Look beyond Shark Week to find the ocean’s most fascinating life

Conservation, ScienceFebruary 3, 2014

Dr. Steve Palumbi studies the genetics, evolution, conservation, population biology and systematics of a diverse array of marine organisms. Along with Tony Palumbi he is the author of the forthcoming book The Extreme Life of the Sea. UnShark Week is a week long celebration of the ocean’s extremes

Dr. Palumbi, enjoying a day at the beach.

Dr. Palumbi, enjoying a day at the beach.

Since 1987, the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week pumps up the thrill of encountering a dangerous shark. Teeth, danger, lunging predation, more teeth: this is what the week is mostly about.  But most of the extreme species in the sea are not sharks. Sharks are not the biggest, the deepest, the fastest, even the deadliest.  This week is exactly midway between Shark Weeks, 26 weeks till the next one; 26 weeks since the last. And because there are so many other thrilling species in the sea, we declare this week as UnShark Week – and dedicate it to the truly extreme animals in the ocean.

The fastest fish in the sea is not a shark. Sailfish have the unofficial record at 60 mph, and well documented speed trails have clocked tuna and wahoo at nearly 50 mph. By contrast the most celebrated human swimmers manage 6-7 mph. Billfish like marlin and sailfish feed at such high speeds that their brains and eyes can not operate fast enough. So as an adaptation to speed, these fish have evolved heaters in the brains and eyes so they can form and process images fast enough to snap up prey in high velocity sorties.


Release the Karaqan! How does Aquaman’s latest foe stack up against real ocean giants?

Aquaman, Popular CultureJanuary 31, 2014

Aquaman #27. DC Comics.

Aquaman #27. DC Comics.

It’s been more than 2 months since we last discussed the patron saint of Southern Fried Science, the one and only Aquaman. The Atlantean übermensch has a new lead writer, Jeff Parker, who’s teamed up with Aquaman veteran Paul Pelletier to produce an engaging and visually stunning story. After the epic conclusion to Throne of Atlantis, Aquaman is off on an entirely new adventure. Unfortunately, this new quest puts our hero in the path of a gargantuan guardian of ancient Atlantis, the Karaqan!

The Karaqan is big, but just how big is it? How does the Karaqan stack up against living sea creatures? Could an arthropod ever get as big as the Karaqan? Most important, if Aquaman does successfully slay the Karaqan, just how much Old Bay would we need to steam it?


Book review: are dolphins really smart?

Blogging, Book Review, Reviews and InterviewsJanuary 29, 2014

melMel Cosentino obtained her Degree in Environmental Biology at the Universidad de Málaga (Spain) and her MRes in Applied Marine and Fisheries Ecology at the University of Aberdeen (UK). She has been involved in cetacean research since 1998, starting as a volunteer for Fundación Orca Patagonia-Antártida in Argentina (her country of birth) working in educational campaigns against killer whale captivity. Since then she has participated in several research projects in Spain, Portugal and Norway.  Mel has conducted field work, both from land and at sea, focused on different cetacean species, including killer whales, Risso’s dolphins and Northern bottlenose whales. In addition, she participated in the Annual meeting of the IWC as part of the Luxembourgish delegation, both in 2011 and 2012.


“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatsoever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible” (Bertrand Russell)

gregg bookThis is how the book “Are dolphins really smart?” by Dr. Justin Gregg starts. It has been recently published and it is available in several countries, including the US and the UK. Moreover there have been a large number of newspaper and web stories based on the conclusions of the book, most along the lines of “dolphins are no smarter than chickens” “Flipper is a thug!” and “dolphins are dumb” This led to a rebuttal article published in Southern Fried Science when David Shiffman interviewed the author and some cetacean scientists about the media frenzy spawned by the book’s release. Studying animal cognition is no easy task, and Dr. Gregg has put together a great amount of information; however, I believe the reader will be confused and misled by some of the comments and statements made by the author, a scientist who holds a PhD and who claims to be analysing the evidence “as impartially as possible with a sincere desire to let objectivity take centre stage”.

