Thursday, August 30, 2012

You Can Call it a Comeback!

Chinook, or king, salmon are the largest in the Pacific. Photo: USGS
Salmon are not exactly beautiful, but they are integral to the ecosystem of the Elwha that the NPS is trying to rebuild.
Exciting news from Olympic National Park:  Adult salmon have been spotted in the Elwha River just five months after the removal of the Elwha Dam.  Read about it in National Geographic or check it out on the National Park Service website.  The Elwha Dam has been in place since 1913; twenty five years before Olympic National Park was founded.  In all that time, salmon had no access to the river because of the dam.

I find this a particularly interesting headline.  Recently, books about human destruction of aquatic food sources, such as Paul Greenberg's Four Fish,and Mark Kurlansky's Cod and children's book World Without Fish, have sounded a dire warning: things are getting very bad. And this isn't necessarily wrong.  But what this news story illuminates is that we aren't at the end of the line (pun intended) just yet.  Instead of seeing aquatic resources as an either/or- either we fish them or we leave them alone- the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and NOAA are seeking ways to re calibrate the Organic Machines (check out Richard White's work on the Columbia River if you want to read some awesome history of human/river interactions) that have been built.  The Elwha Dam removal is only one example of these efforts.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Environmental Education and Public Aquariums: How much is enough?

Perhaps this post should be called "how little is too little?"
Public aquariums in America struggle with their place between education and entertainment: how does an institution which relies on public and private funding balance its obligations to inform the public about climate change? Aquarists deal with this issue constantly. How do you educate the public about climate change without losing their interest or politically alienating them?

In the mid to late 19th century, public aquariums were somewhat like jewelry boxes: they held beautiful species of exotic fishes that had previously been inaccessible to the eyes of humans.  Small tanks, little narrative structure, and very little information on the natural habits and habitats of the exhibits comprised these early displays- but people flocked to them and the first generation aquariums were a huge success.

By the turn of the twentieth century, aquariums began to change. Some aquariums, like the New York Aquarium, Scripps Institute, Steinhart, and by 1930, the Shedd, added laboratories and enhanced exhibitions with information on the life cycle of the organisms, their environment, and the impact of humans on these creatures. Called the second generation aquariums, these organizations took a step towards a more realistic view of the marine environment in the public aquarium setting.  (all of these aquariums have since been updated)

After a long period in which aquarium growth was stagnant, the 1980s saw an increase in interest from the public in aquarium building.  One of the most popular, and possibly the most advanced aquarium constructed in the 1980s, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, took aquariology to new heights. With its kelp forest, open ocean exhibit, and its integration into the surrounding shoreline of Monterey Bay, the aquarium allowed visitors to not only view exotic creatures, but to understand their place in the ecosystem of the marine environment off the California coast. Monterey Bay and other third generation aquariums pushed the climate change and environmental message through their use of local understandings of environmental change.

But, times have changed. After Monterey, an explosion of public aquariums were built in hopes of increasing tourism in upcoming urban centers. But, they have not been the draw that people expected, and the ability for aquariums to maintain a scientific message has been overshadowed by their need to draw crowds just to stay open. The Atlanta Aquarium, the largest in the world, was believed to be the next generation in public aquariums- truly integrating the Atlantic ocean into the aquarium experience, focusing on conservation and environmental messages, and teaching these important messages through interactive exhibits.  But, their messages have fallen on deaf ears, and the need to maintain such a massive institution has lead to a public aquarium with a message closer to a theme park.  For $169.99 you can swim with dolphins and belugas; $324.95 buys a scuba diving experience with the only whale sharks in captivity in North America (or you can go for the bargain basement $224.95 to merely swim with the sharks).

Lest we be too hard on the Atlanta Aquarium, remember that funding is important.  Scripps, one of the oldest marine institutions in America, has just had to shut down its library due to budgetary constraints.  Other public institutions have also suffered from the economic downturn..  With limited government support, public science institutions are forced to draw as many visitors as possible. Exotic animals, unrealistic environments, and thoughtless entertainment mean big bucks!

The Atlanta Aquarium has failed in its bid to start the fourth generation of aquariums; in fact, we could see it as a huge step back in aquariology. But unless funding for public science institutions becomes a priority, there will no longer be progress at these institutions.  But instead, they may devolve into their first and second generation counterparts- displaying exotic organisms with little scientific commentary to get money from the masses.

