Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stealth Educating

[Can you find the cuttlefish in this picture?]

About a month ago, for only an hour, I appointed myself an under-the-radar, unofficial volunteer in the Invertebrates House at the zoo—a pretty pathetic affair to my mind, but then I suppose, with the Baltimore Aquarium only an hour away, they figure people can head to Maryland if they’re really interested in spineless creatures (or they can visit Congress).

The invertebrate house does have a few of my favorite organisms: cephalopods, the class of mollusks that includes octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, and nautili. When I visited the zoo on a DC trip in January, I’d rushed to get to the invertebrate house in time for the 11am “Feeding of the Giant Pacific Octopus,” only to discover that the octopus had recently died (they only live 3-4 years). They’ve got a new one now, though, although s/he isn’t very giant as of yet, and the feeding—a volunteer waving a shrimp around on the end of a skewer—is not quite the thrilling experience I’d hoped it would be.

They also have a couple of nautili (the only cephalopods with shells) and a few cuttlefish, the cutest of the cephalopods: they look like chunky squids and usually tuck their stubby tentacles bashfully beneath them as they float or rest on the bottom.

All well and good. But on this day, one of the cuttlefish had been transferred to the tank that used to contain only nautili. Admittedly, there was a placard against the corner wall that named and described both species, but the only sign on the tank proper announced “Nautilus.” This meant that children who gravitated towards the tank and its most active member, the cuttlefish, would be told by their parents that they were looking at a nautilus.

I could not allow this to continue.

Since I wanted to hang around admiring the cuttlefish anyway, I placed myself at a corner of the tank and informed every child or adult who asked (often rhetorically), “What is that?” that they were seeing a cuttlefish: “But it’s not a fish; it’s related to squid,” I would explain. “And up in the corner there is a nautilus. It’s related to cuttlefish, too.” If the recipients of my knowledge seemed worthy, I would tell them more about the amazing properties of the cuttlefish, like its ability to change colors—to match its surroundings or as an expression of emotion—within a fraction of a second, or the fact that it can also change the very texture of its skin to better camouflage itself in a smooth or pebbly environment.

If I had had a truly captive audience (and I suspect the descriptor would have to be literal), I would have gone on to describe the experiments that have been done demonstrating that cuttlefish can imitate the patterns of even such unfamiliar substrates as checkerboards (see Roger Hanlon's lab webpage), or explained why cuttlefish and octopuses are capable of such lightning-fast changes in their coloration (their pigment cells are under neurological control, unlike the slow-changing, hormonal control of crustaceans’ coloration).

But I didn’t do any of that. Instead I continued my simple public service, gratified by the interest of some, disappointed by the dismissive attitudes of others (including those children and adults who asked what appears to be an eternal, haunting question for them: “Why are they so ugly?”), and occasionally bemused by the odd convictions of the few—as in the case of a young woman with a small child, who listened to my spiel, scrutinized the animal, and told her child, “He does look cuddly, doesn’t he? But if you tried it, he’d probably bite your arm off.” I was surprised. Sure, it’s good to teach your kids to respect the wildness of wild animals, but we’re talking about a creature six inches long with a tendency to escape danger in a cloud of ink. It might give you a sharp nip with its beak if it felt really threatened, but you’re not going to need a prosthetic.

[a truly dangerous beast]

By the end of an hour, the predictability of people’s reactions was beginning to wear on me, and I left the Invertebrate House to get another look at the orangutans before heading home. I can’t say for sure that my work made a lasting impression on anyone else, but it did give me a new level of respect for the real volunteers; imagine having to stand there hour after hour, answering the same questions and enduring the same, often annoying responses. I couldn’t do it if you paid me. (Well, actually, I could do it if you paid me—I just couldn’t do it for free.) Admittedly, it would give my stern remarks (“Stop tapping on the glass!”) more authority, but that’s never stopped me before. I’ve found that a severe attitude and an air of command are all you really need. That and a fleet foot, just in case an imposing parent takes offense.

[all cuttlefish photos--except the first--taken at the New England Aquarium, Boston, MA]


pattinase (abbott) said...

My grandson (3) observed two roly-polys, excuse the spelling which may be incorrect. He told me one was the mother and the other one was the baby. The father, he informed me, was wearing camouflage and that's why we couldn't see him today. I think he will be a good visitor to your zoo some day.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

That's terrific! -Incidentally, roly-polys (polies?) are the only land crustacean! (I believe they're a kind of isopod.) How great is that?!

Anonymous said...

I thought I was the only land crustacean! Oh well.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Wow. Wait till I tell him.

Anca said...

I find cuttlefish adorable. Great narrative, Olivia, from which I draw the lesson that I'd better not offer my volunteer services to the Zoo. "Take your arm off"?

rebecca said...

I know the exact feeling that prompted you to do this - too many times I've heard parents at the zoo point out gorillas or orangutans to their kids with the words "Look at the monkey!" That is not a monkey! Monkeys have tails!

Amber Coakley said...

Hi Olivia, I'm visiting from CotS - really enjoyed your post. Good on you for volunteering to help educate the zoo visitors. I've quite enjoyed the education too. ;-)

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

Thanks--always happy to educate those who want to learn! :) --And sometimes those who don't (I too am driven crazy by the "Look at the monkey!" exclamations.)

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