Living in America: Part 1, Vertebrate Fauna from Sea to Shining Sea

At this very moment, much of the United States (my home country) is winding down from celebrating the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Out here where I live (Hawai’i), it’s still technically the Fourth of July. Americans seem to celebrate the intellectual founding of the country by falling somewhere on a spectrum that runs from quiet, appreciative reverence of the historical significance of today’s date on one end, to a booze-fired, red, white, and blue, testosterone-seeped fuckstorm of vociferous anthems, carbon emissions, and an arsenal of fireworks large enough to torch every forest in the tri-state area on the other. Personally, I decided to follow up on mowing down on charred, ketchup-lubed hotdogs (on this holiday, I call them “freedom weiners”) and update this blog with a series of posts through the coming couple of weeks as a means of celebration; a celebration of the lifeforms that make their home within the borders of the U.S. Below, I kick off addressing the first set of a total of twenty broad groupings of animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms, selecting a representative member of each group that 1) can be found in the United States, and 2) preferentially, is ONLY found in the wild in the U.S. (is entirely endemic). An example of a critter that satisfies both criteria is featured at the top of this blog post; that adorable heap of blubber and sunshine-powered bliss is the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinlandsi), which is found only in the insanely remote Hawaiian Archipelago (especially the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands).

Why do this? America has a fantastic assemblage of biodiversity worth celebrating and protecting for future generations…and much of this biodiversity includes species that are NOT American symbols of wilderness like bald eagles, buffalo, and black bears. These organisms are typically secretive, rare, bizarre, and generally poorly understood by both science and the public. Acknowledging what we share our wild spaces with is fundamental for conservation, and too often, we neglect to appreciate the majority of organisms that aren’t charismatic, or marketable.

The twenty groupings (broken into three separate blog posts) are, admittedly, heavily biased towards vertebrates, more so towards animals in general, and even more so towards non-microscopic organisms. The groupings also are only partially rooted in taxonomic accuracy, and some are lumped in a seemingly arbitrary fashion for ease (for example, saltwater and freshwater fish separately, “reptiles” as a group). Some representatives are truly endemic to the United States. Others have geographic ranges that bleed over into other North American nations. Some groups of organisms, like fungi, almost never have restricted distributions in North America, so compromises were made when listing these kinds of representative lifeforms. Bacteria and other unicellular organisms were skipped entirely, due to their general tendency toward a global presence. So, yeah, I don’t have time for that cosmopolitan distribution shit.

With that out of the way, let’s get to meeting some of these illustrious Americans, starting with a modest sampling of vertebrates:

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Mygalomorph Spiders: Part 1, Tricky Assassins

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’ve probably seen a spider before. Well, that is, unless you’ve been living your entire Earthly existence on the barren, ice-blasted wastes of the Antarctic interior…in which case, I don’t have conversations with murderous, shape-shifting aliens, kthnxbai. Spiders comprise the largest and most successful order of arachnids, with nearly 46,000 species living everywhere from rainforest canopies, to scorching desert sands, to pitch black caverns that wind miles underneath the ground. They are exceedingly varied in their lifestyles and habits. Some can glide like a frisbee from high up in trees. Some slink along the surface of standing water, and nab minnows like some kind of mini, eight-legged, catfish noodlin’ Jesus of Nazareth. Some specialize in the most dangerous prey…other spiders…and net them with a toxin-laced phlegm that they spray from their mouthparts.

Yes, with all their diversity and ubiquitousness in both ecological and human cultural settings, spiders are unquestionably the flagship arachnid group (although many other fascinating orders exist; see the first entry in my lesser-known arachnids series for information on the Class Arachnida in general). Whether we love them or hate them, spiders, as a group, are familiar to us, and many people are aware that spiders come in a huge range of shapes and sizes. For example, it is no secret that black widow spiders (various Lactrodectus species) are among the more dangerously venomous species in North America….or, that the fuzzy, hamster-sized tarantulas (family Theraphosidae) are the biggest spiders on Earth. But what is much less widely known is that far more than size and venom differ between tarantulas and black widows.

