Monday, December 24, 2012

A war fought over water: the battle for fishing grounds

According to the cease fire between Hamas and Israel last month, Palestinian fisherman can fish up to 6 nautical miles off shore, instead of the 3 mile distance imposed on them since 2009.  This is a great thing, according to local fisherman, because the 3 miles nearest to shore contain pollution and limit the catch on desirable species both for the fisherman to sell and the consumer to buy. The further from shore you fish, the wider the number of species available, and the more robust and mature specimens you catch. In the past, Palestinians were allowed up to 12 nautical miles (a somewhat traditional distance for a sovereign nation to extend fishing grounds), but the local fishermen suggest that they'll take the 6 miles for now.

The control of marine resources is not something people think about when they imagine the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but these resources, and the control over fishing rights and borders, has been an integral part of nation building throughout the last 150 years. 

The American government has battled over fishing grounds on both coasts.  In 1877, Spencer Fullerton Baird went to Halifax to testify regarding the matter of American fisherman operating within Canada's fishing borders.  Baird believed that the fish caught in those boundaries were of roughly equal value to those that Canadian fishermen could catch in American waters (which were open to them but not being utilized by Canadian fishermen very often), but the Halifax Arbitration disagreed.  The Arbitration concluded that the United States Government was ordered to pay Canada a total of 5.5 million dollars in compensation for the fish caught in Canadian waters (Canadian and British authorities originally asked for over 14 million and the U.S. Government felt they owed about 1.5 million so it seems a relatively good compromise). Baird went back to Washington with a plan to expand America's understanding of its marine resources in the hopes of mitigating another disaster like that at Halifax. Americans knew little of their own coast, and that lack of knowledge had caused their fisherman to overfish Canadian inland fisheries and to underfish their own stocks. 

Lissa Wadewitz's book The Nature of Borders: salmon, boundaries, and bandits on the Salish Sea outlines the many groups who had interests in the fishing boundaries established in the Pacific Northwest.  According to Wadewitz, the first set of boundaries pushed native fisherman from their traditional fishing borders (or lack of borders because boundaries were seasonal and familial, not based on ownership or statehood per se).  After native fishermen were pushed from traditional fishing grounds, the nation states of Canada and the United States sought to impose borders on salmon fisherman.  But, salmon are anadromous fishes- meaning they are born in fresh water, live most of their adult lives in salt water, and then travel back to fresh water to spawn and die.  The constant rotation and movement of fish stocks meant that salmon did not pay attention to nationally drawn and defined borders: they crossed from American to Canadian waters continuously, making regulation quite difficult.  What arose, and what is most interesting about this book, is a group of pirates and bandits that hopped back and forth across the state-defined borders to fish the stocks when available.  When reading the book, you can't help but root for the pirates, who follow the fish, not the law.  

Fishing rights and the extension of national borders for marine resources have a large place in nation building.  The ocean is a great source of wealth for nation states that can lay legal claim to territory: fishing rights, mineral rights, offshore drilling, etc. But for those unable to lay claim to their coastline, and the resources that that entails, the marine bounty remains fleeting and only temporarily available.  Americans might take for granted the maritime rights we have now (I do take for granted that our resources extend to the continental shelf) but imagine if we did not have those resources- we would be cut off from a large sources of energy and protein.  The importance of the marine environment to the nation state cannot be overstated.  While much of my blog is spent highlighting the importance of the ocean scientifically, politically, it is a great asset to nations. The many important aspects of the ocean, and all water resources, only highlights the importance of studying the history of them.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Beaked Whales: whales most commonly spotted on land

On November 6, 2012, Kristen Thompson et al. announced in Current Biology that a set of whales that had beached in New Zealand in 2010, tentatively identified as Gray's beaked whales, had been genetically identified as the world's rarest whale- the spade toothed beak whale.  The Spade Toothed Beaked Whale is considered the world's rarest whale because it has never been previously seen alive- its taxonomical descriptions stem from a single mandible what washed ashore in New Zealand, and two skulls sans mandible found in New Zealand and Chile.

The Spade Tooth Beaked Whale Specimen washed ashore in New Zealand, 2010.

When I heard this news, my true naivete about the size of the ocean, and human knowledge of it, came to the forefront.  I initially questioned if this might be a case of a Lazarus Taxon- a term used by biologists and paleontologists to describe a phenomenon where we encounter an organism alive that we previously believed was extinct because of its appearance and eventual disappearance in the fossil record and a lack of live sightings. One of my favorite Lazarus taxon (yes I am that dorky) is the Coelacanth- a lobed-finned viviparous fish.  It was believed extinct, but rediscovered in South Africa in 1938. Subsequently, another species of Coelacanth was recently discovered in the Indian Ocean, prompting some investigators to believe that there could be more Coelacanth species hiding in the vast ocean that we just haven't found yet.

Probably the most popular and unconfirmed Lazarus Taxon is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, or the Lord God Bird, supposedly spotted in the swamps of Arkansas and Florida between 1999 and 2006.  Originally believed extinct in 1987, it has garnered quite a bit of publicity as questions of authenticating sightings and the importance of environmental protection played out after it was spotted in a protected region of Arkansas swamps by a kayaker in 2004.

I'm not the only person with an obsession with Lazarus Taxon- check out the artwork of Dario Robleto- it's an intense discussion of this group of organisms (his work on Lazarus Species is juxtaposed with work on the oldest people in the world and, I think, sincerely speaks to the ideas of being singular organisms and the fragility of life. In a word:  Intense).

So, back to the initial discussion, I thought: Beaked Whale = Lazarus Taxon. We never see them alive, we don't know if they are still alive, etc. Gotta be, right? Wrong.

I was recently at an academic conference in San Diego having a discussion with Erick Peirson, who is no slouch when it comes to knowledge about cetaceans and especially whales, when I mentioned my ideas about Lazarus Taxon and beaked whales and such. Get a couple drinks in me and I burst out in all kinds of totally awesome conversations about non-interesting things! He immediately set me straight. Beaked whales, and not merely the spade toothed variety, are all pretty hard to spot. The ocean, apparently, is huge and these creatures love the deep waters of the open ocean (aka where humans don't really hang out). Within the ocean exists these crazy beaked whales (and other stuff), rarely seen, but presumed to be down there somewhere doing whatever it is that beaked whales do. Studying these organisms is apparently a study in frustration. However, assuming that everything humans don't encounter in the ocean is extinct would be ridiculous.

