Tag Archives: superpowers

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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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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Whips, Capes, & Self-Mutilation

1. In all the time I’ve been talking about animal superpowers, I never thought to ask, “Is there any animal who wears a cape?” The answer: yes. It’s the Blanket Octopus of Australia, and its cape is the source of its power. Instead of squirting ink at its enemies, it unfurls a long membrane that makes it appear much larger than it really is.

I am Batman.

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Bang Bang You’re Dead

Here’s a superpower that you might not expect would be found in nature: Power blasts.

They’re a must-have for any superhero team: Bishop, Havok, etc. The powers themselves stem from some vague “cosmic energy” source invented by lazy science fiction writers. But at least two animals on Earth have the ability to kill using scientifically-qualified sonic blasts.

One is the sperm whale, so named because early whalers believed that the white, viscous liquid that filled the organ in its square-shaped head was sperm. Actually, it’s wax, which helps the deep-diving animal control its buoyancy: when heated by blood, it floats, and when cooled, it sinks, bringing the whale down to the depths where the giant squid swim. But scientists now believe that the spermaceti organ, as it’s called, is more than a flotation device.

All toothed whales and dolphins focus the sonic pulses they use for echolocation with a bulbous, lens-like organ in the head called the melon. But sperm whales, largest of the toothed whales, lack a melon; theirs has devolved into a decidedly un-lens-like organ called the junk. Marine biologists believe that they instead use the massive spermaceti organ to amplify and direct sonic blasts which, given the whale’s size, would be powerful enough to knock out a giant squid. The hypothesis is lent crediblity by the fact that whalers have found old sperm whales with broken jaws, or that are missing all their teeth, yet still have a full belly. (That belly being full of calamari the size of tractor wheels.)

The other animal to use sonic blasts, on the opposite end of the size spectrum, is a shrimp.
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God Loves Ugly

This little cutie made a cameo in my last post, which was about beauty… which it does not possess. So let’s do a post about ugliness. Because Nature makes peacocks, and it also makes lazy, ugly puddles of fish that you want to poke with a stick.

Solo! Hay lapa no ya, Solo!

The blobfish of coastal Australia does not do much. It has very few muscles; note the tiny, useless pectoral fins. It lives in deep water with incredibly high pressure, making a swim bladder (the internal gasbag that makes most fish buoyant) ineffective. Instead, it has a body made of gelatinous flesh that is slightly more buoyant than water, which allows it to float barely above the surface, waiting for small animals to pass close enough to its mouth that it can suck them in.

It also has a cousin, the lumpfish. It is also not going to win any beauty contests.

Ugliness is considered the absence of beauty, which is itself a product of geometry, pheremones, and beer. So what function does ugliness play? Well… it’s functional. Ugly is what happens when survival is more important than making an impression, when cryptic texturing will save you or fur would hinder you. The world is lopsided, imperfect, and off-balance, full of leaf litter and jagged rocks. Ugly blends in with the world. Ugly can go places pretty can’t. Ugly works.