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Monday, May 31, 2010

Sleight Of Hand(fish)

Scientists have unloosed descriptions of nine new species of handfish on the world, says National Geographic. Looking something like an anglerfish or a frogfish, they're quite a sight.

And all of them live off Australia -- which by my reckoning makes Reason #368 why I need to book that Down Under dive holiday. (And no, Reason #367 is not Men At Work.)
All of the world's 14 known species of handfish are found only in shallow, coastal waters off southeastern Australia, the review notes.
The organization that issued the study -- "a review of the handfish family by Hobart-based fish taxonomists from the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship, Daniel Gledhill and Peter Last" -- points out that it hasn't always been that way, though:
"Handfishes are small, often strikingly patterned or colourful, sedentary fish that tend to ‘walk’ on the seabed on hand-like fins, rather than swim. Fifty million-years ago, they ‘walked’ the world’s oceans, but now they exist only off eastern and southern Australia,"Mr Gledhill says.
They can't be lobe-finned fish, of course, but they certainly are reminiscent of them -- like they're ready to crawl iguana-style onto a rock and sun themselves.

With their dainty "hands" and slow gait, they look like easy pickings for predators. Except, according to NG:
Handfish's slow movements and tendencies to stay within tightly confined habitats would seem to make the fish easy targets for predators. But researchers think handfish have a secret weapon: a toxic skin that kills most attackers.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Only Sure Bet Is Devastation

I can appreciate nihilistic humor as much as the next fellow. But it's certainly grating to see that bookmakers at Paddy Power are taking bets on which sea creature will be driven to extinction first in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The odds-on-favorite was the Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle at 4/5 when I checked today, followed by the Bluefin Tuna at 6/4, then the Leatherback Sea Turtle and the Brown Pelican at 8/1 each.

Hat tip: Richard Black's Earth Watch blog, which added:

I wondered, though, whether species extinctions are a suitable subject for gambling. Isn't inviting people to estimate the relative odds of two species taking the dodo trail in the pursuit of cash just a bit - well - tasteless?

[Paddy Power's] Mr Robertson countered with the opposite notion. It's actually a positive thing for conservation, he said, because punters whose knowledge of the natural world extends to horses and greyhounds might discover a bit more in the process of trying to beat the odds.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Diver Down: Inside The BP Slick

While the nut-job reporting detracts from it (I mean, the reporter actually says, "As bad as the pictures have been for more than a month now, you really don't get the full scope by looking at the surface."), this ABC News video is among the first that I've seen dipping beneath the surface of BP's gushing gift to Mother Nature.

But what it thankfully does is draw attention to the woeful inadequacies of the "dispersant approach" to such spills. Philippe Cousteau sounds like one of those who don't put a lot of stock in the effects of such toxic cocktails.

Making The Rounds: Anglerfish Dimorphism

This cartoon's a little salty with the language, but hey, anglerfish can be like that sometimes.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Why Dolphins Don't Read 'Spy'

"The Onion" on dolphin intelligence and why "Spy" magazine never caught on among cetaceans:
GALVESTON, TX—A study conducted by marine biologists at Texas A&M University has found that bottlenose dolphins, long thought to be among the most intelligent members of the animal kingdom, are "utterly incapable" of pointing out the flaws of celebrities and knocking them down a peg or two.

What's The Hand Signal For Komodo Dragon?

A great story of the dive of a lifetime, which nearly cost these five divers theirs.

In Like A Lionfish, Out Like A Spam

There's been a lot of talk about the growing number of lionfish in the Western Atlantic, Caribbean and even farther south -- I guess summering off the U.S. coast and wintering Bob Marlin and The Whalers-style. These are places -- oceans, even -- where you're not "supposed" to find lionfish. Aquarium lovers are thought to be the culprits.

But the result is that they're eating up lots of local fish and crustaceans that aren't used to evading this particular predator, which eats a lot. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey's Nonindigenous Aquatic Species list points out that the lionfish is a fairly undiscriminating eater, or rather one that's happy to go with the flow:
The species is relatively quick to adapt to novel prey types, and quickly learns to avoid noxious prey (Fishelson 1997)
They're eating baby lobsters, fer chrissakes! One of the most vexing problems is that there's not much that'll eat a lionfish, aside from a bigger lionfish. So what to do?

Cue the most ravenous creature that's ever walked, crawled, swum, flown, or dived. NOAA's Renata Lana put it thusly: "They don't belong here, and we should just eat them all." Here's a recent AP video highlighting the problem (Am I missing something, by the way? What does this problem have to do with "going green"?)

Cioppino, sautee, sushi, stir-fry. Pick your poison. Er, their poison. Sounds good to me...Californian and Russian sushi aficionados are presumably getting bored with their whale meat anyways. Bring. It. On.

