Its been some while since I posted an article on parasitic nematode worms. So, in response to almost no demand, here’s another article, on another, equally if not more so nasty, nematode worm which can, quite easily, turn your life into hell.

Onchocerca volvulus is possibly one of the more unpleasant worms out there. Its a species found in the Nematode phyla, that group of worms that live almost anywhere. Unfortunately, where O. volvulus prefers to live is inside people.

Like many parasites, the life cycle of this worm takes several stages. The bite of (usually) a fly found in the Simuliidae order of flies transmits the larvae to the host. The larvae then burrow through the flesh (which is a term which has never, ever been heard in a good context) and mature into adults into the subcutaneous tissue. A thick, collagen-rich nodule then forms around the adults, and, usually, the adults themselves do not cause much trouble, even though they can live beneath the skin for up to fifteen years, which top experts agree is fifteen years too long for a parasitic worm to be living underneath your skin. (Weirdly, I’ve been unable, to find any evidence on what the worms live on whilst living in your body; but presumably they feed on you in some way.)

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To be honest, I’m actually perhaps not knowing exactly how it feeds. (Image via Wikimedia)

The problem comes when the worms reproduce. The males wriggle through the subcutaneous tissue until they encounter one of the larger females. They mate, and then the female can produce up to 3000 larvae (technically microfilariae ) per day. (The number varies a lot depending on which source you look at, and whether they are counting total produced or total released into the host. Ed.) And, to spread to a new host, these larvae must be taken up when the Black Fly takes another blood meal. So they migrate upward, and a few of them will be taken up by the Black Fly when it next bites. They will then mature into the second larval form whilst in the fly’s gut, and then, when the fly bites another human, the larvae enter the bloodstream and the whole appalling cycle begins again.

The problem comes when the larvae don’t get taken up – and as each female can be producing 3000 microfilariae a day, there can be quite a few which are not taken up. The larvae live for just under two years, and then they die. And, ironically enough, its only when they die that the infected person’s problems really start. Similar to a really severe allergic reaction, the host’s own immune system swings into action as it detects the foreign objects within the body. What drives the severity of symptoms seems to be a) the ‘strain’ of O. volvulus you’re infected with (the ‘Savannah’ strain is, apparently, the most virulent one) and b) the characteristics of your own immune system, where a stronger immune system response leads to worsening symptoms. Weirdly, the amount of parasites inside you doesn’t appear to have much much of an effect – indeed, many people who are worst affected actually have low parasite loads compared with people with less severe symptoms. Possibly, an immune system which reacts more strongly to the parasite will kill off more of them…leading to more dead microfilariae and thus exasperating the immune response.

(There’s actually quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Wolbachia, one of the stranger symbiotic bacteria out there, doing everything from feminising male arthropod offspring to straight up killing them, is also involved. It appears that this bacteria is present in all worms, at all stages of the life cycle, and worms that have had these symbionts remove reproduce less and cause a lower immune system response inside humans. Additionally, the Savannah strain appears to have higher levels of Wolbachia in it, which could explain why this strain of the disease is more severe and more likely to lead to blindness. Ed.)

So what are these symptoms? Well, they vary considerably. Some people don’t get anything.

And then again, some people do. Itching is common; but the word ‘itching’ doesn’t really give the right impression. Think of it more as an overall burning feeling; which isn’t relieved no matter what you do, caused by your own body’s reaction to dead nematode larvae inside you. Its so bad that, frequently, people can’t get to sleep and children’s schooling is ruined as they simply can’t concentrate. It drives people to some pretty desperate measures.

Plantation workers heat up machetes until they glow red hot and press them against their bodies, whilst other people have tried pouring boiling water over themselves to get some relief. Others end up scratching themselves so badly they they bleed and become vulnerable to infection; or smash clay pots and scratch themselves with the shards. Reportedly, some people have even committed suicide over the constant itching.

This would be rather nightmarish on its own, but sadly the itching is only scratching the surface (really dude? REALLY? Ed.) of it. Depending on the severity, you can acquire a wide range of unpleasant skin diseases. These range from slight swellings of the skin, to loss or gain of pigmentation (sometimes called leopard skin), skin roughness and crustiness (also sometimes called ‘lizard skin’), the skin loosing elasticity and hanging loose from the body, leading to comparisons with cigarette or tissue paper, as well as the condition ‘hanging groin’, which frankly I do not want to think about too closely. Whilst this is certainly unpleasant on its own, it also leaves you more vulnerable to other infections, as well as, of course, leading to all the social problems which come with having a severe skin deformity.

Oh, and you can also go blind.

Yes, I probably should have started with that.

You see, the larvae are not just present in the skin – they can also migrate into the eyeball, because having worms in just your skin isn’t horrible enough, apparently. Once there, they can die, resulting in inflammation. Initially, this is temporary, but as time goes on, this inflammation leads to a loss of vision, and finally, complete and irreversible blindness. Currently, some thirty five million people are thought to be infected, and 300,000 have been permanently blinded by the disease, with another 500,000 suffering some visual impairment.

O. volvulus is mostly found in Sub-Saharan Africa, making it easily the regions 429th most pressing issue. Due to other, even worse issues facing many countries in that area, getting rid of it is not exactly easy.

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Many of the countries featured here also feature on the Foreign Office list of countries it suggests you do not travel to. 

