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Whale Poo Is Good For You September 12, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Brain Power, Environment, Ocean, Tough Stuff.
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In fact, it’s good for all living things.  Australian researchers recently found that whale poo is battling one of the planet’s toughest battles ever – climate change.  The poor whales previously had a horrid reputation.  Since they breathe out a common greenhouse gas known as carbon dioxide (CO2), they were disliked for contributing to global warming.  Estimates are that they breathe out 200,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.  Eep!  It isn’t surprising people had a bad opinion of them!

But there’s way more to the story than this one fact.  Let’s start with the basics and see how something so gross can actually be good for us all.  Major science geeks can read the full study results in the Fish and Fisheries journal.

Benefits Of Whale Poo

A young sperm whale gracefully swims in the Southern Ocean. A trip up to the surface might mean a poopy feeding for the hungry phytoplankton, helping to fight global warming. Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In the Southern Ocean, we’ve got an estimated 12,000 sperm whales.  They hunt down fish and squid for food.  Once digested, out comes all that poo.  Why should we care about whale feces?  Well, it contains loads of iron.  All of those whales poop out approximately 50 tonnes of iron each year.

What’s so special about the iron?  It’s a fabulously delicious food for phytoplankton, which are marine plants that exist up near the surface of the ocean.  These helpful plants like to take in CO2 from the atmosphere through a process called photosynthesis.

Better still is that the whales pop out their poop (even I chuckled as I wrote that) in a liquid form that’s close to the surface of the ocean, making it easier for the phytoplankton to access.  After, the whale dives down into the ocean, presumably feeling a little – or a lot – lighter!

Let’s Do The Math

First, we have to see how much CO2 gets sucked up by the plants, which is all thanks to the whale poo.  It’s 400,000 tonnes.  Now that’s twice as much as the 200,000 tonnes they breathe out through respiration each year.  The 200,000 tonnes is equivalent to emissions from 40,000 cars!

I got in touch with Steve Nicol of the Australian Antarctic Division to find out how the study all started.  He explained:

Our research was actually looking at baleen (krill eating) whales and the iron that they release.  The research was stimulated by some ideas raised by Victor Smetacek and we had the samples and the expertise here in Hobart to do the measurements necessary to test these ideas.

When I asked Steve what we can do to help, his answer was a simple one.  Simple but not necessarily easy to attain, especially given the attraction of whale hunting in many places around the world.  According to Steve:

Many populations of great whales are recovering fairly fast – some at about the maximum rate possible.  The best assistance we can give them is to avoid killing them – either accidentally or deliberately.

Don’t Judge Too Soon

I think an important lesson here is that we can’t judge too quickly and instead, should always look at the big picture.  When we first hear about all the CO2 the whales are putting out there, it’s easy to think badly of these massive sea creatures.  But with the Southern Ocean normally being a poor source of iron, the whales are making sure those phytoplankton are happily fed.  This way, the phytoplankton can do their job of taking out the nasty CO2.

Now, if only human poo had such fantastic capabilities.

Bartholomew Says Hello June 22, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Brain Power, Deep Sea, Easy As Pie, Environment, Evolution, Ocean.
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If this blobfish could talk, I think it would ask for us humans to give it some space. Maybe then it would have reason to smile. Credit: Greenpeace

Okay well, I made up the name Bartholomew and this interesting creature can’t really speak.  But if it could, I imagine it might say something like “Please leave me alone!”  So, just what is this odd, slimy thing and why would it want us to stay away?

Meet A Blobfish

With the formal name of Psychrolutes marcidus, the blobfish is definitely not the world’s prettiest fish.  It is, however, on the verge of extinction according to researchers at the University of York in England.  For blobfish, home is 800 meters into the ocean, just off the southeastern coast of Australia.

But unfortunately, excessive fishing with nets along the bottom of the ocean has jeopardized the well-being of the blobfish.  It starts with overfishing at less deep and murky depths.  After reducing populations up there, not much is left.

To compensate, we do something called bottom trawling, which takes us even deeper into the ocean.  Here, we are fishing along the sea floor.  It’s bad news for Bartholomew and all the other blobfish down there.  No wonder poor Bartholomew looks so sad.

These blobfish may look like your grumpy Great Aunt Martha but they're probably unhappy for another reason. Overfishing is threatening their livelihood. Credit: NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

A Day In The Life Of Bartholomew

Just humour me here and let’s keep the name.  So what’s life like for Bartholomew?  You won’t see it for yourself because Bartholomew lives deep in the ocean, far away from our eyes.