After this conversation, something began to nag at my mind- I had heard of beaked whales before I came across this story. But where? It turns out that I had seen images of the specimen used to name another beaked whale: True's Beaked Whale. While working at the Smithsonian Institutional Archives, I came across a field notebook kept by several research assistants at the newly established United States Bureau of Fisheries laboratory at Beaufort, North Carolina. During the summer of 1912, an unidentified species of whale was stranded on the beach at Beaufort. The specimen was cut up (you can see the head has been severed prior to picture taking below) and shipped to Frederick True, a curator at the Smithsonian at the time.  

The image of the beached whale sent to True by the director of the Beaufort Laboratory in 1912.

True described  the new species, and it's common name comes from his surname.  The picture of True's whale looks pretty familiar, eh? Just like the picture from 2010 of the spade toothed beaked whale found in New Zealand. These creatures are most commonly seen in this form- as beached forms that allow a small, and limited, glimpse of what lives in the ocean.

So let this be a lesson to me- the ocean is huge, and our understanding of what lives in the ocean is very different from our understandings of terrestrial animals.  If we don't see a tiger in the wild for 140 years and everyone has looked, it might be extinct. In the ocean, it may just be hanging out in the rest of the ocean. Investigators are still bound by what they can see, and in the case of the ocean environment, our vision is terribly limited- so much so that naming cetaceans and recognizing their existence means they have to basically come to us!

These animals are so hard to spot alive in the wild that a new project is seeking to collect sightings in one place to help improve our knowledge of these organisms.  Check out The Beaked Whale Resource, and if you happen to spot a beaked whale, let them know (and leave a message on this blog because that would be awesome). Happy beaked-whale watching.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

What is a slide aquarium (besides incredibly adorable)?

I was reading Samuel O. Mast's book Light and the Behavior of Organisms (1911) today (I've started work on Chapter 4 of my dissertation focusing on animal behavior and the study of tropism with marine organisms) and I ran across the most adorable reference.

In his chapter on the response of unicellular organisms to light intensity, Mast exposes euglena to different light intensities in a "slide aquarium." He describes the slide aquarium thus:

An aquarium made of glass slides glued together with balsam boiled in linseed oil. (104)

Most researchers at the turn of the twentieth century made their own experimental apparatus, and I can't find mention of a "slide aquarium" in any other literature. After reading that description several times, I've come to the conclusion that Mast built a tiny glass aquarium out of microscope slides glued together to hold unicellular organisms.  Obviously, this speaks to my ideas about the importance of the aquarium as an object for viewing animal behavior.  This researcher used found materials in the laboratory to build a teeny tiny aquarium to view unicellular organisms' reactions to light intensity. 


More importantly, it's stinking adorable. Can't you just imagine Dr. S.O. Mast (pictured above) very seriously building a tiny aquarium out of slide glass, placing tiny organisms into that tiny aquarium, and watching them react to changes in light?  In my mind, it's a pretty adorable day in the zoological laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University biology department. 

On a more serious note, the use of the term "slide aquarium" is something I've got to think over and around. The term "aquarium" is used in popular culture during this period to describe a sort of visual panopticon- the ability to see and view a small world and everything in it. I've seen references to the aquarium in mental health journals that talk about prison and psych wards. My scientific researchers also seem to be utilizing the term aquarium loosely- they refer to bell jars, buckets, store bought (few and far between in American laboratories) and self constructed apparatuses as 'aquariums.' So, what is an aquarium? And what work does the word 'aquarium' do for the investigator? Why not call this "slide aquarium" something else entirely? What did it have in common with an aquarium and how might it have been different? Unfortunately, Mast does not include photos or drawings of the slide aquarium, but I'll keep looking. Maybe he kept something in his papers at Johns Hopkins


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Immortal Jellyfish (good friends I'm guessing with the Gregarious jellyfish)

This New York Times Magazine Article may have just made my work relevant (for a day or two at least)!


The immortal jellyfish can shift between the mature form to polyp form and skip the sexual reproduction of a regular jellyfish lifecycle.  There are some awesome things about this; read the article.  What is awesome to me is that the major issue with studying this organism is that it is very difficult to keep in captivity.  They require careful attention to detail, especially detail to their eating habits. 

"For the last 15 years, Kubota has spent at least three hours a day caring for his brood. Having observed him over the course of a week, I can confirm that it is grueling, tedious work. When he arrives at his office, he removes each petri dish from the refrigerator, one at a time, and changes the water. Then he examines his specimens under a microscope. He wants to make sure that the medusas look healthy: that they are swimming gracefully; that their bells are unclouded; and that they are digesting their food. He feeds them artemia cysts — dried brine shrimp eggs harvested from the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Though the cysts are tiny, barely visible to the naked eye, they are often too large for a medusa to digest. In these cases Kubota, squinting through the microscope, must slice the egg into pieces with two fine-point needles, the way a father might slice his toddler’s hamburger into bite-size chunks. The work causes Kubota to growl and cluck his tongue.

“Eat by yourself!” he yells at one medusa. “You are not a baby!” Then he laughs heartily. It’s an infectious, ratcheting laugh that makes his round face even rounder, the wrinkles describing circles around his eyes and mouth.

It is a full-time job, caring for the immortal jellyfish. When traveling abroad for academic conferences, Kubota has had to carry the medusas with him in a portable cooler. (In recent years he has been invited to deliver lectures in Cape Town; Xiamen, China; Lawrence, Kan.; and Plymouth, England.) He also travels to Kyoto, when he is obligated to attend administrative meetings at the university, but he returns the same night, an eight-hour round trip, in order not to miss a feeding."

This is amazing.  Think about the work that Maude Delap and Mary Lebour did with Jellyfish feeding (and see my previous post about Delap).  

Unfortunately, the article makes a misstep. The author states:

"Until recently, the notion that human beings might have anything of value to learn from a jellyfish would have been considered absurd. Your typical cnidarian does not, after all, appear to have much in common with a human being. It has no brains, for instance, nor a heart. It has a single orifice through which its food and waste pass — it eats, in other words, out of its own anus."

The article then goes on to suggest that the usefulness of jellyfish to understandings of human physiology is based on genetic linkages unveiled during the Human Genome Project. This, of course, is completely ridiculous.  Physiologists have utilized jellyfish in the laboratory, and extrapolated their findings to humans, for over 100 years. T.H. Morgan, Jacques Loeb, and Alfred Goldsborough Mayer all worked on jellyfish and they utilized their findings to talk about human heart, intestinal and nerve functions. I've written a letter to the editor. We'll see what happens...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Truth about Zooborns: Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography

I was recently in La Jolla, California to research at the Scripps Institution and attend the annual History of Science Society conference. The Scripps Institution has an archive that houses some amazing papers, including the papers of T. Wayland Vaughn (a coral specialist) and William E. Ritter (the first director of Scripps). The SIO is a fascinating institution to study, because it was built as a marine laboratory, but quickly switched its focus to oceanography and the open ocean environment. The work at the SIO is performed mostly on the open ocean from vessels; they do much less in land laboratories than they do on boat laboratories.  La Jolla was a hard place to stay inside and research. Look at these views:
Sunset over the Scripps Pier.  All photos from personal collection.
Needless to say, I took a lot of breaks during my research trip. But, there are only so many days you can live with sand in your stockings before you search for a walk that won't result in such discomfort. Near the end of my research trip, I walked up to the Birch Aquarium (about a 5 minute walk from the main Scripps campus).  A public aquarium has been a part of the SIO in one form or another since 1902.   A public aquarium and museum were initially attached to the SIO to explain investigators' findings to the general public.  In 1992, the multi-million dollar Birch Aquarium was finished on an overlook above the SIO campus.  

