Jurassic Garden

There’s a lot of evidence that gardening with plant species native to one’s area can promote a healthier ecosystem for plants, insects, animals and birds. But how do we even go about planting a truly native garden, and what are the challenges involved?

A few years ago, I walked around the hedgerows and fields of our corner of rural France, picking a few wild plants that I thought were native for relocation into our small garden. I’m a mediocre gardener, so my attempts weren’t met with much success. Only one of the plants, I think it’s a Scabiosa triandra – a pincushion flower – really showed any signs of feeling at home.

Native flowers of the Jura mountains, France

Jura narcissus
Photo: Les Fritilaires

At some point, I realized that many of the plants I saw on walks and hikes probably weren’t local in the first place. All those pansies and daisies had likely escaped from gardens, where the seeds or plants had been purchased at a garden store. As Jeff Ollerton recently wrote in a blog post about the shifting baselines of conservation, what’s considered local or ‘normal’ depends on how far you are willing to go back in time. Do we eliminate most roses and tulips because they aren’t native to Europe?

My neck of the woods has been farmed, cultivated and planted for hundreds of years, so where do I go to find truly native plants? How has animal life changed to adapt to the plants that we have on offer in our various gardens now?

Native flowers of the Jura mountains, France

Jura Fritallaria
Photo: Les Fritilaires

I recently sat in on an online discussion by Desiree L. Narango on the impact of non-native plant species on the abundance and health of the animal ecosystem, even if the non-native species were related to native plants. The short version of the discussion is that native animal species often can’t simply adapt to related but non-native species. Reproduction goes down, and in general the animals – from insects to birds – don’t thrive as much as they would on a native diet. No surprise, really, since flowering plants and the animals that rely upon them developed side-by-side in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods. They were, quite literally, made for one another.


The message was: Every garden that is planted with native species can make a difference.

Okay, so where do I start in my garden in the foothills of the Jura mountains? The local nursery, which stopped carrying all artificial pesticides several years ago and promotes organic gardening, still doesn’t sell a range of plants from this area. For all its good intentions, I imagine that the development of site-specific seed products isn’t commercially viable for a nationwide gardening chain. France has a wide range of landscapes and ecosystems – what works on the coast of Brittany is probably different from what works here on the elevated plains and mountainsides at eastern limits of the country.

There’s a seed company in the United Kingdom, Seedball, that caters to gardeners who want to plant native. The product range offers a variety of native plant species seed mixes to support butterflies, birds, bats, and so on. But what’s native in the UK might not be native here.

Native flowers of the Jura mountains, France

Jura willowherbs.
Photo: Les Fritilaires

I found one French nursery that grows and sells native plant products, but it’s on the Atlantic coast, eight hours by car. So I guess I would have to go back to hiking and picking out a few specimens for cultivation and seed gathering – after verifying that the various species were, in fact local, and not endangered.

Apart from my own interests in ecology and conservation, gardening with native species faces another challenge: Do the native plants conform to our sensibilities and trends with it comes to garden aesthetics? We have, for example, some very delicate and pretty native orchid species in our area, but they are tiny things, barely the height of a forefinger. Not very showy. And the bigger flowering plants are what most people would identify as weeds. Planting native might mean adapting gardening trends to biodiversity, and not the other way around.

Looks like I’ve got some redesigning to do, and then some hiking in the company of a guidebook and a gardening trowel.

Fossil flowers, sea lily, urbangardening

Fossilized sea lily crown with stem
Via: Urweltmuseum



Leafing Out

There are few places in the world, if any, that aren’t touched by human activity, including places with no humans. And one of our chief human activities over the past couple of centuries has been the transfer of carbon from reservoirs deep within the planet out into the atmosphere.

We’ve been re-creating the environment during this industrial dream. Like a dream, we aren’t always conscious of our decisions and the impact they will have as we weave the story forward.

Several recent studies show that the phenology of leaves around the world, i.e. the annual cycle of vegetation changes, has dramatically altered since the mid-20th century.

