Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Things Without Faces

I cheerfully admit to a bias towards "cute" land mammals, but they're certainly not the only, or even the most, interesting beasties out there.

Consider the humble and rather obscure siphonophore. They often look like fancy jellyfish, but technically they aren't. Unlike jellyfish, they're colonial organisms made of many small individual animals, referred to as zooids. It's not immediately obvious that this is the case, as individual zooids perform specialized functions within the colony: Propulsion, buoyancy, feeding, etc. They seem to be sort of an intermediate stage between undifferentiated colonial animals like corals, and fully integrated individuals like proper jellyfish, both of which are Cnidaria, and thus (distant) cousins of siphonophores. If it can ever be shown that they're truly intermediate in an evolutionary sense, we'd have on our hands one of those "intermediate forms" that creationists keep insisting don't exist. Not that this would help in the debate. They'd either ignore the fact (as usual), or claim the evidence was fabricated by the global liberal conspiracy, or something equally idiotic. But I digress.

The thumbnail picture above is of a Praya dubia. The original site, which the pic links to, contains what I think was a freudian slip, referring to it once as a "Praya dubya". Which is completely unfair. While it's true that, like GWB, siphonophores are venomous invertebrates that lack anything resembling a central nervous system, they also generally mind their own business, they don't try to impose their religion on anyone, they don't run up colossal budget deficits, they don't spy on anyone, and they couldn't smirk even if the wanted to. So the analogy is an insult to siphonophores everywhere, and someone owes 'em an apology. But I digress again.

One might argue that we still haven't left the realm of charismatic megafauna, since a creature that strongly resembles art glass has charisma of a sort, and anything that grows to over 30 meters long has to count as megafauna. So let's consider some even humbler organisms, the bryozoans, sometimes known as "moss animals". They're colonies of zooids, like (but unrelated to) siphonophores, but entirely lacking in propulsion and charisma. The first time I'd ever heard of these creatures was on a local nature show, in which the host fished one out of a local pond. I'd seen them before that without having any clue what they were, and I just figured they were random blobs of icky protoplasm. Freshwater bryozoans are the minority, however, and most are oceanic like the one pictured above (right).

And just below bryozans on the evolutionary scale are authors who fabricate imaginary sordid pasts in an attempt to sell more books. I realize publishing is a cruel and mercenary industry, and sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do, but this is venturing perilously close to Vanilla Ice territory. He was from the streets too, ya know.

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