Rumors of the lesser electric ray’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

A lesser electric ray. Photo credit: Brandi Noble, NOAA Fisheries Service

The lesser electric raya small sand-dwelling ray that lives from North Carolina to Brazil, has been considered one of the most endangered marine fish on Earth. A 2005 paper reported that 98% of these rays had been wiped out, a decline attributed to shrimp trawling bycatch. This paper resulted in these animals getting classified as IUCN Red List “Critically Endangered,” the highest risk category for any species that is still found in the wild.

A new paper published today in the journal Endangered Species Research shows that these rays are in much better shape than previously believed. “There is no evidence of a decline in the relative abundance of lesser electric rays,” said Dr. John Carlson, a NOAA Fisheries Service Research Biologist and lead author of the new paper.

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Conserving Chicago’s Lungfish Legacy

Adult Australian Lungfish, part of a captive breeding program in Queensland, Australia.
Credit: Gordon Hides (used with permission)

On Sunday, February 5, 2017, Granddad the Australian Lungfish, the oldest fish in any aquarium or zoo, was euthanized due to health complications. Although his exact age is unknown, he arrived at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago as an adult in 1933. Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) take over a decade to mature, so we can estimate he was over 90 years old when he passed.

The Australian Lungfish is a unique species, considered a “living fossil”, resembling its ancestors whose lineage dates back over 380 million years. The Australian Lungfish genus (Neoceratodus) itself has been around for about 100 million years. When first described, they were believed to be amphibians; one look at their elongate body and flipper-like fins, and you can imagine the classification conundrum. The fish even possesses a primitive lung, allowing it to breathe air in low-oxygen environments (although they usually breathe with their gills).

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Bonnethead sharks, one of the smallest hammerheads, may actually be more than one species

Bonnethead sharks, one of the smallest members of the hammerhead shark family Sphyrnidae, have a special place in my heart. For many years, the avatar I used for science communication efforts, including posts on this blog, was a picture of me with a bonnethead.

Remember this avatar? That’s a bonnethead (on the left).

These sharks, which can grow up to about 5 feet long, are found throughout North, Central, and South America. However, new research by Fields and friends suggests that they may actually be a species complex, not a true species. “A species complex is a group of distinct species that are incorrectly classified as one species because they look very similar to one another,” explained Dr. Demian Chapman, an Associate Professor of Biology at Florida International University and a co-author on this new study. “A great example is the white spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) that was once thought to be one, globally distributed species, but now has been shown to be a group of very similar-looking species, each of which lives in a particular region.”

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When I talk about Climate Change, I don’t talk about science.

Climate Change is real. It’s happening now. And the best available data points to us as the cause.

That the foundational science is settled is a point of unending frustration to scientists, science writers, and policy advocates who face continuous partisan push back, from whitewashing government websites to threatening scientists with legal repercussions for reporting the data.  During my International Marine Conservation Congress keynote last year, I argued that Climate Change denial is not a science literacy problem, but rather a product of increasing political bifurcation. Political ideology is a much stronger predictor of Climate Change understanding than science literacy.

The term “Climate Change” is now loaded with so much political baggage that it becomes almost impossible to hold a discussion across political lines. In stakeholder interviews, people generally understand and acknowledge the impacts of climate change on local and regional scales, as long as you don’t call it “Climate Change”. This has been my experience working in rural coastal communities, which tend to be strongly conservative and intimately connected to the changing ocean.

Which is why, when I talk about Climate Change, I don’t talk about science.  Continue reading

Fun Science FRIEDay – Harnessing Synthetic Biology to Fight Ocean Pollution

Plastics, more importantly microplastics, clog our oceans. This phenomena in the ocean has been likened to smog around cities. These plastic particles are dangerous because they can absorb toxins, subsequently be consumed by zooplankton and invertebrates, and bioaccumluate up the food web to fish that are consumed by humans. A study in Nature found that 25 percent of seafood sold contains microplastics! There has been a recent awareness of the unseen harm that exists when plastic pollution in the ocean degrades into microplastics. A report in Environmental Research Letters estimated that “accumulated number of micro plastic particles… ranges from 15 to 51 trillion particles, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons.” That is cray cray. Despite a better awareness of the impact of microplastics on marine ecology, we still have a poor spatial understanding of microplastics in the ocean. The presence and density of microplastics is determined by trawling the ocean (i.e., researchers go out with a net and physically count the pieces of plastic they pick up). As you can imagine, this is not very effective.

Conceptualization of plastic degrading in the ocean. (Photo credit: Archipelagos Institute)

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