Tidal Pool Rules: A Guest Post by Jeff VanderMeer (The Southern Reach Trilogy)


Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy omnibus (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) is out today from FSG, and to celebrate, I’ve got a very special guest post from author Jeff VanderMeer, with comments throughout (in purple) by Jarrett Byrnes, assistant professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. How cool is that? Can you tell that I’m thrilled to share this with you? You’ll certainly never look at tidal pools in quite the same way again, and of course, if you haven’t experienced this phenomenal trilogy, you can now get it all in one gorgeous volume (and it’s perfect for gift giving too.)


(with apologies to John Le Carre and his “Moscow Rules”)
by Jeff VanderMeer

areax2Between Fiji, Florida, and a more-recently discovered love for the coasts of California and Vancouver Island***Come to Maine! Amazing tidepools. Also, there’s an old Swedish saying in Ecology that you can understand the entire world through a rock pool. Or so say my Swedish marine ecologist friends. Who study rock pools.*** I’ve encountered a lot of tidal pools. I even at one point wanted to be a marine biologist before I became a writer , but that wasn’t for me because I discovered I was less interested in the science than in spending time peering into tidal pools.***Funny, I was in theater before I became a marine biologist!***

You’ll find a fair number of tidal pools in the Southern Reach trilogy, [where they’re a microcosm of the natural world but also at times metaphorical]***And vice-versa***even, in the biologist’s case, the site of a pivotal moment in her life. Of course, all of Area X, that pristine but mysterious wilderness documented in the novels, could be thought of as a kind of tidal pool…with something looking in. (Think you know how many tidal pools can be found in the trilogy? You might surprised; a few are disguised.)

Here are seven tips for surviving in tidal pools, which might also be of use on some level if you ever find yourself in Area X. I’ve had them vetted by a marine biologist (see Jarrett’s comments in purple.)

    • 1—Stay Still. Speed kills in all but large tidal pools (sometimes called oceans), because there’s simply nowhere to go. Racing from one end to the other of a saltwater puddle while a Great Blue Heron looks on is not the best evolutionary strategy. However, if you can reduce all motion to zero for long stretches of time, predators may not even be aware of your presence. Of course, it also helps if you can…
    • 2—Be Small. “Only the large and clumsy die young” is a motto often attributed to an anonymous sunfish but probably first expressed by Zeno the Phorus Snail through a series of laboriously-built shell designs. (By small, we do not mean tardiegrade-tiny, because that is a whole other world, with its own challenges.) Although staying still can be of use, in tandem with being small, your chances at survival begin to uptick and then to soar—especially if you can …
    • 3—Bring the right camouflage. Because predators are always evolving better tracking methods***Or are predators evolving better tracking methods because their prey are so darned clever. If they didn’t get better at tracking, they might die of starvation! It’s just as hard to be a predator and not perish of hunger!*** , prey has had to disguise itself as rocks, plants, or even other species, some known to be poisonous (see # 6 below). Camouflage is invaluable to prey that wants to play predator too, because there’s always an organism below you on the food chain that you can trick into thinking you’re a rock. The motto “You must be still to kill or avoid being killed” may apply. (See item #1 above.)
    • 4—Know good hiding places. If you are a blob of some kind—whether vert or invert—this advice may be useless to you. Blobs tend to drift or trawl or at the very least cannot insert themselves into cracks, crevices, and grottos with the same ease as slender crabs, for example. Still, no matter what your shape, always look for the opportunity to further de-emphasize your presence even if you’ve got a good handle on be still, be small, and bring the right camouflage.
  • 5—Become a symbiote or a parasite. Symbiosis may get all the good press, but being a parasite isn’t terrible work either, if you can get it. Either way, you’re looking for the kind of relationship where you’re not exposed in a tidal pool—subbing in for a fish tongue is a juicy gig, for example. In deciding between symbiosis or parasitism, remember that, for whatever reason, symbiosis always seems fairly straightforward, like the link between sunfish and the albatross (no, not like that). Whereas parasites seem committed to convoluted processes that require a much more strenuous work ethic.***Actually, it’s far more flexible. Sure, we think of Parasites with a capital P with crazy highly evolved structures and life histories. But whether something is engaged in a symbiosis or a parasitic relationship is a matter of opinion – or at least, a matter of context. My favorite example is a cyanobacteria that lives on the shells of mussels in California. It eats away at their peristricum slowly…slowly… It makes them brittle and prone to breaking while it eats away happily. A truly parasitic relationship…until it gets hot. When it gets very hot out at low tide, all of the healthy black mussels with their matte black shells, scornfully looking on at their parasitized neighbors, up and die from heat exhaustion. Because the other mussels no longer have a black finish, and instead their silvery nacre is exposed, they reflect sunlight, and live to spawn another day. Hence, what was once a parasitic relationship in cool weather becomes symbiotic when hot (and, things are getting a good bit hotter). It’s a delicate dance, and knowing whether to tango or cha-cha in a tide pool can be a matter of life or death.***
  • 6—Be poisonous. Being poisonous might make you part of the dreaded 1%, but you can’t help it You’re glamorous but deadly; you don’t have to be small or serve some other master. Not for you the drab life of epic stillness or camouflage—you can be flamboyant and strut your stuff because every organism out there knows that within .006 seconds of taking a bite out of you they’ll be food for the other fishes. So what if that’s a kind of lonely life***It may not be so lonely! Be poisonous…or have friends who are poisonous is a good mantra! For example, one need only look at clownfish (aka anemoneafish) who hang out inside the fronds of stinging anemoneas. Or, my favorite example, phoronids in the mudflats of California who have a nasty poisonous feeding structure (it makes fish puke) create a habitat under which all manner of tasty works and clams can live happily precisely because no crab is going to burrow in and try and eat them, given the risk of horking up their meal. *** —you’ve got plenty of other poisonous tidal pool friends to talk to…from a distance.
  • 7—Develop ability to regenerate body parts. Failing at 1—6 need not be fatal to your particular evolutionary path within a tidal-pool environment. Like some starfish, just learn how to regenerate an arm and you can sustain injuries fatal for other species and provide food for other animals multiple times and laugh (or wince) it off. The key here is to take the long view and don’t let it get to you. Easier said than done, I know, especially since that starfish stump really itches while it’s re-growing. ***You’re missing another crucial pathway for survival in a tidal pool! Be able to live off of the excrement of others! I refer here mainly to algae. Tidal pools are amazing places, as when the tide recedes, there is no inlet to fresh nutrient rich waters. So, if you’re an alga and you are cut-off for too long, you can starve and die. However, that mussel right next to you that is showering you in its urine? It’s your best friend, as you feed off of the new nitrogen. Some algae even live right on the open lips of the mussel so that they can sup straight from the source. Still other Some species, such as Cladophora columbiana, have evolved a form that is like a tuffy scub-pad. Why? Well, all of that space between their wiry filaments is the perfect home for a myriad of small invertebrates who poop all over the alga, and hence keep it fed. ***


So there you have it—survival tips for rough-and-tumble life in tidal pools. Possibly applicable to wider life in the modern world…or not.

Coda: Speaking of tidal pools, earlier this year I tried to repatriate a copy of Annihilation. Return to your natural environment, said I. But, after several failed attempts, it turns out Annihilation floats. It also turns out that if you’re observed trying to drown your own book in a tidal pool, the local park ranger will pepper you with a lot of pointed questions.

I’m sure the denizens of this tidal pool will remember the day the giant pushed Annihilation at them, but I can assure you that no smalls, stills, incognitos, symbiotes, parasites, deadlies, or regenerators were hurt in pursuit of that photo.

Jarrett Byrnes is an assistant professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. These days, he typically inhabits undersea kelp forests. He has been known to hang about in tide pools, gardening algae until waves attempt to sweep him away. Many of his thoughts on tidepools were informed by his time working with wonderful scientists like Jay Stachowicz at UC Davis, Pamela Reynolds (also at Davis), Chris Harley at University of British Columbia, and Matt Bracken at UC Irvine. He also has a deep love of sea squirts, despite not wishing to absorb his own spinal cord. Usually.

One Comment:

  1. What a fantastic post! Leave it to Speculative Fiction (Southern Reach and Species Imperative trilogy) to get me hooked on biology.

    i’m happy to hear no small critters were harmed in the making of this post, but it looks like a copy of Annihilation was harmed. 😉

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