Seven silly sea science words

Somewhere along the line people got the idea that science is scary and intimidating. But, like so much of this world … science is much more than what we first think. Science can be silly. Science can be fun. Science can be collecting and analyzing data. But, science is creating questions. And, science is sharing results.

Science can even make you smile. To prove it – here are some silly sounding words that make me laugh every time I say them. I actually had to have my daughter narrate this short film because “caudle peduncle” is just too much sometimes. Hopefully this clip will make you curious to explore new words and realms within science. It’s bound to make you smile at least! By the way, do you have a favorite sounding sea science word?

What's your faorite sea science word?

Seven silly sea science words Music by Colin Miller/Narrated by Winnie Miller

 

What’s in your medicine cabinet affects aquatic life

Yup, that’s right – what is in your medicine cabinet (e.g., anxiety medication, birth control) affects not only us, but animals in streams, lakes, and even the ocean. As the President’s Cancer Panel noted in a 2010 report, “Pharmaceuticals have become a considerable source of environmental contamination. Drugs of all types enter the water supply when they are excreted or improperly disposed of; the health impact of long-term exposure to varying mixtures of these compounds is unknown”. It might not seem like the most obvious connection. However, as the National Capital Poison Center points out there are many different ways our medications mutate. Here are just a few of the ways drugs enter the water supply:

  1. Drugs that are applied to the skin are washed down the drain.
  2. Drugs can be eliminated through our waste and are then flushed down the toilet (even more direct when it’s from a pet and it’s left on the side of the road).
  3. Healthcare facilities (e.g., mental, dental) that are not legally required to discard drugs as hazardous materials.
  4. There may be ‘straight-piping’ (direct release of untreated sewage into waterways) or overflow of stormwater that bypasses treatment facilities.

Why this matters is incredibly frightening and here are some examples of why:

  1. Anxious Perch: Researchers at the Umeå University in Sweden found that perch exposed to an anxiety medication, Oxazepam, departed from their normal behaviors of hunting in schools by becoming loners and more brave by hunting on their own. They also noticed that the fish seemed to eat more, therefore disturbing the balance of their habitat. (February 2013)
  2. Suicidal Shrimp: Researchers are the University of Portmouth in the U.K. found that through pharmaceutical waste runoff shrimp had been exposed to antidepressants and it was causing an unusual amount of them to die off. (February 2012)
  3. Autistic Fathead Minnows: Researchers from the Idaho State University discovered “psychoactive medications in water affect the gene expression profiles of fathead minnows in a way that mimics the gene expression patterns associated with autism“. (June 2012)
  4. Fish Tissue Fiasco: Researchers from Baylor University studied fish tissue for human drugs and found drugs used to treat high cholesterol, allergies, high blood pressure, bipolar disorder, and depression.  (May 2009)
  5. Infertile and Hermaphroditic Fish: Mother Nature News wrote how birth control pills caused male fish to be less fertile and increased the number of hermaphroditic fish. (September 2009)
  6. and, finally – Did you know, according to the Associated Press, that drinking water of at least 51 million Americans carries low concentrations of many familiar drugs? (2008)
Don’t worry too much though. You’d have to eat tons of the fish affected by the drugs for it to amount to even one pill. But, if you are concerned about how to keep your waterway clean from pharmaceuticals it’s a good idea to never buy the giant bottle of pills (they’ll surely expire before you’ll use them and then you’ll have to toss it), return old drugs to your pharmacy because many often have take-back programs (i.e., don’t flush them down the toilet), ask your doctor for samples before you commit to a prescription that might not work, and clean up pet waste.
From National Geographic Magazine

From National Geographic Magazine

Have you heard of any other ways fish or aquatic life are affected by what we put in our waterways?

5 ocean-themed kid costumes from Etsy

It’s not too late to find a costume for your little one to show-off a growing love of the ocean for this Halloween! Here are five adorable costumes I found on Etsy that are worth some serious consideration. (The only reason I was looking was because I keep checking to see if anyone has made a horseshoe crab costume yet, no luck.)

Anglerfish from Pip and Bean

Fish from Laurie’s Gift

Orca from Pip and Bean

Tiger shark from Laurie’s Gift

Shark from Cute and Comfy Costumes

… and 2 bonus costumes for the canine family member.