 

Currently, the most successful treatment is Ivermectin, which doesn’t kill the adults but does cause them to stop releasing larvae, as well as actually killing the larvae themselves. In a slightly heartwarming revelation, because by this point in the article you probably need one, this drug is provided free by Merck, one of the world’s largest drugs companies.

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Now, I appreciate the title is alarmist.

So let me be clear.

The creature we’re going to talk about today could be a perfectly normal slug. Or, alternatively, it could be some horror from a dark, festering corner of the Universe, sent to punish Man for his sins.

There is no explicit evidence that these coldly intelligent and utterly foul organisms, lacking all emotions save for hate, seeped down from the stars and are now working to scour humanity from the globe in a storm of blood and horror, before raising black and hideous temples to their forsaken and unknowable Gods. It would be speculation, not fact, to state that these organisms have already infiltrated our society, and are working, even as you read these very words, to not just destroy but expunge everything that we hold dear, and keep us alive only so that we might experience the utter despair of seeing our own precious world usurped by these loathsome creatures and knowing that all resistance is fruitless. Some scientists might even say there is currently not enough information to decide, one way or the other, whether these are simple slugs or, instead, manifestations in our reality of ancient and loathsome minds, harking from some malignant orb shrouded in misery and rotting with the forbidden relics of long dead yet still conscious alien Gods, the mere names of which would send any mortal man fleeing into the sanctuary of madness.

 

So, let’s review the evidence, for ourselves…before it is too late.

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Hopefully, lightning flashed just as you read those words. (Image from blogs.murdoch.edu.au)

Slugs, as you might know, are gastropods, which themselves are found within the phylum mollusca. Molluscs are, morphologically, one of the most diverse phyla, and include everything from slugs and snails, to squid, octopods [NOT Octopi – Ed.] and chitons.

Gastropods themselves consist of over 60,000 species, and are found in both marine and terrestrial environments. (We’ve already covered the lethally poisonous cone snails). The ghost slug, by contrast, is wholly terrestrial.

Both, however, are slightly odd, in that they are both carnivorous.

 

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And neither paritucarly look like it, either. (Image via Markgtelfer.co.uk)

The Ghost Slug’s formal name is Selenochlamys ysbryda and is one of only two animals in its genus, the other being S. pallida. ‘Ysbryda‘ is, in fact, slightly appropriate, as it is Welsh for ‘ghost’ – which, considering its nocturnal habit and its ghostly white colour, is somewhat appropriate. Additionally, it was only formally described in 2008 by biologists. Previously, one had been caught in 2003, but the discovers failed to fully recognise the significance of their find and, thinking it was a juvenile, attempted to raise it to maturity until, in their own words “It died two months later [and] the gut and gonad had everted through the anus, discouraging us from further investigation”, which is frankly a good reason to stop investigating something. This specimen was found in an actual, abandoned graveyard. The authors did not specify whether they found evidence of an unholy ritual performed by deluded cultists unaware of the true nature of what they were calling up.

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The exact type of slug you’d expect to see in a graveyard. (Image from BBC)

Eyeless, little is actually known about these slugs, because they are subterranean and so their appearances on the surface might be a rather rare occurrence, so for all you know there could be millions of them burrowing underneath your house at this very moment.

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Logically, if anything, it should make an animal less creepy. But no eyes actually just makes it worse. (Image from museumwales.ac.uk) 

What we do know is that they are predators. Their radula (a ribbon like structure, lined with ‘teeth’, found in most molluscs and functioning as a combination of tongue and tooth) are much sharper than those of herbivorous slugs, enabling them to quickly eat earthworms, rapidly rasping away at their flesh. So far as I can tell, little is known of how they reproduce. (Most slugs are hermaphrodites, and during mating both slugs will fertilise the other. If you wish to learn more about slug reproduction – and really, who am I to judge? – just remember it does involve phrases like ‘intertwined penises’ and ‘external sperm transfer’ and, in some slugs, such as the banana slug, ‘apophallation’ – otherwise known as ‘biting off the penis because it got stuck in the other slug’.)

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“I hate my job” – the NSA agent who monitors this blog. (Image from Infinitespider.com)

Despite being found in Wales, its thought that the species originated in the Crimea, as several specimens have been found there. Additionally, specimens of S. pallida are found in the relatively nearby Caucasus mountains, suggesting that the slugs originated/fell to Earth here and were then introduced to Wales, either accidentally or as part as some malevolent plan by a sinister aristocrat who has no idea of the true nature of his paymasters. Given our admittedly highly prejudiced lack of knowledge about geography, we do feel that, if anything alien is to arrive on Earth, arriving in the Caucasus mountains, rather than, say, Blackpool, does show a sense of the theatrical we can admire.

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In fairness, even  abominations have standards

So that’s it. Christmas is over for another year. I hope you all go the presents you wanted, there were no family arguments, and that, depending on exactly which Christmas traditions you follow, the Offering to the Monolith went smoothly and you did not forget any chants.

 

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Seriously, for your sake, I hope you did not forget. The Monolith is not forgiving. 

Now, the animal we’ll be discussing this time is a deep sea dwelling worm that feeds on the rotting bones of once majestic whales. The link to Christmas is, I think, pretty obvious.

Christmas Fireplace

If you can see the link between Christmas and bone eating worms, you should probably be on some kind of medication. 

Osedax worms were only discovered in 2002 as part of science’s commitment to continually probe the dark corners of the world and see that which should not be seen. Consisting of eleven described species, including the wonderfully named Osedax mucofloris (which roughly translates from the Greek and Latin to ‘snot flower bone eater’ or ‘bone eating snot flower’) the Osedax worms live on whale fall.

O. frankpressi - whale-fall worm

The pinkish tentacles are the gills, and the green bits are the bacteria filled ‘roots’ of the worm that enter the bone. The screaming skull is, of course, simply a trapped damned spirit. (Image from mbari.org)

‘Whale fall’ is exactly what is sounds like. The seabed, assuming limited light reaches it and it is far from shore, is often nutrient and energy limited (aside from some unusual occurrences like the ecosystems found around hydrothermal vents). Far from shore, on the seabed, all of the nutrients and energy come, ultimately, from above, in the form of either prey or organic remains slowly sinking – what is called ‘marine snow’, as presumably ‘the soft fall of dead matter’, whilst more accurate, isn’t quite as catchy. Therefore, generally life on the seabed is rather less biodiverse than, for example, life on the shoreline, in a shallow seabed, or a coral reef. There simply are not enough resources available to support large, complex ecosystems.

This all changes when a whale dies. Whales, as you hopefully know, are big animals, and so full of nutrients and energy. A bit like an oasis in a desert, a dead whale provides enough resources to allow a thriving community to develop, feeding off the whale. Slightly unlike an oasis, the vast majority of these organisms are horrifying.

Osedax is no exception. It feeds on the whale bone, and pictures of dead whale carcasses show a writhing mass of red, 1 cm long worms covering them, which somehow makes a gigantic, rotting skeleton at the bottom of the abyss worse. They don’t have any eyes – they don’t need them – and also they have no mouths. Instead, they absorb a slurry of lipids and nutrients, obtained as bacteria break down the whale bones. The worms help with this by boring into the bones and creating a network of miniature tunnels. They don’t do this with teeth, though – instead, the secrete acids strong enough to melt through bone. Like many other polychaete worms, they have large, colourful feathery plumes which act as gills.

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Image from chess.myspecies.info. Worms on a whale bone.

Most scientists think eleven species in an understatement – these worms are found at a range of depths, from twenty five to thirty thousand metres and often occupy quite broad ranges in depths – O. roseus, for example, has a depth range of at least twelve hundred metres, as well as being found across the world. At any one time, there are thought to be nearly seven hundred thousand whale carcasses on the seabed – so despite the seabed being a fairly large place, there are enough carcasses to support large populations of Osedax worms.

Since Osedax worms are prolific breeders (a female O. rubiplumus can produce over three hundred eggs a day) the Osedax spread from carcass to carcass by simply producing huge numbers of offspring. These larvae float through the water and can survive for around two weeks, feeding from a small yolk sac attached to their bodies. The vast majority will never find a new home, but a lucky one may encounter another whale bone and start the cycle all over again. Curiously, the sex of Osedax worms does not seem to be determined at birth. The males are generally much smaller than the females and live inside the musuc tube that surrounds the female worm – each female might support several hundred males. Its thought that larvae which land on another Osedax worm (of the same species) become males. The one exception to this might be O. priapus, which has males and females of the same size. Since the males aren’t conveniently attached to the females they can extent to up to ten times their normal length to find (or, as this paper put it rather wonderfully, ‘roam across the bone’) and mate with a female.

And it isn’t just dead whales they feed on. Boring by Osedax worms cause readily identifiable patterns in bones. Such patterns have been seen in plesiosaur fossils dating back over 100 million years, to the early Cretaceous period. Molecular evidence suggests that these worms either originated around 40-45 million years ago, or much earlier, possibly in the late Jurassic or early Cretaceous*. After the KT mass extinction 65 million years ago, its thought these worms subsisted on giant turtles, until the whales and other cetaeans evolved and spread throughout the oceans, dramatically expanding the food supply of the Osedax worms and allowing them to speciate. They can also survive on bird bones and, in an experiment, they thrived on the bones of a deer, so it appears they aren’t too fussy.

 

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So long as its bone, they’re happy. (Image from deepseanews.com)

 

In theory, they’d be perfectly happy munching away at the bones of, say, a reindeer, that fell out of the sky and into the middle of the ocean one December night…

And there you have it. There is, indeed, a link between a bone eating snot flower at the bottom of the ocean, and Christmas.

 

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Truly, it is a Christmas miracle. 

*If you’re wondering why there’s such a gap between these estimates, its almost certain there was a radiation of Osedax species around 40 million years ago, which could have made determining the age of this species harder.

Super-shrimp (are actually A Thing)

Posted: September 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

Sometimes, it seems like evolution just isn’t fair.

This is, of course, because evolution is a blind process driven by random chance, but still, the point stands. Evolution has hardly distributed her gifts equally. Some species got nothing more than the ability to survive by doing something horribly foul, usually inside an intestinal tract, whilst others…well, others more or less got it all. Like that one friend/person we’d all like to see die horribly we all have, who competes regularly in some extremely demanding sport. And is the smartest person you know. And has a high paying job. And is constantly going on holiday to attractive places with attractive people. And, just to put the cherry on it, is so damn likeable and self effacing that you can’t even have the satisfaction of hating them.

