Story recap (all episodes here): Dr Florence has been carrying out investigations on the Lost Islands of Xogulano for some weeks now. The islands are home to many creatures and plants never seen before, and Dr Florence has learned that the locals believe these organisms to be hybrids created by the Lost Men who live in the sea. On several occasions she has woken to find her feet wet, even though her tent is otherwise dry. Her interaction with the locals is fraught, they see her as being disrespectful to the islands, she sees them as foolish in their superstitious beliefs. However, despite her cynicism she has started having strange, feverish dreams, and a local fisherman has warned this is due the Lost Men. He claims that they are stealing Dr Florence’s very nature and trapping it in the plants so that she will never be able to leave the islands. He says that when the islands next tumble into the sea she will be taken with them, to be used by the Lost Men in their experiments to create new hybrids. Confused? You will be(at least if you have read any other of the episodes). And now to the final…
I woke up gasping again, but unable to rise, tethered. With panicked exploration, I discovered that my hair had been plaited around a stick that was stuck firmly in the ground. Again, my lower half was wet, this time the water had reached my waist, but the ground beneath me was still dry. However, it seemed the fever had finally broken, and after freeing myself, I set off in grim determination. I had decided to finally prove my visitor’s tales of Lost Men, and plants that steal souls, steal my likeness, to be foolishness.
I took my boat around to the back of my island, returning to the incredible joined row of sensitive plants (see previous episode). I had cut several leaves off one of the plants previously and was surprised to see that it was already growing a new fleshy outgrowth. Several long strands of phloem were hanging loose, almost like hair. And curiously, the outgrowth had the appearance of a nose, even with two holes for nostrils. I decided that once again the locals were trying to scare me into believing their bizarre superstitions. I am made of sterner stuff! I chuckled at their duplicity.
However, still recovering from the sickness of the last few days, I felt suddenly exhausted and rowed back to my tent for an afternoon nap. My sleep was deep and lasted until it was dark without breaking.
I woke groggy, but with only a few precious moments of calm before fear gripped me. My first realisation was that water was lapping around me. Tickling my face, my hands, splashing against my sides. My second moment of alarm was when I tried to get up to leave the tent, and was pulled back by my flotation device firmly tying my ankle to the tent. As the water rose, I searched in my pockets for my trusty knife and cut myself free. I quickly grabbed my back pack, deciding I would leave the tent behind. Already the water had risen over my ankles as I scrambled out into the night.
I found my torch floating in the water, lifeless and of no use and in the dark it was difficult to navigate the rocks and cliffs. I tried desperately to picture the route across the rocks to my boat, I knew it was tied at the base of a slight incline, but this would of course now be under water. Oddly, I found it easiest to remember the way by walking the bizarre straight lines and right angles that my visitor would use when he came to see me, and this was the path I took. Perhaps it was this that saved me, or has superstition distorted my thinking?
Having reached the edge of the cliff, I fumbled along the rocks, looking for any patch of deeper darkness in the water, that might show where my boat was. And that is when I heard the noise, a roaring, whining sound.
I watched dumbfounded as deformed animals rose up out of the sea. The razor-sharp tooth-filled mouths of sharks, with the wrinkled foreheads of pigs. Ivy leaves, twining out from the arm sockets of monkeys, lizards-scales and warts. Such abominations that defied my eyes.
As the mutations reached the surface of the water, they just kept rising into the air and I saw that the hybrids weren’t floating alone, but stood atop the shoulders of giants. Pale giants, with round heads worn smooth as pebbles. The Lost men! Giants with tiny shrunken eyes and sad expressions, a wistful curiosity as they continued to rise out of the sea, walking towards me. Me, who would be the next subject in one of their hideous experiments.
