Dr. Richard Kirby takes a reading as part of his global Secchi Disk Project.
Dr. Richard Kirby takes a reading as part of his global Secchi Disk Project.
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Citizen Plankton Science! Join the Secchi Disk Project (and be Extremely Awesome)

Categories: Guest Posters

So, you want to be a marine biologist but you have no training? No problem, as long as you’ve been to the eye doctor lately. Don’t have all that expensive equipment? All you’ll need is little more than your smart phone. Forget the endless hours of studying and the late nights analyzing data… Dr. Richard Kirby is giving you an easy and fun chance to contribute, and on a really important project.

Dr. Kirby is a scientist across the pond at Plymouth University’s Marine Institute and he studies plankton. We’ve taken a close look at plankton recently, both the plant and the animal variety. These sea-drifters are responsible for at least half of the oxygen we breathe, and they lie at the base of a food chain that produces hundreds of millions of tons of food for us. Their importance cannot be overstated.

But how do you study a group of organisms that are so small in size and so large in number? Well, it’s not easy, especially when you’re trying to determine the amount of phytoplankton on a global scale. Some have tried, and a widely publicized report from Nature found that phytoplankton numbers have been declining over the past century, an alarming finding given their importance. But the study has been hotly contested, and the only certain fact coming from the debate is that we need more information.

And that’s where you come in. Dr. Kirby figures the best way to get more information is to enlist the help of the roughly 7 billion amateur-scientists that may already be out at sea, whether it be working, sport fishing, or just pleasure cruising. He has developed a free mobile phone app that allows you to easily record a measure of plankton abundance from anywhere in the ocean.

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The system is based around a simple little device that marine scientists have been using since 1865: the Secchi disk. Named after its inventor, Father Pietro Angelo Secchi, a Secchi disk is basically just a weighted white disk attached to a tape measure (instructions on how to make one can be found here). You lower the disk into the water and record the depth at which it disappears from sight. That is called the Secchi depth and it gives scientists a measure of how much plankton is in the water. If the water has a lot of plankton, it’ll be tougher to see the disk, and it will disappear from sight at a shallower depth.

After you determine a Secchi depth you enter it into the free Secchi App, which records your location along with the measurements that you made. All of this information is stored on your phone and passed along to Dr. Kirby once you get an internet connection. Voilà! You’re part of a major study to help figure out the changes that our world’s oceans are going through. You can even check out the data coming in from all over the world!

Our technological advances and changing climate have intersected to make this the perfect time for such an ambitious study. Dr. Kirby notes “This app enables seafarers around the world to take part in a science project and if we can just get a small percentage of the global population of sailors involved, we can generate a database that will help us understand how life in the oceans is changing. It would help us learn much more about these important organisms at a crucial time when their habitat is altering due to climate change.”

So next time you’re heading out to sea, make sure to bring your Secchi disk and your phone, and help us to understand what’s happening to our global ocean. While you’re at it, put a picture of you doing your citizen science on our Facebook page so everyone knows how awesome you are!

Casey Diederich is a 5th year PhD candidate in Tuft’s University’s Biology Department, and is conducting his research on slipper-shell snails. We are thrilled to have Casey guest blogging for us about some of the more fascinating plants and animals in our ocean. – Ed.

Longfin squid in the Gulf of Maine. One of many amazing Skerry images featured at Ocean Awareness Week.
Longfin squid in the Gulf of Maine. One of many amazing Skerry images featured at Ocean Awareness Week.
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Mark Your Calendars: Ocean Awareness Week is Coming to NH’s Seacoast!

Here at Conservation Law Foundation, we would like every week to be Ocean Awareness Week. So, when our friends at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, New Hampshire and The Music Hall in Portsmouth told us that they were planning a week of local activities and events dedicated to everything ocean this October, we were all over it. CLF is very proud to sponsor the first annual Ocean Awareness Week, alongside The Music Hall, the Seacoast Science Center, Gundalow Company and Kent Stephens’ Stage Force.

Ocean Awareness Week aims to bring attention to the importance of healthy oceans with a particular focus on the Gulf of Maine and the role of arts and culture in promoting sustainability. CLF has long been a leader in protecting the Gulf of Maine and its coastal treasures like the Great Bay estuary. CLF’s New England Ocean Odyssey campaign, which aims to engage New Englanders in caring for their oceans and coasts through photography, is a perfect fit with Ocean Awareness Week’s focus on art to promote ocean and coastal awareness.

