Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sea Anemones Evolving Toxins May be the Key to Medical Innovation

For years scientists have used the venom from many creatures to create medicines and treatments for various illnesses. To do this, scientists would extract venom from adult animals and then analyze the make up of the venom and use it in various ways. This process has always been done using adult animals, because the thinking was that an animals venom was the same at a larval stage as it would be at the adult stage. But a recent study with sea anemones has proved that theory wrong. Using a species of sea anemone, Nemotostella, also known as the Starlet Sea Anemone, researchers studied the venom development from larva to adult hood and how the venom chemically changes over the span of their developmental stages. Sea anemones being part of the Phylum Cnidaria have stinging cells on their tentacles that inject the venom into their prey called cnidocytes. To study the venom from these animals, researchers cultured these cells in various life stages and looked into the behavior of Nemotostella at each developmental stage.

Researchers began by studying the venom produced by larva Nemotostella. By analyzing the venom and watching the behavior of the larva, they observed that the venom produced at this stage seemed to be used for defense rather offense. As the small larva are floating through the water they are highly vulnerable to predators. The venom they produce helps them fend off predators so that they can grow to an adult. When a predator eats a larva, the larva release highly potent venom which makes the predator spit them out. This helps ensure that the larva can grow to adulthood and eventually reproduce.

Image of Nematosella 

As Nemotostella reaches adulthood its venom changes from that of a defense mechanism, to something to help them catch their prey. The venom chemically changes to better stun and kill potential prey, rather than surprise and disgust a potential predator. While researchers were surprised to find these changes, the changes did not stop with just development, the environment had an impact on the chemistry of the venom as well. As the water salinity, temperature, and food supply changed so did the potency and make up of the venom. This was a completely new aspect of the evolution of the sea anemone that researchers were excited to discover.  

Expression of Nematosella toxins 

The reason that this discovery is such a big breakthrough is due to the potential medical advancements that would be gained from studying the evolution of the Nematosella venom. Because most, if not all, research done on animal venom is venom taken from adult animals, the concept that there is a whole new variety of compounds from venom to look at has researchers thrilled. The possible new drugs, medicines and treatments that could come from studying these new compounds are unlimited. 

Cluster of Starlet Sea Anemones

Another question being asked in the scientific community after this discovery is how "normal" of behavior is it for animals to change their chemical composition as their environment changes? With climate change becoming a major issue around the world, not just for aquatic ecosystems but for terrestrial ecosystems as well, if scientists can study this further then perhaps they can understand ways to help other organisms change and adapt to an environment that otherwise would be lethal for them. This research could help millions of organisms have a brighter future in a harsher world. 


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ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 18, 2018 from


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Hermit crab uses 'walking coral' as home

Hermit crabs are well known for making their homes out of empty shells. They will go from shell to shell throughout their lifetime trying to find the perfect fit and to gain better protection. However, it has recently been discovered that shells are no longer the only objects hermit crabs are using for protection. A species of hermit crab located in the Amami Islands, which is part of a chain that stretches southwards from Japan towards Taiwan, has been found to be using solitary corals for their shelter. This species of crab is named Diogenes heteropsammicola, after the species of coral that they inhabit.

Hermit crab (Diogenes heteropsammicola)

This relationship has proved to be mutually beneficial for both the hermit crab and the coral. By using coral as its protective armor the hermit crab no longer has to continue to search and search for new and better shells as it continues to grow. The space in the coral in which the hermit crab sits grows with the crab, so it does not need to search and compete among its species for new homes. In addition, the coral is able to sting, which helps to further protect the crab from predators such as starfish, larger crabs, and octopi.

A type of coral the hermit crab will use (Heteropsammia cochlea)

This relationship is also able to be favorable for the coral as this species of coral is a solitary coral instead of a reef-building kind. Solitary corals are often found on shallow sandy seabeds. With this type of habitat, the solitary coral runs the risk of being buried by sediment and overturned by strong currents. To combat this, corals will develop a partnership with other animals to assist them out of the sand and do the ‘walking’ for them. This is usually seen with marine worms, but is now prevalent in this hermit crabs species as well.

