Thursday, November 3, 2016

Species species of the Week week #11 OR Shells That Make Adolescents Titter

According to Google search results, there are two types people who are interested in this week's featured tautonymical snail: conchophiles and tittering adolescents(1). The former love the shell, the latter love to say its name and then giggle. I give you:

Volva volva

The Shuttlecock volva
So in your opinion, does this look like a good thing to hit over a net with a racket?
By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I don't know who came up with that common name, but I'm not convinced they ever actually played badminton, or maybe I'm missing the reference. I do know, however, that they certainly would have been popular in a class of tittering 9th graders.

The origin of "volva" is based in movement, "to roll, to wrap around". I make no comment or speculation about the subsequent derivation of anatomical names, but from a descriptive point of view, this tautonym makes quite a bit of sense, if it seems like it could be applied to any number of snails. That mystery solved, I moved on to learn more about the species, but much to my surprise in these things, there appears to be a group of people who are not that interested in this snail: non-taxonomist scientists. There really just isn't much published on this species' ecology, physiology, or whatever else it is other scientists do(2). What I can deduce is the following:
  • Range: Indo-west Pacific (duh, that's where all the beautiful shells come from!)
  • Member of the false cowries (Ovulidae) which are commonly predators or parasites. The name Ovulidae comes from the egg-like appearance of many of the shells in this group.
  • "Associated" with sea whips and sea pens suggesting kleptocnidae (kleptocnidae = stealing tiny harpoons from cnidarians and redeploying in self defense - read my previous post for more)
I think they are also even cooler looking when actually alive and inhabiting their shell (note to self: be sure not to accept suggested respelling of search terms when doing a Google Image search for this species):

What a wonderful candidate for an alien life form. When the snail is living, the mantle (the part the forms the "head" of an octopus) wraps around the shell, and the color and texture varies widely, presumably helping camouflage the snail on its host, though why anyone would want to try to eat this thing is beyond me. Photo:  CalAcademy

So, in the absence of compelling new ecology to tell you about, I dove down a rabbit hole (more tittering, I daresay) when researching this species and trying to pin down the name. I actually first became aware of double Volva when I saw a tweet by Emily Graslie, Chief Curiosity Correspondent at the Field Museum:

Even the monkeys are tittering! But looking at the entry for the species on WoRMS I noticed that the original name given by Linnaeus was actually Bulla volva(3). You might remember Linnaeus as the namer of all things. He is the heartthrob of many a biologist - or maybe I'm just projecting and I'm the only one who swoons when I think of his contribution to science? He's also the bane of most 9th graders, who have to figure out some freaking mnemonic(4) to make the classification system stick in their brains for 35 minutes or until the end of the quiz, whichever comes first. The Systema Naturae truly is a system, a language from which you could divine a great deal of information. Granted it was an early attempt and it seems unfathomable now that echinoderms got smushed into the same group as cnidarians, and, together with actual worms, were lumped into a group called Vermes in the first edition(5).

I digress. OK. So when Linnaeus chose a name for this snail he actually chose the name Bulla volva. Two things happened [to me, obvi] then:

1. I noticed some parentheses.

When you are writing a science-y thing, and you reference the "scientific" name of a species, you are technically supposed to also list the Species Authority(6) after the species name. So, for example, Charles Darwin was the first to describe and name the species of acorn barnacle common to the coasts of the northeast Pacific Ocean, so the name is written Balanus glandula Darwin, 1854. The idea is that this should help distinguish among homonyms and keep track of species for which the names have changed a bunch of times. The listing of Darwin, 1854, is called an author citation. For the shuttlecock volva, it's correctly cited as Volva volva (Linnaeus, 1758). <-- did you notice the parentheses too?! NOT A TYPO!

Now, when you read a lot of academic literature, your brain gets used to ignoring parentheses(7) because they bracket citations, and you only read the info in them if you are going to look up the reference(8). So, I assumed that the use of parentheses in some, but not all, author citations was just a stylistic thing. Turns out, it actually has meaning - so Systema-tic! The cited author, when in parentheses, was not the author of the currently accepted name. Now I will leave it to you to read into details on how it is determined just which lucky person gets cited as the authority(9), but nevertheless, this clarifies our situation with the 2x Volva. Linnaeus originally described it and put it in the genus Bulla, and later it was moved to a genus determined to be in better alignment with the known evolutionary relationships with other species - or whatever. The species formerly known as Bulla volva has been "synonymized" with Volva volva, and in fact so has the subspecies Volva volva volva (I KNOW!).

