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I was recently at night in a public park in Karlsruhe, Germany. I've heard many (at least 10, probably many more - it's hard to tell) animals in the trees making noises similar to that of a rubber duck which is pressed.
What could that be?
It is most likely a Tawny Owl (Strix aluco), or Waldkauz in German, one of the most common owl species in Central Europe. These owls have many different calls, and you can hear them often here in Karlsruhe at night. Particularly their "kewick" call sounds similar to squeezing a rubber duck. It is usally emitted by female individuals during the mating season, but also males can produce it. Juveniles have a similar call as well. But most of the time - as far as I have noticed - you only hear their more common "hoo-hoo" calls (listen here or here).
Photo of a Tawny Owl:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waldkauz-Strix_aluco.jpg">ShareImprove this answeredited Jun 12 '17 at 20:18answered Jun 11 '17 at 17:09adjanadjan2,0389 silver badges23 bronze badges
What Kind of Sound Does an Owl Make at Night?
Owls are one of the most identifiable nocturnal animals, meaning they are known for being alert at night and sleeping during the day. While not all owls are nocturnal, many are and the owl noises they make are often heard in rural, wooded areas where they nest.
These sounds include hoots, screeches, barks, growls and shrieks. The exact sound and meaning of these noises varies by owl species.
Interesting facts about ducks
Ducks are birds in the family Anatidae. They are closely related to swans and geese, which are in the same family.
There are approximately 120 different species of ducks.
Ducks are mostly aquatic birds living in both fresh water and sea water and found on every continent except for Antarctica.
Wetlands, such as ponds, streams, lakes and lagoons, and woodland areas, such as swamp forests and stands of mangrove trees, are natural habitats for ducks.
Ducks have been domesticated as pets and farm animals for more than 500 years, and all domestic ducks are descended from either the mallard or the Muscovy duck.
It’s a fact that a wild duck can live 20 years or more. The world record is a Mallard Drake that lived to a ripe old age of 27 years. Domestic ducks typically live 10-15 years or less in captivity.
Ducks range in size from the very large eider duck which up to 71 centimeters (28 in.) long, weight up to 3 kilograms (6.6 lb.), and has a 1-meter (41-in.) wingspread, to the Eurasian teal which is about 28 centimeters (11 in.) long, has weight about 340 grams (12 oz) and a wingspread of 59 centimeters (23 in.).
While dimorphic (a difference in coloration between genders) plumages are common for many types of birds, ducks take this to a new art with outrageous, even garish patterns on males with gaudy colors and vibrant patterns. Females are much more subdued with neutral colors and mottled patterns for camouflage from their enemies when they are in their nests.
Ducks have webbed feet which allows them to paddle and swim in the water more smoothly.
Ducks feet has no nerves or blood vessels, meaning that their feet do not feel the cold! This enables ducks to swim in icy water, and walk in ice and snow.
They have very good vision and see in color.
Ducks have three eyelids. The top and bottom as well as a third that is found on the side of the eye. It is clear and acts much like goggles.
All ducks have highly waterproof feathers as a result of an intricate feather structure and a waxy coating that is spread on each feather while preening. A duck’s feathers are so waterproof that even when the duck dives underwater, its downy underlayer of feathers will stay completely dry.
Ducks keep their feathers clean by preening. They do this by putting their heads in funny positions and putting their beaks into their body. They preen themselves very often.
Ducks are very social animals who feel most at ease when they’re in larger groups of other ducks, who are called paddlings. They spend their days looking for food in the grass or in water, and they sleep together with their paddlings at night.
Ducks are omnivores. They feed on small fish and fish eggs, small crustaceans, frogs, salamanders and other amphibians, snails, worms and mollusks, aquatic and land insects, algae and aquatic plants and roots, grass and weeds, seeds and grain, small berries, fruits and nuts. In addition to these nutritious foods, some ducks will also eat sand, gravel, pebbles and small shells to provide grit that aids their digestion. Grit may also provide trace amounts of critical minerals as part of an overall healthy, varied diet.
Ducks are often classified by the way they feed, either as dabbling ducks or diving ducks. Dabbling ducks feed on the surface of water or on land, or as deep as they can reach by up-ending without completely submerging. Diving ducks forage deep underwater. To be able to submerge more easily, the diving ducks are heavier than dabbling ducks, and therefore have more difficulty taking off to fly.
Some duck species, mainly those breeding in the temperate and Arctic Northern Hemisphere, are migratory those in the tropics, however, are generally not.
Ducks normally migrate between 60 and 1,200 meters (200 and 4,000 feet) in the air, but are capable of reaching far greater heights. A jet plane over Nevada once struck a Mallard at an altitude of 6,400 meters (21,000 feet)! This is currently the highest recorded flight of any duck!
Male ducks are called Drakes, females are called Hens, and baby ducks are known as Ducklings.
Ducks usually look for a mate or partner in winter. Male ducks will attract the female ducks with their colorful plumage or feathers. The female ducks will then lead the male ducks to their breeding ground in spring.
The breeding ground will usually be the place where the female duck was hatched. The female duck builds her nest with grass or reeds or even in a hole in a tree.
The male duck will guard their territory by chasing away other couples. Once the female lays 5 – 12 eggs, she will sit on her eggs to keep them warm so that they can hatch into ducklings. The male ducks on the other hand, will be with the other male ducks.
The eggs will hatch within 28 days normally, except for the Muscovy duck which takes about 35 days to hatch. The mother duck will keep her brood of ducklings together to protect them from predators. Ducklings are able to fly within 5-8 weeks. Their feathers develop really fast.
Because of their wide distribution through many types of habitats, ducks have many predators. Some of these include hawks, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and large fish.
Females of most dabbling ducks make the classic “quack” sound, but despite widespread misconceptions, most species of duck do not “quack”. In general, ducks make a wide range of calls, ranging from whistles, cooing, yodels and grunts.
A common urban legend is that a ducks quack does not echo. This has however, been proven to be false.
The Guardian (British newspaper) published an article on Monday 16 March 2015 advising that ducks should not be fed with bread because it damages the health of the ducks and pollutes waterways.
In 2002, psychologist Richard Wiseman and colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, finished a year-long LaughLab experiment, concluding that of all animals, ducks attract the most humor and silliness.
The two most famous ducks in history are Donald and Daffy Duck.
Lizard ClassificationFamily: Chamaeleonidae Panther Chameleon Furcifer pardalis Photo © Animal-World: Courtesy Greg Rothschild
Identifying different types of lizards is easy, because most have a strong family resemblance!
Pet lizards and lizard species in general are often described by their family, or a common name descriptive of their family. Most lizard families contain various groups of lizards tied together by anatomical similarities, Many common lizard species are often simply referred to as Agamas, Chameleons, Geckos, Iguanas, Monitors, Skinks, Tegus and a few others. The lizard in the picture above is easily recognized as a Chameleon. Only Chameleon's have those crazy bulging eyes that swivel around in all directions, and those curious feet.
Lizard classification is part of a natural classifying system used by taxonomists. This classification system was devised by Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus in the late eighteenth century. He is credited for the beginnings of this system as a way of arranging plants and animals into groups based on differences and similarities between them. Linnaeus is often called the 'Father of Taxonomy'. The system currently used by taxonomists is called the Linnaean taxonomic system, in his honor.
The Linnaean classification system has a hierarchy of seven main taxonomic ranks, defined by the international nomenclature codes. These ranks are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. This system is very dynamic. The groupings, and the principles behind the groupings, have significantly changed since their conception and continue to change and expand, as more information is being assimilated.
In this guide, the lizard classification section outlines the main taxonomic ranks, from the kingdom down to the lizard families. There are currently about 27 lizard families, based on traditional classification, described as well. Each of these sections has a list of all types of lizards that may be found for pets, as well as many other species.
For information on keeping lizards as pets, see: Reptile Care: Keeping Reptiles and Amphibians as Pets
Pick your favorite snake, lizard, or turtle and start an exciting adventure into the Animal World of Reptiles! Reptiles are quiet and undemanding but are very fun to watch. Many are quite small, so need very little space and are easy to feed. They are also clean, most with no odor at all, making them easy to care for.
Lizards belong in a large class of animals called Reptilia, which contains over 8225 species. Reptiles are animals that are ectothermic (cold-blooded) vertebrates that breathe air. Most reptiles are oviparous (egg-laying) animals with the exception of some ovoviviparous (live-bearing) constrictor snakes and vipers, as well as a few lizard species. They are also tetropods, vertebrate animals that have four limbs or are descended from animals with four limbs.
Deciphering the lizard classification system can at first seem like a daunting task. To the non-scientific mind lizard taxonomy is like a maze constructed of a bunch of unfamiliar, latin based terms that lead this way and that. But its the lizard itself, whose physical, anatomical features solve the mystery of the maze. Answering a simple question about the lizard at each juncture, from the kingdom down, leads through all the twists and turns to the lizard's family. And finally within the lizard families, you can find the individual species, which is your lizard.
To follow the lizard classification hierarchy, the predominant taxonomic ranks are highlighted. It starts with the largest number of animals in the top rank, the kingdom, and then moves sequentially down to smaller and smaller subsets. These include the subkingdom, phylum, superclass, class, subclass, order, suborder, and family. Notes are included about new classification expansions and inclusions of additional ranks where appropriate. The additional ranks are inset.
Kingdom: Animalia or Metazoa
- Subkingdom Eumetazoa
The kingdom contains two subkingdoms (the other being Subkingdom Parazoa Porifera). The kingdom is then divided into Superphylums, the Superphylum containing the lizards is:
- Superphylum: Deuterostomia
- Subphylum: Vertebrata (Craniata)
These are vertebrates, animals with backbones, with approximately 58,000 species.
Note: In traditional classification, the path would then move directly from here to the Class Reptilia (reptiles). But as the study of animals has evolved, there are additional developments in refining classifications at this point, particularly for reptiles and amphibians. Under the Subphylum Vertebrata, reptiles can then be placed in the following Infraphylum:
- Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
This infraphylum is defined as vertebrates with jaws.
- Subclass: Diapsida
These are reptiles that have developed two holes (temporal fenestra) in each side of their skull. This group contains most of the reptiles, including lizards, snakes, crocodilians, dinosaurs and pterosaurs
- Note: In traditional classification, the Squamata order had three suborders: Lacertilia containing the lizards, Serpentes containing the snakes, and Amphisbaenia containing the worm lizards. Then later the Lacertilia suborder itself contained the four generally recognized suborders Iguania, Gekkota, Amphisbaenia, and Autarchoglossa.
- Note: In newer classifications the name Sauria is a clade that is used for reptiles and birds in general, and the Squamata are divided differently. But more recently it has been discovered that a couple other groups are now known to have venomous lizards.
- Note: Part of this re-classification is due to the discovery that more lizards are venomous than were previously thought. It had long been thought that only the Gila Monsters and the Beaded lizards, in the Family Helodermatidae, were venomous lizards. One group contains the monitor lizards of the Family Varanidae, like the Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis. The other contains lizards in the Suborder Iguania from the Family Agamidae, like the Bearded Dragon, and from the Family Iguanidae, like the Green Iguana.
- Much of the re-classification is being scrutinized and adjusted, so at this time we are primarily using the ITIS taxonomical hierarchy, with two exceptions. One exception is to Includes the Suborder Sauria with the unique Burrowing Lizards and Burrowing Slow Worms. The other exception, we will keep the earlier subfamily structure under Family Iguanidae, rather than making each of these subfamilies into families as ITIS does. The structure of these being families vs. subfamilies is one of the highly debated areas.
- Family: Amphisbaenidae
Tropical worm lizards, amphisbaenid with 5 species.
- Family: Bipedidae
Ajolotes with 6 species.
- Family: Rhineuridae
North American worm lizards with 7 species.
- Family: Trogonophidae
Palearctic worm lizards with 8 species.
- Family: Anguidae
Alligator Lizards, Anguid Lizards, Galliwasps, Slow Worms, Glass Lizards consisting of 94 species in 3 subfamilies, and 9+ genera
- Subfamily: Gerrhonotinae
- Subfamily: Anguinae
Slow worms and Glass lizards
- Subfamily: Diploglossinae
- Subfamily: Chamaesaurinae
- Subfamily: Cordylinae
- Subfamily: Gerrhosaurinae
- Subfamily: Zonosaurinae
- Subfamily: Gallotiinae
- Subfamily: Psammodromus
- Subfamily: Shinisaurinae
- Subfamily: Xenosaurinae
Strange Lizards, Knob-scaled lizards, Earless Monitor Lizards
- Family: Carphodactylidae
Australian knob-tail geckos consist of 29 described species in 7 genera.
- Family: Diplodactylidae
Stone geckos currently consists of about 118 described species in 19 genera.
- Family: Eublepharidae
'Eyelid' geckos, Eublepharid Geckos, about 30 species in 6 genera.
- Family: Gekkonidae
Geckos, wide variety of Geckos, over 2000 different species in 52 genera.
- Family: Phyllodactylidae
Leaf-toed, Turnip-tailed, Wall geckos, currently consists of 117 described species in 11 genera.
- Family: Pygopodidae
Legless lizards, Snake lizards, Flap-footed Lizards, consists of 41 described species in 7 genera.
- Family: Sphaerodactylidae
Bent-toed, Dwarf geckos, there are over 200 described species in 11 genera.
- Family: Agamidae
Old world arboreal lizards of more than 300 species with 6 subfamilies generally recognized.
- Subfamily: Agaminae
Bearded Dragons, Water Dragons, and Agamas (Africa, Asia and Australia)
- Subfamily: Amphibolurinae
(Australia and New Guinea)
- Subfamily: Draconinae
(South and Southeast Asia)
- Subfamily: Hydrosaurinae
Sailfin Lizards (Hydrosaurus, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, and Indonesia)
- Subfamily: Leiolepidinae
Butterfly Lizards (Leiolepis, Southeast Asia)
- Subfamily: Uromasticinae
Uromastyx or Spiny-tailed lizards (Saara and Uromastyx, Africa and south Asia)
- Subfamily: Chamaeleoninae
- Subfamily: Brookesiinae
- Subfamily: Corytophaninae
Helmet lizards or Casquehead lizards with 9 known species from 3 genera.
- Subfamily: Crotaphytina
Collared lizards or Leopard lizards with 12 species in 2 genera.
- Subfamily: Hoplocercinae
Wood lizards, Club-tail Lizards (also called Dwarf Iguanas) with 10 described species in 3 genera.
- Subfamily: Iguaninae
Marine, Fijian, Galapagos Land, Spinytail, Rock, Desert, and Green iguanas, also Chuckwallas
- Subfamily: Leiocephalinae
Curly-tailed Lizards currently recognizes 28 species in 1 genera.
- Subfamily: Liolaeminae
Liolaemids or Iguanian lizards, contains 211 species in 3 genera
- Subfamily: Oplurinae
Malagasy iguanas contain 7 species in 2 genera.
- Subfamily: Phrynosomatinae
North American spiny lizards. This group traditionally includes earless, spiny, tree, side-blotched and horned lizards. There are 136 species in 10 genera.
- Subfamily: Polychrotinae
Anoles and kin, contains about 372 known species in 4 genera.
- Subfamily: Tropidurinae
Tropidurid lizards or neotropical ground lizards, contains more than 160 species in 7 genera.
- Family: Dibamidae
Burrowing Lizards, contains about 22 species in 2 genera.
- Family: Anniellidae
Burrowing Slow Worms, consists of a single genus and 2 species.
The Gekkota suborder contains all the Geckos, and is one of the largest groups of lizards. Geckos are found worldwide in all the warmer regions. The family Gekkonidae consists of 5 subfamilies, numerous genera, and at least 800 different species. What distinguishes Geckos as a family is that they have the ability to produce sounds. Some make high pitched calls, some sound like ducks, and others like barking dogs.
Most geckos have fused eyelids (like snakes) and they lick them with their protrusible notched tongue to clean them. 75% of them are nocturnal so their pupils are narrow and vertical to block out light. The rest have round pupils.
They all have flattened bodies, short necks and wide flat heads. The digits of their feet (kind of like toes) are adhesive because they have rows of tiny hooked bristles which allow them to climb straight up walls and across ceilings. Geckos are generally hardy and fairly easy to maintain in captivity. Many will also breed easily in captivity.
- Family: Aeluroscalabotidae
- Cat Gecko - Aeluroscalabotes felinus
- Helmeted Gecko - Diplodactylus galeatus
- Fine-faced Gecko - Diplodactylus pulcher
- Box-patterned Gecko - Diplodactylus steindachneri
- Pale-snouted Ground Gecko - Diplodactylus stenodactylus
- Tesselated Gecko - Diplodactylus tessellatus
- Eastern Stone Gecko - Diplodactylus vittatus
- Banded Desert Gecko, Western Banded Gecko - Coleonyx variegatus
- Leopard Gecko - Eublepharis macularius
- African Fat-tailed Gecko - Hemitheconyx taylori
- Bibron's Gecko - Pachydactylus bibronis
- Brook's Gecko - Hemidactylus brooki
- Day Geckos - Phelsuma spp. (28 species)
- Gold Dust Day Gecko - Phelsuma laticauda
- Madagascar Day Gecko - Phelsuma madagascariensis
- Striped Day Gecko - Phelsuma lineata
- Disc-tailed Gecko - Lygodactylus picturatus
- European Leaf-toed Gecko - Phyllodactylus europaeus
- Fan-fingered Gecko - Ptyodactylus hasselquistii
- House Gecko - Hemidactylus frenatus
- Kuhl's Gecko or Flying Gecko - Ptychozoon kuhli
- Moorish Gecko or Wall Gecko - Tarentola mauritanica
- Naked-fingered Gecko - Gymnodactylus kotschyi
- Striped Leaf Gecko, Wiegmann's Striped Gecko - Gonatodes vittatus
- Tokay Gecko - Gekko gecko
- Turkish Gecko - Hemidactylus turcicus
- Frog-eyed Gecko, Common Wonder Gecko - Teratoscincus scincus
- Burton's Snake Lizard - Lialis burtonis
- Common Scaly-foot - Pygopus lipidopodus
Iguanas, Anoles, Chuckwallas, Curly-tailed lizards, Swifts (Spiny Lizards), Collared Lizards (Leopard Lizard), New World (neotropical) Ground Lizards
Iguanas range in type from the tree dwelling arboreal types to the terrestrial and the semi-aquatic types. They have well developed limbs and short tongues that are barely protrusible. Most have long tails, crests, and dewlaps. Males are bright and varied in coloring. Most lay eggs in the ground but there are a few who are live bearers. The desert and forest dwellers are mainly herbivores while the smaller members are insectivores or omnivores.
It had long been thought that the Gila Monsters and the Beaded lizards, in the Family Helodermatidae, were the only venomous lizards. But more recently it has been discovered that a couple other groups of lizards also contain venomous lizards including some in the Family Iguanidae, like the Green Iguana. For pet owners there is no reason for undue concern, however, as the toxin secreting glands of these lizards are smaller than those of snakes. The venom they produce may aid to subduing small prey, but on a human it would have no effect, or very little. It is said that a bitten hand might throb at most.
- Green Anole (American Chameleon) - Anolis carolinensis
- Brown Anole - Anolis sagrei
- Cuban or Knight Anole - Anolis equestris
- Giant Anole - Anolis recordii
- Largeheaded Anole - Anolis cybotes
- Green Iguana - Iguana iguana
- Desert Iguana - Dipsosaurus dorsalis
- Club-tail Iguana - Hoplocercus spinosus
- Fiji Island Iguana - Brackylophus spp. (2 species: fiji/tonga)
- Forest Iguana - Polychrus marmoratus
- Forest Iguana - Polychrus acuttirostris
- Galapagos Land Iguana - Conolophus subcristatus
- Galapagos Marine Iguana - Amblyrhynchus cristatus
- Rhinoceros Iguana - Cyclura corhuta
- Spiny-tail (Black) Iguana - Ctenosaura similis
- Common Chuckwalla - Sauromalus ater
- San Esteban Island Chuckwalla - Sauromalus varius
- Curly-tailed lizards
Curly-tailed lizards range from Cuba to Trinidad, and in the Caribbean. These lizards are a relatively unstudied group that were previously included in the Tropiduridae family, and regarded as subfamily, but now they are placed in their own family. There are about 28 species in one genera.
