April 30, 2013
Baby animals may seem irresistibly adorable, but in reality many of them are calculating killers. Hyena, wolf or even dog litter runts are pushed aside by their larger siblings and left to go hungry; fuzzy white egret chicks will kick their weaker clutch mates out of the nest to certain doom; and baby golden eagles sometimes go so far as to snack on their smaller brothers and sisters while their mother looks on.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, however, is the case of the baby sand tiger shark. While sharks may not be the most snuggly animals to begin with, the sand tiger shark sets a new precedent for fratricide. This species practices a form of sibling-killing called intrauterine cannibalization. Yes, “intrauterine” refers to embryos in the uterus. Sand tiger sharks eat their brothers and sisters while still in the womb.
Even by nature’s cruel standards, scientists admit that this is an unusual mode of survival. When sand tiger sharks develop in their mother’s uteri (females have both a left and right uterus), some–usually the embryo that hatched first from its encapsulated, fertilized egg–inevitably grow faster and larger than others. Once the largest embryos cross a certain size threshold, the hungry babies turn to their smaller siblings as convenient meals. “The approximately 100 mm hatchling proceeds to attack, kill and eventually consume all of its younger siblings, achieving exponential growth over this period,” a team of researchers who investigated the phenomenon wrote this week in Biology Letters.
From what began as two uteri full of a dozen embryos results in just two dominating baby sand tiger sharks coming full term. What’s more, once the unborn babies consume all of the living embryos, they turn to their mother’s unfertilized eggs next, in a phenomenon called oophagy, or egg-eating. By the time those two surviving babies are finally ready to be introduced into the big, bright world, all of the pre-birth inner feasting has paid off. They emerge from their mother measuring in at about 95 to 125 centimeters long, or a bit longer than a baseball bat, meaning fewer predators can pick them off than if they had shared food with siblings and were smaller.
This peculiar situation has implications for the genetic makeup of the species. Female sand tiger sharks, like many animals, mate with multiple males. Oftentimes in nature, females determine which males will sire the next generation by selectively choosing to mate with the most impressive bachelor (or bachelors) around. If mating with multiple males at any given time–as sharks, insects, dogs, cats and many other animals sometimes do–the babies that the female eventually produces share the same womb with siblings that may have different fathers.
In this case, however, there are two modes of selection at work. Females may choose mates, but that does not guarantee those males’ genes will make the cut. The embryos the males sire will also have to survive the subsequent frenzy of cannibalism going on inside the female’s body.
To find out whether some males are mating but missing out on actually producing offspring, the authors of this new study undertook microsatellite DNA profiling of 15 sand tiger shark mothers and their offspring. The researchers collected the sharks from accidental mortality events near protected beaches in South Africa between 2007 to 2012. By comparing the embryo genetics, the researchers could determine how many fathers were involved in fertilizing the eggs.
Nine of the females, or 60 percent, had mated with more than one male, the researchers found. When it came to which embryos hatched and grew large first (and thus would have survived if their mothers hadn’t have been killed), 60 percent shared the same father. This means that even if a female mates with more than one male, there is no guarantee that the male has been successful in passing on his genes. Rather, he could have just provided a convenient entree for another male’s offspring.
This also explains some male sand tiger shark behavior and physiology. Male sand tiger sharks often guard their mates against other males just after copulation. Males of this species also produce a conspicuously large amount of sperm compared to other sharks. Both of these characteristics increase the likelihood that the embryo fertilized by that male will successfully implant in the female’s uterus earlier, giving it a significant head start for developing more quickly than its siblings, which makes it more likely that the recent mate’s offspring will eat the others that may come along.
As for the females sand tiger sharks, some researchers think they actually may not have much of a choice when it comes to mating with multiple males. It could be that females just give in to some amorous partners because the energetic cost of resisting those advances outweighs the cost of just conceding to the act–a behavior biologists call the convenience polyandry hypothesis. In this case, however, females may still get the final laugh since the males they first mated with and most likely preferred will have the greater chance of actually triumphing as the father of their children. “[Embryonic cannibalism] may allow female sand tigers to engage in convenience polyandry after mating with preferred males without actually investing in embryos from these superfluous copulations,” the researchers speculate.
