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Entries in Georgia Aquarium (38)


The start of something beautiful

My travelling partner Kristie Cobb (Georgia AquariumVP) and I arrived in Brazil today for the Abrolhos 2011 expedition.  The flight in from Atlanta is long (10hrs) and a red-eye, so we arrived a little the worse for wear in Rio.  As we flew, I was considering the similarities and differences between Brazil and Australia.  Brazil’s great mountain range is to the west and is immense in both length and height: the Andes.  It circumscribes the Amazon basin, the most spectacular crucible of biodiversity on the planet.  It drains to the eastern seaboard, which has some coral reefs (including the ones we’ll survey), but nothing like the Great Barrier Reef.  By contrast, Australia is mostly a giant flat arid zone (Google the awesomely ominous sounding “yilgarn kraton” to learn more) with its “great” mountain range on the eastern coast, where a once-active subduction zone scraped off enough Pacific sea floor to make a strip of lan on which >75% of Aussies live.  I say “great” because even the highest of the Snowy Mountains is a pimple compared to the Andes.  There are rainforests in appropriate microclimate pockets along the great dividing range, sure, but not like the vast unending ones we flew over today; there just isn’t the volume of reliable rain (recent floods notwithstanding).  Partly as a result of that tiny eastward drainage and low rainfall, the tropical coastal waters of north eastern Australia are nutrient poor and therefore ideal for coral reefs; accordingly, the Great Barrier Reef is the Amazon rainforest of reefs.  They are two countries with priceless biodiversity treasures, of totally different kinds, as dictated by the constraints of their respective geological histories and their prevailing climates.

We came within three miles of the mighty Amazon today; it was just a pity that it was a vertical three miles!

During an awkwardly long layover in Rio de Janeiro, we decided to bail on the airport and make a lightning visit to the famous Christ the Redeemerstatue; a gargantuan art deco edifice that presides over the spectacular sprawl of beachfront hi-rises and mountain-clinging favelasbelow.  I’m really glad we did too, because the views were stunning and the statue itself a marvel; I’m not a religious guy, but you have to admire the inspiration that drives people to conceive of and build such things on that tiny inhospitable peak at the top of Corcovado.

Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro

After that we made our connection to Vitoria, in the state of Espiritu Santu, north of Rio.  Here we will meet up with our Harbor Branch and Brazilian colleagues for a research co-ordination meeting tomorrow; then a short charter flight to meet the R/V Seward Johnsonat our port of departure in Bahia state.  Right now though, it’s caipirinha o’clock!


Which came first, the Abrolhos or the Abrolhos?

In just a couple of days I’ll join a group of scientists from Brazil, Australia and the US for an expedition to study the reefs of the Abrolhos platform, off Bahia state in Brazil.  When this trip was first mentioned I have to admit being confused.  That’s because, as a native Aussie, to me “the Abrolhos reefs” means a group of reefs and emergent islands off the remote Northwest coast of Western Australia.  So why are there two Abrolhos Reefs, and which came first?

My Brazilian friend and colleague Julia Todorov tells me that Abrolhos is a contraction of two Portuguese words, abro and olhos, meaning “open eyes” as in “Keep your eyes peeled, Marcos, lest you plough the ship into the reef!”.  That etymology is listed in several online sources.  The above Wikipedia link for the Aussie Abrolhos, however, says its not a true etymology, but I don’t see why not, since it applies just as well to reefs as it would to caltrops: basically, watch where you’re going!

Frederick de Houtman (Wikimedia commons)None of that explains why the Aussie reefs got the name, since the Portuguese did not explore Australia that we know of.  Nor does it explain which place name came first.  That’s a bit easier.  The Australian reefs are properly called the “Houtman Abrolhos” or “Frederick de Houtman’s Abrolhos” and were named by de Houtman, the captain of the Dutch East India Company ship Dordrecht in 1619.  He almost certainly named them after the Brazilian reefs, which he had previously sailed through in 1598.  The Brazilian reefs were already known and named at that time, so by name, the Brazilian Abrolhos came first.

