Nature’s Vampires

We all know about blood sucking bats, but did you know that of all the many types of bats, only three actually drink blood?  Technically this is know as haematology, the practice of feeding on blood.  And blood is actually a great food source – it’s rich in proteins and lipids, is very nutritious and, so long as you don’t over do it on one individual, you’ve got yourself an unlimited cow to milk as it were.

Mosquitoes are another well known vampire, with the females needing to drink blood in order to make eggs.  It’s also common knowledge that they are responsible for the spread of malaria but what you might not know is that they, or other blood sucking flies, have been spreading it for 100 million years.  Mosquitoes can also transmit sleeping sickness, typhus, river blindness and other diseases making them one of the deadliest animals in the world.  In 2015, malaria alone caused 438,000 deaths and cases of dengue have increased rapidly over the last 30 years.

 

As an aside, the mosquito is not therefore evil and nor should it be made extinct.  All animals fill niches in nature and have co-evolved to fulfil a purpose or role that isn’t always clear to us.  In this case, they provide food for birds, fish, frogs and so on and are also pollinators.

Also in the fly family, we find sand flies, bat flies, black flies and midges which all enjoy a drink of blood.  There are also fleas, bedbugs and ticks as well as so called “kissing bugs”, or Triatomine Bugs, which apparently get their name because they like to bite people’s faces…

We also have vampire moths who use their antenna to pierce the skin of their unlucky host and some types of butterflies are partial to a sip of blood.  They can’t inflict injuries themselves so it’s more a case of coming across some spilt blood and indulging.  Sticking with small critters, some worms and arthropods like blood, as do some nematodes, such as Ancylostomids which feed on blood from the gut.  And leeches are well known for their blood sucking behaviour and are utilised in medicine such as to prevent blood from clotting.

Living underwater doesn’t protect you from vampires… Torpedo snails like the blood of electric rays, making small cuts and then using their proboscis to draw blood from the wound.  If this doesn’t work, they will insert their proboscis into they ray’s mouth, gills or anus…

Another threat comes from the Lamprey; an eel like creature which seems perfectly designed for the blood sucking way of life…  They are basically a tube with teeth…  They don’t have a jaw, instead having a suction cup style mouth which contains circles of sinister teeth.  These teeth are stabbed into the fish and anti clotting chemicals are secreted.  This tends to result in the host dying, either from blood loss or infection, at which point the lamprey will detach and move on.

The Candiru is a parasitic cat fish that are best known for allegedly being able to travel up a stream of urine and into a man’s penis.  Regardless of whether that is true or not, these tiny fish do deserve a mighty reputation.  They enter the gills of larger fish to suck their blood and generally make their lives a misery.  Once full of blood, they leave and burrow into the river bed to digest their meal.

And finally birds… The Hood Mockingbird likes open wounds, such as those they may find on sea lions or researchers but don’t rely just on blood.  However, they do increase this behaviour during the dry season suggesting it may be motivated by the need for fluid or moisture.

Vampire finches are a bit more brutal, preferring to peck at other birds, specifically blue footed boobies, until they bleed.  The boobies don’t object as much as you might expect and it’s thought the finches might once have cleaned parasites from the birds and developed a taste for blood along the way.

Oxpeckers are another blood loving bird that eats ticks and insects as well as flesh and blood from wounds on large mammals.  Whether this is a mutually beneficial relationship or not seems to be a topic of debate.  The oxpeckers may be helping with tick removal and grooming of spots that the mammal may not be able to reach.  With regards to the blood consumption, it has been argued that it may help to keep wounds clean and prevent infection and infestation.

The practice of consuming blood has co-evolved in different species, suggesting there is an evolutionary advantage for some creatures to engage in it.  And when you stop to think about it, some humans also take part in haematology… Just think about black puddings…

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A recipe for life

“Hence without parents by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth”
– E. Darwin, 1803

Spontaneous generation is the idea that life can arise from non living material at any given moment and one of the earliest references I found to the concept was from Anaximander in the 3rd century BC.  Not long after, Aristotle was writing in the 4th century about eels.  They troubled him as he could find no trace of their sex.  He concluded that eels “proceeds neither from pair, nor from an egg” but that instead they were born of the “earth’s guts”, that is spontaneously emerging from mud.  Aristotle believed that worm casts were actually embryonic eels boiling out of the ground.  Pliny the Elder had another idea, that eels would rub themselves against rocks and the scrapings would come to life.  Other eel theories included young emerging from the gills of fish, from dew or being created by electrical disturbances.  The reason that eels caused natural history such issues is because of their lifecycle which starts out at sea, away from the eyes of man.

