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Door # 21: A tale of three fading buck-goats

“Julebukken” – the Yule Goat. 

A goat made of straw has commonly been observed among the paraphernalia that people put on display around Christmas times in the Nordic countries. Ask people what they symbolize and I bet that the majority would say just “Christmas” without having a further explanation at hand. It is very likely that the Yule Goat is a remnant from the pagan celebrations of the December solstice. The mythological origin of the Yule Goat is unclear (see Gunnell 1995).  It is probably of mixed origin because cultural evolution is often syncretic, – a blend of beliefs, mythologies, and practices from different sources and “ethno-folkloristic schools of thought”.  It has been speculated that the straw figure of the Yule Goat reflects some sort of pagan vegetation god ruling over grain growth and who required particular human attention around the winter solstice.

"Julebukk" - a common Christmas decoration.

“Julebukk” – a common Christmas decoration.

Others have associated Yule Goat with the Germanic thunder-god Thor, because he used two bucks to pull his chariot over the sky. Thor must have been an environmentally friendly god because these bucks were used as a food resource in Valhalla and if only he took great care to keep the bones and the skin, he could revive fully reincarnated goats the next day. The idea of a resurrected goat was dramatized in folk rituals of Nordic small communities by people who reenacted the death and revival of the Yule Buck in songs and theater performed on house visits by a ragged assembly of masked people. The central character in these folkloristic plays was a person either wrapped in straw or hides and carrying a goat head, sometimes also a hammer (like Thor). Right up to the mid nineteenth century, plays like these were practiced in Scandinavia. The traditions have several characteristics in common with Halloween and the Yule Buck masquerade apparently is a tradition that now seems to be fading and to be replaced by Halloween celebrations. In both cases there is an underlying theme of temporary breakdown and restoration of cosmological and moral order when cyclic time has gone the full circle. A small scale version of this idea is also at work around midnight, – the ghost hour. The Cristian tradition has tended to associate goats with naughty behaviours of all sorts, particularly in terms of sexuality. Goats were also at times associated with mythological creatures like Pan and with the Devil.

The Star Buck

The Babylonians divided the sky in 360 parts, but ancient astronomers also used twelve 30 degrees sectors of the sky to reference the positions of celestial bodies on the ecliptic, – the track that the sun appears to follow through the year.  Like the classic analogous clock with twelve sectors marking divisions of the day and night the zodiac is a clock for the earth’s revolution around the sun.  Because the rotation axis of the earth is tilted, the sun appears to draw an S-shaped path around the Earth.  From a northern perspective the maximum of the path is the summer solstice. The minimum is the winter solstice, when the zenith of the sun is farthest away from the Arctic and the days are shortest on the Northern hemisphere. The exact time for the solstice is not easy to determine, but ancient astronomers found that the winter solstice took place when the sun was in the sector of the star constellation called Capricornus. Claudius Ptolemy, who is known as the prime authority of  pre-Copernican cosmological texts, wrote in Book 1 chapter 11 of his very influential Tetrabiblos :

“For the sun turns when he is at the beginning of these signs and reverses his latitudinal progress, causing summer in Cancer and winter in Capricorn.”

Capricornus is Latin for “goat horn” and Capricorn is sometimes depicted as a goat, sometimes as half goat, half fish. Because the “turning point” of the sun at winter solstice was once at an imaginary latitude circle drawn through Capricornus, we say that the sun is turning at the Tropic of Capricorn. However, due to the swaying of the Earth’s rotation axis, winter solstice is no longer in Capricorn and the Tropic of Capricorn has also moved away so that, paradoxically, the Tropic of Capricorn is now passing through Sagittarius . When the Julian calendar took effect 45 years BC the solstice was celebrated on 25th of December, but apparently winter solstice was already about to leave Capricornus in the direction of Sagittarius.  Historians of astronomy think that Capricornus was already a marker of seasonal time about 2000 years BC.

