Not so fishy business.

The cognitive abilities of fish seem to be very underestimated. We often do not see fish in the same light as we see other mammals, or birds. This strange outlook has always puzzled me. 

Maybe part of the story is that the life of fish is very elusive to us. Most people do not dive on a regular basis in the Ocean to observe the daily life of fish. We are land mammals, and that is what most of us are more familiar with.

Photo by Valdemaras D. on Pexels.com

Most of what we ever learn about marine life in general is based on visits to aquariums, fishing trips, and videos on nature channels. Aquarium hobbyists will witness a larger repertoire of fish behaviors, but a fish in a tank does not behave like a fish in the Ocean. 

A book by Bill François, Eloquence of the Sardine: extraordinary encounters beneath the sea, is challenging our views. Written as a blend of narrative and fiction, Bill portrays many examples of the extraordinary adaptations of different fish species he has encountered over the years. Many of the stories he describes are truly fascinating. 

One particular story that struck me was about an eel. I think the movie adaptation of Günter Grass’s book, The Tin Drum, severely biased me towards eels. There is a scene where a fisherman pulls out a horse’s head from the sea full of eels. Since then eels were on my “don’t me eat” list. You can watch it here. I chose not to revisit the scene if I can help it. 

Photo by Jeffry Surianto on Pexels.com

What struck me about the eel’s story was its longevity. A European eel’s normal lifespan is about 5-20 years. A Swedish eel named Ale (ironically Ale means eel in Swedish), which inhabited the well, lived for 155 years. That would make 1859 as his date of birth. How did he do it? It is not very clear. An important question to ask is, what kills eels in the wild? One can only imagine what he was thinking all this time. As Bill points out, Ale lived in ignorance of the changing world, he did not know cars, major conflicts, or the internet. He was sheltered. Was he waiting to be rescued from the solitude of the well? We will never know. 

Eels are very skillful, they can crawl on land and under waterfalls when needed. That has to be seen to be believed. Their life journey overall is very mysterious, as they migrate from freshwater to saltwater to mate. The how, where, and the why of the process are not well understood. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Bill also describes a story of Old Tom, a killer whale, which in the early 1900s helped fishermen hunt for baleen whales. However, this story goes back to Australia over 10,000 years ago. The Indigenous Australian whalers, the Katunga, practiced whaling and developed a relationship with the orcas. The orcas would help them locate the whales, and the fishermen would feed the orcas the carcass of the whale, especially their tongue. This mutual cooperation was called the Law of Tongue. As the story goes, John Logan would fight the orca for the whale carcass, injuring Old Tom’s teeth, leading to the orca’s eventual starvation in 1930. Tom’s skeleton is displayed in the Eden Killer Whale Museum

More importantly than the anecdotes described in the book, Bill rightfully points out that overfishing, polluting waters, increased shipping traffic, are all negative aspects of humans trying to conquer the Oceans. We fail to recognize the importance of the Ocean to our climate, and to the Earth’s ecosystems. The mysteries lurking in the waters may revolutionize humanity and medicine, but we may destroy the Ocean of knowledge even before we recognize its value.

Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

We barely scratched the surface of what the Oceans have to offer. Sadly, at current rates of overfishing, it is predicted that by 2048 all of the world’s fisheries will collapse.  We may never learn what is out there, as we are destroying the Oceans’ biodiversity. Years from now, we may no longer have stories to tell. Take notice. 

Although I am not a vegetarian, I may think twice before ordering my next fish. 

2022-07-08

There are many models that suggest how to protect the Ocean’s biodiversity, while allow to maintain sustainable fisheries. Like many ideas, many would have to be implemented to fully realize their potential.

According to recent data, only 7% of the ocean’s area are designated as marine protected area, locations where extractive and destructive activities are not permitted. Sadly, only 2.7% of such areas are fully protected.

Efforts to protect the Earth’s fisheries and biodiversity requires multinational effort, and requires immediate international attention.

