Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Going Solar

It seems like the news on energy these days is all about solar. Solar collectors, community solar programs, solar getting cheaper than fossil fuel. Solar, solar, solar. We humans may think we're hot stuff for figuring out how to harvest the energy from the sun for our own needs, but other animals have been using their own kinds of solar panels for eons.

In particular, corals and sea anemones have been acting as green power plants since the times of the earliest dinosaurs. Which is pretty clever when you consider they don't have a brain. Of all the photosynthetic cnidarians out there my favorite has got to be the Aggregating Anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) AKA the Pink-tipped Anemone.

You can probably guess how it got those names.
Courtesy: Bureau of Land Management via Flickr

If you live on or have visited the Pacific coast of North America, you probably recognize this anemone. They're extremely common very high in the intertidal zone. Which means that if you've ever visited a rocky beach when the tide was even a little low, you've probably encountered these anemones. They're often found in large aggregations, hence the name. These mats of anemones would be astonishing just for their sheer number, but they're even more incredible when you realize each colony is a series of clones.

Have you ever had one of those days where you're so ambivalent about a decision that you wish you could just tear yourself in two and do both? Well aggregating anemones basically have that luxury. They're so good at restoring their tissues after damage that they can literally pull themselves in two different directions and split into separate anemones.

"I weigh a fraction of what I used to, thanks to the elgantissima 
weight loss program!"
Courtesy: Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

If the conditions on a particular rock are good enough; one anemone will make many clones, which will make many clones, and so on, and so on until entire sections of beach are covered in copies of the original. These colonies work together to make each individual anemone more successful. Some anemones will specialize in spawning and produce more eggs and sperm than the other clones. Anemones at the edge of the colony will grow more stinging cells than those toward the center, and act as warriors to defend the colony from predators and other aggregating anemones trying to horn in on their turf. If Lenin had a spirit animal, it was probably pink-tipped anemones.

Fight, fight, fight! The white bulbs are sacks of densely packed
stinging cells used to ward of predators and other anemone colonies.
Courtesy: Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

Okay so aggregating anemones are pretty cool on their own, but what do all these adaptations have to do with collecting solar energy? Everything. Just under the skin of aggregating anemones live colonies of dinoflagellates, single-celled algae, or both. In the southern portions of the anemone's range you only find dinoflagellates in their tissues, but further north you find a combination of algae and dinoflagellates. We believe that the dinoflagellates are better able to tolerate warm water, and that the algae may help the anemone collect more sun where the days are shorter in fall and winter.

Dinoflagellates (pronounced: dai-no-fla-jell-ates) are a confusing single-celled organism that isn't quite animal and isn't quite plant. Most are a single cell with a wavy appendage like a sperm tail called a flagella. Many can both consume food and produce it via photosynthesis. The dinoflagellates under the skin of aggregating anemones are exclusively photosynthesizers and they're only found living in the tissues of cnidarians.

These individual cells work like the individual panels on a solar array. When exposed to sunlight each cell produces carbon and oxygen, both essential ingredients for the chemistry of life in complex organisms. Aggregating anemones harvest these products from their photosynthetic roomates just like electrical engineers harvest electricity from photovoltaic panels. In turn the anemone maintains the solar power plant by producing carbon dioxide, and waste. Carbon dioxide, which the anemone breathes out, is an essential ingredient in photosynthesis, and animal waste is full of the nutrients plants crave.

The anemone's green-blue color actually comes from the algae
and dinoflagellates in the skin. This clear one probably lives in 
the shade of a large boulder and so doesn't host photosynthesizers.
Courtesy: Peter Pearsall/USFWS via Flickr

Now it's not as easy being a living solar farm as it is being a synthetic one. Human solar arrays can be made of glass and other materials that resist wear and tear, but anemones and their symbiotic solar cells are made of good old squishy, damageable protein.

In order for their symbionts to do photosynthesis, aggregating anemones have to live where there's plenty of sun, hence their high position in the intertidal. However, as any fair-skinned individual can attest, sunlight is loaded with ultraviolet radiation which wreaks havoc on organic tissues. In order survive exposure to all that radiation aggregating anemones have to possess some unique defenses. Thankfully the dinoflagellates secrete a chemical that coats the anemone's cells and acts as a sunscreen. The chemical absorbs the most dangerous parts of the UV and dissipates them as softer visible light.

Of course they say help comes to those who help themselves, and the anemone pulls its own weight in protecting its investments. Along the sides of aggregating anemones are little sticky bumps called verrucae (pronounced: ver-oo-key). The anemone uses its verrucae pick up particles of shell, sand, and other materials. These bits act like a big floppy sun hat to protect the anemone's sensitive skin.

Who Wore it Better? Sandy Beach Edition.
Couretsy: A. Strakey & Diane Main via Flickr

 Even though the anemones have solved the sun exposure problem, there's even more challenges to running a living solar facility. Photosynthesis produces oxygen, which is great if your tide pool is getting hot and losing gas to the atmosphere, but not so great if you're cells start to fall apart from oxidation. Oxygen is a really powerful molecule because it often comes in a form you might of heard of called a free radical. Free radical oxygen has characteristics that make it pull other molecules apart, which is why oxygen is toxic in high concentrations. So if the algae and dinoflagellates are phtosythesizing away, pumping free radical oxygen almost directly into their hosts cells, the anemone could die of oxygen poisoning. Thankfully the anemone's body produces high concentrations of chemicals that bind with free radical oxygen and render it harmless.

The final challenge for an organism trying to run a biological green power facility brings us back to where we started at the anemone's position along the shore. Living high up the beach means that a couple of times a day the tide is going to go out on you. If you're an animal that's normally adapted to living underwater that's a challenge. The shells and sand grains on the anemone's stalk will help block some of the desiccating effects of the dry air, but it's not always enough; so aggregating anemones hold their breath. As the tide recedes the anemones suck as much water as they can into their body cavity to keep them moist and oxygenated while the water is out. If you've ever touched an aggregating anemone and it squirted you, you know what I'm talking about. Careful though, as making them spray their water is kind of like telling your friend to hold their breath and then punching them in the gut. Sure its funny as the air or water comes rushing out, but the anemone/guy who just got punched is left very winded and uncomfortable.

