What are cuttlebones for?
As I child I had a budgerigar called Dinsdale. Dinsdale was a pretty happy bird who would cheerfully run round my desk, leaving special presents on my homework (!) and hop back into his cage on command. He loved hitting the bell that was attached to a little round mirror and pecking hard at his cuttlefish. Of course, he didn’t really have a whole cuttlefish in the cage with him, just the hard, bony bit.
Cuttlefish bones aren’t actually bones at all, they are a special kind of shell. And while we are at it, cuttlefish aren’t fish either. Cuttlefish are one of the Cephalopods and they have their own family name Sepiidae. The early ancestors had a shell for protection and existed before the first fish had evolved. Modern cuttlefish don’t have an external shell but rely on camouflage for evading predators.
The common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) also produces a brown ink, which can be harvested from their ink sacs. Most of us would recognise the colour of the ink from old fashioned brown sepia photos, and that’s how the ink got its name. The chemistry and biosynthesis of ink in cephalopods is fairly complex. It is a form of the common biological pigment melanin which is the same molecule responsible for your skin developing a tan after exposure to sunlight. Who’d have thought you and the cuttlefish would have so much in common? The eumelanin in the ink sacs is also found in fossils from the early Jurassic period around 200 million years ago.
For a soft bodied animal, it seems strange that there should be a good fossil record. The cuttlebone is generally well preserved. When the cuttlefish are alive the cuttlebone is a mix of chitin (a really large structural sugar molecule) and aragonite (one of the three forms of calcium carbonate). After the animal dies, the chitin will break down fairly readily but the aragonite persists. That means that it is possible to find fossilised remains of cuttlefish that are readily identifiable and from modern catches of cuttlefish, your budgie gets a calcium supplement.
The cuttlebone has a very specific function in the cuttlefish. It’s clearly not for defence – what use would an internal bone be? Cuttlefish have a short life span, maybe only 1-2 years and during that time they have a phenomenal growth rate (up to 10 kg) so for a cuttlefish conserving energy is critically important. The cuttlebone structure is full of holes and the cuttlefish can control liquid or gas into those spaces to effortlessly control its buoyancy.
The cuttlebone is a long oval structure made of around 100 chambers, with the chamber lying at the head end being the oldest, other layers are added as the cuttlefish grows. Lying along the cuttlebone is the siphuncle, which is a strand of tissue that connects all the small chambers. In order to add water to the cuttlebone, the cuttlefish makes the blood in the siphuncle more salty by pumping salt out of the chamber. Water in the chamber is drawn out of the chamber and into the blood by osmosis and oxygen and carbon dioxide come out of solution and make up the volume in the chamber by diffusing from the siphuncle. So it’s not true to say the siphuncle pumps the water….more that it pumps the salt and that causes the water to be drawn out. Siphuncles rarely get preserved in fossil records but you can usually see the notches in the cuttlebone where the siphuncle used to be.
Removing water from the chambers of the cuttlebone reduces the overall density and causes the cuttlebone to float. Cuttlefish aim to maintain neutral buoyancy and will swim up or down with the minimum of effort. In addition to this, the cuttlefish can control whether the chambers towards the head or the tail end are water filled or gas filled, making it’s journey from depth towards the surface even easier as it adjusts its trim. Next time you’re diving, be more cuttlefish, perfect buoyancy and perfect trim.
While reviewing some marine survey videos lately I found myself mesmerised by watching an octopus move across my survey area, settling and changing colours before moving again and changing yet again. The colour change was so rapid and the octopus completes three quick changes before scooting off out of the video. It got me to thinking that colour changing is a pretty cool skill to have. The most us puny humans can manage is to develop a tan, producing melanin in the skin to try and prevent the damage that UV radiation can cause.
Colour in cephalopods (octopus and squid) depends on 4 different types of cells. The first layer of colour controlling organs in the skin are the chromatophores. Each chromatophore consists of a small balloon like sac filled with pigment. Each sac is connected to around 20 muscles, and each muscle is controlled by 2-6 nerves linked directly to the brain of the octopus. The octopus can stretch the balloon-like sac and allow the pigment to cover a large surface area, so we get to see the black, brown, orange, red or yellow colour just under the surface of the skin. When the muscles around the sac relax, it shrinks and the colour is hidden. Chromatophore sacs are individually controlled so the cephalopod can control which colours are displayed and where, hence the patterns seen in cuttlefish. Deep water cephalopods have very few chromatophores as colour isn’t much use in an environment with little light.
