Mar 28, 2014 I Tom Head

What We Have in Common with Siphonophores

Like a lot of kids who grew up in the 1980s, I watched Voltron—the story of five mechanical-lion pilots who could, in times of dire emergency, combine their vehicles to form a giant, sword-wielding robot. Last week, as I read Brown University marine biologist Rebecca Helm's thought-provoking piece on ocean dandelions, it dawned on me: Voltron was, in his own way, a kind of mechanical siphonophore.

Siphonophores are creatures that are made up of multiple entities, called zooids, that combine to form their bodies. They are what zoologists call colonial organisms—creatures that merge to form a common body in order to survive. The best-known (and deadliest) siphonophore is the Portuguese man o'war, which is often described as a jellyfish rather than a siphonophore (in much the same way peanuts are called nuts instead of legumes):

But there are even stranger siphonophores out in the deep, and the deeper you go, the stranger (and more bioluminescent) they get. Witness the glorious, massive, terrifying rhizophysa:

And 2300 feet deep off the coast of Honduras, scientists captured this footage of the stephanomia—a kind of glowing, semitransluscent eel:

Earlier this week, I asked if parasites rule the world—and I used, as an example, the fact that each of us carries inside of us 3 to 5 pounds of live microbes that have their own agendas and life cycles. But as many of these microbes play an important role in our survival, maybe I'm selling them a bit short by describing them as if they were all parasites. Maybe it's enough to say that we simply live with them in these warm, moist, fleshy worlds we call our bodies, working together—and, occasionally, against each other—in our efforts to survive.

Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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