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Archive for August, 2014

Crunchy!

One of my favorite topics is speculative agriculture, both science fiction and fantasy. What do people eat? Where does it come from? How is it grown? Answering those questions for a fictional milieu requires a wonderful mix of climate, trade, technology and culture. Sometimes there are real-world sources, like agricultural manuals or cookbooks from a particular time and place (for instance, this wonderful tenth-century agricultural calendar from Cordoba: not only when things happened, but what was important enough to be mentioned).

But this is “science in my fiction,” not “agriculture in my history.” So here’s a really interesting bit of science that if you’re a typical USian or European, you may never have thought about: bugs in space!

Yes, as food.

One of the many challenges that must be overcome if we’re going to leave this planet for extended periods is food. Raising food helps with supply chain problems, and has psychological benefits: would you want to live on preserved food and concentrates for years at a time? But there’s not likely to be room or time for meat animals (maybe fish eventually). So what about insects? They take minimal space and are extremely efficient at converting vegetable matter to protein.

Chinese research has concentrated on silkworms as a source of insect protein, but there are lots of other options, from mealworms to grasshoppers.

Eating insects could help out here on Earth too: raising insects to provide protein is enormously less resource-intensive than beef, pork or even chicken. It’s already an accepted part of the diet in many parts of the world. (And even squeamish Westerners eat plenty of insects in a year.)

Graphic of environmental costs of beef vs crickets

Can’t go into space but want to try eating insects yourself? There are plenty of prepared and packaged options.

Larvets packaged mealwork snacks

Alien Inspiration

Science fiction is full of aliens. There’s Larry Niven’s Pierson’s Puppeteers, Valentine Smith, the stranger in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Gordon R. Dickson’s Aalaag, Alan Dean Foster’s Thranx, and H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzies, to name just a few. The Star Trek, Star Wars, And Dr. Who universes are full of them. However, as bioethicist Kyle Munkittrick wrote in Discover a few year back:

Science fiction has a problem: everyone looks the same. I know there are a few series that have aliens that look unimaginably different from human beings. But those are the exception, not the rule. Most major sci-fi series – Star Wars, Babylon 5, Mass Effect, Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate – have alien species that are hominid.

Following are five species on earth that may help you better design aliens for your stories.

The Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

Mimic Octopus

Credit: Wikipedia – licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

First discovered in 1998 off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia on the bottom of a muddy river mouth, the mimic octopus is the first known species to take on the characteristics of multiple species. Even more surprising, the mimic octopus is able to discern which dangerous sea creature to impersonate that will present the greatest threat to its current possible predator. For example, scientists observed that when the octopus was attacked by territorial damselfishes, it mimicked the banded sea snake, a known predator of damselfishes. The creatures they’ve been observed to mimic include:

  • Jellyfish: To mimic the jellyfish, the octopus swims to the surface and then slowly sinks with its arms spread evenly around its body.
  • Lion fish: To mimic the lion fish, the octopus hovers above the ocean floor with its arms spread wide, trailing from its body to take on the appearance of the lion fish’s poisonous fins.
  • Sea Anemone: The mimic octopus raises all of its arms above its head with each arm bent in a curved, zig-zag shape to resemble the lethal tentacles of the anemone.
  • Sea Snakes: The mimic octopus changes color taking on the yellow and black bands of the toxic sea snake as it waves 2 arms in opposite directions in the motion of two sea snakes.
  • Sole fish: This flat, poisonous fish is imitated by the mimic octopus by building up speed through jet propulsion as it draws all of its arms together into a leaf-shaped wedge as it undulates in the manner of a swimming flat fish.

Its mimicry also allows it to prey on animals that would ordinarily flee an octopus. For example, it can imitate a crab as an apparent mate, only to devour its deceived suitor.

Several videos of the octopus in action can be found on YouTube: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4, Video 5

Pacific Barreleye Fish

Barreleye Fish

Credit: MBARI/Youtube

Also known as the spookfish, they get their name from their large, barrel shaped eyes topped by huge green lenses inside a round, transparent, fluid-filled head. Found 600 meters (a little over a third of a mile) or more down off the coast of California, barreleye fish use their eyes for locating planktonic crustaceans and the other small animals on which they feed. Because these organisms are often trapped in the stinging tentacles of jellyfish, it’s believed that the fish’s head helps protect their eyes from stings.

The eyes are tubular because a tubular eye allows the eye to collect a lot of light and focus it the right distance away without the eyes having to take up the whole head. The lower the level of light, the larger the lens needs to be to collect the maximum amount of light. But the larger the lens, the longer the focal length of the lens. Although for a long time it was thought the fish’s eyes were fixed in place, but in 2009 researchers Bruce Robison and Kim Reisenbichle at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute found that they can rotate behind the transparent shield on the fish’s head. This allows the fish to peer up at potential prey or look forward when the fish is feeding. The researches also found that

In addition to their amazing “headgear,” barreleyes have a variety of other interesting adaptations to deep-sea life. Their large, flat fins allow them to remain nearly motionless in the water, and to maneuver very precisely (much like MBARI’s ROVs). Their small mouths suggest that they can be very precise and selective in capturing small prey. On the other hand, their digestive systems are very large, which suggests that they can eat a variety of small drifting animals as well as jellies. In fact, the stomachs of the two net-caught fish contained fragments of jellies.

