Here There Be Sea Monsters (And Also Snuggly Little Otters)

As you may recall, I am in general not always a big fan of creatures of the sea. Jellyfish, for instance, are at the top of my personal Threatdown list. But there’s more to an aquarium than jellyfish — and the lure of otters is too strong to resist — so today some family members and I took a field trip to the Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy, Utah. I haven’t had much of a chance to practice my low-light and zoo-ish photography, so I brought my camera along (with apologies to my awesome long-suffering sister-in-law, who has to put up with this same nonsense from her husband all the time) and managed to get a few shots I quite liked.

I want to get one of these frogs and carry it around on my shoulder at all times. It looks like it's really wise and might enjoy advising me on how best to conduct my business.

These Lion Fish are actually venomous, but they were also pretty good about showing off for my camera, so I guess they're not just straight-up jerks.

The aquarium itself was a bit of a disappointment — their interpretive signs left much to be desired, and a great many of the animals’ habitats were both small and overcrowded, with some of the views obstructed by slightly grimy tanks — but it was about what I expected from an aquarium of its size, especially considering that looking at the building from the outside it appears as if they converted an old K-Mart or something. I have to applaud them for having done as much as they have with the space they’re working with, but it’s clearly not the best possible situation. Luckily, a brand new aquarium building is in the works, with 130,000 square feet in Draper and what looks like a much more purpose-built and animal-hospitable building. Currently they’re planning to break ground this summer with a possible opening as early as spring 2013. I can’t wait to give the new place a try when they’ve upgraded their facilities. For now, if you’ve been to SeaWorld it’s not going to even remotely impress you, but if your aquarium experience begins and ends at the pick-your-own-crustacean tank at Red Lobster, then you’d probably find all of these exhibits incredibly diverting and educational.

They had several kinds of sea horses, which was awesome, but the leafy sea dragons were apparently hiding -- or just so good with their marvelous pretending-to-be-a-bit-of-plant-matter disguise that I couldn't spot them -- which was super-sad.

These piranhas were particularly super-awesome... those gold-colored flecks are just incredible. I wouldn't want to take a swim with them, though.

OMG OTTERS.

In case you've ever wondered what an otter looks like while it's pooping, this is the answer. YOU'RE WELCOME. It occurs to me that this always seems to be the pose that taxidermists choose to put stuffed otters in, which makes me wonder whether that's some sort of bathroom-related inside joke among taxidermists all over the world.

Here is a photo of a jellyfish. Jellyfish thing. I don't even know. I'm just showing you this so that you can identify the enemy.

Here is the obligatory NEMO! moment. Now that we've gotten that over with, we can move on to the serious biznis.

Like for instance this eel. Eel-thing? This is definitely serious. I couldn't find a sign saying what sort of eel this is, but I'd guess it's a giant moray. And thanks to Google I've discovered that eels gape their mouths open in this very threatening-looking fashion to help them keep water flowing through their gills and help them breathe. Rad. Also rad? That frilly corral-looking thing at the bottom left is a wobbegon, which in this case seems to mean a shark disguised as furniture, and it was chilling out with a huge eel so it had instant street cred. Tank cred?

This lobster is apparently over 45 years old. That kind of depressed me for reasons I can't really explain. Also, he's totally pretty and blue, which made him seem rather decent for being a cockroach of the sea.

I'm not really that into fish, but I did like the frogs. They were incredibly colorful and also adorable.

And speaking of adorable, here are a couple of Axolotls. I had to Google that to make sure I was spelling it right. What would I do without Google? Probably curl up in the corner and cry.

I don't know what this is, which is why I'm calling it a "gecko-y thing maybe" like that is its official taxonomical classification. My brother says it's a newt, which is probably the case, but "newt-y thing" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

I was surprised at how well some of these photos came out, considering my camera is not exactly the latest in DSLR technology and it was really quite dark in there. This last photo, of a sleeping green tree snake, is one of my favorites from the day. (That first frog shot is definitely the other top pick.)

I’ve been having a great time lately finding occasions to visit some of the local attractions here in the greater Salt Lake City area… it’s sort of fun to make yourself be a tourist in your native land. Keep an eye out for more posts and photos from around town as I continue to endeavor to get myself out of the house….

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Featured Creature Friday: The Tongue-Eating Louse

I threw you an easy pitch last week with the Kakapo. It was cute and fluffy, as promised, and the worst thing it does really is shag the heads of eminent conservationists. But now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, I think it’s time to return to the world of general horror and creatures that will keep you up at night, dreaming the sort of dreams that make you stop breathing and occasionally wet yourself. And the place you need to look for that sort of experience is of course in the water, which as far as I can tell is occupied by nothing but animals that want to make you cry like a little girl. (I know what you’re thinking. Dolphins, right? Dolphins are made out of fun and joy! Well, dolphins murder things for fun and also they’re baby-killing rapists, so there’s that illusion shattered. You’re welcome.)

photo by Matthew R. Gilligan, Savannah State University / public domain

Luckily, in times like these, there’s Cymothoa exigua: the tongue-eating louse. It is exactly what it the name implies: it is a parasite that eats tongues. But it’s worse than that. Oh, friends, it is so much worse than that. Because what it does is it takes up residence inside a fish’s mouth (by crawling in through the gills), kills the fish’s tongue (it actually drinks all the blood from it and the tongue atrophies; the louse doesn’t actually eat it), and then it attaches itself to the stump and pretends to be the fish’s tongue. And the fish, poor bastard, doesn’t appear to know any better; because the parasite is attached to what remains of the tongue, it can actually use the thing like it is a tongue. It’s the only known parasite that actually functionally replaces a host organ. You’d think that maybe it would use this advantageous new position to take a cut of the fish’s food, like some sort of a louse mafia, but no… it’s feeding on either the fish’s blood or its delicious fish mucus (whatever fish mucus is). Now I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned that makes this thing the most psychopathic parasite ever. If it could talk, undoubtedly the only thing it would say is, “It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again!”

That’s about all there is to the tongue-eating louse. I don’t have any interesting reproductive facts or fascinating tidbits for you. It pretends to be a fish’s tongue. Really that alone is quite enough.

If you enjoy these features (and who doesn’t enjoy a good tongue-eating louse?) I want to point you to an excellent blog: The Proceedings of the Ever so Strange. They’ve even got a blog about the tongue-eating louse with even more horrifying pictures! The things they post about there are ever so strange, and extend to more than just creatures, so even when it’s not Friday you can learn something terrifying about your world!