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“Hey, wait! What the heck?” This is what you may be saying after yesterday’s post, which featured an unlabeled picture of a mystery sea creature (above).

Well worry no more! The mysterious creature is a “sea mouse”, the colloquial name for a genus of polychaete worms which live in the Atlantic Ocean (and the Mediterranean Sea).  The proper genus name for the sea mouses (mice?) is Aphrodita, after the Greek goddess of love (apparently some exceedingly lonely 18th century taxonomists thought the furry oval sea animal with a ventral groove along its bottom resembled the sacred goddess of sexuality in some generative aspect).

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Sea mouses (mice?) are scavengers which feed on the decaying bodies of marine animals [probably: a few sources thought they were hunters].  They live close to shore in the intertidal zone where they creep and burrow as they try to find carrion and avoid predators. To my mind, their English name is vastly better than their scientific name since they scurry furtively across the ocean bottom and since they are covered in what superficially looks like scraggly hair.  This “hair” is more properly called setae—bristles which protect the worm and or help it to hide or communicate.  The setae around the edges of the mice are covered with photonic crystals so they look drab from most angles but sparkle like gorgeous blue/green/gold opals when held a certain way.

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Speaking of bristles, sea mice move by means of parapodia—bristly appendages which serve as feet and which also look somewhat like hair. The creatures measure from 7–15 centimeters (3–6 inches) long; however, some giants can grow to a length of 30 centimeters (12 inches).

The febrile imaginings of long dead natural scientists aside, sea mice (mouses?) are all hermaphrodites with both male and female gonads and sexual organs [probably…different sources disagreed upon their gender orientation, and given today’s social mores, it was thought impolite to inquire].  The worms are incapable of fertilizing themselves though.

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Of course, some of you might still have some questions about this living technicolor hermaphroditic toupee which crawls around on the ocean bottom eating horrible dead things, but I can help you no further.  My limited knowledge of sea mice is all used up.  They aren’t even mollusks (they are more closely related to…well to us…than to clams and squid). Based on the many bracketed addenda and the numerous weasel words in this article, our understanding of these things is pretty superficial. If you want to make a name for yourself in marine biology this may be your chance, provided you can spend a lifetime underwater watching polychaete worms eat and make love!

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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.

ZOOOIDS - Underworld II (Robert Steven Connett, 2009, Acrylic on canvas)

ZOOOIDS – Underworld II (Robert Steven Connett, 2009, Acrylic on canvas)

Here is an amazing painting of fantastic glistening underworld creatures.  I greatly admire the artist, Robert Steven Connett, a self-taught contemporary painter who crafts baroque landscapes of dark lifeforms and gleaming spirit-things.  At their best his works come together to portray life as an interwoven web of symbiotic appetite and need—a phantasmagorical ecosystem of amalgamation and ingestion.   It is as though Giger were a gifted mycologist or invertebrate zoologist.  As far as I can tell, Connett has made few inroads in reality, where art is controlled by a click obsessed with fatuous celebrity and tiresome naval-gazing deconstructionism.  However he has created his own strange markets online (in much the same way that he builds his own imaginary underworld ecosystems).  It almost gives a person hope.

I realize this has been an art-heavy week…but I will make it up to you next week when, in celebration of Halloween, we have a whole week dedicated to a unifying theme of macabre terror.  The Halloween themes of years past–the children of Echidna, the Flowers of the Underworld, even the spiritual and ontological horrors of the undead–raised no eyebrows on the internet, so I am ratcheting up the dreadful violence this year.  Steel yourself for the frightful flesh-cutting terror…uh, and for more art too I guess.

Ray Troll painting large amoonites for "Night of the Ammonites" exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum

Ray Troll painting large amoonites for “Night of the Ammonites” exhibit at Seattle’s Burke Museum

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).

