Archive for the ‘Alaska’ Category

While passing the west side of Juneau’s Shelter Island on Wednesday, an 18-passenger tour vessel saw more than just whales.

Audrey Benson, a naturalist with Gastineau Guiding Co., was on the tour when the crew got some news over the radio.

“We heard that there were two deer that were swimming across in the water,” Benson said. “So after we watched the whales for a bit our passengers were curious and wanted to see the deer, and so we motored over to them and it turns out there was only one.”

And it was struggling to stay above water. After a larger tour boat tried to rescue the animal a few times, it gave up. But Benson, along with the passengers and crew, decided to keep trying. They were eventually able to lasso the deer and pull it onto the boat.

“The deer was immediately bewildered and disoriented and it was shaking a lot, it was shivering a lot,” she said. “Its teeth were chattering. It tried to stand up but collapsed because it was so weak.”
The crew was able to drop the deer off at Shelter Island—but not before it tried to swim back into the water again.

“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen on any of my tours,” Benson said. “I mean, you never know what’s going to happen but for a deer rescue—I’ve never even been that close to a deer, I’ve never touched one—and to have an opportunity to assist this struggling animal, it was very intense.”
The other deer disappeared before the group reached it, and is presumed to have drowned.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said it’s very uncommon for deer to drown, adding that deer regularly swim from island to island.

With a lasso and tourists, boat saves drowning deer

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Federal biologist Jay Orr never knows what’s going to come up in nets lowered to the ocean floor off Alaska’s remote Aleutian Islands, which separate the Bering Sea from the rest of the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes it’s stuff he has to name.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist is part of a group that uses trawl nets to survey commercially important fish species such as cod in waters off Alaska. Sometimes those nets come up with things no one has seen before.

With co-authors, Orr has discovered 14 kinds of new snailfish, a creature that can be found in tide pools but also in the deepest parts of the ocean. A dozen more new snailfish are waiting to be named. Additional species are likely to be found as scientists expand their time investigating areas such as the Bering Sea Slope, in water 800 to 5,200 feet deep, or the 25,663-foot deep Aleutian Trench.

“I suspect we are just scraping the top of the distributions of some of these deep-water groups,” Orr said from his office in Seattle.

Orr and his colleagues measure the abundance of rockfish, flatfish and other “bottom fish” for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the research arm of the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The center studies marine resources off Alaska and parts of the West Coast.

Five boats with six researchers each surveyed Alaska waters in late June. The teams trawl on the Bering Shelf every summer and in either Aleutian waters or the Gulf of Alaska every other year.

Their findings on fish abundance are fed into models for managing fish populations.

The scientists put down a 131-foot trawl net that captures whatever is along the ocean bottom. A ton of fish is a standard sample. Along with fish, they get clues to the seafloor habitat. Sponges, for example, indicate a hard seafloor, or substrate.

Fifteen years ago, research biologist Michael Martin suggested a small modification: a net just 2 to 3 feet wide at the front of the trawl net.

“We realized we didn’t have a really good picture of the substrate that we were trawling over, and we figured we were missing some things in the big meshes that the larger net had,” Orr said. “So one of the other guys here decided to put this little net on, mainly as a means to see what the substrate looked like.”

On one of the first hauls, the small net returned with a variety of small, soft-bodied fish, including snailfish, that likely would have fallen out or gotten mashed in the main net. Orr took a look and knew they had found something different.

As someone who studies fish, “I sort of knew what I was looking for and what was known out there,” he said. “The first ones that came up, I saw them right away and said, ‘We don’t know what these are. These haven’t been named.'”

Snailfish have no scales, feel gelatinous and look like fat tadpoles. Aristotle described a Mediteranean variety found in ancient Greece as “sea slugs.”

Many fish have pelvic fins on their bellies, just behind the gills. Most snailfish species, instead of pelvic fins, have a sucking disc that they use to cling to rocks.

Orr identified some new varieties that did not have a sucking disc. Another had a hardened bone in its head. Another had a projecting lower jaw. Others varied by shape, color or body parts, such as vertebrae.

