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On spirals, stripes and zigzagging.

October 28, 2012 Leave a comment

So this week I thought I’d take the time to go into a bit of depth about what I was looking at for the dissertation I completed for my degree. If you’re not interested, I’m sorry to hear that, go be boring somewhere else. It’s all about moving, particularly, moving in ways listed in the title, spirals, stripes and zigzags. In order to understand this however, you need to understand the details of my dissertation.

Nah, just kidding, but it would be good for you to understand the background of my project because my work is based on the hypotheses of a few good men. It is based on the fact that in the fossil record there are remains of what was originally thought to be seaweed but which were later reinterpreted as the tracks, trails and burrows of ancient sea creatures. Think about the last time you were on a beach, you know that worm cast? Well that’s because of a ‘U’ shaped burrow of a worm which it uses to collect nutrients by passing water over it’s gills through the burrow.

Worm Cast: This stuff is the sand pushed out of the back (On the right) of the burrow (The front is the hole on the left) to make room for the worm. Source.

Okay, now imagine that worm lived millions of years ago and the sand it burrowed through was turned to rock and the burrow remains as an imprint in the rock. This is one type of fossil which has been studied, the types that I studied where probably made by a species which crawled across the ocean floor, grazing. These patterns changed of the course of history, the first recorded paths are quite ancient, I believe the earliest ones I found in the literature were from the Silurian period (in the region of 450mya, for contrast, humans diverged from chimps around 4mya).

The Silurian Period: This is the geologic time scale, Earth was fully formed by At the very bottom on the left. Animals evolved around the start of the Paleozoic (In blue) and all the time since then has been expanded on the right. The Silurian is the 3rd period from the bottom on the left, the dinosaurs fit into the pink section on the right; all of human existence fits into the Quaternary at the very top of the right. Source.

So these things have been around a while, but they’ve not been idle, oh no, there are several different groups of fossils, some with spirals, some with zigzags, but they didn’t start out that way: The first records are simple stripes which overlapped a lot. Then millions of years later, we find record of some with loose zigzags and some with loose spirals. Millions of years after that there is record of tighter zigzags and very tight, double spirals. Millions of years after that and we’re around the time when mammals are about to take centre stage as the largest animals on the planet, and we find tight corkscrews drilling into the ocean floor.

Trace Fossils: So called because they are the traces and tracks of animals rather than their bodies. This is from Raup and Seilacher’s original paper, the left side shows the fossils they based their model on and the right shows what the computer model did. Source.

My work was based off of this and the Prescott and Ibbottson paper I got the picture above from. Along with a paper with the wonderful title ‘In Search of the Optimum Scumsucking Bottomfeeder’. The question is: Why bother to make yourself able to develop such complex patterns as that double spiral? What is pressuring these creatures to develop the complex neural pathways required to make such patterns? Well Hayes in the paper named above suggested that the ocean floor is a uniform resource and the best tactic is to just munch on the resources as you move along it and the more efficiently you use up the space, the better off you’ll be.

Well I think that’s a good idea except I was convinced of the patchiness of the resources, the ocean floor isn’t uniform, far from it. In the end, I decided that a strong contender as one of the reasons for the behaviours would be competition from others. In other words, the population density within an area would mean that the organisms would be all crowded together to a certain extent. This crowding would mean they should watch out for where they move because if they move over an already grazed patch, that’s a waste of the energy used to move over that patch.

I tested the idea by looking at the various behaviours and how Raup and Seilacher suggested the decision tree would work. I built a whole bunch of different behaviour sets based on how they would move in a free environment without depleted areas getting in the way; I also behaviour sets based on how they would react to the path they were moving along being obstructed by depleted patch. The pictures below should illustrate what I mean:

Movement behaviours: The three different ways that the organisms would move, there was (a) the straight path (with a little wobbling because nothing in nature is perfect); (b) the curve, the organism would gently turn as it walked; (c) the zigzag, similar to the straight path but after a set number of steps, the creature would reverse it’s path. Source: Self.

Reaction behaviours: These three are how the organisms would react when they came across a depleted patch (Which if all the world is filled with food, would only occur if another organism has already grazed the area and represented by the horizontal arrow. (a) the simplest option is to do nothing about it and keep going with your movement behaviour; (b) a more complex choice is to look out for it and when you see a patch ahead, turn a fixed amount and then carry on with your movement behaviour; (c) this is the most complex choice, in it, the organism attempts to follow along the edge of the already depleted patch and graze alongside it. Source: Self.

The next step for me was to simulate what different populations would do given these behaviours, so if there where 10 in an area, how much food could each gather under each behaviour set (Each model organism is given one movement behaviour and one reaction behaviour to use and I chose to make each population run just one of each of the nine combinations) then compare that with 20 in the same size area, and 30, and 40 all the way up to 900 (Just looked that up in the file I used to record all of this and it turns out that the file was created 29/10/2011 what a coincidence). So because the size of the area was the same for each one, I was looking at population density and what happened to the benefits of each behavioural set.

The short story is that after I collected something in the region of 3.5 million data points, I used some basic statistics and discovered that the reaction behaviours that tried to avoid the paths did VASTLY better than the one which didn’t avoid the paths at all at high population density. So if there’s lots of competition about, it pays to be smart about where you’re going. But at low population density, the reaction behaviour of ‘keep doing your movement behaviour’ did at least as well and often better (Depending on the movement behaviour) than the more complex reaction behaviours.

The reason for this, I think is that when there’s not many organisms around, it doesn’t matter if you go over a track every now and then, if you try to ‘take evasive maneuvers’ you’ll end up staying nearby to an area which has already been grazed on whereas not reacting to the grazed areas, you end up heading out to ‘greener pastures’ and not running into the paths again. It also seems that population density did have a significant effect on these ancient animals’ behavioural effectiveness. As for why all this matters, well, that I think I’ll save to waste your time with on another post.

On Deep Sea Grazers

This may not be a particularly interesting post for the vast majority of people but it’s one that I care about, it’s going to give the background to a dissertation I’m writing to hand in in the next two weeks (I handed it in on April the 27th). Everybody in the house interested in paleoethology, ichnology, evolution or deep sea worms that evolved around 542mya and have continued up to the present developing more and more complex grazing behaviour give me a hell yeah?! Ahem, yes well that’s what this post is all about so read on if you’re curious.

So how do we know that such behaviours actually exist? Well Ichnology, specifically paleoichnology is the study of trace fossils, fossils which record the tracks and trails of extinct animals, for instance Dinosaur footprints are on type of ichnofossil (Another name for trace fossils). Ichnology is the study of all tracks and trails and neoichnology is the branch of ichnology which focuses on extant (living today) animal tracks. There are fossils which record the movements of animals and they can be grouped by what sort of behaviours produced them. The particular group I am interested in are the group ostentatiously called Pascichnia (Pass-ik-nee-ah, I think). It literally means grazing tracks (Latin Pascos lit. Grazing Ichnos lit. Track) how inventive of them. If you want to know more about the inventive naming system, google the name Adolf Seilacher, he came up with the original categorisation system.

Pascichnia have been discovered from some of the earliest periods in history, the first fossils were simple and looked much like childrens’ scribbles, think what you did as a kid in MS paint scribbling randomly then colouring in the gaps between the lines. They look much like that but in rock and less colourful.

The next stage along was a couple of hundred million years later when the animals had learned to loop back and forth (This is but one example) but the loops were quite loose and there were often large gaps before the animal moved back to follow alongside it’s path. The final part of this example I will describe is those trace fossils which have been found from the Cretaceous, again, a few hundred million years after the previous ones. These showed a very tight strafing pattern back and forth minimising the area left unused by the animal.

So the patterns have gotten more complex, but why? There has to have been some sort of pressure to force the worms to develop more complex behaviours. It is possible that the behaviours developed by chance, that is, genetic drift in the development of their neurons would develop such behaviours, however there are a couple of reasons why this is unlikely.

First, neurons are expensive, unless the worms had another reason for the development of the neuronal capacity to develop these complex patterns then they wouldn’t have the neuronal capacity in the first place and no amount of genetic drift could generate these behaviours.

Second, the behaviours are temporally distinct, that is, each level of complexity is isolated from the others in time, only simple behaviours at the start, semi-complex behaviours in the middle and complex behaviours at the end (Or at least at the present, who knows what will happen in the future of such animals). This would suggest a directionality to the behaviour, if it were mere chance that developed these patterns then it would be a reasonable assumption that all behaviours would be represented at almost the entire length of their history. The fact that this is not the case would suggest that the complex behaviours are more selective.

So to conclude, these behaviours have gotten more complex over time, and it is highly likely that this is not the result of genetic drift, rather an evolutionary response to an environmental or ecological pressure which forced the development of such behaviours.

Comments and criticisms welcome.