- Cuban or Northern Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus carinatus
- Red-sided Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus schreibersii
- Alto Velo Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus altavelensis
- Orange-bellied Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus barahonensis
- Cuban Brown Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus cubensis
- Navassa Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus eremitus
- East Plana Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus greenwayi
- Martinique Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus herminieri
- Inagua Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus inaguae
- San Salvador Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus loxogrammus
- Hispaniolan Masked Curly-tailed Lizard - Leiocephalus personatus
- Swifts, Spiny Lizards
Spiny lizards or Swifts are common lizards ranging from Southern Canada to the Panama. They live in diverse habitats from hot, sandy deserts, prairies and sagebrush areas, to the edges of forests.
- Common Swift or Fence Lizard - Sceloporus undulatus
- Horned Toad, Texas Horned Lizard - Phrynosoma cornutum
- Crevice Spiny Swift - Sceloporus poinsetti
- Granite Spiny Lizard - Sceloporus orcutti
- Mexican Emerald Swift - Sceloporus malachiticus
- Collared Lizards, Leopard Lizards
Collared lizards or Leopard lizards are common lizards that live in desert habitats ranging from the southernwestern United States into northern Mexico, and then to the Panama. The are very quick moving lizards with long limbs and tail. They are carnivores and have very strong jaws. There are 12 species in 2 genera, Gambelia and Crotaphytus. They differ from each other in that the Gambelia genus has fracture planes in their tails, which allows the tail to break off if it is grabbed by a predator.
- Collared Lizard - Crotaphytus collaris
- Venerable Collared Lizard - Crotaphytus antiquus
- Desert Collared Lizard - Crotaphytus bicinctores
- Grismer's Collared Lizard - Crotaphytus grismeri
- Sonoran Collared Lizard - Crotaphytus nebrius
- Reticulated Collared Lizard - Crotaphytus reticulatus
- Baja Collared Lizard - Crotaphytus vestigium
- Cope's Leopard Lizard - Gambelia copeii
- Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard - Gambelia sila
- Long-nosed Leopard Lizard - Gambelia wislizenii
- New World (neotropical) Ground Lizards
These are New World (neo tropical) ground lizards, also called Tropidurid lizards, and are found in mainland South America. They inhabit the Amazon rainforest but also are found in more open, dry areas.
- Keel-tailed Lizard - Tropidurus torquatus
There are approximately 160 Chameleon species from 2 subfamilies, containing 11 genera.They are found in Europe, in Asia through much of India, and in all of Africa, especially Madagascar. They are all arboreal, living in trees, and are insectivores. Some are egglayers and others are livebearers.
Chameleons have highly ridged, laterally compressed bodies, large heads, and sticky long tongues which they can accurately project at insect prey. The opposing digits of their feet are fused in groups of two or three which they use, along with their prehensile tail to move from branch to branch. They move slowly and methodically.
One of the chameleons most distinguishing features is their remarkable color changing ability. They change color depending on mood, lighting, temperature and other environmental influences. The chameleons eyes are cone shapes protruding from their head, with a small opening at the end for the pupil. The eyes move independently from each other and rotate in all directions.
- Common Chameleon - Chamaeleo chameleon
- Flap-neck Chameleon - Chamaeleo dilepsis
- Four Horned Chameleon - Chamaeleo quadricornus
- Jackson's Chameleon or Three-horned Chameleon - Chamaeleo jacksoni
- Senegal Chameleon - Chamaeleo senegalensis
- Madagascan Chameleon - Chamaeleo verrucosis
- Millers Giant Chameleon - Chamaeleo melleri
- Veiled Chameleon - Chamaeleo calyptractus
- Panther Chameleon - Furcifer pardalis
- Fischer's Chameleon - Kinyongia fischeri
- Graceful Chameleon - Chamaeleo gracilis
- Indian Chameleon - Chamaeleo zeylanicus
- Dwarf Chameleon, Pygmy Leaf Chameleon - Brookesia minima
- Antsingy Leaf Chameleon - Brookesia perarmata
- Bearded Pygmy Chameleon - Rieppeleon brevicaudatus
- African leaf chameleon - Rhampholeon acuminatus
- Marshall's Pygmy Chameleon - Rhampholeon marshalli
- Spectral Pygmy Chameleon - Rhampholeon spectrum
- Rosette-Nosed Chameleon - Rhampholeon spinosus
- Green Pygmy Chameleon - Rhampholeon viridis
Bearded Dragons, Water Dragons, Uromastyx or Spiny-tailed lizards, Agamas, Sailfin Lizards, and Butterfly Lizards
Agamas are Old world arboreal lizards consisting of 300+ species, within 6 generally recognized subfamiles. These lizards are considered the "Old World" equivalent of the Iguanidae family because they are found on the "old world" continents of Africa, Asia, and Australia. Another similarity to the iguanidae is that they come in the terrestrial, arboreal, and semi-aquatic types. The 6 subfamiles include:
- Agaminae (Africa, Asia and Australia)
- Amphibolurinae (Australia and New Guinea)
- Draconinae (South and Southeast Asia)
- Hydrosaurinae (Hydrosaurus, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, and Indonesia)
- Leiolepidinae (Leiolepis, Southeast Asia)
- Uromasticinae (Saara and Uromastyx, Africa and south Asia)
Agamids have well developed limbs, long tails, and often bizarre forms with crest, dewlaps and expandable appendages. The males are often brightly colored. Many will breed easily in captivity, laying soft-shelled eggs in ground burrows.
It had long been thought that the Gila Monsters and the Beaded lizards, in the Family Helodermatidae, were the only venomous lizards. But more recently it has been discovered that a couple other groups of lizards also contain venomous lizards including some in the Family Agamidae, like the Bearded Dragon. For pet owners there is no reason for undue concern, however, as the toxin secreting glands of these lizards are smaller than those of snakes. The venom they produce may aid to subduing small prey, but on a human it would have no effect, or very little. It is said that a bitten hand might throb at most.
- Bearded Dragons
- Bearded Dragon (Inland) - Pogona vetticeps
- Bearded Dragon - Pogona barbata
- Dwarf Bearded Dragon - Pogona minor
- Lawson's or Rankin's Bearded Dragon - Pogona henrylawsoni
- North-west Bearded Dragon - Pogona mitchelli
- Nullarbor Bearded Dragon - Pogona nullarbor
- Western Bearded Dragon - Pogona minima
- Chinese water dragon - Physignathus cocincinus
- Australian water dragon - Physignathus lesueurii
- Spiny-tailed Agama, Black Thorny-tailed Agama, Bell's Dabb Lizard - Uromastyx acanthinurus
- Egyptian Thorny-tailed Agama, Egyptian Mastigure, Leptien's Mastigure - Uromastyx aegyptius
- Spiny-tailed Lizard - Uromastyx flavifasciata
- Saharan Uromastyx, Saharan Spiny-tailed Lizard - Uromastyx geyri
- Indian Spiny-tailed Lizard, Indian Thorny-tailed Agama, Hardwick's Spiny-tailed Lizard - Uromastyx hardwickii
- Red-headed Agama, Rainbow Lizard - Agama agama
- Blue-throated Agama - Agama atricollis
- Ground Agama, South African Agama - Agama aculeata
- Desert Agama - Agama mutabilis
- Pyramid Agama, Hardun Agama, Common Agama- Agama stellio
- Toad Head Agama - Agama savgney
- Frill-necked Lizard - Chlamydosaurus kingii
- Green Tree Lizard - Acanthosaura capra
- Mountain-horned Lizard - Acanthosaura armato
- Sawback Agama - Calotes calotes
- Bornean Bloodsucker - Calotes cristellatus
- Garden Tree Lizard, Indian Bloodsucker - Calotes versicolor
- Sailfin Lizards
- Philippine Sailfin - Hydrosaurus pustulatus
- Soa Soa, Lassara Sailfin - Hydrosaurus amboinensis
- Weber's Sailfin Lizard - Hydrosaurus weber
- Butterfly Lizards
- Bell's Agama, Common Butterfly Lizard - Leiolepis belliana
- Butterfly Lizard, Spotted Butterfly Lizard - Leiolepis guttata
- Ngo Van Tri's Lady Butterfly Lizard - Leiolepis ngovantrii
Basilisks, Helmet lizards, or Collared Lizards
Collared lizards, Helmeted lizards, and Basilisks have well developed head crests, typically in the shape of a helmet. They inhabit forested areas and range from Mexico as far south as Ecuador. Until recently, these lizards were included in the family Iguanidae. Now they have a family of their own, consisting of 3 genera and about 9 known species. These lizards are also considered a "New World" family because they are found on the continent of North America in Central America, starting in Cost Rico and Panama and Costa, southward into Columbia on the continent of South America.
The basilisks are slender lizards with well developed limbs that are fairly long. They have a helmet-like head crest and a sail-like erectable crest that runs down their back.They are arboreal and semi-aquatic. Being omnivorous they require both vegetable matter and proteins. Many will breed in captivity, laying eggs in ground burrows.
- Helmeted Basilisk, Common Basilisk - Basiliscus basiliscus
- Green Basilisk, Plumed Basilisk, Double-Crested Basilisk - Basiliscus plumifrons
- Red-headed Basilisk - Basiliscus galeritus
- Brown or Striped Basilisk - Basiliscus vittatus
- Serrated Casquehead Iguana - Laemanctus serratus
- Helmeted Iguana - Corytophanes cristatus
- Guatemalan Helmeted Basilisk - Corytophanes percarinatus
- Hernandez's Helmeted Basilisk - Corytophanes hernandezi
- Eastern Casquehead Iguana - Laemanctus longipes
Skinks consist of about 1200 described species in many genera, and many are being re-classified. They are very wide spread and found on six continents Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. The Autarchoglossa Suborder and family groupings are under scrutiny, but until a re-ordering has been agreed upon by the experts, we will use the traditional groupings.
Skinks are terrestrial and often burrowers. Their diet consisting mostly of insects though some are omnivorous. Skinks have elongated and rather circular bodies. They have little necks with small pointed heads. Their legs are short, even absent on some species, and their tails vary from short to long and are generally colorful. Many skinks will breed fairly easily in captivity. Some are livebearers and some are egglayers.
- African Five-lined Skink, Rainbow Rock Skink - Mabuya quinquelaeniata
- Apocathary Skink - Scincus scinscus
- Berber SKink, Desert Skink - Eumeces algeriensis
- Blue-tongued Skink - Tiliqua scincoides
- Cunningham's Skink - Egernia cunninghami
- Eyed Skink, Ocellated skink - Chalcides ocellatus
- Five-lined Skink - Eumeces faciatus
- Great Plains Skink - Eumeces obsoletus
- Green Tree Skink - Dosia smaragdinum
- Pinecone Skink, Shingleback Skink - Trachydosaurus rugosus
- Snake-eyed Skink - Ablepharus kitaibeli
- Solomans Giant Skink - Corucia zebrata
- Striped Skink - Mabuya striata
- Limbless Skinks - Feylinia spp.
Tegus and Greaved Lizards
Tegus and Greaved Lizards, Whiptails, Ground Lizards, Ameivas, New World Runners, and Racerunners.
The Teiidae family has approximately 400 species in about 40 genera. They can be found in North America and South America, specifically in the United States, central America, south and central Argentina, and Chile. The Autarchoglossa Suborder and family groupings are under scrutiny, but until a re-ordering has been agreed upon by the experts, we will use the traditional groupings.
The terrain of the Teiidea lizards varies from tree dwelling to desert dwelling, with some types being limbless burrowers. For the most part, they have well developed limbs, long tails, large plate like heads, and an extensible forked tongue. In their diet, the Teiidae family varies from being carnivorous to partly or mostly herbivorous. Because of their nervous nature, they don't always do real well in captivity, and are sparse breeders.
- Tegus and Greaved Lizards
- Ameiva - Ameiva ameiva
- Black and White Tegu - Tupinambis teguixin
- Golden Tegu - Tupinambis nigropunctatus
- Red Tegu - Tupinambis rufescens
- Jungle Runner - Cnemidophorus lemniscatus
- Six-lined Racerunner - Cnemidophorus sexlineatus
The Varanidae family has over 70 species in 1 genera, with at least 62 species currently described. The Monitor lizards are found in Australia and the neighboring islands of Asia. Most of these are fairly large ground dwelling lizards and all are carnivorous.
Monitors have well developed limbs and a long whiplike tail. They have an elongated body topped of with a long head and pointed snout. The monitors jaws are very, very powerful. Many species do well in captivity, but successful breeding is pretty rare.
- Monitor Lizards
- Australian Monitor - Varanus giganteus
- Australian Ridge-tailed Monitor - Varanus acanthurus
- Black Rough-necked Monitor - Varanus rudicollis
- Black Tree Monitor - Varanus beccarii
- Bogert's Monitor - Varanus bogerti
- Blue-tailed Monitor - Varanus doreanus
- Crocodile or Papuan Monitor - Varanus salvadorii
- Dumeril's Monitor - Varanus dumerilii
- Gould's Monitor - Varanus gouldi
- Green Tree or Emerald Monitor - Varanus prasinus
- Irian Jayan Peach-throated Monitor - Varanus jobiensis
- Komodo Dragon - Varanidae komodoensis
- Mangrove Monitor - Varanus indicus
- Nile Monitor, Ornate Nile Monitor - Varanus niloticus
- Pygmy Mulga Monitor - Varanus gilleni
- Rusty Monitor - Varanus kingorum
- Salvator Monitor or Asian Water Monitor - Varanus salvator
- Savannah Monitor - Varanus exanthematicus
- Southern Argus Monitor - Varanus panoptes rubidus
- Spiny-tailed Monitor - Varanus acanthurus
- Storr's Monitor - Varanus storri
- Timor Monitor - Varanus timorensis
- White-throated Monitor - Varanus albigularis
The family Lanthanotidae consists of a single species. The Earless Monitor Lizard is found only in north-west Borneo. It has an elongated body, short blunt tail, a broad flat head on a thick neck and no external ear openings.
It is found around waterways and has been known to eat raw strips of fish in captivity.
Typical Lizards, Wall lizards, True lizards, Lacertas, Lacertid Lizards, Old World Runners
The Lacertidae family are "Old World" typical lizards from the continents of Africa, Europe and Asia. This family contains hundreds of species in 37 genera. The Autarchoglossa Suborder and family groupings are under scrutiny, as well as genus and species, but until a re-ordering has been agreed upon by the experts, we will use previous groupings and names.
The Typical Lizards are distinguished by a collar of large scales on the underside of their necks. Most of their other physical characteristics can be described by "long" and "thin". They have slender elongated bodies with a well defined head above a narrow neck, a long extendable tongue that is deeply forked, a long slender tail that can be shed, and thin toes.
Typical lizards are hardy and easily kept in captivity though they move very quickly. The structure of their tail supports fast zigzag movements and very accurate jumps that are needed to catch their insect prey. They are all insectivores. Many will breed easily in captivity. Most are egglayers though some give live birth.
- Typical Lizards, Wall lizards, Lacertid Lizards
- Algerian Sand Lizard - Psammodrumus algirus
- Spiny-footed Lizard - Acanthodactylus erythrurus
- Dwarf Keeled Lizard - Algyroides fitzingeri
- Emerald Lizard or European Green Lizard - Lacerta viridis
- Eyed Lizard, Foot lizard, or Ocellated Lizard - Lacerta lepida
- Greek Wall Lizard or Greek Rock Lizard - Lacerta graeca
- Sand Lizard or Mongolian Lacerata - Lacerta agilis
- Turkish Rock Lacerata - Lacerta saxicola
- Viviparous Lizard - Lacerta vivipara
- Ukrainian Lacerata - Podarcis taurica
- Ruins Lizard - Podarcis sicula
- Wall Lizard - Podarcis muralis
- Lilford's Wall Lizard - Podarcis lilfordi
- Ibiza Wall Lizard - Podarcis pityusensis
Girdled Lizards, Girdle-tailed Lizards, Spinytail Lizards, Grass lizards
The Family: Cordylidae, Girdle-tailed Lizards, consists of about 71 species in 4 genera. They are found in Africa southeast of the Sahara and in Madagascar. These lizards inhabit mostly rocky areas, though one species digs burrows. They are mostly insectivores.
The Girdled lizards have flattened heads and bodies with enlarged rectangular scales, arranged in regular rows around the body like girdles, and they are typically spiny. Their namesake, derived from rings of spines on the tail, are used to wedge themselves into rocky crevices and to ward off predators. Many do well in captivity and can be bred, most of the Girdled Lizards give live birth.
- Girdled Lizards
- Common Sungazer - Cordylus cordylus
- Giant Zonare, Sungazer, Girdled Lizard, or Girdle-tailed Lizard - Cordylus giganteus
- Jones Armadillo Lizard - Cordylus tropidosternum
- Ornamental Flat Lizard - Platysaurus guttatus
The Family Gerrhosauridae, Plated Lizards, consists of about 34 species in 6 genera. They are found in Africa southeast of the Sahara and in Madagascar. These lizards inhabit a range of habitats from rocky areas to sand dunes. They are variable in form. Some species have four fully developed limbs while others with very reduced remnants of hind limbs. They are mostly carnivorous. Many do well in captivity and can be bred, most of the Plated Lizards lay eggs.
- Plated Lizards
- Sudan Plated Lizard - Gerrhosaurus major
- Ornate Giant Sudan Plated Lizard - Gerrhosaurus nigrolineatus
- Yellow-throated Plated Lizard - Gerrhosaurus validus
- Madagascar Giant Plated Lizard - Zonosaurus maximus
Alligator Lizards, Anguid Lizards, Galliwasps, Slowworms, Blindworms, Glass Lizards
The family Anguidae (Alligator Lizards, Anguid Lizards, Galliwasps, Slow Worms, Blind Worms, Glass Lizards) consists of 94 species in 3 subfamilies and 9+ genera. They are found in the norhthern hemisphere. They inhabit a wide range of habitats and though most are terrestrial, some climb trees.
All of the Anguidae family have elongated bodies and long tails that they can shed. Their limbs are very slight or often gone, giving them a snake like appearance. However, their moveable eyelids betray them as lizards. A snakes eyelids are fused. They have either a notched or forked tongue and are either insectivores or carnivores.
- Slow Worms, Glass lizards
- Slowworm or Blindworm - Anguis fragilis
- Glass Snake or Scheltopusik - Ophisaurus apodus
- Green Arboreal Alligator Lizard - Abronia Graminea
- Southern Alligator Lizard - Gerrhonotus multicarinatus
The family Xantusiidae has approximately 23 living species in 3 genera. The Night Lizards are found in semi-desert environments in North America, specifically lower California, central America and in the West Indies. They have fused eyelids and short tongues that do not protrude. They are nocturnal and carnivorous.
- Night Lizards
- Granite Night Lizard - Xantusia henshawi
- Desert Night Lizard, Yuccan Night Lizard - Xantusia vigilis
Crocodile Lizards, Strange Lizards, Knob-scaled lizards
The family Xenosauridae has about 5 species in 2 genera.
- Crocodile Lizard
The Crocodile Lizard of the Shinisaurus genus is found in Asia, specifically China in the Hunan, Guangxi Zhuang, and Guizhou provinces. The Crocodile Lizard has well developed limbs and a muscular tail patterned with light and dark bands. Its name is derived from the bony scales running along its back and tail, giving it a crocodile-like appearance though it is much smaller than actual crocodiles, only reaching 16 - 18 inches (40-46 cm) in length. The crocodile lizard is semi-aquatic, living in shallow waters or on overhanging branches and leaves. It eats fish and aquatic invertebrates like tadpoles and snails, as well as insects. It is not known to be kept in captivity.
- Crocodile Lizard, Chinese Crocodile Lizard - Shinisaurus crocodilurus
- Newman's Knob-scaled Lizard - Xenosaurus newmanorum
- Flathead Knob-scaled Lizard - Xenosaurus platyceps
- Pena's Knob-scaled Lizard - Xenosaurus penai
- Pallid Knob-scaled Lizard - Xenosaurus rectocollaris
Venomous Lizards, the Gila Monsters and Beaded Lizards
The Family Helodermatidae contains venomous lizards, the Gila Monsters and the Beaded Lizards. There are just 2 described species in 1 genera, and there are a few suggested subspecies. They are found in North America, specifically in south-western United States and Mexico. They have a stout body with a broad head, well developed limbs, a short fat tail, and they are carnivorous.
- Venomous Lizards
- Gila Monster - Heloderma suspectum
- Beaded Lizard - Heloderma horridum
The Family Dibamidae contains about 22 species in 2 genera. The Burrowing Lizards are a family of legless lizards found in Mexico and the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippine Islands and western New Guinea. They are wormlike with eye and ear openings that are covered with skin, and they burrow.
- Burrowing Lizards
- Old World Burrowing Lizards - Dibamus spp.
