2017 revealed some surprising biology of organisms large and small, from quick-dozing elephants to sex-changing lizards and carbon-dumping sea creatures.
Switch it up
Toasty temperatures trump genetics when it comes to the sex of a bearded dragon lizard. Now researchers have found how RNA editing helps turn overheated male embryos into females (SN Online: 6/14/17).
Giant larvaceans don’t have noses, but they sure know how to blow snot bubbles. The sea invertebrates live in disposable “mucus houses” that, based on recent observations, collect food fast. When these larvaceans ditch a dirty house and “sneeze” themselves a new one, they might send a lot of carbon to the deep sea (SN: 6/10/17, p. 13).
Blood and guts
Antarctic-dwelling sea spiders use their long legs for more than creepy-crawling below the ice. Stretches of digestive tract in the creatures’ legs do double duty — not only digesting meals, but also pumping an arthropod version of blood and oxygen through the rest of the body (SN: 2/4/17, p. 13).
South American polka dot tree frogs are the first amphibians known to naturally fluoresce. The frogs’ intense blue-green glow might play a role in complex courtship and fighting behaviors, biologists propose (SN: 4/15/17, p. 4).
Brainless beauty sleep
Upside-down jellyfish are the first brainless animals known to catch some z’s, lab experiments suggest (SN: 10/28/17, p. 10). The finding raises new questions about when and why sleep evolved.
Pachyderm power nap
For some wild elephants, a good night’s sleep ends soon after it starts. Electronic monitoring of two African elephants found that the animals snooze about two hours per day — the shortest sleep requirement recorded for mammals (SN: 4/1/17, p. 10).
Chop off a hydra’s head, and two more grow in its place — or so the ancient Greek myth goes. By fiddling with the cytoskeletons of real-life hydras, researchers found that the pond polyps rely on mechanical forces as well as molecular cues to regenerate head and tentacles in the right places (SN: 3/4/17, p. 19).
Flamingos may be more stable standing on one leg than two, especially when asleep, researchers reported (SN: 6/24/17, p. 15). The blushing bird’s center of gravity is located near its tucked-in knee, which helps with stability. A one-legged stance requires little muscular effort, the scientists say, but others caution that it may not be an energy saver.
Tardigrades are known for withstanding extreme temperatures, intense radiation and even the vacuum of space. Those adaptations could help this hardy lineage survive until Earth is engulfed by the sun in several billion years, researchers estimate (SN Online: 7/14/17). An analysis of the microscopic water bears’ genetic blueprints offers clues to their survival strategies, and challenges claims that tardigrades are extreme gene swappers (SN: 8/19/17, p. 13).
Paint it blue
Scientists borrowed a gene each from Canterbury bells and butterfly peas to breed the world’s first true blue chrysanthemums. The method could be used to give other flower species the blues (SN: 8/19/17, p. 12).