“Nearly all of them have genetic characters that distinguish them, too,” Orr said.

He has wide latitude for giving new species both common and Latin names. A red, white and black snailfish with a big, bulbous nose struck him as funny-looking. He gave it the common name of “comic snailfish” and the Latin name Careproctus comus, after Comus, the god of comedy in Greek mythology.

Snailfish made headlines in 2014 when researchers recorded them swimming nearly 27,000 feet, or more than 4 miles, below the surface in the Marianas Trench, making them the deepest-dwelling vertebrate on the planet. The Marianas Trench is about 200 miles southwest of the Pacific island of Guam and is known as the deepest part of the world’s oceans.

A critical part of the work is on the species his agency actively manages. Orr helped distinguish the northern rock sole, which spawns and grows differently than other rock sole. Fishing at the wrong time could disrupt a population important to the seafood market.

“Ultimately we’re managing an ecosystem,” Orr said. “It’s really important to know what each of the elements are.”

http://bigstory.ap.org/6f677b05f94b4031b82b1c41aaab835b

by Daniel Politi

It sure sounds far-fetched but a story in the Beijing Times claims China is considering building a high-speed train that would connect China’s northeast with the United States. The project would cross Siberia and the Bering Strait to Alaska, and then go across Canada into the United States, according to the English-language report published in the state-run China Daily. To cross the Bering Strait into Alaska, the railway would need a 125-mile underwater tunnel, which implies it would be around four times the length of the tunnel that crosses the English Channel, notes a very skeptical Washington Post article on the report.

China Daily claims that the technology to construct such a long underwater tunnel already exists and will be used to build a tunnel to connect China’s Fujian province with Taiwan. “Right now we’re already in discussions. Russia has already been thinking about this for many years,” said a railway expert cited by the Beijing Times, according to the Independent’s report on the story. The train would reportedly travel at around 220mph, meaning the entire trip between the United States and China would take around two days.

What is being called the China-Russia-Canada-America line is one of four large-scale international high-speed rail projects the country wants to build, the Guardian writes, citing the Beijing Times:

The first is a line that would run from London via Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev and Moscow, where it would split into two routes, one of which would run to China through Kazakhstan and the other through eastern Siberia. The second line would begin in the far-western Chinese city of Urumqi and then run through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey to Germany. The third would begin in the south-western city of Kunming and end in Singapore.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/05/10/china_mulls_construction_of_a_high_speed_train_to_the_u_s.html

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

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By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

Ancient plant and animal matter trapped within Arctic permafrost can be converted rapidly into climate-warming carbon dioxide when melted and exposed to sunlight, according to a new study.

In a report published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of environmental and biological scientists examined 27 melting permafrost sites in Alaska and found that bacteria converted dissolved organic carbon materials into the greenhouse gas CO2 40% faster when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Study authors said that while it remained unclear just how much CO2 would be released as Arctic permafrost continues to melt, the findings were cause for concern. High latitude soils currently store twice the amount of carbon than is found in the atmosphere.

“What we can say now is that regardless of how fast the thawing of the Arctic permafrost occurs, the conversion of this soil carbon to carbon dioxide and its release into the atmosphere will be faster than we previously thought,” senior author George Kling, a University of Michigan ecologist and aquatic biogeochemist, said in a statement.

“That means permafrost carbon is potentially a huge factor that will help determine how fast the Earth warms,” Kling said.

Plant and animal matter has remained locked in frozen Arctic soils for thousands of years. When those soils begin to thaw, however, the organic matter begins to decay. As that matter decays, it is eaten by microbes, which produce either methane or CO2 as a byproduct. Methane — an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 — occurs when the decaying matter is not exposed to oxygen.

Study authors examined melt water in so-called thermokarst impacted areas. Thermokarsts occur when long-frozen earth melts and the soil collapses into a sink-hole or causes a landslide.

As the permafrost melts, organic matter is dissolved in the melt water and exposed to sunlight in streams or pools.

Authors found that the rate of CO2 conversion slowed at night, or during cloudy conditions.

