I’ve peered into all the files and found that the animal file is bulging again. So off we go for another adventure in the animal kingdom but with an alien twist! For starters, have a look at the lovely fellow in the picture.
Okay, you say that could be an alien but it looks more like a fish, with a funny looking mouth and crossed eyes. But you’d be wrong. It’s a fish all right, with a funny looking mouth, but those aren’t crossed eyes. That’s the fish’s nose and his eyes are quite possible the strangest eyes in the animal kingdom.
LOOKING DOWN THE TUBES
That lovely fellow is Macropinna microstoma (which directly translates from the Latin as “big foot, small mouth”) also known as the barreleye fish because it has tubular eyes and a transparent head. Ever since barreleyes were described in 1939, marine biologists have known that its tubular eyes are very good at collecting light.
Barreleyes typically live near the depth where sunlight from the surface fades to complete blackness. They use their ultra-sensitive tubular eyes to search for the faint silhouettes of prey overhead. Although tubular eyes are very good at collecting light, they have a very narrow field of view. Most marine biologists believed that the fishes’ eyes were fixed in their heads, allowing them to only look upward. This would make it impossible for the fishes to see what was directly in front of them, and very difficult for them to capture prey with their small, pointed mouths.
New research shows that these unusual eyes can rotate within a transparent shield that covers the fish’s head. This allows the barreleye to peer up at potential prey or focus forward to see what it’s eating.
The researchers used video from remotely operated vehicles to study barreleyes in deep water just offshore of Central California. At depths of 2,000 to 2,600 feet, the ROV cameras typically showed these fish hanging motionless in the water, their eyes glowing a vivid green in the ROV’s bright lights. The ROV video also revealed a previously undescribed feature of these fish–the eyes are surrounded by a transparent, fluid-filled shield that covers the top of the fish’s head.
Most existing descriptions and illustrations of this fish don’t show the fluid-filled shield, because the fragile structure is destroyed when the fish are brought up from the deep in nets. The researchers brought their nets up slowly and were able to bring a live barreleye to the surface. They placed it in a shipboard aquarium, where it survived for several hours. Within this controlled environment, the researchers were able to confirm what they had seen in the ROV video–the fish rotated its tubular eyes as it turned its body from a horizontal to a vertical position.
In addition to their amazing "headgear," barreleyes have a variety of other interesting adaptations to deep-sea life. Their large, flat fins allow them to remain nearly motionless in the water, and to maneuver very precisely. Their small mouths suggest that they can be very precise and selective in capturing small prey.
The scientists have now developed a working hypothesis about how this animal makes a living. Most of the time, the fish hangs motionless in the water, with its body in a horizontal position and its eyes looking upward. The green pigments in its eyes may filter out sunlight coming directly from the sea surface, helping the barreleye spot the bioluminescent glow of jellies or other animals directly overhead. When it spots prey (such as a drifting jellyfish), the fish rotates its eyes forward and swims upward, in feeding mode.
The bizarre physiological adaptations of the barreleyes have puzzled oceanographers for generations. The use of modern underwater robots allows scientists to observe such animals in their native environment, and more fully understand how their physical adaptations help them survive.
A fish with tubular eyes certainly looks and sounds a bit alien, but now we’ll move on to two stories about possible real aliens!
FLOATING IN THE AIR
Indian scientists have discovered three new species of ultra-violet resistant bacteria in the upper stratosphere. These bacteria species are not found on Earth and have no known close Earth relatives.
The experiment was conducted using a very large balloon carrying a 1,000 pound scientific payload soaked in 100 pounds of liquid neon, flown from the National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad, India. The payload consisted of a cryosampler containing sixteen evacuated and sterilized stainless steel probes. Throughout the flight, the probes remained immersed in liquid neon to create a cryopump effect. These cylinders, after collecting air samples from different heights ranging from 12 to 24 miles were parachuted down and safely retrieved.
In all, 12 bacterial and six fungal colonies were found. The fungi and six of the bacteria specimens were known Earth species, but the other three bacteria samples were totally new species. All three newly identified species had significantly higher UV resistance compared to their nearest Earth relatives.
One of the new species has been named as Janibacter hoylei, after the distinguished astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, the second as Bacillus isronensis recognising the contribution of ISRO in the balloon experiments which led to its discovery and the third as Bacillus aryabhata after India’s celebrated ancient astronomer Aryabhata and also the first satellite of ISRO.
This was the second such experiment conducted by ISRO, the first one being in 2001. Even though the first experiment also yielded positive results, it was decided to repeat the experiment by exercising extra care to ensure that it was totally free from any terrestrial contamination.
Because of the precautions taken in the most recent experiment to prevent contamination, the researchers are confident that these new species came from the stratosphere. While the present study does not conclusively establish the extra-terrestrial origin of microorganisms, it does provide positive encouragement to continue the work in our quest to explore the origin of life.
The balloon carrying the scientific instrumentation that India launched into the stratosphere, where new UV-resistant bacteria were discovered. (Credit: Image courtesy of Indian Space Research Organization)
Hold on there Beany-Boy!! Are these people actually implying that these three new bacteria species came from outer space? That they are ALIEN in nature? Read on!
FROZEN IN THE ICE
So the alien crashed in his spaceship 120,000 years ago and was trapped beneath the ice. Sounds like a science-fiction story I should write, but although there’s no spaceship, the story just may be true.
A novel bacterium — trapped more than a mile under glacial ice in Greenland for over 120,000 years — may hold clues as to what life forms might exist on other planets. A team of scientists from Pennsylvania State University report finding the novel microbe, which they have called Herminiimonas glaciei. The team showed great patience in coaxing the dormant microbe back
to life; first incubating their samples at 2˚C for seven months and then at 5˚C for a further four and a half months, after which colonies of very small purple-brown bacteria were seen.
H. glaciei is small even by bacterial standards – it is 10 to 50 times smaller than E. coli. Its small size probably helped it to survive in the liquid veins among ice crystals and the thin liquid film on their surfaces. Small cell size is considered to be advantageous for more efficient nutrient uptake, protection against predators and occupation of micro-niches and it has been shown that very small bacteria dominate many soil and marine environments.
Most life on our planet has always consisted of microorganisms, so it is reasonable to consider that this might be true on other planets as well. Studying microorganisms living under extreme conditions on Earth may provide insight into what sorts of life forms could survive elsewhere in the solar system.
The extremely cold environments are the best analogues of possible extraterrestrial habitats such as those that exist on Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The exceptionally low temperatures can preserve cells and nucleic acids for millions of years. H. glaciei is one of just a handful of officially described ultra-small species and the only one so far from the Greenland ice sheet. Studying these bacteria can provide insights into how cells can survive and even grow under extremely harsh conditions, like temperatures down to -30˚F, little oxygen, low nutrients, high pressure and limited space.
H. glaciei isn’t a pathogen and isn’t harmful to humans, but it’s so small it can pass through a 0.2 micron filter, which is the filter pore size commonly used in sterilization of fluids in laboratories and hospitals. If there are other ultra-small bacteria that are pathogens, then they could be present in solutions presumed to be sterile. In a clear solution very tiny cells might grow but not create the density sufficient to make the solution cloudy.
Several years ago, a bacterial-like fossil was found in a meteorite from Mars that landed in Antarctica. The major objection to saying that it was, in fact a fossil bacterium, was that it was very small; much smaller than ‘standard’ bacteria. H. glaciei may tell us that there are indeed, aliens among us!
Trapped more than three kilometers under glacial ice in Greenland for over 120,000 years, a dormant bacterium — Herminiimonas glaciei — has been coaxed back to life by researchers. (Credit: Image courtesy of Society for General Microbiology)
Alien-looking fish and possible REAL aliens (although not the sort the conspiracy theorists dream of!).