The Beacon: Peter Brannen's blog
After a gigantic eyeball washed ashore in Ft. Lauderdale last week (likely belonging to a swordfish) this week the ocean reminded us again what mysteries lurk in the deep when a 15 foot oarfish washed up on the Baja Peninsula.
By oarfish standards, though, 15 feet is scrawny. This little known and poorly understood creature has been documented to reach 36 feet in length making it the longest bony fish known to man. Reports of specimens topping 50 feet in length are not uncommon, and the fish is a likely inspiration for tales of sea serpents in centuries past. Oarfish live in tropical and temperate waters worldwide at depths of up to 3,300 feet, drifting in open ocean currents and feeding on fish, crustaceans and squid, but they are almost never seen or caught alive and little is known about their behavior.
Residents of Cabo San Lucas who struggled but failed to save the fish, were shocked to find it swimming in their waters, as were a group of Navy Seals who came upon a 23 foot oarfish during training in Coronado, California in 1996 (below).
Apart from its length, oarfish are also notable for the brilliant red mane which crowns its head as well a dorsal fin that starts between its eyes and runs the length of its body.
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?
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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