While it’s perhaps instinctual to think of spiders as existing in a big monolith of vague “spideriness” with minor tweaks on a common, eight-legged theme, spiders actually divide up into distinct groups with important biological differences, the result of deep evolutionary rifts that stretch back hundreds of millions of years. The truth is that there are several very distinct branches of the spider family tree.

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Easter Island: Ecoregion at the Edge of the World

The popular religious holiday that occurs near the northern spring equinox goes by a number of names. Easter. Resurrection Sunday. Pasch. Whatever it is called, the majority of the world’s 2 billion or so Christians observe this holiday with regional variations of religious activities, customary foods, and symbols. Common traditional proceedings include parades and religious services, but much of the fun is directed at the youngest attendees. For small children, the holiday is the most egg-focused spectacle they’ll see until they reach adolescence and discover the decorative inspiration of Halloween. Kids spend the day giving eggs food coloring swirlies, embarking on crazed, egg-based scavenger hunts, and, for some reason, palling around with a vaguely leporid husk filled with fear-sweat and the voiceless madness that reaches out from the Void. For godless heathens such as myself, Easter mostly functions as an annual excuse to wear a classy-as-shit collared shirt, get together with fine folks, inhale brunch and booze, enthusiastically and inefficiently stagger around the grounds in a quest for plastic eggs, and to catapult my pancreas into sputtering death-fits after shamelessly replacing much of the liquid in my body with a Marshmallow Peep-derived sugar slurry.


Re-enactment: Easter Sunday 2016

The only other association I have with Easter….outside of that day of the year when I thoroughly test every major organ system in my body through the gross irresponsibility of facilitating a gastrointestinal nuclear holocaust….is a place, not an event. And because I’m a HUGE nerd, I’m obviously talking about a small island in the southeast Pacific known as Easter Island. To the Chileans, who currently have political jurisdiction over the island and categorize it as a special territory, it is “Isla de Pascua.” The original Polynesian inhabitants of the island were the first to name it, and while there is considerable debate about what exactly the island was called long before Europeans ever set foot on it, for the last century and a half, the Polynesian name for the island has been “Rapa Nui,” a term that has also come to denominate the native inhabitants of the island, and the language originally spoken there.

The South Pacific is sprinkled with a multitude of small volcanic islands and coral atolls that spread eastward from Indonesia and Australia; Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tokelau, the Society Islands, the Gambier Archipelago, the list goes on. The expanses of open ocean between many of these islands and island chains are not insignificant, but nowhere is the level of isolation as extreme as in Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui sits in the subtropical zone, some 27 degrees south of the Equator. It is located at the most southeasterly point of the vast, triangular Polynesian cultural region, representing the furthest eastward extent (that we know of) of Polynesian diaspora and colonization, much like how Hawai`i and New Zealand sit at the northern and southern extremes of the region, respectively.

The nearest large landmass (South America; northern Chile, specifically) is 2,300 miles (3,700 km) directly east from there, and the nearest inhabited island of any kind is Pitcairn Island…more than 1,200 miles (about 2,000 km) to the west….an island that is only about two miles across, and was perhaps only sporadically inhabited up until a few hundred years ago, when it became wholly deserted. The closest bit of land of any kind is Isla Salas y Gómez (Manu Motu Motiro Hiva), about 250 miles (400 km) to the northeast, but this tiny fleck of exposed, volcanic rock only covers about 37 acres…which means it’s only one third as expansive as the Mall of America. Thus, Rapa Nui’s closest neighbors are even more diminutive than it is, which doesn’t exactly assist with the whole extreme isolation thing. The situation reminds me of when I lived in rural, central Idaho as a child. The tiny, high-desert town I lived in (Challis) only contained about 900 rugged souls, all of which grunted out a living 150 miles away from the nearest hospital, movie theater, or fast-food franchise. However, there were towns that existed out in the Great Brown Nothing between my town and the nearest semblance of civilization. But they were puny, the barely-discernible petechiae blemishing the pale, wrinkly, boundless expanse of septuagenarian back skin that is the State of Idaho. Our closest neighbor, a hour’s track away on lonely Highway 93, was the community of Mackay…..half the size of our own town. Good ol’ Challis, Idaho wasn’t much, but it was the biggest hub by far for many, many, many miles….much like Rapa Nui.

