Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What Nemo Did Next

Recent conversations with a banker and a lawyer (to be) have reminded me that the little fishy world I inhabit is in fact unutterably cool and interesting, and that most people don't know that much about it, and therefore it is bloggable! Ha. You spend your days in the office reading paper after paper after paper, and occasionally you get excited by something stupidly esoteric that only your supervisor would also get excited by (you hope), and you forget that the basic facts of the system are really pretty fascinating in themselves.

What Nemo Did Next, if he had a long and happy life, is that he turned into a woman. Quite a lot of marine fish are sequentially hermaphroditic, changing sex either from female to male or from male to female at some point in their lives. Nemos (or more accurately the clown anemonefish Amphiprion percula) are a particularly well-studied system due to some funky guy who figured it all out whilst living in Madang Bay in Papua New Guinea, isn't the marine biologist's life a tough one? These clownfish live in anemones, as you know, and in each anemone lives a little social group -- the largest fish is female, the second largest male, and all the rest don't actually breed. There is a really strict linear hierarchy based on the relative sizes of the fish in the social group, so the female is Top Fish, followed by the male (clownfish have got it right!), followed by the rest in decreasing size. When the female dies, everybody else grows quickly and moves up a rank: no. 2 changes sex from male to female, no. 3 becomes the breeding male, and every one else is one step closer to the Top Fish Position. So if you think about it, Marlin (Nemo's dad) should really have turned into his Mum within a few weeks of his Mum being eaten by the big scary barracuda. Not that his Mum was his real Mum anyway, he was adopted, because when the eggs hatch (after being very very carefully tended for 2-4 days by the father and not the mother -- did I say something about clownfish getting it right?) the larvae just get swept away by the current and eventually when the baby fish get big enough they pick a random anemone to join -- hardly likely to be the one they came from originally.

But you know, I love the film, and they got the coral looking quite realistic, so I don't really mind that they didn't try to explain to all these kids that what Nemo really wanted to be when he grew up was, well, a girl.

P/S Lots of other fish do it the other way round, with females turning into males, especially when the males need to be big and powerful in order to maintain harems of females. So when you are small, you might as well be female so you can reproduce a little bit; when you get bigger you change sex into male so you can reproduce a lot (by mating with lots of females in your harem). Currently I'm hoping to study some fish which do this. It's very cool because some females, instead of patiently waiting to move up the hiearchy step by step towards big male-ness, try to employ alternative strategies like changing sex earlier and hanging around as a small bachelor male, growing quickly (not using any energy on producing eggs as a female) to a size where they are big enough to compete for harems; or changing sex and trying to sequester some of the harem's females for themselves so splitting the harem, etc. etc. And it's even cooler because more and more such fish are turning out to be able to reverse their initial sex change, which brings up all kinds of other questions about whether a small male might give up and change back to female.

So anyway really my PhD is about how fish try to have as much sex as possible. If you think about it. Hmm.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Happy Stomachs

The boyfriend is visiting, which always prompts eating a lot of good food. Highlights from the past week include:

- Sunday roast at the Eagle, a lovely (if touristy) pub in central Cambridge, where Watson and Crick announced their discovery of DNA. It also has a ceiling with graffiti by RAF and US Air Force bombers during WWI and II. But all that pales in comparison to the Yorkshire puds.

- Buttered scones and apple pie washed down with good old quality English Breakfast tea at the Orchard. Down in the village of Grantchester a few miles south of Cambridge, the Orchard has been serving "morning coffee, light luncheons and afternoon tea" to Cambridge students since 1897 under its apple trees. It was home to Rupert Brooke who was often visited there by his pals "The Granchester Group", including Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and Maynard Keynes. But still, you know, what would it be without the scones?

- Lovely Vietnamese food at tiny little Thanh Binh on Bridge Street. Had an exceedingly yummy duck hotpot with vermicelli.

- Unagi bento set and salmon sashimi at Teri-Aki. Felt thirsty afterwards, but the lure of Japanese food and MSG filled miso soup is simply too much.

- Dinner at the Vaults on Trinity Street, an underground restaurant/bar. Very stylish stuff and such brilliant food. All dishes are starter size, much like tapas, but food is a diverse mixture of European, Middle Eastern, Oriental. My favourites were pigeon breast with chorizo in a red cabbage sauce, roasted aubergines stuffed with tomatoes and spicy rice, and butternut squash mash.