These are found in southeast Asia and New Guinea. They are wormlike with no limbs, though there are stumps on the males. Their eye and ear openings are covered with skin and they burrow. These lizards are rarely kept in captivity.
- Mexican Burrowing Lizard, Mexican Blind Lizard - Anelytropsis papillosus
This is a single species found in North America, specifically central Mexico. It has a wormlike body and skin covered eyes and ears. It is not known to have been kept in captivity.
The Family Anniellidae is a small group that consists of a single genus and 2 species. The Burrowing Slow Worms are found in North America, specifically in central and coastal California in the United States. They have small limbless bodies, small eyes, no obvious ears and a forked tongue. They eat invertebrates. They are not known to be held in captivity.
W e know exactly where the spill occurred: 44.7°N, 178.1°E. We know the day, January 10, 1992, but not the hour. Neither do we know the name of the ship nor of its captain nor of the shipping magnate who owned it. We do know the harbors from which it sailed (Hong Kong) and to which it was headed (Tacoma). We know that despite its grandeur, when rocked by forty-foot waves, the colossal vessel, a floating warehouse weighing 50,000 deadweight tons or more and powered by a diesel engine the size of a barn, would have rolled and pitched and yawed about like a toy in a Jacuzzi.
We know that twelve of the colorful containers stacked above deck snapped loose from their moorings and tumbled overboard. We can safely assume that the subsequent splash was terrific, like the splash a train would make were you to drive it off a seaside cliff. We know that each container measured forty feet long and eight feet wide and may have weighed as much as 58,000 pounds, depending on the cargo, and that at least one of them—perhaps when it careened into another container, perhaps when it struck the ship’s stays, perhaps as it descended to high-pressure depths—burst open. We know that when it left port, this ill-fated container had contained 7,200 little packages that, as the water gushed in and the steel box sank, all or most of these packages came floating to the surface that every package comprised a plastic shell and a cardboard back that every shell housed four hollow plastic animals—a red beaver, a blue turtle, a green frog, and a yellow duck—each about three inches long and that printed on the cardboard in multicolored lettering were the following words: floatees. the first years. from 6 months. expert developed ? parent preferred. 100% dishwasher safe .
From a low-flying plane on a clear day, the packages would have looked like confetti, a great drift of colorful squares, exploding in slow motion across the waves. Within twenty-four hours, the water would have dissolved the glue. The action of the waves would have separated the plastic from the cardboard. There, in the middle of the North Pacific, in seas almost four miles deep, more than six hundred miles south of Attu Island, the western extreme of the United States, more than a thousand miles east of Hokkaido, the northern extreme of Japan, and more than two thousand miles west of Sitka, Alaska, 28,800 plastic animals produced in Chinese factories for the bathtubs of America—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—hatched from their plastic shells and drifted free.
E leven years later, more than 7,000 nautical miles to the east, an anthropologist named Bethe Hagens and her boyfriend, Waynn Welton, a retired digital cartographer, spotted something small and bright perched atop the seaweed at the southwest end of Gooch’s Beach near the entrance to Kennebunk Harbor in Maine. They stopped and crouched. Its body was approximately the size and shape of a bar of soap, its head the size of a Ping-Pong ball. A brand name, the first years, was embossed upon its belly. The plastic was “white, incredibly weathered, and very worn,” Hagens would later recall. Welton remembers it differently. It was, he insists, still yellow. “Parts of it had started to fade,” he told me. “But not a great deal. Whatever they’d used for the dye of the plastic had held up pretty well.” Yellow or not, the thing looked as though it had crossed the ocean on that Hagens and Welton agree. It was fun to imagine, a lone duck, drifting across the Atlantic, like something out of a fairy tale or a children’s book—fun but also preposterous. Sensibly, they had left the toy where they found it and walked on.
The classified ads in the July 14, 1993, edition of the Sitka Daily Sentinel do not make for exciting reading, though they do convey something of what summertime in Alaska’s maritime provinces is like. That week, the Tenakee Tavern “in Tenakee” was accepting applications “for cheerful bartenders.” The Baranof Berry Patch was buying berries—“huckleberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries.” The National Marine Fisheries Service gave notice that the winners of the 1992 Sablefish Tag Recovery Drawing, an annual event held to encourage the reporting of tagged sablefish, would be selected at 1:00 p.m. on July 19 at the Auke Bay Laboratory. “Tired of shaving, tweezing, waxing?!” asked Jolene Gerard, R.N., R.E., enticing the hirsute citizens of Alaska’s Panhandle with the promise of “Permanent hair removal.” Then, under the ambiguous heading of “Announcements,” between “Business Services” and “Boats for Sale,” an unusual listing appeared.
ANYONE WHO has found plastic toy animals on beaches in Southeast please call the Sentinel at 747-3219.
The author of the ad was Eben Punderson, a high school teacher who moonlighted as a journalist. On Thanksgiving Day, 1992, a party of beachcombers strolling along Chichagof Island had discovered several dozen hollow plastic animals amid the usual wrack of bottlecaps, fishing tackle, and driftwood deposited at the tide line by a recent storm. After ten months at sea, the ducks had whitened and the beavers had yellowed, but the frogs were still as green as ever, and the turtles were still blue.
In subsequent weeks beachcombers on other islands found more of the toys, and new ones kept washing ashore. Laurie Lee of South Baranof Island filled an unused skiff with the horde she’d scavenged. Signe Wilson filled a hot tub. Betsy Knudson had so many to spare she started giving them to her dog. It appeared that even the sea otters of Sitka Sound were collecting them: one toy had been plucked from an otter’s nest. On a single beachcombing excursion with friends, Mary Stensvold, a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service who normally spends her days hunting rare varieties of liverwort, gathered forty of the animals. Word of the invasion spread. Dozens of correspondents answered the Sentinel’s ad. Toys had been found as far north as Kayak Island, as far south as Coronation Island, a range of tide line extending for hundreds of miles. Where had they come from?
Eben Punderson was pretty sure he knew. Three years earlier, in May of 1990, an eastbound freighter, the Hansa Carrier, had collided with a storm five hundred miles south of the Alaskan Peninsula. Several containers had gone overboard, including a shipment of 80,000 Nikes. Six months later, sneakers began washing up along Vancouver Island. The story had received national attention after a pair of oceanographers in Seattle—Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a scientist with a private consulting firm that tracked drifting icebergs for the oil industry, and James Ingraham of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration [*] (NOAA)—turned the sneaker spill into an oceanographic experiment. By feeding coordinates collected from beachcombers into NOAA’s Ocean Surface Current Simulator, or OSCURS, a computer modeling system built from a century’s worth of Navy weather data, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham had reconstructed the drift routes of some 200 shoes. In the process the basement of Ebbesmeyer’s bungalow had become the central intelligence headquarters of what would eventually grow into a global beachcombing network. Would a similar accident account for the appearance of the bath toys?
Punderson had one lead. The ducks—and for some reason only the ducks—had been embossed with the logo of their manufacturer, The First Years. A local toy store was unable to find the logo in its merchandise catalogues, but the director of the Sheldon Jackson College Library traced the brand back to its parent company in Massachusetts, Kiddie Products. Punderson spoke to the company’s marketing manager, who confirmed the reporter’s speculations. Yes, indeed, a shipment of Floatees had been lost at sea. “Solved: Mystery of the Wandering Bathtub Toys,” ran the headline in the Sentinel’s “Weekend” section a month after Punderson’s ad first appeared. And that is where the story should have ended—as an entertaining anecdote in the back pages of a provincial newspaper. Mystery solved. Case closed. But then something unexpected happened. The story kept going.
In part the story kept going because Ebbesmeyer and his beachcombers joined the hunt, in part because the toys themselves kept going. Years later, new specimens and new mysteries were still turning up. In the autumn of 1993, Floatees suddenly began sprinkling the shores of Shemya, a tiny Aleutian island that lies about 1,500 miles closer to Russia than to Sitka, not far from the site of the original spill. In 1995, beachcombers in Washington State found a blue turtle and a sun-bleached duck. Dean and Tyler Orbison, a father-son beachcombing team who every summer scour uninhabited islands along the Alaskan coast, added more toys to their growing collection every year—dozens in 1992, three in 1993, twenty-five in 1994, until, in 1995, they found none. The slump continued in 1996, and the Orbisons assumed they’d seen the last of the plastic animals, but then, in 1997, the toys suddenly returned in large numbers.
Thousands more were yet to be accounted for. Where had they gone? Into the Arctic? Around the globe? Were they still out there, traveling the currents of the North Pacific? Or did they lie buried under wrack and sand along Alaska’s wild, sparsely populated shores? Or, succumbing to the elements—freezing temperatures, the endless battering of the waves, prolonged exposure to the sun—had they cracked, filled with water, gone under? All 28,800 toys had emerged from that sinking container into the same acre of water. Each member of the four species was all but identical to the others—each duck was just as light as the other ducks, each frog as thick as the other frogs, each beaver as aerodynamic as the next. And yet one turtle had ended up in Signe Wilsonhot tub, another in the jaws of Betsy Knudson’s labrador, another in the nest of a sea otter, while a fourth had floated almost all the way to Russia, and a fifth traveled south of Puget Sound. Why? What tangled calculus of causes and effects could explain—or predict—such disparate fates?
There were other reasons why the story of the toys kept going, reasons that had nothing to do with oceanography and everything to do with the human imagination, which can be as powerful and as inscrutable as the sea. In making sense of chaotic data, in following a slightly tangled thread of narrative to its source, Eben Punderson had set the plastic animals adrift all over again—not upon the waters of the North Pacific but upon currents of information. The Associated Press picked up the Daily Sentinel’s story. Newspapers across the country ran it. The Floatees eventually made brief appearances in The Guardian and The New York Times Magazine, and a considerably longer appearance in The Smithsonian. Like migrating salmon, they returned almost seasonally to the pages of Scholastic News, a magazine for kids, which has reported on the story seven times. They were spotted in the shallows of People and MSNBC, and in the tide pools of All Things Considered. They swirled around the maelstrom of the Internet and bobbed up in such exotic waters as an oceanography textbook for undergraduates and a newsletter for the collectors of duck-themed stamps.
These travels wrought strange changes. Dishwasher safe the toys may have been, but newspaper safe they were not. By the time they drifted into my own imagination, the plastic animals that had fallen into the Pacific in 1992 were scarcely recognizable. For one thing, the plastic had turned into rubber. For another, the beavers, frogs, and turtles had all turned into ducks. It had begun the day Eben Punderson published an unusual ad in the pages of the Sitka Daily Sentinel—the metamorphosis of happenstance into narrative and narrative into myth.
F ar across the ocean, in a toy factory made of red brick, a pinkly Caucasian woman in a brick-red dress and a racially ambiguous brown man in a sky-blue shirt work side by side at an assembly line. From a gray machine, yellow-beaked and lacking irises in the whites of their eyes, rubber ducks emerge, one by one, onto a conveyor belt. Chuckedy-chuckedy-chuck goes the rubber-duck machine. As the ducks roll past, the woman in the brick-red dress paints their beaks brick red with a little brush. The man in the sky-blue shirt paints their irises sky blue. It is beautiful, this unnamed country across the sea. Green grass grows around the factory. The people who work there clearly enjoy making rubber ducks. They are all healthy, well rested, and smiling. At the end of the assembly line another racially ambiguous brown man, lighter and yellower than the first, packs the ducks, ten to a cardboard box, onto a grass-green truck that carries them to a waiting ship named the Bobbie. The Bobbie’s crew consists of a racially ambiguous stevedore in a hard hat and a pinkly Caucasian, white-bearded captain whose blue cap matches his blue coat. There are two gold stripes around the cuffs of the coat and two red stripes around the smokestack of the ship. A few decades ago the captain would have been smoking a pipe. Now he waves jauntily from a porthole. Above him, a white puff rises from the smokestack into a sky-blue sky.
Away the Bobbie chugs, carrying five cardboard boxes across a blue-green sea, a white streamer of smoke trailing behind it. Smiling overhead is an enormous sun the color of a rubber duck. Then a storm blows up. Waves leap. The Bobbie tosses about. The captain cries and throws his hands in the air. Down goes a cardboard box. Ducks spill like candy from a piñata. The sea calms. Slowly, the ducks drift apart, across the ocean, to diverse and far-flung ecosystems. One duck frolics with a spotted dolphin. A second receives a come-hither look from a blueberry seal in a lime-green sea. A polar bear standing on an ice floe ogles a third. And so their journeys go, each duck encountering a different picturesque animal—a flamingo, a pelican, a sea turtle, an octopus, a gull, a whale. Finally, who should the tenth rubber duck meet but a brood of real ducks. “Quack!” says the mother duck. “Quack! Quack! Quack!” say the ducklings. “Squeak,” says the rubber duck. “Press here,” says a button on the rubber duck’s wing, and when you do, a battery-powered computer chip embedded in the back cover of Eric Carle’s 10 Little Rubber Ducks emits what to my admittedly untrained ear sounds like the cry of a cormorant tangled in fishing line.
Published in the spring of 2005, shortly after my own duckie hunt began, Carle’s picture book was inspired by a newspaper article, titled “Rubber Ducks Lost at Sea,” that he’d happened upon in 2003. “I could not resist making a story out of this newspaper report,” a brief author’s note explains. “I hope you like my story.” Beautifully illustrated with Carle’s signature mix of paint and paper tearings, the book is hard not to like. Studies have shown that the primary colors, smiling faces, and cute animals with which 10 Little Rubber Ducks abounds—and of which the rubber duck may well be the consummate embodiment—have the almost narcotic power to induce feelings of happiness in the human brain. The myth had at last found if not its Aesop, then at least its Disney.
T he loss of fantasy is the price we have paid for precision,” I read one night in an outdated Ocean Almanac while investigating the journey of the Floatees, “and today we have navigation maps based on an accurate 1:1,000,000 scale of the entire world.” Surveying the colorful, oversized landscape of my National Geographic atlas, a cartographic wonder made—its dust jacket boasted—from high-resolution satellite images and “sophisticated computer algorithms,” I was unconvinced fantasy did not strike me as extinct, or remotely endangered. The ocean is far less fathomable to my generation of Americans than it was when Herman Melville explored that “watery wilderness” a century and a half ago. Most of us are better acquainted with cloud tops than with waves. What our migrant ancestors thought of as the winds we think of as turbulence, and fasten our seat belts when the orange light comes on. Gale force, hurricane force—encountering such terms, we comprehend only that the weather is really, really bad and in our minds replay the special-effects sequences of disaster films or news footage of palm trees blown inside out like cheap umbrellas. In growing more precise, humanity’s knowledge has also grown more specialized, and more fantastic, not less: the seas of my consciousness teem with images and symbols and half-remembered trivia as fabulous as those beasts frolicking at the edges of ancient charts. Not even satellite photographs and computer algorithms can burn away the mystifying fogs of ambient information and fantasy through which from birth I have sailed.
Not long ago on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, the novelist Julia Glass worried that her fellow Americans, “impatient with flights of fancy,” had lost the ability to be carried away by the “illusory adventure” of fiction, preferring the tabloid titillation of the “so-called truth.” Perhaps, concluded Glass, “there is a growing consensus, however sad, that the wayward realm of make-believe belongs only to our children.” By the spring of 2005, I had reached different conclusions. Hadn’t we adults, like the imaginative preschoolers Glass admires, also been “encouraged”—by our government, by advertisers, by the fabulists of the cable news—“to mingle fact with fiction”? Hadn’t millions of adults bought the illusory adventures of both Frodo Baggins and Donald Rumsfeld? Medieval Europeans divided the human lifetime into five ages, the first of which was known as the Age of Toys. It seemed to me that in twenty-first-century America, the Age of Toys never ends. Yes, stories fictional and otherwise can take us on illusory adventures, but they can also take us on disillusory ones, and it was the latter sort of adventure that I craved.
I tracked down a phone number for Curtis Ebbesmeyer and asked him how the journey of the castaway ducks had ended. I’d read that some toys were supposed to have crossed the Arctic, reaching the North Atlantic by the summer of 2003. Had they made it? Oh, yes, Ebbesmeyer assured me, yes, they had. Right on schedule, he’d received a highly credible eyewitness report from a trained anthropologist in Maine, which he’d published in his quarterly newsletter, Beachcombers’ Alert! He promised to send me a copy. But—he added—if I really wanted to learn about things that float, then I should join him in Sitka that July. “You can’t go beachcombing by phone,” he said. “You have to get out there and look.”
Since 2003, Sitka has played host to an annual Beachcombers’ Fair over which Ebbesmeyer—part guru, part impresario—presides. Beachcombers bring him things they’ve scavenged from the sand, and Ebbesmeyer illuminates these discoveries as best he can. “Everything has a story,” he likes to say. When an object mystifies him, he investigates. At this year’s fair, a local fisherman would be ferrying a select group of beachcombers to the wild shores of Kruzof Island, where some of the toys had washed up. Ebbesmeyer, who would be leading the expedition, offered me a spot aboard the boat. Alaska—snow-capped mountains, icebergs, breeching whales, wild beaches bestrewn with yellow ducks. There was only one problem. The Beachcombers’ Fair ended July 25, and my wife and I were due to have a baby on August 1, which was cutting it pretty close.
Soon thereafter an envelope with a Seattle postmark arrived. Inside, printed on blue paper, were a half-dozen issues of Beachcombers’ Alert! Thumbing through this digest of the miscellaneous and arcane was a bit like beachcombing amid the wreckage of a storm. Alongside stories about derelict vessels and messages in bottles, the oceanographer had arrayed a photographic scrapbook of strange, sea-battered oddities, natural and man-made—Japanese birch-bark fishing floats, the heart-shaped seed of a baobab tree, land mines, televisions, a torn wet suit, a 350-pound safe. Many of these artifacts had accumulated colonies of gooseneck barnacles. Some were so encrusted they seemed to be made of the creatures: a derelict skiff of barnacles, a hockey glove of barnacles. A disconcerting number of the photographs depicted the plastic heads of mannequins and dolls, including the head of a plastic infant impaled like a candy apple on a stick.
At the end of an article titled “Where the Toys Are,” Ebbesmeyer had published Bethe Hagens’s letter. “You won’t believe this,” she’d written after hearing about the castaway toys on NPR, “but two weeks ago, I found one of your ducks.” In fact, Ebbesmeyer had believed her, or wanted to. The details of her description matched the profile of a Floatee perfectly. Because Hagens had neglected to keep the evidence, however, her testimony remained in doubt. Accompanying the article was a world map indicating where and when the toys had washed up. Off the coast of Kennebunkport, Ebbesmeyer had printed a pair of question marks the size of barrier reefs.
There are two ways to get to the insular city of Sitka—by plane and by boat. In my dreams, I would have picked up the frayed end of that imaginary, 7,000-mile-long trail that led to Gooch’s Beach and followed it, Theseus-style, to its source—sailing back across the Gulf of Maine, back through the Northwest Passage, that legendary waterway which the historian Pierre Breton has described as a “maze of drifting, misshapen bergs,” a “crystalline world of azure and emerald, indigo and alabaster—dazzling to the eye, disturbing to the soul,” a “glittering metropolis of moving ice.” To Lieutenant William Edward Parry of the British Navy, who captained the Alexander into the maze in 1818, the slabs of ice looked like the pillars of Stonehenge.
By the summer of 2005, global warming had gone a long way toward turning that metropolis of ice into the open shipping channel of which Victorian imperialists dreamed. That September climatologists would announce that the annual summer melt had reduced the floating ice cap to its smallest size in a century of record-keeping. Nevertheless, even a transarctic journey aboard a Coast Guard ice breaker was out of the question if I wanted to make it to Sitka and back before the birth of my first child. Instead I booked passage on the M/V Malaspina, part of the Alaskan Marine Highway, which is in fact not a highway at all but a state-operated fleet of ferries. Sailing from Bellingham, Washington, the Malaspina would reach Sitka five days before the Beachcombers’ Fair began. If I flew home as soon as the fair ended, I would be in Manhattan a week before the baby arrived—assuming it did not arrive early, which, my wife’s obstetrician warned us, was altogether possible. My wife was not at all happy about my plan, but she consented on one condition: that if she felt a contraction or her water broke, I would catch the next flight home, no matter the cost.
O n my way to Bellingham I stopped in Seattle to visit Curtis Ebbesmeyer. I met him at home, in a quiet neighborhood near the University of Washington, where he had earned his Ph.D. Navy blue awnings overshadowed the porch of his bungalow, and peering into the semidarkness I could see four matching Adirondack chairs, lined up, side by side, as if to behold the vista of the lawn. Ebbesmeyer himself greeted me at the door. “Come in, come in,” he said.
