All Posts By

kenny

BLUE PLANET, GREEN PLANET

What do you think of when you think of St. Patrick’s Day? The rolling green hills of Ireland? Green shamrocks and leprechauns? Green food colouring in otherwise perfectly-good beer? Whatever images you associate with March 17, the cultural and religious holiday celebrating Irish heritage, it’s likely that they’re awash in green!

And when it comes to the colour green, the ocean might not be the first thing that pops into your head. After all, when we look down at our planet from above, it’s our terrestrial spaces that appear green—the oceans have always been, and will always be, blue. …or will they?

The planet is warming—the effects of climate change can be seen all across our oceans, from the phenomenon known as coral bleaching, all the way down to changes in the growth and abundance of phytoplankton (microscopic photosynthesizing algae). These changes are happening at an unprecedented rate due to decidedly human factors such as industrial carbon emissions.


There are two main classes of phytoplankton, dinoflagellates – which have a whip-like tail (flagella), and diatoms – which do not.

While you are more than likely aware of the harmful effects that climate change is having on our planet, a new study has shown a surprising side-effect that you might not have considered… The planet is about to get a whole lot greener—and not in the environmentally-sustainable way you might have been hoping for.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NASA and the US Department of Energy published a paper last month summarizing their findings using a global model that simulates the growth patterns of different species of phytoplankton, and how those phytoplankton absorb and reflect light. This model could serve as an early warning signal for ocean health–or ill health.

In short, the researchers found that more than 50% of ocean waters will experience a change in colour by the year 2100!

Regions appearing blue (such as the subtropics) in satellite photographs will become bluer due to a loss of life in general, and phytoplankton in particular, compared to those regions today. However, water that currently has a greenish tinge, such as that near the Earth’s poles, will become even greener, due to warmer water temperatures creating blooms of more diverse species of phytoplankton in those regions.

So what creates the ocean’s colour to begin with, and how does algae affect it?

It has to do with how sunlight interacts with what’s in the water itself. As you may know, light is comprised of all the colours of the rainbow. Water molecules absorb almost all light frequencies except for the colour blue, which is reflected back to us, which is why the open ocean appears as a deep blue in photographs taken from space. But ocean water that contains a lot of phytoplankton will appear greener, as the chlorophyll (the green pigment that helps plants and algae photosynthesize the sun’s energy into food) in phytoplankton absorbs almost all of sunlight’s blue spectrum, and reflects back more green light.


This side-by-side comparison from NASA illustrates typical Arctic waters (left) and the same waters during a massive algal bloom (right).

What does this all mean, apart from the fact that our planet could soon be looking a lot greener?

Plankton of all kinds—and phytoplankton in particular—are at the bottom of a huge number of ocean food chains. So if climate change shifts the growth of phytoplankton—whether from one species to another, or from one part of the ocean to another—this will change the types of food webs that they can support, and that will impact on species further up the food chain. Entire ocean ecosystems will be affected.

Not to mention that phytoplankton produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe… Needless to say, changes to their distribution across the ocean means a whole lot more for the planet’s health than just its colour.

But don’t despair. When it comes to climate change, we have more power than you might think. Stay ‘tuna’ed to the Deep Sea Diary for an upcoming post about what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, and join the fight against climate change.

For now, sláinte, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and may all your rainbows end in a pot of gold(fish)!

Images

  1. Phytoplankton, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/phyto.html

Sources

  1. Anderson, Paul Scott. “Much of Earth’s Surface Ocean Will Shift in Color by End of 21st Century.” EarthSky, 7 Feb. 2019, www.earthsky.org/earth/mit-study-climate-change-affect-color-earth-oceans
  2. Dennis, Brady, and Chris Mooney. “Climate Change Will Alter the Color of the Oceans, New Research Finds.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Feb. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2019/02/04/climate-change-will-alter-color-oceans-new-research-finds/?utm_term=.9295b2a6173e
  3. Moran, Barbara. “Climate Change Is Altering the Color of the Ocean.” WBUR, WBUR, 4 Feb. 2019, www.wbur.org/news/2019/02/04/climate-change-ocean-color-phytoplankton
  4. Obscura, Atlas. “Climate Change Is Shifting the Color of the Oceans.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 5 Feb. 2019, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/climate-change-ocean-color-algae-nature_us_5c59e918e4b09293b208ea51
  5. Dutkiewicz, S. et al.Ocean colour signature of climate change. Nature Comm. www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-08457-x

STRANGER THAN FICTION: THE INSPIRATION BEHIND MYTHOLOGICAL SEA MONSTERS

It was explorer Robert Ripley himself who said that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Where tales of mythological sea monsters are concerned, this is definitely true. Ancient seafarers saw strange and wonderful real-life sea creatures on their ocean journeys, and through the power of imagination and oral storytelling, these animals took on larger-than-life proportions.

