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One of my favorite living artists is not interested in the fatuous self-absorption and navel gazing which characterizes most contemporary artwork. Instead of falling in love with himself, Ray Troll fell in love with aquatic animals—and his art is a pun-filled paean to the astonishing diversity and complexity of life in Earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans both in this epoch and in past geological ages. Although Troll’s vibrant biology themed art is humorous and fantastic, it also resonates at a deeper level. Themes of ecological devastation and the broad exploitation of the oceans are unflinchingly explored, as is the true nature of humankind. Troll (correctly) regards people as a sort of terrestrial fish descendant who still have the same aggressive territoriality, unending hunger, and crude drives that propelled our distant piscine forbears. This sounds deterministic and grim until one comprehends the high esteem which Troll holds for fish of all sorts. After looking at the beauty, grace, and power of his fish art, one feels honored to be included in the larger family (along with all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians which trace their roots back to fish-like tetrapod ancestors).
Troll is a favorite artist because he endeavors to understand paleontology, ecology, and biology and synthesize these extraordinary disciplines with broader human experience. The result is a whimsical and surreal mixture of creatures and concepts from different times and places rubbing elbows as though Hieronymous Bosch were having a happy daydream. Troll is a “popular” artist in that he makes a living by selling books, tee-shirts, and posters rather than swindling billionaire bankers into multi-million dollar single purchases, so you should check out his website. In keeping with the themes of Ferrebeekeeper, I have added a small gallery of his mollusk and catfish themed artwork (although such creatures are only featured in some of his paintings and drawings). Unfortunately the online sample images are rather small. If you want to see full resolution images you will have to buy his books and artwork (which is a worthwhile thing to do).
The Encante is a paradisiacal underwater realm where shapeshifting river dolphins lure humans. The aquatic creatures are able to be themselves in this realm of magic and dance. Not only does Troll’s work feature the beauty of the Amazon and the otherworldly magical river dolphins, there are also a host of amazing catfish, including several armored catfish, and a giant bottomfeeder which has apparently developed an unfortunate taste for human flesh.
Here are a handful of Troll’s pun-themed tee-shirt drawings involving amazing cephalopods. I like to imagine the populist octopus in battle with the fearsome vampire squid which is so emblematic of Goldman Sachs.
Finally, here is a naturalistic portrayal of how the ancient ammonites most likely came together to spawn on moonlit nights of the Paleozoic (such behavior is characteristic of the squids and cuttlefish alive today). The long-extinct cephalopods are portrayed with life and personality as though their quest to exist has immediate relevance to us today. Indeed–that might is Troll’s overarching artistic and philosophical point: life is a vividly complex web of relationships which knit together in the past, present, and the future.
I have always liked looking at underwater ambush predators like wobbegongs, wolf fish, stargazers, and frogfish. There is something appealing about the way that a pile of pebbles will suddenly resolve into a wide toothy mouth with little pebble eyes. In freshwater environments from Nepal down through India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and into Indonesia, the niche for highly camouflaged bottom predators is filled by Chaco Chaco, the frogmouth catfish.
The frogmouth catfish grows to a size of 8 inches (20 centimeters) and feeds on tiny shrimp and minnows. The animal is mostly head and can swallow creatures nearly as large as itself. Although the frogmouth catfish is already camouflaged, it prefers to bury itself in the mud or sand so that only its tiny black eyes protrude from the substrate.
The catfish are extremely committed to their camouflage and even when captured they will not move (although they growl menacingly when removed from the water). When kept in aquariums they rapidly raise the acidity of the tank which suggests that they either have potent gastric juices (for digesting large prey) or they might emit an unpleasant taste. Aquarium keepers sometimes keep the little predatory catfish in tanks which appear to be empty except for a blank spot of mud. The frogmouth catfish will only accept live food. Here is a video of one eating some shrimp!
Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post yesterday. I am traveling the Great Lakes and Canada and will try to update when I am able. Today I am in Chicago. As I was looking out at Lake Michigan, I wondered whether there were any catfish native to the vast body of water– which is so large it might as well be considered a freshwater sea.
As it turns out the lake is home to channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatu), the quintessential North American siluriform. The channel catfish is a hardy omnivore which dwells in rivers, lakes, and ponds from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They eat smaller fish, arthropods, worms, seeds, and just about any other edible thing which will fit into their mouths. Channel catfish are nest breeders. If the female catfish is unable to find a promising crevasse in which to lay her eggs, the male will arrange logs and rocks into a nesting bed for her. He then guards the eggs until they hatch and even stays with the fry while they are very small (although if he is unduly disturbed he might eat the eggs and start all over again!).