Mantis Shrimps (found in the order Stomatopoda, although all living ones are found in the sub-order Unipeltata) consist of 400 species and somewhat resemble the above friend. Minus the ‘likeable’ bit, but, as you’ll see, when you’re the Mantis Shrimp you don’t need ‘friends’. Not when you’re a foot long crustacean, living in a burrow in the sea bed, and able to kill things many times your size just by punching or stabbing. 

So its okay to hate them, I guess, if hating multi-coloured crustaceans is your thing. (Mantis shrimp is Odontodactylus scyllarus, image is from Wikimedia Commons).

They feed on marine invertebrates, and sometimes smaller fish. Depending on which food source they feed on, they can be divided into either ‘spearers’ or ‘smashers’. Both, however, use the same underlying hunting technique, which to give it is technical term is known as ‘punching the hell out of it’. The forelimbs of the shrimp terminate in a hard ‘tip’ called the dactyl – ‘smashers’ have a ball shaped dactyl whilst ‘spearers’ have a sharp, pointy dactyl.

Have a guess for yourself which one belongs to a ‘Smasher’ and which one to a ‘Spearer’. First correct answer wins 10,000 points! (Points are not redeemable in any nation and possession is an act of terrorism in Germany). Image from http://nirmukta.com/2014/01/27/into-the-world-of-mantis-shrimps/

The Peacock Mantis Shrimp, aka Odontodactylus scyllarus, strikes with a speed of 14 – 23 metres per second – which is rather impressive, all the more so when you realise the shrimp is doing this whilst underwater. The vast majority of you will grasp the key point here instantly, but for the small minority of this blog’s readers who don’t regularly attend illegal undersea fighting pits, its a lot harder to throw a punch in water than on land, owing to all the…well, water. In fact, just two and a half metres of water can shot a round fired from a handgun, and higher velocity rounds (fired from a sniper rifle, for instance) tend to disintegrate.

So we do not really recommend a large scale assault on the world’s oceans to destroy the Mantis Shrimp.

The mantis shrimp throws this punch in under three thousandsths of a second. This sort of strength comes from a very large amount of energy released very quickly – in fact, much quicker than would be possible if the strike was mostly driven by muscle power.

Especially your muscle power, puny human. (Image is from Wikimedia Commons, the shrimp is the wonderfully named ‘Pink Eared Mantis Shrimp, aka Odontodactylus latirostris.

Instead, what appears to happen is that the shrimp uses its muscles to prime a spring like mechanism inside its arm. A ratchet locks the arm firmly in place, to prevent the arm extending before the time is right. The large muscles in the upper arm then contract and build up energy over time. Furthermore, a saddle shaped piece of chitin is compressed as this happens. When the arm is released, the saddle expands, and the whole arm moves forward incredibly quickly – so quickly, in face, that one of the researchers had to borrow specialised high speed cameras to actually capture the movement in the first place. Its a bit like us slowly drawing an elastic band back, putting energy in over time and then letting go of it so the elastic band flies forward rather quickly, all the energy released at once, but approximately 30,000,000 times more impressive.

Obviously, this results in a very powerful punch – one which has been compared to a rifle bullet. Interestingly, in the case of ‘smashers’, the damage actually comes from two sources. First (rather obviously) is the damage caused by the actual punch itself. Secondly, however, is the force caused by the collapse of a ‘cavitation’ bubble. Since the dactyl moves so quickly through the water, areas of extremely low pressure are created. When these small bubbles collapse, even more energy is released, acting as a second punch which is normally about as half as powerful as the first, but on occasion can be three times as strong. Normally, cavitation damage is something designers of high speed boats and the like have to deal with, but the Mantis Shrimp not only create cavitation bubbles, they use them to their advantage.

The collapse of the cavitation bubbles can cause sonoluminiscence – the emission of tiny, brief (as in, thirty five to a few hundred trillionths of a second long) flashes of light by a mechanism scientists don’t yet understand, but might involve the rather awesomely named Bremsstrahlung radiation. Inside the cavitation bubbles it is thought that the temperature could rise higher than the surface of the sun (5, 500 or so degrees centigrade) – although since the bubbles are, by this point, very small, the mantis shrimp gets its food already tenderised, but not cooked.

Although perhaps if you got several thousand mantis shrimp, and set them all to punching each other….(Shrimp is Gonodactylus smithii, image is from Wikimedia Commons)

Mantis shrimp are terrifying in other ways. Because many of them are punching so fast, you might think their dactyls would soon disintegrate. However, the limp is designed to prevent this happening. Right at the front of the dactyl are hydroxyapatite crystals (the same material which makes up our own skeletons) carefully aligned into columns.

The formation as a whole allows this region to withstand a lot of pressure – much more than silicon carbide or zirconia, which are created at temperatures of 1500 degrees centigrade and used for extremely high end engineering. Behind this region are layers of chitin, each slightly rotated from the one above it (resulting in a sort of spiral structure) with the space in between the layers filled with minerals. The entire structure is designed to stop cracks from growing. Its possible that in the future things like body armour might be made with designs inspired by the mantis shrimp, which might make the eventual war against the Shrimp-Men more winnable.

Unlike most of the Mantis Shrimp featured here, Lysiosquilla tredecimdentata is both sensibly coloured and a ‘Spearer’. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

And that’s before we start to talk about their eyes; which many people tend to understandably overlook in favour of the whole ‘superstrong punch’ thing.

