April 25, 2013
Penguins seem a bit out of place on land, with their stand-out black jackets and clumsy waddling. But once you see their grace in the water, you know that’s where they’re meant to be–they are well-adapted to life in the ocean.
1. Depending on which scientist you ask, there are 17–20 species of penguins alive today, all of which live in the southern half of the globe. The most northerly penguins are Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), which occasionally poke their heads north of the equator.
2. While they can’t fly through the air with their flippers, many penguin species take to the air when they leap from the water onto the ice. Just before taking flight, they release air bubbles from their feathers. This cuts the drag on their bodies, allowing them to double or triple their swimming speed quickly and launch into the air.
4. Penguins don’t wear tuxedos to make a fashion statement: it helps them be camouflaged while swimming. From above, their black backs blend into the dark ocean water and, from below, their white bellies match the bright surface lit by sunlight. This helps them avoid predators, such as leopard seals, and hunt for fish unseen.
5. The earliest known penguin fossil was found in 61.6 million-year old Antarctic rock, about 4-5 million years after the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. Waimanu manneringi stood upright and waddled like modern day penguins, but was likely more awkward in the water. Some fossil penguins were much larger than any penguin living today, reaching 4.5 feet tall!
6. Like other birds, penguins don’t have teeth. Instead, they have backward-facing fleshy spines that line the inside of their mouths. These help them guide their fishy meals down their throat.
7. Penguins are carnivores: they feed on fish, squid, crabs, krill and other seafood they catch while swimming. During the summer, an active, medium-sized penguin will eat about 2 pounds of food each day, but in the winter they’ll eat just a third of that.
8. Eating so much seafood means drinking a lot of saltwater, but penguins have a way to remove it. The supraorbital gland, located just above their eye, filters salt from their bloodstream, which is then excreted through the bill—or by sneezing! But this doesn’t mean they chug seawater to quench their thirst: penguins drink meltwater from pools and streams and eat snow for their hydration fix.
9. Another adaptive gland—the oil (also called preen) gland—produces waterproofing oil. Penguins spread this across their feathers to insulate their bodies and reduce friction when they glide through the water.
10. Once a year, penguins experience a catastrophic molt. (Yes, that’s the official term.) Most birds molt (lose feathers and regrow them) a few at a time throughout the year, but penguins lose them all at once. They can’t swim and fish without feathers, so they fatten themselves up beforehand to survive the 2–3 weeks it takes to replace them.
11. Feathers are quite important to penguins living around Antarctica during the winter. Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) have the highest feather density of any bird, at 100 feathers per square inch. In fact, the surface feathers can get even colder than the surrounding air, helping to keep the penguin’s body stays warm.
12. All but two penguin species breed in large colonies for protection, ranging from 200 to hundreds of thousands of birds. (There’s safety in numbers!) But living in such tight living quarters leads to an abundance of penguin poop—so much that it stains the ice! The upside is that scientists can locate colonies from space just by looking for dark ice patches.
13. Climate change will likely affect different penguin species differently—but in the Antarctic, it appears that the loss of krill, a primary food source, is the main problem. In some areas with sea ice melt, krill density has decreased 80 percent since the 1970s, indirectly harming penguin populations. However, some colonies of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) have grown as the melting ice exposes more rocky nesting areas.
14. Of the 17 penguin species, the most endangered is New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes): only around 4,000 birds survive in the wild today. But other species are in trouble, including the erect-crested penguin (Eudyptes sclateri) of New Zealand, which has lost approximately 70 percent of its population over the past 20 years, and the Galapagos penguin, which has lost more than 50 percent since the 1970s.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
March 29, 2013
If you were to hit the seafloor and continue to travel down, you’d run into an ecosystem unlike any other on earth. Beneath several hundred meters of seafloor sediment is the Earth’s crust: thick layers of lava rock running with cracks that cover around 70% of the planet’s surface. Seawater flows through the cracks, and this system of rock-bound rivulets is enormous: it’s the largest aquifer on earth, containing 4% of global ocean volume, says Mark Lever, an ecologist who studies anaerobic (no-oxygen) carbon cycling at Aarhus University in Denmark.
