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Entries in manta (5)


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.




Shark Week is here

In the past I've had mixed feelings about Discovery Channel's "shark week".  Its great for raising the   profile of our toothy friends, but it has tended to dwell on the gory or sensationalist stuff in the past.  This year, though, they seem to be pushing the conservation and science end of things a bit more, which of course makes me happy.  Georgia Aquarium (my employer) is their partner this year on the website, and they are featuring the web cam from our Ocean Voyager exhibit, which houses manta rays, whale sharks, lots of other sharks and a great teleost (finfish) collection too.  They're also hosting website Q&A with aquarium shark experts (tonights is at 10PM) after each premier on the TV channel, and vignettes from life working with sharks at the aquarium, including a couple of my lab-coated self.

So if you're into sharks, check it out.  And if you don't totally dig sharks - well, what's wrong with ya? 


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.


While we're talking genomes...'s something distinctly more marine. 

ResearchBlogging.orgA little while ago I drew attention to Andrea Marshall's paper showing that there's not one but possibly three species of manta ray (see Whats A Manta Do?).  In the preamble for that post, I drew analogy between mantas and killer whales as monotypic species; that is, the only members of their genus, a taxonomic one-of-a-kind.  Well blow me down if some new genomics work with killer whales doesn't suggest that there's more than one species of those, too!  Morin and colleagues used a different approach than Marshall, whose work was mostly based on colors and patterns and tooth shape.  Instead, they used "massively parallel pyrosequencing" (try saying that with a mouth full of marbles) to show genetic differences in the mitochondrial genome.  So what the heck does that mean?  Well, lets just say its sequencing a whole bunch of DNA at once, using DNA not from the nucleus of the cell, but from its engine room: the mitochondrion.  The technology is actually a really, fantastic example of miniaturisation; perhaps I'll write about it one day.  But, I digress...  Morin and friends recommend three species of Orcinus orca, with two more subspecies as well.  Subspecies are not required by the taxonomic code, but they are eligible for separate protections under the Endangered Species Act, so its a meaningful result for conservation biologists too; they'll now have to make assessments of each species and subspecies to see which, if any, require additional protections.

To the experts, its not a total surprise that there are multiple species in either of these groups.  You can bet your bum that they set out to confirm a hunch that there are more than one, leaving the surprise for the rest of us less familiar with these beasties and who never saw the subtle differences.  That's OK, I like surprises, especially when they involve new and unexplored diversity, right under our noses.  Maybe we should take a harder look at a few more monotypics, for the inevitable species flocks hiding in the details or the DNA.  Whale sharks, basking sharks, Mola, anyone?

Morin, P., Archer, F., Foote, A., Vilstrup, J., Allen, E., Wade, P., Durban, J., Parsons, K., Pitman, R., Li, L., Bouffard, P., Abel Nielsen, S., Rasmussen, M., Willerslev, E., Gilbert, M., & Harkins, T. (2010). Complete mitochondrial genome phylogeographic analysis of killer whales (Orcinus orca) indicates multiple species Genome Research DOI: 10.1101/gr.102954.109


What's a Manta do?

Manta rays (Manta birostris) surely vie for the title most spectacular among the large animals in the ocean. Not only do they grow to enormous sizes, but they are placid, graceful, and generally unafraid of humans, which means we can get close to them in the water and really appreciate how incredible they are, up nice and personal. I always thought that mantas were a one-of-a-kind species - the only member of its genus - like humans, whale sharks, koala bears or killer whales. Luckily, Andrea Marshall is not like me. She and her colleagues took a closer look at the body features, colours and patterns on lots of mantas from all around the world and they concluded that there are at least two, and possibly even three, manta ray species. They’re not the first people to propose this, so technically what they have done is “resurrect” the name Manta alfredi, the Prince Alfred manta, which had been made a synonym of Manta birostris some time ago (read the paper for the full sordid taxonomic history of mantas). The differences between the two species are subtle and mostly to do with the colour of the lips, wings and shoulders, the spots on the belly and the presence or absence of a bony mass near the base of the tail, but nonetheless they probably reflect real differences between the animals and, under the current definition of “species”, they probably cannot successfully interbreed. The third potential species they call “Manta sp. cf. birostris” which is taxonomist shorthand for “as-yet undescribed manta species sort-of like M. birostris”.

If you have ever been to the Georgia Aquarium, you may have seen one or both of their mantas in the Ocean Voyager exhibit. If you look closely at these and compare them to the Marshall paper, you’ll see that one (called “Nandi”) is Manta alfredi and the other (“Tallulah”) is more like Manta sp. cf. birostris. Its slightly ironic that in light of this new paper, neither of them is the “actual” or original “manta ray”.  Of course, they are both still spectacular animals!

Who cares about all this anyway? What does it matter if there’s one or three or a dozen manta species? As it happens, it matters a great deal! Taxonomy underlies everything else in biology. What good is a population estimate, for example, if that estimate confuses two species? We would grossly overestimate both, potentially leading to overexploitation. More generally, how can we understand migration patterns, breeding grounds, diets, ecological roles or behaviour, if we are constantly confounded? These are, of course, somewhat self-centered concerns about the quality of our science or management decisions; a species count is about the most fundamental measure of nature that we have, and those sorts of diversity stats are predicated on a decent taxonomy. Consider this: how much of a ginormous “oops!” would it be if we were to protect a species in one area of ocean, only to learn that the animal in the area we didn’t protect was actually a different species?   Perhaps a more important reason it matters is for the mantas themselves and the rest of their ecosystem.  Each species has an intrinsic right to exist and a value to the ecosystem its part of. 

I just love the idea that even for familiar, charismatic mega-animals like mantas, if we look a little closer, nature shows us hidden diversity: surprising, unexpected, and exciting.

Marhsall, Andrea D., Compagno, Leonard J.V., & Bennett, Michael B. (2009). Redescription of the genus Manta with resurrection of Manta alfredi (Krefft, 1868) (Chondrichthyes; Myliobatoidei; Mobulidae) Zootaxa, 2301, 1-28