"Anemone Punch" The new album from Olympia punk band: Cnidaria 
Courtesy: Ingrid Taylor via Flickr

More and more, engineers are drawing inspiration from nature for building materials that improve our daily lives. If the flippers of humpback whales can make wind turbines more efficient, maybe we can draw inspiration from nature's original solar plants to improve other areas of green infrastructure. It's a beautiful irony that the fight to save species from climate change might be resolved by looking at the very animals we're trying to protect.


Furla et Al.. "The Symbiotic Anthazoan: A Physiological Chimera Between Alga and Animal", Integrative and Comparative Biology, vol. 45, issue 4, pg 594-604, 2005
Accessed via: 

Lajeunesse, T.C., & Trench R.K., "Biogeography of Two Species of Symbiodinium (Freudenthal) Inhabiting the Intertidal Sea Anemone Anthopleura elegantissima (Brandt)", The Biological Bulletin, vol. 199, no. 2, October 2000

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Siren Songs

Last week we looked at one of the most productive ecosystems on earth, sea grass prairies. Sea grass prairies house many animals that fill very similar ecological roles to terrestrial counterparts. The most notable, and tragically least discussed in the previous post, is the manatee. Thankfully manatees and their cousins are such a rich topic that they've earned their own post.

 Try not to look so excited, geez.
Courtesy Tracy Colson via Flickr

Almost everyone has heard that manatees are likely the source of mermaid legends, or at least were mistaken for mermaids after the legend had been around for a while. In fact the name of the manatee's order, Sirenia (pronounced: sih-ree-nee-uh), actually comes from the sirens that tempted Odysseus while he sailed from home after the Trojan War. Many people find it a bit surprising that such large, grey, and cowish looking animals could be mistaken for half women, half fish; but beyond sailor's missing home there's actually a decent reason sirens could have been mistaken for their namesake. Female sirenians have breasts in the exact same position that human females do. Add the fact that they nurse their young while floating vertically with their heads above water, and you can see how people could have made the mistake that there were aquatic humans.

Though manatees are often called sea cows; it's believed that sometime around 50 million years ago a close relative of elephants slipped into lakes and streams to feed on the rich grasses growing underwater. Over time these four-limbed sirens became more and more adapted to the life aquatic and their descendants spread out across the globe. Then as the earth cooled to today's more familiar state many sirenians went extinct, leaving us with only four species.

Unfortunately there isn't anywhere in the world where you can see all 
four species at once. This manatee quartet (dibs on the band name) is made 
up entirely of one species.
Courtesy: David Hinkel via Flickr 

All sirenians scour the river, lake, or sea floor searching for underwater grasses to eat. Other marine mammals eat meat, and so have access to copious amounts of fat and protein to keep their weights up and their bodies warm. Sirenians are the only herbivorous marine mammals so they have to eat about 10% of their weight every day. Quite a lot when you consider they can weigh between 500 and 800 lbs. One study found that a single sirenian needed about an acre of constantly regenerating sea grass per year in order to get the food they need.

Sirenian mouths are well adapted to consuming large quantities of plants.  On every species the mouth is turned downwards to the seabed so the siren can look ahead as it grazes. Their teeth are specialized for grinding up veggies and are constantly replaced with new ones as they wear down, just like a shark's!

Modern sirenians are all found in the fresh and nearshore salt waters of the tropics and sub-tropics. They're extremely intolerant of cold and will move out of waters that fall below about 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20C). This need for environmental warmth may be a consequence of having evolved during a much warmer period in Earth's history. Only one sirenian, the Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), managed to adapt to frigid waters and survive to the modern era, but believe it or not, we ate them all. 

In case you ever thought your drawing skills aren't good enough for natural history; 
this is thought to be the most accurate drawing of a Steller's sea cow because 
it's the only one we know was drawn from a live specimen
Courtesy: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Steller's sea cows were discovered by westerners looking to hunt sea otters along the Aleutian Islands where food could be scarce. The scientist who first described them tells us that they ate more algae than sea grass, and that their forelimbs were curved instead of paddle shaped to allow them to pull themselves along in the shallows while grazing. What's particularly fascinating about these animals was just how big they were, some individuals were as long as an adult orca! That's a lot of manatee. Steller's sea cows were so slow, easily reached, and edible that they were gone about 17 years after their discovery. Sadly we'll never know if we did major detriment to this species while it was thriving in an isolated population, or if they were already nearing extinction naturally when we dealt the final blow. Fortunately there may still be time to save the sea cow's closest relative, the dugong (Dugong dugon).

Om Nom Nom Nom
Courtesy: Corrie Barklimore via Flickr

Dugongs (no, not the pokemon) are the most marine of the sirenia; meaning they spend all their time in salt or brackish (mixed salt and fresh) water. Their most noticeable distinction from manatees is their forked dolphin-like tail. Manatees have big, round, paddle-like tails that are useful for holding position in still water. While dugongs are wide spread across the tropical Indian and Western Pacific Ocean their populations are spotty, probably due to human alterations in their habitat. The largest herds live along the coast of Northern Australia and in the Arabian Gulf where sea grass beds are still large and healthy. The challenge for these sirens has been human development of beaches where sea grasses grow off shore. Unfortunately sea grasses grow off of exactly the kind of sandy, relaxing beaches humans like to put hotels and beach communities on. When land plants are taken away by construction; dirt and sand run into the nearshore smothering the prairies. Fertilizer runoff from agriculture and golf courses also causes quick-growing algae to out compete sea grass. So when you choose a place to stay during your tropical vacation, keep in mind the resort's potential impact on dugongs before you book a room.

