Life was once thought to be completely dependent upon our closest star, the sun. Even in the deep, dark depths of the ocean where no light penetrates, organisms ultimately rely on the productivity from the sun-bright shallows above for their food. In 1977, scientists discovered that this belief was wrong. At the bottom of the Pacific ocean, near the Galapagos Islands, a team tasked with photographing the Galapagos rift found something no one thought was possible. An abundance of life. An area that was thought to be akin to a desert now resembled a rainforest. How was this possible?
Chemosynthesis. When organisms use energy from chemical reactions to create food. These chemical reactions are spewing from the ocean floor—from hydrothermal vents.A hydrothermal vent is a fissure, or a crack in the planet’s surface. The vents are created when seawater meets magma. As the cold seawater is heated by magma a series of chemical processes take place. The water becomes acidic and metals begin to leach from rocks, as this new fluid rises and reaches the ocean—cold and oxygen laden—once more, chemical reactions quickly begin to occur and create compounds like hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. These compounds are absorbed by bacteria who then use them to chemosynthesize. These bacteria are the base of the food chain for the hydrothermal vent ecosystem. Mussels, clams, giant tube worms, and crabs flourish here.
The latest data from NOAA explains that there are potentially 550 hydrothermal vent sites around the world. Only 5% of the ocean’s floor has been mapped—who know what else we might find down there.
Although Wednesday, April 25th is officially World Penguin Day, it’s never a bad day to celebrate these charismatic flightless birds! Penguins’ distinct waddle, fluffy feathers, and stout body shape make them one of the most objectively adorable animals on our planet. But they aren’t just cuddly organisms. On the contrary, they are efficient predators and are resilient in the face of some of the most challenging climates on earth.
Out of the 17 species in the penguin family, one of the most well-known is the Emperor Penguin. The largest of all penguins, Emperors live year-round in arguably the most unforgiving environment on our planet: the Antarctic. To survive in temperatures as low as -76°F, Emperors live socially, partitioning duties to ensure the continuity of their species. After laying a single egg, females will embark on a two-month journey in search of prey. During their hunting trip, these females will dive down to 1,850 feet for as long as 20 minutes in search of fish, squid and krill. They are aided by their dense bones and stiff flippers, which make flying impossible, but allow the Emperors to dive and swim with high efficiency. Meanwhile, males of the flock remain huddled together for warmth, carefully protecting their female’s egg. These males will rotate through outer and inner positions in the flock, allowing some to warm up in the middle while others bear the brunt of the cold in the outer flanks. Upon the females’ return, they will regurgitate food for their newborn chicks, and the males will swap out, now having their chance to take to the ocean in search of food. Without the cooperative tendencies that Emperor Penguins have developed over thousands of evolutionary years, their species would be long gone in such a trying environment.
While Emperors tough out long winters in the Antarctic, every other species of penguin either leaves during the coldest months, or simply occupies a milder climate year-round. The smallest of all penguins, reaching an average of 13 inches in height, is the Little Blue Penguin, which can be found along the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. Unlike the Emperor Penguin, Little Blues dive in short spurts of about 35 seconds at a time, reaching a maximum depth of 230 feet. But although Little Blues are small, they are mighty. Little Blues have been known to escape from their primary natural predators: skuas, gulls, and sheathbills. Unfortunately, human-sustained predators like rats, dogs, and cats have taken their toll on Little Blue numbers.
Anthropogenic threats to penguins don’t end with predation on Little Blues. Perhaps the most imposing issue for these flightless birds is global climate change. As air and water temperatures warm in the Antarctic, vital ice sheet breeding grounds that Emperor and Adelie penguins need are melting away. A study conducted by the World Wildlife Foundation in 2008 predicted that in 40 years, 50% of Emperor penguins could be wiped out due to the impacts of climate change.
So, what can you do to help out our feathery friends on the other side of the globe? Well, start by celebrating World Penguin Day! Then, think of ways that you can reduce your carbon footprint in order to slow global climate change. Maybe try biking to your friend’s house instead of catching a ride, or reducing the amount of meat you eat! Any little effort helps, because just like the Emperor penguin, if we all work together, we can ensure the continuity of an entire species!
