“You’ll never guess what I brought home from the art museum,” our visiting friend Hazel announced. She pulled a small bundle of bubble paper from a crumpled bag and began to unroll it.
Several silky white hairs protruded from the package, then floated gently to the floor. As she continued to strip the wrappings off her treasure, it became clear that a long, cylindrical object was about to emerge.
This couldn’t be what I was imagining, but it took every ounce of self control not to blurt out, “It’s a penis!”
If a penis could be stripped to its bare structure, you might be inclined to believe that that’s exactly what lay beneath the final layer of wrapping. Composed of long, white, stiff strands, it was indeed tubular, and from its broad base it tapered to a rounded point.
I was beginning to feel embarrassed.
“It’s a shrimp basket,” Hazel said proudly. “Or something like that…” she trailed off, still enamored with her find, but suddenly uncertain of its real name. “A male and female shrimp made this and lived inside it.”
We examined the artifact with the respect due a great work of architecture. The light weight, strength and symmetry of the woven strands was impressive: one could imagine that mesh forming the exterior structure of a modernist apartment building or sleek bridge. I was impressed and awed by the machine-like beauty of this obviously natural object. But I was dubious about Hazel’s account of its origins. As a biologist, I knew that shrimp don’t build anything,
An hour later, in the rush to get Hazel to the airport, the shrimp basket was left behind. Over the following days, I couldn’t stop myself from unwrapping and handling it. The thing sure was beautiful, but I couldn’t help wondering what it really was, and what, or who, had made it.
“Hello, I have sort of an odd question,” I told the bright young woman who answered the phone at the museum gift shop. “My friend brought home this thing that she says she got at your shop.”
I stopped short of telling the clerk it looked like a phallus, but within a few seconds, she interrupted my description. “I know exactly what you’re talking about. You’ve got a Venus flower basket.”
Duh, I thought: a Venus flower basket—I should have known! The woman cheerfully read me the label. “It’s a sponge that houses a male and a female shrimp, who live out their lives inside. They breed, and when their offspring are tiny, the offspring escape to find a Venus flower basket of their own.”
I supposed this object could share a connection with a sponge, but I still didn’t believe the museum clerk. However, with a possible search term and the Internet at my fingertips, I had a starting point. My first hit turned up her script, poached almost directly from Wikipedia. To my surprise, the thing really was a sponge—a glass sponge, Euplectella aspergillum. I wondered how it ended up for sale in an art museum instead of ye olde curiosity shoppe.
Most marine resources are overharvested, and I suspected that this beautiful sponge would sadly fall into that category. After doing some more research I contacted Emma Sherlock, a curator in the Department of Life Sciences at The Natural History Museum of London. She connected me to Dr. Henry M. Reiswig a biologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He wrote that Euplectella aspergillum, “has been under pretty heavy fishing pressure in its central range of the Philippine Islands for over 100 years now, and there does not seem to be any problem in keeping souvenir stores stocked with the skeletons.”
Selling this penis-shaped sponge wasn’t really causing any major marine ecosystem disasters; but it still struck me as a tragedy on a smaller level—for the shrimp. These invertebrates are known as wedding shrimp, and ironically, the sponge (with the dead shrimp couple still inside) is often given as a marital gift in Japan. The idea being that the happy human couple will enjoy the same lifetime bond that united the shrimp.
I’m glad I don’t live in Japan. I love my wife, but the notion of being entombed with her in a dead sponge sounds awfully morbid. Despite the alluring name and structural beauty of the Venus flower basket, I’m not sold on giving or receiving one.
A few days after Hazel’s departure, I sent the sponge back to her.