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OK, some days, after a long day at work, I am a bit uninspired, but you know who never runs out of endless inventiveness? Nature!  So today, as a run up for next week’s Halloween week of creepy art, here is a gallery of natural expressionism—nudibranch mollusks—some of the most vibrant and exquisitely colored animals in all of the world (you can look at an earlier Ferrebeekeeper gallery of nudibranchs here).

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Now poisonous strange sea slugs are pretty creepy and seasonally appropriate, but to keep this filler post truly Halloween appropriate I have selected all orange, and black, or orange & black slugs (with maybe a fab or purple and white and green here and there).  Behold the glory:

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Aren’t they beautiful! Sometimes I wish I was a toxic gastropod that looked like Liberace and lived in a tropical sea…but alas, like so many of nature’s greatest works, they are vanishing as the oceans change.

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Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)

Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)

One of the classics of Japanese folklore is Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari, the tale of a gallant shape-shifting ninja who can become a giant toad or summon a different giant toad to ride.  The work has been adapted into a series of 19th century novels, a kabuki drama, numerous prints and paintings, several films and a manga series—it is clearly a staple of Japanese culture (even if the fundamental conceit sounds a trifle peculiar to western ears).

Tsunade by HaneChan

Tsunade by HaneChan

As awesome as a ninja who becomes a toad or rides a toad sounds, it is not what concerns us here.  Instead this post is dedicated to the wife of the protagonist, the beautiful maiden Tsunade (綱手) who is a master of slug magic!  She was able to summon a giant slug or become a slug.

Slug Princess Tsunade by Orcagirl2001

Slug Princess Tsunade by Orcagirl2001

I wish I could explain this better but I haven’t (yet) read Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari.  Perhaps these woodblock and manga images from various incarnations of the work will speak for themselve. At the top of this entry is a picture of the ninja with toad magic (right) along with his wife the slug magician (left), but the rest of the prints and cartoons are pictures of Tsunade.   Based on the contemporary cartoon here below, and on some of the Edo-era prints, it seems like there may be an erotic component to this tale of heroic magical slugs and toads.

Tsunade from Naruto (?)

Tsunade from Naruto (?)

If western mythmakers and storytellers could think like this, maybe sitcoms would not be so agonizing.  This is some weird and lovely stuff.  We have made next to no headway understanding Japanese culture, but we have certainly looked at some weird slug girl art!

El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest in Puerto Rico

El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest in Puerto Rico

Long-time readers know that I love trees.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was this past weekend, when, for the first time, I visited a tropical rainforest–El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.  The only tropical rainforest under the rubric of the United States Forest Department, El Yunque is a very gentle jungle:  not only does it lack poisonous snakes or spiders, but there are not even any endemic mammals other than bats (although mongooses have crept in, thanks to a misguided introduction program long ago) and no predators larger than hawks.  What it lacks in large violent animals, El Yunque makes up for with astonishing botanical diversity.   Immense tree ferns tower over volcanic boulders.  Delicate Coquís—tree frogs which are the unofficial mascot of Puerto Rico–sing beneath the umbrella-like leaves of Cecropia trees.  The mollusks, that great strange phylum, exist in proliferation which rivals a coastline or an oyster reef.  Transparent slugs with green nuclei  are virtually invisible on stones.  Snails the size of children’s hands hang in the branches.

Gaeotis flavolineata, a transparent semi-slug (image credit: exotiskadjur.ifokus.se)

Gaeotis flavolineata, a transparent semi-slug (image credit: exotiskadjur.ifokus.se)

A Tree Snail at El Yunque

A Tree Snail at El Yunque

Among the flowers, frogs, and fruitbats, there are ancient giants–just not animal ones.   The most beautiful tree I saw in the rainforest was an Ausubo (Manikara bidentata) a huge, slow-growing evergreen tree rising magnificently 10 stories above the forest floor. The wood of ausubo is coveted by builders and carpenters since it is lovely to look at, rock hard, and resistant to rot and insects (the sap can also be formed into a hard resin like gutta-percha: this material, called gutta-balatá, was used to make golf balls for professional golfers until it was replaced by modern synthetics).  Ausubo was once the most important timber tree in Puerto Rico and many of the great colonial buildings feature great halls made of mighty ausubo timbers now hundreds of years old.  Today, sadly few large, ancient trees remain.  However the forest service has planted great stands of them in El Yunque and some originals still remain like the one pictured below which a sign asserted was three to four hundred years old.  It is strange to think that the tree (which is broader at the base than a person is tall) was once a tiny seed dropped by a fruit bat or a bird. It has outlasted all of the lumberjacks and hurricanes since San Juan was little more than a fort  above a colonial village.

Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), the titular big tree of "Big Tree" trail in El Yunque (photo by Xemenendura)

Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), the titular big tree of “Big Tree” trail in El Yunque (photo by Xemenendura)

Man O’ War (Photograph by Enrique Talledo)

The Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) is not a jellyfish, in fact it is not a discreet animal at all, but instead a siphonophore—a colonial medusoid made up of specialized animal polyps working together as an organism.   These siphonophores have stinging tentacles which typically measure 10 metres (30 ft) in length but can be up to 50 metres (165 ft) long.  Being stung by a man o’ war does not typically cause death, but sailors and mariners who have survived the experience assert that it taught them a new definition of agony.

Glaucus atlanticus

But the fearsome man o’ war is not the subject of this post.  Instead we are concentrating on the animal which feeds on the man ‘o war (as well as other siphonophores which drift in the great blue expanses of the open ocean).  One is inclined to imagine that men o’ war are eaten only by armored giants with impervious skins and great shearing beaks (and indeed the world’s largest turtles, the loggerheads, are the main predators of siphonophores), however another much less likely predator is out there in the open ocean gnawing away at the mighty stinging colonies.   Glaucus atlanticus, the blue sea slug, is a tiny shell-free mollusk which lives in the open ocean.  The little nudibranch only grows up to 3 cm in length but it hunts and eats a variety of large hydrozoans, pelagic mollusks, and siphonophores (including the man o’ war).

Glaucus atlanticus eating velella colony animal

Although not quite as gaudy as its lovely cousins from tropical coral reefs, Glaucus atlanticus is a pretty animal of pale grey, silver, and deep blue with delicate blue appendages radiating out from its six appendages.  The little mollusks live in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide. They float at the top of the water thanks to a swallowed air bubble stored in a special sack in their gastric cavity. Because of this flotation aid, the slug is able to cling upside down to the surface tension of the waves.  Since it is entirely immune to the venomous nematocysts of the man o’ war, the sea slug can store some of the man o’ wars venom for its own use.   The tendrils at the edge of Glaucus atlanticus’ body can produce an extremely potent sting (so it is best to leave the tiny creatures alone, if you happen to somehow come across them).

Glaucus atlanticus inshore

Each and every Glaucus atlanticus is a hermaphrodite with a complete set of sex organs for both genders.  Incapable of mating with themselves they ventrally (and thoroughly) embrace another blue sea slug during breeding, and both parties then produce strings of eggs.  The hatchling nudibranchs have a shell during their larval stages, but this vestige quickly disappears as they mature into hunters of the open ocean.

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