Dugongs role as grazers is extremely important for sea grass prairies because they remove old grasses and fertilize new ones. As they browse, dugongs pull sea grass up by the roots creating noticeable  tracks of bare sand like someone set the lawnmower way too low. Like any herbivore dugongs make a lot of waste and as their poop falls into the furrows they've created in the grass it provides critical nutrients for the regeneration of the prairie.

Who else wishes it was possible to hire manatees to mow
your lawn instead of goats?
Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup via Flickr

The sirenian that is the next most comfortable in ocean is the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus). West Indian Manatees are the most familiar and well-studied of all sirenians because they live in highly populated regions of North, Central, and South America. You may have heard of Florida and Antillean manatees in your travels, and those are legitimate, but they are names for distinct populations of West Indian Manatees. Antillean manatees are usually found in the Southern Caribbean, and Central and South America. You can probably guess where Florida manatees are most often found. For a deeper look at what makes a species, and how populations of one species can be distinct from one another without being totally different, check out the D&T posts "Celebrating Sculpin Speciation" and "Ghost Faced Killer (Whales)".

Most West Indian manatees split their time between fresh and salt water depending on the season. In Florida these manatees spend their winters huddled nears springs of warm water, and since the advent of modern electricity generation, the heated water outflows from power plants. As ocean temps warm up in the summer Florida manatees  spread out in search of lush prairies and can be found travelling as far north as Virginia! Interestingly, although as many as 500 manatees have been seen in one spot during the winter, they aren't particularly social. The mother-offspring bond is the strongest social connection in manatees. Young manatees will stay with their mothers for two years after they're born, learning where warm refuges and feeding grounds are located.

The green on his back is algae, kind of like the stuff that grows in sloth fur.
Courtesy: Keith Ramos via Flickr

The final two sirenians are the most river-adapted species, the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) and the West African manatee (Trichchus senegalensis). Both can be found deep into large rivers in their respective continents. Amazonian manatees have stable populations as far up the Amazon water shed as Peru and Columbia, and West African manatees can be found living in lakes 200 miles inland from the sea. These manatees deal with particularly murky water compared to dugongs and West Indian manatees, so the sensitive bristles that cover all sirenians' bodies are especially important for finding food. It's kind of like if a cat had whiskers all over their body instead of just their face.

Yep, that's a baby Amazonian manatee. Commence squealing with delight
Courtesy: Harvey Barrison via Flickr

We know the least about African manatees because the humans of their homeland have struggled with colonialism and the unrest it often instills in the colonized. However, this chaos may actually benefit the manatees; as development in some countries where they're found has been slow. Without speed boats, big riverside properties, and erosion problems African manatees have fewer risks to their survival than sirens in more altered regions of the world.

Dugongs and manatees are one of the weirdest and most fascinating marine mammals on the planet. For every human that's encountered them it's as hard to resist the song of these sirens calling us to discover more about them. But unlike the sirens of Greek Myth, the lure of dugongs and manatees will bring every species to a healthier life and a richer planet.


Mayaba, Theodore B., Kamla, Aristide T. & Self-Sullivan, Carlyn, "Using Pooled Local Expert Opinions (PLEO) to Discern Patterns in Sightings of Live and Dead Manatees (Trichechus senegalensis, Link 1785) in Lower Sanaga Basin, Cameroon", PLOS ONE, July 21st, 2015.   

Satizabal et Al., "Phylogeography and Sex-Biased Dispersal Across Riverine Manatee Populations (Trichechus inguinus and Trichechus manatus) in South America", PLOS ONE, December 20th, 2012.

Sulzner et Al., "Health Assessment and Seroepidemiologic Survey of Potential Pathogens in Wild Antillean Manatees (Trichechus manatus manatus)", PLOS ONE, September 12th, 2012.

Macdonald, Nicole, "Dugong dugon- Dugong" Animal Diversity Web. Accessed via:

Weinstein, Brett & Patton, James, "Hydrodamalis gigas- Steller's Sea Cow", Animal Diversity Web, Accessed via:

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Home, Home 'Neath the Waves

Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam,
and the deer and the antelope play,
and seldom is heard, a discouraging word,
and the skies are not cloudy all day

The classic American folk song Home on the Range has been conjuring the American prairies in our imaginations for generations. For many, the John Denver version is the seminal cover of the song. As he sings you can see feel the warm breeze rippling the tall grass and flowers. Giant bison wade peacefully through the vegetation while waterfowl float on clear ponds nearby.

The only pie more American than apple may be the ones these guys 
leave behind after eating all that grass.
Courtesy: Ard van der Leeuw via Flickr

"But wait a minute! This is a marine science blog! Why are we talking about grass-lands?" Well imaginary snarky reader, the ocean is teeming with its own prairies. Even though they haven't gotten the same kind of press as coral reefs or kelp forests they're absolutely essential habitats. And underwater prairies are every bit as idyllic and wild as their terrestrial compatriots.

Oh give me a home, where the manatees roam,
and the snails and the isopods play,
and often is heard, the cries of seabirds,
and the waters are calm in the bay.

"Stay away from Washington State. It's terrible. There's nothing beautiful
 or interesting to give you any reason to move here ever." -Washington State Motto
Courtesy: EcologyWA via Flickr

The dominant organism in any prairie, above or below water, is grass. Though we tend to lump every under water photosynthesizer together as "seaweed"; sea grass is remarkably unique. Other "seaweeds" are algae, which is a group of plant-like organisms that doesn't have roots, lacks veins for transporting nutrients, and makes spores instead of seeds. Sea grass is a true flowering plant, just like the grass on your lawn, except this is the only flowering plant able to survive under salt water!