The next layer of colour organs under the chromatophores are the iridophores. Iridescence is the property of luminous colours that change depending on the angle they are viewed from. Iridophores are the key to how cephalopods create the metallic green, blue, silver and gold colours. Iridophores work by reflecting light from stacks of very thin cells. It’s not certain how iridophores are controlled, but they are slower to respond than chromatophores so it’s unlikely to be controlled by nerves but more possibly by hormones.
Then there’s the leucophores. These are cells that scatter full spectrum light, so they appear white. In fact, they will reflect any light that is shone on them, and the light doesn’t change with the angle that you view at. It’s thought that having leucophores underlying the chromatophores increases the intensity of the colours that we observe. Leucophores also help with the cephalopods ability to colour match because they reflect the surrounding light.
Cephalopods have 3 types of specialised colour creating organs in their skin to mimic their background for camouflage and communicate. The cephalopod eye is remarkably similar to a vertebrate eye consisting of an iris, lens and photoreceptor cells. The similarity is often cited as an example of convergent evolution, both vertebrates and cephalopods need to observe their environment and they have solved how to do this in a similar way. But there is a critical difference, cephalopods are colourblind, so their eyes only see in black and white. How on earth does that make sense? An animal with the ability to make a myriad of colours, metallic sheens and mesmerising patterns can’t actually see in colour?
The explanation for this apparent contradiction is that the cephalopod eyes have wide pupils in a strange variety of shapes, U-shaped, W-shaped or dumbbell shaped. When light passes through the wide pupil, the lens in the eye acts as a prism and splits the light into different colours, a large pupil allows for more splitting, known as chromatic aberration. Cephalopods use their wide pupils to create the maximum chromatic aberration and focus on these different wavelengths by changing the depth of their eye ball (altering the distance between the lens and the retina). So, cephalopods can detect colour, not by using special proteins embedded in cells in the retina (like we do) but by changing whether the light focusses on the retina at all. They find it easy to focus distinguishing between bright and dark colours, so that probably explains why display patterns are usually colour separated by black bars.
But if a cephalopod can’t really see so well, how on earth do they mimic their environment? The secret to this lies in the presence of opsin (light detecting protein) in the skin. Its thought that its possible for some cephalopods to sense how much ambient light is present across their periphery and adjust their skin colour and brightness accordingly. To camouflage yourself, you don’t have to be a perfect match for your surroundings, you just have to match it slightly more than your predator can distinguish.
Why do Sea Hares make purple ink?
Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) are a common find on dives around the south, west and northern British Isle. They are usually around 7cm long but can grow up to 20cm in length. The colour of Sea hares varies from olive, brown, red and purplish black depending on the algal diet. At the head end, two slender rhinophores stand up like the ears of a hare, hence their common name.
At first sight, Sea hares would appear to be an easy target as a meal, there’s no shell, no spines like an urchin, no claws and they move at a fairly slow pace. Sea hares have a mucous coating containing acid and other nasty compounds which might deter some predators, but their party piece is to release a cloud of sticky, purple ink when attacked by hungry predators.
The cloud of purple ink is in fact a mixture of two secretions. On the back of the Sea hare the central structure is called the mantle with an opening called the foramen. Just under the surface there’s the last remnants of what was probably a shell in the Sea hare’s evolutionary history, a protein disc which acts as an internal shell. On the roof of the mantle is the Purple Gland above the gills. The Purple Gland is responsible for storing and secreting the ink. The building blocks for noxious chemicals are obtained from their algal food, particularly from red algae, metabolised and stored here. This strategy is quite common in marine gastropods and a number of these substances are being actively tested for pain killing, antibacterial, antiviral and anticancer activity. It’s powerful stuff.
Beneath the gill on the floor of the mantle cavity is the Opaline Gland. This gland secretes a white liquid that becomes viscous upon contact with water. If you’ve ever seen the videos of Hagfish (Myxini sp.) producing copious volumes of slime as a way of evading predators, then you will already have seen opaline in action.
