Mark Grossman: Australia’s Megafauna — The Forgotten Giants of Prehistory


8 August 2013

Everyone remembers the dinosaurs, but what happened after the dinosaurs went extinct?  They left a vacuum filled by giant and often forgotten animals: the megafauna.  The term megafauna, “big animals,” covers several groups of giant creatures.  However, naturalist Richard Owen honored only the oldest members of the group with the special name, “dinosaur.”  The remaining giants, those that roamed the earth between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, are known by the (too general) term “megafauna.”

Today, Australia boasts a unique collection of animals.  Not only do these creatures look exceptional, they are also exceptional in terms scientific classification.  The duck billed platypus is classified as a mammal, but has a much lower body temperature than other mammals and lays eggs–earning it a special mention whenever biologists formulate a list of standard mammalian characteristics.  Indeed, the platypus is so “different” that the first reports of its discovery were denounced as “a fraud.”

Australia, also, has a large variety of marsupials, a group of animals that carry their immature young in a pouch for a period of time after birth.  Not surprisingly, the prehistoric Australian megafauna also include a wide variety of now-extinct marsupials.

Throughout millennia, arid periods threatened the survival of Australia’s megafauna, but one particular arid period, their last, coincided with the arrival of homo sapiens.  There is intense debate about whether climate or human interference caused the extinction.  Perhaps, it was some of both.

However, extinction is not necessarily the same as “dying out.”  The megafauna are no more, but many of their direct descendants roam Australia today–miniature versions of their ancient ancestors.  The modern kangaroo and wombat are direct descendants, “distant children,” of monstrously huge versions of themselves.  And huge they were.  New and more precise methods of calculating the size of the ancient mammals has revealed that they may have been much larger than previously thought.

Prehistoric Australia’s strange collection of giant wildlife included Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat. Unlike its relatively petite, modern descendant, this wombat weighed as much as two tons.  The remains of these giant creatures have been found all over Australia.

The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, Procoptodon, the largest known kangaroo that ever existed, stood about 7 feet tall and weighed 500 pounds.  Its feet looked a bit like horse hooves having only one large toe on each foot.  Each of its front paws had two long fingers with large claws. A full-size, lifelike replica is on permanent display, along with other ancient Australian animals, at the Australian Museum.

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo, was not quite as big as the modern lion, but had just as strong a bite.  In fact, this creature had the strongest bite for its size of any known mammal species, living or dead.  Its long muscular tail was similar to that of a kangaroo, and it may even have been able to climb trees.  The Marsupial Lion is thought to have hunted large animals such as the giant wombat and giant kangaroo.

The Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockornis, is older than the typical megafauna species.  Although living closer to the age of dinosaurs, it was just too unusual to omit.  This flightless bird was about 8 feet tall and weighed about 500 pounds.  Thought to be carnivorous, Bullockornis had a huge beak, suitable for “shearing,” which probably explains its threatening name.

The giant turtle, Meiolania, had disturbingly devilish horns making its head almost 2 feet wide (measured from the tip of each horn).  The horns prevented the giant turtle from withdrawing its head into its shell–but who was going to mess with it anyway.  Pulling its tail was not a good idea either.  The tail was ringed with armor-like skin and was tipped with spikes.  At about 8 feet long, most animals probably just got out of this turtle’s way as it crawled across the prehistoric landscape.

One cannot research these giant creatures without stumbling across the fact that all continents had megafauna–not just Australia.  North America had one of the most famous species and one of the last to go extinct, the Wooly Mammoth.  This enormous version of the modern elephant roamed the northern extremes of North America about 12,000 years ago.

At one-ton (2,000 pounds), Andrewsarchus was the largest carnivorous land mammal that ever lived.  Bearing a resemblance to the hyena, on which it preyed, it might be the biggest dog-like creature that ever lived.  It was certainly larger than the than biggest prehistoric dog, Canis Diris, the Dire Wolf.  At 150 pounds, the Dire Wolf was a featherweight compared to Audrewsarchus, but more than a heavyweight compared to its descendant, the modern wolf.  Remains of the Dire Wolf have been found alongside those of the Saber Toothed Tiger in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles.

Perhaps the species that suffered the most indignity at human hands was a giant version of the modern armadillo, Glyptodon.  It lumbered through the forests of South America and was about the size of a modern VW bug.  Slow and meaty, human hunters had both the patience and ingenuity to hunt and kill this strange creature.  Not only was its meat used for food, its shell was used as a kind of prefabricated living shelter.  In terms of size, its shell provided something like the Torrid Zone equivalent of an igloo.  As human food and housing demands increased, the number of giant armadillos decreased until the prehistoric housing bubble burst when this natural producer of “prefabricated housing solutions” went extinct.