It would be impossible to critique the thesis of the book point by point, so I have compiled the topics I consider to be more problematic.


5 fantastic nautical science fiction novels

Popular Culture, Science FictionJanuary 27, 2014

Enterprise versus Enterprise. From ForeignPolicy.com

Enterprise versus Enterprise. From ForeignPolicy.com

One thing I’ve discovered by publishing my first work of nautical science fiction is that the field is incredibly small. There just doesn’t seem to be that many SciFi writers taking their stories out to sea. This seems strange to me, as most of the great space operas are really nautical tales. There’s a reason that TV Tropes has an exhaustive list of entries under “Space is an Ocean” (and, for that matter, “Space Whale“, because we can’t ever have enough Moby-Dick-in-Space stories). It isn’t a coincidence that the US Navy has named at least 7 ships Enterprise (FYI, the aircraft carrier CVN-80 Enterprise is actually bigger than the starship NCC-1701 Enterprise).

So here are my 5 favorite maritime science fiction stories.

Title page for 20,000 Leagues by Jules Verne

Title page for 20,000 Leagues by Jules Verne

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.

The Grand Daddy of maritime science fiction, 20,000 Leagues still holds up. Even though the science is dated, Verne’s insight shines through, predicting the deep-sea gold rush more than 100 years before we even knew about the geologic formations that would produce seafloor massive sulfides. Considering that almost one-fifth of all deep-sea hydrothermal vents are currently at risk for deep-sea mining, Captain Nemo’s declaration that “in the depths of the ocean, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold that would be quite easy to exploit” is particularly prescient.


7 ways to make beaches safer without killing sharks

UncategorizedJanuary 26, 2014

This past weekend, the shark cull officially began in Western Australia as the first shark was killed. The scientific evidence is clear that culls do not lessen people’s risk of shark attacks, and more than 100 scientific experts from around the world have signed an open letter opposing this cull.  While the only sure way to reduce the risk of a shark bite by 100% is to stay out of the water, there are many strategies that actually can reduce someone’s risk significantly without harming populations of threatened animals.

1) Aerial patrols. Planes or helicopters flying above the beach can help identify when potentially dangerous sharks are present. The Australian Aerial Patrol has done this for decades. Though the spotting rate is relatively low and the patrols are expensive,  new technologies like drones can help reduce the cost of these patrols.

Photo via Russavaia, WikiMedia Commons

Photo via Russavaia, WikiMedia Commons


Your help needed: Oppose a weakened shark finning ban in Maryland

fisheries, marine science, Natural Science, Science, sharks

The state of Maryland is proposing new regulations that would, among other things, weaken the state ban on shark finning by allowing fishermen to remove the fins of smoothhound sharks at sea,  as long as the ratio of the weight of the fins does not exceed 12% of the ratio of the carcasses. These “fin ratios” are already troubling and ineffective ways to enforce finning bans. Landing sharks with fins naturally attached is considered the best practice for shark fisheries management. A 12% ratio is exceptionally high (3.5-5% are common ratios worldwide) and risks enabling unscrupulous fishermen to remove the fins of not only smoothhound sharks, but other species whose fins could be passed off as such. This makes it harder for managers to track how many sharks of which species are being killed.

In New York, smoothhounds are landed with fins naturally attached. They should be in Maryland, too! Photo credit: Sonja Fordham.

Some fishermen claim that smoothhound sharks can’t be landed with fins naturally attached, but this photo from New York challenges that notion.  Photo provided anonymously for this post.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources is taking public comments on this policy, which means that you can help!

Please send an e-mail to [email protected] by the end of the day on Monday, January 27th containing the following information:


Abnormal is the New Normal: Shifting Baselines, Polar Vortices, and Climate Change

climate change, Natural Science, ScienceJanuary 24, 2014

The Polar Vortex, a mass of cold air usually centered around points within the Arctic Circle, made a visit south for the second time in 2014. The Vortex brings freezing weather, snow, and ice to regions that are unaccustomed to such extreme conditions. It also brings with it a new spate of “so much for global warming” talking-points, fresh on the heals of a recent report revealing that Climate Change Denial is at an all time high.