While the channel catfish are hardly as flashy as some of the exotic catfish we have covered here, they are vastly successful organisms. They can also grow to be fairly large and specimens measuring up to 23 kg (50 pounds) have been caught (although such giants are quite old and rare). Although the catfish live naturally in Lake Michigan, they are also raised on farms throughout the American south (indeed they are the “Delecata” mentioned in this post about international catfish trade wars). Channel catfish have been introduced in parts of Europe, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where they are now causing havoc among native species.
But Channel catfish here in the Great lakes are facing their own invasive threats. Lake Michigan has been colonized by wave after wave of invasive animals. Some, like the omnipresent zebra mussels, are harmless to catfish (albeit infuriating to humans). Others like the sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are not so benign for catfish. The jawless lampreys are vampires which attach to the bodies of catfish (and a wide variety of other native Great Lakes fish) and then rasp a hole in the hosts’ sides by means of sharpened tongue. Even more alarmingly, the leaping thriving all-devouring Asian carp has been making its way up Illinois’ rivers towards Lake Michigan. The state has been trying to prevent these dangerous fish from getting to the Lake by means of increasingly horrifying devices and stratagems such as underwater electric fences and mass poisonings. So far it has been working but there is still an underwater war raging for Lake Michigan.
Banjo catfish are a family (Aspredinidae) of tiny South American catfish which live in the major tropical river systems of the continent. Most species of banjo catfish have round flat heads and long skinny tails—hence their distinctive name. Although various sorts of banjo catfish live in many different river habitats (from quick flowing channels, to murky stagnant backwaters, to brackish tidal basins) they generally utilize the same strategy of keeping still and allowing their camouflage to protect them. Although like all catfish, they lack scales, the Aspredinidae make up for this absence with rows of horny keratin tubercles which break up their profile and leave them well disguised. Additionally they can shed their skins! As omnivores they hunt tiny invertebrates as well as feeding on whatever they can scavenge. Members of the Amaralia genera of Banjo catfish are especially fond of the eggs of other species of catfish, which they actively seek out and vacuum up.
Perhaps because they are so partial to eating the eggs of other catfish, some banjo catfish have evolved special strategies to protect their own eggs. Female catfish in the subfamily Aspredininae wait until their eggs are fertilized and then attach the developing eggs to their belly. Three species of Aspredininae develop specialized fleshy stalks called cotylephores specifically for the purpose of exchanging nutrients and oxygen between the mother and the eggs.
More than usual the future seems uncertain. The most cunning augurs and oracles can not see whether economic turmoil in Europe and turmoil in the Middle East will capsize the world economy. The Pax Americana still holds but China’s rise promises a less stable, less happy balance of world power. The world’s climate is changing. Technology is evolving in unknown directions.
To mark this uncertainty, I am dedicating today’s post to the quintessential symbol of all things shifting and mercurial–the weathervane (a choice which seems even more appropriate in the year when Mitt Romney is running for president). A weathervane is an instrument dedicated to determining the direction the wind is blowing from. As the wind changes, an arrow attached to a metal sail shifts to point in the direction the breeze originates. These devices had a very practical function in the days before up-to-the-minute worldwide meteorological observations and projections were available: they continue to be popular as architectural flourishes.
Sometimes I fantasize about what sort of weathervane I would put on the cupola of my imaginary mansion or at the apex of the folly tower of my non-existent formal garden. A quick search of the internet reveals that many of my favorite topics are favorite subjects of weathervanes. Catfish, turkeys, snakes, crowns, and mollusks are favorite subjects for metal sculptors to work in iron or copper. So are mammals (represented here by whales and deer), farm creatures (goats and turkeys), and trees. Even gods of the underworld make an appearance–in the form of the devil who points to the wind with his pitchfork
For the sake of space I left out all sorts of beautiful marlins, swordfish, dolphins, capricorns, poseidons, sea horses, sharks, and clipper ships, however I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a few buxom mermaids and sirens (and with the reminder to all fellow New Yorkers that the 30th annual mermaid parade is happening tomorrow at Coney Island. Why not take a break from the vagaries of watching the weather and worrying about the uncertain future by participating in a festival in honor of Poseidon and the world’s oceans!
In October 2003 the city of Nashville Tennessee decided to celebrate National Catfish Month (August) by asking local artists and craftspeople to make 51 catfish sculptures which were positioned around the city. The sculptures went on display in June and were auctioned off in October. Sponsored by the Cumberland River Compact, Greenways for Nashville, and the Parthenon Patrons Foundation, the show was meant to raise awareness concerning water quality in the Cumberland River.