Aristotle also thought that spontaneous generation applied to a few other creatures, often small, including flies and frogs, which were considered to be lower life forms.  Some were thought to be produced in putrefying mud and dung, in wood, in excrement, and dew.  Later, naturalists would claim that insects spontaneously generated out of old wax, vinegar, damp dust and books.  Even decaying larger animals were thought to generate these smaller lifeforms.  Horses were thought to be transmogrified into hornets, crocodiles into scorpions, mules into locusts and bulls into bees.  Rats were said to come from garbage, aphids from bamboo, flies from sweat and ants from sour wine.

Athanasius Kircher included ‘recipes’ for life in his 1665 book, for example, to create frogs, you needed to collect clay from a ditch where frogs have lived, incubate it in a large vessel, add rainwater and voila!

Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century tells us how to make poisonous, predatory arachnids; fill a hole in a brick with basil, cover with a second brick and leave in the sun.  To make mice, he instructs us to place wheat and water in a flask, cover with the skirt of an unclean woman, leave for 21 days and there you’ll have baby mice.  Another mouse suggestion was that they emerged from the earth and in some places you could see them fully formed as far as the breast and front feet, the rest still just mud.

To make flies, you collect fly cadaver’s, crush them slightly, put them on a brass plate and sprinkle with honey water.  You can make bees by killing a bull, putting the corpse on branches and herbs during spring and by summer you’d have your bees.  Oysters would grow from slime, cockles from sand and salamanders from fire.

Whilst all of this sounds absurd to us today, if you put yourself in their shoes, I think you’d struggle to find a better theory.  After all, caterpillars don’t have parents that resemble them, and when they die (turn into a chrysalis), they create a butterfly.  Mushrooms grow from dead logs, mould appears out of nowhere and then there are the ‘annual’ fishes of Africa and South America:

“Their lifestyle is almost magical.  They live in puddles, ponds and ditches that dry up for part of the year.  When the puddles dry up, they die.  Only their eggs survive, buried under the dried mud, waiting for the next rains.  Collect mud, add water – and presto, you get fish.  You can see why people believed in spontaneous generation.”
– Olivia Judson

Over time, the idea of spontaneous generation began to be questioned.  In 1646 a sceptic was ridiculed for questioning the idea but Francesco Redi would seek to disprove the idea that maggots grew out of raw meat with experiments in the 17th century (he still believed that living matter could create other living matter eg trees creating wasps and gallflies).  Unfortunately, his results were questioned, holes were poking in the methods and John Needham would go onto ‘prove’ via another experiment that spontaneous generation was of course real.  Needham’s experiment took gravy and heated it, then sealed the end of the flask and the idea was that nothing could survive the heat or get it as it was sealed.  When life started to form, Needham was validated in his belief.  However, he hadn’t heated the flask high enough to kill the bacteria enclosed in it so they survived the process.

Other people would work at disproving spontaneous generation including Lazzaro Spallanzani who built on the work of Redi, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur came onto the scene in the 19th century that the theory was conclusively disproved.

Ultimately, by investigating the theory of spontaneous generation, we would come across pasteurisation and the field of microbiology would be born.

Suggested Reading:

The sex lives of aquatic animals

Today I’m going to be looking at water and sex as it pertains to non-human creatures but later this month I’ll be looking at how water interacts with men and women.

Gendered language

Before we even dip our toes into this topic, we must acknowledge that how we talk about water is not gender neutral.  We find some rivers that are considered female, and some that are male.  There are no rules in the English language to stipulate this, although there often is in other languages. But how we talk about our bodies of water does matter, the language we use has a ‘profound influence on how we see the world’.

