Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Archive for May 2010

Molecular biology and globsters: dashing cryptozoologists’ dreams

This post was featured in Dave Munger‘s Research Blogging column for Seed Magazine, “Spineless But Deadly.”  Thanks, Dave!

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgOn July 29th 2008, the day I turned 21 years, I received the best thing I could ask for: a birthday gift from Poseidon.

I was living in Newport, OR at the time.  After a long morning of observing nesting seabirds through a telescope, I returned home for what I presumed to be a long night ahead at the Rogue brewery across the street.  But I was to have more excitement first: I had gotten an email from the education director at Hatfield, informing me that 9-foot robust clubhook squid carcass had washed up on the beach just 20 miles away.  Even though I never got to see it, as it quickly made its way into an industrial freezer for preservation and future dissection, my excitement could not be quenched because obviously this was the ultimate gift from the sea (my true love).

I didn't get to see the real clubhook squid - but I did receive this lovely cake from my dear friend Lanaya the day I turned 21.

I have long had an obsession with squids, particularly of the large persuasion.  How could I not?  They are the closest thing to sea monsters that we’ve got!  They’re grotesque and mysterious, yet graceful (not really, only in my dreams — they’re actually quite slow) and sometimes colossal.  As I grew older, I realized that I was not alone, but there was a large, undefineable community of squid-lovers.  It seems to be in our nature to seek monstrosities: creatures new to science, alien, and potentially terrible.

This seemingly universal fascination and attraction to monsters is best exemplified in the phenomenon of globsters, also known as blobsters.  A globster is a blob-like animal that washes up on the shores of oceans and lakes which is morphologically unidentifiable, thus lending itself to be described as a variety of terrifying monsters as the viewer deems fit.

An early globster was the St. Augustine Monster, discovered on the coast of Florida in 1896 (a, below) by 2 young boys, originally suspected to be a giant octopus.  In 1977, a Japanese fishing trawler pulled up a hunk of flesh (dubbed “New Nessie“) (b) imagined to be an ancient underwater dinosaur, the plesoisaur, off the coast of New Zealand.  The Bermuda Blob (c) was found in Bermuda in 1988 and is the most blob-like of these three examples.  These are just three examples I chose to give here; there are more recorded examples, and many unrecorded.  (See Richard Ellis’s book Monsters of the Sea for a full history of globsters.)

Click image for larger view. Images compiled from Wikipedia.

In our modern reductionist mindset, it seems obvious what these things really are: just dead animals that have been floating out at sea, decomposing, and are thus unrecognizable by the time they wash up to shore.  But even now we are discovering hundreds of novel sea creatures every year; imagine a century ago when the sea was more mysterious and potentially dangerous.  How could a scientist identify a half-decomposed species and persuade the masses that it was not, in fact, the remains of a monster from the deep?

The answer lies in molecular analysis.  The journal Biological Bulletin published a paper in 2002 by Carr et al. identifying the the Newfoundland Blob, and another paper in 2004 by Pierce et al. looking at a variety of blobsters (including St. Augustine’s Monster, a above), but focusing on the 2003 Chilean Blob and the 1996 Nantucket Blob due to sample quality.

Both studies retrieved DNA from samples from the various blobs and sequenced their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).  Mitochondrial DNA is particularly useful for taxonomic identification.  It is a piece of DNA separate from your genome, found not in the cell nucleus but in the energy-producing part of the cell, the mitochondria, and is relatively well-conserved within species for easier identification.  Comparing the mtDNA sequences from their samples with known sequences from whales and sharks, Cass et al. found that the Newfoundland Blob is a decomposed sperm whale.  Similarly, Pierce et al. found that the Chilean Blob matched a sperm whale, while the Nantucket Blob was a finback whale.

Pierce et al. took it a step further and compared the amino acid compositions and microscope photos of tissue samples from many other blobsters, including St. Augustine’s Monster (a), the Bermuda Blob (c) and the 1960 Tasmanian Globster to classify those blobs as well.  They had an identical composition to the whale blubber of the Chilean blob, suggesting that these are also whale species and not large octopuses.

And thus, they’ve dashed the dreams of people all around the world who dream of sea monsters – but that was not their intent.  In fact, the authors themselves were hoping to find a new species.  Pierce et al. finish their paper with the sentence:

Once again, to our disappointment, we have not found any evidence that any of the blobs are the remains of gigantic octopods, or sea monsters of unknown species.