His face was familiar to me from photographs I’d seen in the press and in the pages of Beachcombers’ Alert!, where he makes frequent cameo appearances, displaying a water-stained basketball, hoisting a plastic canister that was supposed to have delivered Taiwanese propaganda to the Chinese mainland, gazing down deifically at the four Floatees perched upon his forearm. He has a white beard, a Cheshire grin, and close-set eyes that together make his face a bit triangular. Since Ebbesmeyer likes to wear Hawaiian shirts and a necklace of what appear to be roasted chestnuts but are in fact sea beans, the waterborne seeds of tropical trees that ocean currents disseminate to distant shores, pictures of him often bring to mind cartoons of Santa Claus on vacation.
He brewed us each a cup of coffee and suggested we adjourn to the back yard, which he refers to as his “office.” Passing through his basement, I saw many of the objects I’d read about in Beachcombers’ Alert! Piled high on a bookshelf were dozens of Nikes. Some of them had survived the 1990 container spill—the first Ebbesmeyer ever investigated—in which 80,000 shoes had been lost. Others came from later accidents: 18,000 Nike sneakers fell overboard in 1999 33,000 more in December of 2002. In January of 2000, some 26,000 Nike sandals—along with 10,000 children’s shoes and 3,000 computer monitors, which float screen up and are popular with barnacles—plunged into the drink.
Nike’s maritime fortunes are not unusually calamitous as many as 10,000 containers spill from cargo ships annually. But few commodities are both as seaworthy and as traceable as a pair of Air Jordans, which conveniently come with numerical records of their provenance stitched to the undersides of their tongues, and which—
submerged up to the ankle, laces aswirl—will drift for years. It helps, too, that Ebbesmeyer learned the serial numbers for all the shoes in the 1990 spill. In his basement, Ebbesmeyer selected a high-top at random and taught me how to “read the tongue.” “See the ID?” he asked. “‘021012.’ The ‘02’ is the year. ‘10’ is October. ‘12’ is December. Nike ordered these from Indonesia in October of 2002 for delivery in December.”
Next he pulled down a black flip-flop, and then a matching one that he had sliced in half. Inside the black rubber was a jagged yellow core resembling a lightning bolt—a perfect identifying characteristic. If Ebbesmeyer had discovered the coordinates of this particular spill, the sandals would have provided a windfall of valuable data. Unfortunately, the shipping company, fearing legal liability, had “stonewalled” him, “like usual.”
It took Ebbesmeyer a year of diplomacy and detective work to find out when and where the Floatees fell overboard. Initially, the shipping company stonewalled him, like usual. Then one day he received a phone call. The container ship in question was at port in Tacoma. On the condition that he never reveal its name or that of its owner, he was welcome to come aboard. For four hours, Ebbesmeyer sat in the ship’s bridge interviewing the captain, a “very gracious” Chinese man who had a Ph.D. in meteorology and spoke fluent English. The day of the spill the ship had encountered a severe winter storm and heavy seas, the captain said. The readings on the inclinometer told the story best. When a ship is perfectly level in the water, its inclinometer reads 0°. If a ship were keeled on its side, the inclinometer would read 90°. Containers begin to break loose when a ship rolls more than 35°, Ebbesmeyer has found. When this particular spill occurred, the inclinometer would have registered a roll of 55° to port, then a roll of 55° to starboard. At that inclination, the stacks of containers, each one six containers tall, would have been more horizontal than vertical. Perhaps Dr. Ebbesmeyer would like to have a peek at the log book, the captain discreetly suggested. He’d already opened it to January 10, 1992. There were the magic coordinates.
O SCURS could now reconstruct, or “hindcast,” the routes various toys had traveled, producing a map of erratic trajectories that appeared to have been hand drawn by a cartographer with palsy. Beginning at the scattered coordinates where beachcombers had reported finding toys, the lines wiggled west, converging at the point of origin, not far from where the International Dateline crosses the 45th parallel. The data that Ebbesmeyer’s beachcombers had gathered also allowed NOAA’s James Ingraham to fine-tune the computer model, adjusting for coefficients such as the height at which the toys rode in the water (an object with a tall profile will sail as well as drift). The toys, it turns out, rode high, skating across the Gulf of Alaska at an average rate of seven miles a day, twice as fast as the currents they were traveling. Among other things, the simulation revealed that in 1992 those currents might have shifted to the north as a consequence of El Niño.
OSCURS could forecast as well as hindcast, and in this respect, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham were like clairvoyant meteorologists of the waves. OSCURS was their crystal ball. To the eyes of a driftologist, even the most state-of-the-art globe is in one respect as fabulous as the cartographic dreamscapes of the past. No clouds swirl across a map’s invisible skies. The painted topography of its empty seas are not troubled by the wind. The polar ice does not thicken and thin with the seasons and the ages. There is no sign of “thermohaline circulation,” the vertical movement of water layers caused by variations in density and temperature. A globe is a static illusion of permanence because it lacks a crucial dimension, the dimension that OSCURS was programmed to map—time.
By simulating “long-term mean surface geostrophic currents” (those currents that flow steadily and enduringly, though not immutably, like rivers in the sea) as well as “surface-mixed-layer currents that are functions of wind speed and direction” (those currents that change as quickly as the skies), OSCURS could project the trajectories of the toys well into the future. According to the simulator’s predictions, some of the animals would drift south, where they would either collide with the coast of Hawaii in March of 1997, or, more likely, get sucked into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
“‘Gyre’ is a fancy word for a current in a bowl of soup,” Ebbesmeyer likes to say. “You stir your soup, it goes around a few seconds.” The thermodynamic circulation of air, which we experience as wind, is like a giant spoon that never stops stirring. Comprising four separate currents—the southerly California Current, the westerly North Equatorial Current, the northerly Kuroshio Current, and the easterly North Pacific Drift—the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre travels from the coast of Washington to the coast of Mexico to the coast of Japan and back again. Some of the toys would escape the gyre’s orbit, spin off toward the Indian Ocean, and, eventually, circumnavigate the globe. Others would drift into the gyre’s becalming center, where a high-pressure system has created what Ebbesmeyer calls “the garbage patch”—a purgatorial eddy in the waste stream that is approximately the size of Texas. “It’s like Jupiter’s red spot,” says Ebbesmeyer. “It’s one of the great
features of the planet Earth, but you can’t see it.”
A similar high-pressure calm at the center of the North Atlantic Gyre gave rise to the legend of the Bermuda triangle as well as to the Sargasso Sea, named for the free-floating wilderness of sargasso seaweed that the currents have accumulated there. A Sargasso of the imagination, I thought to myself as I listened to Ebbesmeyer describe the garbage patch. The phrase comes from a scene in Day of the Locust in which Nathanael West is describing a Hollywood backlot jumbled with miscellaneous properties and disassembled stage sets.
T he Atlantic is far shallower and narrower than the Pacific, and upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water nourish the sargasso forest and the marine life that inhabits it. The center of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which circles around the deepest waters on the planet, is, by contrast, a kind of marine desert. If you go fishing in the garbage patch, all you’re likely to catch aside from garbage
In 1998, with help from Ingraham and Ebbesmeyer, a researcher named Charlie Moore began collecting water samples from the eastern edge of the North Pacific garbage patch, trawling along a 564-mile loop encompassing exactly one million square miles of ocean. Approximately 800 miles west of California, where the wind speed fell below ten knots, drifts of garbage began to appear. The larger items that Moore and his crew retrieved from the water included polypropylene fishing nets, “a drum of hazardous chemicals,” a volleyball “half-covered in barnacles,” a cathode-ray television tube, and a gallon bleach bottle “that was so brittle it crumbled in our hands.” Most of the debris that Moore found had already disintegrated. Caught in his trawling net was “a rich broth of minute sea creatures mixed with hundreds of colored plastic fragments.”
OSCURS’s simulations predicted that relatively few of the bathtub toys would have contributed to this “plastic-plankton soup,” as Moore calls it. The majority would have stayed well to the north, closer to the site of the spill, caught in the Sub-Polar Gyre, which travels counterclockwise between the coasts of Alaska and Siberia. Smaller and stormier than the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, the Sub-Polar Gyre does not collect vast quantities of trash at its center. Here, the Floatees would have remained in orbit, completing a lap around the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea once every three years, until a winter storm blew them ashore or they strayed onto one of the northerly currents flowing through the Bering Strait.
Ingraham had not programmed his model to simulate the Arctic. To follow the animals into the ice, Ebbesmeyer had to rely on more primitive oceanographic methods. He went to a toy store and purchased a few dozen brand-new Floatees to use as lab animals in various experiments. Several specimens he subjected to the frigid conditions inside his kitchen freezer in order to find out whether cold would make them crack (it didn’t). Others he bludgeoned with a hammer to see what it would take to make them sink (a lot). Even breeched and taking on water, they kept afloat. Able to withstand fifty-two dishwasher cycles, the toys, Ebbesmeyer concluded, could also survive a ten-year voyage through the ice. Using data collected from transarctic drift experiments conducted in the late 1970s, he calculated that, once beset, the toys would creep across the North Pole at an average rate of a mile per day. When they reached the North Atlantic, the ice would melt and set the Floatees loose upon the waters east of Greenland. Some would catch the Gulf Stream to Europe. Others would ride the cold southerly longshore current that flows past Gooch’s Beach.
A lthough his library of shoes may suggest otherwise, Ebbesmeyer has not amassed a museum of flotsam in his basement. He collects stories and data, not things. Fat, three-ring binders occupy most of the shelf space. They contain “a small portion” of the studies he has conducted over the years. I saw binders labeled Fishing Floats and Vikings, Phytoplankton and Drifting Coffins, Eddies and Icebergs. There was an entire binder devoted to Isis and Osiris, the star-crossed Egyptian gods. Ebbesmeyer told me the tragic ending of their tale: “Osiris’s brother killed him, put his body in a coffin, put the coffin in the Nile River, and it washed up 300 miles to the north of Lebanon. His wife, Isis, went to find it, and she did. That’s the first documented drift of an object between point A and point B that I know of.”
In the back yard, seated on the patio, where a string of rubber duckie Christmas lights festooned a grape arbor and wind chimes made mournful noises on the breeze, Ebbesmeyer waxed ecclesiastical. “There’s nothing new around,” he said. Take Osiris. Even today, when the Nile floods, flotsam follows that same route. Not even pollution is new. He told me to think of volcanic eruptions, of the tons of pumice and toxic ash an eruption throws into the sea. No, when you studied the history of flotsam long enough you realized that only one thing was fundamentally different about the ocean now, only one thing had changed since the time of the ancient Egyptians. “See, pumice will absorb water and sink,” he said. “But 60 percent of plastic will float and the 60 percent that does float will never sink because it doesn’t absorb water it fractures into ever smaller pieces. That’s the difference. There are things afloat now that will never sink.”
Ebbesmeyer went inside and returned a moment later carrying what at first glance appeared to be exotic produce—a new, flatter variety of plantain or summer squash, perhaps. He spread these yellowy lozenges out on the patio table. “Remnants of high-seas drift-net floats,” he said. There were four of them, in varying stages of decay. The best-preserved specimen had the hard sheen of polished bone. The worst was pocked and textured like a desiccated sponge that had been attacked with a chisel. Ebbesmeyer picked up the latter float. “This is a pretty cool old one,” he said. By “cool” he meant that it told the story of drift-net floats particularly well.
“High-seas drift nets were banned by the United Nations in 1992,” his version of this story began. “They were nets with a mesh size of about four inches, but they were, like, fifty miles long. The Japanese would sit there and interweave these for fifty miles. There were something like a thousand drift nets being used every night in the 1980s, and if you do the math they were filtering all the water in the upper fifty feet every year. Well, they were catching all the large animals, and it clearly could not go on.”
According to Ebbesmeyer, those high-seas drift nets had not gone away, and not only because pirate drift netting still takes place. Before the moratorium, fishermen had lost about half of their nets every year, and those lost nets were still out there, still fishing. “Ghost nets,” they’re called. When he tells stories like this, Ebbesmeyer will punctuate the most astonishing facts with his eyebrows. He’ll say something like, “What happens is, the nets keep catching animals, and then the animals die, and then after a while, the nets get old, and they roll up on a coral reef, and the waves roll it along like a big avalanche ball, killing everything in its path.” Then his bushy eyebrows will spring up above his glasses and stay there while he looks at
you, wide-eyed with auto-dumbfoundment.
And killer drift-net balls are genuinely dumbfounding, like something from a B horror movie—so dumbfounding that, smelling a hyperbole, I later checked Ebbesmeyer’s facts. A ghost net may not kill everything that crosses its path, but it sure can kill a lot. News reports describe nets dripping with putrefying wildlife. Just three months before I showed up on Ebbesmeyer’s doorstep, NOAA scientists scanning the ocean from the air with a digital imaging system had spotted a flock of 100 or so ghost nets drifting through the garbage patch. When they returned to fetch them, they found balls of net measuring thirty feet across. “There is a lot more trash out there than I expected,” one of the researchers, James Churnside, told the Associated Press. A few years earlier, Coast Guard divers had spent a month picking 25.5 tons of netting and debris—including two 4,000-pound, fifteen-mile-long, high-seas drift nets—out of reefs around Lisianski Island in the North Pacific. They estimated that there were 6,000 more tons of netting and debris still tangled in the reefs when they left.
In Ebbesmeyer’s opinion, ghost nets may pose a still greater danger once they disintegrate. While we were conversing on his patio, he handed me the oldest of the drift-net floats. “Hold this a minute,” he said. It weighed almost nothing. “Now put it down and look.” On the palm of my hand, the float had left a sprinkling of yellow dust, plastic particles as small as pollen grains in which, if you believe Ebbesmeyer, the destiny of both the Floatees and of the ocean could be read.
Out on his front lawn, as I was leaving, I asked him what he thought of 10 Little Rubber Ducks. Despite the gloomy future he glimpsed in that handful of plastic dust, he thought Carle’s cheerful picture book was “delightful,” especially that little squeaker in the back, and he hoped that it would “make the ocean fun to kids.” He did have one criticism. He couldn’t figure out why Carle along with just about everyone else seemed compelled to turn the four Floatees into rubber ducks. Coverage of the story in newspapers and magazines almost always showed a picture of a solitary rubber duck, and usually not even the right kind of duck. What was wrong with the other three animals? “Maybe it’s a kind of racism,” Ebbesmeyer speculated. “Speciesism.”
The Floatees are no longer on the market, but before I left, Ebbesmeyer loaned me a set that had survived his experiments, to be returned when I was done with them. I have been carrying them around with me ever since, and they are at present perched before me on my desk as I write. Monochromatic and polygonal in a Bauhaus sort of way, they bear little resemblance to the rubber ducks in Carle’s book or, for that matter, to any other plastic animal I’ve ever seen. Although blow-molded out of a rigid plastic (probably polyethylene), they look whittled from wax by some artisanal tribesman. The frog’s four-fingered hands (the left smaller than the right) seem folded in prayer. The limbs of the turtle are triangular stubs. The duck’s head, too large for the flat-bottomed puck of a body it sits upon, is imperfectly spherical, the flat plane of its beak continuing like a crew-cut mohawk over the top of the skull. Poke an axle through the duck’s puffed cheeks and its head would make a good wheel. Wildly out of scale and dyed a lurid, maraschino red, the beaver seems altogether out of place in this menagerie, a mammalian interloper from somebody’s acid trip. A seam left by the split mold bisects all four animals asymmetrically, and there’s a little anal button of scarred plastic where the blow pin, that steel umbilicus, withdrew.
“W hy do precisely these objects we behold make a world?” Thoreau wonders in Walden. “Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbors as if nothing but a mouse could have filled this crevice?” Since Thoreau’s time, ecologists have explained why that mouse filled that crevice, and since then Walden woods have grown far less bewildering. For Thoreau the distinction between the natural world and the man-made one matters less than that between the subjective experience within and the objective world without. For him, both rocks and mice are objects that he perceives as shadows flickering on the walls of his mind. For him, anthropomorphism is inescapable. All animals, he writes, are “beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts.”
The word “synthetic” in its current sense of “chemically unnatural” would not appear in print until 1874, twenty years after the publication of Walden and five years after the invention of celluloid, the first industrial synthetic. In its 137-year history, the synthetic world has itself grown into a kind of wilderness. With the exceptions of our fellow human beings and our domestic pets, the objects that make the worlds we behold today are almost entirely man-made. Consider the following: In nature, there are 142 known species of Anatidae, the family to which ducks, swans, and geese belong. Of those species only one, the white Pekin duck, a domesticated breed of mallard, produces spotless yellow ducklings. Since the invention of plastic, four known species of Anatidae have gone extinct several others survive only in sanctuaries created to save them. Meanwhile, by the estimates of one collector, the makers of novelties and toys have concocted more than 5,000 different varieties of novelty duck, nearly all of which are yellow, and most of which are not made in fact from rubber but from plasticized polyvinyl chloride, a derivative of coal. Why has man just these species of things for his neighbors, a latter-day Thoreau might ask, as if nothing but a yellow duck could perch on the rim of a tub?
Let’s draw a bath. Let’s set a rubber duck afloat. Look at it wobbling there. What misanthrope, what damp, misty November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart? Graphically, the rubber duck’s closest relative is not a bird or a toy but the yellow happy face of Wal-Mart commercials. A rubber duck is in effect a happy face with a body and lips—which is what the beak of the rubber duck has become: great, lipsticky, bee-stung lips. Both the happy face and the rubber duck reduce facial expressions to a kind of pictogram. They are both emoticons. And they are, of course, the same color—the yellow of an egg yolk or the eye of a daisy, a shade darker than a yellow raincoat, a shade lighter than a taxicab.
Like the eyes of other animals (rabbits, for example, or deer) and unlike the eyes of a happy face, the rubber duck’s eyes peer helplessly from the sides of its spherical head. Its movement is also expressive—joyously erratic, like that of a bouncing ball, or a dancing drunk. So long, that is, as it doesn’t keel over and float around like a dead fish, as rubber ducks of recent manufacture are prone to do. It’s arguable whether such tipsy ducks deserve to be called toys. They have retained the form and lost the function. Their value is wholly symbolic. They are not so much rubber ducks as plastic representations of rubber ducks. They are creatures of the lab, chimeras synthesized from whimsy and desire in the petri dish of commerce.
Apologists for plastics will on occasion blur the semantic lines between the antonyms “synthetic” and “natural.” Everything is chemical, they rightly say, even water, even us, and plastic, like every living creature great and small, is carbon-based and therefore “organic.” But to my mind the only meaningful difference between the synthetic and the natural is more philosophical than chemical. A loon can symbolize madness, and a waddling duck can make us laugh. But the duck and the loon exist outside of the meanings with which we burden them. A loon is not really mad. A duck is not really a clown it waddles inelegantly because its body has evolved to swim. A rubber duck, by comparison, is not burdened with thought. It is thought, the immaterial made material, a subjective object, a fantasy in 3-D.
O ne night, during the thirty-third week of her pregnancy, my wife and I attended a practicum in infant CPR. With the other expectant parents, we sat around a conference table set with babies—identical, life-size, polyethylene babies, lying there on the formica like lobsters. The skin of these infantile mannequins was the color of graphite. Even their eyeballs were shiny and gray. Their mouths had been molded agape, so that they seemed to be gasping for air. To dislodge an imaginary choking hazard, you were supposed to lay the baby facedown over your left forearm and strike its back with the heel of your right hand. If you struck too hard, its hollow head would pop from its neck and go skittering across the linoleum. The morning after my visit with Ebbesmeyer, hurtling up the eastern shore of Puget Sound aboard the Amtrak Cascades bound for Bellingham, it occurs to me that “garbage patch” sounds like “cabbage patch,” and for a moment I am picturing a thousand silvery, gape-mouthed heads bobbing on the open sea.
The old woman across the aisle, a retired high school chemistry teacher from Montana, tells me that she and her husband are traveling the globe. They have been to every continent but Antarctica. She teaches me how to say “I don’t have any money” in Norwegian. She tells me about the mural she saw in Belfast depicting a masked man and a Kalashnikov. She tells me about her nephew, who has in fact been to Antarctica. He spent a night dangling from the ice shelf in something like a hammock. National Geographic named him one of the top mountain climbers in the world, she says. Then he died in an avalanche in Tibet. Left three little boys. She smiles as she says this. In the window behind her, the blue waters of Puget Sound flash through the green blur of trees.
