There’s no doubting that some people find the world today a bit too exciting. And, whilst objectively, that’s pretty silly – fewer people are dying by violence than ever before, we can cure more diseases than ever, and every year millions more people are climbing out of poverty – this blog understands that, given that our own target audience is, admittedly, overly paranoid types.

So what to do when The Button is pressed, when the balloon goes up, when the Book of Revelation becomes less of a religious tract and more a fairly accurate guide to the day’s events? Well, this blog has a solution for you.

Admittedly, the solution is ‘become a water bear’.

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Not this kind

Tardigrades are a whole phylum on their own – just like the Arthropods ( which includes the insects, arachnids and crustaceans), the Chordata (which includes the vertebrates, but also a few assorted close relatives), the Mollusca (snails, bivalves and cephalopods) and the Cnidaria (most famously includes the jellyfish). Unlike these Phyla though, Tardigrades include only around a thousand or so species, and all look fairly similar – eight legs (with the final pair pointing backwards, in order to grasp onto whatever they’re walking on); a short, plump body, usually less than a millimetre long when fully grown, divided into segments. They lay eggs, and interestingly enough the young are actually born with the same number of cells as an adult; their cells simply expand rather than divide and reproduce. They are often named ‘water bears’, as their gait apparently reminded someone of how bears move, and also are sometimes called ‘moss piglets’, which makes them sound far, far, far cuter than they actually are.

Tardigrades are actually found world wide – they’ve been found frozen in Antarctic ice, dredged up from nearly five kilometres underwater, and discovered on the tops of mountains. Underwater, they are found on underwater corals, sea-shells, or simply living on the seafloor. On land, they’re nearly always found in damp, moist environments – often living on moss, lichens or leaf litter – although a few were even found inside glaciers. They’re not particularly fussy eaters, being happy to feed on plants, algae, protozoa and, in a few cases, small organisms like nematodes.

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Or as happy as you can be when living in, and eating, what is basically sludge.

If that was what all targidages did, they might be of minor interest. But, and without wishing to sound too dramatic about it, tardigrades are incredibly hard to kill. In fact, some astrobiologists ran some calculations and think that the most likely way to kill all tardigrades off is to just wait until the sun dies (see note at end though -Ed).

Indeed, finding out just how tough these animals are seems to have become a minor competition amongst scientists. When exposed to conditions that would more or less instantly kill most other organisms, water bears can often be found in a dormant state, simply waiting for better times to come around again.

Milnesium tardigradum, for instance, was exposed to temperatures of 100 degrees centigrade for an hour – 9/10 survivedExposed to pressures of 600 MPa (for comparison, eleven kilometres below sea level the pressure is just 110 MPa), tardigrades survived. In a paper that presumably doubles as the introductory narration to a horror movie, Acutuncus antarcticus, (which is found, as you should probably have guessed, in the Antarctic) was described as both living and reproducing after being frozen at twenty degrees below zero for thirty years. This species was described as a ‘wimp’ by other species, which have survived being frozen at two hundred and seventy two degrees below zero – or, just above the coldest temperature physically possible.

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But feel free to go on about your central breaking down for twelve hours

 

 

I could go on. I will. When it comes to radiation, an acute dose of five Gy is pretty likely to kill a person, pretty horribly, within 60 days, according to this report by the US Government which also has the conscientious, if slightly worrying, warning that ‘It must be emphasized that those interested must download, print, and study these resources before there is any urgent need for them, since there may be no electricity and no access to the Internet if there is a disaster involving high doses of radiation’, which is a warning you don’t see in most bibliographies.

Water bears, however, are made of sterner stuff. Ramazzottius varieornatus survived being exposed to 4000 Gy of radiation, or a thousand times that needed to, if not kill you, at least very much ruin your day. The LD50, [a measure of the dose needed to kill 50% of the population, and a useful shorthand for the ‘lethal dose’] of radiation was 5200 Gy for  Milnesium tardigradum, although admittedly they were sterilized after 1000Gy.  Meanwhile, specimens of  Richtersius coronifer showed no effect of doses below 1000Gy. And, in perhaps the ultimate example of just how tough these animals can be, specimens of Richtersius coronifer and Milnesium tardigradum were sent into space.

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Or perhaps it was an effort by them to return home. We’re not sure, really.

