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Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata (upper pitcher)

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata (upper pitcher)

Yesterday’s post described the carnivorous nepenthes plants which entice organisms into their slippery liquid-filled depths where the tiny creatures are killed and digested.  The plants however are after different nutrients than carnivorous animals are.  Instead of hungering for proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, and complex amino acids (and all that other stuff nutritionists and zookeepers are always going on about) plants simply want phosphorus and nitrogen.

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia)

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia)

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia) is a tiny vesper bat which lives in Malaysia (the portion on Borneo). The small wooly bat weighs between 2.5 to 4 g (0.08 to 0.14 ounces) and, at most, measures 40 mm (1.6 in) from nose to tail.  It is one of the smallest mammals alive—it is even smaller than the miniscule lesser bamboo bat (which lives inside of single segment chambers in bamboo stalks).  The small wooly bat has found an equally fine home: the tiny creatures live inside a Bornean subspecies of nepenthes– Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata.  The little bats fit perfectly inside the long tapered chambers of Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata—the taper even prevents the tiny aerial hunters from falling in.  In exchange for providing a perfect home for the tiny bats, the plants also get something.  Bat guano is a famous source of nitrogen and phosphorus—so much so that humans have been known to mine old bat caves to use the deep layers of excrement for an agricultural fertilizer.

carnivorous-plant-and-bat

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongate does not need to be an effective hunter.  The bats which live inside its tube shaped pitchers provide it with the nutrients it needs on a continuing basis: the two organisms provide a beautiful example of a symbiotic relationship.

woolly bat with pitcher plant

Copidomopsis floridanum injecting its eggs into a caterpillar.

Sometimes horror is a matter of perspective.  For example, parasitoid wasps–some of the most horrifying hymenoptera–are also some of the most beneficial to humankind. The parasitoid wasps are a hugely diverse superfamily among the hymenoptera consisting of more than 6000 different species.  These insects are ancient, successful, and profoundly useful for controlling invasive species or pests (particularly various arthropods), however as soon as one knows what “parasitoid” means it becomes difficult to regard these wasps without revulsion and distaste. A parasitoid is a creature which lives inside another creature (the host) and ultimately kills/destroys that host by consuming it or by bursting out of it.  The detailed dynamics of this relationship are often grisly in the extreme, but they highlight the bizarre (not to say disturbing) mutualism which is such a feature of the natural world.

The emerald cockroach wasp or jewel wasp (Ampulex compressa)

Parasitoid wasps are especially alarming because of the extent to which they can manipulate the behavior of their host.  For example the emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa) is a solitary hunting wasp which finds a single cockroach and delivers a mildly paralytic sting to the roach’s thorax.  This first sting temporarily incapacitates the roach and allows the wasp to carefully make a second more meaningful sting to a precise spot in the roach’s brain which control’s the roach’s escape response. Not only does the wasp know where to sting, she utilizes a toxin which specifically blocks receptors for the neurotransmitter octopamine. The wasp then chews off a portion of the roach’s antennae and returns to her layer leading the captive roach by holding its damaged antenna like a leash. Inside the wasp’s burrow she plants a single egg on the roach’s belly and then seals the zombified insect inside the chamber with sand and pebbles.  After three days the wasp’s egg hatches and the new larva feeds for 4–5 days on the external portions of the roach.  It then burrow inside the still living roach and devours the creature’s organs in a progression which leaves the roach alive for a maximum length of time.  When the roach is near death the wasp larva builds a cocoon inside it, metamorphoses into an adult, and then bursts out of the roach carcass and flies off.

Aaaagh!

Across the many different parasitoid wasps there are many variations of this behavior involving different arthropod hosts–and specifically targeting the host’s eggs, lava, or adult form.  Additionally there are sundry vectors by which the parasitoid wasps control their hosts.  Not all wasps utilize targeted neuropoisons like the emerald cockroach wasp.  Wikipedia elaborates on how close the biochemical relationship between the parasitoid wasps and their hosts can become:

Endoparasitoid species often display elaborate physiological adaptations to enhance larval survival within the host, such as the co-option of endosymbiotic viruses for compromising host immune defenses. These polydnaviruses are often used by the wasps instead of a venom cocktail. The DNA of the wasp actually contains portions that are the templates for the components of the viral particles and they are assembled in an organ in the female’s abdomen known as the calyx.

