Tag: zoology

What’s in a name?

Australian readers will probably have heard about the travesty that is iSnack 2.0, the name chosen by voters as the name for the new variety of Vegemite (it’s the traditional yeast extract mixed with cream cheese). But names fascinate me all the more when applied to living creatures, and it seems we’re in need of some.

Australia has a dearth of taxonomists – scientists whose job is to classify, catalogue and – in conjunction with the biologists and botanists who discover them – name new species. The problem of not having enough taxonomists for the job is never more present than when we see evidence of the back-log of un-named Australian species, and in the news at the moment are hundreds of underground species from central Australia, about half going unnamed.

News.com.au invited readers to come up with names, and predictably “iBug 2.0” was an early comment. Work colleague Robert came up with the better “iBlindFish”, though it sounds rather violent.

It’s unlikely the public will really be asked to name these creatures, and in any case, those are only common names – important, but less so than the binomial names required by science. But just such a name was offered up to the public by the Australian Marine Conservation Society, when they put the rights to choose the scientific name of a newly discovered species Lebbeus shrimp on eBay back in March. (All proceeds to the conservationists, of course, though how we’re supposed to know what we’re conserving without decent funding for taxonomy I’ve no idea.)

Discovered just off the southern coast of Western Australia by Anna McCallum, a graduate student at my old stomping grounds the University of Melbourne, the shrimp – of the genus Lebbeus – looks pretty impressive with it’s yellow and green carapace dotted with red spots. In addition to the naming rights, the winner of the auction got to take home a framed portrait of the little bugger by “freelance botanical, scientific and natural history artist” Mali Moir. The story was picked up by a stack of marine blogs – everything from conservationists to aquarium enthusiasts – and the comments on Stony Reef’s article indicate the bidding got up to $3,550 before the end.

I say before the end, because even though this happened back in March, I can’t find any indication of who won, or what the shrimp was eventually named. I’ve found quite a few Lebbeus species online, including L. grandimanus, L. groenlandicus, L. balssi, L. elegans and L. polyacanthus (these last two seem to have been discovered in late 2008 in the Sea of Japan), but none of them are our red-spotted yellow and green eBay item. There’s a Lebbeus entry on Wikispecies, but almost none of the species have any details, so it’s not much help.

So what happened? I hope it’s not significant that the auction ended on April 1st… Surely someone out there knows something, but it’s a sad sign of our taxonomic paucity that no central database of Australian species exists. But fear not, lab coat readers! I shall endeavour to follow this up. Emails are even now winging their way toward people who might be in the know, and I’ll post a follow up in the coming weeks.

HYPOTHESIS

Friday August 14 was a pretty busy day. I was at Freeplay all day, moderating a couple of panels and checking out some others; the highlight was without doubt the international keynote address by Crayon Physics Deluxe designer, Petri Purho, whose unconventional speech included a copious amount of gameplaying (mostly Spelunky, to which he is clearly addicted, but also Enviro-Bear 2000 and ROM Check Fail, all indie games) but more importantly some of the best artistic and creative advice I’ve received in years. The man’s a genius; watch out for his next game.

As soon as that was over, though, I rushed straight down to the BMW Edge theatre at Federation Square for HYPOTHESIS, a one-night-early launch event for Science Week in Victoria. It was a big line-up; as I arrived, Teacup Tumble were midway through their circus performance as labcoated scientists, recruiting children from the audience to help do some messy experiment or other. Polarized 3D glasses were being handed out so punters could see bits of our solar system in 3D, or perhaps join a simulated party to see the effect of various choices in drug and alcohol habits. The Australian Skeptics were on hand, and in a similar but more anarchic spirit, local arts collective Tape Projects were on hand with 100 Proofs the Earth is not a Globe. (I was later challenged to name three proofs that the Earth is a globe, and was happy to find I could do this, even if a couple weren’t entirely reliable and none from personal experience. My favourite is that when there’s a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow on the moon is always round, no matter where on Earth you need to be to see the eclipse – something that could only happen if the Earth is a sphere.)

