Another Perspective

From the Dock of the Bay

A lesson in flounder detection.

By 6.9.09

SEA ISLE, N. J. -- An article I read somewhere said that Eskimos have 100 words for snow and that Sherlock Holmes could distinguish 140 types of tobacco by their ashes.

Distinguishing one type of ash from another was clearly useful to a detective in late-19th-century England where most of the killers were probably smokers and there were hundreds of brands of pipe tobacco, cigars and cigarettes.

And distinguishing good snowflakes from bad is useful to Eskimos building igloos out of blocks of snow. Pick the wrong kind and you could find yourself sitting in a pile of slush with a blubber lamp, fully exposed to the neighborhood grizzlies.

It's like that here where I am on the ocean. At home in the supermarket, it's just called flounder. But here on a barrier island where we're surrounded by flounder on all sides, you get to know that there are summer flounder, winter flounder, left-eyed flounder, right-eyed flounder, spiny flounder, southern flounder and large-tooth flounder, plus some members of the flounder family that are slightly different from the aforementioned and go by the names of turbot, scaldfish, kite, sole, brill, topknot, plaice, kliescheplus and dab.

Plus, if they're biting, there's flounder Dijon, flounder stuffed with crabmeat, flounder Mediterranean with crumbled feta, plum tomatoes, chopped spinach, garlic and mushrooms, and just plain fish-on-a-dish.

What's odd about a flounder is that it has two eyes on one side of its head and no eye on the other side. That makes sense, foodwise, because flounders spend most of their day laying flat on their side on the floor of the ocean or bay, blind side down, looking upwards and sideways with its two top-side eyes for a shrimp or minnie to come along.

As babies, flounders start out by looking like a normal fish, with an eye on each side of their head. But after watching the bottom dwelling lifestyle of the adult flounders in the community for two months, the one eye of a young flounder migrates to the other side of its head to join the other eye.

Equally odd, unlike leopards who can't change their spots, flounder have the ability to camouflage themselves by quickly changing their appearance. The May 11 issue of the New Yorker reports on an experiment on this phenomenon conducted by Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, an Indian-born behavioral neurologist who is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego.

Ramachandran and an associate bought five peacock flounder, a species that lives in tropical coral reefs, from their local pet store. "The men placed the fish on the bottom of four small tanks against various backgrounds: widely spaced polka dots, a neutral gray, and two checkerboard patterns," reports The New Yorker. "The fish, whose natural tendency is to lie flat on the sea bottom, precisely matched on their bodies the patterns at the bottom of the tanks -- and they did so within two to eight seconds, far faster than the hours and, in some cases, days reported by researchers using cold-water flounder."

I always wanted to do that with my chameleon when I was a kid. He had no trouble turning green or gray if I put him on the grass or a sidewalk, but I always wanted to see what would happen if I put him on plaid. I think I did it once and he just sort of sat there and lost his will to adapt, sort of like me in Spanish class. I spent two semesters in Spanish class and all I know is "casa roja."

Ramachandran also studied an intriguing ailment know as the Capgras delusion, in which an otherwise coherent victim of a head injury insists that close loved ones (spouses, parents, children) are imposters. Rather than the patients being just nuts or suffering from some convoluted Freudian syndrome, Ramachandran demonstrated that the severing of neural pathways between the emotional centers of the brain and the facial-recognition areas of the visual cortex was the culprit.

In any case, the government's new rules say that we can take home only a maximum of six flounders per day in Jersey, each 18-inches or bigger. Last week, I met a guy who sells 65 kinds of iced tea during lunch and is then paid by the government to walk around in the afternoon on the docks to check on what we're catching.

(Mr. Reiland is a restaurateur in Pittsburgh.)

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.