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Hi everyone! Sorry that the posts were thin on the ground last week. The head druid told me that I needed to honor the solstice by taking some time to reflect on the meaning of things [citation needed]. Anyway…since I didn’t blog last week, I failed to post these astonishing pictures of Jupiter’s giant moon Ganymede, which were photographed by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it slaloms though the Jovian system.

Ganymede as imaged by NASA probe Juno

Although its lack of atmosphere and pockmarked plains of dust make it superficially resemble Earth’s moon, Gannymede is a very strange and unique heavenly object Of the 200 known moons in the solar system, it is the largest. Indeed it is 26% larger than the planet Mercury by volume (although it is only 45% as massive as the metalliferous first planet). Ganymede has a diameter of 5,268 km (3,273 mi), so each pixel in the full size image of the Jovian moon is equal to a kilometer (although you may want to check out the NASA image to really savor that scale–since WordPress has a noteworthy penchant for scrunching up my images in incomprehensible ways).

A photo of the dark side of Ganymede taken by Juno’s incredibly light sensitive navigational camera

Alone among moons in the solar system, Ganymede has a magnetic field, albeit a rather meager one compared to Earth or Jupiter. Scientists surmise that the magnetic field is created by convection within the liquid iron core of the moon–although answers are not forthcoming as to why it has a liquid iron core to begin with (these planetary cores seem to be the real determinant of what planets are like, but I feel like we know precious little about them). Thanks to its size (and maybe thanks also to its magnetosphere), Ganymede has a very thin oxygen atmosphere…but that just creates more question, since elemental Oxygen has a tendency to instantly bond to all sorts of other elements. The 20 percent or so of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere did not become a mainstay until about 1.5 billion years ago when photosynthesizing bacteria finally became so prevalent that they overcame the constant loss of atmospheric oxygen thanks to oxidation. Hopefully Juno’s survey will help us solve atmospheric mysteries on Ganymede. Ganymede is also believed to have a vast subsurface ocean of icy water tucked away somewehere beneath its surface. Astronomers have reasonably speculated that this Ganymede underworld ocean may contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined!

This is the largest version of this interesting cross section which I could find

Ganymede is a Galilean moon–which means it was discovered by the great scientist, and is one of the first objects ever discovered to orbiting another planet (I still sometimes imagine the thrill Galileo must have felt when he realized what he was seeing). I wonder what surprises Juno will send back for us!

Pacific ocean sea in planet earth, view from outer space

Today (June 8th) is celebrated as World Ocean Day. I am pleased about the existence of this new holiday because the oceans are ridiculously underrepresented in people’s estimation and concern. From outer space, it is readily apparent that we live on a water world where 70% of the surface is covered by liquid (and that number is growing by the day as we run more motors and melt more ice). Yet in the human world, you can go for weeks of listening to constant stupid human blather without ever hearing about the oceans at all (and I live in New York, which is ON the ocean–imagine what it is like in landlocked hell cities like Timbuktu, Dallas, or Ashgabat). At any rate, what is of real concern here is not the oceans themselves (which will keep on covering the planet so long as it has an atmosphere) but the vast intricate realm of life within the oceans. And make no mistake, the whole ocean ecosystem–the cradle of life from which all living things came, and upon which we are all still dependent–is in the deepest trouble possible. Overfishing, climate change, pollution, and other rampant abuse of the oceans are unchecked even in rich world countries. But most of the ocean is not even in a country. Enormous fish factories and trawlers can just show up and destroy the irreplaceable ecology at will with virtually no oversight or rules. Undoubtedly you have heard of the world ocean’s troubles before, but, unfortunately, whatever you have heard does not begin to compile the true devastation. The oceans are undergoing a mass extinction event caused by us humans. Even if we considerably mitigate the scale of the damage we are causing, we are about to lose more than we can imagine…forever.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Just as the oceans are more damaged than we immediately appreciate, they are more robust as well. A handful of sensible reforms which would not even greatly change the life or lifestyle of most people could ensure the health of the blue part of the planet. Alas, there is not yet any political pathway to sensible regulations, rules, and refuge areas yet (at least at a worldwide scale). Like other intractable political or environmental problems, we can change that, but it will require knowledge, attention, and organization.

