Friday, April 20, 2018

Adorable Leftovers: Bobtail Squid Buries Itself

One of the great lessons of reporting, which I'm still learning, is that you should always do far too much of it. Take photos of everything and everyone, to use as references in writing descriptions. Take notes on irrelevant tangents as well as direct answers to questions. To quote my favorite security blanket, The Science Writers' Handbook, "Ask about the chain saw on the source's bookshelf or the scar on her hand."

For one thing, all this over-reporting is necessary in order to find the story. You can't know ahead of time exactly what characters and details you'll need, and often you don't even know the general structure of the piece. For another, extensive notes can provide a wealth of material to be mined and built upon for later stories.

And sometimes, in the course of reporting, you'll end up with a video that's just so cute it will afford you and your family and friends endless entertainment, even if you never publish it anywhere but your own blog.

Now, dear reader, you too can enjoy this bobtail squid burying itself in sand in Robyn Crook's lab at San Francisco State University:

Video taken while reporting "Humane studies of octopuses get a boost" for Science magazine. Unfortunately not recorded in audio but only jotted down in my notebook was Crook's comment from the point of view of the pre-burial squid: "Oh, my bum is showing!"

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Difference

Today is my 35th birthday, and I think I've finally figured out the difference between being a kid and being a grown-up. It involves shoelaces, cat vomit, and popsicles.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Best of Cephalopods, The Worst of Cephalopods

At my first author event I fielded some excellent questions, such as "Where did cuttlefish come from?" and "How did your book get indexed?" I thought I was doing fine. Then an old friend lobbed this multi-pronged missile at me:

What is the best cephalopod? And, if it isn't the same, what is your favorite cephalopod? Also: what is the worst cephalopod?

Temporarily paralyzed by choice, I stammered out an appreciation of the query's depth and complexity. And then I rallied. Here are my answers, illuminated with additional reflection since that evening:

Rickard Zerpe/Flickr CC BY-SA-2.0
FAVORITE CEPHALOPOD: Pygmy Squid (Idiosepius spp.)

RATING: five stars, two tentacles, one glue gland

REVIEW: This adorable genus contains seven known species, all of which glue themselves to seagrass or seaweed with a mysterious and magnificent mucus. According to Mark Norman's Cephalopods: A World Guide, northern pygmy squid "feed on crustaceans . . . as large as themselves which they attack from behind and quickly eat into the heart." What's not to love?

FUN FACT: Scientists are working on turning pygmy squid into a model organism--like white mice and fruit flies!

LOCATION: South Africa and the western Pacific Ocean

John Forsythe/CephBase CC BY-NC-ND-3.0
OTHER FAVORITE CEPHALOPOD: California Lilliput Octopus (Octopus micropyrsus)

RATING: five stars, three centimeters

REVIEW: Elusive as it is, this species completely slipped my mind at the bookstore the other night. But it was the subject of my first-ever cephalopod research project, back when I was an undergraduate in Santa Barbara, and as such it will always hold a special place in my heart.

FUN FACT: Lilliput octopus eggs are enormous, up to one-third the length of an adult's body!

LOCATION: California, natch, both Alta and Baja. Within that range, they like to hang out in giant kelp holdfasts. After picking apart dozens of holdfasts, I can tell you that 99.9% of the arms you think might belong to a Lilliput octopus will turn out to be part of a brittle star.

Citron/Wikipedia CC BY-SA-3.0
BEST CEPHALOPOD: Vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)

RATING: five stars, four weird fins, two snot-covered filaments

REVIEW: Where do I even start? Named like a nightmare, these animals are in fact peaceful blue-eyed grazers. They defend themselves by inversion and, if that doesn't work, with a dazzling light show. They like to keep scientists guessing--despite the "squid" in their name, their anatomy reveals that they're more like a kind of octopus. And they're very patient parents.

FUN FACT: Vampire squid are born with one pair of fins, then grow a second pair and eventually lose their "baby fins." (Does the "fin fairy" put money under their pillows?)

LOCATION: The Deep Sea--yeah, pretty much all of it

Martin R. Smith/Wikipedia CC0-1.0
WORST CEPHALOPOD: Nectocaris pteryx

RATING: five hundred million years old

REVIEW: Come on, did you really think I'd name any living cephalopod? Nectocaris was initially thought to be a kind of shrimp, but a controversial 2010 Nature paper re-interpreted it as a squid-like creature, complete with tentacles and siphon. Current scientific consensus, from a review by Björn Kröger and colleagues: "Nectocaris is contrary to our understanding of cephalopod evolution . . . A more likely hypothesis is that Nectocaris . . . developed a mode of life remarkably similar to cephalopods." Evolutionary convergence at work.

