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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)




Ordovician(by mirelai from Deviant Art)

In a long-ago post, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about the Ordovician–the age of mollusks–when big predatory cephalopods and gastropods overtopped nascent vertebrates as the apex predators of the world oceans.  Cephalopods are fiercely intelligent, incredibly fast, and astonishing at camouflage.  They can be infinitesimally small or remarkably large.  They can even be transparent.  However they don’t last well—they are squishy and even if they aren’t eaten they have very short lives.  One of the most vivid memories of my adolescence was watching cuttlefish hover and change colors and feed with bullet-fast grabber arms at the National Zoo.  The memory comes with a dark post-script.  I returned a few months later with friends, only to find that the cuttlefish had entered a bizarre unnatural senescence and were literally falling apart at the seams.  They do not die of old age in the ocean; something always eats them.


But this is no longer the lovely Holocene with its oceans full of fish and skies full of birds.  We have entered the Anthropocene—an age of hot acid oceans filled with Japanese trawlers bent on catching every last fish in the sea by means of nets the size of Rhode Island.  Suddenly it is not so beneficial to be a big bony ancient fish with hard scales and sharp teeth.  The teleosts and the cartilaginous fish are being physically pulled out of the ocean by humans.  It takes them too long to reproduce and rebuild their numbers (even as national governments subsidize fishermen to build more and larger fishing boats).  The age of fish—which has lasted from the Devonian (420 million years ago) until now—is ending.  So a new scramble to exploit the great open niches in the seas is beginning.


Unexpected life forms are flourishing.  The sea floors are filling up with lobsters, which have not been so prevalent in a long time.  Giant jellyfish are appearing in never-before-seen numbers.  However it is beginning to seem like the greatest beneficiaries may be the cephalopods. Mollusks with shells are having their own troubles–as the carbonic acid oceans eat at their calcium shells, but the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish have no such problems.  Not only are they well suited for tropical waters, they rcan also reproduce so fast that they can keep ahead of human’s bottomless appetite.  A single squid egg cluster can have millions of eggs inside.


Cephalopods tend to be generalists—they eat all sorts of things including booming micro-invertebrates and jellyfish. They are clever enough and malleable enough to slip out of all sorts of hazards.  Their swift lives are a boon. Because they reproduce so quickly and prolifically, they evolve quickly too—a necessity in our 24 hour world (as all sorts of out-of-work journalists, lamp lighters, factory workers, and saddlemakers could tell you).  I wonder if in a few million years the waters will glow with great shoals of exotic tentacle beasts we have scarcely imagined.  Will there be fast marlin-type squids with rapiers on their mantles and huge whale-shark type octopuses skimming the phytoplankton with their own giant nets? Will the skies darken with flying squids and the sea floor change colors as tens of thousands of cuttlefish take the roles of reef fish and reef alike?


Hawaiian bobtail squid (image from

It is possible.  The world is changing faster than we would like to admit—becoming something brand new—becoming something very old.



Behold the terrifying (yet appealingly rainbow-colored) maw of death of a vicious undersea predator. This is Neoclinus blanchardi commonly known as “the sarcastic fringehead.”  Though the mouth of the sarcastic fringehead may evokes medieval hellmouth illuminations, in the real world the fish is not particularly terrifying to us humans.  The largest specimens only grow to 30 centimeters in length (about a foot).  They live in the Pacific Ocean down the California coast from San Francisco to Baja.  These fish are truly coastal—they can be found in waters from 3 to 73 metres (9.8 to 239.5 ft) deep.  They hide in crevices, empty shells, and sundry other niches.  Thanks to their huge mouths they eat anything smaller than themselves.


The sarcastic fringehead (Neoclinus blanchardi)

Like that one guy at work, the fringehead is noted for having a big mouth and displaying aggressive territorial behavior.  Male fringeheads frequently tussle over prime spots.  They have a have a unique means of resolving these disputes.  Both fish expand their colorful mouths to the fullest extent possible and then press them together.  As in contemporary politics, whoever has the biggest mouth is the victor.

Sarcastic Fringehead (1) - Copy

A photo of the new Ceratioid Anglerfish discovered by researchers fom Nova Southeastern University)

A photo of the new Ceratioid Anglerfish discovered by researchers fom Nova Southeastern University)

Ferrebeekeeper is doing a poor job highlighting strange and magnificent fish for you (which was our blogging New Year’s resolution for 2015).  Fortunately I was forcibly reminded to do so this week by marine scientists who discovered a brand new species of anglerfish in the midnight depths of the Gulf of Mexico.  This new fish is a ceratioid anglerfish, which are notable for their fishing rod appendages and for their sexual parasitism.  The male is much smaller than the female and, when the fish mate, the male attache himself permanently to the female’s body. His nervous system melts away into hers and he becomes a sort of gamete-producing lump.  Particularly successful (or promiscuous?) female anglerfish have multiple males attached to them.