No, they were not inside spacesuits, or a spacecraft, which are generally regarded as fairly essential for space travel; or at least space travel where ‘survival’ is one of the objectives. Exposed to the vacumn one experiences when one is more than 250 km above the Earth, the tardigrades…simply went into their dormant state and survived. Exposure to solar and cosmic radiation was rather more lethal, but, incredibly, three  Milnesium tardigradum did survive exposure to not only the vacuum, but also extremely high levels of radiation (from both the sun and from outside the solar system). Whether these three then mutated, gained intelligence, and formed a hive mind dedicated to overthrowing the human race is not mentioned, but it is my duty to assume that they did.

So, how do water bears do all this? Black magic, satanic pacts and alien nanomachines are, of course, all leading explanations proposed by myself. One theory was that these animals were extremely good at ‘picking up’ foreign genes from other organisms; thus over time they’d assembled a genetic toolkit that allowed them to deal with most situations. However, researchers later debunked this idea, considering that the ‘foreign DNA’ was likely the result of contamination in the laboratory.

The core of most (but not all) of their hardiness is the fact they can survive high levels of desiccation and enter a state called anhydrobiosis – or, in other words, they dry out and more or less enter suspended animation. To do this, they produce a wide range of proteins, most of them probably unique to tardigrades, which seem to protect their cells against damage. Reactive Oxygen Species levels tend to increase when a cell gets warmer or dryer – and, sure enough, water bears can produce a wide range of proteins to denature these chemicals. Likewise, they also produce several types of protective proteins that stop the cell from being irreparably damaged during desiccation. Normally, as cells lose water, protein complexes in the cell aggregate and clump together, interfering with each other. These proteins might ‘vitrify’ – essentially entering a glass like state and ‘locking’ all the components of the cell in place. That said, anhydrobiosis can’t be the whole story – even hydrated tardigrades can survive high levels of radiation. Its thought that some tardigrades also produce a protein called DSUP, which essentially binds to DNA and shields it from radiation.

 

Perhaps even more strangely, when transferred to human cells, these genes also give protection against radiation and dehydration – potentially suggesting that, in the future, we could use genes from minute water bears to make our crops drought resistant, and perhaps even make ourselves more resistant to radiation;  which could come in handy if we get serious about the whole space colonisation thing, or at least serve as a semi-plausible concept for the new series of pulpy superhero novels I’m writing.

Or, if the worst comes to the worst, help us all evolve into human-water bear hybrids.

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“Man, who’d have thought editing my DNA after reading one random blogpost could turn out so badly?”

(*This paper does, though, make two very major assumptions. Firstly, it assumes that tardigrades living at the bottom of the ocean have the same levels of radiation tolerance as some of their land dwelling cousins (which may not be the case) and thus concludes that you’d have to more or less boil the oceans away before you could be certain of killing them. Related to this, you need a lot less radiation to sterilize a tardigrade than to kill it outright; tardigrades would be any reasonable measure be ‘extinct’ if they couldn’t reproduce. Secondly, of course, you may not have killed off the tardigrades, but you may have destroyed their food supply.)

 

 

 

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The Blue Ringed Octopus lives, or more accurately lurks, in the oceans around Australia.

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As shown here. (Image via http://www.cape-york-australia.com)

This is a phrase that should instantly raise red flags in your mind. ‘Lives in the Australian Ocean’ is one of those innocuous phrases that nonetheless warn of much pain, suffering and misery ahead, rather like ‘ ‘lets take this shortcut’, or ‘so I just had a few minor comments’, or ‘this resort is really off the beaten track, but worth it’. After all, what animals does one associate with the seas around Australia? Great White Sharks. Stonefish. The Sea-Wasp. Stingrays. Whatever the hell is was that ate Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967, who disappeared whilst swimming, in the only case I know of where a country just ‘lost’ a Prime Minister.

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This was ruled ‘completely non-suspicious’ by his successor, Prime Minister Shark. 

Actually, we can dial back a bit. ‘Octopus’ itself is a term that is a red flag. Because Octopuses (and yes, it is Octopuses, or possibly Octopodes, but definitely not Octopi, whatever my spellcheck might say) are weird.

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“A Blue Ringed Octopus (from Thinglink.com). 

 

They can squeeze through ridiculously small spaces, can move out of water to both escape and find food, and are notorious escape artists. They show problem solving abilities, have been seen to use tools, play, learn from watching other octopuses, and might even have personalities. Their brains, too, are big for invertebrates (with around 160 million neurons – comparable to that of a dog) (Of course, Octopus intelligence probably varies hugely between species – Ed). What’s more, they might have double that number of neurons divided between their eight arms, meaning that each of their arms can act, to some degree, independently (severed octopus arms jerk away from unpleasant stimuli, whilst a severed human arm will just lie there, bleeding, and not do anything, whilst a lot of people start shouting and asking hard questions).

