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?

The Pistol Shrimp

Imagine that you worked out, but only one of your arms. Imagine you pumped so much iron and drank down so many protein shakes that your one muscular arm grew almost as large as your whole body, and you could clap so loud that the people around you literally died.

You’ve just successfully imagined being the Pistol Shrimp.

Because when I say “shrimp” you say “giant sonic terror claw”.

The pistol shrimp’s arm has a goddamn cannon built into it. To go hunting, the shrimp picks a concealed spot, like a burrow, a bit of coral or a little underwater grassy knoll, and waits, antennae sensing the water for prey.

When something edible swims too close, the shrimp pulls the hammer on its claw back, “loading” it.

“Safety’s off, Sarge.”

That claw then snaps shut, creating a blast of sound. The water ahead of the shrimp briefly spikes to 5000°C, or the temperature of the fucking sun. There’s even a flash of light, caused by the sheer force of the collapsing vacuum in the water.

The prey is hammered by the shockwave, and stunned or killed. After that, the shrimp can drag them into its sniper nest and munch at its leisure.

Pictured: a regular shrimp meeting a pistol shrimp.

What’s more, they can’t be disarmed. If a pistol shrimp loses its cannon-arm, presumably to the oceanic equivalent of Jason Bourne, it will regenerate as a normal claw – while its other arm grows to monstrous size and becomes a cannon arm.

Try to take the gun away, and it just switches hands.

Pistol Shrimp are found all over the world, with members blasting their way across tropical waters, up into temperate coasts and in freshwater caves. However, these lunatic sniper shrimp are drifting further North than ever before – a pair were found by an English fisherman off the coast of the UK this year, and they are increasingly being fished up outside their usual ranges, hopefully by fishermen in bomb-proof blast suits.

The only explanation is that they are being pushed North by climate change, and while the shrimps themselves are fine with this, the fish and crustacean species already in their new shooting gallery aren’t – any invasive predator is bad news, and one with such an unstoppable hunting strategy is even worse.

What’s more, some of them are even eusocial, like bees, wasps and ants. The Synalpheus genus, which lives in sea sponges, forms colonies of a single “Queen” female, hundreds of workers, and hundreds of soldiers, all armed with the pistol shrimp’s shockwave cannon.

You know what happens next.

Little underwater trenches and little underwater artillery emplacements.

BLAM.
BLAM.

Be right back, I just had a great idea for a SyFy Original script.

Dan

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 Mexican Fish-Eating Bat

Have you ever wondered whether bats go fishing?

Ever lain awake at night thinking about whether their little feet trail through the water, raking up fish so they can hang upside down and eat them? Whether they have some sort of sonar-related way to pick out fish too close to the surface?

Well, wonder no more.

leporinus_2
“Mfmmfm.”

This happy little scamp is the Mexican Fishing Bat, Myotis vivesi. It lives mainly on small islands on the Gulf of California, and emerges at night (as bats are wont to do) to go fishing.

A bat that can fish is weird enough that I would write about it; but how it does the fishing is stranger still.

These bats fly above bodies of water (including the sea) and use echolocation to accurately perceive the surface of the water, like some sort of 3D targeting system. When they detect the tell-tale ripples or disturbances of fish close to the surface, they then move to attack – and it’s the sort of attack that makes you realise why you never see The Joker in a boat.

images (1)
“First the fish. Then the criminals.”

The bat swoops low, homing in on where it predicts the fish to be, and drops its specialised, clawed feet into the water, trailing them along like Hell’s very own little fish trawler. The rake-like feet are elongated and flattened, so they skim through the water more easily, and the claws are massive and curved forward to catch in any prey like hooks.

Mexican FIshing Bat (Myotis vivesi)
They had to call it the “Mexican Fishing Bat” because “Mexican Freddy-Krueger-Footed Bat” was apparently already taken.

The bat hits the fish at high speed, hooking it with its creepy little claws and dragging it clear of the water, before swinging it up into its creepy little mouth full of creepy little teeth.

Mexican Fishing Bat (Myotis vivesi)
You’re going to hear a lot of scratching in the attic tonight. It’s probably nothing.

Just so we’re clear, it makes a screaming demon face while doing it, too.

maxresdefault
Just in case any of you were wondering about whether there is a god (who does anything besides inspiring creeping madness).

It then flies off to a convenient perch, where it hangs upside down and eats the entire fish, as seen in the first picture. Don’t think you’re safe just because you’re a crab or something, either. If it lives in the water, the Myotis will eat it. They’ve been recorded eating crustaceans, frogs, algae and small fish, as well as the airborne insects above the water, and presumably those of the researchers that were out in boats on the water’s surface. Unusually for land mammals, they can also concentrate their urine far above the mammalian norms, allowing them to survive in their arid environment by drinking seawater. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink, except for the bats.

The echolocation means they’re accurate in total darkness, so the fish have no sensory ability that can pick them up before the strike. Out of the water and with no light to give them away, the bats are undetectable to their prey until it is far, far too late.

You’d probably have a better chance of picking one up if it came raking its claws down your street, though.

Yeah, you’d probably be fine.

Dan

images
“Everyone! Let’s go skinny dipping!”

(Image credit for Image 1 – chiroptera.fr (Chiroblog), Image 2 – abmexico.blogspot, Images 3 and 4 -Scott Trageser Photography, Image 5 – youtube still, “World’s Deadliest Fishing Bats”, Image 6 – web.ecologia.unam.mx

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)