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Entries in Georgia Aquarium (38)


ITTB - the caboose

Here’s the last part of my conversation with WREK scientist/DJs Pete Ludovice and Bill Hung. In this bit we’re talking about collaborations with Georgia Tech and the engineering of the aquarium.  Check out the rest of their archive here, and listen live on Wednesdays at 12 (details in the link).


ITTB episode 3 of 4

Here’s episode 3 of my conversation with WREK scientist/DJs Pete Ludovice and Bill Hung, for their show Inside the Black Box.  In this bit, we’re talking about how field and aquarium-based research inform each other.  See the rest of their archive here, and tune in on Wednesdays at 12 for a webcast dose of “science only funnier”


ITTB episode 2 of 4

Here’s episode two (of four) of my conversation with WREK scientist/DJs Pete Ludovice and Bill Hung. In this bit we’re talking about whale shark research in Mexico and the idea of conservation by payment for ecosystem services.  Check out the rest of their archive here, and listen live on Wednesdays at 12 (details in the link)


Inside the Black Box interview

Two weeks back I did an hour long radio interview with WREK 91.1, a public radio station out of Georgia Tech, for their science show Inside the Black Box, which is described by its hosts Pete Ludovice and Bill Hung as “Science, only funnier”.  Pete and Bill are both faculty members at Tech and also stand-up comedians. 

I am going to post the interview here in four more manageable parts over the next week or so.  Here’s Section 1, where we talk about how public aquariums came out of the naturalist movement of the Victorian era.

If you just can’t wait for the rest (and who could blame you, he says, sotto voce and without a hint of irony…), the whole interview with lead-ins and musical breaks is here.

While you’re at it, put a reminder on your calendar to listen to their live webcast each week on Wednesdays at 12.  They have sponsorship from NSF and do great work; I appreciate their permission to post the interview here.


Whale Sharks on Mother Nature Network

Our whale shark genome project is featured in this short video on Mother Nature Network this week.  It’s got some sound bites from the Georgia Aquarium president David Kimmel, as well as Emory University research scientist Ryan Weil and yours truly.


As promised, more of the Johnson Sea Link

When we were on the Abrolhos research cruise aboard the HBOI/CEPEMAR ship Seward Johnson recently, I posted a little clip of the outside of the sub.  In that post I promised better quality and longer clips when I got back to land.  So here, (in HD goodness if you want it) is long-time pilot Don Liberatore giving a neat history of the Johnson Sea Link 2 submersible.  What I find most interesting is his comment about how he got into being a sub pilot in the first place: sitting on the dock in the 70’s he and some buddies saw the HBOI ship pull into port with the original JSL1 or Clelia (not sure which) on the deck and he thought “how cool is that?”.  This comment is exactly what I meant in my recent post about the importance of Human Occupied Vehicles (HOVs), or submersibles, for inspiring people to careers in marine science.

The 500pixel column width here on the blog is a bit limiting; if you want to see it in HD, roll over to the YouTube channel and check it out


Love is in the

As we go into the season of that most manufactured of holidays - Valentine’s Day - I want to share with you a simple but powerful message.  For every crazy sexual fantasy you have ever had, some creature in the oceans is already doing it.  Whether it’s a solo effort, or a one on two, or a two on one, a three on six or a “countless hordes on untold numbers”, and whether it involves a he, a she, a male, a female, a shemale, or a whatthehellsisthat?, there’s already a species in the oceans to whom it’s old hat.  And however kinky and twisted and perverted you can imagine, nature has already devised and instituted (often to ruthlessly efficient ends, I might add), something even more risque and alarming.

How do I know this?  Well, a couple of years ago Georgia Aquarium asked my wife (who also works there) and I to come up with a talk we could give publically about love in the oceans.  Sure! we said, No problem! It’ll be fun!  Little did we guess the depths of smut and depravity to which the research of our newfound assignment would take us.  But like good company minions, we answered the call, and now, three years later, the talk has become something of a regular thing.  As an aside, I can tell you that our Googling efforts in support of the project attracted the attention of the IT department; I guess we typed in a few too many of the trigger words in the company internet filter - oops!  We had to get special exceptions on my IP address so we could keep working (and I swear I have never used it since….ever).

