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The 3 loneliest organisms in history

Sitting all alone on a Saturday night? Spare a thought for the following plants and animals, who, in their own impressive way, took solitude to dizzying new heights.

#1: The Tree of Ténéré had a desert to itself

Close your eyes, and accompany me on an improvisational adventure into the Sahara Desert. You’re travelling on camelback through the Ténéré, a region so hot and arid that nothing should be able to survive. The sweeping dunes stretch endlessly towards the horizon. The sun burns overhead. Your camel looks like he might turn on you at any moment.

And then, in the distance, you see this:

Arbre-du-tenere-1961

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Say hello to L’Arbre du Ténéré (or The Tree of Ténéré, for you less pretentious types). This solitary acacia took on the cruelty of Mother Nature and came out on top, despite an annual rainfall of just 25mm. So rare was its victory that it was the only tree – let this sink in, the only tree – for over 400km in any direction.

What was its secret?

Roots. Lots of roots. The Tree of Ténéré was a major landmark (read: the only landmark) for many travellers passing through the region, and a well was constructed to provide water for thirsty camel-drivers. While digging the well, workers discovered that the tree’s roots groped more than 30 metres below the desert surface, deep enough to reach the water table.

Tree roots are astonishingly good at bringing in water and nutrients. They typically spread out over a far wider area than the tree’s trunk and branches, and contain tiny root hairs that increase the surface area over which water and nutrient exchange can take place. Many plant species also interact with mycorrhizal fungi, forming a partnership that allows the tree to access nutrients it couldn’t otherwise.

Mycorrhizal_root_tips_(amanita)

Mycorrhizal fungi and plant roots helping each other out. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Tree of Ténéré survived until 1973, when it was knocked over by a drunk Libyan truck driver. Seriously. This guy had an entire desert to play with, and he still managed to hit the only free-standing life form within 400 kilometres. I hope somebody punched him in the nose.

#2: Lonesome George was the last of his kind

Have you ever asked somebody out and received the reply, “Not if you were the last male on earth”? Well, spare a thought for Lonesome George; he actually was the last male on earth.

And there weren’t any females left, either.

Lonesome_George_-Pinta_giant_tortoise_-Santa_Cruz

“Uh… ladies?” Source: Wikimedia Commons

George was a Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii), a subspecies found only on the small Galapagos island of Pinta (formerly Abingdon Island). The population had been hounded by poachers for nearly a century, until finally the subspecies was thought to be extinct.

Then, in 1971, George was found idly wandering the countryside, probably repeating “where is everybody?” over and over again. He was taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, while researchers tried desperately to find him a mate.

Lonesome George 2010

They even gave him a jacuzzi tub to improve his appeal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But none showed up. For the remainder of his life, Lonesome George went through the motions of his existence, apparently content to be the very last of his kind. He occasionally mated with females of a closely-related subspecies, Chelonoidis nigra becki, but none of these trysts yielded viable eggs.

George staved off extinction for as long as he possibly could, and his age was estimated at more than 100 years. Finally, he died on June 24 last year, cementing the demise of an entire subspecies. Any rumours that I shed a tear on that day are to be considered pure libel.

#3: The 52-Hertz Whale calls out to nobody

Take a listen to this audio file, and tell me what you think it is:

(NOTE: this recording is sped up 10x for easy listening. Source: Wikimedia Commons).

If you guessed Wilco’s upcoming album, then congratulations on making a hip pop-cultural reference, but you’re wrong. That is the sound of a very, very lonely whale.

Every year since 1989, our mystery whale has dutifully navigated the Pacific Ocean, moving 30-70 km/day, calling out for a companion in the vast expanses of ocean. And there’s no other call like it.

Scientists usually measure the frequency of sounds, the number of wave cycles per second, using the SI unit Hertz (Hz). Now, blue and fin whales vocalise at frequencies of 15-20 Hz, which is right at the lower threshold of human hearing. Bucking all established protocol, our mystery whale calls at an astonishing 52 Hz, well within our audible range.

So what’s the deal with this hipster whale?

Blue_whale_tail

Having friends is so “over.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

We don’t know. Its path across the Pacific resembles that of a blue whale, but its migration timing is more like a fin whale’s. Scientists have proposed several possibilities, each more depressing than the last: this particular individual may be deaf, somehow malformed, or a cross-species hybrid.

On the bright side, the 52-Hertz Whale seems to be doing fine for itself. Its annual migration has continued for at least twenty years, and shows no signs of slowing down. But, alas, this poor soul appears to be the only “52-hertzer” in the entire ocean, effectively dooming it to a lifetime of loneliness.

Imagine trawling the ocean, year after year, and never finding a companion with whom to share your triumphs and your krill discoveries. Just a vast and desolate expanse of water, long and deep and silent but for your own futile calls. Year after year.

I need a drink.

Andrew Katsis is an MSc candidate in Zoology at the University of Melbourne. If you need some cheering up after this article, click here to learn about four animal species that came back from the dead.

One thought on “The 3 loneliest organisms in history

  1. Pingback: Mysterious Pacific whale sound | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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