Category Archives: Museum Stuff

“The Oscars of Australian Science” – Eureka Awards Dinner 2010

eureka awards 2010

From one madcap taxi ride to Randwick Pavilion to regrettable post drinks at an open-till-5am bar on Oxford Street, the Eureka Awards Dinner is pretty much one of the best parties in town. Established in 1990, the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are awarded annually to those with outstanding achievements in science and science communication. This year the highlights included chickens with feelings, photogenic insects and nicely-dressed scientists as far as the eye could see. I love a nicely-dressed scientist.

Sitting at the Science Week table I learnt about Questacon’s badly-behaved talking robot who said inappropriate things to children before they removed and reprogrammed him, and watched the 19 prizes being handed out over dinner.

Chicken sympathisers, Chris Evans and K-Lynn Smith, trumped researchers working on a way to replace animal testing and saving dogs from inherited disorders for the Research that Contributes to win the Prize for Scientific Research That Contributes To Animal Protection:

“Groundbreaking research using new high-tech chook-friendly testing facilities challenges the concept of the feckless fowl… titled Sentient chickens: the scientific case for improved standards, it portrays chickens as social, intelligent creatures complete with Machiavellian tendencies to adjust what they say according to who is listening.”

Given that chicken was being alternated with barramundi that night, I’m assuming they switched meals with whomever was sitting next to them while they waiting in the queue for the bathroom.

“What’s barramundi?” friends from Europe asked me.

“An Australian fish.”

“Sounds like a good name for a cat, or a baby girl.”


A world-first collaboration between a cattle breeder and six scientists won the Prize for Research by an Interdisciplinary Team for their work with Meat Standards Australia, and Amanda Barnard from CSIRO the prize for Scientific Research as she develops an invisible, environmentally friendly sunscreen.

I visited the COSMOS table up the front where things were getting suitably anarchic, before the saddest moment in the evening when our two nominees for the Science Journalism Prize, John Pickrell and Elizabeth Finkel, were beaten by the ABC. Read Pickrell’s incredible piece on feathered dinosaurs and Lizzie’s elegant exploration of genes here and here.

I tweeted/texted double sad faces from across the room.

“Are you blogging right now??”

“No. I’m just texting…”

Guys, I’m not that clever. Sorry.

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Filed under Animals, Archosaurs, Art, Events, Film, Insects, Museum Stuff, Science

Science Week Begins With Melbourne Museum Stealing My Heart

museum victoria qantassaurus


Melbourne Museum – I could totally live in you. I know that sounds like something a psychopath would say, but there’s no other way to put it. And it doesn’t have to be the whole entire building, just the Science and Life Gallery would be fine. And yes, both floors please. Just rope it off and everyone else can go crazy everywhere else. Quietly. I get the dinosaurs and the taxidermy and the insects.

Except you’re going to have to move the spiders elsewhere, particularly the live ones and particularly the live ones that aren’t even in boxes. What is that, MM? I honestly stood there for like five minutes straight trying to come to terms with the fact that there’s literally nothing except a giant room-sized web between those orb-weavers and us, and I know they aren’t particularly dangerous and have no reason to come out of their giant room-sized web and mingle with the humans, but that’s not the point. They’re still spiders, MM. You’re playing with fire in a giant room-sized web.

Science on Show

National Science Week - Science on Show

Science on Show - Mammology Display

National Science Week kicked into gear yesterday and Melbourne Museum was the absolute best place to spend the first day. And I’m not just saying that because that’s what I did and obviously have no comparison. But…

* Live insects

* Museum experts

* Australia’s best scientific illustrators

I rest my case.

I began with Science on Show, which involved half a dozen display tables filled with stuffed, bottled and boxed specimens, Australian megafauna fossils and a model crab the size of a curled up human child and so on, all manned by various experts from the Museum. I got to pat a taxidermied tapir and made some dumb comment about how it looks like it’s stuck in a really powerful wind tunnel with that posture (well it does), rifle through a trolley’s worth of poltergeist-esque sea creatures in jars, and get mad at the terrestrial invertebrates expert for holding up two huge bottled spiders and making me compare their fangs. DO NOT WANT, as they say.

