The Monster’s Veil

“Ugly food is good to eat.” You’ll find variations of that phrase in cultures around the world, particularly among cooks with a good sense of flavor and a lousy sense of decorative plating. Lumpy brown risottos with chunks of curious fungus might just be a truffle explosion, and properly-cooked soul food should arrive as one edible, semi-solid stain, falling out of the bun and preferably off the plate. The other day I found myself eating dinner with a friend of Korean descent, who cooked the gathering of friends a meal of bibimbap and stuffed kelp rolls that was both visually beautiful and gastronomically delectable. Offhand, I asked him what kind of fish was in the rolls. It was a dark, oily, muscular flavor; soft on the tongue but strong on the nose, deliciously assertive about its identity but frustratingly unfamiliar to me. “Monkfish,” he replied.

“Aha!” I said. “Damn, monkfish is good.”

We half-nodded in agreement.

“Pretty damn ugly, though.”

We half-nodded in agreement.

The next day, by chance, I ended up at the New England Aquarium, and was reminded that “pretty damn ugly” is an insult to pretty damn ugly fish.

Come closer, little girl...

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A Natural History of Leopard Print

As both an animal enthusiast and a rockabilly aficionado, it should come as a surprise to no one that I am a huge fan of leopard print. The primal power of leopard print is rooted in two wildly divergent strains of retro glamour, simultaneously stirring up cultural memories of a time before color photography and a time before agriculture. It is 1955 C.E. and it is 19,055 B.C.E. It is Cadillacs and wildebeest, hippies and hunter-gatherers, Zulu royalty and the Rolling Stones, Mickey Hartigay & Jayne Mansfield and Adam & Eve.

And part of me wishes they HAD been Adam & Eve.

Leopard print has never gone out of style — and has probably never not been in style, somewhere on Earth. (Many paleontologists believe that dinosaurs wore leopard-like spots.) Perhaps the reason for its endurance is that its parents are these two very different nostalgias. One is a deep-seeded yearning for the Paleolithic and pre-civilization, a length of time far longer than post-civilization humanity, when we as a species were in a more even conversation with nature and depended more on our physical prowess, our animal senses, and our understanding of the wilderness. To be sure, there are many people on Earth who are not far removed from this lifestyle, but for those of us in the “first world,” nostalgia for the time of spears and shamans exists as a distant cultural memory, perhaps stitched into the threads of our genetic code, like a dream we can’t quite remember yet which tugs on our hearts upon waking. We cannot shake the feeling that something, somehow led us astray from our true identity as the human ape, and adorning ourselves in leopard print reminds us of our species’ connection to wildlife of the world and our once-intimate relationship to it.

The other type of nostalgia, of course, is this:

My perfect world: 80% leopard print, 20% babe.

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The internet is abuzz this morning with news that a previously undiscovered tribe has been found in the remote Javari Valley region of Brazil, on the Peruvian border. There are an estimated 70 “undiscovered” tribes left in the world, people who have not ever made contact with the civilized world — most of them from the Amazon rainforest of Western Brazil — and so the existence of even one more tribe is rare and exciting news. The last discovery of an uncontacted tribe came two years ago, when unknown Indians in Brazil came out of the trees to try to shoot down a government photographer’s plane with arrows.

Indiana Jones was for real.

Yesterday morning, I was video-chatting with a friend in Australia, where it was late at night. The other day, I ate plums that were grown in Chile. Lord knows which sea the fish I eat comes from, or what brown hand sews my shirts. As fond as we are of musing about our rapidly shrinking, ever more interconnected globe, it is important to remember that there are still people in the world who exist outside of both our economy and our knowledge. There are villages where no Coca-Cola t-shirts hang on laundry lines, no hunter runs the forest in Reeboks, where no white anthropologist plays with the children between notes in his orange book. These people are neither fighting with oil companies nor being taught how to grow sustainable shade-grown coffee by non-profit do-gooders. As far as we know, these uncontacted tribes have no idea that we, the rest of the world, exist. Civilizations have risen and fallen, monuments and cities have been built, been demolished, and regrown on the rubble; world wars have been fought and revolutions both violent and scientific, artistic, philosophical, and musical have shaken governments and their people; empires have stretched their tentacles into almost every crevice of the Earth. The Eighties happened. Beyonce recently dropped her hot new single. Man landed on the moon. But for a few villages in the Amazon, none of this is true. Their reality does not include us, or what we call “history.” Their world is still the fish at the end of the spear. It is the dragonfly and its god, the rainwater and the fruiting of the blue-flowered tree, and the one and only language.

