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“Hey, wait! What the heck?” This is what you may be saying after yesterday’s post, which featured an unlabeled picture of a mystery sea creature (above).

Well worry no more! The mysterious creature is a “sea mouse”, the colloquial name for a genus of polychaete worms which live in the Atlantic Ocean (and the Mediterranean Sea).  The proper genus name for the sea mouses (mice?) is Aphrodita, after the Greek goddess of love (apparently some exceedingly lonely 18th century taxonomists thought the furry oval sea animal with a ventral groove along its bottom resembled the sacred goddess of sexuality in some generative aspect).

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Sea mouses (mice?) are scavengers which feed on the decaying bodies of marine animals [probably: a few sources thought they were hunters].  They live close to shore in the intertidal zone where they creep and burrow as they try to find carrion and avoid predators. To my mind, their English name is vastly better than their scientific name since they scurry furtively across the ocean bottom and since they are covered in what superficially looks like scraggly hair.  This “hair” is more properly called setae—bristles which protect the worm and or help it to hide or communicate.  The setae around the edges of the mice are covered with photonic crystals so they look drab from most angles but sparkle like gorgeous blue/green/gold opals when held a certain way.

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Speaking of bristles, sea mice move by means of parapodia—bristly appendages which serve as feet and which also look somewhat like hair. The creatures measure from 7–15 centimeters (3–6 inches) long; however, some giants can grow to a length of 30 centimeters (12 inches).

The febrile imaginings of long dead natural scientists aside, sea mice (mouses?) are all hermaphrodites with both male and female gonads and sexual organs [probably…different sources disagreed upon their gender orientation, and given today’s social mores, it was thought impolite to inquire].  The worms are incapable of fertilizing themselves though.

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Of course, some of you might still have some questions about this living technicolor hermaphroditic toupee which crawls around on the ocean bottom eating horrible dead things, but I can help you no further.  My limited knowledge of sea mice is all used up.  They aren’t even mollusks (they are more closely related to…well to us…than to clams and squid). Based on the many bracketed addenda and the numerous weasel words in this article, our understanding of these things is pretty superficial. If you want to make a name for yourself in marine biology this may be your chance, provided you can spend a lifetime underwater watching polychaete worms eat and make love!

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Let’s look back through the mists of time to peak at one of the most mysterious and perplexing of mammals, the desmostylians, the only extinct order of marine mammals (although in dark moments I worry that more are soon to follow). Desmostylians were large quadrupeds adapted to life in the water. They had short tails and mighty limbs. Because of this morphology, taxonomists initially thought that they were cousins of proboscideans and sirenians (elephants and manatees), but the fact that their remains have only been found far from Africa (the origin point of elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and manatees & sea cows) along with perplexingly alien traits has caused a rethink of that hypothesis.
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(Art by Ray Troll fror SMU)

Extant between the late Oligocene and late Miocene, the desmostylians had powerful tusklike cylindrical teeth and dense heavy bones. The smallest (and oldest) were peccary sized creatures whereas the largest grew to the size of medium whales. It seems like desmostylians lived in littoral parts of the ocean—near coasts and shores where they used their pillar like teeth to graze great kelp forests. They scraped or rasped up the kelp and sucked it down their voracious vacuum maws like spaghetti! It must have been an astonishing sight! My favorite marine paleoartist, Ray Troll has made exquisite pictures of these majestic creatures which help us to visualize them. I really hope they looked this funny and friendly (if they were anything like herbivorous manatees, they probably did!).
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(Art by Ray Troll, courtesy SMU)

Speaking of manatees, the gentle sirenians had a hand (or flipper?) in the demise of the poor desmostylians. The dugongs and manatees would never fight anyone or even protect themselves with force—they simply outcompeted the less nimble desmostylians for resources, although one wonders if climate-change and the continuing evolution of different coastal sea plants might also have helped do in the great desmostylians.

Coral Reef at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge

Coral Reef at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge

It has been a while since this blog waded into the murky & sordid waters of politics, but recent national news demands notice…and, for once, the political news is good rather than awful! My favorite action by President George H. Bush (the 43rd president of the United States) was the creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument–which the former president announced on January 6, 2009 just days before his second term ended. The monument included 199,500 square kilometers (77,020 square miles) of reefs, beaches, coastal waters, and unique atoll landscapes around the unincorporated United States Pacific Island territories. I have included a map of the exact area below instead of mentioning all of the little atolls, seamounts, and micro islands individually. Suffice to say, I only recognized the names from World War II naval battles. All commercial use of this part of the ocean is now prohibited: there is no factory fishing, mining, or drilling allowed (although right of passage is permitted as are research and recreational activities—including sports fishing).

