Posts Tagged animaldiversity

one of the largest living insects? Alison Campbell Jul 23

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If you don't like spiders then you probably wouldn't like this either: from China come reports of what's claimed to be the largest known aquatic insect. (I can't find any actual published scientific descriptions of the creature; it will be nice to see the claim confirmed – or denied! – as it's a pretty impressive specimen. 


My first thought on seeing this image was, a dobsonfly! I've not ever seen an adult specimen, but the aquatic larvae I encountered when running a macroinvertebrate lab class (way back in my Massey days) have equally impressive mandibles – hence the nickname of 'toe biters'. Given that the adult Megalopteran pictured here has a 21cm wingspan (!), I wouldn't care to encounter its larvae when paddling in a stream.

Becky Crew has a great take on this creature on her Running Ponies blog, including some fascinating info on other giants of the insect world.

if fish had nightmares, these spiders would feature in them Alison Campbell Jun 19

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If asked, "what do spiders eat?", my answer would probably include insects, spiders, other arthropods, and maybe birds. I'd never have thought of fish!

And yet it seems that fish-eating by spiders is, if not common, then not exactly rare, although other food items still account for most of the spiders' diets. In a paper just published in PLoS ONE, Nyffeler & Pusey (2014) present evidence – from an extensive literature review – for eight-legged piscivores on every continent other than Antarctica, although they're more often found in tropical & sub-tropical regions. And it seems they're not alone: the authors list a number of other arthropods with similar tastes, including water scorpions, backswimmers, caddis flies and water boatmen.

The spiders involved were mostly from the genera Dolomedes & Nilus ie they are large (as spiders go: a big female Dolomedes can have a leg-span of 6–9 cm and weigh ~0.5–2 g) and semi-aquatic, spending a lot of time at the water's edge. Here's an image of a female Dolomedes from the UK, settling in to consume a stickleback:


Image: Nyffeler & Pusey (2014) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099459.g007

Incidentally, while we have spiders of this genus in New Zealand, it seems our small freshwater fish have little to worry about. Nyffeler & Pusey report that

only the largest of New Zealand's three species of Dolomedes (Dolomedes dondalei) was capable of catching fish in laboratory experiments whereas the two smaller species (Dolomedes aquaticus and Dolomedes minor) were not.

When hunting fish – & for most spiders the researchers note that fish are a relatively rare component of the diet – the arachnids seem to use touch (mechanoreception) rather than vision. They sit at the water's edge with their front pairs of legs spread out & resting on the water surface, and the others anchoring them to a rock or a plant. In some cases, especially when the water is calm, it seems that the spiders may detect their prey from ripples in the water, but in others their attack is triggered by the fish's dorsal fin actually contacting one of their legs. And while spiders usually eat other animals smaller than themselves, in the case of fishing spiders their prey may be more than twice as large as the predator, which means that there's quite a lot of effort involved in subduing dinner (usually done by biting the fish behind the head). and then dragging it out of the water to feed.

Nyffeler & Pusey cite experimental evidence showing that spider venom is quite capable of killing small fish, although it may take 20 minutes or more to do so. In the wild, that would be a long time to hang onto a wriggling fish. And why then drag it out of the water? Perhaps because the digestive enzymes injected into the prey would otherwise be diluted – remember that spiders are 'liquid feeders' who must wait until the prey's innards have been liquified by those enzymes before slurping up the resultant soup.

While the fish these spiders eat are a large prey item, & capturing them must incur some risk, the researchers argue that such hunting may well be advantageous at times when other prey items are rare. However, they conclude that

Complete piscivory is probably rare and restricted to those occasions when semi-aquatic spiders gain easy access to small fish kept at high density in artificial rearing ponds or aquaria or in small shallow waterbodies.

Owners of home aquaria and fish ponds may never view Dolomedes in quite the same way again…

Nyffeler M, Pusey BJ (2014) Fish Predation by Semi-Aquatic Spiders: A Global Pattern. PLoS ONE 9(6): e99459. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.009945

a bunch of fascinating animals you’ve never heard of… Alison Campbell May 30

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… unless you've been following this blog for a while, in which case you may already have read about the sarcastic fringeheads (who are not members of a rock band, despite the wonderful name!).

The dumbo octopus, the pacu (a fish with teeth like nutcrackers, an attribute that has given rise to an urban myth guaranteed to alarm men), the pink fairy armadillo – yes, really! – visit the IFLS webpage and read all about them!

a bunch of fascinating animals you’ve never heard of… Alison Campbell May 30

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… unless you've been following this blog for a while, in which case you may already have read about the sarcastic fringeheads (who are not members of a rock band, despite the wonderful name!).

