This Bothers Me (Part 1 of many)

Those of you who know me well know I love to complain and rant. A friend told me about this recent story, and the fisherman quoted in the article immediately put me in high dudgeon:

1,300-pound shark caught off Huntington Beach could be record [LA Times]

A group of fishermen hauled in a 12-foot-long, 1,300-plus-pound shortfin mako shark Monday off the coast of Huntington Beach that KTLA reported could be a record-setting catch.

Jason Johnston from Mesquite, Texas, said his group hooked the shark about 15 miles offshore. It took more than two hours and a quarter-mile of line to reel it in, he said.

“It’s unreal. This thing is definitely a killing machine,” Johnston said. “Any wrong step and I could have went out of the boat and to the bottom of the ocean.”

The shark was being taken to a weigh yard in Gardena to be certified by a weigh master. It was expected to be donated to a research organization for study.

As his group waited to hear whether the shark was indeed a record breaker, Johnston said the fishermen planned to hit the water again Tuesday.

*Looooong sigh* “Killing machine”, you say? It could have pulled you out of your boat while it was trying to escape being killed by you? I’m so sorry. See this tiny violin? I’m playing it just for you. Boasting about catching the biggest mako just seems to me like you’re boasting about killing the biggest tiger ever. (And then calling it a “killing machine” for growling when you shot it.)

Sharks get a bad rap, I recognize that. Ask anyone for the first word that comes to mind when they think of sharks and you get the answer of “Jaws”.

However, there are a lot of other things out there more likely to kill you. Dying in a traffic collision, for example, carries a lifetime risk of 1 in 83 (compared with a 1 in 60,453 lifetime risk for death by shark attack, source: NYT), but you don’t hear people say “That’s why I don’t go near roads” the way you hear people say “That’s why I don’t go in the ocean” after any shark news. You’re actually more likely to be bitten by a stranger on the subway than killed by a shark, which is news I think should really scare us all.

Things start to look even worse when you compare how many people are killed by sharks with how many sharks are killed by people each year:  on average, it’s only 6 people versus an estimated 100,000,000 sharks. Do the math and it comes out to around 11,000 sharks per hour; on the other hand, 2011, a record year, saw a grand total of 12  human fatalities. Joe Chernov and Robin Richards made this incredible infographic to demonstrate (via HuffPo):

Sweet mother of pearl.

Admittedly, cold hard numbers can only sway opinion so much. Fearing sharks is an emotional reaction, and fearing animals that could hurt you is really not that unreasonable. Sharks just need better PR. Consider instead, how you might feel about sharks if they had a different marketing crew working for them:

I personally find sharks to be really cute. Maybe if I just dress them up a little, you’d agree with me…

(✿◠‿◠)  Kawaii!! 

What does your relationship say about you?

1) Braving all the odds, the rough patches, and (especially) winters of discontent, you and your mate are intensely bonded. This bond doesn’t change when kids enter the picture, but your extreme commitment to providing the absolute best for your little one and two Type A personalities mean you don’t actually get to see each other that much anymore. In fact, a few days in between grueling 6 month stints of child care or work is it, really.  That’s ok with you, though. Anything for the advancement of the species.

You and your lover are… Emperor Penguins.

2) You felt adrift in a lonely ocean, telling yourself there must be someone out there just for you, and you were just about to give up when one day, he sidled up to you. He’s nice enough, you get along, and you can just really spend lots of time together without getting in fights or bugging each other or anything… that has to mean something, right?

Ultimately, he became intensely attached to you, reduced in size, and parasitic, to the point of the fusing of his circulatory system with yours. Even though he never leaves the house you at least don’t have to worry about him running off with someone else.

You and your lover are… Anglerfish.

3) “Fun in the sun!” and “Party Time!” and “Somewhere it’s 5 o’clock…” and “Where do I put this?” are all things you can be found shouting with glee while gettin’ your drink on. In fact, four phrases means there’s not only room for four, but plenty of room for more. Like one big conga line, you and the rest form long, copulatory chains, dispersing pheromones (…drink specials flyers?) into the area to let everyone else know what’s going on and that they can join in. When it’s all over, you lay some spaghetti-like eggs and go back to eating. Yum. Brunch time!

You and your lover(s) are… Sea Hares.

4) You don’t need anybody and no one has anything on you. That’s how you like it. No muss, no fuss, no strings, no cohabitation. You have your bachelor pad, your space, your little walled castle and that’s all you need. “I am a Rock” is your favorite Simon & Garfunkel song.

