Evil invertebrate vs. good vertebrate: who you got?

The BBC has a report that the squeamish will find most disturbing: Invertebrates such as spiders and centipedes feasting on vertebrates, including birds, snakes and turtles.

Among incidents included in the story: A tarantula eating 15-inch snake that it had apparently subdued and killed last year in Brazil; a dragonfly catching a hummingbird in midair and eating it in 1977 in Canada; and Scolopendra centipedes, which regularly scales walls to either grab bats as they swoop past or pluck them from roosts while they sleep. The centipedes also eat birds, mice, lizards, frogs and snakes.

Even animal lovers can find this sort of behavior unnerving – after all, vertebrates typically eat invertebrates, not the other way around.

“Most of us are happy to watch vertebrates hunting vertebrates; if lions kill a giraffe, we might feel sadness but not revulsion, and we cheer when the baby iguana escapes the racer snakes. Similarly, if a vertebrate hunts an invertebrate, that seems normal: an early bird catching the worm is simply being enterprising,” according to the BBC. “But invertebrates eating vertebrates is another matter. We find ourselves horrified by crabs preying on baby turtles, wasps targeting nestling birds, or a giant centipede munching on a bat. Somehow it seems wrong, as if the natural order has been turned on its head – but why?”

The BBC surmises that the reason may be that we instinctively recognize that we are much more akin to other vertebrates than we are to invertebrates.

“We might not use the word “vertebrate,” but a dog is clearly more similar to us than a giant centipede,” it writes. “Not only does the dog have hair and the same number of limbs, it also behaves in understandable ways, displaying familiar emotions like happiness and anger.

“ … we cannot understand invertebrates in the same way that we understand dogs, lions or eagles,” the BBC added. “They are just too alien, their behavior too strange and their bodies too dissimilar. They do not have waggy tails and their eyes are never big and soulful.”

Or, as one of my daughter said when I asked why she didn’t like spiders: “Too many eyes, too many legs!”

If you’ve ever seen a frog swarmed over and stung to death by fire ants, or a lizard being stung repeatedly by a hornet, it does appear that things sometimes go amiss in the animal kingdom.

And while Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant centipede, has yet to make its way to the US from South America, that’s one creepy-crawly I can foresee showing up in my nightmares.

(Top: I chose an image of a pug eating a sprinkled donut for this story because, well, the other photos, while interesting, would have undoubtedly upset lovers of baby turtles, small birds and other cute animals which happened to have fallen into the clutches of voracious invertebrates.)

Pint-sized pooch pays price for owners’ indolence

A small yappy dog in a San Francisco-area bedroom community was helped to its eternal reward early Monday morning, courtesy of a mountain lion that slipped into the canine owners’ home and made off with it.

A 15-pound Portuguese Podengo was grabbed from a bedroom in a Pescadero home after the residents reportedly left their French doors partially open for the dog to go outside, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The dog woke its owners around 3 a.m. by “barking aggressively.” A witness told authorities she saw the shadow of an animal come into the room through the French doors, grab the dog from the bed and walk out. When she grabbed a flashlight, she saw “large wet paw prints” near the bedroom’s entrance, and called 911.

When police arrived on scene, they discovered paw prints resembling those of a mountain lion, and notified the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While certainly unfortunate, I have trouble mustering much sympathy for dogs that bark a great deal after hours, or, more particularly, for people who leave their doors open in the middle of the night.

Some will argue that the dog was making noise because it sensed the mountain lion and was being protective, but the fact remains there are too many dogs that bark continuously, disturbing everyone and their brother.

Perhaps if word gets around on the canine grapevine that mouthing off after hours could result in becoming a mountain lion’s late-night snack, a few pooches will think twice before baying all the livelong day (and night).

I don’t expect people who leave their dogs to bark nonstop to suddenly wise up and begin paying attention to their animals.

As for folks who leave their doors open so they don’t have to be bothered getting up and walking their pets, well, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for the indolent.

Old-style church reminiscent of English country parish chapel

The Episcopal Church of the Nativity, located in small-town Union, SC, reminds one of a rural English parish church.

