Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Dracula Parrots

Hey there, handsome—what an amazing coloring these Dracula parrots (Psittrichas fulgidus) have!

Flickr Peter Tan Pesquets Parrot Head Shot

Endemic to New Guinea, they are also known as Pesquet’s parrots, and can be quite sizeable: 46 cm / 18” total length and 700-800 g (24-28 oz) in weight.

Flickr Meen Zhafri Pesquets Parrot Silhouette

Apparently, habitat loss and overhunting have pushed the species into a vulnerable status, and, according to BirdLife International, the population in decreasing.

Flickr Charles Davies Pesquets Parrot in Flight

*sigh* Why can’t we as a species take better care of our nice things? It’s not like we lack the brain power.

Found via Nature & Animals on Twitter. (NB. Seems to require a login in order to see post.)

Images: Head shot by Peter Tan via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Silhouette by Meen & Zhafri via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) / KL Bird Park, May 2010. In flight by Charles Davies via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Swans in a Winter Wonderland

Reportedly, the Swan Spring wetland park in Ili, Xinjiang, China, has some amazing winter settings. This scene definitely qualifies:

Tumblr F Yeah Chinese Garden Swan Spring Screenshot

I don’t like cold very much, but I do like the look of clean, white snow, and I love blue. This shot is astoundingly beautiful. I’m so sorry I don’t know who filmed the clip this is from.

Here in Massachusetts we have way too much snow for pandemic comfort at the moment. Some of it is pretty, yes, but instead of the graceful swans we have chunky wild turkeys, LOL! Ohwell; at least we’ll get plenty of physical activity by shoveling.

Found via Fuck Yeah Chinese Garden on Tumblr. (Follow the link for a short video.)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Evidence for Donkey Polo in Ancient China

An interesting archaeological find was reported earlier this year from western China where the excavation of a noblewoman’s grave has provided evidence for the use of donkeys for games of polo by elite women in the Tang dynasty.

The sport of polo was popular among the Chinese aristocracy in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Literary sources document that women played as well as men, and that, even though donkeys were typically associated with low social status as pack and farm animals, they were also favored by the elite for playing polo. The excavation of the tomb of a Tang noblewoman, Cui Shi, for the first time offers archaeological evidence to support the written accounts.

Although polo has traditionally been played on horseback, the authors of this study, led by archaeologist Songmei Hu, mention that donkeys may sometimes have been preferred because their natural response to stress and danger, something a polo match would frequently present, is different. While horses, as herd animals, have developed a sensitivity to commotion among nearby animals and tend to respond by fleeing, donkeys, with a more solitary history, are less perturbed by the kinds of chaos that a polo field might present.

The authors identified the remains of at least three donkeys in Cui Shi’s tomb. For animals more traditionally connected with the peasantry than the elite, this was an unusual find for the grave of a woman whose family moved in the higher circles of the imperial aristocracy. But the family’s status was also connected to polo: written sources document that Cui Shi’s husband, Bao Gao, was promoted by the emperor to the rank of general on the strength of his skill in the sport. The bones of the donkeys themselves also show signs that they may have been used for playing polo, as they show patterns of growth reflecting strong and sudden stresses, such as animals suddenly starting, stopping, and changing direction on the polo field would experience, rather than those typical of animals used for carrying burdens or pulling carts.

This find is both an example of how archaeological and literary evidence can support one another and a view into the lives of elite women in ancient China who weren’t content to let the men have all the fun of donkey polo!

Image: Tang dynasty polo players via Wikimedia (tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, Qianling Mausoleum, Xi’an; 706 CE; wall painting)

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

A Bird in the Hand

The fall is coming, and for a lot of us this fall will be bringing anxiety and stress. So, for a moment of relaxation, enjoy this scene of hunting wildfowl in the marshes, from the tomb of Nebamun, a scribe who lived around 1350 BCE in Egypt.

Hunting scene from the tomb of Nebamun, photograph by Marcus Cyron via Wikimedia (currently British Museum, London; c. 1350 BCE; paint on plaster)

And for added joy, just look at that cat! Have you ever seen a cat so happy as when it has two birds in its claws and a third in its teeth?

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Cross Foxes

Cross foxes are a color variation of the red fox (like the silver fox, which I have heard of before). They seem to inhabit the more nothern reaches of the Northern hemisphere.