That being said, every guy has his needs, so when the time is right you don’t venture far from home. You don’t venture from home at all, actually, sticking your penis into your neighbors’ houses to get it on.

You are a… Barnacle.

Photo: Sue Scott

Third Eye? Try Body Eye.

I have a question for you: What do you use to see? Your eyes?

PFFT. SO mainstream, says hipster sea urchin.

Hipster cat agrees.

Pfft. [Photo: Cheezburger, with some editing...]

Sea urchins don’t have eyes. Closely related sea stars have simple eye-spots at the end of their arms, but sea urchins lack these rudimentary structures. Ever tried to reach over and grab a sea urchin from a tidepool only to find it’s holding onto the rock tightly? The little bugger saw you coming.

Clearly, urchins exhibit phototaxis, which means they move in response to light. An organism that moves toward a light source would be said to be positively phototactic, while one that moves away from a light source would be considered to be negatively phototactic.

Despite the number of other environmental factors (salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and water flow to name a few) that urchins can use to sense and navigate their habitats, having some level of sightedness is obviously useful. Recent research shows that urchins not only are generally phototactic, but they can kind of, well, see with their skin. Take it away, National Geographic:

Previous genetic analysis of the California purple sea urchin had revealed that the animals possess a large number of genes linked with the development of the retina—the light-sensitive tissue lining the inner eyeball in people and other vertebrates.

This and other research suggested that sea urchin vision might rely on light-receptor cells randomly scattered across their skin, which collectively function like retinas.

There’s also this great little tidbit from some researchers who tested the urchins  by placing them in well-lit tanks with different sized disks:

“The urchins were really fussy to deal with. Some just wouldn’t move, like deer in headlights … if you can imagine a deer as a spiked ball,” Johnsen said. “But I guess for them it was a bit like being in a Twilight Zone episode, just being stuck in a featureless, well-lit room.”

Sea urchins compare the light they detect with their tube feet and spines to sense what is around them. So there you have it: body eye. A decentralized approach to vision that gives the little sea pincushions sight comparable to that of nautiluses and horseshoe crabs, which is to say, relatively good.

Let’s take a look at a few pictures of sea urchins waving their visual tube feet and spines around. (Click to view larger versions on the original website. Seriously, you should do it. These thumbnails don’t do them any justice.)

Strongylocentrotus palladius [Photo: Alexander Semenov]

No! I don’t want to leave the rock! [Photo: Alexander Semenov]

Back off, it’s MY rock. [Photo: Alexander Semenov]

This beautiful illustration shows even more explicitly the purple sea urchin’s tube feet waving around, helping it move across the substrate and holding onto a piece of algae (for camoflauge or for fun, we’re not really sure yet). Oh yeah, AND SEEING.

Wavy purple things = tube feet. [Illustration: Paul Flanderky, from Brehms Tierleben (Brehm’s Animal Life), via OBI Scrapbook Blog]

Needless to say, it’s a pretty cool discovery and challenges most preconceptions of how sight functions.

“We think of animals that have a head with centralized nervous systems and all their sense organs on top as being the ones capable of sophisticated behavior, but we’re finding more and more some animals can do pretty complex behaviors using a completely different style,” Johnsen said. [Science on NBCNews]

And that is why sea urchins are cooler than you thought. Now try fitting a pair of Wayfarers on that.

My eyes are really obscure? You probably haven’t heard of them…

“He eats his own brain and then turns into a sleeve.”

We saw some really cool things snorkeling last weekend, although not many fish — I was too excited checking out the animals living in the rocky areas where was the kelp was attached. I did see some huge sea urchins and even a couple nudibranchs! Very fun. While you wait patiently for another snorkeling adventure, enjoy this wonderful video about creepy sea animals from the utterly charming and informative Fake Month At The Museum:

There is some truly crazy stuff in the oceans, and we haven’t even begun to explore it all. But speaking of oceanic exploration, what could be better than an open source ROV? Via BoingBoing & NYT:

He had, under his arm, what might appear to be a clunky toy blue submarine about the size of a lunchbox. The machine is the latest prototype of the OpenROV–an open-source, remotely operated vehicle that could map the cave in 3D using software from Autodesk and collect water in places too tight for a diver to go. It could change the future of ocean exploration. For now, it is exploring caves because it can only go down 100 meters. But it holds promise because it is cheap, links to a laptop, and is available to a large number of researchers for experimentation. Indeed, the OpenROV team hopes to start taking orders for OpenROV kits on the crowd sourced project site, Kickstarter. Going for $750, the kits include laser cut plastic parts and all the electronics necessary to build an OpenROV. (Users will have to bring their own laptops to view the onboard video feed and control the machine. They’ll also have to supply their own C-cell batteries which power the sub.) The subs are expected to be available by the end of summer.


