03. Earth: Creatures

What is truly unique about planet Earth?

While mountains, rivers and oceans, weather and volcanoes can be found on other nearby cosmic objects (planets and moons), the things that we do not find anywhere else are Earth’s ‘creatures’, or what we call plants, animals, insects, and everything else that we may refer to as ‘living’, although it can be nearly impossible to distinguish between living and nonliving ‘things’, as you will soon see.

We can think of creatures as ”cell-based” entities.  350 years ago, someone pointed a ‘reversed-telescope’ (instead of seeing objects at large distance, you could use it to see objects that are very tiny) at a bottle cork and observed tiny structures that he called “small rooms”, or “cells”.  Many others started to use this new invention, the microscope, to look at other tiny ‘things’, and some even theorised that these small structures that they saw were alive.  After more years of accepting that these ‘cells’ were living ‘things’, some others theorised that these creatures may be smaller versions of animals, like giraffes or zebras, but much, much smaller.  Some even suggested that women may have tiny human babies inside them in the form of cells, and they get pregnant by the male’s ‘substance’ just triggering the growth of these tiny ‘humans’.

There were many ideas over the years about the small creatures the microscope had revealed.  However, things became more ‘clear’ 160 years or so ago as to how these tiny things work and, for the first time in human history, humans understood that plants and animals are made up entirely of these structures we call cells.  Just imagine that, until 160 years ago, humans did not know they were made up of cells.

The discovery of these tiny creatures was a mind-changing revolution in science.  For instance, people started to understand the mechanism of foods, life, fruits, and various microscopic structures.  What they observed was not only cells, but also clusters of cells that formed tiny organisms.  150 or so years ago, a guy thought that maybe if you heat beer or wine enough to kill the micro-creatures that were ‘lurking’ in these substances, you could avoid them getting spoiled.  And it worked!  Today, we call it ‘pasteurization’, because that guy’s name was Louis Pasteur :).  See how some words come into existence!?

This method is widely used today for most foods.  When someone tells you to boil water to make it safer to drink, they are basically telling you to kill billions of such tiny creatures, some of which may be harmful to you in sufficient quantities.

These people observed cells of different sizes and shapes, and bunches of cells forming tiny organisms.  These structures (cells) form all the ‘things’ that we call ‘life’ today: from those tiny organisms that people thought might be tiny animals like lions or elephants, to real elephants and lions, or to what we now call ‘bacteria’.

This creature, bacteria, is usually associated with negative consequences to human health, but most of them are more helpful for us than harmful.  There are actually 10 times more bacteria living on and in your body than what you have as human cells.  Meaning, from that perspective, you are more bacteria than anything else.

If we were to take all of the plants and animals that currently exist in the world and put them on a weight scale, and then put all the bacteria that currently exist on the other side of the scale, we’ll see that these tiny creatures outweigh all of the plants and animals in the world.  It’s quite fascinating how, although they are so small that we need powerful tools just to see them, there are so many of them that they are heavier than all of the giant creatures out there combined.(source)

Thinking of ‘human’ cells again, the way that you and I are formed is quite extraordinary.  Two cells, one from the female and one from the male, combine, and through a complicated process of exchanging even tinier structures between them (genetic structures inside these cells), they form a single cell that then divides into two, in a process that is more fantastic than any science fiction movie, and you can see this video that explains it in 3D to help yourself gain a stronger sense of it all.

Then the process continues as the two split into four, those four into eight, those eight into sixteen, and so on, until it has created the trillions of cells that we now call, “you”: your feet, eyes, heart, brain, nerves bones, etc..  The next time you cut your finger and blood comes out, remember that you see it as a red liquid, but it’s actually composed of millions/billions of tiny cells (red cells) that are simply escaping your body.

For instance, if you get hit in the face and your face swells and turns red, it is because tiny blood vessels (roadways) have been broken, and red cells are spilling into your facial tissue, where they cannot survive for long.  The area eventually becomes brown and/or yellow and disappears.  Why?  That’s because other types of cells, white cells, respond to that event by coming to the ‘accident’ scene and eating the dead red cells.  And the combination of white + red cells cause that yellow/brown colored ‘bruise’ on your face.  All of them gradually disappear, while the ‘roadways’ that were broken get fixed by white cells that fill in and repair the cracks in the blood vessels.  Many extraordinary events like these are taking place all of the time throughout your body: tiny creatures reacting/responding with each other, making you cough, develop a fever, run, think, breath, digest, live.(source 1, 2)

The microscopic life of creatures that are composed of one or more cells is a fascinating, alert and highly eventful world.  Watch this amazing playlist to see their world, and follow this guy’s YouTube channel for more such videos as they are released.

