Two new groundbreaking studies reveal unexpected insights into the evolution of plants and snakes.  Let’s start with the plants’ study first.

Crocus Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

The results of research conducted by a Stanford-led team suggest that plants did not evolve gradually over millions of years. (Many people, including me, assume that plants, animals, and even human beings change genetically in tiny increments over time.) Rather, major changes occurred millions of years apart in two condensed bursts of diversification.  The first burst resulted in the creation of seeds for reproduction.  The second burst occurred 250 million years later with the variation of flowers, including their parts, shapes, fragrances, and other features.  Note that the drivers of change are again the plant reproduction processes. 

One might think that the flowering parts evolved alongside pollinator insects.  However, the insects existed almost 200 million years before the flowers’ complexity emerged.  So, insects weren’t the catalysts.  The actual stimulus is still to be determined.

To learn more about the findings, check out this link:  https://earth.stanford.edu/news/plants-evolved-complexity-two-bursts-250-million-year-hiatus#gs.bzhs5f

 

Now, let’s consider the asteroid strike that doomed the dinosaurs. Evidence suggests that many creatures such as snakes were also negatively affected, at least initially. 

The research team involved in this study views this impact as a form of “creative destruction.”  In other words, the destruction eliminated many types of competitive snakes and dinosaurs.  Subsequently, the surviving snake population diversified into the niches formerly filled by the now-deceased species.  

Snake Image by sipa from Pixabay

The team suggests that these remaining snakes specialized and spread by experimenting with “new lifestyles and habitats.”  Many were successful. This one event triggered the evolutionary variety we find in snake species. Now, there are more than 400 types of snakes and they can be found in habitats ranging from deserts to saltwater marshes.

The team also suggests that the snake’s evolutionary diversification may be a model for what can happen in other environmental catastrophes.  Some species definitely emerge stronger.  

You can read more about this here at:  https://www.bath.ac.uk/announcements/modern-snakes-evolved-from-a-few-survivors-of-dino-killing-asteroid/

I may be the last person to learn these things, but just in case I’m not, I thought I would share them with you.

  • Did you know that some jellyfish species are found in freshwater?  I always thought that they were strictly saltwater creatures.  These freshwater types are known as medusas (Craspedacusta sowerbyi).  They seem to appear sporadically in blooms so they aren’t always there to observe.  

Some scientists speculate that they are airlifted from their point of origin which is believe to be the Yantzee River and “deposited” by birds in lakes and streams.  However, no one has ever seen a jellyfish attached to a duck, for example.  You may think that this is a geographically isolated phenomenon but these jellyfish have been found in locations as distant as Australia, Chile, and in my home state of Maine. 

Medusa Freshwater Jelly
Image by Rostislav Stefanek at Dreamstime.com
  • Because I never thought about it, I assumed that humans were the longest living mammals on the planet.  That is incorrect.  Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) live to an average age of 200 years if we don’t kill them first.  That’s still a brief lifespan compared to the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) which lives for 300 to 500 years.  This is the longest living vertebrate animal, beating out the Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis niger complex) and Orange Roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), both of which live for up to 250 years.

    Greenland Shark
    Image by Planetfelicity at Dreamstime.com
  • And while we are exploring some aquatic novelties, there is an 18-foot shark called the Megamouth Shark (Megachasma pelagios) that has been spotted only about 100 times, ever.  Despite its enormous mouth, this shark has tiny teeth.  It is a filter-feeder, eating only plankton and jellyfish.  

Consequently, stories that the shark was discovered when it swallowed a US Navy ship anchor in 1976, may be an exaggeration.  More likely, the shark became entangled in the anchor’s cabling. 

Another unique feature of this deepwater shark is its silvery-white upper lip. At one time, scientists wondered if it was bioluminescent in order to lure its prey.  Research conducted in 2020 uncovered that it was merely highly reflective.  This is an interesting adaptation, nonetheless.

Sources:

More about freshwater jellyfish — https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/fee.2343

More about freshwater jellyfish in Maine — https://www.maine.gov/dep/water/lakes/jelly.html

More about the age of various animals — https://safarisafricana.com/animals-that-live-longest/

For more information about the Megamouth — watch NatGeo’s World’s Weirdest, Season 5 Episode 3

Study about the bioluminescence study of megamouth —https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0242196

Have you ever thought about seagrass?  If you’ve walked into the ocean and tiptoed between the slimy blades waving with the tide, you’ve trodden upon seagrass.  I must admit, I’ve always considered seagrasses to be an annoyance.  They block my view of the ocean floor and feel icky on my feet. I couldn’t understand their value or purpose.  I was so wrong.

