Archive for September, 2010

Looks like I’ve been passed up for a MacArthur grant again this year. Sigh.

It’s easier to get over it, though, when such cool people are being honored with this big chunk of cash. Kelly Benoit-Bird, one of this year’s geniuses, does squid research! She does other things, too, of course. In her own words,

all of our research aims to understand the role of spatial and temporal patterns in ecological processes at spatial scales ranging from sub-meter to hundreds of kilometers, at temporal scales of minutes to years, and over a range of animal size from zooplankton to great whales.

She uses cool acoustical techniques to be able to track squid in real time. In this article about her work with the Humboldt squid, I was really fascinated that the frequencies found that worked for bouncing off of squid flesh were probably reflecting off the braincase, but possibly also the teeth on their suckers.

Humboldt squid are important to study these days because their range is expanding northward, perhaps because of overfishing and climate change. They were also the featured animal in an episode of NatGeo’s Dangerous Encounters, which I sadly missed but hope I can see in the future. The teaser videos alone are pretty great.

You can also watch this segment about them from KQED. Please ignore that they called called fish by that one guy.

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Maybe I’m a tourist in my own city, but I always jump at the opportunity to bring visitors to certain places I love– the zoo, the Met, the Natural History Museum, etc. This weekend included both the Bronx Zoo and the Met. The zoo was fantastic– no mollusks, as usual, but excellent sightings of some of my favorite animals who tend to be unconscious when I’m there: the slow loris and the red panda. Super adorable.

Then there was the Met. I love visiting the roof exhibition at the Met in the summer, because there’s a great skyline view over the park, and it’s just a cool place for an installation. This year is Big Bambú. This was a really fun installation. The summer installation breathes some life and energy into the Met, which can get a little laden down in classics and antiquities for me, as much as I do love that stuff to. Big Bambú reminded me of the City Museum in St. Louis, one of the best and most fun museums I’ve ever been to, and no doubt the most dangerous.

It’s a big bamboo structure.
Lashed together.
bamboo path & ties
There are paths through it into the upper reaches.
Big Bambu
But it also has this wild, birdsnest-like look to it.
big bambu
(photos there are from asterix611, marc dalio, Garrett Ziegler, and Rob Zand, respectively)

Because I do keep my eye out for these things, I did spot some mollusks in the art at the Met. First, this is a detail of a piece by Dali, that has some little shells on some sort of blob. Surreal!

Here’s the whole painting, The Accommodations of Desire.

Then in the European Paintings wing, there was this still life with oysters by Willem Claesz Heda.

Speaking of opulent meals, that evening was dinner at wd-50. What a weird, interesting meal! I started off with a cocktail that tasted exactly like Juicy Fruit gum and it was all fun and surprising tastes and textures from there. I want to go back for the 5 course dessert tasting. We also got a tour of the kitchen and met the chef, so it was a special evening. No mollusks were consumed by anyone at my table. This octopus in the bathroom seemed pleased about that. Or maybe surprised.

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Weekly link roundup time!

1. What are you doing this weekend? Watching Sharktopus I hope!

I was going to embed the trailer, but in fact it looks so godawful I thought better of it. I’ll hold out for Bearsharktopus.

2. Purdue researchers working on what makes oysters stick together. It seems that oysters are producing a “glue” that’s 90% calcium carbonate and 10% protein, as opposed to the byssal threads other mollusks use that are predominantly protein.

3. I’m fairly obsessed with this new species of nudibranch that makes little egg doilies. It’s like the nudibranch version of me! I have been known to make a doily or two in my day.

4. I don’t know if you’ve been following the saga of the Inland Octopus mural, but residents of Walla Walla, WA are taking action to make sure the mural stays. I hope it does. Look how cute!

Inland Octopus Mural
(photo: Josh Westbrook)

5. Also, if you want your baby to be the coolest hippie baby ever, Inland Octopus sells hands down the coolest tie dye clothing I have ever ever seen. Done by Leslie at Cosmic Farmhouse.

