Friday, April 3, 2015

Early Brood Care, Four-Eyed Cambrian Predator

Yawunik kootenayi, that four-eyed critter in the video, was a big predator: during the Cambrian. A half-billion years later, a two-inch animal isn't all that large.

More recently, a tiny insect and her brood became fossils: giving scientists a rare glimpse of parental care during the Cretaceous.
  1. Scale Insects: A Hundred Million Years of Brood Care
  2. Cambrian Arthropod: a Four-Eyed Predator

Getting Surprised

Like I've said before, humans are animals: but we're not just animals. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1951, 1700-1706, 1730)

We have "dominion" over this world: but we don't own it. Our position is more like shop foreman or steward. One of our jobs is taking care of this world's resources: for our reasoned use, and for all future generations. (Genesis 1:26-27; Catechism, 337-349, 355, 373, 2415-2418, 2456)
We can't do our job if we don't know how this world works.

That's why we're supposed to study the universe, developing new tools as we go. Science and technology are part of being human. Ethics apply, of course: just like anything else we do. (Catechism, 2292-2296)
As a Catholic, I must believe that God makes the universe and the things of faith. That means I must also believe that honest research cannot contradict faith. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)
"...God can not deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth...."
(Dei Filius, Vatican Council I, 248 (1870) (quoted in Catechism, 159))
Faith and reason, religion and science, are — or should be — pursuits of truth. Properly understood and applied, they pull in the same direction. (Catechism, 39, 159, 286)
"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers"
(Catechism, 283) [emphasis mine]
Again — wondering how things began and where we're headed is part of being human. Learning about God's universe is what we're supposed to do. (Catechism, 282-289, 2293)

Sometimes we get surprised by what we learn. I like it when that happens: but some folks don't.

Putting science or anything else — money, health, family, whatever — ahead of God in my priorities is a very bad idea. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

So, I think, is twisting science or faith around to support — or attack — personal preferences.

Sex, Slugs, and Sense

Some of the 7,800 or so scale insect species around today live on fungus mats instead of plants. Their life cycles include three forms hermaphroditism and at least seven forms of parthenogenesis.

Parthenogenesis is a five-dollar word for a kind of asexual reproduction. That's when an unfertilized egg grows into a critter, which is how the New Mexico whiptail keeps its species going. It's an all-female variety of lizard.

Some crustaceans, rotifers — there will not be a test on this, so don't bother trying to remember these names — flatworms, insects, amphibians, and reptiles reproduce this way, but we haven't found a mammal that does.

We're mammals, so it takes two humans to get a new one, although some scientists got a human egg cell to grow on its own. That gets me into bioethics, and that's another topic. (March 6, 2015; February 13, 2015)

Yes, I know that my Lord's mother didn't have relations with another human: but that was a unique case, and not parthenogenesis in the scientific sense. Our Lord is human on His mother's side, and that's yet another topic. Topics. (December 21, 2014; December 18, 2012)

Don't expect a rant about hermaphroditism in clownfish, banana slugs, and earthworms, proving that humans shouldn't be classified as 'male' or 'female' — or that humans who aren't on the 50th percentile are slugs. (May 2, 2012; December 9, 2010)

Some of us are not obviously male or female. Hermaphroditism in humans is very rare: but not unknown. Sometimes dizygotic twins merge into a single individual, sometimes a particular gene moves from the Y to the X chromosome.

My congenital oddities are more socially acceptable in my native culture, as a Catholic I must accept and love everyone, and that's yet again another set of topics. (January 23, 2015; March 13, 2009)

1. Scale Insects: A Hundred Million Years of Brood Care

(From Bo Wang et al,via, used w/o permission.)
("Wathondara kotejai from mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber, stacked image with a blue filter. Scale bar – 1 mm. Image credit: Bo Wang et al."
"Paleontologists Find 100-Million-Year-Old Evidence of Insect Brood Care" (March 31, 2015)

"A team of scientists from China, Germany, Poland, and the United Kingdom, has described a new genus and species of an ensign scale insect from mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber, which preserves eggs within a wax ovisac, and several freshly hatched nymphs.