Sala, E., Mayorga, J., Bradley, D. et al. Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate. Nature 592, 397–402 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03371-z

Birds of the Salt Marsh in Brooklyn

Marine Salt Marsh is the largest park in Brooklyn. The Marsh has a unique combination of wetlands and grasslands, an ideal habitat for many species of birds.

As you walk the path near the water, the vast grassland stretches for several acres. The entire area is about 800 acres. Multiple small birds find their home in the tall grasses. Various warblers and blackbirds fly back and forth above the tips of the green grasses, then suddenly they dive into the green blanket of grass to disappear from view as quickly as they appeared.

Red-winged blackbird scanning his territory from underneath the tall grasses.

The Marsh is a home to the Great Egret (Ardea alba). Some of the Great Egret’s prominent characteristics are their delicate long white feathers, a feature leading to egret’s near extinction due to poaching, black thin legs, and green skin near its beak.

The Great Egret.

In the late 19th century, egret’s feathers were a popular decoration for women’s hat fashion. This human fancy led to the species’ decimation and near extinction, and the practice significantly affected many other waterbird populations.

Many environmentalists of the time recognized the need to protect the waterbirds, and created the National Audubon Society, with the Great Egret as its symbol. Significantly, it was many brave women who led the change. They saw that it was inhumane to wipe many bird species only to satisfy the society’s sense of fashion.

Today, the Great Egret’s population in the New York City ranges approximately 300 to 400 breeding pairs, according to the Audubon Society. They can be found on the various islands scattered in the New York City, as they provide access to more shallow waters.

The Great Egret holding his catch.

Egrets have a very majestic demeanor, even when the perform simple tasks. Their slender body emanates awe. They are often found staring straight into the water, ready for their next catch. Their diet is primarily composed of fish, but they also won’t pass on crustaceans, frogs, salamanders, insects, and even occasional snakes.

As I walked further by the river, a few Yellow-crown Night-Herons (Nyctanassa violacea) appeared. There is something very ancient about this bird. Everything from the way it looks, to the way it walks, to the way it sounds, immediately took me back in time. A very mysterious creature. In North America there are only two species of the Night Herons, the Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned.

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron in search of food.

Adult herons develop a yellow crown on their head, mixed with black and white stripes on the side of their heads.

Their night and early morning hunting habits became ingrained in their name, as Nycticorax means “night raven.” The Yellow-crowned Night Herons feed primarily on crustaceans, crabs and crayfish, most of which are nocturnal animals. You can spot them looking at the waters with a razor sharp focus. They are known to ambush their prey.

This species of a heron are known to be more solitary by nature, but mainly when hunting.

Similar to other waterbirds, they are vulnerable to habitat loss all over the Eastern coasts of North and South America. Due to their night lifestyle, it is difficult to obtain a good estimate of the present population. Currently, this species is not considered to be under immediate threat.

This heron seemed surprised that a seagull dared to photobomb his appearance.

Little to the side I spotted a Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) sitting on a rock protruding from the deeper water. Its name comes from two white stripes on its head which appear during the mating season. They have a very characteristic hooked beak, roughly the size of its head.

Cormorant drying in the Sun.

Cormorants are excellent swimmers, with the ability to dive in 7.5 meters under the water. Interestingly, their feathers are not good at repelling water, mainly because they have less preen oil, an adaptation likely to allow for easier swimming. For that reason, you can often spot them with their wings outstretched, drying in the Sun.

In Japan and China, cormorants are used by fisherman to catch fish, a practice called Ukai. The fishermen would tie a string around the cormorant’s neck, preventing the bird from swallowing large fish, later to be retrieved by the fishermen. The cormorants can still eat small fish, but I am uncertain if they actually do. Nowadays, it has become a tourist attraction to showcase this ancient fishing technique. The technique itself raises many ethical questions, with many activists opposing its practice.

