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Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur!  You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?

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Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy.  As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world.  However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.

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Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China!  In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail!  This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.

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The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan).  Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.

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If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room.  Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.

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As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead.  Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations.  What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?

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Peacock Pheasant (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, mixed media)

The success of my mixed media turkey artwork has led me to make a second cut-out paper bird.  This one is a beautiful peacock pheasant with iridescent tail feathers and with rhinestone “eyes” across his breast.  The real bird which this cutout is based on is the grey peacock pheasant (Polyplectron bicalcaratum) the national bird of Myanmar—a nation clawing its way from horror to democracy.  One of these days I will do a post on the gray peacock pheasant (which is not unlike the beautiful Palawan peacock pheasant, which I already wrote about), however I am going to wait a while.  The actual animal is so gorgeous that it puts my paper cutting to shame….

Fontana del Tritone  (Gian Lorenzo Bernini ca.1624-1643, Piazza Barberini, Rome)

Fontana del Tritone
(Gian Lorenzo Bernini ca.1624-1643, Piazza Barberini, Rome)

Triton (the moon) and tritons (the gastropods) are named after…Triton, a Greek sea god who was the son of Poseidon (king of the sea) and his wife Amphitrite (herself a daughter of the ocean titans Nereus and Doris).  Triton was portrayed as a mighty merman who carries a musical conch with which he calms the seas…or whips them into a frenzy.

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Triton lived with his parents in a golden palace beneath the waves (according to Hesiod).  He has a few cameo appearances in classical mythology (most notably in the story of Jason and the Argonauts) but he is generally overshadowed by his mighty father.  In late antiquity and the Renaissance, Triton came to be a sort of progenitor of mermaids and mermen (a role which he occupies in Disney’s “animated film The Little Mermaid”).

Triton and Ariel (from "The Little Mermaid")

Triton and Ariel (from “The Little Mermaid”)

Geologists know that oceans and seas are indeed ever-changing and protean.  Whenever I think of Triton, I imagine how the oceans of the world will be entirely different in a few hundred million years (just as today’s oceans are no longer the Tethys or the Panthalassic Ocean).  Neptune’s reign will end and the oceans and seas will change–and yet they will really be the same great world-sea as they have been since the beginning.

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Male & Female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male & Female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis) Photo by René Lausberg

Just in time for the holidays, here is a colorful fancy fowl to enjoy! The Palawan peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis) lives in the humid rainforests of the Palawan islands, a small chain of islands which are part of the Philippines and which are located in the Sulu Sea (to the southwest of Manila and just north of Malaysia).  If you count their splendid tails, male Palawan peacock-pheasants grow to be a half a meter (18 inches) long.  Females are much smaller and plainer.  The pheasants voraciously hunt the many invertebrates which live in the jungle and they live on a varied diet of insects, myriapods, mollusks, spiders, and isopods as well as smaller vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and baby snakes.  They also eat some berries and seeds.

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

In a world of beautiful birds, the male Palawan peacock-pheasant stands out because of his black plumage, his svelte eye mask, his erectile crest, and above all because of the large iridescent green-blue ocelli on his magnificent tail (which he can fan above himself in the manner of a peacock).  From an earlier post, you will recall that ocelli are ornamental “eyes” made of feathers.  The birds are monogamous—which is to say they form tightly bonded pairs which look after the nest together.

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Sadly, peacock-pheasants are tropical birds which do not take well to aviaries and bird farms.  The species is listed as “vulnerable” because of the swift deforestation of the Philippine jungles and because of overcollecting of the magnificent feathers, however the Palawan peacock-pheasant does not seem to be very likely to go extinct soon—which is splendid news for bird-lovers and aesthetes!

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

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