31 October 2010


(Illustration: Laurence Housman.) 

Trolling Project Gutenberg, I happened upon this old story by Jonas Lie (1833-1908), a beloved Norwegian author of the 19th-century. As best I can make out, it was one story in his two volumes of stories called Trold (troll). The story here was beautifully rendered from Norwegian by the British polyglot Robert Nisbet Bain (1854–1909). The book is illustrated with Art Nouveau drawings by Laurence Housman (1865-1959, younger brother of the poet A.E. Housman), including three of the four drawings in this post.


translated from the Norwegian by Robert Nisbet Bain (1893)
illustration by Laurence Housman 

ON KVALHOLM, down in Helgeland,1 dwelt a poor fisherman, Elias by name, with his wife Karen, who had been in service at the parson's over at Alstad. They had built them a hut here, and he used to go out fishing by the day about the Lofotens.

There could be very little doubt that the lonely Kvalholm was haunted. Whenever her husband was away, Karen heard all manner of uncanny shrieks and noises, which could mean no good. One day, when she was up on the hillside, mowing grass to serve as winter fodder for their couple of sheep, she heard, quite plainly, a chattering on the strand beneath the hill, but look over she durst not.

They had a child every year, but that was no burden, for they were both thrifty, hard-working folks. When seven years had gone by, there were six children in the house; but that same autumn Elias had scraped together so much that he thought he might now venture to buy a Sexæring,2 and henceforward go fishing in his own boat.

One day, as he was walking along with a Kvejtepig3 in his hand, and thinking the matter over, he unexpectedly came upon a monstrous seal, which lay sunning itself right behind a rock on the strand, and was as much surprised to see the man as the man was to see the seal. But Elias was not slack; from the top of the rock on which he stood, he hurled the long heavy Kvejtepig right into the monster's back, just below the neck.

(Seal-folk listening to a mermaid's song. From a drawing by John Duncan. From here.)

The seal immediately rose up on its tail right into the air as high as a boat's mast, and looked so evilly and viciously at him with its bloodshot eyes, at the same time showing its grinning teeth, that Elias thought he should have died on the spot for sheer fright. Then it plunged into the sea, and lashed the water into bloody foam behind it. Elias didn't stop to see more, but that same evening there drifted into the boat place on Kvalcreek, on which his house stood, a Kvejtepole, with the hooked iron head snapped off.

Elias thought no more about it, but in the course of the autumn he bought his Sexæring, for which he had been building a little boat-shed the whole summer.

One night as he lay awake, thinking of his new Sexæring, it occurred to him that his boat would balance better, perhaps, if he stuck an extra log of wood on each side of it. He was so absurdly fond of the boat that it was a mere pastime for him to light a lantern and go down to have a look at it.

Now as he stood looking at it there by the light of the lantern, he suddenly caught a glimpse in the corner opposite, on a coil of nets, of a face which exactly resembled the seal's. For an instant it grinned savagely at him and the light, its mouth all the time growing larger and larger; and then a big man whisked out of the door, not so quickly, however, but that Elias could catch a glimpse, by the light of the lantern, of a long iron hooked spike sticking out of his back. And now he began to put one and two together. Still he was less anxious about his life than about his boat; so he there and then sat him down in it with the lantern, and kept watch. When his wife came in the morning, she found him sleeping there, with the burnt-out lantern by his side.

30 October 2010


(Close-up of live mushroom coral taken by James Nicholson of the Coral Culture and Collaborative Research Facility, South Carolina. This image took 13th place at the 2010 Nikon Small World Photography Contest.)

Mushroom corals are members of the Fungiidae, a family of interesting marine animals in the phylum Cnidaria, which includes corals, anemones, and jellyfish, as well as some aquatic species. 

Unlike the more familiar stony, or reef-building corals, most mushroom corals are not polyps roughly the size of ants living together in colonies that take the form of, say, staghorn corals.

(Heliofungia actiniformis. Photo by Samuel Chow, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Instead most are free-living solitary polyps that grow to relatively enormous sizes. Heliofungia actiniformis (above) can reach 50 centimeters/20 inches in diameter. Believe it or not, the photograph above is of a single polyp.

(Fungia fungia. Photo by Jon Zander, Digon3, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Many mushroom corals look dead or bleached until their tentacles emerge, generally after dark.

(Photo by Silke Baron, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

They share some interesting traits with their terrestrial (mostly) namesakes, the fungi, or mushrooms. 

Shape obviously. Though mostly it's the juvenile fungiids, growing on stalks, that resemble terrestrial fungi. Sorry can't find any pictures of them.

(Lycoperdon perlatum. Photo by Dohduhdah, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.) 

Mushrooms of the land are also amazing organisms. Enough so as to warrant a kingdom all their own, the Kingdom Fungi, separate from the plants, the animals (including mushroom corals), and the bacteria. 

(Photo by Dohduhdah, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.) 

Genetically, mushrooms are more closely related to animals than plants.

(Portobello mushroom, Agaricus bisporus. Photo by Chameleon, courtesy Wikiemdia Commons.)

This seems pretty obvious to anyone who dines on mushrooms. A portobellowhich is simply the older fruit, or pileus, of a button and a crimini mushroomis downright meaty tasting.

(Photo by cyclonebill, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Of late, a few discoveries about mushrooms are bending our notions of time and space in the living world.

 (Armillaria ostoyae. Photo by Eric Steinert, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.) 

A clonal colony of honey mushrooms (Armillaria ostoyae) in Oregon has been found to extend across more than 965 hectares/2,384 acres of forested mountains.

The colony is estimated at between 1,900 and 8,650 years old.

(The unreleased spores of a morel mushroom {Morchella elata} magnified 40 times CORRECTION: taken with a 40X objective lens. Photo [and correction, see Comments, below] thanks to Peter G. Werner, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

The reproductive strategies of the Kingdom Fungi are equally exuberant. Many species reproduce sexually and/or asexually, depending on the stages of their life cycle and on environmental triggers.

In sexual reproduction, compatible individuals may combine by fusing their threadlike hyphae (the parts we usually don't see, underground or inside rotting trees) together into an interconnected network. As if humans mated by first fusing our bloodstreams.

The video below highlights, with the help of lasers, tiny mushroom spores.

Secret Sounds of Spores: Introduction from The Amazing Rolo on Vimeo.

The second video is part of the same ongoing beautiful fusion of art and science hyphae. Wish I could get to Edinburgh to see the installation.

The Boroscilloscope from The Amazing Rolo on Vimeo.

The release of mushroom spores is spectacularly reminiscent of spawning corals.

In the photo below you can see the tiny orange eggs being released by a female mushroom coral (Fungia scutaria) spawning at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in Oahu. Looks kind of psychedelic.

(Photo by Jake Adams. From Advanced Aquarist's Online Magazine.)

Researchers from Japan recently discovered that mushroom corals can change sex and back again, a talent known as  sequential hermaphroditism. It's not all that unusual in the deep blue home. Some of the echinoderms, like urchins and sea stars, along with some of the crustaceans, mollusks, and bristle worms gender shift every which way too. 

In the mushroom corals studied so far, the smaller individuals are generally males and the larger individuals females. This makes sense when you consider the different time-and-energy investment required to make eggs versus sperm.

Mushroom corals, in their adult form, do have the ability to move, albeit very slowly, via three known mechanisms: by regulating buoyancy and floating away; by growing a hydromechanically adapted shape and floating away; or by creeping away. Motility enables them to seek out the sunniest locations on the reefsunlight fuels their endosymbiotic bacteriaand to escape being overgrown by other corals.

But might they be sprightlier than we think? 

(Mushroom coral eating moon jellyfish. From Coral Reefs.) 

Recently mushroom corals living in the Gulf of Aqaba were observed eating moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita). How did they procure the wandering jellies? No one knows.

