Unfishy Fish

     What do you think of when someone says “fish”? The image of a salmon or goldfish probably pops into your mind. Or perhaps a colorful tropical reef fish. Odds are, you’re not thinking of a lipstick wearing, pancake shaped animal with frog feet and a long, pointy nose. You’re most likely not thinking of a Toblerone shaped shark with swirly nostrils either. The fact is, evolution doesn’t care what your idea of a fish is. It’s going to go with what’s successful and if it looks like a nightmare clown, so be it. Evolution doesn’t have a goal or a grand plan. What happens will happen and if something works, it persists.

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A generalized fish body plan.

     So here we are with and ocean of oddities to explore. To start with, let me introduce you to something that looks more or less like a ‘proper’ fish, but didn’t get the memo about how to swim like one. Enter, the razorfish (Aeoliscus strigatus). This fish is elongated and laterally compressed, giving it a razor thin appearance, hence the name. It feeds on tiny zooplankton such as brine shrimp as it hides among corals and seagrasses. Razorfish swim vertically in small schools with their snouts pointed down at all times. It is not known exactly why they do this, but it’s certainly entertaining to watch. With razorfish, it’s always a synchronized swim show. For the razorfish, the warm waters of the western Indo-Pacific are the perfect place to engage in these underwater ballets.

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A school of razorfish.

     Another weird, warm water inhabitant to be featured here is at home in the lower estuary of Derwent River in Tasmania and several other locations along the southeastern coast of Australia. Unfortunately, it is now critically endangered because of a multitude of factors including a low reproduction rate, habitat destruction, and suspected predation by an introduced sea star. The spotted handfish (Brachyonichthys hirsutus) has a sail like dorsal fin and large, webbed ‘hands’ which it uses to walk along the silty bottom. It belongs to of the order Lophiiformes, along with other strange members like deep sea anglerfishes and frogfish.

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Spotted handfish.

Unlike many other fish, which hatch out as larvae that further develops outside the egg, spotted handfish emerge as tiny, fully formed versions of their parents. Rather than floating among the plankton of the open water, these babies stick to the sandy floor and live out the rest of their lives there. The peculiar reproduction habits of this fish are exactly what make it vulnerable to the northern Pacific sea star (Asterias amurensis). Before they become fish, the eggs are attached to stalked sea squirts and other vertical organisms that are extremely appetizing to the star. As a consequence, the eggs are devoured along with the sea star’s target prey. Conservation efforts have since been set in motion to save this unique Australian animal. Along with a captive breeding program and hope of reintroduction, there has been some success with providing manmade alternatives for the handfish to lay their eggs on. Handfish have been using these sticks and as a result fewer eggs are lost to the ravenous sea star. The spotted handfish is a protected species and one of the benefits that comes with that status is efforts to reduce silt and pollution within the Derwent River estuary and restore quality to the fish’s habitat. Even though the spotted handfish is still very much at risk, there is hope for it and therefore hope for other endangered animals.

     Our next fish is not nearly as well known as some of the others on this list. It doesn’t live in warm water either and instead spends its life thousands of feet down on continental slopes where the majority of the sun’s light fails to reach. Chaunax pictus, the pink frogmouth, is another member of the anglerfish order. It can only be glimpsed from the window of a submersible or through the eyes of an ROV sent to explore the depths of the ocean. There is virtually no data about its reproductive habits, life cycle, or population trend. One study of C. pictus in the Arabian Sea observed that it only eats small shrimps. With a dearth of information like this, the most interesting thing about this fish is its appearance. Imagine a squat, pink or orange potato with a scowl to rival that of Grumpy Cat and you’re pretty much there.

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Pink frogmouth

The pink frogmouth uses its odd fins to crawl around over rocky slopes in search of prey when it’s not sitting motionless, camouflaged as a pissed off lump of cheese. The Chaunax in the video below starts walking at 1:55 if you’d like to see it in action.

     Slightly more attractive, though no more at home in shallow water, is the Caribbean roughshark (Oxynotus caribbaeus). One of the few fish on here that isn’t part of the anglerfish order, it is closely related to the more commonly seen prickly dogfish (Oxynotus bruniensis). Almost nothing is known about the natural history of the Caribbean roughshark other than that it inhabits the upper continental slope from the Gulf of Mexico to Venezuela. This shark has sloping sides and a concave belly that give it the appearance of an animal that was forced through a triangular Play-Doh mold. Its sandpapery skin is pale gray to white with dark brown patches, which actually make it quite striking.

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Caribbean roughshark.

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Swimming Toblerone

The prickly dogfish is less showy, but just as oddly shaped. The scales are raised and conical like studs making it truly deserving of its name. Like the Caribbean roughshark, it is small, only reaching a little over two feet from snout to tail. It has a mouth reminiscent of the cookie cutter shark and feeds on the eggs of other Chondrichthyans (cartilaginous fish). Prickly dogfish can be found in shallower water than roughsharks, but are also seen at great depths.

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Prickly dogfish.

Sharks are generally thought of as sleek and streamlined predators designed to kill, but these two species just reinforce the fact that every family has some real weirdos.

     Now we get to my personal favorite, and arguably weirdest of this group, the batfish. Despite their name, the batfishes, or Ogcocephalidae, don’t resemble bats in the least. In fact, they might be more suited to the name clownfish if that weren’t already claimed by the well known anemonefish everyone knows and loves from “Finding Nemo”. All batfishes are strange looking, but the red lipped batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini) takes the cake. With flattened body, nose-like face protrusion, and bright red lipstick looking like it was put on while drunk, this fish could be mistaken for a clown at a sorority party gone a little too far.

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Hey there, beautiful!

