Monday, April 14, 2014

Extreme Length: Beluga Sturgeon

Scientific name: Huso huso
A higher clade it's part of: Acipenseriformes (sturgeons & paddlefish)
Conservation status: Critically endangered
Current range: Mostly Caspian and Black Sea basins, some in Adriatic Sea.

  The beluga sturgeon is a contender for the largest freshwater fish alive today. It swims up rivers to spawn (which is when Sarmatians could have encountered them if they did). It does have the ability to live in brackish water, so that keeps it from holding that record in everyone's eyes. Regardless, it's the second longest extant bony fish after the Giant Oarfish, and might be the longest macropredatory fish.
  Unlike the Great Bustard from last week's post, these fish don't stop growing--a trait called "indeterminate growth". Species with indeterminate growth won't grow at the same rate throughout their lives, but their growth curves never quite reach an asymptote. That makes it hard to say what an average size is--especially when you factor in how heavily hunted they are. The average size sturgeon today is much smaller than the average size would have been during the Sarmatians' time. So to make things simpler, I'm just going to talk about record sizes today.
  The record for largest beluga sturgeon was a female in the Volga River estuary. She was 24 ft (7.2 m) long--that's slightly longer than the longest verified Great White Shark (23 ft), and rivals the possible, but, it seems, unconfirmed, size of the Greenland  Shark. Its confirmed record is 21 ft, but it looks like the Florida Natural History Museum site says it could reach 24 ft. I can't find a trail leading back to the source of that information, unfortunately.

  The sad story of the Beluga Sturgeon is that it's prized as having some of the best caviar and being the source of the best isinglass (a substance made from fish air bladders and used to clarify wine and beer, among other less common uses). In spite of its critically endangered status, it continues to be hunted. Even if only caviar were collected, caviar isn't collected after eggs are laid--its collected by slicing the gravid female open, thus killing her before she can lay her eggs. Sturgeons take a very long time to mature (15-25 years for this species). If the population isn't allowed to replenish itself, it will go extinct.
  Mediterranean populations are protected under the Bern Convention. The United States banned import of Beluga Sturgeon caviar from the Caspian Sea in 2005. But, unfortunately, that's not enough. It turns out you can't trust the labels on caviar jars and cans. Take a gander at the study referenced below (if I could link to a free pdf, I would). With the caveat that the study took place before the US ban, it still shows that just because it's labelled as one thing doesn't mean it actually contains it.
  The researchers collected caviar from the US and Europe from 1995-1997. Sometimes they were labelled with a species, sometimes ambiguously (e.g., river sturgeon, which is meaningless), and sometimes not at all. Nothing they sampled in Europe was mislabelled (it can from Iranian sources). The US caviar came from countries in the former Soviet Union and, depending on the year, 17-32% of sources were mislabeled. Some caviar labelled as American Sturgeon was actually Beluga Sturgeon (some of it wasn't even sturgeon--it was paddlefish). And a dishonest dealer just went right back to his old tricks after serving time for fraud.

  So...don't partake in caviar that might be from the former Soviet Union. Or better yet, not at all. Because all sturgeon species are in trouble.

Birstein, VJ, Doukakis, P and DeSalle, R, 1999, Molecular phylogeny of Acipenserinae and black caviar species identification, Journal of Applied Icthyology, v. 15, p. 12-16.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Extreme Weight: Great Bustard

Scientific name: Oris tarda - Male demonstrating part of the display.
A higher clade it's part of: Gruiformes (cranes & allies)
Conservation status: Vulnerable
Current range: Spotty areas of grassland and steppe across Eurasia in the band of latitude stretching from Gibraltar to southern England, plus a small area in Morocco across from the Straits.

Birding in Portugal has a display/fighting video (skip to
1:05 for the bustards) and some fantastic photographs,
including this one. It demonstrates the sexual dimorphism
between the female (top) and male (bottom).
And yes...she is doing what you think she's doing.
The Great Bustard is the heaviest extant flying bird (also most sexually dimorphic in size). Well...depending on what you mean by "heaviest". It could mean (1) heaviest on average, (2) heaviest maximum in the range of sizes normally reached, or (3) heaviest record. The male Great Bustard's stats for those are (1) 21.3-29.8 lb (9.65-13.5 kg), (2) 40 lb (18 kg), and (3) 46 lb (21 kg). They're rivaled by their relative the Kori Bustard, whose weight surpasses it in (1) 30 lb (13.5 kg), ties it in (2) 40 lb (18 kg), and is beaten by it in (3) 44 lb (20 kg). For the record, I'm ignoring unconfirmed records because it's ridiculous how much those can be exaggerated, even when the teller doesn't mean to. The way our memories and perception work is annoying sometimes...

Like many Gruiformes, these birds display to attract mates. Because they're ground birds, they perform in leks much like the more local-to-Calontir prairie chickens.

I haven't seen any bustards in Sarmatian art, but they co-existed on the Russian steppes, so it's unlikely they never encountered them. Scytho-Sarmatian art tends to focus on mammals rather than birds–eagles being the exception–so it's not really surprising that they wouldn't depict them.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ossetian Language

Surprise Sarmatian post! Which means I'm procrastinating and will be getting back to work immediately after posting this...

I recently had a conversation with someone which prompted me to try again to find internet sources for listening to or learning bits of the Ossetian language. The Ossetian language is a direct descendant of the Scytho-Sarmatian languages with the Alanian language as the bridge between them. It's the only living member of the Northeast Iranian language group, though modified through proximity to Caucasian languages. The three dialects are the extant Dagor–spoken in western North Ossetia, Iron–spoken elsewhere in Ossetia and the standard for the written language, and the now-extinct Jász language–which was spoken in Central Hungary from the 12th through 15th? centuries. The living full languages closest to Ossetian are Pashto and Yaghnobi in the Southeastern Iranian language group, spoken in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, respectively.

I had more success finding sources this time (as in I had success at all). Quite a bit of it is in Russian, so those of us who don't speak it are at a severe disadvantage. But here are the links I've found:
Here's a video of a man speaking Ossetian, but the description says he shifts into Georgian sometimes and I don't know which is which.
And the Wikipedia page actually has quite a bit on phonetics and grammer lifted from the research of Vasily Abaev, though I can't understand the phonetics table.
What I would really like, though, is audio tracks accompanied by the letters and a discussion in English (French is fine too). If any of you know of a site or audiobook or anything like that, please let me know.

The first link is the closest I've found to that. No audio, but it has the words written in English phonetics along with the Cyrilic. I'm sure I'm butchering the pronunciation without audio to reference, but it's at least better than nothing. And as for emphasis, I only know from that Abaev says the difference between "a ___" and "the ___" in Ossetian is the emphasis–the former puts the emphasis on the second syllable, the latter the first.

I'm thinking it might be fun to incorporate some of these while at events–especially if in a zone where "period" is required...which I can't go in yet because I don't have a full period kit. Not enough time or money to put together at the moment. :/
Some that SCAdians might be familiar enough with, or you may use often enough for frequent companions to easily learn are below. The format is English word- Ossetian written alphabet- English phonetic pronunciation. All are from
Hello                        Салам                 salam
     SCAdians may recognize this because it sounds like (or at least very similar to) the Arabic word for "peace", used in a similar way. Think "peace be upon you/and upon you peace".
How are you            Куыд цæрyт?     Kwyd tsærut?
Goodbye(1)             Фæндараст         fændarast
Goodbye(2)             хорзæй баззай    horzæï bazzaï
     I'm not sure what the difference is.
Please                      дæ хорзæхæй     dæ horzæhæï
Thanks (so much)     (стыр) бузныг    (styr) buznyg
Yes                          о                          o
No                           нæ, нæы             næ, næy
I am sorry                ныххатыр кæн    nyhhatyr kæn
Excuse me               бахатыр кæн       bahatyr kæn

