Archive for August, 2019

The Alcovy Conservation Center Revisited

August 31, 2019

I wrote about the Alcovy Conservation Center about 2 months ago.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2019/06/22/the-alcovy-conservation-center-part-i/ )  I didn’t realize that if I would’ve continued my walk for just a few more minutes, I would’ve reached 1 of the features of the preserve–a cypress/tupelo swamp.  This type of natural environment is common in the coastal plain of Georgia but rare in the piedmont.  On my 2nd visit I followed the trail to the swamp and found it was more like 1 tupelo tree next to a creek, rather than a swamp.  However there are other trails in the preserve, including 1 with a boardwalk that goes through a swamp.  I’ll have to check these out at a later date.

1 tupelo tree does not equal a swamp.

I was also hoping to find ripe pawpaws.  This is the only site in Georgia where I have ever seen wild pawpaw trees, not counting the trees I’m growing in my yard.  Pawpaws usually ripen during mid-September.  The pawpaws here weren’t quite ripe yet, but I picked some anyway, hoping to ripen them at home.

These pawpaws didn’t look quite ripe yet, but I picked them anyway.

I did find ripe muscadine grapes.  They were the best tasting wild muscadines I ever ate.

These muscadines were blackish purple and very good to eat.

I came at the wrong time of day again to see wildlife–another sultry afternoon.  I did see 5 species of butterfly, but they flittered around so I couldn’t take a photo or identify 2 of them.  I did recognize a black swallowtail, a great sulphur, and a common sulphur.

 

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Republicans are Evil and Must be Destroyed

August 24, 2019

Republicans believe in 3 principles: tax cuts for the rich, punishing brown-skinned people and poor women, and letting polluters pollute as much as they want.  With their overwhelming support for Trump they have completely lost any claim of having the moral high ground.  Trump is a racist rapist who incited a mass shooting.  And he is a colossal crook.  There is plenty of credible evidence that this racist rapist is guilty of bank fraud, insurance fraud, tax fraud, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and money laundering.  He is unconstitutionally profiting from the office.  Everyday, he says and tweets ridiculous lies in a way that demonstrates a mind that is falling apart.  Yet, the Republican Party of crooked pigs rarely dares to point to the emperor who wears no clothes.  Trump is a fake president.

My blog focuses mainly on natural history, so I will limit most of this essay to a couple of recent decisions by the Trump administration that will harm innocent animals. Killing the innocent furry creatures is a perfect example of evil.  The Interior department, now unethically led by an oil company executive, decided to allow the use of cyanide bombs to kill predators.  This decision is stupid, unscientific, and mean-spirited.  Studies suggest this type of predator control program does not work.  Coyotes produce larger litter sizes in response to human predation, and cyanide bombs often kill everything except coyotes, including endangered animals and people’s pet dogs and cats.  The Trump administration discontinued studies on the effectiveness of cyanide bombs because they know the science will prove they are wrong.

Trump administration pigs will allow the use of cyanide bombs that indiscriminately kill a variety of innocent animals. How disgusting.

The Trump administration has also decided to roll back protections found in the Endangered Species Act.  They are eliminating protections for threatened species. It will allow industry puppets who now work within the administration to list species as threatened rather than endangered, and they just won’t bother to protect them.

A minority of Americans support the Republican Party, but they enjoy outsize influence.  There are 3 steps that must be taken to politically destroy the Republican Party.  The electoral college must be replaced with a popular vote for the president.  Over the past 20 years the Democratic candidate for president has received more votes than the Republican twice, yet has lost the elections because of this archaic method that harkens back to the days of slavery.  This effects 2 branches of government.  With a popular vote instead of the electoral college, the Democratic president could have picked liberal justices for the Supreme Court.  Liberals would have a 7-2 majority on the Supreme Court, more accurately reflecting the wishes of the American people.  Instead, there is a danger that conservatives could have a 7-2 majority soon, if some of these elderly liberals pass away.  Another change should be a reduction of Senatorial representation in small states from 2 to 1.  The Dakotas, Montana, and Idaho have too much political power for their size.  Is it really fair that rural mostly white people have hundreds of times more political power than inner city mostly black people?  Finally, gerrymandering must be eliminated.  Districts are drawn in many states that give Republicans far more power than they deserve.  Wisconsin and North Carolina are 2 examples of this unfair representation.  The racist Supreme Court recently decided they weren’t going to do anything about gerrymandering because it was a state issue.  Talk about Catch-22.

