In case you were wondering how to write pig in cuneiform—and who isn’t?—I just saw this on Twitter. And if you were in Ur four thousand years ago you’d see this pig, think “sah”, because that was the Sumerian word for pig, but you probably couldn’t write it because not many Sumerians could. Cuneiform was hard. 12 separate strokes in the clay to write sah. We can write pig in a mere six. Type it in three. Then again, you could have written pig on a tablet in Sumerian on a clay tablet in twelve strokes and somebody could find it four thousand years later and go wow, pig.
Hippo sculpture from the Ancient Egyptian 1st Dynasty, about 500 years before the Great Pyramid. Googling around on a lazy retired guy afternoon—hippo 1st dynasty were the magic words—I found a whole mess of little hippopotamus statuettes, though this one was by far the cutest. Whether it was cute to an Egyptian five thousand years ago I have no idea. Often the hippo statuettes were gifted to a funereal deity they’d dubbed Khentiamentiu, who from what I could tell of the absurdly academic prose (perfect grammar, confusing writing, people learn the wrong stuff in school) is that this undefined deity “precedes Osiris”, your guess being good as mine. Hippos were also strong and murderous and dangerous so sometimes the statuettes represented those characteristics, and sometimes they’re pregnant and represent fertility, the Egyptians being a wonderfully horny civilization. Mesopotamian civilizations were too, though fertility there tended to go with war. It’s complicated. In Egypt fertility instead often went with hippos, not so much complicated as it was kinky. Anyway, our darling little hippo here really looks far too cute to be either warlike or kinky. It just looks cute. So maybe instead it’s the Nile. Sometimes a hippo just represented the Nile. Egyptians way back when could look at a little hippo figurine and think oh, that’s the Nile. Really. Don’t ask.
Pretty damn close. This baby green heron doesn’t have any teeth, which a dinosaur would have. And a heron’s wings are much, much stronger than any of its ancestors would have had in the dinosaur era. Feathers, too, have undergone sixty five million years of continuous evolution since the dinosaurs. But for us laypeople (layhumans?) it’s awfully difficult to look at this guy and see the differences between it and a dinosaur sixty-five or a hundred million years ago. It’s a good thing for Stephen Spielberg that Chinese paleontologists uncovered the mother lode of feathered dinosaurs in China after the Jurassic Park series had begun. Well, they’d already been digging them up, it just took a while for the realization to sink in with the public, who were having problems enough trying to accept that an asteroid had ended the Age of the Dinosaurs in a flash. Those were the days when if you knew that tyrannosauruses had feathers you kept it to yourself. You didn’t blurt that kind of thing out, and you certainly didn’t say in it front of the kids. You see that Tyrannosaurus rex chasing Laura Dern? The one that nearly chomped down Jeff Goldblum? It looked like a huge, psychotic chicken! The ushers would deposit your ass out on the curb before you could say Zhuchengtyrannusmagnus.
This could seriously use a rewrite but I’ll post it as is for now. . . . When coyotes wiped out all the cats outdoors—strays and pets let outside alike—the number of bird species we’d see about tripled. You could even hear it in the variety of songs, even the motherfuckers with the vocal range of a smoke alarm who start their incessant idiot one note song about dawn. Anyway, the now long endemic local coyote population was a sad thing for the cats, but great for the local bird population. The rat and mouse population exploded without all the cats, but that brought in the owls (two or three different species) who were more effective at rodent extermination than the cats. Without the rodents and stray cat kittens, though, the hawk population has dropped, and they no longer land on our railing and stare into our living room, wondering if we have any small animals or babies in there.
I love cats, though. We’ve had I don’t know how many. But I can’t help seeing them as the perfect hunting machines that they are, as perfectly evolved as sharks are for hunting, and, like sharks, they’ve varied little over their millions of years from their fundamental design. There might not be any other mammal as perfectly designed for hunting as are cats. And they do it so easily. They can kill a dozen birds a night and have no idea the whole point was to eat the thing. Alas for housecats, the social structure and improvisational hunting skills of the coyote means housecats are easy meat, and coyotes don’t waste time playing with their catch, they eat them. But make a cat bigger than a coyote and it’s no contest. Coyotes don’t eat cougars, but are a regular feature on a cougar’s palate. Revenge. The natural world is kind of fucked and heartless when you think about it.
Cats are one of the drivers of the sixth mass extinction. Not the undomesticated species of wildcats, but felis catus, the house cat. We multiplied the population of one of the world’s most effective small hunters by hundreds of millions (worldwide there are over 200 million pet cats and about a half billion strays), and dropped them in places where often native cats never existed and they’ve decimated bird, small mammal and reptile populations often to the point of extinction. It’s not an even fight, and coyotes here in Southern California are about the only sure fire way to limit bird predation. Where coyotes go, bird populations follow. Cats, like rats, come with people and where they go species loss follows. Every time you see a new residential neighborhood in an undeveloped spot you have to figure that most of native birds in the area will be wiped out by cats in very short order. Sadly, the vast majority of birds killed by cats are never eaten. Eating a bird is a learned behavior, hunting is a built in skill. So coyotes are just sort of resetting the balance, wiping out introduced predators and letting the bird populations recover. A very rare reversal of the Sixth Mass Extinction.