FUN FACT: Cephalopod paleontologists seem pretty tired of talking about Nectocaris, maybe don't bring it up--talk about ammonoids instead!

LOCATION: Burgess Shale, Chengjiang Biota, Emu Bay Shale

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Girl with the Pet Octopus

It's October 8th, and we all know what that means . . . the beginning of the most chromatophore-rific, jet-tacular time of the year! It's time to sing "Hearts of Three, They're For Me"* and bake suction-cupcakes.

That's right, it's Octopus Day--the first of the annual Cephalopod Awareness Days! My book Squid Empire came out just in time, and that's not a complete coincidence.

The book's introduction includes a brief account of a very special episode in my life:
I met my first cephalopod on a family road trip when I was ten years old. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, I stood mesmerized by the rippling skin, the undulating arms, and the intimate eyes of a giant Pacific octopus. Shortly after returning home, with my father’s patient support, I procured a secondhand saltwater aquarium and became known at school as “the girl with the pet octopus.”
To honor all the world's eight-armed species, today seems like a good day to elaborate on that story.

Once upon a time, many years before Craigslist, my dad and I pored over pages and pages of pennysavers, looking for an affordable aquarium big enough to house an octopus. (Even the small species like a lot of space.) To raise the money for it, I sold the American Girl "Samantha" doll that I had saved up for years to buy--it felt like years, anyway, and I think it may in fact have been more than twelve months. I recall no regrets.

We ended up with a sixty-gallon aquarium and there wasn't room for much else in my bedroom once it was installed. Fortunately I had a loft bed, or it never would have fit. Everything that I did squeeze around the tank--bookshelves, desk, dresser--sooner or later became encrusted with salt.

I started with a couple of hardy blue damselfish to cycle the tank and make sure it was habitable before bringing home a precious, precious octopus. I wasn't especially partial to the fish, but I did have a weakness for any living thing that came under my care, so I gave them names and talked to them. And then the time came to introduce them to my first octopus, Serendipity.

I still have my childhood copy of this book.
I named Serendipity after my favorite literary sea monster. I was pretty sure that she was a girl because I could never see a hectocotylized arm, though I was also aware that its invisibility was no guarantee of its absence.

I fed Serendipity cubes of frozen brine shrimp, which I kept in the kitchen freezer--the only "meat" in our vegetarian household. I would pop out these tiny cubes one at a time and lower them into the water until most of my arm was submerged, cautiously approaching Serendipity's lair. I thrilled at the sensation when her arms caressed my fingers, curling and tickling as she took the crustacean cube. Her arm web enclosed the food, but through her skin you could still see its clear outline as her little beak gnawed away at it.

She usually accepted frozen food, but everyone says that octopuses prefer live prey and it didn't take Serendipity long to find some of her own.

Shortly after the demise of the damselfish, I discovered my darling octopus sitting inside the empty shell of one of the snails I had bought for cleaning algae off the tank walls (and which, of course, I had also named and talked to). I see on the website LiveAquaria that "The peaceful Turbo Snail should not be kept with aggressive tankmates that can quickly overcome this slow-moving creature." Indeed.

Maybe I forgave Serendipity her carnivorous ways in part because I knew that her own brief candle would soon be out, out. She lived with me for about a year, maybe less. My memory of her death is discovering her body at the bottom of the aquarium, arms curled up, rocking lifelessly in the current. I cried far more for her than I had for the fish and snails she devoured.

My local fish store provided a replacement, and I thought I saw some enlarged suckers on this one so I named him Rex. Actually, I'm not sure I was capable of giving such a simple, straightforward name to anything--I think Rex was probably an abbreviation for something. Anyway, Rex ate brine shrimp cubes, too, and this time I didn't stock his larder with delicious tankmates.

But Rex was my last pet octopus. When he died, I decided I was through with the heartache of such short-lived pets. Over the ensuing years I moved on to more perennial species: anemones, seahorses, and most memorably a pufferfish named Agnes. She was perhaps the closest I ever got to that puppy I asked for every Christmas. Eventually Agnes came to college with me, and woke me every morning by splashing loudly for breakfast. She even has a cameo in Squid Empire, page 150.

Sadly, I don't have pictures of my childhood octopuses. They lived in the pre-digital days, and I wasn't much of a photographer anyway. But I do still have the octopus postcard that my parents bought for me at that fateful visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Although the octopuses both large and small who first awoke my lifelong passion are long gone, their inspiration endures.

