November 29 – I Sea You

Today’s factismal: Seabirds have a specialized gland that removes salt from their blood and pumps it out their noses.

If you ever see a seabird and it looks like it has a runny nose, don’t worry that it has the avian flu. Instead, take a closer look because you are seeing the bird’s salt gland in action. As you might guess from the name, the salt gland removes excess salt from the bird’s blood stream and pour it out the nose as a stream of incredibly salty water.

A dominican gull with its salt glands on display (My camera)

A dominican gull with its salt glands on display
(My camera)

But why does a seabird need a salt gland? For the same reason that turtles, sharks, and other critters that spend most of their time at sea do: because the ocean is very salty. That salt water makes its way into the bird’s food and into its drink which means that the bird ends up eating a lot more salt than it needs (sort of like the average teenager). This is not good for the bird’s kidneys which means that it would live a very short life if it weren’t able to get rid of the salt.And that’s why birds (and other critters) with salt glands do so well in their environment.

A brown pelican showing off its salt glands (My camera)

A brown pelican showing off its salt glands
(My camera)

Of course, no matter how well-adapted a critter is, eventually it dies. Most sea birds die at sea, where they are food for the fishes that were once their food. But some die on the beach where they become food for thought. By tracking the number of seabird deaths and the number of each species that are seen, scientists can use the seabirds as an early-warning system for environment changes, from pollution to freak storms to red tides to new diseases. But there’s an awful lot of coastline and only so many scientists, which is where you come in.

A herring gull in the sunset (My camera)

A herring gull in the sunset
(My camera)

The Seabird Ecological Assessment Network, or SEANET for short, is looking for some citizen scientists on the East Coast who are willing to report where and when they saw a dead seabird – or even a live one! If you’d like to help, then head over to their website:

November 22 – Tastes Like Tofu

Today’s factismal: The whale shark can have as many as 300 pups (baby sharks) at the same time.

If you think that Kate has it bad with her royal baby, imagine what a female whale shark must feel like. 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”). How long does the process last? Nobody knows for sure. What we do know is that 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 whale shark opens wide for dinner (Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

A whale shark opens wide for dinner
(Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

The length of time that a whale shark stays pregnant is just one of the many mysteries surrounding these fish. Though the whale shark is found in tropical waters around the world, very little is known about the species. But what is known is amazing. At 32 ft long and 20,000 lbs heavy the whale shark is the largest living fish (though it is only half the size of the aptly-named and thankfully extinct megalodon). They can dive to 4,200 ft in search of food, which is mainly plankton and small fish. And they will migrate thousands of miles in search of their food which they eat at a rate of six pounds an hour. Though these sharks have more than 300 rows of vestigial teeth, they feed using twenty “filter pads” that parallel the gills. The plankton gets caught in the filter pads and then makes its way to the throat by a process that nobody understands yet.

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)

And it is that “yet” that scientists are trying to get rid of. We want to learn more about the whale shark. Not just because it is a valuable food fish (referred to as the “tofu shark” in Taiwan because of the way they taste), but because they are amazing animals. If you’ve seen a whale shark or just want to learn more about them, head on over to the EcoOcean Whale Shark Photo ID Library:

October 25 – Never Bet the Devil Your Head

Today’s factismal: Baby koalas must eat a special “pap” made from their mother’s poop before they can digest eucalyptus leaves.

It’s not easy being a koala bear. They live a solitary life in the eucalyptus trees that are simultaneously their refuge and their dinner; a baby koala only stays with its mother until it is about a year old, and then it heads off to its own tree. Their solitude is broken once a year during the spring rutting season, when the males will rub their chests (where the scent gland is located) over every tree they can find, hoping to attract a mate. And if that doesn’t work, they call through the forest with a loud, low-pitched bellow (very similar to the human “Hey, baby!”). If all goes well for the male, about a month later, a baby joey is born.

Sydney the koala is looking for love in all the wrong places (My camera)

Sydney the koala is looking for love in all the wrong places
(My camera)

The first thing that the joey has to do is make its way into the mother’s marsupial pouch. Thanks to her thick, sharp claws and short, clumsy arms, the mother koala can’t help the joey on its journey without hurting it; it doesn’t help that the joey is just an inch long and weighs about half a gram. Once the joey is safely ensconced in the pouch, it attaches to one of the mother’s milk glands and stays there for the next six months. And that’s when things get a little gross…

Bruce was on a pap diet just six months ago (My camera)

Bruce was on a pap diet just six months ago
(My camera)

At six months old, the joey is big enough to start eating eucalyptus leaves. But those leaves have very little nutrition value and lots of poison value. So the koala needs a special suite of microbes in order to digest them properly. And for a joey, the best place to get those microbes is from dear old mom’s poop. The mother creates a special type of poop that is only partially digested and rich in microbes; called “pap”, the poop will give the joey the digestive wherewithal to grow into a big and strong koala. But first the joey has to eat it and you know where it comes from (hint: kolas aren’t birds).