Also called the Galapagos batfish, it does indeed inhabit the warm, shallow waters of the Galapagos islands and nowhere else. It can be found swimming very awkwardly along reef edges over sandy substrate where its prey resides. Much of the time, it doesn’t even bother to swim. Instead, it crawls along the sand like a squashed frog and pauses frequently to lure prey.

Whereas many of its angler relatives use a nifty lure that comes out near the head region, the red-lipped batfish has one just above its lips under that pointy nose, which makes it look exactly like it has a perpetual booger hanging out of its nostril. The lure is bobbed up and down, acting as both a visual and chemical attractant for small invertebrates and a turn off for anyone else.

     Of course, it’s not this poor batfish’s fault that it looks so ridiculous. It has evolution to thank for that. For some reason, this strange body plan worked and stuck around as a result. The same goes for the rest of the fish featured in this article and so many more that it would be impossible to cover them all here. This was just a taste of the numerous odd ducks of the fish world and hopefully another motivation to keep exploring the stranger things out there. You never know what we might find next.

References:

1. Clemens, Danny. “The Red-Lipped Batfish Is Always Ready for a Night on the Town.” DSCOVRD. Discovery Channel, 07 July 2015. Web. 21 July 2016.

2. Montoya, P. Zelda, et al. “The Natural History and Husbandry of the Walking Batfishes (Lophiiformes: Ogcocephalidae).”DRUM and CROAKER: 6.

3. Schulz, Katja. “Galápagos Batfish – Ogcocephalus darwini.” Encyclopedia of Life. EOL, 2014. Web. 21 July 2016.

4. Rijnsdorp, A. D., M. Costa, and T. Munroe. “Chaunax pictus (Pink Frogmouth, Redeye).” IUCN. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2015. Web. 21 July 2016.

5. Leandro, L. “Oxynotus caribbaeus (Caribbean Roughshark).” IUCN. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2004. Web. 21 July 2016.

6. McGrouther, Mark. “Prickly Dogfish, Oxynotus bruniensis.” Australian Museum. Australian Museum, 2 Dec. 2013. Web. 21 July 2016.

7. McGrouther, Mark. “Spotted Handfish, Brachyonichthys Hirsutus.” Australian Museum. Australian Museum, 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 21 July 2016.

8. “Spotted Handfish (Brachyonichthys hirsutus).” Arkive.org. Wildscreen, n.d. Web. 21 July 2016.

9. Capuli, Emily Estelita. “Aeoliscus Strigatus.” FishBase. Ed. Roxanne Rei Valdestamon. Sea Around Us, n.d. Web. 21 July 2016.

Photo and Video Links:

1. http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/fishtree_02

2. http://les-z-animaux.e-monsite.com/k/poissons-marins-tropicaux/autres-poissons-marins-tropicaux/poissons-lapins-et-poissons-rasoirs/poisson-rasoir-aeoliscus-strigatus.html

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN9Rc5DrOzw

4. http://www.arkive.org/spotted-handfish/brachionichthys-hirsutus/

5. http://www.uniprot.org/taxonomy/242967

6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WC69Iq8oMlo

7. http://shark-references.com/species/view/Oxynotus-caribbaeus

8. http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Oxynotus

9. https://australianmuseum.net.au/prickly-dogfish-oxynotus-bruniensis-ogilby-1893

10. http://www.natgeocreative.com/photography/1231868

11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9inncLXAHg

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Are Pokémon Animals?

I have mentioned Pokémon before in my articles, but have only in passing. I now think it is time to take a scientific approach and look at these interesting, fictional organisms through the lens of science. Before we explore the title question, we first need to define what constitutes an animal. Animalia is one of the seven (as per the most recent revision of biological classification) kingdoms of life. The others are Plantae, Fungi, Protozoa, Chromista (diatoms, brown algae, etc.), Archaea, and Bacteria. Animals are multicellular, eukaryotic, heterotrophic organisms that lack cell walls. The cells are grouped into tissues, with each tissue having a specific purpose. Sponges, which are essentially just a clump of cells without any body symmetry, are the exception. As there are no sponge Pokémon to date, we do not have to worry about this. Animals must be able to move voluntarily and independently at some stage in their lives and develop until they reach a fixed body plan.

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Protista is used here rather than Protozoa, but they both constitute the same types of organisms.

So, are Pokémon animals? The answer is, it’s hard to tell, but they probably are. There isn’t a way to know whether or not a Pokémon’s cells have cell walls because there is no data about their cellular structure, so we don’t have this to go on. All Pokémon appear to have body symmetry, one exception being Ditto. Ditto throws a wrench into the equation because it has an amorphous form, but can reorganize its body structure to take on the appearance and abilities of any other Pokémon. However, Ditto may be the result of a failed human experiment to clone Mew, the ancestor of all Pokémon. For this reason, we will exclude Ditto from our discussion because it was created through human intervention and did not evolve naturally. We’ll come back to Pokémon “evolution” later.

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This Ditto is sad because it doesn’t fit in.

Another stumper is when we start to consider Pokémon diets. Most seem to be heterotrophs, like animals, but some are described feeding exclusively on rock or metal (lithotrophs), while some can photosynthesize (autotrophs). Heterotrophs are organisms that must use organic carbon sources for energy because they cannot fix it themselves like other organisms. Plants can. They convert light energy into more complex organic compounds through photosynthesis. A handful of Pokémon actually are able to sustain themselves on nothing more than electricity. Does this mean that these rock, metal, and electron eating Pokémon species are not animals? Not necessarily. We haven’t learned all there is to know about Animalia yet and it is possible that there are animals yet to be discovered with highly diverse diets that deviate from the standard heterotroph. Many of Pokémon are also capable of enjoying Pokémon food that is made from berries and other organic material, as well as treats such as Pokéblocks (candy for Pokémon) or Poffins (a pastry-like Pokémon treat). Even Pokémon of the Ghost Type, the majority of which appear to be non-corporeal beings, will take Pokémon food if it is offered.
Many real life animals will often consume non-organic substances such as clay to supplement their diets or neutralize toxins in their food. However, this alone is not enough to sustain them. Animals MUST ingest other living things or their products to survive. There is nothing that says that the stranger Pokémon species need to eat something other than iron ore or enough dirt to make an entire mountain.

