March 25, 2013
As Easter draws near, we begin to notice signs of nature’s very own annual resurrection event. Warming weather begins “breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” as T.S. Elliot noted, and “stirring dull roots with spring rain.” Where a black and white wintery landscape just stood, now technicolor crocus buds peak through the earth and green shoots brighten up the azalea bushes.
Aside from this grand show of rebirth, however, nature offers several cases of even more overtly stunning resurrections. From frozen animals jumping back into action during spring thaws to life blooming from seemingly desolate desert sands, these creatures put a new spin on nature’s capacity for revival.
As its name suggests, during a drought the resurrection fern shrivels up and appears dead, but with a little water the plant will burst back into vibrant life. It can morph from a crackled, desiccated brown into a lush, vibrant green in just 24 hours.
The fern doesn’t actually die, but it can lose up to 97 percent of its water content during an extreme dry spell. In comparison, other plants will usually crumble into dust if they lose more than 10 percent of their water content. Resurrection ferns achieve this feat by synthesizing proteins called dehydrins, which allow their cell walls to fold and reverse back to juicy fullness later.
Resurrection ferns are found as far north as New York and as far west as Texas. The ferns needs another plant to cling to in order to grow, and in the south it’s often found dramatically blanketing oak trees. A fallen oak branch covered in resurrection ferns are common features in southern gardens, though the ferns have also turned up in more uncanny locales: in 1997, astronauts took resurrection fern specimens onto the Space Shuttle Discovery to study how the plant resurrects in zero gravity. As investigators write (PDF), the fern “proved to be a hardy space traveler and exhibited regeneration patterns unaltered by its orbital adventure.” This earned it the title of “first fern in space.”
Brine shrimp, clam shrimp and tadpole shrimp
In the deserts of the western U.S., from seemingly life-barren rocks and sands, life blooms by just adding a little rain water. So-called ephemeral pools or “potholes” form tiny ecosystems ranging from just a few millimeters across to several meters deep. The ponds can reach up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer sun or drop below freezing during winter nights. They can evaporate nearly as quickly as they appeared, or linger on for days or weeks. As such, the animals that live there all have special adaptations for allowing them to thrive in these extreme conditions.
Some of the potholes’ most captivating critters include brine shrimp (of sea monkey fame!), clam shrimp and tadpole shrimp. These crustaceans practice a peculiar form of drought tolerance: In a process known as cryptobiosis, they can lose up to 92 percent of their body water, then pop back into fully-functional action within an hour of a new rain’s arrival. To do this, the tiny animals keep their neural command center hydrated but use sugar molecules instead of water to keep the rest of their cells intact throughout the drought. Like resurrection ferns, brine shrimp, too, have been taken into space–they were successfully hatched even after being carried outside of the spacecraft.
Most of these animals only live for about ten days, allowing them to complete their entire life cycle (hopefully) before their pool dries up. Their dried eggs are triggered to hatch not only when they’re hydrated again but also when oxygen content, temperature, salinity and other factors are just right. Some researchers, such as this zoologist quoted in a 1955 newspaper article, think that the eggs can remain dormant for several centuries and still hatch when conditions are right.
Some amphibians undergo their own sort of extreme hibernation in order to survive freezing winter temperatures. This suspended animation-like state allows them to slow down or stop their life processes–including breathing and heartbeat–just to the brink of death, but not quite. Wood frogs, for example, may encounter freezing conditions on the forest floor in winter. Their bodies may contain 50 to 60 percent ice, their breathing completely stops and their heartbeat is undetectable. They may stay like this for days, or even weeks.
They achieve this through a specially evolved biological trick. When the frogs encounter the first signs of freezing, their bodies pull moisture away from its central organs, padding them in a layer of water which then turns into ice. Before it freezes, the frog also floods its circulatory system with sugar molecules, which act as an antifreeze. When conditions warm up again, they can make a complete recovery within a day, which researchers call “spontaneous resumption of function.” Here, Robert Krulwich explains the process:
As seen through these examples, some creatures really do come back from the brink of death to thrive!
March 20, 2013
For centuries, monsters of the deep sea captivated the imagination of the public and terrified explorers–none more so than the many-tentacled kraken. In 13th century Icelandic sagas, the Vikings wrote of a terrifying monster that “swallows both men and ships and whales and everything that it can reach.” Eighteenth century accounts from Europe describe arms emerging from the ocean that could pull down the mightiest ships, attached to bodies the size of floating islands.