The building looks small from the outside and I feared that this aquarium might be a let down (as most zoos and aquariums are to me).  I can't say I'm a huge fan of the public aquarium; they have a tendency to be a bit boring after you've been to one. But not Birch. I think I've found my favorite public aquarium!

The Birch is tasked with translating SIO findings to the public, and imbuing that public with a sense of the diversity in the ocean, and the danger that humans pose to the marine environment. They do this beautifully. One of my favorite exhibits was the global warming tanks. It is difficult to educate the public on global warming.  Give the subject too dire a sound and the viewer tunes out; paint too rosy a picture and no lesson is learned.  In the global warming section of the Birch, there was a lot of writing on the walls (literally) but the most interesting pieces in the room were the two aquariums.  In one, healthy corals painted a vibrant picture of underwater life: a National Geographic-esque image of the marine environment. Next to this aquarium was another, holding corals that have been bleached by the acidification of salt water (a process brought about by ocean temperature warming that is currently decimating coral colonies throughout the world). These whitish corals painted a stark contrast to the other aquarium environment, and I think, make a point that no amount of script and explanation on the walls ever could. 
the kelp forest at the Birch
"male seahorses spend most of their life pregnant" music to my eyes  
In addition to this display, the Aquarium boasts a shark tank, a touch tank, a kelp forest (amazing) and a whole room dedicated to the Birch's successful propagation of sea horses for scientific study and aquarium displays.  My favorite sea horse is now the potbellied sea horse.  

By far my favorite group of aquaria was the jellyfish section. It's a given that I'm going to like a jellyfish section in an aquarium. I write about jellyfish; I'm currently obsessed with jellyfish. But, it's not a given that I will love a jellyfish section. And I love love love  this one.  Why, you ask? The Birch Aquarium has dedicated a lot of its resources to propogating marine organisms for study in laboratories and for trading with other aquariums.  Seahorses, many species of which are slowly becoming endangered because of their supposed medicinal qualities and their use in the hobbyist community, are difficult to rear in captivity. The Birch has figured it out, and they rear and maintain these creatures in captivity to share with other public aquariums and scientists so that the wild supply need not be depleted anymore by these institutions.  They focus on jellyfish for another reason. 

Jellyfish are not endangered; actually, they are quite the opposite. As the oceans warm, jellyfish are thriving. And thriving is not necessarily a great thing (there is some question about whether global warming causes jellyfish blooms). Because jellyfish are really bottomless pits of food consumption. They are the slimers of the sea. They eat a lot. And, they really know how to reproduce. So, whether the theory of warming waters and jellyfish swarms is correct, the Birch would rather be safe than sorry.  They have succeeded in rearing both Aurelia Aurita  and Cassiopea Xamachana at the Aquarium. Awesome.  But they have gifted the public with tanks displaying the multiple stages of the jellyfish cycle. Mega Awesome. 

Lagoon Jellies in a Kreisel Tank at the Birch Aquarium
They have several tanks of adult jellies, including these Lagoon Jellies.

They also have a tank of polyps. The stationary lifecycle stage of the jellyfish. 

Jellyfish in their polyp form.  They look similar to sea anemones. 
And, they have a whole kreisel tank full of ephyrae (baby jellies that are asexually budded off of the polyp stage. I took a video because watching baby jellies is extremely calming and it's very rare to see these tiny organisms in the wild (you might swim into a group of slightly larger ephyrae while skipping school in South Florida, but that's a rare occurrence and not everyone is so lucky or unlucky).  

video

What makes the Birch Aquarium so amazing is that they unveil the aquarist process. The tanks are free standing, and the signs explain the triumphs and difficulties of keeping these animals in captivity. And, they also give a stark lesson about why aquarists and aquariums need to try to rear these organisms. The aquarium hobby, and the exotic animal trade in general, are hard on the marine environment.  We are consistently reminded that taking exotic terrestrial animals, such as lions and tigers and bears, is destructive to the ecosystem and the creature. There are laws protecting these megafauna. But rarely do zoos explain that they are breeding and rearing lions, not to be released into the wild again (a fanciful and somewhat difficult process) but so that they can be shipped to other zoos to alleviate the need for wild animals for public viewing and scientific study. And while some animals are released, on a whole, zoos breed captive animals.  This releases pressure on the wild populations, provides specimens and colonies for scientific study, and educates people, but is somewhat heart wrenching- probably the reason they don't tell the viewer the stark truth. So the zoo goers get these adorable pictures of baby animals, without the heartache of knowing that most of these animals will exist only in zoos or laboratories, bred to produce more of the same: zoo and scientific specimens. The ability to study animals in captivity leads to discoveries about wild organisms. In some instances, the zoo borns are the largest population of a species scientists have. There are amazing reasons to breed animals in captivity.  However, I'm not sure that zoo goers are apprised of all of the reasons for breeding programs in zoos.  I think they are truly tricked into thinking that these animals will be released into the wild. But zoo breeding is not a re-wilding procedure.

Sea horses are taken with impunity, for medicinal, hobbyist, scientific, and public aquarium use.  Jellyfish are taken, and inadvertently spread throughout the ocean, creating invasive issues and doing untold damage to marine environment. The Birch Aquarium is working to rear creatures to cut out the need to procure these creatures in the wild.  I love that they show the process; and that they tell the viewer the truth. The seahorses and jellyfishes that you see, they aren't going to be released into the wild. They are going to be released into another public aquarium. Or into a lab aquarium. And that's okay. Is there a way to transfer this truthful explanation of captive breeding into the way we look at zoos? Would this hurt visitors understanding of those institutions? It's something to think about- because all lions and tigers and bears may be zoo reared in the near future. And then how do we explain the captive breeding programs?

