Sunday, August 31, 2008

Nymphaea persica

The SOLIFUGID POND-LILY (Nymphaea persica) was, until late in 1872, the subject of a zoological comedy of errors, for it was initially misconceived as an arachnid of the order Solifugae, hence its name. Its narrow, sparse and flimsy white petals do resemble the limbs and chelicerae of a camel-spider — even in their tendency to buckle slightly at certain junctions, as the joints of such an animal might if seen floating belly-up on the surface of a pond. In addition, the impressive length of the roots let it drift like an apparent free agent with no anchor to the mud below.

However, the Solifugid Pond-lily, having next to nothing in the way of leaves (they resemble small coins and are usually hidden beneath the petals), is far and away the most fragile of its family. Moderate rainfall is enough to collapse and drown one of the flowers (though they eventually resurface), and if any animal larger than a common fly should land on the corolla, the frail blossom will implode, causing plant and animal to sink together as quickly as a stone.

From: P. Hambunck Constanelle, Constanelle’s Global Flora, 4rd Ed. Mandaroeb & Sons, 1873: p. 481.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ammotrecha nymphaeae

No specimen of the POND-LILY SOLIFUGID (Ammotrecha nymphaeae), living or dead, has yet been obtained, but Dr. Blymphinson (ibid.) did manage to produce a spectacular daguerréotype from his survey of Persian oases during the early months of 1871. The singular habits of this animal will explain how it can be elusive to the extreme, yet still enough, when sighted, for a photographic plate to retain its image.

It is the only arachnid of its order to make its home around water; the only, in fact, not to flourish in severe aridity. Its name results from its colorless husk and propensity to float on its back — legs heavenward, drifting but otherwise motionless, suspended (we must conclude) by the minute air-pockets that cluster along the bristles of all such arthropods. But should a foreign element (such as a frog, or even a large fly) disturb its peace, the passing resemblance to a water-lily will go the way of a mirage in the deserts nearby. The limbs, like grasping talons, will close sharply around the unwitting guest, and both parties will plummet instantly into the pond’s depths, where, we may presume, the victory feast ensues. The remarkable speed it displays in such maneuvers, coupled with the large and painful bites Solifugae are known to inflict, have hindered efforts to trap the animal up to now.

From: P. Hambunck Constanelle, Constanelle’s Global Fauna, 3rd Ed. Mandaroeb & Sons, 1872: p. 618.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gerobatrachus matercula

The last pure remnants of Uruguay's indigenous Charrua Indians—who were almost completely exterminated by the Spanish and Portuguese prior to the country’s independence—reside, no longer nomadic, on the southeast base of Mount Catedral, the highest of the rather minuscule but lovely Sierra de Carapé range. Of note, aside from their preserved culture, is the remarkable role
the Charrua play in the local ecosystem.

A few knobby green hills lie between their settlement and the small lake called Embalse des Espejos, which is home to El Ébuacató (Gerobatrachus matercula), a species of amphibian unique in all the world. The dominant female (the male being a tiny parasite) is an unsightly creature of up to two feet in length with bubble-shaped eyes at the top of its head, a loose and unwieldy womb-sac on its belly (which can be stretched out to several times its original size), and an abnormally large vulva just above its tail.

The rite of manhood among the Charrua dictates that a boy who has reached his seventeenth year must journey by himself to the edge of the lake and spill his semen, along with a sample of his blood, into the water. The youth is then compelled to live alone in a hut at the edge of the settlement for six months. At the end of this period, he is likely to be visited by a replica of himself—identical in general appearance and fairly accurate even at a closer glance. This doppelganger will by instinct feel a murderous hostility towards the youth, and the two will fight each other to the death. Usually the original boy, being well-trained as a warrior, will prevail, in which case he will eat the brain and heart of his double—an action now thought to be a kind of osmotic process linked to the prodigious lifespans of Charruan males—and its carcass is then tossed back into the lake to be devoured. Should the replica win, as does happen from time to time, it will still die within the space of a week.

But Camilo did not die. A week after he had strangled and partially eaten his father-twin, his screams of bewilderment and incomprehension, coming from the tent where he was bound, had not lost their vigor. The others in the settlement had no idea what to do, for this had never been known to happen. Had they made a mistake? No—this victor was not the boy they had sent off to the lake months before. He had no grasp of any language, did not recognize the woman who claimed him, at first, as her son, and possessed all the telltale signs of one from the lake: the clammy but supple flesh, the segmented bronze eyes, the broad skull, the flat, wide lips, the underdeveloped thumb, and the fondness for water.

