Panama’s San Lorenzo forest reserve is around the size of Manhattan. For two years, this small area was host to 102 scientists, working together to count everything that crept and crawled. They came from 17 countries, and converged upon a half-hectare of the forest, about the size of half a rugby pitch. They dug into the soil, and ascended into the 40-metre-tall treetops with ropes, balloons, and a giant crane. They unleashed fogs, set up sticky traps, and hacked into pieces of wood.
Together, they were part of the largest ever systematic attempt to answer a disarmingly simple question: in a patch of tropical rainforest, how many species of insects and other arthropods are there?
After collecting the critters in 2003 and 2004, and analysing the material for eight years, they got an answer: 6,144 species in that patch of forest. Using computer simulations to scale that up, they estimate that the entire 6,000-hectare Manhattan-sized forest is home to around 25,000 arthropod species.
A very hungry caterpillar munches on a cabbage leaf and sets off an alarm. The plant releases chemicals into the air, signalling that it is under attack. This alarm is intercepted by a wasp, which stings the caterpillar and implants it with eggs. When they hatch, the larval wasps devour their host from the inside, eventually bursting out to spin cocoons and transform into adults. The cabbage (and those around it) are saved, and the wasp—known as a parasitoid because of its fatal body-snatching habits—raises the next generation.
But that’s not the whole story.
Some parasitic wasps are “hyperparasitoids”—they target other parasitoid wasps. And they also track the cabbage’s alarm chemicals, so they can find infected caterpillars. When they do, they lay their eggs on any wasp grubs or pupae that they find. Their young devour the young of the other would-be parasites, in a tiered stack of body-snatching. It’s like a cross between the films Alien and Inception.
If you want to find an ocean animal that kills with speed, don’t look to sharks, swordfishes, or barracuda. Instead, try to find a mantis shrimp. These pugilistic relatives of crabs and lobsters attack other animals by rapidly unfurling a pair of arms held under their heads. One group of them—the smashers—have arms that end in heavily reinforced clubs, which can lash out with a top speed of 23 metres per second (50 miles per hour), and hit like a rifle bullet. These powerful hammers can shatter aquarium glass and crab shells alike.
Most research on mantis shrimps focuses on smashers, but these pugilists are in the minority. The majority are “spearers”, whose arms end in a row of fiendish spikes, rather than hard clubs. While the smashers actively search for prey to beat into submission, the spearers are ambush-hunters. They hide in burrows and wait to impale passing victims. They’re Loki to the smashers’ Thor.
Given their differing lifestyles, you might expect the spearers to be faster than the smashers. They rely on quick strikes to kill their prey, and they target fast victims like fish and shrimp rather than the tank-like, slow-moving crabs favoured by smashers. But surprisingly, Maya DeVries from the University of California, Berkeley, found that the fastest spearer strikes at just a quarter of the speed of the fastest smasher.
Every time you put on some music or listen to a speaker’s words, you are party to a miracle of biology – the ability to hear. Sounds are just waves of pressure, cascading through sparse molecules of air. Your ears can not only detect these oscillations, but decode them to reveal a Bach sonata, a laughing friend, or a honking car.
This happens in three steps. First: capture. The sound waves pass through the bits of your ear you can actually see, and vibrate a membrane, stretched taut across your ear canal. This is the tympanum, or more evocatively, the eardrum. On the other side, the eardrum connects to three tiny well-named bones—the hammer, anvil and stirrup—which link the air-filled outer ear with the fluid-filled inner ear.
The bones perform the second-step: convert and amplify. They transmit all the pressure from the relatively wide eardrum into the much tinier tip of the stirrup, transforming large but faint air-borne vibrations into small but strong fluid-borne ones.
These vibrations enter the inner ear, which looks like a French whisk poking out of a snail shell. Ignore the whisk for now – the shell is the cochlea, a rolled-up tube that’s filled with fluid and lined with sensitive hair cells. These perform the third step: frequency analysis. Each cell responds to different frequencies, and are neatly aligned so that the low-frequency ones are at one end of the tube and the high-frequency ones at another. They’re like a reverse piano keyboard that senses rather than plays. The signals from these cells are passed to the auditory nerve and decoded in the brain. And voila – we hear something.
All mammal ears work in the same way: capture sound; convert and amplify; and analyse frequencies. But good adaptation are rarely wasted on just one part of the tree of life. Different branches often evolve similar solutions to life’s problems. And that’s why, in the rainforests of South America, a katydid—a relative of crickets—hears using the same three-step method that we use, but with ears that are found on its knees.
For corals, gardening’s a matter of life and death. Corals compete with algal seaweeds for space, and many types of seaweed release chemicals that are toxic to corals, act as carriers for coral diseases and boost the growth of dangerous microbes. These dangers require close contact—the seaweed poisons won’t diffuse through the water, so they need to be applied to the corals directly. And that gives the corals an opportunity to save themselves. When they sense encroaching seaweed, they call for help.
Danielle Dixson and Mark Hay from the Georgia Institute of Technology have found that when Acropora corals detect the chemical signatures of seaweed, they release an odour that summons two gardeners – the broad-barred goby and redhead goby. These small fish save the corals by eating the toxic competitors. In return, one of them stores the seaweed poisons in its own flesh, becoming better defended against its own enemies.
The thing in the photo above, I’m sad to say, is a penis. It belongs to the male seed beetle. And just in case you’re holding out hope that appearances are deceiving, I can assure you they are not. Those spikes are hard and sharp, and they inflict heavy injuries upon the female beetles during sex. Why would such a hellish organ evolve?
This isn’t just about beetles. The animal kingdom is full of bafflingly-shaped penises adorned with spines, spikes, and convoluted twists and turns. In some animal groups, like certain flies, penis shape is the only clue that allows scientists to distinguish between closely related species.
For a male, sex isn’t just about penetration. After he ejaculates inside a female, his sperm still have to make their way to her eggs to fertilise them and pass on his genes. If she mates with many suitors, her body becomes a battleground where the sperm of different males duke it out. Females can influence this competition by being choosy over mates, storing sperm in special pouches, or evolving their own convoluted genital passages. Males, meanwhile, have evolved their own tricks, including: guarding behaviour; self-castration; barbed sperm; chemical weapons in their sperm; mating plugs; ‘traumatic insemination’; and having lots of sperm.
And spiky penises. That too.
The dung beetle, Scarabaeus nigroaeneus, as its name suggests, eats the faeces of large grazing mammals. When it finds a fresh pat, it fashions the dung into a ball and rolls it home, head down and walking backwards. That’s hard work. The balls can be 50 times heavier than the beetle, whose body heats up as it pushes around its weighty cargo.
Heating up is something that an insect can’t afford to do in the South African desert, where the ground can reach a scorching 60 degrees Celsius in the middle of the day. But the beetle’s dung-rolling antics provide it with a constantly accessible way of beating the heat. By filming dung beetles with a heat-sensitive camera, Jochen Smolka from Lund University has found that their dung balls aren’t just take-away meals—they’re also portable coolers.
In North America’s Sonoran desert, there’s a fly that depends on a cactus. Thanks to a handful of changes in a gene called Neverland, Drosophila pachea can no longer make chemicals that it needs to grow and reproduce. These genetic changes represent the evolution of subservience – they inextricably bound the fly to the senita cactus, the only species with the substances the fly needs.
The Neverland gene makes a protein of the same name, which converts cholesterol into 7-dehydrocholesterol. This chemical reaction is the first of many that leads to ecdysone – a hormone that all insects need to transform from a larva into an adult. Most species make their own ecdysone but D.pachea is ill-equipped. Because of its Neverland mutations, the manufacturing process fails at the very first step. Without intervention, the fly would be permanently stuck in larval mode. Hence the name, Neverland—fly genes are named after what happens to the insect when the gene is broken.
Fortunately, in the wild, D.pachea can compensate for its genetic problem by feeding on the senita cactus. The cactus produces lathosterol—a chemical related to cholesterol. D.pachea’s version of Neverland can still process this substitute, and uses it to kickstart the production of ecdysone.
The senita is the only plant in the Sonoran desert that makes lathosterol, the only one that lets the fly bypass the deficiency that would keep it forever young. It has become the fly’s dealer, pushing out chemicals that it cannot live without, and all because of changes to a single fly gene.
In 2010, an article in Rolling Stone likened the investment bank Goldman Sachs to “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”The creature it was referring to does exist – it’s not a true squid, but one of their close relatives. But despite its terrifying name and appearance, it’s not a vampire. It doesn’t suck blood. It doesn’t have a “blood funnel”.
In fact, thanks to newly published observations, we now know that the vampire squid is a garbage-eater. It extends living fishing lines from its body to snag a rain of rubbish falling from the surface, getting fat on a menu of faeces and corpses.
The Goldman Sachs metaphor still works, doesn’t it?
The vampire squid belongs to the cephalopods, the group that includes squid, octopuses and cuttlefish. But it’s an evolutionary relict that appeared well before any of these more familiar animals. Its body is gelatinous and blood-coloured, as if the internal organ of a larger animal had broken free. It swims with two wing-like flaps, sees with opal-blue eyes, and lights up the surrounding water with flashing organs found all over its body, and especially at the tips of its arms.
Two of these arms have been modified into white thin filaments, which coil up into special pockets, and can extend to 8 times the animal’s length. The other eight arms are connected by a cloak-like web that can be inverted over the vampire squid’s body to reveal a muddy charcoal interior, lined with fleshy spines. You can see where the name comes from.
The vampire squid lives all over the world, but we know very little about what it does. That’s partly because it lives at incredible depths – 600 to 900 metres below the surface, in pitch blackness. This level is known as the oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) and unlike the vampire squid, it’s well-named. While a few animals thrive here, most are choked off by the lack of oxygen.
The vampire squid copes by having an incredibly slow metabolism, blood proteins that hug oxygen molecules with an unyielding grip, and a body that so closely matches the density of water that it neither floats nor sinks. It rarely wastes energy on unnecessary movements. It simply hangs in the darkness.
But even though it lives life in the slow lane, the vampire squid needs food, and that’s in short supply in the oxygen minimum zone. What does it eat? To find out, Hendrik Hoving and Bruce Robison from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) analysed footage of 170 vampire squids, taken over the last decade by the institute’s submersibles.
The videos, along with feeding experiments on captive vampire squids, revealed that they use their filaments like mobile spider webs. They extend these into the surrounding water to ensnare particles of food falling from above. The filaments are covered in tiny hairs, probably for catching these particles. They also have neurons that connect to a particularly large part of the creature’s brain, presumably so it can sense what’s stuck to its fishing lines.
When the time is right, it retracts the filaments, transfers the food to its other arms, and coats them in mucus secreted from its arm tips. It then conveys these delicious balls of mucus-bound detritus into its mouth, possibly with the help of the spines within its cloak.
This strategy is very different to that of other cephalopods, most of which are active hunters that attack and kill their food. Vampire squids are definitely not that, as Hoving and Robison confirmed by checking the stomachs of captured specimens. They found eggs, algae, pellets of faeces, bits of jelly, crustacean body parts—antennae, eyes, some shells, whole copeopods—and flesh from another deep-sea squid. In both kind and quantity, these remnants don’t reflect the diet of a hunter.
Instead, Hoving and Robison think that the vampire squid is mainly a ‘detritivore’ – a rubbish-eater. With few predators in the oxygen minimum zone, it can afford to sacrifice powerful swimming muscles or a high metabolism. Instead, it leads a relatively passive lifestyle, collecting the plentiful snowing debris with its two modified arms. With these adaptations, it can greatly extend the reach of its mouth, while its body—and its life—literally hangs in the balance.
Reference: Hoving & Robsion. 2012. Vampire squid: detritivores in the oxygen minimum zone. Proc Roy Soc B http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2012.1357
All images from Hoving and Robison
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