High Tide: Hallucinogenic Fish

I love to eat fish.

Fish is by-and-large my favorite dietary source of protein, and living in Hawai`i means that I get to indulge in this adoration for finned flesh perhaps more often than I should. In the islands, there are plentiful, fresh fish of a staggering diversity sold and consumed everywhere you turn; firm and buttery a`u (Pacific blue marlin, Makaira nigricans), rich opah (Lampris regius), ubiquitous mahimahi (Coryphaena hippurus) and `ahi (Thunnus), lean and flaky ono (Acanthocybium solandri), and delicate `opakapaka (Pristipomoides filamentosus) are just a few. There’s also uhu, ulua, aku, uku, mamo, manini, akule, palani, awa, ama`ama, u`u, opelu, nenue, kamanu, omaka, hapu`u, `ula`ula koa`e, moi, ukikiki, kahala, kala, umaumalei, wahanui, and moano too. Introduced species? Hawai`i has roi, ta`ape, and to`au. Great, glistening troughs of poke line the deli section of just about every grocery outlet on my island (Safeway, local chains….liquor stores), and upon seeing them, I inevitably have to command my legs to carry me away from a fate involving a plastic container of heaven, chopsticks, and a wallet seven dollars lighter.

There are a number of regions why avoiding the reduced price special on the limu `ahi at the Liliha Foodland may be a wise decision for just about anyone (temporarily salvaged funds unconsidered). As with any food, there are inherent risks, and fish have a unique repertoire of ways they can make a regretful meal. Perhaps the most readily publicized is the health risk posed by the bioaccumulation of methylmercury in the tissues of a number of fish species typically taken as food by humans. One bite of a particularly metal-saturated swordfish steak isn’t going to promptly send you to tea with Alice and a rabbit, and the accumulation of the poison in humans takes time (and LOTS of contaminated fish consumption). But, there are more acute ways a fish filet can bite back. For one, the fish may be highly endogenously toxic, meaning that the fish embeds poisonous compounds into its own essence, it’s own bodily tissues. Pufferfish are well-known for this approach, and many species have organs loaded with tetrodotoxin (TTX), a naturally-occurring, chemical Angel of Death so potent that it makes cyanide look like fucking ibuprofen. Preparing pufferfish for the passage between human lips takes all the insane, brow-beading, calculated finesse of disarming a bomb, but despite the supreme level of care of highly-trained culinary experts, every so often, people drop dead after ingesting the fish. Really damn dead. There are also the ever-present risks of conventional, bacterial food poisoning and infection with parasites like tapeworms and roundworms, both of which are more likely to occur in the less-than-cooked form of fish (my personal favorite state of fish).

Yes, you potentially need to watch what you eat when it comes to fish, whether you risk the slow march of mercury toxicity or a weekend hovering over the world’s unhappiest toilet. These risks are generally understood and expected.

What isn’t expected from your seafood? That you might get high off of it.

The phenomenon is called “ichthyoallyeinotoxism” or “hallucinogenic fish inebriation”; both are just jargony ways of saying that, somehow, the catch of the day has you hearing colors. Occurrences are uncommon, but there are plenty of baffling records, ancient and modern, of humans coming away from their sea-borne suppers with more to worry about than a bit of lemon wedge-fueled acid reflux. Like how to convince the grumpy, five-headed emu in the corner of the room that you don’t have any millipedes hiding under your fingernails.

“Alright, everybody, time to get weird!”

The actual inebriation scenarios vary greatly, between species of fish, and between intoxication events. Onset of symptoms can occur within minutes, or hours, and can last from a couple hours to more than a day. Sometimes there is gastrointestinal upset. Sometimes not. Often times, the sufferer endures a loss of coordination and balance, along with muscle weakness and a burning of the throat, but none of this is guaranteed either. Ichthyoallyeinotoxism, as a peculiar clinical feature, is more or less defined by the presence of vivid hallucinations and/or nightmares, and a capacity for intoxication in even cooked fish (suggesting that whatever compounds are responsible are also very heat stable). Typically, symptoms outside of the psychoactive effects tend to be pretty mild, and temporary, contrasting with the peripheral nervous system assault characterized by other forms of fish flesh poisoning (“ichthyosarcotoxism”).

Ichthyoallyeinotoxism has been reported in a diverse array of marine fish, but it has most regularly been associated with one species in particular; the Salema porgy (Sarpa salpa). This species of sea bream is common along the West and South coasts of Africa, as well as throughout the Mediterranean Sea. The Salema porgy is a rather conventionally-molded, petal-shaped fish that grows to about the size of a football, identifiable by glittery golden stripes that run the length of its body. The fish’s occasional ability to get humans hippy flipped has been recognized for ages, and Salema porgy (also referred to as “saupe”) was routinely eaten for recreational purposes across the Roman Empire. If these long-gone citizens were around today, they would likely regard Long John Silver’s as a glorious drug den franchise.

Scene from Seneca’s 36 AD theatrical tragedy, Reef Madness, or alternatively, De Otio Malus, “On Harmful Leisure”

For centuries, the fish (like many other species of ichthyoallyeinotoxic, or “hallucinogenic”, fish) has been called “dream fish” or “dream bream” for its psychedelic effects. The reputation continues until this day, however, since poisoning happens only on occasion, the Salema porgy is far more commonly consumed in the typical way fish are: as a food, not as a drug.

But, every so often, this backfires in spectacular fashion. In 2006, two case reports were published concerning recent ichthyoallyeinotoxism events caused by Sarpa salpa ingestion, both occurring along the French Riviera. In 1994, one of the unfortunate diners (a 40-year old executive) made the poor decision to partake in some baked Salema porgy while on vacation. Within hours, he was feeling shitty, and during the night, became a veritable puke fountain. Weakness overtook him, and in his ill state, decided to call an end to his vacation and drive home. This effort was brought to an abrupt end due to the onset of hallucinations. These weren’t the oft-depicted whimsical, psilocybin mushroom-driven phantasms full of fairies, talking trees, and a feeling of oneness with the universe. No, this poor son of a bitch was sidelined by a waking nightmare full of visions of “aggressive and screaming animals.” His mellow thoroughly harshed, and now unable to drive on account of seeing giant fucking bugs outside of his car, the man thought it might be a good time to get some medical attention. All his vitals at the hospital seemed kosher, except for the part where he was losing his shit because he was having the worst trip of his life, and after a short stay, he came back to reality…apparently, and thankfully, completely unable to remember the psychological hell his maritime meal had put him through.

The second individual outlined in the publication was a 90-year old man who purchased the Salema porgy from a local fisherman in 2002. Little did he know that his sweet, elderly soul was about to be catapulted through the stratosphere and straight into Never Never-do-I-ever-want-to-be-this-high-again Land.

Fish market? More like Phish market.

Within hours, he was bulldozed by auditory hallucinations consisting of human screaming and “bird squeals.” The retiree was apparently too terrified that the hallucinations were part of the sudden onset of a psychotic episode or mental illness that he told no one for the remaining three days of symptoms, which included frequent nightmares in addition to the general feeling of going bugfuck insane during waking life. It was only afterward that he recalled someone at the fish market saying something along the lines of “oh, just so you know…these fish are tasty but they can sometimes cage you in loop of mirrored realms full of hatred and the shrieking of dying universes” and decided to contact someone at the local poison control center.

Of course, the Salema porgy isn’t the only hallucinogenic fish out there. Sporadic records come from numerous other groups of fish, and one of these are the rabbitfishes. Rabbitfish, or “spinefoots”, are a group of fish native to the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific, and belong to the genus Siganus. The fish have a unique modification of the rear-facing fins; well-developed venom glands attached to spines making up the framework of the fin. These venomous barbs can be used defensively (and if the venom is used against humans, is not deadly, but can inflict excruciating pain), and are the origin of the decidedly more intimidating “spinefoot” common name.

“Do it. Call me Peter Cottontail one more time, buddy, and I’ll send you to the hospital.”

Despite their rather nasty pokey bits, rabbitfish are commonly fished for food by humans who live along the coral-lined shores of tropical coasts and islands. With consumption of these little, herbivorous reef fish comes the risk of hallucinatory poisoning. Residents of the Mascarane Islands (particularly Mauritius and Réunion) in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, have reported regular, occasional instances of fish poisonings with symptoms consistent with the ichthyoallyeinotoxism seen with Salema porgy in the Mediterranean; loss of balance and equilibrium, nightmares, hallucinations, and mental depression, all in an absence of major peripheral neurological distress (usually associated with more typical (and serious) exposures to neurotoxins from food; trouble breathing, sweating, blurred vision, etc.). Apparently, the people of Mauritius and Réunion have been aware of this unique property of Siganus fish for some time now (enough so so that one species, Siganus spinus, is consistently referred to as “the fish that inebriates”), and local fishermen have associated elevated risk with certain times of the year in their archipelago home, and can avoid inadvertently taking a surprise trip to see just how far down the rabbitfish hole goes…

There are also records of hallucinatory poisoning by rabbitfish in the Mediterranean; specifically by the dusky spinefoot (Siganus luridus). This fish is native to the Western Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf, but has been introduced across the Suez Canal in recent decades, although the symptoms were also similar to more “conventional” poisoning by ciguatoxins and maitotoxins (which cause ciguatera; a seafood-borne intoxication derived from ciguatoxins from single-celled marine algae which become aggregated in the flesh of food fish…most commonly associated with big, tropical, carnivorous fish like grouper, barracuda, snapper, and amberjacks).

Over on the other side of the globe, out in the West and Central Pacific, ichthyoallyeinotoxism is also implicated in hallucinatory poisonings, but often with different groups of fish.

Mullets (Mugilidae), odd, flat-headed fish found in warm waters the world over, have been reported to be ichthyoallyeinotoxic here in Hawai`i, as well as in the Micronesian islands of Kiribati. The toxins appear to concentrated in the head of the fish, specifically. At least some residents of the Republic of Kiribati, in recent times, would consume mullet heads with the intention of getting really fucking high. The hope was that eating a nice, fishy meal, kicking back on a tropical beach, and, er, “chasing the saltwater dragon” would allow for pleasurable hallucinations and vivid, otherworldly dreams.

Also, particularly in Kiribati, coral groupers (Epinephelus corallicola) and the banded sergeant-major (Abudefduf septemfasciatus) have been reported to occasionally cause hallucinogenic episodes, specifically in older members of the local population (the only age group that eats these species customarily; kind of like butterscotch hard candy and prunes here in the U.S.). Although, since only senior citizens eat these fish, and the high was described as a kind of “forgetfulness”, it’s not clear whether or not the issue is inebriation or run-of-the-mill senility. Then again, if people were accusing my old ass of spending my Golden Years getting toasty off the silly sushi, I might get awfully “forgetful” myself.
“What?! No, grandson, of course I’m not a stoner! That’s just Alzheimer’s.”

Sea chubs of the genus Kyphosus (pictured below), commonly eaten in Hawai`i in historical times (less so recently), have also been reported to induce intense hallucinations in diners.


Similarly in Hawai`i, convict tang (Acanthurus triostegus), a species of surgeonfish found throughout the Indo-Pacific, has been associated with ichthyoallyeinotoxic poisonings. The species (known as “manini” here in the islands) is abundant in nearshore reef habitat, and is readily identifiable by its markings, which resemble the stereotypical stripes of an inmate’s jumpsuit uniform…a criminal sentence most likely endured due to the fish spreading the scourge of drugs across their ecosystem.

Crime doesn’t pay.

So what is behind these hallucinogenic compounds? Why are only a limited group of fish associated with ichthyoallyeinotoxism, and why does it seem to only effect people relatively rarely? Other sources of hallucinogens in nature are, by and large, far more predictable than this. There may be variances in dosage between individuals, but many times, particular, entire species are known to have hallucinogenic qualities. Examples of these abound. Psilocybin or “magic” mushrooms and ergot (from which ergotamine, and eventually LSD, were isolated) are the hallmark psychedelics of the Fungi kingdom. The number of psychedelic plant alkaloids and other compounds, many of which play spiritual and cultural roles in societies around the globe, is incredibly high: mescaline from cactus (including peyote), bizarre and terrifically potent terpenoids like salvinorin A from the famed diviner’s sage, and DMT from dozens of vines and shrubs, are just a few major examples. DMT variants found in the toxic secretions of toads like Bufo alvarius also have consistently extremely psychoactive, hallucinatory properties. If we can identify specific plants, fungi, and animals that produce hallucinogenic effects, then what’s the deal with the weird, wishy-washyness of these hallucinogenic fish?

Since ichthyoallyeinotoxism is not a very common variety of food fish poisoning, and it presents so variably, we don’t really know much about it, or what is actually causing it, specifically. But, given how the phenomenon appears to be temporal, tied to seasonality in some locations, and is so highly variable, it is thought that the source is dietary. The fish are getting the toxins from their food, and much like with the mercury so many of us are familiar with, accumulating the stuff in their tissues. Since so many species that are causing these effects are herbivorous, it is likely the original source is marine algae.

This is strikingly similar to the most common form of poisoning from food fish, ciguatera. Ciguatera is caused by the uptake of a specific group of microscopic algae; dinoflagellates (chiefly the species Gambierdiscus toxicus). It accumulates in the food chain, compunding as one ascends, so that reef predators have the highest concentration of the toxins in their flesh (and are therefore most commonly reported to cause severe poisonings when consumed). Ichthyoallyeinotoxism does have a quite a bit of suspicious overlap with ciguatera, and it’s often hard to tell the two ailments apart from one another. For one, the species of fish that cause hallucinogenic poisonings are also commonly associated with ciguatera records as well. Secondly, the symptoms are incredibly similar, and both impact the nervous system in a myriad of bizarre ways. These similarities, and the lack of a specific source of the much rarer ichthyoallyeinotoxism has led some to believe that ichthyoallyeinotoxism is just one manifestation of ciguatera (which is caused by several known algal toxins).

However, the two maladies have distinct differences as well. Ciguatera is typically accompanied by furious digestive problems, muscle pains, lots of weird disruption of the peripheral nervous system (reversal of hot and cold sensations, electric charge sensations, and numbness) and only mild to occasional instances of hallucinations, whereas ichthyoallyeinotoxism has benign bodily impacts, with most effects on the central nervous system (the brain itself, leading to the hallucinations and nightmares). Also, ciguatera is notorious for long-term, pernicious effects, which can be severe enough to cause disability a decade or more out from the initial poisoning. Ichthyoallyeinotoxism, in contrast, abates completely within a few days with no reported latent effects in weeks, months, or years down the line. Hallucinogenic poisoning also turns up in places not typically associated with the normal range of the algae associated with ciguatera, like the Mediterranean (ciguatera tends to crop up most typically in the Caribbean and Pacific regions).

Others have postulated that the toxins might have their own, separate origins in algae like Caulerpawhich are habitually consumed by many of the more commonly hallucinogenic fish species.

Whatever is causing the occasional flaky, delicious acid trip in tepid seas, it shouldn’t be of huge concern to anyone reading this (or object of recreational interest; good luck successfully being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time). Ichthyoallyeinotoxism remains an uncommon and enigmatic phenomenon, far less so than ciguatera or red tide shellfish poisoning (which are still not all that common, thanks partially to awareness campaigns and harvesting advisories during algal blooms). Mercury toxicity shouldn’t really be high on your list….that is, unless you are pregnant, or insist on eating canned tuna by the flat.

Honestly, the real source of caution seafood lovers such as myself should take is towards regulation of consumption. Many fisheries of popular food fish (Pacific bluefin tuna comes to mind) have been subject to extreme population reductions and are threatened with collapse. The effects not only impact human culinary lives and employment, but inevitably reverberate through entire marine ecosystems. Some stocks are in better shape than others, and are harvested in more sustainable ways than others. If you want to be selective with your seafood choices, your time and effort might be better spent keeping conservation in mind, not the risk of turning your mundane Thursday night into a disorienting, hallucinatory hellscape.

Image credits: Phish concert image, rabbitfish, sea chub (John Turnbull), convict tang

Intro image composite, modified from the following: Lionfish (Michael Aston), pufferfish, mandarin fish (Klaus Stiefel), lagoon triggerfish (Michelle Bender)

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Arachnids: Vinegaroons

This post is the sixth in an ongoing series on arachnids. Previously, this series addressed whipspiders, hooded tickspiderspseudoscorpionsharvestmen and solifugids. Additional posts on other weird, often overlooked or neglected groups of these creepy crawlies to follow. For a related chelicerate, but as far as science can tell, not an arachnid, see the post on sea spiders.

The vinegaroon.

By now, if you’ve been reading my continually-updated series on the underappreciated and less diverse groups of arachnids, you will have been exposed to an assembly of bizarre creepy-crawlies; among them, “headless” hooded tickspiders, library-squatting pseudoscorpions, manic, ever-hungry solifugids, family-oriented amblypygids, and amputation-prone harvestmen. Weird as these groups all are, few compete with the strangeness of the arachnids known as “whipscorpions”, “uropygids”, or “vinegaroons.”

These arachnids are members of the order Thelyphonida, a small group of arachnids comprised of only 100 species, dwarfed by larger orders like the Araneae (spiders, with more than 40,000 species) and the Scorpiones (“true scorpions”, with about 1,700 species). The order used to be incorporated in a now defunct classification known as Uropygi (which also included small, close relatives known as “microwhipscorpions”). “Uropygi” basically means “tail rump” or “tail rear” in Greek, which refers to the arachnids’ curious, thin, segmented “tail” extending from the back of their abdomen. It is this tail, or “whip”, combined with their general scorpion-like body shape, which is key to the origin of one of their common names; the “whipscorpion.” They are also known by their third common name, used frequently throughout the Americas, “vinegaroon”, which alternatively sounds like the most foul tasting Girl Scout cookie ever.

“Oh…oh god. What have I done?”

While vinegaroons have a scorpion-like body shape, with their flat, extended abdomens and spiky, clawed pedipalps (those pincer appendages in front of the face), they are not closely related to scorpions at all. As far as we can tell, they are most closely related to things like amblypygids and spiders, and are in a separate subdivision from things like scorpions, camel spiders, and daddy-longlegs, which make up a proposed grouping called Dromopoda.

Vinegaroons are found in the warmer latitudes of North America, throughout Central and South America, as well as subtropical and tropical Asia (and a lone species found in tropical Africa). The center of their diversity appears to be in Southeast Asia. They, in true arachnid form, like to hunker down in humid, dark places, which usually requires clawing out a burrow in the dirt with their pedipalps. Many species are found in forest habitats of varying moisture, but some live in arid habitats. One of these is the largest species of vinegaroon, Mastigoproctus giganteus, with a body about as long as a credit card, which lives comfortably in the desert and semi-arid tracts of the southern U.S. and Mexico, but tends to only be active during the wetter months of the year.

Vinegaroons are entirely nocturnal, and emerge from their dank holes in the earth nightly to stalk hungrily and ominously over the Land of the Tiny. They are exclusively carnivorous, and feed primarily upon other arthropods, like crickets, cockroaches, and millipedes, which they pin down with their beefy, scorpion-like, wire-cutter pedipalps. They are also equipped with a sharp spine on the inside surface of the claw, which is more or less a barb, immobilizing the prey and paving the way for the merciless crushing of their prey’s brittle exoskeleton, allowing the vinegaroon to leisurely lap up the critter’s hemorrhaging fluids like a cat at a water dish.

The hard part, though, is finding the food in the first place. Vinegaroons have eight small eyes, two at the front of the head segment (the prosoma) and three flanking each side, but the eyesight they provide is so fucking poor the worthless things might as well be pimples. To make up for their myopic failings, vinegaroons successfully navigate their witching hour escapades by tactile mastery. They, much like their distant cousins the camel spiders (solifugids), only use their hind three pairs of legs for walking; their front pair have evolved into long, thin, highly-sensitive feelers that scan the ground in front of the vinegaroon. It would seem that somewhere early in its evolution, the vinegaroon must have looked at insects and their antennae with much envy, because these modified front limbs look like the imitation, off-brand version of what everything from beetles to bumblebees have been proudly waving around on their heads for eons. In this way, vinegaroons sense their environment similarly to their close relatives, the amblypygids, using their delicate front limbs as a pair of white canes. Further contributing to sensory input is their “tail”, a long, straight, segmented rod (also referred to as a “telson”, which is a term also used for the “tail” of crustaceans like lobsters and shrimp). The telson is used to feel around at the back of the animal, and surely functions as an adaptive safeguard against the “Kick Me” sign prank.

But woe be unto those who dare to stray too close to the vinegaroon’s caboose. These arachnids don’t have the venomous bite of spiders at the front, nor the deadly sting of scorpions at the back. Their pedipalps can deliver a bit of pinch, and the worst their telson can do is give a gentle tickle. It would appear as though the vinegaroon is something of a sitting duck, nothing but a helpless, crunchy, eight-legged chicken nugget for the world’s passing raccoons and lizards to casually inhale. But the vinegaroon has a unique trick up its sleeve geared towards keeping it unharassed and uneaten.

The vinegaroon is a squirter.

Vinegaroons are armed with glands located right at the junction of the rear body segment (the abdominal segment, or “opisthoma”) and the base of the telson. These glands (the “pygidial glands”) produce a liquid mixture of a number of chemical compounds, but the stuff is primarily acetic acid and caprylic acid in many species. You may know acetic acid as the key ingredient in vinegar, which is essentially 5% acetic acid by volume, which gives it its sour taste and characteristic odor. When threatened, vinegaroons jettison the watery contents of these glands through a pair of pivoting turrets, mounted on either side of the base of the telson in a spurt that can each about a foot away in any direction. With just enough agitation, the vinegaroon contracts the muscles around its dual tanks, and lets the cocktail loose, sending a wild, flailing stream of vengeance arcing through the heavens, like some drunk bastard using a urinal during an earthquake. It is the resulting noxious stink from these acidic emissions, reminiscent of common, household vinegar, that is at the origin of the “vinegaroon” name. The smell is particularly strong due to the concentration of acetic acid in the spray, which can be 15 times more concentrated than in vinegar. The video embedded below shows how this spraying looks up close, at around 2 minutes in:

I can hear the scoffing already. Really? That’s the defensive response? A stinky water gun? What’s it going to do, turn an attacker into a pickle? Some scorpions, like those of the “man-killer” genus Androctonushave such horrifically venomous stings, that a defensive strike can incapacitate or kill animals as large as humans. Some spiders, like the Sydney funnel-web, can potentially deep-six your ass if it insists on getting bitey. But the vinegaroon’s so-called “defensive behavior” has all the ferocity of an infirm chihuahua dribbling on a carpet. Other arachnids can do wonderfully nasty, painful things to get predators to turn tail…while this firehose-assed jackoff over here is what, adding zest to a salad at Olive Garden? What would a vinegaroon-themed supervillain even do? Terrorize reservoirs of baking soda sitting underneath paper mâché mountains?

“Oh, human, you will rue the day you picked up the Sprinkle Master…prepared to be….wetted…”

The vinegaroon’s pungent piddling isn’t just an uncomfortable distraction; it is actually a well-honed deterrent. For one, the dual flesh faucets that spray the jet of chemicals can be rotated in just about any direction, and can quickly be aimed relatively accurately in the direction of a harasser. The goal isn’t to get the predator to wrinkle its nose and recoil at the sour stink, but to get the ass spritz into the eyes, nose, and mouth. This is a strategy not unlike what spitting cobras employ for dissuading aggressors. The spray, in most species, isn’t concentrated enough to do much to skin, especially if that skin is covered in fur. But the acid mixture is irritating to mucous membranes, and a shot of this crap in the mug will go over like lemon juice eye drops and jalapeno mouthwash. The shit burns.
There’s also evidence of the presence of 2-ketones in the sprays of some species of vinegaroon, specifically 2-heptanone, 2-octanone, and 2-nonanone…all of which can function as potent organic solvents. The presence of these solvents (which help dissolve organic compounds, like the acetic acid, in other organic compounds…which includes everything you are made out of) in the sprays has shown to increase the effectiveness of the acetic acid, with the spray actually managing to briefly sting human skin. The 2-ketones act as an “enhancer” for what is normally a benign acid for large animals.

If the proctological can of Mace doesn’t work, there’s always good, old-fashioned claw clappin’ and scrappin’. The pedipalp pincers aren’t deadly to anything larger than a house key, but a nip on the face of a lunging mammalian assailant might be enough to convince them to reconsider. When threatened, vinegaroons will normally strike a defensive pose with their pedipalps outstretched and ready to tussle, with their opisthoma and telson arched, prepared to turn on the Pain Sprinkler.

“Come at me, bro. I can do this aaaallllll fucking day.”

Assuming these blind, wizzing wizards fend off enough toothy jaws with their stanky squirts to make it to adulthood, they can get right on with the baby making…but not before an arduous courtship display.

Vinegaroons engage in an exhausting, complicated, 13+ hour-long marathon of multi-stage foreplay prior to getting on with the rogering. It starts off with roving male encountering a female, and him chasing her down and grappling her with his pedipalps. The two of them then appear to spar with one another, gripping, shoving, and throwing each other around. It’s so….sweet? This bit of love wrasslin’ can be cut short at around a minute, or this stage, which may function as an evaluation of “worth” in a partner (“is he/she a good, strong mate?”), can continue for hours. If the female is receptive to a, errrr, “second date”, she’ll signal that they can proceed by sticking her first pair of sensory limbs in the mouthparts of the male and wiggling them back and forth. This acts as a “tap out”, and the couple proceeds to the next step in their relationship. At any point prior to this, she may signal that she’s not down to clown, and with a subtle, aggravated flick of her sensory legs, she peaces the fuck out and courtship ends.

The second phase involves dancing. Not even joking. The male still grips her delicate sensory limbs in his mouthparts (“chelicerae”), and, face to face, he drags her around, back and forth, using his muscular pedipalps. The female follows his lead, continuing to evaluate him as a mate. The sensual display is akin to something out of Dirty Dancing, except this version of the mambo has Jennifer Grey’s fists wedged deep in Patrick Swayze’s mouth. This part lasts somewhere on the order of three or four hours.

“Nobody puts Baby in a burrow.”

If both partners are still ready to continue towards the finish line, the male while have typically edged the two of them into a safer location (like a burrow). The male, still with the female’s sensory legs embraced by his mouthparts, rotates so that he’s now riding on top of her. They stay like this, poised awkwardly over each other like players in a game of Twister, for another several hours. During this time, the male manufactures a spermatophore (a dense sac of sperm) inside of his abdomen. When this is over, the male deposits his payload on the dirt in the form of rigid block of reproductive material. He then carefully maneuvers the female over the spermatophore, and takes the two attached sperm packets from the spermatophore framework, and shoves them into the female’s gonopore (genital opening). When the female is ready, she signals by opening her clawed pedipalps, and the male promptly releases her legs from his mouthparts, and wheels around to grasp her soft abdomen. For the next few hours, the male massages the sperm packets with his pedipalps, and it is thought that this helps the sperm actually disperse into the female’s reproductive tract. Eventually, the deed is done, and they uncouple and go their separate ways. Unlike in many other arachnid groups, post-coital cannibalism doesn’t really seem to be a thing in vinegaroons. After a casual boinking with a disproportionately passionate preamble, they mutually part paths.

The female then carries fertilized eggs inside of her for a few months. Before laying as many as three dozen eggs, she seals herself up in a burrow for safety. However, instead of laying a clutch that sits on the floor of the burrow, she contains them in the sac that adheres to the bottom surface of her opisthoma. She continues this voluntary house arrest for another few months. Did I mention that she refuses to eat? And that she arches her abdomen in such a way that the giant broodsac can’t touch the ground? FOR MONTHS. Say what you want about the difficulties of human gestation and what our mothers went through in pregnancy to birth all of us…but mama vinegaroons endure the equivalent of carrying around a garbage bag full of bowling balls with nothing but your clenched ass cheeks for an entire college semester.

“Oh, you do Kegels? That’s cute.”

Eventually the eggs develop into “post-embryos”, which is a name that doesn’t adequately illustrate how much these larval creatures look like albino, baby, gummy squids.

Tapioca pearls with legs. Lovely.

These baby vinegaroons climb onto their mother’s back, where they latch on for dear life with sucker-like organs. There they remain for yet another month. Eventually, they have their first molt, and begin to disperse away from the mother and begin foraging upon small insects and mites. Once seasonal rains arrive, and the young have all managed to develop hardened exoskeletons, the mother, famished, bursts out of her subterranean cocoon to get her fat reserves back up again. Much like their relatives, the whipspiders, vinegaroons engage in a higher level of maternal care than what is seen in many other arachnid orders. The mother will abstain from eating her babies unless in dire need of sustenance, and cohabitates with the young, first-molts in the burrow for a short while. Whether or not the mother, in nature, actually provides food for the young during this time is not currently known.

Thelyphonida, an enigmatic and rarely encountered order of arachnids, is represented by a single family in modern times. The vinegaroons are an ancient group, with fossilized, relatively unchanged representatives stretching back 350 million years (in the Carboniferous era), 100 million years before the earliest dinosaurs strode Earth. Today, only a small number of species are still around. These dark, glistening, hard-shelled, silent travelers of the night quietly assist in reducing numbers of pests like cockroaches and termites. These acrid skunks of the arachnid world are oddities, with their trifecta of sensory feelers and unusual acetic acid nozzles, and while they might appear dangerous or foreboding, if you are so lucky to encounter one in the wild, remember that the worst these little guys can do to you if you get too close is stink up your shoes.

Image credits: Intro image, vinegaroon in hand, defensive vinegaroonvinegaroons dancing, female vinegaroon carrying broodsac, vinegaroon with post-embryo young

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Arachnids: Solifugids

This post is the fifth in an ongoing series on arachnids. Previously, this series addressed whipspiders, hooded tickspiderspseudoscorpions, and harvestmen. Additional posts on other weird, often overlooked or neglected groups of these creepy crawlies to follow. For a related chelicerate, but as far as science can tell, not an arachnid, see the post on sea spiders.

The solifugid.

This group of fleet-footed arachnids is known by many names across the globe. Wind scorpion. Camel spider. Sun spider. Sun scorpion. Unintelligible screaming and cursing. All of these refer to members of an enigmatic order of arachnids; Solifugae. The name of this order, derived from Latin, means “those that flee from the sun”, an acknowledgement of their habit of chasing shadows in an attempt to stay cool in their predominantly hot, sunny, and arid native habitats. Despite their frequently used common names which identify them as some sort of breed of spider or scorpion, solifugids (a more accurate identifier of the arachnids within the Order Solifugae) are most certainly a distinct, separate animal from either group. They may have the long, athletic legs and noticeable jaws of spiders (Order Araneae), and the elongated body, coloration, and desert aesthetic of the scorpions (Order Scorpiones), but the 1,000 species or so of solifugid occupy their own lonesome twig on the arthropod family tree. It is generally thought that Solifugae is a part of a larger subdivision of arachnids, called Dromopoda, which also includes scorpions, pseudoscorpions, and harvestmen (daddy longlegs); specifically, combined analyses of the genetic relatedness and shared morphological features of these critters have also linked scorpions, pseudoscorpions, and solifugids together in a grouping dubbed “Novogenuata.” Although, comparative studies on the male genital system have also suggested that solifugids might have a more complex evolutionary history, showing more similarities with mites and ticks in some ways than with their supposed close relatives, the pseudoscorpions. This confusion of what makes a solifugid a solifugid, and its relationship with the rest of the arachnids, would be greatly assisted by fossil evidence, but the fossil record for the Solifugae is pitifully scant, with a few dubious, incomplete, vaguely solifugid-like specimens dating back to about 330 million years ago…and only a few instances of unambiguous solifugids showing up about 300, 115, and 50 million years ago. Most importantly, the earliest stages of this group’s evolution are currently lost to us.

Whatever they are in the grand architecture of the arachnid clan, they are widespread, gravitating towards hot and dry regions of the subtropics and tropics the world over, omitting their presence from only the continents of Antartica and, surprisingly, considering they would fit right the fuck in there…Australia. And wherever they make their residence, they have a very powerful effect on the humans that encounter them, and they have for an incredibly long time. Solifugids, to put it lightly, have an “imposing” appearance and demeanor, with their huge, sharp, pinching jaws, sizable mass, and ungodly overland speed. Consistent first impressions full of everything ranging from a bad case of the all-overs to panicked, wild boot-stomping has undoubtedly earned them immediate recognition as a being assuredly, terrifyingly divergent from other many-legged beasties since antiquity, with the Greeks dubbing the monstrous arachnid “phalangion”, decidedly separate from “arachne”, the spider. More recently, there are accounts of soldiers stationed in North Africa during both World Wars who would pass the time by pitting captive solifugids against each other, or against a scorpion (because why not, I guess), in a fight to the death in possibly the smallest, ugliest, and leggiest gladiatorial showdown of all time.

I’m thinking a 6-inch tall Joaquin Phoenix will give the scorpion a thumbs down.

These brutal spectacles involving dueling “jerrymanders”, another name for the solifugids, were enthusiastically gambled upon, because of course they were. Also, in regards to the aforementioned moniker, if there’s any animal that I could envision being spiritually associated with the deceiptful, ethically impoverished, slimy act of manipulating voting districts, it’s the solifugid…an animal that looks like it would skitter up your leg and chew and burrow its way into your taint if you so much as looked at it sideways.

If you are a solifugid reading this right now (small chance, but you never know), I have to apologize for the upcoming dosage of Truth; y’all ain’t pretty. Spiders and scorpions at least have some measure of gracefulness and an aura of venomous allure…solifugids look like someone tried to cross-breed a centipede with a walrus, and then set it on fire when it came out looking like damnation itself. It is this severe case of “face-made-for-radio” that has allowed these animals to continue to be, to this very day, viscerally upsetting to the point of inspiring mythology and fanciful stories. Although solifugids are routinely found in the American Southwest (where they are called “sun spiders”), many troops (particularly U.S. troops) stationed in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War of the 1990s and more recently during the Iraq War, encountered these arachnids for the first time…and it wasn’t long before tall tales sent home, and subsequently inflated through the power of the Internet, exaggerated solifugids to preposterous heights. Urban legends in the form of obnoxious chain emails and memes floated around online message boards about these animals cast them as having supernatural capabilities…running fast enough to keep up alongside military vehicles and capable of leaping from the ground and onto the chests of full grown men, screeching and hissing, clacking their drool-slathered pincers (is there any other way?). The name “camel spider” was commonly tied to a claimed habit of disemboweling sleeping camels under the cover of night with the aid of a paralytic venom. The icing on this sci-fi monster cake was the assertion that they would attack and paralyze soldiers, and lay their eggs inside the skin of the unwitting human incubator, ala parasitoid wasps (or Alien…that too), only to have the babies explosively emerge from inside the poor soldier weeks later like a bunch of bloody confetti erupting out of a piñata.

Feeding into this are the highly-circulated photographs sent back to the States, often with the solifugid in forced perspective to appear larger than they are in-person, or conducting some act of eight-legged, predatory horror upon a prey item….conveniently with no real sense of scale.

Agreed. Optical illusions keep me up at night.

…and then ask you to give a public speech with inadequate time to prepare. Horrifying!

Of course, just about all of this is hyperbolic nonsense. Solifugids are intimidating, yes, but they pose absolutely no danger to camels or any other large mammal, humans included. This reputation has left the proud, albeit unsightly, Order Solifugae unfairly maligned. I’ve drafted (below) what I think is a more appropriate meme depicting the reality of the unjustly despised, feared, and ostracized solifugid, about which I’m confident the rest of the Internet will give approximately no fucks.

“Don’t wanna be…aaaallll byyyy my-se-e-lf….”

The truth is, solifugids aren’t a hyperaggressive, ancient evil, scouring an exotic, desert landscape in a lustful search for the least leathery leatherneck neck to sink its fangs into…though they certainly look the part. What they really are, however, are an active group of predators that have been fine-tuned by the selective pressures of their harsh environment to produce some incredible, fundamentally badass characteristics. Solifugids have a unique biology that deserves a fair shake at deconstruction and illumination.

Solifugids follow the general arachnid bauplan fairly conservatively, with two well-defined main tagmata (body segments); the prosoma, at the front, containing the “head” and connection points for the eight pairs of legs, and the opisthoma, the meaty, egg-shaped abdomen at the rear. The most obvious, and frightening, distinguishing feature of these animals is their chelicerae…the duel pair of vertically-oriented pruning shears that engulf their face, often reaching sizes larger than the entire prosoma itself. In many other arachnid groups, chelicerae serve as the humble articulating mouthparts, tucked neatly around the mouth hole and mostly out of sight. But in solifugids, the chelicerae are expanded into huge cutting tools, lined with knobby teeth-like projections, resembling a pair of devilish eagle beaks. The entire “head” region of the prosoma, encapsulated by a raised, rounded dome, essentially serves as nothing more than the powerhouse for the chelicerae, and is packed with bulging sets of muscles used to manipulate the double sets of jaws. In fact, the characteristic hump that contains these muscles at the base of the chelicerae is the origin for the “camel spider” name, not any fallacious murder of cigarette company mascots.

Joe has nothing to fear from solifugids. Emphysema, on the other hand…

If you’re thinking that with all that special muscle devotion and attachment, these chelicerae would be pretty powerful, you’d be right on the money. Solifugids don’t possess the fictional paralytic venom of urban legend to take down prey…the serrated bolt cutters grafted onto their face do just fucking fine. Solifugids are rapacious predators, with incredibly high metabolisms, and a need to track down, capture, and process food quickly. Their ecology, diet, and physiology have led to the evolution of mouth-bound machinery designed to carve and mulch up prey as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is not dissimilar from the likely reason for the evolution of specialized teeth for food processing in mammals; comparatively high metabolisms need to be able to acquire and break down fuel sources immediately and completely. In the same way, solifugids have become eating machines, rapidly devouring anything they can pin down…which is a large number of things. Larger species, sometimes reaching several inches in length, aren’t limited to the numerous insects in their equatorial habitats, and frequently tear into smaller vertebrates with the unrestrained enthusiasm of a sugar-high 6-year old, armed with scissors, on paper snowflake day in arts and crafts. Lizards, mice, baby birds…none are safe from Greedy Gonzales and his Terrible Twins. The chelicerae are more than robust enough to splinter more fragile things…like bones. For this reason, humans that unwisely pester solifugids and end up getting bitten report intense pain and often the drawing of a great deal of blood; most bites from arachnids and insects hurt due to injected proteins from the saliva, but solifugids provide pain with pure force and physical damage.

Humans have nothing to fear, really, from solifugids. But if you’re anything smaller than a baseball? Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

With rapid back and forth rending of flesh and viscera, the solifugid uses their “cheliceral mill” to pulverize animals as large as itself (not that hard to accomplish when half your goddamn body is jaws), and slurps up the resulting juices and gelatinized remains.

Jesus, man! All he wanted to do was save you 15% or more on your car insurance!

The chelicerae may be excellent tools for bloodily dismembering still living, kicking, and squealing prey, but they also have other important roles to play in the life of the solifugid.

Although solifugids tend to tolerate long periods of extreme heat and aridity better than other arachnid groups, they make life easier on themselves by avoiding some of the harshness of the desert by getting the hell away from the baking solar radiation. They do this primarily by being largely nocturnal, but also by taking cover in the day by seeking out shadows, or digging burrows. Of course, since solifugids haven’t invented shovels (yet), they use the next best thing…their monstrous chelicerae. It probably isn’t surprising that something that has utility in sawing through muscle and bone might also be good for sawing through soil. The solifugids claw at the loose, dry dirt with their mouthparts, only turning away from the laborious activity to clear out their excavation of what they’ve dug out. This is a method used by many burrowing animals, including naked mole rats, which dig their network of burrows using their sharp incisor teeth (and have actually evolved a flaps of skin that keep their mouths from filling with dirt as they work). Observe this industrious little fellow below:

The chelicerae are also used in defensive measures against predators even nastier than they are, and it’s not in the way you think. While, yes, they can and do use their jaws to strike out and give a well-placed nip at an attacker, the chelicerae also have a role in a warning system to would-be fuck-with-ers. This is done through the generation of noise through vibration of physical components of the interior surfaces of the chelicerae against one another. Solifugid chelicerae can be thought of musical instruments of sorts.

Ah, nothing like the sweet sound of the guillotine guitar.

This generation of sound from vibrating body parts is known as “stridulation” and it is common in other arthropods, like insects. It’s perhaps familiar to most folks as the origin of the “chirping” of crickets and grasshoppers, which is caused by the running of the surfaces of the wings across one another, and allowing comb-like structures to contact and rub along each other, producing the sound. But stridulation is also found in numerous groups of beetles, as well as arachnids like spiders and our lovely solifugids. All you need are two body parts, known as “stridulatory organs”, to rub against each other to make the noise. This often depends on something scraping rapidly along a finely-ridged surface, generating vibration as it does so. This is the same kind of action that allows fingernails to produce sound when running along a washboard, or for the needle to relay embedded musical recording information as it moves along the tracks on a vinyl record (sound which is then amplified).

The interior surfaces of the solifugid chelicerae are equipped with two major stridulation components; a plate covered in microscopic ridges (a “file”) and a set of stout, forward-facing bristles. The sound is generated when the chelicerae are pressed together and slide past each other, causing the bristles to drag down the file on either chelicerae….and it ends up sounding like this:

While that may sound like the world’s most perturbed Velcro sneaker, scientists believe it has a role in keeping solifugids safely uneaten. Squeaking produced by solifugids in laboratory settings seems to occur in response to perceived threats, and is acoustically similar to the noises made by other arthropods that use warning noises against predators. It has been suggested that solifugids stridulate as a form of bluffing. Solifugids aren’t toxic, and don’t create any venom, but it is highly advantageous to convince predators that they are. One species of solifugid in the genus Galeodes from west-central Asia might use its hissing stridulations as a way of mimicking the noises made by venomous snakes that it shares its habitat with, like the blunt-nosed viper (Macrovipera lebetina) or the Siberian pit viper (Gloydius halys). If you have a bag full of nothing in the face of immediate danger, it might be a worthwhile idea to confuse your enemy into thinking you’re someone who does…and a local, highly-venomous snake is a damn good place to start.

The abilities afforded by the chelicerae don’t stop with stridulation either, because apparently these things are like a damn Leatherman of the arachnid world. Male solifugids have structures on the tops of their chelicerae called “flagella” that look like long, swept-back horns or rigid tentacles. Seeing as how only males possess them, it is thought they have some sort of role to play in solifugid sex, but to be honest, no one really knows what the hell they do. I suppose figuring that out would require researchers to get up close and personal to the gnashing jaws of a sexually ravenous solifugid. I mean, I understand why they haven’t quite unlocked that secret yet because have you SEEN those fucking things?

Aaaaaand fuck it, I’m going home.

So, obviously, in solifugids, the head is more or less a battery of powerful tools for survival in the barren desert wastes. Just the chelicerae alone function as steak knives, a backhoe, a furious kazoo, and…maybe something related to sweet, sinful, stomach-churning, solifugid sexual satisfaction? But the legs and body of these critters are equally important and full of exquisite adaptations worth addressing.

Scorpions and solifugids are close relatives, and have both become masters of the desert biome over hundreds of millions of years. However, their strategy for survival here is very different. Scorpions have a suite of adaptations to minimize their output of energy and water. Many species can hunker down under a rock and remain in a type of stasis without eating or drinking for very long periods of time. They move across the desert deliberately, and under the cool of night, and use their venomous sting as a conservative means of procuring food. Paralyze and kill the quarry immediately, so that you can be sure it can’t get away or put up a fight, and subsequently cost you the precious energy. Solifugids took the opposite approach, and live by a mantra of MOVE MOVE MOVE EAT EAT EAT. Solifugids, as I’ve mentioned, have incredibly high metabolisms, and compared to scorpions, ludicrously high growth rates. They live their lives on the fast track, taking the strategy of “getting big quickly and reproducing before the desert has the chance to kill you.” Solifugids are all about running around and killing soft, vulnerable things, and outside of their gigantic chelicerae, they have key adaptations for sprinting around at blinding speeds, maximizing each kill’s energy yield, and making damned sure every meal and mating attempt goes according to plan.

Understanding how solifugids navigate through their world is key to understanding how they manage to survive and consume so much in a place with so little resources to offer. Solifugids only use three of their four pairs of legs for locomotion. The first pair of legs, up near the head, are thinner and more delicate, and are usually held just off the ground and act like antennae, rapidly trailing and sensing the environment via touch as the solifugid motors along. In front of these legs are a pair of pedipalps, appendages that look like legs, but are not, and are more often associated with the mouthparts in arachnids (the pedipalps of scorpions, for example, have been modified into the pinching claws). In solifugids, they are huge and elongated, and often look so much like legs that people regularly report sightings of solifugids as “big, ten-legged spiders.” These pedipalps are also instrumental in sensing the path directly in front of the solifugid. With three pairs of appendages powerfully propelling the animal forward, and two pairs elevated in the air, the solifugid is like some kind of arachnid centaur.

And much like the mythical beast, solifugids are renowned for their elegance, dignity, and…er…beauty.

Solifugids move about in this way insanely quickly, flying over the hot sands at 10 mph (16 kph)…which is quite a feat for an animal smaller than an iPhone. While there are other invertebrates that, for their size, are faster than solifugids (for example, the pint-sized tiger beetles come to mind), nothing without bones really comes close to these speeds, which are close to what an adult human can accomplish at a sprint. So how do they manage to do this?

The answer may come from how they fuel their bodies with oxygen. Solifugids, along with the Opiliones (harvestman/daddy longlegs) and the pseudoscorpions, don’t have book lungs, which are the typical respiratory tissues found in arachnids. Instead, like harvestmen and pseudoscorpions, they have a network of small tubes running in and out of their bodies that allow the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to occur. This system of tubes (“trachea”) are very highly developed in solifugids, much more so than in other invertebrates with tracheal systems. Solifugids also have multiple pairs of spiracles (holes) that pump large volumes of air in and out of this network with great efficiency. These bastards are able to visit blistering, swift death upon everything that creeps and crawls under the desert sun because when evolution was passing out engines, they got the 8.0 liter, quad turbocharger, 64-valve, 1,300 horsepower version. Solifugids aren’t so much animals as they are wire cutters super-glued to a rocket.

This constant incredible athleticism means that the solifugid must carbohydrate load 24/7, and make sure that if it runs down lunch, it better come out on top. Part of this is facilitated by the vice-like grip of its chelicerae, but that requires getting close enough to chomp down. This is where the pedipalps come in, which have eversible suction pads on the tips. These little structures stick right on the prey in mid-chase, allowing the solifugid to get a grip and pull the hapless victim straight into the torturous embrace of its esurient maw.

To get an idea of what this would be like, imagine you are a lone agama lizard, taking a night stroll on the flanks of sand dune in the middle of Sahara in search of a wayward beetle or two to snack on. Then, you hear something clambering over the ridge of the sand dune…and it’s approaching fast. Really fast. Before you can even react, a hideous vessel, festooned in flailing jaws and legs, clears the top of the dune, and races down after you. You can’t get your footing on the loose sand in time, but the solifugid, dancing on the shifting surface with its light, hairy feet, has no problem at all. You turn to flee, and just as you do, terror grips you as you see those fucking toilet plungers of death eagerly reaching out towards you. You skitter down the dune, sand flying, your little lizard heart pounding. The solifugid, aided by gravity, gets closer, bearing down on you, a vast tank driving a flurry of clacking car compactor claws, slicked with saliva, horrifically screeching as they rub past one another. Suddenly, you feel one of the suction cups adhere to your scaly side with a sickening wet pop, and you are yanked backwards. The sound of the rustling pincers to your back ceases right before they come down on your belly with tremendous pressure. You let out a pitiful yelp as the solifugid silently, coldly, articulates a massive jaw over your head. It easily collapses your skull, and everything goes black.

That’s the day to day reality for anything small sharing the desert with these animals.

Those nifty little suction pads? Yeah, those are perfectly suited for grabbing flying insects out of the goddamned air. Solifugids will take and eat anything they damn well please. Flying away only prevents the inevitable in the desert.

Solifugids are apparently so voracious, that they are known for eating themselves into a bloated stupor, so swollen with food they can’t even move. Their soft, stretchable abdomens expand with liquefied food like a water balloon attached to a sink faucet. This allows them to obtain as much food energy as possible in a very short amount of time, a skill I learned and exploited whilst around free food in my college years.

In addition to those weird flagella on male chelicerae, there are other organs adorning the Solifugae that are a complete mystery to science. I’m specifically talking about a set of organs on the underside of the last pair of legs that jut out from the exoskeleton and are shaped like ghostly white ginkgo leaves, or mushrooms.

Whoa. You, uh…should have a doctor look at that, bro.

They are called “malleoli” and while scientists are pretty sure they are sensory organs, they don’t really have any idea what they are sensing, or how they are doing it. The odd, fan-shaped structures might be sensitive to vibrations traveling through the ground, or to chemicals in the air, but science, as of right now, has given the colorless, gummy umbrellas a collective shrug.

If a solifugid manages to violently consume its way out of childhood and grow to full, reproductive age, it may be struck by the urge to settle down and have a clutch of baby camel spiders all of its own. But reproduction is easier said than done in the world of the solifugid. These are purely solitary hunters, and because of this, mating opportunities don’t exactly spring up naturally like they do in socially-competent humans (er, well, most humans).

“I walk a lonely road, the only one that I have ever known….”

If you were a solifugid, being a loner for much of your life would actually be a very wise idea. You see, it turns out that an animal that instinctively looks at anything in its own size range as a meal doesn’t tend to play nice with other solifugids. These creatures are not big on long term relationships…or short term relationships…or the equivalent of a coffee date…….or anything. What they (and by they, I mean the female solifugids) are a fan of is ripping apart and devouring anything that tries to mate with it. That unstoppable appetite is indiscriminate, and well-meaning gentleman callers don’t get a free pass. Solifugid mating protocol is made exceedingly complicated by the ever-present threat of sexual cannibalism…which in reality is nowhere near as hot as it sounds, pervert.

From the perspective of a male solifugid, female solifugids are gargantuan monsters twice their size, insane with insatiable hunger, and able to cleave them in two in a fraction of a second. But…they also want to have sex with that gargantuan monster, beautiful creature that she is. In order to get around this seemingly insurmountable dilemma, in many species of solifugid, the males have acquired a number of special adaptations, both physical and behavioral, that allow them to sow their seed and make it out alive.

A conventional approach, used by many species of solifugid, is for the male to excrete a spermatophore (a dense sperm packet), which is then placed on the ground near the female. The male then “courts” the female by some very cautious massaging and dancing around. This is less “taking the lady out for a nice meal” and more “dangling a steak in front a tiger’s face.” Once the hungry hungry horror is lured into the perfect position, the male takes a deep breath through his tracheal spiracles, and does the unthinkable. He grapples the female, holding onto her back tightly with the suction pads on his pedipalps, and supplexes her onto the spermatophore, which he then plasters into her genital opening. This is like if you needed to stick a wad of gum on the belly of a grizzly bear, and you tried to do so by tackling it from behind and attempting to pull it to the ground, equipped with nothing but a couple of suction tip Nerf gun darts to increase your grip. After the objective is complete, he lets his immeasurably pissed “partner” go and books it in the opposite direction as fast as his post-coital legs can carry him.

Males in some other species, especially ones with a high degree of sexual cannibalism, have to struggle even more to pass on their genetic material. Observations of mating behavior in species of Galeodes and Gluvia, in which sexual cannibalism runs rampant, have illuminated a complicated and life-threatening bit of “coercive” copulation that males must endure. And by “coercive” I mean “forced.” In order to subdue the female long enough to slap some baby batter in her genital opening, the male employs a bit more than just a fancy wrestling move. He approaches carefully, with or without some strokes from his pedipalp, and then lunges, chomps down on her legs and abdomen, chews at her genitals, hooks and locks her hind legs with his own, and after she’s pinned, he transfers the spermatophore. There is no cuddling afterwards.

When solifugid children ask their parents where babies come from, the response they receive is a flat, solemn “Pain, child. Pain. All of life is pain.” And then the parents decapitate the young and feed upon its kidneys, because, you know…solifugids.

Modified from Fig. 2 in Coercive copulation in two sexually cannibalistic camel-spider species (Arachnida: Solifugae). M. Hrušková-Martišová, S. Pekár, and T. Bilde. 2010. Journal of Zoology. Vol 282: 2, pp 91-99

These encounters can get so heated that males can inflict substantial injuries upon the female, including puncture wounds, scrapes, and occasionally the severing of an entire limb. These kinds of “love amputations” are apparently just a ho hum part of the savage life of the solifugid.

Mating is so treacherous for male solifugids that they’ve actually evolved a series of physical adaptations to make their screw-jitsu moves that much more successful. For one, males in these sexually vicious species tend to have proportionally longer legs and small bodies, allowing for greater agility and an increased reach, which helps in keeping Princess’s unholy gob of horrors as far away as possible. Males also have stronger, stouter, pokier spines along their pedipalps, which are likely used to hold on to Miss Buckin’ Bronco until the deed is done.
Yes, solifugid sex is so violent that only males that have a natural, morphological edge (like built-in crampons, for fuck’s sake) in going head to head with the most fearsome thing in their world (a hungry, full-grown female solifugid) are able to send their genes into the next generation.

Solifugids are undoubtedly ferocious predators. They kill and eat almost everything they meet up with. Insects. Spiders. Lizards. Snakes. Baby mice. Bats. Birds. Friends. Family. If it can be caught, they’re on it, gobbling up as much as they can in their short lives (estimated at only about a year or two maximum). They are the baddest motherfuckers to scan the seas of sand, but unlike what the urban legends purport, their sphere of terror is limited to the realm of the diminutive.
Despite the impressive role they play as tenacious predators in their ecosystem, we don’t really know much about them compared to other arachnid groups. Hopefully, in years’ time, more people will know of solifugids for their very real, very fascinating biology, and not relegate the order to the isolation of limited inquiry, superstition, and misunderstanding.


Image credits: Intro image, scorpion vs solifugid illustration, original for Forever Alone solifugidchelicera close-up, solifugid threat display, pale solifugid with large prosoma, malleoli, solifugid on road, ending solifugid

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Arachnids: Harvestmen

This post is the fourth in an ongoing series on arachnids. Previously, this series addressed whipspiders, hooded tickspiders, and pseudoscorpions. Additional posts on other weird, often overlooked or neglected groups of these creepy crawlies to follow. For a related chelicerate, but as far as science can tell, not an arachnid, see the post on sea spiders.

The harvestman.

In the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. they are generally referred to as “daddy longlegs.” Less often, they are given the name “shepherd spiders”…not because of an adoration of our wooly, farm animal friends, but because their conspicuously long, spindly legs are reminiscent of how, back in the day in Europe, shepherds used stilts to get a better vantage point for watching their flocks…because in those times, people used tools at their jobs that are, today, relegated for the “circus arts” or whatever the fuck the Oregon Country Fair is.

More often than not, we tend to encounter harvestmen in relatively unflattering settings (dusty corners of garages or sheds, beneath untended vegetative landscaping, suburbia in general) and doing unflattering things, like clumsily wobbling off in a direction very loosely resembling “away” from you, teetering along like an intoxicated pre-teen who grew too fast for their coordination to catch up. Within the scope of our lives, harvestmen are no more than the arachnids of unswept places, with vaguely unsettling, Slender Man-like proportions. However, these thread-legged critters are far more interesting and diverse than most of us are aware of, and make up a unique group of arachnids that is regrettably seen as only a curious afterthought amid the dust bunnies and the nooks and crannies of exposed building foundations.

Before addressing these awesome little nuances of harvestman biology, it’s perhaps helpful to get something out of the way: what harvestmen ARE and what harvestmen ARE NOT.

The most important thing to understand from the get-go is that harvestmen are not spiders. They may have the eight, long legs, the roughly circular body suspended in the middle, and overall size and appearance one would associate with spiders, but harvestmen are a different beast altogether. Sometimes, in nature, something that looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…is actually a chicken in a Daffy Duck costume. Harvestmen are spiders in the same way that Senator Mitch McConnell is a Galapagos tortoise…through a superficial, yet striking, exterior resemblance and nothing more.

Harvestmen are arachnids that belong to entirely different order from spiders; they are members of the Opiliones (which comes from “opilio”, which in Latin means “shepherd”) rather than the spider order of Araneae. Not only are they in separate taxonomic groups, these groups aren’t even particularly closely related to one another. The order Opiliones is thought to be closely allied with the groupings comprising the scorpions and their closest relatives (like pseudoscorpions and the so-called “camel spiders”), together forming a subclass of arachnids known as the Dromopoda. Generally speaking, a precursory examination of these little guys can lead someone to see the most obvious differences between harvestmen and spiders; harvestmen have body segments fused at a broad juncture into a bean-shaped structure covered in folds of exoskeletal armor, whereas spiders have two easily-defined segments (or “tagmata”)…harvestmen also have a pair of tiny, simple eyes on top surface of the center of their body, while spiders have an array of different types of eyes all at the front of their head region (the “cephalothorax”).

If you are at all familiar with harvestmen (especially if you grew up in the United States) you are almost assuredly acquainted with a frustratingly commonly shared bit of jarringly dramatic “natural history” about their supposed venomous bites. The meme is typically thrown around on playgrounds, where harvestmen are frequently encountered in the warmer months, between children, who relay the idea that harvestmen are “the most venomous animals on the planet” but have mouths and/or fangs too small to adequately pierce human skin, so are of no danger.

This claim sits about as far from reality as you can get. Harvestmen do not only produce not a single drop of venom, they also don’t possess the mouthparts (fangs) that would allow them to envenomate anything anyways. Unlike spiders, harvestmen chelicerae (the appendages in Chelicerates like arachnids that loosely form the mouthparts used to apprehend, dispatch, and process prey items) are segmented and end in minuscule pincers instead of giant, hollow spears anchored to a swollen venom gland. These mouthparts are used to delicately carve up food, like a pair of blunt embroidery scissors, into pieces small enough to fit into their mouth hole. Harvestmen “bites”, when they rarely occur, are more “pinches” than anything else, and are about as deadly as a lick from a puppy.

