Friday, August 1, 2014

Mermaid visions: the sexual politics of women and water

I have been thinking about a creature this summer: the mermaid. I've been spending a lot of time ruminating about this subject and it seems as if every time I have a handle on the nature of this cultural icon, I am presented with another story to analyze. There are so many sides to the mermaid that it is a slippery creature to study.

I picked up on the subject of the mermaid from Seanan McGuire's short story entitled "Each to Each" in the recently published "Women Destroy Science Fiction" special edition of the journal Lightspeed (Issue 49. June 2014- you should go read it now because it is that good). McGuire's narrative follows a female sailor in the US Navy, genetically and surgically enhanced with gills to explore and patrol America's national boundaries. Her story takes place in a not-too-distant future in which humans have abandoned our hope/dream of mining and colonizing distant planets and turned our attention to exploring and utilizing deep sea resources. Women, she suggests, were found to be better at working in the tight confines of deep sea submersibles (a hat tip to the breakdown of a gender barrier in the Navy: the ban on female sailors serving on submarines was lifted in 2011 in England and 2012 in the US; Female officers currently serve on 14 USNavy submarine crews. The USNavy will begin integrating enlisted women in 2016 with the hope that by 2020, 20% of submarine crews will be female). It was merely a step, the narrator states, to the creation of all-female crews. From there, the idea to keep the crews and ditch the boats lead to modifications and the navy mermaids (or mods) were created. 

McGuire's story is amazing, more so because it packs so many thought provoking elements into only a few pages. The narrator (who is in the process of conversion from dry sailor to mermaid) explains that the modified sailors serve two purposes for the Navy: they function as a tool to explore and patrol- they are sailors who value their duty. However, the Navy has also used them as symbols: both the future of exploration and national expansion and also as sex symbols. The mermaid modifications are made, not only with duty and work in mind, but also public perception: "mods" include not just gills, scales, and specialized eyes, but also breast implants and other cosmetic surgery meant to enhance the gendered profile of the mod (without the permission of the sailor). 

The mods ultimately find this sexualized and demeaning aspect of their job oppressing. In addition, the more modified they become, the less time they can spend on land, creating a desire to transition fully to an aquatic existence. At the end of the piece, the reader is left with a vision of mermaid mods "going native": a splinter group of militant mermaids recruits the Navy sailors to join them in living fully in the sea, away from national and sexualized concerns. 

What McGuire offers is a well-rounded examination of the traditional mermaid myth and its inherent complications. The mermaid is both feminized and bestial; she is both a sexual symbol for male sailors and a princess character for young girls, and also a vision of the evil and bestial nature of women. It is these opposing images that I would like to look at in this blogpost.

While there are mermen, it appears that this image has less weight and gender implications about the public perception of humans and the sea. A quick Google search shows no hits for "Jacques Cousteau merman." Michael Phelps has been photoshopped into a merman by Disney but I can't find any passing references to him swimming like a merman- even the copy for the Disney promotion says he is "part fish" not a merman, per se. 


This is different from the idea of women who explore and swim. They are commonly referred to as 'mermaids': A blog post about Sylvia Earle states, " Dr. Sylvia Earle is a mermaid. She became one when she was pushed down by a wave at the age of three." Female athletes such as Annette Kellerman and Diana Nyad are referred to as mermaids. Little girls want to be like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and books utilizing mermaids as strong figures for girls are still being written (The Mermaid and the Shoe- 2014). 


What this suggests to me is that a man who is aquatic or close to the sea might be associated with fish and maybe they swim "like a fish" but a female who is close to the ocean, who immerses themselves in this environment becomes something other than a human female in our minds: she is a mermaid. This need not have completely negative connotations, but it is something that can be explored because it points to ideas about women in nature and the dual roles of both earth goddess and beast that have plagued this relationship throughout time. 

Behind the shells: the strange case of the mermaid bra

One of the most interesting aspects of McGuire's piece is her focus on the politics of breasts for "mods". McGuire picks up on one of the most important aspects of the mermaid: her chest. 

Historians of science have talked about mermaids as interspecies: organisms or creatures that defy taxonomical categorization. Interspecies fall outside of conventional categories- human or fish- but because of our desire to categorize and order, we continuously seek to find a place for them. The mermaid is a difficult case (as is the merman) because, to put it bluntly, we aren't ever really offered an idea of how they reproduce. King Triton (Neptune, or any other name you want to call the king of the sea) has a billion daughters but we never meet a mother. How the heck does that happen? 

It would be much easier for us to place the mermaid into a category if we knew a bit more about their bits. Do they lay eggs and then fertilize them outside of the body (closer to fish) or do they internally fertilize, and if internal fertilization, are they oviparous (egg layers) or viviparous (live birth)? Without this knowledge, we are forced to look at other telling features of the mermaid to classify her.

The telling characteristic of every mermaid depiction, from the youngest to the oldest, is the shell bra and this might tell us something about where she can be put in taxonomical categories. Breasts are extremely important when we think about what type of animal something is. Mammary glands equal breast milk and mammals. Londa Schiebinger  has shown that the delineation of the category 'mammal' is intrinsically linked with the social and cultural history of the breast. Mammals feed their young with their breasts, so if you have breasts, you are probably a mammal. The breasts are so important because they are, in this case, a marker that tells the viewer that the mermaid is probably a mammal and closer to a human female than a fish. Interestingly, the merman has less of an identification, although they are often depicted as heavily muscled and therefore "masculine". However, muscles are much less a symbol of mammals and humanity than the breast and we are left feeling that mermen may be slightly fishy.  Because of her obvious mammalian possession of breasts, the mermaid is marked fair game for the male gaze: you aren't lusting after a fish, but something almost human. 

The breasts of the mermaid are intricately intertwined with her identity and the categorization of her as an organism close to human females. The sign of a mermaid is the upper body of a human female and sightings and reports of mermaids throughout history have called attention to breasts. The famous Feejee mermaid of 1854 was drawn with noticeable human breasts and Dr. R. Hamilton described a mermaid he had seen as having "protuberant breasts like a human woman"  and had "breasts that were as large as those of a woman."

A drawing of the original Feejee mermaid- note the breast material on the chest area.

McGuire is right to call attention to the role of breasts in allowing the objectification of this mythical creature by human males. It is through the recognition that mermaids are close to humans, marked by their possession of mammalian characteristics, that make it possible to see them as sex symbols.

Beautiful and Bestial

Cultural visions of the mermaid suggest that she is both beautiful and bestial: an organism that is closer to nature and animal than human, but can be made into a proper mate for a human male. The mermaid desires closeness with humanity, especially human males, but is inextricably linked to the sea. However, she is also physically malleable and able to be contained and changed. 

Splash- Daryl Hannah as a mermaid. (1984)


Lady Gaga as a mermaid- You and I (2011) 

Carolyn Merchant has written extensively on the understanding of women as bestial and the cultural and social perception that this closeness to nature means they need to be trained or domesticated. Jean Kilbourne has shown how minority women are often portrayed in the media as exotic beasts of prey closer to nature than civilization. The mermaid also contributes to this concept of women as bestial, but in an interesting way: it allows women to be closer to nature without being overly scary. Many mermaid figures are portrayed as delicate, beautiful, and exotic without the mammalian land characteristics that might make them unattractive to human males. Instead, they have all the characteristics of the creatures men prefer to keep in their aquariums. Captivity suits the mermaid in a way it might not the tigress. 

There is, of course, a scary side to mermaids. They were feared by sailors and other fishing communities. They have, in recent years, been shown as monsters. Joss Whedon used the merman as a particularly unattractive monster in his hit Cabin in the Woods (2012), although we never see the female counterpart we can imagine it is similar but, of course, has breasts almost as large as a human woman's. On the Canadian paranormal drama Lost Girl (Waves 4:10, 2014) mermaids are vicious creatures that bite off peoples' legs and use them to walk on land themselves. Interestingly, the television show Grimm (One Night Stand 3:4, 2013) depicts the entire mermaid culture and also seeks to answer the age old reproduction question by offering a new twist on the old tail/tale: mermen are sterile and mermaids must mate with human men to reproduce. This makes mermen extra vicious but it maintains the image of the traditional mermaid as a supplicant to human males and their virility. 

Joss Whedon's merman from Cabin in the Woods

However, the mermaid does not always stay on land. Even though the male gaze creates this creature, gives her an acceptable mammalian form and also requires her captivity and servitude, she (or the image of the mermaid) escapes this captive existence and stays wild. Daryl Hannah returns to the ocean and takes Tom Hanks with her- the wild female is worth turning wild. Lady Gaga's mermaid appears to have struck out alone instead of cleaving so closely to her capture/doctor/lover. Aquamarine becomes a symbol of freedom and growing up (okay, I won't go too far with the Aquamarine here because Disney hasn't really progressed that far in proving that mermaids can be feminist figures. But they are working on it?). In McGuire's piece the mermaid is literally created and sculpted by doctors (similar to Gaga mermaid) but she is anything but powerless. She is inadvertently given the tools needed to slip out of the net of sexuality and need meant to ensnare her for life. Her link with the ocean overcomes her link with humanity. 


Aquamarine (2008)

The mermaid is a complicated figure: she represents an image of women as bestial creatures that can be manipulated and controlled by men. The very taxonomical features that identify the mermaid are those that mark her as a beautiful possession. However, the creature is also a symbol of freedom and adventure that seems to resonate with young women- the ability to get beyond a simple understanding of oneself as weighed down by the sexual conventions of humanity- to be weightless and free and to swim beyond imposed male conventions of beauty and duty. 

It is this duality that has kept me thinking about this mythical creature all summer. I've been living a life dedicated to unpacking this creature and I'm not closer to doing so. What does one make of a creature that is both terrifyingly subservient to prurient alpha male notions of femininity and also a vehicle for women to enact fantasies of escape and empowerment beyond the masculine gaze? Only for me that it is a subject that requires more exploration because the image of the mermaid continues to be a powerful symbol of femininity in our culture. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

#foodgentrification: seafood, class, and culture

I have been absent from this blog for candycrush a good reason; I've been using my time wisely to finish my dissertation. I have, as of today, deposited it, so I'm back. I started writing this blog about a month ago, so forgive the ridiculously old references!

Last year, I wrote a blog about consumers' preoccupation with certain fish species. Species such as tuna, salmon, cod, and Chilean sea bass are coveted by people seeking "super foods" or the next popular and exotic item on the menu- but these species are also some of the most endangered. I ended that post by asking how educators and officials might work to emphasize the value of local, more abundant, but less coveted, fish species (this list would be different for every region).

I'd like to revisit my suggestion about raising awareness of locally abundant but less coveted species. I'm coming from two places with this blog: the place of class in fish consumption and how the elevation of local species might hurt traditional food cultures.

Last week About a month and a half ago, John Stewart and The Daily Show expressed outrage and indignation that media outlets considered the purchase of seafood, and particularly 'organic salmon' and 'crab legs,' too luxurious for people receiving public assistance (see the video below). I don't include this video for political purposes- make of Stewart's rant what you will- but instead, I found it interesting because it is neither new nor should it be surprising that seafood, and particularly certain forms of seafood, are culturally linked with luxury and class status. The more dear the product, for logistical or environmental reasons, the more luxurious.




Class is an interesting concept to talk about when discussing the consumption of fish and other sea products. Cultures and societies that have grown up around the water have traditionally developed their protein consumption habits around water-sourced foods. Because of the delicate and perishable nature of seafood, cultures of consumption were not necessarily high class. Yes, the wealthy got the first pick of the day's catch at its freshest- paying full price for the choicest products. But the leftovers did not go to waste. If a fishmonger wanted to unload the day's catch, he or she marked down the catch throughout the day, allowing the consumption of fish by every social class, not just the rich. Of course, buying fish is not the only way to get it; if you live near the water, chances are you can catch enough seafood to supplement your diet or for subsistence. In these two ways, all classes of people in watery regions have developed ways of eating local seafood. While preparations differ, the entire community relied on that source of protein.

But, this changed. How, you ask, did this change? Refrigeration.

With the rise of refrigeration, highly perishable seafood that previously could only be enjoyed close to its source, could be shipped further and further inland. It was still expensive, and the more perishable the product (cold water ocean fish being the first to spoil) the more status from eating it. With refrigeration, what was once a local staple became big business and most lower classes near the water were priced out of this protein source. The more in-demand the "fancy" fish became to upper class people inland, the more the lower classes near the shore were forced to make due with "trash" fish or by-catch that people inland were uninterested in consuming.

**This doesn't mean that poor people on the shore will eat just anything- food is always tied to culture and class. The crepidule (Atlantic slipper snail) is an invasive species threatening crops of oysters and mussels in France's Mont Saint-Michel Bay. The snail is apparently pretty tasty and super abundant but because of social perceptions of the snail as "a parasite," locals won't touch it. Instead, entrepreneurs in the area are trying to rebrand the snail as a delicacy in high-end Parisian restaurants- a bit of a reverse of the above process.**

This is basically where we are today. People both inland and on the shore who can afford to, purchase the most coveted and freshest sea food. The Lower classes' seafood diet is relegated to species that these higher classes deem inedible or unworthy. And even though innovations such as fish farming and flash freezing have rendered this layering of seafood consumption plastic, uncoupling species from the geographical area from which they come allowing poor and lower middle class people to consume more fish, the cultural perception of certain seafood as being "upper class" or even too good for lower class consumption persists. Even if a form of seafood is affordable to the lower classes (perhaps a sale before it goes bad- the traditional way that the lower classes have partaken of the most coveted products), it is still seen as consuming outside of their class boundaries.

