Fungus on my mind

The first time I ever saw a museum display about Cordyceps in the ’90s, I thought it was fake.

Of course it didn’t help that the display was housed in the delightfully obfuscate and factually semi-spurious Museum of Jurassic Technology down in Venice, California. I’d certainly never seen anything like it before, and thanks to many other displays of varying degrees of accuracy, I was mighty skeptical. Though the species listed (Cameroon Stink Ant?) and other information turned out to be bogus, the life cycle of the fungus was real.

Photo by Alexander Wild

Cordyceps is a type of fungus that infects the bodies of arthropods, the mycelium spreading through their tissue until it reaches the brain. Once there it starts to affect the behavior of the arthropod, causing it to seek a branch, leaf or twig and then hang on tight.

Wesley Fleming, Leafcutter Ant Infected with Cordyceps Fungus, 2010

Having forced its host to a sufficient tall spot and clamp down, only then does the fungus burst forth from the corpse of the (now dead) arthropod, raining spores down, hopefully to land on other hapless insects and spiders, thus continuing the cycle. There are many species of fungus, each of them with a particular set of organisms that it infects.

Needle felted ants with felt Cordyceps infections by Bioethnyxarts

Cordyceps are bizarre and obscure, but they’re clearly getting their day in the sun (which of course is all a Cordyceps could want, ha!) due to its ability to create mushroom-driven zombies. The creator of the video game The Last Of Us cited the BBC Planet Earth series as an inspiration for his mycological monsters.

Concept art from The Last Of Us

The human zombies are scary, but to me that’s nothing compared to the real thing.

Here’s a couple of illustrations from a Japanese mycological book Illustrated Vegetable Wasps and Plant Worms in Colour. 

Of course not all attacks by Cordyceps have to be frightening. Here’s an advertisement spot for Rdio, showing a beetle under the influence of some powerful tunes. Or is it something else?

And with that, Cordyceps has proven that it can spread itself though the public consciousness, down to our very commercials. Using social media as a host carrier, it’ll keep spreading until we’re all infected with obscure invertebrate knowledge. Sounds great to me! z end

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The Grand Canyon In My Hand

Is there anything more magnificent than viewing an organism in its natural habitat? For years I have wanted to view horseshoe crabs alive and swimming, but never found a reason to visit the East Coast during those beautiful Spring months… until now!

By chance our friends’ wedding in Boston took place during the same time that horseshoe crabs haul out of the muddy depths to mate and lay eggs along the Eastern shore.  A full moon was scheduled that Friday, so Mrs. Swarm and I planned an escape to drive as far South as we could manage, to the sandy shores of Cape Cod in hopes of viewing live Horseshoe crabs. At last I would be able to lay eyes on something I’d wanted to see for decades.

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But first a quick introduction. Three of the four species of horseshoe crabs are found in the seas of Southeast Asia, except the biggest, Limulus polyphemus.  Except for the lucky ones who have lived on the Eastern Coast of the US, most humans will never meet an Atlantic horseshoe crab. And that’s sad, because they’re just busting out with insane otherworldly magnificence.  Horseshoe crabs are arthropods, but aren’t actually crabs. In fact, they’re not even crustaceans. Horseshoe crabs are a member of the chelicerata, a group that includes scorpions and other arachnids. If you turn one over, you can see the resemblance in their four pairs of legs, and pedipalps. It looks like a giant hairless tarantula!  It’s especially enthralling because that means I’m looking at a relative of the great sea scorpions and eurypterids that ruled the warm seas of the ancient world. Of those great marine chelicerates, only the horseshoe crab remains, its fossil record going back some 450 million years. With all the continental drift, mass extinctions and new phylums popping up over the millenia, somehow there was always a nice muddy silty place for horseshoe crabs to amble about in. They’re true survivors, though it’s somewhat misleading to call them ‘living fossils’, as they have in fact evolved quite nicely over time, thank you- It’s just that they’ve been evolving into nearly the same thing for 450 million years. Few organisms in Earth’s history have matched that trick. (For more about horseshoe crab evolution and their unique physiology and anatomy, check out horseshoecrab.org)