Good on you Birch Aquarium. Beautiful. Educational. Entertaining.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Physalia Physalis: A Mysterious Balloon Animal


For anyone who reads this blog, my obsession with jellyfish is well known.  They are such fascinating creatures and are the subject of my current (and next) dissertation chapter. One of the most feared jellyfish is the Portuguese Man O'War.  Its sting is debilitating, and can be deadly if not treated. Stories of swimmers becoming entangled in the tentacles of the Man O'War abound in my native Florida and in my immediate family. Concerns about their sting is not overblown: a Man O'War's sting is 75% as powerful as the cobra (Naja). In a word: Intense

The natural history of this organism is amazing.  The Man O'War is not a jellyfish, but is instead a siphonophore.  What's the difference? Siphonophorae, unlike medusae, are actually a collection of separate organisms called zooids. They co-exist as a colony, and cannot live separately, but they are not a single organismal system. How great is that?  The tentacles of the man o'war are separate organisms from the float. It's a complicated creature, the physalia. But what makes it so interesting to me is all that scientists don't know. Which is quite a bit.  

Biologists don't know how these animals breed, how they avert prey, their life cycle, or their general habits.  Why? 

The Portuguese Man O'War has never been kept successfully in captivity.   I've previously posted on the difficulties involved in maintaining jellyfish in captivity. They require very specific water movement, food, and temperatures.The Man O'War is a super special case. 

Unlike most other jellies, the Man O'war has a "float". This part of the organism is just as it sounds- part of the structure is filled with air, and floats along the ocean surface.  In fact, Man O'Wars are not individually mobile- they go where the current takes them (they don't attack people, but accidentally float into them).  In captivity, if they bump up against the side of a tank, their skin forms hard spots. These spots keep the organism from rolling; a behavior investigators believe is performed to keep the float wet. A tank to hold specimens would need to be roomy, so that the organisms could float without touching the side of their enclosure, as well as roomy enough to allow their particular rolling behavior. 

Besides being very big in diameter to allow room for maneuvering  a tank to maintain captive man o'wars needs to be very deep. The organism has super long tentacles (which are highly dangerous to other organisms because of the stinging nematocysts contained therein). When completely relaxed, some of the longer tentacles can reach over 9 meters. The organism can retract these tentacles, but it seems they are almost always extended in the natural environment. So, a tank would have to be very wide and very deep. And, it would need some type of water movement. 

Physalia cannot control their mobility. They belong to a family of pelagic organisms that are free floating (including the Velella Velella- commonly known as a "By-The-Wind-Sailor"- my favorite Cnidarian). Unlike jellies like Aurelia Aurita (moon jellies) that perform the characteristic contraction/pumping motion associated with jellyfish (although even Aurelia need some current or they get tired and die quickly in captivity), Siphonophorae like Physalia and Velella travel by currents.  Recreating this in a tank environment is difficult.  The continuous circular current of kreisel tank (utilized when keeping Aurelia in captivity) is perfect for organisms that live a submerged life; but it does little for an organism that lives on the surface. Investigators have tried many forms of tide in captivity:  utilizing a spray mechanism to create current and push the organism away from the side (this disoriented and tangled the jellies), keeping the jellies in cages in a moat (it mangled the tentacles), and utilizing structures that blocked the sides of the tank (but prevented the somersaulting motion needed to keep the float wet). The most advanced system has only succeeded in maintaining the organisms in captivity for about 6 months. 

Keeping marine organisms in captivity is only the first step to studying them. You must also keep them healthy in captivity and learn to mimic their natural environment. Once you master this, the organism might grow, produce sexual materials, and perhaps if you are lucky reproduce viable offspring.  If one organism does all of this unlikely stuff, you could possibly watch a new generation grow in captivity.  And this is really when you learn something. 

To date, investigators in scientific laboratories at universities and aquariums have struck out. And so, scientists are still guessing about the life cycle of these amazingly enigmatic creatures. In 2006, J. Pierce quoted the studies of Ernst Haeckel (1888), Robert Bigelow (1891), and George Parker(1932) regarding the physiology and supposed behavior of these organisms. That's a very long time for scientific theories about a non-extinct or even non-threatened organism to go unconfirmed or challenged.  Until the physalia can be kept in captivity, we may not know if the float can be deflated, or how these organisms reproduce. 

But don't despair: A succession of tanks, initiated by a theory by Robert Browne in 1901, has lead to a century of tanks built specially for rearing captive jellyfish and plankton. Yesterday, I visited the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. There, I saw both Aurelia Aurita and Cassiopea Xamachana reared in that facility.  More on that adventure in my next post... 

Some awesome sources:

Pierce, J. (2006) "Aquarium Design for Portuguese Man-Of-War" International Zoo Yearbook 
Parker, G.H. (1932) "Neuromuscular Activities of the Fishing Filaments of Physalia" Journal of Cellular and Comparative Physiology
Bigelow, Robert (1891) "Notes on the physiology of Caravella maxima, Haeckel (Physalia caravella,
Eschscholtz)" Johns Hopkins University Circular
Haeckel, Ernst (1888) Report on the siphonophorae collected by H.M.S. Challenger during the years
1873–1896. Report on the Scientific Results of theVoyage of the H.M.S. Challenger, Zoology





Monday, October 29, 2012

Maude Delap: Jellyfish Goddess of the North Atlantic


Maude Delap. Jellyfish Goddess of the North  Atlantic


Maude collecting with two of her sisters on Valentia Island. 

These days, I'm in the midst of writing a chapter on keeping jellyfish alive in the laboratory for nerve physiology experiments.  After months of research in American scientific journals, I was basically set to write this story of Sisyphean struggle to maintain jellyfish in marine laboratories.  Man, this is hard work- they just don't want to swim, or eat or grow in captivity. I can just imagine my historical actors tossing their exasperated hands in the air in a bizarre parody of the Eureka! moment.  Replace "eureka" with something like "Bullshit" or "this is impossible" or try "I give up!" and you might come up with a more true-to-life scientific scene involving maintaining jellyfish in captivity before 1930.  And seriously, I feel for these people. Jellyfish didn't really want to concentrate.  They sting, they die, they turn into balls of smelly goo, and they don't have eyes or noticeable features so giving them a talking to is out of the question. It was a chapter about skirting scientific failure, and then, I found Maude.

Maude Delap was a naturalist's naturalist. Born in 1866, she was the 5th of 10 children, all interested in the natural world.  When she was 8 years old, her father (a reverend) moved the family to Valentia Island- a point in County Kerry off the extreme South West end of Ireland.  Always interested in the marine environment, her collecting was boosted by a visit to Valentia from E.T. Browne and other investigators from the Plymouth research station in England.  Delap was mentored by Browne (who was actually a bit younger than her but formally trained) and continued her work with jellyfish long after he left Valentia.