The train groans into a curve. Suddenly there are green and orange and blue containers stacked atop flatbed train cars parked on a neighboring track. The polyglot names of shipping companies speed by: Evergreen, Uniglory, Maersk. Then, at a clearing in the trees, the great brontosaural works of a gantry crane loom up above a Russian freighter loaded with what looks like modular housing. port of seattle, a sign on the crane reads.
We are somewhere east of the Strait of Juan de Fuca—Juan de Fuca, whom I read about in one of my books. He was a Greek sailor in the Spanish navy whose real name was Apostolos Valerianos. He claimed to have discovered the entrance to the Northwest Passage at the 47th parallel in 1592. The transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic had taken a mere twenty days, he reported, and the northern lands between these oceans were filled with riches. Despite how familiar this tale must have sounded, for centuries people actually believed him. Although no one knows for certain whether the Greek sailor ever even visited the North Pacific, his description of the entrance to the passage, then known as the Strait of Anian, bears a superficial resemblance to the entrance of Puget Sound, and so the Strait of Juan de Fuca memorializes the pseudonymous perpetrator of a hoax.
Viewed from the patio of the Bellingham ferry terminal, the M/V Malaspina is a splendid sight, its white decks gleaming, a yellow stripe running the length of its navy-blue hull, its single smokestack painted in the motif of the Alaskan state flag—gold stars of the Big Dipper and the North Star against a navy-blue sky. All the motor vessels in the Alaska Marine Highway system are named for Alaskan glaciers, and the Malaspina is named for the largest, a 1,500-square-mile slow-moving mesa of ice, which is in turn named for an eighteenth-century Spanish navigator, Alejandro Malaspina, whose search for the Northwest Passage ended in 1791 at the 60th parallel, in an icy inlet that he christened Bahía del Desengaño, Disappointment Bay. When I wheel my suitcase down the gangway that evening, the splendor of the M/V Malaspina diminishes with every step. The ferry is, I see upon boarding it, an aging, rust-stained hulk, repainted many times. Posted in a display case of documents near the cocktail lounge one can read a disconcerting open letter in which “past and present crew members . . . bid farewell to this proud ship.” Queen of the fleet when it was first launched in 1962, the Malaspina, the letter explains, “will cease scheduled runs of Alaska’s Inside Passage on October 27, 1997.” Why the old ferry is still in service eight years later the documents in the display case do not say.
The Malaspina’s diesel engines rumble to life. I am going to sea! Who can resist an embarkation? The thrill of watery beginnings? Not me. The evening is cool and exhilarating, the sky clear save for a distant, flat-bottomed macaroon of a cloud. The wavelets on Bellingham Bay are as intricate as houndstooth, complicated by cross breezes and by ripples radiating from the hulls of anchored boats. The dock falls away. I stand at the taffrail and think to myself, taffrail, enjoying the union of a thing and its word. Out on the sundeck, at the mouth of the Plexiglas solarium where I will spend the next three nights sleeping for free in a plastic chaise longue, backpackers are pitching their tents, duct-taping them down so that the wind doesn’t toss them overboard. Soon a rustling nylon village of colorful domes has sprung up. “Tent city,” the veteran ferry-riders call it. On the forested hills of Bellingham, the houses face the harbor. How festive the ferry must look from up there! As the ship turns and slithers toward the horizon, the low sun moves across the windows of the town, igniting them one by one.
During the middle of the first night, off the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, the temperature drops, a fog shuts down, and my cell phone loses reception. So much for daily phone calls to my pregnant wife. A plastic deck chair, it turns out, makes for a miserable mattress. Cold air seeps between the slats. The government-issue cotton blanket I rented from the ship’s purser for a dollar is far too thin. Some of my neighbors in the solarium move inside to sleep like refugees on the carpeted floor of the recliner lounge. I rent a second blanket for the second night, but it hardly makes a difference. Shivering in a fetal position, I think about that mountain climber dangling from the Antarctic ice shelf in a hammock and feel faintly ridiculous. After two nights in the solarium of a cruise ship—a state-operated, poor man’s cruise ship, but a cruise ship nonetheless—I have already had my fill of adventuring.
W hat is childhood? Developmental psychologists will tell you that infancy and toddlerhood and childhood and adolescence are neurologically determined states of mind. Sociologists and historians, meanwhile, tell us that childhood is an idea, distinct from biological immaturity, the meaning of which changes over time. In his seminal, 1960 study of the subject, French historian Philippe Ariès argued that childhood as we know it is a modern invention, largely a by-product of schooling. In the Middle Ages, when almost no one went to school, children were treated like miniature adults. At work and at play, there was little age-based segregation. “Everything was permitted in their presence,” according to one of Ariès’s sources, even “coarse language, scabrous actions and situations they had heard everything and seen everything.” Power, not age, determined whether a person was treated like a child. Until the seventeenth century, the European idea of childhood “was bound up with the idea of dependence: the words ‘sons,’ ‘varlets,’ and ‘boys’ were also words in the vocabulary of feudal subordination. One could leave childhood only by leaving the state of dependence.” Our notion of childhood as a sheltered period of innocence begins to emerge with the modern education system, Ariès argues. As the period of economic dependence lengthened among the educated classes, so too did childhood. These days education and the puerility it entails often last well into one’s twenties, or longer.
Twenty-two years after Ariès published his book, media critic Neil Postman announced in The Disappearance of Childhood that modern childhood as Ariès described it had gone extinct, killed off by the mass media, which gave all children, educated or otherwise, premature access to the violent, sexually illicit world of adults. Children still existed, of course, but they’d become, in Postman’s word, “adultified.” I was ten years old when Postman published his book, and in many respects my biography aligns with his unflattering generational portrait. In Postman’s opinion the rising divorce rate indicated a “precipitous falling off in the commitment of adults to the nurturing of children.” My parents divorced just as the American divorce rate reached its historical peak. After my mother moved out for good, my brother and I came home from school to an empty house where we spent hours watching the sorts of television shows Postman complains about (Three’s Company, The Dukes of Hazzard). Reading Postman’s diagnosis, I begin to wonder if he’s right. Maybe my childhood went missing.
But then I think of Joshua the Mouse. One day at the school where I teach I stopped to admire a bulletin board decorated with construction-paper mice that a class of first graders had made. Above one mouse there appeared the following caption: “My mouse’s name is Joshua. He is 20 years old. He is afraid of everything.” I love this caption. I love how those first two humdrum sentences do nothing to prepare us for the emotional revelation of the third. And then there’s the age: twenty years old. What occult significance could that number possess for Joshua’s creator? When you are six, even eight-year-olds look colossal. A twenty-year-old must be as unfathomable as a god. And contemplating poor, omniphobic, twenty-year-old Joshua, I am convinced that children may impersonate adults but they will never become them. I doubt that childhood has ever been the safe, sunlit harbor adults in moments of forgetfulness dream about. I suspect that it will always be a wilderness.
“For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land,” Ishmael philosophizes midway through his whale hunt, “so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!” We canst never return, but oh, how we try, how we try.
Postman does not only argue that television produced “adultified children” paradoxically, it also produced “childified adults.” As evidence, he points to the absence on television of characters who possess an “adult’s appetite for serious music” or “book-learning” or “even the faintest signs of a contemplative habit of mind.” One wonders what he would have made of the popular culture of centuries past—the pornographic peep-show boxes, the slapstick vaudeville acts, the violent and salacious Punch and Judy shows, the bearbaitings and cockfights, the dime novels and penny weeklies. The great difference to me seems one not of quality but of quantity: entertainment has become so cheap and ubiquitous that it is inescapable. Even the material world has become a “Sargasso of the imagination.” Life is still half known.
T he Alaskan stretch of the Inside Passage snakes through the Alexander Archipelago, a chain of 1,000 or so thickly forested islands, some as small as tablecloths, some as large as Hawaii. These are, in fact, the tops of underwater mountains, part of the same snowcapped range visible on the mainland to the east. Most rise steeply from the water and soar to cloudy heights. Before going there, I expected southeast Alaska to feel like a giant outdoor theme park—Frontierland—and the shopping districts of the resort towns where the gargantuan cruise ships dock confirm my worst expectations. Cruise-ship companies now own many of the businesses in those districts and may soon be able to “imagineer” (as the folks at Disney call it) every aspect of your vacation experience. But the backwaters of the Inside Passage, too narrow and shallow for the superliners to enter, contain lost worlds.
In the narrowest of the narrows, it feels as though we are motoring down an inland river rather than along the ocean’s edge—some Amazon of the north. Although this is the Pacific, the water doesn’t look, smell, or sound like the sea. Neither waves nor flotsam get past the outer islands to the placid interior. In the summer, streams of glacial melt freshen the channels, and in places the minerals those streams carry turn the channels a strangely luminous shade of jade. The banks sometimes loom so close you could play Frisbee with a person standing on shore. Hours go by when we see no other ships, or any sign of civilization besides the buoys that mark the way among the shoals.
Early in the morning, fog rises here and there from the forests of hemlock, cedar, and spruce. It is as if certain stands are burning, except that the fog moves much more slowly than smoke. On the far side of one mountain, a dense white column billows forth like a slow-motion geyser that levels off into an airborne river flowing into a sea of clouds. I’ve begun to notice currents everywhere, a universe of eddies and gyres. Phytoplankton ride the same ocean currents that carried the Float ees to Sitka. Zooplankton follow the phytoplankton. Fish follow the zooplankton. Sea lions, whales, and people follow the fish. When, at the end of their upriver journey, salmon spawn and die en masse, their carcasses—distributed by bears, eagles, and other scavengersthe forests that make the fog, which falls as rain, which changes the ocean’s salinity. All deep water travels along what oceanographers call the “conveyor belt,” which begins with warm water from the Gulf Stream draining into the North Atlantic, where evaporation increases the salinity and makes it sink to the ocean floor, where it creeps south into the Antarctic circumpolar stream. After a thousand years—a millennium!—the conveyor belt ends here, in the North Pacific, where the ancient water wells up, carrying nutrients with it. Oceanographers learned much of this from studying radioactive isotopes released into the sea as fallout from nuclear tests. I’m becoming a devout driftologist. The only essential difference between rock, water, air, life, galaxies, economies, civilizations, plastics—I decide, standing on the Malaspina’s deck, totally sober, watching the fog make pretty shapes above the trees—is the rate of flow.
E verywhere they look, archaeologists find them—buffalo sprayed with pigments onto the walls of caves, killer whales cut from cedar or stone, horses molded from terra-cotta or plaited out of straw. Our primal fear of predators and our hunger for prey cannot alone account for this menagerie. Three thousand years ago in Persia, someone carved a porcupine out of limestone and attached it to a little chassis on wheels. Four thousand years ago in Egypt, someone sculpted a mouse and glazed it blue. Why blue? Whoever heard of a blue mouse? Is this the forebear of the red beaver and the yellow duck? In fact, many of the figurines that look to us like toys turn out to have been totemic gods or demigods, used in religious ceremonies or funerary rites. To make the archaeological record all the blurrier, some totems in some cultures were given to children as playthings once the festivities had ended. One thing is clear: animals held an exalted position in the lives of both children and adults. Even after the missionaries came and cleansed them from the temples, the animistic gods survived, adapting to the altered cultural landscape. In Europe of the Middle Ages, one of the most popular books after the Bible was the Bestiary, a kind of illustrated field guide to the medieval imagination, wherein the animals of fable and myth were reborn as vehicles of Christian allegory. From the Bestiary came the idea that after three days a pelican could resurrect a dead hatchling with her blood, and from the Bestiary we learned that only a virgin girl can tame a unicorn. Even Aesop, that pagan, remained a favorite with old and young alike well into the seventeenth century.
Gradually, as allegory gave way to zoology and farming to industry, we decided that animals were for kids. “Children in the industrialised world are surrounded by animal imagery,” notes John Berger in “Why Look at Animals?” Despite the antiquity of zoomorphic toys and the “apparently spontaneous interest that children have in animals,” it was not until the nineteenth century that “reproductions of animals became a regular part of the decor of middle class childhoods—and then, in [the twentieth] century, with the advent of vast display and selling systems like Disney’s—of all childhoods.” Berger traces this phenomenon to the marginalization of animals, which the age of industrialism either incarcerated as living spectacles at the public zoo, treated as raw material to be exploited, processed as commodities on factory farms, or domesticated as family pets. Meanwhile, “animals of the mind”—which since the dawn of human consciousness had been central to our cosmologies—were sent without supper to the nursery. Animals both living and imaginary no longer seemed like mysterious gods. They seemed, increasingly, like toys.
G o bird-watching in the pre-industrial libraries of literature and myth, and you will find few ducks, which is puzzling, considering how popular with the authors of children’s books ducks have since become. Search, for instance, the fields and forests of Aesop, whose talking beasts are the ancestors of both Chanticleer the Rooster and Walter the Farting Dog, and you will meet ten cocks, a cote of doves, several partridges, a caged songbird, six crows, three ravens (one portentous, another self-loathing), a dozen or so eagles, five jackdaws (one of whom wishes he were an eagle), many kites, flocks of cranes, two storks, three hawks, a cote of pigeons, three hens, a sparrow with a bad case of schadenfreude, five swallows, many peacocks, a jay who wishes he were a peacock, many swans, two nightingales, two larks, two owls, a gluttonous seagull, a thrush en snared in birdlime, and nary a single duck.
Aesop’s fables exhibit considerable ornithological knowledge, but their primary aim is to transmute animal behavior into human meaning—to burden them, as Thoreau would say, with some portion of our thought. “The lot of each has been assigned by the will of the Fates,” the god Juno explains to an insecure peacock in one fable, “—to thee, beauty to the eagle, strength to the nightingale, song to the raven, favorable, and to the crow, unfavorable auguries.” The closest to ducks that Aesop gets is geese, which invariably end up on dinner plates.
Even Aesop’s most famous goose, the one who lays the golden egg, succumbs to the carving knife. In a Kashmiri version of the same tale, Aesop’s barnyard variety Anatidae becomes the Lucky-Bird Humá, a visitor from the magical avian kingdom of Koh-i-Qáf. A Buddhist version of the tale replaces the egg-laying goose with one of the only mythical ducks I have found, a mallard plumed in gold, which turns out to be a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva.
In all three versions of the fable, the human beneficiaries sacrifice their magically profitable waterfowl on the altar of their greed. The farmer kills the goose, cuts it open, and finds no eggs. Dreaming of rupees, a Kashmiri woodcutter accidentally asphyxiates the Lucky-Bird Humá while carrying him to market in a sack. A family of Brahmin women decide to pluck out all of the Bodhisattva’s golden feathers at once they turn into the feathers of a crane. Unlike the others, the Buddhist version tells the fable from the bird’s point of view, and for that reason it is peculiarly affecting. Both Aesop’s fable and the Kashmiri one show us the folly of human desire, and it is satisfying, reading them, to watch our wicked, bumbling protagonists endure dramatically ironic reversals of fortune. The Buddhist fable shows us the folly of human desire, but it also makes us experience that folly’s cost, the debt of suffering our appetites can incur. The tone of the final sentences is more sorrowful than ironic. Trying to escape, the once golden mallard stretches his plucked wings but, featherless, finds he cannot fly. His captors throw him into a barrel. With time, his feathers grow back, but they are plain white ones now. He flies home, never to return.
O n the morning that I disembark from the Malaspina at Sitka, Tyler and Dean Orbison are just returning from a two-week, 300-mile beachcombing expedition to Latuya Bay and back. They go on such expeditions every summer, traveling farther and farther afield every year, poking around in bunkers abandoned at the end of World War II, walking beaches where the only footprints in the sand are animal tracks. They have a cabin cruiser big enough to sleep in and a skiff for going ashore. From the cruiser, they look for V-shaped coastlines that funnel the tides, and they look for “jackstraw”—driftwood logs jumbled like a pile of pick-up-sticks—and, most important of all, like prospectors panning in the tailings, they look for “good color,” their term for plastic debris visible from afar. Where there’s some color, there’s sure to be more. Their style of beachcombing is by necessity a two-man job. One person has to stay in the skiff to keep it from foundering on the rocks while the other person wades in and combs. They take turns. Dean prefers to hunt high up, in the purple fireweed, where storms will throw objects out of the reach of tides. Tyler, Dean’s son, is “a digger.” Like a human metal detector, he’s learned to divine the location of buried objects by reading the terrain. This year, for the first time, Tyler and Dean started combing in seaside caves where tangled driftwood will form a kind of flotsam trap. It’s dark in the caves. You have to beachcomb with a flashlight. It’s also cold, but the labor of log-lifting keeps you warm. The effort’s worth it. Every cave the Orbisons searched contained a farrago of wrack—a Dawn dish detergent bottle, glass fishing floats, Floatees. Half a water pistol turned up in one cave, the other half in another. By far the most common objects the Orbisons find are polyethylene water bottles. They have begun keeping the screw-tops, cataloguing the varieties. On this last trip they identified seventy-five different brands, many of them foreign in origin. Up in Latuya Bay they saw a black wolf and the bones of a whale, and they picked wild strawberries, and when their cooler ran out of ice they floated alongside a glacier and broke off a chunk.
Now, at the end of my first day ashore, they’ve fetched me from my hotel. “Growing up here, I mean, there’s nothing,” Tyler tells me from the back seat of his father’s truck while we’re waiting for his parents to emerge from Sitka’s only supermarket. “I mean we don’t even have a mall. So I took to the outdoors pretty hard.” It is clear that Tyler has never given much thought to the marginalization of animals. You wouldn’t either if you’d grown up in southeast Alaska, where bears make off with household pets, and ravens alighting on transformers cause power outages, and bald eagles sometimes come crashing through dining room windows. If anything, it’s the people who occupy the margins here. Just look at a map: Sitka perches on the coastal brink of Baranof Island, wedged between mountainous wilderness to the east and watery wilderness to the west. Sitkans share their island with an estimated 1,200 grizzly bears—more than are found in all of the lower forty-eight states combined. In May and June, eagles and ravens—the supreme deities in the pantheon of the native Tlingit—wheel overhead. In July and August, the creeks grow dark with spawning sockeye and chum. In November, the whales and the whale watchers arrive. People like me may feel sorry for the 1.2 million sea otters that the Russian American Company parted from their pelts in the early 1800s, but Sitka’s otters have replenished themselves with such procreative gusto that local fishermen now regard them as pests—crop-thieving, net-wrecking vermin of the sea.
Like most beachcombers of the Pacific rim, the Orbisons started out collecting Japanese fishing floats, the glass balls that you sometimes see hanging in nets from the ceilings of seafood restaurants, or decorating the window displays of maritime boutiques. The popularity of glass floats owes partly to their delicate, soap-bubble beauty, partly to the Kuroshio Current that sweeps them across the Pacific and bowls them up the beaches of the American West Coast, and partly to Amos L. Wood, an aeronautics engineer and beachcombing enthusiast whose books Beachcombing for Japanese Floats and Beachcombing the Pacific have become to beachcombers what Audubon guides are to bird-watchers.
A century and a half ago, beachcombers tended to be transcendental weirdos like Ellery Channing and Henry Thoreau. Back then, much of New England’s shoreline was as wild as Alaska’s is today and more treacherous to passing ships. Just before Thoreau arrived at Provincetown in 1849, a ship carrying Irish immigrants sank off Cohasset. The bodies of the drowned lay strewn along the beach, torn asunder by the surf and fish. “There are more consequences to a shipwreck than the underwriters notice,” Thoreau observed. “The Gulf Stream may return some to their native shores, or drop them in some out-of-the-way cave of Ocean, where time and the elements will write new riddles with their bones.” Even where no shipwrecks had occurred, a Cape Cod beach in 1849 was “a wild rank place” littered “with crabs, horse-shoes and razor clams, and whatever the sea casts up—a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them.”
Still a recent coinage, the word “beachcomber” in 1849 meant approximately what we mean by “beach bum”: it evoked a character like the narrator of Melville’s Omoo, a transient ne’er-do-well who’d fled from civilization hoping to sample tropical women and tropical fruits and loaf around beneath the blowsy palms. “Idle, drunken, vagabond,” Edward J. Wakefield wrote in 1845, “he wanders about without any fixed object, cannot get employed by the whaler or any one else, as it is out of his power to do a day’s work and he is universally known as ‘the beach-comber.’” The local Cape Codders whom Thoreau met on his seaside rambles usually took him for a traveling salesman. What other explanation could there be for a vagabond with a walking stick and a knapsack full of books?
