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Science360.gov

Meet the World’s Only Known Venomous Crustacean

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Science360.gov

There are some 70,000 species of crustacean—the group that includes crabs, lobsters, shrimp and crayfish—in the world, and until very recently, none of them were known to be venomous. This has made them the odd animals out in their phylum, Arthropoda, which contains tens of thousands of venomous species across its other three subphylums.

Now, biologists have found an exception to the trend. Meet the remipede Speleonectes tulumensis. These tiny critters look like white centipedes, with long segmented bodies and scores of swimming legs, and call the underground caves of Mexico and Central America home. They were first scientifically described in the early 1980s, but studied little because the cave networks they swim through are difficult to navigate and often dangerous to work in. One group of researchers that kept at it, though, discovered that the remipedes, while blind, are formidable predators and feed on the shrimp that share their underground pools. 

On closer examination, biologists from the Natural History Museum in London discovered that the remipedes had a needle-like fang on either side of their head, each attached to a reservoir surrounded by muscle that could pump fluid out through the needle point. Deep inside the crustacean’s body, they also found a gland that produces venom for storage in the reservoirs. 

Remipede venom is odd compared to that of other arthropods. While some spiders, for example, use venom consisting of tiny neurotoxic proteins, the remipede’s toxic cocktail is dominated by larger enzymes that break down the exoskeletons of their prey and destroy proteins in their bodies, softening their defenses and making their insides more easily digestible. In its makeup, the researchers say, remipede’s venom is more like that of vipers than any of its arthropod cousins. There is one familial similarity, though: a neurotoxin that paralyzes the remipede’s victims and is nearly identical to one found in spiders.

With so many crustaceans out there, why is the remipede the only one to become venomous? The researchers think that because the group has such varied diets—some are filter feeders, some are scavengers—none of them really needed a potent weapon for taking down large prey. While remipedes have also been seen filtering small bits of food from the water, their environment and lifestyle pressured them into going toxic. 

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Animals
Australian Charity Releases Album of Cat-Themed Ballads to Promote Feline Welfare
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An Australian animal charity is helping save the nation’s kitties one torch song at a time, releasing a feline-focused musical album that educates pet owners about how to properly care for their cats.

Around 35,000 cats end up in pounds, shelters, and rescue programs every year in the Australian state of New South Wales, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Microchipping and fixing cats, along with keeping closer tabs on them, could help reduce this number. To get this message out, the RSPCA’s New South Wales chapter created Cat Ballads: Music To Improve The Lives Of Cats.

The five-track recording is campy and fur-filled, with titles like "Desex Me Before I Do Something Crazy" and "Meow Meow." But songs like “I Need You” might tug the heartstrings of ailurophiles with lyrics like “I guess that’s goodbye then/but you’ve done this before/the window's wide open/and so’s the back door/you might think I’m independent/but you’d be wrong.” There's also a special version of the song that's specifically designed for cats’ ears, featuring purring, bird tweets, and other feline-friendly noises.

Together, the tunes remind us how vulnerable our kitties really are, and provide a timely reminder for cat owners to be responsible parents to their furry friends.

“The Cat Ballads campaign coincides with kitten season, which is when our shelters receive a significantly higher number of unwanted kittens as the seasons change,” Dr. Jade Norris, a veterinary scientist with the RSPCA, tells Mental Floss. “Desexing cats is a critical strategy to reduce unwanted kittens.”

Listen to a song from Cat Ballads below, and visit the project’s website for the full rundown.

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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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