Archive for December, 2008

December 29, 2008

Caught in the Seine: Sargassumfish

Camouflague anyone?  The spires, spines and cirri on this little sargassumfish are hard to spot out of the water but he’s beautifully adapted to living within floating mats of Sargassum macroalgae out in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Sargasso Sea off of Florida’s coastline.  Its not terribly common to spot these beauties in the Indian River Lagoon, but near the inlets when Sargassum mats are pushed in at the right tides you can find them hitching along for the ride along with other Sargassum denizens including filefish and seahorses. 

December 27, 2008

Caught in the Seine: Spotted Seatrout

Spotted seatrout are a prized gamefish in the Indian River Lagoon system, even supporting several tournaments during the year.  But they, like so many others, start out life at a terribly small size. 

December 17, 2008

Summer School With A Twist

Hippocampus barbouri at the Shedd Aquarium

The Shedd Aquarium is offering a fantastic field experience for teachers this summer in the Bahamas.  Participants spend one week in the field in July aboard Shedd’s research vessel, the RV Coral Reef II, conducting field experiments and enjoying grass beds, mangrove channels, shipwrecks and other spots while learning ways to incorporate fieldwork, marine science and conservation into their classrooms. 

Interested?  Hop on over to the Shedd website and consider applying for the program alongside an application to the COSEE Great Lakes scholarship program.  Applications are due in by the end of February!

December 12, 2008

Manatee Abuse in Crystal River

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This video absolutely breaks my heart and is a scathing example of ecotourism gone horribly wrong.  We are literally loving our manatees to the point of harm.  I often hear from (probably) well meaning people that they have been to swim with the manatees in Crystal River and other known congregation sites for wintering sea cows in Florida.  And I’ve always wondered who was out there watching and ensuring that these people do indeed have a safe and respectful experience with these animals. 

Apparently, there needs to be more watching.  If you’re a Floridian and you intend to swim with manatees in the near future please be sure to choose a responsible tour operator and be responsible for yourselves as well.  Its times like this that I wish manatees had sabre tooths sticking out of their beautiful faces to scare overly excited people away.

December 12, 2008

Mercury Ain't So Bad, Honest!

(c) Sarah Lardizabal

File this under potentially disastrous.  The Washington Post noted today that the FDA has a draft report circulating that reverses years of suggested limits on seafood consumption for women and children based on concerns over mercury contamination.  Instead, the draft suggests that women and kids should eat more seafood, claiming that the benefits of a diet inclusive of fish outweigh the potential problems of mercury contamination.

The EPA is at odds with the document, as you might expect, as is the Environmental Working Group.  I especially like this quote from the article:

“This is an astonishing, irresponsible document,” said Richard Wiles, the environmental group’s executive director. “It’s a commentary on how low FDA has sunk as an agency. It was once a fierce protector of America’s health, and now it’s nothing more than a patsy for polluters.”

As a woman I’ve gone far out of my way to avoid mercury laden fish of all varieties as well as keeping within sustainable seafood suggestions.  I find it ridiculous that the FDA argues in favor of seafood’s potential IQ gain of three points for kids while practically ignoring the very real side effects of mercury poisoning in humans which includes neurological problems for both young kids and developing pregnancies.  So we’re going to gain three IQ points but we won’t be able to use them? 

There have got to be other ways for us to load ourselves with the omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and “other minerals” that fish provide without either a) destroying our environment or b) creating a toxic soup within our own bodies.  

December 11, 2008

Bottlenose Dolphin Go Sponging

(c) Ewa Krzyszczyk /

Wild bottlenose dolphins, given their widespread distribution across several ocean systems, display a wide variety of peculiar behaviors including carrying objects.  The question has remained, are these objects play things or is this carrying behavior an adaptive one that helps bottlenose survive?

For a subset of the bottlenose population in Shark Bay, Australia, sponge-carrying (or sponger) behavior isn’t play, its tool use!  Spongers, as they’re known, wear conical marine sponges over their rostrum and hunt along sandy bottom areas effectively disturbing sand-dwelling fish species that then streak across the sand, are spotted, and become lunch.

“[This is] one of the only suspected cases of tool use for any wild dolphin or whale, sponge-carrying (hereafter sponging) in Shark Bay, Australia, only 11% of adult female bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) carry marine sponges. Tool use in this population is striking compared to tool use in other species because of the degree of specialization, strong sex-bias, and matrilineal (vertical) transmission within a subset of the population. In addition, with the exception of chimpanzees and humans, habitual tool use to hunt vertebrates has not been documented.”