Catfish are a major theme here at Ferrebeekeeper and I am delighted at the extent to which “Catfish out of Water” captured the amazing variety and hardiness of the Siluriformes. The name even evokes the amazing ability of the walking catfish to survive out of water (although that formidable invasive fish has fortunately not made it to Tennessee). I have only put in photos of a tiny number of the original sculptures here in order to encourage you to visit the complete gallery of catfish sculptures lovingly photographed by Jan Duke and carefully displayed and enumerated at About.com.
Hooray for catfish! May the Cumberland River always run clean and pure (except maybe for some tasty rotting food scraps for the bewhiskered critters to snack on).
Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks! This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed). Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year. If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.
The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle. Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).
Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources. In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds. They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.
Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish. According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor. The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own. As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.
People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits. Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.
Gung hay fat choy!
So what’s so amazing about catfish? So far, Ferrebeekeeper has describing all sorts of different variations of these fascinating fish. From the giant truck-sized catfish of the Mekong, to the infinitesimal (yet horrifying) candirus of the Amazon, to the deadly poisonous schooling catfish of coral reefs, to catfish that live underground or in gardens, we have seen a seemingly impossible variety of the irrepressible whiskered creatures. But, aside from their variety, hardiness, and interesting appearance, catfish represent an extraordinary apogee in sensory ability. They are able to apprehend their watery realms in ways that might as well be supernatural or alien to us. Catfish have honed familiar senses—taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight–to outrageous extremes. Yet they have additional senses—electroreceptivity, pressure sensitivity, and possibly other senses–that we are only starting to understand.
Let’s start with catfish’s sense of taste: catfish, unlike us, are not limited to tasting things with their tongues. Their entire bodies are covered with taste buds. To quote catfish expert Dr. John Caprio of Louisiana State University, “Catfish are swimming tongues…You can’t touch any place on a catfish without touching thousands of taste buds. To use an analogy, it’s as if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body.” Catfish can literally taste the water all around their bodies and the mud they are swimming over.
Beyond their powers of taste, catfish have a bloodhound-like sense of smell. With astonishingly sensitive olfactory pits near their nostrils, Catfish can smell certain compounds at one part per 10 billion parts of water. The sense of smell does not merely help them while hunting and seeking food, catfish use smell to identify other individual catfish and to maintain a social hierarchy. A catfish has an elaborate picture of its watery realm, the denizens thereof, and of the history and interaction of these inhabitants based on smell.
Catfish’s scale-free skin is unusually sensitive to touch but that is not the end of catfish’s ability to feel what is going on around it. The most distinctive feature of catfish—their 8 barbels (whiskers) are literally organs for touching. Like a blind man’s cane, each of these barbels can touch the substrate or whatever is moving in front of the catfish. Not only are the barbels covered with taste buds and feeling nerves, the whiskers also vibrate with water disturbance and provide a sense almost like hearing—although catfish also have multiple hearing organs.
Vibrations travel well under water and most fish have excellent abilities to sense sound, but catfish have evolved some additional auditory features. The swim bladder of a catfish (which the fish uses like a submarine ballast in order to rise and fall through the water column) is connected by a series of small bones (the Weberian apparatus) to the hearing apparatus (otoliths) inside the head. Catfish are therefore able to hear sounds of a higher frequency than other freshwater fish. Catfish can also sense extremely low-frequency sounds thanks to a different hearing system—a series of small pores running along the fish’s lateral lines. Within the pores are infinitesimal hair-like sensing apparatuses which respond to the slightest water displacement. Using lateral line hearing, a Catfish can sense animals scuttling across the rocks on the bottom of a river, predators swimming above them, and even fishermen walking on the shore. Perhaps most remarkably, the low frequency sensors which catfish have in their lateral lines seem to give the fish the ability to detect seismic activity. The Chinese and Japanese are said to have used the creatures as advanced earthquake detectors (which probably gave rise to the myth of Namazu, the Japanese earthquake catfish).
Although some catfish have small or underdeveloped eyes, the majority of catfish species can see extremely well. Additionally catfish possess a tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective tissue at the back of the eyes which allows them to see keenly in low-light conditions (cat owners will recognize the tapetum lucidum as the flashing green glow of feline eyes).
Finally catfish can sense the electrical discharges within the nervous and electrical-muscular systems of living things (in fact the electrical catfish goes a step beyond and uses electricity for hunting and self-defense). The cells responsible for electroreception are found grouped together in tiny pits along the catfish’s head and along its lateral line. Although electroreception has limited range, it is a powerful sense which can allow the fish to sense animals hidden beneath the mud or otherwise camouflaged.