We drove our rented car down Highway 6 on a rainy, grey late May morning. Not the best for crab-viewing, but this was our one chance to get to a high tide during the full moon. All of Cape Cod was brilliant green, the trees filled thick with tender fresh leaves, as we pulled into the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the inner curl of the cape. The woman behind the desk was overjoyed that we came all this way to see horseshoe crabs, though she said populations still have not recovered from overharvesting. “I used to go out to Wellfleet in the 80’s, and the shore would fill with them… now they’re far fewer.”

wellfleet

Wind and rain pelted us as we made our way through the sandy forest. All the while I would peer past the great reedy salt marshes, looking out for the sandy bays where they would most likely haul out. In the Northeast, tides are serious business, and all the wooden walkways were knee-deep in rushing water. The coast was full of sea wrack that held all sorts of things common to the Atlantic Coast, but wonderous to behold when you’ve lived your life by the Pacific. Whelk egg cases! Moon snail shells! Skate egg cases with their twisty spines! Fiddler crabs clambering about fingery seaweed and decaying piles of reeds!

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Plus flocks of shorebirds, feeding excitedly before the oncoming ocean closes over their sandy dining table. At first the only horseshoe crab we could find was one high up on the shore, long dead. I picked up its body and was using it to illustrate the finer points of Xiphosuran anatomy, when two of my friends discovered two living horseshoe crabs, flipped over from the rushing water.

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They’re SO BIG! Note the white slipper shells attached to the underside. Also, if you find a flipped horseshoe crab, do your part and help it over! Photo by Loganinsky

A male and a female were using their telsons to help flip themselves over, though the male was still trying to grip the female’s opisthosoma with his pedipalps all the while. Both were absolutely encrusted with all manner of hangers-on: slipper shells, barnacles, and seaweed. Horseshoe crabs stop molting after about 9 years of age, but otherwise age is difficult to determine. These two could have been anywhere from 10 to 30 years old. I gently picked up each before placing them back in the water, to feel their great heft and sturdy muscular action, and gaze into their endearingly serious compound eyes. To me holding a horseshoe crab… is like staring down into the Grand Canyon, where the great majesty of deep time is laid out in a way that you can see and touch. Start at the crest of the immense canyon and start your hike down. How does one really grasp 100 years ago? A thousand? Before humans? Before mammals? Before dinosaurs? Keep walking downhill buddy, you’re not even close. Before amphibians? Before insects? Now you’re getting somewhere. Horseshoe crab fossils have been found in strata that predate vascular land plants. We’re talking moss, people. And that 445 million-year-old’s relative is staring right back at me, a wobbly mass of striated muscles that grew limbs and lungs and prehensile thumbs who can do nothing but gape slack-jawed in wonder.

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The happy couple, all dressed up for a romantic evening at the beach.

I was hungry to see more. I spied waves curling way out into the sea, surrounding the salt marsh bay known as a haven for immature horseshoe crabs to develop. My companions and I pulled up our pantlegs to no avail- we were entirely soaked. Pretty soon we reached a slightly raised sandy spit that was hidden beneath the water, and there they were. Horseshoe crabs! Not many, just in ones and twos, scooting like huge marine Roombas over our feet and between our legs. Even though they look big and spikey, they’re slow and so gentle. They don’t pinch, bite, or poke, or sting. We found one very large female with two males clutched to her back, forming a silent conga line as they looked for an easy access to the shore.

Crossing the Atlantic.  Photo courtesy of Pecksniff Wallydrag

Crossing the Atlantic, on the lookout for Xiphosurans. Photo by Pecksniff Wallydrag

Not an hour later, the wind and rain really picked up, and it was time to head back to land, and hopefully a warm meal. Though in all we only saw a couple dozen horseshoe crabs, I felt ecstatic. Seeing them in the wild, not in an aquarium nor in a museum, was such a thrill.
Though in the end I was glad to wait out the rest of the rainstorm in a lovely Provincetown cafe with my friends, by no means am I satisfied. On the contrary, I’m even more obsessed. Next year, I’m going to make good on my invertebrate tourism goals, and get to where the Atlantic horseshoe crabs congregate in absolutely huge numbers.

Next year, I’m going to Delaware Bayz end

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The Insect Stampede of Salsa Invertebraxa

Add this to the list of bug books I would love to paw through: Mozchops is a concept artist and illustrator who has taken his talents into the realm of graphic novels, and crafted a story around his epic insect artworks. Phippen has created a riot of invertebrate morphology that dances around the real and plausible and quickly plummets into masses of invented forms and characters called Salsa Invertebraxa. Just check out these lovely works!

salsa_invertebraxa__swarm

salsa_invertebraxa___war

salsa_invertebraxa__melee

salsa_invertebraxa__flight

l love the colossal scale he gives his insects- your POV is truly that of a microscopic denizen.   I have a weakness for a good micropublished concept art book, and one filled with incredible insects and a storyline sounds like a blast. His book is available in a few stores in the UK, but you can order it here. z end

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Cyriak’s Spiders

Cyriak is a freelance animator known for turning cows and cats and sheep into bizarre spiderbeast creations. But in Cobwebs, made for Showtime, it’s spiders all the way up, down, and sideways. z end

 

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Your Path Made Manifest

Ant trails. Depending how you look at them, they’re tiny living rivers, unending highways of industry, pseudopods of super-organsisms, or just a bunch of half-brained haplodiploid hymenopterans with a fetish for each other’s footprints. They are viewed as a product of sophisticated determination, and simultaneously one of  mindless chance, but in everyone they stir a powerful notions of combined effort and destiny.

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Yukinori Yanagi, The World Flag Ant Farm, 1990

In the late 80’s, Yukinori Yanagi began working with ants, creating boxes filled with colored sand to mimic flags of various nations. Into these he would release live ants, who dug into them (like classic ant farms), producing fractures, and even exchanging sand between flags via tubes.

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Yukinori Yanagi, Pacific, 1997

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Yukinori Yanagi, Pacific, (detail) 1997

The stalwart ants dilligently burrow into potent symbols of nationalism, while at the same time are completely oblivious of the artificial borders and barricades those symbols hope to convey. I would have loved to have seen these works in person.

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Yukinori Yanagi, Wandering Position, 1998

But it’s his Wandering Position series that most captivates me. A single solitary ant is let loose in a large rectangular enclosure. Following it with a wax crayon, Yanagi illuminates the lonely life of a tiny lost soul, penned in by unseen forces, yet never giving up. They’re powerful pieces, especially when done in the context of incarceration, such as his installation at Alcatraz in 1996.

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Yukinori Yanagi, Wandering Position, 1997

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Yukinori Yanagi, Wandering Position, 1997

Mostly I find myself wondering what kind of ant it was. Not sure why that matters to me, but I do think different species of ants would have produced vastly different trail-based artworks.

Which brings me to perhaps a more whimsical use of the meanderings of ants (and other insects). Dutch design firm Edhv used a webcam hooked up to open source C++ script that records the movements of individual insects, assigning various colors to directions. Objects placed in the insect’s paths helped direct movement, but mostly it was up to the organism itself. Different species of insects created different patterns using the same obstacle course. Once a certain distance was reached, the work was declared finished, and a poster printed depicting their movements.

The final results (mostly used with woodlice and house crickets) are beautiful works countering the living force of the insects with utopian synthetic designwork. The insects clamber between logos, spelling out their own world between the lines of humanity.

nyc_debug_02 nyc_debug_04

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The next year Edhv went one dimension better, turning a solitary ant (again, what kind? can anyone tell?) loose on a tiny model of a chair. The ant’s movements were recorded as a computer model, which was then 3D-printed to create the ‘Debug Chair‘, a physical manifestation of one ant’s journey through the perplexing world of human design.

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Debug Chair by Edhv and an uncredited ant.

Neat! Perhaps for their next creation they can make an Eciton bivouac sofa. z end

 

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Wonderful First Life

The only thing more swooneriffic than David Attenborough narrating a nature documentary is one where he’s narrating a nature documentary about invertebrates. And the only thing even more thrilling than that is when he’s talking about Extremely Obscure Invertebrates, such as those which were last seen over 400 million years ago.

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Opabinia! With blue spots and red eyes because why the hell not!

