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Weirdest Ocean Animals

Here at Refinery Towers, we love sea creatures. So much that we made three videos about sea creatures around the Scottish coast for St Abbs Marine Reserve.

Many creatures of the deep are not well known, and we feel that all of them deserve a bit more publicity (even if some of them have faces more suitable for radio than the internet). So, we present our top favourite weird sea creatures that you may not have heard of before.


 7. Amphioxus

Considering we filmed a video about Scottish wildlife, it’s only fair that the first animal on this list can be found in Scottish waters. Although, it looks like a fish, it is actually a distant relative. Amphioxus doesn’t have a backbone. I don’t mean it’s a cowardly animal, rather, it’s spinal chord is surrounded by  a rod of cells called a notochord. Scientists believe that this arrangement was also found in our earliest vertebrate ancestors.

Again, no disrepect to the Amphioxus  but they are very simple creatures. They have no respiratory organs like gills (instead they breathe through their skin). They have no heart and no blood cells either. They also have no brain, just a collection of nerve cells in the front part of their body.

With no backbone, no brain and no heart, Amphioxus really needs to pay a visit to the Wizard of Oz.



Apologies for my terrible photoshopping


6. Squidworm


This beautiful creature is not a squid, but it is a worm – an annelid like earthworms and leeches. It lives on the bottom of the ocean floor in the region known as the bentho-pelagic zone (the bottom several hundred metres that is influenced by the seafloor)
They have an odd diet, eating what is known as marine snow – a delightful term disguising an unappetising mix of fecal material, discarded mucus and dead things floating in the water.

It’s cool yellow curvy moustache are really palps – structures that the worm uses for feeling it’s way around the ocean floor. It also use them to look badass.



5. Sea Spider

As a self-confessed screaming-like-a-little-girl arachnophobe, I thought perhaps I would be safe for my 8-legged nemeses in the water. But, no. They’re in the ocean too. Although sea spiders are not actually archanids, they are relatives having split from the  true spiders 400 million years ago. All that time, they’ve kept their 8 legs though.



Living in the sea gives them certain advantages over their terrestrial cousins. With water to support their bodies, sea spiders can grow much larger.  Some can have leg spans of over 50 cm – nearly double the size of the largest land spider.

Sea spider legs are much thinner than land spiders (as a result of the ocean water supporting most of the sea spider’s weight). One group – the Pycnogonids – have legs so small that they only have one muscle cell in each leg.

If you’re freaked out right now, move on to number 7 – it’s much cuter.



4. Nudibranch

As well as having an hilarious name, nudibranchs are the coolest little molluscs under the sea. There’s over 3000 species of nudibranch and their body forms vary quite wildly.


Many are extremely colourful – like Berghia coerulescens with its striking blue and yellow cerata. It’s believed that nudibranchs evolved to be so colourful because they lost a major defence mechanism – their shell.  As a result, they evolved poisons to avoid being eaten. But it’s no use being poisonous if your enemies don’t know. So, many poisonous animals evolve to be colourful in tandem to warn away potential predators. Treefrogs in the Amazon and banded Coral snakes also do this.


3. Christmas tree worms

Spirobranchus giganteus

From the ridiculous to the sublime, Christmas tree worms may be the most beautiful creatures in the sea. They’re not plants as their appearance may suggest, and they don’t feed on sunlight. Instead they use their delicate fans to filter and trap plankton from the water. The worms begin their lives as tiny larvae, which hunt for a hard coral surface to make its home. It then builds a tubular suit of armour out of calcium carbonate. The video below shows how quickly the worms can retract their feathery gills into their tube to protect themselves from harm.

2. Giant Isopod


Congratulations Mrs Jones – it’s a beautiful four pound, 14 legged bundle of joy.  This monstrous creature is a giant isopod and is closely related to the common woodlouse (which are also cutely called chuggypigs or cheeselogs). There isn’t much cute about the giant isopod though. Feeding on the flesh of dead whales and squid in the pitch darkness on the bottom of the ocean floor, giant isopods gorge themselves on anything they can find. When nothing can be found, the isopods can successfully fast for four whole years.