The ink and the opaline are secreted into the cavity in the mantle where they mix and are expelled towards the predator. The ink has an intriguing role in that it has been shown to be a phagomimetic decoy (phago = eat, mimetic = to mimic). Some species of lobster will drop the sea hare and try to manipulate and eat the ink cloud, thinking that it is food. Whilst testing this idea scientists found another ink effect. The lobsters tried to rub the ink off their antennules. The opaline in the ink blocks the receptors and response to food odours, thereby preventing the predator from recognising that Sea hares are food. It’s the lobster equivalent of a stuffy nose. Whilst the lobster is busy removing the sticky ink, the Sea hare can make its escape. So, in this aspect the ink is rather more than just a cloud to hide the escape of the Sea hare, it is an active cloud which has the effect of blinding the predator.
It can take quite a bit of stimulation to persuade a Sea hare to produce ink. The threshold depends on factors such as the environment (living in a turbulent environment makes inking less likely), how full the gland is and what the stimulus is (inking occurs more rapidly near anemone tentacles that it does in response to an electric shock). If a Sea hare has full ink glands then it will release nearly half of its ink at the first stimulation. Each subsequent stimulation will release 30-50% of the contents. It will take at least 2 days to replenish the gland.
Whilst aquarium owners like the grazing tendencies of Sea hares, they panic about the effect that any inking has on the fish and other residents inside their tank. The jury is out on how much effect the Sea hare ink can have. Sea anemones retract their tentacles, but the evidence for the toxic effect of the ink inside an aquarium is limited, perhaps because the Sea hares aren’t feeding on red algae that are the source of the most potent toxins.
It’s a popular misconception that lobsters are red in colour. That’s because most people have never seen a live lobster, and what gets served up in their lobster thermidor is distinctly red in colour. It’s one of my pet hates when media shows lobsters as red, right up their with the reporter talking about the oxygen tanks worn by the scuba divers. Grrr! As divers we are well positioned to know that lobsters are a dark shade of blue-green, but it’s not just the shell that’s blue, so is the lobster’s blood.
Technically the lobster doesn’t have blood in the way that we would understand it. They have haemolymph, a fluid equivalent to blood that circulates inside arthrpods. Haemolymph is mostly watery with some salts and nutrients dissolved in. There are some cells known as haemocytes, but in arthropods these play a role in the immune system of the organism. There aren’t any red blood cells containing haemoglobin to carry oxygen like we have. Instead invertebrates have some special proteins in their haemolymph called haemocyanins that transport oxygen for them.
Haemocyanins are metalloproteins that have two copper atoms which can reversibly bind to a single oxygen molecule. Oxygenation causes a colour change from the colourless deoxygenated form to the blue oxygenated form. Haemocyanins are only found in molluscs and arthropods but aren’t limited to marine animals and can be found in tarantulas, scorpions and centipedes too. Haemocyanins turn out to be rather more efficient than haemoglobin at binding to oxygen in cold environments and when the oxygen pressure is low. Sounds ideal for the average marine crustacean.
Lobster haemolymph has been shown to have antiviral properties, but only in the uncooked state. In research it was shown to be effective against the viruses that cause shingles and warts. In fact, there is an American based company that has developed a blood-based cream for treating cold sores and skin lesions, although it’s yet to get approval from the regulatory authorities.
So, we’ve established that copper coloured proteins give lobsters their blue blood, but that’s not the explanation for the shell changing colour when the lobster is cooked. For this we have to look at another protein called crustacyanin, and its best buddy astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a carotenoid pigment so it absorbs blue light and gives off red/orange colour. Astaxanthins are mostly synthesised by microalgae and enters the marine food chain. In shellfish the astaxanthin becomes concentrated in the shell. Its likely that astaxanthins have a string antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect and may protect against age-related degeneration. Astaxanthins are also found in some sponges, starfish and in species of octopush and cuttlefish. They give the muscle tissue of the salmon its characteristic colour.
Crustacyanin is a very interesting chromoprotein, that changes colour depending on whether it is in water or dehydrated. When it’s bound to the lipid like astaxanthin it has a distinctly blue colour. While a lobster is alive, crustacyanin stays bound tightly to astaxanthin, so tightly that the astanxanthin’s light-absorption properties are quashed and the complex appears to be blue-green in colour. That all stops when the lobster hits the boiling water.