I was distracted from these at the beginning of the evening, though, as I was busy catching up with some old friends who were on the scene. By the time they left for dinner, the next main event was beginning – Speed Meet a Geek. This proved to be a bit of a highlight. It’s a speed-dating take on Science Week’s successful “Invite a Scientist to Dinner” scheme, and it involved several punters sitting at a table with a scientist, talking about whatever took our fancy. After a few minutes, there’d be an announcement and music, and the scientists would get up and move to another table. The time was, of course, all too brief, but the conversation was fascinating nonetheless; I could tell that my table mates Sue (a librarian from Albury) and Gina (who produces science shows for schools) agreed.

First up we met Steve, a young man with a similar taste to me in T-shirts, and who had studied both physics and philosophy. Fittingly he is now working in the history and philosophy of science programme at Melbourne University, where he recently has been thinking about a proposed plan to fly giant kites, equipped with turbines, 10 kilometres up in the sky, where the much faster and more constant winds would both keep them aloft and generate massive amounts of pollution free electricity. This plan was of course far too expensive to test with a prototype, so Steve built a computer simulation based on Bureau of Meterology data; the simulation sadly showed that the winds just weren’t consistently high enough to keep the kites in the air, so apart from the other practical considerations, the plan doesn’t seem feasible. It’s a shame; it’s such a beautiful idea. It makes me slightly prouder of our country that, even if we’re not really all that progressive in our ideas of power generation, we’re at least considering such things. I was left in the dark, however, about why such a plan was being tested by HPS academics, and not, say, engineers.

As if to prove that good things come in pairs, our next guests was also an HPS academic, and a very pleasant surprise for me: Neil Thomason, the man who introduced me to the history and philosophy of science through his courses at Melbourne University. I was sad to hear that Neil has retired, but not too much; after all, he now does much the same thing he used to do, just for no pay! As he himself put it, he used to ask why we should believe scientists; he now asks why we should believe statisticians. I think I made rather a hash of my attempt to answer the former, but of course the general answer is that we should believe scientists because they try to only make claims which they can back up with evidence, and use techniques to try and make sure their evidence is reliable. They’re still only human, after all…

Our next visitor was Justin, who works at the 3 Giga-electron-Volt Synchrotron located out in Clayton. More specifically, he works on one of the beamlines  – streams of highly accelerated electrons fired out of the synchrotron at 14 different points – doing analysis on crystalline structures hit by the beams. His work has implications mainly for materials science – finding new types of material for construction, technology and other uses. He was the only scientist to bring gifts – big posters of the synchrotron! I keep meaning to visit the place, and now it’s further up the list. Sue made the excellent suggestion that it would get more media attention if the whole thing lit up, so you could see something happening; while this would be completely artificial, I’m not at all against the idea. People are used to seeing stuff happen thanks to sci-fi movies!

Jo Sumner came to visit us next. I’ve met met Jo before, in her capacity as Manager of Genetic Resources at Melbourne Museum; she was one of the scientists on last year’s Not the Nobel Prize, if I remember rightly. In any case, she is lovely company, and she regaled us with a story of her trip to Indonesia when her husband, also a biologist, was studying Komodo dragons. When she revealed they’d brought their very young daughter along, I was instantly reminded of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See…, in which he recounts stories of dragons eating small children. Jo said that when she took her daughter to see her husband catch and release a dragon, she grew bored and started making a lot of noise; when the dragon was released, instead of scuttling off, it hid in the long grass and to watch Jo’s daughter. Creepy stuff…

Our next few guests were all astrophysicists and, oddly enough, all Americans currently at Swinburne University. Lee, the first cab off the rank, is studying globular star clusters, formed in the early history of the universe, and thus able to teach us about the conditions in the first billion or two years. Charmingly he carries a photo of such a cluster in his wallet, which he brings out to show us. He uses data from one of the many optical telescopes in Hawaii, where the distance above sea level reduces the distortion caused by turbulent air currents – something that makes Australia unsuitable for optical astronomy. Asked by Sue if his research can be related to mankind, he replies “only in the sense that it gives us inspiration, and is humbling”; it’s a terribly satisfying answer.

