A story in four chapters presenting the potential for a fast-forward in evolution through a guided tour.
Feed as Partner in further food production
We felt we were stuck firmly somewhere and tried to jostle free without any success. But what a glorious sight it was!
Master told us we were coral polyps, tiny parts of a gigantic aggregate organism known to humankind as coral reef in the Great Barrier Reef system in the Coral Sea, off the Queensland coast of Australia. This was the world’s largest coral reef system, Master announced, consisting perhaps of some 3000 individual giant reefs spread over a coastline of some 2600 km and occupying an area of over 300,000 square km. He also told us that if we stayed in the reef for over a year, we could become larger by a few mm in size. We were amazed at the astounding variety of dynamic living diversity around us. We could see some starfish basking on the reef and small and big fish in the sea ahead. Master said he was willing the starfish to keep away from us as they would suck the life juice out of us if they moved over to us.
Master informed us too that the diversity included many vulnerable or endangered species. 30 species of whales, and many kinds of dolphins, or porpoises as they are sometimes called, have been found here, it seems, and these included the Dwarf Minke Whale, Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin and the Humpback Whale. He continued, and we could visualize in our minds the kind eyes of his human form widening, ‘Also, large populations of dugongs live here. Six species of sea turtlecome here to breed – Green Sea Turtle, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Flat back Turtle, and Olive Ridley. Over 200 species of birds (including 40 species of water birds) live on this great reef, including the White-bellied Sea Eagle and Roseate Tern. Do you remember the Indian terns? 17 species ofsea snake move on the Great Barrier Reef. More than 1500 species of fish live here too, including the Batfish, Clownfish, Red Bass, Red-Throat Emperor, and several species of Snapper and Coral Trout. 400 species of corals, both hard corals and soft corals are found on the reef. We are hard ones. There are 15 species of Sea grassnear the reef that attract the dugongs and sea turtles. 500 species of marine algae or seaweed live on the reef. The Irukandji jellyfish also lives on the reef. 5000 species of mollusc have been recorded on the Great Barrier Reef including the Giant Clam and various nudibranchs and cone snails.’
Nari exclaimed, ‘We cannot even hope to remember half of what you listed just now. But what was it you said just now about some branches?’
Master must have smiled, when he replied, ‘Yes, branches indeed, branches without a covering, if you please. Actually nudibranchs are snails or slugs, without their mandatory shell covering.’ And he pointed to a nudibranch perched nicely elsewhere on our reef-segment. ‘Consider yourself lucky, Rani,’ he said, ‘that you and the two of us are hard corals, otherwise there are enough nudibranchs, of various varieties but all with a single point agenda of eating soft coral in a variety of ways! Most scientists who write the general name of these creatures in plural spell them without the default e before the final s, though a few (like you!) call them nudibranches, as they would spell any other kind of branches. We can calmly contemplate on these niceties, because we are not an interesting mouthful for these nudibranchs when soft polyp is also available in plenty alongside.’
I winced as I watched one very slimy but colourful creature probing some soft polyp directly beneath it and felt thankful that it will pass me by. I thought I should take my mind away from these slug-snail-slimies, which I felt should be soon enough when Master would draw our attention to the main player of the day, out of the multitudes that were on view. I was aghast when Master smiled and said, ‘No such luck, Rani, these are our heroes and you will soon learn how they qualify! Meanwhile let me tell you about yourself, namely about corals.’
Master went on, ‘We have the family name Anthozoa. While our growth forms can be various, we belong to the majority type that live as colonies of literally thousands of individuals that secrete a slimy substance, which, as you can feel yourself, slowly hardens to form our outer skeleton called corallite. Corallite units like ours join together to form a reef network. We have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, a group of single-celled algae. Can you see the algae? Even as we are developing, these algae invade our tissues, where they nicely reproduce and photosynthesize. Most of the carbohydrates produced during photosynthesis are then passed onto us, the coral host, supplementing our food intake, thus increasing our reef-building capacity. The soft corals (they are called Alcyonarians) that you see yonder are not reef-building but still make up a part of our reef community. They lack our kind of rigid skeleton so their bodies appear as a fleshy, branched or lobed mass. These belong to the group of octocorals because they have polyps bearing eight tentacles embedded in the fleshy body.’
‘Can you see why reefs like ours, big or small, depending substantially on food made by photosynthesis, thrive only under tropical or semi-tropical brightly sunlit environments? Their distribution is indeed restricted to the clear, shallow, coastal waters of tropical seas between the latitudes 30 degrees north and south. Now I am going to tell you of a relationship similar to the one between us and the algae, but involving nudibranchs.’