So here's an idea. If you've been night diving around lionfish, you know that these spiny beasts are suckers for a bright white dose of incandescence (see video below; not great quality, but it shows their annoying predilection for your flashlight). And lots of them will stay at it for a long, long least through any no-decompression limits of mine. Restaurateurs could set up shop surfside and, figuratively speaking, let diver-diners with bright torches frog-march their own lionfish dinners into the shallows and the waiting pan of a great chef.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Not Just A Gulf Disaster

CNN quotes Carl Safina saying about the BP oil cataclysm what many people are afraid to admit:

The damaging effects of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be felt all the way to Europe and the Arctic, a top scientist told a congressional panel Friday.

"This is not just a regional issue for the wildlife," said Carl Safina, the president of the Blue Ocean Institute. Safina, who recently returned from the Gulf Coast region, presented several photographs, including one of an oil-covered bird.

"There will be a nest empty in Newfoundland," Safina said, noting common migratory patterns. Safina warned that multiple forms of marine life in the Atlantic Ocean "come into the Gulf to breed."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Slugfest In The Philippines

The California Academy of Science's Terry Gosliner invites us to tag along as he and other mollusca-philes (I made that up) dive in search of new and exciting species of nudibranch.

Gosliner's post has it all: unbridled excitement at night diving, electric-blue slug sex under the lights, and the thrill of victory. Mama, let your boys (and girls) grow up to be biologists:

Thirty minutes into the dive, our dive guide Alexis swam over with a plastic box he uses to collect special animals he finds. Inside was a three-inch specimen of Kalinga. Kalinga is a member of a group of nudibranchs that feed on tiny colonial animals called bryozoans. By day it is buried in the sand and by night it comes out and feeds on small organisms living in the sand. You can watch its mouth parts being extended, and it is feeding on something, but we still don’t know what. Each observation opens up new questions. The work is never done. That is biological job security.
There's also a hopeful passage on a broader topic in Gosliner's first post from his weeklong trip to Anilao in the Philippines.

Not only that, it is one of the few places in the western Pacific where you can say that the reefs are in better shape now than they used to be. That is in large measure due to concerted conservation efforts by heroic community leaders and recognition that having abundant marine life attracts the scuba divers who flock here each spring and infuse the local economy.

I vividly remember the underwater dynamite blast that almost blew out my eardrums on my first trip here, and seeing twitching, dying fish next to me....

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Global Temperatures: Hot Stuff From The NOAA

By land or by sea, it was the hottest January-April on record -- that is, since 1880 -- according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

Here's the money shot:
The combined global land and ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for both April and for the period from January-April, according to NOAA. Additionally, last month’s average ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for any April, and the global land surface temperature was the third warmest on record.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Gray Whale's Club Med Holiday

A North Atlantic population of Gray Whales once inhabited the shallows of Europe (including the Mediterranean) and Iceland (where it was described as a "sand-lier") and the east coast of North America.

Once. Before its extinction. (It's the Introduction of Richard Ellis's excellent, if depressing, "The Empty Ocean.")

In the Pacific Ocean, Gray Whales were thought to have numbered around 26,000 (and rising) early last decade.

Now, it appears that (at least) one of those animals is testing not just Atlantic waters, but the waters of the eastern Mediterranean! It's been confirmed. (And everybody wants a piece of the action.)

This strikes me as one of those stories that will take some time to sort out, although we might never know the answers to key questions. Is it a lone individual (it's kind of a species of loners)? What path did this one take from the Pacific, which is almost certainly what happened, since Gray Whales have been gone from the Atlantic for hundreds of years? How does a 10-15 meter-long, coast-loving cetacean get so far without anybody noticing? And of course, will others follow?

Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology has a great post on the Gray Whale's history and some of his own questions on this animal's appearing trick.

(C)oral Arguments

So we already traipse en masse all over delicate seaside organisms, befuddle nesting turtles with obscene amounts of light, and cut the olfactory trails that lead baby anemone fish home.

Now, it turns out, the noise we make might be luring baby corals away from their habitats.

Lots of buzz about some (mostly Dutch) scientists concluding that baby corals don't just float passively but somehow direct themselves toward the sounds of a reef -- the clicking, snapping, etc. It's not clear that it's "swimming," exactly, but they're orienting themselves to get to where the action is.

"Discover Magazine's" website had the details, but "The Guardian" and others carried the news, too.

Here's the best of's blog post:
It seems bizarre that a simple coral larva could hear sound but we’re probably still thinking about these animals as rocky reefs rather than the living animals they encase. Previous studies have shown that coral larvae can see (detect light), touch (respond to textures) and smell (detect chemicals). Now, we know that they can also hear. Vermeij thinks that they do it with tiny hairs called cilia that coat their bodies.

As sound waves move through the sea, they cause water molecules and other particles to move up and down. These jiggling particles waggle the cilia, telling the corals where to head.

