With 1,400 named species of ribbon worms inhabiting every ecosystem on earth, seeking one out should be an easy proposition. But I quickly learned that it can be quite daunting when you’re looking for certain teeny-tiny mud-loving worms. I recently accompanied Dr. Jon Norenburg and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Eduardo Zattara, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History research scientists in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology , on a research trip to Fort Pierce, Florida. The goal? Find ribbon worms (phylum Nemertea ) belonging to the genus Carinoma or to the family Hubrechtidae . Members...
It is a well-known fact that for animals living in the deep sea, food can be scarce. The food that is around usually rains down from above as dead animals and organic particles from plankton living near the ocean’s surface. Occasionally, a bonus in the form of a good-sized dead fish, a porpoise, or even a whale will come down, the whale providing food for millions of animals for scores of years. Marine plants, seaweeds and sea grasses, can also play an important role in providing food to the deep sea. Turtle grass ( Thalassia testudinum ), which grows in coastal warm waters around Florida,...
Humpback whales ( Megaptera novaengliae ) are the most abundant baleen whale in the nearshore waters around the Antarctic Peninsula. They, along with millions of penguins, seals, seabirds, and other whales, feed primarily on Antarctic krill ( Euphausia superba ) during summer months. For a large 50-foot humpback whale, there needs to be a significant amount of these tiny, shrimp-like prey available to make the energetically costly act of lunge feeding worth the effort! But very little is known about how these ocean giants maneuver around to locate and feed on these small crustaceans. To learn...
I have been at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History since 1966, studying and reporting on all kinds of octopuses and squids . But I’ve always had a particular fascination with the mysterious and elusive giant squid . My interest in giant squid began in graduate school when my professor showed me two small, incomplete, stinky specimens—some of the few specimens in the world at that time. We knew virtually nothing about their biology, behavior, habitat: it was all a great mystery. My own search for the giant squid began not long afterwards, when I took the opportunity to dissect...
2012 marked the 70th anniversary of a series of World War II battles in the Pacific Ocean and on its islands, which are collectively known as the “Pacific theatre.” While the battles are long over, thousands of wrecked boats and planes from many nations still rest on the seafloor. These wreck sites represent a twin legacy: one a memorial gravesite and historical marker, and the other a potential source of pollution from the wrecks into the sea. We call the first “ Underwater Cultural Heritage ”—the wrecks that are part of our collective planetary history. You can find U.S. wrecks from World...
I have a vivid childhood memory of sitting under the Blue Whale model hanging in the Natural History Museum in London, eating an ice cream and wondering “How in the world did that whale get so big?” These days we are closer to knowing the answer. Over the past several years, a group of researchers have been studying how blue whales eat to better understand how such a big animal can survive on such small food. Blue whales are in a family of whales that have evolved comb-like baleen and large mouths to gulp huge volumes of water and then sieve out tiny prey— small crustaceans called krill or...
Tags: Feeding
My father once told me that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who believe that the world is divided into two kinds of people and those who don’t. Wherever you come down on this particular issue, it’s clear that there is a common—if not always healthy—human impulse to classify objects into groups. In biology, this falls to taxonomists, whose job it is to classify living (and once-living) organisms into species, species into genera, genera into families, and so on. They do this not only to satisfy an impulse to classify, but also because it tells us something about the pace...
Marine parasites may be small in size, but they can be present in very high numbers and put together can weigh even more than all the top predators in an estuary or bay ecosystem! They play an important role in keeping their host population from growing out of control—allowing them to exert power over food webs and ecosystem function. High parasite diversity is even an indicator of a healthy ecosystem . What makes parasites fascinating to study is that they have had to evolve complex strategies that allow them to live both inside a host and outside in the environment. Here are a few examples...
When we think "Africa," we think of the "Big Five"—lions, elephants, leopards, buffalo and rhinos—that crisscross the African Savannah. Few would imagine that there could be more natural beauty on offer. But there is: underwater. The east coast of Africa holds a bounty of life that rivals the land. It is lined with coral reefs, majestic islands, and, under the surface, animals bigger than any of the "Big Five", and none of them are in game parks! This includes some of the biggest animals in the sea: whale sharks, giant manta rays , humpback whales , dolphins, tiger sharks, and all the colors...
A few years ago, I was in New Zealand photographing a story about the value of marine reserves (a type of marine protected area ). My last location was a place called the Poor Knights Islands , a spectacular group of small, rocky islands off the North Island of New Zealand, which had been fully protected as a no-take zone in the 1980’s. One afternoon I was invited to have tea with an old-time diver named Wade Doak , who was somewhat of a legend in those parts. Over tea, Wade told me that he believed the marine life was better at Poor Knights today than when he was diving there in the 1950’s...