The dumbo octopus, the pacu (a fish with teeth like nutcrackers, an attribute that has given rise to an urban myth guaranteed to alarm men), the pink fairy armadillo – yes, really! – visit the IFLS webpage and read all about them!

something reassuringly disgusting… Alison Campbell May 04


This post's title comes from Something Fishy where, talking about sea cucumbers, Illya wrote "But there's something else they can do. Something reassuringly disgusting. Something totally Sea Cucumber." I was mildly let down to find he was talking about bioluminescence, & not self-evisceration.

Yes, that's right. When threatened (or repeatedly prodded by some uncouth human in a wetsuit), some types of sea cucumber can forcibly expel part of their gut (& other organs) through the body wall – not the cloaca, but various points on the body wall. I knew that the self-evisceration happened, but not how it happened. For that, I went to the most excellent echinoblog, and you should too, for not only is there an excellent explanation but there are pictures

And so I have learned that holothurians have got this really weird connective tissue that they can soften very quickly indeed, so that the gut's normal connections to other internal bits & pieces is weakened, fast. At the same time regions of the body wall also weaken, and then strong muscle contractions expel parts of the body that would normally never see the light. 

The adaptive significance of all this? (You might regard the practice as a fast track to evolutionary oblivion, but these extraordinary animals are able to regenerate the missing bits.) The 'standard' explanation has been that it's a defence against predators, but echinoblog offers another option: that it's a means of getting rid of excretory byproducts that would otherwise build up to harmful levels in the body. This is borne out by the observation that some sea cucumbers expel their innards – & regenerate them – on an annual basis.

There's the potential to learn a lot from these unusual creatures.


a strange but beautiful bird Alison Campbell Apr 30

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In terms of plumage and behaviour, some of the birds of paradise have to be strong contenders in any 'most unusual' list. I mean, take a look at this:

(Image source: Wikpedia (Creative Commons))

This is a male Wilson's Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus respublica), a species that's found only on a couple of small islands off the coast of West Papua. That bizarre blue cap is actually bare skin! It's certainly eye-catching, but I find those gorgeous curled tail feathers just as fascinating. They certainly stand out in this video of a male bird, which is clearing its display floor in preparation for the song-&-dance routine used to attract a female.


Like many birds of paradise, C.respublica is a sexually dimorphic species, and the female is quite drab in comparison to the male. She comes into view about halfway through this video from Sir David Attenborough, which gives a good idea of the birds' size (they're surprisingly small). The video also shows the male's display – as Sir David says, the dance moves are poor but the costume is amazing :)


‘slow life’ – corals and anemones strut their stuff Alison Campbell Mar 29

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When I was a kid we used to go to the beaches of the Mahia peninsula most weekends. (Well, memory says 'most weekends' – it might not have been that often!). Sometimes we'd stop at the sweeping sandy shores of Blue Bay, but on other days we'd go round to the exposed rocky coast & spend happy hours messing around in the rock pools. I used to love floating my fingers past the sea anemones & feeling the tiny tugs as we touched (at the time, of course, I had no idea that those tiny tugs were the anemones discharging nematocysts into my fingers!) And to me it seemed that these intriguing little animals, which retracted into blobs of jelly when touched less gently, didn't really seem to do much.

Similarly corals – when we've snorkelled around corals I've been amazed by the forms they take and – in living corals – by their colours. But it's hard to see much actually happening.

But tonight a friend of mine posted this video – "Slow Life" – on their Facebook page. It's gorgeous, visually stunning – and it shows the hidden life of cnidarians in glorious technicolour. Best on the big screen, I think; I'm looking forward to showing it to my first-year class next week.


the sea’s strangest square mile, indeed Alison Campbell Jul 25

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 From Shark Bay Films on vimeo, via PZ, comes this awesome video – life and death on the sea bed. It opens with a species of polychaete worm (aka bobbit worms**) – what an amazing stealth predator! And surely one to give small children – and first-year biology students! – nightmares.

And there are ribbon eels, and cuttlefish, and crabs, a real glutton of the seas and, for sheer ‘squee!’ value, the orange frogfish: the larger female tootling along the sea bed on her modified pelvic & pectoral fins, with a couple of smaller males tagging along behind. (But I have to say that their eating habits are not squee-worthy at all.)

Another reminder of the diversity and, yes, flamboyance generated by evolutionary processes :)



** I was enchanted to find the bobbit worm featuring at #1 on "The 5 Most Nightmarish Worms on the Planet" – the post is well worth a read to find out who comes in at 2, 3, 4 & 5.

convergent evolution: the pandas’ thumb Alison Campbell Dec 15

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 And yes, punctuation & grammar skillz, I has them :-) That apostrophe really is in the right place – read on to find out why.