OK, I’m talking a lot of smack.  How about some concrete examples?  Fair enough.  How about this tiny snippet? Fairly self-explanatory; it’s exactly what it looks like.  Needless to say, a warning that it’s NSFW.

That clear enough for you?

One of our favourite parts of the talk is an homage to George Carlin where Trish and I fire off ever-more suggestive fish names in rapid succession.  There’s so many wonderful names to choose from, but some  of my personal favourites are the cavernous assfish (this is actually the closely related abyssal assfish, I guess the cavernous assfish was just too embarrassed to have his photo taken):

 Three related and almost identifical fish: the rode harder, the keep harder and the diklip harder (and yes, they are a type of mullet):

and how could I not include the hairy hotlips?

There’s dozens more, but to hear them (and see the rest of the walrus video) you’ll have to come to the talk

In my final example, I want to claim some primacy over Ricky Gervais.  You see, we were talking about blowhole sex in boto dolphins long before he put it into his act.  That’s right, lonely male botos will, from time to time, penetrate each other in the blowhole, which is really a nostril.  Nasal: its the new anal…

 And thats just the beginning.  Cross-dressing, orgies, role playing, dom-sub BDSM, genital mutilation, piquerism, even post-coital cannibalism, its all going on every day in the oceans (and you’re swimming in it!).  So, next time you’re blushing at the thought of some new saucy idea that sneaks into your mind sideways when you should really be working on TPS reports, just relax, we humans are actually kind of vanilla.


Who's nourishing the deep reef?

As we were steaming along yesterday, we encountered a mysterious yellowish slick along the surface.  Sometimes it formed into filaments stretched out like cobwebs on the surface, but in other areas it was thick enough to make the water surface totally opaque.   What could it be, so far off the coast?  fish spawn? coral spawn? algae? oil, maybe? So we slowed the ship and took a bucket sample from over the side (thanks Maurice!).  The culprit? Trichodesmium.  This blue-green alga is common in the nutrient poor waters of the tropics, and occasionally forms huge blooms like this.  How can it bloom when nutrients are so scarce?  The answer is that it makes its own nutrients; Trichodesmium is a “nitrogen fixer”.  This means it can take nitrogen from the air and incorporate it into its own molecules and tissues, a relatively rare feat (the best known example on land are legumes like peas and beans).

If Trichodesmium blooms like this, then the impact can ripple through the ecosystem because, once fixed, the nitrogen is available to the rest of the food chain.  This can make Trichodesmium a key species.

All of that brings us to Dr. Paulo Sumida from the University of Sao Paulo.  Paulo is on this expedition to study organic matter, like the products of all that Trichodesmium.  He’s especially interested in what’s happening on and just above the bottom, where the sub is visiting.  One of the biggest questions: is the organic matter in the sediment of the dark deep made by organisms on the bottom elsewhere and transported there, or is it made by plankton in the water column above (like Trichodesmium), and then rains down like nutrient snow?  One of their other hypotheses is that the southern part of Abrolhos is more productive than the north.  In other words, that more organic matter is produced there by greater numbers of organisms.  To work out the answer to these questions, Paulo looks for clues about how much organic matter there is, what “quality” it is and who made it. 

Dr. Paulo Sumida peers out of a porthole on the JSL sub

Measuring how much organic matter there is is relatively straightforward with an instrument called a CHN analyser (C = carbon, H = hydrogen, N = nitrogen, the key ingredients of organic matter).  To measure quality, Paulo looks at how much of the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll is present.  If the organic matter is old, most of the chlorophyll will have broken down in a process scientists call diagenesis, leaving behind waste products called phaeopigments.  The relative amounts of chlorophyll and phaeopigments can be used as a measure of the quality of organic matter.  Perhaps the coolest part, however, is trying to work out who made the stuff.  To do that, Paulo uses a rare tool at the University of Sao Paulo, called a GC-IR-MS (gas chromatograph isotope ratio mass spectrometer, say that ten times fast).  This instrument can look for chemical signatures that tell you who made the organic matter.  For example, phytoplankton might produce organic matter with certain carbon isotopes in it, while benthic algae might produce a certain sterol compounds that, when Paulo sees them, he can say “Aha! Now I know that this organic matter was made by this group or that group”. It’s a great bit of detective work.

