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Just How Scientifically Possible Are Gremlins?: Part 3

Happy Monday, everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, as I’ve been pretty damn busy of late. I’ve written a couple of articles for different websites and have given a presentation, which I’ll be writing up into a blog post for later on in the week. Plus I’ve had to do a little something called a PhD! But here we are and it’s time for the long-overdue final instalment on Gremlins and Mogwai.

Given how long it’s been since I started this (I’ve had something of a mental block), I’d advise heading to Part 1 and Part 2 for a quick recap on what these posts are about….

…*twiddles thumbs; makes cup of tea….thinks about PhD work and adds whisky…*

All done?

Right then. Let’s get cracking with a reminder of the final rule for keeping a Gremlin or Mogwai. Enjoy!

Rule 3: Never get them wet

If a Mogwai or Gremlin gets wet then it will spontaneously spawn offspring, which pop out of its back.

spongebob.wikia_gremlin

The best Gremlin in the films – the Brain Gremlin (Photo Credit: Warner Bros/Amblin Entertainment & ‘spongebob.wiki’)

Given that there is no sexual intercourse involved here (unless something happened off-camera that we really don’t want to know about), it’s safe to say that Mogwai/Gremlins are asexual. So far so obvious I hear you say; but now we need to look at what type of asexual reproduction they undergo. It turns out there are quite a few types, but only two of them are seen in the animal kingdom. They are known as ‘Fragmentation’ and ‘Parthenogenesis’.

In the former, new organisms grow from a piece, or fragment, that has broken off from the parent organism. You know when you take a cutting of a plant and give it to someone else to grow in their garden? That’s artificial fragmentation and your friend’s plant will have the same genetic material as yours. However, outside of plants and fungi, this is obviously only a feasible method of reproduction in relatively simple animals like worms and starfish. It certainly wouldn’t be possible in something as complex as the mammalian Mogwai and reptilian Gremlins.

That leaves us with Parthenogenesis. In this case, females’ eggs can develop into embryos without needing to be fertilised. This is certainly seen in many different animals, including some sharks, insects and reptilian species, such as the Komodo Dragon. However, I came to the conclusion in Part 1 that Mogwai/Gremlins are mammals, so can a mammal reproduce through parthenogenesis? The answer is….sort of.

kaguya_wikipedia

Kaguya the Parthenogenetic Mouse (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

No mammal reproduces in this way naturally. However, in 2004, a Japanese research group did manage to produce a mouse from two mothers, with no sperm involved. The offspring, named Kaguya, even went on to have her own children…in a more conventional manner! The research group concluded that, at least in mice, fathers’ genetic material prevented parthenogenesis occurring naturally so as to ensure the need for males. Now, I’m feeling in a forgiving mood as I write this. Despite the fact that parthenogenesis doesn’t occur naturally in mammals, I’d say it’s a reasonably realistic explanation for how Gremlins reproduce. After all, they’re not your typical mammal! So, score one for realism!

Now let’s deal with this business about ‘spontaneously’ spawning offspring. If you haven’t seen the films, this video shows what happens when you get a Mogwai wet. Basically Mogwai and Gremlins that get wet immediately start shaking, at which point fur balls or sacks, respectively, pop out of their backs. These then grow quickly into full-sized Mogwai or Gremlins, depending on which made them. The whole thing takes about 1 minute.

If we ignore the ridiculous idea that dropping water on an animal that is 90% water would cause it to reproduce, just how realistic is this reproduction time? To answer this, let’s have a look at a few records in the field of reproduction.

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Clostridium perfringens (Photo Credit: Marler Blog)

The organism with the fastest known reproduction time is the bacterium Clostridium perfringens (if we don’t count viruses as living organisms…ooh future post idea!). This single-celled organism is found pretty much everywhere and is a leading cause of food poisoning. It reproduces asexually, with a new cell budding off from the parent in just 10 minutes.

Now, given that C. perfringens is a unicellular organism, you’d expect it to be able to reproduce much faster than a complex organism like a Mogwai or Gremlin. Its method of reproduction – binary fission – isn’t burdened by the need for embryonic development either, so doesn’t take up as much time. As such, the idea that a mammalian creature could produce fully grown offspring in less than a minute is, I’m afraid to say, a figment of the imagination. To put it into perspective, the title of the shortest known gestation period for a mammal belongs to the Short Nosed Bandicoot. It pops out its sprogs (note, not a technical term) after just 12 days!

