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In the popular imagination, marsupials are synonymous with Australia.  Yet, once, in the age of Gondwanaland, Australia was linked to Antarctica (then a verdant land of forests) which was linked to South America.  The marsupials have been a big part of South America’s ecosystems for a long time, but, ever since the place was overrun with placental mammals, they have kept a fairly low profile.  Today’s Ferrebeekeeper post features a tremendously widespread and common marsupial from South America—yet this creature is nearly unknown beyond South America (except perhaps to mammalian zoologists and people who write alphabetical lists of beasts).  The water opossum (Chironectes minimus), also known as the yapok, is the most aquatic living marsupial and the only living marsupial where both sexes have pouches.

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The yapok is a formidable predator of fish, amphibians, snakes, and freshwater invertebrates like crayfish.  In order to pursue these creatures underwater, it has symmetrical webbed back feet, short waterproof fur, and numerous sensory facial bristles (like a catfish! which it slightly resembles).  The possums are small– 30 centimeters (11 inches) long with a 35 centimeter (14 inch) long tail. They have endearing little masks and cute stripes. Yapoks live from southern Mexico down through Central America to Southern Brazil.  They are especially prevalent in Colombia and Northern Peru, but they do not live in most of the Amazon Basin.

yapokweb

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about yapoks is the female’s pouch.  While the mother yapok is taking care of her young, she still must swim and hunt—yet marsupial babies have a lot of development to do before they can be on their own (much less swim through swift streams hunting fish).  Adult female yapoks therefore have a watertight pouch which can be sealed with a muscular ring so that they can take their offspring with them in the water.  For 50 days she carries her brood of 1-5 little yapoks with her everywhere…and even after then, when they detach from the nipple, they still frequent her pouch.

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Of course, as I noted above, male yapoks have pouches too. Wikipedia blandly notes, “The male also has a pouch (although not as watertight as the female’s), where he places his genitalia before swimming. This is thought to prevent it from becoming tangled in aquatic vegetation and is probably helpful in streamlining the animal as well.”  My mind keeps approaching this concept and then reeling back from it.  So I will just leave Wikipedia’s wording as it stands and say no more.

An artist's' conception of the planetary sytem of Wolf 1061C

An artist’s’ conception of the planetary sytem of Wolf 1061C

Today Australian scientists announced the discovery of a very interesting exoplanet—a so-called “super-earth” which orbits around the red dwarf star Wolf 1061.  The rocky planet (Wolf1061c) is actually only one of three worlds so far found in the solar system of Wolf 1061, but it is of particular note because it lies in an orbit which allows for liquid water to exist upon its surface.

Wolf 1061 is tidally locked to its star, so one side always faces the red ball in the heavens. It has a mass about 4.3 times that of Earth—so the surface gravity is nearly twice that of Earth. Its “years” are 18 Earth days long.

Perhaps most excitingly Wolf 1061c is “only” 14 light years away (about 84,000,000,000,000 miles).  It is a neighbor!  Perhaps we can use our best telescopes to assay the atmosphere and find out if anything resembling Earth life is there.

Stromatolites at dawn in Shark Bay, Western Australia

Stromatolites at dawn in Shark Bay, Western Australia

This place really exists! Spend a moment imaging what it is like on the surface.    In my fantasy, one side of the world is a vast red desert while the other is a desolation of black glaciers…yet in a twilight ring between the sides there are sludgy water oceans filled with big green and violet pillows of fabulous squashed shapes—the analogs of stromatolites.  Bubbles of gas pour up from these oddly shaped blobs of bacteria-like cells.  Somewhere among the billions of little multiplying alien organisms, a few peptides have changed and the cells begin to exchange genetic material with one another.  They are beginning to reproduce sexually instead of merely dividing.  Life in the ring oceans of 1061c takes a leap forward.  It is all imagination…and yet it may be so.  The universe is vast.  I wish we could find out more about this entire earthlike planet that we only just found.

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Here are four stirrup spout bottles in the shape of ducks from my favorite sculptors of Pre-Columbian South America, the Moche. The Moche lived in what is now northern Peru in a lose alliance of culturally affiliated tribes. Their civilization flourished between 100 AD and 800 AD. It is believed that the Moche worshipped dark and horrible monster gods and practiced extreme forms of human sacrifice. It is also believed that they kept cute ducks as pets!

