December 11, 2013
It’s long been known that carnivorous plants lure their insect prey in a range of ways: irresistible nectars, vivid colors and alluring scents that range from rose to rotten flesh.
But recently, a group of scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute in India discovered a previously hidden means of beckoning among the most ruthless of greenery. Some carnivorous plants, they discovered, lure insects to their death with a fluorescent glow invisible to the human eye.
Scientists believe that insects are attracted to carnivorous plants by the their odors and colors, but hard evidence as to what exactly lures the bugs to their deaths was previously unknown. In a stroke of serendipity, a team of scientists led by botanist Sabulal Baby put several carnivorous plants they’d been using for unrelated experiments under ultraviolet light, including Nepenthes khasiana, a rare pitcher plant native to India, and photographed what they saw.
“To our great surprise, we found a blue ring on on the pitcher rim,” Baby says. “Then, we looked at other Nepenthes species and the prey traps of other carnivorous plants, including the Venus flytrap, and we consistently found UV-induced blue emissions.” These colors, found in a total of twenty carnivorous plant species and documented in a study published in Plant Biology, were the first time such distinct fluorescent emissions were ever detected in the plant kingdom.
Under normal light, these bright, glowing rims would look green to humans. But an ant—which can’t see red, but is extremely sensitive to blue and violet light—would see rings of blue florescence, the result of metabolic compounds in the plant that absorb UV radiation from the Sun and re-emit it as visible light. Putting the plants under a UV light in an otherwise dark room, as Baby’s team did, amplifies the effect, allowing humans to more clearly see the blue emissions.
To prove that these emissions were involved in the plants’ predation, the scientists constructed an elegant experiment. They monitored live pitcher plants in the field for a ten-day period, cutting them open afterward and seeing how many ants each one caught. Some of the plants, though, were painted with an acetone extract that blocks fluorescent emissions. It’s not clear exactly why the ants would be attracted to the blue light, but the results, produced several times and in several different locations, pretty clearly indicate that it’s the case:
He has yet to test the idea, but Baby says that the plants might use their fluorescence for other purposes as well. Recent field studies in Borneo indicated that some species of pitchers may have a symbiotic relationship with small nocturnal mammals, such as rats, bats and tree shrews—these mammals come and drink nectar from the plants, and deposit nutritious feces nearby, which serve as a fertilizer. “Fluorescence emissions by Nepenthes traps could be acting as major visual cues luring these mammals towards them,” Baby says.
These sorts of normally invisible signals could be way more prevalent in the plant kingdom than we previously realized. A recent study by British scientists, for instance, revealed that bumblebees can detect electric fields produced by flowers, adding another layer of communication to the symbiotic relationship between these two types of organisms. “There could be many other forms of signaling out there, waiting to be found,” Baby says.
November 27, 2013
When we think of ants as builders, we normally imagine them digging intricate tunnel networks as part of underground colonies.
But David Hu, Nathan Mlot and a team of other researchers at Georgia Tech are studying a very different type of building behavior specific to one ant species: The ability of Solenopsis invicta to construct bridges, rafts and even temporary shelters using their own bodies as building material.
“Fire ants are capable of building what we call ‘self-aggregations,’” Hu says. “They can build little boats, little houses called bivouacs and even bridges to cross streams by being the building material, linking their bodies together and forming strong networks.”
The ants are now considered an invasive species in 25 states, Asia and Australia, but their unusual behavior is a survival strategy shaped by their native environment: a particular area of wetlands in western Brazil that are flooded frequently. “The ants live underground, but when it begins to flood, they have to gather the colony members, pull them out of the ground and build a floating raft,” Hu says.
When this raft hits land, the ants keep building. To cross small streams during their subsequent migration, they make living bridges that allow the entire colony to scramble to safety. Afterward, using their bodies, they construct a temporary aboveground encampment to provide shelter for the few days it takes to re-dig underground tunnels. All the while, the ants that form the temporary shelter are continuously moving, but still preserving the structure. “It’s really living architecture—it has well-constructed, organized tunnels, brooding rooms,” Hu says. At least for the ants in the inside, this provides protection against hostile weather or predators.
