Category Archives: Deep-Sea Life


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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Don’t hold your breath. That’s what they tell us when they don’t want us to wait. The average human can hold their breath for about a minute, though David Blaine set the world record at 19 minutes and 21 seconds. Elephant seals can hold their breath for 100 minutes, while sperm whales are said to be able to dive for two hours. Oxygen, that’s the key to all animal life on Earth. Without it, we can’t burn glucose for fuel. Without it, we’re a candle in a bell jar, snuffed out.

That’s the rule, anyway.

Meet the loriciferan. It was only discovered in 1983, an entirely new Phylum (Loricifera) living in the sediment of the Mediterranean Sea. It resembles some Lovecraftian god in miniature, with tentacles and a mouth protruding from a protective, armored shell called the lorica (or “corset”). We now know that loriciferans live in every ocean worldwide, hiding just out of sight by attaching themselves to the silt substrate. And of the 22 known species, at least three possess a trait unique to the animal kingdom: they don’t breathe.

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Vice Week continues with The Seven Deadly Sins. The next seven posts will describe an animal or animals that exemplify Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Pride, and Lust. And no, “Sloth” will not be a Sloth, because I have already done the Sloth, because I cannot plan ahead.

When I think of animal gluttons, the first thing to come to mind is the Wolverine, whose other name is “the Glutton.” In fact, his scientific name, Gulo gulo, is Latin for “Glutton glutton.” The largest of the weasels, wolverines make up for in ferocity what they lack in stature. The adamantium skeleton doesn’t hurt, either.

You wanna dance, bub?

A wolverine can bring down a moose. They’re not particularly fast, but because of their broad feet they can outrun almost anything in deep snow. They’ve been known to challenge grizzly bears for a meal. And while they can eat a lot in one sitting, because they don’t eat often in those Arctic winters, they’re not the most gluttonous animal I can think of.

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Hey Kid, Want A Lollipop?

It looks like an avant-garde light fixture. Or perhaps a frozen firework. It is, in fact, the recently-discovered Ping-Pong Tree Sponge, a carnivorous sponge found in the deep waters around Monterey Bay.

Roll that phrase around in your mouth for a minute: “carnivorous sponge.” Most sponges are sessile, simple animals lacking any respiratory, circulatory, digestive or excretory system of their own. Instead, they let seawater do all the work for them. With no blood and almost no organs, eating whatever plankton happens to flow through them, their living tissue is merely cobwebbed into a scaffolding of silica. It is as if the animal is barely there at all.

THIS sponge, on the other hand, is free-floating, and uses its hydraulic water system to puff up its intriguing balloon-like appendages. Each one is laced with silica hooks, perfect for catching minute crustaceans. When it snags one, its “eating” cells migrate to the balloon that’s caught the food, and dissolve it. It’s a perfectly geometric predator. In some ways, it reminds me of the carnivorous sundew plant, which attracts insects to its lollipop-like lures, where they become stuck and then digested. Something about brainless carnivores with mouths on all sides gives me the willies, in a good way.

The Tiki God & The Squid

I’ve always had a strange repulsion and attraction to Tiki culture. On one hand, it’s a light-hearted, kitschy throwback to the 1950’s which involves cocktails, which is usually my thing. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of beaches, hate Jimmy Buffett, and can’t really envision myself as an orange-tanned old guy in loafers with a gold chain under his Hawaiian shirt, smoking a cigar over umbrella-spangled mai tais at Trader Vic’s. I like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain as much as the next guy, but there’s something slightly unsettling about celebrating the subjugation of an entire civilization by drinking fruity, emasculating cocktails from mugs fashioned after their gods.

A little background, for the rest of us haole: The Polynesian religion, which is practiced in many forms on island nations from New Zealand to Hawaii, including Tonga, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, and Easter Island, has four major gods in its pantheon: Kane, the god of life; Ku, the god of war; Lono, the god of peace and fertility; and Kanaloa, the god of the ocean. Kanaloa and Kane were often paired together in chants and stories as complementary forces: Kane represents fresh water, Kanaloa saltwater. Kane builds the first canoe, but Kanaloa sails it. Rather than life and death, Kanaloa and Kane represent urge and execution, wilderness and civilization. And though missionaries tried to recast Kanaloa as a sort of Satanic figure of death and darkness because of his association with the ocean’s depths, the character assassination attempt didn’t entirely succeed. After all, as the Hawaiians know, the most miraculous gifts come up from the spirit world of the deep.

This is a tiki totem of Kanaloa, who is symbolized by the squid. He is mentioned as being tall and very pale-skinned, and you can see how his long hair sweeps either side of his body like tentacles.

This is the bigfin squid, a rarely-seen cephalopod from the benthic zone, the ocean’s depths. It has been sighted fewer then ten times in its adult form, and was thought of as cryptozoological until it was filmed off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii in 2001.