Flickr Humane Society US Cross Fox Father Child

Looks like they can have a variety of fur coloring, from mostly black and grey with only a little red, to almost half and half.

Flickr Robert Kowaluk Cross Fox

What I can’t tell from the photos and texts is how bright the red coat might naturally be—I’ve seen some striking photos with really bright red and deep black. I suspect those may be photoshopped, but of course individual variation is always possible. And, naturally, if you wanted to use cross foxes with saturated red-black coats as inspiration for a fantasy story, no-one’s stopping you! 🙂

Flickr Stephen Brown Cross Fox Closeup

Aren’t they handsome?

Found via Jonathan Webers on Twitter.

Images via Flickr: Father and child by The Humane Society of the United States (CC BY-ND 2.0). Side profile by Robert Kowaluk. Closeup by Stephen Brown.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Exact Opposites Cats

Seriously, this is amazing: a pair of cats. One black, the other white. One has a blue left eye and a green right eye, the other a green left eye and a blue right eye.

Twitter Land of Cuteness Exact Opposites Cats

Granted, this is the Internet, and Photoshop is a thing. (And please note I didn’t intend to post this as an April Fool’s joke. As far as I know it isn’t, but as I said, this is from the Internet and who really knows.)

However, even if it were edited, it’s still a damn awesome photo. I immediately thought of a magic-user’s familiar or some such special pet. Wouldn’t cats like these be just astounding?

Found via Land of Cuteness on Twitter.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Visual Inspiration: Cayuga Duck

The cayuga duck is a breed known for its black to metallic green plumage, and—just like the black squirrels in NYC—to me they look absolutely marvellous!

Flickr Simon Redwood Cayuga Duck

There seems to be disagreement over the breed’s origin, but according to Wikipedia they were popularized around the Finger Lakes region (Cayuga being one) of the state of New York.

Flickr Dana Kee Cayuga Duck

Looking cayugas up also taught me that drake is the English word for a male duck. Live and learn!

Found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr.

Images via Flickr: side profile by Simon Redwood (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Frontal view by Dana Kee (CC BY 2.0).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Green and Orange Iridescent Turkeys

A lot of us in the U.S. and with U.S. connections are going to sitting down to a turkey dinner this week. A lot of us who live in the woodsier parts of North America also know that the farm-raised domesticated turkeys we put on the table are not the only kind of turkey out there. We have local flocks of wild turkeys around us who periodically come through our yard and entertain us with their antics. (We’re less entertained by the, shall we say, “fertilizer” they leave behind, but that has its uses, too.)

But did you know that there is a variety of wild turkeys found in the Yucatan Peninsula that has blue heads and irididescent turquoise-green and bronze-orange plumage? I didn’t until I stumbled across a reference to them this week. Look at these beauties!

Ocellated turkey, photograph by George Harrison via Wikimedia

Ocellated turkey, photograph by TonyCastro via Wikimedia

Ocellated turkeys, as they are called, are an important part of the local cuisine in addition to being extraordinary to look at.

The next time you’re writing a fantasy world and looking to spice up the local fauna, why not add some big shimmery-winged birds–that could end up roasted or stewed on the dinner table, too?

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

You Don’t Want War Elephants

If you’re building an army to conquer the pre-modern world (or a fantasy world something like it), you might be tempted to include war elephants. At first glance, they seem like a great idea. Elephants are large, thick-skinned, strong, and intelligent, with long tusks and powerful trunks. Including them in your army is about as close as the real world gets to having dragons on your side. Well, I’m here to tell you that in most cases, they’re actually not such a great idea. (There are a few exceptions; I’ll get back to those later.)

Not all elephants are trainable. Three species of elephants survive in today’s world: Asian, African bush, and African forest. Asian elephants can be trained, but the African bush and forest elephants cannot. Several other species and/or subspecies of elephants once existed in various parts of Africa and Asia, but they went extinct in antiquity as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Elephants susceptible to domestication have historically been used in North Africa and Southeast Asia for labor, transport, and war.

Elephants do have their uses in war. They have been used as mobile platforms for archers and light artillery. They can also trample and gore enemy soldiers, and use their strength to help demolish the defenses of towns and fortresses under siege. Horses who have not been trained with elephants will not go near them, so war elephants can be good for disrupting enemy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they are good for carrying or dragging supplies and heavy pieces of baggage like siege weapons. Despite these uses, there are a number of serious problems with using elephants in combat.

