Glastonbury Tor in England

Glastonbury Tor is a large hill located in Glastonbury, Somerset, England, with a roofless St. Michael's Tower on its summit. Tor is a local word of Celtic origin meaning 'rock outcropping' or 'hill'. The Glastonbury Tor has a striking location in the middle of a plain called the Summerland Meadows, part of the Somerset Levels. The plain is actually reclaimed fenland out of which the Tor once rose like an island, but now, with the surrounding flats, is a peninsula washed on three sides by the River Brue.

In early-medieval times there was a small monks' retreat on top of the Tor, founded probably in the time of St Patrick in the mid-400s. This was followed in the early 1100s by a chapel, St Michael de Torre. This was destroyed in a powerful earthquake in 1275 and rebuilt in the early 1300s. The tower is all that remains today.

There are many myths and legends associated with the Tor. It has been linked to Avalon and also with King Arthur, since the alleged discovery of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere's neatly labeled coffins in 1191. With the 19th-century resurgence of interest in Celtic mythology, the Tor became associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, who was first Lord of the Underworld, and later King of the Fairies. The Tor came to be represented as an entrance to Annwn or Avalon, the land of the fairies.

A persistent myth of more modern origin is that of the Glastonbury Zodiac, an astrological zodiac of gargantuan proportions said to have been carved into the land along ancient hedgerows and trackways. The theory was first put forward in 1927 by Katherine Maltwood, an artist with an interest in the occult, who thought the zodiac was constructed approximately 5,000 years ago. However, the vast majority of the land said to be covered by the zodiac was under several feet of water at the proposed time of its construction.

The Tor is now owned and cared for by the National Trust and there is free access to the public at all times.


Amazing Fire Tornadoes

Film-maker Chris Tangey of Alice Springs Film and Television was filming a wildfire in Curtin Springs, Australia, when a small twister touched down causing it to build into a spinning flame. Just 300-meters away was a 30-meter high fire swirl which 'sounded like a fighter jet' despite there being no wind in the area.

The so called fire tornado or fire whirls generally form when superheated air near the surface of a large fire zone rises rapidly in an airmass where sufficient horizontal or vertical vorticity (spin in the atmosphere) is also present. Much like a dust devil or whirlwind, the rapidly rising air above a wildfire can accelerate and turn the local vorticity into a tight vertical vortex, now composed of fire instead of dust.

Most of the largest fire tornados are spawned from wildfires. They are usually 10-50 meters tall, a few meters wide, and last only a few minutes. However, some can be more than a kilometer tall, contain winds over 160 km/h, and persist for more than 20 minutes. The tornado that Tangey caught on camera reportedly lasted for more than 40 minutes.

An extreme example of fire tornado is the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake in Japan which ignited a large city-sized firestorm and produced a gigantic fire whirl that killed 38,000 in fifteen minutes in the Hifukusho-Ato region of Tokyo. Another example is the numerous large fire whirls (some tornadic) that developed after lightning struck an oil storage facility near San Luis Obispo, California on April 7, 1926, several of which produced significant structural damage well away from the fire, killing two. Thousands of whirlwinds were produced by the four-day-long firestorm coincident with conditions that produced severe thunderstorms, in which the larger fire whirls carried debris 5 kilometers away.

Video of the fire tornado Chris Tangey recorded below.

Fire tornado at a training fire Long View Fire Dept.

Fire tornado just south of Seminole, Okla., during the December wildfires in 2005.

A popular photo of unknown origin.

A fire tornado captured on camera on the night of 14 September 2004 near the southern Argentinean town of Ushuaia. 


Deep Sea Mystery Circle

Yoji Ookata is a scuba diver and self-taught underwater photographer. After diving and shooting recreationally for 18 years, Yoji took the ‘plunge’, quit his day job and has been working as a freelance underwater photographer ever since. On a recent dive in the waters of Amami Oshima (Kagoshima Prefecture), Yoji noticed strange circular patterns on the sea floor at a depth of about 25 meters (82 ft).

The patterns were about 2 meters (6.5 ft) in diameter and quite intricate. Ookata decided to enlist the help of his colleagues at NHK to help investigate what he dubbed ‘the deep sea mystery circle’. After sending down a film crew and team of scientists, the NHK aired an episode entitled, “The Discovery of a Century: Deep Sea Mystery Circle”. The findings were astounding.

It turns out the artist is a small male puffer fish who creates the patterns using his tiny fin. He works day and night in the hopes his artwork will attract a female mate (who apparently are attracted to the grooves and ridges). If chosen, the female will lay her eggs in the middle of the circle and the surrounding ridges and grooves even help protect the eggs from currents. How lovely!









