Sunday, January 24, 2010

Popular Culture Meets Science ~ Sherman’s Lagoon

Blessed are the humorists with a sense of science, and the scientists with a sense of humor.

Last November, a group of scientists of the sense of humor persuasion, brought out a paper with the deceptively unfunny title of “Philopatry and Migration of Pacific White Sharks” (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published online on November 4, 2009). (Philopatry is the tendency of an animal to stick around, or come back to, its place of birth or a home area.) The paper presented data on the migration of white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) in the northeastern Pacific (NEP) garnered from a multi-year study of electronically tagged sharks. The scientists learned that the NEP group of sharks follows a very predictable migratory pattern, traveling back and forth between the California coast and the Hawaiian islands, congregating at different times in three main areas – the North America continental shelf waters off the California coast, the offshore waters of the Hawaiian archipelago, and an area roughly in between (well to the west of the Baja California peninsula).

There’s an interesting evolutionary subtext to this research. White sharks are ocean going, or pelagic, capable of moving throughout the world’s oceans. Yet, large groups of white sharks follow sufficiently distinctive migratory patterns such that there are three principal concentrations of white sharks – a population in South African waters, one in the waters of Australia and New Zealand, and the NEP population – differing genetically from each other.

So, where’s the humor?

Well, Salvador Jorgensen and his co-authors, dubbed that area in between the North America shelf waters and Hawaii the white shark Café because that’s a place where the white sharks gather either to dine or hook up, or both. (Okay, Jorgensen et al. didn’t use those precise words, instead suggesting that possible reasons for the Café are “foraging and mating.” Same difference.)

When cartoonist Gary Larson retired and took The Far Side with him, we lost the single best source of humor drawing from science. Gone from my newspaper’s comic pages was that modest rectangle filled with surprisingly subtle line drawings, among whose targets were our pre- and misconceptions, as well as those screwy lab-coated scientists who could abandon their formula-covered blackboard to chase the ice cream truck. Yet, even as scientists got gored, Larson often called on readers to bring some scientific literacy to the breakfast table, along with their bowls of cereal and milk. As Michael Cavna in Comic Riffs, his blog on comics that runs on the Washington Post website, commented in late 2008, “Gary Larson did not invent the animal/science cartoon. But he sure came to own it.” Amen.

So, it has been great fun to find Jim Toomey doing a science bit in his wonderful comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon. The thematically-linked sequence of strips currently running has Sherman, that lovable though dimwitted white shark, packing his bags as he and his wife Megan make preparations for hitting the “White Shark Café.” (The first in the series involving the Café ran on the 21st of January – the link to the Washington Post’s website with that strip is here.)

Of course, the strip reeks with innuendo about what’s actually going to happen at the Café. Here’s the exchange from one strip (January 22nd):

Fillmore, the sea turtle: I heard you’re going to the “White Shark Café.”
Sherman: Yep.
Fillmore: Isn’t that the remote spot where great white sharks congregate for no apparent reason?
Sherman: Oh, there’s a reason, all right.
Fillmore: Enlighten me.
At which point, Sherman blinds him with a flashlight.
Fillmore: Not with a flashlight!
Sherman: Make up your mind.

Okay, it’s not heart- and breath-stopping humor, but it will do because it’s got some science underlying it. I’ve missed that.

And, by the way, given the evidence of their sense of humor, I suspect that, if Jorgensen and his band of scientists could have conclusively shown that the area of congregation is primarily a place for pairing off, they would have come up with a different name for it, perhaps The High School Dance. As the authors observed of the females who visit the area, “[I]n contrast with males, [the females] were dispersed over a broader spatial domain, moving in and out of where males converged, rather than remaining there.”

In other words, the boys stake out an area at the back of the gym.

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