Blanket Octopus swimming

This week I learned: blanket octopus, history of the Wilhelm scream, highway safety for Colorado wildlife

About a superhero cephalopod; animals crossing; and the man behind the Wilhelm scream.

Mysterious, caped, and armed – meet the Batman of the sea

I honestly thought by now the ocean would have run out of bizarre cephalopods to amaze me, given how many weird and wonderful octopuses (yup) and their kin I was aware of. Then a member of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria posted a query about a strange creature that had washed up on the beach, and that was how I was introduced to the Blanket Octopus – the superhero of the sea.

Unlike most octopuses (it’s accurate – get used to it), which live either in shallow, coastal waters or on the sea floor, the 2m-long Blanket Octopus – or Tremoctopus – is pelagic, meaning it spends its life patrolling the featureless waters of the open ocean. This means they are rarely seen and still relatively poorly known.

Most of the time, the female octopus looks like an ordinary cephalopod, but when threatened (or, I like to believe, when she’s just having a low self-esteem day and wants to look fabulous, dammit), she unfurls from between her arms long sheets of webbing in beautiful patterns. This incredible “cape” is thought to confuse predators, and parts of it can also be shed like the tail of a skink, leaving the attacker grappling with a decoy while the real octopus makes a getaway.

In case that wasn’t enough, she’s also immune to the excruciating stings of the Portuguese Man-of-War, and prone to ripping off their tentacles to use as weapons.

The male Blanket Octopus, meanwhile, is 10,000 times smaller than the female, and his entire job is to impregnate her using a modified, sperm-bearing arm, after which he dies. He’s definitely the sidekick in this partnership.

Original sources: Six reasons the blanket octopus is my new favorite cephalopod; Blanket Octopus and Portuguese Man O War

Who was Wilhelm anyway?

If you’re not familiar with it, the Wilhelm scream is probably the most famous sound effect in the history of cinema. This short, agonised, male scream has appeared in literally hundreds of films, in no small part due to the affection a number of top Hollywood sound designers (such as Ben Burtt of Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame) hold for it.

That part I knew about already. But I’m always fascinated by people who have become iconic in some way that’s completely disconnected from the original individual. Who was the man behind the scream, and did it give him a chuckle to hear his voice pop up in so many cinematic moments? Well, this week I learned about the origin of the Wilhelm scream.

First things first: it wasn’t someone called Wilhelm. The Wilhelm scream is named after a character in the 1953 Western The Charge at Feather River, who uttered the scream (or rather, a recording of it) after being shot in the leg with an arrow. But The Charge at Feather River was the second movie to use the Wilhelm scream; the first was another Western, Distant Drums, in 1951. That was the movie for which the scream was recorded, specifically as the sound of a man being bitten by an alligator.

A number of actors were brought in to record the additional vocal effects for Distant Drums. Of them, the most likely candidate for voice behind the Wilhelm scream was an actor named Sheb Wooley. And here’s where the story gets really cool.

You probably won’t know Sheb Wooley by name, but I bet I can get his voice stuck in your head… because he was also the writer and performer behind that classic children’s earworm, The Purple People Eater.

Original source: Twenty Thousand Hertz episode #16: The Wilhelm Scream

If you just can’t get enough of Wilhelm, here’s three minutes of cinematic Wilhelm screams.

Road safety for Colorado wildlife

As anyone who’s driven through the country in Australia knows, highways and wildlife are a terrible combination. For the kinds of species whose lifestyle requires them to roam large distances in search of food or for reproduction, having a high-speed motorway run through the middle of their habitat leads to regular collisions with vehicles – not very good for the car, but usually fatal for the animal.

A number of countries have implemented various trial solutions for helping the proverbial chicken cross the road. In Colorado, US, this consists of underpasses and overpasses that have been installed to allow wildlife to cross Highway 9 without coming into contact with the tarmac at all.

Now remote camera evidence is showing that wildlife underpasses work. At one underpass, installed in a spot that had seen 472 collisions between wildlife and cars between 2006-2016, cameras are now capturing images of animals including deer, coyotes, raccoons, and foxes passing safely beneath the road.

It’s early days yet, but this is promising evidence that there are better ways for cars and wildlife to coexist.

Original source: Animals are using Colorado’s wildlife crossings, reducing collisions, CDOT says

Featured photo copyright Cassandra LeMasurier, used with permission
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