Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Working with extinct animals: Basics (1): Fossils

To work with extinct animals, certain basic knowledge needs to be understood.

Paleontology is the study of the ancient history of the earth.  As a descriptive science, paleontology tries to explain what happened in the prehistoric past.  Like historians, paleontologists reconstruct what the facts were.  As scientists, they form theories as to what life was like.  They then seek to see if their theories of ancient life match what is in the fossil record.

To reconstruct ancient life, paleontologists study various things.  They look at fossils of plants and animals.  Also paleontologists examine ancient pollen from plants, rock formations, the rocks themselves, and ice cores from glaciers.  (Building a picture of the ancient earth requires the knowledge from an array of sciences - botany, biology, climatology, ecology, geology, and zoology.)  In addition, paleontologists may specialize by studying a life form such as dinosaurs or early plants or by reviewing an extinction event of a particular age.

Making Fossils
The fossil record that paleontologists rely on is the sum total of fossils and their occurrence in the rock formations.  The fossil record cannot show everything, since many living things do not form fossils.  However, paleontologists can discern some things about prehistoric life from what they do find.

The things that do turn into fossils are bones, fish scales, pollen, shells, and teeth.  Other fossils can be footprints, plant imprints, animal burrows, and trails of invertebrates.  In addition, some plants and animals become encased in tree amber, while others become flash frozen as mummies like mammoths.
Many fossils are made through the process of decay, burial, recrystallization, and compression.  The organism dies and is buried in a streambed or lake.  As the body decays, the water brings in more layers of silt on top of it.  Eventually, the silt builds up and the layers become compressed into sandstone.  Some fossils may become recrystallized with a mineral replacing the body’s original minerals (such as calcium in bones).  Still other fossils become a cast or a mold of the organism itself.

Fossil Types
Most paleontologists focus on body and trace fossils for study.  Other types of fossils are “microfossils” which are fossils that can be only examined by a microscope.  “Resin fossils” are organisms found in amber.  “Living fossils” are species which are unchanged from prehistory such as the lobe-finned coelacanth.
The fossils that most people picture are the body and trace ones.  “Body fossils” are the bones, scales, shells, and teeth of the organism.  They come from the body of the organism itself.  For example, dinosaur skeletons are full body fossils.

“Trace fossils” are more subtle since they are things like footprints and tailprints.  Burrows and trails of invertebrates are usually the only thing that is left behind of them.  Eggs, nests, and fecal droppings (coprolites) are considered to be trace fossils as well.  Together, these fossils give an impression of how the organism lived.

Fossils tell much about life of the prehistoric past.  They can tell about the climate of an area, what plants grew there, and what type of animal the organism was.  Teeth will tell whether the animal is a meat eater or plant eater.  Footprints tell the gait and speed of the animals.  Some fossils have impressions of feathers, hair, or leaves to indicate what the organism looked like.  The grouping of fossils in one place can indicate the social structure of the animals, whether they were predator or prey, or how they ended up together (such as a great flood).  The fossil skeleton will often tell what species of the animal was, how large, the age, and sex.  In addition, the fossil itself can give clues to any major catastrophic event of the past.

Works Used
Little, Richard, “Dinosaurs, Dunes, and Drafting Continents: the Geohistory of the Connecticut Valley”, self-published, Hartford, CT, 1986.
Turner, Alan, “National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals”, National Geographic Society, Washington D.C., 2004.
Various, “Prehistoric Life”, Dorling Kindersley, New York, 2009.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Extinct Animals: Steller's Sea Cow

Steller’s Sea Cow, a cold water relative of Manatee and Dugong, was unknown to modern people until 1741.  At that time, the crew of Vitus Bering’s ship, the Sv. Piotr was ship-wrecked off the coast of Kamchatka, where the last remaining herds of these Mammals lived.  Through overhunting, Steller’s Sea Cow went extinct thirty years later.  However, this Sea Cow (Sirenian) has remained in the memory of many people.  Over a century later, Rudyard Kipling in his short story “The White Seal” had Steller’s Sea Cow guiding Seals to a place of refuge from hunters.  A century later, people still report encounters with this marine Mammal.  In the mists and fogs of our imaginations, Steller’s Sea Cow still swims.
            What was this Sirenian relative of Manatee and Dugong like? Georg Wilhelm Steller, Bering’s naturalist, observed and described this Animal.  The largest of the Sea Cows, Steller’s Sea Cow fed on algae, kelp, and sea grass growing near river mouths.  Like Dugong, He had a large, flat, lobed tail.  He also had a huge midsection and a small head with a flexible neck.  Lacking flippers, Steller’s Sea Cow had short limbs shaped like hooks.  Instead of teeth, He used his keratinous plates to grind his food.
            Scientists believe that Steller’s Sea Cows that the Russian sailors found were an evolutionary relic (a small population restricted to a small area).  According to the fossil record, Steller’s Sea Cows once lived from California to Japan.  Some scientists think that early hunters eradicated Sea Cows from these areas.  However, others think that the evolutionary pressures from global climate change forced the eventual extinction of these Mammals.
            Lessons that Steller’s Sea Cow teaches are varied.  Because extinction is a part of living, life now becomes more precious.  Sadness fills us when we hear about the cause of his demise.  So much so that we neglect his life and fail to wonder who He was.  Did Steller’s Sea Cow follow his dreams to the colder waters?  Or were Manatee and Dugong wise for staying in warmer waters?  The answers lie beyond the mists of time and space.  Steller’s Sea Cow beckons us to explore his world through memories and dreams.
            Steller’s Sea Cow holds a place in our memories.  He asks us to remember Him as He was, adventurous and fearless.  We may feel sorrow and grief for his passing but we can hold Steller’s Sea Cow in our hearts.  The hole that comes from his extinction still resonates with Manatee and Dugong, who miss their Brother terribly.  The lesson that He teaches us is “that which is remembered still lives”.  With that in mind, let us work to keep his siblings alive.  Also let us venture into the mists to learn more from Steller’s Sea Cow.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

