The Vagina Dialogues: (For Peter)

She waits.  I have to say something before the silence hanging between us becomes uncomfortable enough for her to walk away.  I think; Crap, this is going to sound awful.  There isn’t a nice way to say it.  These conversations always begin with a garbled mouthful, foreign, awkward, and weird.  How do I break this to her?  It’s not her fault of course.  She has probably never encountered anything like this in her daily life.  How would she?  I have to say something.  She leans toward me, plunging her hands into her pockets and lifting her toes with a mild shrug.  She looks up at me expectantly.  Eyebrows raised, she bites the side of her bottom lip.  A lock of blonde slips over her right eye, falling at odd angles to the delicate creases in her face made by her flirtatious expression.  She is beautiful.  The effect is utterly charming.  I am distracted for a fraction of a second by slight fluttering in my tummy.  The silence ticks on.  She smells like the best parts of summer.  Tick.  She’s going to think I’m a total dork for even knowing this, let alone bringing it up with a relative stranger.  Tick.  I look off into that upper left distance hoping to appear as though I am pondering something brilliant.  Silence.  Tick.  She probably thinks I am hitting on her and that I’m not very good at it.  There’s a tiny shift in her body language.  Tick.  In the space of a slow eye-blink, the moment deteriorates from an honest conversation to attraction, to disappointment.  I have to spit something out quickly before this engagement becomes creepy for her.  Just say it.  She folds her arms and cocks her ear in my direction.  It has to be now.

Silence…

I jump in.  My inner voice finds traction in reality.  “So, it turns out that there are these clear, tube-shaped animals in the ocean that help regulate the atmosphere with their poop.”

“Their poop?” she chokes out.  She thinks this is my cheap immature attempt to talk to girls.  I watch entirely too many feelings play across her delicate features.  Hands up in front of her, she rolls her blue eyes to her left as she leans her head in that direction with a groan.  Any interest in me roars out of the situation with the speed of a hummingbird in a brush fire.  I’m back on my own turf: a rogue nerd.  Familiar and comfortable, I straighten my back, turn my chest a little toward the ceiling, and spill words with kind authority.

“Yep. They eat the little plants, bacteria, and tiny animals that float around in the water, which make up the base of the food web in the oceans.  They suck in seawater in the front-end, strain it with a little basket-shaped filter inside their body, and spit the water out in a jet stream from the back-end.  Their food gets compacted into these dense fecal pellets that race to the bottom of the ocean.  Most of the decayed particles from plankton, or waste from larger animals in the oceans sink slowly and are consumed before they ever reach the bottom.  The salps compact their waste into these little poop-rockets that plummet up to a kilometer a day.  The jet propulsion from feeding is how they swim, so they’re very efficient.”

There, I said it in metric.  She squares off with me in a comfortable stance.  Americans are often irrationally impressed with things described in meters.  She listens as though taking the time to describe this in someone else’s system of measurement, adds a weight of scientific validity to the information.  I’ve regained precious ground from the raucous 6-second silence that had hammered our mood earlier.  Back in the fray she asks, “So, this does something to the atmosphere?”  Whew.

Solitary salp

Salps make dense fecal pellets like these

I forge on.  “OK, there are a few things going on here.  Salps are one of the fastest reproducing animals on the planet.  This means that they can breed super quickly to take advantage of food resources.  Dissolved carbon dioxide from the atmosphere gets compacted into their poop through the food that they filter out of the water, and is sent straight to the bottom of the ocean without breaking down.  Eventually, the salps might use up all of the food in one area, and they start to die off.  Their bodies also sink quickly, and the carbon stored up in them is sent to the bottom of the ocean as well.  Scientists exploring the deep seafloor using remotely operated vehicles have discovered enormous amounts of salp bodies piled up.  They speculate that the salp bodies are likely to be covered up by sediment before they have time to be broken down by other organisms.  This effectively takes the carbon that the salps have used out of the carbon cycle, and sequesters it for 1000’s of years.”  She relaxes and looks me in the eye after clearing the hair from her face.  I keep her involved, asking, “Does that make sense?”