T he Orbisons gave up collecting for driftology in the summer of 1993, when they began discovering bath toys. Tyler was just twelve at the time, but he was the one to find their first toy, a beaver, and he remembers the moment vividly. “We were on Kruzof Island, looking for glass balls,” he says. “We didn’t really know what else to look for. It was beautiful weather the reason we went to Kruzof is because it’s really hard to get ashore, and that’s where we go when the weather’s good. We were up beyond the high-tide line. It was in the drift a ways. It had been there for a little bit. And I thought, This is cool. It was bleached out, exactly like the beavers we find now. I would say it had been there since the winter storms.”
They assumed that their beaver was a solitary castaway, but when they arrived back in town, talk of the mysterious invasion was in the air. Dean and Tyler went looking for more plastic animals, and found them. They started keeping meticulous records, treating the Floatees as data, which they eventually reported to Ebbesmeyer. About three years later, the oceanographer began publishing Beachcomber’s Alert!, and the Orbisons were among his first subscribers. They own every issue. “Curt tells us what to look for, and we go out there and find it,” Dean explains. This year, at Ebbesmeyer’s bidding, they searched for and found a computer monitor, Japanese surveying stakes, hockey gloves, “antisandals” (a sheet of rubber from which flip-flop–shaped blanks have been stamped), part of a naval sonar buoy, and six new Floatees, including a turtle they’d chiseled from the ice. After cataloguing the junk on their and showing it to Ebbesmeyer, they’ll take most of it to the dump.
B ack in the 1970s, when I was a child, rubber ducks were wilder than they are now. There was nothing iconic or nostalgic about them. Some rubber ducks of the Nixon era were white, some were calico. Some had swan-like necks and rosy circles on their cheeks. Some came with rococo feathers molded into their wings and tails. No one used them to sell baby clothes or soap. Normal adults did not give them to one another, or decorate their desks with them. As far as I can remember, no one I knew even owned a rubber duck. I did own one, however, on account of the pet name my mother had given me: Donovan Duck. My duck was a somewhat hideous specimen, with white plumage, a green topcoat, a big head, and the posture of a penguin. It resembled a Hummel figurine that had sprouted a beak.
Not long ago, my mother sent me a photograph in which, naked, eight months old, sitting in the bath across from my brother, I appear to be attempting to gnaw through my rubber duck’s skull. The picture is dated January 1973. Most exotic varieties of rubber duck have since gone extinct—they are the dodos and carrier pigeons of the nursery—and what new ones have evolved share a single, yellow ancestor whose pop-cultural apotheosis was by January 1973 already under way. It had begun three years earlier, in 1970, when an orange puppet named Ernie appeared on PBS and said, “Here I am in my tubby again. And my tubby’s all filled with water and nice, fluffy suds. And I’ve got my soap and washcloth to wash myself. And I’ve got my nifty scrub brush to help me scrub my back. And I’ve got a big fluffy towel to dry myself when I’m done. But there’s one other thing that makes tubby time the very best time of the whole day. And do you know what that is? It’s a very special friend of mine. My very favorite little pal”—at which point Ernie reaches into the suds and, brandishing his yellow duck, bursts into song.
You can watch a video clip of the number online. A pink towel hangs from a wooden post at the left edge of the frame. The post looks like something out of an old Western. There is no other scenery to speak of. Behind the bathtub—which is huge, presumably claw-footed, and decorated with three pink daisies—hangs a sky-blue backdrop. Bubbles of the sort you blow with a wand come floating up from the bottom of the screen, and the gurgle of water accompanies the music. Although I watched my share of Sesame Street as a child, I far preferred Super Grover’s mock-heroic pratfalls to Ernie’s snickering bonhomie, and I have no memory of the rubber duckie number. My wife, on the other hand, still knows the song by heart.
“Rubber Duckie, joy of joys,” Ernie sings. “When I squeeze you, you make noise,/Rubber Duckie, you’re my very best friend, it’s true.” It’s all so synthetic, so lonely, so imaginary, so clean. And apparently children loved it. In the 1969 pilot episode of Sesame Street, in which a version of the rubber duckie song appeared, children in the test audience responded so enthusiastically to Ernie and Bert and so tepidly to segments featuring the live actors that the show’s creators redesigned it, giving the puppets a starring role.
However novel the medium, however inventive Jim Henson’s puppetry, Ernie’s bathtub serenade draws upon a history of representation that can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when British portraitists stopped painting children as diminutive adults and turned them into puppy-eyed personifications of Innocence. In the Romantic era, no longer was innocence merely the antithesis of guilt it was also
the antithesis of adulthood and modernity. Children became little noble savages and childhood became a place as well as an age—a lost, imaginary, pastoral realm.
It is striking how much the modern history of childhood resembles that of animals. “In the first stages of the industrial revolution,” John Berger writes, “animals were used as machines. As also were children.” In the latter stages of industrialism, poor children who escaped the factory often took to the street, where they formed what social historians call “child societies,” gangs of urchins who—like feral cats—invented a social order all their own. Partly in fear of child societies, middle-class parents of the Gilded Era began treating their children increasingly like pets. Nurseries and playrooms became more common, and toy chests began to overflow. 
In 1869, a printer from Albany, New York, named John Wesley Hyatt mixed ground camphor with nitrocellulose, thereby inventing celluloid. In 1873, the first Pekin ducks were imported to the United States from China. And in the 1880s, bathtubs began appearing in middle-class homes along with indoor plumbing. Celluloid eventually evolved into the plastics industry. The Pekin duck eventually became the preferred species of American duck breeders, making yellow ducklings a familiar symbol of birth and spring. And the average American bathroom, which had once consisted of a washtub and an outhouse, was consecrated as a temple of cleanliness. Much as the modern nursery sheltered children from the social contamination of the street, so the modern bathroom protected their naked, slippery bodies from germs. In the first decades of the twentieth century, public-health campaigns and soap advertisements—usually illustrated with pudgy little tots—exhorted parents to bathe their children often. Little boys, the thinking went, were naturally indisposed to bathing. Bath toys not only made hygiene boyishly fun they helped overcome the naughty urges that bathing tended to arouse: “The baby will not spend much time handling his genitals if he has other interesting things to do,” one government-issue child-care manual advised in 1942. “See that he has a toy to play with and he will not need to use his body as a plaything.” Enter the rubber duck.
Ducklings are the aquatic equivalent of kittens and bunnies. In fact, it’s hard to think of a smaller, cuddlier animal that can swim. Most of the frogs and turtles of children’s literature are middle-aged men, whereas even in nature ducklings are model offspring: obedient, dependent, vulnerable to predation, clumsy, soft, a little dumb. Just think of them waddling in a train behind a mother duck, a familiar image memorialized by Robert McCloskey’s best-selling children’s book Make Way for Ducklings. McCloskey’s baby mallards, penciled in black and white, look like real baby mallards—a little stylized, but real. Like the ducks depicted in other venerable children’s books, they bear little resemblance to Ernie’s Day-Glo squeak toy. Beatrix Potter’s Jemimah is a white Pekin duck in a bonnet and shawl. Donald Duck, the most famous water fowl at mid-century, was also a white Pekin, and the most common toy duck was still the ancient bird-on-a-leash, a wooden pull-toy with wheels instead of feet. Before the rubber duck could eclipse it, plastic had to replace wood as the preferred material for toys, which, following the technical innovations spurred by World War II, it did.
McCloskey published his book in 1941. That same year, at the beginning of the war, two British chemists, V. E. Yarsley and E. G. Couzens, prophesied with surprising accuracy and quaintly utopian innocence what middle-class childhood in the 1970s would be like. “Let us try to imagine a dweller in the ‘Plastic Age,’” they wrote in the British magazine Science Digest.
This creature of our imagination, this ‘Plastic Man,’ will come into a world of colour and bright shining surfaces, where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges or corners to cut or graze, no crevices to harbour dirt or germs, because, being a child his parents will see to it that he is surrounded on every side by this tough, safe, clean material which human thought has created. The walls of his nursery, all the articles of his bath and certain other necessities of his small life, all his toys, his cot, the moulded perambulator in which he takes the air, the teething ring he bites, the unbreakable bottle he feeds from . . . all will be plastic, brightly self-coloured and patterned with every design likely to please his childish mind.
Here, then, is one of the meanings of the duck. It represents this vision of childhood—the hygienic childhood, the safe childhood, the brightly colored childhood, in which everything, even bathtub articles, have been designed to please the childish mind, much as the golden fruit in that most famous origin myth of paradise “was pleasant to the eyes” of childish Eve. Yarsley and Couzens go on to imagine the rest of Plastic Man’s life, and it is remarkable how little his adulthood differs from his childhood. When he grows up, Plastic Man will live in a house furnished with “beautiful, transparent, glass-like materials in every imaginable form,” he will play with plastic toys (tennis rackets and fishing tackle), he will, “like a magician,” be able to make “what he wants.” And yet there is one imperfection, one run in this nylon dream. Plastic might make the pleasures of childhood last forever, but it could not make Plastic Man immortal. When he dies, he will sink “into his grave hygienically enclosed in a plastic coffin.” The image must have been unsettling, even in 1941 that hygienically enclosed death too reminiscent of the hygienically enclosed life that preceded it. To banish the image of that plastic coffin from their readers’ thoughts, the utopian chemists inject a little more technicolor resin
into their closing sentences. When “the dust and smoke” of war had cleared, plastic would deliver us “from moth and rust” into a world “full of colour . . . a new, brighter, cleaner, more beautiful world.”
For new parents who had themselves grown up during the Depression and the war, the fantasy of childhood as consumer paradise exerted a powerful appeal. Browsing through issues of Parents Magazine from 1950, I came upon an ad campaign for Heinz baby food (“Scientific Cooking Gives Finer Flavor, Color and Texture to Heinz Strained Carrots”). In one Heinz ad, targeted at new mothers, cartoon butterflies, fairies, and dolls encircle the photograph of a baby girl. “Wee elfin creatures go riding on butterfly wings,” the copy reads, “dolls speak in a language all their own and something altogether new and wonderful happens everywhere a baby looks . . . your child lives in a magic world where everything’s enchanted.” Then came television, enchantment in a box. Annual toy sales in America shot from $84 million in 1940 to $1.25 billion in 1960. Peg-and-socket pop beads sold to girls as costume jewelry consumed 40,000 pounds of polyethylene resin per month in 1956. In 1958, “twirling hoops” consumed 15 million pounds of the stuff. Polystyrene replaced balsa wood as the material of choice for model cars and planes. Plasticized polyvinyl chloride, the material from which the brand-new Barbie doll was made, provided a cheaper, more durable alternative to latex rubber, rendering traditional molded rubber animals and dolls obsolete except in name.
Not long after PBS first broadcast it, Ernie’s rubber duckie song went to number 16 on the Billboard charts. Radio stations were playing it, adults were buying it. And, unlike the other Sesame Street characters, Ernie’s rubber duck could not be licensed. Producers had picked up the prop at a local dimestore, which meant that even as it became a recurring character and a pop music phenomenon, it remained in the public domain, free for the taking, no fees required. Does that mean that if Ernie had gone bathing with a white duck or a green one, our iconic ducks would be white or green? I’m not sure. The threads of chance and meaning are hard to disentangle. On the album cover of the single of the song, Ernie, for some reason, is holding a different duck, a white one with burnt-orange spots. Perhaps there is more to the message in this particular bottle than the medium. Perhaps Ernie alone does not explain the yellowness of the duck.
“Ideals of innocent beauty and the adorable have changed little in a hundred years or more,” the historian Gary Cross writes. “Many today share with the Victorian middle class an attraction to the blond, blue-eyed, clear-skinned, and well-fed child and are appalled by, uninterested in, and even hostile to the dark, dirty, and emaciated child. Even when humanitarian groups try to shame us into giving money to support poor peoples far away, they usually show us an image of a smiling olive-skinned (not black) girl, a close copy of our ideal of innocence.” So maybe it’s just as Curtis Ebbesmeyer suspected. Maybe there is a racial bias at play. Is it too much of a stretch to see in the yellowness of the rubber duck a visual reminder of that well-fed, blue-eyed, clear-skinned, yellow-haired Victorian ideal? After all, real ducklings have black, beady eyes, not blue ones like the ducks in Eric Carle’s book. The lyrics to Ernie’s serenade show just how childlike his rubber duckie is. “Every day when I,/Make my way to the tubby,” the song’s chorus goes, “I find a little fellow who’s/Cute and yellow and chubby!” Chubby vs. well-fed, blond vs. yellow, what’s the difference?
Tuesdays during the seventh month of her pregnancy, my wife and I attended a prepared childbirth class on the maternity ward of our hospital. On one wall of the classroom hung a poster of an egg, mid-hatch. Contemplating it during the long, tedious hours of instruction, I began to wonder why this particular poster had been hung before our eyes. Was it meant to comfort us? Did we prefer the clean, white orb of an egg to the bloody, mammalian mess of one body gushing forth from the wounded nethers of another? On the opposite wall of the classroom hung an enlarged, sepia photograph of naked, racially diverse babies aligned firing-squad style along a fence over which they appeared to be attempting an escape, they displayed their wrinkly bums for our delight. Children are fundamentally the same, such images suggest, as indistinguishable as ducklings despite the color of their skin. They inhabit a world before sex, before race, before history, before self, before humanity. Children, then, are beasts of burden, too—ducklings and bunnies of burden—asked to carry the needful daydreams of adults. The apotheosis of the rubber duck wouldn’t be truly complete until the children who had watched that 1970 episode of Sesame Street grew old enough to look back forgetfully with longing and loss.
W e are going beachcombing. We are going beachcombing on Kruzof Island, along a pumice beach at the mouth of Fred’s Creek, which originates high on the perennially snow-capped slopes of Mt. Edgecumbe and empties into Sitka Sound. Curtis Ebbesmeyer is here, aboard the Morning Mist, wearing his sea-bean necklace and a baseball cap decorated with stickers from Seattle coffee houses. Dean Orbison is here, in his customary plaid woodsman’s shirt and a pair of Sitka sneakers—the local name for knee-high rubber boots. Tyler Orbison is not here sadly, he had to work. Piloting the Morning Mist—a white, twin-engine troller with outrigging as tall as flagpoles and orange floats the size of beach balls dangling like ornaments from its rails—is Larry Calvin, a spry, white-haired fisherman in suspenders.
A self-employed, left-wing entrepreneur who subsidizes his fishing with profits earned in the building-supply business, Calvin embodies an old brand of American individualism that seems to flourish in the strange demographic conundrum that is maritime Alaska, a place both rural and coastal, both red and blue, Western and Tlingit, industrial and aquacultural and wild. On Calvin’s black ball cap a fish leaps above the words
With us aboard the Morning Mist are a dozen or so scholars—oceanographers, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians—who have come to Sitka for the annual Paths Across the Pacific Conference, an academic symposium scheduled to coincide with the Beachcombers’ Fair. The organizing theory of the conference is this: People started crossing the Pacific Ocean by boat tens of thousands of years ago, far earlier than was previously thought. Some Asian immigrants sailed to America by mistake when blown astray. Some came on purpose, paddling along the coast of the Beringian ice shelf, traveling a little farther east with every generation. Comparatively little is known about these ancient migrations, and on the way to Kruzof Island, an oceanographer named Thomas Royer tells me one reason why. Sea levels have risen so much since the last ice age that the earliest settlements in Alaska are now 100 meters underwater.
Another passenger, an archaeologist, interrupts to contest Royer’s figures. Sedimentation adds about a centimeter a year to the ocean floor, this archaeologist says, which means you’d have to dig deeper than 100 meters. You’d have to dig about 400 meters to find any artifacts.
Most of the chitchat aboard the Morning Mist is similarly quibbling, interdisciplinary, and esoteric. When did people first begin using boats—40,000 years ago? 50,000 years ago? What does it take to start a migration—a critical mass, or a few individuals with the itch to explore? Why did people migrate in the first place—the profit motive? hunger? exile? Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham’s computer simulations may help these marine archaeologists reconstruct the routes of those transoceanic migrations, the history of which is inseparable from the history of global climate change. In other words, it is humanity’s own past and future that the oceanographers are scrying in the tangled drift routes of the toys.
Looking out from the cabin of the Morning Mist, Royer teaches me how to read the surface of the sea. “You see that smooth area there?” he asks. “Either temperature or the salinity will change the surface tension of the water, so the same wind will ruffle the water in one spot but not in another.” All variations in the surface are the effects of hidden causes. What to me looks simply like an expanse of water is in fact a kind of shifting, aquatic topography, like an enormous lava lamp, only far more complex and subtle. Instead of one liquid suspended in another, there are slopes of dense, salty water and rivers of light, brackish water, and all of it, over the course of centuries, will eventually intermingle. As in all complex systems, minute changes to the ocean—in salinity, in temperature, in air pressure—can entail grand and unpredictable climate events. Because of melting glaciers, for instance, the salinity in the 18-mile-wide coastal current that flows north along the Alaskan seaboard is presently decreasing, making the water fresher and lighter. Counterintuitively, however, sea levels in Alaska are falling—or so it seems—because the land, relieved of the weight of ice, is lifting, the way an air mattress resumes its shape after you stand up.
In the half hour or so it takes us to get to Kruzof, centuries seem to recede. Sitka disappears into a blur of blue horizon. The world out here would not have looked much different a millennium ago, I think to myself. It resembles the opening verses of Genesis. There is only the land, the water, the trees. And then, at the edge of my peripheral vision, an orange figure swoops and dives. It’s a kite. A kite shaped like a bird, and there on the beach below it are three figures, a father and his children, dressed in colorful swimsuits. They have rented one of the four rustic cabins that the National Forest Service maintains on Kruzof Island. The cabin itself becomes visible now, tucked back into the trees. Here, in the forest primeval at the foot of a dormant volcano, is a scene from the New Jersey Shore. Larry Calvin anchors the Morning Mist well away from the rocky shallows and ferries us in several at a time aboard his aluminum skiff. The father flying the kite hollers hello, the children eye us warily. Ebbesmeyer hands out white plastic garbage bags in which to collect our discoveries. Dean Orbison will lead one beachcombing party to the south. I join Ebbesmeyer’s party, headed north.
I try to remember what the Orbisons and Amos Wood have taught me. Up ahead, where the beach curves and tapers into a sickle, there’s lots of jackstraw and even a little color—a fleck of blue, a daub of red. To get there we have to cross Fred’s Creek, which spills down through the trees over terraces of rocks before carving a delta of rivulets and bluffs through the sand. The delta is perhaps a dozen yards wide, and those of us without Sitka sneakers have trouble getting across. I manage to leap from rock to rock. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who ambles along somewhat effortfully, is in no state to go rock jumping. He hikes up into the trees and crosses where the creek narrows. Reuniting on the far shore, we make our way down the beach in a line, scanning the sand. Ebbesmeyer launches into one of his litanies of facts. Bowling balls float, he informs us, or rather the nine-, ten-, and eleven-pounders do. Heavier ones sink. And did you know that the valves of clams are not symmetrical? A colleague of his once surveyed the clamshells along a mile of beach. “At one end of the beach, it’s mostly rights, and at the other end it’s mostly lefts.” The currents can tell the difference.
In Beachcombing the Pacific, Amos Wood tells us “to keep looking out at the horizon and not continuously at the sand, for, after a few hours this can be tiring on the neck”—advice that I am all too happy to follow. For the first time since I entered Alaska aboard the Malaspina a week ago, the rain clouds have cleared. A strong breeze is blowing inland across the sparkling waves. To our right, there is the sound of the surf to our left, the soughing of the trees. Peering into them, I see
only shadowy depths of green. The beach here is more gravelly than sandy. It’s like walking over peppercorns. Our boot soles crunch, and I fall into a kind of trance. No matter how crappy a pittance the tide leaves, no matter how darkly ominous the riddles in the sand, beachcombing has its delights. There is pleasure in setting your senses loose. At the sight of something half-buried, the eye startles and the imagination leaps. At the edge of the waves flickers a silver flame. A hundred yards off, from beneath a pile of driftwood, glows a small, fallen sun. Then, at the moment of recognition, there is a kind of satisfying latch. The silver flame? An empty bag of Doritos, torn open. The small sun? A red, dog-chewn Frisbee. The strange becomes suddenly familiar once again, though never quite as familiar as before. Occasionally the object you’ve inspected is unrecognizable or exotic or mysteriously incongruous. Occasionally that surf-tossed bottle turns out not to have been left by a camper but tossed from a Malaysian shrimp boat crossing the Andaman Sea.
It occurs to me that this is what I have been pursuing these past months, this is what I found so spellbindingly enigmatic about the image of those plastic ducks at sea—incongruity. We have built for ourselves out of this New World a giant diorama, a synthetic habitat, but travel beyond the edges or look with the eyes of a serious beachcomber, and the illusion begins to crumble.
According to Ebbesmeyer, the beachcombing this year has not been good. It all depends on the winter storms. But to me the junk seems abundant. I clamber over the jackstraw, finding there a predictable assortment of water bottles, but also a polystyrene ice cream tub, a plastic length of hose, nylon nets, huge cakes of Styrofoam, all of which I dump into Ebbesmeyer’s bag.
“Aw, man,” Ebbesmeyer says of the Styrofoam. “That’ll break up into a billion pieces. That’s the worst stuff. In Seattle you can’t recycle Styrofoam. Pisses me off. So what do you do with it? See all those little cells? The irony is, it’s made of polystyrene, which sinks, and they foam it to make it into something that floats. That’s what I think of when I see that stuff, all the windrows of Styrofoam, coffee cups with barnacles growing on them. You say you’d love to get it off the beach, but there’s no way.” He tells me about a container that spilled a shipment of filtered cigarettes. “There are about 10,000 polymer fibers per butt—that’s, what? Ten to the order . . . about ten billion fibers for just one container.” His eyebrows spring up above his glasses.
T his, then, is the destiny of those toy animals that beachcombers fail to recover: baked brittle by the sun, they will eventually disintegrate into shards. Those shards will disintegrate into splinters, the splinters into particles, the particles into dust, and the dust into molecules, which will circulate through the environment for centuries. The very features that make plastic a perfect material for bathtub toys—so buoyant! so pliant! so smooth! so colorful! so hygienic!—also make it a superlative pollutant of the seas. No one knows exactly how long a synthetic polymer will persist at sea. Five hundred years is a reasonable guess. Globally, we are presently producing 200 million tons of plastic every year, and no known organism can digest a single molecule of the stuff, though plenty of organisms try, including many of the friendly organisms depicted in Eric Carle’s 10 Little Rubber Ducks.
Luckily for them, none of Carle’s ducks runs into a Laysan albatross. The encounter would not be pretty. The Laysan albatross is probably the most suicidally voracious plastivore on the planet. Although the bird prefers squid, it will scarf up almost anything colorful that it sees on the ocean’s surface. Albatross nesting grounds in the North Pacific are littered with the plastic debris that the birds have crapped out intact. Three to four million cigarette lighters have been collected from seabird rookeries on Midway. Albatross chicks have been known to starve to death on the plastic their parents regurgitate into their mouths, and the intestines of the adult birds can handle only so much before a fatal case of indigestion sets in. Naturalists recently found 700 different plastic items inside the feathery carcass of an albatross found in the Pacific. After cataloging this scrap, they assembled it into a mosaic, a great technicolor mandala of detritus, that is a marvel to behold. The other day, during a lecture he gave at a Rotary Club luncheon in Sitka, Ebbesmeyer showed a slide of the thing. Backlit against a white screen, it at first calls to mind stained glass. Then, as you look closer, you start spotting familiar objects strewn amid the shrapnel. Two cigarette lighters and a dozen-odd bottlecaps appear to be as good as new. Somewhere among those 700 items may be the remains of a Floatee.
Where does all that plastic come from? Container spills, fishing boats, and recreational beaches, but also sewers and drainage systems that empty into the sea. Bottlecaps are especially abundant in the North Pacific because they are small enough to slip through grates. The lost Super Balls of my childhood may now be abob in the garbage patch. The California Coastal Commission, an independent, quasi-judicial state agency, estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of visible plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean, never mind the invisible pieces Charlie Moore has gone trawling for. Based on the samples he collected, Moore calculates that in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre there are now six pounds of plastic for every one pound of zooplankton. Zooplankton such as salps, a kind of chordate jellyfish that feed by pumping seawater through their gelatinous bodies and straining out the nutrients, ingest bits of plastic far too small to catch an albatross’s eye. But the journey of the toys won’t end there, in the watery belly of a salp. Long after my own organic chemistry has fertilized leaves of grass, the pulverized, photo-degraded remains of that hollow duck of mine will, chemically speaking, live on, traveling through the food chain, scattering toxins in their wake.
We find the remains of a derelict motorboat, a bayliner. The boat was here last year, Ebbesmeyer says, marooned but intact on the beach to the south. A year’s worth of wave and wind action has torn its fiberglass hull asunder. It looks as though someone blew it up. We find one big blue shard of fiberglass and then, fifty feet farther, another piece. I would like to place a time-lapse camera on a beach like this and watch what happens over the course of a year, watch the giant logs jump around and the flotsam explode. Not far from the bayliner’s gas tank, we find a child’s baseball mitt that looks as good as new, and then, not far from the glove, in the damp sand at the edge of the ebbing surf, we come upon the fresh footprints of a bear. The beach ends, the shoreline giving way to a labyrinth of wave-washed boulders into which the footprints continue. “Stonehenge for bears,” says Michael Wilson, a Canadian geoarchaeologist who later this week will deliver a lecture titled “Natural Disasters and Prehistoric Human Dispersal: The Rising Wave of Inquiry.”
Wilson leads us into the boulders, talking loudly. The wind is behind us, and we assume that the bear will keep its distance, but you can tell that Ebbesmeyer is feeling nervous. I am, too. We both start glancing into the trees. Wilson’s spotted something, something big and blue, and runs ahead to see what it is. It turns out to be an empty plastic barrel with the word “toxic” printed on the lid. It appears to be watertight. Wilson thumps it like a drum, then hoists it up above his head and roars like one of the apes in 2001. We’d like to take it back with us rather than leave it here to decompose, but the damn thing is just too big, and we end up abandoning it there, among the rocks. As we turn to retrace our steps, I think of Wallace Stevens’s anecdotal jar: The wilderness rose up to it,/And sprawled around, no longer wild.
A nother incongruity: in 1878, nine years after the invention of celluloid, a sales brochure promoted it as the salvation of the world. “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale,” the copy ran, so “has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.” A hundred years later, in the public mind, plastic had gone from miracle substance to toxic blight. In 1968, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement, the editor of Modern Plastics argued that his industry had been unfairly vilified. Plastic was not the primary cause of environmental destruction, he wrote, only its most visible symptom. The real problem was “our civilization, our exploding population, our life-style, our technology.” That 1878 sales brochure and that 1968 editorial were both partly, paradoxically, right. Petroleum did save the whale, plastics did save the elephant, not to mention the forest. Modern medicine would not exist without them. Personal computing would not exist without them. Safe, fuel-efficient cars would not exist without them. Besides, they consume fewer resources to manufacture and transport than most alternative materials do. Even environmentalists have more important things to worry about now. In the information age, plastics have won. With the wave of a magical iPod and a purified swig from a Nalgene jar, we have banished all thoughts of drift nets and six-pack rings, and what lingering anxieties remain we leave at the curbside with the recycling.
Never mind that only 5 percent of plastics actually end up getting recycled. Never mind that the plastics industry stamps those little triangles of chasing arrows into plastics for which no viable recycling method exists. Never mind that plastics consume about 400 million tons of oil and gas every year and that oil and gas may very well run out in the not too distant future. Never mind that so-called green plastics made of biochemicals require fossil fuels to produce and release greenhouse gases when they break down. What’s most nefarious about plastic, however, is the way it invites fantasy, the way it pretends to deny the laws of matter, as if something—anything—could be made from nothing the way it is intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last. By offering the false promise of disposability, of consumption without cost, it has helped create a culture of wasteful make-believe, an economy of forgetting. The flotsam Ebbesmeyer and his beachcombers find is not only incongruous, it’s uncanny, in the Freudian sense—a repressed fact breaking forth with the shock of strangeness into our conscious minds. As he, Charlie Moore, and other oceanographers can tell you, the ocean does not so easily forget. Chemically, it remembers. An environmental geochemist at the University of Tokyo has shown that on the open sea polyethylene acts as a toxin sponge, attracting and concentrating free-floating non-water-soluble chemicals such as DDT and PCB, and plastics themselves contain a host of known carcinogens, including PCBs, that are safe only as long as they remain inert. Some of these compounds have also been recently identified as “gender-bending” endocrine disruptors. The American Plastics Council has called such findings “fascinating” but inconclusive, and many concerned scientists agree. A PVC duck in the bathtub may well be harmless to your child, but no one yet knows how post-consumer plastics that escape the landfill are altering the chemistry of the environment. The experiment, which began a century or so ago, is ongoing. In the meantime, Ebbesmeyer worries that plastics could do to our civilization what lead did to the Romans. He thinks the garbage patch may betoken nothing less than “the end of the ocean.” The seas have become synthetic. The planet is sick. It can no longer recycle its ingredients, or purge itself of pollutants.
Some of the archaeologists in our beachcombing expedition have studied the midden heaps of shells that prehistoric seafarers left around the Pacific Rim. Garbage often outlasts monuments, and if 10,000 years from now archaeologists come looking for us, they will find a trail of plastic clues. It will be easy to date us by our artifacts. At the rate we’re burning and extruding fossil fuels, the age of petrochemical plastics promises to be relatively short.
I have yet to reach the end of my own trail of clues. I’d like to go farther. I’d like Larry Calvin to ferry me 2,000 miles west, to that spot in the middle of the North Pacific where thirteen years ago a container of bath toys tumbled into the sea. I’d like to ride a container ship through a winter storm and return with it to Guangdong Province, where low-wage factory workers manufacture 70 percent of the toys we Americans buy—about $22 billion worth—71 percent of which are made of plastic. I’ve read disturbing reports about the Chinese toy industry, and now when I read Eric Carle’s 10 Little Rubber Ducks, which was itself manufactured in China, and come to the scene of the woman in the brick-red dress painting brick-red beaks with her little paintbrush, I can’t help but think of Huangwu No. 2 Toy Factory, where, according to the nonprofit China Labour Watch, in order to earn the legal minimum wage of $3.45 for an eight-hour day, a piece-rate worker in the spray department “would have to paint 8,920 small toy pieces a day, or 1,115 per hour, or one every 3.23 seconds.”
Did workers make the Floatees under similar conditions? Before leaving for Sitka, I called The First Years, Inc., which has recently been bought out. The current management seemed to know less about the Floatees than I did, or pretended to. There was no way they could tell me which factory produced that yellow duck of mine, they said. I would like to know the provenance of everything. I would like to follow the duck back into the blow molding machine, back into the resin extruder, back to the petroleum refinery, back to the oil field or coal mine whence it came. But for now, it’s time to give up the chase. In 1827, returning from another failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage, Lieutenant Parry, upon learning that he was to become a father, sent a letter home to his pregnant wife: “success in my enterprize is by no means essential to our joy, tho’ it might have added something to it but we cannot, ought not to have everything we wish. . . .”
On Kruzof Island, I find that for the first time since Bellingham my cell phone is picking up a signal. I call my wife and tell her I’ve decided to fly home sooner than planned, just to be safe. A week after my return, following a difficult, thirty-hour labor, my wife will give birth to a son, the sight and touch of whom will dispel my usual, self-involved preoccupations and induce a goofy, mystical, sleep-deprived euphoria. My wife will cry, and when she does so will I. These will be tears of joy, of course, but also of exhaustion and of awe and, truth be told, of sadness. Holding my son for the first time, I will feel diminished by the mystery of his birth and by the terrible burden of love, a burden that, requiring hopefulness, will feel too great to carry, but which I will take up nonetheless.
In the meantime, back on Kruzof Island, there is Fred’s Creek to cross.
Tired, loaded down with our plastic bag of scavengings, Ebbesmeyer is having a hard time fording the stream. He picks his way carefully up into the trees, places his foot on a partially submerged rock, but hesitates. His breath is short and his footing poor. The rest of our party has continued on without us. I wait. “Throw me the bag,” I call to him, and he does. It lands with a splash at the edge of the creek. I met the aging oceanographer in person only a week ago, but I feel oddly protective of him, oddly filial. I watch the trees for bears. Finally he is over to the other side, and we walk together back to the landing on the beach and wait for Larry Calvin to come for us.
Michigan Habitats, Mammals, Birds, Amphibians, Reptiles
Michigan is a state shaped by the retreating glaciers and with rich and varied habitats including forests, wetlands, prairies, caves, and Great Lakes shoreline. Before settlement, Michigan was one massive forest, broken only by small grasslands in the southern part of the state. In the late 1800s, the forests of Michigan were cut for lumber and fuel until they were literally gone. Once they had been stripped of lumber, the landowners stopped paying taxes and the land reverted to the state. This gave those forests a chance to recover. They will never return to their original state but they have developed back into healthy diverse forests with large stands of aspen and second growth hardwoods like red maple.Today only about half the state is forested - about 18 million acres. Michigan's state forest is the largest in the U.S. with almost 4 million acres.
Jack pine forests are found on both the upper and lower peninsula of Michigan. These forests have scattered open areas called barrens. These dry, sparse forests often burn and regrow. The fire releases the seeds from the cones. Deciduous hardwood trees like sugar maple, beech, and basswood are found throughout the state. Oaks and hickories are found mostly on the Lower Peninsula and are sensitive to frigid northern temperatures. As you move north, there are more conifer trees like balsam fir, spruce, tamarack, hemlock, and white, red, and jack pine that can tolerate deep snow and cold. The deciduous trees that can tolerate the colder northern part of the state are the birches, balsam poplars and quaking aspen.
Wetlands are very important habitats. They provide valuable wildlife habitat, stabilize shorelines and protect the land from storm surges and flooding. They act as filters to pollutants that run off the land from farms, towns and cities. Yet, for generations, people saw wetlands as dangerous and wasted land and set about filling them in and covering them over. It wasn't until late in the 1900s that people realized the vital importance of wetlands and set about protecting and reclaiming them. Michigan's wetlands include swamps, bogs, marshes and fens.
Swamps are forested wetlands. Their plant life is woody &ndash trees and shrubs. Swamps are often found in the floodplains of rivers, streams and lakes. They are rich habitats full of wildflowers in the spring. Michigan's swamps have red and silver maples, cedars, balsams, willows, alders, black ash, elms, and dogwoods. It is habitat for frogs, salamanders, owls, raccoons, and many songbirds.
Marshes have plant life that is soft-stemmed and rises out of standing water. These include cattails, grasses, sedges, rushes, arrowhead, pickerel weed, and smartweed. Michigan's marshes are found around lakes and along rivers.
Marshes are vital habitat for the feeding and reproducing of fish, water birds &ndash ducks, geese, herons, cranes, rails, song birds, frogs, reptiles and many mammals (muskrats, beaver, and otter).
Bogs form when ponds and glacial kettle lakes fill in with decaying plants. It can form a mat around the open water or fill in completely forming a spongy mat of peat covered by sphagnum moss. The acidic environment (where there is little oxygen and nutrients) creates very slow decomposition of plant matter. For plants to survive in a bog, they must be acid tolerant like orchids, sundews, pitcher plants, labrador tea, tamarack, and black spruce.
Fens differ from bogs in that they are found over calcareous soils so are alkaline instead of acid. They are often in or near prairie habitats and have enough nutrients to support a rich diversity of plants.
Found only in the southwest region of the state, Michigan's oak savannas support the wildflowers, insects, and birds of a prairie habitat. Where once wildfires kept the savannas open, now people must cut trees and do control burns to keep them open.
Michigan's lakeshore has more freshwater sand dunes than anywhere else on Earth. Formed by wind off the lakes, there are parallel dunes along large shallow bays and on the mouth of rivers on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. There are also blowouts &ndash u-shaped dents blown in stable dunes where the sand "blows out" and covers (and uncovers) whole forests. Erosion caused by fires and human activities can cause blowouts to occur. There are also perched dunes which sit on top of ridges along the shoreline of the Great Lakes left by the retreating glaciers.
The actual beaches of the Great Lakes are not rich habitats like ocean's tidal zones. Blowing sand, pounding waves, winter ice and snow make this an unfriendly habitat. Few plants or animals live on the beach though scavenging insects, birds and mammals do search for food washed up daily.
Above the wind and erosion line, stable dunes support dune forests of oak hickory in the south and beech, maple and hemlock in the north.
Nine creatures that drink the blood of other animals
This villain&rsquos haunt is worthy of its own gothic novel. Isolated by 620 miles (1,000km) of ocean on all sides, Wolf Island looms eerily over the Pacific. It is the most remote outpost of the Galapagos &ndash a barren land of razor-sharp lava formations, tangled mangroves and brutal heat. And it is ruled by vampires.
The tiny, ordinary-looking vampire finch is a close relative of its seed-eating neighbour, the sharp-beaked ground finch. But looks belie a grisly secret.
Although they still eat seeds and grubs, the birds have adapted to island life by turning their beaks to more violent use. To feed, they simply hop aboard a larger bird, such as a blue-footed booby, and peck at the tail feathers until they are sitting in a pool of blood. Then the vampires jam in their beaks and go to town. They are particularly fond of defenceless chicks cowering in their nests.
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the whole ordeal is that the victims barely flinch as the finches rip their skin off. One theory is that the vampires used to pick ticks off the birds &ndash they may have discreetly taken their services to the next level. Or perhaps resisting just isn&rsquot worth the effort.
The finches&rsquo blood-drinking habits have allowed them to thrive even in the driest months, becoming the most numerous birds on the island. At peak feeding times, finches can be seen lining up behind a victim, patiently waiting their turn to dine.
Assassin bugs (Reduviidae family)
In woodlands and rainforests across the globe, a cold-blooded killer stalks the night. The aptly-named assassin bug has it all &ndash stealth, strategy, and a lethal weapon.
The 7,000 or so species vary widely in their diets &ndash some target bees while others, confusingly, suck the blood of blood-sucking vampire bats &ndash but all are equipped with their own sinister multi-tool, the rostrum.
While other predators go to the trouble of killing their prey, the assassin bug uses its rostrum to inject live victims with cocktail of enzymes and digest them from the inside out. As the target animal turns to soup, the assassin bug&rsquos beaklike projection then doubles as a drinking straw for slurping up the soup &ndash whether the victim is alive or dead.
One species of assassin bug glues its victims&rsquo shrivelled corpses to its shell as extra armour
Most assassin bugs feed on insects, which they ambush using a range of nasty tricks. The species Stenolemus bituberus hunts spiders on their own webs, luring them to their doom by gently plucking the delicate silk to mimic the vibrations of entangled prey. Then it leaps out of hiding.
But for sheer guile you can&rsquot beat Salyavata variegata, which goes fishing for termites. First it finds some bait: it waits by the entrance to a nest, impales a worker, and sucks it dry. Then it thrusts the victim back inside. Invariably it emerges with another live termite to attack, which has clung to the body of its dead comrade &ndash undone by a powerful instinct to pick up and remove termite corpses from the nest.
Another species, Acanthaspis petax, preys on ants. It puts its victims&rsquo shrivelled corpses to particularly macabre use, gluing them to its shell as extra armour. Some have been seen with as many as 20 individuals piled up.
Unfortunately, humans haven&rsquot escaped the assassin bugs&rsquo attention. The &lsquokissing bug&rsquo has been drinking our blood for thousands of years. So-named because of their hideous habit of attaching themselves to peoples&rsquo faces as they sleep, they even managed to annoy the world&rsquos most famous biologist. Charles Darwin encountered them on his iconic voyage aboard the Beagle. He later wrote of the experience: &ldquoIt is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one's body.&rdquo
The bugs are the leading source of Chagas disease, caused by protozoans which live in their gut and contaminate the wound as they feed. It&rsquos a silent killer, quietly ravaging a person&rsquos heart for the rest of their life. Some believe it may have been responsible for Darwin&rsquos death.
Vampire flying frog (Rhacophorus vampyrus)
The mist-swept forests of Southern Vietnam are some of the wettest places on Earth, permanently submerged in clouds which drench every surface in the canopy. It is ideal for spotting amphibians &ndash but not obvious vampire territory.
Or so biologist Jodi Rowley thought when she visited in 2010. Before long her team had found a species of flying frog entirely new to science.
Back at the Australian Museum in Sydney, where Rowley works, she was having difficulty seeing the tadpoles&rsquo tiny eyes. She popped one under the microscope to get a better look.
&ldquoIt was to my great amazement that I saw these curved black fangs sticking out! I just assumed that they&rsquod have the normal mouthparts for tadpoles which, you know, are quite boring beaky things,&rdquo Rowley told BBC Earth. Why would a tadpole need fangs?
The frogs live their entire lives in the treetops, where they use their webbed fingers and toes to glide among the trees.
