Placoderms had the "fun kind" of sex

Dunkleosteus, a Devonian placoderm. Pencil drawing, digital coloring, Nobu Tamura, Obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Timeline, 2008: From about 420 to 350 million years ago, the rulers of Earth’s seas were an unattractive-looking armored fish known today as the placoderms. This group, consisting of many species, were the bulldogs of the fish world, heavy-bodied with big ugly mouths full of protruding, potentially dangerous bony plates. Some of them were quite small, but a few species grew as large as 20 feet in length. They were the dominant vertebrate worldwide for about 70 million years.

Conventional scientific wisdom would say that these ancient fish reproduced the way modern representatives of ancient lineages do: external fertilization, the sperm fertilizing the egg with a little help from water. The wisdom was so conventional, in fact, that experts placed the rise of internal fertilization—delivery of the sperm into the female via an act of copulation—a good 200 million years after the placoderms swam the seas.

A catastrophe on the reef

In what is now Western Australia, something terrible happened about 380 million years ago in the shallow seas covering a coral reef: the oxygen that fed the reef suddenly plummeted, leaving the coral starved and unable to support the food web built around it. The outcome was a rapid, catastrophic loss of all of the species on the reef, including the placoderms. Thanks to stable plate tectonics and some good sediment coverage, these hapless animals remained preserved for the subsequent millions of years until a team of fossil hunters uncovered them. They now populate one of the most famous fossil finds in the world, the Gogo fossil sites, which are packed with perfect specimens of long-lost species.

The role of Sir David Attenborough, the world’s coolest naturalist

Among those perfect specimens—so perfect, in fact, that three-dimensional samples are available—is a species that now has the name Materpiscis attenboroughi. The name means “Attenborough’s mother fish” and requires a bit of explanation. Back in the late 1970s, Sir David Attenborough produced a wonderful nature and science series called Life on Earth. In the series, he highlighted the Gogo sites, and his interest led researchers to name the fish after him. But the first part of the name, the genus name Materpiscis, means “Mother fish.” Why? Because when this 10-inch fish died during that catastrophic reef loss, she died just before becoming a mother.

We know this because a couple of researchers working on her fossilized remains decided at the last minute to expose the fossil to one more round of acid treatment. They had pretty much decided to write her up as she was, which would have been plenty because of the preserved 3D perfection of her remains. But they agreed to that last treatment, which gently etches away layers of the fossil to reveal what lies beneath. They are glad they did, because what that last treatment exposed, inside of the adult fish, is a tiny, fossilized fish embryo, about a quarter of the size of its mother.

Eureka! Again, and again, and again

Anyone looking at that embryo, inside of that fish, might have had any number of “Eureka” thoughts in that moment. Eureka! It’s a fish embryo, 380 million years old! There aren’t that many of those lying around. But even more important, Eureka! It’s a fish embryo inside of the mother. That means that the egg was fertilized inside of the mother, where the embryo grew, nourished in her body, just as mammals do it. The embryo was even attached by a tiny, fossilized umbilical cord. A final Eureka! just might be that we can confirm the sex of this fish just based on the fact that she was pregnant when she died.

This just in: Sex is fun

The presence of an internally developing embryo in this placoderm sets the assumed evolutionary timing of internal fertilization back about 200 million years. No one would have guessed that these ancient, armored bulldog-like fish would represent the earliest-known internal fertilization. And the fact that fertilization was internal means that these animals must have copulated, the standard mechanism for getting sperm into the female to meet the egg. That recognition led one of the embryo’s discoverers to remark that this animal represents the earliest example a species engaging in “sex that was fun.”

The narwhal: a serious case of nerves

"Narwhal or unicorn"

Timeline, 2006: The narwhal has a history as striking as the animal itself. Vikings kept the narwhal a secret for centuries even as they peddled its “horn” as that of a unicorn. Narwhal tusks were so prized that monarchs paid the equivalent of the cost of a castle just to have one. They were thought to have magic powers, render poison ineffective, cure all manner of diseases, and foil assassins.

A tooth and nothing but a tooth

As it turns out, the horn is really just a tooth, an extremely long, odd, tooth. The narwhal tusk, which usually grows only on males from their left upper jaw, can reach lengths of six feet or more. Sometimes, males will grow two tusks, one on each side. The tooth turns like a corkscrew as it grows, stick straight, from the narwhal’s head. They are such an odd sight that scientists have been trying to figure out for centuries exactly what that tusk might be doing there.

