Whales

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Some of you may be aware that I really like whales. Like a lot. So a highlight of this trip to the Antarctic was definitely the opportunity to see lots of whales in an insanely productive feeding habitat, like this pair of humpbacks. We were awoken by the announcement that the ship was surrounded by them as we cruised through the Gerlache Strait, gliding slowly over what was clearly a whale buffet- small groups of humpbacks were everywhere, weaving bubble nets and lunging up through the water in unison to engulf whatever small prey they had encountered that morning. Though they were far away, the scale of this remarkable event matched the frozen splendor of the landscape behind them.

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First Penguins

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The first penguins we saw on our trip were from the ship (the Orion). These Chinstraps seemed to be headed back toward shore after some successful foraging at sea, using their wings and feet to propel themselves through the frigid water (Tim, the expedition leader, announced the temperature to be somewhere around 1 degree Celsius…). Like dolphins, penguins often “porpoise” through the water as they travel. By clearing the waves entirely, they fly through the air and maintain forward momentum while still breathing regularly, reducing the drag they experience at the intersection of ocean and sky. To predators this motion may be very confusing; to photographers it can be both endlessly entertaining and endlessly frustrating, as most penguin-porpoising photos involve a larger proportion of feet and tail feathers than heads and bodies. But as always, patience and a large memory card are their own rewards…

Lost but Not Abandoned

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The temples are old, twelve centuries old in some cases. They are mossy, disordered, eroded, unsettled by roots and shifting sands, and sometimes riddled with bullet holes. They were lost to pilgrims and scholars alike until painfully recently, swallowed up by trees and climbing vines until they were unrecognizable. But they were not abandoned.

The faces smiling down from the Angkor Tom towers don’t seem lonely. Nor do the happy little amblypygids smiling down from the inside rooftop corners:

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Ain’t he cute? He’s not a spider, but a completely different type of arachnid also known as a whip spider. You may recognize him from one of the Harry Potter movies, or from a late-night freakout in which you likely jumped onto something as far from the floor as you could manage while maybe squealing or whimpering just… just a little bit. Fear not, gentle readers! Amblypygi are not venomous, aggressive, or even particularly defensive. For the most part they just hang out and eat crickets. Those long pedipalps (crabby-looking claws in the front) tell you whether the animal is a male or a female (males have longer ones, females shorter) and have the capability of grabbing on to little buggy snacks, but at their worst could give you a good pinch if you really tried to make their owner mad.

The temples have been re-occupied by humans and restoration work (funded by Cambodians, the French, Indians, Russians, and Americans among others) is everywhere through the temple complexes. But the company that the temples have kept through the hundreds of years between creation, overgrowth, rediscovery, looting, and tourism refuses to give up its home.

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They live here now. It’s their temple too.

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Some of them even engage in restoration work of their own, contributing silvery adornments to the crumbling walls.

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The temples have been reclaimed many times over their long history, by Hindus, Buddhists, Khmer Rouge, the French, modern-day Cambodians, and the forest itself. But I’d never call them abandoned.

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Clams

Hello beloved readers!

I apologize most heartily for my relative absence- we’re wrapping up the field season here in Exmouth, with all that entails: extra snuck-in snorkel trips, boat cleaning, taking posters and papers off of the walls, last-minute photo-ops on the water, cooking strange combinations of things from the remnants of our kitchen cabinets… It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. But still fun, of course.

As a metaphor for my lack of posting, here are a series of photos of giant clams.

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The color in the mantle (the soft part, showing from inside the two shells) comes from algae that the mollusk can cultivate within its own tissue. The algae and the clam’s own filter feeding both provide it with food/energy.

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Giant clams like these can live up to 100 years in the wild, building up layers of thickening shells as they go.

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Just so that nobody emails me with warnings that these animals should be added to my list of Things-In-Australia-That-Want-To-Kill-Me (Wikipedia: “It was known in times past as the killer clam or man-eating clam, and reputable scientific and technical manuals once claimed that the great mollusc had caused deaths; versions of the U.S. Navy Diving Manual even gave detailed instructions for releasing oneself from its grasp by severing the adductor muscles used to close its shell.”) I’m pretty sure that I’d have to be trying to climb inside of one of them for it to even give me a good pinch. Most can’t even close their shells the whole way, nor would they have any desire to hang on to a snorkeler/diver. They’re about as dangerous as rotting logs. But much prettier.

Contact from the Outer World

Watching a big male emu and his chicks walk straight toward you as you crouch on the sidewalk at the edge of suburbia is like being visited by aliens.

