Deadly Serious

“Yeah, we have to keep an anchor chain watch,” says the beanie-wearing man, stroking his stubbly chin. “They’ll just come right up the chain and into the boat if you’re not careful.”

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Having listened to a number of Australians at this point, there are several aspects of Australian humor that really stand out to me. First, there is the tendency for Aussies (especially men, especially fishermen) to declare every animal brought up in conversation as “real good eating, just throw ‘er on the barbie!” This is perplexing when one is researching endemic coastal dolphins, but sort of funny when you get used to it and can react with similar straight-faced absurdity: “yes, but a bit fishy-tasting. And oversalted.” And second, there is the complete solemn commitment to untruth that is used to hoodwink tourists and visitors (see “drop bears,” for example, or the persistence with which Natalie’s brother’s friend tried to convince us that he was called “Esky” because he was born in a cooler on a dusty road in the Outback). (We’re pretty sure he wasn’t actually. Like 99% sure. Maybe 98% sure.)

We’re pretty sure, as well, that sea snakes don’t climb anchor chains and enter boats. First of all, they’re almost all highly evolved to live their entire lives at sea. All but one group (the Laticauda, a more primitive group more closely related to their common ancestral land snakes in the Elapidae family, which includes coral snakes, cobras, mambas, taipans… basically all deadly poisonous), have reduced stomach scaling, making them quite vulnerable on land. They can’t coil or strike like land snakes, but can hold their breath underwater for several hours at a time, having evolved lungs that stretch nearly the whole length of their bodies, which they use for buoyancy control and gas exchange (which they can also do through the skin and scales on their backs!). They extrude salt from their bodies through glands behind their little snakey tongues, and use their vertically-flattened tails as paddles to swim. Climbing anything seems like it would present a problem for these guys. But even more unbelievable than sea snakes being physically able to climb into a boat is the idea that they might want to.

Sea snakes live interesting little lives. They’re among the most well-adapted reptiles to live in the sea, arguably more effective than sea turtles (who must all return to land to lay eggs rather than releasing large numbers of live wiggly young into the unsuspecting waters of the tropical regions in which they live). However, they’re primarily known for two somewhat contradictory characteristics: namely, that they are among the most deadly venomous creatures alive, and among the most friendly. It feels like a bit of chicken-and-egg paradox. Are they friendly to and curious about divers and snorkelers because they know they’re deadly? Or are they deadly because they’re otherwise suicidally approachable and have to have some way to stay alive?

Either way, I asked an Australian that I met on my walk yesterday, clearly an avid fisherman and also clearly familiar with boats, what he thought of the vivid yellow reptiles we see cutting the surface of the swell over the reefs.

“Pretty good with some tomato sauce,” he said.

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Take It Lying Down

My uncle Tom told me a story in the comments of one of my latest blog posts about his friend, who had told him that if trapped in an enclosure with a large flightless and angry bird (either an emu OR an ostrich), the best strategy was to lie flat on the ground. The birds (either an emu OR an ostrich) are dangerous to vertical people, with their strong legs and sharp toes that are capable of severely injuring a predator or, presumably, a zookeeper. However, their legs (those of either an emu OR an ostrich) aren’t built for kicking things low to the ground, since they wouldn’t usually pose a threat to large, flightless, angry birds. We all wondered in a sort of musing and joking way which of the big birds it was.

That was then. Today I wondered with much more urgency.

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This photo was taken with my sister’s prized 50mm lens, lovely for portraits and landscapes alike and remarkably convenient and light to carry. It doesn’t have zoom, so if you wanted to you could probably calculate how close this emu was to the camera and, incidentally, to me. It kept advancing, head slowly moving from left to right as it eyed me and the camera pressed to my face. I kept shooting while walking backwards, but gave up after this shot because 1. I was about to trip over a curb (kerb, in this country) and 2. I was too busy wondering if I needed to lie down (was it an emu? Or was it an ostrich?) and wondering why it had never occurred to whomever came up with that particular strategy that emus have some very business-like beaks that clearly can reach the ground and presumably whatever the emu decided to stand on. Which would hopefully not be my body, my new camera, or my sister’s lens.

I decided not to test this strategy, in part because it seemed risky and in part because I was in the middle of suburban Exmouth, surrounded by trailered boats and little fenced gardens, and it would have been embarrassing. Fun fact: emus don’t really like it if you raise your arms and sort of yodel at them in a kind of panicked sort of way. (I do not know if this tactic works on ostriches.) This one shook its tiny wings and its fluffy rump, stopped advancing, cocked its head in confusion, and decided that I was uninteresting or not worth the intimidation. I felt a bit silly about this, and even sillier when a woman walked out her front door and started throwing breadcrumbs to the emus, greeting me with a cheery “G’day!” before asking, with some concern, if I was okay.

Australia, man.

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Nobody Keeps Baby in the Corner

My little friend from a few weeks ago escaped from her yard and found me again yesterday, but this time wearing a collar complete with name and phone number. So everyone, you may now officially meet Lilly, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

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She wants you to throw the stick. She wants anyone to throw the stick. I’ve never had a dog that enjoyed making “fetch” happen this much before (did you remember that yesterday was October Third, official international Mean Girls Day?), and though we had to go over a few ground rules (no diving for the stick while I’m picking it up, no snatching it out of my hand, no jumping up to lick my face when she brought it back) we had a rollicking good time.