The sub-seafloor crust may also be the largest ecosystem on earth, according to a new study by Lever, published this month in Science. For seven years, he incubated 3.5 million-year old basalt rock collected from 565 meters below the ocean floor–the depth of nearly two stacked Eiffel towers–and found living microbes. These microbes live far away from the thriving bacterial communities at mid-ocean ridges, and survive by slowly churning sulfur and other minerals into energy.
But just how big is this chemically-fueled ecosystem that survives entirely without oxygen? If the results from his sample, collected from below the seafloor off the coast of Washington state, are similar to those found across the planet, then diverse microbial communities could survive throughout the ocean’s crust, covering two-thirds of the earth’s surface and potentially going miles deep.
The sub-seafloor crust has plenty of space and energy-rich minerals–a welcoming potential habitat for a large microbial community–“but we have no idea what the ecosystem looks like,” says Julie Huber, a microbial oceanographer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Mark’s evidence would point to it being a very different world.”
Microbes that get their energy from minerals, rather than from sunlight, are far from rare. The most well known of these so-called chemoautotrophic or chemosynthetic bacteria are those found at hydrothermal vents in the deep sea. Some of these bacteria live symbiotically with giant tubeworms, mussels and clams, providing chemically-produced energy to these larger organisms as they “breathe” the sulfur-rich water erupting from the vent–not unlike how plants convert sunlight into energy at the surface. Chemosynthetic microbes are also found in the rotting and oxygen-poor muck of salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass beds—“any place you’ve got stinky black mud, you can have chemoautotrophy,” says Chuck Fisher, a deep-sea biologist at Pennsylvania State University in College Park.
But what makes Lever’s sub-seafloor microbes different is that they don’t use any oxygen at all. The symbiotic bacteria at hydrothermal vents are often described as “life without sunlight,” but they still rely on sunlight indirectly by using sun-produced oxygen in the chemical reaction to generate energy. Chemosynthetic microbes in salt marshes feed on decomposing plants and animals, which got their energy from sunlight. Even deep-sea sediment is accumulated from an assortment of dead animals, plants, microbes and fecal pellets that relies on light energy.
The oceanic crust microbes, on the other hand, rely entirely on
non-oxygen-containing molecules derived from rock and completely removed from photosynthesis, such as sulfate, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. “In that sense it’s a parallel universe, in that it runs on a different type of energy,” says Lever. These molecules provide a lot less energy than oxygen, creating a sort of microbial slow food movement. So instead of dividing and growing quickly like many oxygen-based bacteria, Fisher suspects that microbes in the Earth’s crust may divide once every hundred or thousand years.
But just because they’re slow doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. “There are lots of data that there is a large, very productive biosphere under the surface,” says Fisher.
In addition, microbial population sizes in different areas of the crust may vary greatly, Huber notes. Through her studies on the fluid found between the cracks in the crust, she says that in some areas the fluid contains about the same number of microbes as standard deep-sea water collected at ocean depths of 4,000 meters (2.5 miles): around 10,000 microbial cells per milliliter. In other regions, such as at the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean where Lever found his microbes, there are fewer cells, around 8,000 microbes per milliliter. And in other regions, such as in non-oxygenated fluid deep in hydrothermal vents, there can be around 10 times more.
It’s not just the number of microbes that vary depending on location–it’s possible that different microbial species are found in different types of crust. “Different types of rock and different types of chemistry should result in different types of microbes,” says Andreas Teske, a deep-sea microbial ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author on Lever’s paper. The Juan de Fuca Ridge is a relatively hot area bursting with new rock, which tends to be made of more reactive minerals and thus able to provide more energy. Other parts of the crust are older, composed of different minerals, and cooler. And, in some regions, oxygenated water reaches down to the cracks.