We also know that we cannot contact these tribes, because of the risk of contagion. When the Matis people of Brazil made first contact with the government after years of avoiding them as an enemy, more than half the tribe died of pneumonia; a modern-world retelling of the story of thousands of European/Indian contacts throughout history. The recently-discovered tribe in the Vale do Javari will remain a mystery to us, and we to them; we may never learn their names or customs or language, nor gain their unique knowledge of their remote corner of the planet. In fact, because we will not attempt to contact them, nor the eight to two dozen other uncontacted species in the Javari, we’ll never be able to see their forest home nor the flora and fauna therein. This got me thinking: If we never make contact with the new tribe, what else will we never contact? Brazil is second only to Indonesia in number of endemic species, and the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. It seems logical that there would be at least a dozen species endemic only to that region. The Unknown People know what they are. Can we, sight unseen?

Beautiful Metropolitan Downtown... Somewhere

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V for Vanadium

Exhibit A: Octopus

This is an octopus. It has possesses both short- and long-term memory, can recognize individuals, and practices observational learning. It can solve mazes and basic puzzles, use tools, mimic other animals, and even has a sense of play, which is only observed in higher vertebrates such as birds and mammals. In England, it’s even achieved the status of “honorary vertebrate” under animal testing laws. However, because it is not a true vertebrate, you are no relation to it.

Not even ones that play saxophones, bongos and guitar in a cute hat.

In fact, you are more closely related to this creature:

A kazoo?

It’s a tunicate. Specifically, this tunicate is a sea squirt. It has no sense of play, memory, or observational learning. It is not smarter than a 5th grader. It doesn’t own the intellectual capacity to play Candyland. In fact, it doesn’t even have a brain. (Anymore. It doesn’t have a brain anymore, a curiosity we’ll get to in a minute.) But it does, for a brief moment in its life, possess a notochord, which puts it in the phylum Chordata, which makes it the simplest life form to possess something like a spine. Fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals all owe a debt to this grand-daddy/grand-mama (it’s hermaphroditic) of all vertebrates. Today we’ll pay homage to the humble sea squirt and the bizarre family of early chordates that predate us, still rocking hard 540 million years after they began the movement.

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The Feather Orchestra

Everyone knows that birds sing, but what about the ones that play instruments? After to listening to half an hour of recordings of the snipe’s winnowing tailfeather sounds the other night, my mind turned to all the other birds I know who produce music with their feathers instead of their voices. The first to come to mind was the Mourning Dove, whose whistling wingbeats I have often welcomed as the first notes of an early morning as they shoot like a volley of arrows over the empty street. The choppy whistling of a startled dove seems to act as a predator warning alarm to other doves, as well as any other birds in the immediate area; cardinals and chickadees that hear recordings of dove wing-whistles are much slower to return to a feeding ground than if surprised in any other way.


The second birds I thought of were the hummingbirds; back in my California days, I would watch Anna’s Hummingbirds performing mating displays over the San Francisco heath, their flared tail feathers vibrating stiffly to produce a distinctive chirp as they divebombed the ground like young show-off stunt pilots.

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Snipe Hunt

As a young cub scout going away to camp, my father and grandparents warned me against a prank the older scouts might play on me. “Never go on a snipe hunt,” I was warned. As far as I could gather, it was a fool’s errand of sorts: older boy scouts would suggest to us rookies that we chase the snipe, a bird that was nearly impossible to find, never mind catch. Great glory would go to the boy who caught the elusive snipe, we’d be told. But we should resist this seemingly honorable quest, for the snipe, as the bullies would describe it, could never be captured because it did not exist. The snipe hunt would inevitably end with us WeBeLos lost in some swamp while the smug Tenderfoots raided our candy stash.

I never was sent on a snipe hunt, but the warning left me with the impression that the snipe was, in fact, mythological. (I believed the same about gypsies until a trip to Europe at age 16.) This was no doubt reinforced by my poor recollection of Lewis Carroll’s jabberwockese poem The Hunting of the Snark, a short farce about a beast that is hunted by diverse characters but found by none. At some point, I misremembered The Hunting of the Snark as The Hunting of the Snipe, which seemed like an equally nonsensical title.

I don't exist. I was never here. Got it?