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Staffies, as they’re referred to in this neighborhood (which seems to host a fair number of them, actually) are supposed to be both fearless and affectionate, which describes her pretty well. As she’s been visiting a house of biologists she’s been well observed, traits mentally catalogued, body condition assessed, behavior analyzed. It’s basically unavoidable habit at this point: we can’t help but notice the shape of her head (triangular, similar to carnivorous seals and supported by a strong neck, likely advantageous for vigorous shaking of prey), her short but muscled legs (well-adapted for lunging), and her very short fur, ideal for warm climates and not getting tangled in things. She’s a tough-looking little pup- if she weren’t always trying to lick my face or curl up in my lap, I guess I might think she was intimidating?

Apparently the breed was intended originally for bull baiting, in the days of “blood sport,” and have recently received a fair bit of bad press for similarity to pit bulls and other related terriers here in Australia (New South Wales, in particular). I suppose these sorts of things should make me warier than I am, but Lilly hasn’t shown even a twitch of aggression while I’ve been in her presence. The other characteristics this breed is known for are loyalty and rapid progress of affection, both of which I think it’s safe to say I’ve found.

I’m still not sure how I feel about intensive dog breeding. Inbreeding is a huge issue, and creating dogs for looks rather than health seems both dangerous and cruel. As a biologist I clearly have lots of thoughts about natural selection, but the purposeful selection of companion animals by humans makes me uncomfortable… Essentially what we’ve done to dogs is arrest their mental development. They act like wolf pups, lower in aggression, higher in loyalty and affection, shorter puppy-like faces and sweeter temperaments. On top of those traits, we continue to select and mate dogs for characteristics that can be detrimental to the dogs themselves- large heads, long bodies and vulnerable backs, size that cuts their life spans down by years… I love them all- ask any of my housemates, any of the Costa Rica 2013 crew, anyone in my family. But I still can’t imagine getting a pup anywhere but from a shelter or another person’s home.

Which is not to say that I will be stealing Lilly and being her best friend forever.

I probably won’t.

But I’d like to.

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Boats and Goats and Princess Toast

The relevance of boats to this post should be relatively obvious at this point- I’ve been trying to have my camera out while we’re on the boat a bit more, taking photos of fieldwork and the water. Here’s the newest member of Team Sousa (Natalie, from England) doing some #SCIENCE:

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Natalie has bought a bike in town, and as a result has been doing some in-town exploring that I have avoided in my general hunt for weird Australian flora and fauna. I think it’s been worthwhile though! A few days ago she came home full of stories about a man that she met whose family has adopted a baby goat, found on the side of the road. The man carries the little goat everywhere he goes, tucked under his arm; his daughter has named it Scarlet. We followed Natalie back to the home of the goat and definitely just happened *cough cough * to walk by in time for her to reunite with her new friend:  IMG_2665

We helped feed her, but as the man and his daughter told us, she’s getting a bit old to be drinking milk all the time and has begun to take apart plants in the backyard and clothes hanging in closets… At four or five weeks old, it may be soon time for Scarlet to become a back-yard goat, but we’ll see.

All right, so we’ve had boats and goats… now on to the princess toast. Tim had explained to us the concept of “fairy bread,” the name of which I had completely misremembered while trying to explain it to one of our Aussie friends. Fairies, princesses, what’s the difference? I’d have been happy to find out I was either back when I was a kid (get it? Baby goat jokes!). Anyways, fairy bread is an Australian kid’s party snack consisting of white bread spread with margarine and then coated in little colorful round sprinkles, like so:

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Hello, dessert, and hello Australia points. Now for the full Exmouth experience, we’ll just have to make a pavlova, swim with a whale shark, and see at least one poisonous land snake. Then we’ll have done it all.

Things to Ponder

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*Photo courtesy of the lovely Kaja Wierucka

Well, it’s actually a tidepool, not a pond (ugh I’m so ashamed of myself but also, haha, puns).

Anyways, I like the symmetry/obvious symbolism of this photograph, plus some of you (hey!) may actually not know what I look like and stuff, so here- that’s me! Agent Red Squirrel, blogger and aspiring scientist. You oughtn’t be surprised that I spend a fair amount of my time crouched down to look at stuff- bugs, plants, scat, octopuses, shiny rocks, trash, alternate dimensions, microuniverses, alien spacecraft- you know, all the interesting things. From way up high where my head is when I stand up, I can see a fair distance, reach tall things, and speak to people in a normal kind of way… but down closer to the ground I can pay a lot more attention to all the tiny things that happen all the time.

Without moving my feet from that spot in that photo, I saw mantis shrimp, hairy crabs, octopuses, tiny fish, pistol shrimp, hermit crabs, three kinds of algae, a sponge, a baby giant clam, and a swimmer crab. Presumably without me moving my feet from that spot in that photo, all of those things also saw me. I like to think about the reflexiveness of observation in moments like that- I’m watching them, they’re watching me, I’m aware of myself watching them and the filter through which I see their interactions with the world. It’s all very meta.

A science project: go somewhere, find something you’d normally overlook- a patch of mushrooms, a trail of ants, a puddle of water, a weirdly shaped icicle- and watch it for ten minutes. Your primary objective is to observe the thing. Your secondary objective is to observe yourself. Can you look at a thing for ten minutes? Can you find different things with which to interest yourself within that thing? Can you resist the urge to reach down and change the thing you’re observing? Is it changed, just through your observation?

Geography and Geology

I have always loved being able to find myself on a map. It’s not narcissism (or at least not wholly…) but a deep-seated desire for a sense of place. Those of us who travel and those of us who don’t: we all want to know where we are. For some people it’s as simple as knowing the turns and twists of the streets in their neighborhoods. For me, for a long time, I navigated my world based on the ocean and the Bay, I-280 and I-101, the San Andreas fault and the billowing fronts of fog that poured across the San Francisco peninsula. Everything ran north to south, and I could never be lost because to the east or to the west a landmark stretched across the horizon. The sun rose over across the San Mateo Bridge and set behind the hills over by Half Moon Bay, and that was how I found my orientation anywhere I needed to go.

As I’ve grown older, my sphere of travel and my referential compass has grown as well. The sun rises now over Boston, but still sets in the Pacific Ocean. New Hampshire is north, but so is San Juan Island- I have traveled North America from San Diego and the Navajo reservation to Wyoming and Alaska, watching the landscape change from water-carved sandstone canyons to glacial moraines and basalt bays. In the west the mountains are newer, higher, craggier, and in the east they are older and rounder, smoothed and solid under hemlock and maple trees. This is how I find myself in the world…

But here I am in the southern hemisphere. Maps of the world and my own compass have failed me here- they’re all north-centric, biased by colonialism and self-obsession and convenience to the point that Greenland rivals Africa for size while Australia and New Zealand shrink to nothingness below the equator. Google Maps helps some, but nothing on the North West Cape is labeled north of Exmouth. I recommend that you take a second to check it out, if you’ve got the bandwidth- I’m so used to living in the Bay Area, where Google has mapped every last brick in the sidewalk, while the Learmonth airport that I flew into and the entrance to the National Park aren’t even labeled as entities on this continent. But the satellite imagery for this area is stunning.

Where am I? Well, here’s the map that Tim created for our survey effort here on the cape:

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The red and blue and green lines are our transects- we follow them from one side of the cape to the other, hoping to cross paths with groups of dolphins. Each “zig” or segment is between 1-4 kilometers from vertex to vertex, and the red and blue lines are respectively about 93 km from end to end. The scale is hard to grasp- in three long days on-water, scanning and moving along the transect lines from sunup till sundown, with an average number of reasonable-length dolphin encounters, we can complete a blue or red line. That’s about 30 kilometers or maybe 16 nautical miles per day, exhaustively searched for any signs of dolphin activity. So is this where I am? This map doesn’t show the places that I recognize from shore, or the best snorkel spots or the tide pools or the mangroves or the Navy Pier or the VLF towers to the north.

At the tip of the cape, just around the blunt end on the west side, we see dolphins and manta rays and sea snakes and sharks, views of the lighthouse and the Cape Range hills, a shipwreck and the ever-visible radio towers that beam low-frequency signals to nuclear submarines across the southern hemisphere. We also see oil rigs: the North West Shelf Wikipedia page is entirely focused on its oil and gas resources, and the money flowing into Exmouth these days is all about mineral exploration. We see ancient coral fossils and unexplored water-filled caves along the shoreline, and we see the Indian Ocean, stretching to the Pacific and then, in practical terms, into eternity.

So where am I? I’m at my dream job, I’m thousands of miles from my closest friends, I’m on the opposite side of the world from my family, I’m on a couch, I’m in the Outback, I’m sitting above the red dirt and karst cave formations and millions-of-years-old marine fossils encased in limestone that was once the bodies of yet more thriving sealife. I’m in my head and I’m on the earth.

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The Emu Update

The Emu Saga: Part Two

Emus are real. They really are. We had just finished lunch and were settling back in to match some more fins (thrilling as always…) when Tim’s wife Janine called to let us know that there was an emu strolling down our street. Cameras in hand, we tumbled out the door to see this lovely lady in all her feathered finery:

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Check out those feet though! She went right by our front door, and down the road to some scrubby brush that separates us from the supermarket area of town. I found her tracks later on when I went for my evening walk, but she may have traveled a fair distance at this point…

Regardless, emus. They could appear in YOUR LIFE TOO. Watch out. Any moment now, an emu might stroll past. You’ll think it’s a very tiny grass hut, or perhaps a really bad bowl cut on a really big head, and then its neck will stretch up and its broad-beaked face will look at you and you will remember what it felt like to be a tiny rat-mammal facing off with a dinosaur. And then you will remember that you don’t live in Australia and are at the zoo (go buy your kid an ice cream, and teach her or him about science, but don’t encourage that whole cage thing…) OR that you do live in Australia and this is just regular life OR that you are hallucinating, are you dehydrated?