You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Sea’ tag.

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One of the great mysteries of neurobiology is how memories are stored.  We have a few tantalizing clues, but the precise biological mechanism for how memories are created and where they are stored in cells is still unknown.  All of your lost loves and childhood dreams, your family’s birthdays and preferences, your own name and darkest secret…nobody knows where they are in your head.  And, um, we still don’t know…however, thanks to research on sea snails, we have some new clues.

Scientists have long believed that memories are stored within the structure and connective patterns between the synapses which connect neurons.  The new experiment suggests that this may prove to be a misconception.

Scientists trained a particular sort of sea snail (which have “small” brains with only 20,000 neurons) to respond in certain unusual ways to electrical shocks.  Then the team removed ribonucleic acid (RNA), from nerve tissue of the trained snails and injected it into the circulatory system of untrained snails.  Other “control” snails which were untampered with responded to electrical shocks naturally, however the snails which were treated with RNA from snails taught to curl their tails for prolonged periods immediately demonstrated this unusual behavior.

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The findings suggest that our conjecture about where memories are stored may be quite wrong…or at least disturbingly incomplete.  The snail research indicates that, at some fundamental level, memories are stored in the nuclei of neurons.  Now scientists will try to replicate the results in other animals to test this hypothesis.  Everything in this sort of research ends of being more complicated and interlinked than initially thought, so don’t forget about those synapses just yet.  We are still at the beginning of this tantalizing scientific quest.

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OK, some days, after a long day at work, I am a bit uninspired, but you know who never runs out of endless inventiveness? Nature!  So today, as a run up for next week’s Halloween week of creepy art, here is a gallery of natural expressionism—nudibranch mollusks—some of the most vibrant and exquisitely colored animals in all of the world (you can look at an earlier Ferrebeekeeper gallery of nudibranchs here).

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Now poisonous strange sea slugs are pretty creepy and seasonally appropriate, but to keep this filler post truly Halloween appropriate I have selected all orange, and black, or orange & black slugs (with maybe a fab or purple and white and green here and there).  Behold the glory:

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Aren’t they beautiful! Sometimes I wish I was a toxic gastropod that looked like Liberace and lived in a tropical sea…but alas, like so many of nature’s greatest works, they are vanishing as the oceans change.

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There is a scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where James Bond is impersonating a marine biologist (with the fake name “Robert Sterling”!) in order to infiltrate the underwater lair of a sinister supervillain.  Bond has brought all sorts of potentially dangerous luggage, and is dressed in high 70’s fashion…and also happens to be traveling with Barbara Bach, so the villain is a bit suspicious about this new scientist.  “What fish is that?” he quizzes Bond, pointing out the huge undersea window at a magnificent fish covered in poisonous red spines.

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Without hesitation, Bond correctly replies “Pterois Volitans” a red lionfish.  It was a scene that delighted the 12-year old me, since I was a saltwater aquarium enthusiast and, like “Robert Sterling” I knew the Latin name for that fish too.  It was hard not to imagine successfully infiltrating an underwater lair with a beautiful Soviet agent/Ringo Starr’s wife (although that never did end up happening to my 12 year old self).  Also…what was this Indo-Pacific fish doing in Sardinia?

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But The Spy Who Loved Me turned out to be ahead of its time (indeed, in retrospect, the supervillain’s plot to save the oceans from human destruction seems far-sighted too).  Lionfish are clever and aggressive predators which hunt in groups (schools?, prides?, packs?). They are covered in poisonous spines which give pause even to human fishermen with our lines, hooks, poison, and spears. And the beautiful aggressive fish are taking over.  Invasive lionfish escaped from home aquariums and became, uh, feral (is any of this language correct?) and they are now a huge problem in warm seas and oceans around the world.  Lionfish rapidly eat through the delicate tropical fish which form the backbone of reef ecosystems and leave the habitats dead and dying (although climate-change, acidification, and overfishing are probably exacerbating their deadly impact).  As the oceans warm, the fish (which are a sort of scorpionfish) are expanding their territory into what were once temperate oceans.

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However, all is not hopeless.  This article began with ridiculous James Bond stuff and then got serious, but now there is a potential solution to the lionfish problem taken directly from a Bond villain’s playbook.  Concerned marine biologists have teamed up with engineers to build autonomous predatory underwater robots to rid the Caribbean of invasive lionfish. These creepy robots swim through the oceans until they finds a red lionfish. The death machine then sidles up around the invader and zaps it with a mighty jolt of electricity.

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Lionfish are largely unafraid of predators (although some sharks, triggerfish are able to despine them and some groupers and sharks can apparently gulp them down).  I wonder if they will wise up to sinister predatory robots that appear from nowhere.  Will the robots curtail the problem, or will the lionfish adapt around tehm too? Or will none of this even happen?  Keep your eyes peeled to find out the rest of this story as it evolves.

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

Serpent d'Océan  (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Here is an amazing giant sea serpent sculpture by the Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The 130 meter long artwork is made of aluminum and is appropriately titled Serpent d’Océan (“Sea Serpent”). The sculptor completed the piece in 2012 for the Loire “Estuaire” festival. He erected the monumental work at the mouth of the Loire River where the great waterway empties into the Atlantic Ocean–just west of the port city of Nantes.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The head of Serpent d’Océan lies just above the high tide mark and its tail is just below the low tide boundary. Thus, every day the serpent goes from being mostly submerged to mostly on land. At low tide, art enthusiasts can walk around the piece and see it close up like a museum specimen. At high tide it takes on a mythical supernatural character as it appears to writhe through the waves.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist Huang Yong Ping designed the serpent to straddle all sorts of boundaries. It is neither at sea nor properly on land. Likewise it lies where river meets ocean and the ecosystem is neither fully marine nor riverine. The serpent is a metal sculpture designed to look like a living skeleton of a mythical creature. The sculptor himself self-identifies as neither entirely Chinese nor French: he used myths from both cultures to inform his sculpture. Indeed the serpent takes on even more facets when considered in the light of world trade (where monsters–real and imagined–abound). Additionally, as a youth, Huang studied with the French master of artistic ambiguity Marcel Duchamp. Most of Huang’s artworks blur the lines between art and non-art (though, like Duchamp, he tries to stick to the former category).

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist has expressed his hope that, as the sculpture ages, various tidal plants and animals will begin to colonize it and live within—or atop–the metal creation. As seabirds build their nests there and living amphibious beasts hide and feed within the snake, it will stretch across even more boundaries.

A Human Holding a Small Limpet

A Human Holding a Small Limpet

We live on the threshold of an era of stupendous nanomaterials! In the near future, molecules will be engineered to be harder than diamonds or stronger than steel…yet these miracle materials will also be workable and light.

Artist's Conception of a Space Elevator--one of the miracles which should be possible through nanotechnology

Artist’s Conception of a Space Elevator–one of the miracles which should be possible through nanotechnology

Well, at least that’s what they keep telling us. In practice our best nano-materials do not seem capable of besting nature in the truly important categories—like hardness, tensile strength, or elasticity (or, if our synthetic materials are superior, they prove difficult to build into structures which fully exploit their strengths). A case in point comes from the lowly yet resilient limpet. Limpets are marine gastropods (snails) which have shells without visible coils. Actually, the name “limpet” is an informal common name—scientists have a very different way of characterizing these mollusks.

Common limpets (Patella vulgata) adhering to tidal zone rocks

Common limpets (Patella vulgata) adhering to tidal zone rocks

Limpets cling tenaciously to rocks at the tidal line by means of a muscular foot designed to create suction. They also produce an adhesive mucus which helps the foot adhere to whatever surface the limpet wishes to cling to. They carefully scour their ocean rocks for nutritious algae with a radula—a tongue-like rasping organ covered with teeth. Limpets have been of note to humans principally as a metaphor for resilience…or as a nuisance. Yet scientists experimenting on a common limpet, Patella vulgata, found that the little snail’s teeth had greater tensile strength than spider silk. Indeed, limpet teeth are the strongest known material in the natural world and approach the tensile strength of our strongest carbon fibers. With these teeth the little snail can (and does!) chew through rocks.

A (horrifying) microscopic picture of limpet's teeth

A (horrifying) microscopic picture of limpet’s teeth

The secret to the limpet’s mighty teeth is a miracle of molecular design in its own right. The cutting portion of the teeth are composed of fibers of goethite (a sort of iron hydroxide named after the great German poet). These fibers are under 60 nanometers in diameter—a size which allows them to be tremendously strong. The teeth are technically a composite–since the tiny goethite fibers are held together by chitin, a natural polymer (which the exoskeletons of insects are made of).

This evil henchman was the best character.

This evil henchman was the best character.

Technically there are human-created carbon fibers stronger than the astonishing teeth of the limpet, but these fibers can only be utilized in certain configurations and fashions–so the limpets’ teeth are of very real practical interest to materials scientists. Engineers are already working on duplicating the little snail’s teeth for mining and cutting equipment…and for human dental uses. Perhaps we really could someday have some of the powers of Jaws, the lovable hulking henchman from seventies James Bond movies. With our synthetic chompers we could bite through rocks and steel cables. Uh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

A large single tunicate (blue) with a colony of smaller tunicates (saffron)

A large single tunicate (blue) with a colony of smaller tunicates (saffron)

It’s time to talk tunicates! Many people blithely dismiss tunicates as primitive sack-like marine invertebrates which derive sustenance from filter-feeding. Although that is technically true, it is a very reductive and dismissive way to think about this ancient, ancient subphylum of animals. Tunicates are chordates…barely, but they are also classified as invertebrates. Because they mostly consist of delicate tissue sacks filled with fluids, the fossil record of tunicates is understandably exiguous, but it is believed they existed in Ediacaran times (circa 550 million years ago) and were part of the mysterious soft Ediacaran biota which blossomed into the Cambrian era’s suffusion of life forms. Tunicates probably closely resemble the basal organisms from which Pikaia and all other vertebrates (lynxes, caecilians, hummingbirds, triggerfish, humans, ichthyosaurs, turkeys, moeritheriums, and suchlike animals) sprang. Of course tunicates also resemble hydrozoans, mollusks, worms, and even arthropods—so they may be very basal indeed!

A free-swimming larval tunicate (microphoto by Wim van Egmond of Rotterdam)

A free-swimming larval tunicate (microphoto by Wim van Egmond of Rotterdam)

All–or very nearly all–tunicates are hermaphrodites with both male and female reproductive organs (a single ovary and a lone testis). Not only do tunicates keep their romantic options open, they also metamorphose into different forms throughout their lives. The majority of tunicates have a free-swimming larval stage when they are motile (and have a little sliver of nerve chord). As they reach sexual maturity, their nerve chords disintegrate and they settle down to become sessile—attaching to a permanent base. Some tunicates live their entire lives as solitary individuals whereas others form colonies (like corals or siphonophores).

Not only do they have multiple genders they have multiple methods of reproduction

Not only do they have multiple genders they have multiple methods of reproduction

Colonial tunicates integrate at different levels depending on the species. In some, the zooids (the individual living organisms) merely live next to each other like coral or Brooklynites, whereas other tunicate colonies grow entwined and share common organs and anatomical structures. There are many different tunicates going by many different lifestyles and they have all sorts of crazy names. Wikipedia poetically avers that “…various species are commonly known as sea squirts, sea pork, sea livers, or sea tulips.”

Komodo National Park sea squirt (Polycarpa aurata) by nick Hobgood

Komodo National Park sea squirt (Polycarpa aurata) by nick Hobgood

As you could guess from these names, tunicates have an otherworldly beauty. Here is one which looks like a diseased zombie heart! Others look like transparent alien shrimp, fluorescent pens, or strangely hieroglyphed eyes. There are bioluminescent tunicates of the deep ocean, and pelagic tunicates that form long chains (with a single digestive tract running through the individual zooids).  They live in coastal waters, pelagic waters, and in the depths.

Colonial tunicate with multiple openings in each zooid

Colonial tunicate with multiple openings in each zooid

Most of these zoology articles end with a sad coda about how the subject organism is threatened in the modern world–no so for tunicates!  As humans overfish the oceans and drive countless teleosts to the edge of extinction, so-called primitive species like jellyfish and tunicates are flourishing! Acidification, climate change, and pollution seem to be resetting the great worldsea back to Neoproterzoic times. Additionally tunicates easily travel the world in ballast water and numerous species are becoming invasive pests (like the evocatively named carpet tunicate).  In this troubled era, there is raw power in being a primitive protean organism with only a wisp of a nervous system (as we should have known just by looking at successful late-night comedians).  Get used to the tunicate–not just an incredibly distant ancestor, but the once and future (and always) avatar of animal life in the oceans.

