I will acknowledge you as such as soon as you rescue the world’s pangolins (and maybe the rhinos, bears, elephants, and tigers while you are at it). Everyone has these wacky superstitions which get in the way of real greatness (just look at America’s checkered history) but saving the pangolins should be possible for a nation whose government possesses such absolute authority. Or will China’s rise merely present a list of needless extinctions and tacky plastic cities as its heritage to posterity?

A baby pangolin sheltering with its mother

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