Archive for August, 2010

Joanna Newsom is one of my favorite musicians out there. She’s got all sorts of things to love: a voice that definitely qualifies as an “acquired taste,” harp skills, an interesting sense of melody and song structure, and poetic lyrics.

My favorite of her albums thus far is her first, and one of my favorite songs on that album is “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie.” Hey, that’s 75% mollusks!

Here’s her singing it on late night TV. I’ve seen her live a few times, and her vowel pronunciation has…evolved, shall we say, since the original 2004 record. It’s evident in this here video.

My favorite line in this song is “Your skin is something that I stir into my tea.” It’s ostensibly gross, but also tender and intimate. Maybe you could say the same things about some mollusks.

Clam! (I met this giant one here at the Seattle Aquarium.)

Crab! (Not a mollusk! But still very cute)



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Jon Stewart brought Isabella Rossellini’s work in short films about animal reproduction to my attention this week. She clearly loves how mollusks mate. These are honestly some of the strangest things I’ve ever seen captured on film, and I’m a fan of Werner Herzog (a German language Western film with an all little people cast? Anyone?). Check out the Green Porno website for all of the films. Mollusk films include snail, cuttlefish, limpet, and squid. Also, do not let your mollusk bias prevent you from watching the other films, because they are all equally inexplicable and delightful.

Here’s the snail video.

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Good thing my cell phone has a camera, lest I miss an opportunity to spot a mollusk in the wild!

Yes, that’s a giant squid graphic on the side of a U-Haul, which isn’t quite as exciting as seeing a real live something. But then again, I live in New York City, I have to work with what I got, otherwise it’ll be all rats, pigeons, and cockroaches, all the time. And I’ll point out the obvious: none of those are mollusks.

I love the Giant Squid blurb on this graphic:

The first recorded encounter with the world’s largest invertebrate took place off the coast of Newfoundland. What secrets of the deep were revealed with the discovery of the giant squid?

While the question itself is a little silly, I love that it’s trying to pique curiosity. I’ve been seeing their Red Panda graphic a lot lately (I probably just notice it in particular because OMG, adorable red panda!!!!), so I actually checked out their website for more information. And there’s really a lot of fun stuff to explore, largely about animals and fossils in different states and Canadian provinces, though also New Mexico’s about the Roswell UFO incident (that one’s cheeky).

I say good going, U-Haul! I hope other curious people are seeing these graphics and wondering about the world around them. My environment is so text-dense, mostly with incredibly obnoxious advertising, so it’s great to see that some fun science has wriggled its way in there as well.

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Even though I already know how to knit, I would totally attend this event if I could.


I’ve often thought a problem with learning to knit is the tendency to make people start with a scarf, which is actually a very advanced project. It requires the knitter to have a lot of stamina and tolerance for a pattern that doesn’t change up at points. This is what’s so great about socks, the make a 90-degree turn in the middle and have to taper to a toe at one end! But a tiny squid! What a great idea.

Photo: Lauren O’Farrell (Stitch London)

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I was at the New York Aquarium this weekend, and a marine gastropod of some sort treated me to this little show. I’m linking to the video because embedding doesn’t seem to work. Hrm.

That bit of anatomy, um, undulating is the radula, a toothy tonguish apparatus that mollusks use to eat. I hope there was some good grazing on the side of the tank there.

The cool thing about the radula is it’s unique to mollusks. When a fossil of Kimberella, an Ediacaran organism (that’s Precambrian!) showed evidence of a radula in associated scratch marks, that made folks change their mind about whether it was a jellyfish as originally supposed. It’s not definitely classified as a mollusk, but it is at least a bilaterian.

(photo credit: Aleksey Nagovitsyn)
You can’t see evidence of a radula in this photo (as far as I know), but I love a good fossil.

