In the novel Dr. No, the titular villain explains to James Bond that he once survived an assassination attempt because his heart was in the wrong place. The good doctor had a condition called situs inversus – his organs were mirror images of their normal versions, found on the opposite side of his body. His heart, being on the right, was unharmed when his would-be murderer stabbed the left side of his chest. Having a mirror-image body can be useful when someone’s out to kill you and while that’s true for criminal masterminds, it also applies to snails.
In Japan, Satsuma snails have shells that mostly coil in the same direction. If you put your finger in the shell’s centre and follow the spiral outwards, you would probably move in a clockwise circle. And Iwasaki’s snail-eating snake knows it.
Even extinction and the passing of millennia are no barriers to clever geneticists. In the past few years, scientists have managed to sequence the complete genome of a prehistoric human and produced “first drafts” of the mammoth and Neanderthal genomes. More controversially, some groups have even recovered DNA from dinosaurs. Now, a variety of extinct birds join the ancient DNA club including the largest that ever lived – Aepyornis, the elephant bird.
In a first for palaeontology, Charlotte Oskam from Murdoch University, Perth, extracted DNA from 18 fossil eggshells, either directly excavated or taken from museum collections. Some came from long-deceased members of living species including the emu, an owl and a duck. Others belonged to extinct species including Madagascar’s 3-metre tall elephant bird and the giants moas of New Zealand. A few of these specimens are just a few centuries old, but the oldest came from an emu that lived 19,000 years ago.
It turns out that bird eggshells are an excellent source of ancient DNA. They’re made of a protein matrix that is loaded with DNA and surrounded by crystals of calcium carbonate. The structure shelters the DNA and acts as a barrier to oxygen and water, two of the major contributors to DNA damage. Eggshells also stop microbes from growing and it seems that ancient ones still do the same. Oskam found that the fossil shells had around 125 times less bacterial DNA than bones of the same species did.
This is important – bacteria are a major problem for attempts to extract ancient DNA and they force scientists to search for uncontaminated sources, like frozen hair. Eggshells, it seems, provide similarly bacteria-free samples. Still, Oskam’s team took every precaution to prevent contamination. They used clean rooms and many control samples. Many of their sequences, like those of Aepyornis, were checked by two independent laboratories.
The Aepyornis sequences are particularly encouraging because many scientists have previously tried to extract DNA from the bones of this giant and failed. Eggshells seem like a more promising source and it certainly helps that the eggs of many of these giant species were massive and thick. But Oskam did also recover DNA from a fossil duck egg, which suggests that it should be possible to sequence the genes of even small extinct birds, like the dodo.
Souvenir shops in South Africa are full of lamps made out of ostrich eggs. The eggs are so big and strong that you can carve and cut intricate designs into their shells. The egg’s contents are emptied through a hole and a bulb can be inserted instead, casting pretty shadows on walls and ceilings. The results are a big draw for modern tourists, but ostrich eggs have a long history of being used as art in South Africa. The latest finds show that people were carvings symbolic patterns into these eggs as early as 60,000 years ago.
Pierre-Jean Texier from the University of Bordeaux discovered a set of 270 eggshell fragments from Howieson Poort Shelter, a South African cave that has been a rich source of archaeological finds. Judging by their patterns, the fragments must have come from at least 25 separate eggs, although probably many more.
Texier says that the sheer number is “exceptional in prehistory”. Their unprecedented diversity and etched patterns provide some of the best evidence yet for a prehistoric artistic tradition. While previous digs have thrown up piecemeal examples of symbolic art, Texier’s finds allow him to compare patterns across individual pieces, to get a feel of the entire movement, rather than the work of an individual.
As you might expect, the millennia haven’t been too kind to the shells but even so, their etchings are still well preserved and Texier even managed to fit some of the pieces together. Despite the variety of fragments, their patterns fall into a very limited set of motifs produced in the same way – a hatched band like a railway track, parallel(ish) lines, intersecting lines, and cross-hatching. It’s possible that, once assembled, these elements would have combined into a more complex artistic whole but Texier notes that he has never found a piece with more than one motif on it.
Deep beneath the ocean’s surface lie the “black smokers“, undersea chimneys channelling superheated water from below the Earth’s crust. Completely devoid of sunlight, they are some of the most extreme environments on the planet. Any creature that can survive their highly acidic water, scorching temperatures and crushing pressures still has to contend with assaults from predatory crabs. What better place, then, to look for the next generation of body armour technology?
The scaly-foot gastropod (Crysomalion squamiferum) was discovered just 9 years ago at an Indian black smoker and it may have one of the most effective animal armours so far discovered. Its shell is a composite, made of three layers, each with different properties and made of different minerals. Together, they form a structure that’s completely unlike any known armour, whether natural or man-made. It can protect the animal from the searing heat of its habitat, stop its precious minerals from dissolving away in the acidic water and resist the crushing, penetrating, peeling claw-attacks of predatory crabs.
Animals have been protecting themselves with armour long before humans starting shaping steel and Kevlar. To create a protective covering, human designers must account for a mind-boggling array of physical traits including thickness, geometry, strength, elasticity and more. But evolution can take all of those factors into account without the guiding hand of a designer, putting thousands of structures through the test of natural selection and weeding out the best combinations. The results are the culmination of millions of years of research and development and they are striking in their effectiveness.
Haimin Yao from MIT works in the lab of Catherine Ortiz, a group that has been studying the defences of animals including sea urchins, chitons, a group of marine molluscs, to the Senegal bichir, a type of armoured fish.
Yao discovered the secrets behind the snail’s shell by slicing through it in cross-sections and studying its structure at a nanometre level. He even attacked it with a diamond-tipped probe, to simulate the crushing attacks of the crabs that frequent the black smokers. Using this data, Yao created a virtual simulation of the shell and put it through a digital crash-test, crab claws and all.
The turtle’s shell provides it with a formidable defence and one that is unique in the animal world. No other animal has a structure quite like it, and the bizarre nature of the turtle’s anatomy also applies to the skeleton and muscles lying inside its bony armour.
The shell itself is made from broadened and flattened ribs, fused to parts of the turtle’s backbone (so that unlike in cartoons, you couldn’t pull a turtle out of its shell). The shoulder blades sit underneath this bony case, effectively lying within the turtle’s ribcage. In all other back-boned animals, whose shoulder blades sit outside their ribs (think of your own back for a start). The turtle’s torso muscles are even more bizarrely arranged.
This body plan – and particularly the odd location of the shoulder blades – is so radically different to that of all other back-boned animals that biologists have struggled to explain how it could have arisen gradually from the standard model, or what the intermediate ancestors might have looked like. Enter Hiroshi Nagashima from the RIKEN Center; he has found some answers by studying how the embryos of the Chinese soft-shelled turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis) shift from the standard body plan of other vertebrates to the bizarre configuration of adult turtles.
By comparing the embryos to those of mice and chickens, Nagashima showed that all three species start off with a shared pattern that their last common ancestor probably shared. It is only later that the turtle does something different, starting of a sequence of muscular origami that distorts its body design into the adult version.