Some have posited that the narwhal uses the tusks in epic battles with other male narwhals. Others have fancifully suggested that the animal might use the long tooth to break through the ice, ram the sides of ships (nevermind the disconnect between when the tusk arose and when ships entered the scene), or to skewer prey—although no one seems to have addressed how the narwhal would then get the prey to its mouth.

Gentle tusk rubbing

The facts are that the narwhal rarely, if ever, appears to duel with other narwhals. Its primary use of the tusk appears to be for tusking other males, in which the animals gently rub tusks with one another. They also may be used in mating or other activities, although that has not yet been demonstrated. But what has been discovered is that the narwhal ought to be suffering from a severe case of permanent toothache.

Arctic cold strikes a narwhal nerve

Anyone who has ever had exposed nerves around their teeth knows that when cold hits those nerves, the pain usually sends us running for the dentist. Now imagine that your tooth is six feet long, has millions of completely exposed nerve endings, and is constantly plunged in the icy waters of the Arctic. You’ve just imagined being a narwhal.

Dentist on ice

A clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine who thinks of nothing but teeth made this discovery about the narwhal. The instructor, Martin Nweeia, can wax rhapsodic about teeth and how central they are to our health and the stories they can tell even about how we lived and died. He has carried his tooth obsession beyond his own species, however; his passion led him to spend days on Arctic ice floes, watching for the elusive narwhal, or at least one of the tusks, to emerge from the deadly cold water. He also befriended the local Inuit, who rely on the narwhal as a source of food and fuel oil.

His fascination and rapport with the Inuit people ended with his viewing several specimens of narwhal tusks. What he and his colleagues discovered astonished them. The tusks appeared to consist of open tubules that led straight to what appear to be millions of exposed nerve endings. In humans, nerve tubules are never open in healthy teeth. But in the narwhal tusk, which is an incredible example of sexual dimorphism and the only spiral tooth known in nature today, these open tubules were the norm.

Sensory tooth

The researchers speculated that the animals may use this enormous number of naked nerves as a finely sensitive sensory organ. In addition, it is possible that the teeth transmit voltage through a process called the piezo effect, in which crystals generate voltage when a mechanical force rattles them. In the case of the narwhal, who swim quickly through the water, water pressure might provide the force. Because narwhals are among the most vocal of whales, the tusks could also be sound sensors.

Why would dentists be so interested in the tusks of a whale? Examinations of the narwhal tusks have revealed that they are incredibly flexible, unlike our teeth, which are strong but also rigid and comparatively brittle. It is possible that understanding the narwhal tusk might have clinical applications for developing flexible dental materials for restoring pearly whites in people.

With clones like these, who needs anemones?

Finding Nemo makes marine biologists of us all

I once lived a block away from a beach in Northern California, and when my sons and I wandered the sands at low tide, we often saw sea anemones attached to the rocks, closed up and looking much like rocks themselves, waiting for the water to return. My sons, fans of Finding Nemo, still find these animals intriguing because of their association with a cartoon clownfish, but as it turns out, these brainless organisms have a few lessons to teach the grownups about the art of war.

Attack of the clones

Anemones, which look like plants that open and close with the rise and fall of the tides, are really animals from the phylum Cnidaria, which makes them close relatives of corals and jellyfish. Although they do provide a home for clownfish in a mutualistic relationship, where both the clownfish and the anemone benefit from the association, anemones are predators. They consist primarily of their stinging tentacles and a central mouth that allows them to eat fish, mussels, plankton, and marine worms.

Although anemones seem to be adhered permanently to rocks, they can, in fact, move around. Anemones have a “foot” that they use to attach to objects, but they also can be free-swimming, which comes in handy in the art of sea anemone warfare. (To see them in action, click on video, above.)

Sea anemone warfare could well be characterized as an attack of the clones. These animals reproduce by a process called lateral fission, in which new anemones grow by mitosis from an existing anemone, although they can engage in sexual reproduction when necessary. But when a colony of anemones is engaged in a battle, it consists entirely of genetically identical clones.

