Posts Tagged ‘shell’

The Post – Odd Goings-On in the Fiddler Tank – Is Scarlett Acting Pregnant Again?

March 16, 2008

When I first I walked by the fiddler tank yesterday morning, I was sleepy and oblivious. Then I did a double-take. Sitting at the front of the tank was the discarded molted shell of somebody. On closer examination, and with my husband’s consultation too, we both agreed it was Melanie Hamilton’s discard. That means she is at the moment most likely to get pregnant if Admiral Byrd invites her in.

At the same time we noticed that Scarlett O’Hara was sitting on top of the water filter….again. The last time she did that, we noticed shortly afterward that she was pregnant.

Admiral Byrd of course, was marching up and down the tank, claw arm held high, and waving.

To continue – Scarlett O’Hara spent the entire day and evening yesterday, on top of the water filter. She is still there this morning. She has never done that before or since, except when she was pregnant. I know she is still alive because she is “blowing bubbles.” Crabs foam sometimes when they’re out of water, to moisten their gills.

Even when I freaked out Admiral Byrd yesterday, and scared Melanie Hamilton out of her live rock because I was cleaning the tank and accidentally bumped the live rock, Scarlett O’Hara didn’t leave the filter perch. She just moved down into the filter for a bit, then climbed back up. Admiral Byrd meanwhile kept trying to climb the heater power cord up to the top of the filter to be near her, but he couldn’t quite do it with that large claw.

Yesterday afternoon we noticed that Melanie Hamilton remained outside the live rock, sitting there on the gravel serenely watching Admiral Byrd flex his claw. Then she spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in his cave lair. This morning she was resting just outside his lair, picking algae off the rock. He was napping inside.

With any luck, we can try the larvae thing again somtime soon?

I am in the middle of re-establishing the nursery tank. I had emptied everything from the original set-up, cleaned out the tank, put down the one inch or so of the calcium-releasing sand, and added the water. Now I did forget to rinse the sand out, so the tank water was cloudy at first, but it has settle out by now. I’m not sure how one effectively rinses sand out anyway without half of it going down the drain. I will say the white sand really makes the inside of the tank bright when the light is on. If we get babies again, it should be much easier to see them in such a bright tank.

I couldn’t decide whether to make the 3 gallons of water I added marine or brackish. I guess I should start brackish because first we’ll have to move the mom, whichever one of them it is, from their tank, which is brackish into this one. I wouldn’t want to shock them. Right now the tank is on the “marine side” of brackish. I’ll adjust the salinity with a bit more water shortly.

The live rock is back in the tank hopefully doing its thing to establish the nitrogen cycle. Both the air filter AND the bubbler are running and so hopefullly the tank environment will establish itself as quickly as possible. Rather than replace the old water filter cartridge and lose whatever nitrogen-fixing bacteria that had started to thrive in it, I left everything in place and returned it to the tank.

An interesting about the old water in that tank. I tested it before I emptied it out just to see if the nitrite levels ever came down. They read zero, and the nitrates were in the “okay” zone. I guess once I stopped using the live phytoplankton and let the water filter run for a few days, that was what it needed. So the phytoplankton was most likely the culprit in the high nitrites. In any event, I dumped the old water and just started with fresh sea/brackish water all over again.

One thing – that Reef Calcium product that I’d hoped would raise the alkalinity but not raise the pH, when added to half strength Instant Ocean… maybe it didn’t raise the pH but it didn’t solve the problem of the pH being too high from the Instant Ocean even when I used that at half strength. So I still had to use a pH lowering solution and this morning it is about 8.0 vs 8.4 that it was yesterday. So that’s perfect . At least though, the Reef Calcium did raise the alkalinity.

I will keep you all posted on any news from the adult tank. Keeping good thoughts for a new crop of larvae babies. Stay tuned.

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The Post: Under the Pier – Animal R&D cont.

March 13, 2008

Even though I’d identified my first two main characters, I didn’t know much about them. On top of that, I still needed a third main animal character, and that didn’t even touch the question of who else inhabited this world I was trying to show.

I started doing simple web searches on hermit crab, symbionts, snail fur hydroid, Narragansett Bay flora and fauna, New England ocean divisions. As Robert Frost always said, way leads on to way, so web site leads to web site. In short order I was finding more info than I knew what to do with. I had to organize it, figure out just what was relevant, and in some cases, figure out whether the info I was finding was even correct. Just because it’s on a website…or even in a book, doesn’t make it gospel. My rule of thumb was to try and find that same information in at least 2 or 3 other places, including books if possible, before accepting it.