Crustacyanin is not heat stable, so the boiling temperatures cause it to unravel and lose its grip on astaxanthin. The true colours of the astaxanthin then shine through in the red lobster shell. In fact, they were there all the time, you just couldn’t see them. It’s the same mechanisms for cooking shrimp too. Flamingos rather cleverly digest the crustacyanin protein to release the astaxanthins that colour their feathers soft pink.
Stefano Lorenzini was an Italian physician born in Florence in 1652. One of his teachers at the medical school in Pisa was Francesco Redi who as well as being a physician spent time experimenting to prove that spontaneous generation (life just appears) was a myth, mostly with maggots and flies. As part of his work Redi, like all scientists of a time without cameras, made incredibly detailed anatomical drawings. Redi inspired Lorenzini, who in 1678 published the work that he is best remembered for, an in-depth study on the anatomy and physiology of sharks. This work contained the discovery of the Ampullae of Lorenzini, the special electromagnetic sense organs found in sharks and rays. But although Lorenzini described and drew the Ampullae, it would take nearly 300 years before modern science could explain how sharks had an additional sensory organ not seen in most other animals.
The Ampullae of Lorenzini form a network of jelly filled canals that open in small pores through the surface of the skin which can be seen as dark spots on the skin. At the back end of the canal is a collection of receptor cells that have a unique structure and allow the shark to sense electric and magnetic fields. The gel in the canals is keratan sulfate which has one of the highest known conductivity of any known biological material (about 1.8 milliSiemens/cm). The ampullae are clustered and each cluster connects to a different part of the skin, so the shark can get detailed directional information from this network.
The cells that actually detect the electrical field have a very special structure. There is a single layer of excitable cells closely packed together. The membrane of these cells facing into the canal is packed with voltage dependent calcium channel proteins. The rest of the canal lining has a very high resistance, which means that any voltage difference is effectively concentrated on the electroreceptor cells. A change in the electric field in the jelly allows these proteins to open and calcium floods into the cells. This causes the other side of the cell (away from the canal) to release neurotransmitter signalling to the shark.
Sharks have been shown to be more sensitive to electric fields than any other animal, possibly as low as 5 nanoVolts/cm – that’s 5/1,000,000,000 of a volt detected in a 1cm long ampulla. All living creatures produce an electric field by muscle contractions and as a result of the internal body chemistry. So being able to detect weak electrical stimuli probably allows sharks to hunt prey animals, including those buried in sand. Basking sharks have been observed swerving around jellyfish whilst feeding, after all the last thing you’d want clogging up your gill rakers would be lots of jellyfish and their stinging nematocysts.
It’s likely that the Ampullae of Lorenzini also allow sharks to sense magnetic fields. Any moving conductor will induce an electric field, so seawater moving on ocean currents, with the Earth’s magnetic field will produce electric fields well within the range that sharks can detect. Behavioural studies have shown that magnetic fields can change the behaviour of sharks. The ability to sense and orientate along magnetic field lines may help explain some of the large distance migrations that have been found using shark tagging experiments. Great white sharks have been shown to migrate over 2000 miles in open ocean to feeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean. Whale sharks have been tracked on journeys over 4800 miles. That is an astonishing figure considering that they don’t have sat nav guiding the way! So next time you’re up close and personal with any shark or ray, have a look for the black dots around their snout and remember that 340 years ago an Italian doctor and fish fanatic spotted the same thing.
What makes puffer fish poisonous?
In Japan it takes 3 or more years or rigorous training to become a Fugu chef and the pass rate for the exam is less than 40%. Fugu is a dish prepared from pufferfish, which is potentially lethal due to the presence of Tetrodotoxin (TTX). Budding chefs learn how to carefully remove the most toxic parts of the fish without contaminating the meat. Even though the liver of the fish is considered by some to be the tastiest part, its also the most poisonous organ. With such high stakes, restaurants serving Fugu are controlled by law, but there are around 20-40 incidents a year in Japan, with a fatality rate of around 7%. Most of the fatalities aren’t associated with restaurants, but with home preparations. Never has the phrase “I’m dying to eat” been more apt.
