Monday, April 30, 2012

Stingray Bay Toronto Opening May 1 2012

It's been a very busy week at Stingray Bay Toronto. The exhibit is opening tomorrow, an our animals just arrived on Friday. We've had some hiccups with equipment, but everything is running right on schedule.

This is how you transport stingrays from one aquarium to another!

This year we've got our usual cownose stingrays, southerns, and nurse sharks. New additions include bamboo sharks and tropical fish!

Admission is $2.50 on top of regular zoo admission, but there's really no other exhibit like it. You get to pet the stingrays and sharks, and if you'd like to buy a cup of food you can feed the stingrays too.
Zissou, our male white-spotted bamboo shark, with a green chromi (bottom right)

If you see me in the pool, feel free to ask me questions about the animals. We also have "stingray staff" stationed around the pool, who are more than happy to answer questions and show you how to properly interact with the animals.

Our visitors sometimes get too excited about the sharks and rays to pay attention to the educational materials. Regardless, I hope that everyone who passes through will gain a deeper appreciation for these misunderstood fishes, and realize they are gentle, majestic creatures, and nothing to be feared.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Yo La Tengo Performs the Sounds of Science

This past Saturday I was lucky enough to attend a rare screening of the curious nature films of Jean Painlevé.

Painlevé was a French naturalist turned filmmaker, who created a series of beautiful, avante garde, and highly informative short documentaries. The films' focus lied with marine invertebrates, perfectly capturing their beguiling beauty, and perplexing nature.

The screening was the closing night gala of the Toronto Underground Film Festival, and the culmination of an eight-year effort to put the event together. The Sounds of Science, as the performance is called, featured live accompaniment by Yo La Tengo, who had been commissioned to compose and record the soundtrack for a selection of Painlevé's most popular films.

It was a beautiful night, and for me, a childhood dream come true. The place was sold out, and I know the majority of the audience was primarily there for Yo La Tengo. But it pleased me to see such a large crowd of (presumably) non-scientists sit through two hours of marine biology lessons.

There was laughter, cheering, oohs and aahs, and even head-shaking in disbelief at the alienness of the otherworldly creatures. At the end, a standing ovation overtook the sold-out theatre.

I always love so much to see the melding of art with science, especially when it results in somebody learning something new. Science has become a marginalized component of human culture. This is why I found it particularly inspiring to witness these obscure water-breathers brought to light by a well-known group of artists.

I believe we are on the brink of a revolution in the way science is communicated. Increasingly, researchers are becoming frustrated with traditional publishing methods, which continue to alienate and intimidate the public.

It may pose a challenge to make science accessible and entertaining—but it is not impossible. It would be nice to see this challenge taken up by more scientists, that is, if they want to be heard.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Toronto Zoo Loses AZA Accreditation, Life Goes On

Toronto's been abuzz with the recent news regarding the Toronto Zoo's loss of AZA Accreditation, as announced yesterday. Unsurprisingly, the development has been accompanied by confusion, with some people even thinking it means the zoo's shutting down. That is simply untrue. So why did it happen and what does it mean?

First thing you need to know: it was a political thing. Like all politics, it means something, and it doesn't.

The loss of accreditation has nothing to do with the way the Toronto Zoo cares for its animals. The issue the AZA has is that the zoo does not hold complete control over its own animals, and that is against AZA standards. Rightly so! The governance issue stems directly from the whole elephant debacle.

Three African elephants are leaving the Toronto Zoo, and the AZA requested for them to be transferred to another AZA accredited institution in a more suitable climate. The zoo agreed to comply with the AZA's request. City council, however, overruled that decision, and voted to send them to an unaccredited sanctuary called PAWS—a decision the zoo was not happy about. PAWS is heavily supported by Bob Barker, who had been pushing for the elephants to leave Toronto from the start, and incidentally also offered to fund their move to the sanctuary.

City council must have liked the idea of saving tax payers some money and went with his idea, instead of the zoo's. Oops!

Now, I don't believe anybody meant any harm, and those who voted probably thought they were doing a good thing by choosing a sanctuary as the elephants' new home. But the fact remains that people who are not animal experts had (and still have) the power to overrule the experts, and make executive decisions that directly affect the livelihood of animals they know little about. Something doesn't add up there.

I appreciate that it's a complex issue. Right now everyone seems to be taking it in a bad light, but I think it could be a blessing in disguise. Truthfully, nothing will change in the zoo's day-to-day operations.  Losing AZA accreditation may have been just the thing the Toronto Zoo needed to finally sort out its "governance issues." At any rate, it'll have to address these issues, like it or not, if it wants to get re-accredited in 2013.

Leaving executive animal decisions in the hands of animal experts? It's crazy, but it just might work!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Mandala of Evolution

I stumbled upon this illustration when I Google searched "evolution." It's called "The Mandala of Evolution." It seems like the light in the middle is the big bang, and radiating out of it are cells and simple lifeforms. Farther away from the middle, you see more complex lifeforms radiating—some aquatic, some crawling onto land, and stretching all the way to the horizon, which is capped by the sun on top and the moon on the bottom.

I'm not sure what it's for, or who Dana Wright is, but I think it captures the diverse beauty and wonder in life really nicely. I also like that it kind of looks like something that would be on a graphic tee from the 90s that possibly (at least I would hope) glows in the dark. In other words, I would totally wear this.

To view the full-sized image, either download it, or drag it up to the address bar.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Evolution is Fact And Theory

Just as Copernicus' heliocentric theory of the solar system was controversial in his day, the theory of evolution harbours lingering controversy today. Accepted as fact by scientists worldwide, its opponents argue that evolution is "just a theory." So which is it?

The answer is both.

The word "theory" in everyday English is used interchangeably with the word "hypothesis." To do so in scienctific context is impermissible, as the word "theory" has a very specific, unwavering meaning in the science world.

Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.
Hypothesis: A tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested.

(Definitions from the National Academy of Sciences, 1998)

The glaring difference between these terms, is that a hypothesis is untested. It is a conjecture—mere speculation. This speculation may be based on sound, deductive reasoning supported by a heavy body of research, but it is still speculation, and has yet to be verified. A theory, on the other hand, has been tested and verified, and accepted as truth.

NB: Nothing can ever be proved in science (with the exception of mathematics), only failed to be disproved.

It is a fact that all life on earth is related. It is a fact that individuals of the same species exhibit differential survival. It is a fact that only some genes in a population are propagated to the next generation. And it is a fact that there are quantifiable causes of the differential survival of genes. Evolution is the theory that explains these facts. Simple as that.

If in the future you are unfortunate enough to encounter a history-denier who tries to say that evolution is "just a theory," consider yourself properly armed against their "argument." Keep in mind, also, that evolution has nothing to say about the origin of life, only the process by which life changes over time.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

NASA Video of Global Ocean Currents

My friend Ian showed me this gorgeous video created by scientists at NASA—it's a time lapse composite of ocean currents worldwide. Not only is it visually stunning, but it's highly informative. This video transforms the abstract image we have in our heads of ocean currents into a dynamic, observable map, from which we can easily extract patterns and information.

It's also just great to look at.

Look at how the flow of water interacts with itself and the land elements. The patterns of ocean motion become so much easier to understand with this visualization. Wouldn't it be great if wind currents could be layered on top of this video, so we could get a clear picture of how they are affected by ocean currents?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Intertidal Sea Life of Croatia

UPDATE: A very appreciative thank you to Mick Otten (Mick's Marine Biology) for helping identify the species in these photos!

The first time I ever visited Croatia, I fell head over heels in love with it. I went in the summertime, when it's always sunny, the temperature hovers around a dry 25 degrees Celcius, and the water is a crystal clear hue of aquamarine.

I spent hours combing the rocky shore for signs of wildlife, of which I found lots. I spent just as much time snorkelling, examining intertidal echinoderms, crustaceans, anemones, and barnacles.

Intertidal species are those that live near or onshore, where the water level varies drastically with the tide. These animals are fascinating because of the adaptations they have evolved to deal with extreme variation in temperature, water level, and salinity.

A hermit crab poking out of its house to see who's picked it up (Clibanarius erythropus)

The shoreline can harbour many micro-environments throughout the day. Species with limited motility, like barnacles, sea stars, and anemones, may be completely submerged in seawater at high tide, then left totally dry with the hot sun beaming down on them at low tide.

A bright sea anemone (Actinia equina)

In spite of these harsh conditions, the intertidal zone is teeming with life. I must have found some type of animal every meter I explored. Luckily, I had with me a camera, and I was able to capture everything I found.

Spiny sea urchins clinging to a rock (Arbacia lixula)

Empty sea shells that were once home to snails, and possibly hermit crabs (left Hexaplex trunculus and right Monodonta turbinata)

A sea urchin skeleton. Notice the pentaradial symmetry, a trait shared by all echinoderms.

The same skeleton viewed from the top. The small hole is where the anus lies. The mouth is on the ventral side.

A crab hiding in a crevice (Pachygrapsus marmoratus)

A sea anemone, closed for low tide (Actinia equina)

A well-camouflaged crab (Pachygrapsus marmoratus)

A sea snail, firmly clinging to rock (Monodonta turbinata)

The sphynx blenny (Aidablennius sphynx)

Barnacles closed for high tide (Patella species). Fact: barnacles have the largest penis to body size ratio of any known animal, with some penises reaching 40 times the length of the body.

This sea star lost two of its arms, which were regenerating when this photo was taken (Coscinasterias tenuispina)

The sharp spines of a sea urchin offer it good protection (Arbacia lixula)

Marbled rock crab (Pachygrapsus marmoratus)

A crab exoskeleton. Crabs regularly shed their shells as they grow (Xantho species)

Sphynx blenny (Aidablennius sphynx), shrimp (Palaemon genus), and burrowing worms. Update: Mick Otten (Mick's Marine Biology Blog) has informed me that what I thought were burrowing worms are actually a species of green seaweed, Padina pavonica.