I’m watching a rock shaggy with algae and mud and debris. I’m watching it eat. I’m watching it move. I’m watching it freeze solid when I slip my hand in the water. I look carefully through the water and pick out 6 more rocks that are not rocks. The cove is littered with rocks, both of ones that eat and ones that don’t. The rocks that eat are decorator crabs. This one is Libinia emarginata.
A decorator crab wouldn’t be get caught dead without wearing the ocean’s latest fashion. Actually, yes it would. Decoration for this crab not about fashion but survival. The more it looks like that rock or that coral or that plant over there the more it can rest easy that it won’t be on someone’s dinner plate. It just can’t help that it looks fabulous. All the time. This is a crab of confidence. One must be confident if it’s your clothes that determine whether you eat or get eaten. How might fashion be shaped if we judged outfits based on whether or not the model got scarfed up by a predator at the end of the runway? A new ‘reality’ show? (I’ll leave it to you to come up with a clever title for this new reality show. Go ahead, whisper you clever little gem to me.)
Decorator crabs are found in variety of habitats including kelps, estuaries, and corals and use whatever’s available to be en vogue. It is a major fashion faux pas to show up to a new event in a new habitat wearing old clothes. A crab placed in a new habitat will shed its old outfit and immediately use local materials to blend in (even an aquarium full of pearls and lace – see video below; called a ‘dresser crab’ by the British). A bit of shaggy algae here, a dab of lace there.
The decorator crab I’ve been watching is also known as a spider crab. All decorator crabs are spider crabs, but not all spiders are decorators. This family brags not only the most fashionable crabs, but also the largest – the 12-foot Japanese spider crab, Macrocheira kaempferi. This crab is not a decorator crab. Perhaps when you’re more leg than body and can stretch up to a second story window (if you’re on your crab tippy toes), then you are either not worried about being someone’s dinner or perhaps you don’t think you’d make a convincing plant.
Japanese spider crab, Image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk
Over the past 13 years, the Great Marsh of New England has seen me through my many life stages; each with its own metamorphic beauty. I tread its muds as a larval scientist (graduate student), a haphazard juvenile (post-doc) and now the metamorphosis complete as I have emerged as a full-fledged professor (though this is a stage I am still growing into). So it was this kind and lush friend that I sought this weekend for one of my most important transitions: from wandering vagrant to husband.
This weekend I married my sweetie, Ali Gould. It was a sweet and perfect affair. On a dock on the Rowley River. My best friend since kindergarten, Duley Crabbe (his influence on my decision to be a marine biologist has been strong!!!), officiated. Two friends, Danita Jo and Chris, witnessed. As did a male and female swordtail fish (who were part of the Ceremony of the Fish). All as the tides flowed, the Spartina swelled, and the mummichogs meandered.
Words spoken captured the love and the beauty of the day, as did the images. Today I have no science today. No metaphors. Just excitement.
And pictures. All photos courtesy of Danita Jo Photography. If you want beautiful, professional, and perfect pictures for your event, contact her! She books quickly! We were lucky to have her.
And if you’re looking for a perfect place for a small wedding, the beauty of the marsh is unimpeachable.
I rarely talk about my personal life in such a wide-open format such as blog, but there are times when your megaphone isn’t big enough (though I may elevate myself a bit here. While you, my blog-followers, are enthusiastic you make but a small congregation in a country church). And for those of you paying attention, yes, we are engaged in secondary production (translation: we are expecting a new research assistant in July!).
I long hunted a spot to read and found it behind a bush where sat a splintered picnic table that was missing the part defined it as a table – its top. Its benches were still serviceable and supported my substantial 140 lb weight. Artifacts on the ground – an Atlas condom wrapper (its unfurled content laying in the water next to a rock so that it looked like the rock was sticking out its sickly pallid tongue), a Baja Blast Mountain Dew can, leg grabbing fishing line, and some brand of electronic cigarette – let me know that I was not the only other person to find this the perfect spot for whatever was in mind. My mind was on reading and quiet.
Repeatedly the water splashes on the edge of the lily pads. I assume the splash is from a pickerel – a small green torpedo that lurks under lily-pad leaves perpetually looking skyward for a snack. A fisherman who casts a floating lure near the edge of lily pads may be rewarded with the excitement of catching such a torpedo. With no pole, I fish with my eyes. A dragonfly lands on a small piece of floating plant. A second later the still water erupts. As the water stills the dragonfly is hovering; with his mouth empty, the pickerel likely returns to his hideout with a huff.
The dance of the dragonfly and the pickerel goes twice more. Does the dragonfly tease the pickerel? An aerial predator taunting the water-bound one, like an older brother who offers the ball to his little brother only to jerk it away as he reaches for it? I don’t think this is a sibling rivalry between an invertebrate and vertebrate because the dragonfly appears to be a female. Each time she lands she curls her tail into the water; the act of egg-laying. Dragonfly larvae are aquatic. She has picked this piece of plant as her nest – a nest that risks her life, but in her odonatal instinct of maternity she has decided that this nest is best for her young. Maybe she picked this spot precisely because the pickerel is there, knowing that any fish or insects that may want a snack of dragonfly eggs may first find themselves a snack. In this way the pickerel should thank the dragonfly for luring supper closer to his jaws. But the pickerel is short-sighted and only knows the hunger of now and not tomorrow.
A fisherman arrives. He is not a sit-and-wait predator like the pickerel. I tell him about the previous drama and he casts out his lure – an orange plastic abstraction of a frog. He drags it in front of the lily pads but the water doesn’t erupt. Maybe the muscles of the pickerel are taut, ready to strike and while it may flinch a millimeter when it sees the dancing orange legs of what looks like a frog the pickerel halts when it sees it is clearly not a frog. The pickerel possibly annoyed – and confused – by a frog that swims in front of him that then jumps out of the water when it’s near land only to return to the front of the pickerel less than a minute later. Maybe it’s more than one orange frog and there is now a freeway of headless, orange frogs with strangely dancing legs in front of his lily pad. The pickerel is likely annoyed to be focused on a dinner that’s not dinner instead of keeping watch for dinner that is dinner.
The fisherman yanks his line out of the water finally. The limp legs of the headless, orange frog dangle. “Ah, there’s nothing here,” he says.
Minutes later I hear a splash. I look up and see a dragonfly hovering above the ripples.
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.
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.
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.