2. Linnaeus was pretty far off with Bulla, but a lot of others were too. 

I found a LOT of snails that were originally put into that genus that have since been moved. It seems Bulla was somewhat of a catchall that first caught because Linnaeus' Systema was a first pass, and anything roughly similar to that was going to end up in that genus. It's like creating a file hierarchy when you don't exactly know what the project will entail - you'll have to do some reorganization at some point.

Anyway, at first I didn't think much of the incorrect genus, it happens pretty often that species get reclassified when new info becomes available, and let's be real here, Linnaeus put slugs and worms together in a group called Reptilia, so.... But then I looked it up and the genus Bulla and found that it is in an entirely different group of gastropods, the Cephalaspideans, or bubble shells. As I will state for the 80th time in the Annals of Emily's Entirely Obvious Avowals, I am not a taxonomist, certainly not one of Linneausesses' caliber. I don't even consider myself a malacologist. But I was surprised about how far off this one was until I remembered I have a few hundred years of taxonomy at my fingertips that Linneaus didn't. In fact the major division among snails didn't even come about until the 1920s, and that has been superseded for paraphyly. Aaaaanyway... it was also likely that all Linneaus had to go on when classifying this organism was a shell, rather the whole animal. In any case, thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (seriously, it is not hyperbole to say that they are internet heroes, you guys) I can read ALL of the Systema with the fascinated smugness I have earned just be being born in the 21st century. It's perhaps more correct to say that I can LOOK AT all of the Systema, which is, of course, in Latin, and therefore mostly outside my pay grade. Here is the section introducing Bulla:
The naming of Volva volva, or Bulla volva! From the 10th ed. of Linnaeus' Systema.
So, the Animal part of Bulla is like a slug (Limax, at least I think) and the single (univalves) shell (Testa) is "wrapped" (all convoluta) as opposed to spiralis (which I think you can manage on your own). The opening is oblong, longitudinally oriented, and some other stuff I can't get at with Google Translate. You can see how Volva volva would fit in this rather broad description along with many, many, many, many snails.

The species itself is described on the last two lines of the page: it has a shell with two elongated rostra, which are the pointy bits at either end, and sharp grooves (sure, that sounds fine, if vague). He declared the origin to be Jamaica, which subsequent authorities have deemed to in error, and superseded(10)

There you go, the etymological origin of Volva volva. Do you think Linneaus was tittering? I imagine him as so focused and serious, he would have missed the point.

For a word nerd such as myself, or at least one who casually declares herself so in passing, but who admittedly has very little actual knowledge in linguistics, which must be the worst kind, this was a really fun exercise in history of scientific nomenclature and knowledge. I thank Emily Graslie for the inspiration to dive into this question, and my inner 9th grader for tittering in the back of my head this whole time.

References and Miscellany:

  1. I think I just made the adolescents titter even more! SO much tittering!
  2. That's all I can come up with at the moment, seems to reflect some sort of cognitive bias I probably have, but I can't remember the name of that type of bias which I figure means it's unimportant...
  3. Which is also pretty fun to say
  4. I think mine was King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti, which dates me as a pre-Domain girl. But thankfully they've updated the options since then, because, duh, ALL spaghetti is good! So that makes no sense!
  5. Vermes, to Linnaeus must have meant: confusing squshy thing. However, Google translate assures me that the description of the group means "body muscles on one side attached to the base of a rock". By the 10th edition, 23 years later, the system was a lot closer to recognizable organization.
  6. Emphasis mine for fanciness
  7. Some of you reading this, and having any acquaintance with my writing style will probably roll your eyes and say that you WISH I actually had been trained to ignore parentheses...
  8. Which I think my committee would agree is a huge waste of time - KIDDING!
  9. And believe you me, it's pretty lurid reading that includes sections like: "Currently most (but not all [ed. "great."]) taxonomists accept this view and restrict authorship for a taxonomic name to the person who was responsible for having written the textual scientific content of the original description, or in other words, the visibly responsible person for having written down what the publisher finally published."
  10. I'm sure that conversation went like:
"Yeah, that can't be right."
"Let's just assume he was wrong because it was 150 years ago"
"Yeah, you know nothing, Carl Linnaeus!"

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Zombie Crabs – Why Can’t We Get Us Some of Those?

I originally wrote this article for the Washington Sea Grant Crab Team newsletter, and you can read this and much more crazy things about marine life on the Crab Team webpage.

The yellow blob under the abdominal flap is not eggs, but the
extern of a female barnacle, Sacculina carcini. (By Auguste
Le Roux (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons).

In Europe, millions of zombie green crabs are roaming the shore. From the outside, you might not even realize they are brain dead, no longer truly a green crab, but have been transformed into a skittering, feasting, parasite-producing machine. Their metabolism has been co-opted, their reproductive system re-appropriated, their crabby will subjugated to the whims of the intruder they harbor – the parasitic barnacle Sacculina carcini.

Barnacle? That’s right. For these crabs infection is the stuff of horror films, but the monster in this case is not an animal we typically think of as gross or dangerous – though anyone who has tried to walk barefoot on a barnacle-encrusted rock might disagree. This species is one of a group of parasites called Rhizocephalans (meaning “root headed,” which will become clear later on). As free-swimming larvae, they look very much like other barnacles, progressing from a nauplius stage to a cypris – but here they diverge.

The great biological illustrator Ernst Haeckel visualized
what the root-like intern of Sacculina carcini would
look like inside the crab. And the blob of the extern
is exposed by the folded back abdomen (Wikipedia).
Imagine this: you are a European green crab, minding your own business, maybe poking around looking for some tasty polychaete worms or clams to eat, and you feel a slight tickle when something microscopic lands at the base of a hair on one of your legs, clinging to you by means of an antenna-like appendage. But you’re too distracted cruising around the shore to notice when the larvae — which has shed its shell, legs, eyes, and brain as it metamorphosed into a kentrogon (sounds like some kind of alien race, but is basically a sac of cells with a needle where the head used to be) — injects itself into your body through the base of that hair, and is released. Soon, the parasite attaches to your digestive system, and begins to grow thread-like structures that wrap around and along your nerves, like ivy growing up a tree – called the interna. The interna ultimately spread throughout your entire body, like the roots of a tree filling up a pot.

You might start to notice something going on when you begin to look like a female crab – that is, if you weren’t already female. One of the most bizarre effects of being infected with this barnacle is that, even though both sexes can be infected, male crabs are feminized by the parasite, causing them to have smaller claws and wider abdomens, like females (read a study on host feminization), paving the way for what happens next.

Gah! The life cycle of Sacculina carcini, from Goddard et al. 2005.
The barnacles that infect crabs are always female, and they use the crab as an egg factory, feeding off the crab and ultimately growing out through the underside of the crab to create a blobby structure called an externa, which is a large sac of barnacle reproductive tissue. The crab carries the externa just as if it were his or her own eggs. The barnacle eggs in the externa are fertilized by one or two free-swimming male cyprids, and then released as the next generation of zombifying parasites.

Needless to say, when you are carrying a sack of parasites on your abdomen, there’s no room for eggs of your own. Infected green crabs, both male and female, are fully castrated by the parasite. In addition, infection ultimately halts the process of molting, so crabs not only can’t grow any larger, but they also can’t replace any lost limbs. In spite of its gruesomeness, infection is not a death sentence for European green crabs; about half of the crabs infected in a laboratory experiment survived infection for at least 3 months. In the native range, some crabs also show scars on their carapace from carrying previous externae. However, those crabs can never recover their reproductive ability, and the female parasite can create multiple externae for the remaining life span of the crab.

How does this fit in with the global invasion of green crabs? In the native range of Carcinus maenas, about 16 percent of crabs are infected with Sacculina carcini (read the study), and given that about half of infected crabs die, this parasite could be a substantial part of population regulation. However, S. carcini has not followed European green crab to either the east or west coast of North America. It’s likely that the crabs that first traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, and later across the United States, were too young to bring the barnacle along as a hitchhiker. Additionally, because the male barnacle that fertilizes the female’s externa is free-swimming, the male and female barnacles need to make it to the new range at just the right times, but in different ways, which could be a very unlikely coincidence.

The lack of this, and other parasites, is one possible explanation for why European green crabs are larger here on the West Coast than they are in their native range (read the study). Combine a lack of parasites with relatively cold water (read the study), and it turns out that the biggest green crabs in the world have been found in the Pacific Northwest. Some claim to fame!

Your mind might already be leaping to the next logical question: Can we bring this parasite to help control populations of the European green crab on the West Coast? In the Salish Sea we do have native species of Rhizocephalan parasites, even some in the same group as this one. Nevertheless, it turns out bringing Sacculina carcini over is probably not a good idea. For those of you familiar with the history of cane toads in Australia, you’ll be relieved to hear that researchers here have been doing their homework when it comes to this parasite.