Then I may or may not have rendered myself the creepiest person in the building by deciding I wanted these for my livingroom:

National Science Week - Science on Show

Science on Show - Ornithology Display

Yes. Rows and rows of tiny dead birds. That’s what I want in my house. Jesus. But it might come as less of a shock to you now when I tell you I want this room as my bedroom:

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Filed under Animals, Archosaurs, Art, Events, Fossils, Free Stuff, Insects, Museum Stuff, Science, Sea Creatures

Running Ponies Declared Australia’s Best Science Blog!

running ponies

So in what was a completely unexpected result to I’m sure many (including myself. Especially myself), this little blog won the Big Blog Theory Competition by popular vote, earning it the title of Best Australian Science Blog! It’s a wonderful thing to realise that despite the liberally-applied obsenities and thinly-veiled references to the more awkward moments of my sex life, Running Ponies’ ultimate goal of getting as many people as possible excited about the peculiarities of nature and the researchers who discover them is acutally being fulfilled.

You can read my comments in the press release here (but not while I’m in the room because I’ll probably throw up or hyperventilate or something), and be sure to visit equal runners-up, Marc West’s Mr. Science Show and Capatin Skellet’s A Schooner of Science. And fellow finalist, Kylie Sturgess of PodBlack Cat fame also gets a mention for being consistently lovely.

There was also a micro-blogging/Twitter category, which Corri Baker from Adelaide won. You can/must follow her here.

Thanks so much to everyone who voted, your encouragement means an enormous amount.

As part of the prize, starting from August the 13th to the 29th I’ll be attending various events for National Science Week around Australia and acting as the “offical Science Week blogger”. I’m terrified, but excited, and hopefully you guys will enjoy it as I do Watermelon Cat.*

– bec x

* The blogging, that is, not my terror. That would be cruel.


Filed under Events, Museum Stuff, Science

That’s Just Gross, Leviathan melvillei.

leviathan eating whale

The discovery of a giant sperm whale with 40 centimetre-long teeth has shed new light on the types of predators that once terrorised Miocene waters 12 million years ago. Named Leviathan melvillei, after Herman Melvill and his formidable white whale, L. melvillei grew to between 13 and 18 metres long, about the size of a modern sperm whale, but with one important difference – those huge four-inch-wide teeth.

Prior to this find by a team of Belgian palaeontologists on the southern coast of Peru, the only known whales of this size have been suction feeders, such as baleen and sperm whales. Without any functioning teeth in their upper jaw, these whales generate a powerful flow of water to draw in their prey (usually deep-sea cephalopods) and use small, lower jaw teeth to hold and puncture them.

L. melvillei, however, with its robust jaws filled with interlocking teeth the length of prairie dogs, appears to have been a raptorial feeder which, like the modern killer whales (Orcinus orca), would hunt down large prey, inflicting deep wounds and tearing large chunks of flesh out of their bodies. The team suggests that this prey was likely to have been smaller whales.

“We think that medium-size baleen whales, rich in fat, would have been very convenient prey for Leviathan,” said Oliver Lambert, the palaeontologist who discovered the fossil. “With its three-metre-long head, very large upper and lower teeth… this represents one of the largest raptorial predators and, to our knowledge, the biggest tetropod bite ever found.”

Somewhat similarly, another recent discovery has found that the Pristionchus pacificus, a common bacteria-eating worm, will grow a new mouth and eat other worms when starved. “Environmental factors dictate the kind of mouthparts formed by roundworms,” said Ralf Sommer, Director of the Department of Evolutionary Biology at the Max Planck Institute.

If a larval P. pacificus grows up in an environment with an abundant supply of bacteria to feed on, it develops a narrow oral cavity and very small teeth-like denticles. However, if it grows up in a heavily-populated area with limited food sources, the larvae will develop a much wider mouth filled with larger, stronger “teeth”.

This effect is also triggered by one of the worms’ pheromones, which at times of high population density, exists in increased concentrations. Situations in which overpopulation is coupled with a lack of food sees the “switching on” of a particular gene in P. pacificus , causing the development of different mouthparts.

This done, the worm will bite a neighbouring worm, tearing a hole into its side to devour its insides as they come oozing out (see image below). Unfortunately for the victim, Caenorhabditis elegans – a smaller, closely related worm – it doesn’t possess the same kind of “teeth” to defend itself with.

