National Geographic and me
My book Ten Million Aliens was published in the United States last week, and at the weekend, National Geographic ran an interview with me on the Booktalk part of their website. You can see it here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150222-book-talk-barnes-darwin-slugs-wilson-hunting-wasps-world-land-trust/
So to celebrate, here’s another chapter from the book.
Who needs oxygen?
This book would have been shorter if I had written it in 1982, instead of working on a rightly-unpublished novel and seeing if I could make beer come out of my ears. It’s not that my stamina has improved: they discovered a new phylum in 1983. That is to say, a group of animals as different from anything else on earth as we humans are from butterflies: and one no one knew about – which goes to show that there is an awful lot going on on this planet. They are Loricifera and they live in the spaces between gravel. Not big, then: they range from minute to microscopic. Under magnification they look rather like a vase of flowers: a tentacled container. The container is called the lorica, hence the name. They are found in the sea at all depths and latitudes. They have a head, mouth and digestive system, but no circulation. There are about 100 known species, of which about half have been described and named. They are both abundant and ubiquitous: thought it took us a long time to find out about them.
They sound a pretty undistinguished lot on the whole – but three of those species can claim to be the strangest animals on the planet. They are found at the bottom of the l’Atalante basin in the Mediterranean. Not only is it totally dark down there: there is no oxygen either. The water is so salt that it is near-saturated, and doesn’t mix with the layers above. That means there is no oxygen: but the Loriciferans thrive down there nonetheless. There are living things from outside the animal kingdom that thrive without oxygen, bacteria and viruses, but this is an animal: a multi-celled being from the same division of nature as ourselves. Loriciferans are the only animals of that degree of complexity that can live without oxygen. Unlike the rest of us, these three Loriciferans don’t operate at the cellular level on mitochondria, which require oxygen. Instead, they employ organelles driven by hydrogen.
This is so peculiar that it forces us to change our definition of life, and with them, our idea of the conditions necessary for life to take place. Multicellular animal life can happen without light and without oxygen. That is quite interesting in a philosophical sort of way. It is quite startling when you start thinking about life beyond the earth. Our search for life beyond the earth is no longer restricted to oxygen-rich environments. Once again, we find that life is weirder than we think: and more varied than we think. And perhaps more widespread than we think.