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Whale shark eats all the fishes

Clever whale sharks have figured out that fishing nets contain a lot of tasty fish. More importantly, they've figured out that they can suck those fish out of the net through holes in the net material.

The downside: When the sharks swim into fishing areas, looking for nets to suck, they can end up caught in the nets themselves. Conservation International took this video, showing why the sharks are hanging out around nets to begin with, as part of a series of videos documenting new net designs that can keep the fishies in and the whale sharks out.

Check out the rest of the video series

Via Charles Q. Choi

A journey to Aquarius—the last underwater research lab

Brian Lam—former editor at Gizmodo, current editor at the ocean-centric Scuttlefish blog—got to visit the world's last remaining underwater scientific research station. Aquarius was built in the late 1980s and launched in 1992, but it was preceded by a huge 1960s-era boom in underwater laboratory development. Conshelf, Sealab, Tektite—these should all be familiar names. But they're all gone now. Which sucks, because having a place where you can study the ocean from inside the ocean is pretty damned useful.

For instance, if you study fish behavior, there's only so much you can learn from watching them in captivity or going on short dives in nature. As Sylvia Earle—grand doyenne of oceanography and the leader of the current Aquarius mission—told Lam, it's actually surprisingly uncommon to see one fish eat another (living, breathing, not-being-tossed-into-a-tank-as-food) fish. And understanding those predatory relationships can be really important to understanding species and ecology.

Aquarius sits on the sea floor, just off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. In a Gizmodo post, Brian Lam describes what's inside the 20-year-old research station, and what it's like to be a visitor there.

In its 20 years of operation, the base has gone from being a pristine piece of yellow painted metal—an alien outpost placed here by man—into an overgrown native of the reef, where sea life and humans live side by side. Fish hang out and pass by every viewport all day, unafraid of the humans inside or visitors like ourselves. Corals grow onto bolts and view ports need to be scraped free of biofouling every week or so using 3m non abrasive pads.

The day before their descent, they placed their clothing, computers, cameras, dive equipment into garbage bags that would be "potted down" into the habitat. They each had to decide what to bring, since space is limited in the habitat. Books are a luxury and some were left behind. Food was potted down, too, which mostly consisted of snacks and junk, with a few fruits that would last. Peanut M&M's were sent in a ration of "at least 3 pounds." They're going to be here for a while.

The wi-fi network is unsecured, but good luck connecting to it from outside of the base.

Read the rest of Brian Lam's tour story at Gizmodo

And check back here later this week for more from Brian Lam about Aquarius, Sylvia Earle, and the science of the ocean!

South Korea may resume whaling, like Japan, "for scientific purposes"

South Korea may soon again allow whale hunting in the waters off its shores for what the government claims are "scientific purposes." The news has sparked criticism from environmental organizations and nations around the Pacific Rim. The country's delegation to the International Whaling Commission said this week that Seoul is reviewing a proposal to hunt minke whales migrating off the Korean Peninsula.

How 100-million year old geology affects modern presidential elections

The image above shows the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections in the American South. Counties that swung Republican are in red. Counties that swung Democratic are in blue. The result shows more than just the modern political landscape. In fact, the blue counties trace the outline of an ancient coastline, from a time when much of the South and Central-West parts of North America were inundated with shallow, tropical seas.

I love this article by Dr. M at the Deep Sea News blog, which explains the geologic history of these oceans and explains why an ancient sea would affect modern politics.

During the Cretaceous, 139-65 million years ago, shallow seas covered much of the southern United States. These tropical waters were productive–giving rise to tiny marine plankton with carbonate skeletons which overtime accumulated into massive chalk formations. The chalk, both alkaline and porous, lead to fertile and well-drained soils in a band, mirroring that ancient coastline and stretching across the now much drier South. This arc of rich and dark soils in Alabama has long been known as the Black Belt.

...Over time this rich soil produced an amazingly productive agricultural region, especially for cotton. In 1859 alone a harvest of over 4,000 cotton bales was not uncommon within the belt. And yet, just tens of miles north or south this harvest was rare. Of course this level of cotton production required extensive labor.

Read the rest of the story at Deep Sea News

Pyura Chilensis, the living rock

This is not a geode. It's an animal. An apparently delicious animals with clear blood, whose body is accumulates surprisingly large amounts of a rare metal used to strengthen steel.

This is Pyura chilensis—an immobile ocean creature. Besides the other traits I mentioned, P. chilensis is also capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction. At the Running Ponies blog, Becky Crew explains the results of a 2005 study that detailed the creature's breeding habits for the first time.

