The Song of Sleep

Crane Fly and Ants
Joris Hoefnagel, illuminator (Flemish / Hungarian, 1542 – 1600)
Georg Bocskay, scribe (Hungarian, died 1575)


By Jason G Goldman

“Almost all other animals are clearly observed to partake in sleep, whether they are aquatic, aerial, or terrestrial,” wrote Aristotle in his work, On Sleep and Sleeplessness.
In The History of Animals, he wrote: “It would appear that not only do men dream, but horses also, and dogs, and oxen; aye, and sheep, and goats, and all viviparous quadrupeds; and dogs show their dreaming by barking in their sleep.”

Researchers can now humanely peer into the electrical and chemical activities of brain cells in animals while they sleep. In 2007, MIT scientists Kenway Louise and Matthew Wilson recorded the activity of neurons in a part of the rat brain called the hippocampus, a structure known to be involved in the formation and encoding of memories. They first recorded the activity of those brain cells while the rats ran in their mazes.
Then they looked at the activity of the very same neurons while they slept and discovered identical patterns of firing during running and during REM.
In other words, it was as if the rats were running the maze in their minds as they slept. The results were so clear that the researchers could infer the rats’ precise location within their mental dream mazes and map them to actual spots within the actual maze.

University of Chicago biologists Amish Dave and Daniel Margoliash looked into the brains of zebra finches and discovered something similar.
These birds are not born with the melodies of their songs hardwired into the brains; instead, they have to learn to sing their songs. When they’re awake, the neurons in part of the finches’ forebrain called the robutus archistriatalis fire following their singing of particular notes. Researchers can determine which note was sung based on the firing patterns of those neurons. By piecing together the electrical patterns in those neurons over time, Dave and Margoliash can reconstruct the entire song from start to finish.

Later, when the birds were asleep, Dave and Margoliash looked again at the electrical activity in that part of their brains. The firing of those neurons wasn’t entirely random. Instead, the neurons fired in order, as if the bird was audibly singing the song, note for note. It might be said that the zebra finches were practising their songs in their sleep.


Ants are good sleep research subjects, as they live underground. Most ants get exposed to sunlight only very irregularly, so a sleeping rythm based on a photo period like ours would not be very useful. Because of their social and subterranean lifestyle, one might expect that sleep periods of ants are more dependent on the tasks at hand than on light/dark periods.

This is indeed what Deby Cassill and collaborators found. Queens of the fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) have an average of 92 sleep periods per day, lasting for about 6 minutes each (for a total of 9.4h of sleep per day). Workers are very different from this, as they had 253 sleep episodes on average per day, each lasting about 1 minute, for a total of 4.8h sleep per day, meaning they sleep more often, but less long. At any time of the day, about 80% of the work force was actually working instead of sleeping, which is an efficient pattern.

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is the phase where we ‘blink’ our eyes often, and it’s the phase where our dreams are the most vivid; the dreams we actually remember occur during this sleep phase.
Ant queens show a similar behaviour when they’re fast asleep. Instead of their eyes, they twitch their antennae, resulting in so called ‘Rapid Antennal Movement’ (RAM) sleep.


Cassill DL, Brown S, Swick D, Yanev G (2009) Polyphasic wake/sleep episodes in the fire ant Solenopsis invicta. Journal of Insect Behaviour 22:313-323


Different Kinds of Air

A man, like  mouse, should have more than one avenue of escapeA man, like a mouse, should have more than one avenue of escape
Joris Hoefnagel (1542 – 1604)

                    Observations on Different Kinds of Air
. . . . I flatter myself that I have accidentally hit upon a method of restoring air which has been injured by the burning of candles, and that I have discovered at least one of the restoratives which nature employs for this purpose. It is vegetation. In what manner this process in nature operates, to produce so remarkable an effect, I do not pretend to have discovered; but a number of facts declare in favour of this hypothesis…
One might have imagined that, since common air is necessary to vegetable, as well as to animal life, both plants and animal had affected it in the same manner, and I own that I had that expectation, when I first put a sprig of mint into a glass-jar, standing inverted in a vessel of water; but when it had continued growing there for some months, I found that the air would neither extinguish a candle, nor was it at all inconvenient to a mouse, which I put into it.
…Accordingly, on the 17th of August 1771, I put a sprig of mint into a quantity of air, in which a wax candle had burned out, and found that, on the 27th of the same month, another candle burned perfectly well in it. This experiment I repeated, without least variation in the event, not less than eight or ten times in the remainder of the summer.
Joseph Priestley (24 March 1733 – 6 February 1804)

