Environmental Hazards, Nature

California Sea Lions Dying Due to Poisonous Algae Blooms

California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.
California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.

In the first two weeks of April, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, recorded 14 sea lion deaths due to poisoning by domoic acid. Another nine are in various stages of recovery.

Domoic acid poisoning occurs when animals eat fish that have been feeding on toxic algae.

Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi told the Los Angeles Times that 10 years ago, the last time the problem was this severe in southern California, 79 sea lions died due to domoic acid poisoning.

“Other rescue facilities are also seeing the same animals,” Higuchi said. They’re “all over the place.”

How does domoic acid poisoning happen? Normally, blooms of single-celled algae occur for about a week in the spring. However, the heavy rains California has been receiving have intensified the blooms by flushing nutrients from fertilizers and other sources into the Pacific Ocean, and this has intensified the blooms. Small sea animals like anchovies, clams, and mussels feed on the algae, and the sea lions then feed on those animals.

“When the sea lions eat these toxic anchovies, they have serious neurological problems,” said Kathi Lefebvre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle. “The sea lions will have seizures, in some cases they’ll die, in some cases they’ll recover but have permanent brain damage.” In addition, many pregnant sea lions miscarry. The pups that do survive until birth often suffer from the effects of domoic acid poisoning.

The Marine Mammal Center in the northern California city of Sausalito has also treated two sea lions it suspects were poisoned by domoic acid.

Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Sausalito center, said that it’s possible more sea lions in northern California may be affected as the water temperatures rise in the summer and fall.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns about what triggers these blooms of algae and what triggers them to become toxic, because not all the blooms are toxic,” Johnson told SFgate. “There’s a lot of research going on to better understand [the causes] so we can better predict when these blooms will happen so that fisheries can be monitored, and for us, so we can be prepared for increased stranding [of sea lions].

California officials have warned consumers not to eat mussels, clams, or whole scallops harvested recreationally in Santa Barbara County. Commercially harvested seafood is typically tested for safety before being distributed.

Nature, Science

Are Insects the Food Of the Future?

Are insects the food of the future?
Edible insects for sale at a street market.

Humans have been eating insects forever, though there are a lot of people who would like to think otherwise. But insects as a food source could be a huge help to the world, especially because unlike cattle, they don’t create methane (a greenhouse gas) or require vast areas to graze in (which destroys indigenous ecosystems). Insects could fill some large gaps in diets around the world, especially because they’re high in protein but low in fat.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has been investigating the value of crickets and mealworms, two of the most commonly farmed insects on the continent, as food. They found that both could be fragmented and used in foods like meatballs or falafel, and can provide a large protein boost. These ground bugs, according to VTT, contain about 65 to 80 percent crude protein, which is a huge payoff compared to many of the animals we normally eat.

On the other hand, a study in the journal PLOS One showed that even though the United Nations has promoted insect eating as a solution to the global problem of lack of access to quality protein, the bugs may not produce that much quality protein after all.

The level of protein in insects depends largely on the diet those insects are fed, the researchers found. In the experiment, they raised two groups of crickets and harvested them after two weeks. One group ate corn-, soy-, and grain-based feed, while the others lived on food waste and crop residue. Nearly all the crickets fed straight food waste died before they could be harvested. Those who ate processed food waste had a protein conversion rate no higher than that of chickens. The most successful crickets ate a grain-based diet, much like the diet of poultry animals, and they too had a protein conversion rate only slightly better than chickens.

“I’m all for exploring alternatives, and I am impressed by the amount of innovation that has sprung up around insect cultivation and cuisine in the last few years,” study author Dr. Mark Lundy of the University of California told Time magazine. “However, I also think we need to be clear-eyed about what the sustainability gains are and aren’t, and focus our innovative efforts and limited resources to where they will have the most lasting impact.”

That said, insects are and will continue to be an essential source of protein, not a trendy novelty, for billions of people all around the world.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards

Hooded Seals Can Pass Contaminants to Nursing Young

Hooded seals can pass contaminants on to their young.
Hooded seal pup. Photo: Shutterstock

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are man-made chemicals that have found extensive use in consumer products because they repel grease, water, and stains, and they’re heat resistant. They also pose a threat to wildlife. Since that discovery, some PFASs have been phased out of use, but not all of them, and they still work their way into food webs and, subsequently, animals.

The hooded seal is high up in its food web, eating prey that eats prey that eats prey that can get PFASs into their system, increasing the amount of the chemical that gets into the hooded seals. Now, recent research has found that mother seals can pass those contaminants on to their young, both through the placenta and through milk.

While the levels found so far are below the toxic threshold for rodents, and within the expected limits based on findings among other seals, it might be worse for the hooded seals.

Because they only nurse for three to four days, hooded seal milk is extremely rich in lipids, to which PFASs are known to bond. This explains how they manage to pass the contaminants on to their young. Scientists are still not sure what kind of developmental effects these could have on the young seals, who need to put on a lot of weight very quickly in order to survive, because that nursing period is followed by a fasting period.

While the seals seem to be okay so far, that could change, especially as young grow and ingest more prey which are contaminated with PFASs, passing them on to their own offspring. Over subsequent generations the buildup could become quite toxic.

Luckily, by realizing this now, we can begin studying it and, hopefully, learn not only more about the effects of PFASs on animals like the hooded seal, but also how we might be able to mitigate those effects.

Nature, Science, Uncategorized

Researchers Discover “Ghost Snake” in Madagascar

Malagasy cat-eyed snake
The Malagasy cat-eyed snake (Madagascarophis meridionalis) is a relative of the ghost snake. Photo: Shutterstock

It might seem that, by 2016, it would be pretty rare to discover new species of animals. But a team of researchers from Louisiana State University have done just that.

They were looking for specimens of a different species when they found a snake they’d never seen before: Madagascarophis lolo, the ghost snake.

This snake’s very pale coloration and the fact that only one has ever been discovered earned it the name “ghost snake.” Lolo means ghost in the local Malagasy language.

The ghost snake belongs to a group of “cat-eyed snakes,” which have slit pupils like cats and are most active at night. They’re among the most common kinds of snake in Madagascar, but the closet relative of the ghost snake is found about 100 kilometers away, and it has only been known for a few years.

“If this commonly known, wide group of snakes harbors this hidden diversity, what else is out there that we don’t know about?” says Sara Ruane, a post-doctoral researcher at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and lead author of the paper.

The team did genetic testing to determine whether the ghost snake is a separate species form other Madagascarophis species or simply a variant of one that is already known.

“All of the analysis we did supported that this is a distinct species despite the fact that we only have this one individual,” Ruane says.

The trek to get to the recently opened part of the popular Ankarana National Park was made more difficult by the heavy rains the team had to deal with. The rainy season is when snakes and their prey are often most active in Madagascar, so it’s the best time for researchers to look for them. The ghost snake’s activity during the rainy season might have helped it remain a secret, especially in an otherwise well-known region.

All in all, Madagascarophis lolo has certainly earned the name ghost snake.

Nature, Science

Greenland Sharks Can Live for Centuries

Greenland Shark. Photo by NOAA via Wikimedia Commons
Greenland Shark. Photo by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have recently discovered that the Greenland shark is the oldest living vertebrate species on the planet, living up to 400 years, if not longer.

The Greenland shark lives in extremely cold water, and generally very deep in the ocean. As a result, they grow very slowly, about 1cm a year, and also move very slowly, about one mile an hour. They’re mostly scavengers, but apparently sneak up on sleeping seals from time to time, and have been found with all kinds of things in their stomach, including a moose one time.

Born about three feet long, Greenland sharks can reach lengths of around 24 feet, making them among the biggest sharks in the ocean. Luckily they live in water so cold that they rarely share it with humans, because they could easily swallow somebody whole. But there is no record of a Greenland shark ever eating a person.

Unlike many marine species, Greenland sharks aren’t threatened by fishing, which is a good thing. Since they don’t generally breed until they’re about a century and a half old, it would be really easy to accidentally overfish them.

