31 March 2010


(Image of Phialella zappai from here)

The jellyfish Phialella zappai was named by Ferdinando Boero as part of his plan to get to meet Frank Zappa. "There is nothing I'd like better than having a jellyfish named after me," Zappa replied. And so they met. (The long story, well worth a read, here.)

Binomial nomenclature is not supposed to be humorous. Yet a few odd scientific names slip by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Entomologists seem bugged by congenital punning. At least one marine biologist favored magic. This list of favorites is from Deep Type Flow.
  • Agra vation (a beetle)
  • Colon rectum (another beetle)
  • Ba humbugi (a snail)
  • Aha ha ( a wasp)
  • Lalapa lusa (a wasp)
  • Leonardo davinci (a moth)
  • Abra cadabra (a clam, now, alas, in the genus Theora)
  • Gelae baen, Gelae belae, Gelae donut, Gelae fish, and Gelae rol (all types of fungus beetles)
  • Villa manillae, Pieza kake and Reissa roni  (bee flies)
  • La cerveza (a moth)
  • Ytu brutus (a beetle) 

      Curioustaxonomy lists several palindromes, including:
      • Orizabus subaziro (a scarab beetle)
       Plus an extinct pterosaur named for an extinct author:
      • Arthurdactylus conandoylensis
      Plus an extinct fish named for the famed British documentarian who gave it its 15-plus minutes of fame:
      • Materpiscis attenboroughi

      (Model of Materpiscis attenboroughi at Museum Victoria 2008)

      Curioustaxonomy has a lot more puns and plays on words:
      • La cucaracha (a moth)
      • Phthiria relativitae (a bombyliid fly)
      • Pieza rhea (a fly)
      • Vini vidivici (a recently extinct parrot)
      In the section on unused names: 
      • An anthropologist, noting that the group including African apes is named Panini, suggested in jest that the subset of those which have language should be called Linguini
      Strange and poignant, the irukandji jellyfish named for American tourist Robert King, whose death from its sting highlighted the heretofore invisible danger of a species no bigger than your fingernail:
      • Malo kingi

      (Photo of Malo kingi by Lisa-ann Gershwin)

      Plus a short poem celebrating taxonomy's longevity:

      A Discovery
      by Vladimir Nabokov, 1943

      Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
      Poems that take a thousand years to die
      But ape the immortality of this
      Red label on a little butterfly.


      Huge forests of nasty-tasting kelps, plus soft corals, sponges, tunicates, and really really cold water.

      20 March 2010


      (Photo from The Guardian.)

      What is it about seahorses?

      (Photo from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's exhibit The Secret Life of Seahorses, running through 2012.)

      First there's their unlikely physiology. From U Michigan's Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web:

      "The seahorse has a prehensile tail, which it uses to hold onto seaweed and coral. The scales have been replaced by rings of about 50 rectangular bony plates, encasing the body in a semi-rigid skeleton. The eyes can swivel independently or converge to achieve binocular vision. The most distinguishing feature between the male and the female seahorse is the kangaroolike pouch that the male has on its ventral side, used for reproduction."

      Courting seahorses holding tails.


      Mating seahorses.

      (Three photos above from The Guardian.)

      A pregnant male, complete with kangaroolike pouch. This pouch is the centerpiece of the seahorse's unimaginably gender-bending life. From Arkive:

      "Perhaps the most unique and unusual feature of seahorse biology is the fact that it is the male and not the female who becomes pregnant. When mature, males develop a pouch on the belly, known as the brood pouch. Breeding takes place in spring and summer; the female inserts her ovipositor into the male’s pouch and lays her eggs. The male then fertilises them and they become embedded into the wall of the pouch. The pouch is very similar to the womb found in female mammals; a placental fluid removes waste products and supplies the eggs with oxygen and nutrients. As pregnancy progresses, this fluid gradually becomes similar to the surrounding seawater, so that when the young seahorses are ‘born’ the change in salinity is not too great a shock. After 20 to 28 days of pregnancy the male goes into labour, typically at night when there is a full moon. After hours of thrusting, the miniature seahorses, which look exactly like the adults, are released from the pouch. The offspring are fully independent after birth and must fend for themselves. They are pelagic in the first stage of life, or hold onto floating debris at the surface with their tail."

      (Photo by Silverseahorse, aka Terri Renne, from here.)

      A male seahorse in labor, giving birth.

      Of course there's a twist in the plot, as described in this unusually good short science video from Nature (the science journal Nature, not the PBS program).

