Posts Tagged 'NPR'



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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A Blue View: Why Animals Strand

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 2, 2013: Why Animals Strand

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss the alarming
number of dolphins strandings observed along
the East Coast this year.

2013 has been a record-breaking year for dolphin strandings, with more than 500 dolphins stranding along the East Coast from New York to North Carolina since July 1. This number is almost 10 times the historical average for our region, and as a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared an unusual mortality event, or UME, working with partners throughout the region to respond to strandings and attempt to discover their causes.

A UME is declared when marine mammal strandings are unexpected, involve significant mortalities, and demand immediate response. Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs are important because they often serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues. Since 1991, 60 UMEs have been declared nationally with the most common species cited as bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, and manatees.

NOAA has tentatively attributed the mid-Atlantic dolphin die-off to a deadly strain of a measles-like disease, morbillivirus, based on tissue sampling. This same virus caused more than 700 dolphin deaths in 1987 and 1988, and—sadly—this current outbreak isn’t expected to fully subside until next spring.

Many marine animals, including dolphins, whales, seals, turtles, and sea lions, are known to strand. In late 2012, frigid waters off the coast of New England caused a severe cold-stun event, resulting in sea turtle strandings in record numbers. This winter was unlike any other for our partners in New England, who called in the National Aquarium and other animal rescue organizations to help with a mass stranding of more than 400 sea turtles. Over the next 6 months, more than 240 were rehabilitated and released into warmer waters.

On the West Coast this year, more than 1,000 sea lion pups washed ashore in Southern California, many starving and dehydrated. Though the cause of this mass stranding is still officially unknown, scientists believe that the young sea lions aren’t getting the food they need due to environmental factors that are limiting prey availability for pups. An investigation is ongoing.

These are just a few recent examples, and the fact is, animal strandings—of both individuals and entire populations—can occur for many reasons. Sometimes an animal is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, an animal gets caught in fishing gear or is struck by a fishing vessel. Or, as in the case of the dolphins this year, an illness spreads through a population.

Those who spend time at the shore have probably seen a stranded marine animal. Even still, it can be difficult for even the most savvy beach-goer to know what to do.

First, you should never approach a stranded animal. If you encounter a semi-aquatic marine mammal resting on land, such as a seal, count yourself lucky. Appreciate the animal from a safe distance of at least 4 or 5 car lengths, take plenty of pictures, and remember that these are wild animals.

How you can help: 

  • Report any aquatic animal strandings or mortalities to the local stranding response facility. In Maryland, call the Natural Resources Police at 1-800-628-9944.
  • If you can, document the event with photos or video from a safe distance!
  • While it is tempting to want to help stranded dolphins, whales and turtles by pushing them back into the water, this can actually be more harmful to the animal.
  • Make a donation to a local stranding response organization. Events like this require a lot of basic equipment, supplies and fees for processing tissue samples.

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A Blue View: Masters of Disguise

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.

September 11, 2013: Masters of Disguise – Marine Animal Camouflauge

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss how essential
camouflage is to the survival of many marine species!

This world of ours can be a dangerous place—and for many undersea creatures, camouflage means the difference between life and death. In some cases, it’s a strategy for defense against predators; in others, it enhances their pursuit of prey. One thing’s certain: a good camouflage can be an effective way to survive and thrive in the sea.

Take the ornate wobbegong, for example. This unique shark species is the opposite of eye-catching. Blending easily with the sea floor, a wobbegong can flatten its body, while spots and patterns resemble coral and rock. Skin flaps under its chin appear like seaweed, luring prey toward the shark’s mouth.

wobbegong shark

Other species employ different strategies. The double-ended pipe fish is actually able to emulate the swaying motion of sea grass. Decorator crabs adorn their shells with items from the sea floor to mimic their surroundings, often clothing themselves in sponges and seaweed. Peacock flounder settle into sandy bottoms appearing as one with the ocean floor. In laboratory tests, this fish has proven itself capable of matching striped, polka-dot and checkerboard flooring virtually instantaneously.