1. Mantis Shrimp


You should pay attention to their threatening-sounding name rather than their cute appearence – Mantis shrimps are a terrible force of death in the ocean. Just consider how biologists divide up mantis shrimps into groups – Spearers and Smashers. Spearers use their claws to (you guessed it) spear unfortunate nearby animals. Smashers are more brutal – they have claws that bludgeon their puny victims to death.

Their claws (both smashers and speares) are deadly in another way too. Mantis shrimps are incredibly fast. Some species can accellerate at around 102,000 m/s2 and pull 10,000 g in the process. This produces a lot of bubbles. Bubbles generally aren’t that dangerous – unless they’re accelerating 300x the speed of sound. As they smash into the shrimp’s prey they cause a noticeable amount of damage.

Mantis shrimp bubbles are cool in another way, an almost magical way. They produce light as they collapse. This is called Sonoluminescence. Noone really knows yet why this happens, but is probably due to ionised gaess produced when the bubble heats up as it collapses.


Remember to check out our educational videos of the wildlife and ecology of the St Abbs coastal habitat.  You can see them here.

N.B. The weirdest sea creature ever described by science is this starfish. Check it out.


Top 10 dogs from Film & TV

Bully Breed, the short film we produced in conjunction with Battersea Dogs Home, was screened to a committee at the Houses of Parliament last week. The film’s purpose is to highlight and combat the growing problem of young people acquiring bull-breed dogs for use as weapons.

To mark the film’s release, and to celebrate the joy of working with dogs, I’ve put together a list of my 10 favourite onscreen mutts. Now if this were a proper top 10 based on merit or cachet then Lassie would win every time, but I’m afraid her bumptious little face has no place here. These are just my personal faves: the funny ones, the messy ones, and the alcoholic womanising atheist ones. Bowow!


10. Iron Will (1994) **VAGUE SPOILERS (It’s a kids film though, no biggie)**

iron will
This film is essentially Free Willy but with huskies instead of an orca whale. Unsurprisingly, it was released just a year later. A few details are changed here and there (the huskies are taking part in a race, or something), but overall it’s a fairly mediocre rehash of the classic family whale-a-thon. In fact, August Schellenberg – he plays good old Randolph in the Free Willy franchise – appears in this, and he’s playing exactly the same enigmatic, definitely high, mystic who becomes the protagonist’s mentor/father-figure. I think he’s even wearing some of the same clothes that he wore in Free Willy.

The reasons I’m including Iron Will in this list are twofold: firstly, huskies are amazing and they feature fairly heavily in this film; and secondly, for anyone who enjoys watching poorly executed family melodrama for its intrinsic ironical value, Iron Will is a goldmine.

In Free Willy, remember the inscrutable mantra that Randolph teaches Jesse, which he then uses to goad Willy to jump over the rocks? Well, in Iron Will, exactly the same thing happens, except the mantra is transposed into a pedestrian four-note melody that, when whistled, makes the huskies go twice as fast! This guy gets it.

This movie has to be seen to be believed, plus Kevin Spacey’s in it for a bit.


9. Barf – Spaceballs (1987)

“Mawg, I’m a mawg”


A definite controversial choice here, Barfolomew is of course a “Mawg” – half-man half-dog (he’s “his own best friend”). But his mere 50% doggishness makes the list on the merit of John Candy’s hilarity, and just Spaceballs in general.

Mildly interesting Wiki fact: In the Russian translation of the movie, a Mawg was rendered as “Chelobakka”, a portmanteau of words “chelovek” (a man) and “sobaka” (a dog) also spoofing the name Chewbacca. I bet you’re glad that you’re reading this blog now.



8. Brian Griffin – Family Guy

“Whose leg do you have to hump to get a dry martini around here?”

It’s telling of Seth MacFarlane’s attitude towards the typical American family that he decided to make the two most intellectual characters in his show a dog and a baby. One of Family Guy’s greatest triumphs is Brian the anthropomorphised, politicised, atheist labrador retriever, voiced in MacFarlane’s own speaking voice. Apparently William H. Macy originally auditioned for the part of Brian, but it seems impossible to imagine anyone else doing it now.

