Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vampire Squid

With a name like vampire squid, I really don’t have to look any further for a flashy, eye-grabbing title. Yep, there is a squid out there actually called the vampire squid. Have you seen it? If you have not, you really should. How can you resist with a name like that?

Luckily, you can see this fab deep-sea denizen thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and their incredible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology that allows them, and now you, to watch these animals in their natural habitat. Some of this incredible footage was just placed on YouTube for everyone to see.

The vampire squid, or Vampyroteuthis, is actually not considered a true squid, but is a close relative of both squids and octopods, all of which form the group known as cephalopods. There are many true squids in the squid family, and many octopods in the octopus family, but only one Vampyroteuthis. A single species that, in and of itself, makes up the last remaining member of its family. It is considered a phylogenetic relic; a remnant of a group of organisms that has long since gone extinct.

You probably wont see this creature on display at the Monterey Bay Aquarium any time soon. It routinely lives between 2000 and 3000 feet, in a region called the Oxygen Minimum Zone, or OMZ. This is a hard habitat to replicate, not to mention how difficult it is to capture and transport one of these fragile animals successfully.

And they are, in fact, fairly fragile. They reach only a foot in length when fully grown. They’re sort of squishy and gelatinous. They swim slowly, and spend much of the time drifting passively. Swimming fast probably isn’t something they can pull off too often. Because they live in cold, oxygen-poor regions of the deep-sea, Vampyroteuthis has a very low metabolism, the lowest of any cephalopod.

The vampire squid also does not suck blood, or turn into a bat at night. However, it does have wing-like fins on the sides of its head, which propel Vampyroteuthis through the water. And, it has webbing between its legs that almost give it the appearance of being wrapped in a cape or cloak. It is dark reddish black in color, and lives in the deep ocean where there is virtually no light from the sun.

Light from the sun, however, is not needed for Vampyroteuthis. Instead, it makes its own light, as it is covered with light producing organs called photophores. It has highly sensitive eyes. Cephalopod eyes, in general, have many of the same features as the vertebrate eye (that’s your and my eye). Therefore, they have very good vision, and a relatively well-developed nervous system for processing that information.

Vampyroteuthis also lacks two abilities common in other cephalopods. It cannot change color. And, it does not ‘ink.’ However, these two features are hardly needed in the deep-ocean habitat.

Be sure to check out the links!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Anniversaries and New Connections

It is the one year anniversary of publishing my column in the Marina Gazette. When I started writing the column I re-dedicated this blog to the same effort. In honor of both of their first birthdays, I have started a new Facebook page to share the information more easily. I hope you enjoy the expanded venue!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What is the Meaning of This?

Today we will chat about words; their history, their common usage, and their evolution within language. This is the science of etymology. My inspiration from this comes from my eldest, dearest darling of a child (insert whatever brand of personal sarcasm you prefer here), the young Mr. Think Science, Jr.

Each Monday TS Jr. comes home with a list of spelling/vocabulary words that he is meant to write several times, and then look up in the dictionary and define. Now this dictionary that we use at home is rather sentimental, as dictionaries go. It was my mother’s in college, and she gave it to me in high school. It is huge, and heavy, and literally fifty years old. The fact that it is huge and heavy causes some complaining when it must be dragged to the kitchen table, and I am secretly convinced that it gains at least twenty pounds in weight whenever touched by my dear child, or so you would think based upon how he carries on about having to drag this hulking beast from his room. Personally, I think this is ‘character building’, and I think he should have to carry this dictionary in his backpack to school, walking uphill both ways, like I did as a child…in the snow…in Arizona…but I digress. I may have to change my stance on this.

I recently learned the limitations of a 50-year old dictionary. For one, it does not have words in it that were invented in the modern age, such as ‘unfriend.’ You might recall from previous posts that this was The Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2009. The second limitation is really the same limitation, and that is that this dictionary was written in a different era.

At little background is needed about now - I have been harping on TS Jr. to choose the first definition given for each word, since that is usually the most common definition. He, of course, chooses whichever definition is the shortest. Therefore, many words on his list, prior to my scrutiny, have simple, but not inaccurate, definitions such as ‘noun.’

The word of the moment, whose true and detailed meaning we were anxiously waiting to reveal, was ‘chartreuse.’ And, in my 50-year-old dictionary, the definition for chartreuse is ‘a green or yellow aromatic liqueur’ (insert dramatic pause here to simulate new conundrum for mostly politically correct parental unit, aka me). I did not even know there was a liqueur called Chartreuse.

Darling TS Jr. subsequently won the battle that ensued about changing the definition to a more ‘school-appropriate’ definition, since, as he aptly pointed out, that WAS the first definition. So, that is the definition on his homework. I believe this is what they call ‘eating your words’ and TS Jr. skipped all the way to class, backpack sans giant dictionary, with the revelation that never again would he be held to the first definition of a word and might yet be able to get away with such concise and profoundly accurate definitions as ‘noun.’

Chartreuse is a French liqueur that contains 132 herbal extracts. Produced by monks, the alcohol gets its name from their home, the Grande Chartreuse monastery located in the Chartreuse Mountains. Chartreuse was originally thought to be an elixir of long life, stemming from a recipe obtained by the monks in 1605, and was 71% alcohol. The more modern Green and Yellow varieties, which tend more towards green and yellow coloration respectively, range from 55 to 40%. Sadly, the monks were expelled from France in 1903 when the French government attempted to take over both the monastery and the highly profitable Chartreuse production business. The monks simply moved to Spain and kept on making Chartreuse under a slightly different label. Attempts to reproduce the monk’s secret recipe failed miserably, the company went bankrupt, and the monks were allowed to return in 1927. The monastery was destroyed by a mudslide in 1935 and production was moved to nearby Voiron where it continues today. Thank you, Wikipedia. None of that information was in any of the dictionaries that I consulted.

The color that we refer to as ‘chartreuse’ comes from the color of the original alcohol, a very bright color between green and yellow. Today we might refer to this color as fluorescent green. The greenish color comes from the chlorophyll in those 132 herbs. And chlorophyll, does, in fact, fluoresce. Recall from your basic biology that chlorophyll is the green pigment that plants use to absorb light for photosynthesis, which is the process by which they produce new tissue and grow - you just knew I’d slip the science there somehow.

My note to the teacher along with the homework - Please don't suspend my child. I will buy a new dictionary this weekend.