Tag Archives: marine life


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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The Rainbow Boxer

For a guy who goes by the handle “The Quantum Biologist,” I sure don’t talk much about physics. So as an example of physics in biology, I present one of the most fantastic creatures in natural history, the Mantis Shrimp. I would say it’s almost too awesome for this world, except that I think the world is so awesome. The world is awesome, and the Mantis Shrimp is irrefutable proof.

The Mantis Shrimp is not a shrimp, and he will beat you senseless if you call him one. He’s a stomatopod, an order of crustaceans who resemble an unholy hybrid of space aliens and Chinese dragons. (Or maybe dragon rolls?) Generally solitary, often monogamous, and always spoiling for a fight, the mantis shrimp lives in burrows it excavates beneath corals, where it lurks in wait for some snot-nosed crab to walk by. Mantis shrimp have a few claims to fame in the animal kingdom, and the first one is this: they have the fastest punch in the world. How fast, exactly? When asking about any animal’s fighting prowess, I find it helpful to ask the question, “Were it of proportionate size, would it win in a fight against Bruce Lee?” Well, Bruce Lee’s punches were so fast that the film had to be slowed down just so they were visible. The mantis shrimp’s punches are literally as fast as a .22 caliber bullet, and, like the pistol shrimp’s claw, creates a cavitation bubble that flashes white light as it collapses into a blisteringly hot shock wave. It carries 10,000 g’s of force. It completes the entire punch in under three thousandths of a second. And it does it in water.

Bruce Lee:

Mantis Shrimp:

Mama said knock you out

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Dire Straits

Today’s post marks the end of Old Dead White Naturalist Guy Week. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have! I believe I could start another blog just honoring naturalists and explorers, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the best explorers were among the most humble, or unlucky, and left no portraits or travelogues. Such is the case of Georg Wilhelm Steller and his harrowing story of survival in the Arctic.

Steller was a German naturalist living in Russia in the first half of the 18th century. He became a second-hand expert in the fauna of Siberia when he married the widow of Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt, a colleague and fellow German naturalist expat, whose notes from his Siberian expeditions he acquired in the deal. Siberia had been explored by so few scientists at the time that simply owning Messerschmidt’s papers made Steller the top authority on the subject. So when Captain Commander Vitus Bering, he of the Sea and the Strait, took on an expedition to Kamchatka, it of the Risk board, Steller was tapped to be his naturalist.

The expedition reached Kamchatka by land, then set sail in two ships, the St. Peter and the St. Paul, for North America. Steller maintained an uneasy relationship with the ship’s crew, largely made of illiterate roughnecks who wouldn’t listen to the smartypants egghead when he told them that For crying out loud, Alaska is north, you morons. NORTH! After all, they were lost, and beginning to run out of provisions. When the sailors finally took Steller’s navigational advice, they indeed found Alaska, and became the first Europeans to set foot on what would become our 49th State. Though they spent only 3 days there, Steller was able to describe an incredible number of species new to science, including the Steller’s Jay and the sea otter.

Capt. Bering, having planted Russia’s flag, decided it was time to head home, and ordered the ships to head for the island of Bolshya Zemlya. The St. Paul stayed on course, but the St. Peter got lost and damaged in a storm and was shipwrecked on a frigid, windswept island, unable to return. Bering and Steller were aboard the St. Peter.

Like Gilligan’s Island, except there are no coconuts and it’s -40 degrees F.

What is a naturalist to do when he is marooned on an Arctic island, surrounded by stubborn idiots, starving as foxes steal their remaining food and a deadly winter approaches from the South? He keeps on Naturalizing! It turns out that being the only one aboard who knows about plants and animals is handy when it comes to wilderness survival. Previously scorned by the sailors, Steller assumed leadership over the miserable expedition. He taught the freezing crew how to trap animals for their pelts. When the crew started dying of scurvy, Steller collected plants to boil for Vitamin C. He hunted the local animals for food, and scientifically described them as well: the Steller’s Sea Lion, the Northern Fur Seal, the Steller’s Eider, and the Steller’s Sea Eagle, the heaviest eagle in the world. Of all the plants and animals Steller discovered on that frozen rock, one gained its fame for being as unlucky as its discoverer: the Steller’s Sea Cow.

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The Heavenly Zoo of Ernst Haeckel

If you asked who my favorite wildlife illustrator of all time is, the answer might surprise you. I wouldn’t choose Audubon, with his awkward flamingos, or Sibley with his scientific field guide portraiture, or even a modern master like Peter Schouten. (Twenty points if you can name this animal, regular readers!) No, my heart belongs to the proto-Art Nouveau stylings of a 19th century German naturalist who was all at once romantic, revolutionary, infuriating, misguided, and ultimately, necessary.

Ernst Haeckel was a zoologist, anatomist, and natural philosopher whose ideas shook the scientific world. He discovered the Kingdom of Protista, the eukaryotic microscopic organisms which contain the algae family and which, though still controversial, remains among biology’s “Fave Five.” While most naturalists are fortunate to discover a species or genus, and the occasional scientist discovers a phylum, it takes huge intellectual gonads to discover an entire Kingdom. Oh, he also invented the word and the idea of a “phylum.” Likewise, he also coined several other words indispensable to modern science, such as “phylogeny,” “anthropogeny,” and my favorite, “ecology.” He proposed that psychology was really a product of physiology — essentially, that one’s mind was a product of physical developments in the brain — which opened up, among other things, the modern disciplines of psychiatry and neurology. He floated the idea that the fossilized remains of human ancestors, which had not yet been discovered, would be found in Indonesia. His student, Eugene Dubois, took his advice and dug up the first Homo erectus: Java Man. And if that wasn’t enough, his Kunstformen der Natur singlehandedly redefined the art of wildlife illustrations.





That great medusa in the center he discovered and named Desmonema annasethe after his late wife, Anna Sethe. The flowing red tentacles reminded him of her ginger tresses. As I said, he was a Romantic.

It was Haeckel’s propensity toward the Romantic which clouded his otherwise brilliant scientific mind. He routinely hypothesized missing links and imaginary places — such as Lemuria — which would justify his evolutionary ideals. Though he was a friend, correspondent, and booster of Charles Darwin, he rejected the seemingly cruel theory of natural selection in favor of the more optimistic but outdated version of evolution called Lamarckism. He famously coined the phrase and theory “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” — in layman’s terms, that a fetus undergoes all the stages of evolution leading up to its ultimate development. The idea that a human fetus becomes, at various stages of development, a fish, a frog, a dog, and a monkey, is a sweet and tidy vision of evolution as a progressive journey toward an ultimate life form. It’s also wrong. That didn’t stop Haeckel from drastically altering his artwork to “prove” his confabulation.

Though it’s true that all vertebrates start out as gross little tadpole monsters.

The most disturbing aspect of his insistence on altering his science to fit his world view was his views on anthropogeny, the study of human origins. Why Haeckel agreed with Darwin that men were evolved from apelike ancestors, he didn’t believe that we were all evolved from the same apelike ancestor. In true German fashion, Haeckel believed that the races were essentially different species, with Germans being the “most evolved.” I don’t need to tell you who really cottoned to this idea.

But what’s really, really disturbing is how many pictures of Barack Obama turn up when you google “monkey hitler.”

So Ernst Haeckel was wrong as often as he was right, and usually in the extreme either way. His artwork shows almost everything you need to know about the man’s ideals; he was relentless in his endeavor to prove that nature was a place of order, balance, and beauty. And nowhere was this more evident than in his depictions of the protists he personally discovered: the radiolarians.

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The Lucky Ones

The Place: Le Grand Casino of Monte Carlo in the fabulously wealthy Principality of Monaco. The Date: August 18th, 1913. On the blood red carpet, tuxedoed dukes and oligarchs from every civilized country mingle at poker tables as green and manicured as estate lawns. They wear white ties and colognes, pince-nezzes and bryl-creme. The casino babbles in French and English, German, Italian, and Arabic, accented by the clinking of glasses and the soft tumble of dice. If you were to listen past the gilded white noise of the room, you could hear the snicker of a roulette wheel, and a growing commotion rising from it. Each time the whir of the spinning ball dies into a rattle, voices crash against the walls, each time a little louder, then ebb back as the whir starts again. This table is having a “streak;” the ball has landed on black ten times in a row. As the disbelief and the voices of gamblers gets louder, the table draws a larger crowd. Each time the ball lands on black, a single word is cried out in every language: “Красный! Červená! Rosso! Rouge! Rood! Red! Red! Red!” By the time the ball has landed 15 times on black, people are climbing over each other to thrust their money on the red squares, doubling and tripling their stakes. No one can believe the ball could land on black now 20 times in a row. Even the croupier is sweating, looking apologetically at the gentlemen as he takes their chips. By the time the streak is over, the ball has landed on black 26 consecutive times, and the casino has made millions.

The Place: The beach at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. The Date: August 18th, 1913. The morning sun glints off the Gulf of Mexico like a knife. A slight breeze makes the palms crash their heads together in the yellow air. The ocean murmurs to the trees, the trees hush the ocean, and the sucking silence between them is cut only by the whinny of a distant horse. If you were to listen past the gilded white noise of the beach, you would hear a different sound, like a brushstroke on canvas. It is a newly-hatched Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle digging her way out of the soft white sand. Her flippers trace a fish-scale pattern on the beach as she dashes for the ocean… and is snatched up by a seagull. Soon more turtles are emerging, climbing over each other to reach the relative safety of the waves. But the crabs and gulls and even a few hawks and foxes have arisen early to glut themselves on the hatchlings. It’s a riot of beaks and teeth and shells as 4.5 million baby turtles erupt from the sand, and the word for blood is called out in every language. Still, the predators cannot possibly catch every turtle, and most escape into the foam. For the next year, they’ll be hunted by every oceanic predator large enough to swallow them. Only 4,500 will survive to breed, the females returning to this very beach to lay their own eggs. Their chances are one in a thousand. They are the lucky ones.

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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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