The symptoms of ingesting a lethal dose of TTX include dizziness, exhaustion, headache, nausea and difficulty breathing. The victim remains conscious but cannot speak or move. Breathing stops and asphyxiation follows. There is no known antidote. Treatment consists of emptying the stomach, giving the victim activated charcoal to absorb the TTX and putting them on life support until the poison has worn off. You can add in whatever prayers you feel like at that point. If the patient survives the first 24 hours then recovery over a few days is common.
So, what on earth is the pufferfish doing with this potent neurotoxin? It turns out that in the marine environment pufferfish aren’t alone. TTX is also found in blue ringed octopus, Astropecten star fish, Xanthid crabs and some newts and toads too. But despite its widespread appearance in the animal kingdom, none of these creatures are actually synthesising the TTX. The toxin is produced by bacteria that infect or live in the animal, and the animal concerned uses the TTX as a defensive biotoxin, and sometimes also as a venom eg octopus and arrow worms (Chaetognaths).
TTX acts by blocking sodium ion channels. Nerve cells have to pump sodium ions outside of the cell in order to be ready to transmit a signal. Sodium ions can’t cross cell membranes, so a special protein gateway exists in the nerve cell membrane that helps move the sodium out. Block this protein and the nerve cells will lose their ability to send a signal. This prevents the nerve from being able to send messages to muscles, resulting in reduced muscle movement. There are slightly different sodium ion channel proteins in the nerves controlling skeletal muscle and those controlling cardiac muscle. Victims of TTX poisoning will experience progressive paralysis throughout their body, whilst remaining conscious until shortly before death. A truly awful way to go.
TTX turns out to be remarkably toxic. The lethal dose of cyanide is 8.5mg per kg of bodyweight, but it would take only 4% of that amount of TTX to be lethal. TTX can be absorbed orally, by ingestion, by injection or through abraded skin. As the TTX levels are due to bacteria, there is a seasonal, geographical and species variation. It’s no wonder that the Fugu chefs need years of training. Poisonings from TTX are almost exclusively associated with the consumption of pufferfish from Indo-Pacific regions, but this is mainly because pufferfish just aren’t eaten as commonly elsewhere. In New Zealand in 2009 several dogs died after eating grey side gilled seaslugs (Pleurobranchus maculate) found washed up on beaches. The slugs were found to have ingested high levels of TTX.
Naturally occurring TTX has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 4000 years to treat convulsive disease. In 1774 Captain James Cook recorded that his crew ate locally caught tropical fish and fed the left overs to the pigs kept on board. The crew had mild symptoms (numbness and shortness of breath) but by the morning all the pigs were dead. The crew had a very lucky escape, although its not known if they had pork for lunch the next day!
How do Comb jellies make rainbows?
Comb jellies are a common sight around British waters, particularly the sea gooseberry (Pleurobrachia bachei). With a clear body and measuring only a couple of centimetres long, it’s easy to overlook these beautiful little animals apart from one thing, stunning rows of rainbow coloured hairs running along their body. With no skeleton and composed of 99% water, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these were very simple creatures, but actually they have some pretty neat stuff going on.
Firstly, let’s start with where the comb jellies fit in, they are not the same phylum as jellyfish. Jellyfish (Cnidaria) have complex lifecycles and stinging cells. Comb jellies (Ctenophora) have a simple life cycle and make glue to catch prey. The problem for scientists trying to study the evolution of the Ctenophores is that they don’t make very good fossils so the records are patchy at best. Genetic studies indicate that Ctenophores are much older in origin than other animals, and predate the bilaterian animals (those with bilateral symmetry) by millions of years.
There are 2 major cell layers, the external epidermis and the internal gastrodermis. Between these layers is the mesoglea, a jelly like layer. The Ctneophores have muscles running through them and the outer epidermis contains a basic nervous system known as the nerve net. Comb jellies are named for their unique feature, plates of giant fused cilia (small hair-like cells) which run in eight rows up and down their bodies. These cilia are used to propel the comb jelly through the water.
