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A quick post today from the bottom of the ocean where this unknown octopus species was just found by an unmanned robot probe. The endearing cephalopod was photographed by Deep Discoverer, a robot submarine which launches from the NOAA Ship “Okeanos Explorer” a federally funded research vessel. Since 2008, the Okeanos Explorer has been travelling the world’s oceans exploring and mapping unknown parts of the underwater world. The octopus was photographed on a barren ledge of rock 4,290 meters beneath the surface (just off the northeast coast of Hawaii). The octopus appears to have a complete lack of chromatophores—special pigment-containing cells which cephalopods manipulate in order to change colors—so it appears ghostly and transparent. Here is hoping we learn more about this amazing underwater creature!

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Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

The traditional narrative of Chinese civilization is that the Han people (who originated on the fertile central plains around the Yellow River) invented cities, writing, advanced agriculture, bronzework, and Chinese civilization in general. The first great era of Han Chinese civilization was the Shang “dynasty” which lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC (although stories persist of an earlier—perhaps mythical—Xia dynasty). After the Shang age, the superior Han gradually spread through all of China incorporating lesser peoples into their greater hegemony (which endures to this day as the mighty nation we call China). This narrative was called into question in 1986 when workers at the Lanxing Second Brick Factory in Sichuan discovered an ancient pit full of exceedingly weird and magnificent bronze statues.

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Archaeologists flocked to the site and began researching the civilization which was behind these strange works or art. It became apparent that the bronzeworks came from a culture which was contemporary to Shang dynasty China, but which was not directly connected. These ancient people are known as the Sanxingdui culture. They flourished in the Sichuan region, but, aside from the self-evident fact that they were gifted bronze artists, very little is known about the. Archaeologists speculate that the Sanxingdui people lived unified under a strong centralized theocracy in a walled city; also some Chinese scholars identify the Sanxingdui with the Shu kingdom (which is mentioned occasionally in extremely ancient Shang-era sources). I would love to tell you more, but since the Sanxingdui left no recorded history, that is virtually all we know about the creators of these exquisite bug-eyed sculptures and masks. It is believed that some natural disaster or invasion wiped out their city-state and the survivors became integrated with the Ba culture which were in turn swallowed up by the Chin Empire.

 

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Whatever the truth about them, they made amazing art. In addition to the huge alien faces, animals such as snakes, fish, and birds abound in Sanxingdui artwork—as do zoomorphic combination animals and fantasy creatures like dragons. Practical items such as axes and chariot wheels were also found.  Naturally there is a vocal minority out there who insist that Sanxingdui culture was influenced by aliens, Atlantis, or whatever other supernatural entity du jour is selling books, but to find out more about them, we are going to have to wait for more discoveries.

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Cinereous Bunting (Emberiza cineracea) Photo copyright Mark S Jobling.


Cinereous Bunting (Emberiza cineracea) Photo copyright Mark S Jobling.

In Latin, ashes are called cinis and , similarly, the Latin word for ashy gray or ash-like is cinereous.  English borrowed this word in the 17th century and it has long been used to describe the color which is dark gray tinged with brown shininess.  As with many Latin color names (like fulvous and icterine) the word cinereous is often used in the scientific name of birds which are very prone to be this drab color.

Cinereous Vulture--photo by Esquire Magazine(really?)

Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)–photo by Esquire Magazine(really?)

However, the concept of color is not quite as simple as it first seems.  Different items produce ocular sensations as a result of the way they reflect or emit light, yet different wavelengths of light are visible to different eyes.  Humans are trichromats.  We have photoreceptor cells capable of seeing blue, green, and red.  Most birds are tetrachromats and can apprehend electromagnetic wavelengths in the ultraviolet spectrum as well.  Many of the dull cinereous birds we witness may glow and sparkle with colors unknown to the human eye and unnamed by the human tongue.

The wing of an owl to us

The wing of an owl to us

The wing of an owl to ultraviolet film

The wing of an owl to ultraviolet film

 

Adult female Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). Photo by Robin Baird.

