An open letter to new Discovery Channel President Rich Ross from a shark scientist

Conservation, marine science, Natural Science, Popular Culture, Science, sharksJanuary 9, 2015

Dear Rich Ross, new President of the Discovery Channel,

I was excited to learn about your commitment to no longer show fake documentaries on the Discovery Channel. These shows have been incredibly damaging not only to Discovery’s goals of being the “number one non-fiction media company in the world” by”telling compelling and accurate stories,” but to public understanding of science and conservation. In recent years, the Discovery Channel has tried hard to actively muddle the fact that these documentaries were fake, including hiding vague disclaimers at the very end.  I’ve spoken to hundreds of schoolchildren about sharks, and every time someone asks me about megalodon or mermaids.  Viewers believed that they were real, and your channel actively bragged about the fact that people believed that they were real.

By claiming that megalodon isn’t extinct and mermaids are real but the government is covering this up, these shows resulted in scientists receiving threats and harassment,  and resulted in important government agencies getting so many angry phone calls that they had to issue public statements. Producers for some of these shows intentionally lied to scientists to convince them to appear onscreenintentionally lied to journalists about the facts behind them,  and intentionally caused a real-life public panic. They actually showed a documentary about a legendary (read as “fake”)  shark called Hitler. In short, I will be glad to see Shark Week and the Discovery Channel return to your roots of fact-based programming.

However, while “we won’t actively lie to viewers anymore” is an important step that I applaud, Shark Week and other Discovery Communications programs have many other problems that should be addressed. Shark Week 2014’s “Zombie Sharks” glorified wildlife harassment for no reason, as the entire stated goal of the show was for a non-scientist with a history of wildlife harassment to try to answer a question that scientists have known the answer to for decades. This problem is not limited to Zombie Sharksbut pervades Discovery Communications shows.


Snowy Owls and Goliath Groupers: Why I co-authored “Trophy fishing for species threatened with extinction.”

Blogging, Conservation, deep sea, Environmentalism, fisheries, marine science, Natural Science, Personal Stories, Science, Sustainability

In both my professional and private life, I am a man who wears many hats. I am a deep-sea ecologist, a science writer, a goatherd, a geneticist, a conservation advocate, a grill master, and many others. When David asked me to join him in co-authoring “Trophy fishing for species threatened with extinction: A way forward building on a history of conservation” I did so not in my capacity as a marine science Ph.D., but as a recreational fisherman who cares deeply about the survival of his sport. Without fish, there is no fishing.

I was, at first, skeptical, but over the course of a summer, I came to appreciate what David was trying to accomplish.

I wrote most of my thesis on this boat, with a rod in the water.

I wrote most of my thesis on this boat, with a rod in the water.

Before I talk about fish, I need to talk about birds. 


The era of the million-dollar tuna is over.

#OceanOptimism, Conservation, fisheries, marine science, Natural Science, ScienceJanuary 5, 2015

For the last several years, we’ve been following the first-of-the-year Tsukiji Tuna Auction. In the past, this auction has served as a (often questionable) benchmark for the demand for Bluefin Tuna. At its peak, the price of Bluefin Tuna broke the scales at nearly $1,800,000. As the price continued to inflate, last year we even released an early warning to journalists covering the auction, cautioning them against drawing too many conclusions about the expectedly massive auction price. We we’re all caught off guard when the price of the first fish barely topped $70,000 dollars, kilo-for-kilo not even the most expensive fish sold that day.

Today, the numbers are in, and the first Bluefin of the year sold for a measly $37,500, barely enough to cover the cost to fuel for a fishing boat.

The era of the million-dollar tuna is over.


Southern California is basically Mordor: Climate forcing effects in Middle Earth

climate change, Natural Science, Popular Culture, ScienceDecember 24, 2014

“It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash and dust, the very air you breathe is a poisonous fume.”

Boromir, The Lord of the Rings

Mordor, images from Lord of the Ring Wiki

Mordor, images from Lord of the Ring Wiki

Mordor, the seat of the Dark Lord’s power, a barren wasteland crawling with orcs, dry and desolate. Or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe thanks to documentaries about the Ring War and other literature related to the great, but fallen kingdom. As one astute reader of the ancient texts point out “Orcs still have to eat, right?” (Shiffman, 2014).

So what is Mordor really like, when the cameras stop rolling?

Mordor is a combination of massive industrial powerhouse and agricultural heavy-weight. Mordor is among the most volcanically active regions in Middle Earth. While areas in the immediate vicinity of volcanoes like Amon Amarth are better suited for forging and other activities that take advantage of the incredible (and environmentally-friendly!) geothermal power, the constant rain of ash makes the land untenable, however volcanic soil is incredibly rich and makes for some of the best farming in the worlds. So we see, in Mordor, great garrisons and forges to the north, where the fires burn. However, in the south, Mordor is home to a vast inland sea, Núrnen, where the fields and farms that feed the amassed armies of men and orcs bear fruit. Mordor has agriculture, and, despite the incredibly dry climate, quite a lot of it.

