Narwhal I

a pod of magic
breaks through the floe
what a peculiar way


The whale series returns with Ishmael’s Nostril whale.

Whether you pronounce its name nar-wall or nar-whale, this creature’s resemblance to the unicorn probably has you lost in reverie. You recall the days of imaginary friends and eating crayons.

The narwhal is whimsical, dapper, and has what appears to be a spiraled candy stick sprouting from its head. Actually, only males sprout the long tusk. Similar to other tusked animals, such as walruses, the narwhal’s tusk is a modified tooth.

Why have a tooth sticking out of your head? According to Ishmael, “it would be hard to say.”

A few hypotheses are:

1. Attracting lady narwhal
Male narwhal with longer tusks have larger testes. Larger testes can have faster swimming sperm with superior egg-fertilizing power. So, longer tusks could signal a male’s virility to females.

2. Lightsaber battles
The idea that there are Jedi and Sith narwhals inhabiting Earth’s oceans has not been thoroughly investigated. There is currently no evidence that narwhal tusks glow or are made of kyber crystal. Scars are visible on the bodies of narwhals suggesting males use the tusks for battle. Males do touch their tusks together but cetacean researchers do not think these interactions are aggressive in nature. Rather, if tusks are an honest indicator of quality then males may size up their competitors by touching tusks.

3. Skewering dinner
Narwhal skewers make appearances at BBQs but skewering of prey is not observed in the wild. Narwhal eat their dinner by sucking squid, halibut, and cod into their mouths. [Update: Drone video footage recorded narwhal stunning prey with their tusks!]

4. Environmental sensor
Human teeth are sensitive and the narwhal’s tooth/tusk is sensitive too. One theory is that nerve endings on the tusk’s surface are there to detect differences between salt and fresh water.

5. Knitting
Because who else will make scarves to keep the Arctic foxes warm?

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Fishtail palm

what if
ivy swam in the seas?
mulch, shell, sand


I visited Detroit’s Belle Isle on a blisteringly hot day in July. Naturally, to seek reprieve from the heat I entered the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. The humid air enveloped me as I wandered through the vegetation. As my eyes shifted from the thermometer reading above 35 degrees centigrade I saw a placard with the words “fishtail palm”.

Fishtail palms are named for the plant’s leaves which are thought to resemble a fish’s tail or caudal fin. One might argue the leaves have more of a frayed, pectoral-fin look. The fishtail palm’s flower is magnificently ornate and did remind me of the elongated fins of the veiltail Siamese fighting fish. Regardless, a new curiosity had been sparked; what other aquatic themes are coupled to plant names?

1. Shark Bite
A succulent plant in the Agave genus. Sharkskin Shoes, Little Shark, Mako Shark, and Great White Shark variants also exist.

2. Turtlehead
A wildflower from the Figwort family. The genus name Chelone translates to tortoise in Greek.

3. Shrimp plant
An evergreen with flowers that resemble a shrimp’s abdomen and tail.

4. Sea urchin hakea
Native to Australia, this plant is exactly what you would imagine if a shrub were to flower sea urchins.

5. Flying Goldfish
A lovely display of fiery-coloured, fish-shaped flowers leaping into the air.

Baleen

morning!
he takes in the salt
retiring to depth


Next up in the whales series is baleen – also known as whalebone. Except that baleen is not bone. Baleen is the bristly drapery that lines the mouth of a dozen species of whales, including the exalted humpback whale, the behemoth blue whale, the elusory Omura’s whale, and the fin whale or Ischmael’s “Whalebone whale”. Like nuptial tubercles, baleen is made of keratin.

If you are a whale without teeth then baleen is your utensil of choice. You first take an enormous gulp of water. Let your blubbery mouth expand like an accordion. Then, with your tongue, push the water back out into the ocean through the baleen sieve. There should be krill leftover on the baleen strands that you can lap up with your tongue.

When whaling was a prolific industry, there were many fascinatingly creative uses of baleen (both the bristles and the “plates” to which the bristles were attached): brooms, umbrellas, buggy whips, frames for eyeglasses, chess sets, fishing line, hair brushes, and baskets. In need of a corset? There’s a baleen for that. Don’t have a “ditty box” to hold your pick-up sticks? There’s a baleen for that. The most ornate use of baleen is scrimshaw – art made from whale parts. And my favourite use of baleen, a toboggan!

Spermaceti

royalty’s fish
radiating into the night
to fathoms and float


I’ve been reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick during my lunches. Needless to say, this book is markedly different from my usual reads: John Grisham’s binge-worthy lawyer escapades and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s romantic chronicles.