First Life was produced two years ago, but managed to sneak under my Sir David Radar until last night. It’s a small 2-segment documentary that nonetheless manages to follow the unstoppable Attenborough as he visits tropical forests in Queensland, windswept Scottish shores, and finally the fabled Burgess Shale hidden among the lofty mountains of the Canadian Rockies.  All of this to tell the story of how early animal life began to diversify on our planet.

Along the way we visit some of our planet’s invertebrates who are living links to the deep time of Earth’s past. One of the wonderful segments involves the onychophoran, an eyeless multilegged predator also known as the velvet worm. I could watch it dumpling about on its clawed legs all day.

attenborough_velvetworm

I admit it. I’m jealous that this lucky bastard got to walk on Attenborough’s arm.

First Life swings through the Ediacarian to bring us through the Cambrian, and it’s here where the  CGI really takes hold. The digital care taken to animate such paleontological celebrities such as Opabinia and Anomalocaris is a joy to watch, especially for a fanboy like me who has read Gould’s  Wonderful Life at least 3 times, back in the day. Even bizarre little Hallucigenia is brought to life, and this time in a more plausible position!

Attenborough_cambrian

Extreme Cambrian CGI Explosion

To explain how absolutely badass Anomalocaris must have been in the Cambrian reefs, Attenborough pisses the hell out of one of the toughest arthropods alive today, a mantis shrimp. These strikingly sculpted stomatopods can see better and move faster than we can. They are therefore handled with extreme care lest they slice us to ribbons, smash out our windows, and redecorate our rooms with lurid colors that appeal to their enhanced eyesight.

Attenborough about to get his finger sliced off

Oh David, those gloves won’t protect you at all.

One of the satisfying things about First Life is the array of scientists who get to share some camera time, and talk about the obscure organisms to which they’ve dedicated their lives. How often does a specialist in bacterial extremophiles get to be on the BBC? And when it came time to talk about trilobites, it was great to see Richard Fortey dispense oodles of paleo-factoids right out of his book Trilobites: Eyewitness to Evolution, as the camera spins around an endless supply of masterfully prepared fossil specimens that are way out of your price range.

Tonight on Paleo-Antiques Roadshow: We sort the fakes from the Phacops

“Tonight on Paleo-Antiques Roadshow: We sort the fakes from the Phacops!”

Of course, the DVD that’s for sale on Amazon or whatever is Region 2 which means unavailable in the US, because reasons of stupid. So until you can get your palps on a copy of First Life, you’ll have to hop on the internets, and get scouring. Here’s a couple of links that hopefully won’t get the axe anytime soon.

Watch’em before they disappear like Meganeura!z end

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Stridulation Friday presents: Insect Poetry

 

This charming stop-motion film was created by members of Will Vinton Studios during a haitus in the Summer of 2000. Directed by Marilyn Zornado, it features the poetry of the late Meme Marie Meyers. I especially love the fun use of calligraphy throughout. Long live the Insect Literary Society!

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The Insect Art of Claire Moynihan

Claire Moynihan hand-embroiders intricate British insects and invertebrates on to small spheres of alpaca felt. The individual works are impressive, dimensional and vibrant- the creatures look as if they’ve just alighted there for the moment, ready to take off.

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moynihan-fleabeetle

moynihan-southern-hawker

moynihan-gardenSnail

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moynihan-bugballs

Collected like scientific specimens, her “bug balls” are displayed in large shadow boxes, along with their scientific names. Her gallery of collections must be seen to appreciate the amount of intricate work that goes into each insect. Though Moynihan started with moths (making moth balls, of course!) her menagerie spread to all sorts of British insects, including many thought of as pests, such as aphids and earwigs. Her celebration of unloved inverts seems to be the focus of her work, calling attention to the minute mouths which feed on cabbage, cottage, and couture with indifferent ease. z end

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And the Guldbaggen goes to…

Okay now everybody show us your beetle

Every January, the Swedish Film Institute deliberates over its list of nominations, and in a televised ceremony proudly announces its winners. But instead of being handed some polished ideal of an abstract humanoid figure, they are given a craggy lump of enameled copper that has been hammered by hand into the shape of a rather somewhat crude beetle. It is loud, lumpy, nearly unrecognizable, and it’s the highest honor the Swedish Film Institute can bestow upon their native artisans. It’s the Guldbagge Award, and I can’t help but think that it’s the coolest film award ever made.

guldbaggen_award

The award was designed by Swedish artist Karl Max Pehrson (1921-2005) , a native painter of biomorphic phantasmagoria whose alien plants and lush impossible landscapes rival the Codex Seraphinianus for sheer weirdness. While his paintings won admiration for their fanciful details, his lumpy brutish sculptures were another story. In 1954 a solo show of his work of his sculptures earned some notoriety because critics were turned off by his ‘offensive’ creations.  Rough and abstract, his subjects weren’t plants, but another organism dear to his heart: Beetles.

Pehrson's studio, filled with beetles real and imagined.

Pehrson’s studio, filled with beetles real and imagined.

Karl Axel Pehrson, Brown Stone Beetle, 1960

Karl Axel Pehrson, Brown Stone Beetle, 1960

Karl Axel Pehrson, Iameridotta, 1964

Karl Axel Pehrson, Iameridotta, 1964

Pehrson seemed to have created an uncountable number of beetle sculptures, in glass and wire, stone and clay. Even though they’re clearly insects from another world, his years of intense insect-collecting shines through each sculpture. You can nearly see the real coleopterans he used for inspiration, hovering around each sculpture like a ghost image. In fact the Guldbaggen award that Pehrson designed for the SFI is modeled after a specific beetle, Cetonia aurata, the green rose chafer, that it is common during the Summer months in Sweden.

If you visit Stockholm and take the metro, you’re in for a treat; Inside Gärdet station there are several public displays of Pehrson’s beetles, each with made-up Latin names (that you can even barely read in some of Olsson’s photos below) Sadly, since the installation of  “Animals That Don’t Exist” in the late 60’s, some of the beetles have been stolen, and only photographs of those originals remain. No matter what condition, I’d love to view these in person some day.

Karl Axel Pehrson, Section of "Animals that don't exist", 1964. Photo by Marit Furn

Karl Axel Pehrson, Section of “Animals That Don’t Exist”, 1967. Photo by Marit Furn

Karl Axel Pehrson, "Animals That Don't Exist", 1964. Photo by Lars Olsson

Karl Axel Pehrson, “Animals That Don’t Exist”, 1967. Photo by Lars Olsson

Karl Axel Pehrson, "Animals That Don't Exist", 1964. Photo by Lars Olsson

Karl Axel Pehrson, “Animals That Don’t Exist”, 1967. Photo by Lars Olsson

Karl Axel Pehrson, "Animals That Don't Exist", 1964. Photo by Lars Olsson

Karl Axel Pehrson, “Animals That Don’t Exist”, 1967. Photo by Lars Olsson

Karl Axel Pehrson, "Animals That Don't Exist", 1964. Photo by Lars Olsson

Karl Axel Pehrson, “Animals That Don’t Exist”, 1967. Photo by Lars Olsson

Even though Pehrson passed away in 2005, his legendary Guldbaggen is still being created, up to 18 a year. Each Guldbaggen is a work of art made by hand, hammered and welded out of copper, then enameled and gilded. Over 300 of these beetles have been awarded since the award’s inception in 1964. And it looks like Sweden has come to really love their strange award. Filmmakers and celebrities gratefully hold up their blocky beetles each year, beaming at the cameras. And then there’s this:

2003 Guldbaggen Awards performance

Thank you, Sweden.

The above performance was for the 2003 Guldbagge Awards. You can bet I’ll be watching this January 27th to see what they do this year! z end

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The Insect Art of John Dilnot

dilnot_underfoot

The above work is “Underfoot”, a limited edition screen print by Brighton-based artist John Dilnot. His works are a giddy riot of form and color, whether they’re folded into chaotic garden scenes or cut out and crowded into wooden boxes. Though birds and bad apples are also part of his reportoire, his studio churns out wonderful arrays of moths, beetles, and caterpillars, ready to jump off the watercolor paper even as they sit in ordered rows. Go check out the fun on his website . Here’s just a sample of his entomological printworks.

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dilnot_beetles

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John Dilnot moth collection

And last but not least one of his rich art boxes, “Moth Collection”, 2012.  It looks like a vintage children’s book suddenly sublimated into lepidopterans. z end

 

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