Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trapped Under Ice - Metallica

For this month’s EUT, I was looking for an invertebrate in a new taxon. While I technically found one, “invertebrate” usually implies an animal. As to what it looks like… well… it looks like someone shoved a bottle of glitter up their nose, and then sneezed on a branch1.

Image by Juana Arrabal Vargas

This is a slime mold known only as Diacheopsis metallica. Despite appearances, it is a single-celled amoeba. Slime molds spend a large amount of the time as you would expect an amoeba to: gooping around as an individual cell, eating things smaller than itself. When things get rough the individuals band together, Voltron-syle, to search for food or water. This isn’t to say the cells form together into a multi-cellular creature. Instead, they form a gigantic, multi-nucleated cell that is able to pick up and move, slug-like, to a more favorable location. They also use this time to produce spores, which will spread if things don’t get any better.

Scientists have found this aspect of slime molds absolutely fascinating. In this form, slime molds can solve mazes. It will even re-create the Tokyo Rail map when food is placed at junction points. Computer scientists are researching how slime molds solve problems to help programs search, move, and problem solve more organically.

D. metallica is a cold-adapted slime mold that lives on the tops of mountains in scattered ranges throughout the world. While they hibernate as spores during the winter, they become active in spring. They use the melting snow to create the correct temperature and the right amount of water to create favorable conditions to eat and multiply.

While the IUCN doesn’t have this slime mold officially listed, they are beginning to worry about it. On their Species of the Day fact sheet, they say it “has a provisional listing of ‘Near Threatened’.” This is because global climate change is shrinking the snow-covered habitat that these glittery globules rely on. Individual conservation actions for a slime mold are near impossible to carry out, but trying to fix climate change is a good start.

1My wife says this is something Ke$ha would do.