Eleven Marine Organisms that would make Amazing Aquaman Villains

Physalia_physalis1

Physalia physalis. Public domain.

Black Manta. Ocean Master. The Trench. Scavenger. King Shark. Toxin. The Fisherman. Aquaman has had some pretty memorable villains over the last 80 years. Also, the Fisherman. This is Southern Fried Science, a blog famous for two things – inspiring the world with our unique blend of marine science and conservation and doing horrible, horrible things to Aquaman.

Catch me flounder for I have finned. It has been 98 days since my last Aquaman is Awesome post.

Sure, Black Manta has some pretty sweet gear, a compelling back story that justifies his hatred of the Atlantean king, and he looks like he’s poised for some serious awesome during DC’s Villains Month. The Trench even appear to be able to utilize chemosynthesis, when they’re not trapping dogs in cocoons. You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

That’s right. No matter how ridiculous Aquaman’s comic book foes become, you can bet all your clams I’ll find real marine organisms that would make equally amazing villains. Here’s eleven of them.

Meet Man-o-War, the colonial killer that understands the value of teamwork.

Imagine a super villain composed of thousand of individual organisms that form one giant super-organism. Rather than a body filled with vital organs, this villain can take massive damage without a loss of ‘self’, only to spawn new minions to replaced the damaged parts. Now give this deadly foe 60-foot long venom-filled tentacles whose sting brings excruciating pain. Such a villain would certainly assume the identity ‘Man-o-War’.

The Portuguese Man-o-War (Physalia physalis), arguably the best known of the siphonophores (it is a cnidarian, but it is not a jellyfish) possess tentacles that unleash an unbelievably painful sting, the weapon of choice for our newest menace. But the weapon does’t make the man (o-war), and our villain has a strategic secret. Man-o-Wars are not singular animals, they are a colony of highly specialized polyps — each one an individual animal that combines to form a deadly super-organism.

The pneumatophore is a polyp the creates a gas-filled bladder for flotation. This produces the distinctive ‘sail’ of the Man-o-War, a bilaterally symmetric air sac that allows the colonial to remain at the surface and provides some propulsion by catching the wind. The sail is not just a sac of air, it also has defensive capabilities. When attacked, the sail is able to deflate, allowing the colony to sink below the surface and avoid predators. The gonozooids, which occur in tight clusters, are responsible for reproduction. Man-o-Wars engage in both asexual and sexual reproduction. Young colonies can reproduce clonally by budding, but as the colony becomes more mature, that gonozooids become sexually differentiated and release eggs and sperm to form new colonies. The gastrozooid takes care of all the digestion-related needs and surround the dastardly dactylozooids. Finally, the dactylozooids produce 10-meter (or longer!) tentacles that capture prey and drag them towards the gastrozooids. This is some serious teamwork.

Man-o-War even has minions. The shepherd fish is immune t the stinging tentacles and hangs out within the tentacles. The fish gains the protection of its lethal ally while the Man-o-War gets to use the shepherd fish as bait to lure other fish into its deadly trap.

Imagine Aquaman facing off against a colony of polyps that combine to form a deadly super-organism with massive stinging tentacles. Siphonophores have no nervous system, so Aquaman’s fish-talking power are useless. No matter how many dactylozooids, gatrozooids, and pneumatophores he destroyed, the gonozooids are there, churning out more.

But Man-o-Wars are not without their own predators, the largest of which is the enormous, cnidarian nom nom-ing Leatherback Turtle. Despite their size, leatherbacks are the largest live sea turtle, they survive exclusively on large numbers of jelly-like organisms — to the tune of the equivalent of eating 16 cucumbers per day. Leatherbacks aren’t the only animals that prey on Man-o-War, the salacious siphonophore has many foes, two of which join this list as super-villains in their own right.

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The Sex Lives of Spoonworms: 10 marine animals with parasitic, dwarf, and otherwise reduced males

Earlier this week, Fox News commentator and all-around terrific guy* Erick Erickson, while discussing a recent Pew Study that revealed that women were the sole breadwinners in 40% of US households that contain children, had this to say:

“I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology—when you look at the natural world—the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role.”

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I’m not sure where Erickson got his science education from, but it’s pretty clear he should have spent a little more time shopping around on the free market, because he sure is wrong. How wrong? I managed to assemble this list of 10 marine species with dwarf, parasitic, or otherwise reduced males (including an entire female-only class) while waiting for my toast**. So have a seat and let me show you how much weirder and more wonderful the world is than Erickson’s Disney-esque misinterpretation of biology.

