strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Sliming Osama

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 3, 2011

Under the sea: Osama makes new friends

This morning, I received a kind note from a reader, who found herself thinking oddly about Osama bin Laden after reading my book Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales from the Invertebrate World:

I just read Spineless Wonders in December, and enjoyed it very much.  Some of the creatures described were new to me, and I was amazed to find myself feeling sympathetic for the tarantulas.  However, the book led to a most unpleasant flashback when I awoke this morning, to the radio news announcing that the body of Osama bin Laden had been “buried at sea”.
My first coherent thought was not about peace or justice or the war on terrorism.  It was, “Hagfish!!!”
I’m afraid that in this case, I wish the hagfish well, and hope they will get some protein and profit from the deceased.
Thank you very much for your outstanding writing; I am looking forward to reading your other titles.

Hagfish, for those of you who have never had the strange pleasure of making their acquaintance, are scavengers on the ocean bottom.   Sometimes, fishermen encounter them in their catch, and here’s what I wrote in Spineless Wonders:

It is a disheartening sight for fishermen, touching some source of horror beyond mere economic loss.  One fisheries expert has attributed this horror to the slime itself:  “Being worthless … the hag is an unmitigated nuisance, and a particularly loathesome one owing to its habit of pouring out slime from its mucous sacs in quantity out of all proportion to its small size.  One hag, it is said, can easily fill a 2-gallon bucket, nor do we think this any exaggeration.”

But a far graver problem with slime eels, it seems to me, is that they make the idea of burial at sea so much less appealing.  Once having seen them, seafarers must suffer forever from foreboding that if they go down with the ship (or without it), slime eels will be waiting for them at the bottom.  Martin Cruz Smith employed this idea to fine effect in his novel, Polar Star, in which a Soviet murder victim returns from the bottom in a trawler net.  As investigators examine a knife wound in the victim’s gut, they notice a protruding “length of intestine, purplish-gray and slick …” which gradually becomes recognizable as a slime eel:  “The eel’s head, an eyeless stump with fleshy horns and a puckered mouth, whipped from side to side against Zina Patiashvili’s stomach; then the entire eel, as long as an arm, slid seemingly forever out of her, twisted in mid air …” and landed at the examining physician’s feet.

This scene is a figment of Smith’s imagination.  No one has ever found a human corpse being scavenged from within by slime eels.  In truth, most researchers believe that even fish corpses are a relative rarity in the diet of slime eels, which are more likely to subsist on worms, shrimp, and other small sea-bottom creatures.  But it is at least conceivable that hollowed-out shipwreck victims have at times drifted across the bottom like Michelangelo’s self-portrait as a sack of skin on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel …

And now we can hope that Osama bin Laden is meeting this fate, in his element among the slime eels.

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