31 July 2010

Butterflies photographed with an iPhone camera during this morning's walk in the woods and identified to the best of the author's knowledge

The easiest to identify was this tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus).

This one with tattered wings was probably an eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).

The last one appears to be a great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele). I had never photographed this species before; I wish I had had a better camera with me. Glassberg (Butterflies through binoculars, 1999) gives the habitat of great spangled fritillary as "open fields and meadows, roadsides, etc." This individual was alongside a creek in the woods.

28 July 2010

Hermaphroditism of pulmonates: it was Ray who discovered it

Who discovered that pulmonate gastropods are hermaphrodites? I asked this question first in this post in 2005. Then in this post last summer I narrowed the answer down to 3 names. Subsequently, I was able to determine that the discoverer of pulmonate hermaphroditism was John Ray. A short article of mine summarizing this late 17th century discovery has recently been published in the July 2010 issue of Mollusc Word. You may download a pdf copy from here.

Of course, others before me had already figured out that the credit for the discovery went to Ray. I have only tried to publicize Ray's accomplishment on its 350th anniversary.

26 July 2010

Mobility as a requirement for terrestrial life

Is there an animal, plant or fungus species, aquatic or terrestrial, that is immobile during all of its life stages? I can’t think of one. Even deeply rooted giant trees—epitomes of immovability—have pollen or seeds that are dispersed passively. If the medium around an organism is moving, there is no need for the organism itself to spend energy to move as long as it can produce small enough propagules for passive dispersal.

There are many aquatic animals, especially in the sea, that are stationary as adults. Examples that come to mind include sponges, barnacles and bryozoans. But they all have motile propagules or larvae that move actively or passively.

As far as I know, there are no terrestrial animals that are stationary as adults and which rely on the wind to disperse their potential offspring. Presumably, this is because the direction and the strength of the wind on terra firma are not as regular as those of the currents in the sea. Curiously, there are also no terrestrial or semi-terrestrial animals with stationary adults that disperse their potential offspring via running waters.

To set the record straight, I should mention that there are terrestrial animals, for example, moths, that make use of air currents to disperse pheromones, which are tiny molecules much smaller than potential offspring. Some microscopic aquatic animals, for example, bdelloids and nematodes, are also believed to be dispersed by the wind. But such animals can also move under their own power as long as they are in water, although the distances they can cover are probably much shorter than their wind-assisted dispersal ranges.

The plants that propagate only by producing shoots from their roots—are there such plants?—may also be considered to be mobile, for their roots move thru the soil. One can nevertheless imagine a stationary aquatic or terrestrial organism that never produces any motile propagules or spreading roots, but, instead, is completely replaced by an offspring. That would be a totally immobile organism. But no such organism has probably ever evolved, because its would have been a very risky lifestyle, an evolutionary dead end. One hungry predator or an environmental catastrophe, such as a falling tree, could have exterminated the one and only member of the species or the entire colony, if such an organism could have formed a colony without being mobile.

It is, therefore, not surprising that no terrestrial animal seems to have descended from marine ancestors that are immobile as adults. There are no terrestrial barnacles or bryozoans. On the other hand, mobile marine animals like snails, fishes and crabs have indeed evolved terrestrial lineages. Of course, mobility is not the only requirement for being terrestrial. Life outside the water also requires being able to obtain oxygen from the air and to resist excess water loss. Suspension or filter feeders with mobile larvae and mostly stationary adults, such as bivalve mollusks, in addition to their ineffective powers of motion, face another apparently insurmountable hurdle on land: in the absence of reliable winds and abundant nutritious particles suspended in the air, their feeding strategies are of no use.

24 July 2010

I remember Smirna

While visiting my mother at her summer house in Turkey last June, I noticed an electrical box of some sort on a wall. It had been serviced by a local electrician and plumber who had the ingenuity to name his company Smirna.

Smyrna was, of course, the original name of the city of Izmir located about 70 km to the north of mom's house. Prior to the 1919-1922 Turkish-Greek War and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna was a cosmopolitan city inhabited by, besides the native Greeks, Armenians and Turks, a sizable population of European origin. They were known as the Levantines. Their descendants are still around (see this page, for example).

Kudos to our electrician who keeps the old memories alive.

22 July 2010

Pictures from high above 13: Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge

After an almost 2-year break, I continue with this series. This picture was taken early this month while approaching the National Airport in Washington, D.C. near the end of our flight from JFK. It shows the highway 495, the exist 1 and the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River.

From this point the airport is about 3 miles to the north, which is towards the right in the picture. About 1.5 miles northwest of here is the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia.

Here is the picture of the area, oriented in the same way, from Google Earth, which was taken during a construction period.

The picture from high above 12 was Salaberry Island in St. Lawrence River near Montreal, Canada.

20 July 2010

Come to think of it, I'll have a Bomonti

Several years ago I wrote a review of a beer I had never drunk and would never have a chance to drink. That was a beer that had been brewed in Istanbul at the turn of the 20th century by the Bomonti Brothers and that had since gone extinct.

So imagine my surprise at a restaurant in Istanbul last June when the waiter told me they had "Bomonti Beer". In disbelief I said "Bomonti?" He said "yes, Bomonti". So I ordered a bottle of Bomonti.

Of course, it wasn't the original Bomonti beer. An inspection of the label on the bottle revealed that this Bomonti was a product of the company that brews Efes, a popular Turkish beer. Like Efes, Bomonti was also a rather mild beer with a rather weak flavor. I suspect it was indeed Efes in a different bottle.

Who knows how the original Bomonti beer was brewed. But read my review of it. It'll give you an idea of what it may have tasted like.

19 July 2010

On a foundation of ghosts

No religion was ever created from scratch; each and every belief system that has ever existed was based on or modeled after one or more other belief systems that predated it. Islam, being the last major monotheistic religion to appear, was especially lucky to have 2 older and widespread monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, as well as many local polytheistic religions to borrow from. And borrow it did.

Episode #45 of the BBC’s podcast series A History of the World in 100 Objects was about an approximately 1700-year old bronze hand from today’s Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. The inscription on the hand indicates that it was an offering to a local god named Ta'lab Riyam. We learn that during the time period when this object was made Yemen was a wealthy region thanks to production and sale of frankincense and myrrh. Subsequently, however, the local economy collapsed and the pagan gods were replaced by Islam. Not all was lost, however.

In the podcast, historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University explains the contributions of the Arabian pagan religions to the subsequent rise of Islam:

I've suggested that religions die, but, as when people die, perhaps they leave ghosts - and you can see across the Middle East many ghosts, many survivals of older religions, in the newly successful religions. So as you look at Islam, for example, you see many, many survivals from Christianity and Judaism. The Qur'an is absolutely littered with stories which make no sense, except in terms of what the Christians and Jews of that time would have understood, the sacred stories…Then, as Islam spreads, it carries on drawing new kinds of pattern in from older religions, and evokes new ghosts.

18 July 2010

And now for something completely the same: hooded crow

I wrote about hooded crows (Corvus cornix) after my October 2008 trip to Turkey. Those birds were photographed in Istanbul. The bird in the picture above was photographed in June 2010 in Izmir on the west coast of Turkey .

According to Jim Flegg's field guide to the birds of Britain and Europe (1990), the habitat of the hooded crow includes "sometimes also urban areas". In western Turkey, they are common urban birds.

15 July 2010

Size variation in Helix aspersa

The land snail formerly known as Helix aspersa* displays a wide variation in the size of its adult shell. The smallest individuals have been called Helix aspersa minor, while the largest ones are known as Helix aspersa maxima. Taylor (Land & Freshwater Mollusca of the British Isles, 1914) gave the shell diameters of typical individuals as about 35 mm, the smallest ones as 20-28 mm and the largest ones as 40-48 mm. It is not known if these variations represent distinct species, subspecies or simply the results of environmental differences arising from phenotypic plasticity of the shell dimension.

Here are 2 adult shells of Helix aspersa from the same locality. The diameter of the shell on the left is 35.1 mm and that of the one on the right is 44.0 mm.

Below is a histogram showing the distribution of the maximum shell diameters of 35 empty shells I collected in an area that was roughly 140 m x 140 m.