Coral skeleton after being used by hermit crab

Though more research needs to be done, it is thought this relationship with hermit crabs developed similarly to how the marine worms use the coral for protection. In the case of the marine worm, a young coral will settle on a small shell that has already been colonized by the marine worm. The coral then grows over and beyond the shell, providing a cavity for the marine worm, which is continuing to grow as well. These hermit crabs likely acquire coral shelter and develop this symbiotic relationship in a similar manner such as this one.

Mynott, S. (2017). Newly discovered hermit crab species lives in 'walking corals.' The Conversation12 March 2018.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Undersea Constellations: The Global Biology of an Endangered Marine Megavertebrate (Whale Shark) Further Informed through Citizen Science

It is challenging to gather ecological data including behaviors and movements on worldwide animals. Such data is gathered from multiple sources because it would be impossible for one group of scientists to collect such data on such a large spatial scale. One approach that has been helpful is citizen science, the collection of data from the general public, which has helped increase our knowledge on animals that inhabit global spatial scales. With such data we can access the abundance, size, sex frequency, and spatial trends of Nursey sites, mating sites, and feeding hotspots of such animals that can help us to better manage and protect a species. An example of an animal that is of critical importance to obtain such data would include the Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus).

Little is known about the Whale Shark, and the knowledge we have on the animal has been recently documented in the past decade. They filter-feeders that aggregate in groups at specific locations throughout the oceans where there is much Planktonic growth, and are distributed between 30°N and 30°S. Their life history includes slow growth, later maturation, and extended longevity, which makes them vulnerable to population declines especially to human threats including bycatch, pollution, ship strike, and targeted fishing which is why it is critical to obtain such spatial data. Ecotourism activities have focused on monitoring such sharks via photo-identification, observing unique skin patterns, thus creating a database of photo-identified sharks. This study reports the success of monitoring the Whale Sharks on the global scale which includes sightings on local and global levels, size and sex ratios over time, locations of common resighting history, and the resighting of individual sharks in one or more countries. 

Figure 1. Unique pattern behind the gills helps identify individual

Photo-identification images are collected when a tourist or a researcher is swimming and takes a picture of a skin pattern that is unique to each individual shark that are long lasting. An example is seen in Figure 1. Such pictures are then uploaded to a database online as well as other information including sight location, sex, and estimated length. Computer-assisted pattern-matching technology is used to determine if the shark is a new shark or if it is a resighted shark. Each encounter is assigned a location code, depending on the country or hotspot where the encounter, or sighting, occurred. Identified sharks are catalogued with a prefix according to the location code from the first identifiable sighting and each newly identified shark is assigned a unique number specific to that sighting location.

Figure 2. Hotspot Distributions of Whale Sharks

From 1992 to 2014 there has been 28,776 whale shark encounters, and 6091 individual sharks have been identified from 54 countries. The authors of this study determined 20 hotspots, or locations that had at least 100 whale shark encounters, which have contributed to 99% of all the documented encounters. As seen in Figure 2, such hotspots include Belize, The Maldives,  South Africa, Tanzania, Mexico–Atlantic region, Honduras, Mozambique, Qatar, Western Australia (Ningaloo Marine Park), The Philippines (Donsol, Leyte, Cebu), Seychelles, Djibouti, Oman, The United States–Gulf States region, Christmas Island, Mexico–Pacific region, Indonesia, Thailand, Red Sea, and The Galapagos. Much of these sites have been identified with the help of the general public including ecotourism activities. Such sightings have been correlated with areas of high primary productivity of plankton. 

Figure 3. Sex ratio of identified whale sharks at global hotspots

As seen in Figure 3 there seemed to be a strong male bias throughout 14 of the previously mentioned hotspots, with at least 66% of the individuals being males. However, at the Galapagos, 99% of the individuals were female, at the Red Sea, 75% of the individuals were female, and in Thailand, 68.5% of the individuals were female. There is also a bias of the juvenile inhabiting the coastal areas. 

Table 1. Average total length

According to Table 1 the longest individuals occur at the Galapagos with an average length about 11.07 meters, followed by the U.S-Gulf States region with an average length of 8.01 meters, Belize with an average of 7.21 meters, Mexico-Atlantic region with an average of 7.12 meters, and all other locations with an average of 7.0 meters. 