Hu, an engineer, is primarily interested in studying the swarming ants as a novel material with unprecedented characteristics. As part of his group’s recent research, presented yesterday at an annual meeting of the American Physical Society, he and colleagues considered the ants within the context of other “active materials”—substances that can respond to changing conditions, such as self-healing cements that can use the energy in sunlight to expand and fill their own fractures.
“We wanted to characterize what kind of material it is—is it a fluid, or is it a solid, and how does it respond to stress?” he says. “In nature, for instance, these rafts might float down a river and bump into rocks, or raindrops might hit them.”
To test these self-aggregations, Hu’s team used a few techniques, comparing live ant structures to clumped dead ants as a control. Using a rheometer—a device that can precisely measure the stress response and flow of a fluid, and is often applied in industrial situations (such as the development of a new shampoo)—they found that the ants continuously reorganize their structure to maintain stability.
Many materials behave like a solid when stressed by forces moving at certain speeds, and a fluid when stressed by slowed ones. Water, for instance, behaves like a fluid when you stick your hand in it, but a solid when hit by a human body jumping off a diving board—the reason that a belly flop hurts so much.
But the ant structures are a combination of solid and fluid when stressed by forces at all speeds, the researchers found. They actively deform their structure to accommodate a stress (like a fluid) but then bounce back into place afterward (like a solid). Check out what happens when one of their structures is compressed by a petri dish, for instance:
“This makes sense, based on their natural environment,” Hu says. “If they’re floating in a raft down a river, they have no control over where it floats, so if there’s something in the way—say, a twig—you see respond and flow around the twig, kind of like an amoeba.”
The ants’ sheer resiliency and buoyancy is also remarkable. When the researchers tried to push the floating rafts below the water’s surface, they found they could resist a significant amount of force and float back up:
This is enabled, in part, by the ants’ exoskeletons, which are naturally hydrophobic (i.e. they chemically repel water). When many ants clump together to form a structure, water doesn’t penetrate into the gaps between then, so when they’re forced underwater, the air that remains in these cavities helps them float.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of these ants’ remarkable living structures is how the creatures communicate to build them. Most ant communication is based on trails of pheromones left on the ground, but in such an interconnected form, that type of communication seems unlikely. Microscopic examination reveals that the ants grasp each other using both their jaws and little claws on the end of their legs. Noting this, Hu adds, ”We think they’re communicating through touch, but we really don’t understand it yet.”
November 21, 2013
Over the course of 1700 miles, they sampled the water for small pieces of plastic more than 100 times. Every single time, they found a high concentration of tiny plastic particles. “It doesn’t look like a garbage dump. It looks like beautiful ocean,” Miriam Goldstein, the chief scientist of the vessel sent by Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said afterward. “But then when you put the nets in the water, you see all the little pieces.”
In the years since, a lot of public attention has been justifiably paid to the physical effects of this debris on animals’ bodies. Nearly all of the dead albatrosses sampled on Midway island, for instance, were found to have stomachs filled with plastic objects that likely killed them.
But surprisingly little attention has been paid to the more insidious chemical consequences of this plastic on food webs—including our own. “We’d look over the bow of the boat and try to count how many visible pieces of plastic were there, but eventually, we got to the point that there were so many pieces that we simply couldn’t count them,” says Chelsea Rochman, who was aboard the expedition’s Scripps vessel and is now a PhD student at San Diego State University. “And one time, I was standing there and thinking about how they’re small enough that many organisms can eat them, and the toxins in them, and at that point I suddenly got goosebumps and had to sit down.”
“This problem is completely different from how it’s portrayed,” she remembers thinking. “And, from my perspective, potentially much worse.”
