A rose by another name

For a whole year, in Melaka, we lived on a road called Jalan Kenanga. It was only a short road and it terminated at the beach.

The other day I looked for Jalan Kenanga on Google Maps, both in the satellite and the map views, and there was no trace of it! No little road terminated in the beach next door to a rambling old hotel called the Westernhay. Then I found it using Search. Turns out they must have reclaimed a lot of land since then, 30 years ago, as Jalan Kenanga is distinctly landlocked now.

My son, then 3 years old, and I, spent a lot of time on that beach. Sometimes we would gather lengths of plastic rope discarded by the ships plying the Straits of Malacca, which we used to burn up. Once (only) we fished using a bent pin, honestly, and caught a sturdy catfish which we immediately returned to the sea. And once I found what looked at first like a shard of coconut shell (the Malay for coconut is kelapa), but which on closer inspection was definitely a fragment of the frontal bone of a human skull (the Malay for head is kepala). I was intrigued by this linguistic coincidence. Quite close by there was an old Muslim cemetary giving onto the beach, and subject, I suppose, to erosion.

If we walked to the left we quite soon came to a small estuary, and it was possible to progress a little way up it. Here you could see several monitor lizards at the same time, each about four or five feet long, swimming lazily in the stream. At the mouth of this little river we found a dead pig once.

One day two lads appeared on the beach dragging a dead monitor lizard by its tail. They had stoned it to death, in accordance with the widespread dislike of these creatures for their chicken-stealing habits. They threw it in the sea, and it disappeared at once, despite the calmness of the water. On another occasion, a smallish monitor got into our neighbour’s bathroom, and I was charged with its extrication. When, terrified, I tried to coax it into a cardboard box, it bolted and danced down towards the beach.

To the right one could walk quite a distance up the beach. Buildings gave onto it, and the top fringe was covered in a spreading plant. Hiding in this plant you could find hermit crabs, quite big ones. The shells and marine detritus on the beach were mostly fairly commonplace, but it was possible to find good sea urchin tests and spines, and sometimes the spines of catfish. And once in a while I found one of these.

These things are usually found at the ends of wrinkled calcarious tubes about six inches long (in my case, perhaps a tad shorter).

They were rare – in that year I found only three. I had no idea what they were. They might be some kind of coral or wierd gastropod, I guessed, but it didn’t matter what they were – they were just impressive, like petrified flowers. A shell in the form of a dome, covered by short tubes sticking out, and surrounded by a brittle fringe. Back in England I looked them up in a book and discovered something about them. In fact, they have something rather special to claim our attention – they are the world’s only fused bivalve.

Most of the shells we find on the beach are the halves of bivalves, like cockles, clams and so on. Sometimes we find the two halves still hinged together. This fellow is a bivalve which has extended its halves, wrapped them round, and formed them into a long tube. If we look carefully at the side of the creature we can see the vestigial traces of the two halves of the normal bivalve:

The photo is from Adam Yates at http://dracovenator.wordpress.com/

The tube is buried in the sea bottom in life, but, and this is a suprise, the flowery thing is not the bit that sticks out into the water; it is the bit down in the mud at the bottom end of the creature. So the picture above shows the animal upside down. The flowery thing has been likened to the rose at the end of a watering can, and so the popular name for these shells is “Watering-Pot-Shells” on that account.

It certainly looks like a flower – take a look at this illustration, which has nothing to do with this bivalve:

This is a species of sundew. How closely it resembles the watering pot thing.

Now we come to names. This bivalve bears a latin name that may come as no great surprise to regular readers of this blog. We have already seen (see Amorpho WHAT?) that naturalists in the Malay Archipelago do not flinch from naming new species after their own nether body parts. Presumably the same bunch that found Amorphophallus Titanum (just like a massive dick) were later spending a short holiday in Melaka, perhaps at the Westernhay Hotel, and stumbled across one of these Watering Pot Shells. They took a look at the firm tubular object and started winking and nudging eachother. So they called it, rather more openly on this occasion, Penicillus Penis. Maybe one of them was female, because we find another species of this bivalve called Somethingorother Vaginiferum (having a vagina) – possibly referring to those vestigial traces of the two shells, I don’t know.  Seems wherever they went and whatever they discovered, these jokers had to give it a rude name.

Quite what that watering pot structure is for they don’t really know. They say that the creature blows water through the tubes, presumably into the mud, but they don’t really know what it gets out of this. One or two theories are advanced. Me, I think it is a kind of tunnelling bit, allowing the animal to bore more deeply into the mud when it spots dirty-minded naturalists on the beach.

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