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It has been far too long since we posted a spectacular tetraodontiform fish (my favorite order!). Therefore, as a special Monday treat, let us bask in the prickly protrusions of Chaetodermis penicilligerus, AKA the prickly leather-jacket. This filefish lives in a wide swath of tropical ocean from the east coast of Africa all the way to the islands of the Central Pacific. The prickly leather jacket grows up to 31 cm (1 foot) in length and eats all manner of small marine algae and tiny invertebrates.

The body of this fish acts as a sort of marine ghillie suit–obscuring the contours of the fish to hide it from predators and prey alike. The more famous leafy sea dragon has a similar modus operandi, but as a seahorse it lacks the filefish’s indomitable spirit (which you can maybe glimpse even in these digital images if you look into its angry, prickly eyes).


A Filefish in Lembeh

This week is World Ocean’s Week and I feel like I have somewhat dropped the ball this year (although the plight of the planetary oceans is the principal ongoing theme of my artwork).  At any rate, for tonight’s post, I am not going to write a comprehensive essay about the watery realms which make up the majority of our planet’s surface (although we will get back to that theme).  Instead of a complex analysis of how we could help the oceans, here is a cameo appearance by another amazing Tetraodontiforme fish.


This is Aluterus scriptus, commonly known as the scrawled filefish, a master generalist of warm tropical oceans worldwide.  The scrawled filefish lives in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.  Its habitats are limited to warm seas, but within those seas it does not have a particular favorite niche: the scrawled filefish can be found swimming through coral reefs, seaweed forests, seamounts, rock fields, shipwrecks, sandy seabeds, or just out in the open water.  From close up the fish looks like crazy 1980s abstract art with a wild pattern of olive dabs, aqua crazy stripes  and black stipples.  Yet seen from a distance it blends into the water or the seafloor with shocking success.  The scrawled filefish makes use of some of the same impressionistic properties of light, color, and shape which are used in dazzle camouflage.  It is hard to find the edges of its oval (partly transparent) body because of the chaos of its patterns.  Also, like flounders and cephalopods, the filefish is capable of quickly altering its color patterns such that certain colors fade back or flare into prominence depending on the situation.


The scrawled filefish is also omnivorous and eats all sorts of algae, small invertebrates, corals, mollusks, worms, jellyfish, tunicates, small fish, et cetera et cetera.   The fish is diurnal and makes prime use of its yellow eye to see the world, however it is also shy and solitary.  Although they are generally spotted alone, filefish are attentive parents.  A male will fertilize the eggs of 2 to 5 females who live in his territory.  The parents look after the eggs and then watch other the fry when they hatch.


In addition to camouflage, filefish make use of the same trick as their near relatives the triggerfish: they have locking spines at the top and bottom of their body.  If attacked, they wedge themselves into tight crevices or holes and lock these spines in place.  this is also how they sleep secure at night in an ocean filled with hungry predators.



Happy April Fish Day!  The French manifestation of April Fool’s is much nicer than the rather horrid Anglo-Saxon version.  There is still room for farcical fun, as friends try to affix colorful paper fish to each other’s backs (although, admittedly, wearing a pretty fish is no substitute for being badly frightened or lightly injured in an American prank).


Anyway, I was thinking about these fish, and it gave me an idea for camouflaged sculptures that blend in with the surroundings.  One of the secret strengths of the flatfish (which have become an artistic fixation of mine lately) is that they are capable of changing color to blend in with their habitat.  Unfortunately, this is usually a muddy seabed, which never really allows turbot, sole, plaice, and such like flatfish to explore their frivolous fashion side. With this in mind I set about building a flounder mold to make some “crouching turbot…hidden flounder” sculptures.  Unfortunately I only managed to craft a handful of prototypes, and I was unable to position them to maximum photographic advantage in the concrete jungles of early Anthropocene Brooklyn (yet). However we can get to that later.  Check out these streetfish I made for April Fish Day!





I couldn’t find anything made of shiny steel to put that last one on top of, but fortunately my friend and erstwhile roommate Jennifer was wearing some fashionable silver footwear to help the poor fish feel at home!


This is just the beginning of this project and we’ll see some more exotic streetflounder in the near future (as soon as I find some more disposable containers for mixing plaster) but in the meantime, happy April Fish Day!  Let us revel in the beauty of spring! Additionally, this is the ninth anniversary of the founding of Ferrebeekeeper, an event steeped in mysterious lore. Celebrate the happy occasion by dropping me a line or telling me what you would like to see more of!  I, personally would like more comments, and, to that end, I promise I will be better about responding quickly and cogently.  Thanks again for everything.  My readers are the best!

great Flounder Logo Final

1_Ammotretis rostratus_SP461_5_RK

Flatfishes are an order (Pleuronectiformes) of predatory fish found in oceans worldwide.  There are over 700 distinct species in 11 separate (and sometimes very distinct) families.  Familiar flatfish include flounder, turbot, plaice, sole, and tonguefish (to name only a few).


Flatfish undergo two great changes.  First they hatch out of an egg and become transparent tiny fry living among the zooplankton.  These baby flounder have an eye on each side of their heads–like all the other vertebrates.  Then, when they reach adolescence, they change a second time in a bizarre way.  One eye migrates over the young fish’s forehead.  Half of their body becomes pale and smooth.  To reach adulthood they abandon the vertebrate’s familiar symmetry and become strange asymmetric monsters.


(An Adolescent Flounder, as its eyes migrate and it becomes opaque)

Very few animals have asymmetry of any sort (wrybills, hermit crabs) and even fewer are asymmetric in a systemic way (sponges).  Flatfish give up their symmetry on adulthood: they lose their ability to swim smoothly and see all around them…but, in turn, they gain prowess as lurkers. This helps them to hide in an ocean full of strife and peril. Equally importantly, it helps them to hunt.


Flatfish are exceedingly gifted predators.  They thrive by eating unsuspecting fish, mollusks, arthropods, and worms which are scampering (or crawling… or propulsing?…or whatever) along the ocean bottom.  Pleuronectiformes are powerful, quick, agile, and invisible.  The horrifying hunting strategy of the flatfish is to lie perfectly still on the ocean bottom and gradually change color to match the substrate (they can match sand and pebbles and ripples and even chessboards).  Then, when a happy little shrimp minces endearingly along the ocean floor, suddenly the land itself opens a huge maw and SNAP! delicious shrimp supper for the stealthy flatfish.


For all of their gifts as predators, flounders are hardly the apex predators of their watery ecosystems.  They live in a world of super-predators: diving birds, grabby cephalopods, sharks, bigger fish, and cunning marine mammals. And that is to say nothing of all-consuming humankind: fisherfolk hunt for flounder with spears, traps, hooks, and nets.


The flatfish, like most teleosts, are being fished to oblivion (even as their habitats rapidly change due to thermal fluctuation, invasive species, pollution, and acidification).  This troubles me for all sorts of reasons.  It represents the growing doom in the world ocean, from whence came all Earth life and upon which all life depends. We evolved from teleosts. Flounder are distant cousins.  Also I think they are beautiful in a bizarre way.  Their asymmetry strikes me as amazing and alien, yet somehow completely appropriate, practical, and compelling.

grill-flounder_975475d5adbf7e38Also, um, I like to eat flounder.

Anyway, I mention all of this because lately flatfish have supplanted doughnuts as the central fixation of my art.  They represent life to me…and so I have been drawing them by the dozen (and I am working on a book of intricate pen and ink flounder). Here is a teaser flounder.  More next week!

Russian flounder

Benevolent Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, color pencil and ink)



Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by Ólafur Larsen

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by Ólafur Larsen

The Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is an Arctic gamebird from the grouse family. It lives in northern regions of Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China.  The birds are capable of surviving in extremely harsh winter conditions: indeed they do not fly south during the Arctic winter.  Instead they hunker down to last out the 24 hour long nights of bitter ice and cold.  In order to survive in permafrost landscapes, ptarmigans have water and wind proof feathers (which seal the chilling moisture away from their insulating down).  They also have feathered feet which act like snowshoes—their taxonomical name “Lagopus” comes from Greek roots meaning “hare foot”).  Ptarmigans are omnivores and they eat insects, seeds, berries, and leaves during the fleeting summers.  More remarkably, during the brutal winter months they can find food in the form of catkins, twigs, and buds buried beneath the snow and ice.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Not only are ptarmigans adapted to the cold, they are also astonishing masters of camouflage.  In winter they can fledge to become completely white.  In spring and fall the birds are white with black and gray blotches.  During the summer, the birds’ plumage becomes brown and yellow so they can blend in with the gorse and lichen. The following two pictures of brooding mothers should illustrate this point: the mama ptarmigans are hard to find even though they are pretty much the only things in the pictures!



In spring male ptarmigans find a mate by emitting a guttural croak (although there is also a correlation between the size of a male’s comb and his testosterone level).  Females lay up to six eggs. Even in the egg, ptarmigans are masters of being inconspicuous.  Their eggs are stippled with spots and specks in order to blend in seamlessly with the rocks and tundra for the brief moments that ptarmigans are not sitting their nests.


During the last ice age, the rock ptarmigan had an even wider range (which is astonishing, considering how widespread the birds are today).  Ptarmigans are a beautiful and timeless emblem of the north. Vikings carved the birds on knife hilts and the creatures are also a mainstay of Sami and Inuit art.

A bronze ptarmigan charm made by the Sami

A bronze ptarmigan charm made by the Sami

Felis silvestris lybica

Felis silvestris lybica

Aww! Wook at the wittle puddy-tat… Argh! Wait, that isn’t a puddy cat at all, it is actually Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat, a formidable crepuscular predator which ranges across the Sahara and Sahal up through the Arabian Peninsula and around the Caspian Sea. Although they are remarkable hunters, African wildcats are not large—males measure 46–57 cm (18–22 in) in head-to-body length (discounting the elegant tail) and weigh from 3.2 to 4.5 kg (7 to 10 lbs). Using stealth, speed, retractable claws, and athletic lunges, the wildcats hunt and kill everything smaller than themselves: small mammals are their main prey but cats also kill birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians, and miscellaneous arthropods. African wildcats hunt mostly at dawn and dusk, but thanks to incredibly keen senses, they can also hunt at day or night.
An African wildcat executes an insane flip while hunting doves

An African wildcat executes an insane flip while hunting doves

The senses of the African wildcat are truly astonishing. Their large vertically slitted eyes are extremely efficient in brightest day or in the faintest light (thanks partly to the tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective cells at the back of the eye which reflects light back into the photoreceptors). Wildcat hearing is among the best in the animal kingdom—they can hear many ultrasonic noises inaudible to humans and dogs (cats developed this sense because many rodents and insects communicate with such noises). Their large mobile ears further augment their acute hearing. Although they do not have the unbelievable noses of dogs or wolves, wildcats have an amazing sense of smell which is estimated to be 14 times more acute than a human’s. Additionally, their heads (and particularly their faces) are covered with vibrissae (whiskers) to help wildcats sense vibrations and navigate in tight pitch black spaces.
African wildcat close-up

African wildcat close-up

As well as keen senses, African wildcats possess other features which help them fit into their harsh arid environment. They have striped stippled coats which are the color of rocks, dry grass, and earth—so they blend in to most environments effortlessly (although they tend to have lighter colored bellies). Living in vast deserts, African wildcats have shockingly efficient kidneys. The animals can live without water on the fluid from prey animals. If necessary, they can rehydrate with seawater. They can also survive extremely hot temperatures and do not show discomfort until 52 °C (126 °F).
African wildcat kitten

African wildcat kitten

Felis silvestris lybica is actually one of several subspecies of old world wildcat Felis silvestris which ranges across all of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Wildcats are very, very versatile, resilient, and effective predators, yet all of the subspecies of wildcat are gradually losing their genetic diversity except for the African wild cat. This is because of interbreeding with the domestic cat Felis silvestris catus. As you have probably gathered by now, domestic cats descend directly from a handful of African wildcats which were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent between 10,000 and 9,000 years ago when humans first became grain farmers. The first domestic cat was found buried in a Neolithic grave in Cyprus which dates back to 9,500 years ago. The wildcats (Felis silvestris) are all fully fertile when breeding across species, so some of the differences between the wildcat and the domestic cat are fairly arbitrary.
Eek, there is an African wildcat in my living room! Wait, that's my beloved housepet Sepia. You can tell by, um, the white bib and gloves...I guess?

Eek, there is an African wildcat in my living room! Wait, that’s my beloved housepet Sepia. You can tell by, um, the white bib and gloves…I guess?

Mountbatten Pink

Mountbatten Pink

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).

A Model of the HMS Kelly built by Ian Ruscoe

A Model of the HMS Kelly built by Ian Ruscoe

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.

Mountbatten pink (top) versus USN 5-N Navy blue (bottom)

Mountbatten pink (top) versus USN 5-N Navy blue (bottom)

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!

A freighter with a WWII era dazzle paint scheme based around Mountbatten pink.  Is it just me, or does it look ready for an 80s installation?

A freighter with a WWII era dazzle paint scheme based around Mountbatten pink. Is it just me, or does it look ready for an 80s installation?

The Frogmouth Catfish (Chaca chaca)

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 (Chaca chaca) photographed by K.Dreymann

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 closely related Chaca bangkanensis

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)

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).

The Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) displaying a threat posture. Photo bySandilya Theuerkauf

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.

(photo by Aluki from Flickr)

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.

Argh, I said don't touch it

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.

Under its mother's watchful eye a baby southern blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa) emerges from its egg.

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March 2023