The elusive Massachusetts penguin


Newburyport, Massachusetts

In today’s episode of Idiot Science: Penguins!
Starring: Dr. David Samuel Johnson, Ph.D. (psssttt, that’s me).

I was driving on Water Street in Newburyport when I saw something strange floating in the Merrimack River.

Are those penguins?

They were! My heart quickened. I happened to have my camera sitting in the passenger seat. I pulled over quickly, but not too close. I didn’t want to spook them. I nervously grabbed my camera hoping to get a picture before they jumped into the water.


The rare and elusive Massachusetts penguin.

Success! I snapped a few more pictures of the penguins – three of them on a piece of ice. I was so lucky!

A thought crept up like a cat on a mouse, “Wait a minute, it’s only 40 F. Not nearly cold enough for ice on the river.” I realized that the penguins were sitting on a piece of Styrofoam. I thought about what a great blog post it would be to write about how these penguins – these penguins of Massachusetts – had to use trash to float on. Oh, what a clever post this would be.

I snapped a few more pictures.

Then another.

One more.

Those penguins aren’t moving. Are those…yup, those are fake.

Standing in a wind that slapped my cheeks red, I mentally slapped my forehead.

Of course they’re fakes. There are no Massachusetts penguins, or for that matter North American penguins. Penguins don’t have an address north of South America!

Penguins live here.
Nowhere near here.

Someone had three plastic penguins loitering on a piece of Styrofoam. Sure, some people will be fooled. But I should know better. I’m a marine biologist. With letters and everything! And I know where penguins are found. I have railed against Coca-Cola in classrooms for their biogeographic inaccuracies for showing a polar bear and a penguin sharing a Coke. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere and polar bears in the northern! They would never meet. That a polar bear and penguin would share a Coke is biogeographically ridiculous.


Ridiculous. Biogeographically even! Harrumpf!  

That my first reaction was, “oh, it’s too warm for an ice” instead of, “uh, there’s no penguins in North America” is embarrassing. But I got fooled. And like a wildlife paparazzo, went for the cover photo before thinking about what I was doing.

Well done, Newburyport. Well done.

Still trying to scare up a Halloween costume? Be a worm!

But not just any ole worm. A marine worm, which is the more ostentatious and terrifying version of the plain, simple earthworm. Some marine worms inspire beauty, others terror with their fangs, tentacles, and H.R. Geiger inspired faces! Find your inspiration below (these are all real worms).

Feather duster worm. Shake ya tail-feathers! From
Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your tentacles. Rapunzel worm. Courtesy of
Streblospio benedicti from the muds of the Great Marsh. Photo courtesy of yours truly.
A slender ragworm. Taken by Alexander Seminov who has a BEAUTIFUL Flickr feed: Be careful, you’ll lose hours.
More from Alexander Seminov. King Ragworm. This one will be familiar to New England fisherman. It’s used to catch striped bass.
Alitta diversicolor. From the Great Marsh. Collected and photographed by yours truly. Scale is incorrect.
Spaghetti-mouth worm. Don’t eat with your mouthful. Courtesy of
Fire worm. It’s getting hot in herre! From the venomous bristles. Oh gosh, someone get help.


Again from Alexander Semenov. Unbelievable.
More from Alexander. You know what, just go to the site below for more of his pics. They are phenomenal and I am just ripping him off to get you to stay on my site.

Murder necklace

The beast engulfs the victim in its massive, fleshy foot. The victim sits inside its armor, sure of its protection. It hears something scrape against the armor. Then a spitting sound. Then scraping. Scrape. Spit. Scrape. Spit. Scrape. The victim does not know that the beast has a mouth full of acid to weaken the armor and a chainsaw tongue to cut through. The victim – immobilized in what was supposed to be protective armor – has no choice but to be eaten alive as the rasping tongue of the beast scrapes out the soft-tissue of the victim like a knife that scrapes peanut butter from the jar. When finished, the beast opens its fleshy foot and releases the victim. And then you come along and make what’s left of the victim into a necklace and give it to your sweetheart.

