A year of snot-oozing, carcass-scavenging, slime eels: Hagfish Science in 2017.

Hagfish. You love them. I love them. The owner of this sedan has no choice but to love them:

Photo courtesy Oregon State Police.

2017 was a big year for hagfish science.

Big Ideas (the ecologic paradigms that hagfish shifted) 

Heincke’s law is one of those ecologic principles that more often acts as a foil for rejecting the null hypothesis than as a consistent pattern in ecology. It’s most basic summary is: The further from shore and the deeper dwelling a fish is, the bigger it grows. Heincke’s law does not appear to be true for hagfish, whose size appear to have no relation to the depth at which they occur. On the other hand, phylogenetic relationships do seem to play some role in regulating body size in hagfish.

Defense and Behavior (how hagfish do the things that they do)

Hagfish are master escape artists, capable of squeezing in and out of tight spaces barely half the width of their body. This great for getting in an out of rotting whale carcasses on the sea floor, creeping into crevices, and avoiding predators. But how do they accomplish this incredible feat? Hagfish have a flaccid sinus under their skin which allows them to control the distribution of venous blood and alter their body width as they wriggle through narrow passages. Freedman and Fudge identified 9 distinct behaviors which take advantage of this adaptation, including anchoring, forming tight loops to push the body through an opening, and bending the hagfish head 90 degrees to force it through a slit. And there are videos!

The Fudge lab has been busy this year, cranking out some of the most noteworthy work on the incredible behavior of hagfish. In addition to examining hagfish motility, Boggett and friends looked into how those flaccid sinuses aid predator avoidance. The team build wee little guillotines loaded with shark teeth to see how hagfish skin protects the animal from vicious bites. In a year when a truckload of hagfish spectacularly crushed a car, the fact that this research was the biggest breakout sensation in hagfish pop culture says everything you need to know about the compelling results of this study. You can read more about this study at The Verge, Futurity, Popular Science, and plenty of other outlets.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Think water comes in just liquid, ice and gas? Think again!

One of the most basic things that we learn when growing up is that water can exist in 3 different states of matter: as a gas (water vapor), as a liquid (water… water), and as a solid (ice). This basic and fundamental concept has recently been turned upside down as scientist have discovered that water might also exists in a fourth state; liquid water it appears might actually come in two different states. A collaborative team of researchers led by Dr. Laura Maestro at Oxford University, found that the  physical properties of water changed their behavior between 50 and 60℃ potentially changing to a second physical state of water.

(Photo credit: Pixabay/Public Domain Pictures via CC0 Public Domain)

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Embryonic Gene Editing

The world we currently live in would have seemed like science fiction to humans in the not to distant past. Everyday more and advancements transform sci-fi dreams into reality. Most recently gene editing of human embryos has been birthed into the realm of possibility (cheesy pun intended!). In theory gene editing embryos could allow you to choose preferential traits in your soon to be human flesh-blob. That level of ability does not currently exist, but the latest developments in gene editing are still pretty astonishing.

Eggs before gene editing (left), and eggs after gene editing and already undergoing cell division (right)
(Photo credit: Ma et al. 2017)

In a recent study scientists took a human embryo and edited a dangerous mutation from the genes of that embryo; human reality, meet science fiction. Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, with colleagues in California, China and South Korea, edited embryos, fixing a mutation that causes a common heart condition that can lead to sudden death later in life. The biggest hurdles were producing embryos in which all cells, not just some, were mutation-free, while also avoiding creating unwanted extra mutations during the process. The researchers found that when gene-editing components were introduced with sperm to the egg before fertilization, the success of the process was markedly different from previous approaches. If embryos with the repaired mutation were allowed to develop into babies, they would not only be disease-free but would also not transmit the disease to their descendants.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Underwater World of Pollination

Pollination. I think most people understand why this is important (or maybe I should say, I hope). To put it simply, the process of pollination facilitates reproduction in plants by transferring pollen from one plant to another. In the terrestrial world, this can be mediated by physical forcing (e.g., wind) or by animals (e.g., insects) – and its why people are freaking out about the loss of bees due to pesticides (because they are a primary pollinator), but I digress. Until relatively recently, pollination by animals was not thought to occur in the ocean. Unlike on land, where most flowering plants rely on creatures to carry pollen, plant reproduction in an aquatic world was surmised to rely exclusively on currents and tides. However, a team of researchers led by marine biologist Brigitta van Tussenbroek revoked the long standing paradigm that pollen in the sea is transported only by water, discovering and documenting the process of zoobenthophilous pollination (a term they coined).

Gamarid amphipod feeding on pollen or mucilage of a male flower of the seagrass Thalassia testudinum at night. (Photo credit: Tussenbroek et al. 2012)

Gamarid amphipod feeding on pollen of a male
flower of the seagrass Thalassia testudinum at night. (Photo credit: Tussenbroek et al. 2012)

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Drug Resistant Bacteria, The Movie

In today’s FSF we bring you both a jaw dropping, and somewhat terrifying cinematic visualization of how bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, and overtime can become super bugs immune to any antibiotic treatment.  A concise and detailed description is presented below:

This stunning video of evolution in action captures how bacteria with no resistance to an antibiotic can in a very short time become resistant to concentrations of more than a thousand times the initial concentration. Other scientists have documented this phenomenon before, but never with such vivid clarity as that provided by Michael Bay and Roy Kishony of Harvard University.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Shark Daycare

A great white shark nursery in the North Atlantic that was discovered in 1985 south of Cape Cod in the waters off Montauk, New York  has received renewed attention due to the increased activity of white sharks off cape cod in recent years. The nursery was first documented in 1985 by Casey and Pratt who deduced the presence of a nursery based on the number of juvenile sightings and landings in the area. This work was followed up recently  by OCEARCH (an organization dedicated to generating scientific data related to tracking/telemetry and biological studies of keystone marine species such as great white sharks), which tagged and tracked nine infant great whites to the nursery, located a few miles off Montauk.

