An image taken with a microscope shows a cross section of the trap of a humped bladderwort (Utricularia gibba). Those spiky discs are friendly algae that hitch a ride inside. Photo: Igor Siwanowicz
We get a lot of press releases about photo contests, but this winning image from the Olympus BioScapes Imaging Competition (which I didn’t even know existed) stood out for a few reasons:
1. The image itself is really neat.
2. What’s actually happening in the image is also neat:
Apparently this is like a microscopic aquatic version of a Venus’ flytrap — it sucks little microinvertebrates into its trap a millisecond after they trigger its hairs.
3. It’s called a humped bladderwort, or Utricularia gibba if you wanna get technical. It’s a flowering plant that grows in ponds and lakes all over the world. (Earnest bladderwort explainer video.)
4. Speaking of technical, the process is interesting. According to press-release jargon, “Igor Siwanowicz, a neurobiologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus … magnified the plant 100 times using a laser scanning confocal microscope and used cellulose-binding fluorescent dye Calcofluor White to visualize the cell walls of the plant.”
Siwanowicz began photographing about 10 years ago, and has a much larger collection of similar images — which you won’t regret checking out.
Eyes of the peacock mantis shrimp. The black bands show where it’s looking. Credit: Mike Bok
by Ed Yong
Eyes are testaments to evolution’s creativity. They all do the same basic things—detect light, and convert it into electrical signals—but in such a wondrous variety of ways.
There are single and compound eyes, bifocal lenses and rocky ones, mirrors and optic fibres. And there are eyes that are so alien, so constantly surprising, that after decades of research, scientists have only just about figured out how they work, let alone why they evolved that way.
To find them, you need to go for a swim.
This is the eye of a mantis shrimp—an marine animal that’s neither a mantis nor a shrimp, but a close relative of crabs and lobsters. It’s a compound eye, made of thousands of small units that each detects light independently.
Those in the midband—the central stripe you can see in the photo—are special. They’re the ones that let the animal see colour.
The rock mantis shrimp. Credit: Mike Bok.
Most people have three types of light-detecting cells, or photoreceptors, which are sensitive to red, green and blue light. But the mantis shrimp has anywhere from 12 to 16 different photoreceptors in its midband.
Most people assume that they must therefore be really good at seeing a wide range of colours—a “thermonuclear bomb of light and beauty”, as the Oatmeal put it. But last year,
Hanna Thoen from the University of Queensland found that they’re much worse at discriminating between colours than most other animals! They seem to use their dozen-plus receptors to recognise colours in a unique way that’s very different to other animals but oddly similar to some satellites.
Thoen focused on the receptors that detect colours from red to violet—the same rainbow we can see.
But these ultra-violent animals can also see ultraviolet (UV).
The rock mantis shrimp, for example, has six photoreceptors dedicated to this part of the spectrum, each one tuned to a different wavelength. That’s the most complex UV-detecting system found in nature.
Susan, your octopus got loose again!” A crew member delivered the news to photographer Susan Middleton late at night during a 2006 expedition in the French Frigate Shoals, the largest atoll in the North western Hawaiian Islands.
Middleton rushed to the wet lab where she had been photographing a day octopus alongside scientists collecting and listing marine invertebrates as part of the Census of Marine Life, a decade-long international collaboration (2000-2010) to assess the world’s ocean inhabitants.
Middleton knew she had tucked the octopus into a five-gallon bucket with a lid before she went to bed, but it had escaped twice. On its third breakaway, Middleton found it trying to make a run for the deck, its three-foot-long arms sticking to the floor, and its talent for changing color, pattern and texture no match for the linoleum.
The portrait that Middleton eventually captured of the octopus before putting it back in the sea is one of the 250 images she photographed for her new book, Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, The Backbone of Life, published by Abrams.
An Unknown Artist’s depiction of the Bunyip (1935).
Australia is home to the deadliest animals on Earth.
The wildlands host infamous insects and the seas feature toxic jellyfish and the like.
One would think that a continent with so many hazards would not need to add mysterious cryptids to the list of dangers.
One would be wrong.
Written records going back to times when the first European explorers and settlers arrived mention the belief by the Aborigines in a unique animal known as the Bunyip.
As with many alleged fauna, descriptions of the animal’s behavior vary widely.
One school of thought believes that the Bunyip is a dangerous cryptid (a creature that may or may not exist) that devours helpless humans.
The Murray Bridge Mechanical Bunyip, Murray Bridge, South Australia.
Other stories report the exact opposite: the creature is a peaceful creature that lives mostly in the waters in and around Australia and eats plants and is shy of humans.
The physical descriptions of the Bunyip are also contradictory.
Some reports describe the animal as having a dog-like face, flippers and long hair, tusks, and a tail.
Other sources claim the Bunyip has scales or feathers and a mane like a horse.
Many report it emits a terrifying cry that shatters the otherwise peaceful Australian countryside.
A 1845 newspaper article may have provided the best description of the creature to date:
The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator.
It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the forelegs are much longer, but still of great strength.
The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the (natives) say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death.
When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height.