In a laboratory experiment in Santa Barbara, scientists tested whether several species of native crab could also be infected by Sacculina carcini. While more of the parasites settled on European green crab, when given the choice, they also settled on Dungeness crab and two species of shore crab that are found in our area (Hemigrapsus nudus and H. oregonensis). Dungeness crab were more likely to become infected with the parasite than any of the other species of crab, even when relatively few barnacles settled on them. What’s more, all of the native crabs that became infected died, compared to only about half of the European green crabs that were used for comparison, and many of the native crabs showed neurological impairment as a result of infection. A number of questions remain about whether the same patterns would occur in the field, but for now, the risk to native crabs is significant enough to warrant caution.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday Fluff #4: For when enough is enough

Enough is officially z'nuff and I pronounce this week over. It's been a long and pretty sad week as, amidst the national pain following the shooting in Orlando, the field of ecology lost a literally towering figure with the passing of Bob Paine. There's been a lot of opportunity to reflect on his contributions to the field, and I've spent time reading some of his interviews (including one I participated in) as well as pieces others have written about him. I think the best thing to do is to take some time to marvel at the ridiculously elegant nonsense that nature has come up with, and then get back to work.

With that in mind, here is some ridiculously elegant nonsense that is perfect.

Thing the first:

When mollusks collide, arthropods win.

Thing the second:

I meant to post this months ago when David Bowie died. I think the unintentional wait was worth it, because the content has kept growing. I have a soft spot for the sailor version of Onchodoris muricata...

Thing the third:

I also loved this recent video from Emily Graslie at the Field Museum. She meets with the Invert Collections Manager, Jochen Gerber, who pulls some of the coolest snails out to talk about with her. I know they are the coolest because they are my favorites too, including the Snail of Ice and Fire, Aviator Snails, and Conchologist's Conch. I also got some inspiration for a future Species species of the Week week...but more on that later.

I'm now on Twitter, because I heard it was a dying medium - so I think that makes me hipster?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Game of Shells OR A Song of Calcium and Mucus

Who's pumped for the premiere of the first season of Game of Thrones to surpass the plot as written in the book series?! I'm pumped! Even the mollusks are pumped! Jumping on the bandwagon left and right, so why don't I join them.

Get ready for Game of Shells...cue intro music(2).

A Parade of Champions! Chrysomallon squamiferum

Father of Sand Snakes Snail, Kingslayer Snail, and Emo Snail: By Chong Chen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
You could be forgiven for mistaking this trio of well-protected knights as the Lords of Westeros, but in fact these are just three deep sea snails (Chrysomallon squamiferum) who are seriously into cosplay. We have, of course, (top left) The Red Viper of Dorne, Oberyn Martel, (top, right) Kingslayer Jaime Lannister in his Kingsguard gold armor and white cloak, and, naturally, front, center, and brooding as ever, Jon Snow in his Night's Watch blacks.

These guys are into extremely realistic armor reconstruction, and that chain mail is actually made of iron (except the white one, it turns out), even if does look a bit like shag carpeting. The so-called Iron Snail is a denizen of deep water hydrothermal vents(3), particularly those known as black smokers which are spewing water so hot (>350C or 660 degrees Farenheit) that it has dissolved iron sulfide in it.

That's right, these snails live in what is basically a volcano and use the lava to make their own armor. Cosplay or not, these snails are freaking terrifying/awesome/amazing/terrifying(4). And I haven't even gotten to the part where they enslave bacteria to live in their guts and make their food for them!

Appearance and present metaphors notwithstanding, we don't yet know what these iron scales are really for. Defense seems an obvious possibility(5), one that is perhaps supported by the fact that their operculum (the door the snail closes when it hides in its shell) has become so small as to actually be embarrassing. You could imagine these guys retracting into their shell when faced with, say, a terrible-claw lobster (it's an ACTUAL THING), and facing their enemy with hundreds of plates of Nope. 

Another theory is that they make the scales and fill them with iron because they have to to keep from getting poisoned by all the iron, i.e. detox. The shell is also covered with iron-rich compounds like pyrite (fools cold) and greigite - the latter of which makes the snail, you guessed it, magnetic. That could be a serious/hilarious liability on the battlefield(6).

Nevertheless, I bet Sansa Stark wishes she had Chrysomallon squamiferum as a champion instead of useless Ser Loras(7), I know I do. You can read more about this snail from people who actually know something about it here.

Eyes in the back of his...back!

Ready for battle, or to just sit there and avoid it by pretending it's not happening, is that chiton poop I see? Clearly we've scared the pseudofeces out of him. Sorry guy.