Sydney snacking down on eucalyptus leaves (My camera)

Sydney snacking down on eucalyptus leaves
(My camera)

Once the joey has turned into an adult, it leaves mom and her tree and heads off into the forest to make his or her own way in the world. But koalas don’t compete well with things like people and dogs; as a result, the koala population in the wild has been declining. In order to help protect them, scientists need your help. If you see a koala, please report it on Koala Tracker:

October 4 – Water You Worried ABout

A satellite image of Venice (Image courtesy NASA)

A satellite image of Venice
(Image courtesy NASA)

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Though the city itself dates back to about 200 BCE, the bulk of the buildings were erected during the height of the Reniassance when Venice was a military and political powerhouse that controlled half of the Mediterranean. Thanks to human ingenuity, the original city was built on mud flats in a lagoon which made it very easy to defend. And thanks to human stubborness, the city stayed there even when the buildings started to sink in the mud; the locals just created canals to channel the water and started adding new floors as the old ones dropped below the waters. Since Venice was founded, the local sea level has risen by more than twenty feet.

Venice is a beautiful warning (My camera)

Venice is a beautiful warning
(My camera)

That twenty feet is a very interesting number to climatologists; it is about the amount of sea level rise that we can expect if the ice covering much of Greenland were to be added to the oceans. Right now, the world’s oceans will definitely rise about five inches by the end of the century; that won’t be enough to turn New York City into another Venice, but it will definitely have some fairly important effects. Storm surges will be higher, which means more damage from hurricanes. Beach erosion will happen faster, which means more costly dredging to keep chipping channels open (and more damage from hurricanes). And there will be more salt water invasion of aquifers, which will kill many plants and lead to more damage from hurricanes.



September 27 – Totally Super!

Just some images from tonight’s supermoon eclipse. Enjoy!

“And so it begins”

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Halfway up the mountain

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Just a sliver left before totality

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That’s not Mars; it is the Moon! The red color comes from the light of every sunrise and every sunset on Earth, simultaneously. And if that ain’t cool, I don’t know what is!

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Overexposed to show the stars by the Moon.

September 20 – Getting Nosey

A side view of the nose of a humpback whale (My camera)

A side view of the nose of a humpback whale
(My camera)

One of the largest set of nostrils in the animal kingdom belongs to the humpback whale. Known to whalers and armchair bloviators alike as a blowhole, this is the sole way that air gets in and out of a whale’s lungs (no mouth breathers in the cetacea!). When the shale comes to the surface, it breathes out quickly and strongly. When the warm, moist air in its lungs meets the cool, dry air over the ocean, the water condenses into a characteristic plume of droplets. Just by looking at the shape of the “blow” an expert can identify the species of whale!

A rear view of a humpback's nose (My camera)

A rear view of a humpback’s nose
(My camera)

The nostrils do more than just allow the whale to breathe; they also allow it to “see”. Just below the blowwhole are  a series of small (for a whale) sinus-like air sacs. When the whale is underwater, it pushes air through the sacs, playing them like the world’s largest nose-flute. The sounds that it creates spread out through the water and get reflected back; by listening to the echoes, the whale can build up a picture of the world around it.

September 13 – Fairy Interesting


The world’s smallest penguin is about a foot tall, weighs about three pounds,and is known as the fairy penguin in Australia. That last part is the most amusing because in Australia, these little delights live under the Manly Beach ferry building. Though most people associate penguins with Antarctica, they actually live in Australia, New Zealand, and South America as well; some species have even been seen as far north as the Galapagos Islands!

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the fairy (or little) penguin is that it is nocturnal. Where most penguins head out to sea during the day (mainly because most of them live in Antarctica where the day lasts months at a time), this little kipper eater prefers to take its dip during the nighttime. Their favorite meals ar anchovies (hold the pizza), sardines, squid, and the occasional crab. As of right now, the fairy penguin population is doing fairy well indeed, with more than 500,000 individuals across Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania.