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Creatures 2010: Halloween Editon

Halloween is upon us and in this spirit we’ve asked a few researchers to share with us their most interesting or fearsome moments about their discoveries published in PLoS ONE. Reader beware: you’ll encounter these scientists’ first-hand accounts of terrifying leeches, giant web weaving spiders and prehistoric beasts.

Fearsome Leeches

Leeches have a terrifying reputation for sucking the blood of their hosts.  In the paper, Tyrannobdella rex N. Gen. N. Sp. and the Evolutionary Origins of Mucosal Leech Infestations, Dr. Renzo Brown, Mark Siddall and colleagues discovered a new species of leech found in Lima, Peru. “This happened because Renzo Brown in Peru found it up a kid’s nose and sent it to us,” said Mark Siddall, a curator and professor of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For him, there were two interesting moments while researching the Tyrannobdella rex.

The “eureka” moment was opening up its mouth and seeing a single jaw with 8 enormous teeth (relative to expecting 3 jaws with a hundred tiny denticles. From that moment we knew we had a new species. Renzo then spoke to his colleagues in Peru and dug up the other 2 case reports.

There was a second “eureka” moment too.  T rex was the lynchpin that pointed us to seeing what was before our eyes for so very long: that there is a whole evolutionary lineage of leeches specializing on the mucous membranes of mammals.  After digging through the literature we uncovered ocular, pharyngeal, tracheal, urethral and…even one case of a leech making it up into someone’s bladder.

The discovery of the Tyrannobdella rex expands the family Praobdellidae, as well as, clarifies a group of leeches that specialize on mucus membranes.

Giant Web Weaving Spiders

When Dr. Ingi Agnarsson and his colleagues were exploring deep in Madagascar’s Ranamofana National Park, they stumbled upon giant spider webs while crossing a river.  Their first reaction was “Wow!” as they knew they had stumbled upon something special.

In their paper called Bioprospecting Finds the Toughest Biological Material: Extraordinary Silk from a Giant Riverine Orb Spider, Agnarsson and fellow researchers discuss silk produced by the Malagasy ‘Darwin’s bark spider’ (Caerostris darwini). This spider produces giant orb webs above rivers, ponds and lakes – its silk is the toughest biological material known to date.  Dr. Agnarsson sees this research as an example of what can happen when you merge scientific approaches and disciplines.  He explains:

Scientists studying silk in the laboratory and the scientists discovering new species in the field have largely been working independently. Therefore, knowledge of silk biomechanics (lab) is limited to very few of the tens of thousands of spider species that we know about and continue discovering (in the field).

Incidentally, at that time we (Matjaz Kuntner and I) were more or less completely unaware of the experimental work being done on spider silk in various laboratories, and thus represented the typical divide between these groups of scientists. Years later, I began to work in a spider silk biomechanics laboratory (Blackledge lab) and at that moment memories of the Madagascar giant popped up – it occurred to me that these web giants must be using special silk.

We used insights from our fieldwork and natural history observations to predict what we might find in the lab, and followed that up with a lab study, that confirmed our predictions.

Finally, to cap off our Halloween post, I’ll leave you with the scary first-hand account of Dr. Nicholas Longrich and his discovery of Cannibalism in Tyrannosaurus rex.

So there I was, in the huge, empty basement of the museum, all alone. Around me were dusty skeletons from eons ago, and cabinets filled with ancient bones, thousands upon thousands of bones, dug up from old graves and stashed away there… hidden so that we would not know the awful truth.  I still suspected nothing, and yet I should have known that a horrific discovery awaited me, because the bones came from a place with the unlucky name of Hell Creek. Slowly, I reached back into the drawer and took hold of a bone, and then I saw the great gashes left by the fearsome teeth of a ravenous Tyrannosaurus rex. And as I carefully turned the bone over in my hands, recognition slowly came, and I saw that what I held was itself the bone of another Tyrannosaurus. My understanding turned to horror, as I realized that the animal devouring it had, driven mad by insatiable hunger, had committed the unspeakable… with its great jaws, it had ripped into the festering carcass of its fellow, and feasted upon the rotting flesh of its own kind.

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