And that, as they say, is that. Over these 3 posts we’ve had a look at a fair range of biological processes and phenomena that Mogwai and Gremlins seem to demonstrate in the films. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading about them and learned a bit more about the world too – I certainly have! So, what’s the overall verdict? Are Gremlins realistic or not? I’ll answer by leaving you with the final scores – there are 2 points for each post: 1 for realism of the rule and 1 for realism of the sub-topic discussed. Till the next time!

Possible: 3          Not possible: 3

It’s a draw! So…erm…I guess they’re sort of scientifically possible but not quite… I was hoping for a clean outcome there…bugger!

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Posted by on August 19, 2013 in Biology, Silly Science

 

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Just how scientifically possible are Gremlins?: Part 2

And so we (finally) come to Part 2 of this series! If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you follow this link and get up to speed otherwise this might seem a tad strange! In this part, we’ll look into the second rule that the ‘Gremlins’ films set out for caring for a Mogwai (or Gremlin if you were unfortunate enough not to have read Rule 3 before giving your Mogwai a bath!). We’ll also be asking whether these creatures’ mischievous/dangerous behaviour is like anything seen in nature. We’ll start with a recap of the rule. Enjoy!

Rule 2. Never expose them to bright light.
Bright light scares Mogwai and Gremlins alike, whilst sunlight kills them.

The first question to ask is whether any species in nature is actually scared of light. The short answer is… sort of…but not really! We’ve all seen moths being drawn towards lights at night – this behaviour is called ‘positive phototaxis’. If there’s such a thing as ‘positive phototaxis’, then ‘negative phototaxis’ must exist too, I hear you cry! And indeed it does – many organisms can be seen to actively avoid exposure to light. Many species of cockroach, for example, will avoid lights and well-lit areas; and a tiny roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans (catchy, I know) can be made to change direction by shining light on its ‘head’.

Now, none of these species are scared of light as such – their behaviour is simply instinctive (or ‘innate’) and designed to help them survive. Cockroaches are far more visible to many predators when exposed to light, so they instinctively avoid it. The roundworm, meanwhile, lives in soil and uses the detection of sunlight to determine in which direction it should move in order to stay buried in the soil where it feeds on bacteria. So, these creatures aren’t scared of the light itself; but they know to avoid it in order to improve survival. This tends to be the case in all ‘negatively phototactic’ species.

It could, of course, be argued that Gremlins aren’t scared of light in the way we think and that they just instinctively know to avoid it because sunlight kills them. If they have evolved to avoid all sources of bright light then they would increase their chance of survival. On balance, I think I’m going to say that this part is quite realistic and scientifically possible!

The next question is whether anything in nature can be killed by sunlight. Whilst no animals are directly killed by light, they can be killed by the long-lasting effects it has upon their bodies. We are, of course, talking about skin cancer caused by the ultraviolet light emitted by the sun. This radiation is split into 3 categories – UV-A, UV-B and UV-C – depending on the wavelength of the light. UV-A has the closest wavelength to that of visible light and, since visible light does no damage to animals’ skins, UV-A does relatively little. Meanwhile, UV-C is usually absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, so its effects on animals are rarely seen.

The light spectrum, showing the wavelengths of the 3 different types of UV light (Photo Credit: Ken Costello at chemistryland.com)

The light spectrum, showing the wavelengths of the 3 different types of UV light (Photo Credit: Ken Costello at chemistryland.com)

UV-B is the most common cause of skin cancer. Due to its wavelength, UV-B is absorbed by DNA. In my first post I talked about how DNA is made up of combinations of molecules called A, T, G and C. Well, UV-B radiation causes Ts to bind to one another when they shouldn’t. Now, small amounts of this DNA damage occur frequently with sun exposure, but it is rarely a problem as healthy cells are capable of repairing damage to their DNA. It is when the level of damage is too great or DNA repair mechanisms break down that mutations build up, increasing the possibility of a mutation leading to the development of skin cancer. So, whilst not exactly a direct cause of pain and death, sunlight is involved in killing many animals. The effects are not quite as severe as those seen when Gremlins are exposed to sunlight though, so I must admit that skin melting under sunlight exposure is quite unrealistic!