But there is another part of this story. I started this post by pointing to a previous entry where I urged people to consider consuming the less-coveted fishes instead of the most highly coveted. The price of the most in demand has risen even higher recently as those fish stocks are destroyed by over consumption. I asked, why can't we start a campaign to get more people to eat catfish instead of salmon? Sounds good, right? But I'm rethinking my proposed plan after a recent twitter/blog conversation about "food gentrification."

The term "food gentrification" was coined in January of this year by Mikki Kendall, a blogger who writes about black feminist issues. Kendall points to a recent trend of upper class white consumers co opting or adopting traditionally lower class staples as the new "it" food. Soleil Ho at Bitch Magazine picked up Kendall's commentary and applied it to Whole Foods' new "Collards are the new Kale" campaign. Collard greens are a traditional poor Southern black food- a product deemed undesirable by upper classes that is a good source of fiber, protein, and vitamins for the lower classes.  According to Ho's followup post, the cost of this gentrification is exactly what Kendall hypothesizes- lower class families become priced out of their traditional food stuffs due to competition for higher class consumption.



The combination of Kendall and Ho's posts (and this newest post by Pilar Guevara about coconut in Ecuador) with the clip from the Daily Show I posted above have gotten me thinking about food gentrification and seafood consumption. In many ways, the rise of refrigeration allowed the gentrification of seafood. While there was and is always class involved in seafood consumption, the ability to ship certain desired species to markets drove up cost and priced locals out. No longer could lower classes get reduced price end-of-day products- the less desirable fish could just be frozen and package for the in-land consumer. 

Poor people have built cultures around less desirable species. And it's no surprise that these are the species that are not over fished or endangered. Smaller, lower class consider these sources of protein to be integral to their diet. Is it dangerous for me to push for a marketing shift to make these species seem desirable to the white upper classes? Would this cause another gentrification of fishes that could potentially lock out the lower classes from eating any seafood at all?

Add to this another concern, and one that should be highlighted: many communities that subsist on these undesirable species also seek to market them to the upper classes. The Southern catfish consuming community also produces catfish for the market. They would love to see higher consumption of their product in the United States, even if it priced out poor Southerners from their product (and they themselves are currently poor southerners). Is it paternalistic to want to block the gentrification of a fish like catfish, if it would possibly benefit communities of fish farmers throughout the South? Is it harsh to call the cooption of traditional lower class foods gentrification instead of success by local markets in selling a product?  How do we balance a knowledge of the destructive nature of food gentrification with the positive impact that this gentrification has on growing markets in these communities and the possible relief it might give to the stocks of overfished species?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on my concerns.

For more information on the #food gentrification, you can follow all the tweets about it here: 

For information on the history of seafood consumption and the culture of seafood consumption, here are a few papers I looked at before writing this blog: 

"Tales from Two Deltas: Catfish Fillets, High-Value Foods, and Globalization"
Dominique M. Duval-Diop and John R. Grimes Economic Geography, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Apr., 2005): 177-200.
- This article talks about the cultures in each area, and also the market competition between Vietnamese and Southern United States catfish farms. To read about the ongoing battle between American and Vietnamese catfish farmers for the lion's share of the American market, see the New York Times articles here, here, and here

"Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1930"
John K. Walton Journal of Social History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1989): 243-266.

"Eating the Claws of Eden: Stone Crabs, Tourism, and the Taste of Conservation in Florida and
Beyond"
Nicolaas Mink The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Spring, 2008): 470-497.
- This is an interesting article about the association of food with place. 

"Loaves and Fishes: Food in Poor Households in Late Nineteenth-Century London"
Anna Davin History Workshop Journal, No. 41 (Spring, 1996): 167-192.

"Between Life Giver and Leisure: Identity Negotiation through Seafood in Turkey"
StÃ¥le Knudsen International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Aug., 2006): 395-415.
- I loved this article. It is particularly interesting because it looks at two cultures of fish consumption right on top of each other: one higher class and one lower.

Finally, the book Caviar: The Strange history and uncertain future of the world's most coveted delicacy by Inga Saffron is very interesting and fun (a good beach read). Caviar is the example of the rise of a seafood delicacy and Saffron shares her adventures with caviar eating in Russia after the fall of the USSR (apparently there was a robust black market that allowed the lower classes to eat the stuff by the spoonfull). The author also talks about the consequences of the over consumption of this delicacy- the near extinction of the sturgeon species that produces it. good book.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Blackfish: Cultural images of killer whales, their captivity, and Sea World

It seems inevitable that I would write a blog post on 'Blackfish'. There has been a lot of buzz around this (as of this post) Oscar-shortlisted documentary. The film, first released at the Sundance film festival in January 2013, has since been broadcast on CNN (its debut swept every demographic under the age of 55 watching TV on Oct. 24, 2013) and is available for live streaming on Netflix (having garnered over 600,000 views since December 13). I cannot remember a time when a documentary seemed so popular.




The film written and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite details the life of a captive orca, Tilikum, and discusses the death of three humans that interacted with the killer whale-Keltie Byrne at Sealand in British Columbia and Dawn Brancheau at Sea World Orlando 'theme/amusement' parks and a man who apparently sneaked into the orca tank at Sea World after closing time. The director, Gabriela Cowperwaithe, theorizes (through her direction and through interviews) that Tilikum's aggressive behavior toward humans is caused by his captive condition.

There's a lot going on in the film and a lot that I could discuss. But I wanted to just talk about a few of the things I found interesting about the movie and the discussion about captivity and killer whales that the movie has prompted.

When reviewing depictions of orcas in the media, you might get the feeling that there are two separate species: Killer Whales and Orcas. I viewed Blackfish on Netflix when it became available, and immediately after I watched and rated it, Netflix offered me two more movies that I might be interested in: The Whale and Killer Whales. The first, a 2011 documentary produced and narrated by Ryan Reynolds, follows the tale of Luna, an orca that became separated from its pod and was adopted (with many social and political consequences) by a small town in British Columbia. Killer Whales is a 2010 documentary from the discovery channel detailing the natural history of the species. Both of these films are good examples of how the orcas image is split in the media.

In The Whale, orca are depicted as a gentle species with a strong family bond and a love of social interactions. Luna is separated from his pod and just wants people to pay attention to him; he wants and needs affection. There is an emphasis on explaining that orca have advanced social interactions, that they are an intellectually advanced species, and that they have an advanced form of communication, explained in the film as a sort of "regional accent". Even when Luna causes trouble (getting too close to boats, etc) he's depicted as just trying to snuggle. He wants friends! The friendly orca image was heightened by the movie Free Willy (1993). This cultural image of the orca appears to be similar to that of our image of dolphins- a smart, lovable creature that just wants to hang out with friends and play.

