Coral Polyp Survival Skills

Oceanic Art in the Face Of the 6th Mass Extinction

“Rose,” Astrangia poculata, © Mara Haseltine 

I am an artist that makes the microscopic megascopic. The two bodies of work depicted here explore the ways in which coral polyps could potentially survive a mass extinction event. The first body of work, “Rose,” addresses which species of coral polyps might survive and how they will survive. The second piece “Je Mange La Mort Pour Dîner” references an evolutionary escape mechanism: how coral polyps might carry the evolutionary torch into the next “Geological Age.”


The muse for “Rose” is an Astrangia poculata polyp, which comes from Cape Cod, Massachusetts and is a typical deep-water coral that inhabits the mid-Atlantic. Magnified through the microscope, ‘rose’ seduced me she was otherworldly, intimate and soft. Part of what makes these images so fleshy and captivating is their translucency. This is because unlike tropical corals which are colonized by Xooxanthallae—a symbiotic algae which are typically brownish—“Rose” is ‘Xooxanthallae-free.” In tropical corals, Xooxanthallae photosynthesize creating about 90 percent of the corals’ energy. The Astrangia poculata is considered a coral “of least concern,” meaning it is not endangered. In fact, it sprouts in clusters like dandelions at a depth of 20 feet and below.

“Rose,” Astrangia poculata, © Mara Haseltine 

How can these corals survive when most tropical coral around the world are dying? The Astrangia poculata does not build reefs. Rather, it exists in non-coral building cluster colonies, each according to each individual cluster, having acquired the diversifying adaptation to either host Xooxanthallae or not.


In the robust deep-water corals, there are clusters of coral colonies with no Xooxanthallae, which means they are surviving solely on plankton consumption.  Rose is one of those colonies of plankton-guzzling coral with no Xooxanthallae. Its only pigment is due to minerals giving it a soft coral glow. Will deep cold-water corals like Rose be the ones to survive the 6th mass extinction?

“Rose,” Astrangia poculata, © Mara Haseltine 

"Je mange la Mort pour Dîner," © Mara Haseltine 

The film “Je mange la Mort pour Dîner“ or “I eat Death For Diner” is meant to be an art piece in itself, seen in a perpetual loop as a cycle with no beginning or end, perpetually reincarnating itself. When coral skeletons dissolve due to ocean acidification, the polyps survive by shrinking into a jelly, zombie-like state retaining coral genes for the next generation, when the ocean’s pH levels recalibrate and coral skeletons regrow, a process that can take up to 10,000 years.


Corals have utilized this “evolutionary escape hatch” for survival during the last five mass extinction events. The film takes place in a surreal environment, a fish tank in which glowing droplets fall slowly through the agar onto the crevices of a coral skeleton below. To create these tiny “actors” I combined molecular cuisine ‘pearls’ infused with green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish.


The phrase “Je mange la Mort pour Dîner” is repeated throughout the film’s soundtrack, at once sensual, melancholy, guttural and empowered layered with whale songs, jazz, giggles and whispers, accompanied by the sound of decaying cells which are extracts from the feature documentary ‘Cells’ by Wil Mathijs, original sound recordings and soundscapes of the works by Martin Uit den Bogaard.

"Je mange la Mort pour Dîner," © Mara Haseltine 

Mara G. Haseltine is an international artist, a pioneer in the field of SciArt, and an environmental activist and educator.  Haseltine frequently collaborates with scientists and engineers to create work that addresses the link to between our cultural and biological evolution.  Her work takes place in the studio lab and field infusing scientific inquiry with poetry.  As a young artist she worked for the French American artist Nicki de saint Phalle laying mosaics at her monumental Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy as well as with the Smithsonian Museum in conjunction with National Museum of Trinidad and Tabago in Port of Spain Trinidad.  In the early 2000’s she began her first art and science collaboration with scientists decoding the human genome. She was a pioneer in the translation of scientific data and bioinformatics into three-dimensional sculptures and became known for her outsized renditions of microscopic and sub-microscopic life.  Haseltine is a founder of the “green salon’ which was based out of Washington DC in the mid 2000’s, a working group devoted to environmental solutions connecting policy makers and businesses.  Though many of her environmental works are awareness pieces often focusing on humanity’s relationship to the microscopic world some of her works act as functional solutions to environmental degradation. She has studied sustainable reef restoration methods extensively for the past 15 years and has been a contributing member to the Global Coral Reef Alliance since 2006, as their NYC representative and has been involved in their initiative for sustainable solutions with SIDS or the Small Island States at the United Nations. In 2007, Haseltine created NYC’s first solar-powered oyster reef in Queens NYC. She was awarded the Explorer’s Club Flag75 Return with Honors in 2012 for their three-year voyage around the world studying the ocean’s relationship to atmospheric climate change with Tara Expeditions.  Haseltine’s work is refreshing in the world of environmental and biomedical art because of its surreal often-playful and witty nature as well as her intense devotion to ascetics, and sensuality.


If you'd like to see more, visit her exhibit with Gaelin Rosenwaks (also featured on World Ocean Forum) at #FutureFashionDumbo, 52 Bridge Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn, NY, at 6PM on June 1st. See below the save the date!


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© World Ocean Observatory 2019