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In terms of taxonomical diversity the gastropods are second most diverse class of animals on Earth (outnumbered only by the teeming class Insecta of the other great invertebrate phylum Arthropoda). This means that there are some deeply strange arthropods out there. While we traditionally think of gastropods as snails and slugs there are odd subcategories of these creatures, like the subject of today’s post, sea angels (of the clade Gymnosomata).
Sea angels consist of six different families of pelagic marine opisthobranch gastropod molluscs. Gastropods are named for their famous foot (the name means “stomach-foot”–a misnomer since gastropods all have true stomachs elsewhere) however the name is even more inappropriate for sea angels. In these free-smimming predators, the gastropod foot, so familiar to us as seen on snails, has evolved into a pair of delicate wings for swimming through the water. Sea angels are very small: the largest species only reach 5 cm (2 inches) in length and most varieties are much more miniscule. They prey on other tiny creatures swimming among the plankton—particularly other smaller slower species of gelatinous mollusks.
Adult sea angels lack any sort of shell—which they discard when they metamorphose into adulthood. Their feeding apparatuses can be strangely complicated—pseudoarms and tentacles which recall their cousins the cephalopods. Sea angels are numerous in the oceans but some scientists are concerned that the acidification of the world’s oceans will cause substantial problems for the tiny translucent gastropods.
Velvet ants (Mutillidae) are not actually ants at all—the insects are classified as wasps even though female velvet ants do not have wings and appear to be tiny furry colorful ants. The Mutillidae family of wasps—which is made up of more than 3000 species– illustrates how closely wasps, bees, and ants are actually related. Male velvet ants look nothing like the females but are much larger winged creatures resembling other wasps. So great is the sexual dimorphism between the genders that it took entomologists a tremendously long time to pair the females with the males, and in many species the connection has still not been made by science. The genders do however both share a ridged structure called a stridulitrum, which can be rubbed or struck to produce chirps and squeaks for communication.
Female velvet ants are notable not just for their colorful fur but for their tremendously powerful sting which is so painful that they are nicknamed “cow killers.” Male velvet ants look like wasps but do not sting. The exoskeletons of velvet ants are tremendously hard to such an extent that some entomologists have reportedly found it difficult to drive pins through specimens. The dense hard coating helps the females invade the underground burrows of larger bees and wasps which the velvet ants sting and lay eggs on. When the velvet ant larvae hatch they feed on the paralyzed victims before metamorphosing into adult form and venturing into the world.
Velvet ants are found in warmer parts of the world particularly deserts. The majority of species are red and black but a variety of other colors are known including blue, gold, orange, and white. Unlike the social ants and termites, velvet ants are generally solitary, coming together only to reproduce with their strangely alien mates.
Today’s post combines two major Ferrebeekeeper topics to get an unexpectedly mild result! I imagined that by combining crowns and serpents I would get some sort of spectacular king cobra or a mythological crown made of golden serpents and rubies but what turned up instead was the Southeastern crowned snake (Tantilla coronata), a slender dusky-colored snake with a little sand colored diadem.
The crowned snake is indigenous to the American Southeast from southern Virginia down through the Carolinas and Georgia to the northern panhandle of Florida. Unlike the regal snakes of my imagination, the crowned snake is a tiny snake which measures from 15 to 20 centimeters long (6 to 9 inches) and lives on small arthropods like scorpions, spiders, and insects. Although not dangerous to people or mammals, the crowned snake possesses an extremely mild venom which it slowly chews into its prey like a old man deliberately eating a biscuit.
Hmm, not what I expected from a crowned serpent!
The smallest known snake in the world is the Barbados Threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae), a species of blind threadsnake so small they were only discovered in 2008 (despite living on a heavily populated, highly studied island). The adult snakes measure only 10 cm, (4 inches) long. Herpetologists believe these tiny snakes are at threshold of viable size for snakes: if they were any smaller they would not be able to hunt or reproduce.
Female Barbados threadsnakes lay a single egg which is huge relative to the size of the mother. The newly hatched snakes are already half as large as adults. Like caecilians or other blind snakes, Barbados threadsnakes are fossorial–they live and hunt underground (which is one of the reasons it took so long to find them). The little threadsnakes live on the larvae of ants and termites.
Not only are Barbados threadsnakes miniscule. Their remaining forest territory is tiny. Barbados is heavily developed and no original old growth forests exist. The threadsnakes live in secondary forests which regrew from the vestiges of long-vanished woods. Their entire habitat is thought to be no more than a square kilometer or two.