Fish

Fish are way ahead of us when it comes to thinking about sex and gender.  Whereas the majority of humans seem set that there can only be two genders and they cannot be changed, fish are rather flexible in their attitude.  They can undergo one or more sex change in their life and they can even have both sexual organs at once.  Sex changes tend to occur if a population becomes too biased to one sex or to improve genetic fitness.  One example of this is the clown fish which generally forms a monogamous relationship.  If the female dies, as in Finding Nemo, instead of hanging around feeling sorry for himself, the male will change into a female.  They will then pair up with a single male.  But that would have made for a more controversial film…

Other examples of sex changing fish include the Kobudai, made famous in Blue Planet II, which slowly but surely morphed into a male.  For the blue headed wrasse, it is the loss of the dominant male which triggers a sex change, usually in the largest female of the group.  This involves dramatic changes in behaviour, anatomy and colouration.  What I really like about this fish is that whilst most juveniles are female, there are a few sneaky males which look like females and then go ahead and mate without the dominant male noticing!

Interestingly, the population size of a fish and the direction they change sex seem to be linked.  There are more than 400 species of sex changing fish, some change from male to female and some from female to male (as well as those which can also change back).  Species who change from female to male have smaller population sizes than those which change from male to female.

As well as aquatic life which can change sex, we also have those creatures which forgo the need to change and make life easy and interesting by having both sets of genitals.  For example, there is a type of sea slug which has both penis and vagina. After it’s had simultaneously fertilising sex (basically some sort of epic 69 position) the penis falls off.  And then, as if that wasn’t enough drama, it grows another one!

Pollution

No one wants to have sex in polluted water… but for the fish and other aquatic creatures that have to, the consequences can be dire.

For this topic, we need to understand what endocrine disruptors are and where they come from:

What? Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with endocrine (or hormone) systems.

Where? Endocrine disruptors can be found in plastics, cosmetics, medications, pesticides and even in food as a contaminant.  More than 800 man-made chemicals have been found to interfere with hormones.

We started to get a sense of the impact endocrine disruptors were having back in 1985 when a study on male alligators in a lake affected by chemical pollutants were found to have testosterone levels three times lower than those of males in a similar but uncontaminated lake.  The levels were so low they were close to those of females and females in turn had twice the amount of oestrogen.  Further, the males had poorly developed testes and smaller phalli and females also exhibited abnormal sexual organs. This was over 30 years ago.

“Chemicals are disturbing normal hormone-controlled development, affecting gender, sex, and reproduction.  And we are now seeing, low doses are disruption enough.  Fish appear particularly at risk of hormone disruption.”
– Janisse Ray, 2007

In areas where they are exposed to endocrine disruptors, fish have been found with lower levels of hormones, found to take take longer to mature, develop smaller sexual organs and produce fewer eggs, some of which don’t grow.  An example from Florida is that of the mosquitofish where effected females developed a male sex organ and attempted to mate with female fish.  Fish have also been found in the UK with both genitalia (unnaturally) occurring.  More often than not, these were found downstream of sewage treatment works and other industry.  But more recent studies show that the medications we consume are entering the water cycle in amounts which, whilst not of concern to human health, are altering the health and behaviour of animals in our rivers.

The impact of the endocrine disruptors is greater as the chemicals accumulate in animals up the food chain, for example gulls have been affected and a beluga whale has been found with two ovaries, two testes, male genitalia and partial female genitalia.  Female black bears have also been found exhibiting some degree of male sex organs.  A report (I lost the link) from 2003 stated that over 200 animal species were known, or suspected, to have reproductive disorders which might be attributed to these chemicals.

The impact on hormones on population sizes is exacerbated by the effects of climate change.  Changing temperatures affects the sex of species such as baby turtles and crocodiles and could lead to exclusively female clutches which in turn could be the end of the species altogether, especially if males are affected by endocrine disruptors and are unable to fertilise females.

Not that it should be the only reason we act, but these chemicals can also affect humans.  Human exposure can come from ingesting food, dust and water which is contaminated but also through inhalation and through the skin.  They can be transferred from pregnant woman to fetus and from parent to child through breast milk.

Further reading:

Animal Allies – Salmon

From river to sea to rivers again

Salmon are not the type of fish to stay still, they have an active life and are always moving, even if it’s against the tide at times…

They start life as tiny eggs and about two months after they are laid, salmon eggs have eyes and after about four months, they start to hatch.  At this point they are known as Alvin and they have to find a space place in the river to hide whilst they grow.  They are nourished by their egg sac but once this food source runs out, they must leave their comfort zone.

This is the first step in what will be a huge life journey, full of travel, adventure and exploration.  You cannot grow and expand yourself if you don’t leave your comfort zone.