Built in Gothic Revival style, its cornerstone was laid in 1855 but construction was halted during the War Between the States. Featuring rusticated granite, the church was completed shortly after the war and features diagonal buttresses, steep gabled roofs and a Louis Tiffany stained glass chancel triplet window.

There is even a good-sized bell in its tower that can be rung from the ground by pulling on the old-fashioned rope that extends to the ground.

The church’s characteristics – its small size and “intimate relationship between the building and surrounding landscape, in particular – are said to derive from English parish-church architecture of the 1300s, which was a model for small churches built in the US in 1840s and 1850s, according to National Register records.

Stained glass window, Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Union, SC.

The English influence isn’t surprising given that two of the key individuals behind the construction of the Church of the Nativity were sisters Charlotte Poulton and Mary Poulton Dawkins, recently arrived in antebellum South Carolina from England.

The Tiffany triple window is behind the altar and features shades of green, gold, crimson, blue and purple. In the central bay of the window is the Good Shepherd, while Sts. John and Peter are shown in the right and left windows.

The church’s white Carrara marble font was carved by noted sculptor Hiram Powers and ordered by Mary Cantey Hampton, the wife of Revolutionary War hero Wade Hampton I, for Columbia’s Trinity Church. It proved too small and was given to the Church of the Nativity, according to National Register records.

Powers divided the font into three design units – the base, column shaft and font itself. All are octagonal and each is filled with carved sacred motifs.

The church cemetery contains the graves of many veterans, including one from the War of 1812, several Confederate soldiers, and some from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

Among Confederates in the graveyard is William Munro, an infantry and artillery officer who was wounded at least four times but survived to go on to serve as a bank president and several terms in the state legislature following Reconstruction.

Also buried at the church is Pvt. Alpheus Cushman, a New Yorker who served with Co. B of the 7th US Cavalry Regiment. The 7th US Cavalry was among military units sent to Upstate South Carolina during Reconstruction following the declaration of martial law in response to Ku Klux Klan violence in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Cushman, a farrier, was said to have fallen in love with a Union County girl, but grew ill, and his illness prevented him from marrying her, though it could also have been possible that the girl’s parents weren’t keen on their daughter being betrothed to a Yankee so soon after the war.

Whatever the case, Cushman is said to have taken his own life out of despair, on May 20, 1871.

After his death, the members of his company asked that they be allowed to give their compatriot a Christian burial. Locals agreed, but stipulated that they would choose the plot.

Cushman was not only buried in the far corner of the cemetery, but his grave was placed north-south, unlike typical Christian burials, and every other one at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, which is east-west.

Of course, the 7th US Cavalry would gain notoriety a little more than five years later, when more than 260 members of the unit were wiped out at Little Bighorn.

California wildflower bloom short-lived but spectacular

California’s Carrizo Plain National Monument covers some 250,000 acres – a swath of land 38 miles by 17 miles – between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield and due north of Santa Barbara. Despite its rugged beauty and location within perhaps three hours of the several million residents of Los Angeles, it receives just a few thousand visitors a year.

At present, one of the more spectacular aspects of California’s spring is taking place in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. A “superbloom” of wildflowers, with a seemingly endless array of yellows, purples, blues, reds and oranges, is giving the area the appearance of an impressionist’s palette.

Carrizo Plain National Monument, at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, is a vast grassland where antelope, elk and numerous other fauna roam, inhabitants of the last undeveloped, unfarmed region of grasslands that once covered much of the state.

Called California’s Serengeti, the Carrizo Plain is home to a variety of threatened or endangered species.

It has been inhabited off and on for millennia and features Indian pictographs believed to date back thousands of years.

The remote monument is also traversed by the San Andreas Fault, which has carved valleys, moved mountains and can be viewed up close in the ridges and ravines evident throughout the region.

Within a few weeks, at most, the superbloom will have withered and given way to the drab brown of dry grass, which a good part of the sun-baked state is noted for much of the year. But like a nova in the night sky, the bright explosion of colors may fade but will most certainly leave a brilliant memory.