I can't quite put my finger on the right Game of Thrones reference for this one. Maybe Bran's three eyed raven pal? Regardless, clearly this guy is ready for battle because he can see a threat coming from any direction. Chitons, which I really don't spend enough time on on this blog, are like slugs with interlocking plates on their back. They look a lot like pill bugs you find under rocks, or maybe armadillos, but they are not even close to either. The main way they stay alive is to, quite literally, keep a low profile, and be really hard to get off the rock (8)

But it takes energy to suction your body to a rock, and it means that you can't move to the next patch of artisinal and highly nutritious rock goop, so they can't do it all the time. But how do they tell they are in danger and need to batten down the hatches when their face is stuck to a rock? They cover their armor with hundreds of tiny eyes! Tiny eyes that are made of minerals! Which actually scientists have known about for a long time, but only just figured out how they work! Here's a video (they need some better background music, might I suggest (2)), and another piece about it, mo science here. Totally sweet and and completely paranoid security system. 

So who will be the next favorite to get Ned-Starked? Whatever, there's no way of knowing, and 
honestly, so much of the speculation around who dies next is basically meaningless, because you don't know(9). NONE of you knows. I think we can be confident it won't be any of our mollusk champions though. If only because they aren't actually on the show - which is perhaps the only way to be safe from George R.R. Martin's cruel cruel imagination.

References and Miscellany

(1) What happened to number 1? It became 9 and I didn't feel like renumbering. Deal
(2) Please keep that on repeat as you read this post. You're welcome.
(3) You know the places that spawn only things that you see on some documentary about what a freak show Nature is, and then they definitely return to haunt your nightmares pretending to be your Committee grilling you at your defense? Oh wait, or is that just me?
(4) butreallytheyareterrifying
(5) These guys like that theory too.  
(6) Why is that not a Wile E Coyote bit?!
(7) I can probably just look this up on ASOIAF wiki, but what is the deal with "Ser". Why is everything in these books just spelled to confuse, is it really a necessary part of the world building? Cripes.
(8) Wow there's a lot of these this time: This one was just to point out that there is a reason I do my research on snails, you just try collecting thousands of chitons one at a time).
(9) But I can recommend this well-reasoned approach.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Grinnin' and pickin' OR From the Annals of Never Again Cited Research

Exhibit A. The author, birthday princess, destroys crustaceans as celebration ritual. Date? Let's just say: pre-Y2K.
At right, the one remaining shot glass I can find. There was definitely an "I got crabs in Maryland" one at some point.
A lot of people, especially in the PNW, love crabs because they are tasty, but, and here is a confession that I hope nobody ever finds out: I don't eat crabs [anymore]. I grew up in Maryland and every year for my birthday we'd pick blue crabs. I remain fiercely proud of that part of my heritage, as evidenced my collection of unused shot glasses. But by college I had phased all meat, including seafood, out of my diet. My crab-picking skills, earned at the cost of a thousand million cuts to that sensitive part of my fingers between the nail and last knuckle, seasoned with Old Bay and left sizzling for days(1), are moot, a party trick at best.

I love crabs because they are fierce, because they have personality, and they have a rep for holding it down in the intertidal. I enjoy feeding crabs by hand because I'm a total weirdo, and I find it completely satisfying. Here, you watch this and tell me if I'm crazy.

Super intense, right!?(2)

There are numerous examples in the literature of crabs keeping snails at bay by just straight up eating them. Thus, you might surmise, if you have read way back in this blog to the part where I used to write about actual science that I actually did, that I would be reeeeeeeally curious to see if crabs would eat any of my invasive snails - in particular my favorite Mollusca Non-Grata, the Japanese oyster drill (Ocenebra inornata(3)). Previous research, done by,  *cough cough*, yours truly, pointed to at least a willingness of crabs to eat these snails when you throw them in a bucket together. But that's frankly pretty unimpressive - crabs will eat anything you throw them in a bucket with. What happens in natura(4)?

It was just like this...Photo of the author in her natural habitat
Credit: Nima Yazdani.
Answering that question was the goal of my summer of 2011. And if you're wondering, gee, Emily, that was HALF OF A DECADE AGO, why are you telling us about this now? It turns out half a decade is exactly how long it took me to get this work published(5)!

I'll set the scene: Emily, way out on a beautifully restored native oyster bed on only the sunniest of sunny PNW days, clean and well rested, scratching her chin and waxing genius about ecological dynamics of restoration.

J slash K. It was nothing like that. I had so much generous help. Second off, it never looked like I had it together out there even for a second. Field work is a slog. When you do work in the intertidal, it's a panicked slog, as you race to get your work done before the tide comes back. In the muddy intertidal, it's a panicked slog in painful, hilariously clumsy, slow motion as you race against the returning tide ankle deep in mud. I consider myself relatively fleet of foot in moving across mud in waders, but it's not pretty, I assure you.

