Six tips for achieving invisibility

posted by Sophia Tintori / on April 15th, 2013 / in Arthropods, Cnidaria, Comb Jellies, molluscs, optics

 Hiding from danger in the deep sea is a very different game than hiding from danger on land. In the sea, not only does a creature have nothing to hide behind, it can’t even camouflage itself, because it’s environment is just clear water. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, many animals of the sea have evolved ways of being transparent.

Here is a semi-interactive video (with the option of a single, non-interactive video here) from CreatureCast alum Sophia Tintori, featuring tips from a handful of ocean-dwellers that each have drastically different approaches to being invisible.

Score by Amil Byleckie, video made by Sophia Tintori, with a big thanks to Sönke Johnsen. Funding provided by Duke University Provost & Council for the Arts and the Office of Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike license.

CreatureCast – How to hide

posted by Casey Dunn / on September 8th, 2012 / in imaginescience, Jellies, optics, Podcast

Riley Thompson, from the College of the Atlantic, tells the story of how animals become invisible.

Thanks to Robert Sandler, and the Brown University Science Center.
The music is by cloud mouth.

Perspective of a bird

posted by Sophia Tintori / on October 11th, 2010 / in Birds, optics

Male bower birds boast an architectural prowess, it is true. They also have a discerning eye when it comes to the color palette for their homes. It turns out that, if that weren’t enough, these birds also use forced perspective, arranging stones in their court in size order to create an optical illusion for the female who is shopping around for a mate.

This is a bower from the one of the avenue species of bower birds — those who build a long avenue out of sticks, with a court at the end made of stones, shells, bones and bits of colored plastic. The female stands outside the avenue (where the photographer was lying to take this picture) and looks through it to the male bower bird who is dancing around on the stones at the back. The funny thing about this picture is that to us the stones look like they are all a similar size, but they are actually arranged with the largest ones in the back, and the smallest ones in the front. If you switch the positions of the stones, as Endler, Endler and Door (Current Biology, 2010) did in this photograph…

… the males will move them back into the opposite size gradient within three days.

The males are creating variation of an Ames room, sort of like this one:

The trick in this picture is that the room is actually much deeper and taller on the left side, and so the leftmost suited guy looks really tiny, whereas the suit on the right is standing closer downstage, on the smaller side of the irregularly shaped room, which makes him look huge. One caveat of this illusion is that it only works if the viewer is standing at one particular point, but this is guaranteed of the female bower bird because she has to look down the long narrow avenue of twigs to see the court. One of the possible reasons the male bower bird creates this Ames court might be to make himself look bigger in the front of the court when compared to other objects placed in the back next to the bigger stones, like the suit on the right.

The bower photographs are from the research of Endler et al, which can be found in this paper from September. The Ames room photograph was grabbed from this blog. More on bower birds and female chosiness can be found in an earlier video of ours on picky females.

Tube vision

posted by S. Zachary Swartz / on March 17th, 2010 / in Echinoderms, locomotion, optics

As a student of science, I love how even something close to home can take me completely by surprise. I study sea urchin development, and yet until recently I had no idea that urchins can see. I find this fascinating because they do not have eyes, at least not as I typically think of them. I first learned of this at a talk about feet, of all things. Feet may be the organs by which urchins largely experience their world. Sea urchins have hundreds of feet: thin, muscular tubes with suction cups at the ends. In the video below, you can see how their combined action allows the animal to move (slowly). The role of the tube foot goes beyond locomotion, however.

Urchins have many of the same genes that are associated with vision in other animals. But they don’t have anything that resemble eyes. Instead, these genes are expressed most in the tube feet and short appendages called pedicellariae. It’s been long recognized that sea urchins are light sensitive. Specifically, they tend to move away from it. Trickier, though, is determining how sensitive they are. Are sea urchins reacting to the presence or absence of light, or do they actually have spatial perception? Recent work by Blevins and Johnsen (2004) and Yerramilli and Johnsen (2009) suggests the latter. In these experiments, urchins would react to the presence of dark targets that looked like nice holes to crawl into in their tank. But they only recognized them if they were above a certain size, implying that their visual perception has a resolution of that certain size, and that they’re not just recognizing simple light or dark cues.

