Going to Hawaii? Watch out for the flesh-eating caterpillars

Flesh-eating caterpillars lurk in Hawaii’s rainforests

Islands can produce some of the strangest evolutionary novelties on the planet. Island-living elephants shrink to tiny sizes, while tortoises grow gigantic. The fate of species on islands is its own specialized study because the only way species can arrive on an island is over the water. Scientists, in the study of island biogeography, focus on how plants, animals, and microbiota end up on the islands where they occur.

What happens after they arrive is apparently anybody’s guess. Islands are unusual because they can lack the stiff competition of mainland ecosystems. Common factors in our daily lives, like ants, can be completely lacking. Because so many pieces of an ecological puzzle are missing on an island, niches remain open for the organisms that do arrive and get a foothold. Animals and plants end up doing things on islands that their kindred are not known to do anywhere else in the world. A recently discovered example is a caterpillar that has broken all the rules of caterpillardom. It eats meat. It hunts its prey. It uses its silk as a weapon. It deliberately camouflages itself with non-caterpillar components. And it’s a brutal killer.

Like a wolf that dives for clams

This particular capterpillar and its four just-discovered relatives reside on one of the most isolated island chains in the world, the Hawaiian archipelago. These islands are well known for evolutionary novelties, and these new species of the genus Hyposmocoma are no different. Well, actually, they’re very different. One scientist has said that discovering the behavior of these larval moths is like discovering a wolf species that dives for clams.

This caterpillar, a tiny, brutal, sneaky killer, creeps up on its prey, an unsuspecting snail resting on a leaf in the Hawaiian rainforest. The caterpillar itself is bound in silk, and it proceeds to spend almost a half hour anchoring the hapless snail to the leaf with more silk. The silk, made of gelatinous proteins, pins the snail by its shell as tightly as a spider wraps its threads around prey.

Once the caterpillar has immobilized its target, preventing the snail from escaping through a fall off of the leaf, the nascent moth emerges from its own silk casing. The snail retreats into its shell, and the caterpillar follows, beginning to feed on the trapped snail, starting with the head. It literally eats the snail alive.

This behavior is extraordinarily unusual for a caterpillar, the juvenile form of moths and butterflies. The vast majority of caterpillar species are vegetarian; of the 150,000 known species, only 200 have been identified as flesh eaters and predators. These few do not use their silks to trap their food, and they don’t eat snails, which are mollusks, targeting instead soft-bodied insects.

Caterpillar divers and adaptive radiation

But the genus Hyposmocoma is known for its diversity. Some of its members dive underwater for food. The interesting thing about the snail-eating caterpillars is that they seem to have radiated through almost all of the Hawaiian islands. The first species was identified on Maui, but since its discovery, researchers have found species on most of the other islands. Evolutionary biologists are intrigued by the many novel aspects of this caterpillar’s life history because it is so unusual for this many unique factors—novel food source, novel hunting technique, novel eating technique—to have evolved in the same species.

Wearing the spoils of capture as camouflage

One other unique thing about this caterpillar’s approach to dinner is its use of decoration. Once the mollusk-eating caterpillar has spent the day dining on escargot, it will attach the snail’s empty shell to its silken casing, along with bits of lichen and other materials, in an apparent attempt to camouflage itself.

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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.

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.

Ancient warfare captured in amber

The soldier vs. the cockroach

About 100 million years ago, a soldier beetle of an ancient type found itself under investigation by the antennae of a much larger animal, possibly a giant cockroach. Understandably alarmed, the small soldier beetle, only about a quarter of an inch long, immediately fired off a shot of offensive chemical from one of its rear glands. Just as it released its toxic dose, a wave of sap engulfed it, forever freezing the moment in amber and taking with it the antennae of the larger predator.

We would never know a thing about this tiny event from millions of years ago were it not for the preservative properties of amber. It starts out as sap dripping down a tree but has captured for us some of the most amazing, ancient finds in the history of fossils. Recent reports have included the discovery of the oldest bee species and even the presence of the malaria pathogen in the blood of an amber-preserved mosquito. Finds like this make amber a window into an ancient world showing us things we otherwise would never see.

Small-scale wars in a big world

The scene between the cockroach and the soldier bug would have been lost to history without the amber. But now we know that chemical warfare, today widely practiced by a variety of insect species, existed at the time of the dinosaurs. As Tyrannosaurus rex made its way across the landscape leaving its tri-toed footprints in the mud, soldier beetles were busy waging their war against killers on a much smaller scale.