Not only were they huge, but it appears that this Titanes Ammonite pictured below was a free swimming predator, as it’s fossils are so often found in layers of marine sedimentary rock that shows no evidence of bottom life, that is, they were laid in deep water. So like squid, which are also mollusks, they would have roamed the sea looking for eats. They would have also been fast moving, as the Jurassic seas were full of predators, and indeed many fossil ammonites have puncture marks that perfectly match the teeth of the jaw from mosasaurs, which were sort of like reptilian orcas. A mosasaur would probably have eaten you, or at least taken a chomp at your dangling supermodel legs (it’s always supermodel looking legs that get chomped in movies, never some dumpy looking dude’s), but hell, a mondo gnarly mega giant ammonite like the fucker pictured here might have, too. Eats are eats. It was fast and rugged and mean in those Jurrasic oceans, so these ammonites were thickly shelled. There’d been an arms race between predator and prey since invertebrate predators were invented back in the very late pre-Cambrian (maybe 550 million years back) but all we got now are the fossilized shells, none of the soft bodied creature that lived in and protected by the shell (sort of like, in principal anyway, how are soft brains live inside and protected by our skull), the predators developing stronger and stronger jaws as prey developed stronger and stronger shells. These huge coiled ammonite shells must have been uniquely strong, dealing with a variety of giant swimming reptiles and sharks so vast and terrifying the SciFi channel is still making really cheesy scary megalodon movies today.
Alas, all we got now are the fossilized shells, none of the soft bodied creature that lived in and protected by the shell (sort of like, in principal anyway, how are soft brains live inside and protected by our skull), and no ammonites survive today to tell us how their innards worked. One asteroid and poof, they’re gone, though some species did cling on to existence for an extra 200,000 years. That sounds like quite a stretch, after all recorded human history only goes back 5,000 years, but 200K is scarcely a blip in deep time, almost nothing at all, just long enough for the last of the ammonite species to fail to successfully reproduce in sufficient numbers to survive the new tough times. Sad, really. They developed sometime in the Devonian over 400,000,000 years ago, thrived through all earth’s ups and downs for over three hundred and thirty five million years to have an asteroid just ruin everything. Sometimes shit happens and fucks up everything, to quote, um, well to quote nobody, as no one would be stupid enough to think up that line when trying to sum up such a vast and profound tragedy, so of course it’s the first thing I think of. No wonder I never finished college. But I am rendered wordless, at least pretty and poetic words, trying to describe the empty feeling I get looking at this glorious empty shell of an Ammonite fossil. If only we knew more about them, what they ate, how they hunted, how they mated, what they looked like, even how they propelled themselves. It’s like finding the magnificent binding of a book with all the pages torn out, it’s beautiful but there’s no story inside. Imagine what it had contained, in life, all those hundreds of millions of years of evolution, all the stories, and not even a hint of what they contained. Their story now begins when it’s over with just the saddest postscript imaginable. PS: the earth runs into an asteroid, and the last ammonite fossils we can find are in beds of sediments laid down 200,000 years after the end of the Jurrasic world.
And dig that clever movie tie in. I‘m hoping for a check from Universal any day now.
Damn, man, got an overpopulation crisis in the aquarium. Platys up the wazoo. They’ve live bearers—as opposed to egg layers—and being really awful parents they tend to devour their own offspring. You can see them hunt them down, moms and dads and extended family members all in an orgy of devouring their own genes, evolution be damned. Of course, this keeps the population in check. Now in the wilds of Central America the newly born hide amongst the vegetation. In your typical aquarium with its handful of plastic plants that is not much of an option and the entire litter (or whatever a bunch of fry is called) is lunch. Alas, our tank is positively lush with plants, real plants, unplastic. So a mess of the little fuckers made it. And now they’re adults, beautiful, happy, healthy adults. On the handy side they’re amazing algae eaters, better even than the impossible to spell otocinclus. And they don’t make a lot of noise. Or pick on the other fish. The tank looks like a freshwater tropical reef, plants and fish everywhere. Have no idea what to do. Maybe consider them an investment, being that they’re running four bucks each in the shops now so eventually we can retire. But we’re already retired. They’re too small for a Friday Night Fish Fry, and too big to put down the garbage disposal without years of analysis. If anyone has a fish tank that could use a few of them, you can have as many as you want. It’s an incredibly healthy aquarium—we haven’t had any fish diseases since the 80’s, three tanks ago. Our damn fish live forever.
In the meantime I’ll sit here and watch them swimming and blooping and chasing each other and think about life. There sure are a lot of it in this fish tank. Damn. And you thought you had problems.
