Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Plight of the Penguins

            Everyone loves penguins. From their distinctive waddle, to their tuxedo-like coloration, everyone can recognize these flightless birds. Mostly found on the frozen wastes of Antarctica, penguins are known for their swimming prowess as well as their ability to withstand the frigid conditions of their home. However, trouble looms on the horizon for these birds, as an international research team has discovered a strain of avian flu in the adélie penguin.

The adélie penguin
(Photo credit: George F. Mobley)

            The adélie penguin, Pygoscelis adeliea, is one of the more common species of penguin. Roughly 70 cm tall, these short penguins were discovered in 1840 by James Dumont d’Urville, a French explorer. The adélie penguin is typically found on small islands surrounding the coast of Antarctica, during the spring breeding season. Otherwise, they tend to spend most of their time out at sea, searching for food. Adélie penguins typically will eat krill and other small marine creatures, but will eat small fish and squid as well.
            While these penguins are incredibly good swimmers, reaching speeds of 72 km/hr. and diving to depths of 175 meters, they are also remarkably good walkers as well. Despite having the distinctive penguin waddle, these birds will walk 31 miles to go from their nests to the shoreline. The penguins’ main threat lies from predation by leopard seals and skuas, as well as the occasional orca.
            But there might be a new threat from these little penguins, one that could be much more dangerous, avian flu. This comes as a shock to Dr. Aeron Hurt, a senior researcher for the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, as no active strain of avian flu had ever been seen in Antarctic birds before. For this study, Hurt and his team collected swabs from the windpipes of 301 penguins and blood from 270 of those birds as well.
            Using real-time reverse transcription PCR, Hurt and his team found avian influenza genetic material in eight of the birds. Four of these viruses were able to be cultured, meaning that they were active and infectious. Not only that, but these strains of influenza all seemed to be H11N2 influenza viruses and were all very similar to each other. Worst of all, when comparing this genetic material to other known strains of influenza, Hurt and his team discovered that this strain was unlike anything they had ever seen before.

Dr. Aeron Hurt with an adélie penguin
(Photo credit: Aeron Hurt)

            Luckily, it seems that currently the virus isn’t doing any damage to the penguins and is not making the birds sick. It also appears to be exclusive to birds, as it couldn’t infect a species of weasel that the researchers used. However, it raises a lot of question for Hurt and his team. Namely, how often are avian influenza viruses being brought into Antarctica, whether animal ecosystems are allowing the virus to sustain itself, and whether or not the virus is being cryopreserved during the winter? For now, all we can try to do is keep trying to find where these virus strains are coming from and trying to find a cure before they mutate into something much more dangerous for the adélie penguin.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

On the Origins of Life

            Four billion years ago, the Earth was just a floating ball of rock; insanely hot, an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, it’s amazing that life could ever exist here. But as Ian Malcolm said, “Life, uh, finds a way.” And indeed it did. Life started in the oceans of primordial Earth; a soup of amino and nucleic acids, lipids, and carbohydrates that just happened to be in the right place at the right time to become the original cell. Many believed that a bolt of lightning might have provided the original energy needed for this transformation, but a new study presents another possible origin.
            Recently, NASA scientists believe they may have found what provided the electrical energy needed to create life. Deep down on the bottom of the ocean floor, hydrothermal vents are spewing out sulfur, magma, and apparently, electricity. The hypothesis was first proposed under the name “submarine alkaline hydrothermal emergence of life”, but NASA has now managed to unify all of the data into one unified picture.

A "Black Smoker" Vent
(Photo credit: NOAA)

            But not every hydrothermal vent produces the conditions needed to create life. While it was assumed in the 1980’s when the hypothesis was first proposed that “black smokers”, vents that produce extremely hot, acidic water, were responsible, but this may not be the case. The vents that NASA scientists use in their new study produce cooler, alkaline water and are not nearly as harsh.

An alkaline vent, dubbed "The Lost City"
(Photo credit: The University of Washington)

            Michael Russell, the head scientist for this study, states that these alkaline vents created an unbalanced state, conflicting with the ancient acidic oceans. This imbalance created the free energy needed to create life, Russell believes. In fact, Russell believes that these vents could have created two imbalances.
            The first imbalance was a proton imbalance. This would have been caused by the alkaline fluids interacting with the acidic oceans that surround them. This gradient could have been used to produce energy in a fashion similar to how mitochondria function. The other imbalance could have been an electrical imbalance. The ancient oceans were loaded with carbon dioxide, which when coming into contact with the methane producing vent could have become more advanced carbon compounds, which are important for the formation of life.
            But life isn’t just electricity and carbohydrates, proteins are also needed. Will in the primordial soup that was Earth’s ancient ocean, enzymes could be found floating in the water. These enzymes could then come into contact with the rock chimneys of these alkaline vents, where two different “protein engines” could take over.
            The first would have harnessed the proton gradient from earlier in order to produce energy storing molecules which could be used later. The other used an element known as molybdenum, which can allow for the transfer of two electrons at once instead of one; a key concept needed in most key chemical reactions.

            So, this study presents a lot of interesting information. We now have a practical, new idea on the origins of life. This information could be applied to any rocky, wet planet in terms of identifying if life could exist there. So, while we are still not terribly certain on how life started on Earth, we now have a good idea of what may have happened. And while it may take decades to truly figure out how life started, Russell and his team while be willing to tackle these problems until they’re solved.


Monday, May 5, 2014

Battles Under the Sea

            A battle under the sea brings up iconic images; sharks and whales and other large animals fighting for their lives. However, this battle occurs deeper than what these animals could reach; roughly one mile below the ocean to be specific. In the deep darkness of the bathypelagic, a war is happening…a microbial war. It’s been recently discovered that viruses are attacking hydrothermal bacteria with one goal, their stores of sulfur.

