Articles

The Marine Science Institute's monthly column, Science and the SeaTM, is an informative and entertaining article that explains many interesting features of the marine environment and the creatures that live there.  Science and the SeaTM articles appear monthly in one of Texas' most widely read fishing magazines, Texas Saltwater Fishing, and the Port Aransas South Jetty newspaper. Our article archive is available also on our website.

July 1, 2015
The spined pygmy shark, which is similar to the smalleye pygmy shark, also uses bioluminescense for camouflage. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not all sharks are at the top of the food chain; some are small enough to be a potential meal for dozens of other species. Diminutive sharks as small as 8 inches long, such as the smalleye pigmy shark, have evolved characteristics to stay off the menu of predators.

June 1, 2015
A golden crab with a group of Venus flower basket glass sponges. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The white vase-like sea sponge known as the Venus flower basket would seem incredibly fragile since it’s made of silica, the main ingredient of glass. Further, the only thing keeping this glass sponge anchored to the sea floor is a tuft of tiny glass structures called spicules, each about the thickness of a human hair.

May 1, 2015
A sea otter mom and her baby. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As utterly exhausting as it is to care for a newborn, most moms would never dream of abandoning their child. But what if it were a question of life and death…for the baby or the mom? That’s the dilemma that sea otter moms sometimes face when they can’t provide enough calories to meet their pups’ incredibly high energy demands. Researchers at a sea otter pup rehabilitation program measured the metabolic rates and daily caloric needs of sea otter pups and found the mothers need to provide more than 222,000 Calories to raise pups from birth to independence.

April 1, 2015
Almost one million years ago, North Atlantic currents and northern hemisphere ice sheets underwent changes. Credit: NASA

Just under a million years ago, a major pattern in Earth’s climate suddenly changed. Instead of having an ice age about every 41,000 years, the cycle switched to about every 100,000 years – and the cold periods had even lower average temperatures than the previous ones. What caused the interval between ice ages to double?

March 1, 2015
This sea star is suffering from wasting disease, which causes sea stars to disintegrate in a matter of days. Credit: Kevin Lafferty, USGS.

When a sea star (a.k.a. starfish) develops wasting syndrome, the disease hits hard and fast. Lesions appear on the star’s tough outer skin. Then the tissue around those white sores begins to decay. The sea stars “deflate” and lose control of their five limbs, which curl and twist and eventually begin disintegrating. The starfish gradually “melts” into nothing.

February 1, 2015
A purple sea urchin. Credit: Claire Fackler, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

When the going gets tough, purple sea urchins appear to get tougher, or at least tough enough to possibly cope with climate change. Purple sea urchins are referred to as a “keystone” species because the ecosystem needs enough of them to feed marine mammals, fish, seabirds and other predators, but not so many that they overrun the place. Increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere may threaten that balance. As oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic, which decreases calcium carbonate levels.

January 1, 2015
This female octopus spent four and one half years brooding her eggs on a ledge near the bottom of Monterey Canyon. Image credit: © 2007 MBARI

At 21 months, elephant pregnancies last more than twice as long as human pregnancies, and frilled sharks carry their embryos for 42 months – twice as long as elephants. But the deep-sea octopus has every animal on the planet beat when it comes to her unborn young. Researchers recently observed a deep-sea octopus mother brooding her eggs for 53 months – a whopping four and a half years. 

December 1, 2014
This black sea bass is exhibiting barotrauma. Note the stomach extruding from the mouth. Credit: Jeff Buckel.

A rapid ascent from deep water to the surface means a rapid drop in pressure. That can expand a fish’s swim bladder – the organ that helps a fish control its buoyancy – so much that it pushes other organs aside or even out a fish’s mouth. Scientists have worried that this “barotrauma” might permanently harm a fish, making it harder for deep water fish to survive if they are released. Fortunately, at least one popular sport fish can overcome this trauma.

November 1, 2014
An ocean dandelion is made of of many individual animals cooperatiing. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Fields of dandelions are a familiar sight each spring, but another kind of dandelion is so rare that scientists are just beginning to learn more about it – the ocean dandelion.

Living in the deepest parts of the sea, the ocean dandelion is not a plant, yet it’s not exactly a single animal either. Rather, the ocean dandelion is a siphonophore, a unique type of organism composed of many smaller animals that together form a colony. The individual animals, known as zooids, are the “petals” of the ocean dandelion.

October 1, 2014
Sand tiger sharks are predators even before they are born. Credit: Tara Haelle, www.tarahaelle.com

Survival of the fittest has been a law of nature since the beginning of life, but sometimes that struggle begins earlier than we might think. For baby sand tiger sharks, the fight literally begins even before they are born.

The female sand tiger has two wombs, but she does not have litters twice as large as other sharks. In fact, she only gives birth to two particularly strong, feisty pups. Newborn sand tiger sharks have keen eyesight and sharp teeth that have already tasted the blood of their siblings – or half siblings.

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