Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Diversity of Life

I read yesterday that scientists found 24 new species in the rainforests of southeastern Suriname, including this cute little guy!

The atelopus frog is characterised by its distinctive, fluorescent purple markings. It's sort of like a Grateful Dead poster come to life.

The diversity of life on our planet can truly be astounding. In my first blog post, I included a link to the NYTimes article about this book, The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, which -- judging from what I saw -- features beautiful photographs of all kinds of bizarre deep sea creatures.

I've also watched a couple of nature documentaries about creatures of the deep. No sunlight manages to permeate the depths of the ocean, and the water temperature there is just above freezing (2 degrees Celsius). Despite these harsh conditions, a multitude of organisms have been discovered living in these dark reaches. Many live off of the detritus that trickles down from waters nearer the surface, and some use bioluminescence to attract prey.

Furthermore, scientists once thought that the area surrounding volcanic, deep sea vents couldn't possibly sustain life due to the toxic elements that the vents spout and due to the fact that water temperatures there can reach up to 400 degrees Celsius. Yet, much to their surprise, deep sea divers have found a rich ecosystem surrounding the vents. Whereas our ecosystem has at its base organisms such as plants which convert sunlight into food through photosynthesis, the foundation of the "black smoker" ecosystem is organisms which practice chemosynthesis, a biological process through which they are able to convert heat, methane and sulphur compounds into food. Given this fundamental difference from all life that we are familiar with, this can truly be considered an alien ecosystem.

This ecosystem contains many unique species such as giant tube worms which gather their sustenance from chemosynthetic bacteria living inside them. It also includes some organisms that resemble more familiar sea creatures like shrimp but which can be distinguished by their ability to survive intense heat and by the fact that they are blind, given that vision would not represent an advantage in this environment devoid of light.

All this makes me recall an incident which happened when I was in junior high: the boy sitting behind me interrupted the teacher to tell him how during class a fly had landed on the boy's desk and given birth to several maggots.

The teacher informed someone: I'm not sure who he could have called -- the administration? the school nurse? -- in retrospect it seems pretty absurd. In the end, the crisis was resolved with a member of the janitorial staff coming in to blow the fly away, maggots and all, with a blast of antiseptic aerosol spray. Yet, before this happened, I turned around to get a look at the unsettling scene of the mother fly perched motionless beside its squirming babies.

I still recall this episode every so often, and it makes me think that the Universe is infinitely more complex and more messy than most people choose to imagine.

Frog photo by Paul Ouboter/Conservation International. Black smoker photo was taken by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is in the public domain.

8 comments:

Desiree said...

Oh, babe, what were you huffing last night? This is why I can't leave you alone.

Meeg said...

Are you implying I might have been licking some atelopus frog when I wrote that?

Bracha said...

I think they call frog licking "doing kermit"

Meeg said...

I finally get Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night: it's a comedy that's too good to be funny!

Bracha said...

As per Wikipedia:
psychoactive toad
Psychoactive toad is a name used for toads from which psychoactive substances from the family of bufotoxins can be derived. The skin and venom of Bufo alvarius (Colorado River toad or Sonoran Desert toad) contain 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenin. Other species contain only bufotenin. 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenin both belong to the family of hallucinogenic tryptamines. Due to these substances the skin or venom of the toads may produce psychoactive effects when smoked.

Josie said...

i really enjoyed that deep sea organisms link that you posted before. i even forwarded it on to a few people. as for the maggots, im gonna be all girlie on ya and say 'EW!'

Edward said...

You're joking, right?

Flies lay eggs, which hatch into larvae (maggots) undergo a pupa stage then hatch into more flies.

Muscidae does not give live birth.

Everything you need to know about flies. http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/urban/flies/house_fly.HTM

Meeg said...

Oh yeah no shit. Flies don't give live birth like mammals. So I don't know what was going on then, I feel like I remember seeing a fly and some maggots. So either I do not remember this correctly or something else was going on.