Even more intriguing is the “all or none phenomenon” that sponging presents for the species; animals either adopted this specialized strategy or not.  Researchers suggest that the considerable time commitment required for successful sponging limits its adoption by dolphins outside of the matrilineal line (where female calves appear to regularly adopt the practice from their mothers).  In fact, “spongers devote more time to using tools than any non human species”.

If only Florida’s resident bottlenose would adopt fascinating tactics like this one! 

December 9, 2008

Killer Whales in the Gulf!!

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While the JKL pods get lots of attention off the Pacific coastline we often forget that killer whales can be found in a variety of other US waters including the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico.  A recent deep sea fishing charter had the fantastic luck to come across a pod, perhaps a super pod even, off the Alabama coastline. 

I am a little discouraged by how close these fishermen allowed themselves to be and the statement: “For them to come up and not be scared of the boat, at all, never had a hesitation.  Basically we could’ve jumped off the boat onto their backs.  It was breathtaking.”

Jump onto their backs?!  Are these guys high on diesel fumes and rancid bait? 

I also feel it would’ve been pertinent for the WKRG to include a statement about the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Remember kids, half a football field between you and the whales!

December 9, 2008

Caught in the Seine: Filefish

(c) Sarah Lardizabal

Its hard to say with real certainty which species of filefish this 2″ juvenile represents.  There are two species – Stephanolepsis hispidus, the planehead filefish and Monacanthus ciliatus, the fringed filefish – that inhabit the Indian River Lagoon system and make use of seagrass beds as nursery grounds.  Its not common to pull adults from seine nets, but just last week I came across the decomposing corpse of an adult that had been caught on a line, mistaken for a pufferfish (which are illegal to possess at the moment), and left for dead on the shoreline near Grant, FL. 

December 6, 2008

Fur Seal Deaths Maybe Linked to Mice

Photo of male caracasses / (c) PJN de Bruyn

Invasive species are often the culprits behind ecosystem imbalances causing the loss of native species.  We often think of direct competition for food (say introduced Gambusia mosquitofish outcompeting native killifish here in Florida) or space (like kudzu vines overgrowing practically everything) as the sole impact that drives such imbalances, but introduced species also introduce new diseases. 

PLOS One published a report on a mortality event in early 2007 of male sub-Antarctic fur seals that suggests their untimely demise is due to novel pathogens brought in by invasive house mice (Mus musculus) present on Marion Island, a prominent rookery for this species of pinniped.  Researchers believe a new species of Streptococcus bacteria, or possibly a new member of the cardiovirus family, typically carried by mice made a successful “host shift” into the sub-Antarctic fur seals.  Unfortunately it appears that they need to continue to monitor the affected population of fur seals to determine which explanation is behind the mortality event for future management and conservation.

December 6, 2008

Caught in the Seine: Police Badge

Kids love to tell fish tales.  Throughout my time as an instructor I’ve heard the following: “a sea snake just jumped up and bit me!”, “a manatee was eating a fish in the water!”, “I called the dolphins over to me!”, “we almost caught a huge stingray!”, “I tripped over a log and that’s why I just had to start swimming!”.  Younger kids often embellish more than older kids, but not always.

This past Friday I was out in the Banana River with students who proclaimed they had found a wallet with a police badge in it.  To which I replied: “Oh yeah?  Well any trash you find just put it in the bucket and get back to seining guys.”  They yelled back, “No really, its a police badge!”  One student started waving said item around in the air like a crazy person attempting to swat imaginary flies.  To which I replied: “No really I think you should get back to work; you have ten minutes left!”

When the students returned to our “base camp” area to identify their catch I had a very rude awakening.  They actually did find a police badge and wallet in the water!  A barage of questions soon followed: “Miss Sarah do you think this guy is dead?”  “Is his body floating around in the water?”  “Is this badge real?”  “Can I keep it?”

The can-I-keep-it was rather surprising.  Apparently kids these days watch too many horror movies but not enough CSI to know that impersonating a police officer would be a really bad idea.  Hmm.

A quick phone call to the local station revealed that the officer in question had been robbed a few weeks prior and would be very happy to have his original badge back.  Truly you simply can’t aniticipate what a seine net will reveal from the edges of the lagoon.  The real question is, of course, is a discarded wallet marine debris?