Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Dr. Love & the Fish Sex

What a wonderful evening! I have long heard the stories about Dr. Love, and quoted his book to my students- Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast- but had never met the man. Until tonight.

He was speaking at REI on the topic "Illegal in Six Southern States: Tales of Fish Sex. Just before his talk I got a chance to talk with him, and learned, surprisingly, what I'd forgotten- all the stories I heard about him in class were because he went to the same school as me, and was also a student of (Doc) John Stevens, my ichthyology professor! I got to share with Dr. Love some about my fisheries paper for Doc (where I used the data to show that Grey Whales had reached sustainable population and we could therefore start hunting them again), and he was very encouraging as to the ethical necessity of having to leave my last post.

His most famous book is perhaps the funniest book you'll ever read on fish. Lines in it like, "Your average hagfish can take a bucket full of water and almost solidify it with slime in a few minutes. (I don't know about you, but that makes me proud to be American.)" True to his book, he had some of us roaring with laughter, and the rest smirking throughout the presentation on fish sexual practices. Of all the vertebrates, they probably have the most ingenuity in this area. It helps that there is more species and variety in their 4 classes, and specifically among the bony fish.

Love's humor verges towards the sarcastic, to say the least. He began by explaining why biologists don't often get invited over for dinner, and we were all nodding our heads in agreement. He would talk about a type of salp, Oikopleura, that secretes a house of slime that it continually eats. Or pearlfish, that live in the anus of the sea cucumber. (Much like Dick Cheney and the oil companies, Dr. Love pointed out.) And then, for some reason, Love wouldn't be invited back. He learned that for biologists, we love to talk about sex. Makes sense- it's the center of our discipline. Without it, there really is no point to the science. And it's not normal sex, among humans, at least, not usually. It's the strange diversity of sexual relationships among different animals. Thus the focus of his talk, and the reason why we are often hungry for invitations.

Dr. Love's primary research is on oil platforms, and the reef communities that have developed there. As such, he tends to not get many speaking invitations from his natural philosophical allies, the environmentalists. It doesn't help that he's found that some fish have higher recruitment around oil rigs. Indeed, some of the fish are found in abundance only at oil rigs, and are overfished everywhere else in SoCal.

He covered nearly every unusual type of fish sexuality, with limericks interspersed between. Highlights included:
  1. Photos of massive drifts of sperm visible from the air
  2. Herring gluing their eggs to piers, rocks, and even smothering other herring eggs by covering them with eggs
  3. Cabazon sculpin egg guarding
  4. Internal, external, and semi-internal fertilization (where the female stores the sperm and releases it when she releases her eggs)
  5. How sperm runs down grooves in the claspers, and claspers often damage the female cloaca as the claspers are so rigid
  6. Mako sharks eat their brothers and sisters, while still in utero
  7. Atlantic salmon can reproduce multiple times, and there is now a large invasive population in the Northwest Pacific coast
  8. Grunions mate en masse on the beach, and male grunions look for any female sticking out vertically from the sand, so they'll mate even with a wriggling stick (which Love pointed out is disturbingly similar to human male practices)
  9. Garibaldi chase away other fish and divers during mating season by grinding their teeth
  10. Perches are viviparous by an outpocketing of the uterine wall lying on the embryo gills (as naturally fish don't have belly buttons)
  11. Sex changes, from female to male in wrasse, and male to female in groupers
  12. Sheepshead sex changes related to age
  13. Cleaner fish changes by whose biggest, such that you can take the biggest out and the next largest female becomes male. Then return the original male, and he becomes female.
  14. Vivulus, both male and female at the same time, capable of fertilizing itself and thus is always happy
  15. Clownfish, where, if Nemo's mother disappeared, Nemo's dad would become female, as the female is always the biggest, and would then mate with Nemo
  16. Koridoris, a freshwater catfish where the female drinks the sperm from the male's genitalia and then excretes it over her eggs. (This obligate fellatio is one of those practices illegal in certain Southern states.)
  17. Midshipman, which flash their photophores to intimidate other males
  18. Multi-gender fish, like salmon and midshipman, with bourgeois fighter males, and sneaker males that rush in while the bigger males are fighting and release sperm over the egg nest. The sneakers tend to have the largest testicles by far.
  19. Primitive viviparous rockfish that secrete nutrient chemicals into the uterus which are then absorbed by the embryos
  20. Rockfish which don't have hybrids, but have very closely related species, in some cases going through a speciation even- except in the Puget Sound, where there are scores of hybrid species
  21. Kin fish, where the female glues the eggs to the male's head
  22. Cihcilds in O2-deficient ponds, leaping into the air and laying their eggs glued to a branch, and then the males leap into the air and spray the eggs with their sperm. (Try to figure out how that one evolved!)
  23. Ceratiidae (my favorite since it was my Senior Seminar) deep-sea anglers where the female is 3-2000 times bigger than the male, and one to three males latch on to the female, merge with her, and then degenerate everything but their sperm sacks. I've often described it to students as if women walked around with two small legs of men sticking out of various parts of their body. Dr. Love showed us a winner of the Darwin Award- a male who had latched on to the female's upper lip, so that she couldn't feed and his sperm couldn't be delivered, but he also couldn't let go.
In the Q&A, I got a chance to ask Dr. Love about a comment he had made in his book. He had pointed out how stupid fish are. The stupidest mouse, a mouse that can't figure out a maze in 100 tries, that still thinks we can win a land war in Asia- this mouse is smarter than the smartest fish that ever lived. I asked him if, in the last 15 years since his book was published, he'd come across anything to change his mind on that. Surprisingly, it appears that there has been some recent research to indicate that some fish do have more intelligence than we thought. However, since their brains are super-tiny, and the quote is just too good, he'll probably leave it in the next edition of his book that is coming out shortly.

Afterward, I had the pleasure of Dr. Love's signature in a book torn and tattered from much use. Truly, this was a dream come true.

4 comments:

quaintance said...

Good god, man, did you take notes? That's an incredible amount of detail to be recounting there.

I'm glad you enjoyed the talk!

I read an article, once, that Dr. Love wrote regarding Superman and Lois Lane and how it would never work out. And, I think Brent and I went to a talk by him *years* ago at the Cal Academy, but I seem to think it was about Birds, so maybe it was some other Oxy alum.

I have trouble taking his name seriously, given his subject matter.

@bdul muHib said...

He actually shared about that article- it was the first one he ever wrote, and many journals wouldn't publish it, so he went to Britain to publish it. All about how they were separate species, and no one knows what Superman's gonads even look like, or how his species does sex, and he's got superstrength, and an orgasm is just an uncontrollable contraction of muscles, so that doesn't bold well for Lois, but if he's got a kryptonite condom, then maybe things would be okay...

Jon Trott said...

@bdul,

You sick pup. While reading this, and I'm hardly awake, I once again marveled at what a comic side God has. All I can say is... I'm awfully glad not to be a fish!

Blessings.

Jon Trott

@bdul muHib said...

Jon! So good to hear from you!

I have heard they feel the same about us.