The ongoing wonder of hagfish, deep-sea mining’s race to the bottom, saving whales with lineless lobster traps, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: January 21, 2019

Logo for Monday Morning Salvage.

Foghorn (A Call to Action!)

It’s month two of the longest shutdown in US history and there’s only one party who won;t allow a vote to reopen the government proceed. Have you called you senator today?

And while I have your attention, FYI:

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)3-D Printing the Ulitmate Deep-Sea Christmas Tree

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Why I don’t bite everyone that stresses me out: The cost-benefit analysis of predators

There is controversy whenever a human creates a close interaction with a wild animal.  Those arguing in favour of the human’s behavior inevitably settle on the argument that if the animal didn’t like it, the animal would have bit them or exhibited some sudden reaction to the human.  People who propose this argument have a very limited understanding of animal behavior.

Real talk, I used to believe this totally incorrect argument, and I will never forget the day that changed my perspective forever.  I was a budding zoologist working on a remote island with a group of scientists that were ringing cormorants.  The cormorants squawked for awhile, but then got “used” to our presence and calmed down.  I was reassured that we weren’t causing them any distress as we worked nearby, otherwise I expected that they would have shown it by either continuing to squawk or simply fly away.  Then, I noticed a few dead cormorants near where we worked.  I thought that they must have died before we arrived.  However, the senior researcher explained that they had been alive moments before but most likely died due to the stress of our presence.  That was an extremely powerful lesson in my young career and it challenged what I thought I “understood” about human interactions with animals.  Keep in mind, I was known for being an animal whisperer of sorts in my youth (see below) and truly believed that my special calm and confident nature could be detected by animals, and that they would accept my presence more readily than those who didn’t have my nature.  That FernGully perspective is wrong and egocentric.  There are few scenarios where our presence isn’t horribly stressful and disruptive to wild animals.   

Squirrel demonstrating a cost/benefit analysis = the benefit of free food is higher than the stress my tie-dyed presence is causing.

Large predators are no exception.  They are just as vulnerable to our stress as cormorants and just as unlikely to express it externally, because the cost of those behaviors is expensive.  Predators have severe energetic constraints and are constantly calculating whether their actions are worth sacrificing energy for, this is a cost/benefit analysis.  We do similar analyses all the time.  For example, I have a Trader Joe’s that is ~30 minutes from my home.  The food there is delicious and less expensive than my local grocery store.  However, I don’t go to The Joe every time I am hungry.  Even though I would save money on discount blue cheese dip there, I would spend more money in fuel for my car – meaning the entire trip would cost me more in the long run.  The costs of this behavior is too high and not worth it.

White sharks are especially discerning since they can burn a lot of energy quickly and are unlikely to encounter large meals in the open ocean to refuel.  So they make conservative decisions that prioritize maintaining energy stores (especially during gestation when a large portion of their energy budget is developing shark embryos).  In the recent case of large white sharks scavenging from a sperm whale in Hawaii, there were several divers in the water creating close interactions with the sharks for social media purposes.  Controversy ensued and the idea that the white sharks must have “enjoyed” these interactions otherwise they would have swam away or bit the divers has been presented.  But it is not supported.  First, white sharks full of whale blubber are experiencing some pretty hardcore torpor.  Also, blubber is very positivity buoyant, meaning a stomach full of blubber is essentially the same as if we ate a ton of foam and then tried to swim about.  White sharks at whale carcasses are typically slow-moving with low aggression, even towards each other.  It’s not that whale blubber makes them “happy,” it’s that being aggressive and swimming fast when there are going to be many other white sharks around AND you’re going to have a stomach full of floaty blubber is energetically expensive and the costs of these behaviors are too high.

Figure 4 from Fallows, C., Gallagher, A. J., & Hammerschlag, N. (2013). White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) scavenging on whales and its potential role in further shaping the ecology of an apex predator. PLoS One8(4), e60797.

Does that mean diving with full-bellied white sharks is safe?  Absolutely not – for them or for you.  It doesn’t matter how well you think you “know” a predator – species or individual – they are still dangerous.  We all know the list of fatal tragedies that start off with well-known humans believing that they have enough experience to take big risks, and each of those fatalities ends with the animal suffering, too.  For the sharks, disrupting a rare feeding event has long-term implications.  The stress caused – whether they exhibit that stress externally or not – is burning their limited energy, forcing them to recalculate their future behaviours until (if?) they encounter the next windfall.  Also – although currently undocumented – it’s a common thought amongst shark researchers that mating could occur at large feeding events like whale carcasses since it’s provides male sharks an opportunity to take advantage of the large female’s torpor to attempt mating approaches (I personally believe the same is true at seal colonies).  Boats and divers disrupt these behaviours.

I don’t bite every person that causes me stress.  I don’t full-sprint away from every situation that causes me stress.  That doesn’t mean that I am not experiencing stress that impacts my behavior and health.  The same is true for every one of these close animal interactions created by humans.  It’s alarming to me when those humans say that they are somehow especially qualified, and that their experience alone creates these “safe” encounters.  It’s not.  You’re benefiting from the cost a large predator doesn’t want to incur by demonstrating its stress to you – but as we’ve unfortunately seen several times, when the scales are finally tipped, unnecessary tragedies do occur.

Cut rock samples from the Rio Grande Rise show Fe-Mn crusts (black and gray) growing on various types of iron-rich substrate rocks (pale to dark brown). Photo credit: Kira Mizell, USGS.

A lost continent, rich in cobalt crusts, could create a challenging precedent for mineral extraction in the high seas.

[This article originally appeared yesterday in the Deep-sea Mining Observer. ~Ed.]