Yeah, so I don’t know about this. I’m not one to judge, but a whale who eats other whales? Eeesh… I mean, everyone will be out to dinner somewhere, Leviathan will be late as usual because he knows no one is going to start without him because they’re all terrified he’ll sit on them, which means they’ll probably end up inhaling half a dozen cocktails each to tide themselves over while they wait.

Then finally, finally Leviathan will saunter in, but only Megalodon will have the nerve to be like, “Dude, where the shit have you been?”

“What? I don’t know, at home, oh and the supermarket. I’d completely run out of tea. And you know how I never have any tissues? Well I–”

“‘Alright whatever, let’s just order.”

Easier said than done though, because everyone will be so drunk by this stage, having downed a ridiculous amount of mojitos on very empty stomachs, that the clupeid fish will barely be able to stop giggling long enough to say anything coherent, while the giant squid will be like, “…AND THEN HE ATE IT!! What? Oh I’ll have the crab. Wait, wait, have you guys heard the one about the two sea cucumbers in the nightclub bathroom? …THOSE AREN’T CUVIERIAN TUBULES…!”

But then it’s Leviathan’s turn to order and he’ll be like, “I’ll have the baleen whale, thanks,” and all at once the entire table will go dead quiet, except for some horrified gasps and monacles tumbling from faces and smashing on the floor, and Megalodon will whisper urgently from across the table, “For Christ’s sake, you can’t order whale.”

“What? Why not?”

“Because you’re a whale.”


So? It’s perverse! There’s a word for people like you, you know.”

“But I eat whale all the time!”

“Well if I’d known that, I never would’ve invited you. Just order something else, people are starting to leave.”

The longfin mako sharks cancel their orders and head for the door.

“Nice to see you again. Sorry. Here, take a menu.”

“Fine. I guess I’ll have the octopus then.”

The giant octopus sitting three seats down from him will throw seven strawberry daiquiris in his face whilst motioning at the waiter, “Seven strawberry daiquiris please.”

The giant squid will suddenly fall off his chair mid-punchline.

“Actually, make that six.”

“But seriously, you guys,” the giant squid will be slurring as he straightens himself out. “You think this is bad, I once had drinks with a worm who told me he ate his wife for dinner because the delivery guy got stuck in traffic and he was too lazy to get off the couch.”


Links: Not Exactly Rocket Science for more on Leviathan melvillei
SV-POW! for more on why Leviathan melvillei might need a new  name already
COSMOS Online for more on Pristionchus pacificus.

Both papers were published in Nature. Access them here and here respectively.

Images courtesy of C.Letenneur and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology / Andreas Weller.

– bec


Filed under Animals, Fossils, Museum Stuff, New Species!, Science, Sea Creatures

Your Friends Aren’t Just Going To Forget You Envenomated Them, Sinornithosaurus.

According to a new paper coming from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a particular type of small feathered dromaeosaurid might have been armed with a venomous bite. The study, led by Enpu Gong, centers on an unusual 12mm-long anterior maxillary tooth from a Sinornithosaurus, a predatory raptor and distant bird-relative first discovered in 1999 in China’s Yixian Formation. Not only does this tooth seem oddly long and fang-like, but it has a thin, distinct groove running right through it from root to tip, a feature which Gong suggests functioned as a channel for venom to pass from the animal’s skull into the flesh of its prey. Gong goes on to describe the hollow pocket in the side of the face as a possible venom gland, and the pitted canal running between it and the base of the teeth as a venom collecting duct.

Comparing the Sinornithosaurus with other anterior-fanged animals such as vine snakes, Gong suggests that it would mainly hunt small birds and mammals, using its long fangs to “grab and hold” its prey and penetrate the layer of feathers or fur to deliver a 6mm-deep poisonous bite. Describing the nature of the venom he hypothesises, “The poison of Sinornithosaurus may have been similar in properties to rear-fanged snakes and helodermid lizards in that it did not kill the envenomated animal quickly but rather placed it into a rapid state of shock.”

