Beautiful Biology

This blog will highlight biology & ecology-related things that I find particularly interesting.

If you have anything to contribute, need me to change links, edit a citation, update a fact etc, please contact me.
compoundchem:

A final word on insect venoms, with a look at the Schmidt Pain Index, developed by Dr. Justin Schmidt to rank the pain of the various insect stings he experienced in his line of work. Whilst obviously pain is subjective, and you’d expect some variation from person to person, it still makes for an interesting graphic!
You can see a larger version at the foot of yesterday’s post, here: http://wp.me/p4aPLT-rb

compoundchem:

A final word on insect venoms, with a look at the Schmidt Pain Index, developed by Dr. Justin Schmidt to rank the pain of the various insect stings he experienced in his line of work. Whilst obviously pain is subjective, and you’d expect some variation from person to person, it still makes for an interesting graphic!

You can see a larger version at the foot of yesterday’s post, here: http://wp.me/p4aPLT-rb

mindblowingscience:

This snake’s venom makes you bleed from every orifice until you die

Hey so snakes that inject venom into the bloodstream are pretty bad, how about a snake that injects venom into your bloodstream AND makes you bleed out from every orifice? Sound good?

The boomslang (Dispholidus typus) is a venomous tree snake native to Sub-Saharan Africa. Blunt-faced and pretty, with relatively enormous eyes and a bright, light green colour in males and brown in females, the boomslang spends its days up in the trees, hunting for lizards, frogs, chameleons, mice and birds. It’s a super shy and non-aggressive species – if it comes across anything it can’t swallow, it’ll be out of there so fast, the thing it couldn’t swallow probably won’t have even noticed it was there. It’s also basically the cat of the snake world, often moving into the enclosed nests of nearby birds so it can curl up and hibernate in peace during the winter months. Quit whinging birds, you got flight, you can’t complain about anything ever.

On top of their non-aggressive tendencies, the way boomslangs are built means you have to be extremely, extremely unlucky to be bitten by one. Known as ‘rear-fanged’ snakes, their fangs are positioned way back in their mouths behind several other teeth, which means to inject someone with venom, they have to open their mouths really wide – up to 170 degrees –  so they can wrap them around the flesh and stab. There have so far been less than 10 recorded deaths from boomslang bites around the world.

Because they’re so anatomically unsuited to biting people, boomslangs were assumed to be harmless up until the late 1950s. A fantastic article by Paul Donovan for Reptiles Magazine describes how on the 26th of September 1957, eminent herpetologist, Karl P. Schmidt from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, died from a boomslang bite. It was the first such recorded death, and it left his peers shocked. Schmidt had received a bite from a single fang in his thumb as he opened a sack containing a young boomslang that had spent its life in captivity, and he thought nothing of it. Not only did the scientific community think this species posed no threat – very few rear-fanged snakes in the family Colubridae are dangerous to humans – but the way its venom works means that the symptoms don’t kick in until several hours after the bite. Schmidt recorded every symptom as it arrived. Around 24 hours after his bite, Schmidt was found dead in his home from respiratory arrest and severe brain haemorrhaging.

An entry from the 3 October 1957 edition of the Sarasota Journal recounts how the local paper reported Schmidt’s passing:

“The [Chicago] Tribune said the diary covered a 15-hour period from the time he boarded a suburban train on the day he was bitten until the next morning. Associates said he believed he had recovered and was planning to return to work. The last entry was made after breakfast Sept 26. Associates said Dr Schmidt apparently made no further entries because he was up and around later in the morning and had notified the museum he would be back at work the next day. Unattended by a physician, he went into a coma at 2pm.”

Donovan, himself a renowned snake expert, describes the impact of Schmidt’s death on the herpetological community, saying, “Schmidt’s death changed our perception of the boomslang, and subsequent analysis of its venom found it to be as toxic, if not more toxic, than many front-fanged snakes. Today, the boomslang ranks as one of Africa’s most venomous snakes.”

While the venom causes several symptoms such as headache, nausea, and sleepiness, the real worry is its anti-coagulating properties. The venom is a hemotoxin, which means it destroys red blood cells, loosens blood clotting, and causes organ and tissue degeneration. Victims suffer extensive muscle and brain haemorrhaging, and on top of that, blood will start seeping out of every possible exit, including the gums and nostrils, and even the tiniest of cuts. Blood will also start passing through the body via the victim’s stools, urine, saliva, and vomit until they die. “Death is attributed to progressive internal bleeding, and it can be a slow and lingering process, taking anywhere from three to five days,” says Donovan at Reptiles Magazine. “Interestingly, many bite victims report “seeing with a yellow tinge,” which may be due to bleeding inside the eyes.”

