Phoenecia: Land of Purple… Snail Dye

phoeneciashellmurex

“One of the costliest substances ever produced by man” was actually produced by sea snails (Hexaplex and Haustellum sp.). The Phoenicians (in modern-day Lebanon and Syria) harvested whelks and manufactured a reddish-purple dye called Tyrian Purple. Processing just one pound of the dye required millions of snails and cost almost $100,000 in today’s dollar. The color was prized by the Romans, who used the rare and expensive cloth to designate nobility. Romans named the land that produced the dye “Land of Purple,” or Phoenicia. (1)

As you can probably imagine, destroying millions of whelks for one pound of dye is pretty unsustainable. Over time, populations of the Mediterranean snail declined and were eventually extirpated from the region. The dye industry also collapsed. Even though other sources of purple dyes were found, they paled in comparison to Tyrian purple – literally, since Tyrian purple doesn’t fade in sunlight.

Today, many more species in the Mediterranean are facing extirpation. Almost every sea resource (like snails and other mollusks, turtles, crustaceans) in the area has plummeted to less than half its past population size. (2)

Nature can be an amazing provider, if respectfully and responsibly utilized. Populations of plants and animals produce more than could ever survive, so harvesting a certain number of individuals can actually help many species. But that “certain number” is important. Harvest too much, and the populations we rely upon decline. In harming other species, we ultimately harm our own – a lesson we could learn from the Phoenicians and the snails.

  1. McCord, C.P. 1969. The Lowly Whelk and the Lofty Royal Purple Dye. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 18(3) 379-385.
  2. Lotze, H.K., M. Coll, and J.A. Dunne. 2011. Historical Changes in Marine Resources, Food-web Structure and Ecosystem Functioning in the Adriatic Sea, Mediterranean. Ecosystems. 14(2): 198-222.

A Poinsettia by any other name… the cuetlaxochitl

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Politics was different in the early 1800s. You didn’t even have to run for office to be elected. Joel Poinsett’s friends nominated him to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and he won. By that time, he’d already completed years of travel through Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and South America where he’d met with foreign ministers, consuls, an empress, and many other political figures.

Within a few years, Poinsett became a U.S. congressman and then the first foreign minister in Mexico. That’s where he saw that plant that would later carry his name. He sent cuttings back to his greenhouses in Charleston and introduced the United States to a beautiful Mexican plant. Unfortunately, Poinsett got in a bit of trouble over his political views in Mexico (the word “poinsettismo” was coined as a result of his intrusive meddling) and was recalled from his post. Poinsett went on to cofound the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, later known as the Smithsonian Institution.(1)

Of course, the Poinsettia was well-known in Mexico long before Joel Poinsett. The plant is called cuetlaxochitl (pronounce), and grows as a shrub in Mexico City. The blood-red bracts are symbolic of sacrifices and creation.(2)

  1. To learn more about Joel Poinsett, read “Joel R. Poinsett: Versatile American” by J. F. Rippy
  2. Lots of interesting information about Poinsettias can be found at http://extension.illinois.edu/poinsettia/

Purring Predators

flea_byJMLandin

As agriculture took hold in Middle Eastern societies about 10,000 years ago, archeological evidence of cat domestication appears. When humans began storing grain, any rodent-killing animal was a benefit. But the presence of cats didn’t spread along with agriculture. Egyptians may have revered cats, but other civilizations used weasels or snakes to limit mice. In the painting “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, the weasel may symbolize purity or the young woman’s last name (similar to the Greek word for ermine). With all due respect, however, I think the animal may have just been the lady’s pet; weasels were more common pets than cats at that time.

ermine

Cats may have been popular in Egypt during the heyday of the Roman Empire, but Greeks and Romans kept weasels as their rodent-killing pets. Cats joined European families around the fourth century but were relatively uncommon until the 1600s (1).

Nowadays, of course, cats are popular pets and internet memes. Their omnipresence is also a major cause of concern to ecologists and bird lovers. In a 2013 research article, Loss et al. estimated our purring pets (and their feral cousins) kill about 2.5 billion birds and 12 billion rodents each year in the U.S. alone (2).

