November 18 – Zoo Is It?

Today’s factismal: The first modern zoo was created in 1826.

Odds are that on some sunny weekend you’ve found yourself wandering the paths at your local zoo, staring at the monkeys and trying to out-roar the lions. (And if you haven’t, you should have!) But have you ever wondered where zoos came from? It turns out, as is so often the case, that we have the Romans to thank.

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die (My camera)

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die
(My camera)

People have always kept animals, for food, for pets, and for show. Egyptians had cats and hippopotamuses. Ancient Chinese had “houses of deer”. Andalusians had horses. But until the Roman Empire, most people only had a few animals and only from the area nearby. But under Rome all of that changed. Thanks to Rome’s control of the Mediterranean ocean and its constantly conquering armies, a steady supply of animals from all over came to Italy where they were showed to the public as proof of Rome’s might. Their menageries included lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!), bulls, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, crocodiles, and serpents and a host of other animals, all of which would be displayed for a short time before being sent to die in bloody combat as part of the Roman Games.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

Why were the animals killed? Because the Romans had no idea of how to keep them alive. And that problem would continue through the ages. During the Dark Ages, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own, filled with exotic animals that would die exotic deaths (and sometimes be used in exotic cooking). And during the Renaissance, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own that would add “dissected (sometimes alive)” to what was done during the Dark Ages. An example of those menageries is Tiergarten Schönbrunn which was created in 1540, expanded in 1752, and opened to the public in 1779; many consider it to be the first “public zoo”.

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time (My camera)

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time
(My camera)

That wouldn’t change until 1826 when a group of English scientists decided that they’d like to study animals for as long as they could without the trouble of going to another country. And so the London Zoological Society was born; two years later, they opened their zoo for research – but not to the public! They studied how animals lived, what they ate, where they hid, how they hunted, and a host of other things that we are still studying today. It would take another two decades before they would start allowing the public in to view the animals (and defray some of the research costs).

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter (My camera)

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter
(My camera)

Today there are zoos in every country across the globe, most of which subscribe to a set of rules designed to keep the animals healthy and happy for as long as possible. And research happens at most of those zoos, with an increased emphasis on preserving endangered species. Interestingly, a lot of the best zoo research nowadays doesn’t happen at the zoo; it happens in the field where scientists use trap cameras to capture images of the animals in their native habitat acting the way they do when nobody is watching. (Anyone who has ever sung in the shower can understand that last bit.) And, just as the first modern zoo was built to keep the scientists from having to travel, the research can be done by you without having to go to the zoo (but you really should; it’s all happening there). If you go to the Toledo Zoo Wild Shots site, you can classify the pictures by getting rid of those without animals and by saying what animal you think is present. To learn more, head over to:
https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/wildtoledo/toledo-zoo-wild-shots

July 2 – Bull Shark!

Today’s factismal: Bull sharks have been seen in Lake Michigan, more than 1,600 miles from the ocean where they live.

Imagine, if you will, that you are in Chicago trying to out-do Ferris Beuller. You’ve gone to a Cubs game. You’ve eaten in the fanciest restaurant you could find. You’ve even headed for the top of the Sears Tower (excuse me – the “Willis Tower”). And you decide to round off the day by heading out to the lake for a nice, relaxing afternoon by the lake. But what do you see when you get there but the fin of a large shark, cruising up and down the coast! Sound like another fake Discovery Channel documentary? Believe it or not, it really happened!

How would you like to meet this in a lake? (Image courtesy J E Randall)

How would you like to meet this in a lake?
(Image courtesy J E Randall)

The reason that it happened is that not all sharks live in the ocean. Though the vast majority of sharks are dedicated sea dwellers, there are about five species that live exclusively in fresh water and another ten or so that can live in both fresh and salt water. And that turns out to be a much harder trick than it sounds. The reason that it is difficult is because salt water has a lot of salt and fresh water doesn’t. And the reason that is important is because an animal, such as a shark, can only survive if it has the right amount of salt in its blood; too much or too little and it will die.

