Our regular Science and the SeaTM radio program presents marine science topics in an engaging two-minute story format. Our script writers gather ideas for the radio program from the University of Texas Marine Science Institute's researchers and from our very popular college class, Introduction to Oceanography, which we teach to hundreds of non-science majors at The University of Texas at Austin every year. Our radio programs are distributed at to commercial and public radio stations across the country.
The next time you walk barefoot on the beach, and let the wet sand squish between your toes, think about this: You might be walking through the homes of thousands of tiny creatures.
These aren’t the little crabs that we see scuttling in and out of their burrows, though -- they’re even smaller: snails, worms, and other organisms that are smaller than the head of a pin.
The oceans are the cradle of life. The first known life on Earth appeared in the oceans at least three and a half billion years ago -- a type of one-celled organism known as cyanobacteria. They gave rise to more complicated lifeforms later on. And they also helped make modern-day life possible by pumping oxygen into the air and water.
Most fish keep a diary. It records their motions through the seas. It can tell us whether they swam through polluted waters, and sometimes even what the water temperature was.
This little diary is called an otolith -- an “earstone.” It’s a small pebble of calcium carbonate that grows in the inner ear. It’s found in all fish except sharks, rays, and lampreys. Depending on the species of fish, it can grow up to an inch in length.
Today, just about everybody understands the dangers of DDT. The pesticide was used around the country in the 1950s and ’60s to kill mosquitoes. But it also killed birds and other wildlife, and caused health problems in humans. So the environmental harm outweighed the benefits.
The public learned about the dangers of DDT from “Silent Spring,” a book by Rachel Carson. She was a marine biologist who devoted much of her life to conservation and other environmental causes.
You can’t tell by looking, but New York City is at the head of one of the world’s most impressive canyons -- the Hudson Canyon. From the mouth of the Hudson River, it extends about 300 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, and cuts almost four miles deep into the continental shelf. It’s a conduit for moving sediments, nutrients, and pollution from the land to the deep ocean.
If you’re a mussel -- of the edible aquatic variety -- then you’d better be on your best behavior: Big Brother is watching you. In fact, a federal research group has been keeping an eye on mussels and oysters for more than two decades -- from Puerto Rico to the Great Lakes to Alaska and Hawaii.
Some of the tiniest creatures in the ocean play a big role in controlling our planet’s temperature. But as the temperature goes up, the overall volume of these creatures appears to go down, which reduces their ability to keep Earth from overheating.
The creatures are known as phytoplankton. They’re tiny plants that float near the top of the oceans. Small fish feed on them. The small fish are eaten by bigger fish, and on up through the food chain.
The tasty fish known as red drum can be one of the loudest fish around -- sometimes loud enough to hear from above the water. In fact, that’s where it gets its name -- it makes a sound like a drum.
Red drum is one of hundreds of species of fish and other sea creatures that make sounds. Many of the sounds are part of the mating ritual, although others can serve as warnings or as calls to family.
For houseboaters in Sausalito, California, it was a spooky mystery. In the 1970s, many began to hear an odd humming noise at night. It became so loud that it kept many people awake. Some blamed a power plant, others said it was an experiment by the navy, and still others blamed it on extraterrestrials.
Scientists eventually found that the noisemakers were a species of toadfish -- the plainfin midshipman. Thousands of male fish were “singing” to attract mates.
The odds of survival for a young fish aren’t very good. It needs to grow and develop in a hurry to evade predators and adapt to daily changes in the environment. But for fish whose mothers were exposed to industrial pollution, the odds are longer still. They may develop more slowly, making them easier targets -- endangering not only individual fish, but entire populations.