In other words some wasps utilize ancient hunks of rogue DNA to directly or indirectly control (and then destroy) their host organisms.

Braconid wasp lavae (Cotesia congregatus) destroying a tomato hornworm

The biochemical sophistication of the parasitoid wasps does not end there.  Certain wasps seem to have a symbiotic relationship with plants.  When these plants are gnawed by harmful insects (especially beetles or caterpillars) the plants release specific chemicals which summon the parasitoid wasps, which, in turn, destroy the insects. An example of this can be found in that most ubiquitous of American staple crops, corn.  When beet armyworm caterpillars  (Spodoptera exigua) start eating a live corn plant, it releases a chemical which attracts  parasitiod wasps of the species Cotesia marginiventris (the larvae of which utilize beet armyworm caterpillars as hosts). If however the corn is invaded by corn earworns (Helicoverpa zea) it will release a different chemical which attracts a different   wasp Microplitis croceipes.  As scientists look further into such relationships, they are discovering that most plants have a vast range of chemical tags which are appealing to specialized parasitoid wasps (and to sawflies).  Perhaps one of the reasons that various blights have been able to make such deep incursions in new ecosystems is the absence of plants’ terrifying little friends.

Cotesia marginiventris on a corn leaf

A Giant Clam, Tridacna gigas (Photo by Stig Thormodsrud)

Today we celebrate the world’s largest bivalve mollusk, the magnificent and world-famous giant clam (Tridacna gigas).  Native to shallow coral reefs of the South Pacific and Indian oceans, giant clams can weigh up to 500 lbs and measure 50 inches across.  Huge specimens can be very ancient and some have lived for more than a century. Giant clams are hermaphrodites: every individual possesses both male and female sex organs–however a clam is incapable of mating with itself.   They are broadcast spawners producing vast numbers of gametes which they release in response to certain chemical transmitter substances. During these spawning events (which usually occur in conjunction with certain lunar phases) a single clam can release over 500 million eggs in one evening.  Giant clam larvae then swim free among the plankton.  They pass through several mobile transition phases before settling down in one favorite home (as can be seen in the comprehensive life cycle drawing below).

Giant Clam Life Cycle (After H.P. Calumpong, ed. 1992 "The Giant Clam: an Ocean Culture Manual")

As usual for sea creatures, the giant clam has a troubled relation with humankind.  Fabulists have asserted that the great bivalves chomp down on divers for food or out of spite (the clams do slowly shut when harassed, but the movement is a defense mechanism and happens gradually).  They are considered delicacies on many South Pacific islands and naturally the insatiable Japanese pay a premium to eat them as “Himejako”.  Their shells also command a premium from collectors.  Across the South Pacific, giant clams are dwindling away thanks to overfishing, reef destruction, and environmental factors.

Divers with a Giant Clam: Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands

It is sad that the gentle and lovely giant clam is suffering such a fate (although aquaculture is now bringing a measure of stability to some populations).  In addition to being beautiful and useful to ecosystems, they are remarkable symbiotic creatures.  A unique species of algae flourishes in the mantle of the giant clam and the clam gains much of its energy and sustenance from these photosynthetic partners. The clam possesses iridophores (light sensitive circles) on its flesh which allow it to gauge whether its symbiotic algae is getting enough sunlight–and perhaps watch for predators.  It can then alter the transparency of its mantle flesh accordingly. According to J. H. Norton, giant clams have a special circulatory system to keep their symbionts alive and happy. The happy and beneficial relationship between a clam and its algae allows the former to attain great size and the latter to remain alive in the ever-more competitive oceans.  I have concentrated on writing about T. Gigas, but there are many other members of the Tridacninae subfamily which lead similar lives (although they do not attain the same great size).  To my eye they are all remarkable for their loveliness.

Tridacna Maxima (in a home aquarium)

Tridacna Derasa (in a home aquarium)

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