I recognize that I am writing in generalizations, however a true accounting of the troubles that the ocean ecosystems face would be beyond any single person to write and would be so painful as to be unreadable. Instead, we will celebrate an extended World Ocean Day for the next fortnight, during which time we will talk about all sorts of different aspects of the ocean world (the good, the bad, the sublime, and the weird) in digestible micro essays and artworks (instead of a single impassioned blurb of dense and depressing facts and statistics). The ocean isn’t one of several different painted backdrops to add passing interest to a light opera. It is the main home of Earth life. Every day should always be world ocean day. Even if we are unable to make people see that fact, at least for the next few weeks we will try.

One of the accounts which I follow on Instagram is “newyorkcitywild” which showcases the flora & fauna (& fungi) of New York City.  While I expected it would be filled with pigeons, trees of heaven (gah!), and cockroaches (and maybe the occasional black wasp with fluorescent orange feelers), it is actually filled with an astonishing proliferation of incredibly beautiful plants and animals like owls, frogs, beaver, snapping turtles, garter snakes, and flowers of every color of the rainbow.  The city is teeming with wildlife that finds space in the parks and abandoned corners.  Imagine what we could do if we tweaked the designs for the future just a little bit!

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However, even though the photos have changed some of my stereotypes about the urban ecosystem,  when I looked at this account the other day, I assumed that the creator had fled the city on a yacht.  The pictures were most certainly not of chimney swifts, or treefrogs, or damselflies, but instead featured 30,000 kilogram (35 ton) humpback whales gulping down entire schools of menhaden.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening just beyond Sheepshead Bay until I recognized the unmistakable city skyline behind one of the giants. I have (very gradually) come to terms with the fact that I live near an ocean, but it is still hard to recognize that it is a working ocean which connects to real ocean things and isn’t just filled with plastic garbage and dodgy Panamanian-flagged super freighters.

I was enormously moved to see that our enormous friends are so near…that I share a home with them in terms which are local rather than planetary, but then, immediately, I was terrified for the poor whales. Humans are BAD neighbors.  Most of the amazing wild animals I have seen in the city have been dead–either smashed by psychotic motorists (whose greatest delight is killing all living things with their evil benzene death chariots), or concussed to death from flying into windows, or poisoned by pesticide or weird chemicals.  And, sure enough, yesterday’s Gothamist featured a harrowing tale of a trapped humpback whale slowly and agonizingly fighting to breathe despite being caught in some nightmarish tangle of cables, fishing lines, and sinister plastic garbage in the Ambrose Channel just off the city coast.  You should read the article [spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the whale was freed after a multi-day struggle by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies].  Humankind’s engagement with the greater world ecosystem is improving..in ways. Yet the larger narrative is still one of devastation, peril, and death.

Tomorrow’s New York City could be filled with whales (figuratively or literally...since we live in a world of global warming and a storm is coming) or they could be gone from everywhere.  We humans are the architects of the city and the makers of the deadly cast off fishing nets.  We could make and do things differently.  But can we?

 

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Astrophysicists have long speculated about the creation of the moon.  Since the late twentieth century, the dominant theory has been “the giant impact hypothesis” which posits that a huge object about the size of Mars smashed into the newly coalesced Earth 4.5 billion years ago.  Astronomers name this mysterious proto-planet “Theia” after the titan who was the mother of the moon is ancient Greek mythology.  They speculate that the Earth and Theia melded together and the iron/heavy metal core of Theia sank into the molten Earth.  A great deal of the light material was thrown into orbit around Earth where it coalesced into two moons (the smaller of which was unstable and pancaked into the dark side of the moon a few million years after formation).