It's smiling because it's surrounded by food. So much food. 

Killer Whales is another depiction- of an incredibly smart apex predator. The description of the documentary states

"Highly social and highly deadly, orcas are the ocean's greatest predators--and far more dangerous than their Sea World training may suggest. This documentary explores the fierce behaviors of the killer whale in the wild."

The whole documentary basically consists of watching killer whales creatively hunt other animals.




While watching this, I was reminded of the book The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. The wildly popular science fiction book posits that a conscious "swarm" rallies ocean animals into fighting back against ocean-destroying humans. In the book, one of the most destructive forces is the orca. In one scene, a group of humpback whales tip over boats to knock humans into the water and the killer whales eat them. One particularly upsetting scene plays out a little something like this:

"He caught a glimpse of her head between two waves. A second woman was with her. The orcas had surrounded the upturned Zodiac and were closing in from both sides. Their shiny black heads cut through the waves, jaws parted to reveal rows of ivory teeth. In a few second they would be upon the women...She slid back into the water and the whales dived down behind her...The blue-green water parted as something shot up at incredible speed. Its jaws were open, exposing white teeth. Then they snapped shut and Stringer screamed. Her fist hammered on the snout that held her prisoner. 'Get off' she yelled." (130-131)

Needless to say, it doesn't.

In this cultural image of the orca, it is a killer- and potentially a human killer (although Schatzing mentions that this is aberrant behavior because a killer whaler has never attacked humans in the wild [130]). Unlike dolphins, which many people have pointed out as having too good of a cultural reputation, orcas' reputations seem to be a mix of awe and fear.

Cowperthwaithe highlights the extreme social identity of orcas in one of the most haunting episodes of Tilikum's history. The orca was captured as a two year old in Icelandic waters in 1983. Although she has no footage of his particular capture, the director shows footage of an orca captured in Washington State in the 1970s (before the state stopped allowing Sea World to take orca in their waters). She interviews a fisherman who helped capture orca in Washington and he states that after the baby orca was captured and penned, the rest of the pod stayed nearby and called to it. He says that watching their behavior, he realized how horrible it was to separate these calves from their parents.

But the movie doesn't only highlight the cuddly traits of the species. The director also notes the bullying behavior of the whales. Tilikum was apparently repeatedly bullied by the females at Sea World. In the wild, orcas "rake" each other with their teeth and get into fights to establish social hierarchy and apparently this occurred in the small pens of Sea World (it is a matriachal society but male on female aggression during mating is very common as well- something it seems the director fails to mention).

All in all, the film maker does make the choice to highlight the loving and caring nature of orcas over their aggressiveness (with each other and towards other organisms and humans). Cowperthwaithe points to Tilikum's personal narrative, being ripped from his family unit at a young age, kept in dark isolation in his first water park, constant bullying from females, and social deprivation at Sea World, as the reason for his aggressiveness. But I wonder if focusing on Tilikum's story does take too much attention from the overall behavior of killer whales as aggressive for other reasons besides captivity?

Tilikum is not the only orca to be involved in accidents with trainers and it appears there is a pattern.

At Sealand, where Tilikum was penned with two pregnant females, a female trainer (Keltie Byrne) was drowned. Sea World purchased Tilikum shortly after the incident and assured trainers that they believed that there was no reason to worry- the accident was caused by the female orcas. Of course, what makes this assertion ridiculous is that they could not have been too worried about the other females because both Haida II and Nootka IV were bought by Sea World as well. Haida went to San Antonio and Nootka to Orlando. It does appear that Sea World may have believed the females were especially aggressive during this time because of their pregnancies, but in the end it appears that many believed that the whales were not being aggressive but merely playful.

The movie also highlights another attack: the death of Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. Interestingly, Cowperthwaith doesn't follow up this story with any information about the whale that killed Martinez either. The bull whale, named Keto, was born at Sea World Orlando in 1995 and is described online as a "punk." At 3.5 years old he was transferred to San Diego to try to correct his behavioral issues, but still showed aggression towards other whales. After 9 months in San Diego, he was sent to Ohio and then to San Antonio. That's 4 water parks in 7 years- for an animal that supposedly needs a strong family environment and had already shown aggressive tendencies that seems like quite a misstep. He was sent to Loro Parque to perform and also to hopefully mate with the two females sent from Sea World San Antonio.

Keto had been aggressive around other males because of mate choice in the past, and it appears he was at Loro Parque as well. In Tim Zimmerman's article "Blood in the Water" in Outsider Magazine, he quotes a journal kept by Martinez, in which he notes the "complicated sexual dynamics in the pools, which also affected the stability of the killer whale grouping."

"Keto is obsessed with controlling Kohana, he won't separate from her, including shows," he wrote. "Tekoa is very sexual when he is alone with Kohana (penis out). Keto is sexual with Tekoa." On September  2, 2009, without elaborating, he noted that "Brian [Rokeach, SeaWorld's supervising trainer at Loro Parque at the time] had a small incident with Keto the first hour of the morning," and that is was "a very bad day for Keto." On September 12, he wrote, "All the animals are bad. Dry day for Kohana."

Martinez was killed by Keto Dec. 9, 2009. You can read Zimmerman's full articles about both Martinez's death and Dawn Brancheau's here and here.

On, in 2004, Ky (the offspring of Tilikum and Haida II when they were at Sealand) attacked his trainer at Sea World San Antonio. The bull male pulled his trainer into the water and tried to bite. This incident was chalked up to "raging hormones."

Finally, in 2006, Kasatka, the dominant female at Sea World San Diego, attacked her trainer Ken Peters and held him underwater intermittently for 9 minutes (see video below). It seems that the attack was prompted by the distress vocals being emitted by her offspring Kalia in a neighboring tank. However, it appears that Kasatka had also shown aggressive behavior towards trainers in the past.

For more information on issues between trainers and whales, see this article on an attack by Kastka and Orky and Orky's past attacks on trainers at Marineland in California.




In all of these cases of attack, it appears that the one thing in common is that these animals show aggression towards trainers during sexually charged periods (adolescence, breeding, pregnancy, and parenthood). Some experts have suggested that Tilikum's frequent breeding and mating could have been a contributing factor in his attack on Dawn Brancheau. While few studies have been done on orcas and aggression during mating, extreme aggression in mating has been observed in dolphins and other whale species.

If these animals are particularly aggressive due to mating issues, it raises a huge concern for training and working with these animals closely at Sea World because they are used, in addition to their entertainment quality, mainly as breeding species.

