In PhDeep

Sea creatures of whimsy!
by Megan Fork -- January 28th, 2013

Almost by definition, PhD students are huge nerds.  It may not surprise you, then, that when we get together for a Thursday afternoon beer, we call it “Science Club” and talk about something nerdy.  (It’s certainly good to have happy hour for maintaining a social life, but don’t underestimate the role of beer in scientific advancement!)

In past and future weeks, our topics have included/will include changes to NSF funding, writing successful fellowship applications, and deal with sparse or missing data.  This week, everyone brought a picture and story/facts about a sea creature to share.  It was such fun, I had to share them more widely.

Many thanks to Science Club 2013 for collating and presenting this list of creatures and their stories.

Without further ado, I present “Sea Creatures of Whimsy”!

Best at seeing color: Mantis Shrimp

With its flamboyant multicolored appearance and a strike that can break aquarium glass, the peacock mantis shrimp is a powerhouse of marine awesomeness.  But that’s not fall it brings to the table: The mantis shrimp has 16 (!) color receptors in its eyes (compared to a normal human’s paltry 3), enabling it to see both ultraviolet and infrared light, and to discern colors we can’t even imagine. For an awesome hour, hear the Radiolab episode on color, and get more mantis shrimp.

Blobbiest: Blob fish
This rather unfortunate-looking fellow lives in deep waters off the coast of Australia.  Rather than an air bladder to regulate its buoyancy, the blobfish has a body made of gelatinous goo, slightly less dense than the surrounding water, with very little muscle.  This guy certainly doesn’t look very appetizing, but because it lives at a similar depth to target species like lobsters and crabs, it is in danger from overfishing as bycatch.

Best at making its own food: Photosynthetic sea slug

While not actually born with chloroplasts, this sea slug, which lives off the Atlantic coast of the U.S., gains them from its algal food source and uses them to make its own food while basking in the sun.  The really amazing thing is that chloroplasts don’t normally have the ability to keep working outside their plant cell – they only contain a small portion of the DNA that codes for the proteins they need to keep working.  Presumably through horizontal gene transfer, the sea slug has acquired the rest of the genes needed to keep them running, and can live only on the sugars produced by the chloroplasts for almost a year.

Best dancer: Spanish shawl nudibranch

Not only is this lovely little mollusk a vision in orange-fringed purple, but it can store the nematocysts (stinging cells) of its anemone prey and use them for its own protection.  This gorgeous sea slug lives off the west coast of North America, and its swimming looks like a graceful dance.

Best at predating: Orca

You’re probably already familiar with orcas (aka killer whales) from movies like “Free Willy” (if you were a child in the 90s) or from shows at Sea World.  Rather than an introduction, this is a tale of trophic cascade. Killer whales and otters used to live in relative harmony in the waters off the coast of Alaska. Then, the orcas’ preferred prey species, other whales, were depleted by whaling in the 1950s.  The hungry orcas moved on to sea lions, seals, and fish. More recently, because of declines in the populations of forage fish due to overfishing, they’re on to eating sea otters. In a 1998 study published in Science, scientists estimated otter populations subject to orca predation had decreased by up to 76%. This let to a trophic cascade: there were fewer otters to eat sea urchins, so sea urchin populations increased.  Sea urchins are herbivores that eat kelp; with more urchins around, the density of kelp forests crashed.

Most fecund: Sunfish (Mola mola)

The Ocean Sunfish has the distinction of couple of real superlatives (not just ones I made up on a wintery afternoon): First, it is the world’s largest bony fish. Second, this fish is the most fecund of the vertebrates, and can lay up to 300,000,000 eggs at a time! It has also been described as looking “like a huge lima bean.”

Biggest mouth: Gulper eel

This terrifying fishy lives in on the benthos in the deep ocean, and can eat prey larger than itself (even though it usually doesn’t). On the tip of its tail is a light-producing organ that it uses as a lure for attracting prey.

Most likely to correctly predict the outcome of a sporting event: Giant Pacific octopus

Okay, I admit I can’t make any claims about the Giant Pacific octopus’s soccer-predicting abilities (but I do know that a cousin, the common octopus was pretty darn good at it).  I can direct you toward a (slightly silly) video of a 600 lb octopus squishing through tube the diameter of a quarter.  If that’s not enough, how about SHARK VS. OCTOPUS?! Bam!

 

Need more marine whimsy?

The angler fish comes in many shades… of ugly.

Five organisms with SUPER POWERS!  (Thanks to the awesome folks at Southern Fried Science, one of my favorite science blogs.)

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Cocoa Maxwell
    Jan 28, 2013

    I encourage fans of whimsical sea creatures looking for more whimsy to google image search the word “nudibranch” for minutes of additional entertainment.

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