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

The excellent workmanship and loving detail of these vessels tends to support the theory that the Moche were duck keepers. Look at the graceful composition, the harmonic colors, and the sheer personality expressed in the bird’s faces.

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche society was built around sophisticated irrigation methods and anthropologists speculate that their artwork expresses the central importance of fluids to their life. Aside from certain religious works which show terrible sea gods, most surviving Moche artifacts are water vessels. The filling/pouring nature of the works is central to understanding them. Some works depict sacrifice victims or dying warriors where the fluid gushes from the mouth or from wounds. Other Moche vessels depict fertility and life directly by portraying figures during intercourse or other erotic acts. The duck vessels however are unwounded, self-contained, and healthy. It seems the fearsome Moche really did care for their fowl…

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

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Exciting news from the heavens!  Today NASA has reported that the Kepler mission has discovered 3 new planets in the habitable zones of two distant stars.  Of the thousands of worlds so far discovered, these three are most likely to be habitable.  Best of all the planets are crazy!

Kepler is a NASA space telescope which was launched on March, 2009.  It makes use of an incredibly sensitive photometer to simultaneously & incessantly monitor the brightness of over 150,000 nearby stars.  The brightness of a star dims slightly whenever an exoplanet transits between it and Kepler.  Thanks to Kepler’s inhuman vigilance and robotic ability to perceive nearly imperceptible light changes, we are now discovering thousands of new planets, although most of them are Jovian sized gas worlds.

Kepler Space Telescope

Kepler Space Telescope

The three worlds reported today lie in the habitable zone—the region around a star where water exists in a liquid form (as it does here on beautiful Earth).  Two of the newly discovered habitable zone planets are in a five planet system orbiting a dwarf star just two-thirds the size of the sun which lies 1,200 light years from Earth.   Here is a diagram of the Kepler 62 system.

Kepler 62 System (Art by NASA)

Kepler 62 System (Art by NASA)

Of these five worlds, two lie in the habitable zone, Kepler 62f and Kepler 62e.  Kepler 62 F is most likely a rocky planet and is only 40 percent larger than Earth.  It has an orbit which last 267 (Earth) days.  So far it is the smallest exoplanet found in the habitable zone.  The star it orbits is 7 billion years old (as opposed to the sun which is four and a half billion years old) so life would have had plenty of time to develop.  The other habitable zone planet in the Kepler 62 system, Kepler 62e is probably about 60% larger than our planet.   It is somewhat closer to the star and astrophysicists speculate it may be a water world of deep oceans.

No! Not that sort of Waterworld!

No! Not that sort of Waterworld!

The other new exoplanet Kepler-69c appears to orbit a star very similar to Earth’s sun.  It orbits at the inward edge of the habitable zone (nearing where Venus is in our solar system) so it may be hot.  The planet is estimated to be about 70% larger than Earth, and is also thought to be a water world with oceans thousands of kilometers deep.  I am finding it impossible not to imagine those vast oceans filled with asbestos shelled sea-turtles the size of dump trucks, huge shoals of thermophile micro-squid, and burning-hot chartreuse uber-penguins, but if any life is actually on Kepler-69c, it is probably extremely different from Earth life.

I understand why they are green and have gills, but why are they inside gelatin capsules? (DC Comics)

I understand why they are green and have gills, but why are they inside gelatin capsules? (DC Comics)

Of course Kepler can only find these planets; it is unable to observe very much about them.  In order to do that, humankind will need some sort of huge amazing super telescope.  Speaking of which, tune in next week when I write about humankind’s plans for building a huge amazing super telescope in the Chilean Andes!

by Zhang Da Be (from InkDance Chinese Painting Gallery)

by Zhang Da Be (from InkDance Chinese Painting Gallery)

I’m extremely excited that Chinese New Year is here at last!  A dozen times I have started to blog about Chinese snake paintings and stopped because I was waiting for the year of the snake—but that finally arrives on Sunday.  To celebrate the advent of year 4710—the year of the water snake–next week is devoted to snakes and serpents of all kind (a longstanding favorite topic here at Ferrebeekeeper).  Because they are one of the twelve zodiac animals, snakes have long been celebrated in Chinese art.  Additionally their sinuous form adapts beautifully to Chinese-style brush and calligraphy work (as is evident in the art works below).