Today, we’re fairly confident that a tentacled beast will not emerge from the depths to swallow up a cruise ship, but the enduring allure of such creatures lingers. None of the ocean’s massive animals, perhaps, are as intriguing as the giant squid.
Now, scientists have come one step closer to unraveling the mysteries behind this rare animal. As it turns out, contrary to some squid enthusiasts’ former hypothesis, all giant squid belong to a single species. What’s more, those animals are extremely similar genetically.
To arrive at these findings, researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum of Denmark along with collaborators from 7 other countries genetically analyzed bits and pieces of 43 of the animals–which can grow more than 40 feet long and weigh nearly 2,000 pounds–recovered from all over the world.
Their results indicated that, unlike most marine animals, giant squid harbor almost no genetic diversity. Remarkably, individuals as far apart as Florida and Japan, from a statistical standpoint, shared almost the same DNA. The giant squid’s genetic diversity turned out to be 44 times lower than the Humboldt squid, another large species, and seven times lower than the diversity of a population of oval squids living in a restricted area and thus prone to inbreeding. In fact, the giant squid’s diversity was lower than all other measured oceanic species, save the basking shark, which scientists believe recently underwent a severe population bottleneck in which most animals died and only a few individuals survived and repopulated the species.
The researchers can only speculate about this finding’s underlying reasons–the giant squid’s genetic data alone cannot provide a plausible explanation. Perhaps something about the giant squid makes it advantageous to cull mutations from its genome? Alternatively, the animals may have undergone a recent bottleneck, similar to what happened to the basking sharks, meaning that all giant squid following that event are closely related. Or perhaps a few foundered squid somehow wandered in new stretches of ocean, so when they populated these new habitats their offspring shared the same squid family tree. The short answer, however, is that the researchers simply do not know.
“We cannot offer a satisfactory explanation for the low diversity, and this requires future studies to resolve,” they write in a paper published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
This has been a big year for giant squid. In January, a Japanese team released the first footage of a giant squid interacting in its natural environment. Yet much still remains to be learned about these enigmatic creatures. For example, researchers still have no idea how large of a range the adult squid patrol, how long they live, how quickly they grow and whether problems such as climate change affect their populations.
For the imagination’s sake, however, perhaps it’s best if some mysteries endure.
“Despite our findings, I have no doubt that these myths and legends will continue to get today’s children to open their eyes up–so they will be just as big as the real giant squid is equipped with to navigate the depths,” said lead researcher Tom Gilbert in a statement.
March 13, 2013
Anyone who has gone scuba diving or snorkeling in a coral reef will likely never forget the dazzling colors and other-worldly shapes of these underwater communities. Home to some of the world’s most diverse wildlife hotspots, reefs are worth an annual $400 billion in tourist dollars and in the ecosystem services they provide, such as buffering shores from storms and providing habitat for fish that people eat.
Yet it’s a well known fact that coral reefs around the world are in decline thanks to pollution and rapidly warming oceans. However, determining just how reefs are faring–and designing steps to protect them–requires a way to accurately measure their health. Researchers tend to rely upon invasive, damaging techniques to figure out how corals are coping, or else they perform crude spot checks to determine reef health based on coral color alone. But now, scientists have announced a new method of determining coral health that relies upon measuring the intensity of corals’ fluorescent glow.
Yes, glow. Corals naturally produce fluorescent proteins which glow an eery green when seen under a blue light–nearly all corals exhibit this physiological phenomenon.
“This is the first study to follow the dynamics of coral fluorescence and fluorescent protein levels during temperature stress, and shows that coral fluorescence could be utilized as a early indicator of coral stress,” said Melissa Roth, a marine biologist at the University of California, Berkeley (formerly of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego), in an email. “Because coral fluorescence can be measured non-invasively in the field, it could be an important tool for management of reefs,” she said. Roth and her colleague Dimitri Deheyn described their findings this week in Scientific Reports.
The degree to which a coral glows depends largely on another group of organisms, dinoflagellate algae. Corals are actually a symbiotic assembly of itself and these microscopic dinoflagellate algae–the dinoflagellates help corals attain nutrition, which in turn fuels the growth of coral reefs. The tiny organisms are also responsible for giving corals their typical brownish hue.
But dinoflagellates can abandon ship due to stressors such as increased temperature, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. Left on their own without the aid of their dinoflagellate covering, the corals’ naturally white skin becomes glaringly visible. The coral can live for a little while after a dinoflagellate exodus, but not for long. If the algae do not return, the coral will die.