A typical hydrothermal vent 
(Photo credit: NOAA)

            Bacteria and viruses have been enemies for as long as both have existed, but this is anew an interesting front in these battles. Deep-sea hydrothermal bacteria are still very unusual and not very well-known, and this is the first time that this sort of virus-bacteria relationship has been seen, since chemosynthetic bacteria are a rare lot.
            So, why do these bacteria target the sulfur in these bacteria? Well, the answer lies in the viruses’ desire to reproduce; turning the bacteria into a virus factory in a sense. What they do is they will force the bacteria to consume all of its sulfur reserves, and then use the resulting energy to create as many viruses as possible. The bacteria will inevitably die from this process, releasing all of the newly created viruses into the open to repeat the process.
            Interestingly enough, this sort of relationship has been seen before, namely in the shallow ocean water. There is a similar virus that target photosynthetic bacteria in order to reach the same end goal. So, it’s interesting to see the parallel between the two viruses, especially when it comes to their mechanism for reproducing.
            So, what are researchers doing about this? Well, currently Gregory Dick, a University of Michigan microbiologist and oceanographer, and his team are currently analyzing the DNA of the bacteria and viruses in order to better understand the mechanism of this invasion. After collecting samples from the hydrothermal vents found near the Gulf of California and the Western Pacific, Dick has begun taking a look at the DNA samples he’s gathered, and believes he may have found what the virus is doing.
            Dick and his team believe that the virus is targeting the SUP05 genes found in the bacteria. This comes as no surprise to Dick, as the SUP05 genes are responsible for creating the proteins necessary to use sulfur to create energy. By targeting this gene, the virus can overexpress it, forcing the bacteria to burn through its supply of sulfur faster than it would ever need to naturally.

Riftia pachyptila, a polychaete typically found around hydrothermal vents have an organ with chemosynthetic bacteria instead of a gut.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Foundation)

            So, what does this mean, what can be gained from this research? Well, Dick believes that this shows that these viruses are actually very important in the long term survivability of these bacteria. Dick and his team believe that these viruses act as “agents of evolution”, allowing for gene transfer between the chemosynthetic bacteria, a theory first proposed about photosynthetic bacteria found in the shallows by David Garrison, a program director for the National Science Foundation. Without these viruses, the bacteria would rarely receive gene transfer, and a disease could cause catastrophic damage to the bacterial population, which could cause an entire collapse of the hydrothermal vent community, since they rely on these bacteria for primary production.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

New Carnivorous Sponges
The above image shows the typical anatomy of a sponge.  These use the whip-like tails (flagella) of their collar cells to create a current of water.  This current of water allows the sponge to filter out bacteria and other food.  However, four new species of sponges (two species of Asbestopluma and two species of Cladorhiza) have adapted a different feeding strategy.  These new species inhabit the food-poor waters of the deep sea in the northeast Pacific.  Therefor it is not cost-effective for them to have this constant motion of cells to create a current.  Instead these sponges have a carnivorous feeding strategy.  When small crustaceans bump into the spiny sponge, they become trapped in their microscopic hook-like spicules.  A picture of the spicules from the species Abestopluma rickettsi can be seen below.

The sponge then proceeds to digest the crustacean.  A picture of the progressive decomposition of a crustacean by the species Asbestopluma monticola can be seen below.

These sponges are also often found in chemosynthetic habitats.  These are habitats where bacteria utilize the chemical-rich water as an energy source as opposed to sunlight.  The species Asbestopluma rickettsi was discovered in one of these habitats offshore of southern California where the bacteria use the methane that seeps from the seafloor.  Another species, Cladorhiza caillieti was discovered near a hyrothermal vent along the Juan de Fuca Ridge.  The fourth species, Cladorhiza evae was also discovered near a hydrothermal vent in the Gulf of California and is pictured below.

There is still much to learn about these sponges.  Researchers believe that these sponges may also be able to utilize the chemosynthetic bacteria as an additional energy source to the crustacean prey.  Only further research with these sponges will be able to confirm that hypothesis or not.



Better ways of protecting Coral Reefs?

With coral reefs being destroyed by bleaching and ocean acidification new methods of conservation must be approached.  One of these approaches is by not putting all efforts into the coral reefs directly buy by better conserving the land around the reef.  Researchers Carissa Klein, Stacy Jupiter, Matthew Watts and Hugh Possingham tested six different conservation techniques on coral reef ecosystems in Fiji.  The primary objective of each approach was to achieve terrestrial conservation or to minimize land-based runoff.  They also compared these results with other conservation plans on how well they benefit coral reef conditions.

The researchers found that when terrestrial conservation was the primary goal that the reefs benefited by  7.7-10.4% greater than other protected areas that weren't focused on terrestrial conservation.  However, 31-44% of the terrestrial conservation was not achieved which means that there could be a higher percentage of benefit if terrestrial conservation can be achieved better.  These results are being used by the Fiji's protected area committee to better define conservation boundaries on land.

Another method that is being researched is to take more of a gardening approach to the reefs.  Studies are being done on how successful coral reefs, grown in labs, that are modified to withstand current oceanic conditions.  Artificial reefs such as concrete structures are also being used.

A more abstract study looks into if electrical currents can stimulate coral reef growth.  On Vabbinfaru Island, Maldives a 12 meter metal cage that weighed 2 tonnes was placed in the ocean and a small electrical current ran through it.  The electric current stimulates a chemical reaction that draws calcium carbonate out of the water and gets deposited on the cage.  Studies have also been done that found that the electric current helps them filter and adapt to warmer conditions because less energy is needed to form a skeleton.  One of the steel cages used is hard to distinguish now because of all of the colorful reef growth on the cage.

Unfortunately using these steel cages on a global scale would be extremely costly.  The only benefit of these artificial reefs would be from tourist areas or areas that are hit by temporary damage such as oil spills or boat impacts.  Many of the coral reef researches believe the only way to save the reefs is to greatly slash carbon dioxide levels across the globe, but they don't see that being accomplished.  Researcher Peter Sale said "By 2050, we may still have corals, and things we'll actually call 'reefs', but they will be massive limestone structures that were built in the past, with tiny patches of living coral struggling to survive on them." He adds "The world will go on without reefs, but its going to be very much inferior to the planet we have now."

