Are you big in Japan?

September 13, 2023 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Or perhaps, a better question, are you small in Japan? Japanese artists and technology are known for their skill in the production of miniatures and portable electronics, and small things feature prominently in both domestic material culture and in what is aimed at visitors. I’ve visited Japan only once, but my daughter lived there for a couple of years, and this summer, she, her husband, and my wife visited again, and brought me back a wonderful selection of small things that are big in Japan.

Here’s the haul, all spread out on a Yomiuri Giants face towel.

Finely detailed plastic animal miniatures are readily available in Japan. This saltwater crocodile came with an information card, in both Japanese and English.

Saltwater crocs are not found in Japan; they occur further south, in the tropics. One of my favorite Japanese animals occurs only in the far southern subtropics of Japan, the Iriomote cat, found only on the small island of Iriomote in the Ryukyus.

This frog is slightly less detailed, but it’s meant to be put on a pen or other narrow diameter object, so that created some design constraints. Nonetheless, note that it is portrayed with paired vocal sacs, while others in the series have the appropriate kind of vocal sacs as well.

I could not, however, identify the species from the miniature. Perhaps a reader who knows Japanese can let us know what its label says.

The next two are stickers, not of Japanese species, but of species popular in the pet trade, both in Japan and America. The bearded dragon below is originally Australian, but is now bred for the pet trade.

The red-eared slider, from the southern U.S., has become established in Japan, and features in Japanese material culture more prominently than native species. I saw them during my visit to Japan.

Japan seems full of vending machines of all sorts, and one kind vends small plastic animals in plastic containers. This whimsical frilled lizard has an Elizabethan collar for a frill. The booklet accompanying it shows that there are five different frilled lizards, all with whimsical collars (including a “cone of shame”), so you have to keep buying till you get ’em all! This one was a gift from a colleague at the Field Museum, who also visited Japan during the past year.

From a whimsical lizard we pass on to legendary animals. These shisa— guardian lions or lion-dogs– were brought back from Okinawa by my daughter several years ago.

Japanese miniatures can be incorporated into foodstuffs– note the pokemon faces on these snacks.

Japan is well known for making quality pens, both for every day use and special occasions. My favorite item is this fine, high quality pen, which features a miniature natural landscape that incorporates several traditional Japanese thematic elements. Note the exquisite detail of the cranes flying over the river below Mt. Fuji.

Finally, the towel on which they were all spread. The name on the towel is Kobayashi Seiji, the Giants’ catcher. My wife didn’t know which player’s towel she was getting. Given that my whole family are great Star Trek fans, it was karmically satisfying that the player’s surname was Kobayashi.

Shuri Castle severely damaged by fire

November 1, 2019 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Regular readers of WEIT may recall that I have posted a few times about Okinawa, including pictures from a visit I made there in 2017.  One of the places I visited was Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom for 450 years, from 1429-1879. Tragically, much of the Castle burned down yesterday, in a fire whose origin is not yet known. Here’s video from the South China Morning Post.

The Castle had stone walls and foundations, but its buildings were largely made of wood, thus making it vulnerable to fire. Here’s what it looked like after the fire.

Shuri Castle, Okinawa, after the fire, 1 October 2019. NY Times.

I first heard of the fire from my daughter (who lived on Okinawa for two years), and I was actually somewhat relieved by seeing this photo. Although the destruction is great, it is not total. The main hall, the Seiden, is completely gone– it was a large building, and certainly the most important, at the east side (to the right in this photo) of the ‘striped’ courtyard– and the halls on its north and south flanks look badly damaged as well. But the westernmost halls, the outbuildings, and the gardens seem largely unaffected. I had feared that nothing had survived.

A view of Shuri Castle courtyard in better days, 28 May 2017.

The following picture is of a detailed model in the Castle, showing Chou-Hai-O-Ki-Shiki, a court ceremony held on New Year’s Day. The court officials are facing the Seiden, which is now completely destroyed. This model was in the Seiden, and thus is now gone.

1:25 scale model of Shuri Castle, showing Chou-Hai-O-Ki-Shiki, a court ceremony held on New Year’s Day.

