An Odd Couple
Well this one’s been a real hum-dinger of a shell to crack. Like non-sequiturs? If you’re in possession of a penis (meaning one is attached to your body . . . hopefully permanently), stick with me because I promise you, what’s inside this tough shell will likely surprise and give you ease. No penis attached? You may find yourself a bit challenged and disillusioned like me.
While spending some off-board time near Tucson I was out on a pre-dawn, early-morning trail run in the tranquil desert with my loyal hound, Gizmo. It’s my favorite time to be out due to an abundance of stars, wild critters and, best of all, solitude.
As I was rounding a dark, rocky nook, a man with a baseball bat popped out and surprised me. Fortunately I had my finger on the trigger of my discreet, pink cylinder of red-hot, eye-stinging, pepper spray (kept for occasional, overly defensive dogs in that area). After a couple quick heartbeats, I realized that this fellow was no menacing stranger but a newish friend. Giz and I immediately relaxed (sequestering my mace in my fanny-pack**) and gave a tail wag and smile, respectively. But then, at the release of our “good morning” hug, this quite muscular fellow grabbed my arms and kissed me on the mouth! My awkward reaction was to giggle and sort of turn my cheek, pretending that’s where he meant to land his lips, thus allowing him to save face while I tried to balance on the convex and slippery pinhead of denial. You’re probably thinking now like I was then that that was it, but no. Just as abruptly as the bold embrace, out of his mouth flew a stunning question that set in motion a tsunami of my inner ear’s liquid sea . . . throwing me way off balance. He asked, “Jo, are we ever going to have sex?” Flippin’ skit!? I hadn’t even had coffee yet! I was completely taken aback as the sudden, emotional tidal wave hit me. What I did next filled me with the evil twins birthed by hindsight: guilt and shame. Fortunately for you, intrepid reader, the whole discombobulating encounter calls to mind an unlikely pair of fascinating creatures that Paul and I mysteriously encountered on a night dive.
Night diving? Oh YES! It may sound crazy but as long as you’re not somewhere with large, requiem (potentially bitey-bitey-chompy-chompy) sharks it’s quite safe and mind-alteringly different from diving in daylight. At night all the diurnal (active in the day) fish disappear into the safety of dark nooks and crannies and all the nocturnal animals, particularly invertebrates (think octopus, crabs, lobster, sea cucumbers, sea slugs, huge marine worms, and more), come out from those hidey holes. Almost every night dive we’ve taken ends with us surfacing and simultaneously asking each other: “Did you see that majestically freaky beast!? What the heck WAS that mo-fo ???!!!” Below are Paul's pics of a few favorite night diving beasties.
On this particular night dive Paul spotted something seemingly impossible and pointed it out to me. There, walking along the bottom between some rocks, was a flowery bouquet of about half a dozen sea anemones. If you’re unfamiliar with these relatively large cnidarians (a group that also includes corals, jellyfish, and hydra) just recall the stinging-tentacled home of Nemo, the clown fish, who is immune to their stings. If you’re familiar with these beasts who look like flowers, you’re likely thinking that we were imagining things. Because here’s the crazy thing: sea anemones don’t move much at all and when they do it’s too slow for a human to even perceive. Most attach themselves to rocks and such and hold tight for non-pedestrian life, waving their venomous-upon-contact tentacles around in the hopes that one of them makes contact with a small, floating life form. An unfortunate life form who then becomes a stunned little meat package as they’re zip-tied with venom-ready, barbed stingers and pulled into the mouth of the deceptively pretty, florid beast. Use the > arrows to see a few of Paul's sea anemone pics:
So, how in the watery world, we thought on that night dive, is this little band of baby-hand-sized anemones walking around?! Naturally, we dove down deeper to get a closer look. As soon as we got within scuba bubble proximity the dozens of skinny, baby-finger tentacles got protectively pulled in by the anemones so that individually each anemone transformed into a closed up baby fist. Then we could not believe what we found under those macro-cnidarian bodies. Try and guess before I tell you. Here are some hints:
· The anemones were indeed attached to a solid surface made out of a type of calcium carbonate.
· There was indeed a locomoting animal inside that solid substrate.
· The animal inside the anemone’s moving piece of real estate wasn't the same animal who built it.
Got it? Here are a few more:
· The object the anemones attached to was a thick and heavy murex (a type of marine snail) shell.
· The murex who constructed that shell was long dead but another funky beastie had moved in.