But Gong’s claim is not without its critics. No archosaur has been definitively proven to have been venomous as yet, so to state that the Sinornithosaurus was requires some pretty powerful evidence, and not everyone is convinced these grooved fangs provide that. Tom Holtz, a palaeontologist specialising in carnivorous dinosaurs at the University of Maryland notes, “They give a number of different physical features that they interpret as signs of poison or poison delivery systems but which, in my opinion, are more easily interpreted in other types of biological contexts.”

Interpreting the unusual length of the “fangs” as possibly caused by the teeth slipping out of their sockets, Holtz suggests that the grooves could simply be the depressions found in most theropod teeth, only more pronounced in this particular specimen due to wear and tear. The longer-held belief regarding the function of these depressions relates the teeth to bayonet blades, the groove helping to relieve surface tension post-penetration, ensuring a less painful extraction. Further, Holtz states that many dinosaurs have a small cavity in their jawbone, but these have typically been interpreted as air sacs required for cooling, not venom glands. And that the area of the venom collecting canal is damaged in a couple of Sinornithosaurus fossil specimens really doesn’t help to strengthen Gong’s and co-author, David A. Burnham’s case. No one’s denying the possibility of venomous theropods, but more evidence is needed before their claim can be proven definitively.

Arguments aside, Sinornithosaurus, say you did actually have this venomous bite afterall. I’d imagine it’d be the kind of thing you could easily get carried away with, but much to your own peril, I’d wager. Like, you’ll be playing Battleships at Chirostenotes‘ house because your housemate and his girlfriend are fighting about Mario Kart (again, Sinornithosaurus) all like, “Oh my god, did I not tell you last time I wasn’t going to play with you if you’re going to do those shortcuts? No I don’t want to learn how to do them. Fuck,” when Chirostenotes will be like, “I’m going to make a sandwich. If you cheat when I’m gone I’ll totally know.”

“But it’s like almost midnight…”

“Just because you can’t have carbs before bedtime…”

So you’ll sneak a look a his side anyway, because he pretty much just called you fat but you can’t say anything because you’re a guy and you don’t want to look like an idiot. But instead of, you know, playing it smart and littering your fake guesses with a few decoys so it’s not completely obvious that you’re a massive cheat, you go straight for Chirostenotes’ aircraft carrier the moment he gets back, and he’ll be like, “Oh my god, you totally cheated,” his mouth full of bread and some kind of tiny lizard meat.

“No I didn’t.”

“Yeah right. Hey what are you– hey! Heeey!”

“Oh. Sorry, I thought that was your sandwich.”

“Umm no, that was my leg. Jesus! Wait, you’re leaving?”

And before he can point out that if you bring a bottle of wine to someone’s house, you’re not really supposed to take the leftovers home with you, he’ll go into shock, and you’ll have a clean getaway.

But the only lesson you’ll learn from this whole experience, Sinornithosaurus, is how easy it is to get out of a shitty situation by, you know, poisoning your friends. Like, you’ll be at your girlfriend’s house and she’ll try on this hideous new dress she just bought and she’ll be like, “Does this make me look fat?” and it will, Sinornithosaurus, so you’ll be like, “Hey is that a cheesecake behind you?”

“What?” Ow!”

Your boss will ask you what the hell kind of report was that you just submitted (no kind, Sinornithosaurus) so you’ll bite him and take the rest of the day off. You won’t have any change for the bus and the bus driver will give you this look like, “Whatever, man,” when you try to hand over a fifty so you’ll bite him and then wait for the next bus. But while you might think this is all pretty awesome, remember, Sinornithosaurus, that it is only temporary. You’ll be at some party with your new girlfriend and she’ll be all pissy because you picked her up before she was done getting ready and then your ex-girlfriend will turn up unexpectedly all, “I don’t want to get into a whole thing with you here, but I don’t think you’re supposed to poison your girlfriend and then replace her two days later without so much as a phone call, but whatever.” And then your current girlfriend will get even more pissy because she didn’t even know you had an ex-girlfriend, let alone a fat one, and they’ll end up making friends just to spite you and you’ll end up bitter and alone. Plus your boss will almost definitely fire you when you attempt to turn up on Monday morning and he’s unlikely to respond too kindly to any requests for a reference or free stationery. Hardly seems worth it now does it, Sinornithosaurus?

* Fig. 1 by Emily Willoughby. Buy the print here. Figs. 2 and 3 from original study credited to David A. Burnham.

