The platypus has puzzled researchers for centuries. From its venom-filled spurs, milk-secreting skin, and ability to eat a quarter of its body weight every day, the egg-laying mammal even had European zoologists believing it was a hoax well throughout the 19th Century.
A recent study published in the journal Mammalia adds to the duck-billed creature’s lengthy list of peculiarities. Apparently, when illuminated with ultraviolet light, the platypus’s dull, brown coat glows. The discovery happened after Jonathan Martin, an associate professor of forestry at Wisconsin’s Northland College, shined a UV flashlight on a flying squirrel in his backyard, which he found emitted a candy-colored pink hue. He then joined a few colleagues to visit Chicago’s Field Museum, where they replicated the process on the institution’s platypus collection, revealing the animals’ bright green and purple coat.
According to one study, the fluorescent substances are found embedded within mammals’ hair follicles, although scientists aren’t sure why. Sensory biologist Sönke Johnsen told The New York Times that “just finding fluorescence doesn’t mean it has any particular purpose.” Similar radiating colors exist in coral reefs and sea turtles, among other organisms, although the phenomena are less common in mammals.
Overall, the discovery has prompted further questions about whether the platypus can see UV light—most humans cannot, except for on certain items like white T-shirts—and even more interest in what we’ll discover about the curious creature next.
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Painted on Vintage Postcards, Flora and Fauna Celebrate Farming Traditions and Wildlife of the Midwest
Twenty-seven years ago while studying at the University of Illinois, illustrator Diana Sudyka (previously) retrieved a bundle of postcards from a dumpster. The ephemeral correspondence revealed a relationship between farmers and workers from the Harvard area and a man named John Dwyer, either their accountant or investor who lived throughout Chicago, Cicero, and Berwyn. Dated from 1939 to 1942, the short letters generally contained information about livestock sales and farm expenses.
Now based in the Chicago area, Sudyka repurposes the envelopes as canvases for her watercolor and gouache paintings of flora and fauna native to the Midwest. “I have a strong attachment to the envelopes for various reasons, not least of which is that I was born and raised in Illinois, and spent a good deal of time in rural areas of the state,” she shares with Colossal. The penmanship, patina, and markings on the paper all inform her decisions to reflect a particular shrub or beetle duo amongst the remaining postmark and stamp. “I am drawn to the beauty of the handwriting on the envelopes, and the variation in the inks used,” she says, also noting her affinity for the assembled artworks of late artist Joseph Cornell.
Through delicate depictions of squirrels and long-legged herons, the illustrator connects her own experience enjoying the region’s bucolic settings with the decades-old content of the letters. “I often think about the wildlife that I saw as a child in those rural areas, unaware at the time of how much agriculture had already altered the land. And now as an adult, so much of both wildlife and those family farms are gone. The envelope paintings are my homage to both,” she says.
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London-based artist Barbara Franc (previously) upcycles materials that otherwise would be tossed into the recycling bin to create a quirky menagerie of metal creatures. Composed with scraps and copper wire, the lively sculptures generally are indicative of movement: owls lift a talon mid-waddle, two cats peer over their shoulders with surprised expressions, and a squirrel appears ready to scurry off.
The diversity of Franc’s creatures mimic the breadth of materials utilized. She often begins by creating a wire-netting form before attaching the found objects—which include a combination of windscreen wipers, dog leads, keys, cupboard handles, cutlery, biscuit tins, old spanners, metal clips, costume jewelry, and clock and watch pieces—that she sources from yard sales, thrift shops, builder’s dumpsters, and along the roadside as she walks. When attached to the body, logo-printed scraps form a bushy tail and chess pieces create ruffled chest feathers.
Franc notes that she creates to celebrate other species rather than out of sentimentality. “It is more about a very positive feeling of respect for the huge diversity of life on our wonderful planet and the knowledge that Life itself will always be there. Animals just symbolize that for me in an uncomplicated and direct approach as there is no human element to confuse the issue,” she says.
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Rollerskating Poodles and Croissant Characters Form an Adorably Eccentric Cast of Felt Characters by Cat Rabbit
Working out of her studio in Melbourne, textile artist Cat Rabbit (previously) felts a quirky troupe of characters complete with distinctive garb and accessories. A croissant-headed figure dons a striped skirt and floral hat, Pomeranians carry pin cushions on their backs, and four swaggering poodles outfitted with roller skates appear ready to compete in the rink.
