Conservation & Science

Julie Packard: Honoring Bill Gates for his work to protect our planet, improve the human condition

The David Packard Award honors business leaders who work to make the planet more sustainable.

Since 2014, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has periodically honored leaders whose activities and achievements embody the qualities of thought and action that my father, David Packard, held dear. These individuals have effectively worked to make the future of our planet surer and more sustainable.

This year, we recognized visionary Microsoft co-founder and philanthropic innovator Bill Gates. Bill has done so much to improve the human condition—by harnessing technology to advance social good, and by launching bold philanthropic initiatives to make lives better around the world and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

We honored Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for his work, as a business leader and a philanthropist, to improve the human condition.

We paid tribute to the scope and the focus of Bill’s thinking and his commitment to using science and technology to improve the future for the people on our planet. It’s a conviction he shares with my father. Because of the extraordinary success of Microsoft, the Gates Foundation has had the resources to tackle some of the largest problems confronting the world, and Bill and Melinda’s vision and strategic approach are yielding extraordinary results.

Our 300 guests at the award dinner—representing Silicon Valley’s most iconic technology company leaders, along with global ocean conservationists and philanthropists—heard from Bill and our award dinner chair, Meg Whitman, during an engaging “fireside chat”. They covered topics from the role technology can play in environmental conservation, to new approaches philanthropy can bring to pressing global challenges, and the importance of optimism. Read more…

MBARI puts science and technology to work for ocean health

The week of September 10, people from around the world are gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Convened by the State of California, the Summit brings together leaders—representing nations, states, cities, companies, investors and citizens—to celebrate climate action, and step up their ambitions to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Climate scientist Heidi Cullen, director of communications and strategic initiatives for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, shares some of the studies MBARI has undertaken to understand the impact of climate change on ocean ecosystems.

Heidi Cullen, director of communications and strategic initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Caring about the ocean means caring about climate change. From increasing ocean acidification to coral bleaching to harmful algal blooms, climate change—caused by the burning of fossil fuels—is having a profound and sometimes deadly impact on our ocean. I am tremendously hopeful that recent advances in science and technology will help us better understand and protect the planet’s largest ecosystem. We rely on it for so much!

At MBARI, engineers and scientists are developing new tools to study and monitor ocean change. Innovative technology is improving the way we access, sample, measure and visualize the rapid changes taking place across the ocean—from the surface down to the bottom of the sea. It is also improving the way we manage ocean resources. I want to share three exciting examples of cutting-edge ocean research happening at MBARI right now. This research is helping us better understand how climate change is already impacting our living ocean, and how we can better protect it in the future. Read more…

On World Oceans Day, it’s time to protect Earth’s largest habitat

As we celebrate World Oceans Day, it’s too easy to forget about the deep sea. It’s the largest habitat on the planet, and is increasingly threatened by human activities. Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists, and our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, are working to understand and protect the deep ocean. It’s a big job—and we’ll need your help.

To bring the message about the deep ocean to a wider public, Executive Director Julie Packard and MBARI President and CEO Chris Scholin shared their thoughts about safeguarding the deep sea in an op-ed column published in today’s New York Times.

“The oceans are the largest home for life on our planet and the blue heart of Earth’s climate system,” they write. “We must use them wisely. Otherwise, we risk using them up.”

You can read the full commentary, and their action plan for the deep sea, here.

Voyage to the White Shark Café

For nearly 20 years, researchers from Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University have fitted electronic tracking tags on adult white sharks each fall and winter along the California coast around San Francisco Bay. Each year, the tags documented a consistent migration by the sharks to a region more than 1,200 miles offshore—halfway to Hawaii—that’s been considered an oceanic desert. They dubbed it the White Shark Café, guessing that opportunities to feed and to mate might be the draw.

Now a team of scientists will spend a month at the Café in a month-long expedition to learn why the sharks make an epic annual migration to such a distant and seemingly uninviting location. The multi-disciplinary team is bringing an impressive complement of sophisticated oceanographic equipment, from undersea robots and submersibles to windsurfing drones that will search signs of sharks and their possible prey.

Funded by the Schmidt Ocean institute (SOI), the team is led by Stanford University Professor Barbara Block and includes marine biologists and oceanographers from Stanford University, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), the University of Delaware, and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.  They are traveling aboard the SOI research vessel Falkor and set sail from Honolulu on April 20. They will return to port in San Diego on May 19.

Unraveling a mystery

We’ve studied these sharks for nearly 20 years, and they’ve told us consistently that the White Shark Café is a really important place in the ocean—but we’ve never known why,” said Dr. Salvador Jorgensen, a senior research scientist and shark research lead at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Sophisticated oceanographic monitoring tools like these Saildrones will collect data to document the presence of white sharks and their prey species in the cafe. Photo courtesy Schmidt Ocean Institute.