(Top and middle: Images taken of superbloom of wildflowers at Carrizo Plain National Monument, California, by Bureau of Land Management.)

Butterflies: neither butter nor fly, but still welcome

Spring’s advent is announced any number of ways, depending on what part of the world one inhabits. In the Deep South, wisteria vines taking bloom in otherwise drab, lifeless trees are often the first sign that seasons are changing.

This year, I came across a new harbinger: a brood of recently hatched Eastern tiger swallowtails.

During a weekend drive through the country 10 days ago, I stopped at a small creek to peer at the water coursing below. Being shallow, the creek was more sand than stream. In one of the many islands were eight Eastern tiger swallowtails, a common butterfly noted for its yellow body and black stripes, congregating together.

After snapping a few photos from the bridge, I made my way down to stream level. With each couple of steps, I’d snap photos, not knowing when the insects would take flight.

After a short time I was upon them, and it was only when I touched a couple with my finger did some make a lazy effort at flight. Others simply walked a few inches away.

It was apparent that this group had just hatched and were sunning themselves, letting their wings dry before setting off in search of food.

The Eastern tiger swallowtail is among butterflies that spends winter in a chrysalis, emerging when the weather warms. This made sense as it seemed difficult to fathom caterpillars finding enough greenery to fatten up in winter, never mind surviving occasional below-freezing conditions.

Eastern tiger swallowtails are abundant, being found across much of eastern North America, from Ontario south to the Gulf Coast and into northern Mexico.

Typically, Eastern tiger swallowtails avoid company, except, apparently, just after hatching and, of course, when mating.

Besides birds, swallowtails have a variety of predators, including hornets, praying mantises, squirrels, possums and raccoons.

With bright colors and a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches, one could see how they’d make a tempting target for the butterfly-hungry.

However, within a short time, my kaleidoscope of swallowtails had gained enough strength to safely take flight and make their way into the world.

(Top: Eastern tiger swallowtail resting after being disturbed by nosy blogger.)

Earth Hour: the Dogged Drive of Inane Intentions

We in the West are drowning in a cornucopia of ill-conceived special celebrations.

From National Bike to Work Day (May 19) to Global Forgiveness Day (Aug. 27) to International Peace Day (Sept. 21), there are a rash of events that the self-righteous have concocted in order to make themselves feel good, if not morally superior, to those around them.

These events are largely limited to the Western world because the rest of the globe is too busy trying to stay alive to be bothered with such claptrap.

This Saturday (8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. for those of you keeping score at home),  the annual self-congratulatory activity known as Earth Hour will be held under the guise of “United People to Save the Planet.”

Rather than list my many objections to this bit of imbecility, I’ll let you read the words of Canadian economist Ross McKitrick, who, in 2009, was asked by a journalist for his thoughts on the importance of Earth Hour:

I abhor Earth Hour. Abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century. Every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity.

Giving women the freedom to work outside the home depended on the availability of electrical appliances that free up time from domestic chores. Getting children out of menial labor and into schools depended on the same thing, as well as the ability to provide safe indoor lighting for reading.

Development and provision of modern health care without electricity is absolutely impossible. The expansion of our food supply, and the promotion of hygiene and nutrition, depended on being able to irrigate fields, cook and refrigerate foods, and have a steady indoor supply of hot water.

Many of the world’s poor suffer brutal environmental conditions in their own homes because of the necessity of cooking over indoor fires that burn twigs and dung. This causes local deforestation and the proliferation of smoke- and parasite-related lung diseases. Anyone who wants to see local conditions improve in the third world should realize the importance of access to cheap electricity from fossil-fuel based power generating stations. After all, that’s how the west developed.

The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity. Earth Hour celebrates ignorance, poverty and backwardness. By repudiating the greatest engine of liberation it becomes an hour devoted to anti-humanism. It encourages the sanctimonious gesture of turning off trivial appliances for a trivial amount of time, in deference to some ill-defined abstraction called “the Earth,” all the while hypocritically retaining the real benefits of continuous, reliable electricity.

