Category Archives: Animals

Tetrodotoxin

Title

It kills in hours, and it does so by exploiting your own nervous system. By weight, it’s 10,000 times deadlier than cyanide.  It leaves you zombified and helpless yet conscious as you meet whatever deity you believe awaits you in the afterlife. This death, dear readers, is the result of consuming tetrodotoxin.

You may have heard of a Japanese dish called fugu. In Japanese, fugu refers to both pufferfish and the dish that is prepared using it. Pufferfish harbor the growth of symbiotic toxin-producing bacteria (remember mutualism?) in exchange for the extremely potent tetrodotoxin (called TTX), which acts as a defense against nearly all natural predators. Several important parts of the fish contain the toxin, including the eyes, ovaries, and liver of the fish. In Japan and throughout the world, Fugu is a culinary rite of passage of sorts, tempting risk-takers and novelty-seekers with the deliciousness of the dish and the intriguing oral numbness that comes along. The dish apparently also gets people high, which is pretty strange. Many also consider it one of the world’s tastiest fish. Sounds awesome, where can I pay money for some?

Fugu can also kill the shit out of you, which kinda sucks.

How? Stand back as I attempt to summarize how your nervous system works in a single paragraph using words any 5-year old could understand. Ahem.

Every single nervous system on the planet, from tiny fruit fly brains to our mondo-sized noggins, works exactly the same at the level of the cell. The workhorses of nervous tissues are cells called neurons that send one-directional signals, called action potentials, to other neurons. In a way, these cells talk to each other using electrical signals. Neurons become electrically excited on one end of the cell, but they have to transfer it to a completely different part of the cell in order to send the signal to the next neuron in the line. These signals move from one end to the other by opening ion channels, little gates in the cell membrane that allow tiny charged ions to move in or out of the cell. Sodium and potassium are the two most important ions in this process, so neurons have sodium channels and potassium channels that allow only those ions to pass through. Without these ion channels, the neuron cannot move ions and change its charge, making it impossible to talk to the next neuron in the circuit. Click here for a more visual explanation of how this works.

How does tetrodotoxin kill you to death? It simply clogs sodium channels. There’s a site on the sodium channel where tetrodotoxin sticks, and it sticks there freakishly strong. Because of that, tetrodotoxin hangs out and screws shit up for a really really long time. While similar toxins interact with sodium channels on the nanosecond scale (one billionth of a second), tetrodotoxin can stick to a single ion channel for f**king tens of seconds. THAT’S AT LEAST 100 MILLION TIMES AS LONG.

If I were tetrodotoxin, I’d be all over that sexy-looking voltage-gated sodium channel. Just look at dat TTX binding site. MMMMMMmmmm.

With no sodium passing through the channel, the neuron cannot generate an action potential. Not having neurons communicate can be pretty harmless sometimes, producing numbness or dizziness if the number of affected neurons is small. Plus, blocked channels don’t cause the neuron any harm, so it’s not like the toxin is killing nerve cells after it wears off. So what’s the deal, why is this toxin so fatal?

Well, the earth seems to have gotten pretty good at killing us. Most deaths today are due to conditions that attack two of our most important organs: the heart and lungs. In 2012, heart disease, stroke, COPD, lower respiratory infections, and lung cancers were the top 5 causes of death worldwide, totaling 21.9 million fatalities. This is not a small number. In fact, these five diseases alone are responsible for almost 2 of every 5 deaths.

If you were  trying to design a toxin that could kill large mammals like ourselves, you’d be right to target the heart, lungs, and anything necessary to make those work properly. You know how breathing requires you to move your diaphragm to suck in air and blow it out? Try it now, breathe without moving your diaphragm. If you think it’s impossible, you’d be right. If you aren’t moving your diaphragm and have not been for a long while, please call an ambulance. You have likely died.

Tetrodotoxin works so beautifully (for organisms that defend themselves with it, that is) because it shuts down our ability to control the muscles that move air into and out of our lungs. Without those, we suffocate to death, slowly and consciously. Nope. No, no way, no thank you, I’m out, screw that, better luck next time slugheads.

This is a particularly nasty death. Symptoms of toxicity begin with facial numbness, followed by facial paralysis. Then, gradually, the rest of the body goes numb, but not until after convulsions, loss of speech, respiratory and cardiac arrhythmia, and severe mental impairment occur. Then, fully-body paralysis results in either asphyxiation or cardiac arrest, during which patients are lucid or have only until recently lost consciousness.