Knowing this, Roth and Deheyn decided to investigate how coral fluorescence might reflect the current state of a coral and its dinoflagellates’ relationship. They chose to use Acropora yongei, a common branching coral, in their experiments since it’s often one of the first corals shows signs of stress and bleaching in a reef. They subjected individual corals to one of two different experimental setups in their lab. In some containers, they pummeled corals with cold water, and in others they doused corals in hot water. Another group of corals served as a control. Then they let the corals pickle in their temperature-regulated waters for almost three weeks.
The researchers found a distinct correlation between the degree of bleaching and the concentration of a coral’s fluorescent proteins, which in turn determined the strength of it’s glow. In the first 4 to 5 days, the fluorescent protein concentration and glow of both cold and heat-treated corals dropped. But by the end of the 20-day experiment, cold-stressed corals had acclimated and recovered to their normal level of fluorescence. Heat-stressed corals, on the other hand, bleached and began to glow even more strongly, probably because their dinoflagellate communities no longer blocked the coral’s underlying fluorescence. Like a supernova before a star’s final collapse, the corals send out a steady stream of intense glow just before their inevitable demise.
After death, the glow stops. In a reef system, the bone white coral would gradually get masked by a film of green algae that coats the ruins of the now deceased organism.
Once corals start to bleach, conservationists or wildlife managers have few options for helping reefs as they begin to decline and often eventually die. But if they catch the problem ahead of time, they could try to help the coral with strategies such as shading with artificial structures or sediments, adding antioxidants to the water or introducing heartier dinoflagellates, though scientific studies validating these potential rescue methods are largely lacking.
This new finding, Roth hopes, can be used to preempt reef collapse, serving as a sort of canary in the coal mine for corals in distress. “Managers could focus on the most sensitive corals on a reef, like branching corals, and look for rapid drops in fluorescence as an early sign of stress,” Roth said. This would give them about a week-long window to take action before full-blown bleaching began. “Bleaching would be like a heart attack,” she explained. “You would rather detect signs of high blood pressure or clogging of the arteries to address and avoid a heart attack.”
Managers who want to visualize their reef’s health can observe the glow by using a blue flashlight and a yellow filter over their snorkel mask, or they can film the phenomenon with a camera equipped with these same features. If managers notice the initial drop in coral glow that indicates an impending problem, for example, immediate action could perhaps be taken to try and rescue the reef.
“So the idea is that we can use coral fluorescence as a early indicator of coral health prior to bleaching, which could actually give time for managers to do something if they wanted to take actions to protect the reef. Obviously that may be difficult on a large scale,” she explained, adding that “as reefs become degraded the few that we have left might be protected more aggressively.”
Further research on how these findings might apply to other species of coral is needed, the authors write. They also hope that future studies will combine biology with engineering to help design a digital imaging system that better captures and quantifies the extent to which corals change their glow.
February 14, 2013
It’s obvious that anti-anxiety medicines and other types of mood-modifying drugs alter the behavior of humans—it’s what they’re designed to do. But their effects, it turns out, aren’t limited to our species.
Over the past decade, researchers have repeatedly discovered high levels of many drug molecules in lakes and streams near wastewater treatment plants, and found evidence that rainbow trout and other fish subjected to these levels could absorb dangerous amounts of the medications over time. Now, a study published today in Science finds a link between behavior-modifying drugs and the actual behavior of fish for the first time. A group of researchers from Umeå University in Sweden found that levels of the anti-anxiety drug oxazepam commonly found in Swedish streams cause wild perch to act differently, becoming more anti-social, eating faster and showing less fear of unknown parts of their environment.
The research group, led by ecologist Tomas Brodin, put wild perch in water with 1.8 micrograms of oxazepam diluted per liter—a level consistent with samples taken from surface waters near human development around Sweden. After 7 days swimming in the contaminated water, the perch had levels of the drug in their tissues that were similar to those of wild perch samples, indicating that the pharmaceutical was being absorbed into their bodies at rates similar to what’s happening in rivers and streams.
When they closely observed the behavior of these contaminated fish, the results were unmistakable. Those dosed with the anti-anxiety drug were more active, more willing to explore novel parts of their environment and more likely to swim away from the rest of their group as compared to fish that were kept in pristine waters. They also ate faster, finishing a set amount of plankton in a shorter time.
The researchers also included a third group of fish, exposed to levels of the drug way higher than those present in the environment. All of the changes shown in the fish exposed to the mild level of the drug were greatly exaggerated in this group, indicating that the drug was indeed responsible for the behavioral changes observed.
The idea of drug-addled fish might be funny, but the researchers say it could be a troubling sign of the way mounting levels of water-borne pharmaceuticals are affecting natural ecosystems. Because perch and other predator fish play a key role in food webs, altered foraging behavior—say, eating more prey—could lead to proliferation of the algae that their prey typically eat, upsetting an ecosystem’s balance as a whole. Or, if wild perch are engaging in more risky behavior (exploring parts of their environment they usually shy away from) it could lower the species’ survival rate.
Additionally, the research group worries that the drug could affect a broad spectrum of wildlife, because the particular receptor it binds to in the brain is widely distributed among aquatic species. And Oxazepam is far from the only drug that’s been found to pollute aquatic ecosystems—in the U.S., traces of over-the-counter painkillers, birth control hormones and illegal drugs have all been detected. “That environmentally relevant concentrations of a single benzodiazepine [oxazepam] affect fish behavior and feeding rate is alarming, considering the cocktail of different pharmaceutical products that are found in waters worldwide,” the researchers note in the paper.
These drug molecules can enter the environment in a few different ways. The practice of flushing old pills down the toilet is the first that probably comes to mind—and the easiest to prevent—but many pharmaceutical pollutants result from drug molecules that are ingested properly, go through the human body, pass out in urine and make it through wastewater treatment plants and into the environment. ”The solution to this problem isn’t to stop medicating people who are ill but to try to develop sewage treatment plants that can capture environmentally hazardous drugs,” Jerker Fick, one of the paper’s co-authors, said in a statement.
February 13, 2013
We often hear stories of animal love—tales of rare monogamy in the animal kingdom where life-long love is implied. But there is a distinction between romantic love and an efficient mating system. Here’s a look at some ocean animals to see what is really going on.
Albatrosses Get ‘Romantic’ to Increase Chick Survival
Albatross relationships seem especially relatable to humans. These long-lived and highly-endangered birds will court each other through ritual dances for years. Albatrosses are slow to reach sexual maturity, and some species even delay breeding for several years to learn specific mating rituals and to pick the perfect partner. The courtship behavior slows down once the pair bonds (an all too familiar aspect of human relationships). Once a pair is comfortable and breeding commences, they will return to each other and the same spot each year; for most albatross species, the bond lasts their entire life.
So is it love? The biological reality is that albatrosses only lay a single egg a year. With both parents fully invested in chick survival, their genetic heritage is most likely to survive. It may seem like love, but with those low reproduction rates no parents can afford to be deadbeats.
Seahorses Bond to Improve the Odds of Birth
If albatross relationships are reminiscent of fairytale romance, seahorses might be considered the swingers of the sea. Many seahorse species will bond with a mate, but that bond often lasts only through a single breeding season or until a more attractive female comes along. But, monogamy in this case is useful since it can be hard to find fellow seahorses due to poor swimming skills and low densities.
There is evidence that the longer that partners are together, the more successful at breeding they become and the two are able to produce more offspring per brood. One species of seahorse does appear to stick with a single mate for life: the Australian Hippocampus whitei. Practice makes perfect!
Two Angelfish Make a Strong Defense
Typically in pairs, French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru) help each other defend their territory against other fish. The couples have been observed spending extended periods of time together, exhibiting more of a monogamous social structure. Genetic monogamy (i.e. testing fertilized eggs to confirm they come from a single father) hasn’t been confirmed, but there have been observations of pairs traveling to the water’s surface to release their eggs and sperm together.
Monogamy is not that common in fishes, and it is mostly found in tropical and subtropical waters. Care needed from two parents, joint defense of territories, and difficulties in finding a mate all can play a role.
A Permanent Glass Home for Shrimp
These intriguing glass sponges, called Venus’s flower-baskets (Eupectella aspergillum), are made of flexible silica that can better transmit light than our man-made fiber-optic cables. And many of these beautiful deep-sea sponges are also home to a monogamous pair of shrimp.
Several species of shrimp find refuge in these sponges, but due to the limited space found within the fine-mesh silica, only two adult shrimp can fit inside—and they are stuck there for life. The two spend their days cleaning the sponge and eating whatever bits of food manage to flow through. After they breed, their small offspring can squeeze through the holes in the mesh to escape, but eventually they will settle into a new home with their own imprisoned mate.
The gift of this sponge, taken from the deep with the two dead shrimp still trapped inside, is considered good luck for couples marrying in Japan. It seems as though young human couples are not the only ones to share tight living spaces.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.