Friday, August 20, 2010

Snark Hunting in the Floating World

In August, Science + Story will be going to the beach--figuratively, anyway. We'll really be on the rocky coast of Maine. Here is the second installment on beach science, on flotsam. You can catch up on this series by reading the earlier post on shells.

I hadn't planned to blog about this until later today, but want to catch the wave--if you'll pardon the expression--of an upcoming segment on Ira Flatow's Science Friday. In today's second hour, 3:00 PM EST, SciFri will interview Karen Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole about plastic in the sea.
Scientists are trying to understand what goes on in and around floating patches of plastic debris in the world's oceans. Results from a 22 year investigation into floating plastic garbage were published this week in the journal Science. The researchers looked at the physics behind the plastic accumulation, its concentration, and biological activity in and around the debris. Interestingly, the researchers found somewhat less plastic than they anticipated. We'll talk to one of the authors of the report [KLL] about the findings.
 I'll be tuning in. You can listen live here. Plastic in the ocean has been much on my mind as I've been reading Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano. It was published last year by Smithsonian Books and released in paperback just time for this summer's exodus to the beach.

I confess I've been guilty til now of priveleging marine biology over oceanography, the science of the sea itself. No more. Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano have introduced me to a world of gyres, eddies, meddies, and snarks--the term Ebbesmeyer coined for the water slabs of different salinity and density that drift through the ocean like clouds in the sky. Ebbesmeyer hunts for watery snarks in this mysterious floating world.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, snark hunter. Photo by Rick Rickman/NOAA

As other reviewers have noted, this is a mix of memoir and science, and it works well, as Ebbesmeyer's personal career trajectory traces the growth and maturation of ocean science itself over the last forty years. Ebbesmeyer has become an expert on the behavior of nonliving objects in the ocean, be they sneakers, rubber ducks, messages in bottles, coconuts, or cadavers.

All those stories await you in the book, and Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano tell them well. The parts I want to highlight here are these. The first is the remarkable story of messages in bottles. The practice was popularized and romanticized in the nineteeth century in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, but the deliberate release of messages in bottles may go back centuries--and messages set adrift back before there were bottles. In the nineteenth century, however, messages in bottles, or MIBs, came into their own--caught in a gyre, if you will, of naval ambition. As Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano note, the American, German, and British navies were eager to map the currents of the world's oceans, and bottles were one way to do it. Into the early twentieth century, they released thousands of bottles, casks, and other "deliberate drifters" into the oceans to try and gain a naval advantage.
Photo from

A. W. Fawcett, the chairman of Guinness, the British brewery, used a message in a bottle in a spectacular ad campaign that is still washing ashore today. Between 1954 and 1959, Fawcell arranged to have shipping companies drop fifty thousand commemorative bottles into the sea at eleven sites around the world. The brown bottles were sealed with cork, a metal cap, and a lead wrapper. Inside was a scroll from "King Neptune" marking the bicentennial of the brewery. The bottles were retrieved from all over the world, including a penal colony off the coast of Mexico and remote Coats Island in Hudson Bay, where the Inuit fishermen who chanced on eighty of the bottles "used them for stone-throwing practice until they learned Guinness offered a reward."

The other great story in the book--and it is hard to choose among the many these author tell, --is how the practice of beachcombing is contributing to citizen science around the world. Beachcomber Alert Network and organizations like it are providing researchers with a constant stream of data about ocean currents. For more about the science of "flotsam oceanography," visit For a wonderful read filled with astonishing stories that will transform your next walk on the beach, read Flotsametrics.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Autobiography of a Shell

In August, Science + Story will be going to the beach--figuratively, anyway. Here is the first installment, on shells.

Marble Cone (Conus marmoreus), 31 to 150 mm, common throughout the Indo West Pacific, including the Philippines, where I spent part of my childhood. The Marble Cone is a carnivore of the rocky bottom.
Like a message in a bottle, every shell on the beach has a story to tell. Each turban, limpet, conch, and cowrie can tell the trained eye stories about how and where it lived, and even battles it fought against storm, surf, and predator. Authors Jerry Harasewych and Fabio Moretzsohn teach us, in this spendidly conceived and realized book, how to train our own eyes to read and recover those stories.
It is second nature to us to admire the delicate shape, color, and beauty of a perfect specimen. Taking the time to "read" each shell as an autobiography of the animal that produced it is often just as rewarding. 
Harasewych, of the Smithsonian, and Moretzsohn, of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University, have not merely provided a deluxe field guide. They've chosen the six hundred shells showcased in the book's 656 pages to provide a cross section of the shell-bearing mollusks from around the world. As the authors point out in the introductory pages, "molluscan diversity is dominated by small animals"--most the size of a fingernail or smaller. A representative selection of shells would be small snails, and a lot of them. We wouldn't see such wonders as the Lazarus Jewelbox, the Pagoda Prickly Winkle, the Modest Worm Snail, or the Telescope Snail.

Windowpane Oyster (Placuna placenta), 100 to 200 mm, Tropical Indo-West Pacific. This oyster yields the capiz shell used widely for wind chimes and other crafts in the Philippines, where there is a major Placuna fishery.

I did wish for a few more images of the living animals, and for some backstory about some of the mollusks' common names. Surely there is a tale to be told about the Poor Ittibittium, Ittibittium parcum? I also wanted to know what made the Paradoxical Blind Limpet paradoxical. But those are quibbles. That would have been a 900-page book.