Perhaps it was fear that enabled me to hear the gentle knocking of wood against rock, beneath the roaring. My boat! With skill born of desperation, I leapt into the sea, landing by the boat and grabbing frantically at the wood. The giants turned as one towards me, their faces filled with patience and longing, their hands slowly lifting out of the sea as if to grab me. I awkwardly pulled myself aboard, grabbed the paddle, and began to row with a ferocity I did not know I could possess. I only dared to look back when I was some distance from the island.
The pale figures and hybrids had gone, the roaring had stopped. I paused, too exhausted to move for a moment, and watched as the last few islands dropped one by one into the sea. I had a sense of intense sorrow, as if I was deserting my very soul, leaving it to the Lost Men of the islands of Xogulano.
Note: I did not have time to carry out new investigations today, so sketches are taken from previous explorations of the islands.
Again my dreams were crowded, but this time the shadowy figures that shoved me had intent. While I tried to explain that I was a British citizen, with certain rights; they cut out my organs, one by one and inserted them into the plants growing around us. Wispy fingers holding scalpels, sliced and diced, and my heart was cut free and lovingly placed in a small shrub.
I woke up gasping, relieved to find myself intact, but feeling more than a little ill; feverish and shaky. My feet were wet again. Despite my wobbly legs, I decided I had had enough oddness and I wanted answers: from where did these dreams come? Who was entering my tent while I slept to make my socks soggy? I went in search of the fisherman who always seems to seek me out. The fever was causing me to hallucinate phantoms that vanished the moment I looked at them.
When I found the fisherman sitting on a rock, I was exhausted and frazzled, but my determination was strong, I would know the truth! I blurted out,
“Tell me what is happening? Tell me who are the Lost Men? Tell me what’s wrong with me? Why do I feel so ill?”
This was more emotional than I’d have liked, but the fisherman was not fazed,
“A thousand years ago, the Lost Men lived on the island, they were men of science. They played with animals and plants, fusing one to another. It was an abomination, so the sea swallowed them. Swallowed the whole island.”
“But you’ve told me that. That doesn’t explain why I’m ill.”
“They are still playing. Still meddling with nature, now they are meddling with you too.”
“Meddling with me how, what are they trying to do?”
“When the islands rose again, my people would visit these islands. They would come fishing for monster fish, they would hunt the monster animals and eat the monster plants. They didn’t ask why such monsters existed, they simply stole. Then the footprints started appearing, but my people said, ‘these are just marks in the rock, a coincidence, it cannot harm us.’ So they continued to hunt and fish. And then the dreams began, and they said, ‘this is only a fever, it will pass.’
“What they didn’t see, was that their nature was already being stolen. The plants they dug up, regrew in their likeness. This was the Lost Men claiming their souls, stealing their existence so they could never leave. We don’t know what happened when the islands sunk again into the sea, we only know that most did not come back. And now, they too leave footprints. Now, they too play with the animals and the plants. Creating new monsters. Animals within animals, souls within souls. Animals connected to plants. The Lost Men will keep increasing in number. And now they have you, the plants have stolen your likeness and you will never leave.”
And without another word, the fisherman walked back across the island, throwing stones on the ground as he left.
Another night of bizarre dreams, of shrouded beings jostling me, while muttering. This time, when I woke, I found not only my feet, but up to my knees wet. Again the rest of the tent was dry. I am a woman of science, rational and not easily disturbed by superstitions, but I felt disquieted. It took a particularly syrupy shot of coffee to dissipate my funk, and then I went exploring.
Rather than visit one of the other islands, I took my boat around to the opposite side of the island that I slept on. A steep cliff face and jutting rocks had always put me off this area, but when rowing past, I had seen that a number of plants sprouted from the scree, and this justified braving the difficult access.
After rowing back and forth across the perimeter, I managed to find a natural jetty jutting out from the rock. I parked my small row boat, and with a rucksack of supplies strapped firmly to my back and clambered up. The plants I had seen were easy to locate, being the only ones growing there, and they were well worth the journey, revealing a nature unseen in all of science!
