Fantastic creatures III: masters of escape

What would you do if someone (or something) came at you with the unashamedly obvious intention of eating you? Would you try to outwit it by dressing up and becoming part of the scenery? Would you make use of your ninja skills and kick it in the face before running away? Or would you keep it cool and wait until this someone (or something) suddenly realised it doesn’t actually have the guts to digest you? Whatever imaginary stratagem your mind is plotting right now has the potential to be vastly overshadowed by what you are about to read. Welcome to the 2019 edition of Fantastic Creatures.

Thinking ahead to avoid the threat

If you are an octopus with a privileged nervous system, and you have mastered the art of keeping it cool even if a hungry shark is swimming around you, you may go for the strategy of casually grabbing a few shells from the floor, covering yourself on them, and waiting up in disguise until the not-so-friendly shark decides to continue his foraging somewhere else. Although being clever seems to work for a while, even the coolest of the octopuses has a limit. If nudged too much by the hungry shark, the octopus will move to stage II of the escape plan: drop a smokebomb (or shellbomb in this case) and swim away while the hungry shark with the slightly less privileged nervous system searches the shells for a dinner that is no longer there. A nerve wracking strategy, and one that I wouldn’t recommend to friends and family, but watch the video and judge for yourself!

Now, the Hawaian bobtail squid is no octopus, but it struck a very fine deal with the glowing bacteria Vibrio fisheri in order to secure its own future. In exchange for food and a place to live, the bobtail squid harnesses the bioluminiscent abilities of the bacteria to generate a blue glow that hides its silhouette and allows them to blend with the surroundings. An exquisite partnership to play the long game and minimise unwanted encounters with predators.

Jump, kick, run!

Playing it cool and hiring little minions to hide you is all very well, but… Enough about disguises. Let’s talk about snakes. What do you do if you are hanging out in the desert, jumping around peacefully while contemplating the stars and minding your own business, when an exceptionally inconsiderate snake darts towards you with her mouth wide open and (just for dramatic effect) yelling something in a frequency we humans cannot hear? If you are lucky to have been born a kangaroo rat, your innate ninja skills will come in handy and you will smoothly jump out of the snake’s trajectory and hit her on the face with your tail. And just because you can, you will also steer away mid-air so that when you finally hit the ground you are facing your escape route and you only need to keep on jumping to a safe place. Easy.

Jumping escape

That is all fine for a first encounter. However, if that same inconsiderate snake keeps interrupting your moments of inner contemplation night after night, your patience may run out and you will very likely unleash your full ninja potential and inflict a double-kick to its face mid-air before escaping unscathed once again. That should teach that snake.

Unfortunately, it may happen that you were not born a kangaroo rat in a more or less peaceful desert. You may be born iguana instead. It gets worse. You may be born iguana in a pit full of hungry snakes. Now you know snake eyes are not very good, so if you keep it cool and don’t move they might not detect you. But the moment one of them gets too close… you have no ninja skills to take her out. Your only option is to run. And it gets worse again. Because the moment you move, the other snakes can easily spot you. So it is no longer one snake chasing you. It is dozens of them. So you run as fast as you can, you jump obstacles, and you keep on running. And you hope that all the running will be enough.

It is never too late to escape…

Phew! You barely made it… that was a close one. For the first time, though, you are starting to feel tired. Your mind is playing tricks on you. A nagging voice says you can’t possible get lucky every single time. Sooner or later, your legs will fail you. Or perhaps you never had legs anyway. Perhaps you are an ostracod, a very tiny crustacean that lives underwater. Which means that you are the smallest animal in the pond, and not the best swimmer. And when you are the smallest and you can’t swim very well, chances are you will end up in someone else’s digestive tract.

But fear not! Because what is scarier than being in someone else’s digestive tract? That’s right. Being in someone else’s digestive tract. So you turn to your secret weapon and start ejecting luciferin and luciferase, which will trigger a reaction that will produce carbon dioxide, oxyluciferin, and blue light. That’s right, your superpower is bioluminiscence, and the light this reaction generates is so bright it can attract someone bigger than the fool that ate you. A fool that very quickly realises his mistake and spits you out while profusely apologising.

