31 August 2006

Don't start the revolution without Panchoonie


Born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1869, the Armenian writer Yervant Odian (Odyan in Turkish) lived the final, turbulent decades of the Ottoman Empire like a nomad, moving from one country to another. Besides Turkey, he spent time in France, Romania, Egypt, Lebanon, England, India, Hungary and Greece. In addition, in 1915 he was exiled from Istanbul to Syria; he survived and returned to Istanbul in 1918. He died in Cairo in 19261.

panchuni2Among the many works of humor, Odian published a set of 3 books featuring the fictional character, Comrade Panchoonie. These books were originally written in Armenian and they were only recently, more than 90 years after the first one was published in Istanbul, translated into Turkish. The present edition consists of the first 2 books in the series2.

Panchoonie can perhaps best be described as an overenthusiastic, overoptimistic agent provocateur. He is sent by an unspecified central office to the Ottoman Empire to organize the masses for the upcoming socialist revolution. His first assignment takes him to a tiny village, Dzabilvar3, presumably somewhere in eastern Turkey, where the proletariat consists of one person, the village horseshoer. Unfazed, Panchoonie forges ahead with the "ideological struggle", which, at the end, brings nothing but death and destruction to Dzabilvar.

Next, Panchoonie is sent to the eastern Anatolian city of Van (Vasburagan in Armenian), where there was a substantial Armenian population until 1915 or so. There, with the help of a fellow socialist, comrade Sarsapuni, Panchoonie gathers up a larger group of followers. The book climaxes with their capture of a local monastery.

This is a funny book and I enjoyed reading it. The adventures of Panchoonie reminded me of those of Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švajk, although while Hašek parodied everything, Odian was poking fun at only the Armenian socialists. For example, he was quite respectful, perhaps out of practical necessity, of the Ottoman soldiers who enter the story briefly in Dzabilvar.

The book is illustrated with many (up to 2 per page) amusing drawings of Aleksandr Saruhan (1898-1977). These were added to Odian's book in 1938. I may have spent as much time examining the details of the drawings as I did reading each page.

I don't know why Odian's 3rd Panchoonie book, in which the hero is said to be exiled, was not included in the current Turkish edition. I would like to read it one day.

There is an English translation of Comrade Panchoonie available here.

1. I have extracted all information on Odian from his biography included in the Turkish translation of Comrade Panchoonie.
2. Yoldaş Pançuni. Aras Publishing, Istanbul, 2000.
3. I have not been able to determine the present-day name of this village, if it still exists.

30 August 2006

The master of its domain


During one of our mountain field trips in Turkey last July, we had a tractor pull us up in its wagon to a high-altitude plateau. On our way up, we saw this goat stationed on an outcrop above the road. It watched us motionlessly as the tractor passed by. We were certainly intruders in its territory.

Herds of domesticated goats are quite common in the mountains of Turkey. Even at the steepest cliffs we had climbed with utmost difficulty, we saw the characteristic droppings of goats; they had already been there. Frequently, we would hear their distant, almost-mournful, bleats. We would look up and there would be goats casually browsing way above us on steep slopes we wouldn’t dare climb.

The livelihood it provides to the generally impoverished villagers notwithstanding, the domesticated goat is a very destructive animal. When they are present in large numbers, they probably constitute the dominant force that determines the composition of the flora where they browse.

"Many trees, when browsed, turn into maquis shrubs, which persist indefinitely in a shrubby form and, given the opportunity, turn back into trees…Browsing animals have their likes and dislikes. Goats devour prickly-oak despite the prickles, but prefer not to eat pine and cypress with their strong flavours. They thus encourage some trees and discourage others." (Rackham, 2001)

This sort of evidence implies to me that the present day plant species compositions in Greece, Turkey and other neighboring countries are drastically different than what they were before domesticated goats were introduced. But Rackham seems to disagree:

"Greece has hundreds of endemic plants…Nearly all endemics are plants of open ground, not of forests; this tells against any theory that on an evolutionary time-scale forest is the ‘normal’ vegetation of Greece."

