Monthly Archives: April 2017

Friday Fellow: Hooker’s Lips

by Piter Kehoma Boll

We are always fascinated by plants that have some peculiar shape that resemble something else. And certainly one of them is the species I’m introducing today, Psychotria elata, also known as hooker’s lips or hot lips.

Found in the rainforests of Central America, in areas of middle to high elevation, the hooker’s lips is an understory shrub and produces an inflorescence that is surrounded by a pair of bracts that resemble bright red lips. Don’t look too much or you may be tempted to kiss them.


“Kiss me”, beg the hooker’s lips. Photo by Wikimedia user IROZ.*

Certainly some creatures do kiss it, especially hummingbirds, which are its pollinators, but also many species of butterflies and bees. However, when they come to kiss the red lips, they have already spread to much, in order to allow the flowers to be exposed, and do not resemble a mouth anymore.


Once the mouth is open, the magic of the kiss is gone. Photo by Dick Culbert.**

After pollination, the flowers develop into blue berries that are easily spotted by birds, which disperse the seeds. As the hooker’s lips produces fruits through the whole year, it is an important food source for fruit-eating birds.

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EOL –  Encyclopedia of Life. Psychotria elata. Available at <;. Access on March 5, 2017.

Silva, C., & Segura, J. (2015). Reproductive Biology and Herkogamy of Psychotria elata (Rubiaceae), a Distylous Species of the Tropical Rain Forests of Costa Rica American Journal of Plant Sciences, 06 (03), 433-444 DOI: 10.4236/ajps.2015.63049

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Friday Fellow: Crystalline crestfoot

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Even in the smallest pools or ponds of freshwater lost in a field, the diversity of lifeforms is amazing. Sadly, these environments are one of the most damaged of all ecosystems on earth and we probably have led many tiny species to extinction. Today’s fellow, however, is still alive, and its name is Lophopus crystallinus, or as I decided to call it, the crystalline crestfoot.


A colony of Lophopus crystallinus. Photo by Natural History Museum, London.*

The crystalline crestfoot is member of the phylum Bryozoa, sometimes called moss animals. In fact, it was the first bryozoan to be described. As other bryozoans, the crystalline crestfoot lives as a colony of individuals attached to substracts in the lakes and ponds where they exist, which includes Europe and North America. The individuals are not fully independent and have specialized functions within the colony, thus acting as a single superorganism. As a general rule, bryozoans, including the crystalline crestfoot, are filter feeders, extracting particles and microalgae from water.

Despite being considerable tolerant to eutrophication (increase of  organic matter in water) and heavy metal pollution, the crystalline crestfoot is yet threatened by other forms of human impact, such as climate change and certainly by the destruction of its habitat. Once an abundant species, the crystalline crestfoot is now rare and declining. It is currently regarded as a threatened species in the United Kingdom and is the only bryozoan to have a Species Action Plan. Let’s hope we can find a way to avoid it to be wiped out from this world.

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Elia, A., Galarini, R., Martin Dörr, A., & Taticchi, M. (2007). Heavy metal contamination and antioxidant response of a freshwater bryozoan (Lophopus crystallinus Pall., Phylactolaemata). Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, 66 (2), 188-194 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoenv.2005.12.004

Hill, S., Sayer, C., Hammond, P., Rimmer, V., Davidson, T., Hoare, D., Burgess, A., & Okamura, B. (2007). Are rare species rare or just overlooked? Assessing the distribution of the freshwater bryozoan, Lophopus crystallinusBiological Conservation, 135 (2), 223-234 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2006.10.023

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Friday Fellow: Crawling Spider Alga

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The world of unicelular creatures includes fascinating species, some of which were already presented here. And today one more is coming, the marine phytoplanctonic amoeboid protist Chlorarachnion reptans, which again is a species without a common name, so I created one: crawling spider alga.


A plasmodium of the crawling spider alga Chlorarachnion reptans. Photo by Wikimedia user NEON.*

The crawling spider alga was dicovered in the Canary Islands in 1930. It is an amoeboid alga that forms plasmodia (multinucleated networks) of cells connected by thin strips of cytoplasm (reticulopodia). The reticulopodia are also used to capture prey (bacteria and smaller protists, especially algae) working kind of like a spider web. Additionally, the crawling spider alga has chloroplasts, so being able to conduct photosynthesis. It is, therefore, a mixotrophic organism, having more than one way of feeding.

