Friday, 17 November 2017

Cold Sea Balloon... OF DEATH!

It's a drawstring bag of death! It's a bin liner of doom!

No, it's... er...

Space Invaders 3D
We first saw this flimsy sack of alienage back in 2012, when people who had no idea what they were looking at suggested it might be a placenta of whale.

Thankfully, more knowledgeable folks stepped in to clarify. It was actually a Deepstaria. In other words, a jellyfish of deep sea.

Jellyfish are weird. Everyone knows that. They don't have a face. They don't have flippers or fins or anything like that, either but... no face! I mean... How...? Never mind. Jellyfish is as jellyfish does, and they do it with an abundance of tentacles and a pulsing bell.

So what can poor, deep sea jellies do to make themselves even weirder?

Here's one solution: ease up on the tentacles and max out the bell until you're essentially a gigantic bag. Sorted!

Video: EVNautilus

Deepstaria jellyfish can reach up to a metre (3.3 ft) across and have completely given up on trying to catch a tasty morsel at the end of a tentacle. Instead, their entire body is one enormous trap. Anything unfortunate enough to swim into that gigantic bell finds their world slowly shrinking into nothing as the bell closes around them like a drawstring bag.

Once successfully bagged, it's thought that the prey would try to escape and only succeed in bumping into stinging cells (of death) on the inner side of the bell. Once they're weak or paralyzed, the body could be conveyed by waving cilia to its final resting place: the mouth at the top of the jellyfish.

Deepstaria are covered in a kind of mesh made up of canals that convey nutrients throughout its vast body, and you know, I have to admit it looks quite attractive. If my bin liner could absorb banana peels and look good doing it, I don't think I'd complain.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Cloak of the Vampire Squid

All other vampires are jealous of the Vampire Squid's beautiful, silky cloak.

Look how it shines! Count Dracula may as well be wearing cardboard compared to this!

Video: EVNautilus

These exceptional cephalopods are the only species in an order all of their own: Vampyromorphida. Their closest relatives are the octopuses and they do indeed share a lot in common with deep sea cirrate octopods like the Dumbo and the Blind Octopus. One look and you can see the flappy ear fins and the eight, webbed arms each lined with strange spines, or cirri.

But! Take a closer look and you'll find they also have a tough, internal structure called a gladius or pen. These are common in squid but absent in octopods. And if you catch one having a meal you'll get to see a pair of bizarre filaments that may well be a fifth pair of highly modified arms and are completely unknown in squid and octopods.

Vampire Squids really are in a class of their own and if any octopus or squid can match them in shininess I'd love to see it!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Namib Web-footed Gecko

Image: Matthias Neuhaus
Pachydactylus rangei
The Namib Web-footed Gecko is an adorable little lizard that isn't... all there.

Perhaps that's not surprising given where 'there' is.

Image: Joanne Goldby
These sweeties reach just 15 cm (6 in) or less long, about half of that being their tail. The other half consists almost entirely of eyeballs. Cute! Or abominable? There's a fine line when it comes to eyeballs.

Namib Web-footed Geckos leave little to the imagination with their translucent skin giving a pretty clear view of their internal organs. I doubt most people would regard this as one of their cuter characteristics, but there's probably someone out there giggling with delight at the sight of a liver. You know what people are like.

Image: Stefan K├╝mmel
Their pink, translucent skin gives these geckos a certain spooky quality. It's as if they've travelled the multiverse and left a little piece of themselves in each reality. Maybe their eyes bulged at some astonishing sight and then the wind changed and they stayed that way.

You can't blame them for wanting to attenuate their grip on this reality. Not when they live in the Namib Desert...

Image: Joanne Goldby
Take a beach. Sun, sand and sea, ice cream, palm trees and sand castles, the whole shebang. Now make it 1,000 miles long. Now make it 100 miles wide so that when you clamber onto shore from your morning swim, you see nothing but sand dunes extending into the distance. And all the ice cream has melted and evaporated. That's the Namib.

It lies on the coast of southwest Africa, extending along the entire coastline of Namibia. It's the oldest desert in the world, being 55 or more million years old, so it's pretty experienced. It really knows how the desert gig works. Thus, it experiences about 1 cm (0.4 in) of rainfall per year. Yikes! On the other hand, the Atlantic Ocean is right there, so moist sea air gets blown into the desert all the time. Even an honest-to-goodness fog is common, so there's always water available if you know how to get it.

Like almost all geckos, the Namib Web-footed Gecko lacks eyelids. Instead, a transparent scale covers each eyeball and has to be licked clean periodically to clear off any dust or dirt. In the Namib, those eyeballs get covered in more than just sand grains. Droplets of water condense on them, too, within easy reach of that thirsty tongue. Good thing those eyes are so big. You could probably water a garden with those things!