In 1972, the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibited the capture and trade of marine mammals. The Act did allow for permits to be granted for scientific purposes or for entertainment purposes, but the combination of more stringent Endangered Species Act (1973) and the MMPA meant that most marine cetaceans would be off limits to marine parks. While the orca is not considered endangered (it is actually labeled as having deficient information for making that claim) the pods that live on the Northeastern Coast of the US are labeled endangered (as of 2005) and therefore they can no longer be collected by marine parks (for information on the MMPA and how it changed scientific research on marine mammals see Etienne Benson's article here and the actual act here). Long before this, however, Sea World was prohibited from collecting in this region after it was discovered they were utilizing dynamite to herd the animals into inlets for capture and that many members of pods were being killed due to this practice. The deaths were being covered up by opening the whales, placing rocks in their stomachs, and sinking them. After they were banned from collecting in Washington (and after a failed petition to the Alaska government to collect 100 whales in the 1980s), Sea World was forced to collect their animals from Iceland. Keiko, the orca in Free Willy was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979, Kasatka in 1978, Tilicum in 1982, Haida II, Nootka IV, and Freya in 1982. But pressure to stop the captures in Iceland became more intense and by the early 1990s the minister of fisheries in Iceland appeared to be issuing fewer and fewer permits for capture. The other place to get captured orca is Japan, but Taiji fisherman responsible for the captures have been called into question because of the horrendous slaughter and most parks would rather not associate themselves with this practice. Even Japanese water parks would rather pay the import fee and purchase orca from Iceland than buy fro the Taiji (their methods are detailed in the movie The Cove).

What all of this means is that in order to continue their franchise, breeding orca is much easier than capturing wild species to replace those who die in captivity (which is a lot of whale death). Tilikum, Ky, and Keto are all bull whales that have naturally and artificially inseminated female orcas in captivity. When the females do not naturally breed with males, they are artificially inseminated (Kasatka was the first successful artificial insemination with Tilikum's sperm in 2001, giving birth to Nakai).

What is also means is that, while breeding might be the most dangerous time for trainers to work with these creatures, it is the most desired condition for these animals at Sea World. Sea World might be able to decrease the danger if they separated females during estrus, pregnancy, and early motherhood. They could also separate the females from males during these periods so that they did not mate at all. But, this is not Sea World's goal. In fact, they have spent a lot of money and research trying to figure out how to tell when a female is fertile so that they could put males and females together to promote natural fertilization so that artificial insemination is not needed.

Although the park often points to working to reproduce these species for conservation, this argument does not work well with orca. The authors of a paper on orca breeding research (three of whom work at SeaWorld San Antonio, Orlando, ad San Diego) state that killer whales are one of the few marine mammals that are ubiquitous to ocean habitats around the globe.

"Despite their prevalence in the wild, the worldwide captive population of killer whales comprises less than 48 animals. The captive population is limited further by the size and space requirements of the species, resulting in the formation of numerous, small genetically isolated groups. Despite this fractionated population, improved understanding of the environmental and social requirements of killer whales has led to successful natural breeding. Since 1985, when the first successful birth and rearing of killer whales occurred, approximately 26 births have followed at six facilities. As a result more than half the present population (26/48) has been born in captivity, including second generations." (for the entire article, go here)

The purpose of the breeding program at SeaWorld is to breed more whales for SeaWorld. That's it. But it appears they might be putting their trainers in danger to accomplish this goal.

One problem that I had with the movie involved the issue of breeding. Tilikum's breeding chart (below) is utilized in the movie to suggest that his aggressive tendencies have been bred into a great many calves in Sea World's family (he's sired 21 calves and 11 remain living).


My concern with utilizing this chart is that the director isn't particularly clear about her concerns regarding Tilikum's breeding. It appears that the director and the respondents in the film are suggesting that Tilicum has a genetic predisposition to aggression and that this aggression is being genetically passed to his offspring. Unfortunately, the director does a bad job of clarifying what this means and so it seems fairly easy to poke holes in this "chart of aggression" based on other claims she makes. 

If the director is suggesting that Tilikum is naturally more aggressive than other whales, and that this is a trait that can be bred into his offspring, then it might be easy to suggest that his aggression is individual- a fluke (no pun intended). It appears that one of the former trainers interviewed in the movie tries to make this claim- Tilikum is an especially bad whale. 

But I don't think the director means to boil everything down to genetics. I think she wants to suggest that Tilikum has naturally aggressive tendencies (that might be genetically linked) that mean that in the captive environment he is especially susceptible to displaying aggression. If he passes the genetics that make him susceptible to his offspring, they too will show violent tendencies. This is a much better argument, but it also seems weak to me. 

If Tilikum's offspring fail to show aggression, does that mean they got their mother's genes in this department? What about Tilikum and Kasatka's offspring Ky? Where did his aggression come from - his mother or his father? Appealing to genetic arguments is concerning. If you think aggression is heritable, then Tilikum is merely a bad seed. If you think it is a combination of nature and nuture, then you might be able to make the case that all of Tilikum's offspring were born in captivity and therefore have had a very different life than he has, meaning that the same stressors he experienced have been alleviated in his calves (although you could also make the case that they are almost the same given that most calves born in captivity are eventually taken from their mothers and placed in tanks at another theme park).  

I would much rather the director have made the movie less about the aggressive behavior of one whale and suggested that most killer whales in captivity have the capacity, especially during times of mating, to display aggressive behavior. This trait does not need to be genetically heritable, it is indicative of the species not of the individual specimen. While it does appear as if she tries to do this by mentioning the incidents with Keto and Kasatka, she could have gone further. 

Sea World:

Blackfish was a movie about Tilikum, but in many ways it is largely an indictment of Sea World. While Sea World bills itself as a learning institution, Susan Davis in her book Spectacular Nature has written that Sea World is actually a theme park where the theme is "science". Davis believes that there is little to no educational value to these institutions and it would seem that Cowperwaith might agree. In the film, she catches tour guides giving false information about the natural history of orcas, stating that they live much longer in captivity than in the wild. If Sea World must skew natural information to make their animals appear more healthy, how can they be trusted as an educational institution?

I am torn about these institutions. I did visit Sea World Orlando as a child, and it is a place that is largely responsible for my childhood compassion for sea creatures. I'm from the midwest and if it weren't for that park I would not have seen a whale or dolphin close-up. However, some would argue that advances in underwater filming and the prevalence of film can do as much for educating the public as these institutions can. In any case, I couldn't afford to see the whale show and I can't imagine that the performances could do more for the public's understanding of whales than merely seeing them in tanks does. How does a performing animal cause compassion?

The issue with Tilicum and Blackfish has been a nightmare for the parks- prompting protests of SeaWorld floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and at the Rose Bowl Parade in California. Their stock is down from its initial offering, but this could be due to low attendance due to a new price hike although some people have suggested the movie has hurt attendance as well. Many performers, including Trace Adkins, have cancelled shows at Sea World amid the fallout from the film.   In addition, many are calling for the release of Tillicum to a sea tank and the cessation of his breeding program.

