Happy Anniversary, Planet Earth! Episode 11: Ocean Deep

On this final installment of Planet Earth we go to the least explored, and vastest space on Earth, the oceans. So without further ado, let’s dive right in (pun intended)!

And because many of these species are found in the new summer movie, Finding Dory, I will attempt to use as many images from this movie as possible.

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We start with the whale shark, which are kind of tricky to evaluate because there is currently no robust estimate of the population size of whale sharks. These gentle giants have a long lifespan and slow maturation rate, which is one of the reasons they are listed as vulnerable. Additionally, the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred in prime whale shark feeding area. While it was confirmed that the massive sharks were sighted within the oil  spill, no dead whales were found (do whale sharks sink when dead?).

Competing with the whale shark for tiny delicious fish we have the Yellowfin Tuna. If you are a lover of sushi, or even just a casual liker of sushi, then you like yellowfin tuna. The dark fatty meat makes my mouth water. But this is the problem, as the population is rapidly declining due to overfishing. Big time. They are currently on the “sustainable sushi ” list of multiple different organizations (the fish you should avoid eating if you want your meal to be sustainable).

Speaking of massive filter feeders, we now shift our focus to the vulnerable manta rays. These giants are so evil looking (I mean come on, they practically have horns), it’s surprising that like the whale shark they primarily feed on plankton. They are threatened by overfishing, which is especially problematic given they tend to hang out in waters that are fished… because they like to eat. Capturing and hunting of manta rays is banned in many countries, but commercial fishing continues in others.

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Rounding out our discussion of massive animals that feed on tiny things, we need to spend a minute talking about the blue whale. The largest creature that has ever lived (yes, including dinosaurs, I asked and Sir David Attenborough answered) these graceful giants are endangered. Although not recently (This is supposed to be an update after all) The blue whale suffered from the heyday of whaling which brought the population almost to the brink. Additionally, they have a tendency to run into boats, get caught in fishing nets, and are still occasionally hunted (cough, Japanese, cough). However, the populations have recently seen a rise, which means they may be out of the woods! Assuming their food supply, krill, isn’t killed off too quickly due to global warming.

The septapus (an octopus who lost a set of arms) from Finding Dory.

The septapus (an octopus who lost a set of arms) from Finding Dory.

We know that corals around the world are dying (and if you don’t know, read about it here). Soft corals are not an exception to this rule, and since the airing of Planet Earth they have been dying. While our corals and many other species are declining, I recently posted the opposite trend, that cephlapods are in fact INCREASING. This include the adorable dumbo octopus we see, as well as the nautilus. And the septapus we know from Finding Dory.

The dumbo octopus, both real life and Pixar style

The dumbo octopus, both real life and Pixar style.

Finally, our knowledge and understanding of the life around ocean vents has catapulted forward, mostly due to the sequencing of every microbiome that has ever existed. And we love sequencing around ocean vents because the most basal of lifeforms, extremophiles, or archae bacteria, are found near ocean vents. In addition, they are promising for a number of initiatives including their propensity to eat things that we want to get rid of (read about it here).

Thank you for joining us as we revisit the Planet Earth series!

Paying the Price of Protecting Pandas

I don’t like pandas. This is not a secret, but I often get flack because they are so cute and so many people like the furry beasts.

Despite my dislike of pandas (it’s not because they are cute, or because they are endangered),
 is a really good description of the lengths that the Chinese government has gone through to save them (hint, also not because they are cute).

So get your panda hat on, and enough the black and white furry goodness over at National Geographic.

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Happy anniversary, Planet Earth! Episode 10: Seasonal forests

The tenth episode of Planet Earth brings us to the biological communities I think of as “home” — seasonal forests. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, with second-growth deciduous woodland literally in my back yard, went to college within sight of the Appalachian Mountains, and spent my first “real” job in field ecology surveying understory plant diversity northeast of Pittsburgh. Today, I’m working on the other side of the continent, but now studying some of the most widespread tree species in forests from the Pacific Northwest to the Yukon taiga. I could almost illustrate this entire recap with images from my personal Flickr stream.