So I called for help. I had a slew of helpers: 

  • Nima, a classmate's husband, who was interested in seeing what the work of scientists actually looks like. He took the beautiful picture above.  I'm grateful not to have seen any close ups of what I actually looked like that day. 
  • Avanthi, a classmate's girlfriend (now wife :) ), who was an amazing trooper, helping me swap out oysters on very little sleep as I recall. 
  • Marie, my actual classmate, she and I carried approximately 17 million tons of rebar down the shore and across the mud - how we did it, I can't remember. I think it was one of those, well, there's really no one else who's going to do it if we don't - moments.
I also had excellent logistical support from a number of people:
  • Brian Allen at Puget Sound Restoration Fund helped me get access to the oyster beds, which were under PSRFs restoration care - they put out old oyster shell to provide habitat for new babies to settle on. Brian also tried his best to teach me to pilot a tiny Whaler with an outboard, and I discovered that there are some skills that I need more than 2.5 minutes to learn. To this day, I cannot operate an outboard.
  • Joth who gave me sacrificial oysters from his own farm! That's right, the shirt off his back to support graduate research. 
  • Molly and her father Greg, who helped ferry me said oysters.
  • Jen, my advisor, who taught me how to make oyster pops, and helped me secure lots of random supplies for building cages. "Sure, you need 20 old oyster bags? I'll have Alan bring them up and leave them outside Kincaid". 
  • Not LEAST, Dave and Sue, the amazing couple who not only helped me get beach access from shore (note previous comment about inability to learn how to pilot a boat), but invited me in for coffee (pre tide flat) and soda (post tide flat) multiple times. Seriously, I can't tell you how much I love meeting the lovely shoreline owners!
This list doesn't even include my co-author Eric, who stuck it out with me through a long writing, rewriting, analyzing, re-analyzing, revising, and, yes, re-revising, which was evidently so traumatic that it caused his lung call it quits and spontaneously collapse. Sorry, Eric.

So that picture where I'm out there looking like John Muir on my own doing science and looking ruggedly picturesque - that's not what it's like. This is a list of 11 people who made this one tiny(6) experiment possible, and that doesn't include the grad students who reached deep into their closets and donated as many wire hangers as they could muster (which, naturally, I didn't end up needing...), and Alan who drove the oyster bags up from Willapa, and Eddie who tolerated the mess I made on the loading dock, and the guy who stole all the rebar from the loading dock - wait that last one maybe doesn't need a thank you.

But you get the point. It takes a village people, this is how the sausage is made, and now the paper is published (Link here click on me, I am a link and I will take you to Emily and Eric's paper, and you clicking on me will increase the paper stats! Even if you don't think that sort of thing should be important, it is. So click on me, come on, why haven't you clicked yet? Seriously, you read this far and haven't clicked? For Shame! <--Did you find the Easter egg in there? is it an Easter egg if I tell you it's in there?). 

In classic Emily style, I managed to get my act together to write this post only too late to give you access to the paper via the temporary open access link. Now it is paywalled (but you can email me). So I'll have to write another post where I tell you what all the fuss was even for, but first, I have to remember.

(Fair warning: there's a good chance you will be disappointed).

References and Miscellany

1. Seriously, I love Old Bay, but the trauma of picking remains in my flesh memory. 
2. Confession number two of this post: mostly I just put that music on there to cover up my voice in the video. I thought this added an air of drama to the proceedings. The crabs I trained to eat from my forceps were really chill, they knew they didn't need to go crazy to get their din din.
3. For more history on previous work with this species, check out OG Blog stuffs here and here.
4. How completely obnoxious is it to say it in Latin instead of just swapping the last "a" for an "e"?!
5. Even after I quadrupled the number of monkeys working at typewriters and it STILL took that long!
6. Really, I can't even tell you how small this in the scheme of things, and yet what an unbelievable amount of work it was.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Snails on my face?! WHERE DO I SIGN UP?!

My brother sent me this picture last night, and at first I chuckled because I thought it was a typo.

Should be "nail repair cream" Hahahaha. Snail repair cream! That would be pretty funny, can you imagine?! Think of all the crushed snails I could put back together with this amazing product! Hahahaha. And then I stopped laughing because the word "snail" was repeated in the byline. Oh they're not joking, I'm really supposed to repair snails with this?

Nope, the snails repair me! Oooooh!

First ingredient is "Snail secretion filtrate" (1). Hmm... Don't get me wrong, it should, perhaps be clear from this blog that I'm 100% fine with snail slime(2). But who says that "secretion" is slime anyway? The USDA should really get a better grip on that. I can think of lots of other things that snails secrete that I have no interest in having on my face. But OK, for the sake of argument, let's take them at their implication that it is slime, or snail mucin, which is a little more precise.