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Just because the octopus looks like it is from a drug induced hallucination, doesn’t mean you should act as though you’re in a drug induced hallucination.  (Image from Slate.com)

Whilst its unclear how intelligent Octopuses are, its still unsettling to think that an Octopus, more closely related to a snail or clam than us, might be a surprisingly deep thinker, and comparable to a rat, dog or reality TV show contestant. The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) can even impersonate a wide array of marine organisms, using a combination of movements and shifting colours, although the Australian government is still reluctant to accept my theory that Mr Holt was, actually, a mimic octopus himself, who simply grew bored with politics and wished to return to the sea.

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From ‘TheLiquidEarth.org’, showing how a mimic octopus mimics a flatfish, lionfish and sea-snake. 

 

 

Fortunately for us mammals, one reason why we probably don’t need to fear legions of super-intelligent octopuses arising from the deep to claim the lands in the name of their dark Gods is that they have very short lifespans and die after matingif they are not eaten by their mate first.

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“At least no one is getting stabbed with a penis this time”

Idiosepius pygmaeus, for example, only lives eighty days, whilst the relatively long lived Giant Pacific Octopus will still only last a couple of years. After mating, males soon lose appetite, control of their body movements, and show skin lesions as their immune systems shut down. Females lay their eggs and then guard them, not eating. To sustain this, they start to metabolise their own bodies for food, and starve to death as the eggs hatch. (Its likely this is down to  two reasons: firstly more of an octopus’ offspring are likely to survive if she guards the one clutch of eggs she lays, rather than laying several, and secondly octopuses have evolved to grow and reach maturity quickly, rather than having a slower paced, longer lifespan).

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Live fast, die young and leave a crazy corpse. (Image from Pbs.com)

This short lifespan, combined with the fact octopuses generally don’t exhibit much, if anything, in the way of social behaviours outside mating (social behaviour requires a certain degree of intelligence) might explain why octopus intelligence isn’t more obvious, and/or why we have not been enslaved by the Octopus-people to build vast temples to their hideous rulers.

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Unless, of course, this entire entry is being written by a mimic octopus to lull you into a false sense of superiority. 

 

 

However, even for an octopus that lurks in the oceans around Australia, the Blue Ringed Octopus is actually much worse than you might think. Consisting of at least ten species, all the octopuses in the genus Hapalochlaena are relatively small; reaching at most perhaps twenty centimetres long with some barely reaching a quarter of that, and weighing less than a hundred grams. By all accounts, they are somewhat docile and shy animals, spending most of their time hiding in burrows. They feed on small crabs, shrimp and fish and like many cephalopods can shift their colours to better blend in with their surroundings. Defying stereotypes, no species of Blue-Ringed Octopus can shoot ink. This makes them potentially good exhibits for aquariums. What makes them slightly less good exhibits is that they are lethally toxic and by far the most dangerous octopus to humans; with the average Hapalochlaena lunulata (Greater Blue Ringed)  octopus supposedly having enough venom to kill at least twenty six people.

In fairness, they do give some warning by suddenly flashing up to sixty brilliantly bright blue rings all over their bodies, showing they are prepared to bite if a predator or unlucky human gets too close. This effect is created by rings of ‘iridophores’ – stacked plates of guanine – that due to their structure reflect bright blue light in all directions. When the octopus is startled, it expands some muscles and contracts others to reveal the brilliant ring. To enhance the contrast further the octopus can generate dark rings around and within each ring using chromatophores – cells containing dark pigment.

(Why blue light? Well, blue light is the most ‘visible’ type of light underwater, with red light absorbed the easiest. Therefore, most marine organisms will be most sensitive to blue light. It has also been speculated that these flashing displays play a role during mating. Ed.)

And then, if you ignore the suddenly flashing octopus – it will bite you.

The good news is that the sting itself is almost painless.

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“That’s good – wait a minute, this blog never has good news unless it is followed by much worse news”.

The bad news is that the venom includes, amongst other things, tetrodotoxin – which we last saw when this blog attempted to open a sushi restaurant. In fact, just like the pufferfish, it isn’t the octopus itself which produces the toxin, but rather bacteria living within its salivary ducts.