It’s this infiltrating seawater that keeps this sub-seafloor ecosystem from existing on a completely separate plane from our oxygenated one. “The crust plays a significant role in influencing the chemical composition of the ocean and the atmosphere, ultimately influencing [nutrient] cycles on earth,” says Lever. Some of the compounds created by oceanic crust microbes from rock are water soluble, and will eventually enter the ocean. Sulfur, for example, is present in magma—but after the microbes use it for energy, it’s converted to sulfate. Then it dissolves and becomes an important nutrient in the ocean food chain.
Lever’s find of a microbial community in the crust could catalyze the scientific community to answer these questions. For example, what kinds of microbes are found where, do they interact through interconnected cracks in the rock, and what role do they play in mineral and nutrient cycling? In some ways, it’s very basic exploratory work. “A lot of what we do on the seafloor is similar to what we’re doing on Mars right now,” says Huber. “Controlling [NASA’s Mars Rover] Curiosity is very similar to operating an ROV under the ocean.”
February 8, 2013
Invertebrates close-up never fail to please: with their bright colors and strange structures, they begin to take on patterns that are more art than animal.
So is true of this series of close-up photographs of starfish taken by researcher and photographer Alexander Semenov. But it isn’t enough to call them art: why are all those finger-like appendages waving around? And what are those bulbous spikes (or floral bouquets, if you’re feeling romantic)?
Lucky for us, two floors up from the Ocean Portal office sits Dr. Chris Mah, an expert on echinoderms (a group of ocean animals that includes starfish, sea urchins and brittle stars) at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He helped us to fill in some of the details.
The Worm-Like Soft Bits: The vast garden of waving worms isn’t a starfish experiment in cultivation, but how they breathe on the seafloor. Sea stars breathe passively, letting oxygen-rich seawater flow over those finger-like sacs, called papulae, which peek through the cracks in their protective plates. Like fish gills, papulae absorb the oxygen in seawater.
Such fleshy little fingers would make an excellent snack for a passing shrimp or another small predator. To defend themselves, starfish can retract their papulae to make them less obvious targets, as this Mithrodia clavigera, pictured below, has done.
The Bald, Grooved Patches: Starfish are powered by plumbing: a series of pipes carry food and oxygen through their bodies. Water pressure builds up in these pipes, which helps to support their bodies. It was long-thought that this water pressure also created suction, allowing starfish’s hundreds of tiny tube feet to attach to surfaces and slowly creep across the seafloor. But recent research has suggested that tube feet are more like sticky pads than suction cups.
How does water get in and out of this plumbing system? It goes through the sieve plate (also called a madreporite), a small bald patch on the starfish that, close up, looks like a tiny, grooved maze. While it’s not the only way that water can enter the plumbing, it’s a major intake valve for starfish.
Most starfish only have one sieve plate, but larger ones with many arms can have far more. For example, the coral-devouring crown of thorns starfish can have up to 15 to power its many arms. And starfish that reproduce asexually by splitting their bodies in half sometimes end up with more than one.
The Spiked Clubs: Humans aren’t the only species that came up with the mace as weaponry. Instead of being offensive tools, starfish spines (as they’re known) protect them from the smothering force of mud and debris. It’s likely that they also protect against predators, but a starfish’s first line of defense is stinky and poisonous chemicals.
Not all starfish spines are spiky. These purple spines of Evasterias retifera (below) in a field of orange papulae are low and stubby with lovely white notches. Other species have more architectural spines shaped like pyramids or tall spires.
The Tiny, Bitey Mouths: A slow-moving lifestyle puts starfish in danger of becoming overgrown with algae or other encrusting organisms. As a defense, many starfish are speckled with small, extendable “claws” called pedicellariae, which you can see in the photo below. In some species, the pedicellariae surround the spines and, if the starfish is threatened, will extend out to the spine’s full height! In other species, they are flat and spread out over the starfish’s skin. “They can look like a pair of lips or small jaws,” said Mah. “They probably look like monsters if you’re small enough to appreciate them.”
