Conservation & Science

Inspiring the teachers who inspire new generations

What can you find in a one-by-one-foot patch of ground? An entire world of information. Just ask Kim Cornfield’s fourth graders. This tiny “quadrat” marked off with sections of PVC pipe, serves as a microcosm of the local environment throughout the year. It’s a great tool for teaching young people about the land, and can even propel students toward bigger things, like devising a campus cleanup initiative—or pursuing a career in the sciences.

By participating in Aquarium Teacher Institutes, educators learn to help their students conduct field research using easy-to-create tools.

Kim, who’s been teaching at the International School of Monterey for seven years, learned about quadrats at a free, week-long Teacher Professional Development Program offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one in a range of programs the Aquarium created to serve teachers from the Monterey Bay region—and beyond. More than 140 instructors participate each year—almost  2,700 since the program’s inception.

For educators, inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards can be invigorating and inspirational. It’s also a lot of hard work. Many teachers say the Aquarium has helped them re-engage and reconnect with students in ways they hadn’t imagined. They return to their classrooms with a new sense of energy and purpose.

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.

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: 

Science on the front lines of ocean acidification

Life seems easy for the little red tuna crabs delighting Monterey Bay Aquarium visitors. The temperature and water chemistry in their exhibit are carefully controlled and stable. In the wild, it’s a different story. Conditions are changing—fast. Crabs and other critters are in a race with time, as record levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) warm the planet and change ocean chemistry.

Our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) are on the front line, documenting the impacts and identifying potential solutions for this serious threat to ocean health.

CO2 bubbled up slowly

For more than a century, scientists have known that burning fossil fuels warms our planet. They’ve also long been aware of another impact—this one affecting ocean chemistry.

In 1909, a brewery chemist discovered that CO2 both creates bubbles when it’s dissolved in liquid, and makes it more acidic.

In 1909, a chemist at the Carlsberg Brewery Laboratory discovered that CO2 dissolved in water not only creates tiny bubbles (like in beer). It also makes liquid more acidic. In other words, our burning of fossil fuels is changing the chemistry of the ocean, a process called ocean acidification.

The impact of rising atmospheric CO2 developed slowly and subtly. By the 1960s, however, climatologists began raising alarms. Decades later, Al Gore’s landmark book and movie, An Inconvenient Truth, framed climate change as an urgent threat to human survival. As the scientific community worked to build accurate models of climate dynamics and explore ways to deal with rampant carbon, some eyed the ocean—which absorbs 25 percent to 30 percent of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere—as a solution. Could we stash even more atmospheric carbon in the sea, sparing the planet the worst impacts of global warming? Read more…

Pinpointing plastic’s path to the deep sea

Until now, little has been known about how microplastics move in the ocean. A new paper by our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), just published in the journal Science Advances, shows that filter-feeding animals called giant larvaceans collect and consume microplastic particles in the deep sea.

Larvaceans are transparent tunicates that live in the open sea and capture food in sticky mucus filters. Plastic particles accumulate in the cast-off mucus feeding filters and are passed into the animals’ fecal pellets, which sink rapidly through the water, potentially carrying microplastics to the deep seafloor.

Researchers at MBARI documented that tadpole-like giant larvaceans consume microplastic beaads. Photo courtesy MBARI.

The new findings contribute to an emerging picture about the ubiquitous nature of ocean plastic pollution. Over the last decade, scientists have discovered tiny pieces of plastic in all parts of the ocean—including deep-sea mud. One recent study documented microplastic fibers in deep-sea sediments at levels four times greater than an earlier study had found in surface waters. Plastic has also been discovered in the tissues of animals at the base of the ocean food web. Another just-published study found that fish confuse plastic particles with real food items because it smells just like organic matter in the ocean.

Despite their name, giant larvaceans are less than 10 millimeters (4 inches) long, and look somewhat like transparent tadpoles. Their mucus filters—called “houses” because the larvaceans live inside them—can be more than 1 meter (3 feet) across. These filters trap tiny particles of drifting debris, which the larvacean eats. When a larvacean’s house becomes clogged with debris, the animal abandons the structure and it sinks toward the seafloor.

Principal Engineer Kakani Katija studies giant larvaceans during field expeditions in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy MBARI.

In early 2016, MBARI Principal Engineer Kakani Katija was planning an experiment using the DeepPIV system to figure out how quickly giant larvaceans could filter seawater, and what size particles they could capture in their filters. Other researchers have tried to answer these questions in the laboratory by placing tiny plastic beads into tanks with smaller larvaceans. Because giant larvacean houses are too big to study in the lab, Kakani decided to perform similar experiments in the open ocean, using MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

When she discussed this experiment with Postdoctoral Fellow Anela Choy—who studies the movement of plastic through the ocean—they realized that in-situ feeding experiments using plastic beads could also shine light on the fate of microplastics in the deep sea. Read more…

How do you tag a jellyfish?  

