Last month we posted a video of a siphonophore (one of the Dunn lab’s favorite animals) swimming freely in the ocean. In this next installment of CreatureCast, Casey Dunn describes how siphonophores help us question what we think of as an individual.
There are different ways to think of individuality. Individuality can refer to function- whether an organism operates and interacts with the world as a unit. A fish is a functional individual, but so is an ant colony. Individuality can refer to evolutionary descent. In this respect our liver is not an individual, there was no ancestral free-living livers out there that our liver is descended from. But our mitochondria are individuals in this sense. They evolved from free-living bacteria that became incorporated into other cells. Individuality can also refer to the process of evolution. In this sense an individual is any entity that has the properties necessary for evolution by natural selection- it reproduces and has variable heritable properties that influence the chances of survival. This could be a free living cell, a cell in a body, an entire multicellular organism, and even groups of organisms in some cases.
All of these definitions of individuality are in alignment in most of the organisms we are familiar with. A bird, a rose bush, and a fly are all individuals as functional entities, according to their ancestry, and as units of selection. This makes it easy to get lulled into thinking of individuality as a monolithic property.
A siphonophore colony is a functional individual. But a siphonophore colony is made up of many parts that are each equivalent to free living organisms such as sea anemones and “true” jellyfish. So by the evolutionary descent definition it is a collection of individuals. The colony as a whole is acted upon by natural selection, making it an individual in the sense of the process of evolution. But it is entirely unclear whether natural selection can act on the parts within the colony, as it does on our own cells when we get cancer, since we don’t know about the heritability between the parts of the colony.
Siphonophores, by forcing us to disentangle what we mean when we call something an individual, help us understand the evolutionary origins of individuality. These different aspects of individuality don’t necessarily evolve at the same time, and one or more of them can even be lost. Organisms like siphonophores provide glimpses of these different combinations of individuality.
The song New Homes is by Lucky Dragons, the siphonophore video is from Dr. Steve Haddock at MBARI, the podcast was produced by Sophia Tintori, and the video is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 3.0 license.