" 'Fossils of fragile female scale insects are extremely rare. What is unique here is the age of the discovery: 100-million-year-old evidence of brood care among insects has not been found until now,' said team leader Dr Bo Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is also the lead author of a paper published in the journal eLife.

"The fossil, named Wathondara kotejai, is from Kachin Province in northern Myanmar. It is the only Mesozoic (252 to 66 million years ago) record of an adult female scale insect...."
These days, most female scale insects are the ultimate stay-at-home moms: permanently attached to a plant, living under a tiny little bit of wax. What works for them isn't, in my considered opinion, applicable to humans, and that's still another topic. (December 28, 2014)

This particular Wathondara kotejai died and became a fossil while carrying around 60 eggs, and her first freshly hatched nymphs. That was 98,800,000 years back: give or take 600,000. (Bo Wang, eLife (March 31, 2015))

The wax-coated egg sac, on the insect's abdomen, protected the young from too much — or too little — moisture: and from predators.

Later, the young would have grown their own protective wax coverings.

It's a very effective way to keep young insects alive, still used today. It's possible that brood care gave scale insects an edge, back then, which let them diversify: becoming the successful little critters they are today.

Parental Investment

Parental investment is what parental care is called when animals do it. Animals other than humans, that is. No, I don't think we're just animals. But I'm savvy enough to realize that when I look in a mirror, an animal looks back: a mammal, a primate.

Even if I wanted to believe otherwise, as a Catholic I must believe that we're animals: among other things. It's in the rules. Like I said Sunday, humility is accepting reality. (March 29, 2015; August 31, 2011)

Getting back to parental investment: it's an adult critter expending time and resources, protecting and nourishing his/her young. It's done by invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Scientists have been learning more about why and how it works over the last century. Turns out that altruism is a valuable survival trait: at least when it's directed toward more-or-less-related members of one's own species.

Does this mean that virtues like generosity like justice and fortitude are 'scientific?'

I wouldn't put it that way.

Someday, after collecting more data and developing new analysis tools, we may have math that describes how justice works. Maybe. At this point, we're doing well to be learning the logic behind parental investment.

I think there's a reason why cultures that don't self-destruct in a few generations follow roughly the same ethical principles. I've talked about natural law, positive law, and getting a grip, before. (October 26, 2014; August 31, 2014; August 29, 2014)

The Cretaceous: Briefly

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth in the Early Cretaceous, about 105,000,000 years ago.)

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth in the Late Cretaceous, about 90,000,000 years ago.)

Earth was warmer when Wathondara kotejai lived, with more carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere. Continents hadn't moved into their current locations, quite. Paleontologists call the period the Cretaceous.

Birds, pterosaurs, and mammals were around, and so were flowering plants: which didn't really take off until a bit later. (December 26, 2014; November 21, 2014)

Wathondara kotejai — this specimen, anyway — lived where Burma/Myanamar is now: according to a Wikipedia summary.

The insect's name is an interesting — for me — mix: Wathondara, a regional earth-goddess, Phra Mae Thorani/Mae Phra Thorani /Wathondara/Wathondare/Suvathara/Sowathara; and Polish entomologist Jan Kotěra.

A scale insect found in amber is a big deal for scientists studying the tiny things. They've found very few fossilized female scale insects: the critters are tiny, and since they spend most of their lives attached to a plant, not many wander into amber and get fossilized.

More about this insect:

Names and Change

(From Corto Maltese, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Bagan: capital city of an empire, a millennium later.)

(From Jmhullot, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Temples of Mrauk U.)

