Peter Brannen's blog

What is that animal?

Posted Wed, Oct 17, 2012 by Peter Brannen to what is that animal

european fan worm

©OCEANA Carlos Minguell

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Creature Feature: Pacific Barreleye

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 2012 by Peter Brannen to bioluminescent, bottom trawling, monterey bay research institute, pacific barreleye, siphonophores

Prepare to witness what has to be one of the strangest animals on planet Earth. Behold: the Pacific barreleye. As this video shot by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute demonstrates, NASA need not look to the heavens to find aliens. 2,000 feet deep in the Pacific ocean lurks this otherworldly creature inside whose bizarre transparent head, more colorfully described as a "cockpit" by some scientists, is a set of extremely sensitive tubular eyes, from which it derives its name.

Those eyes are capped by stunning green lenses, pointed ever upward to spot bioluminescent prey and faint silhouettes in the deep sea (the dark eye-like spots on the front of the fishes head are, in fact, olfactory organs). The barreleye is thought to steal food from siphonophores, a group of colonial jellyfish-like animals, and the transparent dome above its eyes provides protection from their stinging tentacles.

Like much life in the deep, extremely little was known about this fish until researchers came upon this specimen off of Central California. Bottom trawling and deep sea fisheries are quickly destroying deep sea habitat before scientists have the opportunity to study the fascinating animals that call this poorly understood region home. Who knows what other strange creatures await discovery in the deep?


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Hungry Sea Otters Fight Climate Change

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 2012 by Peter Brannen to climate change, giant kelp, kelp forests, pacific ocean, sea otters, sea urchins

sea otter

Humans have an unlikely ally in the fight against global warming: sea otters.

According to a new study out of the University of California Santa Cruz, the playful, foraging mammals play a vital role in managing kelp forests, which in turn are capable of absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Sea otters prey on sea urchins, which, unchecked, can ravage kelp forests, but thriving sea otter populations help keep the urchins in check.

The study looked at 40 years of otter and kelp data from Vancouver Island to the Western Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The researchers found that in areas where otters flourished, so too did kelp. In fact, the kelp was able to absorb 12 times more carbon in areas that were not overrun by sea urchins. Giant kelp can grow as tall as 30 meters and kelp forests are provide important habitat for a number of fish species, including blue sharks.

"Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals," one of the study’s lead authors, professor Chris Wilmers said. "But animals the world over, working in different ways to influence the carbon cycle, might actually have a large impact.”

The study’s authors noted that the carbon sequestered by otter-aided kelp forests alone could be worth between $205 million and $408 million on the European Carbon Exchange, a market for trading carbon credits.

Populations of California sea otters, which once numbered around 15,000 along the Pacific coast, were decimated in the 18th and 19th centuries by hunters. In 1938, one lone colony of 50 otters discovered near Big Sur represented the entire population. Today that number has rebounded to almost 3,000 but the animal still faces threats, especially from parasites and infectious diseases which thrive in polluted waters. Otters, which depend on their fur coats for insulation, are also especially vulnerable to oil spills.

A decision is expected this December about whether to reopen a “no-otter zone” enforced by the Fish and Wildlife Service which extends from just North of Santa Barbara to the Mexican border in California. The zone was originally established in 1987 to help the fishing industry, and sea urchins have removed large swaths of kelp forest in the area.


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