The fact that the venom is relatively slow to act in humans means that bite victims have some time to get access to the anti-venom and be saved, but it also puts those who don’t know any better at serious risk. During those few crucial hours of grace, they assume there’s nothing to fear.

magictransistor:

Ernst Haeckel, A variety of Ammonite forms, Sea Shells & Ocean Corals; Kunstformen der Natur / Art Forms of Nature (Lithography, Autotype print), c. 1904.

post-mitotic:

I have no words for this
except
happy feet
colored SEM of the retracting foot of a bdelloid rotifer (organism related to roundworms)
credit: Cell Picture Show

post-mitotic:

I have no words for this

except

happy feet

colored SEM of the retracting foot of a bdelloid rotifer (organism related to roundworms)

credit: Cell Picture Show

cool-critters:

Malagasy civet (Fossa Fossana)

The Malagasy or striped civet is an euplerid endemic to Madagascar. It is a small mammal: about 47 cm excluding the tail (which is only about 20 cm) and 2.5 kg. It has the appearance and movements of a small fox. It is nocturnal, though sources disagree over whether it is solitary or, unusual among euplerids, lives in pairs. It is not a good climber and frequents ravines. It eats small vertebrates (mammals, reptiles, and amphibians), insects, and eggs stolen from birds’ nests. Though threatened by deforestation, hunting and competition from introduced species, the Malagasy civet is locally common.

photo credits: itsnature, biolib, link, blueanimalbio

mindblowingscience:

DNA From This Ugly Fish Is Being Used to Synthesize Bulletproof Slime

If you have ever seen a picture or a video of a hagfish, it’s probably been on some roundup of the ocean’s most horrifying creatures. But the DNA within that very creature, often known as a “slime eel,” just might be the key to creating sustainable, biodegradable plastic and lighter bulletproof clothing.

The hagfish has a skull but no vertebrae or spinal chord, so scientists aren’t totally sure whether to classify it as a vertebrate or not. It hasn’t really changed in roughly 300 million years, which makes it a “living fossil.” But this primitive sort of design is a boon for researchers who see potential in the hagfish’s trademark, and arguably grossest, trait.

You see, when a hagfish is threatened, it often slimes predators—and within that slime are tiny filaments that are 100 times thinner than a human hair, yet stronger than nylon and kevlar.

Its filaments have many of the same properties as spider silk, but, genetically, it’s much simpler. That made it that much easier for a synthetic biology startup in Ireland to bioengineer e. coli into making the filaments within the slime, no hagfish required.

"It’s 300 million years old and hasn’t really changed its design since—we think it stopped evolving, and that’s why we think it’s easier to get a bacteria to make it than it is to get a bacteria to make spider silk," Russel Banta, founder of the company, called  Benthic Labs, told me. “I proposed trying to synthesize spider silk, but it’s just too complex to do in a cell right now and mass produce it.”

He’s not the first one who has had the idea—in a paper published earlier this year in Nature Communications, a researcher described how the slime is made within the hagfish, which was thought to be a breakthrough in potentially making its silk in the lab. But Banta is just having e. coli do it for him, instead.

"We found a company that synthesized the DNA for us from a genome sequence that was online, made some modifications to it so the bacteria could read it better, and put it into the e. coli,” Banta told me.

The bacteria are now synthesizing two separate parts of the threads made within the slime, while Banta and his team are looking at ways to put them together, either outside the cell or within the cell itself. He says he hopes to have a breakthrough within the next week or two. From there, it’s a matter of scaling it up and mass producing it.

"The gene is so simple that we can take it, put it in the bacteria 100 more times and just make the bacteria make more of it," he said. "If you can make enough of it, the things you can use it for are really endless."

cool-critters:

Agami heron (Agamia agami)

The agami heron is a medium-sized heron. It is a resident breeding bird from Central America south to Peru and Brazil. The agami heron’s habitat is forest swamps and similar wooded wetlands. They nest in colonies on platforms of sticks in trees over water, which may gather more than 100 nests. It is short-legged for a heron, but has a very long thin bill. Agami herons stalk their fish prey in shaded shallow water, often standing still or moving very slowly. They rarely wade in open water. They also take frogs, small reptiles, and snails.

photo credits: Leonardo C. Fleck, agamiheron, Leif G