But there is a genuine animal behind the never-seen cryptid “snipe,” and it is almost as elusive. Snipes are wading shorebirds, most of which are part of the Scolopacidae family with the woodcocks, which they also resemble in so many ways: the cryptic coloration that gives them excellent camouflage against the rushes and pebbles of their home, the high-set eyes, the long bill for probing for worms and crustaceans below the muck. Snipes are animals that are built to disappear. If camouflage fails, the snipe will escape danger with a flight pattern so erratic and zigzagging that hunters find them almost impossible to take down. Only a supremely skilled sharpshooter would be able to both find and finish a crafty snipe with mere bullets; hence, the origin of the “sniper.”

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In a recent visit to the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, I saw beluga whales. I saw Steller’s sea lions. I saw stingrays and sharks and electric eels. But nothing captivated my imagination like the school of homely mudskippers staring out at me from the water’s surface… from both above, and below.

"And I'm not impressed with either half."

The Four-Eyed Fish (Anableps anableps) of Central and South America does not actually have four eyes, but does indeed have four pupils. Each eye’s two pupils are divided by a span of iris. Four-eyed fish prefer to sit at the surface of a still pool in a brackish mangrove swamp, watching for insects to eat both above and below the water surface, and so their eyes are only half-submerged. The two pupils of each eye, therefore, not only watch the surface from both above and below it, but are calibrated to view both air and water differently. The lenses in the eyes change in thickness from top to bottom to account for the different refractive indices of air and water; as anyone who’s tried stealing quarters from a mall fountain knows, water tends to warp and slow down light when viewed from above, making objects underwater seem out-of-place. The optical illusion persists viewing the airy world from underwater. The four-eyed fish can view both sides without a bent image at all. So, two eyes, four different fields of vision, all blended into one seamless image in the four-eyed fish’s brain. Essentially, it has its own bifocals. Or, better yet, you know that look a teacher gives you over her glasses when you’re really in trouble? The four-eyed fish is that teacher.

Does myopia persist in our species due to sexual selection?

Consider for a moment the genius of this adaptation. The four-eyed fish is literally looking into two different worlds at once. Perched at the water’s surface, its eyes half in and half out, it simply splits its vision. Like a medium with half her mind in some spirit realm, it can foresee both fortune and doom, predators and prey from either world with uncanny accuracy.

"You will kill your father and marry your mother. Also, you need to tie your shoes."

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Je Ne Sais Quoi

Pity the poor peacock. He can truss himself up in iridescent blues and greens built of billions of intricate, light-catching nanostructures in the feather barbules; he can fan his train of tail feathers that open their hundred eyes to a peahen like an adoring audience; he can coo, bob his head, and shiver so that he positively glimmers like blue bonfire in the forest; and still, the female — who isn’t even that hot — can sniff and walk away. He is the product of millions of years of sexual selection for extravagance, and possesses the most spectacular, show-stopping plumage in the world, but he is far from irresistible. Having seen plenty of peacocks in my life, nowadays I’m more intrigued by the peahens and their discerning gaze. So frustratingly fickle! So charmingly coy! It’s that pickiness that has undoubtedly driven the male to such desperate majesty.

Who hasn’t felt a little like a peacock at times, trying their best to be noticed by the object of their affection and falling short no matter what? What am I doing wrong?, I’ve asked myself. What am I missing? What could she possibly be looking for? I find myself sympathizing with the peacock and his unrequited attempts at winning love on the zoo lawn, coldly rebuffed time after time until he’ll display for any toddler in a pair of brown overalls. Because peacocks look more or less equally fantastic to us, we can’t imagine why a female chooses one and not another. Some guys just don’t have it, the biologists tell us, after a peahen takes a pass on a shimmering fountain of male grandeur. Not wanting to guess the mind of a peahen, they throw up their hands and decline to say what “it” is. That certain something that captures the peahen’s heart. That je ne sais quoi.

Ice cold.

Well, to hell with that! Je veux savoir “quoi”! If the peacock can look like that and still get shot down in flames, unless it possesses that je ne sais quoi, I think I speak for males of all species when I say I sure as hell want to know what the “quoi” is.

Instead of a peacock, let’s talk about its simpler, arachnid analogue, the Peacock Spider. I recently discovered this charming little guy via the famous and fabulous Myrmecos blog, the hot place to be for gorgeous insect photos and bug scuttlebutt. Like its namesake, the Australian peacock spider females are dun and its males garish, with an amazing technicolor dream-abdomen that fans out like a peacock’s tail. Like the bird, the peacock spider male does a display dance for the cautious and picky female, though his involves waving his third pair of legs in the air as if to say, “Hey, baby! Hey! Over here!”