For more info: Dinosaur Tracking Blog // Not Exactly Rocket Science // Original Paper published by PNAS

– bec


Filed under Archosaurs, Fossils, Museum Stuff, Science

Oh My God, Whoever Invited the Tyrannosaurs Over is in SO MUCH TROUBLE…

Unusual lesions and puncture marks found on tyrannosaurid skulls have had a major impact on our understanding of the lives of the tyrannosaurs, as detailed by two recent studies coming out of the US. In a paper published in this month’s Palaios, a team from the Northern Illinois University and the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford have focussed their attention on “Jane,” a 7-metre-long Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton with a slightly asymmetrical snout and four partially-healed oblong lesions along the left side of its skull. Discovered in 2001 in the Hell Creek Formation, Montana, Jane could be evidence of intraspecific aggression amongst juvenile tyrannosaurs, most likely competing for dominance, territory, or perhaps resources.

How the team came to this assumption was by comparing the positioning and orientation of the lesions along Jane’s nasal and maxilla regions to the jaw shape of the only fossil vertebrates found in the Hell Creek Formation that would have been large enough to inflict such wounds – theropods and crocodilians. They found that the size, shape, and spacing of juvenile theropod teeth corresponded convincingly to the positioning of Jane’s lesions, unlike those of a crocodilian jaw (see pic below). Evidence of face-biting is not uncommon in the tyrannosaurid fossil record, but this is the first indication that this kind of behaviour was not just restricted to fully-matured adults. As Jane’s age has been estimated at 12-years-old, two years prior to the age of sexual maturity for the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the possibility that this was strictly part of courtship-related behaviour has been ruled out.

Further, in their examination of Jane’s puncture marks, the team found indications of partial healing through bone repair, which suggests that this face-biting was not typically fatal, however could cause a slight warping of the muzzle as it remodelled itself. “Jane has what we call a boxer’s nose,” Joe Peterson, lead author of the study told Science Daily. “Her snout bends slightly to the left. It was probably broken and healed back crooked.”

But if all this talk of tyrannosaurid face sores leaves you with a distinct feeling of déjà vu, Peterson is careful to point out that Jane’s are a different type of lesion to those found on the famous 13-metre-long Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil, nicknamed “Sue,” which have recently been attributed to a parasitic infection (see pic above). “The parasite that has been described causes lesions on the lower jaw,” he notes. “With Jane, the lesions are on the actual face and are not the same type of structures we see on Sue.”

The other kind of face lesions which appear on many tyrannosaurid specimens, including Sue, indicates that the tyrannosaurs faced a far more serious threat than aggressive, face-biting peers. In a recent study published in PLoS One, Ewan Wolff from the University of Wisconsin describes a parasitic infection which causes severe erosion of the jaw bone and ulceration of the mouth and oesophagus, ultimately leading to death by starvation. Of the 61 tyrannosaurid specimens Wolff examined, 15% of them have the tell-tale signs of this infection – several smooth-edged pits in the lower jaw bone – as opposed to the more rough-edged bite marks found in Jane’s skull. However, in many of the specimens examined both kinds of lesions are present, suggesting that the infection could have been transmitted through intraspecific face-biting in much the same way as the cancer currently threatening to drive Tasmanian devils to extinction.

What Wolff also found is that the lesions in the jaw bones of these tyrannosaurid specimens are remarkably similar to those found in the beaks of modern birds such as turkeys, chickens and pigeons which have been infected by a protozoan called Trichomonas gallinae. These modern birds can pass trichomonosis on by simply touching each other on the beak, which can lead to a severe ulceration of the upper digestive system and then starvation. This shared affliction is yet further evidence of how closely related birds are to their dinosaur ancestors.

So all of this fighting and infection pretty much means the Tyrannosaurus Rex is the grossest dinosaur ever and woe betide anyone who invites one or more of them into their house to hang. Like one aftermoon Pteranodon would be over at Euhelopus’ house having Fruitloops and expensive dessert wine because Euhelopus’ parents are away for the weekend and Pteranodon is all like, “Dude. I cannot believe you didn’t tell me your parents were going away. What’s the fucking matter with you? We have got to have a party.”

And Euhelopus is like, “I guess I just forgot. Yeah, we could have a few people over. So long as they mind the carpet and shit.”