In the years since, Rochman has shown how plastics can absorb dangerous water-borne toxins, such as industrial byproducts like PCB (a coolant) and PBDE (a flame retardant). Consequently, even plastics that contain no toxic substances themselves, such as polyethylene—the most widely used plastic, found in packaging and tons of other products—can serve as a medium for poisons to coalesce from the marine environment.
But what happens to these toxin-saturated plastics when they’re eaten by small fish? In a study published today in Scientific Reports, Rochman and colleagues fill in the picture, showing that the toxins readily transfer to small fish through plastics they ingest and cause liver stress.This is an unsettling development, given that we already know such pollutants concentrate further the more you move up the food chain, from these fish to the larger predatory fish that we eat on a regular basis.
In the study, researchers soaked small pellets of polyethylene in the waters of San Diego Bay for three months, then tested them and discovered that they’d absorbed toxins leached into the water from nearby industrial and military activities. Next, they put the pollution-soaked pellets in tanks (at concentrations lower than those found in the Great Pacific garbage patch) with a small, roughly one-inch-long species called Japanese rice fish. As a control, they also exposed some of the fish to virgin plastic pellets that hadn’t marinated in the Bay, and a third group of fish got no plastic in their tanks at all.
Researchers still aren’t sure why, but many small fish species will eat these sort of small plastic particles—perhaps because, when covered in bacteria, they resemble food, or perhaps because the fish simply aren’t very selective about what they put in their mouths. In either case, over the course of two months, the fish in the experiment consumed many plastic particles, and their health suffered as a result.
“We saw significantly greater concentrations of many toxic chemicals in the fish that were fed the plastic that had been in the ocean, compared to the fish that got either clean plastic or no plastic at all,” Rochman says. “So, is plastic a vector for these chemicals to transfer to fish or to our food chain? We’re now fairly confident that the answer is yes.”
These chemicals, of course, directly affected the fishes’ health. When the researchers examined the tiny creatures’ livers (which filter out toxins in the blood) they found that the animals exposed to the San Diego Bay-soaked plastic had significantly more indications of physiological stress: 74 percent showed severe depletion of glycogen, an energy store (compared to 46 percent of fish who’d eaten virgin plastic and zero percent of those not exposed to plastic), and 11 percent exhibited widespread death of individual liver cells. By contrast, the fish in the other treatments showed no widespread death of liver cells. One particular plastic-fed fish had even developed a liver tumor during the experimental period.
All this is bad news for the entire food webs that rest upon these small fish, which include us. “If these small fish are eating the plastic directly and getting exposed to these chemicals, and then a bigger fish comes up and eat five of them, they’re getting five times the dose, and then the next fish—say, a tuna—eats five of those and they have twenty-five times the dose,” Rochman explains. “This is called biomagnification, and it’s very well-known and well-understood.”
This is the same reason why the EPA advises people to limit their consumption of large predatory fish like tuna. Plastic pollution, whether found in high concentrations in the Great Pacific garbage patch or in the waters surrounding any coastal city, appears to be central to the problem, serving as a vehicle that carries toxins into the food chain in the first place.
November 12, 2013
In the summer of 2010, husband-and-wife paleobiologist team Z. Jack Tseng and Juan Liu traveled to the Zanda Basin in western Tibet with a group of colleagues. The remote area, a week’s drive from Beijing and near the border of Pakistan and China, is “basically badlands everywhere, with deeply cut valleys throughout,” Tseng says.
To explore the valleys, the team drove up dirt trail after dirt trail before coming upon a dense patch of fossils sticking out of the ground halfway up a hill. “In the little concentration of fossils, there were lots of limb bones from antelopes and horses obscuring everything else,” says Tseng, who was then a graduate student at USC and is now with the American Museum of Natural History. “It wasn’t until we started lifting things up, one by one, that we saw the top of a skull, and we thought, from the shape, that it looked something like a cat.”
