Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Amateur Naturalist Curiosity Death Spiral

Octopuses (yes, that's the correct plural in English) are amazing, cool and awesome. But they're also terrifying and creepy. Being face to face with one the other day made me realise that the sense in which humans are Top Predator is strictly limited. That was, in fact, the exact thought that ran through my mind while floating there looking at it, wondering what it was going to do. Only it was more like, "What the hell am I doing? That thing can move fifty times faster than me, has eight legs and is looking. right. at me."

I mean, even on land we're really only so-so hunters; even our house pets can catch stuff better than we can. But in water we are at a big disadvantage. First, of course, we can't breathe. That's a big one when you're either hunting something or trying to run away from something hunting you. We are also one of the slowest movers in water. How many times have you had a scary dream in which you're trying to run away from something but your legs feel like they're dragging through water? Awful, isn't it?

Under water, we've really only got one advantage and that's our inconveniently large forebrains. But what if you're looking at something, something that might actually be good to eat, but that might also be thinking the same thing about you? And what if it's doing the thinking not with this big land-adapted cerebellum thing, but with each and every one of the hundreds of powerful suckers on the ends of each of its eight ferociously strong legs? They're not just smart, they're adapted to be smart in a radically different way from us, a way that has made them uniquely suited to catching big dumb floating meat-packages without even really trying.

Octopuses are fascinating to us, I think, because they are at the same time like us and radically different from us. It's the samedifferentsame that makes us use the word "creepy". They can do things that we usually think a mollusc isn't suited to doing. Like solving complex puzzles and reasoning. Then there's the whole fit-your-huge-multi-legged-body-through-a-hole-the-size-of-a-quarter thing. Which is something we really, really can't do, but kind of want to.

So, I was thinking about all of this yesterday and decided to go have another look to see if I could find another one. Sadly, no luck.

Oh, I mean, yay! Didn't get eaten.

And that more or less encapsulates my feeling about being a (halfassed) amateur naturalist. As you might have read here before, I was raised in an environment in which the question, "Mum, what's this thing?" was always taken seriously and answered using our household Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life and a big book that was what a taxonomic key was before they invented the internet. And every time we looked something up, we found out other things about it that would lead me to go out again and look for other stuff.

What happens now is something like this: I go to the beach and swim around the shallow water and I find something. I grab it and put it in the net bag and take note of where I found it. Whether it was on a rock or sand or attached to seaweed. If it's something weird or inexplicable, I take it back to the shore and sit down in the shade of the umbrella and take a closer look at it.

When I go home, I use the Palantir to see if I can figure out what it is. Describe it in Google and go to images and scroll down until I find something that looked like it. Then I put the Latin name in and read all about it. Sometimes that tells me some more interesting things and I go back the next time to look for other stuff that I've picked up on in the research.

That's the Amateur Naturalist Curiosity Spiral. You read something about some weird thing you've seen and you learn something even weirder about it, so you go back out to look for the even weirder thing... etc. You find yourself asking questions like, "I wonder what it's range is. How far does that octopus explore from its cave? I wonder if they like to hunt at night and that's why I don't see them. I wonder if it likes warm water or the cooler water where it's deeper. I wonder if all these empty crab shells are because of octopuses. I wonder if they like sea urchins. (Probably not, since there are rather a lot of urchins, but you find their shells empty only rarely.)" It makes you want to go out and see if you can find something else.

It's a good idea to lie in the water looking down on one spot for a long time. A lot of the animals are camouflaged and if you're just swimming around and passing over the rocks looking for the more colourful things, you will miss whole worlds of interesting things that are hard to see until you've looked straight at them for a while. That's how I found the Sea Hare.

For instance, I have noticed that in the shallow water close to the shore there are a LOT of whelks. Lots and lots of whelks. Some of them are as big as my fist. A lot of the smaller whelk shells are occupied by non-whelks, so it seems like it's pretty hard to grow up if you're a whelk. If you hover over a patch of seaweed, you will see a lot of little shells moving in an almost sprightly fashion... well, sprightly for whelks. If you look closely enough, you will see a long red feeler reaching out from the opening. These are hermit crabs and when you pick them up, you can see them hiding way back in the little shell cave: "You can't see me... you can't see me...please go away..."

The bigger whelks are obviously years and years old, the winners of what has to be one of the world's most brutal elimination races. The internet tells me that the type of whelk I've been seeing are Dog Whelks, or Nucella lapillus. These whelks reproduce by implanting zillions of teeny baby whelks into little protein envelopes all connected together in big sponge-like masses like this:

Yesterday, I found a large mass of a whelk egg capsules. I'd seen them on the beach regularly, washed up and drying in the sun. But this was the first one I'd seen in the water and the biggest I'd seen anywhere, about the size of my two fists together, so I brought it out to have a poke at it. Sitting under the umbrella later, I tried opening up a few of the capsules, some of which were pinkish and others orangey. I was thinking maybe they'd have teeny whelks inside, but the translucent capsules were surprisingly tough, and it was hard to get one open just with my fingernails. When I did get one open, one of the more orangey ones, it had in it an orangey pastey stuff. I got a little of the orangey stuff on the tip of my finger, and looked closely to see it was actually a whole lot of extremely tiny orange specks suspended in a viscous liquid.

Now the Palantir tells me that these are actually whelk embryos.

So, now I want to go back and take a closer look at what the whelks are doing. At first, before looking them up, I had figured they were grazers. There are two kinds of animals in the sea, grazers and hunters. I had only seen whelks on seaweed beds, so I figured that's what they were eating. Now it turns out that they are hunters. They eat other molluscs. But being snails, as you would think, they mostly eat the attached molluscs like barnacles and mussels. Yesterday I picked one up and discovered it was eating a smaller whelk. Whelk life is literally whelk-eat-whelk.

Now that I know these interesting things about whelks, I'm more eager to go out again today to see if I can see them doing something else. Now this is fine with whelks. They don't swim very fast (or at all, really) and they don't have eight legs with hundreds of tiny smart brains attached, capable of bringing down a shark. But I really want to know, and know in a real-life non-internet sort of way. So I'm going out again today.

And that's the Amateur Naturalist Curiosity Death Spiral. I think I've known about the ANCDS since I was a kid. I would go to the beach with my grandma, and one of the fun things to do was lift up the bigger rocks near the shoreline to see what was underneath. What was underneath was nearly always crabs. I wasn't actually scared of crabs - knowing that their pinchers weren't really pinchers but just more like forks for eating - but they looked like spiders. In fact, they looked, moved and were about exactly the same size range as the horrifying wolf spiders that used to infest Grandma's house every year in the autumn and of which I had been reflexively terrified from infancy.

I knew those crabs were under there and I wanted to see them, but I knew they would send the terror-response through my brain. But I couldn't help it. I was hypnotically drawn to the rocks and the little crevices in the bedrock in the sea. Curiosity.

So, whelks and beach crabs... ok. But I can imagine it just getting out of control. Think about it next time you watch a documentary on sharks in which some guy gets into a cage to get video of those teeth. Or (and I've seen this) when a geologist wants to study lava and just marches out to the lava flow in jeans and Star Wars t-shirt with a heat shield made of a bit of corrugated roofing, and, wearing an asbestos glove, scoops lava into a coffee can using a claw hammer...

People think scientists are nuts. But they're not. They've just let their ANCDS get the better of them. Curiosity beats fear.


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