Fever. Aching muscles. Coughing. Sniffling. It’s flu season . Have you had your shot? If so, thank a horseshoe crab. In fact, if you’ve been put on an IV, had a medical device implanted, or received nearly any injectable medication or vaccine in the past few decades, you likely owe the humble horseshoe crab a debt of gratitude. These bizarre creatures —with their helmet-shaped shells, blue-colored blood, seven pairs of legs, and 10 eyes—hold an important medical tool in their bloodstreams. In the 1950s, researchers noticed that the blood of the western Atlantic horseshoe crab species (called...
Sunday, November 21 marks World Fisheries Day , an annual occasion observed in many fishing communities around the world. It’s a great opportunity—even for those of us who do not fish for a living—to pause and reflect on the importance of maintaining healthy fisheries. As a scientist, my research on tropical marine fishes has taken me around the world, including locations where I have seen firsthand the impacts that humans are having on marine resources. In 2001, for example, I was part of a Smithsonian expedition to El Salvador studying the coastal fish fauna. We had a chance to work one day...
Animals, on land and in the ocean, live in a 3-D world, and they depend on their sense organs and brains to build the mental constructs that allow them to orient and navigate, which is crucial for hunting and fleeing. The process is far from simple. Humans, for example, use many visual clues to judge relative distance. Objects get smaller and blurrier with distance and parallel lines appear to converge, principles that painters mastered in the 13th and 14th centuries in their quest to turn a 2-D canvas into a 3-D experience. More recently, paired cameras have made 3-D photographs and films a...
Welcome to Citizens of the Sea , a new blog series where ocean life comes to life. Our book by the same name came out in September, but no sooner had it gone off to the printer than new ocean stories started streaming in. So every other week, we’ll use this series to explore some interesting aspect of marine life forms and their weird and wonderful ways of getting by. We’d like to start with a personal story about the reefs of Panama near the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute where we recently spent 10 days studying coral spawning. Corals reproduce both sexually and asexually. A colony...
For those of you who have had the opportunity to visit a coral reef , you know that it’s an experience you are unlikely to forget. Coral reefs are among the world’s most magnificent ecosystems. Their beauty alone makes them incalculably valuable, but beyond aesthetics, their importance to both marine life and humans is immense. Though they cover less than one percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs support an estimated 25 percent of all marine life. They generate billions of dollars and millions of jobs in more than 100 countries around the world, and provide an important local food source...
I became interested in weather phenomena when I took physics in high school. At the time, I just wanted to understand how various things in nature worked. Unfortunately, most information about weather and hurricanes, whether in textbooks or on television, is merely descriptive: this is the sequence of events that we observe, and they lead to a hurricane. There is usually very little explanation of why it’s happening or the physics behind it. But, if we want to predict what a hurricane is going to do tomorrow or in the next few days, we have to understand the physical processes—from the...
This year marks 100 years since the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors, but the Smithsonian’s work in marine science dates back more than 160 years. In fact, our marine collection —the largest in the world at more than 80 million specimens—has its roots in The U.S. Exploring Expedition (or “Ex Ex,” for short). From 1838 to 1842, six vessels and more than 340 men, including a team of nine scientists and artists, sailed the seas exploring, establishing a diplomatic presence, demonstrating a new nation’s Naval prowess, and documenting cultural and scientific diversity. The Ex Ex...
Once upon a time, the ocean was considered the last place where we could still find an undisturbed environment. This was before the plague of man-made plastic trash flooded the seas. During my travels, I have realized that everything has changed. There is scarcely a place on Earth where plastic litter is not present. Standing on the decks of our research ship, miles away from any large urban areas, we have retrieved plastic from the deepest parts of the sea. The increasing rate of plastic pollution is alarming. The production of plastic doubles every decade, and ever-increasing amounts of...
At the Ocean Portal, we love the back-to-school season. There’s excitement in the air—new classes, new teachers, new friends, and new subjects to explore. We like to think of a new school year as a fresh opportunity for students of all ages to find something they are passionate about. This year, we have a recommendation: get passionate about exploration itself . There are few things in the world more exciting than embarking on a journey to an unfamiliar place, making a novel discovery, or beginning an experiment aimed at solving vexing a mystery. The ocean world is full of examples of...
Depending on whom you talk to, jellyfish are either fascinating, a nuisance, a toxic menace, or some combination of the above. Jellyfish plop into the media spotlight when their presence causes beach closures, or when an unlucky swimmer meets a jelly's toxic tentacle. They stimulate debate among scientists: some say that rising numbers of jellyfish are a sign of climate change and pollution, since the animals thrive in warmer, more acidic waters. Others say we don't know enough about their natural cycles to blame population booms on human activities. Still others say there's no such thing as...