Friday, June 25, 2010

Disconnect in 3... 2... 1...

Things will probably be a little quiet on here for the next week or so as I take some much needed vacation time.  In the meantime, nobody has guessed at Bit-o-Critter round 25 yet, so now's your chance to swoop in for the kill!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Two videos from our recent Mexico sojourn

Below are two short videos showing some of what we got up to on a recent lightning fast trip to Mexico, footage that our AV folks spliced together from a FLIP camera I took along.  We had heard word of whale sharks gathering at one of our research sites, so I threw together a quick trip and Jeff Reid, the Aquarium's DSO, and I went down to scope it out.  It wasn't hard science this time; mostly a reconnaissance boat survey and an aerial survey, and getting to grips with the logistics for the big trips that will happen later this summer (more about those in future posts).  But at least they give a sense of what its like down there.  Next time I will try to hold the camera a bit more steady, but in the meantime - enjoy.



Play Bit-o-Critter, round 25

OK, since yesterday's BoC went off so quickly, here's another round hot on the heels.  A double header this time.  See if you can identify the following two animals from just the bit shown.  Post your best guess in the comments section.  The winner gets bragging rights and a smug sense of self satisfaction.  First one I would like at least genus, the second one I'll accept the common or scientific name for the group.

25A

25B

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The solution to that pesky Bit-o-Critter, round 23b

Commenter Will Edwards just successfully identified the BoC wrasse from Round 23 as Ophthalmolepis lineolatus, or what we Aussies like to call a Maori wrasse.  I think the common name comes from the blue lines on the face and their resemblance to the facial tattoos of several Polynesian peoples.  Its a temperate rocky shore wrasse not to be confused with the humphead maori wrasse or Napoleon wrasse Cheilinus undulatus, which is a huge beast of a thing from coral reefs.

I grew up catching O. lineolatus off the rocks in S.E. Australia with my dad, usuallly using a peeled shrimp on a No. 2 hook on a paternoster rig.  We would also catch mado sweep, which we called "footballers" (striped jersey), mono's, which we called "butter bream" and the occasional luderick, which we called "blackfish".  I looked on jealously while older guys would cast ganged pilchards with an Alvey, way out into the wash in the hopes of tailor (Americans call them bluefish) or even a kingfish (US = yellowtail) or mulloway.  I also remember my dad dressing me down one one time because I left a packet of shrimp bait in the trunk (Australia...summetime...you get the idea).  When we went to pile into the car and drive home the next day, well, lets just say I wasnt so comfortable sitting down...  Good times, good times...

Picture - Australian Museum

The solution to Bit-o-Critter round 24


Well that was quick; I guess I made it too easy.  Heather D guessed correctly that it was the beautiful Pyjama Squid, Sepioloidea lineolata.  These gorgeous little cephalopods hail from my home country of Australia, just like the wrasse in BoC 23b, which is still up for grabs.  I think technically pyjama squids are a cuttlefish because the eye is a slit not a round pupil and because the undulating fin runs the full margin of the hood.  I could be wrong, but thats what I was always taught.  Perhaps someone with more cephalopod knowledge can chime in here.

Photo credit: Mark Norman @ the cephalopod page

Play Bit-o-Critter, round 24

So here's the next round of Bit-o-Critter.  I'd like a full common name, scientific name gets bonus points.



We still don't have an answer on Round 23b, the wrasse-like fish.  Here's a hint, you have to think about where I'm from (Australia).  That and the photo is enough to get you to species.