Gumboot Chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), 100 to 400 mm, Hokkaido, Japan, to Aleutian Islands, Alaska to Southern California. A nocturnal grazer on red algae, the living animal is sometimes washed ashore after storms. In life, the eight plates of its shell are covered in a mantle.
What the authors have collected here for the reader is a museum-in-a-book. You can turn the pages almost as if you'd been let into the back rooms of Smithsonian and been allowed to open the drawers containing specimens, with Harasewych at your elbow, explaining what you're seeing. While the book is beautifully written and presented, it's so seamlessly done that nothing about the presentation gets in the way of the story of the shells.

True Heart Cockle (Corculum cardissa). 40 to 80 mm, Red Sea to Indo West Pacific. The true heart cockle can form dense colonies near coral reefs. Like the corals where it makes its home, it has a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae algae.

 And what stories they are. Of the Miter-Shaped Nutmeg we learn that its relatives, the cancellariids, are "known to suck the blood of sleeping fishes." Carrier shells like the Atlantic Carrier Shell cement shells, rocks, and derbis to their shells, perhaps as camouflage, perhaps as stabilization in the fine mud where they live. The Giant Owl Limpet aggressively guards an algae garden. The Common Janthina is a pelagic predator, roaming the oceans of the world on a raft of air bubbles trapped in mucus--its own bubblewrap. I know I will never look at a shell quite the same way again. It's time to go up in the attic and find the box with the childhood shell collection, and look at the shells with new eyes.

Elephant Tusk (Dentalium elephantium), 50 to 100 mm, Red Sea to Australia. This tusk shell lives buried in the sandy bottom, with only its narrow end sticking out of the surface. Some hermit crabs specialize in tusk shells.

M. G. Harasewych and Fabio Moretzsohn, The Book of Shells: A Life-Size Guide to Identifying and Classifying Six Hundred Seashells (Smithsonian/Chicago University Press, 656 pages, 2400 color plates. $55.) 

Disclosure: Science + Story received a copy of The Book of Shells from The Chicago University Press for the purpose of this review.


Monday, August 2, 2010

If I Ran Shark Week

In case you hadn't noticed, it's Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. The promo spot is in heavy rotation: footage of Great White launching itself up out of the ocean and snatching some unfortunate pinniped in its jaws.

Perhaps in some attempt at synergy, our local movie theater is showing Speilberg's Jaws. As I drive past the marquee, I can't help thinking that our perception of sharks hasn't come very far since 1975. Sharks themselves have fared even worse, decimated worldwide by overfishing and sharkfinning boats.

To be fair to the folks at Discovery, their website for Shark Week 2010 has a lot of good information about sharks, and they've partnered with Oceana and the Ocean Conservancy. There is information about the ten most endangered sharks ("see them before it's too late!") and the 25-75 million sharks   killed each year to satisfy the demand for shark-fin soup. But the actual on-air line up for Shark Week is all shark-attacks, all the time. Jaws, jaws, and more jaws.

We're in the process of exterminating sharks at a faster rate than we are finding out the most basic facts of their biology. It's hard to mobilize people to take the kind of action that's necessary to save sharks if all they see about them is a 35-year-old Jaws stereotype. So is Discovery's shark conservation message just going through the motions? In my humble opinion, they won't change hearts and minds about the plight of sharks until their programming presents another side of sharks than as perfect, mindless killing machines.

Knowing that sharks are in far more peril from humans than humans are from sharks, it's hard for me not to want to give Shark Week a complete overhaul. Here, then, is my version of Shark Week.

Sunday: Sharkabet with Ray Troll. Game show a la Jeopardy! hosted by the author of Sharkabet.

Troll's picture book Sharkabet was where my family learned about such wonderful animals as wobbegongs and goblin sharks. I think Troll would be the perfect ambassador for shark diversity.

Monday: Diving with Sharks. Hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, and silky sharks off Cocos Islands, Costa Rica, stingrays off the Canary Islands with the dive experts from It's hard to generalize about any large community on the internet, but folks at Elasmodiver appear dedicated to shark education and conservation.This would be a Travel-channel type show of shark diving sites around the world.

Photo copyright Tom Burns. All rights reserved.

Tuesday: The Secret Lives of Sharks. My reality show would follow scientists as they use satellite tagging to solve the mysteries of white sharks and other pelagic top predators.

Above, footage from Stanford University of the National Park Service's Scot Anderson discussing data from tagged sharks.

Wednesday: SharkCam. This show would feature footage from "crittercams"--also known as animal-borne imaging systems--attached to a variety of sharks, from a basking shark to rare and mysterious six-gill shark. Sharks occur in a variety of habitats from tropical reefs to the ocean's dark, cold abyss. The shark-mounted cameras of SharkCam will allow viewers to follow sharks wherever they live.

Attaching a "crittercam" to a whale shark.
Photo by Peter Nicholas.

Thursday: Doc Gruber's SharkLab. Profiling the work of Dr. Sam Gruber and colleagues on lemon sharks at Bimini Biological Field Station.

Friday: Sharkspiration. The science of biomimicry is bringing sharks' best evolutionary innovations to a product near you. Sharkskin is inspiring a new kind of medical film that inhibits the growth of bacteria. Overreliance on antibiotics is fueling the rise of so-called superbugs, but it may be that a super marterial--sharkskin--will be able to take these bugs on.

Photo; Sharklet Technologies.
Are you listening, Discovery? The sharks are running out of time. For Shark Week 2011, maybe you can find a different story to tell about the world's emperiled sharks than "My, what big teeth you have."