The photo of the new anglerfish makes it seem huge and disturbing, but the creatures are only about 10 centimeters (four inches) long—and that’s the large females: the males are much tinier.  The tiny size of these intense predators is a disturbing reminder of what freakish giants humans really are (seriously…like 99.999 percent of animals are smaller than us).  Additionally the romantic lives of these ceratioid fish serve as a reminder that relations between the sexes can be conducted much much differently than we do it!

Antennarius commerson - Giant frogfish (Commerson's frogfish)

Antennarius commerson – Giant frogfish (Commerson’s frogfish)

This is Commerson’s frogfish aka the giant frogfish (Antennarius commerson).  It is a voracious carnivore which attacks anything small enough to be prey (which is pretty much anything smaller than itself–since the fish has an extremely extensible body).  Commerson’s frogfish is a chameleon—it can change color to resemble the tropical sponges of its native habitat –yellow, red, orange, gray, or black, with all sorts of stripes and splotches (though the creature seems to betray a predilection for yellow).

Giant frogfish, (Antennarius commerson) photo by Rokus Groeneveld

Giant frogfish, (Antennarius commerson) photo by Rokus Groeneveld

Giant frogfish, Antennarius commerson (photo by "Hole in the wall")

Giant frogfish, Antennarius commerson
(photo by “Hole in the wall”)

The frogfish is an anglerfish and its front dorsal spine is tipped with a pinkish shrimplike lure (a feature known to biology as an esca).  The fish lives in tropical and semi-tropical water of the Indo-Pacific (an eco-region which comes up repeatedly in this blog).  Despite being known in English as the giant frogfish, Antennarius commerson only grown to 38 cm (15 inches) in maximum length which demonstrates that horror is relative (and that frogfish are not large from a human perspective).  Although it is not classically beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, there is something oddly charming about its grumpy expression.  I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I do!

Antennarius commerson - Giant frogfish (Commerson's frogfish)  Copyright Teresa Zubi

Antennarius commerson – Giant frogfish (Commerson’s frogfish)
Copyright Teresa Zubi

Moche Ceramic Vessel in the form of a Crab (Photo:  Museo de América de Madrid)

Moche Ceramic Vessel in the form of a Crab (Photo: Museo de América de Madrid)

Yesterday’s post for World Oceans Day did not sate my need to write about the endless blue bounding.  I am therefore dedicating all of the rest of this week’s blog posts to marine themes as well (“marine” meaning relating to the sea—not the ultimate soldiers). Today we are traveling back to South America to revisit those masters of sculpture, the Moche, a loose federation of agricultural societies which inhabited the Peruvian coastal valleys from 100 AD – 900 AD.

Moche Vessel: A Human with a Large Fish

Moche Vessel: A Human with a Large Fish

I keep thinking about the beauty and power of Moche sculptural art, and the Moche definitely had strong feelings about the ocean.   In fact an informal survey of Moche art online indicates that their favorite themes were cool-looking animals, human sacrifice, the ocean, grown-up relations between athletic consenting adults, and crazy nose-piercings.

Golden Moche Nose-Ornament in the shape of Lobsters

Golden Moche Nose-Ornament in the shape of Lobsters

Moche Sea Turtle Vessel

Moche Sea Turtle Vessel

You will have to research some of these on your own, but I have included a selection of beautifully made Moche art of sea creatures.  Look at the expressiveness of the crab, the turtle, and particularly the beautiful lobsters (which are part of a large pectoral type ceremonial ornament held in place through the nose).  Moche ceramics are as rare and beautiful in their way as Roman paintings or Greek sculpture.  I wish we knew more about Moche culture and mythology to contextualize these striking works—but the outstanding vigor and grace of the figures is enough to feel something of what this vivid culture was like.

Moche Ceramic Vessel shaped like a Fish

Moche Ceramic Vessel shaped like a Fish



In all of entertainment, no figure is more beloved than Opah!  Her networks make the most money.  Her endorsements confer instant fame and wealth.  Her personal life is the subject of profound fascination and scrutiny. She is what all Americans aspire to be…a veritable queen who transcends…



Wait…Opah?  That’s a big orange fish! Also known as moonfish, opahs consist of two species (Lampris guttatus and Lampris immaculates) which are alone in their own small family the Lampridae. Their closest relatives are the magnificent ribbonfishes like the crestfishes and oarfish! They are discoid fish with orange bodies (speckled with white) and with bright vermillion fins.  Opahs do not give away cars or support quack psychiatrists and physicians, but, they are much in the news right now anyway. To the immense surprise of ichthyologists and zoologists, a research team from the NOOA has discovered that Opahs are warm-blooded—in a way.  They are the only endothermic fish known to science.