1. Anglerfish

The deep-sea Anglerfish is among the most common examples of parasitic males in the marine world. Anglerfish comprise a variety of taxa in the order Lophiiformes. Almost all (females) possess a specialized appendage that acts as a lure to attract unwary prey. Life in the deep sea is rough–even though it is the largest and most diverse ecosystem on Earth, biomass is fairly low–so finding a mate is a struggle for these slow swimming fishes. The solution: carry your partner with you.

Male anglerfish are tiny, often less than 5% the size of the female, but they possess powerful olfactory receptors, allowing them to seek out females. Once a mate is located, the male anglerfish latches on to her abdomen, fuses his circulatory system with hers, and is then slowly digested until there’s nothing left but a sac of gonads surrounded by basic life-supporting tissues. Female anglerfish are not monogamous, either. At any given time she could be covered by a half-dozen parasitic males. Kinky.

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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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Five organisms with real super powers that rival their comic book counterparts

Andrew ThumbThere is no force more creative than the painstakingly slow process of evolution. Ever wanted to walk through walls? Naked mole rats can physically bore through concrete. How about fly? There are a couple dozen different ways to accomplish that goal, even if you’re a squid. Incredible power of regeneration? Flatworms, roundworms, and echinoderms have us beat. Among the vertebrates, species like the axolotl can regrow limbs, organs, and parts of their brain. For practically every super power we can imagine, something on the tree of life has come up with a real-world analog.

Some real super power are more super than others:

1. The immortal rotifer that absorbs the abilities of anything it touches.

Bdelloid Rotifers. photo by Diego Fontaneto

Bdelloid Rotifers. photo by Diego Fontaneto

Around 80 million years ago, a small, unassuming group of metazoa decided that sex just wasn’t for them. Instead of going through the effort of recombining their genetic material with a mate every generation to produce a viable offspring with a roughly 50% contribution from each parent, Bdelloid Rotifers started reproducing asexually. Males completely disappeared from class bdelloidea, leaving females to generate genetic duplicates through parthenogenesis. This is not their super power.

Bdelloid rotifers are incredibly tough. When environmental conditions are less than favorable, they can enter a dormant state. In this dormant state,they can survive the worst unscathed. Dehydrated, they can endure extreme temperatures, drought, even ionizing radiation. A bdelloid rotifer in its dormant state can even survive in space. If that isn’t enough, while dormant, these rotifers continue to produce offspring, which also remain  dormant. This is not their super power.

Bdelloid rotifers’ super power appears when they recover from their dormant state. As they rehydrate and repair whatever damage their cells incurred, they incorporate DNA fragments from their environment. This includes partially digested food and any DNA in close proximity to them, even bacterial and archael DNA. It is this ability that allows bdelloid rotifers to overcome the limitations of asexual reproduction and survive for 80 million years without mates. They can literally absorb the attributes of those around them.

Their incredible toughness, celibate lifestyle, and ability to absorb the powers of anything they touch, put Bdelloid Rotifers firmly on par with X-Men perennial favorite: Rogue.

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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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Genetics study reveals 79 potentially new species of sharks and rays: what does it mean for science and conservation?

When Dr. Gavin Naylor and his team started a genetic survey of existing shark and ray species, they didn’t expect the results of their project to make international news.  Their recent paper (which, at over 250 pages and complete with more than 100 figures, is nothing short of epic), however, is too striking to ignore. The results indicate that there may be as many as 79 previously unrecognized cryptic species of sharks and rays.

A cryptic species is defined as a group that looks almost exactly like another, and may even live in the same region, but is genetically distinct. We’ve known that cryptic species of sharks and rays exist for some time, such as manta rays and scalloped hammerhead sharks, but 79 is a lot; as of the paper’s publication, only 1,221 species of sharks and rays were recognized.

According to Dr. Naylor,

“Organisms become genetically differentiated over time through the cumulative effects of mutation and recombination mediated via drift and selection. When they differentiate in isolation they eventually become so different from the parental stock from which they were derived that they can no longer produce fertile offspring when crossed with them.  Some biologists use the point of reproductive inviability as the point at which new species should be recognized…..  For practical purposes we recognize “new species” as being genetically or morphologically distinctive from previously recognized forms.”