So, life as we know it is something made up entirely of cells.  Some creatures self-replicate, while others often have to ‘pair together’ to engage in reproductive sex (meaning they have specialized male and female reproductive cells inside them, and those cells combine to make other creatures).  For instance, while some lizards need to find a mate of the opposite sex in order to reproduce, other lizards are able to just make ‘babies’ without a partner.

Occasional errors in the replication process of these cells give birth, literally, to new kinds of creatures, different from their parent(s).  By combining that phenomenon with the ‘sexual’ reproductive process, which merges physical characteristics from both parents, we can now understand and explain the diversity of creatures that we see today; all of them combinations of errors in reproduction and combinations of characteristics.

While a flower’s growth is stimulated by all kinds of events/factors: water, soil moisture, gravity available sunlight, etc., other cell clusters, in the form of animals, are more complex because they form around a sophisticated nervous system inside the creature, creating the abilities of memory and ‘behavior’.  Thus, a bug is far more complex in its behavior than a flower, because it has such a nervous system, which is made up of yet other kinds of cells (nerve cells).  A major part of our human nervous system is our brain, and if you cut off someone’s head, the person dies, including their arms, legs, heart, etc..  That’s due to the fact that ‘who we are’ is inside our brains, while our body will quickly bleed to death (no blood in the brain and the rest of the body, no life for the cells, no human).  We also breath through our mouths so, without one, there is no oxygen going inside our bodies even if we somehow stop the bleeding.

However, if you cut off a bug’s head, it will still survive for some time because his ‘brain’ is a bunch of clustered nerve cells spread along its body.  It will probably die of starvation since it now has no mouth, but it also has a different kind of blood, with different functionalities; a kind of blood that flows more freely through its body and doesn’t bleed like ours.  They also do not breath through their mouths, so it can walk around without a head for weeks.  Even more interesting is that its head can survive even longer than its body, if provided with enough nutrients.(source)(video – Watch a cockroach live without a head)

Therefore, if we think of creatures in terms of heads and bodies (physical references), we may be wrong in our interpretation of the importance of a creature’s form/organs.  For instance, just as the ‘brain’ is a bunch of nerve cells distributed in many varied shapes and forms in different creatures, other organs are also often quite different from one creature to another.  We have guts, hearts, stomachs and legs, while other creatures either have such organs in different sizes and forms, or performing somewhat different functions, or do not have them at all.

Another interesting fact is that if you take away one type of creatures like bacteria, the human creatures cannot exist.  There are around 1,000 species of bacteria in the human gut alone.  Without these creatures, we cannot digest food and are not provided the same protections against many diseases.  We would also lack many other things that we absolutely depend on (chemicals).  There are so many creatures that live on and inside a human body that, to some alien species, we might appear like a zoo, or even an entire planet with its own inhabitants.  Many of these creatures are smaller than human cells, and outnumber them by a lot.(source1)(source2)

So, when we think of a creature, do we think of all of the complex ‘thing’ that it is?  Why do we say bacteria is one creature and humans is another one?  Maybe both should be viewed as a single symbiotic collective, where one could not survive without the other.  You see, things are far more complex than we tend to think.

Despite all of that, humans have been able to categorize many creatures by their primary characteristics, and we call each category a ‘species’.  It’s almost an impossible challenge to properly define what a species is, however.  Although this classification system is helpful, and based on many factors such as organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring, physical characteristics, or a DNA-based classification, it may not work so well in cases where organisms break such rules and cannot be properly defined as a specific ‘species’.  It’s no wonder why, since there is such a huge variety of organisms.  With that in mind, just how many species are in the world?

It’s estimated that there are around 10-14 million species in the world, however only around 2 million are properly defined, so far.  Every year, around 17 thousand new species are discovered and classified.  Keep in mind that we are talking about species here, rather than individual members of a species.  Now, imagine that there are billions of individual members for many of these species (trillions for some).  The number of total individual organisms on planet Earth is so huge, and impossible to count, that it’s well beyond our imagination.  But to give you a clue, other than within lava, you will very likely find life everywhere you look: inside rocks, at very high altitudes in the atmosphere, deep within frozen ice, at the bottom of the ocean, inside deep caves, and even thriving around lava tubes.  This is how many creatures are in a typical drop of seawater – http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/6whlTB/www.huhmagazine.co.uk/6779/a-photograph-of-a-single-drop-of-sea-water/

So, let’s have a look at some of the more interesting, complex and unusual creatures that exist (of course, it’s ‘nuts’ to make such a list without realizing that you can only highlight 0.00000001% of them, but we’re going to do it anyway 😉 ).

