Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fish. How do they work?

I'm writing a marine biology book. It focuses on the wildest, most awesome aspects of the ocean. Cherry-picking really interesting stuff is a big part of making normal people actually give a crap about science. The best communicators--when they don't have effortlessly likeable personalities and convenient TV platforms--are good at hitting the points people care about and skipping the rest. Typically I despise self-promotion in all its forms, but my work is so ridiculously solitary that half the time I've got no idea whether anyone else gives a shit about it. In other words, some outreach is in order. I've picked selected critters from various chapters in my book and I'll present to my internet audience the result of my Scientific Research. These aren't excerpts; I can't give away my bread and butter like that! Also, this is a humor blog and there are standards. Even when the humor is "I can't believe Tony blew up 'Rufio and Juliet,' a concept whose merit begins and ends with the name, into an entire one-act play in iambic pentameter. I really can't believe he actually finished the thing despite realizing early in the process how bad it was going to be." Well...I hope somebody in the universe laughed as a consequence of "Rufio and Juliet." Even if it was God, at the futility of His creations.

The Fastest: Sailfish
In general, things don't move as fast in the water as they do in the air. Water is dense; easy to understand. There are several kinds of speed (sprints, distance, twitch reflexes) but sailfish are really the Ferraris of the ocean. They blast around at 30mph normally, but get up to about 60 and can make giant leaps completely out of the water. They're similar to swordfish and marlin, but smaller and generally less delicious. Adorned with mohawks that easily mark them as badasses to other fish, they use that big bill as a wand to stun and kill prey. When threatened by true apex predators like orcas or sharks, a billfish can also use its bill as a wand to conjure a Patronus. Unfortunately, not all form of the Patronus Charm work in the ocean: that majestic stag is going right to the bottom. Since the Patronus form has a large genetic component (Rowling 1999), billfish with non-marine aspects were weeded out over eons of natural selection. Today, nearly 96.4% of adult billfish are able to produce a functional Patronus Charm under stress situations.

But sailfish have a problem: they're actually too fast. Fish brains aren't high-HP machines (horsepower, not hit points). As anyone who's driven 100mph at night through suburban Massachusetts to make it home before curfew knows, the world is harder to process at high speed. You have less time to react to the marks in the road. Now consider a stupid fish trying to track prey at 40 knots in three dimensions: it's like trying to pick up a coffee cup from the asphalt while you drive your car down the highway. Consider further the cold-blooded nature of that fish: its brain and eyes, immersed in chilly open-ocean water, are sluggish and impaired. Now you're picking up the coffee cup drunk and without your glasses. Oh, you don't wear glasses? I bet you had a nice childhood. I'm kidding; that's just what miserable kids with bad eyes tell themselves. Anyway, a unique adaptation to this odd problem makes all the difference: specialized warming cells.

Like little zero-efficiency muscles, they're fibrous tissue that produces all heat and no movement. Typically these warmers are found in cold-weather animals like insects that need to keep their muscles warm for rapid-twitch escape responses and impressing lady insects. In sailfish, the warmers are found in the brain case and eye sockets. They pump heat through the organs most important to information processing, drastically increasing the visual acuity and mental agility of the fish. Essentially, it goes from a goddamned fish to a stupid-but-athletic cat. The sort of cat that easily catches birds and rabbits, but when you move its food it just sits in the old food spot yowling and continues to do this for the next six months. Sailfish are prized by sport fishermen because they're so difficult to chase down and catch. "Tony, aren't regular fish hard pretty hard to catch?" Yes, but if you're sipping on Busch in a rowboat with aching legs and a sore butt, it's hard to show off how much fucking money you've got.

Bizarre Family Life: Palolo Worms
Palolo worms are one of many so-called "bristle worms" that live on tropical coral reefs. They bore through the rock and coral, eating whatever they find and being generally hideous. An English aquarium recently discovered a four-foot bristle worm hiding in a tank (WARNING: CANNOT BE UN-SEEN), having grown from a larval stowaway into a legitimately dangerous/poisonous beast from the womb of Shub-Niggurath. The picture above is a Palolo worm--no less hideous, but much less likely to induce madness in onlookers. Socially, being a reef worm is really limiting: you hang around your tube, more or less, and never get to hang out with other worms because they're so far away and across such dangerous waters. It's a little like being a writer, but the dangers are ghosts that you control with medications. I'm just kidding, guys. Tom Cruise told me medications are bullshit. Palolo worms are about a foot long, brown or pink with lots of little ringed legged segments like a millipede. They're important because of their spawning habits. They breed together, all at once, on a single day every year. The worms who hit puberty late sometimes follow up with a lame straggler's orgy, but nobody's sure how to feel about it.

Moving on! In the weeks leading up to spawning day, the Palolo worms start to change. The back halves of their bodies wither and shrink, vacating muscle tissue and organs. At the same time, the gonads undergo enormous growth. They crank out huge volumes of eggs or sperm (they aren't hermaphrodites) until their rear is a just a giant reservoir of gametes. At the neap tide of the three-quarter moon (or some shit--I don't follow astrology) they spring into action, convulsing until their back halves break off. The liberated segments use what's left of their legs and muscles to swim to the surface. They're guided by an eyespot: a little region of pigment that even on a cloudy night can discern which way the moon is. The spawners gather at the surface in huge swarms: remember, every Palolo worm attempts to breed at the same time, and there are millions spread across miles of reef. They all release their precious cargo, dumping sperm and eggs into the water to mingle freely: like a frat party, only streamlining the whole process. The surface is covered with a thick, goopy layer of genetic filth along with the spaghetti-like tendrils of the dying spawners. Waiting for them are hundreds of Pacific islanders.

Samoan, Tahitian, Vanuatan--they're all brown, all love to sacrifice virgin hotties to their volcano gods, and all love to eat Palolo worms. Not the actual animals in the reef--gross!--but the spawners. In fact, like most truly foul cuisine, it's considered a delicacy in a sort of large-scale societal ruse to convince people to actually fucking eat it. If I lived on an island, this would be Worm Spooge Day and we'd stay out of the gloopy-ass water. Instead, the 2:00 AM collection of the spawners occasions a huge festival in many of these island communities. The spawners are fried, grilled, baked into loaves with onions, and served on toast or crackers like caviar. True enthusiasts simply pick them out of the water and gloop them down. The ocean's brine is a fine seasoning! While the image at right would seem to be from The Walking Dead, it's actually just some dude enjoying the fruits of God's creation. Which is exactly how a zombie would view his own feeding process. Think about it.

P.S. If this blog were SEO optimized, I'd turn "The Walking Dead" into a link. But is linking you to the IMDB page for a well-known and popular show really going to add anything to your life? No, it's just going to foist more bandwidth into your skull: GO HERE! DO THIS! Which is only worthwhile for links that actually add value to your life. In theory, this non-optimization is bad blogging. See how fucked up the world is? Now, watch Workaholics on Comedy Central Wednesdays at 10:30 (between South Park and Stewart). I don't plug things I don't believe in; every promo I've seen for this show has been brilliant.

Have a great day, you kids.

1 comment:

  1. Thank god I work in an awesome location where your 4ft long polychaete link gets circulated around the office with an "oh cool!"

    Also.....is it just me or does one of the characters of Workaholics look exactly like a young Murderface?