28 March 2013


In this intense short film by Matthew Brown, William Trubridge sets a new freediving world record while bringing attention to the plight of New Zealand's diminutive Hector's dolphin.

HECTOMETER - World Record from Matty Brown on Vimeo.

According to the New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust tiny (4.5 feet 1.5 meter) Hector's dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori) are in urgent need of protection from entanglement in fishing nets in waters out to 100 meters 328 feet deep. The inshore waters of New Zealand's South Island are the only habitat of this species. The IUCN Red List catagorizes them as endangered, their population decreasing (real or projected) by 50 percent over three dolphin generations. Meantime their kin, New Zealand's Maui's dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) from the North Island, are the most endangered cetacean on Earth, with only 55 individuals remaining.

William Trubridge, I hope your breathhold diving has worked a miracle and jumpstarted some new action. 

Meanwhile, New Zealand: Really? 
Hector's dolphins. Photo courtesy of NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust.

Fave frame: The way up.

26 March 2013


Horror in the mouth. Gorgeous in the flesh.
Anglerfish (Lophius piscatorius): Didier Descouens at Wikimedia Commons
Mola mola: Via Scientific Illustration
Stained skeleton, species unknown: Via
Via DesignNocturne
Juvenile paddlefish: M.C. Davis
Longnose batfish (Ogcocephalus corniger) with ingested prey: Sandra J. Raredon, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History at Flickr

Via backyardzoologist
Long-spine porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus): Sandra J. Raredon, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History at Flickr

21 March 2013


Sea urchins begin their lives as ethereal wanderers.


Sea Urchins - Planktonic Origins from Parafilms on Vimeo.

Hellacool video, as usual, from the French team at the Plankton Chronicles. I particularly like the kinda creepy (in a good way) narration.

Fave frame: symmetry.

16 March 2013


Pilot whale stranding on Farewell Spit, South Island, New Zealand. Credit: Chagai via Wikimedia Commons.
Pilot whales that died in mass strandings in New Zealand and Australia included many unrelated individuals at each event——challenging a popular assumption that the whales follow each other to almost certain death on the beach because of family ties. This according to a new paper in the Journal of Heredity.

The researchers conducted genetic analyses of 490 individual pilot whales from 12 different stranding events and found multiple maternal lineages among the victims in each stranding. The bodies of mothers and young calves were often separated by large distances, and in many cases the mothers of calves were missing entirely from groups of whales that died in the strandings. This suggests that strong kinship bonds were disrupted prior to the actual stranding——and that these disruptions maybe played a role in triggering the strandings. Which challenges another popular hypothesis: that taking care of close maternal relatives may be the cause of otherwise healthy whales stranding.

The study has implications for people trying to save beached whales. "Rescue efforts aimed at refloating stranded whales often focus on placing stranded calves with the nearest mature females, on the assumption that [she] is the mother," says co-author Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. "Our results suggest that rescuers should be cautious when making difficult welfare decisions——such as the choice to rescue or euthanize a calf——based on this assumption alone.

"It's usually assumed that environmental factors, such as weather or the pursuit of prey, bring pilot whales into shallow water where they become disoriented," says Baker. "Our results suggest that some form of social disruption also contributes to the tendency to strand. It could be mating interaction or competition with other pods of whales. We just don't know."

Whale warfare?

Interestingly long-finned pilot whales are the most common species to strand en masse worldwide and most of their beaching events are thought to be unrelated to human activity... unlike the strandings of some other species, which have been linked to the heinous noise of naval sonar and seismic exploration.

14 March 2013


Healthy ringed seal in snow. Credit ilovegreenland via Flickr.
In the summer of 2011 indigenous hunters in the Alaskan Arctic began to find sick and dying seals covered in oozing sores and losing hair. That year more than 200 ice seals (ringed, bearded, and spotted) were found in Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Japan suffering from  unusual hair loss, delayed molt, skin lesions, and lethargy. Some Alaskan walruses showed similar symptoms. NOAA declared an unexplained mortality event (UME) and began to investigate the causes. In 2012 Alaskan polar bears were found with  hair loss, inflamed and crusting skin, and oral lesions. NOAA has not yet declared a UME for them.