Insects today employ this tactic so frequently that it featured as the central trait of the most frightful insect villain in movie history, the sulfuric-acid squirting super-killer in the Alien series. Some modern insects do actually shoot acid as a form of defense; in fact, the modern version of the soldier beetle fires off a mean shot of carboxylic acid at anything trying to eat it. Other nasty mixtures insects use today include chemicals that make the predator vomit or at least spit out the intended snack.

The amber that captured the David vs. Goliath battle between the hapless soldier beetle and its cockroach attacker was found in an amber mine in Myanmar, formerly Burma. This mine has been a treasure trove of biological finds trapped in amber, discoveries that tell us things about ancient ecosystems that we otherwise never would know.

What we do know is that this ancient species of soldier beetle liked to eat aphids, other little insects, and plant pollen, which may have been why it was on the tree in the first place. It had seven pairs of chemical-firing glands along its abdomen and was able to pick and choose which ones to use, depending on the angle of the predator. In the case of the amber-encased soldier beetle, it was employing only one gland and had actually achieved a successful shot, engulfing the predator’s antennae in the presumably noxious chemical before succumbing to the flowing sap.

Don’t crack my amber!

No one knows exactly what the chemical was because the person who owns the amber and the scientist who discovered the beetle refuse to allow eager entomologists to examine the encased remains. Many entomologists would be thrilled to extract DNA from this specimen, to be able to compare it to other sequenced ancient and modern samples. Others would like to identify what this earliest known practitioner of chemical warfare was using in those seven accurately firing glands. But to get at these samples, the entire specimen would have to be ground up and completely destroyed, something the amber’s owner, a collector of such pieces, refuses to allow.

And, for the geeks…a new dating for the soldier beetle?

As consolation, entomologists will have to accept another prize. This particular fossil pushes the dating of this species of soldier beetle back by 60 million years, newly placing the little bug squarely in the time of the dinosaurs.

Ahem. La-la-la-laaaaaa…squeak

It’s true. They can sing

Male mice can sing. They aren’t exactly sitting underneath an open window on a moonlit night, guitar in hand, crooning an evening serenade to their lady love, but apparently, they do sing for the ladies.

Very few mammals sing. In fact, until the mouse discovery, we and whales were the only verified members of the mammalian choir. Scientists knew that mice vocalize; for example, mice that are surprised or in pain can emit sounds that humans can easily hear, under 30 kHz. Newborn mice can make sounds that their mothers recognize, summoning the dams to make them warm or return them to the nest. And male mice make ultrasonic sounds, above 30 kHz, that the human ear cannot hear. Usually, males make these sounds in response to the smell of an available female.

Birds, mice, whales, people

Because humans and whales make pretty large research animals and ethical issues prevent studies with either, research into how language is learned and how the brain transmits messages about language has relied on birdsong. You may not have thought about it much, but the song a bird sings is really a song, containing repeated melody lines or syllables, and the bird can repeat it given the necessary stimulus. But birds also must learn their songs, and the birds they’re trying to attract must be able to understand them. Because of this requirement for learning, birdsong has been the model for how mammals acquire and learn language.

Birds may be catching a break now, thanks to a recent breakthrough in mouse song. Researchers examined the vocalizations of 45 male mice by placing the mice in a recording chamber. The scientists then inserted through a tube a cotton swab soaked in enough female mouse urine to convince the male to burst into song. After recording the mouse’s vocalization, the researchers manipulated the recordings to so that humans could hear them and then analyzed them using software.

Gus-Gus, is that you?

What they report is that the mice appear to be singing actual songs that contain syllables—very rapidly produced syllables at about 10 per second. In addition, the songs had phrases that the animals would repeat. The mice all seemed to have their own individual songs, and almost all 45 mice sang in response to the urine stimulus.

That mice sing at all was discovered by accident, but the finding that they do sing what appear to be genuine songs opens up a multitude of research possibilities. Among directly related questions to address, scientists must examine how females respond to these calls and whether or not different experiences in fetal development affect the song or success of the song. In addition, scientists must try to demonstrate that the songs are truly learned if the mouse is to be used as a mammalian model for mammalian communication, replacing birdsong.

OK, that’s cute, but why is it relevant?

If the mouse song is learned, the animal will become an important model for these studies. Because mice have been used for decades in genetics studies, there are hundreds of different varieties of mice with genes knocked out or knocked in, and researchers can make their own special strains to assess the effects of a particular gene on song structure or production. We may be able to use this model to identify genes directly involved in learning and communication in mammals.

