What does ambergris look like?

Ambergris is often referred to as "whale vomit", but that's not really correct. A more accurate analogy would be to say that ambergris is like the whale equivalent of a hairball. It's produced in the whale digestive tract, possibly to protect intestines from the sharp, pointy beaks of squid — you'll often find squid beaks embedded in the stuff. Most of it gets pooped out. But the big chunks of ambergris have to exit the other direction. In the human world, these lumps — which have the consistency of soft rock or thickly packed potting soil — are famous because we use them to make things like perfume. The ambergris washes up on beaches, people collect it, and sell it to make cosmetics.

Anyway, that's what usually happens. Recently, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Holland and the conservationists who dissected it found a huge quantity of ambergris in the animal's intestines.

That news made me realize that I'd never actually seen a picture of ambergris before, so I went hunting around to see what the stuff looked like. That's a photo of a lump of ambergris, above. But it's not really indicative of what ambergris looks like all the time. In fact, as far as I can tell, the stuff comes in a wide variety of shapes and colors — ranging from stuff that looks like small brown pebbles to yellow-green globs covered in bubbly nodules. The diversity is worth perusing. This website, for a company that buys and sells ambergris, has several nice photos. And Google image search turned up a plethora of pics that really capture how different one lump of ambergris can be from another.

Investigating the Gulf Coast dolphin murders

Along the Gulf Coast, people are killing (and sometime gruesomely mutilating) dolphins in record numbers. At National Geographic, Rena Silverman goes in-depth on the killings, which investigators now believe are the work of multiple people who are not connected to one another. Xeni wrote about it last year, when that was apparently less clear. Is it less or more disturbing that this isn't likely to be an isolated dolphin serial killer?

Project: Recycle old scientific equipment into new tools for public engagement

When ocean scientist Andrew Thaler found an old, outdated water level gauge, he found a way to give it new life — turning it into a tool to measure public interest in sea level rise. Instead of tracking water, the Sea Leveler tracks how much people are talking about water on Twitter.

Ocean scientists say 19-year-old's "realistic" plan to clean up the ocean isn't actually realistic

Earlier this week, Jason told you about a TEDx talk in which 19-year-old Boyan Slat presents a plan to remove plastic from the world's oceans. Lots of people are excited about this, which is reasonable. Particulate plastic in the ocean is a big problem that has, thus far, evaded any reasonable clean-up plans. There's just so much of it, it's so tiny, and the ocean is, you know, kind of huge. If a kid can come up with a plan that works, it would be fantastic. Unfortunately, the ocean scientists at Deep Sea News say Slat's system isn't as simple and practical as he thinks it is. Among the many problems: Slat's plan would catch (and kill) as many vitally important plankton as pieces of plastic, and it calls for mooring plastic-collecting ships in the open ocean where the water is 2000 meters deeper than the deepest mooring ever recorded. Here's a mantra to remember: TED Talks — interesting if true.

A global society of squid

It's a small squid world, after all. A recent study shows that giant squid from all around the globe have remarkably low levels of genetic diversity — essentially, writes Tina Hesman Saey, they're all more closely related than scientists previously thought. Giant squid, as it turns out, are a single species, traveling, living, and breeding all around the planet.

Here are two lobsters having sex

From the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Facebook page, here are two lobsters doing it — apparently in the missionary position.

But looks can be misleading. What's actually going on here is external fertilization — that is to say, procreation without any of the potentially awkward penetration. Male lobsters produce spermatophores, packets of sperm, which they attach to the female's sternum. That's what you see happening here, according to the Sanctuary. Later, the female will use that sperm to fertilize her eggs.

Thanks to David Shiffman and Carin Bondar!

Sucking up to shrimp

Say you're a marine biologist and you want to study the little bitty creatures of the sea — shrimps and worms and things like that. How do you go about capturing them?

Why, with an underwater vacuum, of course.

At the PNAS First Look blog, David Harris writes that this "SCUBA-tank powered vacuum, called an “airlift,” inhales shrimp, sand fleas, marine worms, and 'things that would swim away if they had the chance.'"

An appreciation of the Sawfish, one of Earth's most threatened fish

"The earliest sawfishes likely arose in the shallow Tethys Sea, that ocean surrounded by the ancient continents of Godwanda and Laurasia, during the Cretaceous period at least 60 million years ago," writes Dr. M. at Deep Sea News.

These "sole survivors of an ancient bloodline" now number only seven species which roam the muddy bottoms of coastal areas, bays and estuaries. 

All sawfishes can move easily between fresh and saltwater and often venture deep upstream into rivers. The sawfish lifestyle puts this both their size and saw near humans.  All seven species are considered critically endangered by the IUCN.  As much as we have impacted them, sawfish have also greatly influenced our culture.