They have 16 types of photoreceptor in their eyes (as opposed to our four – the three times of ‘cones’ which sense colour and the ‘rods’ that merely sense the presence or absence of light). What’s more, they have transparent filters in front of their eyes, meaning that different optical cells, containing the same type of visual pigment*, are fine tuned to different wavelengths of light – which, by the way, includes ultra-violet light, which humans can’t see.

Seeing in the UV range of the spectrum certainly comes in handy for the Mantis Shrimp – whilst the brightly coloured prey might be hard to see amidst the brightly coloured coral, many animals (not just British people on holiday) absorb UV – thus, they’d show up a nice, clear black against the brightly coloured background.

Even stranger is the fact that the filters sometimes vary in composition, so different Mantis Shrimp have different sensitivities to different wavelengths of light. Long wavelengths of light (which have weaker energy) are weakened more by water than shorter wavelengths – almost no red light, for instance, penetrates far into the sea. So, if you wanted to make your vision the best it can possibly be, you’d want to be more sensitive to red light in shallower water, and more sensitive to shorter wavelengths deeper down. However, what if you, like Haptosquilla trispinosa, live at a range of depths? In the case of this shrimp, the filters actually change depending on what the light was like during infancy – so if you were raised in light levels similar to that of shallow waters, you’ll grow up with filters suitable for shallow water, and vice versa. At this point, the fact that Mantis Shrimp can detect the polarisation (the direction on which light waves vibrate – e.g. up-to-down or side-to-side) of light comes as no surprise – but not only can they detect linear polarisation, like most crustaceans, they can detect circular polarisation as well.

Being able to detect the polarisation of light is likely to be helpful to the Mantis Shrimp, since some of its prey may either reflect light, or be transparent, (very hard to see in any case) but will change the polarisation of light, making themselves visible and vulnerable to a sudden strike. Since cancerous tumours reflect polarised light differently from healthy tissue, there’s talk of examining their eyes in much more detail to try and inspire a camera that could quickly detect cancer.

And if ou looked as awesome as this shrimp, you’d want super vision too, just to make for more efficient self-admiration. (via http://www.factzoo.com)

About the only consolation is that the Mantis Shrimp, despite having 12 photo-receptors geared to detect colour, compared to our measly 3, they don’t see a whole rainbow of colours that we cannot. Rather, it appears that each photoreceptor is specialised to detect a specific colour, but their brain is rather less efficicient than ours at combining information from different colour receptors to form an overall colour – which makes sense, given that their brains are a fraction of the size of ours.

And just to top it all off, they look amazing.

Creationists maintain Mantis Shrimps evolved during the 60s, a theory yet to be utterly disproved. (Image via http://www.aqua.org)/

* The literature appears slightly conflicted; this source states Mantis Shrimp have 16 photoreceptors, of which six detect UV but due to filters some photoreceptors use the same visual pigment, whilst this older paper simply states Mantis Shrimp have up to 16 visual pigments. This source says that mantis shrimp have 12 colour photoreceptors. Since 12 + 6 doesn’t give 16, its possible that either different species have different configurations of photoreceptors, or that there is overlap (e.g. some of the photoreceptors can detect both UV and colour) – Ed.

This blog will be much like the others – a bit shorter than usual, maybe, but thats partially because so little is known about the creature we’ll be meeting today. There will be some words, and some pictures. I’ll probably insult the population of some small but, as it turns out, very patriotic nation, and I shall have to learn the local lingo for ‘I’m so sorry’.

Aš atsiprašau , Lietuva. Jūs vaikinai yra kietas tikrai . (That’s via google translate. Have fun.)

Really the only difference is in the animal we’ll be talking about today, which was introduced to me by a friend, who I am choosing not to name. When you see what it looks like, you’ll understand why I’m slightly hesistant about naming the friend – for behold, Atretochoana eiselti.

This is the most bullied animal in all Creation [citation needed]. Image source is at the bottom of the page

Now, I see nothing at all strange about that animal’s appearance as well. And since you are a mture, responsible individual, neither do you. Others, however, with less restraint, have dubbed this the ‘Penis Snake’. After very, very, very, very, very careful Googling I’ve discovered that these dubbers are inaccurate, for it is not a snake at all, but rather an amphibian. Specifically, it is a caecillian, which we have met before – specifically, in the context of awful, awful amphibians that munch at their own mothers skin.

This paticular type lives in Brazil and grows to almost a metre in length, and with that, we’ve exhausted most of what we know about it. It was first discovered in a time historians have precisely located to ‘damned if we know, but probably in the late nineteenth century’. Then, it was mistakenly identified as another species of caeillian, and it spent most of the rest of twentieth century being as ignored as a large, metre long wormy amphibian that looks like something a bored teenager would scrawl over his textbook can be.

However, in the late 1990s scientists decided to actually have a look at this thing, and they discovered several odd things about it – most notably, the fact that it has no lungs.

Ask not “How does it breath” but rather “Why. Oh dear God, why?”. Nah, I’ll stop picking on them. Compared to some animals on here, these guys are chill.

This isn’t quite as rare among vertebrates as you might think – the largest order of salamanders, for example, are completely lungless – but it is still pretty rare. (Why would you lose lungs? Well, one theory is that if you do live in fast flowing water, lungs might hamper your movement by basically acting as unwanted buoyancy). Breathing through the skin efficiently generally requires one to be submerged in fast moving water in order to aquire enough oxygen. Previously, one other species of caellian ( Caecilita iwokramae) was thought to be lungless, but later on scientists realised it did actually have one well developed lung. Which, frankly, is something you’d hope a scientist would pick up on a bit earlier. Its the sort of thing you’d hope a man with lots of letters after his name would pick up on.