While their meat is considered a delicacy in Iceland, it takes so much effort to make it edible that nobody else really wants to eat it. Because of the depths and temperatures of water at which they live, they create a chemical compound that, if ingested, causes effects similar to being extremely drunk. Sled dogs that have eaten the meat weren’t able to stand up. But if you cook it right, for a long enough time, or ferment it, you can actually eat it.

Most people don’t have the patience to eat these sharks, so we don’t have to worry about them vanishing any time soon, and hopefully they can teach us a great deal.

Nature, Science, United States

The Science Behind the Death Valley Super Bloom

Wildflowers filled Death Valley for about two months during the recent super bloom event. It was the best bloom in several years.
Wildflowers filled Death Valley for about two months during the recent super bloom event. It was the best bloom in several years. Photo: National Park Service.

You may have heard about the Death Valley super bloom earlier this March from the abundance of photo essays on the Internet. In case you missed it, the super bloom is a period of rapid flower growth in Death Valley, one of the hottest, driest deserts in the world, where plant life is normally sparse.

During super blooms, there are flowers everywhere. Although by mid-March many of the plants are already fading away in the lower parts of the valley the can still be found at higher elevations.

Super blooms are rare, the last one was in 2005, and they’re caused by the El Niño effect. During these periods Death Valley gets far more water than normal. All deserts get some rain, and Death Valley is no different, usually netting about around 2 inches each year. But in late 2015, huge amounts of rain fell in the valley, causing flash floods that put several roads out of commission.

Much of that water seeped into the ground, where it allowed dormant seeds to grow, resulting in massive wildflower blooms. The flowers rest in the dry soil of Death Valley for years at a time, waiting for events like these rainstorms.

Combined with the subsequent mild weather of winter, these seeds were able to sprout and quickly grow. They then produce seeds before the temperatures get to high again, allowing those seeds to lie dormant until the next heavy rain season.

Twenty species of wildflower were on display in Death Valley for about two months, including the Desert Gold, with bright yellow, daisy like flowers that, this year at least, reached waist height in some places.

It’s a pretty potent reminder that nature is generally far more varied and resourceful than we give it credit for, and even in a place like Death Valley, life finds a way.

Climate Change, Science, Uncategorized

Burning All the Fossil Fuel Will Dramatically Raise Sea Levels

This chart shows how Antarctic ice would be affected by different emissions scenarios. GtC stands for gigatons of carbon.
This chart shows how Antarctic ice would be affected by different emissions scenarios. GtC stands for gigatons of carbon. Chart: Ken Caldeira and Ricarda Winkelmann.

According to an international team of researchers, if we burn the Earth’s remaining fossil fuels we could see a 50 or 60 meter rise in sea levels due to the total loss of Antarctic ice. That’s somewhere between 150 and 200 feet, which is enough to wiped out most coastal cities, which include many of the world’s largest urban centers.

There are a lot of factors that come into play when discussing Antarctic ice melt. As the researchers pointed out though, it’s easier to hypothesize that an ice cube will melt in a warming room, rather than how long it will take. According to the team’s study though, that sea rise would come by the end of the millennium.

That may seem like we have a long time to deal with the problem, but we really don’t. They estimate that 60 to 80 years of contemporary emissions levels could destabilize both the West and East Antarctic ice sheets. That’s only about 6% to 8% of the remaining fossil fuels, but CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a very long time. Millennia long, in fact.

If we manage to keep climate change under the 2°C goal that policy makers have set for this century, then ice melt should only raise sea levels by only a few meters. That’s still manageable, albeit with more work for some locations.

A 200-foot increase in sea levels over 1,000 years sounds pretty slow, but it’s not like it will all happen at once. It’ll be a gradual process of cities and other communities finding ways to deal with slowly increasing sea levels.

Eventually though, those communities will be gone, and some of our most significant achievements as humans will be gone with them. Our ancestors built their cities on coasts so they could have access to the sea for trade and food. They probably didn’t expect we’d pollute the atmosphere so much that those very cities would drown.