Living in America: Part 2, Boneless Locals

This entry is Part 2 in a three-part series on organisms found in the United States in celebration of the country’s 240th birthday. Part 1, which featured some of the U.S.’s less widely-familiar vertebrate inhabitants, can be found here. This entry will go over some of the invertebrate fauna (bugs, slugs, and the like) that call the U.S. home.

There is plenty of biodiversity to celebrate in the U.S.A. that doesn’t come with an internal skeleton. Vertebrates, a single subsection of a single phylum (Chordata), represent a infinitesimal sliver of total animal diversity. How tiny? Really damn tiny. Like less than 3% of all animal species tiny. The vast majority of animal species in the U.S.A. and elsewhere are of the creepy-crawly, backbone-bereft, squiggly-wiggly variety, yet they are collectively ignored as much as anything David Faustino did after Married with Children. A bizarre and attractive example of this American mini-fauna is the eastern ox beetle (Dynastes tityus) (photo above), a type of rhinoceros beetle (Dynastinae) endemic to the eastern U.S., from Texas north to New York. Males, like the one above, have intimidating horns that they use in dominance bouts with other burly dude beetles…like tiny, six-legged bull elk…all in the aim of landing access to a mate. A close relative of this species, the Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules), found in Central and South America, is among the largest beetles (and insects) in the world, with some males reaching the size of a Big Mac, starting off their lives as grubs that look like an albino bratwurst from Hell.

Now that we here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. have just finished the star-spangled clusterfuck that is our quadrennial duo of major political party conventions (and the 2016 Summer Olympics have started up) it seems like as good a time as any to continue to the next part of this Ameri-centric post series. I will also refrain from making any tired “spineless invertebrates” jokes in regards to politicians, tempting as it may be. Take a gander below at a selection of the underappreciated boneless beasties that make their home in the States.

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Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence.

One of the more intriguing (at least to me), and beautiful quirks about the evolution of life on this planet is the repeated development of bioluminescence across many different lineages. Bioluminescence is simply the ability of a living organism to produce light. If it’s alive and luminescing, boom, you’ve got an example of a complex chemical cascade that allows sacks of meat not so different from ourselves to light up like a goddamned Christmas tree. Essentially, what is happening with bioluminescence is a highly controlled chemical reaction that releases energy in the form of light emission. This can be done by the beastie itself, or by a symbiotic microorganism that has been acquired by a larger creature. It occurs in multiple kingdoms of life, in terrestrial and marine environments. If I so desired, I could ruminate tearfully on how all of Earth’s life is chemically derived from components forged in a star in a Saganesque exposition of cosmic perspective…and how in some small way, bioluminescence is the means by which stardust can light the darkness of the universe once again. But, heavy-hearted sighs and poetic attribution of consciousness to a mechanically elegant and indifferent universe are for another day, and if done in all seriousness, for another person.

The thing about bioluminescence is that often our understanding of it is limited to a few well-known examples, and without any sort of context, biological or otherwise, other than ‘that is pretty; I like it.’ And while yes, indeed, fireflies and deep-sea fish do have a magical and/or alien quality to them, there is a whole world of bioluminescing organisms that go unloved and underappreciated and denied all the badass reasons for and applications of their abilities. Bioluminescence has evolved many times, and therefore, each example tends to have its own unique story.

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