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Charles Darwin’s Barnacle Room

getty images/istock
getty images/istock

Barnacles latched onto a special place in Charles Darwin’s heart. By the time On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the father of natural selection had long since become a self-taught expert on these fascinating arthropods.

Why’d he start studying barnacles? As with many interests in Darwin’s career, it all began aboard the HMS Beagle. During the early 1830s, he served as her designated naturalist on a fateful, five-year voyage that took him around the world. One day, while exploring an archipelago near Chile, Darwin happened upon a conch shell riddled with holes. Back in his quarters, he placed the prize under a microscope and thus became acquainted with a curious little creature. Seated inside one of these holes was a tiny barnacle—invisible to the naked eye—whom Darwin nicknamed “Mr. Arthrobalanus.”

In those days, very little was known about Mr. Arthrobalanus’ spineless kin. As recently as 1832, barnacles had been widely misidentified as mollusks by those in academia. That they’re actually crustaceans was a fact scientists wouldn’t recognize until after the Beagle had already set sail.

Through focusing on barnacle studies, Darwin figured an up-and-coming naturalist could really make a name for himself. Besides, he felt that their classification was painfully unorganized. In his words, “literally not one species is properly defined… the subject is heart-breaking.” Obviously, someone needed to clear things up.

By 1846, Darwin had married, started raising a family, and taken up residence in the house he’d call “home” for four decades. He proceeded to spend the next eight years on what became a barnacle project of epic proportions. Day after day, Darwin would toil away in his study, dissecting and classifying his subjects. Soon, the room was overflowing with box upon box of barnacle specimens from all over the globe, delivered to his door by mail. As one might expect, this was hard, monotonous work. “I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before,” Darwin vented, “not even a Sailor in a slow-moving ship.”

Still, he managed to discover much about them. For example, Darwin refuted the notion that all barnacles were hermaphrodites—in some species, it turns out, males bury themselves within the shells of much larger females and essentially become sperm-spewing lumps. Also, by writing several much-needed compendiums on barnacle biology, Darwin established himself as a highly-respected naturalist. When the time came to finally publish his ground-breaking views on evolution, that credibility went a long way.

So, how did all this affect his private life? Well, a weaker marriage might’ve been sorely tested by the stockpiling of lord knows how many barnacles inside the house. But Darwin’s wife and children quickly got used to being around scores of dead crustaceans. Case in point, while visiting a friend’s home, Darwin’s son George was shocked to learn that the boy’s father didn’t have a study. Bewildered, he asked, “But where does he do his barnacles?”

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Why Can Parrots Talk and Other Birds Can't?
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If you've ever seen a pirate movie (or had the privilege of listening to this avian-fronted metal band), you're aware that parrots have the gift of human-sounding gab. Their brains—not their beaks—might be behind the birds' ability to produce mock-human voices, the Sci Show's latest video explains below.

While parrots do have articulate tongues, they also appear to be hardwired to mimic other species, and to create new vocalizations. The only other birds that are capable of vocal learning are hummingbirds and songbirds. While examining the brains of these avians, researchers noted that their brains contain clusters of neurons, which they've dubbed song nuclei. Since other birds don't possess song nuclei, they think that these structures probably play a key role in vocal learning.

Parrots might be better at mimicry than hummingbirds and songbirds thanks to a variation in these neurons: a special shell layer that surrounds each one. Birds with larger shell regions appear to be better at imitating other creatures, although it's still unclear why.

Learn more about parrot speech below (after you're done jamming out to Hatebeak).

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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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