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Part of an ancient Roman town was just discovered off of the coast of Tunisia. The city of Neapolis in Roman North Africa was a major center for fishing. The town then prepared and exported the famous fermented fish sauce “garum” (which was the premier condiment of the ancient world) and salted preserved fish. Neapolis was a sort of cannery of the classical world and the underwater discoveries of an era inundated by a tsunami in the fourth century have confirmed the town’s specialty. Marine archaeologists working in the Mediterranean have discovered more than a hundred stone tanks for preparing the piquant sauce.
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I wonder what the place that makes Heinz ketchup will look like in two thousand years.

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This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.

Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.

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Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?

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Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.

Ugly-PigeonAs a city dweller, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of pigeons (Columbidae) solely as the rock doves (Columba livia) which are the familiar gray and iridescent birds. Rock Doves originated in North Africa, Central Asia, and Europe.  Humans domesticated these birds in antiquity and carried them everywhere during the age of exploration and colonization.  Like the hero of a dystopian novel, the rock dove then cast off its oppressors (manipulative giant primates who were selectively breeding it to kill it and eat it!) and escaped to freedom and worldwide success.  However the rock dove is not the only pigeon—not at all—there are over 310 species in this family.  They are found everywhere on land except for the polar regions.  Some pigeons are analogous to clever tropical parrots, whereas others live like songbirds, or jungle fowl, or like grouse.  They live in deserts, jungles, forests, sand dunes, scrubland, cropland, caves…pretty much everywhere except for oceans and tundra.  Humankind has destroyed a few species of pigeons like the passenger pigeon, the giant pigeon (A.K.A. the Dodo), and the Socorro dove–an oddity which is extinct in the wild but lives cradled in the arms of pigeon fanciers like former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, however most doves are tough and resilient.  They thrive in our concrete cities.  They make livings as performers in Vegas! They fly into empty niches and expand to fill them out.

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In the Biblical myth of the flood, the first living thing to find habitable land after the flood subsided was a dove—which actually seems right.  Pigeons’ doughty wings have carried them to places where other varieties of bird never reached or colonized.  This omnipresence–combined with a placid temperament and serene beauty–has made the pigeon into a holy bird in both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian myth. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, the most abstruse god in the Christian trinity (which already has some really weird divinities in it) is generally represented as a dove.

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Depiction of the Christian Holy Spirit as a dove, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica

The secret to the widespread success of the Columbidae however does not merely involve their strong flying ability.  They steal a trick from the mammals’ book: pigeons of both genders nurse their developing nestlings with “crop milk” a nutritious (albeit disgusting) foodstuff made of fluid filled cells sloughed off from the lining of the birds’ crops (a crop, by the way, is a digestive apparatus in birds—a sort of muscular pouch at the top of the gullet).  This strategy means that pigeon parents can feed their offspring even if they can’t immediately find food.  While other baby birds can be wiped out by a temporary food disruption, pigeon families have a safety net.

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Pigeons are not technically fowl—which constitutes the galliformes and anseriformes (and most domesticated birds).   It has been a while since I added a new category of animal to Ferrebeekeeper—perhaps I will add pigeons on the side over there.  They are more interesting than I imagined.

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A silver gilt head of Shapur II (309 to 379 AD)

A silver gilt head of Shapur II (309 to 379 AD)

Because Greco/Roman civilization takes such a central place in the foundations of contemporary Western society, we tend to forget the true counterweight to Greece and Rome.  East of the Roman Empire lay the vast and powerful Persian Empire.  Western classicists tend to think of Persia monolithically—but it was actually three great empires: the  Achaemenid Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), the Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD), and finally the Sasanian dynasty (224 AD to 651 AD).

The Sassanid Empire in 570 AD

The Sassanid Empire in 570 AD

Today’s post features a peek into the last of these great Persian eras. The Sasanians were the antithetical power to the Roman/Byzantine Empire and much of the history of the two civilizations involved their struggle against each other.

