Monday, August 28, 2006

Animal of the Week August 28, 2006 -- The most gruesome parasite?

Ahhh, a Bank Holiday trip to the seaside. Delightful seafood served fresh from the ocean. Yum yum yum. "What's your favouorite fish?" I asked my friends as I ploughed through a selection of fried seafood, they'd say "Oh I don't really know". I'd say, "I really like hake, it's delicious, the Spanish have a way with it."

I also really like red snapper, as, it turns out, does this week's animal of the week Cymothoa exigua.

In perhaps the most disturbing act of parasitism I have ever heard of (maybe tied with that catfish), this isopod crustacean (an aquatic woodlouse) latches on to the tongue of a red snapper and taps into the blood supply. As the parasite grows, the fish's tongue wastes away. Eventually, the snapper's tongue withers completely, by this point the parasite has switched from living off the blood supply to nicking some of the food the fish catches. But don't feel too upset for the fish, it can carry on just fine because by now the fish is using C exigua as its tongue instead. Obviously it would be better for the fish if it didn't have to share its supper with the crustacean, but they can continue to grow, remain healthy, and sometimes even make it into fishmongers. Although this bizarre relationship is only known from the Gulf of California, last year, one unlucky customer in London bought a red snapper only to discover when he got it home that it had a marine woodlouse for a tongue. I'd just get your fishmonger to take off the head and never even think about it.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Animal of the Week August 21, 2006 -- The Androscoggin Beast

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe

Headlights chase the darkness down a forest lined New England highway. No other cars on the road, only the short tunnel of light specked with drops of luminescent drizzle. Something shoots across the tarmac on the edge of the light, running so fast that the young couple in the car can barely make out that it's a raccoon. Wwwwwmmmmmmmmmffffff, Dffff
"Oh my god, what was that?" shrieked the young man in the passenger seat.
"Just a deer or something"
"Stop the car"
The young woman braked and pulled over to the side of the road and reversed back to where they had hit something else running out of the forest. Steam rises from the body, swirling in the livid glow of the taillights. The car stops and the couple get out. Cautiously they approach the lifeless heap of grey fur.
"Jeez man, that sure don't smell like any deer I've ever come across."
By morning, the small towns of Litchfield and Greene are buzzing with news, rumour, and exaggeration: "They hit it!", "They got the beast", "The car was totalled", "100 pounds with three inch fangs", "A bears hind leg in its jaws". The legendary beast of Androscoggin County—scourge of a handful of small Maine towns, savager of rottweilers, red-eyed hellmonster—was dead, killed by chance.
Over the next few days the stories became as tall as the poplars in the forest—a dingo, a hyena, part gerbil part wolf, part dog part bear, part gorilla part chicken. Few had actually been to look at the beast's body before it was picked clean by the turkey vultures and the bones dispersed by foxes. But people had seen it before—fleeting glimpses in their gardens, a head shoved through a garden hedge after a terrified cat, quickly withdrawn on sight of a human being. Its short muzzle, demonic eyes, and drool-smattered fangs were part of the collective consciousness of Androscoggin.
As news spread, the interest of local cryptozoologist (a researcher into mythical or legendary animals) Loren Coleman (in the movie, played by Jeff Goldblum—natch) was piqued. A few photographs were taken, but no other evidence of the body remains. Trying to gather as much information about the victim of the road accident, Coleman ascertained that the creature was about 40 lb (hardly a monster), charcoal-grey in colour, and in possession of short triangular ears, a bushy tail, and a short muzzle. The zany scientist recalled a previous case of a similar beast shot by a hunter elsewhere in New England, investigators had hoped to prove the existence of werewolves or at least a new species of predatory mammal, but DNA analysis had shown the mystery creature to be a wolf–dog hybrid. Bolstered by Coleman’s backing the authorities sent word out that even he, a professional chaser of non-existent chimeras, believed the animal to be nothing more than a feral mongrel, or, at most, a hybrid of a dog and coyote. Oh… what an anticlimax! Thus ends the near fact.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

Of course, in the movie version, that’s just the beginning, the townspeople return to their quiet everyday lives, rather embarrassed about having got so worked up about a stray dog. Here we cut to some government bunker where a crazed scientist (Tommy Lee Jones) splices together genes from bears, wolves, chupacabras, and emus to create a mega-army of beasts with which to wage war on the just people of New England. Nothing stands between him and world domination but the determination of a seemingly mad old woman (Lilly Tomlin) who knows what is really going on, and who, with the help of eye-candy grand-daughter and her love interest (Lindsay Lohan and Jesse Metcalf), manages to reawaken the scepticism of Jeff Goldblum by supplying him with a curious sample of fur from the beast that killed her husband. And what do the babies of the monsters that Tommy is creating look like, you guessed it, the critter killed in the opening scene—it was just a pup.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Animal of the Week August 14, 2006 -- Kimberella

As I got distracted from my aim to balance out the phyla last week by the woolly-hairy madness of the geep, this week's animal is as contrary to my mammalian favouritism as I can get. Introducing.... Kimberella!