  • Saturday, April 26, 2014

    Barreleye Fish

    In our last class lecture, we discussed much about the adaptations of deep sea animals. This fascinated me because the mystery behind these creatures is worth looking more into. While scrolling through an article discussing the 25 most terrifying deep sea creatures, number 8 struck me as truly interesting. This organism is known as the barreleye fish. In the family Opisthoproctidae, it is scientifically known as Macropinna microstoma, and more commonly known as the spook fish. The reasoning behind its common name can clearly be seen below through the obvious observation that they have a transparent dome head, which indeed looks strange and spooky.  The barreleye fish have two upward facing eyes that allows them to specifically search for potential predators around them. What we would think would be eyes on this species (which are the two spots on its mouth) are actually nasal organs (equivalent to the nose in humans). I found that fact interesting because it definitely made me think that the two spots on its face were its eyes, when actually its eyes are the two green glands in the transparent portion of its head. The history of its existence has been described since 1939 but it wasn't until about 2008 that the true understanding of this species had been further discovered.

    Originally thought to have eyes that are fixed in place to only look up above, it was believed by marine biologists for quite some time that this was their disadvantage to not see what what in front of them. According to an article by Bruce Robison and Kim Reisenbichler, there is now a complete understanding that these fish eyes are tubular. Not only that, but the eyes are meant to peer through their transparent membrane to look straight above in search of potential predators. According to Robison and Reisenbichler, they used machinery known as remotely operated vehicles to study these deep sea fish off the coasts of central California. They reportedly caught one and examined its physiology. Their flat fins allow them to take advantage of being nearly motionless in the water and to maneuver efficiently. This is interesting because it allows them to save their energy. 

          Figure 1. The barreleye fish with its transparent head and tubular eyes (as green glands) shown above.

    In addition to their strange physiology of their eyes, the fact remains that their eyes show green pigments when the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). These pigments are speculated to filter out all the sunlight above them and allow them to detect prey through bio-luminescence. This is a very interesting adaptation because it allows this species to stay protected by seeming quiet and vulnerable. Its small mouth makes it a predator who relies on getting energy/food effectively. The barreleye fish feed on jellyfish, which is effective and a positive thing considering they live within the same habitat as the jelly fish at these deep depths (2,000-2,600 feet). According to this article, Apolemia colonial jellyfish have stinging tentacles that can extend as long as thirty-three feet long, which can be deadly to other organisms within that area. As means to have a defense mechanism, the barreleye fish have adapted in protecting its eyes with a the ability to avoid the tentacles and also to rotate its overhead eyes. The fact that they can protect themselves in this way shows their ability to have adapted to the challenges of the deep ocean. The fact that it was the Monterey Bay Aquarium who discovered this species fully intact for the first time in its dome shaped head. I think what really was interesting to learning about this species was the fact that there are so many more organisms in the deep ocean that I hope to learn more in the future. 

    B.H. Robison and K. R. Reisenbichler. Macropinna microstoma and the paradox of its tubular eyes. Copeia. 2008, No. 4, December 18, 2008.

    Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Researchers solve mystery of dep-sea fish with tubular eyes and transparent head. February 23, 2009. 

    It's a Squid... It's a Worm.. It's a Squid Worm?

    Have you ever seen a creature so disgusting or bizarre that you were in shock? This is what happened to researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In a November 2010 expedition to the deep, marine scientists thought they had seen a worm eating a squid, or a squid eating a worm. This sight turned out to be neither of these things, but in fact a brand new species called the squid worm from the genus Teuthidodrilus. The squid worm is living proof that there are a massive array of undiscovered and incredibly strange organisms living in the largely unexplored depths of the ocean.

    The squid worm feeds on plankton, uses bristles to swim, and has pseudo-arms on its head which are primarily used for sensory function. The squid worm can grow to lengths of up to 9 cm. The squid worm resides in the depths of the ocean and has been found as deep as 6,200 meters in the Celebes Sea. Even the marine scientists responsible for the discovery were very surprised by the appearance of the squid worm.

    Perhaps the most perplexing thing about this organism is the fact that it is so common. This worm appears to be very abundant at the depths. This speaks volumes about our knowledge of the creatures that reside in deep marine ecosystems. With recent findings of creatures that are common and incredibly large creatures that would seem impossible to miss such as the giant squid, our knowledge of what exists on our own planet seems limited.

    The hadal zone of the ocean, named after Hades in Greek mythology, begins at about 6,000 meters - well within the range of the squid worm - and continues to the point where life no longer exists in the depths of the sediments. Currently, there is enough unexplored space in the hadal zone to equal roughly the size of Australia. This seems absurd considering our exploration of the moon and the heights of the earth such as Mount Everest.

    The ocean should not remain an enigma for very much longer. Advances in technology allows for scientists and unmanned vessels to explore the depths much more readily. James Cameron recently completed a voyage to the depths of the Marianas Trench, the deepest solo dive on record, and there is a current expedition exploring the Kermadec Trench which is one of the deepest and coldest trenches in the world. The outlook for future exploration is bright. The depths are predicted to contain diversity matching that of the coral reefs. One thing is certain, in the near future we will have a much better knowledge of the deep.


    Howard, Jacqueline. "Researchers Take On Kermadec Trench Dive To Find Unknown Deep-Sea Creatures." The Huffington Post., 13 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.
    Sample, Ian. "'Squid Worm' Emerges from the Deep." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 24 Nov. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.
    Than, Ker. "James Cameron Completes Record-Breaking Mariana Trench Dive." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 09 Mar. 0040. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.
    "To Hades and Back: Exploring the Deepest Part of the Ocean | Expeditions, Scientific American Blog Network." Scientific American Global RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.