While the females did invest in initially developing those doomed embryos, those investments are much smaller than what would be required to bring multiple embryos to full term. Those smaller embryos also represent resources allocated to the stronger, dominate embryonic winners, which thus have a better chance of surviving and passing on their mother’s genes than if she had spent the energy to instead birth multiple, weakling babies. In a way, the mother shark is providing nourishment for her strongest babies by producing multiple embryos that the most robust can eat.
“This system highlights that competition and sexual selection can still occur after fertilization,” the authors write. For example, the first embryo to implant may not end up being the the one that survives the gladiator arena of the sharks uterus. While this new research still needs to delve into the details of the competition that takes place within the uterus, a picture is emerging based upon these initial findings: Females may chose which males to mate with or may be coerced into reluctantly mating, but male sperm fitness and the quality of the embryos they produce could also carry significant weight in which animals ultimately wind up as winners in this system.
“This competition can play an important and probably under-appreciated role in determining male fitness,” the authors conclude.
April 24, 2013
Pop quiz: Why are flamingos pink?
If you answered that it’s because of what they eat—namely shrimp—you’re right. But there’s more to the story than you might think.
naturally synthesize a pigment called melanin, which determines the color of their eyes, fur (or feathers) and skin. Pigments are chemical compounds that create color in animals by absorbing certain wavelengths of light while reflecting others. Many animals can’t create pigments other than melanin on their own. Plant life, on the other hand, can produce a variety of them, and if a large quantity is ingested, those pigments can sometimes mask the melanin produced by the animal. Thus, some animals are often colored by the flowers, roots, seeds and fruits they consume
Flamingos are born with gray plumage. They get their rosy hue pink by ingesting a type of organic pigment called a carotenoid. They obtain this through their main food source, brine shrimp, which feast on microscopic algae that
naturally produce carotenoids. Enzymes in the flamingos’ liver break down the compounds into pink and orange pigment molecules, which are then deposited into the birds’ feathers, legs and beaks. If flamingos didn’t feed on brine shrimp, their blushing plumage would eventually fade.
In captivity, the birds’ diets are supplemented with carotenoids such as beta-carotene and and canthaxanthin. Beta-carotene, responsible for the orange of carrots, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, is converted in the body to vitamin A. Canthaxanthin is responsible for the color of apples, peaches, strawberries and many flowers.
Shrimp can’t produce these compounds either, so they too depend on their diet to color their tiny bodies. Flamingos, though, are arguably the best-known examples of animals dyed by what they eat. What others species get pigment from their food? Here’s a quick list:
Northern cardinals and yellow goldfinches: When these birds consume berries from the dogwood tree, they metabolize carotenoids found inside the seeds of the fruit. The red, orange and yellow pigments contribute to the birds’ vibrant red and gold plumage, which would fade in intensity with each molt if cardinals were fed a carotenoid-free diet.
Salmon: Wild salmon consume small fish and crustaceans that feed on carotenoid-producing algae, accumulating enough of the chemical compounds to turn pink. Farmed salmon are fed color additives to achieve a deeper shades of red and pink.
Nudibranchs: These shell-less mollusks absorb the pigments of their food sources into their normally white bodies, reflecting the bright colors of sponges and cnidarians, which include jellyfish and corals.
Canaries: The birds’ normal diet doesn’t alter the color of its yellow feathers, but they can turn a deep orange if they regularly consume paprika, cayenne or red pepper. These spices each contain multiple carotenoids responsible for creating and red and yellow.
Ghost ants: There’s not much more than meets the eye with ghost ants: these tropical insects get their name from their transparent abdomens. Feed them water mixed with food coloring and watch their tiny, translucent lower halves fill up with brilliantly colored liquid.
Humans: Believe it or not, if a person eats large quantities of carrots, pumpkin or anything else with tons of carotenoids, his or her skin will turn yellow-orange. In fact, the help book Baby 411 includes this question and answer:
Q: My six-month-old started solids and now his skin is turning yellow. HELP!