And, her work was fruitful.  Because Delap did something that Browne and other marine investigators could only dream of: she successfully raised jellyfish through larval into medusae forms in a home aquarium!

I'm sure you're not as excited by this as you should be (or I am).  This could come from two points of confusion:
1. what are the forms of medusae?
2. why is it important that she did this?

Jellyfish, which scientists commonly refer to as medusae, are the free swimming sexually mature part of the life cycle.  We see jellyfish and we think, oh- that's what a jellyfish looks like.  But have you ever thought about what a baby jellyfish looks like? It doesn't look like an adult form at all, in fact- it has it's own name!


This illustration is the lifecycle of obelia jellyfish.  The tree-like organism on the left side of diagram is called a polyp (this is probably a group of polyps formed asexually by strobilation). The polyps eventually release free swimming medusae, which need to grow to mature size. So why does this life cycle matter and why does Maude matter?

Because you can catch a medusa, a planula, and you can also find a hydroid. You can collect them from the sea and plunk them into an aquarium.  And chances are- you might get the medusa to produce eggs and sperm to create a planula. You might even get a planula to metamorphoze into a hydroid. And you might get a  hydroid to release a tiny medusa. But, you're not likely to get all of these.  Cultivating medusae through their whole lifecycle is super super hard. It's a finnicky beast.  It likes its water just so (and that changes from season to season). It likes its food just so (and that changes depending on what part of the life cycle its in).

Between 1899 and 1900, Maude Delap did it.  And she did it awesomely.  On June 21, 1899 she picked up an injured Chrysaora Isosceles off the beach.  She took it home and put it into her tank, and by the next day, she found  planula free floating.  They attached themselves to the tankside and were kept as small hydroids throughout the winter.  While many believed that invertebrates feed primarily on copepods and plankton, Delap found that in this stage, they preferred feeding on the panula of other jellyfish, especially sarsia.  By spring, she had small medusae and by May they reached full adult size with 24 tentacles. Unfortunately, the weather turned foul and Delap was unable to keep providing her beauties with their preferred food (including small fishes- something else the scientific community doubted jellyfish ate). They lost weight and eventually died.

Delap's work is still cited in major laboratory manuals on how to raise jellyfish. It's clearly written, and Delap states very clearly why she made the choices she did, the temperature and placement of her aquarium, her feeding strategies, and every other aspect of her work that would allow someone to copy it for future experiments. Published in The Irish Naturalist in 1901, it is so awesome.

Dorothy Cross, an artist, produced some artwork inspired by Delap in 2001. Below, find a link to her artwork and an awesome interview about Maude Delap's work from the BBC's Woman Hour:

Dorothy Cross | Artists' stories | Artists talking | a-n

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/2001_40_thu_02.shtml

Maude Delap just changed the tenor of my chapter. Eureka!

Friday, October 26, 2012

'Wolf' Salmon



http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/22/protecting-a-wolf-of-a-salmon/?smid=pl-share

The blog entry above looks at efforts to protect "river wolves"- 100+ lb salmon (not to be confused with Peruvian otters and Canadian River Wolves) found in China, Russia, and Mongolia.  These huge fish take years to mature, and breed very slowly, making them an especially vulnerable species to over fishing and loss of habitat. They exist in pretty remote areas, so studies have been limited, but it's believed that these fish can live 30+ years.

These animals are just now listed on the "Red List"- which is an international watch list of species that are in peril and need to be watched more closely.  Being included on the list doesn't necessarily do anything to protect the fish, but this blogger seems to think it's a step in the right direction.

In truth, it's hard to know how many fish species should be included under the category "endangered" or "threatened" because we know so little about underwater creatures. Fish are notoriously hard to count, and deep sea species, or species that exist in remote areas such as the river wolves, are hard to count. Almost as difficult, is to judge their current numbers against a baseline (or point of reference) for comparison.  If you see some fish now, how many might you have seen 10 years ago? 15 years ago? 100 years ago? For many species, this data just does not exist.

For an idea about how investigators establish baselines, take a look at this publication outlining the establishment of baselines for tropical fish in Florida reefs over a 20 year period. In this study, SCUBA divers visited established underwater points throughout the year. They visually counted and recorded the number and type of fishes they encountered.  This method is possible because of the clarity of water, but is not necessarily an option for establishing baselines for all marine organisms. It also presupposes manpower and access to areas that these animals visit.  For the other species, such as the "river wolves," investigators might pay more attention to folk stories or family histories of how many fishes were caught in the past.  While this might seem like a less precise measurement than the Florida study, it is a form of data that scientists can utilize to gauge population decrease over time.

It makes sense that many fish species don't show up on "endangered species" lists until there are few left. Even then, it's difficult to gauge the decimation of the actual population. But, we know that fish species, especially edible species, are consistently over fished and under protected. Let's hope inclusion on this list leads to conservation programs that bolster the population of huge fishes without alienating the native peoples that rely on them as a food source.

Friday, October 19, 2012

(un)Parallel Explorations: Deep Space and Deep Sea


As the last of the space shuttles find their homes in museums throughout the United States, it is interesting to think of the intertwined vision of deep space and deep sea exploration. The belief that exploring the sea is similar to exploring space is entrenched in our cultural understanding of the ocean. Play the clip above- the trailer for James Cameron's "Aliens of the Deep".  In the trailer, the deep sea is directly correlated to deep space.  And deep space exploration is easy according to Cameron:

"We need to take everything we know about deep sea exploration and apply it to space."

This is a particularly misleading comment.  It suggests that sea and space are similar, but it also suggests that we know bunches about deep sea exploration.  Enough, it seems, to apply it to space exploration.  But Cameron has jumped the gun: deep sea exploration isn't close to being ready for other applications. And, the constant application of the alien concept of space to deep sea exploration might actually be hurting the endeavor.  So, how are these two forms of exploration similar, and how are they different? Let's check it out:

Both outer space and deep sea carry a sense of "otherness" in cultural conceptions.  Obviously, this stems from a sense of unknown vastness- but it also contributes to a sense of sameness that might be misleading- deep space and the deep sea are definitely not the same thing. Our knowledge of the deep sea environment has been limited to dredging of the sea bottom (a very small portion of the sea bottom)- a technique that is just basically the most haphazard form of sampling available and which kills most of the animals before they ever reach the surface- to very limited deep sea dives in manned and unmanned submersibles. The earth's deep sea depths continue to offer scientists and the public surprises:  the odds of finding new species (besides insects) in the terrestrial environment are very low, but the expectation of finding new species in the ocean are very high. In truth, we still have a very limited idea about deep sea environments.  But this unknown does not equal unknowable (in the way that deep space is still years away from even technically capable of being explored).  Cultural conceptions of the sea may too closely resemble conversations people have about space.  If people are convinced that the deep sea is unknowable and too vast to be explored, how might this affect funding and ideas about exploring these depths.  The depths of the sea are accessible! But, we need money to get there- so how does deep sea exploration funding match up with space exploration?

