Face to face: Pulmonaria apennina

Pulmonaria apennina

Undergrowth in purple.

I’m BAAAAAACK! There are no excuses for such a long absence, but I have been a little busier than usual with the university – and I’ll be in the immediate future too! Recently, I’ve attended a course called “Ecosystemic Laboratory”, which includes a series of excursions in natural parks, and I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the local flora. Here’s Pulmonaria apennina, a protected species that is not very common everywhere, but in some places can be very abundant. The flowers are pink at first, and then become purple, and the leaves present many white spots (the green parenchyma in those spots is reduced). The function of the spots, if they have any, is unknown (it could be for protection from insects, like some exotic plants in which the leaves look like they’ve already been infested, thus prompting the insect to search some other plant) but in the middle ages people believed that, since the spots vaguely looked like alveoli in a lung, the plant was a miraculous cure for respiratory problems. It isn’t, of course, but the trichomes (“hair”) of the leaves caused expectoration, reinforcing the belief. It’s a plant that grows in shadowy places, like the underwood, and flowers around march-april, and its main pollinators are bumblebees (genus: Bombus)

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Acacia dealbata, fuckers!

Acacia dealbata

Yellow power.

I didn’t know that the Mimosa is a species of the genus Acacia (which is, in fact, part of the Mimosoideae, so I guess the joke’s on me), the same that include all those badass bushes and trees adapted to extremly dry and hot ecosystems, and that probably only giraffes, with their though lips and elongated tongues, find appetizing in spite of all those fucking THORNS. Anyway, here in Italy it’s given to women on International Women’s Day, which happens to be today, so that’s for you, ladies.

Friday’s Featured Organism: Lemna minor

Lemna minor

Mean and green.

Sometimes, in swamp zones, you happen to see what seems to be a perfectly flat grassland, but in fact it’s no grassland – it’s a body of water completely covered in Lemna minor, the Common Duckweed. A single root and one, two or three floating leaves less than 0.5 cm in lenght, for an organism evolved to reproduce and absorb resources extremely fast. And when I say fast, I mean it, because more than once I kept small containers full of freshwater life for a while to watch it under the microscope, and this species, starting as just a few specimens, always managed to cover the entire surface in just a few days, and I always had to remove the excess. Its secret is that, while it can reproduce sexually through flowers, it mainly reproduces by division (the individuals with more than one leaf¬† originate two or three one-leafed individuals).¬† It is rich in nutrients, and so it’s cultivate to be used as animal food, and it’s also been studied as a way to produce biofuel, but it needs to be harvested very often or its incredibly fast growth allows it to become a pest.

Friday’s Featured Organism: Amanita phalloides

Amanita phalloides

Shroom... of DOOM!

For the first fungus-based post here at The Cladogram we’ve goth the poisonous Amanita phalloides, the deadliest european mushroom, also known as Death Cap. My ongoing war with Jerry Coyne forces me to point out that the young fruity body (the mushroom) of this species is shaped like a phallus, hence the name “phalloides”.

Fungi are amazing and ecologically important organisms, and they’re weirdly misunderstood by non-biologists: usually, people think of them as plants. Hell, usually even in Biology Faculties they’re included into basic botany courses, even though the professors themselves of course explain that they’re more closely related to animals (the same way ALL of the diverse group of Protozoa are usually introduced in basic zoology courses – I think it’s time to create a separate course for “minor” Eukarya clades that are neither animals or plants). Just like animals, fungi are heterotrophs (many of them are fundamental in the process of decomposition of dead organic matter, and many are parasites of living beings), they have glycogen as an energy storage molecule, their cells contain chitin (in fungi it forms cell walls, while plant cell walls are of course made of cellulose), and they can’t do photosynthesis. Fungi, Animalia and Amoebozoa are all part of the clade Unikonta, while plants and other groups like green algae are part of the clade Plantae. So yeah, support the fungal secession from the plant tiranny!

Popcorn Biology: Avatar (2009)

Avatar

The Smurfs get an upgrade.

Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, adorated by legions of fanboys and hated by some intellectuals, especially directors who aren’t as rich as James Cameron. My verdict? In the middle: the story and characters are of course pretty bland and forgettable (and also a rip-off of Pochaontas, as everybody noticed) and the movie was probably too long, but the special effects are of course the most spectacular ever seen, and the action scenes are great. If you want a couple of hours of mindless, stupid, brightly coloured fun then Avatar is for you. Many also praise the supposedly very creative design of the creatures of this fantasy world; while some beasts are indeed cool to watch (especially the flying ones), to me many others seem just a lazy effort to make normal animals look weird only by adding a couple extra limbs and some featherish..things. Also, the color pattern of some animals seems to have been chosen pretty poorly (they look like they have taken part in some wild paintball battle). On the other hand, many people complained that the Na’vi were too human-like, but this didn’t bother me; yes, a weird and improbable example of extreme evolutionary convergence, but I can understand the decision to make the aliens look like us, since they’re the focus of the whole film and we have to empathize with them.And it’s not like the rest of Pandora is much more reality-based anyway.

Speaking of which, I digress. This is Popcorn Biology, I should criticize the biological aspects of this movie: a difficult task, as they are many, and many fanboys of the film have probably analyzed them in detail for years. I’ll do my best.

The first thing, the one that bothers me the most, is that for some reason humans can’t breath Pandora’s atmosphere. Which is incredibly odd since Pandora is largely covered in forests, made of trees with an uncanny resemblance to Earth’s trees (another extreme case of convergent evolution?). They’re green, ergo they have chlorophyll, ergo they do photosynthesis, ergo they produce oxygen. A lot of trees means a lot of oxygen, at least during the day.

Though, to be fair, it’s revealed that, in spite of their appearence, the trees of Pandora are quite different from ours, as they communicate with each other through electric and chemical signals, which means they have an equivalent of neurons, I guess. The trees and the animals of the planet are linked in a gigantic neural net, which of course is a concept inspired by James Lovelock’s Gaia “hypothesis”, which is less of an hypothesis and more of a vague metaphor made to capture the imagination of common people. I think that this SMBC cartoon explains my point perfectly.

Of course people tend to think of plants as a background, and focus on animals. What about the animals of Pandora? Well, as I’ve already said, they’re weirdly colored, as if the evolution on that planet didn’t give a fuck about camouflage, on the contrary of what happens here on Earth (no convergent evolution in this case?). Pandoran animals shown in the movie anyway are pretty big: maybe they don’t care about camouflage,, and on the other hand have evolved a system of communication based on colours and vision. The hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that most of them are also bioluminescent. On a side note, most Pandoran plants are bioluminescent too: do they need it to attract pollinators, or to lure the animals for some other reason? Who knows.

I’ve noticed that many animals on Pandora seem to have a respiratory system based on multiple tracheas that open directly on their chest. Maybe this is an adaptation to make possible their big size: enormous animal, especially erbivores, need to eat constantly enormous quantities of food; if they had to breath through the mouth (they’re not really technical tetrapods, so we’ll just assume that it’s possible that they can’t breath through the nose – do they even have a nose?) they would be forced to regularly interrupt their feeding not to die suffucated. This way, they can eat continuously without interruption, thus being a lot more efficient. It’s interesting to note that snakes have a similar adaptation to solve a different problem: they have to swallow the whole prey, so their mouth is occupied by food for relatively long periods of time; not to suffucate, their trachea is extended in their mouth, under the food, and it’s rigid so it stays open and able to breath even when the mouth is full.

The fact that most vertebrate animals of Pandora (although technically they’re not vertebrates, nor animals: they don’t share any common ancestor with animals, since they’re alien organisms) have six legs puzzles me. As I’ve said before, the creators of the movies designed them to be very similar to real animals (in this case tetrapods, especially mammals) in their shape and movement; so, since they move exactly like four legged animals, what’s the advantage of an additional pair of legs? The answer is: none. On the contrary, there are disadvantages: let’s put aside the fact that it would be more difficult ot coordinate them, every additional limb has a cost in term of energy and resources used to create and feed it: if it’s not useful (and in this case it’s not, since we’ve already estabilished that these six-legged aliens move in the exact same way of their four-legged counterparts on Earth), natural selection will make it “disappear”.

Speaking of legs, one of the nerdy criticisms about the human-like appearence of the Na’vi was that they only have two arms and two legs, while the rest of the fauna have 6 legs. I’ll defend Avatar on this one: first of all, this criticism sounds like “Most mammals have a tail, so humans should have a tail too to be considered mammals” (ironically, Na’vi do have a tail). Most important, the creators of the movie actually show a possible “evolutionary sequence” for the loss of limbs: a group of what are called “Prolemurs”, monkey-like creatures, still have sik legs, but the first two pairs are fused from the shoulder to the elbow. So in the Na’vi, other primate-like creatures, the fusion of the 4 arms to form 2 was complete. Maybe they evolved this way for the reason I explained in the previous paragraph, but it’s kind of strange, considering that they’re probably the only “vertebrates” on Pandora that could actually be advantaged by an extra pair of limbs, seeing how they have hands to grab and manipulate things. Oh, well.

Wow. That was long. Consider it a gift for the end of the year. I’m going to Rome for the holidays, so my blogging for the next seven days may be discontinuous to nonexistent (again). Happy new year folks, see ya in 2012.

Christmas’ Featured Organism: Picea abies

Picea abies

"Oh god! Where are my garlands, lights and Christmas balls? I'm NAKED!"

There’s still time before Christmas, so enjoy Picea abies, the Norway Spruce, one of the many species used as Christmas Trees. I’ll take a pause from university commitments for a while (I brilliantly passed all the exams I took in the last few days, even the dreaded Biochemistry exam), so I’m once again free to post more often on this blog, and I’ll try to do so. Now go decorating your personal gymnosperm, and have a merry Christmas!

Saturday’s Featured Organism: Ficus watkinsiana

Ficus watkinsiana

This plant adds a whole new meaning to the term "tree-hugger".

Not a single update this week, and I even post the Friday’s Featured Organism a day later. Yes, I suck. Anyway, here’s Ficus watkinsiana, one of the strangler figs, plants that have always been in my top “most awesome plants” list. Their seeds arrive (thanks to birds) on the top of the enormous trees of tropical rainforests, and they germinate there as an epiphyte that kind of looks like a liana. It slowly grows upwards to reach light (in rainforest, it’s a precious resource for which plants engage ferocious slowmo battles) and downwards to reach the ground and grow roots in it, envelopping and “strangling” the host tree with its branches in the process. If the host die and decompose, only the strangler fig will remain, as an hollow column of branches.