Salp bodies (left) piled next to a deep sea oil pipeline

“Yeah, it makes sense,” she says.  She turns her right foot out and shifts her weight to the rear.  Her left arm is still folded across her midriff supporting her right.  With her index finger, she softly taps the faint lovely freckles clambering over her cheekbone.  She continues to look me in the eye.  She’s sticking around for now.

Back in my stride, we round the bend of this conversation.  I drive the rest home with calm fervor.  She doesn’t see it coming.  “Too much man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing big changes to the way that the oceans are working.  Some of that excess carbon dioxide is buffered by dissolving in seawater.  Since salps are feeding low in the food web, and there are so many of them in the oceans, they probably play a huge part in that buffering by removing a lot of that carbon from the atmosphere and storing it away in the bottom of the ocean.  Changing things at the base of the food web in the oceans can have tremendous effects on the rest of the life on the planet.  We know that our own lives and health are interconnected with healthy functioning ocean ecosystems.  There are several things that you can do, even today, which will help manage these problems in order to leave a healthier planet for our own kids than the one we were given.”  Now she thinks I have kids.  I look heroic.  Tapping in the heads of all of the big values, I continue. “We can be responsible for managing the effects of the excess carbon dioxide that is creating this heat-trapping blanket around the planet by doing a number of things that you already know how to do.”

“Like what?”

“Well, let me ask you this: What kinds of things did your parents tell you to do around the house to save money when you were a kid?”

“You mean liiike, like turning off lights and things when you leave the room? Or, or not leaving the TV or radios on when you’re not using them?”  She puts it together herself.

“Exactly.  What else did they tell you to do?  I don’t mean like ‘not talking to strange boys’, but just the stuff that saved your family money?”  She giggles pleasantly.  Her smile is devastating.  I am an oak.  I don’t waiver.  I retort with a lopsided grin that I hope looks a little like Han Solo.  I wait for her reply.

“Well, you know, they said all that stuff.”

I have her a little off balance.  I press; “Liiiike?”

“Like, turn down the heater a little in the winter, and just put on warmer clothes.  Or, or to ride a bike instead of trying to get a ride in a car if you’re not going very far.  Y’know, that kind of thing.”  I chuckle inward at the last remark because she’s remembering this as a child who still needs a ride from an adult.

I silently thank her parents for helping our conversation and joyfully agree.  “Me too!  Except, I grew up in San Diego, so I heard the opposite about the heater.  We had to turn down our air conditioner a little in the summers instead of trying to create the Southern California-pole.  So, our parents were just trying to save money for our families.  Without really considering it, they were also teaching us to do things that cut down on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by using less energy.”  Running with my previous allusion, I maneuver to wrangle one last value into place.  “All those things that our parents used to say to us, and that we probably say to our own kids to save our families money, are helping to improve the ecosystems in the ocean which help keep our planet healthy.  There are some other things that you can do as well which may have an even bigger effect.”

“Liiiike whaaaat?” She sees what I’m doing and stretches her words to feign burden at having to ask.  I like this one.

“Like looking into, and voting for innovations that supply our energy needs from renewable resources.  In this country, we already have some of the technology, and we certainly have the skilled minds to create and satisfy our own energy demands with truly clean energies.”  I go all out. “It would keep all that money from development and patents in our own economy, and the resulting industry would probably create tons of jobs here in America.”  I’m so patriotic.  “Anytime we have decided to tackle huge projects as a country, there has been an added benefit of extra money and jobs from all of the spin-off technologies that resulted from research along the way.”  Aaaaand, done.

She rocks on her foot and angles her head in a nod to suggest we walk toward the touch-pools.  I’ve jammed plenty into this conversation, so I polish off with sarcastic enthusiasm. “Just think, you’ll be helping the little salps do their jobs too!”

She snickers along with my comment and decides to see our petite relationship through to its natural end.  “So, you said we were related somehow?”

