Monthly Archives: October 2008


The remora is Nature’s Annoying Friend.  A fish in the order Echeneidae (trans. ‘Freeload McGee’), the remora spends its days mooching off other animals in order to avoid real work.  Within Echeneidae there are eight species in four genera, though all the species are pretty much the same deal: they have a sucker in place of their first dorsal fin, which they use to suction cup themselves onto the skin of larger marine animals, hitch a free ride, and commence mooching.  Though they can swim well on their own, remoras hold fast to the motto ‘Work smarter, not harder,’1 which is why they are best known to most people for dangling off sharks on the Discovery Channel.

‘Can I bum a ride?  I’m totally on your way.’

Contrary to the popular notion (see Discovery Channel, above) that remoras specifically latch onto terrifying sharks in a show of jocular élan, remoras can be found stuck to whales, manta rays, turtles, tuna, and marlin. Remoras are equal opportunity suckers, and have been known to attach themselves to scuba divers’ legs and even boats.2 In short, anything large with enough work ethic to move through water is apt to find itself being imposed upon by a remora.

‘We sort of helped ourselves to that leftover pizza in your fridge. We’ll totally get you back though.’

A remora’s relations with its host are what as know as commensalism, which means that one party (the remora) in the relationship benefits while they other (the animal with the actual job) gains nothing and loses little. Specifically, the remora gets a free ride, protection, and leftover food from the host, whether in the form of leftover fragments or feces, though both are the remora’s ‘favorite price.’

Indeed, we all have a friend who never really does anything for us and often bums us out but never hesitates to call us for ‘help with something.’ Sure, every so often you resolve to stop answering the phone, but then guilt kicks in and next thing you know you’re spending Saturday night showing Joe the Remora how to file his late taxes.

‘It’s cool. I know you have to see your real friends. I’m sure I can figure out these 1099s on my own…eventually.’

Some scientists believe that remoras actually do sharks et al a solid by removing bacteria and other waste from their skin. Even if this turns out to be the case, it’s probably done to play on everyone’s sympathies and make them forget what massive soul suckers they are.

‘As you know, I’m kind of broke now, so I showed my appreciation for everything you’ve done for me by cleaning some bacteria. It’s the least I could do. I love you, bro.’

When it comes to grading, there is obviously little to recommend the remora, just as there’s little to recommend your buddy with the late taxes. They both attach themselves to you and hang on for the ride. Yet, even though we suspect deep down that this kind of behavior is ultimately as destructive to the sucker as it is to suck-ee and we think it’d be best for all involved to just fail them, yet again guilt again takes over and we end up doing something that we can’t fully explain.


1In private, remoras like to joke that their motto is actually ‘Work smarter, suck harder,’ but only say it to each other in the nearly-impenetrable Remora language. Another variation on this joke is ‘Suck harder, work ardor,’ but it only makes sense if you speak Remora and are extremely drunk.

2 In ancient mythology, the remora was believed capable of stopping a ship from sailing (indeed, the name ‘remora’ comes from the Latin word mora, meaning ‘delay’ or ‘hold up’ or ‘totally annoy’). Also, as a normative aside, this particular belief, even by the standards of people who believed that there were only four elements, is beyond stupid.  But that didn’t stop Pliny the Younger for blaming remoras for Mark Antony’s defeat at Actium. Pliny the Younger was a massive disappointment to Pliny the Elder.


The term ‘zebra’ includes three distinct (to them, anyway) species of genus Equus (from the Latin meaning ‘equinox’) whose range extends from South Africa through Angola and Kenya. There is also a small population in Long Beach. The word ‘zebra’ comes from the Old Portuguese zevra, meaning ‘wild ass (with stripes that lives in Africa).’

