Tag Archives: humor

Cone Snails: The reason why I won’t be sleeping tonight

TitleSometimes, when I’m camping, I dream about angry bears ripping through my tent and attacking me for that forgotten bit of food I left in my pack. A perfectly logical nightmare, all things considered, but far from my worst. In that one, I was SCUBA diving with my cat when she encountered a 6-inch long cone snail. In a sudden flash of activity, one of my best buds was murdered in a rush of sadness and a chorus of bubbly muffled screaming.

I must have been about 12 years old at the time I had the nightmare, and it keep recurring. These nightmares started the same night that I first learned about cone snails and their cat-murderingly lethal toxins from a Disvocery Channel documentary. Not once have I had a nightmare about a Badass Biology topic, let alone one that still rips at the psychological wounds 13 years later.

What about cone snails makes them so horrible? So memorable? Get comfortable, I have a lot to write.

The 6 reasons why cone snails deserve to invade my nightmares:

1) I’m convinced cone snails are heralds to the war of the end times.

Cone snails look pretty innocent. In fact, many of them, like the textile cone pictured below, have intricate colors and gorgeous patterns that would make them desirable for any unsuspecting shell-lover to snatch in an instant. Just look at this little guy here:

Textile cone. I’d would seriously be inclide to play with this shell if I saw it, then I’d remember this article and swim away in a panic. I’d likely also wet myself in fear. Image source: Wikimedia

How cute, right? I think so. I’d hold him. However, what I wouldn’t expect is for that fleeting joy to be one of the last thoughts my brain could process before I’d rapidly be dead.

Unlike the garden variety of snail, cone snails are carnivorous marine snails. They’re common in Indo-Pacific waters, though they also inhabit the temperate waters around California, the Mediterranean, and South Africa among other habitats. The smaller varieties eat benthic invertebrates, though the larger ones must be quick and deadly to capture the small fish they feed upon. This selection pressure created one of the most badass weapons in the natural world.

To catch their quick prey, cone snails possess a small harpoon-shaped structure within the snail’s radula, a feeding structure that other snails use to scrape food from surfaces. In cone snails, the harpoon carries a toxic cocktail of sometimes hundreds of lethal compounds, all stored in a venom sac that supplies the harpoon with enough venom to apply to their next murder victim. This harpoon is used blindingly quickly, leaving little chance for their prey to escape. Then, after that, the cone snails engulf them whole with a mouth so horrifying that I cannot find the guts to post a picture here, thereby I suggest you just Google it.

HarpoonPic

Pictured above is the anatomy of the venom sac and a microscopic view of the toxin-tipped harpoon. Image source: theconesnail.com

2) Take a moment today to call your mother and let you know you love her.

Cone snails produce more toxins than any genus of organisms discovered by science. In fact, there are so many that an entire database has been developed to catalogue and characterize conotoxins, the potent toxic compounds present in cone snail venom. This database, called ConoServer, presently has 8482 chemical entries from no more than 215 species within the cone snail genus, a staggering number for a single organismal group.

But what are these toxic chemical compounds? Most are peptides, short strings of amino acids chained together with a special carbon-nitrogen bond. If these chains were considerably longer, portions of the string would begin interacting with other parts and fold itself into a protein, a type of molecule I’m sure you’ve heard of. Peptides, though shorter, are still useful molecules to manufacture, forming the surfactants that keep mammalian lung tissue from sticking to itself, adding nutritional value to milk, and in the case of our nightmarish cone snails, killing stuff really really quickly.

Conotoxin peptides are mostly used defensively. Most human stings are caused by a wayward foot delivered to a cone snail hiding in the sediment. However, roughly 10% or so of classified cone snail toxins have been found to be used in foraging and hunting, paralyzing their prey.

3) I am now hoarding Morton’s salt under my pillow in case one tries to break into my home.

All of the 600-700 species of cone snails are capable to stinging and injecting their toxins into humans. Not only are there a multitude of lethal toxins in a cone snail’s sting, but their lethality is nearly unparalleled. A useful way to measure how lethal a toxin can be is to measure what’s called a LD50, or the dosage expressed in mass/kg of body weight at which 50% of a population of test animals (usually rats) are killed. Arsenic, a well-known toxic substance, has an LD50 of around 15mg/kg, meaning it would take about half a teaspoon of crystallized arsenic compounds to kill a male human weighing 83.6kg, or around 181 lbs. The LD50 for some conotoxins can be as low as 0.005mg/kg, meaning you could very well be killed by conotoxin at a volume little larger than 10 medium grains of sand.

How do these toxins kill at such small dosages? If you’re an avid reader of mine, you may remember textrodotoxin, a neurotoxin in blowfish that kills by interfering with ion channels in neurons. Ion channels allow neurons to fire, and conotoxins bind to these channels with startling specificity, prohibiting their ability to function. Conotoxins kill humans in much the same way, and like tetrodotoxin, most human deaths from conotoxins are related to the asphyxia caused by the diaphragm being unable to contract. There is no anti-venom, and in some species like the geography cone, a sting is 70% fatal.

4) I strongly suggest we flee for the mountaintops.

Diabetic or not, you’ve heard of insulin. Insulin too is a peptide, and in humans it acts a hormone to help mediate the amount of glucose present in the bloodstream. Cone snails have now added another use for insulin in the natural world.

In January of this year, researchers published a study characterizing two species of cone snails that possess the first and only recorded case of weaponized insulin in the history of the planet.

That’s right. Weaponized insulin. Used as a predatory tactic, cone snails release insulin into the surrounding water when prey are nearby. It then passes through the gills of prey fish, enters the bloodstream, and drops the blood sugar enough to prevent the fish from having enough energy to flee the encounter,  all in a matter of seconds.

5) Oh dear God, there’s more?!

Conotoxins are so potent that there are serious efforts dedicated to determine whether they can be weaponized and used on mass numbers of victims by terrorists groups. In a paper published in the Journal of Bioterrorism and Biodefense, scientists outline the probability of a terrorist attack in the form of aerosolized conotoxins or contamination of food or water. Their verdict is surprisingly reassuring, citing the difficulty to extract most conotoxins from living animals and the difficulties synthesizing conotoxins in a usable and deliverable form. However, not all varieties of conotoxins face these same issues, and the risk of three broad biochemical classifications of conotoxins are candidates for bioterrorism should those few key technical hurdles be overcome.

THIS IS WHY I KEEP HAVING THESE NIGHTMARES. GAAAAAHHH, DON’T SWALLOW MY CAT!!! Source: AquariumAdvice.com and my darkest nightmares

6) Oh hey, a fact that’s not actually all that terrible.

Remember when I mentioned ConoServer, the online database that combines efforts of dozens of biochemists seeking to catalogue the vast variety of Conotoxins? Why spend the time to catalogue them if terrorists could simply learn to replicate these peptides in vitro?

Many of today’s most common and effective pain-killers carry powerful negative consequences. For example, the narcotic pain medications like the opioids hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine, oxycodone (Percoset), and codeine are highly addictive and can leave patients with withdrawal symptoms after their course is complete. The hunt is on for a powerful non-habit forming pain killers with few side effects that can be cheap, easy to deliver, and easy to scale up.

Conotoxins may provide the solution. Much like snake venom, most research efforts on conotoxins are geared toward repurposing the toxins to serve as pain killers. Perhaps a single toxin or a cocktail of a few or several toxins could serve as potent yet non-costly painkillers, and collaborative research efforts like ConoServer could rapidly speed progress towards a revolution in patient care and pain management.

One promising conotoxin pain drug is ziconitide, a synthetic drug identical to a toxin produced by the cone snail Conus magus. Ziconitide has been FDA-approved for treating intractable pain and has shown some promise in its effectiveness. However, the drug degrades rapidly and cannot be delivered orally. Instead, ziconitide must be injected directly to the spinal cord via a surgically-implanted pump. Not terribly convenient if you ask me, but it seems to be a good start nonetheless.

Progress is being made to develop oral conotoxins-derived pain medications. In 2014, Dr. David Craik from the University of Queensland presented new evidence at the 2014 meeting of the American Chemical Society. Craik and colleagues looped peptide chains, amplifying their stability over the long-term while preserving their potency as analgesics. The prototype drug was given orally to test animals and showed nearly a 100-fold increase in effectiveness in comparison to the common painkillers morphine and gabapentin.

Overall, I find it pretty badass that such an effective killer lurks in the oceans. It delivers death in seconds to its prey and in minutes to a fully-grown human, and with no anti-venom, its effects are second to none. Hell, these guys even weaponized insulin. On top of that, they may gift humanity with a revolution in pain management. That’s pretty badass.

Want to suggest a future topic? Write it down in the comments below. Do it. Do it do it do it doitdoitdoitdotidoit.

For further reading:

http://www.conoserver.org/?page=about_conotoxins&bpage=keyrefs (list of current review papers on conotoxins as pain killers and the difficulties faced with their use)

http://www.theconesnail.com/ (lab website of the Olivera lab group at the University of Utah)

Don Cowlione: How Cowbirds Run A Songbird Mafia

Title

If I were to imprint on you one main point stringing together every article I’ve ever written for Badass Biology, I hope it would be this: nature has produced no shortage of jerks. I say “jerk” like it’s a bad thing, but take the time to think about the word and you’ll realize “jerk” becomes a bit endearing when we’re talking about nature.

First, let’s review what it means to be called a “jerk” species. First, a jerk has to be abundant enough to merit some sort of attention or recognition, but not more abundant than non-jerks, otherwise the jerk strategy would be much less effective. This population size balance is very delicate, but jerks seem to manage it well.  Second, being a jerk means going against some established natural norm. Usually, jerks exploit some mutually beneficial arrangement between individuals, leaving another party to carry their weight for them. It’s a pretty clever strategy if I say so myself. Third, present a jerk with an opportunity and it’s likely to get snagged. Another admirable trait in favor of biological jerks

Back to the point, Planet Earth has lots of jerks. Consider the bluestreak cleaner wrasse. On Southeast Asian reefs, cleaner wrasse set up cleaning stations where they pick off the tiny parasites that live in the skin of larger fish. This arrangement seems to work for everyone (except the parasites, unfortunately); the wrasse get dinner while the larger fish get a good skin treatment. Some jerk wrasses, let’s call them “wrasseholes”, like to instead bite big chunks out of the mucus membranes on these fish instead, turning this mutualistic interaction into a parasitic one.

To be honest, it’s not that I find this interaction all that neat. The main reason I bring this up is to mention that it DID spawn an article in Discover Magazine with a really clever name: Cheater Cheater Mucus Eater.

Sure, jerks are great and all. My favorite? This little guy:

Awwwwww. SO PRETTYYYYYYY.

Adorable, right? What about now?

The Birdfather

Why yes, I AM proud of this joke.

Make no mistake. This stone cold killa is ruthless, even enough so that I’d put the word “killa” in an article that I’m reasonably sure a future employer will read.

So what about this little bird makes it so much of a wrassehole? To start, an introduction. This is the brown-headed cowbird, a member of the family Icteridae, which consequently means nothing at all to me but sounds pretty badass all the same. What distinguishes cowbirds is that they are notorious brood parasites. They find nests belonging to other aviary families, mostly songbirds but varying from hummingbirds to birds of prey, lay their eggs next to theirs, and let those other poor bird parents feed, raise, protect, bathe, clothe, and attend PTA meetings of cowbird babies. As of 1999, approximately 140 species of birds have been documented raising cowbird young.

Here’s what’s odd about this. I’m sure you’ve guessed that cowbirds are able to get away with this sneaky business because their eggs and young look an awful lot like the birds they’re parasitizing. They don’t. More often than not, cowbird eggs are either much larger than the eggs of their host AND a different color and pattern. Moreover, cowbird chicks are gigantic when they hatch, making little songbird chicks look tiny by comparison.

One of these eggs is a parasitic cowbird’s. Can you guess which one? Did you guess the one on the bottom left? You did!? Very good!

You may be asking yourself, “why do these other birds raise babies that aren’t their own?” Right now, I’m asking myself, “have I smelled like this all day?”, but that’s really of no consequence to anyone (except my wife, I guess).

Oddly, one theory explaining why the hosts hadn’t murdered these little guys is, and I’m serious, that the host birds don’t have the cognitive ability to recognize that these chicks are different from the others. It seems odd to me that the same birds can relocate their nests among thousands of other similar-looking forest objects with near-identical colors and patterns would not be able to recognize that one of their babies is a freakish monster.

