Sunday 31 May 2015

Pulse Coral

Image: Richard Ling
When most people think of corals they think of what amounts to an elaborately carved stone resting on the sea floor. It's a pretty stone, no doubt. Brightly coloured, of course. The carving is exquisite and it's probably in some paradisal island, basking unaware in sun-dappled loveliness.

But we know that's scarcely half the story. That lump of stone plays host to potentially thousands of tiny polyps which emerge at night to extend their tentacles and capture prey. Some corals look less like rocks and more like trees or mushrooms. Some have almost none of that stony stuff and are thoroughly soft.

And then there are a few who...


These are the unique and strangely mesmerising motions of the Pulse Coral.

Dozens of stringy polyps, each topped with 8 feathery tentacles, opening and closing in rhythmic pulsation like a seething mass of grasping mutant hands bouquet of pretty flowers who can't decide whether to open or not. Silly darlings!

Image: Jill Catley
Not all Pulse Corals exhibit this interesting behaviour. There are almost 200 species of them, spread across more than 15 genera comprising the Xeniidae family. They like warm, sunny seas from Africa, through southeast Asia and out to Hawaii.

A lot of them look like mushrooms, with the polyps emerging from the top of a single, thick stalk. Sometimes it's two thick, fleshy stalks instead. In some the stalk divides into lots of slim branches.

Image: Justin Casp
Species of one genus called Anthelia have no stalk at all. They encrust the ground or rocks, instead. Rising from that crust is a miniature forest of those long, thin polyps.

Of the ones that do the pulsing, no-one's quite sure why they do it!

It's certainly not about catching food. Those grasping hands aren't grasping for tiny nibbles in the sea. They scarcely have the structures necessary to digest such prey. Luckily, Pulse Corals are able to rely almost entirely on an abundance of symbiotic, photosynthesising zooxanthellae for their food.

You might wonder if the polyps pulse to allow sunlight to get through to more hard to reach areas of their body. Apparently not, for they don't actually stop when the sun goes down.

Pulse Corals supplement their zooxanthellae's offerings with dissolved nutrients absorbed directly from the sea, and this may take us a step closer to answering this mystery.

Like any other photosynthesising creature, the corals's personal colony of zooxanthellae require a supply of carbon dioxide to do their job. And they create a whole lot of oxygen which has to be gotten rid of, particularly since an overabundance of oxygen reduces their ability to use carbon dioxide.

It's just like you being unable to eat your dinner because of the sickening stench emanating from a toilet that hasn't been flushed in months. Well... it's a little bit like that...

Thus, the pulsing of the coral creates a turbulent upward flow of water that helps cast out all that stinking oxygen and make way for sweet, delicious carbon dioxide. It also ensures that half the polyps aren't constantly surrounded by oxygen-rich water that has just come from the other polyps. If they were, those poor fellows would have a much tougher time unburdening themselves. And since they're all part of the same colony, that would be bad news for them all.

It's all most effective. One study found that clapping those mutant hands increased photosynthesis ten-fold, more than making up for the energy required to keep pulsing.

Or maybe they're just doing it to be friendly? The family name Xeniidae comes from Xenia, the name of the biggest genus. It comes from a Greek word that refers to the concept of hospitality, like xenophobia but without the phobia.

Does Xenia refer to those beguiling mutant hands beckoning us to join in their strange mutant hand dance? Is it all those zooxanthellae residing in their body?

Video: Eunjae Im

Perhaps it's the crabs and shrimp that can sometimes be seen clambering among the polyps.

Many hands may spoil the broth but what are they like at a back rub?

Friday 29 May 2015

Paromola cuvieri

This is just like that bit in Star Trek where Captain Kirk completely overreacts to a man in a lizard-suit throwing a lump of foam at him.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Cockatoo Flounder

Image: FishWise Professional
Samaris cristatus
It's a fish that wants to show off her pearly whites!

Sunday 24 May 2015

Cat-faced Spider

Image: Madelyn
The spider with a cat's face!

Friday 22 May 2015

Tiny Chinese dragon!

Image: Moorea Biocode
Look at this guy!

I know very little about him but apparently he's a polychaete worm in the the Phyllodocidae family, also known as paddle worms. That means he's probably an active predator who wanders the sea floor in search of small prey.

Paddle worms range greatly in size and this one looks like he's on the smaller side of the scale.

Image: Alias 0591
Others get much bigger.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Spindle Cowry

Image: Klaus Stiefel
This is what happens when a snail tries to hide behind a stick!

Sunday 17 May 2015

Helmet Jellyfish

Periphylla periphylla
Oh, dear. This is a difficult one. Do I want the shiny, grey helmet that's made of metal? It's hard and does what helmets are supposed to do, which seems to be a good attribute for a helmet...

On the other hand, do I want the pink helmet that's made of jelly... and has tentacles? It's soft... but it has tentacles! What a dilemma!

Friday 15 May 2015

Kintsukuroi: Sacred Scars

Have you ever been smashed? Completely smashed. To pieces. Like a vase or a plate. Or maybe you had some bits of you removed. Pieces. Removed. Like a vase or a plate that got smashed and one of the pieces slipped under the fridge and got lost forever.

You know what really does get smashed on occasion? Vases and plates. Butter fingers and wobbly tables have been blights on our ceramics since the very first... ceramics. Back when the primordial ceramic egg cracked open and a ceramic chicken got out and someone caught it and made a pot out of it.

That's where kintsukuroi comes in. It's the art of fixing things but, most emphatically NOT fixing things so they're good as new. Fixing them instead so their cracks glitter and shine. Taking their history - the knocks, the falls, the wear and tear - and far from hiding it, inscribing it upon their surface for all to see.

The effect is beautiful. Not an attempt at pristine, untroubled beauty, but a beauty that speaks of a journey through time and space. A beauty that allows buttery fingers, wobbly tables and stony floors to become part of its creation.

And that leads us to

Dana over at has been smashed to pieces more than most. Her particular journey through time and space has, over these past years, been terrifying and inspiring in equal measure. Hopefully there weren't too many doctors with buttery fingers or wobbly operating tables involved, but still.

Sacred Scars is her new site. It's a site for those who have had to face their own frailty and overcome it with a strength they perhaps never even knew they had. A place where they can share their story, inspire and be inspired.

She's also gearing up to create a book to go along with it. And she's asking for models!

So if you or anyone you know has a story to tell or wants to appear in the book check out:

the Sacred Scars website,
Facebook group,
or mailing list.

Tell your friends!

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Elbow Crab

Image: Smithsonian Institution
The crab with elbows!

BIG, pointy elbows!

Sunday 10 May 2015

What's up with all these pigfish?

Image: Kevin Bryant
Are pigs and fish natural bedfellows? I never thought so. I always imagined them in separate beds, separate rooms, separate homes and quite possibly separate landmasses. Like a proper, aristocratic marriage. Except one of them wouldn't be on a landmass. So... some kind of mer-people thing, I guess? Or dolphins. I bet loads of people have married dolphins by now.

It seems not everyone agrees about the merging of pig and fish. Apparently, some people see a fish and immediately think pig. We learned about the Hogfish before. They were those members of the wrasse family who used their elongated snouts to snuffle through the sea floor, searching for snails, crabs and other shelled creatures to crack open with their canine teeth.

As it turns out, this particular species of Hogfish is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the meeting of the porcine and the piscine.

Friday 8 May 2015


Someone didn't properly dispose of their plastic glove and now it has three thumbs and way too many fingers!

Friday 1 May 2015