‘Living the meme’

My dear friend Emma was enjoying some zoology memes – such a thing does, in fact, exist – and with memories of the vivid descriptions with which I documented my plight during the sample processing for my dissertation, created me this.


(“The lingering scent of the mud. That’s what got me. The way you said you could smell it on you for days.”)


Amsterdam, a minke whale, and the importance of citizen science

IMG_0943 Applications for ORCA’s Marine Mammal survey routes for this year just closed, and I applied for approximately all of them.

ORCA is a charity dedicated – so its tagline says – to ‘Looking Out For Whales and Dolphins’. What this means in practice is that trained members are able to piggy back, as it were, on ferries and cruises that cross the oceans in regular patterns at regular times. By carrying out marine mammal surveys from these ships with consistent methodologies they build a picture of cetacean species’ – at the very least relative – estimated populations, spatial and temporal ranges, and behaviours around boat activity.

I became a member after I took part in one of their training days December the year before last; once you’ve done so and paid up, you get the ability apply to take part in any of their UK or European survey trips. For free!

Last year I applied, and was lucky enough to be chosen for their Newcastle-Amsterdam route. Only two weeks before I jetted off to Malaysia I went up, visited some family, and then sailed the North Sea for two days. The journey takes a full day and night each way (in which we surveyed) and gave us the better part of five hours in Amsterdam (in which we went on holiday).

You have contact with your allocated team beforehand, organising who will bring the travel kettle and checking that everyone’s trains were arriving in on time, but when I eventually met them in person I could not have hoped for a better group of people to take me under their wing for my first survey. We got on brilliantly. Our fantastic team of ladies was headed by Marion, with Jenny and Bethany having both done a number of surveys between them; I was a proper newbie.

After meeting, in short order we were aboard our vessel the DFDS Princess Seaways, which acts as both transport ferry and mini-cruise, wherein people can do what we were doing as self-contained holiday (this meant that we got to enjoy the provided onboard entertainment when we allowed ourselves a drink in the bar on the second night, who I recall a few of our number finding rather dishy).

The surveying itself is pretty intense. You are constantly scanning the horizon, alternating between the wide field of view afforded by your eyes and the magnification of the binoculars, the later being pretty mycg your only hope of spotting a porpoise. If you do make a sighting, everyone has to be alerted and people scramble to their battle stations, grabbing data off instruments, using the sighting board to take a bearing, and making as many notes as to behaviour and movement as you possibly can.

Though you rotate effort positions (half an hour starboard, scribe, half an hour port, rest) you are on effort as long as the sun is up, and weather and sea conditions remain suitable that you won’t be missing any small cetaceans between big waves. This gave us approximately ten hours sighting time a day, meaning we became both very familiar with and very fond of the bridge. IMG_0947 Ferry bridges are rather plush, all dark wood and gold edging. The contrast of incredibly high tech equipment (which we used only to check the time, and hence were probably underutilising) with the chart tables was incredibly charming, and Captain Jasper Bern gave us a very warm welcome and didn’t seem to mind us sharing he and his crew’s tea and coffee supplies too much.

I did like taking my breaks outside, though. For obvious reasons. I can’t quite explain how breathtaking a towering offshore wind farm is from the middle of it.

As an aside, Amsterdam itself won my heart. It felt like a combination of Venice and the Shire, if such a thing were to exist, and I am desperate to go back. We wandered the twisting streets, went on canal boat tour, drank coffee, and got caught in a torrential downpour while buying fresh bread and smoked cheese from one of the city’s many markets.

IMG_0914 IMG_0886 IMG_0897 IMG_0922 Then we got back on the boat, and surveyed all the way back home.

You can read the official report of our survey on the ORCA website, but it was an amazing experience to say the least. I personally sighted five of the harbour porpoises that made our survey record, and though I was on rest and the official sighting technically went to Marion, I got to watch a minke whale do a long roll at the surface before taking a dive. There were also a plethora of sea birds which would ride the air currents around the ship, our favourites of which were gannets; if you spot one diving, it’s a good place to keep you binoculars trained since any number of dolphins or porpoises might be cashing in on a shoal of fish.