I found that animal names were a large problem. Names could drive you out of your mind. A sheepshead fish (Archosargus probatocephalus) and a sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus variegatus) are two very different fish even though they are both often just called “sheepshead”. A mud dog whelk is also called an eastern mudsnail, so when I saw the name “New England dog whelk” I figured they were the same. Apparently, though, they aren’t. The mud dog whelk/eastern mudsnail is Nassarius obsoletus, and the New England dog whelk (among other names) is Nassarius trivittatus. So using Latin names to verify who was who, really became a necessity. However, taxonomists can play a bit of havoc with Latin names, too. These 2 guys have a different genus names in different sources. In some articles the genus name was Nassarius and in others it was Ilyanassa. Needless to say, a real pain.

Another problem was “location.” I began collecting information on all the plants and animals so I could “populate” my fictitious Narragansett Bay story location. Narragansett Bay may be in Rhode Island which is New England, but “New England” isn’t always just New England. There’s the Gulf of Maine, Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts Bay, Georges Bank, Cape Cod Bay, Stellwagon Bank, Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay…..all of which may vary in what animals and plants live there. Nothing is EVER simple.

In reality, New England actually has different zones of animals often separated right about the level of Cape Cod. There are a couple of large currents operating off the Eastern US coast. Most people are familiar with the Gulf Stream – warm water that flows westward from Africa as the North Equatorial Current, circulates through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, then heads north until about the level of Cape Cod. At that point the warmer waters turn eastward as the North Atlantic Drift and head toward the British Isles.

Coming down from the north is a cold current moving counterclockwise past Greenland, then south along the US coast and is known as the Labrador current. A branch of that known as the Maine current brings cold water down along Maine, New Hampshire and into Massachusetts Bay north of Cape Cod.

So it appears Cape Cod is the meeting spot for the cold northern currents and the warmer southern Gulf Current. From the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Sea Creatures:

“This makes Cape Cod a so-called zoogeographic barrier, a region of great interest and diverse fauna, whose water temperatures differ by as much as 10 degrees F between it’s north and south shores. Many northern cold water species range only as far south as Cape Cod, and many southern species range only as far north as its southern shore.”

So even though the Atlantic Wolffish is found in the Gulf of Maine and Maine and Rhode Island are both in New England, odds are the wolfish is an unlikely inhabitant of Narragansett Bay. In fact some of the fish in Narragansett Bay probably have more in common with ones off Cape Hatteras than Cape Cod. Another example of this – sea cucumbers. The National Audubon Guide said the orange-footed sea cucumber is the largest and most conspicuous sea cucumber in New England, BUT more than one source said it’s from the Arctic to Cape Cod. From Cape Cod south, it’s the Hairy Sea Cucumber.

Even locally within a particular area, there are differences. Just because some fish or creature lives in Narragansett Bay doesn’t mean you’ll find it right by the story’s pier. Some are strictly offshore water creatures. You can’t put them in shallow coastal zones. Some prefer sandy bottoms vs. gravel or mud. Some are bottom dwellers, or live attached to pilings or rocks and are not found floating in the sunny surface water. And of course, season: some are only present in December, but not June. I really wanted to include the Harbor Seals in my story, but they are only there in the cold months. So, scratch Harbor Seals

From all of this, I drew up a long list of fish, algae, plants, birds, and invertebrates that fit ONLY in Narragansett Bay, in the right location, in the right season. There were a few exceptions to the rules – the occasional bird who “never is here in June, only December, but occasionally, it’s there in June anyway.” I included those only if I had a research paper, article, or interview with some researcher that documented that nature doesn’t always follow the rules.

Armed with this list, I began writing up animal character biographies. They still included “flaws, strengths, driving needs, hopes,” but also included topics like:

-What problems do they have in finding food and living space?
-Who do they eat or who eats them?
-Do they have parasites, symbionts, or freeloaders who don’t harm or help them?
-Where are they most likely to be found?
-Do they have any odd quirks, interesting behaviors, unusual qualities?
-How likely are they to interact positively or negatively with my hermit crab protagonist or be present in his world?