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And you thought YOUR relationship was co-dependent

Ever meet one of those couples that seems attached at the hip?

You know the angler fish. Glowing lure, big fangly teeth, kinda looks like an evil cantaloupe.

What you may not know is that all angler fish that fit this description are female. It was a bit of zoological mystery for a while; researchers couldn’t figure out why all the angler fish they ever caught were female, and why they seemed to be covered in some kind of bloodsucking parasite.

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God Loves Ugly

This little cutie made a cameo in my last post, which was about beauty… which it does not possess. So let’s do a post about ugliness. Because Nature makes peacocks, and it also makes lazy, ugly puddles of fish that you want to poke with a stick.

Solo! Hay lapa no ya, Solo!

The blobfish of coastal Australia does not do much. It has very few muscles; note the tiny, useless pectoral fins. It lives in deep water with incredibly high pressure, making a swim bladder (the internal gasbag that makes most fish buoyant) ineffective. Instead, it has a body made of gelatinous flesh that is slightly more buoyant than water, which allows it to float barely above the surface, waiting for small animals to pass close enough to its mouth that it can suck them in.

It also has a cousin, the lumpfish. It is also not going to win any beauty contests.

Ugliness is considered the absence of beauty, which is itself a product of geometry, pheremones, and beer. So what function does ugliness play? Well… it’s functional. Ugly is what happens when survival is more important than making an impression, when cryptic texturing will save you or fur would hinder you. The world is lopsided, imperfect, and off-balance, full of leaf litter and jagged rocks. Ugly blends in with the world. Ugly can go places pretty can’t. Ugly works.


Are there creatures who can use their beauty to devastate, or to defeat a threat?

Well, what is “beauty”? If it has any aesthetic sense at all, a male blobfish probably thinks a female blobfish is the prettiest thing in the sea. But I’d like to think that a doomed fawn can find an approaching tiger beautiful, and terrifyingly so. And perhaps a stag is beautiful to other stags, if mostly because it makes a fearsome impression. So you could say that beauty is an outward expression of health and strength, to attract mates or intimidate rivals. If it has components, you could say that size, color, grace, and symmetry all play a part. But in the end, it does live in the eye of the beholder.

Evolutionary psychologists who study the concept of beauty think it originated as a sense of utility. Take flowers, for example. They developed color and symmetry, nectar and aroma to lure insects. Humans almost universally find them beautiful, although they serve no immediate practical purpose to us. However, far back in our genetic memory, we might recall an artistic, sensitive caveman ancestor who fancied flowers more than the rest of his tribe, remembered where those flowers were, and was able to come back later and find the fruit those flowers became. It is my belief that the ability to appreciate beauty is a survival instinct.

Is there anything that creates beauty to survive? One example would be the cuttlefish, which can actually hypnotize prey. By flickering between different colors rapidly, or pointing their tentacles at their target and creating concentric rings of color moving up their arms, they stun their prey like an old-school mesmerist with a spiraling wheel:

But my favorite example, once again, comes from the deep sea. It’s a bioluminescent jellyfish. In the video below, you can see what it looks like with the lights on, and off.

Here’s a superpower closer to Dazzler’s, or Jubilee’s. When it bumps into something and perceives that it’s being attacked, this Alarm Jelly, Atolla wyvillei, creates a pyrotechnic light display that does two things:

1) Stuns its potential predator. Remember, to these creatures any light at all is a source of curiosity, so this must look like a visual hallelujah, stopping an animal in its tracks.

2) Illuminates the predator, while advertising that predator’s presence to bigger predators. The “alarm” jelly could also be called a “distress call” jelly. Touch it, and you’re not only no longer invisible, but everything in visual range that could eat you knows where you are. So the jelly’s beauty may not be deadly in itself, but it might just get you killed.


There are many ways in which animals can be rendered “invisible”:

Live Someplace Dark: Obvious, but effective. Live in a cave, or deep underwater, or be nocturnal.

Camouflage: American Bittern, octopuses, leopards, deer, nighthawks… the list goes on forever.

Cloud the Minds of Men: Only known to The Shadow, and maybe the thylacine.

Hide: Another simple but effective form of invisibility, if you go out in broad daylight.

Make Light Pass Around You: Only known to one species of predator.

Make Light Pass Through You: Transparency is a quality often utilized by aquatic animals, but rarely by terrestrial animals. My favorite: the Glass Frogs of the Central & South American rainforests.

Live Beyond the Visible Spectrum of Light: And here’s where I arbitrarily choose my “Invisible” Animal:

It’s a Red Shrimp, so called because, uh. It may be glaringly obvious to us, but consider this: the “red” part of the light spectrum can only penetrate about 10 feet into the ocean’s depths. That’s why, if you cut yourself while diving, your blood appears green, or black. So as long as it doesn’t come to the surface, a red animal like this shrimp is effectively invisible.

Only problem is, there’s something down there that can see it.

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