Posts Tagged 'National Aquarium CEO'



A Blue View: Mysteries of the Deep

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

February 5, 2014: Mysteries of the Deep

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss
what we know and have yet to
discover about the deep sea!

Thousands of feet beneath the surface of the ocean, animals live, even thrive, in conditions that are impossible for most of us to even imagine.

Our blue planet is indeed a water planet, yet incredibly, over 90 percent of the ocean remains unexplored and unseen by humans. In a world that’s increasingly tamed and catalogued, it’s astounding to learn that there have been only two journeys to the ocean’s greatest depth, Challenger Deep, off the Mariana Islands—in 1960 and 2012. That first epic descent occurred in 1960…before we’d even ventured into space!

deepsea challenger

The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER.

At that deepest point, the dark waters of the ocean extend 36,000 feet down—nearly 7 miles. For comparison, the recommended maximum depth for recreational scuba divers is just 130 feet. Photosynthesis is no longer possible at 650 feet, with sunlight gradually diminishing until approximately 3,300 feet, below which, no light ever penetrates.

But far, far down at the bottom of the ocean is an environment unlike any other place on earth. It is frigid—between 30 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit, but never frozen, because salt lowers the freezing point of seawater. The complete darkness is broken only by the light emitted by animals themselves, called bioluminescence. And the intense pressure at these depths is the equivalent of supporting 50 jets on your back!

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know about this mysterious region—earth’s largest habitat. Experts believe that up to two-thirds of the plant and animal species in the world ocean may still await our discovery, with as many as one million species of non-bacterial life yet to be identified. In other words, we’ve only scratched the surface.

Most deep-sea creatures are transparent, black, or red, allowing for effective camouflage since red is invisible at these depths. Some, like the bioluminescent lanternfish, send messages to other animals or attract prey via their light-emitting organs. Species like the vampire squid have huge eyes that enable them to use what little light exists, while others have no eyes at all, instead employing smell, touch, and vibration to visualize their surroundings.

A vampire squid. Image via National Geographic.

A vampire squid. Image via National Geographic.

As a result, many of these creatures are unable to survive the trip up to the surface when collected for research purposes, so scientists who study these marine species now use pressurized containers to replicate their environment.

Increasingly, deep-sea submersibles, both manned and unmanned, are making the long journey to the deep ocean, enhancing our knowledge exponentially with each dive. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they will discover next.

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A Blue View: From the Bottom of the Food Chain

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

January 16, 2014: From the Bottom of the Food Chain

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss the importance
of plankton in the ocean’s complex food chain
!

The ocean food web is much more than the dramatic clash of sharks devouring marine mammals and large fish. While many of us know that the ocean food web is complex, it’s easy to focus on the apex predators at the top. But the view from the bottom up is an essential component in understanding the ocean and all of its inhabitants. Microscopic drifting organisms, called plankton, serve as the foundation upon which the ocean’s entire food web is built.

The very definition of these tiny drifters is formed from the Greek word planktos, meaning “wanderer.” And that’s exactly what these tremendously important animals and plants do, touching all the creatures of the sea as they flow along its ever-changing currents.

Plankton include both phytoplankton and zooplankton. Phytoplankton are tiny microscopic cells that include bacteria, plants, and algae found near the surface of the water where photosynthesis occurs. A single drop of water contains thousands of phytoplankton.

Crab Megalopa Larva Audubon Magazine

This is a crab megalopa larva (magnification x 40). Image via Audubon Magazine.

Not all zooplankton is tiny. After all, jellies are a type of zooplankton. But most zookplankton are microscopic, including the tiny larvae of crabs, jellyfish, corals, and worms as well as adult animals like tiny shrimps, copepods and krill. To understand the size of these small zooplankton, consider this analogy: to fill a coffee cup, it would take a quarter of a million copepods, small crustaceans that are the most common zooplankton in the ocean. A single gallon of water from the Chesapeake Bay can contain half a million zooplankton.

Zooplankton eat phytoplankton, and are themselves eaten by small fish and a few large species like the whale shark and baleen whales. Small plankton-eaters are, in turn, eaten by larger fish, and so on until you get to the apex predators: large squids, fish, marine mammals, and, yes, the voracious human species.

All levels of the food chain are critical to ensuring a healthy balance in the oceans, but as we grapple with issues related to sea level rise and ocean acidification, scientists are studying what these changes will mean for the base of this complex web—the consequences of which will affect literally every marine species in the world.

Sea Angel Audubon Magazine

These juvenile “sea angels” (magnification x 20) are only 5 millimeters long. Image via Audubon Magazine.

One very important ecosystem service that plankton provide: they produce as much as 70 percent of the world’s oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis, an essential function that impacts the very air we breathe. Ocean scientist and explorer Sylvia Earle estimates that one family alone—Prochlorococcus—is perhaps the most abundant photosynthetic organism in the world and provides the oxygen for one in every five breaths we take.

This is even more incredible when one considers that all of this activity is happening in just the upper layer of the ocean, the epipelagic zone, where sunlight can reach. Though this zone is just a drop in the overall makeup of the ocean, what plankton do there reverberates from the deepest parts of the ocean to the upper atmosphere.

Plankton are not normally visible, except when huge blooms show up as blue/green swirls of color when viewed from above. Scientists are able to monitor the distribution of phytoplankton from space by analyzing the reflected light from the water’s surface. The Climate, Ocean, and Sea Ice Modeling team at Los Alamos National Laboratory is at the forefront of the development of these computer simulations. This group is focused on understanding how global climate change may impact the world’s phytoplankton population.

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A Blue View: Pain Killer from the Sea

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

January 8, 2014: Pain Killer from the Sea

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss
the medical uses associated with cone snails!

Over 100 million American adults live with chronic pain—more than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined. It is a significant public health problem.

In the 19th century, scientists discovered that opiates such as morphine could relieve pain. Opiates, however, are associated with many adverse side effects and carry the risk of addiction.

Enter the lowly cone snail.

National Geographic Cone Snail

Image of a cone snail via National Geographic.

There are more than 3,200 species of marine predatory gastropods assigned to the genus Conus. You may recognize some of them from their beautiful shells, ranging from thimble- to palm-sized, colored in artful speckles and zig zags of brown and white. They are prized by shell collectors.

Cone snails live primarily in warm tropical and subtropical seas. Scientists became interested in cone snails as potential pharmaceutical agents because of the way they capture their prey, like which is right out of a science-fiction movie. Like archers, snails launch a venomous harpoon, a miniature hypodermic needle filled with poison, instantly immobilizing or killing their prey. To most, not a very snail-like things to do. Watch the cone snail in action: 

The venom contains conotoxins, some of which are mild central nervous system neurotoxins that cause numbness and pins and needles, but others can even kill a human.

So, if you’re ever on a tropical vacation and see a cone snail, by all means admire it’s beauty from afar, but don’t pick it up. Instead, leave the snail-wrangling to people like Dr. Baldomero “Toto” Olivera.

As a child in the Philippines, Toto witnessed cone snails bringing down large fish and wondered what exactly made it such a potent toxin…so he decided to devote his career to finding out.

Toto and his team were the first to isolate a powerful analgesic compound from the magician’s cone snail. It is non-addictive, does not cause tolerance, has few side effects and, amazingly, is 100,000 times more powerful than morphine. Marketed under the name Prialt, it was approved in 2004 by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of severe pain. It must be administered by a spinal pump, but oral formulations are in the works.

These clinical human trials will, if successful, be the biggest leap forward in pain management since the 19th century discovery of morphine. That is joyous news to the 47 percent of American adults who suffer from chronic pain.

However, as fast as we are learning about the cone snails (and other plants, animals, and microbes whose beneficial compounds are yet to be discovered), they are being lost because of pollution, overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change. To protect cone shells, biologists are asking nations in tropical zones to take new steps to monitor the shell trade and protect reefs.

Tropical oceans are places of obvious beauty and home to thousands of creatures, including cone snails. If for no other reason, we would do well to conserve their biodiversity and reverse habitat loss to protect the largest pharmacopeia in nature, one that could save us from a world of hurt, as long as we can keep its world healthy.

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VIDEO: National Aquarium’s Present and Future

Our CEO John Racanelli visited Center Maryland earlier this week to discuss the success of conservation and education efforts, our stewardship of the Chesapeake Bay and our newest exhibit, Blacktip Reef.

In many ways, the creation of our newest exhibit is the mark of an exciting new chapter for our organization. As Center Maryland’s Damien O’ Doherty put it, “You’re not just seeing a new exhibit, in many ways you’re seeing a new Aquarium.”

As a 33-year-old institution, our hometown of Baltimore and the State of Maryland have integral parts of what we have been able to accomplish and what we continue to do in the community and the Chesapeake Bay region.

Watch John discuss our future in part one of his interview: 

Stay tuned for part two! 

A Blue View: Otherworldly Octopuses

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

October 9: 2013 – Otherworldly Octopuses

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss some of ocean’s
most intelligent and amazing creatures!

With eight arms, a bulbous head, thousands of suckers, a tongue covered in teeth, and three hearts, the octopus is like something out of a science fiction movie. And the more you know about these fascinating creatures, the stranger they seem.

They can change body color, texture, and shape to blend in with their surroundings. Even large octopuses can fit through seemingly impossibly small spaces. They can open jars and dismantle objects. Their suckers can actually taste and feel. Some species glow, while others are transparent. Add powerful jaws with a venomous bite and the ability to regenerate limbs, and this is a creature with truly astounding capabilities.

national aquarium giant pacific octopus

Part of the cephalopod family, which also includes cuttlefish and squid, octopuses can range in size, from the octopus wolfi at half an inch and only a few ounces to the giant Pacific octopus, averaging 16 feet across and 110 pounds.

Solitary creatures, most octopus species live alone in dens. Females are known to eat their mates, and females often die after laying and caring for one clutch of eggs.

Most of us don’t perceive mollusks as intelligent creatures, but the octopus isn’t a mindless invertebrate – far from it. Octopuses are surprisingly smart, with one report claiming that their intelligence is on par with that of a domestic cat. The nervous system includes a central brain and a large ganglion at the base of each arm that controls movement. These eight arms operate both independently of one another and together to accomplish tasks. And no doubt about it, octopuses are built to survive.

Should an octopus lose one of its arms, due perhaps to a near-miss by a predator like a shark or seal, the octopus immediately starts regenerating the lost limb, somewhat like a starfish that loses an arm or a lizard that loses a tail. Because octopuses are so effective at this, scientists are studying them to learn the secrets of regrowth in hopes of applying those findings to humans, particularly in regards to tissue regeneration.

Octopuses also avoid predators through camouflage. Masters of disguise, they can change color, texture, and body shape to hide from predators, instantaneously blending in with almost any background. In another protective strategy, octopuses can release ink that obscures an attacker’s view and dulls its sense of smell, allowing a hasty escape. And because it they have no bones, this invertebrates can fit into incredibly small spaces and crevices, making the octopus extremely adept at staying out of harm’s way.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and amazing tactics in all of the animal kingdom belongs to the aptly named “vampire” squid, which is in fact an octopus. This wily deep sea dweller can bite off the end of one of its bioluminescent arms, which then floats away, luring a potential predator with its light and allowing an escape.

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