Image Links:

The Giant Wombat, Diprotodon

Giant Kangaroo, Procoptodon

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo

Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockorn

The Giant Turtle, Meiolania

Wooly Mammoth


Dire Wolf

The Giant Armadillo, Glyptodon

Selected Links & References:

Austrailian MegaFauna & Museums

Australian mega fauna

Australian Museum

Museum Victoria

Queensland Museum

10 Giant Mammals that Succeeded the Dinosaurs

Australia’s extinct animals–Australian Museum

Australia’s Megafauna

Australian Megafauna A-Z

Australia’s Lost Giants – National Geographic Magazine

Australia’s Lost Giants – Photo Gallery – National Geographic Magazine

Mega Fauna of the World & Museums

Prehistoric Megafauna – The Giant Mammals and Megafauna of the Cenozoic Era

Giant mammals cause prehistory rethink › News in Science (ABC Science)

Ice Age Animals

Mammalian megafauna | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Ice Age – Megafauna

Megafauna! : DenverMuseum of Nature & Science

Prehistoric Megafauna exhibits in museums on the east coast?(US)

10 Giant Mammals that Succeeded the Dinosaurs

List of megafauna discovered in modern times – Wikipedia

History and Continuing Study

What does megafauna mean?: Museum Victoria

RichardOwen  NaturalHistoryMuseum

Studying megafauna fossils

Studying Megafauna Fossils: MelbourneMuseum

OZ fossils – The Age of the Megafauna – The Fauna – Fauna found at the Naracoorte Fossil site

Studying Megafauna Fossils: MelbourneMuseum

Art & Speculation

Super Scary Megafauna

Strange Ice Age Mammals

14 extinct animals that could be resurrected: Fit to be cloned

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

About the Author

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Mark Grossman: The Giant Alligator Snapping Turtle – the Perfect Pet!?

17 April 2014

It was just typical day browsing on the Internet. A story caught my eye. It was about a Louisiana man named Travis Lewis. When he was outside his home, something caught his eye. At first, he thought he saw an unusually large log in a nearby canal.

But with a closer look, he realized that, what he thought was a log, was actually a giant turtle. A giant turtle. It had a head the size of a football and was about 4 feet long. It was, in fact, an alligator snapping turtle. The turtle was wedged in a culvert – stuck.

What does an alligator snapping turtle look like? Well, let’s just say that a dinosaur could mistake one of these turtles for its cousin. Really, just look at the pictures below.

I hope he’s just yawning.

The alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America.  It has a spiked shell and a beak-like jaw. These turtles can reach 250 pounds and live for almost 200 years. They enjoy hanging out at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and canals.  This turtle has no natural predators other than human beings. They, themselves, eat snakes, clams, and other turtles.

I hope he’s just yawning, again!

This snapping turtle can close its jaw with incredible speed. But, as one article explained, reassuringly, many other snapping turtles have a more powerful bite than the alligator snapping turtle. In fact, relative to its size, this turtle’s bite is no more powerful than that of a human being. The source went on to add, cheerfully, that these turtles can bite through bone.

If I’d seen this turtle in a nearby canal, my next steps would have been to go inside my home, call animal control, and lock my door and windows.   But in Louisiana, a giant, prehistoric-looking turtle with a bone-crushing bite inspires a different reaction.

Travis Lewis immediately called for his friend, Martin LeBlanc. When LeBlanc got there, he saw the giant turtle with the football-sized head. Was he worried?  No, of course not.  His first thought?  Dinner.

Yeah, I bet that critter could have fed the whole neighborhood. (Or fed on the whole neighborhood.)

Again, the turtle was stuck – wedged tight in a culvert. The two called a third friend.   Did the newcomer call animal control?   No way.   “Friend # 3,” Louisiana’s answer to Steve Irwin, jumped right into the culvert. The first two followed. Within 45 minutes, the four-foot long snapping turtle was free. Travis casually commented that the group did take care to “stay clear . . . of the business end” of the turtle because “[o]nce it latches on to you, it’s going to take whatever it bites with it.”

See:  Enormous alligator snapping turtle rescued from drainage culvert

A little puzzled by the men’s attitude toward this giant bone-crushing snapping turtle, I did an internet search on the “alligator snapping turtle.”  I was in for a surprise.

In the 1930’s, a man named Dale Carnegie wrote a book called, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” If Mr. Carnegie were alive today, he would be studying the giant alligator snapping turtle. Why?  Because whatever this turtle is doing, it sure seems to be a hit with everybody.

The first thing I turned up was a set of instructions on how to care for your giant alligator snapping turtle. A little more surprised, I went on searching.  What did I find?  More care and feeding instructions.

Care Sheet – Alligator Snapping Turtle

So, you know what’s happening at your local Humane Society? Rover is waiting in a cage, with a dozen other dogs, hoping to find a home. But the Society has waiting list a mile long for giant alligator snapping turtles.  Sure. That makes sense. We’re talking about a giant snapping turtle with a bone-crushing bite who seems to always be photographed with its beak-like mouth wide open waiting to take your hand or foot off.  Gee, who wouldn’t want to own one?

I go on hoping!

I used to read stories about the loyalty and heroism of dogs, but I didn’t find anything like that. Instead I found the “heart-warming” story of “Crunch” an alligator snapping turtle. With that bite, you’ve got to wonder how an animal like this got the nickname  “Crunch.”  . . .   Anyway, Crunch was rescued from certain death in a commercial fishery and, now, not only survives, but enjoys a comfortable retirement at the Blackwater Turtle Refuge.

See:  “Crunch” — Historyvideo: 150 plus year old Alligator Snapping Turtle (“Crunch’)

Speaking of survival, the rescuers of our Louisiana turtle are planning to release it in a spot where it can roam free.   We are assured that the turtle has nothing to fear from rescuer Martin LeBlanc’s turtle soup pot. And you’d need a lot more than pot to cook this four-footer. He’d barely fit in a bathtub.

