EVOLUTION TAG TEAM, Part 3: Coral Polyps & the Garden Within

The third in an ongoing series of biology’s greatest duos. (Check out Parts One and Two)

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Coral Polyps

  • A.K.A.: Class Anthozoa, Subclass Hexacorallia

Common Name: Coral Algae

  • A.K.A.: Genus Symbiodinium

Vital Stats:

  • Polyps grow to a length of only a few centimetres, depending on species
  • Coral can grow outward at a rate of up to 10cm (4”) per year
  • The Great Barrier Reef stretches over 2000km (1243 mi) and can be seen from space

Found: Various coastal areas; largest reefs surrounding Australia, Oceania, and the Caribbean

It Does What?!

If you’ve ever been told that coral reefs are alive, then looked at one and felt a bit sceptical that this chuck of colourful rock could be a living thing… well, good for you, because you’re actually mostly right. The vast majority of the volume of a coral reef is, in fact, nonliving inorganic mineral (calcium carbonate, specifically). The amazing thing about coral isn’t so much what it’s made of, but what’s going on on the surface. You see, that oddly-shaped, porous rock is actually a communal exoskeleton produced and excreted over time by hundreds of thousands of polyps living in the tiny, cup-shaped depressions on the surface.

“Breaded, with a side of chips, please.”
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Looking like tiny jellyfish (and belonging to the same phylum), the polyps hide in the stony sanctuary they’ve made, letting only their tentacles project. These tentacles are tipped with stinging cells which can inject a powerful venom into any prey foolish enough to swim within reach. This prey can range in size from microscopic plankton to small fish. That’s right, coral eats fish. Watch where you stick your toes.

So where does the ‘duo’ part come in? Despite their ability to snatch passing sea creatures and eat them, coral polyps actually get only a small part of their caloric intake this way. Impressively, these guys managed to find a diet that requires even less effort than just reaching out and grabbing stuff. Who needs movement when you can just photosynthesize, like plants do? The polyps have developed a symbiosis with a type of single-celled alga (called zooxanthellae) that allows them to do just that.

The algae start out as free-living cells drifting through the water. They are eaten by the coral polyp, but instead of being digested, they are able to enter the cells lining its digestive tract. Since the polyps are transparent to begin with, all they have to do is expose their bodies to sunlight in order to allow the algae to produce sugars by photosynthesis (this is why reefs form in relatively shallow waters). The majority of the sugars made by the symbiont are then absorbed by the polyp.

And what do the algae get out of this arrangement? A couple of things. First, they get a safe place to live, and won’t get eaten by something that can digest them. Second, they get nutrients, in the form of carbon dioxide and nitrogen compounds, both natural waste products of the polyp’s metabolism. Still, sometimes as much as 30% of the cells in a polyp are algal cells, and this puts a stain on the host’s physiology.

“I’ve just got a lot going on right now.”
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe you’ve heard of “coral bleaching” as one of the symptoms of pollution around reefs. Bleaching happens when additional stresses (like pollution) get to be a bit too much for the polyps to handle. They can’t change the water purity, so instead, they offload the stressor they can control- the algae. Getting rid of the photosynthetic cells also gets rid of much of the characteristic colour of the reef, hence the term ‘bleaching’. In the short term, this is a smart move. It increases the polyp’s chance of survival during brief crises, and new algae can always be taken on when the host is ready. The real problems start when the environmental stress persists, and the polyp never takes on new algae. Eventually, it can’t sustain itself and dies, as those in a tenth of the world’s reefs already have. At least there’s still hope for these areas; if conditions improve, new colonies can be formed using the old reef as a foundation. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is considered to be between 6000 and 8000 years old. However, the modern structure has developed atop an older, dead reef system, thought to be over half a million years old. Time enough for us to clean up our act, maybe.

[Fun Fact: Coral polyps only reproduce sexually to start new colonies. Within a single piece of coral, all the polyps are genetically identical clones, produced by polyps dividing in half and then re-growing their lost tissues.]

Says Who?

  • CoRIS- Coral Reef Information System
  • Fransolet et al. (2012) Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 420-421:1-7
  • Piper (2007) Extraordinary Animals. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut.
  • Wooldridge (2010) BioEssays 32(7):615-625

    The little-known “Lady Gaga Coral”
    (Via: Wikimedia Commons)

The Plant That Time Forgot (Welwitschia mirabilis)

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Welwitschia mirabilis

A.K.A.: Welwitschia

Vital Stats:

  • Welwitschia is a gymnosperm, like pines or firs, and thus reproduces via male and female cones
  • Considered a “living fossil”
  • Named after one of its discoverers, Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch
  • In mature specimens, the woody stem can grow up to one metre (3.3’) across

Found: In the Namib desert, along the west coast of Namibia and Angola

It Does What?!

Restricted to a tiny, arid swath of African desert, Welwitschia mirabilis represents the last remaining species of a very unusual lineage of plants. Close relatives met with extinction over the aeons, while welwitschia, tucked away in its remote and harsh desert range with little competition, just kept going. The fact that the species is alone, not just in its genus, but also in its family and order (the two ranks above genus in plant systematics), speaks to just how distantly related to any other living plant it is. For the sake of comparison, the Rosales, the order to which roses, apples, and pears belong, contains around 7700 species in 9 families and 260 genera. So original and captivating is welwitschia among plants that it has been the subject of more than 250 scientific articles since it was first described in 1863.

A mere infant. But probably still older than you are.
(Via: Lizworld.com)

So what makes this thing so weird? Well, plants typically have what’s called an apical meristem at the tips of their stems and/or branches. You can think of this as a clump of stem cells that keeps dividing, throwing off new leaves and buds in its wake. If you cut off the apical meristem, the plant must either develop a new one elsewhere, or stop producing new tissue.

In welwitschia, this isn’t the case. At the beginning of the plant’s life, the apical meristem produces just two leaves, and then dies. The plant will never grow another leaf, which is much more surprising when you consider that it may well live for more than a thousand years. How do you get through a millennium with only two leaves?! The answer is, these aren’t ordinary leaves. Uniquely, welwitschia’s two strap-like leaves have a band of meristematic tissue built into their base, which means they can continue to elongate outward indefinitely. The leaves will continue to grow at a rate of around half a millimetre (0.02”) per day for as long as the plant lives. If you’re thinking that this must mean leaves that are several hundred metres long, unfortunately, no, they aren’t. The leaves are abraded away by sand storms and eaten by passing animals. Even in the best case scenario, the cells at the leaf tips have a maximum lifetime of about ten years (still pretty good for a leaf…). What’s more, the leaves tend to get frayed and split over time, and end up looking like a lot more than just two leaves. Despite all the punishment, though, each leaf can reach a length of up to four metres (13’), giving a mature welwitschia a width of up to eight metres (26’) across.

Welwitschia’s answer to the pinecone.
(Image by Friedrich A. Lohmuller)

As you might expect from a long-lived relic of the past, there aren’t a lot of these plants around. For once, this has less to do with human disturbance than natural circumstances. Over millions of years, the range where welwitschia grows has dried out considerably, and in fact continues to get drier even now. Today, the plant relies largely on fog to meet its water needs, restricting its range to a thin strip of desert coastline where fogs occur regularly. Unlike cactuses or succulents, welwitschia has never evolved the ability to store water. Also problematic is a fungus, Aspergillus niger, which frequently infects and destroys germinating seeds. These factors together can mean that a welwitschia colony can sometimes go many years without successfully reproducing.

And of course, no threatened species would be complete without some human interference. In recent decades, unscrupulous collectors have removed plants from already small breeding populations, making it even more difficult to sustain their numbers. Interestingly, it’s noted in Wikipedia that plants in Angola are actually better protected from collecting than those in Namibia due to the higher concentration of landmines there.

So… landmines: bad for humans, good for endangered plants.

You think you have problems with split ends?
(Via: Natural History Museum)

Says Who?

  • The Gymnosperm Database
  • Dilcher et al. (2005) American Journal of Botany 92(8):1294-1310
  • Henschel & Seely (2000) Plant Ecology 150:7-26
  • Jacobson & Lester (2003) Journal of Heredity 94(3):212-217
  • Rodin (1958) American Journal of Botany 45(2):96-103

The Plight of the Spheroid Seaweed (Aegagropila linnaei)

Everyone’s Favourite Freshwater Pet
(via: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki)

Common Name: Lake Balls, Marimo

A.K.A.: Aegagropila linnaei

Found: Japan, Iceland, Scotland, Estonia, Germany

It Does What?!

Sure, you’ve had dogs and cats as pets, maybe even fish or lizards… but what about a big ball of algae? Probably not, but if you live in Japan, this idea won’t seem so odd.

Lake balls, or marimo, as the Japanese refer to them, are a rare and unique growth form of the filamentous green algae species Aegagropila linnaei. They occur in only a few isolated habitats worldwide because, unlike most algae, the species lacks a desiccation (dryness) resistant life stage which would allow it to be carried to distant bodies of water. The balls are formed from a densely-packed clump of algal strands which grow outward in all directions, and can reach up to 25cm (10 inches) in diameter. New balls can form from the free-floating form of the same species, or from the breakup and re-growth of an old ball. Found in shallow lakes with sandy bottoms, gentle wave action rolls the clump around, forming a near-perfect sphere and allowing all sides of the ball to receive light for photosynthesis. Seen rolling lazily around the lake bottom, and even rising and falling on columns of warm water, the marimo can almost seem sentient.

It is this bizarre movement and their strangely beautiful appearance which have made marimo so popular in Japan, where they are protected as a “natural monument” and even appear on postage stamps. Unfortunately, it has also been their downfall. Because the algae reside in fresh water and are adapted to low light conditions, they are easily cared for, leading many people to collect them and keep them in their homes. The Japanese believed that a healthy, well looked-after marimo would make the owner’s wishes come true. Lake balls eventually became so rare, due to both human collecting and pollution, that in the early 1950s, a campaign was launched asking Japanese citizens to return their beloved marimo to the lakes from which they had been taken. Impressively, people did so, and in large numbers. In honour of their selflessness, the first annual marimo festival was held, and has continued ever since. Today, the lake ball has become an important environmental symbol in Japan, and children even have their own stuffed marimo toy character, Marimokkori, to play with.

Japanese kids have the best toys, no?

Says Who?

  • Boedeker et al. (2010) BioScience 60(3): 187-198
  • Soejima et al. (2009) Aquatic Ecology 43: 359-370
  • www.marimoballs.com

Smells like death, looks like… an Amorphophallus?

Amorphophallus titanum

Common Name(s): Corpse Flower, Titan Arum

A.K.A.: Amorphophallus titanum

Found: Sumatra, Western Indonesia

It Does What?!

Looking like something from an Enterprise away mission, this is a plant you won’t soon forget. For those who imagine that biologists don’t have a sense of humour, the scientific name of the Corpse Flower is Amorphophallus titanum, which is Latin for ‘giant misshapen penis.’ And it’s not a bad description; the plant produces a… well, vaguely penis-shaped bloom that grows up to three feet tall and, as if we needed more to snicker about, produces pulses of heat which move from the base to the tip, reaching temperatures of over 36 degrees Celcius (97 Fahrenheit).

It happens to every Amorphophallus at some point…
(Via: plantae.ca)

It’s actually a bit of a misnomer to call this phallic monstrosity a flower- it’s really an inflorescence, a structure on which smaller, individual flowers grow. In the case of Amorphophallus, that cone in the middle is called a spadix (think calla lilies or jack-in-the-pulpit… same plant family), and holds upwards of 900 tiny flowers, of which about half are male and half are female.

Naturally, all those tiny little flowers need to get pollinated in order to create more giant-penis-plants, and the pollinators of choice for Amorphophallus are carrion beetles and blowflies. How to attract the attention of your favoured pollinators in a busy Sumatran rainforest? You give them what they want – the stench of rotting flesh. Those pulses of heat I mentioned before actually serve a purpose; they work like a convection oven, throwing off a foul odour which rises above the canopy as the warmer air rises. This allows the scent signal to be carried over greater distances. And how bad does it smell? Researchers of the plant note that a principal chemical component of that funk is known to also be the main source of the delicate bouquet that is rotting human flesh. Mmm… For another overly-vivid mental picture, be sure to check out a close relative of the Corpse Flower, Helicodiceros muscivorus, a.k.a. Dead Horse Arum.

Says Who?

  • Barthlott et al. (2009) Plant Biology 11: 499-505.
  • Shirasu et al. (2010) Biosci. Biotechnol. Biochem. 74(12): 2550-2554.