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
August 3, 2012
Octopoteuthis deletron, a species of squid found deep in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, has many natural predators: elephant seals, giant grenadier fish and the mysterious Perrin’s beaked whale.
To protect itself, the squid has developed a a rather unusual defensive mechanism, recently discovered by cephalopod researcher Stephanie Bush of the University of Rhode Island: When attacked, the squid plants its arms in its predator and then breaks them off. While seemingly counterproductive, there’s a reason for this tactic.
“If a predator is trying to attack them, they may dig the hooks on their arms into the predator’s skin. Then the squid jets away and leaves its arm tips stuck to the predator,” Bush explains. “The wriggling, bioluminescing arms might give the predator pause enough to allow the squid to get away.” In the squid’s extremely dark habitat—anywhere from 1,300 to 2,600 feet below the surface—this distracting, flashing “disarmament” could be the difference between staying alive and getting eaten.
Scientists have known for some time that lizards and other land-based species can voluntarily detach their appendages to elude predators, a tactic they call “arm autonomy.” But Bush’s discovery, revealed in a paper published this month in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, is the first ever documented case of a squid engaging in the practice.
Bush says she first became interested in looking into the phenomenon when she was working as a researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and noticed that many wild squid had extremely blunt arms that seemed to be in the process of regenerating. Scientists had speculated that damage caused by researchers’ nets was the underlying reason, but Bush wasn’t so sure. So she and her colleagues sent a remotely-controlled submersible equipped with a video camera deep into the waters of the Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon, found a squid and poked it with the control arm of the vehicle.
“The very first time we tried it, the squid spread its arms wide and it was lighting up like fireworks,” she says. Because the metal control arm was smooth, though, the squid’s arms slid off of it without detaching.
The team then came up with a makeshift solution: They attached a brush used to clean their laboratory glassware to the control arm of the vehicle and then used that to poke the squid. “It then came forward and grabbed the bottlebrush and jetted backwards, leaving two arms on the bottlebrush,” recounts Bush. “We think the hooks on its arms latched onto the bristles of the brush, and that was enough for the arms to just pop off.” Luckily, the team caught the fascinating encounter on camera for us to enjoy.
Bush later found other squid of the same species and repeated the test. Although some were more hesitant to discharge their arms than others, fighting back against the fearsome bottlebrush at first, all engaged in the unusual tactic after sufficient provocation. None of the other squid species she tested did the same. The species appeared to discharge their arms efficiently: Looking under a microscope afterward, Bush saw that most arms were torn as close as possible to the stress point, minimizing the amount of tissue lost.
The squid can regrow their arms, but that takes energy, and swimming around without an arm or two could make capturing food and mating more difficult (the bioluminescent organ on the arms’ tips are used to attract mates). Still, the strategy is a smart one under sufficiently dire circumstances. “There is definitely an energy cost associated with this behavior,” Bush says, “but the cost is less than being dead.”
October 31, 2011
It’s Halloween and if you don’t have a costume yet, obviously you’ve got little time to put one together. But that’s OK, because we’ve dug up a few ideas for easy costumes with a science theme:
1 ) Mad Scientist: Yes, it’s an obvious one, but it will be easy to put together. All you need is messy hair, a geeky t-shirt (if you don’t have one, just take a plain shirt and write a few equations on it) and/or white lab coat, perhaps some safety goggles or protective gloves, and a glass container (a beaker or Erlenmeyer flask would be nice) with some colored liquid, bubbling away with the addition of some dry ice.
2 ) The Pacific Garbage Patch: This idea, from the Mother Nature Network, requires only some blue clothing and whatever bits of plastic you’ve got lying around the house. Glue or otherwise attach the plastic bits in a large patch to your outfit, get a little background info on the problem so you can inform anyone who asks, and you’ll be good to go.
3 ) Schrödinger’s Cat: This is a classic example of a feature of quantum physics in which something can be in two states simultaneously. Schrödinger’s Cat is in a box and is both dead and alive. For this costume, you’ll need a box to wear (at least over your head, like idea number 1 here) with a flap cut out for your face. Give yourself whiskers and a cute cat nose.
4 ) Squid: There are plenty of reasons to love these undersea creatures. But the ability to make a squid hat using nothing more than paper and a couple of CDs (as seen here on Discoblog) is another.
5 ) Dark Energy or Dark Matter: Find a “My Name Is” sticker and write “Dark Energy” or “Dark Matter” on it. No one knows what either of them looks like, so your guess (whatever you’re wearing) is as good as any other.
(And if you haven’t yet carved your pumpkin, be sure to check out these ideas from around the Smithsonian.)