Monday, September 29, 2008

306. The Zen of Shark Dissection, Evolutionary Vertebrate Morphology with Dr. Sam Sweet

Spiny dogfish. Squalus acantius. Shark. Essentially. On the dorsal side.
Spiny dogfish on the ventral side. Notice the light color. Can't tell from here but the bottom is male and the top is female. Notice the lovely purple gloves.
Spiny dogfish on the side.
M.D. style surgery on shark head. By licensed grad student, Jen!
What's inside? Sorry for the low resolution picture.
We had to cut open the trunk of the dogfish to find the "lateral line," or so I try to remember. We learned 100 new words today.
Dermal denticles of dogfish. Ummm. Don't know the scale. I'm guessing 4x or 10x on a compound scope? They look like little pearls!
Attempt of artistic representation of dermal denticles of dogfish. I had to place my Nikon D80 on manual focus in order to achieve this.

It has been an AMAZING experience to return to my biological roots at UCSB. I decided to attend the first day of evolutionary vertebrate morphology lab (taught by Dr. Sam Sweet) primarily because I needed some form of reconnection with biology. I had been drawing cartoons of squirrels and writing amazing stories about leaf cutter ants on oak trees, so I needed to engage in some form of cathartic ritual of re-attachment ... with formadehyde-soaked dogfish. Hey! There is a zen to petting a dead shark on its darkened dorsal side.

I talked to Jen this morning in evovertmorph course and she told me that she and her geologist officemate Dan (who is TA for the class) were having lab tonight. Dan eagerly welcomed me to come join the fun in dissecting shark!

I thought yesterday evening I was going to take care of my car's need for an oil change (and god forbid a new battery, it died last Friday), but I thought, that this shark dissection embodied some kind of deeper calling. I desired to know the innerworkings of shark. And I still don't know the innerworkings of my car! (I just need to take a city college course). I was also becoming pretty pissed off because technically I'm the "biologist" of the family, but my sister Jenny, who is training to be a licensed physical therapist at Cal State Northridge (her background was a psychology major and exercise-physiology minor at UCSB), she had been dissecting dead bodies left and right... and I was starting to get jealous. I started to look like the family's biologist wimp... while my sister was rapidly elevating to "die-hard" autopsy-ist that could have been "as-seen-on-TV." Watch, she'll be consulting for House soon. Sheesh!

So, I was feeling pretty competitive (my in-family joke) and I felt an intense need to be involved in shark dissection… in fact, I just need to dissect anything! I needed to be reimmersed with mooshy, living carbon forms, not exclusively long-gone, taphonomized versions!

Just as long as I wasn’t working with human bodies! I understand human morphology relativistically while my sister studies the subject directly. The only way how I have come to learn about myself and human behavior is through the lenses of other organisms. I need context, otherwise understanding humans alone makes no sense.

It was inspiring to return to “the room”—the very same room where I engaged in my parasitology labs back in Winter 2003—occupied with infectiously enthusiastic, eager undergrads immersed among smelly, eye-reddening formaldehyde and pickled specimens of… dogfish. It’s not love at first sight or smell—but it’s “love” through acquired memories. With unusual, charismatic people who had had the capacity to alter my perception of reality through sharing their views. It’s not just me and the shark. It’s me, my fellow humanoid friends, and our shared acquired perception of the shark. A Triangle of Reality of sorts.

Just upon entry at the door, I started to sense this gestalt reconnection with my biological roots. Ahhhh…. Essentially, going to shark lab was as therapeutic—if not more therapeutic—as going to see a shrink.

At first I sat at a random place in the room, but I soon spotted Jen on the opposite side of the room. I proceeded to strategically reposition myself right next to her. Jen is such a spazz. She had a heart-shaped globe on her t-shirt and a “Geology Rocks!” pin on her back pack. I LOVE geologists!

After “blah-blah-blah” introductions from Dan (not that Dan was “blah-blahing,”--he was saying pertinent information--but my mind registered it as “blah-blah” because it was a little to pre-occupied with starting a shark dissection). Jen and I quickly came to retrieving sample spiny dogfishes: I happened to grab a bag with both males and females. At first I was going to dissect the shark but Jen and a third lab partner took over. I resumed to turn the pages of the lab manual and take pictures with my Nikon D80. As you can tell above!