Enormous alligator snapping turtle rescued from drainage culvert

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

See also:

Alligator Snapping Turtle – National Zoo FONZ

Alligator Snapping Turtles, Alligator Snapping Turtle Pictures, Alligator Snapping Turtle Facts – National Geographic

Mark Grossman: The Bumblebee and Robo-Snake on Mars – The Fantasy


14 November 2013

Both NASA and ESA (European Space Administration) are planning a mission to Mars.  But, in this day and age, who isn’t?  India is planning a Mars mission.  A Dutch company named, Mars One, isn’t just planning a mission, but a colony.  What’s interesting is how they plan to finance the mission.  The Mars One colonists’ transportation to, and colony on, the red planet will be financed by a reality show starring – you guessed it – the colonists, themselves, on Mars.  If this seems kind of “out there,” so is the planned departure date.  Their first group is scheduled leave about twenty years from now.

However the NASA and ESA missions are serious business because their potential colonists certainly have the right stuff.  NASA is considering bumblebees and the ESA is considering a robotic snake.  Amazingly, of all the possible candidates, the bees and the robotic snake seem most naturally suited to the challenges of life on Mars.

The rather rotund bumblebee wouldn’t “cut a good figure” in the astro-insect selection process, but appearances can be deceiving.  When NASA discovered that the ideal atmospheric pressure for space facilities was considerably below the normal pressure found on Earth, the search was on for the most adaptable contestants.  At the ideal atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa), human beings were burdened because this is only about half the sea level atmospheric pressure here on Earth.  Honeybees gave up completely at 62 kPa.  But “Bumbles” kept right on going – gathering honey and pollinating flowers at the ideal 52 kPa.  Below that pressure, “Bumbles” slowed down, but didn’t stop.  And when, at a meager 30 kPa, the bumblebees finally lost their ability to fly, they went on working!  Crawling from bloom to bloom, the bumblebees went on pollinating and gathering honey.  What can we say?  The few, the proud, the bumblebees!

Of course, Robo-Snake, as a robot, has few issues adapting physically to an alien environment.  A robotic snake will bring a specific skill to the red planet that a biological snake enjoys on earth – the remarkable ability to travel over and through certain types of almost impassable terrain.  Robo-Snake’s amazingly snake-like movement allows it to explore and investigate places that no human, conventional robot, or vehicle could go.  This ‘bot’s serpentine motion produces a kind of locomotion that allows it to travel almost anywhere without getting stuck.

While writing a previous post on this subject, my mind kept wandering to the sci-fi and fantasy possibilities.  Every time I though of a bumblebee and a robotic snake on Mars, I couldn’t help thinking what a good Disney movie that mission would make.  Of course, in actual fact, if they make the cut, “Bumbles” and “Robo-Snake” would be traveling to Mars on different missions sponsored by different space agencies.

But let’s forget the facts and stick to the fantasy.  I had to wonder: what if Bumbles and Robo-Snake teamed up on Mars to form one of those classic duos that are the stuff of sci-fi fantasy?  As I thought about the pair and their possible adventures on the red planet, I couldn’t help thinking in terms of those famous sci-fi fantasy teams of the past.

I imagine Bumbles and Robo-Snake wandering the Martian landscape in a feature film (or weekly episodes of a TV series) struggling to survive.  Of course, they stumble into adventure after adventure as they explore, not only the physical terrain, but discover unknown and exotic Martian flora and fauna.  Perhaps, other interplanetary visitors from other star systems would pop-in, from time to time, and confront the bee-snake team with novel challenges in which the duo’s unique relationship would lead them to a successful resolution.  Sort of like . . .

Sort of like the relationship between the Robinson family and the “General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot, Model B9.”   The television show was the 1965 series, Lost in Space. Model B9, unimaginatively referred to as “Robot” by the cast members, had one of the most memorable lines in television, history — “Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!”

Maybe Bumbles and Robo-Snake could be stranded on Mars with a group of much less well adapted human companions (like the Mars One colonists).  Because Bumbles and Robo-Snake are uniquely adapted to the Martian environment, they would be well suited to the job of rescuing their hapless human companions who would, on a weekly basis, manage to fall into some kind of trouble or involve themselves in some kind of misadventure.

Maybe one of the colonists would play the role of Lost in Space’s subversive and, then, eccentrically silly Dr. Smith.  The new version of the Dr. Smith character might arrive with the Mars One colonists.  However, this Dr. Smith might be an agent from a rival TV network featuring a rival reality show.   His job is to assure that Mars One colonists’ own reality show suffers dismal ratings and cancellation.  Or, maybe even more darkly (but realistically), the new Dr. Smith might be an agent from Mars One itself.  If the Mars One reality show’s ratings don’t climb fast enough, the new Dr. Smith has been sent to “eliminate” the colonists swiftly and completely in order to accomplish a de facto cancellation.

Of course, Bumbles and Robo-Snake will be there to foil Dr. Smith’s mission and rescue the colonists while forging an even more successful TV series about a bumblebee and robotic snake.  This assures the survival of the human colonists after the unexpected cancellation of their reality show.  However, “Danger, Bumbles.  Danger.” might be too cliché to recycle, so there needs to be some work on a new script for this new “non-reality” show.