“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”

During the fry stage, they eat small aquatic insects and grow and grow until they are ready to transition from fresh to sea water.  As they move from river to ocean, the dangers increase – out at sea there are killer whales, sea otters and humans all trying to catch them.

These are fish which travel far – several thousand kilometres in the life. They are explorers and fighters.  And yet with all the predators they face, it’s a miracle that any make it back to spawn.  This is a creature which succeeds despite the odds.  They face challenges head on, courageously.

Moving from fresh water to sea water marks just one transition in this creature’s life, the salmon is asking us to reflect on changes in our lives and emulate some of her adaptability.

After three years, if they survive this ordeal, they return to their spawning grounds.  They follow their nose back to the rivers that birthed them.  On the way, they are vulnerable to bears, bald eagles, and once again humans.  This is an arduous journey, females are carrying eggs and both sexes are reaching the end of the lives.  They fight against currents, they swim upstream, they tackle waterfalls until they are back where they started, their home river bed.  Some salmon travel over 1,400km and climb nearly over 2,000 metres as they make this journey.

Their gruelling journey upstream may be a reminder to check in, is this effort worth it?  Are you doing this for the right reasons?  What is your motivation for this difficult battle?  Enter into your fight consciously.  Determination and perserverance are powerful tools but are you fighting for the right thing?  Or do you need to push harder?

It might also be asking if you spend too much time going with the flow, letting the crowd guide you and whether you need to swim against convention and expectation.  Maybe you are being called to go against the grain?  You might also need to revisit your roots, whether that’s going back to where you grew up, looking into your ancestry or reflecting on your formative years.

Once they arrive at the spawning site, the female, with her powerful tail, makes a nest in the gravel to deposit her eggs.  The male then fertilises them before leaving the female to protect her clutch for a couple of weeks.  Then both parents die, leaving the next generation to start the cycle again.

The death of the adult is the birth of the child.  The two generations will never meet.  The older fish give way to the younger fish, they make the ultimate sacrifice for their family.  They are motivated and driven by an intense need to give birth.  This may not be appearing in a literal sense in your life but are you being pulled towards creating?  How that shows up will depend on your interests and skills, it might be through words, through art, it might be craft or baking.

We see the circle of life played out clearly within the salmon but this goes further.  The parent fish, once they’ve died, provide food for small invertebrates which are then eaten by the salmon larva.  As well as providing nutrients to future generations of salmon, the dead fish also introduce rich ocean nutrients into the forest ecosystem as they are eaten by birds, bears and otters.

I find it a fascinating paradox that the salmon puts all this energy and life force into fighting the natural rhythms of the river in order to continue nature’s cycle of life.

We find the salmon in both Celtic and indigenous American mythology.  In the former, the salmon is considered a wise and ancient creature, associated with knowledge.  In Irish tales, the Salmon of Knowledge grants powers to those who eat it.  If we turn to Wales, we find the salmon cast as the oldest animal in Britain and the only creature who knows the location of Mabon ap Modron, a divine child who had been imprisoned.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean to America, we find salmon providing food and spiritual guidance.  The fish guided indigenous people to respect the rivers that the salmon lived in.  As with almost every animal, when they killed them, they used all of their body, showing a respect and reverence for the natural world.  The bladder was used for glue, the bones became toes and the salmon skin became clothing and shoes.  Similarly, they wouldn’t catch the first fish to return to the rivers, instead waiting until they could be sure enough had returned.  There was an abundance of fish but they were not taken for granted or overharvested as we do today.  The first of the salmon to return were welcomed ceremoniously, then after the fishing and cooking process, some of the bones would be returned to the sea.

The importance of the first salmon ceremony has to do with the celebration of life, of the salmon as subsistence, meaning that the Indians depend upon the salmon for their living. And the annual celebration is just that – it’s an appreciation that the salmon are coming back. It is again the natural law; the cycle of life. It’s the way things are and if there was no water, there would be no salmon, there would be no cycle, no food. And the Indian people respect it accordingly. 
Antone Minthorn

The song of the sea

“As silent as a fish”
– A saying from ancient Greece

In 1953, Jacques Cousteau co-authored a book titled The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure. It was long assumed that the ocean was a quiet world, empty of sound.  But we have since discovered that this is far from the truth.  The seas that surround us are filled with a vast array of sounds.

