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UC San Diego Triton

UC San Diego Triton

This week Ferrebeekeeper has been all about Tritons: we published posts on 1) The retrograde ice moon of Neptune; 2) the giant starfish-eating gastropod; and 3) the Greek merman god.  The only major definition of triton left is the nucleus of a tritium atom which has one proton and two neutrons (as opposed to a normal hydrogen atom which has one proton and NO neutrons).  Tritium is very important in nuclear engineering and could be critical to the development of nuclear fusion reactors—an effort which I regard as being of paramount importance to getting humankind moving forward.  Unfortunately, I am no nuclear engineer, so you will have to research tritium elsewhere.

Although the concept of deuterium-tritium fusion is succinctly explained by this necktie...

Although the concept of deuterium-tritium fusion is succinctly explained by this necktie…

What I did discover is that, for some reason, Triton is incredibly popular as a mascot.  Numerous semi-professional and school teams have a triton (a merman) as a mascot.  Is it because the figure is solemn and powerful?  Is this a last breath of Greek polytheism blowing through America’s high schools and colleges?  Do people simply love mermen?  I have no idea, but for a lighthearted Friday post, here is a gallery of Triton mascots.

Edmond Community College Tritons

Edmond Community College Tritons

A homemade Triton outfit

A homemade Triton outfit

The Triton College Seal

The Triton College Seal

"Tryton the Laker King" (it beats me)

“Tryton the Laker King” (it beats me)

The University of Guam Triton

The University of Guam Triton

The University of Missouri--Saint Louis (their "tritons" are devilish red water monsters)

The University of Missouri–Saint Louis (their “tritons” are devilish red water monsters)

Eckerd College (St. Petersburg, Florida) weird anonymous triton mascot

Eckerd College (St. Petersburg, Florida) weird anonymous triton mascot

San Clemente High School (San Clemente, California) Tritons

San Clemente High School (San Clemente, California) Tritons

And, once again, the UCSD King Triton mascot...

And, once again, the UCSD King Triton mascot…

Enjoy the mermen, stay warm, and I’ll see you next week!

Fontana del Tritone  (Gian Lorenzo Bernini ca.1624-1643, Piazza Barberini, Rome)

Fontana del Tritone
(Gian Lorenzo Bernini ca.1624-1643, Piazza Barberini, Rome)

Triton (the moon) and tritons (the gastropods) are named after…Triton, a Greek sea god who was the son of Poseidon (king of the sea) and his wife Amphitrite (herself a daughter of the ocean titans Nereus and Doris).  Triton was portrayed as a mighty merman who carries a musical conch with which he calms the seas…or whips them into a frenzy.


Triton lived with his parents in a golden palace beneath the waves (according to Hesiod).  He has a few cameo appearances in classical mythology (most notably in the story of Jason and the Argonauts) but he is generally overshadowed by his mighty father.  In late antiquity and the Renaissance, Triton came to be a sort of progenitor of mermaids and mermen (a role which he occupies in Disney’s “animated film The Little Mermaid”).

Triton and Ariel (from "The Little Mermaid")

Triton and Ariel (from “The Little Mermaid”)

Geologists know that oceans and seas are indeed ever-changing and protean.  Whenever I think of Triton, I imagine how the oceans of the world will be entirely different in a few hundred million years (just as today’s oceans are no longer the Tethys or the Panthalassic Ocean).  Neptune’s reign will end and the oceans and seas will change–and yet they will really be the same great world-sea as they have been since the beginning.



A Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) on an Indonesian Reef

A Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) on an Indonesian Reef

Yesterday this blog took us to the depths of space to explore the frozen ice-moon of Triton.  Today we atone for that cold voyage with a trip to the inviting tropical seas of the Indo-Pacific.  In these vibrant waters can be found one of the greatest living gastropods, a prince among predatory sea snails, the mighty Charonia tritonis, (commonly known as the giant triton or Triton’s trumpet).

A Giant Triton climbs over a pillow coral in Hawaii

A Giant Triton climbs over a pillow coral in Hawaii

Charonia tritonis grows to over half a meter (20 inches) in length: it is one of the largest living snails in the world (and it is not much smaller than the biggest extant snails). Equipped with a powerful muscular foot, acute senses (particularly smell), and an agile tentacle-like proboscis, the snails are formidable hunters.  Additionally they are protected from predators—even big fierce ones–by their beautiful spiral shells which are vibrantly colored orange, brown, yellow, and cream.  Of course such a shell would become a liability for the snail if an animal ever evolved which killed the snails in order to harvest the magnificent shells solely for their beauty (but what are the chances of that?).