There's been a lot of talk about space funding recently.  NASA is being cut back and the age of commercial space exploration is here.  But before this era, there was NASA- and it was a huge force with a lot of funding. So where does deep sea exploration fit in? There has never been a deep-sea NASA-like initiative.  In fact, although exploration of the ocean is older, it has been shuttled between many different agencies in the government, meaning that funding is never quite clear.  In a recent 3 part series, scientists at the blog deepseanews.com called for an Ocean NASA (Which they call OSEA- Ocean Science Exploration Agency). part 1part 2, and part 3 Recently, funding for ocean exploration and research has been cut without the public acknowledgement.  (see the previous post on Alvin or Part 1 and 2 above for information on these cuts) So, budgets are being cut on NASA and ocean exploration- but ocean exploration had less direct funding in the first place. So, how are these cuts affecting exploration and research?

Space X launched its first commercial rocket to the International Space Station in early October.  But what's up with deep sea exploration? In March, James Cameron made a solo dive to the Mariana(s) Trench in the Deep Sea Challenger. The vehicle and the expedition were mostly funded by corporate and private money (including Cameron and Rolex).  And as exciting as it was for the general public, it raises some interesting questions: who has access to the information collected? is this a return to a class based scientific endeavor? And for me, a question: what does it mean that a filmmaker, instead of a scientist, was the first solo person to reach this deep sea environment and introduce it to a larger audience (he's making a 3D film of his dive)? As some people have said, it's actually safer for an unmanned submersible to descend to those depths.The only other individuals to reach these depths were Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh- two Oceanographers in 1960.

The DeepSeaChallenger- both images from National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120325-james-cameron-mariana-trench-challenger-deepest-returns-science-sub/


Does the work of James Cameron somehow perpetuate a belief of the deep sea environment as an environment that is more fictional than scientific?   Does his manned dive somehow perpetuate these somewhat misleading intersections between deep space and deep sea explorations?  Is this helpful to the scientific endeavor or just another way to give the public a vision of what they've come to expect?

It is time that deep space and deep sea exploration become unwound. It's really not serving marine science.  But how can we go about untangling the dual images of the extremely different endeavors?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Eye of a Kraken is probably twice as big!

A few days ago, NPR reported  that a huge eye had washed up on Pompano Beach (very close to one of my hometowns: Plantation) and asked readers to guess what type of creature might have been the original owner of the giant peeper.

The answers to the question suggest that people are still pretty confused about what may or may live in the ocean's depths.  They run the gamut from:

-multiple types of whales
-giant squid
-E.T.
-A/The Kraken (I'm a bit confused about kraken. Are there more than one? Only one?) 
-Mastodons
-Big Foot
-swordfish

Turns out- it's probably a female swordfish.  Scientists suggest that the bone around the eye suggest it is a fish (whale's actually have pretty small eyes).  The largest swordfish ever caught was 612 pounds.  Interestingly, it also appears that the eye was removed by a professional:  there are tool marks on the bone, suggesting that a fisherman tossed the eye back into the water after removing it from his/her catch. 

So- not extraterrestrial or inexplicable. But still, pretty cool. I'm guessing the Kraken eye is way bigger. Just saying. 


West African Seahorse filmed in the Wild

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Stocking of Lake Powell




It's fall break at the University of Utah, so my husband had the week off. We decided to  skip brave the long drive down to Lake Powell for a few days to check it out.  We entered the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area at Bullfrog, UT. Created by the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963 (although the Dam itself was not officially completed until 1977), Lake Powell is the second largest artificial lake in the United States.  It straddles the Utah and Arizona borders, and is generally a playground for those individuals with power boats, time, and gas money.  

Because we lacked the huge chunk of change to rent a power boat, my mate and I decided to kayak around a little.  We barely made a dent in our proposed plan (we wanted to see Moki Canyon) but we ended up bringing our kayaks ashore in a small, unnamed inlet somewhere north of Bullfrog.  While hiking around the shoreline, we noticed quite a few bass in the water. We knew that there were fish in the lake because of the sheer amount of sunburned fishermen "pre-fishing" for this coming weekend's Ultimate Bass Team Tour Tournament of Champions. In fact, a fishing boat came into our secluded canyon only moments after we noticed the fish, intent on their capture.  

Watching the age old battle between man and fish got me thinking about those fish and about the stocking of Lake Powell.  
a view of the lake from our little inlet
In 1962, authorities in Arizona and Utah decided that there should be fish in Lake Powell, and they went about looking into stocking the area with sport fishes. One particular hurdle to stocking the Lake was its location- there were only one access point to the Lake overland in 1963, and that point was scheduled to be flooded by the incoming water.  Officials in Utah and Arizona, in consultation with the United States Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (created in 1956 as a section of USFW), decided that the best beat for stocking might be by plane.

Stocking bass in Lake Powell by air, 1963. 

In 1963, almost 4 million trout and 924,000 large mouth bass were dropped from a plane 300 feet from the surface traveling at approximately 100 miles per hour.  

The next year, the size of Lake Powell had continued to expand and the states requested another stocking.  In April 1964, the first drop of the season was made.  This time, more care was taken to acclimate the bass fry- the hatchery water was dropped from 73 to 54 degrees while the fishes were in the plane.  Each drop last about 25 seconds- distributing about 500 pounds of bass over about a mile of the lake's surface.  Fisheries biologists waiting on the Lake immediately seined for surviving fishes and pronounced the drops a great success, with little loss of life- even though the fish were in route to the lake for almost 5 hours before being dropped. 

As evidenced by the Bass Tournament coming up this weekend, the stocking of Lake Powell was successful.  In 1968, threadfin shad, a favorite meal to the large mouth bass, was stocked, making Lake Powell a great destination for sport fishing. 

But everything is not perfect in Lake Powell.  In 2002, six gizzard shad were reported in the San Juan arm of the Lake.  Since then, gizzard shad have spread throughout the entire lake.  While large mouth bass do feed on gizzard shad, they can only do so during the gizzard shad's juvenile stages.  Once the gizzard shad achieves its full size, the bass can no longer prey on these organisms.  Biologists believe that gizzard shad might eventually overtake and crowd bass in the Lake. 

Beyond concerns about the gizzard shad, conservationists have turned their attention to preventing the entrance of zebra mussels and New Zealand mud snails from Lake.  So far, their efforts have been successful, but if the gizzard shad is any indication, it will be an uphill battle to prevent the introduction of invasive species from the area.  Both of these invasive species are transferred on watercraft- the only way to get around this recreation area.  