How much toxin does it take to induce this? About 1/1500th of a teaspoon. Just one friggin milligram.

Fear tetrodotoxin. Fear it with every sodium channel you have.

For further reading:
http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/ttx/ttxv.htm
http://io9.com/5879406/how-the-puffer-fish-gets-you-high-zombifies-you-and-kills-you
Image credits:
http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01803/fish_1803259c.jppg
http://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/local/projects/quek/alfasub.jppg

Humanity’s Most Badass Adaptation II: Sucks to be small

Why Ant-man is the worst superhero ever.
What if we were much smaller? Well, there’s good and bad news. The good news is that we could adopt simpler body forms, but that’s about it. The bad news? Pfft.

First. we would probably be much dumber than we are. Zoom in closely on the brain of every animal and you’ll find neurons, cells that communicate to one another using electrical or chemical signals. Hundreds to thousands of these neurons form dense and complicated circuits with one another in the vertebrate brain. Such circuits form pathways that tend to perform specific functions in the body. For instance, there are specific regions of the brain designated for movement, for regulating sleep, for hunger, for balance, for typing “guns and missiles”, and for interpreting the sights, sounds, and smells from the world. Our bodies may be able to shrink in size and still function to some degree, but our neurons cannot only be miniaturized and still function with such complex synchrony and elegance. As we grow significantly smaller, we run out of room for neurons very rapidly.

“But Kevin, I’ve always heard that a big head doesn’t mean make you smarter”. Don’t you sass me. But you are right, anonymous naysayer. There is admittedly weak evidence that intelligence correlates with head volume, yes, but that’s among humans of relatively the same size [3]. For example, my fiancée is tiny and adorable, though she’s likely smarter than I am (Fiancée et al, 2014). However, when we’re talking about a difference in scale between us and a mouse, size matters. We have nearly half the number of neurons as the U.S. military has guns and missiles, something around 86 billion neurons [5]. Mice have around 10 million. Ants have around 200,000. To put this into perspective, if each neuron were a person, our brains would outnumber earth’s human population 12 times over. A mouse’s would be constrained to the size of North Carolina. An ant’s would be Laredo, Texas. It’s hard to grow intellectually when you’re Laredo, Texas.

I apologize to anyone from or living in the city limits of Laredo. I did not mean to say your city is dumb. However, it certainly looks that way. I’ve visited your website. It looks terrible.

Come to Laredo and visit our…moon.

Being the size of an insect would present a number of other challenges. The interactions we have with things in our environment (like the water we drink and the food we eat) conform to the laws of physics. As we shrink in scale, these interactions change. To an ant, water seems as viscous as maple syrup. Gravity takes a backseat to air turbulence. As Steven Jay Gould writes, “An ant-sized man might don some clothing, but surface adhesion would preclude its removal. The lower limit of drop size would make showering impossible; each drop would hit with the force of a large boulder. If our homunculus managed to get wet and tried to dry off with a towel, he would be stuck to it for life. He could pour no liquid, light no fire…” [2].

Could an ant-sized version of early man have developed civilization even if intelligence were not a factor? Probably not, at least not at the same rate or with the same level of success. I imagine cultivating agricultural crops, one of the supposed precursors for civilization, would have been near impossible, not to mention cross-breeding them for good yield. Our meat-based diet would be replaced with who knows what, but I suppose it would include plant material and any nearby organism that decides to die. For that matter, hunting would be folly; spears and bows would be completely ineffective because we probably couldn’t put enough force behind the blow. Guns and missiles wouldn’t exist. Our predators would vastly rise in number, distancing us from the top of the food web. We’d be stomped into submission by the elements, by other creatures, and by our own ineffectiveness. Switzerland would be near impossible to get to. So long, Mürren.

What about food? Shouldn’t food be more abundant since, you know, one kernel of corn could feed an entire village of people? That’s true, but there’s a much bigger caveat to this than you’d think. The world’s food is spatially patchy. I don’t just mean that bananas only grow in the tropics or that rice grows best in silty soil. I mean that, when you’re the size of an ant, getting a bug from the ground nearby is a marathon. Food sources are really f**king far apart, but plentiful once they’re found. Many animals that live upon such food sources adopt life strategies to cope with smorgasbord-style resources. Some insects that exploit huge but infrequent foods, including flies like the gall midge, have adaptations that allow them to exploit them quickly. Gall midges typically reproduce sexually, though it takes a long time for larvae to develop this way. When midges find a mushroom, a gold mine on their scale, females reproduce without a male through a process called parthenogenesis. These offspring are formed more quickly than doing things via the sexual route, though it comes at a cost to the mother. Instead of developing externally, the larvae grow inside the mother, eventually liquefying her insides and bursting from her lifeless husk [4]. However, immature as they may be, they are ready to start chomping away on some sweet sweet mushroom bits and rotting parts of their mommah. D’awww. Overall, the flies have more successful babies this way, thus the need for bursting out of their moms and such.