Yet even though they are identical, these clones, like the genetically identical cells in your liver and your heart, have different jobs to do in anemone warfare. Scientists have known that anemones can be aggressive with one another, tossing around stinging cells as their weapons of choice in battle. But observing groups of anemones in their natural environment is almost impossible because the creatures only fight at high tide, masked by the waves.

To solve this problem, a group of California researchers took a rock with two clone tribes of anemones on it into the lab and created their own, controlled high and low tides. What they saw astonished them. The clones, although identical, appeared to have different jobs and assorted themselves in different positions depending on their role in the colony.

Battle arms, or “acrorhagi”

The warring groups had a clearly marked demilitarized zone on the rock, a border region that researchers say can be maintained for long periods in the wild. When the tide is high, though, one group of clones will send out scouts, anemones that venture into the border area in an apparent bid to expand the territory for the colony. When the opposition colony senses the presence of the scouts, its warriors go into action, puffing up large specialized battle arms called acrorhagi, tripling their body length, and firing off salvos of stinging cells at the adventuresome scouts. Even warriors as far as four rows back get into the action, rearing up the toss cells and defend their territory.

In the midst of this battle, the reproductive clones hunker down in the center of the colony, protected and able to produce more clones. Clones differentiate into warriors or scouts or reproducers based on environmental signals interacting with their genes; every clonal group has a different response to these signals and arranges its armies in different permutations.

Poor Stumpy

Warriors very rarely win a battle, and typically, the anemones maintained their territories rather than achieving any major expansions. The scouts appear to run the greatest risk; one hapless scout from the lab studies, whom the researchers nicknamed Stumpy, was so aggressive in its explorations that when it returned to its home colony, it was attacked by its own clones. Researchers speculated that it bore far too many foreign stinging cells sustained in the attacks, thus resulting in a case of mistaken identity for poor Stumpy.

Think you're eating snapper? Think again

Grad students learn PCR, uncover fish fraud

It’s a great thing if you get your name published in the journal Nature, the pinnacle of publishing achievement for a biologist, while you’re still in school. Such was the fate of six graduate students participating in a course designed to teach them DNA extraction, amplification, and sequencing. They identified a real question to answer in the course of applying their techniques, and their results got them brief communication in Nature and national recognition. Not bad; I hope everyone also earned an “A.”

The group, led by professors Peter Marko and Amy Moran at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, suspected that fish being sold as red snapper in markets in the U.S. were actually mislabeled, in violation of federal law. This kind of fraud is nothing new; marketers have in the past created “scallops” by cutting scalloped-shaped chunks from the wings of skates (part of the cartilaginous fish group), and have labeled the Patagonian toothfish as Chilean sea bass.

Protections can drive fraud

Such mislabeling has far-reaching implications, well beyond concerns about defrauding consumers of the fish they want. If fisheries and fish dealers are reporting their catches as red snapper or scallops or sea bass when they are, in fact, other marine species, then data on the abundance and distribution of all of these species will be misleading. Red snapper, Lutjanus campechanus, was placed under strict management in 1996, a move that gave incentive to the fishing industry and retailers to mislabel fish. Some experts suspect that many fish under heavy restriction end up with their names on a different species for market.

Who is responsible for the mislabeling? Fishermen pull in their catches and identify them on the boat or at the dock. The catch goes to a fish dealer, who is also responsible for reporting what species and how many of each species were caught. This report becomes the official number for the species. The dealer then sends the fish on to the retail market, where it is sold in stores and restaurants. Misidentification on the boat or dock is one reasonable possibility because some of the species identified in the North Carolina study frequent the same types of habitat, primarily offshore waters around coral reefs. These species, which include vermillion snapper and silk snapper, do look very much like red snapper, although there are some identifiable morphological differences.

One filet is just like the other?

So misidentification could be an honest mistake or purposeful change at the boat or dock, or it could be a willful relabeling at the restaurant or market. By the time a fish is processed, it consists essentially of a filet that is indistinguishable from that of other, similar fish. Hapless consumers end up paying twice as much for silk snapper, thinking they’re getting the pricier red snapper, instead.

But the DNA sequencing the North Carolina group performed not only turned up species closely related and very similar to red snapper, but also uncovered some sequences that have no identity with those of known species in gene databanks. In other words, fish of unknown identity are being caught, sold, and eaten as red snapper before we even have a chance to document what they are, their habitats, or their numbers.