Brian and Stewie’s relationship is easily the best part of the show and the “Road to…” episodes always deliver. He’s the least dog-like dog on this list, but that allows him to commit bestiality, write a novel, drink and drive, and we don’t mind because we see him as another human character. Some of his funniest moments come about, however, when he fails to repress his own nature and starts acting instinctively dog-like.



7. Milo – The Mask (1994)

“P-A-R-T….Why?…” – It’s fair to say that there’s something wrong with you if you can’t complete this quote from The Mask. Arguably the Anchorman of the 90s, this film is memorable, quotable, but it’s not just all about Jim Carrey.

It wouldn’t be right to neglect the talents of Max the Jack Russell terrier who plays Stanley Ipkiss’ faithful frisbee-loving companion Milo. He brings an extra splash of character to ensure we don’t OD on Carrey’s rip-roaring garishness, and also is responsible for one of the few laugh-out-loud moments not involving his owner. You know the one I mean.





6. Cynthia’s Dog – The Big Lebowski (1997)

lebowski scriptI’ll usually find some way of getting The Big Lebowski into any list I’m compiling. Its brilliance and eclecticism mean that it contains classic examples of many things. A dog cameo is one of these things. Although, admittedly, it’s quite a small aspect of the movie compared to some of the other canines on this list, Walter’s ex-wife’s “Pomeranian” nevertheless inspires some of the quintessential dialogue which Lebowski fans have come to learn and repeat like scripture.

The reason I write “Pomeranian” is because the dog in question isn’t actually a Pomeranian at all. It’s either a Cairn or Yorkshire terrier – this is a Pomeranian. The purposeful inaccuracy sets up a little cohesive running gag which is called back to later when the Dude incorrectly identifies the “amphibious rodent” in the bath with him as a marmot (it’s actually a ferret). The Dude and Walter were clearly smoking too many Thai sticks during college. 

Comedic turns such as this are embedded in the loquacious dialogue and generally remain hidden during the first few hundred viewings, hence why the film is so relentlessly re-watchable. The dog may not have any real narrative significance, but it adds to the layers of comedy and also appears in two of the film’s funniest scenes. Not exactly a lightweight.



5. Santa’s Little Helper – The Simpsons

Introduced in the very first episode of The Simpsons to ever be aired (December 17, 1989), Bart’s dimwitted but loveable pooch (NOT Poochie) has been at the centre of some of the shows greatest episodes. “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds” would undoubtedly be in my top 10.

He’s the antithesis of Brian Griffin, portrayed as every bit a real-life dog, apart from a few breaks in this portrayal for the sake of a gag – my personal favourite example of this, apologies for video quality.

Whether he’s being chased through the vents by Willy (“There’s nary an animal alive that can outrun a greased Scotsman!”), or turning into liquid Terminator 2 style in order to escape the car, Santa’s Little Helper is involved in some of The Simpsons’ best laughs.



4. Beethoven (1992)

“AAAAAAaaaahhhh!!!” – Charles Grodin in Beethoven

I suspect that – aside from being one of the most influential composers ever, whose music is still lauded the world over – Ludwig van Beethoven would’ve also been very proud that his name is now synonymous with one of the greatest canine-based family comedies starring Charles Grodin of all time.

Co-written by John Hughes (Home Alone; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) under a pseudonym, this bouncy caper (and the SIX sequels that followed it) chronicles the misadventures of a colossal St. Bernard, played by Chris. Beethoven was an entertainment staple for any child growing up in the 90s. My favourite bit can be viewed here – the trailer is a minor masterpiece in itself.



Those were some particularly potent Scooby snacks – “Ruh-roh!”

3. Scooby-Doo

I’m obviously talking about the Scooby from the original Hanna-Barbera series, rather than the 3D abomination of the more recent films. I suppose he would place somewhere in between Santa’s Little Helper and Brian Griffin in terms of cognitive ability. He’s not completely dog-like, he has rudiments of language, but somehow his younger cousin Scrappy has already fully mastered his lexicon, whilst Scoob keeps dropping in random “R’s” all over the place. Must be all that gear that Shaggy keeps feeding him.