I know these steps will be difficult to take, but it’s the only way to get rid of the evil Republicans who make up a minority in this country, yet have far more political power than they should.

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1794 Words

August 17, 2019

I always wondered why Napoleon Bonaparte was considered a great military strategist, even though he lost 3 entire armies over his career.  I read a 900 page biography of Napoleon this summer to help me understand his supposed brilliance.  This biography is so detailed as to include such facts as Napoleon had a good report card when he was 12 years old.  I’m writing this essay for those readers who have some interest in Napoleon, but not enough to care about what grades he made in school.

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Napoleon Bonaparte.  He was a good, hard-working tactician in his earlier years.

Napoleon was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica near the coasts of Italy and France.  His family was of Italian descent and would be considered upper middle class by today’s standards.  His family sent Napoleon to military school in France when he was 10 years old, and he stayed there for 8 years, rarely seeing family members.  A French scholarship covered most of his expenses.  Napoleon was a voracious reader, spending much of his time in the library, and he had few friends.  He became an artillery officer, but most of his early years were spent on approved and unapproved leaves of absences.  He was busy straightening out the family business on Corsica (a silkworm orchard) because his father had died at a young age.  Also, he was reluctant to take part in a French Civil War between royalists and Republican revolutionaries.  He first distinguished himself as a competent military man when the artillery unit he commanded helped the French repel a British occupation of the French port of Toulouse.

European powers were almost constantly at war during this time period.  England used its powerful navy to dominate overseas trade, while France contested with Austria over all the little kingdoms that today make up Germany and Italy (neither of which existed as a country yet).  Victory in a battle usually meant the winner could insert a puppet king on the throne of a little kingdom.  Austria was mostly winning these battles when Napoleon was put in charge of the French army in northern Italy.

Napoleon enjoyed a rapid rise in rank for 2 reasons: his ability, and because most of the older French officers consisted of aristocracy that had been purged during the French Revolution.  Still in his mid-twenties, Napoleon commanded a French army that defeated the Austrians and conquered all of Italy except for Sicily.  Meanwhile, other French generals were losing against Austria in Germany.  Napoleon became a national hero and developed a cult of personality following because of his great military victories.

The French government next assigned the task of conquering Egypt to Napoleon as a way to counter British control of the Mediterranean.  At this time the Ottoman Empire owned Egypt, and it was defended by primitive mercenaries known a Mamluks who fought on horseback with spears and muskets.  The more technologically advanced French army easily outclassed them and conquered Egypt.  Napoleon dreamed of conquering the land all the way to India, like his hero, Alexander the Great, so he led his force across the Sinai desert and into what today is Israel.  The French army murdered prisoners and shot women and children during their advance.  Napoleon’s advance was finally stopped at Acre, a fort just north of the location of modern day Haifa, Israel where a cruel Arab king and his Jewish general organized a defensive stand with help from the British navy.  Napoleon was forced to withdraw his forces back across the Sinai desert because the British navy had blockaded his supplies from crossing the Mediterranean Sea.  Without orders Napoleon snuck across the Mediterranean in a boat, leaving his army to succumb to the plague and a British expeditionary force a few years later.

France was a democracy during this time, the only one in Europe, but it was weak.  The executive branch was run by a committee. France was at war with everybody, highway robbery was common, there was a royalist revolt in 1 province, overseas trade was ruined, and taxation and conscription were unpopular.  Elections were fraudulent, and government corruption was the norm.  A few politicians along with the police and the army decided to use Napoleon’s cult of personality popularity to stage a coup d’état and establish a stronger more autocratic government.  This is how Napoleon was installed as the leader of France.

Napoleon was a competent administrator.  He took measures to stabilize the economy and reduce the rampant armed robbery.  He married Josephine shortly before resuming France’s war with Austria.  While he led the French army across the Alps to reconquer Italy (France had lost it when Napoleon was in Egypt), Josephine had an affair with an Austrian military officer.  After Napoleon discovered this betrayal, Josephine never cheated on him again, but Napoleon had at least a dozen mistresses and fathered at least 2 illegitimate children during their marriage.  He was no great lover, though.  His mistresses referred to him as the 3 minute man.

Napoleon didn’t believe in royalty and thought people should achieve their rank through their ability, like he did.  Nevertheless, he made himself an emperor for life and installed his brothers on the thrones of Naples and Spain.

A peace treaty with England didn’t last long, and Napoleon planned to invade England.  He organized a massive army on the northern coast of France and Belgium.  Austria took this as an opportunity to resume their war with France–a big mistake.  Napoleon was able to rapidly move his army from northern France to Germany where he surrounded and crushed the Austrian army and its allies at Austerlitz.  Napoleon didn’t invent the corps level of operations that allowed him to execute this remarkable feat, but he was the first in history to use it.  Armies used this operational method through WWII.  It allowed for more flexibility and mobility.  Unfortunately, this great land military victory was offset at the Battle of Trafalgar where his navy was wiped out by the British navy.  This led to a long standstill with England, but the Austrians were forced to surrender when Napoleon occupied Vienna.

Napoleon had French, German, and Polish troops under his command.  Nevertheless, Prussia (now just a province in east Germany) decided to fight a war with Napoleon.  Napoleon’s army kicked Prussia’s ass at the Battle of Jenna.  Then he kicked Prussian and Russian ass at the Battle of Eylau. The allies were forced to agree to a peace agreement at Tilsit that overwhelmingly favored France.  Napoleon also used forces to occupy Spain, sticking his brother on the throne.  A long, brutal, and bloody guerrilla war was fought in Spain throughout the rest of Napoleon’s reign.  However, Napoleon sold North America west of the Mississippi to the U.S. because he knew he couldn’t hold that territory, now that he had no navy to speak of. During 1809 Austria declared war on France again and yet again Napoleon’s army kicked their ass, this time at Wagram.  Napoleon now schemed to make Austria a permanent ally.  He divorced Josephine and married Maria-Louise, the daughter of the Austrian king.  This did foster an alliance between the 2 countries, but it didn’t last when Napoleon started losing battles.

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This was the greatest extent of Napoleon’s Empire.

Napoleon’s economic dominance of Europe demanded that all countries under his influence stop importing British products.  Russia refused to boycott English goods, and Napoleon decided to force them to comply.  He led the French army in an invasion of Russia, hoping the Austrians would help him.  Austria officially agreed but didn’t really.  Napoleon’s overreach led to his downfall.

The Russians avoided major battles and fought rearguard delaying actions as they retreated.  The goal was to lure Napoleon’s army deep into Russia where his supply lines would get too thin and his soldiers would starve.  The strategy worked.  Typhoid fever and starvation took an high toll.  The Russians scorched earth strategy meant there was no food along the main roads.  Groups of soldiers leaving the main roads to forage in the countryside were murdered by Cossacks (irregular Russian cavalry).  Finally, the Russians stood and fought 1 major battle at Borodino in front of Moscow.  The French won, but it was an exhausting fight.  The Russians burned down Moscow, and there was no food for the French army when they captured it.  Napoleon mistakenly thought the Russians would surrender when he captured Moscow, like the Austrians did when he captured Vienna.  Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat back to Germany, and the Russian winter and the Cossacks pretty much destroyed what was left of the French army.

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Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.  There was no food and temperatures fell well below zero everyday that winter.  They returned on foot…they were forced to eat all their horses.