The Rio Grande Rise is an almost completely unstudied, geologically intriguing, ecologically mysterious, potential lost continent in the deep south Atlantic. And it also hosts dense cobalt-rich crusts.

The Rio Grande Rise is a region of deep-ocean seamounts roughly the area of Iceland in the southwestern Atlantic. It lies west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge off the coast of South America and near Brazil’s island territories. As the largest oceanic feature on the South American plate, it straddles two microplates. And yet, like much of the southern Atlantic deep sea, it is relatively under sampled.

Almost nothing is known about the ecology or biodiversity of the Rio Grande Rise.

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Booms that go boom, a deep-sea mining spiral, dying to go green, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: January 7, 2019

Foghorn (A Call to Action!)

  • The US Government enters it’s third week of shutdown over Trump’s Border Wall. Democrats in the House passing funding bills identical to the one unanimously passed by the Senate. Despite that, McConnell won’t let those funding bills come to a vote in his Senate. The Republicans own this travesty.
  • ‘Appalling’ toilets and rule-breaking as US shutdown hits national parks.

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

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I built an open-source robot that steps your steps when the steps you stepped weren’t counted by your step counter: Frequently Asked Questions

The future of fitness tracking is here! reStepper is an open-source, arduino-powered machine to walk your fitness tracker after those unfortunate workouts when your steps didn’t get logged. Did you have the audacity to take you child for a walk in a stroller? Get those steps back! Were you foolish enough to go swimming when you could have walked in aimless circles around the pool? Don’t let the credit drift away! Reckless enough to do something, anything, that might require you to take off your jewelry before working up a sweat? Let the reStepper sweat it all back! Maybe you just don’t want third parties to know where you run, or where your secret morel patch is, or how fast they need to make the people harvesting machines in order to catch Charlton Heston.

The reStepper, an engineering marvel.

Ummm.

It’s funny.

So what is it?

The reStepper is an open-source machine that “walks” a fitness tracker for you.

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All the slime that sticks, we print: 2018 in Hagfish Research

Hagfish. You love them. I love them. Of all the fish in all the seas, none are more magnificent than the hagfish. Across the world, children celebrate the hagfish by making slime from Elmer’s glue, their own mucous, or just, like, something. Seriously, how is is that toddler hands are always coated in some strange, unidentifiable slime?

And never, ever forget:

Your car has just been crushed by hagfish: Frequently Asked Questions.

2018 was a big year in hagfish science. Below are just a few of my favorite studies.

Biogeography

A hagfish in the high Antarctic? Hagfish have previously never been observed in the shallow waters around Antarctic, but a photograph from 1988 was determined this year to be a hagfish feeding on a large pile of clam sperm in shallow water. Neat!

Possible hagfish at 30 m in Salmon Bay in 1988. The white patch is Laternula elliptica sperm.

Incidentally, the reason the photo languished for so long is that it was originally though to be a Nemertean. Because Antarctic Nemertean worms are huge and horrifying.

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Get into the spirit of Adventure: 10 Expeditions to follow in 2019

The Aquarius Project: The First Student-Driven Underwater Meteorite Hunt

Pirates! Robots! Meteors! A team of plucky teenage explorers! If this doesn’t end up as a feature film, I’ll eat my red watch cap.

On Monday, February 6, 2017 a meteorite dropped out of space and dropped right into Lake Michigan. Since then, a team of young explorers sponsored by the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium have been combing the lake for the lost meteorite. Catch up with this epic adventure through their podcast and on OpenExplorer. The search continues into 2019.

Iceland’s Shallow Hydrothermal Vents

Not all hydrothermal vents emerge in the deep sea. Of the coast of Iceland, shallow water vent spew forth their hydrothermal plumes in the shallows, where small underwater robots can easy access. You’d think we’d know more about them than their deep ocean counterparts but we actually know less.

Iceland’s Shallow Hydrothermal Vents hopes to fill in some of our understanding of these weird and wonderful ecosystems.

Search for Slave Shipwrecks

On a hot summer day in the murky waters of the man-made Millbrook Quarry in Northern Virginia, a group of about 25 people outfitted in scuba gear take turns going down to a depth of 30 feet, testing their compass reading skills, flooding their masks and practicing emergency ascents without air. The sight is not so unusual since Millbrook is the main training and certification site for scuba divers in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area and often hosts such groups. What might give folks pause, however, is that upon closer look they may notice that all 25 of the divers are African American. And if they chat with this unexpected bunch, they might also find that a majority are certified and qualified to search for, document and help excavate slave trade shipwrecks.

Search for Slave Shipwrecks

Divers with Purpose and the Slave Wrecks Project will be traveling across Africa and the Caribbean documenting the stories of underwater archaeologists working to preserve the history of the Atlantic slave trade buried at sea.

From Search for Slave Shipwrecks.
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Doodles from the deep sea, a mining company founders, finding lost warships, rogue scientists, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: December 24, 2018

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

Illustrations by Jackie Roche.
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The Science of Aquaman: The Complete Anthology

We have written a lot about Aquaman over the last 10 years. With our favorite ocean master is finally getting his big screen debut, we’ve collected everything Aquaman and Southern Fried Science in one place. Enjoy!

It’s the Aquaman Trailer!

First, the brutal takedown that started it all and its follow-ups:

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Orca protection and vanishing Arctic lakes: Thursday Afternoon Dredging, December 20th, 2018

Cuttings (short and sweet):

Spoils (long reads and deep dives):

Please add your own cuttings and spoils in the comments!

If you appreciate my shark research and conservation outreach, please consider supporting me on Patreon! Any amount is appreciated, and supporters get exclusive rewards!