Many comb jellies have a single pair of tentacles and often these tentacles are branches and give the illusion of many tentacles. The branched tentacles are used to catch prey, but unlike the toxins from jellyfish, comb jellies use glue. Special cells called colloblasts respond to touch by firing a spiral filament and releasing sticky glue. Once the prey is stuck the comb jelly reels in the tentacles and brings the food to its mouth. Most comb jellies are carnivorous and will eat anything. Until recently it was believed that comb jellies spat out the indigestible waste particles, but it now seems like they release them through pores in the rear end – which is probably part of the evolutionary puzzle in explaining when animals developed anuses.
What about the beautiful rainbow coloured pulses of light? Whilst some comb jellies can produce light by a special chemical reaction to give photoluminescence, our sea gooseberry can’t. The rainbow colouring is caused by refraction of light through the hair like cilia cells. Light travels at a constant speed in a vacuum, but when light encounters a material that is more dense, it slows and its pathway bends. The different wavelengths in visible light bend at slightly different angles. This means that the cilia act like the glass prism you played with in physics classes as a schoolchild, splitting the light into separate wavelengths. The refractive index (how much the light will bend is almost the same for the comb jelly tissue as it is for the salty sea water. The hair like cilia amplify the refractive effect creating an iridescent pulse that is mesmerising to watch. The effect works across the visible and UV light wavelengths, meaning a fluorescent torch will also give a great image.
Lastly, there’s a few things you should know about comb jelly reproduction. Comb jellies are hermaphrodites (both sexes in one individual) and can spawn eggs and sperm freely into the sea, through their mouths. They do this on a continuous basis unless they are starved of food, when they will shrink down and stop breeding. But feed them up again and they will start spawning again. Rainbow coloured hair, sticky glue fishing nets and continual reproduction – what’s not to admire?
Over a year ago when we set up our marine tank, complete with filters and chiller, I envisaged that it would be mainly the rock pool animals that would survive. My inexperience at maintaining a marine tank would be compensated by the relatively hardy nature of rock pool creatures. Any critter that has evolved to tolerate massive variations in temperature and salinity (rainwater run off dilutes the salt in rock pools, but evaporation makes them saltier) was probably going to survive my attempts to keep it alive. As time has passed, we have become more adventurous about the creatures that we have attempted to keep, but the latest inhabitant of our tank is another step up…
We have a shark egg case. With a live lesser spotted catshark. And we can see it growing!
We see catsharks quite often on dives, in fact they’re probably the most common shark. Many non-divers are stunned when you tell them that there are 21 species of shark that are native to British waters, and probably another 19 or so migratory species too. The film Jaws was released in 1975 and over the past 40 years has had a massive negative impact on the general public’s perceptions about sharks. Organisations like the Shark trust have been battling this perception ever since. Even my own children make jokes about Jaws like sharks, when they have never seen the films and have had the privilege of diving and snorkelling with sharks. And now we have a live shark in the dive centre!
We have no idea if the shark in our tank is male or female. It’s currently less than 2cm long and inside it’s 7cm long protective egg case. At this stage there is more yolk than embryo shark. Shining a torch through the egg case allows us to see the embryo wriggling around inside the case. The hunt has been on for a gender-neutral name, and we’ve settled on Charlie the Catshark. We are much more used to seeing mermaids purses wash up on beaches than finding one alive and still growing, and managing to get it into an environment that we can observe its development. We don’t have any dog whelks in our tank. They are voracious predators and you can bet that anything capable of drilling into a Periwinkle shell for a meal would have no trouble getting through the mermaids purse to eat Charlie.
Whilst we watch Charlie grow we will see the yolk sac diminish in size. It’s easy to understand that the yolk must contain ‘nutrients’ to allow this growth; amino acids to make proteins for muscle and cartilage, and fatty acids which are vital to make cell membranes and to metabolise for energy. Shark egg yolk can contain over 50% fat which is roughly similar to chicken egg yolk. Most of the fatty acids are unsaturated fats which is important to keep them mobile in the low temperature of the sea. There are no carbohydrates. It’s hard to get carbs into an efficient storage molecule in such a limited space. There are other substances in the yolk vital to Charlie’s development especially hormones which will drive growth and sexual characteristic development.
