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Something weird and wonderful is at a Paris zoo
The blob that's astonishing science gets its own exhibit.
- In recognition of its amazing traits, a zoo has just invited slime mold into its ranks.
- Neither plant, and probably not a fungus, slime molds may represent a major turning point in our understanding of intelligence.
- Of course, the French zoo is calling it "Le Blob."
It acts a bit like a fungus, but fungi are no longer considered plants, but rather exemplars of their own classification kingdom. Still, though, it's not that much like fungi. Current thinking is that its amoeba-like behavior makes it more like an animal, and a fascinating one that raises some profound questions. Though there's plenty of controversy surrounding the moral validity of zoos, earning its place in one must still be considered a promotion of sorts. So congratulations, slime mold, and welcome to Parc Zoologique de Paris!
Meet Le Blob
Image source: yamaoyaji/Shutterstock
Known informally as Le Blob, the Parisian ambassador of the phylum Myxomycetes is actually a sample of Physarum polycephalum. It's certainly among the park's most exotic inhabitants, and maybe the type of organism you'd prefer to become acquainted with in a zoo, rather than out in the world, where it can grow up to several feet in size. Slime molds are roughly as common as tardigrades, and like water bears, they're practically indestructible: Not only can one heal itself in a couple of minutes after being split in half, but it can also dry out and seemingly die, only to spring back to life upon re-moistening.
Slime mold isn't pretty, at least until one views it at microscopic scale, where its tiny "fingers," limbs called pseudopods, exhibit a definite delicacy. To our eyes, it's an amorphous, yellow, um, thing, that's been described as looking like dog vomit. It's only that color in its early stages, though: Slime mold later turns gray, and then dissolves into a brown powder.
The unicellular organism is something like a big bag of nuclei, merging as it does with other slime molds it encounters. One of its affectionate monikers is the "many-headed slime." Despite the fact that it lives sans eyes, mouth, or stomach, it moves to acquire its food, mostly bacteria, yeast, and fungi.
Another one of slime mold's headline traits is the manner in which it reproduces. Le Blob releases spores that develop into one of 720 types of different sex cells that pair off with genetically matching sex cells to reproduce.
The really mind-blowing thing about slime molds — even calling into question the meaning of the word "mind" itself — is that it can formulate strategies for getting past obstacles and to its meal, and it can learn and remember its routes despite having no brain whatsoever (that we know of) and no neurons. It's such unexpected behavior that some scientists suggest that it sets the meaning of the words "learn" and "remember" themselves tumbling down a semantic rabbit hole.
But wait, there's more. As the zoo's Bruno David says, "If you merge two blobs, the one that has learned will transmit its knowledge to the other." What?
Brainless and smart
We've written before about the amazing intelligence of P. polycephalum, a characteristic which alone makes it worthy of zoo visitor's attention, perhaps especially in France, where its smarts were discovered. "The blob is a living being which belongs to one of nature's mysteries," says David, in what may be an understatement.
The studies that revealed what Le Blob can do were performed at Toulouse University's Research Centre on Animal Cognition (CNRS). Scientists there, led by Audrey Dussutour, above, demonstrated slime mold's ability to exhibit habituated learning, and even to pass it to other slime molds.
In the tests, slime molds were blocked off from a favorite food, an oats and agar mixture, by barriers composed of three substances they find repellently bitter: salt, caffeine, and quinine. (Not harmful, just nasty to slime molds.) The slime molds, after a brief period of trying them out, soon learned they could safely traverse these barriers to no ill effect, and in a few days weren't even slowed down by them.
When the subjects were allowed to merge with other slime molds that had not been habituated to the contaminates, the resulting blob moved right across the barriers without hesitation. (During merging, a prominent vein between two slimes suggested a possible pathway for exchange of knowledge.)
As far as learning goes, slime molds were then allowed to dry out and "die," and demonstrated that upon resuscitation their food-acquisition strategy remarkably remained.
It may be that blobs are generally pretty great at brainless-teasers altogether. A separate study done at Keio University in Japan found that they're better than some computer algorithms at solving the "Traveling Salesman Problem."
Is it learning?
Image source: flickr user Björn S…
Obviously, an organism learning and remembering without a brain calls into question our assumption that brains and neurons are required. As Dussutour says, "that such organisms have the capacity to learn has considerable implications beyond recognizing learning in nonneural systems."
According to Chris Reid, of Macquarie University in Australia, "By classical definitions of habituation, this primitive unicellular organism is learning, just as animals with brains do." He adds, "Most neuroscientists I have talked to about slime mold intelligence are quite happy to accept that the experiments are valid and show similar functional outcomes to the same experiments performed on animals with brains."
Not surprisingly, not everyone is convinced. Says Tufts' University's Michael Levin, "Neuroscientists are objecting to the 'devaluing' of the specialness of the brain." Suggesting they might relax, he adds, "Brains are great, but we have to remember where they came from. Neurons evolved from nonneural cells, they did not magically appear."
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.
Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.
These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.
The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.
This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.
The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.
"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.
"This just hasn't been possible before."
Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.
New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.
"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."
"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."
Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.
Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.
"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."
Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.
- NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
- To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
- The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.
This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.
Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work