And with that Pteranodon goes a bit nuts and invites half the year (the cool half) to a party at Euhelopus’ place. Then they go to the bottle shop with Euhelopus’ little brother and their fake ID’s to pick up some Jager, (but Euhelopus’ little brother has to wait in the gift shop next door because he’s too little to have a fake ID) and Pteranodon’s all, “He doesn’t expect to come, does he?” expressing concern that he might spread his tweenaged uncoolness everywhere and make them look uncool by association. Euhelopus is like, “Well yeah, we can’t kick him out of the house, plus we have to keep him happy or he’ll call mum.”

“Fuck that. I’ve got an idea.”

So they sit Euhelopus‘ little brother down and Pteranodon’s all like, “So we’ve got a special job for you at the party. We need you to wait at the front door and make sure no one who isn’t on the list comes in. Sound good?”

“I guess.”

“Cool. And just remember one thing – it’s very important that you don’t let the Tyrannosaurus Rex twins in.”

“Why not?”

“Because they have gross skin problems and they’re always fighting. They’re fucked. If you have to choose between the Tyrannosaurus Rex twins and a homeless leper, we’d rather you choose the leper. But obviously don’t, because they’re fucked too.”

“Don’t swear in front of my brother.”


So a few hours into the party and Euhelopus has already gotten properly drunk and is slurring to the Diplodocus about assignments or something in the kitchen, while Pteranodon has disappeared altogether (although someone said they thought they saw him sneaking off to the park with some lady Pterodactyl under his wing). Suddenly Euhelopus’ little brother runs into the kitchen all panicky like, “Erm, promise you wont be mad…?”

And Euhelopus is all, “Ugh. Can’t speak. Not mad. I think I threw up in mum and dad’s shower.”

“In that case… I accidentally let the twins in and… Hey are those two girls making out? They need more alcohol. You’re not going to finish this, are you? Cool.”

Lucky for his little brother, Euhelopus is too drunk to care and/or comprehend, and manages to wander out onto the front lawn to pass out instead, but not before Pteranodon saunters over all like, “Dude.”

“Ugh… Hey where’s the girl?”

“She needed to pee, so I walked her to the bathroom, but then she passed out.”


“Nah it’s cool. She let me touch her boobs first.”


“Yeah. Erm, you know your brother let the Tyrannosaurus Rex twins in, right? Euhelopus? The twins…? Euhelopus..?”

Meanwhile the twins are stomping around the largely deserted living room with a bag of wine grasped in each little hand, taking generous gulps before spitting it out on the walls and carpet because it hurts too much to swallow.  Then one of them is like, “Whoa, your face herpes looks fully gross in this light.”

And the other one responds, all like, “Bullshit, it’s not face herpes and you know it. Plus yours is way worse anyway. Which is just as well because it takes the focus away from your ugly.”

“Ha. I’ll show you ugly!” And with that an all-out face-biting brawl errupts, their tails swinging violently into Euhelopus‘ mum’s vases, the Diplodocus’ bottle of Jack, and Euhelopus‘ little brother’s fish tank, sweeping them all onto the floor in a sharp, soggy, and occasionally twitching mess that would likely result in an enormous stained patch of carpet no one could walk on in bare feet for months.

At that moment Euhelopus‘ parents return home early and start furiously kicking everyone out, just as Pteranodon is stumbling into the loungeroom with a lady Pterodactyl (a different one) under his wing all like, “I can’t believe you just showed me your… Shit.”

Pteranodon, OH MY GOD, who let tyrannosaurs in our house, why is the carpet covered in wine and goldfish, and did someone give our budgie face herpes?!”

PLoS One (open access) // Palaios // Second illustration by Erica Lyn Schmidt.

– bec

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Filed under Archosaurs, Fossils, Museum Stuff, Science

You Guys, You’re Going To Give Hydrolagus melanophasma A Complex!

ghost-shark-new-species Hydrolagus melanophasma

So you’ve probably already heard about it a billion times over, but yes, a team of researchers from the Pacific Shark Research Center and the California Academy of Sciences have identified a new ghost shark, publishing their findings in the September issue of Zootaxa. Named Hydrolagus melanophasma, (Hydrolagus the Latin term for ‘water rabbit’ and melanophasma the Latin term for ‘black ghost’) this Eastern Pacific black ghost shark had actually already been discovered as far back as 1947, as the preserved specimens kept at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute would indicate, but it wasn’t until a live individual was filmed off the coast of Southern California using the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute ROV and compared to the museum specimens that the researchers realised the species had never been formerly identified.