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Aron, the iron eater.

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Larvitar, the mountain eater.

Some Pokémon are very plant-like. These are the Grass Type Pokémon. Many of them have abilities like Chlorophyll or Solar Power. Some of these Pokémon species look more like animals that others, though, so how can they be plants? The answer is: they don’t have to be if they participate in mutualism. Mutualism is a form of symbiosis in which both parties benefit from an interaction. It could be that all of the photosynthesizing Pokémon are hosts for special algae or other organisms that can fix carbon so that it is usable. In return, these Pokémon provide their little sun factories with precious nutrients. A few existing animals do this too, so it’s not really that out there to consider it in Pokémon.
Pokémon fill all the requirements of being animals except for their diets. We are still learning much about many strange metabolisms and food preferences in the animal kingdom, so I don’t think we can exclude Pokémon from Animalia just for this, as I mentioned above. We’ll keep exploring their biology.
Getting back to that “evolution” thing. Most, but not all Pokémon, go through “evolution”. Pokémon “evolution” is different from the Darwinian evolution that we know and love. It is predictable and occurs within the same individual. Pokémon evolution is analogous to metamorphosis in the real world. In fact, there are some Pokémon species that perfectly follow metamorphosis in real animals like butterflies, moths, and frogs. Pokémon can also be confirmed to have a Darwinian evolutionary history simply because of the fact that there are “ancestor Pokémon” like Mew that contain the basic genetic blueprints of all future Pokémon, and “fossil Pokémon” such as Omanyte and Anorith. Natural Selection seen in the Pokémon world emphasizes the presence of Darwinian evolution as well. Different regions provide a wide variety of habitats and the Pokémon found in these areas are well adapted to the conditions. This suggests that there is a process of adaptation over generations of Pokémon that resulted in the ones we see today that thrive in their respective environments.

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Mew, the ridiculously cute ancestor of all Pokémon.

At this point, I feel that is safe to place Pokémon within Animalia. If they existed, they would make up their own separate phylum. Pokémon are incredibly diverse, and many don’t even look like they are related at all. But, just take a look at our own phylum, Chordata. There is a ridiculous amount of variation within it. Chordata contains animals ranging from simple, filter feeding tunicates, all the way to elephants, whales, birds, snakes, and of course, humans. Pokémon can take the form of gargantuan, dragon like creatures, or something as out there as a living pile of garbage. As briefly mentioned, there are different Types (18 in all) of Pokémon. Pokémon of the same type share similar abilities, weaknesses, and strengths. There is a Primary Type, and a Secondary Type. These Types could be thought of as analogous to classes within biology. Secondary Types would comprise the subclasses. For example, a Pokémon could be of the Fire Type class, but also belong to the Ground Type as its subclass.

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The 18 Types of Pokémon.

But why did I choose class rather than some other higher or lower taxonomic ranking? It is because class seems to fit the variation observed within Pokémon types quite nicely and is a good reflection of a class such as Mammalia (our class). Every member of Mammalia is, by definition, a mammal. The blue whale is the most massive animal to have ever lived on this planet, yet falls into the same biological class as the tiny, extinct Batodonoides vanhouteni (a shrew-like mammal) and egg-laying mammals like platypuses and echidnas. Though they differ greatly, all these animals have a handful of defining features that set them apart from any other class. As is their namesake, all mammal species are capable of producing milk through mammary glands. Likewise, a Pokémon belonging to a specific Type will also share similar traits with fellow members of that Type that others don’t possess (unless those others have it as their Secondary Type/subclass). Water Types, for example, all appear to have increased fitness in rain and become weakened and dehydrated by hot, dry weather.

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Swampert is a Water/Ground Pokémon. This means that its Primary Type is Water and its Secondary Type is Ground. Because of this, it has the unique traits of both Types. It is also one of my favorite Pokémon!

As with animals, there are many other ways to rank Pokémon taxonomically. We could break them into phyla, orders, families, genera, and individual species. Analysis of all taxonomic rankings like this would probably go on for pages and pages, so we will cut it off at classification by Type and the educated assumption that Pokémon are in fact part of Animalia. Even though these creatures are not real, it is always fun to speculate and dig into the “what ifs”. This curiosity and exploration is the whole basis for science fiction, one of the most popular genres of all time, and it enriches our imaginations and our lives.

References:
1. Myers, Phil. “Animalia (animals).” Animal Diversity Web. Univerisity of Michigan Museum of Zoology, 2001. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.

2. Ruggiero, Michael A., et al. “A higher level classification of all living organisms.” PloS one 10.4 (2015): e0119248.

3. Venn, A. A., J. E. Loram, and A. E. Douglas. “Photosynthetic symbioses in animals.” Journal of Experimental Botany 59.5 (2008): 1069-1080.

4. Trench, R. K. “The cell biology of plant-animal symbiosis.” Annual Review of Plant Physiology 30.1 (1979): 485-531.

5. Barbo, Maria S. The Official Pokémon Handbook. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Print.

6. “Type.” Bulbapedia. Web. 23 Dec. 2015.

7. Bloch, Jonathan I., Kenneth D. Rose, and Philip D. Gingerich. “New Species of Batodonoides (lipotyphla, Geolabididae) from the Early Eocene of Wyoming: Smallest Known Mammal?”. Journal of Mammalogy 79.3 (1998): 804–827.

Photo Links:
1. http://www.tanelorn.us/data/mycology/myc_kingdom.htm

2. http://www.aminoapps.com/page/pokemon/2097774/ditto

3. http://www.serebii.net/card/risingrivals/057.shtml

4. http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Larvitar_%28Pok%C3%A9mon%29

5. http://attackofthefanboy.com/guides/get-mew-pokemon-red-blue-yellow/

6. https://people.rit.edu/~dap4092/230/project1/basics.html

7. http://www.deviantart.com/art/Swampert-118686577

 

Ancient Treasures of Puget Sound – Bluntnose Sixgill Shark

Love them or hate them, sharks are critically important to the health of our oceans. That’s just an undeniable fact. As apex predators, they have far reaching effects that help regulate the ecosystem down to the level of organisms on which they do not even directly prey. These incredible, ancient fish have been around for many millions of years longer than any dinosaur and have remained relatively unchanged since. Currently, however, more than 60 percent of all shark species on the planet are somewhere on the spectrum of threatened to critically endangered. This is extremely wrong. Animals that have survived for so long and through so much should not be pushed to the edge of extinction by the ridiculous blunders of such a self-absorbed species. Thankfully, there has recently been a worldwide effort to protect sharks and a decline of practices like the slaughtering of sharks for their fins or livers and recreational shark fishing.

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Pictured: A cruel, wasteful, and shameful practice.

Here in Puget Sound we are very fortunate to have bluntnose sixgill sharks (Hexanchus griseus). These Sound sharks are now protected after a closure on recreational sixgill fishing was put into action by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). This ban was in response to public outrage over the capture of several local sixgills from Elliot Bay fishing piers. The WDFW also initiated a research program with the Seattle Aquarium, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries Service, and other scientific partners such as the University of Washington, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and Vancouver Aquarium in an effort find more about these little known, deep water sharks.

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Thanks to efforts like these, we now have more information about sixgills, especially in Puget Sound. Sixgills, as with other deep water animals, have consistent daily patterns. They migrate down to great depths during the day and rise to shallower water at night. This is called diel vertical migration and is largest mass movement of organisms on the planet at one time. However, Puget Sound sixgills are often found in much shallower water than is typical elsewhere – sometimes as shallow as about ten feet during the day. Fortunately, this makes them easier to research. Through capture and tagging studies, it has been determined that most of the sharks in Puget Sound are sub-adults. It is suggested that Puget Sound may serve as a nursery for these animals until they have reached sexual maturity and leave to lead a more pelagic lifestyle. Not only are these sixgills young, but there is a high level of relatedness among juveniles that inhabit the same area. DNA studies found that sharks that were punch biopsied within the same set were significantly more likely to be related to each other than not. These sets consisted mostly of siblings and half siblings. From all the sharks sampled in Puget Sound during this study, analysis resulted in the identification of 33 cohorts. The stranding of a large adult female carrying 71 full-term pups in southern Puget Sound gave researchers an opportunity to look at relatedness within a litter, and confirmed the suspicion that females are polyandrous, that is, mating with more than one male during a breeding season. Six male sharks contributed to the genetics of this litter, but the contribution was unequal because only a few of them contributed the majority of the genotypes found.

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This neo-natal pup shows the green eyes and long upper portion of the caudal fin that are characteristic features of sixgill sharks.

Litters can range from 22 to 108 pups and gestation is hypothesized to be no less than 12 months and quite likely closer to 24 months or more. During breeding, male sharks appear to nip at the female’s gill area to get her attention and to entice her to mate as evidenced by white marks observed by biologist divers only during this time of the year. Similar behavior is seen in other shark species. Female sixgills mature at around 14 feet and males at closer to 10. As with many sharks, sixgills seem to grow slowly, but not a lot is known about age at maturity or rate of growth. One shark was found to double in size over its first year of life and then was recaptured later appearing to have grown around a third of an inch per month since. This is just one individual, however, and a much larger sample across different populations would be needed to fully understand sixgill growth rate.

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At full size, the biggest sixgills can grow to a little over 15 feet, making this shark the largest fish in Puget Sound and one of the largest living sharks in the world. As their name suggests, they have six gill slits behind the head rather than the usual five found in most sharks. Their snouts are large and rounded, hence bluntnose, and protrude in front of jaws containing very unique teeth. The upper jaw has rows of thin, hook-like teeth that are common in many shark species. However, the lower jaw contains teeth that differ highly from those of other sharks. These teeth from rows of six on either side of the jaw and are deeply serrated like saw blades. Teeth like this are very similar to those seen in Jurassic sharks, suggesting that this species is quite ancient and primitive. Since these animals normally spend their time in very deep water (up to over 8,000 feet down – to put this in perspective, a mile is 5,280 feet) where food is scarce, they take every opportunity to scavenge when they can. Having saw like teeth on the lower jaw and puncturing teeth on the top jaw help them hold and saw through large chunks of flesh such as whale blubber. This allows them to remove more manageable pieces from huge carcasses, which they then swallow whole.