They’re so soft—so squishy! Where to put a tag—and why bother? Questions like these moved scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Hopkins Marine Station and other institutions around the world to publish the first comprehensive how-to tagging paper for jellyfish researchers everywhere. This missing manual was long in the making

A wild sea nettle swims off Point Lobos near Carmel. Photo ©Bill Morgan

Tommy Knowles, a senior aquarist at Monterey Bay Aquarium, explains why.  Historically, ocean researchers demonized jellies as “blobs of goo that hurt you,” and that interfered with scientific gear. That changed in the  latter part of the 20th century as scientists grew keen to understand entire ecosystems, not just individual plants and animals. Knowing who eats what, how, where and when, they learned, is critical for conservation.

Jellyfish, however, remained a very under-appreciated member of the ecosystem for years, largely because so little was known about them.

Senior Aquarist Tommy Knowles and his colleagues work in the lab and in the filed to advance jellyfish science. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger

“People didn’t know how to keep them alive in the lab or even on the boat,” says Knowles. Today, the field is coming into its own at a time when climate change has added urgency to the need to understand ecosystems in order to preserve ocean health.

A growing subject of interest

Understanding jellies is a concern for fisheries managers, too, since some jellyfish species prey upon the young and compete for food with the adults of commercially important fish. Other jellies impact tourism when blooms of stinging species foul beaches.

It’s not all negatives. We know that jellyfish play important roles in healthy marine ecosystems, by sheltering juvenile fish and crabs under their swimming bells, and nourishing hundreds of ocean predators. Jellies are a significant food source for ocean sunfish (the largest bony fish on the planet) and the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, California’s state marine reptile.

A barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma octopus) is tagged by a diver with an accelerometer using the “cable tie” method. Courtesy Sabrina Fossette/NOAA

As with other marine species that live and travel underwater—out of sight of human researchers—electronic data tags are useful tools for tracking jellies’ movements. Which gets back to the question: Just how do you tag a jellyfish? Read more…

Using science to save ocean wildlife

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a science-driven organization, and rigorous science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. Much of our research centers on marine life that visitors can also see in our exhibits – from sea otters to sharks and tunas, even our giant kelp forest. Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the past 30-plus years that is contributing to conservation of key ocean species and ecosystems.

A sea otter works to crack a mussel shell open on a rock off the coast of Moss Landing, California. Photo by Jessica Fujii

Sea otters crack open tool-use secrets

Revolutionary female scientist Jane Goodall was the first person to discover that chimps use tools and live within complex social systems. Our team of female researchers are walking in Jane’s footsteps with their recent studies on use of tools by another mammal: the sea otter. When observing sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula, sometimes we can hear a “crack, crack, crack!” above the roar of the tide. That sound comes from sea otters using rocks and other tools to open prey items, such as crabs or bivalves, as they float on their backs. Sea otters are avid tool users, but until recently not much was known about how sea otters choose their tools, what aspects of their environments influence tool use, or whether they teach tool use to other otters. The Aquarium’s decades of research into sea otter behavior provided years of observations of sea otter foraging and tool-use behavior, including sea otter pups pounding empty fists against their chests. Could such activity be instinctual? Research Biologist Jessica Fujii has devoted much of her young career to studying the frequency and types of tools used and whether tool use can be coded in sea otter genes. Jessica is looking ahead to see how sea otters learn, teach, and eventually master tool use in the wild.

A sea otter rests in an eelgrass bed in Elkhorn Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve. Sea otters contribute to the recovery of eelgrass and ecosystem health in this vital wetland on Monterey Bay. Photo by Ron Eby.

Sea otter surrogacy helps restore Elkhorn Slough

With 15 years of experience rescuing, rehabilitating, and then releasing surrogate-reared sea otters into Elkhorn Slough, an estuary near Moss Landing, California, the sea otter research team at the Aquarium began to wonder how and if their work was affecting the otter population there. Does releasing a few animals into the slough each year really make any difference? After crunching some serious numbers from the surrogacy program and the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) annual sea otter census, the researchers discovered that it did. Nearly 60 percent of the 140 or so sea otters living in Elkhorn Slough today are there as a result of the Aquarium’s surrogacy program. While we’d known that sea otters served as ecosystem engineers for the giant kelp forests in Monterey Bay, we have now documented that sea otters in Elkhorn Slough are restoring the health and biodiversity of the estuary. This gives us further insights into how sea otters may contribute to coastal ecosystem resilience. Read more…

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