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We have had a lot of excitement the last couple of weeks, what with Halloween and the midterm election.  Let’s relax a little bit with [checks notes] the horrifying story of a dare gone wrong which lead to the tragic death of a young man? What?? Who chooses this content? Gah!

Well, anyway, this story comes from Australia where, in 2010, teenager Sam Ballard was hanging out with his mates (which is what Australians call friends) and drinking some wine when a small garden slug crawled across his friend’s patio.  In a manner instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with teenage boys, the young men jokingly dared one another to eat the tiny mollusk, and, to show them up, Sam gulped down the tiny creature.  This proved to be an irreversible, fatal error.  Soon Sam’s legs began to hurt and then he fell into a coma for more than a year.  Sam regained consciousness but he was paralyzed and subject to a host of dreadful ailments which ultimately killed him a few days ago.

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There may be a moral to this sad horror story (particularly in the States where, in 2016, 46.4% of the electorate made a seemingly trivial– albeit disgusting–choice which is paralyzing and killing our nation), however there is certainly a scientific explanation.  Slugs can carry rat lungworm disease which is caused by a parasitic nematode called Angiostronjilus cantonensis (crustaceans and frogs can carry the worm as well).  In the happy normal course of existence, the slugs, crabs, and frogs (and thus the nematodes) are eaten by rats which develop lungworm infection in, you know, their lungs.  They excrete droppings infected with lungworms which in turn are eaten by slugs and small invertebrates which are then eaten by rats and frogs. This nematode was originally indigenous to Southeast Asia and nearby Pacific Islands, however as the climate changes and humans move around (taking rats and nematodes with us, apparently) the microscopic worms have spread to Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

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I enjoy nature and have a deep appreciation of ecosystems and all of their diverse inhabitants, yet somehow the preceding paragraph makes me want to burn away rats, frogs, slugs, and nematodes with cleansing fire and live like Howard Hughes.  Speaking of fire, if you must eat rats, frogs, garden slugs, small invertebrates, or nematodes,  you should thoroughly cook them first.  I guess that is a really useful and ancient pro tip for success in life.

There is a bigger reason I am telling this upsetting story though.  Strange microscopic bits of one ecosystem have a way of getting into other ecosystems and causing complete havoc. Rat lungworms don’t even really have anything to do with humans, but when mistakenly consumed by us, they do not end up in our lungs but instead in our brains (btw, this is bad news for the nematodes too, which are unable to complete their natural revolting nightmare life-cycle).

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Paleontologists have long speculated that this sort of mix-up is a factor in many mass die-offs and other large scale extinction events.  Fossil evidence for such things however is exiguous, so they have to look for analogous situations in the modern world (like the case of poor Sam Ballard) or go digging in the genomes of modern living organisms.  These genomes often do carry information about a long strange history of fighting off weird viruses, pathogens, and microscopic invaders, but it is not easy to figure out the specifics within the Rube Goldberg-style world of immune cell epigenetics. Zookeepers and stockpeople (and their veterinary pathologists), however, know all about these sorts of dark misconnections from horrible sad incidents which happen all the time in farms and zoos.  I suppose I am bringing this up because I suspect that climate change, near instant international travel, and modern supply chains, will continue to amplify the problem (I have touched base concerning this in my essays about parasitoid wasps, but these may be a touch abstract, so I am telling Sam Ballard’s story).

We could spend more time and money understanding biology properly to get ahead of these trends (which will be greatly magnified in any synthetic ecosystems which we build on Earth or beyond), or we could continue with our current choice of giving all of our resources to corrupt billionaires to hoard.  While we ponder that choice, let us extend our deepest condolences to the Ballards for their terrible loss.  I am also going to clean my kitchen with bleach and maybe take a shower.

 

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Today I wanted to write more about giant clams and their astonishing ability to “farm” algae within their body (and then live off of the sweet sugars which the algae produce).  I still want to write about that, but it proving to be a complicated subject: giant clams mastered living on solar energy a long time ago, and we are still trying to figure out the full nature of their symbiotic systems.

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Today, instead we are going to look at the phenomenon which gives the mantles of giant clams their amazingly beautiful iridescent color. It is the same effect which provides the shimmering color of hummingbird feathers and blue morpho wings, or the glistening iridescence of cuttlefish.  All of these effects are quite different from pigmentation as generally conceived:  if you grind up a lapis lazuli in a pestle, the dust will be brilliant blue (you have made ultramarine!) but if you similarly grind up a peacock feather, the dust will be gray, alas! This is because the glistening reflective aqua-blue of the feather is caused by how microscopic lattices within the various surfaces react with light (or I suppose, I should really go ahead and call these lattices “nanostructure” since they exist at a scale much smaller than micrometers). These lattices are known as “photonic crystals” and they appear in various natural iridescent materials—opals, feathers, and scales.  Scientists have long studied these materials because of their amazing optic properties, however it is only since the 1990s that we have begun to truly understand and engineer similar structures on our own.

