Thursday, January 10, 2013

Giant Squid Footage: Why is it useful?

On Jan. 27, 2013 the Discovery Channel will air footage of the first giant squid filmed in its natural habitat. The footage, which has been partially shown on television and throughout the web, has caused quite a stir. The Discovery Channel and the Japanese television network NHK spent years in the ocean depths searching for the giant squid. Most news agencies, and especially the Discovery Channel, have advanced the belief that this video confirms that the giant squid actually exists. The Discovery Channel will show the footage in a special entitled "Monster Squid: The Giant is Real." News outlets and online bloggers have taken up this line of thought, suggesting that these images prove the "realness" of the giant squid- something that was not in doubt before the video was taken in July.

In fact, a giant squid was caught on tape in 2007 by researchers in Japan using dredging equipment to study animals in the deep sea environment.

Although the squid did not survive for long at the surface, it was the first filmed alive.  Usually, giant squid have been found dead by fisherman, as in the video below. Similar to other deep sea creatures (such as the beaked whales of a previous post) giant squid are most commonly found dead on the surface of the water.


So, if this footage does not "prove" that the "monster" squid actually exists, why is it such a huge deal in the scientific community?

First, there is the basic question of the creature as it appears in its natural environment.  Marine animals quickly lose the coloring, and many of their physical features quickly degrade the minute they die. Have you ever picked up a sea shell at water's edge that was brilliantly colored, but when you got it home, you found it to be a rather ugly brown specimen? As a child, I was always a bit upset that I could never bring home the beautiful red shells from the beach- they always settled onto my shelves as an ugly brown.  The same thing happens with marine organisms. Their appearance in water is markedly different that their appearance as a dead specimen on boat or land. One of the biologists remarked upon first viewing the creature underwater:

All of us were so amazed at what it looked like," Edie Widder, a marine biologist who was part of the successful video making mission, told the Los Angeles Times. "It looked carved out of metal. And it would change from being silver to gold. It was just breathtaking."

In the past, scientists used sketchbooks and field notebooks to quickly diagram a marine organism's coloring before placing it in preserving liquid. These notes would later help the investigator reconstruct the fishes coloring in the laboratory because the preserved specimens almost all fade to an ugly grayish hue.  For some awesome examples of field books and fish coloring, go to The Field Book Project website run by the Smithsonian.  Today, divers take photos of recently capture specimens to remember coloring, but the reason for this quick capturing of coloring details is the same. In addition, marine organisms often appear differently underwater as out of it. Cephalopods especially have the ability to change bodily coloring, flashing brightly from color to color in response to stimuli.  An organism that appears red on the surface could be a multitude of colors underneath the surface.  Viewing the species underwater allows scientists to start to catalog and understand its coloring underwater- something that is just not accessible in a dead specimen.

In addition to information about the coloring of the organism, investigators can look at the movements of the creature.  A dead specimen doesn't exactly tell scientists how the living organism moves through water, how it captures prey, or how it reacts to stimuli.  The video of the giant squid was not a fluke; scientists were using information gained about the squid's eye and how squid eyes function in general to draw a squid to the submersible. They used both a smaller squid lure (you can see the larger squid holding it during the footage) and also another lure that mimicked bioluminescent behaviors of deep sea jellies.  The investigators know that squid are attracted to bioluminescence, and utilized this knowledge to bring a giant squid closer for filming. By using a lure, they not only captured live footage, but potentially provided very useful information about how the organism moves through the water, how they might approach their prey, and possibly how they eat.

In a short video clip, scientists can identify the true underwater coloring of a species, information about the locomotive powers of the species, perhaps some basic hunting behavior, and possibly other behaviors based on fear or aggression responses. In addition, the team could analyze the squids response to light, and possibly morphologists and other scientists can analyze the video footage for information on bodily features that my elementary understanding can't even begin to comprehend.

The point is this: The footage of a living giant squid in its natural habitat is not some sideshow denouement of a fantastical creature that we now know exists. That is completely a ridiculous and elementary understanding of why footage of living organisms is important. Scientists have known for years that giant squid are somewhere in the depths of the oceans. What the footage provides is investigators first look at how the creature functions in its natural environment, how it appears to predators and prey, and how it reacts to these two stimuli (if it believed the submersible to be predator).

