Episode 306: Two Million Years Ago in Greenland

This week we’re going to learn about a brand new study in Nature about animals and plants that lived in Greenland about two million years ago.

Happy birthday to Dillon!

Further reading:

A 2-million-year-old ecosystem in Greenland uncovered by environmental DNA

Scientists Reconstruct 2-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem from Environmental DNA

No bones? No problem: DNA left in cave soils can reveal ancient human occupants

Greenland now:

Greenland two million years ago [art by Beth Zaiken, taken from the second article linked above]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to do something a little different and talk about a new study just published in the journal Nature. A little section of this episode is taken from a recent Patreon episode, for those of you who listen and think, “Wait, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that before.”

Before we get started, though, we have a birthday shoutout! A great big happy birthday to Dillon! I hope you do something really silly and fun on your birthday, like dance around wearing a ridiculous party hat and then eat cake.

Greenland is a big island off the eastern coast of Canada, but way far north, more or less in the Arctic. Even though it’s off the coast of North America, it’s considered part of Europe because for the last thousand years, it’s been controlled by Norway or Denmark at various times. Denmark’s got it right now. A little over 56,000 people live there today, most of them Inuit.

A big part of Greenland is covered in an ice sheet over a mile thick, which is so heavy it has pushed the central section of the island down so that it’s almost a thousand feet, or over 300 meters, below sea level. The land is much higher around the edges of the country. Basically Greenland is a gigantic bowl full of ice.

In 1966, the U.S. Army drilled into the ice to see what was under it, and the answer is dirt, as you might have expected. They took a 15-foot, or 4.5 meter, core sample and stuck it in a freezer, where everyone promptly forgot about it for 51 years. At some point it ended up in Denmark, where someone noticed it in 2017.

In 2019, the frozen core sample was finally studied by scientists. They expected to find mostly sand and rock. Instead, it was full of beautifully fossilized leaves and other plant material.

The main reason scientists were so surprised to find leaves and soil instead of just rock is that ice is really heavy, and it moves—slowly, but a mile-thick sheet of ice cannot be stopped. If you remember episode 277 about the rewilding of Scotland, you may remember that Scotland doesn’t have a lot of fossils from the Pleistocene because it was covered in glaciers that scoured the soil and everything in it down to bedrock, destroying everything in its path. But this hasn’t happened in Greenland.

Where the ice sheet now is, there used to be a forest. Obviously, the ice sheet hasn’t always covered Greenland. Research is ongoing, but a study of the sediment published in 2021 indicates that Greenland was ice free within the last million years, and possibly as recently as a few hundred thousand years.

If you go back a little farther, around two million years ago, Greenland was radically different. Not only was it ice free, it was much warmer than it is today. In north Greenland, which is now a polar desert, there was once an open forest where an incredible number of plants and animals lived. We know because of environmental DNA sequencing, often referred to as eDNA.

At this point most of us have a good understanding of what DNA is, but I’ll give you a quick explanation in case you’re not sure. DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic acid, and it’s a polymer chain found in every organism’s cells that contains genetic instructions, essentially a guide on how to grow a particular type of animal. It’s way more complicated than that, but that gives you a basic idea. When cells replicate as an organism develops, either from an egg cell or a seed, the DNA directs what sequences of development happen at what stages. You inherit DNA from your parents but your personal DNA is always a little different from both parents’.

True crime podcasts talk about DNA a lot because every individual organism has a unique DNA profile, and since every single cell in our bodies contains DNA, criminals leave their unique signature at every crime scene. Now that scientists can sequence DNA from really tiny samples, many crimes have been solved when the only evidence was something like “this criminal murdered someone and then smoked a cigarette, and left the cigarette butt, and the DNA from their saliva on the cigarette butt was sequenced and run through a database of criminal DNA profiles, and now we know who the murderer is.” And then you get six commercials for mattresses and phone games.

But animal podcasts talk about DNA a lot because every species of organism has a unique genetic profile in addition to having a unique personal genetic profile. Scientists can retrieve DNA from a poop found in the forest and determine what species of animal left that poop. It probably wasn’t a Bigfoot. Scientists can also compare DNA from different animal populations to learn how closely related they are.

The most recent advance in DNA studies is environmental DNA, and it’s increasing our knowledge of the world in amazing ways. If you look at a lake, even if you go Scuba diving in the lake, even if you send a rover down to look at things in the lake, you won’t be able to see every single animal and plant and other organism that lives there. Fish are always moving around and may swim away from a diver or rover, or the water may be murky, and lots of animals stay hidden in the mud at the lake’s bottom. But if you take samples of the lake water and test it for DNA, suddenly you’re going to have more information than what you’d gather in days or weeks of just looking. Of course it’s important to observe animals in their natural habitats, but if you need to know whether an invasive species is living in the lake, or if an animal that hasn’t been seen for a long time is still extant in the lake, or if there are animals in the lake that no one’s ever seen before, eDNA can do that. The water is full of genetic material shed by different organisms.

It’s not just water, either, although testing water samples is pretty easy. DNA degrades quickly in ordinary circumstances, so while you can test soil to see what animals and plants live nearby, in most cases you’ll only find DNA that was deposited recently. But if the soil has been protected from sunlight, weather, and oxygen, such as soil found in a cave, there’s a chance that some ancient DNA can be found in it. That can tell us a lot about what animals lived in the cave a long time ago.

It’s not a few genetic sequences found in a single sample, either. As one scientist put it, there are trillions of DNA fragments in every single spoonful of dirt. Not all the samples are complete enough to sequence, but the ones that are can tell us a lot about the organisms that encountered that spoonful of dirt when it was at the surface of the cave. In Denisova Cave in Siberia, where a few remains of the Denisovan people were first discovered, researchers have learned that Denisovans and Neandertals lived in the cave for tens of thousands of years at different times, even though there aren’t any bones or artifacts remaining.

But the sediment from the Greenland eDNA study wasn’t from a cave. It had been preserved in permafrost for two million years without anything disturbing it, especially humans. It’s the oldest eDNA that’s been studied so far, more than a million years older than the previously oldest DNA. That was also found in permafrost and was recovered from a mammoth tooth.

Two million years ago in northern Greenland, poplar, birch, and thuja trees grew in an open forest along with various shrubs and other plants like ferns and moss. The thuja is sometimes called the tree of life or arborvitae and it’s an evergreen tree that’s related to junipers, sequoias, and cypresses. A lot of the plant DNA found was a surprise, since pollen from the plants had never been recovered in the area. Lots of plants related to modern roses and azaleas grew in the area, so we know there were flowers in spring and summer.

The area is called Kap København, and while it was still pretty cold, it was warm enough that much of the Greenland ice sheet had melted. In winter the temperature might have sometimes been as warm as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 Celsius, and only dipped to around 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average, or -17 Celsius. This is a whole lot warmer than modern days, where the winter temperature can drop to -50 Celsius, which is about the same in Fahrenheit, and almost never climbs above freezing except in summer.

Some of the animals that lived in the forest two million years ago were mastodons, reindeer, hares, geese, and various rodents related to voles and lemmings. There was even horseshoe crab DNA found from coastal water that had been pushed farther inland during flooding. All the animals found are related to modern animals that still live today, but only one, the Arctic hare, had actually been found in the fossil record in Greenland. They also found DNA of ants and fleas, plankton, algae, and lots of microbial life.

There is no ecosystem on earth today that quite matches that of Kap København from two million years ago. Until this study, scientists thought that not much lived in the area at the time, certainly not mastodons. Hopefully, environmental DNA can be recovered from even older sediments so we can learn more about the ancient world.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 057: Horseshoe Crabs and Cone Snails

Let’s learn about horseshoe crabs and cone snails! The former is harmless, the latter is deadly. Both are interesting!

This episode’s animals are inspired by the podcast Animals to the Max and by the book Strange Survivors by Dr. Oné R. Pagán. Check both out because they are awesome!

A horseshoe crab will never hurt you and just wants to be left alone to be a horseshoe crab:

A trilobite fossil:

A cone snail just wants to be left alone to be a cone snail but it will kill you if it has to:

Above: the stripey tube thing is the snail’s siphon, the pink tube thing is the snail’s proboscis, or VENOM DUCT.