The next spring, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England all ganged up on France.  Austria and Prussia, tired of getting their asses kicked by Napoleon, adopted his tactics and were much tougher opponents now.  Astonishingly, Napoleon was able to assemble a formidable army from remnants, new recruits, and troops from occupied Spain; but without much cavalry because they had eaten so many of their horses during the Russian campaign.  But now, Napoleon was outnumbered by at least 3-1.  He won a few more battles, but some of his generals and their army units defected to the allies, and he was forced to abdicate his throne.  He was sent into exile to the Italian island of Elba.

Less than 1 year later, he escaped from the island with 1100 men including 80 of his household servants, and he traveled through France gaining defectors from the army.  Napoleon was still popular within the army but was not well liked by the nobility and working class merchants who were tired of their sons dying in his constant wars.  Nevertheless, he regained the throne.  The allies went back to war with France, and this time Napoleon met his match in Belgium against the British general, Wellington.  When military historians war game the Battle of Waterloo, the French side usually wins.  But by now Napoleon was fat, tired, and out of shape.  He reminds me of an ex-champion boxer who makes a comeback when he is past his prime but just doesn’t have it any more.  Napoleon and his officers made numerous blunders that turned potential victory into disastrous defeat.  Napoleon abdicated his throne again and surrendered to the British.

The British sent Napoleon to exile on the rocky island of St. Helena in the middle of nowhere.  This time there was no escape.  He died in 1821 at the age of 51 from stomach cancer after suffering horribly.  Stomach cancer was a disease inherited within his family.  His father, brother, 2 sisters, nephew, and 1 of his illegitimate sons died of stomach cancer–most during middle age.

Reference:

Roberts, Andrew

Napoleon: A life

Penguin Books 2014

 

 

Saber-tooth Cats (Smilodon fatalis) and Dire Wolves (Canis dirus) Did Not Compete as Much as Previously Thought

August 10, 2019

Image result for Charles Knight classic painting of La Brea tar pits dire wolf

This classic painting of dire wolves contesting a carcass with a saber-tooth may give the wrong impression.  A new study suggests their diets didn’t overlap as much as previously thought.

A new study analyzing the isotopic chemistry of tooth enamel from carnivores excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits determined there was not as much overlap in the diets of saber-toothed cats and dire wolves as previously thought.  An earlier study examined the isotopic chemistry from bone collagen of La Brea carnivores, and the results of that study suggested the big 3 carnivores (saber-tooths, dire wolves, and giant lions– Panthera atrox) competed for the same prey items.  However, bone collagen can decay and become contaminated, altering the accuracy of the results.  Tooth enamel is more durable, and scientists believe it provides more accurate results.  This new study concluded both saber-tooths and giant lions were ambush predators that lived in woodlands or forests and fed upon forest-dwelling herbivores such as deer, tapir, and woodland bison.  Dire wolves and coyotes (Canis latrans) lived in more open environments and chased down horses, camels, and plains bison.  The diet of saber-tooths, giant lions, and Pleistocene cougars (Puma concolor) resulted in mathmatical values of isotopic bone chemistry identical to those of modern cougars.  The diet of coyotes changed over time.  During the Pleistocene coyotes scavenged meat from megafauna.  Following the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, coyotes evolved toward a reduced size and fed more on bone, smaller animals, and even fruit.  The diets of timber wolves (Canis lupus) and cougars did not change following the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna.

The results of this study did not surprise me.  Saber-tooths and giant lions were built for ambushing prey in the cover of thick vegetative growth found more in woodlands than grasslands.  So of course it makes sense they preyed upon animals in those environments.

Reference:

Desantis, L; et al

“Causes and Consequences of Pleistocene Megafauna Extinction as Revealed from Ranch La Brea Mammals”

Current Biology 29 (15) 2019

Pleistocene Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus)

August 3, 2019

During July and August I always have watermelon in my refrigerator.  After I run 3.3 miles in 95 degree F heat, nothing quenches my thirst better than a crisp cold slice of watermelon.  Primitive people living in the deserts of North Africa ~5000 years ago discovered the same usefulness of this species, but the story of the watermelon began long before that.