Smoke & Mirrors (2010) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors (2010)
Photo: Ellie Davies


It might not seem particularly important if the first vegetation leafs out a week earlier every year, or drops a week later in autumn.

But a study published in Nature Climate Change measured severe phenological changes on 54% of the planet’s land surface between 1981 and 2012, with resulting shifts for entire ecosystems.

Warmer temperatures, new rainfall patterns and increased atmospheric carbon are altering the rate of energy exchange between land and atmosphere in complex ways that we don’t yet entirely understand.

Increased carbon uptake due to earlier springs and later autumns mitigate climate change, at least in theory (and leaving out the issue of deforestation, of course).

But as it turns out, phenological change alters different forests in different ways. Temperate forests react differently from boreal forests, and the overall impact on a global level is as yet unclear.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies


Truly long-term studies of leaf-out times aren’t widely available, but the Marsham family of Norfolk, England, kept records of leafing and flowering times of estate woodland plants from 1736 to 1947.

By matching historical temperature records (back to 1772) to the family log, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland found that while a warmer autumn causes early leafing species such as birch to take longer to come into leaf the following spring, while late-leafing species, such as oak trees, seem unaffected by autumnal temperatures.

These citizen scientist observations allow researchers to test predictions regarding the effects of temperature on leaf cycles and woodland environments.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

What is clear on a global scale is that the countless organisms with life cycles synchronized to vegetation cycles are being dramatically affected.

Meanwhile, we continue to emit carbon sighs during our long industrial dream of plenty, not yet knowing where it will lead, or how the earth will look we will wake up.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

Antarctic Shiver

Everyone knows the best scare stories are those in which the most obvious and visible danger turns out to less dire than an unsuspected peril revealed only later, the deadfall that sends a shiver down the listener’s spine.

We’ve all heard about the Antarctic ice shelf melt-off that’s been taking place with increasing speed and frequency. But at least there was always a comforting swathe of East Antarctica, the thick part that wasn’t floating like a massive ice cube in a warming drink.

The Totten Glacier catchment basin (blue outline) is three-quarters the size of Texas and holds the ice and snow that flows through the glacier. Credit: Australian Antarctic Division via LiveScience

The Totten Glacier catchment basin (blue outline) is three-quarters the size
of Texas and holds the ice and snow that flows through the glacier.
Credit: Australian Antarctic Division via LiveScience

As it turns out, what lies beneath a large part of East Antarctica is not, as previously thought, solid earth. Rather, it appears that there might be water flowing through large subsea troughs, regions of the seabed that slope away from the ice above, allowing warmer water to melt the largest ice sheet in the world from below.

Most research to date has focused on West Antarctica. An international team of scientists carried out the study, published in Nature Geoscience, to investigate why satellite images seemed to show that the Totten Glacier was growing thinner.

Carrying out measurements by plane flyovers, the resulting cartography indicated the presence of invisible valleys and warm water carried there by heavy salt concentrations.

The aircraft that researchers flew over East Antarctica to map Totten Glacier. Credit: Chad Greene via LiveScience

The aircraft that researchers flew over East Antarctica to map Totten Glacier.
Credit: Chad Greene via LiveScience

The ice is 480 m (1600 ft) thick in some places. To get to the bottom of the ice from the height of a plane, three methods were used: gravitational measurements, radar and laser altimetry.

The radar was used to measure the thickness of the ice. Gravitational pull on the plane was measured at various points to determine the location of the seafloor beneath the ice.

The next step will be to send down underwater to verify initial study results and monitor activity of Circumpoloar Deep Water at the base of the glacier.

Actually, like turning on all the lights after the end of a good scary story, the next step for me will be to remind myself that if and when the sea rises to Pliocene Epoch levels, we might have had time to develop more effective ways of living with a lot of water in places where there is now land.

