It’s a blob. It’s an animal. It’s Trichoplax

The irresistibly attractive Trichoplax. Oliver Voigt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Timeline, 2008: One of the greatest quests in animal biology is the search for the “ur-animal,” the proto-creature that lies at the base of the animal family tree. For many years, the sponge held the low spot as most primitive animal, a relatively simple cousin of ours consisting of a few tissues and a tube that filters water for nutrients.

An animal, simple and alone

Research now suggests, however, that there’s an even older cousin at the base of the tree, an animal-like organism with three cell layers and four cell types that moves by undulating and exists alone in its own taxon. This organism, with the species name Trichoplax adhaerens, is the sole living representative of the Placozoa, or “flat animals.” It has been a bit of a mystery creature ever since the amoeba-like things were first noted a century ago in a German aquarium. Today, new techniques in systematics, the study of how living things are related, have helped pinpoint its place on the tree of life. These techniques have, however, left us with a few complex questions about this “simple” animal.

The animal kingdom family tree gets complex fast, with an early division in the trunk. Whatever lies at its base—and we’re still not sure what the organism was—that ancestor yielded two basic animal lineages. One led to sponges (Porifera) and branched to Cnidarians—corals, hydras, and organisms like jellies that have primitive nervous systems. The other lineage is the Bilateria, which includes everything from flatworms to bugs to beluga whales to us. Obviously, this lineage also has developed a nervous system, in many cases one that is quite complex.

Why a sponge will never be nervous

Earlier thinking was that the sponges, in lacking a nervous system, represented some earliest ancestor from which the two lineages sprang. But recent molecular analysis of the sponge and placozoan genomes has left a few systematists scratching their heads. The big headline was that the sea sponge was no longer the most primitive or oldest taxon. That honor may now belong to the placozoan, although some analyses place it as having evolved after Porifera.

An ur-animal? Or just another ur-cousin?

It may go a ways back, but it’s not so far that scientists can say that T. adharens is the “ur-animal,” or “mother of all animals.” In fact, it appears to share a few things in common with Bilateria, such as special protein junctions for holding tissues together, but computer analysis places it squarely in the Cnidaria branch of the animal family tree. Thus, this “weird, wee beastie,” while possibly older than the sponge, is still not the proto-ancestral animal condition. Rather than being the “ur-animal” from which all other animals sprang, it’s more like an “ur-cousin” of Bilateria.

Nervous system genes but no nervous system?

T. adhaerens also represents another conundrum for evolutionary biologists and systematists. It and the sponge both carry coding in their genomes for neural proteins, yet neither have nervous systems. The Cnidarian nervous system itself may have evolved parallel to that of the Bilateria, an evolutionary phenomenon known as “convergent evolution.” When evolutionary processes occur in parallel, unrelated species may share adaptations—such as a nervous system—because of similar selection pressures. The results are what we call “analogous structures,” which have similar functions and may even seem quite similar. But they are shared because of similar evolutionary pressures, not because of a common ancestry.

Lost traits make evolutionary biologists tear out their hair

The primitive placozoan does not have a nervous system, although organisms that arose later in the Cnidarian lineage, such as jellies, do. Yet those neural genes in its genome leave an open question and a continuing debate: Is the placozoan an example of another common evolutionary phenomenon in which a trait arises, but then is lost? Some scientists have suggested that there may have been an even older version of a nervous system, predating the Cnidarian/Bilateria split. This trait then vanished, leaving behind only these traces in the primitive placozoan and sponge genomes. With this scenario, the two nervous systems would have a shared ancestry: instead of being analogous traits resulting from convergent evolution, they would represent homologous traits, shared because of a common neural ancestry.

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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.

Leeches model reproductive behavior

No, not that kind of modeling.

Leeches have a bad reputation because they dine on blood. Even forgetting for the moment such human-designed culinary delicacies as blood pudding or blood sausage, let’s just say that sucking blood does not necessarily an incubus make.

Not just blood-sucking boneless terrors

In fact, leeches have recently made a comeback in the shape–the slimy, creepy shape–of their use as medical therapy. Their former role was to suck bad humors from the body. Today, with our improved understanding of molecular biology and relegation of humor to Jon Stewart, leeches serve a different purpose. Pracititioners encountering venous insufficiency and premature clotting during certain surgeries can apply leeches–and their salivary anti-clotting factors–locally to address the problem. By the way, the medicinal use of leeches–which has a history stretching back for milliennia–is called hirudotherapy.

Model leeches

And leeches also make an oxytocin-related hormone called hirudotocin that plays a role in their reproductive behavior. A reproductively aroused leech, it seems, undergoes a maneuver that involves a sloooow, five-minute rotation of its body. The rotation results in alignment of reproductive pores with complementary pores on a presumably adjacent partner.

Animal behavior results, at its core, from an interaction of hormones and the nervous system. But linking the two directly and assessing the influence of hormones on nerves has proved elusive in more complex animals. Leeches, though, have a nervous system more basic than a mosquito’s. And an injection of hirudotocin yields leech reproductive rotation within minutes, accompanied by a leechy mouthing of the potential reproductive partner. In the world of animal behavior research, this is exciting stuff.

Sliced leech anyone?

To track the effects of this hormone through the animal’s nervous system, researchers at Caltech and UCSD examined nervous response to hirudotocin in slices of leech. Then, they did the ultimate direct assessment, removing all of the leech except the nervous system. This approach allowed them to trace directly the activation of the nervous sytem that led to the corkscrewing muscle movements of leech reproductive behavior.

Their next step will be to use voltage-sensitive dyes to detect electrical nerve signals along these paths to see which ones are involved in maintaining the behavior. They may not be drawing out bad humors any more, but leeches are certainly doing their part in helping us tease out the links between hormones and behavior.

For your consideration

Why is it so difficult to link a hormone and a behavior, especially in vertebrates?

This article says that animal behavior is a manifestation of the interaction of hormones and the nervous system. Can you think of some other examples of this interaction?

Animals are not the only organisms that use hormones. Plants do, too, but they lack a nervous system. Identify some plant hormones and determine what plant systems they influence.

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