Archive for July, 2010

Linguistics is a fun subject. So are mollusks. Two great tastes that taste great together! I’d been thinking about linking to this oldish post on my favorite linguistics blog, Language Log, which gives information about how to pluralize “octopus” as well as google data-mining for usage stats. They have good, though somewhat outdated, info, and I was going to do some more digging when I saw this video from Merriam Webster, which I thought was really cute.

The really fun thing to me about that video is that I’d never considered how “octopodes” would be pronounced. It sounds so classical with the accent on the second syllable, like Diogenes and Acropolis. I’m charmed by it and almost want to use it except I’m neither British nor quite that ridiculous.

Now, of course “octopus” isn’t the only “-us” word that can be tricky to pluralize. I came up with a spectrum of these words and how much I resist the regular English plural.

sinus: “sinuses,” duh.

campus: again, “campuses” does not offend the ears.

census: not sure I’ve ever heard this pluralized, but I’m pretty sure “censuses” would be the thing to come out of my mouth, though perhaps with hesitation.

apparatus: “apparatuses” is clunky, though correct. Merriam Webster seems to think it’s also fine to leave off the plural suffix, like deer or fish.

uterus: Here’s where the urge to add the “i” at the end is strong. According to MW, uterus is actually a Latin word, so you can go with “uteri” and be technically correct. They do however, list “uteruses” as the first plural entry. In a stroke of hilarity, whatever dictionary my spell checker is pulling from recognizes uteri and not uteruses.

playtpus: Our monotreme friend the platypus is in precisely the same boat as octopus (would I ever love to see that in real life!). “Platypus” is actually a Greek word, but somehow the ersatz “platypi” plural snuck through the cracks and became common usage.

Ultimately, I prefer to just stick with the English rules of pluralization, so it’s octopuses, sinuses, censuses, apparatuses, uteruses, and platypuses for me. And platypuses for you!


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I’m striving to take my own photos of mollusks I see in the wild. Sadly, I’m no great photographer, but I’ll do my best. This first one is moreover an extra bad photo, since it was taken with a disposable underwater camera, and I didn’t read until after the snorkeling trip that the camera was meant to be used from at least three feet away from the subject, but it was one of my more exciting mollusk finds, which is why I can’t resist posting about it. Here is the photo I took of Hermissenda crassicornis, a nudibranch that lives in the Eastern Pacific.


Can you see the nudibranch? It’s the orangeish spot with the two little tentacles near the bottom of that spotty piece of kelp, and there’s another just above it. I saw this while snorkeling in Ketchikan, Alaska, which was really the highlight of my recent trip there. Hard to pick a highlight, because orcas were seen doing some Shamu-level stunts, but I’d never been snorkeling before and it was a really special place to start. There were many other mollusks seen that morning, including limpets and lots of bivalves. Other invertebrates included sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs (including the hermit variety!), jellies, and more. Here’s a better picture of this nudibranch, taken by Mila Zinkova.

They are quite aggressive, eating anemones, sea squirts, and even smaller members of their own species. Cannibalism, yikes! Still, I was thrilled to see this nudibranch in Alaska (I was hoping for an octopus but I knew that was near impossible), and I’m going to adapt the pattern for a knit nudibranch to match this particular species as my next mollusk knitting project.

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I’ve been seeing a lot of Silly Bandz this summer. You know, the rubber bracelets that pose health risks, cause copyright violation, and school/summer camp banination?

You know what else they do? Give kids bad ideas about mollusk anatomy!


Granted this pack is from one of the pretenders to the Silly Bandz throne, but still.

Won’t someone think of the children!?

Maybe it’s supposed to be a jelly, but my first thought was octopus.

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Ahab’s Wife is a book I thoroughly enjoyed. First of all, it’s a book written into the space left by the scant details about Captain Ahab’s personal life in Moby Dick, which is obviously one of the best books ever. Second, it’s got a great protofeminist hero who has incredible adventures all her own; she’s not just pacing the widow’s walk waiting for her wacky husband. I’d say the downside is that sometimes the plot is a little too contrived, but I’d still give it a hearty recommendation.

What does this book have to do with mollusks? Well, it introduced me to byssus! Byssus are the protein fibers that some bivalve mollusks use to attach themselves to their substrate. I had perhaps heard of a mussel’s beard before, but what I didn’t know was that byssus is a fiber that is used in textile arts. Holy cow!

Here’s a photo of byssus in the wild taken by Mila Zinkova at my beloved Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

I’m a spinner, and a large part of the fun of spinning is trying out all the different fibers that exist in the world. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I’ve spun with fiber from sheep, goats, rabbits, musk oxen, cotton plants, flax plants, bamboo, silk, alpaca, Bactrian camel, yak, kelp, and even soy fiber derived from the leftovers of making tofu. I haven’t spun with byssus, but only because I’m not sure how to get my hands on it. Perhaps I should ask a restaurant that serves mussels to save me some beards? It’s an idea. While I don’t love the idea of an animal having to die so that I can spin its fiber, the mussels are dying because people harvest them to eat them, so to my sense of ethics it’s more a case of creative reuse. Why, apart from my curiosity, would I want to spin byssus? Because it makes beautiful yarn, that’s why! Check out this glove knit from byssus yarn. The photo was taken by John Hill during a visit to the Smithsonian.