I should say, as a caveat, that ultraviolet light is capable of killing bacteria and viruses pretty much instantly (even faster than it can kill a Gremlin). However, given how long this post is already going to be, and given that these microorganisms cannot really be compared to Gremlins, I’d best save that one for another time…

Ultraviolet (UV) photons harm the DNA molecule...

UV light breaks the bonds that hold together DNA double helices. Most commonly, it breaks bonds involving thymine molecules, which then bind to one another instead. In this malformed state, the DNA cannot function. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’d like to go over next is why Mogwai and Gremlins are so aggressive and mischievous. As with many of the characteristics displayed in the film, this can be seen in many species in nature, albeit in a muted, less entertaining way.

In the films, the Gremlins have essentially been dropped into an unknown environment. You could view their anarchic behaviour as attempts to adjust to, and assert their place as a dominant species in, a new food chain. If seen this way, Gremlins could be said to be an ‘invasive species’. There are many examples of such organisms in nature (although obviously none of them take over cinemas or attack New York hotdog stands!). Often they are artificially introduced into an environment by human activity, either intentionally or accidentally.

A high-profile example of an intentional introduction is the Cane Toad, which has been a blight upon Australia ever since being taken there, from its native Hawaii, in 1935. Originally envisaged as a way of killing off Cane Beetles, which were destroying sugar cane crops, the toads acclimatised far more successfully, and with more severe consequences, than anyone imagined.

The massive and destructive Cane Toad ranks as...

The oh-so-beautiful Cane Toad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since their introduction to their new environment, their numbers have swollen from a few thousand to over 200 million. They have spread diseases, outcompeted native species, poisoned almost anything that tried to eat them and generally disrupted the finely balanced ecosystem through their aggressive behaviour. And to add insult to injury, they’re not even effective at killing Cane Beetles!

So, clearly there can be serious consequences to mankind’s manipulation of nature. People are learning that we cannot predict every change that will be caused by introducing a foreign species into an ecosystem. Unfortunately, sometimes we cause ecological disasters without even intending to alter an ecosystem. Invasive species are often destructive and cause a great deal of harm to native species. In this respect, Gremlins very much fit the bill. As for the mischievousness… well, they aren’t the only naughty animals out there!


(Video credit: Hassanane’s YouTube channel)

That brings us to the end of Part 2 of this post. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, as Part 3’s coming whether you want it or not! Before that, though, I’ll be bringing you the first post from a couple of fellow bloggers, as promised earlier in the week. Keep an eye out for that one – these guys are good!

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Biology, Silly Science

 

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Just how scientifically possible are Gremlins?: Part 1

Happy Tuesday, everyone!

English: "Stripe" Gremlin figure, le...

‘Stripe’ the Gremlin (well a model of…) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of you may remember that I was set a challenge by a friend of mine to write a scientific article about Gremlins; specifically, the mischievous critters from the 1984 film. Surprisingly, there aren’t all that many scientific papers written about Gremlins, so I had to find a different angle. I got to thinking, and wondered, just how realistic are these creatures? How many elements of their physiology and life cycle are similar to real animals? In a never-ending quest for knowledge (and payment of cupcakes for my troubles, Saz?) I’ve come up with some answers to these questions.

As this was turning into quite a long post, covering a fairly large number of animals and studies, I decided to go all Peter Jackson on it and turn it into a trilogy of posts. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted later this week. Enjoy!

We’ll start with a bit of background knowledge for those of you who have never seen the Gremlins movies. The titular monsters start off life as cute, furry little critters called Mogwai, which come with three rules for anyone looking to raise one as a pet (one of which will be covered in each part of this post):

1)   Never feed them after midnight:

If a Mogwai is fed after midnight, it will metamorphose inside a cocoon and emerge as a Gremlin – a mischievous and dangerous monster, larger than a Mogwai and reptilian in appearance.