Ostracod

A similar yet less beautiful strategy is the one adopted by the bombardier beetle after being eaten by a toad. Instead of luciferin, the beetle ejects a hot chemical spray that induces vomit on its predator. Not an elegant one, but a escape nonetheless.

… Unless there is no escape

So far we have managed to escape in advance, in extremis, and even when everything seemed lost. But sometimes, there is really no escape. If you are a fly sometimes life just consumes you. By life I mean a fungus. And by consumes you I mean, well, consumes you. From the inside. Until it turns you into a spore shooting machine. There is no way I can possibly emulate Ed Yong, so I’ll just leave you with an excerpt from his article and encourage you to read it in full here.

When an Entomophthora spore lands on a fly, it grows into the insect’s body and begins devouring it alive, consuming the fat first and leaving vital organs till last. When the fly is nearly spent, the fungus compels it to do three things. First, it climbs to a high point. Next, it extends its mouth as if to lap up some food, but becomes stuck to its perch thanks to a glue that the fungus produces. Finally, it lifts its wings like a fancy sports car raising its doors. This is how the fly dies: innards consumed, face stuck, and wings out of the way.

The fungus now pushes long tubes through the back of its dead host. Each tube is a cannon, which shoots out fungal spores at up to 21 miles per hour. The spores rain down on other passing flies, and new cycles of death and puppeteering begin.


Ed Yong, The Atlantic

Portia, the superspider

Perhaps a deadly fungus is not exactly the most uplifting way to end a piece. Thankfully, as you may have (or may have not) noticed, I tend to end these posts with a spider. We have previously enjoyed the folkloric dances of Peacock Spiders and learned about the nuptial requirements a male Pisaura mirabilis must fulfill if it wishes to survive its wedding night in one piece. This time around we have the honour of meeting Portia, a jumping spider whose superpowers have granted her a starring role in BBC’s The Hunt. Not only can Portia use her four pairs of eyes to see her prey exceptionally well, she can also use them to plan a route to slowly approach her supper, undetected, until she is close enough to BAM!, snatch the poor fellow. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Portia can also pretend to be a prey caught in someone else’s web, plucking silky strings to lure her fellow spider towards her until BAM!, she jumps on and fetches her next victim. True, I know this was supposed to be a post about prodigious escape strategies, but what else can I possibly do if I come across an equally prodigious hunting mastermind? Not tell you? There is even a video where Sir David Attenborough himself tells you about it! How could I possibly ignore that?


References

  • McFall-Ngai, M. Hawaiian bobtail squid. Current Biology (2008) [link]
  • Heath-Heckman, E.A.C., et al. Bacterial bioluminescence regulates expression of a host cryptochrome gene in the Squid-Vibrio symbiosis. mBio (2013) [link]
  • Arnold C. Glowing bacteria control squid hosts. National Geographic (2013) [link]
  • Higham, T.E., et al. Rattlesnakes are extremely fast and variable when striking at kangaroo rats in nature: Three-dimensional high-speed kinematics at night. Scientific Reports (2017) [link]
  • Whitford, M.D., et al. Determinants of predation success: How to survive an attack from a rattlesnake. Functional Ecology (2018) [link]
  • Freymiller, G.A., et al. Escape dynamics of free-ranging desert kangaroo rats (Rodentia: Heteromyidae) evading rattlesnake strikes. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (2019) [link]
  • Thompson, E.M., et al. Cloning and expression of cDNA for the luciferase from the marine ostracod Vargula hilgendorfii. PNAS (1989) [link]
  • Sugiura, S. and Sato, T. Successful escape of bombardier beetles from predator digestive systems. Biology Letters (2018) [link]
  • Langin, K. Watch a bombardier beetle escape from a toad’s stomach. Science (2018) [link]
  • Yong, E. Is this fungus using a virus to control an animal’s mind? The Atlantic (2018) [link]

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