- My very own culinary work. College has taken my gas ring away by command of that paranoia incarnate known as The Fire Safety Officer, but I am surreptitiously cooking on a very serviceable electric cooker I own. And thus managed to produce:

1. The classic melon and parma ham (and some salami for good measure)

2. Tapenade spaghetti -- so yummy I was quite impressed, but the ingredients make so much sense really. And so unbelievably easy to make as it is a no cook sauce! Will definitely add this to my list of everyday things to make for dinner.

3. Cod poached in a tarragon broth -- again surprisingly yummy, I was quite sceptical about having to pour loads of orange juice into the broth, but it was great and went wonderfully with the fish.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Life between tea breaks

The first week of real PhD-ing is just over and it hasn't been bad at all, really. As far as I can tell academic life is really just one long glorified tea break interspersed with occasional bouts of work. The tea room serves tea (20p), coffee (35p) and various unhealthy tempting munchies everyday at 10:15 and 3:15 for about an hour. So you get into the office somewhere between nine and ten, and then you contemplate tea at about ten or eleven, and then you have lunch about twelve or one, and then you contemplate tea again at three or four, and then you go home about five or six.

It is incredible how anybody gets any work done (something my sister was also amazed at when she rejoined academia after years in finance -- the culture shock!), particularly as throughout the week there are also lots of exciting talks and seminars about ants and moths and cuckoos and whatnot (ain't zoology great). Somehow we manage it, though, I think I have learnt a significant amount about humbug damselfish over the past few days following the great paper trail through Web of Science, albeit probably less than I would have if I didn't have so much tea. (I only actually go to tea once a day, three breaks in a working day seems very slightly excessive...) In my bid to do a proper literature search on these little fishies I have properly availed myself of Cambridge's impressive library facilities, even making an early evening trip to the University Library in search of this 1977 paper in a journal called, deep breath now, Helgoländer wissenschaftliche Meeresuntersuchungen. It took me 20 minutes to even find the journal in the stacks on the top floor in the furthest corner of the South Front, and then I had to walk to the other corner of the library (please understand this is a library which stocks every single published book in the UK and then some) to photocopy it. Now that is what I call dedication. But I do love the UL, it makes me feel like the human species does know a little bit about the world and it is so nice to know that I can read about it all. Um, theoretically.

There is a lot to be said for tea and lunch breaks though. It is lovely to be in an environment where everybody is honestly excited about their work -- and what work it is. Up on the third floor where I have lunch with members of the Large Animal Research Group (mostly meerkats, to be honest, although also deer and sheep) and my own Evolutionary Ecology Group (bit of a random name, Behavioural Ecology and Conservation Mostly Underwater is slightly more accurate but a mouthful), the conversations veer back and forth between the next Nature paper somebody's got coming out, sightings of the rare Giant Crested Newt, anonymous papers involving beard clipping mass as related to testosterone levels as related to the next time the hirsute Anon. would see his girlfriend, Pratchett and Dawkins (in that order; we have our priorities right), and feeding discarded kittens to pet snakes, I kid you not.

Outside of the working day life continues much as before, although much improved by the fact that because I spend all day in department I feel no pressure to work after I get home, leaving me time to do too much dancing as well as a happy level of socialising. The lack of essay crises is novel and a wonderful thing indeed.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


I write this ensconced very familiarly at my old desk in my somewhat palatial college room which I am lucky enough to be inhabiting for the second year in a row. Unfortunately it remains very bare and sad looking because the porters are holding hostage all my boxes which I left over the summer till tomorrow. I am living like a refugee and this morning had to shower with two hand towels. In a bid to make it temporarily seem a little more like a home I have put up some of my old posters which I rather cheekily hid in a high cupboard over the summer; and also went shopping at the trusty beginning of year poster of sale. My room is newly beautified by this little series of posters: penguins, snoopy, and a close up of a cow. Must keep up the zoologist face, you know.

September passed very pleasantly indeed in a whole series of trips around South-east Asia:

Was lovely for all the usual reasons of seeing the boyfriend, old friends etc. Went to watch E's dance performance at NUS; supper at Holland Village very convivial. Even went to Sentosa and spent a very happy day cycling, kayaking through the muck that passes for sea there, trying to get the boyfriend to sit on the beach; dinner at the lovely and very tasty Capella at CHIJMES. Such idyll.