The beach is a crime scene, littered with the victims of molluskan murder. You or your sweetheart may be wearing one of the murdered on your neck. You know that shell you found on the beach with a perfectly drilled hole in it that you made into a necklace for your sweetheart? That was a clam or scallop or mussel that was eaten alive by a an acid-dripping, chainsaw tongued predator. A predator that is also a murderous snail.

Moon snails (Polinces spp.) are common hunters in the sands of our shores and seek their molluskan kin for supper. Moon snails are not your garden variety garden snail, which are vegetarians. Moon snails are 100% meat eaters. To hunt its prey, which are mostly clams and other bivalves, a moon snail burrows through the sand and engulf its prey in a fat, fleshy foot. Then the snail opens its chemistry kit and drips a bit of acid onto the clam’s shell to soften it. Then using a specialized tongue called a radula (most snails have radulas) it scrapes away the acid-softened shell. Radulas are snail tongues with backward facing teeth that act like schizophrenic chainsaws that reverse and go forward over and over to scrape algae off of rocks or layers off of shells. The hole is perfect for the tongue to enter and scrape out the soft tissue of its prey. The clam is eaten alive. And then you thread a string through the murder hole to display your lacking concern for the victim.


Welcome to October!

The murderer and the victims in a crime scene from Plum Island, Massachusetts.
The murderer and the victims in a crime scene from Plum Island, Massachusetts.

King Tides and a Super Blood Harvest eclipsed

On Sunday 27 September 2015 the moon will have so many titles that you would think that it was a character in Game of Thrones (if it was we would expect it to die a grisly death soon). Blood moon. Harvest moon. Super moon! Eclipsed moon. And for those us on the coasts, we can also expect King Tides thanks to the supermoon! Whew! That’s a lot going on for one Sunday. Let’s try to break it all down.

Harvest Moon
The Harvest Moon is the moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox (which was this past Wednesday).

Blood Moon
As the moon is being eclipsed on Sunday, it will have an orange tint to it. When it is fully eclipsed, it will be dark. Tell me oh tell me when the eclipsed happens, you say? I will. For those on Eastern Time in the U.S., the eclipse will begin at 9:07 P.M. Total eclipse will being about an hour later at 10:11 P.M. For those of you west of Eastern Daylight Time, subtract accordingly (e.g., for Central, eclipse begins at 8:07P.M.). So when the sun sets get outside!!

Super Moon
Not only do we get to see a Blood Moon and an Eclipsed Moon, but we get to see it in super HD! Tomorrow, the moon will be at it’s closet point of it’s orbit around the Earth, called the Perigee. As a result we will get a 14% bigger moon free of charge! What a deal! Disclaimer: the moon only appears bigger because it is closer. It does not shrink and grow as it orbits.

Below NASA provides a great summary of the greatest show not on Earth!

King Tides
We know the moon rules the tides. We know that a moon in perigee is closer to the Earth and therefore has a stronger pull on the tides. And we know that spring tides (which happen every month) are the highest high tides. So when the spring tidal cycle lines up with the perigee of the moon, we get King Tides (known to us science dorks as perigean spring tides). And that’s what happens this weekend. King Tides produce the biggest tides of the year and can cause local flooding. So just after we see the Super Blood Harvest Moon Eclipsed, the feet of us in coastal areas will get a little bit wetter.

King Tide in Miami, Florida. Courtesy of Arianna Prothero,
Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Thanks NOAA!!

What a way to end September!

Ban the Bead and stop brushing your teeth…at least with plastic

Microbeads found in face scrubs. Photo courtesy of Mother Jones and the really stupid idea of putting plastic in face scrubs.

You hang up the phone. Yes. You’ve got a date. You wash your face with your favorite facial scrub and brush your teeth until they’re minty fresh. You are ready to wow your date. And while you sitting there in the movie theater excitedly thinking, “Did her pinky just touch mine!?” thousands of small plastic spheres are making their way from your sink to the sewage treatment plant and then on to the ocean where they may end up in the gut of small fish, possibly killing the fish. A fish that will never have fish dates.

