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.

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