This is faulty reasoning for at least 2 reasons. First, if most forests were cleared, then most endemics of forests must have gone extinct. Second, open spaces, and open-space endemics, would have existed even when the dominant plant cover was of forest type. A more likely scenario is that after the dominant forests of Greece and Turkey were cleared, the forest endemics disappeared, but the open-space plants expanded their ranges.

Not everyone seems to think that the present dominant plant cover in eastern Mediterranean countries is necessarily bad:
"Grazing alone, even heavy grazing, cannot eliminate the woody species…, but it creates and maintains open patches and gradations between dense and open areas, thus reducing uniformity and increasing habitat diversity.
The development of a dense overstory of woody species reduces the diversity of the understory species…The reduced understory diversity cannot be compensated for by the overstory diversity because the number of overstory species is invariably much smaller than the number of understory species." (Perevolotsky & Seligman, 1998)

One problem I see in this line of reasoning is that it emphasizes the plant species and ignores all other species (fungi, arthropods, birds, etc) that can only survive in dense forests.

High plant biodiversity may be a good thing even if it may not have been the original state of the land and provided that most or all contributing species are natives. Ultimately, though, if we want to return at least some of the land to its original, pre-grazing, pre-human state, the goats must go.

Rackham, O. 2001. Trees, wood, and timber in Greek history. Leopard’s Head Press.
Perevolotsky & Seligman. 1998. Role of grazing in Mediterranean rangeland ecosystems. BioScience 48:1007-1017.

28 August 2006

A very long walk

Last Saturday I went on a solo 25 km (15.6 mile) walk on the towpath that goes along the C&O Canal & the Potomac River. Instead of going on a continuous course, I did 2 out-and-back hikes, returning to my starting spot in between. That way, I didn't have to carry my lunch and carried less water than I would have otherwise.

I started at 9:35 from Lock 21, also known as Swains Lock.

Lock 21

Walking due west, I arrived at Lock 23 (Violette's Lock) at 11:20. My total walking time, excluding brief stops to take pictures, was 102 min. The distance between Locks 21 and 23 was about 5.3 miles. My average speed was, therefore, about 3 miles/h (4.8 km/h).

Lock 23

I arrived back at Lock 21 at 13:15, taking once again almost exactly 102 minutes. After a 30-min lunch break, I started walking due South and arrived at Lock 18 at 14:34. The distance between Locks 21 and 18 was about 2.5 miles. And my average speed, despite the fact that my legs were now tired and sore, was still about 3 miles/h.

Another view of Lock 23

After a very brief rest, I started my return trip and I arrived back at Lock 21 at 15:30. Again, my average speed remained the same at 3 miles/h. The temperature during the day had been predicted to go up to about 31 °C (88 °F) and it was humid, but I felt comfortable throughout the walk. Afterwards, the soreness in my legs quickly went away.

Lock 18

There is an annual series of 50 km, 80 km, 100 km hikes along the C&O Canal from Washington, DC to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I may attempt one of them next spring.

27 August 2006

One more snail at the edge: Melampus bullaoides


Melampus bullaoides and the other snails in the family Ellobiidae always live near the sea in mangrove areas, salt marshes and on rocky coasts. Their lives, especially their reproduction, are so closely tied to the sea that they are usually not considered to be land snails. They are not exactly aquatic snails either; they have evolved to live at the boundary of the sea and the land.

I found this specimen among stranded piles of rotting seaweed on a rocky coast near Tampa, Florida.


Like their more terrestrial distant relatives, ellobiid snails have lungs and are hermaphrodites, but unlike the former, they have their eyes not at the tips but at the bases of their tentacles. This latter characteristic makes them look more like the marine prosobranch snails. Moreover, as Martins1 noted, the species in the subfamily Melampinae, including M. bullaoides, have veliger larvae that start out as plankton in the sea before settling down to more terrestrial lives. The larvae also have opercula, which they lose at an early age; adult ellobiids don't have opercula. In comparison, many marine snail species retain their opercula in adulthood.

Taken together, these and other pieces of evidence unequivocally demonstrate that ellobiid snails evolved from marine ancestors.

The previous post in this series of snails that live at the edge of the sea (or land, depending on which way evolution is taking them) was about Cerithidea scalariformis.

1. Martins, A. M. de F., 1996. Anatomy and systematics of the western Atlantic Ellobiidae (Gastropoda: Pulmonata). Malacologia 37:163-332.

26 August 2006

Saturday afternoon's beer review: Mike's Hard Lime

mikeslimeIf you've been looking for something "refreshingly zesty*" for a humid summer afternoon, look no more. Mike's Hard Lime may be it.

I've already reviewed Mike's Hard Lemonade. This is limeade with 5% alcohol. Once again, it isn't beer, but it is nevertheless a fine beverage. And it is sweet.

I won't bother to link to the company's web site, because the last time I checked it they didn't have much of anything useful.


*My wife's description of it.

Index to the Snail's Tales' Beer Reviews

24 August 2006

A disappearing lake and its snails


This is Karagöl, a lake located at 1330 m on a plateau in Sandras Mountain in southwestern Turkey. Karagöl means "black lake", although as you can see in the picture, when we were there on 9 July, it was neither black nor a lake. I had never been to that area before and I don't know anything about this lake other than what I observed during an hour or so we spent there. The "lake" is obviously a very shallow one and I suspect it dries almost completely in the summer.

The only freshwater snails we could find were under the numerous reddish rocks visible in the picture above. All the shells appeared empty.


They are planorbid snails (family Planorbidae). Lacking a microscope, we initially thought they were Planorbis planorbis, a species recorded from Turkey before. But P. planorbis is characterized by a keel around the periphery of the shell, which the specimens from Karagöl are lacking. A magnified photo of one Karagöl specimen is below. When I have a more definite identification, I will post it here.


Incidentally, these shells are almost completely flat and come very close to being planispiral.

22 August 2006

Diffractive Drosophila demonically downloading digital data?


I noticed this tiny fly suspiciously loitering around the USB cables connected to my computer the other nite. What is this? A mutant demon-fly feeding on bits of data without having to bite the bytes while violating the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics?


A close-up revealed the bloodshot eyes only a Drosophila could possess. Definitely demonic.

21 August 2006

My picture in the American Gardener

It is not a picture of me, but a picture I took (I am not much of a gardener anyway). If you happen to have a copy of the July/August issue of the American Gardener, on p. 47 you will see a photograph of a firefly larva eating a land snail. I am putting a small scan of the part of the page below.


Long-time readers of this blog may recognize the picture from a post on firefly larvae that I wrote a little more than a year ago. What the magazine published is not identical to what I had posted here, but is one of a series of similar photographs of the same larva eating an Oxyloma retusa. (Incidentally, Oxyloma retusa are not known to be garden pests, but that's beside the point.)

To look for photos for the article on fireflies she was writing, the author Kathryn Lund Johnson was searching the Internet when she came upon my post. Then she contacted me and asked me if I could provide a photo for her article and the rest is history.

I will take this opportunity to announce to all the authors, editors and publishers out there that the copyrights of all the photographs on this blog (unless an external source is indicated) belong to me and that I will be more than happy to provide you with publishing rights to any one of them. Just send me an e-mail at snailstalesATearthlinkDOTnet. I am sure we can work out a deal.

19 August 2006

The Virgin at large

The BBC reports that a cherished 700-year old icon featuring the Virgin Mary at the monastery of Elona in Greece has been stolen.

According to the news report:

"Many miracles have been attributed to the icon.
Once, during the Ottoman occupation, it is said to have blinded a group of Turkish soldiers who burst into the monastery on a mission to destroy it."

Let that be a lesson to those naughty Turks! How dare they try to violate the Virgin?

But then, a question popped in my mind. If the icon is so powerful, why did it not stop the thieves from stealing itself?

I can think of 3 answers.

a) The Virgin is not good anymore.
b) It is effective only against naughty Turks.
c) It blinded the thieves, but that happened when they were speeding away in their car on one of those "dangerous mountain roads". So, now the car, the thieves and the Virgin are on the bottom of the Aegean, where the latter is slowly dissolving away.

But seriously, even though I am an iconoclast, any 700-year painting is a piece of history that should be preserved. So I hope the missing icon will be recovered soon and returned to where it belongs.

18 August 2006

The ruby in the garden


I've been seeing hummingbirds around the trumpet vines in our backyard almost every afternoon between about 5 and 6 pm. Finally this afternoon I managed to photograph them.


This is the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), the only hummingbird of the eastern U.S. Obviously, this individual doesn't have a ruby throat; it is either a female or a juvenile.

The photographs were taken from about 10 m away with a 150 mm telephoto lens. The first photograph above was taken at a shutter speed of 1/500, while the 2 shots below were taken at 1/800 s. With the faster shutter speed the wings are better defined, but even a faster shutter speed is necessary to completely freeze the wings. I will try that next time.


A DC Birding Blog has more info on these birds.

A chocolate covered slug


Last Monday I was at the University of Maryland, visiting my friend Megan's lab. Megan is studying slugs for her Ph.D. One of the many specimens she had was this Arion rufus. It was actually a rather large individual, but it refused to stretch itself out and preferred to remain contracted in the shape of a hump that is characteristic of many Arion species.

Arion rufus, a native of Europe, has been introduced into the U.S. This particular specimen came from the Seattle area. There are many other color varieties of this species, including red, black and lighter shades of brown.

Incidentally, the species was described by Linnaeus in 1758.

16 August 2006

Hairy animalcules

Most natural history blogs are about birds butterflies and occasionally snails. The other groups of organisms don’t get much publicity. So, to make up for that in a meager way and on occasion of the upcoming edition of the Animalcules, here is an old photo of some ciliates, or ciliated protozoa, or protists, or whatever you may prefer to call them. It is, of course, fitting that ciliates were among the original "animalcules". Their name comes from the fact that their bodies are covered with tiny hairs, or cilia.


This is one of the first photomicrographs I ever took. It was taken in February 1977 on black & white film using an old range finder camera positioned on a tripod above the eye piece of my microscope. Because I couldn’t see what the camera was actually seeing, it was a trial and error process and I didn’t, of course, know what was captured on the film until after I developed it. The vignette around the image was caused by the aperture blades. (How on earth did we survive without digital cameras?)

It shows what appears to be a Paramecium and many smaller ciliates, possibly belonging to a Colpoda species. It is interesting to note that these creatures, although about 150 years ago they were determined to be neither animals nor plants (by Richard Owen), are still treated together with invertebrate animals. Pick up any invertebrate textbook and you are very likely to find a chapter on protozoa.

A 1996 review1 estimated that there are about 3000 free-living species of ciliates. They are widespread and quite common. Gather some dry grass blades, leaves and other plant remains, put them in some water to create what is usually called a “hay infusion”, wait a few days and then you will have protozoans, including lots of ciliates. You will, of course, need a microscope to see them. And where do they come from? If you don’t believe in spontaneous generation, you have to start with the assumption that viable cysts are on the plants remains, in the water or fall from the air.

1. Finlay et al. 1996. Quarterly Review of Biology 71:221.

15 August 2006

Barn swallow


The barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) is one of the most widely distributed bird species. Its breeding range includes North America, Europe, Asia, northern Africa, the Middle East and Japan. Their characteristic nests, usually seen in clusters, are common sights on the outside walls of buildings in rural areas of Turkey.


I photographed these swallows and their nests in the town of Gömbe in southwestern Turkey last July. I am assuming the shorter tailed bird in the center is a female.


As you can see in the pictures, these nests appear to have been constructed from mud pellets.

More info on barn swallows is available on the Bird Web and the Animal Diversity Web.

11 August 2006

How many ants are there in this picture?


And what on earth were they doing?


I witnessed this on the sidewalk this morning. It didn't look like a battle, although the close-ups show plenty of mandible-to-mandible contact. I think it was some sort of information-exchange extravaganza. According to a review1 in the current issue of Current Biology, ants communicate with each other using "multiple pheromones, displays, contacts and sounds".


Whatever it was, to my feeble human senses it looked like a totally chaotic event. But for the ants, and I am quite certain of that, this was probably a perfectly ordered activity completely within the boundaries of ant logic.


1. Duncan E. Jackson and Francis L.W. Ratnieks. Communication in ants. Current Biology, Vol 16, R570-R574, 08 August 2006. pdf

10 August 2006

Have lung, will become terrestrial


Any animal that spends a significant portion of its active life on land must have a means to extract oxygen from the air. Soft gills that work fine in water are not very useful in the air because they collapse under their own weight. Many semi-terrestrial intertidal marine snails, for example, the littorinids (here and here), have lungs. Their evolution has satisfied one requirement of being terrestrial.

The largest group of land snails, the Pulmonata, or the pulmonates, receive their name from the Latin pulmo (lung).

"The primary requirement for a body appendage or evagination to be identified as a gill or ctenidium is the high vascularization of the respiratory surface. The same is true for the lung….In Pulmonata the 'lung' is in fact a bag-like cavity with blood vessels disposed as a network in the roof."

Ghiretti & Ghiretti-Magaldi, 1975

In the back-lighted picture above, the highly vascularized lung of the terrestrial pulmonate snail Novisuccinea ovalis stands out. The snail’s lung, located at the top of its mantle cavity, takes up almost all of its body whorl. The large surface area of the lung is essential for efficient gas exchange. The pulmonate lung opens to the outside thru a single hole, the pneumostome.

Ghiretti & Ghiretti-Magaldi. 1975. Respiration in Pulmonates, Fretter & Peake, eds. Vol. 1.

09 August 2006

Peace be upon the Middle East, peace be upon all of us

Frederick Burnaby in his 1877 classic On Horseback Through Asia Minor has a short account of a nite time incident outside of Üsküdar (Scutari, a district of Istanbul). While waiting for his Turkish servant to return from an errand, Burnaby sits on a grave in a cemetery by the road. Hearing footsteps behind him and being suspicious of his surroundings, Burnaby grasps his revolver, but the stranger, who turns out to be the grave-digger, salutes him with the words “Peace be with you”.

The most likely language a grave-digger would have used under those circumstances would have been Turkish, which Burnaby could apparently speak. But what got me initially puzzled was that there is no such salutation in Turkish. It took a while before I realized that the grave-digger must have said selamün aleyküm, the traditional Middle Eastern salutation that the Turks adopted from the Arabic as-salamu alaykum, which is shalom aleichem in Hebrew.

The greeting means "peace be upon you". Burnaby, rather than give the original wording of the salutation he heard, which his English readers would not have understood, preferred its translation.

As is usually the case with many Arabic phrases used in Turkey, most Turks don’t know the meaning of selamün aleyküm, but they use it nevertheless out of custom. However, the phrase is now considered old fashioned and its use has been declining.

I will post more on Burnaby’s book at another time.

07 August 2006

Durali and his taxi


One of the characters we met during our travels in Turkey back in July, was Durali, who showed up riding his mule and wearing, take note, a Nike hat. At that time we were by Kartal Gölü, a high altitude lake on Sandras Mountain (more on that lake later).

Durali2Durali announced that he was a 73-year old shepherd. Then he proudly introduced his companion (in translation, of course):

"This is my taxi. It is a mule. It had a donkey for a father and an animal for a mother."

One of us questioned him:

"Animal? You mean a horse?"

But Durali was adamant in his nomenclature:

"It had a donkey for a father and an animal for a mother."

We left it at that.

Later, Durali started complaining that he was short on cash. My friend Zeki whispered to me: "He is hoping we will give him money." But when Durali didn't see our wallets appearing, he drastically lowered his expectations and the subject of his complaints became a lost pencil, which Zeki was kind enough to replace.

I hope I will be strong enough to ride mules after missing pencils on mountain tops when I am 73.

05 August 2006

Saturday nite's beer review: Melbourn Bros' Spontaneous Fermentation Cherry


This "beer with cherry juice added" comes from Stamford, England. It is dark red, rather sweet and has an intense cherry aroma. But, I wouldn't call it a beer, really. All in all, it is an interesting drink, although the first sip may make you think you are drinking cherry-flavored cough syrup.

Its price is also a bit inflated: a 12-oz bottle was $7.80 at my local store. I bought it mostly out of curiosity. If you come across it cheaper, give it a try.

There is no Web address on the label and I don't feel like googling at the moment. So if you know their Web address, post it in the comments. Also, please enlighten me as to the meaning of "spontaneous fermentation"; it has nothing to do with spontaneous combustion, has it?


Index to the Snail's Tales' Beer Reviews

Remember to drink moderately and responsibly.

04 August 2006

Land snails of Turkey: Xeropicta smyrnocretica

An e-mail that came a couple of days ago from the editor of a well-known malacological journal brought good news. A manuscript we had submitted had been accepted for publication. However, a reviewer recommended some revisions, one of which concerned the identity of a snail that we were calling Xeropicta smyrnocretica. The snails in the family Hygromiidae are notoriously difficult to identify. So the questioning of the reviewer led me to reconsider the suspect identification.

Here is a brief summary of the existing literature on this species. Germain1 described Helicella (Xerocrassa) cretica var. smyrnocretica in 1933. The type location was specified only as "Environs de Smyrne [= Izmir]). Thirty years later, Forcart2 dissected a specimen and determined that the snail in question was not in Xerocrassa (which he considered a subgenus of Helicopsis), but instead was in Xeropicta (another subgenus). Another 10 years later, Hudec3 examined some specimens that had also been collected in Turkey, which he called, following Forcart, Helicopsis (Xeropicta) smyrnocretica, and emphasized the characteristic sculpture of the shell surface.

There are 3 widespread hygromiids that may be confused with X. smyrnocretica: Cernuella virgata, Xeropicta krynickii and Xerocrassa cretica. However, each has a characteristic that makes it easy to distinguish them from each other. The shell below is one of the specimens that we are identifying as X. smyrnocretica from southeast of Izmir, north of Aydin. It has some irregular and indistinct growth rings.


The photo below shows the microsculpture of the same shell, which consists of very fine regular spiral lines. I believe this is the microsculpture Hudec noted.


Xeropicta krynickii also has a microsculpture somewhat similar to that of X. smyrnocretica, but the former has an eccentric umbilicus unlike that of the latter. So, that rules out X. krynickii. Cernuella virgata can also be eliminated, because it does not have a microsculpture of regular spiral lines. We are left with X. cretica. Luckily, I have on loan some specimens of that species from the Field Museum in Chicago.


Here is a larger picture of X. cretica. Every shell in this lot (and also in another lot) has densely stacked radial ribs as you can see in the photo. That characteristic and also the lack of a distinct microsculpture distinguish this species from X. smyrnocretica.


Having gone thru the specimens and the available literature one more time, I am once again confident of my identification.

1. Germain, L. 1933. Bull. Mus. Nat. Hist. Nat. Paris 5:389-392.
2. Forcart, L. 1963. Arch. Moll. 92:78-79.
3. Hudec, V. 1973. Zoologische Mededelingen 46:231.

03 August 2006

02 August 2006

How much heat would a woodchuck stand if a woodchuck could stand this heat?


The high temperatures we have been experiencing this week (the temperature was predicted to reach 38 ºC/100 ºF 2nd day on a row today) apparently had this woodchuck (a.k.a. groundhog) rather dazed. They normally run for their burrows at the first sight of a human approaching. But this one just kept rummaging around in the sparse vegetation while I kept getting closer and closer with my camera aimed at it. I was only a few meters from it when it finally trotted into its hole.

The poor thing was probably looking for one more piece of succulent leaf to keep itself going until the nitefall.

01 August 2006

Land snails of Turkey: Zonites osmanicus


We collected these shells on and around Honaz Mountain, southeast of Denizli, Turkey, during our survey earlier last month. I identified them tonite about an hour ago. First I thought they were Z. casius, a species that had been recorded from the general area. But they turned out to be flatter and more keeled than Z. casius (see photo below).

Zonites osmanicus (left) and Z. casius (right).

Zonites osmanicus was described by Riedel in 1987 (Annales Zoologici, 41:1-42). It is endemic to Turkey. In fact, most known Zonites species are endemic to Turkey. They may have originated on some land mass that subsequently got incorporated into the Anatolian Peninsula.