The dogfish specimens were so inspiring! My perceptions of organisms have been changing greatly, especially through the medium of Sam Sweet’s lectures! Before (during my few years of graduate school hopping), I had been drawing cartoons and writing a few quasi-science fiction stories. I am eyeing all these organisms with a storytelling and cartoonist eye. What interesting stories and projections emerge! Like, what if I had two noses, one on my ventral side and one on my dorsal side? What if I had sensory organs that could detect changes in pressure or electric current in water?! How would of my sense of Reality be like! Sickly imaginative! Just an amazing feeling to escape into the head of a shark.

At one point during the lab, Jen was flipping through the 9th edition of the Vertebrate Dissection book, and there was an image of the detailed musculature of two legs and a bush tail. I spontaneously jerked, “Wait a second, is that a rodent’s xss?” Jen flipped back to the image. Indeed it was a bloody-gore detailed diagram of a squirrel’s xss. It made me rethink about the cute little fuzzball squirrel cartoons I had been creating? I love being a creative science writer now. It’s so much fun to dream—in a functional way!

I started to view the shark’s body as full of tools—equipment—like some form of streamlined biological swiss army knife killer machine. We had to cut open a part of the head region, as I called it “popping open the hood” of a car.

So, we proceeded with this ritualistic mapping of language on the Landscape of Shark. As if we were projecting some shared mental map of the shark. Aha. Like a Geography of the Shark. What the students were expected to do in lab was “read the manual” and then try to identify the body parts the manual discussed. Even though there was no cartoon image of the shark to work with in the manual. What I thought we should have done—like what every other American does when they buy a piece of technology—is that we never read or touch the instruction manual, we just crack open the puppy, poke and press all buttons until we figure out how the gadget works! Isn’t that how kids play with toys anyway? They don’t read a book on how to play with a toy—or at least most of the time. They just break the toy up.

But no. We couldn’t do that. We couldn’t be the little kid who plays unconstrained chop sui with the shark and ask, “What’s that? What’s this? What’s that? What’s that for?” We had to be careful. The lab was a multi-step process in exploring multiple organ systems. We only had to a few things today. Skin. Check. Gills. Check. Fins. Check. Mouth. Check. Anus. Check. Cloaca. Check. Latin and Greek roots store in the back of my brain somewhere. Check. Lateral line. Check. Check. Check.

Terms. Terms. Terms. Everywhere I go in this society there is a bag of jargon that comes with this place and the humans associated with this place. So, we have got all these terms with vertebrates that dissect space and time into the finest of resolutions. In the end, we vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals) all got some vertebrae, some brains, and some guts. In the end, it’s all the same even though it seems different. Best not to get lost in the details. Since I am predominantly a visual learning, it is more important for me to be visually oriented in terms of form and function. I know myself well; the words will fade away… but the underlying Matrix of Logic will not.

I told my friend Herschel about the shark dissection, which made me conscious of my enthusiasm of “killing organisms for the sake of knowledge acquisition.” That moment of feeling like a ruthless killer, gawdgeez! SCIENCE IS ABOUT SACRIFICING A FEW TO SAVE THE MANY! I AM NOT A FLIPPIN’ TREE-HUGGING PRESERVATIONIST WHO FEELS GUILTY FOR SUBCONSCIOUSLY KILLING ANTS AND VIRUSES (amen, I would be dead right now if my body couldn’t kill viruses). Herschel is a very reasonable graduate student, but he’s trying to reduce his meat intake—from Piscetarian to Vegetarian. He showed me a brochure today in concern of poor treatment of farmed animals. I saw that brochure last year. They updated some of the pictures.

Well, anyhoo, I left the lab with my ego feeling rather masseussed. I confidently called my sister a few days later and proclaimed to her that I was still a “die-hard” biologist. I am rising up in the family ranks again. Once again….

After this whole shark-dissection ordeal, the food in the Starbucks no longer looked the same. Quite untouchable. *Sigh.* My fingers still smelled like formaldehyde. I checked right before I grabbed my coffee cup. *Sigh.*

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