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Excerpt: "The Book of Barely Imagined Beings" by Caspar Henderson

Excerpt: "The Book of Barely Imagined Beings" by Caspar Henderson

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Published by OnPointRadio
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You are reading copyrighted material published by University of Chicago Press. Unauthorized posting, copying, or distributing of this work except as permitted under U.S. copyright law is illegal and injures the author and publisher.

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Published by: OnPointRadio on May 13, 2013
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07/10/2013

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I should have been a pair of ragged clawsScuttling across the floors of silent seas.
T.S. Eliot,
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
THE BOOK OF BARELY IMAGINED BEINGS
 354
T
hose who named the Yeti crab must haveenjoyed coming up with a way to describeits odd conjunction of features. The outsizedfront ‘arms’ (strictly, pereiopods)
do
look alittle like those of the Gigantopithecus, a huge andnow extinct ape which some cryptozoologists claim asthe still-living original for the Tibetan wild man of thesnow. And the body
is
unmistakably that of a crus-tacean. As for the animal’s scientific name, whichcombines the Maori oceanic creator god with theLatin for ‘hairy’, this too is resonant and precise. Still,those who coined these names missed a trick becausethis crab has about it something of Janus, the god of thresholds who gazes into both past and future.The Yeti crab was discovered in
2005
in a place justabout as far from human habitation on Earth as it ispossible to get: the sides of a ‘black smoker’ some
2
,
200
metres (almost a mile and a half) beneath thesea surface on the Pacific–Antarctic ridge about
1
,
 500
km (
900
miles) south of Easter Island. Black smokersare chimney-like ‘hydrothermal vents’ in the oceanfloor through which water and minerals that have been superheated inside the Earth are forced up atover
 300
 – 
400
°C (
 570
 – 
750
°F) into surrounding oceanwater that is typically about
2
°C (
 35
°F). The ‘smoke’,which is actually a super-hot fluid, is black because itcontains mineral particles which absorb most of the
You are reading copyrighted material published by University of Chicago Press.Unauthorized posting, copying, or distributing of this work except as permittedunder U.S. copyright law is illegal and injures the author and publisher.
 
light beamed from any submersible that has plumbedthese lightless waters. Amongst these particles are sul-phides, and if you could smell it this place it wouldhave a sulphurous smell, like a medieval hell.Vents of this kind were first discovered on theEastern Pacific Rise in
1977
 – eight years after humansfirst set foot on the Moon (and the same year in whichElvis Presley died, The Clash released their firstalbum and ‘How Deep is Your Love’ made the charts).Their discovery amazed oceanographers and biolo-gists. Not only was there abundant and diverse lifewhere none had been expected but it took forms of which no one had dreamed. This life drew its energynot from the Sun but from the heat within the Earth,using it to drive chemosynthesis, a process wherebymicrobes convert carbon and nutrients into organicmatter by oxidizing hydrogen or hydrogen sulphide.These microbes in turn supported a range of organ-isms all the way up to Giant tube worms, which growup to
2
.
4
metres (
7
ft
10
in) tall and are topped by blood-red fronds. They have no mouth, no stomachand no digestive system but live in symbiosis with bacteria inside their bodies that make up half theirmass. Smaller in size than the Giant tube worm butmore extreme in its hot-tub habits of living is thePompei worm, named for the Roman city engulfed ina volcanic inferno. This animal anchors itself close tothe hot vents where the temperature may be as highas
80
°C (
176
°F) while its feather-like head sticks outof a tube into water a little further away that hasalready cooled to around
22
°C (
72
°F). A fleece-likecovering of bacteria on its back, with which it lives insymbiosis, probably insulates the Pompeii worm fromthe most extreme temperatures.In the decades since the first discovery of black smokers, many more have been found at about fiftylocations along the
64
,
000
km (
40
,
000
mile) mid-oceanridges that run around the seabed of the world oceanlike the seams on a tennis ball. But only a fraction of the ridge and other possible locations have beenexplored. Future investigations could reveal evenmore and on them creatures at least as strange asthe Giant tube worm and the Yeti crab. It has only
YETI CRAB
355
 Another seminalevent in
1977
was theclassification, by CarlWoese, of archaea asa separate domain of life from bacteria.
You are reading copyrighted material published by University of Chicago Press.Unauthorized posting, copying, or distributing of this work except as permittedunder U.S. copyright law is illegal and injures the author and publisher.
 
recently been discovered, for example, that bacteriafloating in the water at some distance from hydrother-mal vents are able to perform the equivalent of photosynthesis by harvesting the very dim light fromthe infrared glow of the vents.The Yeti crab is a creature of the threshold in severalsenses. First, by dint of its very presence on the black smoker, it inhabits the interface between the twoworlds of scalding magma and cold water. Exactlywhat function its long hairy limbs serve was not, atfirst, completely understood and it was thought thatthey might enable the animal to straddle a boundary between the very cold surrounding water and theextremely high temperatures and noxious gases of thevent. The hairs – which are actually bristles, or setae,like those found on moths or bumblebees – would pro-vide insulation (as do those of a Pompeii worm) whenthe crab reaches through scalding water in pursuit of prey. Another idea was that filamentous bacteria cover-ing the hairs would either neutralize gases emittedfrom the vent or serve the crab directly as a foodsource. And this last idea received support when asecond species of Yeti crab was discovered on coldseeps on the deep-sea floor near Costa Rica:
 Kiwa puravida
harbours colonies of bacteria on the bristles of its claws which it scrapes off with its comb-like mouth. A loose analogy would be you or I sprouting cressseeds in the hair on top of our heads. Somewhat lesshairy than
 K. hirsuta
, it derives the second part of itsname from a Costa Rican phrase for the good life, for
 K. puravida
seems to spend much of its time in what itsdiscoverers described as an extraordinary and comicaldance as it waves its claws through the water, presum-ably in order to expose the bacteria to as much of thenourishing gases escaping from the seep as possible.Like shrimps, lobsters and other crabs – animalswith which many of us are broadly familiar, at least ona plate – the Yeti crab is a decapod: that is, a ten-limbedcrustacean, and as such a member of the class knownas Malacostraca. The five thousand or so species in thisclass, which has been around since the Cambrian, haveplayed an almost endless set of variations upon thecrustacean body form, diversifying into sixteen different
THE BOOK OF BARELY IMAGINED BEINGS
 356
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