Category Archives: Superpowers

Water Into Wine

The Son of Man. The Lamb of God. The King of Kings. The Knave of Hearts. The Sultan of Swat. Jesus of Nazareth, also known as the Prince of Peace, and in America, the God of War, was said to perform a string of miracles at the beach town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee in Israel. One of them involved catching a great deal of fish with one net. Another, feeding several thousand people with very little food. And yet another involved walking on water to meet a boat full of his disciples, who were caught in a sudden storm.

"Duuuuude! Watch out for that waaaaaaave!"

Now, Clarke’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So nowadays, the miracle of the modern fishing industry, with its deep-sea trawlers, 150-mile longlines, and space-age tracking and echolocation technology, ensure that our nets can catch hundreds of thousands of fish at a time. (Though not for much longer.) And genetic engineering, bolstered by mechanized farming and artificial fertilizers, ensures we can feed the multitudes. (Though not for much longer.) But biologically and technologically speaking, how miraculous is it to walk on water?

Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!

Not very, if you’ve got the right tools, and the right size. The most classic example of animal locomotion on the water’s surface is the water striders, or water skaters, or water scooters, or any of the other collective names for these 500 species of insects that make up the Gerridae family. They are hunters that use surface tension to their advantage; where prey might swim, they float like a bubble. Their short front legs are for grabbing, their middle pair for “skating,” and the hind pair act as rudders. The secret to their unsinkability is the hydrophobic hairs on their legs. Each leg is covered in thousands of fine filaments called microsetae that spread the weight out on the water’s electric “skin” of surface tension, and the grooves in each filament trap tiny air bubbles which add to their buoyancy. So powerful is the effect that a water strider could carry fifteen times its own weight and still remain afloat, and a few species have even adapted to walk the waves of the open ocean.

The ability to walk on water kind of goes to their heads.

But it’s not only insects that have the ability to walk on water. A few reptiles have also evolved to stay high and dry. And more advanced insects have discovered not just how to walk on water, but how to turn water into wine.

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The Glass Menagerie

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions! All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in air? No!… If a man was made of glass he would still be visible.”
–H.G. Wells, “The Invisible Man”.

I have written about invisible animals before, and all the ways in which one can become invisible, of which transparency is only one. I’ve spent some time thinking about transparent animals, from the Glass Frog of Central America:

to the Glass Squid of the deep oceans:

The transparency of the frog is obvious as a means of camouflage, but it is less certain in the case of the squid. Does its transparency serve to make it invisible? Or is there simply so little available light that producing pigments of any sort is wasteful? A great number of deep-ocean animals are transparent, including the Phronima, a type of amphipod with a glass-like exoskeleton, and the sea cucumbers which make up 90% of the complex animals on the abyssal plain. But the depths are not the only dark places on Earth; in the subterranean grottoes live the “troglobites,” animals adapted to the life in the sub-basement of the world:

The Alabama Cave Shrimp:

The Transparent Cave Crayfish:

And the Glass Goby:

Where these animals live, there is not even a stray photon bouncing off the stalactites, and so even the term “invisible” is inherently useless. There’s no such thing as “visible” there. To make an admittedly silly pop culture reference, I’m reminded of the character Invisible Boy from the 1999 film Mystery Men. On a team of quirky superheroes with dubious “powers,” Invisible Boy’s abilities are the most useless: He can only turn invisible when no one’s looking. The majority of “invisible” animals have the same superpower: their transparency is just a by-product of another adaptation, because where they live, nobody could see them even if they were day-glo orange.

“Visibility depends on the action of the visible bodies on light. Either a body absorbs light, or it reflects or refracts it, or does all these things. If it neither reflects nor refracts nor absorbs light, it cannot of itself be visible. You see an opaque red box, for instance, because the colour absorbs some of the light and reflects the rest, all the red part of the light, to you. If it did not absorb any particular part of the light, but reflected it all, then it would be a shining white box… A glass box would not be so brilliant, not so clearly visible, as a diamond box, because there would be less refraction and reflection. See that? From certain points of view you would see quite clearly through it… And if you put a sheet of common white glass in water… it would vanish almost altogether, because light passing from water to glass is only slightly refracted or reflected or indeed affected in any way.”

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The Rainbow Boxer

For a guy who goes by the handle “The Quantum Biologist,” I sure don’t talk much about physics. So as an example of physics in biology, I present one of the most fantastic creatures in natural history, the Mantis Shrimp. I would say it’s almost too awesome for this world, except that I think the world is so awesome. The world is awesome, and the Mantis Shrimp is irrefutable proof.

The Mantis Shrimp is not a shrimp, and he will beat you senseless if you call him one. He’s a stomatopod, an order of crustaceans who resemble an unholy hybrid of space aliens and Chinese dragons. (Or maybe dragon rolls?) Generally solitary, often monogamous, and always spoiling for a fight, the mantis shrimp lives in burrows it excavates beneath corals, where it lurks in wait for some snot-nosed crab to walk by. Mantis shrimp have a few claims to fame in the animal kingdom, and the first one is this: they have the fastest punch in the world. How fast, exactly? When asking about any animal’s fighting prowess, I find it helpful to ask the question, “Were it of proportionate size, would it win in a fight against Bruce Lee?” Well, Bruce Lee’s punches were so fast that the film had to be slowed down just so they were visible. The mantis shrimp’s punches are literally as fast as a .22 caliber bullet, and, like the pistol shrimp’s claw, creates a cavitation bubble that flashes white light as it collapses into a blisteringly hot shock wave. It carries 10,000 g’s of force. It completes the entire punch in under three thousandths of a second. And it does it in water.