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Illustration of upper and lower teeth

Not only are sixgills adaptable, deep sea scavengers, they are also skilled predators. These fish are capable of surprisingly great bursts of speed that contrasts with their sluggish appearance and behavior. Prey can include anything from crabs, mollusks, and teleosts (bony fish) to other cartilaginous fish or even marine mammals. Despite this, there has never been a serious injury or fatality recorded as a result of interaction with a sixgill shark. On the contrary, people often go on dives in Puget Sound specifically to see them. Sixgills do not appear to fear humans and show inquisitive behavior when they encounter one. If a person gets too close for the animal’s comfort, it will calmly swim away. Touching a sixgill may cause it to whip around and nip at the diver in warning, but no injuries usually occur and those that do are minor. Still, sixgill sharks are very big and powerful animals that should always be treated with caution. Even biologists who study sixgill behavior and are very knowledgeable will conduct their research from the safety of a shark cage or a boat and give the sharks their space when diving with them.

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For the research that has been done on bluntnose sixgill sharks, we have barely touched the surface when it comes to understanding their lives and the ecological roles they play. What we do know gives us even more incentive to protect and study these amazing creatures. If Puget Sound is in fact a nursery for pups and young adult sharks, then it is a valuable resource for maintaining the genetic diversity of this species. Many shark species suffer from low genetic diversity caused by human actions and the fact that they reproduce slowly. Puget Sound sixgills, even with the relatively high number of related individuals, still shows moderate genetic diversity. Preserving safe and productive areas like Puget Sound is crucial to the survival of shark species worldwide. Sharks are excellent indicators of environmental health and where they do well, other species will undoubtedly thrive as well. Helping sharks like Puget Sound sixgills helps improve our planet’s oceans little by little, and in turn, our lives.

References:
1. Martin, R. Aidan.  “Swimming with Jurassic Sharks.” ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research (2003). http://www.elasmo-research.org/education/topics/d_jurassic_shark.htm

2. Larson, Shawn, et al. “Relatedness and polyandry of sixgill sharks, Hexanchus griseus, in an urban estuary.” Conservation Genetics 12.3 (2011): 679-690.

3. Ebert, David A. “Biological aspects of the sixgill shark, Hexanchus griseus.” Copeia (1986): 131-135.

4. Andrews, Kelly S., et al. “Diel activity patterns of sixgill sharks, Hexanchus griseus: the ups and downs of an apex predator.” Animal Behaviour 78.2 (2009): 525-536.

5. Andrews, K. S., et al. “Acoustic monitoring of sixgill shark movements in Puget Sound: evidence for localized movement.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 85.11 (2007): 1136-1143.

6. Rupp, J. “A natural history of the sixgill shark, Hexanchus griseus.” Proc Puget Sound Res (2001).

7. Bauml, J. “Hexanchus griseus.” Animal Diversity Web (2004). Web. 11 Feb. 2016 http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Hexanchus_griseus/

Photo and Video Links:
1. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/07/23/massachusetts-ban-shark-fin-trade/S1eoogIdZ8W9UbqalQguQO/story.html

2. http://shark-references.com/species/view/Hexanchus-griseus

3.http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/bottomfish/identification/sharks_skates_ratfish/h_griseus.html

4. http://www.arkive.org/bluntnose-six-gill-shark/hexanchus-griseus/

5. http://cookislands.bishopmuseum.org/showImage.asp?file=MM/MX5/5BB029_Hexa-gris_2FAO_zzMX.JPG&title=Hexanchus+griseus++%28Bluntnose+Sixgill+Shark%29&height=400&width=600

6. http://www.seattleaquarium.org/sixgill-sharks

7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4cAlgiX59I

What You Didn’t Want to Know About Part III: Sexy Legs – Ricinuleids

The arachnids belonging to the order Ricinulei, or hooded tick spiders, are neither spiders nor ticks. At first glance, these primitive arachnids look a lot like your typical spider. However, if you look closely you will notice that they have segmented abdomens unlike spiders and a complete lack of eyes. It’s like they were trying really hard to cosplay as a spider but missed most of the critical details on their costume. Even so, you’ll probably never have to worry about making this distinction because ricinuleids are rare in comparison to other arthropods. Though locally abundant, only 55 species worldwide have been identified since the order’s discovery in 1838 and specimens are few and far between. A fossil of an extinct Carboniferous species was found in 1837, but the guy who found it thought it kind of looked like a beetle, so it wasn’t identified as a ricinuleid until later. Extant species are found in tropical regions of Central America and western and central Africa where they live in soil and litter.

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I can’t decide what I want to be, so I’ll be everything!

Very little is known about this animal group even today, but scientists do know that males use their modified third pair of legs for sex. That’s important. Not just because it’s funny, but because looking at ricinuleid junk can be critical to species identification. These legs are used to hold and then transfer seminal fluid into a mounted female’s genital opening. Females store the sperm for later when they are ready to fertilize their eggs. The eggs are laid singly and sometimes carried around by the mother that laid them. Interestingly, baby ricinuleids hatch with only six legs instead of the usual eight that is the signature of arachnids. This and other morphological features is shared with Acari, or mites and ticks, and is believed to be indicative of a close relationship with that order. As the young develop, they grow their final pair of legs and start to look more like proper arachnids.

Fig-1-The-pedipalps-of-Pseudocellus-pearsei-a-Dorsal-view-of-a-tritonymph-The

This is what the female gets stuck up her lady parts…

If you are so inclined, this paper has an even better picture of the male pedipalp: http://www.scielo.br/pdf/zool/v29n5/v29n5a12

Why are they called “hooded” tick spiders? The spider and tick parts of the common name are understandable, as they look a bit like spiders and are related to mites and ticks, but what about them is hooded? As it happens, ricinuleids have a cute little hood on their heads called the cucullus that can be raised or lowered at will. When the hood is down, it covers their mouthparts completely. How polite! The purpose and function of this structure is not yet understood, but it is one of their most defining features.

cryptocellus_goodnighti

I’m not going to show you my mouth because that would be rude.