The results showed that P. chilensis is born male, before becoming cosexual – having both male and female gonads – in its adolescence as it increased in size. The researchers also found that given the choice – that is, if situated around other individuals – these organisms prefer to breed via cross-fertilisation, writing, “Given that more events of natural egg spawning followed by successful settlement and metamorphosis were recorded in our paired specimens and in our manipulated cross trials … it appears that cross-fertilisation predominates in this species.”

Manríquez and Castilla also found that a greater number of fertilised eggs resulted from the paired specimens, which suggests that cross-fertilisation, or reproducing with another individual, predominates because it is more effective. This assumption was strengthened by the fact that individuals that had cross-fertilised before being put in isolation took at least two months before successfully producing offspring via selfing. However, they were careful to note that while cross-fertilisation was preferred, selfing did not produce inferior offspring. “No perceptible differences in fertilisation, settlement and metamorphosis success among self and outcross progeny were found,” they reported. This suggests that when stuck alone in the ocean, selfing provides an advantageous opportunity for loner P. chilensis individuals to still pass on their genes.

Read the rest of Becky Crew's post to learn more about Pyura chilensis

Texel, Netherlands: An island where science and culture meet

The Frisian Islands are barrier islands off the coast of the Netherlands. Between these islands and the mainland, there is an area called the Wadden Sea. This sea is only wet in some places, at some times. Instead of being a proper body of water, it's speckled with shallow pools, wetlands, mud flats that flood and dry up depending on storms and changing tides.

That geography makes the Frisian Islands, including the island of Texel, a great place to go beachcombing. During high tides and storms, water from the North Sea flows into the Wadden Sea through inlets. Not all of this water flows back out again, some evaporates. And water isn't the only thing in the North Sea. Wander the mud flats after the tide goes back out and you'll find all manner of random things washed up on Texel's shores—from buckets and signs, to bottles stuffed with anonymous letters.

On a more practical level, current patterns in the North Sea push whatever is in the water towards Texel. That means when a container ship loses something like a box full of luxury coats, the beaches of Texel are a great place to find it again. All that flotsam and jetsam (both the useful and the whimsical) helped create a culture of beachcombing on Texel. For generations, people went down to the shore and finders-keepers was the name of the game.

You can watch a new 14-minute documentary on Texel beachcombers and the goodies they've found. It's called Flotsam & Jetsam and it's available on Vimeo and it's really interesting—a great example of how the realities of nature and science can shape the way culture develops.

Watch the documentary Flotsam & Jetsam

Read a geosciences master's thesis that explains in more detail how the tidal mud flats at Texel work.

Via the Annals of Improbable Research

OpenROV, the $750 submarine

In the New York Times today, Brian Lam (formerly of Gizmodo, now the creator of Scuttlefish and Wirecutter) writes about OpenROV, a low-cost submarine designed to be an affordable tool for "curious students and amateurs, as well as provide a highly valuable shallow water tool for explorers and scientists."

This month, NASA engineer Eric Stackpole hiked to a spot in Trinity County, east of California’s rough Bigfoot country. Nestled at the base of a hill of loose rock, peppered by red and purple wildflowers, is Hall City Cave. For part of the winter the cave is infested with large spiders, but is mostly flooded year-round. Locals whisper the cave’s deep pools hold a cache of stolen gold, but Mr. Stackpole isn’t here to look for treasure.

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.

Read the full story here, and check out the awesome video Brian shot, here.

What the heck is this thing?


[Video Link]

Marine biologists think they can identify this strange, blobby creature that floated up out of the ocean depths and was captured on an oil drill video. That, alone, is not terribly surprising. Marine biologists know a lot of weird ocean creatures.

But would you believe they identified it by its gonads?

Read the rest of the story at Robert Krulwich's NPR blog.

Mark blogged about this critter previously, here on Boing Boing.

Navy: sonar and explosion tests may be harming dolphins, whales

In an environmental impact statement covering future plans for U.S. Navy training and testing, an acknowledgement that the use of sonar and explosives "could potentially hurt more dolphins and whales in Hawaii and California waters than previously thought." (AP)

Correction: Plankton are awesome

In Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy, I made a joke about the formation of fossil fuels that I would like to rescind.

"All three fossil fuels come from the same place—ancient plants and animals that died and were buried beneath layers of earth and rock, often millions of years before dinosaurs roamed this planet. (That's right. Oil isn't made from dinosaurs. But an apatosaurus makes a better corporate mascot than a phytoplankton does.)"

After watching this video about the secret lives of plankton, produced by TEDEducation and marine biologist Tierney Thys, I feel that the above statement is in error. Clearly, plankton—including phytoplankton, which are just tiny plants, as opposed to zooplankton, which are tiny animals—would make excellent mascots. Somebody at Standard Oil really dropped the ball on this one.

Side Note: I found this video through a link to The Kid Should See This, a blog that aggregates kid-friendly wonders from science, art, technology, and more. If you aren't reading it, you should be. Even if you don't have kids.

Via Jason Robertshaw

Video Link

The motion of the ocean

Yesterday, at the Conference on World Affairs, I went to a panel about science and the movies. I'll have more on that later, but I wanted to share this short video recommended by Sidney Perkowitz as an excellent example of how the video medium can be used to allow people to explore and understand their world.

The video is Perpetual Oceans, and it's made by NASA. It shows ocean currents, twisting and turning and undulating around the globe between June of 2005 and December of 2007. There's no narration, just music. The idea is to put into images things that have previously only been words—here is the Gulf Stream, there's the Kuroshio Current. Watching this, you get a better idea of oceans as a system, and it's easy to see how—in the days before steam or gasoline powered engines—where you traveled to and from across the oceans was partly determined by how the ocean moved through that area. It's also important to understanding climate science.

Here's the technical detail from NASA:

This visualization was produced using model output from the joint MIT/JPL project: Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean, Phase II or ECCO2. ECCO2 uses the MIT general circulation model (MITgcm) to synthesize satellite and in-situ data of the global ocean and sea-ice at resolutions that begin to resolve ocean eddies and other narrow current systems, which transport heat and carbon in the oceans. ECCO2 provides ocean flows at all depths, but only surface flows are used in this visualization.

Video Link

Saving the whales? Now there's an app for that, too.

An interesting new iOS app launched today called Whale Alert. Though it's available for anyone, the iPhone/iPad app is intended primarily for use by workers in the shipping and maritime industry. It "combines science and technology to help save critically endangered North Atlantic right whales by reducing threats of collisions with large ships along the East Coast of North America."

From the launch announcement by IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare):

The app links the bridge of a ship to the latest data about right whale detections and informs users when their vessels enter right whale management areas. The app uses Global Positioning System (GPS), Automatic Identification System (AIS), the web and digital nautical chart technologies to alert mariners to NOAA’s right whale conservation measures that are active in their immediate vicinity. A key feature of Whale Alert is a display linking a system of near real-time acoustic buoys that listen for right whale calls to an iPad on a ship’s bridge showing the whale’s presence to captains transiting the shipping lanes. In a matter of seconds the ships position is updated on the iPad in relation to any endangered right whales in the shipping lanes allowing the ship to safely slow down and navigate around the whale.

North Atlantic right whales, which live along North America's east coast from Newfoundland to Florida, are one of the world’s rarest large animals and a species on the brink of extinction. So few exist -- about 450 -- that scientists have identified and named almost all of them. Collision with ships is a leading cause of right whale death.

Link to Whale Alert at the Apple App Store. More about the project at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) website.

More app screenshots below, along with a shot of the beautiful and endangered cetacean they're trying to save.

Read the rest

Nautiluses eating

This photo comes from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It show a school (?) of nautiluses devouring some chicken. Allen owns a large yacht called the Octopus, which has a couple of ROVs on board. This photo was taken by one of the ROVs at a depth of 876 feet, near the Pacific island of Palau.

They look positively Zoidbergian, don't they?

And now, a moment of science fashion

James Cameron. Steve Zissou. What is with submarine explorers and little knit caps? Slate investigates. (Via Miriam Goldstein)

James Cameron hits bottom: deepest ever solo sub dive

Movie director, global explorer, and noted badass James Cameron today dove to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, earth's deepest point, using a specially designed submarine. He is the first person to attempt such a dive since 1960. More on the project, and what they hope to accomplish, at the Deep Sea Challenge website.

From National Geographic:

At noon, local time (10 p.m. ET), James Cameron's "vertical torpedo" sub broke the surface of the western Pacific, carrying the National Geographic explorer and filmmaker back from the Mariana Trench's Challenger Deep—Earth's deepest, and perhaps most alien, realm.

The first human to reach the 6.8-mile-deep (11-kilometer-deep) undersea valley solo, Cameron arrived at the bottom with the tech to collect scientific data, specimens, and visions unthinkable in 1960, when the only other manned Challenger Deep dive took place, according to members of the National Geographic expedition.