We may as well start with the moral problem. Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and so most elephants used for labor or war must be captured as calves from the wild and trained into obedience, often using quite brutal methods. It goes without saying that this is a terrible thing to do to any creature, let alone such an intelligent and social animal, but if you’re already building an army for world domination, I assume you’re beyond such niceties as moral scruples, so let’s move on to the practical problems.

One big problem is that elephants are not naturally combative. Apart from males competing for mates, mothers defending their young, and occasional rogue elephants behaving abnormally, an elephant is much more likely to run away from danger than toward it. It takes extensive training to get an elephant to withstand the chaos of a battlefield, and even then it was a common practice in the past to feed war elephants fermented fruit to get them drunk before battle. Getting elephants drunk helps keep them aggressive, but it also makes them harder to control. There is a real risk that a sober elephant facing the clamor and commotion of a battle will turn and run away, or that a drunk one will ignore its driver’s commands and simply go on a rampage. Now, I know what you’re thinking—drunk rampaging elephants sound like an awesome weapon to unleash on your foes, but keep in mind that around half the soldiers on an average battlefield are going to be your own, and there’s no way to be sure that an out of control elephant will do more harm to your opponents than to you.

Another problem with war elephants is the cost. Elephants in the wild may eat up to 300 kilograms of forage per day. In captivity, eating a richer diet, elephants consume around 50 kg of grain and vegetables per day, more if they are doing heavy work. That amounts to at least 18,250 kg per year. Pre-industrial agricultural yields could vary widely with region, climate, and farming techniques, but at best you could expect around 500 kg of grain per hectare of farmland per year. That means you’d need about 36 hectares of land dedicated to feeding just one elephant. 1 square kilometer of farmland could, under the very best conditions, just barely maintain three elephants. If you have a big enough empire with a strong enough agrarian economy, this may sound like it’s worth it, but consider the opportunity cost. The same farmland could also support 100 soldiers for a year, who can be trained in any number of specializations, will (hopefully) not get drunk and turn on your own troops, and can be more useful in most situations than three elephants.

Now there are a few situations in which elephants can offer a real advantage in war. One is when you’re fighting forces who have never encountered them before. To the inexperienced foot soldier, an elephant is a huge, loud, monster with giant tusks and a disturbingly prehensile nose. Few inexperienced armies have the discipline to withstand their first sight of an elephant, and many have been known to run in panic in the face of an elephant charge. After a little experience, though, this advantage wears off. Those who have seen elephants a few times learn how to deal with them, by facing them with a dense hedge of pikes or aiming for their eyes, mouths, and the soles of their feet with javelins. The Carthaginian general Hannibal got one battle’s worth of use out of his elephants before the Romans figured out how to counteract them.

The other situation in which elephants can be useful is among warring peoples who all use and fight with elephants. In this case, since all sides know how difficult and expensive it is to maintain elephant forces, putting on a big display of elephants in the field serves as a show of force, demonstrating the resources and organizing capacity of your army, which may convince your opponents to come to terms rather than risk a battle. War elephants were historically used as battlefield showpieces in this way by the kingdoms of India and Southeast Asia, as well as the Hellenistic kingdoms formed from the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Getting effective use of your elephants in such a case, however, requires a major investment of resources which might be more practically spent elsewhere.

In short, if you are bent on conquering the world, I don’t recommend using war elephants. For the occasional times when they would actually be useful, they aren’t worth the cost. (And brutalizing elephants is horrible.)

Image: “The Padava Brothers Do Battle with the King of Anga” from a manuscript of the Razmnama via Wikimedia (currently Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; 1598; paint on paper; by Mohan, son of Bawari)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Visual Inspiration: Small Aqua-Blue-Brown Lizards

Now that summer is properly on the way here in the northern hemisphere, it’s time for summer critters. This aqua-blue-brown lizard, Anolis grahami, would make a lovely detail in speculative—or, indeed, in any kind of—story-telling.

Wikimedia jpokele Grahams anole Jamaica

In the real world, they’re endemic in Jamaica and an introduction to Bermuda. According to Wikipedia, occasionally you can see a pure turquoise blue lizard.

iNaturalist waynewg Grahams anole

Goodness, they’re incredible!

Found via Jon Suh on Twitter.

Images: Graham’s anole on Jamaica by jpockele via Wikimedia (CC BY-2.0). Graham’s anole on a piece of wood by Wayne Godbehere on iNaturalist (CC BY-NC).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?