Meanwhile, I only learned today that I live 5 minutes from a major interstate highway, but I’m confident that there’s no gigantic monster baby living in my house. One of our cats is pretty large, sure, but I’m not convinced I’m her father or anything.

No, the real reason host don’t viciously murder cowbird young is pretty sinister. In 2007, two researchers from the University of Florida set up a field experiment where they manipulated cowbird presence in predator-free nests of host birds. In “ejector” nests, the researchers removed cowbird eggs from host nests, mimicking a host that rejected a cowbird egg,  whereas “acceptor” nests saw through the raising of a strange foreign cowbird hatchling. In all, 56% of ejector nests saw some the destruction of host bird eggs, but only 6% of acceptor nests were ruined. What happened?

Cowbirds happened. Females, actually. These jerks monitored the nests of their hosts, checking in on the progress of their young from time to time. If cowbirds found that their babies weren’t receiving the star treatment (or weren’t in the nest at all), the cowbirds would lay ruin to the eggs of the host bird. Essentially, these birds were exhibiting mafia behavior, laying down some pretty severe consequences if the host rejects the parasite.

What’s equally sinister is the explanation for destruction in the 6% of acceptor nests. Why kill the young of a nest that’s satisfactorily caring for your own young? Simple: murder creates room in the nest for more cowbirds.

In summation, I quite admire cowbirds. In a group of organisms whose ability to distinguish which egg is their own is questionable, these ladies are clever. It’s pretty rare to see such a sophisticated racket exist in animals with brains the size of beans. Think about the cognitive power cowbirds need to keep track of which nests are parasitized, then decide on whether to murder or not murder depending on what they see. I gotta say I’m impressed.

So, like a Don collecting tribute from his corner of Little Italy, cowbirds command respect. They’re clever, manipulative, aggressive, greedy, and all of it is so sinisterly bundled in a package that I’d rather enjoy petting.  Plus, it’s nice to know that some species out there gives others an offer they can’t refuse.

How palindromes allowed males to exist

Title

If I were asked to give my two most valuable pieces of advice, they would be these: First, appreciate the near impossibility that you are alive. The atoms that make you have been through some shit; they’ve swirled as stardust, formed a hot molten planet (or crashed into one from elsewhere), boiled, compressed, and decayed to a point where they were incorporated into who-knows-what part of a who-knows-what number of a who-knows-what kind of strange prehistoric organism before they now make you, sitting comfortably at your computer marveling at my repeated usage of “who-knows-what”s. The other piece of advice? Never try to drink a beer without using your hands.

Without getting abundantly philosophical, you by all means shouldn’t exist. I ask that you, at least once daily, come to terms with this fact. Appreciate also that you can come to terms with anything at all, you big-brained multi-talented sculpture of evolution. Appreciate that other humans exist that can love you and carry out services to make you more comfortable. Appreciate pizza, because how did the universe create something so perfect?

Oh, and if you’re male, go ahead and appreciate that you exist. You theoretically should not.

In evolutionary terms, males are dispensable. The adaptive value of males is that they can mix up genes to create new combinations of traits on the off-chance that some of them can help prevent an untimely death, aid in making little ones, or allow one to be more comfortable overall. Males are gene donors. That’s basically it. Yeah, some males aid in parental care or perform tasks to aid group survival, but male uselessness is a common evolutionary motif. Male anglerfish are prime examples.

Gender in humans (along with a lot of other species) is determined by the identities of a pair of sex chromosomes contained in every cell. Both males and females possess one X chromosome, a large and gene-packed chromosome chock full of genetic goodies. Females have a pair of X chromosomes, one from the mother and one from the father. Males, however, have only one X chromosome, donated by the mother, and a shrimpy and scrawny Y chromosome donated from the father. X chromosomes contain some 2000 known genes, Y contains only 78. Bummer.

There’s a good reason why the Y chromosome is so scrawny: DNA damage is pretty common. Being so long and fragile, DNA can become knotted, coiled, unwrapped, kinked, looped, mutated, irradiated, copied wrong, fixed wrong, proofread wrong, chopped, sliced, chunked, choked, broken, inverted, doubled, misread, and misunderstood. Each of your cells possesses a SWAT team of enzymes that try to prevent these things from happening, but they’re not without error. Mistakes happen. So, because our cells possess 2 copies of each chromosome, when one becomes overly mangled, these enzymes can use the other as a template of instructions to repair the damage.

X chromosomes do this beautifully. These, in short, scan each X chromosome and check for inconsistencies, using one or the other to clear up any mismatches in DNA code. Two similar chromosomal regions can also “cross over”, exchanging segments of DNA that encode for roughly the same type of protein. Most of the time, crossing over is beneficial because it throws some genetic variety into the mix.

Crossing over is like holding hands, only after you’re done, your hands trade bodies. Good old nightmare fuel.

X and Y were once paired just as healthily as two X chromosomes are today: both were large, bountiful chromosomes that crossed over frequently and used each other as repair templates. About 300 million years ago, as reptiles and mammals diverged, a mutation caused the Y chromosome to take on more “manly” attributes, including the development of testes, sperm, different hormone production, etc. X and Y were now very different chromosomes. Crossing over ceased between them. Cellular machinery stopped using one to proofread the other. They became distinct and wary of the other. The X chromosome still had a healthy pair in females and could easily use one to keep the other functional, preserving the integrity of the chromosome.

Unfortunately, Y became a genetic desert island, left all by its lonesome with nothing to use as a spell checker in case things went very wrong with its code.

By this logic, many scientists think the Y chromosome should have been obliterated. With more and more DNA mutations accumulating, more and more of the chromosome was snipped away and discarded. To make matters worse, portions of the chromosome inverted themselves. Areas swapped information, mixing things up further. The Y chromosome was rapidly becoming giant mess. Eventually, removing all these errors caused Y to become tiny, almost biting the dust altogether and doing away with males entirely! But it’s still kicking even after 300 million years. With no partner to help proofread its DNA, how did the Y chromosome survive?

DNA and language share many things in common. Almost too many. One of them is that segments of information, called palindromes, can be read from left to right or right to left and read the same way: God, a red nugget, a fat egg under a dog! DNA contains palindromes too, and they can be long, sometimes hundreds of bases in length. The problem with DNA palindromes is that they are a liability; because bases like to chemically pair up with their counterparts, segments of independent DNA can stick together to form looped hairpins, derailing the important cellular machinery necessary for replicating, proofreading, and transcribing DNA into proteins.

Palindromes on two strands of DNA can join to form hairpin regions. These are bad. Imagine a train barreling down track shaped this way and you get the picture.

The Y chromosome in particular is full of palindromes. Normally, high palindrome density is a chromosomal death sentence. However, in the case of the Y chromosome, palindromes were a blessing. Because the Y chromosome had so much repeat information and no paired chromosome to proofread it, Y could use different segments of ITSELF to validate that the information on another segment was correct. Y chromosome palindromes kink together and use one strand to proofread the other, turning large segments of the chromosome into genetic hairpins. Because both are palindromes, one segment should read exactly the same as its folded-over counterpart. So, in a sense, the Y chromosome uses what’s normally a huge flaw as its primary means of keeping information correct.

As an added bonus, this method of palindrome proofreading can create new varieties in the DNA code akin to crossing over in X chromosomes. When one strand is damaged, the enzymes responsible for repairing it can’t distinguish the damaged strand from the undamaged one. All it can do is discriminate one from the other. Therefore, it has to guess which of the two sides needs fixing. Often, this can cause the undamaged segments of DNA to take on the information of the damaged counterpart, creating new combinations of DNA code to form. While this could possibly ruin the genetic meaning of the original, it also presents an opportunity for new traits to become expressed on the ever-changing Y chromosome.

Self-repairing Y chromosome palindromes at work. This is something I’ll surely bring up at the table come Thanksgiving.

I cannot over-emphasize how important palindromes are to the sustainability of the Y chromosome. Without this ingenious little method, human history would have played out very differently. So, while palindromes can be a fun way to parody a Bob Dylan tune, be thankful that they also keep you healthy and keep your identity in check. Add that to your list of things to appreciate.

A special thanks to Sam Kean, whose book “The Violinist’s Thumb” encouraged me to write this article. It’s a fantastic read, I highly suggest it.

For more information:
http://phylogenous.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/y-chromosome-vii-why-palindromes/

http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijeb/2012/207958/

 

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

Picture2

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

Title

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.