The Glory of the Sea has a pretty shell:

More cone snail shells:

The rarest seashell in the world:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to look at animals inspired by a book I recently read and a podcast I recently discovered.

The podcast is called Animals to the Max, and it’s one of several new animal podcasts that I’ve been enjoying lately. In most episodes, the host Corbin Maxey interviews someone who works with animals. Recently I was listening to episode 15, and the subject of horseshoe crabs came up briefly. Those things are awesome and well deserving of the term living fossil, so let’s start there.

First of all, horseshoe crabs are not actually crabs. They’re not even crustaceans. In fact, they’re more closely related to spiders and scorpions than to crustaceans. There are four species of horseshoe crabs alive today, three from Asia and one from the Gulf of Mexico and American Atlantic coast. Females are larger than males and depending on the species, may be about a foot long including the tail, or 30 cm, or twice that length.

The horseshoe crab gets its name from its rounded, slightly domed carapace that’s kinda sorta the shape of a horse’s hoof, with a long spike of a tail sticking out from its rear. It has a ridiculous number of eyes—seriously, it has nine eyes plus some photoreceptors on its tail. But it doesn’t see very well. Mostly it just senses light, although it can also see into the ultraviolet range.

It also has five pairs of legs tipped with little claws, and its mouth is in the middle of the base of its legs. Its legs act as shredders to cut up its food into tiny pieces. It eats worms and other invertebrates, and will eat fish if it can get it. Most of the time it swims upside-down. It can breathe air on land for short periods of time as long as its gills stay damp. Oh, and it can regenerate legs if one is injured.

Horseshoe crab blood is blue because instead of hemoglobin, its blood contains hemocyanin to transport oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin contains iron, which is red, while hemocyanin contains copper, which is blue. Its blood also contains amebocytes instead of white blood cells, and amebocytes have medical applications for humans, specifically as a way to detect bacteria in medical equipment. That means horseshoe crab blood is valuable. Half a million horseshoe crabs are caught every year, up to 30% of their blood is harvested, and the crabs released back into the wild none the worse for wear. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go. In fact, almost 30% of the horseshoe crabs released just up and die due to stress, and some companies don’t even release them. They just quietly sell them as bait. Horseshoe crabs have been used as commercial fishing bait and ground up as fertilizer for years. Because of all these pressures, along with pollution and the development of beaches where they lay their eggs, the horseshoe crab has gone from being one of the most numerous animals in the ocean to threatened in a matter of decades. Fortunately, many places have put protections and harvesting limits in place to help the population rebound.

Horseshoe crabs first appear in the fossil record 450 million years ago, near the end of the Ordovician Period, back when most life lived in the oceans and fish with jaws were only just evolving. This was well before dinosaurs. This was well before any animals were living on land at all, although probably some marine animals had discovered that if they laid their eggs on the beach, nothing much would eat them, and some other marine animals had discovered that if they could haul themselves out onto the beach for short periods of time, they might find some eggs to eat. The horseshoe crabs alive today are basically identical to the horseshoe crabs found throughout the fossil record. They hit on a successful body plan hundreds of millions of years ago and have stuck with it ever since.

Trilobites were also everywhere during the Ordovician as well as before and after, until they died out 252 million years ago. Trilobite fossils are really common so you’ve probably seen them, but they looked sort of like big roly-polies, or pill bugs, or sow bugs, depending on what you call them. Horseshoe crabs are actually related to trilobites, and one of the big questions is why trilobites died out after being so incredibly successful for so long—270 million years—while horseshoe crabs didn’t. It was probably just luck. The Great Permian Extinction event wiped out almost 90% of all life on earth, and even before then trilobites were already in decline, while the horseshoe crab was chugging along just fine.

If you’re on the beach and see a horseshoe crab on its back, trying to get right side up, help it by flipping it onto its feet. It won’t hurt you, and you might very well save its life.

The other animal I want to look at today is the cone snail, inspired by a brand new book called Strange Survivors by Oné Pagán. Dr. Pagán kindly sent me an advance copy and it is definitely a book a lot of you would find interesting. It’s about evolutionary forces and how things like venom developed in various animals. I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to order a copy for yourself. One of the animals Dr. Pagán talks about in the book is the cone snail. I’d never heard of it before but it’s fascinating.

