Although I still haven’t managed to watch the movie on Newt Scamander’s meanderings in New York, I’ve continued to keep tabs on some of the real and equally fantastic creatures that roam around this planet. I already wrote about some of them a while ago (you can check it out here), but the truth is that there are many more awaiting to be discovered and ready to blow our minds. Seriously, there are animals out there that do truly astounding things. If there is only one thing you can take from this post, let it be this TedTalk:
“Life in this planet is the story of rule breakers”
This sentence really resonated with me. And together with the following image (which represents a circular tree of life) and the fact that most of the biomedical research is done in just seven species (humans, mice, zebrafish, chicken, xenopus, drosophila and C. elegans), it left me wondering if we are taking the right approach to understand life and the brain. We are studying but a very tiny branch, which keeps shrinking the more our knowledge expands.
To quote Alejandro Sánchez one more time, “science is not really about knowledge. Science is about ignorance”. And there is so much we don’t know anything about. Starfish can regenerate its arm if it’s cut off. But that one arm that’s been cut off goes on and regenerates as well, forming an entirely new and complete starfish. And the amazing Axolotls, which remain in their juvenile form throughout adulthood (a feature called neoteny and common in many species of salamanders, and amphibians in general), can regenerate limbs, jaws and spinal cord and they can also receive transplanted organs from other individuals without rejection. How do they do it? Could we find a way to apply it in humans to avoid organ rejection and improve injury recovery? We just don’t know yet.
In this sea of the unknown, we can also discover connections we would’ve never thought about, such as the one between elephants and cancer. It turns out that one of the reasons why elephants so rarely develop cancer could be the fact that their genome contains 20 copies of TP53, a tumour suppressor gene. Humans only have one. Studying this and other adaptations could help researchers find new ways to understand and fight cancer. You can read the full article here.
A hitchhiker’s guide for beetles in the rainforest
Sometimes, however, science is just about discovering things without knowing where they will lead, or whether they will have an application or not. The best example of that is CRIPSR/Cas, which was discovered as an immune system in bacteria long before scientists attempted to use it as a tool to edit genomes at will. Similarly, the fantastic creatures that follow are an example of discovery research, wherein scientists notice something curious in nature and try to science it out to understand it.
The first of such creatures are far smaller than the majestic elephants, and you probably remember them running around your school’s yard and forming really long and busy queues. I am of course talking about ants. Ants are extremely clever and patient creatures. They can learn to use different tools and choose the best one for the task they face (read more here and here), and they even have the ability to farm. Yes, that’s right, ants carry seeds home and then they patiently wait for them to germinate, so they don’t have to bother cracking them open to eat them (read the full story here and here).
Apparently, though, ants have also become taxi drivers without knowing it. It looks like there is a tiny beetle that has developed a strategy to attach itself onto an ant’s back and get a free ride to the next nest. They even have the same size and shape as the ant’s abdomen, so they sort of go unnoticed (see the picture below, and try to identify the beetle!). I feel like someone should really stand up for the ants’ rights: no more free rides for the cheeky beetles. Find out more here.
The deadliest shot in the river
Moving on to more dangerous waters, there is a fish in Asia and Australia that has well earned its name: the archerfish. And although it hasn’t starred in any Marvel movie just yet, this fish is widely famous for preying on insects that unwittingly sit on branches too close to the water. How do they do that? By shooting water jets with their mouths. Don’t believe me just watch:
If you take into account that the archerfish has to take gravity into consideration as well as compensate for the refraction of the water, it is a truly remarkable feat. Archerfish can shape their aerial jets by adjusting how they open and close their mouths, and therefore hit preys at different distances. But their shooting skills don’t end there. Recently, scientists from the University of Bayreuth in Germany have discovered that they use the same technique to shoot underwater jets powerful enough to lift food buried in the riverbed. Underwater jets! The only thing left for them to do then is being fast enough to be the first to catch it, and then drop the mic.
The perfect San Valentine’s gift (or how to escape cannibalism)
Yes, you read that just fine. The males of the last fantastic creature of today’s post, the spider Pisaura mirabilis, have evolved a peculiar ‘nuptial’ tradition: prior to mating, they capture a prey and wrap it in a silken envelope to give as a present to the female.
It turns out that this is a survival strategy. Scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark studied this strange phenomenon and discovered that females tended to cannibalise males that courted them without a gift, whereas gift-bearers were spared. Apparently, how hungry a female was did not have an influence in the outcome, suggesting that males without ‘manners’ would more likely end up being the dessert, rather than sharing it.
Having said that, I will type slowly and let that information sink in for a bit. And on that note, I will leave wishing you have a great week. Be good, and don’t forget your gifts!
Pennisi, E. (2017). Modernizing the Tree of Life. [Link]
Sulak, M., Fong, L., Mika, K., Chigurupati, S., Yon, L., Mongan, N., Emes, R. and Lynch, V. (2017). TP53 copy number expansion is associated with the evolution of increased body size and an enhanced DNA damage response in elephants. [Link]
Maák, I., Lőrinczi, G., Le Quinquis, P., Módra, G., Bovet, D., Call, J. and d’Ettorre, P. (2017). Tool selection during foraging in two species of funnel ants. [Link]
New Scientist. (2017). Ants craft tiny sponges to dip into honey and carry it home. [online] Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2116641-ants-craft-tiny-sponges-to-dip-into-honey-and-carry-it-home/ [Accessed 25 Feb. 2017]. [Link]
Tschinkel, W. and Kwapich, C. (2017). The Florida Harvester Ant, Pogonomyrmex badius, Relies on Germination to Consume Large Seeds. [Link]
New Scientist. (2017). Harvester ants farm by planting seeds to eat once they germinate. [online] Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2117953-harvester-ants-farm-by-planting-seeds-to-eat-once-they-germinate/ [Accessed 25 Feb. 2017]. [Link]
von Beeren, C. and Tishechkin, A. (2017). Nymphister kronaueri von Beeren & Tishechkin sp. nov., an army ant-associated beetle species (Coleoptera: Histeridae: Haeteriinae) with an exceptional mechanism of phoresy. BMC Zoology, 2(1). [Link]
Dewenter, J., Gerullis, P., Hecker, A. and Schuster, S. (2017). Archerfish use their shooting technique to produce adaptive underwater jets. The Journal of Experimental Biology, p.jeb.146936. [Link]
Toft, S. and Albo, M. (2016). The shield effect: nuptial gifts protect males against pre-copulatory sexual cannibalism. Biology Letters, 12(5), p.20151082. [Link]