Saturday, March 31, 2012

Stingray Bay at the Toronto Zoo

Yesterday I started a new job at the Toronto Zoo. Well actually I've just returned to an old job that happens to be a seasonal contract position-assistant exhibit supervisor at Stingray Bay. It's by far the best job I've ever had, and I'm happy to be back.

The exhibit houses cownose rays, southern rays, nurse sharks, bonnet head sharks, white spotted bamboo sharks, and sometimes horseshoe crabs. We didn't get horseshoe crabs last year, but I would love to work with them this time around.

The appeal of the exhibit is that visitors get to interact with the animals in a way they wouldn't normally get the opportunity to do. At Stingray Bay visitors can touch the animals and hand feed the stingrays.

The animals live in an uncovered 17, 000 gallon saltwater pool. My job is to maintain this pool, and take care of the animals that live in it. Right now we're setting up all the plumbing and equipment, cleaning up the exhibit, and filling the pool with water.

We've got to get everything up and running for when the exhibit opens to the public on May 1st. Stay tuned for updates, info, and photographs!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Discovery's Penguin Cam Promotes Frozen Planet

One of the greatest things to have ever been invented is live streaming webcam feeds of animals. I seriously can't get enough of them. When my friend from Florida built a chicken coop a few years ago, he equipped it with a webcam and broadcasted the growth of his three chicks to the world. I literally tuned in every single day (multiple times, in fact) until the very sad day that he took it offline.

A few weeks ago I discovered a brand new live stream that made me even happier than the chicken coop cam—Discovery's Penguin Cam! The Discovery Channel teamed up with SeaWorld San Diego to promote its brand new show, Frozen Planet. The live stream from SeaWorld San Diego's Penguin Encounter exhibit lets you watch chubby little penguins waddle around and chirp at each other 24 hours a day. What more could you ask for out of life?

A second underwater camera lets you watch them swim gracefully and play in the water. Sometimes you can see the zookeepers coming in to feed them or spray them down with an icy cold shower. This morning one of the penguins was doing laps around the exhibit with a small black pebble in his beak. I can't begin to express how cute they are, you really just have to see for yourself:

Broadcasting live with Ustream

Frozen Planet, a co-production between BBC, The Discovery Channel, and the Open University, and made by the same team that brought us Planet Earth, focuses on life and its natural history in the polar regions of Earth. The series has only seven episodes, which take the viewer through the different seasons in the Arctic and Antarctic. The final episode was originally deemed too controversial for American audiences, due to its focus on climate change and its devastating effects on the polar regions. Someone at Discovery has since decided that North America is in fact capable of handling the truth, and they will graciously air the final episode for us.

The British version is narrated by (who else?) David Attenborough, while the American one by Alec Baldwin. It's tough to say who got the better deal. You can watch Frozen Planet on Discovery at 8pm ET/PT on Sunday nights.

Monday, March 26, 2012

James Cameron Kicks Off a New Era in Ocean Exploration

"This is the culmination of a lifelong drive, having first heard about it in the 1960s" - Jim Cameron

As of Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 5:52 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, James Cameron has gone to the deepest place in the world and has returned. And he will go back again a number of times over the next few weeks.

Other than the submersible's robotic arm not working, the dive was a success. But from the sounds of it, it may not have made much of a difference.

"Bottom of Challenger Deep was featureless. I had this idea that life would adapt, but don't think we're seeing that."

Obviously, this is disappointing news, but perhaps he'll see something on one of his upcoming dives back to Challenger Deep. We know that life exists there from samples collected previously, and from eye witnesses on the original 1960 expedition.

"Every time you dive there's always hope you'll see something new. Sometimes ocean gives you a gift, sometimes it doesn't."

Either way, simply being in and bearing witness to the deepest place on Earth is exciting enough in itself, desolate as it may be. Lucky for us, Cameron's submersible, Deep Challenger, is equipped with 3D cameras. Using the footage gathered yesterday and over the next few weeks he plans to make at least two films—a 3D movie for theatres, and a National Geographic TV special.