A bust of a Sasanian King--probably Shapur II (AD 310-379), silver with mercury gilding, raised from a sheet of silver with chased and repousse details

A bust of a Sasanian King–probably Shapur II (AD 310-379), silver with mercury gilding, raised from a sheet of silver with chased and repousse details

Here is the bust of a great Sasanian King–Shapur II (AD 310-379) who was the tenth monarch of the dynasty. He is pictured wearing a typical crenelated crown topped with a striated orb and a crescent (which he is also wearing in the sculpture at the top of the post). The actual crown Shapur II wore is lost in the mists of history, but it was atypical in that he was literally crowned before his birth.  His predecessor Hormizd II, was unpopular with the Persian nobility.  When Hormizd died, scheming nobles killed his eldest son, blinded the second oldest, and imprisoned/exiled the youngest.  They chose to crown his unborn son as emperor, in order that the child could be brought up as an ideal pawn, and the Zoroastrian priests placed the crown on him while he was yet unborn (resting it on his mother’s gravid belly).

Silver plate with Shapur II hunting boars )ca. 4th century, silver with gold leaf)

Silver plate with Shapur II hunting boars )ca. 4th century, silver with gold leaf)

As often happens in such circumstances, Shapur II stymied his puppetmasters by growing wise in the ways of the court as a child and ruling as a powerful sovereign.  He defeated the greatest Roman attack against Persia in classical history (the all-out assault by Emperor Julian the apostate.  He left the Sasanian dynasty much stronger than it was under his father.

Gold Coin with Shapur II

Gold Coin with Shapur II

It is interesting to see how similar the idea of a Persian crown—a crenellated circlet topped with a scepter–was to the crowns which later became the norm in Christendom. The Byzantine emperors wore a diadem instead.  I wonder how the Persian ideal became the standard for Western Europe in the centuries that followed.

Black necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) image from angolafieldgroup.com

Black necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) image from angolafieldgroup.com

Who doesn’t love cobras? These beautiful and dangerous snakes have fascinated humankind since prehistory.  Ferrebeekeeper has already written about a lovely red spitting cobra from East Africa: today we cast our eyes to sub-Saharan Africa to learn about the black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) another spitting cobra which lives across the great continent.

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The black-necked spitting cobra lives across a huge swath of Africa—from Northern Namibia to southern Mauritania in the west and from the Somali coast down to Tanzania in the east.  The adaptable snakes can be found everywhere throughout this vast range except for the jungle fastnesses of the Congo rainforest.  Except in dense rainforests, the snakes do well in all sorts of ecoregions and they are famous for thriving in scrublands, forests, grasslands, and deserts (as well as in new habitats like farms and cities). Although the snakes largely prey on small rodents, they are gifted hunters and can also live on virtually any small creatures (including arthropods, birds, reptiles, amphibians) and even on eggs.  Its own predators include a variety of fierce raptors and certain other snakes.  I find it alarming that Africa contains snakes capable of catching and eating a 2.3 meter (seven foot long) cobra which sprays venom!

The black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis)

The black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis)

The black-necked spitting cobra comes in an assortment of colors from yellowish copper to olive to reddish to gray.  Many have distinct bands of red, white or gray on their necks (although some individuals are missing these bandings entirely).  The most dramatic specimens are glossy black with red or white necks—like death metal priests! Female snake usually lay clutches of 10-15 eggs, but they can lay up to 22 eggs at a time.  The snakes can be diurnal or nocturnal to suit circumstances (and their mood). Unlike the genteel red spitting cobra, black-necked spitting cobras love to spit venom and will do so at the slightest provocation (or for no reason at all—like Kid Rock).

In comparison with some of their relatives, the black-necked spitting cobras are not especially poisonous.  Only five to ten percent of untreated human bites prove fatal.  Their venom primarily consists of cytotoxins—compounds which damage cells instead of attacking organs or neuro-connections.  Although fatalities from bites is low, bites can be accompanied with substantial tissue necrosis.

Why is he smiling about that? What a jerk!

Why is he smiling about that? What a jerk!

In conclusion, the black-necked spitting cobra is a very interesting and visually striking snake (not to mention a born survivor) but I feel it would make an extremely poor housepet.

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Congratulations to the European Space Agency for successfully landing the robot probe “Philae” on comet 67P!  The lander, which is about the size of a washing machine, made a soft touch-down on the comet at 3:30 a.m. Brooklyn time. The comet itself has a diameter of four kilometers (2.5 miles) meaning it is approximately as wide as the Verrazano Bridge is long.  To bring such objects together as they hurtle at ridiculous speeds through the vast darkness of space is a tremendous feat of engineering.  Ferrebeekeeper described the long and complex journey of Philae’s mothership, Rosetta, in this previous post.