For the moment, it’s not clear if the larvae can tell the difference between reef sounds and general underwater noises. That’s an important question because the oceans are becoming noisier places, thanks to shipping, industry, drilling and military tests. This cacophony can easily drown out the sound of shrimps and fish. Underwater noise pollution already poses a problem for many animals including whales and dolphins. Do corals, many of which are already facing extinction, face the same problems?
Many already suspect that whales are being adversely affected by the sonar (and other) bombardments from military activities. It's achingly clear to anyone who's spent any time at all under a popular dive site as boats jockey for position that such hot spots feel like the pits at the Indianapolis 500. How's a little larva supposed to cope?

Friday, May 14, 2010

'Cuz I'm Lonely, And I'm Blue...'

Those are lyrics from the nattily dressed Fontella Bass song "Rescue Me."

A French dive buddy called Pascal once told me the Rescue Diver course was his favorite because you do all the other courses for yourself; but you do Rescue Diver training for everybody else.

I got a kick out of this account, by "Samaka" (Anders Jälmsjö) on Scuba Jedi, of eventful Rescue Diver days on a liveaboard in the Red Sea.

But given the title, I was a little surprised that not everything that happened in Egypt actually stayed in Egypt.

Not all diver rescues are of the human variety, by the way. Sharks need love, too.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tall Tails

So Common Thresher Sharks really do whip small fish with their tails to kill or stun them.

I had thought this was fairly well established. But I guess these days no notion gets any respect until it's been caught on video.

But this aspect, courtesy of BBC, I did not know:

The discovery explains why thresher sharks are often caught by their tails by baited long-line fishing gear....

Fishermen often return sharks after the struggle of the catch, but because threshers tend to be caught by their tails, they have difficult breathing underwater when hooked.

BP's Oil Cataclysm And Your Hometown

Just how big is BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster so far? Well, go here to see the magnitude of the spill in comparison to where you live. (If you're the do-it-yourself type, you can find that here.)

The Eyes Have It

Stumbled across this video from last year of the Macropinna microstoma, a deepwater fish with a see-through head that no one appears to want to give a common name. (It's in the barreleye family; being no expert, it's binomial nomenclature looks like "Big-fin small-mouth" to me.)

The fish have been dragged to the surface for decades, but that inevitably leaves their delicate, fluid-filled frontal region mangled beyond recognition. The video is from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Damned If You Don't: Saving Turtles One Animal At A Time

["Damned If You Don't" are occasional discoveries that I think you'd regret not seeing.]

There's a terrific, encouraging feature by Amy Sutherland for on rescue efforts that begin at Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, where Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles wash up after getting trapped in the cold bay waters.

They're mostly suffering from hypothermia and dehydration, and many are already dead or have one flipper in the grave by the time scientists or volunteers find them. But these folks do what they can, and in many cases save these endangered individuals (a tagged survivor turned up last summer to nest in Texas).
“Welcome to the real world, Bud,” a volunteer in surgical scrubs says to a turtle that she plucks out of a box. She lays the seemingly lifeless animal on an examining table. Jill Gary, a biologist with the aquarium, sinks a needle into the back of its neck and draws out thick, maroon-colored blood. Gary squirts yellow antiseptic into the animal’s eyes and checks the cornea for scratches. The volunteer has been holding a monitor to the turtle’s heart. “I’ve had only one heartbeat so far,” she says.

Gary inserts a rectal thermometer into the turtle and the animal springs to life....
This is my favorite "did you know...?" passage:
Charlie Innis, the aquarium’s head veterinarian, says the animals die if they warm up too quickly. As the turtle’s temperature rises, pathogenic bacteria that have lain dormant in its body also revive. The turtle’s immune system, compromised by hypothermia, isn’t up to the fight. The turtles are also susceptible to fungal infections. The main danger is pneumonia—about 20 percent of the turtles have it when they arrive, and perhaps 25 percent will contract it here.

The biologists have learned it’s best to warm the turtles by about five degrees a day....
As you can see, it's well-written and informative, and there's a (sappily sentimental) video component, too.

Webcast On Underwater Pioneers

Smithsonian Institution, National Science Foundation and the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council are going to webcast live on May 24-25 a Research and Discoveries seminar called "The Revolution of Science Through Scuba." It's something for all of us who grew up admiring Jacques Cousteau and kindred spirits like David Powell, the daring pioneers who have strapped on (or in some cases, invented!) tanks and taken the plunge in pursuit of undersea discovery. I'll be tuning in.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Piranha Shmiranha

I'm sorry, but I have to assume this is photoshopped until I see evidence to the contrary. Are you kidding me?!

The Octopus: Blessing In Disguise

Here's an enjoyable collection of vids, pics, and tidbits on the mimicry of octopuses. Not original, but The Conservation Report did us all the favor of collecting them.