We are going to have a long time to wait. It will take 9-10 months before Charlie chews his/her way out of the egg case. At that point, Charlie will be around 15cm long and will be heading back to the sea before he/she has a chance to eat everything else in the tank. My money is on the shrimp being the first casualties. But really a marine tank in a dive centre is no place for a young shark to grow up. For now, Charlie is safe inside the egg sac and the other inhabitants in our tank are safe from Charlie.
We have a rare chance to capture the attention of local children. We often have young visitors into the dive centre to hold a hermit crab, small urchin or starfish, but now we can show them a shark and talk about conservation. We are hoping to catch them before the cultural references to sharks start to become ingrained. The latest viral hit song ‘Baby Shark’ will help too. A combination of an ear-wormy irritating song that kids adore plus the chance to watch Charlie grow. This is a hearts and mind battle we have a good chance of winning. Do do do do do (a quick online search required if you haven’t seen/heard it yet – and my apologies!).
In May 2017, a female Orca (known as Lulu) was found washed up dead on the shoreline on the Isle of Tiree in Scotland. Lulu was one of the last remaining members of Britain’s only resident Orca population, which now only comprises 8 individuals, 4 males and 4 females. This west coast community had been monitored by researchers for over 25 years.
Orcas are very social animals with the Orca mother at the centre of the pod. Her children, including adult sons, stay together throughout their lives. Female Orcas start reproducing around 13 years of age and during her lifetime a female will have 4 to 6 calves and stop reproducing around 40 years of age. Pregnancy lasts about 17 months and is followed by a period of mothering in which other members of the pod will assist with babysitting duties.
Different organisms have evolved to have different reproductive strategies. At one end of the spectrum there are organisms which produce a huge number of offspring, in some cases the parent then dies or never reproduces again. This Big Bang reproduction is a good strategy if the organism has a high probability of dying early. If the chances of surviving are low, then it makes sense to invest your energy into a Big Bang reproduction when conditions are right and thus ensure your genes carry on into the next generation. Many fish and some insects employ this strategy including salmon.
At the other end of the spectrum are the organisms that have a single or only a few offspring but at multiple times in their lives. Humans along with other large mammals use this strategy, known as iteparous reproduction. These organisms have a low probability of dying early, so it is expected that the offspring will have a good chance of survival to maturity. Any species that takes years to reach breeding maturity and has a limited number of offspring is vulnerable to any factor that impacts on breeding success.
In between these two extremes are organisms like coral, who breed en masse at limited times, generating lots of offspring but only when the moon is in the right phase. These organisms have a constant risk of dying throughout their lives and so a constant reproduction strategy is a good idea, balanced against the resources needed for reproduction to happen.
Researchers are certain that there have been no new calves born into Lulu’s pod in the last 25 years. The entire pod is ageing and it is likely that during our lifetimes there will be no resident Orcas in British waters. A post mortem on Lulu has provided the clues that man-made polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are likely to be the culprit. There has been concern over the persistence and biological effects of PCBs for many years. Scientists have established that physiological effects can be measured with around 30 milligrammes of PCBs per kg of body tissue. Lulu’s level was 975mg per kg. Furthermore there was not evidence that Lulu had ever been reproductively active or ever had a calf.
PCBs are a group of chemicals that were originally made from 1929 until they were banned in 1979, by which time it is estimated around 700,000 tonnes had been produced. They are chemically stable, non flammable, have high melting points and are poor electrical conductors. For many years PCBs were used as insulators in transformers and capacitors and cable insulation, plasticizers in paints and plastic, and pigments and dyes. Does anyone remember the carbonless copy paper? For the younger readers, you’ll need to look up carbon copy (and then you can understand why we cc people on a email) and understand what a revolution it was when carbonless copy paper arrived.
PCBs aren’t very soluble in water, but they are easily soluble in organic solvents and in body fat. They accumulate through food chains and long lived species will end up with high levels. PCBs are still being released into the environment today from poorly maintained waste sites, leaks from electrical transformers and incinerators using a temperature too low. By the 1960s PCBs could be found at trace levels in people and animals around the world, not just in heavily populated areas, but in the Arctic too. The health effects are widespread; PCBs cause cancer, reduce the function of the thyroid and the immune system and cause neurological deficits. Importantly for survival of Orca, PCBs reduce conception rates in females and sperm count in males and reduce the birth weight of calves.
