Five more marine organisms that put their superhero counterparts to shame

Evolution is the most creative force on the planet. Everywhere we look, we find species with novel and phenomenal adaptations that put their comic book brethren to shame. In no ecosystem is this more apparent than in the vast and unfathomable ocean. Marine species, especially those in the deep sea, have evolved to survive in a environment that is completely alien to us. Several months ago, I unveiled “Five organisms with real super powers that rival their comic book counterparts“, but that was just the beginning. Without further adieu, I give you 5 more marine organisms that put their superhero counterparts to shame (and one bonus critter).

The blind shrimp with super senses

Rimicaris exoculata – http://eol.org/data_objects/13231836

In the deep sea, eyes are not among the most useful sense organs. While many deep-sea species have extremely reduced eyes, some have abandoned these organs entirely. Rimicaris exoculata is a shrimp endemic to deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the mid-Atlantic that is completely eyeless. Its carapace is smooth, without even a hint of reduced, vestigial eyes. This, unfortunately, is a problem because Rimicaris exoculata is a farmer. The blind shrimp grows bacteria in its gill chamber, bacteria that can convert the chemical-rich hydrothermal vent fluid into food for the shrimp.

For lack of a more descriptive adjective, hydrothermal vents are hot. Some can exceed 400°C. Rimicaris exoculata needs to get close to this hot vent fluid to feed its crop of bacteria, but not so close as to become a hydrothermal hors d’oeuvre. And so, the blind shrimp evolved a completely new light-sensitive organ mounted on the top of its carapace–the rhodopsin-rich dorsal eyespot.

The dorsal eyespot of Rimicaris exoculata doesn’t “see” in the normal sense, there is still almost no light in the deep sea. Rather, this shrimp is adapted to detect the black body radiation emitted by the hydrothermal vent. For Rimicaris exoculata, the deep sea glows with the light of super-heated hydrothermal fluid, allowing it to both find food for its bacterial crop and avoid getting cooked itself.

It should be no surprise that Rimicaris exoculata is undoubtedly the favorite deep sea organism of another blind champion with super senses–Daredevil.

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The Trouble with Teacup Pigs

I adore Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. That’s right, I said it. There’s a soft spot in my brittle old heart for that whole family, Sugar Bear, Mamma June, and all. Especially Glitzy.

Glitzy the Pig. Image from The Learning Channel.

Glitzy, for those of you who don’t know, is a “Teacup” Pig (as you can tell from the video, pigs don’t like to be held). Pigs are cute. Piglets are super cute. Pigs are very intelligent, highly social, and make surprisingly good, house-trainable pets. Unfortunately, 800-lb hogs are not cute. Over the years, various breeders have tried to create pigs that retain all of the adorableness of a piglet without reaching the potential half ton plus mass of a full grown adult hog. Among the most popular “miniature” is the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, a delightfully spry porcine that tops the scales at a manageable 300 pounds. When legitimate breeders talk about miniature pigs, they’re talking about these 300-lb cuties. Pot-bellied pigs are surprisingly diverse, and, although extremely rare, adults have been reported as small as 20 pounds (most breeders would regard an adult pig that size to be extremely malnourished). This huge size range prompted many breeders to attempt to create even smaller pig breeds, selecting from only the smallest stock. Enter the teacup pig.

A teacup pig (or a micro pig, nano pig, or any of a half dozen variations of “small”) is supposedly a tiny pig breed. Some breeders claim that their pigs only reach up to 30 pounds in weight. Combined with the intelligence and sociability that pigs possess, it would seem that teacup pigs should make a perfect pet. There is only one problem: there’s no such thing as a teacup pig.

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The importance of being Aquaman, or how to save the Atlantean from his briny fate

Aquaman has an unpleasant lunch. From New 52 Aquaman #1

Aquaman has an unpleasant lunch. From New 52 Aquaman #1 DC Comics.

Two weeks ago, I challenged the world to consider how the greatest hero in the DC Universe would fair if forced to survive in the real world. The result was a hypothermic, brain-dead lump of jerky with brittle bones forced to suffer through constant screams of agony even as he consumes sea life at a rate that would impress Galactus. In short, the ocean is a rough place, even for Aquaman.

Since that post made its way across the internet, several people have asked me to discuss what adaptations Aquaman would need to survive in this, science-based, ocean. So I went back to my comic books and my textbooks to assemble an Aquaman with a suite of evolutionary adaptations that would allow a largely humanoid organism to rule the waves, trident triumphantly raised.