The one saving grace, besides the fact that several buildings and the garden survived, is that the Castle had been destroyed by fire several times in the previous centuries, and again in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. Thus, almost all of the Castle has been restored multiple times, and, although the craftsmanship of the restoration was exquisite, much of what was lost was already a modern restoration; it can be restored again.

I am uncertain how many original artifacts may have been lost. When I visited, the following bit of pre-World War II wall was preserved and visible inside the Sedien.

Shuri Castle original stone.

It was accompanied by this explanation.

This is the throne room in the Seiden, where the King of Ryukyu would hold court.

Shuri Castle throne room.

Here are details of the decoration; note the squirrels.

The artwork above, while exactingly accurate and exquisitely beautiful, is a late 20th century restoration. The crown of the King of Ryukyu was also a replica.

Ryukyuan crown (replica).

This is one of the buildings abutting the courtyard– I believe this one survived.

A Shuri Castle guide in traditional Okinawan dress.

In addition to the main buildings and the outbuildings, the Castle had beautiful gardens, and these seem to have survived.

Gardens of Shuri Castle.

The gardens are home to habu— venomous snakes of several species found in the Ryukyus– and visitors are warned.

Habu warning sign in the gardens at Shuri Castle.

And Jerry would want to know that ducks were fairly common in the gardens– this is a Muscovy duck, a domestic species native to the Americas.

Cairina moschata near a pond at Shuri Castle, Okinawa, Japan, 28 May 2017.

The Kingdom of Ryukyu comprised Okinawa and much of the rest of the Nansei Shoto, a chain of islands extending from Kyushu towards Taiwan. For much of its history Ryukyu was an independent kingdom, owing varying degrees of allegiance or fealty to China or Japan, depending on the strength and influence of those two greater powers. The Ryukyu King received a mandate to rule from the Chinese emperor, but the Ryukyuan language is Japonic, or a dialect of Japanese, depending on who you ask. (Readers may recall the old quip that “a language is a dialect with an army”; Ryukyu never had much of an army compared to China or Japan.) The state of tension between Chinese and Japanese influence was ended in 1879, when Japan effectively annexed the islands, and the last king was exiled to Tokyo, where he became a member of the Japanese nobility, but no longer a ruler in any sense.  Shuri Castle has great cultural significance for Okinawans and Ryukyuans, and indeed, should for all Japanese; I hope both the national and prefectural governments will commit to a new restoration.

(For more on the history of the Ryukyus, see George Kerr’s Okinawa: the History of an Island People. First published in 1958, the newer Tuttle edition has an afterword by Mitsugu Sakihara which updates and extends Kerr’s work.)

Cats in Japan: Shisa

July 5, 2017 • 2:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Guardian lions” are widespread in East Asia, where each country has its own particular folklore and practice associated with the common tradition. They are especially common on Okinawa, which has its own version, called shisa.  While on mainland Japan guardian lions are associated usually with shrines, on Okinawa they are everywhere, with homes, offices, and apartment buildings all sporting a pair of guardian shisa.

Shisa guarding an office on Okinawa.

The two members of a shisa pair each have a distinct role and iconography, differentiated by their mouths. The “a”, or open-mouthed shisa, are usually said to be males. The open mouth, with its teeth bared, warns off any evil from entering the house.

An “a”, or open-mouthed shisa, usually said to be male. The open mouth, teeth-bared, warns off any evil from the house.

The “un”, or close-mouthed shisa, are usually said to be female. The closed mouth keeps good in the house. As you can see in the following photo, an “un” can be pretty toothy, with canines extending beyond its lips, so just seeing a lot of teeth does not make a shisa an “un”.

An “un”, or close-mouthed shisa, usually said to be female. The closed mouth keeps good in the house.

The posture of the shisa also varies, though each member of a pair usually has the same posture. In the first two photos we saw the sitting, half-turned, posture; in this posture there is a definite right and left shisa. There is also a more formal sitting, face forward, posture (this reminds me of the Chinese style); and a crouching, hindquarters-up, posture.

Varieties of shisa: sitting, formal; and crouching, from Yomitan Village.

The crouching shisa is a typically Okinawan design– a little less formal, colorful, and made of ceramics (which works for small ones, at least). The pair below is from Yomitan Village, a center of traditional Okinawan ceramics.