RARE: Portraits of America's Endangered Species

The first thought that ran across my mind when I read Joel Sartore's book Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species was that it's a gorgeous book. Joel, a National Geographic photographer, has been on a 20-year personal mission to photograph examples of the world's most endangered species, so you'd kinda expect that out of him.

There are currently about 1,500 known species in the world that are endangered - Joel presents 68 of them in his book, ranging from wolves to wolverines, pitcher plant to pineapple cactus; all exquisitely photographed. As an amateur point-and-shoot photographer (erhm, that's being generous - I mostly take blurry photos of my kids), I can only imagine how long it took him to get that Eastern Hellbender photo!

The second thought that ran across my mind was that it's a rather sad book. One of the last two Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in the world died a few months after Joel took its photograph (you'll read more about this below).

It took me a while, however, to realize just what Joel's book actually meant. For me, that meaning can be summed up in just one word: hope. Despite its weighty topic of the extinction of species, RARE manages not only to present the beauty and grace of some of the last members of animals and plant species on Earth, but also to touch its readers and (hopefully) inspire them into action. The last chapter of the book showcases animals that have stepped back from the brink of extinction through conservation programs like the bald eagle, the American alligator, and the gray wolf.

There's a lot we can do to help save endangered animals - you know, reduce, reuse, recycle - but for many of us who have trouble engaging in the theoretical debates of biodiversity, carbon footprint, and so on, reading Joel's book can be that first step to help save species from being lost forever: caring about these animals.

Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit 0

Brachylagus idahoensis

Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon

Bryn the pygmy rabbit died in 2008, marking the end of her genetic line.
This subpopulation lost its sagebrush habitat as the land was developed
for agriculture. Key features of Bryn's genetic material survive in hybrid
pygmy rabbits; a breeding and reintroduction program holds out hope for
her kind.

In an off-exhibit room at the Oregon Zoo, the staff was quiet, even reverent,
as they brought in Bryn. She was one of two Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits
left, and since both were old females, this was a solemn occasion.

A keeper placed her gently on my black velvet background, and i began
to take photos. I stopped to watch her from time to time, but she didn't
move much. She wasn't even scared. Nearly blind, missing half an ear,
and with fur falling out onto the cloth, she seemed to have already given

The whole experience left me morose and extremely disappointed. We'd
done it again, this time by converting sage habitat to agriculture in
western Washington. Our photo session was one of the last chances Bryn
had to be noticed. She died a few months later, and then Raphaela, the
last of the breed, died as well. The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is now
extinct, a passenger pigeon for the 21st century.

Bog Turtle <18,100

Glyptemys muhlenbergii

Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia

America's tiniest turtle, the palm-size bog turtle now survives mostly
on private lands from Massachusetts to Georgia. Adapted to soggy soils,
the species suffers where wetlands are filled or groundwater is diverted,
and significant numbers end up as roadkill.

St. Andrew Beach Mouse <6,000

Peromyscus polionotus peninsularis

Panama City, Florida

In diminishing numbers, these mice live on about 20 miles of the Florida
Panhandle - a narrow margin for survival. Why save them? They are a unique
species and an important part of the food chain. Furthermore, their existence
is a good indicator of a healthy dune ecosystem.

Beach mice are anthropomorphic - cute as can be and easy to love
- unless you're a developer who is inconvenienced by preserving their
habitat. But photographing them is as tricky as saving them. The mice
never stop moving, and so quickly that I couldn't follow them with my
macro lens, let alone get a focus. My flash even had a hard time stopping
them. Only when this mouse paused to groom did I get a moment to take
a pictures - J.S.

Alabama Canebrake Pitcher-Plant <1,000

Sarracenia rubra ssp. alabamensis

Atlanta Botanical Garden, Atlanta, Georgia

Once found in 28 sites across three counties in central Alabama, this
carnivorous plant now grows in only 11. It takes to swamps or bogs with
acidic sands or clays, environments that have by and large been converted
to farm ponds and other agricultural uses. And plant collectors are willing
to break the law to add these gems to their collections.

Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly <1,000

Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis

Colton, California

This fly is now relegated to a few vacant lots in the Los Angeles Basin.
The photo you're looking at may be its last hurrah. "The world would
go on without it," says biologist Ken Osborne of this humble southern
California dunes dweller, "but it would be a shame."