Monday, June 21, 2010

One of the bizarrest parasitic relationships you will ever see

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.orgMy good colleague Janine Caira wrote a paper way back in 1997 about one of the strangest parasites ever recorded in an animal.  This paper has stuck with me ever since, I think because I saw the original photos when I visited the lab of one of the other co-authors George Benz, when he was with Tennessee Aquarium (he's now at Middle Tennessee State U.).  So, I thought I'd revive it for you guys; the story goes like this:

Janine and her co-author Nancy Kohler had received a report from a longliner of a really big foul-hooked shortfin mako caught near Montauk, NY.  (a shortfin is shown at right, from discovery.com, this one with plenty of parasitic copepods on the dorsal fin - it sucks to be a shark sometimes).  Now, Janine is the queen of tapeworm taxonomy in sharks and rays - believe it or not, there's lots of them - and had visited Montauk before to collect parasites during catch-and-kill shark tournaments held there.  To make the most of the unfortunate death of this mako, they raced across the sound from Connecticut to collect parasites from the beast.  It was a huge animal, nearly 900lbs, and during necropsy, as they say in the paper, they "were astonished to find two anguilliform fish in the lumen of the heart".  Thats right, eels; this shark had two eels living in the chambers of the heart!  These particular eels, called pugnose eels or Simonchelys parasitica, have been recorded before burrowing into the flesh of halibut and other large North Atlantic fishes (hence their species name), but never completely internal and certainly not in the lumen of the heart, so this was a truly remarkable find. 

Janine and her colleagues were unable to determine the path of entry, but they showed good evidence that the eels were alive in the heart prior to the shark being killed and put in the fridge, because their guts were full of blood and there were pathologic changes to the heart.  Their conclusion?  That this was a facultatively parasitic relationship.  In other words, the eels didn't need to be living in the sharks heart (that would be obligate parasitism), rather they took advantage of an opportunity to get a meal.  They proposed that the eels probably attacked the shark after it had been hooked and was dangling, distressed, from the longline.  They had some evidence that the shark was probably resting on the bottom, which may have made it easier for the eels to find.  The pugnoses somehow gained entry (hypothesised to be through the gills) and made their way to the heart, where they dined on the beasts blood up until it died.  Maybe they would have burrowed out again after the animal expired, maybe they would have suffocated (remember - the eels had be swimming in and breathing the sharks blood once they were inside, how bizarre is that?).  We'll never know because the carcass went in the fridge, which ended things for the eels, but also led to this amazing discovery.

The horrifying part is that the shark was almost certainly alive as the eels made their way into its flesh and began to consume its life blood from the inside.  It would have been a long, slow and nasty way to go out.  It just goes to show that even when you are at the top of the food chain, you're never really at the top of the food chain...



Caira, J., Benz, G., Borucinska, J., & Kohler, N. (1997). Pugnose eels, Simenchelys parasiticus (Synaphobranchidae) from the heart of a shortfin mako, Isurus oxyrinchus (Lamnidae) Environmental Biology of Fishes, 49 (1), 139-144 DOI: 10.1023/A:1007398609346

Thursday, June 17, 2010

When acute gives way to chronic, Deep concerns for the Gulf set in

Just five days before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, I wrote a piece for this blog about a different oil spill in Australia, when a Chinese coal ship called the Shen Neng1 ran aground in Queensland and spilled thousands of gallons of fuel oil onto a section of the Great Barrier Reef.  The gist of that post was that, horrible though they may be, there's no great cause to worry about acute events like that, because many marine ecosystems show remarkable resilience in the face of singular disturbance events.  About a week later when the BP spill started, therefore, I had confidence that the well would swiftly be capped, the oil would dissipate, Gulf life would return to normal and folks would all move onto the next media-hyped panic-fest.  But, as the days have dragged into weeks and the weeks are now dragging into two months and counting, and as the estimates rise of the amount of oil that continues to leak, and as successive attempts to cap the thing have failed, that confidence that the Gulf can recover to the same state it was in before the spill has started to get ever more shaky.

Now, I like to be a positive person; I try to see the upsides in most situations and not get caught up in negativity, which I consider one of the greatest and most utterly pointless malignancies of modern society.  But, following the coverage in the mainstream news and on excellent blogs such as DeepSeaNews and Observations of a Nerd and thinking about the problem in terms of ecological processes, it seems to me that we may well have passed a tipping point and that the ecosystems of the water column, benthic (bottom) habitat and coastal marshes may never return to their former states, even if they could stop the flow right now.  This principle has been elegantly captured by the "rolling ball" analogy, wherein an ecosystem has, by virtue of its structure and complexity, a sort of "potential energy" like a ball on a hill and that, if disturbed hard enough, you can start cascades that see the system diverge - the ball rolling down hill - until it settles in a new organisation - a dip in the hillside.  The important point is that getting the ball back up the hill to the former state is next to impossible, or at least requires inordinate amounts of energy and a thorough knowledge of the organising principles, which we lack.