'Crusin' the Fossil Freeway' by Ray Troll (the artist is visible on the driver's side)

‘Crusin’ the Fossil Freeway’ by Ray Troll (the artist is visible on the driver’s side)

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”, (Ray Troll, 2004, colored pencil on paper, 11” x 30”)

“The Encante”, (Ray Troll, 2004, colored pencil on paper, 11” x 30”)

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.

Got Ink? (Ray Troll)

Got Ink? (Ray Troll)

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Octopi Wall Street (Ray Troll)

Octopi Wall Street (Ray Troll)

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.

Night of the Ammonites (Ray Troll)

Night of the Ammonites (Ray Troll)

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.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

My posts about animals are based on personal favorites but I have also tried to choose categories of animals in a manner which reveals something larger about zoology and taxonomy.  You have probably noticed that my featured creatures are not arbitrary but are arranged taxonomically according to Linnaean hierarchy in the manner which follows:

I have not written about a family yet because I was leaving myself some room for the future (feel free to make suggestions).  Additionally, I have only written glancingly of kingdoms or domains because those overarching categories are far too large and baffling for me to deal with meaningfully (although I would probably choose the domain “bacteria” if I had limitless time, resources and a great deal more knowledge and intelligence).  The missing bottom category of species is always applicable to whatever the featured species of the day is (or, in a pinch, to Homo sapiens, the dark meddlesome, magnificent species behind history, art, politics and other non-animal, non-plant topics over there in the category cloud).

Not only have I have chased the representative members of my chosen taxonomic categories through art, mythology, and anecdote, I have also tried to write as cogently as I am able about their behavior, biology, and morphology (biologists and morphologists are no doubt laughing into their hands right now, but, hey, you guys are not always the most compelling or comprehensible writers, so give me a break). Also, I understand that traditional hierarchy is coming to be re-assessed in light of new genetic evidence and the innovative ideas of cladistics: maybe my categories were already hidebound to start.

Western Coral Snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) photo by David M. Dennis

I mention all of this because I am beginning to feel pinched by some of my categories.  I could write about a different obscure catfish, or dig up a new catfish recipe but is that really what people want? I still have a few more turkey stories to write and no doubt more information will come to me (probably around Thanksgiving), but I am running out of things to say about my favorite bird.  Should I disloyally choose a new genus to pursue.  Do you want to hear more about tiny obscure catfish? I could drop it all and move to entirely new topics, but I don’t feel right about that yet. Maybe some reorganization is needed when I launch the redesigned version of Ferrebeekeeper in the near future.

Any insight or feedback would be appreciated.  I’m sorry for the informal first person tone of this post but I am traveling today and don’t have time to research an appropriate column.  Also catfish and turkey fans should not give up yet, I still have a handful of ideas left about those magnificent creatures (not to mention a stirring Siluriforme overview).

Thanks.

Lima Shovelnose Catfish (Sorubim lima)

The seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke was immensely influential in popularizing science.  His seminal work Micrographia, published in 1665 was the first scientific book to become a best seller.  In the volume, Hooke described various plants, animals, and manufactured objects as seen through his hand crafted microscope.  Crucially, the book contained vivid and detailed engravings which allowed the public to see what Hooke had seen. Many of the illustrations folded out to become larger than the book thus further emphasizing the nature of microscopy.  Hooke was the first to coin the word “cell” because he thought that the constituent components of plant tissues resembled monk’s cells.  By changing the way that people apprehended the world Micrographia laid the foundation for the amazing microbiological discoveries of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.  In addition to biological specimens, Hooke included illustrations of objects like the sharpened ends of needles and pins (which looked blunt under his microscope’s magnified lenses).  This helped the general public to comprehend how truly different the microscope’s vantage point is from that of the naked eye.

A page from the Huntington Library's copy of Micrographia (photo by lemurdillo)

Micrographia also contains Hooke’s speculations concerning combustion, which he (correctly) believed involved combining a substance with air. Hooke further posited that respiration involved some key ingredient of air–and he was thus well on the way towards discovering oxygen.  Unfortunately these ideas were not well understood by the seventeenth century scientific community.  Hooke’s contemporaries were also challenged by his assertion that fossils (such as petrified wood and ammonites) were the remains of living creatures which had become mineralized.  Hooke reached this conclusion based on microscopic study of fossil specimens and he believed that such fossils afforded clues about the history of life on the planet—including the history of species which had died out.  Needless to say such concepts were challenging to the theological community of the time.

A fold-out engraving of a flea from Micrographia

I am writing about Hooke because I saw an original copy of Micrographia at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (I wrote about their exquisite gardens in the last post).  The book was part of a remarkable collection of original scientific books and documents, which was itself a part of a larger repository of rare books, handwritten letters and original manuscripts. The Huntington holdings include a Guttenberg bible, a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and innumerable original printings, correspondences, and manuscripts. I chose to highlight Hooke’s work because I have always been fascinated by how different the world looks through a microscope (above is Hooke’s engraving of a flea’s features–which can be compared with an earlier post about contemporary electron microscopes) however the real epiphany I took from viewing the collection was a larger one.  Even before the internet came to act as a sort of hive mind for humankind, we had a collective memory and source of communication—the printed word.   In addition to its magnificent gardens, the Huntington reminded me of how that worldwide shared network of ideas slowly developed. Viewing the bibliophile’s treasure trove at the Huntington library demonstrated the continuing purpose of libraries as museums and places of thought and discovery– even in a world where the entire text of a rare book like Micrographia can be found online.

A visitor regards a reproduction of Hooke's microspcope next to the Huntington's copy of Micrographia (From "Case Study of an Exhibition" by Karina White)

The Chimera

I have a special affection for the next monster on my list.  Of all of Echidna’s brood, the Chimera seems like the most fanciful: she was a mixed-up creature with three heads from completely different animals.  The Chimera had the body and head of a lioness, but a goat head protruded from her back, and she had a live snake instead of a tail. The Chimera breathed fire and haunted the volcanic mountains of Lycia.  Even in mythology, this was an improbable beast, and therefore, since classical times, writers and poets have called unbelievable fabrications “chimeras.”

Zoomorphs! The chimerical building toy

I am fond of the Chimera because I designed a line of toys, the Zoomorphs, which is a kind of do-it-yourself chimera kit.  The toy consists of a set of plastic animal parts which can be snapped together to make an actual creature like a Tyrannosaurus, a dog, a goldfish, or a parrot (to name only a few).  The user can also pop the different pieces together to make crazy fantasy creatures such as a dino-dog with parrot’s wings and a fish tail.  You can find them for sale at finer independent toy stores.  Here’s a link to the company site. Sorry for the shameless plug—but it was germane to the subject.  Anyway…back to mythology….

Like a surprising number of the monsters born of Echidna, the Chimera was slain for no good reason–thanks to a sequence of events which had nothing to do with her.  Bellerophon, prince of Corinth (and the grandson of wily Sisyphus) fled from his father’s court after committing murder.  He took refuge in Tiryns, where he was a favorite guest until the queen accused him of ravishing her.  The king of Tiryn sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law with a sealed note to kill the bearer (coincidentally, do such death warrants ever work properly in fiction?). The father-in-law also had qualms about murdering a guest, and so he dispatched Bellerophon on a suicide mission to kill the Chimera.  With assistance from Athena and Poseidon, Bellerophon tamed the magnificent winged horse Pegasus.  In order to deal with the Chimera’s fiery breath, Bellerophon attached a hunk of lead to a spear.  When the Chimera breathed on the lead the soft metal melted down the creature’s throat causing the poor animal to suffocate.

Bellerophon fighting the Chimera (watercolor by Walter Crane, 1895)

Bellerophon performed a few other heroic deeds and ultimately became king.  However the dark shadows in his character did not vanish with a crown. After a few years of increasingly tyrannical behavior, he resolved to fly Pegasus to Mount Olympos and join the gods as an equal.  Zeus sent a blowfly to sting the winged horse, and Bellerophon was thrown down into a thorn bush.  Maimed and blinded, he wondered Greece as a beggar, while former subjects pretended not to recognize him. The moral of the story is that Greek gods can tolerate murder, rape, chimeracide, and despotism, but woe to those guilty of hubris!  And thus does Bellerophon’s troubling story come to a stupid end.

