5 Weird Ocean…. Things

I realised something while researching last week‘s post; the ocean is weird. In fact, we know very little about just how weird it really is. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we have explored less than 5% of the ocean. (That’s a hell of a lot more than I mentioned in my giant squid post a few years ago – we’ve been busy apparently).

So I thought I’d list a few of my favourite weird ocean… things. Enjoy!

1. The Sunfish

The first cab off the rank is one of my favourites – the Giant Ocean Sunfish or Mola Mola. Climate models consistently show that oceans will probably end up crawling with jellyfish in the next century, so understanding things that eat jellyfish is really, really important.

Enter the Sunfish.

Sunfish.jpg
That is one weird-looking fish…

These guys are weird-looking fish. They’re also HUGE. Sunfish hold the record for being the world’s heaviest bony fish, weighing in at a whopping 2.2 tonnes. They can grow up to 3 metres from nose to tail. One of my favourite things about these guys though, is that they spend their days diving down to about 600 metres below the surface to find their food. Because this is so far away from sunlight, they get cold.

So they sunbathe.

That’s right – they swim up to the surface, turn themselves sideways and soak up the sun for a while before heading back down to the depths to hunt down jellyfish. They’re like ocean lizards.

2. Temperate Reefs

Last year, ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicle), on a mission to map the ocean south of Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria, Australia, discovered something completely unknown and entirely surprising. In the frigid waters of Bass Strait, they uncovered a massive temperate reef. It’s filled with giant fan corals, millions of fish and countless species thought to have been extinct ages ago. Park rangers estimated that this reef was possibly more diverse than the Great Barrier Reef!

reef wilsons.jpg
One of many stunning stills taken by the ROVs

Given we’ve explored less than 5 % of the ocean, it’s amazing to think there might be more hidden gems like this out there somewhere.

3. Barrel Sponges

Sponges are weird. Super weird. Each cell within a sponge has absolutely no specific purpose whatsoever. They kind of just jump in a do what needs to be done to survive. This means that if you chop a sponge in half, it’s completely fine. So much so that researchers have actually blended sponges to paste and they’ve re-formed.

Super weird.

barrel sponges.jpg
Barrel sponges are also home to a bunch of fish and other reef creatures

Barrel sponges are even weirder. Not only are they huge for sponges (they can grow up to 2 metres high) but they’re old. Scientists have estimated some specimens have lived for over 2000 years.

Did I mention sponges were weird?

4. Underwater Crop Circles

For years, these sand formations off the coast of Japan completely baffled divers and scientists. What on earth was causing these perfect circles to appear on the ocean floor? It clearly wasn’t a freak ocean current.

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Evidence of underwater aliens?

It wasn’t aliens, it was pufferfish.

Turns out, male pufferfish spend ages making these elaborate circles in the sand to attract a mate. Cool huh?

5. The “Bloop”

This was a mystery that completely confounded NOAA researchers for years. The “Bloop”was first measured by the “Ocean Noise Network” in 1997. The sound didn’t match anything heard before and was written off as one of those things we’d probably never figure out.

That was until it was matched to sounds made by an icequake in the Scotia Sea in 2008. So less mysterious but still weird. You can listen to it here.

So there we go; the ocean is filled with weird and wonderful things. What do you think of the list? Did I forget your favourite? Let me know and I’ll see you in the comments section.

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Sky Glow

In today’s media, conservation campaigns by not-for-profit organisations like PETA and Greenpeace are not uncommon. We’re used to the idea that our natural resources need protecting, our oceans are under threat, climate change, polar bears, blah blah blah we-need-to-do-something-I’m-not-even-kidding blah. There’s so much out there in our faces that sometimes we can switch off.

But this morning, I read about something that I never thought would need protecting.

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Researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK published an article in Scientific Reports this week that highlights the ever-increasing issue of artificial lights in cities.

We take illumination for granted. In a place like Sydney, city lights are just something you get used to. Brightness in cities is convenient and in many ways, safer. But what is it doing to the economy? What effect is it having on us? What is the extra light doing to the animals and plants that live in and around our cities?

Since 2001, artificial “sky glow” has been recognised as an issue and is considered one of the most prevalent forms of man-made (anthropogenic) pollution. The authors of the paper outline a number of problems associated with this increase in sky glow including interruptions of sleep and melanin production in humans, migration patterns for birds and behavioural problems in animals that rely on lunar light.

In fact, the disruption of the lunar light available and the obstruction of the moon in general can have dire effects on the ecological cycles as a whole. Organisms rely on a lunar clock and for things like foraging and then the breakdown of organic matter in soils. Artificial lights essentially add to the number of hours of full-moon equivalent light which can seriously stuff around an animal that can’t understand that the light’s coming from a number of street lights, office blocks and neon advertisements in the nearby city and not from the night sky.

I had never thought about this issue. I’ve grown up in cities with light blaring in through my window at night. The glow on the horizon, for me, is completely normal. So I started doing some extra reading and I’ve discovered a wealth of information and organisations. Like these guys: the International Dark-Sky Association.

