“(Mainichi Japan) April 04, 2012”

The Gozenzawa snow ravine where Japan's first glacier was confirmed, pictured at left, is seen in this aerial photograph. (Mainichi)

The Gozenzawa snow ravine where Japan’s first glacier was confirmed, pictured at left, is seen in this aerial photograph. (Mainichi)

Mainichi Japan April 04, 2012
A body of ice found by museum officials in the Tateyama mountain range in Japan’s Northern Alps has received official recognition from the Japanese Society of Snow and Ice as Japan’s first glacier.
Previously it was thought that there were no glaciers in East Asia south of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.
“Confirming the existence of a glacier in a warm place like Japan is a major find,” said Yoshiyuki Fujii, 67, former chairman of the society. The finding will be published in the May issue of the society’s journal.
The Japanese Society of Snow and Ice is the only body in Japan that confirms glaciers. It is believed that the Tateyama mountain range’s large snowfall in the winter and low summer temperatures created the right conditions for a glacier to form in the area.
The Tateyama Caldera Sabo Museum started investigating the area in 2009, drilling holes through 15 to 20 meters of surface snow to reach the body of ice, and then inserting poles into the gaps. In September and October last year, GPS measurements were taken to determine the distance the ice had traveled. They found that the ice had moved between 7 and 32 centimeters around the San no Mado and Komado ravines of 2,999-meter Mount Tsurugi, and the Gozenzawa ravine of 3,003-meter Mount Oyama. The data was examined by the Japanese Society of Snow and Ice, which officially recognized the body of ice as a glacier on April 1.
Keishi Ishimoto, the 64-year-old editor-in-chief of the society’s journal and an adviser at the Hokkaido branch of the Japan Weather Association commented, “Various people have conducted investigations in different spots, but hadn’t been able to confirm anything. Using the latest equipment to obtain concrete data was what led to confirmation this time,” he said.


By Kevin Short

Kevin Short / Daily Yomiuri Columnist

Here comes Peter Cottontail / Hopping down the Bunny Trail / Hippity-hoppity Hippity-hoppity / Easter’s on its way.

This is a little nursery rhyme I remember from my childhood. I don’t know if it is a traditional song, or if someone around me just made it up on the spot. The association of Easter with hares and rabbits, however, is close and undeniable.

Easter, which celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, dominates the Christian spring calendar. The date is set as the Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. Depending on the timing of these celestial events, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. This year, the equinox just passed this last Tuesday, but with the moon new today the next full doesn’t arrive until Saturday, April 7. The following day will be Easter Sunday.

Although a major event in the liturgical calendar, Easter is also clearly an ancient celebration of spring that is much older than the Christian tradition. The very name Easter is believed to come from Eastre, or Ostare, a pre-Christian pagan goddess of spring. As is so often the case, the sacred motifs associated with the original pagan celebration, in this case eggs and hares, have been carried on into the modern festival.

Eggs are clearly a symbol of rebirth, a new cycle of the natural world exploding to life after the long cold months of winter. Spring is also the time of year when hares and rabbits begin their breeding season. Males energetically chase each other back and forth, and actively court the females. The old English adage “mad as a March hare” is based on this agitated behavior exhibited during the spring mating season–just witness the babbling insane antics of Lewis Carol’s memorable character the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland.

Hares and rabbits are classified in the Order Lagomorpha, a group of exclusively herbaceous grazing mammals with two sets of long, chisel-like incisors in the upper jaw. These teeth continue to grow throughout the animal’s lifetime, and are kept honed by constant use in cutting through tough plant food. Long ears and powerful rear legs are essential for detecting and escaping from their many enemies, which include foxes, wolves, wildcats, weasels, hawks and owls.

Although many people think of rabbits and hares as just different names for the same animals, they actually comprise two distinct families within the Lagomorpha. Most rabbits (genus Sylvilagus, ana-usagi in Japanese) dig nesting burrows, and their young are usually born blind and naked. Hares (genus Lepus, nousagi in Japanese), in contrast, give birth in simple grass nests, always well hidden inside a dense thicket. Their young arrive fully furred and with their eyes open. They quickly learn to fend for themselves.

The countryside of northern Europe and the British Isles, as well as the Appalachian Mountain region of North America, often features a landscape dominated by open pastureland bordered by hedges and coppice woods. Although this is a cultural rather than truly natural landscape, it provides ideal feeding and breeding habitat for rabbits and hares. The closely cropped pastures offer up a continuous supply of new plants, which these animals thrive on, while the hedges and woods serve as perfect places to hide and reproduce in.