“The underwater soundscape can be as noisy as any rainforest”
Kate Stafford

Underwater sound is generated by a variety of natural sources, such as breaking waves, rain, the sound of bubbles popping and of volcanoes erupting at the bottom of the ocean.  There is the creaking and cracking of ice, screeching and popping and groaning.  The noise from ships at the surface and the sound of the earth quaking.  And of course, the sounds of marine life.

Because sound travels five times faster through water than through air it is a useful tool for aquatic animals.  Especially given that sight and smell are less effective underwater.  All it takes is a bit of murky water and your vision is severely restricted but sound can travel for thousands of miles in the ocean.

Animals use sound to study habitat (echolocation) and to detect predators and prey.  Sound is used for communicating about reproduction and territory and some animals even use sound to stun their prey, such as the pistol shrimps.

Whales and dophins

Probably the most well known sound from the sea is probably that of the whale song.  The haunting, eerie moans gave the whale a voice and in doing so, probably aided conservation efforts.  Whale song is now part of human culture and helps us feel connected to these mysterious creatures.

The humpback whale has the loudest voice in the animal kingdom, carrying for miles.  And it is thought that they may have one of the most complex songs in the animal kingdom.  Their songs are sung by the males and the songs are always changing although whales from one area sing the same song, whales from different areas sing different songs.  Almost like they have accents.

In contrast to the melancholic songs of the whale, we find the excited pips of dolphins who use high pitched beeps to paint a picture of the world around them.  Their language of squeaks and chirps lets them communicate with each other and whistles are used in a similar way to names, they are unique to each dolphin and seem to be a sort of greeting, an announcement that you’re there.

Apparently, dolphins are also able to mimic sounds and one scientific paper suggest they may even sleep talk in whale song.

We have long been fascinated by dolphins, ancient Greek mariners listened to them through the hulls of their ships and according to Aristotle in about 344 BC, they even heard dolphins snoring!  NB, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they do actually snore…

Crustaceans

The term crustaceans covers a vast array of marine species including crabs, lobsters, shrimp and barnacles.  They are united by their exoskeleton and some use this to produce sound.

For example, the snapping shrimp are rather noisy creatures, especially given their size.  They produce a crackling, sizzling sound by clicking their claws.  They do this to stun prey,deter predators, and to communicate with others.

Hermit crabs make a noise by rubbing its body parts together or rubbing against the inside of their shell and do so as a sign of aggression.  Male fiddler and ghost crabs use acoustical signals to call to females during breeding season and are apparently unique amongst crustaceans in doing so.  Other species use sound once they’ve found a potential mate but not to call out.

Spiny lobsters make a rasping sound by rubbing a piece of soft tissue, called a plectrum, against a smooth, stuff file near their eye.  Essentially they move the plectrum over the file in the way that a bow is moved over the strings of a violin.

Fish

We tend to think of fish as silent, except for the occasional little noise of their mouths opening and closing but this isn’t the case.  They produce sound using their swim bladders and their teeth that include grunts, croaks, clicks and snaps.

When it comes to mating, it is usually the male that makes the sound.  Some fish come together in large groups to ‘sing’ and may continue for hours, dominating the local soundscape.  Fish, such as the oyster toadfish, that live in murky water, need to make use of sound to find a mate as vision is limited.

The other key reason that fish make noise is when they are threatened, want to show aggression or need to defend their territory.

For some fish, instead of producing sound, it is listening that is crucial.  Many coral reef fish have a stage in their life where they go away from the reef, returning at a later time to mature.  These fish, such as the clownfish, need to know how to return and it’s thought the song of the reef provides a road map.

The song of the reef

A healthy coral reef is not a quiet place.  When they are teeming with life, they are one of the noisiest places in the ocean, making a sound like crackling popcorn thanks to the snapping shrimp.

The sound landscape changes throughout the day, with a rhythm like birds on land.  Fish have dawn and dusk songs and different creatures call at night than during the day.

Sea urchins are one of the contributors to the evening chorus.  Kina sea urchins dominate New Zealand waters with the sound of their eating.  And that specific local flavour to the music of the ocean is important for our little critters which are searching for home, or for a healthy reef to start new life on.

Listen

The song of the ocean is not a static one, it is not a consistent one.  It changes as the day passes, it changes by season and by locality and it changes based on the health of the sea.

There are many recordings of ocean music and of particular species but these are two I found helpful:

Plant, animal or other? Coral

Most of us know coral when we see it and I think everyone has probably seen a picture of a coral reef at some point but what exactly is it?