Instead of risking predators by laying their eggs in streams or pools on the ground, females place the eggs above water-filled holes in the trees, whipping them up into a sticky foam with their back legs.
As the tadpoles hatch, they liquefy the foam and drop into the water below. But there is nothing for them to eat, so the mother returns to the hole and lays more eggs.
&ldquoThey don&rsquot suck blood or anything, they use the fangs to scoop the eggs up into their big mouths, and they suck them down whole.&rdquo Rowley explains.
Kenyan jumping spider (Evarcha culicivora)
It&rsquos hard not to feel sorry for the Kenyan jumping spider. The arachnid, which stalks the walls of people&rsquos homes on the shores of Lake Victoria, loves nothing more than a refreshing drink of human blood. But fate has been unkind: the spiders lack the specialised mouthparts needed to pierce people&rsquos skin.
It turns out what the spiders prize above all else are fluffy, luxuriant antennae
Instead they must get their fix indirectly, which they do by preying on blood-filled mosquitoes. They are the only animals known to choose their prey based on what it has eaten, and the spiders are extremely fussy.
Given the choice, they only eat female Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, the main malaria vector in Africa. But picking out a single species from the swarms of insects in the region is no mean feat.
The spiders distinguish Anopheles mosquitoes by the 45 degree angle of their bodies as they rest, and they can distinguish a mosquito that is full of human blood from one that isn&rsquot by smell alone. What Ximena Nelson from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, wanted to know was: how do they tell the females &ndash which drink human blood &ndash from the males that don&rsquot?
To find out, Nelson launched a bizarre experiment, which involved painstakingly constructing a series of mosquito monsters worthy of Frankenstein. She cut the heads, thoraxes and abdomens off males and females from two different species, and glued them back together in different combinations. Then she mounted their bodies in life-like postures, and presented them to the spiders.
It turns out what the spiders prize above all else are fluffy, luxuriant antennae they went for the creations with female heads every time.
Tongue-eating louse (Cymothoa exigua)
In January 2015, the internet retched in unison when a Nottingham mother opened a tin of tuna to find a pair of beady eyes peering back at her. The instigator of #tunagate turned out to be a Cymothoa exigua. It is a louse with a life so implausibly creepy, you couldn&rsquot make it up.
The parasite starts life as a male in search of a fish. Once it has found a suitable victim, it enters through the gills, crawls into the mouth, and undergoes a transformation.
It plunges its legs into the base of the fishes&rsquo tongue and gorges itself on their blood, growing enormously and turning female at the same time. Its eyes shrink and its legs expand.
Eventually, the fish&rsquos shrivelled tongue falls off, and the louse replaces it with its own body. From then on, the fish uses the parasite as a prosthetic tongue. The female mates with males living in the gills, giving birth to a brood of live male parasites that swim off to start the whole grisly process again.
Vampire moth (Calyptra thalictri)
They may look harmless, but not all moths are after nectar. Calyptra moths are found across Europe where they mostly use their piercing mouths to drink from flowers and drill under the skin of fruit.
But some have evolved more bloodthirsty ambitions. Siberian Calyptra thalictri have applied their long, barbed tongues to tap into the blood of vertebrates, including humans. Male Calyptra moths from Asia will feed on gigantic prey, tackling cattle, rhinos, and even elephants.
Vampire fish (Vandellia cirrhosa)
Move over, piranhas. The tiny, translucent candiru, native to the Amazon Basin, is the stuff of a traveller&rsquos worst nightmares.
The voracious catfish can wriggle into even the tiniest orifice and latch on, securing itself in place with backward pointing spines on its gills. Some species are just a centimetre long, although they can grow to around 40cm.
Candiru achieved legendary status in the 1990s after one reportedly swam up a man&rsquos urine stream and lodged its body in his urethra. Thankfully, that is almost certainly an urban myth.
They mostly latch on to the gills of other catfish, although they are known to occasionally wriggle into open wounds.
The vampire bacterium
Micavibrio aeruginosavorus is the world's smallest known predator. The tadpole-shaped bacterium feasts on other bacteria, sinking its "teeth" into their cell walls and slurping up their insides.
It was first discovered over 30 years ago, but it has been difficult to study because it gets contaminated in the lab by the bacteria it feeds on. &ldquoYou can give it all the nutrients it needs to survive on its own and it simply won&rsquot grow,&rdquo explains Martin Wu, a professor of biology at the University of Virginia.
But this vampire is one of the good guys.
Its favourite meal is the pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, responsible for life-threatening lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. P. aeruginosa is hard to treat because it&rsquos usually walled up behind a sticky glue, which is resistant to antibiotics. But M. aeruginosavorus can swim through these &ldquobiofilms&rdquo, killing the bacteria that drugs can&rsquot reach.
&ldquoIt could be the first living antibiotic,&rdquo says Wu.
The dodder plant (Cuscuta genus)
The monsters in The Day of the Triffids have nothing on this alien weed. The dodder plant sniffs out its victims, whispers them into a defenceless slumber, then eats them alive. Although the dodder was once confined to Europe, it now thrives on most continents.
Like all other plants, the dodder&rsquos tendrils are capable of absorbing the Sun&rsquos energy &ndash but they don&rsquot. Instead of growing away from the shade like most plants, the dodder uses the same light cues to grow towards it &ndash and into the path of a potential victim.
&ldquoAt the same time it also seems to be able to detect the scent given off by plants,&rdquo says Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology at Virginia Tech. &ldquoThat might help it choose [a target].&rdquo
Once it has found a host, it gains nearly all its food by tapping into the plant&rsquos veins using specialised suckers. But the parasite needs to know how the host is doing, so it also hacks their local &ldquointernet&rdquo and steals messages encoded in RNA.
It talks to them as it feeds, sending over its own little RNA memos. &ldquoWe don&rsquot yet know what they&rsquore saying, but it can&rsquot let the host put up a wall or block the feeding. It may be manipulating the host directly,&rdquo says Westwood.
Animal Diversity Web
Red-footed boobies are found in tropical and sub-tropical waters across the globe (they are found in the Oriental, Ethiopian, Neotropical, and Australian regions they are also found on oceanic islands). They take long hunting trips of up to 150 km from their breeding grounds but do not migrate. One of the largest populations is on the Galapagos Islands. (Alten, 1998 del Hoyo, et al., 1992 eNature.com, 2002)
Red-footed boobies make their nests in the tops of trees on islands and coasts in tropical regions. They may also nest in low scrub. They inhabit islands and coastal regions in the tropics, because they prey on fish in pelagic regions of the ocean. (Alten, 1998 del Hoyo, et al., 1992 eNature.com, 2002 Raikow, 2004)
- Habitat Regions
- saltwater or marine
- Terrestrial Biomes
- scrub forest
- Aquatic Biomes
Sula sula is the smallest booby, and is well suited for its long flights out to sea in search of prey. It has strong neck muscles, and a wedge-shaped tail. It has a long, tapering bill with serrated cutting edges to help catch and eat its prey. Its external nostrils are closed to allow for plunge-diving, but it has developed secondary nostrils beside the mouth which are automatically covered by flaps when it plunges. The skin around its face is generally bare. The eyes are beside the bill, face forward, and have very pale irises. The wings are long, pointed, and situated fairly far back on the body. They help the bird to fly in high winds (which it does by alternating powerful flaps with gliding) and also to dive. When diving, the wings close around the body of the bird, making it more aerodynamic. The legs are short and strong, and the feet are large and totipalmate (webbed between all four toes). The feet are highly vascular because it is through the feet that heat is transmitted from the parent to the offspring. The legs are set far back on the body, helping it to swim. The feet and legs are also red, thus giving the bird its name. Sula sula is very buoyant, having developed a series of air-sacs which are extensions of the bronchi. They help in its plunge-diving.
The plumage of Sula sula must serve two purposes, camouflage and body temperature maintenance. The underpart of the bird is generally white, so as to provide countershading to help prevent its prey from seeing it. Also, "in an environment where both salt and the sun intensify the effects of feather abrasion, dark, melanin-rich feathers on the upper parts help to provide stronger resistance" (del Hoyo et al., 1992). The plumage is molted continuously so as not to hinder the bird's flight capability at any one time, however, molt is suspended during breeding. Feathers are renewed 1 to 2 times yearly. Sula sula lacks a brood patch because it would interfere with streamlining and insulation. There are several morphs of this bird, often making it difficult to identify without noting the color of its feet. The morphs are: the white-tailed brown morph, the white headed and white tailed brown morph, the white morph (which has black on its wings), the black-tailed white morph (found on the Galapagos Islands), and the golden white morph (found on the Christmas Islands).
Red-footed boobies are 70 to 71 cm long, on average and have a wingspan of 91 to 101 cm. They weigh from 900 to 1003 g. Females tend to be slightly larger than males. (Alten, 1998 del Hoyo, et al., 1992 eNature.com, 2002 Raikow, 2004)
- Other Physical Features
- bilateral symmetry
- Sexual Dimorphism
- female larger
- Range mass 900 to 1003 g 31.72 to 35.35 oz
- Range length 64 to 76 cm 25.20 to 29.92 in
- Average length 70-71 cm in
- Range wingspan 91 to 101 cm 35.83 to 39.76 in
The Red-Footed Booby lays a single egg. The eggs are a pale color, and are covered in a chalky residue. The parent keeps the egg warm by placing its feet on the egg. As the parent stands on the egg, it is usually very strong. The egg is generally 5% of the mother's total weight. Incubation lasts for 41-45 days, and the parents take turns guarding/warming it in stints which last anywhere from 12-60 hours. Upon hatching, the chick is near-naked, having no feathers. It broods on the feet of its parents for the first few days, and is not left unattended until is is approximately one month old when it can regulate its own body temperature. Chicks are generally a whitish-brown color. The young feed from the parent, eating from it's mouth. The fledgling phase lasts from 100-139 days, and post-fledgling care lasts for about 190 days. Juveniles are brown or grayish-brown with yellow-gray legs. Red-Footed Boobies molt several times per year, going through several stages between the brown juvenile and the white adult. They are ready to breed at 2-3 years.
(del Hoyo, 1992 Nelson, 1978.)
Since red-footed boobies are colonial and highly social, mating/courtship rituals and displays are very important. The higher the population density, the more ritualized their behavior. They show off their wings and feet, and display postures. Movement is displayed by the "Bill-Up-Face-Away" posture. The "Facing-Away" and "Bill Tucking" postures inhibit aggression. Males posture with their tails, beaks, and wings facing upward and call for mates. Once a monogamous pair mates, they will return to the same nest year-to-year to mate. (Alten, 1998 del Hoyo, et al., 1992)
Red-footed boobies mate approximately once every 15 months, depending on food availability. They are known for their somewhat flimsy, unstable nests which are often damaged by storms. They often build their nests in trees. Their choice of nest location may be a way to avoid competition for space, since other species of boobies nest on the ground. Pairs mate and lay one egg at a time, raising that egg to maturity. Incubation lasts between 41 and 45 days and the young fledge as young as 91 days old. In El Niño Southern Oscillation years (when food is scarce) fledging may occur at more than 139 days old (Schreiber et al., 1996). Red-footed boobies reach maturity in two to three years. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992 Schreiber, et al., 1996)
- Key Reproductive Features
- year-round breeding
- gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate)
- Breeding interval Breeding occurs every 15 months.
- Breeding season Breeding is not seasonal.
- Range eggs per season 1 to 1
- Average eggs per season 1 AnAge
- Range time to hatching 41 to 45 days
- Range fledging age 91 to >139 days
- Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female) 2 to 3 years
- Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male) 2 to 3 years
Red-footed boobies nest colonially with hundreds of mating pairs together in one location. Pairs mate and lay one egg at a time, raising that egg to maturity. Incubation lasts between 41 and 45 days and the young fledge in one month. Both the male and female red-footed booby care for the altricial young. If food is scarce the parents may abandon the young in order to ensure their own survival, but if food is abundant they may care for the juvenile for a long time, teaching it how to hunt. Because this bird has such a long lifespan, it can afford to raise one juvenile at a time, and still produce many young during its lifetime. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)
- Parental Investment
- no parental involvement
Red-footed boobies live as sexually reproductive adults for approximately 23 years but can live for more than 40 years.
- Range lifespan
Status: wild 40 (high) years
- Average lifespan
Status: wild 23 years
- Average lifespan
Status: wild 275 months Bird Banding Laboratory
Red-footed boobies are highly social birds, and as such have developed highly ritualized behaviors. They have colonial nesting grounds, with as many as several hundred pairs in one location. They can breed in mixed colonies, living with other Sulids. They are mostly diurnal, but have also been known to hunt nocturnally when squid come to the surface of the water. Feather care, particularly oiling, is important as it prevents waterlogging and helps with heat retention. This "involves a bird impregnating its plumage with the waterproofing secretion produced by the preen gland at the base of its tail" (del Hoyo et al., 1992). Other heat regulating methods include exposing the webs of the feet and possibly excreting on them for evaporative cooling. Another method of heat loss is for the bird to hang its wings away from its body to increase its surface area and allow more heat to escape from its body. In order to retain/acquire heat, the bird may sun itself with its wings spread, to allow the dark feathers to absorb heat. The fishing trips that it takes out to sea may last for several days, as it flies farther out than any other Sulid. It may also follow ships out, and use them to perch. (Alten, 1998 del Hoyo, et al., 1992)
- Key Behaviors
We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.
Communication and Perception
There are a variety of calls used by red-footed boobies. Male and female calls are different, due to structural differences in the trachea and syrinx. The male produces mild, plaintive whistles while the female produces trumpeting honks or quacks. The juveniles sound like females. The posturing that is typically used in courtship is also a form of communication. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)
- Communication Channels
- Other Communication Modes
- Perception Channels
Sula sula preys on fish. It is known to hunt up to 150 km out to sea, much farther than other Sulids. It plunge-dives to moderate depths (approximately 4 to 10 m) in order to acquire fish, which it catches and swallows on its return to the surface. Red-footed boobies can fly higher than other Sulids (10 to 30 m) when searching for food because of their binocular vision. Once prey are sighted, the bird will dive straight down into the water, reaching its top speed just before entry. The larger females can often catch food that is deeper than the smaller males because of their weight. Sometimes it will also use its wings to swim deeper underwater (15 to 20 m) to reach prey. Red-footed boobies can also catch prey in midflight, due to their smaller size and better agility than other species of booby. This is a particularly effective method for hunting flying fish as they jump out of the water. They are also known to hunt squid at night, as their large eyes allow effective nocturnal hunting. Red-footed boobies are communal hunters and once one bird has spotted food, all will dive. The food is swallowed before the bird emerges from the water this prevents other individuals from stealing it.
Two favorite foods of red-footed boobies are flying fish, which they are often able to catch in midflight, and squid (that they catch during night hunting). However, they will eat whatever fish are available. (Alten, 1998 del Hoyo, et al., 1992 eNature.com, 2002)
Due to the fact that this particular bird lives in isolated oceanic areas, and often spends much of its time very far from land, it does not have many predators.
Red-footed boobies play an important role in their ecosystem they have an impact on the fish that they prey on. They do not interact with many other organisms, as they live in such isolated marine areas, often staying far out to sea. (Alten, 1998)
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
In some areas people rely on red-footed boobies as a food source. In the past, people who hunted them were always aware of the detrimental effects of their hunting, and as such were cautious not to overhunt the populations. Today, people collect sulids and their eggs and sell them across the world. This has gotten out of control and the exploitation has become a concern.
Conservation parks have been established so that people can visit and enjoy these birds without harming them. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
There are no known adverse affects of red-footed boobies on humans.
Sula sula is not globally threatened, because it is so widely dispersed. It is one of the most abundant and widespread of all the Sulids. Despite this, the population size has been decreasing steadily over recent centuries. The biggest threats to these birds are deforestation and the fishing industry. Because they live in trees, deforestation destroys their habitat/nesting grounds, and the fishing industry depletes their food source.
While they are not threatened on a global level, in some areas human pressure on their habitats is threatening specific populations. In addition, people collect sulids and their eggs and sell them across the world. This has gotten out of control and the exploitation has become a concern. Red-footed boobies are protected in some areas now. Conservation parks have been set up so that people can visit and enjoy these birds without harming them. Red-footed boobies are protected under the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act. (Alten, 1998 del Hoyo, et al., 1992)
- IUCN Red List Least Concern
- IUCN Red List Least Concern
- US Migratory Bird Act Protected
- US Federal List No special status
- CITES No special status
It has been proposed that the name "booby" comes from the spanish word "bobo" meaning stupid or dunce and refers to the bird's characteristic lack of fear of man.
Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Rebecca Frank (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Kerry Yurewicz (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.
living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.
living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.
uses sound to communicate
young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
an animal that mainly eats meat
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species
the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.
used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.
humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
Having one mate at a time.
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.
found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.
reproduction in which eggs are released by the female development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.
An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).
an animal that mainly eats fish
"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.
mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.
scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
associates with others of its species forms social groups.
uses touch to communicate
the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.
uses sight to communicate
breeding takes place throughout the year
Alten, M. 1998. A Tale of Three Boobies. International Wildlife , 28(1): 28.
Gough, G., J. Sauer. 2002. "Patuxent Bird Glossary, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center" (On-line). Accessed 03/08/04 at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/.
Nelson, B. 1978. The Sulidae: Gannets and Boobies . NY: Oxford University Press.
Raikow, R. 2004. "Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia" (On-line). Accessed 03/08/04 at http://gme.grolier.com/.
Rauzon, M., D. Drigot. 1999. Red-Footed Booby Use of Artificial Nesting Platforms. Waterbirds , 22(3).
Schreiber, E., R. Schreiber, G. Schenk. 1996. Red-footed booby (Sula sula). Birds of North America , 241: 1-19. Accessed November 14, 2006 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/BNA/account/Red-footed_Booby/.
del Hoyo, J., A. Eliott, J. Sargatal. 1992. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 1 (Ostrich to Ducks) . Lynx Editions.
Behavior of the Rat Snake
Rat snakes are hardy creatures, and forage for food in many different places. They climb trees, slip into barns, and cruise beneath rocks and logs in search of prey. Some species are nocturnal and most active at night, and other species are diurnal and most active during the day.
Additionally, some species change their behavior based on the season and temperature. Most of these snake species are solitary, but some species hibernate with other rat snakes and other snake species in the winter.
These 8 Plants Exhale Oxygen Even in The Night Time
Plants and trees are very important for living beings’ survival. They provide numerous essential things without which human life seems impossible. And most importantly they provide us oxygen to be alive. Plants and trees also breathe, they inhale carbon dioxide and exhale carbon dioxide during the day time which is essential for us. While in the night time they inhale oxygen and exhale oxygen, too. But did you know that there is a number of trees or plants that release oxygen even in the night?
Check the list below of the trees and plants that release oxygen even during the night time
1. Neem Tree
Neem trees are largely found in India. It has a lot of medicinal property, it also works as an air purifier. Not just that its leaves are very effective and help get rid of pests, too. Besides, the tree also releases oxygen at night.
2. Aloe Vera
This plant also has medicinal properties. It is very effective in dealing with skin problems and beauty care products. These plants help absorb the pollution in the air and release a great amount of oxygen in the night time. So, feel free to place them in your living rooms, etc.
3. Tulsi or Holy Basil
Here is another plant that is known for its medicinal properties. Holy Basil, is largely used or let say worshipped in Indian household. The plant also gives out oxygen during the night time.
4. Peepal Tree
Mahatma Buddha chose this tree to meditate, and why he did so is no mystery. Since the tree is very beneficial, is has medicinal properties, too. And most importantly is releases oxygen during the night time, too.
5. Areca palm
via: Fresh Petals
We have also found these tropical plants in the living areas as decorative pieces. And this is because it makes the best indoor plant since it gives out oxygen day and night.
6. Orange Gerbera
Not just they purify and perfume the air but they are also packed with a number of health benefits. As they release oxygen day and night they, too, make a great indoor plant.
Why won’t anyone like to keep these beautiful plants in the bedroom, when we know that they give plenty of oxygen day and night?
8. Snake plant
These are the best air purifiers and also make a good decorative object in the living room. Another benefit of this plant is, it gives plenty of oxygen day and night.
Watch the video: Να χα τη δύναμη (August 2022).
- Old World Burrowing Lizards - Dibamus spp.
- Crocodile Lizard, Chinese Crocodile Lizard - Shinisaurus crocodilurus
- Algerian Sand Lizard - Psammodrumus algirus
- Subfamily: Agaminae
- Subfamily: Gerrhonotinae
- Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
- Superphylum: Deuterostomia