Wow, this is unbelievably cool. Amazing that this painting has survived in such incredible condition for over forty four millennia in such a hot and humid climate. Must be an extremely dry microclimate in that cave. Whoever it was that painted this late Paleolithic masterpiece 44,500 years ago during the Ice Ages, the climate near the equator was cooler and much drier than today because so much of Earth’s water was locked up in the enormous glacial ice sheets that covered so much of northern Eurasia and North America. So much water was frozen in the glaciers that the world’s sea level was hundreds of feet below what it is today. The shallow seas of today were land then. You’d never notice, if you were suddenly plopped back then by some space time mishap, except that the beaches would be much farther away. So what is now the oddly shaped island of Sulawesi would have been part of the India sized land mass that connected nearly all of what is now Southeast Asia, so that continental Asia continued eastward and stopping just sort of New Guinea by channels of deep water. The first Australians had passed that way twenty or so thousand years before making the boat crossing to New Guinea, itself connected to Australia by land that now lies underwater. The people who painted this extraordinary wild pig were local residents, part of a population that had been slowly expanding eastward. Were they the same as the people whose ancestors later populated the length and breadth of Australia? Probably not. The Australians had apparently been descendants of people who’d left Africa at least 20,000 years earlier (and from the looks of this painting on Sulawesi, the Australians had a different style of painting—entirely different traditions of painting, perhaps) and would have passed through Sulawesi long before. But the people who did paint this painting are not the same as those who inhabit Sulawesi now, who arrived only a few thousand years ago. Populations shift profoundly over immense periods of time, and peoples who seem to have been the original resident, they’re just the latest residents, even if they’ve been there for thousands of years. There’s history and there’s deep time. We’re talking human deep time here, measured in blocs of tens of thousands of years. History means nothing over scales like that. Yet here we are with a window into a moment where two humans—probably of our species, Homo sapiens, though perhaps they were Denisovans, who were as close and as distant to us as Neanderthals—left this extraordinary portrait of a warty pig upon a cave wall. It will take a bone fragment (with viable DNA) as old as the painting to discern what species of humans they were. But no matter, who ever this human was, 44,500 years ago he watched a warty pig with an artist’s eye and turned to a limestone wall and painted this. He didn’t sign it, but he left a handprint in paint for us to wonder about, and his friend left one too.
OK, gotta shave the beard today. The Sioux’s complaining. They don’t like beards, those Native Americans, don’t like body hair much at all. It must have been a particularly hairless bunch that wandered across the Bering Strait land bridge and began the long chain of fucks that eventually populated the western hemisphere. If it had been a bunch of the Ainu, who were the aboriginal peoples of Japan and whose forebears could just have easily kept wandering east into Alaska the population of the Americans would have been the hairiest on earth. It’s genetic mutations and the randomness of demographic history like that decides body hair fashion globally. Think about it. Well, don’t bother, it was a ridiculous digression. But it was my lack of hirsuteness that were among the reasons she decided I was worthy of her, I was tall, had a car, had a job, and was not encased in hair like a wooly rhinoceros. That’s all it took (or so we’d tell the kids, anyway, if we had any.) So me and the razor got a date today.
I wrote this in the early days of Covid, when no one had a clue how the disease worked, and a few guys showed up at the emergency room with Covid symptoms and pain in the testicles. Ghastly medical hypotheses followed that the virus entered to scrotum where, free from antibodies, it fed off our manliness and reproduced itself so fast it was able to fill our lungs and we died ghastly suffocating deaths, killed by our own balls. Well, it was a fun hypothesis anyway. I never bothered finishing the piece. It’s hard to type and clench your knees together at the same time.
A stabbing pain in the testicles, the headline said that early in the pandemic morning, could be a symptom of Covid. There was this guy who showed up at an emergency room in a most embarrassing agony. Probably quite a terrifying trip to the hospital. Then again maybe one of those gorgeous doctors on CNN examined his testicles. Poke. Squeeze. Poke. Does this hurt? Squeeze poke poke squeeze poke. How about now?
Anyway, the dude’s balls were fine, but he had lung damage. But they keep discovering testicle damage in patients (well, male patients anyway) and I imagine his scrotum eventually crumbled into a fine powder and blew away.
Another Steven Kovacs shot from a dive off Grand Cayman, this time of a soapfish in full fin. It’s a little over half an inch long with I’d guess a finspan, tip to tip, of maybe an inch. Turns out that the soapfish (there’s a mess of different species of soapfish) is part of the same fish family as the Giant Grouper, which is bigger than a zillion soapfish, fins and all. (Amazing thing, Wikipedia.) Which means at some point (I’ve no idea how long ago, and don’t feel like Googling the day away researching seranid evolution) this splendid little fishling and an 800 pound grouper shared a common ancestor, that is, they were the same fish. That’s some crazily adaptive evolution, not to mention genes gone berserk. The things you can when you can float around…. You can be huge, you can be tiny, whatever works. Amazing thing, marine evolution. I mean, we’re not doing bad out here amid all this air and gravity, and humans themselves show amazing size variation within the species (e.g., me) yet we’re many millions of years from when I’m a grouper and you are all species of soapfish. But I digress.