The March hare that so frustrated Alice was probably a European hare (L. europaeus) or mountain hare (L. timidis). The Peter Cottontail in my nursery rhyme is the eastern cottontail (S. floridanus), a common species of rabbit native to eastern North America. These rabbits were incredibly numerous in the dairy farming country of the Appalachian Mountains where I lived as a boy. In fact, they formed the central core of a rich countryside food chain topped by foxes and medium-size birds of prey.

Here in the southern Kanto region, the local lagomorph is the Japanese hare. This species is endemic to Japan, which means that the hares are found here and nowhere else, and is native to the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. On Hokkaido, however, the Japanese hare is replaced by the yuki-usagi, a subspecies (L. t. ainu) of the widely distributed mountain hare.

To an American used to seeing rabbits all over the place, the Japanese hare seems an exceedingly shy and elusive creature. Almost totally nocturnal, actual daytime glimpses are rare. Only tracks and scats in the fields, and an occasional half-eaten carcass, attest to a healthy local population.

Hare and rabbit tracks are distinctive, consisting of a set of two long prints made by the rear legs and two much shorter prints produced by the front. Contrary to reason, the animal is always traveling in the direction of the rear prints. Hares and rabbits land first on their two front feet, then swing their big rear legs all the way in front to generate a powerful push-off.

Hare scats are mounds of small pellets, about a centimeter or so in diameter. You can break them open to confirm that the hares are total vegetarians.

These scats are the end product of a unique digestion system. Lagomorphs pass rough fibrous plant food through their intestines once, then reingest their first set of feces, passing the food through a second time to extract more nutritional value before eliminating the final type of scats found in the field. A gardener friend of mine swears that these dried hare pellets make the best natural fertilizer for potted plants and vegetables.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

(NATURE IN SHORT / Rabbits or hares? The differences between 2 springtime animals, Mar. 22, 2012)

An ode to Japan’s magnificent Sika Deer


Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012



An ode to Japan’s magnificent Sika Deer

Happiness is being herd: A group of female Sika Deer graze in winter sunlight. MARK BRAZIL















Deep powdery snow is to a Sika Deer what a stage covered with fluffy feather pillows would be to a top-ranking ballerina. Both lead to loss of grace and floundering, for slim-footed deer and ballerina alike.


Where narrow-hooved deer sink and flounder in snow, by way of contrast wild boar plough like manic bulldozers leaving deep furrows in the snow. Hares, with large hind feet, and densely furred toes giving them broad surfaces like mini-snowshoes, skim fleet-footed over the snow, as did the elf Legolas in JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

In southern Japan, the image of Sika is of a small, rather delicate creature, whereas in the north, where I live, they are large and more heavily set. Despite regular visits to the southern islands, I am nevertheless surprised each time by the difference in size between the northern and southern populations.

Southern Sika are darkly pelaged in reddish-brown. They are diminutive animals of forest and forest edge, spending much of their time browsing anonymously in the dark forests of the Laurelacaea trees that predominate there. The smallest of all live on the southernmost islands: Kerama, off Okinawa, and Yakushima, south of Kyushu. On Yakushima, they share their range with the southernmost Japanese Macaques and live with them in a loosely symbiotic way, as do Spotted Deer and Common Langurs in India.

Monkeys and deer alike live in social groups and quickly give alarm calls when disturbance or danger threaten. Deer and monkeys each understand and respond to the other’s alarms. It is the deer that reap the further benefit though, because monkeys are messy eaters. As macaques climb into trees they select only certain leaves or fruits up in the canopy and they send a steady rain of detritus, discarded leaves and the like, to the forest floor below.

To the deer, the miraculous appearance of fresh food from above must seem like manna from heaven, a kind of cervine fantasy on a par with Judi and Ron Barrett’s tale in their book “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and the 2009 computer-animated comedy fantasy film based on it.

Miraculous provisioning is not confined only to the deer on Yakushima, and though macaques are not usually involved elsewhere, another kind of primate is: With the passion that human visitors here have of feeding living creatures at tourist spots, deer that overcome their shyness sufficiently to approach are guaranteed handouts.

A little further to the north of Yakushima, but belonging to the same national park, the Kirishima mountain range of Kyushu is home to another, only slightly larger subspecies of deer.