Taken together, all this information tells Paulo and the other scientists about how nutrients move from water to sediment and back again (properly called “flux”) and therefore how tightly life on the bottom is connected (“coupled”) to life in the water column.  It also speaks to how connected different parts of the bottom may be, especially if organic matter proves to be made somewhere else and then transported to the dark zones.    So what’s the answer? Is it produced on the bottom or in the water column?  By algae or by phytoplankton?  Unfortunately, we don’t know yet, because this is just the sample collection phase; his research is just beginning.  I hope in a future post I can tell you about the results of Paulo’s work.


A sobering sight at 600 meters

On the very first Johnson Sea Link dive during this cruise, the very second thing seen on the bottom was the bottle shown in the video below shot by Johnson Sea Link crew.  This was observed at 600m (technically, it was at 1,850ft), in soft calcareous mud, over 45 nautical miles from land and 60 miles from the nearest town.  On the next dive, the scientists observed a lot of old longline fishing gear wrapped around the reef structure.  It seems, even in this remote location, which has never before been visited by humans, trash from human activities elsewhere has made its mark on the habitat.  It is a prominent and disturbing reminder of our impact on even the unseen parts of the planet.  I can only hope that this bottle becomes a home for some small thing, or that it becomes crusted over with coralline algae such that one day it is simply a bottle-shaped rhodolith


Diving is like a box of chocolates...

…You never know what you’re going to get.  In this video, the Johnson Sea Link (JSL) is recovered after the first dive of the Abrolhos2011 Expedition.  Brazilian scientist Clovis Castro was aboard with HBOI scientist Shirley Pomponi. 

Afterwards, the science team went to work processing invertebrate samples including gorgonians, the hard coral Lophelia, and a range of brittle stars, crinoids, urchins and miscellansous crustaceans

The Brazilian science team evaluates their first samples. L-R Gustavo Duarte, Clovis Castro, lead scientist Rodrigo Moura and Ronaldo Francini-Filho


Reporter Glenda Koslowski with Brazilian scientists (L-R) Gustavo Duarte, Clovis Castro, Rodrigo Moura and Ronaldo Francini-Filho


PhD student Gustavo Duarte takes Lophelia fragments for cultivation

 Alex Bastos with a fine carbonate mud sediment core from 600m



Day 1 cruise track

Here’s our Day 1 cruise track, taking us from Nova Viçosa out to a way point and thence to the R/V Seward Johnson.  Right click the link and save, then  open in Google maps or Google earth


Welcome aboard!


Getting down to the nitty gritty

How deep can we go?  How can we collect fish?  How much water can we sample at once?  These are just some of the questions that filled today’s planning session in Vitoria for the Abrolhos 2011 expedition.  They’re not straightforward questions to which some resident authority has a simple answer.  No, when you’re planning work between 300 and 3000 feet down, no questions are simple, and nor are the answers easy; rather, they are crafted through a careful group discussion of what’s a priority, what’s possible, what’s practical, and what we have time for.  In other words, its not all The Life Aquatic, its large parts careful planning and preparation.

The day started with presentations from representatives of Cepemar, Harbor Branch and the Rosenstiel School of Marine Science at U. Miami.  After that, Rodrigo Mouraled the planning session where we talked reef biology for hours, fueled (as all the best science chats are!) by shots of excellent Brazilian coffee.  Dr. Moura is a faculty member at Santa Cruz University and a consulting scientist with Conservation International, who have a substantial marine conservation program focused at Abrolhos.  He explained all the things that make Abrolhos unique, from the 40,000km2 platform on which they occur, to the unique fauna and dominance of shallower reefs by the endemic coral Mussismilia braziliensis, to the unusual mushroom formation of these reefs (chapeiroes), and finally to the history of human impacts and conservation efforts surrounding these unique ecosystems and the deeper and less-known seafloor habitats around them.  The Abrolhos Marine National Park was the first marine national park in Brazil, established in 1983, but like many reefs it faces its fair share of threats from pollution, global climate change and marine development.