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Carnivorous plants respond to increased soil nitrogen, eco-news websites completely miss the point

Flowers of a venus flytrap. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.

Flowers of a venus flytrap. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.

Late last week, inspired by our newly flowering Venus Flytraps, I posted pictures of Amy and my carnivorous plant collection on twitter and on the Southern Fried Science Facebook page. After David’s recent post on a nurse shark that underwent major dietary changes following traumatic surgery and captivity, our wonderful readers must have been on high alert for trophic shifts following anthropogenic disturbance-type articles (or, more casually, “stuff that eats stuff now eats different stuff”), because this morning my inbox was filled with links to variations on the following article: Pollution makes carnivorous plants go vegetarian. Whenever human activity alters trophic interactions, there is potential for major ecological changes in an ecosystem. While ecosystems are dynamic, shape by continuous variation in community structure and resource and habitat variability, rapid changes can result in total collapse or permanent shifts to functional states.

Unfortunately, these “eating different stuff” articles rarely reflect the deep and nuance ecologic reality of trophic interactions and instead capitalize on the narrative of “even animals are going veggie to save the planet!” Allow me to revel in my cultural roots with a hearty “Oy vey!”

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The Semester I Got Crabs

Shannon is a student who participated in my blogging workshop as part of her Science and Nature Writing class earlier this semester. He she recounts her experience conducting independent research at the Duke University Marine Lab.


This past semester I was simply enjoying my life and doing what college students do when it happened: I got crabs. Sixty-four of them, to be exact. Never before had I experienced such prolonged irritation; before long I was just itching to get rid of them. For weeks I was sure that I had made a foolish mistake, vowing to be more careful in the future. Now, I’m not talking about Pthirus pubis, the sexually transmitted disease—get your mind out of the gutter! The crabs I’m referring to are Clibanarius vitattus, the striped hermit crabs that haunted my dreams and terrorized my every waking moment for the duration of my first ever independent study experiment.

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Beneath the Broken Ice: Playing with Mud

Megumi Shimizu is a graduate student aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer to collect sediment samples near Antarctic Peninsula as a part of the LARISSA project. She is interested in microorganisms and biogeochemistry of marine sediments; how the metabolism of microorganisms interact with the surrounding environment and the chemical components in sediments. See her first update here.


Are you playing with mud on the research vessel?

Some people on the ship joked when they saw me processing my sediment core. Yes, I’m playing with mud in Antarctica. Sampling sediments can tell us a lot, not only what happened across geologic time scales, but also what kind of organisms are living in the sediment, microbiology, and the geochemical conditions. We are serious about collecting mud and playing with mud.

upper panel: the entire view of glove box, lower panel: Liz Bucceri working on sediment sample processing in glove box. Photo by Megumi Shimizu

upper panel: the entire view of glove box, lower panel: Liz Bucceri working on sediment sample processing in glove box. Photo by Megumi Shimizu

Nathaniel B. Palmer has three pieces of equipment to collect sediment; the megacore, kasten core, and jumbo piston core. The length you can reach below seafloor is different, 40cm, 1.5 to 6m and 24m respectively. Megacore is more suitable for biological studies since it preserves the sediment-water interface better than kasten core and jumbo piston core. Geological studies prefer Kasten core and jumbo piston core so that they can get older data from the sediment.

For my microbial lipid biomarker study, I’m taking samples from the megacore and kasten core. Along with microbial lipid and DNA, our team is collecting sediment and porewater (the water in pore spaces of sediments) to analyze geochemical properties of sediments, such as methane, sulfate, sulfide, and dissolved inorganic carbon. To maintain the condition of the sediments as close as the real environment, the sediment cores are processed under the condition of cold (~0C degree) and anoxic (no oxygen). How to make that condition? We have a special room called “The Little Antarctica”, on the ship, which is a big refrigerator containing glove box. A glove box is the transparent container with two pairs of gloves. The inside of the box is kept practically anoxic (less than 1% of oxygen. Atmospheric oxygen is ~20%).

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Beneath the Broken Ice: Megumi Shimizu on the 2012 LARISSA Campaign to the Antarctic Peninsula

Megumi Shimizu is a graduate student studying microorganisms in marine sediment. She is currently on board the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer exploring seafloor communities in a once ice-covered region beneath the Larsen Ice Shelf. Over the next month, she will be updating us from the field.


The RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer. photo by Megumi Shimizu

The RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer. photo by Megumi Shimizu

I’m a PhD student interested in microorganisms and biogeochemistry of marine sediments; how the metabolisms of microorganisms interacting with the surrounding environment, the chemical components in sediments. Microorganisms in subseafloor are universally important because of its large biomass. It is said 50% of prokaryotes are living under the seafloor. This biomass makes large carbon and nutrients reservoir, which are important in biogeochemical cycle. For example, microorganisms play the role of organic carbon decomposition in sediments, as a result, carbon dioxide and methane are produced. In contrast, carbon dioxide and methane are also consumed by microorganisms called chemolithotrophs and methanotrophs in sediments. Therefore, understanding microorganisms in sediments; who they are, what are they doing, is important to reveal the details of global biogeochemical cycle and accurate estimate of budgets (amount of elements converted to different forms of chemicals for example, amount of carbon dioxide converted into organic carbon by carbon fixation). In addition, how microbial community response to environmental changes such as climate warming is also important in terms of the influence of global elemental cycles.

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That sinking feeling: Hog lagoons, superbugs, and the proliferation of antibiotics in livestock

From here, it looks like such a lovely pond. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

From here, it looks like such a lovely pond. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

The murky brown water was still, reflecting, perfectly, the drifting clouds above. Had I not known what it was, an acre-wide manmade pond almost a dozen feet deep filled to the brim with hog feces, I might be tempted to describe it as “beautiful”. Hog lagoons like this are a common sight in North Carolina, though their use is in decline. My lab group arrived at this particular lagoon to take microbial samples, fungi in this case, from the steaming cauldron of organic waste: an ideal culture medium. Carefully, we loaded a small skiff and rowed out into the stink. Near the center, we gingerly dipped our sampling vials, affixed to the end of an old fishing pole, into the dense fluid. It was then that we noticed the rising waterline, the slow trickle at the stern, the shift in balance. We locked the oars and rowed, frantically, towards shore. Our labmates on shore had, thankfully, tied a line to the bow before we departed. The skiff’s gunwales were creeping closer and closer to the water. We were sinking. We were sinking in a lake of pig shit.

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Better Conservation through Cloning: this cock doesn’t crow

Poor Vindaloo never learned to crow.

Poor Vindaloo never learned to crow. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.

I awoke one morning early last spring to a noise I has been dreading for weeks, the first crow of a chicken that was not supposed to be a rooster. It took me several minutes to fully register what I was hearing. Rather that the classic cock-a-doodle-do we often associate with the rooster’s crow, the sound emanating from my hen house was an awkward, unstable noise not unlike a turkey squawking through a vat of molasses while being vigorously shaken. Over the next several months, two more cocks arrived crowing, in my flock. All three roosters, different breeds from different parents, made noises resembling nothing like a rooster’s crow. There was no pattern; some mornings they would crow off-and-on for a few hours, other mornings they would, for lack of a better word, gargle for half-an-hour straight.

I raise my chickens from day-old hatchlings. Those three roosters, from my very first flock, had never met an adult chicken. They imprinted on Amy and me and looked to us for guidance. When we introduced them to new food, new water dispensers, even small changes to their habitat (like a particularly terrifying log), we had to teach them. Instinctively, they would scratch for food, and if left to their own devices, they would attempt to eat everything, but for the most part, we had to show them how to eat, how to drink, how to roost. But we could not teach them how to crow.

Which is why Casey B. Mulligan’s Economix article in the New York Times – Species Protection and Technology – which argues that cloning could be an effective tool to restore extinct species (a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in terms of population dynamics), is fatally flawed.

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Bluefin Tuna, Big Game Hunters, and the Conservation Vortex

Bluefin Tuna. Public Domain NOAA

Bluefin Tuna. Public Domain NOAA

Why are we still killing Bluefin Tuna? This question has resonated through the ocean blogosphere recently, as various experts weigh the issues surrounding overfishing and wonder why, when we know how limited the Bluefin Tuna populations are, and how precipitously they’ve declined in the last decade, do they demand record-breaking prices able to support an industry that must range further afield to chase that last, lonely fish? Other conservation writers discuss the recent extinction of not one, but two, rhinoceros species and ponder the fate of large terrestrial mammals. Knowing how rare these rhinoceroses were, why did they continue to be poached? Where does this demand come from?

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