Emily, originally from Conneticut, is working on WiggleZ, a project to map 200,000 galaxies using spectral analysis data gathered by the Anglo-Australian telescope in Coonabarabran. Emily was a stargazer as a child and clearly, deeply loves her job. Since astronomers don’t really look through telescopes any more, when Emily goes to Coonabaraban to man the ‘scope, she likes to go out on the gantry at night and look up at the Milky Way, clearly visible without the light pollution of a big city. She hasn’t been yet, but as Sue suggests, she’d love to head out to the red centre and see the stars from there, too.

Our astronomical trio is completed by Andy Green, a Colorado native, who talks less about his own work but is no less fascinating for it. We mention the light pollution survey going on as part of Science Week – 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy – and he mentions that New Zealand is currently trying to have the night sky in Tekapo Valley registered as a World Heritage Site, because there is so little light pollution there that it gives a near perfect view of the Milky Way.

Our next and final guest was Tom Rich, white haired Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Musuem Victoria. He’s wearing a tie patterned with pterosaurs; when I compliment him on it, he replies that he’s only wearing a tie as he’d been to a wedding before coming to the event. I instantly liked him, and asked what kind of palaeontology he was interested in, since I know that, as awesome as they are, dinosaurs are not the obsession of every bone digger. He revealed that he was mainly interested in the mammals of the Mesozoic era, but that since he found so many dinosaurs while looking for the mammals, he’d ended up becoming “the world’s most minor authority on dinosaurs”. His background was both in physics and palaeontology, but he decided he could either be a third rate physicist or  a second rate palaeontologist, and chose the latter. (Asked by Sue if he was humble or cynical, he replied: “Both.”) Another American, Tom is married to another palaeontologist, the “Queen of Slime” (she studies the Ediacaran fauna of the late pre-Cambrian), and accompanied her to Melbourne when she undertook some research here. He decided to learn about the country by reading an issue of The Australian from front to back, and promptly found the job he has now held for many years, commuting back and forth across the Atlantic until his wife took a job at Monash University.

Our time with the scientists over, the rest of the evening was given over to conversation with old friends, new friends, and entertainment, mainly in the form of another friend, Simon Pampena. He performed a truncated teaser version of his show Super Mega Maths Battle for Planet Earth, now touring for Science Week. I took a break after that for some food, returning for Science: fact or fiction?!, a sort of revamped version of Not the Nobel Prize. I wasn’t on the panel this year, but it was stacked with people I knew: local comedians Rob Lloyd, Tegan Higginbotham, Jason Geary and Xavier Michaelides, plus Melbourne Museum’s Rolf Schmidt, who I’d worked with on Not the Nobel Prize. I must confess I missed most of the panel as I was talking with some of the Science Week volunteers and the girls from Tape Projects, but I did enjoy Rolf’s introduction to the nigh-indestructable life forms known as tardigrades, or “water bears”, and Tegan’s subsequent impression of one.

Hypothesis was a big night, and a stirling kick off to the Victoria Science Week calendar. Let’s hope we see something similar next year!

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.

The Man in the Lab Coat versus the Giant Squid

When I was in primary school, I guess I would have been about 6 or 7, one of my most prized possessions was a small, illustrated, abridged paperpack copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I must have read it 50 times; I even brought it in for one of my teachers to read to us, and when we dressed up as literary characters for Book Week (do kids still do that?), I came as Captain Nemo.

It’s true – I’ve been geeky all my life. But I like to think I was at least a cultured geek, with a love for Important Geek Literature. And even years later, after re-reading the full unabridged novel a few years ago and realising it’s largely just a list of interesting fish, I still remember the fight with the giant squid. It was, predictably, also my favourite part of the Disney film, in which a bizarrely upper-class Nemo played by James Mason fights off the world’s rubberiest monster with the help of Kirk Douglas as Ned Land. (I still love that movie, and it was the best birthday ever a few years ago when my Mum bought it for me on DVD.)

So you can imagine my excitement when a couple of weeks ago I headed down to Melbourne Museum to see them dissect a Giant Squid. Read more