Pistol Shrimp

Pistol shrimp

Credit: Wikipedia/U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Also known as the snapping shrimp and the alpheid shrimp, these are small shrimp (1 -2 inches long) that have asymmetrical claws, with one claw larger than half the shrimp’s body. What makes this large claw (referred to as a snapping claw) unique is that rather than having a pincer at the end as most shrimp do, it is pistol like, with a joint allows the “hammer” part to move backward at a right-angled position. When released, it snaps into the other part of the claw, creating a cavitation bubble at up to 62 miles per hour. When the cavitation bubble collapses:

1) it reaches temperatures of over 5000 Kelvin
2) this temperature produces a bright flash of light that lasts for a fraction of a second
3) generates a sound reaching close to 220 decibels at a pressure of up to 11.7 psi (here’s a chart to put that in perspective).

If a shrimp losses the snapping claw, it will regenerate into a smaller claw. In turn, the original smaller claw will grow into a new snapping claw. Research has shown that severing the nerve of the snapping claw induces the conversion of the smaller limb into a second snapping claw.

Zombie Worms (Osedax)

Zombie Worms

Credit: Yoshihiro Fujiwara/JAMSTEC

Zombie worms, also known as boneworms or bone-eating worms, were first discovered living in the bones of a rotting gray whale on the deep sea floor nearly 10,000 feet deep in 2002. Only females consume bones – the microscopic males live inside the female bodies. After the worm larvae land on the palps of female worms, they develop into male worms, then find their way into the tube that surrounds the female’s body. Dozens live in this space, releasing sperm that fertilize the female’s eggs, but never eating. Eventually the female worm sends thousands of fertilized eggs out into the surrounding water, and the cycle begins again.

Although zombie worms eat the bones of whales and other large marine animals, they don’t have a no mouth, gut or anus. Instead, the worms use what researchers call a “bone-melting acid” that frees up the nutrients within whale and fish bones. The acid releases and absorbs collagen and lipids within the bones. Additionally, bacteria that live symbiotically within the worms are involved in helping the worms consume nutrients from the bones, although exactly how this happens isn’t fully understood.

Tardigrades (Tardigrada)

tardigrade

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Goldstein Lab

Also known as water bears or moss piglets, they’re rarely longer than one millimeter in length, and have eight legs. There are more than 1,000 identified species of tardigrades, and they have the ability to survive in physical or geochemical conditions that would kill most other life on Earth. Experiments have shown they can survive being frozen at -328 degrees Fahrenheit, and heated to more than 300 degrees F. They can also withstand pressures up to 6000 times that of earths atmosphere, and can survive radiation doses that are thousands of times stronger than the fatal dose for a human. They have even been shown to be able to survive in outer space.

In 2007, European researchers exposed a sample of dehydrated tardigrades to the vacuum and solar radiation of outer space for 10 days. When the specimens returned to earth and were rehydrated, 68% of those shielded from the radiation survived, and a handful with no radiation protection survived and produced viable offspring. Then in 2011, Italian scientists sent tardigrades on board the International Space Station along with other extremophiles. They determined that microgravity and cosmic radiation “did not significantly affect survival of tardigrades in flight, confirming that tardigrades represent a useful animal for space research.”

Tardigrades survive primarily by entering a dehydrated state that closely resembles death. It curls up into a dry ball called a tun, reducing its metabolic activity to as low as .01 percent of normal levels. To achieve this state, they produce trehalose, a protective sugar that forms a gel-like medium that suspends and preserves the organelles and membranes that make up the animal’s cells. A tardigrade can survive for decades or longer in this state.

Once immersed in water, it to a normal metabolic state over the course of a few hours. Although a group of dehydrated tardigrades were reportedly taken from a museum sample of dried moss that was more than 100 years old and revived, the longer it’s dehydrated, the lower the chances it will successfully be revived afterward.

Tardigrades have additional survival strategies as well. If the oxygen content of their water medium drops too low to extract enough oxygen for respiration, they stretch out into a long, relaxed state, their metabolic rate reduced, and the relaxation of their muscles allowing as much water and oxygen to enter their cells as possible. If the temperature drops below freezing, they form a special cold-resistant tun, with molecules that prevent the formation of large ice crystals that could damage cell membranes. And their resistance to shortwave UV radiation is due is in part to their ability to efficiently repair damage to their DNA resulting from that exposure.

These are just a small sampling of the truly odd and unique life you can use as inspiration when you design your alien culture, but they should give you a place to start.

References

Helfman, G. S., Collette, B. B., and Facey, D. E. 1997. The Diversity of Fishes. 535 pp. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA.

Wiley, E. O. and Johnson, G. D. 2010. A teleost classification based on monophyletic groups. In J. S. Nelson, H.-P. Schultze, & M. V. H. Wilson (eds) Origin and Phylogenetic Interrelationships of Teleosts. Pp. 123-182, Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, München, Germany.

Maurice Burton & Robert Burton (1970). The International Wildlife Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Marshall Cavendish.