· This invertebrate animal was walking on eight legs and already had, like my beefcake friend carrying a baseball bat, what one would think would be enough protection from predators given their own hard exoskeleton.
Got it? Give up? It was a hermit crab! Dardanus sinistripes, to be scientifically specific, AKA the Anemone-Decorating Hermit Crab and the sea anemones were Calliactis polypus, the Hitch-Hiker Anemone! Here are Paul's pics of various hermit crabs: The first three are decorators with anemones mostly closed up, the rest are not, and the last is one who is out of their shell and moving to a larger shell.
Just like when we got a red Prius and started seeing red Priuses (Prii?) everywhere, as we started to look more around us on the sea floor that night we realized we were surrounded by these hermit crabs and their passively locomoting anemones. Now we notice them on just about every night dive and night snorkel. It seems they were always there but we just hadn’t noticed them because we didn’t know to search for lumbering anemones! So, what the holy heck is going on with this seemingly odd coupling? First, let’s get back to my awkward predicament that dark, pre-dawn morning in the desert.
There I was, armed like a sea anemone, with my pocketed, pepper-spray venom, taking in my already armored-like-a-hermit-crab, muscle-bound buddy dangling his softball bat and with the air between us heavily impregnated by his bold inquiry. Keep in mind this was in the midst of #metoo. What did I do? I wish I could say I gave an assertive and clear “No. I’m sorry, but how flattering of you to ask”. Instead I found myself on keep-it-light-auto-pilot; giggling nervously and saying something mildly deflecting and flowery like, “TeeHeeHee . . . Who knows . . . . It’s a long life.” And then giggling more before making a quick gotta-go-I’m-trying-to-keep-my-heart-rate-up get away (as though my pulse had dropped when he dropped his question). You think that’s it, huh? Oh no.
I trail ran some distance before he (let’s call him Mr. H Crabb) intersected my path and approached me again. You know I’m introverted by now if you’ve read a handful of my posts. I get up early to beat not only the sun but also my fellow Homo sapiens. I was a humid, sweaty, spider web-covered, fart loosening, morning mess and due to the unexpected social encounter also in a state of emotional disequilibrium. I don’t recall the exact words that were spoken during this second round but essentially Mr. H. Crabb asked again and I did give a gentle no for an answer which he took. Thank goodness. But the encounter, and especially his cocksure (Ah! The perfect word.) forwardness and the way I handled it, stuck like an anemone’s gluey holdfast to my psyche. Thus began the months-long period of me avoiding my friend as he kept nudging, prodding, social-media-tickling me to get together. I needed time to sort out why what happened happened.
At first, when I asked myself why I didn’t give an immediate, assertive, negative answer, I decided that I was simply such a kind person that I did not want to hurt his feelings. But that reason was not satisfying my internally inquiring mind. I knew there was more to it. That answer was just too easy for my ego to balance on that slippery pinhead of denial. It was just too feel-good, self-promoting to be the truth and all the truth, so help me goddess. I decided to share the story with a few land-loving, similarly-aged, women friends to get their take on my bewildering reaction. What were their responses? Pause a moment to consider yours at this point.
“He’s a sexual predator!!!” “You’re a victim of sexual harassment!” “You were caught off guard and just trying to be nice and not hurt his feelings!” “You should never speak to him again and never ever be alone with him!” “You should have pepper-sprayed his face and run!” Yeah, my friends just confirmed the comfy bias I already held about myself - that I was all innocence, sporting a glowing halo around my head - and fabricated a story of him as dangerously mal-intentioned and sprouting demonic, horny horns. But I knew it was not that simple. I thought I may have been somewhat responsible for his bold behavior and fully responsible for my own giggly, indirect reaction even though it felt automatic . . . like breathing. Hence, my ghosting Mr. H. Crabb, my maybe-still-friend, while I tried to figure myself out. This is where that wacky pair of night creatures began to help.
If you guessed already, given their common names, that the anemone decorating hermit crab and the hitch hiker anemone have some sort of mutualistic relationship in which they both benefit, you are correct. But to me it seems surprising given that they independently have stand-alone, effective defenses. The hermit crab has not only a tough exoskeleton but house themselves in a robustly dense seashell that they can retract themselves into in a pinch (hahaha) and even seal the shell’s aperture (doorway) with their mighty main claw like the one in my hand here.