“What do they want?” you wonder. “Where did they come from? And where will they go when they leave here?”

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Well, it turns out that emus do actually wander off into the bush at night to sleep, though the thought is still funny to me. They find a place that they assume is more sheltered than anywhere else and slowly doze off after a period of sleepy vigil, folding their long legs under their bodies and curving their necks back. I imagine they’re fairly well camouflaged at that point. The chicks, according to Wikipedia and this fascinating article on “The Sleep of the Emu” (so many questions answered!) stretch out a little less gracefully, necks flat along the ground like sleeping ostriches. The emus wake up periodically throughout the night, grazing and defecating for a while before settling back down up to eight times.

Someone (Immelmann, the author of that article) stayed up all night ten days in a row in some zoological garden in Germany to collect this information. I think someone needs to do the same for emus in the wild, though getting them to sleep normally in the presence of humans would be a challenge. This is what I love about science- we figure one thing out, and have to resort to ever-more absurd tactics to get closer and closer to real answers about the basic workings of the world around us. We’ll never really know what emus do in the Outback at night until we can follow them around, and we’ll never really know what it’s like to walk on a planet not our own until we load up a rocket with literal tons of explosives, sit a person on top of that, and light it on fire. There’s so much left to explore, and so many crazy scientists ready to commit their sleepless nights and endless calculations, frustrations in coding and camouflage and mosquito bites and sterilized lab equipment, to the pursuit of knowledge.

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In a sort of thematic segue (I try, okay?), I’ve received some other contact from the outside world! Because internet is so expensive here, I feel like I’ve been a bit (or a lot) absent from the planet as a whole, wrapped entirely up in my two housemates, our boss and his family, and the approximate 3 other people we know in town, along with 112 humpback and 250-ish bottlenose dolphins. Keeping up with my friends and family has been difficult, so you can imagine my delight at seeing one Sheila Brady, who turned up in Exmouth a few days ago!P1080767

I can’t say how much it means that she came all that extra distance to hang out and bring some much-missed news of home and general cheerfulness!

-Agent Red Squirrel

Roo Confusion

The trouble with identifying kangaroos around here is mostly that whenever I see one, I’m so surprised that I forget to figure out what species it is. You’d think it would be obvious, like one is big and red (right, the big red kind, Macropus rufus) and one is little and gray (Macropus robustus), but some of the big red ones are just small because they’re young, and some of the wallaroos, also known as Euros, are actually sort of reddish and can get to a decent size.

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(This is a big red)

As far as I can tell, in photos where I don’t get a lot of scale and can’t necessarily recall the roo’s relative size to my own (reds get 6 feet tall and up to 200 lbs, while common wallaroos only get 5 feet tall and 150 lbs maximum), I can separate the two by bulk (reds seem to have larger, more muscular arms relative to their bodies, but also generally heftier bodies compared to their heads) and comparative ear size (though that’s just conjecture, since ear size might have more to do with age or individual variation*).

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(This is a Euro. I think.)

Kangaroos tend to live in larger “mobs,” somewhere around ten usually but in poor conditions can gang up into the hundreds. Wallaroos are mostly solitary, according to the internets. This information is not really supported by my own observations, but let’s be real- I mostly see these guys while either I’m running or they’re running, so I can’t say that any of my surveying has been at all scientific.

Mostly I’d say the main difference between a kangaroo and a wallaroo is that turning a corner and finding myself too close to a wallaroo is adorable, and doing the same with a kangaroo is just a little bit terrifying. Imagine a rabbit the size of your dad, and then give it muscley arms (the rabbit, not your dad).

…Have fun with that one. Here’s a reminder that macropods can also be really cute:

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Sleep with dreams of fuzzy baby ‘roos and try to get that image of your rabbit-dad out of your head. Oh, too late. Sorry.

*Did you know that human ears and noses keep growing forever? Like through your whole life (I’m assuming if you’re reading this you’re human, but to any intelligent dolphins or aliens reading this: um hi please email me) your ears will get bigger and bigger. If you could live forever maybe you could learn to fly Dumbo-style. Or at least swim like a manta ray. It’s all cartilage, right?

Here Are Some Birds

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Cindy said these are Honeyeaters, though my rapid googling did not find any that looked exactly like them. But they’re pretty funny, perching on lines and flapping up and down just outside of windows. I think they’re also the ones we’ve seen attacking corellas and some birds of prey up above the bush.

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This one might be a butcherbird, though the beak seems too small, or a magpie, though the pattern seems odd.

Birds are neat.