Lessons from the Lampsilis Mussel

Until yesterday, mussels were something I avoided looking at when passing the frozen deli section of my local supermarket. But when, late last night, I discovered the lampsilis mussel, native to the streams of Missouri, everything changed.

Mohammed Noor, a delightfully geeky professor of biology at Duke University, who is running a free online course on Evolution and Genetics, directed me to a video about the ingenious mollusc.

What I saw left me almost speechless. Not once since the demise of my goldfish Miranda, have I been so intrigued and enamoured by a freshwater creature.

For those of you too lazy to watch the video or in the kind of place where it would be inappropriate, let me tell you about the lampsilis mussel. It will sound like I’m making stuff up, but if you go back to Monday’s post, you’ll realise I’m incapable of that.

Here we go. For some reason, baby lampsilis mussels cannot become adults unless they spend some time inside a large-mouthed bass.

Don’t dwell too long on that. Just trust me that it’s true. Given that mussels cannot swim and are blind, it seems like an almost impossible feat to accomplish.

But the clever lampsilis mussel has found a way to export its young into the mouths of unsuspecting bass. It knows that if there’s one thing a big fat bass fish likes to eat, it’s a smaller, “darter” fish. Now, it’s not exactly going to find some small fish willing to paddle around it all day acting as some kind of bass bait.

So instead, they simply grow a fake one, which is fixed to their shell and exhibits all the characteristics of a small fish. It even darts around when the mussel senses the bass approaching.

When the bass reaches out to gobble up the fake fish, the mussel squirts its young into the bass’s mouth. The mussel babies grab hold of the fish’s gills and feed off its blood before finally dropping off as fully-formed mussels several weeks later. Beyond being deprived of the tasty meal it expected, the bass isn’t harmed in the process.

I’ve been so inspired by the story of the lampsilis mussel, that I’ve drawn up a list of things that humans could learn from them.

1. No matter what the extent of our defects, there is always some inner resource we can employ to solve a problem. It’s our job to find it. It could be anything from the talent to grow a fake fish to the ability to pick ourselves up again after we’ve been knocked.

2. If you can benefit from another’s weakness without harming them in the process, (and even save another fish while doing so) then by all means, go for it.

3. If evolution lends credibility to the highly ridiculous, then so should we.

4. Be patient and persevere. Sometimes you have to wait a while to get what you want. Not every bass is going to swim right into your trap, but chances are if you wait long enough, eventually one will.

5. Non-traditional early childhoods can be very successful.

The Tree of Life: at the Root of it All

At the top of Bray Head last Saturday, while tucking in to an exquisite quorn chicken baguette of his making, my boyfriend explained to me E=MC². He did a really good job; there was a lot of imaginary rock throwing into the water and the thermos flask of mocha doubled up as a handy representation of the speed of light squared. He told me about nuclear fusion and fission – about subatomic structures and the search for the “god” particle. Absent mindedly I munched my pringles and watched the sea, trying to fathom it all. It began to rain.

Our descent proved phsyic(s)ally yet more intense. I had nerd questions to ask and gnarly roots to stumble over. I sort of wish I hadn’t let my apprehension of mirrors, electricity and maths prevent me from studying physics for the Leaving Certificate. An in-depth knowledge of the stuff is probably the closest you are going to get to the meaning of life.

In the second episode of Channel 4’s programme about Amish teenagers during their “Rumspringa” phase, a pure-faced, bonneted Amish girl points to a tree and asks the artist in Kent whom she is visiting how it could possibly have come from “nothing”; by which she means ‘no God’. She is incredulous at the idea of evolution. Her alternative narrative of aboresque origin; the biblical creation story –  in spite of its obvious falsity – suddenly appears to me strangely, ironically sophisticated. God, as existing outside of time makes redundant the need to explain relativity and progress: the hallmarks of evolution. While Amish girl looks at a tree and classes it begotten not made, scientists dig deeper and deeper and deeper to identify subatomic structures … until they arrive at: Nothingness; the “god” particle; claritas?

It is simply impossible for me to understand this until there evolves in my brain a further imaginative and existential dimension – as King Lear said –  surely “nothing can come from nothing”?

We reach the foot of the hill: the inside of our heads beating to the buzz of billions of neurons. The view up is tree-lined and the magnificent cross at the peak bears its arms like branches. I need to pee.