The Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

This is the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, which, as you can guess from its name, is a lovable creature and a true friend to all.

Notice how everything else in this picture is dead.
Seen here bringing a little colour to a dead, decaying underwater hellscape.

The Crown-of-Thorns starts its life like any other starfish – five arms and radial symmetry – but the older it gets, the more the arms split, and the more spikes sprout from its nasty Hellraiser skin. Eventually, it will turn into a huge barbed disk with a frill of arms, blindly feeling its way across the ocean floor, looking for food.

And for the Crown of Thorns Starfish, food means coral. Not just the animals that live there – the coral itself.

The starfish is a problem because it eats the very creatures that make up the reef, and is difficult for other animals to stop. Methodically, it moves across the reef, killing and consuming the coral, cracking the ecosystem apart from the bottom up.

What’s worse, in many parts of the world human-induced chemical runoff has caused plankton to bloom, creating the perfect conditions for an uncontrollable starfish “outbreak”. One such outbreak has destroyed 42% of the Great Barrier Reef in the last 15 years.

Like a Resident Evil monster in every way that matters.
They’re like a Resident Evil monster in every way that matters.

Notice how it’s pretty tough to tell them apart in the photo above – there’s just too many of them, too crammed together.

Like that, they move over the marine landscape, and leave only the coral skeletons behind. Made brittle without their owners, the coral skeletons usually break apart in the next storm, and the reef is destroyed. On the wreckage, algae will grow, and the ecosystem will change completely.

Before.
Before.
Mad Max: Ocean Edition
After.

The phalanx can defend itself, too. Like regular, non-evil starfish, the Crown-of-Thorns has a body full of saponins – chemicals which act like a natural detergent.

Keeping one of these starfish in an enclosed pool will quickly have it foaming, like bubble bath, but whatever you do, don’t light a few candles and put some Barry White on. The Crown-of-Thorns got its name for a reason, and it is covered in sharp spikes, intended to punch deep into flesh and get the saponins into the wound. Regular bubble bath stings your eyes; Crown-of-Thorns bubble bath stings wounds, and usually means massive swelling, crippling agony, and a trip to the hospital.

General rule of thumb for nature: if it's this brightly coloured, it is evil.
General rule of thumb for nature: if it’s this brightly coloured, it is evil.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the spines also have a nasty habit of breaking off deep inside a predator or an errant foot, resulting in some quality time spent with the nearest surgeon.

So, I guess we just sit back, keep our hands and arms away from the starfish and let it eat all the reefs ever, right?

Think again, you spiky asshole starfish.
Think again, you spiky 5-to-28-armed asshole.

The defence of the reefs has to come from two angles – eliminating the chemical runoff that’s causing the starfish outbreaks, and culling the existing population back down to their natural, non-apocalyptic numbers.

Three boat crews on the Great Barrier Reef are deployed every year to try to bring the starfish population down, with divers injecting each one with ox bile and moving on. It’s a race against time, trying to beat the starfish’s phenomenal reproductive speed, and the bile is expensive and difficult to store and use.

Recently, however, it was discovered that normal household vinegar does the same job with a 100% starfish kill rate. Much cheaper, available in any supermarket and easy to store, ocean tests are underway now to see whether it may hold the key to saving the reefs.

The other side of the rescue, however, is not going well. The industrial and agricultural runoff that creates the outbreaks has continued without rest – the conditions are perfect for another endless swarm.

Alien biology, venomous spikes, mindless swarm eating all living things, created by pollution... It's like a Monster Movie checklist.
Alien biology, venomous spikes, a mindless horde eating all living things, created by pollution… It’s like a checklist for monster movie creatures.

All we need to do to stop the outbreaks forever is cut back on the pollution of the oceans.

That should be easy, right?

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The Bobbit Worm

There’s just something about the ocean that encourages the growth of monsters.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s all kinds of awful life crawling, shambling, stalking and soaring above the water too, but once you go beneath the waves it’s as though the natural order ceases, and Nature is free to unleash the worst nightmares she cooked up in her teenage goth phase.

The oceans have the colossal squid, the moray eel, the Japanese spider crab, the goblin shark and thousands upon thousands of other deep-seated animate phobias that I am certain to write about at some point or another, but none of them, not one, really compares to The Bobbit Worm.

