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George Washington’s Favorite Parasite

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If you shuck and eat a lot of oysters, you might eventually come across a tiny crab hanging out inside one. It could be a pea crab. It could be an oyster crab. Either way, it’s a parasite that lives off of little bits of food that its oyster host filters into its shell. I’ve found a few of these little critters myself and tossed them aside, not realizing what they were. Thanks to science writer Carl Zimmer, I now know that I’ve been throwing away a delicacy with a long history in American cuisine. 

Finding a sizable parasite in your meal—or in your mouth after slurping back an oyster on the half-shelf—might turn you off to seafood, but oyster crabs have long been a highly prized treat for some eaters. In 1913, the New York Times called them “as dainty a morsel as the gourmet can have at any price.” The Times also mentions that one diner found out the hard way that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. When he discovered one of these crabs in his oyster stew at a restaurant, he sent it back to the kitchen to be replaced by steak and onions. He was laughed at by his waiter and called a “hayseed” for not realizing the treat he had found. 

I guess that makes me a hayseed, too, but I’m going to try and change my ways and cook up the next oyster crab that comes my way. I don’t know that I’ll go as far as to build an entire dish around them, though, as 300 Ways to Cook and Serve Shellfish suggested in 1901. Among the cookbook’s recipes are an omelette loaded with 25 to 40 of the little crabs, and something called Canopy a la Lorenzo, which calls for 50 oyster crabs, a quarter of a truffle, chicken and crab meat and a cream sauce to be cooked, cooled, molded into a bell shape and then cooked again on top of a large crouton. 

That dish sounds like it would have been right up George Washington’s alley. The first president was a well known fan of the oyster crab, and Wonders and Food Luxuries of the Sea mentions that an “extraordinary effort was made to procure a half pint of these for his repast, to his great surprise and delight” by a female admirer who hosted him for dinner. Author Alan Davidson, in North Atlantic Seafood, also says that the president so enjoyed them in his oyster stews that they were sometimes known as “Washington crabs.”

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Animals
Goldfish Can Get Depressed, Too
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Don’t believe what Pixar is trying to sell you: Fish are not exactly brimming with personality. In aquariums, they tend to swim in circles, sucking up fragments of food and ducking around miniature treasure chests. To a layperson, fish don’t appear to possess concepts of happy, or sad, or anything in between—they just seem to exist.

This, researchers say, is not quite accurate. Speaking with The New York Times, Julian Pittman, a professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Troy University, says that fish not only suffer from depression, they can be easily diagnosed. Zebrafish dropped into a new tank who linger at the bottom are probably sad; those who enthusiastically explore the upper half are not.

In Pittman’s studies, fish depression can be induced by getting them “drunk” on ethanol, then cutting off the supply, resulting in withdrawal. These fish mope around the tank floor until they’re given antidepressants, at which point they begin happily swimming near the surface again.

It’s impossible to correlate fish depression with that of a human, but Pittman believes the symptoms in fish—losing interest in exploring and eating—makes them viable candidates for exploring neuroscience and perhaps drawing conclusions that will be beneficial in the land-dwelling population.

In the meantime, you can help ward off fish blues by keeping them busy—having obstacles to swim through and intriguing areas of a tank to explore. Just like humans, staying active and engaged can boost their mental health.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Animals
The Shocking Science of Electric Fish
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Like slippery Pokemon, electric eels can produce shocks strong enough to incapacitate large predators. But where do these electric fish get the power to generate such high-voltage attacks?

In a recent video, TED-Ed explains the volatile biology at play. Electric fish like electric eels (which are more closely related to catfish than actual eels) all contain at least one electric organ. This organ is packed with disc-shaped cells called electrocytes. These cells naturally release sodium and potassium ions which create a positive charge inside the cells and a negative charge outside them. But when electric fish send signals from their brains to these organs, it opens up the cells' ion channels, allowing the ions to re-enter. The result is an electrocyte with a positive interior and a negative exterior on one side and a negative interior and a positive exterior on the other—basically a biological battery. Once these cells are charged up, fish can use them to disrupt nearby electric signals, detect other fish, and even paralyze prey.

Fish aren’t the only animals that use electricity to their advantage. The oriental hornet, for example, makes electricity out of sunlight, while some spiders harvest charged particles by coating their webs in electrostatic glue.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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