After a few years of analysis, Tseng’s team has discovered that the skull doesn’t belong to any old cat. As they’ve documented in a study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the skull and six associated fossilized jawbone fragments are the first evidence of a newly discovered species, which they’ve called Panthera blytheae. The discovery represents the oldest “big cat” (a group that includes large predatory cats like lions, jaguars, tigers and leopards) ever found by a wide margin.
The sediments that make up the basin as a whole range from 6 million to 400,000 years in age, so the group dated the fossil by analyzing the age of the particular rock layers it was buried in. This involved using techniques of magnetostratigraphy, in which scientists analyze the magnetic orientation of the rocks and compare it to known reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field. This method can only provide rough estimates for an item’s age, but it revealed that the skull is between 4.10 and 5.95 million years old. Previously, the oldest known big cat fossils—a number of tooth fragments found in Tanzania—were 3.6 million years old.
The new find fills a gap in the evolutionary record of big cats. By analyzing the DNA of living species, scientists had previously estimated that big cats had split from the Felinae subfamily—which includes smaller wild cats, like cougars, lynxes, along with domestic cats—about 6.37 million years ago. The very existence of P. blytheae confirms that the split happened prior to when this big cat roamed.
But how much earlier? The find could suggest, Tsang says, that big cats branched off from smaller cats much farther back than thought. By comparing the skull’s characteristics with fossils from other extinct big cats, the anatomy of living cat species, and DNA samples taken from both living cats and a few recently extinct, Ice Age-era species (known as cave lions), the researchers assembled a new evolutionary family tree for all big cats. Using known rates of anatomical changes over time and the observed anatomy of P. blytheae, they projected backwards, and estimated that the earliest big cats likely branched off from the Felinae subfamily between 10 and 11 million years ago.
The new fossil also solves a geological mystery. Previously, using DNA analysis of all living big cats and mapping the the fossils excavated from various sites around the world, researchers had determined it was most likely that their common ancestor had lived in Asia. The oldest known specimens, however, were found in Africa. The new species provides the first direct evidence that central Asia was indeed the big cats’ ancestral home, at least as far back as the current fossil record currently goes.
From the fragmented fossils, it’s hard to know much about the extinct species’ behavior and lifestyle, but the researchers were able to make some basic extrapolations from the skull’s anatomy. “It’s not a huge cat, like a lion or a tiger, but closer to a leopard,” Tsang says. The creature’s habitat was likely similar to the current Tibetan plateau, so Tseng speculates that, like the snow leopards that currently live in the area, this species did not hunt on the open plains, but rather cliffs and valleys. Tooth wear patterns also suggest similarities with current snow leopards—the rear teeth, likely used for cutting soft tissue, remain sharp, whereas the front teeth are heavily worn, perhaps reflecting their use in prying open carcasses and picking meat off bones.
Tseng says that he and colleagues plan to return to the area to search for more fossils that could help enlighten us on the evolutionary history of big cats. “The gap still isn’t completely filled yet,” he says. “We need to find older big cats to put the picture together.”
October 24, 2013
If you were stung by a bark scorpion, the most venomous scorpion in North America, you’d feel something like the intense, painful jolt of being electrocuted. Moments after the creature flips its tail and injects venom into your skin, the intense pain would be joined by a numbness or tingling in the body part that was stung, and you might experience a shortness of breath. The effect of this venom on some people—small children, the elderly or adults with compromised immune systems—can even trigger frothing at the mouth, seizure-like symptoms, paralysis and potentially death.
Based solely on its body size, the four-inch-long furry grasshopper mouse should die within minutes of being stung—thanks to the scorpion’s venom, which causes temporary paralysis, the muscles that allow the mouse to breathe should shut down, leading to asphyxiation—so you’d think the rodent would avoid the scorpions at all costs. But if you put a mouse and a scorpion in the same place, the rodent’s reaction is strikingly brazen.
