By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
For Halloween, I thought about a couple directions for this article. I recently found out about the ghost crab. Loving the fact that this creature's common name includes “ghost," I searched the Encyclopedia of Life and found Yeti Crabs, Witch’s Hair, as well as a whole host of “ghost” animals. Then I remembered two of my favorite quotes I found last year and realized I found the perfect topic for the holiday.
The quotes come from the notes of Lieutenant H.R. Stevens who participated in the United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856. We have several expeditions that were aboard US Navy vessels during the nineteenth century. When cataloging these materials, we don’t generally find documentation of the officers playing an active role in the collecting and describing, but it seems Stevens took to this type of work.
The expedition surveyed parts of the Bering Straits, the North Pacific Ocean and the China Seas along routes used by American trading vessels between the United States and China. Several naturalists came along to collect for the United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition. Military officers like Lieutenant Stevens helped collect marine specimens during the voyage. In his notes, Stevens wrote the following descriptions:
[August 11, 1853] Caught in hauling in the long line. A substance 5 ¾ inches long, 1 ½ inches broad…The whole outside covered with crystalline points from which appeared to be omitted, the brilliant phosphorescent light that it showed.
[August 28th, 1853] Caught in net. A great many globular substances. Somewhat resembling spawn. These on being put into a glass jar and stirred up at night showed like sparks of fire.
My assumption is that he was observing one of my favorite occurrences in nature, bioluminescence. This is the ability of an organism to create and emit light. If you haven’t seen it before, it is a fascinating adaptation to observe, and can be quite inspiring. In fact artist Shih Chieh Huang created an installation at the National Museum of Natural History inspired by bioluminescence.
I find Stevens’ choice of wording fascinating as he tried to describe the appearance with words like “phosphorescent light” and “sparks of fire.” Trying to put myself in his place, I can’t think there were many things one would see in the 1850’s that would be comparable to bioluminescence. His wording is surprising. If you take a look at the gallery of images compiled by NMNH, you’ll see some examples of what might have inspired Steven’s words.
So as you go out and enjoy the fantastical things people create for Halloween, keep in mind these snapshots from a nearly 3-year long voyage and just how unexpected the real world can be.