Snake (Yang Shanshen, Ink on paper)

Snake (Yang Shanshen,
Ink on paper)

People born in snake years are said to be graceful and reserved.  Although they are successful at romance and have an innate intelligence they are also reputed to be materialists with a dark mysterious side.  The snake does not suffer the same stigma in China as in the West and the benevolent creator goddess Nuwa was a serpent goddess. Hopefully the year of the water snake will bring you every sort of happiness and success.  Tune in next week as we break in the new year with a variety or remarkable snakes and snake-related topics!

Red Snake by Zhang Daqian(1899-1983) from China Guardian

Red Snake by Zhang Daqian(1899-1983) from China Guardian

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One Stroke Calligraphy Snake (from Chinese Calligraphy Workshops with Tom Chow)

One Stroke Calligraphy Snake (from Chinese Calligraphy Workshops with Tom Chow)

Painting by Jiang Tao, Painted on:Chinese Rice Paper (from InkDance Chinese Painting Gallery)

Painting by Jiang Tao, Painted on:
Chinese Rice Paper (from InkDance Chinese Painting Gallery)

Chinese Papercut

Chinese Papercut

Vintage Chinese Cloisonne Porcelain Teacup

Vintage Chinese Cloisonne Porcelain Teacup

Zodiac&Snake – Chinese Painting (from Artisoo Chinese Painting Blog)

Zodiac&Snake – Chinese Painting (from Artisoo Chinese Painting Blog)

An Inkanyamba flying prior to a storm (artist unknown)

An Inkanyamba flying prior to a storm (artist unknown)

Kindly forgive the last few weekdays without a post–I was on a winter solstice vacation from the internet.  To cut through the holiday treacle, let’s concentrate on one of my favorite subjects—giant snake monsters!  More specifically, after this year of horrible storms, I am writing about the fearsome inkanyamba, a mythical serpent-like being from South Africa.  Inkanyambas are said to dwell in the pools beneath waterfalls.  They have the bodies of great serpents and horselike heads. Inkanyambas are associated with powerful seasonal storms—particularly tornadoes.   Such powerful local cyclones were thought to be caused by male inkanyambas out looking for mates.

Inkanyamba linocut by Kate Rowland

Inkanyamba linocut by Kate Rowland

The creatures are said to live in the Pietermaritzburg area of KwaZulu-Natal .   The Inkanyamba is particularly associated with the 95 meter tall (310 feet) Howick Falls, South Africa.  For a while the Inkanyambas of Howick Falls even had a bit of Loch Ness Monster style fame attracting tourists, photojournalists, and cryptozoologists  (insomuch as that is a real thing).  Lately though, the moster is fading back to the proper realm of myth and art.

Howick Falls, South Africa

Howick Falls, South Africa

Dioscorea alata

Dioscorea alata is a naturally occurring species of yam from tropical Asia.  Yams are perennial vines which are widely cultivated for their starchy tubers—a dietary staple in great swaths of Africa.  Dioscorea alata is different from the African yams in that it is principally used as a dessert or a dessert flavoring.  The yam, which goes by other names such as “water yam”, “winged yam,” “ratalu”, “purple yam” or, perhaps most characteristically as “ube” (in the Phillipines, where it is highly esteemed)  is also different from virtually every other food stuff in that it is a shocking shade of bright lavender.

Purple Yam Ice Cream

Although Ube is valued for its high starch content and esteemed as a folk remedy for various ailments, it is principally a foodstuff and has the highest distribution of any yam—being the principle yam of South Asia, Indochina, and the Pacific.  Even in Africa, it is the second most popular yam.  Although sometimes cooks stir fry it as chips or cook it as a curry, ube is most famous for its sweet flavor and is a main flavor and ingredient of all sorts of pastries, ice creams, cakes, jams, and confections.

Ube Cake

I am blogging about ube because of the striking color—and indeed ube has given its name to a bright hue of lavender.  I would love to describe the flavor, but I have never had ube anything—a particular shock since one of the most critically lauded restaurants in my neighborhood is named “The Purple Yam”.   Perusing the online menu makes me particularly regretful that I have never dined there since the menu is filled with deep fried pork belly, mussels in curry, duck, goat, and shrimp in addition to pomelos, jackfruits and, of course, purple yam themed sweets.

Ube Halaya

 

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks!  This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed).  Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year.  If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.

