Monday, 1 September 2014

New Clues Revealed about the Longevity of Naked Mole Rats

naked mole rat in a toilet paper
Naked Mole Rat
Credit: UT Health Science Center at San Antonio
The hairless, odd-looking creature in the photo is a naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber).

Among many weird traits, the species also holds the record for longest living rodent. For comparison, the house mouse (Mus musculus) has a maximum lifespan of just 2-3 years, whereas naked mole rats have been recorded to live as much as 32 years!

The exact mechanisms behind the species remarkable longevity have yet to be clearly unveiled, however, it is believed to relate to their very low metabolism which in turn prevents oxidative stress and damage.

Now, a new study by researchers at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, has revealed another secret on how these strange little critters defy aging.

The scientists reported that a factor in the cells of naked mole rats protects and alters the activity of proteasome, that functions as a garbage disposer for damaged and obsolete proteins. In general, as an organism ages, not only are there more damaged proteins in need of disposal, but the proteasome itself becomes damaged and thus, less efficient in clearing out the damaged proteins, creating a vicious cycle that becomes more prominent with ageing.

"I think this factor is part of an overall process or mechanism by which naked mole rats maintain their protein quality." said first author Karl Rodriguez.

The good news is that the anti-aging factor used by naked mole rats may have future applications in humans.

"Moreover, mouse, human, and yeast proteasomes exposed to the proteasome-depleted, naked mole-rat cytosolic fractions, recapitulate the observed inhibition resistance, and mammalian proteasomes also show increased activity." reads the abstract.
"Enhancement of protein quality, meanwhile, leads to longer life in yeast, worms, fruit flies and naked mole rats" said Dr. Rodriguez.

Who knows, maybe these ugly little creatures may hold the key to extending human lifespan by a few decades or maybe, just maybe, achieving immortality!

Other Strange Adaptations
Naked mole rats, are native to East Africa. Other than their remarkable longegivity, some other unique (considering their mammalian nature) adaptational traits include:
  • Immunity to cancer
  • Lack of pain sensation
  • Eusocial (they form colonies with a queen, workers, soldiers etc)
  • Bizarre Thermoregulation 

Click here if you want to learn more about each of these traits

- Dr. Rodriguez, a San Antonio native who completed both his master's and doctoral degrees at the Health Science Center, is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Rochelle Buffenstein, Ph.D., professor of physiology at the Barshop Institute. For this study, the Buffenstein lab also collaborated with Pawel Osmulski, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular medicine; Susan Weintraub, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry; and Maria Gaczynska, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular medicine.

- Rodriguez KA, Osmulski PA, Pierce A, Weintraub ST, Gaczynska M, & Buffenstein R (2014). A cytosolic protein factor from the naked mole-rat activates proteasomes of other species and protects these from inhibition. Biochimica et biophysica acta PMID: 25018089

Friday, 29 August 2014

Fish with Lungs Gives Clues to the Origin of Tetrapods

juvenile Polypterus senegalus (bichir)
Juvenile Polypterus senegalus
About 400 million years ago, fish left the water and began to evolve into land-living creatures. But how did this transition happen? In a new and unusual study, researchers from the McGill University took a fish species known to be able to occasionally walk using its fins and raised it on land.

The scientists found that when raised on land, this primitive strange fish with lungs, walks much better than its water-raised friends. The experiment could shed some light on the kinds of changes that enabled fins to become limbs.

The research team used bichirs (Polypterus senegalus), an African fish that can breathe air, 'walk' on land and resembles those ancient fishes that later evolved to become tetrapods, today's amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

"Stressful environmental conditions can often reveal otherwise cryptic anatomical and behavioural variation, a form of developmental plasticity. We wanted to use this mechanism to see what new anatomies and behaviours we could trigger in these fish and see if they match what we know of the fossil record." said Emily Standen, a former McGill post-doctoral student who led the project.

