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Sea Life Offers A Lens For Self-Exploration In ‘How Far The Light Reaches’

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How Far the Light Reaches cover

How Far the Light Reaches
Sabrina Imbler
Little, Brown & Co., $27

In How Far the Light Reaches, Sabrina Imbler shows us that the ocean, in all its mystery and dazzling glory, is queer — that is, the life that takes shape there challenges how we landlubbers perceive ways of being. This collection of essays tells the stories of 10 sea creatures, with Imbler, a queer and mixed-race writer, weaving in stories of their own family, self-discovery, sexuality and healing. The profiled animals, often thought of as strange or alien, transform into recognizable emblems of identity, community and queer joy in this delectable amalgam of memoir and science journalism.

Imbler begins with a confession: “The truth is that I was asked to leave the Petco, but I told everyone I was banned.” Thirteen-year-old Imbler had staged a protest in the store, attempting to convince customers not to buy goldfish bowls. The bowls, Imbler writes, condemn the fish to a truncated life in a transparent coffin, in which they will die isolated, starved of oxygen and poisoned with ammonia from their own urine.

But unencumbered by the confines of a bowl, the fish thrive. When bored pet owners dump goldfish in lakes or rivers, the fish can balloon to the size of jugs of milk. They are “so good at living they have become an ecological menace,” breeding with abandon, uprooting bottom dwellers, and fomenting bacterial growth and algal blooms, Imbler writes.

Yet Imbler can’t help but admire the feral goldfish’s resilience: “I see something that no one expected to live not just alive but impossibly flourishing.”

Survival among unthinkable circumstances is a theme common to all the profiled animals. Take the yeti crab (Kiwa puravida), which, after reading this book, I now proclaim a queer icon (step aside, the Babadook). In the frigid dark, about 1,000 meters below the sea surface, the crab finds solace near hydrothermal vents.

Such hot spots foster life in a desolate wasteland. Heat and chemicals from inside the Earth sustain an ecosystem of crabs, clams, mussels, tube worms and more. There, in true queer fashion, K. puravida “dances to live,” Imbler writes. The yeti crab throws its claws in the air and waves ’em like it just don’t care. In doing so, it is “farming” the bacteria that it eats, which cling to the crab’s bristly claws. Waving the claws in a slow but steady rhythm ensures the bacteria get nutrients.

In telling the crab’s story, Imbler reminisces on their quest to find community after moving to Seattle in 2016. Feeling alone among the mostly white people they met, Imbler discovered a monthly party called Night Crush, thrown by and for queer people of color. Night Crush became Imbler’s own hydrothermal vent — an oasis warmed by people dancing in mesh, sequins, glitter and joy. “As queer people, we get to choose our families,” Imbler writes. “Vent bacteria, tube worms, and yeti crabs just take it one step further. They choose what nourishes them.”

Imbler looks to the sea to explore all aspects of family. The purple octopus (Graneledone boreopacifica), for instance, offers insights on motherhood. During a four-and-a-half-year brooding period, the longest known for any animal, the octopus starves herself to death, foregoing hunting to protect her eggs (SN: 7/30/14).

Through the octopus’ saga, Imbler reflects on their own mother, who moved to the United States from Taiwan as a child. Imbler’s mother felt like she was on “a new planet.” To survive, she learned to want to be as white and “American” as possible, and as thin as possible — traumas inherited by Imbler, who developed an eating disorder.

In their recovery, Imbler has realized their mother’s wish for them to be thin, though damaging, was, in a way, an act of love: “She wanted me to be skinny so things would be easier. White, so things would be easier. Straight, so things would be easy, easy, easy. So that unlike her, no one would ever question my right to be here, in America.”

A chain of salps floats off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean.
A chain of salps floats off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean.Brook Peterson/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images Plus

It is with that same grace, clarity and tenderness that Imbler crafts the book’s other essays, whether it’s meditating on their own gender expression through the cuttlefish’s mastery of metamorphosis or examining their experience of sexual assault through the sand striker, an ambush predator of the seafloor.

Like a goldfish confined by a bowl, I am confined by my word count and can’t say everything I want to about this must-read book. So I’ll end on one final insight. In one essay, Imbler introduces salps. These jelly-like blobs exist as a colony of hundreds of identical salps joined in a chain. The creatures do not move in one synchronized effort. “Salps allow each individual to jet at its own pace in the same general direction,” Imbler writes. “It is not as fast as coordinated strokes, but it’s more sustainable long-term, each individual sucking and spurting as it pleases.”

This idea of one collective, made up of individuals marching toward a common cause at their own pace, is one that queer people and other marginalized groups know well — whether creating community or protesting for civil rights. And it’s a notion that Imbler imparts upon their reader: “We may all move at different paces, but we will only reach the horizon together.”