The sun in Capricornus seen from Rome 45 years BP according to Stellarium.

The sun in Capricornus seen from Rome 45 years BP according to Stellarium.

 

The sum at winter solstice in 2016 seen from Rome according to Stellarium.

The sun at winter solstice in 2016 seen from Rome according to Stellarium.

Although much speculation has been put forward about the origins of Yule Buck, I suspect that the role of the goat in the sky has been undervalued when trying to understand the conducts and traditions of people in the Nordic countries around the winter solstice. Surely, the teaching of Ptolemy must have diffused somehow to ordinary people during the Medieval Ages. After all, Capricorn was the messenger of a better existence to come, if one could only sustain over the winter.

Resurrecting a goat
Goats that stood model for the Capricorn have been part of the human environments since long before they were painted on cave walls in Ardeche at the foot of the Pyrenees about 30000 years BC. Archaeological material from Jordan indicates that goats were domesticated already 7000 BC as one of the first of the ruminant species. Wild goats are members of the genus Capra and are distributed with several species over the Eurasian and African continents. Most of the wild goats are now regarded as more or less threatened species due to hunting pressure and habitat loss. In Spain the so-called bucardo goat was declared extinct in year 2000, when the last individual was hit by a falling tree in Oresa National Park.

The extinct subspecies of the Pyrenean Ibex. (Source Wikipedia)

The extinct subspecies of the Pyrenean Ibex. (Source Wikipedia)

An international group of biotechnologists set up experiments to resurrect the bucardo, which is considered as a subspecies of the Pyrenean Ibex, Capra pyrenaica. It is perhaps not likely that these scientists were inspired by the Nordic myth about Thor and his perpetual buck-goats. Nevertheless, they had already taken skin samples from the last living female the year before she died. With the frozen cells from the skin they had cellular nuclei with goat genome and also a plasma membrane with small amounts of cytoplasma. With a technique similar to the one that was pioneered by the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to clone the sheep Dolly, they replaced the cell contents of domestic goat eggs with somatic cell material from the dead ibex. Then they implanted the manipulated eggs into many substitute mothers of both domesticated goats and of females of the Spanish ibex. Only one of the embryos survived long enough to be released by cesarean section and it died only a few minutes after birth. Despite this and similar failed efforts to reconstruct extinct evolutionary lineages, it is still claimed by scientists who are involved in this business that such methods hold promise for rescuing rare and endangered species. But without making claims of being a specialist in conservation genetics I ask myself: how is it possible to save a species when all of the genetic variability in the population is lost. This may have been a problem already before the population went extinct because the sets of genes that run the immune system and code for the proteins that protect the body from foreign molecules, the so-called major histocompatibility complex, had already been observed to lack variability. Then of course, in the case of the extinct Pyrenean ibex there is also another problem that would be a major impediment in the reconstruction of a natural population. It is a problem of the missing Y-chromosome. Goat Y-chromosomes would be necessary to have functional males of reconstructed goats. Basically this is a problem that has also puzzled thinkers with respect to the child that allegedly was born by a virgin on the solstice 2000 years ago. Did he have a chromosome set from the father?

Merry solstice, Christmas, and Happy New Year!

EW


More reading

Folch, J. et al. (2009) First birth of an animal from an extinct subspecies (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) by cloning. Theriogenology 71:1026–1034.

Gunnell, T. (1995) The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.

Hinson, R. (2015) Goat. Reaction Books, London.

Lee, K. (2001) Can cloning save endangered species? Current Biology 11 (7): R245-R246

 

And we teach

In the practice part of the regular UiB Phylogenetics course (BIO332) we also invite participants from other Nordic universities who are members or associates of ForBio, the Research School in Biosystematics. This time we had guests from the University of Iceland, the University of Tromsø, the University of Nordland, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University of Oslo, Uppsala University, and University of Copenhagen.