Adult female Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). Photo by Robin Baird.

There are entire species of large mammals living today on Earth which have never been seen alive by humans.  Even though they can grow larger than elephants, their numbers and habits are unknown.  We might not even know all extant species in the family.  These mystery mammals are the beaked whales (family Ziphiidae) masters of deep ocean diving.  The family is comprised of at least 21 different species, only 3 of which are well known (thanks to whale hunting in previous centuries). Beaked whales are poorly understood because they are rarely on the surface of the ocean where we can observe them.  They are capable of diving more than 1,899 meters (6,230 feet) and can stay underwater for almost an hour and a half.  Beaked whales live in the black–down among the underwater seamounts, canyons, and abyssal plains.  We only know them from the examination of dead specimens: indeed, for some species of beaked whales that is quite literally true and they have only been seen when dead.

Small Beaked Whales (an illustration by Brett Jarrett)

Small Beaked Whales (an illustration by Brett Jarrett)

Beaked whales grow to sizes of 4 to 13 metres (13 to 43 ft) depending on the species.  They are sexually dimorphic—the males are a different size than the females.  Additionally male whales have prominent domed foreheads and a pair of fighting teeth for dueling and sexual display (these teeth do not fully develop in females).  Beaked whales feed on squid, and, to a lesser extent, fishes and invertebrates which they capture from the ocean bottom by means of suction.  In order to produce this suction effect, the whales have highly nimble tongues and throat grooves.

The most distinctive features of beaked whales (save perhaps from their rostral “beaks”) are the body features which allow them to dive so deeply and then hunt in the dark crushing waters.   The lungs of beaked whales collapse at a certain pressure—most likely as a way to minimize the dangers of nitrogen transfer. Their livers and spleens are huge in order to deal with the dangerous metabolic bi-products of prolonged periods when they are unable to breathe.  Additionally, their blood and muscle tissue is capable of capturing and storing substantially greater quantities of oxygen than the tissue of other mammals.  Beaked whales can pull their pectoral flippers into grooves which run along the sides of their bodies and thus become more streamlined.

Sowerby's Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon bidens)

Sowerby’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon bidens)

In order to find their way in the deep ocean, the whales rely on sophisticated acoustic echo-location organs.  Lips behind the blowhole produce high pitched vibrations which bounce off of prey and obstacles.  Echoes from these vibrations are then picked up and focused into the whales’ sensory organs by special fat deposits and bone structures.   Unfortunately this method of echolocation seems to make beaked whales extremely sensitive to sonar.  Resurfacing whales are unable to avoid the amplified sound waves and can suffer injuries to their sensory organs (or even to their large delicate livers).  Additionally, it is theorized that Beaked whales may try to resurface too quickly to avoid sonar and therefore risk decompression sickness.

(Photo: credit Nan Hauser & Hoyt Peckham, CCRC)

(Photo: credit Nan Hauser & Hoyt Peckham, CCRC)

Humankind has also been fishing ever deeper waters as fish stocks crash—which involves the whales in by-catch issues.  Hopefully we will learn more about this family of enigmatic divers (and become more responsible stewards of the ocean) so that the beaked whales do not vanish before we even get to know them.

Sowerby's Beaked Whale original 2

Life around a Cold Seep

This week Ferrebeekeeper has been concentrating on the theme of discovering new life—a search which is very much ongoing even in today’s used-up overpopulated Anthropocene world.  This concept has taken us to the mid levels of the ocean and the mountain jungles of Thailand and Vietnam to encounter species unknown (like this mystery sea slug, the tiny parasitoid wasp, and even a large hoofed mammal). However what is even more shocking is that our world features entire ecosystems rich with life that have only just been discovered.

