Posts Tagged 'national public radio'



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.

Blog-Header-JohnRacanelli

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.

Blog-Header-JohnRacanelli

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.

Blog-Header-JohnRacanelli

A Blue View: Ocean Victories

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: Ocean Victories of 2013

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John and Oceana’s Beth Lowell
discuss the biggest ocean victories in 2013!

We hear a lot about the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing our ocean, yet the ocean has some powerful friends working on its behalf. Beth Lowell, Campaign Director for Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans, recently sat down with our CEO John Racanelli to discuss some of 2013′s success stories and opportunities for the future.

Where does Oceana see the most opportunity for success in 2014?

Bycatch - Bycatch is defined as the incidental catching of fish and other marine wildlife (such as dolphins and sea turtles) during commercial fishing activities. This year, Oceana will be working closely with fisheries to reduce and eliminate bycatch!

Seafood Fraud - Seafood fraud is the practice of misleading consumers about their seafood in order to increase profits. Through “Bait-to-Plate” and increased traceability, there exists the real potential to change the way our country deals with fish once it’s caught.

Organizations like National Aquarium and Oceana are dedicated to protecting and preserving the ocean and all of its inhabitants. From volunteering at conservation cleanups to signing petitions, there are many ways to show you love the ocean.

Blog-Header-JohnRacanelli

A Blue View: Inside Bioluminescence

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 2, 2014: Inside Bioluminescence

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss the amazing
phenomenon that is bioluminescence! 

In the ocean’s deepest reaches, sunlight cannot penetrate, and yet, there is light. From softly glowing to dazzlingly brilliant, it is not the light of humans and their machines. It is called bioluminescence—literally, “living light”—and it provides a bewildering variety of species the means to seek prey and elude predators in a world as alien to us as space.

Check out our infographic on this fascinating phenomenon: 

national aquarium bioluminescence infographic

Bioluminescence occurs when living creatures convert chemical energy to light energy, resulting in the production and emission of light. Here in the mid-Atlantic, we experience bioluminescence in our own backyards on many a summer evening. Fireflies are among the few terrestrial species that glow, joined by certain species of bacteria, insects, and fungi. Beyond these, there are few other bioluminescent animals found on land.

Under the sea, however, it is a remarkably different story. An estimated 90 percent of deep-sea marine creatures are able to produce bioluminescence in some way. Most emit blue or green hued light, though some creatures employ a red-light strategy—taking advantage of the fact that red is the first color in the spectrum to be refracted.

In the deep, where food is scarce and conditions unforgiving, bioluminescence is critical to the survival of countless aquatic species.
For those defending themselves against predators, bioluminescence can be used to distract or even divert attention. Bomber worms actually eject glowing green masses that redirect a predator’s attention!

Other marine animals use the light as a lure to find food. Consider the anglerfish, which has a light rod protruding from its head. This light coaxes prey to come closer, at which point the anglerfish snaps its impressive jaws around its meal. Certain squids flash light to stun their prey.

In one of the most fascinating uses of bioluminescence, counter-illumination, the light pattern on the bottom of a fish replicates the appearance of faint sunlight from above, so the fish is invisible to predators looking for food from below.

For all we’ve learned, we still known very little about how these mysterious creatures use their bioluminescent capabilities, and access to these incredible animals is a challenge for researchers. The very qualities that make them so fascinating also make them almost impossible to study.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations are researching this deep frontier in an effort to better understand the 90 percent of the ocean yet unexplored.

Blog-Header-JohnRacanelli


Sign up for AquaMail

Twitter Updates


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 236 other followers