One of the younger species in “Extreme Survivors” is the goblin shark, which shoots its jaw forward to catch prey. COURTESY TILBURY HOUSE PUBLISHERS

Book features Mother Nature’s toughest creatures

BROOKLIN — Deep below the waves off the coast of Japan, a fish as old as the dinosaurs swims. The strange species has an unusual face, with a long snout, beady black eyes and jagged sharp teeth. With such a visage, it’s no wonder they’re called goblin sharks. But the only thing odder than their looks is the way they catch food.

The goblin sharks lie in wait at 800 feet down, the length of five football fields placed end-to-end, in the sea. When a fish or squid approaches, the shark shoots its extendable jaw forward and back in the blink of an eye, creating a vacuum that sucks prey into its mouth where the food goes down in one gulp. Mmm, lunch.

At 600 million years young, sponges might be the oldest animal species on the planet. Though sponges have no brain, they are the only animals that can put themselves back together. “If you were to grind up a piece of living sponge in a blender and pour it back into seawater,” Ridley writes, “its cells would find each other, stick together and rebuild little sponges.”

The goblin shark is one of 10 species featured in Brooklin author Kimberly Ridley’s new natural history book “Extreme Survivors: Animals that Time Forgot” (Tilbury House Publishers, 2017, $17.95). The other species include zebra-striped chambered nautiluses, three-eyed tadpole shrimp and walking lungfish. But one trait these diverse creatures all share is that they have retained their general body plan and outward appearance — called their morphology — over the past hundreds of millions of years.

At 125 million years old, the goblin shark is actually one of the younger species in the book. The oldest are the coral-like sponges and the gelatinous comb jellies, both of which scientists have estimated to be 600 million years old.

To give a sense of scale, scientists believe the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs struck Earth 65 million years ago. The planet formed 4.6 billion years ago, and the first single-celled organisms appeared about 800 million years after that. About 3 billion years afterward, colonies of cells merged together to form the first multi-celled organisms, of which human beings are descendants.

Those multi-celled organisms surfaced 600 million years ago, and modern humans only emerged 200,000 years ago. Sponges and comb jellies, therefore, could be our great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, only with a lot more greats than could fit in this newspaper.

“All life is literally related,” said Ridley, a lifelong science writer and journalist. “We all share some chunk of DNA with every other living thing.”

The living things featured in this book can be found near and far. Goblin sharks swim off the coast of Japan and lizard-like tuatara slither hither and thither along the shores of New Zealand. But four of the species in Ridley’s book can be found right here in Maine.

One of them, the tardigrade, might even be in your backyard. The tiny creatures are smaller than a millimeter, but they’re tougher than a tank. In fact, scientists have discovered that the 530-million-year-old species can survive being boiled, frozen, crushed or even launched into the irradiated vacuum of space.

One of the toughest animals in Ridley’s book is the tardigrade, a small water-dwelling organism that can survive being crushed, frozen, boiled and shot into space.

How does it do all that? Ridley explains in her book how tardigrades can survive for decades in extreme conditions by releasing 99 percent of its water and curling up into a ball.

“It curls up into a ball, dries out and goes into a kind of suspended animation called cryptobiosis, which means ‘hidden life,’” Ridley writes. “Tardigrades in this state are called tuns.”

Once rehydrated, the tardigrade springs back to life, repairing the strings of DNA that were broken by dehydration.

“They are virtually indestructible,” Ridley said. The book mentions how scientists are studying the creatures to find out what makes them so tough. The research could help humans protect astronauts in space and develop climate change-tolerant crops.

Under a microscope, the creatures look like tiny bears. But since they can virtually come back from the dead, Ridley calls them “zombie ‘bears.’” The critters live in films of water on moss, lichen and leaf litter, and Ridley enjoys finding them.

“A scientist and I went tardigrade hunting,” said the writer, who includes tips in her book for how readers can find their own zombie bears. “We called it a tardi-party.”

Roaming the Maine woods was how Ridley first became fascinated with the outdoors.

“I’ve always loved being outside, exploring,” said the author, who hails from the York County village of Springvale. She grew up traipsing through the forest and swamps around her house. On her way she caught salamanders, turned over rotten logs and collected wildflowers.

When Ridley was 7 years old, her grandfather gave her a dusty old tome called “The Nature Book.” Edited in 1914 by an American naturalist named Dallas Lore Sharp, the field guide was a primer for her woodland tramps, watching the wildlife and taking down notes.