Putting the trivialities of human history aside for a moment, we might ask a bigger question: which Abrolhos ultimately came first? Y’know, biologically.  Which reef grew up from the seafloor first?  In short, it was a tie.  Both reefs showed a major growth spurt around 8,000 years ago in the midst of the “last transgression”, when sea level started rising as the ice caps melted away from the last ice age.  This is a pretty common pattern everywhere.  In fact, there are pretty much no extant coral reefs anywhere older than about 12,000 years, since they were all high and dry back then (the reef organisms having receded into what are now much deeper areas).

OK then, if the current reef communities of the Abrolhoses (?) are both about the same age, then which reef came first geologically?  Which one has the longest geological history?  Chalk that one up as a win in the Houtman column.  The current  Houtman Abrolhos islands and reefs sit atop limestone bedrock that is the remnant of a coral reef that grew in the same location in the Quaternary period, before about 125,000 years ago.  The Brazilian Abrolhos, on the other hand, sit atop a layer of flood basalts (i.e. volcanic rocks, solidified lava) that spread out across the edge of the continental shelf during the Eocene (>30 million years ago).  When scientists core into the reef, the oldest reef they find before they hit the volcanic layer is a bit over 7,000 years; suggesting that the Brazilian reefs are relatively much younger (see Dillenburg & Hesp, 2009

The Houtman Abrolhos in Australia. (Wikimedia commons)Aside from the name and the similar recent growth spurt, the Abrolhos reefs have little in common; Houtman Abrolhos is a faily typical Indo-Pacific reef with high coral, invertebrate and fish diversity growing on a relict of an even older reef, whereas Brazilian Abrolhos is species poor and dominated by just a few coral and fish species growing on a volcanic base.  Could the short geological history of the Brazilian Abrolhos account for the biological differences?  Maybe, but biogeography probably has a lot to do with it too.  Houtman Abrolhos are not too far from the Indo-Pacific center of diversity, the highest tropical diversity there is and source of much species richness throughout the Indo-Pacific, whereas Brazilian Abrolhos are remote and cut-off from other major centers of reef diversity.  There will be a lot more to talk about regarding the diversity in Brazilian Abrolhos in future posts.

So the Aussie Abrolhos has probably been around quite a bit longer, but the Brazilian Abrolhos has been known to people (European at least) longer by about 100 years.  Despite this, the Brazilian reefs are still poorly known, having come to research and conservation attention only for the last two decades or so.  Its fantastic to think that on this expedition we will still have so much to learn about such a unique ecosystem.  I look forward to reporting  from onboard the R/V Seward Johnson some new biology in the Brazilian Abrolhos, starting later this week.  I hope you’ll stick around and join in the conversation.


Open Lab 2010

Jason Goldman at the Thoughtful Animal is the editor of the 2010 Open Lab anthology, a compilation of the best scientific blog posts for the year, as judged by a group of volunteer science blog editors.  Interestingly, the Open Lab anthology is printed as an actual paper book (remember them?) to serve as a lasting record of science writing from blog-land, so keep an eye out here for links to the final printed product, when it emerges.  In the meantime, I’m thrilled to be one of the 60 chosen from 900 submissions for Dancing With a Giant, a piece written while on field work in Mexico for Georgia Aquarium , after an especially profound encounter with a whale shark.  Thanks to the editors and congrats to the other bloggers chosen for the 2010 Collection!


Abrolhos, here we come!

Mussismilia braziliensis at the Abrolhos Reefs, BrazilThings have been a little quiet around here over the holiday break, but that’s about to change in a big way.  In just under a week’s time, I’ll be representing Georgia Aquarium in a new international consortium of scientists for an exciting expedition to explore the Abrolhos reef platform off the coast of Brazil from January 20-28.  The Abrolhos are completely unique reefs: they’re the largest and southernmost in the South Atlantic and biologically very different from perhaps more familiar Pacific or Caribbean Reefs.  You’d think they might show some similarity to Caribbean reefs, but not so, possibly because unfavourable currents and the influence of the Amazon pouring into the ocean between the two may serve as an important barrier to animal dispersal (more on that in future posts).  There’s tremendously high endemicity there, which is to say that many of the resident critters are found nowhere else in the world.  Of key importance is the main reef-forming coral Mussismilia braziliensis, a massive species that forms an unusual bommie-like reef structure called a mushroom reef; we’ll meet this species in more detail later too.