Computer practice with tools for phylogenetic analysis. UiB 2015

Computer practice with tools for phylogenetic analysis. UiB 2015

More about… Fieldtrip to Mozambique – hunting for seaslugs

Chromodoris africana (Zavora, Inhambane). This species is part of a complex in need of revision where other "species" imaged here are also part of (e.g. Chromodoris hamiltoni, Hypselodoris regina, Chromodoris elisabethina)

Chromodoris africana (Zavora, Inhambane). This species is part of a complex in need of revision where other “species” imaged here are also part of (e.g. Chromodoris hamiltoni, Hypselodoris regina, Chromodoris elisabethina)

Chromodoris cf. elisabethina (Zavora, Inhambane)

Chromodoris cf. elisabethina (Zavora, Inhambane)

On the 27th January we left the subtropical latitudes and moved into the tropics where we established our base-camp in the town of Vilanculos overlooking the Bazaruto Archipelago Natural Park – a string of six islands surrounded by coral reefs. Regrettably a spiral of bureaucracy and administrative complications made impossible to obtain the necessary collecting permit to sample in the pristine reefs of the Natural Park. Alternative good sampling sites were not that easy to find and the weather conditions also didn’t help much with strong winds and some rain, resulting in a very choppy sea. We decided to move back south one day before scheduled and spend two days in the village of Paindane with great tidal and inshore reefs housing an extraordinary diversity of slugs. Here we sampled both at night- and day-time and was impressive to see the faunal differences between these two periods of the day.

Heading for snorkeling during spring tide in a tidal reef in Zavora.

Heading for snorkeling during spring tide in a tidal reef in Zavora.

On the 2nd February we travelled back to the village of Zavora where we had meet for the beginning of the campaign. We spend the last three days sampling in Zavora a truly hot spot for marine slugs; the diversity in the tidal and subtidal reefs exceeds anything I have experienced before. My colleagues from the Zavora Marine Lab have already registered the occurrence of nearly 200 species in these reefs and even so we managed to add to the list a few more!

Sorting the catch on the beach in Vilanculos with the Bazaruto Natural Park on the back scene

Overall, about 80 species were collected during our fieldtrip but the identification of several of them requires now detailed study and will integrate ongoing projects at the Natural History Museum of Bergen.

Chromodoris tennentana (Zavora, Inhambane)

Chromodoris tennentana (Zavora).

Hypselodoris nigrolineata (Zavora, Inhambane)

Hypselodoris nigrolineata (Zavora, Inhambane)

Hypselodoris nigrostriata (Zavora, Inhambane)

Hypselodoris nigrostriata (Zavora, Inhambane)

Goniobranchus cf. tinctorius (Vilanculos). This is part of another complex of species in need of systematic study

Goniobranchus cf. tinctorius (Vilanculos). This is part of another complex of species in need of systematic study

 

Nembrotha purpureolineata (Zavora).

Nembrotha purpureolineata (Zavora).

Flabellina rubrolineata (off Benguerra I, Bazaruto archipelago).

Flabellina rubrolineata (off Benguerra I, Bazaruto archipelago).

Protaeolidia cf. juliae, a cryptic nudibranch on its prey species of sea-fan coral.

Protaeolidia cf. juliae, a cryptic nudibranch on its prey species of sea-fan coral.

Micromelo undatus (Zavora). Presently at the University Museum we are revising the systematics of this species regarded as cosmopolitan but likely made up of three or four morphologically very similar lineages.

Micromelo undatus (Zavora). Presently at the University Museum we are revising the systematics of this species regarded as cosmopolitan but likely made up of three or four morphologically very similar lineages.

On the road

On the road between Vilanculos and Paindane at 90km/h…!

