Keeping it CREEL: A Reflection of My Summer in Alaska

This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to work as a Roving CREEL Technician in Southeast Alaska with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG). I had the privilege of traveling to Juneau, Petersburg, Yakutat, and Hoonah for work and explored the beauty of Alaska all while working and gaining field experience. In addition to being a CREEL tech, I also was asked to spend two weeks in Hoonah working with the habitat-division doing anadromous (combination fresh and saltwater) stream surveys.

Juneau, Alaska (Left Image) | Hoonah, Alaska (Right Image)

           

What is the big deal with CREEL?

CREEL projects are a survey method where a stationed technician at a harbor or launch ramp interviews anglers when they return after their fishing trip. Information asked of the anglers are things such as: the number and type of fish species caught, where anglers were fishing, as well as what species were kept/released. Biological samples and measurements of the catches are recorded when necessary. This large-scale project is part of the Marine Harvest Stud in Southeast Alaska, which helps management-focused biologists gather data to represent the number of fish that are in populations around the area. This collection of data is a major influence in determining catch limits and regulations for various species. The Marine Harvest Study is a major deal each summer—in part because of the local regulation determination, but also because salmon are managed under a treaty with Canada, as they spawn and spend their first two years of life in freshwater streams, some of which travel across the Canada/US border.

I spent much of the summer in Petersburg AK, which is also known as Little Norway because of its Norwegian influence. Petersburg is a small town built around the commercial fishing industry and has grown in sport fishing popularity. I worked under the Sport Fish Division, so I did not engage in commercial catches as they had a whole different division that samples them. The major fishing targets around Petersburg are Chinook (King) and Coho (Silver) salmon, Halibut, as well as some rockfish. Petersburg has a Chinook hatchery that broods and releases chinook salmon to help bolster the population for sustainable harvest. Some of these fish released from the hatchery get a tiny metal tag with a code that tells where they were raised and what batch they were part of injected into their nose.

When hatchery fish are tagged, the adipose fin (a vestigial flap of tissue between the dorsal and caudal tail) is removed to indicate it has a tag. These tags do not harm the fish as they are only 1mm, and are so small they can only be read under a microscope! During the CREEL project, technicians and anglers notice this missing adipose fin, and as a result know it is more than likely a hatchery fish with a tag. When the adipose fin is clipped, the CREEL tech asks the angler if they are okay with us taking the head from their fish. If allowed, we will send that salmon head to a lab to have that tag and its biological (bio) samples examined.

Images of Catch Measurements being Performed by CREEL Technicians

Bio samples are a major part of being a CREEL Tech. This part of the job is one of the major distinctions in having a technician on site versus just having anglers report catch numbers themselves. For Chinook, we collect scales which give us the age of the fish, a pelvic fin clipping which gives us some genetic information, and lengths. When the Chinook has a clipped adipose fin, we ask the angler if they are alright with us collecting the head. For Halibut, we only collect lengths—which also give us the weight as halibut usually follow a similar weight to length distribution across the species. With Rockfish, we collect lengths on all that come in. For species that are of higher conservation concern, we may collect more bio samples if needed.

So that is the general idea behind the CREEL work I did this summer. I also happened to do stream surveys! Alaska has well over 20,000 streams and other bodies of water that are believed to be habitat for rearing salmonids (e.g. salmon, trout)! The habitat section of the Department of Fish and Game is the amazing team responsible for venturing out into the wilderness and surveying all of these streams, tributaries, and other various bodies of water to see what species of fish inhabit them. The team takes a drone equipped with LiDAR (and flies it over areas of land and then uses GIS to create a geographical map of all these bodies of water. Sounds like a fun easy job, right? Well, that’s not all! A field team is deployed once the map is created to each of the water bodies where technicians will then examine the streams for species using electro-fishing backpacks, or eFishers (see image on right), and barrier surveys. If you haven’t been to Southeast Alaska, the region is a collection of mountainous islands with rough terrain, so trekking out to streams is not always an easy task. Some streams are near towns or old logging roads that provide access to them, but others require more creative methods to get to them. The island that the team primarily focused on this summer was Chichagof Island. Some areas were major logging operations in past years with old roads still intact, but only accessible by water. A landing craft was used to carry staff, gear, and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) across the marine waters from Hoonah. After the fun 4-wheeler ride, the bushwhacking begins. Southeast Alaska is a temperate rainforest and has an abundance of plant life that thrives in the highly moist environment. Much of the plant life is just like you’d see in other temperate biomes, but with a lot of moss and fungi and one plant that is the bane of any bushwhacker.

Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus, see image on left) is a plant covered in prickles that is often in just the right place for you to grab when falling or sliding in the damp environment. Speaking from experience…not a fun plant.

Anyway, back to the technical stuff.

After arriving to a stream, we take the roughly 40 lb. eFisher backpack and use it to shock sections of water, stunning fish with anywhere from 100-800 volts. The fish free-float when shocked, and are scooped into a net for species identification. We compiled the coordinate points of locations where we did this on a GIS-program (geographic information services) map and listed qualities of the stream and the species visible.

Sometimes, we found logjams or waterfalls that are considered a barrier to young fish, as they keep them from traveling upstream to complete their lifecycle. After each season of summer field-work, the ADFG habitat team writes up nominations based on the collected data from the surveys to then choose to add, modify, or remove water-bodies from the Anadromous Waters Catalogue (AWC). This catalogue is used to guide survey development, fisheries management, and a myriad of other influences on these streams and the various anadromous fish populations within them.

