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).

DSCN4257 coconuts DSCN3853Elato Ship Wrec

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):

Ulithi_teamwork

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:

MicroSpirit_sunset

The elusive tree of life

In the Origin of Species, Darwin described a “great Tree of Life” which is “fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”

Ever since then biologist have been trying to describe such a tree. And it should surprise no one that the recent focus on microbial ecology has expanded the Tree considerably.

Read about it at the New York Times or in the paper over at Nature Microbiology .

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Hug et al. 2016

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Darwin’s tree, in concept and in the only figure published in his Origin of Species.

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Global vs. Local Ecological Work

Over at the blog Small Pond Science is a really interesting and thought provoking post about understanding details of specific organisms in their environment vs. looking for those same patterns and processes on a global scale.

Do well planned and well executed experiments to test theories change the ecological world? Or should we instead rely on the large splash made by meta analysis and reviews?

And most importantly, what should a young scientist trying to make their career focus their time and effort on? Which has bigger impact?

Read about it here!

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The deadliest animal in the amazon

It’s not an anaconda. Nor is it the piraña.

It’s the golden mussel. No. Seriously.

Invasive species killing local organisms is nothing new. In fact, it’s almost in the definition of “invasive species”. But this mussel has been increasing at an alarming rate int he amazonian waters, and it is killing off existing species and destroying its habitats.

But, combatting this guy, is tougher than one would think. How do you kill the mussel that is destroying the biodiversity of the Amazon without… destroying the biodiversity of the Amazon.

Enter Marcela Uliano da Silva, (PhD student at Federal University of Rio de Janerio) who is finding new ways to target just the golden mussel by using it’s genome.

Read about it over at ZY!

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What do mummy seals tell us about climate change?

Antarctica has one of the worlds driest deserts, which it turns out is perfect for preserving seals. For thousands of years. For next summer this means a new mummy movie, Seal Mummies!

But seriously, Paleontologists Paul Koch and Emily Brault from UCSC are using these mummies for something besides next summer’s blockbuster. They are looking at the long term ecological impacts of the changing climate in Antartica. What’s more, there are a TON of seal mummies just lying around. Over 500 in fact, some of them hundreds or thousands of years old. What this can tell us about the changing ecosystem is invaluable. Read about it over at Forbes.

A seal mummy on the Taylor Glacier (Picture via brookpeterson on flickr.com CC BY-ND 2.0)

A living crabeater seal in Antarctica (Image via Liam Quinn on Wikimedia Commons CC-BY 2.0)

The War over Wood

The title of this post isn’t something clever I came up with, but rather what the locals have named the conflict over protecting trees and biodiversity in the Amazon rain forest.Self proclaimed “Guardians of the Forest” (local rubber tappers, read about them here) are defending the forest that gives them their livelihood. And they are defending it against not massive scale deforestation, but rather the selective logging of high value wood by what essentially are criminal entities.

In an excellent post over at NPR, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro describes a day on the front lines. What is remarkable is how insightful and dedicated these local people are to conserving their forest, rather than giving in to the desire to cash in on its value.
“Rubber tapper Helenílson Felix stands near the stump of a tree that was felled by illegal logging. The tappers explained that this is how deforestation begins: The forest is thinned of its biodiversity, picked apart tree by tree.”

 

And it appears that despite putting up a strong effort, they are losing the fight.

One of three illegal logging camps dismantled and set on fire by Elizeu Berçacola and his crew.

 

Classic ecology in charmingly animated rhyme

Ecomotion Studios has been working with the Ecological Society of America to produce short animated films about some of the most influential papers of modern ecology — they’re calling it “The Animated Foundations of Ecology.” Here’s the film about Robert Paine’s famous experiment in removing the top predator of tidal pool communities, sea stars, which led to dramatically reduced diversity in the other species that shared the pools.

There’s a handful more, including on one of my favorite classic ecology papers, David Simberloff and EO Wilson’s experimental demonstration of the process by which species colonize new habitats. Go check ’em out!

References

Paine, R. T. 1966. Food web complexity and species diversity. American Naturalist, 65-75. doi: 10.1086/282400.

Simberloff, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. 1969. Experimental zoogeography of islands: the colonization of empty islands. Ecology, 278-296. 10.2307/1934856.