If stung, the four-inch-long rodent might jump back for a moment in surprise. Then, after a brief pause, it’ll go in for the kill and devour the scorpion piece by piece:
This predatory behavior isn’t the result of remarkable toughness. As scientists recently discovered, the mouse has evolved a particularly useful adaptation: It’s immune to both the pain and paralytic effects that make the scorpion’s venom so toxic.
Although scientists long knew that the mouse, native to the deserts of the American Southwest, preys upon a range of non-toxic scorpions, “no one had ever really asked whether they attack and kill really toxic scorpions,” says Ashlee Rowe of Michigan State University, who led the new study published today in Science.
To investigate, Rowe visited the desert nearby Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains and collected a number of mice and scorpions. Back at her lab, when she and colleagues put the two animals together in the same tank, they saw that the mice devoured the scorpions with gusto and were seemingly impervious to their toxic strings, showing no signs of inflammation or paralysis afterward. They even directly injected the venom into other mouse specimens to further confirm that it didn’t affect them physiologically.
The question remained, though, whether the mice were merely immune to the venom’s paralyzing effects, or were also unable to feel pain as a result of a sting. “I’d see the mice get stung, and they’d just groom a little bit and blow it off,” Rowe says. After she talked to people who’d been stung and heard how badly it hurt, she hypothesized that the mild reaction in the mice indicated that they were resistant to the pain itself.
Working with Yucheng Xiao and Theodore Cummins of Indiana University, she closely examined the physical structures that connect the sensory neurons (which convey external stimuli, such as pain) to the central nervous system (where pain is experienced). “There are big, long neurons that extend from the hands and feet all the way to the spinal cord, and they’re responsible for taking information from the environment and sending it to the brain,” she says.
Incredibly, the nerve cells associated with the interface between these two systems can continue functioning normally when they’ve been removed from the mice, if they’ve been properly preserved and cultured in a medium. As a result, her team was able to look at the mechanisms that control the flow of signals between the sensory neurons and the spinal cord—structures known as ion channels—and see if those present in grasshopper mice functioned differently than those in house mice when exposed to scorpion venom.
They found, in house mice, the venom caused a channel known as Nav1.7 to pass along a signal, causing the perception of pain. In grasshopper mice, though, something unexpected happened: The arrival of venom caused no change in the activity of Nav1.7, because proteins produced by a different ion channel, known as Nav1.8, bound to venom molecules and rendered them futile. In fact, this reaction produced an overall numbing effect on the entire mouse pain transmission system, leaving the animals temporary incapable of feeling all sorts of pain, including those unrelated to scorpion venom.
The researchers also looked at the underlying genetics, sequencing the genes that correspond to these alternatively-structured ion channels, which will allow them to investigate the specific evolutionary background of this remarkable adaptation. In theory, the incentives for the mouse species evolving an immunity to scorpion toxins seem obvious: The nocturnal rodent feeds on all sorts of scorpions, so unless it can visually distinguish between those that are benign and toxic, it will face severe consequences if it’s sensitive to the venom. “Death, after all, is a pretty strong selection pressure,” Rowe notes.
But on the other hand, pain serves a crucial evolutionary role, informing an organism when it’s in danger. Some other species have been know to evolve resistance to particular toxins (garter snakes, for instance, are resistant to the toxin produced by rough-skinned newts), but these examples all involve resistance to toxins that can kill, but don’t actually cause pain.
So the fact that grasshopper mice have evolved resistance to pain itself is novel—and likely a result of a very specific set of evolutionary circumstances. One important aspect is that bark scorpions are a significant proportion of the mouse diet, leading to frequent interactions between the two organisms. Additionally, says Rowe, “the mechanism is specific to the venom itself, so it doesn’t compromise the mouse’s overall pain pathways.” As a result, the mouse is still able to detect other sources of pain (just not right after it’s been bitten by by the scorpion), and thus will know when its faced with unrelated painful perils.