Why in the marine world would they need to disguise themselves with anemones? It’s on par with my already-ripped friend toting a ball bat. As for the anemones, most of their corporal structure consists of nematocysts, those sting-stunning cells, each armed (like me with my dainty pepper spray) with a venomous harpoon held at the ready by a sensitive hair trigger. So, regarding the crab, what more does one need to catch food while not be eaten themselves in the sea? And, dammit, as I said, anemones are essentially sessile! How do they even get on the hermit crab’s repurposed shell???
You really want to know, don’t you? It turns out that the anemones benefit from their perch on the hermit’s shell, given their proximity to the foraging claws and chewing mouth parts of the crabs. As the crabs move about and tear into bits of dead and decaying matter they are pretty sloppy eaters. (Thank your thumbs right now! Without them there would be no such thing as sandwiches! I mean really . . . finger foods should be called thumb foods.) The anemones feast on the crab’s floating crumbs and also get to encounter more culinary opportunities than they would just staying stuck to a non-roving rock. Ok, that seems fairly obvious. But the already doubly armored hermit crabs? Why do they need anemones? Sorry Paul, but your imperfectly-bouncy clip below beautifully shows a crab eating on the go and their anemones catching crumbs with their tentacles:
Research has revealed*** that the crabs benefit in at least two ways from their chosen anemone partners. First, after getting one or two attached near their shell’s center of gravity, they begin to place a couple other anemones around the opening of their shell. Why? The answer lies in other creatures’ brute strength coupled with their species’ uniquely-evolved intelligence. Like Steinbeck and Ricketts first taught us, life in the intertidal zone is in an evolutionary arms race.**** Even the tough murex shells favored by these large hermit crabs (each is the size of an adult human fist) can be cracked, crushed and even peeled off in layers by some other non-hermit crabs. And the octopus is not only clever enough to find the crabs holed up in their shells but their suction-cup grip can easily pull them out for a perfect, late-night snack (crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside). With a ring of stinging tentacles around the hermit crabs’ door frames the octopus and other fleshy predators are deterred from busting through those fiery doors. (It’s like having a “This Home is Protected by . . .” sign in your yard.) And get this, when one of these hermit crabs’ shells sustains damage, like a crack or thinning due to peeled off layers, the crab places an anemone with its glue-secreting holdfast over the crack or bald spot, thus sealing it and reinforcing the shell! And that’s still not even the craziest thing about these two odd, bosom buddies.
Wait though - let’s see what my own cracked shell revealed as I started to peel off its layers. First, I needed to remind myself that though my friend and I are both Americans we did grow up enmeshed in rather different cultures which becomes important in relation to the second layer I needed to peel away. So, second, as he explained to me while apologizing in the desert that morning, my friend’s culture taught him that when a woman is out-spoken about sex and makes a lot of sex-based jokes then she is sending a personal message of receptivity. My culture conditioned me to believe that in order to be accepted and loved as a woman I needed to get attention and I (without consciously realizing it) found joking about sex outwardly to be a reliable way to get it (attention!) and feel what I thought was acceptance . . . particularly by straight men (duh!). Paul will press me to confess a specific, bold example that I shared with my seemingly-stalker friend so I may as well type it in here now. Among other jests, I once publicly asked this friend the following question:
What’s better than finding roses on your piano? (Any guesses?)
Finding tulips on your organ! (I know, I know, it IS funny but . . . well, no wonder, given his social conditioning, that my Mr. H. Crabb was so bold!)
Third, once those two layers got peeled off I discovered what was hiding inside: my own insecurity. It was painfully difficult to look at but once I stopped judging myself and accepted it as merely the way I was conditioned I could see how I had been mindlessly using sexuality to get male attention. I realized that I even felt, deep down, like no one would want to be friends with me if there wasn’t some amount of sexual tension between us. Now, back again to the actual crab and their anemones.