Unfortunately, many people don't understand that he is no longer releasable to the ocean. In the most dramatic case of public pressure to release a captive orca, Keiko, who played Willy in Free Willy, became the center of a firestorm about releasing these animals back into the wild. Over a number of years, biologists and trainers sought to rehabilitate Keiko and teach him to hunt in the wild. Because he had spent so much time in a small tank, Keiko did not even have to ability to hold his breath as long as wild orca. Eventually, after an enormous amount of money was thrown at the problem, Keiko was released, only to continuously appear near civilization. He died of pneumonia in 2003 after failing to reintegrate into the wild.

There's a great video about his here:






Freeing Tilicum would mean putting him in a sea pen for the remainder of his life (although he's in isolation right now so anything would probably be better). But this might be better for him and Sea World trainers.

Whatever happens to this particular whale, it seems more important that people understand that aggressive behavior by these animals is not an isolated event and that Sea World is not "saving" these animals by breeding them. There is no reason that Sea World should propagate these organisms other than to continue to run this franchise (it appears that the majority of scientific findings about these whales leads directly to understanding their mating and how to breed them).

I'm interested to hear others' takes on this film, what they took away from it, and if it changed their concept of Sea World.  Is the market going to take care of this issue when people stop going to Sea World because of these exposes? or Should Sea World be forced to stop their breeding program and retire their whales regardless of the market and the robustness of their business?

For me, I would be more interested in seeing activists trying to make changes to the MMPA than focusing on one whale's release. If it is illegal to harass these creatures in the wild and we value them enough to protect them in their natural habitat, we should work to protect them in captivity. I'm not sure that Sea World could prove that their small contributions to understanding these organisms outweighs the stress that the organisms are subjected to in captivity. What do you think?


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Visualizing the Deep Sea Environment: Vehicles and Videos

I used to be the type of person who clipped newspaper articles out of the paper and sent them through the mail to people. Just a little something to say, hey, this story about whatever is something that might interest you. Some people have called this habit "old fashioned" and likened me to a grandmotherly-type (haters, unfortunately, are gonna hate), but it turns out if you make the ability to clip articles painless and stamp-less, bunches of people do it. So in the last few years, I've become known on Facebook as a lady who digs the ocean, and I receive a lot of posts pointing me towards cute videos of seals and crazy stories about whales. The last few years, the video below has been posted to my wall several times:




And just the other day, this one popped up:




These images have a lot in common.

They were both captured by remote video technology on deep sea oil drills. The first video was captured at the depth of 7828 feet and the second at about 5000 feet below the surface.

The organism featured in each video was billed in news stories as a "Monster"- Am I the only person in the world that gets a little sad every time a deep sea organism gets billed as a monster just because they don't show off in front of cameras all the time like dolphins (total media whores)? In fact, neither one of these things are "monsters" (whatever that word implies- I think it implies teeth and intent- two things neither of these animals posses) and they were both already known to science.

The first video is probably of a Magnapinna squid. Specific identification is difficult, not because it's a grainy shot, but because researchers have never actually collected the adult form of this squid- its taxonomy was worked out from larval and juvenile forms (these are more easily collected at the ocean's surface- pelagic organisms migrate into deeper water as they mature) so scientists are guessing that this particular specimen belongs in the same family as those forms (Magnapinnadae).

The second video features the pelagic jellyfish Deepstaria Reticulum. (It was initially misidentified by Deep Sea News as Deepstaria enigmatica but later identified as a separate but similar species)

The last thing that these videos have in common is that they offer images of organisms that are rarely seen and difficult to collect and analyze. But science is coming to know more about them through the use of manned and unmanned vehicles and video technology.

The study of deep sea organisms has proceeded slowly. In early marine expeditions such as the Challenger expedition of 1872-76, researchers sampled and surveyed pelagic organisms by dredging and netting off the ship. While this method brought up a variety of specimens, certain groups of organisms, especially those that are gelatinous or fragile, were mangled in the process and identification was difficult.

William Beebe pushed the process of exploring these organisms forward with his bathysphere. Between 1930 and 1934, Beebe used his submersible to observe deep sea creatures in their native habitat. He described quite a few new species (some have never been seen again).

Beebe in his Bathysphere

But there were some problems with the bathysphere when it came to consistent study of the denizens of the deep. Beebe had no ability to grab the specimens he saw so the only way to "see" the specimens was through Beebe's descriptions and the illustrations produced by his illustrator, Else Bostelmann. Underwater photography and flash was not advanced enough to take photos out of the bathysphere at great depths. Beebe took notes and made drawings during the dive, and he was also connected by radio wire to Else on the boat. She took notes and made sketches based on these real time descriptions and combined with Beebe's own notes and imput, produced some pretty unforgettable images of these newly discovered pelagic organisms.


Else Bostelmann's illustration of a new pelagic species seen by Beebe in the bathysphere. 

These research platforms have come far since Beebe's work in Bermuda. Both HOVs (human occupied vehicles) and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) are used to give researchers direct access to organisms in their habitat. Scientists can study behavior, interactions between species, and physiological measurements; in addition, they can take photographs and video for further study.

According to Bruce H. Robison, high-resolution video systems attached to these vehicles can perform  quantitative surveys as accurate and useful as those conducted with nets. In addition, they can capture images of delicate organisms such as the Deepstaria. Another plus- most gelatinous pelagic organisms are transparent, so the video recording does not merely display the features of the main specimen, but often the prey is visible in the digestive tract (I know, super cool!).

Observations of pelagic animals has increased due to the use of HOVs and ROVs. In 2002, Guerra et al.  described some of the advances teuthologists (people who study cephalopods) had made working in HOVs with video attachments, including new behavioral patterns (Vecchione and Roper, 1991), light displays of octopuses (Johnsen et al 1999), a description of a new genus of cephalopod living in hydrothermal vents (Gonzalez et al, 1998), and new types of locomotion (Villanueva et al, 1997).  Guerra et al. reported a series of cephalopod observations made with HOVs in 1988, 1992, and 2000.



Guerra et al. tentatively identified the specimens through video footage and still photographs as belonging to the megapinnidae family.


At the end of the paper, the researchers state that "It is amazing that a large and completely unknown animal has suddenly been observed in the last ten years at similar bathypelagic depths in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and western and eastern Atlantic (Lindsay & al, 2000; Vecchione & al., in press; present paper). This is clear proof of how little we know about the bathypelagic, the largest ecosystem on the earth." 