CREEL Technician Jacob Collier standing next to a Halibut catch

Now with all the long, tedious, labor-intensive, and large-scale work involved with this project, you would think there is a massive team going out to work on this; right? I mean, there are over 20,000 water bodies after all. Instead of a large task force, this program is powered by a team of roughly 10 people or so. Before I joined this team for 2 weeks at the end of the summer (this year’s season began in June for them), I was under the impression that they went out in these nice, beautiful easy-to-access streams you see people in movies and commercials fly-fishing in. When I experienced the rough terrain these folks go through every day for 4 months of the year, sometimes 6 days a week at 12-hour days, I encountered a big shock. I have the utmost respect for the work and effort the ADFG habitat section puts into their work because it is not an easy job and it’s a very important one that much of the rest of Fish and Game relies on. I used to think when crossing a trickle of water an inch or two deep, and maybe a foot wide, that there was no way fish could be living in it. Well, working on this project proved me very wrong! It is incredible what types of aquatic habitats young salmonids can survive in. We even found them living in a hot-spring where the water was 90+ degrees Fahrenheit.

Alaska was my first job in the field of wildlife, fisheries, and natural resource management. Trough this experience, I learned so many things that will help me in my career and life far into the future. I am extremely grateful to the staff at Alaska Department of Fish and Game that decided to take a chance on hiring the recent-graduate from way down in Alabama. I remember in an early-on interview, when asked what I knew of Alaska, I said I was only familiar with what you see in movies and tv, and knew little to nothing about salmon. I went in knowing little about the area and their fisheries, but was provided lots of help and mentorship by supervisors, coworkers, and the public that I worked with on a daily basis. I met some great people both in the management side as well as the angler and sport fishing business along the way, and hope that I was able to benefit the fisheries data of Southeast Alaska during my time there.

Exploring Biodiversity

The value of biodiversity is that it makes our ecosystems more resilient, which is a prerequisite for stable societies; its wanton destruction is akin to setting fire to our lifeboat.

Johan Rockstrom

What is biodiversity?

The term biodiversity refers to the multitude of living species on Earth and their incredible variations. There are no exclusions for organisms when describing total global biodiversity, meaning organisms from all three domains of life are included. These domains are referred to as Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. The relationships of these groups can be seen in the image below.

The three domains of life: Eukarya, Archaea, and Bacteria.

Members of Eukarya include eukaryotic organisms such as plants, animals, protists, and fungi. Archaea includes organisms such as retroviruses, and bacteria includes microbes such as E. Coli (a common cause of food poisoning). Archaea are unicellular organisms that lack a true nucleus (organelle that contains the genetic information of an individual), which distinguishes them from their nucleated counterparts Eukarya and Bacteria. Despite sharing similarities when compared to Archaea, members of Eukarya differ from Bacteria as these organisms are multicellular and have their organelles (functional parts of the cell) surrounded in individual membranes. Members of Archaea are commonly represented by those organisms that live in extreme conditions such as in the Dead Sea (‘salt-loving’ halophiles) or in volcanoes (‘heat-loving’ thermophiles).

Depending on the ecological system being described or studied, the scope of biodiversity might be confined to a particular location or groups of locations. When we describe the biodiversity of organisms at one particular location, we refer to this as an assessment of alpha diversity (α diversity). This measurement is particularly useful for understanding what mixture of species are present within an area.

For example, if you were to measure the alpha diversity of a park in city of Chicago, you may include up to a mixture of 155 species of birds depending on the location of the park, numerous insect species, plant species, etc. Regardless of the type of species, because we have established our area of study as the park, every living species within the park will be included in the alpha diversity assessment.

(C) Penn State | Insect Biodiversity Center

When multiple locations are taken into consideration, this becomes what is considered a beta-diversity (β diversity) assessment. This type of assessment can be incredibly useful when assessing large regions for biodiversity. For example, β diversity is beneficial for assessing the biodiversity of a country, or a large region of land such as a state. In this application, alpha assessments are taken at many different habitats, and compiled in a beta diversity application.

The scenarios given above for α and β diversities involve looking at an ecosystem level. These terms can, however, be applied to smaller scales, for instance looking at the biodiversity among a certain species (either from observable characteristic or genetic differences).

The video below is a great example at looking at species diversity within ants in the Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique, Africa).


How does biodiversity arise?

Within every organism, there is a sequence of genetic information that makes up every characteristic of that individual. From time to time, sequences must copy themselves in order to create new cells or pass on genetic information. A nature-made machine, editing enzymes are not perfect and occasionally make errors. These mistakes involve either adding in a base pair that doesn’t below (e.g., AATCG becomes AATGCG), removing a base pair altogether (e.g., ACGT becomes AGT), or swapping one base pair with another (e.g., ACCT becomes ACCG). Changes such as these can be fatal depending on the location of the change, or can have no effect on function. Occasionally, errors (also known as mutations) can alter a function within the organism without being fatal, resulting in a change of a visible characteristic. If these mutations are heritable (or within the cells to be used during fertilization), they can be passed on to new generations.

With new genetic potential, if a particular change in function is beneficial to an organism, these characteristics boost this individual’s chance for survival–heightening its chance of passing along this beneficial mutation to more offspring. Over time, accumulation of desirable characteristics in a population begin to shift the genetic pool available during mating events. Through directional selection, or a movement toward a beneficial trait in a population, these organisms become more similar to each other at the sequence where the mutation occurred. Errors in sequencing will continue over time, and those that occur in heritable cells (sperm, egg, etc.) might allow for survival against a new environmental factor, contributing to further shifting in genomic patterns and eventually allowing for the possibility of a new species with unique traits to emerge.

With enough geographic isolation or lack of gene immigration from outside populations, mutations in a population accumulate and eventually can cause populations of what were once the same species to now be genetically distinct enough to be considered different species.

What are the pressures that could shape an organism’s survival?

In the context of mammals, after the mass extinction of dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period (estimated 145.5 million years ago) a wide range of habitats became available for surviving creatures to colonize. One lineage became especially adapted to new modes of life, eventually extending a branch providing us humans (Homo sapiens) the opportunity to wonder about these foundational moments in history.