The 3 shells with diameters larger 40 mm may represent Helix aspersa maxima. I will write more on this subject in future posts.

*Now called Cornu aspersum, etc.

14 July 2010


Priene was the only other ancient town I visited last month in Turkey. It is located about 30 km to the southwest of Magnesia on the Meander. However, unlike the latter, which lies on the floodplain of the River Meander, Priene is on much higher ground overlooking the delta of the river.

The surviving ruins of Priene are also more extensive and include a modest theater.

According to George Bean (Aegean Turkey, 1966), Priene had originally been located elsewhere, but was subsequently moved to its current location. Bean noted that the original location of Priene was unknown, but suspected that it had probably been buried by the alluvium brought by the Meander. I don’t know if it has since been located.

Once again, my main motivation for visiting the site was to collect land snails. The most common macro snail at Priene was Rumina saharica; empty shells were abundant every where and dormant individuals were common under the rocks. Another species I observed at the site was Lindholmiola lens.

12 July 2010

Tree for rent

Large, mature, evergreen tree in suburban neighborhood available for rent. Maintenance free. Will provide shade and carbon sequestering year round. Call if interested.

11 July 2010

Magnesia on the Maeander

One of the 2 ancient cities in western Turkey named Magnesia was located near the Maeander (Meander) River*. Its surviving remains are among the lesser known and rarely visited sites. Last month while I was in the area, I toured Magnesia on the Maeander solely for the purpose of collecting snails. I was the only visitor at the site for about an hour and was quite impressed by what I saw.

According to George Bean (Aegean Turkey, 1966), Magnesia was founded by Greek colonists from the original Magnesia in northern Greece. Bean didn't state when the city may have been founded, but it seems that it was around at least as early as 400 B.C.E.

A nearby placard indicated that the structure in the following picture was the "propylon" or the market gate that connected the agora with the sanctuary of Artemis. Apparently, it was actually a building that had "two aisles with ten columns and six pillars". What is the difference between a column and a pillar?

Incidentally, the most common land snail at the site was the species formerly known as Helix aspersa.

*The other one was at the location of the current city of Manisa located ~100 km to the north.

09 July 2010

Archaeo+Malacology Group Newsletter No. 17

The AMG Newsletter No. 17 is available here.

This issue has the first article with illustrations published in the AMG Newsletter. The honor of authoring the said article, about a wall in Istanbul that has among its constituents sea shells, belongs to me and Henk Mienis. Another interesting article is about how to make your own prehistoric shell necklace. There are also articles on mollusk shells found in excavations in Israel and the contributions of mollusk shells to late holocene archaeology of East Africa.

Hopefully, illustrations will become commonplace in future issues of the AMG Newsletter.

08 July 2010

An experiment among a pile of rocks — then and now

Back in the summer of 2006 when I and Tim Pearce were on a series of field trips in western Turkey, I wanted to run a field experiment to test the colonization ability of the land snails in the genus Albinaria. My bright idea was to introduce the local species to areas where they did not exist to determine if they would form long-term colonies and also to determine if 2 species coexisting at the same spot would hybridize. Initially, Tim resisted to the idea of moving species to places where they did not exist, but eventually agreed to help me with the experiment after I argued that the locations of introduction would be within the ranges of the species and that their topographical characteristics would prevent the spread of the snails beyond a few tens of meters.

The 2 Albinaria species we worked with were A. caerulea and A. lerosiensis. And one of the 2 localities we picked for the test was a low hill of limestone rocks*. The marshy plain surrounding the hill provided an effective barrier against the spread of the snails beyond the hill. Albinaria lerosiensis already existed on the hill. All we did was plant a handful of live, but dormant A. caerulea, originally from about 10 km away, at a spot on the hill. I then took pictures of the release spot and recorded its coordinates.

Our initial plan was to return within a year or 2 to see how the introduced A. caerulea was doing. But even though I went back to Turkey in 2007 and 2008, I did not have a chance to go to the test area. Finally, on a hot and sunny day this past June, I climbed up the hill with my GPS receiver in hand. Soon I reached the release area, but could not recognize the exact spot until I took out a pictureof the spot I had brought with me and started comparing the rock formations around me to those in the picture.