    Tuesday, April 22, 2014

    Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

    There is a new threat to sea stars called ‘sea star wasting syndrome’, which is responsible for mass killings of these important keystone species.  In November 2013, the disease killed up to 95 percent of the sea star populations from Alaska to Orange County.  Little is known about the origins of the syndrome, or even what causes it.  Scientists are trying to determine the cause of this lethal disease before time runs out.

    Typically, a sea star infected with the syndrome will have lesions that appear in the ectoderm followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions, which leads to eventual fragmentation of the body and death (see picture above).   A deflated appearance can precede other morphological signs of the disease.  “True” wasting disease will be present in individuals that are found in suitable habitat, often in the midst of other individuals that are affected.  The progression of wasting disease can be rapid, leading to death within a few days, and its effects can be devastating on sea star populations. 

    “They essentially melt in front of you,” said Pete Raimondi, chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz's Long Marine Lab.  The University of California Santa Cruz is currently mapping all events along the West Coast, and people are encouraged to report these sea star wasting events to them.  They classify the syndrome into four categories, with 1 being mild, and 4 being severe.  Pictures and descriptions for the severity of the syndrome can be found here.   

    At first, the disease only infected one species, Pycnopodia helianthoides, also known as the sunflower star.  Then the disease began to affect a more common sea star species, Pisaster ochraceus (Robert Paine’s keystone species).  Now, there are about 12-15 species that are dying along the West Coast from sea star wasting syndrome.  And wild sea stars are not the only ones in danger-- in September 2013, sea stars in an aquarium at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary visitor center at the San Francisco Presidio contracted the syndrome in water pumped from the ocean.  Eels, sculpin and anemones that were in the same aquarium were unaffected.

    The probable cause of the disease on the west coast of the US is caused by a pathological agent, such as bacterium (vibrio), although a recent wasting event on the east coast of the US has been attributed to a virus.  Sea star wasting events have also occurred from British Columbia down to the Gulf of California, the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic coast of North America, but not in the Southern Hemisphere.  Some researchers have suggested that Fukushima could be a cause, but the sea stars are being affected on the east coast, so this is not likely.  The ultimate cause is not clear although such events are often associated with warmer than typical water temperatures as was the case for the major die off in southern California in 1983-84 and again in 1997-98.  Sea stars are susceptible to bacterial infection, and warmer water boosts bacteria growth, Raimondi said.  

    If the cause for sea star wasting syndrome is not uncovered, ecosystem balance can be disrupted with the disappearance of sea stars.  As we have learned in class, removing Pisaster ochraceus from tide pools causes unchecked population growth of mussels and other organisms.  Also, with global climate change, temperatures will rise in the ocean, which could have significant or even profound effects on populations.  Hopefully the cause of sea star wasting syndrome can be solved before it is too late.

    Monday, April 14, 2014

    Elephant Seals and Swine Flu
    This awkward looking fella' belongs to the species Mirounga angustirostris, or more commonly, the northern elephant seal.  Male elephant seals can grow up to 14 feet in length, and weigh over 5,000 lbs!  They inhabit the west coast of North America and can travel as far as Japan.  They are excellent swimmers for this is how they get most of their food; hunting fish and squid.  At extremes, elephant seals can dive to depths of 1,500 meters, and stay under water for a whopping two hours!  They can also travel over 12400 miles, annually. Though these giant marine mammals may seem tough, they are susceptible to many diseases.

    In 2010, it was discovered that 28 elephant seals had traces of H1N1 anitbodies, suggesting that they were or had been infected with the virus while 2 were tested positive for the infection itself.  H1N1, you may better remember as swine flu, originated from pigs, but had emerged in humans in 2009 as a huge pandemic.  Elephant seals were tested at the beginning of 2010, and tested negative, but upon return from the sea in spring, tested positive.  The figure below maps out this phenomena.
    Evidence of exposure to H1N1 in northern elephant seals off central California in 2010 to 2011
    In the same study, two adult female elephant seals that tested positive for the virus had their paths tracked in 2008 and 2010.  The data collected can be seen in the figure below.
    Tracking data from two adult female elephant seals that tested positive for H1N1 from 2008 and 2010
      This data shows that both seals took similar paths out to sea in 2008 and 2010.  Infection was detected in both seals within days of their return from sea suggesting that they were exposed before their return.  The question is; Where exactly were they and exposed and how?  Though this is not the first time that marine mammals have tested positive for strains of influenza, that question still remains unclear.


    1. Tracey Goldstein, Ignacio Mena, Simon J. Anthony, Rafael Medina, Patrick W. Robinson, Denise J. Greig, Daniel P. Costa, W. Ian Lipkin, Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, Walter M. Boyce. Pandemic H1N1 Influenza Isolated from Free-Ranging Northern Elephant Seals in 2010 off the Central California CoastPLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (5): e62259 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062259
    2. Goldstein T, Mena I, Anthony SJ, Medina R, Robinson PW, et al. (2013) Pandemic H1N1 Influenza Isolated from Free-Ranging Northern Elephant Seals in 2010 off the Central California Coast. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62259. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062259

    Leafy Sea Dragons and Their Amazing Adaptations

    The leafy sea dragon, or Phycodurus eques, is a fascinating creature.  Although it sounds fierce, it is a small fish that has no teeth.  They can get up to 18 inches in length and normally live about 5 to 10 years.  They are only found in the southern coastal waters of Australia and they are listed as near threatened because many scientists believe that their species is becoming less common.  Part of this listing is due to the lack of research of their reproduction tendencies.  They thrive in the temperate reefs of Australia by hiding among the boulders, kelp, and seagrasses.  As mentioned before, they don't have teeth, so you must be wondering what their feeding strategy is.  Instead of biting their prey, they suck it down their long tube snout like a seahorse would.  Their diet is mainly composed of small invertebrates such as zooplankton and shrimp as well as larval fishes.  These small fishes must rely on their excellent camouflage to protect them from their predators.  As the name implies, they have many leaf-like protrusions all over their bodies.  This helps them to blend in with the seagrass and kelp in the reefs where they reside.  Their camouflage and color changing ability keeps them safe from their main predators, other fishes.