      You can read  the research paper behind the video: Paczolt KA, Jones AG (2010) Post-copulatory sexual selection and sexual conflict in the evolution of male pregnancy. Nature 464:401-404. doi:10.1038/nature08861

      (Photo from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's The Secret Lives of Seahorses.)

      17 March 2010


      This outtake is actually from my earlier book, THE FRAGILE EDGE. A scene with the crown jellyfish made it into the final cut. The shipwreck musings did not.

      "As always when underemployed at sea, I imagine which of my boat mates would make the best eating if we suddenly found ourselves adrift and starving, only to conclude the crown jellies would be tastier than any of us. As succulent as cactus. Though light on nutrition."

      The fantastical painting above is by Julie Speed, whose work I discovered serendipitously online. I'm now a devoted fan. She's also got a delightfully subversive show opening April 1st at the Gerald Peters Gallery, 24 E 78th St, New York, NY, that's up for a month. Check it out.
      The moon jellyfish below (relatives of crown jellies) are from here.


      Just because. From here (my secret addiction).

      14 March 2010


      Couldn't resist. Photo from here. Hat tip Penguin Wonderings.


      No better time for Neruda's poignant poem than today... as the 175 member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meet this week in Qatar to debate, among many things, giving protection to the Atlantic bluefin tuna via an Appendix I listing. This extraordinary predator, the tiger of the seas (not the chicken), is the most expensive food on Earth. A single bluefin recently sold in a Tokyo market for $175,000. Are we rich enough to leave it be?

      Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market
      Pablo Neruda

      among the market vegetables,
      this torpedo
      from the ocean   
      a missile   
      that swam,
      lying in front of me

      by the earth's green froth   
      —these lettuces,
      bunches of carrots—
      only you   
      lived through
      the sea's truth, survived
      the unknown, the
      darkness, the depths   
      of the sea,
      the great   
      le grand abîme,
      only you:   
      to that deepest night.

      Only you:
      dark bullet
      from the depths,
      one wound,
      but resurgent,
      always renewed,
      locked into the current,
      fins fletched
      like wings
      in the torrent,
      in the coursing
      like a grieving arrow,
      sea-javelin, a nerveless   
      oiled harpoon.

      in front of me,
      catafalqued king
      of my own ocean;
      sappy as a sprung fir
      in the green turmoil,
      once seed
      to sea-quake,
      tidal wave, now
      dead remains;
      in the whole market
      was the only shape left
      with purpose or direction
      in this   
      jumbled ruin
      of nature;
      you are   
      a solitary man of war
      among these frail vegetables,
      your flanks and prow
      and slippery
      as if you were still
      a well-oiled ship of the wind,
      the only
      of the sea: unflawed,
      navigating now
      the waters of death.

      Translated by Robin Robertson

      Photo (top) courtesy WWF International
      Photo (above) courtesy NOAA

      08 March 2010


      (Photograph courtesy Joanne Simpson and the Schlesinger Library.)

      This post today from the Earth Observatory's Image of the Day, in honor of the incredible pioneering meteorologist, Joanne Simpson:

      Dr. Joanne Simpson, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology, died March 4, 2010, at the age of 86. Her groundbreaking, influential career spanned more than half a century, beginning with her teaching meteorology to World War II Aviation Cadets and ending with her retirement as the head of the Severe Storms Branch in the Laboratory for Atmospheres at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
      In the photo above, taken in the 1950s, Simpson is bent over reams of images of clouds that she filmed during long flights between islands in the tropical Pacific. From the photos, she is drawing detailed maps of cloud formations. These observations underpinned her first major contribution to atmospheric science: the boat-rocking hypothesis that tropical clouds weren’t just the passive result of atmospheric circulation, as meteorologists of the day believed, but were in fact the cause of it.
      The large-scale patterns of air circulation in the tropics were already well-established: fueled by solar heating, air rose over the tropics, spread poleward at high altitudes, sank back to the surface at subtropical latitudes, and flowed back toward the equator at the surface. The pattern, the Hadley Circulation, is the foundation of the global atmospheric circulation.
      But while the Hadley Circulation had been documented and described, meteorologists didn’t really understand how it physically worked. Through her observations and models, Simpson and her advisor, Herbert Riehl, demonstrated that some tropical clouds reach towering heights—as high as 15,000 meters (9 miles). These cumulonimbus clouds, which Simpson called “hot towers,” act like chimneys for the warm, moist air rising from the tropical oceans. The hot towers allow water vapor to reach unusually high altitudes. The heat released when the vapor in these very tall clouds condenses into water droplets and ice crystals is the main driver of the rising-air part of the Hadley Circulation.
      Many scientists go their entire careers without the satisfaction of making such a significant contribution to their field. For Simpson, though, seeing her hot tower hypothesis verified over the next two decades was surely a kind of poetic justice as well. Her interest in tropical clouds was considered acceptable by the all-male faculty at the University of Chicago, where she earned her doctorate, because, as the department head told her, no one was very interested in them, so it was a good subject “for a little girl to study.”
      After establishing their importance to the global atmospheric circulation, Simpson went on to demonstrate the influence of hot towers on hurricane intensification. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she led research into the potential of cloud-seeding to reduce the intensity of hurricanes. In the 1980s, she became the driving force behind the first satellite mission to study tropical rainfall from space. Simpson said that she considered her involvement with the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, launched in 1997 and still operating today, to be the most important accomplishment of her career.