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Rosie the Riveter

Chick flick or no, you cannot deny the greatness of the 1992 film A League Of Their Own. It’s a comedy, a history, and one of the best baseball films of all time. It’s got memorable lines (“There’s no crying in baseball!”), memorable characters, an all-star cast, and is singularly responsible for starting my lifelong crushes on both the statuesque red-headed Amazon genius Geena Davis and the totally underrated tomboy hottie Lori Petty. More importantly, it’s the only movie I know that tells the story of American women fulfilling traditionally male roles during World War II, a fairly significant turning point in the feminist movement.

Also, Madonna did not sing.

I bring it up because I was recently discussing both the movie and the movement around the campfire with a co-worker. Later in the evening, another co-worker and I were discussing birds, and he told me an incredible story about chickadees. I knew that chickadee flocks work a little like wolf packs, with a few mated pairs in an alpha-beta hierarchy, plus the occasional floating loner. Usually, the death of an alpha male or female means that the beta male or female moves up the ladder to take his or her place in the alpha marriage. But according to my friend, this is not always so simple. He watched a flock of banded chickadees for a year, and noticed something peculiar: the alpha female lost her mate over the winter, and in the spring, the alpha female was singing male songs. What’s more, she passed over the beta male in favor of a socially less-desirable floater for a mate, and whenever the new husband would try to sing, the alpha female would fly over and knock him off his perch. Clearly, once she had gotten a taste of the male chickadee lifestyle and the power that confers, she was reluctant to part with it.

And he was reluctant to admit he kind of liked it.

Between the discussion of the WWII female factory workforce, A League Of Their Own, and the chickadee story, I got to wondering: what other bird species are there in which the female wears the proverbial pants? I know that in some species, male birds take on traditionally female roles, such as the egg-incubating male ostrich. And in others, the females are showier than the males; when Belted Kingfishers go to prom, it’s the ladies who wear the cummerbund. But to see a true display of gender-bending, you need to travel to the Arctic Circle to see the breeding grounds of the phalaropes.

"Don't worry, I've also never heard of me."

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Long-Distance Relationship

When you are a child, you imagine animals pairing off neatly, like Noah’s menagerie coupling and marching up the gangplank to the chapel of bestial matrimony. Lovebirds are joined at the hip like a tween romance, and two swans form a perfect heart-shape with the teacup-handle arcs of their necks. Then you grow up, take a few biology courses, and discover that everything you thought was wrong. To your dismay, you realize that animals, even the kind that seem to exist in a monogamous marriage of sorts, cheat on one another constantly. Lovebirds get a little action on the sly; cuckoos can be cuckolded; monkeys can be real swingers; owls can get a little extra loving after midnight; house sparrows can be homewreckers; even swans, those regal symbols of romantic love swimming atop a wedding cake, are less backyard birds than backdoor men. In the avian world, it’s estimated that 90% of bird couples are socially monogamous (as opposed to 7% in mammals), but of those, 90% are sexually non-monogamous. Long under the spell of prudish human social norms and presuming fidelity among animals, scientists now seem to revel in revealing the promiscuity of the animal kingdom. But if polyamory is the true norm, that makes the monogamous animals the true weirdos, and therefore worth a closer look-see. What is the biological root of monogamy?

Dads with shotguns?

Without cracking open the scientific Ark of the Covenant that question implies, or the world’s largest can of worms that is human sexuality, let’s just talk about the birds. (And, this time, not the bees.) Can anything be said of that thin sliver of avifauna that is both sexually and socially monogamous? Yes, it seems. Most of the few birds that are both socially and sexually monogamous do it for the same reason many married couples do: for the kids. These are birds that live in such a hostile habitat that it takes every ounce of parental care to nourish their chicks. In other words, the parents would cheat on each other; they just don’t have the time or energy.

Not tonight, honey. I've got a *zzzzzzzz*

Seabirds in rocky, windy, or icy climes — like Emperor Penguins — make up the majority of sexually monogamous pairs, but one type of bird creates a hostile habitat for itself specifically so it cannot engage in extra-marital canoodling. That’s because in this species, the female is literally imprisoned behind a wall. It’s the Monteiro’s Hornbill of Namibia, and it is a master mason on the level of an Edgar Allen Poe antagonist. A mated pair of hornbills will scope out a suitable neighborhood to nest, preferably a stand of old-growth forest with large cavities in the trees. The holes may have been made by a fallen branch, or may have been carved out by a woodpecker. But however it’s made, it should be large enough for the female to enter and sit comfortably. She chooses carefully, because she’s going to be inside for a very long time.

Also, how are the schools?

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