These are pretty intense ideas, however they explain many of the features of the moon and Earth (you can look at a comprehensive list on Wikipedia if you like).  Yet astrophysicists have not been completely satisfied by the current model of the giant impact hypothesis.  The composition of the moon is suspiciously identical to that of Earth (whereas, computer models seem to indicate that it should contain more of Theia).

This week, a scientific paper suggests that the collision was somewhat different than envisioned in the giant impact hypothesis.  The paper’s main author is Natsuki Hosono, and he has a revised version of how Theia hit Earth.  According to this new hypothesis, the freshly formed Earth was still piping hot and its surface was covered with a lava ocean.  Theia banged into Earth and careened off into space like a pool ball but the impact knocked the liquid ocean of lava into space, where it coalesced into one or two moons (which then ultimately amalgamated together).  The new hypothesis answers critical questions about lunar composition (and about the ratios of volatile elements on the moon).  Yet it does tend to beg questions such as what happened to Theia and what the nature of the Earth’s lava ocean was.

I guess we’ll keep watching the sky and the news to see how the world astronomy community reacts to the revised hypothesis.  In the mean time I will see what I can dig up concerning Theia (the goddess or the proto-planet).  That seems like the most intriguing part of the story yet details are weirdly exiguous.

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A quick post today from the bottom of the ocean where this unknown octopus species was just found by an unmanned robot probe. The endearing cephalopod was photographed by Deep Discoverer, a robot submarine which launches from the NOAA Ship “Okeanos Explorer” a federally funded research vessel. Since 2008, the Okeanos Explorer has been travelling the world’s oceans exploring and mapping unknown parts of the underwater world. The octopus was photographed on a barren ledge of rock 4,290 meters beneath the surface (just off the northeast coast of Hawaii). The octopus appears to have a complete lack of chromatophores—special pigment-containing cells which cephalopods manipulate in order to change colors—so it appears ghostly and transparent. Here is hoping we learn more about this amazing underwater creature!

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The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

Since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn. The robot probe (a joint effort of NASA, ESA, and the Italian space agency) received the most press when it launched a flying saucer lander onto Saturn’s planet-like moon Titan, but it is still out there doing amazing work. Last week, while I was busy writing about Halloween themes, the probe made its closest pass yet to Saturn’s ice moon, Enceladus. Enceladus is only 500 kilometers in diameter and it is coated in ice, but it is of great interest to scientists because ice plumes venting from the moon’s south pole seem to indicate a large polar subsurface ocean of liquid water. Warmed above freezing by tidal flux, this ocean beneath the ice probably has a thickness of around 10 km.

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

On October 30th, Cassini flew by the icy moon at the dangerously close distance of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). The probe was directly above the south pole of Enceladus and it collected a little flake of ice to analyze (which strikes me as incredibly amazing and beautiful). It will take some time for the ship’s devices to assay the drop of water from an alien ocean, but Cassini also snapped some photos which we already have. These are taken from point blank range above the south pole. The ocean is down there beneath the scratches and scars. What is the nature of this icy ocean? How long has it been there? Could it possibly harbor life?

A New Species of Flapjack Octopus (photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

A New Species of Flapjack Octopus (photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

Happy news from the ocean depths: marine biologists have discovered an endearingly cute deep sea octopus in the cold deep ocean waters off the continental shelf of California. The newfound octopus is about the size of a fist and looks a lot like the ghosts from Pac-man. The creatures’ default color seems to be a rich orange-pink. It has big soulful black eyes and little fins atop its head which look like cartoon cat ears.

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Stephanie Bush, an octopus scientist (!!!) from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has spent nearly a year studying the new octopus which she classifies as belonging to the “flapjack” octopuses (a family of animals which sound like they merit additional attention from Ferrebeekeeper). The genus of the octopus is thus pre-established as “Opisthoteuthis” but she is toying with “adorabilis” as a species name (which sounds like a wise choice in the internet era).

