April 21, 2013

WP Daily Prompt: Brief Encounter with a Stranger—Sexing Clams


The WordPress daily prompt for April 20th was Have you ever had a random encounter or fleeting moment with a stranger that stuck with you?

Most certainly, I have. Many of them. I call them brief encounters.

Branches droop on an ice-covered tree

Branches droop on an ice-covered tree

 The ice storm of January 1998 affected 17 million acres of forestland in northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, including parts of the Green Mountain National Forest and the White Mountain National Forest. Portions of eastern Canada were also impacted. The weight of accumulated ice caused trees to snap off or bend over to the ground. Large branches broke within crowns and debris littered the landscape.

On January 1, 1998, my husband was on the telephone making airline reservations a flight from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Bangor, Maine. My mother, Nancy Briskay Cornell Lipsius, was in the hospital seriously ill, and he was arranging for me to be there with her. I was to fly on January 2.

After arriving early in the evening I talked with her briefly, expecting to spend some time with her on January 3rd. Unfortunately, she unexpectedly passed on before I left my room for breakfast.

Several family members who were also at the hospital drove to Presque Isle, her retirement location. While there a severe ice storm hit the northeast. I couldn’t delay leaving, so another family member drove me to the airport. I recall sitting in the back seat of a sports car, terrified, as we headed back to Bangor.

In the airport I went to the coffee machine. Another woman was also getting coffee. I asked her if she wanted to join me, and so she did.

During a pleasant conversation I asked her about her work. She (I’ll call her Meriah) was a medical researcher who traveled between Rhode Island and Maine to do research on cancer in female clams.

I’ve worked in medical research. My subjects were the typical: white mice. I knew how difficult it was to determine the sex of these creatures, so I asked the obvious question:

How do you tell if a clam is female or male?

It seems to me she said something about the color somewhere in the clam.

We enjoyed our coffee and soon we were informed that no further flights were taking off that day. I don’t know what happened to Meriah, but my airline put its passengers up in a nearby hotel where I had a delightful meal with five other passengers whom I never expect to see again.

Ice-covered branches

Ice-covered branches

While writing this I surfed the Internet asking How do you tell if a clam is female or male?

One answer: Your clam is both male and female. It will mature sexually as a male first and then later on in it’s growth, when it is large enough, it will acquire female sexual maturity without losing its male sexual capabilities.**

As I surfed I came across an article titled Clams: the wonder of their reproduction. It referenced soft shell clams—and I realize I didn’t know enough to ask Meriah what type of clams she was researching.

The question the article posed was how does a male clam woo a female? What courtship rituals are observed? How do clams pick the best mate?

The article answered the question…they don’t woo, there aren’t any rituals, and they don’t pick a mate.

Softshell clams are generally dioecious, a term that means having separate sexes, meaning there are, usually male and female clams. One can’t take this for granted in the molluscan world, as quite a few molluscs are hermaphrodites; either simultaneously male and female or capable of changing gender. In fact, a small number of softshell clams are born male but become females as they grow.

Clams spend their adult lives (they mature to adulthood by about one year of age) buried in the sediment, a vertical existence moving up and down with the tides. Given this, how, even if he wanted to, could a male meet and court a female? Clams have solved this problem by doing something called broadcast spawning. When water temperatures begin to warm in the spring, males and females broadcast their reproductive cells, their sperm and eggs, into the water. Females can produce one hundred thousand to one million eggs at a time! Softshell clams can live 10 to 20 years and usually spawn twice a year, so a female can potentially generate and release 20 to 40 million eggs in her lifetime! A veritable egg factory!

The obvious reason for this prodigious quantity of eggs is if one is going to broadcast ones’ eggs into the wide ocean, it makes sense to release a lot, thereby increasing the odds that fertilization will ever happen.

Broadcast spawning is a relatively common reproductive mechanism in the ocean. Eggs and sperm can travel for miles, but who knows how many different sperm and eggs intermingle, are eaten, or drift for days never finding a match? The odds of encounter are low.***

It's not snow on the ground---it's ice.

It’s not snow on the ground—it’s ice.

I had a memorable time with Meriah, a brief encounter with someone that was unforgettable. After all, who expects to hear about determining the sex of clams while waiting for a plane following an ice storm in Maine?

Certainly not I.



WP Daily Prompt 3/4/2013: A Story Written Using No “N”, Another With No “E”

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