In many parts of Kirishima’s forest, the only signs of deer are their sharply whistled alarm calls, the sound of hooves and if lucky a glimpse of their large white rump patches neatly framed with black as they dash away in fright. At some spots, though, regular visitor handouts have drawn deer out from the forest and some have become confiding enough to take proffered food from visitors. The same has happened at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima and at Nara.

Moving northward through the Japanese archipelago, Sika Deer populations, recognized by biologists as separate subspecies, become increasingly large, and to my eye paler brown. All of the subspecies share a number of fundamental features in common, and in fact these familiar characteristics are to be found in most other deer species too.

The males grow a fine set of antlers that they use essentially for bluff and bravado during the autumn rut, though sometimes they are also used for outright clashes. Then, the clattering and rattling sound of the antlers of jousting stags is dramatic indeed. The males strut and pose with their fine racks of antlers, hoping to oust their competitors in the race to pass on their genes. The larger-bodied males with larger antlers dominate, give stirring territorial calls and gather about them a harem of females with which they mate.

After the seasonal rut, when the extra burden of their spreading antlers no longer serves a purpose, the stags drop them, like a deciduous tree shedding its leaves. The fallen antlers become an important source of minerals for other creatures. Should you find one on the forest floor, inspect it closely and you’ll almost certainly find the tiny tooth marks indicative of rodents gnawing there, or perhaps even larger tooth marks of a fox, badger or deer. It’s tempting to take fallen antlers as decorations, but they serve a better purpose left on the forest floor, where their minerals are consumed or eventually leach back into the soil.

It is this characteristic, of growing a new set of antlers each year and dropping them again, that distinguishes deer immediately from other animals with horns, such as sheep, goats, cattle and antelopes. Those animals, unlike the deer, have simple, nonbranching structures of bone, covered with keratin, on their foreheads and they keep them throughout their lives.

While male and female deer differ in that males have antlers and females don’t, they each have similarly short tails, which they raise when disturbed, and white fur on their rump, which they fluff out in alarm. The combination of raised tail and fluffed white bottom makes for a strong visual signal, especially in a shady forest or poor light, allowing disturbed herd members to follow one another easily. They also share a sharp, whistled alarm call, which, despite having heard it innumerable times, still gives me a jolt of surprise.

If you have only encountered deer in Japan in the parks in Nara or on Miyajima, then it is only the most approachable of deer that you have encountered. These are in fact deer with attitude: They don’t just hope for food; they expect it. If you don’t provide it, they are quite likely to steal your map or pamphlet from your hand or pocket. Never, ever, put down an open bag in sight of these particular deer, as that is giving them a confirmed invitation to dinner!


News photo
A stag, sporting a fine rack of antlers, feeds on maize kernels put out for cranes in the village of Tsurui in eastern Hokkaido.


Some others of Japan’s deer are wild, nervous of hunters, but increasing in numbers — I am talking about the deer in Hokkaido.

Last weekend I arrived at my favorite pension in west Hokkaido to find myself immediately welcomed to the shōchū bottle and embroiled in a debate about the fate of deer here, and more importantly what we should do about them. It’s a serious subject up here, as the deer population is perceived as exploding out of control, causing damage to agriculture and vehicles, and to life and limb on the island’s road and rail networks.

Always willing to stir up trouble, I suggested that reintroducing wolves might help — as the deer’s only native predator was exterminated a little over a century ago.

Then I was struck with another idea: Just to the west, on the Russian mainland and along its border with China, the few remaining Siberian Tigers left on earth are battling to survive against increasing odds of extinction from poaching and habitat loss. How about solving two problems in one? Help save the tiger by translocating Siberian Tigers to Hokkaido — the habitat is very similar — and help reduce the deer population by introducing a predator. One could even help the flagging tourist trade, by operating tiger-watching tourism in Japan (why should India have all the fun?). Of course, this off-the-wall idea is untenable in a number of ways: Imagine trying to obtain local community consensus for introducing tigers in their forests. But don’t throw out the idea entirely; at least not yet.

In New Zealand, deer were initially introduced as game animals, and once their population became out of control, various methods were attempted to control them. One involved fencing them in and farming them for velvet, antler, bone, skin and meat for international markets extending from Europe to China.

Something similar could be done in Hokkaido on a commercial scale by fencing in some of the wild Sika. Then in some large fenced areas with plenty of deer, Siberian Tigers could be introduced. Now wouldn’t that be a sight — to watch a striped tawny-orange beast stalking deer through the snowy wastes of Akan or Daisetsuzan national parks! If there were tigers around, perhaps folk wouldn’t worry so much about the deer.