An individual coral is a polyp, a very small, simple creature which has been described as essentially just being a stomach and a mouth surrounded by tentacles.  Living inside the polyps are algae which provide the coral with food and gives it colour. Thousands of identical polyps live together in a colony and this forms the reefs we are familiar with.  Different coral grow at different rates but to form a reef takes a very long time, with estimates for todays reefs being started 5-10,000 years ago.  That being said, not all coral are reef builders.

An alternative take on the creation of reefs comes from Greek mythology.  It was said that they were created from the blood that was shed when medusa was decapitated.  This blood mixed with the seaweed to create the stone reefs.

“With no Pharaoh to lead them, this army of tentacled midgets has built the greatest of the ocean’s wonders, working together for millions of years on their mighty projects.”
– Jeffrey Levinton

Cooperation is a theme amongst the creatures of the reef.  A symbiotic relationship between coral and algae allows the reef to grow and provides the coral with their colours. Coral reefs are home to lots of organisms and provides cracks and crevices for fish and crabs to live in.  So when a starfish comes along and attacks the coral, the fish and crabs step in and defend it.  This allows the coral to keep growing and creating more cracks and crevices for future fish and crabs.  There are also fish which ‘farm’ on the coral, growing algae and in doing so, they are creating ideal conditions for more coral to grow.  And then there are the cleaner wrasse; fish which clean other fish, a service which improves the health of the sea life around the reef.

“No other marine habitat shows so well the intricacies of biological interdependency”.
– Jeffrey Levinton

But despite this incredible interdependency, the reef is a dangerous, cut throat world.  Coral use barbed, venomous tentacles to catch zooplankton and tiny fish and they can also extrude their stomach and digest neighbouring coral…

The competitive nature of the habitat means some coral dwellers have developed nasty chemical defences.  For example, the sea squirt makes sulphuric acid to burn predators and also a poisonous metal that could kill a horse.  The sea whip produces higher amounts of prostaglandin than other creatures making them taste terrible to most predators (although a type of snail and worm can eat them).  Poisonous fish live among the coral and sharks patrol the edges.  This beautiful underwater garden can be a deadly place.

But those deadly poisons and chemicals may actually be of use to us.  We may be able to use some of them to develop cancer cures, to help neurological diseases, to treat infections and to fight drug resistant bugs.  Corals themselves can be used in bone graft surgery as well.

As well as medical value, coral reefs provide coastal defences, tourism, food (an estimated 0.5 billion people rely on coral reef fisheries worldwide for 95 percent of their protein) and jobs.  The Great Barrier Reef has been valued at at AUD $56 billion, contributing 64,000 jobs and $6.4 billion a year to the Australian economy.

But despite their importance, we are not treating them kindly.  Coral reefs are threatened by overfishing, pollution, invasive species and ocean warming and acidification caused by rising carbon dioxide levels.  In the last 30 years, we have lost 50% of the coral and scientists predict that we will lose 90 percent of coral reefs globally by the year 2050.

This would be catastrophic.  Life on the reef is a diverse one, paralleling that of the rainforests.  Apparently, despite reefs covering less than 1% of the earths surface, a quarter of ocean biodiversity depends on reefs for food and shelter.  Without the reefs, the health of the ocean will suffer and without a healthy ocean, we cannot have a healthy planet.

Links

Shark: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

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The shark is a fish, so it is worth having a look at that card as well.  

Whilst we are familiar with a few key species of shark – the tiger shark, the hammerhead, the mako shark etc – there are actually over 500 species which range from 17cm long to 12m.  I recently read an article about the great white shark.  It covered lots of technical info but the bit that stuck with me was the duality of appearance that they drew my attention to.  From the side, they can appear comical, clown like.  And then when they turn and face you, they are, without any doubt, menacing.  I loved this.  Sharks have a really bad reputation as fierce, heartless killers but really, especially compared to humans, they’re pretty gentle and ethical killers.  Unlike us, they kill to survive.

Sharks have been described as killing machines and whilst that is a very one sided perspective, it is true.  The shark, like other apex predators, has evolved to be an efficient hunter.  They are streamlined and fast with excellent manoeuvrability.  Despite our fear of shark attacks, they are actually elusive creatures who are likely to only attack people if they are threatened or they mistake the human for a seal.  Think about it, the shark will see the person and the seal from underneath, as a shadow against the surface of the water and in certain positions, they look the same.  This does give us some insight into the nature of the shark – they are action orientated, act first, think later.  If there’s something you feel you should do, do it, do it now and don’t overthink it.  Follow your gut.