In the video below you learn more about the study and how it was conducted:

The researchers reported that the terrestrialized fish showed remarkable anatomical and behavioural changes. The land-grown individuals walked more effectively by placing their fins closer to their bodies, lifted their heads higher and kept their fins from slipping as much as fish that were raised in water.

"Anatomically, their pectoral skeleton changed to became more elongate with stronger attachments across their chest, possibly to increase support during walking, and a reduced contact with the skull to potentially allow greater head/neck motion." said Trina Du, a McGill Ph.D. student and study collaborator.
"Because many of the anatomical changes mirror the fossil record, we can hypothesize that the behavioural changes we see also reflect what may have occurred when fossil fish first walked with their fins on land." said Hans Larsson, Canada Research Chair in Macroevolution at McGill and an Associate Professor at the Redpath Museum.

The experiment is unique and provides new ideas for how extinct fish species known only from fossils may have used their fins in a terrestrial environment and what evolutionary processes were at play, said the researchers.

"This is the first example we know of that demonstrates developmental plasticity may have facilitated a large-scale evolutionary transition, by first accessing new anatomies and behaviours that could later be genetically fixed by natural selection." said Larsson.

- Standen EM, Du TY, & Larsson HC (2014). Developmental plasticity and the origin of tetrapods. Nature PMID: 25162530

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Common Scorpionfly (Panorpa Communis)

Male scorpion-fly resting on a leaf
Common Scorpionfly
Notice the enlarged sting-like genitalia
Credit: Gailhampshire  (CC BY 2.0)
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Mecoptera
Family: Panorpidae
Genus: Panorpa
Species: Panorpa Communis
Conservation Status: Least Concern (Not Threatened)
Common Name(s): Common scorpionfly or just scorpionfly

The common scorpionfly is a weird, scorpion-like insect found throughout the UKs. As you can see on the images, males appear to have a stinger-like tail. No wonder why P. Communis (and other closely related species) are commonly known as "scorpion flies".

Adults have a black and yellow body, with a reddish head and tail. Adults are up to 3 cm (~1.1 in.) long with a wingspan of about 3.5 cm (~1.4 in.). The wings are mostly clear, but have many dark spots or patches.

The head is extended into a beak-like shape and the tiny jaws are situated at the end. The eyes are relatively large.

What about the sting?
Males are easily distinguished by the pair of claspers at the end of the tail, reminiscent of a scorpion's stinger. The scorpion-like tail is in fact part of the species' genitalia. The claspers are used for holding females during mating, which many times occurs forcefully.

Scorpionfly tail close up
Close up of the scorpion-like tail males have
Credit: "Skorpionsfliege Panorpa communis male genital" by Richard Bartz,
Munich aka Makro Freak Image:MFB.jpg - Own work.
Licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Female scorpionfly (no sting)
Female scorpionfly, No sting here!
"Panorpa communis 2006-07-11" by Algirdas at lt.wikipedia
Licensed under the GFDL
P. Communis larva resembles a caterpillar and grows up to 2 cm (~0.8 in) long. It has three pairs of thoracic legs and eight pairs of prolegs.

The adult form is usually seen between May and September, typically found crawling in hedgerows and patches of nettle. Adults eat dead insects (although they sometimes consume live aphids), which are occasionally stolen from spider webs. They may also eat rotting rotting vegetable matter.

Despite their large wings, flights are usually brief and short. They like to rest on the surface of leaves in dense shade.

Breeding usually occurs at night. Mating is sometimes a dangerous game for males, who might easily get killed by the female. To avoid this, the male first presents a nuptial gift of a dead insect or a mass of saliva to placate her. Consider it something like a box of chocolates or a bunch of roses!

The eggs are laid annually in the soil, and the larvae both scavenge and pupate there.

Conservation Status
The species is very common in Britain and is not believed to be under any immediate threat.

Do they sting?
Despite the ferocious appearance of males, the stinger-like genitalia are totally harmless. You have nothing to worry if you ever come across one!