January 10, 2013
Whenever anyone talks about ocean acidification, they discuss vanishing corals and other shelled organisms. But these aren’t the only organisms affected—the organisms that interact with these vulnerable species will also change along with them.
These changes won’t necessarily be for the good of the shell and skeleton builders. New research published in Marine Biology shows that boring sponges eroded scallop shells twice as fast under the more acidic conditions projected for the year 2100. This makes bad news for the scallops even worse: not only will they have to cope with weakened shells from acidification alone, but their shells will crumble even more quickly after their cohabiters move in.
Boring sponges aren’t named thus because they’re mundane; rather, they make their homes by boring holes into the calcium carbonate shells and skeletons of animals like scallops, oysters and corals. Using chemicals, they etch into the shell and then mechanically wash away the tiny shell chips, slowly spreading holes within the skeleton or shell and sometimes across its surface. Eventually, these holes and tunnels can kill their host, but the sponge will continue to live there until the entire shell has eroded away.
Alan Duckworth of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and Bradley Peterson of Stony Brook University in New York brought boring sponges (Cliona celata) and scallops (Argopecten irradians) into the lab to examine the effects of temperature and acidity (measured through pH) on drilling behavior. They set up a series of saltwater tanks to compare how much damage sponges did to scallops under current temperature and ocean conditions (26°C and pH 8.1), projected conditions for 2100 (31°C and pH 7.8), and each 2100 treatment alone (31°C or pH 7.8).
Under higher acidity (lower pH), boring sponges drilled into scallop shells twice as fast, boring twice as many holes and removing twice as much shell over the course of the 133-day study. The lower pH alone weakened the shells, but after the boring sponges did their work, the scallop shells were an additional 28% weaker, making them more vulnerable to predation and collapse from the sponges’ structural damage.
The sponges weren’t entirely thrilled by the water’s higher acidity, which killed 20% of the them (although the researchers aren’t sure why). Despite this loss, 80% of the sponges doing twice as much drilling meant more damage to shelled organisms in total. Temperature did not affect sponge behavior at all.
This study illustrates a classic positive feedback loop, where weakness in the shells leads to more weakness. And not through the sponge-drilled holes alone: the addition of sponge-drilled holes creates more surface area for acidification to further erode the shells, hastening each scallop’s inevitable collapse. It’s tempting to speculate out to the rest of the system—that the sponges are destroying their own habitat more quickly than scallops can produce it—but we don’t really know whether in the long run this is also bad news for the sponges.
Though a small and specific example, this study illustrates how a seemingly small change—more acid and weaker shells—can ripple out and affect other organisms and the rest of the ecosystem.
December 18, 2012
Despite covering 70 percent of the earth’s surface, the ocean doesn’t often make it into the news. But when it does, it makes quite a splash (so to speak). Here are the top ten ocean stories we couldn’t stop talking about this year, in no particular order. Add your own in the comments!
2012: The Year of the Squid From the giant squid’s giant eyes (the better to see predatory sperm whales, my dear), to the vampire squid’s eerie diet of remains and feces, the strange adaptations and behavior of these cephalopods amazed us all year. Scientists found a deep-sea squid that dismembers its own glowing arm to distract predators and make a daring escape. But fascinating findings weren’t relegated to the deep: at the surface, some squids will rocket themselves above the waves to fly long distances at top speeds.
James Cameron Explores the Deep Sea Filmmaker James Cameron has never shied away from marine movie plots (See: Titanic, The Abyss), but this year he showed he was truly fearless, becoming the first person to hit the deepest point on the seafloor (35,804 feet) in a solo submarine. While he only managed to bring up a single mud sample from the deepest region, he found thriving biodiversity in the other deep-sea areas his expedition explored, including giant versions of organisms found in shallow water.