Continuing our series of posts about saber toothed mammals we come to a second family of living creatures. Half way between the primitive chevrotains (mouse deer) and the familiar true deer (cervids) are the Moschidae, a family of small artiodactyls consisting of one genus with several similar species. The musk deer are small delicate grazers which live in the forested mountains or alpine scrubland of Asia. Musk deer weigh between 7 and 17 kilograms (15 and 37 lb) depending on gender, age, and species. Unlike true deer, the little creatures lack antlers, but male musk deer make up for this absence with a pair of elongated canine teeth which they use to fight for breeding rights.
Like true deer, musk deer eat the tender shoots of trees and grasses, as well as berries, lichens, and mosses. Females live in small territories of approximately 100 to 200 acres. The territory of a dominant male will overlap several of the females’ territories. Female musk deer give birth to a single fawn. Musk deer are nocturnal or crepuscular. They use their acute hearing and excellent sense of smell to flee from predators at the slightest hint of danger.
Male adult musk deer have a musk pouch located between their genitals and their umbilicus which they use to attract mates. Unfortunately for the little saber toothed deer this pouch also attracts human hunters. For centuries (or longer) musk has been a prized luxury good, so much so that, at times, prices have soared to $45,000/kg on the black market. The musk is said to have an incredibly complex aroma but the main notes are earthy, woody, and “animalic” (i.e. fecal). Dried musk grain must be substantially tinctured with alcohol before it produces a perfume which is pleasant to humans. The resultant substance however served as a mainstay of the perfume industry and as a cure-all nostrum in ayurvedic medicine until the creation of synthetic musk. Poor musk deer from several species were nearly wiped out because of whatever mysterious power their sexual marking fluid has on humankind.
The Adenium genus is made up of tiny evergreen tree from the dogbane family. The succulent trees come from Africa where they can be found in the Sahel (the semi-arid strip running along the south of the Sahara) and similar dry scrublands down the continent to South Africa. The most famous species is Adenium obesum, a little shrub which grows from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 9 feet) in height and bears dazzling five petaled flowers that look like glowing stars of pink, red, and white. The flowers are widely cultivated as houseplants known as the desert rose (although they are in no way closely related to true roses). A whole group of enthusiasts hold contests to determine who can hybridize the prettiest flower or cultivate the most striking ornamental bonsai trees.
In addition to their dazzling flowers, Adenium plants are known for having bulbous interestingly-shaped caudexes. A caudex is the woody barrel-like stem/trunk in which certain desert trees and shrubs store precious liquids. Adeniums are very lovely but their loveliness should not obscure the fact that the wild specimens survive in one of the more punishingly competitive ecosystems on Earth–where all sorts of hungry grazers are desperately looking for meals. To survive in Africa’s scrublands, Adeniums are not only hardy plants which can live almost anywhere on very little water, they are also poisonous. Adeniums produce a cocktail of cardiac glycosides-compounds which affect the electrophysiology of the heart. Although these molecules (and other related cardiac glycosides such as those found in the foxglove) can be therapeutic in very tiny doses for certain heart conditions, in larger doses they are poisonous and cause the heart’s rhythm to fail altogether. Thus, a plant known to American housewives as an frou-frou ornamental houseplant is known as the source of horrifying arrow poison to many of Africa’s toughest native hunters, who use the compound to kill big game.
I am combining two important science discoveries from this week into one (small) post. This week astrophysicists working on the Keplar program discovered the three smallest known exoplanets (each of which is smaller than Earth) in orbit around a little red dwarf star. In a completely unrelated field (and scale) of science, biologists in Papua New Guinea discovered the world’s tiniest known vertebrates, two species of miniscule rain forest frogs named Paedophryne amauensis and Paedophryne swiftorum.
The exoplanets were discovered by a team led by scientists from Caltech who used data from NASA’s mission in conjunction with observations from the Palomar Observatory, (outside San Diego), and the W.M. Keck Observatory (on Mauna Kea in Hawaii). The three planets orbit tiny red dwarf star KOI-961 which has a volume only one-sixth that of our sun (making the star only about 70% bigger than the planet Jupiter). The planets are all very close to their star, and the most distant, takes less than two days to orbit around KOI-961. The three worlds have volumes of 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth.
Red dwarf stars make up four out of five stars in the galaxy, but because they are so small and dim, the Keplar probe has only been assessing a relatively tiny group of red dwarf stars for the possibility of planets. The fact that studying a small sample of red dwarfs already revealed three terrestrial planets strongly suggests that such planets are commonly found around red dwarfs. John Johnson, of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena summarized the data by saying, “This is the tiniest solar system found so far…It’s actually more similar to Jupiter and its moons in scale than any other planetary system. The discovery is further proof of the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy.”
