an Amphibological Research Project


Here at the ​Department of Amphibological Research​, our primary studies are in the equivocal interpretation of the natural world. While on Ko Lon, we used technologically aided misidentification techniques to discover a host of ambiguous new species on the island. However, we became especially fascinated with one particular animal: the hermit crab (Fig. 1).

Figure 1

Hermit crabs in Ko Lon are not difficult to spot: lay still on the beach for more than a couple of minutes and you will soon notice some shells crawling around you. We immediately fell in love with the little crustaceans. Maybe because, unlike most animals, they are so easy to catch and play with: delightful toy-sized robots of nature. Maybe because their mismatched shells gives each one of them a slightly goofy and unique look. Whatever the reason: we started asking ourselves some amphibological questions: is it possible that the different shells reflect different aesthetic preferences and personalities? Or ​vice versa:​ can the chosen shell affect the crab’s attitudes and behaviors? The field seemed ripe for some crab misunderstanding, but we didn’t know how to tackle these important questions.

Figure 2

Then, early on during one of our explorations – when the sand on the beach was still undisturbed by Dinosaur tracks – we noticed the intricate imprints left behind by the hermit crabs (Fig. 2). Rambling and asymmetric, they came in so many different sizes and shapes, almost as varied as their shells. We therefore speculated that the tracks may provide a window into the personality of the crabs. To test this hypothesis, three experimental protocols were designed and performed between July 8 and July 10.

Methods and Results

1. Sand – The most obvious first step was to attempt to record the crab tracks directly on the original inspirational medium: sand. However, we needed a way to record crabs behaviour in a controlled environment, one crab at the time. We proceeded to dig a more or less rectangular arena (Fig. 3A), high enough to prevent a medium sized crab to escape (which some passersby delightfully misunderstood as a crab-fighting pit). We then proceeded to place in the arena 3 separate crabs, with notably different shells, letting them free to wander around for a couple of minutes each and took pictures of their tracks (see Fig. 3B). However, this first method was not satisfying for two reasons: the most extravagant crabs emerge from their burrow toward dusk, which meant that the lighting conditions on the beach were far from ideal at the time of the experiment. Also, the crabs instead of wandering around were mostly trying to escape, slowly demolishing the walls of our arena. Soon enough we decided to fold up the Crab Lab #1.

Figure 3A
Figure 3B
Crab Lab fail

2. Paint – Although less faithful than sand tracks, paint provides a much more durable and easy medium to record the crabs crawling. We first experimented with some blue acrylic paint, to see if the crabs were comfortable with this medium. Protected by their exoskeleton the crabs didn’t seem to mind having their legs dipped in blue paint and we were extremely pleased with the results (Fig. 4A). We therefore proceeded with more elaborate experiments, completely disregarding our original plan to record each crab individually. The painting in Fig. 4B was produced by letting an indeterminate number of crabs, randomly sampled from our surroundings, wander around as long as we pleased.


Figure 4A
Figure 4B

We later got over our excitement and returned to our original goal: we collected 3 crabs (Fig. 5A) with distinctive shells and let each one of them paint for a couple of minutes with a different color on sheets of papers of equal size (NOTE: each crab was arbitrarily moved around at random locations whenever the crab got fixated on a corner – more often than not). Overlapping the separate channels (Fig. 5B) clearly reveals very different levels of craftsmanship and artistic sensibilities.

Crab A (blue) has a bold sensibility with rational, linear strokes. There is a sureness and sophistication to these graphic, directional lines, evoking a flowing river or receding tide.

Crab B (red)’s work takes a more tentative, thoughtful approach – its mark making has an impressionistic quality with a cross-hatched layering effect – describing dimensions of an unknowable form.

Crab C (yellow) took a more playful approach, her work recalls the graffiti like scrawls of a young Cy Twombly. The claws here have a freshness and immediacy that show great promise.

Figure 5A (legend)
Figure 5B

3. Light – Late on the last night of our residency after a hard day in the lab, we thought the crabs could use a little fun. We teamed up with Andy and Chris to create a final, light-based experiment. We temporarily attached colored LED lights to different crabs and allowed them free (more or less) to chart their own courses. First in a confined environment in the house (Fig. 6A) and later completely unbounded on the beach (Fig. 6B). Of course, this technique did not allow us to record the tracks of the crabs in any detail but it had several other advantages: 1) LED lights were more durable than paint; 2) it allowed us to study crabs in the dark and we were in a hurry; 3) it looked pretty damn cool!

