Posts Tagged ‘shells’

The Post – Under the Pier – Research Part III: Animal R&D

March 11, 2008

For the animal side of the story, a lot of what I said about the human characters applies here. You have to decide on a protagonist, then add in one or two sidekicks and some secondary and background characters. They need personalities, backstory, lives, struggles, flaws and strengths – essentially character bios. Before I could start that process though, I had to figure out who were my main characters.

Unless your human world has people flying on magic carpets or walking on water, the rules of your characters’ behavior are pretty much established by real life. With animals, it needs to be more defined. I wanted to stay as close to reality as possible, though I was going to have the characters talk and think. Exactly what the boundaries would be for their behavior would be defined as I got more into the story.

When I initially started mapping out the story several years ago, I wanted a hermit crab with an anemone on his shell. In fact, I believe the early iterations of this book had that. I’d read that anemones and hermit crabs have a symbiotic relationship. The hermit crab carries the anemone around, thus assuring the anemone mobility and a steady food supply. The colorful, highly visible anemone offers the hermit crab some protection from predators that prefer to avoid the anemone’s stinging tentacles.

At first glance, it seemed like the perfect partnership, an underwater Batman and Robin, and I figured I was well on my way to having two of my three main animal characters. I’d even found out which anemone prefers to live on hermit crab shells: the Tricolor Anemone, alias Calliactis tricolor. (In the next post – Animal R&D cont. – I’ll share why I bother with the Latin names). In any event, I thought I was all set. Then, reality, or rather, geography, crashed in.

My story is set in New England, specifically, in the waters of Narragansett Bay. Hermit crabs with the Tricolor anemones on their shells live in the waters from North Carolina to Mexico…warmer waters.

No problem. I figured I just needed to look at the hermit crabs in New England and find out which ones had anemones on their shells, and which anemone it was. The answer to both: none. Hermit crabs in New England do not carry any anemones around on their shells. In fact, in the cold New England waters, there aren’t as many anemones even on the sea floor.

Well that shot a hole in my approach to animal character connections. My best idea for a duo against the threats of the deep and they didn’t live in New England. The closest I could come to an anemone riding a hermit crab shell in New England was something called a “snail fur hydroid.” It lacks the flash and intimidation factor of the Tricolor anemone. It’s more like this tiny lackluster matt of tentacles and polyps. In terms of effect, it’s kind of like having an earthworm when you hoped for a rattlesnake.

I was upset at first but then realized my good fortune. How much drama do you have between two characters who work well together, probably get along, and contribute pretty equally to their mutual success? Now consider being a hermit crab hauling around a thin fuzzy matt of tiny polyps – no bright colors, no flashy poisonous tentacles. Yeah, it’s got some small stinging polyps – like having a pellet gun instead of a shotgun. Are you going to feel like the hydroid is an equal partner in this situation? Maybe a little resentment there? And is the hydroid going to be very personable? Deep down it knows it’s an undersized second-rate threat, a poor substitute for an intimidating anemone. Maybe it’s going to have just a bit of an inferiority complex which means it’s going to be a royal pain to deal with? It’s going to overcompensate by being sarcastic, argumentative, insulting…and those are its good points. I suddenly realized the snail fur hydroid offered a much greater potential for conflict than an anemone.

Okay, no anemone. Just the hydroids. I thought I could at least have a large tough hermit crab. Well, forget that too. The hydroids were most likely to be on the shells of the smaller hermit crab – the long-clawed hermit crab.

So, my anemone has been shrunk to a matt of “snail fur hydroids” and my large tough hermit crab ended up as one of the smallest ones in the coastal New England waters. Yes, it’s one of the most common ones, but hardly the most dramatic, at least at first glance.

However, again, I considered conflict potential. A smaller hermit crab would have to fight harder for any shells or food or location resources. So, I went with the smaller hermit crabs.

I hoped to at least salvage the large flashy Moon Snail shell for my hermit crab, but the long-clawed hermit crab is too small to haul one of those around. Instead, I had to be satisfied with an underrate snail fur, on the outside of a tiny periwinkle or mud dog whelk shell dragged by a small hermit crab.

Do you see where this is going?

You can start out with a vision but often your vision won’t work in reality. You can give up, flip off reality, or reframe it by looking for the conflict potentials in what reality presents. I chose the last. This meant being a stickler for detail even as I might push the limits of reality on a few things. There are readers who will excuse a talking animal, but they’d never forgive a North Carolina anemone riding on a New England hermit crab.