Tetrodotoxin blocks sodium channels, has no antidote and is around 1200 more times more powerful than cyanide, as it basically blocks information from travelling down the nervous system and reaching the muscles, resulting in paralysis. This includes the muscles used in breathing, which top doctors suggest are the worst muscles to have paralysed for any length of time. Other symptoms of being bitten include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, numbness, muscle weakness and hazy vision, sometimes leading to blindness. These symptoms, along with paralysis, are not good anywhere, but especially not when you’re swimming in the sea, according to those same top doctors.

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Not pictured: A good place to be suddenly unable to breath

This can happen within ten minutes of being bitten, and your only hope is to be hooked onto an artificial ventilator, so you can keep breathing whilst your body breaks down the poison.

 

Rather horribly, just like with pufferfish poisoning, you may be conscious – and indeed almost lucid – right up until the point of death.

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There are actually probably easier ways to meet attractive lifguards, for starters. 

Hello?

Hello, is this Horrific Animals of the World?

Yes, it is – now no longer sponsored by Radio Moscow!

The Kremlin sponsored you?

They did. Apparently, we were not doing such a good job of undermining the decadent West.

Why would they ever think you even could do that?

Well it turned out that the translator we hired wasn’t very good, and there were several linguistic and cultural misunderstandings that, together, led to a lack of consensus regarding the partnership.

I see.

We also lied, like, loads, about more or less everything. So anyway, what’s your problem?

I’m feeling sick, and tired, and just generally ill.

You should probably speak to a medical professional. Or at the very least, Google your symptoms online.

I tried that. According to the Internet, I have hypercancer, AIDs, Ebola and bubonic plague, and hysterical pregnancy, which is strange because I’m a male. But the weird thing is, I only started feeling ill three days after I went for a swim.

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“It’s either a cough, or 90% of us will be dead within a week”

Well, you went and did exercise. No wonder you feel awful. Frankly, you only have yourself to blame for this. To be honest, it is probably just the fact that your flabby, weak, obese distortion  of a body is unused to even the slightest bit of exertion, due to a lifetime of overindulgence and laziness.

Thanks….I guess.

Or you could be infected with a brain eating amoeba.

I’m not flabby, I…wait, what? What on Earth is a brain eating amoeba?

An amoeba which eats brains.

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It can actually look like this, ‘this’ being ‘the face that hovers over you in that recurring nightmare’. (image via National Geographic). 

I had figured that out by myself.

It causes a disease caked Naegleria, or to give it its full name, Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAME) .  There were 37 known infections in the USA between 2006 and 2015, and under 200 throughout the history of the USA as of 2016. The initial symptoms are very similar to those you describe – headache, nausea, fever and vomiting. Later on, as the disease progresses, you may get a stiff neck, confusion, loss of concentration, loss of balance, trembling in your limbs, hallucinations, seizures, an urge to avoid bright lights and various other symptoms consistent with an ever increasing number of brain eating amoeba in your brain. Finally, as the damage to your brain becomes increasingly extensive, the victim enters a coma and then dies. Even with aggressive and prompt medical treatment, the fatality rate hovers around 95%.

How could I get this? I only went swimming!

Well, the Brain Eating Amoeba – or to give it its Latin name Naegleria fowleri – is found in warm waters, and, unlike most amoeba, can replicate happily at temperatures of up to 45 degrees centigrade, although it can’t grow in saltwater. Normally, it feeds on bacteria and other organic debris found in the lakes. Like a lot of amoeba, it can have multiple ‘forms’ – the Flagellate, Trophozoite and Cyst states. Cysts are formed when environmental conditions are tough – for example, when it is too hot, too cold, or there are too many harmful chemicals in the water, and basically allows the amoeba to ‘hibernate’ until conditions are better. The Flagellate stage has two flagella and can move around; but doesn’t feed or divide. (Presumably, this allows the organism to move to potentially more food-rich areas – Ed.) Finally, the Trophozoite stage is the feeding and reproducing stage. Both the Trophozoite and Flagellate stages can infect humans, although the Flagellates transform into Trophozoites once inside a person.

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The three stages – (left to right) Cyst, Trophozoites and Flagellates

The problem comes when infected water is taken up the nose – for example, by diving, swimming underwater, or using a nasal spray – although you can’t get it by drinking the water, nor from another infected person. Once it is in the nose, it migrates up the olfactory nerve, and into the olfactory bulbs of the brain.

Wait a sec…so the brain eating amoeba just happens to migrate to the one area of the body where you least want a brain eating amoeba?