But the Namib is still a desert. Any morning dew that might form on the baking hot, sun-drenched sand immediately evaporates. It's even hot enough to burn precious tootsies and feetsies. This is where the Namib Web-footed Gecko's web-footedness comes into play.

Video: kcsund7

Those feet are shovels! The gecko uses them to dig into the fine, loose desert sands. They spend the daytime up to a metre (3.3 ft) underground, far from the sun's rays, where the sand remains cool and comfortable all day long.

They emerge at nightfall when temperatures drop precipitously. Seriously, some parts of the Namib can dip below freezing at night! But those webbed feet aren't snowshoes, they're sandshoes! The Namib Web-footed Gecko scampers over the loose sands with ease, using those enormous eyes to spy out tasty crickets, beetles and other insects in the cool of night.

Video: JuxtaposedStars
That guy must be the Sandman

Those shovel-feet come in handy (footy) when it comes to laying eggs, too. After all, a boiled egg is great for breakfast, not so much for hatchlings. First thing's first, though, males and females have to find each other in the vast, dune sea. Luckily they're quite vocal and can find each other with an array of squeaks and croaks.

After mating in April or May, the female lays a pair of eggs in an underground burrow. She's careful to find the perfect temperature and a bit of moisture too so that the little ones don't dry out. The eggs take about eight weeks to hatch and, in July to October, little babies emerge from the sand to find their first meal.

Except, they aren't that little. Newly hatched Namib Web-footed Geckos are already 10 cm (4 in) long. They only have another inch or so to grow before they're as big as their parents! I guess it's easy to grow quickly when you're not all there.

Friday, 10 November 2017

A Sponge is Never Alone

Image: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2015 Hohonu Moana
After that weird forest of sponges, I thought it would be nice to see the other side of the story.

That's right, soul-crushing loneliness! Like if you looked into the abyss and it didn't just look back, it grabbed you by the ankle, pulled you into itself and said, "Make yourself at home. If you can."

Image: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2015 Hohonu Moana
Don't worry, though...

All you have to do is look closer...

Image: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2015 Hohonu Moana
And you'll find that sponges are almost never truly alone.

They're crawling with friends. Every nook and cranny is jam-packed with friendly, friendly friends!

Image: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2015 Hohonu Moana
At least, I hope they're friends...

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Squat Urchin Shrimp

Image: Kevin Bryant
Gnathophylloides mineri
In the forest of spines, the teeny-tiny shrimp is king.

Look at this little guy! Squat Urchin Shrimp are found in shallow, tropical ocean waters all over the world but, more importantly, each one lives in a miniature world all of their own. A world composed entirely of spines.

Image: Kevin Bryant
Squat Urchin Shrimp are always found clinging to the spines of a local Sea Urchin, and they're quite picky about where exactly they'll set up home. In the Caribbean, they typically hang out on West Indian Sea Eggs (Tripneustes ventricosus), the related Collector Urchin (T. gratilla) is a constant friend throughout the Indo-Pacific while the Pebble-collector Urchin (Pseudoboletia indiana) is a favourite around Hawaii.

So while their standards are high, they're lucky enough to find many widespread Sea Urchins that fit the bill nicely.

They're scarcely a hardship, either. Squat Urchin Shrimp are less than a centimetre (0.4 in) long and fit neatly into the narrow spaces between the spines. Equally tiny relatives like the stripy Bumblebee Shrimp wow aquarists with their delicate stripes but Squat Urchin Shrimp make do with just one, large stripe along their flanks. It serves to break up their outline and affords them some camouflage among the peculiar foliage.

Hidden among the defences of their unpalatable host, Squat Urchin Shrimp have precious little reason to ever leave. They munch on the thin layer of skin which grows on those very same spines. Sounds nasty, but the skin grows back quickly enough that it's like one cow grazing on a field of grass. And they also eat bits of detritus that get caught up on the spines, so they're not all bad.

Suqat Urchin Shrimp are citizens of their own spiny planets travelling through the vastness of the ocean floor. A passing fish is an unfathomable alien from realms unknown. Now that's what I call a small world!

Monday, 6 November 2017

Penis Worm

Image: University of Bristol
OK. Roll up your sleeves, put on your surgical gloves, prepare the censor bars. It's time for the Penis Worm.

No sniggering at the back!

Friday, 3 November 2017

Granulated Starfish

Image: Samuel Chow
Choriaster granulatus
Get stuffed, teddy bear! Stay down, plushy dog! Off you hop, bunny wabbit!

There's a new soft toy in town. And he's all arms.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Bunny Harvestman

Image: Andreas Kay
Metagryne bicolumnata
Don't worry, it's not a harvester of bunnies!

It's an adorable Harvestman with bunny ears!

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