It took four and a half months to take this picture. That was the
wait time for a special handling permit that was needed through the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. On the chosen day, with several federal agents
there to see the show, a federally permitted fly handler named Ken Osborne
readied himself to catch a single fly unharmed. Our permit allowed just
for one fly to be caught, so if it was injured or flew off before I got
the picture, that would be our tough luck. Neither of us slept a wink
the night before Ken was able to find a fly, net it, then run it back
to my rolling photo studio, a GMC Yukon lined with bedsheets. He knocked
it out with CO2 gas, then let it wake up a few seconds later on my black
velvet background. To our amazement, it stayed there and groomed itself,
giving me several minutes to shoot. Ken then gently scooped it into a
jar, took it back to the place where he found it, and we all watched it
fly off. - J.S.

Black-Footed Ferret ~800

Mustela nigripes

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs, Colorado

A government-assisted war on prairie dogs in the 1900s nearly wiped out
the black-footed ferret, which depends on prairie dogs as a staple in
its diet. Its geographic range is now some 3 percent of what it once was
across the Great Plains. Meanwhile, reintroduced ferrets lack survival
skills and often fall prey themselves to eagles and coyotes.

California Condor 356

Gymnogyps californianus

Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona

Nine wild condors remained in 1985, many of their predecessors felled
by hunters or poisoned by eating fragments of lead shot. Captive breeding
and reduced use of lead ammunition have restored North America's largest
flying bird.

This species nearly didn't make it, but now there are more than 300
condors alive, and some of those birds fly free again. The bird you see
here is known simply as Male #50. He flew in the wild for a time, until
a collision with Arizona's Navajo Bridge dislocated his right wing at
the wrist. He'll be an educational bird from now on - starting with this
photograph. - J.S.

Wolverine 300

Gulo gulo

New York State Zoo, Watertown, New York

Originally roaming as far southeast as Maryland and as far southwest
as New Mexico, this bear-like omnivorous weasel now lives only in the
northwestern United States. Fur hunting and development have decimated
its numbers, yet larger populations in Canada and Alaska have hindered
its protection under the ESA.

I'd always heard how ferocious wolverines were. When irritated they
sound, quite literally, like hell unleashed. So to photograph a wolverine
on white is no easy task. First you find a place like the New York State
Zoo in Watertown that will work with you to place white sheets of one-inch-thick
plywood in his off-exhibit space. Next you watch the wolverine completely
demolish the plywood within minutes. As a last resort, you take a very
thin white seamless paper, which he proceeds to delicately walk across
many times in order to get his picture taken. Wolverines are a walking
contradiction. - J.S.

Eastern Hellbender ?

Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis

San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California

Surviving in the Appalachians as one of North America's largest salamanders,
these hellbenders range from 12 to 29 inches long. They like swift, clear
streams with rocky bottoms and thus serve as barometers of river health.
Topping their list of woes are dams and siltation; fishermen sometimes
kill them in the mistaken belief that they are poisonous.

Iowa Pleistocene Snail ?

Discus macclintocki

Farmersburg, Iowa

This Ice Age snail was known only in fossils until examples were discovered
alive in 1972. The species persists on steep slopes in Iowa and Illinois
where cracks in the limestone act as cool-air vents. Naturally air-conditioned
at 15° to 50°F, these micro-habitats mimic Pleistocene conditions,
but logging and erosion threaten change.

This is a true relict species, left over from an age when glaciers
dominated North America. Today it can survive only in vents in the sides
of a few hills in the Midwest. Hot air literally kills it, so moving these
animals, even for a few minutes, is out of the question. The entire photo
set up consisted of a flash, a macro lens, and a piece of white plastic
stuck in a cracked rock. That they're the size of a pencil lead adds to
the fun of trying to photograph them. - J.S.

The Making Of RARE: Behind the Scenes With National Geographic
Photographer Joel Sartore


10 Unique Tombs in the World

Throughout the history of human civilization, different cultures mourn and treat the dead differently. Some, like Tibetan Buddhists, have no use for burials as they dispose the dead by feeding corpses to vultures or by burning them in funeral pyres. Most cultures, however, show their respect by burying the dead, sometimes in complex and ornate tombs, crypts, and catacombs.

This article takes a look at ten of the most fascinating final resting places around the world, from the largest prehistoric burial mound in Europe to the the tombs of pharaohs to the most beautiful mausoleum in the world:

The burial mound of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland is definitely one of the most impressive prehistoric monuments in the world. Build between 3300 BC - 2900 BC, it is the also the world's oldest surviving building (it's older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt).