Or a woman with some letters after her name. We’re not prejudiced here, certainly not when the woman in question has a scalpel and knows how to use it.

Well, A. eiselti does indeed live in water, and appears to be spread over quite a large area of the Amazon (about 2000 km apart). But rather than living in clear, fresh, fast running, cold water the amphibian instead lives in muddy, warm water, which has led scientists to ask, basically, how the hell this thing gets enough oxygen into its body to survive. The fact it is long and narrow, with blood vessels only 2-3 cells deep within the epidermis, probably helps, but so far there’s no clear answer.

In fairness, if ‘scientific mystery’ can be applied to any animal, it should be one which looks like this.

Oh, and one more thing. In addition to being mysterious, very big, and evidently in a pact with some demon allowing it to breath where it should not, it also has, according to scientists, a very large number of teeth.

Basically, everything in this particular blogpost was stolen from Hoogmoed et al, Discovery of the largest lungless tetrapod, Atretochoana eiselti (Taylor, 1968) (Amphibia: Gymnophiona: Typhlonectidae), in its natural habitat in Brazilian Amazonia – and they’re the source of all the images too. Thanks guys. Ed. 

I’m going to take a gamble here, and suggest that most of you reading this have never spared aphids that much thought. At a guess, you might be aware of them in one of two ways.

1) They are the things that gardeners do not like

2) They get eaten by ladybirds, which is why we like ladybirds.

In fairness, they don’t think of us much either, so don’t feel too bad. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, obviously, some people know a lot more about them but this, but such people are too busy using microscopes, wearing labcoats, and holding test tubes of bubbling green fluid up to the light and going “hmmm” to read this blog. So, in order to educate the general public more about aphids, and as yet another part of my overall mission to convince everyone that everything in nature is secretly absolutely awful, I have collected some facts about aphids that will make you appreciate them as something more than just bug food.

And by ‘appreciate’, I of course mean ‘recoil from in mild disgust’.

The first thing you should know about aphids is that there are a lot of them – some 4,400 species are known to exist. All are present in the family of insects known, surprisingly enough, as Aphididae. 4400 is also the name of a science fiction show I dimly remember from my childhood. Donning my tinfoil hat, I can state with certainty there is some diabolical and mysterious connection between these two facts. Of these, about 250 species are annoying enough to humans, in terms of destroying our plants, to be classed as ‘economically important’. Aphids are ‘true bugs’, members of the Hemiptera family, which we last saw wearing the desiccated corpses of ants and giving Charles Darwin chronic diseases. Slightly more scientifically, their mouthparts are modified so that they pierce their food and then suck up whatever fluid they feed on. In the case of aphids, this is mostly phloem fluid – plant sap, basically. This causes damage in two ways. Firstly, the plant loses important sugars and nutrients. Secondly, aphids are excellent viral vectors – its thought that some 275 plant viruses, many with names like Yellow Dwarf Virus and Tobacco Mosaic Virus – are transmitted by aphids; in a similar way to how blood born diseases are transmitted by sharing needles.

And for God’s sake don’t inject yourself with aphids. (Image credit: University of Minnesota),

Aphids can reproduce phenomenally fast, thanks in part to their reproductive cycles, which typically include elements of both asexual and sexual reproduction. Most species can reproduce asexually, so for a time the entire population will consist of females, all busily cloning themselves. Despite the fact that aphids are attacked by everything from parasitic fungi to ladybirds (one of which can eat 5000 aphids during their lifetime, according to this admittedly slightly biased source) to wasps which paralyse the aphid and then lay their eggs inside them, such a reproductive strategy means that, when times are good, the aphid population soars. One estimate stated that, if aphid reproduction was utterly unchecked, the aphid population within one year would be enough to cover the entire surface of the world to a depth of 150 km, suffocating all of man’s works beneath a mass of writhing, insect flesh. Only when conditions become less than optimal do males appear, presumably to allow sexual reproduction and thus increase genetic diversity.

“If you want an image of the future, Winston, imagine aphids, absolutely everywhere”. Image credit: Kent state university

What makes aphid reproduction truly weird, though, are ‘telescoping generations’. Basically, when a female aphid is pregnant, her offspring is developing inside her. That’s fair enough, its what happens in most humans, assuming, of course, you are actually human and not a vat grown android placed with unsuspecting human parents on the orders of the Shadow Government; ready to activate and commit unspeakable atrocities when a code word is broadcast over the television. But aphids are different; as another aphid is developing inside the daughter. So, basically, an aphid is born pregnant; and a mother will give birth to her granddaughter who is developing inside her daughter, who is also her identical twin sister, which, if nothing else, has the potential to cause really tense family arguments.

“So are you my mother, my daughter, my sister, my grandmother, or me?” Image credit: University of Minnesota

So, aphids have admittedly strange sex lives. But don’t we – I mean, err, a friend – all have weird sex lives? And amongst the invertebrates, where strategies like laying your eggs inside the living flesh of another animal are sadly all too common, a simple strategy like cloning yourself to produce an already pregnant granddaughter frankly comes as something of a relief. But where aphids may stand out is that they – maybe – trick plants.