Fieldtrip to Mozambique – collecting sea slugs in the most diverse marine biota of the World

Chromodoris hamiltoni (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Chromodoris hamiltoni (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

A sand flat lined with mangroves and coconut trees (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

A sand flat lined with mangroves and coconut trees (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

The tropical Indo-West Pacific harbours the highest diversity of marine life in the World with many species still undescribed. In the region, the eastern coast of Africa is one of the less studied areas and few opisthobranchs gastropods have been recorded in Mozambique with a coastline of 2,700 km stretching across sub-tropical and tropical latitudes.

Heading for sampling on a sand flat with seagrass (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Heading for sampling on a sand flat with seagrass (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

 

Together with colleagues from the Zavora Marine Lab (Mozambique) I will be surveying the southern part of Mozambique between the village of Zavora – approximately 500 km north of the border with South Africa – and the tropical archipelago of Bazaruto. This 3-weeks fieldtrip (16 Jan–6 Feb) is part of an effort to document the diversity of opisthobranchs at a global scale and to understand the biogeography and speciation patterns of these molluscs.

After a couple of initial days in Zavora we headed north to the region of Inhambane, famous for its aggregations of manta rays and whale sharks where we spent about a week sampling for the far most spectacular sea slugs!

Roboastra gracilis (Paindane, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Roboastra gracilis (Paindane, Inhambane, Mozambique)

A species of sacoglossan (Placida sp.) found inside the "bubble" algae Valonia sp where it lives and feeds from.

A species of sacoglossan (Placida sp.) found inside the “bubble” algae Valonia sp where it lives and feeds from.

Pupa solidula (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Pupa solidula (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Phyllidia marindica (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Phyllidia marindica (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Philine aperta (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Philine aperta (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Hypselodoris rudmani (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Hypselodoris rudmani (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Hypselodoris regina (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Hypselodoris regina (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Hypselodoris maridadilus (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Hypselodoris maridadilus (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

The flamboyant cephalaspidean species Hydatina physis (Zavora, Inharrime, Mozambique)

The flamboyant cephalaspidean species Hydatina physis (Zavora, Inharrime, Mozambique)

Halgerda wasinensis (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Halgerda wasinensis (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Glossodoris cf. plumbea (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Glossodoris cf. plumbea (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

An undescribed species of Doris nudibranch (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

An undescribed species of Doris nudibranch (Barra reefs, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Costasiella kuroshimae

Costasiella kuroshimae, a sacoglossan that lives on the green algae Avrainvillea sp. (Barra estuary, Inhambane, Mozambique)

Traditional Mozambican family housing with huts arranged in a circle around a communal central area

Traditional Mozambican family housing with huts arranged in a circle around a communal central area

Publicity in Barcode Bulletin

Barcode Bulletin is a newsletter from International Barcode of Life (IBOL).  Barcode Bulletin Vol. 4, No. 2 – December 2013 has recently published two stories about activites we are involved in. One nice piece of news is that the  Norwegian Biodiversity Information Center and the Research Council of Norway has decided to fund the NorBol consortium. The other news are about our summer 2013 workshop in the MIWA-project which was co-funded via IPBES.

barcode_bulletin

Photo: P Funch

Team blue mussel on the track of the expanding blue mussel in a changing Arctic climate

The blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) is on the run, a historical run. Blue mussels are currently expanding towards the North with an unprecedented pace, taking over new areas along the way.  

Photo: J Thyrring

Rich and healthy mussel beds in the Arctic

Blue mussel is an ecologically well-studied species that often dominates the coastal zone, where these characteristic bivalves form a specific habitat with a distinct associated fauna. Such habitat formers, which influence ecosystem structure, have a potential for wide impact if they are able to migrate into new areas due to changing climate. With the record increase in ocean temperatures, the blue mussel has already expanded its northern distribution well into the High-Arctic region.

My PhD project at Aarhus University aims to investigate the distribution, abundance and physiological adaptation of the blue mussel along the West Greenland coast. Thus, my participation in the “ForBio marine field course, Greenland” was of central importance for my project. During my “individual project” in the course, more than 4500 blue mussels were collected at several prime locations! All mussels were measured, weighted, and aged by counting growth rings – a work accomplished by the energetic ‘Team Mussel’, mainly consisting of Josefin and me – Jakob. In spirit though, everybody on the course was a part of this amazing team, and I thank them all for helping out by collecting Blue Mussels in Disco Fjord, while I stayed behind at the station for physiological measurements in the quiet laboratory.

Photo:

Happy collecting of blue mussels at Disko Bay

In the final days we expanded our project, collecting material for comparing population dynamics of mussel beds in the low and high tidal zone. To catch the low tide, Josefin and I went on a rainy, cold and dark morning to collect mussels. Despite the early hour, lack of coffee, and no breakfast, we returned to the lab in the rising sun with a whole bunch of mussels. Mette and Jenny had finally seen the light and joined ‘Team Mussel’ full time to help getting everything done in time.

Photo:

‘Team mussel’ consisting of Mette, Jenny, Josefin and Jakob hard at work

All blue mussel data collected during this course will be used to increase our understanding of the ecological consequences of the expanding blue mussel in the Arctic. By comparing population dynamics and macrophysiology among populations found at Nuuk, Disko Island, Upernavik and Qaanaaq, our studies will allow us to better understand the direct (and indirect) impacts of the changing Arctic climate. Eventually, we hope to expand our knowledge of how species susceptible to expand their current distribution range will influence current ecosystem structure and function in a warmer future.

 

By Jakob Thyrring (Aarhus Universitet)

World Congress of Malacology, Azores, July 2013

By Manuel Malaquias

The World Congress of Malacology is the major scientific international meeting in the field of malacology (the study of molluscs) and takes place every third year.

Five of six delegates from the University Museum of Bergen. From left to right: Trond Oskars, Andrea Zamora, Christiane Todt, Manuel Malaquias, Lena Ohnheiser

Five of six delegates from the University Museum of Bergen. From left to right: Trond Oskars, Andrea Zamora, Christiane Todt, Manuel Malaquias, Lena Ohnheiser

This year the event was hosted by the University of the Azores in the island of São Miguel between the 21 and 28 of July. Over 400 enthusiastic scientists from all over the World gathered in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to discuss during five days the latest advances in this science covering various aspects of phylogenetics, biodiversity, ecology, palaeontology, conservation, pest management, adaptations to extreme environments, biogeography, speciation, etc.

Trond Oskars (master student) presenting part of his master thesis on the systematics of cephalaspidean gastropods at the Opisthobranchs Symposium

Trond Oskars (master student) presenting part of his master thesis on the systematics of cephalaspidean gastropods at the Opisthobranchs Symposium

A delegation from the University Museum comprised by six scientists and students have participated in the event, namely Christiane Todt (post-doctoral researcher), Lena Ohnheiser (research assistant), Andrea Zamora (PhD candidate), Nina Mikkelsen (PhD candidate), Trond Oskars (MSc. student), and Manuel Malaquias (assistant professor). In total, members of the University Museum were co-authors in 14 scientific contributions: four posters and 10 talks presented at the Aculifera and Opisthobranchs symposiums.

The next congress will take place in Penang, Malaysia in 2016 and we look forward for it!

The spectacular volcanic “Lagoa do Fogo” in São Miguel Island, Azores

The spectacular volcanic “Lagoa do Fogo” in São Miguel Island, Azores

Fluid Preservation Course

The Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Horniman Museum and Gardens

Curating a natural history collection comes with many challenges; how do you “freeze” the specimen in such a state that another taxonomist can request to examine it in 10 (20, 30, 50, 100…) years from now, and expect to find the same characters (the traits that are used for determining which species one is looking at) as the one who originally described or determined the specimen?

Which fluid should then be used as a preservative? Here we nee to take into consideration such features as potential harmfulness, fire hazards, longviety, the possible effects on histology and DNA, resistance to pests, effects on the container it is kept in, etc. etc. And how should the samples be stored? How do you rescue objects that have been damaged?