The video below is an illustration of the new habitats created for ancestral mammals and the selective pressures driving the adaptations needed to thrive in them.

Perhaps one of the most cited examples of colonization into new habitats is a case of adaptive radiation in Darwinian Finches (1800s). The term adaptive radiation refers to the same logic we set forth earlier, stating that organisms that invade available niches will have selective pressures from the environment on traits that encourage their success. Organisms with beneficial mutations or heritable abilities will survive, pass on their genetic information, and in turn a new species of organisms can emerge over time, now adapted to this new habitat.

Below is another HHMI BioInteractive video I recommend on evolution in Galapagos finches observed by Charles Darwin.


What is the significance of biodiversity?

Once biodiversity is established in an area, there are heavy consequences for its collapse. The greatest example of this is with the removal or eradication of keystone species. These organisms are foundational species for an area, meaning their presence keeps the living systems surrounding them regulated. When removed, the ecosystem shortly collapses. One example is the sea otter! As illustrated in the image to the right, when sea otters are present in their environment, barnacle populations remain at low sustainable levels, allowing lush kelp forests to grow and provide shelter for a wide array of aquatic biodiversity. When sea otters are removed from their environment, barnacle populations grow exponentially without predation, resulting in a reduction of kelp forests. Once home to many fish species, without kelp these organisms must find new homes, and as a result are either forced to leave the area or are exposed to predators and collapse themselves.

Non-keystone species also have ecological roles in their environment, which can cause domino effects for species that rely on interactions with them or something they were directly involved with. For instance, some caterpillars are known to take place in what is known as ecosystem engineering. This means the organisms are altering their environment in some way, which in turn can be useful for other creatures. In the case of caterpillars, many will create sheltered burrows in rolled-up leaf material. These burrows remain once the caterpillar no longer needs them, and is then used as a home for many different types of insects.

Regardless of ecological status, all species comprising our global biodiversity contain intrinsic value for their representation of millions of years of evolutionary lineages and evolutionary potential.


How is biodiversity conserved?

At the heart of the drive toward conservation rests governmental policy. Unfortunately, organized citizen by citizen efforts to be conscious about their environmental interactions are limited by the amount of people educational platforms and word of mouth can reach. Only through true government-mediated policy–be that local or federal–will large scale conservation efforts be able to go into effect.

Conservation laws specifically targeting keystone species are incredibly beneficial. Under these policies, not only is the habitat of that keystone species protected, you are in turn automatically conserving the habitat for the other species that occupy the area. The term for this is having an umbrella species, meaning the conservation of one implies conservation of a vast amount of other species. Umbrella species do not always have to be considered a keystone species, but do have to share habitat parameters with other organisms for them to be inherently included in the conservation efforts.

In situations where an organism is dwindling and is not considered an umbrella species, conservation efforts may not benefit other individuals, and thus more efforts may be required to conserve many species in a particular area. To get involved in the politics underlying conservation, it is encouraged to search periodically for bills being presented and contact your local representatives to express desires for the passing of these policies.

Ultimately, awareness within the general public of conservation-related issues and personal, consistent interaction with local government officials is the pathway for driving ecological reform.


Every individual can make a difference in the fight against biodiversity loss!

Ways to Get Involved with Conservation

1) Educate yourself. Stay up to date on current issues in conservation biology. To do this, there are a few options for quick-resources on the latest topics: Eco News Now | Phys Org | Nature Portfolio.

2) Contact your local officials! Stay up to date by searching for current conservations bills being presented to legislators, and make your desires known! To find your representatives, you can use this White House search tool.

3) Spread Awareness! Even if you cannot contribute at the moment, ambassadorship for conservation biology can spread to someone who might be able to.There is exponential growth with spreading the word! Even spreading information to two individuals on a Monday, if each person tells two other people the next day, you have the potential to have reached 254 people by the end of the week (see the figure below)!

An example of the impact of educational spread.

4) Volunteer your time. It is best to make an impactful difference in a chosen area, so be sure to not spread yourself too thin! Many organizations offer volunteer opportunities, such as local preservation chapters and zoos. To find opportunities in your area, quick internet searches are often very effective. To save time, Our Endangered World has created a list of opportunities and subsequent ways to find organizations. Visit this information here.

Citizen scientists in action! Photo Courtesy of the Urban Turtle Project | Birmingham, Alabama (est. 2018)

5) If you do not have time to volunteer, do not fret! There are many ways you can symbolically adopt animals, many of which are housed in zoos and other preservation agencies. Here are examples of symbolic adoption packages offered by WWF (World Wildlife Fund, Inc.).

6) Contribute to citizen science! Getting involved with citizen science projects is an incredible way to experience current research first-hand. One example in Birmingham Alabama, The Urban Turtle Project, allows citizens to help in the capture and counting of turtle species across the state. To learn more about this organization, you can follow this link.


For additional information on conservation biology and the importance of biodiversity, you can view the attachment videos following this article!

Stay Adventurous,

Olivia Grace


Additional Resources: Educational Videos

TEDEd Talk on the Importance of Biodiversity


Crash Course on Conservation and Restoration Biology

Diving Deep: the Fangtooth Fish

Anoplogaster cornuta, commonly known as the fangtooth fish, is a pelagic fish that grows to a maximum of 16 centimeters in length. Pelagic refers to aquatic organisms that can be found anywhere between 500 and 2,000 meters below sea level (see Figure 1).

With a name including ‘fangtooth,’ these organisms can be visualized as vicious predators within the deep ocean. Their elongated teeth bring about a fearsome visage. Certainly, to an unaware deep sea visitor, this fish may seem key to avoid. Despite its formidable name, the common fangtooth fish is hardly an eager, frightening hunter–in part to its small size, but also through its feeding behavior.

Habitat and General Description

Figure 1. Illustration of the habitable range (in meters) of the common fangtooth fish.

