Scavengers brave dead zones for fleshy feast

Strange things happen at the bottom of the ocean. Cryptic tubeworms feast on sunken whale bones, furry crabs crawl around seeping geothermal vents, and the bug-eyed, polka-dotted glass squid has the audacity to exist.

Now, researchers have discovered that even in the ocean’s dead zones, where oxygen levels are too low to sustain much life, swimming scavengers will risk suffocation to go after a particularly juicy snack. In this case it’s a pig carcass dropped there by forensic scientists, but never fear — they’d eat you too.

I can’t get the infernal embed code to work, but you can watch National Geographic’s video report here. (Warning: Might make you hungry. Or never hungry again, depending on your constitution.)

The amazing part, as a commenter at Deep Sea News notes, is that the water’s so oxygen-poor that the pig sat untouched for two whole months. Anywhere else and it’d have been lunch much sooner.

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Scientists have literary moments too

Science papers can be pretty dry. It’s only natural: they have to present a lot of technical information, they use the specialized language that people in the field understand, and there are often tons of numbers. It’s hard to write rhapsodically about numbers (unless you’re Steven Strogatz).

But every now and then you run across a little tidbit in a research paper — a few words, usually a sentence at most — that reveal the passion underlying the technical pursuit. Like this line, in a paper about the proteins marine worms use to build tubes for themselves out of sand: “The third glue protein category is an intriguing potpourri of previously unknown proteins with only limited and scattered homologies with known proteins.”

Technical, technical, technical — bam! “Intriguing potpourri.” The rest of the paper tells you about the science, but those two words tell you that the scientists who wrote them are pretty stoked on what they do.

Or there’s this paper on the barnacles that stick themselves to whales. The abstract is formal, straightforward and factual, so I was hardly expecting the opening to the paper itself:

Riding on a whale! This should be the dream not only for kids, but also for all sessile filter feeders, such as bryozoans, serpulids, mussels, oysters, and tunicates, to name just a few. As any sailor knows, these foulers hitchhike happily on ships. Yet, except for acorn barnacles (the gooseneck barnacle Conchoderma can settle there only after its balanid cousins have provided a hard substrate), none of them made it to whales.

Okay, it’s not exactly Herman Melville, but I adore it. You can tell that this guy loves what he does, you can tell that he was probably the kid dreaming about riding a whale, and you can tell — this is my favorite part — that he actually empathizes with the small, squishy creatures he’s writing about. And now I do too. A tunicate with dreams? Frustrated dreams? I’d read that novel.

Tunicates have secret yearnings, you know. (Image: Nhobgood, Wikimedia Commons)

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Just in case anyone reads this who doesn’t read Scienceline (hint: you should), I have a new blog post over there about sea urchin vision. Pretty amazing stuff.

Unfortunately, they don’t see well enough to avoid you when you slip and fall on top of them, as I discovered a few summers ago.

Urchins: yet another thing you don’t mess with.

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Wait, which squid?

These aren't giant squid, either. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Sloppy science reporting alert!

This story is all over the place: “Giant squid” are suddenly swarming around the coastal waters of Southern California, and fishermen are hauling in huge piles of them in the name of sport, glory and endless calamari.

Nevermind that it’s a little sad when super-intelligent cephalopods are most valuable deep-fried. The problem with many of the squid-invasion stories from the last few days is that they contain an unfortunate — I’d go so far as to say offensive (to the squid) — inaccuracy.

“Giant squid invade California” makes a great headline, and I’d love to see it in campy sci-fi form.

But let’s be clear. The squid flooding the coast of California are Humboldt squid, also called jumbo squid. They live in the deep in the Pacific, they weigh a hundred pounds, and they’re over six feet long. They travel in big schools, which could explain why many of them are hitting the coast all at once.

Cool? Yeah. Big? Totally. Giant? Nope.

Because giant squid are a different species. Giant squid can be 60 feet long — ten times as big as the Humboldt — and they can weigh half a ton. They have eyes the size of dinner plates. They fight sperm whales, sometimes to the death. They’re so fundamentally mysterious that no one had even seen one alive until a few years ago.

Giant squid aren’t hanging out in Orange County. No one is catching hundreds of giant squid. Giant squid remain where they have always been, in the cold, black depths of the ocean, consistently eluding our grasp. You don’t mess with the giant squid.

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Hello, blog.

Image: Hunter-Desportes,

I was born a fearful child. One of the few memories I have of toddlerdom is the speech I would routinely give to whichever parent tucked me into bed: “Don’t close the door, don’t turn off the hall light, and don’t let any bad guys or alligators in.”

Every night. Alligators. I lived in Northern California, by the way, not on a swamp.

A few years later, I started worrying that the flushing toilet would catch my waist-length hair and pull me through a plumbing vortex to my doom. Then I saw a T.V. news story about the inevitable death of the solar system in five billion years, and that kept me awake for a week, at least.

Then came fifth grade. And Candyman. Isaac, a scrawny boy with a pale brown bowl cut and mysterious access to blood-soaked horror films, told us about Candyman one day in art class. In the movie, Candyman is a murderous ghost who appears if you speak his name into a mirror five times — like Bloody Mary, but hook-handed and homicidal. And Isaac told us Candyman could be summoned in real life.

I was wrecked. I didn’t entirely believe that Candyman was real, but neither did I entirely believe that he wasn’t going to burst from the mirror and slit my throat the next time I tried to brush my teeth. If I was ever going to close my eyes again, I needed to know for sure.

Obviously I couldn’t risk just saying his name in the mirror. Instead, as I lay awake and petrified, I made a plan: I would sit in my room, which had no mirrors, and speak Candyman’s name into my red plastic cassette recorder. Then I would put the tape recorder in the bathroom, hit play, run out, close the door, and observe from outside, perhaps with some kind of mirrored apparatus through the bottom of the door.

Of course, this assumed that despite being able to move fluidly through space-time, the boundary between life and death, and a plate glass mirror, Candyman would be stopped short by an inch and a half of compressed wood. Hey, it made sense to me at the time. And it made me less frightened to know that, despite my uncertainty, I might be able to empirically conquer the boogey-man.

So I guess that was when I became a science nerd. I never actually carried out my experiment, which is probably why I’m now a science journalist instead of an actual scientist, but the philosophy is basically the same. Observation defeats speculation, knowledge defeats fear, truth defeats alligators. Or something like that.

I’m not entirely sure yet what this blog is going to be. Future posts will be less navel-gazing, I promise. Marine science is one of my favorite corners of the nerd world, so that’s what I’ll dive into (oy, sorry) for the most part. And, since some of my midnight panic these days is related to the future of my chosen career path (or: will I ever pay my rent again?), expect some rumination about that as well. And probably some other things, too. I have a short attention span.

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