I started with books, mostly nature guides like the National Audubon Guides to Invertebrates, Birds, Fishes, Mammals, and New England, that had detailed descriptions, photos, and answers to some of these questions. Another great book was by Save the Bay, The Uncommon Guide to Common Life in Narragansett Bay. Also I found some websites helpful. One in particular was the Narragansett Bay Biota Gallery that covered all categories of life above and below the bay’s waters, and included pictures.

I made an index card for each animal, plant, algae, bird, fish, whoever, that conceivably could end up in the pages of my book. On the front of the card I wrote their common name or names and the Latin scientific name. On the reverse, I logged some key facts, and what books and page numbers in those books had additional info. The index cards were color-coded based on whether they were invertebrates, fish, algae, plants, mammals.

Once I’d collected all of this information, I could then spot the holes – the unanswered questions. That’s where Google searches helped. Also, emailing places like the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NOAA’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, and the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center provided actual researcher names and contact information so I could talk to real human beings to get the straight information I was missing.

There are many researchers I will need to thank in a later post, but one in particular provided me with such a treasure trove of information on hermit crabs, I have to thank him here as well. Dr. Jason D. Williams of Hofstra University, provided me with a number of research papers on hermit crabs, including information on their behavior, shell interests, locations, etc. One paper in particular was invaluable: “Symbionts of the hermit crab Pagurus longicarpus Say, 1817: New observations from New Jersey waters and a review of all known relationships.” [Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 114(3):624-639, 9 October 2001] THIS is the paper that told me all I wanted to know about who Carpus would have on his shell, in his shell, crawling on his gills, and even inside his body. From this paper, I got…Crepid.

Crepid is short for Crepidula cf. plana, a slippersnail. He sits right inside the opening to Carpus’s shell. As such, he too is rather immobile, like Hydrac. He does not have stinging tentacles, teeth, or claws. And, he takes up space, giving Carpus less room to move around in his own shell. At first glance, Crepid the slippersnail seems totally useless, dead weight. But again, remember: conflict potential. How does Carpus feel about hauling around yet another useless animal on his shell? A little tension there? And what about the defensive and inferior-feeling Hydrac? There’s a good chance he would be just thrilled to constantly put down this “slug.” That means Hydrac and Crepid, in addition to being extra weight and not very useful, are now bickering all the time. It’s enough to drive a hermit crab out of his tiny little mind.

Oh, and for those sticklers for detail out there who say that this species of slippersnail doesn’t fit inside the opening of a periwinkle shell…yes, I have more than one source that documents that it does TOO fit. So there!

The last item about the animal world was “rules of the world.” As I mentioned earlier – nobody is running around in clothes and shoes, nobody flies any planes or pilots submarines, and nobody is called “Suzy Squid” or “Peter Periwinkle.” As much as possible, I wanted the creatures to look and be where they would be underwater. I wanted them to eat rotting scallops or live seaweed, not hamburgers, and I wanted their adventures and actions to be what they would experience in the ocean. In fact, the traumas and problems the main characters encounter include not only predators, but pollution, fishing trawlers, over-fishing, aquaculture, and environmental restoration.

I tried not to have many of them talk as talking animals can be a problem if not done well. However, I did take liberties with the three main characters, Carpus, Hydrac, and Crepid. To have an adventure, they had to talk and think, act, interact, argue, freak out, etc. I am still evaluating how satisfied I am with that effect, but there is precedence for it in books like Charlotte’s Web, and more recent ones like Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, and Erin Hunter’s series on battling cat clans, Warriors.

I gave the three main characters, or at least the protagonist, Carpus, some knowledge of humans. They recognize things like ships, human refuse on the sea bottom, anchors, boards, and humans – male, female, boy, girl. He can recognize a few of their “sounds” – some simple words like ship, boat, etc., and he finds humans unpredictable, ghastly, annoying, and best avoided. I tried to give these skills a logical explanation. In the course of his normal life, Carpus has spent a lot of time along docks and piers, around coastal towns, and hence humans. All three characters, being the recipient of our pollution, are aware of “foreign objects…human objects” in their world.

Readers might be willing to accept these rules – the willing suspension of disbelief – if you can make a logical case for them and you are consistent with following them. If you have no plausible explanation or you keep deviating from your world’s rules, your reader is going to get fed up and put the book down. Every time you break your own story rule, it pulls the reader out of the story experience and makes the reader doubt that you can actually tell a good story.

I expect by now you are convinced I have no life. Maybe that’s true. After all, why go to all this trouble to do this much research AND document Latin names? Because descriptions, or locations, or actions, who eats what or what eats them, where they live, eat, mate, sleep are details that give your characters the authority of their truth. Get their details right and your characters ring true. Furthermore, you get the trust and gratitude of your reader.

Does it matter to have the trust of your reader? Yes. Especially if your reader happens to just LOVE sea creatures or is a science nut and actually knows these details. The minute they find something incorrect, they are now upset with the author. In fact, they have now lost faith in the author to get ANY details correct. Those readers look at it as “if they got this wrong, what else is messed up?” Their pleasure in your book is now gone, they’ve been pulled out of the emotions of being in your story world and now their whole reading experience might become a proofreading quest to find all your other errors and tell everyone else what a piece of garbage your book is. In short, you’ve lost that reader and possibly many others.

The alternative is not to use details, but then you end up with something like, “the crab wandered past a snail who was being stalked by a big fish who got eaten by some kind of bird…in the ocean.”

The bottom line is that some stories have a lot of technical detail and some don’t. If you’re going to have technical details in the story, then resign yourself to a lot of research and do your best to get details right. You may not be perfect, but you want to be close because the flip side of all this is, satisfy a reader with accurate details and they believe in your world. And you. You’ll have that reader for life. They will love you, venerate you, swear by you, possibly even quote you when they’re old enough to write research papers. Think I’m joking?

That same Dr. Williams from Hofstra who is an expert on hermit crabs and gave me all kinds of research papers, also suggested I find an old children’s picture book from 1957 called, Pagoo, by Holling Clancy Holling. It was out of print at one point (though I found an old copy), but this marine biology researcher still suggested it because of the accuracy of its details. I also noticed it was re-issued in 1990 and is still available on Amazon.

So, if you’re going to write a story with lots of creatures and such, get your facts straight or write a different story.

In that vein, as a review for myself as I prepare to do revision number three and put in all those telling sensory details, I will be starting a new post category on my blog: Creature Features. Each post will profile one of the creatures or algae from my story and include links to pictures and accurate details. Stay tuned for that.

The next post in the Under the Pier series will be: Research Part IV – Setting as Character

The Post – Admiral Byrd was NOT Worshipping Me or The Aquarium Light

February 11, 2008

Over the last 2 days my husband noticed that Admiral Byrd has been spending a LOT of time, meaning almost ALL of his time, up on top of the gravel hill or the decorative cave rock, or the live rock, or just about anywhere else in the tank, waving his claw. He looked so funny up on the cave rock. He seemed to be staring up at the aquarium tank light, waving his claw as if paying homage to a god. We figured either he held the aquarium light or my hand in high esteem.

My husband has joked that he thinks the crabs go inside the live rock so much because it’s actually their holy site. He thinks they’ve cobbled together a crude altar made of gravel and on the altar they’ve fashioned a shrimp pellet image of their deity, the hand that feeds them . . . basically mine. As he put it, imagine that every day a hand comes down out of the sky and places steak or shrimp or pancakes in front of us. That’s what it must be like every time my hand drops algae or shrimp pellets near them.

In any event we weren’t sure why Admiral Byrd decided to spend an entire day paying homage to me or the light. Why all of the sudden? There’s been nothing new going on in the tank otherwise, all three crabs have been actually pretty placid, out and about feeding, and generally happy. Was this some sort of designated crab “Holy Day” that just happens to coincide with Lent?

As it turns out, alas, neither the aquarium light nor my hand are the object of Admiral Byrd’s devotions. Melanie Hamilton is.

From the Fiddler Crab page on the Chesapeake Bay Program’s bay restoration site:

“When looking for a mate, he stands near the edge of the burrow, often alongside a string of other males and their (similarly well-maintained) burrows, while the females, returning from foraging, walk past. The male waves his large fiddler claw until he attracts the attention of an interested female, who then stares at him for a short period.. The male resumes his claw-waving, and if the female remains receptive, the male runs toward her, then runs back to his burrow, and repeats this motion several times until she either moves on or follows him to the burrow. ”

Apparently, mating behaviors take place not just when the female forages, but also when she molts. I happened to notice this pale, upside down body lying under the water filter this morning and immediately my heart hurt. I thought “Oh no! Melanie Hamilton died!” But not so. Looking closer, I saw that it was the pale ghost of Melanie Hamilton. It was that eerie translucent white, like Scarlett O’Hara’s was, though much more petite given that Melanie Hamilton is so dainty. Melanie Hamilton sat right behind it. I would have gotten pictures for this blog but she had tucked herself and her tiny ghost so far under the water filter that I could not get a shot. If only I had fiber optic cable, maybe I could get footage! I have concluded that the fiddler crabs have designated the “under the water filter space” as the “molting place.” All 3 have used it now. I think it has enough stretching room to shrug off the old shell, but is sheltered enough to keep everyone else away while their new shell hardens.

