H. P. Lovecraft’s “Melbourne Aquarium”

May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity, and what better excuse could I have to tell you about my trip to Melbourne Aquarium?

The tickets were part of my birthday gift from my beloved, and we went together. I hadn’t been since they’d expanded the place and added the penguins, and if you haven’t seen them, go. These aren’t local penguins; these are Antarctic penguins, of two species, the King and the Gentoo.

King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) are, as you might guess from the name, like Emperor Penguins, but a bit smaller. They’re not truly an Antarctic species, living instead on sub-Antarctic islands. They’re no wusses when it comes to the cold, though; there are millions of them on the icier side of the Antarctic Polar Front, the circle around the continent where cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer ones of the sub-Anatarcic area. They certainly look right at home in the icy enclosure at the Aquarium. It’s not hard to see how they get their name: they have quite an impressive, regal bearing, with their distinctive yellow markings, patience (they never seem in a hurry), and towering stature compared to the smaller Gentoos. They’re in pretty good shape for a species – they have a “Least Concern” rating on the conservation “Red list” maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The ones in the Aquarium, like the Gentoos, are from a breeding programme in New Zealand.

Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) – the least populous species in Antarctica (though more populous in the Aquarium), and one rung worse (Near Threatened) on the IUCN list – are easily distinguished by the white marking on their heads, a band which runs from one eye to the other, almost suggesting a pair of flying goggles. They’re described on the informational plaques as “cheeky”. (Penguins are especially easy to anthropomorphise – it’s probably the way they walk upright, with flippers held out like arms.) The ones in the Aquarium certainly seem inquisitive; while we were there a staff member was cleaning the tank in diving gear, and the Gentoos were constantly biting and probing his wetsuit and breathing hose. They also seemed quite entranced by anything held up to the glass by visitors – programmes, watches, even just a finger. The pool for the penguins has glass on two sides, and two different Gentoo Penguins quite energetically followed my beloved’s finger as she traced patterns on the glass, never tiring of the game.

Next to the pool is where we spent most of our penguin watching time: penguins underwater are truly amazing. The Gentoos couldn’t get enough of it, shooting around the water like planes in a dogfight. Like seals, they’re almost comical on land, but sleek and perfect in the sea. Even the King Penguins, so much larger and more ponderous, were graceful in the water, if slower. (Let’s call it a kingly reserve.)

Those King Penguins are big, though, and I couldn’t help but recall the giant albino penguins of classic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s story At the Mountains of Madness (in which the remains of an ancient pre-human civilisation are discovered in Antarctica, to the horror of the protagonists). Antarctica is one of the few places on Earth that still holds some kind of mystery; it’s difficult to imagine unknown “things” hidden in most places on the planet, but the white centre of Antarctica (though by now thoroughly mapped) is still a popular place to find hidden aliens and monsters in fiction. Followers in Lovecraft’s shoes include The Thing (most famously John Carpenter’s 1982 film version), the Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, and even Aliens vs Predator (don’t watch it).

Indeed, the only other place it seems credible to find monsters is under the sea, another theme explored by Lovecraft. Several of his creatures dwell there, waiting in the impenetrable depths. His most famous creature, Cthulhu, lies waiting in his hidden city on the sea floor, and is usually depicted as a giant humanoid figure with an octopus for a head; alien eyes and a mass of tentacles where a mouth should be.

Which brings me to my other favourite things in the Aquarium. I love octopi and cuttlefish and squid…the cephalopods. The cuttlefish in the Aquarium, right at the start of the main circuit through the exhibits, change colour in real time to match their environment. This all involves five different kinds of cells, packed densely under the skin – around 200 per square millimetre!

The changes don’t rely on the cuttlefish’s eyesight – which, though excellent, doesn’t perceive colour! They can, however, sense polarisation of light, which gives them an excellent sense of contrast. I’m fascinated by cephalopod eyes, too – they’re among the most advanced in the animal kingdom, similar to our own but quite different (one of the best examples of convergent evolution). Cuttlefish have “W” shaped pupils and two foveae – areas richer in light receptors providing excellent vision, and of which humans have only one.

Cuttlefish share many things in common with squid and octopus – three hearts, copper-based oxygen-carrying molecules in their blood giving it a green colour, a doughnut shaped brain… They’re more alien than anything the Doctor Who production team has come up with in the last four years! (They seem limited to sticking animal heads and “hands” on human beings: Cat people, Rhino people and, most recently, Fly people. As I recently discussed, this is dull and incredibly unrealistic.) Fittingly, for me, the last tank in the main round – it’s on the way out past the Sharks Alive exhibit – had an octopus.

A sign above the creature’s tank proclaimed that octopus are among the smartest creatures on Earth; that a logic puzzle that could confound a primate could be completed in six seconds by an octopus. I imagined for a second an octopus sitting on the tram completing an entire book of Sudoku puzzles while someone next to her struggled with the easy one in the mx, but it’s a much deeper statement than that. I found an excellent (if old) article from Discover magazine, Through the Eye of an Octopus, which goes into the research around octopus cognition. Research has suggested that they play, communicate, deceive, use tools, have personalities and  even sleep in ways they are startlingly like so-called “higher vertebrates” like us. I’ve often thought I’d like to have an octopus for a friend, rather than as a pet, and I think I’ve just talked myself into giving up one of my favourite dishes – salt and pepper squid.

Significantly for me, octopus have very small brains – something which challenges a long held prejudice against dinosaurs, and my favourite dinosaur especially. Stegosaurus had a brain the size of a walnut, very small for its body size, and is generally regarded as among the stupidest of dinosaurs. But the common octopus brain is the same size; albeit a very different shape, and it evolved to its current state over a much longer period, but still, it brings me hope. Perhaps a Stegosaurus could have managed a Sudoku as well.

4 comments

  1. Ed says:

    I guess sometimes it depends on what role or use your aliens / monsters / creatures have to play in a story.

    If cat people work for the story then cat people it is.

    If you need magnetic vortices inside a star as a sentient thing then that is all good too.

    But I suppose you need to give the special fx people something to do with latex sometimes too!

    I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on that book about imagining alien life.

    Cheers

  2. Ed says:

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the penguins! I love the aquarium and have not been either since they installed the penguins.

    It is funny how sci-fi and fantasy has revolved around humanoids, essentially human beings in funny clothes – stick an animal head on one and voila! Instant alien! Add a pig head = an orc! Basically I reckon such imaginings stand in for humans of different sorts of other cultures and (shock horror) who look and speak different to white Anglo-Saxon people! But it is probably best not to over think these things too much. Because there is certainly still fun to be had with funny looking humanoids: cat people, orcs, mind flayers etc, probably in D&D, possibly in movies and sometimes in books. Oh and even the odd Doctor Who episode.

    • Ben says:

      When I’ve finished reading it, I’ll post at length about What Do Martians Look Like?, a fascinating book that expands the boundaries of our imagination where alien life is concerned. I’ve often wished for more alien aliens, but I understand that in most science fiction, aliens are just stand-ins for humans of a different culture, so it’s a moot point whether they have bumpy foreheads or look like cats or instead consist of magnetic vortices in the interior of a star.

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