“From a very early age I had the heart and soul of a 19th-century naturalist,” Ridley said. “One of the other kids on my street called me ‘mother nature’ and it wasn’t a compliment.”

One of her favorite places in the woods was a vernal pool, a temporary pond that dries up in the summer and provides a place for salamanders and frogs to lay eggs.

“It was kind of my secret hiding place,” the writer recalled, “and what was great about it was that it was out of sight of my parents’ house but within ear shot, so when it was time for dinner somebody would holler for me.”

The jellyfish-like comb jellies were one of the first animals to evolve skin, muscles and nerves. Scientists found that when a comb jelly’s head is removed in a laboratory, it simply grows a new one. Ridley wrote that learning how comb jellies do this could lead to new treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Ridley’s other great love was reading and writing. After entering writing contests and publishing a letter to the editor in the Portland Press Herald in high school, Ridley knew she had caught the journalism bug. She earned a degree in journalism at the University of Maine in Orono and got a job writing for Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Even while living in the city, Ridley led birding tours with her co-workers. She also earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University, but she longed to return to Maine. After a decade in the Boston area, Ridley and her husband moved to Brooklin 22 years ago.

Ten years after moving back to Maine, Ridley started doing communications work for her alma mater at what’s now called the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. One group of scientists Ridley worked with there were researching one of her favorite habitats: vernal pools.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that they feed the entire forest,” Ridley said about the pools.

Larger creatures are attracted to vernal pools by the eggs left there by frogs and salamanders. That makes the pools a key source of protein in the forest ecosystem.

It was around this time Ridley first considered writing a book about vernal pools for children.

“I thought, ‘wow, this is such a great idea,’” she recalled. “They’re kid-sized and I had my own pool growing up.”

At around the same time, Maine Governor Paul LePage had called for a reduction in the development-free buffer zone around significant vernal pools. Ridley said that was the last straw she needed to write “The Secret Pool.” The book was illustrated by her friend Rebekah Raye and published by Tilbury House Publishers in 2013.

At first, Ridley was nervous about showing the book to elementary school classrooms, but it soon became a newfound passion.

“I felt like I found my people, and they were 12 and under,” she said. “One of the joys of writing these books is I get to work with kids in schools all over the state and help them connect with the world around them.”

Writing science for kids presents its own challenges. It’s not a matter of dumbing down the science, Ridley said, because she’s seen kids fully understand big words such as phytoplankton, photosynthesis and metamorphosis during her classroom visits.

“I think we underestimate children and what they can absorb,” she said. “It’s just a matter of presenting it to them in a fun, exciting way.”

“To me, the best writing is an invitation,” she continued. “I want to say ‘come here, check this out.’ And in my case I want to invite my readers in to experience the wonder of the common living world around us.”

When it comes to engaging readers, “Extreme Survivors” is an extreme success. When Ridley visited classrooms across the state, she found students had more than enough questions to fill the hour-long question-and-answer periods. Some of the questions even scientists can’t answer at this point.

“The morphology of these animals has stood the test of time, why is that?” Ridley asked. “That is the million-dollar question.”

The fact is that all life evolves, Ridley said, even the extreme survivors in her book, but some of those changes aren’t obvious at first.

“Think of a car like a Volkswagen Beetle,” Ridley wrote. “It looks almost the same on the outside as it did 40 years ago, but there are new features such as airbags on the inside.”

How animals such as goblin sharks and horseshoe crabs are able to look the same despite enormous changes in their environment such as meteorite impacts, ocean acidification and oxygenation is a mystery. But that sense of mystery, Ridley said, is one of the coolest parts of science.

“What I love about science is it’s inherently hopeful,” she said. “It’s ‘let’s see what we can find out here,’ and I hope to communicate that to kids.

“It’s OK to say ‘we don’t know the answer to this.’”

Nowadays, with the proliferation of streaming video, cell phones and other devices that can keep kids indoors, perhaps Ridley’s message is timelier than ever.

“My fear is that if we don’t know what’s around us, we won’t care about it,” said Ridley, who added that one doesn’t have to disappear into the woods to find wildness.

“Wildness is everywhere, it’s in the moss in our backyards and it’s in the roadside ditch where salamander larvae swim around under the empty potato chip bag and styrofoam cups,” she said. “And that’s what I really want to help rekindle in children and adults with all of my writing.”

David Roza

David Roza

Former reporter, David Roza grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and covered news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.

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