The discovery of the tiny frogs was made by a team of zoologists in New Guinea led by Chris Austin, a herpetologist trained at LSU. The team was in the forest of New Guinea when they heard a faint metallic song coming from the leaf litter on the forest floor. Unable to see the animal producing the faint chorus of “tink” noises, the biologists grabbed up handfuls of leaf litter into a large transparent bag, and began carefully sorting it–expecting a singing insect to emerge. They were stunned when the miniscule adult frog hopped off a leaf. The fully grown creature only measured 7.7 millimeters (less than one-third of an inch).
Named Paedophryne amauensis the little amphibians are not just the smallest known frogs–they are also believed to be the smallest free-living vertebrates on Earth (supplanting a minute 8mm long translucent Indonesian carp for that title). The frogs do not undergo tadpole metamorphosis in water like other frogs, but are born hopping. They spend their entire lives in the leaf litter where they prey on miniscule arthropods and other invertebrates. A similar species Paedophryne swiftorum was also discovered by the team, although P. swiftorum frogs were nearly a millimeter larger.
In an interview, the team leader Chris Austin said, “We now believe that these creatures aren’t just biological oddities, but instead represent a previously undocumented ecological guild — they occupy a habitat niche that no other vertebrate does.”
One of the smallest of all mammals is the Lesser bamboo bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) also known as the bumblebee bat which lives throughout Southeast Asia. The animals range from India and China down through Myanmar, throughout the Malaysian Peninsula, and across the island chains of Indonesia and the Philippines. The tiny flying creature is ridiculously small and measures only 40 millimetres (1.6 inches) in length with a wingspan of 150 millimetres (5.9 inches). An adult bat weighs approximately 1.5 grams–only slightly more than a paper clip.
As you will notice from the photo, the bamboo bat has a flat skull. This is to aid the creature as it crawls into its daytime hideout—a single segment of bamboo—which the bat is capable of squeezing into through cracks of as little as 4 millimeters in width (if you didn’t pull out your desk ruler earlier to assess the size of this bat, you should do so now to remind yourself how small 4 millimeters is). Like most vesper bats, the lesser bamboo bat lives on flying insects which it catches in the dark night skies by means of sonar and extraordinary flying prowess. The lesser bamboo bat is said to have a particular relish for termite swarms.
Last year to celebrate October and the spooky season, Ferrebeekeeper presented a series of posts concerning the mythological monsters born of the Greek snake goddess Echidna. Those monsters were really big and really scary but, in the end, the operative word was “mythological”–they didn’t actually exist. This October I have decided to pay closer heed to the real world as we celebrate the horrifying, the macabre, and the eerily beautiful. To start with, I have already presented a dead city surrounded by ancient desiccated mummies and nuclear test sites! But I’m guessing that Xinjiang is pretty far away from all but a handful of my readers, so today I wanted to focus on a horror closer to hand. In fact today’s subject is even closer than that—there are 50/50 odds that there are some of these parasitic mites crawling in your eyelids even as you read these lines.
I am writing about Demodex, a genus of tiny parasitic arachnids which live in or around the hair follicles of mammals. There are more than 50 known varieties but two species in particular (Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis) are endemic to human hosts. The mites are approximately 0.4 mm long, with eight extremely short legs. Covered with adhesive scales, the mites are semi-transparent. According to Buzzle.com, “The needle-like mouth-parts feed on the dead, flaky skin-cells, hormones and the sebum which accumulate in the hair follicles.” Buzzle goes on to note that while the mites are usually harmless an unusually large number can cause demodicosis, a sort of mange. Although I gave a 50/50 breakdown in the first paragraph, that number seems to have been made up by dermatologists to keep squeamish people from ripping all of their eyelashes out. Odds are if you have walked the green earth long enough to see adulthood, you have played host to these eyelash mites.
This topic seemed fun when I started, but I honestly have not been able to keep my fingers out of my eyes while writing and I am now squinting at the screen through itchy, puffy eyes. Nevertheless there is an important point behind all of this. It isn’t just coral reefs and aspen colonies which form habitats for other living things. Every lifeform is an ecosystem with parasites, symbiots, and weird alien neutrals–even us.
Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn. These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong: octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception. The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species. Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent). Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs. They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey. However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.
Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration. The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings. If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it. The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things. Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.
The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane. This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration. This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim. Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe. If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).
Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers. The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat). When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year. Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.