A 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