Interesting Facts about the Common Scorpionfly
- The common scorpion fly belongs to an ancient group of insects known as 'Mecopterans' which can be traced back more than 250 million years. It's believed that butterflies and many other species of insect evolved from their ancestors.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Bear Saves Drowning Crow (Video)

Bear in budapest zoo saves crow from drowning
Bear saves a drowning crow (red circle)
The amazing video you are about to see was shot at Budapest Zoo, Hungary, on June 19* and shows what is surely one of the most surprising animal rescues ever.

During the video, a bear nicknamed Vali, rescues a black hooded crow from drowning. The bear first climbs a rock and then grabs the crow out of the water.

After the rescue, the crow appears to be stunned by the unexpected action of Vali. Enjoy:

Jump to 00:40 for the rescue

But did the bear really intended to save the crow? Many say that Vali just wanted to eat it. But it had a change of heart, either because it got bit (at 00:40) or simply because the crow tasted bad. The zoo's staff discussed the incident in one of their blog posts and said that Vali was probably curious and simply wanted to have a better look over the drowning creature. To me, this sounds as the most logical explanation.

However, from my past experience with animals, I can't exclude the possibility that the bear really wanted to help the drowning crow.

I will never forget the day when I was taking one of my dogs out of for a walk. As we were walking, he sniffed out a very young sparrow and put it in his mouth! I tried hard to open his mouth but to no effect. A few minutes later I gave up, thinking that it was too late for the poor bird. Half an hour later, we are back home and my dog opens his mouth and very carefully and gently places the still alive bird on my feet, having a "please take care of the poor creature" look in his eyes! The young sparrow had probably fallen from his nest due to the heavy raining the night before. I kept it in a cage for one day, cleaned and fed it and returned it back to place we found it. The bird immediately flew to a tree nearby. Hopefully, its nest was there :).

*The video was shot by Aleksander Medveš and as of 19 August 2014 has gathered more than 16 million views.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Mata mata turtle

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Family: Chelidae
Genus: Chelus
Species: Chelus fimbriata
Conservation Status: Least Concern
Common Name(s): Mata mata, Mata mata turtle, Matamata and other similar variations

Mata mata, a strange name for what is sure one of the world's strangest turtles! This large, South American river turtle is the only surviving species of the genus Chelus and is easily one of the most unusual creatures you are likely to encounter in the Amazon Region.

Thanks to its leaf-shaped head, bark-like flat shell and ragged skin flaps, the species can perfectly blend in with the surrounding environment.

Distribution & Habitat
The mata mata is a freshwater turtle that occurs in South America, primarily in the Amazon and Orinoco basins. The species inhabits slow moving blackwater streams, stagnant pools, marshes, and swamps ranging into northern Bolivia, eastern Peru, Ecuador, eastern Colombia, Venezuela, the Guianas, and northern and central Brazil.

The species has been reportedly introduced into the drainage canals of southeast Florida. Whether it has created a self-sustaining breeding population is still unknown. This introduction may be due to carelessness associated with the exotic pet trade. Possible detrimental effects on Florida's native habitat have not yet been reported.

It is a strictly aquatic species that prefers staying in shallow water, where its snout can easily reach the surface to breathe.

Mata matas have a large, triangular and flattened head, covered by numerous tubercles and flaps of skin. The snout is long and tubular and resembles a horn. The snorkel-like snout allows the animal to lie fully submerged while breathing, with the least possible disturbance of the water surface. Three barbels occur on the chin and four additional filamentous barbels at the upper jaw, which is neither hooked nor notched. The neck is greatly elongated and thickened and longer than the vertebra under the carapace.

Close up, showing the horn-like snout of the mata mata turtle
Mata mata head close up. Notice the horn-like snout
Credit: "Chelus fimbriatus close". Licensed under
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The carapace is brown or black, oblong and may be up to 45 cm (~17.7 in) long. Maximum weight is about 15 kg (~33 lb). The plastron (the ventral surface of the shell) is reduced, narrowed, hingeless and shortened towards the front, and deeply notched at the rear with narrow bridges. This is possibly an evolutionary trait that helps individuals to resemble a piece of bark, offering camouflage from predators. The plastron and bridges have a creamish to yellow or brown coloration.

