Posts Tagged 'NPR'

A Blue View: Floating Forests

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.

April 16, 2014: Floating Forests

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss
the important role mangrove forests
play in the health of our oceans!

Gardeners in Maryland know that most trees in our temperate climate don’t like having wet feet. And water that’s salty? Forget about it. Around here, having tree roots submerged in saltwater is guaranteed to kill off your landscaping.

But far south of the Chesapeake, fringing tropical and subtropical coastlines, there exist floating forests of mangroves, whose roots grow in a luxuriant tangle at the ocean’s edge. And there, they thrive.

Botanists call the 50 species of mangroves halophylic, or “salt loving.” Mangroves have adapted to putting down roots where other plants can’t: in areas inundated daily by the tide; in thin, nutrient-poor, low-oxygen soils; and in water that varies from fresh to brackish to salty. Just how much salt can mangroves tolerate? Well, typical seawater has a salinity of 35 parts per thousand; in other words, about 35 grams of salt for every liter of sea water. Some species of mangroves can survive in salinities of more than 90 parts per thousand!

To thrive in this salty abundance, these plants need strategies to clear the excess salt. Some species excrete it through glands in their leaves. Others use their roots.

The weird, knobby roots of mangroves actually make traveling to paradise for a tropical vacation possible—tough, woody evergreen mangroves stabilize the soil and prevent many islands from simply washing away.

Thank the mangroves, too, for the colorful diversity of fish and invertebrates you see on your next coral reef dive. Many oceanic and coral reef fish—including snapper, tarpon and lobster—spawn in the nursery provided by the mangrove’s submerged tangle of roots. A mangrove forest is a rich hub of biodiversity, supporting a unique ecosystem of bacteria, plants, mammals, amphibians, invertebrates and birds—some found nowhere else.

Earth’s largest mangrove forest—the Sunderbans of India and Bangladesh—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to at least 250 species of birds, endangered estuarine crocodiles and even Bengal tigers!

In North America, mangrove swamps are found throughout the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas. The largest mangrove forest in the United States is in Florida’s aptly named Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. This special place is home to many endangered species, including West Indian Manatees, and clouds of scarlet ibis and white pelicans.

The scarlet ibis typically inhabits mangrove swamps ranging from northern South America southward along the coast of Brazil, occasionally making visits in Florida.

The scarlet ibis typically inhabits mangrove swamps ranging from northern South America southward along the coast of Brazil, occasionally making visits in Florida.

Although mangrove forests host so-called “charismatic megafauna” like manatees and tigers, truly their greatest treasure may be the thick mud of mangrove leaf litter—fertile with bacteria and fungi—that accumulates in the water below the trees. There, detritivores, like crabs and other animals, feed on decaying leaf litter and contribute to a complex food web that begins, literally, in the mud.

Other microfauna encrust the mangrove’s submerged roots, including a profusion of filter feeding mussels and barnacles. Like Chesapeake’s oysters, mangrove barnacles efficiently filter pollutants from the water.

These crustaceans and mollusks in turn support populations of shrimp and fish that are economically important to Gulf of Mexico fisheries. So, the next time you’re dining on sustainably-caught shrimp, take a moment to thank a mangrove for your meal.

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A Blue View: Clownfish

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.

April 9, 2014: Clownfish

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss
clownfish and the important role
they play in the health of coral reefs!

Parents of young children know a thing or two about clownfish. These adorable orange and white fish rocketed to stardom in the animated classic Finding Nemo, which featured an adventurous clownfish hero.

Finding Nemo

Clownfish popularity, however, extends far beyond the preschool set. The movie led to an upswing in their demand within the exotic pet trade – they are now one of the most popular saltwater aquarium fish.

That was the downside of the Nemo-effect. The upside? More people became interested in coral reef conservation. It is an ecosystem of tremendous importance, fragility and interdependence, and clownfish are an indicator species for reef health.

Further, they are truly fascinating creatures. When Nemo’s dad, Marlin, names all of the eggs Marlin Junior, the moviemakers got the science right: all clown fish are born male. Many fish species are able to change sex, almost always from female to male. But the clownfish is different, changing gender only to become the dominant female of the group, and that change is irreversible. In a clownfish group living in an anemone the largest fish is female, the second largest a male. They are the mating pair.

But the adventure story of Nemo’s dad traveling far and wide to find his son? Unscientific. In the wild, clownfish never venture far from their anemone. It’s home…and pantry. It’s this interdependence that has earned the fish their full name: the anemone clownfish.

national aquarium clownfish

The relationship between anemones and anemone clownfish is a classic oceanic partnership of mutualism.