Already great at simply blending in, I wonder at what stage in the grand struggle for survival an animal begins to try to take on the appearance of another living creature.

It's one thing (conceptually speaking) to simply try to look like the blade of seagrass next to you or the substrate under you; it's something else entirely to try to imitate some form of life that (presumably) at some point you've seen swimming nearby. Does this mean that an animal is thinking -- in the abstract, since none's around -- of some fish/snake/echinoderm that it's seen in the past?

And since we're on the topic of octopuses, why is it always eight? Eight arms. There are no species of octopus with more or fewer, are there? Not like starfish, for instance, which have varying numbers of rays. Is there something about eight arms that is just eminently practical -- like the argument that two eyes is logical because it's the minimum number to provide depth perception?

I dunno, I used to love eating octopus but quit after I'd had a lengthy dive encounter with one. Just too smart (and playful) to eat, I concluded. It was so eerie when I looked back and saw that he/she looked just like me. (I made that last part up.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Creature Costs

National Geographic has a typically beautiful photo gallery of some of the animals -- terns, turtles, tuna, and more -- at greatest risk from BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

What BP Hath Wrought

U.S. public broadcaster PBS has given us a grim ticker to follow the quantity of oil that's gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon drill site.

Hat tip: Dot Earth Blog.

One Cool Calamari

I'm a little fuzzy on the methodology, but scientists think the Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is more like Leatherface of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" than Freddy Kreuger of "Nightmare on Elm Street." It lies back and lets prey come to it (and doesn't eat so much) rather than stalking food sources.

BBC characterizes how they arrived at their conclusions about a cephalopod that's rarely seen by us humans:
(T)he team used a set of routine metabolic rates for other deep-sea squid species and extrapolated the data to match the colossal squid's size.

They also factored into their calculations the cold temperature of the Southern Ocean the squid inhabits.
It's slow, too:
"Our findings demonstrate that the colossal squid has a daily energy consumption 300-fold to 600-fold lower than those of other similar-sized top predators of the Southern Ocean, such as baleen and toothed whales," says (Dr. Rui Rosa from the University of Lisbon in Portugal, who undertook the study with Dr. Brad Seibel from the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, US.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

South America's 'Extreme' Right Whale Crisis

The last three years have seen lots of fatal beachings of endangered Southern Right Whales on the Argentine coast, according to this video report by Paul Byrne for globalpost. (Sorry, couldn't embed for some reason.) It says an uncanny 90 percent of the fatalities are calves.

A scientist working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Andrea Chirife, calls it "the most extreme whale mortality event ever observed in the South Atlantic."

The culprit -- whether manmade or not -- is unclear. Right whales are notoriously slow-swimming and conspicuous, given their proclivity for the shallows and their acrobatics.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fuels Rush In...

"Energy of electromagnetic radiation is stored in oil, a fossil fuel, retrieved by an oil rig."

That line, from Dorling Kindersley's "Visual Encyclopedia," makes an oil rig seem like such a benign and reliable tool.

It is difficult to reconcile with images and informed reports of the devastation as a torrent of BP crude oil engulfs a huge swath of the Gulf of Mexico (that's a NASA photo) in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. (Because area on the surface of the sea is a tough thing for most people to get their heads around, media keep comparing its size to things like Delaware, Jamaica, etc.)

Carl Safina, who in my view consistently strikes a constructive balance between the practical and the paramount, points out in his "Spill Baby Spill" post that anodyne descriptions of oil rigs are also misleadingly reassuring.

First he quotes someone questioning the use of the word "spill" when we're talking about a disaster of this scale. ("Milk spills. A can of oil spills.")

But then Safina gets to the nub of the problem, after quoting U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as calling it a "very, very rare event."
I say the spill’s a very, very inevitable event. Especially with 30,000 wells drilled. Thirty thousand. There are roughly 4,000 wells producing oil there.

In 2007 the federal Minerals Management Service examined 39 rig blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico between 1992 and 2006 [].

So, a blowout every four months.
It reminds me of an eye-opening statistic provided by Peter Apps of Reuters at the height of the air-travel crisis sparked by that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano!
Governments face a difficult decision. Between 20,000 and 22,000 flights a day fly in European airspace, so even if 99.9 percent suffered no serious ill effects, that would still see 20 planes a day suffering damage or engine failure.
It's mind-blowing, though, to see how dismissive societies can be of the oil-rig failures, presumably because they represent such an indirect threat to us humans. After all, it's not like passenger jets are falling out of the sky or anything.

Worst Of All Possible Times For BP Spill

This article in "The New York Times" piles more bad news on what we're seeing playing itself out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Spring is mating and spawning season for almost everything in the gulf: Fill a jar with plankton from the local waters in the spring and it will typically contain the larvae of 80 species. All the eggs and hatchlings are surface dwellers, with almost no ability to swim away from the slick.