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Physicists from the 19th century onward have understood that these iridescent color-effects are caused by diffraction within the materials themselves, however actually engineering the materials (beyond merely reproducing similar effects with chemistry) was elusive because of the scales involved.  To shamelessly quote Wikipedia “The periodicity of the photonic crystal structure must be around half the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves to be diffracted. This is ~350 nm (blue) to ~650 nm (red) for photonic crystals that operate in the visible part of the spectrum.”  For comparison, a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

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The actual physics of photonic crystals are beyond my ability to elucidate (here is a link to a somewhat comprehensible lay explanation for you physicists out there), however, this article is more to let me explain at a sub-rudimentary level and to show a bunch of pictures of the lovely instances of photonic crystals in the natural world. Enjoy these pictures which I stole!

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But, in the mean time don’t forget about the photonic crystals! When we get back to talking about the symbiosis of the giant clams, we will also return to photonic crystals!  I have talked about how ecology is complicated.  Even a symbiotic organism made up of two constituent organisms makes use of nanostructures we are only beginning to comprehend (“we” meaning molecular engineers and materials physicists not necessarily we meaning all of us). imagine how complex it becomes when there are more than one sort of organism interacting in complex ways in the real world!

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Like a lot of people, I have a dayjob which does not necessarily play to my greatest strengths.  That is good on normal days: when I get out of the office I am ready to write about Goths in space or technicolor trees and then sculpt representations of meaningful tricolor flatfish.  It is less good on days when the sink is hopelessly clogged at home and there are administrative chores related to technical or monetary aspects of life which must be addressed.  Then the whole day becomes pointless dirty drudgery with no respite.  All of which is to say, i ran out of time to write about science and art, so I am going to show some flounder drawings which i made on the train.  Above is a very colorful flounder with a dinosaur, a hotdog, a walking alien machine, and a strange angel.  I would have loved it so much as a child.  As an adult though, I like the elongated walrus best.

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The second small flounder is a more traditional flounder living in the ocean with a dancing prawn and a pale squid (the little mollusk must be frightened).  Although this drawing lacks some of the more fantastical and surreal elements which stand out in other works from this series, its high contrast white on black linework does make it pop out.  We’ll return to regular programming tomorrow.  Wish me luck fixing my sink!

 

 

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I was going to showcase a mermaid painting from the glorious 19th century–a golden age of exquisite oil painting (when the technique of the masters combined with stupendous wealth and the camera made visual refernces available for the first time without yet stealing the show), but then I looked up at the wall and noticed I have my own mermaid painting–it just isn’t finished yet.  So I am afraid the 19th century masters will have to rest on their laurels until another day…and I am also afraid you will have to use your imagination to fill in some of the unfinished details of this work in progress.  This is one of the last of my torus-themed paintings, and you can see the great flounder lurking beneath it, preparing to take over as the central leitmotif of this era of my art.   The torus is made of a coil of strange purple cells (or rope) which is surmounted by an alien lotus blossom.  On the left a classic mermaid sings meltingly of the splendor of the seas, while on the right a trio of sinister dark carnival “mermaids” race towards the enigmatic central shape.  All around them the ocean blooms with life–mollusks and crabs desport themselves as a made-up roosterfish swims by and a moray looks on in wonder. Yet humankind is also present.  The lost lure with its beguilement and hooks hints at our trickery, although a masked diver suggests we are not inured to the lure of the dep in our own right.  Tune in later to see how it looks when it is done!

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One of the great mysteries of neurobiology is how memories are stored.  We have a few tantalizing clues, but the precise biological mechanism for how memories are created and where they are stored in cells is still unknown.  All of your lost loves and childhood dreams, your family’s birthdays and preferences, your own name and darkest secret…nobody knows where they are in your head.  And, um, we still don’t know…however, thanks to research on sea snails, we have some new clues.

Scientists have long believed that memories are stored within the structure and connective patterns between the synapses which connect neurons.  The new experiment suggests that this may prove to be a misconception.

Scientists trained a particular sort of sea snail (which have “small” brains with only 20,000 neurons) to respond in certain unusual ways to electrical shocks.  Then the team removed ribonucleic acid (RNA), from nerve tissue of the trained snails and injected it into the circulatory system of untrained snails.  Other “control” snails which were untampered with responded to electrical shocks naturally, however the snails which were treated with RNA from snails taught to curl their tails for prolonged periods immediately demonstrated this unusual behavior.

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The findings suggest that our conjecture about where memories are stored may be quite wrong…or at least disturbingly incomplete.  The snail research indicates that, at some fundamental level, memories are stored in the nuclei of neurons.  Now scientists will try to replicate the results in other animals to test this hypothesis.  Everything in this sort of research ends of being more complicated and interlinked than initially thought, so don’t forget about those synapses just yet.  We are still at the beginning of this tantalizing scientific quest.

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Exciting news from the world of mollusk research! Scientists have discovered new insights into how cuttlefish blend in so seamlessly with their underwater world.  Cuttlefish are chameleons of the undersea realm: they have the ability to change their color and texture in order to blend in with seaweed, coral, the ocean floor or whatever habitat they encounter.  Yet, even more remarkably, they can mimic the rough coloration and shape of other organisms, thereby fooling predators and prey by mimicking crabs and fish.

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Cuttlefish copy the textures they find in their environment by means of small nodules known as papillae.  The cephalopods extend and retract these intricate bumps using muscles. They can become perfectly smooth in order to maximize their speed and maneuverability or they can take on the texture of rocks, coral, or even seaweed.  Scientists have discovered that the cuttlefish accomplishes this not by means of continuous concentration, but instead with muscles which can be locked in place by means of certain neurotransmitters (it pays not to contemplate the vivisection through which this knowledge was obtained).  If a cuttlefish takes on a certain texture and then promptly loses use of the relevant muscle nerve, the neurotransmitters remain active and it takes hours for the creature’s metabolism to return it to its neutral shape.

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This may seem like a minor insight, but learning that cuttlefish (and presumably the squids and octopuses which use the same sort of papillae to alter their texture) are utilizing a muscle trick which is not unlike mechanism by which clams lock their shells in place is another step in unlocking the mysteries of these remarkable tentacled masters of disguise.

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Merry Christmas!  I decorated the house up all beautifully with my tree of life and with all sorts of seasonal lights…but then I couldn’t find my digital camera.  I’m afraid you will have to get through Saturnalia/Yule/Christmas with these somewhat blurry images.  I hope Santa brings you what you want (or Hanukkah Harry…or Saturn…or Mithras).  We’ll do some year-end wrap-up next week, but for right now I am going to drink some egg-nog and draw some festive flatfish!  Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper!

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Colorful Garden Cookies!

Today (December 4th) is national cookie day! Cookies are tiny sweet cakes which are eaten as dessert or a general treat…or with tea if you are English or Irish.  The English and Irish, coincidentally, know them as biscuits (although it is unclear if it is ‘National Biscuit Day” over there).  To celebrate, I thought about making my favorite cookies (oatmeal? snickerdoodles? chocolate crinkles?), but it is late in the day and anyway, at the end, I would just have tons of hot delicious cookies distracting me from flounder art. Plus, due to the sad limitations of the internet I cannot share baked goods with you—even though I like my readers and would love to bake a treat for you.  So instead I have decided to celebrate cookie day by featuring pictures of cookies found (stolen?) from around the internet.  I have a little gallery dedicated to several different Ferrebeekeeper topics.

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Catfish Cookies!

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Mollusc Cookies!

Serpent Cookies

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Gothic Cookies!

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Space Cookies

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Crown Cookies: there were SO many of these. Why do people love kings and queens and princesses so much?

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Mammal Cookies (barely) from Nanny’s Sugar Cookies LLC

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Underworld Goddess Cookies

Turkey Cookies

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Nightmarish Mascot Cookies

 

One of the delightful/disturbing things about this exercise is seeing how talented and creative everyone is.  Look at the beauty of these cookies!  Based on the esoteric subject matter (and the places I found the images) most of these are hand crafted, yet they look finer and more original than anything from a baker’s window. It is great to know how gifted everyone is too, but it is sad on several levels.  If we can bring the earnestness, attention to detail, raw creativity, and hard work people put into baked goods into politics, we could get out of the political decline and societal stagnation we are in.  Um, we are going to have to actually do that.

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But we can worry about that later in the week (when I will shake off my torpor and write a meaningful essay on our political deadlock (and our moral problems in general).  In the meantime, enjoy the cookies! After seeing what people have done with this medium I am thinking about making some cutters of my own so I can bring up my own cookie game. Also I still have that big project I am working on! I can’t wait to show you what it is in the New Year!

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Oracular Chinese cookies

 

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I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, but, oof, the Monday after Thanksgiving is always a rough day.  The holiday season has just started—but hasn’t gotten fun yet (my tree is badly assembled with no lights or ornaments—the cats have been climbing through it like gibbons in a hatrack and have knocked it over once already).  Additionally, the quotidian dictates of work combine with the gray bleakness of November to create a feeling of malaise which makes blogging difficult.  Also, it is 11:30 PM already. What the jazz?

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To combat these problems and get something down on paper (and to kick off the holiday season?) here is a visual post—a gallery of incredible vibrant cuttlefish from the world’s warm seas.  Hopefully there color will bring some pizzazz to your day.  Finding them online actually helped me get back in the groove.

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The flamboyant cuttlefish—the purple and yellow master of poison–rightfully has pride of place at the very top of the post, however there are some cuttlefish which I haven’t written about here too.  As soon as I have a bit more time I will come back and write about them.  As we get into December we will have more exciting and thoughtful posts which aren’t a placeholder like this one.

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Also, I am still working on the thrilling project which I teased earlier (although, like everything, it is taking longer than I planned).  For now, enjoy this little rainbow of sorbet tentacles and w-shaped eyes.  It’s going to be a merry holiday season and there are wonders ahead of us.  First we have to get a bit further into the workweek though….

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