I will certainly report back with any success stories regarding the acquisition of byssus fiber.

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The BBC sure loves cephalopod stories! This week we’ve got one about Humboldt Squid. The authors of the paper in Progress in Oceanography managed to capture 71 squids and subject them to different levels of oxygen to see how they do. Turns out they can slow down their metabolism in a low oxygen environment, stay out of the reach of predators, and just chill until they are ready to hunt again.

That’s right, they can be patient. And wait for the right moment to take over mankind.

Here’s a Humboldt squid in a staring contest with the ROV Tiburon that took the photo:

I think the squid is winning.

This story reminds me of two other favorite animal behaviors of mine.

One is the Andean Hillstar, a hummingbird that hibernates every night because yeah, it’s cold in the Andes. Sad or cute? I learned about this bird from the most excellent documentary series Life of Birds, with David Attenborough, who’s also known as the guy whose voice gets replaced by someone else, say Oprah or Sigourney Weaver, when his documentaries get aired in the United States. There’s a video about the Andean Hillstar on the BBC website that unfortunately I cannot view but maybe some of you can. But here’s a photo of one of these little beauties, taken by Tor Egil Høgsås.

The second is the tardigrade, which is probably my favorite non-mollusk invertebrate. These ridiculously cute little creatures go into a dormant state known as a tun whenever life gets to be too much for them. You know, like when they’re exposed to the vacuum and radiation of outer space.

The Goldstein Lab at UNC Chapel Hill take the best pictures of these jolly beasties.

Metabolisms! Weird fun stuff.

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Anyone who knows me knows I knit. A lot. So naturally the knitting and the mollusks have to comingle to some degree. While I would never wholesale devote my knitting to mollusk-related projects, I’m happy to pick one up now and again. The first I have to share with you is a pair of socks.

I enjoy making socks out of self-patterning German socks yarns, because the resulting socks are very durable and my simple mind is amused by how the pattern emerges as I’m knitting the socks. The first pair I did with Opal sock yarn were these tiger-striped beauties.


According to their website,

Opal donates proceeds from the sale of this yarn to foundations that save habitat from development and clear-cutting.

which is lovely. Wish they’d tell me where, but whatevs. The point is I saw this yarn existed and I knew I had to have it:

NUDIBRANCH YARN. Love it, bought it, knit the socks. In case your German is rusty, that word means “high wire artist.” What that has to do with nudibranchs or rainforests is anyone’s guess. And by the way, nudibranchs don’t live in the rainforest, so their place in this sock yarn series has me a bit befuddled, but the next yarn in the series, set to come out next month, has snow leopard-inspired yarn, so I’m not going to complain. Here are the socks I knit, on my very own feet:


The yarn is a little more sedate than the nudibranch that inspired it, which is probably for the best when it comes to making a wearable item. But here’s another lovely picture of the nudibranch that these socks vaguely resemble.

Nudibranchs might be my favorite mollusks, so you will be seeing much more of them around these parts.

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There’s a breathaking slideshow in today’s New York Times of photos from The Book of Shells by M. G. Harasewych and Fabio Moretzsohn.

I love so many of these shells, but my favorite among the ones in the slideshow might be the zebra periwinkle, because it is “a riot of color and pattern,” which describes a lot of things that fall under my aesthetic preferences.

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This story about an octopus returning to the wild after a stint in a Marine Science center is touching. And it contains some interspecies snorgling.

You know about interspecies snorgling right? Here’s an example from Larry Ferante’s flickr:
Animal friendship 2

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Paul the octopus is retiring after his last correct prediction, that Spain would win the world cup. It’s exceeding unlikely he’ll be alive at the next World Cup anyway, so it’s probably a wise decision on Paul’s part.

The odds of him correctly picking the outcomes of 8 world cup matches are obviously quite low (1/256), but what I love about the internet is that plenty of people on his wiki page have their thoughts on potential biases. 1/256 is about 0.4%, which actually isn’t that small. It’s between 2 and 3 standard deviations away from the peak of a Gaussian.

Word on the street is physicists like their data to be in the five standard deviation range portion of that graph before they’ll call it a finding, so I’m obviously speaking tongue-in-cheek when I talk about our new cephalopod overlords.

I’m also wondering how many other less successful prognosticating animals were out there. I’d bet Paul made the news because ~255 other animals didn’t. I’m glad it was a mollusk of course, but I also would have loved it if the world had fallen for Darlene the Tapir or some other equally awesome animal. And yes, this may be just an excuse to add a photo of a baby tapir, because I love them so.

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In the Journal of Molluscan Studies, there’s an article about the penis of a species of squid, Onykia ingens. It’s, um, long. Like, as long as the entire animal. Why so long? Shallow water cephalopods have short penises but use an arm to hand the sperm over to the females, but the deep sea squids prefer to inject the sperm directly. No one had figured out exactly how this occured until a recently caught squid obliged researchers by unfurling himself. Read more about it on BBC news.

Here’s a drawing of our friend O. ingens. Check out the article for the money shot…

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