My heart soars……

This messy chat all started when she asked me about plastic pollution in the ocean.  I stumbled upon her while she was reading the information in our exhibit on the subject.  I showed her a small jar of seawater collected from the North Pacific.  It is interjected with bright confetti plastic of comparable size to the beige preserves of the organisms at the base of the oceanic food web.  Among the plankton, there are a couple of small fishes, a tiny anemone, and a thimble of squid, as if to announce to a gal that the roiling brown bits were, in fact, animals.  Pointing out the earth-toned mass of goo with a shotgun of white dots, I explained that they too were animals.

“Animals? Really?”

“Yep.  In fact, they’re related to you.”

“Whaaaat?” she says, incredulous.

“Well, maybe more to me than to you.” I pass this off with the kind of quick wink my grandfather has mastered.  I remember too late that the gesture conveys entirely different implications from me.

“Wait, what?  Related?  What are they even?”

“They’re called salps. Uuuhh, erm, uh…”

Silence.  Tick.

Seawater form the north Pacific. The floating stuff is plastic. The stuff on the bottom of the jar is plankton.

This is how every dialogue about salps begins: foreign, awkward, and weird.

One of my first few dives after learning basic SCUBA was at the Carmel river mouth.  I had chosen a diving partner who had performed 3 or 4 more dives than the meager 5 that I had practiced as part of my initial class.  I knew that the ocean is unforgiving, even for the well-prepared.  Shortly thereafter, I decided that I should choose diving partners with substantially more experience than myself.  The water that day was uncharacteristically glassy and clear.  My partner’s seasickness prompted us to submerge as soon as we were able.  Admittedly, I am completely out of touch with this phenomenon.  I imagine that the last thing I would consider doing when I feel like prolapsing my entire digestive tract and starting over, would be to confine my breathing to a tube in a hostile, freezing environment.  Regardless, down we went.  Upon approaching the edge of the modest kelp bed at the river mouth, I could see several long chains of salps that had apparently been flushed in from the vast open water nearby.  As plankton, they are susceptible to the vagaries of ocean currents as much as a jellies or pieces of plastic.  I had read about them, and studied preserved specimens in jars in my zoology class, but these were live.  These were the first salps I would see in the wild.   Salps have a complex life cycle involving an asexual phase, which partially accounts for their rapid reproductive rate.  This chain of connected individuals was roughly 5 meters, (around 16 feet for normal Americans).   This species was Tethys vagina, the largest of the salps.  Each individual was around 12 cm (5 inches) in length.  Their billowy mouths contracted in unison, still filtering water for food, and still trying to swim.  We observed them together for several minutes.  I wrapped my hand around one and was surprised to find it firm, like squeezing an arm.  Contrary to what we would assume from something with clear tissues, the muscle bands lining their body cavity did not feel like jelly.  Instead they have the familiar rigid strength of touching the limb of a mammal or some other animal that we know well.  My partner finally tore my gaze away to paddle on.  Nothing happened on the rest of that dive that I remember today, except that my regulator hose sprang a small leak.

We had planned another dive that day, but upon returning to the air my partner informed me of the leak in my hose.  He asked if we should just go back down, stating that he would keep an eye on the escaping air while we were underwater.  I was flattered that he cared enough to witness my drowning, but I generally try to minimize the likelihood of my imminent death by any means necessary.  Avoiding activities with known potential disaster is a surprisingly easy way to accomplish this.  After rinsing off salty stale urine and hauling our cold-yellowed bodies back into the loving embrace of a Honda heater, we did that thing that all recreational divers do after returning from the sea.  We rambled through the list of animals we had seen on the dive.  I was saving the best and most obvious for last, but my partner beat me to the punch when he asked, “Did you see those shark eggs?”  Wait, what?  Had he seen little extras on the sly?  Was he scouting natural wonders that he didn’t bother to share?  I had gleefully gone out of my way to point out everything from turban snails to fancy rocks.  Sometimes I audibly squealed through my regulator doing it.  Where does this guy get off keeping something as fancy as shark eggs all for himself?  What a jerk.

Politely cool, I continue like an angry girlfriend, “No.  What shark eggs?”

“Right at the beginning of the dive.  The big clear ones on the seaweed.  You didn’t see those?”