Unfortunately for the climate change denial industry, Polar Vortices are well-understood atmospheric phenomena. They were documented as early as 1853 as currents of cold air that essentially circle the poles. High-altitude observations in the 1950′s revealed the occurrence of sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) in the Arctic Polar Vortex. These SSW’s can cause a the vortex to weaken or reverse directions, allowing it to drift off axis or split into several smaller vortices. When weakened vortices contact the jet stream, cold arctic air is forced south, resulting in anomalously cold temperatures.

The obvious next question is: Is the weakened polar vortex caused by climate change?


Quick Tips for Graduate Student Life – Eat Good Food

Science Life

Over the last few years, I’ve written several posts on surviving graduate school, including dealing with expectations, managing your finances, coping with failure, and some more general advice. During that process, I’ve also come up with some small, helpful tips that just don’t fit into a broader theme. It seems a shame to let those tips disappear, so, for the next week I’ll be posting Andrew’s Quick Tips for Surviving Graduate School

Tip #5: Eat good food

Don’t eat like a rabbit*. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the midst of grad school can be extremely challenging for some people. Your schedule is often unpredictable. Your income is limited. You might have a university dining hall that just seems so convenient. You may think that you simply don’t have the time to prepare a decent meal. It seems so easy to grab a quick burger from the fast food joint down the street, grab a cheesy burrito to go from the dining hall, or pop a frozen pizza into the oven.


Quick Tips for Graduate Student Life – Write a Book Review

Science LifeJanuary 23, 2014

Over the last few years, I’ve written several posts on surviving graduate school, including dealing with expectations, managing your finances, coping with failure, and some more general advice. During that process, I’ve also come up with some small, helpful tips that just don’t fit into a broader theme. It seems a shame to let those tips disappear, so, for the next week I’ll be posting Andrew’s Quick Tips for Surviving Graduate School

Tip #4: Write a book review

This is especially useful for new gradate students, because it helps you gain experience with the manuscript writing and submission process, gets your name in print in an appropriate journal, puts another line on your CV during a time when every line is statistically significant.

Most major scientific journals publish book reviews. I wrote one for Trends in Ecology and Evolution during my third year (and just published another, just for fun, in Biological Conservation this year). Find a journal you like (in your field, of course) and see if they do book reviews. If they do, the editor usually has a pretty decent slush pile of books to be reviewed, so find out who is in charge and send them an e-mail letting them know your research area and ask if they have any books in the backlog that would be appropriate.

Writing a book review is challenging, especially for a scientific journal. You have to do some research. You need to understand the author’s conclusions, and you need to read broadly within the field to place the book in the appropriate context. It’s an excellent exercise in research and writing. When you submit it, it will usually go through the same channels as a formal manuscript (though instead of full peer review, it will probably just be the editor who reviews it before publication).

Remember, though, a book review is not a book report. You’re not just giving a summary. A good book review should provide critical analysis, place the significance of the work in it’s proper context, and evaluate the quality of the book. Which brings up one final point: It’s probably diplomatically unwise to trash another scientist’s book early in your career. If you do a book review, review a book that you think adds value to the community. That being said, don’t shy away from being thorough and critical when warranted.

Fisherman catches cosmopolitan planktonic tunicate. You’ll never guess what various news agencies are calling it.

biology, marine science, Natural Science, ScienceJanuary 22, 2014

“Translucent fish leaves New Zealand fisherman stunned” ~UK Metro

“Shrimp-like Translucent Sea Creature Found off Northland’s East Coast” ~Science World Report

“Now that’s a jelly fish! Stunned fisherman catches wobbly shrimp-like creature” ~Daily Mail

And another half-dozen variations on translucent, fish, shrimp, and baffled.

article-2543194-1AD845CC00000578-850_634x476This creature, whose image has gone viral in the last few days, is a salp. Salps are pelagic tunicates that drift through the open ocean, sometimes solitary, but often in large aggregations. It both swims and feed by pumping water through its body, filtering out plankton and expelling a jet of water from an organ called the excurrent siphon. In the water they look quite majestic.


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