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When it comes to mollusks, people talk a lot about the charismatic giant squids and giant clams (and for good reason!), yet, to my mind, these are not the strangest—or even the most elusive–giant mollusks. Scientists have long sought a very different creature—the giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia)—which they knew from its bizarre meter long tubal shell. Yet despite the fact that such shells were (relatively) plentiful—marine biologists never found a living specimen…until this spring, when internet clips revealed footage of people eating huge shipworms in the Philippines. Researchers were thus led to a remote lagoon in the archipelago where at last they discovered living giant shipworms flourishing in the foul muck. What they then discovered was the most shocking thing of all…
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But first let’s provide some context. Shipworms are bivalve mollusks (like clams, oysters, and mussels) which eat wood–a surprising amount of which finds its way into the oceans. Wood is extremely difficult to digest, since it contains lignins, cellulose, and such like tough organic polymers. Shipworms digest wood the same way beavers and elephants and termites do—with help from symbiotic bacteria. This made shipworms the bane of pre-industrial mariners (who counted on intact wooden hulls in order to remain alive).

But shipworms are small, and the giant shipworm is…giant. The fact that the giant shipworm is an insane 130 cm long cylindrical clam with a gun metal blue body and obscene flesh gills which lives in a huge calcium tusk the size (and shape) of a baseball bat is not at all the strangest aspect of the creature. What is most odd about this mollusk is how it eats: it doesn’t. The foul anaerobic slime at the bottom of that lagoon in the Philippines is rich in hydrogen sulfide from decaying organic matter.
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The giant shipworm doesn’t eat this decomposing matter (indeed, its mouth is all but vestigial). Instead it has bacteria in its gills which live upon hydrogen sulfide. The giant shipworm survives off of the byproducts of this bacterial respiration. It grows huge off of toxic gas. This strange metabolic cycle is of great interest to scientists for what it reveals bout symbiosis, adaptivity, and metabolism. Perhaps someday it will be useful as well. Maybe future generations of explorers will love giant shipworms for their ability to live on waste product gases just as much as vanished generations hated shipworms for eating ships.

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The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s biggest science experiment.  It is arguably the world’s largest apparatus: the biggest machine in the world.  The collider was built to discover the secrets of the universe.  Wikipedia succinctly describes its purpose:

The LHC’s aim is to allow physicists to test the predictions of different theories of particle physics, high-energy physics and in particular, to further test the properties of the Higgs boson and the large family of new particles predicted by supersymmetric theories, and other unsolved questions of physics, advancing human understanding of physical laws.

The collider accomplishes this by directing two beans of high energy particles moving nearly the speed of light into each other.  The round tunnel track of the collider is 27 kilometers (16 miles) in length.

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Until March 2016, the LHC had been offline for a year as an army of technicians laboriously calibrated, cleansed, tested, and otherwise fixed every part of the vast array.

I mention all of this, because 5 hours ago, the collider went offline after a weasel wondered into it and was vaporized, thus knocking the whole apparatus offline.

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This setback serves as a reminder that sometimes science is a particularly painstaking pursuit.  The hardworking particle physicists and engineers of CERN are going to have to undertake some repairs after this unfortunate mustelid incursion.  I also mention this as a reminder that the weasel family is a formidable and amazing family of organisms which I should write about more often (although at least I took some time to describe the giant otter).  Look for another amazing mustelid featured here on Ferrebeekeeper next week (although we will have to wait a while for new discoveries from the world of high-energy physics).

A Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox); photo by Keven Law)

A Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox); photo by Keven Law)

Behold, the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), the top predator of Madagascar (exempting, as always, our own very predatory kind).  The fossa weighs between 5.5 and 8.5 kg (12 to 20 pounds) and lives mostly on primates—namely the lemurs which are everywhere indigenous to the strange micro-continent.  Since lemurs are brilliant climbers, the fossa is also an arboreal specialist and it can run down trees headfirst and execute stunning acrobatic leaps which would make a trapeze artist blanche and retire.  The predator prefers hunting lemurs but it also dines on bats, reptiles, tenrecs, rodents, birds, and whatever other small living creatures it can catch.

The first time I saw footage of a fossa, my mind kept insisting it was a cat…no a weasel…no a stretched-out bear.  Its extreme similarity to familiar predators combines in a sinister way with its lithe alien movements to make it seem very peculiar.  I wonder too if some desperate little tree-creature part of our brain doesn’t respond badly to the fossa-for it is difficult to look away from one in action, and it has many similarities with analogous predators encountered by our arboreal forbears.  It hunts both by day and night.  It climbs, swims, runs, and lurks with great skill–so there is never any true safety for animals which it preys on.

Cryptoprocta ferox.

Male Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) by Darren Naish

According to taxonomy and genetics, the fossa is indeed closely related to cats, bears, weasels, seals, and all of the other members of the order Carnivora. The fossa is perhaps most closely related to viverrids (the civets and genets), but it shares many features with felines as well, and may be considered to be descended from an intermediary form. The ancestor of the fossa first came to Madagascar around 20 million years ago, during the Miocene as forests dwindled and grasslands spread on Africa and as Madagascar drifted particularly close to the great continent.

Fossa yawning (photo by beachkat1)

Fossa yawning (photo by beachkat1)

Fossas live to around twenty years of age.  They have social lives similar to cats, and even have similar vocalizations.  Fossas of both genders have bizarre elongated external genitals (and the male member is equipped with backwards pointing spines).  Additionally, they secrete an orange substance which “colors their underparts”.  You can go look up details and pictures on your own time.   The mother fossa gives birth to litters of two to four (though occasionally as few as one or as many as six) cubs, which mature slowly.  Physical maturity is not reached until the age of two and the young fossa do not reproduce until a year or two after that.  Fossa have always been solitary and rare, but human habitat-destruction (among other ills) seems to be making them even scarcer.

A Fossa Cubs born at Catoctin Wildlife Preserve in Maryland

A Fossa Cubs born at Catoctin Wildlife Preserve in Maryland

I started writing this post imagining that the fossa would be esoteric and largely unknown to most of my readers, but the internet quickly revealed that it is a film star and a media darling of our age.  Apparently a fossa was the villain of “Madagascar” an animated children’s film about lemur society and a zoo-breakout. How did I miss an animated movie about lemurs?  I’m going to go watch that right now.

Neptune's Moon Triton photographed by Voyager 2 (NASA)

Neptune’s Moon Triton photographed by Voyager 2 (NASA)

It is absolutely freezing here in Brooklyn—a great vortex of bitter Arctic air has swirled south across huge swathes of the nation.  The temperature here is 9° Fahrenheit (or -13° Celsius).  Imagine how much worse things are in Minnesota, where it is -14° Fahrenheit (or -25° Celsius).  Brrr!  It hurts my fingers to write about it–even in my overheated study (well—bedroom, really).  Now truly stretch your mind from the frozen heartland of America to the edge of the planetary solar system.  The largest moon of the ice giant Neptune is the moon Triton, discovered in 1846 by English astronomer/brewer William Lassell, and named for the son of Poseidon.  On the surface of Triton temperatures plunge to 36…which is to say 36 K (Kelvin). To translate that is -237° Celsius or a bone chilling -395° Fahrenheit.

Artist's rendering of an ice volcano on Triton with Neptune in the background (NASA)

Artist’s rendering of an ice volcano on Triton with Neptune in the background (NASA)

Triton is a strange moon.  It is the seventh largest moon in the solar system and it is the only large moon to orbit its planet in a direction opposite from the planet’s rotation (which is called a retrograde orbit).  Since there is no model for retrograde moons forming from accretion disks, Triton must be a captured object from the Oort cloud—and, indeed, the moon is extremely similar in composition to Pluto and other dwarf planets of the Solar system’s distant periphery.  Despite the extreme cold of Triton’s surface, the moon is geologically active.  Like Earth, the moon is probably differentiated into layers: a core, a mantle, and a crust.  The crust is formed of ice: frozen water, methane, and nitrogen.  A large polar cap covers the southern pole, but much of the rest of the moon is a“cantaloupe” surface of melted and refrozen ice.  The surface is (geologically) young.  Cryovolcanic activity and tidal forces have kept the ice active.  Cryovolcanoes were first spotted on Triton during the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989 (the first time such phenomenon were ever observed).  Because of tidal warming (caused by gravitational interaction with Neptune), Triton may have once had a liquid ocean beneath the crust, but this has likely solidified assuming that there is no radioactive decay from the rocky core.

A size comparison of Earth, Earth's moon, and Triton

A size comparison of Earth, Earth’s moon, and Triton

Triton is closer to Neptune than the Earth’s moon is to Earth…and Neptune is seventeen times more massive than Earth.  This doesn’t bode well for the long term future of Triton.  Within the next three and a half billion years, the moon will either be pulled into Neptune’s surface and swallowed or it will be ripped to pieces and form a spectacular ring structure like Saturn’s.

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