Once a source of wonder–and one half of the entire planet’s natural environment—the star-filled nights of just a few years ago are vanishing in a yellow haze. Human-produced light pollution not only mars our view of the stars; poor lighting threatens astronomy, disrupts ecosystems, affects human circadian rhythms, and wastes energy to the tune of $2.2 billion per year in the U.S. alone.

This group is heavily involved in policy, promoting the idea of lighting “what you need, when you need it.”

The World At Night is another group that I’ve found. They’re dedicated to documenting what we’re missing in a series of incredible galleries of photographs. Take a look – I wasted an afternoon trawling through the panoramic and stunning pictures.

night sky

The thing that stands out for me in all of this new information though, is what happens when 60% of the population living in cities is separated from the night sky. Davies et al., refer to this as the “extinction of experience”. Essentially, not being able to see the stars in the sky isolates us from the natural environment and our connection to conservation issues. Perhaps this is why apathy is so prevalent in our culture. I know before I started studying it, I was nowhere near as informed or cared nearly as much as I do now, about climate change and responsible consumption of our natural resources. I do think it’s slightly more complicated than not being able to see stars, but I can see how being isolated in our little patch of artificial sky glow would contribute to our sense of responsibility for our planet.

Who knows, perhaps this idea will catch on and light sources like these backyard geneticists are creating will become more commonplace.

The Sideshow: Charlotte Robinson Part 1

Charlie and I are sitting in a quiet corner of the UTS tower building, something that has recently become a little bit tricky to find given the return of the undergrads. It’s a funny switch to being a post-grad, we muse as we settle in with our coffees and my handy smart phone recording app. It’s kind of halfway between being a full time worker and student; you’re neither one nor the other.

I feel a little weird talking like this with my friend; like I’m a journo with a tape-recorder. The second I open my mouth however the illusion is shattered.

“So can you tell us a bit about your background? Like, education-wise.”

Charlie smiles, “I guess I was a rather enthusiastic high school student who loved science.”

Charlie started out having no idea what she wanted to do at University. She, like everyone else, always had a desire to be a Marine Biologist but decided it was too popular and settled on Forensic Chemistry. After a year she had a bit of a re-think.

“…in the end I got to thinking… this isn’t what I want to wake up to on Monday morning.

“I had a lecture in one of my subjects called the Biosphere, from someone who used to be in C3. He was a post-doc who was doing research on sea ice algae. He was talking a little bit about Climate Change and the impact it would have, particularly sea temperature warming, and I was just fascinated by what he was talking about.”

So she changed career trajectories, back to Marine Biology. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tinkering with one of the instruments Charlie uses called a FFRf
Tinkering with one of the instruments Charlie uses called a FFRf

There’s a pause and I jump in with an off-the-cuff question, something I said I wouldn’t do then promptly forgot about. Oops.

“So what was your honours project all about?”

Which actually completely overrides my next question, as Charlie’s honours project was one of the sort that ended up inspiring her PhD project. (This potentially tells you a bit about the type of student she is). And so we launch into discussing her research and if you listen to the recording, I swear the speed at which she’s talking picks up a notch.

“It was looking at phytoplankton. These are microscopic plant cells that live in the oceans, and rivers and lakes as well, but I’m more interested in those that are in the Oceans. They produce 50% of our oxygen and they’re the guys that gave us the Earth’s atmosphere oxygen in the first place. They also drive the food chain so whales and fish eat something, and they eat something that eventually eats the phytoplankton. They’re the real ‘pushers’ in the chain.”

“So kind of like the Krill in Finding Nemo?” I ask.

“Kind of, yeah.”

Charlie’s work focused on formations of phytoplankton deep in the ocean. These little dudes need a large amount of light in order to grow but they can be found in areas where very little light reaches them. The big questions here for her are why are they there? Is it because of the masses of nutrients? How are they surviving without the light?

And her PhD work?

“I’m still interested in learning more about Phytoplankton and particularly where they get their energy from and how they can use the energy available.”

Have you ever wondered why the ocean can be different shades of blue depending on where you are? Well Charlie’s work is kind of related to this – she calls them ‘optical niches’.

“The waters closer to coastlines in particular are what we would call ‘greener waters’… they can be browner if you’ve got a lot of stuff washing off the land. (The Oceans are) really clear, blue waters and light can travel very deep throughout the water column as well. It’s a completely different climate both in the darkness of the light and also with the colour.”

Light is especially important for phytoplankton as it’s where they get their energy. Different colours give you different wavelengths of light and scientists think that each wavelength has a different amount of energy available for their use. In the end, the light ‘partitions’ the phytoplankton niches, or you find different species of phytoplankton in different “optical niches” using different energy to produce the same biomass. At least this is what her thesis is trying to prove anyway.

On the boat!
On the boat!