So, at the end of all of this, I had my protagonist: the long-clawed hermit crab, Pagurus longicarpus, known in the story as “Carpus,” and the first sidekick: a snail fur hydroid. The snail fur hydroid belongs to the genus Hydractinia, so his name in the story became “Hydrac.”

I now had two characters who instead of being best friends probably had an antagonistic relationship. Since the animal side was going to mirror the same struggle as the human side: do I connect to others or run away? this seemed to match up better for the overall story structure. So I can thank the limits of geography and nature for ending up with two characters who fit the story problem better. At this point, it was time to flesh these two out with some research, add a third main character, and start adding in some other animals.

Coming up Next: Animal R&D – Picking the third main character, painting in the details and adding in the background.

The Post – What to Feed the Babies and How Salty Should the Water Be?

March 1, 2008

Just a reminder that coming up over the next week, the next few installments on the journey of my Under the Pier novel. I had to take a break from those for taxes, actually finishing some more chapter revisions, and of course, taking care of the “grandchildren.” But stay tuned. More to come on Under the Pier.

Re the grandchildren:

What wonderful goings on! Soooo many little black dots in the nursery and they are definitely swimming around. Many are hiding out in the shadows of the live rock caves. So tiny and already they know to hide and avoid “predators.”

I am feeding them three times a day with a mixture of ground up mini-freeze dried krill, some ground up flake food, a few drops of the liquid Small Fry baby fish food, and a little distilled water mixed in. We shall see how it goes. And no, I am not grinding the mini-krill with my husband’s lovely stone mortar and pestle that he uses for grinding up herbs and spices in the kitchen!!

Regarding salinity – it’s a tricky call. While Uca minax, which are the type of fiddler crabs I have, are seen furthest up the estuary in areas of lowest salinity, there seems to be evidence that for at least the first two weeks of their larval development (zoeae) , they actually survive and do better at a higher salinity. However there is also evidence that for the next (megalopae) stage to metamorphose into crab Stage 1, this species does best with the lower salinity seen in the upper estuary environment that the adults live in. I will post more information tomorrow including the links to the two papers I found today on this subject. Long story short today though, is that zoeae of all the species of fiddler crabs, seem to need a couple weeks of “being at sea,” hence higher salinity.

I’ll also explain about the three species used in one of the studies and how their selectivity for salinity levels puts them in different spots in the estuaries and thus probably keeps them from competing with each other for resources and food.

Also to come – I dug out the small microscope I had as a kid and will pick up some microscope slides. So to follow, descriptions of babies, under the glass.

A couple of other notes – courtesy again of my engineer husband. He noted a bunch of white things all over the gravel and wondered if the babies had already molted. Maybe they have but these white dots were too big and irregular in size for baby shells. I believe it’s salt crystals that didn’t dissolve in the water before I added it. I added more water to bring the salinity up closer to a marine environment. I started at 1.010 (brackish) when they were born and over the course of yesterday raised the salinity first to 1.012, then by last night 1.015. Today I’ll finish raising it to 1.020. Then in two weeks I’ll bring it back down to 1.010-1.012, the optimal range for Uca minax adults.

Sand. Again, my husband was watching the babies swim – it is amazing to see these tiny things whiz around the tank – but he shined a light to see if they would follow the beam. The article I posted in yesterday’s gift mentioned that the babies will go to the light. My husband didn’t see evidence of that, but what he noted was that many little babies had worked their way down between the gravel bits, all the way down to the bottom of the tank. Unless they figure out how to get back up to the water, they’ve had it. Now let’s face it. Their parents had a brain the size of a pinpoint. How large a brain do you thing babies the size of a pinpoint have? So the odds of them getting back to the surface are not good. I said “evolution at work. Anybody who tunnels down in the gravel probably won’t live to reproduce. ” My husband noted that gravel is less than optimal for this (engineers talk like this by the way, things are optimal, less than optimal, sub-optimal 🙂 ).

The real important point though was his next comment: “The NEXT time we do this, we should use sand.” There you have it folks. My husband has fallen in love with the fiddler crabs. In all truth, he has. He watches them, thinks about how to make their lives better, anticipates the babies getting ground up in the water filter…..those babies are lucky to have him!!!

Anyway, stay tuned for the links on those two articles about optimal (yes, OPTIMAL) salinity levels for fiddler crab larvae.