Alien Eels, Pufferfish, and Other Novelties

Moray%20jaws.jpgThe bloggers here at Scienceblogs all have other professional lives–professors, doctors, software engineers, and so on. My own line of work as a science writer can make blogging a bit awkward every now and then. Take, for instance, an article I wrote for tomorrow’s New York Times about moray eels. It turns out that they have bizarre jaws hidden in their throats that catapult forward into their mouth to grab prey.

If you read other blogs at Scienceblogs, this may sound like slightly old news. That’s because the paper describing this research came out on Wednesday in the journal Nature, and was promptly described in a couple excellent blog posts–one at Neurophilosophy and one at Pharyngula. The Times’s science section doesn’t come out till Tuesday, so I’ve kept quiet.

One reason I find this story so cool–beyond the obvious weirdness–is that the scientists who discovered the hidden jaws have been thinking carefully about how the jaws evolved. This is par for the course for one of the co-authors, Peter Wainwright, who has been studying the evolution of new traits for a long time now in fish. In fact, I wrote about some of his work long ago in 1997 in Discover–an elegant study of the pufferfish, and how it evolved from much more ordinary animals.

In any case, I hope this lag been worth the wait. I took the extra time to interview the two scientists who discovered the hidden jaws, much to their own surprise. And it was also fun to give a call to H.R. Giger, the artist who designed the monster from the Alien movies, which had moray eel jaws almost three decades before anyone knew moray eels had them.

0 thoughts on “Alien Eels, Pufferfish, and Other Novelties

  1. Another fine story, Carl. Several people have expressed offense at my “how to write bad science stories” post, arguing that if they actually stopped doing the things on that list (e.g., using buzzwords, overhyping and oversimplifying, appealing to readers’ misconceptions), no one would read their work. I could have gone into a long discussion about how misinformation is arguably worse than no information, or how “artistic license” can only go so far when reporting scientific information, but I don’t have to because I can easily cite a clear counterexample: Carl Zimmer.

  2. All I can say is way cool. I am a grad student working on fish pharyngeal jaws and this is just an amazing finding. I can’t wait to hear what Wainwright has to say about the evolutionary history of this unique structure. Also kudos to Carl for bringing cool science to light.

  3. I watched that video and flashed back to a time diving off Roatan, ‘standing’ on my head in a fairly narrow gully in a reef about 30 feet deep gawking at a 6′ moray in a crevice, and suddenly got a pretty serious case of the shivers.

  4. I’ve seen many articles over the last week and have to say that this is the first article that doesn’t feel like a regurgitated press release. They exhibited hardly any curiosity as to the workings of this fascinating find, and lost not a single thought as to how it may have come to be – just a knee-jerk headline reaction.
    So… please take your time if it results in this type of commentary.

  5. Just out of interest — do you think that the Times would mind if you’d put the story up here early? Wonderful though the Loom is, its readership is presumably a little smaller than that of the Times, and the number of its readers who might stop reading the times if your stuff was posted here early must be negligible. On the other hand, by reminding readers what good science writing there is in the Times while a piece is still blogosphere-current, the Loom might be a nice bit of promotion for them…

  6. I have to say that I’m one of those folks who complain about the largely lousy quality of science journalism. You’re the exception to the rule. You knock it out of the park. Thanks.

  7. Carl, have you seen David Attenborough’s slow motion footage of the dragonfly’s protractable jaws? They actually come right out of the mouth so that prey can be caught from some distance. I’ve searched the internet high and low for the clip, but can’t find it anywhere.

    By the way, thanks for the link.

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