There were four plants of different genera stood in a line, each of a completely different habit. Each was a typical desert style plant, with sparse, fleshy leaves. However, they were connected. A woody stem protruded from each grew into the next, the different plants fused together.
Now I knew this was possible, it’s a phenomenon called inosculation and it occurs naturally with a number of trees. Usually with trees of the same species, but not always. However, it occurs when trees happen to be growing in the same space, or when forced by humans; not as a deliberate seeking out by one plant to the next.
My curiosity aroused, I prodded the plant at the end of the line, each of the plants drooped their leaves, presumably as protection against a perceived attack. Again, this has been encountered in science – the leaves of Mimosa pudica will shrivel up if touched, making it look unappetizing to potential mammals; but that was the only plant I knew of with such a skill. Yet here were four more species.
I spent a fascinated morning, sketching, experimenting and finally dissecting. Aside from the inosculation and sensitivity, the plants were normal, inside and out.
My endeavours were only disturbed once, when my fisherman visitor came by. Naturally he was not pleased with my work. He took his awkward straight line method of walking, trying to fit the straight lines around the rocks, all the while throwing small handfuls of stones that he took out of his satchel.
“You already saw off the spirits on the island,” I said cheerfully, hoping for a relaxed conversation without the usual confusing threats.
“They never leave, they live here,” he said. “You should leave that plant alone, it will steal your nature,” he said and my hopes were dashed.
“You keep saying things like that, yet here I am with my nature intact!” I said, cutting off a leaf and watching in delight as a different plant in the line withdrew its leaves right into the stem.
“Your nature is not ok. I can see it stolen by the islands. You’re having the dreams.”
Well this comment pulled me up short.
“How do you know about the dreams?” I asked suspiciously. He smiled a smug smile and started to make his way back across the rocks without speaking. I shouted after him, even started to follow him, but he moved like a cat across the rocks and was gone in a moment.
Story recap: Dr Florence has been carrying out investigations on the Lost Islands of Xogulano for some weeks now. The islands are home to many endemic creatures and plants never seen before. She continues to sleep with a flotation device wrapped around her because the islands are said to drop into the sea periodically and without warning. On one occasion she woke to find her device had been burst. Her interaction with the locals is fraught, they see her as being disrespectful to the islands, she sees them as foolish in their superstitious beliefs. The locals claim that bad spirits live on the islands and that their footprints and handprints can be seen in sand and rocks. Dr Florence has seen such evidence, but believes it to be the work of the locals themselves. Is she right? Or are there spirits on the island waiting to turn on her?
This morning had another alarming start to the day. My dreams felt crowded and busy. However when I woke the memories fled as I realised in panic that my feet were wet. Of course, my first thought was that the island was flooding, but I found no other water inside my tent, only in my socks that were sopping wet. There was no sign that someone had entered my tent, and flummoxed by the mystery I decided to make myself a fire for coffee and the drying of socks. The mystery deepened when I put my hand into my pocket to find my lighter and pulled out a small volvox colony, the large cells falling apart and slithering to the ground instantly.
The mystery of the wet feet unsolved, and the sun rising high, I set off for a hitherto unexplored island, one in the shape of a comma. There I discovered an incredible colony of spiders, living harmoniously with ants! The colony covered about 3sqm, on rocks, in cracks and swarming over nearby plants.
There are of course many recorded incidents of spider colonies and ants are known for their sociability, but ants and spiders tend to eat each other, not work together. I sat sketching the movement of the colony for some time. Particularly creepy was noticing that a number of the bugs swarmed in small areas, and looking closer, I could see that this swarming occurred on isolated footprints in the sand, and even one impressed into the rock. More games from the locals?