Another mildly interesting Wiki fact: Scoob’s name was inspired by the syllables “doo-be-doo-be-doo” from Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”. Keep that doozy in your back pocket the next time you want to win at conversation.





2. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)homeward bound

I can only apologise for the fairly 90s-centric nature of this list, it wasn’t my intention when I started out writing. It’s not my fault that so much quality entertainment was produced during the decade I happened to grow up in, a disproportionate amount of it apparently dog related.

Homeward Bound is perhaps the seminal example, the story of Chance and Shadow (played respectively by a bulldog called Rattler and a golden retiever called Ben)  – and whatever the cat’s name was. It’s the cornerstone of so many 90s kids’ sentimental cinematic memories (there’s also Fly Away Home, but I’ll save that for my top 10 onscreen birds). It’s one of those films that will always come up when other grown-up 90s kids are having one of those “remember all that shit we used to like?” conversations.

Someone will say: “Remember Homeward Bound?” And everyone will coo and go: “Aaawww yeah!! Doesn’t Michael J. Fox play the bulldog or something?!”

He does indeed.



1. Uggie – The Artist (2011) / Water for Elephants (2011) and more

“Where’s my Oscar, bitches?”

Most notable for his role as Jack in Oscar-winning The Artist, Uggie was the toast of Hollywood in 2012. So much so, in fact, that a Facebook campaign began entitled “Consider Uggie” which aimed to get the dog recognised by the Academy for his work.

The Academy doesn’t recognise dogs because, as the probably apocryphal tale goes, at the very first Academy Awards in 1929 the legendary German shepherd Rin Tin Tin apparently received the most votes in the Best Actor category. For whatever reason – possibly the Academy not wanting to make their very first ceremony a complete farce – Rin Tin Tin was supplanted and the award given to soon-to-be Nazi propaganda star Emil Jannings.

Perhaps it’s time to eschew this precedent and introduce a “Best Animal Performance” Oscar. As one reviewer noted of Uggie in The Artist: he “steals every scene in which he appears,” a shining example that dogs don’t just have to be a fluffy novelty on the big screen.

Well that’s it, thanks for reading. Make sure to watch Bully Breed on our YouTube channel. You’d be barking mad not to. I’m sorry.



Simon Mayo – not just a pretty face (for radio)

In my formative years; those during which whether you were a “Whammie” or  “Duranie” was all important – I was neither. Nik Kershaw  was my poster crush, (and I still know all of the lyrics to The Riddle and I still have no idea what its all about, although the album is apparently being re-released this year ) .

Simon Mayo as he is now...

Simon Mayo as he is now…

But one thing that united teenagers in the late 1980s, was Simon Mayo on Radio 1. If the decade you were born in starts 1980 something or 1990 something, you may not realise that this grandee of Radio 2 (currently in the Drivetime slot), slowly and gracefully edging his way into the more rigorously intellectual Radio 4, was once the primetime Radio 1 breakfast show DJ du jour.

...and as I remember him looking in the Radio 1 days

…and as I remember him in the Radio 1 days

I have science to thank for the fact that I heard Simon’s radio show at all. For most of his tenure at the helm of the Radio 1 flagship breakfast show, I was at university. Ask an arts graduate about what they were up to at 9am in the morning, and most of them would tell you they were still in bed, but for us science students, it was 9am lectures every day, which meant waking up to Simon Mayo in the morning

Fast forward a couple of decades and Simon now has a ten year old son, Joe, who he has become interested in science. Frustrated by turning up nothing when he looked for a good adventure book about science, he decided to write his own, and Itch, the story of Itchington Lofte: Element Hunter was born.

His 400 page novel earned him a host of awards including a nomination for the Carnegie Medal, and the Branford Boase award for children’s authors. For an interview with Simon about the book – click here. he’s also on twitter @simonmayo

Simon is currently on tour promoting its sequel – Itch Rocks. He was at our beloved Royal Institution this weekend just passed, which meant he earned a listing on our sister website www.sciencecontent.co.uk.

Our first guest blogger, Jack Croxall of www.unpopularscience.co.uk and http://jackcroxall.co.uk has written a review of Itch.