The camouflaging capabilities of ocean creatures take many different forms. A particular coloration may help an animal blend into its environment. Patterns can allow some creatures to better hide. Others may have the ability to morph their bodies into a particular color, shape, or texture to fool predators. And some animals can move in a distinctive way—or appear very still—in an effort to avoid detection.

Cephalopods, which include squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish, are the ultimate masters of disguise. Some species show 30 to 50 different appearances and can use every camouflaging strategy to maximum effect.

Scientists are still trying to understand the full scope of what these aquatic animals are capable of. Remarkably, octopus-like cuttlefish are able to rapidly adapt their body patterns and coloration—yet they are in fact colorblind. What’s clear is that some of these sea creatures are far more sophisticated in their use of camouflage than scientists currently understand, and this area of study is rapidly evolving.

A recent article in Current Biology examined the color-changing capabilities of the octopus and squid. Researchers found that some species can actually become transparent as they swim along the ocean’s surface, helping them avoid hungry predators. But in deeper waters, they can adopt a different behavior—turning red.

At depths below 2,600 feet, that same transparency that is so helpful along the surface actually becomes a liability, when light reflects off the transparent beings. Instead, it is more effective to be red, as red is the first color to lose visibility in deeper water, allowing creatures to become virtually invisible, albeit in a different way.

Some animals have different strategies for camouflage depending on the conditions they find themselves in. Exactly how these animals are able to interpret those conditions, and then change their appearance as a result, is still unknown.

As research on these animals and their amazing capacity for camouflage continues, a search for terrestrial applications is underway. Roger Hanlon, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and a leading expert on marine animal camouflage, is collaborating with engineers across the country to develop a material that mimics this camouflage capability. The hope is that their research with cuttlefish may hold the key to creating new kinds of camouflage for clothes, buildings and vehicles.

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A Blue View: Surprising Sharks

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.

August 28, 2013: Surprising Sharks

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John and aquarist Jackie Cooper
discuss the hundreds of species of lesser-known
sharks that inhabit our oceans! 

John Racanelli: In your mind’s eye, picture a shark for a moment. Perhaps it’s 9 or 10 feet long, with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth and a menacing look. Now, take that mental image…and forget it. Today, we’re going to talk about the sharks that people seldom consider, the hundreds of species of smaller shark that inhabit every ocean on our planet. With me today is Jackie Cooper, our Senior Assistant Dive Safety Officer Aquarist at the National Aquarium. Thanks for joining me, Jackie!

Jackie Cooper: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about something I’m so passionate about.

JR: How are these smaller species of shark like their larger counterparts?

JC: Well, all sharks are cartilaginous fish; they’re all carnivores; all sharks have 5 to 7 gill slits on the sides of their heads; all sharks have pectoral fins that are not fused to their heads. But that’s about where their similarities end. There is such a broad diversity of body shape and body size of sharks that is just amazing!

JR: What sizes are we talking about? 

JC: Well, the smallest shark is the dwarf lantern shark, which is only about 7.5 inches long. From there, they range up to the whale shark, which can be as large as 40 to 60 feet.

JR: So with these smaller sharks, it sounds like they really average to be relatively small compared to even humans. 

JC: Probably half of all the known shark species are 5.5 feet or smaller, and of that, half of the overall shark species numbers are shorter than 3 feet.

JR: Tell me a little bit more about those smaller sharks and their role in the food chain.

JC: We tend to think of sharks as apex predators, being at the top of the food chain. But in fact, most of these sharks are a part of the food chain. They’re similarly important, but they don’t sit at the top of it. Another thing that people tend to forget is that people eat shark meat much more than you would consider.

We tend to think of sharks as only being consumed in shark fin soup, but if you’re in Europe and you’ve had fish and chips, it’s more than likely you were really eating a shark called the spiny dogfish. They grow to be 3.5 to 4 feet long. The females don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 21 years old and produce only small litters. And yet, this species is fished commercially and sold as “fish and chips.” It’s simply devastating to that population.

JR: I know that’s an important species along the Mid-Atlantic shoreline, too. Can you even find some of these species of shark being sold as food in places like Baltimore? 