Lost in Space’s Model B9’s fame was great, but its career was limited.  Like the original Star Trek cast, B9 found itself hopelessly typecast.  After suffering a relatively short downward spiral, rescue and repair came from TV and film producer Kevin Burns with whom the B9 enjoys a comfortable, private and, even, reclusive retirement.   Because of the attention and adulation B9 receives from nostalgic fans, Kevin Burns commissioned the creation of a B9 “clone” – a replica that is displayed on tours and at conventions.

Less known is the story of B9’s stunt man or, rather, stunt robot.  In fact, two versions of B9 were built for the original TV series.  The other, just as imaginatively, termed “stunt robot” was featured in distance “or hazardous shots.”  Like the star, after the series ended, the stunt double fell into a downward spiral of disrepair until it was rescued and refurbished by the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, in Seattle Washington, where it enjoys a more public retirement to this day.

B9 was created by mechanical designer Robert Kinoshita.  With such talents, wouldn’t it have been great if Kinoshita had designed other movie robots?  It would, and he did.  In fact, Robert Kinoshita designed, perhaps, the première sci-fi robot of all time.

Right after the brooding and reclusive Dr. Mobius unlocked the most basic secrets of the Krell, in the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet, he built Robby the Robot.  But let’s not get too far ahead of our story.

How could this play out with our own film duo? In our version of the story, Bumbles, with the help of Robo-Snake, discover the secrets of an ancient and extinct Martian civilization.  In the process, they unleash a mysterious force of which they, themselves, are unaware.  After the human colonists fall victim to a mysterious predator, Bumbles is left alone, with her faithful robot snake sidekick, to pursue her investigations in the solitude she loves.

Years later, a rescue ship arrives with a small crew of humans and (appropriately) a contingent of bumblebees.  “Bumbles” warns the rescue ship’s crew not to land on the surface because of a mysterious danger – the nature of which Bumbles herself does not consciously understand.   Of course, there could be a romantic subtheme.  Perhaps, like Morbius, Bumbles could have a single daughter bee who is wooed by a drone bee from the rescue ship.

However, I don’t know if Robo-Snake could equal the sheer range of Robby.  That robot could do almost everything.  Certainly, Robby kept pace with Star Trek’s replicator when it created a large quantity of hard liquor at the request of one of the rescuing crew members.

Whatever the storyline, Robo-Snake faces a major challenge if it is to step into the shoes of the famous Robby the Robot.  After raising the bar for all movie robots with his first 1956 performance, Robby went on to a remarkable career.  He escaped being typecast in Forbidden Planet (although, with robots, some typecasting is unavoidable).  To his credit, Robby has worked consistently in Hollywood including appearances on The Doby Gillis Show, The Twilight Zone (3 episodes), Hazel, The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Monkeys, Wonder Woman, Mork and Mindy, The Love Boat, a cameo appearance in Gremlins and, most recently, in a 2012 General Electric commercial.

Robby enjoys a semi retirement in the collection of William Malone.  Robby’s early career was marred by the same harassment from adoring fans that so many other stars have suffered.  Souvenir-hunting fans, twice, roughed Robby up so badly that he had to be refurbished.  On both occasions, original spare parts created for the film Forbidden Planet were called into service to restore Robby to the perfect physical health typical of a well maintained robot.  But back, again, to our bee-snake team.

Let’s not limit our vision.  What if the Bumbles and Robo-Snake combination generates a successful film or series?  What next?  Would a spin-off be in order?  The real Robo-Snake is being considered as a sidekick, but not to a bee or human being.  Instead. Robo-Snake is being developed to assist another robotic device — The Mars Rover.

To its credit, the Mars Rover is an amazingly well-engineered vehicle.  However, no matter how serviceable, it has a daunting task — to be operated by remote control as it navigates a rough and rocky terrain.  The result is that Mars Rovers usually end their serviceable careers by getting permanently stuck.  Is there a solution?  Enter Robo-Snake.

The Robo-Snake that may eventually go to Mars will have one of two possible configurations.  It will either travel with the Rover as a portable robot to be released to investigate nooks and crannies too small for the Rover as well as areas in which the Rover is more likely to get stuck.  The other design would permanently attach Robo-Snake to the Rover as a kind of arm – or more picturesquely – a kind of tentacle.  The Robo-Snake arm, if long enough, could reach out to examine all those nooks and crannies, while also performing other functions as well  Maybe, the most important “other function” would be as an arm to help the Rover get un-stuck, after it squeezes itself into too tight a spot.  In fact, the tentacle-like arm could grab nearby objects to help pull the Rover free of an obstruction or push the Rover out of a tight spot.

However, from an entertainment standpoint, the Rover and his pet Robo-Snake, as a team, would defy the conventional wisdom that robots are not all that interesting in leading roles.  With only two robots, how interesting could the relationship be?  When have just a couple of robots, alone, entertained anyone?