An artist's mock-up of how the probe might look on the comet's surface (the underdressed astrophysicist is added for scale and is presumably not there)

An artist’s mock-up of how the probe might look on the comet’s surface (the underdressed astrophysicist is added for scale and is presumably not there)

Philae is equipped with space harpoons which are designed to fire into the comet’s surface–thus securing the craft to the flying iceball with lamprey-like tenacity. Actually, a lamprey might be the wrong comparison: the lander looks astonishingly like a bacteriophage (a fact which I think is exceedingly strange and funny). At any rate, it is presently unclear whether the landing harpoons correctly deployed into the comet’s surface.  We’ll know more in coming days.

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Indeed, in coming days we should be finding out lots of things regarding the comet.  The lander has a small drill which is meant to mine 20 cm (8 inches) into the icy substrate.  The sophisticated machine is also equipped with devices to analyze the core sample, gas analyzers to identify any complex organic compounds, and instruments to measure the comet’s magnetic field.   Scientists will be keeping a close eye on the comet to see what effect the solar wind has on it as 67P sweeps in close to the sun in coming months.

ayiomamitis_mcnaught2009r1November 13th UPDATE:  It seems the plucky lander had a more adventuresome landing than yesterday’s rosy headlines may have indicated.  Apparently Philae landed not once, but multiple times as it bounced down a cliff and fetched up (on two of three legs) in a shadow.  Mission controllers are contemplating whether to fire the landing harpoons, but are concerned that the resultant explosion could send Philae careening off the comet into the outer dark.  Anyone who has thrown a washing machine down an ice cliff in low gravity will surely sympathize with their predicament…

 

11949868721596191242creation_day_5_number_ge_01.svg.hiOf the top ten posts of all time, number five is my personal favorite. As you might imagine, it deals with catfish—those bewhiskered masters of freshwater survival. Catfish live on all continents (other than Antarctica—where they once lived) and they thrive in virtually every freshwater habitat worldwide. The siluriformes have even left freshwater and begun to reconquer the ancient oceans from whence all chordates originally sprang. They are a phenomenally successful family—one of life’s greatest success stories. When Earth life finally leaves home and blasts off into the greater firmament, I am sure catfish will find a way to tag along in our fresh water supply (assuming we can ever look up from our stupid I-phones and celebrity folderol for ten minutes to make such a thing happen).

 

A school of Striped Eel Catfish (Plotosus lineatus)

A school of Striped Eel Catfish (Plotosus lineatus)

Ferrebeekeeper has featured all sorts of catfish posts: catfish in art, the politics of farm-raised catfish, colorful catfish, venomous coral reef catfish, even terrifying underworld gods that are catfish! There are upside-down catfish, and catfish which care, and even wild catfish living in Brooklyn (both at the beach and at the reservoir). Tune in later this autumn when we will go all celebrity chef and cook a delicious catfish! I guess what I am saying is that I really like catfish! I admire their astonishing versatility. The secret to their success is straightforward but hardly simple—they have a vast array of astonishing sense organs which allow them to thrive in environments where other fish are lost. Even if their habitat is dark, turbid, or chaotic—the numerous senses of the catfish (some of which are not possessed by humans) allow it to evade predators, find food, and carry on a social life which is often surprisingly elaborate. You can read all about these astonishing senses in Ferrebeekeeper’s fifth top post of all time “Sensitive Siluriformes: How Catfish Perceive the World.”

 

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Merodontotus Tigrinus (The Zebra Shovelnose Catfish)

After you are done reading (or re-reading) the original post, I hope you will pause to reflect on how astonishingly beautiful and sophisticated life is. Most people I talk to initially dismiss catfish as lowly bottom-feeders (or possibly talk about them as delicious sandwiches), but they are magnificent organisms which live everywhere based on senses we are just beginning to understand. They are also related to us: distant cousins who stayed closer to the traditional ways of our great, great, ever-so-great grandparents the ancient lobe-finned fishes of the Silurian. But despite their adherence to a traditional aquatic lifestyle the catfish are hardly unsophisticated cousins!

Grandpa?

Grandpa?