How do these hermit crabs get anemones on their shells? They annoy them, like my friend did to me, with relentlessly with gentle pokes, pinchy nudges and tickles until the anemone gives up and lets go their holdfast from their original rock. Then, (OMGoddess!) the crab uses their claw to gently place the anemone as desired on their shell while the anemone must be like, “Awww . . . f#@k it . . . . I may as well attach myself here and trust that I’ll find enough food and not be eaten by this big, muscly crab”. What an unexpected relief they must feel when indeed, as the crab sloppily masticates on the move (Careful dear reader . . . that means chews . . . This is not about masturbating crabs, Jeez! I mean, with those claws . . . pretty hazardous.), they find a greater smorgasbord of food floating around their tentacles than ever before! And get this: You know how as hermit crabs grow they need to move to bigger shells? Well, when these anemone decorating hermit crabs move house they also move their anemones to their new abode! Paul is trying to get video of this but until then here's one from BlueWorld's aquarium:
Just like the hermit crab, my friend kept nudging me to get together. Like the anemone, I kept awkwardly deflecting and dodging him until I uncovered the uncomfortable truth of my own insecurity. Once I was able to see that we were both just victims of our unhealthy cultures, I decided, like the annoyed anemones, to give up, let go, and trust that meeting alone with my Mr. H. Crabb would be ok, albeit awkward. And just like those anemones, I was greatly rewarded. Once alone, we talked openly about what happened. Those conversations with my friend helped my usually stuck-in-place emotional self be more mobile in my self-investigating. As for Mr. H. Crabb, he was very apologetic and worried that the encounter had left me fearful of him. I explained that I was only afraid of the social discomfort, not him, and that the whole experience did me a big favor in revealing to me my own deeply disguised insecurity. He expressed his fear of having damaged a valuable, blossoming friendship with his bold response to what he thought was a come-on invitation by me. And, get this: He shared that he realized that his culture had conditioned him to also conflate sex with love. The only way he (and it turns out most of the men I’ve recently asked about this) felt love was through sex. What a mess our cultural conditioning has made. But the whole awkward experience gave me something I needed: solid gold proof that I am worth knowing and loving without the misleading lure of sex. We all are. That means you too!
Stepping back, the whole episode taught me some things even more comprehensive. I discovered that holding fast to the heavy baggage of guilt and shame was blocking me from really examining the motivations underlying my mindless, automatic, conditioned behavior. I found that when I could open my mind and shift to feeling the less emotionally weighted twins of regret and remorse then I was able to see more clearly my unhealthy and unskillful, habitual behavior.
Now, when I find myself in icky dis-harmony with someone, I’ll take care not to knee-jerk react in judgement and cancel our friendship too quickly. We may both have something valuable to learn from each other if we are willing to let go our stubborn holdfasts, be they personal or political (or, nowadays, a societally-dangerous conflation of the two), and take a fresh, tentacle-waving look around in the info-morsel-speckled social water column. Even more counterintuitively I learned to think critically about my not-odd-couple friends’ opinions and ideas when they easily conform to those with which I am mindlessly comfortable. I mean, that’s what friends are for, right? To learn from.
Uh oh. I just thought I had it all figured out but Paul is saying I forgot something. Sex in the animal kingdom (of which we are a part), is by its very nature both fascinating and really, down-right funny. He doesn’t want to see me lose my senses of inquiry and humor about it. Hmmm. So, then, I’ll leave you with this little gem (you deserve it if you’ve made it this far) but let’s be clear. It is not a come on:
How do you titillate an ocelot?. . . . . . . . . Give up? . . . . . . . . .
You oscillate their tit a lot!
One more thing. In researching this odd couple I discovered that we happen to have the great good fortune to live on a planet with a tiny non-hermit crab who sticks miniscule anemones on their main claws which they then employ to give a stinging punch to any fish who tries to eat them. Don’t believe me? Here, check out the pom-pom crab via PBS's Nature on YouTube:
*When we moved into No Pants Ranch a pair of orphaned bobcat kittens were residing there. We did our best to ignore them (and never fed or petted them) so they would be ready for the wild desert but the young male and Gizmo became immediate friends. After the dog's initial scaredy-cat jump in the air at the cat's first play pounce, they would roll and tumble all over the place. The bobcat even learned to employ the doggie door, and would chase Giz through the house and up the stairs. His favorite perch was on the footstool in front of the aquarium. I'm happy to say he did gradually strike out on his own into the wild.
**Hi Kiwi friends. I thought about re-naming my fanny-pack to waist-pack so as not to offend you, but, I do actually wear my pouch on my front side so . . . technically . . . . (Non-Kiwis? In New Zealand “fanny” is equal in slang to “pussy”. Oh, jeez . . . Now I’ve offended all speakers of English. I should just shut up o practico mi Español.)
***Someone has actually been out there studying these hermit crabs and their anemones! It’s an interesting scientific article: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/oik.03742
**** I highly recommend reading their classic Log from the Sea of Cortez.