What does all that mean for the Gulf, though? If a Spartina marsh isn't, then what is it?  What happens in the water column?  On the bottom?  That's where research comes in, and I was encouraged to read on the NSF website and by conversations I had with NSF and NOAA Fisheries Service program officers yesterday that they have spent all available money on rapid response grants, most recently an NSF multi-institutional cruise coordinated by UGA to study microbial responses in the water column.  Its not enough though, and the slowness of the peer review-based funding systems we have just can't meet the needs of a crisis of this magnitude fast enough, once the rapid response fund is tapped out.  It really needs executive intervention: if the White House can propose a Wall Street or Auto industry bail-out, why not a rapid response research and rehabilitation fund?  We can bill BP later!

Where is this all headed, and what should we expect to see in a "new" and different ecological regime in the Gulf of Mexico?  No-one can be certain at this point, but a hall-mark of such reorganisations is loss of diversity, and in any worldview, that is something to be lamented.  Lets hope it doesn't come to that, but at this point any concerns you may have that the damage to the gulf is irreparable could be forgiven, which is more than I can say for those responsible for this mess.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The solution to Bit-o-Critter round 23a

Well the last BoC was a double header and the first one went off quickly.  Miriam got it right first time - a pycnogonid or sea spider.

That just leaves the fish in 23b.  It might take you some searching to get it right, but there's enough info there for a full species ID.  Good luck!

Play Bit-o-Critter Round 23

OK folks, double header this time, and you can only guess at one of them, so make your choice carefully...

23a - general group will do





23b - full scientific name if you please

Monday, June 14, 2010

The solution to Bit-o-Critter round 22

Well I really have to hand it to juliebug.  I was sure I would have stumped you guys on that last one, but no!  Julie nailed it - it was a sea pig, a bizarre deep sea holothurian, a sort of sea cucumber.  These pallid little blobs inch their way across the abyssal depths, eking out an existence on the snow of detritus raining gently down from above.  Great job Julie, truly impressive.

Best. Torch job. Ever.

I've been humming and hawing about whether or not to post this, but I just can't resist.  A colleague at a university where I used to work recently retired, and the dean sent around invitations to his retirement luncheon.  Well, it seems our retiree was not leaving with the best taste in his mouth, so he sent the following (to the Entire School!).  Since he seems to care little who knows, I share it with you here in the hopes that you may enjoy it.  (I have removed the names to protect the innocent, and the guilty)

“Dear [Current dean] ,

I do not know how to tell you this, but my heart is not in this retirement celebration shindig. I will not be there at the lunch that you are planning for me. I hate [distinguished professor]. I hate [former dean]. I hate the entire Mechanical Engineering Department. I hate the way you all treated me over the past 43 years. I think that it is disgraceful that you are asking people to pay for their own wretched lunches to come to honour me. How uncivilized can it be? After all the millions of dollars I brought into this univesity [sic], can't it afford to pay for a lousy luncheon in my honour? I never got a proper promotion or a meaningful raise in salary while inferiour individiouls [sic] got promoted and bloated into disproportionate levels [sic]. I got a copy of the latest [University] magazine. According to it, the average salary (9-10 month) of a full professor at [University] is 125,000 dollars. Mine isn't even 100,000! Thanks a lot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My linternational [sic] famous laboratory (see your own write up) was invaded and destroyed by in January 2007 and I was put out of scientific research for good in order to take care of a newly brought assistant professor. I say, the hell with you all. I hope the [University] stink will not stay on my skin when I leave here and go happily to Hawaii.


