My First Trilobite

I’ve been aware of fossils since my dino fanboy days in Greenwich Country Day School, and I used to collect them in a small way on family trips to Gotland. Back home, I would put fossils in malt vinegar and see bits of shell emerge from the limestone matrix. But I never found a trilobite.

Trilobites are the best fossils. Detailed, complicated, and often complete, unlike for instance the crinoids I would find of which only bits of stem like corrugated cigarette butts remained. More structure to the trilobites than to the orthoceratites every Swede treads on in the limestone stairs and hallways of early 20th century public buildings. But trilobites are uncommon or absent from the strata along the coast of Gotland, so I never found one. Until not too long ago, on the front porch of my dad’s house near Stockholm.

In the 50s and 60s, there was a gardening fad in Sweden where people would cover their patios and garden walks with red Öland limestone. I grew up with that stone everywhere, and maybe there were trilobites in it though I never saw one. My first trilobite sits right outside my dad’s front door.

The Öland Red dates from the Ordovician, about 488–444 million years ago. I can’t tell what species the trilobite is. Can you, Dear Reader?

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The Protectionworthiness of the Cuddly

Facebook is swamped with pictures of cats at shelters that face imminent euthanasia. Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund has an ad on the Tradera auction site that says “Soft, Orange and Homeless” and invites me to support orangutan shelters.

There’s a reason that these campaigns don’t feature fish or lizards. And that reason is that cats and young orangutans happen to be cuddly and the size of human babies. But disregarding our parental reflexes, there is no more (or less) reason to mourn a dead cat than the chicken you had for dinner yesterday.

But I’m willing to believe that an orangutan is sentient or smart enough to fall under the same rules that declare a human life sacred. And so, probably, are dolphins, octopuses and certain parrots. This is a dangerous argument though, because it removes the duty to care for severely mentally retarded humans.

Pragmatically, if you want to collect funds for orangutan shelters, it’s probably a good idea to appeal to our baby protection programming rather than our intellects. But really, if it was a question of rational argument in the competition against other endangered species that need support, it would have been better if the WWF had written “This young orangutan is smarter than you were at that age”.

I really don’t know why the PR firm thinks the colour orange makes you more deserving of protection though.

Name That Moth

Early this morning this little guy found a really good crack in some wood where s/he could sleep during the day. Unfortunately the crack turned out to be the space between the gate to our yard and the door jamb, so all day the sleeper has been see-sawing to and fro as we have opened and closed the door. I don’t know what kind of moth it is, only that it looks lovely. Can you identify it, Dear Reader? To narrow down the possibilities, note that this moth lives on the inner margin of the Stockholm archipelago at about N 59° 18′, E 18° 15′.

Update same evening: Johan Lundgren pinpointed the moth: it’s a Yellow Line Quaker, Agrochola macilenta, or as Ansa Messner adds, lädergult backfly in Swedish. They aren’t very common in August, preferring to fly during the autumn.

Birds Prophesying Spring

For the past two weeks I’ve been hearing more and more birdsong. The bullfinch is singing his characteristic snowmelt ditty, and the woodpecker is making territorial drumrolls. Some other species of small bird is having these noisy cocktail parties where they fill a tree and chatter for hours. But the winter is far from over yet. We have lots of snow and it was -9ºC this morning. It must be the lengthening daylight that triggers those bird brains. And today two magpies have started fussing absentmindedly about the big nest outside our bathroom window.

Swedes Confused About Slugs

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All multicellular land species of life in Scandinavia are invasive: the area was covered by kilometres of ice until yesterday, geologically speaking. But some species are more recent invaders than others. Where I live, we currently have three species of large-bodied snail or slug: the Black slug (Arion ater, Sw. svart skogssnigel), the Burgundy snail (Helix pomatia, Sw. vinbergssnäcka) and the Spanish slug, (Arion vulgaris, Sw. spansk skogssnigel). That’s the order in which they arrived: the Blacks during prehistory, the Burgundians most likely during the Middle Ages, and the Spaniards from 1975 onward.

Now, both of our two species of slug vary a lot in their looks, and their ranges of variation coincide to such an extent that the public can’t tell them apart. The only rule seems to be that unlike the Spaniards, some Blacks are really coal black. Out of 1200 specimens of suspected Spaniards submitted to the Gothenburg Museum of Natural History in the 1980s, 60% were actually endemic Blacks. But they behave differently: the Spaniards are serious garden pests and not very cold-tolerant, while the Blacks are less problematic to gardeners but more hardy. Also, the Spaniards are notable for cannibalism, giving them the ominous vernacular name “Killer slug”, Sw. mördarsnigel.

To my annoyance, many people born after the Spaniards came to Sweden now don’t know that the Black slug exists and is no great problem for gardeners. Yesterday I saw a little girl kill a slug she found on a bike path. When I asked her why, she explained that it was a killer slug and must be killed, or it would ruin somebody’s garden. “Killer slugs are brown, have no shell and look like turds.” She’d never heard of the Black slug. When I explained that most slugs that look like turds are not killer slugs, she asked, “So how do I tell them apart?”. “You can’t”, I replied.