Based on the data, the whale sharks tend to be found in localities throughout the year and some may even stay in the same area for an entire year. However, most Whale shark aggregations are very seasonal in which ecotourism activities try to take advantage of. The overall average of sharks returning to the same hotspot within 2 or more years is about 35.7%.

Based on photo-identification, marker tags, and satellite tracking Whale Sharks tend to migrate between local countries, maybe like 1000 km. There are only very few exceptions where the whale sharks migrated across entire oceanic basins. Not much is known about their reproduction, however, many pregnant females are found in offshore habitats, suggesting such areas provide pupping and nursery grounds.

Monday, March 5, 2018

King penguins may be on the move very soon

A major issue currently in the marine science world is global warming.  Colonies of King penguins in Crozet, Kergeulen and Marine sub-Antarctic islands may eventually be nothing more than a memory in a few decades.  Global warming could lead to the King penguins moving south or even worse, disappearing completely.

Figure 1. King penguins

According to Robin Cristofari, the main issue is that there are not very many islands in the Southern Ocean and not all of them are conducive to support large breeding colonies for the penguins. As a matter of fact, King penguins are picky animals.  In order to form a colony where they can mate, lay eggs, and care for their chicks throughout the year, they require smooth beaches of sand, no winter sea ice near the island, and temperatures they can withstand year round. 

A trusted and consistent food source is what these penguins are most worried about. These seabirds food source has always came from the Antarctic Polar Front, which is an upwelling front in the Southern Ocean. Because of climate change, this area is moving away from the islands and drifting south.  Therefore, penguin parents have to swim even farther for food while their young are fasting on the shore.  This study predicts that the length of parents’ trip for food will exceed the resistance to starvation of their offspring which in turn, will lead to massive King penguin crashes in population size.  On the other hand, it may lead to relocation, which is what we can hope for.

On the bright side, King penguins have been able to survive crises in the past.  The only difference is that humans are now creating irreversible changes in the Earth system.  The Southern Ocean is now able to be industrially fished. Yet again, the King penguins are faced with another problem and could have an even harder time finding food.

References: University of Vienna. "King penguins may be on the move very soon." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 February 2018. <>.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Using Drones To Track Sea Turtles

We have been learning about many marine organisms in class.  One interesting question that is raised from all of the learning from this class is: how do scientists keep accurate records for these animals that live within the ocean context?  The answer to this question is that scientists are able to keep track of these organisms through technological advances with time.  Organisms that live on the shore or on land are obviously easier to keep track of because it is easier to visually see what they are doing in their habitats.  However, some species that live within the water are much harder to keep track of.  One of these species includes the sea turtle.  

An article in the Science Daily outlines the technology that scientists use in order to track the everyday life of the sea turtle.  The newest development in technology that scientists are using to track sea turtles is the drone.  In order to keep track of what sea turtles are doing in their natural habitats without disturbing the turtles, scientists are starting to use drones within these marine habitats.

 These drones keep scientists and the general public more aware of sea turtle conservation.  Before scientists started using these drones, they used satellite systems, aircrafts, and observed different organisms on foot.  Although satellite systems and aircraft paved the way toward technology used for sea turtle conservation awareness, they were not always the most cost effective means in providing relevant information for scientists and the general public.  The major disadvantages of using aircraft and observing the sea turtles on foot were that they were slower and demanded a high amount of human labor.  A major advantage of the drones are that they are cheaper and are an overall better tool when collecting information.  

In general, Drones are used to record thousands of hours of pictures and videos of different organisms within their natural habitat.  This reiterates why drones are so advantageous in that they do what no human can do, which is sit in nature with animals for thousands of hours at a time.  This would be especially hard with marine organisms being that humans can only be in the water for smaller periods at a time.  Another major role that a drone will continue to play is assisting with anti-poaching regulations.  Ideally, as technology within the drones progresses, the drone should be able to detect whether there is a person (who should not be there) with the animal population.  In the case of the sea turtles, this would be very advantageous considering they are an endangered species. 