Unfortunately, yes. If the amoeba just happened to start feeding on whatever cells were available, infected people would show signs of nasal damage – such as pain, nose bleeds, etc. The fact we don’t see this suggests that these cells are (more or less) untouched. Instead, the amoeba migrates through the sieve like ‘cribriform plate’ bone, and into the brain. This is likely because its ‘attracted’ to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which obviously is found at high levels in the brain.

Once there, it starts feeding on the brain cells by using a sucker like structure called an amoebostome to, basically, suck out the contents of various types of nerve cells, sometimes leaving a cytoskeleton (cell support structure) behind, as well as simply engulfing blood cells. This obviously causes massive tissue damage. Interestingly, though,  it seems a lot of the damage might be due to your body’s own inflammation response, trying to destroy the amoeba. Indeed, this study suggested that the inflammation response is the major cause of damage.

Bloody immune system…

You sound stressed.

Of course I’m stressed! There’s a brain eating amoeba in my brain! That’s the worst place to have a brain eating amoeba!

If you called it by its scientific name, Naegleria fowleri, you might feel a bit calmer about this whole thing. Try saying ‘Naegleria fowleri’ rather than ‘brain eating amoeba’.

That doesn’t help. Not even a little bit.

Well, I’m sorry we can’t help more.

You haven’t helped at all.

In fairness, we are called Horrific Animals of the World, and, technically speaking, Naegleria fowleri is not an animal. It is a member of the supergroup Excavata, which are all one celled eukaryotes. Eukaryotes, as I’m sure you know, consist of the plants, fungi, and animals, as well as other unicellular organisms, which used to be lumped together in the Kingdom Protozoa, until scientists realised that Protozoa wasn’t so much a group as a ‘place where you chucked all the eukaryotes that were not animals, plants or fungi’. In summary, your brain eating amoeba is not, actually, a problem of Horrific Animals of the World.

You spent quite a lot of time justifying why this isn’t your problem.

We’ve had lots of practice at justifying things.

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Such as taking money from a foreign power to undermine your country, completely failing to undermine your country, and forgetting Mum’s birthday. 

So what can I do to avoid this?

Well, if you’ve already got it, your best bet is to get swift medical treatment as soon as you can. But infection with this amoeba is stunningly rare; far more people will down whilst swimming than will come down with PAME. And it can’t survive in adequately chlorinated waters. Although, in a rather horrible twist of fate, it appears that human activities might increase levels of PAME. Firstly, ‘thermal pollution’ – dumping of warm (if clean) water into rivers and lakes potentially could kill off competitors of N. fowleri, whilst the amoeba can cope with the increased temperatures. With its competitors gone, its numbers could increase. Equally, global warming could mean, again, that water temperatures increase, extending the range of the amoeba.

So I guess the real moral of this story is…actually, there isn’t one. Sometimes Nature is just awful.

 

British politics is quite complicated.

 

Wait a minute, I hear you say, in an anguished tone. I came here to learn and be greatly unsettled by animals on an irregularly updated blog, hypothetical you continues. I get all of my political information from a couple of websites which happen to coincide with my prior views and so continually reinforce my own narrow worldview whilst rendering me increasingly incapable of understanding in a charitable manner the thoughts of others beyond my own echo chamber, you say, surprising me with your clarity of self reflection. I do not come to this blog to read about whatever unhinged beliefs you have adopted this week, you then shout, at the top of your lungs, causing me to retract my previous charitable impression of the ‘you’ in question.

 

And I quite understand. But the point I was trying to make, before the probably horribly inaccurate version of you I had created in my head started shouting, is that British Politics now contains spiders, and for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not being metaphorical. I am talking about a very literal spider which a literal senior government official literally keeps in his literal office.

 

 

The literal spider is Cronus, and his owner is the Government Chief Whip Gavin Williamson, whose job it is to make sure that Conservative MP’s vote the way the Prime Minister wants, a job which presumably becomes quite a bit easier once Mr Williamson locks the door and lets the tarantula out of his cage. The Chief Whip is quoted as saying that:  “…in the Whip’s office we have a proper pet. I’ve had Cronus since he was a spider-ling, so I have a very paternal sort of approach. It’s very much the same sort of love and care that I give to my spider as I give to all MPs.

 

 

Which sounds nice enough, except that he went onto say, presumably as his media liason team frantically starting mouthing ‘no’ at him,  “Cronus [It is at this point we should probably mention that Cronus, in Greek mythology, overthrew his father after castrating him and throwing him into the sea, before marrying his sister and eating the resulting children, before being in turn overthrown by Zeus, his latest child – Ed.]  is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer… absolutely fascinating to rear.” . Which is not exactly the sort of thing an elected politician usually says, unless they are being unrecorded and are about to drop the hero down a trapdoor to a grisly death after uncovering some sort of monstrous conspiracy.

