Superlatives of the sea

This past Friday I had a particularly curious and enthusiastic fifth block Oceanography class. All of their questions were marine science related so I broke out some notecards and asked them to write all of their burning inquiries down. I wanted to tackle them thoughtfully … here I am! My students are amazing inspiration and I’m quite grateful to them for some fun reason to get back to writing here.

My most entertaining question was “What’s the most extravagant animal in the ocean?” I mean, there are just so many ways to think on it. I asked on Twitter and got lots of good ideas … Since I spend my days in a high school, I went with some superlative options. These are a few I came up with but I am looking to see what you all might think: Octopus (Most likely to win a Noble Prize in Physics), Frogfish (Most confident), Erect-crested penguin (Coolest hair), Leafy sea dragon (Best dressed), or the Whale shark (Biggest life of the party).

What the most extravagant animal in the sea?

What is the most extravagant animal in the sea?

Please send some other suggestions!

 

 

Comparing seabirds, shorebirds, and wading birds

Here is a general overview of 10 characteristics of seabirds (birds that spend most of their life out at sea), shorebirds (migratory birds that scurry along the shore looking for food), and wading birds (taller birds that wade in wetlands for their food).

10 characteristics of seabirds (Examples include albatross, auk, booby, frigatebird, fulmar, gannet, murre, penguin, petrel, puffin, shearwater, and tropicbirds)

1. Seabirds are pelagic, spending most of their lives far out at sea.
2. Seabirds move toward to coastal areas to breed or raise young for a minimal amount of time.
3. Seabirds are light on their undersides and dark on top (an adaptation known as countershading).
4. Seabirds have more feathers than other types of birds for more insulation and waterproofing.
5. Seabirds have flexible webbed feet to help gain traction as they take off for flight from the sea.
6. Some seabirds have unusually sharp claws used to help grasp fish under the water.
7. Some larger seabirds (e.g., albatross) have long, slim wings allowing them to soar for long distances without getting tired.
8. Some smaller seabirds have short wings for maneuvering at the surface of the water.
9. Seabirds have specialized glands to be able to drink the saltwater and excrete salts.
10. Some seabirds (e.g., gannets) have head shape is usually tapered more efficiency in plunge diving.

10 characteristics of shorebirds (Examples include avocets, black skimmer, oystercatchers, plover, sandpiper, and stilt)

1. Shorebirds have long legs, pointed beaks, and long pointed wings.
2. Most shorebirds are migratory (Impressively some shorebirds fly non-stop for 3-4 days, equivalent to a human running continuous 4-minute miles for 60 hours).
3. Shorebirds wade close to the shore and poke their bills into the ground in search of food.
4. Shorebirds are small to medium size wading birds.
5. Shorebirds tend to frequent wetlands and marshes and are biological indicators of these environmentally sensitive lands.
6. Shore birds are of the order Charadriiformes.
7. Shorebirds are very well camouflaged for their environment and their appearance may vary from place to place as plumage (feather colors) are gained or lost during breeding.
8. Shorebirds typically range in size from 0.06 to 4.4 pounds.
9. Oystercatchers have a unique triangular bill that is a cross between a knife and a chisel.
10. The black skimmer is the only native bird in North America with its lower mandible larger than the upper mandible, which helps the bird gather fish as it skims the ocean surface.

10 characteristics of wading birds (Examples include crane, egret, flamingo, herons, ibis, rail, spoonbill, and stork)

1. Wading birds are found in freshwater or saltwater on every continent except Antarctica.
2. Wading birds have long, skinny legs and toes which help them keep their balance in wet areas where water currents may be present or muddy ground is unstable. Also, longer legs make it easier for them to search for food (forage) in deeper waters.
3. Wading birds have long bills with pointed or rounded tips (depending on what is more efficient for the types of food the bird consumes).
4. Wading birds have long, flexible necks that can change shape drastically in seconds, an adaptation for proficient hunting.
5. Herons have sophisticated and beautiful plumes during the breeding season, while smaller waders such as rails are much more camouflaged.
6. Wading birds may stand motionless for long periods of time waiting for prey to come within reach.
7. When moving, their steps may be slow and deliberate to not scare prey, and freeze postures are common when these birds feel threatened.
8. Adult wading birds are quiet as an essential tool for hunting. Wading birds may be vocal while nestling or while in flocks together.
9. Many wading birds form communal roosts and breeding rookeries, even mixing flocks of different species of wading birds or waterfowl.
10. Wading birds fully extend their legs to the rear when flying. The neck may be extended or not while in flight, depending on the species.