It is, indeed, amazing but not particularly surprising because of the impact that vehicles and video have had on the exploration of the bathypelagic. The difference that these tools make has not gone unnoticed and researchers are working to extend the use of video in survey work.  In 1998, Euan Harvey and Martin Shortis proposed using a stable underwater video surveillance system  to survey the size and quantity of specific species of reef fishes in a given area. The authors' major struggles come from calibration of the system: how do you make a remote video system as accurate as physiological information taken from SCUBA divers tasked with surveying fishes? The authors offer several suggestions, one of which is to look towards the oil rig systems that have already captured the images above. Harvey and other researchers are still working out how to get accurate information from these systems, but it is clear that stable surveillance could be one of the next steps for pelagic exploration as well. 

In addition to stable systems, Robinson states that 

"Development of AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles/gliders) with target acquisition and tracking control software is underway, and once available these systems will tell us a great deal about the daily lives of deep pelagic species by following and recording them through their daily ambits. Large-scale, deep survey requirements, both explorations and quantitative, can also be met by AUVs. In this case, data from on board imaging systems will be process by image recognition and analysis software that will eliminate the requirement for labor-intensive enumeration by human reviewers. This development will greatly expand the scale and scope of deep pelagic surveys." (269-270)

Robinson's prediction is in the offing- in November, 16 American and Canadian research teams launched "Gliderpalooza": a joint effort to survey the world's oceans using unmanned automated underwater gliders collect an enormous amount of data that will hopefully help predict weather patterns. But it isn't such a stretch to suggest that video surveillance could be added to these gliders to gather information in deeper water (these gliders only go to about 650 feet but can be used to dive much deeper). 

HOVS, ROVs, Stable video surveillance, and gliders are all technologies that are advancing our understandings of the pelagic environment and the animals that live there. If researchers are granted access to these tools (funding is always a problem but gliders are surprisingly inexpensive when compared to ship-based surveys), we will no longer have to label every deep-sea creature a monster when it is caught on camera. Unless they have big teeth and a monstrous intent (but only then)!





Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Townsend's Tortoises: an early example of historical ecology and the conservation of endangered species

If you read this blog often, you may have noticed my love of Charles Haskins Townsend. Townsend was the first director of the New York Aquarium under the New York Zoological Society (there was a previous director when the aquarium was run exclusively by the city) and before that he worked for the United States Fish Commission in a number of capacities.

Townsend was a rather interesting fellow and he shows up in so many important episodes of aquatic science at the turn of the twentieth century: he researched fisheries and he was also interested in basic research questions about fish physiology and behavior. But what I find most interesting about Townsend is the project he died believing was a failure, and which I think of as his biggest success: Townsend's tortoises.

Charles Townsend was an integral member of the Pribilof Seal Commission (for information on the Commission see this previous blog post). Under the direction of David Starr Jordan, Townsend wrote extensive reports on the status of the seal rookery on Pribilof Island.

Townsend with other members of the Pribilof Seal Commission. That's him (#11) in the amazing deer stalker. WCS Archives
As stated in my previous post about historical ecology (here), one of Townsend's jobs was to collect historical information about sealing from other countries. Well, while Townsend was collecting sealing data, he collected whaling data and this collection lead to a rather startling discovery: Galapagos tortoises were declining rapidly in population. 

The first reason that I love this story is that I love the way that Townsend followed a line from seals to whales to tortoises. As a historian who went from studying the history of religion and syphilis to eugenics to the history of marine science, I find in his trail of research a kindred soul. I get it- sometimes you just get sucked into a mystery and it consumes you. Townsend became consumed by tortoises (in an awesome non-painful way because they are herbivores- but seriously, nothing could be scarier because if they were actually to attack, I assume it would be a horribly slow and boring death).

The second reason that I love Townsend's interest in tortoises is because of what he did with the information: 

Townsend collected whaling logs from as many sources as he could find. In another historical study, he looked at these logs to ascertain how many tortoises these whaling ships had taken off the Galapagos islands for food on each voyage. By examining the data, Townsend found that the number of tortoises taken off each island had rapidly decreased over time, and that it appeared as if very few tortoises remained. 

Seeing this decline, he sought more data. He reached out to anyone who knew the islands to ask the question: how many tortoises are left? Can they be saved? 

Townsend received this photo of a turtle harvest on one of the Galapagos Islands from a natural history dealer. WCS
Archives
What he found wasn't promising: some populations were so depleted that sailors, explorers, and natural history dealers reported seeing few or no tortoises on several islands previously known to contain large populations. 

Townsend collected all his data and published it in The Galapagos Tortoises in relation to the whaling industry which you can read here. But he didn't stop there. Townsend set out to try to save the animal he saw rapidly declining. 

Through the use of historical data, Townsend recognized the dire prediction for the Galapagos tortoise and he sought to do something about it. Before his work with these creatures, most conservation efforts in the United States were centered on organisms that were considered edible or economically valuable. Clubs like the Boone and Crocket club had spearheaded conservation efforts of megafauna in the United States because they wanted to conserve those organisms for hunting; and Townsend was close to these men because they ran the New York Zoological Society. In the past, Townsend was involved in conservation efforts for organisms deemed economically valuable such as the Pribilof seals and also for sea turtles such as the black diamond terrapin that the USFC was trying to farm back from near extinction in Beaufort, N.C.  And Townsend was not opposed to conserving species so that they could be farmed for their perceived value, but for some reason he didn't take that tack with Galapagos tortoises. People had eaten them in the past, but he chose not to market his conservation efforts as saving a food source: he went a new route and wrote to zoo and aquarium directors asking that they raise these tortoises because they were valuable to humanity and the earth just because they were awesome. 

In 1928, Townsend sailed to the Galapagos Islands to trap and transport as many different species of Galapagos tortoises to the United States as possible. Throughout the previous 6 months, Townsend had been corresponding and traveling with various zoos and aquariums throughout the United States that he believed might have the climate and space to keep and breed these animals.   He eventually sends a varying amount of tortoises (usually between 2 and 10 specimens) to 15 different locations in and around the United States, several of its territories, and even to Sydney, Australia. Most of these institutions were zoological gardens, but Bermuda, San Diego, Honolulu and New Orleans were combined zoological parks and aquariums. 