Today we’re taking a closer look at some fantastically strange sea monsters, and the real-life sea creatures that inspired them.

Those beautiful siren sea cows…

The legend of sirens or mermaids – half-human, half-fish and, in some versions of the story, sweet songstresses that lure sailors to their doom – is probably one of the best known tales of mythological sea creatures. From The Little Mermaid to “mermaid hair, don’t care,” mermaids and sirens proliferate our culture.

These stories are thought to have been inspired by a rather unlikely source. Manatees are the largest aquatic herbivores. Also called sea cows, they are big, slow-moving, mustachioed grey animals related to elephants. They are from the order Sirenia, a clue that they were probably the animal that inspired written documents about so-called sirens

So how did the giant, slow-moving sea cow inspire the legend of mermaids? It could have to do with their decidedly human-like behavior with their young. Female manatees have been known to cradle their pups in their flippers while nursing. Add to this a behaviour known as spy-hopping, whereby a manatee rises vertically out of the water to check things out at the surface, and it’s easy to see how a sailor might mistake this curious sight for a siren, especially after months at sea.

Even famed explorer Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids. In 1493 he wrote in his journals about spotting three mermaids from aboard his fleet to the Americas. This is one of the earliest European accounts of a manatee sighting, though it was hardly complimentary to the manatees: they are “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Kraken or giant squid?

Out of all the sea monsters of legend, few are as fearsome as the kraken.

The kraken is a terrifying sea monster said to live off the coasts of Norway and Greenland – it is described as a vast creature with giant tentacles, all the better to drag fishermen or even entire ships of sailors to their death beneath the waves. The kraken is hard to detect, because it lurks under boats in the dark of the water, but it was said that if fishermen suddenly started catching a great many fish, it was because the kraken had scared them to the surface, and was ready to attack.

Once the kraken sinks back below the surface, the real trouble starts: its massive size was said to create a colossal whirlpool, taking anything still at the surface down with it.

That’s definitely the stuff of nightmares. The good news is that the kraken does not exist. The giant squid, however, is a real animal, and was likely the inspiration for these cautionary tales.

The existence of giant squid was confirmed by Danish naturalist Japetus Steenstrup in 1857; he named it Architeuthis dux, which translates as “ruling squid” in Latin. Today there are 21 confirmed species of giant squid. They can grow up to 15 metres, including their tentacles. That’s huge, but not likely to take down any ships.

The giant squid is elusive, so its maximum size is still hotly debated. It lives at depths of up to 1,000 metres, probably in order to avoid making a tasty snack for its top predator – the deep-diving sperm whale.

Leviathan

Speaking of whales…

In the earliest days of sailing, encounters with whales led to strange stories and the creation of the myth of the Leviathan, which manifested in different ways. To some the Leviathan was a giant fish. To others, it was a serpent, crocodile or marine mammal. In some versions of the legend, it was a monstrous whale (called the Devil Whale) that lay asleep in the water and was frequently mistaken for an island. But when sailors stepped aboard to prepare their dinner on land, the great whale would wake, and sink below the surface, bringing the sailors and their ship with it.

Another version, the prister, was described as being “two hundred cubits long, and very cruel.” It had two blowholes, which could fire onto ships like water cannons. How to defeat this fearsome beast? Try sounding a trumpet, in order to startle it away. Obviously.

These tales were likely inspired by real-life encounters with whales – both alive and dead. The sperm whale – the largest toothed predator in the world, at up to 67 feet long – has been known to strand itself on shallow beaches, and was likely the source of many legends of sea monsters. It should also be noted that baleen whales like blue and fin whales have two blowholes – they too seem to be an inspiration for this fearsome beast.

The sea serpent

Lastly, no exploration of sea monsters would be complete without mentioning the sea serpent. A sea serpent or sea dragon was a type of dragon described in various mythologies. They were imagined as huge, toothy, serpentine monsters.

The possible real-life inspiration for these tales – the oarfish – is almost as fantastic as the legends themselves. First described in 1772, the oarfish is the longest (known) living species of bony fish, at up to 56 feet long and weighing up to 600 pounds. Like the giant squid, oarfish are deep-dwelling animals, thought to live at a depth of 1,000 metres, and sightings of living oarfish are rare.

They are known as the “king of the herrings,” due to their resemblance to those smaller fish. Despite their massive size and monstrous looks, they are not dangerous – they eat plankton and have a tiny gullet! Still, sometimes oarfish get pushed to the surface by storms or strong currents, where they can become distressed and die. It’s not hard to see why a sputtering, squirming oarfish might have been thought of as a terrifying sea serpent.

Are you feeling curious? Swim by the aquarium to visit our Curious Creatures exhibit and learn more about the strange and bizarre animals living below the surface.

Photos:
Manatee www.time.com/4719439/manatees-endangered-species/
Giant Squid www.behance.net/gallery/54729185/Giant-Squid
Sperm Whale www.hakaimagazine.com/news/sperm-whales-have-eve/
Oarfish www.nbcnews.com/science/weird-science/caught-camera-rare-sighting-oarfish-worlds-largest-bony-fish-n76376

Continue Reading

OPEN WIDE: UNDERSEA TOOTH ADAPTATIONS

Open wide! February 9, 2019 is International Dentist Day – a day to celebrate one of the oldest and most important jobs in the world. While you might not be the biggest fan of sitting in the dentist’s chair, you can’t deny that keeping our teeth clean and shiny is a huge part of our overall health.

What better way to honour IDD than to dive into an underwater exploration of the different kinds of tooth adaptations found in the ocean?

Shark teeth

Continue Reading

CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A…SEAHORSE?!

As you may have heard, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada’s newest residents are a whole herd of baby lined seahorses. But wait, there’s more! You may also have heard that they hatched on New Year’s Day – our very own new year’s babies! They arrived on January 1, 2019 with much fanfare; in fact, their arrival was covered by media across the country.

We’re very excited about our new fry (baby fish), so we thought we’d take this opportunity to teach you a bit more about them.

First things first: they were the size of grains of rice when they were first born, not jellybeans.

But that doesn’t mean that they were any less cute!

The lined seahorse (a.k.a. the northern seahorse, a.k.a. the spotted seahorse) is found in the Atlantic Ocean, as far north as Canada and as far south as the Caribbean, Mexico and even South America. It swims in an upright position (thus its scientific name – Hippocampus erectus), using its dorsal and pectoral fins to guide it through the water. Seahorses have an armoured body made up of bony plates and prehensile (capable of holding) tails, which they use to grasp onto sturdy structures such as seagrass or coral. Due to their weak swimming abilities they spend much of their time anchored like this, sucking in small prey through their tubular snouts.

Due to their unique digestive system – they lack a true stomach for the gradual digestion of food – seahorses may feed continuously for up to 10 hours a day!

Here at the aquarium our shoal of seahorses is fed at least three times daily, and our new babies, up to six times a day! That’s a lot of work for our aquarists!

Lined seahorses eat plankton and small crustaceans such as brine shrimp. Their eyes are able to move independently of one another (like a chameleon’s), all the better to survey their surroundings and ambush unsuspecting prey. While they are found in a wide variety of colours (from black, grey and brown to green, orange, red and yellow), they also have colour-changing skin cells called chromatophores (like an octopus) that allow them to blend in with their environment.

The lined seahorse is monogamous through the mating season; a bonded male and female will perform a special ritual dance every morning to reestablish their connection. They revolve around one another, change colours in unison, and sometimes even grasp tails.

As you may know, seahorses are unique in the animal kingdom in that the male is the primary caregiver of young. The female seahorse passes her eggs into the male’s brood pouch – a pouch where the eggs are protected before hatching – where they are incubated for about three weeks. Upon hatch, they are only the size of a grain of rice! Regardless of size, the male releases them into the water column and from that moment on they must fend for themselves.

The number produced from the male is anywhere from 97 to over 1,500 offspring!

You might ask why so many baby seahorses are spawned at a time, when only a fraction of them will survive to adulthood. Think of it as quantity versus quality. Essentially, organisms living in inhospitable environments with limited resources and lots of predators (like the ocean) reproduce quickly and in large numbers to ensure that at least some of their offspring survive to their own age of reproduction. This is the same strategy employed by sea turtles and horseshoe crabs – both species lay thousands of eggs, but few survive.

Luckily, here at the aquarium, the new year’s babies have been separated from the rest of the shoal, and have a better-than-average chance of surviving this vulnerable period.

Lined seahorses have a lifespan of 1-to-4 years; here at the aquarium, they live 3-4 years, the maximum reported for their species.

Now that you know all there is to know about the lined seahorse, giddy-up and get yourself to the aquarium to see our New Year’s babies, now on display in The Gallery!

 

Sources

  1. Bester, Cathleen. “Hippocampus Erectus.” Florida Museum, 12 May 2017,
    www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/hippocampus-erectus/
  2. Langley, Liz. “Romance of the Seas: Strange Mating Habits of the Seahorse.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 25 June 2016,
    www.news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/seahorse-reproduction-behavior-conservation/
  3. “Lined Seahorse.” Chesapeake Bay Program,
    www.chesapeakebay.net/S=0/fieldguide/critter/lined_seahorse