Oh yes, Mordor is dry. Thanks to a thorough analysis of the climate of Middle Earth (also available in Elvish and Dwarvish) we know that Mordor receives at most 0.5 mm of rainfall per day. This is thanks to the rain-shadow effect of the Misty Mountains and the sub-tropical positioning of the kingdom–Mordor is affected by a Hadley cell. So even though climate would indicate that Mordor be more barren desert and less most-significant-kingdom-of-the-age, the combination of freshwater access and geology has led to some of the largest agricultural operations in all of Middle Earth. In fact, Mordor is rather similar to another geopolitical powerhouse–Southern California.

Or, at least, it was.

California is currently experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. With water tables dropping, wildfires raging, and the sea encroaching, it’s a wonder than humans continue to carve out settlements along this tortured coast. But, like the massive armies of Mordor, the population of Southern California continues to grow, and great fortress like that of Barad-Angeles fortify their walls against the onslaught. While Mordor enjoys up to 0.5 mm of rainfall a day, Southern California has suffered even greater drought, logging barely 0.14 millimeters per day since June 1.

Which means that, as the California drought continues, Southern California may actual be dryer, hotter, and less habitable than Mordor.

Warg extirpation and the destabilization of eagle colonies in Middle Earth

ecology, Natural Science, Popular Culture, ScienceDecember 23, 2014

“Eagles! The eagles are coming!”

Pippin, Return of the King

“I came from the end of bag, but no bag went over me. I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ring-winner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.”

Bilbo Bagins, The Hobbit

Truly, in this late age, is there anything left to be said of the Great Eagles of Middle Earth; the Eagles that soar in to lift hapless hobbits to safety or hurl rocks down upon their foe? They seem imbued with nearly limitless capacity to raise heroes from the grasp of certain doom, yet so inconsequential that they are called upon only in moments of least need, like a Mûmakil summoned only to pull an onion cart.

A wild warg makes critical carrion for eager eagles. Screen capture from The Hobbit.

A wild warg makes critical carrion for eager eagles. Screen capture from The Hobbit.

But why should beasts so powerful be used so infrequently, and only at the end of all things? Perhaps we must lift the veil and peer beyond the trope to a phenomena that moves the world in subtle and profound ways. Middle Earth is a changing world, reshaped by the actions of warring armies and rising kingdoms. And one kingdom, above all others, rose to prominence and fell, leaving deep scars in the resilience of Middle Earth ecosystems. The destabilization of Great Eagle colonies is only one of many orcthropogenic impacts to the ecology of realm, and it begins with the extirpation of the wargs.

Ages away, in a less magical time, we can look at the effects of species much like the warg, and how they shape their ecosystems. Across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, there lies the Fiefdom of the Yellow Stone. And in this place, this Yellowstone, the king of all creatures is the Grey Wolf. The Grey Wolves ruled for many years, until men, jealous of their land and fearful for their flocks sought to drive wolf from Yellowstone. Thus these fearsome keystone predators were extirpated from their home. Yellowstone lay barren of Grey Wolves for many years, until at last, through great effort, they were returned. 

Because grey wolves were both extirpated from and reintroduced to Yellowstone, we can examine their effects on the ecosystem in exquisite detail. One of the more surprising discoveries was just how big a role grey wolves play in provisioning scavengers. Grey wolves often leave large carcasses, and these carcasses make biomass available to other species the thrive in Yellowstone. When grey wolves were extirpated, carrion biomass went down, and carrion species declined. They also acted as a “temporal transport” for biomass–wolves ate less of their kills during the winter, leaving more available to scavengers during lean times. Among these scavengers are the Bald Eagle, whose reproduction is closely tied to available food sources. The fewer carcasses, the fewer eagles.

Return now to Middle Earth, and the great wargs of the Misty Mountains, wolf-like creatures large enough for an orc to ride. Wargs fulfill many of the same roles as wolves in the Middle Earth ecosystem, bringing down large prey and leaving carcasses for others to feed upon. Like the grey wolf, wargs were extirpated during the Third Age–they were captured and domesticated to serve the Mordor war machine. When Thoren Oakenshield and his band fled the Goblin tunnels, they were set upon by goblins and barely-domesticated wargs. When the Fellowship marched, decades later, they saw no wild wargs.

Thus, the domestication of the warg is so complete that they are are no more wild wargs in Middle Earth. At the Battle of Five Armies, there was still enough ecosystem resilience to withstand the gradual removal of wargs, but by the battle of Helms Deep, these magnificent creatures had been fully extirpated for six decades and the environment had fallen apart around them.

Without the massive carrion the wild wargs leave behind, the Great Eagle populations declined. As their numbers dwindle and resources become scarce, eagle colonies destabilize and social hierarchies fall apart.  Without a stable flock, it becomes impossible to orchestrate a mass migration towards the Gate of Mordor to confront their foe. Only a monumental effort by Gandalf the White could convince one small colony to come to his aid, at the last possible moment.