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Wild citron melons in South Africa.  They are a different species than the sweet watermelon we commonly know, but the type specimen (the first described by biologists during the 18th century) of Citrullus lanatus was mistakenly described from a specimen of this species, C. caffer.  Scientists didn’t discover this mistake until a DNA test of the museum specimen was conducted a few years ago.

A recent study of watermelon genetics estimated the citrullus genus (which includes all watermelons) first diverged from the rest of the Cucurbitidae family about 11 million years ago.  This family also includes bottle gourds, squash, and many other plants. There are 6 species of watermelon, and they originally occurred in Africa.  A single species of the 6 spread to India and Australia during pre-history, and man may or may not have been a factor in the distribution of this species.  The sweet watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) diverged from a sister species within this genus about 3 million years ago.  All members of the Citrullus genus are desert vines that survive arid conditions, but thrive and produce heavy yields following occasional downpours.  The abundant seeds are consumed by megafauna such as elephants and rhinos and spread across the landscape in their dung.  Today, elephants often destroy grain crops interplanted with cultivated watermelons when they seek out this delicacy.

The oldest known remains of sweet watermelons were found at a 5,000 year old settlement in Libya.  Harry Paris believes desert people in North Africa began cultivating watermelons as a portable source of water, rather than as a food source, though the seeds are edible and nutritious.  The first watermelons were green-fleshed, watery, and bland or even bitter.  Early farmers selected for sweeter fruit, and the gene for red flesh is paired with an increased sugar content.  Soon ancient mariners started carrying watermelons on their ships as a source of potable water and spread them throughout the warmer parts of the world.  Christopher Columbus brought watermelons to North America in 1493, and the Indians planted them everywhere they would grow.  William Bartram enjoyed a feast of oranges and watermelons when he visited Florida in the fall of 1775.

There are over 1200 varieties of cultivated watermelon.  I’ve successfully grown 2–Georgia Rattlesnake and Florida Black Diamond.  I used to pull out all the stops using fertilizer and special mulching tarp and was able to grow 35 pounders.  This year I bought a cheap $1.50 pack of Congo watermelon seeds and put minimal effort into the project and was justifiably rewarded with zero melons.

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Georgia Rattlesnake.  I successfully grew 35 pounders years ago.

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Black Diamond.  I successfully grew these 1 year too.

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My late grandfather grew Crimson Sweet watermelons.

Among the more interesting varieties of watermelon are the Carolina Cross and the Christmas King.  The Carolina Cross was bred for its prodigious size and holds the record for biggest watermelon ever grown at 351 pounds.  This could be served at baseball games and fairs.  The Christmas King is less sweet than most watermelons but if kept in a cold place will still be edible in late December.  How is that for an extended season?

Most watermelons sold in supermarkets today are seedless–a recent development.  Farmers began growing seedless watermelons during the 1990’s.  To make a seedless watermelon farmers chemically induce a change in the chromosome number in 1 of the parents.  When they backcross the 2 melons with different chromosome numbers it results in a seedless (or sterile) offspring in the same way crossing a horse with a donkey results in a sterile mule.  Modern seedless watermelons are of consistent quality and are just as sweet, crisp, and aromatic as the old time varieties.

Watermelons are mostly sugar water, but they do contain Vitamin C, a type of beta-carotene known as lycopene, and potassium.

The muskmelon (Cucomis melo) is not closely related to the watermelon but shares a common history.  It also was originally cultivated in the North African desert as a portable source of water.  Later, famers over many generations improved the quality of the fruit by selecting the sweeter individuals for seed.  Most people call muskmelons “cantaloupe.”  However, cantaloupe specifically refers to just 1 variety of muskmelon first cultivated in Western France.

References:

Chomicki, G.; and S. Renner

“Watermelon Origins Solved with Molecular Phylogenetics including Linnean Material: another example of Museomics”

New Phytologist Trust October 2014

Paris, Harry

“Origin of the Dessert Watermelon, Citrullus lanatus

Acta Horticulture March 2017