Ocean Awareness Week kicks off at the Seacoast Science Center on Sunday, October 6 with two screenings of the film, Ocean Frontiers at 11 AM and 2PM. Produced by Karen Meyers, Ocean Frontiers shows how the many users of the ocean, from fishermen to shippers to farmers, are solving challenging problems affecting our busy oceans by working together. The film tells fascinating stories of the innovative solutions that these stakeholders have created out of shared concern for the future of one of our most precious of natural resources. Following each screening, Seacoast Science Center President, Wendy Lull, and CLF’s Director of Ocean Conservation, Dr. Priscilla Brooks, will host a question and answer session for attendees.

Meanwhile, Seacoast Science Center visitors can get a close up look at the amazing wildlife that lives in New England’s ocean through the lens of renowned underwater photographer, Brian Skerry. Skerry, a New England native whose arresting photographs have graced the pages (and many covers!) of National Geographic magazine, has partnered with CLF to bring attention to the mysteries of New England’s ocean through the New England Ocean Odyssey. For the first time at the Center, Skerry’s exclusive photographs for CLF will be displayed together, revealing surprising facets of ocean life that cement our bond with these remote creatures and reinforce our will to protect their home.

Skerry’s photos will be displayed alongside the work of several other local photographers who love diving in New England’s ocean and sharing what they see in her murky depths. The works chosen for the exhibit are winners of New England Ocean Odyssey’s monthly photo contest, which Skerry helps to judge. The New England Ocean Odyssey photo exhibit will run through December. Visitors to the Center can pick up free postcards of Skerry’s photographs and other CLF literature.

Later in the week, CLF will take more of Skerry’s photos on the road to several Ocean Awareness Week events. Our traveling team of New England ocean and coastal experts will be on hand to talk about CLF’s work and answer questions at the following events and locations:

  • Wednesday, October 9 from 4:30-6:30 PM, Gundalow Company VIP Boat Cruise

The Dock at Prescott Park, at the end of Water Street, Portsmouth

CLF’s new Great-Bay Piscataqua Waterkeeper, Jeff Barnum, will be a featured speaker on this educational outing aboard the Piscataqua about the Gulf of Maine and our marine ecosystem. The cruise is free for VIP Reception Ticket holders. Space is limited. For reservations call Gundalow Company at 603-433-9505.

  • Saturday, October 12 at The Music Hall Historic Theater

4PM: Nationally recognized storyteller Jay O’Callahan performs the story of Richard Wheeler’s epic kayak journey tracing the path of the now extinct sea bird, The Great Auk.

5PM: Portsmouth Ocean Prize ceremony honoring Richard Wheeler

6:15 PM: VIP reception at The Loft at the Music Hall

Open to VIP seating and reception ticket holders.

Tickets to all Music Hall events may be purchased online at The Music Hall website. Prices vary. View the full itinerary of events and pricing.

Our Ocean Awareness Week team includes, in addition to Dr. Brooks:

Tom Irwin, Director of CLF New Hampshire, Robin Just, Ocean Communications Associate, Leah Fine, Ocean Program Assistant, Jeff Barnum, CLF’s Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper.

We hope you’ll come visit with us as you enjoy Ocean Awareness Week!

Blue whale with calf. Image credit Andreas Tille.
Blue whale with calf. Image credit Andreas Tille.
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Blue whale ears – more than meets the eye

What’s the first animal that comes to mind when you think of New England’s ocean? Cod? Striped bass? Maybe great white sharks? For me, lately, it’s been the biggest of all the animals that have ever existed – the blue whale. Bigger than any dinosaur that ever pounded the planet or huge ancient shark* that patrolled the warm, primordial sea, their tongues alone weigh as much as an elephant. These leviathans can weigh over 300,000 pounds. You could swim through their heart (but please don’t try).

We may not see them very often, but these endangered animals cruise by here pretty regularly. Why? They take advantage of our very productive waters to fatten up on tiny shrimp-like krill for their long migration from near the poles toward the equator.

Like some of our other, more frequently encountered leviathans, the North Atlantic right whales, blue whales head south for the winter to have their huge babies, but there’s not enough to eat down there (why do you think the water is so clear?), so they head back up when the calves are ready to travel.

Let’s talk about those huge calves for a minute. They measure over 20 feet long, drink about 150 gallons of milk each day from a mother who is on a diet (due to the poor feeding options in the warm calving grounds), and they double in length within 6 months.