Overall, the use of drones has many advantages within the animal kingdom.  They are specifically advantageous for marine organisms because they can reach hard to get to places and stay there for hours upon hours.  As technology continues to develop, drones will be more useful in detecting poachers within endangered species such as the sea turtle.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Unique Feeding and Reproductive Strategies of the Deep-Sea Dwelling Vampire Squid

       Vampire squid, whose scientific name is Vampyroteuthis infernalis, are a deep-water species that reside in ocean depths from 500 to 3,000 meters. They are passive, soft-bodied animals with a dark red body, huge blue eyes, and a cloak-like web that stretches between its eight arms. Vampire squid have very different feeding and reproductive strategies than all other cephalopod species.

Figure 1. A vampire squid with its cloak-like webs visible
       Typically, squids and octopuses eat live prey, but a 2012 study by Hoving and Robison showed that this is not the case for vampire squid. The researchers showed that vampire squid mostly eat “marine snow” which sinks to the deep-sea from the higher depths of the ocean. Marine snow is a mixture of the remains of microscopic algae and animals, fecal pellets from copepods or krill, and debris from gelatinous larvaceans. The vampire squid eat the marine snow by catching food particles on string-like filaments, drawing the filament through its arms, removing the particles and enveloping them in mucus, then transferring the mucus and particles to its mouth.

Figure 2. A vampire squid surrounded by marine snow
       Although this is a very low energy diet, it is able to sustain the vampire squid for several reasons. Vampire squid are neutrally buoyant, and they don’t have to swim to find food since they can just extend their filaments to collect food from the water. For these reasons, the squids have to expend very little energy to stay at a certain depth and feed. Also, vampire squid don’t have to expend energy to avoid predators. This is because there is very little oxygen in the deep-sea, so very few animals can survive, leading to less predators.
       In addition, the reproductive strategy of the vampire squid differs from all other coleoid cephalopods. All other cephalopods reproduce all at once later in their lives in one big reproductive event. The low energy lifestyle of the vampire squid, however, does not support this kind of energy expenditure. Rather, vampire squid alternate between reproductive and resting phases, which is a pattern more common among fish. The squid release about 100 eggs per spawning event for around 100 or so spawning events. These unique characteristics of the vampire squid show how different deep sea-dwelling creatures can adapt and indicate how little is known about the deep-sea.

References: Cell Press. (2015, April 20). Vampire squid discovery shows how little we know of the deep sea. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 2, 2018 from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. (2012, September 26). Researchers discover what vampire squids eat: It's not what you think. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 2, 2018 from

Monday, February 26, 2018

When We Mess Up, Can Microbes Still Fix the Problem?

Humans greatly impact, and often harm, the environment by emitting greenhouse gases, destroying habitats, and by polluting the area, especially. Oil spills are a deadly and costly way that humans pollute the water ways. They are also quite notable, consider the Exxon Valdez spill near Alaska or the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Thankfully, nature is often able to fix our mistakes. Microbes play a huge role in degrading oceanic oil spills. However, microbes in the arctic seem to face particular challenges that are not experienced in warmer environments.

An article in Science Daily presents the challenges for oil-eating microbes in the Arctic. These difficulties are due to six things: low temperatures, sea ice, low nutrient content, particle formation, prolonged sunlight in the summer months, and potential lack of microbial adaptations.

Low temperatures cause the oil to become more viscous and thicker. This means it is harder for the oil to disperse into small droplets that can be consumed by a wide area of microbes. Sea ice inhibits wave formation and impact. This decreased power also makes it harder for the oil to disperse into small droplets. Few nutrients in the water cause decreased activity of the oil-consuming microbes, and high particle formation and concentrations allow the oil to clump and settle to the floor where microbial productivity is decreased. Furthermore, 24 hour arctic summer sunlight may make the oil more toxic to marine life, although it could make the oil easier to process as well; the answer is still unclear. Finally, lack of exposure to oil spills may promote microbes without the adaptations to digest and process oil. However, further research is required to determine this with certainty.

This article brings to light the importance of being cautious when handling harmful pollutants. Although microbes can help clean up the oil, they may not work efficiently in arctic environments causing the death of thousands of marine organisms. The effectiveness of microbes is important especially because mechanical removal of oil can only remove 15 to 25 percent of the oil. Therefore, it is crucial that people are careful with their actions and encourage research in microbial life in the oceans because microbes, although small, play a huge impact on the health of marine environments. 

Aarhus University. "Oil-eating microbes are challenged in the Arctic." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 February 2018. .