A photograph of a pool of brine on the bottom of the ocean

A cold seep is an ecosystem on the bottom of the ocean formed around hydrocarbon-rich fluids which seep out of the earth and either “bubble up” or pool at the bottom of the ocean.  The geography of such areas is alien to our perceptions: black pools of asphalt, barite chimneys, and undersea lakes of dense brine (which traps hydrocarbons and sulfites) are surrounded by otherworldly “reefs” of tube worms and benthic mollusks.  The tube worms symbiotically partner with bacteria capable of “feeding” off the hydrocarbons while the mollusks filter feed on the archaeobacteria.   Whole communities of grazers, scavengers, and predators then form around this base.  Such communities are remarkable because they do not rely on photosynthesis as a source of energy and nutrients (much like more famous “black-smoker” ecosystems which are also chemotrophic ecosystems—but which form around hot volcanic vents).  Cold seeps themselves were only discovered in 1983! Now that oceanographers know what to look for, cold seeps are being discovered in locations where we would never have looked for large complicated webs of life.

A Map of the collapsing Larsen Ice Sheet

In 2005, an oceanographic research team studying the seas once covered by the Larsen ice shelf (a melting shelf of ice located off the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula) discovered a cold seep community thriving in a glacial trough 850 meters (2,800 feet) beneath the ocean’s surface.  The scientists found great mats of bacteria living on methane.  These bacterial mats were in turn grazed on by strange bivalve mollusks and brittle sea stars.  To quote EOS (a journal of the American Geophysics Union):

These results have implications for the discovery of life in extreme environments, including those found beneath the enormous extent of existing ice shelves and large lakes that lie beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Because of its restricted conditions, the seafloor beneath ice shelves may provide a suitable, widespread habitat for chemotrophic systems; given this, there may be many more such habitats waiting to be discovered beneath existing ice shelves….The seafloor beneath Antarctica’s floatingice shelves covers more than 1.54 million square km [Drewry, 1983], an area of the same order of magnitude as the Amazon basin of Brazil or the Sahara desert.

So science is only just beginning to apprehend the sorts of biomes which are found across huge swaths of Earth.  There are even more remote areas which are wholly unknown—like Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake wholly isolated from the rest of Earth (including the atmosphere) for 15 to 25 million years.  As continental drift and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current froze Antarctica, Lake Vostok was trapped beneath 4,000 m (13,100 ft) of ice, and it has remained so until this year (when an intriguing but sloppy Russian drilling expedition means to pierce the lake).   What scientists discover beneath the other ice dwindling shelves, and what the Russians find beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet will have broader implications for how we conceive of life on Earth–and beyond.

A watercolor painting by of chemotrophic life by Karen Jacobsen, an artist who has traveled to the bottom of the ocean via bathysphere to record her impressions!

Biologists estimate that there are approximately 8.8 million species of eukaryotes (animals with complex cell structure) currently alive on Earth.  So far, humankind has only cataloged 1.9 million species and entire biomes remain largely unknown to us.

Unknown Order of Nudibranch Sea Slug swimming in the depths off Monterey (Image Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

To illustrate this point, here is a photograph of a completely unknown genus of nudibranch mollusk photographed 1 mile beneath the surface of the ocean near Davidson seamount (which is an extinct underwater volcano just off the coast of Monterey).  I wish I could tell you more about the strange mollusk, but this photograph, taken from a robotic deep sea submersible in 2002 is pretty much all that humankind knows about this species.  The mission photographed a huge number of other gelatinous creatures in the middle depths of the ocean, and in fact caused scientists to rethink the importance of such animals in the oceanic ecosystem. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) worked on the mission with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their website explains the robotic study by paraphrasing Bruce Robinson, an ecologist who pioneered the use of robot submersibles:

One of the most important discoveries has been the realization that gelatinous animals are important as grazers and predators that comprise a large percentage of the open ocean animal biomass. Robison estimates that gelatinous animals make up about 40 percent of the biomass in the deep sea water column.

