Cold Spring Harbor perambulations

by Matthew Cobb

I am staying a few days at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, where I gave a talk wrapping up my Sydney Brenner Research Scholarship here. My work was on how Brenner and Francis Crick, pioneer molecular biologists, collaborated together – they shared an office for 20 years and constantly talked at each other. I’ll be writing this up for a book published by the Royal Society later this year, and will let people know when the PDF is available. You can still listen to the radio programme I made about Brenner’s life, just click here.

This morning I got up early (though not as early as when I was here two years ago for the centenary of Crick’s birth) and went for a walk before breakfast. The late spring weather was glorious, and the campus was looking fabulous:

At the end of Bungtown Road, there’s a sandspit that nearly separates the two parts of the harbour. This is the view north:

And this is the view south, looking back towards the lab, which are in the centre of the photo:

I zoomed in on one of the oldest buildings on the site, Jones Lab. In the early 90s I attended a 3-week course here, which was based in the lovely old building, but a few months later it was decommissioned as a scientific lab and turned over to the administration. [EDIT: I peered in last night and there was someone in a white coat pipetting – the essence of modern lab science – so it has clearly been re-repurposed and is now a lab again. Hooray!]

On the beach I noticed these depressions:

What had made them? My guess is that they were made by xiphosurids, or horseshoe crabs. They mate around this time of the year – the females come up onto shallow quiet beaches, dig a depression and lay their eggs; the males then fertilize them externally. Here’s an ex-xiphosurid I found nearby. This one was obviouisly pretty old – it had acquired quite a few barnacles, some of them quite large.

And here are some tell-tale xiphosurid traces in the sand. The single line is made by the animal dragging its telson (the spiky bit at the rear on the photo above – this doesn’t sting, and is probably used for righting themselves either on land or when they are swimming (yes they can swim)).

These tracks show the ‘pusher’ legs on either side of the body:

Elsewhere I found a whole ecosystem. The ants were coming out of the small hole bottom left, between the dead leaf and the bit of wood, making there way into the xiphosurid carcass and also onto the kelp. That is their universe.

And of course there were traces of deer:

Finally, spot the squirrel! I warn you, this is fiendishly difficult and isn’t helped by the fact that WordPress doesn’t seem to want to allow you to enlarge it. I couldn’t see the squirrel on the photo and I knew where the damn thing was. I’ll post the answer in about 4 hours.



  1. Hempenstein
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Hmm, “Find the squirrel that I can’t find…”

    • Dominic
      Posted May 11, 2018 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      I think it is funny that Francophile Matthew is only allowed in the US when Jerry is in Paris! WEIT has to maintain some sort of trans-Atlantic equilibrium… 🙂

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    That is a great name

    • Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      And does one pronounce it with the “x” as in “xylophone” (in English) or “x” as “chi”?

      • jaxkayaker
        Posted May 11, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        I’ve always said it like a “z” sound, as in xylophone.

  3. jaxkayaker
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Speaking of Limulus polyphemus, the horseshoe crab, I just yesterday came across this interesting article about them. The “blood” (hemolymph) of horseshoe crabs is used to test for microbial contamination in drug production. As a result, the populations are under pressure because of their commercial utility. A synthetic alternative has been developed and available for years, but was not considered a viable and accepted alternative. That’s changing now, which may improve things for xiphosurid populations.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      It has been years but I recall a segment from a documentary which showed the catch & release harvesting operation when it was a new thing. A great change from the up-till-then standard practice. Sounds as if the actuality of it didn’t quite meet the promise hyped in the documentary. A main factor, as usual, seems to be human greed.

      In any case the catch & release method is far superior to the older catch & kill standard, but the synthetic alternative sounds even better.

    • Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Why can’t they get the crabs to “donate” some of their blood without killing them? Of course, synthetic would be best of all.

      • nicky
        Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        I think that is what they are doing now (involuntary ‘donation’), and the ‘synthetic’ is starting to catch on, it appears. Long live the xiphosurids! (c’est le cas de le dire 🙂 )

  4. Dominic
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    … talking of squirrels –
    Red squirrels may have brought leprosy to Britain more than 1,000 years ago, scientists have said

    • Christopher
      Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Interesting. Reminds me of a gray squirrel that I found a few years ago. It fell out of a tree, was almost completely hairless and covered in rather revolting lumps, swellings, and flaps of skin, even over the eyes. The poor bastard had probably starved to near death, and the fall ended its misery. I should have taken a photo of it so as to get the disease identified, but honestly I was so saddened and grossed out that I just buried it.