In 1771, about the time of the first stirrings of the industrial revolution and its appetite for fossil fuel, an English minister grasped key processes of the natural carbon cycle. In a series of ingenious experiments, Joseph Priestley found that flames and animals’ breath “injure” the air in a sealed jar, making it unwholesome to breathe. But a green sprig of mint, he found, could restore its goodness. Priestley could not name the gases responsible, but we know now that the fire and respiration used up oxygen and gave off carbon dioxide. The mint reversed both processes. Photosynthesis took up the carbon dioxide, converted it into plant tissue, and gave off oxygen as a by-product.

The world is just a bigger jar. Tens of billions of tons of carbon a year pass between land and the atmosphere: given off by living things as they breathe and decay and taken up by green plants, which produce oxygen. A similar traffic in carbon, between marine plants and animals, takes place within the waters of the ocean. And nearly a hundred billion tons of carbon diffuse back and forth between ocean and atmosphere.

In other words:
Alone in a sealed jar, a mouse would die from exhaled CO2. But as Priestley observed in 1771, adding a plant allows the mouse to thrive. In this proof of photosynthesis, the mint absorbed CO2, retained carbon for growth, and released oxygen


Small Sounds

hoef caterpillar

Many scientific reports show inexplicable behaviours of plants that seem to be analogs to animal senses, behaviours, and perhaps even intellect.

This observation of complex behaviour in plants would seem to be impossible given the fact that plants don’t have the diversification of their bodies and biology into sensory organs, nervous systems, and brains, but the facts remain.

“Plants certainly have the capacity to feel mechanical loads,” said plant biologist Frank Telewski, who was not involved in the research. “They can respond to gravity, wind, ice or an abundance of fruit.”

Now, researchers at the University of Missouri, in a collaboration that brings together audio and chemical analysis, have proven that plants hear sounds.

“Previous research has investigated how plants respond to acoustic energy, including music,” said Heidi Appel, senior research scientist in the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU.
When pure tones are played, some experiments have seen changes in plant growth, germination or gene expression. For instance, one recent study showed that young roots of corn will grow toward an auditory source playing continuous tones and even responded better to certain frequencies.

“However, our work is the first example of how plants respond to an ecologically relevant vibration. We found that feeding sounds of caterpillars attacking plants signal changes in the plant cells’ metabolism, creating more defensive chemicals that can repel attacks from caterpillars.”

It is similar to how our own immune systems work — an initial experience with insects or bacteria can help plants defend themselves better in future attacks by the same predator. So while a mustard plant might not respond the first time it encounters a hungry caterpillar, the next time it will.

A deeper investigation could lead to advances in agriculture and natural crop resistance — and we could avoid harmful pesticides.

“What is remarkable is that the plants exposed to different vibrations, including those made by a gentle wind or different insect sounds that share some acoustic features with caterpillar feeding vibrations did not increase their chemical defenses,” Cocroft said. “This indicates that the plants are able to distinguish feeding vibrations from other common sources of environmental vibration.”

“Both animal and vegetable has in common a billion years of evolution. Just why we insist on believing that only certain animal life found sentience a useful evolutionary path is beyond me. This thing we like to think of as our unique sentience is in fact not at all unique rather it is just the opposite.
We are not alone.”
Russ George


Herbal Intelligence
What Plants Perceive
The Knowledge of Vegetables
Trees Cry Out


On the Nature of Things

hoefnagel sloth

 Now come, and next hereafter apprehend
What sorts, how vastly different in form,
How varied in multitudinous shapes they are-
These old beginnings of the universe;
Not in the sense that only few are furnished
With one like form, but rather not at all
In general have they likeness each with each,
No marvel: since the stock of them’s so great
That there’s no end (as I have taught) nor sum,
They must indeed not one and all be marked
By equal outline and by shape the same.
Moreover, humankind, and the mute flocks
Of scaly creatures swimming in the streams,
And joyous herds around, and all the wild,
And all the breeds of birds- both those that teem
In gladsome regions of the water-haunts,
About the river-banks and springs and pools,
And those that throng, flitting from tree to tree,
Through trackless woods- Go, take which one thou  wilt,
In any kind: thou wilt discover still
Each from the other still unlike in shape.