The uncool thing about this video is that I don’t know what species that little dude, lady, or dudelady is. This is a frustration of mine at aquariums. Unless the purpose of the tank is to showcase a particular invertebrate, they tend to omit any information at all about them. There is usually signage IDing all the fish (I call vertebrate chauvinism!). While I understand that most of the people visiting aren’t particularly interested in the particulars of species names, and also that a litany of latinate names can be offputting and counterproductive as a means of getting people interested in science, I wish there was some way to get that info if desired– a panel one had to lift, a link to a website, something.

The best story I saw in the news lately about fossil markings being evidence of other interesting things is no doubt the fossil evidence of zombie ants because they left telltale toothmark death grips on fossilized plant leaves. Too terrifying for words.

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I found the book Civilization and the Limpet at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. It was an especially good day in the science section there because there were a bunch of Stephen Jay Gould books, Richard Dawkins books, and this one. I picked up a bunch but this is the first that I’ve delved into, naturally.

It’s so great! The writer is super charming, and although the book starts with a chapter on urchins, it gets to limpets quite quickly. The first chapter is about how soft-bodied animals can’t know where their bodies are (our brains can process that information because it’s way more finite, since we have a finite number of joints, and they only have so much freedom of movement), and it makes navigating and manipulating the world difficult.

Thus we have two qualitatively different sorts of animal, both successful, but only one capable of manipulating its environment in a manner that has led to computers and the atom bomb. We think that this, our, sort of animal is more successful than the others, which are forever cut off from the possibility of such clever inventions. Yet we are both here in our millions, and only one of us is bashing the ozone layer.
Reflect on this next time that you meet a limpet.

The second chapter gets into sex, and it too is just so great.

Most set up as males as soon as they are old enough to be troubled by maturity This is no big deal. A sexually mature limpet sit, as is the way of limpets, and does nothing, most of the time. Not for him the pursuit of nubile lady limpets. No panting scramble across the rocks, no tiny molluscan feet touching as if by magic. A limpet has nothing, or next to nothing, to fantasize about. It develops sperm at an appropriate time of year, triggered perhaps by rising temperatures and high tides, it tosses the lot off into the sea and lets the little beggars get on with it, no doubt heaving a sigh of relief that it is now all over for another year, so it can settle down to serious matters such as feeding and digestion–a vintage year for algae one can always hope–and growth.

It continues to discuss how limpets change sex over the course of their lives (I’m sure I’ll devote more blog space to that phenomenon in the future, as the complicated sex of lots of animals is a particular pet topic of mine), as is the way of some mollusks, and it continues to charm and delight me. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this book!

Speaking of urchins and limpets, I also stumbled upon a crochet pattern yesterday, called, amazingly, Urchins and Limpets.

The neutral colored motifs are supposed to be the urchins, and the brightly colored motifs are supposed to be the limpets. I would love to crochet this (when I finish the other two gift blanket projects I’m working on) but I’d have the urchin motifs in an appropriate purple, and the limpets in appropriate limpet colors, like so:

The urchin photo (the purple is hard to see but I love their little hidey holes!) is one I took at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, one of my favorite places on the planet, and a great place for finding mollusks (including nudibranchs on a good day!)

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I love poetry as much as I love mollusks, but I don’t think I could sustain a poetry blog. I was thinking about poetry today, though, mostly because of this video, which absolutely blows my mind:

My favorite thing about this video is that you can tell this kid loves the way the words feel in his mouth, because of how he articulates them so exactly, phrases like “crystal goblet” and “plentiful imagery.”

As luck would have it, one of our most canonical poets happened to be a lover of mollusks: Marianne Moore. She was strange and awesome, loved animals and baseball both, and at least two of her poems that I know of reference mollusks: “An Octopus” and “To a Snail.”

“An Octopus” is really about an ice field (inasmuch as a poem is really “about” anything), but it starts off with an aerial view of a glacier by drawing an analogy to our cephalopod friend:

An octopus

of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies “in grandeur and in mass”
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention—
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
feet thick,
of unimagined delicacy.