The ability to share such an isolated experience so intimately with the rest of the world is truly remarkable. As soon as Cameron reached the bottom, which is 11km deep, he tweeted "Just arrived at the ocean's deepest pt. Hitting bottom never felt so good. Can't wait to share what I'm seeing w/ you @DeepChallenge." The thought that one man can venture all by himself to the most remote place on Earth, and from there, be able to talk to the entire world is an exciting technological feat.

What's even more exciting is that he won't be the only one to do that this year. Two other teams of American scientists are already planning their own trips to the Mariana Trench, with independent submersibles. Other countries are not far behind. Cameron's historic achievement marks the start of a new era in ocean exploration. Finally, what was impossible before is now attainable, and we will steadily map out the vast unchartered territory that makes up most of our planet.

"They're really the last frontier in exploration here on planet Earth."

I feel hopeful and excited for future generations of scientists. For me, exploring the deep sea was a childhood dream, and it wouldn't have been impossible, but it's very very difficult with the current state of technology, funding, and job opportunities. But now that humankind has made it to the deepest point in the ocean, in the first ever repeatable personned mission, the technology will get better, cheaper, and more pervasive. I am hopeful that for the next generation, it will be within reach for kids to dream about being a deep sea explorer, and actually grow up to be one.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

James Cameron's Deep Sea Challenge

According to Facebook and Twitter, it could happen this weekend, weather permitting. Academy Award-winning director and cinematographic visionary James Cameron is getting ready to plunge to the deepest known point in the ocean. If successful, he will be the first person in over 50 years to pull off this mission. And yes, he will be taking 3D cameras along for the ride.

‎"This quest was not driven by the need to set records, but by the same force that drives all science and exploration … curiosity." - James Cameron

For someone who's been preoccupied with marine biology since childhood (i.e. me), this is bigger than the moon landing. This is bigger than anything—A human being submerging into the deepest of the deep sea to witness firsthand the most profound mysteries of the ocean, and of our planet. I truly couldn't imagine anything more exciting! And of all the people on Earth to go, James Cameron is the best candidate to bring back for the rest of the world what he will have seen in what I'm sure will be visually compelling stupefying motion picture footage.

For those of you who haven't been obsessively following every status update, blog post, and technical detail of this odyssey, here's a brief overview of what exactly it is.

The Destination

The aptly named Challenger Deep lies a cool 10.9 km below the surface of the ocean, making it 2.1 km deeper than the highest peak of Mount Everest is tall. Challenger Deep lies at the southern end of the Mariana Trench, a tectonic subduction zone in the Western Pacific.

The Expedition

It is extremely difficult and dangerous for a manned vehicle to dive to such extreme depth, which is why it has only been done once before. In 1960, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh descended to Challenger Deep in the bathyscaphe Trieste, a trip that took nearly 5 hours for a visit that lasted only 20 minutes.

They took no scientific equipment, no cameras, and the majority of the visit they spent sitting in a cloud of "snuff-coloured ooze"—sediment disturbed from the seafloor. A gruelling technological feat at the time, the aim was simply to show that it could be done. Fifty-two years later, technology has improved leaps and bounds.

Cameron's descent will take a mere two hours, leaving six hours to explore the unchartered deep sea, after which he'll return to the surface. This won't be a one-stop shop—he'll repeat the dive several times.

Cameron will be piloting the "Deepsea Challenger" solo. The vessel is equipped for scientific exploration, including a mechanical arm for sampling. It will return to the surface with biological and geological samples, as well as high-resolution 3D footage.

The Vessel

Compared to the Trieste, the Deepsea Challenger is a shrimp. But it's also a technological powerhouse. The "vertical torpedo" of a sub is positively buoyant, thanks to specially designed foam that keeps it afloat. To weigh it down, steel plates are attached electromagnetically. The vessel will descend in a corkscrew pattern at 150 meters per minute, which is more than three times faster than some current remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

To ascend, the steel plates will be cast off by simply flipping a switch to cut the electromagnetic current that binds them to the ship—this can also be done by remote control from the surface. The weight system is cleverly designed, because if anything goes wrong and the submarine loses power, the weights will drop automatically.