Having just gained a professional diving qualification I naturally just had to get into the water again. Bali was a fantastic holiday all round -- far too much to see and do, charming, quiet, tremendously value for money into the bargain. The tourist tackiness we had expected was actually the exception to the norm, and despite the obvious tourist orientation of the entire island, we thought that the development had been done with lashings of taste and care to preserve the famous Balinese charm. The architecture is so lovely, everything done in dark wood and stone and completely open to the environment, melding seamlessly into the gorgeous plants and gardens everywhere.

Diving was amazing! There was amazing macro (little critters) at Tulamben in the north east of the island. I've never been muck diving before but could spend ages and ages peering amongst the sloping seabed of fine black volcanic sand looking for brightly coloured nudibranchs, crazy shrimps and crabs of all shapes and sizes, and various other denizens of the watery world. Saw so much that I'd never seen before in my life and couldn't identify at all. Highlights of the macro were probably the boxer crabs, tiny little 1cm crabs which stick anemones on their claws and wave them around kungfu-style to ward off danger, gorgeously coloured harlequin shrimp, and squat lobsters (AKA hairy blue crabs). I also spent probably something like 10 minutes watching this one cuttlefish. They are the coolest creatures ever, the way they change colours is phenomenal. It would flick from a smooth white with pulsating black, blue and silver spots, to mottled brown with spikes all over its body, and back again through a hundred incarnations within seconds. Despite the display being visual its speed and variety puts you in mind immediately of speech, and I did feel as I swam along with it that it might be talking to me. At one point it spread out its two side tentacles, stretched forward the rest in a tight triangle, pulsating strips of black and white at tremendous speed down them, and glooped a little fish or something (I couldn't see) from the water. It made me want to squeal into my regulator, it was so exciting.

And then, and then, and then there were the MOLA MOLA!! Also known as oceanic sunfish, these are the most massive bony fish in the world and we were tremendously lucky to see two of them as they came into the reef at Nusa Penida (an island off the east coast of Bali) to get cleaned. Both were about my size from fin tip to fin tip and these were small for the species. The Mola mola made the entire trip worth it even if everything else had been a disaster. It was so surreal swimming along with these unbelievably bizarre fish. I shall leave a picture to do the talking:

There was so much cultural stuff to do and of course we had no time to do it because we were underwater all the time. A second trip is definitely called for. We did, however, make it to Jimbaran to have seafood on the beach where a local band played at our request Rasa Sayang (Mum) and Hotel California (my sister and I); they could do Japanese and Spanish songs too! And we also watched a stunningly beautiful sunset from the temple at Uluwatu on the south west corner of the island. Finally, the females of the party had of course to try one of the Balinese spas -- we hadn't much time, but the little local one we went to for an hour long massage delivered quite the goods for USD25!

Went back to Kuala Lumpur after Bali just in time to leave for yet another jaunt, this time in Hong Kong. I'd never been before and actually really liked the city, it has that sense of bustle and life that makes you want to explore and get carried along with the thousand and one events happening all the time. We stayed right next to the financial district which was certainly impressive.. the view almost everywhere you turn is quite phenomenal, particularly from Victoria Peak at night. Tower after tower, it is such a vertical city! It feels so different from Singapore; more like a Chinese version of New York I think -- less sterility, more life. There was a strange mixture of feeling more familiar than Western cities because of the Chinese culture and food, and more remote because I don't speak Cantonese. But it is perhaps similar to Singapore that there doesn't seem to be much to do! We largely went shopping and I was surprised at the sheer number of high fashion brand names -- I had to console myself with Espirit and Mango. I have such a lovely polka dotted... but you don't want to know about that, so I shall leave you instead with a picture of the Fragrant Harbour (as my sister calls it).

And now, alas, the Exciting Pre-PhD Summer is most definitely over. Real life beckons, or rather the PhD beckons as it can hardly be called real life. For the next three years I shall hopefully regale you with the trials and tribulations of how to figure out what little fish are doing underwater. See, now I just have to figure out which fish (possibly humbug damselfish so far) and where to do it! Piece of fishy cake. If only!