So urchins can move in relation to where the dark shapes are, and they have these photoreceptor genes in their feet. But a photoreceptor alone won’t provide spatial information. A creature needs a way to screen out light coming from the sides of the photoreceptors, and only recognize light coming directly at it, so that each photoreceptor is getting a unique reading. Then it can use those readings to get a sense of the differences between the different spaces in front of each receptor. Where does sea urchins’ resolution come from? It’s possible that their spines block out all light except that which is directly in front of any given photoreceptor. When combined, all of the photoreceptors—on the tube feet, pedicellariae, and probably the shell itself—may function as a giant compound eye like that of an insect, with each receptor only seeing what’s in front of it. And if fact, it turns out that the resolution of sea urchin vision actually correlates well with the spacing between their spines. The resolution is modest, but enough to allow for some complex behavior, helping them seek shelter, locate food, or flee from predators. Sea urchins lack a central nervous system or anything resembling a brain, so I find it amazing that they are able to process spatial information.

Videos and photographs taken by Adrian Reich of the Wessel lab. The top photo shows the wandering tube feet of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Next down is a video of S. purpuratus moving, then an image of the tube feet of S. purpuratus and its sea star relative Patria miniata. The bottom photo is a close up on P. miniata.

Mitochondrial lenses

posted by Christopher Laumer / on October 21st, 2009 / in convergent evolution, optics


When making observations of the tiny flatworms I study, I seldom paused to consider that they might also be looking back at me. However, when sampling in estuaries near Woods Hole, MA, I recently encountered several animals whose visual system proved impossible to ignore. On each eye, normally an inconspicuous black spot, I found a tiny spherical lens perfectly situated above their light-sensitive cells! These animals turned out to belong to a group of minuscule predatory flatworms that have an organ on their head (the acorn-looking thing) which they can shoot out rapidly to subdue their Lilliputian prey. The animal you see above is probably Toia ycia, which gets to be about half a millimeter long as an adult. We’re not sure if Toia can see in the same sense that your dog or goldfish can – I’d doubt it personally. But it’s likely that their eyes are more powerful than those of most other flatworms, which at best distinguish light from dark and can approximate the direction of the light source.

I’m apparently not the only person that’s found himself interested in these eyes—zoologists have been using electron microscopes to peer deep inside their cells for years. These investigations revealed quite a surprise. Most of us think of mitochondria as the “powerhouse” of the cell, as we learned in high school; some may remember learning about their origins as symbiotic bacteria. In these flatworms, however, these enslaved microbes serve another purpose: by accumulating refractive proteins, packing together, and becoming enlarged, these mitochondria have become lenses that focus ambient light onto the light-sensitive cells.

Toia and its ilk aren’t the only flatworms that do this: mitochondrial lenses seem to be a feature of quite a few distantly related flatworms. Some of these worms are free living, such as the beach predator Ptychopera westbladi, or the photosynthetic Dalyellia viridis. Others are more or less parasitic, as for example, Urastoma cyprinae, a pest of the commercial oyster, or the fish-gill parasite Entobdella soleae, a distant relative of the too-familiar tapeworm and liver fluke.

What are we to think of this spotty distribution of mitochondrial eyes in the flatworm tree of life? Maybe the most recent common ancestor of these organisms had an eye with a mitochondrial lens, and this feature was lost or unrecognisably modified in most descendant lineages. Another possibility, however, is that this represents a convergence – unrelated lineages of flatworms may have all found a way to build lenses with mitochondria, just as dolphins, sharks, and ichthyosaurs all independently became streamlined for drag reduction in the water. Without knowing exactly how these flatworm eyes develop, and in particular the cellular signals these animals use to guide their mitochondria to differentiate into lenses, it is difficult to distinguish between one or multiple origins of the mitochondrial lens.

Other organisms, though, have clearly discovered their own ways of making lenses with endosymbionts. Some dinoflagellates, single-celled photosynthesizers of the shallow ocean, have found a way to make lenses of their photosynthetic plastids, endosymbionts that were engulfed independently of mitochondria. Yet another clear de novo reinvention of the lens has occurred in the acoel Proporus venosus, a type of animal that was once considered a flatworm, but which has recently been shown to be as distantly related to to Toia it is to you or I. Below is a video I made of a Proporus venosus individual I captured in Sardinia.