People who see virtue in doing without electricity should shut off their refrigerator, stove, microwave, computer, water heater, lights, TV and all other appliances for a month, not an hour. And pop down to the cardiac unit at the hospital and shut the power off there too.

I don’t want to go back to nature. Travel to a zone hit by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes to see what it’s like to go back to nature. For humans, living in “nature” meant a short life span marked by violence, disease and ignorance. People who work for the end of poverty and relief from disease are fighting against nature. I hope they leave their lights on.

Here in Ontario, through the use of pollution control technology and advanced engineering, our air quality has dramatically improved since the 1960s, despite the expansion of industry and the power supply.

If, after all this, we are going to take the view that the remaining air emissions outweigh all the benefits of electricity, and that we ought to be shamed into sitting in darkness for an hour, like naughty children who have been caught doing something bad, then we are setting up unspoiled nature as an absolute, transcendent ideal that obliterates all other ethical and humane obligations.

No thanks. I like visiting nature but I don’t want to live there, and I refuse to accept the idea that civilization with all its tradeoffs is something to be ashamed of.

If I possessed that eloquence, I’d probably have more than half a dozen readers and wouldn’t be living in a van down by the river a much larger bank account.

No word on whether Earth Hour is just a giant charade cooked up by Big Candle to boost profits, but come Saturday evening I’ll be happily burning every old-fashioned 100-watt incandescent light bulb I can find.

(Top: One can only hope that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital, which saves hundreds of newborns each year, won’t turn off its life-saving equipment this coming Saturday night for Earth Hour.)

Family finds gold in piano; government looks to muscle in

The recent discovery of a UK gold cache raises the specter of every-hungry leviathan ruthlessly employing the law to gobble up assets for its own benefit.

Late last year a hoard of gold coins, English sovereigns minted between 1847 and 1915, was found in old upright piano in Shropshire, in the United Kingdom, after the piano’s new owners had it retuned and repaired.

Under the UK’s Treasure Act of 1996, such discoveries are legally obligated to be reported to the local coroner within 14 days, which was done.

The piano was made by a London firm and initially sold in Essex, near London, in 1906. But its ownership from then until 1983 – when it was purchased by a family in the area who later moved to Shropshire – is unknown, according to the BBC. The new owners were recently given the instrument.

The Shrewsbury Coroner’s Court is currently seeking information about the piano’s whereabouts between 1906 and 1983.

There is a great deal at stake as the objects will qualify as “treasure” and be the property of the Crown if the coroner finds they have been hidden with the intent of future recovery, according to the BBC.

However, if the original owner or their heirs can establish their title to the find, the Crown’s claim will be void.

Under the Treasure Act of 1996, ‘Treasure’ is defined as:

  • All coins from the same hoard, with a hoard is defined as two or more coins, as long as they are at least 300 years old when found;
  • Two or more prehistoric base metal objects in association with one another;
  • Any individual (non-coin) find that is at least 300 years old and contains at least 10% gold or silver;
  • Associated finds: any object of any material found in the same place as (or which had previously been together with) another object which is deemed treasure; and
  • Objects substantially made from gold or silver but are less than 300 years old, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown.

The government has not detailed just how many coins were uncovered in the piano or their value, but Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme at Shropshire Museums said, “It is a lifetime of savings and it’s beyond most people.”

I’d be curious to hear what British citizens think about this law. I understand the government’s interest in unique treasures such as the Irish Crown Jewels, spectacular Viking hoards or Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, when and if they are uncovered.

But what we have here are simple gold coins – even if in a very substantial quantity.

It would be nice to find the individuals or their heirs who secreted the money away inside the piano; the government, meanwhile is threatening, per usual, to overstep its original purpose and strong-arm the family who, through a bit of blind luck, managed to come into possession of the coins.

Government, which already pockets a considerable sum of the average individual’s wages, has no business confiscating a collection of gold coins simply because it’s forever on the lookout for additional ways to line its coffers.

(Top: Some of the gold coins found inside an old upright piano in the United Kingdom late last year.)