Check the Lobster Lips
Have you ever discovered something new, like a new recipe, a new and better way to carry out a task, or a new object in the sky? Whether you have invented a device which will make you rich, or whether you have identified a new phenomenon in nature, the joy of discovery is a reward in itself. When it comes to identifying new organisms, many people have turned their attention to the rain forest. New plants and new animals, often insects, are routinely described from that part of the world. Deep sea divers have also encountered some very strange creatures from the ocean depths. The sea between Denmark and Sweden, however has been fished for many centuries. We would not expect to find any new creatures in those cold waters, would we?
It was at Elsinore (made famous by Shakespeare’s play Hamlet) that a biologist noticed strange dots on the mouth parts of some Norway lobsters. But look! They weren’t dots but rather knobs and there were lots of them. These tiny knobs were less than a millimetre long, so it was easy to understand why nobody had noticed them before. Upon closer examination however, the knobs looked more like tiny punching bags with another knob on top. The biologist had never heard of such organisms, so he wondered what they were. He sought more qualified help, but the experts did not know either. They did not even know what overall group of organisms these new somethings represented. Almost always, a newly discovered organism can be assigned to one or other of the 35 basic body plans (phyla) that we know about within the animal kingdom. But this creature did not seem to fit any known category.
More careful study followed. It involved further collections of lobsters, electron microscope studies of lobster mouth parts, and a culture of these tiny creatures in the laboratory. They probably had a big tank of lobsters with these tiny creatures living on the large crustaceans. Finally the experts published their conclusions in December 1995 (see Nature 378: pp. 661-2 and 711-714). These new organisms, outwardly uncomplicated in appearance, actually exhibit complicated insides and a fancy life cycle. Since we know of no other similar organisms, the experts suggested that these new creatures represent not only a new genus and species but also a new body plan or phylum. The significance of this seems all the more remarkable when we realize that all creatures with back bones are placed in the one phylum Chordata, and all insects, spiders and crustaceans are placed in the phylum Arthropoda. It is obvious that phyla normally represent a large grouping of organisms with some features in common.
The new organism, now named Symbion pandora, lives attached to lobster mouth parts by means of an adhesive disk. Above a flexible stalk we find an expanded bag-like body proper. Attached near the top is a raised funnel which forms the mouth. The opening is encircled with a fancy fringe of tassel-like cilia. Sitting like a smaller balloon on one side is a dwarf male. Inside the body proper, a female develops. Numerous digestive cells and the gut (with anus near the mouth) can also be distinguished. The most intricate aspect of this organism is the life cycle. The female escapes from the parent body and swims away. She settles down to become a non-sexual stage (like her parent). The non-sexual stage produces pandora larvae which escape to become more individuals like the parent. Numerous generations of non-sexual individuals follow. At the time of the lobster’s molt of its exoskeleton, the sexual stage of this little creature is produced.
So why do we care about this little animal? The intricate nature of this tiny creature, so unlike other organisms, yet so successful in its own unique life style, causes us to ask questions. Where did this organism come from? After rejecting the potential of natural processes to produce so isolated a creature, our thoughts turn to God the Creator. Who else would have the capacity and the imagination for such a design? What else, we wonder, is lurking under our very eyes. Nothing on my lips, I hasten to add, but let me check yours….
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