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Entries in elasmobranch (7)

Monday
Sep272010

Devil rays win! (and no, I don't mean baseball)

This fantastic picture of a huge school of devil rays (Mobula sp.) just scooped the top prize at the 2010 CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the Year competition.  According to photographer Florian Schulz, no-one in Baja California seems to remember a devil ray aggregation of this size before.  Chances are, its a breeding aggregation, since other myliobatids (like cow-nosed rays) also gather in huge numbers for that purpose.

Click the photo to see the full sized version over at the Telegraph website.

Monday
Aug302010

Its International Whale Shark Day!

I know I’ve dedicated a lot of blog space to whale sharks lately, but in celebration of the end of the field season, here’s one more.  Its International Whale Shark Day!  This day of appreciation for our mellow spotty elasmobranch buddies was designated at the 2nd Whale Shark Symposium in isla Holbox in 2008. 

Have you hugged a 30ft polka-dotted behemoth today?

Rhincodon typus (c) 2010 Georgia Aquarium/Alistair Dove 

Thursday
Jul292010

If you have to go, go big!

When you want to learn about the biology of a charismatic species, any species really, sometimes you end up learning about the grosser side of life too.  Thats kind of how I came to take this picture last week in Mexico, where I and several others from the team at Georgia Aquarium have been doing research on whale sharks lately (see several other blog posts heareabouts).  It was taken during an aerial survey we did from an altitude of 1,500 ft in a Cessna 206 and shows a whale shark that has just defecated.  Now, whale sharks tend to do everything on a giant scale, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, but I estimate the animal to be between 8 and 11m (25-35ft) in length and so, based on that estimate, thats a cloud of poo behind him thats over 30ft in diameter!  Its unusual to see wild sharks in the act of pooping, but this group of animals was so numerous and feeding so heavily, that you could actually see several clouds like this at any given time.  Whats feeding heavily got to do with it?  Well, unlike mammals, which tend to have a relatively fixed gut passage time for food, a lot of cold-blooded critters can, well, sort of push it out the back end, simply by pushing more in the front end.

Far from being a trivial observation of one of life's less savoury moments, it could actually become a really important research opportunity if we can manage to catch some of that magical egesta in a container of some sort, for analysis back at the lab.   Scientists can do all sorts of stuff with poo, like looking for parasite eggs or other pathogens, sequencing the DNA of both the shark and its prey species, or comparing nutrient values of food (from plankton tows) and comparing them to values from faeces to work out how much nutrition they are gaining from their food.  Its a great way to learn a lot in a short time and do it in a totally non-invasive way.

Mostly though, its a cool photo to gross people out at parties...

Friday
Jul022010

Implications of the first sighting of whale sharks in the gulf oil slick

I recently experienced a moment of genuine dread regarding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was neither a familiar nor comfortable feeling. What is it that invoked such a powerful feeling after a disaster that has been underway for the last 80-odd days, now? Something that struck a little close to home, of course: the first direct impact to whale sharks. You may have seen this story coming across the wires over the past two days about NOAA scientists who, while on an aerial survey of the impacted area, observed 3 whale sharks swimming among ribbons of surface oil, not 4 miles from the epicenter of the Deepwater Horizon spill. This observation has serious implications; let me explain.

Whale sharks are widely-ranging tropical migratory sharks that are unusual among their more toothy relatives in that they eat plankton. Two of the adaptations they use to pursue this lifestyle – surface filter feeding and an exquisite sense of smell – make them especially susceptible to the impacts of the oil spill. I had all but convinced myself (perhaps wishfully thinking) that whale sharks would be able to sense the altered chemistry of the affected water bodies and avoid the area. It now seems that this is not the case; the observation by the NOAA scientists suggest that either whale sharks cannot tell the difference between polluted and unpolluted water, or they can tell the difference but do not alter their behaviour in such a way as to avoid the ribbons and plumes. As USM researcher Eric Hoffmayer states in the article, this is the realization of the worst fears of whale shark scientists, and I count myself among those.