Harvestmen are perfectly capable arachnids in their own, humble way, not the powerful killers of urban legend, plagued by impotence.

“Sleeping too much? Trouble catching prey, or satisfying your mate? You don’t need to suffer in shame. Ask your doctor about ChelicaMax. Feel like a harvestMAN again.”

If there are any arachnologists reading this right now, I expect there are some chuckles arising at the irony of my cheap erectile dysfunction jab at harvestmen. You see, if there’s any arachnid that doesn’t deserve to be associated with…er…”underwhelming” expressions of manhood, it’s those tall drinks of water found in the Opiliones. Male harvestmen are unique among arachnids because they are the only arachnids to possess a penis. Most arachnids make sweet, creepy-crawly love to one another using “indirect” copulation, which involves the coordinated transfer of a kind of “sperm packet” into a pore in the body of the female…which is less like familiar, human-style sex and more like plugging a tailpipe with a snowball. Harvestmen get down in the “direct” way, with funny looking interlocking components and everything. And by saying harvestmen penises are “funny looking” I mean they look absolutely fucking terrifying. Decorated with a complex assortment of spines, loops, and tendrils, harvestmen dongs look more like something that would slither out of slimy egg sac and slowly kill off B-list actors interstellar, spaceship-bound explorers than…you know…genitalia. For an animal that has legs that are about as flimsy as a human hair, it certainly packs a disconcertingly authoritative member.

Suddenly, the “daddy” in “daddy longlegs” makes me far more uncomfortable than it used to Credit: Sue Lindsay, Australian Museum

Yes, the arachnid that looks like nothing more than long pieces of dried grass stuck to a booger has a dick shaped like an angry, strike-ready cobra.

In addition to this, some species of harvestmen are actually parthenogenetic, meaning that the entire species is female, and reproduces without fertilization from a male (that’s right, some species of “daddy longlegs” have no actual daddies to speak of)…and with males running around with serpent doom-Johnsons primed and loaded, I can’t blame the ladies for going solo.

But of course, for the harvestmen…er…men (I’m a fan of shortening that to “harvestbros”), their pelvic thrust is far worse than their bite. I mean that in regards to their purely mythical venom, and to the unusual way in which harvestmen feed themselves in the first place. To you, me, and anyone other than Charles Bukowski, an entirely liquid diet seems like an odd venture to indulge in. Yet, it is how all arachnids ingest their food; spiders liquefy the insides of their prey with their slurry of digestive enzymes pumped through their fangs, slurping the juicy mixture back in the same way…scorpions dribble digestive goo Brundlefly-style all over their lunch, then suck up the resulting puree of tissue afterwards. Mites feed on liquefied plant cells or animal skin cells. Ticks gorge themselves into red, ballooning, gluttonous oblivion on blood. But harvestmen alone among their arachnid kin feed on the tough stuff, solid food, cutting up pieces of whatever they can find, be it an insect, small frog or other vertebrate, or even a mushroom, and immediately placing it into their digestive tract. This menu by itself is incredible, considering that all other arachnids are either predatory or parasitic, and harvestmen have a varied diet largely encompassing scavenged material from the dead, dung, and plants and fungi. You might think that in the land of the baby food-eaters, the steak-eater is king, but dining on solid pieces of food make harvestmen more susceptible to infection with a number of internal parasites and pathogens (most of these being intestinal nematode worms and pathogenic fungi, both of which can strike their hosts dead) that other arachnids don’t have to deal with, as their liquid, pre-digested diet screens out a lot of these organisms.

Diseased or not, anything that eats hornets is automatically a friend to me.

Harvestmen can bumble through this world alone if they so wish, but many species are very comfortable associating closely with other members of their species, sometimes in large numbers. Harvestmen can congregate in great, dense balls, typically in some protected location near water. In temperate latitudes, this most often occurs with the cool, autumnal approach of the winter months, aligning with the time of the agricultural harvest (hence the common name “harvestman”). Some of these aggregations can reach unreal sizes (reportedly in the tens of thousands of individuals), blanketing rock overhangs or tree trunks, looking like a particularly unkempt patch of pubic hair…that is, until it is disturbed, leading to an exodus of very confused little stick figure fuckers all over the place. Observe the video below, which showcases these living, colonial shag carpets and a pure, uncut hit of the heebie jeebies:

So, you might be saying to yourself, harvestmen a) don’t have venomous bites, b) eat a balanced diet like their mommas taught them to and c) cuddle together in great, shudder-inducing mats, making them easy targets for birds or other predators to shit themselves in excitement and coat their insides with the biggest buffet in their truncated little lifespans….why again are these goody two-shoes, with their apparent lack of defenses, not extinct? Not only are they not extinct, there are 6,500 species currently recognized in the Opiliones, and it’s likely that this only describes half of the actual diversity of harvestmen on Earth. They are a very old and successful group of arachnids, stretching back well over 400 million years, and they appear to have changed jack shit about their biology in that period of time; fossilized species dating back more than 100 million years before the first dinosaurs are barely distinguishable from modern harvestmen. So what’s their secret to even the most limited level of survival in the brutal, roiling pot of nature, where everything is trying to eat everything else, poop it out….and then eat it all over again?

For one, harvestmen have a few behavioral tricks up their long, long sleeves. Some species, when encountering a predator, sway their bodies erratically on their wiry legs. This bit of unpredictable movement is, understandably, unnerving, and often the predator is too befuddled to attempt messing with the dancing harvestman. Many species also engage in “autotomy”, which is where an animal sheds an entire body part, like a limb or a tail (as in many lizard species) in order to distract a predator, allowing for a quick getaway. In autotomous harvestmen, the gangly legs are what are cast aside in a pinch; at the junction of the “hip” the limb is severed, and the harvestman wobbles away as fast as the remaining seven legs can take it. This strategy’s effectiveness is boosted by another unique feature of harvestman biology; their respiratory system. Unlike most other arachnid groups, harvestmen don’t have book lungs, the folded structures that perform gas exchange in spiders, scorpions, etc., but instead breathe through small holes and tunnels running in and out of their exoskeleton; tracheae. Many have spiracles (holes) that allow for air to enter on each of the legs. If one of these legs is kicked to the curb in a permanent sense, it still retains a small part of the respiratory system. In many autotomous animals, the lost body part thrashes and twitches violently for a short while to keep the attacking predator’s attention long enough for the escape to be a success. The harvestman’s leg continues to draw oxygen into all of the tissues of the limb for a great while after being disconnected from the body, nourishing excited nerve fibers with fresh oxygen, and letting the disembodied limb, ala the Addam’s Family’s “Thing”, move around, deceivingly, for many minutes later.

Despite a slight shot to their over-land fleetness (and maybe a case of phantom limb syndrome or two), harvestmen seem to use this anti-predator strategy frequently (many harvestmen are found with seven or fewer legs), competently temporarily evading death by means of the world’s most gruesome take on the Hokey Pokey.

“Self-amputation is what it’s all about, kids.”

Another defensive measure commonly used is a little less subtle. Rather than stupefying with killer dance moves, or putting on a literal, live rendition of My Left Foot, harvestmen can also turn themselves into a meal that spurs on acute contrition for the unwary diner. Most harvestmen have specialized glands, called ozopores, located at the sides of the front of the “head” region (called the cephalothorax in many arachnids, the “prosoma” in harvestmen). These glands, derived from simple scent glands, secrete a rank fluid concoction that is repellent to both the nostrils and the taste buds. When compressed or harassed, the harvestman squeezes the noxious fluid out of the sides of its body with muscular contractions, and the chemical blend presents itself as milky droplets seeping out behind the folded chelicerae.

“I come from a long line of longleg milkers. It’s a dying art.”

Modified from Chemical defense of an Opilionid (Acanthopachylus aculeatus) . Thomas Eisner, Carmen Rossini, Andres Gonzalez and Maria Eisner . 2004. Journal of Experimental Biology 207, pp. 1313-1321.

A major chemical component of these secretions is benzoquinone, a toxic compound that smells like heated or melting plastic, mixed with an over-chlorinated swimming pool, and if it gets pretty much anywhere on you, the effects are fucking nasty, interfering with oxygen transport if ingested (along with lots of weakness and vomiting) and irritating the sensitive membranes of the mouth and nose, blistering exposed skin and eyes. The overall effects of the chemical secretions, and their effectiveness as deterrents vary significantly between species of predator, as well as the species of harvestmen, as the makeup of these poisonous cocktails differ enough between groups of harvestmen that they can be highly informative when it comes to identifying species, or classifying newly discovered ones.

All of these weird traits, the purposeful loss of legs, the caustic armpit drippings, the shoulder-to-shoulder-to-seven-other-shoulders congregations of a number of individuals that exceeds the maximum capacity of most Division I football stadiums, are all well and good, but harvestmen aren’t exactly the most interesting things to look like. All of them have the same, simple construction; spindly legs, nondescript, oval-shaped body, tiny eyes, and barely discernible chelicerae. Even the most colossal species of harvestman, with legs so long it could hug a throw pillow, looks the exact fucking same. More or less, they all look like a spider sketched by an artistically-challenged 3-year old. Little ball, lots of long, skinny sticks attached.

Right? Wrong.

Most of the harvestmen encountered by folks living in the temperate Northern Hemisphere and greater Anglophonic world (also the major audience of this blog; don’t worry, I check my visitor stats, I’m very aware most of ya’ll are from the West) appear this way. Most of these species also belong to a single sub-order of Opiliones, the Eupnoi, which contains about a fourth of all described species of harvestman. However, the bulk of harvestman biodiversity is situated in the sub-order Laniatores, with about 4,000 species. These harvestmen, which have their highest numbers in the humid forests and caves of the subtropics and tropics (particularly in South America), tend to look very different from their European and U.S. cousins. Many species have thick-plated body armor, surreal proportions, nefarious-looking thorns and projections, and….well…you’ll see what I mean if you just look…

This adorable little bucket of terror is Soerensenella prehensor, native to New Zealand. It’s a member of the Triaenonychidae family of harvestmen, which are found chiefly in North and South America, Madagascar, Japan, and Australasia. They are characterized by their relatively short legs, and grotesquely expanded pedipalps which resemble a pair of ice cream scoopers that someone covered with crazy glue and dunked in a dish of thumb tacks. It’s thought that these crampon-lined bear-huggers are used in the same fashion as the lightning-fast, weaponized front legs of a praying mantis; to ambush and spear prey, bringing it close to those hungry mouthparts, effectively impaled into submission by a thorny embrace.

Oh, what now? A Headcrab with rickets?

Some tropical Lanitorian species of harvestmen look like the Pokemon “evolutions” of smaller, scrawnier versions of the arachnids. An example of this is the hulked out, walking Dali painting above, Pachyloidellus goliath, and it is found in high-altitude areas in Argentina. The swollen body and studded armor plating might be intimidating, but it has more renown due to its particularly odoriferous ozopore secretions. The smell is apparently so repulsively offensive, that in the local Quechua language, it is called “chichina”, which is in loose reference to another endemic arthropod that defends itself with a stinky discharge, a relative of stick insects (Agathemera crassa) which is called “chinche molle.”

There are alien-looking harvestmen outside of the Laniatores as well. Some are nested right within the supposedly “familiar” Eupnoi group. For example, there’s the harvestmen of the genus Megalopsalis found in New Zealand, which have males with outlandishly overgrown, 2-segmented chelicerae that they keep tightly folded up like a pair of butterfly knives during most of their day.

“All the better to creep you out with, my dear.”

Chelicerae among females are pretty standard, so, although not much is known about these guys, it’s likely the ridiculously giant mouthparts have some history in sexual selection. They could be for male-male competition, in the same vein as bull elk that clack antlers together. Or it may be directly tied to female mate choice, where no fighting is involved, but the males showing off the most preposterous chelicerae (or rather, the males healthy enough to grow and maintain such cumbersome body parts) are scored as a particularly good date and/or father of many multitudes of larval children.

Finally, there are some members of the sub-order Dyspnoi that deserve mentioning, a small group of less than 400 species of harvestman found only in the cool latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere and are thought to be closely related to the Eupnoi cluster of species. One species of harvestman within the Dyspnoi is a shining-star example of the evolution of weird dietary specialization. It is Ischyropsalis hellwigi, native to central Europe, and it eats snails and other molluscs (scientists think exclusively so). If you are wondering how it manages to do so, seeing as how snails have protective shells (kind of a big part of being a goddamn snail) and how typical harvestmen have the kiddy scissor version of chelicerae, and even the elongated examples I pointed out above don’t seem to have any real power behind them…might as well try to crack a coconut with a back-scratcher….you’d be correct to be skeptical. Luckily, both sexes of I. hellwigi look like they’ve been taking syringes of nandrolone in the ass for years on end, and are gifted with the some of the planet’s most ‘roided out harvestman chelicerae, period.

Schwarzenegger up there has a taste for escargot, and those lobster-like claws, bulging with muscle inside their exoskeletal prison, are the perfect tools for the job. There hasn’t been really any record of these harvestmen eating snails in the wild, but that might be more due to the fact that they are very much nocturnal and aren’t exactly common…so stumbling across one of these arachnids isn’t likely in the first place, let alone one in the middle of a meal. In captivity, however, these wanna-be prawns go ape shit over being introduced to snails and slugs, which they dispatch immediately with a cold, calculated method of deconstructing the snail’s happy little mobile home. It apparently involves propping the shell up with one powerful chelicera, and then chipping off fragments of shell with the other claw, incrementally whittling down to the prize at the core, like the world’s most patient consumer of a fortune cookie. Eventually, the mollusk’s soft body is reached, ripped through the harvestman-carved window in the shell, and greedily devoured. These harvestmen are also known to take down slugs and snails multiple times their mass, because these are apparently arachnids with not even the faintest trace of a fuck to give.

Whether they are bobbing their way out of getting wolfed down by a lizard, clambering over the forest floor 400 million years ago, or looking like warty alien spiders that stepped right out of an Avatar rendering, harvestmen represent an amazing and diverse order of arachnids. Perhaps most exciting? We still know almost nothing about the huge numbers of opilioids that have been discovered, particularly the bizarre forms that hide quietly in the equatorial rainforests. We are only now starting to understand the chemical composition of their defensive ozopore secretions, and seeing as how there is an unusual level of variation between families of harvestman on what types of compounds are produced, and a high number of active products (sometimes nearing 100 or so compounds), there is a plenty of opportunity to discover chemical compounds that, if co-opted and adapted, might serve humankind well in the areas of medicine or industry.

Image credits: Intro harvestman, harvestman closeup in grass, harvestman with hornet abdomen, harvestman with white background, Sorensenella, Pachyloidellus, Megalopsalis.

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Armed to the Teeth: Bites from Forgotten Sharks

As the 31-day stretch of August rapidly rushes to completion, and the balmiest days of summer fade into the imminent, cool veil of fall, 2014 also discards one of its temporal landmarks associated with these heat-stricken days. If you think I am referencing something remotely anapestic and evoking chest-fluttering nostalgia of long-forgotten, canicular childhood summers, then think again. Because I am, of course, talking about Shark Week.

Yes, that now-legendary bit of the Discovery Channel’s summer programming line-up, a selachimorph-centered festival that is closing in on three decades running, has now passed us by, ending but two weeks ago. Years ago, Shark Week initially appeared to be driven with the mission statement of Discovery in mind, one rooted in the dissemination of fundamentally educational, science-based material in an entertaining manner. This incarnation of Shark Week was the one I was fortunate enough to grow up with, and this week was a boon to my insatiably science-curious child brain, one that my neurons practically salivated over in Pavlovian form right around the time the last traces of abandoned, burnt out firecrackers left July’s dirt. The gift of science education excellence was instrumental in the development of my eventual fascination (and career trajectory) with biology, and I credit the old-school Discovery Channel’s programming with much of the inspiration and intrigue about the natural world that gilded my early days.

At the age of four, my shark ID skills were solid. However, my artistic skills were still…er….buffering.

So, given the intimate intellectual relationship I have with Shark Week and Discovery, watching what both entities have become in recent years feels like a steel-toed kick to the kidneys. There are a laundry list of offenses, and all of them hit on a single formula; the sacrifice of ethics and scientific accuracy in favor of mythology and adrenal-gland massaging codswallop; a grand invasion of heart-pumping, flash and sparkle nonsense programming based on approximately zero micrograms of actual science, all as an ill-conceived motion to inflate ratings. Some examples of Shark Week contrived falsehoods? Well, there’s this lovely bit of mass hysteria-inducing, publicity-hungry deceit initiated by cries of “oh no! Lake sharks! *wink wink*.” Also, there’s that time Discovery trotted out this steaming, embarrassingly unscientific pile of horseshit. Oh, there’s also that other time they made an entire special up. Or how about how the network can only seem to convince scientists to do Shark Week specials with them if they straight-up con them into doing so?

Others (linked above) have done a splendid job of calling out the network’s recent, fraudulent Shark Week habits, so this post isn’t going to be yet another dart in that already well-pockmarked board, but what I want to address is loosely tied to Shark Week’s newfound adoration of Megalodon (well, specifically an adoration of tricking viewers into believing the very extinct shark is still patrolling the deep…now for two years in a row).

“Megalodon”, or to be more accurate Carcharocles megalodon (or Carcharodon megalodon, it depends on what paleontologist you ask) is a popular beast, and thus is an obvious choice for many an examination by television networks (in mockumentaries or not). The extinct shark species is popular for damn good reason, too. C. megalodon was an animal of such outlandish proportions that it doesn’t seem like it could ever have existed, and yet it did, for more than 26 million years, dying out right around the time our ancestral line first harnessed that hot, orange, light-producing stuff that eats up wood (followed swiftly by the invention of S’mores and crappy ghost stories). This was a shark that, according to the most conservative estimates, exceeded 45 feet in length, and had a pair of cartilaginous bear trap-esque chompers big enough to gulp down a Ford Fiesta without even scratching the paint on its immense, triangular teeth.

And oh yes, those teeth. Those frisbee-sized blades that festooned its jaws in a ragged chain of despair. Those famous teeth, for which the animal is named (megalodon basically means “giant fucking tooth”), combined with a body bigger than a goddamn school bus, have enraptured the imaginations of young and old alike, and contemplation about what it would be like to encounter such a surreal, monstrous animal in the flesh is unavoidable.

But, here’s the deal with ol’ Megs…outside of its status as by far the largest shark that ever lived, and definitely one of the biggest predators to ever exist (getting edged out by the sperm whales alive today)…as far as we can tell, there’s nothing insanely unique about its biology. Granted, one of the most fascinating things about C. megalodon is that we don’t know that much about it. Even the size of the thing is sort of up in the air, seeing as how the scientific community has only fragmentary remains (teeth and a handful of vertebrae; the cartilaginous skeletons of sharks don’t fossilize as readily as bony skeletons, so this dearth of recorded remains is not that unusual) from which to base their calculations; estimations range from the 40s of feet in length to more than 60 feet…which in my book is the difference between “we’re going to need a bigger boat” huge and “I’m going to need a new pair of pants” huge.

Honestly, C. megalodon was cool and all, but it was basically just a Hulked-out version of any large lamniform shark (Lamniformes being the order of sharks to which great whites and makos belong). The animal is more or less like a great white had a run in with Rick Moranis and his growth ray, with maybe some very subtle differences in proportions…and a slightly different taste in prey…like taking on goddamned whales instead of comparatively diminutive sea lions. Yes, C. megalodon was something of a specialized whale killer…a shark exquisitely well-adapted to slaughtering and consuming the most massive animals of all time.

So sure, it’s teeth were heart-stoppingly big, and robust, and belonged in the titanic jaws of a beast of celebrity status….but they were just relatively standard lamniform teeth ratcheted up in size, with some limited modifications for slicing through several hundred cubic feet of whale flesh and bone at a time (increased thickness and bigger, deeper roots). For an animal so well-known for its mouth, it certainly didn’t have the most unique pearly whites among extinct sharks. The diversity of prehistoric sharks, and the diversity their feeding adaptations (which often are very divergent from today’s sharks), are woefully unappreciated, at least in comparison to C. megalodon, which is a remarkable shark due to its size and power…but I can think of a couple examples of long-extinct sharks that have far more interesting things going on at their eating ends.

Take Cretoxyrhina mantelli, for example, pictured below in this reconstruction by paleo-artist Dmitry Bogdanov, which given this speculative coloration, appears to be a shark that has deceptively splashed its belly in paint in a desperate attempt to mimic a great white shark.

I blame unrealistic standards of shark intimidation in the media.

Cretoxyrhina wouldn’t have had to try too hard to look like the most powerful predatory shark of today’s oceans (the great white), considering that they were very close relatives and reached similar sizes (although Cretoxyrhina likely got even larger, topping out at around 23 feet (7 meters) or more in length). Cretoxyrhina was a member of the same taxonomic order of sharks that great whites and C. megalodon belonged; Lamniformes, a group of sharks characterized by relatively conical snouts, five gill slits, and a mouth that sits behind the eyes. Cretoxyrhina was part of different family of sharks than today’s sea lion tossers, but they were more or less cut from the same evolutionary mold.

Cretoxyrhina patrolled global shallow seas between about 80 and 100 million years ago, meaning that it was separated from the most ancient great white sharks by the same immense length of time that modern humans are separated from the last of the dinosaurs. One of the places it called home, and where many high-quality fossil remains have been discovered, was Kansas. Cretoxyrhina didn’t frequent the Sunflower State because it craved barbecue and pursued the smells wafting out of Kansas City by crawling through wheat fields Land Shark style. Cretoxyrhina has fossils coming up in the heartlandiest part of America’s heartland because during the Mid-Cretaceous era, this entire region was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, a great swath of saltwater that divided North America longitudinally into two giant landmasses, running unbroken from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. The notion that Kansas, and much of the American Mid-West, was a sea bed tens of millions of years ago isn’t that surprising considering that the region is flatter than twenty year-old can of Crystal Pepsi. It’s flatter than Bernie Lomax’s ECG. Flatter than that dusty, unused piano in your grandmother’s guest room. Flatter than how a joke about twerking falls at an AARP convention. What I’m trying to say is that Kansas is flatter than shit (and honestly, it’s kind of a dull, featureless, oppressive shithole, both due to the aggressive summer heat and the legions of hyperreligious, bug-fuck insane, freedom-fried inhabitants…sorry Kansans).

The Western Interior Seaway was an ocean that teemed with a rich diversity of marine life, and provided Cretoxyrhina with a smorgasbord of flavorful, finned fauna upon which to dine…and dine it did, with a set of some of the most impressive teeth to evolve in the hundreds of millions of years of shark prehistory. These knife-like teeth, some two inches long and numbering more than thirty in each jaw not counting the replacement teeth “on deck” (compared to the twenty-five or so in great white jaws), are graced with a unique characteristic of their construction; the presence of an unusually thick, resilient enameloid (similar to enamel, the hardest, outermost covering of human teeth) coating. These teeth had the impeccable sharpness common to predatory sharks in general, combined with an unprecedented toughness. Cretoxyrhina was equipped with teeth that were particularly good at biting into very hard, bony or shelled things over and over again, and successfully cutting them into manageable, bloody chunks. For this reason, Cretoxyrhina is commonly called the “Ginsu shark”, referring to the famous, supposedly exceptionally sharp cutlery hard sold via infomercial in the 70s and 80s.

It’s perhaps incredibly fortunate for Cretoxyrhina that it had this buzzsaw of a mouth at its disposal. The Mid-Cretaceous oceans, especially in the bountiful, warm, shallow waters of the Western Interior Seaway, were full of “difficult” prey items and “worrisome” predator competition…and by “difficult” and “worrisome” I mean that they would make today’s most effective and brutal marine predators jettison the contents of their bowels into the water column in a fit of terror. Middle America some 90 million years ago was a lukewarm cauldron full of an assemblage of aquatic monstrosities that appear to be lifted straight from the sketchbook of a deranged 8-year old child. Among them was Xiphactinus, a voracious, needle-toothed fish with a dramatic, bulldog-like under-bite and a body the size of a Chevy Tahoe. There were also plesiosaurs like Elasmosaurus, whale-sized, snake-necked reptiles that look more like something hunting in the subterranean oceans of Naboo than something that actually existed on Earth at one time. The seaway also was home to sea turtles that weighed more than two tons, and a number of mosasaurs like TylosaurusFor those unfamiliar, mosasaurs were a group of marine lizards that reached their heyday at the tail end of the Cretaceous, and were basically a hellish amalgamation of crocodiles, eels, and sharks…but blown up to the size of an orca. Wherever mosasaurs swam, they, understandably, were among the most dominant predators in their ecosystem. Similar throngs of animals were found in epicontinental seas (inland seas and seaways) and continental shelves (areas offshore where the continental plate is submerged in the sea; more shallow than the middle of the oceans), prime Cretoxyrhina habitat, the world over.

The “Ginsu shark” may have been an impressive fish, with its gob full of diamond-tipped blades and imposing bulk, but it was just one of many giant predators in the tepid Cretaceous oceans.

So, there was a glut of flesh, bone, and teeth during this time; on land there were still the big, non-avian (non-bird) dinosaurs, and in the seas, gigantic reptiles and fish. Cretoxyrhina was likely superbly adapted to exploiting food sources in these treacherous waters via its uniquely effective bite. Flourishing in a sea full of big, armored, active animals means you have to have the capacity to take a shot at just about anything…and it appears as though Cretoxyrhina did just that. Cretoxyrhina teeth and bite marks are found in just about every big animal it shared the water with; Archelon, the largest sea turtle to have ever existed, got jacked up by this shark…the shark tore into giant pleisosaurs….and even went after the biggest and least-fuck-withable things around, mosasaurs. It is often hard to tell from the fossil evidence whether or not affixed teeth or scarring on bone is the result from an actual attack and feeding, or simple posthumous scavenging. However, there are examples in the fossil record of Cretoxyrhina making a failed attempt at a kill of a mosasaur, evidenced by the mosasaur’s vertebrae having shark teeth embedded within the bone, where the injury became infected, subsequently healed, with the bone growing over the tooth like a tree trunk slowly enveloping a fence over decades. Think about that for a second; mosasaurs, a predator group so heinous that it likely had an impact on the decline of entire orders of other humongous, fang-toothed, marine reptiles like pliosaurs and ichthyosaurs, were a menu item for Cretoxyrhina. Even if most of its interactions with the largest predators and prey in the ocean were, realistically, opportunistic events where it fed on small, young, or sick individuals, or just devoured the dead…the Ginsu shark assuredly occasionally used those incredible teeth against things that were very big, very strong, and very dangerous.

Cretoxyrhina wasn’t the baddest bastard under the waves, but outfitted with a bite that could cleave several inches of bone in an exposed mosasaur flipper as effortlessly as a light saber carving through a gelatin salad, it sure as shit acted like it was. C. megalodon may have chiefly fed on giant whales…but baleen whales don’t have the ability to fucking bite back, and for that reason, Cretoxyrhina’s comparably courageous habit of recklessly targeting actual, real life sea monsters as food, as if it’s filming an episode of Jackass, receives an award for Heftiest Gonads of Shark Prehistory, at least in my book.

A second shark with a special set of teeth actually lived in the Western Interior Seaway during the same era as Cretoxyrhina, but this shark fed itself in a way not often associated with anything vaguely related to the common conceptualization of how a “shark” is supposed to make a living. A major part of this reason is because this shark had teeth that looked very similar to these:

Less with the “serrated death dagger” and more with the “wrinkly elbow” look

These teeth belong to a species of shark in the genus Ptychodus. Ptychodus was one of the last remaining examples of a group of sharks known as hybodonts (order Hybodontiformes). Hybodonts evolved more than 300 million years ago, and were incredibly common throughout the “age of the dinosaurs”, but eventually were out-competed by more sophisticated, less primitive sharks and died out sometime near the end of the Cretaceous. At the very end of their time on Earth, some bizarre, specialized forms had evolved, and Ptychodus was one of them.

Ptychodus had a set of jaws packed with rows of flat, bottle cap-shaped teeth arranged in a dense formation that resulted in a functional “plate” in both upper and lower jaws, opposing each other. This meant that Ptychodus obviously had a vastly different dental set up compared to other contemporary sharks, with much of the jaw toothless, save for this odd battery of bumpy hubcaps crammed together at the very front of the face.

It also meant that it had jaws that weirdly resembled the human female reproductive system.

It is thought that these mouths full of molars were an adaptation to feeding upon a very specific, and very locally abundant quarry; shelled animals, particularly clams. This type of feeding on tough, hard-shelled organisms, involving using broad teeth and powerful jaws to crush the shell outright, is known as “durophagy”, and outside of the limited number of species of bullhead sharks, it is not a strategy employed by modern sharks. We don’t know a whole lot about what they looked like and how they behaved, but given what we know about living sharks that have slow-moving prey that stay close to the bottom, we can surmise that Ptychodus had similar characteristics, in that it was likely slow-swimming (since hunting clams and urchins and other spiny, shelled critters doesn’t exactly require much chase) and resembled sharks with similar habits, like a nurse shark, for example.