      Photos below in honor of Joanne Simpson.




      07 March 2010



      Within two layers of skin,
      I sigh
      like the primum mobile

      or moving sculpture, oil and water,
      enclosed on a coffee

      Aesculapius took my blood,
      and my spirit
      ran into the heavens. Yet,

      here are my serpents!
      I am 99%
      de l'eau.

      The rest, bowl.

      Image (top): "Discomedusae" Plate 8 from Ernst Haeckels' ''Kunstformen der Natur'' 1899, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; (bottom): Anastasia Shesterinina, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

      04 March 2010


      (Thanks, Emma D, for the link!)

      Just when you think there's not possibly another thing to love about octopuses, they come up with this. From The Hanlon Lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts:

      "In the February 2010 issue of The Biological Bulletin, MBL Senior Scientist and cephalopod expert Roger Hanlon and his colleagues report the exceptional camouflage capabilities of the Atlantic longarm octopus, Macrotritopus defilippi, whose strategy for avoiding predators includes expertly disguising itself as a flounder"

      And here's the video of a little octopus doing its total flounder thing.

      More on the octopus findings:

      "Comparing still photographs and video footage from five Caribbean locations collected over the last decade, Hanlon and co-authors, MBL graduate students Anya Watson and Alexandra Barbosa, observed uncanny similarities between the small and delicate octopus and the peacock flounder, Bothus lunatus, one of the most common sand dwellers in the Caribbean. They compared not only coloration, which in each animal resembled the sandy seafloor, but swimming speed and form.
      "Just like flounder, the octopuses contoured their bodies to hug the wavy seafloor, tapering their arms behind them. They also swam with the same fits and starts as flounder at the same speeds. Interestingly, the octopuses mimicked flounder only when swimming, when movement would compromise their camouflage. How well the animals blended in with their background differed. The octopus showed more highly controlled and rapid skin patterning than the flounder, whose camouflage was slower and less precise."

      Here's Bothus lunatus, the peacock flounder. Photo courtesy Kasey Canton.

      Finally, as to why the octopus mimic flounder:

      "More study of cephalopod mimicry is needed, but a possible explanation, according to Hanlon and his team, could be that predators who could easily take a bite out of the small, soft octopus might find a rigid flatfish like the flounder too much of a mouthful and avoid them."
      I know peacock flounders well from years of diving in the Bahamas, and am now wondering how many I saw might have actually been octopus in disguise!

      03 March 2010


      Apparently 19th-century Japan experienced a mermaid craze that netted scientists and natural history illustrators in the excitement of the unknown. The familiar-looking mermaid in the painting above is by Keisuke Ito (1803-1901), the father of Japanese botany, and depicts her swimming alongside a real sea lion.

      Far less familiar (to me, at least) are these Japanese images of demonic mermaids. The painting above is by an unknown artist of the Edo period. 

      This painting was by Baien Mouri (1798-1851), a prolific illustrator known for his colorful depictions of plants and animals. I found the three images above at Pink Tentacle.

      Then there was the so-called Fejee Mermaid, displayed first, according to Wikipedia, by P.T. Barnum, later acquired by Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, currently off display in the museum's attic. This version of the Fejee Mermaid was made of a dead baby monkey sewn to a fish tail and covered with papier-mâché.

      Here's another "real" mummified Fiji mermaid.

      Meanwhile, 19th-century American mermaids were as impossibly idealized as 19th-century American women.

      By 1910, when Howard Pyle painted The Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen's promise of human-mermaid matches had become part of art's lexicon.

      From there, of course, all currents led to Disney.