Posts Tagged ‘fish’

Seafloor Explorer

Ever wanted to be a marine biologist? Now, from the comfort of your own home, you can!

Seafloor Explorer is a citizen science project that asks participants to identify substrates and creatures in pictures of the ocean’s floor. The pictures—millions of them in the database—are all taken along the northeastern coast of the U. S. by HabCam, an underwater vehicle created by a collaborative team that includes the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and local fishers and engineers. It’s quite simple to do: a tutorial teaches you how to classify the substrate as sand, shell, gravel, cobble, or boulder. Then you mark any fish, crustaceans, seastars, and scallops in the image and note whether there are any other creatures present. There are many unexpected delights to be found, like this – a pair of eels over a gravel bed (with some scallops and a crab; click to enlarge):

All images in this post courtesy the HabCam group, a collaboration between the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, commercial fishers, and independent scientists.

Or this image, showing a squid in the lower right and anemones in the upper right:

The data from Seafloor Explorer will allow scientists to study habitat and species distribution and abundance. Even more exciting, though, is the chance that we’ll see something we’ve never seen before. Already (the site was launched Sept. 13th), members may have identified a new species! Tentatively called the “convict worm“, it appears to live in sandy tubes and has a white body with narrow black bands.

If you’re more keen on actual stars than seastars, there’s also the Galaxy Zoo project, which asks for help classifying images of distant galaxies.


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New species and weird scientific name news that has found its way to my browser over the past few months. Enjoy.

Pictures of tropical fish that will BLOW YOUR MIND. New and non-new species.

Potential cryptic species of sharks

Giant extinct turtle

Random Wikipedia browsing reveals that there is at least one species (a spider) named for Cthulhu

More cryptic species, in this case of skinks

The Taxonomic Name Resolution Service – searchable record of plant scientific names, including all documented synonyms – important for those describing new species, as well as for those trying to find historical research on species whose names have changed

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ResearchBlogging.orgMeet Bolbometopon muricatum—the bumphead parrotfish to its friends. It’s not a Pokemon but the world’s largest parrotfish—a fish that chews up coral with a birdlike beak and poops out sand. It can reach 1.5 metres in length and weigh 75 kilos, and it lives in all those places that make fantastic postcards—the reefs along coastlines of the Indo-Pacific and the Red Sea. Or it did, until humans started chasing it away. Bumphead parrotfish can be pretty tasty (apparently), and big specimens would provide a lot of food. Overfishing and degradation of reefs have made this fish’s populations plummet. Spearfishing, in particular, has been a problem for it, and made it wary of divers and snorkellers in many places. Its scarcity and shyness have made observing its behaviour difficult, and besides, who knows if a solitary fish in an area where fishing is common is acting “naturally”?

Four intrepid scientists—Roldan C. Muñoz, Brian J. Zgliczynski, Joseph L. Laughlin, and Bradford Z. Teer, all supported by NOAA, made their way to Wake Island, about halfway between Hawai’i and the Philippines, a protected area where fishing is illegal. This isolated site has a Bolbometopon population that is large, healthy, and, most importantly, unafraid of humans. Here they saw groups of several hundred of these fish looking for mates, and described an extremely unusual and spectacular behaviour. Bumphead parrotfish do indeed have a big bony hump on the front of their head—larger in males than in females. No one was quite sure what it was for: in addition to the obvious sexual selection hypothesis, it was speculated that they might ram coral heads to break them up into easier-to-eat pieces. But in the big breeding schools around Wake, the male parrotfish clearly and repeatedly used their bulging foreheads to ram other males. Like deer, sheep, and possibly pachycephalosaurs, the fish size each other up before rushing straight at each other and meeting with a bang. Check out the supplemental videos to this paper—the head-on collision is loud and painful-sounding.

Muñoz et al.’s findings are more than just a cool natural history story—they’re a reminder that humans can have drastic effects on the environment, not just in terms of numbers of plants and animals but in terms of their behaviour. While it’s important to have areas open to the general public for tourism, education, and fisheries purposes, we need to remember that even healthy, well-managed such areas can be very different from a “pristine” (though I hesitate to use that term) state. Understanding how animal behaviour changes when humans interact with them is hugely important in planning protection and recovery schemes for endangered species. (And if contributing to this knowledge involves diving on coral reefs, allow me to be the first to shamelessly volunteer!)