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

No Two Truths and a Lie This Year

Alas, I'm still too busy. Fortunately, it's been the "getting things done" kind of busy as opposed to last semester's "running around in circles not advancing my career" kind of busy.I missed making a post in March (I was writing a ton of grants to fund research trips to Europe and Asia later this year) and I don't want to leave you guys hanging, so I'll be doing a quick, small post every Monday this month. I haven't had time to do any Sarmatian-specific research, so these will be about something I'm already familiar with- animals. Each Monday, I'm going to post information about an extreme animal that shared the steppes and its waterways with the Sarmatians. I've talked a lot about the Sarmatians, but not so much about the environment in which they lived, and context is good. So this will be a step (albeit a sensationalist one) toward doing that.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Jász Linkdump

I mentioned the Jász in a previous post (I had used the descriptor Jassic, but have been told that's an Anglicized version, so I won't be using it again.). There's a Jász man named Attila Fábián Rigó on facebook who posts a lot of good historic information. I recommend following him and browsing through his photo albums. :) He and a friend have done some amazing recreations of pieces from the Golden Deer of Eurasia book which I at first mistook for the real things. They exhibited them at the Jász World Meeting last summer. He's an administrator of a genetic survey called the Ossetian DNA Project (his section is the Hungarian Jászság DNA Project). It's in progress, so there isn't a lot of explanation of the results up on the web yet, but keep your eye on it if it peaks your interest. So if you want to know more about the Jász, here's a linkdump he sent me for you to browse.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Ask the readers: Animals

One year ago today, we adopted a cat from the local shelter. Tali'Miller-Camp vas Iowa (yes, that is a Mass Effect reference) is a pet- an animal kept for pleasure. But unless your SCA persona is upper class and probably late period, the animals s/he could have kept are unlikely to have been purely pets- they would have had some sort of practical use.

What kind of animals did your persona (or their culture if not them, specifically) keep? What breed? Is it or breeds descended from it still around today? What were they used for?

Unlike my other "Ask the Readers", I can actually answer this one! Collectively, Sarmatians kept horses, cattle, sheep, and dogs.

Apologies for the lack of centering (it's at the top).
Turns out I don't have an image of this on my computer.
I'll replace it with a better version when I get home.

The sheep and cattle they kept for food, wool, and leather. Scythians did too and you can see an example of Scythians making a sheepskin shirt on a beautifully intricate torse made by the Greeks.

Mongolian horse and rider
Image source:

Their horses were their livelihood. They were meat, clothing, milk, wealth, transportation, and mounts all rolled into one. They would have been short and stocky compared to the horses we're accustomed to seeing in the West today- probably a lot like horses kept by modern steppe nomads.

Kazbegi type Georgian Mountain Dog
Image source:

Their dogs were big molossers who served as livestock guardians and war dogs. The dogs of the Sarmatians sensu stricto were Sarmatian Mastiffs. The breed kept by the Alans was the Alaunt (which would have been partially descended from the Sarmatian Mastiff. The word 'Alaunt' later came to be used for a general phenotype, rather than a particular breed, in Europe. The original Alaunt probably looked similar to the Kazbegi type Georgian Mountain Dog, which is probably a descendant.

(References will be when I get home. Sorry!)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Blog news (good this time!)

Hello everyone! Many, many apologies for the extended hiatus. GPA comes before SCA, as they say, though in my case it was partially school and partially career stuff eating up all my time and energy. But now the semester's over, I've had time to rest and recuperate, and I'm able to doing SCA stuff again. I'm expecting to go back to the once a month frequency I kept before. I don't foresee doing any long posts anytime soon because I do still have quite a bit of paleo research and writing to do.
I'm heading to Thailand for some of that research in a couple days. I may have limited internet access until mid-January, so I've already written and scheduled the first one of the new year to come out while I'm away. See you on the 10th!