The zebra is a classic case of being a small fish in a big pond. If zebras had the sense to, say, move to Wisconsin, they would instantly be the coolest animal in the history of Wisconsin. Everyone would be going to Wisconsin just to see the weird black-and-white striped horses that run around the woods up there. Every time one showed up in your backyard, you’d scream like a maniac and take a thousand pictures and call the local news. There would be diamond-shaped yellow highway signs with striped horses stenciled on them to let you know that, in this area, you gotta watch out for crazy striped horses crossing the road. People who weren’t drunk would think they were drunk. Drunk people would think they were much drunker. Children would cry. Innumerable roadside shops would open up with people selling striped horse souvenirs and keychains. In short, literally nothing would get done in the entire country until someone – anyone – figured out what the dickens was going on with the Wisconsin Mystery Wild Ass.

Dude. Pull over and turn off the car. I think this is them.

Unfortunately the zebra has stubbornly refused to move to Wisconsin, even though the schools are great and there are good sports teams to root for. Instead, the zebra has stayed in their old neighborhood (Africa), and as such has consistently been voted the Least Awesome Animal of the Serengeti Plain. In the high school social structure that is Nature, zebras are the Emo kids who get picked on constantly but still insist on dressing weird. And even with their goofy outfits, nobody pays much attention to them anyway. Indeed, the number one question from tourists on African Safari is, ‘When can we stop looking at stupid zebras and go find a cheetah?’

Maybe they’d like us more if we learned guitar.

And as we all know, life on the plains of Africa is hardly easy for the average zebra, who has about a 42 percent chance of being run down and eaten by a big cat. Again – not to belabor the point – but this just makes the not-Wisconsin decision just all the more confusing. Even more confusing are zebra’s two completely ridiculous modes of defense against being eaten. These are a) running together in a group and b) standing perfectly still and hoping that lions are colorblind and thus unable to see their well-camouflaged-against-colorblind-lions-yet-still-delicious hides.

However, in all fairness, the zebra has several redeeming qualities as well. For starters, as anyone who knows someone who once took a trip to Africa knows, they make attractive and slightly exotic rugs that lend a cosmopolitan and even slightly pretentious air to almost any home.  Also, tasteless purses.  In addition, zebra have excellent hearing, limited night vision, and are thought to be able to see in color (though this last attribute is disputed by the zebra’s rumored habit of cheating on color blindness tests).

Moreover, their stripe pattern is white-on-black and not black-on-white. Why is that the case? Science says it is. Get used to it. But what’s really interesting is that their stripe pattern is thought to disorient tsetse flies who would otherwise be biting a less-striped animal.

Man oh man, these disoriented tsetse flies are dropping like…nevermind.  Sorry.

And on the subject of stripes – each zebra, like the giraffe, has its own unique stripe pattern, a fact that was related to the world during the longest and most tedious PhD dissertation in human history. Other findings include that zebras live in groups called ‘harems,’ which they actually chose as a name before learning what it meant and then just stuck with it rather than going back and changing all the stationery and business cards. In addition, while most regular horses just stand around quietly and only every so often do a little bit of neighing, zebras constantly communicate with each other with high pitched barks and whinnying.

And let’s not forget that zebras also smell really, really, really bad. This was discovered by Animal Review during a winter trip to the zoo. Because of the snow, many of the animals were being kept indoors, and suffice it to say that the olfactory experience that accompanied walking into the zebra enclosure was nearly debilitating.  So they have that too.

Finally, the zebra has proven itself nearly impossible to domesticate. Whereas Europe and Asia pretty much got the horse-riding thing down thousands of years ago, Africa’s zebra is famously panicky and difficult to control, essentially ruling out any hopes of domestication, with a few exceptions that prove the rule from crazy British colonialists. And from a historical standpoint, not having big, sturdy animals to ride is a pretty bad deal.  So while horses and camels were busy transporting goods for trade and winning wars, zebras were spazzing, kicking and barking, and not moving to Wisconsin.

Alright. We get it. You’re weird.

In short, the zebra is a cautionary tale of the importance of self-awareness. By insisting on living in Africa among much cooler animals, the zebra has allowed itself to become deeply underrated. The truth is that zebras have a lot to offer – the rugs, the stink, the complete uselessness as beasts of burden. They would be wise to move somewhere where these qualities could be nurtured and appreciated. Wisconsin is waiting.