  5. Posted May 11, 2018 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks for all of the pictures Matthew. Attended a course long ago at CSHL re SV40, so the pictures brought back fond memories [a beer machine for a quarter, I do believe!]

    • Posted May 11, 2018 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      Opps, the beers were a quarter, not the whole machine. Early here in CA 🙂

  6. Posted May 11, 2018 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    So what you’re saying is, we should organize our society along the line of the horseshoe crabs?

  7. Posted May 11, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    But seriously, Richard Fortey’s Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” is one of the most fascinating and beautifully-written science books one can ever read.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Thanks. Dropped that right onto my Books list.

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I had been wondering for some time why we can no longer click to embiggen pictures here. Harrumph.

    Anyway, I have two possible ‘things’ that could be the sqrrl. Or there are two sqrrls.

    • Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      In Chrome, I right-click on the image and choose “Open image in new tab”. That lets me zoom in more easily and shows all the pixels in the original image. I believe other browsers have this feature but admit I haven’t looked.

      • phar84
        Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Neat trick, thanks.
        I can even spot a couple of nightjars.. /

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        For me, it opens the image in a new tab, but its the same size as what I see on the main web page. The most i can do is just zoom in on the web page.

        • Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

          What browser? Can you not zoom in on the image with Ctrl-+?

          • Mark Sturtevant
            Posted May 11, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

            Yes, that too. But in these cases it is very pixelated.

            • Posted May 11, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

              You might just be seeing the actual quality (or lack) of the image. As the author admitted, it is not good quality. I couldn’t even come close to seeing a squirrel inside the red oval. It was all just a blur.

        • Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

          I just tried it in Firefox on Windows. They call the similar right-click option “View Image” but it works a bit different. It opens unzoomed and you have to use Ctrl-+ to zoom.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 12, 2018 at 1:59 am | Permalink

            Same in Firefox on Linux. Ctrl – or Ctrl + give you shrink/zoom from 30% to 300%.

            I think (could be wrong) earlier versions of WordPress actually kept a larger version of the image so clicking on the on-page image took you to the larger version. But currently it doesn’t seem to do that, so your browser can only work with the image on this page.

            Sadly, the infinite image ‘enhancement’ at the touch of a button depicted on those idiot cop shows is pure fiction.


  9. Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    “…at the end of Bungtown Road…”

    …is Sphincter Place?

    (Please tell me I’m not the most childish reader of WEIT.)

    • Christopher
      Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      I’ve heard it’s a real sh!thole.

    • Posted May 11, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      They used to make stoppers for barrels in Bungtown but they had to shut the place down due to the high rate of industrial accidents caused by employees laughing uncontrollably.

      • Frank Bath
        Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        A bung is a bribe or illicit payment in British slang. E.g. ‘He slipped him a bung round the back.’

        • Christopher
          Posted May 11, 2018 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          That doesn’t sound any less dirty!

  10. Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Is the Cold Spring Harbor campus still full of double helix sculptures and places named after Watson, as it was when Watson was the director?

  11. busterggi
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I hope the horseshoe crabs and deer are not trysting – the offspring would not be a good idea.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      A new SyFy movie perhaps.

      • busterggi
        Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        It would be a welcome change from another Sharknado.

  12. Posted May 11, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Wonderful to see photos of a place one hears about a lot (even as a non-biosciences person).

  13. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I liked looking at the tracks from the horseshoe crabs. I love those things since they look so similar to trilobites.

  14. Posted May 11, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    For me, Cold Spring Harbor always means the famous series of Symposia on Quantitative Biology, ongoing since about 1930. The volumes I’m familiar with pretty much summarized the current status of the chosen field. For example, 1985: Molecular Biology of Development, became pretty much the “bible”(sorry)for those of us working on developmental genetics at that time. It contains about 100 articles by everybody who was anybody in the field (I wasn’t) including several Nobel winners.

  15. Posted May 11, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    The seaweed was not kelp but Fucus. Most likely Fucus vesiculosus

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 11, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      FucUS?! FucYous too! 😀

  16. ed hessler
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never been there but I was reminded of Elizabeth Watson’s field guide to the buildings, “Grounds for Knowledge.”

    I’ve always wanted to read it but have never gotten around to it.

    What historic buildings. Being there might be like touching the past through those buildings and imagining the scientists who worked in them and what they did.

    This photo tour was wonderful. And no I didn’t find the squirrel although I thought it would be in a tree–as close as I could come!

  17. Mike
    Posted May 13, 2018 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Beautiful place.

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