My cyclostome library  (2007.8.1[Wed])


Every time I went, blood poured from my mouth and nose. On the last night just as I was resolved to give up I brought a lantern capable of withstanding the pressures at the bottom. And there, in the light, he was.

From Incident at Conger House by Shigeru Kayama

In this special column, I'd like to introduce some stories from literature featuring animals we research in my lab - the cyclostomes, such as lampreys and hagfish. (Warning: spoilers below!)

 These two groups are jawless fish, for which reason they are also classified as agnathans (meaning without a jaw), and their evolutionary past can be traced to a divergence basal to the one that gave rise to our jawed (or gnathostome) lineage. Of course, they did not remain strictly primitive, as lampreys and hagfish have developed their own specializations. But, as their evolution followed a distinctly different path from our own, they do retain a number of traits that we jawed vertebrates have lost. One of the reasons we are interested in studying them is that if commonalities can be found between our traits, it strongly indicates that the shared biological feature was characteristic of a basal ancestor prior to the agnathan-gnathostome divergence that took place about 500 million years ago. In this sense, the cyclostomes are a formidable model for comparative biology. In recent years, molecular data has become available revealing the close links between lampreys and hagfish. But nonetheless, the difference in their morphology and developmental program are great indeed. The overall impression of the hagfish is one of primitiveness, but it also differs profoundly from fossil species that have recently been identified as the origins of vertebrates. Mysteries surrounding the cyclostomes yet abound, and predictably, so do scholarly texts detailing the comparative biology of these animals and other primitive vertebrates. There is already one textbook devoted entirely to lampreys, and two to hagfishes, in addition to countless monographs and research articles. And although it may be a bit of a surprising role for these somewhat unassuming creatures, they even turn up in works of fiction.

 The first appearance I'd like to introduce is Ngaio Marsh's murder mystery A Surfeit of Lampreys. The lamprey in question is actually the name of a nobleman living in London, a biological reference which is put beyond doubt by the jacket illustration, showing an actual lamprey, its body curled into an L shape, with an iron hook through its right eye, in reference to the mode of death suffered by one of the characters (although in the story, it's the left eye), which it should be noted while it might kill a person, would certainly not a lamprey. Whatever the case, the author's decision to feature the lamprey in the title was not an arbitrary one. Perhaps the lamprey was chosen as symbolic of a certain breed of youth without concerns for the future or economic realities, living lives of parasitism much like the lamprey does. Or it may have been the slipperiness the noble family shows by changing the conversation into French occasionally to baffle the police in investigation, like the lamprey. In any case, there was a story that King Henry I died after overindulging in lamprey pies, and this (King Henry's) incident appears in Shakespearean drama as well. It is even apparently widely known that lampreysare best served with Bordeaux, showing the depth of familiarity for these animals in European culture. You may be thinking Lampreys, maybe, but surely there are no novels about hagfish. But you'd be wrong; they make their literary debut in Shigeru Kayama's Kaiman-so Kidan (Incident at Conger House; San-Ichi Shobo, Collected Works of Shigeru Kayama, vol. 1).

 The story is also a sort of detective thriller. Kayama, a novelist of ancient life, has left us a plot redolent of the Japanese natural history at the start of the Showa Period. The villain, Gohzo Tsukamoto, is a mad scientist of the sort that can no longer exist in real life nowadays. He keeps a 3-meter eel in a hothouse in his manor, using it to kill Maya (named after the spider crab genus Maja, not the mountain in Kobe), the daughter born to his late wife and her lover in an act of jealous vengeance in this twisted tale. I first read the story more than 20 years ago in an edition now out of print, and I remember being struck even then by Kayama's inclusion of hagfish in the well-developed storyline. The author himself was apparently quite pleased with his work, so much so that he even named his own home Conger House.

 The problem is, a number of articles on this story that I subsequently read state that the animal is in fact an electric eel, not a hagfish. Kouji Tani, a favorite manga artist of mine, has also drawn the creature clearly as a hagfish and names it an 'electric eel' in his depiction. Hold on. Eelectric eels live in fresh water, not the ocean, and what's more they have jaws! How could they be mistaken for the sea-dwelling conger of the title, let alone for a cyclostome? I thought maybe I had misread the story, but when I rechecked, I discovered the source of all the confusion. The narrator of the third chapter, a schoolteacher named Fukuyama, speculates from the victim's wounds that the creature might have been a hagfish, but then himself rules that possibility out. Given the large size of the beast and its method of execution by electric shock, he decides that it must instead be some unknown species of electric eel. In the villain Dr. Tsukamoto's own confession, he cites Siebold's 1824 De Historiae Naturalis in Japonia (perhaps referring to Nihon Doubutsu-shi, actually first published in 1832), in which he found a reptile described as Wumi Hebi which he surmises lives in Misaki Bay, near where Tsukamoto himself resides. He proceeds to dive, vomiting blood (!) to a depth of 700 meters (!!), ultimately capturing the prize, the very same individual described by Siebold, adapting it to low water pressure, for use in his diabolical scheme. (If this sort of thing were humanly possible, I'm certain we would not be observing hagfish embryos in my lab now!) To be fair, even Linnaeus struggled with these animals, classifying them first as fish, next as reptiles, then as amphibians, so I think we can forgive an amateur for his confusion. Indeed, in the course of the story, the name changes several times. On top of the commonplace confusion of lampreys and hagfish for eels, there are taxonomical errors made by critics, and so it seems any mistakes must be forgiven. Errors notwithstanding, it has to be recognized that Kayama's true achievement in this work could not have been enjoyed without real knowledge of natural history.

 Before ending, who's in the mode for a lamprey horror movie? The larval aliens in Stephen King's Dream Catcher (Warner Bros.) look extremely like hypertrophic Ammocytes larvae. And they're parasites, to boot. My guess would be that they had evolved a vertebrate body plan on their home planet, but somehow bypassed the evolution of jaw based on a gill arch. And if I say so, it must be true.