Algae typically grows on hard surfaces because its holdfast needs something stable to cling to. Sea grasses need soft substrate, usually sand, where their roots dig in and actually stabilize the soil. They have what are called rhizomaceous (pronounced: ry-zo-may-shus) roots which means they spread out horizontally in a net and put out new shoots where there's enough light. Anyone who's pulled ivy by hand has experience with these kinds of roots. The rhizomes of sea grass cover so much ground and hold so much soil that they're a major protector of coastal shorelines from erosion. In the Caribbean, Western Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico where they're called turtle (Thalassia testudinium) or manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme); sea grasses keep hurricanes from washing beaches used by sea turtles and tourists alike out to sea. Grasses on the American plains once did the same thing for the land by protecting the earth from the harsh prairie winds. Losing all that grass to agriculture caused the Dust Bowl of the 1930's.

 But tell me again how humans can't affect major changes 
on the environment.
Courtesy: US Department of Agriculture via Flickr

Only 200 years ago the tall and short grass prairies of the American West were rich with a diversity of animals that thrived on the variable habitat provided by the grasses. Insects of all kinds, burrowing rodents, birds and even terrestrial crayfish skittered and survived among the blades. Sadly most of these habitats have been lost to agriculture and suburbanization, but sea grass plains have avoided these disturbances and still host an incredible diversity of organisms.

Sea grass creates vertical habitat just like trees do in forests; so many species can grow on, in, and around the grass. One study in Denmark found more than 200,000 organisms of 86 types on a little more than 1,000 blades of grass. The folks doing the research even found entire tiny ecosystems on the blades. Diatoms, a kind of single-celled algae, grew in mats on the leaves. Isopods, a relative of crabs and shrimp, would walk along and graze on the algal mats. The tiny crustaceans were eaten in their turn by small anemones that also attached themselves to the grass.

We've recently discovered that these minuscule animals may actually benefit the sea grass as well. Sea grasses have male and female flowers just like terrestrial plants, and just like terrestrial grasses males release pollen that has to get into the female flower some way or another. On land, pollen is transported by the wind and by animals that travel between plant flowers. Until recently we assumed sea grass pollen was only transported by waves and currents. But we've found evidence that planktonic baby crabs, and nearly microscopic, bristly, worms are actually acting as pollinators for sea grass. These plankton visit male flowers where pollen grains get stuck on the appendages that normally help prevent the animal from sinking. Then they swim along to the next flower in search of food and inadvertently pollinate the female. I don't have the right permissions to post a picture of the pollen grains on the plankton, but you can see the incredibly cute pictures in the article at this link.

This species, called tape grass (Enhalus acoroides), is found in Asia.
The male flowers (white nubs) float way from their parent, and get 
caught in the female flower (yellow petals).  
Courtesy: Ria Tan at Wild Singapore via Flickr

The abundance of grass and wealth of small animals inevitably attracts larger animals to these rich feeding grounds. Like lions on the Serengeti or wolves in Yellowstone; seals, sharks, and other big predatory fish move through sea grasslands to consume the smaller predators drawn by the smorgasbord. Of course it wouldn't be a grassland without big grazers. North America and historically Europe have bison, Asia and Africa have rhinos and buffalo, Australia has kangaroos, and South America: llamas. The plains of the ocean: manatees, dugongs and sea turtles.  Sea grasses also bring in the massive assemblages of birds that are often seen on prairies. The coolest of these is probably the brant (Branta bernicla).

Courtesy: JimGain via Flickr

In Europe, brant are called Brent Geese, presumably because the name Brent is used exclusively to identify obnoxious frat bros in the US. They're an incredible relative of the more familiar Canada goose (Branta canadensis), and they cannot survive without sea grass. The Pacfic's subspecies, the black brant (B.b. nigricans) summers on the north slope of Alaska and the islands to the north where their chicks can develop relatively free from predators. As the year wanes the brant are chased south by the frigid nights of winter. But brant aren't like the many marathon flyers that breed in the arctic. Brant have such a big body relative to how small their wings are that they can't make a trip from Alaska to to the southern hemisphere in one go like a bar-tailed godwit. Brant have to take pit stops the whole way from Prudhoe Bay to Baja to rest and refuel, and what do they look for en route? Sea grass.

The sheer abundance of eel grass (Zostera marina), as we call it on the west coast, makes it the perfect resource to gas up on. Eel grass is found all along the migration route, and because the blades are coated in organisms, the herbivorous goose probably gets much needed proteins and fats for energy. 

"Waiter, there's a bunch of bugs on my salad. <Chomp, chomp, chomp> 
Actually never mind, don't worry about it."
Courtesy: Jon. D. Anderson via Flickr

Brant are the ideal illustrator of how important and powerful something as commonplace as grass can be. A good sea grass prairie produces so much food that it can attract an entire population of animals. We believe that every single black brant stops at Izembek bay in Western Alaska, which has the largest eel grass bed in the world, on their way north and south each year. And just like their Canadian cousins that settle over the prairies of the US interior during the winter brant show us the soothing wildness of grasslands. It's just too bad John Denver didn't SCUBA dive.

Oh give me a home, where the manatees roam,
and snails and the isopods play,
and often is heard, the cries of seabirds,
and the waters are calm in the bay.


Ganter, Barbara, "Sea Grass (Zostera spp.) as Food for Brant Geese (Branta bernicla): An Overview", Helgoland Marine Research, vol. 54, pg. 63-70, 2000.

DeAmicis, Stacey & Foggo, Andrew, "Long Term Field Study Reveals Subtle Effects of the Invasive Alga Sargassum muticum Upon the Epibiota of Zostera marina", PLoS ONE, September 14, 2015.

Thormar et Al., "Eelgrass (Zostera marina) Food Web Structure in Different Environmental Settings", PLoS ONE, January 11, 2016. 

Tussenbroek et Al. "Experimental Evidence of Pollination in Marine Flowers by Invertebrate Fauna", Nature, vol 7, 2016.
Accessed via:

Sunday, February 5, 2017

I Love It When You Call Me Big Papa

Whether you love him, hate him, or don't care either way; Barack Obama's presidency ended on January 20th. While the 44th president has had a rough time forming a lasting legacy on many fronts; he's proven himself to be the public lands president. Since taking office in 2009 Obama has set aside more land, and even more relevant to Depth and Taxa, ocean than any president in history.