Small Fish Make a Big Impact Forage fish—small, schooling fish that are gulped down by predators—should be left in the ocean for larger fish, marine mammals and birds to eat, according to an April report from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. These tiny fish, including anchovies, menhaden, herring and sardines, make up 37% of the world’s catch, but only 10% are consumed by people, with the rest processed into food for farmed fish and livestock. With the evidence mounting that forage fish are worth more as wild fish food, state governments and regional fishery management councils are making moves to protect them from overfishing.
Marine Debris and Plastic Get Around In June, a dock encrusted with barnacles, sea stars, crabs and other sea life washed ashore on the coast of Oregon. It had floated across the Pacific from a Japanese port more than 5,000 miles away—a small piece of the estimated 1.5 million tons of marine debris set afloat by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami. But that’s not the only trash in the sea. Researchers found ten times as much plastic in the “pristine” Antarctic oceans than they expected. Some species are even learning to adapt to the ubiquitous ocean plastic.
Taking Measure of Coral Reef Health Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef, so large it can be seen from space, is not doing well. An October study found that since 1986, half of the living coral has died because of warming water, predation and storm damage. And it’s not just Australia: the December Healthy Reefs report gave most Mesoamerican reefs a “poor” rating. It’s hard to escape that gloom, but there were glimmers of hope. Some coral species proved able to adapt to warmer water, and changing circulation caused by the warming ocean may create refuges for coral reef habitat.
Shark Finning Slowing Down? The fishing practice of shark finning—slicing off a shark’s fins before tossing it back in the ocean to slowly sink and suffocate—began its own slow death in 2012. A steady stream of U.S. states have banned the sale of shark fins
ning; the European Union will now require fisherman to land sharks with their fins on; four shark sanctuaries were created in American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Kosrae and French Polynesia; and, in July, China announced that official banquets would be prohibited from serving shark fin soup (although the ban may take up to three years to go into effect).
Arctic Sea Ice Hits All-Time Low On September 16, sea ice extent reached a record low in the Arctic, stretching 3.41 million square kilometers—that’s 49% lower than the 1979-2000 average minimum of 6.7 million square kilometers. What’s more, its melt rate is increasing: 2012 had the largest summer ice loss by more than one million square kilometers. This change is expected to affect ecosystems—from polar bears to phytoplankton—and accelerate warming in the area, eventually melting Greenland’s ice sheet and raising sea level dramatically.
Hurricane Sandy Elevates Awareness of Sea-Level Rise This year certainly opened our eyes to the severity of climate change and sea-level rise. The east coast of the U.S., where scientists project sea-level will rise three to four times faster than the global average, got a glimpse of its effects when Hurricane Sandy caused $65 billion in damage, took at least 253 lives, and flooded Manhattan’s subways in October. The disaster inspired The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek and other major news sources to take a closer look at climate change and what it means for us all.
Counting Ocean Animals from Space Scientists took advantage of satellite technology this year to learn more about ocean wildlife. The first satellite-driven census of an animal population discovered that there are twice as many emperor penguins in Antarctica as previously thought, including seven new colonies of the large flightless birds. A second study tracked the travels of sea turtles by satellite, which could help researchers get a better idea of where they might interact with fisheries and accidentally end up caught in a net.
The Ocean Gets a Grade The first tool to comprehensively assess ocean health was announced in August 2012—and the ocean as a whole received a score of 60 out of a possible 100. This tool, the Ocean Health Index, is novel in that it considered ten ways the ocean supports people, including economies, biodiversity, and recreation. The U.S. scored a 63, ranking 26th globally, while the uninhabited Jarvis Island took home an 86, the top grade of the 171 rated countries.
–Hannah Waters, Emily Frost and Amanda Feuerstein co-wrote this post