Ricinuleids may not be as fierce looking as amblypygids or as cool as vinegaroons, but they’ve been around the block and certainly have their own special quirks. So give them a round of applause for just sticking with it and existing all these years. If any order goes unappreciated, it’s the hooded tick spiders.

References:
1. Harvey, Mark S. Catalogue of the smaller arachnid orders of the World: Amblypygi, Uropygi, Schizomida, Palpigradi, Ricinulei and Solifugae. CSIRO publishing, 2003.

2. Harvey, Mark S. “The neglected cousins: what do we know about the smaller arachnid orders?.” Journal of Arachnology 30.2 (2002): 357-372.

3. Adis, Joachim U., et al. “On the abundance and ecology of Ricinulei (Arachnida) from Central Amazonia, Brazil.” Journal of the New York Entomological Society (1989): 133-140.

4. Ewing, H. E. “A synopsis of the American arachnids of the primitive order Ricinulei.” Annals of the Entomological Society of America 22.4 (1929): 583-600.

5. Platnick, Norman I. “A new Cryptocellus (Arachnida: Ricinulei) from Brazil.” Journal of the New York Entomological Society (1988): 363-366.

6. Talarico, G., J. G. Palacios-Vargas, and G. Alberti. “The pedipalp of Pseudocellus pearsei (Ricinulei, Arachnida)–ultrastructure of a multifunctional organ.” Arthropod structure & development 37.6 (2008): 511-521.

Photo Links:
1. http://museum.wa.gov.au/catalogues-beta/ricinuleids

2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5346975_The_pedipalp_of_Pseudocellus_pearsei_Ricinulei_Arachnida_-_ultrastructure_of_a_multifunctional_organ

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricinulei#/media/File:Cryptocellus_goodnighti.jpg

What You Didn’t Want to Know About Part II: Smells Like Vinegar – Uropygids

The order Uropygi (Thelyphonida) contains animals that are essentially really buff scorpions with whips on their butts instead of stinger tipped tails. They are often called whip scorpions for this reason. Another popular name for uropygids is vinegaroon because they use this whip to spray a mixture of acetic acid (vinegar) and other compounds when threatened or harmed. Their bodies are bulky and well armored, with powerful crushing structures on their pedipalps. These spine-like protrusions are used to capture and hold prey before tearing it apart. Similar to amblypygids, their elongated first pair of walking legs are held out in front to help with navigation. All of these features can make vinegaroons appear larger and scarier than they actually are, at least to us. The largest species in the world, Mastigoproctus giganteus, only reaches a maximum length of 3.3 inches, which is not huge compared to other arachnids.

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Do you think you’re tough enough to take me on?

Fearsome as they may look, vinegaroons fit with our running theme of tender arachnid sex. When it’s time to make babies, the male gently grasps the female’s antenniform legs and then turns around so that they are both facing the same direction. He deposits a spermatophore on the ground and then grabs it, turns around again, and places it into the female during an abdominal embrace. She can then fertilize her eggs and will lay them within a few months. To do this, she digs a burrow and seals herself inside. Eggs are laid into a sac on the underside of her abdomen, which she holds aloft so as not to drag the eggs on the ground when moving. She does not eat during this time, which is impressive because it can take several months for the eggs to develop and hatch. Newly hatched vinegaroons ride on their mother’s back until their first molt.

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Arachnid sex in action!

Most species from this order inhabit tropical regions, but a few, like M. giganteus, live in arid desert environments like many of their true scorpion cousins. M giganteus can be found in the American Southwest and Mexico where it serves an important role as a predator of pests such as cockroaches and crickets. This vinegaroon was the subject in a study by Schmidt et al. (2000) to better understand the composition of the spray. It was often believed that vinegaroon secretions contain formic acid in addition to acetic acid, but this is false. The study analyzed the fluid within the pygidial glands of vinegaroons of different ages and sexes and found that none contained formic acid. The major components of vinegaroon spray are acetic acid, which gives it the strong vinegar smell, octanoic acid, and water. The purpose of this fluid cocktail was also reevaluated in the study. It was only ever used in self-defense, and even then only if that vinegaroon was directly attacked. It appears as though predators are not deterred by being sprayed inside the mouth. However, any contact with sensory tissue such as the eyes, skin, or an arthropod’s feelers can be irritating enough to put off the attacker. In one particular trial, the researchers placed a sulfugid (camel spider) in with a first instar (between first and second molt) vinegaroon and it got a face full of spray. After that, it ran around the cage frantically trying to clean its face with sand and refused to touch another vinegaroon after that. Adult vinegaroons have little to fear, for they are powerful predators themselves and have tough armor to protect them. In the event that they are attacked, though, the spray is an effective way of letting the predator know to back off.

These animals demonstrate that you don’t have to be big, aggressive, or venomous to make it in this world. When faced with danger, you don’t have to fight. Just be really irritating and maybe you’ll be left alone!

References:
1. Schmidt, Justin O., et al. “Chemistry, ontogeny, and role of pygidial gland secretions of the vinegaroon Mastigoproctus giganteus (Arachnida: Uropygi).” Journal of insect physiology 46.4 (2000): 443-450.

2. Rowland, J. Mark, and John AL Cooke. “Systematics of the arachnid order Uropygida (= Thelyphonida).” Journal of Arachnology (1973): 55-71.

3. Harvey, Mark S. Catalogue of the smaller arachnid orders of the World: Amblypygi, Uropygi, Schizomida, Palpigradi, Ricinulei and Solifugae. CSIRO publishing, 2003.

4. Harvey, Mark S. “The neglected cousins: what do we know about the smaller arachnid orders?.” Journal of Arachnology 30.2 (2002): 357-372.

5. Pocock, R. I. “Arachnida.” The Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma. London: Taylor and Francis, 1900. 100-131.