 

 

[As a side-note, isn’t ‘Chief Whip’ a needlessly ominous title? It is like calling a politician Minister for Darkness, or Chairman of the Select Committee of the Howl Eternal, or Shadow Chancellor. Oh, that one’s a real title too. Ed.]

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The Shadow Chancellor, of course, appears in a dream shared by all that is blessedly forgotten upon wakening, intoning ancient prophecies of doom and that the recent economic figures show that the Government’s economic plan is failing the vast majority after every Budget, in a custom that dates back to 1832.

 

Now, what species Cronus is has not been exactly specified – from his pictures he looks like a Mexican Redknee Tarantula, Brachypelma smithi, a popular pet tarantula – but it is far from the most fearsome tarantula. Although no Tarantula can kill, although most have very painful bites, with some causing weeks of pain, swelling, and in some cases hallucinations, the tarantula most people know about, and mostly are desperate to avoid, is the Goliath Bird Eating Spider, Theraphosa blondi. Unless you’re in charge of maintaining the unity of your political party, in which case, well, this could well be the eight legged solution to at least some of your problems.

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“Hello, may I ask how you are planning to vote?” (Image from http://www.thesmallermajority.com)

The Goliath Bird Eating Spider is popularly called the largest spider on Earth, but the truth is a bit more complicated. It weighs in at 175 grams, making it the heaviest, and has a body up to 11.9 cm long, with its legspan reaching nearly 30 cm. The Giant Huntman Spider (Heteropoda maxima), however, recently discovered in 2001, has a slightly larger legspan, but is a lot more slightly built. Scientists are yet to determine which is objectively worse to find crawling up your trembling, naked body late at night. A good way to visualise the size of this spider is to imagine a spider that could quite easily cover most of your face, if that helps at all.

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Also, you don’t know that one of these isn’t hiding in your room and likes to crawl all over your face when you sleep. 

 

You could also imagine a spider which is big enough that you can hear its footsteps, or, in the words of one biologist, I could clearly hear its hard feet hitting the ground and dry leaves crumbling under its weight.. the Goliath birdeater is probably the only spider in the world that makes noise as it walks. Its feet have hardened tips and claws that produce a very distinct, clicking sound, not unlike that of a horse’s hooves hitting the ground” At first, he  said he mistook it for a small to medium size rodent.

 

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So like this, but the opposite in literally every way. 

Its size is probably down to its reduced metabolic rate, which in turn means a lower demand for oxygen. This is because, especially for arthropods, the bigger you are, the harder it is to get oxygen to every cell in your body.

 

[Its (one reason) why a human sized spider thankfully couldn’t be; its respiratory system is based around ‘book lungs’ which are basically ‘pages’ of tissue, inside the body, where oxygen is taken up and carbon dioxide released.  Scaled up to man-sized, a spider’s circulatory system probably couldn’t provide enough oxygen to tissues in the body -Ed.]

 

So one limiting factor on spider size is the oxygen demand; if you are bigger, you need more oxygen (since you have more cells in your body), and as seen above getting more oxygen becomes increasingly more difficult the bigger you get (because of the spider’s circulatory system). Because of its lower metabolic rate, the spider needs less oxygen than it otherwise would, and so the Bird Eating Spider can increase in size.

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To the relief of absolutely everyone (image via http://www.thesmallermajority.com)

 

Anyway, the Goliath Bird Eating Spider, or, as we will call it from now on, ‘Lord of All Spiders’, lives in the rainforests of northern South America, usually in swampy or marshy areas, and often hides away in a burrow during the day, because if the Lord of the Rings taught us anything other than not to overlook incredibly obvious solutions, it is that gigantic spiders like to live underground. The Lord of All Spiders is called ‘Bird Eating’ because it was originally observed devouring a honeybird. However, birds are not actually a common component of its diet, and it will happily eat almost anything it can catch and bite, such as small reptiles, small mammals, amphibians, earthworms, and larger insects. Rather than spin intricate webs, hide in a cleverly constructed ‘trapdoor’, or do as the pirate spiders do and pretend to be a caught prey animal, then ambush another spider which comes to investigate, the Lord of All Spiders simply chases its prey and bites it, with fangs up to one inch in length, capable of piercing a mouse’s skull or an egg shell (yes, they feed on bird eggs too). Although this bite is supposedly only as painful as a wasp sting and not really harmful to most humans, it is enough to kill smaller animals, which are then dragged back to the burrow of the Lord of All Spiders for leisurely consumption. The venom of the Lord of All Spiders actually includes digestive juices, which partially liquefies the prey, which is then sucked up.

