Category Archives: Marine Life

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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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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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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Dog Whistles & Subwoofers

Last Friday’s horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan got me thinking about the last major tsunami in memory, the cataclysmic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Much was made of the fact that, though entire towns were leveled by the flood, very few wild animals perished. It seems that about eight hours before the tsunami hit the shore, there was a massive migration of animals to higher ground. What tipped them off? The infrasonic sound of the approaching wave rumbling under their feet. And when I think of infrasound, the first animal I think of is the giraffe.

Really? I don't remember saying anything.

Why the giraffe? Why not a well-known basso profundo like the elephant? I have written about giraffes before, mainly in the context of how incredibly gay they are. But I’ve never written about their songs.

It was thought for centuries that giraffes were practically mute. Like rabbits, they were only known to make sounds in times of distress or courtship: whinnies, bleats, snorts, coughs, and even the occasional groan, mew, or bellow. But it was presumed that, for the most part, giraffes were simply very tall wallflowers. Then, in 1998, a bioacoustician named Elizabeth von Muggenthaler borrowed some high-tech equipment and discovered that giraffes are actually extremely talkative. They’re simply having a conversation below our range of hearing.

That giraffes are basses should have been obvious from the necks.

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Bottle Rocket

For about a day in my childhood, I owned a bottle rocket. A day, I say, because I’m pretty sure that on its maiden voyage the damn thing either exploded or blasted off to explore the final frontier, where no child has gone before: into a tree, or a mean neighbor’s yard, or on top of a roof. In any case, I destroyed or lost it so fast that I purposefully forgot the embarrassment of its destruction. But I never forgot its moment of ignition, the beauty of its ascension. Whether store-bought or made out of a soda bottle, a bottle rocket is an elegant design: Half-filled with water, air is injected into it with a bicycle pump until the internal pressure exceeds the strength of its cork and lift-off is achieved in an explosive spray and a wet contrail.

Jet propulsion in the animal kingdom is exclusively found in aquatic creatures: the nymphs of dragonflies, the sea slug-like Sea Hares, some species of fish, and most famously, the cephalopods: squid and octopuses. By forcing water in the opposite direction of momentum, and thanks to Newton’s First Law of Motion, these animals don’t just swim through the water they live in; they use it as fuel. No bird, bat, or flying lizard ever evolved jet engines in its wings to propel air through them. But isn’t there anything that flies through the air with the power of a bottle rocket? Of course there is.

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Fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will remember Slartibartfast, the planet architect who was very proud of his award-winning design for Norway. The fjords, he explained, were designed to give the continent a “baroque” feel. And a fjord is indeed a very splendid thing. A fjord, by definition, is a long and narrow inlet to the sea, flanked by very steep cliffs, and carved by glacial activity. (Or Slartibartfast.) While Norway coined the name “fjord,” they have no trademark on the geological flourish. You will find fjords anywhere there are mountains that meet the sea, and freezing temperatures to support glaciers, including the coast of Chile, New Zealand, and the Northwest coast of North America.

First Prize!

From time to time I like to take electronic expeditions to rare places on Earth, to see what I can find. Readers know I have a passion for fractals, and subscribe to something I call Fractal Earth Theory; the theory that the patterns of the planet are self-repeating ad infinitum. It was thinking about the true lengths of coastlines that led Mandelbrot to discover fractals in the first place; fjords make for rough edges in the world, wrinkling the land into a series of nooks and hidey-holes in which any manner of animal might live.

Today, we look for the unique wildlife of the fjords. I use a basic set of hypotheses as a compass:

1. Wherever life can exist, life will exist.
2. Where ever a habitat is geographically separated in any physical way, unique life will exist.
3. The more severely isolated a habitat is, the greater the number of unique species.

Fjords, however unique as geologic structures, are not very isolated: their cliffs connect with the mainland, and their inlets connect with the ocean. Their main aspects of geographic distinguishment are the steep angles of their cliffs, on which only certain wildflowers can grow, and the murky, silty, brackish water below. Fjords are often estuarine, with freshwater running as a river into their channels, which will certainly exclude many sensitive saltwater animals. The turbid, murky water is caused by violent tidal action, which in turn is caused by the water rushing over the lip of the terminal moraine left by the glacier at the fjord’s edge; this turbulence may also make the habitat even more exclusive, and more unique. But all in all, a fjord is not as isolated as a lake or an island, and we can’t expect a great number of unique species. But a few, sure. Some modifiers to the original compass:

4. The cold temperatures and low salinity will lead to a lower general biodiversity for animals, compared to a tropical habitat.
5. The cold water, with its high level of dissolved oxygen, will nonetheless support a high overall biomass.
6. The prediction of high aquatic biomass makes it more likely that any unique species are aquatic.

With these in mind, we set out to explore the nooks of the fjords, seeking life found nowhere else on Earth. And what we’ll find is a series of ecosystems among the most mysterious and little-known in science.

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The Glass Menagerie

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions! All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in air? No!… If a man was made of glass he would still be visible.”
–H.G. Wells, “The Invisible Man”.

I have written about invisible animals before, and all the ways in which one can become invisible, of which transparency is only one. I’ve spent some time thinking about transparent animals, from the Glass Frog of Central America:

to the Glass Squid of the deep oceans:

The transparency of the frog is obvious as a means of camouflage, but it is less certain in the case of the squid. Does its transparency serve to make it invisible? Or is there simply so little available light that producing pigments of any sort is wasteful? A great number of deep-ocean animals are transparent, including the Phronima, a type of amphipod with a glass-like exoskeleton, and the sea cucumbers which make up 90% of the complex animals on the abyssal plain. But the depths are not the only dark places on Earth; in the subterranean grottoes live the “troglobites,” animals adapted to the life in the sub-basement of the world:

The Alabama Cave Shrimp:

The Transparent Cave Crayfish:

And the Glass Goby:

Where these animals live, there is not even a stray photon bouncing off the stalactites, and so even the term “invisible” is inherently useless. There’s no such thing as “visible” there. To make an admittedly silly pop culture reference, I’m reminded of the character Invisible Boy from the 1999 film Mystery Men. On a team of quirky superheroes with dubious “powers,” Invisible Boy’s abilities are the most useless: He can only turn invisible when no one’s looking. The majority of “invisible” animals have the same superpower: their transparency is just a by-product of another adaptation, because where they live, nobody could see them even if they were day-glo orange.

“Visibility depends on the action of the visible bodies on light. Either a body absorbs light, or it reflects or refracts it, or does all these things. If it neither reflects nor refracts nor absorbs light, it cannot of itself be visible. You see an opaque red box, for instance, because the colour absorbs some of the light and reflects the rest, all the red part of the light, to you. If it did not absorb any particular part of the light, but reflected it all, then it would be a shining white box… A glass box would not be so brilliant, not so clearly visible, as a diamond box, because there would be less refraction and reflection. See that? From certain points of view you would see quite clearly through it… And if you put a sheet of common white glass in water… it would vanish almost altogether, because light passing from water to glass is only slightly refracted or reflected or indeed affected in any way.”

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