I love coral reefs for being exotic, amazingly diverse and often venomous. Maybe it’s because I’m small and I respect small creatures that can build big beautiful things, but I feel like I relate to corals – arguably one of the least relatable animals – on a very deep level. That’s partly why I care so much about their demise. Corals are so sensitive that the slightest change to the temperature or chemistry of the seawater that surrounds them can cause total devastation through coral bleaching, death and reef erosion. Without our help to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and over-fishing, scientists agree that reefs may cease to function as ecological cradles for marine life by the end of this century. Are coral reefs doomed to fade into oblivion or will we allow them to recover and regain their vibrancy?
I hope that the idea of one small person creating such huge, intricately detailed ceramic sculptural installations causes viewers to realize just how important reefs are to me, and to become curious enough to learn more about how the ocean is important to them. I also secretly enjoy feeling like a coral, patiently and methodically constructing large, delicate, stony structures that can change an ecosystem. I use simple tools like chopsticks and paint brushes to sculpt and texture each piece by hand – often poking thousands of holes to mimic the repetitive growth of coral colonies. Individual coral polyps precipitate calcium carbonate from seawater to form stony skeletons that, over time, grow atop one another to compose the vast, complex structures we know as reefs. It therefore feels essential that the medium of my work be ceramic, as calcium carbonate also happens to be a common ingredient in clay and glaze materials. Not only does the chemical structure of my work parallel that of a natural reef, but brittle ceramic anemone tentacles and coral branches break easily if improperly handled, similar to the delicate bodies of living reef organisms.
– Courtney Mattison, Artists Statement
The scyphomedusa Deepstaria is certainly odd, with its bag-like appearance, and bell that can open more than a meter wide. Speculation on the identity of a mystery blob has become a YouTube sensation, sparking heated and entertaining debates over its identity. That video of Deepstaria reticulum (described by Larson, et al., in 1988) looks especially unusual because the medusa is being blown around by the thrusters of the Remotely Operated Vehicle, and eventually turns completely inside-out.
2.78 kilometers (1.7 miles) underneath the surface of the Indian Ocean, hydrothermal vents are spewing out water around 350°C (660°F). Even in these extreme conditions, diversity is abundant for those lifeforms which have adapted to the seemingly inhospitable ecosystem. One of the wackiest and most impressive creatures from this particular area is the scaly-foot gastropod (Crysomallon squamiferum), a snail with a shell of iron and plates of chainmail covering its otherwise squishy foot. This is the only animal in the world with a skeleton made of iron: two types, pyrite and greigite,* encrust scales of conchiolin – a hard, horn-like substance that coats the shell and parts of the foot.
The complete functionality of armor and scales is not entirely clear – it’s possible they exist for protection against predators. Another hypothesis suggests that bacteria living on the exterior of the snail assist in detoxifying the noxious sulfides ejected from the ‘black smoker’ vents, resulting in the growth of the iron sulfide armor. In addition to this just being awesome on its own, researchers at MIT are curious to know if the snail’s design could help inspire other types of armor.
Additionally, the snails are just massive, considering their environment. Food sources are scarce down there, but these guys don’t even need to eat – they get all of their energy through a process of chemosynthesis, in which the bacteria living in their guts produce the nutrients required for sustained life. As a result, these snails are about three times the size of other hydrothermal vent snails.