Grape-Sized Single-Celled Protists Found in Little San Salvador

These curious creatures were first discovered in the Arabian Sea thirteen years ago. Recently, scientists with NOAA have discovered the same creatures in deep sea Little San Salvador, Bahamas, near where I learned to dive last year.

The “Bahamian Gromia,” as these single-celled organisms have come to be called, are special because of their mechanism of movement. They slowly, almost imperceptibly, roll themselves along the sea floor. Duke biology professor, Sönke Johnsen, speculated that the gromia does, indeed, self-propel, but was unable to determine how.

Johnsen noted, “We watched the video over and over, the trails couldn’t be the result of currents because they went in several directions at the same spot, and sometimes they even changed course. And they weren’t the result of rolling downhill. In fact, one trail was found that went down into a small depression and came back up the other side.”

The controversy over these animals is due to a discrepancy in the fossil record. The trail left by the gromia as they roll around matches recorded fossilized mud tracks. Scientists who examined these fossils, which predate the “Cambrian Explosion” when multi-cellular organisms began to emerge, believed that multi-cellular organism must have come into existence earlier because the tracks could not have been made by uni-cellular organisms. The gromia prove this notion false.

The gromia can be likened to a “thick balloon,” with most cell organelles close to the surface and a liquid-filled center. Most likely, the gromia take in sediment and symbiotic bacteria decompose their food for them. Little else is known about these creatures because attempts at a captive study have failed due to their frailty.


Bahamian Gromia


Orphaned Polar Bear Cub Rescued

After a hunter shot Kali’s mother for sport in Alaska, he realized the bear he had just killed was a mother and set about tracking the cub. When the hunter found Kali, he dropped him off at a police station, where he was later sent to the Alaska Zoo.

Unfortunately, although the zoo released adorable footage of Kali, it could not accommodate the little cub, who at this point was three months old and weighed 19 pounds. After taking care of him for several weeks, the zoo in Alaska arranged to send Kali to the Buffalo Zoo in New York.

Zookeepers at the Buffalo Zoo hope to put Kali in an enclosure with another polar bear cub named Luna. Kali and Luna will be slowly introduced and, if all goes well, will soon be playing together.



A New Environmental Delicacy?

Dr. Mark Post, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, has successfully created a 5 ounce hamburger using muscle tissue cultures taken from cows in a slaughterhouse. This “in-vitro” meat required the creation of several billion cells and will be presented at a London event in a few weeks.

Taste-tests reveal the meat to be reasonably palatable. However, the burger was exceedingly expensive to create, costing $350,000. In order to mass produce test-tube burgers, the cost would have to be cut by using something cheaper than fetal calf serum, which supplies the needed stem cells, called myosatellite cells. There is also the issue of controversy – this meat will not be easy to get into supermarkets.

The idea of lab-meat has been around for a while and has many supporters, including environmentalists and those in favor of animal welfare. There is also talk of the meat helping to end hunger in impoverished nations where meat is hard to come by.

The way livestock is currently grown on farms has proved environmentally unsound due to the production of large quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas) and the significant need for energy and water resources. The meat engineered by Dr. Post will use less energy, land, and water, as well as produce lower levels of greenhouse gases.  The beef also may be healthier, as it is produced without fat.

With the potential to change the world, I say, why not?


Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach 400 PPM: Dustbowls and Coral Bleaching

For the first time since human existence, on May 9, carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere reached 400 PPM. There are now 400 molecules of CO2 for every million molecules of air, but this number is not limited to a literal meaning. We have reached a “grim milestone,” but levels are still on the rise. Scientists and environmental advocates alike call for reform, but as we know, effective reform is never easy.

Global CO2 levels in 2012 proved that nations across the globe must cooperate to lower emissions. Although the U.S. succeeded in lowering CO2 emissions by 13% in the last several years, the worldwide levels were the highest ever recorded.

The Mauna Loa observatory has monitored CO2 levels since 1958, but air bubble samples from ice sheets in the Antarctic prove CO2 has not reached these levels in the past 800,000 years. One recent scientific paper suggests that the last time CO2 levels were similar to what they are now was 10 to 14 million years ago.

Carbon dioxide levels do fluctuate, and May is peak CO2 season, but just because levels will drop slightly until October (annual minimum) does NOT mean that levels will not continue to increase.

Many suggest extreme action is the only solution. According to James Hansen, renowned NASA scientist, the world would have to stop burning coal for any hope of returning CO2 levels to 350 PPM.  One reason why this is such a “grim milestone” is because the damage caused by CO2 is irreversible, at least for the next 1000 years. Especially problematic is the projected sea level rise and decrease in rain fall in several regions of the world, potentially creating “dust bowls.”

The issue of atmospheric rise in CO2 carries over into our oceans. The ocean absorbs as much as 25% of the CO2 that enters the atmosphere each year. This could be seen as a benefit to terrestrial life, however it is extremely detrimental to ocean life. The addition of CO2 results in the production of bicarbonate ions, causing a phenomenon known as ocean acidification.

The pH of the surface of the ocean has dropped 0.1 units since the 18th century. This change may seem small, but keep in mind that the pH scale is logarithmic, meaning the ocean has become 30% more acidic. This has a number of negative impacts on the ocean, including coral reef bleaching.

Mauna Loa Observatory

Mauna Loa Observatory

Reef Bleaching in Australia

Reef Bleaching in Australia

An Unlikely Adoption in the Azores

In the Azores, off the coast of Portugal, two behavioral ecologists made a rare find.  A dolphin with a spinal deformation has been adopted by a group of sperm whales, a species that has not been known to form relationships with other animals.

The researchers who observed the unusual bond over the course of six days suspect that the dolphin sought the whales’ company for social reasons, rather than for protection, due to the lack of predators in that area of the Atlantic Ocean.  Because of the dolphin’s malformation, it may not have been accepted among other bottlenose dolphins, or may have had a low social ranking within its pod prompting it to search elsewhere for company.

The question remaining seems to be the motivation of the sperm whales.  While the story is touching, Luke Rendell, behavioral biologist with the University of Saint Andrews, suggests the whales may have simply mistaken the dolphin as a sperm whale calf.

Justin Gregg, scientist with the Dolphin Communications Project, believes that the relationship works because the two species share certain signals, allowing for limited communication.  The relationship seems perfect for the dolphin who would not have to work as hard to keep up, as sperm whales are slower swimmers.


A River Runs Through It

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” -Norman Maclean

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park, Montana

Svalbard Global Seed Vault: A Doomsday Safeguard

In the rugged Svalbard archipelago, belonging Norway, lies the Spitsbergen island. It is here that the Global Crop Diversity Trust decided to build the Global Seed Vault. Although commonly referred to as the “Doomsday Vault,” Cary Fowler of the GCDT insists that it is currently in use and is not intended as a doomsday reserve.

The “back up” seeds in the super high-tech vault are critical to global agriculture because conditions are constantly changing and each crop variety has different adaptations or resistance levels to certain conditions like diseases, pests, and temperature change. The varieties housed in the vault can also be bred to combine desirable traits to help negate future effects of climate change.

Although one of the most remote locations on Earth, Spitsbergen is an ideal location for the vault because of its arctic climate. The permafrost ensures that specimens in the underground store will remain frozen, and therefore viable, even if a power outage were to occur.

As of today, seeds from over 4,000 plant species from 228 countries are tucked away in Svalbard for a rainy day. Hopefully, we won’t need the seeds to recover from doomsday, but the stores will prove valuable in the upcoming decades while we work to feed our fast-growing population.