With nothing good to say about any of you at all, I remain

[Disgruntled retiree]"

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Check out this crazy footage of silver carp!

I guess they don't like the electrofisher much...

Zoiks! A 5 year ban on the Southern New England lobster fishery?

I've been part of research efforts on lobsters in southern New England on and off since 2002.  The fishery is in dire straights due to a range of problems like overfishing and infectious and metabolic diseases likely brought on by a changing climate.  But I was still surpsrised today by this article outlining a proposal to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission by its lobster science committee to suspend the lobster fishery south of Cape Cod for at least 5 years to allow it to recover from these recent dramas.

Quite honestly I can't see the proposal getting approved.  It would kill whats left of the existing fishery and I agree with the lobsterman quoted in the story that the infrastructure would simply go away (they could convert to trawling or dragging for scallops, but that ain't much of a fishery these days either).  Maybe that's what it needs.  Maybe it would never come back.  Maybe there IS no lobster fishery in SNE anymore.   I don't know, but it certainly speaks to the seriousness of the state the fishery has come to.

Testing, testing...



I'm posting this video I took of a whale shark in Mexico, to test the embedding of YouTube videos in Blogger posts.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Play Bit-o-Critter, round 22

OK folks, try this one on for size.  A common name will do, this time around. Post your best guesses in the comments section, the winner gets bragging rights and the undying admiration of their fellow readers.

The solution to Bit-o-Critter round 21

We have a new face in the BoC winners circle this week.  Sarah F. correctly identified the critter from round 21 as a stargazer.  That's a pretty impressive effort, because I didn't give you much to go on.  If you've never met one before, stargazers are bottom-dwelling fish that are the consummate lie-in-wait predator.  And when I say bottom-dwelling, I mean IN the bottom.  Usually all you can see is the grumpy looking eyes and mouth, both of which have migrated to the top of the head over evolutionary time, because they bury the rest in sand for camouflage.  They are not related to flounder or other flatfishes, though, which becomes abundantly clear if one ever leaves the sand to hit a passing bait or fishing lure; no, they are a beefy bulldog of a fish.  The other important difference from flatfishes is that the eyes and mouth are truly on the top of the stargazer's head, whereas the eyes of flounder have both migrated to one side of the head (this process can be seen during development) and the mouth remains terminal.

Nice job Sarah!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tampa, here I come!

This weeks victims of Dr. Dove's parasitological prattle are the students of the Diseases of Warmwater Fishes course, held by the fine folks at the University of Florida Vet School and the UF Institute for Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Tropical Aquaculture lab in Ruskin.  Its a bit like AQUAVET in that students stay put and faculty rotate through, but this one doesnt include inverts or coldwater fishes or any marine mammal stuff.  So its a lightning trip down to Tampa to lecture on principles of fish parasite identification, or something like that...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

While we're talking lobsters


Shell diseased lobster
Originally uploaded by para_sight1
I was going through my Flickr collection and came across this shot of a lobster, Homarus americanus, showing typical signs of epizootic shell disease. This is an emerging problem in Southern New England, wherein lobsters show these unsightly ulcers that erode down into their shells, eating away the hard parts until,all thats left is like rice paper. This one is mostly typical in that the lesions start in the middle of the back. Why? Its not well understood, but it is the only part of the body they can't reach to groom, so that may be part of it. Current evidence says ESD lesions are caused by bacteria and that one bug in particular, Aequimarina homari, is pretty important, but the environmental triggers are unknown. Any way you slice it, its not good for lobsters and certainly no good for the lobster industry.

The solution to Bit-o-Critter round 20

Juliebug identified the round 20 Bit-o-critter as the green turtle Chelonia mydas.  With that, she takes a commanding lead in the BoC stakes.  Will no-one challenge her supremacy?  Ya gotta be in it to win it folks...

Play Bit-o-Critter, Round 21

This one doesnt have enough detail for species level ID, but I'll take a common name or any of several suitable scientific names.  Y'know, if you think you've got the goods...

