Friday, December 25, 2009

A Natural History of Sphenisciformes, Spheniscidae in the Northern Hemisphere

As my daughter is currently incommunicado in Antarctica, my mind is sensitive to southern polar notes that cross my path. Penguins (Sphenisciformes, Spheniscidae) in particular have exercised my imagination while thinking about her present location. As I am located at latitude 61 N occurrences of penguin are unusual. Therefore I decided to pull together a brief, and perhaps somewhat eclectic, natural history of the penguin in the far northern hemisphere.

In my reference to the
magnum opus of Yukon ornithology, Birds of the Yukon Territory (2003, ed. Sinclair, Nixon, Eckert and Hughes) there are no specific references to penguins. The closest alphabetic relative, Sphyrapicus ruber, is noted. However, the prostrate form (having died after hitting a residential window in Judas Creek) illustrated bears little resemblance to the penguin. Perhaps Linnaeus pursued fowl in a non-alphabetic form. Regardless I decided to pursue my own research in the vicinity to confirm the absence of penguins. Photo 1 in my backyard indicates the complete non-presence of penguins. However research on the web and through this year's Christmas cards proved more fruitful.

Niles Olav (Photo 2), knighted by the King of Norway in 2008, has worked his way up through the ranks of the King's Guard of the Royal Norwegian Army, through a combination of diligence and several acts of reincarnation, since his recruitment as a lance corporal in 1972. So while rare in northern climes, penguins exhibit the kind of gritty determination to make something of themselves that characterizes most successful northerners.

Scotland, newly independent from England and fearful of a possible American military invasion, has followed the Iranian lead in the pursuit of a nuclear deterrent. Unlike the Iranians however, the Scots have successfully developed a "Tactical Nuclear Penguin" and are currently in the process of setting up this weapon system. Available for purchase on the web, the Tactical Nuclear Penguin leds the world in beery alcohol content. (Photo 3) The full details are available in an absurd video at

Finally, my niece Alexa in London, England provides incontrovertible proof that penguins have been introduced to the North Pole (Photo 4) Associated with this dramatic relocation experiment are some startling technological advances. Should the Scots get a hold of this information, even the Norwegian army will quake at the sight of Gaelic Atomic Penguins.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Being Seafood

Wandering through rural Manitoba offers some great surprises. Today my Dad and I visited Bruce the Mosasaur in the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden. Morden was, some 80 million years ago, in the centre of the Western Interior Seaway, a large shallow sea dividing North America. Unique to the region was a later land uplift that brought the deeply buried remains of the sea bottom to the surface. While fossils were occassionaly found earlier, real interest started only in the early 1970s when workers in open pit Bentonite mines found large sea creatures. Among them was Bruce, a fierce - carnivorous predators are always fierce - sea snake - especially if they're a snake - 13 metres long. As Kevin, the museum administrator, explained, "he could swallow a cow whole if he came by today!" And inspite of Bruce's festive hat we found this statement completely believeable.

Not only did we have our Christmas picture taken with Bruce, but we also toured the fossil storage and display preparation areas. The pleasures of a smaller museum include the chance to meet the people, Anita-Maria, palentoleogist and Linda the display technician, who make these places work and to get a close-up look at the fascinating collection of fossils they have in the lab.

Visit the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre at

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mining Gold without getting your dress dirty

The Yukon Hospital Foundation runs an annual fund raiser to purchase new equipment. Last year they raised about a million dollars for a CT Scanner, this year they want a digital x-ray machine, especially helpful in emailing x-rays for consultation with specialists outside. The primary event is the auctioning of "special" Christmas Trees. Different businesses, government departments and community groups extravagently decorate a tree and assemble a set of associated presents.

The trees come in two classes. There are about a dozen trees prepared with a value of between $400 to $1200. These are set up in a downtown public space and for a week people write increasing bids to take them home. A couple of years ago we purchased the Energy, Mines and Resources tree. It was beautifully decorated with stained glass ornaments made and donated by one of the staff and included a cord of firewood, 50 pounds of Yukon grown potatoes, and 20 pounds of Yukon elk

A second group of trees is also prepared. These, more expensive items, are auctioned at the Hospital's Grand Ball in early December. It is fun. It was one of two formal dress events in the Yukon calendar. Each table gets glow wands to wave around to action their bids. Bidding is generally limited to the lawyers, the doctors and the business tycoons. The Canadian Tire tree this year included a mountain of small appliances, power tools and gadgets that would choke a half-ton truck on a sunny day. Two couples at our table started bidding against each other but quickly itemized which things they were after and ganged up on somebody across the room. Fortunately, the somebody had a bigger wallet so we didn't have to witness the squabble over the espresso machine. The women doctors were just beat out for the five day fly-in fishing trip, but the sponsor, a local construction company, offered to buy two of the trips and so double the bid money going to the Foundation. It appears the bite of the recession in the Yukon has been little more than a gentle nibbling on the earlobe. All together the trees raised over $150,000 for the x-ray machine.

There was also a raffle. Joy bought three tickets. While we missed the spa retreat and the grand prize of a free pass on Air North, Joy did come away with an ounce of raw gold. When she went to pick up her prize she received a plastic film canister with about two dozen good-sized nuggets from a placer mine south of Dawson. Probably the easiest way to mine gold around here. The litle beauties have been sent off to the jeweller to be made into a Christmas ornament.