    The above photographs show the amazing body structure of these organisms and their incredible ability to blend in with their surroundings.  Some research that is currently being done looks at their patterns of movement and habitat use.  In this study, 9 adult leafy sea dragons were tracked  near West Island, Australia using ultrasonic telemetry.  Leafy sea dragons lack a caudal fin and are weak swimmers.  Their leafy protrusions are not used for propulsion; they are only for the function of camouflage.  They use their small pectoral and dorsal fins to swim.  These fins are transparent and help them move to create the illusion of floating seaweed.

    This research study had the four main goals of describing patterns of sea dragon movement, comparing the proportion of sea dragon positions over different habitats within the available habitats, determining the degree of movement or habitat use varies from day to night, and testing tagging effects on movement.  They found that all fish except one moved within a well defined home range of up to 5 ha. They determined this using the minimum convex polygon method.  They also found that there were long periods, up to 68 hours, of no movement and there were some short bursts of movement.  The fish were found to move about equally during the day and night.  There were no significant differences in movement based on tagging.  No fish were harmed in the removing of the transmitters, but the researchers did suggest that the lack of tagging effect may be due to the tags being attached to bony appendages, away from their bodies.  The sea dragons spent more time over Posidonia seagrass and less time over Amphibolis seagrass than expected.  This was concluded to be simply based on the area of habitat available.  This preference could be due to habitat selection or a response to factor such as prey abundance and water movement. There is still a lot of reproductive stately research that can be done on these organisms.  They are heavily protected just because there are not many of them.  Check out this quick video that summarizes some of their main features and characteristics!


    Connolly, R. M., Melville, A. J. and Preston, K. M. 2002. Patterns of movement and habitat use by leafy sea dragons tracked ultrasonically.  Journal of Fish Biology. 61: 684-695.

    Sunday, April 13, 2014

    Accumulation of PFOS in Marine Mammals

    Perfluorooctane Sulfonate, or PFOS is a synthetically produced organic molecule used in many household products including lubricants, polishes, adhesives, paints, fire fighting foams, and many more.  This molecule is highly fluorinated, leading to its persistence once it is introduced into the environment. This becomes a problem to both terrestrial and marine species as PFOS is carried by wind and may find it self in even the most remote places in the world (Some Alaskan coastal waters). This brings me to a current study that measured amounts of PFOS in marine mammals.

    The scientists wanted to measure PFOS concentrations in marine mammals from many different bodies of water in an effort to gauge its distribution. 247 tissue samples from 15 different species of marine mammals were collected. Locations included the coastal waters of Florida, California, and Alaska, as well as the Northern Baltic Sea and the Arctic. The species analyzed included a pygmy sperm whale, four species of dolphins, two species of sea lions,  six species of seals, polar bear, and the only freshwater species being a southern sea otter. Tissue samples were taken from the liver and the blood in marine species and were acquired from State agencies or university laboratories. The scientists didn’t test marine mammal blubber because PFOS is expected to repel oils/fats so it shouldn’t be found in the fat reserves. It was previously known that concentrations of PCB’s were found in seals in California coastal waters, so scientists expected to find concentrations of PFOS in animal tissue at this same location.
    The scientists found that PFOS was in the liver and blood of marine mammals from most the locations. The greatest concentration of PFOS was in a bottlenose dolphin from Sarasota Bay, Fl. (1520 ng/g wet weight). The second highest concentration was found in a ringed seal from the Northern Baltic Sea (475 ng/ml wet weight). This result was unexpected as scientists thought pinnipeds (true seals) would have the lowest concentrations. This is because seals molt annually, which may eliminate compounds binding to structural proteins. 

    Overall, the results showed that even in the most remote areas (arctic), PFOS is showing its persistence. PFOS is a wind spread and wide spread chemical pollutant that scientists don't know much about. Although it is structurally similar to other fluorinated compounds, its effects have not been studied on wildlife. Future studies are needed in order to measure the effect this compound has on wildlife. 


    Kannon, K., Koistinen, J., Beckman, K., & Evans, T. (2001). Accumulation of perofluorooctane 
    sulfonate in marine mammals. Env. Science Technology35(8), 1593-1598. doi: 10.1021/es001873w

    The California Sea Lion

    Who among us has ever been to SeaWorld? I know when I was younger that it was one of my favorite places to go; I loved seeing all of the aquatic life and enjoyed the cheesy shows. One of those shows was similar to what is now called "Clyde and Seamore take Pirate Island," a show that can currently be seen at Orlando's SeaWorld. But when I was little, I confused seals for sea lions and just thought they were the same animals. Obviously  I now know the difference and after discussing them in class it is much easier to decipher between the two.
                                              Cheesy Pirate Show Picture!

    Like we talked about in class, sea lions, seals, and walruses are classified in the scientific group called Pinnipeds, meaning "wing foot." Although walruses are easy to distinguish due to their larger body and long tusks, many people tend to confuse seals and sea lions. The main difference is that sea lions have an outer ear flap whereas seals just have a small opening. Sea lions can also use their flippers to stand and to scoot along beaches (refer to the SeaWorld picture above) but seals cannot do this.

    The picture above shows a sea lion (left) compared to a seal (right)

    To get into more specifics, I found a couple articles which discussed issues the California sea lions are facing today. The California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) are known for their intelligence, playfulness, and noisy barking. Their color ranges from chocolate brown to light golden brown; males are typically darker. Males also tend to be larger and can reach up to a whopping 850 pounds and seven feet in length whereas females grow to 220 pounds and up to six feet in length. The trained sea lions in zoos and aquariums are usually California sea lions. 

    They can be found from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico. California sea lions are very social animals and groups often rest closely packed together on land or float together on the ocean's surface. They are opportunistic eaters meaning they can feed on a variety of organisms, some of which include squid, octopus, herring, rockfish, mackerel, and small sharks! Sea lions are preyed upon by orcas and great white sharks.

    Although their population is growing steadily, many sea lions have become injured due to malnutrition, domoic acid toxicosis, leptospirosis, cancer, pneumonia, entanglement in debris or fishing gear, etc. In 1998, the Marine Mammal Center diagnosed the first case of domoic acid toxicosis in marine mammals. This is a condition caused by harmful algal blooms which causes the animals to have seizures (like the article Dr. Posner posted in Piazza a couple weeks ago). Although the Center has conducted extensive studies to better understand this specific disease, hundreds of sea lions are affected annually.  

    Other articles that I found looked specifically at DA (domoic acid) and its effects on the sea lion. In the first one I looked at, they carried out the study by using adult females and divided them into three different groups which were made up of: acute DA toxicosis, chronic DA toxicosis, and no DA present. It was found that the sea lions exposed to DA had higher eosinophil counts. Basically, what this study showed is that eosinophil counts may be a cost-effective biomarker for DA exposure and may reflect alternations in the hypothalamic and pituitary gland function. This means that DA may have subtle health effects on marine animals and as mentioned by the article Dr. Posner posted, can possibly aid in the study of how human brains work. 

    In another study, the unusual occurrence of sea lion mortality was looked at. This was done by looking at both anchovies (which sea lions eat) as well as sea lions feces; this was done by using HPLC-UV. From the data collected, the study provides corroborating evidence that this toxic algal species was involved in this unusual sea lion mortality event. Finally, a third study looked at domoic acid and its effects on the sea lions reproductive success by looking at 209 intoxicated females. The data found indicates that DA can cause reproductive failure in California sea lions through mortality of pregnant females, abortion and premature parturition of pups. Whether the effects of DA on the fetus are direct or indirect was still unclear, though.

    So in conclusion, besides being cute and fun to watch, sea lions can be quite helpful to us and should be studied more closely. Hopefully, in the future the effects of DA will become clear and scientists will be able to use the information to help aid humans as well. 


    Brodie, E. C., Gulland, F., Greig, D. J., Hunter, M., Jaakola, J., Leger, J. S., & Van Dolah, F. M. (2006). Domoic acid causes reproductive failure in California sea lions (Zalophus californianus). Marine Mammal Science, 22(3), 700-707. 

    Gulland, F. M., Hall, A. J., Greig, D. J., Frame, E. R., Colegrove, K. M., Booth, R.K., & Scott-Moncrieff, J. R. (2012). Evaluation of circulating eosinophil count and adrenal gland function in California sea lions naturally exposed to domoic acid. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 241(7), 943-949.

    Lefebvre, K. A., Powell, C. L., Busman, M., Doucette, G. J., Moeller, P. D., Silver, J. B., & Tjeerdema, R. S. (1999). Detection of domoic acid in northern anchovies and California sea lions associated with an unusual mortality event. Natural toxins, 7(3), 85-92. 

    Monday, April 7, 2014

    Moray Eels & Visual Adaptations

    (Image from Wikipedia)

    This study wanted to look at the eyes of different species of Moray Eels, and how their eyes have evolved to adapt to their light-changing environments that limit their visual capabilities.

    As we know, marine organisms experience a variety of photic conditions in their environments, which in turn affect their sight capabilities. Therefore, the organisms have to adapt to these conditions to survive. This study describes two types of photoreceptors that are found in most vertebrate retinas: rods and cones. (You might remember that I touched on this topic in my Mantis Shrimp blog.) In a little more detail, rods have long segments that tend to dictate scotopic vision, while cones are shorter segments that dictate photic, high activity vision. These two kinds of photoreceptors contain pigments that are made up of an opsin protein and a “chromophoric group” that are based on vitamins A1 or A2.

    There are a few things that help marine organisms adapt and cope to their surroundings. First- and probably the most obvious- is that their eye and/or retina have a specific structure; think of it this way: fish that are in little to no light tend to have larger eyes, or they have the ability to reflect light. Second, they have longer segments. Lastly, they have the ability to “switch chromosome class”, or manipulate what kinds of colors they see with their eyes.

    In this study, it is mentioned that Moray Eels are thought to be nocturnal predators, with smaller eyes and “well-developed olfactory sense and sensory pores”. These characteristics aid them in their foraging abilities at night. However, some reports have said that Moray Eels forage during the day. (Well that’s contradictory…) If these reports are true, and Moray Eels forage during the day, then that means that they have different visual capabilities in terms of responding to light.

    For this experiment, four species of Moray Eels were studied: the Ribbon Eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita), the Laced Moray (Gymnothorax favagineus), the Dusk-banded Moray (Gymnothorax reticularis), and the Slender Giant Moray (Strophidon sathete). These four species were then divided into two groups; the Ribbon Eel and the Laced Moray were the shallow-water group, and the Dusk-banded Moray and the Slender Giant Moray were the deep-water group. The reason that these eels were divided into two groups was because they both live in completely different kinds of habitats- some with more light than others. When the differences were compared, it provided insight as to how the Moray Eels have evolved and adapted to their visual constraints due to their environments.

    A few methods were used for this experiment. Tests were done to measure the thickness of each retinal layer; they hypothesized that dim light conditions would produce an increase in photoreceptor and outer layer thickness. Next, they absorbed the spectra that the photoreceptor cells took in by means of microspectrophotometry (MSP). Lastly, the opsin genes of the eels were cloned and sequenced.

    *I have added the URL to the pdf version of this paper if you would like to know the details of how the samples were collected, prepared, and followed through. I would go into detail, but there is too much to include in one blog.

    The results of the testing showed that the moray eels had what they call a “duplex” retina- one with rods and at least one type of cone cell. Between the four species studied, there was a similar basic structure in their retinas, but there were also differences in the thicknesses in each layer. Below, you can see how the structure of the four species is relatively similar, but the thickness of each layer varies between species.