Dog seahorse from hatzforbratz

Dog shark from Sew Dog Gone Creative

10 fish you don’t see during Shark Week

I confess. I’ve given up on Shark Week. It took 25 years to shake me, but for the first time I can remember, I won’t be watching. When I was 16, you couldn’t schedule enough great white and shark attack programming to satisfy me. Danger Beach, Vic Hislop, Air Jaws … it was all good. It’s obviously a winning formula for Discovery, but for me, it’s just not enough any more.

There are 500 species of sharks out there. Probably more. There are so many stories to tell. Here are ten you (probably) won’t see this year during Shark Week:

1. Ocean giants. The two largest fishes on Earth are sharks. Thirty-foot, plankton-eating basking sharks can filter a swimming pool of seawater every hour through sieve-like gill rakers in their throats. Whale sharks grow bigger than school buses, and gather by the hundreds in the waters off Mexico’s Isla Holbox and other global hotspots for seasonal feasts of zooplankton or fish eggs. Despite surviving on this surface-dwelling diet, researchers have also tracked whale sharks to depths of more than 6,000 feet. Why?

2. Glowing deepsea sharks. Lantern sharks glow in the dark and hide in the light. Many species of deepwater sharks, including the lantern sharks, are bioluminescent (i.e., they create their own light). Some of these sharks can even project light from their bellies that closely matches the light filtering down from above, erasing their silhouette. They also happen to be beautiful little creatures with fantastic names, like the velvet belly shark, the taillight shark, and the splendid lantern shark. Wouldn’t you like to meet a splendid lantern shark?

3. Cookie cutters. Shark geeks know all about the cookie-cutter shark, but I always forget that they’re not exactly famous…yet. A big cookie-cutter is less than two feet long and yet they’ve been known to feed on tuna, seals, dolphins, and whales…yes, whales. It’s a neat trick. The cookie-cutters sneak up on large prey, attach themselves with fat, sucking lips and twist and thrash until they pull free a round plug of flesh. These little sharks have a remarkable set of jaws with positively enormous teeth. In fact, the cookie-cutters have the largest tooth-to-body-length ratio of any shark (including the great white).

4. Wobbegongs. Can I interest you in a flat shark with patterns like bad 70’s wallpaper and a mustache that would put Tom Selleck to shame? Wobbegongs are bottom-dwelling masters of camouflage with ornate, branching lobes hanging from their upper jaws that look enough like algae or kelp to attract unsuspecting fishes and crustaceans. Wobbegongs lie in wait until their prey gets just a little too close, then erupt in an explosion of tassels and teeth.

5. Hammers and saws. You may have seen hammerheads during Shark Week, but have you ever seen a winghead shark? Wingheads have ‘hammers’ nearly half their total body length. To what benefit? Don’t know. What’s stranger than a hammerhead? How about a sawshark? Imagine a shark, with a chainsaw blade attached to its face and two long noodle-like nasal barbels for detecting buried prey. You can’t make this stuff up.

6. Here be goblins. All sharks have protrusible jaws. Their choppers are loosely attached to their skull, which allows them to push their jaws forward to get a little extra reach, or to create suction. Goblin shark jaws aren’t just extendable, they’re spring-loaded. Elastic ligaments are stretched taught when the shark’s mouth is closed and slingshot the jaws forward as they open. Goblins may need the extra reach to get out from under their long, wide rostrum…which looks a little like an ironing board (at least to me).

7. Helicoprion. You’ll hear plenty about the mega-monstrous megalodon this week, but I’d rather hear a little more about a real pre-historic elasmobranch enigma. Helicoprion had a strange spiral tooth whorl that early paleontologists had no idea what to do with. Some placed it in the sharks’ mouth, some on their dorsal fin. Some suggested it shot out like a frog’s tongue to ensnare their prey. Though speculation seemed to have settled on a lower jaw placement, at least one author suggests the teeth may have resided in Helicoprion’s throat.

8. The shark that walks like a dog. One of my favorites is the epaulette shark, a charming little carpet shark with a distinctive ocellated spot on its flank and a peculiar habit of locomotion. Epaulettes scamper across the reef on large pectoral and pelvic fins. Truthfully, these sharks look more like salamanders than dogs as they wriggle over complex coral reef habitats…and maybe a little like pigs as they root around in the substrate searching for food with their nasal barbels.

9. The sharks who’re named for cats. The catsharks are the largest family of sharks, and boast some of the strangest and most beautiful sharks in the sea. Some catsharks sport snappy colors and patterns like the striped pajama catshark and the chain dogfish (which is actually a catshark). Others are just bizarre, like the spatulasnout and lollipop catsharks, two hyper-specialized deepsea rarities. The aptly named swell shark gulps seawater (or air) and inflates like a pufferfish when threatened.