Well, that’s what the evidence sort-of suggests, anyway. Briefly put, there are two main defence pathways in plants – one initiated by jasmonic acid, the other by salicylic acid. This makes sense – after all, if a plant is attacked by a fungus, the defence response needed will be different to if it got attacked by a virus, which in turn would be different if the Very Hungry Caterpillar turned up. Generally, bacteria and other pathogens tend to trigger a salicylic acid response, whilst animal attacks generally trigger a jasmonic acid response. Now, as you will hopefully be aware, aphids are insects, which are animals, which is why you are reading this on Horrific Animals of the World and not Horrific Bacteria of the World, Horrific Fungi of the world or, for that matter, A short history of Armenian Military Support of the Breakaway Azerbaijan Region calling itself the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

But it seems that when plants are attacked by aphids, both the salicylic acid and jasmonic acid pathways appear to be triggered – which is not what you would expect. Furthermore, it seems that generally, the salicylic acid pathway is not that effective against aphids, whilst the jasmonic acid pathway is. Another curious fact is that the two pathways are mutually antagonistic, generally speaking – which does make sense, as it means that plant does not divert resources towards a pathway that does. But the question is why are both pathways activated, when one appears, on the whole, not to be that effective against aphids – and in fact, may stop the more effective pathway from working at full efficiency.

Well, the theory goes this is actually what the aphids want. By promoting the less effective salicylic acid pathway, the jasmonic one is downregulated, and so the plant defences against aphids are downgraded.

(Of course, plant defence is an incredibly complex subject, and what’s true in one case may not be so in the other. There are literally thousands of chemicals, genes and proteins interacting with each other, added to which it can be quite hard to identify whether an effect is caused by X, or simply correlated with it. Ed.)

The fact that aphid excrement (called ‘honeydew’, because apparently aphids have one hell of a PR team) contains salicylic acid, and appears to dampen down the jasmonic acid pathway also adds support to this theory. And mechanically wounded plants infested with aphids have lower levels of jasmonic acid production than those not infested, which again suggests that aphids might ‘damp down’ that pathway – possibly also with the assistance of enzymes in their saliva which interfere with jasmonic acid production.

So, there you have it. Aphids can reproduce like crazy, have a mating system that wouldn’t look out of place on Jeremy Kyle, and ruthlessly use plant defences to gain benefits for themselves. They also might be able to harvest energy from light, and have weird and disturbing relationships with ants – which I’ll go into next time.

Still can’t stand up to a ladybird, though.

Unless that is what they WANT us to think.

A common problem with this blog is, I think, aside from the inaccuracies, the libel, the downright dangerous advice and, of course, the fact it is simply a mouthpiece for the secret World Government, is that is is not ‘down with the kids’. It is not ‘cool’, ‘groovy’, ‘fo shizzle YOLO LMFAO bro’ or ‘definitely the bee’s knees, by Jove!’.

When researching this article I tried hanging around schools to note down the slang used but this brought its own share of problems.

So, in order to counter this, and therefore get more readership, which in turn will please the Shadow World Council, I’ve decided to present this article in the form of a list, which is what all the cool websites and blogs are doing these days. It is probably only a matter of time before North Korea’s official website publishes a list of ‘The 100,000,000 hottest women Kim Jong Un has definitely slept with’ or ‘Seven hilarious jokes (that will lead to you mysteriously vanishing)’. So, since everyone else is doing it, I will too. After all, absolutely nothing has ever gone wrong with blindly following the crowd.

So please welcome “The Four Most Caring Mothers In The World (That Care in Awful Ways)”.

Coming in at number five is the Suriname Toad, which is, to put it mildly, ghastly. This genus consists of seven species of toad, all found around Panama and Columbia, and is distinguished by two things. Firstly, its extreme ugliness, and secondly, the fact that it has a truly repulsive method of child rearing. They have no tongues, no teeth, and, unlike most other frogs, cannot adopt an upright posture – instead, they simply splay out over the ground. Another interesting fact about this group of toads is that some species have lateral line organs, which are usually found in fish and used to detect water motion. In addition, they have been described as looking – as all pipa toads look in repose – as though she had been dead for some weeks and was already partially decomposed.”

As seen here – I am honestly unsure if this is when its live or dead (image credit: wikimedia commons)

It should be noted that the above was written by Gerald Durrell, a noted naturalist and conservationist who wrote books all about the majesty of nature. When someone like that can’t make you sound good, the best PR agency in the world can’t help you.

So, admittedly, they look terrible, but what justifies inclusion on this list?

Well, in nature as in civilisation, keeping track of one’s children is hard. This is especially the case if one lives in a jungle, and has about a hundred eggs to keep track off. Also, one hasn’t invented creches, babysitters, or those weird child carrying rucksacks, because one is a frog. The Suriname Toad has a very simple solution to this problem – she simply keeps the eggs, and later the tadpoles, on her back. To make sure they don’t fall off, the eggs sink into the skin immediately after mating (which is itself a long, complex and torturous process – check out the above link if you want to learn more about strange frog sex). The young then develop in these holes, and around a hundred days later (although this varies quite a bit, both between species and between individuals, but however long it is it is far too long to have tadpoles living in your back), the young froglets emerge – although it seems that the mother can use pressure to force them out. There is no word on what happens when one of these offspring has a messy breakup and can’t find a job.

