Last week I asked for nominations for the title of Most Incredible Organism Ever. Thank you very much to those of you who responded with your selections. Some of them were organisms I'd already selected myself, some of you reminded me of amazing organisms that were even better than the ones that I'd considered*. Certainly, getting the list down to ten top nominations was not easy, and I'm sure anyone else would have chosen differently from myself. Allen Hazen pointed out that, strictly speaking, "incredible" means "inspires disbelief", and certainly some of the things I have lined up do exactly that.
*As an aside, something that never fails to amuse is looking up what Google search terms have brought people to Catalogue of Organisms. Trust me, "amazing organism" is bound to bring in the punters.
Honorable mentions should be given to those organisms that people nominated that I didn't end up using, because they're certainly all incredible. Allen Hazen suggested the platypus, while Alan nominated the aye-aye. Dave Coulter was all for the Osage orange, while Amie Roman asked me to "pick an onychophoran, any onychophoran".
But I'm afraid I ended up passing over these wonders. In no particular order, here are my nominations for "Most Incredible Organism" (click on the pictures to be taken to their source):
Homo sapiens Linnaeus, 1758: Both myself and Mike Keesey agreed on this one. As much as I hate to stoke this species' notoriously smug satisfaction, it has to be admitted that humans are pretty amazing. Douglas Adams once explained that "The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?" As far as we know, Homo sapiens is the only species on this planet to have reached Adam's second stage, let alone the third.
Polyascus polygenea (Lützen and Takahashi, 1997): Polyascus polygenea is a member of the Rhizocephala, notorious crustacean parasites of crabs. The larval rhizocephalan looks very similar to the larva of a barnacle (to which it is closely related), but when it finds a decapod host it burrows in and transforms into an almost fungus-like mass spreading through the hosts body. The only externally visible part of the parasite is its large egg-sac (the orange tube in the picture above, which does not show a Polyascus but another rhizocephalan species, Peltogaster paguri). The rhizocephalan egg-sac grows at the base of the crab's tail, where it would normally hold its own eggs. In order to make sure this spot is free, the rhizocephalan chemically castrates its host, preventing it from ever reproducing. It also affects its host's behaviour so that the crab lovingly tends the parasite's egg-sac as if it were its own. So powerful is the parasite's mental ju-ju that even male hosts that would not naturally produce eggs will tend the parasite just as a female would.
Vasha nominated the best-known rhizocephalan, Sacculina carcini, but I've decided to go with Polyascus polygenea because this species adds a further twist to the tale. A single Sacculina larva will give rise to a single egg-sac. But Polyascus reproduces within the host asexually by budding, so that one larva will give rise to multiple egg-sacs (Glenner et al., 2003).
Polyascus is also acting as the stand-in for all mind-controlling parasites. As we learn more about the natural history of parasitic organisms, it turns out that behavioral control of parasites over their hosts is not uncommon. Parasitic wasps make caterpillars guard the wasp's cocoons. Horsehair worms make crickets drown themselves so the aquatic adult worm can emerge. Tanya reminded me about Cordyceps unilateralis, a fungal parasite of ants that, when it's ready to produce spores, makes its host climb to the highest available point so that the spores will spread as far as possible. The ways of parasites are disturbing. And speaking of disturbing...
Acarophenax tribolii Newstead & Duvall, 1918: It is not uncommon for pregnant women to express delight at feeling their baby kick inside them. But what if it was doing more than just kicking? Mites of the genus Acarophenax are parasites of beetles that can claim to have perhaps the just-plain-ickiest life history of any animal. The sex ratio of this genus is highly skewed - depending on the species, a brood may contain up to thirty females, but usually only a single male. These offspring reach sexual maturity before they are even born, and the male proceeds to fertilise all of his sisters while still within their mother. In fact, the male doesn't even survive to become free-living - by the time the already-fertilised females emerge from their parent, the male has reached the end of his short (but extremely busy) lifespan. The advantage to the mite in this twisted incestuous life cycle? An exceedingly short generation time, of course - Acarophenax mahunkai, for instance, has a generation time of only three to five days (Steinkraus & Cross, 1993).
Mites of the closely related family Pyemotidae have a similar life cycle - the offspring reach full sexual maturity while in their mother, and begin copulating the instant that they emerge from their proud parent. Females of Pyemotes herfsi (shown in the picture above), known as "itch mites" and facultative biters of humans, can produce more than 250 fully mature offspring.
Welwitschia mirabilis Hook.f.: I also have to thank Tanya for reminding me of the wonder that is Welwitschia. Welwitschia mirabilis is unique to the Namib Desert in Angola and Namibia, and is a member of the gymnosperm order Gnetales along with the genera Ephedra and Gnetum. The Gnetales have received a lot of attention due to their much-debated phylogeny (morphological characters suggest they are the living sister group to angiosperms, while molecular analyses place them closer to conifers), but that's not what's so amazing about Welwitschia. It's not even the bright pink, insect-pollinated cones. What makes this plant so incredible is the way it grows. Welwitschia mirabilis only ever produces two adult leaves, followed by the death of the plant's apical meristem (growing tip). The two strap-like leaves, however, continue to grow indefinitely, and can reach lengths of over eight metres (most individuals look like they have more than two leaves, but this is only because of the leaves splitting as the ends get frayed). Welwitschia is very slow-growing, and individual specimens can live to be hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
Argentinosaurus huinculensis Bonaparte & Coria, 1993: There's no other way to say it - sauropods were just stupidly huge. And Argentinosaurus was one of the most ridiculous of all, being the largest well-characterised sauropod (potentially outdone only by such almost-apocryphal taxa as Amphicoelias fragillimus and Bruhathkayosaurus matleyi). With an estimated total length of nearly thirty metres, and potential weight of up to 80 tonnes... well, there's nothing much that can be said in response except "Whoa".
Sauropods are so huge that when a popular blog was set up dedicated to them, the site authors couldn't fit in the entire animal and were forced to dedicate themselves to a single section. I refer, of course, to the famed Sauropod Vertebra Picture Of the Week - SV-POW!. Rumour has it, however, that a second site is in the works devoted to sauropod crania, to be called "Sauropod Heads - Anatomy, Zoology And Morphology".
Rhizanthella slateri (Rupp) M. A. Clem. & P. J. Cribb, 1984: Rhizanthella is a small genus of three orchid species unique to Australia. What makes Rhizanthella so amazing is that its entire life cycle is spent underground. The plant is saprophytic, dependent on an associated fungus for nutrition, and its stems are entirely subterrean. Even the flowers do not have to break the surface - they are pollinated by minute gnats that can reach them through tiny cracks in the covering litter. The first known Rhizanthella specimens were discovered in 1928 when they were brought up by a farmer's plough, and only intermittent finds were made for a long time afterwards. Even today, their obscure habits mean that Rhizanthella species are poorly known. Sad to say, they are also all regarded as endangered. They are only known from restricted, scattered ranges, limited by the presence of their associated fungus and the tree of which it is in turn connected to mycorrhizally (in Rhizanthella gardneri, the tree is Melaleuca uncinata, but the associations of Rhizanthella slateri are still unknown).
Vasha reminded me of Rhizanthella by telling me of the American saprophytic plant Thismia americana, which also spends most of its life underground with only the minute flowers emerging above the surface. Thismia americana has not been recorded since 1916, and is feared to be extinct, though it is hard to know for certain. As described at the link, an intensive search in the early 1990s failed to find any specimens, but a concurrent dummy run using scattered white beads about the same size as T. americana flowers was also a failure.
Puccinia monoica Arthur, 1912: The object of the photo above is not a flower. It grew from a flowering plant, but it's not a flower. Puccinia monoica is a fungus parasitic on Brassicaceae (mustard) species. Like rhizocephalans on their crabs, Puccinia monoica changes the reproductive biology of its host, preventing it from growing its own flowers. Instead, it makes the host plant grow a tight whorl of leaves, which are covered by the bright yellow sporangia of the fungus. Not only does the fungus-induced 'false flower' look like a real flower, it even produces nectar and scent like a real flower, attracting insect pollinators just like a real flower would (Raguso & Roy, 1998). And just like pollen from a real flower, these pollinators carry spores from fungus to fungus, cross-fertilising the fungi as they do so.
Deinococcus radiodurans (ex Raj et al. 1960) Brooks and Murray 1981: A dose of radiation of 10 joules per kilogram will kill a human being. Sixty joules per kilogram will kill Escherichia coli. Deinococcus radiodurans may look like a fairly unremarkable bacterium at first glance, but it can withstand a radiactive dose of 5000 joules per kilogram and not even blink (that is, if it had eyes they wouldn't blink). It can withstand radiation so strong that its genome is simply blasted to pieces, stoically knitting the fragments back together again afterwards. Deinococcus can withstand extreme heat, extreme cold, and strong acidity. In a pun so bad that it demands to be repeated, this organism has been dubbed Conan the Bacterium. Pavlov et al. (2006) went so far as to suggest that Deinococcus' incredible resilience to radiation indicated an extraterrestrial origin, carried from Mars on an asteroid, but it seems more likely to be a by-product of resilience to other stressors such as desiccation (Cox & Battista, 2005). Still, one can't help wondering if, even if it didn't come from Mars in the first place, it has managed to make it over there on one of Earth's probes.