P.s. The adorable cat who posed for this painting is our own 18-year old feline princess, Flea. She’s killed exactly one bird in her life, a fledgling finch who accidentally flew into her mouth. Flea didn’t even bite down; the little bird panicked to death.

  1. The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life. G.L. Campbell. 2014. Oxford University Press.
  2. Loss, S.R. et al. 2013. The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications 4:1396.

Happy Darwin Day!!!

barnacle

Barnacles. Not that appealing, right? Charles Darwin probably would have agreed… until he ran into a small problem. He found a new species of barnacle on his trip around the world and couldn’t place it into a taxonomic category. So, Darwin ended up examining, dissecting and analyzing every known species of barnacle, re-ordering the entire crustacean sub-class to figure out where his little guy fit.

It took 8 years… of barnacles… and microscopes. Turns out that Darwin’s newly discovered species (which he politely called “Mr. Arthrobalanus”) was the smallest barnacle in the world. With close and careful observation, Darwin also realized that some species of barnacle, thought to consist only of females, actually housed minuscule males inside small compartments of the feminine form. However, the most influential aspect of such this detailed study was the realization that immense variation occurs within and among species (variation being a key component in natural selection). Those barnacles changed not just biology, but our understanding of the world.

February 12, 2016 is Darwin’s 207th Birthday. Enjoy some cake (and maybe even send some love to Mr. Arthrobalanus)!

 

Interested in learning more about Darwin? I recommend three books: The Autobiography of Charles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle, and Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin (although all of Darwin’s letters can be found online at the Darwin Correspondence Project).

Wildflower Stories: Part 1

ATwildflowers_agrimonyThe wildflowers along the Appalachian Trail impressed the heck out of me during a recent hike. My inner biologist began counting the number of plant families represented. The artist inside distracted my count with constant “ooo, pretty!” comments. This drawing highlights just a few of the flowers from the trip – and launches the first of a host of posts.

 AGRIMONY (Agrimonia sp.)

Once upon a time, Agrimony was a go-to herb for the local physician. It was reported* to cure or alleviate eye and liver problems, intestinal troubles, back pain, gunshot wounds, snakebites, sore feet, pimples and coughs. The most horrifying treatment combined Agrimony with “a mixture of pounded frogs and human blood, as a remedy for all internal haemorrhages.”1

We’ve come a long way (thank you, Scientific Method). While Agrimony may contain compounds beneficial to our health, rigorous controlled studies are lacking or do not show the benefits claimed above. Still, Agrimony is sold today as an herbal remedy.agrimony_flower_close

A lack of data doesn’t mean Agrimony won’t help ailments – it doesn’t mean it will either. As a member of the Rose family (the flowers’ many stamens clued me into its familial origins), Agrimony shares traits with apples, lemons, nectarines, almonds, and of course roses. So it’s in good company with a lot of wonderful foods that offer beneficial properties and nutrients.

*This blog does not endorse the use of Agrimony to treat any of these ailments.

1. A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve. 1971. Dover Publications, New York.

Invasion of the House Finch

HouseFinch_JML

Once upon a time, House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) only lived west of the Rocky Mountains. Then, in 1940, a group of captive birds flew to freedom from their New York cages. Their numbers slowly grew until… BOOM… population explosion. Today, House Finches reside throughout the U.S. and Mexico.

There’s a downside to dense populations though – disease. In the 1990s, a bacterium (Mycoplasma gallisepticum) started swirling among groups of House Finches. The infection causes conjunctivitis (like “pinkeye”) in the birds. If you’re a bird with swollen eyelids and crusty build up, you’re not going to be very good at flying or avoiding the neighbor’s cat.

Today, roughly half as many House Finches live in the East compared to 20 years ago.


If you’d like to learn more about House Finch diseases (with gross pictures), visit http://www.birds.cornell.edu/hofi/abtdisease.html.

And if you’d like to see the growth and decline of House Finch populations in your state, check out www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBS/RawData/ (1)- fun with data!.

1. Pardieck, K.L., D.J. Ziolkowski Jr., M.-A.R. Hudson. 2014. North American Breeding Bird Survey Dataset 1966 – 2013, version 2013.0. U.S. Geological Survey, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.