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Researchers have used gene manipulation to create an amazing new mutant wasp with horrifying blood red eyes! A team of scientists at University of California Riverside used CRISPR gene-slicing technology (which sounds more like a salad technology than something used for wasps) in order to permanently alter the eyes of the tiny parasitic jewel wasps (Nasonia vitripennis). Researchers injected DNA and RNA into the nearly microscopic wasp eggs with infinitesimal needles. The resulting red eyes are hereditary and can be passed through successive generations.

The scientists hope to understand how male jewel wasps can somehow ensure that all of their offspring are male—a very unusual ability which geneticists and entomologists would like to understand. However, beyond novelty eye color and sex selection in tiny obscure parasitoid wasps, the researchers are also after bigger game—understanding how to manipulate the genes of all sorts of insects including agricultural pests and dangerous disease-carrying bugs like mosquitos and tsetse flies.

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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).

Megrim-Stórkjafta-Lepidorhombus-Whiff

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.

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(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.

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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.

flounder-fishing

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.

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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)

 

 

Pity the flounder! Pity, I beg thee...

Pity the flounder! Pity, I beg thee…

Adolescence is difficult. Puberty is an awkward transitional time when the winsome cuteness of childhood departs forever but is not fully replaced by the graceful strength and confidence of adulthood. But before you have a PTS flashback to those rough years, spare a moment of pity for the poor flounder. Flounders (and other flatfish like halibuts, soles, and flattest of them all, turbots) are born…err hatched like us with two eyes on either side of their skull. As tiny transparent larvae living among the zooplankton, flounder fry can see a panoramic view of the ocean so as to better evade predators. As they dart through three dimensions, their bilateral symmetry is like that of the rest of the vertebrates.

As searingly depicted in this stunning diagram

As searingly depicted in this stunning diagram

Then, as they grow into adult fish, a strange and remarkable metamorphosis occurs. Bones in the flounder’s skull distort and one eye migrates across its head so that both eyes are on one side of its face. Imagine if your left eye traveled over the bridge of your nose to permanently join your right eye on the right side of your face!

An adolescent flatfish--the eyes are just beginning to creep to one side (photo for PBS Nova)

An adolescent flatfish–the eyes are just beginning to creep to one side (photo for PBS Nova)

Of course eye migration is but one aspect of the flounder’s change to adulthood. The fish begin to swim at an angle. One side of their body becomes flecked with color while the other becomes white (the better to merge into the two dimensional world of the bottom). Speaking of color, the once transparent fry becomes opaque! Their mouth opens on one side of their head and they must learn to swim like a flying carpet.

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But don’t let their remarkable transition and their comic appearance deceive you. The flatfish are extraordinary predators and they are also geniuses at avoiding the many toothy hunters of the ocean. Their close set eyes protrude above the sand and see unwary prey with acuity and laser focus. Fossil finds from Monte Bolca, a beautifully preserved Eocene coral reef, show that the flatfish were evolving into their current form 45 million years ago (as the primates were taking to the trees, the bats were first taking wing, and the little dawn horses were scampering through the endless tropical groves). For at least 45 million years the flatfish (which, I should have mentioned, constitute the order Pleuronectiformes) have been camouflaged at the bottom of the sea feasting on shrimp and minnows while the world blinked and didn’t notice them. They are still out there thriving, even as whole parts of the ocean ecosystem collapse. It is a striking reminder that wrenching changes can work out for the best!

An adult Turbot

An adult Turbot

Celeste Green 1981 Bianchi Super Pista

Celeste Green 1981 Bianchi Super Pista

I love to bicycle! It is the perfect way to get around. Bicycling is fast, environmentally friendly, cheap, and good for you. From the saddle you can see nature and society up close with an intensity which hermetically sealed up car drivers will never know as they vroom past. And this brings us to the one problem with bicycling. I live in America, where laws, culture, and geography conspire to put everyone behind the wheel of a car. Traveling around by means of a giant steel death chariot driven by explosions is a crazy basis for society (the toxic explosive benzene is refined from the fossil leftovers of long-dead ecosystems!). Unless one is a tradesman or lives deep in the country, a car is just a giant lethal status symbol useful only for impressing shallow people and crushing good-hearted bicyclists and pedestrians. It makes one yearn for Europe, where drivers actually get in trouble for hitting bicyclists with their automobiles (in America, whenever you kill someone with your car the authorities give you a high-five and a sparkly sticker—if you collect five you get a free cheeseburger).