This next series of posts will embrace whales. Herman referred to them as leviathans – biblical sea monsters of enormity.

Let’s start with Moby Dick himself, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). The species name refers to its giant forehead.

There are many fascinating aspects to this aquatic goliath, including its highly-sought after vomit, curious sleeping habits, unexpected sociality, finesse for ramming its head into things, and interactions with plastic pollution.

I am going to focus on spermaceti – the liquid wax inside the sperm whale’s massive noggin. Spermaceti, awkwardly mistaken for whale semen, is contained within the spermaceti organ.

For 18th century whalers, spermaceti meant money. Gallons of the “headmatter” would be harvested from a sperm whale, processed and sold. The most influential use of spermaceti was producing light. The oil component of spermaceti was used as a fuel for lamps. The wax component was formed into candles that burned “longer, cleaner, and brighter…” than beeswax candles. However, fuel and candles were limited to the wealthy who could afford them. Fuel and candle production was an astoundingly laborious process, from whale capture and spermaceti extraction to oil separation spanning multiple months. Toilsome production kept the price of these commodities high.

For the whales themselves, spermaceti means messaging. In the 1970s spermaceti was first hypothesized to have a role in echolocation – the way by which toothed whales (or odontocetes) communicate. Since then, scientists have gathered evidence to suggest that indeed the spermaceti organ serves as an echo chamber for the clicking sounds sperm whales make to say hello.

Atlantic Cod

a prize batty—but
empty waves among the shingles
rock icon


After attending a conference in Newfoundland, Canada last month, the history and life history of Atlantic cod is fresh in my mind. The cod that I kissed during the “screech-in”, however, was not fresh.

Bountiful and infinite are two words someone living on the northeast coast of North America in the 17th century would have used to describe Atlantic cod. Actually, someone alive only 50 years ago may have said the same thing. Uncertainty and contentious are two words someone alive today would use to describe Atlantic cod.

Why the change in vernacular? Because of the infamous collapse of Newfoundland’s Atlantic cod fishery in the early 1990s. Since then Atlantic cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine have collapsed, and Europe’s stocks aren’t doing well either.

But maybe, the Atlantic cod are back in town. Too early to tell if they are here to stay.

Atlantic cod are quite striking in the water. Out of the water, there is a certain beauty to their dried corpses. It’s both fascinating and unsettling to me that many fishes are coupled with such richly tragic narratives.

P.S. Atlantic cod grunt during the spawning season. A partnership between fishers and scientists is figuring out how to hone in on these grunts to detect and avoid shoals of mating cod.

Sweetlips

kiss of death
of another coral dweller
natural filler


Watch out Angelina and Kim, your alluring pouts are being rivaled by the sweetlips (genus Plectorhinchus, Family Haemulidae).

In fact, the diversity within this genus could be the inspiration for CoverGirl’s next lipstick line. Sweetlips come in spottedgold-linedribboned, and dusky.

Apart from various descriptions of the sweetlips’ signature feature, their lips (e.g. rubbery, blubber-like, fleshy), this fish has a few other noteworthy traits.

Juvenile sweetlips can look strikingly different from adults. A juvenile Oriental sweetlips is brown with white splotches. When divers happen upon them as adults, Oriental sweetlips are a stunning meld of black and white stripes accented with spotty yellow fins.

Sweetlips are a common aquarium fish. China cultures three-banded and spotted sweetlips for food. Several species are fished for recreationally in Australia, including the newly described – Plectorhinchus caeruleonothus. This species is known to fishers as the “blue bastard”, on account of its blue colouration in adulthood and how difficult it is to catch. Ironically, this sweetlipped fish also “kisses”.

Parrotfish IV

casting as
grit engineers flail
the market


This final installment of the parrotfish series is about sand castles.

To understand the parrotfish-sand castle connection we must consider what a parrotfish eats. Parrotfish are herbivores and eat algae. But the algae is attached to coral, so parrotfish eat coral for the algae. Nutrients are absorbed from the algae but what is a fish to do with all that calcium carbonate filling its digestive tract? Poop it out as sand of course! And poop they do. Parrotfish poop so much that Hawaii’s beaches are thought to be primarily comprised of parrotfish poop. The island of Vakkaru in the Maldives is a giant 0.19 kmmound of parrotfish poop. The parrotfish’s ferocious coral consumption and delightful defecation affords it a theme song and status as a bioeroder.

So what happens when there aren’t parrotfish in the water building sand castles?