First, seagrasses are plants, not seaweeds.  They act as the “lungs of the sea.” They can photosynthesize up to 10 liters of oxygen per square meter per day.  Further, a single acre of seagrass can support more than 40,000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates such as snails, sponges, and sea anemones.  They are literally biodiversity hotspots.

This is more than enough to solidify their worth, but they do still more.  Seagrasses filter the surrounding water, removing excess nitrogen originating from chemicals.  Too much nitrogen can contribute to acidification and diminish the ocean’s health.

Another contributor to acidification is carbon dioxide.  Again, seagrasses help to correct the issue.  They absorb carbon as they photosynthesize.  Seagrass meadows are up to 35 times more effective than the Amazon rainforest in their carbon uptake and storage abilities.

The impact of acidification is profound.  As an example, it causes juvenile oysters to struggle to build and maintain their shells.  Even slight acid increases can dissolve their calcium carbonate infrastructure.  This is just one of many consequences resulting from an acid imbalance in the ocean.

Seagrasses offer at least one more vital benefit.  We’ve heard a lot about the benefits of mangroves to prevent coastal erosion, but seagrasses are equally important in this battle.  Seagrasses reduce the force of waves with their leaves and encourage the sediment carried in the water to drop to the seafloor, not accumulate further onshore. 

Again, a seemingly inconsequential plant is actually a necessity for the sustainability and survival of many other species.  I have a new respect for seagrasses.

Sources:

Smithsonian Ocean Portal on seaweed – https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/plants-algae/seagrass-and-seagrass-beds

More about seagrass and nitrogen filtration – https://aslopubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/lno.11241

More about seagrass and carbon dioxide buffering – https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/seagrasses-turn-back-clock-ocean-acidification

and here – https://oceanfdn.org/calculator/why-go-blue/

A monograph about seagrass – http://www.reefresilience.org/pdf/Managing_Seagrass_for_Resilience_to_CC.pdf

Following animal trails can be an excellent way to learn about wildlife.    Today’s stories may further expand your thinking about the value of these trails. 

Did you know that sponges are aquatic animals, not plants?  They are defined as primitive because they have few specialized cells andSponges they don’t have any organs.  Their porous bodies are made from collagen.  Water and nutrients circulate through them, so until now, people assumed that they do not move.  That assumption is wrong. 

A team from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research discovered sponge trails on the seafloor in a deep section of an Arctic sea.   The sponges are actively moving, albeit extremely slowly.  These trails are not the result of currents pushing the sponges around because there aren’t any at the depth of this finding.

Using a towed underwater camera dropped from an icebreaker, the team captured images.  These were then used to create 3D models of the sea bottom.  Surprisingly, 69% of the images had trails, many of which led to living sponges.  

The discovery prompts many additional questions.  Why do they move?  How do they move?  These are among the most basic details yet critical to determine what is going on.  Hopefully, more will be known soon.

The paper was published in Current Biology on April 21, 2021.  Go here for the summary or to access the full paper:  https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(21)00353-5?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0960982221003535%3Fshowall%3Dtrue

If there are multiple paths to get from point A to point B, how do you choose which one you will take?  Time constraints, your intentions once you arrive at point B, and even your energy level can influence your decisions.  Your cognitive abilities allow you to parse through the various options.  

Now, a study of the path choices of 164 wild primate groups in 36 countries is providing new insight into the primates’ evolutionary cognitive development.  Decision-making processes in the wild are likely to be different than those conducted in a designed experimental scenario.  New insights surely will emerge.

The foci of the studies included travel path decisions for food acquisition, avoidance of predators, and locating shelter, as examples.   Cognitive functions tested include spatial reasoning, short-term memory, and learning. While the report did not provide results or conclusions based on the data, the research design and data were interesting on their own.

One of the major benefits of this data collection is the willingness of the team to share the data with other researchers who are interested to use it for additional studies.  Though not specifically stated, I wonder if the data may also be useful information to help support and establish more connected corridors for wildlife so that they may be able to travel more safely and further ensure their survival.

You can read the full study here at :  https://www.cell.com/iscience/fulltext/S2589-0042(21)00311-4?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS2589004221003114%3Fshowall%3Dtrue

 

 

Octopuses (yes, that is the correct spelling of the plural for octopus), squids, cuttlefishes, and nautiluses, are all part of the class, Cephalopoda.  These are known to be exceptionally intelligent creatures.  Perhaps their wisdom has been passed down through the ages.  Now, their history may have been extended by millennia. 

Scientists from Heidelberg University recently discovered 522 million-year-old fossils on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, Canada.  Careful analysis suggests that these fossils may be the ancestors of the cephalopods.   This would extend their reach back another 30 million years, taking them back to the Cambrian period.  

More research is needed before this finding can be conclusive, but this would place the cephalopod ancestors on Earth before the first Trilobites!

Source:

Scientific Paper — Hildenbrand, A., Austermann, G., Fuchs, D. et al. A potential cephalopod from the early Cambrian of eastern Newfoundland, Canada. Commun Biol4, 388 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-021-01885-w

                 

 

 

JAGUAR UPDATE:  Between December 2020 and March 2021, in Sonora, Mexico, four cameras repeatedly captured video of a young, male jaguar. This property, close to New Mexico and Arizona, is a ranch owned by the local conservation organization, Cuenca Los Ojos.  

This sighting is further evidence of the potential for these animals to repopulate this area.  This previous posting provides more information. 

Source: 

Breaking story by National Geographic — https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/jaguar-near-arizona-border-wall-mexico?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=crm-email::src=ngp::cmp=editorial::add=Animals_20210325&rid=83DEC338D95F44FC5297F36131809D9A

You may have seen this story reported out on Twitter or on some other newsfeed.  If you have, and you already know what an ocean slick is, then skip the next paragraph while we get the rest of the readers caught up.   But don’t miss out on the Storymap!

If this is a new concept to you, here’s the scoop:  Slicks are “meandering lines” of smooth water on the ocean surface.  They can be created by many different ocean mechanisms, including the ripple-effect of internal waves hitting the seafloor and changing the surface pattern.   When this happens, there can also be a build-up of organic material.  The material subsequently further modifies the surface tension and can create an “oily” or slick appearance, hence the name “ocean slicks.”

A team of researchers from the University of Hawai’i and NOAA found substantially greater fish abundance in these slicks for every stage of their early lives.  The ocean slicks, it seems, are veritable fish nurseries.

Check out the original journal article here:  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-81407-0

There is also a separate, extensive set of illustrations created with the ArcGIS Storymaps tools.  The artwork is captivating and the narrative text is informative. 

Link to that here:  https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/011265358e924da3bb8497d9a78d46ac

The Storymap tool kit is a powerful enhancement to making these types of stories accessible to a wider audience. I hope more scientists use this in the future to supplement the standard academic journal reporting. 

Continuing with our oceans and freshwater theme this week, let’s explore some of the related creature research. 

First, consider the fact that seahorses (Hippocampus erectus) are poor swimmers.  They lack the basic equipment to do so and instead evolved the type of tail needed to anchor in place.  So, how did they end up in every ocean if they couldn’t swim there? 

Researchers at the University of Konstanz and several teams from China recently published the results of a genomic dispersal study in the February 17, 2021 edition of Nature Communications. The team developed an evolutionary tree of 21 seahorse species.  From this information, they were then able to reconstruct the dispersal routes.

Because seahorses can’t swim, they were often at the mercy of ocean currents and storms to help them move between oceans.   With those hooked, prehensile tails, they were able to grab onto drifting materials, and away they went.  

Keep in mind that seahorses have been part of the earth’s ecosystem for at least 20 million years.  Factor in additional tectonic plate shifting through time and its subsequent impact on the ocean’s currents, and you begin to see how the seahorses ended up throughout the world.   

The original article is really fascinating.   Check it out here:  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21379-x

Or, for a less technical summary, try this one:  https://www.uni-konstanz.de/en/university/news-and-media/current-announcements/press-releases/press-releases-in-detail/wie-seepferdchen-seit-25-millionen-jahre-die-weltmeere-erobern/

 

Did you know that you can tell a fish’s personality from the way it swims?  A team of biologists and mathematicians from Swansea University and the University of Essex revealed some interesting data in the February 22, 2021update of Ecology and Evolution.

The subjects of their assessment were wild three‐spined stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) which were caught from the campus pond and put into a large tank.  

Using high-resolution tracking techniques, the team monitored several movement and behavioral parameters.  They then looked for “interindividual differences.”  Some of these parameters include the directness of a travel path, burst (as in acceleration) frequency, and the amount of time spent near objects versus open spaces.  

There were definite differences between the fish. Of course, more research needs to be done before conclusions about personality traits can be drawn.

You can read more about this at:  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.7275

Did you know that seaweeds are not plants but rather they are marine algae?  Learning this sent me on a quest to gain a better understanding of these organisms.  