Some of the anthropomorphized creatures are particularly personal to the artist, like the blanket-enshrouded toad (shown below) that was inspired by a friend’s love for the children’s series, Frog and Toad. Similarly, the George Eliot-esque pug is a nod to writer Zadie Smith and her pup, Maud, who Cat Rabbit met last year. “I presented it to her when I went up to get my book signed. She was amazing and kind, and when the writer next to her at the table asked me, ’so what is it that you do, actually?’ Zadie immediately said, ‘this, obviously.’ Being validated by your hero! I was on a cloud for months,” she says.
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Overflowing with Flora and Fauna, Collaged Paper Installations Comment on Earth's Dwindling Biodiversity
Sprawling across paint-chipped walls and tiny alcoves, the collaged installations of artist Clare Börsch mimic overgrown jungles and whimsical forest scenes. Layers of flora, fauna, and the occasional gemstone or human figure comprise the amorphous paper artworks as they transform spaces into fantastical ecosystems.
In a note to Colossal, Börsch shares that she began her artistic practice as a way to translate her dreams, which are often lucid and informed by memories and a strong tie to nature, into physical objects that others could immerse themselves in. “Growing up in Brazil, I had the ocean, rivers, and jungles that always existed in stark contrast to the industrial cities (I lived in Sao Paulo). So my earliest and most formative memories are of lush, humming tropical ecosystems —and the encroaching industrial landscapes of Brazil’s cities,” she says.
The Berlin-based American artist sources her many of the vintage photographs from open source archives, including the Biodiversity Heritage Library (previously), Pixabay, and Unsplash. Some of the botanical elements she draws or photographs herself before cutting around the organic elements and assembling them in new, sometimes bizarre, compositions.
Despite the vibrancy and lively qualities of the three-dimensional collages, Börsch uses her artworks to reflect on the ongoing climate crisis and destruction of biodiversity, commentary that’s laced with themes of decay and death. She explains:
This came into focus for me when I made a series of collages and then later realized that many of the species in the vintage illustrations had already gone extinct. Humanity has wiped out 68% of all our planet’s biodiversity since 1970, so working with vintage illustrations can be very heartbreaking as much of the diversity in these gorgeous old naturalist prints has been wiped out by human activity.
Since then, Börsch has been collaborating with scientist Louisa Durkin, of the Nordic Academy of Biodiversity and Systematics Studies, to identify ways the artworks can spark awareness and dialogue about environmental issues. “I often say that I do not want my art to be a funerary dirge for everything we could have saved,” she says.
In recent months, Börsch has been working on a commissioned series that will culminate in a forthcoming book, titled Why Do Tigers Have Whiskers? And Other Cool Things About Animals, which is scheduled for release by Thames & Hudson in May 2021. Follow the artist on Instagram to see her latest projects, including an immersive installation commenting on regenerative approaches to tackling problems of biodiversity, which she plans to unveil in early November. (thnx, Elsie!)
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Neural Networks Create a Disturbing Record of Natural History in AI-Generated Illustrations by Sofia Crespo
Sofia Crespo describes her work as the “natural history book that never was.” The Berlin-based artist uses artificial neural networks to generate illustrations that at first glance, resemble Louis Renard’s 18th Century renderings or the exotic specimens of Albertus Seba’s compendium. Upon closer inspection, though, the colorful renderings reveal unsettling combinations: two fish are conjoined with a shared fin, flower petals appear feather-like, and a study of butterflies features insects with missing wings and bizarrely formed bodies.
Titled Artificial Natural History, the ongoing project merges the desire to categorize organisms with “the very renaissance project of humanism,” Crespo says, forming a distorted series of creatures with imagined features that require a new set of biological classifications. “The specimens of the artificial natural history both celebrate and play with the seemingly endless diversity of the natural world, one that we still have very limited comprehension and awareness of,” she writes.
Crespo manufactured a similar project, Neural Zoo, that combines disparate elements of nature into composite organisms. “Our visual cortex recognizes the textures, but the brain is simultaneously aware that those elements don’t belong to any arrangement of reality that it has access to,” she says. More generally, Crespo explains her motivation behind merging artificial neural networks and natural history:
Computer vision and machine learning could offer a bridge between us and a speculative “natures” that can only be accessed through high levels of parallel computation. Starting from the level of our known reality, we could ultimately be digitizing cognitive processes and utilizing them to feed new inputs into the biological world, which feeds back into a cycle. Routines in artificial neural networks become a tool for creation, one that allows for new experiences of the familiar. Can art be reduced to the remapping of data absorbed through sensory processes?
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Editor's Picks: Craft
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