The papers:

  • B. A. Ferguson, T. A. Dreisbach, C. G. Parks, G. M. Filip, and C. L. Schmitt. Coarse-scale population structure of pathogenic Armillaria species in a mixed-conifer forest in the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon. Can. J. For. Res. 33(4): 612–623 (2003). DOI:10.1139/x03-065.
  • Yossi Loya and Kazuhiko Sakai. Bidirectional sex change in mushroom stony corals. Proc Biol Sci B. 2008 October 22; 275(1649): 2335–2343. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0675.

UPDATE: Thanks to Joe Schmidt for sending along a view (below) of the coral fungus growing in a tree in his Illinois neighborhood. Seems a good looking case of convergent evocation.

(Photo by Joe Schmidt.)

28 October 2010


I realize what intrigues me about slow-motion filmmaking is the way it adds a question mark to every frame.

19 October 2010


Stolen from Cute Overload.


Mola mola. From the National Diet Library, Japan.

The mola mola, also known as the ocean sunfish, and in science as Mola mola (Latin mola: millstone), is one of my favorite creatures. There aren't many species we informally call by their binomial names. But mola mola is catchy, and what else would you call such a strange and endearing creature?

The beautiful series of paintings below all come from an old book about ocean sunfish published online at the National Diet Library of Japan. According to Pink Tentacle, the artist was Kurimoto Tanshuu (1756-1834). I'd love to know what the text says.

The last page might be views of the slender sunfish, Ranzania laevis, a close relative.

Your first thought upon seeing a mola mola might be: That is one big fish. Full grown mola molas are the largest of all the teleost (bony) fishes, averaging 2,000 pounds/1,000 kilograms, with a maximum published weight of 5,000 pounds/2,300 kilograms.

Your second thought might be: That is one insanely improbable fish.

Molas truly swim their own way, synchronously flapping their dorsal and anal fins. As if you and I could propel ourselves through the water—and with surprising speedby waving one arm and one leg.

Skeleton of an ocean sunfish, Mola molaNaturhistorisches Museum Wien. Credit: Sandstein, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
From this skeleton, you can also see how sunfish don't appear to have tails.

The perplexing tail problem was only recently worked out by Ralf Britz at the Natural History Museum in London and G. David Johnson at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. From the London Natural History Museum:

Britz and Johnson studied the tails of the ocean sunfish in detail by looking at the developing skeleton of larvae under a microscope. They compared its development with that of a less modified relative of the sunfish, the pufferfish. They found no sign of the caudal fin at any stage of the development of the ocean sunfish and discovered that the dorsal and anal fins grow together to form the [rudderlike] clavus.
"The colossal ocean sunfish, a pelagic fish with a wide distribution, has lost its tail fin, the main locomotory structure in all other fishes. This was a very surprising and unexpected result!" said Britz.


Mola mola - Catalina, CA from Mtn Dogs on Vimeo.

Here's what it looks like all put together, as a young mola mola investigates some lucky divers off Catalina Island, California. You can also see thatwhen left unmolestedmola mola are naturally friendly and curious.

The mola was likely visiting the kelp beds for the services offered by señoritasthe major cleaner in the kelp beds—or some other cleaners. 

There's a good living to be made eating other fishes' parasites or debriding their wounds. More on that in a later post.

Photo by Dan Richards, NOAA, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the photograph above you can see a school of blacksmith, whoas they typically do when encountering señoritas—have stopped swimming and are hanging upside down, signalling their desire to be cleaned.

Photo from here.

This beautiful mola is getting cleaned by Moorish idolsperhaps in Bali?

The image above is from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology's Larval Fish Archive, and is of a slender sunfish

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The photograph above is of the slender sunfish in its adult form.

Photo from Flickr.
And here is the larval Mola mola. Living proof that the ocean is rife with the fusion between the functional and the fantastical.

[UPDATE: Syd Kraul, a real fish pioneer, points out this little dude has a fairly well developed tail and tail stock. So I'm not sure where that leaves the research, above, regarding no-tail molas...]