YELLOW-BELLIED SEA SNAKE (Pelagic Sea Snake): Warning

 Diving deep into the ocean waters, Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake can stay underwater for about three hours.  She can do this because of her aquatic lung which stretches the length of her body.  The muscles of her lung keep pumping air through her body on her dives.
            Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake is the most recognized of Marine Snakes in the world.  One reason is her distinctive colors of bright yellow and blue-black.  These colors warn Sharks and others that She is venomous.  One bite from Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake will bring death, for her venom is the most powerful in the world.
            Also called Pelagic Sea Snake, Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake is at home in the open sea.  She is the most widespread of Snakes living in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Well-equipped for a marine life, Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake has glands to rid her body of salt under her tongue.  Moreover, She also gives birth at sea to live young.
            Drifting together on the oceans’ currents, thousands of Yellow-Bellied Sea Snakes congregate at sea forming a huge slick (raft).  No one is sure why They do this.  Some think that it is a way to attract Fish, who mistake the slick for seaweed.  This is probably one way that Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake and her friends hunt for Fish.
            With her bright colors and bold patterns, Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake warns others that death is near.  Heeding her messages, divers and others remain cautious around Her.  However unwary Fish mistake her slick for shelter, not noticing the danger.  Heed the warnings of Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake and be safe.  Do not be oblivious like some Fish, and get killed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The two families of Sea Snakes live in the warm seas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  Built for marine life, Sea Snakes have rounded bodies and flat tails.  Furthermore as They swim, small flaps cover their noses to keep the sea water out.
            The two families of Sea Snakes differ in their need for land.  The Hydrophiinae like the Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake spend their entire lives at sea.  They have glands under their tongues to discharge salt.  Also, the powerful lung of these Snakes allows Them to dive deeply, and stay underwater for a long time.  Great numbers of these Sea Snakes can be found floating out in the open ocean in a giant raft (“slick”).
            Meanwhile, the Laticaudinae such as Sea Kraits lay their eggs in tidal caves near the shore.  Also, They prefer basking on rocks and drinking fresh water.  Living in the shallow waters of coral reefs, Sea Kraits have fringes on their flat tails to attract Fish.  In addition, They have scales on their bodies for crawling on land.
            What Sea Snakes are notorious for is their venom.  Hunting in the crevices of coral reefs, Sea Kraits strike at a tasty Eel.  The Snake’s venom kills instantly, thus preventing the victim from escaping.  However, the venom of Sea Snakes is so lethal that one drop can kill up to ten people.  For that reason, Scuba divers are usually cautious around these Snakes.  Meanwhile, local coastal people are wary of stepping on Sea Kraits resting in the shallows.
            Understanding death is what Sea Snakes teach.  Curious or shy or aggressive, these Snakes are deliverers of death.  (Death from Them is sudden and quick.)  Sea Snakes guide us to respect, acknowledge, and accept death.  Through Sea Snakes, we begin to know death.  We may feel terror, awe, or respect, but we do not turn away.  Using caution, we do not tempt fate but remain prudent.  Sea Snakes help us with acknowledging death.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dyads and Dualities

To understand dyads and dualities, I labeled twelve pennies with the dyads listed on Table One.  I chose a variety from several groupings to discern any emerging patterns.  After testing by different manners of throwing – all at once, one at a time, and so forth, I recorded the results on Table Two.