Well, it happened at least once.  R2-D2 and C3PO formed the ideal, model relationship for our Rover – Robo Snake team.  With the Rover designed as an all terrain vehicle and the Snake designed to behave . . . like a snake, there are bound to be temperamental or, rather, programming differences between the two, just as there were differences between the effervescent R2-D2 and the diplomatic C3PO.  I can imagine a constant dialog between the Snake and Rover warning, admonishing, and critiquing (if not nagging) each other over every petty detail of their mission in a style uniquely pioneered by the Star Wars robotic duo.

Aside from the progressive improvement in the quality of special effects, the introduction of R2-D2 and C3PO brought an entirely new dimension to the portrayal of robots on screen.  While sci-fi aficionados will point, quite accurately, to the distinct personal eccentricities and mannerisms of almost every movie and television robot, the robotic Star Wars duo left subtlety out of the equation displaying quite decidedly dimensioned personality traits.

R2-D2, the small message carrying droid of the first (or is it the IVth) Star Wars film, introduced Luke Skywalker to, at least, the image of Princess Leia.  Then, R2D2 led the future Jedi Knight to his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  R2-D2 is always accompanied by C3PO, a “protocol droid” developed to assist in matters of “etiquette, customs, and translation”   And it is this last ability, translation, that defined C3PO’s role in relation to R2-D2 who, while occasionally uttering surprisingly understandable whistles and chirps, had no human language capabilities.  C3PO translated R2D2’s statements for the benefit of human listeners (and audiences).  The two displayed an almost childlike relationship.  They engaged in busy conversations and seemed to be on the verge of bickering rather than chatting most of the time.

The rather sophisticated character development of these robots, in contrast to earlier robotic film stars, was illustrated by actor Anthony Daniels’ refusal to take the offered role of C3PO.  After all, what actor would want the limited role of a robot?  However, after reading the script, Daniels accepted the role realizing the substance and range offered by the robotic performance.

Likewise, R2D2 was more than a prop — even behind the scenes.  Portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor said, “As soon as R2-D2 comes on the set, everyone goes a bit silly.”  McGregor said that the small robot inspired affection.  It surely did with no less than George Lucas who has said that R2D2 was his favorite character.

The Robot Hall of Fame was created in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University “to recognize excellence in robotics technology.”  Since then, a number of real and fictional robots have been induced:

Robby the Robot inducted 2004

R2-D2 inducted 2003

C3PO inducted 2004

To its shame, the Robot Hall of Fame has yet to induct B9 of Lost in Space.  In my opinion, this is a glaring (and almost unforgivable) omission.  B9 was not even among the candidates considered in 2012.  However, in an NBC People’s Choice Poll, B9 received many write-in votes.  More surprising was a respectable showing in the same poll by the animated robot “Bender” from Futurama.  Even as a fan of that series, I must confess that, to win induction, a robot should at least rise to some standards.  Unfortunately, Bender takes pride in sinking below them all.

What would my favorite Cinderella robotic candidate be?  Well, if I had to pick, it would be Red Dwarf’s “Kryten” portrayed by Robert Llewellyn.

And so, dear reader, I will end with the obvious question:  What or who is your pick as the best sci-fi fantasy robot of all time?
























Mark Grossman: “Blood Moons,” Eclipses & Tetrads

24 April 2014

Well, the moon’s been in the news lately.  Just a few nights ago, I was outside and looked up to see the moon almost covered by a dark grey shadow.  But even through the shadow, I could see the silhouette of the round moon, but it was dark red.

I checked the internet and found a few stories about the “Blood Moon.”

Blood moon: Lunar eclipse gazers mesmerized as red hue lights up sky

So, what’s a “Blood Moon?”  Even though I’ve been an amateur astronomer for many, many years, I don’t get a lot of chances to look up into the sky, and this latest eclipse took me surprise.  Even more surprising was a strange new name for an eclipse: “Blood Moon.”

“Blood Moon” is a new term.  I know it sounds old and mythological or like something from an ancient legend, but the “Blood Moon” is something new.  There’ve been a few novels and stories with the words “blood” and “moon” in the titles. But I’ve never heard of the term used to describe an eclipse before.

As near as I can tell, this is the first time anyone has called an eclipse a blood moon.  But considering that the eclipsed moon always appears to be dark red, maybe “Blood Moon” isn’t such a bad name.  But, before I go on . . .

A lunar eclipse happens when the earth comes between the sun and moon.  The earth literally casts a shadow directly on the moon.  Considering the speed of the moon, the shadow steals over the moon suddenly.  The whole process can be over in less than two hours.  A lunar eclipse always happens at the time of the full moon, so the sudden darkening of the moon stands out.

Lunar Eclipse -Wikipedia

During a lunar eclipse, the moon is “said” to disappear.  But it never does.  You see something that looks like a thick dark grey cloud suddenly begin to cover the moon.  But, after the moon is covered, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that you can always see the round circle of the moon.  But the eclipsed moon is very dark and always distinctly red-ish.  In other words, all eclipses produce a red moon.

Next question.  What’s a “tetrad?”  Well, I’ve been an amateur astronomer for many years, and I’d never heard of a “tetrad” before.  Tetrad means “four” of something, but I’d never heard the words applied to the moon or lunar eclipses.  There are some good definitions of a “tetrad” of lunar eclipses, but they were just a bit hard to find.