This dietary specialization is unique, but one species of Ptychodus, Ptychodus mortoni, unearthed in Kansas several years ago, takes the entire game to a whole other level by being huge, based on calculations from fragmentary remains. How huge? Ten meters huge. That’s longer than a lot of sailing yachts.

P. mortoni was among one of the largest sharks of all time (and certainly one of the largest durophagous creatures of all time), and if it were alive today, it would only be exceeded in mass by whale sharks and the occasional basking shark…so it must have been eating bucket loads of clams to sustain itself, right? Not necessarily, at least not the types of clams you and I are familiar with. The Western Interior Seaway was also inhabited by a giant organism of a different stripe; Platyceramusthe most titanic genus of clam to ever sit, boringly, in the loose silt at the bottom of the sea. It was a clam with a shell that, at its smallest was bigger than your bulkiest, most airline-unfriendly piece of luggage, and at its largest, could fill an entire living room. A single individual could produce enough clam chowder to quell the hunger of a hundred famished New Englanders. Platyceramus was so insanely colossal that it served as a micro-ecosystem in and of itself, being utilized as protection for scores of fish, as well as a substrate for other shelled animals to attach and grow. This mega-mollusk, which makes the giant clams of today look like dinky, littleneck clams, was likely splintered by the insatiable car compactor jaws of P. mortoni, and the great underwater fields and reefs of these clams that once lined the shores running up and down the soon-to-be Great Plains could have been a major source of food for such a giant fish.

It’s unknown exactly what brought an end to P. mortoni. During the latter part of the Cretaceous, hybodont sharks were being outpaced by “newer models” of sharks, generally speaking, but given P. mortoni’s level of dietary specialization, traumatic ecological competition doesn’t seem too likely, unless some other giant durophagous fish rears its head in the Kansan fossil record. It’s also unclear if this shark was a victim of the same extinction event that leveled the non-avian dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and pterosaurs. A third route for its extinction might be linked to its selective diet, and the fact that, as of right now, has never been found outside of the range of the Western Interior Seaway. The seaway eventually closed as the Cretaceous transitioned into the Paleocene, and with it went all the habitat that made such rich grounds for an endless supply of outsized clams. It is possible that even if this last holdout of the hybodont family line managed to slip past millions of years of competition and an abrupt, catastrophic, global extinction event…it could have fallen victim to the incredibly common ecological and evolutionary phenomenon of being exceptionally good at a far too few number of jobs; the biggest species of Ptychodus did a wonderful job of scooting along the bottom of the ocean, shattering clam beds like a steamroller making its way through a ceramics class…but once the clams are gone, unemployment hits swiftly. Unfortunately, ecological unemployment tends to be irreparable, and fatal.

Either way, much like the limelight awash C. megalodon, both these other noteworthy sharks and their astonishing bites are forever lost to the lonely, backward expanse of time. It’s been many tens of millions of years since Cretoxyrhina last unwisely harassed the most decidedly inedible animals to ever evolve on this planet. Ptychodus hasn’t lazily busted open a couch-sized clam in almost that long. No modern human has ever had the undoubtedly epic experience of seeing these three animals alive, and barring the eventual invention of time travel, no human ever will. These animals, along with their incredible teeth, feeding behaviors, and overall biology, are quite dead.

We should consider ourselves lucky that a diversity of groups of sharks made it out of the Mesozoic era and arrived at the present day, continuing their several hundreds of millions of years of existence in our oceans. Multiple lineages of sharks today depart from the archetypal “tooth torpedo” form many of us have assigned to sharks, and engage in a wide array of unique feeding strategies. Unfortunately, many of these sharks are also threatened with extinction. Some hammerhead sharks use their hammer-shaped cephalofoil, armed with a high density of electroreceptive sensors, like a finely tuned metal detector, searching for the slightest signs of stingrays partially buried in the sediment at the bottom of the sea, which are then pinned down in a flash of cartilage-on-cartilage savagery and ingested after being rooted out from their hiding place. These remarkable sharks are also distinctly endangered, with two species currently regarded by the IUCN as endangered, and another as vulnerable. The whale shark, an enigmatic, beautifully serene animal that feeds entirely on plankton via filter feeding in a very unstereotypical fashion (for a shark), equipped with a mouth shaped like an envelope slot and with its closest relatives consisting of tiny, bottom-dwelling, camouflage-embracing sharks, is also the world’s largest “fish”, growing to more than 40 feet in length. It too is considered to be vulnerable to extinction, with major causes of concern of population decline stemming from fisheries that target the sharks, to habitat loss and depletion of the quality of feeding waters. The river sharks of the genus Glyphis are remarkable solely for the fact that they live completely within freshwater river systems, unlike any living sharks (bull sharks are renowned for their ability to access fresh and brackish water, but these sharks depend on saltwater for reproduction and are therefore not truly freshwater animals). River sharks are so rarely sighted (and as a consequence, so poorly understood) that it’s possible we haven’t identified all members of the group yet, and some of the ones we know about are undoubtedly critically endangered, especially those constricted to heavily polluted and overtaxed river basins in Southeast Asia. Sawfish, while not actually sharks (they are instead rays), grow to very shark-like body sizes and use an amazing, tooth-studded, electrosensor-lined bill to detect and stun/impale prey from its position on the muddy bottoms of lagoons, estuaries, and river deltas. Not a single accepted species of sawfish isn’t immediately endangered with extinction.

It is far too late to observe Cretoxyrhina or Ptychodus, but the exceptional elasmobranchs I listed above are modern. They exist as a part of our present day world, at least for now. Whether or not they begin to fade into the permanence of the fossil record, one by one, is largely up to us.

Image credits: Tooth intro image, Cretoxyrhina, Ptychodus teeth, Ptychodus jaw

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Macabre Moths: The Infernal Nocturnals

My girlfriend is terrified of moths.

She hates them; purely, unabashedly, and completely. She despises their habit of gracelessly barreling out of the dark, smashing into anything and everything (including human faces) in a flurry of fluttering wings. She hates the way they persistently ram themselves into outdoor lights,  which oh-so conveniently tend to be right above her head just outside of the front door, cutting her off from the frustratingly close safety of her house. She loathes the angry drumming sound they make when they clumsily bat their wings against whatever wall or window they are crawling across. She shivers at the mention of their wings, which she describes as “dusty” (the powdery coating is actually made up of very tiny scales that cover the wing; butterflies have these as well). I’ve watched her spot a particularly massive, beastly, mothy bastard spread out sinisterly underneath a neighbor’s outside window sill, and immediately swing her path past it into a wide berth, eyes cautiously locked on the insect threat. She does not like them here or there. She does not like them anywhere. My girlfriend does not like the moth. She does not like them, David Lee Roth.

Because of her undeniably real, demonstrably intense dislike of moths, she was not exactly appreciative of the fact that the last week of July (July 19th through July 27th) was National Moth Week (or of the fact that I’m writing this blog post at all, frankly). For those of you that are unfamiliar, National Moth Week, started in 2011, is a global citizen science effort wherein groups of those inclined (called “moth-ers”, but I like to call them “moth-heads”) set out into the night equipped with lights, a white sheet, a bait mixture made of something like rotten fruit, molasses, or beer (preferably not the good shit; stick to domestic swill like Bud or Coors), and perhaps a camera for recording purposes…all of this to observe and categorize whatever moths they find attracted to their lights or bait, and to potentially contribute their findings to a multitude of databases. In this bit of crowdsourcing of data collection, we are able to know a bit more about the distribution of moth species (and for many species, where they turn up in the world is not well-known), and their general abundance over time, which is important to keep track of, considering that moths are good early indicators of decline in an ecosystem’s ecological health. Another major focus of National Moth Week is to bring awareness to moths, which are oftentimes regarded as boring, drab nuisances instead of the diverse, often colorful, interesting animals that they are. NMW also provides an opportunity to get groups of school age children together to not just learn about moths and the natural world that surrounds where they live, but to take part in a globally held citizen science project, hopefully inspiring some of them to take interest in the biological sciences in a more permanent sense.

Truthfully, moths are far more interesting than we give them credit for. They are diverse in form, size, coloration, and behavior. They are unfortunately pegged as dull creatures, which, at their best, are annoying, and at their worst, a pest that destroys clothes and crops. There’s a single thread runs through their popular characterization; one that paints moths as fundamentally benign, like a house fly, or a slug…something to put up with, and nothing to get too excited about; the “white bread” of the insect world. But, while it’s important to remember that moths are interesting by being incredibly important members of their ecological communities, as insatiable, leaf-obliterating larvae, as pollinators of flowering plants, or as nutrition for everything from birds to bats…there are a number of species that solidly destroy the notion that moths are innocuous at the acutely individual level. Some species are downright threatening, blatantly ignoring the memo about how moths are “supposed” to be the awkward, dirty, night shift butterflies of the world and nothing more disconcerting. These species, twisted, creepy, grotesque, and malicious even by arthropod standards, make it difficult for me or anyone else to dismiss my girlfriend’s mottephobia (the fear of moths) as being unfounded.

First, behold Chionarctia nivea, a superficially normal-looking type of icy white “woolly worm” moth that frequents the frigid northern reaches of Russia and East Asia, where, based on the elegant evening wear it has on in the photo below, it apparently flutters around perpetually dressed like Galadriel.

“I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star. May it be a light for you in dark places, and a place for you to slam your face into over and over again in confusion and blind desperation. “

It’s a nice looking moth. Personally, I dig the sleek, streamlined thing it’s got going for it, and the titanium white coat gives it a classy aesthetic. It lives a very mothy life, doing lots of the typical mothy things. There’s nothing observably alarming or offensive about this species, which conveniently disguises itself as a cottonball, which is perhaps the mascot for unblemished innocence. This is a good, clean moth you can trust. This is a moth that pays its taxes, that always drives 5 mph under the speed limit, and has superb credit. This is a moth who you might feel comfortable voting for in the upcoming school board elections, because this moth has integrity, goddamnit, and integrity is hard to find these days.

But the males of this species conceal a disturbing secret…

With a bit of air pressure, the Chionarctia nivea moth deforms its abdomen into an awful assembly of alien French ticklers, unfurling bits of prickly, translucent membrane into the world’s worst precursors to balloon animals.

So, why? Why do the dude moths in this species insist on extruding these visually comfortable and vaguely threatening ass tentacles, immediately transforming themselves into something that looks like it would terrorize Kurt Russell in an Antarctic research station? And what do these organs do?

If you are asking yourself if the male-specific, extendable, phallic appendages are “a sex thing” then your suspicions are correct. These are totally a sex thing. But these love balloons ain’t for the actual moth hanky-panky. They are instead used in the initial wooing of females of the species. These organs (called “coremata”, and are found in lepidopterans (group of insects that includes moths and butterflies) in general) are lined with bristly structures called “hair-pencils”…and these hair-pencils write the language of sweet, sweet, moth-y love.

Well, to be more specific, they release a cocktail of pheromones that advertise to the female moths that the owner of those sexy coremata is a choice mate. When a male moth gets wind of far-spreading female pheromones, he tracks her down, and once close enough, he puffs up those fuzzy butt feelers like a pair of inflatable, advertisement airdancers and lets loose his intoxicating cologne. If the lovely lady is satisfied by what her antennae are picking up, the two love bugs can commence with the bumpin’ of abdomens. The hair-pencil pheromones also appear to have a repellent effect on other males of the species. Once the stank of another bro moth’s sex solicitation juices are mucking up the air somewhere, it’s a bit of a turn-off to all the other males, apparently.

So, one species’ sickening “I don’t know what it’s doing, but get that fucking thing away from me” is another species’ steamy courtship display.

Alright, you say, so some species of moths have males that are particularly…er…”well-endowed”…with respect to their creepy, pneumatic, romancin’ not-penises. Big deal. It’s not like they are actually doing anything malicious. You are, perhaps understandably, unimpressed with this example of moth malice.

So, I say, consider the following scenario:
It’s a warm, humid night in the outlying, forested areas surrounding Vladivostok, Russia. There’s not much of a breeze tonight running onto shore from the Sea of Japan, and the air is thick. You are sitting out on your porch, drinking a Yarpivo Amber, trying, in vain, to use the night air to cool yourself. The coniferous forest around you is alive with the songs of crickets, and the darkness enveloping you, and the alcohol trickling from your blood and into your brain allow a blanket of relaxation to drape over you. Just before you drift off to sleep, a wayward, winged insect visits your position under the white intensity of your porch light. It’s a nondescript, little brown moth, and it delicately settles all six of its petite feet upon the back of your hand. You’re careful not to move and scare it off as you watch it wander back and forth across your hand, stumbling over the occasional hair, antennae twitching and wings wavering slightly to keep balance. You are instantly calmed by this intimate moment, briefly connecting with nature. An angel of the forest has stopped by and offered you the gift of its presence, and you feel as though the two of you are communicating on some kind of deep, ancient, spiritual level.
Just as a smile begins to illuminate your face, you watch as the moth slowly and deliberately unrolls its long, fragile proboscis…and proceeds to drill the end of it into the skin between your knuckles. Pain and shock jolt you to full, electric alertness as the moth plunges the sharp tip of its tubular tongue into your flesh and greedily laps up your blood like a cat at a water dish.

You’ve just had a run-in with the vampire moth, Calyptra thalictri.

Most adult moths and butterflies are passive nectarivores, and spend their days daintily sipping sugary nectar from wildflowers and flitting about as if their entire lives were an extended, sunny, spring tea party. But not Calyptra, along with its close relatives in a small subfamily of owlet moths (Noctuidae). These guys, much like the mosquitoes and bedbugs were are more familiar with, are hematophagous, meaning that they feed upon blood. Calyptra is a branch of the moth family tree (native to much of southern Europe, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa) that has taken a hard, evolutionary turn away from an existence dipping into daisies, and has made a serious of concerning, demented life and dietary decisions that would surely put a smile on the face of Bram Stoker’s corpse. Calyptra moths could give less than two shits about your cute little set of flower boxes outside, and are more interested in bringing pain to your veins.

That “butterfly” that supposedly flaps its wings and sets off a chain of meteorological reactions that culminate in a hurricane generating across the world? Yeah, that evil little bastard responsible for all that chaotic destruction (and by association, that godawful mid-2000s sci-fi thriller with Ashton Kutcher) was most certainly a moth named Calyptra.

Fig. 1, aforementioned evil little bastard

Only the males of the vampire moth indulge in the “scarlet nectar,” employing their surprisingly tough, rigid tip of their proboscis to puncture flesh, and unleashing a series of spring-loaded hooks that keep them from dislodging easily…allowing them to drink at their leisure. Calyptra moths tend to target large mammalian herbivores, like buffalo, elephants, and rhinoceroses as reservoirs of blood to stick their Straws of Torment into, but on a few occasions, humans have been…fortunate…to know the moth’s bite (particularly when it’s C. thalictri).

Let me be clear on the differences between being bitten by a vampire moth and being bitten by a mosquito. Female mosquitoes have highly specialized mouthparts molded by evolution into a sleek hypodermic needle, delivering a swift dose of blood-thinning venom after an expertly placed pinprick, followed by a seamless transition into hardly noticeable blood slurping. In contrast, vampire moths are working with a tool that is far better suited for piercing the skin of fruits in the search for sugary juices, than it is for living animal flesh…and this is because, unlike mosquitoes, and despite their name, vampire moths are not purists when it comes to the sanguinary dining thing. Male vampire moths are “facultative” blood feeders, meaning that, to them, blood is a “sometimes food”, and their diet is also rich in the happy, normal, not-you-or-me regions of the food pyramid. Calyptra and closely related moths are known for their ability to use their burly proboscises to tear into fruit for sustenance…obviously in rabid, vindictive frustration from getting to the flower weeks too late for nectar. This tool, wonderfully useful in giving a plum the worst day of its life, is woefully unsophisticated (compared to the mosquito’s instrument) when applied to big, ambulatory critters with touchy, inconvenient things like nervous systems.

The difference between getting bit by a mosquito and getting bit by a vampire moth is like the difference between having your blood drawn by a phlebotomist with a quarter-century of training and experience, or by Kevin, the disheveled tweaker with the “can-do” attitude secretly squatting in your neighbor’s shed. The mosquito gets the job done relatively painlessly and quickly with incomparable surgical precision. The vampire moth, on the other hand, opts for enthusiastically digging around in your forearm with a rusty lawn dart.

So, vampire moth bites are crude and painful for their entire duration because, unlike mosquitoes, these creatures don’t make their living from blood. There’s not as much reason to keep you or any other source of blood unaware of their feeding, and their craft is not honed or specialized. This is also part of the reason why these moths don’t pose any threat to people by way of disease transmission; the frequency of biting is too low and the feeding system is too inefficient. The frequency of hematophagy varies fairly widely among vampire moths, as well as the capacity to dig into fruits, with species capable of exploiting fruits along certain sections of a gradient of fruit skin thickness and hardness.

Inferences based on genetic studies of evolutionary relatedness among the group, seems to indicate that the evolution of the behavior doesn’t follow a pattern of supplantation of more primitive, vegetarian feeding modes (nectar, soft-skinned fruits) with more derived ones (hard fruits, blood), but rather that more recently evolved vampire moths simply have more of the feeding strategies available to them. More primitive moths in the group might only be able to probe squishy fruits, but moths like C. thalictri can have it all; thin-skinned fruits, thick-skinned fruits, fruits with a tough rind, people…you name it.

But why all the drama and gore either way? Why has Calyptra developed this propensity to temporarily ditch soft drinks, go full-on fucking Dracula, and cut straight to the hard shit? Flowers and fruit seem good enough for the rest of the moth and butterfly clan, so why does the vampire moth have such a needy palate? Well, the reason may result from the practice of “mud-puddling”, which is an activity that involves far more bugs and far less mud-wrestling sexy times than you’d think (don’t lie, I know you were imagining it). If you’ve ever seen a bunch of butterflies very obviously touch down next to a shallow pool or puddle and gather around the muddy water’s edge like wildebeest at a watering hole, then you’ve seen mud-puddling. It’s very common among butterflies and moths, and the goal of mud-puddling is to suck up nutrients and salts found in things like mud, dung, and occasionally decaying matter (plant or animal). Mud-puddling tends to be a male-only hobby, and it’s thought that acquiring all these extra goodies has a key role in reproductive success. Males are often observed “gifting” females with these nutrients and salts alongside their sperm contribution. It’s essentially a ridiculously late, coitus-adjacent means of presenting a girl with flowers.The extra nutritive boost can be of great value to any upcoming larvae to originate from such a pairing, since many caterpillar species feed on plants that are sparse in nutrients. It is likely that blood-feeding, rather than serving as a food source for the adult male moths, provides another advantageous avenue for aspiring, prospective dad Calyptra to provide his progeny with health and vitality, as blood is literally piped around animal bodies as a nutrient, mineral, sugar, and amino acid smoothie.

Oh, and if you are currently residing in latitudes to the north of the temperate and tropical latitudes of Afro-Eurasia, and smugly reading this and acknowledging your comfortable space far outside the reach of the vampire moth…listen up.
Calyptra has been found, in recent years, to be expanding its range poleward into northern Europe, turning up in places like Finland, which is a place normally considered too cold for these bitey assholes. It’s very likely this invasion is due to recent, rapid, human-driven climate change effects, and that their residency in the north will become not only more extensive, but permanent. I’m relatively certain “influx of fucking blood-sucking moths” is some sort of karmic punishment for what humankind is currently doing to the polar bear.

“Alright,” you concede, “moths can be a little intimidating and off-putting. But not caterpillars! Those younger, squishier, tube-shaped versions of moths are just doofy, derpy, compulsively overeating herbivores! The adorable little buggers couldn’t be a threat to anything if they tried!”

Oh come on! It’s giving me puppy dog eyes!

To illustrate just how wrong that is, allow me to take your mind’s eye out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to the tropical archipelago where I make my home; Hawai’i. Hawai’i is celebrated the world over for its jaw-dropping natural beauty, with imposing, steep, eroded mountains covered in lush vegetation dropping dramatically down to idyllic white sand beaches. It’s touted as “paradise”, and after living here for a year and experiencing not a single day below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and the freedom to snorkel along coral reefs and hike in gorgeous tropical rainforest year-round, I can definitely agree with the common, mythic conceptualization of the island chain. In addition to being so eye-wateringly beautiful, Hawai’i is a remarkable laboratory of evolution, given its location thousands of miles from the nearest landmasses. A large proportion of the land organisms found in the islands are “endemic”, meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world, having evolved in complete geographic isolation from relatives on the mainlands of Asia and the Americas. They range from brilliantly-colored forest birds like the ‘i’iwi, to hardy plants found only along the slopes of volcanoes like the silverswords and greenswords, to a unique subspecies of bat. In keeping with the paradise aesthetic, most of what has evolved out here in the middle of the ocean isn’t much of a threat to jack shit, and especially not to invasive species brought in by human colonizers, which have, depressingly, turned Hawai’i into a laboratory of extinction in addition to one of evolution. With a dearth of many natural predators, whatever lineages were able to make it out here and spread across the islands often let down their defenses after millions of years of vacation. Just ask the moa-nalo, a group of geese-like birds that discarded their ability of flight. They suddenly, and curiously, dropped off the face of the Earth immediately after Polynesian settlers first arrived in the archipelago…it’s almost as if they were easy pickings for food. Weird how that works.
So yeah, a lot of the wildlife in Hawai’i are steeped in their own sickeningly sweet levels of isolation-driven innocence and vulernability. I mean, hell, even the spiders here have permanent happy faces plastered on their chipper selves.

This is not a place where you’d expect to find carnivorous goddamned caterpillars, but that is exactly what Hawai’i has to offer.

The caterpillars belong to moths of the genus Eupithecia, which are a highly speciose, diverse group of small, drab, nondescript moths also known collectively as “pugs.” They are found all over the world, and the vast majority of the time, their caterpillars are conventional, adorable, inchworm-like things, doodling around and munching on flowers and leaves and generally being about as terrifying as a clump of pocket lint. But there a number of species in Hawai’i that have evolved into skilled ambush predators, lashing out at unsuspecting insects like a demonic spaghetti noodle and clasping them in spiny claws, turning their elongated bodies into a ravenous grappling hook, with all the merciless, direct brutality of a Mortal Kombat finishing move.

“Get over here!”

Good lord, is nothing sacred in this world? The last time I checked, the Very Hungry Caterpillar ate a lot of shit, but the still-beating heart of a fresh kill wasn’t on the menu.

Hawaiian Eupithecia caterpillars are a product of that evolutionary laboratory I was talking about. The other side of island critters no longer needing anti-predator defenses is the precarious ecological hole left by, you guessed it, no predators. The job position for predatory insects was left wide open since things like mantises weren’t able to survive the extreme distances out to the islands…and these caterpillars have eagerly filled it.

These little grubs of destruction have evolved a simple and effective means of striking fear into everything that flits and buzzes through the rainforests of the archipelago. They, not unlike many of their closest mainland relatives, mimic a small twig, making their gray and brown mottled bodies rigid and still, tightly gripping a branch with their hind feet and keeping the nasty business end erect and ready for action (note to self: Erect and Ready for Action is a great title for a porno). In this position they wait…and wait they do, until some terminally unlucky fly or beetle strays just a little too close. As far as other insects are concerned, the butt end of the caterpillar is just a knobby extension of a branch…and totally not studded with sensitive bristles that instantly alert the head end that dinner has arrived, prompting a lightning fast spasm that brings Mr. Fruit Fly face to face with three pairs of sword-shaped limbs and a glistening battery of sharp, salivating mandibles. Eupithecia arches itself in a tight loop, and like a bullwhip tipped with meat hooks, dispatches its target with deadly speed and accuracy…like a wormy falcon snatching a sparrow out of the air with its talons. The hapless insect doesn’t even have a chance to react, its life is pathetically brought to an abrupt end by the world’s most murderous larva.

Aw, it’s kind of cute; like a sleepy tiger licking its paws after disemboweling your whole family.

It’s possible that there are a number of traits already a part of pug moth caterpillar biology that may have served as “pre-adaptations” to a predatory lifestyle, and made transitioning from passive vegetarianism into being the most malicious maggots in town particularly easy. Their characteristic paroxysmal attack method might have its evolutionary origins in a defensive snapping behavior, in which an attacking bird or lizard might be stunned by the quick movements just long enough for the caterpillar to flop down to safety. This behavior could have been co-opted into their hunting technique quite effectively.The evolutionary transition to an insect-based diet might have been eased by Eupithecia’s tendency to consume specific parts of plants, like flowers along with their protein-rich pollen. A diet already pre-adapted to consisting of high-protein foods may have made switching from salad to steak easier than it would for many other vegan creepy-crawlies.

“Ok,” you start, “Hawai’i’s got some pretty homicidal moth babies. It’s a good thing I’m not a bug, or then I’d have something to worry about. Luckily, there’s no caterpillar that could possibly impact my health or well-being.”

Yeah, no. Not even fucking close.

Meet Lonomia, a genus of moths found in South America that are closely related to the stunningly patterned and gigantic atlas and luna moths. However, the adult Lonomia moths are far more conservative in coloration than their more famous family members, choosing to go with subtle camouflage against the backdrop of their woodland home. This is not an unusual strategy among moths.

Oh, you look like a brown leaf? Wow, groundbreaking creativity.

Lonomia caterpillars are also gifted with the ability to blend in, but are covered in short, pale, spiky clusters of hairy projections, thus disguising themselves instead as diminutive Guy Fieris, sent to Brazil to film a special episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”

“Welcome back to Triple-D! I’m on my way down to Flavortown to score some grub! Haha, get it?!”

“So, that’s it? That’s the big bad caterpillar? Why, I can crush that fuzzy mulch-muncher into a moist smear on the bottom of my boot with no problems whatsoever.”

Yes, but you’d better make sure it’s a boot, and you’d better make sure you throw that boot away when you’re done, making damn sure you don’t touch the bottom of it without thick-ass gloves on.

Lonomia caterpillars’ hazard doesn’t lie in a predatory inclination, or an unpleasant bite like that of the vampire moth. Lonomia is dangerous because of the thick forest of branched spines (called “scoli”) which harbor hollow bristles, each one loaded with its own lovely little dose of venom. These types of defensive hairy structures are common in many types of caterpillar, and many people can get unpleasant and painful skin reactions from touching them and becoming envenomated. But Lonomia‘s special blend of toxins is so devastatingly potent that interactions with this caterpillar, like simply brushing up against it, has lead to human deaths. Yes, this is a caterpillar that can kill you fucking dead.

All species in this genus are highly venomous, but one species in particular, Lonomia obliqua, holds the “honor” of bringing forth the highest frequencies of severe reactions to the venom. Not everyone who accidentally collides with these cryptic caterpillars when moving through the forest (as is typically the way in which the envenomation occurs; when hands and forearms are clearing away brush and inadvertently smack into a feeding Lonomia), but the mechanism by which these perilous pincushions deliver their venom and how this venom does its dark deed remain the same:

The venom is produced within hair-like structures, called “setae”, situated on the scoli. Unlike many other venomous animals, which have a single, definable “venom gland” that secretes and stores the venom, Lonomia, instead, has an array of microscopic vesicles (little sacs) embedded within the cells making up the inside layers of a hollow, tubular tract inside of these bristles. The diabolical cocktail of toxins is slowly secreted from these cells, and pool in this cavity at the base of the tip of the seta. And there it sits. Waiting.

The tip of the bristle, hard and chitinous, is fashioned in such a way that there is a “weak spot”, a pinched line of fragility, near where this internal venom reservoir sits, such that upon just the slightest irritation (like a hand coming along and embedding the toxic needles within the skin), it breaks off like a glass ampule.

From Veiga et al, 2001, showing the end of a seta, equipped with detachable tip and venom chamber.

The tip busts open like a champagne bottle, releasing a lovely, effervescent torrent of horrific toxins right into the bloodstream of whatever poor soul owns that ill-fated hand.

Initially, the stinging sensation from the wound is hardly noticeable, and certainly not something you’d feel the need to stop and inspect what happened, especially if this happened right in the middle of vigorous, sweaty outdoor work. So when the true effects of a particularly bad envenomation start to take place in the coming hours and days following contact with the caterpillar, it may come as an unwelcome surprise to the victim, who may not actually remember getting bit or stung by anything at all.