So yes, Rapa Nui sits way out in the ass end of nowhere, atop a seamount that has formed via the Easter hotspot, an upwelling of magma below the oceanic crust that has generated a range of undersea mountains (the Nazca Ridge) as the Nazca Plate drifted above it….nothing around it for many blue, featureless miles. However, this extreme isolation wasn’t enough to keep humans away, at least not for forever.

Rapa Nui was first colonized by Polynesian settlers (probably from Mangareva (in the Gambier Archipelago) to the west, or the Marquesas in the northwest) sometime around 1200 AD or so, making it nearly the last place in the Pacific to be discovered and settled by Polynesian peoples (New Zealand was more recently settled, around 1300 AD). It was the Rapa Nui society that persisted on the island completely solo until the 1720s, when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen stumbled across the place (as one does) on Easter Sunday…giving it the name “Paasch-Eyland”, Dutch for “Easter Island.” The Rapa Nui people are of course quite famous for their proclivity for carving impressively massive, stern-faced statues out of the compressed volcanic ash found on one of the island’s main volcanoes.


You know, these fellas.

Nearly 900 of these figures (called “moai”) are known to exist in modern times either on the island (or in museum collections), and can consist of nothing but the regularly referenced “Easter Island heads” or heads and bodies that are complete down to the waist or thighs. Moai are so enigmatic and stark against their often open, rolling backdrops that they’ve managed to lend inspiration (with varying levels of cultural sensitivity) to various elements of modern popular culture, from Pokemon to major settings in early Mario videogames to Spongebob’s buzzkill of a neighbor’s house.

If you’re looking at the empty, treeless plains that cover the island and thinking “how in the everloving fuck did the Rapa Nui craft and move these things around? There’s not a trace of raw materials necessary for pushing, pulling, or carving jack shit!” you and decades of archaeological pondering have something in common. The thing is, when the first Polynesian settlers arrived on Rapa Nui, the island was covered in thick, subtropical forests. Within a few hundred years, around the time Europeans first saw the island, nearly every single tree was gone. Various explanations have been thrown around as to how and why Rapa Nui’s forests vanished; the most popular of which has been that this is a story of environmental degradation on a micro-scale precipitated by human overpopulation, limited resources, and eventual societal collapse (although more recently, it’s been suggested that European-introduced disease and slavery may have been the driving factor for societal and population decline, while the rats that were stowaways with the Polynesian settlers’ canoes did short work of the island’s vegetation). Whatever the cause, the native forests of Rapa Nui are kaput, which is a damned shame considering that Rapa Nui’s extreme geographic isolation means that much of the island’s native flora and fauna were (and are, for those that haven’t yet become extinct) unique, in an ecological and evolutionary sense.

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Frigid and Flourishing: Freeze-Proof

This post series opened with Part 1, an exploration of some snow-dwelling lifeforms.

The sun sets on the Yukon Territory’s Porcupine River, slowly melting into a far-off, lazy oxbow, pouring its tangerine light one last time over the endless, icy stillness. It’s just before four in the afternoon, the New Year is soon approaching, and it is cold. Very, very cold. As the blue above dims, and the blinding mango creamsicle spectacle comes to a rapid close in the west, you can almost hear the river ice creak and wince in anticipation for what’s coming. It only got up to 20 below today. The nights have grown large this time of year, and cruel. First light won’t come for what seems like eternity, and by then, the air will be a devastating -60 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold enough to kill exposed human skin in a handful of minutes. Cold enough to turn even antifreeze-laden gasoline into flammable slush. Cold enough for breath to stiffen in an instant, collecting as a growing layer of biting rime on every hair on one’s own face; eyelashes, eyebrows, the whole bit. In the growing dark, nothing moves. Chickadees settle into tree cavities, and rapidly begin burning through the fat reserves they gained during the day’s feeding, all just to keep warm. Caribou huddle and lay low. Ptarmigan wriggle into the snow (surprisingly, for insulation), stoking their metabolic fires with a crop pouch full of food. To survive the night, Life winds down everywhere, becoming motionless and dipping unnervingly near death in a desperate attempt to stay alive.