Life Beyond the Abyss

The deep sea is one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. There is no sunlight, the temperature is just above freezing, and the pressure is 1000 times greater than at the surface. And yet, life exists here.

On their 1960 descent, Piccard and Walsh discovered a new species of shrimp, and saw what they described as a flatfish one foot long and six inches wide. ROVs Kaiko and Nereus have since obtained evidence of sea cucumbers, worms, and foraminifera (single-celled, soft-shelled protists).

One of the goals of the Deep Sea Challenge is to discover new lifeforms capable of surviving in such extremes. An environment like this poses severe challenges, and requires radical adaptations. Probably the biggest question on biologists' minds is can fish survive in this environment? More specifically, can solid bone exist under such extreme pressure? Let's revise that one more time: Can calcium exist out of solution (i.e. not dissolved in water) under such high pressure? That answer could be revealed as soon as this weekend!

The Last Frontier

Only 3% of the ocean has been explored by humans, yet it makes up 71% of the Earth's surface. Aside from the surface, the average depth of the ocean is 3.68 km, making the total estimated volume of the Earth's oceans is 1.3 billion cubic kilometers. Think about that figure for a second. There is a ton of ocean left to explore!

The Mariana Trench is by no means the final destination of ocean exploration. It represents the biggest known challenge to humankind in ocean surveying, and it represents an obstacle, that once overcome, will open the doors to widespread exploration of the rest of the ocean. I hope that once we've scrutinized what we consider now to be the biggest challenge offered by the ocean, the rest of it will seem far less intimidating, and we can begin to close final the chapter of unchartered territory on planet Earth.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

TED Talk: David Gallo shows underwater astonishments

This TED talk is well worth a watch. Oceanographer David Gallo (@gallotar) shares beautiful footage of bizarre sea creatures. And it's only 5 minutes long.

Highlights include:
  • Glow-in-the-dark animals
  • A flying turkey
  • Fighting squid
  • A coral transforms into an octopus

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy St. Patrick's Day

For this green-themed day, I give you a photograph of a baby green sea turtle!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Barreleye Fish Sees Through Its Own Transparent Head

How's this for mind-boggling? Or should I say mind-oggling?

Sorry. So sorry.

Bad puns aside, this fish is seriously cool. The barreleye fish has a transparent head, inside of which sit its eyes. These eyes see right through its head. Scientists believe the barreleye steals food from siphonophores (jellyfish-like animals), whose stinging tentacles can't harm the fish's eyes through the protective skin.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Fish-Farming Infographics

A while ago I wrote an introductory post on aquaculture, but I kind of felt like my explanation was lacking. It's hard to fully capture something so complex through words only, and if I were explaining it to you in person I'd for sure be using a lot of hand motions.

I'm a really big fan of using visuals to communicate scientific ideas (but I really dislike bad use of visuals), and I think something like fish farming can be summed up really nicely in an appropriate infographic.

Don Foley is the creative genius behind the fantastic infographics in Ted Danson's Oceana. I Googled him and found this beautiful graphic that illustrates so simply and so well the different kinds of fish farming that currently exist.

A - Onshore ponds (self-contained systems); B - Salmon Pens; C - Seaweed Flats (where seaweed is cultivated); D - Spotter Planes (visually track schools of fish); E - Shellfish Cultivation; F - Free-Floating Fish Farms Oceana

This detailed variation should be opened in a new tab or window to view properly:

This infographic from Ocean Conservancy shows the chief environmental concerns associated with open-ocean aquaculture (any fish farm not on land).

Note: All of these environmental impacts are also potential impacts made by any fish farm in the ocean, including fish pens kept nearshore. Ocean Conservancy

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ocean Imagery: Leafy Sea Dragon

The leafy sea dragon (Phycodurus eques) is an exceptionally well-camouflaged fish.

But it seems a shame to hide such exquisite beauty.

