Monday, September 20, 2010

Silence of the Fish

Heather Schorge lays out a board of rainwater killifish (Lucania parva) at the Tavernier Science Center

Biologists would make good serial killers. Not of the Jack the Ripper variety, but something more of a methodical, curious, and scientific brand like Anthony Hopkins’ character in Silence of the Lambs. Not because we enjoy killing people or animals, but because we enjoy studying them in great detail when they're not so squirmy. I’ve noticed a severe disconnect exists with biologists, like a synapse jostled loose which keeps separated the icky squishes and smells of dead things from the clean cut living world. We all know these people. They’re the ones who contemplate boogers - the ones that seem to originate in the frontal lobe of brain, and upon removal, essentially clear your sinus problem - they also pick scabs, covet long ingrown hairs, and with wide eyes, pop zits onto the bathroom mirror. Yes, they might wear a suit and tie to work, but they can’t wait to examine the chunk of earwax that tumbles off their shoulder onto their desk. 

An anatomy professor, my sweet little mom is a shining example of this double agent lifestyle. She may be pulling out one of her famous corn bread pies from the oven in her disarming apron, but just behind her warm smile and delicious baked goods rest eight pig hearts hardening in the freezer next to the Flintstone’s Push Pops. Things that would make an ordinary person's skin crawl are and were a topic of conversation at our dinner table, if not the center piece - quite literally actually, as my brothers and I have all been sewn up on the kitchen table from various injuries. Growing up, it was not uncommon for her to bring up stories during a meal about her newest cadaver. My dad, an OBGYN doctor, would ever so hypocritically gag, changing the subject to c-sections or something more appropriate like venereal diseases. Neither of which, I might add, went very well with meatloaf.

Clown goby (Microgobius gulosus) swallowing a rainwater killifish (Lucania parva) just before dying. 
We have to measure and weigh both of them, even when partially digested.

While this sort of environment could easily damage a young child, it only helped to develop my high tolerance for gross things. One day, my mom brought home a bloody pair of cow lungs attached to a rubber tube to show me how they expanded and contracted when she blew on the other end. Fascinated, I immediately carried the soft, heavy pluck over to my next-door neighbor’s house. Hiding behind a buttress I rang the doorbell and laid the bloody heap on their welcome mat. When the mother, Wee Ching, answered the door, I blew into the tube and shared with her one of the many miracles of anatomy. Not so impressed by the pulsing gob of veins and cartilage, she slammed the door screaming something desperate in Chinese. It’s always been like this. I try to bring others to the threshold of my biological discoveries only to have them shut the door in my face.

In elementary school I was chastised for my dirty clothes. Not for the difficult stains, but for the wriggling lizard’s tails and daddy-long-legs bodies (which I meticulously separated from the legs) my mom would uncover in my pockets. Or the time in middle school when I was nearly grounded for borrowing her kitchen knives to dissect a toad, carefully compartmentalizing its organs in Tupperware containers in the fridge. Coming home from Honduras, I risked customs and smuggled my insect collection into the states, only to be scorned for the breaking the law. However, now, the colorful bugs are proudly displayed in our living room. And recently, my roommate in Wyoming complained the numerous sandwich bags of dried animal scat I collected were health hazards and general female deterrents.

A rotting tarpon head sits out near the scrap wood and water hose. One of my coworkers' treasures
from the field, this will be sure to rest on a mantle somewhere.

When I came to Tavernier last fall and stepped foot into the downstairs lab at Audubon, I finally found that long lost asylum where other like-minded explorers came to uncover secrets of the natural world. Shelves lined with vials of fish and other animals floating in formalin led to freezers stocked to the brim with birds, snakes, and anything else you might find in the Everglades. Jackpot!

A woodstork head has found refuge in the auto garage. 

In a biologist’s office, empty space is valuable real estate to put maps and skeletons of unfortunate creatures. The more exotic and rare the artifacts, the more accomplished the biologist. Who needs a metal paperweight when you can safely stack your documents under a monkey skull? These little treasures aren’t restricted to the lab or the offices either. When going to wash off your boots by the hose, make sure not to step on the massive tarpon face, which has been decaying for a good part of the year. Oh, and if you need some brake fluid for the truck, it should be on the shelf in the garage right next to the preserved woodstork head.

Michelle Robinson measures some day one goldspotted killifish (Floridichtys carpio) 

This summer I had the chance to put my so-called seasoned tolerance to the test. We are in the field eight months out of the year. Four of those months, then, are dedicated to processing the data in the lab. Data, in this case, means dead fish. And processing means thawing, identifying, measuring, weighing, and counting. We study the fish populations in terms of seasonality to determine population densities in relation to water depths and salinities. Some days we come back with forty fish, some days we come back with thousands. No need to worry though; these minnows are the prey base for the wading birds and they fornicate more than rabbits.

A typical summer sample board of over 400 rainwater killifish waits to be processed.

Since starting in November of 2009 I had been warned about summer in the lab. Horror stories of stifling temperatures and ungodly smells. Mountains of juicy Gambusia (mosquito fish) and slimy eels, their skin peeling off like burn victims. Yes, it would be an unforgettable summer. Upon thawing my first site and opening the Ziploc bag, I nearly vomited. I was struck with the same disbelief as when driving down the interstate and the lingering aroma of a paper mill wafts into the air conditioner. How could anyone get used to this wretched stench? I tried everything. I wore a surgical mask, when that didn’t work I sprayed the inside with lavender perfume which proved more caustic than the dead fish. I tried breathing through my mouth but my nose started to hurt after the second hour. Eventually by the third week, olfactory fatigue set in and by mid July I was eating chips and pizza at the lab table, as if the fish were my dinner guests.

The first sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus) is a Day 1 fish.
The others that follow are varying degrees of Day 2 sheepshead minnows. 
If only this blog were scratch and sniff. 

The summer sample months of April and June prove the most unnerving to sort and i.d. When we go out into the field we have two days of sampling. The first day, the fish are fresh and recently dead and we quickly put them on ice to preserve them as well as we can. By the second day, however, the fish we missed the first day have been exposed to the blazing sun, warm water, and crabs, which enjoy picking at their stomachs. Day two fish, as they are called, exact their revenge by taking the form of scaly globs and we must pick through the masses to find their severed heads and tails.

Thawing a fish popsicle. It's hard not to try and give these little
guys voices and names with all those frozen expressions and personalities.

While this may sound miserable, we find ways to enjoy ourselves. My favorite prank is placing a day two fish on the rim of someone’s Coke, primarily Erin’s, because she never notices until the last minute. Eighteen years have passed since dumping the cow lungs on Wee Ching’s doorstep, and I’m still the biologist I ever was. This time, however, I can put it on my resume. 


  1. i was going to finish my breakfast, but reading this while eating soggy cereal suddenly makes me not so hungry...and come to think about it, lunch is out too...

  2. Ha! Yeah, it took me a little while before I could stomach food with these little guys too...

  3. How are you going to top this one? I love it :)

  4. Hahaha- i tell the story of mom and the cow's lungs all the time too...didn't know about fred's mom though. Haha