This Creature Eats, Learns and Heals Itself — All Without a Brain

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
This strange, newly unveiled, slime does a lot with just one cell. Still from YouTube/Parc zoologique de Paris

Meet the talented Mr. Blob.

And by talented, we mean he or she or it knows more than a couple of party tricks. (When dealing with a creature able to assume 720 sexes, it's best to go with "it.")

But you'll be forgiven for not being able to get a read on the latest exhibit at the Paris Zoological Park. The blob has been confounding scientists ever since it was discovered about 40 years ago.

"The blob is a living being which belongs to one of nature's mysteries," Bruno David, director of the Paris Museum of Natural History, tells Reuters.

It's bright yellow. It sports just one cell. And it does more with that cell than most of us can do with billions of them.

Technically, it's among around 900 species of slime mold, or physarum polycephalum — a creature known for its intelligence, despite not having a brain. It pulls that off by oozing over its environment and then passing on that information through its veins.

But the blob, which is being unveiled to the public for the first time this weekend, significantly ups the weirdness ante.

For one thing, this enigma wrapped in slime does not seem to possess a brain. And yet, as you can see in this video, it can solve a maze without breaking into a slimy sweat.

That's pretty impressive for what exhibit viewers will essentially see as an unassuming yellow puddle on a piece of wood.

"It surprises us because it has no brain but is able to learn ... and if you merge two blobs, the one that has learned will transmit its knowledge to the other," David explains.

It also knows instinctively where the good eats are — typically fungal spores and bacteria — without the benefit of eyes or nose (or mouth or legs).

And did we mention those 720 sexes?

That may take some explaining. In humans, sex cells come in two flavors — X for female, Y for male. A slime mold boasts sex cells with multiple genes capable of far more combinations, each determining whether two individuals are suitable for mating with each other.

Basically, a slime mold's sex — like the creature itself — is a cryptic key that only fits a specific lock.

Even the creature's name — a nod to the 1958 B-movie "the Blob" suggests a certain sense of "we don't have a clue" among scientists. In that classic bad movie, a monstrous heap of jelly goes on a rampage, consuming everything and everyone in a small Pennsylvania town. It's sentient, but its motives — and even how it operates — remain utterly inscrutable.

Much like the real-world blob in Paris.

This creature's eating habits and the fact that it moves around in the world, getting smarter and stronger suggests the blob is an animal. But physically, it looks very much like a fungus. Or, with its ability to heal itself in a matter of minutes, perhaps it's a plant?

"We know for sure it is not a plant but we don't really know if it's an animal or a fungus," David notes.

Which leaves us with only one conclusion: It's simply the blob. The talented Mr. Blob.

"The blob is really one of the most extraordinary things on Earth today," David tells CBS News. "It's been here for millions of years, and we still don't really know what it is."

But we certainly can bask in its weird glory. To see slime mold — and its unlikely intelligence — in action, check out the spectacular time-lapse video from bioGraphic below: