My New Neighbours, the Beavers

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When I was a kid, beavers were kind of exotic animals that lived in distant parts, like bears or wolverines. Over the past decade or two though, they’ve multiplied here in Nacka municipality, much as the wild boar population has exploded in this part of Sweden. Still, the beavers haven’t really reached my part of Nacka — until now.

Today I found their tell-tale felled trees on the edge of the fen next to the Östervik commuter train station, a few minutes by bike from my home. This means that soon we’ll see them in Lake Lundsjön / Dammsjön where we swim every summer! (It used to be two lakes before the drainage was dammed, raising Dammsjön’s surface level until it joined with Lundsjön.) Welcome, beavers!

Update 18 May: The beavers are getting around, looking for more habitat. Local newspaper Nacka Värmdö Posten reports that one of them was found in the Södra länken highway tunnel complex in the small hours of last Thursday. The police came with two patrol cars, caught the beaver and set it free in nearby Lake Sickla whence it had probably come.


Signs of Spring

Last Wednesday I saw the first snowdrop. Last Saturday I heard the first blackbird evensong. Magpies are making these soft chirping noises that spell “let’s get it on”. This morning it was above 5 Celsius in the shade, and I skipped my long-johns for the first time this year. And when I went out the door, my daughter pointed out the first scilla bud. Spring is here!

Dear Reader, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, what signs of spring have you seen?

Monday Miscellany

  • On Sunday 14 November at 1400 hrs I’m giving a talk on the aristocracy of the 1st millennium AD at the Town Museum of Norrköping, Holmbrogränd.
  • On Monday 15 November I’m speaking at a seminar in Gothenburg about social media and scientific and political communication. My talk will be some time between 1300 and 1600 hrs, and treat of how I as a professional research scholar take part in the writing of Wikipedia. The venue is most likely at the IT University, ForskningsgÃ¥ngen 6 on Lindholmen.
  • On Thursday 9 December some time after lunch I’m speaking at a seminar in Stockholm about the current and future conditions of the humanities in Sweden. The venue is Storgatan 41, stora sessionssalen, and the organisers are the Forum for Heritage Research.
  • For those who heard my talks about pseudoarchaeology in Oslo and Uppsala and wonder who Finland’s equivalent of Erich von Däniken is: Finnish colleagues inform me that it’s Jukka “Jukkis” Nieminen, author of The Lost Kingdom of Finland. Yay! But as Peter Olausson points out to me, also check out Ior Bock
  • My part-time employers, the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, have decided upon the same enlightened publication policy for their books as for the journal Fornvännen. Full text Open Access publication six months after the paper version appears! Agrarian historian Janken Myrdal’s biography of his University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign colleague Folke Dovring is already available as a free e-book in English. I am particularly pleased with this step as my own upcoming book on Late Iron Age Östergötland under the Academy’s imprimatur will receive the same treatment.
  • Emma Vodoti has defended an interesting PhD thesis about invertebrate taxonomy at the University of Gothenburg. In the age of cheap DNA sequencing, the whole Linnaean edifice is going through some radical restructuring as it turns out that skin-deep classification criteria are not always enough to track real evolutionary genealogy.
  • Tobias Bondesson has sent me the full 7-page document (in Swedish) where the EU reprimands the Kingdom of Sweden on its restrictive metal detector legislation.
  • Jack of Kent comments on the TAM London skeptics’ conference on The New Statesman’s blog site.
  • Joacim Lund comments on the Kritisk masse skeptics’ conference in Aftenposten.
  • The European Association of Archaeologists is having its Annual Meeting in Oslo in 2011.
  • UK Museums are removing mummies and other human remains from display because of pressure from religious minorities including neopagans. At least they’re not caving in to demands for reburial. (Thanks to Christina Reid and Roger Wikell for the tip-off.)
  • A group headed by my old undergrad buddy Sven Isaksson has identified a biomarker that allows a test for yeast in ancient pottery. This will offer new data for the debate on the function of the Beaker culture’s essential piece of kitchenware!