The tale of the panda’s thumb is well-known, & an excellent example of how the action of natural selection can result in jury-rigged solutions to problems: a result that works, but not necessarily a perfect result. I first encountered it way back when, through reading Stephen Jay Gould’s wonderful book of the same name**.

A book which refers to the familiar black-&-white giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). I’d never really thought about it before, but of course we have 2 species of panda: the big fellas, & the much smaller red panda (Ailurus fulgens). Do they have ‘thumbs’ too?

As a post by Brian Switek shows, the answer is ‘yes; yes, they do’. And this is really interesting, as the two pandas aren’t closely related. Giant pandas are bears, while reds are more closely related to raccoons. Yet they both have modified a modified wrist bone, the radial sesamoid, that functions as a thumb and allows them to grip & manipulate bamboo – a lovely example of convergent evolution.


**The original essay, with the title The panda’s peculiar thumb’, is reproduced here.

talking about exaptations Alison Campbell May 24

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During a lecture to our second-year evolutionary biology class I introduced the concept of exaptations: features that have evolved in one environmental context but which have been co-opted to fill a different role in a changed environment. This was in the context of swim bladders/lungs, which I’ll talk about in a minute, but right now I’m regretting not having read further through Lewis Held’s Quirks of human anatomy before the lecture, as he’s got a different, fascinating example (Held, 2009):

Darwin made an interesting observation about our fontanelles. He noted how lucky we are that these hinges were already in place (because of how skull bones grow) before they acquired the function of allowing our skull to deform during the tight squeeze of the birth process. in other words, mammalian sutures were "co-opted" as hominin hinges:

"The sutures in the skulls of young mammals have been advanced as a beautiful adaptation for adding parturition [birth]… but as sutures occur in the skulls of young birds and reptiles, which have only to escape from a broken egg, we may infer that this structure has arisen from the laws of growth, and has been taken advantage of in the parturition of the higher animals."

My example, lungs, was in the context of tetrapod evolution. There’s a rather nice series of fossils demonstrating the links between early amphibians and almost-as-early four-legged vertebrates, in this post by afarensis. That story also gives a nice example of the predictive power of evolutionary theory. Tiktaalik roseae was found because scientists working in that area knew that amphibians could be found in rocks of a particular age & early tetrapods in somewhat younger rocks. They predicted that an intermediate species might be found in rocks of intermediate age, identified a likely locality, went fossil hunting, and bingo!

Anyway, one of the big problems with life on land is that gas exchange becomes rather more complicated. While there’s much more oxygen in air than in water, getting it is in some ways more difficult. Gas exchange surfaces need to be moist, but gills or skin, for example, would dry out very quickly if exposed to the air for too long. And in any case gills are useless as a gas exchange surface in air – their fine filamentous structure must be supported by water or it collapses into a thick clumpy mass with relatively little surface area exposed to the ‘respiratory medium’ (shorthand for the oxygen-bearing air or water). And for an animal testing the air, as it were, half a lung is not going to be good enough.

Now, we know that lungs originated as outpocketings from the gut – they’re lined with the same endodermal tissues. The thing is, when did this happen and what sort of selection pressures might have been operating? The ‘when’ seems to have been a looong time ago, as lungs & lung derivatives – swim bladders – are found in all bony fish lineages, & bony fish first appear in the fossil record back in the Devonian. (It’s more likely that lungs evolved in the common ancestor of all those modern fish groups, than that they all evolved them independently.)

The current hypothesis for the origin of lungs is that they probably evolved in Devonian fish living in ponds or shallow lagoons. Geological evidence indicates that there were alternating wet & dry seasons back then &, just as today, during the dry weather water levels would drop & conditions in them would become hypoxic (low in oxygen). Fish able to gulp air at the surface, and sequester it somewhere in the gut, would be at a selective advantage in these conditions (& before someone comes along & says, this is just a just-so story, remember that there are modern fish able to do this, holding their gulped bubbles of air in the mouth or somewhere along the intestine, whence oxygen can diffuse into the bloodstream). Any increase in size of the bubble-holding part of the gut – which from the position of lungs/swim bladders in living species must have been in a ventral outpocketing from the foregut – would have been selected for, as would any increase in the capillary beds associated with the nascent lung.

(And of course, that has landed us with a whole lot of problems further down the line – because the paths of food and air must cross at the back of the pharynx, something that brings with it the ever-present risk of choking. One of the hallmarks of evolution is that it optimises, rather than producing perfection.)

Lewis Held (2009) Quirks of human anatomy: an evo-devo look at the human body. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-511-59384-0 (e-book, Kindle edition)

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