“The OpenROV submersible remote controlled vehicle sits in front of its control camera monitor, drying off.” [Photo: NYT]

“This picture from the NEEMO mission is great, and not just because the Aquarius Undersea Lab is in the background. I think this gives a glimpse into what’s possible with OpenROV in regards to payloads and modifying it for specific uses.” [Photo: OpenROV Blog]

Into the Blue Again

“Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down 
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground 
Into the blue again…” [Photo by Mark Tipple]

I’m going snorkeling today! Some friends and I are heading up the PCH, fish identification cards in hand. I’m going to do my best, but to be honest, fish have never been my strength. My friends will probably be pointing them out left and right, while I sit on the bottom, absorbed with some obscure invertebrate. But, as I hope this blog is starting to prove, an exciting invertebrate!

As I don’t have an underwater camera I will have report back on the experience with just words. While you await my account, enjoy this song from the Talking Heads and these beautiful underwater photos by Mark Tipple (via Lost at E Minor).

Photo by Mark Tipple

Photo by Mark Tipple

No body boarding for me today, the beach is too rocky. [Photo by Mark Tipple]

Postcard of the Sea Star as a Young Echinoderm

I recently received in the mail a postcard from a friend, featuring a sea star from Spey Bay, Speyside, Moray, Scotland. Although this isn’t the postcard itself, this is more or less what the sea star on it looks like.

Photo: Scottish Marine Life Watch

According to the website where I found this image, Scottish Marine Life Watch, it’s a common pinky-orange sea star. I’m still trying to figure out what species it is exactly, although I expect it’s probably just one of the color morphs of the fairly common Asterias rubens.

I think sea stars are really quite fascinating animals. They don’t look like much, but they’re surprisingly complex and, well, I can’t anthropomorphize and call them clever (as they don’t have brains), but they’re pretty voracious predators and difficult to pull of rocks if they see you coming. And unfortunately I just typed “see” there, but sea stars don’t actually have eyes, just general sensing spots, one at the end of each arm.

Now, in the interest of keeping some continuity with my other posts this week, here’s a sea star eating a penguin carcass:

[Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic]
“A sun star feeds on a penguin carcass in frigid Antarctic waters. Sea stars are opportunistic feeders. While some simply gather organic particles that float their way, others actively prey on clams or coral. This sun star is scavenging, making a meal of the remnants of a penguin left behind by leopard seals.”

Click here to see more in the fantastic NatGeo gallery of sea stars. Lastly, here’s a close up of the underside of an Astropecten from the lab.


Penguin Sex!

That’ll get your attention, won’t it? I mean, who doesn’t love penguins?

“It’s just full of accounts of sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex, and finishes with an account of what he considers homosexual behaviour, and it was fascinating.”

BBC News – ‘Depraved’ sex acts by penguins shocked polar explorer

I did really enjoy that for a spell last week this article was #1 on the BBC’s “Most Read” list. It certainly has a catchy enough title, but the full article is really quite fascinating. The science of some of the first observations of penguin behavior coupled with modern day interpretations is interesting, but it’s also a great testament to how every generation of scientists inherently struggles with (or against) cultural paradigms.

Now enjoy these pictures of penguins.

The original photobomb, via Reddit

What do you mean penguins don’t breathe fire? Excuse me, I think I’m the marine biologist here.

A Quick Lesson on Shark Anatomy

Hello, and sorry for my week of absence. Before I get right back into the thick of things, I thought I’d give you a brief lesson on sharks. Here, is most of what you need to know:

Shark anatomy as diagrammed by K. Wallace

I’ve got some interesting announcements for this week, including some on whale watching, what I’m doing in the fall, and science news, so stay tuned!

Little News Update

I love The Economist’s writing and, despite being a somewhat conservative magazine (fiscally, admittedly), I find them to be objective and, here, pleasantly pro-science, with a dash of humor.

On July 4th physicists working in Geneva at CERN … announced that they had found the Higgs boson (see article). …. Its significance is massive. Literally. Without the Higgs there would be no mass. And without mass, there would be no stars, no planets and no atoms. And certainly no human beings. Indeed, there would be no history. Massless particles are doomed by Einstein’s theory of relativity to travel at the speed of light. That means, for them, that the past, the present and the future are the same thing.