So resistant is Deinococcus to everything possibly imaginable, in fact, that we still have no idea where it lives naturally. It was first isolated from cans of irradiated beef, and has not yet been found to be abundant in any particular environment. Phylogenetically, Deinococcus forms a clade with the thermophilic bacterium Thermus (one species of which, Thermus aquaticus, is of enormous significance to molecular biology as the source of the Taq enzyme used in PCR). This clade is most commonly referred to (rather unimaginatively) as the Deinococcus-Thermus group, but I personally prefer the name given to them by Cavalier-Smith (2002) - Hadobacteria, the bacteria of Hades.
Proteus anguinus anguinus Laurenti, 1768: The white olm, the only truly cave-dwelling tetrapod (the closely related black olm, Proteus anguinus parkelj, is a surface-dweller). [Update: Much to my chagrinn, Nick Sly has reminded me that there are other cave-dwelling salamanders out there.] I've included the olm not only for its own sake, but as a representative of the entire world of troglobitic and stygobitic fauna (troglobitic animals are those that live in actual caves while stygobitic taxa live buried in the ground, usually in aquifers). In this strange, silent world, animals are almost entirely dependent on food particles washing down from the surface, so life underground is slow, and patient. Troglobites can go for incredible amounts of time without eating - Darren Naish informs us of an olm that was supposedly kept at the Faculty of Biotechnology in Ljubljana without food for twelve years! If that is what a large, complex vertebrate is capable of, imagine what is possible for the smaller invertebrates with their lower metabolic requirements.
And last, but certainly not least:
Wasmannia auropunctata (Roger, 1863): Commonly known as the little fire ant or electric ant (the latter name has been promoted in recent years to dissuade confusion with the larger, not closely related fire ants of the genus Solenopsis), Wasmannia auropunctata is regarded as one of the world's worst invasive organisms. It has been linked with decreases in biodiversity in locations to which it has been introduced, and has a painful sting to boot. It also has one of the world's most remarkable reproductive systems (Fournier et al., 2005). Like other ants, Wasmannia has both haploid males and diploid females, with the females divided between reproductive queens and non-reproductive workers. Genetically, though, Wasmannia is a little different from other ants. While males appear to mate with queens the normal way, only workers are produced by male fertilisation. Any new queens that are produced are genetically identical to their mothers. Still, the male lineage doesn't disappear - somehow, the male genes are able to eliminate the female genes from some of the eggs, and the resulting male Wasmannia are genetically identical to their fathers.
Wasmannia is one of very few organisms that exhibit androgenesis - clonally reproducing males. The only other known natural habitual cases are a cypress species, Cupressus dupreziana, and freshwater bivalves in the genus Corbicula, though odd cases of androgenesis have been recorded in laboratory and cultivated organisms (Hedtke et al., 2008). Effectively, the male and female Wasmannia are reproductively isolated from each other - they are separate species.
Cox, M. M., & J. R. Battista. 2005. Deinococcus radiodurans — the consummate survivor. Nature Reviews: Microbiology 3 (11): 882–892.
Fournier, D., A. Estoup, J. Orivel, J. Foucaud, H. Jourdan, J. Le Breton & L. Keller. 2005. Clonal reproduction by males and females in the little fire ant. Nature 435: 1230-1234.
Glenner, H., J. Lützen & T. Takahashi. 2003. Molecular and morphological evidence for a monophyletic clade of asexually reproducing Rhizocephala: Polyascus, new genus (Cirripedia). Journal of Crustacean Biology 23: 548-557.
Hedtke, S. M., K. Stanger-Hall, R. J. Baker & D. M. Hillis. 2008. All-male asexuality: origin and maintenance of androgenesis in the Asian clam Corbicula. Evolution 62 (5): 1119-1136.
Pavlov, A. K., V. L. Kalinin, A. N. Konstantinov, V. N. Shelegedin & A. A. Pavlov. 2006. Was Earth ever infected by martian biota? Clues from radioresistant bacteria. Astrobiology 6 (6): 911-918.
Raguso, R. A., & B. A. Roy. 1998. 'Floral' scent production by Puccinia rust fungi that mimic flowers. Molecular Ecology 7 (9): 1127-1136.
Steinkraus, D. C, & E. A. Cross. 1993. Description and life history of Acarophenax mahunkai, n. sp. (Acari, Tarsonemina: Acarophenacidae), an egg parasite of the lesser mealworm (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 86 (3): 239-249.
Information and Structure in Complex Systems
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