Will humans do that? I dunno. That sounds desperate. But food would likely be lacking for most humans on earth. Maybe we’d be as successful as ants and develop complex chemical signals to communicate the locations of food, bypassing any other weird adaptations like the ones midges have . Maybe we wouldn’t, and we’d fill just another tiny niche in the complex world which we inhabit.

So, I hope you now understand how important our size is for our survival. We are big and scary creatures, and that’s allowed us to hunt and kill and eat meats and make pizzas and build guns and missiles. But we’re not so large that joint damage, eating entire herds of cattle per day, and toppling over and breaking bones would be a daily norm. We’re also not so small either that we can’t take showers or cultivate food. So, here we stand, results of the goal-less, powerful, yet delicate hands of natural selection. Just right.

Nobody comments on my stuff. You should comment on my stuff. Get your friends to comment on my stuff. I will then comment. We can all comment. It will be a great world full of comments.

WE HAVE GUN AND MISSILE CONFERENCES!!! HUMANITY, BITCHES!!!

 

Literature Sources:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kleiber’s_law

[2] “Ever Since Darwin” by Steven Jay Gould, Norton & Co. 1977

[3] http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/brain-size2.htm

[4]http://www.sjgarchive.org/library/text/ontogeny/p0306.htm

[5] http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/neuro.09.031.2009/full#B24

Humanity’s most badass adaptation, pt I: Bigger is Better

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At some point, modern humans started believing that we are somehow special, that we are the center of creation and of the universe and that God loves us most. My point isn’t to argue against such divine egocentricity; we are indeed very special. Hell, no other species has made guns and missiles and stuff. And we are special even from a biological perspective. The reason we’ve done so well as a species is because we have adaptations that have allowed us to do so. So what are they?

We have many. Vertical skeletal structure, opposable thumbs, massive frontal cortexes, and unlimited salad and breadsticks are all commonly cited as being necessary for our species to thrive and dominate. These are all important morphologies. I believe, however, that there is one very overlooked adaptation in our evolution, one thing that, if it weren’t just right, would negate all of the benefits from these other lesser adaptations. So if it’s not our massive brain or our dexterous hands, what is it? Turns out it’s guns and missiles.

Guns and missiles have allowed humanity to reach far beyond our former niche. We now own the planet with such unchecked power that one person can say “I want to blow up that bit of the surface right there”, and his buddy thousands of miles away can instantly reply, “done!”. This adaptation has caused an evolutionary cascade of intermittent……………..ok, I can’t keep this up. I’m full of it. Our most important adaptation is actually our size.

I guarantee that human size was not the first adaptation that would have popped into your brain, but it is arguably the most important. Am I suggesting that all animals our size are evolutionarily successful? Of course not. Am I saying that tiny or huge people are somehow inferior biologically? Nope. However, if we were, on average, significantly larger or smaller, like ten times as large or small, the course of earth’s history probably would have played out very differently.

Much like the famous fairytale porridge, we benefit from being “just right”. Being the right size means there’s space for a brain that prioritizes and categorizes and tells the body to act judiciously. We stand vertically because we’re small enough not to battle gravity as ferociously as we would if we were the size of elephants. We can offer unlimited salad and breadsticks because we’re large enough to farm yet small enough to be incapable of eating the planet’s supply of breadsticks in one sitting. In this article of Badass Biology, I hope to convince you that our dominance stems from our ideal size. Had we been much larger or smaller, the evolution of our intelligence would have played out much differently, meaning no guns and missiles.

Bigger is better, unless you’re Godzilla
What does size have to do with anything? As animals grow larger in size, they tend to become more metabolically efficient. A cornerstone of evolutionary theory lies in Kleiber’s “3/4ths power rule”, stating that for every added unit of mass, metabolic rate only increases as a rate of mass^(3/4) [1]. While the value of the exponent and its real-world meaning is debated, one thing is clear: grow larger, and you’ll use less energy for your size, a comment you also hear regularly from your disappointed girlfriend.