By documenting the biology, chemistry and physical conditions in the region—a swath of the Pacific Ocean the size of Colorado—the researchers hope to understand what makes the Café an annual offshore hot spot for one of the ocean’s most charismatic predators. Read more…

Untangling the mysteries of deep-sea food webs

Stretching more than two vertical miles from the seafloor to the ocean’s surface, the water column is Earth’s biggest habitat by volume. For researchers trying to untangle its complex, multi-tentacled food web—the way energy flows from one ocean denizen to the next—it’s a vast and challenging realm in which to accomplish this task.

A gonatid squid eats a deep-sea fish. These types of predator-prey relationships were easier to document, leading marine biologists to undervalue the “who eats who” complexity of predation by more delicate gelatinous animals. Photo © MBARI

Recent work by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has revealed whole new layers of predator-prey interactions in the water column, particularly in the often overlooked roles played by jellies and other soft-bodied animals—many of which, researchers discovered, feed on their own kind.

This research is promising, says Anela Choy, the biological oceanographer who led the study, but much more remains to be discovered about deep-sea food webs.

“I wish I knew just how much there was that we didn’t know,” she says. “That’s what keeps us all going.”

New appreciation for jellies

Many feeding interactions in the deep sea are difficult to observe because they take place in total darkness, thousands of feet below the surface, in cold, crushing conditions that test even the capacities of MBARI’s advanced robots. Before the advent of robotic exploration technology, much of what scientists gleaned about food webs was gathered from animals hauled to the surface in nets—or discovered in a predator’s guts.

High-definition video cameras captured this image of a helmet jelly eating two types of prey: a small squid and (on its bell) another species of jelly. Photo © MBARI

One problem with that approach, Anela says, is that squishy animals like jellyfish and other gelata, while among the most prevalent life forms in this ecosystem, almost never make it to the surface intact.

“They’re really hard to capture—that’s the traditional way of studying diet, is to capture those animals and look in their stomachs,” she says. “With a net, they often immediately break apart. “If they are the predator of interest, we cannot ascertain their gut contents this way because they are very damaged.”

Obstacles to overcome

There are other obstacles to understanding food webs. The traditional way of studying diet is to capture an animal and look into its stomach to see what prey have been eaten. Anela notes that gelata digest very quickly and thus are often missed with diet work.

MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles, like the Doc Ricketts, have recorded video documenting hundreds of feeding interactions in the deep sea. Photo © MBARI

So Anela and her MBARI co-authors, Steve Haddock and Bruce Robison, tried a different approach.

The high-definition cameras on MBARI’s diving robots have recorded thousands of deep-sea animal observations since 1989. All of the video has been rigorously archived to reflect its subject, location, time, depth and even water temperature and other physical parameters. From this footage, Anela and her colleagues gleaned a wealth of information: 743 documented instances of undersea creatures eating, being eaten, or having just fed.

(Anela singled out two video technicians at MBARI, Susan von Thun and Kyra Schlining, who “watched every single hour of videotape from every midwater dive” to build an unprecedented underwater feeding dataset.)

Hundreds of feeding observations

From the video, the team tallied 242 unique kinds of predator-prey relationships. Many involved jellyfish and other soft-bodied animals, which don’t seem to particularly mind having a robot watch them eat, and which are often transparent, meaning the researchers could easily peer inside their bodies to view their most recent meal.

This complex food web shows groups of animals (indicated by different colored circles and lines) that were observed eating each other during MBARI remotely operated vehicle dives. Thicker lines indicate more commonly observed predator/prey interactions. Illustration © 2017 MBARI

In their published study, they documented the complexity of predator-prey relationships they uncovered from this treasure trove of data.

A key illustration from the study draws lines showing predator-prey interactions between 20 different functional groups seen feeding on each other in the footage, from fish to crustaceans to jellies to cephalopods like squid. Fittingly, the resulting tangle of colorful who-eats-whom lines resembles a jellyfish.

“Jellyfish get kind of a bad rap,” Anela says, noting that some biologists cast them as nuisances—trophic dead ends that don’t feed back into the food web.

“This shows something totally different,” she says.” It shows they’re central parts of deep sea ecosystems, with really diverse diets and serving as both predators and prey.”

One species of jellyfish was observed eating 22 different kinds of prey.

(In the figure, many of predator-prey nodes loop back on themselves. “That,” says Anela, “is cannibalism—species within those broad animal groups feeding on one another.”)

There’s more to come

“Our method gives you a totally different view of the interactions going on in the food web,” Steve Haddock says.