(Flickr: JBYoder)

Old-growth conifer forest (lots of Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii) around the Coquitlam Lake reservoir in British Columbia (Flickr: JBYoder)

I’ll try to resist the temptation.

We start at what is, arguably, the most seasonal of forests, taiga, where the growing season may last just a month. These snow-covered woods seems marginal, but boreal forests account for one third of the trees on the planet, Sir David Attenborough tells us. The newest comprehensive assessment of tree density worldwide, published last year, found that a median hectare of boreal forest has as many, or slightly more, trees than an average hectare of tropical forest — but it also puts the boreal share of the global tree count at closer to one quarter of all trees, and finds that “tropical moist forest” accounts for a slightly larger share.

Figure 1 from Crowther et al. (2015).

Figure 1 from Crowther et al. (2015).

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Don’t drink beer from green bottles?

I’m not sure this is biology, or even really science (You’ve been warned). But it made me giggle, and hopefully it’ll do the same for you.

One “scientist” sought to determine if he dislikes beer from green bottles because green glass fails to block the uv light from altering the beer after bottling.

Read about his intrepid scientific experiment it over at Wired!

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You smell like bacteria… and that’s a good thing

Birds have a number of loud and showy ways to attach a mate. But they also have a subtle one: smell.

And it turns out that some of that smell are naturally made by bacteria in the preening gland.

So I’m not saying you should use “hey girl, you smell like the best bacteria” as a pick up line, but it might be worth trying!

(If you’re a bird. NiB is not responsible for this interaction going south)

Read all about the work by Danielle Whittaker over at Science News!

"Hey girl, you smell like the sexiest microbes"

“Hey girl, you smell like the sexiest microbes”

 

Battling the Mistrust of Science

Atul Gawande is a multitalented man, surgeon, father, and exceptional writer and author (check out his books here).

He recently gave the commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, and it was so interesting/well said that it was subsequently published in the New Yorker.

He address how science is mistrusted, the inherent bias of people (including scientists), what science is and how we as a scientific community can combat this mistrust.

Read it here!

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Happy Anniversary, Planet Earth! Episode 9: Shallow Seas

The 9th installment of the series, “Shallow Seas” opens with the statistic that 8% of world’s ocean volume contains a majority of its marine life.

I’m in the middle of reading Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl right now (a fantastic, inspiring book about her life as a scientist that I highly recommend). In the opening paragraph of the Prologue, she mentions a reason why she is not interested in studying the ocean: there is six hundred times more life on land than there is in the ocean. This is true! I don’t think I’ve ever read someone’s reason for not being interested in studying the ocean, having studied and worked for marine-focused institutions for the past 10 years while also living in beach and island cultures with students clamoring to be marine biologists. While Dr. Jahren’s point has more to do with her own interests in land plants, in the broader sense I agree that there is much to be studied and managed on land because terrestrial ecosystems have indeed produced more life than in the ocean. As a result, activities on land have the ability to negatively affect the diverse ecosystems of the “shallow seas”.

Over half of the world’s human population lives within 60 km of a coastline. These are remarkable ecosystem areas surrounding coastlines, separating the land from the ocean.

I lived on Yap Island in the Federated States of Micronesia as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2004-2006, working with counterparts at the Yap State Environmental Protection Agency. I learned so much from my hard-working colleagues, far more than they probably gleaned from me.

(Left to right, top to bottom) Me (2006), view returning to the MicroSpirit ship with coconuts from an outer island (2004), traditional Yapese dance (2005), lunch on the boat (2004).

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Small island nations are deeply connected to their environmental resources, in both cultural and economic senses. Future climate change and accompanying sea level rise is affecting island societies more than other societies. The President of Palau has spoken prolifically on this topic, and was at the International Coral Reef Society meeting in Palau last month (June 2016).