The main aim of the expedition is actually to go a bit deeper than the known parts of the Abrolhos, and look at the depths where light starts to get dim: the mesophotic zone.  These parts of many reef platforms are poorly known and nowhere moreso than at Abrolhos, where these areas are completely unexplored.  That’s because mesophotic reefs are beyond comfortable SCUBA diving range and therefore hard to get to.   To study them between 300 and 3,000ft in depth, we’ll be using the Johnson Sea Link, a submersible that operates from the R/V Seward Johnson, which is on a 5 year assignment from it’s home at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Insitute to CEPEMAR, a Brazilian environmental services company.

The Johnson Sea Link and R/V Seward Johnson

There’s much more to come in future blog posts here and in my tweet stream @para_sight or using the hashtag #Abrolhos2011.  We’ll discuss the Abrolhos reefs, mesophotic reefs, some geology and biology, as well as meeting the people and partners and exploring the logistic challenges of making a complex expedition like this happen.  So, I encourage you to follow along and also to share this information with colleagues and (especially) students of marine science so that they might also follow and share in the excitement of discovering new parts of the ocean floor, never seen before, in tropical Brazil.


A DonorsChoose update

In the fall, the readers of this and other marine science blogs supported a combined “Ocean Bloggers United for Education” campaign to raise money for improving K-12 marine science education in underprivileged schools.  I just wanted to update you on one of the pet projects of this blog: the Mirror Universe project at a Paulding County middle school here in Georgia.  We reached their funding goal and the class was able to purchase the necessary materials to study underwater topography and the forces that shape it.  Mrs L., the class teacher, writes:

“Thank you for your incredible generosity. My school is facing budget cuts and without your donation my students would not have been able to use these amazing supplies. My students have had a great time using the rock samples, globe, aquarium and seafloor model.  We used the aquarium and seafloor model to learn vocabulary and create topographic maps. Students are always surprised to discover that there are mountains, canyons, and volcanoes below the ocean’s surface. When we used the globe to locate the features they were able to understand that the geographic features on the land and under the water are very similar. This year my students were able to see and touch the features on the ocean floor. I feel like the aquarium, seafloor model and globe really helped my students understand this unit.  I can’t wait to use the aquarium to teach my students about currents and seafloor resources. I know that seeing the currents in action is going to help my students understand more about the ocean.”

Some of the kids will also be coming to the Aquarium for a visit later in February.  I’ll be sure to post pics and stories from that visit when they come.  My thanks again to the kind readers who joined the marine science bloggers in donating to improve science education. Truth will out!


A site visit to Harbor Branch

The submersible Johnson Sea Link aboard R/V Seward JohnsonOn Thursday morning Bruce Carlson and I rose early and headed out to visit Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce Florida; the first visit for both of us.  I had long been aware of their marine engineering division and the important role of the R/V Seward Johnson and its attendant submersibles - the Clelia (which we had on display at Georgia Aquarium for a while) and the Johnson Sea Link - in NOAA’s UNOLS oceanographic fleet, but there was much more in awaiting us at that storied campus than I think either of us expected.

Harbor Branch was established in the early 70’s as a private non-profit ocean research center by J. Seward Johnson, the son of Johnson & Johnson founder Robert Wood Johnson.  More recently HBOI became a part of Florida Atlantic University, based a ways up the A1A in Boca Raton