And what exactly are these effects? Lonomia has a venom with amazingly strong anti-coagulant and anti-fibrolytic properties…meaning that it stops your blood from doing that fairly important function of clotting. If you are unfortunate enough to get a high enough dosage of venom, your blood not only ceases to clot, but your entire circulatory starts…well…leaking. As you might have guessed, when all your internal plumbing suddenly begins to drip like a loose sink pipe, that can be a huge goddamn problem. Envenomated folks can often present with a “hemorrhagic syndrome” called lonomiasis, which most commonly results in widespread bruising in places where your blood is pooling out of your toxin-ravaged circulatory system, making you look like you got worked over real good by an army of angry people with crowbars and bats. All of this happens in nearly complete silence, generally undetectable to the victim in the period of time following the sting. If you are pricked, a great deal of time can pass in complete ignorance of the growing, gushing, collective fount of internal bleeding caused by the venom, causing your organs to marinate in this flood of what should be oxygen-rich juices, disastrously re-routed away from their crucial role in keeping you alive.
In the most extreme cases, this can snowball into brain hemorrhages or renal failure, which of course can precipitate death from catastrophic brain and kidney damage.

Death by caterpillar is not the preferred way to exit this life.

Luckily, about only 2% of those suffering from such Lonomia-related accidents actually perish. Also, on the bright side, the stupendously potent anti-coagulant properties of the toxins found in Lonomia venom have potential medical applications, specifically in the treatment of maladies in which too much clotting is a problem. So, despite the undoubtedly real dangers posed by this moth’s childhood phase, Lonomia might eventually end up indirectly saving far more lives than it has ended.

Moths are fantastic animals, and live far more interesting and dynamic lives than we tend to acknowledge. Whether it’s the unsettling sex-balloons of Chionarctia, the barbaric bite of the vampire moth, the rapacious tyranny of Hawai’i’s most vicious caterpillar, or an insect armed with one of the deadliest touches on Earth, it’s abundantly clear that some moths also certainly possess a unexpected capacity for horror, and command a nervous respect from humankind that they rarely receive.

Image credits: Introductory moth image, Chionarctia nivea, vampire moth, “cute” caterpillar image, Lonomia adult, Lonomia caterpillar, carnivorous caterpillar gifs originally from footage from this BBC Two clip

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Eucalyptus regnans, Tallest Tree in the South

I like really tall trees.

I suppose the possession of this adoration of our planet’s living, heaven-raking spires comes as a kind of birthright. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, an area not only richly coated with swaths of the densest temperate rainforests in the world, but also the tallest forests in the world. I came of age spending a great deal of time hiking and navigating forests largely consisting of several tree species that are among the world’s tallest. Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are all found in the lush coastal forests of Oregon and far Northern California where I spent many long, summer days of my youth; each of them generally regarded as being within the top five tallest tree species on the planet, based on the consistency and frequency of superlatively monstrous individuals within each. Even the “smaller” trees in the region seem to reach uniformly towering heights. Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) can top out at 200 feet (61 m) or more above the soft, spongy soil of the dark, coastal woods of Washington and Oregon. Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), a very common sight in the Pacific Coast Ranges, can easily grow to some 250 feet (76 m) at its droopy crown. The bottom levels of the canopy in a Pacific Northwestern old-growth rainforest can potentially be no less than 150 feet (46 m) high, which is a value not often matched in any other forested region on Earth.

A shaggier version of myself standing with the Quinault Lake Redcedar, the largest western redcedar in the world, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in June 2011 (Photo credit: Werner G. Buehler)

It’s no wonder that growing up immersed in this place has left me with a love for these great trees; old-growth forests full of venerable, enormous trees are incomparably majestic places. The sense of perspective and scale that these trees provide is invariably humbling. It’s difficult not to walk alongside them in a kind of hushed reverence, as if you were traversing the floor of an ancient and solemn temple or cathedral, one crafted from humongous, gnarled pillars of wood and moss, rounded with smoothed with deep time and dark silence. The temperate rainforest springs to life in intense bursts of emerald from wherever these trees have embedded their water-ravenous feet, with lithe lances of ferns and the ghostly baubles of root-associating mushrooms erupting wherever soil space is available. These dampest and darkest of woods, blanketed from the sun a football field’s length upwards, have been described as primordial, as a place of senescence and decay, but I think this is a misplaced conceptualization. The sites where the greatest of these trees grow is positively choked with life; life that clings to and parasitizes other life, life that reaches achingly skywards in even the weakest, most diluted sunbeam to touch down on the forest floor. In my mind, these are places of as much birth and flourishing as they are museums.

This aesthetically spell-binding quality, mixed with these forests’ complex ecology and somewhat unique, insular propensity to harbor endemic species…creatures found nowhere else in the world…is what persistently attracts me back to them time and time again (and also inspires me to write about themmultiple times…because I’m a little insufferable).

It is these types of places, misty, verdant groves of titanic conifers, that come to the mind of most when they envision the world’s tallest trees…granted they call the Northern Hemisphere home. It’s somewhat widely known that California’s coast redwoods are the world’s tallest species, and across the North American continent the sheer size of Pacific Northwest forest trees is no secret…especially when compared against the far more “compact” deciduous trees that are common on the Eastern Seaboard. But a very close contender for the title of the most gravity-taunting plant in the world comes from a location not often associated with impenetrable forests. One of the tallest organisms on Earth is an altogether different kind of plant than the behemoth redwoods, and it hails from the opposite side of the globe from the dewy haunts of Cascadia…a place far more associated with rust-colored, alien deserts, blinding heat, and a faunal assemblage that constitutes the world’s largest bucket of shorts-soiling “hell fucking no.”

I’m of course talking about Australia.

Yes, Australia is a place of extremes…where the venom flows like water, the coral reefs are supersized, and summer turns the landmass into a not-so-metaphoric broiling pan of unending solar-powered punishment  (one that keeps getting hotter). From a biological perspective, Australia is a continent perpetually locked in rebellious teenager mode, deviating from the rest of the world’s biota and letting its freak flag fly proudly for millions of years in a parade of pouches, flightless birds, weird plants, fangs, spikes, and scales. It is therefore quite fitting that one of the tallest trees in the world, the only one in the top five that is not a conifer, in pure contrarian style, is Australia’s Eucalyptus regnans…the “mountain ash” or “swamp gum.”

Eucalyptus regnans holds the title of the world’s tallest flowering plant, or “angiosperm” (which is in contrast with the coniferous redwoods, firs, and spruces…which are cone-bearing “gymnosperms”). It is also the tallest tree in the Southern Hemisphere, and the only trees to compete halfway decently for this distinction are other members of the genus Eucalyptus. The only explanation I can think of is nepotism…..

…or, alternatively, that Eucalyptus is a highly diverse group of over 700 species of plants that dominate the Australian flora, with an extensive array of growth forms and habits, and that a giant species or three thrown in is not by itself unusual. Eucalyptus is known for its role as koala chow and its Altoid-scented foliage, as well as a particularly attractive, psychedelic species native to Indonesia and the Phillipines, “rainbow eucalyptus” (Eucalyptus deglupta)…which looks like it was bred by Willy Wonka’s horticulturist.

Seriously, this thing looks like it tastes like a Laffy Taffy.

More broadly, Eucalyptus is a part of a large, wide-ranging family of flowering plants found in the warmer latitudes; Myrtaceae. The family contains a staggering number of species of plants (more than 5600 estimated), including well-known examples like allspice, guava, clove, myrtle, and the enigmatic, endemic (and threatened) ohi’a of the Hawaiian Islands. They are all united in having hard, woody stems and generally having obvious, brushy flowers that strongly resemble exploding fireworks.

This is a variable and successful group of plants, and the stately mountain ash is a jewel in this family’s crown.

It grows in the relatively cool, mountainous, far southern Australian states of Victoria and the island of Tasmania in upper elevations. Mountain ash inhabits the rainy “wet eucalypt” forests that characterize much of the very southern tip of the Great Dividing Range, where it grows at a breakneck rate of roughly one human height every couple of years. The tree grows faster than the mammoth conifers of the Northern Hemisphere, but ends up, in maturity, being a less voluminous, lanky sight to behold; a thin, columnar colossus culminating in a noble tuft of aromatic, evergreen leaves. The mountain ash is to the coast redwood/giant sequoia as Manute Bol is to Andre the Giant. As a pepperoni stick is to a pork chop. As a taquito is to a burrito.
Anyways, you get the point, and I’m going to stop before I make myself hungry.

Some exceptionally altitudinous mountain ash specimens can exceed 300 feet (91 m) in height after as much as four centuries of growth. As of 2014, the largest living mountain ash is the aptly-named (on account of its 100 m (327 foot) height), baronial Centurion, a tree from Tasmania. This sits solidly in the mid-range among the tallest Californian redwoods, but there is an account of a mountain ash from Victoria in the late-1800s near the community of Thorpdale that was measured at about 375 feet (114 m) in height…which would not only put it within mere feet of the tallest reliably recorded tree ever (a coast redwood named Hyperion, at just over 379 feet), but would mean that at the time, it would have been the tallest tree known. The Thorpdale tree was felled more than a century ago, but the site of its former stump remains marked to this day.

“What are these? Cars for ANTS?!” No. Full-sized cars. King-sized forest.

Most eucalypt species have a close relationship with the fires that regularly blaze their way across the dry woodlands and plains that border the vast interior desert of the Australian continent. They have a suite of adaptations that allowed a lineage of plants that, tens of millions of years ago, originated in the region’s rainforests, to survive the aridification of Australia and to prosper over a newer, drier continent: stringy, flammable bark, oil-rich leaves that break down very slowly in the leaf litter, and, commonly, a means of rapidly re-sprouting from fire-protected seeds and/or resilient buds hidden underneath the bark, stimulated to grow after severe damage to outside layers in a bushfire. The majority of eucalypts in these dry, open woodlands are reborn again and again from frequent fires. On hot, dry season days when the sky is roiling with angry, charcoal-colored storm clouds, it is the crack of thunder and lightning that marks their labor pains.

However, the relatively moisture-loving, rainforest-associated mountain ash is a bit of a wuss, comparatively, when it comes to fire. While the species certainly has the dilapidated, vestigial remains of the structures associated with post-fire sprouting from the charred bark, the main strategy appears to reproduce from the seeds left behind following an especially damaging fire (and spectacularly so, with as much as 2.5 million seedlings per hectare (an area about the size of a baseball field) sprouting from seed following a burn…obviously, this is pared back substantially as the trees mature and compete with one another for light and resources in a case of the most cutthroat sibling rivalry conceivable). If the fire is intense enough, the mountain ash often dies outright, never to rise again from the ashes like a Phoenix, save for its genetic torch being carried forward by great multitudes of its progeny.

Mountain ash is superbly adapted to deal with the effects of relatively infrequent fires. It can take a good decade or more after a fiery armageddon for the new crop of young trees to be mature enough to produce seed, so if another super-fire cuts through the area before that point, the entire region becomes effectively deforested of mountain ash. This is obviously a big damn problem, but under normal circumstances, the chances of catastrophic engulfment with earth-cleansing, surface-of-the-sun scale hellfire occurring more than once per decade in the same spot is fairly low.
But…the key word is “normal” in “normal circumstances.”

I linked to a source several paragraphs above that illustrates that Australia is getting hotter as global, human-induced climate change progresses. The other side of that doom-and-gloom coin of the heat being imminently and permanently cranked up to 11 is the fairly solid recent prediction (from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency) that in the coming decades, rainfall will decline in the range of mountain ash in southern Australia, and severity of drought conditions will increase. Both of these factors contribute heavily to promoting not only more frequent fires, but the types of destructive events that bake the soil into blackened sterility. There are predictions that suggest that the wet, southern, mountain forests of Victoria and Tasmania might not have quite the same jump in overall risk of severe bushfires in response to coming climate change that other regions of the continent will likely endure, but mountain ash habitat will also surely suffer substantial drops in rainfall and an uptick in the amount of that moisture that is evaporated away, sucked right into the unyielding blow drier that is Australia’s future atmosphere.

The seemingly inevitable transition of every single corner of Australia into a fucking tinderbox isn’t a particularly potent threat to mountain ashes all by itself. There’s a second element that comes into play with the relentless dehydration of the continent; one with a very direct human component. Can you guess what it is?

I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes with “blogging.”

Mountain ash is a valuable source of lumber in this part of the world, and, curiously enough, it turns out that threshing the everloving hell out of old-growth stands, and laying immense tracts of forest bare for the timber industry, has lasting, awful ecological effects. The double-whammy threat to these trees comes in the form of the junction between fire susceptibility and timber harvest practices. Mountain ash forests that are 1) younger and 2) fairly homogenously so are pitifully prone to the super-hot, super-aggressive fires Australia has become known for. Until mountain ash grows up to be big, strong, and resilient against the licking of flames, the young trees are as vulnerable to incineration as a box of kerosene-soaked matches at a KISS concert. If these baby-faced whippersnappers are all about the same size/age as well, then there isn’t much diversity, tree to tree, in the forest’s resilience against fire; the fire can spread completely unimpeded due to the absence of burn-slowing bigger individuals.

The most dramatic force shaping mountain ash forests towards a uniform crop of spark-wary sitting ducks is that of unfettered clearcut logging of these trees. What occurs is a tragically tight positive feedback loop that begins to “trap” entire landscapes in a self-perpetuating process of rapid change and potentially irreversible shifting to an entirely different ecosystem structure at the elimination of what once was. Logging promotes the growth of fire-prone mountain ash forests, and the subsequent increased fire activity and severity constricts the ability of that area to allow the re-establishment of old-growth forest…which encourages yet more bushfires in young, dense, regenerating groves of trees.

At this point in time, mountain ash isn’t immediately faced with the dodo’s fate; there’s no indication that the tallest flowering plant in existence will die out in the next couple of decades. As far as we can tell, Eucalyptus regnans is rather “safe” at this moment. However, mountain ash still isn’t specifically protected in Australia, and timber harvest continues largely unabated. The potential threats to mountain ash haven’t yet been evaluated by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as grave enough to warrant the recommendation of protection from exploitation, but there are a couple reasons why we should be concerned with still declining numbers and the health of mature mountain ash forests.

The first of these is that, like other huge, forest-dominating trees like redwoods and sequoias, the mountain ash has a wide-reaching role to play in its ecosystem, and a great many species depend on its presence for their own survival. When you are big enough to influence the entire dynamic progression of the little world that surrounds you, any change or absence has a reverberating, “echo” effect. The best example of this in mountain ash forests is the stubborn dependence of the Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) on the accessibility of a very specific mix of moderately mature eucalyptus trees and wattle (Acacia). This nondescript, nocturnal, squirrel-like marsupial, closely related to the watery-eyed, frenetic, more publicly familiar sugar gliders, is now found only in a tiny stretch of forested uplands in central Victoria. It is a victim of the punctuated, but extensive, loss of mountain ashes old enough to have tree-holes as a daytime refuge (because apparently nocturnal animals aren’t big into the whole good ol’ vitamin sunshine thing); cataclysmic fires in the region, paired with regular clearcutting, have decimated available habitat for the possum in recent years, causing a drop to an estimated 1000 remaining animals in the wild. That may seem like a lot of Leadbeater’s possums left in the world, but in reality, a series of marginally inferno-y summers could evict these little guys off the planet for good. Considering that every single individual alive is now constricted to an area smaller than that of metropolitan L.A., the idea of them getting snuffed out by a bad case of climactic heartburn, or indirectly through a temporary spike in the price of mountain ash timber, doesn’t seem all that ridiculous. If you aren’t yet feeling a bit morose about the possum’s likely eventual, brutal blaze-and-blade initiated gentrification into oblivion, please consider that Gymnobelideus leadbeateri continuously makes a face like you just stole food out of its mouth and told it its birthday was canceled:

Critically endangered? More like critically adorable.

Here, the equation is simple. No mountain ash = no Leadbeater’s possum. No Leadbeater’s possum = no inspiration for a new Pokemon in the next series of games. No new Pokemon = I actually have to grow up and begin behaving like a fully functioning adult human.

This is an unspeakable tragedy.

The other reason the loss of mountain ash forests is worrisome, in particular the old-growth forests full of the largest trees, is that gargantuan trees are uniquely suited for siphoning off the carbon dioxide pollution responsible for global climate change, and converting it back into biomass. Forests, more broadly, are the truthfully important engines on land for grabbing carbon out of the atmosphere and incorporating it into new growth…but for the world’s largest trees (like mountain ash and redwoods), with an increase in size and age, that capacity for transforming greenhouse gases into board feet of lumber climbs in scale almost exponentially. Rather than slowing down and taking it easy on the growth as they enter retirement age, the world’s giant tree species appear to do the opposite, ratcheting up their efficiency as a “carbon sink” and accelerating their carbon mass gain. Big trees, not unlike humans, tend to pack on the pounds faster in their golden years.

Since one big, ancient mountain ash or redwood far more adequately gobbles up greenhouse pollutants year to year than a stand of dozens of smaller, more junior trees, we should start considering the last remaining fragments of old-growth forest, specifically, as a minor means of mitigating some of the output of global carbon dioxide emissions; these exemplary trees are worth saving as both crucial, ecosystem-influencing habitat for scores of other species, as well as a drain on the atmosphere-bound outflow of greenhouse gases. It’s important to note that mountain ash specifically has been shown to have groves that are estimated to be the most carbon-dense in the world, hinting at their potential as especially effective carbon traps. If we lose the biggest mountain ashes, we simultaneously shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit on combating climate change.

Since we now recognize the utility of incredibly large trees as veritable carbon vacuums, we would be wise to understand the scope of what kind of a loss it would be to have these plants fade into extinction. Mountain ash, as a species, seems to be holding on (for now), but the coast redwood was, depressingly, newly included in 2013’s IUCN Red List as an endangered species, still in decline from human harvesting and encroachment.

We are just now starting to understand the most tenuous, subtle relationships between the most massive organisms (among which the mountain ash is a prime example) to ever evolve on Earth, and their surrounding neighbors…both in a direct, ecological framework, and indirectly through recycling climate-altering carbon dioxide. Hastening our pace on keeping the Tallest Trees in the South, or the North, or wherever, from collectively biting the dust at our own misguided and careless hand does far more than save some of the handsome hiking and photography locales we supposedly love so much…it also avoids a world of ecological pain.

Because that’s the thing about really big trees, evidently; the taller they are, the harder they fall.

Image credits: introduction image of E. regnans, rainbow eucalyptusmountain ash with cars, logging photoLeadbeater’s possum

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Boxfish: Little Fish, Big Toxins

The boxfish.

Most of the time, I use this blog to blather on and on ceaselessly about all the things about life on this planet I find inescapably fascinating. While all of my exposition on killer fungi, badass birds, weird plants, or whatever obscure, bizarre, horrific, extinct monstrosity wandered into my search history that week is charming (obviously) and fun and all, I don’t often indulge in not only talking about the things that I think need to be shared, but things that are also very directly related to my scientific, academic interests. But, today I shall pander to myself and the relatively narrow realm that constitutes my research interests in the hope that you, dear reader, can push through the voluminous, insatiable outwards expansion of my own ego and acknowledge that my currently proposed study organism for my PhD research, the proud, doughty boxfish…is pretty goshdarned fucking cool.

While I plan on investigating certain nuances about the genetics and evolution of this special group of fishes, the topic of this post isn’t on the subtleties of things like gene flow between populations and speciation, but instead on an incredible, noxious, chemical adaptation that is unique to the boxfish.

But first…what exactly is a boxfish? Boxfish are small fish (between about 5 and 18 inches long, but most are at the low end of that range) that frequent the shallow areas of the warmer parts of the world’s oceans, like coral reefs and seagrass beds. They spend their lives passively pruning algae and small invertebrates like crustaceans, worms, and sponges off rocks and coral with their tiny, delicate mouths. They, as a group, are united in having a body made conspicuously rigid with hexagonal, bony plates fused together to form a hard, yet light-weight shell that encircles their interior, “real” skeletal framework. This shell (which has recently been used as bionic inspiration for automobile design) often has modestly rounded corners, and makes the animal distinctly rectangular in overall shape…hence the “boxfish” name (many species are also referred to as “trunkfish,” and there a some species with preposterously unintimidating horns called “cowfish“). This is an animal that is too hip not to be square.

So, this full-body shell results in the boxfish having a skeleton that essentially looks like a decapitated skull. Similarly to a skull, there are precious few holes in the cage of bone, and the formidable armor only opens up for the eyes, puckered mouth, fins, and tail to peek out into the water. When desiccated corpses of boxfish wash up on beaches, their remains resemble the forgotten, bleached craniums of ill-fated livestock out of a stereotypical, “harsh” cartoon desert.

Photo taken shortly before a tumbleweed rolled into the frame.

Being a living tank confers some benefits. The most obvious of these is that it makes you really damn difficult to eat. Not too many predators jump at the opportunity to slam their pearly whites down on what is effectively the peach pit of the sea. Even for big, powerful, voracious, predatory fish, nomming on boxfishes is less like satisfyingly splintering a hard taco and more like trying to chew a kneecap; it’s a poor decision for all parties involved. Because of this heavy armor, boxfish aren’t exactly the fleetest fish under the waves. Boxfish are only able to propel themselves by using rapid undulations of their itty-bitty fins and exposed tip of their tail, as their entire body has been made inflexible by their bony shell. This is in contrast to most fish, which use strong muscles running the length of their bodies to move their tails side to side, torpedoing their streamlined forms forcefully through the water…and rapidly out of the toothy grasp of whatever is trying to eat them. Boxfish have made an evolutionary tradeoff, sacrificing speed and agility for enhanced defensive capabilities. Also, what they lack in power and evasive skill, they make up for with precision, being able to turn on a dime and dart into secluded overhangs and holes in the reef when pursued as a meal. As someone who has personally sought capture of these little creatures on many occasions, I can attest to their impressive maneuverability, leading to much frustration on my end. Frankly, it’s remarkable how quickly one can go from “aw, look at this cute little guy” to “oh, don’t you run away from me, you miserable son of a bitch” when you need to bag these buggers.

The strategy of hedging your reproductive future on simply being exceedingly unappetizing at the expense of athleticism is not an evolutionary route commonly taken by fish…but boxfish and all their close relatives have turned this approach into an art form. By “close relatives” I mean the order of fish to which boxfish belong, Tetraodontiformes. Tetraodontiform fish, almost without fail, have followed this unconventional path of taking the slow lane while arming themselves with a whole host of tools crafted by evolution to convince everything else in the ocean that, just like a questionably odoriferous bowl of tepid potato salad, they are a meal that just isn’t worth the pain. This coalition of fish, of which boxfish represent a single family (Ostraciidae), are “highly-derived”, meaning, in this case, that they exhibit a high degree of evolutionary modifications that are unique to that group; simply put, tetraodontiform fish are exceptionally, fundamentally different among their finned, gilled brethren. The group, over the course of its tens of millions of years of evolutionary history, has set along a curious trend of relentless reduction of all their fishy features. They’ve lost dorsal fins, many entire bones and portions of their skeleton (just little things…you know, like ribs), simplified their gill coverings, and shrunk their mouths (but kept their jaws big and powerful). They’ve condensed a mouthful of chompers into a handful of hard, strong teeth forming a beak-like shearing apparatus. They’ve even downsized the scope of their genomes (the entirety of the genetic material of an organism), multiple, independent times across several families, and one species, a freshwater pufferfish from Japan, has the smallest vertebrate genome currently known.

This overarching trend of maximum efficiency has been accompanied by not only the development of a wide array of body shapes, perhaps more diverse than any other order of fish, but also an impressively varied range of anti-getting-incorporated-into-the-food-chain measures. Examples abound, and tend to be grouped by family. Boxfish have teeth-unfriendly armor. Porcupinefish can bloat up to two times their original width, often lodging their spiny, spherical selves in the soft craw of whatever tried to choke them down. Triggerfish and their close relatives, filefish, can erect and lock into place sharp dorsal spines that make them very hard to remove from tight spaces within the nooks and crannies of the coral reef. One small family, the molas or ocean sunfishes, are covered in rough, sandpaper-like skin, and grow to such outlandish sizes that few things could tangle with them even if they tried. Pufferfish obviously have the ability to turn themselves into unchewable living balloons, but many species have tissues laced with a toxin so monstrously potent that even the most minuscule amount of exposure is more than enough to leave a human morgue-bound.

Boxfish hail from a line of fishes that are leisurely-swimming, anti-predator toolboxes. Tetraodontiformes, as an order, is a veritable Swiss Army knife of inventive evolutionary gadgetry; a fun-bag of bony plates, spines, levers, inflatable bodies, thick skin, and deadly chemical cocktails.

Adding to the extensive list above is one final trick up the tetraodontiform’s wet, salty sleeve…and it belongs to the fish with angles that’s hard to mangle…the boxfish. Like puffers and some species of porcupinefish, the boxfish is also armed with chemical defenses. It is perhaps no surprise then, that many species of both pufferfish and boxfish sport bright coloration as a passive aggressive warning to would-be diners shopping around the reef for the meal (an evolutionary phenomenon known as “aposematism”, which I outlined in other species very recently). While many species of boxfish are also known for potent differences in the coloration of males and females, both sexes show off conspicuous markings to advertise their toxicity, often consisting of brilliant stripes, reticulations, and spots.

Hey, 1996 called. They want their Rose Art, neon, glow-in-the-dark fuzzy posters back.

So…big deal, right? Lots of things in the ocean are toxic or venomous and have warning coloration; everything from lionfish to sea slugs. What makes boxfish toxicity any different than, say, the toxicity of their close relatives, the pufferfish? The answer comes down to two things; 1) the toxins are completely different and are chemically very unlike almost all other known fish toxins, and 2) the toxins are used in an entirely different way.

Puffers, and most other creatures in the ocean that are endogenously toxic, defend themselves by embedding the compounds in their tissues, right in their very bodies. They saturate themselves with the poison, perhaps taking on a foul taste and/or sickening whatever animals are foolhardy enough to take a bite. But boxfish, when alarmed or actively being eaten, secrete their own toxin in a slimy mucus that oozes from specialized skin cells all over the fish’s body. The clear, toxic snot immediately disperses into the water column, creating an invisible cloud of death surrounding and trailing a very spooked little boxfish.

The force field of chemical ruination unleashed by the boxfish is well-recognized by tropical aquarium hobbyists, many of whom have learned the hard way about the potential consequences of raising these animals alongside other unsuspecting fish. The moment one of Boxie’s tankmates gets little too touchy-feely, the “oh shit danger danger danger!” trigger gets pressed and all hell breaks lose. The boxfish promptly sploogies out a coating of poison goo, and the stuff silently billows out, spreading throughout the tank insidiously and, initially, imperceptibly…..like a fart in an elevator. It isn’t long until the effects of the toxin start choking out just about every susceptible living critter in the vicinity. Under normal conditions, the toxin is released in the vastness of the ocean, with all its currents and fluid mixing, where the toxin eventually is diluted to the point of being functionally benign. But in the tiny, closed system of an aquarium, the lethal excretion becomes trapped in a small volume, creating an aquatic Dutch oven effect. There is no escape from the concentrated, toxin-infused waters, relative exposure continues to climb, and soon everything in the tank that is vulnerable goes belly up, like roaches trapped in a tented, bug bombed house. I’ve personally heard stories from aquarium owners who have come home to a watery, glass graveyard of floating Nemos…and a single boxfish quivering under a ledge of fake coral, hangdog expression betraying its role in that afternoon’s pescicide.

“Rubik! Bad fish! You stay in your rock hole and think about what you’ve done!”

So what is it, exactly, about those nasty, mysterious, skin residues that would allow such a creature to evade predation in the wild…as well as inadvertently nuke an entire tank in captivity, wiping it clean of all complex life? How does this chemical weapon actually do its job?

The secret of how pahutoxin (what we’ve so far identified as the chief toxin in the mucus secretions, also known as “ostracitoxin”) actually moves itself from the surface of the skin, into the water column, and into places on other animals where it manages to screw things up royally, lies in its basic chemistry. Pahutoxin is a type of chemical compound known as a “surfactant.” Without getting into too much detail about how surfactants work at the chemical level, the general gist is that these compounds are often quite good at 1) dispersing in water and 2) making certain things that don’t dissolve in water suddenly very good at dissolving in water. A good example of a surfactant that you and I use (hopefully) every day is soap, or pretty much any other detergent, for that matter. Soap works by way of a number of chemical properties that allow it to make globules (called “micelles”) around the oils in grime and dirt, which normally repel water molecules and do not mix with good ol’ H2O worth a damn. The detergent effect of soaps comes down to the capacity to “cage” microscopic bits of insoluble grossness in tiny bubble-like formations, allowing it to be washed off whatever surface you want with the addition of water.

And just like how running water easily washes away the soap-and-filth slurry from formerly dirty hands, the ocean’s water readily spreads pahutoxin out and away from whatever boxfish is currently shitting its tiny, vibrantly-colored pants, and right into the mug of the hungry, predatory, and now very unlucky pursuer. It’s also worth noting that nothing about the general appearance of the pahutoxin-saturated mucus conceals the fact that it behaves similarly to detergents. I’ve seen on numerous occasions extraordinarily unhappy boxfish pulled out of the water, decorated so heavily with sudsy mucus that they look like they were just scrubbed down with fucking Dawn. It also comes as no surprise to me that while pahutoxin is certainly a unique chemical among fish (as far as we know), it’s thought to behave similarly to a group of toxins described in sea cucumbers, which are, chemically, “saponins”…which are distinctly known for tending to create lots of bubbles and suds.

So, surfactants are specifically good at breaking up things made of oils, fats, and waxes…things that aren’t normally soluble in water. The membranes that make up the barriers that keep the innards of animal cells nice and contained? They’re, conveniently, made out of a bilayer of lipids (a group of molecules that contain fats, waxes, a lot of fat-soluble vitamins, etc.), and are therefore theoretically susceptible to a surfactant’s detergent properties. It was thought for a long time that detergent properties of pahutoxin on the cell membranes themselves was the primary way in which the toxin hurt aspiring attackers. But studies in the last decade or so have hinted at a far more nuanced and complex mechanism of action in pahutoxin, where there may be very specific sites on the gill membrane cells of fish where this toxin binds….sites that are not shared by relatively pahutoxin-resistant boxfish, explaining, in part, the reported, temporary resistance to the toxin’s deleterious effects among boxfish.

And what, exactly, are these effects? They are…well…pernicious, to say the least.
Pahutoxin has an effect that what we would call “hemolytic”, meaning that the toxin tends to pop red blood cells like goddamn water balloons (“hemo” referring to blood, “lysis” referring to rupturing). Given that there seems to be particularly potent effect on the gill tissue of “enemy” fish, a region where there’s a lot of blood vessels and very important exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide going down, all of which is necessary for a fish to, you know, not immediately die…this makes a lot of sense as a good way to keep big, ravenous fish from doing what they love to do…eat small fish like boxfish. Although pahutoxin appears to have evolved to specifically combat gilled predators like sharks or groupers, adverse effects from the toxin have been reported in mammals in laboratory experiments, and there are reports of severe poisoning in humans who attempted to eat cooked boxfish. But, the main mechanism appears to be one honed by evolution to disperse widely and make its way into the vulnerable gills of an unfortunate meal-seeker, where it promptly takes to exploding life-giving red blood cells left and right, incrementally cutting off oxygen from reaching the rest of the fish’s body. If the attacker can promptly leave this smog of death, it suffers lasting, irreversible effects, but can potentially live. If the predator tries to eat the boxfish, or is trapped in a tank with one releasing its toxins, the pahutoxin’s effects overwhelm the ability to take in oxygen, and before long, the unfortunate creature meets its end at the hands of agonizing asphyxiation…all at a concentration in the water as low as only 10 parts per million. For some visualization on just how impressively potent this is, consider that a concentration of 10 ppm can be reached by squeezing several drops from an eyedropper into a keg of beer. Spitting out a modest swish of mouthwash into a 660,000 gallon, Olympic-size swimming pool also achieves a 10 ppm concentration.

This is the face of a killer.

It’s also possible that boxfish don’t even make the toxin themselves. It’s may be that they “contract” it out to special bacteria that they harbor in the skin cells that make the poisonous mucus. It wouldn’t be all that unusual, considering that they are so closely related to pufferfish, which have shown on numerous occasions, and in multiple types of tissues, that they contain bacteria (most notably Vibrio) which just so happen to manufacture their famously deadly tetrodotoxin (TTX), and are likely the primary source of this toxin in these fish; an amazing symbiosis of “house me in your body, and I’ll help obliterate anything that tries to eat you…I mean “us”, right buddy?”. A species of Vibrio has been found in the mucus-producing cells of at least one species of boxfish, but at this point, it’s not clear whether this toxin, very different from the more famous, and dangerous, TTX, is actually being produced by the bacteria.

Either way, boxfish are remarkable fish, and have…cornered…the market on a particular method of chemically defending themselves. This method, which has more in common with the acrid sprays of landlubbing skunks than with anything fish in our oceans have evolved, is truly unique.

It’s important to note that while we may not yet completely understand how pahutoxin works, we should acknowledge that pollution of our oceans with compounds that chemically mimic the ways in which pahutoxin interacts with cells and specific binding sites…specifically detergent pollutants like soaps, which can accumulate in coral reef habitats from nearby human habitation and subsequent waste runoff…has the potential to disrupt the way these chemicals normally interact. Detergent pollutants in the environment may block receptor sites for pahutoxin…or yet undiscovered surfactant chemicals in our oceans…and restrict the effectiveness of the toxin in a natural, anti-predator setting. If pahutoxin can’t do its job, then that puts boxfish, or other organisms that depend on natively-produced surfactants working like they had evolved to, at a greater risk of increased exploitation by predators, and eventual population decline.

Image credits: introduction image, very colorful boxfish with yellow spots (Ostracion meleagris), hiding boxfish (credit Christie Wilcox), yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus)

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Angry Birds, Part 2: Sinister Songbirds

While it is relatively easy to think about massive, belligerent, hook-jawed, feathered monstrosities like the giant petrel, skua, and lammergeier as being kin to the long-extinct therapod dinosaurs, creatures solidly employed in the “flesh-rending-death-beast” profession, perhaps a little harder to grasp is the notion that commonplace little tweety birds have the capacity to be pint-size brutes. But there are certainly some shining star examples that I’ll outline here.

When I refer to “tweety birds”, I mean birds of the order Passeriformes, which are known as the “songbirds.” Robins, sparrows, meadowlarks, finches, orioles, crows, swallows, wrens….everything from Big Bird to Woodstock….Red Robin to the Arizona Cardinals…all of them are passeriform birds. They are members of by far the most diverse order of birds, and with more than 5,000 species, they are among the most speciose of any vertebrate order. They are distinguished from the other groups of birds by, generally speaking, their exquisite control of the syrinx (a vocal organ that is analogous to our own larynx) to generate elaborate bird songs. They are also notable for being a group of animals that has their evolutionary roots placed in a part of the world that is far more frequently noted for having endemic creatures that do not ever leave; Australia and New Guinea. It’s thought that these little guys first broke off from the rest of the flock roughly 50 to 60 million years ago in this arm of the old southern continent of Gondwana (which was isolated then just as it is today) and somehow exploded onto the world stage, rapidly diversifying and eventually finding themselves in all imaginable locations and habitats.

And it is in Australia that the first entry on this list makes its home.

Johnny Two-tone up there (the one who apparently shares an eye-color with Darth Maul) goes by the name of “Australian magpie” (Cracticus tibicen, if you’re nasty), and it’s easy to see why. The black-and-white ensemble (often referred to as a “pied” coloration) and wedge-shaped beak is dead ringer for the magpie bird that many people from the northern continents are familiar with. However, the two birds are not all that closely related, and the pigmentation pattern is a coincidence of convergent evolution. True magpies are in the crow and jay family (Corvidae) and while they are highly-intelligent and mischievous animals, they aren’t particularly aggressive birds, favoring wiley methods of scavenging and hanging around urban and suburban environments for human food waste. In contrast, the Australian “magpie” is a member of the Artamidae family, which is a group of crow-like birds native to the continent and surrounding islands, and the family is far more closely related to other Australasian, Southeast Asian, and Madagascan birds, like vangas and ioras, than they are to the corvids.

It’s also worth mentioning that the genus to which the Australian magpie belongs, Cracticus, is full of birds collectively known as “butcherbirds.”
So, you know we are off to a good start.

Butcherbirds are so named for their unabashed serial killer habit of capturing prey (usually insects and small reptiles) with their sharp beaks, and then shish kebabing the poor little bastards on thorns or sharp branches. They then keep the unfortunate souls there until they are done consuming them…piece by piece. Butcherbirds don’t really have the strong talons that full-sized birds of prey possess, so they can’t really hold down their meals while they tear it to shreds; so, that’s what the skewer is for. It acts as an anchor for them to get some torque when they start incrementally de-limbing the miserably contorted carcasses. These little grand displays of savagery are known as “larders,” and they not only serve as a means of storing food for later, but they also are meant to attract mates. Because nothing gets the lady birds all hot and bothered like fetid corpses of the innocent hung up in your crib like Monet prints.

“Hey girl, I got a big, decaying lizard at my place. It’s a February 2014, great month. Wanna see it?”

This trophy-making bloodsport isn’t specific to one sex, but it’s thought that the larder of the male is potentially the one that is up for judgement. The idea is that if the male can acquire a varied and plentiful collection of flesh decorations, he might also be good at other things *wink wink* *nudge nudge*…meaning of course that he’ll have the capacity to help provide for offspring and pass on decent genetic material…get your minds out of the gutter.

So, after a precursory inspection by the female, some awkward small talk, and maybe a final dose of internal bargaining, if the female is down with it, they settle down and make their own set of chubby-cheeked war criminals. The two parents feed and care for the young after this, but they often get plenty of help from other closely related birds of the same species in the area. This is that “cooperative breeding” thing I was talking about with skuas in Part 1. It seems to be that in particularly clever species that require a long childhood full of learning and complex behaviorally development, whether they be butcherbirds, crows, chimps, dolphins, or humans, the “it takes a village” mentality is heavily applied to the rearing of youngin’s.

And an extended childhood it is for butcherbirds. The juveniles end up staying with the mother for a very, very long time. Well past the ability to fly and care for themselves do they completely “fail to launch.” Young butcherbirds that are all but full grown and sexually mature tag along with the mother throughout the day, whining at her whenever she catches food so that she’ll give them some, and she obliges, further spoiling the jobless brat.

“Sounds familiar. I have a good-for-nothing man-child…I mean “butcherbird”…at home myself.”

Australian magpies are just a big, lanky versions of a butcherbird. They differ in a few ways, one of which being that they don’t really engage in that whole macabre feng shui shit the other members of the genus are really into.
But they, like other butcherbirds, also have that devotion to parenting on lock down.

In fact, it’s their extremely “passionate” disposition towards caring for and defending their eggs and chicks that have given these birds, already hailing from a clan of vicious mini-raptors, a reputation as one of the more hostile and bellicose birds on the Australian continent. In the Australian spring, between about late August and the start of October, the season for egg hatching comes around in Australian magpie circles. With this lovely season comes…swooping. Swooping is not a fun dance move. Swooping is not slang for taking an even funner recreational drug. There is nothing enjoyable or cute or happy about swooping. Swooping is fucking terrifying. Because swooping is when birds make it their goddamned mission to scare and/or maim anything and anyone that dares get too close to the blind, squeaking larvae-like hatchlings…and this is achieved by precision air strikes against the vulnerable skulls of would-be predators. Humans are very much not exempt from being targets of this behavior.

I’ve been swooped before. Not by an Australian magpie, but by a common crow. I was walking towards Amazon Park from the university neighborhood one pleasant, sunny, summer day in Eugene, Oregon, not a care in the world…when I suddenly heard a loud whoosh and felt wingtips clip the side of my ear. A crow had given me an intentionally close buzz, from behind and off to the right. I say “intentionally” because I had no idea it was even there, and if it had been calling at me to stay clear, I wasn’t paying attention; that crow could have easily drilled it’s beak into my crown and I wouldn’t have seen it coming, and I’m very sure it knew that. The close call was more than enough though. After ducking, screaming, and waving my arms above my head for a few seconds, I regrouped and made it obvious to the brainy, angry bugger that was circling around for a second “warning” that I took the hint by jogging another block and a half down the street….keeping my eyes on the ominous black form above that trailed me that entire distance before turning around and flying back to its tree. After realizing I was out of harm’s way, and cleaning the shit out of my shorts, the experience ended up having a fairly profound effect on how I thought about crows going forward. And I wasn’t even pecked or hit. And it happened only once.

I can’t imagine what Aussies put up with, because once the annual Spring of Discontent rolls around Down Under, Australian magpies take it to the next level. Well, I should say some magpies do. Technically, it’s only the males that do the swooping, and it’s only like one in ten (roughly) that actively engage in the more extreme behaviors. However, Australian magpies are ubiquitous across the continent, and where they are found, they exist in fairly high-densities, where the birds tirelessly defend their territories. They are wonderfully adapted to urban and suburban living as well…so you might, at this point, be getting a sense of why even if only about 5-10% males swoop, if their numbers aren’t hampered dramatically by the entirety of metro Sydney developing on Australian magpie turf…there might be some conflict down the road.

Blue = places where Australian magpies try to kill you,  Pink = places where EVERYTHING ELSE tries to kill you, because Australia

The Australian magpie, now a dutiful new dad, upon noticing an unwitting pedestrian or cyclist intolerably close to the nest usually sends out reasonable warnings. A close approach. A bit of angry chatter. Hopefully, the hapless human isn’t absorbed by their cell phone or MP3 player at the moment, because if the fair warning is not heeded, things escalate really fucking quickly. The Australian magpie does not forgive, and ignorance of the first bit of “communication” is not a valid defense on your end.
The second level of domestic defense involves actual swooping…which means dive-bombing the back of your head at full speed, and then pulling up or to the side with just enough room to gouge and snap at your noggin or ears. Reason help you if the Australian magpie decides to swoop from the front, because all of the sensitive, important parts of your mug are fair game. That wicked sharp triangle on the front of its head? That’s the business end of a screaming smart missile aimed at the part of your face where your eyes are. That’s what Cracticus tibicen has in store for you.

My Latin’s a little rusty, but I’m pretty sure the “tibicen” means “bringer of pain”

If you happen to share a neighborhood with a few particularly “difficult” Australian magpie bros, your life, for five weeks out of the year, can easily morph into something that would make the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock very, very proud. Your nice, afternoon stroll through Indooroopilly can, at a moment’s notice, be interrupted by a fire-eyed fell-beast, screaming out of the suburban heavens, with a one-track mission to disband your jelly-filled peepers from their sockets and carry them off like olives speared on a cocktail skewer. Understandably, many folks have tried to figure out a way to dissuade the minority of aggro magpies from playing Stabby Stabby with the scalps of the innocent. Some people put sunglasses on the back of their head, because they think the extra pair of eyes will “frighten” the birds and keep them from striking at the skull (not sure why this method is even bothered with, considering that Australian magpies seem to have precisely zero issues with going for the eyes). One common way bicyclists have attempted to deal with swoopings is to attach long, sharp “spines” all over their helmets, the idea being that bristling with anti-bird armament would, er, “persuade” against close approaches. I’m not joking. Aerial barrages from Australian magpies are so damn hazardous to human health that, fully embracing Australia’s Mad Max-ian heritage, people have resorted to running around with goddamned spiked helmets.

Somewhere, Mel Gibson is smiling…but not about this. Probably about something racist.

Sadly, these defensive efforts (which I like to call “hedgehoging”) are largely ineffective against Australian magpies, and quite frankly, your typical “problem” male magpie couldn’t give two dusty fucks about the half-assed arts and crafts project on your head. His genetic legacy rests in the survival of those little, chirping, pink, featherless, scrotum-skin covered lumps of joy back in the nest, and without fearlessness in the face of animals hundreds of times more massive, wearing a Stegosaurus-tail helmet or not, that legacy is far more likely to be cut short. Evolution has crafted a behavior composed 100% out of pure, unadulterated “I-don’t-give-a-fuck”, and there’s not enough pipe-cleaners and fire stokers in the world that can stop it.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing in all of this is that more often than not, a given Australian magpie isn’t indiscriminate in its righteous anger. It’s not like every single person, young or old, male or female, is equally at risk of being assaulted. For whatever reason, nest-defending magpies tend to be a little…bigoted…and bafflingly, randomly so. Maybe the magpie on the corner of Broomfield and Murray spares little old ladies, but festers with a deep, birdy hatred for boys between the ages of 7 and 12. Perhaps the magpie on 33rd and Fig Tree couldn’t care less about middle-aged dudes walking their golden retriever mixes…but 20-something women jogging with their Weimaraners? Oh HELL no. Some burn with unrepentant loathing towards only cyclists, or just the neighborhood mail carrier (referred to in Australia as a “postie,” because that country has an adorable slang nickname for everything).

This specificity of targets among males that do engage in swooping could be random fixation, but the narrow prejudice might have its origins in a form of social learning. The adoption of learned behaviors among individuals in a social group, in particular the wariness of select targets, is something that has been observed in similarly intelligent birds like American crows. In this example, knowledge of the identity of a particular threatening human was disseminated throughout the social network of crows, mimicking the propagation of ideas, stories, and concepts we see in human cultures. This precedent of “education” exists in crows, so it may not be far-fetched to wonder if young Australian magpies are taught what passersby are of primary threat based on the actions of their fathers, and then, following the same vertical, generational transfer of bigotry seen in human society, repeat the same aggressive behaviors (or simple tendencies) once they reach fatherhood themselves.

The abject terror induced on the unluckiest of Aussies is nothing but persistent, and while the onslaught from the skies can be as minor as a heart-jumping nuisance, the danger from these types of attacks has the potential to be truly great. Like I’ve said, swooping Australian magpies routinely aim for the eyes, and people have been blinded before. In fact, eyes are the most frequently affected body part from magpie attacks, being affected in an estimated one-fifth of attacks that cause some sort of injury.
Even more seriously, Australian magpie attacks have even indirectly resulted in human deaths. In 2010, a 12-year old boy died when he ran into traffic desperately trying to evade a swooping magpie, and was struck by a car.

Because of events like this, Australia is a place where there is serious public debate about the line between upholding wildlife conservation and human safety for not only things like “problem” crocodiles…but, as weird as it may sound, “problem” birds as well.
Meanwhile in the U.S., this the closest thing we have to this conversation is typically limited to the occasional snappy dog, or perhaps a bear that keeps wandering a little too close to campgrounds in a National Park.

Australian magpies are certainly not the only songbirds with a twisted, violent streak, and while they are notable for funneling their aggression towards human beings, there are many others that are restricted to simply picking on critters their own size. One group of birds intimately familiar with being the bane of the existence of diminuitive creatures the world over are the shrikes (pictured above).

While there are several groups of unrelated birds called “shrikes,” in this instance I am referring to birds in the family Laniidae; a group of big-headed, robin-sized birds armed with stumpy, formidably hooked beaks that are found primarily in Eurasia and Africa, and far less so in North America. Taxonomically, they are a grouped within the Corvoidea, meaning that birds like crows and birds-of-paradise are among their closest relatives. Most species tend to frequent open, grassy areas, which allows them, like the birds-of-prey they resemble tiny versions of (with comically infantile body proportions), to scan their domain for unwitting prey. They don’t have the grappling-hook talons of actual birds-of-prey, so they utilize components of their environment to get a “handle” on their living, animated prizes, inevitably destined to be of the “culinary” variety. How do they do this? Do they fashion miniature ropes and baskets out of dried grass to restrain their prey? Maybe they collect tree pitch to make their feet all sticky? Aww.

No. They do not do these things. Not even fucking close. Shrikes take the bodies of their comestible conquests and shove them onto a sharp thorn or stick until the entirety of the depth of their little, lifeless (hopefully) figures is inelegantly transfixed in place. Like a toothpick in a cheese cube hors d’oeuvre. But with more blood. It is in this way that the shrike can capture larger prey, like a small mammal, reptile, or a particularly beefy bug, and hold it in place so that it can incrementally shred it into little chunks with its paring knife of a beak. The act of harpooning large bits of food in this manner, typically in places out of the reach of many other food thieves, also provides a long-term strategy via forming a sustenance cache. If you’ve been reading this entry with any sort of comprehension, the above explanation should sound quite familiar to you. These “larders” are incredibly reminiscent, in both function and appearance, to the grim methods used by Australia’s butcherbirds (described above), and it is perhaps no surprise that shrikes are often referred to as “butcherbirds” themselves. This similar dietary quirk evolved independently in these two groups of birds, miraculously enough, and is a powerful example of convergent evolution, which is often easily observable in physical traits (limb shape, for example), but not typically adequately appreciated in complex behaviors…such as making a larder.

Well…it certainly isn’t appreciated by the mice and lizards that share their home with shrikes, and understandably so.

Mr. Jingles has had better days.

Flitting around and merrily Vlad-the-Impalering every soft-bellied thing in sight, and then greedily saving the spoils for ages later seems like an effective evolutionary strategy all on its own…but it turns out, in at least one instance, there are hidden, unintentionally acquired benefits to engaging in this hectic life of stab-‘n-go.

As you (should) know, not all critters are exactly easy to eat, even when hopelessly cornered or in the grip of their attacker. Some have gargantuan, re-curved claws, married to an on-command adrenaline flood that un-cages otherworldly fury and strength. Some are festooned in venomous barbs and are lit up with more brilliant, psychedelic warning coloration than a Burning Man art installation. Others bloat up like someone shoved a tire pump up their ass, getting so aggressively turgid in their devourer’s craw that they pinch off all incoming lines of life-sustaining oxygen, ensuring that if they are going down, goddamnit if they don’t get some last minute, fatal karmic justice.

And others still are more subtly hard to ingest, at least permanently so, arming their very essence to the gills with powerful cocktails of toxic chemicals, and providing hints to would-be diners through a godawful overall taste and flashy colors…which mean to clue predators in on how they are a worse gastronomic decision than luke warm, gas station sushi. This advertisement of one’s own severely inedible nature is known as an “aposematism”, and is basically an ever-present neon sign reading “do what you want, man, but there are better ways to end your life…I’m just sayin’…”

One of these walking wads of poison is the lubber grasshopper (Romalea guttata), a massive, orange and yellow monster of a grasshopper longer than a man’s finger native to the southeastern United States. As an adult, its wings are too undersized for flight, and it can barely hop worth a shit, and spends its time clumsily fumbling over vegetation, looking more like an inebriated land shrimp than one of its spring-loaded, field-dwelling cousins.

If you are a bird, somehow literate and reading this (I know you’re out there…I’m lookin’ at you, Big Bird), the description of a 3-inch bug, practically crippled by its own damn fatness, probably sent a stream of drool immediately out of your beak. But trust me, lubber grasshoppers work really fucking hard at making themselves as unappetizing as possible. When confronted with the imminent threat of being unceremoniously inhaled as a mid-afternoon snack, they go into “don’t-eat-me-I’m-actually-really-off-putting-and-gross” mode. The grasshoppers let out a hellacious hiss, spit, and begin to foam with copious amounts of white, toxic foam from pores in their mid-body. The foam itself is bitter to just about every creature that gets a mouthful of it, and typically that’s enough to earn a prompt expulsion from the jaws of death. If the grasshopper is successfully swallowed by a particularly brave and/or desperately hungry predator, the sinister amalgamation of toxins embedded in the body of the grasshopper (high doses of quinones, phenols, and various poisonous compounds derived from the very plants the grasshopper feeds on) all come together as digestion starts, resulting in a vigorous assault on the digestive system of the diner…an animal that is now surely burdened with immediate, stomach-roiling regret. Lubber grasshoppers tend to be swiftly barfed back out before digestion can be completed, and the predator, now shamed and nauseous, will think twice before giving the bulky, tangerine-colored temptations another go.
It is because of their effective chemical defenses that lubber grasshoppers can “afford” to be giant sacks of delicious buggy goodness, propelled by legs too flimsy to evade threats and a brain too chillaxed to give a shit about finding a place to hide. If just about anything tries to eat them, that poor son of a bitch is going to have a really bad time. Lubber grasshoppers are free to bumble around their little world, largely blissfully ignorant of the terrors that haunt their more tasty brethren and lead them to dart between the shadows.

Yeah, yeah, we get it. You’re practically immune to predation. You don’t need to keep showing off.

But, despite the lubber grasshopper’s seemingly air-tight toxic defenses…there remains a loophole…one that the shrike has managed to exploit through simply doing what shrikes do best…sticking bug carcasses on really pointy things.

Lubber grasshoppers are substantially-sized insects, and can definitely fuel a bird like a shrike over the course of a couple of days. If the shrike makes an attempt at consuming any part of its newly-deceased, spike-bound quarry, it reacts like it took a shot of battery acid up the snoot; lots of hilariously adorable head-shaking, spitting the food right back out, and totally avoiding a second taste. However, if the grasshopper larder is left to sit for a day or two, ripening in the summer sun like a head rotting on a Medieval pike…the game totally changes. Apparently, the effectiveness of the lubber grasshopper toxins declines precipitously after death (a property of chemical compounds called “lability”, in which the compound in question, typically a protein, is susceptible to alteration or degradation outside of ideal or in vivo conditions), meaning that the shrikes can then safely consume the grasshopper. They age the grasshoppers on thorns like a fine, crunchy wine, and once they’ve reached the right stage of decomposition, the shrikes feast, enjoying the bountiful reward for their delayed gratification.

This loophole might be enough to lead to evolution of defensive traits in lubber grasshoppers in places where their range overlaps with that of the shrike. If their toxicity is a completely ineffective deterrent to a major predator in their neighborhood, simple chemical defenses may not provide the same level of protection (and contribution to overall fitness), on its own, that it does in places without shrikes. You would expect, given enough time, that in places where this overlap between shrikes and lubber grasshoppers occurs, lubber grasshoppers would, on average, have more effective alternative predator avoidance traits. Maybe they’re quicker, can jump higher, more likely to take shelter away from open areas, less likely to congregate in big groups, etc. There would be greater selective pressure from the presence of shrikes to have more in their defensive “tool box” than just toxins.

It’s like if you lived in a really bad part of town, but felt confident walking around at all hours of the day and night with a truly top-notch bulletproof vest on. It works pretty well, and protects you from the common bullet from time to time, but if one day, a bunch of people start running around with flamethrowers…your key defense is no longer of any use. You better find some fire-retardant clothes or learn how to run faster or your goose is cooked…so to speak. Just like the lubber grasshopper, your carefully constructed master plan is only as good as how universally it applies to all potential threats.

The lubber grasshopper isn’t the only animal to co-opt chemicals from their environment and concentrate them into potent forms for their own use. The strategy is used in multiple groups of insects, including ants, beetles, and butterflies. The oceans are full of examples of toxin adoption as well, either as an evolved tool for defense (specifically known as toxin “sequestration”), or as an accident of diet. Filter-feeding shellfish like clams can easily concentrate dangerously high levels of neurotoxins in their tissues by feeding on microscopic, uni-cellular algae (dinoflagellates), which is why people are strongly cautioned against eating shellfish collected during a “red tide” algal bloom, or immediately following one, since the intake of toxic algae by the shellfish is off the charts during this period. A similar situation can occur in various groups of tropical and sub-tropical predatory fish (most commonly things like barracudas, mahi-mahi, groupers, and moray eels), wherein toxic dinoflagellate algae are consumed indirectly by herbivorous fish, the toxin is concentrated in the tissues of the fish, and numerous herbivorous fish are then eaten by predators, and on and on up through the food chain, with the concentration of toxins ratcheting up exponentially with each trophic level (a process known as “bioaccumulation”), culminating in a kind of potential food poisoning of unwitting fish-eating humans commonly called “ciguatera.” Various kinds of sea slugs take in toxins from their diet, and re-purpose them as an anti-predator defense.
On land, among vertebrates, the most famous example of powerful defensive toxins derived from diet comes from the poison dart frogs of Central and South America (family Dendrobatidae). For many years, it was pretty much accepted that poison dart frogs got their toxins (powerful alkaloids, among the strongest of which is batrachotoxin (BTX)) from external sources found in their native range, since frogs reared in captivity do not end up producing the toxin, and frogs introduced outside of their native range (like Oahu’s Manoa Valley, the wide-bottomed rainforest valley from which I am typing this blog entry at this very moment; a small, introduced population of green and black poison dart frogs (Dendrobates auratus) resides here) do not end up being poisonous either. There were various suspects for the toxins’ origins considered, including merylid beetles and secondarily toxic ants, but in 2007, the primary contributor to diet-derived toxins in poison dart frogs was more or less nailed down as a group of mites. Poison dart frogs take the lubber grasshopper’s strategy of sequestering toxins to a whole other level; among the several most potently toxic species (which are also widely regarded as possibly the most poisonous animals on the planet…so there’s that), a single individual’s skin glistens with enough toxin to put the entire starting lineup of the Seattle Seahawks six feet under. They also have the appropriate levels of warning coloration to match, and the group, generally speaking, are gifted with the most intensely vivid colors in nature found outside of coral reefs.

There are also a very small number of reptiles (snakes in particular) that appear to sequester some toxins from their food (often toxic amphibians like newts and toads), but do not use these compounds to envenomate prey…rather, the toxins become saturated in their bodily tissues. These are in fact actually poisonous snakes, rather than venomous snakes.

But there are another, perhaps unexpected, group of animals outside of the hundreds of insects, scores of fish, piles of amphibians, and the few reptiles with representatives known to take in deadly toxins from their diet and use them for their own benefit. I am, of course, talking about birds.

The fellow photographed above, and looking a bit like the spirit of Halloween incarnate, is a pitohui, specifically a hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous). There are six species of pitohui, and all are exclusively found in the isolated (and threatened) rainforests of New Guinea. They are members of a family of songbirds known as the Pachycephalidae, a group of rainforest birds collectively known as “whistlers” that are commonplace throughout Australasia, many Oceanic islands, and parts of Southeast Asia, and are representatives of an ancient radiation of early songbirds in the region. Even more generally, this family of birds is a part of the proposed clade of Corvoidea…one of four major subdivisions of songbirds, and one that, if you’ll remember from earlier in this entry, curiously, also includes the Australian magpie and the shrike.

As far as rainforest birds go, pitohuis are outwardly unremarkable. They are omnivorous foragers, and don’t have any obvious adaptations that distinguish them from anything else with feathers that flits sporadically between tree branches.