After a faster-than-expected, roughly 70-minute ascent, Cameron's sub, bobbing in the open ocean, was spotted by helicopter and would soon be plucked from the Pacific by a research ship's crane. Earlier, the descent to Challenger Deep had taken 2 hours and 36 minutes.

(Photo: Mark Thiessen, National Geographic)

Shark cartilage may contain toxin linked to Alzheimer's, ALS

If the cruelty involved in obtaining it isn't reason enough: Shark cartilage, a supplement hyped for purported use as a cancer preventive, joint-health aid, and other unsubstantiated health claims, "may contain a neurotoxin that has been linked with Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease."

James Cameron will ride this submersible to the deepest point in the ocean

Meet the Deepsea Challenger, a one-man submersible craft capable of withstanding pressures at the deepest point in the ocean—Challenger Deep in the Pacific's Mariana Trench. Sometime in the next few weeks, this sub will carry filmmaker James Cameron into the Challenger Deep. He'll become the third human to visit that place, and the first since a two-man Navy sub made the dive in 1960.

As you see it in this photo, Deepsea Challenger is actually sideways. The sub will fall into and rise out of Challenger Deep in a vertical configuration, with Cameron at the bottom in a spherical steel pod. You can't see the spherical part in this image, but the pod is attached. It's in the end of the craft that's still slightly out of the water—the left-hand side of the photo.

Cameron's descent will be very different from the 1960 expedition, which wasn't able to see much because their craft stirred up so much debris in the bottom of the trench. Deepsea Challenger is designed to avoid this problem and Cameron will also spend a much longer amount of time at the bottom—several hours instead of just 20 minutes. He'll also film 3D footage of the trench, and collect animal and rock specimens.

You can see more pictures of the Deepsea Challenger at National Geographic News.

That site also has a longer story explaining, in more depth (harhar), how the sub will work and how Cameron's expedition contributes to science.

Finally, I'd like to take a minute to apologize to everyone who saw Titanic multiple times in the theater. If I'd known back then that your devotion to Leonardo DiCaprio would one day help fund cool stuff like this, I wouldn't have rolled my eyes at you nearly as often.

RIP Toola, world's most influential otter

I had never heard about Toola the Sea Otter before today, but I'm not going to pass up an opportunity for a headline like this. Also, her story turns out to be incredibly inspiring. Seriously, this otter was a bit of human-interpretable speech away from being a guest on Oprah.

That's because Toola was a foster mother. THE foster mother, really, at least as far as the otter world goes. She was the first otter, living in captivity, to serve as a foster for orphaned baby otters. Along the way, she helped change the way aquariums all over the world approach the rehabilitation of injured otters, and how those otters are reintroduced to the wild.

NPR is calling Toola an "otter pioneer". You can read the full obituary on that site.

Via Brian Switek

Good news: Whale and dolphins are friends

Sometimes, you need to start off your week with a dose of happy news. For instance, this video from the American Museum of Natural History details two recent instances where scientists have observed a whale and several dolphins interacting in ways that are something we might classify as "play".

It's hard to talk about animal behavior without getting too anthropomorphizing, but think about it this way: In both instances, the whale and dolphins did not appear to be competing with other, they did not appear to be fighting, nor were they cooperating in a goal-oriented way. When scientists say "animals are playing" they don't necessarily mean "play" the way human children play, but they do mean behaviors that go beyond simple eat/sleep/defend/breed necessities. Play might be learning. Play might be about forming social bonds that help an individual later on. And however you interpret it, spotting examples of spontaneous, inter-species play in the wild is kind of a big deal.

And now, with those caveats out of the way, I'd like to highlight the top comment on YouTube, by one Bill Kiernan: "We both used to be land animals, isn't that crazy? clearly we need to hang out."

Video Link

Via Charles Q. Choi

Fish mimics mimic octopus

This is a great find by Not Exactly Rocket Science's Ed Yong. A tourist and a couple of researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have documented an instance of Pacific-dwelling jawfish hiding from predators by blending into the stripes of well-known camouflage guru, the mimic octopus.

This relationship is probably a rare occurrence. The black-marble jawfish is found throughout the Pacific from Japan to Australia, while the mimic octopus only hangs around Indonesia and Malaysia. For most of its range, the jawfish has no octopuses to hide against. Instead, Ross and Rocha think that this particular fish is engaging in “opportunistic mimicry”, taking advantage of a rare chance to share in an octopus’s protection.

Video Link

Thanks, Atvaark!