Yup, this is exactly what frogs living in their mother’s skin look like, and that might be one of the creepiest sentences I’ve ever written. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Number Four is an honorary mention, since the poor beast is now extinct. Now, so called ‘scientists’ might blame ‘habitat degradation’ and ‘chytridomycosis’ (a rather horrific disease caused by a fungus that is responsible for massive declines in amphibian species worldwide). However, our ‘voices in our heads’ tell us that this extinction was probably caused by the fact that this species stopped breeding after realising what their breeding process involved.

You see, the species Rheobatrachus silus and R. vitellinus are also known as gastric brooding frogs for reasons that are sadly obvious. Acting as if the Greek myths about the origins of various Gods were actually a manual, the female would swallow her eggs once they had been externally fertilised by the male, in order to incubate them inside the stomach. No, not in a place that looked like the stomach – actually in her stomach. How useful this method actually was for keeping her offspring safe is unclear, as despite laying up to forty eggs, the maximum number of juveniles actually found inside the stomach was only around twenty, meaning that either she got full after swallowing about half of them, or the first half were digested. It is thought that the mucus surrounding the eggs contained a chemical (prostaglandin) which turned off hydrochloric acid production.

Obviously, since her belly was filled with her children the mother no longer ate, and she kept up this gastric brooding for up to 43 days, which top biologists say is 45 days too long. Over time, as the frogs developed, the mother’s stomach would become full, and her lungs would be compressed, leading to her obtaining oxygen primarily via her skin. At the end of six weeks, the offspring would slowly emerge over a period of about a week – unless, of course, the female was disturbed, in which case the entire brood would be ejected. Just imagine that scene from The Exorcist, and you have an idea.

And this is why I never go to cheap, all you can eat buffets. (Image credit Dailytech.com)

But don’t worry. Your children might possibly have a chance to actually see this in real life, as work is continuing on resurrecting these animals. And you, in turn, can tell them that although you may have messed them up in many ways, at least you never vomited them up.

Number three on the list is also an amphibian. Look, I have nothing against amphibians. Its just that when it comes to mothers that care in all the wrong ways, they do tend to be somewhat over-represented. And in all likelihood, you’ve never heard of these.

Here’s what an amphibian worm looks like, and its even worse than you’d think. (Image credit: Beforeitsnews.com)

Ceacilians (order: Gymnophiona) could easily be mistaken for large earthworms, and can be as long as 1.5 metres long. They live mostly underground, which is why a lot about these animals is still unknown. Found all over the tropics, three species in this groupMicrocaecilia dermatophaga, Siphonops annulatus and Boulengerula taitanus practise what is called ‘maternal dermalphagy’, which basically mean they eat their mother’s skin – indeed, the name of the M. dermatophaga basically means ‘small skin eating ceacilian’.

Originally, scientists didn’t quite realise this, and thought that the fact that baby caecilians have infantile teeth, and clustered around their mothers, meant that they fed on secretions from her – a bit like milk drinking in mammal infants. But, as ever in science, the truth was far, far worse. The infant caecilians actually use these teeth to strip the skin from their mothers and feed on it. And, just to put you off your lunch even more, S. annulatus apparently ‘drinks secretions from the mother’s cloaca’. Now, normally I would do a lot more research to see what purpose this serves, but this time I think I’ll leave it as a homework assignment for you lot. Please, if you find out the answer, keep it to yourself. Its important, of course, not to judge other people’s parenting strategies, and the ceacilians have been around for 250 million years, surviving several mass extinctions in the process. So they must be doing something right. Intriguingly, the three species that exhibit this skin eating behaviour are only distantly related, suggesting that this adaptation has either risen, or been lost, multiple times.

Also, bony plates cover their eyes so they are blind. Anyway, here’s another picture. (Image credit: Featuredcreature.com)

But, of course, for the really most disturbing animal parenting strategies, you have to go and look at the arthropods, and it should be absolutely no surprise to anything that it is the spiders which have taken ‘self sacrifice’ to its logical extreme, where the infant spiders, on a routine basis, consume their own mother.

“We save a fortune on Mother’s Day cards”. The pale dots are the infant spiders – I think. Frankly I didn’t want to look too closely

There are several spiders which practice this matriophagy, including Diaea ergandros, Amaurobius ferox Chirocanthium japonica and Stegodyphus lineatus. In the case of the latter, the mother feeds the offspring with regurgitated good first, only later allowing herself to be eaten alive. What is even stranger is that the mother’s body begins to break down even before the eggs hatch – part of the regurgitated fluid, for instance, is thought to be formed of the products of this break down. Furthermore, the ovaries are one of the last bits to break down entirely – so if her eggs don’t hatch for whatever reason, the spider can lay more eggs that will hatch into children that will devour her.

But why do the mothers allow themselves to be eaten? Well, the theory is that it gives the young spiders a headstart in life – and in nature, the only thing that matters is that your DNA survives to be copied down the generations. In the case of S. lineatus, this behavior is almost essential to offspring survival, whilst in C. japonica it significantly increases the likelihood of the offspring surviving. The same is true in A. ferox, where matriopahgy allows the young spiders to leave the nest with greater body weight. Overall, in some spider species, it seems that the best way for the mother to have the greatest reproductive success is not to have several breeding events, but to have one, extremely terminal, one.

Although if you use any of the above information to get out of sending your mum a mother’s day card, I really can’t take responsibility. Just bear in mind some animals, when times are hard, eat their own offspring.