For much of human history, the phenomenal life beneath the ocean’s surface was a distant, unattainable world. Thanks to many curious and courageous individuals, however, marine science has grown into a vast and exciting field. While the true “list” of humans who have contributed to our shared understanding of the sea is inexhaustibly large, this post celebrates three who stand out amongst the masses as exceptional pioneers: Rachel Carson, Eugenie Clark, and Sylvia Earle.
Rachel Carson is perhaps best know for Silent Spring, her most celebrated and influential literary work. Her work as a marine scientist, however, extends far beyond one impressive book. Carson studied population dynamics of marine birds, tidal patterns, fish development, and more. Carson had a particular strength that cemented her role in the history of science: she could communicate scientific discoveries and urgencies to the non-scientific public. Carson wrote extensively about environmental ethics and the human-ocean relationship, bringing issues such as the lethality of pollution, the threat of a warming ocean, declining populations of marine life, and many others to the attention of the public. More impressively, she did all of this in spite of harsh denial and criticisms from a canon of government officials, scientists, and elitists whose successes, reputations, and egos were built upon the harmful ocean practices that Carson strove to dismantle.
Biologist/author Rachel Carson reading in the woods near her home. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Eugenie Clark began her career in marine biology in a post World War II America, when woman, particularly Japanese-American women, were an absolute minority within science. She nevertheless pursued her passions and over her lifetime, earned the fabulous and illustrious title of “Shark Lady” for her numerous discoveries on shark species and her efforts in extinguishing the unprecedented public fear associated with these misunderstood predators. Clark was also a champion of ocean advocacy and founded the Mote Marine Laboratory, which is dedicated to protecting shark species, establishing sustainable fisheries, conserving coral reef ecosystems, and much more.
Almost no conversation about the history of underwater exploration can be had without the mention of Sylvia Earle. Earle has had a massive influence in the development of modern SCUBA diving and underwater submersibles. She once held the world record for the deepest untethered dive and was the first to lead an all-female crew in a prolonged underwater living experiment. Earle later became the first woman to serve as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the first woman to serve as an explorer in residence for the National Geographic Society. Amongst a life of groundbreaking firsts, Earle dedicated much of her time and energy to promoting oceanic conservation and stewardship.
While Rachel Carson, Eugenie Clark, and Sylvia Earle are only a fraction of a fraction of the many who have dedicated their lives to the ocean, the legacies that these three scientists have left, the young people that they’ve inspired, and the hearts that they’ve changed will leave a lasting impact of immeasurable power. Perhaps you, dear reader, will find your name amongst them in the years to come, so long as you keep exploring our oceans.
Picture this: A crab scuttles into a damp rock crevice.
Snails chug along rock faces, secretings mucus along the way.
Barnacles, glued in place, retreat into their protective shells.
An aggregation of anemone’s grab little pebbles with their tentacles. Hugging them close. All in an attempt to retain moisture and avoid desiccation — these critters all call the intertidal zone their home.
In other words, they are all reliant on the ocean’s tides: the daily rise and fall of the sea’s surface.
These organisms have all developed unique adaptations to help them deal with air exposure for several hours in a given day. Lucky for them, tides are predictable. In simple terms, tides are predicted by our understanding of the lunar cycle. The gravitational pull between the sun and the moon, and consequently its affect on the ocean, is dependent on positioning. When the moon is full, the orientation of the sun, the earth, and the moon look like this:
They are aligned with one another. This is when gravitational pull is at its strongest and causes the oceans to bulge. Right after a full moon the difference in height between a consecutive high and low tide, called a tidal range, is at its greatest. Another phrase for this effect is called a spring tide.
Gray whales are some of the most massive mammals that roam our ocean because they reach lengths of almost 45 feet. Could you even imagine what it would be like to come face to face with a whale of that size? It’s pretty mind-blowing to think of!
An average gray whale will reach lengths of about 36 to 45 feet and weigh upwards of almost 80,000 pounds! Their tongue alone is about 5 feet long and can weigh almost 3000 pounds. But that’s not the only impressive measurement. For us humans our brain is about 3 pounds whereas for gray whale their brains are over 9 pounds. That’s triple what our own brains weigh! Not only that but the heart of a gray whale weighs over 285 pounds alone. These guys have some pretty enormous parts inside of them.