Buy How Far the Light Reaches from Bookshop.org. Science News is a Bookshop.org affiliate and will earn a commission on purchases made from links in this article.

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Animals

Here Are 3 People-Animal Collaborations Besides Dolphins And Brazilians

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We’ve all heard that dogs are a man’s best friend, but our canine companions don’t make up the entirety of humankind’s friend circle. Humans have cooperated with wild animals throughout our evolutionary history, forming reciprocally beneficial relationships known to biologists as mutualisms.

One particularly piscine partnership that made headlines recently can be found in Brazil, where fishers catch nets full of fish with the aid of the local bottlenosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus gephyreus).

This team-up started over a century ago, probably when fishers first noticed that the presence of dolphins was a clue that fish were hiding in the murky water, says Mauricio Cantor, a behavioral ecologist at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute in Newport.

“The dolphins are really good at detecting fish and herding them toward the coast,” he says, “and the fishers are really good at trapping the fish with their net.” Once the fish are mostly secured in the net, the dolphins are sure to snag a few for themselves.

In a study published January 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cantor and colleagues used long-term data to show that the dolphins and fishers respond to cues from the other, and without experienced partners who know the right dance steps, the routine falls apart. “This is a really remarkable and impressive study,” says Pat Shipman, an anthropologist at Penn State University who was not involved with the research.

This fishing partnership is an important part of the cultural identity of both the fishers and the dolphins, but Cantor and his colleagues’ work shows that the practice is in decline. And among human-animal partnerships, it’s not alone. “Most of the historical cases are declining or already gone,” Cantor says. 

Given their rarity and charm, let’s take a look at some of the other known examples of human-animal cooperation.

People used to team up with orcas to hunt whales in southeastern Australia

The bottlenosed isn’t the only dolphin that humans have formed beneficial arrangements with. In the 1800s, several hunters began working with a pod of orcas (Orcinus orca) to catch large whales. At Twofold Bay in southeastern Australia, some orcas would find and harass a whale to tire it out, while others swam to alert whaling crews (made up of Aboriginal Australians and Scottish immigrants) that they’d found prey.

Once the whalers arrived and harpooned the whale, they let the orcas eat the tongue — a delicacy in the killer whale culinary world — before taking the rest for themselves.

While the dolphins and fishers in Brazil were chasing the same prey — schools of migratory mullet (Mugil liza) — the orcas and whalers were mostly after different things. The key similarity, Cantor says, is that there’s enough prey for everyone, so that no competition arises to spoil the partnership.

This relationship ultimately ended when some settlers killed two orcas, which drove the cooperative pod away from the bay, seemingly never to hunt with humans again.

These birds guide people to honey in Africa

Sometimes, a name says it all. Such is the case for the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), which has been labeled in both English and Latin based on its most famous trait. These birds live in sub-Saharan Africa, and cooperate with local honey hunters to gain access to succulent beeswax (SN: 7/21/16).

Birds, like humans, don’t like to be stung by bees, so a honeyguide that’s hankering for beeswax will chirp at a person to signal that they should follow. The honeyguide then leads the hunters to a bee nest and lets them do the dirty work of harvesting it.

A greater honeyguide, a small bird with a tan body, dark brown wings and head, and a red beak, looks to the right
In search of beeswax, the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator) helps humans in Africa locate bee nests full of honey.Michael Heyns/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Like with orcas, honeyguides and humans are after different parts of the prize: Humans want the honey, while the birds want the wax. Honeyguides are so helpful for finding bee nests that the Borana people of East Africa blow a special whistle called a “fuulido to summon them when it’s time for a honey hunt.

Similar to the dolphins in Brazil, the relationship with honeyguides is an important part of many African cultures. Legend even has it that a scorned honeyguide, if denied beeswax on prior hunts, will lead the hunters not to delicious honey but instead into the jaws of a dangerous predator, like a lion.

Wolves and people were once on the same side when hunting big game

To see the most extreme outcome of human-animal partnership, take a look at 39 percent of the country’s beds, couches and backyards. That’s about how many households in the United States own a dog. But it turns out a canine doesn’t have to be domesticated to get along with humans; Indigenous stories from peoples in North America describe cooperating with gray wolves (Canis lupus) to hunt big game like elk and mammoths.

The wolves would run down the prey until it tired, and humans would make the kill once they caught up. Because these prey items were so massive (like the large schools of mullet), it didn’t matter that humans and wolves were after the same thing — there was plenty to go around.

Though this furry friendship doesn’t exist anymore, wolves are still important in many Indigenous cultures. Some even still continue the practice of leaving some meat for the wolves after a hunt.