Lampris guttatus (NOAA)

Lampris guttatus (NOAA)

Being warm-blooded allows animals in the deep ocean to think and move more swiftly than the more ascetic and staid dwellers of the deep (most creatures of the ocean bottom are usually slow and placid in order to conserve energy–like the tripod fish).  Ocean birds and marine mammals have long used this to their advantage.  They gulp air from the surface and then dive deep to catch slower moving fish, squid, and invertebrates from the cold depths.

A stamp from  French Southern and Antarctic Territories showing Lampris immaculatus

A stamp from French Southern and Antarctic Territories showing Lampris immaculatus

Other high-speed predatory fish (certain species of sharks and sportsfish) can warm key muscle groups using heat exchanging blood vessels in order to gain a burst of super speed, but these fish rapidly lose their heat—and the related speed advantages–as their blood circulates through their gills. This is one of the reasons sharks and marlins lunge and then return to slow measured swimming.

The opah appears to produce the majority of its heat by constantly flapping its pectoral fins.  The warmth thus generated is not lost through the opahs’ gills. Critically, these fish possess unique insulated networks of blood vessels between their hearts and gills.  The residual heat is removed from blood headed through the gills and then restored as it goes back through the heart. Their weird circular shape and comparatively large size are additional adaptations to help them conserve this warmth.

An opah near San Clemente Island (Jane J. Lee for National Geographic)

An opah near San Clemente Island (Jane J. Lee for National Geographic)

Marine biologists know surprisingly little about opahs (especially considering that the fish have long been known to fishermen and diners).  Opahs live in the mesopelagic depths 50 to 500 meters (175 to 1650 feet) beneath the surface but it now seems they might make deeper hunting forays into the true depths.  They are solitary hunters which live on shrimp, krill, and small fish. Opahs are approximately the size of vehicle tires.  The smaller species (Lampris immaculatus) is like a big car tire and reaches a maximum of 1.1 m (3.6 ft). The larger species, Lampris guttatus, can become as large as an industrial lorry tire and can attain a length of 2 m (6.6 ft).  the largest opahs weight up to 270 kg (600 lb).

Spotted Opah larva (Lampris guttatus)

Spotted Opah larva (Lampris guttatus)

Larval opahs resemble the larvae of oarfish (they are long and ribbonlike with strange protuberances.  The main predators of Opahs are the great sharks…and humankind.  Because of predation from this latter species which is endlessly hungry the survival of the opahs has grown less certain.  It is believed that they have a low population resilience, but this…like their numbers and their lifestyle is unknown to science.  We only just found they were warm-blooded earlier this month!

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Today’s post touches on larger aesthetic and moral issues, but first let’s showcase some weird art!  This is “Blossom Monster” a 3 foot by 7 foot chimerical monster which I made to celebrate the annual reappearance of the cherry blossoms.  It is a sort of cross between a deep sea fish, a scorpion, and a horse. The creature is crafted from paper mache (or papier-mâché?) and has LED-light up eyes and fluorescent pink skin which glows faintly in the dark.  I initially placed it beside the tulip bed, but then I realized it was on top of the iris, so now the creature has been shuffling aimlessly around the garden looking for a permanent display spot. “Blossom Monster” is made of discount glue which I bought in bulk from the 99 cent store, so, as soon as it rains, the sculpture will probably dissolve into a heap of gelatinous ooze and that will be that.

Monster 3

There is nothing more beautiful than cherry blossoms, so why did I make a weird ugly fluorescent monster to go with them? I have a story to answer that question: every year the Brooklyn Botanic garden has a famous cherry blossom festival which is attended by tens of thousands of people (at the least).  Although I think the tree in my garden is prettier than any individual specimen they have, the Botanic Garden has orchards full of Kwanzan cherry trees along with hawthorns, quinces, magnolias, plums, horse-chestnuts, and other splendid flowering trees.  The effect is truly ineffable—like the Jade Emperor’s heavenly court in Chinese mythology.  Yet over the years people became bored with the otherworldly beauty of trees in full flower, so the Botanic Garden was forced to augment their festival by adding odd drum performances, strange post-modern theater, and K-pop music.  They also invited cosplayers–so now the blossom festival is filled with space robots, ronin, mutant turtles, and provocatively attired cat-people (in addition to the already heterogeneous citizenry of Brooklyn).