The chloroplasts of the crawling spider alga, as well of other species in its group, called Chlorarachniophyceae, have four membrane layers and appears to have evolved from a green alga that was ingested and became an endosymbiont. As a result, the chloroplast of the crawling spider alga has two sets of DNA, one from the original chloroplast that came from an endosymbiotic cyanobacteria (located inside the inner membrane) and one of the green algae (between the two inner and the two outer membranes).

Although traditionally seen as a group of algae, the chlorarachniophytes are not closely related to the more “typical” algae, such as red, green, brown and golden algae or diatoms. They are actually relatives of other protists with thin net- or thread- like pseudopods, such as radiolarians and foraminifers, forming with them the group Rhizaria.

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AlgaeBase. Chlorarachnion reptans Geitler. Available at <;. Access on March 5, 2017.

EOL – Encyclopedia of Life. Chlorarachnion reptans. Available at <;. Access on March 5, 2017.

Hibberd, D., & Norris, R. (1984). Cytology and ultrastructure of Chlorarachnion reptans (Chlorarachniophyta divisio nova, Chlorarachniophyceae classis nova) Journal of Phycology, 20 (2), 310-330 DOI: 10.1111/j.0022-3646.1984.00310.x

Ludwig, M., & Gibbs, S. (1989). Evidence that the nucleomorphs of Chlorarachnion reptans (Chloraracnhiophyceae) are vestigial nuclei: morphology, division and DNA-DAPI fluorescence Journal of Phycology, 25 (2), 385-394 DOI: 10.1111/j.1529-8817.1989.tb00135.x

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Who came first? The comb or the sponge?

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The endless question is here again, but this time it appears to be settled. What animal group is the earliest of all? Who came first?

It is clear that there are five animal lineages that are usually regarded as monophyletic: sponges, placozoans, comb jellies, cnidarians and bilaterians. Let’s take a brief look at each of them:

Sponges (phylum Porifera) are always sessile, i.e., they do not move and are fixed to the substrate. They have a very simple anatomical structure. Their body is consisted of a kind of tube, having a large internal cavity and two layers of cells, an outer one and an inner one around the cavity. There are several small openings connecting the cavity to the outside, called pores, and one or more large cavities, called oscula (singular: osculum). Between the two cell layers there is a jelly-like mesohyl containing unspecialized cells, as well as the skeleton structures, including fibers of spongine and spicules of calcium carbonate or silica. Some species also secrete an outer calcium carbonate skeleton over which the organic part grows. Sponges lack muscles, nervous system, excretory system or any other kind of system. They simply live by beating the flagella of the choanocytes (the cells of the inner layer), creating a water flow entering through the pores and exiting through the osculum. The choanocytes capture organic particles in the water and ingest them by phagocytosis. All sponge cells can change from one type to another and migrate from one layer to another, so there are no true tissues.


Body structures found in sponges. Picture by Philip Chalmers.*

Placozoans (phylum Placozoa) are even simpler than sponges, but they actually have true tissues. They are flat amoeboid organisms with two layers of epithelium, one dorsal and one ventral, and a thin layer of stellate cells. The ventral cell layer is slightly concave and appears to be homologous to the endoderm (the “gut” layer) of other animals, while the upper layer is homologous to the ectoderm (the “skin” layer).


Trichoplax adhaerens, the only species currently in the phylum Placozoa. Photo by Bernd Schierwater.**

Comb jellies (phylum Ctenophora) resemble jellyfishes, but a closer look reveals many differences. Externally they have an epidermis composed by two layers, an outer one that contains sensory cells, mucus-secreting cells and some specialized cells, like colloblasts that help capturing prey and cells containing multiple cilia used in locomotion, and an inner layer with a nerve net and muscle-like cells. They have a true mouth that leads to a pharynx and a stomach. From the stomach, a system os channels distribute the nutrients along the body. Opposite to the mouth there is a small anal pore that may excrete small unwanted particles, although most of the rejected material is expelled through the mouth. There is a layer of jelly-like material (mesoglea) between the gut and the epidermis.


The comb jelly Bathocyroe fosteri.

Cnidarians (phylum Cnidaria) have a structure similar to comb jellies, but not as complex. They also have an outer epidermis, but this is composed by a single layer of cells, and a sac-like gut surrounded by epthelial cells (gastrodermis), as well as a mesoglea between the two. Around the mouth there is one or two sets of tentacles. The most distinguishing feature of cnidarians is the presence of harpoon-like nettle cells, the cnidocytes, which are used as a defense mechanism and to help subdue prey.


Body structure of a cnidarian (jellyfish). Picture by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal.

