Wednesday, September 29, 2010

YPM ICH 7720 & 12449: Lizardfishes!

I'm afraid the title of this post gives it all away: these fish look exactly like lizards! Here is YPM ICH 7720, a lizardfish of species Synodus variegatus, collected in the Indian Ocean's Seychelles Islands in 1957:

As you can see, the head of a lizardfish looks, well, like a lizard, but they were actually named for their posture, which is also eerily lizard-like. They like to sit at the bottom of shallow seas in sandy areas, with their head raised like a lizard, propped up by their fins. Here's a picture that shows this:

The above shot was taken this summer by Alex Dornburg, a Yale Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Phd candidate, who was in Curacao collecting specimens for his research on marine fish macroevolution.

Many of our museum specimens are actually still preserved in the lizard posture! Here's one, YPM ICH 12449, species Synodus foetens:

Man, I wish I had posture like that. Mom would be proud....

Here's a final picture, a headshot of YPM ICH 12449:


Paxton, John R., and W.N. Eschmeyer. 1994. Encyclopedia of Fishes. Academic Press, San Diego.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Poll: Is our star-nosed mole hotter than the NYT's star-nosed mole?

My last two posts have touched on aesthetics-- namely two specimens that paralleled things in our human world that most of us would find aesthetically pleasing. Here I'm going to touch on aesthetics again, but in the opposite direction-- namely a specimen that is ugly! Well, ugly according to the New York Times, at least.

About a month ago, the NYT ran an article about the science of ugliness that examined why we find some animals to be attractive and cute, and others repulsive and ugly. In it, the star-nosed mole, Condylura cristata, was the posterchild for ugly animals. Here's the image of it that they featured in the article:

The scientists who were interviewed explained that we tend to be repelled by the star-nosed mole because the pink nose causes us to identify with it-- that is, flesh color reminds us of a human face-- but at the same time it is not what a human face should look like, which makes us recoil. Here are some tidbits from the article that explain this more fully:

The more readily we can analogize between a particular animal body part and our own, the more likely we are to cry ugly. “We may not find an elephant’s trunk ugly because it’s so remote,” Dr. Dutton said. “But the proboscis on a proboscis monkey is close enough to our own that we apply human standards to it.”

As scientists see it, a comparative consideration of what we find freakish or unsettling in other species offers a fresh perspective on how we extract large amounts of visual information from a millisecond’s glance, and then spin, atomize and anthropomorphize that assessment into a revealing saga of ourselves.

Later in the article Dutton noted that “No one would find the star-nosed mole ugly if its star were iridescent blue". I don't know of any blue star-nosed moles, but here at Peabody VZ, we do have a star-nosed mole that is completely brown! YPM MAM 5852 was collected in Old Lyme, Connecticut in 1940, and it's brown now because it has been preserved in ethanol, which has caused it to lose its pigmentation. Here are two pics:

So what do you think? Is this brown star-nosed mole as ugly as a live one with all of its pink and fleshy pigment? Or, without the flesh color, is it a bit easier on the eyes as the scientists from the article would predict? Please chime in! I think our museum specimen offers a fun test of their hypothesis.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

YPM ICH 7062: More eel-imitating art

This eel, YPM 7062, is a reef dwelling species, Gymnothorax favagineus, and it was collected in the Indian Ocean's Seychelles Islands during the Yale Seychelles Expedition of 1957-58. It reminds me a ring that my best friend wears every once in a while. Here are two pics of the eel:

And here are two pics of the ring:

Certainly the artist who fashioned this ring wasn't directly inspired by this eel (well, maybe he or she was! I'm guessing not, though). But the precision of this convergent aesthetic, I think, is quite extraordinary.

Speaking convergent aesthetics, I think my husband wins the convergent aesthetic contest from my last post. We just found this picture of a steel floor. Pretty much an exact match to the scales of the Synaphobranchus kaupii specimen:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

YPM ICH 13045: Art imitating eel scales

I am no artist, but I do remember a technique I learned in a middle school drawing class called cross hatching. This eel, YPM ICH 13045, is a cutthroat eel of species Synaphobranchus kaupii, and was collected on July 29 2002 by Jon Moore at a depth of 1388 meters at Bear Seamount, an underwater volcanic mountain in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New England. Its scales remind me of cross hatching:

Cross hatching is used in drawings to create dimension, depth, and texture. Here are two examples of it that I found using Google image search at this site and this site, respectively:

In a previous post I talked about convergent evolution, which is the phenomenon where similar biological traits and forms evolve in unrelated lineages. A great example of convergent evolution is the wings of birds and bats-- although they both have wings, their wings evolved independently. It is not a trait that they both have through common ancestry.

Cutthroat eels tend to dwell on the slopes of continental shelves, where it might be useful to have scales that create texture to blend in with habitat there (I couldn't find any studies discussing the function of the scales, but this is my hypothesis. If you're wondering if light penetrates at these depths, see the discussion in the comments below). As I mentioned above, artists use cross hatching to create texture in their drawings. These eels have perhaps evolved criss-crossed scales to create texture; humans have developed cross-hatching to create texture. I am going to dub this convergent texture creation! (Presumptuously assuming, of course, that my hypothesis is correct...).

Here are more pictures of the scales, along with a full body shot for scale (although these eels can get much bigger than this).

My husband actually thinks the scales look more like the texture of a common type of steel flooring (pictured below), rather than cross hatching. What do you think?