A. cornuta can be identified through its large caudal (or head) region and two milky eyes. These organisms have incredibly poor vision, which would be expected to pose a disadvantage, considering they dwell at incredible, poorly-lit depths. To combat this visual disadvantage, fangtooth fish possesses a highly developed lateral line system (see Figure 2). A lateral line is a sensory organ that runs laterally (horizontally) along the body and is highly sensitive to changes in the surrounding environment. This organ senses vibrations in the water driven by nearby movement, as well as changes in pressure.

Figure 2. Illustration of the lateral line location in the common fangtooth fish.

Highly developed lateral line systems, or those with high levels of efficient detection are useful for avoiding predation. In tandem with this form of defense, the common fangtooth has another useful mechanism to protect their lineage. These organisms have ultra-black skin, meaning their skin contains high concentrations of pigment that allow them to absorb nearly 100% of all available light! This allows the fish to hide in plain sight by blending in with its dark, deep surroundings (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3. A vintage photograph (film) of a collected, and dried, group of common fangtooth fish.
Figure 4. Illustration of gill components
and their functions.

Feeding Behavior and Morphology (Anatomy)

The most notable feature of the fangtooth fish’s morphology by far is its set of long, sharp teeth and cavernous jaw. In fact, the fangtooth has the largest teeth-to-body-size ratio of any known fish in the ocean. With record-setting lengths, how does this little fish close its mouth without puncturing its brain? The answer is with specialized pouches! These pouches are in the roof of the fish’s mouth and extend into deep sockets, allowing the teeth of its lower jaw to safely slide inside without doing harm to its noggin. Interestingly, juvenile fangtooth fish have much smaller teeth, and only a single row. As a result, juveniles filter feed zooplankton with gill rakes (bony or cartilaginous structures extending from the gill arch, see Figure 4) until they develop their name-worthy fangs.

As adults, fangtooth fish are opportunistic feeders, meaning a large portion of their hunting pattern involves consuming what happens to get close enough to capture. Indivudals of A. cornuta engage in diel migration, where they remain in the ocean depths during the day and migrate to shallower waters at night for feeding. Here, these organisms can enjoy a diverse diet of small prey that happen to get within range. Examples of prey include juvenile squid and juvenile or small adult fishes. Whereas these fish often consume prey at or beneath body size, these organisms have been known to consume prey much larger. Regardless of size, the fangtooth fish does indeed have poor visual acuity, and as a result relies on specialized chemoreceptors (or chemical sensing organs) to smell the organism underwater. Once a prey is obtained, it is unlikely to escape, making this fish an effective hunter should the opportunity arise.

Additional Resources

If you would like to learn more about this incredible species, you can view the BBC Studies Blue Planet video below titled: “Fangtooth in the Abyss.”

References


Monterey Bay Aquarium | Animals A to Z | Meet the Common Fangtooth

Monterey Bay Aquarium | Ocean Twilight Zone | Creature Feature: Fangtooth

Smithsonian | Ocean, Find Your Blue | Fangtooth Fish


Species Spotlight: the Baobab Tree

Across the savannah and other regions of Africa, two trees are widely recognizable and often depicted in artwork for their stunning profiles against the horizon. The umbrella thorn acacia (Vachellia tortillas) and the baobab (genus Adansonia) serve as habitats and sources of nutrition for many species. Take a moment to compare the tree types below using the slider.

Umbrella Thorn Acacia Species (Left) | Baobab Species (Right)

Unlike the umbrella tree, baobab populations (six assessed species within the genus Adansonia) have been marked as endangered since 1998 by IUCN, and more recently two sub-species were assessed as critically endangered in a study performed by scientists with CIRAD and the University of York.


What is behind the decline?

As of 2018, the specific cause of the species’ decline is unknown. Trees are dying off with symptoms mimicking if the trees were infected with a pathogen, however no direct signs of pathogenesis (or infection) have been observable. Current fluctuations of global climate associated with human-induced climate change are thought to be the cause of the sudden onset of decline, although more correlational studies are needed to test for additional environmental factors that might be at play to confirm this.

As climatic patterns change, organisms may be exposed to different levels of environmental conditions than usual, leading to physiological (functional) issues within the organism. Specific environmental fluctuations thought to cause issues are shifting patterns of water dispersal and increases of temperature peaks compared to prior years. The logic behind this is as follows:

Figure 1. ESFA (2020)

All organisms operate in what is considered a ‘thermoneutral zone,’ which in short means there is a limited range of temperatures an organism can be exposed to before experiencing difficulty maintaining cellular functions (see above figure). There are critical temperatures associated with this zone, LCT and UCT in Figure 1, which are the furthest temperature extremes an organism can endure before going into cellular stress.

In the case of the baobab, this tree has incredible adaptations for water absorption from the environment to save hydration for times of drought. Unfortunately, increased temperatures have altered the availability of water sources, leaving the tree exposed to hot, dry climate with little hydration reserves to act as a buffer.


Why does this matter?

Cultural Influence

The Baobab Tree | African Folklore

The Baobab Tree has been a central tale among African cultures for centuries. In African Lore, the baobab tree was a species created through divine intervention capable of walking and communicating. According to the folk tale, the tree was never satisfied with its composition or surroundings, and was in a state of constant disagreement with the gods that created it. Tired of listening to the ever-changing frustrations of the tree, the baobab was forcibly driven into the Earth, where it was left to remain still in the soil, but most importantly left to allow the deities to continue their creation of the world in silence. The tree gained its colloquial nickname, the upside down tree, through oral and written retellings of this timeless story. The close connection some feel with the tale reflects the underlying importance the species has maintained for locals.