Adding layers of kitsch, tragic drama, manga, and human aspirations (of all sorts) has greatly augmented the peerless beauty of the blossoms.  The prettiness of the garden has been elevated into high-art by the plastic hats, spandex, and makeup.  The blossom festival now has a fascinating human element of ever-changing desire, aspiration, and drama which the blossoms lacked by themselves (except maybe to gardeners, who know exactly how hard it is to get perfect flowers to grow).

monater 1

Of course the shifting annual particulars of novelty do not match the timeless beauty of the cherry trees. In a few years we will all hate princesses, k-pop, and furries which will seem like hopelessly outdated concepts from the ‘teens. The blossom festivals of tomorrow will be attended by future people wearing neo-puritan garb, or hazmat suits, or nothing! Who knows? The allure of the cherry blossoms will never change, but the whims of the crowd beneath will always make the blossoms seem new.


Novelty has always struck me as weak sauce, but it is, by nature, a new sauce.  It needs to be drizzled on things to make them appealing (even if they are already the best things—like cherry blossoms).  This is a monstrous truth behind all fads, tastes, and art movements.  I have represented it in paper mache and fluorescent paint! Once my monster dissolves I will have to come up with a new act for next year.

Monster 4

Tripod Fish (Bathypterois grallator)

Tripod Fish (Bathypterois grallator)

I promised more weird fish this year, and here is a fish which amply delivers on this promise.  This is a tripod fish (Bathypterois grallator), an eyeless wonder of the deep ocean plains.  The fish spends most of its time standing completely motionless on its elongated fins which reach up to a meter (three feet) off the seafloor.  It mostly copies the feeding habits of sessile invertebrates such as sea anemones and barnacles and feeds on tiny creatures which bump into its elongated (and highly sensitive) front and top fins.  It walks extremely slowly along the ocean bottom on these high fins with its mouth facing into the deep currents.


Despite its sedentary preferences and circumscribed lifestyle, the tripod fish has not given up its brain or its ability to swim.   If and when the fish decides to swim, its stilt like fins deflate and become flexible.  Scientists have not pinpointed the exact mechanism for this transformation, but erectile tissues are not unknown in the animal world. Speaking of which…


Mating is difficult in the abyssal zone (as any Tinder user could readily aver) so the tripod fish is a true hermaphrodite possessing both male and female reproductive organs.  If two tripod fish chance to meet, they mate together in all sorts of crazy troubling ways, however, if the fish never finds a partner it produces both sperm and eggs and mates with itself!


The Guiro (by Nino)

The Guiro (manufactured by Nino)

I was busy drawing musicians playing crazy instruments for a project when the sinking feeling hit me that I would have to scrape together a blog entry for Valentine’s Day. Then it further hit me that I would also have to scrape together an additional post before that. Suddenly, there was the answer, right in front of me: scrape…weird musical instrument…the guiro!

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

The guiro is a percussion instrument with hard ribbed sides which produce an insectoid clicking when rubbed with a little stick. Musicologists classify such a thing as a scraped idiophone. The ratchet sound which the guiro produces doesn’t sound very good when I describe it, but it is delightful in traditional Latin American music (especially music from the Greater Antilles—Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc.). Some sources contend that the guiro has Pre-Colombian roots and is an ancient part of the culture of the Americas, but, sadly, I couldn’t find any unimpeachable examples online (and it’s too late to bang on the Met’s door)—so believe this dubious history at your peril.

Traditional guiros are made with gourds, wood, or horn. Modern ones can also be made of fiberglass and plastic. Although I like the sound which they make, the best part of the guiro tends to be its fanciful appearance. The instrument can be a big utilitarian cylinder, however for aesthetic reasons, it is often made in a fanciful animal shape—particularly that of a colorful fish. During music class in first grade, the teacher would sometimes dump out a huge box of simple percussion instruments—chimes, bells, triangles, castanets, maracas, tambourines, rattles, and clackers of all sorts—and we would each choose one and all play together to make a terrible cacophonous din (maybe the music teacher was trying to scare evil spirits away from Falmouth). Anyway there was always a fight for the magnificent fish guiro—which was then always allocated by the teacher to a student who was not me.

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

Below is a video demonstrating how to play the guiro (although I feel like most individuals could figure this out on their own). It does however present the rasping sound of the guiro. Another one of these little video clips put forth some useful pronunciation advice: the “g” in guiro is a Spanish “g” and is pronounced rather like a “w” in English. “Guiro” should be said sort of like “weirdo” (but with no “d” sound). Hmm…

The fish is colorful and traditional, but it is not the only animal shape which guiros come in. Here are some animal-shaped guiros which include a crocodile, an armadillo, and even a snail!





Snail Guiro!

Snail Guiro!

These are beautiful! I wonder if I added one of these things to my music collection, would my roommates fight for it—or would they just fight me for making such musical scraping noises. Maybe we had better appreciate the guiro from afar for the moment….

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October 2021