January 27, 2009
Blennies aren’t the prettiest of nature’s creatures. About as long as a roll of quarters, with big eyes and a gaping mouth, the fish are loved by scientists for their ecology more than their beauty. With over 800 species across the oceans, they are one of the world’s most diverse fish families. By studying differences in blenny color, shape, size, location and diet, scientists can theorize how and why each member of the species branched off from the rest of the group.
With so many fish in the sea, keeping track of all this information can be tricky. To help, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute developed interactive tools to map diversity in all fishes. Their first Web-based information system, created late last year, lists the nearly 1,300 species of fish of the isolated Tropical Eastern Pacific ocean range, which extends from the coasts of Southern California to Northern Peru and as far west as the Galapagos.
“The area acts as a laboratory to study evolutionary change that we know happened, [after the formation of the isthmus of Panama divided the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans], approximately 2.8 million years ago,” says Smithsonian scientist D. Ross Robertson, who co-created the research tool with Gerald Allen of Conservation International.
Robertson and Allen, who in 1992 first described the twin-spot triplefin blenny, (pictured above), are now diving in the waters around the Caribbean to collect and photograph local fish for their next Website. “Photographs of live or freshly collected fishes are important aids for identification,” Robertson says. “And systems such as this can incorporate far more than a book can.”
Although the website is designed to help scientists identify fish species, spot patterns of diversity and plan conservation efforts, anyone can enjoy the ‘Random Images‘ tab, which cycles through the over 2,800 pictures of tropical fish found on the site. If a flounder or eel catches your eye, more general reader information can be found at the Encyclopedia of Life or Wikipedia.
December 11, 2008
For a while after scientists (and Al Gore!) first started talking about global warming, it seemed like biofuels might be the magic solution to our energy needs.
Made from corn, sugarcane, palm oil, soybeans and various other organic matter, biofuels burn “clean,” which means that they don’t contribute to climate change nearly as much as fossil fuels like coal. And farmers can grow a new crop every year, meaning the supply is almost limitless.
(Fossil fuels power industrial production, transportation, electricity, sewage treatment…basically, everything. But when burned, fossil fuels release tons—literally, tons—of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This excess carbon dioxide traps heat. The research is still ongoing, but scientists say the consequences of a warmer planet may include melting ice caps and more “extreme weather events” like tornadoes and hurricanes.)
But researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute warn that these fuels, too, should be approached with caution.
The STRI scientists suspect that farmers in the tropics—which is where most biofuel crops are grown—are chopping down rainforests to make space for crops like sugarcane and soy. What’s wrong with that?
Trees, particularly those in the rainforest, store carbon dioxide and keep it out of the atmosphere. But when a tree is cut down, it releases its store of carbon dioxide into the air.
So if farmers are cutting down rainforests to produce biofuel—and researchers believe that this is what’s happening—then their attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions might actually increase carbon dioxide emissions.
Talk about a vicious cycle.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” says William Laurance, one of the STRI researchers who warned against deforestation. “We need to conserve, conserve, conserve.”
That means we’re back at the beginning: less use of all fuels, bio and fossil alike.
September 24, 2008
The seaweed may usually look greener on somebody else’s plate, but I’m unconvinced that 3-D movies are going to be better than 2-D, at least not anytime soon. Putting my technologically conservative notions to the test, I was invited to attend a screening of the new IMAX film Deep Sea 3-D.
On entering the theater I was handed a pair of red plastic 3-D glasses with gray lenses. (Apparently the classic kitschy blue and red lenses with white frames have been 86’d. Who called the fashion police?) Being ocularly challenged myself I spent the first ten minutes in my seat trying to figure out which goes on my face first: my corrective lenses or my 3-D ones. The glasses are one-size-fits-all, which is perfectly true if your head is the size of a cantaloupe. While I could physically fit the pliable plastic glasses on my face with ease, the lenses never covered my full range of vision. I had to train my eyes to look through the two-sizes-too-small lenses, which wasn’t hard, but I never have to futz around like this with 2-D movies.
But oh, it was worth it.
Nature films are tailor made for the 3-D IMAX format and Deep Sea 3-D is an eye-popping 41-minute survey of strange and exotic sea life seemingly brought inches in front of your face. It’s one of the few times where the 3-D effect feels like an organic part of the film. The image always has a marvelous illusion of depth and objects are only jumping out at you when it’s appropriate.
Indeed, the idea of three-dimensional movies is part and parcel of the tao of IMAX: to completely immerse the viewer in the film. And I think Deep Sea succeeded in that respect. I sat in my seat grinning like an idiot during the opening shots where a swarm of jellyfish seemingly swam at me from all angles to gently pulse around my head. The corals were also pretty spectacular, as were the fighting squid and screaming sea scallops. Heck, the whole thing was a lot of fun.
As much as I enjoyed the film, I have to say that the 3-D process still needs some work. 2-D movies still provide higher fidelity images. In some of the 3-D shots, there was ghosting and other minor image distortions—technical issues that need to be ironed out if 3-D is to avoid going the way of Cinerama. Oh, and I’m still not cool with the glasses.
Deep Sea 3-D is great family entertainment and should also be of interest to 3-D enthusiasts. (During a post-screening lecture given by film producer Toni Myers, I saw a guy a few rows ahead of me snap a picture of her with a 3-D digital camera. I thought that was pretty awesome.)
Deep Sea 3-D opens to the general public on September 26 at the Johnson IMAX Theater in conjunction with the grand opening of the Natural History Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall.
Where do you think the future of theatrical film presentation is going? Will 3-D save movie theaters from the Internet? Some people have their doubts, like movie critic Roger Ebert in his movie blog. Take our poll or discuss the topic in the comments area below!
September 7, 2007
In December 1982, Benjamin Victor, founder of the coral reef research initiative Ocean Science Foundation, was diving in a reef just offshore of a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute field station when he scooped up an adult goby. The fish looked slightly different from its Atlantic goby kin, but its features weren’t unique enough to declare it a new species.
Victor suspected that the differences ran deep in the goby’s genetic makeup, but the species identification system, based purely on physical identifiers such as markings, numbers of fins and shapes of bones, failed him. He would need a second specimen and DNA analysis. So the specimen sat, and sat–on Victor’s desk, actually–for close to 25 years.
In March 2006, Dave Jones of the National Marine Fisheries Service collected a larval specimen reminiscent of Victor’s goby in a trap off of Mexico’s Yucatan. From there, the new taxonomic technique of barcoding allowed Victor to match the DNA of the larva with that of the adult and declare the goby a new species, one that diverges from its Atlantic goby kin by a whopping 25 percent (keep in mind: humans and chimpanzees are only 1-2 percent different).
The fish’s claim to fame is that its identity has been nailed down by a DNA barcode. The barcode, taken from an agreed-upon location in the genome, acts like a consumer product’s barcode in that it seals the deal in terms of identification.
Named Coryphopterus kuna, the goby has become the first vertebrate species to have its DNA barcode included in its official species description. About 30,000 known species, from mushrooms to birds, have been barcoded, but in all cases, the species were found and scientifically described before the barcodes were created. The Barcode of Life Initiative, of which the Smithsonian Institution is a partner, is urging that the short DNA strands be collected and put in an open-access database.
“There was no way to make it easy and consistent to identify a fish. You usually had to be an expert and would have to have a good adult specimen to examine and then it was your opinion,” says Victor of taxonomy pre-barcoding. “Now anyone with access to barcoding technology can say for sure, the sequence matches species X, even if what you have is an egg, larva, or a scale or piece of skin.”
(Courtesy of STRI)