How to Stay Cool the Lungfish Way

Via: Science News for Kids

Common Name: The Lungfish

A.K.A.: Subclass Dipnoi

Vital Stats:

  • 6 species; 4 in Africa, 1 in South America, 1 in Australia
  • Some species can reach up to 2m (6.6’) long and weigh 43kg (95lbs.)
  • Omnivorous, eating plants, insects, crustaceans, worms, fish, and frogs
  • Largest genome of all terrestrial vertebrates at ~133 billion base pairs

Found: Slow-moving freshwater bodies in South America, Africa, and Australia

It Does What?!

Well, they’re not much to look at, but in the “quietly carrying on while everything drops dead around you” department, the lungfishes are tops. These large, eel-looking creatures are what biologists refer to as “living fossils”, species which have existed in more or less their present form for a very, very long time. In the case of the lungfishes, around 400 million years. For the sake of comparison, this was around the same period that plants developed roots and leaves. That long ago. In fact, researchers believe that the lungfishes are the closest living relatives of the terrestrial vertebrates (that is, anything with a spinal column that lives on land).

These will probably outlast humanity.
Via: One More Generation

So what makes these things so interesting, besides being old? First off, they breathe air, as you might have guessed from their name. Australian lungfishes have a single lung, and, while they normally breathe through their gills, are able to supplement their oxygen intake with air during times of high exertion or when their water gets stale (Fun side note: During mating, Australian lungfishes make loud burping noises at the surface of the water which are thought to be part of the courtship ritual. I’ll refrain from making any Aussie jokes here… ). African and South American lungfishes, on the other hand, have two lungs and breathe nothing but air. Their gills are completely atrophied, such that they could actually drown if kept under for much longer than their usual 5-8 minutes between breaths.

“Hey! I’m trying to aestivate in here!”
Photo by: Tobias Musschoot

This ability to breathe without water results in the other fantastic ability of subclass Dipnoi. South American and African lungfish live in habitats which often dry up completely during the hottest part of the year. The fishes’ gross but brilliant answer to this is to burrow up to half a metre down into the soft mud and excrete a huge amount of mucous. As the surrounding mud dries up, the mucous forms a hard shell which keeps the curled up lungfish moist and cool. A small hole at the top of this snot-cocoon allows the fish to breathe. It’s metabolism slowed to only a small fraction of the normal rate, the creature will aestivate (like ‘hibernate’, but without the cold) like this for several months until the rains return. Laboratory experiments have shown that an African lungfish can remain alive under these conditions for as long as six years.

“Granddad”: probably older than your Granddad
Via: Shedd Aquarium

Aside from their amazing survival abilities, these fish have unusual lives, as fish go. They are extraordinarily long-lived. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago holds an Australian lungfish known as “Granddad” which arrived there as an adult in 1933, making him at least 80 years old. Females of this species don’t even mate until they’re at least 22 years old (or so they tell their parents). What’s more, some species actually care for their young. The mother and father build an underwater nest for their offspring, which can only breathe via their semi-atrophied gills for the first seven weeks, and the father uses his body to release additional oxygen into the surrounding water, helping them to breathe. So, dual childcare: not such a new idea after all.

[Extra Credit –  Here’s a short video of a lungfish being stalked by a pelican. Spoiler: It ends badly for the lungfish.]

Says Who?

  • Brinkmann et al. (2004) Journal of Molecular Evolution 59: 834-848
  • Fishman et al. (1992) Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 136(1): 61-72
  • Glass (2008) Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology 160: 18-20
  • Joss (2006) General and Comparative Endocrinology 148: 285-289
  • Lee et al. (2006) General and Comparative Endocrinology 148: 306-314
  • www.fishbase.org

Advertising in the Wild… Not So Very Different (Ophrys sp.)

(Via: lastdragon.org)

Common Name: Bee Orchids

A.K.A.: Genus Ophrys

Vital Stats:

  • 30-40 recognised species in the genus
  • Grows to a height of 15-50 cm (6-20”)
  • The name Ophrys comes from a word meaning “eyebrow” in Greek, for the fuzzy edges of the petals
  • First mentioned in ancient Roman literature by Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.)

Found: Throughout most of Europe and the British Isles

It Does What?!

We tend to think of animals (including humans) as using plants to serve our ends exclusively- we eat them, clothe ourselves with them, build homes with them, and so on. But for all the obvious ways in which the animal kingdom takes advantage of the plants, there are numerous, more subtle, ways that they use us to do their bidding. One of those ways is as pollinators; plants enlist animals to help them reproduce. And while that enlistment often takes a rather mundane form – a bit of pollen brushed onto a bird’s head as it sips nectar, say – sometimes a group of plants will get a bit more creative about it. Such is the case with the bee orchids.

These highly specialised flowers depend on very specific relationships with their pollinators; often only a single species of bee (or wasp, in some cases) will pollinate a given species of orchid. Without those pollinators, the orchids can’t produce seed and would die out. So how do you control a free-roving creature that has other places to be? Why, sex, obviously. (Isn’t that the basis of most advertising?) The bee orchid has evolved a flower that not only looks, but smells like a virgin female of the bee species which pollinates it.

May not be appropriate for younger readers.
(Via: This Site)

At a distance, the bee detects the pheromones of a receptive female. Once he moves in closer, there she is, sitting on a flower, minding her own business. So he flies in and attempts to do his man-bee thing, only to find that he’s just tried to mate with a plant. Mortified (I imagine), he takes off, but with a small packet of pollen stuck to his head. He’s memorised the scent of this flower now and won’t return to it, but amazingly, the orchids vary their scent just slightly from one flower to the next, even on the same plant, so that the duped bee can never learn to distinguish an orchid from a female. What’s more, because the scent is more different between plants than between flowers on the same plant, he is more likely to proceed to a different plant, decreasing the chances that an orchid will self-fertilise.

Hilariously, researchers have shown that, due to their higher levels of scent variation compared to true female bees (variety being the spice of life, right guys?), male bees actually prefer the artificial pheromones of the orchids over real, live females. In experiments where males were given a choice between mating with an orchid and mating with a bee, they usually chose the flower, even if they had already experienced the real thing.

So there you have it. Plants: master manipulators of us poor, stupid animals.

Who could resist?
(Via: Wikia)

Says Who?

  • Ayasse et al. (2000) Evolution 54(6): 1995-2006
  • Ayasse et al. (2003) Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B. 270: 517-522
  • Streinzer et al. (2009) Journal of Experimental Biology 212: 1365-1370
  • Vereecken & Schiestl (2008) Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 105(21): 7484-7488
  • Vereecken et al. (2010) Botanical Review 76: 220-240

Sea Cucumbers, or, How to Really Lose Weight Fast

Via: www.starfish.ch

Common Name: Sea Cucumbers, Holothurians

A.K.A.: Class Holothuroidea

Vital Stats:

  • Approximately 1250 species
  • Size: 2-200cm (¾” to 6.5’)
  • Lifespan: 5-10 years in the wild

Found: Throughout the oceans, in both shallow and very deep regions

It Does What?!

Where to begin? This is an odd one… To start, despite the name sea cucumber, this isn’t a plant but an animal; a relative of starfish and sea urchins. One could be forgiven for mistaking the holothurians for plants, however. Most spend their lives lying on the ocean floor, looking like a sunken vegetable, and covering a distance of a couple metres or less per day in their search for food. The creatures feed on small particles, like algae and plankton. There is a tiny mouth at one end of their body, surrounded by between eight and thirty tentacle-like feet with which they grab their food and which can actually be retracted into their mouth. But that’s not really the interesting end of a sea cucumber, as we’ll see.

Via: www.answers.com

Lacking both eyes and any rapid means of locomotion, holothurians are tempting prey for crabs, fish, and other large sea creatures. When threatened, they have the single most bizarre and seemingly impractical defence mechanism ever evolved: self-evisceration. As a predator approaches, the sea cucumber violently contracts the muscles around its body wall and actually expels its own internal organs via its anus (demurely labelled as the ‘aboral pole’ in the diagram). Yes, really. In some species, these organs include most of the creature’s respiratory system, which takes the form of sticky threads that blanket and ensnare the predator. And just to add genuine injury to the insult, this discharge is accompanied by a toxic chemical known as holothurin, which kills whatever’s nearby. Disgusting, but effective. Once expelled, the missing organs can be regenerated in 1-5 weeks, depending on the species. Some researchers speculate that this ability may even be used as a means of ridding the organism of accumulated waste or parasites. The ultimate detox regime, if you will.

Are those your lungs, or are you just happy to see me?
Via: Wikimedia Commons

One such parasite is the pearl fish. You see, holothurians actually breathe through their rear end as well, so when one of them, umm… opens up… to take in some fresh, oxygenated water, in goes the fish, which then feeds on the sea cucumber’s internal organs. You can see why they might want to rid themselves of this visitor.

Strange as it all seems, the sea cucumber’s strategy is quite a successful one. At depths below five and a half miles (8.8km), they make up fully 90% of the mass of all macrofauna (i.e. any animal that’s not microscopic). Among the species that live at shallower depths, populations can reach a density of 1000 cucumbers per square metre. And it’s a good thing, because they’ve got one predator with whom spewing out their guts won’t work: humans. Sea cucumbers are a popular ingredient in Chinese and other Southeast Asian cuisines, although only about ten species are used for this purpose. These species are farmed commercially in artificial ponds, and are also used in traditional Chinese medicine. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are considered to improve male sexual health.

Does a Body Good.
Via: www.theworlds50best.com

[Fun fact: Sea cucumbers have a body wall made up of collagen fibres which they can ‘unhook’ at will, essentially liquefying their interiors and allowing them to squeeze into very small cavities as a means of hiding from predators. Once inside the cavity, they re-solidify themselves, making the creature very difficult to extract from its hideout.]

Says Who?

If the Eyes are the Window to the Soul, this Fish has a Sunroof

Things are lookin’ up

Common Name: Barreleye Fish

A.K.A.: Macropinna microstoma  (and related species)

Vital Stats:

  • Size: 15cm (6″) long
  • Depth: 600-800m (2000′-2600′) below sea level
  • Discovered: 1939
  • First Photographed: 2008

Found: Subarctic and Temperate regions of the North Pacific

It Does What?!

As you have likely already noticed, fish don’t have necks. At least not in the sense that they are able to look upward. So for a bottom-dweller lurking about in the cold depths of the ocean, being able to see that tasty bit of food floating by above is something of a problem. Some species get around this issue by floating vertically in the water so their whole bodies are pointing upwards. Simple enough. But in the spirit of meeting every challenge with an impossibly bizarre solution, nature has also produced a fish with eyes directly on the top of its head. After all, why re-orient the entire fish when you can just shift a couple of parts?

Those things on the front that look like eye sockets?
That would be its nose.

But the strangeness of the Barreleye Fish goes a little further than that. These aren’t just normal fish eyes in an unusual location. This species’ main prey are jellyfish and their relatives, which frequently come equipped with stingers that could damage the eyes of most predators. So rather than a normal spherical eye perched on top of its head, Macropinna has a tubular structure with the lens buried deep within its head (the dark green areas in the images). Overlying the tubular eyes is a tough, fluid-filled, transparent shield which the fish can look through. That’s right, it looks through the top of its own head. This way, stings from jellyfish will never damage the delicate ocular tissue.

What’s more, the fish’s unique tubular eyes are supremely adapted for the dark depths of the ocean. They allow unusually accurate depth perception (due to a large overlap of the two visual fields) and enhanced light gathering compared the spheroid eyes. In an environment up to 2600 feet (800m) down, where little daylight penetrates and everything appears in monochrome, these adaptations enable the barreleye to distinguish even faint shadows and silhouettes moving above it, and to precisely gauge how far up they are.

The Barreleye Fish, failing to look at the camera.

Researchers had long been puzzled as to how the barreleye eats, since, with its eyes on top of its head, its visual field didn’t include the area around its mouth. The species has been known since 1939, but only as small mangled bodies caught up in deep-sea fishing nets (adults are only about six inches long). In each case, the transparent casing of the fish’s head had been destroyed by the nets and the rapid changes in pressure as the nets were pulled up, making its anatomy difficult to study. In 2008, however, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute sent remote operated vehicles with cameras down to try, for the very first time, to snap some photos of these oddballs in action. What they learned was that, when it spots prey, the barreleye can actually rotate its entire tubular eye downward, like moving the telescope in an observatory. This way, it can turn and look at its target straight on as it pursues. Most of the time, though, the fish was seen to use its large, flat fins to hold itself nearly motionless, looking up through its personal sunroof, just waiting for some unlucky jellyfish to float on by.

Says Who?

  • Robison & Reisenbichler (2008) Copeia 4: 780-784.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

All images taken by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

EVOLUTION TAG TEAM, Part 1: Acacia Domatia

The first in an ongoing series of biology’s greatest duos. (Here’s Part 2 and Part 3)

Home, Sweet Home.
(via: Flickr)

Common Name (Plants): Bullhorn Acacias, Whistling Thorns

  • A.K.A.: Acacia cornigera, Acacia drepanolobium, and several other Acacia species

Common Name (Ants): Acacia Ants

  • A.K.A.: Pseudomyrmex and Crematogaster species

Found: Central America (Bullhorn Acacias) and East Africa (Whistling Thorns)

It Does What?!

Life as a tree is tough, particularly when you live in a part of the world that’s home to the biggest herbivores on Earth and happen to have delicate, delicious leaves. Such is the case for the African acacias. Without sufficient defences, they’d be gobbled up in no time by elephants, rhinos, and giraffes. The trees are known for having huge, sharp thorns, but even that’s sometimes not enough; the lips and tongues of giraffes are so tough and dexterous, they can often strip the leaves right out from between the thorns. So what’s a stressed acacia to do? Recruit a freaking army, that’s what.

Pseudomyrmex ferruginea: the giraffe’s worst enemy.
(Photo by April Nobile)

A few species of acacia in both Africa and Central America (where the herbivores are smaller, but no less voracious) have developed a symbiosis wherein they enjoy the services of ant colonies numbering up to 30,000 individuals, tirelessly patrolling their branches 24 hours a day. Should a hungry elephant or goat wander up and take a bite, nearby patrol ants will call in reinforcements and soon the interloper will be utterly overrun with angry, biting ants. What’s more, the protection extends beyond just animal threats. The ants will go so far as to kill other insects, remove fungal pathogens from the surface of the tree and even uproot nearby seedlings because, you know, they might eventually steal some sunlight from the beloved acacia.

“Trespassers Will Be Drawn and Quartered”
(via Wikimedia Commons)

So what do the troops get out of this? Quite a bit, actually. In ant-protected acacias (‘myrmecophytes’, they’re called), the thorns that normally grow at the base of a leaf swell up. In the Central American species, they grow into something that looks like a bull’s horn (hence their common name), while the African ones become more bulbous. These specialized structures, called domatia, are hollow inside and serve as very convenient housing for the ants. What’s more, the trees produce not one, but two different kinds of nourishment for the colony- regular, and baby food. The adult ants will feed from a sweet liquid exuded by nectaries on the branches. Meanwhile, on the tips of the tree’s leaflets, small white structures called Beltian bodies are formed which are high in the protein every growing child ant-larva needs. These are collected by workers and inserted right into the larval pouches, to be eaten before the ants are even fully formed.

The Bullhorn Acacia, now with more Beltian bodies!
(via Flickr)

Sounds like the perfect partnership, right? Usually, yes, but in nature, a symbiosis is only a symbiosis until one side figures out how to take advantage of the other. From the ants’ side, for example, any energy spent by the tree on reproduction is energy not spent on new homes and sweet, sweet nectar for them. Therefore, the ants will sometimes systematically nip all the flowers off the tree as it attempts to bloom. They’ll also prune the acacia’s outward growth if those new shoots may come into contact with a neighbouring tree, allowing invasion by another ant colony. Conversely, if herbivores become scarce and the acacia no longer requires such a strong protection force, it will begin to produce fewer domatia and less nectar in a move to starve some of the ants out. This has been shown to actually be a bad strategy for the acacia, since the soldiers, not to be outsmarted by a tree, turn to farming and begin raising sap-sucking insects on the bark, thereby getting their sugar fix anyway. And so it goes, oscillating between advantageous partnership and opportunistic parasitism… like so many things in life.

The roomier, more spacious African domatium.
(Image by Martin Sharman)

[Side note: While I’ve never personally encountered ant-acacias, I have disturbed an ant-protected tree of another family in the rainforests of Guyana, and can attest to the fact that the retaliation was both swift and intense. I was in a small boat at the edge of a river collecting botanical specimens, and I nearly jumped in the river to escape the onslaught. Don’t mess with ants.]

Says Who?

  • Clement et al. (2008) Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 62: 953-962.
  • Frederickson (2009) American Naturalist 173(5): 675-681.
  • Huntzinger et al. (2004) Ecology 85(3): 609-614.
  • Janzen (1966) Evolution 20(3): 249-275.
  • Nicklen & Wagner (2006) Oecologia 148: 81-87.
  • Stapley (1998) Oecologia 115: 401-405.

The Stinging Tree, or, Australia Hates Mammals

Can’t Touch This
(via: anhs.com.au)

Common Name: Stinging Tree, Gympie-Gympie

A.K.A.: Dendrocnide moroides

Found: Rainforests of Northeastern Australia

It Does What?!

Australia, which was apparently intended only for the very bravest of human beings, is home to many of the world’s most poisonous snakes, spiders, and scorpions. Even the surrounding ocean is exceptional for the number of ridiculously venomous species it contains. Still, a person could be forgiven for thinking that, so long as they stay out of the water and keep away from the creepy-crawlies, they’ll be okay. Ha ha ha… nope. In Australia, everything is out to get you.

Meet Gympie-Gympie, the Stinging Tree (or to be more accurate, stinging shrub). Growing in rainforest clearings and along creek edges- anywhere the canopy is broken- this two metre (6.5ft) high plant has large, heart-shaped leaves and juicy purple fruit. And every square centimetre of it, from the soil on up, is covered in tiny, poison-filled hypodermic needles. These hollow silicon needles are delicate enough to break off at the slightest touch, leaving them embedded in the skin of whatever creature was unfortunate enough to do so. The skin will often then close over them, making the needles nearly impossible to remove. The substance they’re filled with is a very potent neurotoxin with a very long shelf life- herbarium specimens of the plant collected in 1910 are still able to cause pain. And since the body is unable to break down silicon, this all adds up to a very long punishment for a very small mistake.

Go on, I dare you.
(Photo by Melanie Cook)

A brief brush against a stinging tree produces intense pain that peaks after about half an hour, but can literally take years to subside completely. Numerous dogs and horses have died because the pain was so intense. There is even one official record of a human having died- a Dutch botanist of the 1920s. Oddly enough, no actual tissue damage is done by the neurotoxin- death due to the plant is attributed to heart failure due to the shock of the pain, described by one researcher, Dr. Marina Hurley, as “like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.” An ex-serviceman who fell right into one of the trees while crossing a creek in the 1940s describes having had to be tied down to his hospital bed for three weeks because the discomfort was so intense. One intrepid/insane researcher actually purified the neurotoxin and injected himself with it, suffering terribly and thereby proving that the toxin, rather than the needles, causes the majority of the pain. But not all of it… simply standing near a gympie-gympie for an extended period can cause allergic reactions and nosebleeds as the needles are shed in the wind.

“I eat neurotoxins for breakfast.”
(Via: Billabong Sanctuary)

So this must be just about the best herbivore-defence system ever, right? Amusingly, no. The trees still undergo heavy damage due to hungry spiders, ants, snails, and especially beetles, all of which can avoid its defences. The tree is even prey to one species of marsupial, the red-legged pademelon, which is either immune to the neurotoxin or has enormous pain tolerance. So why develop this extensive arsenal if it’s completely ineffective? One expert has suggested that it may have evolved to protect the plants from the now long-extinct giant Diprotodonts which once inhabited the Australian rainforest, making it one more dangerous relic of a long-ended war. You win, stinging tree, you win.

[Fun Fact: The best way to attempt to remove some of those poisonous silicon needles embedded in your arm?  Wax hair removal strips, according to the Queensland ambulance service.]

Says Who?