Here is what the release spot looked like on 3 July 2006. The small pile of rocks in the foreground was meant to be a long-term marker.

And here is the same spot almost exactly 4 years later. The rock pile had disappeared.

I did not see any live Albinaria, which estivate on rock surfaces and are, therefore, easy to spot. But there were many empty shells, all of which I collected. Most were of A. lerosiensis, but a few, including one juvenile, belonged to A. caerulea. All of the snails we had introduced were adults; so the juvenile shell meant that some reproduction of the introduced species had taken place. But the lack of live snails is preventing me from making any definite conclusions for the time being.

The experiment is still running. I plan to return to both release sites in the future.

*The other spot was a cemetery about which I may write in a future post.

07 July 2010

Snail cream and other curios from Turkey

The slime of land snails has long attracted attention as a potential panacea for a variety of illnesses as well as to counter the unwanted side effects old age. This sign I saw on a pharmacy window in Istanbul a few weeks ago announces the arrival of "snail cream", which was touted undoubtedly for rejuvenating one's skin.

Here are a couple other curiosities I spotted on Turkish streets or stores. This one, from Izmir, is advertising "hoddogs" for only 1.5 Turkish Liras.

In Turkey it's unusual for bookstores to have science or natural history sections and popular or serious books on the rich fauna and flora of the country are almost unheard of. It was, therefore, rather surprising to spot this tome on the insects of Surinam displayed prominently in an Istanbul bookstore.

Hopefully, similar books of more local interest will follow suit.

04 July 2010

For all your bone needs

A couple of weeks ago we went to Aydin, the city in western Turkey that was named after me. Our visit included a stop at the local cemetery where my father, his father and my aunt are buried. At one point while looking for snail shells among the graves, I noticed a small bone fragment, picked it up and asked the attendant who was accompanying us tongue-in-cheek if it was a human bone. He said that it was probably something the stray dogs had brought in. Then he added that there was nevertheless an ossuary within the cemetery and took us to see it.


The ossuary was a concrete vault dug into the ground; the Turkish sign in front of it referred to it as a "bone cellar". Interestingly, the bones of men and women were kept in separate vaults.

The attendant explained that the bones from unclaimed graves or of those who are buried at the expense of the local government are exhumed after 5 years of burial and deposited in the ossuary. Here are the contents of one of the vaults photographed thru the metal grate on top of it.


According to the attendant, local university students with legitimate needs for bones are occasionally given permission to retrieve what they need from the ossuary. I will keep that in mind for future projects.

01 July 2010

Happy Evolution Day!

On this day in 1858 Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s independently developed ideas on evolution by natural selection were made public for the first time during a historic session of the the Linnean Society in London.

Darwin had been developing his ideas for 20 years, but before that day he had revealed them only to a few close friends and correspondents, including the American botanist Asa Gray. Wallace, on the other hand, had come up with his version of natural selection, very much similar to that of Darwin's, several months earlier while doing fieldwork in the Malay Archipelago and communicated it to Darwin in a now famous letter*.

The presentation at the Linnean Society was initiated with a letter of introduction by Darwin’s close friends Charles Lyell and Joseph D. Hooker, opening with the words:

My Dear Sir, -- The accompanying papers, which we have the honour of communicating to the Linnean Society, and which all relate to the same subject, viz. the Laws which affect the Production of Varieties, Races, and Species, contain the results of the investigations of two indefatigable naturalists, Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace.
This was followed by the reading of extracts from an unpublished essay Darwin had written in 1844, part of his 1857 letter explaining his ideas to Gray and the manuscript Wallace had sent to Darwin.

Why not celebrate this great idea today and everyday? Read a book on evolution, teach someone about evolution, visit a natural history museum or take a hike in the woods or go to a sea shore to witness the products of evolution. And don’t forget to remember Darwin and Wallace, for, after all these years, their idea remains indefatigable.

Hooray to the bearded guys! Pictures of Darwin (left) and Wallace are from the Linnean Society.

*According to the Darwin Correspondence Project, Wallace's letter and unpublished manuscript are missing.