The Sanctuary Papers - February 2024

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 2, February 2024

Text By Shatakshi Gawade

Up Close And Personal

Photo: Public Domain/Rawpixel.

What looks like a digital image of the ocean with animated spherical creatures bobbing amidst the waves is actually a living organism! This is a closeup of the internal surface of the layer that protectively encloses spores, the peridium, of the microorganism known as Tubifera dudkae. The image was made by using a scanning electron microscope to magnify the tiny eukaryote by 2,000 times, and then it was coloured using digital tools. T. dudkae, a eukaryote, proliferates in temperate forests on damp and dead wood, which it also feeds on. Even the dead are a hothouse of life. It is a rare slime mould that was first documented in a forest in Ukraine, and can also be found in coniferous and mixed forests across Asia and Europe.

The Ritual Of Birth

As soon as the baby guanaco Lama guanicoe drops out of its mother onto the grass, it faces two immediate challenges. Known as a chulengo or guanaquito, the newborn must stand on its feet within 10 short minutes to escape pumas, that are generally lying in wait for a kill. Once it finds its balance on its spindly legs, it can begin running. The guanaco can run as fast as a horse, at close to 64 kmph., and is also an excellent swimmer. Next, it must dry itself of birth fluids, since the adults have short tongues that do not go beyond their lips, and thus cannot be used to lick the baby clean. To help hasten the process of drying, guanacos time their birth, choosing the perfect time of the day and the season. So, a few hours before and after midday in November, they begin the ritual of giving birth on a hot day. As the adults stand guard, the fluffy newborn dries out. Sadly, only one in four chulengos survive their first year.

Photo: Public Domain/Rawpixel.

Guanacos, which belong to the camel family, live in herds in South America throughout the Andes. They number about half a million, but the governments of Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru consider them an endangered species. They have a curious way of communicating with other members – they spit the food stewing in their digestive juices, with great aim up to 1.8 m.!

Honey, I Have Plastic

The fact that we have gone from “honey, I have a headache”, to “honey, I have plastic”, is a sign that something is very, very wrong in the world. And it’s not only the partner suffering in this case, it is the entire food web!

Researchers found that the presence of plastic additives – chemicals that help mould plastics – are turning off shrimp-like crustaceans from sex. They exposed Echinogammarus marinus, a tiny crustacean species, to four from among the around 10,000 plastic additives in use, as these four are considered to be most dangerous for humans. Two of the substances included in the study are banned in Europe.

Photo: Public Domain.

All these additives could reduce the creature's rate of mating success because of changes in its behaviour – including, mating fewer times! Additionally, two of the chemicals – triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) – reduced the crustacean’s sperm count. Since E. marinus, found on European shores, makes up a large chunk in the diet of birds and fish, changes in its population and increasing concentration of these plastics in the species that feed on these animals on account of biomagnification would affect the whole food chain. Long-term exposure to these additives and plastics is certain to cause negative impacts on animal health. In effect, our dependence on plastic could be contributing to the sixth mass extinction.

Did You Know?

Fungi possibly communicate with one another using up to 50 ‘words’ in one go, much like human language! Actually, they use electrical signals to communicate with each other to maintain the integrity of their network, or to share information about chemicals in the vicinity. Four fungi species – enoki, ghost, split gill and caterpillar fungi – were analysed. More evidence is required before concluding that these electrical spikes are a mushroom ‘language’, but the signals are certainly not random.

Fruit Flies May Have The Answer For Peace

Have you had days when you get up on the wrong side of the bed, and just can’t help being angry at everything? Well, we’re no different from the tiny fruit fly, which also experiences persistent aggression. Researchers at Janelia and the California Institute of Technology found that some fruit flies can remain angry for close to 10 minutes. Now in a 40 to 50 day life span, these bouts of ill will could certainly mean a waste of time (it sure can be for humans!). But this state of continued aggression is in fact a survival tool for female fruit flies. They use it to defend suitable egg-laying territory on a banana from other candidates, by shoving and headbutting.

Photo: Public Domain.

The researchers have tracked the pathways, mechanisms and neurons, which cause persistent anger in the fruit fly. This could help decipher how a human brain makes decisions on whether to move on or remain angry. Fruit flies have been the subject of extensive scientific research as 75 per cent of their genes match the genes that cause disease among humans. An understanding of fruit fly anger could help understand aggression in people, especially in cases of psychiatric or neurodegenerative diseases. So the next time you feel angry forever, know that it is only natural, and that even the fruit fly with its simple life feels the same emotion!