Again, we see how ecosystem changes, in both Middle Earth and our own world, can have significant, unforeseen consequences. Perhaps, with the fall of the Dark Lord, we will see wargs return to their native land and bring balance back to Middle Earth. Then we can count, once again, on the spontaneous magnanimity of wandering eagles to save up from our troubles.

Middle Earth could have been saved by the Endangered Species Act

biodiversity, Natural Science, Popular Culture, ScienceDecember 22, 2014

Smaug gigan

Smaug gigananteus syn. Cordylus giganteus, the Giant Girdled Lizard, because of course there’s an actual species named Smaug. Photo by Wilfried Berns.

In a cave in the Lonely Mountain there lived a dragon. Not a gnarly, goblin-stuffed, slimy cave, filled with the bowels of orcs and fishy creepers, nor yet an empty, granite, echo-less cave with nothing in it to lie down on or horde: it was a dragon-cave, and that meant gold. At least it did, until a nasty band of poachers found Lonesome Smaug, the last of his species, alone, asleep, threatening none, and smote his genus from the red ledger, stripping Middle Earth of critical biodiversity.

The ecologists of Carsondell would say, of the age of war that followed, that the men and dwarves and elves and hobbits brought the darkness upon themselves. Indeed, as the Dark Lord raised his army, denuded the forests, and belched carbon from the factories of Mordor, Gandalf the Grey, one of the more powerful, though among the least conservation-minded, of the wizards would remark: “It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough.”

The Grey Wizard failed to mention that, were it not for his callousness, there would be*.


What can Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs teach us about ecology, sustainability and conservation?

Conservation, Environmentalism, Popular Culture, SustainabilityDecember 21, 2014

Cloudy_with_a_chance_of_meatballs_theataposterMy family loves to watch movies, which presents a problem during the few times we’re all together: there are very few good movies that none of us have already seen. This past Thanksgiving, we resolved that dilemma by watching some “based on a true story” garbage starring Nicholas Cage and the star of High School Musical, a plot-less but action packed shoot ‘em up starring the governator and Sawyer from Lost, and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”

Based on a popular children’s book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs tells the story of Flint Lockwood, a young inventor who keeps trying to make life better for people in his small island town of Swallow Falls. His inventions always backfire, including the titular invention that makes the sky rain food. In the sequel, which I watched this past weekend because shut up I enjoyed the first one leave me alone, we learn that some of the food has become sentient.  Swallow Falls is now home to a unique ecosystem that includes watermel-ephants, taco-diles, fla-mangos, and many other hybrids called foodimals. In addition to featuring some of the best puns I’ve ever seen, these movies also raise some interesting questions about ecology, sustainability and conservation.


There is 10,000 times more plastic in the deep sea than in surface waters.

deep sea, marine science, Natural Science, ScienceDecember 17, 2014

Locations of sampling sites of bottom sediment and deep-water coral where content of microplastics was investigated.

Locations of sampling sites of bottom sediment and deep-water coral where content of microplastics was investigated. From Woodall et al. 2014.

Ocean plastics is one of the most pernicious problems facing the ocean. One-time use plastics, which, ironically, can persist for thousands of years, often find themselves carried downstream, settling on our beaches, our coastlines, and in large aggregations within oceanic gyres. We’re still trying to cope with the extent to which plastics, and particularly microplastics–tiny photodegraded plastic particles, impact marine ecosystems. Earlier this year, ocean plastics made major waves when it was reported that not only do we not know how much damage they really cause, but we don’t even know where most of them go: 99% of the plastic that should be in the ocean is missing.

It looks like we found the missing plastic.


No Endangered Listing for Dusky Sharks (and That’s a Good Thing)

Conservation, fisheries, sharks, SustainabilityDecember 16, 2014

Though the fisheries news cycle has mostly been taken up by the 15-year anniversary of the Sea Around Us project (and some choice words between researchers), today also marked the official announcement of the 12-month finding on the petition to list dusky sharks on the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Long story short, the National Marine Fisheries Service has decided that the dusky shark population in the Northwest Atlantic doesn’t need ESA protection to avoid extinction.  While it may be tempting to decry NMFS’ decision as falling short for a species that has long been a prime example of declining shark populations, what it actually means is that things are looking up for the dusky shark.  Finding that out only takes a little reading into the decision documents.


Fun Science FRIEDay – Cell Hijack!

biology, Fun Science Friday, Science LifeDecember 12, 2014

Happy Fun Science FRIEDay!!

This week we bring you work from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where they discovered a new method to “hijack” cells. Think about it, if we could make our own cells do our bidding, we could reprogram them to do all sorts of wonderful things for us, such as manufacture insulin, attack tumors, etc. But hijacking a cell is no easy venture. In nature viruses can be quite efficient at hijacking cells, and because of this current methods employed by researchers to hijack cells entails penetrating the cell’s wall with a virus. The biggest issue with this method is that it tends to inflict permanent damage on cell.

Image of a virus attacking a host cell. (Photo credit: dbscience3 @

Image of a virus attacking a host cell. (Photo credit: dbscience3 @


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