Well, everywhere except within the cramped, moist layers of bark of the naked balsam poplars lining the riverbank, stony and brittle with the cold. In there, somehow, life stirs, pushing and wriggling its way through its frozen, wooden den. It’s a tiny beetle grub, a larva of the northern red flat bark beetle (Cucujus clavipes puniceus), no longer than the graphite tip of a well-sharpened pencil. It has no blanket of thick fur or fluffy feathers, no fat-powered metabolic oven to keep it warm. It is a bare-assed worm, twenty feet up in a barren, ligneous spire, sandwiched between the unrelenting sadism of the Arctic atmosphere and a block of nearly lifeless wood….possibly the worst possible location for cold exposure. And yet, it is comfortable, its teeny body barely noticing the silent, breath-stealing chill invading from outside the bark.

Why? Because when the frosty grip of boreal death extends its hand, the larval red flat bark beetle tells it to fuck off.


Not bad for something that looks like a condom filled with urine-flavored Jello.

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Frigid and Flourishing: Life in the Snowscape

Ice_Caitlyn_Wynne

It’s now January, which means that up here in the Northern Hemisphere, it is, generally speaking, the coldest time of year. The days are still short, barely rounding the bend from their shortest point on the solstice, and the sun cuts a tentative, shallow angle across bleak, sleepy skies, darting back under the horizon almost as soon as it emerged, as if it was trying to escape the nippy atmosphere and curl up under the warm cover of night.

The arrival into this annual temperature trough is sitting prominently in my mind these days for a variety of reasons:

  1. My beloved Seattle Seahawks, just this weekend, made a miraculous win in Minnesota, despite enduring the full, sub-zero fury of the Gopher State, with windchill reaching a lung-punching 20-below, making it the third coldest NFL game ever.
  2. The armed, self-described “militia” yokels currently more than a week and a half into squatting in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in my homeland of Oregon do so in a region of the state that suffers the most harrowing winter temperatures. A week ago, nighttime lows plummeted to 18-below (cold enough to turn the occupiers into Skoal-and-jerky flavored popsicles), and it hasn’t risen much since then, and won’t until March. There’s been some talk of cutting the power to the headquarters building, and simply waiting for the unyielding, unmitigated harshness of a high-desert January to bludgeon the everloving shit out of their seditionist tantrum.
  3. I recently returned from a trip to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to visit family for the holidays, during one of the most anomalously snowy and cold weeks of the year, with the snowline slumping down nearly to sea level, invading rainforest river valleys that are almost guaranteed snow-free throughout the winter. My soft, Hawaii-resident body whined in the face of 25 degree temperatures, atypical for a comparatively mild area of coastal Washington.


Behold, nearby Mt. Baker, one of the snowiest places on planet Earth. If winter itself had its own mountain, this would be it.

Photo: Jake Buehler

Even back in my normally balmy Hawaiian Islands, it’s now cold. And by “cold” I mean that I occasionally get the shivers waking up early in the morning with the windows open, and I don’t become a sweat-slicked heap of misery and heat exhaustion when just sitting in my home office. Basically, “cold” in Honolulu is when daytime highs top out short of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

We tend to think these cold conditions, whether they are just a seasonal inconvenience, or a year-round way of life (like up near the poles), as being particularly insufferable for life. When the landscape is buried under five feet of Winnipeg white, the ecosystem functions very differently. Vegetation isn’t accessible to many herbivores. Predators have a minuscule pool of animals to hunt. The temperatures are too low for “cold-blooded” animals like amphibians and reptiles to stay active. Plant growth grinds to a crawl. Everything trying to scrape by in the frozen stillness seems to either be on the verge of starving or freezing to death.

The truth is, however, that while many organisms make a great effort to put up with or evade (ala songbirds flying towards the equator for winter, or mammals that hibernate) freezing temperatures…there are a minority that have embraced these glacial surroundings. Organisms that have evolved extreme levels of cold-tolerance sit at the lower boundary of what is possible for life to persist. Because of them, the coldest parts of our planet actually teem with life, even if it doesn’t appear that way during on initial impressions.