So do not think that the scientists are trying to say “I told you so.”  Rather, they dream big like the rest of us.

These analyses do not mean that we cannot continue dreaming; on the contrary, waterlogged animals are found regularly and each must be debunked individually.  Just this month, a strange creature was found on the shore of a lake in Northern Ontario, with a terrifying, hairless face and”creepy fangs,” covered by hair on the rest of its body.  Its discoverers suggested it was an omajinaakoo or “Ugly One,” a mythological creature considered a bad omen by First Nations (Native American) tribes.  Just this week this idea was debunked: it turned out to be a common animal, the American Mink, in a horrid state.

But don’t let these debunkings get you down.  Always keep your guard up for the excitement and horror of an undiscovered monsters.  It will at least keep you entertained.

Carr, S., Marshall, H., Johnstone, K., Pynn, L., & Stenson, G. (2002). How to Tell a Sea Monster: Molecular Discrimination of Large Marine Animals of the North Atlantic Biological Bulletin, 202 (1) DOI: 10.2307/1543217

Pierce, S., Massey, S., Curtis, N., Smith, G., Olavarria, C., & Maugel, T. (2004). Microscopic, Biochemical, and Molecular Characteristics of the Chilean Blob and a Comparison with the Remains of Other Sea Monsters: Nothing but Whales Biological Bulletin, 206 (3) DOI: 10.2307/1543636

Written by Hanner

May 25, 2010 at 7:15 am

On Synthetic Life

(c) Fantastic Four # 15, 1965

Wait… is that Mr Fantastic or Craig Venter?

Back from vacation after this weekend – I was down on the Gulf Coast of Alabama so will hopefully have some oil spill updates/info up sometime next week.

Have a good weekend!


Written by Hanner

May 21, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Saturday procrastination update: science comics!

Right now, I’m working on a paper for a class I’m taking on the intertwined histories of science and religion.  Well, when I say “right now,” I really mean an hour ago, and in the foreseeable future.  For I’ve taken a break to read INTERNET COMICS!

Here are a few science-related comics I thought you might enjoy.

The first, from Hark, a vagrant, on Watson and Crick’s grand discovery, theft, and sexism:

The second, from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, actually relates to my paper topic: how the Gaia hypothesis provided a scientific framework for the environmental movement (ecotheology in its extreme form), which it reframed in Judeo-Christian terms.  That’s our man, James Lovelock, the guy who came up with the Gaia hypothesis, in the bottom panel.

Last is BANG!, a full-length comic book (viewable online for free) describing the science of the origins of the universe.  In rhyme!

Enjoy these, and the weekend.  Back to the grindstone…

Written by Hanner

May 8, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Art, Link

A Blog Carnival Carnival

Something Wicked This Way Comes

I’m beginning to immerse myself in the blog carnival scene.  Blog carnivals are a great way to see a round-up of recent posts on a particular topic to learn about developments outside your radar and to get introduced to new blogs and authors.

My favorite new discovery is Scientia Pro Publica, hosted at Mauka to Makai this week, which aims to highlight science writing understandable to the non-scientist.  Highlights include Priscilla Stuckey’s post entitled “Where science and religion meet: the natural world.”  I regularly mourn the loss of spirituality in nature, how the very thing that made many of us become scientists is now taboo, and  Priscilla beautifully articulates her “plea for natural history.”  I also recommend Studying the Deep, Deep Details of How We Age for a clear explanation of molecular aging, and a post on A Primate of Modern Aspect detailing the quest to discover the origins of a hominid foot eaten by a crocodile.

The Carnival of Evolution is up at the Springer Science Evolution Blog!  Lucas Brouwers of Thoughtomics highlights a beautiful article in a beautiful post about the evolution of our genetic code using the ribosome as a molecular fossil.  I tried just yesterday to explain this paper to a colleague and failed miserably – Lucas succeeds where I stumbled.  Margaret Morgan at My Growing Passion explains the evolution of the chloroplast, while Observations of a Nerd goes through some examples of speciation in our recent history.  My favorite photos from this carnival come from Scientist, Interrupted, who reports on the discovery of a leech species that LIVES IN HUMAN FACES.  So.. if you want to see a leech on someone’s eyeball or coming out of a nose, click here NOW.

At Carnival of the Blue hosted by Observations of a Nerd, Malaria, Bedbug, Sealice, and Sunsets gives us the lowdown on the recent CITES meeting on endangered species — and summarizes it “as one big middle finger to ocean health.”  The Thoughtful Animal tells us about the uses for whale poop (and, yes, there are photos), while the Marmokrebs blog explains parthenogenesis in the white-tipped bamboo shark.

