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.