At the Marsh, many birds take advantage of the nearby water during the intense heat. This small fellow was drying himself, taking advantage of the tree branch and the shade. Even birds can have a bad feather day, feather frizz. It might have been a starling, or blackbird, but the frizz made it hard to identify.

Drying feather situation.

In the distance, there were two osprey nests with fledglings. I have written a little about ospreys before. You can see the post here. I would like you to notice some details, which in my opinion are quite striking, and remind me of the importance of bringing attention to our human habits, as they endanger many birds of prey.

First, take a look at this image. At first it seems we are looking at a happy family. The osprey on the right is eating a fish, a second osprey is attending to the chick.

Ospreys at the Salt Marsh.

Now, take another look at the nest. What do you see?

Osprey parents feasting on the fish.

The answer is garbage. Red wires, blue ropes, some plastic bags hanging from the side of the nest.

This Osprey nest is full of human garbage.

Most birds have excellent vision, but they do not understand that their nests are filled with synthetic materials. It saddens me to see this.

Osprey parents feeding their chick. Osprey on the right is holding a fish.

I can clearly see the devoted attention the osprey parents give to their chick. They were constantly going back and forth looking for new fish for their next meal. And the little one demanded a lot of attention.

Osprey parents fixing their nest.

The osprey parents were working hard to keep the nest in good shape. They are bringing turf, and fixing branches at all times. They are very attentive.

Osprey parents attend to their chick.

Every place in the New York area I visited this year, all of the nests were taken. The practice of building towers for the osprey’s nests clearly works to encourage ospreys to come back. Now we have to do better with their surroundings. I do not want to see human garbage in their nests. Ospreys will fly long distances looking for food, thus making sure you do not leave your garbage on the beaches, near any water they may be using, is critical. This is true for most birds.

Baby osprey playing hide and seek.

The second nest was a little better, but I could still spot ropes. The chick was quite young, and they must have been born later than the ospreys in the Oyster Bay.

Osprey looking at its nest.
Osprey making sure I see him catching the wind in its feathers. Somehow this look makes me laugh each time.

The Salt Marsh is a little bird oasis. It is nowhere near perfect, but seeing a myriad of waterbirds continues to emphasize the importance of the waterfront. Whether it is the beach, the lakes, the rivers, or the oceans, they all serve countless species of animals. Do your part and protect them with simple things like picking up your garbage.

Osprey guarding its nest.

The Queens of Carbon lives on.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

In College, I wanted to be a Chemist, more precisely an Organic Chemist. I was fascinated by the abilities of Carbon to generate different forms and shapes. Versatility of this simple element was the basis of our existence. Carbon was life. 

As early as elementary school, I learned that diamond is one of the hardest forms of carbon, while graphite is very soft, and used in pencils. Carbon was a master of shapes and forms. 

I learned about fullerens in the mid 2000s, specifically the famous byckyball. Fullerens are simply different forms of Carbon connected by chemical bonds forming spheres, tubes, and other shapes. Some examples of fullerens are Carbon structures made of 60 or 70 Carbon atoms. H. W. Kroto, R. E. Smalley, and R. F. Curl were awarded the Nobel Price for their discovery.  

I learned recently that a woman contributed to many of the discoveries related to the use of carbon, especially graphite. I read about Mildred Spiewak, also known as Millie Dresselhaus in the book by Maia Weinstock, Carbon Queen. Maia was invited to give an overview of her job and career at one of the career panels organized by my work. I did not read her book until a few days ago, and I was fully amazed. Maia’s writing is very clear and precise, something I still aspire to learn. With every chapter I wanted to learn more about Millie and her life. 

Millie Dresselhaus was brilliant, self-taught, and extremely motivated. What really struck me about her story was how despite her excellent academic performance she ended up in Hunter College, a school with no or very limited experimental research. I felt like I was reading about myself. I thought nobody could understand the frustration I felt, when I had to attend one of the public Colleges myself, but here she was. Over 70 years before me, a person with a similar dilemma. Somehow her story put me at ease. If she can do it, I can try also. 

