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deeply weird

11870643_885828668158338_5476581250463218594_ntoday’s theme is gelatinous octopuses.  i never expected us to see any of these guys, let alone enough to make a ‘theme’, but over the past few days we’ve seen three: the Cirrothauma above, and two of the bolitaenids pictured below.  i’ll tell you a little about them, as they are pretty remarkable.  Cirrothauma murrayi (above) is a blind, finned octopus that seems to live in deep seas around the world; this one was 2.6 km below the surface when we saw him.  (i say ‘him’ because he appeared to have a hectocotylus [modified reproductive arm found only in males]).  mbari encountered another, much smaller specimen on a cruise this past july so it will be very interesting to see whether they are different growth stages of the same species.

the second taxon is a bolitaenid–we think probably Japetella diaphana (lovely name) but it’s pretty hard to tell the two species in this family apart (so it could be Bolitaena pygmaea); you almost have to have them side by side to compare (the difference is in the size of the eyes and the length of the eye stalks on which they are set out from the brain).  this one was found at 690 m.  it’s an amazing animal to watch because, in addition to being able to transition from transparent to red (or anything in between), it also has iridescent cells (iridophores–you can see them below in the funnel, under the eye) set throughout its body that make it sparkle blue and green depending on the light.  when mature, it also develops a large ring-shaped light organ around the beak (thought to play a role in reproduction/communication), which i would love to see (neither of our specimens had it yet).

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here come the squid

IMGP0386-1day 4 out with mbari.  this guy is one of my absolute favorites to observe: Taonius borealis.  a small cousin of the colossal squid (same family, cranchiidae, or ‘glass’ squids), it’s one of our best insights into what the colossal squid might look like alive, and what it looks like is, quite simply, remarkable.  almost every part of the body is completely transparent, with the exception of a few viscera and the eyes, the silhouettes of which are masked from underneath by the ink sac and very large light organs on the eyes.  the squid can change from transparent to dark red within in a split second and has a wide range of appearances in between, with incredibly fine control over each individual pigment cell (chromatophore) on its body.  this one was at about 468 m when we found him, hanging out in the classic ‘cockatoo’ pose (see images and video link here).

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holy mola!

DSC_0400-1i know, the photo is not that spectacular… but we were treated to a Mola mola (ocean sunfish) sighting this morning under rather difficult conditions to capture well.  all was grey and the fish (two of them actually, surrounding by ogling albatrosses) were about 50 m from the boat.  they were small by mola standards, maybe a metre from fin tip to fin tip, meandering around in their strange sideways fashion, occasionally poking an eye out of the water to stare back at us, flapping their fins awkwardly and just generally looking like a pretty unlikely animal.  in addition to the black-footed albatross, some ?shearwaters (positive ID to follow) and northern fulmars were dabbling nearby.

tomorrow, photos of undersea creatures!

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whale, whale, whale

DSC_0289-1what have we here?  i’m back at sea!  i’m out on mbari‘s western flyer once more, ready for a week of deep-sea squiddy goodness.  we’re just getting ready to put doc ricketts into the water, but already we’ve seen some spectacular wildlife: the summer-resident humpback whales (plus otters, dolphins, sealions and murres) put on quite a show to send us out to sea!  more soon from far, far below the waves…

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while on holiday, i got the chance to do something i don’t find a lot of time for right now–go bug hunting!  the garden where we were staying was small, but verdant, and i found a few obliging subjects.  none fell into the notoriously venomous/aggressive category that seems a bit overrepresented in australia (like the sydney funnel-web, redback, or mouse spider).  this one is a philodromid (maybe Tibellus?), apparently related to crab spiders.  i just liked the spiky setae.

DSC_0383the one that caught my eye the most was this beautiful st andrew’s cross spider (Argiope aetherea; i especially like the genus name, which means “silver face”).  i’ve come across Argiope before, and was fascinated by the stabilimenta that some species weave into their webs.  this one didn’t have any but was pretty enough without!

DSC_0406and finally, one of australia’s most recognizable web-builders, the golden silk orb weaver, Nephila sp. (today is brought to you by excellent latin names; Nephila means “fond of spinning”, which i hadn’t yet found out when these guys last made appearances here and here).  you can see the golden color of the silk in this photo, which is interesting as it didn’t look that golden to the naked eye, and if you scroll down the wikipedia page you can see what must be one of the most impressive spider-related human creations of all time, a cape made of Nephila silk.  OMG.  this one did not appear to be all that industrious, just hanging out mid-air at australia zoo, startling anyone who may or may not have thought it would be funny to hide behind a tree for a prank.  hint: in australia… don’t!




a few days ago, just as the sky began to get light, we were awakened by a crash. my first thought was that a kereru/native woodpigeon had flown into one of the windows of the next room. if it were a bird, it would almost certainly be injured, given the force with which it had hit the glass (we felt the impact as well as heard it). so i padded downstairs to see whether anyone was lying stunned (or worse) on the ground. in the grey early light, it was difficult to see, but eventually i did make out an unusual shape sprawled among the pale green leaves of the juicy succulent that is slowly claiming the ground outside our guest-room window. when i folded the wings back in and turned the bird over, this is what i found.

