Field of Science


First and foremost, Circus of the Spineless is back! Get your invertebraty goodness at The Other 95%.

Secondly, at some point in the not-too-distant future, I will be composing a post with a line-up of the the most incredible organisms of all time. As part of my preparation for that post, I'd like to hear what your nominations for the title would be. They can be living or fossil, abundant or exotic, animal, plant or otherwise. I only have one little challenge to the question - I'd like individual species. If you think the most incredible organisms are, say, ants or asteroids*, then try to think about what specifically is the coolest ant or asteroid out there. If you could also tell me why your nomination(s) are so cool, that'd be great.

*I'm being deliberately vague about whether I'm referring to asteroids the animals, or asteroids the plants.


  1. Etymologically, "incredible" means unbelievable: so an incredible organism would be one that inspiresw disbelief. The only mammalian example that comes to mind would be the platypus, which apparently was genuinely suspected of being a hoax like the "Jackalope."
    But go no further than your last post: looking at some of the images I really wondered if you had somehow posted your April First post two months early! the conjoined gamonts of ..., for example: that looks like Picasso attempting to illustrate some particularly dark and disturbing myth!

  2. Sacculina carcini. I’m not too original with this choice, because I think it’s Carl Zimmer’s favorite organism too, but it wasn’t from him I first heard about it. So this thing (a crustacean??) sends roots all through its host’s body, and makes the crab (female or male) care for the parasite’s offspring as if caring for a brood of its own eggs...

    In general, I think I have a taste for the rather creepy organisms; if I was naming a plant I'd go with a strangler fig, except I don't know enough about them to narrow it down to one species -- no doubt there's one which has some extra-refined detail to its habits.

  3. Homo sapiens—not because I think we're incredible (although I kind of do), but because we're incredible to so many other species. Think of all the species that never saw us coming, never understood the threat, and never had a chance.

  4. I would go for the Aye-Aye, Daubentonia. It is certainly the weirdest lemur

  5. So many wonderful organisms out there - which to choose?! Since I trust there will be no shortage of siphonophores mentioned here, I'm stuck between tardigrades and Welwitschia mirabilis.

    Although they are both super-cool, systematically-enigmatic extremophiles, I have to go with W. mirabilis: it is alien-looking, with only two strap-shaped leaves, no apical meristem (it dies off), and sexual organs that are, ahem, confused. An unusual organism in an unusual group (the Gnetales), with no systematic place in the human world, it certainly deserves the distinction of 'incredible'.

  6. Thanks for the suggestions, guys. Some of them are ones that I already had on the list, some I hadn't thought of...

    Tanya - what's the confusion with Welwitschia's reproductive organs? I haven't heard about that little tidbit.

  7. How could I forget about Thismia americana? I learned about this underground-dwelling, sadly extinct weirdo (described and illustraged in this article), from Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, where they call it "[u]nquestionably one of the most remarkable plants of the American flora. It occurred only at Chicago, Cook County, near Lake Calumet, and nowhere else in the world. It has not been seen alive since 1916... The plant’s closest relative, Thismia rodwayi F. Muell., is not only quite distinct morphologically, but occurs only in Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania." The reference they give is : Wetstein, L. A. Thismia americana, a history. In Proc. 10th N. Ill. Prairie Workshop, 153–160. P. D. Sörensen and M. M. Koehring, eds. DeKalb: N. Ill. Univ.

  8. "Etymologically, 'incredible' means unbelievable: so an incredible organism would be one that inspires disbelief."

    Actually, in that case, I can think of quite a few: sasquatches ("Gigantopithecus canadensis"), Loch Ness monsters ("Nessiteras rhombopteryx"), Klingons, Kevin Costner in Waterworld ("Homo ichthyus"), Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni), etc. :)

  9. Kevin Costner in Waterworld

    Or just Kevin Costner in general. (David Attenborough impersonation) "Scientists still do not know how this remarkable creature continues to have a career, despite having never been seen in a single watchable movie..."

    Vasha: Rhizanthella is an Australian orchid genus that also spends its entire life underground, with not even the flowers emerging above the ground. Thank you for reminding me of it.

  10. Botanists have wanted to place the Gnetales somewhere in the lineage that led to angiosperms in order to explain floral & angiosperm origins. The order's reproductive parts are superficially similar to angiosperms, although there have also been morphological suggestions that it should be more closely related to conifers - hence, reproductive confusion (molecular data doesn't resolve the issue - the taxa are on crazy-long branches).

    The weird, not-quite-angiosperm characters are somewhat arcane - I can send you my list, if you like.

    The Gnetales' relationship to angiosperms versus other gymnosperms is at issue because the answer would support either the monophyly or paraphyly of the gymnosperms. Both hypotheses have significant implications about the evolution of angiosperms, the evolution of flowers, and also where to place extinct taxa that could also have been precursors to flowers.

  11. Onychophorans (velvet worms), because I fell in love with their common name when I first heard about them in my introduction to invert zool in university. They are their own phylum, they're very secretive, and most are delightfully patterned (to appeal to my artistic nature). Sorry, I don't know them well enough to pick a specific species, so I'll just vote for the whole group.

  12. I almost forgot! How about Cordyceps unilateralis? A fungal parasite of ants (in this species, but there are lots of other hosts for other Cordyceps) that secretes behavioral hormone-mimics. The mycelial threads slooooowly grow through the body, infecting the nervous system, then tell the ant to 'go up' with hormones. At this point, the ant's mandibles clamp down to hold onto its precarious surface, and the fungal fruiting body bursts out of the unsuspecting arthropod's (still-alive) head, spreading spores to the wind.

    Biological diversity is *so* cool!

  13. Oh, I'd probably nominate (the tree) Maclura pomifera. Heck, I named by business after it and I have plenty of pictures of them!

  14. Onychophorans...

    And what could be cooler than an animal that captures its prey by spraying snot all over it?

    Maclura pomifera...

    Unfortunately, the osage orange suffers from that "spread by gomphotheres, no disperser after their extinction" hooey.

  15. What other fruits come under the category of 'spread by now extinct animals'? It's been suggested that Idiospermum was distributed by diprotodons.

  16. Both Cresentia alata (the cannonball tree) and Theobroma cacao (chocolate!), of Central America have been hypothesized as examples of cauliflorous (flowering and fruiting directly out of the trunk) plants once dispersed by charismatic macrofauna.

    Interestingly, there's a long list of plants in Central America that have this stigma, and it's still being investigated.

  17. The "dispersed by extinct megafauna" hypothesis is a little problematic in my mind because it often has an undercurrent of an overly simplistic idea of the diets of animals that are not yet extinct. For instance, there may not have been any recent ungulates that would eat Osage orange, but its distribution is still well within the recent distribution of bears. Bears could disperse it quite easily without the need to invoke long-dead proboscideans.


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