In science, mutualism is defined as a relationship between two species in which both benefit from the association. In fact, clownfish and anemones probably couldn’t live without each other, which qualifies them as “obligate symbionts.”

They couldn’t be more different, yet they need each other to survive. The clownfish is a vertebrate, while a sea anemone is an invertebrate, closely related to corals and jellyfish. And like them, its sting is deadly to most other creatures.

So how does the clownfish manage to live among the anemone’s lethal tentacles? Well, very cautiously. As the clownfish gets to know its anemone, it does an elaborate ballet of tentative darting movements, touching the anemone’s stinging tentacles gently, working up immunity and a protective layer of mucus.

Once they’ve acclimated to each other, they eat each other’s food scraps. The anemone’s tentacles provide the clownfish with protection from predators. The clownfish protects the anemone from predators like the butterfly fish and nibbles the anemone free of parasites. Cozy, right?

But scientists have recently discovered that there is additional complexity to the relationship.

The anemone benefits from the clownfish’s ammonia-rich waste. It’s like anemone fertilizer: it helps the animal grow.

After all, a bigger anemone is better for both; its larger tentacles can snare larger, more nutritious prey and the clownfish gets better leftovers and more spacious living quarters.

There’s also a fascinating nocturnal half to the anemone-clownfish routine. Scientists used to think that at night the clownfish snuggled quietly inside the anemone. But Dr. Nanette Chadwick and her team at Auburn University recently discovered that the clownfish moves around more than was suspected, reminiscent of a dog trying to get comfortable on its dog bed.

The clownfish’s movements oxygenate the water deep within the anemone’s tangle of tentacles. In effect, the clownfish helps the anemone breathe.

Clownfish and anemones literally cannot live without one another. In the sea, as in Hollywood, they call that chemistry!

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A Blue View: A Free Spring Chorus, Courtesy of Frogs

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.

April 2, 2014: The Sounds of Spring Peepers & Wood Frogs

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss the
chorus of sounds produced by frogs to
attract mates during the breeding season!

Through the winter, woodlands and meadows are mostly quiet at night. But with the arrival of spring rains and warming temperatures, that silence is broken by loud choruses of wood frogs and spring peepers. These are the first frog species to come out of hibernation and begin the year’s amphibian breeding season.

Spring peepers are small, just one inch in length, but you wouldn’t know it from their sound. Each peeper can produce a call as loud as 90 decibels. Multiply that by the number of frogs in a wetland habitat, and you have a sound that can rival that of a rock concert.

Spring Peeper

Photo of spring peeper via Wiki Commons.

Why so noisy? That’s how the male spring peepers attract females from the surrounding woodlands. As the females come out of hibernation, they are carrying between 200 and 1,000 eggs, and the females are outnumbered by the males at about 9 to 1. Competition is intense, and females choose males based on the quality of his song.

Because of this competition, males wrestle for the best spots at the chorusing site. Interestingly, Dr. Don Forester and David Lykens of Towson University discovered that some spring peeper males were successful in breeding with females through a very deceptive strategy. Because calling requires a huge amount of energy, some spring peeper males, known as satellite males, don’t call at all.

Instead, these satellite males save energy by positioning themselves near the top singers. They then intercept females moving toward the calling males. Satellite males are smaller than calling males and would probably be at a disadvantage in trying to attract females with a less impressive voice.

Though the spring peeper is often considered the first frog to emerge from hibernation and therefore an early sign that winter is indeed over, the wood frog is usually ahead of the peeper. In fact, in mild winters, wood frogs have been observed arriving in woodland pools as early as February.

Wood Frog

Photo of a wood frog via Wiki Commons.

Wood frogs are often referred to as “explosive breeders” because they arrive in large numbers and have a short breeding season, usually only lasting the first few weeks of late winter or early spring. Wood frogs almost exclusively lay their eggs in vernal pools, which are small temporary bodies of water that form in depressions.

Because these pools dry over the summer, wood frogs must lay their eggs, the eggs must hatch, and tadpoles must fully develop and metamorphose before the pools dry. The wood frog’s strategy is to arrive first and maximize the time needed to make it the entire way through the process. Wood frog tadpoles often dine on the newly laid eggs of later arriving frog species.