Dorrik Stow’s Vanished Ocean

i-7b12fe56cce214cfb99561d02d602c29-vanishedocean.jpgIn his fine new book Vanished Ocean, geologist Dorrik Stow uses the biography of one of our planet’s vanished oceans to teach the reader a wide range of veeery long-term perspectives on geological history. The ocean that geologists call the Tethys came into being when the Pangaea supercontinent coalesced in the Late Permian, 260 million years ago. Its last vestige finally disappeared when one of the Mediterranean sea’s forerunners dried up 6.5 million years ago.

Along the way, Stow explains plate tectonics, the birth and death of seas, deep-sea sedimentation (his research speciality) and a lot of palaeontology and palaeoecology. Stow describes his travels to relevant rock outcroppings around the world and takes some time at the start of each chapter to wax eloquent over the current scenery in each area, not forgetting to offer wine suggestions.

The main point of controversy that I could detect is that Stow does not believe that an impacting space rock caused the K-T mass extinction, nor that this extinction was a brief catastrophic event. In fact, he thinks that the public has been “thoroughly hoodwinked” on this issue (p. 180). Stow looks more to long-term ecological change and the Deccan supervolcanoes. To me his arguments appear sound, but I know that they don’t convince most of his colleagues, so I’ll just go with their consensus and continue to believe that an impact killed off the dinosaurs.

A smaller point of contention is that Stow repeatedly compares the last land-lubbing ancestor of whales and dolphins to a hyaena. This may be true in the outward shape of the beast in question, but taxonomically speaking it was an ungulate, not a member of the Carnivora. This would have been worth mentioning.

An extensive glossary and an alphabetical index add to the book’s value.

My main complaint with the book has to do with copy editing: Dorrik Stow has a tendency to purple prose and sometimes doesn’t appear to know quite what certain big words mean. He would have come across as a more trustworthy narrator if someone had helped him weed out expressions like “oceans are bathed”, “island archipelago”, “those halcyon seas”, “rich pastiche of history”, “fought for prowess in the sky”, “we can measure and even quantify”, and “We have dwelt too long in the opulence and security of her balmy central gyres and so seen pernicious death descend”.

Then there’s the whole poetry thing. I’m not a fan of Pablo Neruda, but the man is a legendary poet and a Nobel laureate, and so it’s no surprise that his collection Stones of the Sky has supplied a number of chapter mottoes. But there’s another poet who gets to introduce almost as many chapters – Dorrik Stow himself. His bits aren’t bad, but quoting your own poetry about palaeontology, and putting it alongside excerpts from Pablo Neruda, does look a bit self-congratulatory.

All in all though, I found Vanished Ocean to be a lively, engaging and solidly informative read, which even manages to make deep-ocean sedimentology look pretty exciting. And that is no small achievement.

Dorrik Stow, Vanished Ocean. How Tethys Reshaped the World. Oxford University Press 2010. 300 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-921428-0.

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Sunday Mushrooms


Yesterday’s walk in the woods near Drevinge garnered us the following:

  • Shaggy ink cap, Fjällig bläcksvamp, Coprinus comatus
  • Terracotta hedgehog, Rödgul taggsvamp, Hydnum rufescens
  • Shingled hedgehog, Fjällig taggsvamp, Sarcodon imbricatus
  • Common puffball, VÃ¥rtig röksvamp, Lycoperdon perlatum
  • Velvet bolete, Sandsopp, Suillus variegatus
  • Copper brittlegill, Tegelkremla, Russula decolorans
  • Birch bolete, Björksopp, Leccinum scabrum

I’ve never picked the ink caps before as I knew that the Common ink cap is poisonous at least in combination with alcohol. But now I know better. The shaggies are always plentiful around here!

This autumn holds a small anniversary for me and my wife. She moved in with me in January of 2000. In September of that year we bought a mushroom spotter’s guide and wrote both our names in it. Arguably, a couple can’t really get any more married than that. And now we’ve used the book for ten years!


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Science Fraud in Swedish Transplantation Biology

A week ago, the Swedish Research Council’s expert panel for the investigation of suspected science fraud delivered its findings regarding Suchitra Holgersson, professor of transplantation biology in the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg. The panel finds Holgersson, who joined the Academy two years ago, guilty of severe science fraud in several cases where she has fabricated data (published i.a. in the Blood journal) and distorted results, and also in that she has forged documents in attempts to mislead the expert panel itself during the investigation.

Professor Holgersson’s own PhD students blew the whistle on her. Being a woman and an immigrant isn’t any easier in science than anywhere else. But among Holgersson’s students, whose work has been compromised by her fabrications, are immigrant women too.

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At my wife’s suggestion, I quit work 1½ hour early today and cycled with her and the kids into the woods to pick mushrooms. Lovely sunny afternoon, and I can report that the hills between Lakes Lundsjön and Trehörningen are rich in boletes right now. Here are the species we got:

  • King bolete, Stensopp/Karl Johan, Boletus edulis
  • Velvet bolete, Sandsopp, Suillus variegatus
  • Orange Birch Bolete, Tegelsopp, Leccinum versepelle
  • Copper brittlegill, Tegelkremla, Russula decolorans
  • Chanterelle, Kantarell, Cantharellus cibarius
  • FÃ¥rticka, Albatrellus ovinus

Dinosaur Fountain Sculptures

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The centre piece of St. Mary’s square/park in Stockholm is a brass sculpture group in a fountain, sculpted by Anders Wissler and put in place in 1903. It depicts the god Thor at the moment when he’s fished the Midgard serpent up to the ocean surface and prepares to whack it in the head with his hammer. The serpent looks like a standard-issue Medieval dragon. But to either side of it are smaller lizard-like beasts that are clearly modelled after late-19th century palaeontology’s ideas about dinosaurs. One is a plesiosaur. The other one, I don’t know, but it’s got a cylindrical snout, crocodile teeth and snorts water through its nostrils.



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Snorkeling, Eels and Sample Bias

I’ve been fishing, swimming and walking the shoreline around my mom’s summer house for almost 30 years, and so I have a pretty good idea of what kinds of fish there are out there. Most of them I have only seen during fishing with nets, so it’s clear that the visible sample of fish species depends on your methods. I have never seen an eel.

Another thing I have hardly ever done around my mom’s summer place is snorkeling. But during the past week, seeing as it’s an unusually warm summer with unusually clear water, I’ve taken up that pastime. Of course, it’s not anything like the coral reefs of Eilat or the waters around Phuket, but still, it’s good fun to see what’s under those waves I’ve swum so many times.

I saw two fine pikes (Esox lucius, gädda), one of which was hiding its head under bladder wrack but leaving its rear exposed. I dived down and poked at the fish, and it zoomed away leaving a cartoonish cloud of disturbed bottom sediment. I saw a large bream (Abramis brama, braxen) grazing algae and watching me with a round eye. It left at high speed, tail fin working furiously, before I managed to poke it. It’s a herbivore, needs to move fast when large predators show up.

And I saw my first live wild eel (Anguilla anguilla, Ã¥l), right by our swimming cove. A big mutha, sinuously wavy, floating still just above the sand, pectoral fins moving lazily. Watched it for a long time, dived down, poked it, saw it swim away. We can’t catch eels with any of the equipment we’ve got, and so I’ve never seen one before. Lovely experience!

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Ant Killer

Last summer I battled with wasps: this years it’s ants. Small black ones have underground nests in our yard, and they usually don’t bother us much. But a hot and dry summer recently inspired them to investigate our house, where they found two things they really like: sugar and water. When we returned from a trip to the archipelago, a busy ant highway stretched from the side door through a bedroom, a corridor, the dining room and into the kitchen, where the main destinations were our candy cupboard and the sink. Thousands of tiny insects.

I bought some insecticide. It looks like pale pink ice-cream sprinkles, and in fact consists mainly of sugar. But mixed into the sugar are two chemicals: one that makes the stuff taste awful to children and other large animals, and another that kills insects. It’s imidakloprid, a synthetic nicotine analog. I put a pinch of the stuff in each nest opening I could find out in the yard, and placed a small dish of it by the ants’ entry-point into our house.

It was frighteningly effective. After a couple of hours, that busy ant highway across our floor was gone. Our yard was also deserted. All that remained were a few dead ants. Apparently, most of them ran home when they started to feel sick. And none of them were of course smart enough to avoid the bait: they’d climb over the dead and dying to reach the stuff and gobble it up.

I love the smell of imidakloprid in the morning. It smells like… victory.

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