I suppose someone could get upset about the reference to Buddhist beliefs, the Polish connection, or Burma's current boss deciding to rename his turf. That seems like a waste of time and effort to me: but I'm the sort of person who talks about poetry, lunar construction engineering issues, and Marco Polo's visit to Bagan — and doesn't mind living in a big world. (March 20, 2015; September 7, 2014; April 14, 2010)

Bagan's the capital city of Burma's Pagan Empire a thousand years back. About five centuries later, a city a bit west and south of there was a thriving capital and trading center. The English-language name "Burma" is from Portuguese, probably; which probably came from an Indian word or phrase. A thousand years from now, folks may be calling the area something else. Probably, actually. Change happens.

2. Cambrian Arthropod: a Four-Eyed Predator

(From University of Toronto, used w/o permission.)
"Ancient, lobster-like predator discovered in 508-million-year-old fossil site"
Sean Bettam, University of Toronto (March 27, 2015)

"First new species from Marble Canyon site within Burgess Shale

"What do butterflies, spiders and lobsters have in common? They are all surviving relatives of a newly-identified species called Yawunik kootenayi, a marine creature with two pairs of eyes and prominent grasping appendages that lived as much as 508 million years ago – more than 250 million years before the first dinosaur.

"The fossil was identified by an international team led by palaeontologists at the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, as well as Pomona College in California. It is the first new species to be described from the Marble Canyon site, part of the renowned Canadian Burgess Shale fossil deposit.

"Yawunik had evolved long frontal appendages that resemble the antennae of modern beetles or shrimps, though these appendages were composed of three long claws, two of which bore opposing rows of teeth that helped the animal catch its prey.

" 'This creature is expanding our perspective on the anatomy and predatory habits of the first arthropods, the group to which spiders and lobsters belong,' said Cédric Aria, a PhD candidate in U of T's department of ecology and evolutionary biology and lead author of the resulting study published this week in Palaeontology...."
Arial Cédric and others said in a paper published last week, scientists still haven't figured out how critters like Yawunik kootenayi related to similar Cambrian animals.

The paper is written in academese, so what they actually said was that "leanchoiliids are early arthropods whose phylogenetic placement has been much debated."

Leanchoiliids are critters like leanchoilia. They're arthropods — animals an external skeleton, a segmented body, and jointed legs — with four stalked compound eyes and whip-like feelers on their 'arms.'

Back in leanchoilia's day, most animals were like today's feather stars: safely attached to the seafloor. After the Great Dying, Earth's animals mostly moved around. That may or may not be a universal pattern. (July 18, 2014)

This fossil comes from Marble Canyon, in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park, 40 kilometers/25 miles south of the Burgess Shale fossil site. A half-billion years back, those rocks were near the edge of Laurentia, North America's geological core.

Antennae, Eyes, and Brains

(From University of Toronto, used w/o permission.)
(Yawunik kootenayi, an illustration from the University of Toronto's article.)

Yawunik kootenayi is particularly interesting, since it doesn't have 'mouth parts' — specialized head appendages that process food.

The larvae of some crustaceans use their antennae to swim and gather food: but today's large active predators, like the mantis shrimp, have one set of appendages specialized for sensing, another for grasping prey.

Mantis shrimp also have one of the most complex eyes around. I've run into speculation that it's because they don't have much of a brain: so data processing has to take place in the eyes.

The hardwired mantis shrimp visual system is arguably more efficient than ours: but I think we're a whole lot better at learning how to figure out what we're looking at — and adapting to new environments. The way we travel, that last is a real advantage.

Besides, we're human: so now that we know how mantis shrimp eyes work, we can build a reasonable facsimile. Some researchers say this will help doctors detect cancer, and that's — what else? — another topic.

More about this critter:
Living in a world of wonders, my take:


David Torkington said...

Such an informed post. I will have to re-visit it again and again to try absorb all the fascinating knowledge. Thank you again Brian,

Brian Gill said...

My pleasure, David. We live in an astounding universe: and most likely have only begun discovering reasons for "greater admiration."

And thank you for the good words.

Brigid said...

Extra word and missing comma: "Does this mean that virtues like generosity like justice and fortitude are 'scientific?'"

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.