Obama is basically that kid in school who trashed
the curve for everyone else.
Graph based on National Park Service Data

There's a number of ways that land and sea can protected from exploitation in the US. Areas can be set aside as National Parks; which basically prevents them from use other than research and outdoor recreation. Lands can be established as National Forest; which has a conservation aspect but also allows for some extraction of resources. However both of these designations require action by Congress. Action is not something the 114th Congress was famous for. So if a president believes the people that elected him want lands protected, but can't get congress to do anything, how does he go about it? Enter the Antiquities Act.

In the final years of the 19th century Americans were concerned about the rampant destruction of archaeological sites and ecosystems across the country. In response, Congress created the Antiquities Act to allow important cultural, historical, and scientific places to be protected as National Monuments; without the delay that comes from congressional deliberation. Unsurprisingly, Teddy Roosevelt used the act to set aside more acreage than any president until his fifth-cousin took the job in 1933.

"Hahahaha, just try and outdo me little Frankie. I'm the only 
president  this century that everyone liked." -Teddy Roosevelt

You might expect that Democratic presidents are more likely to use the antiquities act, but the exact same number of Democrats and Republicans have established or enlarged National Monuments. In fact, one of the largest ever national monuments was established by the number two acreage protector, none other than George W. Bush! The Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced: papa-ha-now-mo-ku-ah-kay-ah) National Monument was established in 2006 by president Bush and expanded by over 400,000 square miles in 2016 by president Obama.

Papahānaumokuākea (Or for Notorious B.I.G. fans: Big Papa) hits every mark for the intent of the Antiquities Act. It has important historical sites; like Midway Atoll where the Allies scored a major naval victory in World War II. Culturally important places to indigenous Hawaiians. The northwest islands in the monument are believed to be where spirits are born and return to after death. And major ecologically and scientifically important ecosystems. Shallow and deep water stony coral reefs, breeding grounds for endangered species, islands full of endemic plants and animals, and a sea mount as high as Mount Rainier are all found inside the monument.

If we place Papahānaumokuākea on top of the US it's as long as Idaho to Indiana
and as wide as Montana to central Utah.
Image Courtesy; NOAA

Not only does Papahānaumokuākea represent the ideal of what a national monument should be; the restriction it puts on commercial fishing, but not recreational fishing, comes at an essential time in the health of the ocean. There's a growing consensus that about 30% of the world's seas needs to protected from large-scale fishing if we want to continue to feed humanity with good, healthy protein.

 Currently less than 2% of the ocean is covered by marine protected areas, so there's lots of work to be done. Fortunately we already have some guidelines on what makes for an effective marine protected area. One standard uses what are called NEOLI features to plan and assess successful marine protected areas. NEOLI stands for: "No-Take, Enforcement, Old, Large, and Isolated". If a protected marine site can meet four of those five features it's likely to be successful in promoting biodiversity, and in allowing fisher people to collect better catches with less effort at the edge of the protected zone.

"What's that about catching more fish with less effort!?" -This Hawaiian Monk Seal
Courtesy: Dr. James P. McVey, NOAA Sea Grant Program. (NOAA Photo Library: anim0290) 

Obviously Papahānaumokuākea meets the "large" standard, but how's it do in those other areas? Papahānaumokuākea isn't a no-take zone because recreational and sport fisheries are still able to get permits to use the area. However, the scale of recreational fishing is so small relative to commercial fishing that this represents a potentially huge cutback in the amount of harvest within the monument. And before you get frustrated that small scale commercial fishers will be going out of business there's great news. Research has shown that when areas are protected from fishing, species tend to repopulate the protected area and spill over into fishing sites. The edges of the protected area usually have more numerous, larger, and healthier fish than areas far from any protected zone.

Of course no-take doesn't matter if you don't have strong enforcement. This is where Papahānaumokuākea will probably struggle most to meet the standards for protection. The monument is managed by a partnership between the federal and Hawaiian state governments. Hopefully a strong realtionship between these parties will be able to monitor such a vast area. Thankfully some very cool systems are coming online in the near future to help countries protect their natural resources. The Pew Charitable Trusts have developed an incredibly cool program called: Project Eyes on the Seas that uses satellite images, vessel GPS transponders, and home port data to police marine protected areas for relatively cheap.

       Bad Boys, Bad Boys, What'cha Gonna Do? What'cha Gonna Do,
When They Come Fo' You!?
Courtesy: Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons

Now obviously any newly expanded or created national monument isn't going to be considered "old". However, Papahānaumokuākea meets the last NEOLI standard by being isolated from cities and continents, and so thankfully hasn't historically been heavily impacted by human activities. Because exploitation has been limited, Papahānaumokuākea has many of the features we normally associate with old marine protected areas. In fact, in the deep channels between the islands, atolls, and sea mounts of the Hawaiian chain live black corals that have been growing in the same spot for 4,000 years.

Using the NEOLI standards, it looks like Papahānaumokuākea has the potential to help the ocean recover from our historical transgressions, and to provide for humanity in the future. Good environmental policy is about finding balance; meeting the needs of many while protecting the most vulnerable. The ecosystems that produce the natural resources we need have to be kept intact if they're to continue to provide raw materials, jobs, food, inspiration, and a connection to something larger than ourselves. National Monuments like Papahānaumokuākea are an important part of the land-use mosaic that allows the United States to provide the best life for its citizens.

The incoming administration has expressed a focus on the harvest and materials side of the benefits of the environment. An extractive management style may put places like Papahānaumokuākea at risk of having their protections revoked. Both goat farming hippies and doomsday preppers can agree that people have the right to survive off the land. If we can work to remind everyone that all the materials of our modern lives originated from, and are replenished in, pristine ecosystems; then places like Papahānaumokuākea will have a better chance of remaining unaltered. Let's work together to build a broad coalition of people who know the value of functioning ecosystems.


Roberts, Callum M., Hawkins, Julie P., & Gell Fiona R., "The Role of Marine Reserves in Achieving Sustainable Fisheries", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 360 pg. 123-132, 2008.