‘Each hard coral is no bigger than a fingernail; hard corals build reefs by growing atop the stony skeletons of previous coral colonies. Assuming such shapes as plates, domes, and branches, coral colonies have created the largest structures ever made by living things. But like any masterpiece, a coral reef takes time, growing only about half an inch a year.’
‘Armed with tentacles that help them “fish” for meals of minute plankton, the individual corals, or polyps, are tube-like animals related to jellyfish and sea anemones. Unlike most of their cousins, though, remember that corals harbor their own built-in food factories.’
‘As I told you already, inside corals’ clear outer tissues live microscopic algae, which transform sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis. The hosts help themselves to some of the sugars and even gain a bit of added color.’
‘Let me now talk about our less agreeable but lovelier looking neighbours, the nudibranchs. Look at their glorious colours! Psychedelic skin tones tell predators of nudibranchs that these shell-less snails pack a poisonous punch. But most nudibranchs weren’t born toxic.’
‘Nudibranchs snack on sea squirts, sponges, and hydroids that are poisonous to other animals. But instead of breaking down their preys’ toxins, nudibranchs incorporate them into their own armories. And that’s not all they can recycle.’
‘So-called solar-powered nudibranchs eat soft corals, which like us hard corals, generally have algae living in their tissues. When these nudibranchs eat soft corals, they don’t digest the algae, they keep them in their outer tissues. There the algae continue photosynthesizing, converting sunlight into food for themselves and their new host.’
‘Have you, Nari and Rani, now learnt how all that a being eats does not have to disappear inside the being and become either a part of its form or plain energy to work with?’
‘The cyclic chain of algae-coral-nudibranch-toxic feed can teach you that indeed a part of food can stay inside the feeder for other use and another kind of living feed does not have to die at all but work inside the feeder and keep making food available to it?’
I said by way of our thought communication process, ‘Master, These single-point qualities of survival would not be appreciated in the making up of men like Valmiki’s hero. The nudibranchs are more like other asura kings of old who kept invading their neighbouring kingdoms to grab their assets and also imprisoned beautiful women and intelligent ministers and advisers to benefit in turn by their availability. Would you not agree?’
Master must have smiled again when he corrected me, ‘Rani, you seem to have probed my mind and acquired a lot of knowledge on our itihasa lore! But I have to correct you. When you look at the nudibranchs in isolation, I am able to see that you are not impressed. But look at the reef as as one huge living organism, with hard coral polyps as rulers governing it. We do put out our tentacles and grab plankton so that algae would flourish on us. We need the algae for our sustenance and that of our less fortunate soft cousins. The nudibranchs need the soft polyps along with the algae, but as they do not have our kind of covering, they need to acquire and store toxin too to frighten away their predators. The reef system continues and grows, unless as is becoming apparent to me, the activities of modern man create conditions in the seashores that are detrimental to its growth! If you read between the story lines in Ramayana through my mind, you will know that Rama lectured elaborately to Bharata on statecraft when the latter came to meet him at Chitrakoota, so that Ayodhya was taken care of even during his absence. A king has his own life as an individual human being, but never divorced from his role as ruler. He must continue to put out his tentacles and gather and store plankton for his subjects!’
Even as Master finished this little speech, I found I was back in our hive, where everybody seemed to treat me as if I had never stepped out of it a while earlier. And every time the foraging team went out or came back to the hive, I instinctively knew which one of them was Nari, because she made the faintest little gesture to give me a friendly greeting. We both knew that we would just live out our expected lifespans, but would keep our present accumulated experience in our next set of births, in each of which the two of us would be of the same class and also be located in the same place. We knew that we would experience different births too within a reasonable period, whatever reasonableness in learning spans might mean. Every such birth would reinforce our bee identity while equipping us more and more to be better and better bees with selected new traits. We could expect to be excellent leaders of the bee community whenever our education would be complete. Other bees would then need to emulate us and conform, perhaps guided once again by Master. Master’s guidance can certainly not be considered the exclusive property of just the two of us. No way! We only know that we are able to reach him or communicate with him when we seem to need him intensely enough.
More posts by this author:
- Buzz, learn and lead- Chapter 3
- Buzz, learn and lead- Chapter 2
- Buzz, learn and lead, Chapter 1
- I am central
- On Stones and Shells
After R & D and technical management experience of over three decades in petroleum and organic chemical industry, have been devoting the past fifteen years to the study of Tamil and Sanskrit classics, including dharmic works and doing some serious translation work. Have been a significant contributor to the medha journal almost since its inception upto 2013 and expect to continue my association with it.