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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Column: By your powers combined

Superheroes and the villains they vanquish are always stealing their powers from the animal kingdom. Spiderman launched webs and Dr. Octopus had eight limbs. Sabertooth was vicious and Wolverine emulated a member of the weasel family. Catwoman? More like copy-cat.

I’d like to see some of the world’s less glamorous organisms get a spot in superhero fandom. We never see bacteria-related superpowers. Where’s Dr. Strep Throat (he fiendishly strikes students during finals) or the quickly-multiplying E. Coli Boy?

Forget DC and Marvel – biologists have recently discovered some great superpowers. If I ever get to zap critters with radiation and absorb their abilities, here are my top five choices:

5. Toad

According to a recent paper in the Journal of Zoology, toads may be able to predict earthquakes. A scientist in Italy noticed that toads disappeared three days before a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit the region. The toads did not return until 10 days after the aftershocks ended. This phenomenon seems pretty anecdotal, but the same trend was spotted in China before a massive quake hit in 2008.

Researchers don’t know how toads sense quakes coming. Some think toads feel small vibrations or changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. Others wonder if toads can detect gasses released by seismic activity. Whatever the cause, I’m a California girl and I want quake-predicting powers.

4. Ground squirrel

Turns out regular old ground squirrels have a secret weapon against their rattlesnake enemies: They can neutralize snake venom. A snake bite that would leave a human in agony is easily brushed off by a full-grown ground squirrel. Sign me up for natural anti-venom powers.

3. Great white shark

Sharks are undeniably thrilling already: sharp teeth, great sense of smell, fast swimmers. But scientists have also discovered that great whites are leading secret lives in the deepest parts of the ocean. Michael Domeier, a scientist with the Marine Conservation Science Institute, recently tracked 22 great whites off the coast of Hawaii. He found that they dive to the depths where all those crazy, fluorescing fish live. Researchers in New Zealand documented the same behavior. Domeier thinks the sharks may be hunting giant squid.

Sperm whales traditionally join giant squid in the “clash of the titans” mythology, but perhaps sharks also join the fray? Picture a battle in the icy darkness: tentacles flailing and teeth gnashing, the arena lit by glowing deep-sea eels. That would be an epic fight for my super alter-ego.

2. Tyrannobdella rex

Known as the “tyrant leech king,” this newly discovered leech species is my first choice for super-villain. T. rex (yes, like the dinosaur) is only 7 centimeters long, but it is miles of freaky. It lives in fresh water and swims into mammals’ noses to feed off the mucous membranes. Researchers discovered it when a girl in Peru complained of head-pain and her parents spotted the squirming leech in her nostril. Leeches are scary enough, but T. rex has longer teeth than any species previously discovered. Researchers believe the species is related to leeches that were around 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the planet.

“Our T. rex may be been up that other T. rex’s nose,” Smithsonian researcher Mark Siddell told Discoverynews.com.

A leech that attacks dinosaurs is pure evil-mastermind.

1. Tardigrade

This microscopic animal is not only adorable (its chubby body, tiny claws and stocky legs earn it the nicknames “water bear” and “moss piglet”), but it is also practically immortal. Some of these animals are able to survive temperatures of -273°C, close to absolute zero. They can withstand intense radiation and 10 years without water. Tardigrades have been found in the Himalayas and ocean sediment, but they are my No. 1 choice because they can survive in outer space.

In 2007, the European Space Agency launched the “Tardigrades in Space” project to see how organisms react to the vacuum of space. Two of the tardigrade species did well enough in space that they were able to have happy baby tardigrades when they returned to Earth. Now that is super.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT learned that another term for a wolverine is “skunk bear.” That would be a great X-Man name! Skunk Bear will save you! E-mail her your hero or villain names at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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