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 Others

This town is small, and the marine mammal research world is somehow even smaller. Yet right here on the North West Cape we are not alone. (Sound dramatic enough? Good.)

We’re here (me, Tim, Kaja, and soon Natalie, our new compatriot who will arrive tomorrow), but so are several other groups of researchers. A woman doing research on humpback whale body condition, a group of Danish scientists working on tagging humpback calves and “singers”- male humpbacks, isn’t that cute- and another guy who is just now transitioning from research on killer whale predation on humpback calves to biopsy of humpback calves, mothers, and “escorts” (third whales traveling with the mother-calf pairs) to determine potential genetic relationships. It’s not that the town got bigger: whale shark outfits are closing shop for the season, and as the weather heats up the caravan parks and hotels empty out as “gray nomads” and vacationers head back south.

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There’s a research community here- isn’t that cool? Research can’t happen in a vacuum, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and we are here for our own purposes but we are a community. We gather for barbecues and spend the whole time talking about whales, showing photos and complaining about grant applications. It’s a bit of a trap- people do this work because they love it, but that basically means there’s no escape. It’s cetaceans day in and day out, above and below the water- they follow us onto the land and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of Sponges and Bananas and Romance

Marine biology is hard. We (scientists!) literally cannot know what our subjects are doing all the time- we (Tim and Team Sousa) are lucky enough to have marine subjects that have to breathe air and come to the surface fairly frequently, but in a rather neat and frustrating exchange they also have a wide home range and can only be spotted effectively during the day, and really only days with good weather. So much of what they’re doing goes unnoticed or unseen, underwater or under cover of darkness or simply when we’re not looking directly at them. Sousa sahulensis has never, to my knowledge, been kept in captivity, nor could we ever say we’d seen them behaving “normally” and/or with a complete range of behaviors if they were to be so kept. Marine biology- it’s like detective work, following incomplete bits of information to try to piece together a whole story. It’s constructing specific questions, ones that we can answer given the limited observations we can get.

However, we’re out on the water as much as we possibly can be- every relatively windless day, five to ten hours at a time- and we see a lot of interesting behavior. For example, “banana pose,” in which a dolphin arches its back, rostrum (nose) and dorsal fin in the air. It’s a goofy-looking behavior, potentially adopted by males as a social or courtship display. Another example is one that I’ve heard about but haven’t yet seen- “sponging,” which in this case* is another potential courtship behavior, in which a male dolphin selects a sponge on the reef (quite a large one, too) and presents it (at the surface, presumably, since Tim’s seen it) to a female. He then adopts a banana pose. How romantic.

 

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I don’t know that I’d consider any of this to be weirder than human courtship behavior, though. If you liked it, then you should have put a sponge on it- what’s the difference? After actually having visited a bar last Friday on my birthday (WHO AM I) I really could not argue for any sort of logic in the ways that young humans choose to behave (and I’m including myself here, don’t get me wrong). Presenting alcoholic beverages to other individuals or groups, rhythmic full-body movements to pre-recorded vocalizations, displays of colors and other physical attributes… Sponges seem more straightforward. Take note, lads.

 

*”Sponging” can also refer to another really cool dolphin thing- down in Shark Bay, where some other dolphin researchers have been conducting exhaustive focal follows and continuous analysis of several individuals’ behavior, Tursiops aduncus have been seen with sponges over their rostrums, using the squishy animals as shields against anything poky they might encounter while searching the benthos (the bottom, in this case sandy) for food. They actually teach this technique through generations, demonstrating cultural inheritance and general braininess. Ahh, I remember the days when my mom taught me how to forage successfully and keep my nose out of trouble. As far as I recall, grocery store watermelons are supposed to sound hollow, cantaloupes are supposed to be heavy (as is corn on the cob) and most everything else is just supposed to be unbruised. Put my hand under cold water if it gets burned, and while traveling on airplanes, always wear a scarf. Thanks Mom!

Species-ous Allegations

 

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As I’ve mentioned before, our focal animal, Sousa sahulensis or the Australian humpback dolphin, has only recently entered the official rolls of described species. In a recent report, scientists named this newly-identified species and thus spake Science- a species was born. Does that sound sort of arbitrary to you? Good, it probably ought to.

Let’s talk about species definitions for a second:

 

I love species names. I love using those distinct descriptions to identify the organism I’m looking at, and I love the way the fake-Latin words (so science! Very officialness) feel in my mouth. There’s a pleasing elegance to the system through which you can categorize groups of related species, like nested folders or bags-within-bags (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, subspecies). But do I trust species boundaries as absolutes? No, I do not. 

A “species” can be defined quite a few different ways, is part of the problem. For example, the biological definition states that for a species to be valid, the population that makes it up must not be able (for reasons of geography, genetic change, or physical incompatibility, among other potential reasons) to produce viable, or fertile, offspring with the group from which it is being separated. Several issues arise with this definition.