Mildred Dresselhaus lecturing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.Credit: MIT Museum.

Although Millie was not an immigrant herself, her immigrant family struggled financially. Immigrant beginnings are often hard. I am sure we both shared the disappointment of not being able to attend a private College, but I think both of us had the same goal: to get the best education with what was available. 

Finding female scientists even in the early 2000s was still tough. Most female run laboratories were very limited on space and funding, at least in my College. They also faced different struggles, many juggled childcare, and had many teaching requirements. I never fully understood why women were facing negative attitudes, but nevertheless many issues facing female scientists have not fully disappeared. 

I am still trying to find my true place. To me, the thrill of discovery is an addiction, as you may be the first in the world to learn something new about how life on this planet works. I am a Biologist, and I hope to see a brighter future for female academic scientists. 

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Millie was extremely lucky, the support she received early in her career, and throughout her life was life changing. As a College student, I yearned to have a supportive female mentor. It did not happen for various reasons, but I fully understand why gender representation in the Sciences really matters. There is something to be said about seeing people like you who have your dream job. 

More importantly, I learned that despite her struggles, Millie had a very positive outlook on life.  Even today, I often struggle with my place in the Sciences. I see countless colleagues leaving academia, finding opportunities in other fields. They are deterred by the low wages, lack of funding, and difficulty securing an academic position. All valid reasons. 

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., to Mildred Dresselhaus at the White House in 2014.

Critically, Millie was sending an important message to all scientists, be a supportive mentor, and your students will return the favor. 

Sadly Millie is no longer with us, but her legacy surrounds us. Her scientific legacy can be found in over 1,700 articles, 8 books, and countless students she mentored over the years. Her contributions to our understanding of the chemistry of Carbon made many of our everyday electronics possible. Next time you look at your phone, know she was also a part of its creation.

Fragility

I have been fostering cats and kittens for about 3 years now. Kittens are like premature babies, extremely fragile and very sensitive to the elements.

Benz was on my care for a week, she came in very malnourished and weak. Without a few am days she started gaining weight, and be more alert. Only to have a full turn around soon after.

Benz relaxing after brushing.

Benz went from a kitten starting to do well, to crashing. She was rushed to a hospital in Queens for fluids and glucose. Since she require further care, she had to be admitted and I drove her to Long Island Emergency Specialists.

She is so precious. I really hope that she will get better. she deserves all the care we can give her.

Benz with a catheter after receiving IV fluids.

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Speed of life.

I picked Nature Fast and Nature Slow, How Life Works from Fractions of a Second to Billions of Years by Nicholas P. Money out of pocket curiosity. How do you write a book about the speed of Nature with range from fraction of a millisecond to billions of years?

By no means one can be comprehensive with time.

This makes me think of a human lifespan. Assume we can live for about 100 years. That is if we are very lucky. Thus, going with the theme of the book, how many seconds do we live for?

One way to remember an approximate number of seconds a 100 year old would live, is to multiply the value of pi by a billion, or 3.14 x 10^9 seconds = 99.6 years. Somehow it doesn’t seem long enough.

I am guilty of thinking that a second is not a significant amount of time. However, time doesn’t stop. Life on Earth is general doesn’t care about space-time theories. Most of us don’t travel to space hoping to slow down time.

But what is time? One dictionary definition states that time is “a nonspatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future.” A circular definition, because how do you define beginning, middle, and end of time? Who’s to say that my perception of time being linear is true?

Regardless of what’s real and what’s imaginary, time continues to pass, so try to do what you love. Every second counts.

History of a picture

My mother send me this photograph today. Picture was taken likely in the early 1920s and hid from view in my relative’s photo album for over 100 years. It is my great-grandmother Katarzyna born 1878, and her daughter Maria born 1913.

I have always wondered how she looked like. What was her personality? What did she like? Sadly photographs do not preserve that information.

I tried to find some resemblance, and all I could come up with is that we both like polka dot dresses, necklaces, and hair split right in the middle.