As we toured the site with Assistant Executive Director Megan Davis on the first day, I was first surprised and eventually staggered at the scale of their aquaculture actvities.  Their experimental production facilities extend over several acres of spotless Quonset huts on the shores of the Indian River Lagoon and include programs on conch (queen and fighting), clams (hard and sunray venus) and marine snails, though some of their biggest efforts are currently directed towards Florida pompano.  Harbor Branch also has an extensive marine drug discovery program that searches for active compounds among the thousands of species in their collection, which might then be used to treat human diseases.  There’s a great synergy between that program and the ocean exploration group in that submersibles can bring back new candidate species (especially deep sea sponges) from research cruises around the world, which the clever biochemists and microbiologists can then go to work studying for their potential applications.  Its painstaking and tremendously challenging work, but they’ve had at least one anti-cancer drug through to Phase I clinical trials, so the potential is there.  Finally there’s a well-established marine mammal program at Harbor Branch, which includes studies on the health of dolphins and manatees in Indian River Lagoon and is responsible for responding to all strandings on that part of the Atlantic Florida coast and the pathology research on those unfortunate animals that don’t make it.  The aquarium is intimately involved in these studies because our Cheif Veterinary Officer Dr. Greg Bossart was based at HBOI for many years

On the second day we also toured Oceans, Reefs and Aquariums: a private ornamental fish and coral culture company that is co-located on the HBOI campus and breeds over 70 varieties of marine ornamental fishes.  Many people are surprised to learn that marine ornamentals like clownfish, dottybacks, cardinal fish, mandarin gobies and seahorses can be and are bred on commercial scales; there seems to be a well-entrenched dogma that marine species don’t breed in aquariums.  Of course, thats not true, they breed all the time.  But, as Bruce would say, its not the spawning thats the problem, its the early rearing and especially the need for speciality foods.  Why so hard?  Well, many species cultured for food have large yolky eggs and big larvae that can feed on common foods like brine shrimp nauplii straight out of their eggs, but reef fishes are different; they often have tiny eggs and larvae that are smaller than many of the food items they might otherwise be fed.  Perhaps not surprisingly, those marine ornamentals that have been bred so far have larger eggs than some of their relatives, but successfully rearing fishes like angels and butterfly fish is still proving to be a tremendous challenge.  Not so with corals.  ORA’s coral culture greenhouse is replete with relatively low-tech trough systems where technicians skillfully “frag” coral colonies (cut little bits off the branches) in exactly the same way as a horticulturist might take cuttings from a plant.  The end result is successful multiplication and large scale propagation of many branching, plating and massive corals.  This provides a premium marketable product while reducing impact on natural reef systems because no further extraction is needed after the earliest parent colonies.  In cheesy business-speak: it’s truly a win-win.

Happy acroporid coral frags at the ORA facility

While we were there, Bruce and I also gave seminars about our respective studies - his on resiliance of Fijian coral reefs to bleaching and mine on (what else?) whale sharks.  It was a lot to fit into two days, but I came away with a much deeper appreciation for the breadth and depth of programs at one of the world’s best-known marine science facilities.  I hope it was the first of many such visits because they’ve got a lot of great stuff going on there.


Georgia Aquarium is Five Years Old today!

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the opening of Georgia Aquarium.  I’ve been along for most of the ride since consulting before the aquarium opened, and it’s been an amazing experience.  Starting in the crazy busy opening days, through some tough times in 2007, to the current scene, which is great, its been a spectacularly interesting, challenging and ultimately satisfying endeavour to be a part of.  We’ve been able to share the wonders of the ocean with over 10 million guests so far, and during that time we’ve generated new science about some of our flagship species such as whale sharks, manta rays, beluga whales, dolphins and penguins.  I’ve met and worked with some tremendously passionate and talented people and been introduced to new ways of thinking about biology, animal collections, management and what you might call “non-traditional” science.  I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything!

So HAPPY BIRTHDAY Georgia Aquarium! I am excited about what the future holds for us all. And to those of you who haven’t been yet, I invite you to come to downtown Atlanta and share in a collection the likes of which you won’t see anywhere else.  Dive in, the water’s fine!


Sometimes *they* look at us too

Check out this cool bit of footage from our recent research visits to Mexico to study whale sharks with the Georgia Aquarium team.  We were diving under a large aggregation of whale sharks when one of them broke from the surface to come and visit, checking out first one diver, and then the other, possibly attracted by the bubbles.  Whale sharks normally cruise around at the surface, largely indifferent to human presence except for occasionally rolling their eye across you as they pass, but this one was clearly interacting with us.  Colleague Betty Galvan tells me about a small (if 4m could be considered small) female that followed her for 20 minutes in Honduras one time, so interactive she described it as being like a puppy.  I suspect, when conditions are right, whale sharks can be curious or even inquisitive critters.  Its hard to prove, but I don’t think there’s much doubt from the video.  The aquarium has been conducting a behavioural study on the collection animals for some time, but more work on their behaviour in the natural setting is desperately needed.  Hopefully the aquarium study can refine the techniques needed to get out there and understand what they do in the field.