Although it sounds like the lead character in an animated modernisation of the Cinderella fairytale, it's actually one of the earliest animals known in all the whole wide world, ever ever ever. Kimberella is a Vendobiont, one of the lifeforms that lived before the groups of modern animals lived (not be confused with a Vengaboy, one of the lifeforms that proves evolution is a random process not overseen by any guiding force—or at least not an omnicognisant one). The vendobionts lived during the Ediacaran age (635–542 million years ago). Kimberella is in no way the oldest known vendobiont, but for many of the others, whether they are plants or animals, algae, fungi, or something else entirely is a matter of debate.

Before 635 million years ago, the world was just a great big snowball. In springtime 634 million years ago, the ice began to thaw and over the next 80 million years diverse forms of soft-bodied life appeared. Whether any of the forms that evolved in this period have descendants alive today is unclear. Some of the fossils bear similarities to jellyfish and starfish, but their associations remain doubtful. Kimberella is itself supposed by some to be mollusc, a limpet without a shell perhaps. It certainly seemed to have bilateral symmetry, and mollusc like trails thought to have been left by Kimberella have been found in some rocks from this period.

At the end of the Ediacaran period, the vendobionts vanished...At the end of 2002, the Vengaboys seemed to have vanished too. However, I have just learned (my research for AOTW covers all bases) that there was a reunion gig at the Astoria in London on July 15 this year! Coincidence that they should reform on my birthday? I bloody-well hope so.

So there you have it, perhaps the most ancient animal that will ever be animal of the week!


PS, if anyone knows any cheapish accomodation with good access (bus, bike, walk, tube) to South Kensington in London that will be available from mid-September, give me a shout. I am easy going and quite presentable, independent, considerate, a generous and able cook, and versed in the changing of lightbulbs (bayonet and screw fitting).

PPS, apologies for overuse of pop culture references. Next week, I promise, no mention of camp pop, television I have watched, or eighties US teen comedy series.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Animal of the Week August 07, 2006 -- Geep

So, I recently finished uploading all the available Animal of the Weeks onto the blog (, and do you know what I noticed? Most AOTWs have been vertebrates (fish, birds, mammals, and the like); among the vertebrates, mammals are vastly overrepresented. Indeed, last week's animal was the first time that a genus has been repeated, and what was it? Yeah, a primate (, Classism, maybe... and I had never really thought of myself as being prejudiced.

So today I was going to start at the bottom, and over the next few weeks intersperse some of the more basal animals groups with the regular role-call of bird muderousness, new monkeys, and seafood recipes. So, there I was, reading about sponges in preparation—the least animal-like of all the animals, sponges are a sister group to all other animals. Sponges are simple animals with no distinct tissues, although they do have functionally differentiated cells. I have known for many years that if you put a sponge in a blender, surviving cells will reform a complete and living sponge. But here is where I got distracted by the wikipedia entry: "If multiple sponges are blended together, each species will recombine independently (contrast animal chimera such as the geep)". Now, a chimera is an animal comprising cells of two different species. And, knowing scientists as I think I do, a chimera called a "geep" can only be one thing. Yes, this week's Animal of the Week.

Apparently, if you put a sheep and a goat in a blender and then leave to stand, the cells don't separate out and you end up with a geep. You clearly have to do this at a very early embryonic stage, leave it too late and you end up with so much doner meat. But if you blend embryonic cells of the two animals and then implant the resulting mash into a host womb (preferably a sheep or a goat) a fully functioning, four-footed beast will grow. Some parts of the body develop from sheep cells and others from goat cells. In the picture, you see the legs are woolly (sheep) and the back hairy (goat). Unlike a hybrid animal (such as the wholphin AOTW 25/04/05) which has two parents from two species, a geep has four parents from two species. Put that in your pipe and smoke it Nicole Bradford!