Crouching shisa from Yomitan Village, a center of traditional Okinawan ceramics. (Note the nanoblock Shinto shrine to the right.)

In Okinawa, it is common to have a shisa on the roof, as well as a pair at the gate or door. I did not see these elsewhere in Japan, and it reflects the greater abundance and visibility of shisa in Okinawa. Here’s a roof shisa at Ryukyu Mura, a reconstructed traditional village. Most of the buildings are 100 or more years old, disassembled at their original sites, then transported to, and reconstructed, at the park.

Roof shisa at Ryukyu Mura, Okinawa.

In addition to dwellings or other buildings, shisa may also stand guard at parks, such as this pair guarding a small park near the Sunabe seawall in Chatan Town.

A pair of shisa guarding a small park near the Sunabe seawall in Chatan Town, Okinawa.

The popularity of shisa in Okinawa, including among visitors, has led to a large variety of “novelty” shisa, such as this pair that accompanies drinks purchased at Sam’s by the Sea on Valentine’s Day. (The drinks are mixed inside the shisa’s mouth.)

Valentine’s Day shisa from Sam’s, Okinawa.

The pair of novelty shisa below serves as a reminder of many aspects of Okinawan culture:  awamori (rice liquor), chopsticks resting on goya (a sort of squash), sanshin (habu skin guitar), and Okinawa soba noodles (Okinawan soba noodles are a distinct style from those of mainland Japan).

Novelty shisa, with bottle of awamori (rice liquor), chopsticks resting on goya (a type of squash), sanshin (habu skin guitar), and a plate of food with presumably Okinawa soba noodles included (Okinawan soba noodles are a distinct style from those of mainland Japan).

On mainland Japan, guardian lions are much less common, and usually associated with Shinto shrines. There, they are called komainu, which means “Korea dog” (inu means ‘dog’). Some of the earliest komainu are from a part of Japan associated with Korea, and though today komainu are typical at Shinto shrines, the original connection was probably with Buddhism, which came to Japan from Korea, which may explain the name. Here is a fine example from Kashuga Shrine, in the ancient capital city of Nara on Honshu.

A large ‘a’ komainu at Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan.

There is some confusion, reflected in both English and Japanese names, regarding the inspiration for shisa. Though I’ve referred to them as guardian lions, they are sometimes called lion-dogs. There are no lions in East Asia, so sculptors relied on models (and perhaps occasional actual animals) derived from India, and the character and appearance of the guardians has become somewhat mongrelized with the features of dogs. At one apartment building in Chatan Town, however, the lion-derivation was very clear.

A shisa done as a semi-realistic male lion at an apartment complex, Chatan Town, Okinawa; its partner was also male.


Cats in Japan: Art and Culture

June 16, 2017 • 2:30 pm

JAC: Here’s the second installment of Greg’s travelogue about his recent trip to Japan. This one touches a subject dear to our hearts.


by Greg Mayer

Cats are an important element in Japanese culture. In Japan, images of cats, and, in some places, actual cats, are everywhere. While in Kyoto, we saw flyers announcing two cat based museum exhibitions, and we were able to go to one of them, at Museum ⌈EKi⌋ KYOTO, located on the seventh floor of the Isetan department store in the Kyoto train station.

Flyer for exhibit of photos by Mitsuaki Iwago at Museum [EKi] KYOTO.
The exhibit, on the cats of Kyoto, was of photographs by Mitsuaki Iwago, one of Japan’s greatest wildlife photographers, who specializes in cats (both wild and domestic). He discusses some of his earlier work in this written interview in English. The photos were presented in very large format, and organized around the theme of the four seasons. Many photos were repeat views of the same cats, often in different seasons, and often in association with people.

Reverse of flyer for exhibit of photos by Mitsuaki Iwago at Museum [EKi] KYOTO.
Iwago describes the exhibit (the translation may be imperfect) :

We look at Kyoto through cat.
We live in climate of Kyoto
If we photograph cat,
If it is difficult to approach all too soon
This capital which we should have thought of,
It became comfortable.
Their way of life
We let culture of the old no capital breathe.
Here that goes
Cat guided
Kyoto for cat

The exhibit has also been shown in Tokyo (native English version). It seemed odd to me that a department store should have a museum within it, but Museum ⌈EKi⌋ KYOTO seems to have a regular series of exhibitions, and the Tokyo exhibit also seemed to be associated with or promoted by a group of restaurants and shops (one of them a cat cafe). (I should perhaps also add that department stores in Japan provide the full service attention and amenities that disappeared in America decades ago [but still exist in the UK ,at least at Harrod’s, if James Corden is to be believed], so an in-house museum is not as big a step up for a Japanese department store as it would be for a Walmart.) Iwago has published many books, including one based on this latest exhibition. A number of his books are available in English, though not this latest one.

There was also a cat exhibit at The Museum of Kyoto, but unfortunately we were not able to get to it. The flyer shows many older images of cats, but also some modern ones, some statuary, and (on the reverse) a very interesting looking board game with a cat piece and several mouse pieces. The exhibit was entitled “Yes, We love cats anytime!” This was a substantial exhibition, of over 200 items. Do have a look at the exhibition details page, as it gives a concise summary of many aspects of cats in Japanese culture.

Flyer for exhibit “Yes, We love cats anytime!” at The Museum of Kyoto.

On the reverse of the flyer, note the Maneki-Neko statues (beckoning cats, for good luck) on the left, and the cat and mice board game on the middle right (click on the image to enlarge).

Reverse of flyer for exhibit “Yes, We love cats anytime!” at The Museum of Kyoto.

Are you big in Japan?

June 15, 2017 • 2:30 pm

Note by JAC: Greg has just returned from two weeks in Japan and will be writing us several posts about his experiences there. This one features soccer, a sport Greg plays.

by Greg Mayer

Are you big in Japan? Cristiano Ronaldo is, at least as judged by the prominence of his much-larger-than-life visage on the entrance to Soccer Shop KAMO in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Soccer Shop KAMO, Shinjuku, Tokyo.

I went in to the shop, on Koshu Kaido Avenue, a bustling commercial boulevard that separates Shinjuku from Shibuya in modern west Tokyo, during a recent visit to Japan.

Koshu Kaido Avenue, Tokyo. Note the pruned gingko trees which line the street.

The shop has multiple floors, but I only visited the first, which features jerseys and other branded merchandise, from local teams like FC Tokyo, but also clubs from around the world. Manchester United has long been known as an international brand, especially in Asia, but judging by the merchandise on display, Barcelona and Chelsea are the most popular (not Ronaldo’s Real Madrid).

Although best known for sumo and baseball, Japan is an up-and-coming power in world football, having co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Korea, and with a number of players in top European leagues. I saw some fields and players at a distance on Honshu, but on Okinawa I got to see youth and adult players up close.

A ‘futsal’ field in Shinjuku Chuo Park, as seen from the observatory atop the south tower of the Tokyo Municipal Government Building. In the U.S., futsal is the indoor game, and this would just be considered a small-sided field, but it’s called ‘futsal’ in Japan.

Especially interesting was a beach soccer team practice and scrimmage I got to watch at Araha Beach on Okinawa. Because sand is a high-friction, uneven surface, beach soccer is played largely in the air, with moving the ball off the head, chest, and thighs as important as the feet, and even passes with the foot being mostly aerial chips over defenders. This goal keeper (making a save in the photo) would receive the ball, advance it by juggling from one thigh to the other, then drop the ball from his left thigh and take a ferocious volley shot with his right foot. Because of the shorter field, this was a very productive approach for the offense, and reminded me of foosball, where the goal keeper is often the most dangerous attacking piece.

A skilled keeper making a save during practice, Araha Beach, Okinawa.

In the following short video, you can get a sense of the aerial nature of the game, as the play advances from the backfield to a shot on goal without the ball ever touching the ground.

And in this short video, you can see a player (he was one of the best) receiving a corner kick and then setting up his own bicycle kick. Bicycle kicks are very rare in regular soccer, but there were a few during this one brief scrimmage.

The fitness and skill of the players is phenomenal.

Election day diversions

November 8, 2016 • 1:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Here in the U.S. it’s election day, and Americans are going to the polls to vote (many have already cast ballots in early voting). To divert you while awaiting the results (we’re expecting them at 3:00 PM Chicago time), here are a couple of items.

First, the following photo is of identical twins. Does it look like they are? Think about it first, and then post your thoughts in the comments. I’m sure most readers will figure it out.

Identical twins.
Identical twins.

Second, my correspondent in Yokosuka, Japan, sends the following photo, and comments, “If I told you I just got a rugby playing squirrel from a vending machine in a camera store you’d think it was weird, but then remember I’m in Japan…. I especially like how the nut is the ball.”

A rugby-playing squirrel from Yokosuka, Japan.
A rugby-playing squirrel from Yokosuka, Japan.

The squirrel seems to be stretching for a try. If anyone can read the accompanying brochure, please translate it for us.  I didn’t realize rugby was well enough known in Japan to be the subject of toys, but rugby is popular in a number of places you might not associate with the sport.

An Okinawan thrush and the principles of zoogeography

March 10, 2016 • 3:15 pm

by Greg Mayer

My Okinawan correspondent sends the following photograph of an apparently window-killed bird.

Window-killed thrush, Okinawa, Japan, 8 March 2016.
Window-killed thrush, Okinawa, Japan, 8 March 2016.

I thought immediately, “a thrush”, noting the similarity in bill, body and leg shape to that of the familiar North American Robin (Turdus migratorius). I was also immediately reminded of the justly famous opening passage in Alfred Russel Wallace’s Island Life, in which, comparing the birds of Britain and Japan, he finds them remarkably similar:

WHEN an Englishman travels by the nearest sea-route from Great Britain to Northern Japan he passes by countries very unlike his own, both in aspect and natural productions. The sunny isles of the Mediterranean, the sands and date-palms of Egypt, the arid rocks of Aden, the cocoa groves of Ceylon, the tiger-haunted jungles of Malacca and Singapore, the fertile plains and volcanic peaks of Luzon, the forest-clad mountains of Formosa, and the bare hills of China, pass successively in review; till after a circuitous voyage of thirteen thousand miles he finds himself at Hakodadi in Japan. He is now separated from his starting-point by the whole width of Europe and Northern Asia, by an almost endless succession of plains and mountains, arid deserts or icy plateaux, yet when he visits the interior of the country he sees so many familiar natural objects that he can hardly help fancying he is close to his home. He finds the woods and fields tenanted by tits, hedge-sparrows, wrens, wagtails, larks, redbreasts, thrushes, buntings, and house-sparrows, some absolutely identical with our own feathered friends, others so closely resembling them that it requires a practised ornithologist to tell the difference. If he is fond of insects he notices many butterflies and a host of beetles which, though on close examination they are found to be distinct from ours, are yet of the same general aspect, and seem just what might be expected in any part of Europe. There are also of course many birds and insects which are quite new and peculiar, but these are by no means so numerous or conspicuous as to remove the general impression of a wonderful resemblance between the productions of such remote islands as Britain and Yesso.

(Perhaps inspired by Wallace, the Japanese ornithologist Masa Hachisuka once published a comparative list of the birds of Britain and Japan.) Wallace went on to contrast the remarkable similarities between the birds of these two distant archipelagos with the differences one finds when crossing the narrow strait between Bali and Lombok:

In the Malay Archipelago there are two islands, named Bali and Lombok, each about as large as Corsica, and separated by a strait only fifteen miles wide at its narrowest part. Yet these islands differ far more from each other in their birds and quadrupeds than do England and Japan. The birds of the one are extremely unlike those of the other, the difference being such as to strike even the most ordinary observer. Bali has red and green woodpeckers, barbets, weaver-birds, and black-and-white magpie-robins, none of which are found in Lombok, where, however, we find screaming cockatoos and friar-birds, and the strange mound-building megapodes, which are all equally unknown in Bali. Many of the kingfishers, crowshrikes, and other birds, though of the same general form, are of very distinct species; and though a considerable number of birds are the same in both islands the difference is none the less remarkable—as proving that mere distance is one of the least important of the causes which have determined the likeness or unlikeness in the animals of different countries.

Wallace, of course—in this and many other works—went on to explicate what the important causes of these disparities were, not the least of which are the evolutionary and geological histories of the organisms and land masses. (In the case of Bali and Lombok, the key factor has turned out to be that Bali is on the Asian continental shelf, and thus has been in frequent dry-land contact with the continental fauna, while Lombok is off the shelf, and has received its fauna over water by occasional means of transport.)

Like Wallace’s traveling Englishman, I too was struck by the great familiarity to me of this bird from the opposite side of the world. But while it was certainly a thrush, and almost certainly in the genus Turdus, I could not identify the species. I don’t have a Japanese or East Asian bird field guide, but checking some pictures on the internet, it seems most similar to T. pallidus, a winter visitor to Okinawa. Our deceased friend seems too white below, so I leave its species undetermined. Perhaps some reader will be able to identify it.

Window-killed thrush, Okinawa, Japan, 8 March 2016.
Window-killed thrush, Okinawa, Japan, 8 March 2016.

In addition to being a familiarly thrush-like bird, it was also, sadly, in a familiar posture: dead outside a glass door. Window-killed Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) are an all too familiar sight here in southeastern Wisconsin. My correspondent added about this bird, “Such a shame to see a dead bird, because they’re actually kind of rare to see. I blame the cats and Habu.” Habu are any of various pit vipers found in the Ryukyu Islands, which I thought were not common. I’ve queried my correspondent as to the relative abundance of cats and habu.

Hachisuka, M.U. 1925. A Comparative Hand List of the Birds of Japan and the British Isles. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (paperback published 2015)

Wallace, A.R. 1892. Island Life. 2nd ed. Macmillan, London. (at Wallace Online)

A day at the Aquarium, part 2

December 30, 2015 • 12:15 pm

by Greg Mayer

Having emphazised the cartilaginous inhabitants of the  Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium yesterday, let’s go to a distant part of the phylogenetic tree today: manatees. There are three species of manatees (Trichechus), all in the tropical Atlantic or Atlantic drainages; this is either the West Indian (T. manatus) or West African (T. senegalensis) species.

A manatee
A manatee

The manatees were feeding on aquatic plants. Note that this one is using it’s right forelimb to manipulate the food.

A manatee feeding, using its right 'hand'.
A manatee feeding, using its right ‘hand’.

Their skin texture was interesting; I’m not sure what the white structures all over the skin are (hair?).

Closeup of a manatee's head while feeding
Closeup of a manatee’s head while feeding

And, in this very interesting view, we see a manatee supporting itself off the bottom with its right forelimb. We can clearly see its ‘fingernails’. (They are true nails– but it sort of doesn’t have fingers.)

Manatee supporting itself on its right forelimb. Note the nails and the flexure in the limb.
Manatee supporting itself on its right forelimb. Note the nails and the flexure in the limb.

In the picture above, we can also see the limb is flexed. The most distal curve, nearest the nails, is the joint between the phalanges and metacarpals; this is an extension. A bit above this, there is a slight flexion of the wrist joint. The elbow joint is considerably higher, near the body, with a slight flexion. This shows that, though paddle shaped, the limb is not stiff, but retains considerable mobility distal to the shoulder joint, allowing the manatee to use the limb in balancing and propulsion on the bottom, and, as seen three pictures above, as an aid in feeding. The diagram below shows the manatee’s limb skeleton, which shows the familiar “one bone, two bones, many bones” pattern of tetrapods and their immediate lobed fin ancestors.

Forelimb skeleton of the West Indian manatee, from
Forelimb skeleton of the West Indian manatee, Fig. 379 from Henry Alleyne Nicholson, 1880, A Manual of Zoology, Blackwood (

I’ve been fascinated by manatees and their relatives (the mammalian order Sirenia) ever since reading years ago about Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), a giant sirenian of the cold North Pacific, which was discovered by scientists in 1741 and extinct by 1768. (There have been some intriguing late sight records, but none have panned out). Then, in graduate school at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, I walked underneath the following Steller’s sea cow skeleton almost every day (it hung in a different hall back then; it’s now in the main mammal hall). Note that this specimen lacks the distal parts of its forelimbs.

Steller's seacow at the MCZ, by
Steller’s seacow at the MCZ, by mhmcfee (

The evolution of sirenians from terrestrial ancestors is fairly well documented in the fossil record, much of the work being done by Daryl Domning of Howard University. The story is not as widely known as that of whales, and I don’t know of any single sirenian evolution website, but you could start learning the story here and here.

A day at the Aquarium

December 29, 2015 • 2:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

My Okinawa correspondents spent Boxing Day at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, and sent me a bunch of pictures. The aquarium is a sprawling complex on the coast in northwestern Okinawa, and includes large areas of gardens and park land, and a recreation of traditional Okinawan homes and buildings, as well as the aquarium proper.

Okinawa Charaumi Aquarium
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

It reminded me, as I’m sure it did many of you, of the Sausalito Cetacean Institute. That’s Ie Shima island in the background.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

One of the main attractions at the Aquarium is the Kuroshio Sea Tank. It’s enormous.

Kuroshio Sea Tank
Kuroshio Sea Tank

When my correspondents told me they were going to the Aquarium, they mentioned something about “whale sharks”, but I didn’t query them further. It turns out the Aquarium actually has whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), the world’s largest species of fish!

A whale shark
A whale shark

And not just one!

Two whale sharks
Two whale sharks

Although whale sharks are, for sharks, specialized feeders– they feed on plankton– they are “typical shark” shaped.

Sharks are cartilaginous fishes (Chondrichthyes), which are of two main types: the Holocephali, comprising the ratfishes and chimaeras (we’ve mentioned them here before at WEIT), and the Elasmobranchi, comprising sharks and rays. Most people have a good idea of what sharks and rays look like. Here are some more typical sharks (I don’t know what species– any shark people out there?) Note that the gill slits are on the side of the head; the fellow in the middle is male, as you can tell by the large claspers medial to the pelvic fins.

Typical sharks
Typical sharks

And here’s a typical ray (again, no ID). Note the flattened shape, and the spiracles (whitish bits) behind the eyes– these are the vestigial first pair of gill slits. The flat body of the ray is mostly the greatly enlarged pectoral fins.

A ray

Most people also know the manta ray (Manta birostris). It’s a little unusual for a ray, being pelagic and filter feeding, so the mouth is at the front tip of the body– and, it’s got those crazy cephalic fins or “horns”, from whence it gets the alternative vernacular name “devil fish”. Do note that the gills are on the bottom of the head.

A manta ray
A manta ray

There is more diversity among sharks and rays than most people realize. Sawfish, which look a lot like sharks with a saw strapped to their snout, are actually rays, but shouldn’t be confused with the similar looking saw shark, which is a shark. There are also angel sharks, which look a lot like rays, and guitarfish, which are rays that look a lot like sharks– in fact, more shark-looking than angel sharks.

I’ve never seen either angel sharks or guitarfish in any aquarium, and thus was delighted to find that Okinawa Churaumi has guitarfish (which, remember, are rays). Here’s a guitarfish surrounded by three sharks, with a typical ray off to the right (and a shadowy form below and to the right). If you look carefully, you can see the spiracle (again, whitish looking) on top of the head, behind the eye.

A guitarfish with three sharks (one only a tail), a typical ray, and a menacing black hulk).
A guitarfish with three sharks (one only a tail), a typical ray, and a shadowy form below and to the right.

In the following picture, we get a really good view of why it’s a ray. Note that the gill slits are on the bottom of the head, as is the mouth (the latter is typical, but not diagnostic, of rays). And, the pectoral fin is joined seamlessly to the head– at a point above, in fact, of the gill slits (which is why the slits are on the bottom of the head). The spiracle, already spatially distant from the other gill slits in sharks, is thus, in rays, separated from the other slits by the interposition of the enlarged pectoral fin.

The underside of a guitarfish's head
The underside of a guitarfish’s head

In the next (and last) picture, note that the dorsal, caudal, and pelvic fins all are at least passably shark-like, but that the enlarged pectoral fin is being flapped for locomotion in the manner of a ray. (Also, it’s a male– you can see the free distal ends of the claspers below the second dorsal.)

A guitarfish swimming along the bottom.
A guitarfish swimming along the bottom.

More on the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium tomorrow.