    (Image from the journal article)

    Overall, the authors concluded that there was evidence that not all Moray Eels are nocturnal as thought prior to this experiment. The species that they found to be nocturnal were G. favagineus and G. reticularis. The MSP testing concluded that Moray Eels’ photoreceptor sensitivity  were related to the photic characteristics of the specific habitat that they lived in. As a general conclusion, the results of the study proved that Moray Eels have developed an adaptation to different light levels in their environments.

    Wang, Feng Yu, Meng Yun Tang, and Hong Young Yan. "A Comparative Study on the Visual Adaptations of Four Species of Moray Eel." Vision Research 51.9 (2011): 1099-108.
    (View the pdf here)

    Sunday, April 6, 2014

    Electric Skin

    The squid is known for it's remarkable ability to camouflage at speeds unmatched by many in the animal kingdom.   Squids have the ability to camouflage at these speeds due to two different mechanisms to produce color and patterns.  Using pigmented organs call chromatophores they can produce yellow, red, and brown color patterns.  Located under these pigments are iridophores, which reflect light and add blue, green, and pink colors to the appearance of skin.   How squids have the ability to be able to control their skins iridescence had remained unknown.   This study looks at the squids ability to change color using iridophores. A video of the pencil squid, Loliginidae, can be seen rapidly changing colors. 

    Researchers, Paloma Gonzalez Bellido and Trevor Wardill from the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), studied the squid Doryteuthis pealeii to learn more about control over their color change.  By stimulating with different electrical frequencies they found different color shifts. They also found that electrical stimulation of neurons in the squids skin shifted the reflection of light to shorter wavelengths. 
    By tracing their nervous network and stimulating them electrically they found that they can shift from red and orange to yellow, green and blue in 15 seconds.   They traced the nerves by tagging them with Dylight 633 and traced them through different axons through different chromatophores.  They also found the the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) was found in the iridophore layer of skin on the squid.  The concentration of ACh is related to the color shift which supports that the quick change in color is under neuronal control, because of this complete neuronal control researches say it is safe to say that these squids have "electric skin".  
    The mechanism responsible for the rapid color change, by iridophores, of squid, cuttle fish, and octopi still remains unknown.  This research will help provide future research with a better understanding of how theses sea creatures are able to change their color at such rapid rates.  Future research on their ability to camouflage could also help the military with their camouflage technology.  Researchers have already removed a protein from bacteria and transferred it to a biofilm that looks similar to a squids skin.  Military researchers say that this is the first step in developing a material that will responds to an external signal.

    T.J. Wardill, P.T. Gonzalez-Bellido, R. J. Crook, R. T. Hanlon. Neural control of tuneable skin iridescense in squid.

    Saturday, April 5, 2014

    Gorgonian Corals Plexaura homomalla Producing Prostaglandin

    The very deep of the ocean remains a mystery to us still. Although there is so much more yet to discover, there are some advanced findings that have been accomplished thus far. Did you know that specific gorganian corals are capable of producing antibiotics? The article that I found on Plexaura homomalla is titled "Prostaglandin A2: an agent of chemical defense in the Caribbean gorgandian Plexaura homomalla" by Donald J Gerhart. They can be immune suppressing compounds and also agents of preventing cancer. I came across an article that fascinated me because it was well detailed in explaining the find of a specific coral known as Plexaura homomalla. A very interesting fact that I did know previously before reading this journal article was that the coral can contain high levels of this compound that has been linked to treat not only heart disease, but asthma, as well.

    The article states that the hypothesis is that the PGA2 derivatives of the Plexaura homomalla indeed  are a chemical defense mechanism especially in this case study against fish. The amount of prostaglandin compound that is a form from fatty acids produced by this organism is about a million times more than that of any other. The article does explain that when the compound when taken orally can cause diarrhea and nausea. The organism is found in the Caribbean oceans, but yet the actual function for it has not yet been truly identified. In this experimental article, the tissue of the gorganian coral was toxic to goldfish. Through various tests, it was concluded that the fish that were exposed to the coral that contain the prostaglandin compound seemed to oppose it rather than the control group. In Figure 2, the percentage of pellets of the gorganian offered to the fish after once, twice and a third time decreased drastically each time to the fish. It was interesting to read that in Table 5, the acceptance and rejection of these pellets offered to another type of fish known as yellow-head wrasses were tested and recorded for results. Both acceptance and rejection were opposite from that of the control results. 

    Table 6 also recorded the results of the pellet, the type of pellet (15-S PGA2 and control) and the effect of how it biologically affected the fish. The results of this article and experiment indeed support the hypothesis because there was a chemical defense of these specific species of gorgonian corals to have a defense on fish of all sorts whether it was gold fish or yellow-head wrasses. By rejecting more of the pellets containing the compound, the gorgonian was indeed proved to have a defense mechanism in protecting its species from preditors. Because not much is known about deep sea organisms, I found this article fascinating because the level of interaction that corals play in the ocean's environment really fascinate me. I think that the fact that these organisms contain such a potent compound to certain organisms and yet, can also potentially have the ability to aid in human treatment could be a fascinating new discovery to be made, as well. This experiment was done quite some time ago but I wanted to focus on it because imagine at this time how fascinating this information could have been. From there, it could have been useful to know that this compound might administer negative effects to fish, but what about humans. I think this was just the beginning and it is all really interesting. Because not much is known about the true purpose of the compound other than it helps in the defense of the gorganian corals defense at a chemical level, there are definitely future studies that could elaborate on this type of research.

    Gerhart, D. J. (August 1984). Gorgonian Corals Plexaura homomalla Producing Prostaglandin. Marine 
                  Ecology. Vol. 19: (pp. 181-187). 

    Friday, April 4, 2014

    Adélie Penguins: Winners of Climate Change?

    You may recognize the little guys above from the movie Happy Feet.  They were the feisty penguins with a Latin spice.  They are actually a specific type of penguin known as Pygoscelis adeliae or more commonly, the Adélie penguin.  These penguins inhabit the Antarctic coast, and in the movie, their home consists of nests made of rocks which is actually accurate.  In fact, in the video below, you can see what these nests look like.

