Humans have symbiotic relationships with a great number of animals. We use earthworms to improve soil, bees to pollinate crops, and cats to control vermin populations.
Then there’s our animal BFF, the dog. We’ve trained this wolf descendant to herd sheep, hunt animals, find bombs, and do dozens of other tasks. The benefits that the above animals provide are impressive, but there are even more animal helpers that you may not have heard of. Here are our four favorites.
This simple creature has a pretty boring life. It sits sedentary in the ocean, filtering out various debris to eat. That may not sound very important, but it’s actually incredibly helpful for humans.
For one, oysters filter out nitrogen that could otherwise cause toxic algae blooms. Algae blooms kill fish and anything else that depends on oxygen in the water. Just by existing, oysters help prevent these deadly events.
Oysters also clean harmful contaminants from polluted areas. While you probably shouldn’t eat oysters used for this purpose, they still benefit us greatly by improving the water quality in a cheap and effortless manner.
Lastly, oysters are a great sustainable food source. They can be farmed without negatively impacting the surrounding environment.
In fact, for the reasons stated above, oysters can actually improve water quality where they are farmed. Best of all, these bivalves have no central nervous system, so you don’t have to feel too bad about sucking them down while they’re still alive (which, if you didn’t know, is how they’re supposed to be eaten).
2. Keyhole Limpets (Fissurellidae)
This creature with a strange name is a type of sea snail. In a stunning example of the importance of biodiversity, researchers found that a protein in the snail is exceptionally good at binding to other molecules.
This quality means that the keyhole limpet hemocyanin particle can be used in medicines that fight cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists also use the protein in vaccines for humans and animals.
All of these applications come from just one protein in one sea snail. Imagine all of the undiscovered useful particles that exist in nature. That’s just one reason why preservation of the environment is so important to the world.
3. Organ Donation
Doctors can already use heart valves from pigs in human surgeries. Now, they’re trying to take the next step forward.
Researchers are working on a way to grow human organs inside pigs in order to harvest them for transplantation. Approximately 21 people die each day due to a lack of donor organs, and this works aims to end the shortage.
Scientists have added five human genes to pigs’ livers, kidneys, and hearts. They hope to make the organs similar enough that human recipients won’t reject the organs when they are transplanted.
These experiments are fraught with ethical concerns. Both animal rights advocates and religious organizations object to some of the experiments being done on human/pig organs. While oysters filtering water and keyhole limpets providing proteins don’t bother most people, raising pigs to provide organs is another story.
4. Plastic-Eating Worms
Plastic accounts for much of the world’s pollution because it takes so long to break down naturally. An industrious little animal may be changing that.
The larvae of the wax moth can eat plastic and turn it into organic material. This discovery was made when biochemist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini removed some larvae from a beehive. The little worms chewed right out of the bag.
Since that serendipitous event, further research has confirmed that the larvae can consume large amounts of plastic with no adverse effects. Scientists believe that the worms break down plastic using the same enzyme they use to break down beeswax.