We actually had 6 (maybe 7?) crabs in our initial trial and unfortunately LED lights could only be set to 3-4 different wavelengths. This meant that we had crabs with completely different shells wearing the same colour, which completely confounded our results and did not allow us to unequivocally associate specific crabs with their tracks, but to be honest we didn’t much care anymore.

Figure 6A
Figure 6B

(Photography by the indomitable Andy “Don’t” Quitmeyer)


In conclusion, based on our poorly-designed and shoddily-performed experiments we can firmly reject the null hypothesis (based on pure self-confidence): hermit crabs are not just simple arthropods made more relatable to the human eye by their mismatched shells. We argue that these crustaceans exhibit unique personalities and advanced artistic sensibilities, revealed only in part by their choice of shell and crawling behaviour.

Future directions. These experiments, as well as recent reports by Minsky et al. 2018, show that there is great under-appreciated art potential in hermit crabs, and arguably in crabs of all species. Indeed, in the following weeks, while exploring other tropical beaches we came across many interesting sand markings left by other kinds of crabs. Not only do crabs produce elegant tracks when they walk but most of them burrow during the day, producing further patterns of great interest. Here are only two examples: the Ghost Crab (Fig. 7A) besides looking extremely badass, also creates these comet-like shapes around their burrow (Fig. 7B). The elusive Sand Bubbler Crab (too small for us to take a good picture), builds delicate constellations of tiny sand balls (Fig. 8). Finally, take a look at these crazy snails which we met on our last day in Phuket going round and round in celtic-looking tracks (Fig. 9). This will no doubt provide inspiration for many years of amphibological studies.

Figure 7A
Figure 7B
Figure 8


Figure 9

Practical applications. Beyond their aesthetic value, there is considerable potential in crab-inspired designs and tools. As a proof of concept, our in-house designer studied the individual crab markings and processed these into a series of digital brushes (Fig. 10A) – available to download at this link -which she then used to compose a meandering, infinitely repeating pattern (Fig. 10B). Some fabric prints are currently in development and we welcome suggestions for further artistic and commercial applications.

Figure 10A
Figure 10B

Ode to Dinacon

The Best Thing about Dinacon
You work
get hot
maybe frustrated too
and then
take off your cloths
and swim in the ocean.

Koh Lon, 6/7/2018

The Second Best Thing about Dinacon
Sitting on the porch
crochetting plarn
listening to friends talk
about why we’re all here
and why we’ll all come back
together again.

Koh Lon, 7/7/2018

The Third Best Thing about Dinacon
Is more important than the first
we’re in love
but still in the early stages of this relationship
learning to make meaningful connections
between zeros and cocoanuts
between dinaflagulance and ones

as love-affairs go
we worry about making this one last
our fear of rejection
growing every day we don’t act

but let us not expect
too much too soon
let us become great listeners
observers, smellers, touchers and feelers,
“amazing” organs
of a loving -ism.

Bangkok, 20/7/2018

The Least Best Thing about Dinacon
…coming soon…

Ode to Dinacon - verse 1

Ode to Dinacon - verse 2

Ode to Dinacon - verse 2 pic

Ode to Dinacon - verse 3

Tidal Memories

Tidal Memories displays Dinacon photos against an animated intertidal zone.

Tidal Memories is an interactive, environmentally-informed visualization of photos posted to Matrix (Riot) during Dinacon. It displays photos taken during Dinacon, on a representation of the intertidal zone in front of the Dinacon site in Koh Lon, Phuket, in Thailand.

The live site is here.

Photos are positioned vertical along the intertidal zone, according to the tide level when they were taken (or, at least, posted to Riot).

They are positioned horizontally from midnight on the left, to the following midnight on the right.

Some memories are covered by the water. The tide level indicates the current tide in Koh Lon. At high tide, you won’t see much.

Mouse over a photo to see its details. 

The Site

Here are photos at high and low tide, of the intertidal zone in front of the Dinacon site.

If you have your audio turned up, you may be able to hear waves. These were recorded on site.

During (part of) Dinacon, the display brightness was keyed to an on-site light sensor. During night (and when severely overcast), the image would fade to black; during twilight (and when slightly overcast) it would darken. The current display doesn’t attempt to simulate this, since doing so would render the display unusable during much of the Western hemisphere’s waking hours.


Matrix is an open network for decentralized communication. Riot is a set of clients (web, desktop, mobile) for viewing and posting to Matrix chat rooms. During Dinacon, participants posted images to Matrix (Riot), as well as to Twitter and Instagram.