The transparent bodies of animals like this medusa jelly let researchers peek into their guts and discover what they’ve been eating — in this case, a red mysid shrimp. Photo © MBARI

It’s a bit like going from a map with only train tracks to one that includes highways, he says: “You feel like things are connected in only a certain way, but suddenly you see these other connections. This study really complements and expands our view of what’s going on in the ocean.”

Still, Steve says there’s much left to learn.

“Even though this method has revealed a large diversity of interactions, there’s still a whole other universe of interactions we haven’t discovered,” he says.

The next layer of discovery may not come from video observations. Steve sees great promise in techniques like analyzing predators’ gut DNA for hints about their recent meals. Another avenue that is already widely utilized is compound-specific stable isotope analysis, which looks for chemical signatures that might accumulate in a creature’s tissue from eating certain prey.

Jellies often eat other jellies, as is the case with this red medusa preying on a siphonophore. Researchers documented some animals that fed on 20 or more prey species. Photo © MBARI

(That’s the approach used in a recent study by Aquarium researchers to document changes in North Pacific seabird diets over the past 130 years.)

“There will continue to be a lot more revelations about food web connections,” Steve says.

Anela agrees: “You hear that the deep sea is like outer space—it’s so poorly known and so poorly explored, every time we go down there we learn new things. All of that is true. But really, understanding that food webs tie everything in the ocean together is the reason I study them.”

Our ever-growing understanding of those connections, she says, will be critical to stewarding the ocean in the future.

—Daniel Potter

Choy, C.A., Haddock, S.H.D., Robison, B.H. (2017). Deep pelagic food web structure as revealed by in situ feeding observationsProceedings of the Royal Society B. 284: 20172116, doi: 

Safeguarding seamounts: the hidden Yosemites of the deep

At the bottom of the ocean, amid vast, pitch-dark expanses of mud, there are a few exceptional, rocky places: undersea mountains. Here, the muddy seafloor and burrowing worms give way to bedrock and beautiful gardens of corals and sponges.

Seamounts are islands of biological diversity in the deep sea, home to rich marine communities of often long-lived animals. Photo courtesy MBARI/NOAA

Seamounts, as these peaks are known, “are the Yosemites of the deep sea that nobody sees,” says Dr. Jim Barry, a marine ecologist at MBARI—the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “Under the surface, right off the horizon, is this wonderful world that’s been developing, slowly but surely, like a sequoia forest.”

Some seamounts are covered with ancient corals and deep-sea sponges that stand a meter tall and resemble oak trees. They’re also home to anemones, clams, small crustaceans and all manner of fishes. Many of these creatures rely on smell instead of vision to find food in these inky waters, at least half a mile deep.

Life on seamounts is of interest to marine scientists and to biotech researchers who hope to develop new pharmaceutical products based on properties in sponges, mussels and microbes. Photo courtesy MBARI

Seamounts are a frontier for scientific discovery, both for basic research, designed to fill knowledge gaps, and for applied research aiming to solve practical problems. Biotech companies, for instance, are interested in unique chemicals produced by deep-sea microbes, sponges, and mussels, which hint at pharmaceutical applications from antibiotics to fighting cancer.

Only a few seamounts are legally protected, like national parks are on land. One of those is Davidson Seamount, 80 miles southwest of Monterey and part of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. But the Trump administration is in the process of reviewing Davidson Seamount’s designation, with an eye for potentially stripping its protection and opening it up for new offshore oil and gas drilling. Read more…

Raising the “beautiful sea goddess”

Unearthly, transparent and beautiful—and also exceedingly delicate. The spotted comb jelly is so fragile a creature, just waving your hand through the water could destroy it. Now, for the first time anywhere, animal care staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have managed to culture these fragile, scintillating creatures.

Young spotted comb jellies were raised behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and are now on exhibit.

Several of the newly hatched jellies are now on public display. It’s the latest advance in comb jelly science from the Aquarium team.

The species, known scientifically as Leucothea pulchra—Latin for “beautiful sea goddess”is “a clear football-shaped gelatinous animal” says Wyatt Patry, a senior aquarist who’s worked at the Aquarium for 11 years, and who led the culturing effort this winter.

“They’re ctenophores, not true jellyfish,” Wyatt notes. “Instead of stinging cells they have sticky cells called colloblasts.”

The spotted comb jelly’s common name refers to orange “knobs” or spots along its body.

“We don’t know what those do but we suspect they aid in prey capture,” Wyatt says. Two sticky tentacles trail behind it, acting like fishing lines.

“They also have cool whips called ‘auricles’ that they wave around—undulate—in this really cool slow wave motion, probably driving food into their mouths,” he says.

Read more…

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