6. This is an exciting weekend for me. My roommate from my San Francisco years is in town, and we are basically going to eat our way across town. Our first stop, and probably most auspicious, is wd-50, a restaurant specializing in molecular gastronomy. There are also a fair number of mollusks on the menu. I don’t eat animals in general and cephalopods in particular, but they sure do cook up pretty.

Cuttlefish, cashew, rootbeer, watercress

Tomatillo-pine gazpacho, soybean falafel, octopus confit

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During my recent trip to the American Museum of Natural History, I stumbled upon a section I’d never been to before: The Hall of Mollusks! That’s not really what it’s called. I wish I had written down the name of the exhibition, because it was named after a person. Hopefully next time I’m there it’ll still be there, because it’s not labeled on the floor plan and I only found it accidentally while on my way to the restroom. If you’re ever at AMNH, here’s where to go:

This hallway is primarily a collection of shells, but there are also some models of cephalopods, nudibranchs, slugs, and the like. I think my favorite were the painted tree snails, Polymita picta, whose colors are the very definition of whimsy. My photo is awful and blurry, but here’s a much better one:

(photo: Incognita Nom de Plume)

The next section of the hallway was devoted to the mollusks of New York state. I got really excited, because it meant I might be able to identify those two kinds of snails whose shells I find in the Harlem Meer. Here those are once more.

And so here are my best guesses for both of these. Chinese mystery snail (how appropriate!) and Three whorled ram’s horn. Check out the AMNH specimens.

They look pretty good to me, but I’m certainly no expert. In any case, I was completely thrilled to find this corridor and have a tentative answer to my question. Museums for the win!

On to other parts of AMNH. I just can’t stay away from the Hall of Biodiversity.

(There’s nothing here for scale, but I do see people sitting inside this shell quite often.)
This octopus hangs from the ceiling, and I sort of love how glowy this photo is.

Of course, no trip to AMNH is complete without saying hello to the blue whale in the Millstein Hall of Ocean Life. When I first lived in New York City in 2002, the hall was closed for renovation. When they reopened it, there was a lot of fanfare– street banners saying “The whale is back!” and the like. I hadn’t seen the whale since I was but a wee girl on one of my family’s semiannual trips to the city. In my memory it was just the hugest thing I had ever seen. I was hesitant about going back, because it can be really disappointing to see something that awed you as a child and lose that sense of awe when you see that it’s nothing spectacular after all. Still, I couldn’t resist going back; AMNH has been such an incredible place for learning and making memories all my life. So, I went to see the whale. And you know what? It’s still just as awe inspiring as it was when I was 6. That’s how big blue whales are. It’ll be a banner day when I see one that’s not made of plaster.

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I went to the American Museum of Natural History yesterday, for the New York Paleontological Society’s first meeting of the ’10-’11 year. This is also my first year as a member. I’m constantly itching to get out of the city, and when I was both a youngster in the Adirondacks of NY and a college student in central NY, I loved smashing rocks open and being the first human to shed light on a fossil. I’m quite sure I’ll still enjoy it, especially if it means I get to invest in a purple hard hat. Plus, plenty of chances to meet some really ancient mollusks!

The meeting went for longer than I had anticipated, but I did get to run around the museum for about an hour before it closed. I found a hallway with an impressive mollusk collection that isn’t labeled on the floor plan, which I will report about later, but there’s also this most excellent fossil in the Grand Gallery.

This is a magnificent ammonite fossil, about two feet across and iridescent as all get out. The nacre of the shell fossilizes into a mineral called aragonite. It’s considered a gem (the other two gems that derive from life are opal and amber. 2/3 mollusks!) The fossil was donated to the museum by the company that promotes ammolite (see what they did there?) as a gemstone, so it’s half smarmy marketing, half unbelievably gorgeous fossil.