Simple questions with complex answers: why is a cooked lobster red?

ResearchBlogging.orgSome really simple questions have surprisingly complex answers.  “Why is the sky blue?” ends up being all about differential absorbance of varying wavelengths of electromagnetic radiat… see, there, I’ve already wandered off into jargon land.

And so it is with the question “Why is a cooked lobster red, when a live lobster is not?”.  An odd question, but its exactly that kind of “I wonder why…” moment that has led to some of the greatest discoveries.  Anyway, you can argue that it is not a trivial question; indeed, the name of an entire restaurant franchise depends on the correct color change occurring when you drop a Homarus americanus into a pot of boiling Old Bay.  So what’s going on?

Well, its all about the astaxanthin, (lets call it AXT from now on).  AXT is a carotenoid, which means it’s a fat-soluble pigment that – generally speaking - is red or orange in colour.  Carotenoids give tomatoes their red (lycopene), egg yolks their yellow (lutein), carrots their orange (beta carotene), salmon their pink (canthaxanthin) and televangelists their freakish alien fake tans (but they do offset the glowing white dental veneers ever so nicely, don’t they?).  Lobsters don’t make AXT, they get it from eating their veggies like a good little lobster, because ultimately it’s a plant pigment (plants use it as a sunscreen – but that’s another post for another day!).  In its basic form, AXT is really vivid orange, almost vermilion.  But in lobster shells it doesn’t occur in its basic form; instead it’s mostly bound to a protein, called crustacyanin, which we’ll call CR for short.  AXT binds to CR in much the same way as oxygen binds to the haemoglobin in our blood, except for one big difference.  Unlike oxygen, which fits neatly in a haemoglobin molecule, AXT has to bend to fit into the CR molecule, like one of those freakshow contortionists who fold themselves up in a box.  In bending the AXT molecule to make it fit, the natural colour of astaxanthin changes – it shifts – from red to blue or blue-green.  Historically, this shift has been an interesting mystery to chemists and physicists interested in properties of pigments, because its unusual for the same pigment molecule to have both red and blue forms, as most avid flower gardeners can tell you.  On the right is a picture of the rare all-blue form of the American lobster (read more at the University of Maine website)

Enter Michele Cianci and colleagues from the University of Manchester in England.  These clever folks showed in 2002 that the colour change – technically called the bathochromic shift – is a result of the structure of the CR molecule and the way it flexes the AXT molecule like a loaded spring.  This is where the simple question yields the really complex answer.  Get a load of this phrase from their abstract:  “Recently, the innovative use of softer x-rays and xenon derivatization yielded the three dimensional structure of the A1 apoprotein subunit of CR, confirming it as a member of the lipocalin superfamily. That work provided the molecular replacement search model for a crystal form of the beta-CR holo complex, that is an A1 with A3 subunit assembly including two bound AXT molecules. We have thereby determined the structure of the A3 molecule de novo”.  Ex-squeeze me baking powder?

Yes, well, that's all well and good, but it doesn’t answer the simple question of why they go red when you cook them, does it?  Bear with me…  When next you are at the grocery store, take a look in the live lobster tank and you’ll see that they don't look like the handsome all-blue fellow above; they tend to be a mosaic of colours like orange, yellow, cream, green, blue and brown.  This patchwork arises from varying amounts of free and bound AXT in different layers of the shell, and some other factors like how thick the shell is, and whether the AXT is at the surface or in a deeper layer.  If you go ahead and buy one of these lobsters and drop it into a pot of boiling water, little happens to the AXT because it’s heat stable.  But the protein CR, on the other hand, is not.  Like most proteins, it loses its structure when you apply intense heat, unfolding like a jack-in-the-box, and flinging off the AXT in the process.  Liberated from its oppressive bathochromic bonds, the AXT reverts to its normal colour – intense orange-red.  Et puis, vous voila! – blue/green lobsters turn red when you cook them.

Much the same process happens in shrimp and crabs when you cook them too, but it was worked out for lobsters first because they only have one carotenoid – AXT – whereas other crustaceans had other carotenoids that complicated the picture even further.