10. Sleepers. There’s not only diversity in size, shape, and appearance; there is also surprising variety in the ranges and habitats of sharks. Would you expect to find sharks beneath arctic ice sheets? Greenland sharks and Pacific sleepers are lumbering, flabby, but impressive beasts, surviving and thriving where you’d least expect. Stomach contents range widely from giant squid to halibut to seal and whale blubber to at least one (probably apocryphal) account of an entire reindeer.

That’s ten, but I’m still ignoring that other elusive plankton-feeding giant, the megamouth shark, not to mention the long-tailed threshers, the surrealistic rough sharks, frilled sharks, cowsharks, spotted zebra sharks, and puffadder shysharks. I won’t be watching, so if you hear more than a gee-whiz sound bite on any of these sharks, you’ll have to leave a comment to let me know and my faith will be restored.

I will credit Shark Week for creating a lot of excitement about sharks once a year. Some of the kids thrilled by the antics of bait-addled and target-tempted whites, tigers and other super predators will go on to become scientists, conservationists and marine educators…but many others will merely have tired shark stereotypes newly instilled or freshly reinforced. The challenge falls to educators, researchers, and shark enthusiasts to pick up the gauntlet and fill in the blanks for those viewers who just don’t know what they’re missing when it comes to the unappreciated (but critically important) diversity of sharks.

This post was contributed by Jim Wharton, Director of Conservation and Education at the Seattle Aquarium.

5 (more) fun facts about seahorses

Seahorse at the National Aquarium in DC

Seahorses are a fascinating species to observe. I took my nephew to the National Aquarium in DC this past weekend and we were memorized by the  aquatic centaurian-like bony fish (pictured right).  I’ve written about seahorses in the past, and from the traffic of that post I can tell that a seahorse post is much appreciated by the BCS readers, so I thought I’d take a some time to delve into more of their hallmark traits.

Here are  5 more fun facts about seahorses to add to the list (written almost 3 years ago!). Please feel free to comment below or email info@beachchairscientist.com if you have something you’d love to share about seahorses!

  1. The genus name of the approximately 35 species of seahorses is ‘Hippocampus’. ‘Hippo’ is Greek for ‘horse’ and ‘kampos’ is Greek for ‘sea monster’. The cross section of the hippocampus in our brain is shaped like a seahorse.
  2. For over 400 years many Eastern cultures have been using seahorses in medicines to cure asthma, lower cholesterol, as well as prevent arteriosclerosis.
  3. Seahorses uses their strong prehensile tail to grasp onto sea grasses and other stable plants. They are decent (not strong) swimmers and use their snout to suck up food (plankton, as well as tiny fish and shrimp).
  4. Often storms are a threat to adult seahorses as they will pull the seahorse off its anchoring plant. Other natural threats can include sea turtles, sharks, rays, and tuna. A major non-natural threat are divers that like to scoop up seahorses for aquariums (although, many ‘seahorse ranches’ are popping up).
  5. Seahorses lack the scales that a ‘normal’ fish might have and instead have bony plates arranged as rings. The bony plates are very similar to that of the Stegosaurus. Each seahorse species has a unique number of rings.

If you want to learn more on seahorses (in particular – how humans have learned to immortalize them in artwork, literature, and myths),  I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Poseidon’s Steeed: The Story of Seahorse, From Myth to Reality by Helen Scales.

How do fish give birth? Revisited

From time to time, I like to revisit the more popular posts and present either new material or the material in a new format. Below is a simplified understanding of the three general ways that fish give birth (i.e., Within each category below there are sub-categories that I did not get into here). Please feel free to comment below or send me an email at info@beachchairscientist.com if you have any additional questions.

What are skates and how are they different from rays?

Recently, a subscriber wanted to learn more about skates. Great question since many of us think of ‘roller’ when we think ‘skate’. Skates are a species that often get overshadowed by rays, especially considering rays tend to be boldly colored while skates tend to be rather dreary and drab in coloration. Rays are also found closer to the coast and skates prefer deep water so we may be more familiar with running into (or focused on learning to avoid) rays. However, there are exceptions to those generalizations within the 100 species of skates and 240 species of rays found worldwide.

They’re both flat diamond-shaped fish with their mouths on the underside of their body. Both of their body types can be described as dorsoventral. Skates and rays are cartilaginous fish, like sharks and chimaera, which all make up the class Chondrichthyes (Con-drick-thees). Cartilage is the material that makes up our nose and ears and is more flexible than bone. Skates and rays  have modified fins, resembling wings, and often look as though they are flying through the ocean.

