Monday, February 6, 2012

February’s Circus of the Spineless!

My first semester in college I took a course in invertebrate biology taught by a wonderful professor who later became my advisor. On the first day of class, she asked us to name some animals—whatever animals came to mind. Of the 15 or 20 students in the class, perhaps two came up with non-vertebrates.

This is disappointing but not perhaps surprising. Possessing spines ourselves, we see them everywhere around us, like someone who’s bought a new car and suddenly notices Corollas on every street. We assume that they’re the norm, and so everything from zoos to children’s books to tattoos to lists of favorite animals feature mainly other vertebrates more or less like ourselves. But what a shame! Because vertebrates are just a tiny portion of the animal species out there—we don’t even have a phylum to ourselves—and the vast majority of animals lack not only backbones but many of the traits that we take for granted.

The vast majority of animals are, in fact, far more interesting than vertebrates, and display shapes, sizes, systems, and behaviors beyond our wildest imaginings. They are the aliens among us, the other-worldly beings, the beasts of fairy-tale and myth—and this month’s submissions of posts with prove my point to you with a veritable phantasmagoria of invertebrateness.

So step right up, ladies, gentlemen, and others, and enter the Circus of the Spineless!

(And don’t worry about the ticket-taker—she’s always a little cranky first thing in the evening.)

Consider the sideshow mermaid or the Amazing Fish-Boy—those creatures that should be of land turned instead to mysterious mer-flesh, abandoning the solidity of earth for the protean pleasures of slow currents and rapturous depths. Imagine, if you will, with what similar levels of fascination and horror marine ribbon worms and aquatic flatworms would view their shockingly terrestrial brethren—the amazing Land Nemerteans and Land Planarians, oozing like slime-sheened laces over leaves and grass and stone!

Chilling, are they not? Not to worry—you can warm yourself vicariously with the story of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent shrimp (and can learn why the shrimp is not somehow miraculously invulnerable to heat, despite the claims of a newspaper article).

But perhaps you enjoy the chill. Perhaps you long to be startled and unnerved, brought out of yourself by the eerily unfamiliar. Then visit this series of portraits of arachnids and other invertebrates: close up they are as beautiful and terrifying as the beasts and monsters out of fairy tales—werewolves and evil queens with poison barbs, elves and delicate sprites.

Or visit this daring and devilish acrobat.

Or this (water)dragon.

Or become haunted by Macleay’s Spectre, an insect that seems to have the power to fade into the leaves and branches, leaving as little trace as a ghost.

Enchantment is everywhere among the invertebrates, but never more so than with those awe-inspiring magicians, the cephalopods. With a few dexterous flicks of their supple, subtle arms, they can transform trash and debris into a glorious abode—or appear and disappear at will through the magic of nerves and pigment.

Of course, we all disappear in the end. Those are pearls that were his eyes; and those are horns that were their “spines”… Nothing of these ram’s horn squid that doth fade but hath suffered a sea change: once freed of their fleshy garments, the squids’ internal shell begins a new life, drifting with the currents to new and wondrous places and astonishing and perplexing those who find them.

Speaking of perplexing, have you ever wondered how a springtail moves so fast? Neither had I, since I’d never heard about them until I read this post (and its sequel) and learned about their incredible, super-hero-like speed and the equally incredible physiological explanation for it.

And speaking of super-heroes, can you produce silk, like Spiderman? Neither can I—and neither can weaver ants! Well, not all the time, anyway, and yet they still manage to sew together their nests with silk (it’s all explained here). Ah, the glory of working together!

And yet togetherness can be a dangerous proposition. If you think riding on the bus during flu season is risky, how do you think social insects like bees feel, trapped with hundreds of their potentially contagious hive-mates during times of infection?

And it’s not just diseases you have to worry about, being around others. Sometimes a simpler form of togetherness can be just as hazardous; sometimes, especially if you’re a spider or mantid male, a little death can become a big one

The invertebrate world isn’t all about magic and poison and sexual cannibalism, though. It’s also about (often unintentional) cuteness and rare and kind of adorable color mutations.

And it’s also about the risks that so many species face because we don’t think enough about the world around us and don’t appreciate or respect those spineless wonders keeping our soil healthy, pollinating our fruits and vegetables, forming the basis of our food chains, and illuminating the world around us with majesty, mystery, or ickiness. Consider the ways in which you can help promote the cause and conservation of invertebrates. You have to admit, it’s worth it.

I’ll close with this poem by Anca Vlasopolos about another magnificent invertebrate, the

Mantis Shrimp

she looks goofy
her eyes rolling in different directions
all of her colored as if by a child trying out every purple shade in a new box

her fists have her trapped under triple glass
smaller than my pinky
she packs the wallop of a 24-caliber bullet

how do I see her
as she seeks privacy and the element of surprise

a flashing “smart” phone draws her out of her recess

I think
if in the tank the phone
would not be smart for long

Blogs/posts included above:

Ribbons: Terrestrial Nemerteans of Singapore at the Lazy Lizard’s Tales
First shot of 2012 at the dairy farm at Macro Photography in Singapore
Observations of Macleay's Spectres I at Dave Hubble's ecology spot
Year of the (water)dragon at The annotated budak
Coconut Octopus and Wonderpus at the Blennywatcher Blog
Spirula "Spines," Spread, And Spawnlings at Squid a Day/Science 2.0
Popcorn Critters on Ice at Wanderin’ Weeta
A few things you (probably) didn't know about weaver ants at Safari Ecology
Fighting Infection the Apine Way at 21stcenturynaturalist
You’re Never Too Old to Learn about Sexual Cannibalism at Beasts in a Populous City
10 Bugs 5,000 Cuter Than Puppies Or Kittens at
Things You Can Do To Promote Invertebrate Conservation at The Dragonfly Woman

{A note: Unless otherwise specified, I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

Fabulous, in all the meanings and connotations of the word.

davesbrain said...

Great post - the CoS keeps rolling on - and thanks for including the Macleay's Spectres.

Danna Staaf said...

I love it! And I'm so flattered by the embedding of my Spirula post in a Tempest quote. Simply splendid.

Joseph JG said...

Great stuff! Bravo!

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