There are something like 800 species of cone snail, in fact. They live in tropical oceans and their shells often have beautiful geometric patterns, the kind collectors spend big bucks for. But all cone snails are venomous and some can be fatal. Cone snails are snails and therefore not exactly known for their speed, but the larger ones hunt and kill fish. How do snails hunt fish? Usually it’s the other way round.

Well, let me just tell you. You are not even going to believe this, but you should, because it is a real thing that actually happens. I’ll use the geographic cone snail as an example, because it’s been well studied. It’s about 6 inches long, or 15 cm, and is common throughout shallow reefs in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. It’s also the most toxic of cone snails, and there is no antidote to its venom.

So, imagine a cone snail on the bottom of a shallow, warm ocean. Small fish are swimming around. The cone snail has a mottled brown and white shell, quite pretty, and the snail itself is somewhat similar in color with a siphon sticking out of the bottom of its shell. It’s not bothering anything and some little fish ignore it because hey, they’re fast fish and it’s just a slow snail.

But when the little fish get close to the snail, something odd happens. They just sort of slow down. They stop moving and sink to the bottom, but they don’t act panicked. That’s because the snail has released venom into the water, venom containing insulin that mimics the insulin found in fish. When a fish absorbs the venom through its gills, it goes into hypoglycemic shock, which stuns it. The snail then fires a modified hollow tooth called a harpoon into the fish, injecting more venom and killing the fish. The harpoon is attached to the snail’s body by a proboscis, or venom duct, which the snail uses to winch the fish into its mouth to digest.

So far researchers have found two snails that stun fish with venom released into the water, the geographic and the tulip cone snails, but all cone snails have the harpoon contraption to shoot fish with. And the harpoon is fast. It travels at about 400 miles per hour, or 644 km per hour, and special muscles at the base of the venom duct can pump venom into the fish just as fast. Sometimes a snail will hide in the mud or sand and wiggle its proboscis like a worm, and when a fish comes to investigate, the snail harpoons it. It takes the snail a week or two to digest a fish, and during that time it also grows a new harpoon.

Cone snails also use their harpoons defensively, and they can penetrate right through clothes and even divers’ wetsuits. And the venom can kill a human in a matter of hours. The problem is that many cone snail shells are really pretty, so people pick them up to look at. The snail thinks it’s about to be eaten, defends itself, and the person thinks, “Ow, that felt funny. And my hand is going numb. Hmm. Now my whole body is going numb, how strange.” And then they die. Well, it takes longer than that, but you get the idea. Of course, only 36 people have actually died from cone shell stings in the last 90 years, but just a reminder that if you don’t get in the water you are probably safe from venomous marine snails.

On the other hand, researchers are very interested in the cone snail’s toxins. They could lead to painkillers that don’t cause dependency, better treatments for diabetes, and even treatments for nervous system disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. At least one painkiller developed from peptides in a cone snail toxin is already on the market.

One cone snail, the Glory of the Sea, was at one time thought to be the rarest shell in the world. In 1970 its habitat was discovered by divers, in various places throughout the Indo-Pacific but mostly near the Solomon Islands. Before then, though, collectors would spend thousands of U.S. dollars on a specimen. These days they can still go for around one or two hundred bucks just because they’re really pretty and still not terribly common. I’ll put a picture of one in the show notes.

This episode is a little short so let’s just plunge down this rare shell rabbit hole. The rarest shell in the world is arguably that of Sphaerocypraea incomparabilis, and its story is pretty awesome. In 1963 a trawler dredged up a dark brown cowrie type shell that made its way to a Russian shell collector. Rumors of the shell leaked out and in the 1990s, a collector named Donald Dan flew to Moscow and managed to buy the shell. It turned out to be the shell of a snail that had been thought extinct for 20 million years. It’s still extremely rare, though. Only six of the shells are known to be in collections and the living snail still hasn’t been examined by scientists or formally described.

I don’t want to get in the water more than about ankle deep, but I do enjoy beachcombing. Apparently there’s some money to be made in shell collecting, too, but don’t pick up any cone snail shells unless you’re 100% certain the shell is empty.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!