The “tetrad,” refers to four eclipses: the first one just happened and there are three more to come.  What makes these four eclipses so special?  It’s the timing.  After last week’s lunar eclipse, there will be six full moons.  Then, during the seventh full moon, there will be another lunar eclipse.  Then, after this second lunar eclipse, there will, again, be another six full moons.  Then, during the seventh full moon, there will be a third lunar eclipse.  After this third eclipse, there will be another six full moons.  Then, during the seventh full moon, (you guessed it,) there will another, the fourth, lunar eclipse.

So, we have four eclipses with exactly six full moons between each eclipse.  And there are no, even partial, eclipses in between each of the four.  That’s “the tetrad.”  We assume that, after the fourth eclipse of the tetrad, the next eclipse will break the pattern.  If, of course, there’s another eclipse after this tetrad is over.

What would stop future eclipses?  The end of time.

The term “Blood Moon” has never been used to describe an eclipse or a tetrad before.  But two Christian pastors, Mark Blitz and John Hagee, have described the eclipses of this tetrad as the “Blood Moons.”  Maybe that’s why the term has started popping up.  One of the two, John Hagee, has written the book, Four Blood Moons: Something is About to Change.  Apparently, the moon is supposed to turn blood red just before the end of time.

I, for one, hope that we’re not all heading for our “final” three eclipses.  But, one way or another, mark you calendars:

1st Eclipse:    April 14-15, 2014

2nd Eclipse:  October 7-8, 2014

3rd Eclipse:   April 4, 2015

4th Eclipse:   September 28, 2015


Mark Grossman: What Einstein Didn’t Say about Bees


10 April 2014


In 1994, a quote attributed to Albert Einstein appeared in popular circulation:

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Einstein didn’t say that. If the great scientist ever said anything about bees, publicly, he was probably quoting someone else. The statement above was made by whoever circulated the quote in 1994 and “creatively” attributed it to Einstein.

But, then, who said it?

The prize for the closest match goes to Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck who said in his 1901 book, “The Life of the Bee”:

“[You’ve seen the bee] to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and fruits (for it is actually estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them), and possibly even our civilization, for in these mysteries all things intertwine.”

While not packing quite the punch of the modern (apocryphal) Einstein quote, Maeterlinck is perhaps the oldest commentator to link the disappearance of bees with a dire result for humanity.

While there’s no record of Einstein ever saying anything about bees, there is a short history of bee quotations attributed to him.

The Canadian Bee Journal” included a bee quotation attributed to Einstein, in 1941, but no one has ever been able to actually link the quote to Einstein. Even the writer says that he or she is quoting from memory:

“Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.”

Not until 1966, did “The Irish Beekeeper” attribute a bee quotation to Einstein that mentioned the end of mankind:

“Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared.”

But no one can find any source of, or reference to, the quotation above. “The Irish Beekeeper” attributed the quote to a 1965 issue of a French periodical, Abeilles et fleurs.   Unfortunately, despite a thorough search of that periodical’s contents, no such quote, attributed to Einstein or anyone else, could be found.

In his 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, Biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote:

“[I]f all [the bees] were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months.”

But this is, certainly, Wilson’s statement and not anyone else’s.

Finally, during a 1994 demonstration by beekeepers in Brussels, members of the National Union of French Apiculture handed out pamphlets attributing the following quotation to Albert Einstein:

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”

Again, Al never said that.  And we may never know who did.

























Mark Grossman: What is the Eastern Carpenter Bee?

24 April 2014


A native of the eastern United States, the eastern carpenter bee (formally, xylocopa virginica) is one of several species of carpenter bees native to North America.    The “Eastern” carpenter is black except for a furry yellow abdomen.  But the male “Eastern” has a patch of white or yellow on his face.  Both males and females have a shiny black abdomen, which clearly distinguishes “Eastern’s” from the furry bumble bee.

Although all bees are social, the carpenter, like the bumble bee, is the nearest thing to a “loner” bee.  These bees don’t fly in groups when they’re searching for flowers.  A lone carpenter flies alone wandering (“foraging”) from flower to flower gathering pollen and eating nectar.

Like most other types of carpenters, the Eastern is an important pollinator of open face flowers.  Most bees draw nectar up and out of the blossom, but  the Eastern can be a “nectar robber.”   These bees “rob nectar” by tunneling into the sides of flowers in the same way they tunnel into wood to build their nests.

And it’s this tunneling behavior that earns these bees the name “carpenter.”  Easterns, like all carpenters, build their nests in the hollow areas they create in soft wood.  They have a reputation for damaging wooden structures that is not completely deserved.  Woodpeckers seek out carpenter bee larvae for food and frequently “do most of the damage” when they peck on the wood near the carpenter bees’ nest.

Mark Grossman: What is a “Blood Moon”?


Mark Grossman: What is a “Blood Moon”?

24 April 2014


No one is exactly sure what a “Blood Moon” is.  The term sounds like it must come from ancient mythology or legends, but it doesn’t.  Actually, it’s quite new.  With the recent lunar eclipse, the term “Blood Moon” suddenly became “all the rage” with everyone describing the eclipse as a “Blood Moon.”

Blood moon: Lunar eclipse gazers mesmerized as red hue lights up sky  [story & video]

A lunar eclipse is a sudden darkening of the, otherwise, full moon caused by the earth coming between the Sun and the Moon.  In other words, the earth casts a shadow on the moon causing it to suddenly “disappear”

But not quite.