Bilaterians (clade Bilateria) includes all other animals. They are far more complex and are characterized by a bilateral body, cephalization (they have heads) and three main cell layers, the ectoderm, which originates the epidermis and the nervous system, the mesoderm, which give rise to muscles and blood cells, and the endoderm, which develops into the digestive and endocrine systems.


Basic bilaterian structure.

Traditionally, sponges were always seen as the most primitive animals due to their lack of true tissues, muscular cells, nervous cells and all that stuff. However, some recent molecular studies have put the comb jellies as the most primitive animals. This was highly unexpected, as comb jellies are far more complex than sponges and placozoans, which would suggest that muscles and a nervous system evolved twice in the animal kingdom, or that sponges are some weird simplification of a more complex ancestor, which would be very hard to explain. The nervous system of comb jellies is indeed quite unusual, but not so much that it needs an independent origin.

However, now things appear to be settled. A study published this month on Current Biology by Simion et al. reconstructed a phylogenetic tree using 1719 genes of 97 animal species, and applying new and more congruent methods. With this more refined dataset, they recovered the classical reconstruction that puts sponges at the base of the animal tree, a more plausible scenario after all.

But why other studies have found comb jellies as the most basal group? Well, it seeems that comb jellies have unusually high substitution rates, meaning that their genes evolve faster. This leads to a problem called “long branch attraction” in phylogenetic reconstructions. As DNA has only four different nucleobases, namely adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine, each one can only mutate into one of the other three. When mutations occur very often, they may go back to what they were in long lost ancestor, leading to misinterpretations in the evolutionary relationships. That seems to be what happens with comb jellies.

So, it seems that after all the sponge indeed came first.

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References and further reading:

Borowiec ML, Lee EK, Chiu JC, & Plachetzki DC 2015. Extracting phylogenetic signal and accounting for bias in whole-genome data sets supports the Ctenophora as sister to remaining Metazoa. BMC Genomics 16: 987. DOI: 10.1186/s12864-015-2146-4

Littlewood DTJ 2017. Animal Evolution: Last Word on Sponges-First? Current Biology 27: R259–R261. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.042

Simion P, Philippe H, Baurain D, Jager M, Richter DJ, Di Franco A, Roure B, Satoh N, Quéinnec É, Ereskovsky A, Lapébie P, Corre E, Delsuc F, King N, Wörheide G, & Manuel M 2017. A Large and Consistent Phylogenomic Dataset Supports Sponges as the Sister Group to All Other Animals. Current Biology 27: 958–967. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.031

Wallberg A, Thollesson M, Farris JS, & Jondelius U 2004. The phylogenetic position of the comb jellies (Ctenophora) and the importance of taxonomic sampling. Cladistics 20: 558–578. DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-0031.2004.00041.x
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Friday Fellow: Amphibian chytrid fungus

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today I’m bringing you a species that is probably one of the most terrible ones to exist today, the amphibian chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, also known simply as Bd.


Several sporangia of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (spherical structures) growing on a freshwater arthropod. Photo by AJ Cann.*

The amphibian chytrid fungus, as its name says, is a chytrid, a fungus of the division Chytridiomycota, which include microscopic species that usually feed by degrading chitin, keratin in other such materials. In the case of the amphibian chytrid fungus, it infects the skin of amphibians and feeds on it. It grows through the skin forming a network of rhizoids that originate spherical sporangia that contains spores.

The infection caused by the amphibian chytrid fungus is called chytridiomycosis. It causes a series of symptoms, including reddening of the skin, lethargy, convlusions, anorexia and excessive thickening and shedding of the skin. This thickening of the skin leads to problems in taking in nutrients, releasing toxins and even breathing, eventually leading to death.


An individual of the species Atelopus limosus infected by the amphibian chytrid fungus. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.**

Since its discovery and naming in 1998, the amphibian chytrid fungus has devastated the populations of many amphibian species throughout the world. Some species, such as the golden toad and the Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog, were recently extinct by this terrible fungus. This whole drastic scenario is already considered one of the most severe examples of Holocene extinction. The reason for such a sudden increase in the infections is unknown, but it may be related to human impact on the environment.

We can only hope to find a way to reduce the spread of this nightmare to biodiversity.

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Fisher, M., Garner, T., & Walker, S. (2009). Global Emergence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and Amphibian Chytridiomycosis in Space, Time, and Host Annual Review of Microbiology, 63 (1), 291-310 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.micro.091208.073435

Wikipedia. Batrachochytridium dendrobatidis. Available at <;. Access on March 4, 2017.

Wikipedia. Chytridiomycosis. Available at <;. Access on March 4, 2017.

Wikipedia. Decline in amphibian populations. Available at <;. Access on March 4, 2017.

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