I spent most of last week attending a course in methods for fixing and preserving natural history specimens in fluid; The  «Fluid Preservation Course» was given by Simon Moore at The Horniman Museum in London.

Group.2

The group

Some of the topics covered included

  • different methods and chemicals for fixating  and preserving specimens,
  • how to work with glass (cutting, drilling and grinding), especially how to make lids for jars of various sizes, 
  • how to make and repair objects for display,
  • how to salvage specimens that have been damaged due to dessication, fungi or other perils, 
  • avaliable chemicals and their properties,
  • how to determine which chemicals the animals are stored in
Making a display part 1: One lizard in a bag. Extract from bag, figure out which preservative has been used, transfer to suitable new preservative.

Making a display part 1: One lizard in a bag. Extract from bag, figure out which preservative has been used, transfer to suitable new preservative.

Making a display part 2: preepare speciemen for being mounted in a suitable jar

Making a display part 2: prepare speciemen for being mounted in a suitable jar

Making a display part 2b: Stitch monofilament in to lizard to mount it on a custommmade piece of glass in the jar.

Making a display part 2b: Stitch monofilament in to lizard to mount it on a custom made piece of glass in the jar (it looks rather brutal, doesn’t it?)

Making a display part 3: Ta-da!

Making a display part 3: Ta-da!

A jar stuffed full of turtles and tortoises in really bad condition - we tried to salvage as much as possible, especially one specimen that was of a species they didn't have in the museum collection.

A jar stuffed full of turtles and tortoises in really bad condition – we tried to salvage as much as possible, especially one specimen that was of a species they didn’t have in the museum collection.

IMG_7412

Still not in great condition, but at least we can see what’s in the jar now!

Working with glass

Working with glass

Using vaccuum to extract air from dried-out specimens

Using vaccuum to extract air from dried-out specimens

Dessicated sea horses en route  to rehydration

Dessicated sea horses en route to rehydration

Injecting alcohol in dessiccated specimens to help them rehydrate (and sink).

Injecting alcohol in dessiccated specimens to help them rehydrate (and sink).

A fairly messy jar with spiders (with varying numbers of legs still attached) and a tick

A fairly messy jar with spiders (with varying numbers of legs still attached) and a tick

The spiders have been mounted on monofilament, the jar has been replaced, and they are now stored in 80% alcohol

The spiders have been mounted on monofilament, the missing legs have been re-attached using class needles and colloidin as glue, the jar has been replaced, and they are now stored in 80% alcohol. 

 

Focus on West African crabs (Brachyura)

Shelf sampling stations

R/V Dr Fridtjof Nansen sampling stations for which benthic samples have been deposited in the Invertebrate Collections of Bergen. Red dots: the Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem (CCLME). Yellow dots: the Guinea Current Large Marine Ecosystem (GCLME)

Since 2005 the research vessel R/V Dr Fridtjof Nansen has been sampling benthic invertebrates on the continental shelf of the large marine ecosystems (GCLME and CCLME) of West Africa. A large bulk of the material is kept in our collection and is being processed for taxonomic and other studies by several workers.

These days we are particularly focusing on the true crabs (Brachyura) and are preparing specimens for DNA barcoding with the BOLD system. This work will produce open access data (genetics, morphology, distribution) to enhance a broader knowledge about Atlantic marine biodiversity. The project is financially supported by JRS Biodiversity Foundation.

Cronius ruber (Lamarck, 1818) caught off Guinea at 35 m depth in May 2012.  (Identification E.Willassen)

Cronius ruber (Lamarck, 1818) caught off Guinea at 35 m depth in May 2012. (Identification E.Willassen)

Some West African true crabs (Brachyura)

A small assembly of crabs photographed and prepared for DNA barcoding. Some specimens have still kept some colors despite being preserved in ethanol