Humans are damn gigantic; 99% of all animal species on earth are smaller than we are [2]. Does the power rule work to our advantage? Yep. Because math. The average human male (7700g) weighs roughly 457 times that of a typical field mouse (15g). Raise both to the ¾ power, divide one by the other, and you’ll find that the human has only about 100 times the metabolic demand of a field mouse despite the 457 fold increase in mass. I’d say that gives us a pretty big advantage in terms of having to spend less time and energy feeding, replacing tissues, respiring, etc. More time for guns!

ENDOTHERMS!! WOOOOO!!!

This sounds great, but if bigger is better, why isn’t every animal huge? Again, because math. Think back to high school geometry. Among the suppressed memories of sitting behind that brunette you thought was cute but wouldn’t pay attention to you unless you were captain of a team sport but that you later reconciled with because she ended up being a relatively heartless and shallow person despite her extreme self-professed piety, or that guy across the room you thought was an asshole to other people because he had a giant triangular face and douchey long blonde hair and a name not unlike “Brittney” until he confirmed his assholiness by being an asshole directly to you about something that absolutely did not matter at all, surely you must remember the formulas for surface area and volume. Basically, a shape that grows larger and keeps its form expands its volume in three dimensions (side x side x side), whereas surface area expands only into two (side x side). Big objects, like animals or guns or missiles, have relatively low surface area compared to their volume because volume mathematically outpaces surface area as objects grow bigger.

This is a really big deal. Think about every process that keeps you alive. Breathing, eating, sensing your environment, playing Civilization 5. All of these processes rely on tissues with some kind of exposure to the outside environment. Oxygen is absorbed as air rushes across alveoli in the lungs. Nutrients are absorbed through countless tiny folds of the small intestine. Tastants and odorants absorb through fluid media in the mouth or nose to trigger sensory receptors. Civilization 5 enters your brain through tiny refractive holes in the middle of your face. These are all parts of your surface area.

The point is this: if we were a lot bigger, like Godzilla-sized, we’d have a lot of trouble performing these same basic functions given our current body shape. This would suck for the most part. We’re already pretty specialized as is; a lot of animals don’t have folds in the lungs or intestines like we do because they’re small enough (thus having enough surface area for their volume) not to need them. But not absorbing things would be only one of our many worries if we were larger.

The earth’s gravity is not all that strong in a cosmic sense, but its impact on surface-dwelling body forms is huge. Let me put it simply: stuff caint grow too big because aint no way they caint get strong enough to stand up. Fighting gravity is hard unless you’re a gun or missile, especially when you’re giantic. Our skeletons would have to be quite different in order to support our huge stature. Bones would need to be thicker yet more pliable.To be Godzilla-sized would be risky, not only because of the inevitable bone weakness and joint decay, but because of imbalance and falling. Even at twice our current size, tripping over a gun or missile would cause a tumble with 16 to 32 times more kinetic energy than it would now.
This all sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Suppose that our bodies do adjust. We grow to Godzilla size, have super-efficient perforated lungs, guts that absorb enough to get by, and bones capable of supporting a small skyscraper that can walk and build guns and missiles.  Imagine the caloric demand a body like that would require. How many hamburgers would we need to eat in a day?

Godzilla is, at lowest estimates over his career, 164 feet tall, or about 50m. A quick foray into ideal body weight calculations yields that a 25-year old male this height should weigh around 8106.8 pounds, or 3676ish kg. Plug that into the ¾ power formula, and the daily metabolic demand of our gargantuan is around 84,000 calories per day. The power rule certainly works into this huge person’s favor, because I certainly was disappointed by how low that caloric count was. So what does 84,000 calories look like? Imagine 81 quarter pound hamburgers with white wheat buns, ketchup, and a tomato slice. And that’s only just breakfast; imagine eating that three times per day. BIG PEOPLE PROBLEMS. I’m sure I’ve made my point. The earth would strain to support life of that magnitude. Here’s the kicker: I didn’t even account for added bone mass and musculature necessary to become that tall. Let’s add another 100,000 hamburgers per meal to the calculation just to be safe.

The worst part of being tall would be this: it would be really hard to fit as many people onto airplanes. The airline industry wouldn’t see as much profit from airfares, thus flying would be a privilege only for the super-rich, limiting my ability to go to places like Switzerland. And I really want to go to Switzerland.