For more information on the stocking of Lake Powell and fishing in the area, see

http://www.nps.gov/glca/naturescience/nonativeanimals.htm National Parks Service information on Glen Canyon Recreation Area

"Lake Powell Stocking Story" by John Maxwell and Robert Thoesen in Progressive Fish-Culturistist Vol. 27 Issue 3 (1965)

http://www.wayneswords.com/ Lake Powell Fishing Information 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Misleading Nomenclature and the case of the Vampire Squid

Not the Scourge you're looking for...Image courtesy of MBARI
Pictures: Vampire Squid's Surprising Diet Revealed

Word is going around: the Vampire Squid is not what we thought!  Apparently, after the discovery and completely misleading naming of this creature, some people assumed that it was the "bloodthirsty scourge of the sea." What could you expect from an animal named Vampyroteuthis infernalis- roughly translated "the vampire squid from hell"? Obviously something has to be the bloodthirstiest scourgiest member of the marine community, and it's definitely not the manatee.  The Vampire Squid looks fierce; it could scourge the sea. Well, apparently it's the cleanliest, vacuuming-est sea creature.  It feeds on "marine snow"- dead stuff. It's the scourge of sea dust bunnies.

I'm kind of let down. And obviously so is the New York Times, National Geographic, and every other major news outlet that publishes "science news" because it's been big news for over a week. Over a Week! Extra Extra: Not the Scourge We Thought! So, why is it that this "news" is so newsworthy? This animal is weird looking! But not a killer! What?!

What should be the news:

No one really responds to the fact that this organism is so hilariously named (it's like the obese guy with the nickname tiny of the ocean population). And there doesn't seem to really be any conversations about the obvious concerns that could arise from imposing ideas about diet and disposition through taxonomic naming. What's up taxonomy? What's your purpose? I don't know. Why don't we ask Dung Beetles named after Romney, Cheney, and Bush.

The Vampire Squid was named in 1904, but is particularly difficult to study because it is a deep sea creature and they are difficult to remove from the depths alive (they are often crushed by pressure when trying to bring them onto ships and arrive dead), let alone to culture and study in marine laboratories. If you are lucky enough to get a pelagic species to live in an aquarium, it's equally as difficult to figure out what they eat, get them to eat, and figure out what is "natural" to the creature versus "aquarium based." Especially difficult with this creature, because it apparently feeds on something that is difficult to replicate in the aquarium setting
The first vampire squid probably looks like the rest of these specimens.  Labeled and stuffed into a specimen jar on a shelf next to thousands of others. 

Photos of the ichthyology collections of the National Museum of Natural History.  Museum Support Center, Suitland.  Author's personal collection.




But, it should beg the question: how do the names we give animals influence our conceptions about them? It's something to think about, especially when many deep sea specimens are scientifically identified by one specimen- possibly dead by the time it is even viewed by a human (as the first vampire squid most assuredly was), sketched or photographed, possibly represented by a DNA coding, preserved in alcohol and shelved with thousands and thousands of other single specimens.  Naming systems, based on single specimens, draw a picture of the deep sea that could be quiet different than reality.

So, how do we link these preserved, single specimens to the larger ocean community? And what role does taxonomy play in this linkage? More on this question next time...

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Big Fish


So, here I am, watching the first season of The Wire, when aquariums and fish enter into the underground world of the Baltimore drug scene.  The character Wee Bey, a hired killer for Barksdale's drug ring, is taking D'Angelo somewhere secret. D thinks he's about to get snuffed (he knows the season is almost over), but instead, Surprise! Wee Bey needs D to take care of his fish while he's running from the cops.

This video is super interesting, particularly because of the way Wee Bey addresses his fishes.  In the tetra tank, he starts naming each fish and finally says that Jezebel is there somewhere, but she can't be found because "she think she's cute or something."

He assures D that taking care of them is easy. "They ain't no problem; just beautiful as hell."

While this clip might seem incongruous with what the viewer knows about Wee Bey, in truth, it says something about the aquarium hobby and what it represents.

Wee Bey fits the portrait of a hobbyist:  he's male and has loads of disposable income. Fish, and especially salt water tanks, are commodities; they represent economic security and, for some, leisure. Maintaining tanks  is time and money consuming and his abilities show that Wee Bey has both of these things in spades.

Aquaria like Wee Bey's mark him in the hobbyist world and the drug trade. Look at these tanks; I'm a big fish!

Check out the video.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Saving the Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal.

Caribbean Monk Seal, New York Zoological Society, 1910

Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I wake up thinking about aquatic mammals.  Today, in fact, I woke up thinking about the Caribbean Monk Seal.  Never heard of one? Didn't think there were ever seals living in the Caribbean area? There totally were!

I first ran across the Caribbean monk seal in the New York Zoological Society records at the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx.  The New York Aquarium had a monk seal (referred to as a West Indian Monk Seal, in the early 20th century, and Charles Townsend, the director and one of the world's experts on pinnipeds, thought these animals were quickly disappearing in the wild.  When Columbus first sailed into the tropical waters of the Caribbean, he encountered large amounts of seals.  Mariners commonly killed seals for food and quickly numbers dwindled. The last reliable sighting of any Caribbean monk seals was of a small colony in a remote cay between Honduras and Jamaica in 1952.  By 1977, they were officially declared extinct, with many mammalogists believing they had been extinct since that last sighting.

I'm not sure why I was thinking of these animals today, but I decided to poke about the internet, and found out that there are actually two existing, but struggling, relatives of the monk seal:  the Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals.  The Mediterranean monk seal is one of the most endangered mammals in the world, and the second most endangered pinniped behind the ringed seal. The Hawaiian monk seal isn't far behind.  But, good news! There are big plans in the works to save the Hawaiian monk seal and they involve a Seal Hospital.

There are about 1,100 wild Hawaiian monk seals left (which is twice as many as Mediterranean monk seals) and they are struggling to maintain a flipper-hold in their environment. They are working their way onto crowded beaches, and human-seal interactions leave much to desire.  To educate the public on proper seal interactions, NOAA produced an educational video (posted to my blog separately).  But educating the public hasn't been enough, so the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito has decided to build a Monk Seal Hospital to have a location to rehabilitate and care for injured seals before releasing them back into the environment.

This article in the San Francisco Chronicle includes a mock-up of the proposed seal hospital.


It includes two pools in which to rehabilitate the seals, both of which are open to the sea air and has line of sight to the ocean.  Let's hope that the MMC's active plan to save the Hawaiian monk seal succeeds.  The fact that they've come this far is incredibly heartening.