The study’s methods, though enormous in scope, were relatively basic. According to Dr. Naylor, the study utilized a technique very familiar to geneticists: “standard DNA extraction, PCR, Sanger sequencing, alignment and analysis of a protein coding mitochondrial  gene”. To achieve the goals of understanding both evolutionary relationships of sharks and rays and parasite host specificity ( where certain parasites associated only with one species), Dr. Naylor and his team obtained and analyzed samples from as many species as they could. The numbers are impressive- 56 of 57 known families of elasmobranchs were represented among the 4,283 samples from 305 species of sharks and 269 species of batoids. In other words, this study included approximately half of all known elasmobranch species, including many that had never been analyzed genetically before. Since 1986, when the project began, samples have been obtained in more than 50 countries, mostly through the team’s own field work!

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#TaxonomyFail: Salps, Jellyfish, and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant

I’m a bit late to the party, but last week, several news outlets reported that the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant was taken offline by “jellyfish-like creatures” that clogged several cooling intakes. While most sources were careful to point out that these were “jellyfish-like” organisms, some secondary sources truncated the description and announced that “Nuclear Power Plant Knocked Offline By Tiny Jellyfish, The Invasion Has Begun”. Unfortunately, these organisms are salps, not jellyfish, and you’d be more correct to describe them as human-like rather than jellyfish-like.

Salps, photo by Lars Plougmann

Salps, photo by Lars Plougmann

Salps are free-swimming pelagic tunicates, one of the most basal members of the chordate phylum. While they superficially resemble jellies to the untrained eye, they are far more derived, possessing three tissue layers (compared to the jelly’s two), a primitive, larval notochord, a perforated pharynx, and the rudimentary beginnings of a centralized nervous system. They form large, clonal colonies that are able to take advantage of plankton blooms by rapidly producing more clones to capitalize on an unpredicatable food source. Although I don’t have first hand reports, this is likely what happened in Diablo Canyon, as warm water discharges from nuclear power plants can trigger massive plankton blooms. Far from a “jellyfish invasion”, this was probably the natural response of a predator to increased food availability.

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If fish evolved on land, where did they all go? Evolution and Biodiversity in the Ocean

This ray-finned fish was my dinner last night. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

When Carl Sagan described our planet as a “pale blue dot” he was invoking the fact that, despite being called Earth, our world is mostly Ocean. The surface of the Earth is a little more than 70% water and the ocean accounts for 98-99% of our total biosphere–the volume of the planet that can support life. Most contemporary theories point to ocean ecosystems–like deep-sea hydrothermal vents–as the launching point for the emergence and evolution of life. Ocean processes dominate biological interactions, even among unwitting terrestrial actors. A new paper, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, revisits an old debate about the ocean biodiversity and challenges the notion the ray-finned fishes have a marine origin.

In Why are there so few fish in the sea? the authors begin with the seemingly innocuous question–why are there so many more species in terrestrial environments than in marine environments?  From there, they look at species counts, phylogenetic relationships, and diversification rates to determine the ancestral state of the most recent common ancestor of one fish class, Actinopterygii, the ray-finned fish. What they found was that, despite the vastly smaller habitat available for freshwater fish, the number of actinopterygian species found those ecosystems was roughly equivalent to the number of species found in marine systems. In both systems, the dominant groups are relative newcomers on the evolutionary stage, with superorder-level radiations happening between 111 – 150 million years ago.  Most surprising, the authors discovered that the most recent common ancestor of actinopterygians may have been a freshwater, not marine, fish. Ray-finned fishes may have invaded the ocean from lakes and rivers.

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Updates from the Deep: New and Noteworthy in Hydrothermal Vent Research

From hairy-chested yeti crabs to the deepest known fields, hydrothermal vents have been enjoying a bit of science celebrity in the last few weeks. Beneath the headlines, there has been an eruption of vent-related research published in the scientific literature and some exciting new expeditions just left port.

The Discovery of New Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vent Communities in the Southern Ocean and Implications for Biogeography

'Hoff' crabs in paradise. Image from ChEss Southern Ocean Consortium

'Hoff' crabs in paradise. Image from ChEss Southern Ocean Consortium

The exhaustive author list on this paper reads like a who’s who in hydrothermal vent biogeography. This is the paper that introduced “the Hoff” crab to the world, but the findings are far more significant. Hydrothermal vent systems are sorted into biogeographic provinces, with different regions supporting different communities. The iconic giant tube worms dominate the eastern Pacific, while the western Pacific (prominently featured in Deep Fried Sea) plays host to fist sized snails, and the Atlantic features shrimp as its dominant species. There are several missing gaps in our understanding of how these qualitatively different communities are connected – the Southern Ocean, the south Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and the Cayman Trough, among others. Filling in these gaps in our knowledge can help us understand the history and evolution of hydrothermal vent ecosystems.

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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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