So what’s actually so special about these birds? They are poisonous. Pitohuis are fucking poisonous birds, and just like lubber grasshoppers and poison dart frogs, they steal their toxins from their meals. These toxins, undoubtedly originating from some secondarily toxic insect, are then incorporated into the skin and feathers of the pitohui.

I know some eyebrows might be raised at the mention of a bird without any appreciable violent tendencies filling the final slot on a two-part series on so-called “angry birds”, but hear me out when I say that the position awarded is well-deserved. Just as I characterized the super-scavenger lammergeier as an avatar for the Grim Reaper and as an agent of a more subtle form of darkness, the pitohui’s intrinsic, chemical perniciousness makes its very body the site of a kind of molecular hostility. Pitohuis therefore fill the role of passive aggressiveness within this suite of “angry birds.”

The pitohui’s poisonous plumage wasn’t appreciated by Western science until 1989, when then graduate student John Dumbacher, in New Guinea as a part of a team studying birds-of-paradise, accidentally made the discovery while removing an entangled pitohui from a mist net (a common tool for facilitating the capture/collecting birds in the field). The little guy, understandably, fought for his life while being extracted from the net, and apparently did a number on Dumbacher’s hands with its sharp beak and claws. Upon putting the wounds up to his mouth, Dumbacher found that his lips and tongue began to burn and tingle. Tasting a feather later on led to the same sensation, which lasted for a long while afterwards. It wasn’t until a few years later that the toxin sizzling and sparking on inquisitive scientists’ tongues in New Guinea was identified, remarkably, as batrachotoxin…the same toxin produced by poison dart frogs.
Yes, what would eventually be considered the most striking example of toxin sequestration in birds was initially discovered by scientists sitting in the jungle, licking birds like a goddamn ice cream cone, and wondering what the fuck was making their mouths light up like they just took shots of Pop Rocks and chili powder.

I say “most striking example”, because there are other examples of poisonous birds (albeit precious few), although none of them generate the toxins by themselves, and instead adopt the compounds from dietary sources and concentrate them in their muscles, organs, skin, and feathers. Among them is a close relative of the pitohuis (found in the same family, also from New Guinea), the little shrikethrush (Colluricincla megarhyncha), which is not a shrike…or a thrush…and only carries the hybrid common name because apparently ornithologists are really, really bad at coming up with original names for birds. Like its close cousins, the nondescript, drab gray little shrikethrush has feathers and skin that are doused in potent, sequestered batrachotoxins. There is also the blue-capped ifrit (Ifrita kowaldi), a charming, colorful forest bird also native to New Guinea with a common name that is evidently an onomatopoeia of the sound you make when you try to hold in a sneeze…also a bearer of toxin-laden integument, and again, it is batrachotoxin used as the chemical weapon.

There are also a number of other examples of birds that become toxic from their diet, but do not re-route these compounds into their feathers and skin, and rather simply become a noxious meal for a predator, as their meat and viscera are tainted with poison. Perhaps an example of this phenomenon with the most renown and extensive acknowledgement throughout recorded history is coturnism, a form of food poisoning resulting from eating common quail (Coturnix coturnix), native to parts of Europe, that previously eaten large amounts of toxic plants. Consumption of various kinds of plants has been proposed as the main culprit for the…er…de-edibilization…of a frumpy, brown bird that looks like it hardly waddle in a straight line, let alone cripple a human with illness by way of its own flesh. Common suspects include henbane, hemlock, or hellebore, all of them toxic to humans. Coturnism is apparently not a recommended “bucket list” experience to live through. The toxins immediately kick the ever-loving fuck out every muscle in your body in a process called rhabdomyolysis. Simply put, this means that your skeletal muscle, the big ones that help you move around, are partially degraded and destroyed by the toxin. Bands of muscle fibers rapidly deflate and liquefy like an Otter Pop in the summer sun. If the level of rhabdomyolysis is relatively light, your entire body will feel like you spent yesterday doing 14-hours of weight training interspersed with getting hit by a semi-truck or five. If it’s serious, the massive influx of waste in your blood from your dying muscles can cause your piss to turn the color of Dr. Pepper and can even lead to rapid kidney failure. So, there’s that.

The ailment was common enough, and had enough impact, that it pops up throughout recordings from Antiquity, ranging from observations from ancient Greek and Roman naturalists, to anecdotes in the Bible (Numbers 11:31-34) wherein people eat a lot of quail, and end up a lot of dead.

Another example is the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), a marvelous, golden-headed bird that was once the world’s most northerly ranging parrot species, and graced the skies of America’s plains states, Southeast, and up along the eastern seaboard until freakin’ New York…until it went belly up for good in the early 20th century. It’s extinction was ultimately the result of an anthropogenic twofer; massive amounts of deforestation and habitat loss after European colonization, and the exploitation of the birds for their feathers, which were used to adorn women’s hats in the decades proceeding the demise of the species. Because nothing is more fashionable than irreversible biodiversity loss.

Anyways, these birds were generally considered to have poisonous flesh, and eating them was understood to be a risky endeavor. They were known to be voracious consumers of cocklebur seeds. Cocklebur (Xanthium) seeds are also incredibly toxic to mammals, so the concentrated toxins in the meat of the parakeet proved to be an issue for humans or anything else (like cats, which would routinely die shortly after catching and eating these birds) that tried to get a little taste. The seeds themselves still prove to be an issue, since cocklebur is an invasive plant, and the seeds can certainly harm livestock that accidentally eat them wherever the plant ends up invading.

So, sure, inadvertent concentration of toxins from food sources that happen to be toxic to predators doesn’t necessarily tell an adaptive, evolutionary story in the same way that the sequestering of toxins for specific, alternative use does…as in the pitohuis, ifrits, and shrikethrushes. But why? Why has this trait, seemingly bizarre among birds, this ability to transfer toxins from toxic insects (which got their own toxins from the plants they eat) to skin and integument, evolved in the first place?

In the past, it was assumed that the poisonous feathers and skin were a defense against predators, just as the similarly acquired batrachotoxins in poison dart frog skin were. However, as I’ve outlined above, poisonous animals usually have some means of advertising their unpalatable nature, and this is usually conveyed through intense warning coloration. Hooded pitohuis have the highly-saturated colors typical of aposematism, but the blue-capped ifrit and the shrikethrush are not all that vividly pigmented by bird standards.

It’s also very worth noting that, being nimble forest birds, these creatures don’t live at the same pace typical of animals that use toxins as a deterrent against predators…the lubber grasshopper I wrote about above is a perfect example of how opposite this lifestyle is to that of the known poisonous birds…which, being birds, have the capacity to quickly and efficiently fly the fuck away from danger. You see starkly different predator evasion abilities in toxic animals (or animals with defensive venoms), because these animals don’t need to be agile, or even particularly worried about potentially getting gobbled up. The same tends to go for animals with armored plating or sharp spines; for example, the porcupine does just fine shambling slowly along, since few things are going to bother messing with it anyways. So why would something like the ability to make poisonous feathers evolve in one of the most mobile groups of animals on the planet?

The answer may be that the batrachotoxin in pitohui skin and feathers is an adaptation against parasite infestation. In fact, non-toxic feathers have been shown to be favored over pitohui feathers by lice, implying that the “target” for the toxin isn’t a giant snake, coiled in wait in the rainforest canopy, or a laser-sighted eagle, but potentially the smallest, most nagging micro-predators. But being able to shed oneself of parasites is not a trivial advantage. The cumulative effect of just ectoparasites like ticks, fleas, and lice can sap energy and blood from the host animal, and leave it susceptible to weakness and secondary disease. Living in Hawai’i, I am quite familiar with the effect that parasites and parasite-like insects can have on vulnerable bird species; native birds in these islands have had their populations decimated by the spread of avian malaria, which is transmitted through introduced mosquitoes. The unfortunate ultimate result is an abrupt and jaw-dropping fall in endemic bird diversity in the archipelago over the past couple hundred years. Toxin-laced feathers could certainly be a boon to overall fitness in the face of such potentially far-reaching impacts of parasites and any infectious organisms they harbor.

It’s also thought that we’ve seen some precedent for this before in a fairly different group of animals, this evolutionary strategy of using chemical defenses in the skin, hair, and/or feathers as a means of controlling parasitic infection. In particular, I’m thinking of the slow loris (Nycticebus), a sloth-like primate related to the more familiar lemurs, found across South and Southeast Asia. Slow lorises produce a toxin in glands located in the armpits. This poison, far too strong for even Old Spice to tackle, is activated by saliva when licked, and then groomed into the fur by action of the teeth. The poison is also used in its bite, where the chemical hugs special grooves on the teeth, and in the moment of a hypothetical bite, the slow loris technically has a venomous bite…the only primate known to have one, and one of an incredibly select handful of mammals known to envenomate attackers or prey via the chompers. It’s worth noting that the populations of ectoparasites inhabitating the fur of slow loris are generally depauperate compared to those of other primates, suggesting that there is some utility of the venom-fur application as an extreme form of bug spray. It is feasible that this anti-parasite strategy evolved independently, using entirely different compounds and toxin acquistion mechanisms, in Pachycephalid birds like pitohuis and shrikethrushes. That tingling, burning, and numbness from the batrachotoxin being absorbed into your hand when you touch a pitohui might be an accidental misdirection from the toxin’s “intended” target…a group of skin-eating, blood-slurping insects smaller than the head of a pin.

“This is the first and last time you touch me, giant, two-legged louse.”

It’s also possible that toxin sequestration, or at least the evolutionary legacy of it, is far more common in some groups of birds than we thought. There is some evidence to suggest that how we understand how pitohuis are related to one another is currently completely inaccurate, and that many of these species actually are representative of several, distinct genetic lineages that place them in wholly different genera within the Corvoidea subgroup of passerine birds, meaning that the pitohuis aren’t a “natural” grouping. It is significantly less likely that toxin sequestration evolved independently several times among “pitohuis” and is more likely that a common ancestor for the group had evolved toxicity, and that Corvoid birds in general, some 700 or more species, either have the capacity to become toxic (assuming some change in diet), or secondarily lost the trait due to evolutionary change, and that the ancestral, “default” condition for this huge grouping of songbirds is one where poisonous feathers are made possible by borrowing toxins right from the food they eat.

So, consider that not only are the shrikes and Australian magpies (both Corvoid birds), mentioned at the beginning of Part 2, soul-crushing, hyperaggressive, feathered projectiles of claws and hatred…but they might be part of a grand family of birds with chemical weapons built right into their goddamned hides, and the ability to exterminate innumerable troublesome, parasitic invaders by simply touching them. Evolution may have just allowed many of them to “forget” how to utilize the toxins, from a physiological standpoint. This also means that there are potentially many other living Corvoid birds that sequester toxins, but this trait just hasn’t been discovered yet, either due to the assumption that birds do not have poisonous plumage, or because the toxins aren’t anything that humans would notice themselves (like the strong batrachotoxins of the pitohuis).

We share our world with thousands of species of dinosaurs. They might be smaller than the archetypal concept of a proper dinosaur in many of our minds, but despite their beaks and feathers, they are close relatives of the largest, most impressively terrifying land predators in Earth’s history…animals that, no matter their size, where more or less a whirlwind of teeth, claws, rigid bone, and taut muscle. It should be no surprise that many of the therapod dinosaurs that survived and flourished into the present day would also possess the same unforgiving temper, truculence, and cold-hearted, predatory nastiness that made their extinct relatives so successful for so long. From the puke-prone giant petrels, to the epic, bone-throwing lammergeiers, to the callous, tyrannically surgical shrikes, to the criminally insane skuas, the berserk, paranoid, face-stabbing Australian magpies, and the insidiously deadly, fluffy insulation of the pitohui…the spirit of danger, rage, and appetite for carnage lives on in our modern dinosaurs.

Image credits: Angry grackle intro imagemagpie standing, butcherbirds, mad dad,  Australian magpie distribution map, magpie beak, shrike in tree, shrike with mouse (Marek Szczepanek), lubber grasshopperhooded pitohui in tree, held pitohui

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Angry Birds: Part 1, Barbarism from Above


These familiar, feathered, fellow Earthlings are often the subject of much adoration from humans, and most birds that enter our daily lives occupy a place of fondness in our hearts. When we think of birds, we imagine, before essentially anything else, their beauty. They are revered across scores of cultures for their complicated and uplifting songs, a trait that exists as the result of meticulous tuning and retouching by sexual selection. Their wind-blown arias range from the simple, structured trill of the western meadowlark, to the complicated, crystal clear chimes of the white-rumped shama, to whatever the hell this insanity is from the superb lyrebird. Many are also regarded physically beautiful, and are gifted with soft elegance in flight, and their frequently vivid feather pigments make them among the most colorful vertebrates outside of a handful of coral reef fish and perhaps poison dart frogs. We equate grace, tranquility, and majesty with birds of varying flavors. Peace with the dove, might and prowess with hawks and eagles….

…the sensation of receiving a prostate exam from Dr. Cactus Fingers…with the potoo

I mean, shit, in Abrahamic and Zoroastrian faith traditions, we even envision angels, the shimmering middle-men of the Creator, as having bird wings plastered on their backs. Lots of things have wings and fly (bats, flies, beetles, and R. Kelly for example) but no, it was the bird’s weird, fluffy, elongated arms that were selected to be associated with a supernatural being that, supposedly, is a distilled amalgamation of all things right in the world.

We also appreciate some species of birds for their intelligence and affection, as well as their impressive capacity for vocal mimicry (I’m looking at you, parrots and mynahs). Many groups of birds are startlingly clever, and corvids (the family to which crows, ravens, rooks, and jays belong) are by-and-large tool-using, highly social, unnervingly observant braniacs that exhibit complex puzzle-solving abilities that make your “whip smart” border collie look like an insipid, drooling dipshit, and are more akin to a ruthless contingent of droogs than to tweety birds.

When we aren’t putting their image on national flags, making our clothing out of their feathers, or pasting them on random knick knacks, we are eating them. Birds are a common source of protein the world over, and here in the States, we appreciate poultry so damned much, that we’ve invented a way to shove as many species of fowl as possible up each other’s asses in order to make a delightful Russian nesting doll of bird flesh. We love the taste of birds so much that we’ve managed to slaughter many species permanently into the past tense. Passenger pigeons used to blacken the skies of North America until European immigrants came along and gave them the good ol’ ‘buffalo treatment’ and straight up blasted them out of their volant swarms with as much pause and contemplation as we give the flipping of a light switch. Humans hunted the flightless red rail of Mauritius to extinction by capitalizing on the birds’ affinity for red-colored objects by pulling out red cloths to lure the poor animals in close…and then bludgeoning them into shrieking oblivion with large sticks.

So, we historically have had sort of a “love/love-to-death” relationship with feathered fauna. It is then, perhaps, not surprising that birds, despite all their charm, can also be somewhat of a nuisance…as some sort of karmic retaliation, I’m sure. A great deal of this comes from their incredibly badass pedigree. It’s important to remember that birds are dinosaurs. Literally. Not kinda, halfway, tangentially related to dinosaurs. Nowadays, the paleontological evidence strongly suggests they ARE therapod dinosaurs, through and through. It’s not so much that Polly is descended directly from T-Rex, but goddamnit if they aren’t kissin’ cousins (a reality that is unavoidably observable in this experiment that aesthetically transforms a lowly chicken into a sickle-toed raptor with ease). Every innocently chittering and whistling thrush and sparrow outside your window is a representative of the last remaining groups of dinosaurs (a clade of critters known as the Maniraptorans), the only group to emerge out the other side of the mass extinction that marked the end of the Cretaceous.

Even after their bigger, toothier relatives kicked the bucket, birds sort of took up the mantel of filling the “giant, menacing, everything-runs-away-from-me monster” niche. In South America, they reigned for tens of millions of years over their ecosystem in the form of flightless, knife-faced homicidal maniacs the size of Shaquille O’Neal (something I wrote briefly about here). One group, the pelagornids, or ‘pseudo-tooth’ birds, went retro and evolved spiky projections from their beaks that basically functioned like teeth. Up until relatively recently in New Zealand, massive, Tolkienesque eagles hunted even larger flightless birds (moas), and likely plucked off the first colonizing Maori like modern hawks take down field mice.

So, given their evolutionary legacy, perhaps it isn’t so shocking that birds, given the right conditions, can be, well, downright unpleasant. I’m a lover of birds (if not solely for the fact that they are, as far as we can tell, motherfucking dinosaurs are you kidding me), but even I can admit that they can be obnoxiously loud (the relentless cooing of the ubiquitous zebra doves on the Hawaiian island I live on is beginning to be an unwelcome wake up call) and foul tempered. Anyone who has spent any time around roosters or overly “friendly” swans knows this. Even as pets they can reek something awful, and then there’s the whole issue of birds shitting as much as your average Royal Caribbean patron. Birds are notorious for spreading disease to people and other animals, and can be agricultural pests as introduced/alien species. But, I suppose that might not be enough horror to transform your conceptualization of birds into that of enraged, dead-eyed, screeching, spray defecating, reptilian nightmares. Especially if your most negative associations with birds just come from getting caught underneath a pigeon releasing its bowel ballast, or from a frustrating bird and pipe-themed app game, which shall go unnamed…

“Up! Up, you stupid piece of shit!”

We know that birds easily have the capacity for bouts of aggression, towards each other, towards other birds, towards their prey, and towards humans. A certain proportion of it is simply overtly aggressive mating; there’s a good chance that whatever “language” mating vocalizations of many species are in, it doesn’t have a word for ‘consent.’ An endangered species of parrot from New Zealand, the kakapo, can be sexually aggressive; and by sexually aggressive, I mean it will mount and dry hump the back of a human’s head. Male dabbling ducks are down-to-their-core gang rapists that possess a shudder-inducingly brobdingnagian, thorny, spring-loaded death dick that looks like it slinky-ed its way out of Tim Burton’s most Freudian, repressed nightmares.

The sins of these dinosaurian, deceptively innocent beings are common and diverse. Obviously, birds-of-prey like hawks, falcons, owls, and eagles are the tigers and wolves of the sky, and rain death upon fuzzy, soft-bodied mammals and clueless reptiles the world over. Vultures chase off other birds from carcasses. Cuckoos are brood parasites that pass off the child-rearing chore onto small, ill-equipped songbirds…which inevitably leads to the slow, pathetic malnourishment of every other chick in the parasitized nest. Corvids routinely bully other birds just for shits and giggles. Just recently, a crow and a seagull (basically, the avian equivalents of a pipe-wrench-wielding Mob leg-breaker)  batterfanged the bejesus out of two hapless doves released by the Pope…to, hilariously, symbolize peace.

You might be aware that the cassowary, a flightless bird closely related to emus, native to northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, has a reputation as a violent animal…prone to defending itself against perceived threats with a casual leaping, roundhouse kick, armed with a razor claw-tipped foot (a behavior that has injured many, and resulted in a single recorded death).

But, the face of badassatry and biker gang ethics in birds isn’t as narrow as bitey swans, prank pulling ravens, and the occasional murderous cassowary. Birds take after their deadly, extinct, dinosaur brethren in more ways than you’d expect, and the reverberations of eons past can be picked up in behavioral and physical attributes across a very wide diversity of these marvelous animals.

The stoic motherfucker above, the one with the icy, blue-eyed stare and unwavering resolve in the face of a snow storm, is the first entry on our list of unappreciated, cantankerous birds; the giant petrel.

While the giant petrel looks very much like a seagull that spent a little too much time reading A Song of Ice and Fire, it is actually a wholly different animal, and genetically and evolutionarily speaking, it belongs to a different taxonomic order of birds. Giant petrels are a part of the Procellariiformes, a group of birds that consists of the most charismatic and well-adapted (and, unfortunately, often times endangered) sea birds on the planet (albatross, shearwaters, petrels, fulmars, etc.). In contrast, gulls are nested within the Charadriiformes, which contains things like plovers, puffins, terns, and snipes (generally considered “shorebirds”). Perhaps predictably, a good rule of thumb to follow is if the bird you are looking at is comfortable being way, way out at sea for long periods of time (in a non-migratory context), it’s more likely to be within the Procellariiformes; if it is ubiquitous along shorelines and inland bodies of water, and not found on far-flung islands in the middle of ocean basins (perhaps with the exception of the tern family)…it’s probably a member of the Charadriiformes instead.

Many of the birds within the Procellariiformes have a tendency to spend an extensive amount of time either feeding or migrating over vast distances of open ocean. Most species are colonial breeders, preferentially seeking out remote islands that are relatively predator-free to nest in massive numbers, and as adults they return to the colonies in which they were hatched year after year for breeding season. While it is thought that navigation back to these colonies relies on astronomical cues, the need for locating nests within these large colonies, and for finding ample food during such long, isolated flights over thousands of miles of open ocean, still exists. The procellariiform solution is found in their exquisite sense of smell.

Procellariiform birds are commonly referred to, collectively, as “tubenoses”; a nickname that refers to the extension of the nasal passages found in this group, forming bony tube (of varying length) that runs along the top of the bill. This is basically like if you had an empty toilet paper roll taped to your nose…but, you know, less stupid looking. This tube likely assists in capturing small particles in the air, and enhances their sense of smell, allowing them to find far-away sources of food on the wing out in the ocean, and potentially their own nest within the congested hustle and bustle of a smelly, shit-encrusted seabird colony. That goofy looking shirt-sleeve nostril is actually their version of Google Maps and Urban Spoon.

Another adaptation to extended time out at sea is the capacity for tubenoses to drink seawater. Yes, these birds engage in a behavior that would surely sicken you or I (or even potentially kill us due to hypernatremia (too much salt in the blood)…to understand the magnitude of the dangerous effect of this condition consider what happens when you pour salt on a slug…that horrific shit is what happens to the hypernatremic brain). Tubenoses are aided by a second installment of evolutionarily-derived gizmos on a head that, apparently, is not that unlike Batman’s utility belt. Tubenoses have the ability to purge salt from the water they drink by use of specially adapted glands at the base of their bill, which, with the help of a number of other organs, re-route sodium chloride from the ingested water away from the blood, and into these glands. The glands then secrete a highly-concentrated salt solution that either dribbles out, or is spectacularly (and grossly) sprayed out. Simply put, tubenoses have the superpower of drinking what is normally toxic levels of seawater because they have little kidneys on their fucking faces.

Many of the larger tubenoses, like albatross and petrels, are superbly adapted to long-distance flight, and have a whole suite of traits that maximize their flight efficiency. The most obvious of these is simply their gargantuan wingspan; long, narrow wings allow for soaring much longer without flapping (unlike short, broad wings (like what is found in many familiar songbirds), which are perfect for maneuverability through dense forest or for evading other, predatory birds…but are shitty for traversing an entire ocean’s breadth, since flapping must occur far more frequently to keep aloft). The side-effect of this is that take-off, and landing, are a bit cumbersome. Most short-winged birds have the luxury of just throwing on the brakes and landing wherever they please. However, the big, bulky albatross, for example, has to engage in long swoops to reduce speed enough so that when they do put down their landing gear (ridiculous, floppy, webbed feet that are poorly equipped for walking, and make albatross terrestrial locomotion charmingly awkward) they don’t strike the earth and tumble beak over tail feather. Just this last weekend, I went out to the Natural Area Reserve for nesting Laysan albatross and wedge-tailed shearwaters at Ka’ena Point on the Hawaiian island I live on, O’ahu, and observed first-hand the challenges of the extremely high-aspect ratio wings of large tubenose birds. More than once, one of the Laysan albatross nesting at the site, made a circuitous, looping cut through the windy tropical air, with wingtips coming within not more than thirty feet of the heads of me and my birding companion. I did not see these birds flap even one time in what seemed like the better part of five minutes as they soared in a great ellipse, eventually finding a deacceleration “sweet-spot” and ending their elegant voyage through the heavens and plopping ungracefully on the hot sand below in what is probably one of the most comically stark contrasts of movement in the entire animal kingdom. Watching this occur, one can’t help but be reminded of the spiraling descent that many large commercial jets make before landing. In terms of airborne agility and ease of take-off and landing, if your backyard robin is a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, then your typical giant albatross is an Airbus A380.

In addition to the simple mechanical efficiency afforded by immense, thin wings (wings that are long enough to make the wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans, owner of the largest wingspan of all modern birds, occasionally reaching 12 feet across), the largest tubenoses also have a little trick that makes it even easier to fly without the slightest bit of effort. Some species have a special tendon that actually locks the wing into place once fully extended, so that the wing can stay in that position for hours at a time. You know that little spring catch that keeps an umbrella in the “open” configuration? These birds basically have that technology incorporated into their wing musculature.

So, it can be said that the Procellariiformes, with their Doomsday Prepper-esque self-contained fluid filtration system, built-in Garmin and cruise control, and wings that catch the trades far more effectively than any sail, are part of faction of seafaring birds that make even the hardest, crustiest, beardiest, veteran sea captain look like a quakey-legged, queasy landlubber.

“Aye, everything I am…’tis a lie.”

It is within this already hardy contingent of open-ocean avian gods that the giant petrels (two species of bird within the genus Macronectes) find their relations. These birds, divided into a Northern and Southern species (although both are native to the coastline of Antarctica, and the islands surrounding it) are most closely related to the fulmars, and are, unsurprisingly, a part of the petrel family, Procellariidae. They are the most massive tubenoses with the exception of the regal albatrosses, both of them reaching about the size of an eagle. Outwardly, they don’t appear to be much different than their relatives; muted coloration, large and powerful wings, a hooked beak made up of the nine plates unique to the Procellariiformes, webbed feet, etc. If you were to take a fulmar and beef it up in size a few fold, you’d, at least on the exterior, get a giant petrel.

But the giant petrel has a secret that separates it dramatically from the rest of it’s tubenose kin, a secret buried beneath a deceitful outer visage that makes it appear more as a docile dabbler of the ocean surface (albeit a big and noisy one), rather than the agent of darkness that it actually is. Tubenoses have a diet based upon marine foraging, in which they consume squid, krill and other crustaceans, fish, and occasionally plankton. This is a pretty standard menu among most seabirds and shorebirds. However, somewhere along the line, giant petrels lost their refined taste for sashimi and cocktail shrimp. Giant petrels, instead, primarily fill their bellies with the decayed flesh of beached marine mammals, and fluffy, helpless penguins (sometimes, as this very graphic video illustrates, hollowing out the poor penguin’s body cavity like it was an intestine-filled piñata…while it is still very much alive). Giant petrels are the Antarctic’s answer to vultures, and they take up their ecological role as the cold southern sea’s clean up crew with enthusiasm, beating out all smaller scavengers at whatever felled beast rots on the barren shores of the antipolar continent, diving claw-tipped beak first into the fetid, blubbery jackpot.

Hasn’t given a single fuck in over one million years

And by “enthusiasm” I mean “aggressiveness”…and by “aggressiveness” I mean “pretty sure someone slipped these birds some bath salts.” Giant petrels lay waste to any poor, opportunistic seabird trying to capitalize on the good fortune of a fresh, bloated seal carcass. They are aided by their substantial size advantage over any shorebirds within their home ranges, their strong and sharp bill, and their relatively strong legs (in comparison to their tubenose relatives) that allow them to bear down on their quarry, living or dead, with ease on land. When arriving at a carcass, they adopt a posture designed to make everything with feathers in the vicinity to pack up and get the fuck out; wings arched and outstretched, neck extended with the hooked beak directly facing any contenders, and tail stiffly pointed upwards (an “intimidating” posture I’ve seen similarly employed in testosterone and alcohol-soaked college-age human males). If their “carrion master” pose doesn’t adequately impress, they drop the diplomacy act right quick and get on with beating the everloving shit out of everything around them until they get their way (again…this is something I’ve seen in the wilds of the house-party-full-of-20-year-old-dudes ecosystem).

If undisturbed, they plunge right in, and the formerly intact dead body is torn apart like it was a free pizza thrown to a pit of graduate students (haha, the joke is that we are poor). Apparently evolution didn’t have the foresight to gift these fledgling scavengers the bare neck and face of the vulture, so their feathers on their faces quickly become drenched and sticky with blood and offal. This doesn’t slow them down at all, apparently, because they will run around with this shit plastered all over them like they just waltzed out of the finale of “Carrie”…ravenously waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting little penguin, or unclaimed corpse on the shoreline.

“You like this color? I think the shade is called ‘screamoglobin’.”

So, obviously, once giant petrels have a meal, they definitely don’t disguise their role as the main purveyors of violence on the Antarctic coast. And violent they are. I’ve already alluded to their impassioned vivisection of penguins, an easy task for them considering that penguins are basically just squishy, clumsily toddling bags of meat. But, they regularly have a go at taking other prey as well, out of necessity. There aren’t a lot of options for blood-thirsty animals like giant petrels in the Antarctic; it’s not like there are a glut of different types of prey animals running around for them to pick from. The great, frigid south is an isolated land without much else than animals that either fly there or swim there, meaning that most everything on the coastline is either a bird or a seal.
Adult seals, especially the gargantuan leopard and southern elephant seals (which can reach weights of 1,300 lbs and 5 tons, respectively), are obviously far too big for a giant petrel to eat (although I wouldn’t put it past these one of these assholes to try). But seal pups? Yeah, those are barely big enough to leave leftovers. It isn’t that uncommon for a group of these soulless bastards to descend upon a seal pup the minute it’s been separated from its parent.

Giant petrels are actually very adept at slaughtering the babies of other animals. They dispatch penguin and albatross chicks with remorseless ease, and just as often as they make the adults their entree of choice. Yes, they even snuff their own close relatives, the albatrosses, and devour them in an act of appalling taxonomic treason.
One thing is certain, if it is cute and defenseless, giant petrels will desire to rend it into tiny, bite-size pieces.

It’s also worth noting that stuff comes out of giant petrel mouths about as often as stuff goes in….because giant petrels are quite fond of vomiting. I should clarify that this isn’t referring to the sweet, altruistic, maternal regurgitation that a great many birds use to feed their chicks. No, giant petrels engage in projectile puking, a la The Exorcist, on a fucking horrifying scale. So, emetophobes beware.

This typically occurs in two distinct types of scenarios. The first is related to the birds’ fondness of food. Being opportunistic foragers, giant petrels tend to eat as much of whatever it is they claim (or slay) as possible, because there’s no guarantee that there will be another meal around the corner…something I can identify with as a graduate student. “Modest portion size” is not a part of their lexicon. They are such, er, “healthy eaters” that early European explorers to the Southern Ocean used to call them “gluttons,” a name probably further supported by the giant petrel’s habit of loitering around sailing vessels, endlessly lusting for food scraps from sailors. Sometimes, these feathered Mr. Creosotes gorge themselves to the point where they are too heavy for take-off. If a human, or anything else that can be considered a predator (something that doesn’t exactly abound in the Antarctic, for much the same reason as why there isn’t much variation in prey…isolation), gives them a spook, they’ll promptly throw their digestive tract on ‘reverse’ and expeditiously shoot a slurry of seal pancreas out all over the ice. Once they are back to their svelte selves, they can muster the strength to take to the air and evade whatever threat forced them to toss their cookies. This is a strategy used by pythons, boas, and me when I accidentally try to jog right after going out for Taco Tuesday.

The other context for this lovely behavior of assertive upchucking comes from a very different place. You see, giant petrels, as well as many other procellariiform birds, have weaponized their barf. Well, more technically speaking, it’s stomach oil, rather than the partially digested contents of its most recent meal. Stomach oil is a mixture of primarily wax esters (a fatty acid) and triglycerides (major constituent of animal fat and vegetable oil) that is very energy-rich, and is stored not in the stomach itself, but in the proventriculus, which is the first ‘chamber’ of the digestive system of birds, and is sandwiched between the esophagus and gizzard. The oil is a by-product of regular digestion, and most tubenoses make the stuff. It’s thought that it has a role in energy storage for long-distance travel, but it has a far more interesting utility as “get-the-fuck-away-from-me juice.” Giant petrels are notorious for spraying this crap at would-be attackers, including both predators and combative, rival giant petrels. It isn’t corrosive, like an acid or strong base, but it is still a potently effective chemical weapon. For mammals (including humans), the stomach oil’s revolting stench is its main deterrent. The experience is a bit like getting a cup of rancid salad dressing, two-week old bacon grease, and decomposed escolar splashed right in your face. Since the oil is well…oil…it doesn’t exactly wash out easily with water, so if you are lucky enough to showered with this liquid offering, your clothes will probably be stuck with the nauseating miasma for a very long time. This nasty, skunk-like defense mechanism is also the origin of the giant petrel’s second old-school nickname from maritime explorer times; the “stinker.”

If you are a fellow bird and you get oiled, the consequences can actually be a little more serious. Stomach oil, once cooled by the outside air, solidifies into a waxy product that ends up gluing feathers into matted clumps…and, again, it doesn’t readily dissolve in seawater. Anyone who remembers the tragic effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (or the far more recent Deepwater Horizon spill) can recall what happens to seabirds when their feathers are dowsed in sticky, heavy, oily substances.

So, yes, giant petrels aren’t exactly a bunch of charmers. Despite the fact that their goofy, webbed feet make them look like they should be trying to sell you payroll deduction insurance, these birds would certainly make their vicious, extinct, therapod cousins proud. The Antarctic is inhabited by a creature that is infamous for callously abusing the vulnerable and powerless, habitual greed, a consistently repellent demeanor, and for spouting copious amounts of loathsome filth out of its mouth. And no, I’m not talking about Rush Limbaugh. The next time you are tempted to schedule a little idyllic excursion to Terra Australis to have a life-changing, grand ol’ time marching with the fucking penguins…remember this princely, dainty beast:


There is another antagonistic avian that frequents the frozen, polar regions of our planet, but unlike the giant petrel, it can be found near both the South and North Poles (but nowhere in-between). It gravitates to the cold, harsh lands and seas, far from the warm embrace of direct sunlight, and perhaps, on a certain symbolic level, appropriately so, given that this creature has a soul as icy and brutal as the places it inhabits.
It is allied closely with the gulls (within the Lari subdivision of the aforementioned shorebird order, Charadriiformes), but it forms its own family (Stercorariidae) within the order. Perhaps even more notably, of the seven species of this group of birds, all of them reside within a single genus (Stercorarius), which is impressive considering that the ranges of some of these apparently closely related species are separated by many thousands of miles. It’s appearance betrays its close relation to the seagulls. It basically looks like a burly, brown gull that’s been excessively hardened by a life scraping out existence on the edge of Earth’s zone of habitability, and with the addition of a beak that looks to be crafted out of scalpel-sharp obsidian, it becomes clear that this bird is doing a bit more than leisurely picking at abandoned fast food in a beach park dumpster.

Stercorarius are common sights both along the coastlines and inland areas of both poles. They are, as I will explain in detail shortly, ecologically important, crafty, and efficient predators in the wilds of high-latitude nations like Russia, Canada, the Alaskan U.S., the British Isles, Scandinavia, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand (as well as various small island chains and isolated isles in the Arctic and Southern Oceans, sometimes in great numbers). Since they range over such a diversity of nations and human cultures, and are invariably imposing, unforgettable birds, it’s no surprise that they are granted unique names that distinguish them from other shorebirds. In Anglophone areas of the Arctic (Canada, U.K., the U.S.), they are commonly referred to as “jaegers”, which is derived from the German word “Jäger”, which translates to “hunter.” Yes, this is a bird which has a name (notably originating from the tongue of a Teutonic barbarian tribe) that has been associated with 30-story tall robots that beat the piss out of giant, alien sea monsters and a liver-melting liquor that tastes like cough-medicine, bad decisions, and the tears of vanquished foes…so, yes, we are off to an epic start. In Norway, it is known as the “storjo.” In parts of Scotland, the “bonxie.” In the far south of Chile, “págalo.” The Māori of New Zealand (Aotearoa) refer to them as “hakoakoa.” The Japanese know it as “Touzoku-kamome.” However, it is the name it was given by the Faroese (the indigenous Germanic peoples of an island chain between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands) that has the most usage worldwide; “skúgvur.” This name has subsequently been corrupted to “skua”…not to be confused with “ska”, which is altogether different. For example, the piercing, ear-shredding screech of the skua is far more tolerable than ska.

Skuas also have less brass. Less stupid hats, too. ….I really don’t like ska.

Why does this one group of gull-like birds get their own brand in every language? Sure, they are big, powerful, muscular birds, but they aren’t particularly distinctive in that regard. Most species have dull coloration and plain features. What makes them important enough to be considered appreciably distinct by these high-altitude cultures?
Many times this is because a certain animal has some sort of cultural significance, and it would be reasonable to wonder if the skua holds a special place of reverence in these cultures, reflected by the language. Perhaps they have some sort of role to play in the local mythos. Are they viewed as messengers of changing times, for good or bad? Are there parables about them? Do they represent guardians, or perhaps cosmic villains? Or is their strong, direct flight in the face of biting polar winds something to be admired, and therefore noted? Why has the skua repeatedly carved out a unique spot in the communal psyche of all these cultures, out of a wide diversity of fellow smelly, squawking seabirds?

The answer is that it has less to do with any sort of noble trait that is worth emulating or aspiring to…and more to do with the fact that skuas are, by bird standards, belligerent, unapologetic, hyper-aggressive, inherently amoral assholes. Basically, whenever it came time to name all the birds in each of these areas, it’s almost a guarantee that upon watching the skua for a few hours, whoever had the task of doing so wrote down the following footnote for this nefarious beast: “Note: Easily identifiable by how much of a bag of dicks it is to all the other animals.”

“I heard u were talkin’ shit.”

So, why the bad reputation? Why does this bird get the same amount of esteem as a run-of-the-mill dog fight coordinator? Why does this bird, apparently, deserve its own “Scumbag Skua” internet meme?

Well, most skuas are, at least part of the time, “kleptoparasites.” To get an idea of what kleptoparasitism is consider the following scenario:
You go into work in the morning, and deposit a perfectly crafted sandwich in the break room fridge, storing it there until lunch. You spent a lot of time piecing this masterpiece together, and you are really damn proud of your creation. Gracefully folded slices of glistening, peppered pastrami, an entire garden of exquisitely prepared, fresh veggies, crisp pickles, muted swiss cheese, a healthy splash of stone-ground brown mustard, and you even added a bit of expensive tangy mayo you picked up at the local mom and pop grocer. You wince at even the thought of calling it a “sandwich”; this is glory between two soft, rich, slices of rye. You’ve wrapped it neatly in paper (never in a goddamn Ziploc bag, that kind of egregiously unsophisticated bullshit would never even occur to you) to let it breathe, and you’ve clearly marked it with your full name in vibrant, cobalt Sharpie ink. Your mouth waters at your desk for a full four hours as you try to work over your rising hunger, your bubbling, painful anticipation. Just when the olfactory siren song that’s been looping in your brain ever since you got that first whiff of your culinary opus currently marinating in the coolness of the company refrigerator becomes unbearable, your lunch hour arrives and you briskly walk back to the break room. You are euphoric. Your hands are quaking, and your stomach is wailing and sending great thunderous bellows throughout your body…but you are elated that your patience has paid off. At long last, you can take part in the gastronomically perfect experience waiting just beyond those dingy refrigerator doors. You open the fridge, alabaster light blinding you like the brilliant glow of Heaven itself. Your smile falls, the life drains from your eyes and your heart rockets to the bottom of you, and your hunger blackens into bilious despair. Where is it? Dead space on the rack where you placed it. Is this real? You pinch yourself, hoping that you are in a nightmare. No, the welt on your skin confirms your unfortunate reality and you slip into a frantic rage, slamming the door and scouring all surfaces of the room. Maybe someone moved it and forgot to put it back, you delude yourself, eyes tearing, breath rapid and shallow. Your gaze moves to the trash can and you drop to your knees, clasping the thin plastic edges as you will yourself to peer inside. You cry out. The once carefully, intricately folded paper is in there, carelessly crumpled and empty of its precious contents, wedged in the bottom in a violated ball. The rye crumbs decorating it may as well be blood. You slump back on your heels, catatonic. Defeat. Treachery.

You’ve been sidelined by the demoralizing club of betrayal…one brandished by a very special type of person. That person? That sociopathic wad of ambulatory after-birth that plundered your lunch and lanced your very soul? That was a kleptoparasite.

A kleptoparasite is an animal that gets by, at least part of the time, by stealing prey from other predators…either by force, or by conniving thievery…as in the sandwich example. The term literally means “parasite by way of stealing”, where the Greek prefix ‘kleptes’ means ‘thief.’ A kleptoparasite is one who engages in unrepentant food looting, at any cost, and skuas are archetypal examples of those that uphold this, er, lifestyle choice.

Skuas are tenacious and fearless thieves, and don’t appear to have any qualms about barreling face first into an animal holding a fresh kill, all sharp beak and wings and shrill screaming. More often than not, this is enough to get the poor animal (almost invariably another predatory bird) to drop its prize, which can be a small mammal, another bird, or most often, a fish. Size of the target is also not much of an issue, which is astounding, considering that while skuas are big as far as shorebirds go, they often take on animals that are several times their mass; in the Arctic this can be a large eagle or a heron, and in the Antarctic this can be the oh-so lovely, blood-soaked, vomiting dynamo that is the giant petrel I described above. One well-placed hammering of an eagle’s scythe-shaped beak, or one oil bath from an ornery giant petrel, could ruin a skua’s week and/or potentially kill it. But the skua has…moxie…and goes right the fuck in there anyways…and on a regular basis, wins. This is sort of the equivalent of someone attempting to rob a bank, which happens to be filled with a dozen armed police officers, by barging in completely in the nude, screaming into a megaphone, and proceeding to wildly slap everyone in the vicinity…and somehow coming out not only alive, but with armfuls of Benjamins.

Skuas really don’t seem to care, and even if the situation is too hopelessly dangerous to take on headfirst by themselves, they’ll sit back and wait for an opportunity…or simply gather more of their criminal friends so they can organize an “Italian Job” style raid later. Threat of crippling injury and excruciating death be damned.
Skuas truly are the honey badgers of the bird world.

While many times the target is a something as simple as a seagull or a tern innocently trying to hork down a few herring, they will sometimes congregate around a seal or whale carcass…which inevitably results in tense showdowns over the spoils between other species of unscrupulous scavenging animals. I find it splendidly dinosaurian.

I fail to see any difference between these two images.

When skuas aren’t harassing and bullying everything around the polar schoolyard trying to score an easy meal, they are shrewd, opportunistic predators…more than capable of killing for themselves if they need to. Much of the time, their diet consists of small to medium-sized fish, and a smaller complex of species in the Arctic (the ones most commonly referred to as jaegers) are partial to feeding upon small mammals like lemmings. However, they will routinely attack adult penguins, which are many, many times their size…but not to kill and eat them. You see, adult penguins, during certain parts of the year, hide tasty, vulnerable morsels that a skua can more than handle. I’m talking about penguin eggs and tiny, fuzzy penguin chicks, both which are protected by the skin flaps around the feet of the comparatively gigantic parent. All the skua needs to do is distract the adult with repeated stabbing with its spur-shaped beak, and it can root in underneath and dislodge the helpless egg or baby with lightning fast precision.
It’s like the story of David and Goliath…if David nonchalantly gulped down Goliath’s infant children as effortlessly as Kobayashi inhales hotdogs.

Nothing is safe. When a skua is around, there’s a good chance someone is going to die. Cute puffins? Pathetically one-sided aerial dogfight ends predictably violently. Dead. Oystercatcher, minding its own business? Head dashed against rocks. Also dead. One of those coveted penguin eggs? Over-easy. Full grown sheep? Fuck them too.
The skua, cold, calculating, exceptionally bright, and not squeamish about brutally taking what it desires, would have been a fine pet choice for Gordon Gekko. This bird, this depraved, deadly amalgamation of seagull, hyena, and butterfly knife, has a moral compass so twisted and rusty it’d make any serial killer blush.

“That’s a nice baby penguin you got there. It’d be a shame if something were to…happen…to it.”

But, the skua does manage to consciously spare one being from its sadistic bloodshed…its own progeny. Yes, the only thing that isn’t subjected to intimidation and violence from these delinquents are young skuas and skua eggs. Their vicious habits don’t extend into cannibalism (although the young chicks typically have a Spartan upbringing, which ends up resulting in fratricide in the nest…so yeah, they start off with the murdering in the cradle), which I suppose is to be expected.
For their eggs and young, skuas channel the unbridled machinery of their malevolence towards an aggressive defense of the nest, where they unflinchingly dive-bomb anything that strays too close (including humans). So, you know, there are no baby showers at the Stercorarius residence. This strategy of recklessly swooping at everything that moves, with all the paranoia of a meth-head renting a space below a guy who watches Cops really loudly, is sometimes combined with a behavior unique to some populations of skua that may potentially be a boon to fitness. In some populations of the brown skua, Stercorarius lonnbergi, off the coast of New Zealand in an island chain known as the Chatham Islands, the mating system of choice is of the cooperative variety. That is, specifically speaking, polyandry; in which one lady bird is paired with two or more gentleman birds. This setup occurs in other bird species from time to time, but almost always in really stable, terrestrial, non-migratory species that experience very high population density. Shorebirds and seabirds are almost unfailingly monogamous, so this breeding behavior in these specific populations of skuas is a bit unprecedented. We don’t yet understand if this reverse harem situation is conferring some sort of special evolutionary benefit to skuas residing in this specific island chain, or why this breeding system developed in the first place.

One thing is certain; despite the skua’s off-putting veneer of blood-lust, carnage, and unfeeling, surgical dismemberment of baby animals…deep down, they have a soft spot for their kids. I find it appropriate that a bird that makes a living exploiting, extorting, manipulating, and terrorizing everything around them would, through their strong parental defense and support of offspring, accurately emulate the multi-generational organization of a crime family.

The third entry in this list is one that lives about as far away from a marine environment as possible; up in the highest plateaus and mountains of Eurasia and Africa. It is a “proper” bird of prey (meaning that it belongs the order containing familiar raptors like hawks and eagles, Accipitriformes), and maybe it might seem like a cop out to include something that has more conventionally T-Rex-like behavior (i.e. flaying lesser beasts with its claws and face) considering this list is supposed to honor the weird, obscure, and surprising…but I think you’ll be able to see why I’ve made an exception in this case.

Why’s that? Well, this bird, known to many as the bearded vulture, or lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus, to the ornithologist crowd), looks like a goddamned for-real dragon.

Pretty sure this resplendent fucker flew straight out of a Dethklok music video.

Smaug up there is actually just a vulture in name only, and is actually not that closely related to the naked-headed incarnations of vulturedom most of us are familiar with. It’s closest relative is another “vulture” from various parts of the old world (Neophron percnopterus, sometimes known as the “Pharaoh’s chicken” or, more commonly, the Eqyptian vulture), and together, these two species, alone in their respective genera, are thought to form a unique subfamily (Gypaetinae) within the greater hawk/eagle/vulture/buzzard family (Accipitridae). Lammergeiers are exceptionally uncommon, but, as a species, they don’t seem to be threatened with extinction (although there are some localized threats). Instead, their scarcity is likely a natural consequence of their truly expansive home ranges throughout mountainous territory that generally doesn’t have the food resources available to support large, dense populations of bearded vultures anyways.

…not that there should ever be any reason to doubt the lammergeier’s resilience in the face of humanity because LOOK AT IT. Seriously, this thing doesn’t even look mortal, let alone even remotely concerned with the meddling of us ground-tethered peasants. The lammergeier does seem almost entirely separated from the goings on of the rest of the animal kingdom, since it casually hangs out further up in the mountains than even the trees can grow. These heights can be 16,000 feet or more above sea level; far enough up that most humans can’t even get enough oxygen into their bodies to maintain normal physiological status…which generally includes not hallucinating, puking everywhere, and bleeding from your eyes and nose. Not only does it thrive in places that are inaccessible to humans primarily because they are that much closer to the vacuum of outer goddamn space, but it’s been known to hang out near the summit of Mt. Everest. Yes, this bird makes the highest peak on the planet, the global “Mt. Olympus”, its playground.

In addition to the apparently borderline divine character enveloping the lammergeier, is its general aesthetic embodiment of the hyper-masculine, coke-fueled fantasy themes surrounding performances and album art of metal bands of the early 1980s…an element I very much appreciate about this animal. The lammergeier looks like a literal god of rock and roll, birthed from the strings of the very first electric guitar…a being, once summoned, that arrives by ripping through the heavens, propelled purely by 170 decibels of space-time splitting vocal belt, a trail of blow and pyrotechnics in its wake, with eyes bloodshot from the strain of being so awesome. I mean for Christ’s sake, even its name, “lammergeier”, sounds like a damn Rammstein album name. This is less of a bird, and more of fire-eyed wyvern, aloft on great wings, slicing through craggy canyons and scaling glaciated mountain passes, while lightning strikes and alights the roofs of mountain cottages aflame in time with a vociferous bass line.

Somewhere, the ghost of Ronnie James Dio is creaming his jeans.

Oh, and it has a beard…because of course it does.

Surely, you say, such a powerful and otherworldly thing must be a force that instills widespread fear among all animals in the uplands of the Old World. How many metric tons of yak does it consume weekly? Have the Nords of Skyrim learned how to quell its anger by use of archaic, magic incantations? Does it burninate the countryside annually, or just during election years? Do goats sacrifice themselves when a dark shadow passes overhead?

These questions, which I am 100% sure you are asking yourself, are fair…but despite its appearance, there is a good reason it is known as a “vulture”, and that reason is its primarily scavenging lifestyle. A bit of confusion comes in when you examine the German translation behind the other common name, “lammergeier”; it means “lamb-hawk”, and is based upon the old, erroneous, belief that these birds are sheep slayers. It does occasionally take live prey, but it gets most of its nutrition from the deceased.
Before you fold your arms over your chest and pout about your rapidly diminishing opinion of real-life Roc that you preemptively thought palmed horses like a basketball and caused avalanches with its devilish screams, and chalk up this bird to being nothing more than a hermit eagle that has a hairstyle that makes it resemble a cooler version of a Thatcher-era Rod Stewart…know that the manner in which the lammergeier scavenges is like no other vertebrate on Earth.

When a large animal perishes in the wild, vultures are the stereotypical “early birds” to the site of the rotting carcass. They track down the meal by way of both keen eyesight and smell, and in no time are ripping into the bloated bag of goodies. With the aid of scavenging mammals, insects, and additional bacteria decomposition, the dead animal is stripped of flesh/organs/everything in no time, leaving a dry, sun-bleached skeleton. To most animals, and certainly to most birds, at this point in the scavenging/decomposition timeline, the skeleton is a fairly useless food item. It’s caloric capacity has been completely extinguished. But none of these rules apply to the lammergeier, because the lammergeier eats bones. Not bone marrow; that succulent treasure inside large bones is a treat held in high regard by a wide variety of animals. No, the lammergeier eats bones. Sure, there’s marrow attached to it, but the bones are swallowed right along with it. Straight up.

Consumption of bones as a major form of sustenance isn’t exactly common in nature. Meat and skin and offal are all far easier to digest, easier to get to, and very nutritive…bones are far less so for all of these things. Specialization in eating something as…rugged…as bones is, unsurprisingly, an uncommon evolutionary and dietary strategy when there’s so much muscle to glean from. Why eat the “stick” of the drumstick?

There are few organisms that prefer the hard stuff, and one notable example are the bone-boring worms (Osedax) that mow down on whale skeletons once they sink to the dark floor of the ocean. There is a single type of fly, the bone-skipper, which up until last year was considered extinct for the better part of a century and a half, that eerily mimics the lammergeier’s preference for bodies in late decay…although it doesn’t necessary eat the bone matrix itself, and instead breeds and lays eggs within the marrow of pre-broken bones. But these examples are both invertebrates, and osteophagy (bone eating) doesn’t really occur in vertebrates outside of the occasional herbivorous mammal supplementing its diet with the minerals from bones. The lammergeier’s making its livelihood primarily off of bone consumption is a unique one among birds, most assuredly.

So, how does it accomplish this? The first step is to make sure the bone is in manageable pieces. The lammergeier is strong enough to break and crush smaller pieces of bone it acquires with its beak, but for larger bones like the femus and the pelvis, more drastic measures must be taken. These “drastic measures” include gripping a substantially sized bone in the talons, potentially weighing as much as the bird itself, and flying off with it. The bird makes a direct flight to a spot directly several hundred feet above a collection of particularly hard and jagged rocks, where it lets go of the bone, leaving gravity to do the work of splintering the bone into shards that can be easily swallowed. I like to call this the “Newton method,” and it’s something that other birds (like crows) have done with hard nuts and snail shells on hard rocks or asphalt surfaces. The lammergeier then swoops down, checks out to see if it was successful, and if so, gobbles up the best pieces and surveys its territory for additional bones.
It’s because of this behavior that one of its oldest names is the “ossifrage”, which means “breaker of bones.” In Arab cultures, it was once called “al-kasir”, which roughly translates to “shatterer” or “breaker.” I have a hard time conceiving of a more badass series of names for an animal that looks as Herculean as the lammergeier.

Notably, this species uses the exact same method to dispatch living tortoises. The same system is used to smash the turtles’ shells, allowing easy access to everything inside. Supposedly, the ancient Greek playright, Aeschylus, was killed when he was struck in the head by a fucking tortoise falling out of the sky in the year 456 B.C. According to the story, the tortoise was dropped by an “eagle” that apparently thought the shiny top of Aeschylus’s head was the perfect place to cleave the reptile in two. Given the known habit of tortoise tossing by lammergeier’s, it’s possible that this species was actually the “eagle.”

Or, alternatively, someone just made up all that shit.

If you sat down and tried to eat several handfuls of bone shards and marrow, assuming you wouldn’t choke on their descent through your puny, non-lammergeier-esophagus-of-steel, you would end up having a bad time. That would be a one-way ticket to a night in the Painsville emergency room. Human stomachs, and the stomachs of a great many other vertebrates, aren’t up to the task of digesting bone even remotely close to completely. However, the lammergeier has a second trick. Not up its sleeve, but deep in its stomach. The lammergeier has remarkably strong stomach acid. I’m talking xenomorph blood strong, and this highly-concentrated, acidic environment in the stomach much more quickly dissolves both bone and the marrow inside than anything you are I could muster from our own inadequate digestive chemistries. For some context, human stomach acid is a hydrochloric acid solution that hovers around pH 1.5. This is about the acidity of lemon juice, maybe a bit stronger. Lammergeier stomach acid has a pH of half that, meaning that the concentration of acid in the bird’s stomach is an order of magnitude higher, and approximates the corrosive nature of battery acid.
Basically, if a lammergeier were to projectile vomit all over you giant petrel-style, the stomach acid would take the finish off your face like you were a Nazi taking a peek at the Ark of the Covenant.

If you still aren’t convinced that the lammergeier is the most ludicrously hardcore bird to honor our planet in the modern era, get a load of how these animals go about making baby bone-destroyers. Lammergeiers relinquish their hold on their stately, solitary lifestyle cruising between cliffs, scanning their world for woefully unsmashed bones, for one thing only; to…well, bone, so to speak. And it is a sight to behold. Apparently, when two such supernaturally awesome creatures come into close contact with one another, the fabric of the universe that binds basic physics together breaks down. The meeting of complementary lammergeiers for the purpose of copulation is like breaking the speed of light….the consequences are breathtaking and a little terrifying.

The courtship display begins (presumably after deafening, introductory mating calls made up of nothing but brain liquefying guitar solos and thunderclaps) with the lammergeiers meeting in mid-air. This followed by a spiraling, acrobatic dance a thousand feet above the rocks below, full of free-fall plummets back down to earth, talons locked together, only to separate at the last possible moment and start over again. The performance, full of unfathomable g-forces, in-flight engaging and disengaging, resembles a season-ending, frenetic fight scene in Dragonball Z, not foreplay. Hills crumble. Storm clouds gather. Zeus himself watches from on high and weeps, in awe…and to be honest, a little bit of arousal.

Eventually, the deed is done, and another one or two kings or queens of the Ceiling of the World are hatched the coming months.

So, the lammergeier may not be a flame-spitting feathered serpent summoned directly out of a Tenacious D song, but it certainly looks the part. Lammergeier are, in actuality, not particularly aggressive (they don’t even really make noises, let alone battle with other organisms)…but only because they never need to be.They are the solemn, patient tail-end of the scavenging train in their ecosystem. They have no interest in the chaos of devouring viscera that their bare-headed cousins engage in. They are content to wait until the skeleton’s riches go unappreciated. Lammergeiers aren’t ‘angry birds’ in that sense, in the way of the skua and the giant petrel. But they hold a symbolic role in their world that I find significantly more chilling: Other scavengers, the crows, griffon vultures, jackals, maggots, beetles, hyenas, etc., remove everything but the framework of the animal, the scaffolding, the internal structure that the skeleton provides. Without the lammergeier, these would slowly be corroded by high-altitude wind and sun, bleaching and powderizing over hundreds of years, perhaps even fossilizing. The lammergeier steps in and acts as a force of nature, blazing through eons of environmental erosion within the caustic chamber of its own gullet. It is in this sense that the lammergeier fully breaks down the remains of the animal, even the last, hard leftovers, and actually forms, directly, the last link in the circle of life. The last link that returns the deceased animal’s carbon, nitrogen, and amino acids right back into the earth.

It is in this way, this inescapable finality that this bird provides, that the lammergeier is the most appropriate avatar to associate with Death.

Other scavengers clean up the mess. The lammergeier brings them Home.

Image credits:shoebill intro image,potoo,sea captain,giant petrel in snow, giant petrel eating seal, bloody giant petrel (Laurent Demongin), bloody giant petrel (face) (Laurent Demongin), skua in flight, skua face, skua and penguins, skuas and giant petrel, dinosaur showdown paleoart credit to: “Thunder Across the Delta”, Mark Hallett (1996), lammergeier, lammergeier in flight

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