Thank you, my eight-armed friends.

* Y'know, because cephalopods have three hearts: two branchial hearts that pump blood to each gill plus a systemic heart that pumps blood to the rest of the body. I haven't yet written the words to this song, though.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

An Ode to Purple

Jacarandas on Stansbury Street in LA, photo by Nurit Katz
People often joke that California, especially Southern California, has no seasons. But of course it does. There's the dry season and the less-dry season; or, if you like, smoggy and less-smoggy. My favorite, though, has always been jacaranda season.

As a child in LA, I would ask my mother to drive me to the streets that were most full of blooming jacarandas*, and I would run up and down the sidewalk, collecting freshly fallen flowers. I nested them carefully one inside another, building chains and towers of purple. Jacarandas might well be the reason purple is my favorite color.

I used to make plans for how purple my house would be when I grew up. The walls would be painted purple, obviously, inside and out. And the yard would be planted with lavender, lilies of the Nile, and jacaranda trees.

Stacking jacaranda blossoms is harder with big fat grownup fingers.
Jacaranda season came to LA last month, and a friend of mine posted her beautiful photos of the bloom along with a link to an LAist article, summarizing the city's history with this iconic tree.

I was delighted to learn than in 2010, there were one hundred and forty-eight thousand, five hundred and thirty jacaranda trees in Los Angeles. We don't have nearly as many in my current northern California neighborhood, and ours didn't flower until this month. However, it seems likely that we owe our half-dozen trees, at least indirectly, to the same horticulturalist who spread jacarandas so far and wide in the south of the state: Kate Sessions.

Though she's been likened to Johnny Appleseed and named the Mother of Balboa Park**, I don't recall ever learning about her before. She is fascinating.

Born in San Francisco to a family that had rushed there in search of gold, she sought her own enrichment through education. At the University of California, Berkeley, she wrote an essay called "The Natural Sciences as a Field for Women's Labor"--which I'm dying to read, and haven't yet been able to track down.

After graduating with a chemistry degree in 1881, Sessions moved to San Diego, where she soon owned a nursery, then a flower shop, growing fields, and more nurseries. She had a knack for finding non-native plants that would thrive in California. Among more than a hundred species she introduced and popularized are the now-ubiquitous bougainvillea (from South America) and bird of paradise (from South Africa), as well as jacaranda (also from South America***).

Kate Sessions, from the San Diego History Center
The ensuing century-plus has witnessed many changes, not least (nor hardly greatest) a shift in our attitude toward the introduction of non-natives. Having experienced the havoc of ornamentals-turned-invasives like kudzu and ice plant, we've grown leery of transplanting exotics and nostalgic for the days before weeds.

So far as I can discern, Sessions herself didn't introduce anything invasive--due perhaps to foresight, perhaps to luck. Other contemporary introductions were less benign. Eucalyptus in California, for example, has become a controversial tree if ever there was one.

During my own scholastic tenure in the natural sciences, I absorbed a good deal of biological sentiment toward the preservation and restoration of native species. When I finally found myself partial owner of a house, my first project was to sheet-mulch the entire lawn and replace it with manzanita, sage, and California lilac. (The latter two just happen to produce brilliant blue-purple flowers.)

And yet I kept the non-native lilies of the Nile that came with the house. How could I uproot them, when I'd dreamed for so long of having my own? In the end, my landscaping choices were not really so different from those of Sessions, who loved and propagated California natives along with her introductions.

Perhaps one day I'll even plant myself a jacaranda tree, and drench my native garden with a rain of purple blossoms.

The author's son, nonplussed by a neighbor's jacaranda carpet.

* Which is, in retrospect, just about the most quintessentially LA thing I can imagine.

** Balboa Park is the enormous beating green heart of San Diego. Have you heard of the San Diego Zoo? It's inside Balboa Park.

*** I've always pronounced the initial consonant of "jacaranda" voicelessly, as in Spanish. The first time I heard someone call them Jack-o-randas, it threw me into an apoplexy. Now I just pretend I didn't hear.

Monday, April 3, 2017


<I'm hungry> said Eats-Fast.

<We don't care> said Has-Ideas and Big-Suckers.

The three giant squid were swimming through the sea as quickly as their jets could carry them, which was not very quickly at all, since they were also dragging the strangest piece of equipment any squid had ever carried: a submersible.

Of course, it wasn't a submersible anymore. Has-Ideas had overhauled its structure completely. The vessel now contained water instead of air, and bore wheels instead of a propeller. If a human suffering from equal parts whimsy and pedantry had seen it, that human might have called it a surfacible.