I decided to see just how far the colony collaboration went. I put a large cake crumb into a crack in the rock near the ant-spider hive, and then smeared some Vaseline on the edges of the crack, so that no bugs could crawl easily to the crumb. Within a few minutes, about thirty ants had formed a bridge across the hole. A spider then walked to the centre of the bridge, and with an ant clinging to its body it dropped into the hole on a single thread. Within moments, the dangled pair had rescued the crumb and taken it back to the hive. (diagram below)
I was watching the final part of this daring adventure, when my fisherman friend (whose previous visit had ended badly) arrived and cautiously approached me. He walked in his odd straight lines, clutching a handful of stones in case I did something blasphemous and he needed to warn off the bad spirits. It seems that our previous dispute was forgotten and he sat on a rock and watched the colonies with me. I pointed out one of the swarm filled footprints and asked if he knew anything about it.
“He told you,” he said proudly, “he told you there were footprints of the Lost Men.” I did have a vague memory of such a conversation had when I first arrived, but not the use of the words Lost Men, so I asked,
“Lost Men? I thought it was spirits.”
He chuckled a little and looked at the footprints with the same dazed fascination with which one gazes into a crackling fire. When he spoke, the chuckle had gone,
“They lived on these islands long ago, they were like you, believed they were clever, believed they knew more than nature itself. They played with it. They created new animals, animals within animals, monsters.”
“How did they create them?”
“They had many skills, powers. The power to bend nature to their will, but they abused it. They forced unions that were no good. They bound creatures to plants.”
This sounded fascinating, if slightly unlikely. I asked if any such hybrids still lived on the islands. The fisherman huffed a non-committal answer, so I tried a new tack.
“So what happened to the Lost Men? Why aren’t they here now?”
“What happened to them is what happens to all who meddle with nature, they are swallowed by the sea.”
He clearly wanted this to be a dramatic end to the conversation, but for me it raised more questions than it answered. Why would the sea swallow them? And if they drowned, why are there footprints in the sand? When I asked these questions he became a little terse.
“I didn’t say they drowned, I said they were swallowed. And if you continue to mess with the beings of these islands, they will swallow you too.”
Those who have followed my adventures on these islands will know that they have not always been easy. From the pestering of paranoid locals with their bizarre myths about the islands to the series of odd events that have befallen me. Today started with another such event, when I woke to find my flotation device had been burst. Not by a sharp rock, as I thought at first, but deliberately punctured. I am not usually a light sleeper, so I am not sure how someone managed to enter my tent without my knowing, but I can’t see what other explanation is possible. On discovery of the attack, I scouted around looking for evidence and found no footsteps leading to my tent. However, I took a glance to the canvas on the roof of my tent, and found tiny, bare footprints, as if an imp had leapt with muddy feet across it. I assume this can only be a practical joke carried out by my visitor the fisherman.
After this rather unsettling start to the day, I boiled up a pot of coffee, a returned with a mug to sit inside the tent and contemplate. What I found was this.
I could see that it was most likely a type of slime mould, in the class Myxomycetes, but not one I had ever encountered before.This one had small sticky blobs that attached it to the tent ceiling and the consistency of chewing gum. However, what confused me was How could it have entered my tent so quickly? Slime moulds are mobile, but they move slowly, this had made it to the roof of my tent in minutes. I poked it with a stick and it shrank into a blob shape hanging from the ceiling, where it stayed for several minutes.
I sat watching and sipping my coffee, hoping it would give me further clue, in fact I ended up spending the day sitting in my tent, watching and sketching and learning the bizarre life cycle of my new friend.
Once I had remained still for some time, it slowly reattached itself. To do this it reaches out with a pseudopodial appendage and then grows a new sticky blob to attach itself (seen above). One particularly curious thing about this process, is that whenever I moved, the mould would stay still, as if it could sense my presence.
After I had remained still for a while, the mould became confident and bounced its way quite enthusiastically around my tent, as shown in the diagram above. The final defensive position occurred when I poked it again; a foul smell was given off this time and was like that of rotting eggs.
The above drawings show what happened when the hyperactive fellow settled down on the frame of my rucksack. I believe the small, spherical objects are enlarged spores, shot away from the mould to start anew. I attempted to dissect some, but they crumbled to dust.
My start to the day was unconventional and a little unpleasant. I woke to find that my flotation device had somehow become wrapped around my neck, so that I was breathing in vinyl. Having disentangled myself, I discovered that a family of mites had made a nest in the hem of my trousers. I popped as many of the tiny scurrying arachnids as I could and then doused my trouser ends in paraffin.
Fortunately, since this, my day has got considerably better. I took my small rowing boat out to the furthermost island and discovered a curious structure.
Those who saw a previous blog of mine about Volvox, will be familiar with the idea of singular organisms working as a society. Less common is when organisms of different species work together. Lichen is one example of this; what I discovered today on the island, is another.
As you can see from my sketch, a number of plants and fungi grow in different chambers or on nodules, evenly spaced around the uppermost part. There is not a single repeated organism and no sign of competition for space between the different species, as might be expected.
The reason I call this a colony, and the reason I believe the harmony between the species is not an accident; is that these organisms aren’t growing on rock, but a giant fungus. It has the consistency of florist foam, slightly squishy when pressed, but able to maintain a firm shape. The fibres connecting the fungus to the ground are mycelium, the fungal equivalent of roots.
Plants don’t usually succeed in growing on fungus, so I can only assume that this fungus has especially adapted to cultivate them. The fungus has essentially created a farm, with a number of different plant and fungus species fed by the host, which in turn create detritus that can be broken down and fed on.
I have never seen a colony such as this before and I suspect it is a phenomenon unknown to science. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have strongly doubted its existence. However, I am not the first person to have discovered it, in the soft surface of the fungus, I found a number of hand prints. Presumably the locals are more comfortable with visiting than they let on.
When I first arrived at the mainland, I hardly got the chance to spend a moment alone. Every night the locals would seek me out to share moonshine and fresh caught fish with me. They even appeared at my hotel room door – although the door was more of a curtain. Luckily for my research, they were happy to share a cavalcade of bizarre stories. Of fish that carried demons in their blood, ready to swim into your own veins after a touch. Of spirits that lived in the rocks, their movement across the islands only known because of the footprints and fingerprints left on rocks and flowers. (I have yet to see any of these).
One unusually grizzled gentleman, with a beard curled around his arthritic fingers, spoke of ‘animals within animals’ and ‘souls within souls’. He claimed that such beings were proof of a fiendish history to the islands. I attempted to explain that an animal within an animal is not such an unusual concept, after all, what else is pregnancy? He seemed to find my explanation laughable, and insisted that if I dared to venture onto the islands I would see, and be forever damaged by seeing.
Perhaps it is my contrary nature, but I felt a small frisson of pleasurable defiance this morning, when I discovered this innocent beetle, manifesting the very animal-within-animal situation that had caused the gentleman such distress. From my first glance, my curiosity was piqued by the small lumps in the shell on its back.
I watched the beetle for some time, and saw the lumps grow in size, protruding further. It was dusk when finally the eyes appeared, one set to each protrusion. And then it was in the darkness, lit only by my torch, that the offspring (because of course that is what they are) began to pop, one by one from the beetle’s back. I assume this is a method of protecting the young. Once the ‘birthing’ has occurred, the mother beetle is left vulnerable, with a number of holes in her shell. It wasn’t long before a bird had swooped down to suck the beetle’s innards through one of the holes.
Naturally I have not been damaged by this observation, merely fascinated.
As a side note, there is still no sign that the islands might drop into the sea. Although I still pump up my flotation device each night before I go to sleep.
A volvox is a colony of single-celled organisms that live in the sea, all working together to ensure survival. The cells within the colony may be specialised, in the same way humans living in a community have different roles and skills, independent organisms working together. Some cells may have eye stalks, or have cilia used for swimming. It can be difficult to distinguish a colony of single-celled organisms from a multi-celled organism, and it is likely that multi-celled organisms, such as ourselves, originally evolved from colonies.