And now, they're one of the most threatened species on our planet. Thanks, humans!

More: Exaltation to Extinction for Sawfishes [Deep Sea News]

Sci-fi scenes that use real ocean life as props

Jason Isley is an underwater photographer, which means that the strange and wonderful creatures you and I go ga-ga over are really just part of a workaday routine for him. This is a fact which has gotten him into fights on the Internet ...

I made a comment online recently that I was growing tired of nudibranches and was immediately bombarded with abuse and comments from ‘nudi-lovers’. Allow me to clarify: It’s not that I actually dislike the little flamboyant slugs, but once you have shot a few thousand images of nudies and other common macro life, I was running out of ways to maintain my passion for photographing them. I’ve shot them from countless angles and under a variety of lighting configurations. I know there are now lots of different techniques and gadgets to spice things up, like snoots, external macro diopters, and bugeye lenses, but for me, I really wanted to do something entirely different.

The result: A clever, cheeky series of photos that pair real underwater life forms with little miniature figurines from the hobby store and the toy store.

The shark that only wants a single bite

The cookiecutter shark is one of those animals that kind of makes you believe nature just likes to mess with us. Instead of killing the things it eats, a cookiecutter shark just takes a bite — leaving a neat, tidy hemispherical divot. As marine biologist Yannis Papastamatiou told reporter Douglas Main, it would be more accurate to call the cookiecutter an "ice cream scoop shark". Despite only being about 20 inches long, the cookiecutter shark will try its luck on a wide variety of prey, including animals much larger than itself. It's been known to bite great white sharks, for instance. And there is one report of a cookiecutter biting a human, although that risk is probably not something you should bother losing sleep over.

In which a sea cucumber is overcome by lust

This is how the vast majority of sea cucumbers reproduce — by rearing up and releasing a stream of gametes (that is, sperm or eggs, depending) into the water.

WARNING: This video may be considered not safe for work. Especially if you work for or with sea cucumbers.

Release the kraken!

What do you need to catch a giant squid? At The Verge, Arikia Millikan goes behind-the-scenes on the recent, successful expedition to capture the kraken on video for the first time.

True facts about the seahorse

The absolute best part about this video: As far as I can tell, all of the facts in it are, in fact, true.

The seahorse: Naturally hilarious.

Kraken video to be released

Still from video of giant squid, courtesy NHK/NEP/Discovery Channel.

Discovery Channel and Japan's NHK teamed up to capture video of one of the most elusive and fascinating deep ocean creatures: the giant squid. The joint press release announcing the air date of this long-coveted footage contains the sort of prose I wish we were also seeing in this week's round of CES announcements:

With razor-toothed suckers and eyes the size of dinner plates, tales of the creature have been around since ancient times. The Norse legend of the sea monster the Kraken and the Scylla from Greek mythology might have derived from the giant squid. This massive predator has always been shrouded in secrecy, and every attempt to capture a live giant squid on camera in its natural habitat, considered by many to be the Holy Grail of natural history filmmaking, has failed. Until now.

Read the rest

Of coral and common sense: Why it's important to test our theories

Pseudopterosins are a family of naturally occurring chemicals with the power to reduce inflammation, skin irritation, and pain. In other words, they make a great additive in skin cream. If you want skin that less red, pseudopterosins can help. Want a lotion that soothes your face after a particularly vigorous round of exfoliation? Call on pseudopterosins.

Pseudopterosins come from a coral called Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae. That's it in the photo above. For years, researchers and pharmaceutical companies thought they were sustainably harvesting P. elisabethae because, instead of simply gathering any of the coral they could find, they merely pruned it — leaving plenty of the creature to grow back.

But, it turns out that this is a really good example of a frustrating problem — what seems sustainable is not always actually sustainable. Doing the right thing, environmentally speaking, isn't as intuitive as we'd like it to be. (Also, pruning an animal isn't like pruning a plant.) At Deep Sea News, Dr. M explains:

After prunings in 2002 and 2005 and before the annual spawning, Christopher Page and Howard Lasker examined 24 pruned corals and 20 unpruned corals. What the researchers found is that although colonies appeared healthy pruned corals produced less eggs. ... Why would pruned corals produce less eggs and sperm? When organisms are injured more energy is diverted away from reproduction and toward repair. Interestingly, this pruning may actually also creating artificial selection. If workers are targeting larger and fuller corals to prune, then smaller less thick corals will be reproducing more and eventually become more dominant.

This is why science is important. Because, frequently, "common sense" isn't really all that sensical.

Read the full story