Adventure Travel Abroad

Hydra: Stretchy, Speedy, & Probably Immortal

Hydra: Stretchy, Speedy, & Probably Immortal

The Hydra of mythology was a massive monster. If you cut off one of its heads, two more
would grow back in its place, and its teeth had the power to raise skeletons. It lived in the lake of Lerna in the Argolis. We found our Hydra at a shopping mall. See, hydras are microanimals found in freshwater
around the world, often attached to duckweed and wood floating on unpolluted ponds and
streams. And while James, our enterprising master of
microscopes, does often collect his various microbial samples from the great outdoors,
in Poland where James lives, the ponds and rivers are too cold most of the year for hydras. But he’d heard that hydras are a problem
for aquarium owners, thus a trip to the mall. This is the first hydra he found. The microcosmos is a many splendored thing,
and sometimes what it uncovers is a toxin-tentacled, potentially immortal hunter hitching a ride
on an aquatic snail inside a shopping mall aquarium. The good news is, it doesn’t have any teeth
so I think we’re safe from the skeletons. Hydra belong to the phylum Cnidaria, which
makes them a relative of jellyfish and sea anemone. Their bodies are small, about 10-20 millimeters
in length, and also quite simple, composed of two cellular layers around a central cavity,
which acts sort of like the hydra’s stomach. At the end of this cavity, the hydra’s body
gives way to tentacles, which surround the hydra’s mouth. Like our snail-bound friend from earlier,
hydras usually secure themselves to hard surfaces, including stones and bits of plants. There, the hydra waits for food, its tentacles
stretching up to three times the length of its body in search for prey like crustaceans,
insects, and even small fish. Much of the hydra’s hunting ability lies
in those tentacles, which are armed with little projectile cellular capsules called nematocysts. Here, you can see some nematocysts that were
discharged by a hydra, which happened due to mechanical stimulation of the nematocysts
as the sample was being prepared. The cylindrical body of the nematocyst is
attached to a long thread, which can serve different functions. One type of nematocyst is equipped with a
thread that is designed to wind around the hydra’s prey, while the thread of another
kind of nematocyst has an opening at the tip, which allows it to puncture the surface of
the hydra’s prey to inject a neurotoxin. When prey brushes up against the hydra’s
tentacles, the nematocysts are discharged quickly, and by quickly, I mean very fast. They experience around 5,410,000 g of force
in as little a time as 700 ns. That incredible speed helps the thread of
the nematocyst act like a harpoon and catch its prey. When the hydra isn’t feeding, its mouth
is sealed with the rest of its body in a continuous sheet of cells. So to eat, the hydra essentially has to tear
a hole open in its body to let the prey in, which it does by sending neuronal signals
that stretch the mouth apart until finally, it rips open. Even more remarkable, hydras can open their
mouths wider than their body, which lets them eat prey that is bigger than them. Inside the hydra, the prey is broken down
into particles that are taken up by surrounding digestive cells. Now hydra, let’s just get this out of the
way, don’t have an anus, so the remaining undigested bits of food go out the same way
they came in: through the mouth. You may have noticed that the hydras we’ve
shown are either brown or green. You may have guessed, based on occurrences
of the color green in previous episodes, that it suggests something about chloroplasts. Indeed, green hydra—which are their own
distinct group called Chlorohydra—are occupied by unicellular algae, which take up residence
inside of vacuoles within the hydra’s cells, performing photosynthesis and providing sugars
in exchange for other nutrients and protection from the hydra. Hydras have fascinated biologists for centuries
thanks to their spectacular regeneration abilities. They can withstand all manner of violence:
cut a hydra in two, and you’ll end up with two hydras. Cut it into twenty pieces, and you’ll have
twenty hydras. Turn the hydra inside-out, and it will recover. Scientists have even blended hydras down to
their cellular components, spun them in a centrifuge so they pack together, and watched
as the cells sort themselves back into hydra. For the organism, this all boils down to a
unique ability to continuously renew their body through stem cells, which is why hydra
are sometimes called the eternal embryo. This is not to say that they cannot die—if
food runs low or water quality becomes poor or something eats them, then yes, the hydra
too will succumb. But scientists studying hydra over several
years have found no sign of aging in the organisms, which means that barring all of those challenges
we mentioned earlier, hydras may be immortal. But as mortal beings ourselves, the possibility
of hydra’s immortality will likely remain just that to us—an unconfirmed likelihood. The simplicity of the hydra’s body belies
the complexity of its life, from algal symbionts, to its periodically torn-open mouth, to its
endless renewal and regeneration. All this, from an organism we found in a shopping
mall aquarium. Thank you for coming on this journey with
us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. If you want to see more from our Master of Microscopes, James, check out Jam and Germs on Instagram. Thank you so much to all of our patrons on
Patreon for helping make this show possible and better every episode. If you want to sign up, check out And if you want to subscribe to this channel, there’s always a subscribe button somewhere nearby.

