Breathless

Don’t hold your breath. That’s what they tell us when they don’t want us to wait. The average human can hold their breath for about a minute, though David Blaine set the world record at 19 minutes and 21 seconds. Elephant seals can hold their breath for 100 minutes, while sperm whales are said to be able to dive for two hours. Oxygen, that’s the key to all animal life on Earth. Without it, we can’t burn glucose for fuel. Without it, we’re a candle in a bell jar, snuffed out.

That’s the rule, anyway.

Meet the loriciferan. It was only discovered in 1983, an entirely new Phylum (Loricifera) living in the sediment of the Mediterranean Sea. It resembles some Lovecraftian god in miniature, with tentacles and a mouth protruding from a protective, armored shell called the lorica (or “corset”). We now know that loriciferans live in every ocean worldwide, hiding just out of sight by attaching themselves to the silt substrate. And of the 22 known species, at least three possess a trait unique to the animal kingdom: they don’t breathe.

L’Atlante Basin is a completely anoxic environment below the oxygen-rich waters of the Mediterranean. The water is dead and cold, a dark sludge of toxic sulphides where no life can exist except anaerobic bacteria and archaea, those dauntless extremophiles. Yet the loriciferan was found there, eating and breeding, its eggs and larvae tucked up in its corset. They achieve this trick because, unlike the rest of us eukaryotes, they lack mitochondria, the organelles that act as “power plants” by burning glucose, and instead have organelles that resemble the unicellular protozoans to whom they bear little familiarity. The loriciferan has somehow devolved to resemble life before oxygen, the beings that existed in the Earth’s oceans before breath was even invented.

Yesterday we talked about Archaea and the possibility of a second, “shadow” life that could exist simultaneously on Earth. We’ve talked before about the life around deep-sea vents that doesn’t rely on the sun whatsoever, and the space-faring water bear that can survive unaided outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Here is the closest we can get on Earth to outer space without the radiation: cold, black, and completely devoid of the oxygen we thought was necessary for multicellular life. As scientists look for water on other planets and moons, we now know that not only something resembling bacteria might evolve there, but true animals. Now it’s possible to dream of Martians, shaped like spaceships with groping tentacles, crawling through the water beneath the polar ice caps, burning without air.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

3 responses to “Breathless

  • Kevin Sparks

    Wow. That’s by far the weirdest animal you’ve posted about. Is it known whether their organelles are in instance of some kind of bacterial capture (as mitochondria are thought to be)? Or an amazing independent evolution? How ancient are these beasties?

  • quantumbiologist

    First of all, thank you, you’re the first person to notice that. Holy crap, an animal that doesn’t use oxygen.

    Second of all, this seems to be independent evolution. Since most loriciferans breathe oxygen like the rest of us, it seems that a few out of the phylum have adapted by replacing their mitochondria with organelles that resemble the hydrogenosomes of unicellular organisms. (I use the word “devolve,” but that’s not really true. They’re actually highly evolved to resemble something that isn’t.)

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