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nigel-gannet

For Valentine’s Day, I have saved this troubling obituary from the animal world.  Last month, Nigel the lonely gannet died.  Nigel lived on Mana Island, a desolate stony island about 25 kilometers northwest of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.   Mana Island was once the home to many sea birds, but after the island was intensively farmed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonies failed. The…nutrients…provided by the birds gave the island rich soil but, without the birds this abundance faded away and the island’s ecosystem crashed (this is a sort of microcosm of what happened to the larger New Zealand ecosystem during the 19th and 20th centuries as waves of invasive creatures swept the remote archipelago).  New Zealand conservationists have been working to restore the empty island however they were left with a problem.  Gannets live where other gannets live.  How could they lure the oceangoing birds back to start a new bird colony?

The solution they settled upon was to play bird calls on electronic speakers and put out concrete decoys painted the handsome black white and ocher of live gannets, however this strategy did not lure gannets to Mana…except for Nigel.  He arrived a few years ago and selected a beautiful replica gannet and began to woo his concrete love with mating displays, nests, and excited chatter.  He even tried to preen her concrete feathers and explore physical intimacy with her.  Videos of Nigel trying to impress his inanimate mate became a real hit in the human world (where analogies are not unknown).  This year other living gannets finally arrived at Mana Island, and naturalists hoped that Nigel could find fulfillment and raise a family with a real bird, but it was not to be.  In late January of 2018, a ranger found Nigel dead upon his nest next to his concrete consort.  The futility of his life and bleak melancholy of his end have attracted worldwide attention.

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Ornithologists have speculated that Nigel was an odd bird, somehow injured, addled, or damaged, which is why he left his original colony. His defects, if any, were certainly not visible to the human eye and he looked like a healthy handsome seabird. Gannets dive from 30 meters (100 feet), and achieve speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) as they enter the water.  Their speed and mass, and matchless skill as divers enables them to catch large fish deeper than most airborne birds can venture.  Nigel did all of this, but things just didn’t work out.

Except, maybe they did: there are now gannets nesting on Mana Island, brought there not by statues, but by a live gannet.  As one contemplates Nigel’s lonely life, it is hard not to imagine HIM transformed into a beautiful statue which says “Our Founder.”  We will watch the colony with interest and see if the gannets make it after their 40-year absence from Mana.

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Nigel’s life and his death raise bigger questions about the nature of life and how organisms work together, collectively and individually.  This blog has visited these issues before in posts about blood, clonal colonies, lonely geese, and siphonophores (animals made of other animals where the individual zooids serve in the capacity of organs).

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I have a long running philosophical argument with a friend concerning the nature of humankind.  He asserts that each person is a magnificent individual—a whole self-contained universe. I don’t think that is correct.  No animal is quite so solitary (unless it is the last of its kind) and especially not us: we are colony animals like mole rate or termites or honeybees.  If you see one human, you have a whole infestation.  This means our culture is as much who we are as ourselves (as becomes incredibly evident in heartbreaking cases of feral children or abused hermit loners).  The splendid fantasy of being alone is just that—a fantasy.  In reality we are as tied to our banks, gas companies, annoying colleagues, and odious loudmouth leaders more than we would ever like to admit.  We will come back to these ideas in subsequent posts, but for now Happy Valentine’s Day and RIP Nigel.  There really should be a statue of him, we could all see some of ourselves in that stone mirror…and some of humanity’s real nature in the living colony birds coming back to roost on desolate Mana Island.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

An Adult Female Blanket Octopus

“Blanket octopus” sounds like an endearing nursery game, but the blanket octopuses are actually pelagic hunters which have adapted to living in the ultra-competitive environment of the open ocean.  There are four species of blanket octopuses (Tremoctopus) which can be found ranging from the surface to medium depths of open tropical and subtropical seas worldwide.  Because they often live far from any land, some of the methods which other octopuses use to escape predators do not work very well for them.  Fortunately Blanket octopuses have adapted in their own unique bag of tricks.

An Adult Female Blanket Octopus

Blanket octopuses are named after the distinctive appearance of adult female octopuses which grow long transparent/translucent webs between their dorsal and dorsolateral arms.  Blanket octopuses use these webs as nets for hunting fish, but they can also unfurl and darken their nets in order to appear much larger than they actually are.  Since blanket octopuses do not produce ink and can not camouflage themselves as rocks, coral, or sand, they rely heavily on their blankets.  As a last resort they can jettison the blankets as a decoy and jet away while the confused predator attacks the highly visible membranes.

Blanket octopuses exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism.  Whereas the female octopus can grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) in length, the male octopus is puny and does not grown longer than a few centimeters (1 to 2 inches).  Males store their sperm in a modified quasi-sentient third right arm, known as a hectocotylus.  During mating this arm detaches itself and crawls into the female’s reproductive vent.  As soon as the hectocotylus is detached the male becomes unnecessary and dies.

Male Blanket Octopus

Tiny males and immature females do not have blankets, but they utilize another trick to protect themselves.  Because they hunt jellyfish and other hydrozoans, the little octopuses are immune to the potent venom of the Portuguese man o’war.  The octopuses tear off stinging tentacles from the man o’war and wield them in their tentacles like little whips to ward off predators.

An amazing illustration of a blanket octopus sheltering in a Portuguese man o’war’s tentacles

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