For information on the natural history of the seals, see:

Robert M. Timm, Rosa M. Salazar and A. Townsend Peterson. 1997. "Historical Distribution of the Extinct Tropical Seal, Monachus tropicalis (Carnivora: Phocidae)" Conservation Biology 11(2)  549-551.



NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal

Thursday, September 20, 2012

You can't see the coral for all the fishes

Coral Display at the Steinhart Aquarium (author's photo)

A few weeks ago, I was researching at the California Academy of Sciences.  I was pleased to meet with the Director of the Steinhart Aquarium Bart Shepard. Shepard's specialty is maintaining living coral systems, so I asked him about the difficulties of maintaining these organisms in aquariums.

It's sometimes easy to become overly focused on looking for the "exciting" animals (aka. things that move) in large public aquarium displays, but it turns out that one of the most amazing feats of aquariology are those that you might overlook- coral.  Shepard told me that keeping coral in aquariums was something thought impossible until the 1970s- and not widely performed in personal and public aquariums until the 80s.

There are two important components to keeping corals alive in captivity:  an abundance of plankton and intense sunlight (or UV light). In the 1970s, several German public aquariums, and a few curios hobbyists throughout the world, started experimenting with aquarium systems that utilized unfiltered saltwater. Unfiltered water helped provide the coral with enough plankton for food.  In addition, the aquarium was exposed to direct sunlight. These two components components kept coral alive in captivity, and keeping coral started to catch on. Other institutions, including the Waikiki Aquarium in Hawaii,  notched it up a scotch and started maintaining and propagating multiple coral species and providing other public aquariums with new species.

By the 90s, keeping coral was settling into normalcy- hobbyists and aquarists were confidently keeping coral alive for extended periods of time, and also setting up systems to grow and propagate their own coral so that they didn't have to destroy reefs in order to stock their systems. But the system is still problematic- more coral is shipped from tropical regions and sold than is propagated from existing exhibits. This trade hurts marine systems as much as the fish trade.  But practitioners are optimistic that coral propagation (by fracturing and sexual reproduction) will eventually slow this trade.

So: When you're looking at a huge aquarium display, look past those little fishes to see something truly amazing and precious- living coral!

For more information on the history of coral displays in aquariums, the craft of keeping corals, and the difficulties with the coral trade see:

J.Charles Delbeek Coral Farming: Past, Present, and Future (2001) and Bruce Carlson Aquarium Systems for Living Coral (1987)


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Parlor Ponds by Judith Hamera



Judith Hamera. Parlor Ponds:  The Cultural work of the American Home Aquarium, 1850-1970. The University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2012) 280 pp.

I've just read Judith Hamera's great new book on American home aquariums.  It's a fantastic work, not only because it is one of the first really scholarly works looking at the aquarium hobby in America, but because Hamera successfully applies performance theory (her particular field) to this subject and manages to shed light on the cultural work that the home aquarium performs throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Her main thesis, that the success of the aquarium hobby in America is predicated on it's ability to mitigate the crisis of masculinity in American culture in the 20th century is an interesting premise, and Hamera builds a strong case for this theory while simultaneously throwing light on the hobby as a whole.

Hamera is Professor of Performance Studies and head of the Department of Performance Studies at Texas A&M University. Performance Studies might not come instantly to mind when thinking about home aquariums (although Gregg Mitman and other historians and sociologists of science have made the case that the aquarium is akin to a looped film clip or a play), so Hamera explains why she thinks that her field is particularly suited to investigating aquaria:  "The aquarium's visual and rhetorical promiscuity demands an interdisciplinary approach that the field of performance studies is ideally positioned to provide." (9) Aesthetics, theatricality, and textual conventions abound in the aquarium setting, according to the author, and these pieces require attention that is less focused on an individual component of the aquarium, and more on the overall cultural impact of them.

This book is not a history of the aquarium hobby in America, but it does proceed chronologically.  The first chapter examines the "visual affinities" of the aquarium. Hamera links home aquariums to several common landscapes in the early 20th century, including the zoo and the landscaped garden, and suggests that the aquarium was most closely linked visually to the landscaped garden. The author likens the home aquaria to the garden, suggesting that "the laboratory of the home tank, like the labor of the garden, was personal, an extension of domestic space and management...the tank was its owner's personal world." (21) This chapter is where Hamera strengthens her main thesis that the personal power of collection and creation that goes into building an aquarium alleviates stresses caused by modernity, particularly the stress of masculinity loss. One can always be a master of the universe, even if you just built the universe out of glass and your subjects are fishes.

Hamera carries this theme of modernity and creation throughout the book, including the next chapters regarding British and American writings on aquariums, their uses and meanings. These chapters are largely historical, and outline the ideas surrounding the popularity and purpose of aquariums at the turn of the century.  Relying on primary sources such as hobbyist books, literature, and hobbyist journals, Hamera traces the trajectory of hobbyist ideals.

By far the strongest contribution Hamera makes to the conversation of hobbyist culture is chapter 4.  This chapter deals with the animals kept in the aquarium, and asks a very important question:  what significance do fish have to aquarium keepers? Are they akin to other pets, such as cats and dogs, or do they serve another function altogether? Hamera points out that fish become objects through immersion in the technology that sustains them and they are constructed "as objects of owner's responses to them or actions against them." (136) The author goes on to highlight particular species that have become particularly popular to hobbyists and questions this popularity.  This chapter contributes greatly to the conversation about the place of fish in animal studies.

Unfortunately, Hamera stops short of discussing fish as commodities as well as objects.  While she does mention the value of tropical fishes over local varieties in her later chapters, and even includes information on hobbyists becoming breeders in Chapter 5, she fails to sufficiently draw out the economic aspects of the aquarium hobby. In Chapter 6, she discusses the nationalistic overtones of collecting tropical fishes, and the desire to have salt water aquariums as a symbol of "exoticism".  Hamera sees the ability to own, propagate, and in some sense subjugate foreign organisms as an important key in discovering and observing the masculinity inherent in the hobby. But, the author leaves out the other very important aspect of the salt water aquarium: economic symbolism.  In fact, even in her conclusion, when Hamera recounts a tale of a man who built an aquarium in his garage, big enough to attract the ire of his wife and the suspicion of the local police (who believed him to be growing marijuana because of the florescent glow), she fails to investigate the financial strain of this hobby and link that to masculinity.

Overall, this book is an amazing addition to the scanty literature on American aquarium hobbyists.  It is a fantastic source for anyone looking at the aquarium and its symbolism.  It's historical narrative is not complete (it was never meant to be a history book) but it provides a useful timeline and framework from which to work.