Lulu’s death was caused by becoming entangled in fishing ropes not by PCBs. However, you don’t often hear about Orcas becoming entangled. They are very intelligent, nimble and aware creatures. It’s highly likely that the PCBs in Lulu’s body impaired her ability to navigate a common hazard, but to be brutally honest the PCBs had killed her chances of reproducing years ago. Her body may have washed up in 2017 but her pod have been dying for years. Humans changed the chances of survival and sadly there is no hope of saving them now.
Where do microplastics come from?
Ever since the footage from Blue Planet II hit our screens, there has been a growing awareness of the devastating impact of plastic on the marine environment. Anyone who has taken part in any of the Great British Beach Cleans organised by Marine Conservation Society volunteers will have already know much of the debris collected every year is plastic, from fish crates to drinks bottles, rope to the cotton bud sticks with cigarette butts thrown in for good measure. Whilst the MCS encourage volunteers to collect every item in a 100 metre stretch for their survey work, its certain that there are some plastic particles that are just too small to be picked up. These are the microplastics.
Microplastics are particles less than 5mm in size, ranging down to 5μm. That’s the Greek letter mu which represents micrometers, one million times smaller than a metre, a thousand times smaller than a millimetre. This size range is why these particles are called microplastics. Microplastics are not as easy to count. A collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and a charity called Just One Ocean is running a scheme to encourage people to survey their beaches for microplastics. There’s a carefully designed citizen science method to allow data from around the UK shores to be submitted and collated. We don’t fully understand the scale of the problem yet, but scientists from a number of disciplines are expressing concerns that it’s much larger than anyone suspected.
Microplastics have many sources. Large plastic pieces tumbling around in the marine environment will gradually break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Washing synthetic clothes in a washing machine releases microfibres into the waste water. If you run a tumble dryer you will know that you have to clear out the lint from it. That is just the larger fibres that get trapped. Smaller particles will enter the air blown out from the dryer. Microplastics have been found in the air, soil and water across the world. Since the 1960s, plastic particles were deliberately put into toothpastes and body care products as microbeads. They helped scrub the plaque off your teeth or acted as an abrasive layer to remove dead skin in facial scrubs. Those plastic beads were useful for about 2 minutes (because we all brush for the recommended time don’t we?) and when you rinsed and spat, those plastic beads were set free on the world. And the chances are they will exist long after you have gone.
We also find microplastics in food and bottled drinks. Filter feeding marine life picks up the particles from the environment. Mussels tested from 8 locations round the UK and samples bought from 8 UK supermarkets were all found to contain 70 microplastic particles per 100g of meat. Beer, honey and sea salt have also been shown to be good sources. Some studies have shown that over 80% of tap water samples contained microplastic and bottled water was even worse. One sample of bottled water had over 10,000 plastic particles in a litre. Science has a funny way of examining such issues, they’ve even looked at human faeces to gauge the levels that we are consuming. They found 20 microplastic particles for every 10g of stool sample.
So, what’s the big issue? Indestructible little bits of plastic that are so small you can’t see them with the naked eye? And they obviously pass through your intestine because they are too big to be absorbed. Why should anyone care? And to a certain extent we don’t fully know yet – and that may be the scariest aspect of this story.
When plastics are made, they aren’t a pure substance. Thousands of different chemical additives can be thrown into the recipe to manipulate the properties of the plastic. As large plastics breakdown, these additives are released. The other concern is that microplastics are very good at adsorbing (not absorbing) certain chemicals onto their surface. You might have heard of a few of these; PCBs, PAHs and DDT are on the detected list. We’re reasonably certain that probably 90% or more of the plastic microparticles that you’ve ingested have passed through your intestinal tract. But what scientists cannot quantify yet is whether they transferred damaging levels of toxins to you on the way. The data so far suggests possible disruption of your gut microbiome and inflammation. The consequences of long term repeated exposure to the toxic chemicals carried by the microplastics is still being assessed. It doesn’t bode well. We know from other species how devastating persistent organic pollutants can be.
There are estimated to have been 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic made since the 1960s, of which over 4.9 billion metric tonnes has been discarded into the environment. This is a problem that will not be easily solved and we are all at risk.
Michelle has been scuba diving for nearly 30 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.