On the islands of Xogulano, volvox colonies are rather larger than usual, with cells easily visible to the naked eye. Now, this may sound impossible, but actually there are many visible cells. Some single celled creatures, for example some algae, can reach a size of thirty centimetres.
This morning, I was drinking my coffee, a thick syrup of caffeine, when I noticed a number of white balls bobbing on the surface of the waves. It was quite a shock when I fished one out of the sea and discovered it was one of these colonies. A further shock when it broke apart in my hands, collapsing into the many cells that made up the whole. As the cells slithered away into the sea, they joined to reform the colony.
As a scientist I am naturally drawn towards experimentation. I played Frankenstein with a few of the colonies. I broke apart one volvox and placed half the disjointed cells into a bucket. Then did the same with another. Fascinatingly, a new volvox formed, this one had two tails and only one eye stalk (due to the components available in the bucket).
A fisherman, a previous visitor to the island, saw my experiment and rowed over to the rocky outcrop where I stood with my bucket. Without daring to set foot on the island, he demanded to know what I was doing. When I explained, he took a handful of small stones from his pocket and threw them on the ground, I suspect this is a way of warding off bad spirits. He informed me that playing with the nature of the beasts of Xogulano will invite them to play with my nature. With a face contorted by superstition, he whispered that I would not survive much longer on the island. I bade him good day and continued my observations.
Further study confirmed that the Xogulano colonies reproduce much like most volvox. Reproduction takes place inside the colony and the cells divide by mitosis. Of the two new cells formed, one stays as part of the colony and the other moves to the middle, in the ‘belly’ of the colony it divides further before finally being released.
My stay on the lost islands of Xogulano continues.
I have spent most of my time here without any company. This arrangement suits me, since I find I am soothed and stimulated by my own thoughts, but perturbed by the interruptions of others. However, it was surprisingly pleasant to be visited by a local fisherman. It seems he is one of the few locals who dares to set foot on the islands. Although when he does so, he will only walk and climb in straight lines at right angles, believing this will calm the ‘demon spirits’ of the islands.
Taking this opportunity to gather knowledge, I asked the fisherman exactly how plants and animals manage to survive the frequent complete submerging of the islands. He answered,
“How can this apply to plants?” I asked, but received only an enigmatic smile in response.
I am hoping to be on the islands when submerging occurs, so that I can observe the survival methods of the inhabitants. However, I fear for my safety when they do.
While my fisherman friend was sitting on a rocky outcrop, dangling his line in a small pool, I found this plant growing nearby. I quickly gleaned a hint of its survival strategy – a large tuber makes up the base of the plant, and it has a waxy covering that may well be waterproof. Attempts to cut my way through the surface of the tuber failed. The leaves themselves are sticky, similar to the surface of Nepenthes leaves (the carnivorous pitcher plant). I watched as flies became attached to the leaves, getting tangled in long hairs.
I asked my visitor for information about this bizarre organism, hoping to hear more about its carnivorous habits.
“Not eating flies, doesn’t need to eat flies,” he said, emphatically.
Assuming he was ignorant of the subtleties of plant nutrition, I began to explain how plants make their own food, but still require nitrogen, which can be found in the corpses of insects. However, he impatiently waved my words away, insisting that the plant was not eating the insects, but kidnapping them.
“To make home, to be security,” he explained. I was incredulous. Ants often have a symbiotic relationship with plants, protecting them from being eaten in exchange for a place to live. However, I have never encountered a plant that took ants by force for such a purpose. I expressed my doubt at his theory and he shrugged as if slightly offended, and walked back to his boat following the same awkward angular path back to his boat.
Watching the plant later that evening, I observed that the leaves were not permanent fixtures as one would expect. As it became dusk, they were sucked back inside, taking the ants, still alive but unable to escape, into the plant.
The next morning, when the leaves sprouted anew from the tuber, there was no sign of living or partly digested ants, and I suspect my visitor may be right.