Monday, April 28, 2014

Extreme Schnoz: Saiga

Scientific name: Saiga tatarica
A higher clade it's part of: Antilopinae
Conservation status: Critically endangered
Current range: Patches in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, sometimes Turkmenistan, and Mongolia

  I'm ending the Extreme Animals series with one that the Sarmatians definitely encountered. We know this because it was important enough to be a subject of steppe nomad art. Also cool enough to be in two of my three forays into zoomorphic steppe art as illumination.

   The saiga is an antelope that's trying to be a tapir. They're only 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder. Adorable! Only the males have horns, but they all have giant noses. Their closest relative, another cold-adapted antelope called the Tibetan antelope, doesn't have this adaptation.
Tiny baby!
  Mammals are warm-blooded, which means we have to work to keep our body temperatures up. One of the easiest ways to mess with that is to breathe in air that's hotter or colder than our optimal body temperature...which is impossible not to do when you live in the cold steppes of Russia during the winter, like saigas, or the hot climate of the Sahara (like camels). There are two ways mammals work to counteract this with their nose: nasal turbinates and giant noses.
  Nasal turbinates are small, thin, mucosa-covered shelves of bone that stick out into the nasal passageway. They're called "concha" in humans, and,  having dissected one, I can tell you--ours are pretty pathetic. But as tiny and simple as ours are, you can still feel the effect that have on the temperature of the air we breathe. Go outside on a cold, cold day in winter. Breathe in through your nose. Then breathe in through your mouth. You will cool down much more quickly if you do the latter. Now imagine how much more effective that would be if you have turbinates like the seal below! Turbinates work this way because they're more surface area for the numerous blood vessels full of hot blood in their lining. This hot blood contacts the cold air and its temperature is evened out before it reaches your lungs.
A Hooded Seal at the Museum of Osteology in
Oklahoma showing nasal turbinates very well.
   Saiga have complex nasal turbinates like most mammals living in extreme climates, but they also add a giant fleshy nose. A saiga's turbinates don't stick out into the fleshy part of their nose--in fact the bony portion is quite far back in their head. But the fleshy part is still able to heat incoming air because it's bulbous (increased surface area) and has plenty of blood vessels running through it.
Their noses are mostly fleshy
  There are two subspecies: one in western Mongolia and one everywhere else. There range is extremely constricted compared to today. When the Sarmatians were around, they inhabited the steppes in an unbroken swath save for a small break between the ranges inhabited by each subspecies. Even farther back in time (into the Pleistocene), they were also found in North America. They're actually the only antelope that made it to the New World (Pronghorn aren't actually antelope; cattle are more closely related to saigas and gazelles than pronghorn are.).
Their population has been bouncing back and forth. They were almost driven extinct in the '20s, but were able to bounce back. Then the World Wildlife Fund got the bright idea to suggest people use their horns instead of rhino horns in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Because that makes so much more sense than telling people to just eat their own fingernails since it's made out of the same freakin' stuff and none of it does diddly-squat to help your cancer, virility, or anything else TCM practitioners claim...can you tell this subject makes me angry? I had to work not to violate my own no-cursing-on-the-blog policy. Surprise!--their populations dropped drastically. The timing of this suggestion unfortunately lined up very well with the fall of the Soviet Union. That meant economic troubles drove many of the now-poor people in these regions to turn to poaching saiga because their horns are easy cash and their meat fed their families. The fact that the males are larger and also the only ones to possess horns meant that they reached a point where there weren't enough males to mate with the females during rutting season, causing the population to crash even harder.
  Saigas have been protected in parts of their range since the '90s and were starting to recover, but their populations dropped again when a deadly, infectious disease started spreading through some of the herds, killing almost half of the population in the Kazakh Urals.
Graph produced by the Saiga Conservation Alliance
  But there's still hope. There's a captive breeding program at the Center for Wild Animals of the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia. The Saiga Conservation Alliance actively works to save these animals through research and public awareness campaigns. This includes both study of the animals themselves as well as where they're being hunted, who's poaching them, and why.

  Lastly, here's a documentary for my Russian-speaking readers (sorry, the uploader isn't letting me embed it). The saiga show up at about 3:35. The first couple minutes look like they're about some sort of rodent. A birch mouse, maybe? Skip to 10:27 to see some cute jumping and trotting and 11:00 for headbutting. And here's a video of a baby saiga because why not?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Extreme Cuteness: Tadpole-gobies

Azov Tadpole-goby
Scientific name: Benthophilus (20 species)
A higher clade it's part of: Gobiidae (gobies)
Conservation status: 8 Least Concern, 12 not evaluated
Current range: Fresh and brackish water in Caspian and Black Sea basins

Black Sea Tadpole-goby
Don Tadpole-goby
Tadpole-gobies are just adorable. Especially Don Tadpole-gobies! These abundant little fish live in the Caspian and Black Sea basins. Most of them couldn't have been encountered by Sarmatians because they live in deep brackish water or because they only live in parts of the Caspian Sea not adjacent to Sarmatian lands. Three species- the Don, Black Sea, and Azov Tadpole-gobies could have been encountered by them. They probably wouldn't have taken much note of them, though, because they're so tiny (2.6-5.9 in [6.6-15 cm]). These three live on the bottoms of lakes, deltas, and rivers.
They're carnivorous, eating small molluscs, insect larvae, and crustaceans. The species mentioned above live on sandy or muddy bottoms (depending on the species) with scattered empty shells. They need the shells because they hide their eggs underneath or inside them. They only live a year or so and die after spawning.
Tadpole-gobies diverged from the tribe they're most closely related to (Neogobiini) about 9 million years ago. Benthophilus diverged from the only other genus in its tribe (Benthophilini), Caspiosoma, about 5 Million years ago, coincident with the separation of the Black and Caspian Sea basins as they dried out. Tadpole gobies (at least, the ones sampled in the phylogenetic analysis listed below) diverged from one another about 2 million years ago, near the onset of the Pleistocene ice ages.

Neilson, M. E., & Stepien, C. A. (2009). Escape from the Ponto-Caspian: evolution and biogeography of an endemic goby species flock (Benthophilinae: Gobiidae: Teleostei). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 52(1), 84-102.

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.