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18 Awesome Facts About Giant Isopods

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There are 20 known species in the genus Bathynomus;  B. giganteus, or the giant isopod, is the biggest. Yes, they're kind of creepy looking. But they're also kind of cute! Here are a few things we know about these Internet-beloved creatures.

1. They’re not bugs.

They’re crustaceans, and are closely related to marine crustaceans like shrimp and crabs, and terrestrial crustaceans like the pillbug (Armadillidium vulgare).

2. They’re bottom dwellers.

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Giant isopods live between 550 to 7020 feet deep (and potentially deeper), and prefer a mud or clay floor, which they burrow into for shelter. “Bathynomus giganteus is more of a coldwater species,” says Dee Ann Auten, an Aquarist II at the Aquarium of the Pacific, which has four giant isopods in its Wonders of the Deep gallery. “They live in the Pacific Ocean, off Japan and in the South China Sea. That’s the kind of area where you would find them.”

3. They get big. Really big.

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Typically, giant isopods are between 7.5 and 14.2 inches in length, but they can get much bigger: One specimen pulled up with an ROV in 2010 was 2.5 feet long. Scientists aren't quite sure why these isopods get so enormous, but believe that their huge size might be an adaptation that helps them survive the extreme pressure of the deep ocean.

4. They come in different colors.

The giant isopod shell—which is comprised of overlapping segments—comes in two varieties: brown and pale lilac.

5. They’re carnivores.

Though they’re generally believed to be scavengers, feasting on dead animals that fall from above, some evidence suggests that they might also eat slow-moving live animals like sponges. Giant isopods also attack trawl catches.

6. They can go a very long time without eating.

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One giant isopod in Japan went for five years without eating a single bite before dying earlier this year. Auten attempts to feed her giant isopods every day, a ritual that requires a lot of patience. “The trick is what to feed them and how to eat them,” she says. “Here at the Aquarium of the Pacific, the hit is mackerel. It's usually what I feed them. I’ll butterfly a dead mackerel so that the insides are coming out, and then I will present it in front the isopod. I try offering food once a day and that's just because one day they might not be active as much, and one day they could be really hungry and I might miss that opportunity.”

All four of the giant isopods Auten cares for have eaten within the last year (Auten keeps track of who’s who based on the spines that are missing from their tails).  “One of them ate twice last year, one of them ate four times last year, one of them ate almost ten times last year. Another one I think was seven times,” she says. “It's fascinating and it's rewarding when you put so much effort into taking care of them and a lot of patience and you finally figure out this what they like to eat.”

7. But when they do eat, they gorge themselves.

Giant isopods have four sets of jaws—which are adapted to cut and tear at prey—and they get a workout when the animals are hungry. “When they're hungry and they're eating, definitely have a lot of food around them, because they'll keep eating,” Auten says. “They'll eat a lot at one time and then they can go for a long time without eating. There’s a comic of one giant isopod eating a dead whale, and it eats the whole thing except for the bones. It's sitting on its back like ‘ughh I'm full now.’ That's totally true! If they eat, they eat a lot.” In fact, they eat so much that they compromise their ability to move.

Still, they’re not aggressive feeders. “I've never had [an occasion] where they all ate at once,” Auten says. “I will make sure to bring enough food for all of them but whenever I feed them, it's one will eat at that one setting. They definitely would not fight.” And apparently, they’re not picky: Three giant isopods collected in the southern Gulf of Mexico had ingested large quantities of plastic.

8. They live in a constant state of semi-hibernation.

Since meals in the deep sea can be few and really far between, giant isopods limit their energy expenditure. “They have a slower metabolism,” Auten says. “Their bodies mechanics are like that because they're deep sea creatures and don’t find food all the time. So they're able to slow down their metabolism and energy level so they can survive. Watching ours, you can see they do that. They don't move around that much. They only ever move around when I'm trying to feed them. Normally they're just sitting there.”

9. They have something in common with cats.

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And it’s all in the eyes. Giant isopods have widely spaced, fixed compound eyes with more than 4000 individual facets. Cats and the crustaceans (and many other animals) have a reflective layer at the back of the eye called the tapeum, which reflects light back through the retina and increases the ability to see at night. It’s also what makes cats' and isopods' eyes appear to glow.

10. They probably don’t see all that well...

It’s pretty dark where isopods live, so, according to Auten, vision isn’t really a factor for them, or many other deep sea animals. “They use other senses to maneuver, to communicate, to find food, to find a mate,” she says. “I've done experiments with my flashlight to see if the isopods sensed a difference in light or anything like that. They don't move, they're not doing anything. Therefore, I'm thinking that maybe they might not see well.”

11. ...So They Use Their Antennae.

Giant isopods have two sets of antennae that they use to experience the environment around them. “The small antennas are used more for chemical sensing,” Auten says, “and they have large antennas that are used for physical sensing. When you put the food in front of them, you're letting them sense it, physically and chemically.” They might have a sensory receptor that responds to distortion in the water around them.

12. Want to tell males from females? Look for the peenies.

Dee Ann Auten

Female isopods have a brood pouch, or marsupium, located on their undersides, where they hold 20 to 30 eggs (top right). Males have two specialized organs: Small white appendages, called peenies (top left), that carry sperm (fun fact: smaller isopods usually have bigger peenies, according to Auten), and appendices masculinae (bottom), which they use to transfer sperm to the female. “They'll inject that sperm transfer organ anywhere within the female after she molts—because she's softer—and she's able to take on that sperm,” Auten says.

13. They have the largest eggs of all marine invertebrates.

They measure .51 inches in diameter. Females don’t eat when they’re brooding; instead, they bury themselves in sediment to reduce energy use and to protect the eggs.

14. And babies come out looking just like big isopods.

Juvenile giant isopods, or mancae, don’t have a larval stage; they’re approximately 3.4 inches long when they emerge and look exactly like adults. All they’re missing is the last pair of pereopods, or legs; when fully grown, they will have seven pairs of legs total.

15. To Grow, They Shed their Exoskeletons.

Younger isopods molt often to gain size, but “when they get older, they don't molt as much,” Auten says. “They are capable of molting, but they’ve already reached their size, so they’re not going to molt as much—or they’re not going to molt at all, because molting is only for growth.”

16. Isopods bite!

Photo courtesy Flickr user Damien du Toit; cc

“I wear gloves when I work with ours,” Auten says. “They're scavengers—they're definitely going to bite on anything. But it's a small bite, it's nothing big. They don't have big mouths.”

17. They curl up when threatened.

Auten says that isopods can potentially be eaten by anything that’s bigger than them, and when they’re threatened, they curl up into a little ball—just like their land-locked relatives, pillbugs. “If it's eating something and a fish is trying to come over and take the food from them or bite their appendages, they'll roll over to keep their food or to keep their soft organs underneath protected,” Auten says.”They would cover themselves so that nothing will attach to them. Or they'll hide in a crevasse somewhere so that nothing can find them.”

18. There’s a whole album dedicated to songs about them.

It’s called Songs About Giant Isopods, and you can listen to it here.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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