Bruckner, Andrew, De Angelis, Patricia, & Montgomery, Tony, "Case Study for Black Coral From Hawaii", Non-Detriment Findings Case Studies, WG 9- Aquatic Invertebrates, Case Study 1, Meeting of the IUCN 2008. 
Accessed via:

Edgar et Al. "Global Conservation Outcomes Depend on Marine Protected Areas with Five Key Features", Nature, Vol. 506, Pg. 216-229, Feb. 13th 2014.
Accessed via:

Long, Tony, "How Satellite Monitoring is Helping Catch Bad Actors", Pew Charitable Trusts Research & Analysis Online, March 7th 2016.
Accessed via:

US Congress, "American Antiquities Act of 1906"
Accessed via:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Sleeping Beauties

Imagine yourself cruising down the road at night. There's no moon so, so you're driving slowly, peering into the blackness to find your way. As your eyes adjust you see a gigantic, ancient woman sidle into the glare of your headlamps. She's slow and battered, and moves almost as if she's in a trance. You slow down even more to avoid hitting her, but you can't bring yourself to get out of the vehicle. As she meanders to the edge of your lights' beam she turns slightly, and you catch a glance at her eyes. A tubular creature dangles from two filaments embedded in her cornea. Though she's surely been blinded by the parasite you sense that she can feel you there. As she's enfolded back into the darkness you wonder was she an ancient spirit? An aesthetic hiding away from society? A witch? or even a zombie?

She was a shark.

Courtesy: NOAA Photo Library via Flickr

In our imaginary scenario you're a researcher with the US' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. You're cruising along in a submersible when a species of sleeper shark swims in front of your vehicle. 

There are only around six species of sleeper sharks that we know of, and two of them fit the bill for this story; the Pacific sleeper shark (Somniosus pacificus) and the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus). Although their cousin the southern sleeper (Somniosus antarcticus), which lives around Antarctica and is so badass it eats juvenile colossal squid, comes close it doesn't fit our story because it isn't affected by the dangling parasite; which we'll talk about later.

Pacific sleeper and Greenland sharks are truly incredible. They're massive. Adults of both species average around 4 meters; that's about 14ft, but they can grow even larger. That size is on par with all the largest predatory sharks we're more familiar with. 

I'm gonna go ahead and guess this kid is not
the one who reeled in this shark
 Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike great whites or tiger sharks, which are fast, active predators, sleeper sharks are sluggish. It's believed that they hunt by sneaking up on live prey. They move so slowly, about the same speed as a crawling baby, and are so hydrodynamic that they barely disturb the water. So when prey are distracted or at rest they don't notice these incredible predators. Not only can sleeper sharks hunt, but they're also effective scavengers. Researchers have found meat in sleeper shark stomachs that's crawling with the organisms that usually consume dead flesh on the ocean bottom. We also know from stomach contents that sleeper sharks will consume seals, dead whales, fish, and even polar bears! It's not clear if the polar bear was an individual that drowned while crossing sea ice or if it was taken live, but either Even crazier, a couple of guys in Newfoundland, Canada found a stranded Greenland shark that had 2 feet of moose tissue stuffed down its gullet! 

Little Known Fact: Hastily gobbled moose is 
the national dish of Canada
Courtesy: Christian Heilmann via Flickr

Now this slow lifestyle has benefits besides giving sleeper sharks the ability to hunt or scavenge literally everything. Sleepers are found in cold waters, either at the poles or deep in the ocean. In fact, Greenland sharks are the only shark species known to live under the arctic ice cap. In frigid waters it's easier to survive with a slow metabolism because with a fast one you're constantly compensating for lost heat. Plus a slow metabolism means you can live for a really... really... really... really long time.

A study published in Science used radiocarbon dating of the core of Greenland sharks' eyes to predict the age of a variety of individuals. This technique suggests that really old Greenland sharks may be 272-512 years old! If that's the case they're the longest lived vertebrate on earth, and there are sharks alive today older than the United States. 

"Suck it Methuselah!"
Courtesy Public Domain via Encyclopedia of Life

The downside to growing to that great age is that sleeper sharks probably don't reach sexual maturity very quickly. It's been estimated from the development of ovaries and testes in dead sleepers that they can't reproduce until they're 10 or more feet long. Greenland sharks are thought to grow so slowly that they might need 150 years before they can get to baby making. If that's the case then these fish may be very sensitive to overfishing. Sleepers are commonly caught as bycatch in fisheries for other species, so it's very important to use programs like Seafood Watch to ensure your fish comes from sustainable sources.

In Iceland there is a small targeted fishery for Greenland sharks because they're the main ingredient in one of Iceland's traditional dishes. Hakarl is Greenland shark that's been fermented for several weeks. It has to be fermented because sleeper shark meat contains a lot of Trimethylamine-oxide; which is toxic. It's so poisonous that sled dogs, ravens, and a sea birds called fulmars have been described as getting "shark drunk" after eating too much raw shark. The symptoms include stumbling, respiratory depression, erratic behavior, and vomiting.

Pictured: Shark Drunk
Couretsy: Schroder + Schombs PR via Flickr

The Trimmethylamine-oxide probably helps protect sleeper sharks from the challenges of living in the deep and polar ocean. The chemical counteracts the protein dismantling effects of high pressure at depth, and works like anti-freeze to prevent the sharks body from locking up.

Okay so all of these adaptations make sleeper sharks a pretty good match for the woman in the creepy story from the introduction, but what was that bit about the parasites on her eyes? Well I'm both glad you asked and horrified that you reminded me.

