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Voila, allow me to present Aleiodes gaga, a parasitoid wasp, which along with 178 other species, was discovered in the cloud rain forests of Thailand as part of a new biological survey seeking new life forms. The drab little 5mm wasp is named after the flamboyant New York singer songwriter Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (who rose to international superstardome under the stage name of “Lady Gaga”. The science/futurist website i09 somewhat cynically remarks, “As to why the researchers chose to “honor” Lady Gaga in this way is not entirely clear (they’re likely seeking attention — in which case the name is wholly appropriate).”
The remarkable aspect of the survey is that the new species were swiftly identified and categorized by DNA barcode rather than through traditional taxonomic means. The team used a fragment of mitochondrial DNA to identify the various invertebrates which it discovered. However, the new methodology has critics in the world of scholarly taxonomy, who lament that spotting arbitrary genetic differences is replacement for actually understanding a creature’s morphology, anatomy.
Scientists do not know about the habits of the gaga wasp, but they know that it is a parasitoid wasp, a class of hymenopterans which provide a useful biological check against various diseases, blights, and swarms. When malicious insects attack certain plants, the plants release specific chemicals which attract particular species of wasps (which then prey on the offending beetle, ant, larva, or whatever). A great many species of plants have particular wasps affiliated with them (since the wasp and the plant coevolved to meet each other’s needs). Although such wasps provide an incalculable boon for both domestic and wild plants of all sorts, they are also the fodder for horrified screaming (since they tend to use mind control to render victims into zombies, which the wasp larvae then devour from within).
Most likely the wasp finds some local caterpillar, paralyzes it with a sting to the head, and lays its eggs inside the hapless victim. When the wasp larvae awake they devour the still living caterpillar. So to recap, this wasp 1) was discovered by means of a controversial technique; 2) was named in a naked bid for publicity; and 3) lays eggs inside its prey’s head which subsequently cause aforementioned head to explode.
In the summer of 1923, Kan Chuen Pao, unearthed an enormous skull from the baking Gobi desert of Mongolia. Pao was a member of a paleontology expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, a world famous explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who, during the course of his career, rose from being a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History to being its director. The skull they found was an enigma—the creature was a mammal with immensely powerful jaws but blunt peg-like teeth. No substantial bones were found other than the skull sans jaw (nor have any further specimens ever been discovered). The skull was discovered in sediments deposited during the late Eocene, the sweltering summer epoch when most extant mammalian orders evolved, so it is probably 36 to 40 odd million years old. Andrews was immediately of the opinion that it was a huge carnivore, but what sort of creature was it really?
The creature was named Andrewsarchus mongoliensis in honor of Adrews and his expedition. Andrewsarchus may have been the largest mammalian carnivore ever (although short faced bears might have been larger). The one skull, currently in New York, measures 83 cm (33 inches) long and 56 cm (22 inches)wide–which suggests the animal may have been 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall at the shoulders. Such a creature could weigh more than 1000 kg (2200 lb).
But Adrewsarchus may not have been a carnivore: ever since the beginning of the jazz age, Paleontologists have argued about the monster’s diet. Andrewsarchus lived along the coast of the eastern Tethys Ocean, a sea which was dried out and destroyed when the Indian subcontinent barreled into Asia during the late Eocene/Early Oligocene.
Some scientists believe the creature was a hunter who captured the giant land animals of the time. Other scientists believe the animal was a scavenger which lived on the rotting carcasses of primitive whales and beached sea turtles. Another group feels that the creature fed on huge beds of shellfish, and a final school holds that the animal was even larger than believed and was at least part-herbivore!
The taxonomy of Andrewsarchus is equally confusing. The great skull was initially classified as a giant creodont (an extinct order of alpha-predators which share an ancestor with today’s carnivore). The first scientific paper about the creature by great paleontologist and…um eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn states, “An outline sketch of the skull was sent in a letter to the Museum, from which Dr. W. D. Matthew immediately observed its real affinity to the primitive Creodonta of the family Mesonychidae.”
Later scientists have been less certain about lots of things than Osborn was and Andrewsarchus’ place in the mammalian family is now uncertain. A consensus is emerging that the great creature shared common ancestors with the artiodactyls (like hippos, deer, and pigs). Perhaps its heritage provides insights into the link between the artiodactyls and their close (yet oh so distant) cousins the whales.
Whatever the case is, these giant hoofed creatures with their immense powerful maws must have been amazing and terrifying to behold. Their fate seems to have been sealed as the Tethys closed and the Gobi basin dried out, but whenever I think of the harrowing deserts of Mongolia and China, I imagine their fearsome toothy spirits towering over the other strange ghosts of that haunted place.
My posts about animals are based on personal favorites but I have also tried to choose categories of animals in a manner which reveals something larger about zoology and taxonomy. You have probably noticed that my featured creatures are not arbitrary but are arranged taxonomically according to Linnaean hierarchy in the manner which follows:
- Phlylum: Mollusca
- Class: Mammalia (mammals)
- Order: Siluriformes (catfish)
- Suborder: Serpentes (serpents)
- Genus: Meleagris (turkeys)
I have not written about a family yet because I was leaving myself some room for the future (feel free to make suggestions). Additionally, I have only written glancingly of kingdoms or domains because those overarching categories are far too large and baffling for me to deal with meaningfully (although I would probably choose the domain “bacteria” if I had limitless time, resources and a great deal more knowledge and intelligence). The missing bottom category of species is always applicable to whatever the featured species of the day is (or, in a pinch, to Homo sapiens, the dark meddlesome, magnificent species behind history, art, politics and other non-animal, non-plant topics over there in the category cloud).
Not only have I have chased the representative members of my chosen taxonomic categories through art, mythology, and anecdote, I have also tried to write as cogently as I am able about their behavior, biology, and morphology (biologists and morphologists are no doubt laughing into their hands right now, but, hey, you guys are not always the most compelling or comprehensible writers, so give me a break). Also, I understand that traditional hierarchy is coming to be re-assessed in light of new genetic evidence and the innovative ideas of cladistics: maybe my categories were already hidebound to start.
I mention all of this because I am beginning to feel pinched by some of my categories. I could write about a different obscure catfish, or dig up a new catfish recipe but is that really what people want? I still have a few more turkey stories to write and no doubt more information will come to me (probably around Thanksgiving), but I am running out of things to say about my favorite bird. Should I disloyally choose a new genus to pursue. Do you want to hear more about tiny obscure catfish? I could drop it all and move to entirely new topics, but I don’t feel right about that yet. Maybe some reorganization is needed when I launch the redesigned version of Ferrebeekeeper in the near future.
Any insight or feedback would be appreciated. I’m sorry for the informal first person tone of this post but I am traveling today and don’t have time to research an appropriate column. Also catfish and turkey fans should not give up yet, I still have a handful of ideas left about those magnificent creatures (not to mention a stirring Siluriforme overview).