So far very little is known about these cute mollusks which live in coastal Pacific waters at depths between 200 and 600 meters. Every one of the dozen specimens thus far found has been female. According to Bush, “They spend most of their time on the bottom, sitting on the sediment, but they need to move around to find food, [&] mates.” I am curious what the male octopuses are like. I presume they are pink and adorable as well, but sexual dimorphism is not unknown among cephalopods. Also, how widespread are these animals? Do they live beyond the California coast?

We need to know so much more. Dr. Bush needs to get back to work, and we are definitely going to need more pictures!

Inku-turso (drawing from minnasundberg.fi)

Inku-turso (drawing from minnasundberg.fi)

In Finnish mythology, Iku-Turso was a malevolent ocean deity who took the form a terrible sea monster. Due to the vagaries of language, it is unclear whether he (?) had the shape of a colossal walrus or a giant terrible inkfish (i.e. an octopus).  Contemporary Finnish artists apparently see no reason he can’t be both and the internet has some amazing and disturbing images of the dark god of the depths.

Iku Turso (art by Nuctameron)

Iku Turso (art by Nuctameron)

Not only was Iku-Turso’s appearance formidable, but he seemingly had powerful and weird magic—a sort of divine antagonistic surrealist. The god makes a typically bizarre appearance in the Kalevala, the great mythological epic of the Finns (which Ferrebeekeeper has already visited—to tell the dark story of Lemminkäinen and the Swan of Tuonela).  In the second canto, the god rises from the depths and burns a huge hay stack.  From the cinders grows an oak so large that it threatens to blot out the sun and moon—and so the tree must be cut down.  Later in the epic, Inku-Turso is enlisted by the goddess of the North (the witch Louhi) to prevent the theft of the powerful magical artifact Sampo.  However one of the sorcerers seeking Sampo was too powerful for even a bizarre walrus/octopus sea god to stop.  Poor Inku-Tursu ended up magically cursed to haunt the bottom of the ocean.

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The dark god has made few appearances since then, but I imagine a Finnish epic about exploring the abyssal plains would be exceedingly exciting!  In fact that sounds great for all sorts of reasons! Could some of you Finnish bards get busy and make it happen?

Moche Ceramic Vessel in the form of a Crab (Photo:  Museo de América de Madrid)

Moche Ceramic Vessel in the form of a Crab (Photo: Museo de América de Madrid)

Yesterday’s post for World Oceans Day did not sate my need to write about the endless blue bounding.  I am therefore dedicating all of the rest of this week’s blog posts to marine themes as well (“marine” meaning relating to the sea—not the ultimate soldiers). Today we are traveling back to South America to revisit those masters of sculpture, the Moche, a loose federation of agricultural societies which inhabited the Peruvian coastal valleys from 100 AD – 900 AD.

Moche Vessel: A Human with a Large Fish

Moche Vessel: A Human with a Large Fish

I keep thinking about the beauty and power of Moche sculptural art, and the Moche definitely had strong feelings about the ocean.   In fact an informal survey of Moche art online indicates that their favorite themes were cool-looking animals, human sacrifice, the ocean, grown-up relations between athletic consenting adults, and crazy nose-piercings.

Golden Moche Nose-Ornament in the shape of Lobsters

Golden Moche Nose-Ornament in the shape of Lobsters

Moche Sea Turtle Vessel

Moche Sea Turtle Vessel

You will have to research some of these on your own, but I have included a selection of beautifully made Moche art of sea creatures.  Look at the expressiveness of the crab, the turtle, and particularly the beautiful lobsters (which are part of a large pectoral type ceremonial ornament held in place through the nose).  Moche ceramics are as rare and beautiful in their way as Roman paintings or Greek sculpture.  I wish we knew more about Moche culture and mythology to contextualize these striking works—but the outstanding vigor and grace of the figures is enough to feel something of what this vivid culture was like.