PS - some genetic rarities give us all sorts of lobster colour patterns like the all-blue one shown above, but my favourite is the half-and-half.  The first time I saw one of these, I thought it was someone having a joke at my expense, but they're the real deal!  How it happens is still a mystery, but there's probably something wrong with the way they express CR on one side of the body.  Picture from National Geographic.

Tip of the Mackintosh hat to @AboutMarineLife on Twitter, for inspiration.

Cianci M, Rizkallah PJ, Olczak A, Raftery J, Chayen NE, Zagalsky PF, &; Helliwell JR (2002). The molecular basis of the coloration mechanism in lobster shell: beta-crustacyanin at 3.2-A resolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99 (15), 9795-800 PMID: 12119396

Monday, June 7, 2010

There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea

With a tip of the Pirates Hat to Veggie Tales and Family Guy for the inspiration

There's a hole in the bottom of the sea,
There's a hole in the bottom of the sea,
There's a hole, there's a hole,
There's a hole in the bottom of the sea.

There's a pipe in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a pipe in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a pipe, there's a pipe,
There's a pipe in the hole
In the bottom of the sea.

There's some oil in the pipe in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's some oil in the pipe in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's some oil, there's some oil,
There's some oil in the pipe in the hole
In the bottom of the sea.

There's a hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a hole, another hole,
There's a hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea.

There's a cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a cone, an inverted cone,
There's a cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,

There's a leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a leak, ANOTHER leak,
There's a leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,

So NOW,

There's a plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There’s a plume, a killer plume
There's a plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea.

There's a boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There’s a boom, a floating boom
There's a boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea.

There's a gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There’s a gap, just check a map!
There's a gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea.

There's a bird in the gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There's a bird in the gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There’s a bird, a struggling bird
There's a bird in the gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea.

There’s a company responsible for the bird in the gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There’s a company responsible for the bird in the gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea,
There’s a company, a Big Oil company
There’s a company responsible for the bird in the gap in the boom on the plume from the leak in the cone over the hole in the pipe with the oil in the hole
In the bottom of the sea.

...and we should never let up on them until they clean up the mess...

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I'm baaaa-aaaaack...

Just returned from two weeks on the road, so I've got mounds of work to catch up on.  In the meantime, check out this interesting post over at Thomas' Plant Related Blog.  Its about Neutral Theory and why there are so many species distributed the way they are.  The ecology of diversity is one of my pet research areas, or at least, I like to think about it a lot (see earlier DTF posts about it here and here)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Doing my bit to help shape the next generation of fish doctors

Off to NY today to participate the AQUAVET courses, which are a collaboration between Cornell and U. Penn vet schools that aims to train veterinary students interested in fish health.  Historically, its been held at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, but this year its in Southampton, Long Island, at the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University (shown below).  Its a terrific course: the students live in dorms for 2-4 weeks while a steady stream of faculty from all sorts of backgrounds cycle through for a couple of days each, to give lectures on their particular areas of expertise.  My part is aquarium health management principles, and how to identify parasites in histological (tissue) sections.  I am excited about the change of venue this year because the School of Marine Sciences at Stony Brook was where I was teaching before I went to work for Georgia Aquarium.  While I am out there, I'll be giving a public lecture on whale sharks; if you're in the Long Island area and are interested in the big spotty sea dogs, I'd love to see you there. 

Play Bit-o-critter, round 20

OK folks, I need a complete scientific name for this critter:

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thanks New England Aquarium!

In my post about surveying pelagic species from the air in Mexico, I mentioned schools of cownosed rays, which the locals call "chuchas" (dogs).  New England Aquarium has a perfect picture to illustrate what I mean:

Beautiful, aren't they?