I also recommend a visit this other, more benign exploration into how ice behaves, the Icicle Atlas. I think the images of icicles forming look a bit like shivers running down a spine:


A clip from the wonderful Icicle Atlas, a creation of Stephen Morris at the Physics Department at the University of Toronto that explores how icicles form. A visit to the Rogue's Gallery of icicles is a mesmerizing and informative trip. Source: Icicle Atlas/Univ. of Toronto

A clip from the wonderful Icicle Atlas, a creation of Stephen Morris at the Physics Department at the University of Toronto that explores how icicles form. A visit to the Rogue’s Gallery of icicles is a mesmerizing and informative trip.
Source: Icicle Atlas/Univ. of Toronto

Heedless Ways

Chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kigali National Park have been getting up to some unusual business at night. These daytime foragers with poor night vision have been leaving the safety of the forest, crossing a bridge over a large ditch meant to keep elephants out of neighboring crop areas, and raiding corn fields.

And they aren’t the only ones. Chimps in other areas are raiding farmers’ fields, as well.

Why is this noteworthy?

Chimpanzee hand Artist: Lisa Roet

Chimpanzee hand
Artist: Lisa Roet

Well, according to a study out in PLOS ONE, this is the first recorded evidence that day-dwelling chimpanzees have significantly altered their behavior to include night-time feeding parties. Unlike some forest animals, chimpanzees’ eyes are not particularly suited for low-light vision, yet they are entering fields after sunset, and often during the darkness of a new moon.

Another development is that the raiders carry their food away with them, rather than eating it on the spot as usual. In doing so, they’ve overcome their own evolutionary wiring to eat during the day and avoid traditional nocturnal predators, like the jaguar, which has all but died out in these regions.

With habitat loss turning once-dense forests into mosaics of cultivated acreage and trees, and a reduction in the fruits usually eaten by the endangered chimps, the maize growing in nearby fields must seem like a decent alternative, if snares and farmer’s weapons can be avoided.

Primate finger Artist: Lisa Roet

Primate finger
Artist: Lisa Roet

One can’t help but admire the chimpanzees’ audacity and creativity in the face of necessity, and their unwillingness to simply starve.

It put me in mind of one the best-known poems of Dylan Thomas, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday today:

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now the question is, how well will government, conservation groups and farmers adapt to innovative chimpanzee behavior?

A few other examples of new adaptations, some less successful than others:

North American populations of the monarch butterfly, decimated over the years mainly due to deforestation in the wintering habitats of Central Mexico and the loss of milkweed plants, the monarch’s main choice of food, to industrial farming and pesticides. In an encouraging and unexpected turn of events, deforestation activity seems to have slowed, allowing the monarch to recover, at least for the time being. Deforestation, and milkweed prevalence, are two factors well within human control, so the monarch is adapting to our habits–and once in a while, we adapt to the monarch’s.

Walrus tusks, fossilized Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

Walrus tusks, fossilized
Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

A very large cluster of walruses was in the news for a few days in early October. As in previous years, tens of thousands of the sea mammals gathered on dry land when the sea ice that usually forms the platform from whence walruses hunt melted early in the feeding season. A gathering of walruses is known as an ‘ugly’, not a very kind term for such an interesting creature, but perhaps descriptive of what happens when too many of them all find themselves on the same beach, commiserating over meagre ice and elusive food. The 2014 ugly has since broken up and moved on to further shores, but given the current negative trends in Arctic sea ice, whether the walrus succeeds in surviving remains to be seen.

Arctic Dreams Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

Arctic Dreams
Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

The disappearance of ice platforms in the Arctic region has a number of species scrambling to maintain a foothold, among them the polar bear, whose populations have been in drastic decline as their hunting habitat melts beneath them. Stuck on land (well, the ones who make it to land), they have replaced their diet of seal and fish with Arctic birds and human garbage (and even, occasionally, other polar bears).

And again, what of our abilities to adapt our own behaviors, not just to make adjustments for the protection of these various iconic creatures, but when it comes to making the changes that won’t put us in situations similarly dire?

In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

(Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill)

Portrait of Living Wind

Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon.  Photo: Scientific American

Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon.
Photo: Scientific American

A century ago this month, the world’s last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) died in the Cincinnati Zoo, long after the last passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild. The passenger pigeon, once populous beyond imagining, took only a century to disappear.

