This week, we take a dive beneath the waves to look back at the last year in Ocean science. We call in on deep sea microbes, spawning corals and even a seahorse surgery. Plus we hear how the Census of Marine Life all got started and find out about some very strange creatures with sex organs on their heads...
In this episode
51:03 - A Collection of Marine Critters
A Collection of Marine Critters
Helen - Over the past year, we've met up with lots of marine experts to talk about their work, and to delve a little bit deeper into their devotion to the oceans, we asked them to tell us: if they were a marine critter, which one they'd be and why? We have some really great answers and here are some of the highlights.
"I'm Greg Rouse. I'm a Professor here at Scripps Institution of Oceanography..."
"I'm Carl Safina. I'm an Author and President of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University..."
"My name is Mark Baumgartner. I work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution..."
"Hello. My name is Nancy Knowlton and I'm a Marine Biologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History..."
"My name is John Bruno. I'm a Marine Ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill..."
"My name is Boris Worm. I'm a Marine Biologist, working out of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada..."
"...And if I would have to be a critter, I would choose osedax which are bone-eating worms..."
"...And if I were a marine species, I would be a sea urchin..."
"...I would be a brown pelican..."
"...I would be a deep sea animal for sure..."
"...I'd be a Caribbean bolder star coral..."
"...And the species that I would like to be is the blue fin tuna..."
"...I would be a North Atlantic right whale..."
"...What's amazing about them is that the ones that initially settled are all females. So it's females who dissolve and eat the bone. Any new babies coming in are taken by the females and made into little dwarf males..."
"...They don't live that long, I don't think..."
"...They're also in a way the stars of the reef because although they grow very slowly and reproduce just once a year in about half an hour time period, they're very strong so that when a big hurricane comes, all the more fragile corals are broken to pieces but the star corals survive..."
"...They eat a lot. They eat often..."
"...Unlike most other fish, it's warm-blooded so it's really kind of the king of the fish..."
"...So far, we found 17 species of these amazing animals and they're only discovered in 2002 when we think there are probably many more species of these all over the oceans of the world..."
"...They are very beautiful animals. You know, they have these transparent bodies and these giant wings. They look a lot like angels..."
"...It easily changes its shape. Its eyes get bigger and its colour gets different, so it can be disguised as it goes on up to 4,000-mile migration to the Sargasso Sea..."
"...They have been around for probably more than 400 million years, that's more than twice as long as dinosaurs on average..."
"...And their shells are really very beautiful, very intricate designs. They can be pillbox shapes or needles or even stars..."
"...And I've always thought it was thrilling to watch them ripping through the surface and exploding as they chase their prey, and it looked very powerful but also like a lot of fun..."
Helen - Well there are loads of great creatures in there, but if I had to pick one from all of the people we spoke to, I think this one would be my favourite.
Tim - I'm Tim Shank. I'm a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
And if I had to be a critter in our ocean I'd be a deep-sea animal, for sure. And I would be one that lived at hydrothermal vents and I think I would be a shrimp, actually.
They don't live that long, I don't think, but the reality is these guys can move and they can move throughout the vent system. And what's so cool about them is that they farm their own bacteria in their gills. They hover around the vent water and these microbes love their gills, and the microbes grow and the animals just sit there and they farm off, they pick off the bacteria.
And they have this really cool adaptation: they don't have eyes like normal shrimp. Okay, they've lost their eyes, they've lost their eye stalks. And instead they have this plate that sits on the front of them where their eyes would normally be. And their eye has migrated back to on their backs.
We believe that they can see with this little organ on their back that allows them to see black body radiation - the heat coming from the vents. We think they can image that and see it.
So how cool would that be, to fly around the deep-sea, looking for hot spots like that, looking for a dim glow of light that's a hydrothermal vent. You roll up to the vent and you have nice warm bath of water and you can farm microbes right there. I think that would be so cool to be one of those.
Helen - That was Tim Shank from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US, introducing the vent shrimp that feed on bacteria living in their gills, and they see not with visible light, but heat coming out of hydrothermal vents in the darkness of the deep sea. So Sarah, which one was your favourite critter?
Sarah - It was actually a really hard decision to choose my favourite but I actually have stuck with a similar deep sea theme and I'd have to go for this, just because it's so weird.
Matt - My name is Matt Gollock. I am the assistant manager of the international marine and freshwater conservation programme at the Zoological Society of London. And the chimaeras are probably what I would describe as the forgotten cousin of the sharks and rays.
We know very, very little about chimaeras in comparison to both the sharks and rays.
Chimaeras are very odd looking creatures. And chimaera in Greek mythology actually means a creature that's created from other bits of animals, which when you look at a chimaera you can actually sort of believe that.
While chimaera is a sort of a group term for these fish, within that there's individual species that are known as rabbit fish, rat fish, elephant fish. So there's a range of different names for different chimaera species.
The thing we can generally say about chimaeras is they mainly live at depth, so anything down to about 2500m.
As I mentioned they're related to the sharks and rays and all three of these different groups of animals, the sharks, rays, and chimaeras, have skeletons that are made of cartilage rather than bone.
If I was to sort of describe an average chimaera, I'd probably first say there's no such thing as an average chimaera, but when you get to the head end that's where it kind of gets really interesting because they often, sharks, rays, and chimaeras, all use electrosense to detect their prey. And the chimaeras have some very unusual modifications of their snout to aid this. Some of them have very, very long paddle shaped ones.
This fact just, I still sort of have trouble imagining the mechanics of this but the males actually have a retractable sex organ on their head. And they have traditional sex organs as well, but they seem to have this other one as well. And to my knowledge I don't know if anyone's actually seen it in use, but it is something that sort of slightly boggles my mind.
I guess, my interest as part of the Zoological Society of London is obviously around conservation. And this is what the Edge Sharks project is gearing up to address. And as I mentioned before we know very little about chimaeras. Any species that we don't know much about is potentially vulnerable to man's activities in the oceans.
If we don't know how what we're doing is affecting fish, it's going to be quite difficult to protect them. So in reality a lot of basic conservation action in relation to chimaeras might be simply in relation to gathering more information on their behaviour and their distribution.
Helen - The mysteries of sex organs on the head, amazing that the oceans are such a bizarre and wonderful place. That was Matt Gulliok from the Zoological Society of London, introducing the deep sea chimaeras, those weird cousins of sharks. And if you'd like to hear more oceans experts choosing which marine critter they'd like to be, check out the