For information on aquarium generations:

Grant and Jones (2005) Window to the Sea:  Behind the Scenes of America’s great public Aquariums.
McCormack, Douglas "The Age of Aquariums" Sea Frontiers Vol. 39 Issue 2 (1993) 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jellyfish: A problem in the laboratory

Medusae (Jellyfish) have been in the news lately. And they've also been on my mind.  I'm currently working on a chapter in my dissertation that deals with early marine physiologists and their struggles to keep jellyfish alive in the laboratory for experimental purposes.

The world of jellyfish is extremely diverse.  Blow your mind by checking out Alfred Goldsborough Mayer's three volume Medusae of the World. Mayer, the foremost expert on medusae in the early 20th century and the original founder and director of the Carnegie Institute's Tortugas Laboratory, was interested in the the nerve physiology of jellies. His questions revolved around nerve stimulation and bell pulsation- why does a jelly pulse? Does it have something to do with the temperature of the water? What about the salinity? Does nerve conduction start in one part of the organism?

To try to answer these questions, he had to bring jellyfish into the laboratory. But this was easier said than done. Keeping these organisms alive in aquariums took some work- earlier attempts at keeping them in labs resulted in death of the organism between 1 and 48 hours of their captivity. Some developed white sores on their bodies; other simply stopped pulsating, settled at the bottom of the tank, and expired.

As marine laboratories were founded in subtropical and tropical waters, new species came to the attention of   biologists.  In 1892, W.H. Brooks detailed Johns Hopkins new laboratory space in Port Henderson, Jamaica. One of the interesting aspects of the location, according to Brooks, was the discovery of a "true Cassiopeia" jelly found in shallow, murky lagoons in the area.  He proposed to name it Cassiopea Xamachana. 

The regular environment for the jellyfish was a warm, stagnant pool of brackish water in mangrove swamps and tidal shores.  It could live in fresh or salt water and seemed to thrive in whatever environment it was found.  Biologists could put them in glass jars with no running water, or aquariums with regularly circulating water, and they survived and thrived. A plus side:  they have a very light sting.

This organism would prove to be an incredibly important find for nerve physiologists such as Mayer. By locating their work in the tropics, they could collect Xamachana at the beginning of the season, and work on them until the end of the summer. Instead of struggling with keeping other species alive, they could utilize C. Xamachana. 

This species was not the only jellyfish used in nerve experiments, but it became very popular- and still remains important in aquarium exhibits and scientific research. I explore this species, and other ways that biologists found to work on medusae in the laboratory in my current chapter.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Craft Knowledge and Marine Professionals

The New York Times posted an article by William Broad detailing the scientific career of Richard Ellis, a pioneer of marine science and museum display. Go here to read this amazing "profile in science"; a story that may be surprising to some but is familiar to historians of aquariology.

In short, Richard Ellis took a degree in American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, but couldn't decide on a career. He was drawn to the ocean and ended up working for the Philadelphia Zoo and the Academy of Natural Sciences.  In 1969, he was offered the job of designing a whale exhibit for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He built a replica of a blue whale that was suspended from the ceiling.

After that success, Ellis' career snowballed- he started painting pictures of sharks and was called by a little known author, Peter Benchley, who bought one and invited him to a party.  Benchley's publisher met Ellis and this led to his first book. Ellis has now become a revered professional in the marine science community; he's worked with many professional biologists to highlight the unseen underwater world of sharks and other marine creatures.

What is exciting about this "profile in science" is that it highlights a professional scientist that does not have an academic training, but instead rose to the height of his profession through craft knowledge and experience. While this is uncommon in many sciences, it is not as uncommon in the marine sciences as one might think.  David C. Powell is one of the foremost aquarists, responsible for some of the most forward thinking and game changing aquarium exhibits.  Powell's resume reads like a list of memories and associations from the world's greatest aquariums.

Neither Powell nor Ellis have PhDs in marine sciences.  Instead, they parlayed interest in the marine environment into a hands-on education with the oceans inhabitants. Their gift, and the foundation of their careers, has been to be particularly proficient at translating their knowledge into visual representations and models that make this universe visible to the general public.

Marine science has many professional stories that mirror Ellis', and I hope that this blog can highlight the multifaceted careers and professionals that work with marine organisms and the aquatic environment.