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

After several blog posts describing spaceplanes (like the sleek experimental British Skylon plane), it is time to write about one of the alternative proposals for reusable space-capable craft which are capable of both take-off and landing.   In the old spaceman fantasies from the golden age of science fiction, human explorers flew their rockets to another world, dropped through the atmosphere and landed vertically.  Their rocket set around while the astronauts had fantastical adventures.  Then they rushed back aboard and blasted off!

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

Last week (March 7th, 2013) an experimental rocket named Grasshopper flew a record 80 meters (263 feet) before landing perfectly on the launch pad where it started.  Grasshopper was built by Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, the private space transport company founded by PayPal billionaire, Elon Musk (who–based on his name and his legacy–may be a James Bond villain or an alien philanthropist).   SpaceX is the first privately funded company to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit and recover it and the budding company has also been first past numerous other milestones in the commercialization of space. Instead of giving everything Roman names like NASA, SpaceX gives its crafts and components Arthurian names such as Merlin, Kestrel, and Draco (I’m going to pretend there was a grasshopper at least somewhere in T. H. White).

The grasshopper blasts off--or maybe lands?

The grasshopper blasts off–or maybe lands?

The reusable first stage tests of Grasshopper are breaking new ground in the fields of guidance and stability (which are required to land a Grasshopper).  If all continues to go well the company plans on supersonic tests later this year.   As these become more glorious and more dangerous it is unclear if they will seek to have their current Texas facility made into an official spaceport or if they will move out to the blazing glory of White Sands with the Airforce, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. Whatever the case I salute them for flying a smokestack around the countryside and then landing it on a basketball court.  Perhaps I was too hasty to dismiss the possibilities of commercial spaceflight!

An Iridescent Wasp on a Linen Tablecloth

Today I would like to start a brand new animal category concerning the most gifted of the social insects, the superorder Hymenoptera, which consists of wasps, bees, ants and sawflies (along with some other oddballs which are less frequently mentioned).  Hymenoptera are arguably among the most successful creatures on the planet.  Their behavior can be almost embarrassingly humanlike and they are famous for building elaborate constructions, going to war, taking slaves, farming fungi, and crafting rigid city-like social hierarchies. However, of all life forms on earth, the hymenoptera are some of the most vividly alien: cuttlefish do seem downright cuddly when compared to the horrifying digger wasps.   A sociologist could happily draw parallels between a bee hive and a city until he looked at the details of bee reproduction, at which point he would probably break down and weep.

The Hymenoptera are not as ancient as either the mollusks or the mammals (if it is fair to compare an order with a phylum or a class).  They originated in the Triassic and did not develop the successful social organization which is now such a defining feature until the late Cretaceous.   The first hymenopterans were the xylidae, a family of sawflies with a minimal presence on earth today but with a long pedigree. These first sawflies fed on the pollen and buds of the conifer stands beneath which the first dinosaurs developed (and under the roots of which the first mammals cowered).  The rise of the flowering plants in the Cretaceous led to a leap-forward for these pollen-eaters: complex flowers then evolved in tandem with the hymenopterans. It was also during the Cretaceous that the ants and termites split from the vespoid wasps.  The earliest honey bees of the familiar genus Apis evolved at the end of the Eocene bt they were preceded by all sorts of hymenopteran pollinators.

A Sawfly Fossil (Hymenoptera: Symphyta)

I mentioned above that, for all of their familiarity to us, the Hymenoptera are disturbingly alien.  In fact as I have been writing this comparatively tame post, a dreadful sense of formication has stolen over me and I find myself brushing phantom ants from my limbs and feeling the terrible pang of yellowjacket stings from childhood.  The hymenoptera are frequently the basis of the extraterrestrial enemies in science fiction.  Although people are occasionally stung to death by wasps or ripped apart from within by driver ants, it is something larger and less tangible which makes the hymenoptera such reliable villains. I have watched the soldier bees snip the wings off of wasps trying to invade my grandfather’s bee hive and then toss the invaders’ writhing bodies from the painted ledge—all while a river of worker bees went out and came back laden with pollen.  There is an alarming touch of civilization to these social insects: a hint that they are utilizing the same kinds of organization and communication which have made humans such a success.  And, in fact, the social insects are a huge success—ants alone are estimated to constitute a substantial portion of the animal biomass of earth (to say nothing of termites, bees, wasps and the rest).