That peculiar body serves a purpose, letting Bartholomew sort of float above the sea floor.  Instead of using a bunch of energy to move, Bartholomew keeps movement easy and light.

How big is this body?  A blobfish usually grows to approximately 12 inches (30 centimeters).  In fact, I just picked up a comic book I will soon be reviewing here on the blog, and it’s about the same length as a blobfish.

A Floating Feeder

And boy oh boy, feeding is an interesting activity for the blobfish.  While you or I take an active role in eating – we open our mouths and put food inside – the blobfish does it another way.  When Bartholomew feeds, it means just drifting along, swallowing food particles that float in its mouth.

Ugliness Comes In Many Forms

Bartholomew is yet another example of the consequences from overfishing.  Without adequate regulations around deep sea trawling, our ‘hello’ to Bartholomew may soon be a ‘goodbye’ instead.  While his appearance may be ugly, some might say that the actions of humans are far uglier.

Don’t Believe Everything You See September 15, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Easy As Pie, Environment, Human Body, Ocean, Psychology and Behavior, Technology.
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Tiko looks like hes immersed in the new Ripleys book.  But looks can be deceiving!  We all know dogs cant read although maybe theres a nice, sausage picture that has captivated Tiko!

Tiko looks like he's immersed in the new Ripley's book. But looks can be deceiving! We all know dogs can't read. Hmmm, perhaps Tiko is captivated by the cheddar cheese carving on page 130 of the book. Tiko loves cheese!

Should you believe everything you see? Well, in the case of the Ripley’s book that I was recently sent to review, you can believe most of it! The new Seeing is Believing book by Ripley’s Believe It or Not is a bright, colorful book with a rather creepy but intriguing eyeball on the cover.

Over the course of the last few weeks, my favorite magazines – BBC Focus, Scientific American and New Scientist – along with various other science books strewn around have been glanced at and quickly dismissed by friends and family who pop over (how cheeky!). Yet when they see the glossy Ripley’s cover, virtually all of them do what I might begin to now coin the Ripley’s Rxn, which involves a lingering look, followed by a gleeful exclamation of “Ooooh cool.”

What does this tell me?

No matter what age, people like weird stuff and they like simplicity. Ripley’s manages to do both and do it creatively in a way that speaks to young and old alike. My excited thirty-one-year-old friend enjoyed the book as did his nine-year-old son.

After all that pretending to read, Tiko awaits a liver treat for his hard work.  Being an actor sure isnt easy!

After all that pretending to read, Tiko awaits a liver treat for his hard work. I'll bet he's thinking that being an actor sure isn't easy!

Just how much of the new Ripley’s book is believable though? While the publishers do put a disclaimer that they aren’t responsible for the accuracy of the book, it’s still reasonably expected that the tidbits of information are true. Not so. I spotted a headline titled Glandular Fever. Of course, my UK readers will likely recognize this as the term for what we call infectious mononucleosis or mono here in North America. It’s caused by the Epstein Barr virus and because it can be transmitted through saliva, it’s often called the kissing disease as well.

Expecting to read about mono, I was surprised to read about a woman who had an imbalance of hormones that caused her to experience excessive hair growth all over her body. My sense is that Glandular Fever was meant to be a catchy title but nobody realized it was the term for another health condition.

Still, a minor inaccuracy or few doesn’t at all break the fantastic impact and enjoyment of this quirky book, but it’s perhaps a reminder to kids and adults that there is a lot more to science than meets the eye.

Find out more at the Ripley’s website.

A Weird Science Contest: Win The New Ripley’s Book!

I like contests. Do you? If so, I want to invite my readers to send an email telling me about the grossest or weirdest thing they’ve ever seen in science. It could be something from science class or maybe just a creepy picture of a bug. If you do send a picture, make sure you include a description of why you think it’s so weird! Anyone aged ten to sixteen can enter. The contest closes on the 15th of October, 2009.

Send your stories and pictures to mina@weirdscience.ca and I’ll share the winning entry in November on the blog here. Plus, I will also mail you the new Seeing is Believing book by Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Please include your:

  • Name
  • Age

Please also get permission from your parents before entering. Any entries from under 13s must be done through a parent’s email address and must also include a telephone contact number for the parent. If you’re a winner, either you or your parents will be contacted for a mailing address to receive your Ripley’s book.

Good luck!