Even as these frogs perpetuate their life cycle, they do face challenges. Their well-being is intricately linked to the survival of their woodland home and their vernal pools. Be considerate of these habitats in your neighborhood by preventing trash and other pollution from traveling through your waterways. Slow down while driving on warm spring nights, allowing amphibians to migrate safely across roadways. And when you pay these amazing creatures a visit in their natural habitat, observe but don’t disturb.

Want to buff up a bit more on your amphibian knowledge? Check out our latest infographic on all things frog

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A Blue View: Why Turtle Rescue is Important

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.

March 26, 2014: Why Turtle Rescue is Important

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John and Jenn Dittmar
discuss her team’s important work to
support the conservation of sea turtles!

Did you know that every species of sea turtle in US waters is endangered?

Preserving these amazing and essential sea creatures is of the utmost importance. Every year, our Manager of Animal Rescue, Jenn Dittmar, and her team respond, rehabilitate and release numerous sea turtles found stranded along the East Coast.

national aquarium animal rescue turtle

This year has been another busy season for our Animal Rescue team, with 19 turtles currently being rehabilitated in our facility! Over the last three months, many of our patients have been treated for critical conditions, including: fungal and bacterial pneumonias, infections in their flipper joints and severe shell lesions.

Eleven turtles are now ready for release back into the wild. Aquarium staff is now working with our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the state of Florida to schedule a release date.

Get the full story of Chipper, Goose, and Jester, and learn more about their upcoming journey back home.

Want to learn more about what’s threatening sea turtles and what you can do to help? Listen to this week’s interview

national aquarium CEO john racanelli

A Blue View: Inside Giant Clams

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.

March 5, 2014: Inside Giant Clams

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss
the awesome giant clam!

In the vastness of the ocean, there are many so-called animal to animal symbionts, seemingly odd-fellow relationships from which both species benefit. Finding Nemo made famous one such partnership, that of the clownfish and anemone.

But what about symbiosis between an animal and a plant? Or more specifically, a plant-like alga called zooxanthellae? It’s a surprisingly common phenomenon, especially in the shallows of warm equatorial reefs where there’s abundant light for photosynthesis. Corals, jellies, even sea slugs participate.

And so does Tridacna gigas, the giant clam of the Indo-Pacific, the largest bivalve mollusk on Earth and the world’s only sun-powered clam.
The giant clam hosts a thick layer of zooxanthellae in its tissues and gets up to 90 percent of its nutrition from their photosynthesis. Imagine if we could do that? Just stand outside on a sunny day and photosynthesize? That’s pretty close to a free lunch.

giant clam

The giant clam does its part, too, by providing the zooxanthellae with a habitat protected from hungry predators.

During the day, the giant clam extends its mantle tissue, allowing sunlight to reach the zooxanthellae. In fact, full-size giant clams cannot fully close their shells. You’re less likely to get your foot stuck in a giant clam like in one those ‘50s-style horror movies than to get a hernia from trying to pick one up.

Because of their symbiotic relationship with the zooxanthellae, giant clams can photosynthesize their food like plants, even as they carnivorously filter feed, sieving out plankton from the water as all clams do. No Omnivore’s Dilemma for the giant clam.

And with this abundance of nutrition, giant clams have gone turbo—at least in terms of size. Giant clams grow and grow. In the wild, they can reach a length of four feet, weigh up to 500 pounds, and live for a hundred years.

Scientists have also discovered the giant clam can even “farm” its zooxanthellae. At night, specialized cells called amebocytes search out and digest old algal cells, keeping the “farm” clean and healthy, and in the process aiding the entire reef. The giant clam’s vigorous filtering keeps reef water crystal clear and free of fouling organisms.

But these giants are becoming rare, and near some Pacific Islands, are already locally extinct.

There is a huge demand for every single part of the giant clam. For Pacific Islanders, who rely on the ocean’s bounty for most of their diet, giant clams have been a traditional food source for millennia. The clam’s mantle and dried abductor muscle are considered a delicacy in Asia.

Further, every year approximately 200,000 live giant clams are taken for the ornamental aquarium trade. Their shells are, of course, sought-after as souvenirs. The zooxanthellae make the clam’s mantle look glamorous, in hues of electric blue to malachite green. Each clam’s pattern is unique and has long caught the eye of humans.

To save the giant clam, and the reefs on which they make their home, mariculturists are learning to farm them on Fiji and other islands, much the same way oysters are raised in the Chesapeake Bay. The goal is to reintroduce them into the wild, where they can filter and photosynthesize to their hybrid heart’s content. As happy as clams.

national aquarium CEO john racanelli


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