Yellow Jackets on a Coke Can (photo by the fearless Alan Cressler)

Of course this success has broad ramifications. The hymenoptera are everywhere in nature and they also play a huge part of human culture. Indeed the very name of this blog is a play on words between my surname and the noble art of aviculture.  Without the bees, we would not have much in the way of fruit or vegetables.  Not only would this be a disaster for human farming—just contemplate how many other creatures rely on those fruit!  Similarly the ants bulwark an entire portion of the ecosystem by scavenging the tidbits out of fields and forests.  Writing about the hymenoptera may be an itchy, antsy business but it is a well-merited study.  This group of insects is pivotal to life on dry-land as we know it.  The biblical promised land was one of milk and honey.  There would be no milk without mammals, but there would be no honey (and precious few mammals) without the hymenoptera.

A beekeeper completely covered with swarming honey bees in a “bee man” cantest in China

Today (February 3rd, 2011) is the first day of the Chinese year 4709, the year of the metal rabbit. You should go have some dumplings and rice wine and then light a bunch of firecrackers and dance with a giant dragon! If you have any business in China, you should relax—nothing is getting done there for nearly a fortnight.  This is by far the biggest and most important holiday of the year.  For two weeks, the ceaseless seething all-consuming industry of rising China comes to a stop.  Even the meanest factory drudges take time off to leave the manufacturing cities and travel back to the country for some well-earned time with family and loved ones.  When you celebrate the year of the rabbit you will be doing so with more than a billion souls.

The Year of the Metal Rabbit

The rabbit is a mythological figure of great standing in the Chinese pantheon.  The divine jade rabbit is a sage and a potion master capable of mixing the elixer of immortality.  He dwells on the moon with the beautiful and troubling moon goddess Chang’e, but every once in a while he scampers down to earth to perform good deeds and instruct worthwhile students.  In the middle ages he reputedly saved the inhabitants of Beijing from a plague!

The Jade Rabbit mixes potions in front of his mansion on the moon.

According to astrologers and geomancers the year of the rabbit is traditionally associated with the family and the homestead. It is a good time for artistic pursuits, diplomatic missions, and for shoring up the peace (which always needs to be shored up after a dramatic and dangerous  tiger year).   People born in the Year of the Rabbit are ambitious and have excellent taste and fashion sense.  They are frequently financially lucky: their ability to sense danger and flee from it gives them an edge in business.  It goes without saying that they are cautious and careful, never yielding to impulse.  Well—not never–although outwardly reserved, rabbits have their own private life.  You can look to the animal kingdom for instruction…

Speaking of the animal kingdom, this week we are celebrating Furry Herbivore Week here at Ferrebeekeeper (I made the text red since it’s not a real thing), and the rabbit has a place of honor. Few animals are more universally known and more universally successful. The family Leporidae consists of over 50 species of rabbits and hares and, together with the family Ochotonidae (the pikas), constitutes the order Lagomorpha.  But whereas pikas have a limited range, rabbits and hares are found worldwide except for Antarctica (and possibly Manhattan).  The Encyclopedia of Mammals eloquently describes the basic leporidae design:

Leporids are small to moderately sized mammals, adapted for rapid movement. They have long hind legs, with four toes on each foot, and shorter fore legs, with five toes each. The soles of their feet are hairy, to improve grip while running, and they have strong claws on all of their toes. Leporids also have distinctive, elongated and mobile ears, and they have an excellent sense of hearing. Their eyes are large, and their night vision is good, reflecting their primarily nocturnal or crepuscular mode of living.

Together with a quick and fecund reproductive cycle and a taste for readily available vegetation, this is a winning design.  Few families of mammal are more bountiful.  When rabbits and hares were introduced to the continent of Australia, they overran it completely.  Armies of bunnies have subsequently wrecked havoc on the lives of marsupial herbivores with which they compete. It is one of the most disastrous stories of invasive animals in history.

But to the rabbits it was a story of success.  It always is.  Individual rabbit stories end with jaws or talons or steel snares, but the overall story is always a running leaping thriving tale of victory.  You shouldn’t look at one rabbit or hare, you should look at them all.  When you do you will be amazed by the luck and resiliency and beauty of the leporids.  I hope you think about them sometimes as you embark on your own happy and successful year of the rabbit!

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