That’s all pretty cool, but I know what you’re thinking – why I haven’t talked about anything weird or gross yet? Well, here it is, hot of the presses, new whale ear wax science!

Blue whales’ ears make a long, candle-stick shaped plug of wax throughout the whales lifetime (see below). Scientist are unsure of its function – it might help the whale hear better by channeling the low frequency noises they communicate with to the eardrum.

 

The whale earplug used in the study. Photo credit: Baylor.edu http://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=132825

The whale earplug used in the study. Photo credit: Baylor.edu

 

The wax has “rings” like a tree trunk. There are darker colored rings when the whale is migrating and eating very little, and lighter colored ones when the whale is feasting. This can give scientists big clues about the age of the animal when they harvest the wax from already dead animals. Already pretty interesting, right? But when two scientists at Baylor University recently dug into the biochemistry of the earplug – a novel picture started to emerge.

The wax carries a chemical record of the whale’s life, arranged by year. Hormones produced in the whale’s body are archived in the wax. So the researchers were able to put together never-before recorded pattern of yearly reproductive development and production of stress hormones. Not only that, but pollutants like mercury and pesticides can also be detected in the earplug, giving researchers an idea of what year the whale was exposed to them.

“You have this 100-year-old question: How are we impacting these animals? There is ship traffic, environmental noise, climate change and contaminants. Now, we are able to provide definitive answers by analyzing whale earwax plugs,” said Dr. Sascha Usenko, one of the scientists who developed this technique.

The best part – while the science being used to study the ear wax is new, scientists have been collecting the ear plugs for decades from animals that have been found all over the world. So, knowing the date an animal was found and its age, researchers can figure out what kinds of chemicals the animal was exposed to and possibly link this to our activities on land (for example, increased coal burning or pesticide use), helping us piece together just how much we’re changing this big pond of ours. And, hopefully, we can think even more about how to stop dumping so much ick into our air and water.

Whatever we decide to do with the knowledge – this is a huge new story about the ocean just waiting to be told, from the whales’ ears to ours.

* Please note: megalodons are very extinct, regardless of the Discovery Channels claims to the contrary.

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Ocean Art at its Finest – The Smithsonian Brings It

Categories: Events/Calendar

Soul-enriching opportunity alert! Two very beautiful, very different new exhibits are going on display next week at my favorite Hall of Wonders – the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Starting Tuesday, September 17th, twenty of Brian Skerry’s most breathtaking and thought-provoking photographs will be featured in a “Portraits of Planet Ocean” exhibit on the 1st floor of Sant Ocean Hall.

Skerry said this about the upcoming exhibit, “I am deeply honored to have an exhibit of my work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. This creatively designed show will bring visitors into the sea for an intimate look at marine wildlife while highlighting environmental threats and the value of conservation. The show gives a fresh, new perspective to the photographs and I am excited about continuing to reach new audiences about the magnificence of the sea!”

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian asked people to vote for the Skerry image that best represents a “Vanishing World” theme for the display, and the winners have been chosen. I’m happy to see that some “charismatic microfauna” made the cut, in addition to the very compelling seal, manatee, and whale photographs.

Speaking of charismatic microfauna, both Skerry and fine artist Corneila Kubler Kavanagh will be featured in “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” also in the Sant Ocean Hall.

Kavanagh has brought the tiny sea butterfly into our visible world with her soaring, elegant sculptures. She has been collaborating with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution ocean acidification researcher Gareth Lawson to capture the movement and importance of these imperiled animals, who are showing signs of extreme stress as our seas rapidly change.

Pteropods, planktonic animals including the sea butterflies and their arch-nemesis the sea angels, are some of the most essential prey items in the ocean. As our guest plankton reporter Casey Deiderich said last week, “If the phytoplankton are at the base of the food chain, then the zooplankton are at the first rung.”

Hopefully, this special show can help people understand what is at stake so we can find the political will to dial up our national efforts to combat climate change. Not only that, but if you don’t have a boat and a microscope you may never get to see a pteropod in person, so don’t miss this opportunity to gaze upon their ethereal beauty in these two exhibits.

As if this all wasn’t enough reason to make haste to the Smithsonian, did you know they have two giant squid there? My family had to drag me away when we visited a few years ago. I could have poked around the ocean exhibits for days. And there was only one giant squid then.

We are heading to DC again next month and good luck getting me out of the Ocean Hall this time, because in addition to 100% more giant squid, there is now a high concentration of beautiful ocean art to be lingered over. My kids can head to the Air and Space Museum without me.

Larvae of the spider crab (Maja squinado), the angular crab (Goneplax rhomboides) and the thumbnail crab(Thia scutellata). Each could sit comfortably on the head of a pin. Images copyright of Dr Richard Kirby, Plymouth University. These and other images can be found in the book on plankton, "Ocean Drifters, a secret world beneath the waves."
www.oceandrifters.org
Larvae of the spider crab (Maja squinado), the angular crab (Goneplax rhomboides) and the thumbnail crab(Thia scutellata). Each could sit comfortably on the head of a pin. Images copyright of Dr Richard Kirby, Plymouth University. These and other images can be found in the book on plankton, "Ocean Drifters, a secret world beneath the waves." www.oceandrifters.org
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Not Your Average Drifter – Plankton Part II

Categories: Guest Posters

Last week we met some of our most important New England residents – the phytoplankton. Now, we are happy to introduce their animal counterparts – the zooplankton. These animals drift around in the sea in truly astonishing number and form . If you missed our post on their plant partners – the phytoplankton – you can find it here. Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.

Okay? Well, those phytoplankton are extremely productive, and they’re eaten by many animals, most of which fall into the category of “zooplankton.”

Microscopic or massive, if you’re an animal that can’t swim against the current you’re part of the zooplankton. Some of these animals drift in the water their entire lives. These are what we scientists (who enjoy inventing and using large words) call the holoplankton (holo = entire, plankton = wanderer). The copepods are a perfect example of this.

Copepods may be the most abundant animal group on the planet, and although they contain considerable diversity, most of them are holoplanktonic. They are also usually gonorchoristic (I know, again with the huge words), which means they come in both the male and female variety. When two of them get together, so to speak, the fertilized egg will develop through many larval stages, until they finally metamorphose into the adult form. But all the way through this life cycle – egg to adult – the copepod will remain drifting along in the water.

The same is true for countless other animals, from the familiar jelly to the bizarre Phronima. All of them spending a life adrift, in a world that seems more like science fiction than reality.

Contrast this to members of the meroplankton (meros = partial), who spend only a portion of their lives in the water column. These animals may not be so foreign to you, as most of the meroplankton are the larval forms of animals that we know and love (and love to eat!). These animals drift around as larvae until they metamorphose and become large enough to swim against the current (at which point they are said to be “nektonic” – like a fast-swimming fish), or until they settle to a life on the sea floor (these animals are “benthic” – like a snail or mussel).

Most fish have larvae, as do barnacles, urchins, lobsters, mollusks, and many others. Some have giant spikes coming out of their heads, others look like flying saucers. But the fact that free-living larval stages exist in most marine animals means that they are (or were) evolutionarily important. Perhaps they evolved for dispersal – to avoid competition or inbreeding. Or maybe larvae evolved as a means to temporarily avoid predation on the sea floor… in truth, we don’t know for sure why the larval form evolved.

What we do know is that they are extremely abundant, and together with the holoplankton they make up an undeniably important and enormous group of animals. If the phytoplankton are at the base of the food chain, then the zooplankton are at the first rung. They are so massive in number that they can sustain huge populations of larger animals, some as large as our own North Atlantic right whales, which filter copepods, krill, and other zooplankton out of the water. But some zooplankton are eaten by their tiny buddies (other carnivorous plankton, like some fish larvae), which can make the marine food web a bit complicated.

And though they can’t swim against the current, they’re on the move. Their ecological importance makes the news of a study showing that climate change has caused dramatic shifts in the distribution of many planktonic species troubling. In the study, the investigators found that phytoplankton and zooplankton were two of the groups whose distribution was changing the quickest. As the authors’ of the study state, “species’ interactions and marine ecosystem functions may be substantially reorganized at the regional scale, potentially triggering a range of cascading effects.”

Translation: As the great drifter Bob Dylan said, “The times they are a changin’.” But that doesn’t mean you have to sit idly by… “If your time to you is worth savin’” then find out how you can help.

Up next in our plankton series – we’ll talk about a really cool citizen science plankton project you can get involved in using little more than your smart phone. Stay tuned!

Casey Diederich is a 5th year PhD candidate in Tuft’s University’s Biology Department, and is conducting his research on slipper-shell snails. We are thrilled to have Casey guest blogging for us about some of the more fascinating plants and animals in our ocean. – Ed.