Meet the Sea Pig, a Creature That Feasts on Sunken Corpses

Down in the dark depths of the sea lives a creature with a translucent body, tube feet that resemble antennae on its head, and an appetite for decomposing things. Scotoplanes globosa, also known as sea pigs, are a type of sea cucumber that feed by way of their face tentacles as they stroll along the ocean floor. According to this video by WIRED, the sea pigs are like "living vacuum cleaners," and their meal of choice is often whatever is dead and available.

Swedish zoologist Johan Hjalmar Théel first discovered sea pigs over a century ago, as one of around 65 new species he described in writings about a four-year research cruise around the world aboard the HMS Challenger from 1872 to 1876. Since then, researchers have learned that the creatures congregate around dead whales and other sunken corpses and dine on the decomposing flesh. They also know that sea pigs cannot fight back against predators, as WIRED reports. Instead, they have toxic chemicals in their skin that deter predators from wanting to take a bite.

Still, there are other factors about the sea pigs that remain a mystery for now. Because the creatures have fragile, water-filled bodies that often turn into a liquid-like material, they are difficult to study. Scientists don't know how long sea pigs live or how they mate, but they do know how they help other sea creatures.

Marine biologist David Pawson of the Museum of Natural History said that when the sea pigs eat mud from the ocean floor, they take the nutrients from it and poop out the rest.

"They’re like earthworms," he said. "They sort of process the deep-sea mud and make it livable for other animals because they’ve increased the amount of available oxygen in it."

Learn more about the scavengers in the video above.

[h/t WIRED]

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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