Ammonites are cephalopods who met their demise at the same time as our dinosaur friends. They are indeed useful fossils, since it’s always great to know where the sea used to be, and also the genus Perisphinctes is a good index fossil for the Jurassic period.

My other favorite thing in the gallery that housed the ammonite is the spider silk tapestry. Over a million wild golden orb spiders contributed their silk to this project, and it’s completely stunning and unique in the world. Since the spider can’t be domesticated, this isn’t a viable fabric on any scale, but what I wouldn’t give to see what it feels like.

spider silk
(photo: Angela Rutherford)

Just how sticky is it?

Lastly, I spotted this on my walk home from work today:

After enduring the hottest summer on record in New York City, this was the welcomest, welcomest sight. I’ve never anticipated winter quite so much in my life. I may come to regret that when I’m slogging through the dirtiest slush imaginable come January, but I will stand by it for now.

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There’s been so many awesome things on the internet this week that I want to share. Linkstravaganza!

First, the other participants in International Rock Flipping Day! It was a great crowd to be in; so many excellent sightings.

Lynda at mainlymongoose
Kordite in the Flickr group
Bill Murphy at Fertanish Chatter
Rebecca In The Woods
Dave Bonta, on Via Negativa. Here and here and on Flickr.
Paul, The Obligate Scientist
Wanderin’ Weeta. Here and on Flickr. Plus one to be posted soon.
Kate St. John on Outside My Window
Ontario Wanderer on Flickr
JayLeigh in Pacific Northwest Nature for Families
Fred Schueler: a Google document, copied here.
Rikaja in Slovakia
Bev Wigney at Journey to the Centre
Hugh, at Rock, Paper, Lizard

Well done, everyone. Thanks for finding the slugs I couldn’t! And a special thanks to Susannah at Wanderin’ Weeta for coordinating the event this year. I will practice over the course of the next year in hopes of great results next time around.

In case you don’t follow the websites with conventionally cute animals, it was Snail Week at Daily Squee! I’m diggin’ the invert love! Check out this ADORABLE baby snail.

Other great things:
1. A fantastic post over at the Spandrel Shop about the sea slugs that feed on algae and then incorporate the plastids into their bodies to become photosynthetic themselves. So cool.

2. Enormous octopus cake made the internet rounds this week. I saw it first on Make.

3. Another fascinating post, this time at Not Exactly Rocket Science, about parasitic worms that take over snail bodies and “drive” them around. Turns out there’s actually a class structure in these worms.

4. You got squid in my broccoli! You got broccoli in my squid! Two great tastes that taste great together.

5. Mollusk sex advice column over at Deep Sea News. Just too delightful.

6. Another snail video from Daily Squee.

7. Also, some of the craziest weather in NYC this week. Tornado! I don’t know if this photo from grapesofrad is ‘shopped or not, but it’s great nonetheless.

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Sea Lemon?

Nope. Harlem Meer orange.

This amused me to no end when I saw it floating in the Meer the other day while I was checking out the cypress knees along the shore. It immediately reminded me of one of the more common nudibranchs to spot along the coast in the Bay Area, known as the sea lemon. I’ve met this mollusk at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve but never photographed it, so thank goodness for flickr. Here it is in all its citrusy glory.

7b. Sea Lemon
(photo: kqedquest)

I walk around the Harlem Meer every day as a part of my commute. It’s a lovely part of Central Park and great habitat for lots of plants and animals.

As Above So Below
(photo: Dave Bledsoe)

I get to walk by two of my all time favorite tree species (bald cypress and gingko), and I get to check out what lots of different birds are up to, including the odd heron and cormorant. There are turtles in abundance, it’s been a great year for butterflies, occasionally I see someone reel in a little fish, and get this: there are mollusks! Two different aquatic snails, to be specific.

I don’t know what either species is, alas. I checked in at the Discovery Center to see if they had any information, but they are very fish and tree-centric there. Also, I haven’t seen either of them alive. Their empty shells bob along the edges of the Meer all summer. Someone is clearly really into eating them–could it be the turtles? the ducks? It’s a bit cruel that in my efforts to spot mollusks in my own city, all I’m presented with are their remains, but at least I know they’re around.