In adults, the head, neck, tail and limbs are grayish brown and fringed with small skin flaps along both sides. The forefeet have five webbed claws. Males have concave plastrons. They also have longer and thicker tails than females do.

Overall, the body of this strange animal gives an appearance (when in water) that resembles a piece of bark whereas its head resembles fallen leaves.

Mata mata turtle in an aquarium

Hatchlings have a pink to reddish tinge in the underside edge of the carapace and plastron, that gradually fades away with age.

The species has poor vision, however it appears to have excellent tactile and auditory senses. Furthermore, the complex folds of skin may contain sensory nerves that help in detecting motion.

Adults are bad swimmers, as the legs are adapted for walking on the bottom of the muddy areas they inhabit. Hatchlings and juveniles can swim awkwardly.

We know very little about the Mata mata's longevity in the wild. Most sources give a maximum life expectancy of at least 15 years though anecdotal evidence of captive individuals suggests a life expectancy of over 35 years!

They are sedentary animals, spending most of the day under water. They rarely bask.

Mata mata (Chelus fimbriata) turtle at Toronto Zoo
Mata mata turtle at Toronto Zoo
Credit: By Michael Gil from Toronto, ON, Canada
[CC-BY-2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

C. fimbriata turtles spend most of their time staying motionless in the water. As aforementioned, they are very good in camouflage and they simply wait for prey to come close by. Then, they simply thrust out their head and open the large mouth as wide as possible, creating a low-pressure vacuum that sucks prey into the mouth. The mouth is then shut and the water is slowly expelled. Prey is swallowed as a whole.

These strange animals are strictly carnivorous, consuming exclusively aquatic invertebrates and fish.

Breeding occurs once every year, from October through December. Prior to mating, the male repetitively extends the head toward the female, while opening and closing its mouth. Other male displays include extending their limbs, lunging their heads toward the females, and moving the lateral flaps on their heads.

After about 200 days, females lay 12 to 28 brittle, spherical, 3.5 cm (~ 1.3 in) in diameter eggs that are deposited in a clutch. After hatching occurs, the young turtles are left all alone. No parental care has been reported.

A matamata baby

In captivity
Due to their unique and bizarre appearance, they are a popular exhibit and many zoos have them for display. Just use a search engine to see if one features them nearby! A few I found quickly using google are the following:|
  • Toronto Zoo 
  • Detroit Zoo 
  • Denver Zoo 
  • Nashville Zoo

Demand and supply in the exotic pet trade is quite high for these strange turtles, and it seems they are a bit expensive to obtain. Despite their large size, they need less space than other large active aquatic species as the stay motionless for most part of the day. Like most aquatic turtles, water quality is the main key to keeping the species alive and well in captivity. Warm, acidic water is the ideal type, combined with a high tannin content that should be maintained all year round. Moderate to heavy filtration is recommended.

Credit: By Antonio Charneco (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Conservation Status
C. fimbriata is widely distributed in South America, and currently does not appear to have any major threats anywhere in its range. The species is listed under "Least Concern" by the IUCN.

Other Interesting Facts about the Mata mata turtle
- The species was first described by French naturalist Pierre Barrère (1690 - 1755) in 1741 as a "large land turtle with spiky and ridged scales" (translation). Initially, it was classified as Testudo fimbriata by German naturalist Johann Gottlob Schneider (1750 - 1822) in 1783. The species was actually renamed 14 different times until it was finally classified as Chelus fimbriata in 1992.
- It is the largest member of the pleurodiran family
- The carapace is commonly covered by algae, which further enhances the turtle's camouflage capacity.

References & Further Reading
- Bartlett, Dick (2007), "The Matamata", Reptiles Magazine 15 (12): 18–20
- Turtle Taxonomy Working Group [van Dijk, P.P., Iverson, J.B., Rhodin, A.G.J., Shaffer, H.B., and Bour, R.]. 2014. Turtles of the world, 7th edition: annotated checklist of taxonomy, synonymy, distribution with maps, and conservation status. In: Rhodin, A.G.J., Pritchard, P.C.H., van Dijk, P.P., Saumure, R.A., Buhlmann, K.A., Iverson, J.B., and Mittermeier, R.A. (Eds.). Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises: A Compilation Project of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. Chelonian Research Monographs 5(7):000.329–479
- Drajeske, P. W. 1982. Captive breeding of the mata mata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus). 6th Ann. Rep. Symp. Captive Propagation Husbandry July 28-31, 1982.
- Lombardini ED, Desoutter AV, Montali RJ, & Del Piero F (2013). Esophageal adenocarcinoma in a 53-year-old mata mata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus). Journal of zoo and wildlife medicine : official publication of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, 44 (3), 773-6 PMID: 24063112
- Wang L, Zhou X, Nie L, Xia X, Liu L, Jiang Y, Huang Z, & Jing W (2012). The complete mitochondrial genome sequences of Chelodina rugosa and Chelus fimbriata (Pleurodira: Chelidae): implications of a common absence of initiation sites (O(L)) in pleurodiran turtles. Molecular biology reports, 39 (3), 2097-107 PMID: 21655955
- Ernst and Barbour 1989, Espenshade 1990, USGS Biological Research Division 1999
- Matamata, Chelus fimbriatus, California Turtle & Tortoise Club
- Formanowicz, D. R., Jr., E .D. Brodie, Jr., and S. C. Wise. 1989. Foraging behavior of matamata turtles: the effects of prey density and the presence of a conspecific. Herpetologica 45(1):61-67.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Two Headed Dolphin Found in Turkish Beach

Two Headed Dolphin in Turkey
Photo by Tugrul Metin
The carcass of a siamese, two-headed dolphin was found on a beach in Turkey this week (August 5 2014). The conjoined body was seen floating onto the shore in Izmir, on Turkey's west coast by Tugrul Metin, a 39 years old sports teacher.

The deformed body was 0.97 long (3.2ft) and is believed to have been a 1 year old baby at the time of death. As you can see on the image, it had two heads which shared a common tail.

"I noticed the dolphin in the sea and watched as it washed on to the beach. I couldn't take it in at first - I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.  I've never even heard about a dolphin like this, let alone seeing one with my own eyes. I was completely shocked." said Metin.

Metin immediately called the police after seeing the deformed creature, who came and transferred it to a laboratory for further investigation. Early examination revealed that the eyes on one of the two heads were not properly opened, neither was one of the blow holes.

According to the DailyMail, Mehmet Gokoglu, associate professor at the marine-biology department at the Ak Deniz University said he welcomed the opportunity to study and examine the weird dolphin.

"Such a dolphin is a very rare occurrence - similar to the occurrence of conjoined human twins." said Gokoglu.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Floating Fried Eggs

Floating Fried Egg - Cotylorhiza tuberculata
Fried Egg Jellyfish
Cotylorhiza tuberculata

The common name says it all. This weird-looking jellyfish literally looks like a fried egg! Scientifically known as Cotylorhiza tuberculata, it is one of the two jellyfish species that resemble a fried egg. The other one is Phacellophora camtschatica. Not surprisingly, it also goes by the same name.

They may look tasty, but you probably don't want to have one for breakfast! However, you can have a lot of fun with C. tuberculata. This jellyfish has a mild sting that causes very little - if any - pain to humans. One of my best childhood memories is me and my friends grabbing them with our bare hands and wearing them like hats to other unsuspecting kids! To be honest, it's something I continue to do. Give it a try if you ever happen to come across one. Just avoid doing it to strangers, I don't think they will appreciate it!

Now, let's learn a few things about these two strange, egg-like creatures:

The egg-yolk jellyfish (Phacellophora camtschatica)
Credit: Rosario Beach
Marine Laboratory
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Scyphozoa
Order: Semaeostomeae
Family: Phacellophoridae
Genus: Phacellophora
Species: Phacellophora camtschatica
Common Name(s): Fried egg jellyfish or egg-yolk jellyfish

P. camtschatica is a massive jellyfish, with a bell up to 60 cm (23 in) in diameter and sixteen clusters of up to a few dozen tentacles, each measuring up to 6 m (~20 ft) long. In the past, the species was part of the family Ulmaridae, but is now listed as the sole member of the family Phacellophoridae.

This cool-water jellyfish can be found in all major oceans, occurring in depths ranging from 0 to 168 m. Its diet is mainly comprised of other smaller jellyfish and gelatinous zooplankton, that get trapped in its tentacles. It spends much of its life motionless or slowly pulsing the bell while drifting. The egg-yolk jellyfish has a very weak sting. Many small crustaceans take advantage of this - like the larva of the Cancer gracilis crab - and regularly ride on its bell and even steal food from its oral arms and tentacles!

Fried egg jellyfish, Enoshima Aquarium, Japan.

Much of our knowledge on the species' life cycle comes from the Monterey Bay and other public aquariums, which have had much success in breeding the species. Fertilized eggs develop into ciliated planula larvae which swim, then settle and metamorphose into scyphistoma polyps. Mature scyphistoma have 30 to 44 tentacles and reproduce asexually by side budding as well as strobilating to produce ephyra which develop into mature jellyfish. In captivity, it takes about 9 months for an ephyra to grow into a mature medusa.

By T.Friedrich
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Scyphozoa
Order: Rhizostomeae
Family: Cepheidae
Genus: Cotylorhiza
Species: Cotylorhiza tuberculata
Common Name(s): Mediterranean jelly, Fried egg jellyfish

C. tuberculata is a species of jellyfish commonly found in aggregations in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Adriatic Sea. As aforementioned, it has a sting with little to no effect on humans. The scientific name Cotylorhiza is derived by the greek words “κοντύλι,” meaning cup, and “ρίζα,” meaning root.

A typical adult measures 17 to 20 centimeters wide, though they can reach 50 centimeters across. They have a smooth, elevated dome that is surrounded by a gutter-like ring. The marginal lappets are elongated and subrectangular. Each mouth-arm bifurcates near its base and branches several times. In addition to some larger appendages there are many short, club-shaped ones that bear disk-like ends.

Mediterranean jelly, somewhere in Greece

These jellies primarily feed on zooplankton and reproduce asexually. Larva attach themselves to a hard ocean surface and grow in a polyp colony that looks like a stack of saucers. The tiny babies are then released from capsules, like spaceships and drift away.

Phacellophora camtschatica: References & Further Reading
- Reum, J., Hunsicker, M., & Paulsen, C. (2010). Species Composition and Relative Abundance of Large Medusae in Puget Sound, Washington Northwest Science, 84 (2), 131-140 DOI: 10.3955/046.084.0202
- Widmer, C. (2006). Life cycle of Phacellophora camtschatica (Cnidaria: Scyphozoa) Invertebrate Biology, 125 (2), 83-90 DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7410.2006.00043.x
- Towanda, T., & Thuesen, E. (2006). Ectosymbiotic behavior of Cancer gracilis and its trophic relationships with its host Phacellophora camtschatica and the parasitoid Hyperia medusarum Marine Ecology Progress Series, 315, 221-236 DOI: 10.3354/meps315221

Cotylorhiza tuberculata: References & Further Reading On Cotylorhiza tuberculata
- Kramp, P.L. (1961): Synopsis of the Medusae of the World. Order Rhizostomeae. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 40: 348–382. PDF
- Reclos, George J. (2006): "Cotylorhiza tuberculata (Macri, 1778)"