For unwieldy swimmers, mola molas venture surprisingly deep. The video is from deep coral beds off Florida. From the YouTube page:

This ocean sunfish Mola Mola was about 5 [meters?] long and probably weighed 300-500 pounds. It was discovered during a Johnson-Sea-Link dive on a beautiful Lophelia coral reef located 40 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The white patches are where its skin has been taken off by unknown means, revealing the white cartilage beneath. Sunfish appear to have at least an ephemeral association with Lophelia coral pinnacles, as they have been seen in these locations numerous times by previous researchers. Video courtesy of Sandra Brooke, Florida Coast Deep Corals 2005, HBOI, NOAA-OER.
Some interesting research with Mola mola off southern California found they make repeated bounce dives below the thermocline (to about 150 meters /500 feet) during the daylight hours, presumably in search of their favorite gelatinous zooplankton, including salps, medusae and ctenophores. From the paper in Marine Ecology Progress Series:

However, ocean sunfish rarely remained below the thermocline for more than a few minutes, even though surface temperatures in more northern parts of their range can be colder than the temperatures experienced during these dives. [It has been] suggested that due to physiological limitations, the magnitude and rate of change in water temperature, rather than absolute temperature, may limit vertical movements in yellowfin tuna, blue marlin and striped marlin, and the same may be true for ocean sunfish. Periodic ascents to the warm mixed layer [near the surface], therefore, may be attempts by the fish to rewarm its core body temperature (i.e. behavioral thermoregulation). Rewarming of the body could be advantageous in terms of increased mobility, digestion, assimilation and growth rates. Dive 'recovery times' (i.e. the post-dive period) of ocean sunfish spent in the mixed layer increased significantly as a function of maximum dive depth, further supporting this hypothesis.

The researchers only once recorded a mola mola dive below the thermocline after nightfall:

Curiously, the only instance in which a fish descended below the thermocline during the nighttime period was also the greatest depth recorded for any tracked fish. Almost 1 h after sunset, Ocean Sunfish 1 rapidly dove to 392 m (corresponding to an ambient water temperature of 6.8°C). Depth data were taken on a minute-by-minute basis during this dive period, and indicated that the fish descended at a rate of 53 m min–1, 6 times faster than typical descents observed during daytime dives (8.4 ±5.6 m min–1), and ascended at a rate of 25 m min–1. Based on the incongruous time period, swift descent rate, and the fact that other deep dives were typically associated with the initial post-handling stress, this dive could possibly represent a predator avoidance response. Ocean sunfish predators include large sharks and California sea lions Zalophus californianus, both of which are commonly found in the waters off Santa Catalina Island. 
[UPDATE: David Guggenheim of 1planet1ocean and The Ocean Foundation shares the wondrous story of Sylvia Earle observing a mola mola at 1,300 feet deep during a submersible dive near Tortugas, and that it was bigger than the sub (presumably a smallish sub?). Perhaps it was fleeing a predator?]

The authors suggest another even more interesting reason for the diurnal bounce dives. In other words, why the fish don't just stay down deep during the day:

The vertical movements of ocean sunfish may also be limited by dissolved oxygen concentration. Four of the ocean sunfish reached depths approaching 150 m during dives. During the months of August through October, average O2 concentrations at 150 m in the study area are between 2.5 and 3.0 ml l–1, a range known to induce avoidance responses in many marine fish species. While the physiology of ocean sunfish is not well studied, oxygen concentration may also play a role in defining their habitat preferences. Therefore recovery time spent in the mixed layer by pelagic fishes may be related not only to temperature, but to recovery from hypoxia, particularly for deeper-diving fishes.
Not mentioned in the paper, but jellyfishes thrive in hypoxic waters, and are some of the only creatures to do so. Perhaps they're trying to hide in a suffocating environment, which predators like molas—great jellyfish eaterscan only endure for short periods?

Credit: Vanessa Tuttle, NOAA/NMFS/NWFSC/FRAMD/MF.
At any rate, the horizontal basking at the surface typically displayed by mola mola, as in the photo above, may be a way of warming up after deep dives while gasping for O2-rich breaths. 

The paper:
  • Daniel P. Cartamil, Christopher G. Lowe. Diel movement patterns of ocean sunfish Mola mola off southern California. Mar Ecol Prog Ser. 2004. DOI: 10.3354/meps266245

13 October 2010

12 October 2010


(Porpita porpita. Source.) 