Dyads/ Dualities

Chinese Taosim
Yin         Yang
Earth                    Heaven
Feminine              Masculine
Negative              Positive
Darkness              Light

Goddess              God
Mother                Father
Isis                        Osiris
Artemis                Apollo
Moon                   Sun
Crescent              Horns
Spiral                    Staff
Cat                        Stag
Dog                       Wolf

The results from the various throws are on Table Two.  I refer to the receptive side as “Yin” and the dominant one as “Yang”. This duality seems fitting in this exercise. The Yin side appeared more than the Yang side.  The most throws were “Artemis”, “Isis”, and “Darkness”.  It is notable that the two Goddesses appeared with “Darkness”.  The three mesh well together, since both Goddesses deal in shadows.  In contrast, Apollo, one of the least throws, is my “shadow” God Patron, since He pushes me beyond my comfort zone.  He is associated with “Sun”, and “Light” in mythology.  (These two Gods have been two dualities in my life.  In my life, Artemis (as Diana) is “Light”, while Apollo is “Shadow” even though in myths, They have the opposite attributes.

The balanced pairs pointed to a male-female balance which seems to be stable.  “Artemis”, who represented by “Stag” was partially balanced in this way.  However, “Apollo” was neither “Light” nor “Sun”, and therefore remains imbalanced.

All Throws
Yin: 56
Yang: 40
(Total: 96)

Appeared Most: Artemis, Isis, Darkness (All Yin)
Appeared Least: Apollo, Osiris, Light (All Yang)

Balanced Pairs:

Unbalanced Pairs:

I decided to explore further whether handedness affected what side appeared.  As a left-handed person, I am aware that “left” is receptive, while the opposite is true for me.  Of course, the right hand would pose the same dichotomy.  The results are listed in Table Three and Table Four.

For the throws of each hand, the results of these throws mirror the other.  The Left hand had twenty-four “yang” throws while the Right hand had twenty-four “yin” throws.  This to me indicated balance within myself between the two dualities (left/right and dominant/recessive).

Looking deeper at the throws done by the Left hand, it revealed an interesting pattern.  “Artemis”, which received the most throws, was paired with “Father”.  The male and female duality was still retained in this odd pairing.  Moreover, “Artemis” in my case matched the dominant and recessive qualities of a dominant left hand.  (However, the least amount of throws did not include “Apollo”.) The male/female duality was retained.

Left Hand (dominant)
Yin: 15
Yang: 24
(Total: 39)

Appeared Most: Artemis (Yin), Father (Yang)
Appeared Least: Negative (Yin), Mother (Yin), Masculine (Yang)

Balanced Pairs:

Unbalanced Pairs:

Examining the Right hand showed another surprise.  None of the sides which had the most throws were among the main list of Table Two.  No dualities appeared.  They simply reinforced the “Yin” aspects of my right hand.  However, the balanced pairs did reflect the duality that “Earth/Heaven” has with “Darkness/Light”.  The Right hand had less to with the male/female than with the yang/yin dyad.

Right hand (recessive)
Yin: 24
Yang: 15
(Total: 39)

Appeared Most: Negative, Spiral, and Dog (all Yin)
Appeared Least: Staff, Wolf (all Yang)
Balanced Pairs:

Unbalanced Pairs:

I conclude from this exercise that the dualities try to assert themselves in subtle ways.  In the micro-sense of the Left hand/Right hand, “Mother” and “Masculine” asserted themselves through the “Artemis” and “Father” results.  Looking at Left hand versus Right hand, “Negative” which received no throws for the Left hand appeared the most for the Right hand.  In the macro-sense, the two hands mirrored each other.  Only when both hands (eighteen throws) were used in throwing did the “Yin” throws outnumber the “Yang” throws.  I have no idea as to why unless it was in reference to my sex and handedness. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

TAIPAN FAMILY: Building a Reputation

            Members of the Taipan Family possess the most toxic venom of the land Snakes.  Their name “Taipan” comes from the myth of Wik-Mungkan Aboriginal People (of Australia) about a colorful serpent that was stretched across the sky like a rainbow.  These Snakes may not be rainbow colored but They do change their colors according to the seasons.  Endemic to Australia and Papua New Guinea, Taipans have earned their reputation for being dangerous from their deadly and swift attacks.
            Taipans (Inland Taipan (also known as “Fierce Snake”), Coastal Taipan, and Central Ranges Taipan) are mammal hunting specialists.  Striking fast and accurately, They avoid injury to Themselves.  Taipans, then, release their struggling victims, and later track down the dying Rats for a meal.
            Although the venom of Taipans is toxic, deaths from bites from these Snakes are rare.  Less toxic Snakes such as Black Mamba of Africa account for more deaths.  What makes this more noticeable is that Taipans hunt for Rats in human settlements.  They can be found slithering through trash piles looking for these Rodents.  Reasons for lower statistics of deaths by Taipans are complex.  One is that Taipans will usually retreat when sensing humans nearby.  Another is that Australians are aware of this deadly Snake when walking about in the Bush.
            Taipans demonstrate the power of building a good reputation.  Because of the toxicity of her venom, Inland Taipan is known as “Fierce Snake”.  Also, Taipans are greatly feared by people because of their deadly strike.  However, She and the Others do good things for humans by specializing in hunting “plague” (Norway) Rats.  Furthermore overlooked by humans is the ability of these Snakes to rid their towns of Rats.  Be careful of what reputation you build.  Remember that the good you do could be overlooked.