Monthly Archives: August 2009

Welcome Back, Tasman Booby!

masked-booby

Thought to have been extinct since the late 18th century, when the hunting of Norfolk Island’s Polynesian settlers and European sailers eradicated its numbers to unprecedented lows, the Tasman booby, a long-winged sea bird formerly native to the small islands off the Australian and New Zealand coasts, has been rediscovered in a laboratory. But not in a Frankenstein’s monster kind of way – it turns out they never actually went extinct and have been hiding out on Lord Howe Island, passing themselves off as a different subspecies – the masked booby (above). It was only until recently when a number of biologists, palaeontologists, and geneticists teamed up and compared their data that they realised the Tasman boobies have been alive all along, and in fact are placed at  “least concern” in the IUCN rankings.

The problem with identifying them previously was that palaeontologists had been comparing the fossilised bones of “extinct” female Tasman boobies to those of the living males and assuming they were different species, unaware that the female Tasman boobies are typically much larger than the males. Of course, the biologists already knew this, but there had been little communication between these two groups until now. “Many rediscoveries of ‘extinct’ birds are the result of an intensive search in the field, but ours is a little different,” study leader, Tammy Steeves of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said. “We are the first to rediscover a bird in the laboratory.”

Well then, Tasman Booby, I suspect you’re probably pretty excited about all the attention you’re going to get because of this. You’re going to save a fortune on groceries because every scientist with a keen interest in boobies is going to be inviting you over to their place for brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and quite possibly supper, and you’ve been away for so long, they probably won’t even expect you to bring anything because your company is all that matters (but they’ll still whisper horrid things about you to each other afterwards if you don’t, Tasman Booby). But I’m here to tell you that being the prodigal son isn’t all complementary red wine and lamb cutlets, champagne and pistachio macaroons, gin and ginger snaps. The first thing the scientists are going to ask you is how you came back from extinction after all these years and all you can possibly reply is, “Well, I was never actually extinct, to be honest. I was just hanging out, you know, keeping a low profile. Chillin’.” And what are they going to say to that, Tasman Booby? Nothing! They’ll be like, “Oh,” after which there’ll be one of those excruciating awkward silences  you hate so much, which they’ll try to momentarily fill by serving you some more gin, so you’ll eventually have to ask, “So… what’s been going on with you?”

But what you might not have considered, Tasman Booby, is that you’ve been “extinct” for over two hundred years. That’s a whole lot of shit you’re going to have to catch up on with these scientists, especially considering a number of them will be likely pushing eighty. They’ll start with the moment they first took an interest in nature when that boy/girl they liked in Kindergarten gave them an ice-cream bucket full of fence skinks for their birthday. And then it’ll be all cicadas, tadpoles and rabbits right through to high school when it’ll be all boys/girls, formals, parties, drugs, and shit parents. And oh, did they tell you about the time they accidentally went with two boys/girls to the formal? They will have, Tasman booby, but you’ll have your mouth so full of macaroon you’ll be unable to tell them in time, so you’ll get to hear that story twice. And then there’ll be marriage, kids, divorce, dating, constant references to how diabolical their first husband/wife was (and still is), possibly marriage again, and oh yeah, the research papers. My god, Tasman Booby, the research papers. Unless they happen to be about something cool like Sauropod neck posture, no amount of free alcohol and dessert in the world can make having to hear about the minutiae of carotenoid crystal formation bearable, pretty sea bird.

So I guess the only thing left for it is to go back into hiding. Unless of course all of the above sounds awesome to you, (I don’t pretend to know what your idea of what’s fun is, Tasman Booby) but if you do feel the need to go “extinct” again, your best bet is find a hideout where no one’s going to come looking for you ever again. I hear Guam’s good for that.

-bec

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Chill the Fuck Out, Swima Worms & Spanish Ribbed Newt…

green bomber worms

As early as 1879, biologists have known about the Spanish ribbed newt’s tendency to use its rib bones as weapons, but only recently has x-ray imaging been used to observe how they do it. When the newt is agitated or distressed, it will swing its ribs forward, increasing their angle to the spine by up to 50 degrees so they can pierce the skin and act like defensive barbs against potential predators (yes okay, like Wolverine). So not only is this Spanish newt willing to use its own structural anatomy as a defense mechanism, but it is also quite happy to stab itself right through its own body walls in the process.

Furthermore, the Spanish ribbed newt has the ability to excrete a poisonous milky substance onto the skin when threatened, which effectively turns its exposed rib points into very handy stinging tools, according to zoologist Egon Heiss of the University of Vienna in Austria.

spanish ribbed newt

And in more overly-defensive animal news, a new species of deep sea worm has just been discovered by a team led by Karen Osborn of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, which they’ve rather aptly named Swima bombiviridis. Not only do these four-inch-long eyeless worms have scores of bristles on either side of their body to allow them to paddle forwards or backwards very fast, they also have a renewable supply of eight little sac-like appendages or “bombs” attached to their bodies, just near the head. When agitated or threatened, the Swima will release their bombs, causing a chemical reaction which will instantly produce a bright green bioluminescence designed to distract their predators while the Swima paddle backwards to safety. “There are no other annelids that have structures like this,” Karen Osborn told the press.

green bomber worms

So I’m going to go ahead and shotgun not sharing a house with these two really highly-strung organisms. You’d be like, “Hey after dinner do you guys want to play Risk?” and they’ll both express interest with aplomb because neither of them have played it in ages and they remember it to be all kinds of awesome fun. So you’re all setting up your pieces in their allocated territories and you’re like, “I’m getting a tea, do you guys want one? Yeah? Earl Grey, Earl Grey, peppermint. Got it.” But then you go to get the milk out of the fridge and there’s none there and you’re like, “Fuck. Did either of you two use the last of my milk and not tell me?” and Swima bombiviridis shrugs uselessly as he shifts his artillery around China, while Spanish ribbed newt is looking hell-uncomfortable and just keeps staring at Brazil. So you’re all, “Newt…?” and he’s like, “Nah dude, I don’t even drink milk… Shit,” as his ribs explode violently from inside his torso. So you serve Swima bombiviridis his black Earl Grey tea with a pointed sigh and Spanish ribbed newt sheepishly sucks his ribs back in so the game can get underway.

But less than twenty minutes later it suddenly dawns on you how full the recycling bin in your kitchen is and you’re like, “Oh my god, Swima bombiviridis, did you forget to put the bins out last night…?” and Swima bombiviridis suddenly shoots backwards over the top of the couch while releasing half a dozen fluorescent green bombs which proceed to bounce onto the coffee table and send Spanish ribbed newt’s Greenland infantry flying haphazardly into Alaska. The agitated newt begins to secrete his milky poison all over the couch.

Swima bombiviridis eventually inches his way back towards the couch, muttering something about needing a toilet break, and you’re all, “Whatever man, it’s your turn.” So then you’re like, “Who wants ice-cream?!” and Spanish ribbed newt and Swima bombiviridis look at each other in alarm and start to sink lower into the couch and you’re like, “Uhh kay, I’ll take that as a yes,” because neither of them have never not wanted ice-cream before. But then you open the freezer and, OH MY GOD – it’s empty – and you spin around, arms akimbo, ready to scream profanities at all and sundry, only to see a lone, milky Spanish ribbed newt urgently trying to push all of his ribs back in amid a telling wave of fluorescent green floaty bomb-sacs that have irrevocably scattered your infantry all over the Europe and into the North Atlantic Ocean.

– bec

* Swima pics courtesy of Karen Osborn.

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Filed under Animals, New Species!, Science, Sea Creatures

You’re Not God, Desert Ants.

ant rescue

A recent study coming out of the University of Paris Nord has expanded on the results of an 1874 experiment which saw teams of ants lend a mandible to colony-mates submerged in sand by digging them out and dragging them to safety. This time, the operation got far more complex as researchers tied nylon threads around the waists of individual desert ants (specifically Cataglyphis cursors), half-buried them in sand, and watched as teams of five ants set out to rescue them. If the rescuers came from the same colony as the tethered ants, they would shift the sand away, gnaw through the nylon, and drag their relatives out by their limbs.

Importantly, this study has revealed that the altruistic mechanism in these ants is not just a simple find-and-dig response to a chemical released by distressed individuals. That they understood the solution to be digging out and biting through the nylon thread suggests a far more sophisticated mental process is being used. What was also clear from this study is the highly selective nature of this behaviour, which sees the rescuers work in ernest to free trapped individuals from their own colony, but threaten, dismember, and spit acid at individuals from different species, or ants from different colonies.

Now, this is all seems pretty reasonable, and so some unfortunate individuals might get sprayed with acid or severely bitten on occasion, it’s no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It is nature afterall. But what could become a serious issue is the fact that if all these rescue teams are doing is wandering around, scouting for ants in distress, saving some and dismembering others, pretty soon they’re going to get a serious case of the God Complex. Like they’ll be marching through the desert on a routine expedition, passing the time by exchanging really explicit stories of past sexual exploits and discussing which hot females they’d fully like to ruin, before suddenly picking up on a chemical alarm signal which sends them scampering towards the source. And then they’ll start digging the trapped individual out and it’ll be like, “Man, I can’t believe you did it with Gloria. Isn’t she like your cousin or something?  Ahh, anyone know who this is? Have you guys seen him around before? Patrick? No? Anyone…? ACID!! ACID IN THE FACE!! KEEP GOING, HE’S GETTING WEAKER!!”

And then the expedition will move on, Steve will be talking about the time he did it with some female in the sink at Subway before Edgar interrupts with a, “Do you guys smell that?” And they’ll run over to this horrific scene where like three ants are trapped under a marbled velvet gecko carcass they thought they could carry but obviously couldn’t. So the rescuers will start digging furiously all like, “Whatever, man. You think that’s badass? Trying doing it in a proper restaurant that hasn’t put a hungover fifteen-year-old in charge of keeping the surfaces clean. Then we’ll all be impre- Shit. Hey Pierce, isn’t this that guy who hooked up with your little sister on New Years Eve that time your mum told you to keep an eye on her…? Yeah? LEGS! OFF WITH HIS LEGS!! Same colony? Whatever! Plenty more workers where you came from, buddy!”

And then they’ll start digging another one out and Piece will be like, “You know what? I’m pretty sure this is that arsehole who tried to steal my coffee table in woodwork once because we have the same initials and his was fully shit and crooked and… BITE HIM! BITE HIS HEAD!!” And meanwhile Bryce will be pulling the legs off some other colony-mate he thinks might have given his girlfriend the eye once at some party last year, gleefully dislocating the last leg with a, “How do you like me now, bitch?!”

PLoS One // Not Exactly Rocket Science // Alex Wild Photography

– bec

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Filed under Insects, Science