Nudibranch mollusks are largely thought of as colorful predators of the tropical reef, so it is a big deal if they (together with other floating mollusks, cnidarians, and siphonophores) constitute such a substantial percentage of the biomass of the largest portion of the ocean.  As an unscientific postscript I think the delicate translucent nudibranch is very beautiful with its alien and ghostlike (and, yes, gelatinous) features.

The same mollusk (Image Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

The Gobi Desert

When I think of China, I tend to imagine coastal China or the Yangtze River valley—which is to say areas of tremendous human population density where neighbor lives smashed up against neighbor and black smokestacks belch poison smoke onto the churning masses.  Yet China is truly vast and parts of the nation are among the least densely populated places on Earth.  The great northwest deserts of China are a land of shifting sands, xeric scrubland, and nothingness. Yet the dry wasteland is home to one of the world’s rarest and fanciest leaping rodents.

The Long-eared Jerboa, Euchoreutes naso, is an insect-eating, long-jumping, mouse-like creature which lives in the deserts of China and Mongolia.  The animal’s habits are largely unknown–since it is a master of stealth and also since it lives in such an unforgiving and desolate regions where biologists are infrequent guests. The long-eared jerboa is sufficiently distinct that it is classified in its own genus and its own subfamily.  It is (self-evidently) notable for its long ears which it uses to hunt insects in the desert nights and to avoid predators.

The Long-eared Jerboa, (Euchoreutes naso)

The animal is lightweight with a mass of only 24 g (0.85 oz) to 38 g (1.3 oz) and its body is small, measuring from 70 mm (2.8 in) to 90 mm (3.5 in)—although its tail is just as long as its body so the whole creature measures up to 180 mm long (7 inches) if you count the tail.  Like other jerboas, this species probably excavate burrows where they rest during the day.  Because they are so enigmatic and poorly understood (and also so endearing), the long-eared jerboas are a kind of symbol of truly wild creatures and the little rodent was identified as one of the top-10 “focal species” in 2007 by the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project.

There are no primary written sources concerning Slavic mythology–no myths written in the original languages, no poems, or songs, or tales of gods and heroes.  The first people to write about the Slavic faith were Christian proselytizer, and their accounts are naturally hostile to the pagan faith. This means that we know tantalizing hints about Slavic deities from archaeology and we have some hair raising accounts from Christian sources (which are probably slander), but we actually know very little.  One of the deities who has gained the most mileage from this dearth of information is the dark accursed god Chernobog (aka Crnobog, Czernobóg, Černobog, Црнобог, Zernebog and Чернобог).

Chernobog!
A German priest traveling among unconverted Wendish and Polabian tribes wrote about Chernobog as a god of woe whose name meant “black god”.  The name also shows up in a smattering of other sources which reveal little–but other than that Chernobog is largely unknown.  While this would be a big problem for a harvest god or a love goddess, Chernobog is an underworld deity and his mysterious nature has made him popular with artists, movie makers, and video game producers looking for a big scary guy who doesn’t talk too much.

Chernabog from Walt Disney's "Fantasia"

The most famous Chernobog appearance was in the Walt Disney film Fantasia, where he starred (as “Chernabog”) in the animated “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. As Modest Mussorgsky’s wild tempestuous music plays, Chernabog, a huge winged demon of blackness, summons forth evil spirits and the restless undead to a lightning scarred mountain top (only to be banished by dawn and the ringing of a church bell).   The sequence made a huge impact on me when I saw it on VHS in music class in elementary school and apparently I am not alone,  Wikipedia had a long list of fantasy writers who have since used the character as a villain (the most intriguing-sounding of which was an alternate history of Russia where a comet impact had caused widespread famine and cannibalism and Chernobog was worshipped as a major deity!).

"Chernobog" (artwork by by Cristopher Erik Thompson)

Perspicacious readers will probably notice I have just written a post concerning deities of the underworld based on almost no real information other than modern fantasy/entertainment–but there is a useful lesson here.  If you are stuck for material Chernobog is your man–his fearsome aura of mystery and dreadful (albeit ambiguous) name will do your work for you.

Aaargh!

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