Fortunately, sharks (and people) have kidneys that have evolved to remove just the right amount of water and keep the blood at exactly the right level of saltiness. If it is a freshwater shark, then water percolates into the shark via osmosis (the movement of water through a membrane in order to balance solution strength) and the kidneys remove a lot of water to keep the shark’s blood salty enough. If you’ve got a saltwater shark, then water leaves the shark through osmosis and the kidneys remove just enough water to move wastes out. But if you put a freshwater shark into salt water, the kidneys won’t know that it is in salt water and will keep removing water until the shark dies of dehydration in the ocean. And if you put a saltwater shark into fresh water, the kidneys won’t remove enough water and the shark will die of bloating.

A bull shark caught in the Amazon (Image courtesy Teodoro Vaske)

A bull shark caught in the Amazon
(Image courtesy Teodoro Vaske)

The bull shark and its other fishy friends who move from salt to fresh water and back have kidneys that are capable of adjusting the amount of water that they remove from the shark’s blood. That allows them to live in both the salty ocean and the fresh lakes, which means that they can search for food in more places. (And food makes sharks very happy.) And that’s probably what happened in Chicago; a bull shark headed up the Mississippi River chasing after lunch, then followed the fish through the Illinois River and ended up in Lake Michigan. Though it is fairly rare to see a bull shark that far up a river, they are fairly common in the estuaries and river mouths near oceans all over the world.

But we’re still learning about the bull shark and other fish. We still don’t know for sure how common the bull shark is in shallow freshwater or how many rivers it swims up or what it likes to eat on these excursions into freshwater. If you see a bull shark (or other fish) and would like to help scientists learn more about them, why not add your information to the pile already stored over at Fish Base?
http://www.fishbase.org/

 

July 1 – The Green, Green, Seagrass Of Home

Today’s factismal: Seagrass absorbs more CO2 per square foot than rain forests do.

If you are an adult shark, you spend a lot of your time eating. But if you are a baby shark, you spend a lot of your time hiding from things that would like to eat you. And there are two places that sharks a(and other fish) hide best: in the roots of mangrove forests and in thick seagrass. If you’ve never heard of seagrass, don’t worry – you aren’t alone! It is one of those unsung heroes of the ecosystem that nobody (except marine biologists) notices until it is gone. And yet, seagrass is one of the most important things on Earth!

Seagrass provides a home for many fish (My camera)

Seagrass provides a home for many fish
(My camera)

It provides a hiding place and food for mollusks, small fish, crabs, and even huge dugongs and manatees! Not only does seagrass provide a sanctuary for little fish, it also helps stabilize sea floors and provides food for many animals. Seagrass grows on shallow muddy and sandy bottoms, changing them from places filled with muck to havens filled with life. Seagrass slows down the water that washes over it which causes the sediment to fall to the bottom where it is anchored by the seagrass roots. That sediment is mostly mud and fine sand that would choke the gills of small fish and cut off the light from small plants if it weren’t turned into useful sea bottom.

Seagrass helps stabilize the sea floor (My camera)

Seagrass helps stabilize the sea floor
(My camera)

And the root of that bounty is the photosynthesis that seagrass does. By living in the shallow water, it is able to take advantage of the abundant sunlight and nutrients to grow rapidly. And that rapid growth means that it also stores CO2 rapidly; some biologists estimate that seagrass absorbs more than twice as much CO2 per square foot than a rain forest would. All told, seagrass absorbs about 1/8th of the CO2 that goes into the ocean, making it one of the world’s greatest tools for fighting climate change and species loss.

Seagrass helps make oxygen (My camera)

Seagrass helps make oxygen
(My camera)

Unfortunately, we are losing seagrass. Overuse of fertilizers, soil loss from farming, and shoreline development have reduced the amount of seagrass by more than 12,000 square miles – that’s about the size of Maryland! Fortunately, there is a citizen science opportunity to help. Seagrass Watch is looking for people to report on the state of the seagrass that they see. To take part, head on over to:
http://www.seagrasswatch.org/home.html

June 30 – Archie Toothless

Today’s factismal: The giant squid Architeuthis (“chief squid”) isn’t the biggest squid in the ocean but it is the longest.

One of the interesting things about sharks is that even though all sharks are meat-eaters, each type of shark eats a different type of meat. Whale sharks eat plankton. Tiger sharks eat fish and seals. Great white sharks eat seals and fish. And some sharks even eat squid.Heck, some of them even eat giant squid!