Reader Comments

  1. What I find weird is that all humans are made up of all these microorganisms and that make me think who or what am I am I me? or am I we? great video once again.

  2. Amazing insightful videos. I am from Asian Studies thou I love science more than I love languages ahaha. I am more about physics than biology but I found it surprisingly easy to understand this clips I don't feel the need (thou I will for some terminology) to go and search on scientific papers the explanations for the terms used.
    I'd love to see more about the microcosmos! Thank you both for your hard work 🙂

  3. This was a fascinating and enlightening episode – I learned so many new things about hydras, and… just to get to see all of this… was just wonderful and amazing.

  4. Watching the hydra use it's "mouth" for input and output, it is like eating is just a slower, larger scale, form of breathing, or maybe breathing is an extension of eating, the way we do it anyway. I'm learning a lot 🙂 Thanks for the videos 🙂

  5. Whoa. I was saving the video for before bed thinking I was going to sleep with something that both soothes and educates me. Then the beat dropped.

  6. This channel is such a blessing. I read encyclopedias on microorganisms before when I was a kid, this is such a nostalgia trip with better quality!

  7. I'll always be confused about how animals without symbiotic relations with algae can ever out compete those with the bonds. It must've happened though, as most animals don't seem to have it. Why don't frogs photosynthesis? Why don't people? Even if it weren't a main source of energy it seems like the ability would provide an overwhelming advantage. Does anyone know?

  8. Small g is not force, but acceleration. And you can't experience force IN a time, only FOR a time, it's not a resource that is used up.

  9. I just discovered your channel, and I love it ! Your content is both educational and beautiful. It’s a real pleasure to listen and watch. As a scientist (biology related), I really like that your work reveal the secret beauty of science.

  10. Great vid! As a tropical fish breeder who feeds lots of baby brine shrimp to my fish fry, hydra explosions are a regular occurrence. Fortunately I’m also a biology teacher. Kids love hydra!when I’m done showing them off, a little dog dewormer takes care of all of the hydra. 😉

  11. 0:18 I'm afraid you've just merged two different monsters from Greek mythology; the Hydra of Lerna was the serpent-like monster that grew back two new heads for each severed head and was killed by Herakles. The monster whose teeth had the power to raise an army (namely the Spartoi) was the Drakon of Thebes, which was killed by Kadmos.

  12. What is this creature?
    Texan girl, 10, dies of rare brain-eating amoeba

  13. 1:20 I still love this footage with natural-looking light and black background! Can anyone please tell me how it's done? 🙂

  14. What are the little things crawling on the hydras? Seems like clown fishes around an anemone – I guess this is appropriate since the hydras are somewhat related? 🙂 is it the cleanup crew?

  15. I love you and your crew even more now. What a wonderful channel! Thank you for your efforts and to everyone who supports! So very cool.

  16. I would go on as to say that the speed at which the nematocysts are are fired are magnified taking general relativity into account.
    If we were to shrink down to microscopic level, we'd find that nematocysts fire at a moderately rapid pace rather than with 5,410,000 g which we are currently observing.

    It's the same as observing a fly to be rapid and a blue whale to be sluggish from a human perspective.

  17. I am being fanciful, please indulge me: Hypothetically there might be the very first hydra still living its immortal life, safely attached to rock after rock. The stone crumbling under the pressure of aeons, while first hydra simply hitches a ride on another animal and reattaches itself to the next place.

    Thank you for giving me that (to me peaceful) image in my mind.

  18. I have an indoor pond aquarium which has managed to gain a stable copepod population, at around the same time hydras have started to appear.
    Its amazing how quick even a tank can 'evolve' in a way

  19. More videos on hydras, please! The more I learn about these little dudes, the cooler they are. I just learned that they can even modify their genetic material. Crazy stuff.

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