20150330_071910this is a ruru or morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae), new zealand’s only remaining owl (the laughing owl, along with about half of our other native bird species, became extinct between human colonization of the islands and the end of the 20th century). i had seen them before (and we hear them reasonably often–they make over 20 different vocalisations) but never in the wild, and never this close. his mottled rust-brown and cream feathers were smooth and silky on the wings, incredibly soft on the belly, and almost spiderweb-fine down the legs, to the surprisingly yellow feet. when i picked him up, his head lolled and his eyes were closed, but one foot grasped a fallen cabbage tree leaf, he was breathing, and to my great relief, the remaining tension in his neck showed that it wasn’t broken.

i gathered him in to hold in one hand, pinning the wings to the body. i’ve studied wild birds in the past but the usual hold, with the head supported between first and second fingers, would clearly not work for a bird longer than my forearm. even a small owl has wicked talons and an effective beak, so i hoped i wouldn’t have to explain a slashed wrist to our local emergency facilities (although, good story!). he seemed far from a vicious panic attack, though, so i took my chances. i carried him up to our small deck and sat to examine him more closely. as we walked through the door from the house back outside, his wide yellow eyes popped open and looked around, and he turned his head a bit to get a better look at his surroundings—and me.

owl eyes are unlike most other birds’ eyes; they are proportionally very large, forward-facing and set in flat facial discs and supported by the bony rings common to all raptors. up close, their size and vivid color make for an intense, piercing stare; the bright yellow-orange irises and extraordinary large black pupils of this morepork seemed to convey a much higher awareness than the eyes of most smaller birds. this is probably why owls have their reputation for wisdom across many cultures; in the traditional facial moko/tattoos of the maori, women wear a stylized ruru on their chins for wisdom. i was glad to see that the pupils, although remaining large, expanded and constricted together. the owl’s clear gaze continued to hold mine as i debated whether to test his ability to stand, or check him for injuries.

in the end, his improving head control (i only rotated him a little—for science) and the foot continuing to grasp the cabbage tree frond convinced me to let him try perching. i positioned him behind a bamboo gardening hoop on the deck and touched the perch to the top of his feet; he flailed a little and then grasped, crouching a little lopsidedly and continuing to peer around. while his coordination showed he was not yet fully recovered, nothing seemed obviously broken, although he did slowly tip forward until he hung bat-like from the underside of the perch. i re-collected him into a tea towel so i could isolate each limb and sat down to examine him more closely. i felt along his legs and feet; tension was good, i couldn’t feel any broken bones and he didn’t flinch at my prodding. his ribs, sternum and skull all seemed fine, so although his eyes had closed again, i thought he had a good chance of recovering after some peace and quiet.

20150330_071922i carried him inside with me (to the cats’ consternation—as indoor dwellers they don’t get to see birds on their side of the windows very often), procured a wooden beer crate and brought it back out to the deck with some fat sticks to make perches. i set the box with the open side facing out, positioned the sticks, and gently inserted the owl behind a one, planning to retry the perching prompt. he grasped one of the sticks with a foot, but fluttered his wings and made an awkward hop that brought him out of the box. once in the open, he looked at me, sprang into the air, and made a smooth, swooping, perfect flight over the deck rail, around the corner of the house, and off into the trees. so he was clearly… owl right!

colossal squid!

hello from deep in squidland… today we have some very big (colossal even), exciting stuff going on.  in just a few hours we’re examining a new colossal squid specimen at the museum of new zealand te papa tongrarewa, and you can watch it live here!  it will also be archived after the fact.  enjoy the show from a safe, smell- and splash-free distance :)

Scientists examine the colossal squid. Photographer: Ruth Hendry © Te Papa

here come the giant squid…

sooooooo very quiet over here as usual these days.  blah blah work blah toddler blah blah.  holiday soon, maybe even photos to come!  but first, this is happening.  THIS.  and you might want to see it :)


big, fat, hairy christmas


do you see how jolly this avondale spider (molt) is?  i’m pretty sure she’s grinning from chelicera to chelicera… and i might even know why.  partly because i took this photo aaaaaaages ago and am finally posting it, but also for a more exciting reason: santa claus is bringing me tarantula molts for christmas!  long story short, one of my grad students was working with someone studying the genus Poecilotheria (arboreal tarantulas, how cool is THAT) and it came about that he had some molts he’d be interested in examining by SEM.  guess what–i can help :)  so they’re on their way, some large, empty, hairy skins of some of the most exquisitely beautiful (and sadly, at risk of extinction due to habitat loss) tarantulas i’ve ever seen.  i mean, look at this (borrowed from wikipedia here).  it’s BLUE!

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i’ll be looking at a few things on the molts including some systematic characters, which may even help understand this genus’ diversity a bit better–which could ultimately help in making a case for their, and their habitat’s protection.  i hope so!

i think 2014’s going to be a good year.  ::::)  all the best to you & yours!