Fish unfriendly? Photo courtesy of Wal-Mart. 

Okay. That sounds a little dramatic and quite frankly ridiculous. The ridiculous part is the scenario above is possible. Everyday tons of plastic in the form of ‘microbeads’ go down our drains and is eventually dumped into our oceans (treated wastewater is routinely emptied into the waterways; microplastics sneak through). These microbeads are in products commonly found in your bathroom from toothpaste (wait, we’re brushing our teeth with plastic!!!) to facial scrubs (wait, we’re scrubbing out face with plastic!!!) to cosmetics to deodorants (wait, why?) to lotions. To think that brushing our teeth could be killing ocean wildlife seems unbelievable. What’s unbelievable is that despite all of our efforts to stop plastic pollution, we are using tiny plastic beads as abrasives in our products and then sending them down the drain and then into our waters.

Though I study marine life I wasn’t even aware of this as being a problem until I read an article this weekend by two of my colleagues (great job, Emily Darling and Ashley Smyth!). And then found a great article in Mother Jones (both are worth a read).

If you don’t want to read the articles (but you really should!), here is the summary.

-There are microplastics in products you use.

-Those products are washed down the drain and then end up in the environment.

-Those microplastics can kill wildlife.

-To protect wildlife stop using these products.

How do you know which products have microplastics in them? Look for polyethylene as an ingredient – it’s the most common form of microbead plastic (there are others and you can find a list here).

Who knew you could save a whale or turtle or fish by not brushing your teeth? Well, at least not brushing your teeth with plastics.

So go ahead and support Ban the Bead movement and stop using products with microbeads and stop worrying if your dating life is killing the planet. Then you can focus on what’s important. Like wondering if she’ll notice if that you didn’t actually wash your shirt but sprayed it with body spray.

Pick up a balloon for my birthday – and put it in the trash

Balloon on marsh, Ipswich, Massachusetts
You don’t belong here, Mr. Balloon. Ipswich, Massachusetts

Like a colorful dying bird, it flapped in the breeze. Trapped by the spartina grasses, it was grounded. It said, Happy Birthday. Ug. Another blasted Mylar balloon in the marsh. I sucked out the helium and said some unhappy things to its happy message.

Tomorrow (Saturday, September 19, 2015) is International Coastal Clean-up day. This is organized by the Ocean Conservancy and you can sign up to volunteer. Or you can get yourself to the beach, marsh, rocky shore, estuary, pier, booze cruise, bungalow, beach house, or artist hideaway and pick up some trash. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll likely find.

In one small survey conducted by Chris Haight in the Great Marsh in Massachusetts, he found over a thousand pieces of trash in the marsh after a month. Items ranged from candy wrappers to condoms (um, ew) to the center console of a boat!

What if you’re not near a coastline? What can you do? Let’s revisit our balloon friend again. Each summer, I find at least 10 balloons in the marsh. These balloons break free from the hands of the birthday-er or from the mailbox they were tied to. Then floated until the helium leaked out enough that gravity could yank them back down. The balloons on the marsh were likely not dumped into the marsh. They were carried there by wind or water. They started on dry land and ended up on the coast.

And that’s where most of the trash that ends up in the ocean started from. It wasn’t thrown directly into the ocean. It was carried there by wind or water from the land. Because rain runs over parking lots and forests and fields and into streams that drain into rivers that drain into oceans, it’s possible for a soda bottle in the parking lot of Target in Arkansas to end up in the marshes of Louisiana via the Arkansas River and then Mississippi River.

So come on Arkansas and Montana and West Virginia and Luxemburg and everywhere else! Do your part to protect the oceans by being a good upstream neighbor. Pick up a piece of trash. Keep yours and your neighbor’s home tidy! Those of us downstream appreciate it!

Oh, and if you’re looking to pick up a balloon for me for my birthday (which was earlier this month), pick it up out of the marsh or the woods and put it in the trash.