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turbot tax

I have a weird confession. I don’t usually get too upset by paying my taxes. I can’t explore space by myself…nor can I invent the internet, fight Ebola, or operate a nuclear aircraft carrier. The government does amazing things which benefit everyone! [plus I barely make any money anyway]

Yet some group of marketers with deep pockets has been trying to convince everyone that the government is incompetent and you should give all of your money to reclusive billionaire twins and evil cartels instead.

And their efforts are working! This year I was pretty unhappy to turn over my meager earnings to be used on golf outings, summer palaces, estranged trophy wives, and brownshirts. I was peeved with Intuit as well, even though I have used them for many years. Not only did Intuit lobby the government to keep the tax code exhaustively complicated, but Turbotax kept demanding that I buy a more expensive software package and the numbers changed wildly for no coherent reason. I only have one W2. What the heck? No more Turbotax from now on. I finally gave up and used the el cheapo knockoff that the IRS referred me to. I have recorded this spring experience for posterity in this little sparkling picture of floundering beneath the cherry blossoms of our nation’s capital. I call it “Turbot Tax” and I think the symbolism is self explanatory.

But whatever…at least I have fileted my taxes…er I mean filed. Now that we have got that chore done, we can get to spring flowers in earnest!

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).

Megrim-Stórkjafta-Lepidorhombus-Whiff

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.

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(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.

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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.

flounder-fishing

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.

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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)

 

 

Pity the flounder! Pity, I beg thee...

Pity the flounder! Pity, I beg thee…

Adolescence is difficult. Puberty is an awkward transitional time when the winsome cuteness of childhood departs forever but is not fully replaced by the graceful strength and confidence of adulthood. But before you have a PTS flashback to those rough years, spare a moment of pity for the poor flounder. Flounders (and other flatfish like halibuts, soles, and flattest of them all, turbots) are born…err hatched like us with two eyes on either side of their skull. As tiny transparent larvae living among the zooplankton, flounder fry can see a panoramic view of the ocean so as to better evade predators. As they dart through three dimensions, their bilateral symmetry is like that of the rest of the vertebrates.

As searingly depicted in this stunning diagram

As searingly depicted in this stunning diagram

Then, as they grow into adult fish, a strange and remarkable metamorphosis occurs. Bones in the flounder’s skull distort and one eye migrates across its head so that both eyes are on one side of its face. Imagine if your left eye traveled over the bridge of your nose to permanently join your right eye on the right side of your face!

An adolescent flatfish--the eyes are just beginning to creep to one side (photo for PBS Nova)

An adolescent flatfish–the eyes are just beginning to creep to one side (photo for PBS Nova)

Of course eye migration is but one aspect of the flounder’s change to adulthood. The fish begin to swim at an angle. One side of their body becomes flecked with color while the other becomes white (the better to merge into the two dimensional world of the bottom). Speaking of color, the once transparent fry becomes opaque! Their mouth opens on one side of their head and they must learn to swim like a flying carpet.

flounder
But don’t let their remarkable transition and their comic appearance deceive you. The flatfish are extraordinary predators and they are also geniuses at avoiding the many toothy hunters of the ocean. Their close set eyes protrude above the sand and see unwary prey with acuity and laser focus. Fossil finds from Monte Bolca, a beautifully preserved Eocene coral reef, show that the flatfish were evolving into their current form 45 million years ago (as the primates were taking to the trees, the bats were first taking wing, and the little dawn horses were scampering through the endless tropical groves). For at least 45 million years the flatfish (which, I should have mentioned, constitute the order Pleuronectiformes) have been camouflaged at the bottom of the sea feasting on shrimp and minnows while the world blinked and didn’t notice them. They are still out there thriving, even as whole parts of the ocean ecosystem collapse. It is a striking reminder that wrenching changes can work out for the best!

An adult Turbot

An adult Turbot

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