Nutrition for Humans and Wildlife

In terms of vitamin composition, baobab fruit contains higher levels of vitamin C than oranges. The fruit is widely consumes by humans, as well as wildlife species such as monkeys, antelopes, and the African elephant. Among a high C-vitamin rating, the fruit provides large amounts of dietary fiber to organisms, along with high levels of antioxidants. In fact, this tree has the highest level of dietary antioxidants when compared to other fruiting species.

Baobab trees also serve as crucial water reservoirs for wildlife when rain is scarce in the environment. Specifically, the African elephant (Genus Loxodonta) is a frequent visitor of baobabs, targeting large water reserves within the vascular tissue of the trees.

African Elephant (Genus Loxodonta)

Overconsumption | Impacts of Humans and the African Elephant

If you were to observe the same baobab tree at various points of the year, you might notice the diameter of the trunk changes based on the time of year. This is directly correlated with the amount of water readily available for intake by the species from the environment. When baobab trees are larger in diameter, they are swollen from large amounts of water stored within vascular tissue. African elephants are well-adapted to recognize these swollen trunks as a source of hydration and use their tusks to break away external bark of the tree, exposing moist wood ready for consumption. Severe damage to internal tissue from destruction like this results in the death of many baobab trees.

In addition to being exploited by wildlife, baobab trees can be over-harvested by humans for commercial and local purposes such as nutrition or medicinal intervention. With the species in decline, the continual destruction of trees from members of Loxodonta and humans pose a threat to expediting the rate of that decline.

Habitat for Species

With immense branching patterns and bushy foliage, baobab trees make excellent homes for wildlife across Africa, including organisms such as lizards, birds, primates, and insects. Not only does the baobab offer shelter from predators and refuge for reproduction, it also acts as a place of shade to prevent organisms from overheating under the over-exposed sun.

In the video below, you can see many examples of these groups of organisms!


What Conservation Methods are in Place?

Whereas the effects of climate change on baobab species are steadily underway, other factors threatening to shorten their existence, such as over-exploitation by humans, are actively being protected against. For example, members of the NGO (non-governmental organization) Flora & Fauna International (FFI) have paired with the Madagasikara Voakajy (MV) NGO in Madagascar to actively monitor around regions of baobab trees repeatedly sought after for slash-burning or other human exploitation practices.

A Decayed Baobab Estimated to be More than 2500 Years Old | © BBC

Having physical representations of the concern the public has for the baobab population is crucial to raising awareness about what is going on with the species. Through efforts such as those set forth by FFI and MV, the lives of those baobabs currently in existence may be prolonged as researchers continue to explore ways to save this historic species.


Future Directions

The baobab tree represents an ancient lineage of DNA that holds cultural importance for many groups of people as well as nutritional benefits to both human and wildlife populations. Measures against climate change, such as minimizing individual carbon emissions and assisting in conscious green-choices are immediate actions you can take to help minimize the future effects baobab species are inevitable to experience.

More population abundance and health assessments need to be conducted as well as assessing trends with clines (environmental gradients). In the time between the release of new information, non-governmental organizations such as Flora & Fauna International and Madagasikara Voakajy mentioned earlier are crucial to raising awareness and taking direct action against over-exploitation practices.

Stay Adventurous,

Olivia Grace

References


1 | Aduna. 2022. Baobab Benefits.

2 | ESFA. 2020. AHAW Panel.

3 | Flora & Fauna International. 2022. Saving the Wild Baobabs of Madagascar

4 | Platt, J. 2018. Extinction Countdown, Climate Change is Killing These Ancient Trees — but That’s Just Part of the Story. The Relevator.

5 | San Diego Zoo. 2022. Animals & Plants, Baobab.

Diving Deep: the Sea Angel

 © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Using a pair of winglike structures, the sea angel propels itself gracefully through the deep waters of the ocean. Sea angels look quite ethereal, with translucent bodies and internal organs of pink and orange. However, despite its celestially inspired name, the sea angel is not so angelic in disposition as they in fact are fierce predators of the deep. 

Development and Habitat

Sea angels, Clione limacina, are invertebrates within the phylum Mollusca. Despite their shell-less appearance, these organisms are classified with other snails! Though bare in adulthood, these organisms were not always in this state. Representatives of C. limacina are born with shells that are shed upon adulthood, leaving them with soft gelatinous bodies for later in life. The visible ‘wing’ structures, also known as parapodia, are homologous (or similar due to common ancestry) with the muscular foot used by land snails for locomotion.

Sea angels have a wide distribution in the earth’s oceans, ranging from temperate to arctic zones. Regardless of temperature, these organisms are known to dwell within the mesopelagic zone of the ocean, 200-1,000 meters, occupying only as deep as 600 meters.  

Diet and Reproduction

 © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Individuals of C. limacina are sequentially hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs with the ability to swap sexes if needed. When the mating pool becomes limited, this is an incredibly useful adaptation! These creatures are also very small, only growing to be about 5 cm at the most, but are fierce predators nonetheless.  

Clione limacina has a preferred diet of one its own close relatives, its sister species: the sea butterfly! Sea butterflies, like sea angels, are born with shells. Differing from the sea angels, however, sea butterflies retain their shells throughout their lifetime. Unfortunately, the presence of a shell doesn’t offer much protection against their ravenous cousins. To deal with the pesky shells of sea butterflies, C. limacina has an adaptation of tentacle-like structures, called buccal cones, that originate from their heads and latch onto prey. These buccal cones have a radula, a mouth with teeth-like structures, and hooks to scoop the sea butterfly out of its shell like a kiwi from its skin! The sea angel then devours its prey whole and flaps away to hunt down another sea butterfly delicacy. Altogether, the process of locating prey and feeding can take anywhere from two to 45 minutes. 

A favorite for now, unfortunately C. limacina might need to find a more sustainable favorite as sea butterflies are becoming increasingly endangered by ocean acidification. As the acidity of the ocean increases (or pH decreases), the calcium carbonate making up the shell of the sea butterfly disintegrates, leaving the organism vulnerable to predation and environmental variables.