Moche Ceramic Vessel shaped like a Fish

Moche Ceramic Vessel shaped like a Fish

Clouds of reef fish and corals at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Clouds of reef fish and corals at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

I know I just did a post on National Donut Day, but that piece was both tongue-and-cheek and nakedly self-interested.  Clearly donuts are ephemera with transient importance—scraps of fried dough which stay tasty for less time than flowers bloom (indeed I enjoy juxtaposing their cheap impermanence with the vast seemingly eternal universe in my paintings).  Today I looked at my calendar to find that June 8th is World Oceans Day!  Unlike National Donut Day (which is self-evidently a meretricious marketing “holiday”), World Oceans Day strikes me as an important and worthwhile day of observance.  The ancients celebrated the oceans with festivals and sacrifices to venerate the sea gods.  We tend to regard the oceans as an inexhaustible source of cheap fish and a place to dump our rubbish.  I worry that the careless industrialized spoiliation of the oceans is the gravest mistake humankind is currently making (and we have our grubby grasping fingers in lots and lots of pies—and are making plenty of errors).  Yet, I don’t want this blog to become an angry jeremiad or an environmentalist harangue.  I want to celebrate the beauty and grace of the oceans and their inhabitants while also underlining the stress and danger which these vast swaths of the world are facing.  What to do?

An infestation of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

An infestation of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

For World Ocean Day therefore I am writing about the lifeform which, to me, most exemplifies the oceans of the late Holocene/early Anthropocene, the crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci. This echinoderm is a ravenous poisonous destroyer which is exploiting the sickness of the oceans to proliferate and succeed wildly (at the expense of everything else).  It is an amoral ravenous monster covered with toxic spines which is eating the coral seas bare.  It is also a beautiful creature magnificently evolved to thrive—we can hardly hold its horrifying success against it.  Maybe it should be on the cover of Forbes smoking a cigar and bloviating about its philosophy of success.  By chance the starfish also lies at an intersection of many blog topics—crowns, invaders, colors, poison, mollusks (for its fate is connected with that of predatory mollusks), opinion, and science…perhaps even “deities of the underworld”.  This is a lot of introduction…let’s meet our antihero!

Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci) photo by jon hanson

Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci) photo by jon hanson

The crown-of-thorns starfish (or “sea star”), Acanthaster planci takes the form of a spiked disk with up to 21 prehensile arms (also covered in spines). On its underside, the starfish has numerous sticky tube-like suction feet running along the bottom of each arm. These legs run in parallel rows beside a series of closely fitting plates which form a central groove on the bottom of each arm.  The arm grooves each run ominously into the starfish’s horrifying stomach/mouth.  The starfish can grow to a diameter of up to 80 centimeters (31 inches) although they are more commonly found in the 35 centimeter range.  Acanthaster planci has a wide Indo Pacific range and lives in tropical and semitropical coastal waters from the Red Sea and the East Coast of Africa across both the Indian and Pacific Oceans all the way to the West Coast of Central America.  The starfish are usually dull grays and reds but they can range to brilliant purple, blue, orange, aqua (or display all sorts of mixed ranges). Their colors are highly mutable and variable! crown-of-thorns-starfish These starfish eat coral polyps!  It crawls into corals by means of its many sucker feet—compressing or elongating its body as needed.  When in position the starfish extrudes its stomach over the polyps it wishes to eat: the stomach can cover an area approximately equal to the starfish.  The creature then releases digestive compounds which dissolve the soft parts of the coral into a soup which the starfish slurps up.  It then retracts its stomach and moves on, leaving a bleached (i.e. dead) patch of coral skeleton.  A medium sized starfish can consume up to 6 square meters (65 sq ft) of living coral reef per year.  If times are lean the starfish can go for months (or longer) without eating. http://www.arkive.org/crown-of-thorns-starfish/acanthaster-planci/video-00.html Crown-of-thorns starfish are male or female and they do not reproduce by budding, but female starfish lay from 6.5 million to 14 million eggs each per breeding season [hereupon the author wiped his furrowed brow].  When the eggs hatch there are several interesting larval stages which the echinoderm goes through before reaching their adult form.  Suffice to say, the starfish reaches sexual maturity after 2 years and it lives as long as 8 years. Fourteen million offspring per season is a lot!  If predators do not keep the crow-of-thorns starfish in check, they can swiftly overrun entire reef systems and eat all the coral into bleached uninhabitable wasteland.  This leaves all of the multitudinous reef inhabitants homeless.  The reef skeletons dissolve in our newly acidified oceans and one of earth’s most diverse ecosystems becomes a weed-strewn graveyard. The starfish are hard to stop since they are provided with tremendous defenses: each animal is covered with 1-5 centimeter long razor sharp spines which in turn are covered with toxic saponins—soaplike chemicals which interact with cholesterols to tear holes in cell membranes.  The starfish can regenerate arms.  If removed from the water, the starfish develops holes in its body and loses its water, but it can swiftly reconstitute itself if placed back in the ocean.