The code consists of a scraper, that reads the photos from Dinacon’s Matrix rooms; a web client, that displays the scene; a micro:bit program that sends ambient light data to a connected computer; and a Python script that relays this information to the cloud where it can inform the web display. The web client is written in JavaScript, using React, Redux, and SVG. The micro:bit code uses TypeScript. The remaining code is in Python, using Flask for the web server. The system uses Mongodb to store Matrix message and image metadata, AWS S3 to store the images themselves, and websockets to propogate the environmental information from an on-site micro:bit to the display. The API server is hosted on Heroku; the web client is hosted on Netlify.

The source code and installation instructions are here.

Related Projects

Matrix-photo-gallery is a more conventional photo gallery for Matrix (Riot) rooms. I wrote it as a debugging tool, along the way to this more artistic rendition.

Matrix-archive uses similar code to grab photos and chatroom transcripts from Matrix. It was created for use by the documentation team.

DinaCrab: Hermit Crab Behavior

When humans are near, making noise or stomping on the ground or rippling the intertidal waters, our crab retracts swiftly into its shell and only a little bit of claw can be seen:

When the humans back away, and stay quiet and still, our crab comes out and waves its claws about, testing that it has a peaceful environment again, and then gets on with its business of scrabbling about looking for food or patrolling its space:

Who is our crab?

We have been taken with the hermit crabs of Koh Lon, their big personalities (from an anthropomorphic perspective) and varied looks and behaviours (from an ethological/naturalist perspective). Throughout their lives they move to ever larger colorful shells, from compact round snail houses to pointy or gracefully ovoid ones. They come out to the beach in diverse-looking groups because of their differences in size, shell type, and claw colors. If you get close, they snap into their shells, a little patience and distance and they are eager to get on with their business while we are watching.

Another crab, the fiddler crab, was one of the first dramatic animals we met. On our first evening we walked on a huge intertidal expanse exposed by a full moon tide, and the bright orange of swarms of fiddler crabs were dramatic. But as soon as one gets close, one’s footfalls, water disturbances, or shadows alert the fiddler crabs who all pop into their holes in the coral or sand. As they disappear one sees their bright orange claws, and then nothing. Only quite a bit of distance or perfect stillness from the humans gives them a safe time to come back out.

We simplified my (Margaret’s) orginal wearables Dinacon project concept to collaborate on creating “humans” and “crabs” animated on Microbit boards, which felicitously have cute orange-red displays on board suitable for crab claws! We installed one of our crabs in a mighty shell, and let Dinasaurs carry human boards and other crab boards around with them. Using the Microbit’s packet radio capability as a quick, though not very accurate or precise, ranging technology, crabs can tell whether there is any human nearby. As soon as any human gets in range, it snaps into its shell, leaving just a claw visible (like a hermit crab’s visible armored claw blocking it’s shell opening). As soon as all humans are far enough away, the shy crab comes back out waving its claws about.

Using the packet ranging for interactivity between creatures was inspired by a lovely and extensive dance performance interaction project by Emily Daub, her student capstone project at the ATLAS Center at CU-Boulder. We are grateful for her inspiration, and for help from Emily and her student colleague Annie Kelly.

Creating the animation of the crab claws, in my happy place near the sewing/textile/yarn corner. Microbit universe in an egg crate.

Oliver and I collaborated on programming for the crab/human existence and interactions. We used the microbit/microsoft blocks-language interface to its Typescript language (Javascript). Oliver built up a test suite for packet radio ranging in textual Typescript as well. I built several wearable versions of the boards using various batteries and sewn wearable holders, then ended up simplifying to hand-carrying the lightweight boards with simple enclosed battery pak. I also decided on an indoor installation space for our largest crab. For the humans, it feels like walking on the beach while carrying a rock or shell one might have picked up. For the crabs, is that like carrying a shell? No idea…

Here’s video of DinaCrab: Dinacrab with human 23 sec and Dinacrab in-progress 2 mins

This is most of the blocks code for the main interactivity. It supports as many “crab” and “human” boards as you want, we had four at Dinacon. Usually configured as one crab, three humans, sometimes two crabs two humans.

Any questions contact us!

You can find the micro:bit code to make your own humans and crabs at:

You can also find Oliver’s micro:bit RSS metering code here:

by Margaret Minsky and Oliver Steele
Koh Lon, June 27 – July 7

photo of hermit crab uncredited stock photo

Soil/earth/dirt and poop? Connections in:/out:

Soil/earth/dirt and poop? Connections in:/out:

Reflections on my time at DINACON

Huiying Ng


Working on maps inevitably gets me thinking about connection and connectivity – the links between relations spatial and biological, but also the human and social. DINACON is a big blobby, lovable mess/h, a meshy, net-like structure of parts and people moving in and leaving bits of themselves behind.

A little like this snail leaving its bits on my palm:

Or like a bunch of us adding to the DINACON google map of plants which Craig Durkin started!