Mimic Octopus

One of nature’s great truisms is that cephalopods aren’t known for their senses of humor.  Indeed, cephalopods are often so bereft of joy that their friends worry about them and try extra hard to get them to come out to parties while secretly hoping they still stay home, where they won’t bum everyone else out too.  So when a team of scientists working in Indonesia documented an octopus that does impressions to avoid predation, they just knew they were on to something.  It was way back in October of 1998 that the intrepid research team of Norman, Finn et al, donned their diving gear, reluctantly paid the two-drink minimum cover charge, and sat through a painfully awful ventriloquist act before they were treated to the main attraction, Thaumoctopus mimicus, which you may know by its stage/common name, ‘The Mimic Octopus.’

‘Flatfish are easy because they’re flat and they’re fish. Seriously, this stuff writes itself.’

Despite repeated warnings about the use of flash photography, the researchers recorded more than six hours of video footage of the mimic octopus doing a pretty tight set. It is now believed this nutty cephalopod can change the color and shape of its body to impersonate up to fifteen different marine animals, including flatfish, lionfish, sea stars, brittle stars, sea snakes, Al Gore, giant crabs, sea anemones, Jack Nicholson, jellyfish, John Madden,  and stingrays.  Currently, the mimic octopus is working on a Rodney Dangerfield. It calls the Indo-Malayan archipelago home and probably remained anonymous for so long because divers in the area were fooled into thinking they were looking at Jay Leno.

‘I’m not a tasty octopus that goes well with lemon and soy. Nope. I’m a feather star. Or a jellyfish. Anyway…maybe I need to work on this one.’

Like Saturday Night Live, evolution has produced groups of animals that employ impersonation as a survival strategy. There’s the Katydid bug, who looks like a leaf; the Stick Bug, who does a dead-on impression of inanimate wood (down to the subtle mannerisms); and a host of other innocuous creatures that can appear to be a more dangerous/venomous animal. There are also many cephalopods that use camouflage and mimicry to impersonate rocks and coral, which explains the heavy dosage of rock-and coral-impersonators on The South China Sea’s Got Talent.

But what makes the mimic octopus unique is that it’s the only animal known to science that employs dynamic mimicry, meaning it has a repertoire of various impressions and can toggle between them at will, depending on the situation, or to deal with hecklers.

‘This one literally kills in the clubs. You know, because sea snakes are venomous. Oof, I’m dying out here.’

For example, scientists noted that when the mimic octopus was attacked by damselfish, the octo-legged entertainer jumped straight into its sea snake character by burying six of its legs in the sand and extending the remaining two horizontally across the ocean floor and changing their color so the legs appeared yellow and banded and snake-esque. The banded sea snake is widely-known to prey on damselfish, which means that the mimic octopus understands this at some semi-conscious level.  In other words, welcome to Spookyville.  Please enjoy your stay.

For other predators, the mimic octopus may do a sea anemone or a venomous lion fish. Or, when it observes an aging predator, the mimic octopus distracts it with the vocal stylings of Perry Como.  The mimic octopus knows its audience, which is why it is known as ‘The Hardest Working Octopus in Evolutionary Biology Show Business.’

Here’s the problem: Although dynamic mimicry in the animal kingdom is downright thrilling to scientists who spend most of their time working with tedious sea urchins and even more tedious scientists, it does very little to impress normal people who are used to being around the 2-3 guys at the office who can do decent Christopher Walken and William Shatner impressions. And, like those guys, the mimic octopus is almost always ‘on.’ Even when scooting across the ocean floor looking for food, or standing around the microwave waiting for a frozen burrito, it does so goofing on a flatfish or a stingray. Enough already.

Look, we all get that Thaumoctopus mimicus is trying to make a living down there, but if it can’t turn off the improv faucet and just be itself in front of the underwater research cameras, it’s going to become the Robin Williams of the sea.  And to anyone with the slightest sense of propriety or taste, that is never a good thing.

You’ve been a great audience. I’ll leave you with my lionfish/loud Southern guy character! Thank you! Good night!’