Mark Brazil is a naturalist and author who has written Wild Watch for 29 years and is the founder of Japan Nature Guides. His books “Field Guide to the Birds of East Asia,” “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Japan” and “The Birds of Japan” are available at good bookstores, or via markbrazil@world.email.ne.jpor www.wildwatchjapan.com.

Morus alba (White Mulberry)

There are two common mulberry tree species, the red mulberry (Morus rubra) and the white mulberry (Morus alba).

Both species of this deciduous plant have roughly oval, toothed, alternate leaves.

Ripe mulberries come in different colours: red, white, pink and black.

These are attributed to the two different species and their hybrids.

Red mulberry

  • Reaches a height of about 20 m.
  • Rough reddish-brown bark.
  • Leaves feel like sandpaper underneath.
  • The fruit is made up of lots of berries stuck together, each with its own seed.
  • The fruit is long-oval in shape, and hangs from a short, slender fruit stalk.

White mulberry

  • Native to northern China.
  • Widely cultivated to feed the silmworms needed for the commercial production of silk.
  • Grows up to 12m tall.
  • Rough, lighter, ochre-gray bark and with spreading branches. The bark has distinctive vertical cracks or furrows with an occasional orange-brown streak between the cracks.
  • Leaves are smooth underneath.
  • The flower is also notable for the rapid release of its pollen, which is launched at over half the speed of sound.
  • Mature white mulberries are soft, moist and sticky. Unripe berries are dry and hard.

Mulberries have been adapted to a very wide variety of local conditions. Japan has about 700 different types. The trees can grow from cool temperate to warm tropical regions, from dry to moist areas, from sea-level to as high as 3,300 metres.

White Mulberry (Morus alba) is the principal food source for the silkworm, Bombyx mori. Mulberries are edible and the bark is used in many types of specialized papers.

Morus australis (Japanese/Korean Mulberry) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese Mulberry (Morus australis) is distributed over a wide terrain (in limestone areas, forest margins, mountain slopes, fallow land, scrub in valleys) and areas of East Asia including Anhui, Fujian, Gansu, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Liaoning, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Taiwan, SE Xizang, Yunnan, Zhejiang, Japan, Korea. Bhutan and India. – Source: The Japanese Mulberry – Morus australis Poir. Moraceae


“Here we go round the mulberry bush” (Straits Times)

The Japanese Mulberry – Morus australis Poir. Moraceae – Mulberry or Fig Family, a.k.a. the Korean Mulberry

The Mulberry Tree & Its Silkworm Connection (by Dr. T. Ombrello – UCC Biology Department)

Mulberry trees on the ancient uses of mulberry and connection with fish farming

Morus alba

File:Sakurajima at Sunset.jpg
Source: Wikipedia photo, 23 Nov 2009 eruption


KAGOSHIMA — Mount Sakurajima, an active volcano in Kagoshima Prefecture, explosively erupted 996 times in 2011, the most since record-keeping began in 1955, the local meteorological observatory said.

At the 800-meter-high Showa crater, which erupted in June 2006 for the first time in 58 years, 994 eruptions were observed last year. Two eruptions were observed at the Minamidake vent, which is at an elevation of about 1,000 meters, the Kagoshima Meteorological Observatory said Sunday.

Mount Sakurajima’s previous record for eruptions was 474 in 1985. But after erupting 548 times in 2009 and 896 times in 2010, its most recent string of eruptions means the record has been broken for three consecutive years.

The Meteorological Agency defines an explosive eruption as one accompanied by an explosive release of gas, ash or rock.

Web-slinging professor seeks spider silk secret (Japan Times, Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011)


Shigeyoshi Osaki can read the minds of spiders. Or so you would think, if you see the way he handles the eight-legged arthropods.

News photo
Hanging around: Professor Shigeyoshi Osaki demonstrates the strength of spider silk by swinging in a hammock supported by threads he harvested. SHIGEYOSHI OSAKI PHOTO

Osaki, professor at the department of biomacromolecules at Nara Medical University in the city of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, is also one of Japan’s foremost researchers on spiders, especially spider silk.

When The Japan Times recently visited his office, where he keeps hundreds of spiders for research, he achieved the astonishing feat of harvesting silk from a spider with several-centimeter-long legs — right on cue.

First, he brought in a few paper cups, each of which had a spider and a twig inside. He then explained that he has to keep each of these harmless spiders separately because, if they are kept together, they would eat each other.