Investigators are suitably excited. Not because they discovered a new species, but because they are one step closer to understanding a creature that, until now, has been shrouded in mystery. Now, if only we could get some deep sea footage of beaked whales...

Friday, January 4, 2013

Arctic Drilling and Bowhead Whales

On Dec. 31, the Shell drill ship Kulluk broke free of the ship towing it and was stranded on the coast of Sitkalidak Island, about 60 miles southwest of the town of Kodiak. The stranding of the rig near the Alaska coast has given rise to new debates surrounding Shell's oil drilling in Arctic waters. The Kulluk grounding, which is a logistical nightmare but as of yet has had little impact on the environment, is only the last in a line of minor disasters pointing towards the inability of Shell to adequately protect the Arctic environment from ecological disasters brought about by deep sea drilling.  In September, a containment dome designed to cap potential oil spills was damaged  during tests, and in July, another drill ship, The Noble Discoverer, broke its moorings and drifted towards the Aleutian Islands.  These mishaps have pushed Congress to reevaluate Shell's arctic drilling and the potential hazards of a major oil spill in the arctic. 

The disastrous Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the leasing of oil fields to the Royal Dutch Shell Co. to drill exploratory wells for oil between 7,000 and 10,000 feet below the sea floor, has prompted several "white papers" outlining current knowledge on clean-up and impact of arctic oil spills.  This white paper, written by the US Arctic Research Commission, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, highlights the research taking place at the Ohmsett Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey and the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (CREEL) in Hanover, New Hampshire. It's a super interesting read and gives a great overview of the experimental work being done on oil cleanup in ice prone regions. 

One major concern for drilling in the Arctic waters is the impact on the wildlife in that area.  When I think about oil spills in northern waters, I commonly recall the images that appeared during and after the Exxon Valdez, most especially those of birds covered in oil. In point of fact, the oil spill killed thousands of mammals as well as fishes and birds, including whales. 
A whale washed ashore after the Exxon Valdez oil spill 
One risk that has received attention in the past weeks is that of excessive human-created underwater sound that might confuse underwater mammals' breeding and foraging behaviors. 
But with the rising fears of a large arctic oil spill that might mimic the Deepwater Horizon spill, but covered by a large amount of oil sheets, environmentalists and biologists are especially worried about the impact such a spill might have on bowhead whales.  One reason for the depletion of genetic diversity in these whales is that they can break ice sheets with their huge noggins (hence the name bowhead). Apparently, they've been sneaking back and forth along ice sheets by breaking the ice with their heads and mating with seemingly separated pods. Good News: They are crafty arctic animals. Bad News: the breaks that these whales may create in the ice could potentially be flooded by an oil spill, potentially targeting these creatures for massive disaster if an underwater spill should occur.  The holes that the whales make in the ice may be the very best places for the oil to pool at the surface. 
Check out the white papers about what we know about arctic oil spills. It's interesting stuff. If you were concerned about the Deep Water Horizon Spill, think about the logistical difficulties of cleaning up oil spills in Arctic. The animals that survive in that environment have evolved to thrive in that ice covered realm, but their evolution might threaten their very survival should a spill occur.  

One whale species in particular, the bowhead whale, is a heightened concern for environmentalists seeking to understand the impact of Shell's arctic oil drilling. Recent discoveries regarding this species, including the fact that they could be one of the longest lived animals on the planet (living up to 150 years or longer), make them especially interesting for scientific study.  In addition to their lifespans, biologists have just released startling information about the narrowing of genetic diversity in the species. By tracing mitochondrial DNA, S. Elizabeth Alter et al found that two seemingly separate populations of bowhead whales are in fact closely genetically linked and the population has been losing genetic diversity over time- from interbreeding and population loss.  While the population has rebounded dramatically from 3,400 (1978) to around 15,000 (2011), oil drilling is posing new risks to this animal.