Fear not, however, as the sea angel has other nearby food sources. Some of these are phytoplankton, or floating photosynthetic organisms. In fact, consuming these is the mechanism behind the sea angels’ vibrant colorations!

 © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sea angels are an incredible example of the diverse life dwelling in the depths of our oceans, and a great reminder that size is no indication for how well-adapted an ocean predator can be.

Check back soon for more of the Diving Deep series!

References


Monterey Bay Aquarium | Animals A to Z | Meet the Sea Angel

Smithsonian | Ocean, Find Your Blue | Angels of the Sea

Monotreme Monday: the Platypus

Welcome to Monotreme Monday! This platform is a short, written series focusing on the incredible adaptations of Monotremes!

Monotremes make up one out of the three main groups in the class Mammalia , where they are most popularly known for their egg-laying capabilities. In today’s edition of Monotreme Monday, we will be focusing on the Platypus, one of the five species of monotremes still alive today.

Once being a very popular character in Phineas and Ferb, Perry the Platypus was possibly one of the very first introductions of Monotremes for many. Although depicted as a blue, beaver tailed, duck billed creature in the show, the actual appearance of platypuses is more subdued.

© Hans and Judy Besage—Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd/age fotostock

The platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is endemic to most of the eastern Australian coast along with Tasmania and King Island, seen in Figure 1; there is also a small group of platypuses that were introduced to Kangaroo Island (Bino et al., 2019). As you can see from the map, a majority of recorded sightings from the Australian government atlas shows high concentrations of Platypuses at the southeastern coast where many permanent river systems span from tropical to alpine environments (Bino et al., 2019). The river systems allow for dispersal of young to new areas of their habitat, which is a common behavior seen often in juveniles ranging from 7-8 months of age (Furlan et al., 2013).

Figure 1. Distribution of Platypus based on Australian state government records between 1760-2017 (Bino et al., 2019).

Platypuses often inhabit areas near fresh bodies of water, including a range from fast moving streams to slow-moving pools with coarse layers of substrate on the bottom. The substrate usually consists of pebbles or gravel. Here, the platypus will create an underground burrow, constructed between mangled and submerged tree roots right above water level (Bino et al., 2019). An example image of what the burrows look like can be seen in Figure 2 and 3. The platypus diet primarily consists of aquatic invertebrates including insects, shrimp, and crayfish. Less often they can also be seen enjoying other aquatic animals, including tadpoles, small fish, and aquatic snails (Grant 2015).

Figure 2. An example of a Platypus burrow hole (Art done by  David Nockels © Look and Learn).
Figure 3. A platypus emerging from its burrow near a bank (Thomas et al. 2019).

Although classified as mammals, a number of characteristics reflected in the platypus can be see in fish, birds, and reptiles. Some of these characteristics include egg laying capabilities, venomous spurs, and an electroreceptive bill.

Egg laying is not a common character seen in mammals. In fact, this trait is one of the main classifiers for Monotremes. Female Platypuses will go through a gestation period of about 21 days, where the offspring will begin to develop. After the gestation period, the female will lay her eggs in the burrow, usually producing between 1-3 eggs each breeding season. The mother will then start the incubation stage, where the eggs will be curled up to the mothers abdomen and tail for about 10 days (Grant 2015). Offspring will then start to hatch from the eggs, breaking through the eggshell with teeth that will later be lost. After hatching, the babies will experience large scale developmental changes, including the development of a bill after five days, webbed feet after 24 days, and fur growing in within the first 11 weeks of life (Manger et al., 1998). For the first three to four months, offspring will remain in the burrow protected from outside dangers. Here they will start to feed on milk produced from the mothers mammary glands. These glands are located under the skin of the mother and occupy most of the abdomen . As the lactation period begins to close around 114-145 days after hatching, the juvenile platypuses will lose their teeth and replace them with grinding pads made out of keratin (Grant 2015).

All platypuses are born with venomous spurs that are used later in life. These spurs are present in both males and females when hatched, contained within a sheath until about 9-12 months of age. At that point, females will permanently shed these spurs while the males will retain them and start producing venom (Whittington and Belov 2014). It is speculated that males use these spurs primary during matting season, causing seasonal production of venom. The platypus is the only mammal currently known to produce venom seasonally (Grant 2015, Wong et al., 2012). Although capable of causing extreme pain, and in certain cases causing paralysis to other male platypuses, the venom will only be fatal to smaller animals (Bino et al., 2019).

One of the most well known features of the Platypus is the ‘duck-like’ bill. Although their bill can resemble that of a duck’s, it is actually much more similar to that of a shark’s nose. The Platypus bill is made up of a 40,000+ mucous receptor glands that can conduct electric signals and acts as an antenna when searching for prey. This type of electroreception has been originally observed in fish and some aquatic amphibians. Because of this, the Platypus uses its bill as a primary tool for hunting prey (Czech-Damal et al. 2013, Fjallbrant et al. 1998). The Platypus will rely solely on its bills electroreceptive capabilities while hunting underwater and because of this has a groove on either side of its head that will shut, concealing its eyes and ears underwater (Bino et al., 2019).

Figure 3. Up close look at Platypus bill and head (© San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance).