The two kinds of spider species he keeps are Nephila pilipes, distinguished by long, thin legs and coming from Okinawa, and Argiope amoena, which are caught in Kochi and Wakayama prefectures and bear a black and yellow striped pattern on the abdomen.

As soon as Osaki removed a rubber band holding a plastic net over a paper cup, a big spider crawled out of the cup and moved about across the professor’s body. With great skill and care, Osaki managed to let the leggy creature stay on his right wrist, then nudged it onto a black cloth, using a twig.

And then, with the wizardry of a dolphin trainer or snake charmer, he gently tapped the creature’s rounded belly with the twig several times. “It will come out soon,” he whispered — and whoa! — a fine, silver fiber spun out of the spider’s belly as Osaki pulled the twig away from the cloth, just like the sticky strings you get when you remove chopsticks from a bowl of natto fermented beans.

“The key is to approach them with a mix of tough and gentle,” he said. “If you are too strict, you will upset them and they won’t produce the silk. They can also pretend that they are dead.”

News photo
Silken tones: Professor Shigeyoshi Osaki plays a violin strung with spider-silk strings. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

The author of numerous scientific papers, books and essays on spiders, Osaki says he first got interested in the arachnid while researching the adhesiveness of stickers for a paper manufacturing company some 30 years ago. He found spiders, which spin sticky orb webs to catch prey, much more exciting than stickers, he recalls. But back then, no one had really done in-depth research on spider silk, he said.

“Most researchers were studying spiders from a biological perspective,” he said. “Their biggest motivation was to find a new species, because if they did, the species would be named after them.”

Osaki, on the other hand, became fascinated with the unique characteristics of spider silk. In particular, the so-called drag line, from which spiders dangle, is strong, expandable and not so sticky compared to other silk threads. He says the drag line’s exceptional strength is due to its two-filament structure, noting that it manifests the species’ great survival skills, which are born out of its 400-million-year evolutionary history.

Osaki has honed his spider-silk harvesting skills over the years — through trial and error. He said he once released a bunch of spiders on a big tree in his front yard, only to find that most died because they ate each other or fell prey to birds. Also because spider research was for a long time only a side project — his main specialty being the analysis of bio-polymers such as collagen — Osaki could only find time to go spider-watching on weekends and at night. He would always take his two sons along at night, because, if he had gone alone, he said, he “could have been mistaken for a pervert.”

The native of Hyogo Prefecture has also created and fine-tuned his own silk reeling device. While he declined to reveal how he harvests silk now, saying it’s “top secret,” he conceded that he still does it manually. His earlier versions were made out of manually-bent steel coat-hangers, which were then attached to motorized Chupa Chup toys — designed to spin lolly-pops in one’s mouth — bought at ¥100 shops.

After collecting spider silk through such labor-intensive efforts, he went on to test its strength, by tying the woven silk to a hammock and dangling from it himself. The experiment, boldly carried out on the university campus in 2006, was witnessed by journalists and reported nationwide, along with a photo of the suited, 65-kg Osaki clutching the ropes.

News photo
Two Argiope amoena spiders with their silk. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

Osaki said that several projects have attempted, both in Japan and overseas, to mass-produce genetically engineered spider silk, either by breeding goats that produce spider silk through milk, or by injecting spiders’ DNA into the genomes of silkworms. But for now, these projects are in their research phases, and none of the players involved, who have invested vast amounts of money, have yet to start manufacturing bullet-proof jackets or run-free stockings out of spider silk. Osaki, meanwhile, said he would rather stick to exploring the untapped potential of natural spiders.

Last year, he created violin strings with silk he had harvested, with the conviction that his violin would sound different from others. During the visit, he kindly played the special violin. Unfortunately though, his musical skills were no match to his silk-harvesting expertise, so it was hard to tell whether his slightly off-key rendering of the melancholic Japanese classic song “Kojo no Tsuki” (“The Moon over the Ruined Castle”) proved the violin’s excellence over a conventionally-strung Stradivarius. But Osaki says a spectrum analysis of the spider silk-strung violin has shown it has “milder” sounds than regular violins with synthetic fibers. In fact, a professional violinist in Germany recently contacted him, begging to let her play the special instrument, Osaki says. While he has turned down the offer, saying more research and improvement is necessary, he is certain that this would cast a new light on spider silk.

“The violinist was very eager, saying she wants to come to Japan to sign a contract any minute,” he said. “But I need to refine it to a level at which I can let others play with confidence. So I must keep on playing myself … until I find out how to improve it.”