The phrase “dots of cyclamen-red” is particularly evocative to me, because I think of cyclamen as this color:

(thanks to noodlesnacks for that photo)

and that makes me think of watermelon snow, which is snow stained pink by this here algae:

Good match, yes? Who knows if that was her intention or not, but it’s certainly what I like to think of.

I couldn’t find a good image of glaciers that really said “octopus” to me, but I do have this photo I took in New Zealand that maybe says “tentacle.”


That’s the Franz Josef glacier on a lovely December day, and a memento of my first time in crampons!

The other well known mollusk poem of Moore’s, as I linked to, is “To a Snail.” What I love about that poem is how difficult the long sentence is to parse, thanks to judicious uses of extra phrases and punctuation. The last bit is lovely, though.

but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles”,
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

The image of an occipital horn, of course, made me wonder if such a thing existed. Only the even-toed ungulates have true horns, and it seems none of those horns come out of the backs of their heads. If anyone’s going to try growing a horn back there, it would probably be a Jacob sheep, one of my favorite breeds. They’ve been known to get up to six horns (and in a stroke of gender equity, both males and females grow horns). Here’s a beauty from Meridian Jacobs, a farm I had the pleasure of visiting back in my California years.

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Please watch this video:

MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON from Dean Fleischer-Camp on Vimeo.

I can’t even decide what my favorite part is. Maybe the lint dog.

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All the news that’s fit to print, indeed! In addition to a fantastic Q&A with Terry Gosliner from the Cal Academy, there’s a fantastic slide show!

Sometimes I think cephalopods get all the news coverage, but what a great week for nudibranchs. My favorite part of the Q&A was about how old nudibranchs are since they don’t fossilize well. Turns out they’re estimated at 180 million years old (take that, dinosaurs!) based on dating their shelled relatives. Reading a little bit about the fossil record for mollusks, I learned some awesome stuff. Mollusks participated in the Cambrian Explosion, which means that there are probably lots of undiscovered mollusk forms. I wish someone would do some digging into that and write a book like Wonderful Life, But For Mollusks (If you haven’t read Wonderful Life, it’s a great book by Stephen Jay Gould on the diversity of arthropod body plans as discovered in the Burgess Shale).

Also, I learned that ammonites, the nautilus-like cephalopods, went extinct in the K-T event along with the dinosaurs.

“Lookit my fancy shells! Too bad all of my dinosaur friends are dead…”

And, because no post about nudibranchs is complete without a picture of one, check out this beauty!

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Flying squids: It’s not a metaphor or literary device of any sort. Well, maybe a slight misnomer.

The story itself isn’t new, there was a 2004 study about squid that take to the air. It came up on Scientific American recently because of the new photographic evidence, seen above, taken by amateur photographer Bob Hulse from a cruise ship off the coast of Brazil (now I’m feeling really inadequate that I just saw mammals and birds from the ship on my recent Alaskan cruise).

Flight is fascinating, obviously, and also clearly a really good idea. There are really only four true fliers (to my knowledge): birds, bats, insects, and pterosaurs. According to the Scientific American article, the 2004 study alleges the squid are flying rather than gliding, but I am dubious. Are they really providing thrust with their fins? I will chalk it up to scientists who get a little too close to their subject and want to believe things the evidence is not yet strong for (see also primate sign language). All sorts of other animals are not true fliers but can glide, parachute, or, perhaps most impressively, jet propel themselves out of the water like squid alone can do. Color me impressed. Squids are the only non-arthropod invertebrate who are aspiring aviators.

Some other notable not quite fliers:

Flying lemurs (They neither fly nor are they lemurs. Discuss.)

Draco lizards. Fun fact: that bit of anatomy there is called a dewlap.

Flying fish. Fun fact: flying fish can do multiple glides because they can slap their tails on the water to give them another boost of height. If only those pesky gills weren’t in the way!

I really do have a soft spot for illustrations of animals, if you couldn’t tell.

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