Pacific sleeper and Greenland sharks frequently host the parasitic copepod (pronounced: co-puh-pod) Ommatokoita elongata. One study found that up 85% of Greenland sharks have these creepy-crawlies living on and in their eyeballs. The copepod, which is a crustacean related to shrimps and crabs, inserts a stud called a bulla into the shark's eye and just kind of dangles from it. As it swings there for its entire life the copepod feeds on the juices from the shark's eyeball. It also scratches the ever living heck out of the cornea as it moves around. It's no surprise that these copepods commonly blind their hosts. However, sleepers don't seem to be affected by blindness at all. It's believed that sleepers rely on their other senses so much that they don't actually need their eyes.
I propose the common name of the "Why-God-why-does-this-exist!? copepod"
Courtesy: Johnathan Wojcick via

While sleeper sharks are certainly bizarre, they're also a magnificent example of adaptation to challenging conditions. They're probably the longest-lived of all vertebrates, they know how to take their time and move deliberately, they enjoy a place of respect in the food web, and they survive adverse conditions every day. Not only that, but if you're a little loose with your Latin translation, Somniosus microcephalus means "sleepy, little face". That's pretty adorable for an animal most might not call a sleeping beauty.


Borucinska, J.D., Benz, G.W., & Whiteley H.E., "Ocular Lesions Associated with Attachment of the Parasitic Copepod Ommatokoita elongata (Grant) to Corneas of Greenland Sharks, Somniosus microcephalus (Bloch & Schneider), Journal of Fish Diseases, 1998, 21, pg 415-422

Courtney, D.L., & Foy, R, "Pacific Sleeper Shark Somniosus pacificus in the Eastern North Pacific Ocean Inferred from Nitrogen and Carbon Stable-isotope Ratios and Diet", Journal of Fish Biology, 2012, 80, pg 1508-1545

Hulbert, L.B., Sigler M.F., & Huntsford C.R., "Depth and Movement Behavior of the Pacific Sleeper Shark in the North-east Pacfic", Journal of Fish Biology, 2002, 69, pg 406-425

MacNeil, et Al., "Biology of the Greenland Shark Somniosus microcephalus", Journal of Fish Biology, 2012, 80, 991-1018

Nielsen, et al. "Eye Lens Radiocarbon Reveals Centuries of Longevity in the Greenland Shark Somniosus microcephalus" Science, 2016, 353, pg 702-704

No Author, "Moose-eating Shark Rescued in Newfoundland Harbour"(sic), CBC News, Nov 21 2013, Accessed via:

Monday, February 22, 2016

Ghost Face Killer (Whales)

December's post got the Depth and Taxa crew thinking. We talk an awful lot about fish and invertebrates on this blog. Of our 32 posts only three directly refer to marine mammals. While it's great that we're bringing the less publicly well-loved species into the spotlight; it's sad because the ocean's mammals are astonishing. Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, walruses, and sirens (the manatee kind, not the Odyssean) all exhibit remarkable adaptations for a class of animals that arguably don't belong underwater. So in the interest of fairness and the spirit of deeper understanding, let's talk about the biggest, the baddest, the black and white-enest of the dolphins; Orcinus orca, the Killer Whale.

They're like the pandas of the sea! If pandas ate exclusively flesh...
and hunted in groups... and had complex social structures... 
They're like the wolves of the sea!
Courtesy: Matthew Allen via Flickr

Okay so the first thing you might be wondering is how we can call them killer whales if they're dolphins? Well the word "whale" is deceptively complicated. See, back when the common conscious was still in its "everything that swims is a fish phase" a whale was just anything really large that you saw or caught in the ocean. More recently whale has mostly been used to mean any large species of cetacean (pronounced: set-ay-shun). If you've ever called something a whale, porpoise, or dolphin; it's a cetacean. Dolphins are a specific family within the cetaceans, so orcas are both whales and dolphins. 

Just like humans, orcas can be found all over the globe; from the tropics to the poles. They live in groups comprised of their relatives and close associates, just like us. They're the apex predator in their environment, just like us... They live 50-60 years but can get over 100... Hm these similarities are starting to get a bit strange.

Okay, this is officially weird now. 
Courtsey: Douglas Muth via Flickr
The truth of the matter is, humans and orcas are both extremely successful because of our large, wrinkly brains and penchant for caring about others of our own species. In humans the prime example of this one-two punch of emotional intellectualism is just how much listening to "Hello"  makes us want Adele to find happiness <sniffles>. In orcas it's their ability to form what are called ecotypes.

There are at least ten orca ecotypes between the northern and southern hemisphere, and likely more to be discovered. Each has its own feeding strategy, typical body type, and associated behavior. Usually more than one ecotype is found living in the same place. Take for example the continental shelf of the northeast Pacific. These nutrient rich waters are home to the kind of expansive seafood buffet usually reserved for Red Lobster and questionable casinos. Fish, birds, mammals, and invertebrates are all in ready supply if you're clever enough to harvest them. This smorgasbord has allowed for three different ecotypes to develop in one region.

Courtesy: Dahlheim et Al. (2008), Marine Mammal Science, 24(3)

The most well understood of these three types are the resident killer whales. There are three populations of resident orcas in the northeast pacific; the Alaskan Residents, the Northern Residents, and the Southern Residents. All of these groups live in fairly large pods of usually around 30 individuals. Occasionally the entire Southern Resident Community gets together for a big ol' fashion hootenanny. Seriously, this 85 whale strong "superpod" is as close to a college kegger as any species other than humans get. This is the time when the Southern Residents say hey to friends, hook up with each other, and shout across the room to orcas they know. That last one is only partly a joke. Resident orcas are the chatty Kathy's of the ecotypes. They're highly vocal because their favored prey requires them to be highly coordinated in their hunting.

Resident orcas eat nothing but fish, and about 90% of that fishy diet is salmon. Why? Because salmon meat is just drowning in oil. Those natural fats are great for preserving the whales' blubber layer, which keeps them warm. Salmon is also absolutely dense with chemical energy, and that's essential for maintaining an active body and mind. 

All orca ecotypes employ echolocation clicks to navigate their environment. But in order to effectively corral schools of speedy fish, residents employ a complex vocabulary of whistles. Their calls regularly change pitch, tone, and frequency as they communicate with one another. 

"So anyway I said to him" 'go left', and he went right, so I said: 'no, 
your left', and he said: 'What do you mean I'm left? we're all still here'" 
Courtesy: Tundra Ice via Flickr  

Resident oracs are usually the ecotype that people are most familiar with. This is mostly due to the fact the they remain in a relatively small area throughout their lives. The Southern Residents are probably the most extensively studied and photographed whales in the world. They have legions of fans, and what's not to love about residents. They're rarely far away when you need them, they're gregarious, and they eat food that we don't find particularly cuddly. Transient orcas, also called Bigg's killer whales, are an entirely different story.

Transients are the leather jacket wearing, smoking behind the gym, switchblade carrying, greasers of the ecotypes. Everyone who's ever loved a bad boy or girl can get into the transient orcas. "What makes transients the badasses of the dolphins?" I'm glad you asked.

Transient orcas are primarily mammal eaters, and they almost never touch fish. This ecotype preys upon seals, dolphins, porpoises, occasional birds, and even baleen whales! With each prey type comes a different hunting strategy. Seals are usually grabbed from below the surface and quickly killed, but in contrast, sea lions are gradually beaten to death with the tails of each pod member. Then this frequently happens:

Hahaha Okay I admit this at least a little funny.

Yup, they play with their food. Take what your average cat does to a mouse, scale them both up about 1000 times, and you have a Biggs' killer whale playing with a sea lion. But wait! It gets even more intense. Transients hunt the giant cetaceans by drowning them. I'll let the BBC and David Attenborough give you the specifics in the video below

Really intense footage, but absolutely incredible.

Although each attack type has different characteristics, what's consistent is that transients are quiet and work with a small crew. They swim in loosely defined small pods, usually no more than 10 individuals, to increase each whale's share of the prey. And since their prey hears very well, transients go into stealth mode once they've identified a target. Only once they've taken down their meal do they resume vocalizing. 

While all of his mammal killing may seem unpleasant, it actually makes a lot of sense. Since resident orcas are busy eating up all the oily fish in the nearshore, transients need another source of fat. And there's few higher quality fats than the blubber of marine mammals. By consuming different foods transients and residents can live side-by-side with little interaction and no conflict.

So if Bigg's killer whales and residents consume all the energy rich prey in the nearshore then the third ecotype must live somewhere else. 

It's on the shore isn't it? I knew this would come back to pandas.
They're like the orcas of the land!
Courtesy: fortherock via Flickr

The final of the northeast Pacific ecotypes lives in the offshore environment along the edge of the continental shelf. In one of the most creative namings ever, these offshore orcas are called... offshore orcas. Offshore's are the least well understood of the three ecotypes for a number of reasons. The main being, that the open ocean is so much bigger than the inland waters where transients and residents are usually found. It's not surprising that most of the encounters with offshores have occurred off of California where the open ocean abuts the continent.

"California whales they're so incredible. Black tail flukes, 
with blowholes on top"
Courtesy: Matthew Allen via Flickr

Genetic studies have found that offshore orcas are probably most closely related to residents. They're also similar to residents in their behavior and  general diet. Offshores appear to be fish eaters and live in very large pods, sometimes more than 100 whales strong. It's not clear if this is similar to the summer superpod that the southern residents get into once a year, or something else entirely. 

Where residents and offshores differ is in how far they'll travel, and exactly what kind of fish they eat. The same group of offshore orcas have been seen at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, and Dana Point in California. That's 4,435km if the pod swam in a straight line, which it almost certainly didn't. In contrast the Southern Resident population only leaves the Salish Sea near Washington and British Columbia on occasion.

Courtesy: Dahlheim et Al. (2008), Marine Mammal Science 24(3)

We don't have a great idea of offshore killer whales' diets, but they seem to be less picky than residents. They've been seen attacking schools of baitfish, and beating blue sharks with their tails. They've also been found beached with salmon and halibut in their stomachs. Another piece of evidence has led some scientists to speculate that sharks are a major component of their diet. 

When offshore orcas wash up on beaches their teeth are frequently worn down almost to the gumline. Even young animals, whose teeth can't have eroded from age, show a lot of wear. Sharks have rough, sand-papery skin that could probably buff an orcas teeth down to the jaw if they eat them all the time. Offshores also have fewer tooth marks on their bodies from scrapping with other orcas, suggesting their teeth aren't very pointy for most of their lives.  

We've barely begun to scratch the surface of offshores' life history even though we've known about them since the 80's. In fact there's so much more to learn about all three ecotypes. Their behaviors and life styles are so different that they might even warrant being considered several species of orca. But for now, killer whales are a single group of highly intelligent, adaptable, long-lived, nomadic hunters, just like humans before agriculture and urbanization. Killer whales, they're like the humans of the sea!

Several ton, fish-eating, flippered, black and white, humans.
Courtesy: Putneypics via Flickr


Dahlheim, Shulman-Janiger, Black, Ternullio, Ellefrit, & Balcomb, (2008) "Eastern Temperate North Pacific Offshore Killer Whales (Orcinus orca): Occurence, Movements, and Insights into Feeding Ecology", Marine Mammal Science 24(3): 719-729, doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2008.00206.x

Dahlheim & White, (2010) "Ecological Aspects of Transient Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) as Predatorsin Southeastern Alaska", Wildlife Biology 16:308-322, doi: 10.2981/09-075

Ford MJ, Hempelmann J, Hanson MB, Ayers KL, Baird RW, Emmons CK, et Al., (2015) "Estimation of a Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Population's Diet Using Sequencing of DNA from Feces", PLoS ONE, 11(1): e0144956, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0144956

Riesch & Deecke, (2011), "Whistle Communication in Mammal-eating Killer Whales (Orcinus orca): Further Evidence for Acoustic Divergence Between Ecotypes". Behavioral Ecology sociobiology, 65: 1377-1387, doi: 10.1007/s00265-011-1148-8

"About Killer Whales", Center for Whale Research