JC: Certainly. There are definitely grocery stores in the Baltimore metro area that sell shark. Sometimes under names that we would not necessarily recognize as shark.

JR: Why do you think it’s important to understand these smaller species of shark? 

JC: I think the most important reason is that they’re also being threatened. It’s important to keep in mind that when you think about conservation, it’s often driven by money and the glamour, and big species of shark are very exciting to think about and talk about and look at pictures of. These smaller sharks frequently aren’t as glamorous and don’t tend to draw the same kind of funding, so they’ve been much less studied.

JR: Well, I know they contribute to healthy marine ecosystems, too. They’re obviously vital to our ocean habitats, right? 

JC: Every spot in the food chain is critical to maintaining the entire chain in a healthy manner.

JR: Jackie, I want to thank you very much for coming in to talk to us. To learn more about some of the smaller species of shark that inhabit our waters and to see a live cam of the new Blacktip Reef exhibit, visit aqua.org/ablueview.

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A Blue View: Bringing Oysters Back from the Brink

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.

August 21, 2013: Bringing Oysters Back from the Brink

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss the critical role
oyster reefs play in maintaining a healthy
Chesapeake Bay! 

Oysters are a huge part of the Chesapeake Bay culture—its past, present, and future. Even the name “Chesapeake” means “great shellfish bay” in Algonquin. Yet since the early part of the 1900s, oyster populations have been in crisis.

The health of oyster populations in the Bay is critical to providing habitat for aquatic animals, supporting feeding grounds for migratory birds, and enhancing water quality as oysters filter their food from the water. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. To put this in perspective, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out that oysters once were able to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay in a week. Today, it takes a year.

Researchers are beginning to understand the importance of oyster reefs in protecting coastal areas. Along with coral reefs, wetlands, dunes, and other coastal habitats, oyster reefs actually help prevent erosion, reduce the impact of storm surges, and protect against sea level rise. In fact, part of New York City’s $19-billion-dollar plan to combat the effects of climate change includes building large underwater oyster reefs around the harbor.

Over time, oyster populations have been devastated by overfishing, disease, pollution, habitat destruction, and urban runoff. NOAA reports that the oyster population of the Chesapeake today is less than 1 percent of its historical level. In fact, oyster harvesting peaked in the 1880s, when 20 million bushels were harvested in a single year. In 2012, only 135,000 bushels were harvested from the Bay…less than one percent of those historic levels.

Still, all hope is not lost, and efforts are underway to solve the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster problem. These include an ambitious plan to restore oyster populations throughout the area by spreading hundreds of thousands of tons of granite and old oyster shells along Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River. Shells seeded with baby oysters are then placed on this substrate using a high-pressure hose. Then, nature is left to do its work. Watch this video to learn more about the project:

The Chesapeake Bay region isn’t the only one looking to improve the prospects for oysters. In New Jersey, for example, an advocacy group called ReClam the Bay is caring for seven oyster nurseries in the hopes of helping populations in Barnegat Bay to recover. Protected nurseries allow the oysters to grow without the risk of predators dining on them. Visitors are welcome to come by these nurseries and get their hands wet in what ReClam the Bay hopes will be an educational opportunity that will encourage people to make better choices for the health of the shellfish populations and the bay.

Out on the West Coast, efforts to save Oregon’s only native oyster species, the Olympia, have proven largely successful. Though previously declared “functionally extinct,” after 8 years of work by the Nature Conservancy and watermen, the 1.5 million oysters now inhabiting Netarts Bay seem to be reproducing successfully.

In Maryland, a “No Shell Left Behind” oyster recycling tax credit of one dollar a bushel became official on July 1. Its aim is to encourage the recycling of valuable oyster shells to help restore oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay. Empty shells, which are necessary for hatcheries to replenish the oyster population, are extremely valuable, as each shell can host up to 10 young oysters, known as “spat.”

You can play a part in this, too! Whether by recycling oyster shells, participating in Chesapeake Bay conservation events, or even running in next year’s “Sprint for Spat” 5K race, sponsored by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, get involved! A healthy oyster population helps us all.

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