De rerum natura
c. 50 B.C.E

Translated by William Ellery Leonard

Beneath a canopied structure, a wiry-haired animal, perhaps a sloth, munches on a twig. A Latin text based on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount appears above. Although the text and image seem to fit perfectly together, the different elements on the page were made thirty years apart.The elegant Roman-style lettering was written by Georg Bocskay to display his mastery of calligraphy. The text originally appeared on a plain black background. The illustration was added later by Joris Hoefnagel, who saw in the diminishing script the suggestion of recession into space, an illusion defied by the two-dimensionality of the text. He thus enclosed the letters within an architectural canopy drawn in perspective. Hoefnagel also responded wittily to the black coloration of the page, interpreting it naturalistically as nighttime: the silvery tones of the animal’s fur and the gold shimmer in the darkness.

Joris Hoefnagel illuminator, Georg Bocskay, scribe
Flemish and Hungarian illumination 1591-1596, script 1561-1562
Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment

The Fragile Populations


Sharp Decline of the Monarch Butterfly

A new census found this winter’s population of North American monarch butterflies in Mexico was at the lowest level ever measured. University of Kansas insect ecologist Orley R. Taylor talks to Yale Environment 360 about how the planting of genetically modified crops and the resulting use of herbicides has contributed to the monarchs’ decline.

Taylor talked about the factors that have led to the sharp drop in the monarch population. Among them is the increased planting of genetically modified corn in the U.S. Midwest, which has led to greater use of herbicides, which in turn kills the milkweed that is a prime food source for the butterflies.

“What we’re seeing here in the United States,” he said, “is a very precipitous decline of monarchs that’s coincident with the adoption of Roundup-ready corn and soybeans.
The glyphosate used in agriculture has tripled since 1997, when they first introduced these Roundup-ready crops. The developers of these crops not only provided the seeds that were glyphosate-resistant, but they also provided the glyphosate — the Roundup. And, boy, that was a pretty good system. You could make money on both, right?

It’s a collateral damage issue. And one of the things that we’re worried about now is that it looks like there’s going to be a lot of collateral damage from the use of various herbicides and pesticides coming down.’

In fact, insects such as butterflies, moths, bumblebees and mayflies have been disappearing for a long time, although hardly anyone except specialists has noticed or cared . . .

“They set great store by their gardeins,” Sir Thomas More

Nonsuch Palace... by Joris Hoefnagel, 1572

Nonsuch Palace, Joris Hoefnagel, 1572

The name which stands out most conspicuously in connection
with landscape-gardening is that of Lancelot Brown. From his
habit of saying of any place he was asked to improve, or lay out
afresh, that it ” had great capabilities,” he became known by
the name of  “Capability Brown.”

He was born in Northumberland in 1715, and began as a
kitchen-gardener. It was not until he planned and executed
a lake for the Duke of Grafton  that he attempted any designing.
This brought him into notice and he was appointed
Royal Gardener at Hampton Court.

Soon he became the fashion, and was consulted by nearly everyone in England who had a garden of any consideration.
He laid out or altered in some way or the other half the gardens
in the country.

Had Brown confined himself to creating new landscapes
and gardens, posterity could not have borne such a
grudge against him. As it is, in studying the designs he carried
out, it is difficult to look with an unprejudiced eye at his work,
for before the results he produced can be admired,
one is filled with regret for the beauties he swept away.