Being ‘Head’Strong Is An Advantage For These Snakes!

You are what you eat – literally in the case of dipsadine snakes. These snakes, found in most of the Americas, have skulls adapted to the demands of their habitat and food sources. Researchers found that this group of snakes are the most spectacular example of evolution among vertebrate animals to adapt most suitably for specialised modes of life (known as adaptive radiation). The researchers found that there is rampant evolutionary convergence (when two unrelated species evolve to have the same features, independent of each other) among water (aquatic) or underground dwellers (fossorial), since there are very few solutions to the difficult task of moving in water and in soil.

Photo: Public Domain/Biodiversity Heritage Library.

There are over 800 species of dipsadine snakes; their diversity is greatest in South America. These snakes range in length from 30 cm. to 275 cm., and almost all the species are harmless to humans. The shape of the skull is extremely important for a snake – as they do not have any limbs, the skull is used to find their way around their habitat, and feed on appropriate prey, which is sometimes much larger than the size of their head. Dipsadine snakes feed on a variety of food – frogs and frog eggs, slugs, worms, birds, lizards and snails. The shape of the skull also influences mate choices and the snake’s ability to defend itself against predators.

Did You Know?

Here’s a power-nap champion –  Chinstrap Penguins sleep over 10,000 times throughout the day, for about four seconds each time, to accumulate over 11 hours of sleep! This trait possibly evolved to help them stay vigilant, especially when guarding the nest, eggs or chicks, while their partners are away foraging. Pygoscelis antarcticus is found mainly on South Atlantic Ocean islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, with a healthy population of nearly eight million breeding pairs.

Evolutionary Jugaad

The spectre of man-eating plants is the stuff of nightmares and gory movies. While these may only be part of myths, carnivorous plants are a scientific and evolutionary reality and wonder. Among them is the East Asian pitcher plant Nepenthes gracilis, which unusually has two complete sets of chromosomes. The inheritance of a duplicated set of genomes during evolution probably allowed it to hone its meat capturing abilities. Researchers have found that the dominant subgenome is tasked with maintaining the normal functions of the genes. Consequently, this leaves the recessive subgenome free to take up evolutionary changes over time.

The Nepenthes plant has evolved very cleverly – instead of developing new parts and chemicals to survive, it repurposed its existing features! The duplicate genes possibly evolved to equip the pitcher plant to defend itself against insects, which eventually became its prey. To do this, it converted the enzymes that protected it from the insects into juices that would break down the tough exoskeletons of these animals. These digestive fluids are stored at the bottom of the pitcher, which break down the insect and release nitrogen and phosphate, for use by the pitcher plant in nutrient-poor habitats. Another interesting feature is that it is the only dioecious carnivorous plant – there are separate plants, which produce male and female flowers.

Photo: Public Domain.

The gene responsible for the separation of sexes among flowering plants – only six per cent of flowering plants are dioecious – is called the LEAFY gene, which has been observed to change the flowering time of plants if it is artificially added or deleted through genetic engineering.

The Soil Remembers

Over thousands of years, soils record and preserve history. Soil is a product of the environment it is formed in, and geological material such as rocks and sediments, could be likened to its DNA. The formation of soil is influenced by a number of environmental factors such as temperature, moisture, topography, and the flora and fauna. For instance, if the soil has a deep layer of organic matter, it probably formed during a period of wet environment. Or if there is a lot of ash in the soil, there was probably a fire in the forest or grassland on it.

Photo: Public Domain/Rawpixel.

The ‘life’ of soil begins when there is an interaction between active factors of soil formation – biota and climate. The nature of passive factors – parent material, such as igneous rock, and topography, also influences a soil’s character. Soil inherits the ‘memory’ of all this parent material, and may carry it forward as its own memory, which may also be erased owing to different processes on the soil. Close to the idea of soil memory is the idea of soil archives – archives are a repository of the past, which are applicable to buried soils. Similarly, there is also the concept of a soil book or soil chronicle, applicable to sedimentary rocks. Just like soil, ice and shells too have ‘memory’ that can help us understand geological events.

Did You Know?

Octopuses can be such extreme antisocial loners that they have been observed flinging debris at one another! Researchers observed the fittingly-named gloomy octopus Octopus tetricus throwing silt, shells and algae, some of which hit others of its kind, an unusual and difficult act underwater. Past research has shown that females throw objects at males when they feel harassed. Over half the throws the researchers observed occurred after the two octopuses had an interaction, such as mating or fighting.


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