Though human-animal partnerships are rare and on the decline, they “give us an illustration of how positive our human interactions can be with nature,” Cantor says.

For Shipman, the urge to engage with other animals is a defining trait of humanity. “It’s in some ways as fundamental to humans,” she says, “as being bipedal.”

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A Newfound Silent Frog May Communicate Via Touch

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A newfound species of frog doesn’t ribbit. In fact, it doesn’t make any sound at all.

Many frogs have unusual characteristics, from turning translucent to being clumsy jumpers (SN: 12/22/22; 6/15/22). The recently discovered amphibian lacks a voice. It joins a group of seven other voiceless frog species called spiny-throated reed frogs that reside in East Africa.

Instead of croaking, the spines on male frogs’ throats might help their female counterparts recognize potential mates via touch, sort of like braille, says conservation biologist Lucinda Lawson of the University of Cincinnati.

Lawson and colleagues spotted the little frog, only about 25 millimeters long, in 2019 while surveying wildlife in Tanzania’s Ukaguru Mountains. The team immediately recognized the animal, now named Hyperolius ukaguruensis, as a spiny-throated reed frog. But something seemed off.

“It [was] the wrong color,” Lawson says. Most frogs from this group are green and silver, but this one was gold and brown. Some quick measurements to check if the peculiar frog simply had trivial color variations or if it could be a new species revealed that its eyes were smaller than other spiny-throated reed frogs. The researchers agreed: “Let’s do some genetics,” Lawson says.

They ran DNA tests on two frogs that looked like they belonged to the suspected new species, as well as 10 individuals belonging to known spiny-throated species. Comparing the golden frogs’ genetic makeup with that of the others revealed the oddballs were genetically distinct, Lawson and colleagues report February 2 in PLOS ONE.

a Hyperolius ukaguruensis stands on a leaf. It is golden-colored with darker splotches along its back
The golden-hued Hyperolius ukaguruensis stands out from its fellow spiny-throated reed frogs, which also lack a voice but are typically green.Christoph Liedtke

Each frog species in this voiceless group — including H. ukaguruensis — lives in its own isolated domain of forest. All seven of the previously known species are endangered or vulnerable. This seclusion makes it vital to distinguish species and get them added to the conservation priority list, Lawson says. Then, governments and organizations can begin protecting the region that the new, potentially endangered animal calls home.

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Are Your Cats Having Fun Or Fighting? Here Are Some Ways To Tell

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Are your cats play fighting or fighting fur real?

It turns out that certain behaviors in domestic cats could be telltale signs that an interaction is friendly, aggressive or something in between, researchers report January 26 in Scientific Reports.

“It is a question we hear a lot from cat owners,” says cat behavior expert Mikel Delgado of Feline Minds, a cat behavior consulting company in Sacramento, Calif., who was not involved in the study. “So I was excited to see that researchers are taking on this topic.”

Scientists have studied cats’ social relationships — both with other cats and humans — but it can be tricky to tell whether two cats are playing or fighting, says veterinarian and cat behavior researcher Noema Gajdoš-Kmecová of the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, Slovakia (SN: 9/23/19).

Sometimes cat owners miss the signs of a tense relationship because they think their pets are just playing, which can lead to stress and illness in the animals, she says. Other times, owners rehome their cats after incorrectly assuming their pets are fighting.

To assess and categorize interactions, Gajdoš-Kmecová and colleagues watched about 100 videos of different cats interacting in pairs. After viewing around one-third of the videos, Gajdoš-Kmecová identified six types of behaviors, including wrestling and staying still. She then watched all of the videos and noted how often each cat exhibited one of the specified behaviors, and for how long. By running statistical analyses on the behaviors, she pinpointed three types of interactions between the cat pairs: playful, aggressive and intermediate.

To confirm the outcome, other members of the team also watched the videos and classified each interaction between felines.

Some clear connections emerged. Quietly wrestling, for instance, suggested playtime, whereas chasing and vocalizations, like growling, hissing or gurgling, implied aggressive encounters.

Intermediate interactions had elements of both playful and aggressive encounters, but especially included prolonged activity of one cat toward the other, such as pouncing on or grooming its fellow feline. These in-between encounters could hint that one cat wants to keep playing while the other doesn’t, with the more playful cat gently nudging to see if its partner wants to continue, the authors say.

This work provides initial insights into cat interactions, Gajdoš-Kmecová says, but it’s just the start. In the future, she plans to study more subtle behaviors, like ear twitches and tail swishes. Both Gajdoš-Kmecová and Delgado also stress that one contentious encounter doesn’t necessarily signal a cat-astrophic relationship.

“This is not just about one interaction,” Gajdoš-Kmecová says. Owners “really should look into the different, multiple interactions in multiple periods of life of the cats and then put it into context.”

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