 Suitably up to speed on the history and context for the expedition, the next speakers were the 8 principal investigators to give details of the motivations for their respective parts of the expedition, and to outline their specific sampling needs.  Alex Bastos, a geologist from the Federal University of Espirito Santo, talked about the geological history of the platform, how its central depression was likely once a shallow coastal lagoon during the last ice age, and how taking samples of sediment from the bottom will explain more about how the reef came to be and how much it contributes to calcium carbonate production in that part of the Atlantic. Paulo Sumida from the University of São Paulo explained how organic matter (carbon based material either secreted from living organisms or leftover by dead ones) is distributed unevenly across the platform, with more in the south and less in the north.  We learned from Mauricio Torronteguy’sgroup at Cepemar how water sampling and measurements of the properties of the water overlying the reef would be used to provide a better understanding of the biology taking place on the reef.  Microbiologist and geneticist Fabiano Thompson from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro explained what has been learned about the importance of Vibriobacteria on the reef, both as potential agents of disease in corals and, surprisingly, as possible agents of photosynthesis; i.e. food production from sunlight.  Vibrios were not previously known to use light for food, so this is potentially big news.  His graduate student, Nelson Alves, will be sampling for water-borne viruses by looking for their DNA signature.  These aren’t viruses as we know them (causes of A rhodolith bedhuman disease), but a natural and dominant part of the very smallest members of the plankton, whose importance has only been realized in the last few years.  Gilberto Filho, who is a head botanist at the Botannic Gardens in Rio de Janeiro, talked about the importance of rhodolith beds, which are an unusual sort of habitat made up of softball-sized lumps of reddish rock that are produced by algae that are able to secrete calcium skeletons as they photosynthesise, much like corals do.  These lumps then become substrate for all manner of other things to live on, since they are hard and rigid, unlike the soft, shifting sediments on which they sit.  In this way, rhodoliths can increase the diversity of a patch of otherwise empty seabed.  Ronaldo Francini-Filho talked about what is known and not known about some of the bigger critters that make up the reef community, like fish and larger invertebrates.  The final presentations from National Museum scientist Clovis Castro and student Gustavo concerned deep-sea corals of the Abrolhos, including those that use light and have symbiotic algae in their tissues (zooxanthellate) and those that lack algae and feed by filtering plankton or absorbing organic material directly from seawater (azooxanthellate).  We’ll learn more about each of these projects in coming days, so if you have questions for the researchers, by all means post them in the comments below. 

The hardest part of planning a research trip came next: deciding how on earth we’re going to meet everyone’s needs within a limited timespan, using the assets of the ship and the brain trust of people aboard it.  This is where the beautiful ideality of a proposed sampling scheme meets the stark and sometimes gruesome reality of what you can, practically speaking, actually do.  All scientists, especially biologists, know and dread this bit; indeed, Mmmmm…mesophotic reefs…argleargle….a lot of the very best biologists are those that have mastered this challenging process and can come up with intelligent and efficient sampling schemes that provide maximum bang for the research buck and minimize down or wasted time.  The upside of this process is that as everyone thinks and talks, you start to see the days to come materializing before you, and a sense of very real excitement sets in.  Ahead lie mornings spent deploying the submersible, afternoons sorting samples of sediment, deep sea corals and sponges, and evenings spent measuring water column properties with a CTD/Rosette and ADCP (more on these later).  It’s enough to make any marine scientist practically drool with anticipation. 


U.S. and Brazilian researchers

Scientists from Harbor Branch and Brazilian universities in Vitoria Skype with operations staff aboard the RV Seward Johnson off the coast of Bahia, to plan submersible activitiesas part of the Abrolhos 2011 expedition.