Thursday, November 19, 2009

plankton plankton plankton plankton

I know you've been wondering how I'm doing with that Richard Dawkins book. Well, I just renewed it for the second time yesterday. In six weeks I read 250 pages. In the next three I am going to need to read 350. This seems unlikely to happen, especially given that I keep stopping to read novels. However, the book remains interesting and full of things I didn't know. For example: paddlefish.

First of all, I didn't know paddlefish existed in the first place, but apparently they live (or used to live) in rivers all over the country. Who knew? Alas, it's one more species which has not benefitted from the human race, but so far they are not in immediate danger of going extinct. (Except for the Chinese paddlefish, which already did).

The paddlefish is interesting for three reasons. (1) It looks funny. Hahaha. (2) It has a giant creepy mouth

which it uses to catch plankton like a baleen whale, which I have just realized is really only interesting because of how much I like the words "plankton" and "baleen." And, (3) its enormous paddle detects electrical signals from the little fishies that it feeds on, which is one way it finds its dinner. I'm not sure why I find this so amazing, but I do. IT DETECTS ELECTRICITY WITH ITS NOSE.

Incidentally, which I also did not know, sharks do this, too, with the ampullae of Lorenzini, which are connected to the pores pictured here.

Stefano Lorenzini, by the way, was an Italian physician who discovered the ampullae in 1678. He got in trouble with the Medicis (who didn't), and that is all I know because the Wikipedia page is brief and in Italian. Anyway, you may wish to know that if you are planning to go for a swim in shark-infested waters and you don't have Fezzik with you, you can bring instead a can of electropositive shark repellent and swim in somewhat greater safety. (Actually I don't think it comes in cans, but I picture divers using it like spray bottles on cats.) Unfortunately, in order to use it, you have to be awfully close to the shark, and I predict it will only be a matter of time before sharks learn to turn off their electrical sensors at will and the repellent becomes totally ineffective. Sharks always win.

Now for the part that's extra weird: not only do sharks and paddlefish use electrolocation, but so do platypuses! I swear, when we covered the animal kingdom in elementary school, no one mentioned this. Or if they did I was too busy saying "plankton" and "baleen" to myself to notice. Anyway, I am quite sure I never learned that the males of the species are also venomous. That's right, they have ankle spurs full of poison that will kill small animals and give humans months of chronic pain. So I guess platypuses (or platypodes if you would like the correct though rarely-used plural) always win, too.

Plus, they are very cute, poison spurs and all.

I would add electric eels to this post, but since they short-circuit in saltwater, are not actually eels, and are not cute, I see no point.


Ivan said...

baleen is a lovely word. and the shark pores made me think of this:

Maeve said...

platypodes are too adorable. they are poisonous AND frolicksome. how could it get any better?

Simon said...

Ivan, you read the ragbag? I DID NOT KNOW THIS. It's like that day we discovered we both watched Star Trek TNG.

Maeve, agreed. I think platypodes are my new favorite species.

Anonymous said...

I like how you worked in the reference to Fezzik from The Princess Bride, because, as I read through this, I was thinking that Lorenzini is a name that would have been perfect in that movie.

Platypodes? I would have thought Platypi... but I am no English major, so I defer to your superior sense of humor and word association. Either one would be a great crossword puzzle answer to a clue like"Poisonous web footed mammal," or "Fuzzy, adorable and deadly egg layer."

Anonymous said...

Upon further pondering the "platypodes/platypi" question, I conclude that platypodes is infinitely preferable. For, from paltypodes could be derived platypodelian, which fairly cries out for employment in a Victorian detective novel: "The detective's platypodelian waddle was a sight feared by all villains on the street." Or, in a romance: "Florence shuddered as the platypodelian Master slowly descended the staircase." Those sound large and ominous.

In contrast, Platypidlian merely sounds like a puppy who didn't make it outside soon enough.

It would also be ideal as a malaprop: "It's all very well to spout platypodes, but we need practical ideas, Henry."