The solution to Bit-o-Critter round 19

Juliebug correctly identified the round 19 bit-o-critter as a remora, Remora remora.  These bizarre fish use a modified first dorsal fin as a sort of sucker to hold onto other species, usually bigger things like turtles, sharks and whales.  Its actually not much of a sucker, more of a friction pad, but thats another topic for another day.  Congrats Julie!  Photo by Rene Gallo

The water is ALIVE!

Its easy to get discouraged about the plight of marine ecosystems and the future of all those incredible marine species that we love so much. This is especially so of late, with all the bad news about the oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico and the impacts that it may well have on several habitats. Consider this post, then, as your good news story for the week. I am here to tell you that there is still amazing stuff to see in the ocean. Incredible stuff. Stuff that will blow your mind. I can tell you this with supreme confidence, because for the last two days, that’s exactly what I have been seeing. As part of the research program at Georgia Aquarium, I am with colleagues in Quintana Roo, Mexico, studying whale sharks and other species that live in the azure waters of the Yucatan peninsula. Jeff Reid, who is the aquarium’s dive safety officer, is here and our main colleague in Mexico is Rafael de la Parra of Project Domino, who has been working on whale sharks and other marine species in the area for many years. This is a remarkable part of the world, with a lot of great terrestrial activities (can you say Cenotes, anyone? No? How about Mayan ruins?), exceeded only by the marine life, which is truly spectacular.

Yesterday Jeff and Raffa and I spent the day boating around the northeastern tip of the Yucatan along with videographer Jeronimo. Now, when you’re on a boat, you can only see a small strip of ocean either side of the vessel, and yet over the course of the day we saw lots of mobula (devil rays), turtles, flying fish, manta rays, spotted dolphins and whale sharks. We snorkeled alongside some of these animals and, in the case of whale sharks and mantas, took samples of their food for later analysis. They dine on the rich plankton soup of this tropical upwelling area, much of which consisted of fish eggs, which hints at other fish species – yet unseen – taking advantage of the plankton to start their next generation by spawning in the surface waters. Snorkeling next to a whale shark in the natural setting was a special thrill; I’ve been lucky enough to work with the animals in the collection at Georgia Aquarium since 2006, but this was my first encounter with them in the wild. Except for the slightly different “faces” (we do get to know our animals pretty well) and the parasitic copepods visible on the fins of the wild animal, it could have easily been the very same sharks Jeff and I have been working with in Atlanta.

Today, Jeff and Raffa and I joined Lilia (from the Mexican department of protected areas CONANP) and pilot Diego for an aerial survey of the waters around the northeastern tip of the Yucatan. In contrast to the boat, you can’t get in the water from a plane (its not advisable anyway), but you can see a whole lot more at once and cover a much greater area in a relatively shorter time. From the air, lots of sharks, cownosed rays, manta, dolphins, fish schools and whale sharks were all visible, and I am told that flamingos and manatees can be seen at other times too. The manta rays, which numbered in the hundreds, were especially impressive and included at least two species (see my post about taxonomy of mantas). The sheer number of cownosed rays, called chuchas in the local slang, was staggering (muchas chuchas, if you will). They formed huge schools that looked for all the world like the rafts of sargassum weed that accumulate on the wind-lines at the water’s surface offshore. Many of the turtles and mobula seemed to be in the mood for love; most turtles were in pairs (or a pair being followed by other hopeful males), whereas the mobula followed each other in lazy tandems, their wingtips breaking the surface with every stroke. Whale sharks were also there – lots of them – with their attendant flotilla of tourist boats and tiny orange specks of snorkelers in life-vests, doing their best (and largely failing) to keep up with the gentle giants.

When you have experiences such as those I have shared with my colleagues over the last two days, you are reminded why we do this stuff in the first place. Its not just for the papers, or the salary or the glory of new discovery (yeah, right!), its for those moments working with animals when you and a colleague become friends because you shared an experience of the oceans that most folks will never have. We should seek to share and recreate those moments with everyone we can, whether its in an aquarium or on the open ocean. I am pretty sure that if we could all do that, then public empathy for the plight of the oceans would skyrocket, and many of the threats that face them would be addressed quick smart.

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