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 way....wow. 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 bogleech.com

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: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/moose-eating-shark-rescued-in-newfoundland-harbour-1.2434102

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... just...like...us... 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