No official explanation has been determined for the seal and walrus ailments. But now the Alaska Dispatch reports that Bruce Wright, senior scientist with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, thinks sunburn might be the cause. And not just any sunburn, but sunburn caused by the anomalously huge ozone hole in 2011. I reported on that in my last post here. From the Alaska Dispatch:
Wright isn't suggesting all symptoms uncovered during necropsies of the affected seals are [sunburn] related. Some of the animals were found to also have bleeding and swelling in their lungs, livers, lymph nodes and other internal organs.... Wright questions the interrelatedness of multiple stressors, including sun and UV radiation exposure, and other illness or nutritional deficiencies on the overall health of the animals. He plans to present his theory in May at a science conference in Russia. “It all just made sense to me. I have just been baffled that nobody else has proposed this (sunburn) hypothesis,” he said.
Ringed seal with sores on head and face. Credit: NOAA / North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management staff
Among the other possibilities that other researchers are investigating:
  1. Is some illness in the body producing light-sensitive blood chemicals, similar to hepatitis?
  2. Are the large algal blooms in Kotzebue Sound / Chukchi Sea that began in 2009 triggering a chemical reaction that triggers photo-sensitivity?
  3. Is exposure to Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant accident involved?
The real cause may never be known since cases have now tapered off. As has the ozone hole.

13 March 2013


Credit: NASA/Goddard
What made the ozone hole such a beast (20% below late winter average) in 2011? NASA says:
  1. Extreme cold temperatures
  2. Man-made chemicals 
  3. A stagnant atmosphere
Chlorine in the Arctic stratosphere was the ultimate culprit, abetted by unusually and persistently cold temps, plus uncommon atmospheric conditions that blocked wind-driven transport of ozone from the tropics to the Arctic.

"You can safely say that 2011 was very atypical: In over 30 years of satellite records, we hadn't seen any time where it was this cold for this long," says Susan E. Strahan, atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the new paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres. "Arctic ozone levels were possibly the lowest ever recorded." 

The NASA/Goddard animation shows the dynamics of ozone from January 1 to March 23 in 2010 and 2011.

Strahan doesn't think there'll be a repeat anytime soon: "It was meteorologically a very unusual year, and similar conditions might not happen again for 30 years. [Plus] chlorine levels are going down in the atmosphere because we've stopped producing a lot of CFCs as a result of the Montreal Protocol. If 30 years from now we had the same meteorological conditions again, there would actually be less chlorine in the atmosphere, so the ozone depletion probably wouldn't be as severe."

But can we really be so confident about the unlikelihood of a repeat forecast, since so much of what's happening in the Arctic now is anomalous?


In which the camera becomes a character. Iceberg-cam, blizzard-cam, and snowball-cam spy on ice bears in the Norwegian Arctic islands of Svalbard. 

Deserves an Oscar for best music in nature doc category.

Fav frame: Polar bear leaving nose print on lens.

12 March 2013


Success in 03:27 minutes. Harbor seal pups are awesome.

My favorite YouTube comment is from Grim Minos:
"I'm 57 seconds in and already more emotionally invested in that damn seal getting on the board than I am in many a main movie character surviving a shoot-out."

11 March 2013


Salinity in water in parts per thousand. Credit:Peter Summerlin via Wikimedia Commons
The saltiness in seawater comes from dissolved minerals (sodium, chlorine, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, and potassium) dating back to early days of our planet when vulcanism spit gases and lava from Earth's interior. Spewed carbon dioxide dissolved in rain and fog to form weak carbonic acid which dissolved rocks into salt ions. Some of those ions reached the sea via rainfall and river runoff. Some leached from rock on the seafloor. The process still happens though the amount washed from the land is negligible, an estimated 0.00005 percent of total ocean salts a year, according to Galen McKinley at the University of Wisconsin Madison. And whereas a drop of lake water and its ions might persist for a couple of centuries, ocean salts hang around for about 100 to 200 million years, surviving evaporation and uptake by marine organisms (more on that in an upcoming post). "There's geologic evidence," says McKinley, "that the saltiness of the water [~35 parts per thousand] has been the way that it is for at least a billion years." All things change. Seawater, not so much.