Crown-of-thorns starfish wash up in Japan (BBC)

Crown-of-thorns starfish wash up in Japan (BBC)

Fortunately there are some tough predators of the crown-of-thorns starfish.  Certain triggerfish, parrotfish, and blowfish can insouciantly crunch through the spines with hardened mouths.  Painted shrimp and polychaete worms can tear off and eat pieces of the starfish until the latter dies (whereupon the impatient scavengers devour the corpse).  Best of all, the magnificent Triton’s trumpet, a huge gastropod mollusk, can rasp the odious starfish to pieces with its sharpened radula and suck up the offending echinoderm!  Unfortunately, the fish are vanishing into the aquarium trade or the soup pot and the tritons have been killed en masse so their shells can be sold to tourists.  This results in a feedback loop wherein the crown-of-thorns devastate a reef to the extent that the predators can not survive at all.  The plague of starfish then descend of virgin reefs and kill them off too.

A plague of crown-of-thorns starfish (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

A plague of crown-of-thorns starfish (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Healthy reefs have a certain ability to fight off the crown-of-thorns star, but today’s reefs are coping with overfishing, invasive creatures, acidification, pollution, and fluctuating temperatures.  The crow-of-thorns is exploting these weaknesses (and the diminished stock of its predators) to run rampant.  Humans have stepped in late to try to kill of the rampaging multi-armed villains, but, for all of our skill at doing in other organisms, we seem to not be very good at killing these fiendish starfish.  They are difficult to rip apart.  They are hard to net or trap.  They are surprisingly resistant to punctures.  Recently divers have had success suppressing infestations by injecting the starfish all individually with sodium bisulphate (which echinoderms and my great uncle cannot abide, but which is relatively harmless to most other lifeforms).   Obviously this is an expensive and labor intensive solution (although if somebody wanted to hire me as a starfish bounty killer, I would not decline).

New frontiers of pest control (via DIVE QUEENSLAND)

New frontiers of pest control (via DIVE QUEENSLAND)

The common name of the crown-of-thorns starfish is a reference to Christian mythology.  One of the tortures endured by Jesus was a crown woven of thorns (which pierced his temple and hurt him while simultaneously mocking his alleged crime—pretending to the throne of Judaea).  Throughout Christian art, the crown of thorns is the supreme crown of the king of kings which he wears during the passion or as he harrows the underworld.  The voracious starfish earned its sobriquet not by godliness, but by looking like a horrible alien crown made of thorns (and arguably also by bringing death and devastation to coral reefs).  I find it to be one of the most poetic and horrifying common names in all of taxonomy—and as the starfish destroys ecosystem after ecosystem, it seems fully earned.

A giant triton snail feeding on crown-of-thorns starfish. Image supplied by Australian Institute of Marine Science

A giant triton snail feeding on crown-of-thorns starfish. Image supplied by Australian Institute of Marine Science

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