You can follow my YouTube channel here, or the aquarium’s channel here. Footage Copyright 2010 Bruce Carlson/Georgia Aquarium and used with permission


Georgia Aquarium work featuring on Nat Geo

Some of the work being done at Georgia Aquarium is featuring on National Geographic’s Inside Wild blog lately.  Check out some of these:

Manta Ray training - Dennis Christen and other training staff talk about what it takes to train the giant rays

Invasive Lionfish - biologist Heather Dziedzic discusses the spread of the beautiful but destructive lionfish throughout the Atlantic states and Caribbean

Giant Pacific Octopus - features a nice photo of the aquarium’s octopus

Also, check out this recent news story about how whale sharks feed, which is based on the same paper I referred to in a previous post.




Help Dr. D.'s kids get an(other) aquarium with DonorsChoose

No, not me.  I’ve already got an aquarium, its rather nice :-)

Dr. D.’s Elementary School class from Milledgeville GA is the next project I’d like to tackle on the DonorsChoose campaign of Ocean Bloggers United for Education.  They need $150 more to set up an aquarium for the school, so that the kids can learn about aquatic life in the classroom.  This time around, if we can get them to their fundraising goal, Georgia Aquarium has very kindly agreed match that by donating another aquarium and/or other aquarium gear (stands, lights, filters, nets, gravel etc.) that can benefit another this or another class at Creekside Elementary. In other words, help them buy one tank, and they’ll get one free!  Creekside is listed as a high poverty school, so this could make a big difference to the school and the kids.

  1. PLEASE go to the DonorsChoose page for this project and donate what you can.
  2. Then email your receipt to Malia at the blog Shell and Mantle and please tell her you’re a DeepTypeFlow reader.
  3. Then sit back and bask in the glow of knowing you helped promote aquatic science to the next generation of budding Zissous!

WOW - you guys rock!

I am thrilled to tell you that Mrs. L.’s Mirror Universe Project on DonorsChoose was fully funded by the time I logged in this morning!  Thanks to those who donated and some matching money from Disney Planet Challenge, the kids at Paulding Middle School will be able to study submarine landscapes and how they are shaped by currents.  I will also be contacting Mrs. L. to arrange for the kids to visit Georgia Aquarium, where I will give them a personalised behind the scenes tour.  Two lucky donors will also get an email about their BTS.

SInce we got a project fully funded in just 3 days (!) and the challenge goes until November, I will look for another suitable project for you to show some love to.  In the meantime, thanks and THANKS!


Everything you wanted to know about how whale sharks feed

I’m really excited about a new paper that’s finally out about how whale sharks feed, from the way their filter pads are built to what they eat and how much.  I’m not an author on the paper but I’ve been a witness to a lot of the work and its terrific to see it come to fruition.  So who’s it by and what’s it about?

Phil Motta is the senior author, with 11 co-authors from Georgia Aquarium, Mote marine lab, Project DOMINO and the University of California.  Eleven seems like a lot of co-authors, but it’s a very comprehensive and very broad ranging look at feeding in the worlds largest fish.

First the what.  Many folks are aware that whale sharks are filter feeders, meaning that they swim the worlds oceans sieving tiny food particles from the water.  That much was fairly obvious from their enormous mouths and 20 filter pads that are visible inside.  What wasn’t known was exactly what they eat and how much, especially relative to how much energy they spend, a balancing act we can call the energy budget.  For the first time, Phil and his colleagues were able to measure the size of the whale sharks mouth, how much time they spend with it open and the speed at which they swim, and from that the amount of water that they filter in an average day.  By combining that with measurements of plankton density in the coastal waters of Mexico where whale sharks gather and nutritional analyses of samples taken there, they worked out how much whale sharks eat in that natural setting.  The answer: between 1.5 and 2.7 kg (3-6lbs) an hour, scaling up to between 15 and 30,000 kilocalories a day (up to 125,000 kilojoules).  Not surprisingly, the amount of plankton in the water was higher where whale sharks were eating than where they were not, mostly due to calanoid copepods and sergestid shrimps (one of which, with the cool genus name of Lucifer, is illustrated below).  That could mean whale sharks really like those items, or just that they really like dense patches of food, and those ones just happened to be shrimps and copepods.  Or it could be both.