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Australia’s “Turkey”

Today, here in the U.S., an annual tradition is underway; Thanksgiving. I sincerely hope that those of you that celebrate this festivity are hanging out with friends, family, or anyone that you care about, smartly swaddled in your best harvest sweaters. I hope by now, your unapologetically racist uncle has ceased his impassioned musings on how “all lives matter” and his declarations on how Donald Trump is “just the man for the job.” Don’t worry, the nausea will pass. I hope you’ve survived yet another round of invasive questions from perennially-seen Baby Boomer relatives about when you’ll be getting a “real” job, getting married, and having children. Take a deep breath, remember, murder is technically very much illegal. Besides, you can’t afford to go to prison. Not with all those student loans to pay off! Anyways, yeah, I wish everyone the best of luck out there.

Sure, most of us like to tell ourselves this holiday centers around ideals of family, generosity, and humbled self-reflection. But, let’s be real: the big draw for this autumnal grand event is the feast that comes along with it. Yes, modern Thanksgiving is a loving ode to gluttony…one I don’t resent for an instant. Pies, stuffing, rolls, gravy, pies, potatoes, squash….did I mention pies? But all of this pales in comparison to the main attraction, that poultry on a pedestal; the turkey.

Yes, turkey….more specifically, the domesticated form of Meleagris gallopavo, a large species of vaguely pheasant-like ground bird that ranges across much of the eastern two-thirds of the continental United States and south into northeastern Mexico. This species, along with a single close relative (the dazzlingly-colorful ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellatus, from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula) are the “true turkeys.” These two species make up the entirety of a distinct subfamily in the ground fowl family (Phasianidae), a large taxonomic grouping that includes chunky, chicken-like things that prefer to run rather than fly….everything from grouses to partridges to peacocks.
There are plenty of things in our world that share, completely or partially, the common name of the Meleagris birds. A venomous marine fish. Soy-based meat alternatives. West Asian countries. All these, of course, are Meleagris-style “turkeys” in name only. There are even a handful of other species of bird that are, confusingly, referred to as “turkeys” despite not being particularly close relatives of the gobble-gobble/hand tracing variety so familiar to North Americans.

One of these not-turkeys resides on the opposite side of the Pacific from Meleagris, and in the Southern Hemisphere. The animal I’m referring to is the Australian brush-turkey (Alectura lathami). With its beefy, bowling ball shape, alert and fanned out tail feathers, and naked head and neck…both saturated with colors that look like the end result of receiving a swirly in a vat of liquefied candy corn…the brush-turkey seems damn deserving of its fowl moniker.


Shit, it even wears a festive, yellow scarf. This thing is more ‘autumn’ than a fucking pumpkin spice latte.

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Mesmerizing Marine Mimics: Ichthyo-invisible

This post is the sixth in a six post series outlining the evolution of mimicry within the ocean realm. These posts detail various ways in which organisms may copy other organisms in appearance and behavior, and the evolutionary context for how these mimic-model pairings have come to be. The first entry in this series goes over some fundamental introductory concepts and definitions regarding mimicry in general.

Blending in with your surroundings to the point of near invisibility is a trick that gifts huge benefits.

I know that at least for me, there have been moments in my life where I wish I could have become functionally invisible to those around me….situations where just fading into the background, completely and utterly, would have provided me instantaneous relief. Like that time in high school basketball when I scored on the wrong basket. Or that time when I was 16 and had to get my palate extended prior to getting braces, and for more than a week, I walked around with a space between my two front teeth wide enough to steer a barge through. Or that time I chickened out in the middle of asking someone to senior prom, telling her that she could go with me if no one asked her by the time of the dance “or whatever” (which is both cowardly and implicitly insulting, good one, teenage me!).
….ok, you know what? How about high school, as a whole, being what I’m thinking of here then. The entirety of high school was a bit of nightmarish cringefest and if I had the ability to Hollow Man my ass out of the visible spectrum, I’d have jumped on that shit.

I was not so fortunate, but there are members of the animal kingdom that can vanish from sight, becoming indistinguishable from the backdrops of their habitats….and they have far better justifications for this power than dodging social embarrassment and minor psychological scarring.

This biological phenomenon – evolving an appearance and/or behaviors that make you very hard to detect within your environment – can be broken down into two main varieties. The first is simple camouflage. This is where texture, color patterning, shading, and other visual properties that an organism has make it blend in seamlessly with the uninteresting crap in its general vicinity; dirt, rocks, foliage, whatever. Camouflage makes critters’ bodily outlines disappear, and their image becomes disrupted and lost in a sea of unbroken similarity, but they remain…hidden in plain sight like one of those visages lurking beneath the surface of an ever-frustrating-as-fuck Magic Eye illusion. The purpose of camouflage is to completely destroy the “object detection” potential of a casual glance, allowing the sneaky bugger to sit tight, unnoticed.