Well first, coral reefs are suffocated by algae. Thereafter, the reefs will be devoid of fishes. Mangy and fishless reefs don’t exactly boost tourism, support sustainable fisheries, or maintain ecosystem health.

This scenario is the reality for many coral reefs in the Caribbean. Why have the parrotfish disappeared? Overfishing is the primary culprit according to an extensive and collaborative study utilizing over 40 years of data. What needs to be done? The International Coral Reef Initiative put forth recommendations to repair the reefs. The priority, while keeping an open dialogue with all stakeholders (e.g., indigenous communities, industry, etc.), is to implement fisheries regulations that will aid in the recovery of parrotfish populations. Not an easy task, but one worth tackling to protect valuable natural resources.

 

Parrotfish III

good night sir
the stars will shine!
all the dimensions


Planning a camping trip to the Great Barrier Reef for a weekend away with your fellow parrotfish? Don’t forget to pack your sleeping bag!

Actually, your parrotfish comrades don’t pack sleeping bags because they make their own sleeping bags. It’s not exactly your standard, Columbia Reactor™ 25 Mummy II Sleeping Bag. It looks more like a futuristic space pod George Lucas invented in the 1970s. It is in fact a bubble of mucus that encases the parrotfish and jiggles like jello to the rhythm of the ocean currents.

Parrotfish hunker down to the seafloor at night. They find a nook among the corals and darkness. Then parrotfish begin secreting mucus from their mouths. The mucus cocoon takes shape at the fish’s head and extends backward.

Why, why, why?

Hypothesis 1: prevent scratching against coral
While sleeping in their slimy cocoons parrotfish are neutrally buoyant – they are neither sinking nor floating.

Hypothesis 2: avoid predation by moray eels
A study in the 1950s proposed this hypothesis, but today’s scientists aren’t completely sold on the idea.

Hypothesis 3: protection from silt
No one likes sand particles falling on them while they sleep.

Hypothesis 4: minimize bacterial growth and parasite loads
Parrotfish mucus contains antibodies and individuals without cocoons end up with more parasites.

My Hypothesis: cocoons are cozy
Maybe parrotfish simply want to feel the warm embrace of their own mucus; to each their own.

Parrotfish II

lustful and
orchestrated.
wash without rest


I think parrotfish mating would make for an entertaining broadway narrative.

NARRATOR
Danny Bullet is a bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) with a temper. He grew up in one of the roughest lagoons in Northern Australia. He’s got his own territory now but often gets into brawls with other guys. His battle wounds are always on display on his giant forehead – his weapon of choice when fighting males that swim too close.

Flashback scene to fight between Danny Bullet and rival.

NARRATOR
It’s Tuesday at sunrise. A full moon is nigh. Danny is on the prowl. Schools of lady parrotfish arrive on the scene. Danny bolts toward Sandy, who is with Betty, Frenchie, Jan and 20 other females. His face blushes white.

Heartfelt solo by Danny.

NARRATOR
Danny casually circles back to his territory. The ladies blush white and approach him.

Dramatic violin and spotlight on Danny and his harem.

NARRATOR
The group ascends and eggs and sperm are released simultaneously. 

Percussion section, fortissimo.

Other groups enter stage left, the fog machine is turned on and white haze blankets the audience.

Parrotfish I

psychedelic morph
bored in the landscape
flash, flash, print


This is the first post in a series about parrotfishes.

Today we are introduced to the aesthetics of the parrotfish.

Seeing a parrotfish can be a dizzying experience. Your eyes bulge while processing the kaleidoscopic colouring. Your eyes glaze while trying to decipher the polka-dots and waving scribbles. Parrotfish seem to embody the colours of Warhol and the outlandishly bipolar style of Lady Gaga.

Parrotfish are classified as protogynous hermaphrodites. Most are born female but as they age can convert to males. The fish that remain females tend to look a bit drab. The females that change into males are downright gaudy. Cruise ship carpet gaudy. For example, the female Bleeker’s parrotfish (Chlorurus bleekeri) achieves her sophisticated look with muted hues of olive and cream. Male Bleeker’s parrotfish are a vibrant splattering of blues and greens.

But let your eyes relax. Take in the coral structures and the enveloping azure. Does the parrotfish start to melt into the reef and fade into the infinite blue?

The idea is that when parrotfish are viewed from a distance, against the backdrop of their natural environment, the wacky colouring and patterns actually blend the fish into their surroundings.

P.S. Colourful parrotfish in water inspired this watercolour parrotfish.