Chemistry is widely considered as one of the most difficult subjects to make exciting, but Simon Mayo, radio presenter of the BBC’s Drivetime and Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, seems to have discovered the perfect formula for doing so: (explosions x noxious materials) ÷ sinister global corporations. And, utilising this winning equation, Mayo has penned his debut novel, Itch; the story of fourteen year old Itchingham Lofte who, whilst attempting to collect every element in the periodic table, comes into possession of a curious new element with world-changing potential.

At its core, Itch revolves around the relationship of Itch, his younger sister Chloe and his cousin Jacqueline (Jack) as they cope with the problems associated with possessing a radioactive substance the world and his dog would do anything to obtain. And what a charming and absorbing relationship it is; despite being the youngest, Chloe is the most sensible of the trio and keeps her likeable brother in check as his escapades teeter on the verge of disaster. Jack brings an abundance of smarts to the dynamic, helping Itch see through his more risky moments with a tomboyish expertise. Mayo has written all three of the central trio brilliantly, and you can’t help but wonder if some traits of his own children have contributed to the mixture.

As for the chemistry included, it’s well measured, clear and undeniably fascinating; from learning how the household objects you own relate to the periodic table, to explanations of explosive reactions, there is enough here to justify Itch as an informative text without ever suffocating the exciting plot. I recently wrote a piece arguing that the Pokémon games successfully communicate biological principles to their target audience, and I think it’s fair to say that Itch does the same for Chemistry.

Being set in modern-day Cornwall (and being a young adult title), a good proportion of Itch takes place in the central trios’ school. Mayo has always been vocal of his love of the Harry Potter series and some of the disastrous goings on at Cornwall Academy echo some of the more memorable happenings in the classrooms of Hogwarts. However, whilst there was always the healing properties of magic to help smooth things over in Rowling’s universe, the potential consequences of Itch’s exploits are more serious, and this is perhaps the book’s greatest strength: whilst tremendous fun, there is the constant, underlying feeling that the main characters in Itch may well be about to come to serious harm.

Itch by Simon Mayo is available now

Bully Breed – a film for Battersea Dogs and Cats home

This project was a new venture for The Refinery, our first opportunity to produce a live action drama. Although it was a nice break from the usual factual, informative stuff, Bully Breed presented a brand new set of challenges, not least of which was working with animals.

The brief from Battersea Dog and Cat’s Home was to produce a short film which would highlight the growing problem of young people illicitly acquiring bull-breed dogs. Seen as ‘status dogs’, these animals are treated aggressively and used as weapons.

A drafted script was produced by Battersea. At its core – essentially a straightforward cautionary tale – the story involves Cale and Shar and the ramifications of their juxtaposed attitudes towards canine companions. After a flurry of re-writes, casting calls, auditions, permission requests, and all the other irksome things you forget have to happen for a movie to get made, we had just 2 days in which to get all the principal photography in the can.

Here are some EXCLUSIVE behind-the-scenes snaps from those exhausting, yet ultimately rewarding, 48 hours…

The dogs were a real joy to work with. In fact, the only significant problem was getting Alfie the Rotty to look even mildly menacing on camera. As you can clearly see from the pictures above he was soppy, mild-mannered, and far too well behaved to portray Omen – Cale’s damaged and bloodthirsty tool for revenge.

Nevertheless, the film eventually came together and was screened to a parliamentary committee last week. They’ve been tasked with tackling this mistreatment of bull-breed dogs and our film was shown to highlight the key issues.


Royal Institution Christmas Lecture – Explosion Films

To accompany last year’s  Christmas Lectures, the Royal Insitution asked us to produce three films of amazing chemical reactions. Inspired by the old alchemical elements, the videos show dramatic examples of ‘Earth’, ‘Air’ and ‘Fire’ changing before your eyes. The Earth video shows the violent destruction of calcium oxide blocks with water, Air shows the dangerous power of nitrogen triiodide, while Fire warns of the danger of putting water on an oil fire.

The three videos were featured on the Daily Mail and Guardian websites.


See the making of video for Fire – Oil on water