For a few days last month, the incessant rain brought a fresh spurt of white mushroom caps on roadside lawns, particularly in the vicinity of mature wayside trees. The fungi probably fruited and spread their spores unnoticed by strollers. Likewise, passed unmarked are the countless millipedes that spill out onto hard surfaces on damp mornings to meet the final crunch of hasty feet. And the brief minutes of silver and gold that the setting sun inflicted on a mountain of cumulus shadowed a crowd too close for the comfort of a moment's notice.
Unhappily annointed by attention, however, are the cats of St. John's Island. I am told the colony has recently been the subject of earnest assiduity by the veterinary authorities despite an ongoing effort to spay them by staff at the marine institute. An apparent complaint had been made about the island's feline population. The cats tame and trusting enough to permit capture probably found the dead end of a sharp needle while only a handful of possibly less personable pussies are holding out against the felicidal campaign. Even offshore homes, it seems, are no safe havens from anxious apes who shun both sympathy and sympatry for beasts of their own creation.
The weather held up on Saturday to permit a half-hearted display of dusky rays over a dusty town. Narrowing channels created choppy waters in the approach to the island, where a long line of white robes streamed from their evening ablutions. A crew of anglers were encamped on the jetty, ready for a night of marine bounty. We rimmed the perimeter path, bypassing the 'swimming' lagoon whose muddy layers shelter fiddler crabs, moon snails and uncommon common sea stars. A temporal erection of turrets awaited the drowning hour while a line of native pong pong trees (Cerbera manghas) displayed and shed their delicate blooms with pale petals and rosy centres.
The first time I came to St. John's, the sky burst and blessed us with an unyielding showers. This time, none of the group were rainmakers and our descent to the rocky coastline unfettered by sturdy seawalls was dry and droll with talk of wet walks and girls' guides. The shore now seems much larger than it appeared on my virgin trip and the intertidal zone that lies within a boundary line of coral rubble undulates with an alternation of hard outcrops and sandy ingresses. Our entry point into the water though was muddy and before our steps stirred up a murky swirl of muck, Kok Sheng spotted a spider conch (Lambis lambis) whose crusty cloak of camouflage failed it that day.
Algae and detritius cover the upper portion of the conch's shell, but the underside is pearly pink and reveals an indignant pair of stalked eyes. Like their smaller cousin, the gong gong, the spider conch boasts a pointy operculum that lets it pole vault its way out of danger. For a snail, this specimen was hyperactive, greeting our coaxes for a perky pose by reaching out over its back with incredible speed to flip itself back and literally run back into the water. Perhaps it harboured the reliable intelligence that large lumbering primates enjoy the flavour of their roasted flesh or a chutney made from their pulverised meat.
I finally managed to get a decent picture of a feeding black sea cucumber (Holothuria leucospilota). The Aussies call these creatures lollyfish for some reason and the animal is not really black but a very dark brown. Just visible are the fine branches at the tip of the tentacles that protrude from the head end of the animal. These large (up to 1 m long) holothurians are quite common intertidally where there are rocks and rubble for them to squeeze under. Those that find themselves exposed by the low tide shrink into thick dark globules, while submerged specimens probe around leisurely for organic matter in the substrate that adheres their tentacles. If forcibly removed from the water, they quickly become turgid (a feature that puzzles biochemists and offer hope for hamstrings) and perform rude acts of intestinal excretion from their rear ends. An opportunistic shrimp lingers around the mouth to pilfer tasty pickings.
An aside: I am rediscovering the joy of out-of-print tomes on natural history and the upper floor bookshops in Bras Basah Complex are proving to be a treasure trove in discards by deceased readers. Crustaceans by Waldo L. Schmitt (University of Michigan Press, 1965) is an indulgently old school narrative on the realm of biramous appendages. Re-reading John Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez then triggered a covetous want for his companion's handbook to Pacific tides that can only be fulfilled by mail order.
Another volume picked up for a dime lately is 1001 Questions Answered About the Seashore by N.J. Berrill and Jacquelyn Berrill in a 1976 Dover Publications imprint. Originally written in 1957 for residents of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, the apparent gap in time and space is given the lie by the appearance of many familiar genera (think Astropecten, Uca and Eunice) and unassuming answers to questions both practical and biological.
And from Snail, I came across Confessions of a Beachcomer (download a free e-book here), the memoirs of an Australian journalist who forsook the stresses of city life for a small island off Queensland at the turn of the 20th century. No scientist in training, Banfield nonetheless suffers no lack in biological astuteness. His take on the beche-de-mer is whimsical yet timeless:
"Rough and repulsive in appearance, and sluggish in habit, it has great power of contractibility. It may assume a dumpy oval shape, and again drag out its slow length until it resembles an attenuated German sausage, black in colour. Its "face" may be obtruded and withdrawn at pleasure, or rather will, for what creature could have pleasure in a face like a ravelled mop."
Moving to more recent explorations, the recently-published book "The Deep" (University of Chicago Press, 2007) features stunning photos of deep sea creatures that live beyond the reach of sunlight and habitats as strange as methane seeps and entire benthic ecosystems built around whalebone falls. In the abyss, translucent sea angels hunt for fellow midwater snails, and there are squids and octopi with rightly bizarre names of vampire, dumbo, cockatoo, piglet and jewel. Here be monsters too, in the form of giant squid whose 18 m length and tentacles bursting with rotating hooks are no match for sperm whales. But on the very bottom, there sea urchins and sea cucumbers "by the millions", grazing on the organic manna that settled from the waters above. One species dubbed "sea pig" can launch its rotund body up with slow undulations. Others light up in blue-green livery when disturbed (subscribe to this blog for a steady stream of photos and news on deep sea life).
This barely-known biota is increasingly threatened by commercial fisheries which now trawl the seafloor for new species, having exhausted surface stocks in the belief that the sea will never run dry. "Gigantic weighted nets bulldoze the seafloor, leaving a wake of destruction in the underwater landscape... the result of this technique is that deepwater coral expanese, which are between 4000 and 10,000 years old (and not even properly indexed) have been disappearing faster than they can be studied and understood," writes author Claire Nouvian of this tragedy of the oceanic commons that could be alleviated by imposing 'no-take zones' (read this recent paper on a groupers in Eastern Indonesia) or Marine Protected Areas where stocks of predatory fish can recover and sustain managed fisheries. "A significant portion of our planet is being ravaged by a handful of humans, and this is occuring without the knowledge of the greater public," she asks. "How is this possible?"