“Although no estimates exist for what percentage of now-frozen carbon will be released to the surface as the Arctic warms, the alteration and fate of this carbon will depend on its susceptibility to coupled photobiological processing and the available light,” wrote study lead author Rose Cory, an assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina.

http://www.latimes.com/news/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-carbon-sunlight-permafrost-20130211,0,5550833.story

Thanks to Ray Gaudette for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

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Thousands of jumbo squid have recently beached themselves on central California shores, committing mass “suicide.” But despite decades of study into the phenomenon in which the squid essentially fling themselves onto shore, the cause of these mass beachings have been a mystery.

But a few intriguing clues suggest poisonous algae that form so-called red tides may be intoxicating the Humboldt squid and causing the disoriented animals to swim ashore in Monterey Bay, said William Gilly, a marine biologist at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif.

Each of the strandings has corresponded to a red tide, in which algae bloom and release an extremely potent brain toxin, Gilly said. This fall, the red tides have occurred every three weeks, around the same time as the squid beachings, he said. (The squid have been stranding in large numbers for years, with no known cause.)

For decades, beach lovers have reported bizarre mass strandings where throngs of Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas), also called jumbo squid, fling themselves ashore, said Hannah Rosen, a marine biology doctoral candidate at the Hopkins Marine Station.

“For some reason they just start swimming for the beach,” Rosen told LiveScience. “They’ll asphyxiate because they’re out of the water too long. People have tried to throw them back in the water, and a lot of times the squid will just head right back for the beach.”

Before this, scientists in 2002 and 2006 noticed mass squid strandings from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Alaska, Gilly said.

But the cause of the mass squid deaths was an enigma. The strandings seem to happen whenever schools of squid invade new territory, leading some to suggest the creatures simply get lost and don’t realize they are out of the water until it is too late. The squid washing ashore are juvenile size, about 1 foot (0.3 meters) long, and hadn’t been traveled to Monterey Bay before this fall. This season’s stranding, which started Oct. 9, happened around the time Humboldt squid entered the bay.

Other scientists have proposed that red tides that release a lethal toxin called domoic acid may be intoxicating the squid and disorienting them. But when researchers tested the stranded squid for domoic acid, they found only trace amounts of the chemical, Gilly said.

The poisonous chemical mimics a brain chemical called glutamate in mammals, though domoic acid is 10,000 times more potent than glutamate. The similar structure means domoic acid can bind to glutamate receptors on neurons. In turn, the receptor opens channels that let calcium into the cell. At high levels the poison causes brain cells to go haywire and fire like crazy, so much that they fill up with calcium, burst and die, Gilly said. [10 Weird Facts About the Brain]

Humans who eat shellfish contaminated with this red-tide toxin get amnesic shellfish poisoning, because the toxin destroys their brain’s memory center called the hippocampus. Sea lions that eat similarly poisoned anchovies or krill go into seizures or become disoriented and behave bizarrely.

However, no one has tested the effects of lower levels of the chemical on squid.

Potential cause?

But new evidence points to the red tide as at least one cause of the mass strandings. While most sea life follows daily tidal or lunar cycles, the mass deaths seem to be happening every three weeks. That led one of Gilly’s graduate students, R. Russell Williams, to see if something in the environment was leading them astray.

“He was fixated in finding some kind of environmental signal,” Gilly said.

Russell found that red tides occurred every three weeks, around the same time as the squid strandings, suggesting a link, Gilly said.

While past researchers have only found trace levels of the toxic red-tide chemical in stranded squid, low doses of domoic could essentially be making the squid drunk. Combined with navigating unfamiliar waters, that could cause the mass die-offs.

“They could be tipped over the edge by something like domoic acid that might cloud their judgment,” Gilly said.

This isn’t the first time Gilly and his colleagues have been led on a CSI-like hunt for Humboldt squid. In 2011, they figured out why the elusive jumbo squid left their usual feeding grounds off the Baja California coast in the winter of 2009 to 2010. Apparently, the squid had moved north, following their prey, small, bioluminescent fish called lantern fish, which had also moved north due to El Niño weather patterns.

http://www.livescience.com/25550-mass-squid-suicide.html