Fortunately modern biologists do not agree with nonexistent gods (or their adherents) as to what constitutes hubris.  This is relevant because the creation and study of “chimeras” in biology has become widespread.  In the context of biology, a chimera is an organism (or a part of an organism) with tissues created from more than one distinctive sets of genetic information. Such an organism can come about through organ transplant, grafting, or genetic engineering.  Some chimerical organisms have a long history and are familiar–like grafted rose bushes or organ-transplant recipients.  Other chimeras, particularly those created by genetic tinkering, are rather more apt to stir up passion among the traditionally-minded.  For example, in 2003, Chinese biologists created an early stage embryo which combined rabbit and human parts. Bio-ethics and our transgenic future merit further writing, however splicing the genes of organisms together is about to become more frequent.  Why not join the wave of the future with some delightful, high-quality morphing toys!

You are not getting off this merry-go-round!

Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco

Modern Mexico City, super metropolis of nine million people, was once a series of lakes.  The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was located there on a network of artificial islands.  In those lakes, in countless numbers, swam the axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum, a wholly aquatic salamander.   As mentioned in the previous post, according to Aztec mythology, the underworld god Xolotl transformed himself into an axolotl to escape being murdered.  In a wide world filled with strange animals, axolotls are particularly strange: they certainly have a whiff of the underworld as well as a hint of the divine.

Axolotl

Axolotls are neotenic.  Unlike most other amphibians, they never transform into a terrestrial organism but maintain gills and tail fins for their entire lives.  Although it seems like the axolotl should be stunted by its failure to metamorphosize, it actually grows much larger and lives much longer than the tiger salamander (a non-neotenic salamander which it is closely related to).  Adult axolotls range from nine to twelve inches and can live for up to twenty five years (although a lifespan of ten to fifteen years is more normal).  They are freshwater carnivores, hunting worms, minnows, and aquatic insects via smell.

Xolotl was the god of misfortune and bad luck is currently dogging the wild axolotl.  The lakes of the Mexican basin have been one of the most populated areas of the western hemisphere since the fourteenth century.  Axolotl tacos were a favorite meal of the inhabitants for centuries and the creature was overfished up until the twentieth century…when the lakes were drained to prevent flooding.  Now the lakes largely exist in huge pipes deep below the city and as a series of polluted channels and small reservoirs.  Not only are these remaining canals choked with pollution, but super competitive non-native fish have been introduced, most prominently the African tilapia and the Asian carp.

Axolotls are nearly extinct in the wild, and it is uncertain whether they will survive there much longer.  The animals have, however found a dark refuge which ensures their continuing existence.  Because of their neoteny, axolotls have extraordinary abilities to heal themselves.  Not only can they completely regrow lost arms and legs back to full size and function, they can also regenerate damaged vital organs–including portions of their brains.  Axolotls do not heal by scarring, but seem to use some more fundamental ability to regenerate.  Of course these remarkable abilities can not help axolotls when they are cooked into a burrito or devoured whole by a carp, but their unusual healing has brought them to the attention of biologists and medical scientists (as has their longevity in comparison with similar salamanders).

Axolotls are available in assorted colors.

Axolotls have joined fruit flies, mice, zebrafish, and rhesus monkeys as a model animal for the laboratory.  The salamanders may individually be vivisected, dissected, and subjected to crazy organ transplants or chemical manipulations, but overall they have found an ecosystem to thrive in. Their population numbers have been growing and axolotls will not be extinct until life science is.   Indeed if the field of regenerative medicine begins to flourish, all of humankind might have reason to revere the axolotl far more than the Aztecs esteemed Xolotl.

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