Regina and Larry Raigetal, of Waa’gey.org recognize this in their efforts to confront challenges: “Extreme isolation, limited economic opportunity and climate change are big problems for the small atolls of Micronesia’s outer islands.” Waa’gey focuses on fostering pride in traditional culture, which has worked to sustain the population in the past, including traditional sailing navigation. Small island nations like Micronesia have populations less then a fraction of some developed countries, yet live entirely in coastal areas.

On the mainland of the U.S., Florida has over 1,000 miles of coastline and is becoming more and more affected by land-based activities. Beginning in the 1900s, land use changes were abundant in the state of FL. Miami was built out by developers and the sugar cane industry moved into the Everglades, a natural wetland area. Originally, water from Lake Okeechobee at the center of the state would naturally drain through wetland areas in south Florida eventually reaching the Gulf. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers has diverted the water out through a series of canals to the east and west, with significant freshwater discharge into estuarine areas and onto sensitive coral reefs causing an ecological disaster.

Economic benefits of the Indian River Lagoon resources were valued at more than $3.7 billion in 2007.

There is a lesson that Floridians and coastal US citizens can learn from the efforts of Waa’gey and other small coastal nations. (Teamwork in Ulithi atoll, outer islands of Yap):

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We can team together to place renewed value on practices that were common before development. This means supporting efforts to restore water flow in wetland ecosystems back to their original state. Buying undeveloped land to prevent further land use changes and damage. Lawmakers should encourage sustainable lifestyles by requiring homeowners near and on coastal areas to preserve and restore their shoreline vegetation, slow development and not use fertilizers. Provide more sustainable funding to long-term scientific studies, such as those in Dr. Joshua Voss’ lab at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, investigating the effects of discharge on near-shore coral reefs.

A well-balanced ecosystem brings long-term benefits. 

The Planet Earth episode ends by focusing on the charismatic macrofauna that depend on the shallow seas: the octopus mimics a moving/rolling rock, a gurnard fish with pectoral fins camouflaging its shape, a jawfish hides underground. Plants manage to take root, which are then pruned by sea turtles. Marine mammals such as dugongs and manatees are the largest herbivores in sea, eating nothing but fleshy rhizomes of sea grass. Dolphins discover a shoal of bait and are shown surfing, riding a wave. Fish refuge close to shore water only few cm deep. Sea birds, cormorants. Shallow temperate seas contain greatest concentration of fish on planet. Huge shoals migrate to feed in rich waters. Cruising back and forth between equator and poles, humpback whales – among the largest inhabitants of the ocean – are shown migrating between the shallow seas where life proliferates so abundantly on our planet.

Sunset in Micronesia:

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Buenos Aires is closing it’s zoo, should we close ours too?

Zoos have been controversial recently, sadly because a little boy fell in with a big gorilla (not the best scenario unless you’re Tarzan, and this kid, was not Tarzan).

Although not related to the unfortunate event, the Buenos Aires Zoo is closing, bringing up the age old question, should we close our zoos too?

There are arguments for closing zoos (we shouldn’t put intelligent creatures into captivity) and arguments against (zoos are used for education about conservation), both of which are reviewed nicely in this article at Pacific Standard. Check it out!

It was recently ruled that Sandra the orangutan (currently housed in the Buenos Aires Zoo) has rights as a "non-human person"

It was recently ruled that Sandra the orangutan (currently housed in the Buenos Aires Zoo) has rights as a “non-human person”

I can’t stop talking about CRISPR

You know when you look at a giant box of chocolates, and you think “I’ll only have just the one” do you know you’re lying to yourself before you eat the whole box?

I have been telling myself for months that I’m going to stop posting about the ongoing CRISPR saga. It should not surprise anyone that like the fat kid with the box of chocolate I’m not done.

We have started human trials on CRISPR. That’s right, the dream, the money sink, the controversy over the patent, and somehow, less than a year later, we’re already at human trials. This is insane (but interesting?).

What could possibly go wrong? Read the non-exhaustive list here.

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And you should probably be aware there will be more posts about CRISPR in the future…