September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Hello all and welcome to the inauguration of Sea Snacks, my blog about marine biology and the science of the seas! I’m starting with what will, unless I forget, become a regular feature: a weekly news roundup. I’ll be covering whatever’s oceanic, scientific and new each week with this fixture.

First comes a story about two whales that washed up on a beach in New Zealand about two years ago. These happened to be a mother and son pair belonging to a species said to be “the world’s rarest whale”, the spade-toothed beaked whale. These were the first two intact individuals ever seen. For 140 years, the species was known only from bone fragments, the first being a bit of a jaw picked up on a Pacific island in 1872. Ten years ago, scientists found out that the fragments were from a unique species by analysing their DNA, but knew nothing about the animal they came from. By comparing DNA in the bone fragments to tissue samples from those two whales that beached in 2010, researchers at the University of Auckland discovered that they all belong to one very mysterious species. The beached pair were originally identified as another beaked whale species and buried, so the scientists have dug them up and taken them to a museum to find out more. You can find the paper in Current Biology here.

Beaked whales are an enigmatic group. The 21 known species are distinguished by their dolphin-like “beak”, moderate size (for whales), and their ability to dive very deep for a very long time. They feed in a peculiar way even for whales: using suction. Their dives can last over an hour and reach depths of almost two kilometres. While below, they capture squid and possibly probe the seafloor to catch crustaceans. Because they’re rare, live in the open sea and dive for so long, they are one of the least-studied groups of mammals in the world. Read more about them here.

Next, a handful of marine biologists have spoken out against a plan by the Canadian government to cull grey seals to “preserve remaining fish stocks”. In a controversial decision, the Canadian Senate has approved an “experimental” cull of up to 70,000 seals by hunters paid with bounties. The scientists argue that since human fishing has depleted fish stocks instead of seals, who don’t eat that many fish anyway, the cull won’t help. The situation bears an uncanny resemblance to Britain’s recent badger cull fiasco, and weirdly the Canadian government approved the plan on the same day that their UK counterparts delayed theirs until next year at the earliest. In both cases, many in the scientific community are accusing their government of ignoring scientific advice and permitting a “political” cull in service of industry.

For a quick summary of the fish stock issue: in 1992, after 500 years of sustainable European and American cod fishing in the Atlantic, Northern cod stocks fell so far that the Canadian government banned the country’s own fishery to avoid rendering it extinct. The population has been recovering slowly and may never get close to its earlier level.

Finally, Barack Obama got re-elected as US President this week, which most believe bodes well for American environmental policy. Sadly, sea life is not so high on his policy agenda. Good signs include that his administration is requiring oil companies to “provide trained observers to monitor marine mammals and sea turtles” around new offshore drilling operations, to avoid disturbing them, I assume. On the other hand, his government did cover up pictures of dead whales around the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Come back to Sea Snacks soon for all the best from beneath the waves, including another regular strand, Seabeast of the Week, where I’ll be fishing up new, weird and wonderful marine life for your amusement and bemusement!

PS. In other news, it’s been discovered that Megan Fox is a marine biologist and can talk to dolphins. Who’d have thought?

IMAGE: intheozone, flickr