No no no, BOBBIT worm. A Bobbit worm is much bigger than this guy.

The Bobbit Worm was named after Lorena Bobbit, a woman who in 1993 cut off the penis of her husband with a knife.

At this point, I imagine you’re scratching your head. Why would you name a worm after a woman who cut off someone’s Johnson?

Oh, right. The giant shaft-mangling scissor jaws. Gotcha.
Oh, right. The giant shaft-mangling scissor jaws. Gotcha.

Those stupidly menacing shears are part of a complex jaw structure called a pharynx, which turns inside out to make for more efficient snagging of prey when it snaps shut.

And boy, does it snap shut. The jaw strikes of a Bobbit Worm are often so powerful that fish are cut clean in half. No screwing around, just bam. Darth Mauled. Once hopelessly impaled on the fangs of the monster worm, the prey is then pulled down into the sand, where it is eaten, presumably in a horrifying manner.

I say presumably because, well, we don’t know what happens down there. No-one has ever directly observed the inside of a Bobbit Worm burrow during snack time.

But feel free to stick your hand in there and have a feel around for what’s happening. There’s plenty of curious scientists out there who, for some reason, haven’t done that yet.

They’re a real scourge of aquariums, often being responsible for the disappearances of fish and other animals, or the mysterious maiming and bisection of their tankmates. They bury themselves in the sand, forming a murder-burrow with only their heads and a few inches of body showing, and so can be impossible to find without dismantling the entire tank.

Oh, and attempts to bait one of these mystery-aquarium-killers using hooks on wire failed a few times in aquariums in Newquay, Cornwall and Woking, Surrey, after the worms in question sliced through the wire to evade capture.

This on its own is creepy enough, but I forgot to mention that they usually show up around 10 feet long, or 3 meters if you’re more one for shitting yourself in metric tons. They’re the thing that every monster worm in every fantasy or horror movie wishes it was, with a rainbow shell to boot.

They have five antennae on their heads dedicated to finding more living things to slice up and drag into the sand, their jaws turn inside out for better flesh-rending, they drag their prey into sinister warrens beneath the ground, beneath the sea.

Fuck this worm. I’m out.
Dan

(image credit for image 1 – http://www.g4tv.com, image 2 – http://www.youtube.com (Bobbit Worm vs Lion Fish, image 3 – http://www.flickr.com (Bobbit Worm Attack by Jason Isley, image 4 – Nadine Kalinauskas, Daily Buzz)

The Tailless Whip Scorpion

It’s been over a month, you think, he hasn’t posted anything new. It’s probably safe to go back on the internet without having some unspeakable, skin-crawling abomination of nature appear on your computer screen.

WRONG
WRONG!

This is the tailless whip scorpion or “whip spider”. It is, unsurprisingly, a relative of spiders, scorpions and other arachnids, and, if you look closely, you will see that it is somehow worse than all of them. Combining the flat, armoured body of a scorpion with spider-like body structure, the spiked forelimbs of a praying mantis with the gangly, unsettling legs of a harvestman and tacking on the long, spindly antennae of whatever that bug is that’s on your back right now, this Frankenstein super-arachnid lives in tropical and subtropical climates worldwide.

They can be found in leaf-litter, under rocks and other debris, in tunnels under the soil and even in deep cave systems, where no creature ever sees the sun.

"The sun is terrible for my skin anyway."
“The sun is terrible for my skin anyway.”

They are exclusively nocturnal, so if they ever have to leave their secluded, shadowy haunts, they do it in the dark. Their first pair of limbs have evolved into the eye-removing, prey-impaling nightmare claws seen above, but the second pair have changed into extremely long, antennae-like sensory “whips”. The creature extends these whips on either side of its body, walking sideways to achieve maximum creepiness and allow it to sense the environment both ahead and behind.

When prey is located, the whip spider lunges forwards, impaling it on the spiked forelimbs of doom and pulling it in to be torn open by strong, spider-like jaws. The body fluids and soft tissues of the victim can then be eaten, and the whip spider can continue its steady sideways amble into the nightmares of everyone, everywhere.

The whip spider is also, amazingly, venomless, and harmless to humans. It lacks the venom glands, poison injectors, acid sprays, web spinners and spine launchers which I fully expected to find on such a creature.

