Salty Pups

posted by Sophia Tintori / on June 23rd, 2010 / in Chordates, Extremophiles

In Death Valley, life can be difficult.  One might think that such a dry area would be a bad place for fish to live, and it is. But that is exactly why it is such a great habitat for this particular fish, Cyprinodon salinus, as well as the other desert pupfishes.

The salt creeks and pools of the California desert evaporate quickly, making their salinity change day by day. In the winter some creeks will be essentially freshwater, while in the hottest parts of the summer the water can become twice as salty as the ocean. Because the desert pupfish can handle this kind of fluctuation, which would kill most of the rest of us, they usually get the creek to themselves, with no other competing fish.

Some desert pupfishes in South America even live in ponds that dry up entirely during the summer. They lay their eggs in the mud before it dries, then when the rain starts to fall again, the population is reconstituted and the eggs begin to hatch.

This past March, while visiting Death Valley with his family, Casey Dunn, the principle investigator of our lab at Brown University, visited a salt water creek and found these pupfish spinning around each other while mating. The females are the smaller ones, and they lay one egg at a time. A male will swim up next to her, they will both curve their bodies into an S shape, the female drops an egg into the male’s fin, he fertilizes the egg, then drops it on the floor of the creek. In this clip the males are tagging off, each taking turns fertilizing eggs as they come out of the females.

This video is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license. Thanks to Maria Dzul for pointing me towards some information about desert pupfish. Here is a paper about pupfish and the fluctuating salinity of their water, here is a description of C. macularius‘ mating behavior, and here is a nice book about California fish, which might be at your local library.

Centerless Self

posted by Sophia Tintori / on June 15th, 2010 / in Arthropods, Development, Platyhelminthes

The sense that the self exists somewhere close to the brain or heart is an intuitive one for humans. It also seems to apply to most of the animals we regularly encounter, even when they can regrow parts of their body. When a crayfish gets into a tight spot and loses one of its claws, the part of the crayfish with the head will regrow the lost claw, but the claw won’t regrow a body and head.

For many animals, though, there is no such essential center of the organism. When a flatworm gets its tail cut off, both the tail and head will fill in the missing parts and make two whole flatworms that are clones of each other. Its body is arranged such that there isn’t a single part of the animal that can be identified as the core.

Here is a bit of footage taken by Stephanie Spielman, an undergraduate in Casey Dunn and Gary Wessel’s seminar on the evolution of multicellularity at Brown University. The clip features the flatworm Dugesia tigrina swimming around the Dunn lab. It is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license. The crawfish video is from Day at the River (1928), a video from DeVry School Films, Inc., which is under public domain.

How do krill grow?

posted by Lisa Roberts / on June 4th, 2010 / in Arthropods, Development, lifecycles, Podcast, Science & Art

Early last year, at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), I saw an unusual sight: the birth of a live Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba.
The newborn appeared on a video screen that projected the view of a camera poised over a petri dish. A tremulous form emerged from its egg with its legs beating furiously!
This event began a continuing conversation with krill research leader, So Kawaguchi.
Back in my Sydney studio, I worked with So’s words and images. He explained (by email) how krill grow, and sent me diagrams by John Kirkwood to work with. I also found data sets online of how krill appendages move (Uwe Kils). Piano music was improvised by an 11 year old friend, Sophie Green.
This is the first of some animations that I am making to more fully describe this elusive and most important creature.
Krill are central to the marine life food web. Their health is endangered as a result of oceans becoming more acidic (as carbon increasingly enters the atmosphere and then dissolves into the water).
A new research project at the AAD is to record changes in normal krill development in increasingly acid water. Next month (June 2010) I return to the AAD krill nursery to find out more about this research.
I will also record So Kawaguchi describe what he has identified as a circling krill mating dance. What a fine gesture of continuity!

This video is released by Lisa Roberts under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license. More animations can be found at