A: You are what you eat! Babies are often first introduced to a series of yellow vegetables (carrots, squash, sweet potatoes). All these vegetables are rich in vitamin A (carotene). This vitamin has a pigment that can collect harmlessly on the skin, producing a condition called carotinemia.
How to tell that yellow-orange skin isn’t an indication of jaundice? The National Institutes of Health explain that “If the whites of your eyes are not yellow, you may not have jaundice.”
April 19, 2013
Last year, to celebrate the 42nd Earth Day, we took a look at 10 of the most surprising, disheartening, and exciting things we’d learned about our home planet in the previous year—a list that included discoveries about the role pesticides play in bee colony collapses, the various environmental stresses faced by the world’s oceans and the millions of unknown species are still out in the environment, waiting to be found.
This year, in time for Earth Day on Monday, we’ve done it again, putting together another list of 10 notable discoveries made by scientists since Earth Day 2012—a list that ranges from specific topics (a species of plant, a group of catfish) to broad (the core of planet Earth), and from the alarming (the consequences of climate change) to the awe-inspiring (Earth’s place in the universe).
1. Trash is accumulating everywhere, even in Antarctica. As we’ve explored the most remote stretches of the planet, we’ve consistently left behind a trail of one supply in particular: garbage. Even in Antarctica, a February study found (PDF), abandoned field huts and piles of trash are mounting. Meanwhile, in the fall, a new research expedition went to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, counting nearly 70,000 pieces of garbage over the course of a month at sea.
2. Climate change could erode the ozone layer. Until recently, atmospheric scientists viewed climate change and the disintegration of the ozone layer as entirely distinct problems. Then, in July, Harvard researcher Jim Anderson (who won a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for his work) led a team that published the troubling finding that the two might be linked. Some warm summer storms, they discovered, can pull moisture up into the stratosphere, an atmospheric layer 6 miles up. Through a chain of chemical reactions, this moisture can lead to the disintegration of ozone, which is crucial for protecting us from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Climate change, unfortunately, is projected to cause more of these sorts of storms.
3. This flower lives on exactly two cliffs in Spain. In September, Spanish scientists told us about one of the most astounding survival stories in the plant kingdom: Borderea chouardii, an extremely rare flowering plant that is found on only two adjacent cliffs in the Pyrenees. The species is believed to be a relic of the Tertiary Period, which ended more than 2 million years ago, and relies on several different local ant species to spread pollen between its two local populations.
4. Some catfish have learned to kill pigeons. In December, a group of French scientists revealed a phenomenon they’d carefully been observing over the previous year: a group of catfish in Southwestern France had learned how to leap onto shore, briefly strand themselves, and swim back into the water to consume their prey. With more than 2,000,000 Youtube views so far, this is clearly one of the year’s most widely enjoyed scientific discoveries.
5. Fracking for natural gas can trigger moderate earthquakes. Scientists have known for a while that whenever oil and gas are extracted from the ground at a large scale, seismic activity can be induced. Over the past few years, evidence has mounted that injecting water, sand and chemicals into bedrock to cause gas and oil to flow upward—a practice commonly known as fracking—can cause earthquakes by lubricating pre-existing faults in the ground. Initially, scientists found correlations between fracking sites and the number of small earthquakes in particular areas. Then, in March, other researchers found evidence that a medium-sized 2011 earthquake in Oklahoma(which registered a 5.7 on the moment magnitude scale) was likely caused by injecting wastewater into wells to extract oil.
6. Our planet’s inner core is more complicated than we thought. Despite decades of research, new data on the iron and nickel ball 3,100 miles beneath our feet continue to upset our assumptions about just how the earth’s core operates. A paper published last May showed that iron in the outer parts of the inner core is losing heat much more quickly than previously estimated
, suggesting that it might hold more radioactive energy than we’d assumed, or that novel and unknown chemical interactions are occurring. Ideas for directly probing the core are widely regarded as pipe dreams, so our only options remains studying it from afar, largely by monitoring seismic waves.