Great White Shark. Image courtesy animals.NationalGeographic.com

Great White Shark. Image courtesy animals.NationalGeographic.com

Photo of a great white shark in Mexico by Terry Goss, WikiMedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_shark.jpg

Photo of a great white shark in Mexico by Terry Goss, WikiMedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_shark.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fun Science FRIEDay – The worlds largest sponge.

Recently a team of scientists on a deep sea expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard the R/V Okeanos Explorer made a monumental discovery… pun intended. While exploring the depths of the seafloor in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with their remotely operated vehicles (ROV) Seirios and Deep Discover, they discovered and documented the largest sponge ever observed on this planet… or any planet for that matter.

Large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Photo credit: NOAA's Office of Exploration and Research)

Large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Photo credit: NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research)

Lateral view of a large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Photo credit: NOAA's Office of Exploration and Research)

Lateral view of a large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
(Photo credit: NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Seagull swallowed by tuna

The tuna that ate a seagull, and other bird swallowing marine megafauna

Once again, the internet is in a fervour over a rarely documented, but pretty common, animal interaction.  The video below shows fishermen at a pier in L’Escala, Spain tossing small fish to a tuna.  A nearby seagull went for the same fish and was ingested by the tuna, much to everyone’s surprise.  Naturally, the tuna spat out the seagull, luckily uninjured, and it flew away to dive another day:

Seabirds are often ingested by marine megafauna since both groups forage in the same areas, often on the exact same prey.  This video was an artificial overlap of foraging animals created by the people tossing fish from the pier, but in natural settings where two animals feed on the same prey and one of those animals is considerably larger than the other, the smaller animal faces a pretty high risk of being swallowed.

This is especially true for lunge-feeding whales that take in large mouthfuls of fish, water, and anything else at the surface.  Haynes et al. identified three Glaucous-winged gulls in the fecal remains of foraging humpback whales in Glacier Bay, Alaska.  The birds were mostly intact, suggesting that humpback whales aren’t capable of digesting birds well (we’ve all been there).

All of the examples above are accidental ingestion, but some marine animals deliberately target birds for food, too.  Tiger sharks seasonally aggregate at the Hawaiian Islands of French Frigate Shoals to forage on albatross fledglings.  Fledglings are fat, slow, and naïve, making them easy and profitable prey.  This foraging strategy is common among sharks and is the same reason white sharks target seal colonies during South African winters.

The alien giant catfish of the river Tarn in southwestern France is an aquatic example.  They have also acquired a taste for feathered food and learned to ambush aloof pigeons, with a success rate of 28%:

Although not mega- megafauna, the Hilaire’s Side-necked turtles of Brazil have been documented consuming pigeons in a scene that honestly rivals Jaws.  Who’s slow now? (Edit: Thanks to @mattkeevil for the reference!)

Marine and aquatic animals do indeed eat birds, accidentally and deliberately.  Exactly how regularly this happens is unknown, but this antipodean pairing is essentially the chocolate shake and fries of the natural world.  The bottom line is, if you are in the same space where something bigger than you is foraging, you might get swallowed.  Birds, and humans, alike:

Fun Science FRIEDay – Osprey Version of the Truman Show #ospreycam

Do you ever get that feeling that you are being watched? I imagine that is what the ospreys at the nesting platform at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) must feel, if they notice at all. These birds have a camera that is trained on their nest 24/7 during the osprey breeding season (generally from mid-March to October).

Osprey in a nest on the campus of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (Photo Credit: VIMS)

Osprey in a nest on the campus of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (Photo Credit: VIMS)

Ospreys are unique among North American raptors for their diet of live fish and ability to dive into the water to catch them. As a result of their life history strategies, osprey nests occur around nearly any body of water: saltmarshes, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, estuaries, and even coral reefs. The placement of OspreyCam at VIMS provides us with an around-the-clock window into the world and “family” dynamics of these amazing birds. We are able to watch as a mating pair cohabit their nest and use it to rear their young. As you can imagine, once the chickies hatch, things get quite interesting in the osprey nest!

Checkout the addictive live feed below, and happy FSF!!

Fun Science FRIEDay – Dude, I’m Glowing!

Happy Fun Science FRIEDay! After a brief hiatus, due to life, hoping this installment represents the regular…err, semi-regular, occurrence of FSF.

So this hit the interwebs pretty big earlier this week, the first documented reptile to glow. That honor belongs to the Hawksbill a sea turtle, observed first by  David Gruber, of City University of New York.

Fluorescing hawksbill sea turtle. (Photo credit: David Gruber, of City University of New York)

Fluorescing hawksbill sea turtle. (Photo credit: David Gruber, of City University of New York)

Lets get one thing out of the way before we delve into the glowing version of Crusher (for my finding Nemo aficionados). The sea turtle is not glowing, its fluorescing… there is a difference. In the ocean lots of organisms fluoresce at longer wavelengths (green, yellow, red) in response to shorter wavelengths (UV, blue, violet). It is a typical property of many biological materials and is noticeable if viewed through restrictive long pass filters, as is the case here.

That being said, documenting a sea turtle fluorescing is still pretty freaking cool! Like many scientific discoveries this was totally by happenstance. David was in the Solomon Islands to film biofluorescence in small sharks and coral reefs. And during his observations of sharks and corals glowing Crusher just swims by like, “Dude, I’m all glowing and stuff.”

Checkout the awesome video of it below, and Happy FSF!