Muñoz, R., Zgliczynski, B., Laughlin, J., & Teer, B. (2012). Extraordinary Aggressive Behavior from the Giant Coral Reef Fish, Bolbometopon muricatum, in a Remote Marine Reserve PLoS ONE, 7 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038120

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I just got back from my most recent field excursion and am completely exhausted. But look, I am nevertheless providing you with things to read! The new species announcements have been piling up for a few months, so here is another roundup of recently discovered or described life forms on this lovely planet of ours.

  • A plethora of colourful, strange-looking creatures from Suriname
  • A tiny deep-water shark from around the Galapagos
  • The littlest chameleons! (Highlights: figures 6, 8, and 10.)
  • One that deserves a lot more publicity: an Amazonian fungus that can eat plastic, potentially helping to break down garbage in landfills
  • A keen-eared herpetologist discovers a new species of leopard frog right smack in NYC
  • Also re: urban New York wildlife, this post is an enjoyable read about engaging non-biologists in nature. There’s not an undescribed species found, but they do discover ants that, though widespread and abundant there, had not previously been documented in New York.

Enjoy! I will tell you all about the Hawaiian rainforest in a few days!

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DIY underwater webcam

One of the fun parts about field research (and much lab work too) is making equipment for really obscure purposes on a tight budget. My pond enclosures, for example, are made of window screen sewn together with fishing line. This year the DIY component of my experiment had slightly wider applications and could potentially be a fun thing to do if you have a fish tank or a favourite local watershed that you want to film.

I originally decided to film the stickleback mate choice trials so that I could figure out how long to run them for. Last year, I had no fish spawn in the first 30 minutes, but more than expected spawn after 24 hours (including way more inter-species mating than there should have been). I decided to try four-hour trials but hoped that I could eventually cut it to two hours if most spawning took place before then. Since I didn’t want to disturb the fish during the trial, filming seemed like the best option. Filming the trials would also potentially give me more data—I could record not only whether spawning took place but when, and how many times the female checked out the nest before deciding to spawn. So I needed to figure out a cheap way to waterproof a webcam and anchor it next to a nest.

My supervisor found this tutorial. It’s a pretty neat camera housing design, really cheap, and surprisingly easy to do—I used a Swiss army knife for virtually every step. I bought the cheapest webcams I could find, and used some old body lotion containers. I cut a window in each of these and covered it with a piece of an old CD case. The trickiest part was rewiring the webcam – I had to make a hole in the housing for the cable to go through, then cut the cable, thread it through the hole, and reattach all the wires. To keep the lens from fogging up, I put some silica gel inside the housing to absorb moisture. I glued everything up with aquarium silicone (which woudn’t leach harmful chemicals into the pond). Since the housing was full of air, it was positively buoyant, so I attached them to dive weights to keep them on the bottom of the pond. The cameras were connected via a bunch of boosted USB cables (actually the most expensive part of the project!) to a laptop on shore.

The results were mixed. The cameras worked as well as could be expected (they were, after all, dirt cheap). But positioning the camera so that it faced the nest was extremely difficult. I tied a piece of fishing line to the housing so that I could move it around without pulling on the cable (which would dislodge the silicone and cause a leak), but this often ended up slipping off the camera—so I had to pull it up by the cable anyways. Fortunately, the first few times they leaked I was able to dry everything out and reuse them. Eventually, however, the cameras just died. Possibly next time I should try drying them out in a jar of rice instead of just air-drying. (“Next time”, yeah right.) I also probably could have come up with a better way to attach the weight and fishing line, but I decided not to worry about it. The positioning problem made it clear that I wasn’t going to get much data from the videos, so I changed my goal to just trying to get some decent video I could show in a presentation. (Research is all about redefining goals, a.k.a. lowering your expectations.)

I did get some statisfactory footage. Here’s a benthic male nesting in the open (ish). I ended up not using this trial because the female wasn’t actually ready to spawn, and, as you can see, the male’s nest is actually in sparse vegetation that I had overlooked when I put him in the enclosure. It shows some of the nesting behaviour well, though. The male is in bright nuptial colouration—blue body and iris with a bright red throat—and he pokes around at the nest and occasionally deposits spiggin. At about the 1:50 mark, he also swims through the nest, which is pretty adorable. (Oh, and there’s a backswimmer kicking around in there too.)

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Pond withdrawal

The minor blog hiatus of the past two weeks was due to my defending my Master’s thesis. Take that, science!

This past week, I officially ended my habitat choice experiment (explained here). Yes, I continued this experiment virtually up to the day of my defence; don’t ask—like all experiments, it did not go smoothly. Anyways, I removed all the remaining fish—which will be used by other grad students for their own projects—from my ponds, took out the enclosures, washed them, and packed them away for some future scientist’s use. It was a little sad. But it was impressive to see how well those enclosures held up after more than a year exposed to the elements. What was even more impressive was how they became part of the pond environment: there were plants and algae, especially Najas flexilis, growing up through the mesh, so that the bottom edges of the enclosures were almost sewn into the pond bottom. The enclosures were also crawling with tiny tree frogs, as well as a legion of baby water scorpions, so I had a lot of fun just picking creatures off the enclosures as I pulled them out of the water.

The frogs are funny creatures: being tree frogs, they’re mostly terrestrial (okay, arboreal), and so not actually all that keen on being in the pond once they’ve metamorphosed from their tadpole form. They don’t swim very well at all—as soon as they stop actively propelling themselves, they float upright (it seems as if their heads are more positively buoyant than the rest of their bodies). And when they’re in open water they make a beeline for the nearest shoreline-like objects. This resulted in many frogs trying to climb up my legs.

Here’s a gratuitous frog picture. This little dude was sitting on top of a pole that was propping up one side of the enclosures. I thought this spot looked too hot and dry for a frog, but it seemed perfectly happy there—this funny hunkered-down pose, with legs tucked underneath the body like a sleeping cat’s, is their favoured posture.

So I guess my “Pond county almanac” is coming to an end. I have a couple of follow-up posts lined up, but I’ll no longer be at the ponds on a regular basis. This is a weird feeling, especially since it feels like summer’s only just started—as I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had unseasonably cold and wet weather this year. I think this has translated into fewer insects emerging from the ponds, although there are other variables that could explain the pattern I’ve seen. Here’s a picture of a section of enclosure from roughly this time last year: it’s covered with insect exuviae. When I took them down, there were about half as many exuviae as there were last year.

And finally, what the hell, here’s another frog picture. They’re so darn cute.

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Snake in a pond

Today was my idea of a lovely Sunday: I unexpectedly had another female stickleback ready to spawn, so I was able to collect one more datapoint. On top of that, it was gloriously sunny (finally). Better yet, the fish spawned quickly, so I didn’t have to wait around for two hours to collect my datum.

But the best part: as I was preparing to recapture the experimental fish, up swam a garter snake:

Snakes are quite good swimmers, and this one had probably slithered in to the pond to snack on the frogs which are ridiculously abundant right now. They seem to move through the water exactly as they’d move over solid ground, and leave hardly a ripple in the water. But it looked like this snake—a garter snake*, probably a western garter snake, Thamnophis elegans—was having a hard time climbing back out (again, the steep, smooth plastic sides of these ponds are not very-wildlife friendly), so eventually I fished it out. Then I and several other researchers there gawked at the poor thing for a while.

I should probably add a disclaimer here: if you find a snake, please don’t pick it up. That is (a) the one way to guarantee that it will bite you, though one this small won’t break the skin, (b) also a good way to get yourself sprayed with stinky stuff, and (c) not very nice for the snake, which will be stressed out and potentially injured if not handled properly. I do actually have considerable snake-handling experience so just do as I say, not as I do. (Unless you are in Guam and find a brown tree snake, in which case kill it.)

*Garter, not garden. There is no such thing as a garden snake.

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