As is my habit, this means reaching out to expert source materials. In this case, it is two books:  The Curious World of Seaweed by Josie Iselin and Seaweeds: edible, available & sustainable by Ole G. Mouritsen.  What I’ve learned from these books is summarized here:

Scientists who study seaweeds are known as phycologists.  Although, phycologists tend to consider the entire group of freshwater and/or ocean algae.  There are very few who solely focus on seaweeds. 

Seaweeds have three requirements:  access to sunlight for photosynthesis, nutrients for growth, and someplace to attach themselves, which is usually on the ocean floor.  (There do seem to be some exceptions to this third requirement, however.)   The combination of these three is available in only about 2% of the ocean.  Anything deeper than 300 feet is too deep for them to successfully survive. 

Each ocean and nearshore or littoral zone has its own types of seaweeds, and some may still be out there to be discovered.  There are so many unknowns here to explore. 

There is also incredible diversity within the species.  For example, some seaweeds are less than 1/4 inch in size, while the giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) can grow to be around 200 feet long.

Seaweeds are generally classified into three main groups: green, red, or brown algae.  But don’t be fooled.  Its color doesn’t always correlate to its classification.  Tissue structure seems to be the predominant determinant of the grouping. 

There are many potential uses for seaweeds. Did you know that nearly all seaweeds are edible?  (Although, they may not all taste great.)   Beyond their use as sushi wrappers, different types of seaweeds can be used in salads, in bread, as snack cakes, and in smoothies.   Some types can even be dried and used as a salt substitute.

Other than as food, one of the first technical uses in the early 1800s was to burn kelp (a kind of seaweed) to extract the raw material, soda (sodium carbonate), needed for making glass.  In a more contemporary example, today, companies are looking to use seaweeds as a possible biofuel.

Seaweeds also have a lot of value right where they are found.   They are food sources for ocean herbivores.  They slow shoreline erosion.  Additionally, as part of the overall ocean ecosystem, they contribute to the balance of chemistry and create shelter for other species. 

I just love looking at them.   Some of my favorites include the beautiful red and orange Weeksia reticulata, found in California, Laminaria digitata, also known as Horsetail Kelp, found in Maine, and the Beautiful Fan Weed, Callophyllis laciniata, which is found off the coast of Britain.  Look them up.   Some are available for sale from collections originating back to Victorian times. 

 

I frequently learn about new organisms that have interesting properties.  In this case, I found out about an edible sea plant that isn’t seaweed.  Maybe you are already familiar with Sea Beans?  

Sea beans (genus Salicornia) grow along coastal waterways above the high-tide mark and along the banks of some salt marshes. These edible succulents are halophytes. Halophytes are salt-tolerant plants that grow in salty soil or waters. 

They go by a variety of names including Sea Asparagus, Pickleweed, Glasswort, and Samphire.

These plants grow in clusters and often look like a mat of thin, pencil-like tendrils.  During the spring and summer, when it is green, it is good to eat.   It adds a briny, crunchiness to your dinner plate or salad.   However, stay away from them when it is reddish or purplish, usually in the winter and fall, as they will be too salty for consumption.

If you live relatively close to an ocean, check out your farmer’s market to see if anyone is offering these wild sea vegetables.

Recently I learned that we are still discovering about 1800 new species each year.   I believe that this year despite the ongoing pandemic we will continue to find amazing new life.  Here is a recent report of some findings:

The ATLAS project is a multi-year research program involving more than 80 researchers from countries bordering the North Atlantic ocean.  Thus far, they have conducted more than 45 deep-water research expeditions and they have revealed multiple new life-forms, even though that is not the primary mission of the program which is to focus on in-depth assessments of the ocean’s ecosystems.

At least 12 new species have been found and at least 35 species were located in areas where they were previously unknown.   Amongst the new species were fish, deep-water corals, and other invertebrate sponge species, including a bryozoan “moss animal.”

One of the best articles discussing this research was put together by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which ironically is located not in the Atlantic Ocean!  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-29/researchers-make-new-discoveries-in-atlantic-ocean/13019244

 

 

 

 

 

Other news of ocean life includes:

In January 2021, the Wildlife Conservation Society reported that the endangered short-tail nurse shark (Pseudoginglymostoma brevicaudatum) has expanded its range by more than 1200 miles, southward and westward from Tanzania and Kenya.  Its typical coral reef locations have been under considerable threat pushing the shark to explore new areas.

This diminutive shark – just 30 inches long – needs additional conversation protection.  Very little is known about its breeding and feeding habits. 

You can read about the recent range extension and how it was identified in the Journal Marine Biodiversity volume 51, article number 7 for 2021.  Hopefully, your local library has access to a subscription.