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Mountbatten pink is a color invented by and named after Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten (1900-1979), the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS, and the last Royal viceroy of India. Mountbatten was a nobleman and a Royal Navy officer (as you could probably tell from his rank and title there). In 1940 he was escorting a convoy carrying vital war supplies, when he noticed that one ship would constantly vanish from vision at twilight. This phantom ship was still painted a strange grayish pink color from pre-war days. Mountbatten became convinced that the pink was an ideal camouflage color and he had all of the destroyers of the Fifth Destroyer flotilla painted in the same shade (which not surprisingly came to be identified with him).
Mountbatten pink was a mixture of medium gray with a small amount of Venetian red. The resultant neutral pink mimicked ocean and atmospheric colors of dawn and dusk. Additionally, the German navy used pink marker dye to identify their shells, so Mountbatten pink ships often threw off spotters who were unable to tell ship from clouds of smoke (at least according to some Naval historians). One cruiser, the HMS Kenya, was even nicknamed the Pink Lady because of its color and panache.
Other British captains also painted their ships in Mountbatten pink (or used it as a component of the dazzle camouflage) either because of its effectiveness as battle camouflage, or to suck up to Lord Mountbatten, or out of genuine fondness for the surprisingly attractive lavender-pink, however the color had a critical flaw which ultimately caused the Royal navy to abandon it. Although Mountbatten pink blended into the offing at dawn and dusk, it stood out against the ocean at midday. By 1942 the color was phased out for large ships (although some smaller ships still had the color for a while). Most photos and films of the day were black and white. Imagine that some of the grim British fighting ships engaged in life & death fire fights with the Germans were actually pink!
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!
The green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) looks so ridiculously wicked and serpentine that it almost doesn’t look like an actual l snake but instead resembles an animated snake from a lurid 80’s cartoon. Ahaetulla nasuta is mildly toxic and feeds on lizards and tree frogs which it catches by means of stealth and camouflage. Native to most of southern India, the snakes are diurnal and arboreal. Their great specialization is imitating tangled green vines, a feat which they pull off so successfully that most people never notice them, however, when startled they are capable of changing their color from bright green (which blends with the jungle) to a checkered black and white warning pattern. In duress they also gape open wicked smiles to threaten off potential predators. The snakes are viviparous and have astonished zookeepers by giving birth after being alone for years. It remains a matter of herpetological dispute as to whether the female snake is able to delay fertilization within her body for extremely long periods of time or whether she is capable of parthenogenesis (a rare but not unheard of trait among snakes).
Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn. These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong: octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception. The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species. Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent). Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs. They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey. However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.
Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration. The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings. If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it. The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things. Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.
The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane. This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration. This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim. Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe. If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).
Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers. The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat). When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year. Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.
When I was a child, my family went to the invertebrate house in Washington, DC. Upon entering the building, there was a very beautiful aquarium which contained the most alien creature I have ever encountered. It was a beautiful glistening red…and then it instantly changed color to bright white with pale dun spots. Next the strange being sank through the water column and changed color and texture. Its smooth skin knotted up into ropey bumps. The speckled white tuned to wavy deep brown lines. Intelligent eyes with W-shaped pupils regarded me from what suddenly seemed to be a hunk of rock. I had encountered my first live cuttlefish. In fact there were two in the tank, as I discovered when a patch of unremarkable sand changed shape and color and jetted to the surface while flashing rainbow colors. They were worked up because they were about to be fed and, when eating their suppers, the cuttlefish put on a particularly good show. They changed color like digital screens and waved their eight arms about and then ZAP! elongated feeding tentacles shot out from under their mantles to grab the anchovies from across the length of the tank. Then they rocketed around with uncanny torpedo speed.
Cuttlefish are cephalopods like octopuses, argonauts, squid, and nautiluses. Across the long ages they have descended from those magnificent nautiloids and othocones who ruled the world during the Ordovician era. Cuttlefish are one of the most intelligent invertebrates: their brains make up a substantial portion of their body mass, and their behavior when hunting, hiding, and courting is complex. The unusually shaped eyes of the cuttlefish are among the finest in the animal kingdom. Their blood makes use of copper rather than iron to fix oxygen so it runs green. All cuttlefish possess poisons in their saliva. In fact the Pfeffer’s Flamboyant Cuttlefish is as toxic as the Blue-ringed octopus.
But why am I talking about these extraordinary mollusks during a week devoted to blogging about color? First of all cuttlefish are “the chameleons of the sea.” As I observed at the zoo, they can change color with a speed and facility unrivaled by any other creature. They use their mastery of color to camouflage themselves, to hunt, and to communicate with each other. The animal’s existence literally hinges around the color-changing chromatophores in their skin. But the association of cuttlefish and color doesn’t stop there. Cuttlefish produce a dense ink which they squirt into the ocean to disguise their movements when frightened. This sepia ink, collected from the ink-sacks of common cuttlefish destined for the table, was prized for writing and for drawing during the classical era. Many of the great histories and literary masterpieces of Greco-Roman thought were first penned in sepia ink. Although other inks took the place of sepia for writing, it maintained its place in the artist’s studio up until the late nineteenth century when it was supplanted by synthetic pigments.
This means that many of the masterpieces of draftsmanship were also created with sepia ink. A particularly effective and pleasing style was to sketch something in watered down sepia washes and finish the details with black india ink. Like chartreuse, magenta, and vermilion, the name sepia itself has become synonymous with a color. This reddish brown is famous in old masters pen-and-ink drawings, antique photos, and memory-hazed movie flashbacks. Not only has this ink provided some of the most beautiful drawings in history, recent studies have shown that cephalopod ink is toxic to certain cells—particularly tumor cells, so we may not have written the last concerning sepia ink.
The other day I was outside enjoying the garden when I noticed that a piece of bark was hopping up and down the fence in a peculiar spiral pattern. When I looked more closely, I realized that it was not bark at all, but an amazingly camouflaged hunter—the brown creeper (Certhia Americana). This tiny North American songbird lives in deciduous and conifer forests, wooded meadows, and even in towns with sufficient tree cover (like Brooklyn, apparently!). Brown creepers range from the southwest United States up to the Canadian provinces…even up to southern Alaska, but I’ve never seen one before (or probably I have, I just never realized it was a bird). The pattern of its feathers, which looked so random and wood-like was actually quite beautiful and subtle when the bird was seen in the real world. I have included some professional photos because mine didn’t come out. The brown creeper also had an endearing little pale belly.
The little bird acted much like a nuthatch (of which I am greatly fond) making short rapid hops up and down the aging wood of the garden fence. It was clearly looking for tasty insects with its sharp curved beak and I believe it caught quite a few of the pests. Then in a flash it was gone. I’m used to the popular songbirds or the northeast, but I have never noticed the brown creeper and I found it rather touching. Has anyone else seen these around here (or anywhere else)?