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The exact details of the park can be found on the Fish and Wildlife Services website, but the net effect is that a large and beautiful part of the Pacific has become a wildlife park, free from the insatiable hunger and wanton destruction of “resource extraction corporations”. But that is all just back story: the news gets better. Last Tuesday (June 17, 2014) the current president, Barack Obama, announced his intention to vastly expand the protected area of Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (which, btw, desperately needs a snappier name). If the president follows through with his plans, the PRIMNM (the acronym is also not euphonic) will expand to 2 million square kilometers (782,000 square miles) thereby doubling the amount of protected ocean refuge in the entire world! The unspoiled site is not currently a major location for drilling, mining, or even fishing (although no doubt the all-devouring tuna fleets will weep and beg and claim that anything less than unfettered access will result in their destruction).

Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

My greatest concern about the present state of the world is the rapid destruction of the ecosystems of the world’s oceans. Because of overfishing and dumping, the oceans of Earth are emptying of fish, turtles, mammals, birds, and invertebrates while filling up with jellyfish, carbon dioxide, mercury, and plastic crap. If you are like me, you probably live a wretched existence as a disposable drone in some cubicle farm—which makes the concerns of the world’s last pristine coral reefs and natural fish hatcheries seem very distant and abstruse. Yet the world spanning ocean is not just a source of postcards, sashimi, and fishsticks, it is the cradle of life on the planet—the central and irreplaceable ecosystem which reaches out endless tendrils that touch all living beings. Our survival is contingent on the health of the oceans.  So I would like to salute President Bush for founding the sanctuary and I would also like to congratulate President Obama for his choice to expand it! Who knew we had politicians who could actually accomplish something worthwhile? Let’s have more bold choices like this so that the ocean of the future is not just a giant dead pool of salt water.

Kingman Reef (The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) Photo by Enric Sala

Kingman Reef (The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) Photo by Enric Sala

Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt

In the desolate desert 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo there is a fearsome arid valley (wadi) of cliffs, carved buttes, and sandblasted erratic boulders.  The bleached landscape has an otherworldly emptiness as though it were located on a lifeless alien planet, though if you look closely, the desert is filled with austere furtive life like dorcas gazelles, tiny sand colored lizards, cobras, scorpions, and fennec foxes. The name of the place is even more otherworldly—“Wadi Al-Hitan” which is Arabic for “valley of the whales” and although the great smooth rocks buckling out of the sand might momentarily be taken for the backs of huge whales, the utter absence of the ocean (or of water of any kind) makes the name seem fanciful. The nearby Mount Garet Gohannam (which means mountain of hell because of the way it glows like flames at sunset) seems to be more aptly named.

Whale fossil at Wadi Al-Hitan

However the name of Wadi Al-Hitan is remarkably literal–for the valley contains the remains of hundreds of huge ancient cetaceans which died in the Eocene and were fossilized in the yellowish sandstone.  Forty million years ago the valley was a marine lagoon.  Although the remains of numerous sirenians, sawfish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, and even swamp dwelling moeritheriums have been discovered in the wadi, the valley takes its name from the most spectacular and numerous fossils which belong to four different species of primitive whales.  The most commonly discovered fossils belong to Dorudon, which was 3-5 meters long (9-15 feet) and fed on fish and mollusks, and to Basilosaurus, which was 15-22 meter (50-72 foot) and fed on everything else in the ocean.

Basilosaurus was first discovered in Louisiana in the early 19th century.  Its immense size and serpentine form initially convinced naturalists that it was a marine reptile and they misnamed the creature Basilosaurus (which means “king lizard”).  The mistake soon became obvious and Basilosaurus was classified among the Archaeoceti, a paraphyletic suborder of the cetaceans, however the giant kept its dinosaur name.  Different species of Basilosaurus flourished in oceans worldwide during the wet, tropical Eocene and, even though they were obviously very adept at ocean living (indeed rising to the top of the food chain) the creatures betray vestiges of terrestrial living which modern whales have entirely dispensed with. Not only do Basilosaurus fossils have teeth and jaws which retain reatures from their artiodactyl ancestors, they also have tiny vestigial back legs a mere half meter in length (which would scarely help a 22 meter animal get around).  Additionally Basilosaurus was different from modern whales in that it probably moved with eel-like horizontal thrashing of its long tail (modern whales move their flukes vertically).  Basilosaurus probably did not dive very deeply, but moved about near the surface of the oceans hunting for smaller marine animals.

Basilosaurus from “Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit” at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Although Wadi Al-Hitan was discovered by Europeans in 1902-1903, some archaeologists and anthropologists have speculated that it was known long before that and have been irresistibly drawn towards comparing basilosaurus with the giant crocodiles and earth spanning serpent gods which populate ancient Egyptian cosmology.

Detail from painting (Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History)

Manifest Destiny (Alexis Rockman, 2004)

As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist.  Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell.  Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet.  To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting.  His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem.  In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks.   His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it.  Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems.  Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans.  His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.

The Farm (Alexis Rockman, 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative).  Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity.  There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too.  The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig!  The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable.  It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.

Fishing (Alexis Rockman 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems.  The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”.  Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness.  Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.

The Hudson Estuary (Alexis Rockman, 2011)

Is Rockman’s art gothic?  I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail.  There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech.  I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”.  Life endures and adapts even as the world changes.  Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature,  but we will need to grow quickly!

Seaworld (Alexis Rockman, 2000)

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