ORCA is only one organisation that utilises everyday volunteers with a marine interest to help collect sighting data. Another is SeaWatch, the freely available public data of which Jess and I handled at length for our project in Malaysia, and which has driven me to think a lot on this topic of late.

SeaWatch takes sighting data, but in a far less quality controlled manner than ORCA. In fact, it is almost entirely unquantitative. The sightings are sent in by regular members of the public who’ve spotted a whale or dolphin while out and about. Even if someone makes the same route to walk their dog each and every morning, that doesn’t exactly constitute a regular survey transect. Estimating populations from surveys are all about a constant search effort in certain spot over a given time, augmented with other known information, such as the regularity with which the animals need to breathe. You don’t exactly get that with a lot of volunteer data – it’s more like, ’10 past 2, Dave saw a dolphin near the lighthouse’.

But that is not to say this data is not useful, not by any means. Some of the SeaWatch data does have very good temporal coverage, particularly for the South West, where regular whale watching cruise trips record the exact time and location of every sighting made. That’s essentially a 12 hour dedicated marine mammal survey, each and every day.

What’s more, studying the data really does reveal some unexpected things. Assuming that laypeople are identifying these species correctly – which is, unfortunately, a fairly significant assumption – then these data really do have the potential to inform what we understand about the distribution patterns of species around our coast. One of Jess and I’s most interesting take homes from our time in Malaysia and playing with their database is that, though the South China sea has a far greater species richness than anything closer to home, the regularity with which they see most of them is pretty low. A two-day survey with ORCA almost always sees the species the North Sea has to offer. Out of the packet of information on 50 species we got prior to a week on the boat in Malaysia, we saw one.

All of this is negligible, however, when you consider one thing. That the people doing this whale watching, this surveying, are just everyday people. People who are thinking keenly about not just the existence of whales and dolphins in our waters, but whether they are maintaing healthy populations. That conservation is more than simply an animal’s presence. Even if it is only for a free trip, people who otherwise might be barely interested in cetacean sightings are given the opportunity to see first hand exactly the kinds of creatures that need monitoring and protecting. It’s hard to remain indifferent to a cause when you see it up close. Citizen sighting schemes increase public awareness, in a very involved way.

Some peer-reviewed literature actively encourages them for that very reason, especially as, in this case, the data collected revealed previously unknown seasonal dynamics in a Sardinian basking shark population. Casual, low-cost science can produce valid findings, findings that can go on to help manage and conserve populations.

Though the ability of data collected by volunteers to inform real scientific study is unquestioned, it is also entirely reasonable to say that the greatest strength of ORCA, SeaWatch, and all those projects like them is that they have the capacity to increase public awareness, and bring investment of not simply money, but time, effort and enthusiasm into the monitoring and conservation of the whale and dolphins that live around the UK.

I’ll send you a postcard from Amsterdam.

Cone snail venom contains insulin

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 13.21.19Photograph by Design Pics Inc.

The geographic cone snail, Conus geographus, is the most venous cone snail, and one of the most venomous animals on the planet; human fatality rates are as high as 65%, from doses of 0.038-0.029 mg/kg.

While some cone snails feed rapidly by impaling prey with harpoon-like teeth that deploy this venom, others feed by extension of a distended ‘false mouth’ acting as a feeding net. This is a slow process, limited in its effectiveness as prey fish must be unaware of the cone snail’s presence, or chemically sedated, to ensure their capture.

Discovery of specialised insulins in the venom complexes of Conus geographus and its congener Conus tulipa, in a study published by Safavi-Hemami et al. in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 20th, is thought to supply such sedation. When injected into fish, the venom and insulin together elicit hypoglycemic shock, a condition characterised by dangerously low blood glucose, which immoblise the fish and allow it to be captured more easily. The fish appear almost passed out, or drunk.

This reaction mixture has been named the ‘nirvana cabal’, and it is thought that the release of the combination of these toxin venoms into the water column could allow entire schools of fish to be simultaneously captured with little effort.

