May 24, 2019

The Tiny Will Inherit the Earth

“As I scuba dive in Oslob Bay off Cebu Island in the Philippines, I see a tiny shadow dart over the surface of the spherical coral block – a minute fish, a goby of the genus Eviota, among the smallest vertebrates in existence, only about a centimetre long and less than 1/10th of a gramme light. It’s about a million times smaller than myself, with the same basic vertebrate body: a spinal cord, a bony skull, a brain, kidneys and a liver. With the exception of gills and lungs, the tiny fish and I share similar sets of organs, just at a very dissimilar size.

But looking at gobies is not why I came to Oslob. I leave the coral block, and swim towards the shore as the Sun darkens – not because of clouds but, rather, a truly gigantic fish swimming directly above me. It’s what I had hoped to see: a whale shark, Rhincodon typus, the largest living fish. Large adults weigh up to 34 tonnes, more than 300 times my own weight. The difference in weight between the tiny goby and the whale shark is a startling eight orders of magnitude. Some truly gigantic animals populate the Earth.

These massive disparities in animal sizes have fascinated biologists for more than a century. And there are enormous advantages that come with being large. Big animals have an easier time avoiding predators: some of the tiny gobies have an attrition rate to predation of more than 6 per cent per day (!), while whale sharks live for decades, and are known to have survived tiger shark attacks. Bigger animals can also invest more in reproduction: while a female goby’s body produces only about 250 tiny eggs per lifetime to hatch into larvae, a female whale shark can give birth to a few hundred fully developed shark pups in a lifetime, each more than half a metre in length.”

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