Roaches on the rocks? What kind of drink is that?

It's a roach, it's a plane, it's an isopod
Roaches on the rocks. A drink for the strongest of blenders and guts. York River, Virginia

While fishing I spotted what looked like roaches on the rocks of the rip rap along the river. Like little cattle, they were grazing on the algae of the rocks. Unlike roaches who scatter when the light is flicked on, these scattered when my shadow preceded me. I jammed my hand into the rocks and was able to snag one. It wasn’t a roach – which is an insect – but a marine pillbug, Ligia exotica, which is sometimes called a wharf roach. Pillbugs (aka rolly-pollies) are crustaceans (like crabs and shrimp) and known to invert geeks as isopods. You may have seen their terrestrial cousins under a log and when you picked up the little pillbug it rolled up into an armored ball. My marine isopods I found do not roll up like an armadillo, but instead scatter like roaches they are sometimes called. Being as long as a crayon broken in half, these are the largest isopods I’ve seen.

Roaches on the rocks? I want someone to figure out what that drink is and make it for me. Challenge laid.

Rock isopod, Ligia exotica, York River, Virginia (2)

Rock isopod, Ligia exotica, York River, Virginia (1)

Why does the croaker croak?

Atlantic Croaker
Ribbit, ribbit. I mean, croak, croak

York River, Virginia – Mother’s Day

The tip of my rod tickled the air. I only looked up from book four of the Game of Thrones series. Whatever was on the other end of the line either wasn’t big enough or wasn’t on the hook yet. I shifted my feet in the hot sand until I found the coolness of the thermocline’s underbelly.

The rodtip danced and the rod shifted. I picked up the rod and waited until I felt a good hard tug and jerked back. It wasn’t a big fight, but it was good to feel my line taut. Silver and pinkish scales shimmered as I landed the fish. As soon as I pulled it from the water it croaked at me furiously, like a politician frog giving a heated stump speech.

But frogs are not the only aquatic critter to croak. On the end of my line was the aptly named Atlantic croaker, Micropogonias undulatus. The croaker and it’s relatives in the Scianidae family (aka the ‘drum’ family for obvious reasons. Includes red drum, black drum, spot, etc). A croaker croaks by flexing abdominal muscles against its air bladder, like drawing a tight rubber band across a balloon. We don’t really know why the croaker croaks, but it’s likely for communication. Interestingly, it is typically the males of the drum family to let other males they are around but also to serenade lady drums. As a result, drums typically only drum during mating season. But both sexes of croakers croak and do so all year round. Maybe they have a lot more to say than, “Hey, baby.”

Croakers and the drums are not the only fish to croak. I remember catching catfish in the ponds of Arkansas when I was a kid and listening to their Gwork, Gwork of their croaks.

As I pulled the hook from his mouth, he croaked feverishly – his own piscine version of cussing. I would too if you jammed a meathook through my cheek just as I took a bite of steak and then drug me outside by my cheek. I let him go back into the murky water so he could go tell his croaker buddies about what had just happened. But apparently some didn’t listen as I caught 7 more.

Invertebrate Mondays are the best Mondays!

Spring has sprung in Virginia and what better time for inverts to strut their stuff?

A snail and I take a walk in the woods.
A snail and I take a walk in the woods.
A marsh periwinkle hangs out.
I hang out with a marsh periwinkle.
A juvenile blue crab from a seagrass bed. May you're thinking, Hey, where's his other claw? It's locked on to my finger. It's the crab's version of holding hands.
A juvenile blue crab from a seagrass bed. Maybe you’re thinking, Hey, where’s his other claw? It’s locked on to my finger. It’s the crab’s version of holding hands.
A riffle of ribbed mussels.
A riffle of ribbed mussels.

Outbreak: Cancer of the clam

A soft-shelled clam.
A soft-shelled clam.

Cancer is not supposed to be a cold; it’s not supposed contagious. It may metastasize and spread from your face to your lungs, but I can’t catch it from you. For humans cancer isn’t contagious; for clams it is.

The clam, Mya arenaria, is the famous ‘fried clam’, a staple of clam shacks all along New England coastal roads. It also challenges our notions of cancer biology. Recently, a type of bivalve leukemia has been discovered, one that is transmissible between clams. Just as I can catch a cold from you, a clam can catch a cancer from its neighbor . Contagious cancer breaks our original epidemiological dogma of cancer that it stays within an individual and does not jump to another. Science is aware of only two other transmissible cancers – one in Tasmanian devils and one in dogs spread via venereal diseases.

What makes the clam cancer remarkable is its method of transmission. In devils and dogs (I wrote ‘gods’ at first, whoops!), cancer is transmitted via direct routes of fluid exchange (biting, sexual exchange). Clams are not known to bite or fornicate physically. The cancer leaves and lives outside the host floating on ocean currents long enough to infect another clam. It is unknown how long a cancer can survive outside the clam. Sperm cells in corals can last up to 4 months in the water. If cancer cells have similar survival then that means a movement of 100’s or 1000’s of kilometers on currents of cancer. Regardless if clam cancer cells move millimeters or miles, that they can survive in seawater outside the host is remarkable. Remember that when your wading the waters of Cape Cod this summer.

