Intersect (Art & Science) #1 – The Introduction

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I love art and every recondite and consuming idea it can encompass. But what really fascinates me is the porous little spaces where we examine or redefine the steady and concrete components of the world through an artistic lens. Also, the scientific world is surprisingly replete with individuals who are well tuned into their right-brain tendencies. The scientific process requires a surprising amount of creative thinking.

So with that introduction, I’d like to occasionally share ideas, art, and artists that strike me as passing back-and-forth through that veil.

One of my favorite places for finding inspiration is the Harn Art Museum at the University of Florida where I go to school. They even regularly host nights specifically to feature scientists who have an artistic bent.

To start off, the following photo was one I took from their 2014 exhibit: Repurposing the Wunderkammer, Building A New Space for Science and Art. As they explain here, the Wunderkammer were essentially collections of wonder, comparable to cabinets of curiosity. The specific piece represented below was titled the “Last Whole Earth Cabinet” and as constructed/curated by artist Sean Miller. 

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What a job to try and catalog the world, with only a few small shelves to fill with its treasures.

 

Depth of Field #3: She’s a Mysterious Kind of Ship

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Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

The Venezellos is propped up and displayed down a lonely side street in the Florida Panhandle town of Apalachicola. Online searches reveal little about its past lives, and it’s likely one would have to make a note to ask the local residents to find out much at all.

However, perhaps she has general significance of the fishing legacy Apalachicola and many other coastal Floridian towns share.

While the boat has never been completely repaired/restored, perhaps in order to retain original planking and materials, it’s clearly received a fresh coat or two of paint since 2011 when Grant Blakeney posted the following photo on his blog:

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A google search of the name “Venezellos” suggests a spelling correction of Venizelos which is characterized as a Greek surname, one that has been associated with several well known Greek politicians. This finding only seems to deepen the mystery and enigmatic nature of this remarkable nod to the past.

Depth of Field #2: The Sea Hare Emerges

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Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

The sun is starting to set on expanses of mirror-reflective tide pools speckling the beach of the Tawharanui Marine Reserve in New Zealand. I’ve been walking along staring into them at random in my search for anything novel when I chance across what is at best guess an example of Aplysia dactylomelathe variable sea or spotted hare.

In a surprising contrast to the small chitins, tunicates, and other finds, the sea hare was relatively large, measuring somewhere in the range of 5 to 6 inches in length. As seen in this additional photo, a smattering of spots can be seen along its body:

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Photo Credit: Carrie Schuman

According to this source, sea hares are hermaphroditic though they do not practice self-fertilization. They may often form reproductive “chains”.

As suggested by one of their common names, they may be highly variable in appearance with their coloration primarily determined by the type of algae they feed on.

They release a purple dye as a mechanism to surprise and confuse predators. This particular characteristic was one I had once experienced first hand when handling my first sea hare in the mangroves of Key West. It certainly has a startling quality to it.

Variable sea hares tend to be more solitary, and nocturnal in nature. So perhaps no small amount of dumb luck governed this thrilling little chance encounter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Speck of Science – 1/11/2016: The Co-evolution of Poachers

I’m a little late in posting about this story that came out in the Guardian on New Year’s Day.

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Colour changing tree monitors or garden lizards annd Bronze skinks hung in a street market to be sold as pets in Hainan province, China. Photograph: Xiao Shibai/Alamy

The gist of the piece is that the journal Zootaxa has published recent papers omitting the data on where the described species may be found. This is to deter impact to these newly described organisms, after several incidences where animals were depleted or found for offer in the pet trade. This goes to show that seemingly the most innocuous and standard scientific practices (in this case, the standard documentation and provision of data surrounding the description of newly identified species) may still warrant ethical considerations.

This also represents an interesting and alarming co-evolution of illegal or unregulated poaching practices. But this is just a drop in the poaching bucket, as poachers have already clearly upped their game in recent years, arming themselves with high-tech equipment like night vision goggles. However, there is a whole range of combatant technologies emerging for use in the anti-poaching effort being billed as “smarter ways to fight wildlife crime.”

 

 

Speck of Science – 1/7/2016: Aye Calypso

Sometimes I come across some interesting news item that I don’t have time to write about in depth but still want to share. I’ve decided to start a new Speck of Science feature on my blog as a way to share brief blips and recaps of internet curiosities and dispatches.

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Today’s item is an article from the Guardian reporting that Jacques Cousteau’s ship, the Calypso, will soon be ready to begin life anew. The ship was downed by an accident and since 2007 had been languishing in a sort of boatyard purgatory due to disagreements over payment and the purpose of its restoration. This is truly exciting news for the continuing legacy of marine exploration, and our care for the world’s oceans.

 

 

 

 

 

Depth of Field #1: Coquina and the Palm Coast

“Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world” – Bruno Barbey

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So I’m one of those people who use facebook as an image repository – a sort of dusty social media shelf where I can look back and browse through digital photo albums filled with virtual Polaroids (I grieve the fact I never owned a Polaroid camera). However I recognize that the often interesting stories related to these images are buried relatively quickly.

This is the first entry into what I plan on making a regular feature (perhaps weakly-ish?). I will unearth what will generally be a nature or ecology-centric photo and jot down a few words about the context in which the photo was taken. If nothing else, I think this develops some nuance to my interest in cultivating a presence as a science communicator.

The first photo I’m featuring is taken very near where I work on my dissertation research. The shoreline is from Washington Oaks State Park in Palm Coast, Florida – a half hour or so south of St. Augustine. This was winter in Florida which is still punctuated by the vibrant green of algea growing on coquina rocks.

Coquina is a very marine phenomenon – the sedimentary rock consists primarily of Donax variabilis shell – the tiny little Coquina clam. Shells originating from other molluscs and invertebrates may join the mix. The rock was used for many of the Spanish Colonial structures – primarily forts – in the St. Augustine area.

One of the most notable and striking features of the Coquina are the circular depressions weathered through the rock. The shells that comprise the rock are largely composed of calcium, making Coquina a type of Limestone, which is relatively soft and easily shaped by the elements and other influences. A couple sources I’ve found suggest these holes are from Coquina forming around cabbage palms at one time. They certainly make for a visually arresting landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

The Weird and Wonderful World of the Water Bear

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Photo Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library/Corbis

I have long been fascinated by water bears (also known as tardigrades, and more amusingly and infrequently as moss piglets), though I have yet been lucky enough to see them for myself, wandering about their microscopic worlds.

However, they have been items of interest as of late due to some of their more bizarre qualities. (I like to think of them as literal inclusions in the news, wandering about among inky words on printed pages). If the distinction of being able to survive in the vacuum of space along with other extreme environments wasn’t enough, it was recently revealed that they have an inordinately high amount of foreign DNA in their genome – almost 18% relative to many organism’s 1% – earning them the playful moniker of “DNA thief” in articles on the subject.

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Much of this extra DNA may be incorporated into the tardigrade’s potential tool kit during periods of desiccation. Water bear DNA is suspected to actually sheer and fragment when dried out, and to reassemble once re-hydrated. This period of genome construction probably provides ample opportunity for stray genetic material to sneak in.

Researchers have also recently discovered more about how water bears may cope with this extreme drying out and jumbling of their genetic material. Apparently these bitty creatures produce a sort of “bioglass” that coats and protects their cellular contents.

So along with discoveries of new members of the water bear extended family, there’s no doubt there are many strange revelations to come concerning these curious creatures.

Updated note: Thanks to Robie and her comment below. Turns out there is some conversation occurring right now with regards to whether the figure of ~ 17% foreign DNA is, in fact, accurate. So while it may take a little time for researchers to suss out the truth of the matter, this is an interesting insight into the tug and pull of the scientific process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Things Add Up: Banning Microplastics in the U.S.

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Photo Credit: Kunnskap/Wikimedia Commons

According to a recent piece in The Guardian, a bill was approved by the House of Representatives that would phase out the use of microbeads in products used within the U.S.

While microbeads have use in scientific contexts, such as breaking open cells for DNA and RNA extraction, they have been pervasively appearing in cosmetics and general consumer products in more recent years:

Microbeads may have significant environmental impact, especially within aquatic systems, as these microplastics may be washed down the drain with regularity. In addition, other small micro plastic particles may be formed from the breakdown of larger plastics introduced into these same environments.

The small size of these particles may parallel that of small microscopic organisms and so may be accidentally ingested by zooplankton, or other creatures that filter feed. See the below video capturing a copepod capturing fluorescently labeled beads with the use of feeding currents:

In addition to then biomagnifying up the food chain into other organisms, these fragments have also been shown to both release and absorb pollutants.

So the recent legal action is certainly an exciting victory. See a timeline here of some of the actions that have been leading up the bill.

 

Whale Tales – Current Cetacean Communiqués

Orcas as captured by drone surveillance. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.

There’s been a couple interesting whale-centric stories I’ve come across lately, so I thought I would share on the blog.

While the idea of drone surveillance is proving to make a large part of the public uncomfortable, the technology is proving to have less pernicious applications in observing natural phenomena.

Southern resident orca calf nursing. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium.

With regards to whales, drone footage of southern resident orca pods has recently been captured by a collaborative effort between the Vancouver Aquarium and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).  NOAA recently released beautiful close-up photos and a video conversation with ecologist John Durban giving some additional context to the what the drone captured.

Over more recent years with advances in genetics and stronger observational data, it was determined that orcas are not a uniform species and instead vary with regards to morphological characteristics, ecology, and behavior, generally referred to as “ecotypes”. The southern resident population of killer whales numbers about 81 individuals. Aerial footage provides a relatively non-invasive way to study and collect data on these animals.

Read more about the study and about “mobly”, the hexacopter used to study these creatures, here.

Another fascinating footage find was this picture posted of an albino southern right whale calf off the coast of South Africa:

Anton Schutte was alerted to its presence by a tourist he had recently befriended and was able to snap pictures and video of the blindingly white baby whale.

Omura’s whale lunge feeding. Photo Credit: Cerchio et al 2015.

Lastly, Discover Magazine released an interesting news bit based on a recently published paper about the Omura’s whale. This whale wasn’t classified as its own species until 2003, and was described based off of samples from carcasses that had washed onto beaches. Scientists spotted living populations off of Madagascar and were able to genetically validate the sighting as Omura’s whales. Surveys were completed over a course of 7 years in order to learn about their ecology and behavior.  They have rorqual pleats like those seen in humpbacks, that allow them to “lunge feed” – quickly engulfing large masses of water and using their baleen to assist with filtering out their prey items. They sport an asymmetrical white patch on their lower jaw, much like Fin whales. They also likely do not wander far from their home base.

Hope you enjoyed the updates. Until next time my friends!

A Vast Solar System: To Scale

I adore those simple science-based moments where someone gets me to stop and exclaim “huh”… Maybe it’s an upset of pervasively incorrect ideas about how the world works (See Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich’s fervently amused post regarding the true supposition that trees get most of their mass from air rather than the ground), or just a mild re-positioning of the nuances to how we see things.

Apparently all those beautiful little models of spangly little planets in orbit around one another are overwhelmingly flawed. Not surprisingly, if everything were to scale, the planets would both be greatly farther apart and almost microscopic in appearance relative to how they are often depicted. While I was aware of the need to bend some of these rules in order to allow us to develop a reasonable mental model of the solar system, I don’t think I would have appreciated the reality without a little help.

Luckily, filmmakers Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh have filled that void by creating an elegant little video where they model the real relative sizes and distances of our planets  in the desert (albeit while Pluto was demoted to “not a planet”). Watch below and ruminate while we all rotate on this pale blue dot: