A Failed Relationship/Symbiosis In Action

May 25, 2009
Burmese termite

Does eating trees make you termitier than the sword?

Imagine one day as you’re reading or eating a book, your house is suddenly ripped apart in an untimely predation event, because your house is a termite, and before you can scramble away with your flagella in search of a new termite-house, you’re paralyzed by a huge blob of tree goo. I know, I HATE when that happens. Then again, that’s how I feel when I wake up sometimes—horrified and immobile—but at least it’s not permanent. Unfortunately for one gang of flagellated friends approximately 10 million years ago, the nightmare was real, and the condition really permanent.

Luckily their sacrifice did not go unrecognized (Memorial Day reference!). Scientists from Oregon State University reported Friday the discovery of what is now the the oldest example of a cooperative symbiosis (a “mutualism” if you will) between an animal and a microbe. The story is extra cool because it’s based on ”there it is!” observable-with-your-eyes evidence: in a piece of amber (tree resin of the past/not the ’90s singer of the past), a termite’s gut was preserved just after it was ripped open, revealing the symbiotic protozoans inside. (Many new genera were described, but the press picked only the one with the picture, Microrhopalodites, to mention.) The discovery highlights how organisms have been engaging in cooperative symbioses and co-evolution for a really, really, long time (“really, really” is a technical term that means, um, about 10 million years). Relationship status: It’s complicated with Microrhopalodites. Read the rest of this entry »


“Missing link” or media stink?

May 21, 2009

A newly discovered fossil is more of a case of media malfeasance than an actual missing link. Hyped as the “missing link in human evolution,” the monkey-like Darwinias received a blizzard of media coverage. It was even the Google logo the other day. However, when Carl Zimmer could not find commentary on the fossil from experts not involved in the research*, he made some old-fashioned phone calls and discovered that experts considered most of the evidence in the paper to be “old news.” Today, Zimmer posted a timeline of terribly bungled science hype.

So, to recap: it appears that both PLOS and Atlantic Productions did not give journalists any time to consult with outside experts before launching a major press conference with a huge blitz of media attention. In other words, science writers who were trying to do their job well and responsibly were actively hindered. Those who declared ridiculous things, such as claiming that human origins were now solved once and for all, were not.

I have a hard time even imagining how this behavior could be justified. I’ve sent emails to the contacts listed in the PLOS press release on Darwinius both at PLOS and Atlantic Productions to ask why they took this course of action.

It’s disappointing that such big science news has turned out to be mostly hot air. We don’t get the limelight all that often, and it’s a pity that PLoS squandered it.

Of course, Piled Higher and Deeper said it best.

* Corrected re: Carl’s comment below. Original sentance said that Carl was “unable to get a copy of the peer-reviewed research.”

Sea scorpions SCUBA on land in funny hats

April 15, 2009

Sea scorpions roamed the ancient ocean 500 million years ago. They were kind of like a cross between a horseshoe crab and a scorpion, and could grow to be the size of a crocodile. But these fearsome creatures might have something in common with Victorian ladies and hermit crabs – they might have worn hats (or pants, depending on your perspective) made out of other animals.

Based on uneven sea scorpion tracks, researchers figured out that sea scorpions must have been carrying weight on their left side. From National Geographic:

The odd drag marks could have been from the coiled shells of snails or similar critters, which the ocean-dwelling scorpions stuffed their tails into so they could venture above water, the researchers suggest.

Humid air trapped inside the shells might have protected the sea scorpions’ gills from drying out during brief forays into the open air—like reverse scuba gear.

No word on whether they went shopping with the helmet-shrimp.

A killer proto-shrimp with a funny hat

March 19, 2009

This lovely critter is Hurdia victoria, which terrorized Cambrian seas 500 million years ago. Since being fossilized squished Hurdia into paleo-roadkill, scientists have only just reconstructed it from bits and pieces of the Burgess shale already in museum collections.

Hurdia, a primitive arthropod, was pretty monstrous for the time – up to a foot and a half long. It had a toothy circular jaw with little claws, compound eyes and a giant head carapace. Scientists think it might have lurked along the ocean floor, using its monstrous head to funnel trilobites to their doom.

For more Cambrian freakitude, check out the UC Berkeley’s Meet the Cambrian Critters. I adore their slightly cheesy yet completely awesome flash animations.

Thanks, J.P.!

New Tasmanian comb jelly

March 18, 2009

This lovely comb jelly is a new species discovered in early March by Lisa Gershwin, an Australian marine biologist. Comb jellies, also called ctenophores, are not related to jellyfish – instead of stinging cells they have fine combs or “ctenes” of cilia. The rainbow colors are caused by light refracted off the rows of beating cilia.

According to National Geographic, Dr. Gershwin has discovered over 159 new species in Australia, and wonders “…how many fragile species are out there, right under our noses, that we have overlooked…”

In search of urban marine life

March 12, 2009

This week is Week of the Blue over at Urban Science Adventures. Though every day is happy ocean fun day here at the Oyster’s Garter, I thought I’d join DN’s party by writing a bit on how to have a Marine Urban Science Adventure! You don’t need to go on a big fancy tropical vacation to see tons of cool marine life – you just need to go to the ocean, any ocean.

This is biased towards the cities that I’ve spent the most time in – Boston, New York, San Francisco, and San Diego. Please feel free to add more urban marine life resources in the comments.

Fouling communities

San Diego Bay fouling community, photographed under the docks by yours truly

San Diego Bay fouling community, photographed under the docks by your intrepid blogger

Fouling communities are the critters that grow on artificial substrates, like pier pilings and dock floats. Read the rest of this entry »


March 4, 2009

The fearsome Dalek, they of the mighty plunger and whisk weaponry, might be invading our waterways. Evidence of the impending Dalek aquatic invasion was uncovered in a pond in the UK.

The 42-year-old said: “I’d just shifted a tree branch with my foot when I noticed something dark and round slowly coming up to the surface.

“I got the shock of my life when a Dalek head bobbed up right in front of me.

As if the zombie apocalypse wasn’t bad enough. Now where’s my sonic screwdriver? And my David Tennant?