Identifying these genes could lead to investigations of how developmental processes and differences result in differential learning abilities. For example, people who are autistic exhibit altered communication skills. A stronger understanding of the genetics of mammalian communication may help us to unravel the underpinnings of this aspect of autism and other communication disorders.

These findings also lead to another question that remains to be addressed: Are there other animals that sing a secret song that our ears can’t hear?

Termite toots causing global warming?

Termites to blame for global warming?

I was, um, in the bathroom at the Denver Zoo listening to the info feed the nice woman with the colonial accent was providing for folks using the facilities. The facts are all about poop and related activities, which I suppose is appropriate to the moment at hand. To add to the excretory atmosphere, the stall doors bear representations of animal hindquarters. Just letting you know that in case you ever want to stare at a close-up view of a baboon’s rear while you’re micturating. At any rate, as I was washing my hands, I heard a little tidbit about termites and greenhouse gases. The pleasant voice informed me that termites contribute a good percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, in the form of methane. Tooty little buggers, they must be.

It’s true. More methane than cows

Like most animals that survive on cellulose-based diets, termites have friendly micro-organisms that help them break down normally undigestible macromolecules. In the process, the micro-organisms produce a lot of methane gas. That gas, whether it’s in a cow or a termite, has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is out. Contrary to what some people may think, and according to the pleasant voice at the Denver Zoo, termites expel more of this stuff than cows do.

Should we blame the bacteria instead?

Actually, the helpful gut micro-organisms in termites are not all bacteria. Some are protozoans, depending on the termite species. But they’d be nothing without their hosts, so I guess we can just go ahead and blame them both. And I blame the Denver Zoo and their scatalogically oriented bathroom experience for the existence of this particular blog post.

Should we kill all the termites?

Well, that’s a terrible idea for any number of reasons, but as it turns out, it’s also not gonna help. One of the primary poisons used to knock of the wood-chewing insects happens also to be a “powerful greenhouse gas.” In addition, termites serve as a model for efficient harvesting of energy from biofuels, pulling about 90% from what they take in, compared to humanity’s sadly low success rates. So, yes, they eat our houses and expel about 15% of the methane in the atmosphere, but…they’re still better than we are at efficiently extracting energy from what they take in.

Awww. Baby red panda

It was love at first sight for Shama and Tate, the red pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, and now, nearly 1½ years after they were introduced, the pair has a cub as evidence of their strong bond. On Wednesday, June 16, Shama gave birth to a single cub—the first for both of the Zoo’s red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) and the first red panda cub born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 15 years.

Red pandas have a baby. It’s very cute.

The National Zoo is celebrating its first birth of a red panda in 15 years. The history of the red panda–at least, of its classification–is complicated. More on that in a mo. What’s significant here is its current situation. Thanks to habitat loss, the species has declined in the wild to fewer than 2500 individuals, and it is endangered. So a birth–especially between an apparently happy couple with a strong mutual attraction–is a success for the zoo and for red panda conservation, too.

The proud mother was born at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and more than 100 surviving cubs have been born at both this research facility and the Washington, D.C., campuses since 1962.

Panda or raccoon?

Taxonomists–the folks who classify organisms by relatedness–have had a conundrum on their hands with the red panda. You’d think that the name says it all: it’s a panda, right?

Well, no. Nothing’s ever that easy in taxonomy. For some time, arguments that it was a relative of the raccoon held weight. But the animal has some strong panda-like traits, including an affinity for bamboo and similar habitats to the giant panda. But they differ in their far more diverse diet and greater habitat distribution.

The panda’s thumb

The giant panda has a faux thumb that’s really just a bone extension of the wrist bones. It’s not an opposable thumb like the one primates have, but the giant panda uses it in a thumb-like way. The red panda happens to share this odd trait. They also share many similarities in their DNA, which ended in the red panda briefly joining the bear family.

So, is it a panda or a raccoon?

The species also has some commonalities with the raccoon, including the ringed tail and more diverse diet compared to the giant panda, one that includes a taste for bird eggs. For these reasons, it also has been classified into the raccoon family. So, which family is it?

It’s neither. While the red panda has now been classified as a distant relative of the giant panda–the bamboo! the “thumb”!–it falls into its very own family, the Ailuridae, of which the red panda, or Ailurus fulgens, is the sole member. Unlike bears, this species arose in Asia and never made the trek to the “new world.”

Interesting note, the snow leopard–another severely endangered species–is their sole wild predator.

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