They also do an excellent job of explaining how so many scientific discoveries work: ruling out every other possible option until the last one must be it:.

Finding the Higgs, though, made looking for needles in haystacks seem simple. The discovery eventually came about using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a machine at CERN that sends bunches of protons round a ring 27km in circumference, in opposite directions, at close to the speed of light, so that they collide head on. The faster the protons are moving, the more energy they have. When they collide, this energy is converted into other particles (Einstein’s E=mc2), which then decay into yet more particles. What these decay particles are depends on what was created in the original collision, but unfortunately there is no unique pattern that shouts “Higgs!” The search, therefore, has been for small deviations from what would be seen if there were no Higgs. That is one reason it took so long.

Lastly, despite the price tag, they come defiantly pro-science for science’s sake: after all, much science is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the practical idea being the eventual sum of that knowledge will be useful.

For non-physicists, the importance of finding the Higgs belongs to the realm of understanding rather than utility. It adds to the sum of human knowledge—but it may never change lives as DNA or relativity have. … This helps explain why, even at this moment of triumph, particle physics is a fragile endeavour. Gone are the days when physicists, having given politicians the atom bomb, strode confidently around the corridors of power. Today they are supplicants in a world where money is tight. The LHC, sustained by a consortium that was originally European but is now global, cost about $10 billion to build. That is still a relatively small amount, though, to pay for knowing how things really work, and no form of science reaches deeper into reality than particle physics.

The Higgs boson: Science’s great leap forward [The Economist]

This news, on the other hand, is disappointing:

During the 64th annual meeting of the IWC in Panama City on Wednesday, the South Korean government cited the country’s long-standing culinary culture of eating whale meat and a need to conduct more in-depth scientific research on whales. …

Critics argue that whales don’t have to be killed to be studied and the real motive behind the “whale research” is to provide meat. The South Korean government follows the controversial steps of its neighbor Japan, which allows whale hunt for “research,” a crack in the IWC ban that permits whale hunting for research purposes. Japan’s active whale expeditions has long drawn international criticism.

South Korea’s Whaling Declaration Sparks Outcry [WSJ]

It’s hard to know what to do with this news. Whales are at historically low numbers, only recently recovering from intense takes well into the 20th century. It’s obvious animals in today’s oceans are under a lot of stress from a variety of pressures — one of the biggest human threats to whales today are ship strikes — making whale recovery an even slower process for animals with large body masses and slow birth rates. On the other hand, I don’t think going out and harassing whaling ships is going to solve the problem. There must be a middle ground.

There has been some interesting genetic work done on whales in an attempt to determine an estimate of their historical population sizes (more). Theoretically, the IWC could look at this and other research and come up with some optimal population size numbers, and we wait until the numbers rebound and THEN we can think about opening up limited take whaling. (Or we can discuss shifting baselines, but that’s another post for another day.) It’s not good to have whale populations under stress, but it’s difficult to take a hard line on something that’s a different cultural taste. (If we want to talk sustainability, the west should not be eating as many salmon, tuna, swordfish, or other large, predatory fishes as we do.)

However, if I may point out my own hypocrisy here, I don’t feel similarly about shark fins. I don’t think we should allow shark fin products. I will admit, I’ve tried shark fin soup (it was delicious), but I’ve also had fake shark fin soup (couldn’t tell the difference). If there’s a reasonable substitute, let’s go for it. Also, as inhumane as some people will say killing an animal for food is, shark finning is much more cruel because sharks are caught, finned, and thrown back into the water to drown.

Hm, it doesn’t feel very good to be making arguments about which actions are “more cruel” when comes to human impacts on the ocean. Ok, let’s feel better. Here are some pretty pictures. From the fantastic Earth As Art Gallery series from the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (USGS):

Kamchatka Peninsula February 17, 2002
The eastern side of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean west of Alaska. In this winter image, a volcanic terrain is hidden under snow-covered peaks and valley glaciers feed blue ice into coastal waters.

Beautiful illustrations from an old book on bioluminescence, Living Lights: A Popular Account of Phosphorescent Animals and Vegetables by Charles Frederick Holder (1887). You can find the whole book online here. (via 50 Watts.)

“Luminous Fish. With two luminous disks, one emitting a golden, the other a greenish light.”