It seems that more than one factor was responsible for the population decline and how well the passenger pigeon thrived, from breeding habits (they bred communally in large flocks, and didn’t breed in captivity) to human influence (hunting, habitat loss and deforestation).

To a 19th-century European hunter sitting in the middle of a vast colony of the birds, though, it must have seemed like endless flocks of passenger pigeons were just the way of the world. When the first alarms were raised, including an 1857 bill in Ohio to control hunting and protect the birds, the overall response was simple disbelief.



“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.” (Wikipedia) Subsequent efforts over the next 40 years were fruitless.

And so to the declines in the shorebirds of the Eastern Hemisphere, epic migrations that take place between Australia and the Arctic along the eastern coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and along the Yellow Sea. An estimated 36 bird species, their populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have used the flyway for most of human memory. Their numbers are dwindling. Very quickly.

Some species, including the curlew sandpiper, have seen their numbers collapse by up to 95% over the past few years alone. The culprits? Hunting, habitat loss, deforestation. And yes, there are several international agreements in place meant to protect migratory birds and their habitats.

It would seem the people doing the agreeing and the people doing the hunting and developing don’t share common goals.

Or maybe the hunters and developers and those who support their right to action just don’t believe in extinction.

Remains of the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon, shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio, March 1900. Source: Wikipedia

Remains of the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon, shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio, March 1900.
Source: Wikipedia

In 1947, Aldo Leopold said of the passenger pigeon, “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

When will we, then the marshes, and finally the shores, begin to forget the last shorebird?

Or have we already begun?


Accidental Questions

Some of the best experiments are the ones that are accidental. Viewed from the right perspective, they can offer unanticipated insight into questions we didn’t even know needed to be asked. Discovering what happens when we release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in a (geologically-speaking) relatively short amount of time is one example of an experiment in which most of us are participating, willingly or not.

The long-term adaptive abilities of humans and other animals to long-term radiation exposure is a question that’s been asked before, but the area around Chernobyl has been a particularly fine laboratory for study in the wild. Researchers from the British Ecological Society found that a variety of birds can, in fact, adapt to radiation exposure, but that long-term health depends on many species-specific traits and genetic factors.

The Wing (1512) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

The Wing (1512)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

The result: A few species can adapt surprisingly well. Most don’t do well at all. Okay, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. It’s not that life isn’t thriving within Chernobyl’s 30-km (18-mile) exclusion zone, it’s that the life that’s thriving has undergone what one researcher called ‘unnatural selection’.

Another interesting question is the rate at which radiation disperses and decays across the northern Pacific Ocean. The aftermath of the Fukushima disaster has provided a long-term opportunity to observe how specific radioactive isotopes are carried by water currents.

Pond in the Woods (1496) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Pond in the Woods (1496)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

And while the United States government has determined that this is not a study worthy of official investigation, a number of local coastal communities have taken matters into their own hands and established several citizen-scientist groups to gather and test samples.

And now, another experiment, if we choose to see it that way: The disappearance of most of the plastic garbage swirling around in the world’s oceans. Researchers say that 99% of the stuff has gone missing. Sunk to the bottom of the sea, maybe, but much of the plastic is in minuscule fragments.

The operating assumption at this point is that all that plastic is being consumed by marine animals, large and small. And this, in turn, enters the human food chain in a variety of ways – as livestock feed, fertilizer, and of course, the fish on our plates.

So now we’ll have a chance to find out the effect of injecting large quantities of plastic into the world food chain.

As with the other accidental experiments listed here, studies will be long-term, ongoing, and not necessarily subject to voluntary participant approval, human or otherwise.

Arion riding a dolphin (1514) Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Arion riding a dolphin (1514)
Artist: Albrecht Dürer

Horses, Railroads, Seeds and War

I learned a few new words today while on a trip down a research rabbit hole.

And as is so often the case, I can’t remember how I first got to the interesting blog, Cryptoforestry. But get there I did, and that’s when I fell down the hole.