Photo and Video Links:
1. https://www.flickr.com/photos/slopjop/1307601869/

2. http://bugguide.net/node/view/341893

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNnKzoQwdAc

What You Didn’t Want to Know About Part I: What the HELL are These Things?! – Amblypygids

We all know (or hopefully we do) that spiders and scorpions are arachnids – arthropods with eight legs belonging to the class Arachnida – but let’s talk about some of the stranger members of this taxonomic group you’ve probably never heard of. Amblypygi, Thelyphonida (the Uropigids), and Ricinulei. What are those?! To be perfectly frank and scientific here, all of these orders are hella weird. Let’s start with Amblypygi.
What happens when you combine a scorpion, a spider, a mantis, and your worst nightmares?

Heterophrynus sp.

You get this gorgeous fellow! Amblypygid means “blunt butt” because these arachnids have no tails, unlike the one we’ll get to in the next part. They are commonly called whip spiders, tailless whip scorpions, or “that thing that Mad-Eye Moody (actually Barty Crouch Junior disguised with Polyjuice Potion – spoilers!) demonstrated the unforgivable curses on in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”, all of which are much easier to pronounce than amblypygid. With leg spans easily reaching over a foot in some species, Amblypygi are the world’s largest living arachnids. Despite their fearsome appearance and movie monster like habits of hanging out in dark places and mainly emerging at night, they are completely harmless to humans. The worst you can get from one of these guys is a minor rose thorn prick from their pedipalp spines and a good scare (and this is if you really push their buttons). Personally, I don’t find them scary at all, but I’m sure a lot of people do. You can actually get them as pets if you’re that weird. Thankfully for my family, I’m not that weird (maybe).
Whip spiders inhabit tropical and sub-tropical regions where their flattened bodies make it easy to sit under bark, under rocks, and in all other stereotypical creepy crawly hiding places. Some are even found in caves and like to hang from the walls or ceiling with their footpads, or pulvilli. At night, they will come out to hunt and get it on with other whip spiders. When this happens, some form of courtship ritual occurs which differs across genera. The male whip spider then backs up toward the female and places a spermatophore (a capsule of sperm) on the ground in front of her before turning to face her again. He entices her to step forward over the spermatophore and take the sperm into her genital opening. After this process the sexes separate and the female later lays eggs into an egg sac under her abdomen. The babies that hatch will ride on her back until after the first molt when they are ready to move around on their own. Tough luck if they accidentally fall off before this, though, because they get no help whatsoever to climb back on and will surely die.

mready-diad017

Whip spider babies, like most other arachnids, are miniature versions of the adults. These animals have an unusual first pair of legs. They are so ridiculously elongated and multisegmented that they have taken on the role of antennae and are no longer used for walking. The antenniform legs are held out in front of the animal to help it with navigation and prey location. These “whips” are what give this arachnid its common names. Cave dwelling species often possess even longer legs and some lose their pigmentation and have a reduction or loss of eyes. Amblypygids weren’t even described until the first one was found by Linnaeus in 1758. Up until the mid-1800s, very few more species were named and the number of species fluctuated greatly in the 1890s. Today, there are 136 separate species described with the prediction that this number will climb as the different genera are examined further.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about amblypygids is that some species are social and regularly aggregate in small to large groups. Occasionally this will occur in an outhouse, much to the dismay of anyone needing to use it. In 2006, a study was conducted at Cornell University’s Department of Entomology by Linda Raynor and Lisa Anne Taylor on social interactions in two species of amblypygid, Phrynus marginemaculatus and Damon diadema. What they found was actually pretty sweet… for an arachnid. For the first four months of their lives, both species in the study stayed close to their mother and oriented toward her. She would actively seek them out, settle herself in the middle of the group, and proceed to stroke her children gently with her whips for several minutes at a time. The babies would return this gesture. One female P. marginemaculatus had several groups of babies scattered through the enclosure and visited each of them. Young amblygygids would also show this amicable interaction with their siblings until reaching sexual maturity. Siblings approached each other and greeted each other directly by repeated stroking of their whips. The only signs of aggression ever seen during this time were very mild. Sometimes if an individual entered a tight group of other amblypygids, the members of the aggregation would show a slight threat display by opening their pedipalps. This was very brief, however, and soon led to stroking of the new individual. When a threatening disturbance occurred, young amblypygids would rapidly group together around their mother, often running underneath her. When the researchers put their hands into the cage to transfer a female and her offspring to a new one, she ferociously (and effectively) defended them by trying to stab the offending hand with her palp spines. In contrast, a hilariously ineffective attempt to arouse antipredatory behavior in the amblypygids (to test whether safety in numbers may be a reason for aggregation) involved the researchers placing an anole lizard in their cage. Neither species was perturbed by this and contrarily approached the lizard and explored every inch of it with their whips. Even a tiny, yearling P. marginemaculatus walked right up to it, stroked it for about five minutes, and then calmly walked away.

amblypygids and anole
Say what you will about amblypygids, but you have to admit that they’re, at the least, interesting animals. They give us a great example of the wide range of adaptations that arachnids possess and the variety of appearances they can take on, even if that appears to be a purposeful combination of the creepiest invertebrates on earth. Amblypygids, strange as they are, deserve to be loved and appreciated as much as any other animal does. I’m happy if this article brought even one person reading it a little further away from the disgust and fear that may have been felt in response to the first picture.

References:
1. Harvey, Mark S. Catalogue of the smaller arachnid orders of the World: Amblypygi, Uropygi, Schizomida, Palpigradi, Ricinulei and Solifugae. CSIRO publishing, 2003.

