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Scientists Play Matchmakers for a Lonely Lefty Snail

Dating sucks. There’s no two ways about it. It sucks even more if you’re a backward snail—unless you happen to have some very dedicated friends. Scientists at the University of Nottingham are asking the public to help them find a very special date for Jeremy the garden snail, whose unique anatomy has so far made mating impossible.

Most garden snails are dextral—that is, their shells spiral to the right, and the rest of their anatomy follows suit. This works out for them when it comes time to get busy; snails are hermaphroditic, possessing both sperm transmitters and receptacles. They mate by lining up face-to-tail like a slow-moving yin-yang, then exchanging fluids. (Fair warning: this is a lot less cute than it sounds. There are projectiles involved.)

In order for this to work, each snail’s part must line up with its partner’s relevant regions. They find each other in the wild and all get down to it.

Well, all except for Jeremy, who was found on a Nottingham compost heap by a former biologist. Jeremy’s body is a mirror image of the average snail’s. His* shell curls to the left, and his parts don’t line up with anyone’s.

To Angus Davison and other snail researchers at the university, Jeremy’s predicament is more than just a sad situation. It’s an opportunity.

“I have been studying snails for more than 20 years, and I have never seen one of these before,” Davison said in a statement. “We are very keen to study the snail’s genetics to find out whether this is a result of a developmental glitch or whether this is a genuine inherited genetic trait.”

Davison has good reason to suspect Jeremy is genetically different. In a study published in February of 2016, Davison and his colleagues reported finding the gene associated with snail-shell spiral direction. They found that the same gene, called Formin, may also affect laterality (sidedness) in frogs and other vertebrates.

The best way to learn about Jeremy’s genes would be to examine his descendants. But, as previously discussed, Jeremy has none.

It's not that snails can't reproduce asexually, Davison says. They just don't like it. “And from our perspective, the genetic data from offspring of two lefty snails would be far richer and more valuable to us.”

Which is where we come in. Davison and his colleagues are hoping to crowd-source a date for Jeremy. They’re asking snail lovers to keep an eye out for another lefty snail—the yin to Jeremy’s yang.

If the sheer generous pleasure of helping a mollusk find a mate is not enough for you, Davison is willing to sweeten the pot with a taste of fame. “There is a chance, because it is such a rare thing, that anyone who can find and identify another one of these snails may even find themselves named as a contributor on a research paper we publish in the future.”

So: keep your eyes peeled. If you think you’ve found one, you can email Davison directly at angus.davison@nottingham.ac.uk, or Tweet your discovery using the hashtag #snaillove.

*Jeremy’s researcher friends use he/him/his pronouns despite the snail’s obvious assemblage of genitalia.
 
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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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