At this point, most of you are probably bored by my completely predictable failure to pay attention to anything that's going on in the world, and this snails-on-your-face thing has been all the buzz for a while. To which my response is an exasperated, tired, Duh. I'm always 3 years late on everything(3) and, thankfully for you, my point here is not "Whaaa? People are crazy!" Because that is 100% obvious and goes without saying. I mean really, it's insulting how little you think of me.

Meta-self-critique aside, I get that people put snails on their faces and it's the best thing they ever did for themselves. And you know what, that's fine. Whatever, you do you, and feel good about it, and that's great.

But the burning question, here, is how do you get the snail mucus in the jar?

Thank God there is a sub-Reddit on that very subject. These contributors were very interested in snail welfare, which is more than most, so good on 'em. Helpfully, there are two videos (in French(4)). Studying marine snails, I haven't really paid much mind to snail farming, Heliculture for us jargon snobs, which is, of course, a thing because escargots. Culinary snails are mostly terrestrial, literally the kind you find in your garden(5). Basically, snail farms do look like my garden - glad I'm doing something right there - complete with little snail shelters, which are boards you flip over and, predictably, are covered with a ton of honkin' snails.

In both of the slime-iculture videos, snail slime is acquired by agitating the snails, poking or shaking them to get them to produce slime. In Chile, a small collective of women gather the slime by hand, first rinsing colanders of snails, then holding them up one at a time while gently prodding them with a stick and allowing the slime to drip into a jar (that jar full of snail goo was admittedly a little difficult to look at). In France, the operation is more mechanized: against a stainless steel backdrop, several hundred snails are suspended in netted mesh bags and gently shaken, either mechanically or by hand, over a tub that collects the elicited slime.

Happy Snail?
One Redditor comments that the shaking method looks "less nice" than the gentle stroking the Chilean women give the snails. I suspect that reaction has more to do with the stainless steel than the snail's actual experience. Because, let's not kid ourselves here, in either case, to the snail, these processes are the equivalent of a hungry bird, repeatedly poking at the snail hiding in its shell, or tossing it around to crack the shell. This is a stress response. A snail does not expend that much energy producing so much mucus because it is "relaxed"(6)

Why would it produce slime in response to a threat? My first thought was that the mucus could be distasteful to predators (think skunk), but according to this source, it is evidently not distasteful to, SCIENCE! Somebody taste tested snail slime. Good job, that person's parents. Maybe birds hate it, even if humans don't, but it probably does at least help them crawl faster - for that iconic, white-knuckled, snail getaway scene, naturally. 

So what's the basis of putting snails on your face? Oh, the things we of the fairer sex do for beauty! Proponents cite the presence of glycolic acid and allantoin, Wikipedia lists hyaluronic acid as well. Glycolic acid you will be familiar with if you, like me, enjoy having a thin layer of your face burned off periodically - for that fresh, chemical-plant-accident look that's all the rage these days. Allantoin has anti-inflammatory properties, and perhaps contributes to the wound-healing properties snail slime is thought to have. Hyaluronic acid is an ingredient in particularly fancy moisturizers.

It's the size of your fist, people. No. Just, no.
I admit that I have no comment on whether this works or is worth it. There is probably some research somewhere, or should be, characterizing the mucus of various species and production methods, to optimize the various goodies contained within. You can even PUT GIANT AFRICAN LAND SNAILS ON YOUR FACE, if you're into that, although not in this country where they are a prohibited species - you know, hugely destructive invasive and whatnot. You probably won't get Angiostrongylus cantonensis as long as you aren't eating raw snails "on a dare". 

References and Miscellany
(1) PLEASE for the love of GOD, someone tell cosmetics companies that the species is not capitalized in binomial names! Every damn bottle of whatever in my cabinet makes this mistake.

(2) And in fact, I have used snail slime in my experiments. Long story short, I was trying to fake snails into thinking they were in a room with a lot of other snails, so I had some Judas snails lay snail trails in a tub before removing them, giving the remaining snails the impression that the room was more crowded than it really was.

(3)  BT-dubs, have you guys heard of this thing called Kombucha!? It's amazing because it's totally alive, just like me!

(4) Thank you Mme. Pollero - I actually can understand more of these than I expected!

(5) Some people do eat marine snail, queen conch. But between the shells and the meat, it's an astoundingly overfished species - not recommended.