How can it be that whale sharks are unable to tell the difference if their sense of smell is so good? One simple explanation is that the olfactory abilities may be extremely selective. Scientists don’t know exactly what sort of chemicals whale sharks are homing in on when they seek out patches of food in the ocean – indeed, addressing this question is one of the goals of this year’s whale shark research program at Georgia Aquarium – but we have some good candidate molecules. If the whale shark sense of smell is highly tuned to these compounds and relatively insensitive to other families of chemicals, like hydrocarbons (oil and gas), then it’s certainly possible that whale sharks simply cannot detect the problem.

That’s when the second adaptation, surface filter feeding, becomes a liability for whale sharks trying to negotiate the deadly emulsions and surface slicks in the Gulf. To fully appreciate why this is such a problem, we need to look a little more closely at the filtration apparatus whale sharks use to feed.

Like most plankton-feeding fishes, whale sharks use filters in the mouth/gill cavity to sift food particles from the water (see the exellent illustration by Emily Damstra at right). And like most plankton-feeding fishes, these filters develop from structures associated with the gills and gill rakers (cartilaginous rods that come off the leading edge of the gills and protect the gills from fouling and shape the current of water across the breathing surface). Where whale sharks differ radically from other planktivores like, say, anchovies, is that they do not have feathery interlocking gill rakers that serve to filter the plankton but can be disengaged from each other to allow bulk water flow out through the gill opening. Rather, their filters are so derived and so heavily branched that they form a single continuous pad that occupies the space between gill arches; it looks a lot like a black scouring pad. The gill arches cannot be disengaged from each other; thus, anything that goes in the mouth must be small enough to pass through the filters (less than 2mm, or about 1/12th of an inch), or it must be swallowed, or be spat back out through the mouth (something they are surprisingly good at!). In a paper currently in the review process, comparative anatomist Phil Motta from USF is describing the full functional anatomy of these structures; he took the photo of the filter pad surface shown hereabouts based on material samples from Georgia Aquarium.

The implication here is that oil that finds its way into the mouth, if it is not to be swallowed or to foul the filters, must be continually spat back. OK, I hear you say, perhaps if the whale sharks avoid feeding, there won’t be a problem. If only it were that easy. Whale sharks do not only use their mouths for feeding, they use them for breathing. They need to be passing water continually across the filters and thence across the gills, in order to keep the body supplied with oxygen. For the whale shark swimming in oil-affected waters, therefore, the animal’s breathing needs and the susceptibility of their feeding filters to fouling are in complete opposition.

If whale sharks are swimming into oil-polluted waters and fouling their filters with oil, what does that mean? In my best estimation, it means that the oil spill represents an extremely serious threat to whale shark health. I am by no means the first person to suggest this. Nature identified whale sharks as one of the 5 species most likely to be affected by the oil spill, and other scientists like Bob Hueter from Mote Marine Laboratory have also highlighted the risks. The true toll that the spill exacts on the Gulf of Mexico whale shark population will not be known for some time, but the thought of dead or dying whale sharks sinking silently into the depths (dead sharks generally sink, not float) is yet more motivation to put an end to the spill and to undertake immediate and extensive research and conservation programs to assess the damage and plan a road to recovery for the whale sharks – and all the other affected wildlife – in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thursday
Jun032010

Thanks New England Aquarium!

In my post about surveying pelagic species from the air in Mexico, I mentioned schools of cownosed rays, which the locals call "chuchas" (dogs).  New England Aquarium has a perfect picture to illustrate what I mean:

Beautiful, aren't they?

Thursday
Jun032010

The water is ALIVE!

Its easy to get discouraged about the plight of marine ecosystems and the future of all those incredible marine species that we love so much. This is especially so of late, with all the bad news about the oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico and the impacts that it may well have on several habitats. Consider this post, then, as your good news story for the week. I am here to tell you that there is still amazing stuff to see in the ocean. Incredible stuff. Stuff that will blow your mind. I can tell you this with supreme confidence, because for the last two days, that’s exactly what I have been seeing. As part of the research program at Georgia Aquarium, I am with colleagues in Quintana Roo, Mexico, studying whale sharks and other species that live in the azure waters of the Yucatan peninsula. Jeff Reid, who is the aquarium’s dive safety officer, is here and our main colleague in Mexico is Rafael de la Parra of Project Domino, who has been working on whale sharks and other marine species in the area for many years. This is a remarkable part of the world, with a lot of great terrestrial activities (can you say Cenotes, anyone? No? How about Mayan ruins?), exceeded only by the marine life, which is truly spectacular.