I am convinced that Mürren is one of the most beautiful places ever. I encourage my rich philanthropist readers to take note. Did I mention how starving I am?

 

Bat Echolocation

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Vision is awesomely complicated. A lot of animals, like the hawk, use vision to detect important environmental cues from vast distances. They use complex eyes and even more complex brains to locate prey, or figure out where the ground starts, or I dunno, check out lady hawks. Hearing is like vision’s less-popular but talented younger brother, the often-forgotten Luigi to evolution’s Mario. Hearing is amazing, yes, but our hearing kinda sucks. We’re not good at it, and so we discount its importance. Instead, we glorify vision as the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement, the ultimate sensory weapon against a hostile world. Yes, vision is awesome, and it is reliable, and it is useful for things like looking at steak. I f**king love steak. But other animals use hearing to see their steaks oh man that sounded really stupid so now it’s a run-on sentence now I don’t know how to end it oh no I’m embarrassed lol. The bat is one of the few animals that can accomplish this awkwardly-written steak hearing, and it does so using methods that absolutely amaze me.

It must not come to a shock to you that bats use echoes from their own calls to create a mental picture of the world around them. Bats hear with the precision of a rocket-tipped arrow, which sounds totally stupid because that implies the rocket should blow the arrow backwards and that’s not where the pointy end is, but this is not important. I will explain to you how they use variable auditory frequencies, interaural timing, Doppler shift, and badass brain parts to make a map of their world. In short, they use magic. Bottom line, bats are badass.

PARTS OF THE ECOCHOLOCATION PROCESS THAT ARE BALLS-OUT INSANE BECAUSE THEY GIVE BATS THE HEARING PRECISION OF A ROCKET-TIPPED ARROW.

1) The call
Did you also know that bats are really damn good at determining object size, velocity, shape, and even if it’s fluttering? I bet you didn’t, Mr. Fact Learner. You need to learn up all of your facts except that fact because you know for a fact that this fact is a fact, and that’s a fact.

Small bats usually emit two types of calls. First up are frequency-modulated (FM) sweeps, and bats use these to locate objects in the space around them. These calls are usually quick, and the pitch rapidly drops. This allows bats to emit a range of frequencies to the nearby area. The amount of time an FM sweep takes to return to the bat allows the bat to determine distance. Bats also use the time disparity between frequencies in the left and right ears to tell where objects are on the azimuth, or how left/right they are relative to the head.  The pointy shape of their ear also allows bats to use FM pulses to gauge the elevation of objects.

We got three properties down in one paragraph: azimuth, elevation, and distance. Isn’t that enough? Hells nah. They use some of them AT THE SAME TIME. For instance, bats can tell the size of an object by determining how loud the echo is. They can then use all of this information to tell the difference between something like a bird that’s far away and a moth that’s up close. FM calls are sweet.

The second type of call allows bats to tell how fast an object is moving. Constant-frequency (CF) pulses are typically longer, though the pitch does not drop. This allows, and yes I’m serious, bats to determine slight deviations in pitch due to the Doppler effect; a CF echo from an approaching object is slightly higher in pitch. This raises a good question: How can a bat do this if it’s flying toward an object? Wouldn’t the act of approaching an object make the CF pitch higher simply because the bat is moving towards it?

This next experiment sounds kind of insane, but I promise it really happened.

Scientists strapped a bat to a swing, pointed the swing at a wall, hooked up some microphones, and let loose. Sure enough, a bat swinging at a wall lowers the pitch of its emitted call. So, bats can compensate for their own movement through space by dropping the pitch of their call, making the pitch of the echo ALREADY ACCOUNT FOR DOPPLER SHIFT BY THE TIME IT GETS BACK TO THE BAT. Totally. Friggin. Badass.

2) The ear and auditory pathway
“Auditory pathway? Ughsheesh. That sounds boring. I don’t want to read about that.” said nobody awesome ever.

Our inner ears are pretty complicated. Without getting stained with details, sound transduction works basically like this:

1) Sounds, which are essentially air pressure waves, vibrate tiny bones in the middle ear that then convert those vibrations into pressure for the inner ear.

2) The basilar membrane, a bendy flap of tissue in the cochlea that looks like an industrial-strength file, vibrates in different spots based on the frequency of these vibrations.