 

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Unsure where this image comes from. As a reminder, those are the fangs of a spider. 

Females live quite a big longer (potentially up to three decades, as opposed to 3-6 years) than males. It seems, after reading guidance for keeping these animals in captivity,  that males actually have a shorter lifespan, often dying soon after their final moult. Of course, another reason could be that spiders often  practise sexual cannibalism, in which the female eats, or attempts to eat, the male either soon after, or during, mating (possibly a strategy on the male’s part; by providing the female with a meal, even if it is him, then his progeny have a better chance of surviving and mating themselves)

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So like potentially the 5th? 4th? worst date I’ve ever had

Like many tarantulas, the Lord of All Spiders has what are called ‘urticating setea’, which are basically bristles that can be extremely irritating if touched – and not only if touched. If the Lord of All Spiders feels threatened, it uses its legs to flicks these hairs from its abdomen at you. Although these mostly cause irritation and stinging to us, to a smaller animal they could prove fatal if inhaled, as they’d cause swelling inside the throat. Different tarantulas have different types of ultricating hairs. Fittingly, the Lord of All Spiders is thought to be perhaps the most irritating of all tarantulas in this regard. Firstly, it is covered with ‘Type III Setea” which, due to their morphology and their sheer length, are probably the most harmful to humans and other mammals. Secondly, its sheer size means it can support more setea. These setea are also used by the Lord of All Spiders to line its silk lined burrows, and discourage any intruders. Thus, like many tarantulas, it is probably a good idea to wear glasses if handling the Lord of All Spiders, to avoid getting these ‘hairs’ in your eyes, which seems to be an occupation hazard when keeping tarantulas. Additionally, if you wish to tempt fate even more and eat it (apparently, it tastes somewhat like shrimp) make sure you use a blowtorch to remove the hairs. Several diners in America, when eating another type of tarantula, forgot to do this and suffered irritation in their throats afterwards.

 

 

So, there you have it. Another reason to politely decline that cruise down the Amazon, a recipe tip should you need to eat a tarantula, and a way to reunite your fractured Party and take your case to the electorate.

Well, firstly, sorry.

I will admit it has been a while since I was last on here, but just to make it up to you, today I’ll be talking about an animal more awful than usual. I realise that apologies generally involve things like gifts, or letters, or actual apologies, rather than mentally scarring imagery and links to pictures that are so far beyond ‘Safe For Work’ that you’d probably get fired just for reading the link address out loud, but that’s just the way I roll.

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For serious apologies, I use my special apology costume. Its great for persuading people to move on, both metaphorically and very literally.

Although, weirdly, it might be that this animal is less horrific than originally thought. I do not know if this makes the apology more or less sincere.

Anyway, today we’ll be talking about a catfish, and if you didn’t know how a catfish could be horrific….well, read on.

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Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctat). Image via Wikimedia commons

Catfishes (properly called Siluriformes) are a large group of fish, originating in the late Jurassic, that incudes around 3000 species. Features of this group include ‘naked’ bodies (i.e. they don’t have any scales, although some do have armour plates, whilst others ‘breath’ through their skin) as well as barbels – whisker like features near the mouth, which are used to feel their way around – which is especially useful as many catfishes live in caves, are nocturnal feeders, or live in muddy, cloudy water (technically called ‘turbid’). Mostly, they live in freshwater, and some species are widely fished – either for sport, or for food (especially in some parts of the United States – so much so that Ronald Reagan declared that June 25 in the USA is ‘National Catfish day’, although sadly he gave no instructions as to how to celebrate it.)

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“I approve of the President’s strong stance against the Soviet Union.” (Channel Catfish, again from Wikimedia Commons)

But, why are they on this blog?

Well, it turns out catfishes, like – well, cats – have a dark side. Almost all catfish have spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins, and in some cases these can be covered with mucus and give a harmful – in some cases lethal – sting. The Malapteruridae can give a painful, though not lethal, electric shock. Furthermore, some species can grow to large sizes, and can attack humans. Bagarius yarrelli, for example, can grow up to 2 metres in length, and one is thought to have attacked and killed at least three people in India and Nepal after supposedly – and this is the creepiest part – developing a taste for human flesh after devouring the remains of corpses  cremated on the river.

