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Protist-y art continued: the protist zodiac

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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One night, when I was definitely completely sober in every way possible (of course!), it struck me that while both the European and Chinese zodiacs (ones I’m familiar with) display a nice variety of animals with and without backbones (I happen to be spineless according to the European one, and scaly and flame-breathing according to the Chinese version), somehow the ancients have missed out on a very major and obvious group — the protists. How they managed to arrange an arbitrary representative for each of the 6-8 (or whatever) currently accepted supergroups is absolutely beyond me. They might have been busy laying the foundations for modern science and philosophy, perhaps, but that’s hardly an excuse.

As usual, it falls upon myself to amend such cosmological oversights. But that’s fine — I’ve spent a huge chunk of my childhood creating fantasy cultures and mythologies studying hard and doing homework, so making stuff up is sort of my forte — very useful in science. Adapting extant styles to your cultures is incredibly fun in itself, and seeing how various things can be seen in other ways. I’ll begin with 8 — one for each supergroup (slightly outdated now, but this isn’t supposed to be a scientific reference). It’s also a good number to fit with Buddhist motifs, as 4s and 8s are kind of central to their plot. Anyway, serendipitously, a friend happened to have  a couple books on Tibetan symbols and motifs lying about — a deadly distraction. So I’ve been practicing and doodling a bit. These are mostly sketches; hopefully better versions will follow someday.

The first one is supposed to represent a microsporidian — a highly reduced single-celled fungal parasite (with the smallest nuclear genome in all of Eukarya!). The flame is supposed to represent the awesomeness and/or terror of parasitism (depending on your view, I guess); the coil at the top is the polar tube, via which the parasite injects itself into unfortunate cells. On the bottom is an ever-so-slightly stylised nucleus.  We’ll have this represent fungi for now.

The euglyphid below was one of the first protist zodiac figures I’ve done. Euglyphids are scaly testate amoebae, with spines — which are straight in nature, but why should I care? This will serve the Rhizaria (though I do want to do a foram too).

Then I doodled a haptophyte — marine alga with elaborate calcium carbonate scales it builds and secretes. The thing at the top is a haptonema —  food is caught by it, aggregated into a ball, and once the ball of food is big enough… the haptonema reaches around and inserts it into the posterior end for phagocytosis. So a haptophyte eats with its ass. A tough topic to discuss with a straight face…

Unrelated to the zodiac, I’ve been reading about dileptid ciliates — notable for wiggling about a trunk or proboscis loaded with miniature missiles; upon a brushing contact with prey, those missiles cause it to… explode. Then the dileptid drinks its cell juice. Why swallow your food when you can just blow it up? Further inspiration came from two facts: a) dileptids eat rotifers when they can (photgraphic evidence present in literature); and b) apparently the skinny base of the trunk in a regular dileptid was not enough for Paradileptus, who felt the need to construct a sizeable pouch around its mouth. Like a carnivorous version of a Basking shark, perhaps?

And here I was playing around with a new toy — 9B graphite stick. Amoebae are hard/fun to shade (depending on how nice you expect it to look — starting with low standards is advised.)

I definitely haven’t abandoned the Pacific Northwest stylisation of protists either! Just very, very distracted, as always. Anyway, that’s it for the progress update on the procrastinatory doodling front.

Psi Wavefunction About the Author: Psi Wavefunction is a graduate student working with protists (the 'other' eukaryotes) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and now blogs about protists and evolution at Skeptic Wonder. Follow on Twitter @Ocelloid.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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