Enough links for ya?  Hopefully you can find something up your alley.  Check out the host blogs for next week/month’s hosts and get caught up in the blog carnival hype yourself.

Written by Hanner

May 5, 2010 at 7:23 am

Built to spill: is this the ecological disaster we’ve been waiting for?

The oil spill seen from space.

The oil spill is destroying me.  My poor roommate, friends and coworkers are having to deal with my constant blathering about the BP oil spill in the Gulf, how it could effect ecosystems, people, and whether it will be enough to shift development toward sustainable resources.

It’s simply heartbreaking.  I’m not going to focus on trying to blame any corporate conglomerates right now (although the spill, or rather, gush is seemingly the cause of pure negligence), for we have greater speculative issues at hand.

Ecological disaster looms.  Oil is a poison floating in the water.  It blocks sunlight from reaching the seafloor, and the oil blanket seems poised to spread into the wetlands, killing off much of the benthic life in the diverse estuaries.  The egg masses of spawning fish will be enveloped.  Birds migrating North, reliant on much of this marshland, will find themselves only oil to land on.

Our methods for cleaning involve burning, sending huge amounts of smoke into the air, leaving behind a nasty sludge, and only changing the 3% of the slick that is on the surface.  The novel method, using dispersants to break down the oil, can dissolve the blob, but would leave uncountable oil particles for ingestion by organisms in the entire ocean, contaminating much of our seafood.

With fisheries already closed up and down the coast, many people have lost their livelihood at the peak of the season.  No one is sure how long it would take fish recruitment to recover if the majority of eggs were destroyed – but these people could lose their jobs, their connection to their family history, further depressing towns that were already in bad shape after Hurricane Katrina.

But is this not the environmental disaster we’ve all been waiting for? That sounds terrible, as if I’m excited for the spill (which I am most certainly not), but it’s got to be said.  After decades of trying to draw attention to the need for sustainability and conservation, if not to directly preserve our resources but simply to save ourselves, with little luck, I (and others, I’m sure) have been praying for some sort of human-caused environmental disruption.  Environmental lobbyists and scientists could say, “I told you so,” and it would reveal the dire need to switch to more sustainable resources and control our carbon emissions.  Can anything besides failure of the current system convince people that change is required?

The Deepwater Horizons oil spill has the potential to be the disaster we’ve dreamed of.  In terms of public relations, think of all the terrible images we could see on the news if the oil reaches the coast, of the slick-covered birds and fish and mammals.  Unlike the Exxon-Valdez spill, which had its effects mainly limited to wildlife due to its remote location and thus was easier to ignore, this spill could affect millions of people.  Real Americans, ones who had been living in small towns and continuing the fishing traditions of their grandfathers.  And two decades later, we are far closer to having the technology needed for more sustainable energy.

Workers treat an oil-covered Northern Gannet on Friday

My greatest fear is that nothing will change.  That a huge, off-shore oil rig exploded — a symbol of our driving need to find oil in more difficult places and the dangers it poses — spewing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean, killing countless animals and plants, hurting peoples’ lives, requiring massive amounts of time, manpower and money to clean up, and a month later we will act like nothing happened.  Continue to drill excessively, continue to overconsume and not invest in sustainable practices for the sake of convenience, forget that it even happened.

In a dream world, this will start off a cascade of federal funding and legislature in support of sustainable practices.  But I have sadly developed into a pessimist regarding the ability of both the legislators and citizens of this country to take any sort of action, change their own lives in any appreciable way, if they have not personally been affected by disaster.

What to do for now?  Try to write and educate as much as possible.  Most of what I’ve written here is completely speculative; the oil has not reached the marshes yet.  (But it is imminent.)  In the midst of the beginning of this, it might seem crazy that people will stop paying attention to it.  But I’ve already heard complains about the endless talk — we cannot let it die down.  I will continue to cover the spill as it develops.

I also signed this petition from Surf Rider to restore the moratorium on offshore drilling.  It’s the easiest – just type in your zip code and they’ll send it to all the appropriate people for you.

And, lastly, try and brainstorm how you personally could become less oil-dependent.  Even reducing the use of plastic can make an impact.

Here are some links to other blogs covering of the spill.  Please peruse.

Written by Hanner

May 4, 2010 at 8:20 am