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I’ve been wanting to feature mollusks that will kill you, and I saw a video online today that reminded me that it’s pretty important that people are aware that mollusks can kill them. Here’s a link to a video of a man playing with a blue-ringed octopus. It is awfully cute, so I can understand the urge.

Here’s a photo of the blue-ringed octopus. It really is spectacularly beautiful, which should be a clue that it’s BAD NEWS BEARS.

Why don’t we learn when we’re young that these are some of the deadliest things one can encounter? The fact that I don’t live anywhere near where they live doesn’t really seem like an excuse. I don’t live where tigers, cobras, or crocodiles live, but I certainly knew by age, oh, maybe five?, that I should stay away from those. I do recall having dreams when I was very young about tigers attacking me from the woods behind the gas station/convenience store/dairy in my hometown, though, so I’m not sure the “I don’t live where these live” part of that lesson fully sank in. Anyway, I’d encourage everyone to learn more about some of these potentially deadly invertebrates, including mollusks and also box jellies. Of course the probability of running across one of these little meanies is vanishingly small and you should be much more afraid of car accidents or getting murdered by your spouse, but knowledge is power!

The scariest part of the blue ring octopus is how it kills you. The toxins render you completely paralyzed but cognizant. Is there anything more terrifying? The amazing part is that if rescue/artificial breathing is done for the duration of the time from the time the octopus bites someone to the time their body processes the toxin, it’s possible to survive the attack!

I feel like this post could use a cute mollusk chaser after all that grimness. Here!

(via cute overload and National Geographic)

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Rock flipping adventures

I live here.
Brooklyn and Manhattan
(photo: Katy Silberger)
Where I actually live isn’t in the frame there, but you get the idea. It can be very pretty in its own way. To wit:
Lower Manhattan Skyline at Twilight from the Manhattan Bridge, New York City
(photo: Andrew Mace)

It’s not the kind of place one expects to see a ton of wildlife, as it were. It took me a while to find a good spot for rock flipping. I am so fortunate to live fairly close to Central Park, so it was the obvious target. I had to get off the beaten path a little bit, because there weren’t a ton of rocks along the main paths and what rocks there were were extremely urine-smelling (this is something you can say about a lot of New York, sadly), so I was neither going to touch them nor was I convinced they made great habitat for anybody. I did eventually find this spot.

It’s sort of a riparian environment, so I figured there would be something good to see here. I saw ants and one earwig (eek!), though they scuttled away very quickly. Under one rock I found a whole bunch of these little buggers being sleepy and lazy. I think they’re garden centipedes? Sorry the photo is kinda blurry; this camera I’m currently borrowing is tricky.

I didn’t see much else. I think it may be that it’s been such a hot, dry summer; the underneaths of many of the rocks I overturned weren’t the slightest bit damp. Still, I saw one cool rock underside, and that was the object. Spotting a mollusk was also a goal but no luck there. I did wander around in the North Woods of the park, though, and saw some spots I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. It’s a nice reminder that Manhattan can look like this if you know where to look.

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For a long time now, I’ve wanted to keep goats. Not something I can do in New York, obviously, but it’s a long term goal. I’d like them for a few reasons: they produce fiber that I can make yarn out of, they are great lawnmowers, and they are hilarious when they headbutt things or stand on top of things.

I was thrilled at how many goats were at the Haddam Neck fair I attended last weekend. I love a good fair just as much as a natural history museum, I must say. You can take the girl out of the country, etc etc. The petting zoo at the fair was exceptional (camels and camelids! zedonk! zebu cows! my god, the scrabble points!) but mostly I just love goats. They were too busy trying to eat my clothing to sit still and pose for a decent photo, but check this out.

Now, compare that to this photo I took at the Seattle Aquarium in June.

The pupils, so rectangular! One more thing to love.

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