Does he mean the things we were looking at while using up fully 10 minutes of precious air?  “Oh.  Those weren’t shark eggs.  Those were salps.”  Just like that, I found myself tongue-tied in my very first attempt to explain these confounding creatures.  In my budding indignant naturalist mindset of the moment I remember thinking that I would someday make lots of money off of uninformed people like this.  …sheesh, doesn’t know a salp from a shark egg.  We aborted the second dive that day.  We never went diving together again.

My thought process of that time is a mixed blessing with a lovely dusting of irony.  I later earned several job opportunities to work on SCUBA and made the kind of conservative choices that lead to minimal safety incidents.  I also recognize now that, despite their relative abundance in the world, salps are utterly alien.  They’re more than a little hard for people to get their heads around.  Even for folks who know a good deal about them, salps have proven to be of titanic difficulty to explain.  I can see how a guy could pull a mistaken identity from the reaches of what he knows, hoping to comprehend what he is seeing.  It’s almost a guarantee that casually sparking up a conversation about living clear tubes that poop a lot will be misconstrued as a cheap pick-up line for nerds.  Alas, one might as well just jump in to the conversation with a direct B-movie plot line that sounds like it is intentionally written in the hopes of becoming a cult-classic.  “Joey discovers that clear beings, hidden among the world’s oceans are controlling our air with powerful feces!”  Or, “Unsung heroes save the planet from certain doom, but who are these mysterious creatures, and what’s that smell?”  Virtually alien life forms, climate change, and excrement; what more could a boy ask for?  Now that I explain this sort of thing for a living, I reflect in recrimination that I ever assumed I would make very much money doing so.

The media surrounding salps is often understated and a little shallow.  They are given inane descriptions such as “jelly-like creatures”, or, “…like swimming through gummy bears.”  I can’t imagine a comfortable way to let slip to the masses that salps have the beginnings of a notochord and pharyngeal gill slits, making them our very distant cousins.  “They are our closest invertebrate relatives,” I ostentatiously blather at work from time to time, even though I am aware the statement will blow past a visitor like flatulence in a breeze.  People reply with silly inquiries such as, “Oh, they’re really small?” as if the inability to physically see them explains their lack of understanding.  Sometimes I’ll even get a disbelieving and obstinate, “Well I’ve never heard of them.”  Clearly that precludes our invertebrate kin from their poopy existence.

“Have you ever heard of the citric acid cycle?”* I counter.

“The what?”

“Never mind.”  Smiling, “Have you had a chance to touch the sharks yet…?”

Sometimes the media disproportionally portrays salp populations as episodic inconveniences for mankind.  Earlier this year, an influx of salps reportedly caused a shutdown of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power facility in San Louis Obispo, California. There were enough salps in the near shore waters to clog the seawater intakes used to cool the reactors.  Some news reports feature them as an inert fascination for bathers in major tourist beaches, the highlight being that they are unable to sting as a “jellyfish” might.  The reality of their sheer numbers is staggering.  We live together on a planet with oceans that brandish populations of salps so large that scientists believe they have a significant effect on our climate.  One report speaks of a swarm of salps (Salpa aspera) that measured over “100,000 square kilometers of the sea surface (more than 30 times the area of Paris).  The scientists estimated that the swarm consumed up to 74 percent of microscopic carbon-containing plants from the surface water per day, and their sinking fecal pellets transported up to 4,000 tons of carbon a day to deep water.”**  There are enough salps out there that scientists suggest factoring them into predictive climate change models in order to improve our understanding of the intricacies of our fluctuating future.