Here are six general guidelines for differentiating a skates and rays.

  • The pelvic fin of skates is divided into two lobes, while the pelvic fin of rays is a single lobe.
  • The tail on skates lacks a stinging spine. Rays have a distinct, saw-edged spine found midway along their body length. (When swimming in the habitat of stingrays it is important to remember to do the ‘stingray shuffle‘.)
  • Many species of skates have bucklers (thorn-like scales along the mid-line of their back and tail. Rays typically have no bucklers.
  • The tail of skates is rather thick and compact, while rays typically have a slender and long tail.
  • Male skates have enlarged scales near their eyes and wingtips, known as ‘malar’ and ‘alar’ spines.  Male rays do not have these scales.
  • Skates live in cold waters, while rays prefer warm seas and rivers.

For more information about skates and rays, check out the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.

Photo (c) www.animals.howstuffworks.com

Can you name the state fish of Hawai’i?

It’s “Humuhumunukunukuāpua’a” in case you missed it when the bartender mentioned it in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. As a bonus, I’ll also give you a rundown of all the other states with a state saltwater/game fish. Some you may already know, but  some might surprise you! I never would have thought that so many states have striped bass designated as a state fish or state saltwater fish. After all, there are over14,000 species of saltwater fish out there.

(If I missed one please feel free to let me know and I’ll add it to the list. All you have to do is leave a comment of email info@beachchairscientist.com.)

Alabama:
Fighting tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) – These fish can absorb oxygen and live in waters with almost no oxygen.

Alaska:
King salmon  (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) – These fish regularly exceed 45 lbs and the largest on record was a 126 lb caught in 1949.


California:
Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus) – These fish are very territorial and call kelp forests home of choice.


Connecticut:
American shad (Alosa sapidissima) – These fish only have one dorsal fin and one anal fin.


Delaware:
Weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) – These fish are not weak at all but quite strong fighters. The name refers to the easily torn part membrane in its mouth.  A fond memory of my childhood involves my grandfather always giving my folks some weakfish he caught on his boat, Irish Eyes.


Florida:
Atlantic sailfish  (Istiophorus albicans) – These fish are the fastest fish in the sea and have been observed at speeds above 65 miles per hour.

Hawai’i:
Humuhumunukunukuāpua’a (Rhinecanthus rectangulus) – This fish has blue teeth.

Maryland:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish are also commonly known as rockfish.

Massachusetts:
Cod (Gadus morhua) – These fish will change colors depending on where it spends its days. If it prefers the sea floor it will appear gray and if it prefers algal areas it will appear greenish.

North Carolina:
Red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) – These fish got their name from their coloring and from the drumming sound produced by their  their swim bladder.

New Hampshire:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish prefer coastlines and are most active in the spring and fall. Sport fishermen love to catch them during the striper runs.

New York:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish are the most popular sportfish on the Atlantic coast. 

Rhode Island:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish prefer to eat before dawn and at dusk. 

South Carolina:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish do not have eyelids so when the sun is out they prefer to retreat to deeper waters.

How is it I can find some species of fish in fresh and saltwater?

The striped bass is the main piscivore of the LSZ

Striped bass

Some species of fish can regulate their salt tolerance easier than others. For instance, many of the species that call the estuary a nursery or breeding ground can adapt to a wide range of salinity (less than 30 ppt). These animals (or plants) are known as euryhaline. Other animals that cannot tolerate a wide range of salinity are known as stenohaline. Some euryhaline species include striped bass, mummuichug, puffer, shad, herring, and sturgeon.

Snapple real fact #800: Most lipstick contains fish scales

Yes, that is correct. Not a surprising real fact once you realize the shiny fish scales are used to create that pearl essence look.

The scales are taken as a by product from a relatively large scale commercial fish processing industry of herring. Herring are one of the most abundant and most important fish groups in the world. Herring are not only important to the food web in the ocean but also to the health of many coastal communities. You can get a glimpse of a family fishing for herring in Alaska on the TLC show, “Hook, Line and Sister“. Also, on the Atlantic coast the Herring Alliance is “a coalition of environmental organizations that formed in May 2007 to protect and restore ocean wildlife and ecosystems in the northeast United States, from Virginia to Maine, by reforming the Atlantic herring fishery. We seek to accomplish this mission through public education, advocacy and support of ecosystem-based fisheries management.”