(6) Whatever emotions humans conveniently project on these creatures to make ourselves feel better even though 100% of the rest of the time we consider them as good as rocks. And don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing that this handling of snails is cruel, certainly not worse than things we do to the food we eat. I suspect the poking treatment seems "kinder" because it's a small group of women sitting around chatting in a room while handling one snail at a time. The women sure are relaxed, so presumably the snails must be also. But the stainless steel of the shaking treatment makes it look industrial, which I guess it is, but that probably doesn't matter to the individual snails.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Fluff #3: For When Enough is Enough

Thing the first: Thar Be Snail Ogres!

Does this look like a beautiful lady to you?
What is the DEAL with sailors?!
Image by Toriyama Sekien via Wikipedia
I'm sharing a cool Echinoblog post I found in the only way anyone finds anything these days - Twitter. In time for halloween, Christopher Mah describes the mythology of and actual inspiration for several Japanese monsters. This being a Mollusc-centric blog, I will feature the Snail Ogre, Sazae-oni, here, which somehow transfigures into a drowning woman, or something convincingly enough like it to attract sailors, who become the snail's next meal. The real snail this legend is based off of is the horned turban snail (Turbo cornutus1). This image also reminds me of Aku.

There are a number of other monsters on there that are worth checking out and attempting at Halloween costumes, such as the Samurai crab, and/or Stephen Hawking, and the internet darling of the year, the dumbo squid.

Thing the second: Killer Whale Espionage

Because you know you want a giant orca photo...L94 and her baby nursing in BROAD DAYLIGHT! She's not even using a blanket, how indecent! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium
The world is all atwitter, quite literally, about the use of drones in research of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. I've blabbed about some of the recent population growth of this group (here), and there have been even more calves born this year. NOAA just released a video podcast show-and-tell of some recent photos obtained via hexacopter. The contraption, which is strapped to two pool noodles for flotation, flies above the whales to get good pictures of them without disturbing them. They can ID and measure the whales to track growth rates.

Surveillance photos indicate that the babies keep on coming (welcome, Baby L-122!), and the hexacopter provides insight into family life of the growing pods. This year has been a good year for the whales, lots of babies and seemingly well-fed whales. Hopefully that trend lasts.

Thing the third: See Slug Day!

Yesterday was Sea Slug Day! I don't really even have that much to say about it, except that it's worth trolling #SeaSlugDay for the photos, but don't say I didn't warn you that it was a black hole of a time suck! You sort of start to wonder if this group isn't really just an alien race living among us. Or we are a prison planet for all of some other planet's criminals: what with kleptoplasty, and kleptocnidae - they're evidently really just into stealing things, evidently.

Super cutie: O. muricata on E. pilosa

As an undergraduate, I did research on what is the least colorful species in the most colorful group of organisms in the world - Onchidoris muricata. That doesn't mean it wasn't charismatic! I was researching whether this tiny white blob, which you would be well within your rights to assume was some previous beach walker's snot rocker, was interested in eating an invasive bryozoan(2), in the Gulf of Maine. The bryozoan, Membranipora membranacea, was super abundant there, growing all over rocks and kelps. We gave the snot rocket nudibranch a choice between it's presumed preferred food (a native bryo Electra pilosa) and the new bryozoan (which they are probably serving at that gastro street-food from around the world fad place down the street from me), and found that the slug preferred to eat the fancy new food, and could eat it faster.

This was back in 2004, when we wondered, what could this mean for future slugs? Just this year, people are starting to think about whether invasive species are good food for native species - they could be right? Well it turns out that in a lot of cases, they are often beneficial as a supplement to a balanced diet, so they don't harm native species. But on their own, they aren't as good as the diet the predator evolved to eat. So, no you can't have Doritos for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner.

Phew, for Friday fluff, that really was some academic non-sense I just prattled on about(3)! Here's a palate-cleansing video... 

Check out this video I found in my archives. Marney Pratt, my Advisor on the project, grew some bryozoans onto a microscopes slide, and fed them a red algae so that they would show up clearly against the background: the red dots you see are individual bryozoans, called zooids. The big white blob is a single Onchidoris, and you're looking at it from beneath, through the side of a tank and the glass slide. Marney filmed this time lapse of the slug eating a single zooid. If you watch closely, there is one zooid that gets slurped out of its little house toward the bottom right. This is sort of like how an oyster drill (predatory snail) consuming an oyster in that "sucks-his-guts-out" is still an applicable description.

SEE! I told you they were charismatic!

References and Miscellany

1. For Turbo Corn Nuts see disambiguation.
2. Bryo (= moss) zoan (= animal). These are colonial organisms that do really cool defensive stuff...maybe some other day though...
3. But if you weren't completely deterred, you could read the paper we (/Marney) wrote here.