There is no creature more fabled and fabulous than the giant squid. Mentioned in literature from the time of the Bible and featured in books as diverse as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Moby Dick, it is known more by rumor than by fact. That’s because old Architeuthis (Archie to his friends) is a shy critter who prefers hiding in the deep water (the better to nab his favorite snack of other squids) to gamboling about where people can see him. Until very recently, Archie was known more by implication than by actual fact.

Architeuthis sucker scars on sperm whale skin (Image courtesy Magell Inc)

Architeuthis sucker scars on sperm whale skin
(Image courtesy McMillan Company)

What sort of implication? Consider the sperm whale. These behemoths love to munch on fish and squid, and (given their size-driven appetite) the bigger, the better. So it is only natural that sperm whales would chase down big squid like Archie and ask them to dinner. And it is only natural that Archie would vigorously decline the invitation, leaving giant sucker marks on the whale. Of course, when the whale would win the argument, there’d be the beak (the part that proves a squid to be a mollusc) left as an undigestible lump in its stomach which would be found when whalers insisted on the sperm whale joining them for a bite.

Until 2004, this was the only way we found giant squid (Image courtesy Enrique Talledo)

Until 2004, this was the only way we found giant squid
(Image courtesy Enrique Talledo)

And then there were the rare sightings. Originally taken for nothing more than sailor stories, they acquired a great deal more importance once the sailors started backing up their tales with something more than scrimshaw. By the mid 1800s, we knew that there was a giant squid living in the ocean. But that was about all that we knew. It wasn’t until 2004 that images of a giant squid swimming around and chasing other squid surfaced. Since then, there have been many more sightings, but we continue to learn more about Archie.

Why they named it "Middle clawed" (Image courtesy Theudericus)

Why they named it “Middle clawed”
(Image courtesy Theudericus)

Including the fact that though Archie is the longest squid out there (a whopping 43 ft long from tip to tail for the women and 33 ft for the men), it is not the most massive squid in the oceans (“just” 606 lbs for the lady squids and a mere 303 lbs for the gents). Instead, the colossal squid known as Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni (“Hamilton’s middle clawed squid”) that lives in the waters near Antarctica outweighs it by a large margin; the largest recorded specimen of Hamie weighed 1,091 lbs! (Imagine half a ton of angry squid headed toward you…) However, though old Hamie is fat, he isn’t very long; they are only about 33 ft from tip to tail when grown (so they are shorter than a city bus).

So what can we learn from these not-so-gentle giants? First and foremost, there are plenty of exciting things still left to discover. From bigger-than-giant squids to smaller than a pin microbes, life is amazingly diverse and new discoveries lurk around every corner. Second, most of the sightings of Archie and Hamie happened when ordinary folks (that’s you and me) happened to see something and reported it to researchers. If you’d like to help, then why not join the Washington NatureMappers or start a project like that in your area?
http://naturemappingfoundation.org/natmap/

June 27 – By Neptune’s Beard!

Today’s factismal: A mermaid’s purse is the case that protects a shark egg.

Shark week starts today and so does my annual set of posts about all things in the ocean. Our first post is about how sharks give birth. In many shark species (e.g., the whale shark and the basking shark), the fertilized egg actually hatches inside the mother; the pups continue to live inside her for a while before being “born”. This is known as ovovivipary (“egg live birth”). But other sharks, like the bullhead shark and the small-spotted catshark, are oviparous (“egg birth”); a protective case forms around the eggs which are then placed in the ocean. Specialized flanges and coverings on the protective cases help to anchor the egg cases, but they often wash ashore where collectors refer to them as “mermaid’s purses”.

The egg case of a catshark (Image courtesy Adolphe Millot)

The egg case of a catshark
(Image courtesy Adolphe Millot)

The egg case of a bullnose shark (Image courtesy Adolphe Millot)

The egg case of a bullnose shark
(Image courtesy Adolphe Millot)

Of course, the number of mermaid’s purses that you see on a shore is directly related to the number of sharks that you may not see in the ocean offshore. So by collecting purses, you can get a good estimate of the number of sharks and from that you can get a good estimate of how many other things live in the area since sharks don’t eat rocks (no matter what the Discovery Channel says). If you’ve tried your hand at collecting mermaid’s purses, then why not report your findings at the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt website?
http://www.sharktrust.org/en/great_eggcase_hunt

June 8 – Deep Blue

Today’s factismal: It is World Oceans Day – go hug a whale!

Today is World Oceans Day, an international celebration of all things briny. And as my part of the celebration, I present ten fast facts about the ocean and the critters that live in it:

"The Big Blue Marble" (Image courtesy NASA)

“The Big Blue Marble”
(Image courtesy NASA)

1. The oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface but only make up .023% of the Earth’s mass. Looked at from space, Earth is clearly not an earthy planet; it is a watery one. You could fit all seven continents into the areas covered by the oceans twice over and still have room left over for a few islands of your own. But the ocean is actually just a thin skin on the outside of the Earth. It is thinner than the skin of an apple but just as important.

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice (Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice
(Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

2. At least 90% of Earth’s life lives in the ocean! Being an air-breathing, formerly brachiating land-dweller, I tend to focus on things that are like me: chimpanzees, cats, and even earthworms. But it turns out that things that are like me are very rare indeed in the grand scheme of life on Earth. Instead, most of the life on Earth dwells in the ocean; somewhere between 90% and 99.7% of all life on earth likes its environment to be very wet indeed. And though the ocean holds the world’s largest creatures, mot of that life is in the form of tiny little organisms known as plankton. These tiny wonders are smaller than a grain of rice and yet they are responsible for most of the life on Earth.

A sea bird caught in a tangled net off Canada (My camera)

A sea bird caught in a tangled net off Canada
(My camera)

3. Scientists  estimate that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic trash in the ocean; that plastic trash weighs some 269,000 tons or about as much as 1,350 blue whales! That trash ranges in size from small beads used in “exfoliating” scrubs and body washes to giant fishing nets used to catch tuna and cod. The plastic trash can grab onto other stuff floating in the ocean to form “plastiglomerates” that dirty up our shorelines and threaten the habitats of sea creatures worldwide!

Cloudy water offshore Australia (My camera)

Cloudy water offshore Australia
(My camera)

4. All of that trash has helped to make the ocean 40% cloudier in the past fifty years.  That means that less light makes it through to small critters known as phytoplankton. As a result, there are fewer and smaller phytoplankton . And that means a decrease in both the amount of CO2 taken up and the number of fish that grow up.

Seagrass provides a home for many fish (My camera)

Seagrass provides a home for many fish
(My camera)

5. Seagrass in the ocean absorbs more CO2 than all of the rainforests on land combined. Seagrass lives in shallow water where it uses the abundant sunlight and nutrients to grow rapidly. And that rapid growth means that it also stores CO2 rapidly; some biologists estimate that seagrass absorbs more than twice as much CO2 per square foot than a rainforest would. All told, seagrass absorbs about 1/8th of the CO2 that goes into the ocean, making it one of the world’s greatest tools for fighting climate change and species loss.

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer (Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer
(Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

6. The most critically endangered animals on Earth lives in the ocean. Perhaps the most famous “living fossil” in the world, the coelacanth was discovered by accident at a fish market in Indonesia. Unfortunately, though the coelacanth has survived more than 400 million years, it may not last another century. That’s because it is frequently caught by accident as the local fishermen angle for oilfish. And it is because the coelacanth appears to be highly local for an ocean-dwelling fish; it is only found off of the east coast of African and near the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Thanks to the high bycatch and limited distribution, the numbers of coelacanths have dropped to the point that both known species are considered to be endangered, making the coelacanth the most endangered animal in the world.

Wilma at peak strength (Image courtesy NASA)

Wilma at peak strength
(Image courtesy NASA)

7. The strongest storms on Earth start over the ocean. Every year, there are hurricanes in the ocean (though the ones in the Pacific part are typically called “typhoons”, they are the same type of storm). And every year, those storms do millions of dollars in damage and kill hundreds of people. But the most intense storm ever recorded happened in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma formed. At her worst, Wilma had an eyewall just two miles across (the smallest known) and peak winds of 185 mph! Those factors combined to give Wilma the lowest known pressure of any hurricane at just 882 mbar; to put that in perspective, remember that normal air pressure at sea level is 1013 mbar.  Wilma killed at least 62 people (mostly through flooding and landslides) and caused $29 billion dollars in damage.

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads (Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads
(Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

8. The world’s largest fish eats plankton and gives live birth. At 32 ft long and 20,000 lbs heavy the whale shark is the largest living fish. They can dive to 4,200 ft in search of food, which is mainly plankton and small fish. But the most amazing thing about the whale shark is how it gives birth. Once the female mates, she produces baby sharks (known as pups) at a steady pace by fertilizing the eggs one by one and allowing them to hatch inside her body before giving birth in a process known as ovoviviparity (“egg live birth”). And what a process it is! A female whale shark caught off of Taiwan in 1995 had 304 pups inside, at stages ranging from just-fertilized to “ready to pop out”.

A blue whale call (Image courtesy NOAA)

A blue whale call
(Image courtesy NOAA)

9. The blue whale is the largest and loudest animal on the planet.  This mighty master of the ocean will call out to other blue whales with a cry that crosses the ocean. It sound is so loud that any fish nearby are stunned and may even be killed by the pressure wave it generates. The cry of the blue whale is used for echolocation, but it may have other uses such as long-distance communication and self-defense.

A scallop meets a lobster (Image courtesy NOAA)

A scallop meets a lobster
(Image courtesy NOAA)

10. Every year, more than one billion scallops off of New England are caught for food. But this wouldn’t have happened without the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. In 1990, the annual scallop harvest had dropped to dangerous levels. Using data from fishermen, NOAA lobbied for stronger control of New England waters and Congress granted it to them. Thanks to their work, the number of scallops has grown by ten times, allowing for a larger and more sustainable harvest every year.

And now that you know everything there is to know about the ocean, go out and celebrate World Oceans Day – go hug a whale!

February 10 – We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Ocean

Today’s factismal: Sharks killed 6 people in 2015. People killed 100,000,000 sharks in 2015.

If you read the papers, then there’s what appears to be bad news. In 2015, there were a record number of shark attacks; 98 to be exact.(The official score-keepers count all incidents in a single area and time as a single attack, so if a group of sharks chomps on a bus full of lawyers, that’s still just one attack.) And six of those attacks were deadly. But looking at shark attacks over time, that really isn’t that bad. In 2000, there were 88 attacks. And on average, sharks kill 17 people each year.

For a little more perspective, consider what people do to sharks. Every year, there are millions of people attacks on sharks. And, on average, people kill 100 million sharks each year.

For the sharks, the encounters are rarely deliberate. It is just that from below the average swimming human looks a lot like the average swimming seal. And where we don’t taste all that nice to a shark, seals taste delicious! So the shark will swim up, thinking it is about to chow down on some yummy seal and then spits out the nasty human it accidentally eats!

A whitetip shark in the Great Barrier Reef (My camera)

A whitetip shark in the Great Barrier Reef
(My camera)

But for people, the attacks are deliberate. We hunt sharks hunted for food and their skins are used for leather or sandpaper while their livers are turned into popular medicines and their teeth are made into necklaces with whatever is left over being turned into food for aquarium fishes. As a result, sharks are killed at a rate of some 100 million each year. Put another way, if sharks attacked people at the rate that people attacked sharks, it would take just four years for the sharks to kill off every man, woman, and child in the USA (assuming you could find a land shark).

A blacktip shark in the Great Barrier Reef (My camera)

A blacktip shark in the Great Barrier Reef
(My camera)

Our voracious appetite for all things shark is having a definite effect. Nearly 30% of all shark species are now endangered or on the brink of going extinct and the number of sharks in the Mediterranean has dropped by 97% in the time since America was founded. In short, sharks need our help. And they really need the help of citizen scientists who also happen to like to swim! If you are in an area and see a shark, then please report it to Shark Savers. They’ll use your report to help create a census of the sharks and other species in the oceans and that information can help us to discover how many fish can be harvested without driving the species into extinction. To make a report, head over to:
https://www.sharksavers.org/en/our-programs/sharkscount/