Yesterday Jeff and Raffa and I spent the day boating around the northeastern tip of the Yucatan along with videographer Jeronimo. Now, when you’re on a boat, you can only see a small strip of ocean either side of the vessel, and yet over the course of the day we saw lots of mobula (devil rays), turtles, flying fish, manta rays, spotted dolphins and whale sharks. We snorkeled alongside some of these animals and, in the case of whale sharks and mantas, took samples of their food for later analysis. They dine on the rich plankton soup of this tropical upwelling area, much of which consisted of fish eggs, which hints at other fish species – yet unseen – taking advantage of the plankton to start their next generation by spawning in the surface waters. Snorkeling next to a whale shark in the natural setting was a special thrill; I’ve been lucky enough to work with the animals in the collection at Georgia Aquarium since 2006, but this was my first encounter with them in the wild. Except for the slightly different “faces” (we do get to know our animals pretty well) and the parasitic copepods visible on the fins of the wild animal, it could have easily been the very same sharks Jeff and I have been working with in Atlanta.

Today, Jeff and Raffa and I joined Lilia (from the Mexican department of protected areas CONANP) and pilot Diego for an aerial survey of the waters around the northeastern tip of the Yucatan. In contrast to the boat, you can’t get in the water from a plane (its not advisable anyway), but you can see a whole lot more at once and cover a much greater area in a relatively shorter time. From the air, lots of sharks, cownosed rays, manta, dolphins, fish schools and whale sharks were all visible, and I am told that flamingos and manatees can be seen at other times too. The manta rays, which numbered in the hundreds, were especially impressive and included at least two species (see my post about taxonomy of mantas). The sheer number of cownosed rays, called chuchas in the local slang, was staggering (muchas chuchas, if you will). They formed huge schools that looked for all the world like the rafts of sargassum weed that accumulate on the wind-lines at the water’s surface offshore. Many of the turtles and mobula seemed to be in the mood for love; most turtles were in pairs (or a pair being followed by other hopeful males), whereas the mobula followed each other in lazy tandems, their wingtips breaking the surface with every stroke. Whale sharks were also there – lots of them – with their attendant flotilla of tourist boats and tiny orange specks of snorkelers in life-vests, doing their best (and largely failing) to keep up with the gentle giants.

When you have experiences such as those I have shared with my colleagues over the last two days, you are reminded why we do this stuff in the first place. Its not just for the papers, or the salary or the glory of new discovery (yeah, right!), its for those moments working with animals when you and a colleague become friends because you shared an experience of the oceans that most folks will never have. We should seek to share and recreate those moments with everyone we can, whether its in an aquarium or on the open ocean. I am pretty sure that if we could all do that, then public empathy for the plight of the oceans would skyrocket, and many of the threats that face them would be addressed quick smart.

Thursday
Apr222010

Solutions to bit-o-critter 9, 10 and 11

Hi all,

I got a bit behind while I was in NY, but am back on deck today and will be back to posting a bit more regularly.  Here's the solutions to the recent bit-o-critters.

Round 9 - Six-gilled shark, Hexanchus griseus
A big ol' slug of a shark, most common in the colder waters of the world.   I picked it because it always seemed odd to me that six and seven gilled sharks manage to have one or two more than everyone else.  Five seems kind of a fundamental number for gills.

Round 10 - Bobbit worm, Eunice aphroditois.  This is a large (like, 5 feet long) and scary polychaete or bristle worm.  It mostly hangs out in the pose shown, waiting for some unfortunate fish to swim past the jaws or brush the antennae, then BAM!  The ant lions of the worm world.  Nicknamed after, you guessed it, Lorena Bobbit (remember her? snip! snip!)


Round 11 - Loriciferan.  OK, that was just mean.  A truly obscure group of microscopic invertebrates that live between sand grains on the bottom of the ocean.  A phylum unto themselves, they were only discovered in 1983Not much to them except the lorica or house (the clear baggy bit on the right), some somatic and reproductive cells (pink) and the ring of tentacles around the oral cone (on the left).