Chain of fluorescent tunicates. (photo by Francis Abbott/Nature Picture Library)

Chain of fluorescent tunicates. (photo by Francis Abbott/Nature Picture Library)

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Today’s bog post is going to be largely visual—because I can’t find any reliable history about my subject. One of my favorite decorator colors is seafoam green. All sorts of kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures, automobiles, and consumer goods come in this beautiful pale blue-green. Additionally its name is surely one of the most successful of all the names created by advertising agencies and creative departments. Seafoam green immediately makes one think about the Caribbean Sea or about Aphrodite emerging from the waves. From a purely visual perspective, the color is simultaneously bright yet neutral. It is green or blue depending on the light. It is perfect to offset all different skin hues.

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Yet, I have no idea where the name came from or when the color came about (nor can I find the first references). If I had to hazard a guess, I would say it comes from the late nineteen fifties or early nineteen sixties because, well, look at it. It just seems like a color that would have come out of that affluent consumer-oriented period when all sorts of new chemicals and bright pastel colors abounded.

Is this Seafoam green 1954 Packard Convertible a hint?

Is this Seafoam green 1954 Packard Convertible a hint?

Of course now that I have sung the praises of sea foam green, I should add one substantial complaint: sea foam green is not the color of sea foam at all! The foam of waves is white rather than pastel green. Somehow the name manages to evoke freshness, beauty, nature, and the ocean without really having anything to do with reality! I guess that is the alchemy of poetry….

Sochi Winter Olympics from Space

Sochi Winter Olympics from Space

For another week the world’s eyes will remain on the Sochi Winter Olympics where fearless winter athletes from around the world are jumping off mountains on skis, hurtling down tunnels of ice on tiny sleds, or throwing glittering lady ice skaters high in the air. With our eyes so resolutely fixed on the tall white mountains around Sochi, it is easy to ignore the region’s dominant feature, the huge meromictic body of water which surrounds Sochi—the Black Sea.  The word “meromictic” describes a body of water in which the layers do not mix.  This means the depths of the Black Sea are oxygen free.  The sea’s anaerobic depths are largely free of light or life: the majority of the Black Sea is truly a black sea, dark and dead.

 

Ancient Greek Colonies on the Black Sea

Ancient Greek Colonies on the Black Sea

Yet the sea has an incredibly rich cultural tradition: for thousands of years it has been ringed by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Slavic, Turkish, Georgian, and Russian cities.  Merchant convoys and navies sailed upon the Black Sea through all of this time.  Whenever some Byzantine courtier screwed up beyond belief, he was sent in to exile at Cherson—the hellish end of the world for the Greeks (which would ironically become the most popular tourist destination for good Soviets).  Turks purchased goods from Russia across the water.  The Silk Road ended at the Black Sea ports to the East. Through all of these different eras, ships were lost to storms, battles, and the perils of sailing.  Hundreds (or thousands) of ships from different eras have sunk into the depths of the Black Sea and then vanished from human memory.  In other marine environments, these wooden ships would rot or be eaten by various boring creatures, but the Black Sea is lifeless below a certain depth.  The wrecks of countless ships from millennia are waiting at the bottom in shockingly good condition.

 

The Shipwreck of Sinop D

The Shipwreck of Sinop D

Early in the 2000s, the great marine adventurer and explorer, Robert Ballard came to the Black Sea in order to see if it was indeed the rich historical treasure trove which oceanographers and archeologists speculate.  His team quickly discovered the wreck of a sixth-century Byzantine merchant ship found in the Black Sea’s anoxic waters at a depth of 325 meters. Known as Sinop D, the ship was in shockingly pristine condition.  The timbers it was made of had not deteriorated–indeed, carved details could still be easily made out.  Dr. Ballard vowed to bring the wreck to the surface and restore the ancient ship, but so far, the ancient craft remains where it sank so long ago.  Just imagine all of the other amazing, pristine ship wrecks that are also out there!  How does one get into Black Sea Archaeology?

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