3) The bending basilar membrane causes tiny hair cells adjacent to the cochlea to bend. These hair cells are connected to neurons that can detect when these hair cells bend.

What did we learn here? Basically, pitch matters. Low pitches vibrate different hair cells than high ones. Bats are crazy though. Really crazy. I once saw one bite the head off a human.

Bat basilar membranes, the part of the ear that transduces sounds into nerve impulses, are wider on the part of the cochlea where they detect the frequencies of their echoes. This helps for a number of reasons: 1) It increases the volume of noise in this frequency range, 2) It allows bats to become more sensitive to their own echoes, and 3) it helps reduce sensitivity to their own calls, reducing the odds of confusing those calls (or other sounds) with echoes. It’s also pretty cool to point out that bats contract muscles in their ears when they screech, dampening the sound of their calls further. All in all, bats are pretty much deaf to their own calls but highly sensitive to their echoes. Also, different bats are sensitive to different frequencies, limiting the odds of cross-talk between species.

Alright, this is about to get nuts. I recommend not reading this if you’ve just had a heavy meal, because you may be so amazed that you’ll spew half-digested mush all over your keyboard.

3) The brain
I’m so excited to tell you about bat brains that I’m literally going to get some Oreos. It turns out I was actually excited about the Oreos all along.

The auditory cortex is the part of the brain where auditory information is processed. You and I both have auditory cortexes. This is where information from the ears is organized and sent to other parts of the brain to aid in functions like cerebral processing, speech, and motor function. It’s also the part of the brain that allows us to differentiate between a high E flat played by a piano and a high E flat played by a chainsaw.

Bats have auditory cortexes too. Theirs do many of the same things as ours. But there’s got to be a reason I’ve decided to spend an entire section on their brains. Trust me, there is.

Remember how the cochlea can organize sounds by frequency? We tend to keep nerve impulses of similar frequencies bundled together as we send sound information from our ears to the auditory cortex through various brain structures. So, different parts of the auditory cortex become active when we hear different pitches, giving us somewhat of a tonal map of our sounds. Bats do this too, as do many animals.  Here’s the difference: bat brains are capable of producing an ACTUAL map based on sounds.

The bat auditory cortex has two pretty badass regions. One is the FM-FM region. Remember FM pulses? Those are the calls bats use to determine where things are in the space around them. This function is done here. Neurons in the FM-FM area respond to the amount of time in the delay of a call and the harmonics of the call’s echo? What is a harmonic? Click here to find out.

Think of the FM-FM area of the auditory cortex like a 2-D map. Each harmonic excites different horizontal sections from top to bottom, while the left-right axis responds to different delays. So, if the bat detects an echo from the 2nd harmonic after 8ms, neurons in a specific area of the FM-FM area will start firing. Enough of these allow a bat to tell how the large size and distance of the object is.

Bats auditory cortexes can also produce a mental map of sounds based on their velocity. Recall that bats use CF-CF calls to detect  the Doppler Shift of sounds and tell whether they’re moving. They process this information in the CF-CF area of the auditory cortex. Like the FM-FM area, certain cells become active when sound properties are just right. Bands of cells respond to certain CF frequencies, and other bands respond to the velocity, or Doppler shift, of the sounds encoded. What bats end up with is a map of awesome.

So what’s the point? Oreos can get me really excited. And to be specific, I’m talking about the golden ones. For some reason the regular Oreos get stuck in my teeth and I can never seem to get them out. Not that regular Oreos aren’t good, I’m just a little bit more partial to the ones that don’t annoy me. And bat brains, those are cool too. I wonder how they make the crème on the inside of the cookie. DO they keep it in big vats? I wonder how much would I have to bribe a guard to swim in that vat for 20 minutes.

Could you imagine if I ended the article that way? Hahahahaha. I am so funny. But seriously, I am actually going to end the article this way. You don’t get a summary of what I said earlier.

Comic

Want to suggest a topic for Badass Biology? Want to tell me how awesome a person you think I am? Interested in funding me? I didn’t think so. Anyway, leave a comment below and I might talk to you about stuff.

A big shout-out to “Behavioral Neurobiology” by Thomas Carew for much of the information and figures used in this article. Dr. Carew, if you’re reading this, you seem like a cool guy. Email me and we will go grab a beer and some Oreos.

