An Ocean Full Of 'Sex, Drugs And Sea Slime'

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In her book Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, marine scientist Ellen Prager describes the natural history of some of the oceans' more interesting creatures, including hagfishes, "fried egg" nudibranchs and bone eating zombie worms.

IRA FLATOW, host: Up next, are you one of those people who, before putting a toe in the water, carefully looks around to see what slimy sea creatures surprise you in the surf? Then let me be the first to inform you about what to look out for. There's the hagfish. This eel-like swimmer secretes mucus from hundreds of glands all over its body, and according to my next guest, one hagfish can fill seven buckets with slime in a matter of minutes.

It's also a shape-shifter. It can wrap its tail around its body and then slide the knot toward its head, scraping the goo off itself. Oh yes, it feeds on other animals by entering an orifice, any orifice, and eating the animal from the inside. You think you can skip that dip in the ocean now? The hagfish is just one of the many slimy, sometimes gross, but certainly fascinating sea creatures sharing the spotlight along with sea slugs, cone snails and lots of others in a new book "Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter."

Joining me now to talk about it is the author. Ellen Prager is a marine scientist. She is former chief scientist at the world's only undersea research station; that was the Aquarius Reef Base in the Florida Keys. She joins us from WLRN in Miami. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. ELLEN PRAGER: Well, thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're very welcome. Why the - this very - this book is very provocative. I mean, you can - you make a snail sexually titillating in this book.


PRAGER: Well, the truth is, science - you know this - is fun. It's entertaining. And in the ocean, the animals are fascinating, but oftentimes we tend to get so technical that we lose the entertainment factor. So I thought if I really want to engage people in learning about what we call biodiversity or the wonderful diversity of life in the sea, I make it fun.

FLATOW: And one of the most fun - if I could put it that way - is - you talk about - is the popular queen conch and the special things that conchs do in their mating habits.

PRAGER: Well, one of the ways I found the information in this book is I queried some of my - maybe we should say more serious scientist colleagues about do they have any good stories. So I sent an email to my friend Al Stoner, who is a fisheries biologist, who I knew had been studying queen conchs for years. And to my delight...


PRAGER: ...he sent me back an email that said there's a real advantage to studying the reproductive biology of an animal that is slow, big, mates for hours on end, and has a penis half its total body length, which...


PRAGER: know, that was just a great response from a, you know, more serious scientist, and then I started doing research and discovered that, in fact the biologists have known about the well-endowed queen conch for many years. And there are limericks written about it, and in addition to not only being well-endowed, it turns out that when the male conch, let's say, puts his, like, they call it the verge, when he puts his lengthy verge outside of his shell and around and under the female's, there's a little problem.

Crabs and eels are all too happy to take advantage of his vulnerabilities and yum, yum, yum, but luckily, for the male conch, lose one, and he just grows another. They can regenerate their penis.

FLATOW: I don't think we've ever had a quote like that on SCIENCE FRIDAY in 21 years.


FLATOW: But it's worth it. Anyway, this is just a reminder about - that I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Ellen Prager, author of "Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter." And that certainly is an odd creature and something I don't think any of us had ever heard about.


FLATOW: And that's the joy of this book, is all the stuff in here that no one has ever heard about.

PRAGER: Well - and it was part of the fun of writing this, was discovering all these fantastic stories that were sort of hidden away in the sort of academic journals, or scientists in the field knew it...

FLATOW: They never talked...

PRAGER: ...but it wasn't really out there.

FLATOW: Well, especially about this hagfish. I read about it, and I love the ocean. I'm a scuba diver. I've been diving, you know, and I'm not going back in the ocean after I read...


FLATOW: ...heard about...


FLATOW: But tell us about the hagfish. How common is it, am I, you know, they're going to get into one of my orifices?