If you cut one of this creature’s limbs, it can regrow it back within a month, fully functional.  If we figure it out how it does this, we might learn, perhaps, how to regrow many of our organs, which would be a revolution in the way we deal with broken ‘parts’ of our body.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsCSwVx3GvA

Some creatures produce light and, if you were to see them on a dark night at the surface of the water, they look like a galaxy full of stars.  Swimming though billions of these tiny creatures looks almost like you are the one emitting the light, because once you ‘agitate’ them, they start illuminating.  The chemical reactions that happen in their bodies are more than ‘pretty’, and we may learn from them a way to maybe make trees that glow alongside roads, thus replacing traditional lightning, or use similar reactions as part of an alert system within different crops to signal a lack of nutrients or water, and so on.  These ideas are only concepts right now, but bioluminescence is already used to assess water quality, and in other medical treatments and drug testing.(source)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HXXQBz6Vv0

This tiny frog can do something that people started to dream of a while back: it freezes its body in ice and then comes ‘back to life’ after a couple of months.  During those months, it is clinically dead (even its tiny heart is frozen), but then it ‘resurrects’.  Many humans are investigating methods of freezing a human body and bringing it back to life after many years of conservation, but so far there is no proof that the methods used today will work for humans.  However, the ability to freeze tissue and organs, and then defrost them after many months or years without damaging them, could bring another great leap in how organs are preserved for transplants.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CraGaGFnMDs

While that frog will eventually die, although it slows down its aging process by freezing its body over the winter, one creature goes beyond that and never dies.  It gets older, but then gets ‘younger’ and divides into clones of itself, and then those clones grow up, getting older and continuing the process ‘forever’.  It is the only know creature that can do this.  Imagine if we can unlock this creature’s secrets…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMOkXkw5TKc

Some creatures do not get ‘old’ in the way we are used to, or at all.  Hydra magnipapillata is a tiny creature and it is thought that if you were to move its population (species) into a laboratory to protect them from external factors that can kill them, it would take 1,400 years for 95% of the population to die from natural causes.  As we humans age, our likelihood of dying increases because many of our body parts fail over time, but for other animals, there is an opposite effect as they become less likely to die with aging, and are even more fertile once they get older.(source)  Lobsters are one such group of creatures that grow continuously, without signs of growing weaker over time but, to the contrary, becoming even more fertile.  Of course, these creatures still die; they get diseases, they are injured or hunted.  But unlike humans, they don’t die as a result of their own metabolisms, as there doesn’t seem to be a built-in ‘life expectancy’ in their cells.

This weird looking creature is actually so tiny that you can’t see it with your naked eye, but what is special about it is how he reproduces.  For the past 80 million years, she (scientists have never discovered a male for this species) is thought to reproduce by borrowing DNA from other creatures, making these creatures a kind of genetic mosaic.  You can chop off the heads of these creatures and they will just grow back another one.  Although they are water creatures, they can survive without water for 9 years, and that they can also absorb 250 times more radiations than humans, without harm.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYrDgo6p13M

Different creatures experience the world in different ways.  Their main sense may be that of smell, so the world would look very different to such a creature.  Some may feel the magnetic field of the Earth, while others use sound or feel heat to map their world.  Different senses, bringing different ‘views’ of the world.  The way that we humans perceive the world is just one of many possibilities provided by nature’s evolution.

There are so many creatures on this planet, and they are so different from one another, that it is astonishingly hard to highlight just a few of them when there are so many to choose from.  Instead, I’ll provide you with a bunch of photos of such creatures without telling you anything about them, and if you consider them amazing, just click their photo to read more about them.  This way, you get to test your curiosity and, if your brain wants to learn more about one or more of them, then you will investigate further the living world of this planet.  (these images are not ‘photoshopped’, by the way)

[photos on the magazine]

All the creatures you have seen so far are cell-based creatures.  However, if we look at viruses, which are just structures made up of different things other than cells, we can regard them as being ‘alive’, as well.  In order for a virus to reproduce, it must sneak inside of a living cell and use that cell’s reproductive systems to produce more of its own kind.  Does that make it alive?  You decide.  But if you conclude that they are more like machines than living creatures, then remember that we also need an environment to reproduce ourselves, similar to how the virus needs the cell.