I'd have given my right tentacle to see this 2008 exhibit from the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which toured at least to Minnesota, as best I can make out. Is it still out there anywhere? I can't tell.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Mary Blue Magruder of the Harvard Museum of Natural History who tells me:

The pieces are not touring, most are far too fragile. They’re off display currently, and we hope to have a place to put at least some of Harvard’s 429 models back on display in the future.]


These are the works of father and son glass artists, Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolph (1857-1929) Blaschka, from Dresden, Germany, whose depictions of marine life are as luminous today as when commissioned by universities and museums around world in the 19th century.


Their glass sea creatures and flowers were hailed in the Blaschka's own time as "an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art." 

Still true.


More on their lives and work, from the Design Museum in London:
Aquaria and natural history museums were then [19th century] opening all over the world. As the techniques for preserving real plants or creatures were so rudimentary, they needed life-like replicas to exhibit and turned to Leopold Blaschka to provide them. During the 1860s, Leopold supplied glass sea-anenomes to museums, aquaria and private collectors all over Europe. He then added snails and jellyfish to his repertoire and in 1876 received a large order from London’s South Kensington Museum (now the Natural History Museum).

By then, Rudolf had joined his father in the workshop, where they worked alone without assistants. Some of their replicas were based on illustrations in natural history books, such as Philip Gosse’s 1853 A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast and G. B. Sowerby’s 1857 A Popular History of the Aquarium of Marine and Fresh-Water Animals and Plants. All the early sea-anenomes, for instance, were modelled on such illustrations. 

(Illustration from British Sea-Anemones and Corals. Philip Henry Gosse. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)


The flat art above is a an illustration by Philip Henry Gosse from A History of the British Sea-anenomes and Corals, with the Blascha's work displayed alongside it.


And here with more detail.

(Chrysaora cyclonota. Philip Henry Gosse. A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. Source.)

You can clearly see in the illustration above by naturalist-artist Philip Henry Gosse the influence he had on the Blaschkas.


More from the Design Museum:
Other replicas were inspired either by the Blaschkas’ own memories of seeing the real creatureslike the first jellyfish which Leopold remembered from a trip to North Americaor by copying preserved specimens. In later years, as the Blaschkas became wealthier, they acquired live specimens to work from. These were kept in a specially built aquarium at their Dresden home.

(Physalia physalis, the Portuguese man o' war. Source.)

Again, from the Design Museum:
Leopold and Rudolf began the process of creating their replicas by making highly detailed drawings: many of which are now archived in the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass in the US. Their techniques and equipment were fairly basic. Each exquisitely intricate model was made by fusing or gluing clear and coloured pieces of glass using a combination of glass blowing and lamp working. Tentacles and gills were attatched on fine copper wires and, where necessary, paper and wax were used too.
The Blaschkas were equally meticulous in the way their approach to decoration. The translucence of jellyfish was replicated by using finely speckled layers of pigment usually on the underside of the glass. Thicker coats of paint, sometimes mixed with powdered glass, were used to depict thicker skin or textured surfaces. Although they both worked on every apsect of their replicas, Leopold tended to prefer working with the larger pieces of glass and to concentrate on assembly; while Rudolf enjoyed the fine details of intricate work and did more of the painting and decoration. 

A curator from Harvard's Botanical Museum visited the Blaschkas and had this to say about the way they worked:
The worktables are covered with rods and tubes of glass and blocks of different colored glass and spools of wire of different sorts. The bellows under the table are of the ordinary sort used by glassworkers and the blast tube is a very simple one of glass. The lamp is made of a tin cup containing a wick, and solid paraffin which melts at a pretty low temperature is used as the fuel.
(The Blaschkas' work desk. Source.)

By 1890 the Blaschkas entered into an exclusive ten-year contract with Harvard to create glass models of flowers and plants. They never again made zoological models.

(Listing of original cost of $2.75 for a Blaschka model of the squid Onychoteuthis lichtenstein. Source.)

(Three images above, from here.)

(Five images above, from here.)