PRAGER: No, no. Don't worry about the hagfish. First of all, they really only go after the dead or dying, so, you know, you might want to reconsider burial at sea. But scuba diving is fine. They tend to live in the deep ocean, where it's cool and salty, and the Gulf of Maine, in particular, has hundreds of thousands of them. But again, they really - they're kind of the cleanup crew of the ocean. They go after the dead or dying, and they're very important in that sense. So as a scuba diver, swimmer, not so much to worry about.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the cleanup crews of the ocean. This is a good and interesting point, because aren't the sea - aren't shellfish, aren't they the ocean's cleaners? They're filter feeders, and you can put - I've seen scientists throw a bunch of them in a bucket of water, murky water, and suddenly it's all clean in an hour.

PRAGER: Well, there are quite a few, yes. The...

FLATOW: And the point is, don't we then just eat them, whatever they've cleaned out of the ocean?

PRAGER: Well, that's a really good point, and we are seeing places that are having problems with turbidity and water quality issues because we have overfished shellfish. And so we're trying to restore - I mean, you look at Chesapeake Bay and the oysters, we're trying to restore those populations, and water quality is one of the reasons.

FLATOW: Are they eating the heavy metals too? What I'm asking is, are - because we're eating their stomachs and what they filter out of the water, are we not getting all the bad stuff that they're taking out of the oceans?

PRAGER: Well, shellfish are one of the things that you have to be careful of, and it's why when there's, say, a red tide bloom or a problem with the waters, they close shellfish beds. So as long you're eating from a commercial shellfish bed, where they monitor the water quality, it's not a problem, but yes, they do accumulate toxins and things in their bodies, but that's why it is so important that it's monitored appropriately.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with Ellen Prager, author of "Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter." What was the most startling thing you learned when you were writing this book?

PRAGER: You know, in addition to the really and the whacky stories about, you know, the lobsters and the conch and another - this great one with the relationship between the sea cucumber and this little fish called the pearl fish, even, I think, more astonishing to me was I knew a lot of my colleagues were working on oceans - what we call oceans and human health, and using animals from the sea for biomedical research. But I never knew the breadth of it. Not only searching for new drugs and discovering new drugs associated with compounds that come from marine animals, but using them as models to study things like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, immune problems, osteoporosis, using marine animals. It's a huge field.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, you're right, and I'm even thinking of sometimes they study the blood because the blood is useful for figuring out all kinds of diseases, stuff like that, but you're talking about a whole bunch of animals here.

PRAGER: Well, that's correct - and one of my favorite examples is the cone snail, which is just this incredible animal that actually has a harpoon-like tooth on a tether that it can shoot out, capture fish and reel the fish in and then inject it with a deadly venom. And it turns out that scientists think the cone snail has the most potential of any animal on the planet for pharmaceutical discovery.

FLATOW: Wow. We'll come back and talk more with Ellen Prager, author of "Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime." Great stuff in this book. Stay with us. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri and also go to our website, slash-scifri. We'll be back right after this break.


FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with Ellen Prager, author of "Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter." And if you'd like to see a few photos of them from the book, you can go to our website at and look at the interesting stuff that is out there. There was a report recently, Ellen, in June from a group of international scientists, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, that said that many marine species, including those that make coral reefs, could be extinct within a generation.

And I as a scuba diver, I go around and I - stuff that was there years ago, I see they're longer there. Are you familiar with that report? Does this kind of stuff worry you?

PRAGER: I am. You know, I - in the book, when you write a book about the diversity of life in the ocean, you can't help but also say something about the issues that we face, and that are threatening this wonderful diversity. And so, yes, I - the issues such as overfishing, climate change, pollution, these are really threatening life in the sea and the ocean as we know it.

FLATOW: Hmm. Yeah. And, you know, not just direct overfishing and stuff, but acidification, things like that, more CO2 and...

PRAGER: Well, that's right. Climate change is kind of a double whammy, specifically for coral reefs and things that have a skeleton or shell or calcium carbonate in that you have rising seawater temperatures, which are one issue, but as more carbon dioxide is released in the atmosphere, more is being absorbed in the ocean, and that is basically lowering the pH or making it more acidic. And so that, we think, is not only going to affect the ability of corals to calcify or create their skeletons, but the very biological processes that animals use to live. So it's a real concern.

FLATOW: Has working on this book changed what you eat?


PRAGER: You know, I love seafood, but I really try and make wise choices. Luckily, there are a lot of organizations out there now, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute, that put out good lists of what seafood are well managed, what seafood we think or fish are able to be managed sustainably. And so I try to make wise choices. Every once in a while, I have to say, I slip up, but I try and be informed, and I ask when I go to a restaurant like where did they get their fish, or specifically what is it if I'm not sure.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if folks - they do have questions. Mary in Boulder. Hi, Mary. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Turn your radio down, please.



MARY: Yeah. You're not in sync with the - your show on the radio. My question was...

FLATOW: Mary? Oh no. She must have pressed - you know, if you have cell phone, you press it to your cheek, it turns it off sometimes. Sorry, we'll try to - she wanted to know what about the shrimp from the Gulf, the residue, is it safe to eat the shrimp in the Gulf?

PRAGER: Well, according to all the reports, it is safe. I haven't seen any reports of there being any sort of residue from the oil spill in shrimp, so I think we have to assume it is.

FLATOW: Let's talk - an interesting - another interesting sea creature in your book is the lobster, and you say in your book that there's a lot of peeing...


FLATOW: ...going on in the lobster world.

PRAGER: Yes. It's amazing. And again, this is one of those things that was just fascinating. It turns out when two American lobsters - we know them as the Maine lobsters with the big claws - meet, pee matters. The two males when they meet, they basically battle for hierarchy over the best lairs or dens. And to do this, they sort of shoot each other with pee. I like to say they get kind of pissed off.


PRAGER: And...

FLATOW: I'm glad you said it.


PRAGER: I couldn't resist.

FLATOW: That's good...

PRAGER: But what's also interesting is that when the female Maine lobster approaches the male, she also shoots a stream of urine, and instead of inciting aggression, it's like love potion number nine. And she seduces him with her pee, and we think that it may contain pheromones. So urine is in fact very important, and lobsters are very - they have a very sensitive sense of what we say smell, or they can detect chemicals in the ocean. And again, when I'm talking about sort of surprising things, scientists are studying their incredible sense of smell, this ability to detect chemicals, for biotechnology. So it's not just this wacky pee story. It actually has real application for humankind.

FLATOW: Interesting. 1-800-989-8255. Jim in Janesville, Wisconsin. Hi, Jim.

JIM: How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

JIM: Yeah. I saw and read an article recently due to the pressures of finding food, seafood for MacDonald's Filet-O-Fish, that they had turned to the hagfish as a substitute product in their sandwiches.

FLATOW: Hmm. Know anything about that? No?

PRAGER: No. But I - it's highly unlikely because the hagfish is not going to give you one of the beautiful filets. You know, they usually use like a fish like pollock for those filleted fish, kind of, sandwiches. I find it highly unlikely. I mean, hagfish is actually eaten in Asia and they actually - think of a - it's kind of - it doesn't sound very appetizing to me - but think of an eel sort of skewered on a stick and roasted.



FLATOW: Well...

PRAGER: But I don't - I can't really - I mean, you will not get the same kind of filet that you would get from something like a pollock.

FLATOW: Why is it so slimy? Why - what...

PRAGER: Well, the slime is actually a defensive mechanism. They - when something approaches them, a potential predator or they get hurt, it's a defensive mechanism, and they release the slime to facilitate escape. What's interesting about the slime is that they actually have - they release mucus and these bundles of - this - a threads - their cells are bundles of threads that untangle. And the slime actually is created as the mucus and threads absorb seawater and that creates the slime.