An Enormous Scorpion Claw January 4, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Environment, Evolution, Ocean, Think About It.
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Scorpion

Scorpions today are big enough in terms of the sting they can pack from their fairly small bodies. Have you ever wondered what it would be like if they were even bigger? Well, imagine no more because new evidence indicates that this may indeed be the case. A massive fossil claw of a scorpion was recently found in Germany and it suggests that ancient arthropods – including spiders and crabs – were a lot bigger than their modern day versions.

An Incredible Discovery

The claw of this very old scorpion – formally known as Jaekelopterus rhenaniae – was found by Markus Poschmann of Yale University. The scorpion is part of a group which comprises some of the largest extinct arthropods. The massive extinct scorpions are believed to be ancestors of modern scorpions. Poschmann has now co-authored a report with Erik Tetlie, a postdoctoral associate who is also at Yale. The report – published online in the Royal Society Biology Letters – details the incredible discovery. According to Tetlie:

Imagine an eight-foot-long scorpion. The claw itself is a foot-and-a-half long – indicating that these ancient arthropods were much larger than previous estimates – and certainly the largest seen to date.

Lead author Simon Braddy described the excitement of the discovery:

This is an amazing discovery. We have known for some time that the fossil record yields monster millipedes, super-sized scorpions, colossal cockroaches, and jumbo dragonflies, but we never realized, until now, just how big some of these ancient creepy-crawlies were.

Ancient ScorpionCredit: Braddy et al. Royal Society Biology Letters. The images to the right put an awesome perspective on the size of the ancient sea scorpion. The images show the reconstructed fossil claw of the ancient sea scorpion Jaekelopterus rhenaniae (e) and its size relative to a human male and to the sea scorpion (a), the trilobite Isotelus rex (b), the dragonfly Meganeura monyi (c), and the millipede Arthropleura armata (d). I will sum up my impression with two words: Wow! Eeeeep!

Fossils Yield Clues

The change in size of arthropods is one of those things that gets geologists scratching their heads and debating over how this change occurred. Evolution can definitely get scientists and the rest of us wondering just what happened to trigger the change.

Tetlie described some of the theories shared in the debate:

While some believe they evolved with the higher levels of atmospheric oxygen that were present in the past, some say they evolved in a parallel ‘arms race’ with early armored fish that were their likely prey.

Whew!

Personally, I’m quite pleased that these crawling critters aren’t the jumbo-sized creepies they were millions of years ago. Despite my curiosity and interest in scorpions, I still yelp in fear if I encounter one in my travels!

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Meet An Ancient Clam Named Ming October 28, 2007

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Easy As Pie, Environment, Evolution, Ocean.
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Clams

Off the coast of Iceland, a clam has been discovered that is thought to be the longest-lived creature. Researchers from Bangor University in Wales have coined the name Ming for the ancient clam, named after the Chinese dynasty that was in power when it was born. Scientists believe this particular mollusc, which is an ocean quahog clam, is aged between 405 and 410 years old! How did they figure out Ming’s age? Well, they counted the rings on its shell! It’s mind boggling to think of an animal being over 400 years old. Just imagine if that clam had eyes to see? It would have seen a lot of changes over the years! Also, think about the fact that the clam was a mere baby when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne and it was around when Shakespeare was busy at work writing his plays.

Scientists from the team at Bangor University – including the clam discoverers Paul Butler and James Scourse along with scientists Al Wanamaker and Chris Richardson – were also able to examine the clam and find out about the environment surrounding the clam through all of those years. Everything from food supply to water temperature can be figured out from the clam – so, we get an idea of what the clam’s life was like through its 400+ years.

Uh Oh, Competition

Clams 2 Previously, the Guinness Book of World Records stated that the longest-lived animal was an Arctica clam that was found in 1982 and was aged 220. So, it’s looking like researchers at Bangor University might soon be making it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

What This Means For You

So researchers have found an old clam – what’s the big deal, you ask? Well actually, the discovery of the clam can help us to unlock some of the mysteries around longevity. Scientists (and the public!) all want to know why some animals live to a ripe old age whereas others are very short-lived. It seems that the turnover rate of the clam’s cells differs from the turnover rate of cells in other animals who tend to be much shorter-lived. By understanding why it is some animals live to such incredibly old ages, we can perhaps look at ways of manipulating the aging process in humans. At the same time, don’t expect that Ming the clam is going to teach you how to live for over 400 years!

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