From this limited information, I can still deduce few facts. My great-grandmother had children born during the World War I, some born on lands that no longer belonged to Poland. She lived through two World Wars. Not an easy life.

A child witnessing war, is one child too many.

She also lived through a true historic event for the Polish people, Poland being put on the map of Europe in 1918, after 123 years of partitions. Books have been written how a nation fought to preserve its identity, language, and culture for 123 years, when Polish schools no longer existed, where Polish books were not easily obtained, when Polish language was forbidden is schools and work.

Polish flag.

Today, many nations face the same struggles. Sadly, most nation on the planet didn’t learn much from our past history. In the past 100 years, no continent was war free. Neither is today.

Reading about history in books is very different than imagining your relatives going through those events. I refuse to imagine some of those events, it couldn’t have been easy.

History as read from history books is not always relatable.

A photograph can make life real. Importantly, as a scientist I know that I carry a piece of her, a very important part, my DNA, and as a woman, my mitochondrial DNA. Although we will never meet, she’s will always be a part of me.

DNA double helix.

As of today, I can put a face to a name. That makes me very happy.

Human senses and their tricks.

We don’t appreciate the value of our senses until something goes wrong with one of them. I have been wearing glasses since I was a teenager, and with time they became a part of my identity. However, many vision issues are not only a nuisance, but also determine a version of our own reality.

Glasses fix my brain’s version of what’s in front of me.

I was reading The Man Who Tasted Words by Guy Leschziner and realized that I also did not fully appreciate my senses. The books goes over several curious medical cases affecting the various senses, but I will not spoil it. I linked NPR description of the book, for those more curious.

Most doctors know, that many medical conditions have variable presentations. To add to the confusion, many sensory issues have overlapping symptoms, making diagnosis difficult, even to the best doctors. Thus, a vision problem is not always due to an issue with the eyes, but it can also be an issue with the brain. An important point mentioned in the book, is that as the medical knowledge expands in every field, many doctors learn to recognize medical issues through the lens their specialty. Thus, many issues will go unrecognized until a patient goes to the right specialist. This uncomfortable reality surrounds the medical practice.

Medical knowledge expands, making it hard to master multiple fields.

A question that always puzzled me is how do we compare sensory experiences among people? Is my vision similar to yours? It might be, but not if you are colorblind for example. Now imagine animals that can see the polarized light, such as bees, or those that can see heat emanating from bodies like snakes. How is their reality?

Bees can see polarized light.

Another curiosity is the sense of taste. Why do we like various foods? Is likeness of certain foods acquired? Why does it change with age? When I was a child, avocados tasted like soap. Their taste was so repulsive, that I had no idea how anybody would eat that. Today I eat them regularly. One of the more famous examples is durian. A South-East Asian fruit, beloved by many, but to me the smell of it is so bad, as if somebody was trying to feed me old socks.

Durian fruit.

This brings me to smell. Often less appreciated, smell connects us to the most distant memories. Many visual scenes will not bring memories as strong as certain smells. Scents of familiar foods or places can bring up distant memories. How our brain processes different chemicals and attaches a certain meaning to them is not well understood. However, we all know of a few childhood smells, such as ice cream or flowers, that take us back in time.

A childhood smell can move us back in time.

One curiosity I have not realized until reading this book, is that having a song stuck in my head, is in fact a musical hallucination. Technically, a hallucination is a perception of something that isn’t real. A condition quite common in many brain disorders, but we often do not think about “that song is stuck to in my head” as mental illness. I point this out, to stress that the line between a reality and hallucination is quite blurred.

How many time a song got stuck in your head?

I wish we understood the organ that is enclosed in our skull much better. It is a powerhouse used by countless people to make a change, to discover, to create, and to enjoy life around us. However, our brain can be mischievous, can play tricks on us using our senses. Our brain is what makes humans, one of the weakest large mammals on the planet, one of the strongest.