Fret not steamer slurpers and fried clam connoisseurs! A cancerous clam infects only other clams. We know of no cancers that jump from one species to another. Yet.

For the nitty gritty science: Metzger et al. 2015. Horizontal transmission of clonal cancer cells causes leukemia in soft-shell clams 

Ogre tree chomps on chains, Williamsburg, VA (3)

How to answer an ogre: or lessons you should have learned in 8th grade science

The tree looks like a petrified ogre caught in the act of eating chains. Like an ogre who might guard a bridge and when you try to pass asks you a math problem in a voice that sounds like he’s gargling gravel. If you answer correctly you will hear him say, “You may pass.” Get it wrong and you’ll hear your bones crunch in his chain-eating jaws.

You pound a nail into a tree three feet off the ground. If the tree grows 1.79 feet per year, how high up will the nail be in 4 years and 36 days (0.008 years)?

You have one minute to solve it.

The answer is three feet. Did you find yourself in the ogre’s mouth on the other side of the bridge?

Ogre tree chomps on chains, Williamsburg, VA (4)

The ogre was testing your 8th grade science knowledge. The reason the nail stays at the same height is because trees add layers at the top, not at the bottom. A tree grows taller from the apical meristem at the tips of branches and trunks. Roots elongate the same way, they add tissue at their tips. This is why a barbed wire fence nailed to a tree thirty years ago isn’t 20 feet in the air today. Or why those initials you and your wife carved into that oak tree saying you’ll be together forever in 1998 is still at eye level and why you now have to walk your new wife hurriedly past that tree hoping she doesn’t notice. But wait long enough and maybe the lateral meristem will cover your shame.

Trees grow taller from the tips and fatter from the outer layers. Stem and trunk diameters increase each year as a new layer of wood is wrapped around the tree. This is why – after a while – a tree looks like its chewing on barbed wire or old dog chain left behind by former tenants. The barbed wire stayed in place as the new layers grew past it.

Ogre tree chomps on chains, Williamsburg, VA (2)

The Mountain 2013 (61)
Nom, nom, nom.

Need a new yoga pose? Try the stretch spider!

The still brown grass crunches under my feet as I walk the salt marshes of the Goodwin Islands at the mouth of York River. I stop when when I see a blade of grass scramble across the other grass blades like a panicked airplane passenger who climbs over other passengers trying to get to the evacuation slide first. I snatch the panicked grass blade in my hand and it sprouts eight legs and repels from my hand down a silken thread, dangling for a moment like Christmas ornament before transmogrifying back into a grass blade. My grass blade is a spider in the tetragnatidae family. Tetra means ‘four’ and gnathid means ‘jaw'; it looks like it has four jaws but she doesn’t. See, science isn’t so hard once you crack the code. Tetragnathid (the ‘g’ is silent) spiders are also called ‘stretch’ spiders because they stretch their bodies in their own yoga pose: four legs forward and two to hold on and two legs back (some spiders try other combinations). Make yourself as thin as possible. And try to look like that grass blade or leaf or cattail.

I am amazed by this spider that looks like dead grass. I assume the yoga pose and combined with the drab-colored yoga outfit is to blend in to avoid detection by 1) potential prey and 2) potential predators. If she had not have scrambled, I would have never seen her. Even when I found her and made her pose for me on a blade of grass I still had trouble figuring out where the grass ended and she started. Look at that pose. Incredible strength and limberness. Stretch spiders can be found in your house, your backyard or your garden. So if you’re looking for a new twist for your boring yoga routine, run to the closet tree you can find, stretch out and see if anyone can find you.

This spider reminds me of another cryptic yoga pose: the toothpick grasshopper.


An open letter from Boston to the Gulf Stream: Knock it off

Car-eating snowpiles. nom, nom, nom, nom.    Thank you

Yesterday I wrote how warming ocean waters may be sending crabs into New England. But Bostonians and other New Englanders aren’t worried about a few crabs but car-eating snowpiles. The record snow is a gift, in part, from the Gulf Stream and the warmer than average temperatures in the Atlantic.

The screen shot below shows anomalies in sea-surface temperature with red to white being warmer than the average of the past 30 years. You can see the Gulf Stream (green ciricle) this year is white hot at nearly 60 degrees F, which is up to 20 degrees F higher than average for this time of year. Warmer water means more moisture in the air. The white-hot Gulf Stream is fueling the white cold of New England.

Look at the pretty swirls.
Look at the pretty swirls.

Running a hot bath sends more moisture into the air making the bathroom humid. A cold-water bath does not. If, after running a hot bath, you blast arctic air over it you’ve got yourself a snowstorm in the bathroom. And cold toilet paper. Apologize to your sweetie now.

Some of the snow clogging the streets of Boston started as warm water in the Atlantic, courtesy of the Gulf Stream.

How to keep warm? I recommend taking a hot bath, sipping a hot chocolate and clicking on the live link of the map to watch the soothing and mesmerizing ocean currents (you can go to other parts of the world too!). I also recommend looking at the wave heights which are just adorable. Who knew oceanography could be soooo relaxing…