Saturday, October 28, 2006

Fascinatin' Crustaceans

The Zymoglyphic Museum's Arthropod Division has recently expanded its Crabs of the World collection with a shipment from Conchology, Inc. of the Philippine Islands. The museum's original collection has been a miscellany of eBay, shell shop, and other purchases, not always with proper identification. A recent concerted effort for taxonomic accuracy in identifying its various specimens has been aided by a number of helpful folks at The Crustacean Society.

Crabs have an important place in Zymoglyphic culture. When dead, they often look as though they are just posing for a really long time, and so make excellent diorama characters. They are the stars in the traveling crustacean mini-diorama, as well as supporting actors in many of the museum's aquatic dioramas. They are nautical mechanical marvels, from the tight, interlocking parts of a box crab to the implausibly leggy spider crabs. Some, such as the fiddler crab, verge on becoming "eccentric contraptions", surreal beings whose very existence seems impossible. Some have great character, such as the leopard crab shown above.

In previous entries, we have featured as "natural assemblage artists" the bowerbirds, who collect and arrange various objects to attract mates, and the Xenophora, shellfish which collect and arrange other shells on themselves. Decorator crabs take the latter idea further and make themselves into living, walking gardens. They cover themselves with a selection of living seaweed and plant-like animals, such as sponges, corals, and bryozoans. This is not a weed garden in the sense of just allowing things to grow on the carapace; the selections are carefully nipped and placed on specialized projections on the shell. The purpose is both camouflage and protection due to the poisonous nature of many of the selections. The festively decked-out crab shown here is a Cyclocoeloma tuberculata (photo from

If you are in the Seattle area and interested in crustaceans, there is an excellent collection at the shell museum in Port Gamble, a ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Bowerbirds: Assemblage Artists of the Jungle!

While some may question whether Xenophora, the shells that collect and arrange shells, are truly "Assemblage Artists of the Deep", as the Zymoglyphic Museum claims, bowerbirds can make a much stronger claim to the title of "artist". These birds live in the rain forests of New Guinea and northern Australia. Males use sticks to build bowers, which are staging areas for their collections of interesting objects. They arrange these objects in particular ways to entice females, who are the judges of quality, to mate. Their selection of objects has remarkable overlap with Zymoglyphic art - snail shells, bones, small skulls, moss, fungus, dead bugs, flowers, and the occasional interesting plastic figure. One bird was even found to collect skeletonized leaves! Each individual bird has his own style, often preferring, for example, that all objects in an arrangement be a particular color, or a pair of colors.

David Attenborough has produced an excellent documentary on these birds. My favorite part is when he proves that the birds don't just collect these objects, but are are quite particular about the arrangement of them - he moves a few of the objects around when the bird is off somewhere, and when the bird comes back, it cocks its head quizzically at the disturbed objects and puts them back where it had them originally. There is also a sequence in which he compares the birds' elaborate stick bowers with a stick pile made by artist Andy Goldsworthy. You can see that clip here. The last part of the film shows the influence of the modern age on bowerbird art. In more urbanized settings, they collecting all manner of plastic toys and shiny things for their arrangements.

The documentary is available in the US as Nova - Flying Casanovas. In the UK, it is included on the BBC DVD "Attenborough in Paradise".

The photo above is from Animal Artisans

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Life in the Undergrowth

In the Alice books, Lewis Carroll presents reality as pretty boring compared to the world of imagination and dreams. The dreams, of course, may turn out to be rather nightmarish. David Attenborough makes nature documentaries which advance the thesis that the natural world is actually truly amazing if you get down and take a look at it. His latest series, Life in the Undergrowth, focuses on terrestrial invertebrates. It includes a giant centipede in Venezuela that catches and eats bats, a spider that catches its prey by swinging a silk line with sticky mucus on the end, and leaf cutter ants that eat a particular fungus that they grow on the leaf bits that they gather. Strange eating and mating behaviors are not limited to creatures in exotic locales. Shown here, for example, are two leopard slugs (common pests in gardens) mating while hanging from a tree on a thread of mucus. The blue parts are entwined genitalia, and both are hermaphrodites. Like Wonderland, this world has its nightmarish elements as well, usually deriving from the basic horror of animals eating other animals alive.

There is a nice book companion to the series, and a web site with video clips, including the slug mating sequence.

David Attenborough would make an excellent guide to the Zymoglyphic regions as well. He has great qualifications - he had a little museum when he was a boy, and now has huge collection of souvenirs from his travels. He is a perfect mixture of authoritativeness, enthusiasm, wonder, and a taste for the bizarre. A phrase he often uses is "and the strangest of all is this one...". He combines all that with the latest technical wizardry in closeup photography and has an engaging personal style. He is always on the scene, often windblown or out of breath, battling mosquitos to sneak up on some hapless creature. He keeps up with recent discoveries, so each series often includes some new odd animal, plant, or behavior that I have not heard about. He has covered a full range of biological and anthropological themes, and he has managed to contribute to science without having to specialize. He always has interesting ideas on the interconnectedness of things; not just describing some odd behavior, but explaining what forces have caused it to evolve that way. If he is not available for the job (as is likely), he can still serve as a role model!


Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Zymoglyphic Meteorite

When I was a boy, I would troll the beach with a magnet tied to a long string, hoping to snag a torn-off bit of the cosmos in the form of an iron meteorite. As an adult, I found out that if you want one, you can just buy one. This one is from the Gibeon fall, a meteor that broke apart over Namibia in prehistoric times. It was originally part of the iron core of an asteroid that later broke up. Its melted, pitted exterior marks its fiery passage through the Earth's atmosphere, but its inner crystalline structure has not changed in 4 billion years. To me, it is the equivalent of a medieval relic, a connection to the universe and its creation.

One of the holiest relics of Islam (and its predecessors in Arabia as well) is a meteorite embedded in its central shrine at Mecca. One legend has it that this stone, too, dates from close to creation, falling at Adam's feet and subsequently discovered by Abraham.

The Hall of Meteorites in New York's American Museum of Natural History has an excellent exhibit (virtual and physical) on meteorites.

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