By Mallika Venkatramani
Sure, a human's ability to walk and talk is cool, but it’s certainly not the coolest. Sure, we might have picked up these unique characteristics that have never been seen elsewhere in living organisms, but we aren’t the only ones with special, never-before-seen features. You see, evolution does not discriminate. Regardless of whether an organism is a plant, animal or microbe, evolution allows for favourable traits to be adopted by any species to ensure that its kind can continue to be fit in its race for survival against predators and competitors. We’re going to explore some mind-blowing traits various organisms have picked up along the course of evolution!
1. Solar-Powered Salamanders
You may be surprised to hear that a certain North American species of salamander, Ambystoma maculatuma, are some of the most environmentally resourceful creatures out there. These guys have evolved yellow spots on their skins which algae grow on during the salamander’s embryonic phase. The process begins after the algae enter a salamander’s egg. Algae is photosynthetic and hence supplies the oxygen and carbohydrates, that it produces, to the salamander. The salamander embryo in return provides the algae nitrogenous waste products to boost algal growth. This symbiotic relationship has evolved to benefit both the algae and the salamander. This is called mutualism.
2. Vegetarian Vulture
Say what?! Despite seeming like an oxymoron, it couldn’t be closer to the truth. Meet the palm nut vulture, a native of sub-Saharan Africa. As its name suggests, it feeds on the husks of oil-palms and palm fruits of the Raphia tree. But why does it have such a diet, unusual among carrion-devouring vultures? It’s because the palm nut vulture lives and breeds in areas dense with palm and Raphia vegetation. As such, it has evolved the ability to feed on the most abundant produce of its habitat.
3. The Stinkiest Flower
Again, this is not an oxymoron. The world’s stinkiest flower that reeks of rotting flesh also happens to be one of the world’s largest flowers. The Rafflesia plant is native to Southeast Asia and is named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of the British colony in Singapore in 1819. The Rafflesia plant is a holoparasite – it has an absorptive organ called a haustorium that grows inside Tetrestigma vines while its flower is the visible organ that protrudes outside of the vine. So, why the stink? It is thought that this is a clever trick of evolution that attracts insects not typically known to be pollinators – flies and beetles. These insects usually arrive in droves to feed on decomposing matter. The Rafflesia is a large flower (growing up to 3 feet in diameter!) and only lasts around five days, so to put 2 and 2 together, it would need to attract large numbers of pollinators to complete its reproductive phase in a short time span. Hence the overbearing stench.
4. Diving Humans
If only more of us were endowed with this genetic marvel that the Bajau people of Southeast Asia are known to have! Commonly known as ‘sea nomads’, these folks have the fascinating ability to swim underwater for an astounding 13 minutes without any diving equipment at depths of 2000 feet! For centuries, this tribe has survived on ocean catch, and over a time period, natural selection has come into play – individuals who are better adapted to swimming underwater have passed on their favourable genes to their offspring.
Now, what advantage do these favourable genes give? It was observed that the Bajau people have larger spleens, and while the exact consequence of this hasn’t been uncovered yet, it is hypothesised that a larger spleen allows for increased recycling of oxygenated red blood cells, which is essential when diving into depths where oxygen supply is scarce. Larger spleens, after all, are also seen in other marine mammals like seals!
Unfortunately, today, the Bajau people face threats to their seafarer lifestyles as a result of industrial fishing.
5. Hardy Corals
The bleaching of coral reefs as a result of rising water temperatures has been a huge cause of stress for marine biologists and environment activists. Generally, as the water temperature gets warmer, corals tend to regurgitate photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae that live on them and are the reason behind the gorgeous colours of coral reefs. The algae provide them with nutrients in exchange for ammonium and carbon dioxide that the corals provide to the algae for photosynthesis. The expelling of zooxanthellae is a sign of stress that the corals show and this leads to the corals looking “bleached”.
However, recently it has been discovered that corals are slowly adapting to warmer temperatures. In one study conducted at Stanford University, a sample of corals that are native to cool waters was placed in warm water for a year. Their percentage of algal expulsion was studied at the beginning and end of the experiment. It was seen that after a year, there was a 22.5% drop in the percentage of corals that spewed out algae. It has been suggested that genetic adaptation is at play. This is relieving to many of us – global warming and environmental degradation are such great concerns, but when nature shows us that organisms have their own way of showing resilience under adversity, it is very reassuring and inspiring!
There are many more mind-blowing and bizarre instances of evolutionary adaptations out there, many yet to even be discovered. The takeaway we can derive from this phenomenon is that change is constant; we need to display fluidity in the way we function in order to make the most out of our existence!