An important call for more forage fish to remain in the sea

A report titled “Little Fish Big Impact”, written by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, came out earlier this month recommending that the amount of forage fish (e.g., menhaden, herring, shad) that we take from the ocean should be cut in half. However, since forage fish have an annual value world-wide of $5.6 billion dollars and are almost 40% of the world’s commercial fish catch these suggestions might be a tough sell to get passed through many decisions makers. But, here is why it is important we do.

You may not typically think of forage fish, also know as ‘bait fish’, as being a high commodity for fishermen or as playing an imperative role in the ocean – but, they do indeed! It’s surprising how much these little fish play a role in our daily lives.

Within the marine food web we begin with the tiny microscopic phytoplankton (plants that get their energy from the sun). Phytoplankton are  then in turn grazed upon by tiny copepods and  they are then fed upon these forage fish and crustaceans that are fed on by larger fish (e.g., striped bass, bluefish) that are then fed upon by the top predators (e.g., tunas, swordfish) that then feed us. Easy, right? Well, Dr. Daniel Pauly pointed out that within fisheries what is happening today is an imbalance of ‘Fishing Down the Marine Food Web’.

Time increases toward the right along the blue arrow. Scale on the right gives the trophic level in the food web. (Pauly, 2003)

This is the concept that when top predators are removed smaller fish become more of a target. Which would mean that the average trophic level of the food web would shift (Trophic being the level an organism occupies within a food chain). Specifically, forage fish are the primary source of protein for penguins, marine mammals, cod, salmon, tuna, and even puffins. We use these species for the production of fish oil supplements, food for livestock, and food provided to the fish we’re farming via aquaculture.

The Lenfest Report provides information and recommendations to fisheries managers in a three-tiered approach that the Task Force says was lacking prior, which is why we’ve currently been able to harvest the amount of forage fish at such high levels. The three-tiered approach involves understanding the 1) dynamics of the fishery, 2)  knowledge of the status of the trends of the fishery’s predators, as well as 3) recommended management actions.

“Traditionally we have been managing fisheries for forage species in a manner that cannot sustain the food webs, or some of the industries, they support. As three-fourths of marine ecosystems in our study have predators highly dependent on forage fish, it is economically and biologically imperative that we develop smarter management for these small but significant species,” stated Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University (they led the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force).

Most recently, managers in the Mid-Atlantic have noticed the increasing importance of forage fish and voted to reduce the annual harvest of menhaden from 183,000 metric tons to 174,000. Read more here on the report and what other measures are being done to keep menhaden levels more sustainable.

It will be interesting to see how this report impacts forage fisheries in the future. I certainly hope it does.

Check out this video from the Task Force to learn more on the importance of forage fish.

Lastly, here is a quick overview of what it means to be a sustainable fishery:

  • If we are referring to a sustainable wild fishery (one that is not farmed) it could be the measure of the abundance and resilience to fishing pressure, how well-managed the fishery is based on current research, and/or that the fishery is harvested in ways that do not harm the environment or have negative interactions with protected species as bycatch.
  • With farmed species a sustainable it is typically a measure of minimizing marine resources, preventing escapes or diseases to wild stocks, as well as ensuring that the fishery is not associated with high pollution or other ways of negatively harming the habitat.
  • For a good resource to discover what fishery is sustainable in your region,  please check out the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch.

Penguin’s plight progresses

Good news for five of the twelve species of penguins that were petitioned by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The lucky species that get a break for a time being include the Humboldt penguin of Chile and Peru and the yellow-eyed (pictured top), white-flippered, Fiordland crested and erect-crested (pictured bottom) of New Zealand.

Threats to these animals includes commercial fishing, ocean acidification and climate change.

Two other species, the African and southern rockhopper penguins, are awaiting a decision in September 2010 and January 2011. The other five species that the CBD wanted to list on the Endangered Species Act were not deemed in danger enough by the Interior Department. However, the CBD and Turtle Island Restoration Network are planning to file a suit for two of the five denied species to be reconsidered. Read more

Image (c) yellow-eyed magazineenz.com; erect-crested flicker.com.

If you have a question you’d like answered by the Beach Chair Scientist? Ask us at info@beachchairscientist.com!

Do all ocean animals swim together in schools?

Nope, here is a short list of terms used to describe certain groups of ocean animals when they congregate together.

Jellyfish swim in a smack.
Whales swim in a pod.
Herring swim in a seige.
Penguins walking together on land is called a waddle.

Have a great question that needs a concise and comical answer? Email info@beachchairscientist.com and let us know what you always ponder while digging your toes in the sand!