Mislabeling is rampant

The grad students and professors also found that some of the fish being marketed as Atlantic red snapper were, in a few cases, from the other side of the planet, including the crimson snapper, which occurs in the Indo-West Pacific. All told, they found that 77% of the fish samples from stores in the eastern and midwestern U.S. were mislabeled as red snapper.

One way to prevent such mislabeling is to require identification of the country of origin of fish sold at market. The USDA has instituted such a program, although confusion will likely persist about fish caught in international waters. And the mislabeling isn’t only a U.S. phenomenon.

In the meantime, how do you know you’re getting red snapper? Some fish ecologists recommend avoiding it entirely because it still suffers from overfishing; however, one way to know your fish is to ask for it with the skin on, or completely intact. If you’ve got a smart phone, you can just look up the image and compare. Alternatively, you could just order the salad.

How Bumpy the Jelly eats without tentacles

Robot explores the deep sea

The deep dark layers of the sea—where sunlight doesn’t penetrate and oxygen levels drop as precipitously as the ocean shelves—may be home to some of the last great mysteries of our planet. New discoveries lie hidden in the depths, but it takes a robot to assist us in uncovering them.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California has such a robot, Ventana, a deep-diving submarine robot that can roam the dark parts of the ocean where humans cannot go. In 1990, Ventana came across an unusual jelly(fish) in the mesopelagic zone, between 500 and 1800 feet down, where sunlight does not penetrate, but oxygen levels remain relatively high. This jelly was weird among its brethren. It had four fleshy arms that trailed behind its softball-sized gelatinous body (or bell), but no tentacles. Wart-like bumps covered its arms and bell, and as it moved through the water trailing its arms, it looked like a slow-moving meteor or translucent blue shooting star.

An elusive, warty marine invertebrate

Marine scientists at the aquarium were intrigued, but they felt they needed to find out more before introducing the jelly to the world. Over the next 13 years, they had only seven sightings of the animal, five in Monterey Bay, and two sightings 3000 miles away in the Gulf of California. It was the latter two, in 1993, that surprised them, because it demonstrated that the new jelly was not just a local creature endemic to Monterey Bay, but might have a wider distribution.

They captured at least one of the jellies, anxious to find out more about its habits. They placed their captive in a tank with small shrimp and pieces of squid and watched. The bits of squid and hapless shrimp collided with the bumps on the jelly’s bell and stuck there. Over time, the prey moved slowly down the bell, was transferred to one of the “arms,” and then slowly moved up the arm and into the mouth. The “arms” appeared to serve as lip-like extensions for prey, much as pseudopodia serve as prey-capturing extensions for some cells, like macrophages.

The jelly’s feeding mechanism was unusual, as were its choices in prey size. The animal probably dines on some of the many other jellies that inhabit its zone, and it appears to favor prey a little larger—at ¾ to two inches—than the average jelly prefers.

It’s a triple! A brand new subfamily, genus, and species!

Given these unusual characteristics, the scientists who made the discovery designated this jelly—which they had heretofore called “Bumpy” in honor of its appearance—a new subfamily, genus, and species. They assigned it the subfamily, Stellamedusidae, and gave it the species name Stellamedusa ventana. “Stella” derives from “star” because of the jelly’s shooting-star-like appearance as it moves through the water; “medusa” is a common name for jellies; and “ventana” comes from the robot submarine without which the researchers would never have made their discovery. This additional subfamily brings the total number of jelly subfamilies to eight and is quite a find; lions and housecats belong to the same family, but are in different subfamilies, so S. ventana is as distantly related to other jellies as the “king of the jungle” is to Kitty.

Patience: They waited 13 years to report this

Although the jelly is unusual among other jellies in lacking tentacles, the researchers who identified it and published a paper on their discovery in the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, say that several deep-sea species have evolved in a similar way, using “arms” instead of tentacles. The researchers waited 13 years to report their find because they wanted to uncover more information about S. ventana, but the creature still remains an enigma. In spite of its potentially wide distribution, it apparently has never turned up in fishermen’s nets and, with only seven sightings in 13 years, remains elusive.

Wordless Wednesday: Dolphin diplomacy

(almost wordless…)

Move over, cockroaches. Dolphins have the communication game down to diplomacy:

(Credit: iStockphoto/Stephan Zabel)


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