Image Left Gray Whale Brain, Image Right Gray Whale Heart
The backbone of a gray whale is composed of 56 vertebrae – vertebrae that are so large Native Americans used to use their vertebrae as stools! This just further proves the point that gray whales are massive mammals!
But their size is not the only impressive thing about their anatomy. The lungs of a gray whale are directly connected to both blowholes rather than being connected to their mouth. And when they breathe they expel 100 gallons of air making a heart-shaped spout that will reach heights of almost 15 feet! Gray whales also have an extremely flexible rib cage that comes in handy when they dive to deep depths. With this flexibility their rib cage will bend as they dive down preventing anything from breaking. This adaptation definitely comes in handy as Gray whales can to depths of almost 400 feet deep lasting anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes.
Since Gray Whales reach such impressive lengths they must each a lot in order to sustain them. When they are first-born young gray whales will consume milk from their mothers that is about 53% fat. This milk is so fatty that is has the consistency of cottage cheese! But as they grow older they no longer depend on their mother’s milk, instead they feed on things found in the ocean. Gray Whales have an average of about 130 to 180 plates of baleen on each side of their upper jaw. Baleen is a hair-like structure (made of keratin) that hangs down from the upper jaw of a whale. While feeding they utilize their baleen to filter out water and sediment while keeping the delicious benthic invertebrates trapped in their mouth.
Gray Whale. National Audubon Society: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. 2002.
Chemosynthesis is an important process that some organisms use to get energy for the production of food. This process is similar to photosynthesis, but unlike photosynthesis, chemosynthesis does not use sunlight. Instead, this energy comes from the reaction of inorganic chemicals that many of these organisms find in their environment.
(Image Credit: teara.govt.nz)
This process mostly occurs in bacteria. Many of these bacteria live in extreme conditions and are the essential building blocks of diverse ecosystems. Some of these environments where chemosynthesis can take place include the intestines of mammals, hot springs, petroleum deposits, and hydrothermal vents deep on the ocean floor.
A hot spring above showing different coloration due to chemosynthetic bacteria
(Image Credit: wisegeek.org)
There are many different organisms that rely on chemosynthesis to survive. So how exactly does this process work? Let’s take a journey into one of the most undiscovered places on our planet, hydrothermal vents. Miles deep into the bottom of our earth’s oceans live a species of animal known as giant tubeworms. On top of these giant tubeworms live chemosynthetic bacteria. These bacteria use chemicals that spring out of nearby hydrothermal vents in order to make their own food. The sulfides and hot water (which can reach temperatures of up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit) that come out of the hydrothermal vent combines with carbon dioxide in order for these bacteria to survive in such a harsh environment.
(Image Credit: NOAA & memim.com)
What’s even crazier is that some scientists believe that chemosynthetic bacteria are the first life forms to have called planet Earth home!
Do you own a cell phone? How about a house phone? Think about the importance of these devices, and how often we rely on them for basic communication. Now think about what your life might be like without them…pretty different, huh?
140 years ago, an inventor named Alexander Graham Bell changed the course of technology in human history. This creative man is credited for inventing the two way telephone, forever altering our understanding of communication as we once knew it.
Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3rd, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was a highly creative man, and showed his talent from a very young age. At just 12 years old, he invented a de-husking tool for corn for more efficiency when helping out on his neighbor’s farm. From there, he was given his very own studio for invention and continued to create, gaining a particular interest in sound due to his mother’s deafness. By 1875 Bell had discovered a way to transmit sound through audible telegraphs. From there, he continued to perfect this technology and is considered the first person to develop a working telephone.
Our society is driven by technology that is rapidly advancing, giving us new ways to communicate, shop, use social media, and so much more. It has changed so much even within the past few years that it seems we are in a constant scramble to keep up. Two-way communication via the invention of the telephone, although, is the catalyst for all our great technological feats we know and use today.
So, let’s take a moment out of our busy days, put those phones down, and send out gratitude to Alexander Graham Bell and all of his tireless work that ended with the incredible creation of the two-way telephone. Thanks Mr. Bell for keeping us connected.
We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.cimi.org for additional information. Happy Reading!