Would You Rather Face a Cunning or Relentless Foe?

Suppose you find yourself on an alien planet, battling with indigenous species. On your side, you have smarts, both natural and technological. The alien defenders have nothing; no technology. Well, they do have slime, but that’s all.

Brains against the brainless: Who do you think will win?

Blithely headed into tick-infested woods.

I spent a summer weekend with my family in a cabin in the Virginia mountains a few years ago. It was nature at its finest, until we discovered after a short walk in the woods that ticks seemingly rained down upon us and were invading our bodies as fast as their little legs could move. We were food, and they were hungry. Human-sized meals didn’t come around those woods very often, apparently.

The entire family, adults and children, stripped down to our underwear on the porch of the cabin, trying to rid ourselves of the invaders. Modesty took second place to the fear of miniature arachnids.

Once the imagined itching had abated and the baby was asleep, we soothed our nerves with puzzles and games, or reading from a well-stocked bookshelf. I picked a book with an interesting cover; it was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

I cannot say enough good things about Scalzi’s debut novel, a futuristic science fiction, other worlds story. Suffice it to say, it features combat between Earthling soldiers and all sorts of bizarre and ruthless alien life forms. Although Scalzi didn’t write about invading armies of ticks, per se, I could easily envision such a terrifying encounter.

This author devouring Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”.

I also think and write about extraterrestrial aliens. Like most writers, I assume ETs are sentient, and calculating. Depending upon the writer, those ETs may have either high morals, or no morals at all, but they always have a brain.

Lately, I’ve had to rethink potential plot elements dealing with intelligent life forms. The reason is, scientists now claim that a single celled animal, a slime mold, acts with a shocking degree of intelligence. The kicker is, being a single celled organism, slime mold does not have a brain.

Slime mold knows a good thing when it finds it. (Photo credit: SB_Johnny)

Intelligence without a brain?

Compared to slime mold, ticks are geniuses if we count the gray matter cells contained in their single-minded heads. However, according to a Japanese researcher the brainless slime mold can solve problems even scores of engineers could not easily solve.

Sounds like science fiction to me.

So now imagine the following storyline. Your spaceship lands on a verdant planet that has no higher, brain-possessing life forms, at all. However, what it does have in abundance is slime mold. And of course the threat from slime mold is easy to ignore — until it is too late. The mindless protoplasm senses all sources of food, and fans out in all directions, following the scent.

The ship’s science officer tries to warn the mission commander, but the arrogant and miscalculating commander responds with a volley of lead rounds into the nearest slime; which of course is not in the least bit deterred from its food-finding task.

And when the crew sleeps, as of course they must, the brainless mold finds the food sources, one by one, absorbing the human nutrients.

Human-sized meals don’t come around those woods very often, apparently.

 

Being brainless, slime mold cannot be considered cunning. But, one could argue, it’s not stupid either: it can’t be tricked. It is, if anything, relentless.

From a cinematic perspective this is not an entirely new theme. The 1958 movie The Blob starring Steve McQueen popularized the idea of mindless organisms devouring humans. But at that time there was no real science behind it. Now there is.

Some interesting science facts about slime mold are found in this link and the following Scientific American – NOVA video.

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Outsmarted by an Octopus

Jim Duran and I started a night dive in about sixty to seventy feet of water several miles off the beaches of Panama City, FL. I was wearing double 80 tanks, held a collecting bag and lights, and fully intended to capture an octopus, alive.

At the time I was working in an invertebrate physiology laboratory at Florida State University, under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Greenberg. I had been impressed by the reputed high intelligence of the octopus, and was also interested in the effects of high pressure. The Navy base at Panama City had a new high pressure chamber, capable of simulating deep-sea pressures. Since I was in training in the combined Navy and NOAA program called the Scientist in the Sea, it seemed logical to me to catch an octopus, and study it to see if it would be a suitable candidate for testing in the Navy’s  giant hyperbaric chamber.

It sounded like a reasonable plan to me, and Jim Duran was willing to follow along as my assistant critter catcher. And to begin with, the plan worked. We spied our quarry only a few minutes into the dive. The gray-brown octopus was crawling over the sandy bottom, and initially seemed unaware of our intentions. But as the two of us closed in on him, specimen bag flapping in our self-generated current, he sprang off the bottom and squirted away.

But we were strong swimmers, and our quarry was in the open, maybe eight feet off the bottom. He had nowhere to hide – silly thing. Keeping our lights on him, and stroking like mad, I began gaining on him, at which time he let loose with his ink. I was prepared for that, and continuing to kick I soon caught up with him and got my hands on him, trying to stuff him into my bag. But he would have none of that.

Off we went again. What we didn’t realize was that the clever invertebrate was constantly turning to our right. We of course were too intent on capturing him to notice his strategy. And besides, invertebrates were incapable of strategic planning – or so we thought.

Apparently the octopus was determined not to be touched again, or else we were tiring, for we never quite caught up with him. So close, and yet so far away.

And then a curious thing happened. He collapsed his tentacles upon themselves, streamlining his body shape, and shot like a rocket from our depth to the sandy bottom. Once on firm ground again, he spread his tentacles as wide as he could, and his entire body turned white. I froze in shock.

In another instant, before I could recover my senses, he collapsed his body down to the width of an apple and slithered into his hole in the sea floor.

He was gone.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the chase had started near his home, and he had led us at a furious pace in a large circle, which ended precisely where it had begun. He had maneuvered us to within striking distance of safety.

Humbled, and now growing low on air, and embarrassingly empty-handed, we headed back to the off-shore platform where our dive had begun.

It had seemed like such a good idea. Who knew that two graduate students would be outsmarted by an invertebrate.

Below is a link to a video showing an octopus’ ability to disguise itself, and some of the defensive behavior we witnessed.

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