Another article sports the title: “Ocean’s ‘Poop Machines’ Could Help Fight Climate Change”.  This is the theme of many media descriptions of salps.  The salps-could-save-the-world articles will vaguely tout the ability of salps to create a carbon sink, but inundate readers with physical descriptions of the animals without delivering the hard truth.  Scientists don’t know yet.  Science is an ever-developing discipline built on the foundations of previous work.  Studying whole ecosystems on the scale of an entire ocean, even for one type of organism, is fantastically difficult.  People are desperately looking for some natural miracle solution to reducing the amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  We hope that the problem will just be taken care of without need for personal thought or action.  Many of these articles allude to salps as a silver bullet for the beast of climate change, but it is misleading.  Studies support the idea that they play a significant role in the Earth’s carbon cycle by sequestering it away, but that’s all.  By describing unusual single events in a story, readers miss the big picture.  On a basic level people can understand that, when organisms at the base of the food web begin doing unusual things, something fundamental is wrong. We can alter the atmosphere enough that those organisms, which contribute to its composition and functioning, are significantly affected.  Without exaggeration, we can be certain that this can have major repercussions for the rest of life as we know it.

For an environment that takes up fully ¾ of the surface of the planet (and growing), and whose ecosystems are responsible for maintaining its health, the oceans are frighteningly far from our daily consciousness.  We cannot afford for our awareness to remain disconnected from the life support systems of our own home.

Every job comes with specific terminology, which our middle-school minds can easily conjure into cheap puns involving sex, profanity, or bodily functions.  We all try to avoid snickering at them for fear of coworkers thinking we are being juvenile.  The puns still pop into our heads unbidden.  Once in a great while we catch sight of a Rachel, or Peter, or Justin out of the corner of our eye.  They’ll be mingling their features in that shifty-mouthed expression where they look as though they’re holding their breath a little and cleaning their teeth with their tongue.  A hint of moisture around the eyes will give away their inward chuckles, and we’ll both vomit teary giggles when we are out of earshot of anyone we think might care.  No one really does.  I suspect we all return to our work, having kept the thought to ourselves, and maybe feeling a little lonely for it.  That’s professionalism.  I’ve been caught making startled eyes at such comments often enough that I have simply taken to admitting, “I am not mature enough to avoid laughing at that.”  There are an unsurprising amount of these opportunities in a biology teaching setting.  When your job centers on openly discussing a topic that is rooted in reproduction, it is easy to find any manner of justification to snigger about the naughty bits of one critter or another.  Even still, we have here an animal on hand which has world-changing implications built into its ecological role, and boasts a valid scientific name that literally references the genitalia of a Greek goddess.  One would think it would be routine to make a crack or two.  Unfortunately that’s just not the case.  Given the confounding nature of even bringing up salps in the first place, I count myself lucky to engage in a conversation where someone has a valid excuse to mention, “T. vagina.

I am still not mature enough to avoid laughing at that.

Stamp from Azerbaijan featuring a salp

* The Citric Acid Cycle (also referred to as the Krebs Cycle) is a major component of cellular respiration, which is how aerobic organisms (including us) create usable energy in our cells.  Many folks have never heard of it, but no one can live without it.

**Direct quote from multiple science blog articles.

© Chris Reeves: Seemed Like Good Science at the Time, 2012.

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6 thoughts on “The Vagina Dialogues: (For Peter)

  1. We had salps in our plankton tows all spring and I stuttered, stammered, and clumsily made my way through explaining their importance. I really could have used this blog a few months ago…. I would have broken it into flashcards and recited information from them. I may still do that.

  2. Chris,
    You write with great fluency. Your article on the salps reminded me of what a professor of paleontology once told me succinctly; “The psychological problem for human sexuality is that the organs of generation are asll tied up with the organs of excretion.”

    • Thank you Paul. That quote is enlightening, as, I do resemble that remark. I find it funny to note how blurry the line can be between free will, and free hormones. I can’t say that I’ve made the clearest choices in life, but at least they have given me something to write about, and something to laugh at.

  3. Hi Chris – I believe I have one of those T. vaginas in a jar at Cabrillo – I found it washed up on the beach in front of SIO in San Diego. I wanted to take it inside for an ID, but didn’t have time. Wow, you are quite a writer!

  4. Thanks for your help understanding salps, am working with Marc W. Ward founder of Sea Turtles Forever related to microplastics. Came across a reference that indicated salp of the species tethys vagina had consumed microplastics in the NPCG not good. Need to hit the rack but thinks again

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