Sir Uvedale Price described his pleasure on approaching
” a venerable castle-like mansion built in the beginning of the
fifteenth century,” through an avenue of fine old trees.
” I was much hurt,” he continues, ” to learn from the master of the
place, that I might take my leave of the avenue and its romantic
effects, for that its death-warrant was signed.”

Men had now begun to find out Brown’s mistakes,
and reflect on his destruction of old places and historical relics.

A History of Gardening in England
Alicia Amherst, 1895

The Shadows of Things

butterflies-columbine-hoefJoris Hoefnagel  (1542, Antwerp – 24 July 1601, Vienna)

“Let us take off the spectacles that show us the shadows of things instead of the things themselves,”
Danish physician Olaus Worm, 1588 – 1655.

‘In a very modern, empirical mode, Worm determined that the unicorn did not exist and that purported unicorn horns were really simply from the narwhal. At the same time, however, he then wondered if the anti-poison properties associated with a unicorn’s horn still held true, and undertook experiments in poisoning pets and then serving them ground up narwhal horn (his poisoning must have been relatively mild because he reported that they did recover).

His other empirical investigations included providing convincing evidence that lemmings were rodents and not, as some thought, spontaneously generated by the air.’


A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. -Emerson


Mira Calligraphiae monumenta,  Joris Hoefnagel   (1542 – 1601)


Animalia Aqvatilia et Cochiliata

Joris Hoefnagel (1542 – 1600)

The Snayl

Wise emblem of our politick world,
Sage Snayl, within thine own self curl’d,
Instruct me softly to make hast,
Whilst these my feet go slowly fast.

Compendious Snayl! thou seem’st to me
Large Euclid’s strict epitome;
And in each diagram dost fling
Thee from the point unto the ring.
A figure now trianglare,
An oval now, and now a square,
And then a serpentine, dost crawl,
Now a straight line, now crook’d, now all.

Preventing rival of the day,
Th’ art up and openest thy ray;
And ere the morn cradles the moon,
Th’ art broke into a beauteous noon.
Then, when the Sun sups in the deep,
Thy silver horns e’re Cinthia’s peep;
And thou, from thine own liquid bed,
New Phoebus, heav’st thy pleasant head.

Who shall a name for thee create,
Deep riddle of mysterious state?
Bold Nature, that gives common birth
To all products of seas and earth,
Of thee, as earth-quakes, is afraid,
Nor will thy dire deliv’ry aid.

Thou, thine own daughter, then, and sire,
That son and mother art intire,
That big still with thy self dost go,
And liv’st an aged embrio;
That like the cubbs of India,
Thou from thy self a while dost play;
But frighted with a dog or gun,
In thine own belly thou dost run,
And as thy house was thine own womb,
So thine own womb concludes thy tomb.

But now I must (analys’d king)
Thy oeconomick virtues sing;
Thou great stay’d husband still within,
Thou thee that’s thine dost discipline;
And when thou art to progress bent,
Thou mov’st thy self and tenement,
As warlike Scythians travayl’d, you
Remove your men and city too;
Then, after a sad dearth and rain,
Thou scatterest thy silver train;
And when the trees grow nak’d and old,
Thou cloathest them with cloth of gold,
Which from thy bowels thou dost spin,
And draw from the rich mines within.

Now hast thou chang’d thee, saint, and made
Thy self a fane that’s cupula’d;
And in thy wreathed cloister thou
Walkest thine own gray fryer too;
Strickt and lock’d up, th’art hood all ore,
And ne’r eliminat’st thy dore.
On sallads thou dost feed severe,
And ‘stead of beads thou drop’st a tear,
And when to rest each calls the bell,
Thou sleep’st within thy marble cell,
Where, in dark contemplation plac’d,
The sweets of Nature thou dost tast,
Who now with time thy days resolve,
And in a jelly thee dissolve,
Like a shot star, which doth repair
Upward, and rarifie the air.

Richard Lovelace (1618–1657)

The Strangeness Of It

Damselfly. Joris Hoefnagel (b. 1542 Antwerp, Belgium, d. 1601 Vienna, Austria)

“Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body… as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it.”

Virginia Woolf,  “The Death of the Moth”

Published in: on June 10, 2010 at 2:10 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,