Admiral Byrd of course, was well aware of events in the tank. He was standing just a few inches from the water filter hoping to catch her eye. Alas, while Admiral Byrd is a true romantic and his efforts were truly heroic – I mean he has to be exhausted after almost 24-hours straight claw-waving – Melanie Hamilton is having none of it. She has turned her back on him and remains secluded under the water filter.

But anyway, the mystery is solved. Admiral Byrd doesn’t give a darn about the tank light or the hand that feeds him. He apparently can sense the approach of “molting” and was doing the crab Valentine’s Day equivalent of serenading his lady.

Sorry no pictures, though. I told my husband if he ever decides to spend money on expensive jewelry or clothes for me, I would prefer one of those borescopes like they use for colonoscopies. That would work GREAT in the tank for closeups of everybody! 🙂

Coming up this week:

Now that you’ve gotten to know me a bit – a cross between sea life maniac and soulful – I’ll start to introduce some of the projects I’m working on. I’ll share what I’ve done, what I’m doing and where I see myself going. Children’s writer and illustrator, Uri Shulevitz, described three stages of a writer’s development at a conference about 12 years ago. I’ve kept them as a kind of road map in my development and will use them to describe what I’m doing.

Also to come, a Writer’s bio page of what I’ve already written.

Happy Monday!

The Post – Scarlett O’Hara and her molted ghost

January 31, 2008

fiddler-crabs-242.jpgfiddler-crabs-252.jpgfiddler-crabs-254.jpgfiddler-crabs-287.jpg

Well, I’ve been promising pictures of the fiddler family members so let’s start with Scarlett O’Hara and her recent molt.

The first picture shows her just after she molted, climbing down the side of the water filter. I love how they can have their eyestalks going in two directions as they move about. If you look closely, the right eyestalk is vertical, while the left one is scanning in a horizontal direction. Off to the right in the picture, her whitish “ghost” sits, discarded. With the water currents waving the legs and claws back and forth, the discarded shell looked eerily alive.

The second one shows her nestled safely under the water filter and behind her old self (fuzzy part in front), where she rested for some time. It is not unusual for newly molted crabs to hide. Their new shells are soft at this point and they feel vulnerable. So they hide to give themselves protection as their new shell hardens.

The third picture though a bit dark, gives you a close-up view of the ghost version. You can see the empty leg, claw and eyestalk casings. I will add that the “ghost of Scarlett O’Hara” no longer exists. Admiral Byrd ate it. Perhaps he is getting ready to molt. Crabs often eat discarded shells to reclaim the calcium the shells contain.

Last picture shows Scarlett O’Hara when she finally emerged from under the water filter. Still a bit tentative, she sought shelter under an overhang on the Live Rock.

These were all from Saturday, the 26th. Today she was back to her old self, running around the tank and eating. Maybe I can get a lighter picture of her now that she’s out and about. I need to work on “lighting” issues for these, but still, not bad considering no flash and long exposure times.

Soon to come, Admiral Byrd and Melanie Hamilton!!!

The Post – EXTRA! Scarlett O’Hara molted!

January 26, 2008

This warrants a quick extra post today….NOW I understand why Scarlett O’Hara spent almost 10 days in the Live Rock – she must have been preparing to molt. I don’t know if she stayed in the Live Rock cavity because she felt vulnerable, or because being near it probably gave her extra calcium (it leaches out of the rock into the water), and she needed extra calcium for the new shell she was creating under her old one.

I assumed she must have molted inside the rock, though given her size it had to be tight quarters. I also wondered why if she was back to her old self, she spent the last 24 hours hiding under the water filter and not eating. Neither thing is like her at all. She generally does not hide, and she ALWAYS eats.

Anyway, I came in carrying groceries and my husband said to me “You are going to want to see this.” We both moved quietly and carefully to the side of the tank. There, underneath the filter sat TWO perfect Scarlett O’Haras – the real one with her new shell, and the “ghost” one…a perfect shell of her old body just sitting there underneath her.

SO!! We have successfully seen one of our crab children molt. How exciting!