It's definitely one of the coolest looking animals out there.

I wonder what it would feel like to be one of these guys?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sea Urchins by Jean Painlevé

Jean PainlevĂ© is one of my favourite filmmakers and biologists. I remember the first time I ever saw his work as a child, as well as the mixture of fear and fascination and reverence it made me feel—the same feeling I have when I think of the ocean. He ignited in me a deep and passionate aesthetic appreciation for underwater life. Incidentally, this blog is named after one of his films.

One of his better known films showcases the mysterious beauty of one of my favourite animals—the sea urchin. Adult sea urchins, like all members of the echinoderm ("spiny skin" in Latin) phylum, have a pentaradial symmetric body plan. In other words, they have five-sided symmetry, like a star. In my eyes, this simple yet distinctive trait is, among other things, what makes them so beautiful.

The sea urchin is best known for being covered in sharp, venomous spines, which offer it protection. In between these spines are soft, jelly-like tentacles that sense and manipulate things in the environment. Sea urchin locomotion is powered by an intricate hydraulics system of tube feet—another trait shared by all echinoderms. The mouth is located on the underside, and it has five teeth, arranged, like the rest of it, in pentaradial symmetry.

Watch Painlevé's "Oursins" (or "Sea Urchins") below for an intimate look at the unusual beauty of one of our closest invertebrate relatives.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Fish Smell Fear Via Chondroitin

Aquatic animals use chemicals to communicate with each other, as water is an excellent medium for this type of communication. Hypersensitive to their environment, fish use chemical communication to receive and relay information about food, mating, and predation.

Scientists and aquarists have long known that fish, when wounded, release a substance that warns nearby fish of potential danger (when one fish is injured, the rest in a school will flee in panic). Until recently, this substance was known simply as "schrekstoff," which is German for "scary stuff." Thanks to a recent study published in Current Biology, schrekstoff has now been identified as a family of chondroitin sulfate-based compounds.

Chondroitin is a sugar naturally found in fish skin (it's also the stuff in fish oil that's good for joints). Researchers believe that this chondroitin is enzymatically released into the environment when a fish is injured. They also hypothesize that fish have evolved specialized neurons that are hypersensitive to chondroitin.

Apparently some fish are even sensitive to chondroitin compounds of different fish species, while others are less sensitive. I wouldn't be surprised if chondroitin compounds are most similar between two closely related fish species, and closely related fish are most sensitive to each others "schrekstoff." It would also be an advantageous adaptation for predator fish to have evolved a sensitivity to certain prey fishes' chondroitin compounds. However, this is conjecture, and obviously further research is required to know for sure.

It's a big development in aquatic husbandry to have finally found out after 70 years what exactly schrekstoff is. Now more than ever we know how important it is for the health of a communal aquarium to remove injured fish as quickly as possible.

Source article: Mathuru et al.: “Chondroitin fragments are odorants that trigger fear behavior.” Current Biology - March 20, 2012 print issue, DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2012.01.061

Advanced Aquarist.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

This Is What A Scientist Looks Like

This is not what a scientist looks like.

This is what a scientist looks like.

This is also what a scientist looks like.

I just found this tumbr via Compound Eye and I like it a lot. It's called This Is What A Scientist Looks Like, and its aim is to "change the perception of who and what a scientist is or isn't."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

New England Aquarium Welcomes Baby Nautiluses

The New England Aquarium announced yesterday the birth of three new baby nautiluses in the Deep Pacific Coral Exhibit. Reproduction in captivity is very rare for the nautilus, so this is kind of a big deal!

Here is a photo of one of the babies next to a human hand:

And here is what a nautilus looks like as an adult:

The nautilus belongs to the cephalopod family, along with the octopus and squid. It lives in very deep water, and has a chambered shell, which is used for maintaining hydrostatic equilibrium (remaining buoyant underwater). It's one of my favourite animals, and in my opinion, has one of the most beautiful body plans in nature.

To support that opinion, here is what the inside of a chambered nautilus shell looks like: