KIRKUS REVIEW / Don’t Mess With Me: The Strange Lives of Venomous Sea Creatures

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Kirkus Review

Author: Paul Erickson

Photographer: Andrew Martinez

Publisher: Tilbury House                                       

Pages: 48

Price ( Hardcover ): $17.95                                  

Publication Date: December 4, 2018

ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-88448-551-3             

Category: Informational

Series: How Nature Works

A sampling of the more than 12,000 varieties of stinging creatures that live in the ocean. Striking photographs and informative text introduce venomous ocean-dwellers in six different phyla: cnidarians, mollusks, annelids, arthropods, echinoderms, and chordates. This organization by increasing complexity is what’s used in the bulk of the text and in the backmatter, which offers fast facts about the 28 different species described in this tempting title.

After opening with a description of an iconic example—the greater blue-ringed octopus, whose bite can kill a person—Erickson clears up the usual confusion between “poisonous” and “venomous” and presents a detailed explanation of how anemones, sea jellies, and coral can sting.

He goes on, now following the phylum order, to introduce a variety of other sea creatures including bloodworms, the blind remipede (the first known venomous crustacean), the crown of thorns sea star, the bluespotted stingray, the reef stonefish, and the lionfish. Most spreads include a boxed text headed “How Nature Works,” which may describe open scientific questions, settled theories, or applications.

Erickson doesn’t pander to his readers: He uses appropriate terminology. Martinez’s clearly captioned photographs show the creatures in their habitats; there are also diagrams and microscope images. Colorful pages and varied design add interest. Though the text in this entry in an admirable series may be challenging for young readers, the subject has guaranteed kid appeal. (timeline, further resources, glossary) (Nonfiction 9-14).

The Pier at the End of the World Illustration Technique

pier-wall-master6-9-14flatsm1000From time to time, I’m asked about the painting technique I used for the illustrations in my book The Pier at the End of the World, published by Tilbury House.

Regarding equipment, I used a combination of airbrush—my Iwata HP-C, my standard  workhorse—and a large assortment of watercolor brushes. Since I’m a scuba diver, I hook my airbrush hose to a scuba tank via a custom-made pressure control adapter. That way, I don’t have purchase and maintain an air compressor, although there are some great, quiet compressors on the market.

Regarding paint, for The Pier illustrations I used Holbein Acryla Gouache, which is neither traditional gouache nor acrylic. Instead it’s a special recipe Holbein has developed, which turns out to be very airbrush friendly because they grind their pigment so fine. Holbein products are on the expensive side, but their colors are brilliant, and I’ve always found them to be well worth the price—especially for small, detailed paintings. Again, although it’s called gouache, it’s really nothing like traditional gouache, except that it is opaque and cleans up with water.

For this wide angle sea creature composite I did about 30 separate paintings and turned each one of them into a Photoshop layer. That way I could independently stack the subjects against a large background (the big wall with pink algae), digitally adjust color as needed, and also play with the positioning of each object up until the book designer’s deadline.

Thanks for asking about the illustrations in my book.

Lessons From Nature: Fear


Maybe it started with the advent of the 24-hour news station and the never-ending  bombardment of horrific news from every corner of our shrinking planet.

Or is the constant pelting of stories about aberrations—the relatively few violent, criminal acts—covered by local new stations. How often do you see news anchors lead with a story celebrating one of the millions of acts of kindness and compassion occurring all around us all the time?

Whatever the origin, many people are unnecessarily scared and therefore easily manipulated by those who capitalize on fear-filled fantasies. (I try to remind myself that far more Americans are killed by bathroom accidents and other household mishaps than incidents categorized as terrorism.)

For me, when it comes to distinguishing well-founded fear from that which is overblown, usually for profit, it helps to recall a grey reef shark, or simply, with all due respect to space aliens, “a grey.”

In most parts of the Indo-Pacific, where this species of shark is a common resident around reefs, greys are not likely  to bother you. In fact, they can be hard to approach without having them swim off into the blue.

Yet, that assumes: 1. You don’t pester for-some-unknown-reason-aggressive grey reef sharks patrolling Eniwetok Atoll, for example. 2. The absence of bait or an injured fish that can otherwise trigger true mayhem with a ferocious gnashing of lethal razor-like teeth.

Back to the point, several years ago I was in the waters off Fiji, drift-diving through a lagoon at a depth of 90 feet, when I temporarily diverted my path to photograph an especially beefy grey reef shark.

As I slowly approached the grey, I soon realized that it was going to hold its ground. Then, with an eye fixed on my camera viewfinder, I drifted within about ten to twelve feet of my carnivorous subject. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself. “I wonder how close can I get to this beauty without upsetting its peaceful pose?”

That was when electrical signals welling up from my brain’s amygdala basically told me, “Don’t be an idiot. You’re a long way from a hospital. Stay right where you are.”

The fear was clean, rational, smart, useful. I would not approach the shark any closer, even if it meant getting the fuzzy photo (posted today) instead of the sharp shot I had hoped for.

After snapping the picture, I backed off and continued on my placid drift dive with a renewed respect for fear grounded not in fantasy but in fact. Beyond that, being basically a chicken, I succeeded in not exiting the human gene pool with a Darwin-Award-For-Stupid-Behavior.


Nature, Freedom & Wellness


Most of us have experienced the calming, rejuvenating feelings of freedom and well-being associated with visiting a wilderness area. So, when you find yourself immersed in nature—a forest, a canyon, a river, a tropical island, a garden—do you make a little promise to yourself to expand and cultivate this feeling in your future?

Perhaps this kind of longing for a permanent vacation is one way your intuition is telling you that nature can be a healthy force in your life.

This universal, intuitive feeling about nature and health is now being validated with scientific research.

So far, the most influential paper I’ve read on the subject is by Ming Kuo, in the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The paper’s title is: How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. It was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, 25 August, 2015.

“The range of specific health outcomes tied to nature is startling,” says Kuo. Specifically she mentions healthy outcomes pertaining to depression & anxiety disorders, diabetes mellitus, ADHD, cardiovascular disease and many more physical and psychological conditions. She goes on to hypothesize that many secondary, or downstream, health benefits may be the result of healthier immune systems.

Check out Ming’s writings. That’s my advice.



After the Rain


This gallery contains 4 photos.

Hi everyone. Paul Erickson, here. In New England, we’ve had  a long spell of rainy weather—what the weather casters call “raw and dreary.” What photographers know so well, however, is that a gray-drearly landscape can offer spectacular and exciting opportunities to capture images … Continue reading

Flash Dance

Recently, we filmed this flamboyant cuttlefish Metasepia pfefferi while scuba diving in the southern Philippines. This cephalopod’s neuromuscular system can instantly control the expansion or contraction of thousands of individual color cells called chromatophores. As a result, it is able to flash waves of color across its body like a digital video screen in Times Square. 

The Hermit Crab’s Mobile Home

More than 65 million years ago, the hermit crab, which is more closely related to certain kinds of lobsters than “true” crabs like the blue crab, basically invented the mobile home. Using its soft, spiral tail, it will quickly back into empty snail shells or even small bottles it finds on the ocean floor.

Why has this way of life been so successful for hermit crabs?

No one is sure, but here’s one guess:

Although many predators, including fish with strong molar-like teeth, can bite into a more conventional crab (Yum! Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside), a hungry predator needs some serious jaw strength to crush a snail shell. A periwinkle shell, for example, provides an incredibly strong house and home, engineered into a roughly spherical, spiral form that withstands structural stress.

Perhaps the hermit crab saves metabolic energy by avoiding the need to build a shell around its tail-like abdomen.

Fish Magic

This video footage, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its Ohio River mussel research team, shows a female freshwater mussel’s lure—an outgrowth of the mussel’s fleshy tissue.

This remarkable adaptation, which mimics a live minnow—complete with false eyespots—attracts hungry or just plain curious fish.

When a fish approaches the “minnow,” the mussel releases a cloud of microscopic larvae, which attach to the fish’s gills and fins. Each larvae resembles a miniature “Pac Man” character.

When the fish moves on, it basically becomes a distribution system for young, developing, hitchhiking mussels, which eventually fall off their swimming host.

Each species of mussel relies on as few as one species of fish as its distributor.

North America holds the world’s greatest diversity of freshwater mussels. Most mussel species are threatened, endangered, or extinct because of freshwater habitat destruction, dam construction, and invasive species such as the zebra mussel.

Biologists at the Ohio River National Wildlife Refuge (West Virginia) and the Genoa National Fish Hatchery (Wisconsin)  are working to restore mussel populations and rehabilitate the mollusks’ freshwater river habitats.

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Cirque de Skeleton Shrimp

Please enjoy this video of caprellid shrimp, performing their acrobatics under a wharf along Boston’s North Shore. © 2015 by Paul Erickson 978-979-0029

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