So why is this important? Well it’s all about these things called ‘biogeochemical cycles’. If we were to disrupt a vital elemental cycle, we’d be “in a bit of a pickle”. Phytoplankton produce up to 50% of our oxygen but they can also draw carbon dioxide back from the atmosphere and cycle really important nutrients. A popular buzzword that’s being thrown around our office at the moment is this idea of “blue carbon”. Basically this is any carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere by marine and freshwater organisms and transferred into biomass. Charlie makes it pretty clear that protecting these organisms is vital for sustaining life in the face of Climate Change. We need to understand how they function in order to make sure the cycle is not disrupted.

“That’s sort of the end point; I want to determine how changes in the colour of the light affect the kind of production of carbon biomass by phytoplankton. It’s all sort of linked in a cycle.”

Pretty cool huh? If you want to read some more about these little guys, Charlie’s got some recommendations that I’ll list for you below. Have a look – they’re really interesting.

Part two will be up soon!

For more information, check out: 

UTS School of the Environment facebook page: Charlie’s loaded some awesome photos from her research cruises!

Words in mOcean: Brilliant blog by PhD student David Aldridge on all things marine science-y

And if you have access to journals through your Library websites…

“The Ocean’s Invisible Forest” – Paul Falkowski, 2002 (Scientific American, 287, 54-61,)

“Ocean Science: The power of phytoplankton” – Paul Falkowski, 2012 (Nature, 483, S17-S20) 

So this is what I do…

I’ve been wondering over the last week what I should talk about next. I figured I should potentially tell you a bit about my research huh? I’m a Chemist by training, so a lot of this is still very new for me. I’ve spent two years attempting to get my head around the wonderful world of molecular biology and let me tell you, I have new-found respect for it.

So if you asked me at a party or if I was saying hi on the street, I would say something like “I look at the biochemistry of corals and their response to environmental stress”. Boring, but concise. Never fear; I have a long version.

In the last 3 decades, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) has lost almost 30% of its coral coverage and reports show this trend is continuing. Losing the reefs is a more frightening possibility than you might think. In fact, many small Island nations throughout the tropics rely on the reefs for their food, protection and their cultural identities. In Australia, about two million tourists visit the GBR each year, accounting for a hefty chunk of Queensland’s revenue.

Google Earth image of the Great Barrier Reef
Google Earth image of the Great Barrier Reef

The loss of coral cover is linked to an increase in what we refer to as “mass bleaching events”. Environmental stress factors like increasing Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs – have a look at the IPCC website) and light intensities have been known to cause these events. Environmentally, we understand what’s happening, but it’s a different story from a molecular point of view, and we need to know what’s going on at this level in order to get some idea of how to help them respond to their changing surroundings.

At their core, scleractinian, or reef-building, corals are a symbiotic relationship between the host coral and a micro-algae known as zooxanthellae. These algae are photosynthetic and so they can provide the coral host with essential nutrients like organic carbon. In return, the corals provide the zooxanthellae with protection and inorganic nutrients they can’t produce by themselves. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership which, unfortunately, is very delicately balanced and extremely susceptible to environmental change. When conditions become unfavourable or stressful, the coral will expel the zooxanthellae and they lose their main source of organic carbon. Sometimes the corals can recover and get their algae back, but sometimes they can’t. If the environmental stress lasts for a long time, they eventually starve and die. This is traditionally not awesome.

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There’s currently a large amount of research into how the zooxanthellae’s photosynthetic systems work and my lab (C3) is responsible for a good portion of it. We know that under stress, they can experience a build-up of toxic oxygen radials that overwhelm the photosystem proteins. But we’re not sure why that happens in the first place. The underlying molecular triggers for the bleaching response are still eluding us but bit-by-bit, we’re filling the holes in our knowledge. Why do some types of zooxanthellae appear to be more tolerant to an increase in temperature? Why do some species, like massive corals, resist bleaching when others, like branching corals are pansies that seem to die when you breathe on them?

The answers to these questions could have something to do with their biochemical composition.

Proteins, carbohydrates and lipids play a critical role in ‘maintaining the status quo’ within any organism. By that I mean the amount of energy available drives biochemical processes that keep cells functioning properly; it’s why we need to eat. Within the coral symbiosis, the host and zooxanthellae exchange essential nutrients. In fact, the algae are sometimes responsible for up to 90% of the host’s organic carbon requirements. This exchange keeps them healthy and may affect their resilience to environmental change.

My research focuses on the symbiotic partnership from a biochemical point of view. To do that, I’m using a technique that has only recently started to be applied to biological and environmental questions things like this. It’s called Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy. Essentially, every molecule in the universe is vibrating at characteristically different frequencies. FTIR spectroscopy picks up on these vibrations and plots them in a graph of a series of peaks called a spectrum. Each peak corresponds to a specific molecular bond within a sample. This means that I can map the protein, carbohydrate and lipid content in the corals in very little time and with very little sample preparation. We can use these spectra to model the shifting biochemistry within the organisms and how they respond to elevations in temperature or light intensity.

Tanks! Hooray!
Tanks! Hooray!

I have very limited experience within the world of science, but in my opinion, the scope of this technique and the things we can potentially do with it are very exciting. Modelling the biochemistry in response to environmental factors can not only add to our understanding of bleaching, but it could also result in a way of predicting mass bleaching events.

Cool huh?