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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Enter the world of the TED Fellows

Have you ever wondered what a TED fellowship is about? Wonder no more! My friends and I can tell you in less than 5 minutes :)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Discovered! A sensory organ that aids feeding blue whales!

Scientists have discovered a sensory organ that enables very large whales like blue whales coordinate their jaw muscles and bones to take gigantic mouthfuls of prey.

Blue whales use this really incredible procedure known as lunge feeding. Basically, when a blue whale comes across a patch of food (krill), it accelerates towards it - mouth wide open. The amount of prey-filled water they take up more than doubles the creature's weight. How does this happen? Coordination is key. This new sensory organ, found at the front tip of the lower jaws is a structure laden with nerve endings. The team headed by Dr. Pyenson from the Smithsonian Institution says that these are sensors which pick up signals from the jaw as it starts to open. Nerves from the organ then send signals to the brain, which in turn triggers the whales' dramatic and complex feeding lunge.

This article was just published in the Nature and you can read the Editorial here. Additionally, here is a simplified but well-written article on the paper from BBC. It appears, this organ has a role to play in why these animals have evolved to become so big!

Watch a lunge feeding blue whale here by clicking on the behaviour tab....gives you an idea of how complex this process really is and why this organ is so important!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cachalot: A Marine Science Digital Textbook

Introducing the first interactive marine science textbook - Cachalot (French for sperm whale)! It’s a free, app-based book that covers the latest science of marine megafauna like whales, dolphins and seals with expert-contributed text, images and open-access studies. All content is contributed by experts in the field so you know you are getting the most exciting and up-to-date accounts of ongoing research (I'm so excited to have contributed images to the blue whale segment written by Dr. Kate Stafford!)

The catch is that its currently only available for the ipad but the last I checked they were looking to make it available for smaller devices like ipods too (though I think the experience is far richer on a bigger screen). 

Yesterday I met Dave Johnston who is visiting Perth for another really cool project - engaging people in science through smart use of smart phones - and it appears Duke Uni is totally behind him on Cachalot...Way to go Dave and team!! I'm really excited about this project and look forward to learning more about the amazing megafauna in our oceans!

If you have an ipad and are curious about marine megafauna I suggest you waste no time in downloading the app here 

Read a review in Wired magazine here 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

International Day for Biological Diversity: 22 May 2012

This year's theme is Marine Biodiversity. How appropriate.....after all the ocean covers roughly 70 percent of the planet and supports the largest animals ever to have lived on Earth and billions of the tiniest. Our survival depends on the ocean. While fish and fish products provide about 60% of the dietary protein in Sri Lanka, globally fisheries provide over 15 percent of the dietary intake of animal protein. The ecosystem services such as protection provided by coastal systems are innumerable yet, we humans have rarely been kind to this great resource we have been blessed with. Perhaps, in the past, mistakes were made because of a lack of knowledge or awareness - but what is our excuse today?

I am committed to making a change in the world. I am committed to the conservation of the blue whales and marine biodiversity in Sri Lanka. I am committed to working with scientists around the world to make a change because I want our future generations to have more than just a fleeting glimpse of what we have had. I am committed to creating awareness about the beauty and secrets of the ocean and engaging more people in the cause. Together, we can make a difference.

What does today mean to you?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Together they traverse the deep blue sea

Photo credit: Yasha Hetzel
Slightly different appearance in the Sunday Times this weekend...as part of the Prized Possession series by Smriti Daniel. Always fun to talk about stuff thats not purely work oriented. That said, this prized possession really is an important part of my work in its own sweet way.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Our environment is getting worse: Living Planet Report 2012

This footprint calculator is interactive. Have a play to see how your country compares with the others.

The eighth Living Planet Report compiled by WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network has just been released. It represents a collection of data on the ecological footprints of each country and the status of resources such as water and forests. It also examines changes in populations of 2,688 animal species, with the latest available data coming from 2008.

The sad truth? 20 years from the first Rio Summit, the environment of the planet is getting worse. Here are some startling facts -

- Biodiversity has declined globally by about 60 percent between 1978 and 2008; By 60 percent in the tropics.
- The loss of biodiversity and related ecosystem services particularly impacts the world's poorest people who directly rely on these services for their survival.
- Demand on natural resources has doubled since 1966 and we are currently using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support our activities. 
- 'Business as usual' projections estimate that we will need the equivalent of two planets by 2030 to meet our annual demands.
- High income countries have a footprint 5 times that of low income countries.

The saddest thing? Nature is the basis of our well-being and prosperity.

This link will take you to an article about the report and this link will take you to the website itself. Finally, have a quick read of the summary report here and the full report here.

I hope you had a play with the Footprint calculator above. You can search for different countries and filter according to the different factors that change the ecological footprint of a country. 

We still have an obligation to our future generations. We must act. Fast. 
Get involved in Rio+20 and be a part of the change you want to see in the world. 

Dolphins help fishermen catch fish in Brazil and Myanmar

Certain bottlenose dolphins in Laguna, southern Brazil, have apparently taught themselves to work as a team with artisanal fishermen, creating a win-win for both the marine mammals and humans. 

Fábio Daura-Jorge

An interesting story of cooperation between bottlenose dolphins and fishermen in Brazil. The dolphins are not trained. They just CHOOSE to round up the fish and then alert fishremen with signals so they know when and where to cast their nets. Turns out it is a win-win situation for both. The fishermen get a good catch and the dolphins hang around waiting for the ones that get away. 

The lead author Fabio Daura-Jorge of the Federal University of Santa Catarina states that "through highly synchronized behavior with humans, cooperative dolphins in Laguna drive mullet schools towards a line of fishermen and 'signal,' via stereotyped head slaps or tail slaps, when and where fishermen should throw their nets". 

Reminds me of a talk I heard by Tint Tun who described a similar situation where Irawaddy dolphins helped fishermen in a section of Myanmar's Irawaddy river. This species is critically endangered in some parts of its range (including Myanmar). Drowning in gillnets is the main threat to them throughout their range

Historically, Irrawaddy River fishers claimed particular dolphins were associated with individual fishing villages and chased fish into their nets. An 1879 report indicated legal claims were frequently brought into native courts by fishers to recover a share of the fish from the nets of a rival fisher which the plaintiff's dolphin was claimed to have helped fill.

For more information on this story visit Tint's website and download the reports he has prepared on the subject http://sites.google.com/site/tinttunmm/irrawaddydolphin.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bioluminescent bloom makes beach a magical minefield

(Image: Doug Perrine/naturepl.com)
Many years ago, when I was working on the R/V Odyssey, I was sitting on the deck listening to the whistle of the bow-riding dolphins. What I saw is deeply etched in my memory - forever. 

It was a pitch-black night, I could make nothing out. I could hear the dolphins whistling and then, whoosh...they were illuminated!! The bioluminescent plankton in the water took the shape of the bow-riding dolphins. It was truly incredible. I remember lying in my bed that night and as the ocean slapped against my port-hole, the 'little stars' in the water did what they could to match those in the sky. Truly beautiful.

What is bioluminescence? The production and emission of light from a living organism.
Here's a great little article from New Scientist that describes what it really does! http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2012/05/bioluminescent-bloom-makes-bea.html

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sending Sharks to School: Brain Evolution in Sharks and Their Relatives

Whale sharks and basking sharks have very similar brain organisation.

Here are a few things I just learnt from an interesting seminar by UWA Researcher Dr. Kara Yopak.
- Manta rays have the biggest brain to body size ratio of all the cartilaginous fish.
- There is interspecific variation in brain organisation which is correlated with ecological parameters such as feeding habits and locomotory style. It doesn't necessarily track phylogenetic relationships. Through her work Kara has shown that whale sharks and basking sharks have similar brain organisation. The convergence in their lifestyle (notice how they feed in a similar manner?) appears to parallel a convergence in their brain morphology.
- Species that occupy complex reef or oceanic habitats (e.g. blue shark) have larger brains with well-developed and large, highly foliated cerebella.
-  Benthic and benthopelagic demersal species such as the Pacific angelshark have the smallest brains.
- Species such as great white sharks have disproportionately big bodies to brain size vs. their terrestrial counterparts with comparable brain size because marine species are not constrained by gravity. 
- A study on London taxi drivers showed that the part of the brain used for spatial cues enlarged in size as they spent more time on the job. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

We need to act. Fast.

This video - titled "The Ocean" - is one of three commissioned for installation at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco as part of "Altered State," an ongoing exhibit on climate change that opened in 2008. These videos are intended to deliver an impressionistic view of the impact climate change is having on our planet. Much credit is owed to composer-performer Ed Mann who provided the haunting music. A complete list of credits follows the video.
Together these 3 videos - The Ocean, Hotter World and Melting - touch on the range of change we are facing from climate change: the melting of the polar ice and high mountain glaciers; the many changes warming is bringing to the oceans, and the direct impacts of a hotter planet.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Humpback whales intervene in orca attack on gray whale calf

This may be the first recorded case of a pod of humpbacks trying to intervene when a pod of orcas were attacking a Gray whale calf off Monterey, California.

According to Dr. Lori Morino, senior lecturer in neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, and renowned expert in the cognitive ability of whales and dolphins says "....these whales are apparently demonstrating a high level of sensitivity and concern (morality, if you will) that is laudable in any species."

The presence of Von Economo neurons in the brains of whales may indicate that they are capable of higher-order thinking and feeling making them more like us humans than we originally thought. 

Read more: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/324348

Friday, May 4, 2012

Inside Nature's Giants: Fin whale

Inside Nature's Giants is an incredible British science documentary - not for the faint-hearted. It shows experts dissecting some of nature's largest animals and give us insight into the evolution of these creatures and their amazing specialisations.

This episode follows Joy Reidenberg as she dissects a 65 foot, 60 ton fin whale (the second largest whale) stranded off the coast of Ireland. She has incredible energy, enthusiasm and passion for what she does making this a must-watch series. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Rio +20: Be part of the change you want to see in the world

Last week I got an invitation from the Brazilian Government to participate as a panelist for the 'Oceans' theme in the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Dialogues. As you can imagine, I was super psyched and my first reaction was to dance around like a Leprechaun. Realising that that was not going to help the world in any way I then composed myself and decided it was my duty to engage as many people as I possibly could in the discussions. This is why I reach out to all of you. 
Rio+20 is so called because it marks the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio-92) and is all about defining the sustainable development agenda for the coming decades.The Dialogues take place in the four days before the main summit and bring together representatives from Civil Society to debate key topics related to sustainable development in the absence of Governments and the UN. The recommendations that come out of this will be conveyed directly the Heads of State and Government present at the summit. I feel very honoured to be invited particularly because these are issues that I feel very strongly about.  
I know that the issue of sustainable development is something many of us encounter in our work and daily lives. Its a concept we all wrestle with at some level. While I will be trying to tackle the issue of sustainable development in relation to the ocean, there are nine other themes that will be discussed and debated. They are:
(1) Sustainable development for fighting poverty; 
(2) Sustainable development as an answer to the economic and financial crises; 
(3) Unemployment, decent work and migrations; 
(4) The economics of sustainable development, including sustainable patterns of production and consumption; 
(5) Forests; 
(6) Food and nutrition security; 
(7) Sustainable energy for all; 
(8) Water; 
(9) Sustainable cities and innovation. 
The seven critical issues listed include:
Jobs, cities, oceans, water, energy, food and disasters. 
(There are issue briefs on the website that outline things like international commitments, challenges, gaps etc. They give you an idea of what direction the discussions will be taking.) 
Every day we hear stories about how the voice of people can make a difference. All I ask, is that you get involved and share your valuable insights. Its pretty simple:
- Explore the website
- Participate in the online debates .  (The debates will be broadcast live through the UN website)
- Join 'the Future We Want' global conversation and share your visions and solutions for the planet (and check out other people's dreams and solutions while you are at it)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Spreading the story of the 'Unorthodox whale'

An overview of my TED experience in the University of Western Australia's Oceans Institute newsletter. http://www.oceans.uwa.edu.au/news-events/?a=2061346
There's plenty of other exciting stories in there too so do browse freely :)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cetacean stories from our friends in Oman

Photo credit: Environment Society of Oman
I first met some of the Environment Society of Oman marine team while at the Indian Ocean Cetacean Conference in the Maldives back in 2008. We immediately found a common link - the whales of the Northern Indian Ocean and our desire to protect them. As a result, this January, Andy Willson came out to help with our fieldwork in Sri Lanka. Despite his years on the water, he too was astonished at the amazing sights we are treated to on a daily basis. 

The Omani team just concluded yet more field work and sent through a link to their 'Whale Diaries' for me to have a read. Check it out! http://www.eso.org.om/index/news.detail.php?categoryId=671&Extension=gif