Monthly Archives: October 2009

Way to be a vegetarian for all the wrong reasons, Bagheera kiplingi

bagheera kiplingi vegetarian

As published in the latest issue of Current Biology, researchers have identified the first-known mostly vegetarian spider out of the 40,000 discovered species in the world. The curious behaviour of this wide-eyed jumping spider, Bagheera kiplingi, discovered in the late 1800’s and named after Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book panther, has until recently remained a mystery. But by observing the neotropical species from south-eastern Mexico and north-western Costa Rica, the team discovered its preference for plant material over meat. Instead of digesting prey externally and consuming the liquified remains like most spiders would, the Bagheera kiplingi will eat whole plant material. However, it has also been observed to eat the occasional ant, spider, or ant larvae. Lead researcher, biologist Christopher Meehan from the University of Arizona, notes that the Bagheera kiplingi is “the first spider known to specifically ‘hunt’ plants. It is also the first known to go after plants as a primary food source.”

Taking advantage of the co-evolved mutualism between wasp-like Pseudomyrmex ants and the acacia shrubs they inhabit, the majority of the Bagheera kiplingi’s diet consists of the nutrient-enriched leaf tip structures of the plant (Beltian bodies), which ordinarily act as the ants’ reward for protecting it from predators. And just how the Bagheera kiplingi manages to snatch the harvest from right under the proverbial noses of these typically aggressive ants is really quite ingenious, as Meehan explains,

“Jumping spiders in general possess incredibly advanced sensory-cognitive skills and eight-legged agility, and Bagheera is no exception. Individuals employ diverse, situation-specific strategies to evade ants, and the ants simply cannot catch them.”

By building their nests in the oldest, most withered acacia leaves where the Pseudomyrmex ants are unlikely to patrol, the Bagheera kiplingi will use careful evasion tactics and its hydraulically-propelled jump to make its way to the Beltian bodies and back undetected. If spotted, it will use a line of silk to drop to safety. Meehan has also speculated that it might even be able to mimic the ants’ scent in order to mask its presence.

So I think I might know what’s going on here. Suddenly Bagheera kiplingi bursts onto the scene all like, “What? You guys, I’ve been a vegetarian for like, ever, and you’re only just noticing now? How self-involved are you?” even though you could have sworn that all spiders were predatory and need to eat things with faces in order to survive? I’m not buying it and I’m pretty sure I can spot a not-so-cunning ploy to impress that cute lady Pseudomyrmex ant who works at the book store across the road from your office when I see one. It was probably like, “Oh my god, Bagheera kiplingi, will you stop gazing wistfully out your window for once and fucking just ask her out? You’re starting to give me the creeps with that stuff.” So Bagheera kiplingi will reluctantly agree, you’ll pour him a stiff drink, and then tell him to go over and ask her for a Vonnegut and maybe a really expensive leather-bound journal or something because you have a lot of thoughts. The overwhelmed Bagheera kiplingi will ask, “Which Vonnegut?” and you’ll be like, “It doesn’t matter.”

“But she’ll think I’m some kind of hipster.”

“Probably. Hey since when is Bing our default now? What the fuck is that about?”

“What? Bing? Pretty sure we’re supposed to be talking about me here. Wait, did you just drink my scotch…?”

But against all odds, Bagheera kiplingi will somehow get the cute book store Pseudomyrmex ant to agree to go on a date with him, and he’ll return to the office with a large armful of books, and a slightly anxious look on his face. You’ll ask him what’s wrong and he’ll be like, “Well, she kept talking about her colony and how they do everything together and she’s like, ‘I suppose you’d try to eat everyone if you ever came over, yeah?’ So I told her I’m a vegetarian.”

“Dude.”

“I know. What else could I say? I panicked…”

So Bagheera kiplingi will take the cute book store Pseudomyrmex ant out to dinner, she’ll have the Beltian bodies and he’ll have, “I don’t know. A salad or something.” They’ll get terribly drunk and while waiting for a taxi outside the restaurant, Bagheera kiplingi will try his luck and ask if he can stay at hers. She’ll agree (don’t judge her – it was a lot of wine for such a little ant) and they’ll go back to her colony and, you know, mate and stuff.

“So what happened?” You’ll ask him, as he deletes the cute book store Pseudomyrmex ant’s number from his phone the next day over coffee.

“Well when I woke up I was surrounded by all these creepy fucking ants and I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, chill guys, I’m a vegetarian, I’m not here to eat you…’ But they all just start fucking laughing at me like, ‘Dude, do we look worried?’ and suddenly they’re on me like fully biting and stinging me and shit.”

“So what did you do?”

“What anyone would do: I shook them off, bounced over to the nest and stole a couple of larvae, then bounced the fuck out of there.”

“Shit. So I guess the whole vegetarian thing is over?”

“Nah, I think I might keep it up for a while. Those Beltian bodies are actually kind of delicious, plus it really pisses those Pseudomyrmex ants off when I steal their shit.”

“So you’re a vegetarian out of spite now.”

“Exactly.”

Current Biology // Not Exactly Rocket Science

– bec

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Filed under Insects, Science

Hey Polychaetes, Let’s Play the Silence Game Till the Next Whale-Fall, Okay?

new-polychaete-eat-dead-whales

In her recently-published dissertation for the University of Gothenburg, Swedish doctoral researcher, Helena Wiklund, identifies nine new species from two families of polychaete worms (Ophryotrocha and Vigtorniella) found on whale remains in Scandinavian and Californian waters. Polychaetes, a common type of marine annelid (or segmented worm), are found extensively across the ocean floor, and can be free-living grazers or attached to other organisms. All but one of the particular species Wiklund has concentrated on are free-living grazer worms who are adapted to the very specific habitat of a whale-fall, feeding off the bacteria that form filamentous mats over the surface of decomposing whale bones.

When whales die and sink to the ocean floor they provide a vast amount of food for a variety of marine life. The decomposition of a whale carcass takes place over three stages which involve specific types of organisms attending to different parts of the carcass. The initial stage of decomposition involves the larger flesh-eating organisms such as hagfish, sleeper sharks, and crustaceans, who pick the decaying flesh away from the skeleton. The second stage involves great numbers of macrofauna, like these newly-discovered and highly-specialised species of 2-centimetre-long polychaetes, gathering in the sediment that falls on and covers the bones, and the final stage sees the polychaetes feeding off the bacterial mats that form across the surface of the bones.

What Wiklund has also discovered is these species of bacterial mat-dependant polychaetes can also survive on sunken wood and beneath man-made fish farms, both the kinds of environments where concentrated amounts of nutrient-rich sediments can settle into these bacterial mats.

While whale-falls can feed many generations of polychaetes over several decades, they are few and far between, and just how the worms are able to travel from one carcass to another has posed a bit of a challenge to Wiklund. The Ophryotrocha larvae develop very quickly, the juveniles reaching adult form within days of hatching, making long-distance dispersal unlikely, as they can’t spend months traveling on ocean currents to the next whale-fall without the proper nutrients. However the Vigtorniella species have long-living larvae which can take up to nine months to reach adult form, and thus long-distance dispersal is a possibility.

Ophryotrocha scutellus worm

Now I can totally hear a bunch of migratory birds being like, “So the Vigtorniella larvae travel long distances. Whatever! We do that all the time, but are people always discussing how awesome that is? No!” And of course, they’re right, but we do have to be mindful of the fact that these are kids – or larvae, if you prefer – who are traveling long distances together, and that they make it to the next whale carcass at all makes it absolutely worth mentioning. I’m not suggesting that things are likely to decline into a sort of Lord of the Flies-like bloodbath, but it’s not like there are any adults around to be like, “Stop hitting your sister!” and “Didn’t I tell you to go before we left? We’re not stopping for another half an hour, so you’re just going to have to hold it in!”

Like, the journey would probably start out okay, the larvae all excited about finding a new stash of delicious whale bones to supply them with a multitude of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and for a while barely a word would be exchanged between any of them because they’re all too busy playing Petz or Lego Batman or something on their DS. But whale-falls are pretty rare and while the DS battery life is alright, it certainly isn’t going to last an entire trip, and you just know that someone will have forgotten to recharge theirs the night before. So one of the larvae will suddenly be like, “UGH!” pointedly slamming her DS shut so that everyone close by will hear her, and she’ll find one of her sisters and be all, “Hey, so my DS just died. Can I have a go of yours quickly?”

And her sister will be like, “Umm no way. I don’t want you using up all my battery life too.”

“But mum said we have to share!”

“Mum said to charge yours before we left.”

“I HATE you!”

“I hated you FIRST!”

And that’s just on the first day. Pretty soon it will degenerate into something along the lines of:

“I’m BORED. My pygidium hurts, and I need to go to the bathroom REAL BAD.”

“OH MY GOD… now I have to go!

“Ugh. Prudence, will you please tell Alex that it’s not my fault that she needs to pee and maybe she should stop trying to copy everything I do, and yes I’m still not talking to her because of that thing she said about how I always snort when I laugh which is so. not. true, because I know what I sound like and I don’t sound like someone who snorts when they laugh.”

“FINE. Umm Prudence, can you please tell Jessica that I said, “No offense,” before I said the thing about snorting, and Jessica said, “Okay.” So it’s not my fault she got offended when she already promised she wouldn’t get offended before I even said it.”

“Prudence, will you please tell Alex that just because she said, “No offense,” it doesn’t mean she can just say whatever she wants, like, I bet she wouldn’t like it if I said, “Hey, Jessica, no offense, but your chaetae are looking pretty thin. Maybe it’s because you’re underdeveloped…?” would she?”

“Prudence, will you please tell Jessica that actually I am allowed to be offended by that because I didn’t actually say, “Okay,” to the “No offense,” and– Wait, what do you mean my chaetae are thin? As if they are and at least my bristles aren’t too short like yours are!”

And somehow they manage to ride the ocean currents across extensive distances without pulling each other’s segments apart. I know I’m impressed.

Original Dissertion (open access) // Paper in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society // Pictures courtesy of Helena Wiklund.

– bec

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Filed under New Species!, Science, Sea Creatures

You Guys, You’re Going To Give Hydrolagus melanophasma A Complex!

ghost-shark-new-species Hydrolagus melanophasma

So you’ve probably already heard about it a billion times over, but yes, a team of researchers from the Pacific Shark Research Center and the California Academy of Sciences have identified a new ghost shark, publishing their findings in the September issue of Zootaxa. Named Hydrolagus melanophasma, (Hydrolagus the Latin term for ‘water rabbit’ and melanophasma the Latin term for ‘black ghost’) this Eastern Pacific black ghost shark had actually already been discovered as far back as 1947, as the preserved specimens kept at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute would indicate, but it wasn’t until a live individual was filmed off the coast of Southern California using the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute ROV and compared to the museum specimens that the researchers realised the species had never been formerly identified.

This ghost shark, (which is actually not a shark but a cartilaginous type of fish called a chimaera, that as a group branched off from the shark lineage around 400 million years ago) has been generating a lot of attention because of its unique appearance and curious appendages. As is characteristic to male chimaeras, the large, blackish-purple Hydrolagus melanophasma has what scientists speculate are specific types of sex organs, or ‘tenacula,’ sprouting from its forehead, near its pelvis, and in front of its pelvic fins, which essentially look like little clubs covered with spikes. But while it has been suggested that these organs are used by the chimaera to assist with mating, their function is actually quite different from that of the penis, in that they are probably used by the male to grip on to the female, the pelvic tenacula acting as a funnel for the sperm as it is transferred to the female.

So of course while this whole “sex organ in the face” thing is pretty fascinating, I’m not so sure it’s particularly appropriate or sensitive to the Hydrolagus melanophasma’s feelings to be calling it “freaky” and “bizarre” all the time and making jokes of a sexual nature at his expense, especially since we’ve really only just met. And besides, I’m willing to bet that the Hydrolagus melanophasma has already had his fair share of ridicule, having grown up around a whole lot of sea creatures who don’t have sex organs in their faces, because, you know, kids can be pretty cruel about that kind of stuff.

It probably started with a young Hydrolagus melanophasma having an awesome time playing Brandings or something in front of the spiny dogfish’s cave with a bunch of other primary school sea creatures. Then just when the umbrella crab is about to peg a rather large anemone kinda hard at him, the Hydrolagus melanophasma’s sex organ will accidentally start clasping idly at nothing in particular and the umbrella crab will be all, “Eww! Hydrolagus melanophasma has aliens coming out of his face! RUN!!” And poor Hydrolagus melanophasma will be super-embarrassed and confused, and will try hiding with a couple of wolf eels behind a sunken oil drum before getting squealed at and shoved away, because of his “gross alien germs,” and such.

So the Hydrolagus melanophasma will go home to ask his parents if he really does have aliens coming out of his face, and Mum and Dad Hydrolagus melanophasma will briefly whisper something to each other, coming to the conclusion that he’s probably old enough to have “The Talk.” So they’ll sit him down after dinner, mention something about genitals and love, and then inexplicably start blowing whatever the fish version of a condom is up like a balloon. The young Hydrolagus melanophasma will ask what that was supposed to teach him about responsible reproduction, but his dad will tell him not to be smart and The Talk’s over so go watch some cartoons or something.

But soon enough the kids at school will also work out what his face aliens actually are, and this will unfortunately coincide with the exact moment that they discover the joy of the “comeback phrase.” The Hydrolagus melanophasma would be in the canteen line quietly discussing an upcoming chemistry exam with one of the sleeper sharks in his class, and how that video of atoms making out on the dance floor at a disco probably wasn’t as much help as it should have been because instead of learning anything important he spent the whole time wondering how the cartoon was going to successfully carry the metaphor all the way to covalent bonding if the atoms didn’t actually have any genitals, when a heckler from the hungry throng will be all, “Your FACE is a genital!!” And much to the Hydrolagus melanophasma’s mortification, the rest of the sea creatures in the queue will burst into fits of cruel laughter and somebody else will add, “That’s what she said!!” and “I’ll show YOU my genitals!!”

And the Hydrolagus melanophasma will be all, “Whatever, dickheads,” but this will only make the raucous a billion times worse as everyone struggles for enough breath to be the first to manage a spirited, “I know you are, but what am I?!”

The increasingly upset and frustrated Hydrolagus melanophasma will at this stage probably lose it, and start informing everyone that it’s not even a penis, it’s just a clasper, but he won’t make it much further than that before someone cuts in with another, “That’s what she said!!”

And the first thing we all do when we find him is call him a freak. Nice one, guys. Way to make a positive first impression. Jesus.

Neurotopia // Original paper (by subscription)

– bec

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Filed under Museum Stuff, New Species!, Sea Creatures