Unfortunately, the platypus has faced several threats over history starting in the late 19th and early 20th century when platypus populations were being hunted for their high quality fur. This was before scientific interest really took off, and only until 1912, when the platypus became legally protected, did studies of their unique anatomy and ecology start (Bino et al., 2019). Although there have been many studies done on the anatomy, ecology, and evolution of the platypus there has been little research interest in their conservation. The platypus faces many synergistic threats to its habitat including the increase in pollutants, changes in river/stream structure and hydrology, and the creation of dams and roads. Due to these issues, platypuses have been and continue to be displaced from their natural habitats and suffer consequences from the drastic change in its ecology (Bino et al., 2019). In 2016 the platypus was marked as a ‘Near Threatened’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

There were several names the aboriginal peoples developed for the platypus, including ‘Mallangong’, ‘Tambreet’, ‘Gaya-dari’, ‘Boonaburra’, and ‘Lare-re-lar’. Along with these names, the aboriginal people also developed folk-lore that included biocultural and ecological connections to the platypus. One of the stories begin with Ancestral Spirits deciding on a totem’s formation. As the fish, birds, and marsupials of the land plead and reasoned with the platypus to join them in their group, the platypus consulted with an echidna and decided that it was not a part of any of these groups. The platypus explained to the fish, birds, and marsupials that since it shared traits with all the groups, it would remain friends with all of them instead of picking one identity over the other. Here, the platypus is commemorating the Great Spirit for its wisdom and creation of different animals (Bino et al., 2019).

Thanks for reading all about the wonders of platypuses! We hope to see you back for the next edition of Monotreme Monday!

Did you learn anything new? Feel free to share with us below!

References

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/platypus/summary

https://www.britannica.com/animal/platypus

Bino, G., Kingsford, R. T., Archer, M., Connolly, J. H., Day, J., Dias, K., … Whittington, C. (2019). The platypus: evolutionary history, biology, and an uncertain future. Journal of Mammalogy, 100, 308–327.

The Third Eye: A Reptilian Perspective

For many humans seeking enlightenment, or a higher form of self-being, the third eye serves as a representation of the internal chamber, or pineal gland, that bridges a gap between the plane we inhabit and other unknown planes existing among us (McGovern, 2007). In the case of a certain reptile, however, interpretations about the role of the third eye rely purely on anatomical physiology. The tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) is a member of the order Rhynchocephalia, and the last of its evolutionary line. Sometimes these animals are referred to as lizards, though this is not quite a correct assessment. These organisms are more pseudo-lizards, as phyletically (or organizationally to other organisms) tuatara comprise of their own independent clade and traditional lizards are within a separate order, Squamata; see Figure 1.

In addition to being the last living representatives of Rhynchocephalia, tuatara are the oldest known living reptiles–even predating the emergence of dinosaurs (Helicon, 2018; Gemmell et al., 2020). These reptiles are thought to have been first named by the Māori tribe, an indigenous group of peoples whom inhabited regions of New Zealand around 700 years ago. To local tribes, tuatara were thought to be embodiments of guardians that would protect sacred locations (Gemmell et al., 2020).

Tuatara can be found on 30 small islands in New Zealand (Helicon, 2018), however population trends as of recent are unknown and more research into organism abundance and habitat quality assessments are needed. These reptiles can live up to 60 years under proper conditions, 20 years more than the longest-known living lizard the Komodo dragon (Smithsonian’s NZCBI). Perhaps having direct access for the world through the pineal gland or ‘third eye’ has a role to play in maintaining such an elongated lifespan.

Environmental access to the pineal gland is on top of the tuatara’s head medial to the eyes, but placement is closer toward the spine than the nostril region (see the photo on the right). Researchers deemed this access point to the gland ‘the third eye’, as this small opening in fact contains a functioning and innervated retina! The third eye plays such a crucial role in organismal function that it has remained evolutionarily (genetically) unchanged for roughly 220 million years (Helicon, 2018). As for the specific purpose, this access point to the pineal gland is believed to serve as a regulator for sun exposure. As an ectotherm, tuatara rely primarily on environmental temperatures to alter internal body temperatures. The third eye contributes to behavioral regulation for optimal sun exposure, helping to maintain the body at an ideal level of heat (Stebbins, 1958).

Though not spiritual in nature, the fundamental understandings we have on the third eye of the tuatara has fueled evolutionary research–specifically in regard to amniote divergence on the geologic time scale (Gemmell et al., 2020).

If you are interested in learning more about this species, Discovery UK has a wonderful educational video on the subject, accessible below.

Stay Adventurous,

Olivia Grace

References


Gemmell, N. J., K. Rutherford, S. Prost, et al.. 2020. “The tuatara genome reveals ancient features of amniote evolution.” Nature, 584: 403-409.

Helicon. 2018. “Tuatara.” The Hutchinson unabridged encyclopedia with atlas and weather guide.

McGovern, U.. 2007. “Third eye.” Chambers Dictionary of the unexplained. ISBN: 978-0-550-10215-7

Stebbins, R. C.. 1958. “An experimental study of the ‘third eye’ of the tuatara.” Copeia, 3: 183-190. DOI: 10.2307/1440585

Diving Deep: the Anglerfish

The Anglerfish, to some, is a true deep-sea nightmare–and not just to Marlin and Dory on their search for Nemo! This species was discovered in 1833 by an English naturalist named James Yate Johnson. At the time of discovery, not much was known about the ecology and lifestyle of this ghoulish fish, as the only details came from deceased specimens. Whereas in recent years deep-sea divers have added much to our compendium of anglerfish, much of their lifestyle is still shrouded in mystery. There are over 200 species of anglerfish extant today, varying in lifestyle and size, but they all have one thing in common: an elongated cranial spine tipped with a bioluminescent organ. 

Most anglerfish live in the bathypelagic region of the open ocean—in other words, they live in the deep, dark, and cold regions, about 2000 m (6600 ft) below the surface. In complete absence of light with scarce food in the ocean depths, these ambush predators evolved their own ways to hunt and survive—by underwater fishing! The anglerfish uses its modified cranial spine to imitate other organisms in the darkness, with the photophore at the tip using a process of bioluminescence to create a blue-green light to lure in other small marine animals. Once a prey fish is in adequate range, the anglerfish will use its powerful jaws to suck in its meal whole. Though some anglerfish can reach up to four feet long and 110 pounds, most are fairly small. Despite this stature, members of this species are known to be able to swallow prey twice their size.

