Apparently This Matters: World's oldest sperm is huge

Here is what really old shrimp sperm looks like after 17 million years. Good times.

Story highlights

  • Scientists have discovered ancient sperm that is 17 million years old
  • The sperm is from ostracods, which are tiny shrimp
  • Bat poop is credited for preserving the sperm

Brace yourselves, because this week's story is about sperm and poop.

Specifically, though, it's about how scientists recently discovered the world's oldest sperm, which had been almost perfectly preserved for 17 million years under tons of bat poop.

And you thought putting all your old baseball cards in plastic sleeves was the answer?

Nope. Bat poop.

Naturally, we have to ask ourselves: Whose sperm was it?

Turns out, the ancient, petrified sperm was actually found inside both male and female shrimp. Which suggests that, just prior to their death, several of these things were distracted from their impending doom while gleefully making poor life decisions.

"Apparently This Matters" Is Jarrett Bellini's weekly (and somewhat random) look at social-media trends.

"More wine?"

Really, it's not a bad way to go out. We should all be so lucky.

Though, to be honest, I didn't even know shrimp did that. Have shrimp sex. I guess I always just chalked up their delicious existence to magic, with late-stage assistance from the seafood guy at Publix.

But, apparently, shrimp do, in fact, have sex with each other, and, under the right circumstances, their sperm can be fossilized for millions of years with the help of bat poop.

Some people prefer to be technical and call it "bat guano," but these individuals clearly don't appreciate the structural beauty of the word "poop."

For crying out loud it as two O's book-ended by the letter P.

So, here, we're calling it poop. It's a damn fine word.

That said, where, exactly, does one find tons of bat poop and ancient 17 million-year-old shrimp sperm?

Apparently, you'll find them on the walls of cave.

"Move it, Dave! I got shrimp things to do."

This particular story goes all the way back to 1988, for it was then that a team of researchers, led by Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales, began excavating vertebrate fossils from a cave in Queensland, Australia known as the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site.

It seems that once you got beyond the poop (soon to be the title of my seven-page autobiography detailing all of my life's achievements), there was lots of science inside the cave.

The researchers then used special acid to unpoop their fossils, and the remaining sediment was later added to the collections of the Queensland Museum.

You know, for sediment buffs.

Then, in 2009, a retired palaeontologist named John Neil borrowed a kilo of that sediment from the museum. Because I guess that's just what you do when you're a retired palaeontologist and you've seen every re-run of "Matlock."

You get bored and start looking at things under a microscope.

"So, uh, find anything in that Oreo?"

But Neil was fascinated by what he saw inside the sediment -- more than 800 ostracods.

Ostracods, better known as seed shrimp or mussel shrimp, don't actually resemble the shrimp we are accustomed to eating from the supermarket. The ones Neil discovered were super tiny, and better resemble, perhaps, something more like a bed bug.

When he got stuck trying to analyze the "soft parts," Neil later contacted a specialist at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich named Renate Matzke-Karasz.

And that's when they discovered all the sperm.

And it was HUGE! Seriously. These things were ridiculous.

Uncoiled, each sperm was roughly the same length as the actual shrimp.

Even in diagram form, tiny shrimp are kinda cute. Look, it has a little eye!

So, if you applied the same scale to the sperm of humans or, say, elephants, you'd have something to be genuinely afraid of -- like the plot of some terrible Will Smith action movie.

Coming soon: "Men in Latex."

On Wednesday, all of the researchers, together, published their study in the journal Proceedings of The Royal Society B. And when the world learned that there was 17 million-year-old sperm out there, naturally, we all got rather excited.

And the fact that there was poop involved pretty much made it the best day ever.

So, it's an absolutely amazing discovery.

And the real lesson here is that if you think you're on the edge of being killed and possibly fossilized, and if you happen to have large quantities of bat poop, you might as well start having sex so you can leave something for our alien overlords to discover 17 million years from now.

"More wine?"

Follow @JarrettBellini on Twitter.

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