Life in the Colonies

Detail of tentacle of Physalia microscoped by Rob Growler.  Each of those finger-like projections is considered to be a separate creature. Or perhaps each separate tentacle is a single zooid – there seems to be much confusion on this.

Life in the Colonies

What’s the plural of man o’ war ?
‘Men’, or ‘wars’, or stays the same ?
(And why are you so Portuguese ?)
All told, a silly name.

But scientists insist
That you’re already plurals, each.
That what we see are vibrant cities
Washed up on the beach.

See, ev’ry egg, once fertilised,
Divides in two, and two again,
Until a little larva, sized
No larger than a grain.

You then begin your budding,
Popping clones that stay attached.
So from a single egg, it seems,
A hundred brothers hatched.

Genetic’ly identical,
But not such dead-on ringers,
Specialising as they do,
As feeders, breeders, or as stingers,

Sharing nutrients and ,
And even gender too, we note.
And one (and only one) will swell
Into a gas-filled float.

But are you really colonies ?
So should we view your ev’ry clone
As sep’rate creatures ?  Even though
That can’t survive to swim alone ?

Perhaps it’s the lack of a nervious system
That makes you many, not one –
But do your individual zooids
Each have their own, or also none ?

If the latter, why are these animals,
And not mini-colonies all of their own ?
I guess the stingers at least must feel
A sense of touch (though they act alone).

They may be multi-cellular,
But each one sounds a lot like cells
Dividing to diversify –
So why deny the parallels ?

For I began the same as you –
A ball of cells, a swarm of germs
Who meld and build a greater whole,
And so do flies and mice and worms.

So as for what we call you,
Just what kind of things you are ?
‘Men’ or ‘wars’, it matters not –
Let’s call you singular.

Perhaps the boffins have got it right, and syphonophores really are collectives and are fundamentally different from single animals like jellyfishes.  But they’re gonna havta do a much better job of explaining it.  So kudos to The Octopus Lady for her illuminating video which is the first attempt I’ve seen to actually ask the question “but why do we think these are colonies…?”  Her answer – because although the zooids cannot survive alone, it is slow starvation that kills them (because they cannot feed themselves alone), not biologiocal breakdown as would quickly befall any of our shed cells.

Clearly there is a gradual continuum between colony and multi-organelled, and perhaps a combined nervous system is the great filter between ‘them’ and ‘it’, though whether syphonophores have one or not (or if their zooids have their own or not) would appear to be a far-from-settled matter.  And until it is, I don’t want to hear a peep from all of you factoid vomiters out there who just love a sneery “well, actually…”

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