Deep Sea = Deep Space

fatfish1A few bits of personally-relevant science have slid down the pike the past few days:  yet another step along the road to functioning head cheeses, and a development in graphene tech that might — if you squint really hard and give me way more credit than I deserve — seem a bit reminiscent of Rorschach‘s computational carbon substrate from Blindsight.    But the paper that really caught my eye involves this scaly little dude to the right.  I’m not even really sure what to call him:  traditionally they’ve been referred to as “bignoses”, but as it turns out taxonomists have been erroneously assigning males, females, and larvae of this species to three separate families.  It’s as if we’d just discovered that Humans, Gibbons, and Vervet Monkeys are all members of the same species.

That’s pretty wild, but what really made my ears prick up is the fact that these adult males don’t eat.   Ever.  They don’t even have a stomach or an oesophagus. Instead, they gorge on copepods during their carefree larval days and then— descending into the impoverished and sunless depths— they convert all that food energy into reserves stored in a humungous liver.  They sponge off that liver for the rest of their lives.

No idea how long those adult lives might last.  Johnson et al‘s paper make no mention of lifespan  (and really, how could they?  They never even realised what the damn thing looked like from cradle to grave, until now).  But this might just steal the prize for coollest bathypelagic feeding strategy of all time.  At the very least it gives those parasitic degenerate male anglerfish a run for the money.

Readers of Blindsight may remember that adult scramblers didn’t eat either:  they basically loaded up on ATP during development, and burned it off throughout their adult lives.  Down at the microscale I was dealing with a different sort of problem (how to make anaerobic metabolism consistent with a complex multicellular lifestyle) but both issues come down to the general challenge of meeting energy needs in a food-scarce environment.  I thought I was being pretty damn clever to come up with the “sprint-throughout-life” solution.   This dumb little shapeshifter figured it out a few million years ago.

This isn’t the first time a clever deep-space adaptation turned out to be a deep-sea trick in new clothes.  Scramblers reproduce a lot like scyphozoan jellyfish, and some of their sensory adaptations look an awful lot like I’ve stolen them from brittle stars.  In fact, I increasingly wonder if I really left the deep sea behind at all when I turned my back on the rifters and headed out into the Oort.

It’s not gonna stop, either.  The next story of mine to see publication goes even deeper into space to find an even weirder life-form. And it steals shamelessly from those little ubiquitous cuties called tardigrades

Photo credit: Bruce Robinson

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday January 30 2009at 12:01 pm , filed under biology, extraterrestrial life, marine . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

6 Responses to “Deep Sea = Deep Space”

  1. […] Also this guy here is My Hero, […]

  2. I thought that the thematic elements were basically the same: pre-adaptation, lethal void requiring bio-mechanical adjustment, unknowable creatures inside and out the hab, fundamental questions about agency and sapience… I mean at this point I could go all Canlit on you and say that all your stories (that I’ve read) involve people who are at the mercy of their surrounding environment, and that that says something about humanity’s presumed relationship to the natural world and Canadian identity in general, but hey, I’m just an immigrant, and this is far too macro of an answer.

    Oh, and thank you for linking me.

  3. “In fact, I increasingly wonder if I really left the deep sea behind at all when I turned my back on the rifters and headed out into the Oort.”

    Well, we didn’t wanna say nuthin, but … from out here it looks like the sea and its beasties have a deep grip on your imagination. I mean, you have a poster of a fish over your bed, whatever that might mean. It wouldn’t be so bad for a writer to have a passion about something, I’d think. It sounds helpful.

    I find the most persistant theme in your writing is:

    *drum roll*

    We Are So Screwed. Totally, utterly, irrevocably screwed. Like, we are so far beyond Screwed it will take 200,000 years for the light from Screwed to reach the Earth. Hoo boy, are we screwed.

    I think that theme works in space or under the deep blue sea. A very flexible, traditional underpinning for science fiction.

  4. To the “We Are So Screwed” theme, I’d like to add: “We Were Always Screwed.” It’s not a “We blew it up! We maniacs!” post-lapsarian yearning for another time, it’s a “We were never all that great, anyway, so no big loss,” attitude.

    Maybe we should just start considering sentience as the ability to think objectively about the world without oneself. I want brainscans depicting the moment when people realise that their lives may have no intrinsic meaning or purpose.

  5. Oh those cute little waterbears. Invertebrate zoology 101 rears it’s ugly head again.

  6. A few months ago I saw an article about how they survived exposure to…VACUUM and it’s hard to imagine anything more extreme for an extremophile to survive.

    It really says something for life that evolved on earth to be able to withstand what 99.9999999 percent of the universe is. As a kid I always thought it was impressive that people could survive in zero G with just a giant pressurized can or suit of air but this…

    This little bugger has the makings of interstellar traveler written all over it.