Or can we all hybridize and live together safely?

Or can we all hybridize and live together safely?

But today’s post is not really about bicycles or national transportation policy. I have no strong opinions about the abject idiocy of our slavish reliance on evil automobiles. Today’s post is instead about bicycle color! This is “celeste” a pale greenish turquoise color which is instantly identifiable with Bianchi bicycles. Pale greens are among my favorite colors, and celeste is particularly pretty (although, over time, the exact shade has varied according to taste and manufacturing circumstance).

I hope your legs are as good as your taste!

I hope your legs are as good as your taste!

Most trade colors have a story or myth associated with them and celeste is no exception. In fact there are three stories of how it came into being. The name itself (Italian for “celestial”) evokes crystal clear Mediterranean skies. The first story of “celeste” is that it is the color of the skies above Milan. I have never been to Milan, but I find it hard to believe the sky there is quite so green! The second (and best) story is that Edoardo Bianchi built a bicycle for a queen with pale green eyes and he became so enthralled with the color that he subsequently painted all of his bicycles that color. As with the sky story this tale requires a certain suspension of disbelief. I have never met a queen (or any other human being) with mint color eyes! But Eduardo lived in a different time and clearly had a closer relationship with royalty than I do.

"Thank you EDUARDO, but our princess is in another castle..."

“Thank you EDUARDO, but our princess is in another castle…”

The final story is the most believable but least poetic. Early on in the history of Bianchi bikes, they had some green paint and lots of white paint and they mixed them together to paint all of their bicycles the same color. That is certainly a story that anyone who has ever painted something can easily believe!

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Personally I think celeste green was an aesthetic choice from the start. It is an extremely attractive and distinctive color. My only complaint with it is that I have never been able to afford a vintage Bianchi bike!

What? This is a car...were you listening to anything I said?

Hey! This is a car! Were you listening to anything I said? But it really is pretty seductive… Maybe I’ll just take it for a quick spin, you know, for research.

Atheris hispida

Atheris hispida

We’ll begin our week of serpents with a strange and magnificent-looking viper from the jungles and rainforests of Central Africa. Atheris hispida is also known as the rough-scaled bush viper or the spiny bush viper because of its most unusual physical characteristic—the pointed curving scales which give it a distinctive bristling “punk-rock” appearance.  Atheris hispida is a member of the viper family and is thus related to rattlesnakes, adders, as well as numerous tropical vipers in Asia.  The species is a strong climber and is often found basking on trees, flowers, or vines. They are among the smallest vipers: the male measures only 73 cm in length (and is longer than the female).  Mostly nocturnal, they hunt the trees and rainforest brush for tree-frogs and lizards.

Atheris hispida

Atheris hispida

As far as I can tell, there are no effective anti-venoms for the furtive snakes (which range from the Congo west into Kenya and down into Uganda) so despite their hairy appearance and big anime eyes you may not want to pet them!

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Synodontis schoutedeni catfish (Credit: Oliver Drescher)

So what’s so amazing about catfish?  So far, Ferrebeekeeper has describing all sorts of different variations of these fascinating fish. From the giant truck-sized catfish of the Mekong, to the infinitesimal (yet horrifying) candirus of the Amazon, to the deadly poisonous schooling catfish of coral reefs, to catfish that live underground or in gardens, we have seen a seemingly impossible variety of the irrepressible whiskered creatures. But, aside from their variety, hardiness, and interesting appearance, catfish represent an extraordinary apogee in sensory ability.  They are able to apprehend their watery realms in ways that might as well be supernatural or alien to us.  Catfish have honed familiar senses—taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight–to outrageous extremes. Yet they have additional senses—electroreceptivity, pressure sensitivity, and possibly other senses–that we are only starting to understand.

Channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus

Let’s start with catfish’s sense of taste: catfish, unlike us, are not limited to tasting things with their tongues.  Their entire bodies are covered with taste buds.  To quote catfish expert Dr. John Caprio of Louisiana State University, “Catfish are swimming tongues…You can’t touch any place on a catfish without touching thousands of taste buds. To use an analogy, it’s as if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body.”  Catfish can literally taste the water all around their bodies and the mud they are swimming over.

Red-tailed Catfish, Phractocephalus hemioliopterus (Photo by Chad Cullen)

Beyond their powers of taste, catfish have a bloodhound-like sense of smell. With astonishingly sensitive olfactory pits near their nostrils, Catfish can smell certain compounds at one part per 10 billion parts of water. The sense of smell does not merely help them while hunting and seeking food, catfish use smell to identify other individual catfish and to maintain a social hierarchy.  A catfish has an elaborate picture of its watery realm, the denizens thereof, and of the history and interaction of these inhabitants based on smell.

Catfish Barbels

Catfish’s scale-free skin is unusually sensitive to touch but that is not the end of catfish’s ability to feel what is going on around it.  The most distinctive feature of catfish—their 8 barbels (whiskers) are literally organs for touching.  Like a blind man’s cane, each of these barbels can touch the substrate or whatever is moving in front of the catfish.  Not only are the barbels covered with taste buds and feeling nerves, the whiskers also vibrate with water disturbance and provide a sense almost like hearing—although catfish also have multiple hearing organs.

Black Bullhead Catfish (notice the prominent lateral line)

Vibrations travel well under water and most fish have excellent abilities to sense sound, but catfish have evolved some additional auditory features.  The swim bladder of a catfish (which the fish uses like a submarine ballast in order to rise and fall through the water column) is connected by a series of small bones (the Weberian apparatus) to the hearing apparatus (otoliths) inside the head. Catfish are therefore able to hear sounds of a higher frequency than other freshwater fish.  Catfish can also sense extremely low-frequency sounds thanks to a different hearing system—a series of small pores running along the fish’s lateral lines. Within the pores are infinitesimal hair-like sensing apparatuses which respond to the slightest water displacement. Using lateral line hearing, a Catfish can sense animals scuttling across the rocks on the bottom of a river, predators swimming above them, and even fishermen walking on the shore. Perhaps most remarkably, the low frequency sensors which catfish have in their lateral lines seem to give the fish the ability to detect seismic activity.  The Chinese and Japanese are said to have used the creatures as advanced earthquake detectors (which probably gave rise to the myth of Namazu, the Japanese earthquake catfish).

Although some catfish have small or underdeveloped eyes, the majority of catfish species can see extremely well. Additionally catfish possess a tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective tissue at the back of the eyes which allows them to see keenly in low-light conditions (cat owners will recognize the tapetum lucidum as the flashing green glow of feline eyes).

Catfish in an Aquarium (further documentation required)

Finally catfish can sense the electrical discharges within the nervous and electrical-muscular systems of living things (in fact the electrical catfish goes a step beyond and uses electricity for hunting and self-defense).  The cells responsible for electroreception are found grouped together in tiny pits along the catfish’s head and along its lateral line.  Although electroreception has limited range, it is a powerful sense which can allow the fish to sense animals hidden beneath the mud or otherwise camouflaged.

A catfish’s life must be exciting—awash as they are in complicated overlaying sensory perceptions.  Their abilities to perceive the world have taken them farther than other fish. According to the Tree of Life web project:

Catfishes are a species rich and exceptionally diverse group of fishes ranking second or third among orders of vertebrates. The Catalog of Fishes (Eschmeyer, 1998 et seq.) database treats 2,855 species of catfishes as valid. About 1 in 4 valid species of freshwater fishes, 1 in 10 fishes, and 1 in 20 vertebrates, is a catfish.

Several hundred more species of catfish have been discovered since the above paragraph was written.  Paleontologists have even discovered fossils of catfish on Antarctica (the only continent where they can not currently be found living). Catfish are basically sentient sense-organs.  They have diversified and thrived by being able to discern what is going on in the world around them (and they have probably enjoyed the experience).

Ancistrus Bristelnose Catfish

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