Tag Archives: fractal earth


Fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will remember Slartibartfast, the planet architect who was very proud of his award-winning design for Norway. The fjords, he explained, were designed to give the continent a “baroque” feel. And a fjord is indeed a very splendid thing. A fjord, by definition, is a long and narrow inlet to the sea, flanked by very steep cliffs, and carved by glacial activity. (Or Slartibartfast.) While Norway coined the name “fjord,” they have no trademark on the geological flourish. You will find fjords anywhere there are mountains that meet the sea, and freezing temperatures to support glaciers, including the coast of Chile, New Zealand, and the Northwest coast of North America.

First Prize!

From time to time I like to take electronic expeditions to rare places on Earth, to see what I can find. Readers know I have a passion for fractals, and subscribe to something I call Fractal Earth Theory; the theory that the patterns of the planet are self-repeating ad infinitum. It was thinking about the true lengths of coastlines that led Mandelbrot to discover fractals in the first place; fjords make for rough edges in the world, wrinkling the land into a series of nooks and hidey-holes in which any manner of animal might live.

Today, we look for the unique wildlife of the fjords. I use a basic set of hypotheses as a compass:

1. Wherever life can exist, life will exist.
2. Where ever a habitat is geographically separated in any physical way, unique life will exist.
3. The more severely isolated a habitat is, the greater the number of unique species.

Fjords, however unique as geologic structures, are not very isolated: their cliffs connect with the mainland, and their inlets connect with the ocean. Their main aspects of geographic distinguishment are the steep angles of their cliffs, on which only certain wildflowers can grow, and the murky, silty, brackish water below. Fjords are often estuarine, with freshwater running as a river into their channels, which will certainly exclude many sensitive saltwater animals. The turbid, murky water is caused by violent tidal action, which in turn is caused by the water rushing over the lip of the terminal moraine left by the glacier at the fjord’s edge; this turbulence may also make the habitat even more exclusive, and more unique. But all in all, a fjord is not as isolated as a lake or an island, and we can’t expect a great number of unique species. But a few, sure. Some modifiers to the original compass:

4. The cold temperatures and low salinity will lead to a lower general biodiversity for animals, compared to a tropical habitat.
5. The cold water, with its high level of dissolved oxygen, will nonetheless support a high overall biomass.
6. The prediction of high aquatic biomass makes it more likely that any unique species are aquatic.

With these in mind, we set out to explore the nooks of the fjords, seeking life found nowhere else on Earth. And what we’ll find is a series of ecosystems among the most mysterious and little-known in science.

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His animal collections from the Amazon rainforest made lesser zoologists weep. He traveled into the jungle with the finest scientific equipment of his time, each instrument cradled in its own velvet-lined box. Thomas Jefferson once invited him to the White House, just to bask in his genius. Where ever he walked, he got a standing ovation. He was called “the greatest scientific explorer who ever lived”… by Charles Darwin.

He was… the most interesting naturalist in the world.

Ich weiß nicht immer Bier trinken, aber wenn ich das tue, ziehe ich Zwei XX.

That Alexander von Humboldt does not enjoy household name recognition is a testament to American scientific illiteracy. During the 19th century, he enjoyed rock star status around the world for his contributions to geology, meteorology, and zoology, and for his books recounting his adventures in the jungles of Latin America. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last poem to him. “Every scientist is a descendant of Humboldt,” said Emil du Bois-Reymond, the father of neurology. “He is the true discoverer of America,” said Simón Bolívar.

Though the word “ecology” didn’t exist yet, Humboldt was among the first scientists to view nature as a holistic, interconnected web, and as such he studied everything about a place’s environment wherever he traveled, from barometric pressure to soil samples. Scientific data, not religion or ideals, ruled his discipline to a degree never before achieved in field biology. During his long career, he advanced the science of volcanism, tested the bioluminescent properties of jellyfish and the electrogenerative powers of electric eels, dissected the larynx of the howler monkey, realized the use of bat guano as a fertilizer, figured out the correlation between plant species and altitude, discovered ocean currents and weather patterns, made the only reliable map of South America at the time, and met such species as the Humboldt penguin, the colossal Humboldt squid, and a subspecies of Amazon river dolphin living in the Orinoco river, Inia geoffrensis humboldtiana.

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You know what’s been on my mind lately? Midgets. Well, dwarfs. Well, actually, pygmies. I’ve been considering a post about pygmy animals for a while, and as luck would have it, a research team in Borneo just found this miniscule marvel:

Yes, that’s an adult frog. (If it weren’t, it’d be a tadpole, silly.) Measuring only 12 mm, the male Microhyla nepenthicola is the smallest frog in Europe, Africa, or Asia — though, amazingly, there are two species in the Americas that are even tinier. M. nepenthicola‘s species name comes from the Nepenthes pitcher plants it inhabits to keep its skin wet. It might never have been found if it weren’t for its loud, rasping call, which conjures for me an image of a puzzled biologist putting his ear to a pitcher plant like a dog to a Victrola gramophone, wondering why it was croaking.