Some of the coolest stuff in the paper, though, is about HOW whale sharks feed.  They filter, yes, but not like baleen whales and not like other filter-feeding fishes.  A baleen whale takes a huge mouthful of water and then squeezes it out through their baleen combs, which trap the food items, like pasta gets caught in a colander.  Thats a perpendicular or dead-head filter, and the problem with those is that they have to be backflushed from time to time to blow the particles off the screen (left panel below).  In whale sharks, on the other hand (right panel below), water flows mostly parallel to the filter surface, only deviating slightly to dip across the filter surface and siphon out through the gills.  Food particles, which have more momentum, don’t get trapped on the filter but carry on to the back of the mouth, forming an ever more concentrated ball of food.  This is the same principle behind plankton nets and its very efficient because the filter doesn’t clog up with particles the way a baleen plate (or standard kitchen colander) would, and it rarely needs backflushing.

Its an ingenious system, illustrated nicely in the figure above from Elizabeth Brainerd’s 2001 paper in Nature. 

I could go on all day about whale sharks and their feeding, or you can skip the middle man and go get the PDF of Phil’s paper here.  Its well worth a read; there are some great images and a far more interesting and detailed discussion than the precis I have here.  Check it out.  You can learn more about Georgia Aquarium whale shark research from the tag list on the left, or by going here.

Motta, P., Maslanka, M., Hueter, R., Davis, R., de la Parra, R., Mulvany, S., Habegger, M., Strother, J., Mara, K., & Gardiner, J. (2010). Feeding anatomy, filter-feeding rate, and diet of whale sharks Rhincodon typus during surface ram filter feeding off the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico Zoology DOI: 10.1016/j.zool.2009.12.001

Brainerd, E. (2001). Caught in the Crossflow Nature, 412 (6845), 387-388 DOI: 10.1038/35086666


Whale Sharks on Nat Geo Inside Wild

Some of the work we did in Mexico this summer will be featured on the National Geographic blog Inside Wild over the last quarter of this year.  The latest installment penned by Jodi Kendall, who accompanied us to Mexico, can be found here.  Check it out, and watch that space for future installments!  Learn more about Georgia Aquarium whale shark research here.


Whale shark genome schwag has been unbridled!

This is so cool!  To raise funds for the whale shark genomics research on which I am one of the lead investigators, Georgia Aquarium has had a limited run of custom Silly Bands made - that latest of wildly popular kids fashion accessories.  In each pack is a band for each letter of the genetic code (for the non-biologists among you, that’s A, C, T and G), as well as a first-of-its-kind whale shark and the Aquarium’s spiffy G-fish logo.  With these bad-boys your kids can be fashionable and learn about genetics and marine biology at the same time.  Its not just for kids; heck, I am wearing them right now (and I feel cooler already!)

 The exclusive whale shark genome Silly Bands. Go on, you know you want them.

They’re exclusive to the aquarium and you can bask in the glow of their rubbery goodness for just $3 a pack, with all proceeds going to the whale shark genome project.  The best way to get them is to visit the aquarium in downtown Atlanta, but if you’re not in the ATL, don’t despair; if you buy five or more packs (i.e. $15), you can send a check directly to Stephanie at the address below and she’ll send them right to you.  PLUS you get to say you helped scientists at the Aquarium and Emory University to sequence the genome of the world’s largest fish, as well as participating in the craziest bit of crowd-sourced science funding ever.  SCIENCE - love it!


Stephanie Brown

Assistant Manager

Georgia Aquarium

225 Baker Street

Atlanta, GA 30313

(please make checks out to “Georgia Aquarium”)

Georgia Aquarium is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit institution