I came to DINACON to work on creating simple soil testing kits for gardeners. But the more I talked to people, the more I started doing: thinking about a soil and elevation map, playing with plant impedance and conductivity, learning about Arduino coding (and making something – scary!). I was way outside my comfort zone of the social sciences. But it was all interconnected with the social sciences and humanities; every moment of activity was culture forming quietly, mostly unobserved. When I left, I found myself thinking about the DINACON experience while finishing up my maps. There’s a section from chapter 1 of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which I love, and which is all about connection.

A man finds an unfamiliar fruit in a market in Bangkok, in a future world where food production has become entirely driven by GM-food companies. He stops to examine it. The fruit seller talks to him, “seeking connection”. Nothing touches him in this wet and bustling market as he thinks through his mental repository of “flowers and vegetables and trees and fruits [which] make up the geography of [his] mind” – “nowhere does he find a helpful signpost that leads him to identification”. And then, he eats it. As he bites into it, he finds himself tasting the past in this “slick translucent ball”. Suddenly, “a fist of flavor, ripe with sugar and fecundity. The sticky flower bomb coats his tongue… The shell-shocked moment of flavor – real flavor – after a lifetime devoid of it.” He’s found not a discovery but a resurrection, a connection to the past through flavour. History and possibility and the future shift all at once.


I love this passage for so many reasons, but most of all, I think it was because I had no idea what this fruit was – so many hints, so many signs, but we just keep guessing until bang, it hits us.


Food and poop are grossly different. But consumption and excretion aren’t all that far apart – we might say they feed (!) one another. It’s easier to see this with abstract poop. We poop ideas for instance much faster than we visibly excrete what we eat. And we pay a lot more attention to ideas, too: it’s gross to think of pooping ideas; no, we generate ideas instead. Granted, idea generation and excretion are a little different – generation tends to be more valuable than excretion. So we go on circling through this logic, and for whatever reason, even though poop and excretion is the basis of life, we rarely think of our ideas as the mental excrements of daily life! Perhaps this is because sewage and toilet matters aren’t very nice to think about or work around. But they are the measure of how well a system functions and renews itself: whether measured in the outhouse of a cabin, the blackwater storage tank on a ship, the lavatories of a train, or the wondrous open toilets of the jungles and woods. Strangely, even as we’ve drawn toilets closer into the intimate proximities of our lives, they’ve grown the opposite way, becoming more alien to most of us. Specialisation has created black boxes of muck. We’re useless to actually live on the planet now without the technical knowhow of a small group of people who can’t possibly get around all that much, to be captains of a system in a way that fits the needs of every member in it.

So much for connection. Connection and poop really don’t seem to fit. But if DINACON is a connected, bustling, lively island conference/house of ideas in the making and people meeting, it’s also about all the residual stuff that sticks, settles, and holds on – more stubborn than barnacles. A system’s input and a system’s output are pretty different, but a DINACON that accepts a new wave of people, as a seasoned group leaves its shore, becomes an earthly being rotating through space-time with a gravitational field of its own. What goes in and what comes out all stay in orbit, whether consciously choosing to or not. So then: how many times in two months does DINACON complete an orbit? And perhaps: how many times in two months do other bodies complete orbits around DINACON?

Connectivity is so central and so deadly: buzzing circuits that fail; electric wires buzzing overhead after a rainstorm; buzzing human conversational germs and bees that unwittingly bump into their deaths on weaver ant nests, chasing the shine of a torch. Life is hooked to signs of promise: we’re led by our noses and senses whether we like it or not, know it or not. Most times connections maintain a system, or fall away. Sometimes it leads to new, viable connections: new (medicinal) drug routes, civic partnerships, interdisciplinary breakthroughs and collective-but-autonomous epiphanies. So it wouldn’t be strange that social connection, ecological and synthetic-biological connections pushed together become a florid display and a poopy display altogether.

I’ve been obsessed with soil for the past half a year. Everything for me is a sign to something else about soil; soil might be my orbiting body – as it well should! Water covers about two-thirds of the earth’s surface, and after subtracting all the bits of land inhospitable to agriculture (too hot or too cold), only about 3% of the earth is covered in agricultural soil. We like to think of it sitting quietly in plots of land, causing landslides in poor nations or being carted to rich nations, when soil is really a single body of continuous work that stretches between all our minute, not-as-separate-as-we’d-like worlds.

Map layout: Huiying Ng

All sorts of signs interest me. So wading through connections for me was once a little like scaling treacherous cliffs or navigating mangrove swamps: how to decide which footholds to lean on, and which I’d lose my footing on? It’s an interesting question to pose in unstructured environments like DINACON. But a more interesting question would be how these open connections can stay open, as things to care for rather than domesticate: something to play on and around, prodding and pushing and bumping and nudging. A better question might be: how shall we read connections best, so they can each be nurtured in the time and space they need?


Things I referred to:

Plant impedance – Cybres Impedance Spectroscope with Stig

Bees on a weaver ant nest – with Magdalena’s torch

The Windup Girl

Orbiting celestial bodies, moons and tides – charades with Tasneem, Rob and Andy

The blackwater tank problem – The Diva Andaman and some funky physics

Plant map – extended. Raw data files available here:

Crochetteering – a tale of fishy innovation

by Hannah Perner-Wilson (+C, KOBAKANT)

My plans for Dinacon were to develop An Underwater Studio Practice, but when I arrived and began going underwater to crochet and (thanks to Kitty) discovered plan, this practice lead me to write a story about ocean plastic as the result of our human ability to make.

Flickr set >>

Crochetteering a stripy vest for a puffer-fish:
Crochetteering - a tale of fishy innovation

Drawing depicting the situation between humans and fish and ocean plastic:

Crochetteering – a tale of fishy innovation
A good-night story for Dinaconnaisseurs

Crochetteering - A Tale of Fishy Innovation

Crochetteering - A Tale of Fishy Innovation

Crochetteering - A Tale of Fishy Innovation

Crochetteering - A Tale of Fishy Innovation

Crochetteering - A Tale of Fishy Innovation

Crochetteering - a tale of fishy innovation

Crochetteering - a tale of fishy innovation

DinaSynth Quartet – Scott (Seamus) Kildall

At Dinacon 2018, Scott (Seamus) Kildall prototyped a new project called DinaSynth Quartet, which is a live audio-synth performance between a plant, the soil, the air and the water in nature. This quadrophonic melange emits a synthetic soundscape that interacts with the buzz of cicadas, the croaks of frogs and the songs of the birds. By endowing hidden data in the natural environment with digital “voices,” the installation invites viewers into the jungle to experience digital artwork that almost always exists in the built environment.

DinaSynth sunset concert

My response to my time at Dinacon was to find a way to fuse the digital with the natural, seeking both a collaboration and future development around the idea of making chance orchestra arrangements. This experiment builds on my previous work, Sonaqua, which is an interactive installation that sonifies water quality.

These four “players” connect to sensors that modulate software synthesizers with embedded electronics. The plant uses electrodes, ground to soil sensor, water to electrical-conductivity sensor and air to humidity. Each one uses specific code that is active on one of my custom Sonaqua boards, and, each player has its own speaker so that you can spatialize the sound by walking around the outdoor installation space

My custom Sonaqua board, which use the ATMEL 328-PU chip

The humidity reading varies the least and activates the a baseline, while the plant sounds like a skittering voice, as its voltage readings constantly shift around. The water has the high-pitched violin sound and the soil emits the melodic slow waves.

In future iterations, I will develop sculptural containers for these and improve the sound-synthesis. Ideally, they would play at various festivals or other outdoor spaces.

Videos below!

Scott (Seamus) about the Diva Andaman
One DinaSynth module in nature
EC sensor in water
Electrodes on plant
Setting up the installation
Full installation

Full video edit

Ground-only composition

Plant-only composition

Air with Humidity sensor Composition

Water with EC sensor


Ecosystem Simulation

My goal for this simulation was to be able to abstractly demonstrate interdependence in an ecosystem. It isn’t meant to be an accurate model of any real ecosystem, but rather replicate that specific property of ecosystems in an easily observable environment. This simulation uses 3 types of actors, and unless all 3 are present the patterns by which they interact will quickly collapse.

Flora, which propagates outwards and sometimes generates “seeds” (solid green circles). Flora can only spread if it’s seeds are carried off by an herbivore. Each node has a lifespan and will eventually die if it isn’t eaten first. Without Flora, herbivores will die off because they have nothing to eat, then carnivores will die off because there are no herbivores.

Herbivores, which eat flora and will reproduce if they consume enough. If they happen to eat a seed, it will drop once the herbivore has traveled a certain distance away and start a new plant. Without herbivores, flora will die off because it cannot spread, and carnivores will die off because they have nothing to eat.

Carnivores, which eat herbivores and also reproduce if they consume enough. Without carnivores, flora will die off because they will be eaten by herbivores faster than they can propagate, and herbivores will die off because they will kill their own food source.

One step that’s missing from this food chain is decomposition. Decomposers would be responsible for turning dead material into nutrients that plants need to grow.

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