June 7, 2012
A foot-long ringer for a wood louse, Bathynomus is a hulking crustacean with razor-sharp mandibles and eyes that catch the light like a cat’s. A few years ago, the species briefly became an Internet sensation when the technician of a remotely operated submarine posted online photographs of one specimen. At first the critter was dismissed as an April Fool’s joke. Later it was decried as a “monster bug” and an “abomination of the seas.”
But now among marine biologists, who are otherwise rather fond of the unlovely isopod, Bathynomus is earning a reputation as a high-tech saboteur.
Its victims were a group of scientists and students studying deep-sea sharks in the Bahamas’ largely unexplored Exuma Sound this spring. They were deploying an expensive far-red camera system called the Medusa, which rests on the sea bottom and gathers great footage of elusive animals like six-gill sharks, beardfish and deep-sea lobsters.
But as they downloaded the latest video to a laptop, Edd and Annabelle Brooks—part of the Shark Research and Conservation Program at the Bahamas’ Cape Eleuthera Institute—realized that their footage had been cut short. The final images showed four Cuban dogfish slinking across the screen, a seldom-described bonyfish hanging out and then—nothing. It appeared Medusa’s power cable had somehow fizzled.
Examining the cable, Edd Brooks noticed what looked to be little nibbles in the rubber coating. Then, with a sinking heart, he remembered that the camera had also that day captured shots of several sizeable Bathynomus lurking nearby. He conferred with the camera’s engineer: Could the crustacean have gnawed on the power supply?
“There’s nothing else with mandibles that sharp,” says Brooks. “It was an apparent Bathynomus attack.”
Edith Widder, one of the Medusa’s inventors and who had loaned out the camera for the investigation, was fascinated to hear of the shorted-out cable’s fate. “This is not one of the hazards of deep-sea investigation that anyone warns you about,” says Widder, head of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, Florida. Perhaps Bathynomus is attracted to the electrical current in the cable, she says.
Or maybe it just likes to eat rubber.
After the cable was replaced, the shark team continued to gather more arresting footage….until, that is, their screen went dark again. Bathynomus had struck a second time. They called it quits soon afterward and Widder is now fitting a new cable with plastic coils to guard against future crustacean attacks.
The scientists won’t hold a grudge. Although Bathynomus closely resembles “the thing that pops out of the lady’s chest in Alien,” Brooks says, it is an important ocean scavenger that cleans up whale carcasses and whatever else comes to rest on the bottom. (Its nibbling pattern sometimes reminds Widder of “eating corn on the cob;” watch them join in this time-lapse feeding frenzy.) But if the scientists ever did want revenge, there are avenues available to them: boiled and served with rice, Bathynomus is apparently considered tasty in Taiwan.
October 19, 2010
A Swedish research team recently unveiled “The Dying Swan,” a robotic waterfowl that flaps and writhes to the melodramatic strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” I’ll say this—the designers did a good job conveying the special misery of a sick bird. Its tattered black plumage would be sad on its own, but the droopy tutu-like garment around the bird’s midsection verges on tragic.
Watch the video here.
The point of the performance–which premiered at a Gothenburg book fair last month–is to “explore the limits of what a robot can do, what human expressions it can mimic, and how it affects people’s perception of the robot when it makes an appearance in art and dance,” says creator Lars Asplund, a computer scientist at Sweden’s Malardalen University. Some viewers were reportedly moved to tears. (If that’s the general reaction, maybe the robot could be recast as a Canada goose and used to protest New York City’s controversial geese-gassing programs.) But other onlookers, I’m guessing, were amused despite themselves. It’s not really the robot swan’s fault that it’s funny. It only has 19 joints, whereas the ballerinas who typically dance the role of Odette have a gazillion.
In some ways, though, it’s actually easier for a robot behave like a prima ballerina than a human baby. While reporting a piece last year about social machines, I learned that that the most daunting robotic tasks aren’t always the ones that seem most difficult. It’s apparently simple stuff, like reaching for a particular object, or recognizing an individual, that trips up programmers. Complicated choreography, by contrast, they’ve occasionally mastered (check out this neat fan dance with Michael Jackson-esque flourishes.) If high art applications are more achievable than basic social interactions, robots could soon have a role on our stages, mimicking everyone from Beyonce to Pavarotti.
The Japanese recently showed off the “divabot,” a comely young robo-woman who warbles in a cartoon-like voice. And this fall the MIT Media Lab debuted “Death and the Powers,” an “opera of the future” that features robots that dance and discuss the meaning of death. Naturally, the opera is about an inventor who has downloaded himself into the environment because he wants to live forever. Up next: “The Marriage of C-3PO.”
October 12, 2010
Today’s post was written by the magazine’s staff writer, Abigail Tucker:
On a recent trip to the Emerald Isle, I expected all kinds of verdant foliage, like the ancient yew tree my family saw growing outside the walls of a ruined castle. I was not, however, prepared for the Irish palm trees. We observed suspiciously tropical-looking specimens around every corner—at bed and breakfasts, in abbey gardens, or just springing up on the side of the road.
A quick email to Colin Kelleher at Dublin’s National Botanic Gardens yielded an explanation: the species is Cordyline australis, a.k.a. the cabbage palm. “However, it is neither a palm nor a tree,” Kelleher writes. (Nor is it a cabbage, I might add.) A New Zealand native, the plant was popularized in Irish gardens as early as the late 1800s. By the 1970s—and almost certainly before that, Kelleher says—the palm imposter had gone rogue, spreading into the wild and lending parts of coastal Ireland a distinctly beachy aura.
The cabbage palms are able to thrive in Ireland because of warm ocean currents. Ireland is at about the same latitude as Newfoundland, but its winters are much milder. Last winter, though, Ireland experienced the unusual weather patterns reported in other parts of the world. “We had severe snow and frosts, with temperatures going down to -10 degrees centigrade,” Kelleher writes. “In fact, because of the extreme winter conditions last year many Cordyline palms were damaged or died.”