The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle.  Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).

A Chinese porcelain blue and white 'dragon' jar. Ming Dynasty, Jiajing period (1522-66). Photo Gibson Antiques

Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources.  In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds.  They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.

Bronze Dragon from the Summer Palace, Beijing

Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish.  According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor.  The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own.  As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.

The Yellow Emperor (Illustrated by Blue Hsiao)

People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits.  Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.

Gung hay fat choy!

Ceres (optimized image from the Hubble Space telescope)

Today’s post topic is located in the depths of space far far away from the bats, pumpkins, and haunted deserts I have been writing about for October. The dwarf planet Ceres is located in the midst of the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.  The only dwarf planet in the inner solar system, Ceres is only 950 km (590 miles) in diameter, but it is sufficiently large to have become spherical from its own gravity (and it is by far the largest asteroid). Named after Ceres (Demeter), the mythological goddess of growing things whose daughter was abducted by Hades and who gave the secrets of agriculture to humankind through the farmer Triptolemus, the dwarf planet was discovered in 1801 by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a Roman Catholic priest of the Theatine order.  Ceres was the first asteroid to be discovered and it comprises a third of the asteroid belt’s total mass.

A comparison of the sizes of the Earth, Moon, and Ceres

The nebular hypothesis proposes that the solar system formed as a great cloud of space dust and gas coalesced into a disk which then further coagulated into small clumps, then into planetesimals, then into moon-sized planetary embryos, and finally into planets. Ceres is one of the few (or maybe the only) planetary embryos which formed four and a half billion years ago but somehow did not get smushed together with other like bodies to form a planet or hurled off into deep space. The dwarf planet probably consists of a rocky core surrounded with an icy mantle of frozen water.  Ceres is believed to contains 200 million cubic kilometers of water–more fresh water than in all the lakes, rivers, clouds, swamps, ponds (and everything else) on Earth. The Hubble telescope has photographed several mysterious surface features on Ceres including a dark spot believed to be a crater (now informally named after Piazzi) and several bright spots, the nature of which is unknown.

Image of the bright spots on Ceres (taken by the Hubble Space telescope)

Astronomers are profoundly curious about Ceres and hope to better understand the history of the solar system by examining this surviving planetary embryo.  Additionally, the chemical makeup of Ceres is similar to that of Earth. Scientists seeking extraterrestrial life have concentrated on Europa and Mars, but Ceres is next on their short list.

Astronomers will soon have some of their answers about Ceres.  The asteroid probe Dawn is currently orbiting the asteroid Vesta–but its mission there is scheduled to end in July of 2012.  At that point Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to Ceres. In February of 2015 Dawn will enter permanent orbit around the little planet and we will finally have some of our answers.

The surface area of Earth is about 510 million square kilometers.  That number adds some perspective to the giant storm which has been raging on Saturn since December and now covers approximately 4 billion square kilometers of the gas giant planet.

The Storm Raging on Saturn (photo from the Cassini probe, NASA)

Saturn’s atmosphere is usually calm and tranquil–although powerful storms have been observed by telescope in the past. Now however Saturn is being closely observed by NASA’s Cassini space probe which is in orbit around the planet and we have some precise details.  At the storm’s height, Cassini detected over 10 lightning strikes per second.  Additionally, these lightning bursts can emit 10,000 times the amount of electrical energy as a typical lightning burst on Earth.  Saturnian meteorologists (or whatever weather scientists for the great ringed planet are called) speculate that this super lightning is so powerful because of the juxtaposition of layers of water ice with layers of crystallized ammonia.

A Detailed False Color Picture of the Storm (NASA)

Saturn’s weather is known to fluctuate with the change of the season on the frigid planet and the huge rings are presumed to affect the weather in unknown and unpredictable ways. The current giant storm is taking place in the northern hemisphere of Saturn, which is entering spring.

Although Saturn’s storms are not as well-known as the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, the planet’s north pole does feature a hexagonal storm which has persisted for at least 25 years.  Named for Jupiter/Zeus’ father (who was known as Cronus to the Greeks), the planet Saturn is the second largest in the solar system with a surface area of 4.27 x 1010 square km.  The planet is orbited not only by its famous rings but also by at least 62 known moons including Titan, the only known satellite with a dense atmosphere, and Mimas, which features the largest known impact crater.

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