2. Harvey, Mark S. “The neglected cousins: what do we know about the smaller arachnid orders?.” Journal of Arachnology 30.2 (2002): 357-372.

3. Pocock, R. I. “Arachnida.” The Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma. London: Taylor and Francis, 1900. 100-131.

4. Rayor, Linda S., and Lisa Anne Taylor. “Social behavior in amblypygids, and a reassessment of arachnid social patterns.” Journal of Arachnology 34.2 (2006): 399-421.

Photo and Video Links:
1. https://www.flickr.com/photos/108308648@N03/14988647707/in/album-72157644982132499/

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2htMZ3Vmc8w

3. http://michaelready.photoshelter.com/image/I0000Ki2k4OtYvrs

4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7wKyV7jMJ4

5. http://www.jstor.org.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/stable/4129799?seq=16#page_scan_tab_contents

Reindeer Games

Contrary to popular belief, reindeer cannot fly. I know, I know! I’m destroying Christmas here. The truth, however, is even more interesting. Reindeer may not be able to fly, but they sure know how to get high. More on that later.

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The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), also known as the caribou, is a small member of the deer family found throughout the Arctic and Subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Reindeer travel in large herds and are well known for their extreme migrations. Some subspecies have been found to move as far as 3,100 miles in a single year. To do this, they obviously need to be able to cover huge amounts of land in a relatively short period of time. Running seems the best way to accomplish this and they do in fact excel at it. These animals can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour when they are at a full sprint and can easily swim at 4 mph if it is necessary to cross water.

reindeer-females-and-calf-running
In the summer when reindeer move to the tundra to feed and give birth, they are plagued by swarms of bloodsucking black flies and mosquitoes. This can sometimes drive them crazy, causing members of the herd to bolt and run wildly to escape the onslaught. The stress from these biting insects is so intense that it can sometimes even inhibit their feeding and ability to give birth normally. In extreme cases black flies can drain enough blood from the animals to fatally weaken them. However, biting insects are not the only predators of reindeer; they also face larger predators. Calves are often taken by golden eagles and wolverines while gray wolves take care of the adults. Wolves are the most important reindeer predator and have an enormous impact on populations throughout their range. They keep numbers in check and rid the herds of sick and weak animals, helping a healthy and genetically diverse population continue.

Not only do predators rely on reindeer, humans have used them for hundreds of years as well for transport, meat, hide, milk, and antlers. Many nomadic people would travel with their semi-domesticated herds along their annual migration routes and tend to them along the way. In Siberia, reindeer are ridden and used to pull sleds. Their hides and meat were also sold as a source of income and many reindeer breeders still use the animals as an important economic commodity.

archangel_reindeer3
Now we get to the flying. How did that come about? There are lots of theories about how that myth started, and none of them are confirmed. The one that seems most likely and makes the most sense, however, is one related to a small, red and white psychedelic mushroom. Many of us know it from Super Mario Brothers, though there are countless other depictions of it. Reindeer are familiar with it too, as it grows all over the Northern Hemisphere within their range.

2006-10-25_amanita_muscaria_crop

The Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, is toxic and can be fatal in high doses such as 15 caps, but reindeer are still known to eat them occasionally and the results are hysterical. Due to the psychoactive toxins, specifically muscimol, reindeer that consume these mushrooms tend to leap and prance about like drunken idiots for a while until the effects wear off. People also eat A. muscaria for recreation, though it is generally not considered the safest or most desirable psychedelic mushroom to use. It is easy to see how some Siberian reindeer herders could have been out with their herd one day and saw some of their animals eating these mushrooms and tripping. They might have thought Hey! Those guys look like they’re feeling really good. I should try some of that. So they did and then they were just sitting together watching the reindeer flip out and one of them was like “Dude. Hey, dude. Are you seeing this? Those reindeer are totally flying!” and the other replied “Yeah, man! That’s so trippy! We should tie a sled to them and then we can fly too.”
Again, there is no confirmation that these are the circumstances that led to the idea of flying reindeer, but it is true that these animals do eat mushrooms like this and behave in the ways described. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a herder observing these behaviors, eating a mushroom, and then hallucinating while watching his herd.

Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and all that stuff.

Please enjoy these hilarious animations of incredibly derpy (maybe ‘shroom high?) reindeer by Mel Roach:

References:
1. “Rangifer Tarandus.” Red List. IUCN Red List, n.d. Web. 25 June 2015. <http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/29742/0&gt;.

2. Hagemoen, Rolf Iver M., and Eigil Reimers. “Reindeer summer activity pattern in relation to weather and insect harassment.” Journal of Animal Ecology 71.5 (2002): 883-892.

3. Walker, Matt. “Eagles Filmed Hunting Reindeer.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Oct. 2009. Web. 25 June 2015. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8314000/8314558.stm&gt;.

4. “Evenki Reindeer Herding: A History.” Cultural Survival. Culturalsurvival.org, n.d. Web. 25 June 2015. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.culturalsurvival.org%2Fpublications%2Fcultural-survival-quarterly%2Frussia%2Fevenki-reindeer-herding-history>.

5. Wasson, R. Gordon. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 240. Print.

Photo and Video Links:
1. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/0f/c2/e4/0fc2e48c97327d4e423d33f65bc4ded3.jpg

2. http://cdn1.arkive.org/media/68/6874E640-1239-4EB8-87A5-9BE8895D4A8E/Presentation.Large/Reindeer-females-and-calf-running.jpg

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awvl0dvfTy8

4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0E6geAq1k8

5. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c7/Archangel_reindeer3.jpg

6. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/2006-10-25_Amanita_muscaria_crop.jpg

7. http://melaphantastic.tumblr.com/post/14299262543/reindeer-photoset-as-promised-youll-need-to