If threatened, its primary response is to run like hell, using its flattened body to vanish into cracks in rock and other small crevasses. If cornered, those barbed arms come into play, but against a large, determined predator they can only really do so much.

tailless
And if any creature is desperate enough to eat a tailless whip scorpion, let’s assume it is not going to be easily dissuaded.

So you see, they are actually absolutely harmless and benevolent. Nothing to worry about. They even fit adorably in your hand!

The donor of this hand tragically died in a non-horror-arachnid related mauling after this picture was taken.
The donor of this hand tragically died in a non-horror-arachnid related mauling after this picture was taken.

Ignore the fact that they have been seen snatching moths out of the air, or the way South American populations have been recorded pulling shrimp out of freshwater streams to tear apart and eat them. Nothing worrying there. But try telling Ron Weasley that. That guy’s scared of the cuddliest things.

What a bitch, am I right?
What a bitch, am I right?

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading about the whip spider, a perfectly non-threatening arthropod that is not currently coercing me into writing reassuring things about it on the internet!

Dan

(image credit for image 1 – colinhuttonphoto.deviantart.com, image 2 – naturecloseups.com, image 3 – http://www.britannica.com, image 4 – forums.wowpetopia.com, image 5 – http://www.tumblr.com

Goblin Sharks

The Goblin Shark is weird. We might as well get that out of the way now.

For starts, it looks like this:

Mistukurina_owstoni_museum_victoria
“I should not be.”

That pasty, off-white eel/shark abomination has been caught in all three major oceans, but is most frequently pulled up off the coast of Japan, because all deep-sea horror creatures are drawn to Japan like eldritch aquatic moths to a particularly monster-prone lightbulb.

It generally lives about a mile below the surface, where there has never been any light, but it can also be found beneath the beds of other sharks, waiting to jump out and scare them. A goblin shark tooth has even been found lodged in a deep-sea cable at a depth of 1,370m (4,490ft), indicating that they may range all the way down to the watery tomb of the Elder Gods, and also that they want to destroy our tasty, tasty cables.

goblin-shark
And therefore lure down our tasty, tasty cable repairmen.

It’s usually between 3m and 4m long (or “double the size of a grown human”), but don’t worry, its long, top-heavy tail fin and flabby body indicate that it’s pretty sluggish and slow moving (except for its jaws, which can extend out of its face really, really fast).

The goblin shark’s hunting strategy (which, amazingly, does not involve making scary faces) makes use of that ridiculous nose as a sort of metal detector, since the nose is absolutely packed with sensors which can detect the electric currents of a prey animal’s nervous system. Like, you know, the heartbeat.

goblinshark2
“Let’s play hide and seek!”

These electrical sensors are called ampullae of Lorenzini, and most sharks have them, but a few species have adapted to make exceptional use of them. The other sharks to do this are hammerheads, which now look far more cuddly than they did before I started researching their deep-sea surfboard-nosed cousin.

The weird heads are used the same way – like sweeping metal detectors, swung from left to right to scan for living things. The hammerhead is scanning for fish and crabs buried in the mud – the goblin shark is scanning for things it can’t see in the black abyss it calls home. Even animals buried in the sand or concealed by ink clouds can be caught with the use of that inescapable snout.

Once the (presumably horrified) prey is detected, the real horror show can begin: the goblin shark’s jaws extend out from its head like some sort of grabber arm designed by H.R Giger, and snatch the victim in hundreds of thin, nail-like teeth. At the same time, the shark’s throat and gills expand outwards, opening a cavernous black hole in the universe and creating a vacuum that sucks the prey in, making escape almost impossible.

600-grey-goblin
This animal disproves the existence of a loving God a thousand times over.

Due to the depths it lives at, its diet of deep-sea fish and its thin, needle-like teeth, it is believed to pose no threat to humans. However, since they are double your size and there is most definitely going to be one lurking in your dreams tonight, I’m sure that’s going to be small comfort to you now.

You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Dan

(credit for image 1 – Dianne Bray / Museum Victoria: image 2 – http://www.sharksider.com: image 3 – http://www.greengoblin.com: image 4 – “Alien Sharks”, Discovery Channel)