Pistol Shrimp

“Wtf, shrimp!!? I make it all the way to this website from who knows what part of the internet, and I see ‘Badass Biology’. Man, Kevin, you flip my brain out with possibilities of flying sharks, rabbits of doom, or a half-honeybee half-unicorn rainbow pollinators. And what do you deliver? A stupid shrimp??! I hate you, and I quit this website. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻)” To which I reply, “Charles Barkley, I think you’re over-reacting. Please repair my table at once”.

Yes, it’s a shrimp. A measly two-inch-long shrimp. But you don’t understand. This one single stupid shrimp is just about the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. Trust me, and when you hear one too, you’ll probably go deaf, because this one little shrimp IS ONE OF THE LOUDEST ORGANISMS ON THE PLANET. I’m talking 220+ decibels, much louder than a gunshot and louder than standing next to a jet engine at take-off. O_o.

First, I want to talk about some other wicked cool stuff this little guy does apart from being a tiny walking firework of sonic pain. These shrimp garner lots of attention from ecologists because of their symbiotic, or mutually-beneficial, relationship with gobies, a type of small marine fish. The coral reef populations of this shrimp build burrows and recruit the help of a goby to stand guard out front while being no more than an antennae’s distance from the shrimp, using the goby’s well-developed vision to watch for danger. Once danger comes, the goby flicks its tail to signal a threat, and both the goby and the shrimp retreat into the same burrow. Then they start slapping five. It’s flippin sweet.

From an ecologist’s point of view, this is totally mutualistic, and some scientific literature lists this interaction as “totally f-ing amazing” [citation needed] (Good luck with finding THAT reference -ed.). Yeah, both the goby and the shrimp live to see another day should a shark, barracuda, squid, rogue buoy, really fast snail, very-misplaced land predator, sinking boat part, cloud of wasps, or sentient shrimp-hating spear come around to threaten them. The goby gets a burrow, and the pistol shrimp gets a gargoyle. Selection at work.

I like to think of the goby as the pistol shrimp’s pet, kinda like me buying a falcon and parading it around the neighborhood on a leash. And once danger comes, the falcon goes “Hey yo, Kevo, you might need to reconsider this route”, we split, we don’t find danger, and I buy the falcon ribs for a job well done (and because I really want ribs right now). So in a sense, pistol shrimp are danger shepherds equipped with sun-blasting cannons of glory that we’ll get to in a moment.

I need to take a break to collect myself. Holy balls, these shrimp own everything own-able. Next time I see one, I’m buying it ribs. The whole rack.

Let’s get to that “pistol” thing, why don’t we? Pistol shrimp have one very distinct set of front appendages, like two arms extending outwards from its body. Only, one of these arms is disproportionately larger than the other, and it’s quite a contrast. Like no foolin’ man, this one arm alone can be as long as half the entire length of the shrimp’s body. Imagine walking around with one of your arms the size of the Hulk’s and you get the idea. This may look pretty stupid, but this powerful musculature operates one of the most badass weapons nature can offer.

Yeah, kinda like this

When in serious danger or when hunting, the pistol shrimp cocks its massive claw backwards into a 90oposition. Once the claw snaps shut, it produces a jet of water propelled forward at 60mph. Yeah, woo, a fast water jet. Big deal. But here’s the amazing part. Are you ready to have your mind blown? If you have ever listened to me before, now is a pretty good time, too: This jet of water creates a bubble that cavitates, or implodes, generating a pressure wave that creates a sound loud enough to break glass in an instant. Not only that, but once the bubble cavitates, the heat generated by the force of the implosion causes the temperaturesinside the bubble to reach about 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes. Eighteen. Thousand. Oh, and to top it off, the whole process takes three tenths of a second.

THIS TINY SHRIMP MAKES A BUBBLE SO AWESOME THAT IT’S LOUDER THAN A JET AND MORE THAN TWICE AS HOT AS THE SURFACE OF THE SUN.

 

You can imagine the horribly bubbly doom the pistol shrimp’s enemies must face. Stunned (or killed) by the force of that kind of pressure change, the pistol shrimp’s prey has basically just become lunch in an instant. The shrimp pulls its quarry into its burrow, and goes to town, just how I could go to town on some ribs right about now. I dug up a video about this whole process in case what I said wasn’t convincing enough:

If you want me to write about any other badass biological bosses, leave a comment. I may talk about them, or I may just tell you that your suggestions are awful. Probably not the latter though. I like people.

Well, I like most people except you, Charles Barkley. I really miss that table. Now I’ve got nothing to rest my wine on when Glee’s on.