Museum specimen of an Anglerfish, genus Acentrophryn; image taken by Hongseok Kim in Seoul, South Korea.
Museum specimen of an Anglerfish, genus Ceratias; image taken by Hongseok Kim in Seoul, South Korea.

The bizarre appearance and predation style of anglerfish aren’t the only factors that make these fish so interesting. In fact, one of the most fascinating and unusual practices of some anglerfish species is their disturbing mating habit! For around 90 years after the first anglerfish was discovered, scientists and researchers were baffled as the only anglerfish they were finding were all females. That’s right, every anglerfish with a lure is female! These females were sometimes found with small growth like fish attached to their bellies and were believed to be their offspring. The behavior and ecology of male anglerfish were a total mystery until 1924 when Charles Tate Regan dissected a smaller, attached fish on a female and discovered they were neither growths nor offspring, but the female’s mate! 

Male anglerfish are substantially smaller than females, only about one inch long, and lack lures, large maws, and the frightening teeth of their female counterparts. Since males are not equipped for survival on their own, they spend their lives seeking out a female mate— and mate they do. Male anglerfish have small hook teeth that they use to latch onto a female’s body. Once attached, the male anglerfish releases an enzyme that dissolves the membranes of his mouth and her skin so that their bodies can fuse together, blood vessels and all! The male will lose the body parts no longer necessary to him, including eyes, fins, and sometimes even his own internal organs. He is then entirely dependent on the female for nutrition and survival and essentially becomes a fleshy lump, ready to release sperm into the water when his mate chooses to release eggs for fertilization. Even more fascinating, a female can carry up to six males at one time!

Not every species of male anglerfish is destined to such a dark fate, but this seemingly parasitic form of reproduction sure does sound like the stuff of science fiction. So, if you’re ever feeling down in the dumps about your love life, just remember: at least you’re not an anglerfish! 

Pollution to Solution: Rice University Reactor Studies aid in Climatic and Biochemical Research

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In 2019, a group of researchers from Rice University created a reactor capable of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide into a usable energy source: formic acid. Formic acid fuel-cell energy is a better long-term alternative than utilizing hydrogen fuel-cell energy—as researchers indicate hydrogen gas is harder to get into a condensed state. Head researcher Haotian Wang was able to create this reactor by eliminating a need for salts in the solution. Typically, salts have been used for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, but Wang suggested to instead use a solid electrolyte that degrades more slowly. Not only was this created catalyst slower in degradation, it was also more stable (held form during the reaction). Success rate for this reactor depended on the speed at which the reaction took place; higher speeds gained better results, and researchers achieved nearly a 50% collection of formic acid at the end of the trials.

While producing a useful and strong biochemical fuel, the lab’s research primarily aimed to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Global warming is a threat to our planet and the multitude of species that inhabit it. A continual increase in greenhouse gasses would only accelerate the effects of global climate change. The research being done at Rice University holds tremendous value toward conservation efforts, because by lowering greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, the resulting stress effects these gasses hold on species could lessen overtime. A decreased presence of external stressors on a population can significantly decrease an organism’s vulnerability to extinction. While this reactor is still a prototype in the lab,  researchers feel they could scale their methods to work at industry level, which would allow this method of lowering greenhouse gasses to extend to international use. Ensuring high carbon-emitting, industrialized countries have access to this technology holds potential to make climate conservation on the multinational level much more attainable. Combating climate change is one of the most important issues in ensuring the conservation of our planet’s species, and while more testing and tinkering with the reactor is needed, this process is a step in righting the damage done.

Wang and his team were published in Nature Communications in 2020. If you would like to read the paper released, you can find it here.

Since publishing this paper, the Wang Lab has received many awards for their continued research into the use of reactors to isolate compounds from the environment. More recently, scientists in the Wang Lab have discovered a more efficient way of synthesizing Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) from environmental factors using a boron-attached carbon molecule as fuel, or a catalyst, for the collection pathway. Hydrogen peroxide is an oxidizing chemical commonly used in scientific research and medicinal practices. In prior years to now, synthesizing hydrogen peroxide was difficult to achieve due to the the reactive favorability of the molecules involved to convert to water. The pathway perfected by the Wang Lab research team allows for more stabile accumulation process of hydrogen peroxide molecules, well as higher ratios of molecule collected.

Haotian Wang and the researchers in his lab continue their efforts in molecular synthesis as it related to environmental cleanup, and are making headlines among environmental and biochemists worldwide. If you would like to keep up with the efforts from the research team, you can follow the University’s update page here

Wang Lab Researchers Synthesizing H2O2

Stay Adventurous,

Olivia

Your Neighborhood Gecko

Because of their solo nature, it’s not likely to spot a group of geckos in the wild. However, one species of gecko has adapted to a more urban lifestyle: the Mediterranean Gecko. Better known as the Common House Gecko, these creatures originated between the Northern parts of Africa and Southern Europe.

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First introduced to other warm countries, the Mediterranean Gecko made its way to Florida and has been leaving a trail ever since. If you live in an urbanized part of the Southeastern United States, there’s a good chance you have a few house guests.

Don’t be alarmed yet, though. These lizards are ferocious insect hunters and are great for keeping down the insect population outside your home. The best way to spot them is at night on a lit porch where insects tend to collect, however on occasion, you may be able to see some wandering about throughout the day.  These geckos tend to be skittish and are likely to run from human presence, but if you happen to get close to one, their docile nature presents no cause for danger.

While there is a wide range of color morphs for Mediterranean Geckos, a few identifying characteristics remain the same. If you feel you have a few new outdoor companions, the identification guide below might prove useful:

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If you answered yes to all of these questions, then you’ve got yourself a fierce home defender! They may not be the best at insuring your cars, but they will definitely give bugs a run for their money.