Bruce Lee:

Mantis Shrimp:

Mama said knock you out

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Yesterday’s post was dedicated to spider silk and many of its wondrous uses. Today’s post is about the most wondrous use for spider silk of all. But first, an interlude to talk about comic books.

You know how Spiderman uses his synthetic webbing for all sorts of purposes beyond “slinging”? Sure, there’s the “getting around” webbing, but he can also gift-wrap criminals, or use the “silk” as a projectile glue-bomb that blinds them. He can spin webbing that acts like an airfoil or a parachute. All of these are things that real spiders can do with the seven or eight types of silk for which they’re equipped. But could a spider use his silk to make baseball bats, trampolines, dummies, bandages and slings, or even watertight domes that would trap air so that he could breathe underwater?

Yeah, about that last one.

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Third Eye

What is the “third eye”? Is it a mystical part of the brain that acts as a gateway to a higher consciousness? Is it a cheap cliche used by hackneyed slam poets? Well, yes… at least to the last one. The concept of a “third eye” dates back thousands of years in the Hindu tradition, as a literal and figurative organ which allows one to “see” the future, auras, and the face of true knowledge. But before you start trying to access your sixth chakra to achieve clairvoyance, it might be helpful to talk to an animal that actually has a third eye, and ask it what it’s good for.

I will make your head explode with my mind.

The tuatara, a reptile endemic to New Zealand, is a curiosity in every right. Though it looks like a lizard, it’s not; its lineage can be traced back to the age of dinosaurs, far before the modern lizards and snakes. It is the only survivor of the genus Sphenodontia, which had its heyday 200 million years ago, and has been hiding out with the kiwis ever since. Tuataras have an incredibly slow metabolism which has two main effects: they are the slowest-growing reptiles, needing about 65 years to reach their maximum size, and they also tolerate cold better than any other reptile. Their optimum temperature is between 60-70 degrees F, but they still function at a chilly 40 degrees F. Their ears have no earholes nor eardrums, and their teeth are not separated, but rather two interlocking bandsaws of bone. But the strangest thing about their anatomy may be the hidden eye on their forehead.

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I Sing The Body Electric

The human body generates more bioelectricity than a 120 volt battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. – Morpheus

Lately, I’ve been talking about animals in relation to machines. Today, let’s talk about animals not as conduits and generators. Let’s talk about bioelectromagnetism.

The American Paddlefish is a large freshwater fish living in the larger rivers of North America, such as the Mississippi. It has, as you can see, both an impressive schnoz and an enormous piehole. The two complement each other. Early naturalists first thought that its spoon-like nose was used to dig vegetation out of the river muck, but it turns out that its diet consists entirely of plankton. It gulps huge amounts of water and filters the plankton out with its gills, like a basking shark. And that paddle? It’s electroreceptive. It senses the weak bioelectrical field surrounding a cloud of plankton; the same bioelectric aura that surrounds all living things, and is, in fact, the essence of life.

As you know, every neuron in your body uses electricity to function. Every time your heat beats, you send an electrical impulse into the atmosphere. Every time you have a thought or sensation, you send out electricity in what we call a brainwave. Bioelectricity was discovered by the scientist Luigi Galvani, from whom we get the term galvanism, the contraction of a muscle when stimulated by an electrical current. Galvani discovered it by shocking dead frogs and watching them spasm; for an even more extreme illustration of bioelectromagnetism by torturing frogs, keep reading.

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Forever Jelly

Friday we talked about the world’s oldest organisms. Today, I can do you one better.

Turritopsis nutricula is a hydrozoan, very closely related to a sea jelly. Jellies and hydrozoans have two distinct stages to their life cycles. The jellyfish we all know and love is the mature, sexual medusa stage. But that jelly spent the first part of its life as a tiny, asexual polyp animal stuck to a rock, like a miniature anemone. That polyp grew into a strobila, grew stacks, like a Japanese pagoda, and the levels of those stacks eventually popped off and became baby medusas. But that strobila will continue living, popping off new jellyfish, until something licks it off its rock. So while an adult jellyfish has many cloned brother/sisters, it is not a clone of its strobila; it is its strobila. It’s the free-swimming extension of its strobila. The jellyfish is living in many different bodies, with two different forms, all over the world’s oceans, at the same time.

But I blow your mind digress. Turritopsis nutricula isn’t content to just live in several different bodies at once. It is unique, in that it can regress from its mature medusa stage to its larval strobila stage all by itself, and grow up all over again. And it can repeat this trick indefinitely. This means Turritopsis nutricula isn’t just long-living.

It’s potentially immortal.

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