A year went by, and he only grew stronger. Being as sharp-witted as the original boy, he caught up quickly in his learning, mastering the local tongue as well as Spanish. He took up carving, and made ingenious masks that he would slip on when he passed by the children who found him frightening. The months passed... and still he did not die.

They never truly accepted him. Some believed he should be slaughtered and thrown back to those who bore him. Word quickly spread to the people at the institute in Montevideo who studied the tribe, and they wasted no time in luring him away to be examined. They kept their findings secret. Camilo, comforted by the mere indifference of those he met in the city, decided to stay there, and study.

Adopting a Spanish name, he gained admission to the Universidad de la República and immersed himself in his education. In this new and stimulating domain, no one feared him: he was Camilo, an Indian with strange eyes, and nothing more. His future, he realized, was his own, and he enjoyed the luxury of indecision that these cloistered years provided.

But by 1992, Camilo des Espejos knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to take over the weekday overnight slot at Montevideo’s leading adult contemporary FM station and sweeten the airwaves with continuous soft hits. For over a decade, Camilo has remained the lite favorites champion of the greater Montevideo area, spinning laid back classics and smooth chart toppers on Radio DeLaLuna (99.44 FM; streaming online at He’s on Monday thru Thursday 11:30 PM – 4:00 AM. Wednesday is Urban AC Groove night, and check out his special one-hour Friday Magic Countdown at 7:00 PM, where valuable prizes go to anyone who takes the Magic Challenge and correctly names the Hot Tune Half Second song clip. (Just last Friday, Graciela Parrado identified Christina Aguilera's latest and won an iPhone and 140,000 pesos cash!)

Camilo’s known for sustaining the mood with soft rock and less talk. And though he keeps the chatter to a minimum, listeners agree that his charisma shines through. He promises to make your listening experience as smooth as the surface of the lake he was born in all those years ago. Whether you’re working the evening shift, chilling out or drifting off, listen to Camilo and he'll keep you relaxed all night!

— From a Radio FM DeLaLuna press release dated 7/19/07. Translated from the Spanish by Sabiunne Treabill.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sepia madrasi

“Sea-Ghost” scare now comedy hit

CHENNAI, Aug. 7 (Xinhuanet) – It is hard to comprehend how the creature spreading fear across the Bay of Bengal only a year ago could now be a subject of jokes and light-hearted laughter.

But the summer of 2007 was awash with sightings of a pallid face — bloated like a drowned corpse, with holes for eyes and a lipless mouth that uttered silent curses — pressing itself against the windows of vessels and seafront structures (often where no human could possibly be), then vanishing.

The stories generated hysteria, culminating in the near-fatal public thrashing of an albino child by a mob convinced he was the “Sea-Ghost” in mortal disguise.

In mid-October, however, Dr. Maharajapuram K. Nayagam quelled the phenomenon. The local marine biologist outed the spectre as a certain species of cephalopod: the Leper’s hand cuttlefish (Sepia madrasi), named for its stubby tentacles.

Taking note that the sightings always occurred during choppy weather at windows near the waterline, Dr. Nayagam rounded up several specimens using a baited cage, then presented them on a Sun News television broadcast, demonstrating how their livid muzzles could resemble phantom faces.

“There’s a broad, fleshy area around the beak — unusual for cuttlefish,” explains Dr. Nayagam. “Above the beak we find a dual valve for the funnel: two openings, which form the ‘eyes’ of the face.

“This pseudo-face only appears when the tentacles are spread out and apart — but that will happen when a Leper’s hand cuttlefish clings to a window. They enjoy flat, smooth surfaces when they can find them, although they will typically stay for a just few seconds before ‘taking off’ via jet propulsion.”

Leper’s hand cuttlefish once preferred deeper waters but have closed in on the bay in recent years.

The saga came full circle this month with the release of The Sea-Ghost Among Friends, a VCD by Ravi Akbar Khan, one of the most popular Tamil comedians.

Structured like a talk show, the feature eschews modern special effects for puppetry using actual marine life: freshly killed fishes (and cephalopods) are given electric shocks via hidden wires, causing their features to move as though speaking. Three Leper’s hand cuttlefish were needed to actualize the Sea-Ghost.

Khan, who provides all of the voices for his characters, claims sales of The Sea-Ghost Among Friends far exceed those of any other comedy VCD produced in “Kollywood,” and that a Hindi-dubbed version will debut next week.

“People find this one even funnier than usual,” he says. “I think it’s because many of them were frightened a year ago, and now they’re just relieved.”