A catfish’s life must be exciting—awash as they are in complicated overlaying sensory perceptions. Their abilities to perceive the world have taken them farther than other fish. According to the Tree of Life web project:
Catfishes are a species rich and exceptionally diverse group of fishes ranking second or third among orders of vertebrates. The Catalog of Fishes (Eschmeyer, 1998 et seq.) database treats 2,855 species of catfishes as valid. About 1 in 4 valid species of freshwater fishes, 1 in 10 fishes, and 1 in 20 vertebrates, is a catfish.
Several hundred more species of catfish have been discovered since the above paragraph was written. Paleontologists have even discovered fossils of catfish on Antarctica (the only continent where they can not currently be found living). Catfish are basically sentient sense-organs. They have diversified and thrived by being able to discern what is going on in the world around them (and they have probably enjoyed the experience).
Today features a short post concerning one of the strangest looking groups of catfish—which is truly saying something since the entire order of catfish appears rather odd. Brachyplatystoma is a genus of catfish from central South America which includes the largest catfish from that continent, Brachyplatystoma filamentosum, the so-called Goliath catfish or Piraiba, which is capable of reaching up to 3.6 metres (12 ft) in length and can weigh up to 200 kg (450 pounds). The Piraiba is hunted for food and sport both with hooks and with harpoons. All Brachyplatystoma catfish are swift sleek fish which live by hunting, but whereas the other species mostly hunt fish, the Piraiba has been known to eat primates. Specimens have been found with monkeys in their digestive system and attacks on humans are darkly rumored (although ichthyologists scoff that the mighty fish only scavenges the remains of such terrestrial animals).
The other Brachyplatystoma catfish species are smaller than the giant Brachyplatystoma filamentosum, but they all have the elongated flattened nose which characterizes the genus. One of these species, B. tigrinum, has especially lovely stripes. Although an unusual fish, it is caught in sufficient quantities to be available in specialty stores for home aquariums, where its long nose, pretty stripes, and interesting behavior fetch a premium price.
Tomorrow evening will feature the first game of the Detroit Red Wings season. This bold team of lovable* misfits will take to the ice against the hockey team from Ottawa–the name isn’t listed but they have some sort of classical footsoldier as a mascot so we’ll call them the Ottawa Hopelites. [maybe you should understand at least something about hockey before writing about it—ed.]
Anyway, even more exciting than the actual game between the Redwings and the Hopelites is the unofficial mascot of the Red Wings. In a post concerning mollusk mascots from around the world, alert reader Ryon Lancaster commented that we had overlooked the mascot for the Detroit Red Wings, a purple hockey-playing octopus named Al. Apparently the legend of Al started back in April 15, 1952, when fishmongers Pete and Jerry Cusimano decided to throw an octopus onto the ice at Olympia Stadium. The eight tentacles of the cephalopod were meant to mystically represent the eight victories required to win the Stanley Cup (the ice hockey championship trophy). Sure enough the magical mollusk brought the team to championship victory and ever since then fans have thrown deceased octopuses onto the ice at their home stadium—especially during playoff matches. As the Red Wings’ octopus tradition deepened, the purple mascot Al coalesced from fan art and from oral tradition. Al takes his name from a former building operations manager, Al Sobotka, who exhibited great elan whenever he removed octopuses from the ice. Apparently Sobotka had a special octopus twirling technique which whipped the fans up (albeit at the expense of distributing octopus particles onto the ice and the crowd).
As you might imagine, NHL officials have mixed feelings about this fan tradition. In 2008 hockey officials banned Al Sobotka’s octopus twirling and the duty of removing octopus corpses has fallen to linesmen and icegirls. The stadium itself added a large octopus prop during the 1995 playoffs. This huge octopus totem was ceremonially raised to introduce the team. Later on it was given glowing red eyes (which light up during goals), a number eight hockey jersey, and a broken tooth. Since it now requires winning 16 games to win the Stanley Cup, there are two Al the octopuses hanging above the ice at playoff time.
Naturally a number of other teams have tried to imitate the seafood throwing craze including San Jose, (where fans threw a shark), Boston (lobster), and Vancouver (Salmon). The only other team which appears to be establishing a continuing tradition of throwing deceased aquatic creatures on the ice is the Nashville Predators (why does Nashville have a hockey team?): predators fans have been known to throw large catfish onto the ice. A weary ice attendant, Jessica Hanley is reported to have said “’They are so gross. They’re huge, they’re heavy, they stink and they leave this slimy trail on the ice. But, hey, if it’s good for the team, I guess we can deal with it.”
*actual boldness and lovability may vary