Electric eels manipulate prey muscle when hunting

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.34.32

Published in Science on Friday 5th December, a new study has observed interesting behaviours in electric eel predation.

‘Electric eels’ (Electrophorous electricus – some awesome alliteration there) though not actually technically eels, are one of a few groups of marine organisms which harness electric discharges for prey capture and predator deterrence, though many lineages are able to sense these fields. Elasmobranchs of all genera detect electric fields using ampullae of Lorenzini, which are distributed in pores laterally along the fish’s body and predominantly around the head; the movement of prey item’s muscle in the water column generates electric fields which are detected to a very small threshold of sensitivity. Further, a number of Batoid elasmobranchs – the rays – have adapted to produce electricity proportional to their size, up to around 200volts. While the Pacific electric ray uses electricity to stun prey, the less electric ray uses theirs exclusively in predator defence. Elephantnose fish are a group of Osteoglossiformes, the group which contain giant arapaima, and are classified as producing either ‘waves’ and ‘pulses’ to sense their environment.

And finally, one of my favourite animals; the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), uses electroreceptors embedded in the rostrocaudal rows of skin of the bill to determine the size and direction of prey in the water, in conjunction with touch and pressure sensitive mechanoreceptors. These are homologous to the electrosensors in the bills of the related terrestrial Echidna, who have significantly less (≤2000 vs 40,000). Both of these species are Monotremes, and in addition to being the only egg laying mammals, are the only mammals with these electrosensory capabilities.

Electric eels use electrically to ‘illuminate’ their environment, sending out low-voltage pulses and sensing the feedback, much like echolocating bats. However, they are also renowned for their ability to generate extremely high voltage shocks; shocks of up to 600volts, over double that of a UK mains plug.

This has consistently been interpreted as an adaptation to stun and immobilise prey. This makes them easier to eat, and stops otherwise trashing prey from damaging delicate respiratory surfaces around the gill area.

However, this new research by Catania suggests that the discharges eels can generate are specialised. The high frequency, high voltage shocks mentioned above allow immobilisation capture of free swimming prey, or defence against predators. Also known, however, are repeated pairs and triplets of high voltage discharges, which are used when hunting in complex environments.

Catania measured the responses to eels’ electric discharge in the bodies of fish, and found that motor neurone activation is required to produce muscle contraction of the prey fish.

This means that electric eels’ discharges act specifically to activate prey motor neurones, and hence muscle, and that this allows the eels to ‘remotely control’ their desired prey item. They not only immobilise prey, but by repeatedly sending out periodic waves or pulses of electric discharges, that the eel can cause full body involuntary twitching, causing the prey to move and reveal its location – the eel then strikes 10-15 seconds later. These volleys of impluses are advantagous, as an initial twitch and the resulting electrical feedback will inform the eel if the prey item is alive, and worth the energy investment of pursuing it. This also acts to explain why this behaviour is used particularly in cryptic environments, where prey needs to be ‘flushed out’.

With this insight, there is further evidence to support suggestion that organisms that are highly sensitive to and which produce electric fields may use them for additional reasons, including those not exclusively relating to predator-prey interactions, such as sociosexual selection and communicating with conspecifics.

What’s in a name

When I was doing research for my zooplankton coursework the other day and trying to find pictures of hydromedusa larvae, I came across a website which told the story of one scientist’s single-minded mission to meet Frank Zappa.

Italian biologist Ferdinando “Nando” Boero completed this noble quest through an admirably elaborate plan which involved taxonomically classifying a new species of jellyfish via his work at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, California; writing to Zappa explaining his desire to name the new jellyfish in his honour; and receiving a reply. Zappa’s reply included the rather charming sentence –

“There is nothing I’d like better than having a jellyfish named after me”

And thus followed a regular, friendly correspondence between the two. They often met up like old friends and visited each other’s houses, Boero once spending two days at Zappa’s house watching the composition of a version of ‘The Torture Never Stops’ (that one from Zoot Allures which I always think is by Tom Waits – oops). Perhaps best of all was the final concert of Zappa’s 1988 Tour, where he reworked a number of verses of ‘Lonesome Cowboy Burt’ in honour of Boero.

My name is Nando,
I’m a marine biologist.
All my friends,
They call me ‘Do’

(Hi Do!)

I like this story for a number of reasons. First off, I like Frank Zappa. Though his music isn’t quite to everyone’s tastes, you must admire his enormous body of work and proportionally huge contributions to prog and experimental rock. Additionally, from a young age and much to my mother’s dismay, my father instilled in me a great appreciation for the album artwork on Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Secondly, it’s a cute story. It’s fun and well meaning and heck, I like to think that one day I might get to go have tea ’round Bruce Springsteen’s house to show him the fish I’ve named after him.

But this definitely was not the first time I’ve stumbled across such a story. I can remember very clearly one of my lecturers in first year rather going off on a tangent about this – he was aggravated that scientists responsible for the first formal description of a holotype animal just couldn’t very well seem to take it seriously. Linnean biological nomenclature, he told us, is meant to follow a rather regimented pattern. The first part which indicates an organisms genus is more often than not a given, however the second was traditionally meant to be a supporting word indicating a prominent feature of the organism. He derided people who deviate from a sensible formula for the sake of naming organisms after themselves, or even more so after celebrities.

I have a couple of problems with this.

Within this lecture he noted the recent description of a crustacean named after Bob Marley, which by scrolling down on this frankly fantastic and rather enlightening Wikipedia article I can tell you is Gnathia marleyi. This is a tiny species of parasitic marine isopod (think ‘sea woodlouse’ and you’re there), which hails exclusively from shallow waters in the Caribbean Sea and the females of which have particularly enlarged fronto-lateral processes. Ergo – Marley.

G. marleyi is a nocturnal planktonic predator that loves jammin'.

G. marleyi is a nocturnal planktonic predator that loves jammin’. Photo credit.

Okay, it’s not exactly as immediately apparent as the ‘maximus’ in Elephus maximus (the Asian elephant, one of the largest living land animals and, you know, big) but there’s logic in there somewhere. It is relatively informative as to the morphology and distribution of the taxa.

But more so – it’s fun! It doesn’t do any harm! In fact, I think it rather does the opposite – this is the kind of thing that makes people curious about science, that chips away at the idea that science is an exclusive Boys Club for the enlightened academic. Give over – anyone can appreciate that a weird little crustacean’s cephalitic appendages (sort of) look like dreadlocks. I highly doubt anyone outside of a narrow field wouldotherwise a pay very much if any attention to the description of a new Isopod crustcean, but at least someone somewhere might click through that article and gain a small appreciation for marine biology, for science as a whole. It gives people an avenue, however small, into an area where previously there wouldn’t have been one. The article I just linked lists hundreds of these kinds of organisms – someone out there is going to stumble across a scientific area they never before showed the slightest interest in, all because they like tennis or think it’s kind of neat that someone named an extinct genus of Sperm whale after Herman Melville.

Just outside of this, though, is the similar practice of people naming things after themselves – by the time he formally described Phialella zappai, Boero had already named another species of jellyfish he had discovered after himself (Boeromedusa auricogonia). Though he admitted he got far less pleasure out of it in the long run than he did from the naming of P. zappai, we can all understand why he or anyone else did so in the first place.

I think as humans we all just want to have a legacy. We want to be remembered after we’re gone, which for scientists has an additional side which entails not simply being otherwise memorable, but contributing something of sufficient worth to a discussion that it is still relevant years down the line. Most of us can ever only aspire to that, can realistically dream only of throwing a few coins worth of ideas into the fountain of the scientific community and its body of knowledge as a whole. I think in the place of one, we default to the other – even if the species you’ve described is pretty boring, at least it’s got your name on it.

And maybe even if it is a ‘boring’ or not particularly noteworthy species, which isn’t referred to until years after your time by a tired student looking for a picture of a zooplankton for her undergraduate coursework – hey. It made someone smile.