Those of us who’ve seen a few lunar eclipses can tell you that the moon never completely disappears during an eclipse.  First, a thick, dark grey, smoky-looking shadow creeps over the moon.  But just behind the edge of the creeping darkness you can make out a dim, but distinctly visible, round moon.  But this darkened moon always has a dark reddish color.  So, every eclipse produces a very dim and dark-red moon.

Even though no one has ever called it a “Blood Moon” before, the name is catching on.  But, to be accurate, there has been at least one special significance given to the name “Blood Moon.”  Two Christian Pastors have pointed to a biblical prophecy in which the appearance of a series of blood-red moons signals the end of time.   See: Four Blood Moons: Something Is about to Change

Mark Grossman: Bees — What’s with the Buzz?


10 April 2014

Ms. Bee, why do you buzz?

First, mechanics. When the bee flaps its small wings with amazing speed, it creates a gust of wind. Well, actually, it creates a lot of short, strong gusts of wind, so sudden and definite, that we hear it as a buzz. Flies buzz and so do other insects.

Second, some bees buzz even when they’re not flying. Bumblebees are known for their characteristically loud buzz.  However, unlike hive-dwelling honeybees, bumblebees don’t just buzz when they’re flying.  They can, and do, produce that same buzz without moving their wings.  And it is just the vibration from this flightless buzz that makes them uniquely valuable pollinators of certain crops.

After landing on a blossom, the large bumblebee grabs the blossom and holds it tightly.  While maintaining this tight grip, it strongly vibrates while remaining stationary.  Nothing less than the bumblebee’s strong vibration will assure pollination by shaking loose sufficient quantities of the thick pollen produced by certain species of plants.  No other bee could do this job as consistently or successfully.

Bumbles are specially suited to pollinate a variety of cash crops including tomatoes, cranberries, almonds, apples, zucchinis, avocados, and plums.  Their unique style of pollination accounts for about 3 billion dollars in produce each year.

Third, recent speculation suggests that bees may buzz to enhance their electronic communication. Yes, electronic communication ! Honeybees communicate with each other through a variety of dances. One of the bees’ “steps” is the waggle dance. When a single bee discovers an area rich in pollen and honey, the bee returns to the hive and does the waggle dance. The bee’s dance moves inform the other bees of the location of the blooms that will provide the most food.

We always thought it was the waggler’s dance moves that did the talking. But, now, we’re not so sure. Researchers discovered that honeybees generate and pick up an electrical charge when they fly.  The charge is so strong that the flying honeybee produces an electrical field.  And the waggle-dancing bee produces a strong electrical field – so strong that it is known to move the antennae of the bees “in the audience.”

What does all this have to do with buzzing? Well, guess what makes the dancing bee’s electrical field even stronger? Sound. The sound of buzzing. So, the buzz of the honeybee may not just be the sound of its wings, but an electronic amplifier that works like a loud speaker to broadcast its message louder and farther.

Fourth, . . .  could the bee’s buzz be a warning?  Does the buzz of a swarm of bees scare-off persons or animals that might, otherwise, interfere with the bees’ work or disturb their hive?  Frankly, when I started writing, I was planning to list only three reasons why bees buzz. But, then, I imagined the sound of a swarm of bees buzzing. The sound brought a knee-jerk reaction – alarm – and I wanted to get away fast.  My urge was more of a reflex than a thought.   And, then, I remembered a story about a movie.

It was rumored that the sound of a swarm of agitated bees was inserted into the soundtrack of the 1973 horror film, The Exorcist.  As the story goes, to keep audience tensions high during relatively quiet scenes, director William Friedkin, inserted the sound of a swarm of agitated bees into the soundtrack. No one actually heard the sounds because no one was supposed to hear them. The recording of the agitated bees was intentionally introduced at a subliminal level of volume. That is, the recording was played at a volume too low to be consciously heard. But the volume was sufficient to allow viewers (and listeners) to unconsciously “hear” the buzzing swarm and react with their own fear and agitation.

Whether true or not, the story assumes that the sound of the buzzing of a swarm of angry bees is terrifying to human beings. So, maybe the bees’ buzz has yet another purpose:  It keeps meddlers at a distance while the bees do their work.

Mark Grossman: The Emu – Green Eggs But No Ham


20 March  2014


Africa has its ostrich, and America has its, lesser known, rhea.  But Australia has its emu.  On first sight, this large, grey-brown bird is unmistakably the close relative of both the ostrich and rhea.  However, the emu is the “character” of the family — the odd one in this not so typical family of birds.


Like its cousins, the emu is a flightless bird.  And, also, like it cousins, it’s fast.  So, even if it can’t fly, it can run faster than any other animal in Australia.  At 31 miles per hour, the emu ranks as the second fasted bird on earth — second only to its African cousin, the ostrich.  At a height reaching up to a bit over six-and-a-half feet and weighing as much as 130 pounds, the emu enjoys the distinction of being the largest bird in Australia.  But, again, in terms of size, the emu is only the second largest bird in the world.  The largest?  You guessed it.  Cousin Ostrich.

Although sharing the ostrich’s unmistakable form and profile, in terms of appearance, the emu is not only smaller than its African cousin, but has brown colored plumage –  just a touch drabber than the grey-brown feathers of its other cousin, the Rhea.  Maybe to make up for its drab feathers, nature has favored the emu with a blue neck.   This relatively bright “collar” give the bird a bit of color while allowing it to conceal itself by lowering its head and neck for purposes of camouflage.

Camouflage?  This bird is over 6 feet tall.  Who’s going to mess with it?  Actually, the emu has predators in the wild, unpopulated “Outback” of Australia.   Both eagles and hawks attack emus from the air.   But there’s a catch.  The emus that are grabbed and carried off by eagles and hawks are young birds that have not yet reached their adult height and weight.

Could a flying bird carry off a full grown emu?  Well, even in the Out-est of the Outback, there are no birds that big.  The young victims have few defenses beyond their speed and a peculiar swerving run they share with Cousin Rhea.  At times, Emus extend their relatively small wings to keep their balance as the run in an evasive swerving pattern.

Dingos, a member of the grey wolf family, are the only predator of the full grown bird.  Even if emu’s lose some fights for survival with this free ranging dog of the Outback, the emu brings a serious weapon to the fight – its feet.

Like Cousin Rhea, the emu has 3 toes on its clawed feet.  This is unusual for birds, which often have a fourth “opposing” toe used to grip branches and other natural perches.   Three toe, tridactyl, clawed feet are found in birds that, like the emu, walk and run on flat ground instead of flying.  And the emu has really big, mean clawed feet.  Mean?  Yes, mean.  Emus have been known to use their feet to rip through wire fences.  You really don’t want to get these birds angry or get in their way when they’re going somewhere.


And emus like to get where they’re going.  Not favoring flocks, these birds often travel in pairs.  They run at high speed and are unruffled by water.  When a body of water comes between an emu and where it wants to go, it just jumps in and swims.

When these birds aren’t running or swimming, they pause to feed on a variety of insects and plants.  They have excellent eye-sight.  When they’re not eating, they like to groom or “preen” their “plumage” or look around and “investigate.”

Noted for their curiosity, emus will approach humans – especially if they see movement or a colorful piece of clothing.  These birds have been known to follow and watch humans in the wild.  And, once you attract an emu’s attention, it might not be so easy to give an interested bird “the slip.”   Hoping that an emu will go away if you “just ignore it” doesn’t always work.   And, be warned: emus seem to have a sense of humor.  They have been known to approach humans and other animals and poke them with their beak and, then, run away.  Observers have the impression that this is a kind of “game” for the large bird.

The emu’s “call” is not like a bird’s call at all.  The emu makes a loud drumming or thumping sound.  That’s all.  And . . .  did I say it was loud?  It can be heard a little over a mile away.  The emu’s call enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame on the animated television series, King of the Hill .   In one episode, (Season 6, Episode 17, “Fun with Jane and Jane”), the emus “sing” the theme song with the closing credits.  Of course, there’s no music involved.  The animated birds simply intone a series of loud thumps in lieu of the regular theme.

Although there is no recognizable difference in appearance that distinguishes the male from the female.   But emus generally roam in pairs.  The pair consists of one male and one female.  But this pairing ends, more or less, with mating season.  Wait . . . the male-female pairingends with mating season?  Yes.  It’s strange.  But that’s only the beginning of the strangeness.

Emus don’t abandon the male-female stereotypes in mating.  They reverse them.

During mating season, the females become aggressive and begin to court the relatively passive males.  A female will circle around the potential male mate drawing closer and closer.  If another passing female develops an attraction for the same male, it may, and often does, start a fight.  During mating season, fights among females are common with a single fight sometimes lasting for hours.

After mating, the male builds its nest.  And it is the male’s nest.  The female will lay eggs in the nest, but not sit on the eggs.  The male cares completely for eggs, and will lose about a third of his body-weight because of its inability to leave the nest and obtain food.   After laying her eggs, the mating female will often seek out another male, mating with as many males as possible during the mating season.

The emu’s eggs are . . . interesting . . . because they are large: over 5 inches long and weighing as much as 2 pounds.  Also, they are green.  When freshly laid, the emu’s eggs are a light green.  You might ask, “Then, they turn white, right?”  No, they don’t.  They get greener and greener until they reach the shade of an avocado.


The eggs hatch about 56 days after they are laid.  The newly hatched chicks weigh a little over a pound and are about 5 inches tall.  They can leave the nest within days, but will stay with their defending father for about 6 or 7 months learning how to find food and reaching their full adult size.  However, the young can spend as long as a year in this family circle before taking off on their own.  An emu can live as long as 20 years.


Emus are raised for meat in Australia, the United States, Peru, and China. The USDA classifies emu as red, poultry meat.  Emu skin is used to produce a distinctive type of leather.  Oil from emu fat is used for cosmetics and dietary supplements.  Although emu oil has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory, therapeutic product, the US FDA has classified emu oil as an “unapproved drug.”

The emu is prized as a cultural icon in Australia appearing with the red kangaroo on the Coat of arms of Australia and the Australian 50 cent coin.   The bird has been featured on a number of Australian postage stamps and is the namesake of mountains, lakes, towns and even a brand of beer.