The bride looks lovely! It’s a shame her bridesmaids never showed up though.

Sharing a lot of kinship with camouflage is “mimesis”, which is a variety of mimicry where an organism evolves to closely resemble a very specific benign environmental object to avoid detection. The difference between camouflage and mimesis is subtle, but nonetheless quite important….in the same way that saying “dinner was greatly enhanced by the presence of my favorite dish, Grandma, and an antique tablecloth” is basically harmless, but the minutely different “dinner was greatly enhanced by the presence of my favorite dish, Grandma and an antique tablecloth” will likely raise a few red flags.

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Mesmerizing Marine Mimics: Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

This post is the fifth in a six post series outlining the evolution of mimicry within the ocean realm. These posts detail various ways in which organisms may copy other organisms in appearance and behavior, and the evolutionary context for how these mimic-model pairings have come to be. The first entry in this series goes over some fundamental introductory concepts and definitions regarding mimicry in general.

Animals can be real dicks.

Hermit crabs congregate solely to aggressively covet bigger and better shells, eventually leaving at least one or two crabs forcefully foreclosed upon and left to wander the beach, squishy, defenseless, and homeless. Lovable dolphins routinely slaughter porpoises that stray too close to their turf, but not without sexually assaulting and mutilating them first…you know, just because. Male mallard ducks are such a charming combination of unhinged sexual aggressiveness and zero regard for consent that females of the species have evolved vaginal labyrinths to stymie the effectiveness of the penetration of the corkscrew Johnsons of their feathered assailants. The natural world is chock-full of organisms being outright bastards to one another, because life is rough, and sometimes those that are more Shkreli than Gandhi scam and abuse their way to evolutionary success. In the river of Life, the fork that yields survivorship, high fecundity, and a strong genetic legacy is typically navigated by a very special variety of watercraft: the douche-canoe.
The phenomenon of mimicry is certainly not immune from nefarious applications, and many taxa use mimicry to gain the trust of other species, only to con them…potentially out of their lives. This flavor of mimicry, where an organism mimics a species perceived by others as benign (or even beneficial) to gain access to resources (food, mating opportunities, etc.), is called “aggressive mimicry.” I’ve brought it up briefly before in this post series, in particular when talking about fish that use lures to persuade prey to practically swim into their waiting gobs, like with the decoy scorpionfish or the frogfish. However, there are some marine critters that take the cake when it comes to the Machiavellian style of mimicry. The fish that this blog post will explore shamelessly engage in as much sociopathy, brazen laziness, selfishness, and manipulative scheming as you’ll find this side of an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

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Mesmerizing Marine Mimics: Decoys of the Deep

This post is the fourth in a six post series outlining the evolution of mimicry within the ocean realm. These posts detail various ways in which organisms may copy other organisms in appearance and behavior, and the evolutionary context for how these mimic-model pairings have come to be. The first entry in this series goes over some fundamental introductory concepts and definitions regarding mimicry in general.

Up until this point in this post sequence on mimicry in ocean ecosystems, there has been a focus on examples of animals that have evolved to strongly resemble another species, entirely and completely, in regards to appearance and behavior. But not every mimic goes for copying the whole shebang. Sometimes, just mimicking a specific body part of another creature is all you need to get the job done. Or maybe a tiny portion of your own body is sufficient to parrot the entire visage of a smaller species. I like to call this particular flavor of deception “fractional mimicry”, because instead of whole organisms mimicking other whole organisms, it is organisms mimicking other organisms that are in radically different size classes, necessitating evolutionarily ingenious use of specific regions of the body, or the resemblance of such regions. Fractional mimicry works through the broad manipulation of shape and color, and more importantly, the perception of shape and color in other organisms. I’ve already talked about a species that uses fractional mimicry earlier in this post series; the mimic octopus, which can use a subset of its tentacles to mimic a sea snake, or poke just its stalked peepers out of the sand to mimic a partially buried mantis shrimp. In the same blog post, I talk about a jawfish that is likely mimicking the tip of one of the tentacles of the mimic octopus, following the octopus closely as it moves across the ocean floor: this situation is an example of “fractional mimicry” as I’ve defined it, as the whole body of the fish is used to imitate a small portion of the entire octopus.