    Adorable, right?  All cuteness aside, from this video you can grasp the type of habitat that these penguins live in.  Adélie penguins need just the right amount of ice.  They use the ice for foraging, resting, molting, and migrating.  However, too much ice can result in energy-costing foraging trips and lower breeding success.  Their population success has been a recent topic of study with the rise in temperature in the Antarctic which can be seen in the graph below.

    Average summer temperatures in degrees Celsius recorded at McMurdo Station, about 90 km south of Beaufort Island, Antarctic from 1958-2010 
    Research suggests that the Adélie penguin population may actually be benefiting from this increased temperature.  A study conducted at Beaufort Island, Ross Sea, Antarctica (pictured below) showed just that.
    Study area at Beaufort Island, Ross Sea, Antarctica. Left, the location of the Ross Sea; middle, the location of Beaufort Island, and right, the location of the main Adelie penguin colony
    The results of this study showed that the habitat for the Adélie penguins in the Beaufort colony had actually increased by 71% since 1958.  This was attributed to the retreat of glaciers as well as the decrease in unsuitable snow patches.  It was these conditions that led to the expansion in the population as well as the increased immigration and decreased emigration in the area (which can be seen in the figures below).

    Techniques in this study could be used to further survey the population distribution of these penguins in response to environmental factors.  In fact, in another study it was seen that plasticity of foraging response could be disrupted by extreme events such as sudden increases in sea ice concentrations.  
    So are the Adélie penguins a winner in this temperature rise in the Antarctic?  I would say, from this data, it's quite possible.  However, the study only looked at the main colony of Adélie penguins, and have not done research on the other colonies present.  With further research, a more concrete answer could be given.

    1. Michelle A. LaRue, David G. Ainley, Matt Swanson, Katie M. Dugger, Phil O′B. Lyver, Kerry Barton, Grant Ballard. Climate Change Winners: Receding Ice Fields Facilitate Colony Expansion and Altered Dynamics in an Adélie Penguin MetapopulationPLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (4): e60568 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0060568
    2. Amélie Lescroël, Grant Ballard, David Grémillet, Matthieu Authier, David G. Ainley.Antarctic Climate Change: Extreme Events Disrupt Plastic Phenotypic Response in Adélie PenguinsPLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (1): e85291 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0085291

    Sunday, March 30, 2014

    Rise of the Jellyfish

    Pink Jellyfish

    On the Rise

    While several marine organisms are on the decline, jellyfish populations are rapidly growing.  Jellyfish are found in every ocean in the world, and they are an indicator species.  According to Lisa-Ann Gershwin, the author of Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, an abundance of jellyfish is a sign that the environment is out of balance.  When jellies flourish in an area, something is seriously wrong and trouble usually follows their arrival.  Recent blooms of jellyfish have been recorded in the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Black and Caspian Seas, the Northeast US coast, and in Far East Coastal waters.  Some in the scientific community remain skeptical of these population changes, but there are areas that are clearly experiencing an increase in jellyfish.  Some areas have also experienced a decrease or fluctuation in population size over decadal periods.     

    Swarm of Jellyfish

                Several factors contribute to the increase of jellyfish populations including overfishing, pollution, climate change, and ocean acidification.  All of these factors create the perfect environment the jellies need to thrive.  Jellies are able to flourish in low oxygen environments that would suffocate other marine organisms.  They also have several methods of reproduction, which increases their population size quickly: hermaphroditism, cloning, external fertilization, and self-fertilization.  Their polyps settle in layers on hard surfaces and then detach when conditions are right.  The polyp stage can live indefinitely by cloning.  A polyp colony started in 1935 in a lab in West Virginia is still alive and growing today.  Also, jellies have long lifespans.  They can actually “de-grow.”  They are able to reduce their size while their bodies remain proportionate.  When food is abundant they are able to begin growing again.  
                 One factor that is contributing to the boom of jellies is overfishing.  For example, at one time, anchovies were abundant in the Black Sea and off the coast of Africa.  Overfishing of anchovies, which compete with jellies for food, has led to an abundance of food for the jellies which then take over.  
                 Another factor in the jellyfish population boom is pollution.  Trash and garbage polluting the ocean kills many jellyfish predators, such as sea turtles.  Man-made objects within the ocean, such as piers and boat hulls, provide perfect nursery sites for jelly polyps.  Another form of pollution affecting jelly populations is nutrient run-off, which leads to eutrophication zones.  These zones are areas that are oxygen depleted and provide a great area for jellies to thrive.
                Climate change, the warming of the oceans, is extending jellyfish ranges.  Warm water also contains less oxygen, which the jellies like.  Also, another impact to consider if ocean acidification.  Because jellies don’t have hard parts, they aren’t affected as much by acidification.


                Jellyfish consume a huge amount of food and will pretty much eat anything.  They have very efficient metabolisms and can put the energy they ingest toward growth.  One species (a comb jelly), Mnemiopsis, will gorge and continue to kill and collect prey even though it's no longer hungry.  A study showed that this species killed 30% of the copepod population that was available to it each day.    They continue to kill until nothing is left.
                      Jellies can have a large impact on important organisms within an ecosystem and can reduce biodiversity.  Mnemiopsis invaded the Black Sea via seawater ballasts and took over by the 1980’s.  Anchovies and sturgeon began to disappear in this area due to competition with the jellies for food.  The Mnemiopsis jellies made up 95% of the Black Sea’s biomass. 


                A possible solution to the abundance of jellyfish: eat them.  Jellyfish have been part of the human diet for a long time in China.  In recent years the global jellyfish harvest has risen to 321,000 tons, and the harvested jellies are mainly consumed in China and Japan. 
                So much damage has occurred within the oceans that we aren’t sure what the future holds for them.  As said by author Lisa-Ann Gershwin, we must “adapt.”

    Giant Nomura's Jellyfish