Readers’ wildlife photos

Send in your pictures, I implore you! We’re already out of “photos of readers”, and I’d hate to ditch two features.

Today we have wildlife photos from two readers. First up is Roger Sorensen. (All readers’ captions are indented):

Two photos taken at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, east-central MN, of the Common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), first foraging on Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and second, foraging on Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)

And the next batch comes from Rachel Sperling.

Here are a few photos from some of my recent hikes around New England. First up is a Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterfly (Anglais milberti), which I spotted – along with the rest of the butterflies in this post – in a field near the summit of Mount Ellen in Warren, Vermont.

Next up is a Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) on what I think is Orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum).
Next we have a Great-spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele. There were a LOT of them on the peak.

Heading south to Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, we’ve got a red eft, the juvenile form of the Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). I used to catch these by the bucket-full in the woods after it rained when I was a child. I always let them go.

Lastly, here’s a young Common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. I encountered this fellow on the trail around the Whiting Street Reservoir, at the Mount Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He was pretty tiny and he had quite a steep hike up to the nearest body of water, so I gave him a lift (in a Ziploc bag I happened to have handy – he was a little bitey).

A defiant song of protest in Santiago

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has mentioned in his posts that the civil disturbances in Chile have had some effects on his travels there, including curfews and demonstrations in Valparaiso. These protests are continuing, as are protests in a number of Latin American nations. (The president of Bolivia, after apparently trying to rig an election, was just driven from office by protests after the police, and then the military, sided with the demonstrators.) A striking protest was captured on video in Santiago, where a talented soprano sang El derecho de vivir en paz (The right to live in peace), a song written by a victim of Chile’s Pinochet regime, from her balcony during the curfew. (There is video from two angles in this clip).

People in the street (apparently defying the curfew) and in nearby buildings erupt in cheers and applause as she finishes. CNN has more on the story, including a clip of an earlier protest rendition on the cello.

h/t: Tom Czarny

Shuri Castle severely damaged by fire

by Greg Mayer

Regular readers of WEIT may recall that I have posted a few times about Okinawa, including pictures from a visit I made there in 2017.  One of the places I visited was Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom for 450 years, from 1429-1879. Tragically, much of the Castle burned down yesterday, in a fire whose origin is not yet known. Here’s video from the South China Morning Post.

The Castle had stone walls and foundations, but its buildings were largely made of wood, thus making it vulnerable to fire. Here’s what it looked like after the fire.

Shuri Castle, Okinawa, after the fire, 1 October 2019. NY Times.

I first heard of the fire from my daughter (who lived on Okinawa for two years), and I was actually somewhat relieved by seeing this photo. Although the destruction is great, it is not total. The main hall, the Seiden, is completely gone– it was a large building, and certainly the most important, at the east side (to the right in this photo) of the ‘striped’ courtyard– and the halls on its north and south flanks look badly damaged as well. But the westernmost halls, the outbuildings, and the gardens seem largely unaffected. I had feared that nothing had survived.

A view of Shuri Castle courtyard in better days, 28 May 2017.

The following picture is of a detailed model in the Castle, showing Chou-Hai-O-Ki-Shiki, a court ceremony held on New Year’s Day. The court officials are facing the Seiden, which is now completely destroyed. This model was in the Seiden, and thus is now gone.

1:25 scale model of Shuri Castle, showing Chou-Hai-O-Ki-Shiki, a court ceremony held on New Year’s Day.

The one saving grace, besides the fact that several buildings and the garden survived, is that the Castle had been destroyed by fire several times in the previous centuries, and again in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. Thus, almost all of the Castle has been restored multiple times, and, although the craftsmanship of the restoration was exquisite, much of what was lost was already a modern restoration; it can be restored again.

I am uncertain how many original artifacts may have been lost. When I visited, the following bit of pre-World War II wall was preserved and visible inside the Sedien.

Shuri Castle original stone.

It was accompanied by this explanation.

This is the throne room in the Seiden, where the King of Ryukyu would hold court.

Shuri Castle throne room.

Here are details of the decoration; note the squirrels.

The artwork above, while exactingly accurate and exquisitely beautiful, is a late 20th century restoration. The crown of the King of Ryukyu was also a replica.

Ryukyuan crown (replica).

This is one of the buildings abutting the courtyard– I believe this one survived.

A Shuri Castle guide in traditional Okinawan dress.

In addition to the main buildings and the outbuildings, the Castle had beautiful gardens, and these seem to have survived.

Gardens of Shuri Castle.

The gardens are home to habu— venomous snakes of several species found in the Ryukyus– and visitors are warned.

Habu warning sign in the gardens at Shuri Castle.

And Jerry would want to know that ducks were fairly common in the gardens– this is a Muscovy duck, a domestic species native to the Americas.

Cairina moschata near a pond at Shuri Castle, Okinawa, Japan, 28 May 2017.

The Kingdom of Ryukyu comprised Okinawa and much of the rest of the Nansei Shoto, a chain of islands extending from Kyushu towards Taiwan. For much of its history Ryukyu was an independent kingdom, owing varying degrees of allegiance or fealty to China or Japan, depending on the strength and influence of those two greater powers. The Ryukyu King received a mandate to rule from the Chinese emperor, but the Ryukyuan language is Japonic, or a dialect of Japanese, depending on who you ask. (Readers may recall the old quip that “a language is a dialect with an army”; Ryukyu never had much of an army compared to China or Japan.) The state of tension between Chinese and Japanese influence was ended in 1879, when Japan effectively annexed the islands, and the last king was exiled to Tokyo, where he became a member of the Japanese nobility, but no longer a ruler in any sense.  Shuri Castle has great cultural significance for Okinawans and Ryukyuans, and indeed, should for all Japanese; I hope both the national and prefectural governments will commit to a new restoration.

(For more on the history of the Ryukyus, see George Kerr’s Okinawa: the History of an Island People. First published in 1958, the newer Tuttle edition has an afterword by Mitsugu Sakihara which updates and extends Kerr’s work.)

Storm in a jockstrap

by Grania

Gillette has unleashed its latest commercial. Instead of its usual claim that it’s the best a man can get, this time they have opted for some social education and encouraged men to call out other men they see behaving badly. It’s not the worst advice ever given, although I suspect that many in the world are weary of being lectured to, especially by multi-billion dollar corporations; and even more are sick of the call-out culture of social media that may have started in an honest attempt to draw the line against society’s most egregious offenders, but has given way to nasty dog-piling on anyone who may have inadvertently trodden on someone else’s toes.

Some responses are positive and generally unimpressed by the levels of offence taken:


Others are less impressed:

One should remember that this is a company. Ultimately they don’t care whether you like their advertisement or not. They are just delighted at all the free publicity this ad is creating, making it worth every penny they spent.

Will it have a beneficial effect on society?  That’s a definite maybe, maybe not.

I should point out that Gillette manufactures women’s razors too, and charges more for them. So the company ain’t quite as woke as they like to appear.

Click on image to read original article on The Street


Je suis encore Charlie

by Greg Mayer

Following up on Jerry’s post, I note that in a piece in the New York Times op-ed pages yesterday, Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Stossel, the leaders of American PEN, defend giving an award to Charlie Hebdo, and defend Charlie Hebdo itself. The piece is quite good, suffering only from a bit of accommodationism toward the opponents of Charlie Hebdo, calling them “well-intentioned people with shared values [who] interpret and weigh principles differently.”

I especially like that they defended Hebdo by quoting Christiane Taubira, the French justice minister (the black woman in the monkey cartoon), who rose to their defense. They note:

[Taubira] delivered a poignant elegy at the funeral of one of her supposed tormentors, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, saying that “Tignous and his companions were sentinels, lookouts, those who watched over democracy,” preventing it from being lulled into complacency.

And, Solomon and Stossel added this:

The leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.”

In the print version, a subheading reading “It’s an award for courage, not cartoons” is quite misleading. The piece makes it clear that it is not an award for mere courage (you could give that to a German soldier at Stalingrad), and Solomon and Stossel give an explicit endorsement of the cartoons as anti-racist—a necessary defense of the “norms to which free societies subscribe”.

Je suis encore Charlie.

Guest post: Je suis Charlie?

[JAC note: Greg wrote this two days ago, and I think it will be the last thing written on this site about the Charlie Hebdo murders. One can never be sure, of course, but I think Greg’s post closes out the matter for us.]

by Greg Mayer

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, a number of commentators, while of course condemning the killings, have attempted to ‘contextualize’ the attacks. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of the French to mourn the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, they ask, while persecuting the comedian Dieudonne? No, it isn’t. French SWAT teams did not kill Dieudonne (along with his janitor and doorman); he was fined and had shows canceled. We can contest the wisdom of French (and European) anti-Nazi laws (as Christopher Hitchens did), but the case of Dieudonne doesn’t even begin to compare to the tragedies of last week.

And several commentators (including, perhaps predictably, Bill Donohue and David Brooks) pronounced Charlie Hebdo too blasphemous, or too racist, or too aggressive, or too unfunny—as if these failings somehow expiated the murder of the staff (and several others who had nothing to do with the paper). As several Francophone commentators have pointed out (including Matthew), much of this stems from a misunderstanding of French politics, or just not having read (or been able to read) the paper.

“Je suis Charlie” never meant “I agree with all they have written or drawn”, or that “I myself prefer aggressive caricature as the best form of criticism”, just as Le Monde‘s famous “We are all Americans” never meant that “We endorse all American policies” or “We think America is always right”.

What “Je suis Charlie” means is that certain outrages are so heinous as to strike at the very notion of a liberal, civilized society, and that at such times all persons who want to live in or build such a society must stand as one to oppose the barbarism that seeks to dissolve it.

If we are not Charlie, then we become Ward Churchill.

Je suis Charlie.

Wikipedia is an error multiplier

by Greg Mayer

Close readers of WEIT will know that I rarely cite or link to Wikipedia (other than for images), and that I have occasionally promised to at some point say more about this. This won’t be a full account, but a recent spectacular example of Wikipedia’s ability to spread error has been reported by Eric Randall at The New Yorker, and deserves a mention: the coati has been widely cited as the “Brazilian **rdv*rk”! (See note below.)

A coati, not a member of the Tubulidentata (by Vassil, from Wikipedia;))
A coati, not a member of the Tubulidentata (by Vassil, from Wikipedia;))

Coatis are New World members of the order Carnivora, in the same family as raccoons. Indeed, they look very much like raccoons with long noses and skinny tails. They are not at all related closely to aardvarks, which are are of course African, and members of the very distinctive mammalian order Tubulidentata. (Their name means ‘earth pig’, from Dutch/Afrikaans). Here’s how the coatis’ new name got started and spread:

In July of 2008, Dylan Breves, then a seventeen-year-old student from New York City, made a mundane edit to a Wikipedia entry on the coati. The coati, a member of the raccoon family, is “also known as … a Brazilian **rdv*rk,” Breves wrote. He did not cite a source for this nickname, and with good reason: he had invented it….

Adding a private gag to a public Wikipedia page is the kind of minor vandalism that regularly takes place on the crowdsourced Web site. When Breves made the change, he assumed that someone would catch the lack of citation and flag his edit for removal.

Over time, though, something strange happened: the nickname caught on. About a year later, Breves searched online for the phrase “Brazilian **rdv*rk.” Not only was his edit still on Wikipedia, but his search brought up hundreds of other Web sites about coatis. References to the so-called “Brazilian **rdv*rk” have since appeared in the Independent, the Daily Mail, and even in a book published by the University of Chicago. Breves’s role in all this seems clear: a Google search for “Brazilian **rdv*rk” will return no mentions before Breves made the edit, in July, 2008. The claim that the coati is known as a Brazilian **rdv*rk still remains on its Wikipedia entry, only now it cites a 2010 article in the Telegraph as evidence.

This kind of feedback loop—wherein an error that appears on Wikipedia then trickles to sources that Wikipedia considers authoritative, which are in turn used as evidence for the original falsehood—is a documented phenomenon. There’s even a Wikipefeedback loopdia article describing it.

The erroneous name has now been removed from Wikipedia, and a note on its origin and fate, citing Randall’s piece, has been appended to the coati article.

This episode reminded me of one of my own earliest experiences as a Wikipedia editor: getting rid of an article about an “event” made up by another Wikipedia editor. Sometime about early 2006, I became aware of an article in Wikipedia on the “W*ll**ms R*v*l*t**n”. This was supposed to be a development in the history of evolutionary biology brought about by George C. Williams (who was indeed one of the 20th century’s great and influential evolutionary biologists). But I had never heard of such a thing– and I’m an at least reasonably well-read evolutionary biologist, plus I knew Williams at Stony Brook. I tried to find out if anyone else had ever heard of it. Here’s what I posted on Williams’ Wikipedia talk page:

I’ve already noted this on the talk page for “W*ll**ms R*v*l*t**n”, but this term seems to be a strictly Wikipedia term, invented for Wikipedia. All the references I can find to it online, including in chat groups, seem traceable to the Wikipedia entry. I’ve never encountered it in the literature of evolutionary biology, or anywhere else in print. It’s also not a terribly appropriate term. I have nothing but the greatest admiration and appreciation for Williams’ contributions, most notably his Adaptation and Natural Selection, but his critique of group selection and advocacy of gene-level selection were much more a “restoration” than a revolution (Darwin clearly rejected group selection, with the clear exception that he contemplated it as a possibility in social insects); furthermore, a number of others at about the same time (e.g. W.D. Hamilton) and slightly later (e.g. Richard Dawkins) had as much or more to do with the elaboration of a strictly gene-centered view (especially as opposed to an individual selection view) as did Williams, so it doesn’t seem as if it should bear his name, or at least not his alone.But, regardless, Wikipedia should not be in the business of inventing terms. 08:34, 8 January 2006 (UTC)

Some Wikipedia editors were sure they had heard the term, but on checking their supposed sources, none could find any uses of the term that had not originated in Wikipedia. Another, more experienced Wikipedia editor, Samsara (at the time an evolutionary genetics grad student at Edinburgh), joined me in the attempt to verify the term, but there turned out to be no non-Wikipedia uses of the term that did not trace back to Wikipedia. The article was deleted. (Most of the discussion of this was on the now deleted talk page of the now deleted article.)

When Wikipedia is used as a source, errors can spread rapidly, because it’s not just used by lazy students in term papers, but also by legitimate newspapers and publishers, and especially because there are whole websites that just copy from Wikipedia, and thus seem to form independent confirmations of the errors. Of course, errors in the old, print Encyclopedia Britannica could be perpetuated and recycled too, but the internet allows errors to spread faster and further, and the Encyclopedia Britannica would never have let a a not particularly knowledgeable 17 year old to author an article.

Note: in order to prevent Google searches turning up yet more usages of the spurious terms (and thus testaments to their use and verifiability), I have not used either neologism in this post, replacing vowels with ‘*’s.

h/t Tracy Walsh at The Dish

Cats in the “Museum of Corruption”

by Greg Mayer

After security forces abandoned the Ukrainian presidential palace amidst street-fighting in Kiev, protesters seized control of the opulent mansion and its grounds (which include a zoo and a pirate-themed restaurant). The protesters, who seem well organized, did not loot the palace, but have opened the grounds for the people to tour, and have opened the house for limited guided tours. One of the tours was given to the NY Times, which posted a video of the tour here.

Stuffed cat in the Ukrainian presidential palace.
Stuffed cat in the Ukrainian presidential palace.

At 2:17, it shows two little cat statues playing golf, then a bronzish cat statue, and then, finally, the cat above, apparently sleeping on a couch. A voice is heard to ask “Is he alive?”, to which a slightly accented voice replies, “No. It was alive.” Full video below.

Why there probably isn’t a ghost ship full of cannibal rats headed for the British Isles

by Greg Mayer

There’s been a lot of media attention the last few days about the prospect of a derelict Russian passenger ship, the Lyubov Orlova, crossing the Atlantic from Canada (where it was last berthed) and crashing into Ireland or Britain, spilling disease-ridden, inbred, cannibal rats on their shores. The ship was being towed to the Dominican Republic when it broke away and floated off last year. The Sun has had perhaps the most dire take on the story, headlining their piece “Ship of Ghouls“.

A scary picture from the Sun.

That the ship, laden with cannibal rats, might fetch up on shore, however, seems very unlikely. As the Guardian reports, both the Irish and British coastguards downplay the possibility. In particular, Irish officials note that they have looked for it, can’t find it, and suspect that it may have sunk.

But there’s another reason that it is highly unlikely, having nothing to do with whether or not the ship is still afloat, and because it reveals an important biological principle, it’s worth a mention here at WEIT: an ecosystem without primary producers cannot be sustained except for very brief periods of time. Unless those rats have been raising crops on the ship, the last one, cannibal or not, died some time ago.

There are very few “laws” in biology in the strong sense with which the term “law” is used in physics. Mendel’s “laws” of heredity, for example, have numerous exceptions and limiting conditions. When I teach genetics, I refer to them not as “laws”, but as Mendel’s “useful generalizations”. But one of the biological principles that does have law-like status is that primary producers must be at the base of every food web, and that energy is lost at every step in the food chain. Perhaps the reason these principles are law-like is because they derive so directly from the laws of thermodynamics: energy must be put in to a system to avoid entropy increase (so we must have producers to capture energy) and no energy transfer is 100% efficient (so there’s less energy available further up the food chain than at the bottom).

These ecological principles are often expressed in terms of a “trophic pyramid“, a visual representation of the fact that primary producers (usually green plants that capture energy by photosynthesis, but also photosynthetic and chemosynthetic bacteria) outnumber herbivores (primary consumers), who outnumber carnivores (secondary consumers), who outnumber top carnivores (tertiary consumers; there are rarely more than four or five levels in a food chain).

Trophic pyramid.
Trophic pyramid.

The exact shape of the pyramids depends on the efficiency of energy transfer between levels, and whether the pyramid is based on number of individuals, biomass, or energy flow units. As a rough guideline, efficiency of transfer between levels is often estimated at about 10%; the efficiency of capture of solar radiation is much lower. These important details can be investigated here and here, for example, but they do not alter the fundamental principles.

Viewing ecosystems in this manner owes much to an extremely influential paper, “The trophic-dynamic aspect of ecology“, by the young limnologist Raymond Lindeman, who tragically died of an obscure form of hepatitis a few months before the paper was published. The very interesting story of how the paper was almost not published, first being rejected by Ecology for being too theoretical, but finally accepted, has been told by Bob Cook.

Raymond Lindeman (1915-1942). He could have told you why there are no cannibal rats threatening Ireland and the UK.
Raymond Lindeman (1915-1942). He could have told you why there are no cannibal rats threatening Ireland and the UK.

So, what does this all mean for the people of Ireland and Britain? You can relax. Although rodents will resort to cannibalism when food supplies run low (though I’ve never seen it in rats myself, which, by the way, are much friendlier and make better pets than mice), an ecosystem based on cannibalism cannot persist, because there is no energy input to the system, and there cannot be a 100% efficient transfer, so the rat-level in the “food chain” will continually decrease in number and biomass. How long a bunch of rats resorting to cannibalism would last depend on details such as the number of rats, their caloric needs, etc., but suffice it to say that no reasonable numbers for those details could get the rats to last nearly a year. The caloric needs of mammals are quite high, and they need to eat a lot. (This may not be a comforting thought, but a ship full of anacondas and reticulated pythons could last a year or more at sea, without even having to eat one another, because of their low caloric needs. They would come ashore hungry, though.) The reason I say “probably”, rather than “definitely”, is because it is conceivable that large stores of food were left behind, and depending on the quantity, these could support a rat population for some time (recall that in most zombie movies the survivors rely on canned goods for survival, although in the last season of the Walking Dead they did begin farming). But since the ship was being towed for salvage, I doubt the kitchens and larders were full.


Cook, R.E. 1977. Raymond Lindeman and the trophic-dynamic concept in ecology. Science 198:22-26. pdf

Lindeman, R.L. 1942. The trophic-dynamic aspect of ecology. Ecology 23:399-418. pdf

Sterner, R.W. 2012. Raymond Laurel Lindeman and the trophic dynamic viewpoint. Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin 21:38-50. pdf

Nature editorial supports science at the Field Museum

by Greg Mayer

Jerry and I have written about the plight of science at Chicago’s Field Museum, both here at WEIT, and with several colleagues in a letter to Science. In an editorial, Nature, the leading scientific journal of the English-speaking world, has also spoken out in support of science at the Field. In the editorial, Nature decries the imbalance in funding in the biological sciences, and points specifically to the Field Museum:

Solutions to many of the world’s problems will demand intensive research in many disciplines that are too-often excluded from even broad definitions of the life sciences. Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change will require a detailed inventory of the world’s species (biodiversity, zoology, botany, taxonomy, microbiology, marine biology and so on) and their interactions with one another (ecology) and the environment.

Research into many of these areas is undertaken in museums. At the time the Breakthrough Prize was announced, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, was facing tough decisions over a major shortfall in income. It is in the process of disbanding its separate research departments, reducing both the museum’s capacity for research into biodiversity and its high quality of educational outreach — crucial in a nation in which the very idea of evolution is perpetually under threat.

The occasion for the editors to make this plea was the announcement last month of the awarding of the “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences“, a new and extremely generous prize ($3 million per person for 11 people!) funded by several Silicon Valley billionaires. Nature laments that even one of these awards going to a research museum like the Field would have a huge impact, not just on one recipient’s lab, but on entire scientific departments.

Further cuts will be necessary; the museum announced in December that it will have to slash $3 million from its research budgets (see Nature; 2012): an amount, coincidentally, that is equivalent to just one Breakthrough Prize, given to just one researcher in life sciences as defined by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. It is a laudable aim to work for ways to prolong lives, even those that are already long and luxurious. To work for a world that can harbour billions of human beings in tolerable comfort is also worthy of recognition.

Grrl Scientist and Jack Stilgoe, both at the Guardian, raise similar concerns about the misdirection and imbalance of funding in the life sciences. Grrl Scientist notes that giving the prize to individuals ignores the collaborative nature of much science, especially in the award recipients’ fields; the parochial and narrow nature of its understanding of the “life sciences”; and the mistaken notion that scientists are motivated by the same kind of get-lucky-and-strike-it-rich mindset as are technological entrepreneurs. Stilgoe asks, “What’s the point of the Breakthrough science prize?”, answering, “It’s not clear if Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner’s award will add to scientific discovery or just Silicon Valley’s ego”. Grrl Scientist summarizes

… this prize is flawed and seriously misguided and thus, I don’t think it will accomplish its stated goals.

In fairness to the prize founders, they were explicit about their limited vision of what the life sciences are in setting up the prize, stating their goal was “to recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life,” so the fact that the recipients (one of whom, Lew Cantley, was an outstanding shooting guard on my grad school basketball team!) would be limited to biomedical fields could have been predicted. But that they were upfront about their limited and misguided vision does not vitiate its limitations.