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Meleager, the mythological hero who slew the Caledonian boar was famously accursed by fate, but beloved by ancient Greek artists and poets. As it turns out, this fixation outlived the ancient classical era. In the modern world, the matchless hunter is now beloved by taxonomists and biologists! Not only are turkeys and guineafowl both named after the Caledonian prince, but one of the strangest and most peculiar looking fish from the strange and peculiar order Tetraodontiformes is also named for poor Meleager.

Behold the guineafowl pufferfish, Arothron meleagris, a fish which lives in tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This solitary puffer browses on corals and other suchlike invertebrates of the reef. Although they can grow up to half a meter (20 inches in length) and can swim very precisely and maneuver nimbly they are not strong swimmers, nor are they especially camouflaged (although their strange outline and spotted bodies help them blend in). If it really gets in trouble though, Arothron meleagris is a pufferfish and they can expand into a disconcerting spherical scary face which seems much larger than the fish itself.

Each of those chic spots is not just a dot but also a coarse bump, so they are further protected by a kind of sandpapery armor. Interestingly, guineafowl pufferfish come in three color varieties, deep purple brown with white spots, yellow with black spots, and a piebald mixture of yellow & dark brown with both black and white spots. Accounts vary as to whether the fish change color as they go through life or whether different specimens belong to one of the three types for life. Although I feel that Meleager’s name is suitably tragic for any fish in our dying oceans (particularly coral reef fish like the guineafowl puffer which are simultaneously hunter and hunted), tracing how the fish got the name involves a transitive leap. In mythology, Meleager was killed by his own mother after slaying his uncle in a quarrel (she used a sort of dark magic and was so horrorstruck that she immediately died herself). Meleager’s sisters were so consumed by cacophonous weeping that the gods took pity on them (???) and turned the women into guineafowl. Guineafowl are named after Meleager because of their strange lachrymose wails, however they are also spotted and stippled. Ichthyologists named the fish after the bird because both share white spots on a dark brown background (we will overlook the gold form for present).

Yet even if they got their name through a roundabout way, there is something anguished and otherworldly in the countenance of the guineafowl pufferfish which speaks to me of the odd popeyed expressions of tragic masks. Perhaps I will let this fish’s looks do the talking on behalf of Earth’s oceans today.

Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Here is a bronze ceremonial vessel called a fang ding from China’s Western Zhou period.  The vessel dates from the eleventh or tenth century BC—so it is probably from Shanxi or Shaanxi (which are the modern provinces located where the Zhou culture began). The ding was used for ceremonial food offerings, but it was also a status object which represented power and authority over the land.  It is covered with an enigmatic pattern known as a taotie, the true nature of which has perplexed and intrigued experts in Chinese art for centuries (or even millennia).  Most scholars believe that the markings are a stylized face—possibly the countenance of strange spirit beings encountered on shamanistic spirit journeys.  According to anthropologists there are extant hunter-gathering cultures which participate in such transcendental rituals—and craft similarly stylized faces (so I’m not making all this up—however anthropologists might be). The Chinese term for the decorative faces (or whatever they are)  is 饕餮 which apparently translates as “glutinous ogre” which seems like a very poetic and apt name for the weird powerful designs.

A different view of the same ding

A different view of the same ding

During the Shang dynasty (which preceded the Zhou period) the analogous ceremonial vessel was a wine container, but the founding king of Zhou was a strict moralist who believed the Shang had declined due to drunkenness and inebriation. Perhaps some of the shamanistic overtones of the bronze vessels vanished as the authorities reinvented dings as a symbol of authority rather than a portal to an altered state!

Flea Close Up (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

By showing how strange familiar things really are, the electron scanning microscope provides an uncanny window into a hidden realm.  To demonstrate this, here are some remarkable portrait photographs of humble fleas taken by various gifted microscopists.  In order to obtain these images, the photographers required not only large expensive electron microscopes (and the training to use them), but they also had to kill the fleas, dehydrate the bodies, and then coat the tiny corpses with microscopically thin gold plating!  Additionally it is necessary to place such specimens in a vacuum, since air molecules interferes with the electron beam.  But all of that preparation was worth it–look at the amazingly expressive flea faces!  Each of these characters could be a rapacious nineteenth century huckster, or a wimpy impresario bent on one last gasp of glory.  Among all of the insect world, I believe fleas might have the most interesting faces:

Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis (photo credit "Last Refuge")

Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Flea (photo by RBirtles)

Flea (Image by David Scharf)
What was this book about?

Of course even before the electron microscope, artists and illustrators have appreciated fleas’ distinctive personalities.  The image above is an illustration from a German children’s book from the nineteen forties which merits inclusion in this portrait gallery because of the detailed face of the tiny flea and because of the strangeness of the image.

Water Flea (photo by Jan Michels)

The final portrait here (above) is actually a water flea, Daphneia, which came up in my browser as an accident.  The water flea is unrelated to the insect fleas portrayed above except in the most cursory way: they are both arthropods.  The image was, however, too good to pass up–so I suppose this blog post celebrates intriguing portraits of things called fleas.  The water flea scan makes an interesting point about epigenetics–water fleas do not have a crested helmet (like the one in the photo) except when they live in the same ecosystem as tadpole shrimp.  Tadpole shrimp can pray on water fleas but find the shrimp with helmet shaped heads frightening or unappetizing.

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