Interestingly enough, there's also a scientist looking at hagfish slime to create sort of a biodegradable equivalent of spider silk or Kevlar. So you might be wearing clothes of artificial slime one day.

FLATOW: You know, you always hear that scientists are looking at snails for the slime on their snails, you know, they coat things - at least the terrestrial ones do. And also they're all looking at barnacles and other sea creatures who have an incredible ability to stick to other things. How do they do that, you know? Maybe we can imitate some of that stuff.

PRAGER: Well, that's right. Exactly. I mean, you think about it after, you know, billions of years, hundreds of millions of years, nature has really perfected some of this. And I think we're starting to learn that we can learn a lot from these biological processes or systems and apply them to technology.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there one sea creature you wanted to learn more about or find that you couldn't?

PRAGER: Let's see. You know, I don't think there was one that I want to learn more about, but I will say I have become incredibly enamored by beluga whales. Just learning about them and seeing them, I'm utterly fascinated by them, would love to learn more about them. One of the really cool things about belugas is that - you know, most people know that whales and dolphins echolocate by emitting a pulse of sound from their melon or their head that they - it's like sonar almost. But the beluga can change the shape of its head, so it can actually target that pulse of sound or echolocating beam. So they actually think it might even be able to target and bounce off ice floes and see around corners.

FLATOW: Right. Yeah.

PRAGER: So, fascinating.

FLATOW: We're going to have a little thing on whales, right after we say goodbye to you, which has to be in a few minutes. But Flora Lichtman will come in and we have actually a video on whales. You might be interested.

PRAGER: Oh, that's wonderful.

FLATOW: Yeah. So where do you go from here? Are you going to go back and write more about these sea creatures?

PRAGER: You know, I don't know. I'm not sure. I - for me, I'm very interested in, how do we engage a broader public in learning about the oceans, the importance of marine life, not just for the ocean itself but for humankind and do it in a way that's entertaining? So, you know, I dabble with a little bit of fiction and trying to marry some of these sea creatures and issues with fiction. I'm not sure what's next.

FLATOW: So you do agree then, and I understand this, that to inspire people to protect the oceans and live in it, they have to feel comfortable about it. And your way of presenting it is in this manner, that they're familiar with.

PRAGER: Well, thank you. Thank you. They have to feel comfortable, and I think they have to connect it to the things they care about. You know, some people are going to love the ocean because they love whales and dolphins and they scuba dive.

FLATOW: Right.

PRAGER: But some people just don't feel that connection and I really wanted them to understand to understand the connections to things that everybody cares about, like food, jobs, the economy, human health. So I really appreciate that.

FLATOW: And your work at the Aquarius Reef Base in the Keys, was that - that must have been a lot of fun.

PRAGER: It was. You know, there's nothing quite like - I actually have had two opportunities to live underwater for two weeks at a time, and you get to see things and experience the ocean and coral reefs in a way that is just otherwise impossible. So, you know, it is a fantastic program. Like everything else in these budget times, I'm not sure how much longer it will be in existence. But I feel very fortunate to have been involved with them for several years.

FLATOW: Is that the one with like, there's a hotel underwater, like an apartment?

PRAGER: Well, no. There's actually an actual hotel in a little, kind of, lagoon. This is a more sophisticated undersea habitat where scientists go live underwater to study coral reefs. Astronauts actually go to train, because living underwater is as close as you can get to living in space. And the Navy trains its divers there. So it's a little more sophisticated than the underwater hotel.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us, and good luck to you. And, you know, this book is certainly enjoyable and a lot of fun to read. And I commend you for being able to combine the knowledge and the comedy at the same time. Good luck to you.

PRAGER: Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate that.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Talking with Ellen Prager, author of "Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime" - I never thought you'd see those three words together...


FLATOW: one sentence - "The Ocean's Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter." And we're going to take a little break and come back and talk with Flora Lichtman.

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