2)   Never expose them to bright light:

Bright light scares Mogwai and Gremlins alike, whilst sunlight kills them.

3)   Never get them wet:

If a Mogwai or Gremlin gets wet then it will spontaneously spawn offspring, which pop out of its back.

Let’s take a look at Rule 1. Metamorphosis is a fairly common phenomenon in nature. It is essentially the rapid physical development of an organism after its birth, often to allow it to change to meet the requirements of the different lifestyle that it will lead as an adult. For example, the infants (or larvae) of most amphibians are adapted to survive in water, whereas they will need to be suited to land as adults to allow them to leave the water in which they were born. Members of several groups of organisms metamorphose as part of their life cycles – most notably amphibians (as mentioned) and the majority of insects, but also some fish.

The form of metamorphosis seen in amphibians and fish involves rapid changes whilst the animal remains active. The more obvious physical changes are accompanied by changes in biochemical and neural pathways, as pathways needed by the adult replace those that were necessary for the larval body. A good example of such a process is the change of a tadpole to a frog or toad. In just one day (in some species) a tadpole’s gills are replaced by lungs, a jaw replaces its tiny mouth and it develops legs. Interestingly, its eyes move from the sides of its head to the front, indicating a change from prey to predator – tadpoles need to see a wider angle to look out for prey, whereas frogs need good 3D vision to attack prey they see in front of them. However, whilst a Mogwai undergoes a drastic physical change, it does so inside a cocoon. This is the property of a different type of metamorphosis altogether, as we will now see.

Metamorphoses in insects can be divided into 2 categories: ‘complete’ and ‘partial’, or ‘holometabolous’ and ‘hemimetabolous’, respectively. Partial metamorphosis involves changes spread over multiple stages, generally allowing gradual growth of the insect and development of organs, whilst the creature is active. As the immature insect (at this point, known as a ‘nymph’) grows, it sheds its outer covering of cells, called the ‘cuticle’. Each of these ‘moults’ reveals increasingly mature structures required by the adult, including sexual organs, until the insect is fully-grown

Complete metamorphosis, on the other hand, involves a single, drastic change, much more akin to that of a Mogwai. The infants in this process are called ‘larvae’. Don’t ask why some insects have larvae and some have nymphs – I swear it’s primarily done to confuse people! Anyway, this process is very similar to partial metamorphosis up until the last moult. At this stage, the larva wraps itself in a protective cocoon, becoming a ‘pupa’. Whilst inactive inside this casing, many of the tissues that made up the larva are broken down and replaced by adult tissues. This allows the organism to undergo massive changes so that, when it emerges as an adult, it can look markedly different in appearance to the larvae. The most obvious example of this is the change a caterpillar undergoes to become a butterfly.

മലയാളം: Taken from my garden soon after the me...

A butterfly soon after emerging from its cocoon, which is still attached to the plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given this information, it is most likely that Mogwai are depicted as undergoing some kind of ‘complete’ metamorphosis. However, Mogwai appear to be mammalian – they are warm-blooded and hairy – and no mammals metamorphose. Instead, mammals develop and grow outside of the womb. So, whilst metamorphosis is a perfectly realistic notion for a creature’s development, it couldn’t really apply to a Mogwai. It certainly couldn’t explain how a mammalian Mogwai could transform into something, which is ostensibly reptilian. I suppose you could argue that Gremlins are mammals with alopecia and bad skin and that they really need to moisturise…but you probably shouldn’t.

Then we have the part about feeding them after midnight. As far as I can tell, there are no animals in Nature in which eating at a certain time of day can trigger metamorphosis! Metamorphosis is under hormonal control in all living creatures. Of course, not all organisms are controlled by the same hormones and certain changes within an animal may take longer or require higher or lower concentrations of hormones than others. For example, reduction of a tadpole’s tail takes several days longer than generation of the adult body parts. That said, ultimately, like humans, all animals are slaves to their hormones!

In conclusion, I’m afraid to say that Mogwai metamorphosing into Gremlins by eating after midnight is….not scientifically realistic. Sorry folks!

That’s all for Part 1. Remember, Part 2 will go up in a few days’ time. See you then!

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Biology, Silly Science

 

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