Let’s think about creatures in a societal context now.  Consider the Blue Whale.  It is the largest creature that has ever existed, yet, not so many people seem impressed by that.  Why not?

If a real “Jurassic Park” were to open tomorrow, where you could see cloned real-life dinosaurs, I bet the tickets would have been sold out years before the opening.  Why are people so keen to see T-Rex, but not a Blue Whale?

It has everything to do with the culture.  If this big bird that we call T-Rex hadn’t been so ‘hollywoodised’ in the Jurassic Park movies and others, people might not have cared about it at all.  Couple that with the fact that children are typically raised with mystic stories of creatures that do not exist, and we have inadvertently sparked a curiosity about mysterious creatures like dinosaurs that no longer exist.  People tend to want that rare fruit, that creature that didn’t existed before, but now it does; that shiny, new toy.  99.9% of all species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct, but most people chose dinosaurs as their favorite group out of them all?  Of course dinosaurs are cool, but so are all of the other creatures.  Simply put, the reason why people know and like dinosaurs is because of the culture.

If the real world were presented to children (and to people of all ages) in the same way that the Jurassic Park movie was presented, then people would have much more realistic drives, motivations, and curiosities.

Let’s head back to the Avatar movie, which was presented in a previous part of this Earth series.

Now imagine being on their planet, with so many new and unknown creatures; a fantastic, ‘out of this world’ world.  You and your blue buddy from there are sitting around for a chat when suddenly a tiny hairy thing, almost flying, but more falling, making a piano-like sound, appears.  The blue friend slaps the thing away and you find yourself shocked and angry.  “Why you did that?” you ask.

“I am sick of these ‘ylfs’” he says.

You: “But I wanted to know what it is?”

Blue: “It’s a damn ylf!  Annoying creatures!”

Y: “Do they have eyes?  How do they fly?  What are they?  Are they alive?”

B: “What are you, a philosoph!?  Nerd!?…Psh…What do you think I am, a ylf-expert!?”

Y: “But aren’t you curious what they are?”

B: “No, I’m not.  It’s other people’s job to figure that out.  I’m just a normal dude with a job, a family to raise, and serious problems to deal with, and ylfs are not on my list, buddy.”

You might conclude that blue people are the most non-curious creatures in the universe, and you might be right, but then think about us, with our own world.  How many times have you killed a ‘reversed YLF’, or FLY?  Do you have any idea whether a fly has a heart?  A brain?  Genitalia?  How many limbs do they have?  Is there a tongue?  How does a fly ‘fly’?  Reproduce?…  Maybe you’re unsure about any of that, since it is a complex creature, but the point is: are you curious to know any of it?

Many people ignore such creatures, simply because they were brought up like that.  This is why some look at turkeys and see little dinosaurs, while others see Thanksgiving.  There is an entire world all around and inside of us that most of us don’t seem to care at all.  That can only be the result of a numbing, mind-wasting environment.

If NASA were to show the world some footage of these creatures and told the world that they were discovered deep inside the Europa’s icy crust, a moon of Jupiter (another world), I bet people would pay so much attention to the footage, analyzing it second by second and being amazed by what they see.  Yet, the creatures you see in those pictures exist deep within Earth’s oceans, so not many are impressed by that.  This is just another demonstration that what makes someone curious, or to feel in awe, is culturally bounded.  In today’s world, you have to learn to be amazed by the Earth’s creatures, and you can only do that by exposing yourself to environments that showcase reality, instead of the shallow values that so many absorb through movies, reality shows, or even everyday life.

It’s not only the wonder and the satisfaction of curiosity that is harnessed by looking at Earth’s varied creatures.  As we have shown, technology and science have always been inspired by creatures and continue to be.  In doing so, we may discover better healing methods, build faster trains, develop new treatments and materials, learn how to be more sustainable, prolong our life and better understand what we are.

All of this can be inspired/revealed by the trillions of Earth’s moving things: the creatures.

As we recommend for every part of the ‘Earth’ series, you can greatly feed your curiosity via VideoNeat Nature, a huge site with hundreds of relevant documentaries.

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