There isn’t any significant difference, from an evolutionary or general biological standpoint, between “fractional mimicry” and any other form of mimicry. To be honest, I just needed a good way to break up all of these posts. Grouping together species that share “fractional mimicry” or share the distinction of being fish mimicking invertebrates, or whatever, just makes my life easier. Sorry if that’s a bit of a disappointment.

So, let’s get to talking about “fractional mimics”; animals that achieve all the deception, but with half the work.

This fetching little fish is the comet (Calloplesiops altivelis), although due to its showy, expansive fins, it is also referred to as the “marine betta” (especially in the aquarium trade). It is found on tropical coral reefs across much of the Indo-Pacific, and shares its genus with one other less widely-known species. The comet is a type of longfin (family Plesiopidae), a group of small, predatory, vaguely grouper-like fish somewhat closely related to damselfishes (in regards to damselfish, think clownfish, like Nemo from Finding Nemo). They are also thought to be cleverly subtle mimics. ‘Of what?’, you may ask. A sensible, spotted handkerchief? A floating cutout of a Lite-Brite?

In reality, the likely model for the comet’s mimicry is a living critter, with a lot more in the way of bones, and eyes, and skin. And teeth. Lots and lots of teeth.


Those are some eely nice spots you got there! *nervous underwater laughter*

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Mesmerizing Marine Mimics: Sea Slug Style

This post is the third in a six post series outlining the evolution of mimicry within the ocean realm. These posts detail various ways in which organisms may copy other organisms in appearance and behavior, and the evolutionary context for how these mimic-model pairings have come to be. The first entry in this series goes over some fundamental introductory concepts and definitions regarding mimicry in general.

The previous entry in this series tackled fish that masqueraded as their flippity-floppity boneless distant cousins, generally to keep themselves from getting devoured by one of the endless multitudes of hungry mouths that tirelessly dart back and forth underneath the waves. The entry before that looked at fish that mimic other fish as part of the same evolutionary strategy. It’s worth mentioning that while I really like fish (I study the things, for Christ’s sake), not every bit of mimicry in the ocean involves gills and fins. Plenty of invertebrates (the perhaps less-than-charismatic things like worms and mollusks) in the oceans also engage in mimicry of other species. Sometimes, just like in the last entry, these imitations can jump across to completely different phyla (a major organizational grouping of life right below “kingdom” (like the animal kingdom, Animalia) and above “class” (like Mammalia, which includes mammals within the phylum Chordata)). It’s also important to consider that the phylum to which all vertebrates belong, Chordata, is just one grouping compared to a shitload of so-called “invertebrate” phyla…like thirty of them (the exact number depends on who you talk to…there’s plenty of taxonomic/phylogenetic disagreement to go around). Familiar, cute vertebrate critters like pandas and cats and goldfish and parakeets get a lot of attention, but in reality they make up a tiny sliver of animal diversity. The vast majority of the animal species on planet Earth are “invertebrates”…a commonly thrown out figure is something like 97% of all animals. In light of this, focusing specifically on some gooshy guys for one entry in this series seems only fair. I guess you say I’m…throwing them a bone….or something.

One group of invertebrates that is deserving of focus in the context of marine mimicry are the nudibranchs (pronounced “noo-dee braynks”). Their name means “naked gill”, which refers to their unique respiratory system. While they are regularly referred to as “sea slugs”, nudibranchs represent just one large taxonomic group of marine-living “slug” (the other groups include things like the solar-powered sacoglossans, a member of which is the “sea sheep” that everyone was losing their shit about a month or two ago, or the huge, ink-squirting sea hare, which is part of lineage distinct from nudibranchs). To reduce confusion on what variety of sea slug one is talking about, many folks refer to them by the shorthand “nudis” (pronounced like one would for “nudies”…although taking care to distinguish between things like “nudi photographs” and “nudie photographs” in casual conversation is STRONGLY RECOMMENDED).

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