7. The world’s most intense natural color comes from an African fruit. When a team of researchers looked closely at the blue berries of Pollia condensata, a wild plant that grows in East Africa, they found something unexpected: it uses an uncommon structural coloration method to produce the most intense natural color ever measured. Instead of pigments, the fruit’s brilliant blue results from nanoscale-size cellulose strands layered in twisting shapes, which which interact with each other to scatter light in all directions.
8. Climate change will let ships cruise across the North Pole. Climate change is sure to create countless problems for many people around the world, but one specific group is likely to see a significant benefit from it: international shipping companies. A study published last month found that rising temperatures make it probable that during summertime, reinforced ice-breaking ships will be able to sail directly across the North Pole—an area currently covered by up to 65 feet of ice—by the year 2040. This dramatic shift will shorten shipping routes from North America and Europe to Asia.
9. One bacteria species conducts electricity. In October, a group of Danish researchers revealed that the seafloor mud of Aarhus’ harbor was coursing with electricity due to an unlikely source: mutlicellular bacteria that behave like tiny electrical cables. The organisms, the team found, built structures that traveled several centimeters down into the sediment and conduct measurable levels of electricity. The researchers speculate that this seemingly strange behavior is a byproduct of the way of the bacteria harvests energy from the nutrients buried in the soil.
10. Our Earth isn’t alone. Okay, this one might not technically be a discovery about Earth, but over the past year we have learned a tremendous amount about what our Earth isn’t: the only habitable planet in the visible universe. The pace of exoplanet detection has accelerated rapidly, with a total of 866 planets in other solar systems discovered so far. As our methods have become more refined, we’ve been able to detect smaller and smaller planets, and just yesterday, scientists finally discovered a pair of distant planets in the habitable zone of their stars that are relatively close in size to Earth, making it more likely than ever that we might have spied an alien planet that actually supports life.
April 17, 2013
On December 23, 1938, South African Hendrick Goosen, the captain of the fishing trawler Nerine, found an unusual fish in his net after a day of fishing in the Indian Ocean off of East London. He showed the creature to local museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who rinsed off a layer of slime and described it as “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen…five foot long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy dog tail.”
The duo, it turned out, had made one of the most significant biological discoveries of the 20th century. The fish was a coelacanth, a creature previously known only from fossilized specimens and believed to have gone extinct about 80 million years earlier. Moreover, its prehistoric appearance and unusual leg-like lobed fins immediately suggested to biologists that it could be an ancient ancestor of all land animals—one of the pivotal sea creatures that first crawled onto solid ground and eventually evolved into amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.
Now, though, the coelacanth’s full genome has been sequenced for the first time, and the results, published by an international team of researchers today in Nature, suggest otherwise. Genetic analysis suggests that the coelacanth doesn’t appear to be the most recent shared ancestor between sea and land animals—so its lobed fins didn’t make that first fateful step onto land after all.
When the researchers used what they found out about the coelacanth’s genome to build an evolutionary tree of marine and terrestrial animals (below), they found it’s more likely that ancestors of closely-related class of fish called lungfish played this crucial role. The ancestors of coelacanths and lungfish split off from each other before the latter group first colonized any land areas.
Additionally, the coelacanth’s prehistoric appearance has led to it commonly being considered a “living fossil”: a rare, unchanging biological time capsule of a bygone prehistoric era. But the genomic sequencing indicated that the fish species is actually still evolving—just very, very slowly—supporting the recent argument that it’s time to stop calling the fish and other seemingly prehistoric creatures “living fossils.”
“We found that the genes overall are evolving significantly slower than in every other fish and land vertebrate that we looked at,” Jessica Alföldi, a scientist at MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute and a co-author, said in a press statement. Small segments of the fish’s DNA had previously been sequenced, but now, she said, “This is the first time that we’ve had a big enough gene set to really see that.”
The fact that the fish is evolving isn’t surprising—like all organisms, it lives in a changing world, with continuously fluctuating selection pressures that drive evolution. What’s surprising (though reflected by its seemingly-prehistoric appearance) is that it’s evolving so slowly, compared to a random sampling of other animals. According to the scientists’ analysis of 251 genes in the fish’s genome, it evolved with an average rate of 0.89 base-pair substitutions for any given site, compared to 1.09 for a chicken and 1.21 for a variety of mammals (base-pair substitution refers to the frequency with with DNA base-pairs—the building blocks of genes—are altered over time).
The research team speculates that the coelacanth’s extremely stable deep Indian Ocean environment and relative lack of predators might explain why it has undergone such slow evolutionary changes. Without new evolutionary pressures that might result from either of these factors, the coelacanth’s genome and outward appearance have only changed slightly in the roughly 400 million years since it first appeared on the planet.
April 3, 2013
For decades, a total of 124 swords, tridents and spears taken from the Pacific Ocean’s Gilbert Islands in the mid-1800s sat untouched in vaults in Chicago’s Field Museum. The weapons—each made up of dozens of individual shark teeth that islanders lashed to a wooden core with coconut fibers—were primarily considered artifacts of anthropological value.
Then, Joshua Drew, a marine conservation biologist at the museum, had an unusual idea: that the shark teeth lining the serrated blades could also serve as an ecological snapshot of the reefs that lined the islands more than a century ago. Sharks can be clearly identified solely by their teeth, so the teeth that islanders had harvested and used for their weapons might reflect historical biodiversity in the reefs that’s since been lost due to environmental degradation.
When Drew and others closely examined the hundreds of teeth on the weapons, they found that they came from eight different shark species, six of which were known to commonly swim in the Gilbert Islands’ waters. Two species, though—the dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) and the spottail shark (Carcharhinus sorrah)—were something of a surprise. When the researchers looked at the scientific literature and various museum holdings of fish collected in the area, they found that these two species had never been documented within thousands of miles of the islands.
Drew calls this “shadow biodiversity”—a reflection of the life that lived in an ecosystem before we even started studying what was there. “[These are] hints and whispers of what these reefs used to be like,” he said in a press statement accompanying the paper documenting his team’s find, published today in PLOS ONE. “It’s our hope that by understanding how reefs used to look we’ll be able to come up with conservation strategies to return them to their former vivid splendor.”
Working with Mark Westneat, the museum’s curator of fishes, and Christopher Philipp, who manages the anthropology collections, Drew classified each tooth on every weapon by shark species, primarily using field guides and photos. In cases where the tooth’s identity was ambiguous, he made use of the Museum’s own ichthyological holdings, comparing it to preserved specimens from each shark species.
Because dusky and spottail shark teeth were found on the weapons—crafted sometime between the 1840s and 1860s, shortly before they were collected—the researchers believe these two species were once part of the ecosystem and have since been eradicated. There is the possibility that the teeth were harvested elsewhere and came to the Gilbert Islands via trade, but the team says it’s unlikely.
For one, sharks figure largely in the islanders’ traditional culture, and it’s well-known that they had effective shark-fishing techniques, making it unlikely that they’d go to the trouble of exporting teeth from afar. The two species’ teeth were among the most common found on the weapons, so it also stands to reason that they were fairly abundant nearby. Secondly, there is no historical or archaeological evidence that trade occurred between the extremely remote Gilbert Islands and either the Solomon Islands (the closest known location of spottail sharks) or Fiji (for dusky sharks).
It’s impossible to know for sure, but given the environmental degradation that’s occurred over the past century in the Pacific’s coral reefs, the researchers suspect that humans played a role in these sharks’ local eradication. Because sharks mature slowly and have a small number of offspring per individual, they can be wiped out quickly by moderate levels of fishing, and the commercial shark fishing industry started up in the area as early as 1910.
Rigorous fish surveys of the Pacific didn’t begin for a few more decades, so these weapons—and perhaps other human artifacts that incorporate biological specimens—serve as a valuable time capsule of the ecosystems that predated scientific study. Drew thinks that the “shadow diversity” we’ve since lost should inspire people in the marine conservation field to recreate the biodiversity that predates the Industrial Age.
“When we set up modern conservation plans, we shouldn’t sell ourselves short,” he told Nature last year, when he revealed his preliminary results at a conference. “We might not recapture the vivid splendor of those super-rich levels, but this information argues for setting up management plans to protect what sharks are there.”