A man sounds a blast on a triton shell--which has spiritual significance in Hawaii

A man sounds a blast on a triton shell–which has spiritual significance in Hawaii

Giant tritons hunt at night.  Their main prey are echinoderms—starfish, which can be large powerful and armored.  Fortunately the snails are not just equipped with powerful muscles and superior brains.  They also have salivary glands that produce sulfuric acid AND a chemical which paralyzes starfish.  The tritons find starfish—even big spiny poisonous starfish like the invasive and all-consuming crown-of-thorns which bedevils the reefs of the Indo-Pacific—then hold them down and inject saliva into them.  As the starfish dissolves from within, the snails rip them apart and feast!

A triton kills a crown of thorns

A triton kills a crown of thorns

Tritons have a specific gender—they are male or female.  They seek each other out for courtship and the female then lays a large clutch of eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the young snails become part of the oceanic plankton for a (poorly understood) time before developing into adults.  Triton shells are esteemed by many cultures as sacred musical instruments.  The shells themselves are collector’s items and are arguably better known then the formidable long-lived predators which make them.  Although the snails are not threatened with extinction as such, there are fewer and fewer really big adult ones (or even small ones) on today’s reefs. This is a real shame, since those same reefs are being devoured by the horrible crown-of-thorns. Hopefully a new generation of divers and wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the triton on the reef and leave them to their invaluable hunting.  Resist the urge to buy the beautiful shells and help save the reefs of the Indo Pacific!


Neptune's Moon Triton photographed by Voyager 2 (NASA)

Neptune’s Moon Triton photographed by Voyager 2 (NASA)

It is absolutely freezing here in Brooklyn—a great vortex of bitter Arctic air has swirled south across huge swathes of the nation.  The temperature here is 9° Fahrenheit (or -13° Celsius).  Imagine how much worse things are in Minnesota, where it is -14° Fahrenheit (or -25° Celsius).  Brrr!  It hurts my fingers to write about it–even in my overheated study (well—bedroom, really).  Now truly stretch your mind from the frozen heartland of America to the edge of the planetary solar system.  The largest moon of the ice giant Neptune is the moon Triton, discovered in 1846 by English astronomer/brewer William Lassell, and named for the son of Poseidon.  On the surface of Triton temperatures plunge to 36…which is to say 36 K (Kelvin). To translate that is -237° Celsius or a bone chilling -395° Fahrenheit.

Artist's rendering of an ice volcano on Triton with Neptune in the background (NASA)

Artist’s rendering of an ice volcano on Triton with Neptune in the background (NASA)

Triton is a strange moon.  It is the seventh largest moon in the solar system and it is the only large moon to orbit its planet in a direction opposite from the planet’s rotation (which is called a retrograde orbit).  Since there is no model for retrograde moons forming from accretion disks, Triton must be a captured object from the Oort cloud—and, indeed, the moon is extremely similar in composition to Pluto and other dwarf planets of the Solar system’s distant periphery.  Despite the extreme cold of Triton’s surface, the moon is geologically active.  Like Earth, the moon is probably differentiated into layers: a core, a mantle, and a crust.  The crust is formed of ice: frozen water, methane, and nitrogen.  A large polar cap covers the southern pole, but much of the rest of the moon is a“cantaloupe” surface of melted and refrozen ice.  The surface is (geologically) young.  Cryovolcanic activity and tidal forces have kept the ice active.  Cryovolcanoes were first spotted on Triton during the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989 (the first time such phenomenon were ever observed).  Because of tidal warming (caused by gravitational interaction with Neptune), Triton may have once had a liquid ocean beneath the crust, but this has likely solidified assuming that there is no radioactive decay from the rocky core.

A size comparison of Earth, Earth's moon, and Triton

A size comparison of Earth, Earth’s moon, and Triton

Triton is closer to Neptune than the Earth’s moon is to Earth…and Neptune is seventeen times more massive than Earth.  This doesn’t bode well for the long term future of Triton.  Within the next three and a half billion years, the moon will either be pulled into Neptune’s surface and swallowed or it will be ripped to pieces and form a spectacular ring structure like Saturn’s.

A Conch Used as a Trumpet

Conches are large sea snails.  True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family).  These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).

3000 year old Strombus galeatus shell modified as a musical instrument by pre-Inca people of Peru

Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes.  The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples.  In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar).  The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved.  Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities.  Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument  as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith.  The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”

Vamavarta shankhas, c. 11-12th century

The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range.  In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai.  Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).

A Korean Bugler plays a Nagak

The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.

Triton blowing on a Conch from the Bailey Fountain in Brooklyn

There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:

 There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.

The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key.  Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual.  But enough talk about shell trumpets!  Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2020