Every six months, the directors of these institutions measured and weighed the specimens- sending Townsend a report on their progress.  If these animals died or in the case of poor 120 at the New York Zoo, were stolen, a necropsy was performed and the cause of death was reported.  Many directors received animals without knowing their sex or even what species they were- so a commentary on shell shape, sexual characteristics, and observations on behavior were reported as well. Townsend entered this data into a special spread sheet- which he later utilized to make comparisons between the sites. Throughout the years, the breeding and conservation of the tortoises took precedence over the ownership of the somewhat exotic specimens. While the tortoises were large draws for crowds, Townsend reserved the right to send the tortoises to new locations that might help them to breed more quickly.  In a letter to the Director of the Desert Arboretum in Arizona, Townsend uses his collected data to analyze what might be inhibiting growth and causing fatalities at the arboretum.  Of the original 18 specimens sent to Arizona, only 7 survive 2 years later.  Townsend states that the species in Bermuda and Honolulu are doing well, while those in the American west of Arizona and Texas have struggled because of cold nights.  He asks that Arizona send their remaining specimens to Florida so that they might have a better chance of survival and eventual breeding.  This moving of specimens is very common during the years Townsend was overseeing the breeding program. Ground cover was analyzed- there was a concern that some sites weren’t sandy enough for the turtles to lay eggs so they were moved to sandier locations. Food and environment were analyzed.  The tortoises apparently were deemed to like roaming room and hated being put in pens for the winter so the climate had to be warm year around.  And, there were quite a few pests and diseases that struck the tortoises.  But the interesting thing about all this is that, when told to move the specimens, for the good of the program and experimentation, the zoos and aquariums gave up those exotic species, or took on more.      
A child riding one of Townsend's tortoises. WCS Archives

While this conservation effort eventually did end in breeding colonies of Galapagos tortoises at some of these institutions, Townsend did not live to see them.  The Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Garden did not successfully breed Townsend’s tortoises until the early 1950s. But, that success was followed by those in Honolulu and San Diego breeding. Some of these tortoises are still breeding and several have been sent back to the Galapagos to take part in the breeding program set up on the islands. 

A detailed record of the tortoises at their various locations around the U.S. Each tortoise was assigned a number and details such as weight and height were recorded monthly. WCS archives.
In addition to trying to save the tortoises by bringing them to American zoos and aquariums, Townsend was integral in jump starting the campaign to get the Galapagos declared a conservation area closed to hunters. 

Townsend was an old-fashioned fisheries scientist- he believed whole-heartedly in managing fisheries for sustainable harvesting, but for some reason he went a different direction with his tortoises. He didn't sell their conservation to the public as a part of fisheries management, but instead sought complete protection for the species. 

I'm a historian; I love complicated narratives and Townsend's is one of my favorites.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

New discoveries in unlikely places: the role of built spaces in ocean exploration

Recently, Wired.com featured the Bobbit Worm (Eunice aphroditois) as their "Absurd Creature of the Week." Don't be fooled- there isn't a weekly column about absurd creatures (which would have been awesome); they just invented that column name to shame this awesome marine polychaete. It can't help it that it's a worm that snaps its prey in half and happens to also be both slightly adorable when young (rainbow colored) and then really repulsive when mature (10 feet long and slimy).




Yes, the bobbit worm is a little creepy because it's super dangerous to other fishes and such, but it is also creepy because it is mysterious. Who doesn't love a mystery?

This polychaete isn't often seen in the wild, so scientists know little about their life cycle, feeding habits, or breeding habits. What they do know has come, not from viewing these organisms in the wild, but in aquarium setting, sometimes accidentally.

Matt Simon at Wired.com recounts the 2009 discovery of 'Barry', a bobbit worm discovered in a public aquarium in Cornwall, England after aquarists noticed the disappearance of fish, damaged coral, and the loss of bait and hooks left out overnight to catch whatever was disturbing the
aquarium inhabitants. Eventually, the aquarists dismantled the aquarium and found 'Barry' (pictured below) concealed in some coral. Surprise! They didn't really know how he'd gotten there, but guessed he was a tiny little stow-away when the coral was first introduced into the tank, and had rapidly developed into the awesome, if appallingly unattractive, specimen you see below.

My interest in this tale doesn't have much to do with the aesthetics of polychaetes, but instead stems from the fact that it is more common than people think to find these unintended guests in aquariums.

William Innes, an early luminary in the aquarium hobbyist field, often sent unknown fish specimens from his aquarium to Carl Hubbs and George Sprague Myers for identification. Hubbs and Innes published taxonomic information on the first known blind fish of the family characidae after Innes received some of the fishes from a fish dealer in Texas.

But there are similar stories to Barry- and my favorite comes from the Royal Botanical Society at Regent's Park, London in 1880. On June 10, 1880, Mr. Sowerby, the secretary of the RBS, spied something swimming, or more accurately, pulsing, in the giant Amazonian lily pad exhibit (Science, July 17, 1880, Lankester) . The Victoria Regia exhibit was quite popular at the RBS- these giant lilypads from South America were named after Queen Victoria (now known as Victoria amazonica). But whatever was in the shallow water wasn't supposed to be there, and had definitely not been placed there by an RBS member. (For a completely interesting paper on the naming controversy of Victoria amazonica check out Donald Opitz's paper in the British Journal for the History of Science)

What had made its way into the tank?

In 1880, Science published the first description of what they believed to be a new species, Limnocodium Victoria (later known as L. Sowerbyi and now known as Craspdacusta sowerbii), a fresh water jellyfish. This was huge, because a. no one had ever recorded jellies living in freshwater in the field and b. they had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. In fact, Sowerby stated that there hadn't been any new additions to the lilypad exhibit in months so the RBS was at a loss when pinpointing the origin of these jellies. What they surmised is that they had to have originated from the same water that the lily pads came from, and therefore probably came from the Guyana region in South America.

It was examined (by no less than George Romanes) and named, but researchers found it impossible to maintain in captivity and eventually all the specimens died and were preserved.

And then, it reappeared in the same tank of lily pads in 1888. This time, G. Herbert Fowler reported that the entire tank was covered in hydroids (a life cycle of jellyfish) but the origins and life cycle were still unclear" (Fowler, G.H. "Notes on the Hydroid Phase of Limnocodium sowerbyi." Quart. Jour. Micr. Sci.  30 (1890): 507)

A modern photograph of C. Sowerbii

After these initial descriptions of freshwater jellies at the RBS, they started to show up everywhere. In 1916, 1922, and 1924 Harrison Garman reported in Science finding large swarms in a creek in Kentucky.   In 1925, Frank Smith collected them in the Panama Canal Zone (also published in Science). By 1928, Charles M. Breder announced that the jelly had found its way into tanks at the New York Aquarium.

We now know that C. sowerbii is a hearty species of jelly native to China with a very special ability: it has a chitin-covered resting stage which allows it to survive in drought years. This ability means that it can be spread through mud or detritus without anyone knowing that they are transporting the specimen. And, it means it pops up in unexpected places, like the Royal Botanical Society. (This has become a bit of a problem as the fresh water jelly is now considered an invasive species- check out this article about its introduction to Israeli waters).

But, guess what: no matter how many times or how many places its been found, the first description stands. It continues to be named after the startled secretary of the Royal Botanical Society and the date of discovery is still listed as 1880.

Aquariums, both hobbyist and public, have continuously served as spaces containing undescribed and undiscovered organisms. We often don't think about these seemingly domesticated and constructed spaces as containing unknown entities, but they can and do often unveil new delights to the aquarists who might think they've seen it all (or at least that they know what they are working with). C. sowerbii and unexpected visitors like 'Barry' serve to remind us that built environments are still places of mystery and discovery.