World within a single creature

  • Updated: April 5, 2014 - 5:20 PM
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An ocean dandelion. Not a plant ... and not what you might think of as an animal.

Imagine a single creature that is not just made up of trillions of cells, but also hundreds of animals. All of these animals work together in the same way your cells work together, creating a kind of super organism. A colony of ants could be considered a super organism, all working together with one queen. Siphonophores, like the ocean dandelion, take this whole idea one step further. The ocean dandelion is like an ant colony on steroids. ¶ Each ocean dandelion is a collection of individual animals, all working together for the colony, as ants form a colony. Some protect the colony, some catch food, some reproduce. But there is one key difference between an ant colony and an ocean dandelion: Individual ants work together but still remain separate from one another, but the many animals that make up the ocean dandelion share tissues with one another. ¶ They have one shared community stomach system, so what one animal eats, all get to digest. A vast, colony-wide nervous system also coordinates individual movements. Each “petal” of the disintegrated ocean dandelion is actually a single member of the colony, able to survive a short time on its own before starving to death. A change in pressure or a bumpy ride to the ocean’s surface may have been what caused the colony to collapse.

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  • The ocean dandelion challenges a simple assumption about what it means to be an animal. Each ocean dandelion is a collection of individual animals, all working together for the colony.

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