Newgrange is impressive: the circular mound is 250 feet (76 m) across and 40 feet (12 m) high. It covers an entire acre (4046 m²). A long tunnel under the mound leads to a high-domed burial chamber, a corbelled vault with ceilings made of huge, interlocking stone slabs.

The entrance to Newgrange is marked with a huge curbstone that is elaborately carved with "megalithic art," which includes spiral and concentric arc motifs chipped into the stone with flint tools.

Newgrange burial mound.

The wall of Newgrange.

The engraved slab in front of Newgrange's entrance.

Tana Toraja
The Toraja people in Sulawesi, Indonesia, have what is probably the most complex funeral ritual in the world. When someone dies, the funeral is attended by a lot of people and can last for days! But that's not the strange part - this is: the funeral ceremony is often held weeks, months, or even years after the death (to give the family of the deceased time to raise enough money for expenses).

Torajans can wait that long because they believe that death is not a sudden event but instead a gradual process towards the afterlife (if you're wondering about the smell - the dead body is embalmed within the first few days of death, then stored in a secret place until the funeral ceremony).

After much partying (including the slaughter of one or several water buffaloes), the dead is buried in a stone cave carved out of a rocky cliff. A wood-carved effigy called tau tau, carved with the likeness of the dead person is then placed in the balcony of the tomb to represent the dead and watch over their remains.

Toraja cave tombs with balconies, filled with tau tau.

"In Tana Toraja, everything revolves around death. The graves can be very sophisticated yet sometimes, long after the coffins are destroyed by time, people gently place bones along natural cave 'racks'. Often, the bones are offered cigarettes or various offerings. This is supposed to prevent dead ancestors from bringing bad luck and otherwise making the lives of the living miserable."

Westminster Abbey
The gothic church Westminster Abbey in London, United Kingdom was established by Benedictine monks in the tenth century (and rebuilt in the 13th century by King Henry III) - since then it has evolved into both the coronation church for English royalty and the final resting place of monarchs.

Though at first Westminster Abbey was the burial place of kings, aristocrats, and monks, it soon became the tomb-of-choice (if there is such a thing) for the who's who in England. Poets and writers like Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Alfred Tennyson; as well as scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Ernest Rutherford were all interred there.

Westminster Abbey.

Newton's grave at Westminster Abbey.

Giza Necropolis
There are more than 100 pyramids in Egypt, with the largest and most famous being the complex of pyramids in Giza Necropolis, Cairo, Egypt. This complex consists of the Great Pyramid of Giza (tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu or Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Great Sphinx statue, as well as several other smaller satellite pyramids.

Let's take, for instance, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When it was completed in 2560 BC, the pyramid was 481 feet (147 m) tall with each base side being 758 feet (231 m) wide. The blocks weigh about 1.5 tons each, with the internal granite blocks used as the roof of the burial chamber being about 80 tons each. The ancient Egyptians knew what they were doing: the base sides have a mean margin of error of only 2 1/3 inch (58 mm)! Needless to say, it is an amazing work of engineering.

The Pyramids of Giza.

The Great Sphinx.

The Pyramids of Giza are not too far from the urban sprawl of Cairo.

Valley of the Kings
Even if you don't know much about the Valley of the Kings, a burial ground of ancient Egyptian pharaohs and one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, chances are you know about one of its occupants: King Tut and the Curse of the Pharaohs that accompany his grave.

In 1922, Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered and opened the tomb of Tutankhamen - despite warnings that "Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King." Lord Carnarvon, the funder of the expedition, was the first to die: he was bitten by a mosquito and later accidentally lashed the bite while shaving. His wound became infected and he died of blood poisoning.

Whether the "mysterious" deaths associated with the Curse of the Pharaoh actually had anything to do with opening of the tombs or just great copy to sell newspaper, scientists did recently discover that the tombs indeed contained potentially dangerous molds, bacteria, toxins, and even hazardous gases.

Valley of the Kings.

The tomb of King Tut in the Valley of the Kings.

Tomb of Ramses III in Luxor, Valley of the Kings.

Sarcophagus of the Pharaoh Merenptah in the KV8 tomb of the Valley of the Kings.

Catacombs of Paris
Officially called les carrières de Paris or "the quarries of Paris," the Catacombs of Paris is a network of underground tunnels and rooms that used to be Roman-era limestone quarries.

In the late 1700s, Paris was suffering from diseases caused by improper burials and mass graves in church cemeteries. Local authorities decided that they would remove thousands of bones and place them stacked in the abandoned underground quarries.

Today, the entrance to the catacombs is restricted and only a small portion of the 186 miles (300 km) worth of underground tunnels is accessible to the public. Secret entrances to the Catacombs, however, dotted Paris - urban explorers have found access via sewers, manholes and even the Paris Metro subway system.

Catacombs of Paris. Bones from the former Magdalene cemetery, deposited in 1844 in the western ossuary (bone repository) and transferred to the catacombs in 1859.

Wall of bones in the Catacombs of Paris.

Terracota Army
In 1974, local farmers in Xi'an, China, discovered a vast underground complex of mausoleum while drilling for water. They had serendipitously stumbled upon the burial ground of Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor and the unifier of China.

According to legends, the First Emperor was buried alongside great treasures inside a tomb with pearl-laced ceilings (in a pattern that represented the cosmos) and channels dug in the ground with flowing mercury to represent the rivers of China. But the most famous feature of the tomb is the Terracota Army, about 8,000 life-like and life-sized statues of soldiers buried alongside Qin Shi Huangdi to help the Emperor rule in the afterlife.

Terracota army.

Each face and pose of the Terracota army soldier is distinct from the others.

Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
When the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Italy, outgrew its original cemetery in the 16th century, monks excavated the catacomb below it and began a bizarre tradition that lasted until the 19th century.

The Capuchin monks mummified the bodies of the dead, dressed them up in everyday clothing and then put them on display on the monastery walls. Apparently, it was quite a status symbol to be entombed in the Capuchin monastery - prominent citizens of the town would ask to be preserved in certain clothing or even have the clothes changed on a regular basis according to contemporary fashion!

When the last body was interred in the late 1800s, there were 8,000 mummies on the walls of the Capuchin monastery and in the catacombs.

Capuchin Catacombs.

Mummies on the wall of the Capuchin Catacombs.

Sedlec Ossuary
The Sedlec Ossuary resides in a small Roman Catholic chapel in Sedlec, Czech Republic. If you didn't know any better, you wouldn't have guessed that inside the unassuming building is an ossuary containing about 40,000 human skeletons artistically arranged to form decorations, chandeliers, and furnishings!

In the 13th century, an abbot returned to Sedlec with a small amount of earth from Golgotha, the site of Jesus' crucifixion, and sprinkled it all over the abbey's cemetery. This made the grounds of the church a desirable burial site and over centuries thousands of people were buried there.

In 1870, František Rint, a woodcarver was hired to put the heaps of bones in order. He decided to make a work of art out of the skeletal remains: a chandelier made from skull and bones, a coat of arms of the family that paid him to do the work, and even an "artist's signature" done in bone, of course!

Little would you suspect what lies inside ...

Entrance to the Sedlec Ossuary.

The chandelier at Sedlec Ossuary.

The Schwarzenberg family's coat of arms, done with at least one of every
bone in the body.

Taj Mahal
No article on tombs is complete without the Taj Mahal, a magnificent mausoleum in Agra, India. The Taj Mahal was built in 1631 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who was devastated when his wife Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth. Grief stricken, he ordered that the most beautiful mausoleum be built.

Taj Mahal is an amazing architectural wonder: the marble tomb in the center of the complex is flanked on four corners by minarets. The massive central dome, called the onion dome because of its shape, is striking in its symmetrical perfection. Finials and calligraphy are everywhere.

Inside the Taj Mahal is even more ornate: Precious and semi-precious gemstones are inlaid into the the intricately carved marble panels that serve as walls. The caskets of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are decorated with gems and inscribed with calligraphy, reciting the 99 names of God.

The story of the Taj Mahal actually didn't end with the completion of its buildings: shortly after its completion, Shah Jahan fell ill and a power struggle amongst his four sons ensued. The victor, Aurangzeb, locked the king in the Fort of Agra, where he remained until he died. Legend has it that he spent the remainder of his life gazing at the Taj Mahal, the tomb of his beloved wife, from the window of his prison.

Taj Mahal from a distance.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

The tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal.

Here is another one that didn't quite make the list:

City of the Dead in Northern Ossetia, Russia
In the remote, rugged Gizel valley of Northern Ossetia, Caucasus, Russia, there is a set of stone buildings that from a distance look like a regular village - but with one important detail: it is not for the living. A closer look inside the buildings with slanted slate roof reveal something gruesome: mummified bodies dressed in their best clothes and shoes with hair tidily combed.

Local legends have it that in the 18th century, a plague swept through Ossetia. The clans built quarantine houses for sick family members, who were provided with food, but not freedom to move about, until death claimed their lives. A slow and painful way to go, indeed.

City of the Dead in Northern Ossetia.