I think some people probably associate the shark with anger, with uncontrolled temper, with pure fear. But they aren’t like that all the time.  On one side they are killers, they do strike fear into prey.  But there is another side to them.  Like most big sea animals, they are a bit like a moving, living ecosystem.  Little fish actually swim into the mouths of sharks – they help the shark out by cleaning their teeth, eating parasites etc.  And the shark does not eat them even though they could and would in other situations.

It feels like actually, the shark, if you consider it to have a temper, has a very controlled one.  It can say to the cleaner fish, yes now is a good time, I’m in a good mood, I’m not hungry, come on in.  And conversely, it can say no, not now, go away, not right now.  This feels like it would be a really good skill for us.  How much easier would it be if we could recognise and easily communicate when we need to be left alone.  There is a common reaction that if someone wants you to leave that you’ve done something wrong but the shark shows us that you will probably be welcomed back with open arms.  It’s just about timing.

As I’ve said, they are not gratuitous killers, instead killing when they need to eat.  I think humans probably kill more than we eat because of fears around scarcity.

“Scarcity thinking says that there will never be enough of anything – love, food, energy, power – so we must hoard or conditionally offer and withdraw, what we have… Abundance thinking says that together, we have enough of what we need, that there is enough for all of us if we recognise our essential interdependence.” – Autumn Brown

The shark has overcome this difficult relationship with scarcity and abundance with an internal rationing system.  This means they can delay digestion when food is scarce so they are really planning for the future, putting something aside for a rainy day as it were.

Let’s have a look at a few facts and bust some myths…

  • Their teeth are continually being replaced. True.  Keep your tools sharp, keep your skills fresh.
  • They can smell blood from far away which led to the belief that sharks could sense if a death was imminent.  True.  Sailors believed that seeing a shark would mean someone on board would die.
  • They have to keep moving or they’ll sink.  False.  However some species do need to keep moving in order to keep breathing and are able to sleep whilst swimming.
  • Sharks are loners.  False.  Some species are but most are social animals and even solitary sharks meet up for breeding and in rich hunting grounds.
  • Sharks are speedsters.  True and false.  It varies between species but they travel at an average speed of 5mph.  They can reach higher speeds, an average of 12mph, in short bursts. Like the cheetah, this isn’t a marathon, it’s a short sprint.
  • Sharks migrate.  True.  They have complicated migration patterns that we don’t know much about.  They travel great distances and manage 45 miles a day.

As I mentioned in the stingray post, sharks and rays can detect the electrical pulses given out by living beings through senses on their skin.  Have a look at this video for more info about how this works:

This extra-sensory experience of the world, plus the belief that sharks could predict death, has led them to be linked with clairsentience (psychic feeling or touching) and clairolfactus (psychic smelling).  The shark is asking us to tune into our senses, tune into our intuition, tune into our emotions and what our body is telling us.  Trust these ways of knowing to help you navigate the deep seas of your soul.

And I do mean deep.  Sharks are deep divers, common down to 2,000 metres.  This primitive, instinctual animal is comfortable in the dark waters of our emotions.  Perhaps we need to strip back part of ourselves, our logical, modern mind, and instead approach our inner self in a more intuitive, more primal way.  Feel our way through and not worry about how we put what we experience and see into language.

Sharks are often demonised; the Western view of sharks has been that they are malevolent, dangerous and evil.  A clear example of us fearing what we don’t understand.  And not making much effort to get to know what we don’t understand.  Instead, we make a decision about the nature of a thing and perpetuate myths and beliefs about it so we don’t have to challenge our own thinking.

As we saw with the panther, there is a difference between revering and respecting an animal and just being blindly afraid.  Sharks and shark gods are prominent in Hawaiian mythology.  One of these, Kamohoali’i, would guide lost sailors home and could take the form of any fish.  Both Hawaiian and Polynesian mythology tell of the shark as a resting place for the soul and in a similar vein, the Fijian shark god Dakuwaqa would eat lost souls.

When you’re looking at the shark, try and see the duality, try and see this duality in yourself as well.  We are not clear cut beings.  We are predators and prey.  We are killers and creators.  We are graceful and we are vicious.