 

First, we consider many animals to be part of one species despite the fact that they’re almost certainly never going to meet and exchange genetic material without the aid of humans. For example, northern and southern hemisphere killer whales in all oceans are still listed officially as Orcinus orca, which is absurd. They can reproduce in captivity, probably, but even groups of killer whales (for example, Southern Residents and the area’s Transients) that live in the exact same bays and straits avoid each other completely in the wild, and probably haven’t exchanged genes for tens of thousands of years. I could go on and on about killer whales and species definitions but I will spare you (for now, mwa-ha-ha) and move on to the next problem.

Second, some domestic animals like farmed turkeys, certain cows, and many dogs cannot reproduce without human assistance. Are they species? They can’t reproduce at all, in reality, so they don’t pass the “fertile offspring” test unless people intervene quite a bit (artificial insemination, cesarean section, etc.).

Some people don’t hold with the biological definition. They prefer to define a species based on the percentage of functional genes that are different between two groups (which varies wildly depending on the age and genetic purity of a presumed species), or physical characteristics that show distance between populations. There isn’t really a definition that captures the flawed system we have (understandably) superimposed on the natural world, and the flawed system doesn’t even capture the nuance that the evolutionary process constantly creates and changes.

Meanwhile, what do you do with mushrooms and plants that can self-fertilize, or other less-identifiable organisms like bacteria, constantly passing genes from one individual to another. How about viruses, just tiny packets of DNA and self-replication machines? People think of things in groups that feel natural (haha, biology = natural…) but that’s not very scientific. It is, however, very convenient and intuitive. We group things to make them study-able, understandable, explainable, referable. For the most part, the species definition really does work to distinguish different types of organisms. We just can’t explain exactly why.

 

So anyways, it’s a bit tricky to explain why Sousa sahulensis has been officially designated a new group within that system. In this case, a combination of geographic separation, physical characteristics, and genetic difference added up to the split of the Australian humpback dolphins from Sousa chinensis, the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. Tomorrow’s post will explain exactly how our Sousa have earned their species stripes- this is likely enough of a biology-nerd’s rant for today.

Stay posted, dearest readers! I’m going to go track down some more cute photos of our resident charismatic megafauna and then turn in- today was long, but wonderful. I’ll dream of manta rays and humpback whales and leaping dolphins- I hope you do too.

Birthday Sousa

Yes, today was August 22nd over here in Australia-land- it seems I get to experience a virtual 36-hour-long birthday since most of my internet-friends are on the other side of the International Date Line and about 12 hours different in terms of time zones. 1.5 times the fun! And I’d say the day lived up to that billing.

This morning we went back to Mrs. Mac’s, Exmouth’s charity-supporting “ops shop”- a secondhand store, carrying everything from coffee mugs to swimsuits to prom dresses to sewing kits, books, and plastic kiddie toys. People drop their junk off and the cool stuff makes its way onto the shelves. Kaja and I have been keeping tabs on their selection of Australian-flag-related clothing (there’s a pretty fabulous bikini that neither of us really thinks we’ll wear, but admire every time we go to the store) and have so far managed to acquire temporary tattoos, blue shorts that proudly display the name of the country across the rear, two small flags, and an Australian flag baseball cap. Get ready, everyone who might expect a souvenir from me- it’s either gonna be a postcard or a recycled treasure from the give-away heaps of small-town Western Australia. Good gracious I love Mrs. Mac’s.

The next stop, grocery shopping, allowed me to indulge in a family tradition that I wasn’t expecting to celebrate. Long-life noodles, boiled and then fried up in a pan- I improvised a bit, since I’m not exactly sure how they’re normally made. Whatever it was that I did turned out pretty awesome though, or at least I enjoyed them thoroughly. With a little veggie stir-fry in a sauce, it was perfect. Or so I thought before Kaja brought out chocolate chip cupcakes, the recipe for which I will need to steal before long.

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Then in the afternoon, when the wind died down, we headed out for a few transects on the boat. After a good solid Sousa sighting (research never rests! ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE, and so are Arrow and E, a frequently-sighted and very well-photographed mother-juvenile pair) we came back, wiped everything down, entered data, showered, and headed out for some celebrating.

I can’t think of a better day, though of course I miss my family and friends from home/Dartmouth. Rest assured that I thought of you all (even you readers I’ve never met… I thought of you right now… as it occurred to me that I might have readers I’ve never met… hi?) and wouldn’t have enjoyed this day half as much had it not been for you lovely people, your science, your art, your friendship, your pumpkin bread (hi mom!). Coming up- more science, less birthday, hopefully some diving, perhaps some tropical reef ecology, and YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED (if you ask them anyways, I’ll do my best).

FOR SCIENCE AND FOR GLORY,

Agent Red Squirrel

 

p.s. I’m still accepting contributions to the Vicky-has-Internet Fund- you can message  if you’d like to help out. Internets are EXPENSIVE here… and I’d like to keep posting photos and terrible jokes to all you virtual folks! Hooray (and thanks)!