The first word I learned is polemobotany, i.e. war botany. The study of fauna impacted during the course of military activity.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 6.51.46 PM

Greater Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus serotinus), which rode into Sweden on German military trains during WWII.

In a book on invasive species, author James Carlton describes how there was little danger of any unintentional hitch hikers on caterpillar-treaded vehicles from central Europe surviving the trip to desert conditions in the Middle East during the 1991 Gulf War.

In contrast,  the Australian military took steps to clean military vehicles on its tropical base in Darwin, Northern Territory, to prevent the introduction of invasive species to the similar environment of East Timor in 1999. Of course, the Australian military was part of a peacekeeping force, not an aggressive invader.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Another word I learned is related: polemochores, the followers, or seeds, of conflict. Coined at the end of the Second World War to denote alien plants introduced through war-related activities, this term refers to the tiny agents of polemobotany, the hitch hikers themselves, trespassing along with invasive forces, setting up camp and making themselves at home.

Unlike the invasive humans, however, polemochores would have to fall upon friendly ground to take root and thrive.

A further narrowing of the lens when it comes to polemochores led me to a couple of very specific types of botany study: hippochores. These are seeds introduced by horses and their foraging during the course of human conflict.

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

A further term, not nearly as official-sounding but just as interesting, is railroad botany: The botany of railroad tracks. Specifically, the botany of areas in which there are alien seeds transported by rail, particularly during conflict. This enlightening term was found in a 1979 paper titled Flora of the Railroads in St. Louis, Missouri by Viktor Mühlenbach, which someone kindly added to the Internet.

I found no specific terms referring to seed transportation by trucks, tanks, ships or boots during conflict, but I’m sure they exist.

Overgrown railroad tracks Photo: Frank Dutton

Overgrown railroad tracks
Photo: Frank Dutton

I did, however, find a reference to ‘rubble fauna, the plants that established themselves in the rubble of bombed urban areas during WWII – rubble offering “warmer and drier conditions than natural habitats and (being) a suitable habitat for plants and animals from warmer regions of the world. Many plants that were previously rare became permanent members of the urban flora in war-damaged European cities.”

So many ways to describe inadvertent anthrobotany, the way in which we alter the world around us through our human activities and disputes.

Toxic Addictions

A study published this week adds further evidence that there is a direct correlation between the decline of honeybee populations and the ongoing use of certain pesticides, namely, neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids share some chemical similarity with nicotine. Like nicotine, they are both toxic and addictive.

They also have a similar trajectory in the media.

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

Fifty years ago, United States Surgeon General Luther L. Terry M.D. released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Years of research and thousands of articles definitively related smoking to cancer and bronchitis in humans.

It’s well documented that major tobacco companies knew about the lethal effects of their products on human health for decades, and yet continued to promote their products as beneficial. The science that underpinned health studies was questioned, consumer freedom of choice was touted, dire economic impacts were predicted should smoking be banned. And the effects of an outright ban would indeed have been dire – for the tobacco companies.

So cigarettes remained on the market – but a sea change in their perception had taken place. And while tobacco profits went down (at least in some areas of the world) for a very few tobacco-producing companies, the lowered cost of health care for tobacco-related illness has to be considered an overall economic gain for the vast majority of humans, smokers and non-smokers alike.

And so to the makers of neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been around since the 1980s, but only really gained widespread use in the 1990s.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

The European Union banned the use of some of these insecticides for a period of two years to see whether a ban would have any positive effect on declining honeybee populations in Europe. The United States has hesitated, citing a lack of evidence between bee declines and insecticides.

Insecticide manufacturers, having long claimed that insecticides couldn’t possibly be the sole cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, have also been warning of economic and crop collapse should the insecticides – which have only been in use for thirty years of the 10,000+ years of human agriculture – be discontinued.

I found one estimate that the estimated sales turnover for these products has increased ten-fold since their introduction, and they comprise one-quarter of crop control chemicals sold. The more profitable they are, the more resistance there will be to a ban.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

90% of the U.S. corn crop is currently neonicotinoid-treated, and as a crop protection mechanism, these products have been triumphant. Still, I have yet to see mention of major corn crop failures in the countries where neonicotinoids are banned.

The value of a healthy bee pollination infrastructure is far more difficult to estimate, because we only talk about economic value as it relates to crops and human interaction, not in the larger context of maintaining healthy ecosystems that include – but are not limited to – crop land.
For me, the similarities between neonicotinoids and nicotine are striking.

People started to quit smoking in the years and decades following the 1964 report on tobacco.When will the body of evidence lead to a sea change in public opinion when it comes to our toxic addiction to these insecticides?


Comfort Zones

Lake Baikal, Siberia Source: Jim Denevan

Lake Baikal, Siberia
Source: Jim Denevan

Research over many years has examined if and how the indigenous people of Siberia evolved to adapt to the extremely harsh winter climate there. Most evidence points to three major genetic adaptations that helped people survive and even thrive in average January temperatures of -25 °C (-13 °F).

The three genes – UCP1, ENPP7 and PRKG1 – influence bodily mechanisms that control, respectively, how body fat is metabolized into energy, how smooth muscles contract and blood vessels constrict with regards to shivering, and how the body metabolizes animal fat. The positive selection for these genes is evident at different levels in different segments of the indigenous Siberian population. Taken together, however, it’s clear that over 25,000 years of habitation in Siberia, humans there became better equipped to physically cope with the cold.

Which is to say, there is clear evidence that ‘modern’ humans have not stopped evolving.

In a somewhat related discussion, the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature has a project that looks at how global warming will affect Siberia, and what that will mean in terms of human adaptation. Siberia comprises almost 10% of Earth’s land mass, and with the environment there undergoing rapid change and known ecosystems developing in unpredictable ways, researchers are asking how indigenous locals are managing in their traditional lifestyles.

So far, the answers point to a less dire assessment than perhaps expected – one study said that it was much harder to adapt to the isolation and retreat of government support and health care that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union than it has been to deal with increased flooding and declining permafrost.

My conclusion is this: We can physically adapt, more or less, to environmental challenges by altering our habits, and given enough time, our bodies are supported by evolution. Wherever possible, we are good at finding work-around solutions.

What we don’t do as well with, at least in the short to medium term, is sudden and extreme social upheaval.

Lake Baikal, Siberia Source: Jim Denevan

Lake Baikal, Siberia
Source: Jim Denevan

Fragile Horizons

Source: The Portolan

Source: The Portolan

Created in the first decade of the 1500s, the globe above is made of the bottom halves of two ostrich eggs, and was engraved by someone who was either influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, or worked directly in the workshop of the Renaissance genius. The globe  is the earliest known attempt to depict the Americas, Japan, Brazil and Arabia. It was based on the most cutting-edge knowledge of its time, information gathered from the explorers of the era.

According to The Portolan, the map journal that published a paper on the globe in late 2013, “The globe contains ships of different types, monsters, intertwining waves, a shipwrecked sailor, and  71 place names, and one sentence , “HIC SVNT DRACONES” (Here are the Dragons).

Dragon, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) Source: Spamula

Dragon, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605)
Source: Spamula


Only 7 of the names are in the Western Hemisphere. No names are shown for North America, which is represented as a group of scattered islands; three names are shown in South America.”

This would have represented the height of knowledge about our world, at least from a European perspective. The Dragons represent the very limit of scientific horizons, with tantalizing new unknowns just beyond, waiting to be found.

Our view of the the contours of our world has been changing, in flux from the time we first began exploring our surroundings and then trying to describe and understand them. Our Dragons now lay deeper, farther, higher than ever before, with a great expanse of knowledge still beyond.

Earth Day 2014: My hope is that we keep pushing forward to the horizon, and that the knowledge we gain will include the understanding that for all its complexity, beauty and mystery, our world also shares something else with the ostrich-egg globe of historical wisdom: Fragility.images