This ghost shark, (which is actually not a shark but a cartilaginous type of fish called a chimaera, that as a group branched off from the shark lineage around 400 million years ago) has been generating a lot of attention because of its unique appearance and curious appendages. As is characteristic to male chimaeras, the large, blackish-purple Hydrolagus melanophasma has what scientists speculate are specific types of sex organs, or ‘tenacula,’ sprouting from its forehead, near its pelvis, and in front of its pelvic fins, which essentially look like little clubs covered with spikes. But while it has been suggested that these organs are used by the chimaera to assist with mating, their function is actually quite different from that of the penis, in that they are probably used by the male to grip on to the female, the pelvic tenacula acting as a funnel for the sperm as it is transferred to the female.

So of course while this whole “sex organ in the face” thing is pretty fascinating, I’m not so sure it’s particularly appropriate or sensitive to the Hydrolagus melanophasma’s feelings to be calling it “freaky” and “bizarre” all the time and making jokes of a sexual nature at his expense, especially since we’ve really only just met. And besides, I’m willing to bet that the Hydrolagus melanophasma has already had his fair share of ridicule, having grown up around a whole lot of sea creatures who don’t have sex organs in their faces, because, you know, kids can be pretty cruel about that kind of stuff.

It probably started with a young Hydrolagus melanophasma having an awesome time playing Brandings or something in front of the spiny dogfish’s cave with a bunch of other primary school sea creatures. Then just when the umbrella crab is about to peg a rather large anemone kinda hard at him, the Hydrolagus melanophasma’s sex organ will accidentally start clasping idly at nothing in particular and the umbrella crab will be all, “Eww! Hydrolagus melanophasma has aliens coming out of his face! RUN!!” And poor Hydrolagus melanophasma will be super-embarrassed and confused, and will try hiding with a couple of wolf eels behind a sunken oil drum before getting squealed at and shoved away, because of his “gross alien germs,” and such.

So the Hydrolagus melanophasma will go home to ask his parents if he really does have aliens coming out of his face, and Mum and Dad Hydrolagus melanophasma will briefly whisper something to each other, coming to the conclusion that he’s probably old enough to have “The Talk.” So they’ll sit him down after dinner, mention something about genitals and love, and then inexplicably start blowing whatever the fish version of a condom is up like a balloon. The young Hydrolagus melanophasma will ask what that was supposed to teach him about responsible reproduction, but his dad will tell him not to be smart and The Talk’s over so go watch some cartoons or something.

But soon enough the kids at school will also work out what his face aliens actually are, and this will unfortunately coincide with the exact moment that they discover the joy of the “comeback phrase.” The Hydrolagus melanophasma would be in the canteen line quietly discussing an upcoming chemistry exam with one of the sleeper sharks in his class, and how that video of atoms making out on the dance floor at a disco probably wasn’t as much help as it should have been because instead of learning anything important he spent the whole time wondering how the cartoon was going to successfully carry the metaphor all the way to covalent bonding if the atoms didn’t actually have any genitals, when a heckler from the hungry throng will be all, “Your FACE is a genital!!” And much to the Hydrolagus melanophasma’s mortification, the rest of the sea creatures in the queue will burst into fits of cruel laughter and somebody else will add, “That’s what she said!!” and “I’ll show YOU my genitals!!”

And the Hydrolagus melanophasma will be all, “Whatever, dickheads,” but this will only make the raucous a billion times worse as everyone struggles for enough breath to be the first to manage a spirited, “I know you are, but what am I?!”

The increasingly upset and frustrated Hydrolagus melanophasma will at this stage probably lose it, and start informing everyone that it’s not even a penis, it’s just a clasper, but he won’t make it much further than that before someone cuts in with another, “That’s what she said!!”

And the first thing we all do when we find him is call him a freak. Nice one, guys. Way to make a positive first impression. Jesus.

Neurotopia // Original paper (by subscription)

– bec

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