As megafauna ourselves, I think most humans have this idea that species are trying to evolve to be larger, but are somehow limited. But the fact is that being small has its advantages, and many species are more than willing to become miniaturized to seize the opportunities that can only be found once you breach the microcosmos.

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Ad Infinitum

Yesterday’s virtual tour of The Zymoglyphic Museum introduced me to an animal I’d never met before, but which illustrates the concept of Fractal Earth perfectly.

It’s Xenophora pallidula, the pallid carrier snail. Xenophora means “stranger carrier,” but it might aptly be called a “snail-carrying snail.” Like the decorator crab that glues living animals to its carapace, the carrier snail glues non-living things to its shell – usually other snail shells – probably for camouflage; it looks indistinguishable from a pile of snail shells on the seafloor. It may also be a means of preventing itself from sinking in the muck; by adding surface area to itself, its shell becomes a sort of snowshoe. Whatever the reason, note the form: a snail shell radiating into smaller snail shells. Now, if that carrier snail glued other carrier snail shells to it, and those carrier snails had glued other carrier snail shells to them…

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The Angels That Eat Rocks

I’ll admit it: I am fascinated by holes.

Black holes, gopher holes, wormholes, manholes, you name it. Holes, to me, represent an entrance to another realm, usually a mysterious one. When I am out hiking, and I see a hole, I like to examine it thoroughly. How big is it? Are there any tracks around it? Is it a front entrance? A back entrance? What is living in there?

Of course, what’s living in there may not be what made the hole. (Remember the gopher tortoise?) A woodpecker hole may house a sawwhet owl, and a rabbit warren may provide refuge for a rattlesnake. Now, it’s one thing to tunnel through wood or dirt. But in the ocean, there are animals that drill into solid rock.

This is the American Piddock, a member of the pholidae family of molluscs. They’re also called angelwings, pholad clams, rock-boring clams, or simply boring clams. The last one seems a little mean; their conversational skills aside, they’re actually quite interesting. The rough edge you see on the left is used to tunnel into shale or limestone; they are living drillbits.

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The Phoenices

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about cataclysms. Conventional wisdom among ecologists is that disaster is good for the system: on a small scale, it’s cleansing and replenishing, and on a large scale, it allows the kind of regime change that allows evolution to progress. I don’t disagree about the smaller-scale disasters like forest fires & earthquakes, but lately I’ve been wondering, What’s so great about cataclysms, anyway?

After all, look at the ecosystems with the most stability: rainforests, coral reefs. Heck, if it helps, think of Pandora. Places free from major upheaval tend the create the most wondrous things, the most intimate symbiotic bonds, the greatest diversity of organisms. Life wants to create the strongest possible web. In the jungle, life builds so many bonds on its web that (naturally-occurring) forest fires are quickly localized and quenched, earthquakes can’t shake down the trees that knit their roots together, and any attempt to pluck one species from the web is met with resistance from an army of organisms. The longer it goes without disaster, the more the web of life becomes like chainmail: nearly disaster-proof, an indestructible ecosystem. Life is constantly trying to achieve ecological perfection: infinite beings, infinite bonds, infinite niches.

Unfortunately, perfection is impossible. So nature has built in cataclysms to keep itself from achieving what is a physical impossibility. In the Permian Era, it used volcanoes. In the Cretaceous, it used an asteroid. And here in the Holocene, it’s using us. We are the agents the Earth is using to ensure it never fully becomes heaven. Life is writing the most elegant equation of all time on the blackboard of the world, but the equation cannot be completed. So nature has invented Harpo Marxian clowns that periodically come in like whirlwinds, erase parts of the equation with their shirtsleeves and run back out the door.

But then, there are phoenices, creatures that depend on disaster, who live in fire, who eat destruction. I believe that Life, although it appears to act like an energy or a substance, is actually a dimension — a non-physical dimension. That makes death a dimension, too. And beings exist in both, the way there are animals built for night and day. And if stability breeds diversity, and a place has regular disasters, you get animals that live within that regular, stable cycle of destruction while still evolving in remarkably complex ways.

The definition of a regular disaster is wildfire, which is generally seasonal. Beings that can survive fire eventually evolve to become fire-dependent. The sequoia, for example, not only can withstand forest fires, but actually requires them in order for their seeds to germinate — one of the longest-living organisms in the world is a slow-moving phoenix. Another slow-moving phoenix is a tortoise.

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Meditation on Slow Angels

Something you may know about me: in college, I was a botany major. Something you may not know about me: in my junior year, my concentration was in canopy ecology. My grand plan was to go climb trees in the rainforest and inspect the animal life living in epiphytic bromeliads. (I am somewhat off-track.) But last week I found a book my dad bought second-hand and forgot to give me for Christmas, Life Above the Jungle Floor, a travelogue by a canopy ecologist working in Costa Rica, and have been enjoying ever since. And this brings me to my latest “weird animal” post:

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