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Bagarius yarrelli, from Animalplanet.com – an example of which decided to cut down the waiting time after developing a taste for human bodies.

But there is one that makes all of these pale into insignificance, and that is the Candiru fish, aka the Vampire Fish, aka the toothpick fish, aka Vandellia cirrhosa. They are members of a family of catfish called the Trichomycteridae, which also include fish that feed on mucus, carrion and scales, and a number of which live in caves. As the name suggests, Vandellia cirrhosa feeds on blood. Reaching a maximum length of around 17 cm, the fish appears silverly and semi-transparent and, truth be told, doesn’t look that horrific.

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This fish looks so innocent you would get in its windowless van. (Image via Futurism.com)

But, of course, it is not called the ‘Vampire’ fish for nothing. The fish feeds on the gills of other fish. By biting into the gills with its small, but rather sharp, teeth, it makes an incision into the artery and then just remains in place for no longer than two and a half minutes (and often much less) before letting go, letting the prey’s own blood pressure pump the blood straight into the Candiru. After that, it lets go, engorged with its blood meal that is visible through the fish’s skin.

And then, things get really horrible.

When the first explorers came to the Amazon, they heard, from the local tribes, a truly disturbing story. Men who urinated in the river attracted the Candiru somehow and then the Candiru (which remember, like all catfishes, has spines on its fins) would swim up the stream of urine and lodge itself – well, without being too specific, if you’re a man, imagine the worst place to have a spiny fish lodged in your body.

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If you’re female try driving a car, getting horribly lost, and not asking anyone for directions for sixteen hours despite the fact that, Christ, Tim, we’re five hours late already and just pull over, already, no, you don’t…and then imagine the worst place to have a fish stuck in you. 

The fish, of course, would then die and start to rot, somehow making ‘having a spiny blood drinking fish stuck in your penis/other orifice’ even worse. According to legend, the only ‘cure’ was either amputation or, in some cases, a mixture of special herbs that would dissolve the fish, although unless these herbs combined made a strongly caustic cleaner, I can’t see that working. That said, ingesting a strongly caustic substance would probably also kill you, although by that stage that would probably not be a huge disadvantage.

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“If it can unblock a drain, it can unblock me”

This story has been repeated more or less as gospel truth for around a century, before scientists, in a rare moment of lessening rather than increasing the horror of the natural world, thought that the stories were incredibly exaggerated, if not made up entirely. Firstly, experiments showed that Caniduru were not actually attracted to urea, which was the theory as to why they attracted humans. Secondly, a few moments thought would suggest that it is more or less physically impossible for a fish to try and swim up a stream of urine. (There’s a third objection too, which is even if the fish managed to lodge itself in you, it would certainly die – but this isn’t actually an objection, given that it could be that the fish just made a horrible mistake).

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“I am as upset about this as you are” – image from seriouslyfish.com

So its all just a horrible urban legend, right?

Well, not quite.

Whilst it certainly isn’t something that happens a lot (some people claim that the fish is the world’s only vertebrate parasite on humans, which is only true if you really stretch the definitions) there is, supposedly, one case of it happening to a man swimming in the water.  In 1997, an unnamed patient in Manaus, Amazonia, Brazil was operated on by Doctor Samad, who claimed to have removed a Caniduru from a patient’s urethra and had, thoughtfully, taken pictures, which can be viewed here if you are male and have no intention of sleeping, like, ever again. The patient, in addition to suffering from a-spiny-fish-where-you-really-don’t-want-a-spiny-fishitus, also suffered from catastrophic urine retention and, some reports suggest, a damaged scrotum as the fish had started to chew its way out.

However, some parts of this story, perhaps thankfully, appear not to be true. The recovered specimen had all its spines intact (despite Samad claiming that he had to snip them off to remove the fish) and it also seemed much too big to have – err-  fitted in, to put it in the best possible terms. Additionally, the patient claimed that the fish had sum up the stream of urine, whilst the Doctor claimed that the fish was attracted to urea – which, as discussed above, are both probably entirely untrue.

But, despite that, the guy who investigated the case is, apparently, ‘not writing the case off’, and says that although deeply unlikely, it is not impossible that someone immersed in the water could be attacked by the Caniduru.

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“Visit the Mighty Amazon, where it is somewhat unlikely that you will be attacked by a Caniduru.”

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