<I'm lost> said Big-Suckers.

<We don't care> said Has-Ideas and Eats-Fast.

Eats-Fast was lost too, but saw no reason to admit it. She knew that Has-Ideas knew where they were going. An island, Has-Ideas had said, an island made of beautiful rocks and surrounded by cool water. An island where people would catch fish and bring them to you, more than even Eats-Fast could swallow. Her salivary glands fired up and her radula rasped the inside of her beak in anticipation.

No squids had ever crawled out of the ocean before. A few of their distant cousins the octopuses had tried it, roaming from tidepool to tidepool, never staying away from water for long. Their reports filtered down through plankton and tuna, through anglerfish and whales, until even giant squid in the depths of the sea had heard about the unbelievably friendly and accommodating creatures that lived on land.

<I'm scared> said Has-Ideas, slowing down as they reached the shallow water where sunlight illuminated every detail of the squids' color-changing skin. They weren't used to seeing each other in such bright light, so to her companions it looked like Has-Ideas had shouted as loudly as possible: <I'M SCARED>.

<WE DON'T CARE> Eats-Fast and Big-Suckers shouted back cheerfully. They continued to haul the surfacible up the rocky slope, dragging Has-Ideas along with them.

Has-Ideas couldn't help trying new things. As a paralarva, she'd used mucus to create a food-catching umbrella. As a juvenile, she'd constructed a predator deterrent out of sharp fish bones. And as a young adult, the moment she'd seen the broken submersible half-sunk in the mud of the seafloor, she knew it was her destiny to use it on land the way the bony four-armed creatures used it underwater.

But now that she and her friends were only a few feet from the air—now that they were climbing inside the surfacible and sealing the door—now that she was working the machinery to turn the wheels to clatter and splash onto land—now she was terrified. Sure, some humans loved octopuses, and built predator-free homes for them, and fed them delicacies.

Others ate them alive.


(This was all Twitter's fault. Here's how it happened:

And then Topazios absented itself from the story by the time I finished writing. Which is just as well, because no one calls it that anymore.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

That Accursed Rainbow Song

No, not that one; that one's fine. And this version's lovely, of course. I'm talking about the rainbow song that my kid sings in preschool to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star:

Red and orange, green and blue,
Shiny yellow, purple too.
All the colors that we know
Live up in the rainbow.

Let's pass over the metric stumble in the final line. Let's talk about scientific stumbles instead.

Purple is not in the rainbow. "Purple" is what happens when you mix red and blue, and that can't happen in a rainbow because red and blue are on opposite sides. When you break up white light with water or a prism, the colors are organized by wavelength, and while red is the longest wavelength of visible light, blue is on the short end.

In a rainbow, we get to see orange between red and yellow, and we get to see green between yellow and blue. And on the far side of blue, we get to see violet--the shortest wavelength human eyes can detect.

At this point (if not much earlier), some people will probably roll their eyes and state: "You say violet, I say purple; let's call the whole thing off." I'll simply answer that with links to Wikipedia and Quora, so I can go on to the other aspect of the rainbow song that drives me bananas: the colors are out of order.

Every time my daughter draws a rainbow--which is at least twice a day--she sings the song to remind herself how to do it. Thus, as a direct result of the ditty's failure to respect the facts of electromagnetic radiation, our house is full of rainbows that look like this:

Was this entire post an excuse to post my kid's artwork online? WAS IT? I really couldn't say.

Now, I am wholly in favor of free artistic expression. We've been reading Eric Carle's The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse and I would never in a million years tell my kid she drew something "wrong." Still, would there be any harm in amending the song to reflect reality? Hey, maybe I can fix the meter while I'm at it.

Red and orange, yellow and green,
Blue and violet, that we've seen,
All the colors in white light--
A rainbow's such a lovely sight.

I hereby release these lyrics into the public domain. Go ahead and use them in all the schools and playgroups. I ask no royalties, no attribution--only the dissemination of accurate knowledge about optics to our impressionable youth.

N.B. "What about indigo?" demands the righteously indignant reader. "If you're going to be pedantic about purple and violet, how dare you leave one of Newton's seven canonical colors out of your revisionist lyrics?" 

Dear Righteous Reader, at first this troubled me too, but it didn't trouble me quite as much as the nagging feeling that I've never been able to see indigo in the rainbow anyway. 

A bit of research revealed that I'm not the only one. There's a nice 1972 paper in the American Journal of Physics called "Why Did Newton See Indigo in the Spectrum?" and the argument against indigo is summarized cogently in this 2015 article at the National Post.