We here at The Escapist believe science is a wonderful thing, not only for what it’s achieved, but also for the things it’s still learning. There are so many bizarre, outrageous, and seemingly insane things science is still discovering, changing and expanding our idea of how the world works. Those who aren’t immersed in scientific fields may not always know the full scope, so we’re going to give you a taste of some of the strangest science out there.
On subsequent pages, we’ve compiled images of some of the weird elements of science and biology, and challenge you, the reader, to guess what you’re looking at. If you’ve never seen the likes of the following before, don’t worry; each image is followed by a brief description that helps you learn a little more about the world. And if you’re already familiar with every single subject? You can give yourself a pat on the back as a well-learned student of the very, very odd.
Let’s get started:
At first glance, you probably thought you were looking at some kind of bizarre sea creature swimming about the ocean floor. Close, but you’re way off: You’re looking at thousands of bizarre sea creatures swimming about the ocean floor.
What you’re seeing is a Siphonophorae, a class of marine life that seem to resemble some kind of jellyfish. But when you come in for a closer look, it’s actually an entire colony of organisms called zooids. Each zooid is technically its own independent organism, but they are usually so specialized that they cannot survive outside of the larger colony. It’s kind of like how cells in your body complete specific tasks, if each of your cells was literally its own multicellular organism.
For that reason, Siphonophorae are pretty significant because they might provide clues to how multicellular life evolved. This particular example is also incredibly rare for its purple coloring.
You probably shouldn’t go looking for them though; many are known to carry venom, and Siphonophorae like the Praya dubia can grow up to 130 feet long.
If I had to guess, I’d say this was some kind of alien tower that’s being featured in a film adaptation of HP Lovecraft. It’s base pierces the ground and sucks up previous resources, and if attacked, monsters will emerge and swarm a group of hapless investigators.
That’s actually not far from the truth – you just have to think small. Very small. This is a computer rendering of a virus, specifically the Enterobacteria phage T4. It’s known to infect Escherichia coli bacteria (better known as E. coli), which was already one of the more unpleasant infections to be exposed to. It’s actually fairly large for a virus, at about 200 nanometres long and 90 wide. Not that you’re going to see it with the naked eye, anyway.
That’s not an exaggeration; this virus is so small that we barely have the equipment to properly photograph it. The best we can do is run the virus through multiple shots of an electron microscope and reconstruct 3D models as computer images. This particular example is presented in a way that the human eye can understand, although in truth it probably doesn’t quite match the reality.
You might have heard about the Cymothoa exigua before, or as it’s more commonly known, the tongue-eating louse. Yes, that fish you’re seeing has a separate creature as its tongue; the females of this parasite destroy the tongue with their claws, feeding on the blood. Once the tongue has atrophied, they literally attach themselves to the stub muscles to replace it.
What you may not know is that for the most part, the fish is usually okay with this. Sure, the Cymothoa exigua may spend its time feeding on blood or mucus to survive. But for the most part, fish can continue using Cymothoa exigua as its normal tongue. After all, killing the fish doesn’t really get it anywhere in terms of future reproduction, so they end up with a bizarre working relationship.
Speaking of reproduction, Cymothoa exigua is also unique in that it can change sex. From what we can tell, most newborns arrive as males, but can turn into females after reaching 10mm in length. Meanwhile, the males like to hang out in the fish’s gills, which is probably where mating occurs. Because it’s awkward to get in there, scientists aren’t entirely sure how they reproduce and spread their eggs, but if the fish doesn’t mind… win win?
Okay, I was joking about the Lovecraft reference earlier, but it’s not funny anymore. Look at this thing. Look at it moving. It literally has crawling chaos etched into its entire being.
The scientific truth is that this is a starfish. Specifically a Basket Star, usually found in deep sea environments. The kind pictured here, the Gorgonocephalus, can be found in the Arctic Ocean and consists of a central disc with five primary arms that repeatedly split into smaller and smaller units. Each arm, even the little ones, can twist and coil to grab plankton and small crustaceans for its food.
The good news is these Basket Stars tend not to get in our way, so I think we can safely live and let live. That doesn’t stop them from looking incredibly creepy as they “walk” across ocean surfaces and that’s it – everyone out of the water.
A worm shedding its skin? Perhaps some kind of inflammation? I’m afraid I’m going to have to ruin your day and insist that’s actually two creatures: an ordinary worm minding its own business, and a leech that’s trying to eat it alive.
Oh and look, here it is in video form.
This species of leech is creatively named the Kinabalu giant red leech, native to Mount Kinabalu, Borneo. It grows to about 30 cm and is often seen following heavy downpours, where it comes out to feed on the Kinabalu giant earthworm. (Seriously, is everything at Kinabalu named Kinabalu?) Unlike leeches that feed on blood, the giant red leech fully consumes worms while crushing it to death using the muscles in its body.
Thankfully, there aren’t bigger ones posing a problem for humans… that we know of.
Oh how sweet, we’re lightening things up with some beautiful flowers. How lovely! Perhaps some kind of underwater variety?
Not exactly. That’s sludge, the semi-solid material that gets left behind at industrial and sewage treatment plants. This sample specifically came from an agricultural environment before it was burned and examined under an electron microscope. Meanwhile, the blue background is actually the surface of the container holding the sludge as it burned.
The coloring was then added to signify what materials were found in the sludge remnants. The pink, purple, and green elements are silver oxide, while the brown strands contain high amounts of calcium carbonate. Burning this sludge was part of an elemental analysis to see how much carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulphur the sludge contained. The technique is commonly used to find contaminants in fuel or soil, although in this case it also led to an image rather pleasing to the eye.
Unlike some of the other images, this picture should hit a little closer to home: it’s a part of the human body.
This is the surface of a heart, specifically the aortic valve under an electron microscope. The colorings signify clumps of calcium salts that are building up on the valve. When you’re not following a proper diet or exercise, the calcification process can increase to a point that it actually stops your heart valve from working. In non-science speak, that’s how humans get heart disease.
What’s interesting about this particular images is that the coloring takes density into account as well as surface features. That orange-brown color hints where the calcium salts are more dense, while the green is less dense. Calcification in the body isn’t necessarily bad by the way; on your teeth, it’s actually very important. It’s just in the heart or arteries that it can become a problem, so the more green you can see, the better.\
That’s it for now. How well did you do? Feel free discuss that (and some of your favorites) in the comments.