Sex on the beach

2 10 2018
Female green turtles (Chelonia mydas) spawning (top) and diving (bottom) on Raine Island (Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia) — photos courtesy of Ian Bell. This species is ‘Endangered’ globally since 1982, mainly from egg harvesting (poaching conflict in Mexico for olive ridley Lepidochelys olivacea featured by National Geographic’s video here), despite the success of conservation projects (39). Green turtles inhabit tropical and subtropical seas in all oceans. Adults can grow > 150 kg and live for up to ~ 75 years. Right after birth, juveniles venture into the open sea to recruit ultimately in coastal areas until sexual maturity. They then make their first reproductive migration, often over 1000s of km (see footage of a real dive of a camera-equipped green turtle), to reach their native sandy beaches where pregnant females will lay their eggs. Each female can deposit more than one hundred eggs in her nest, and in several clutches in the same season because they can store the sperm from multiple mating events.

When sex is determined by the thermal environment, males or females might predominate under sustained climatic conditions. A study about marine turtles from the Great Barrier Reef illustrates how feminisation of a population can be partitioned geographically when different reproductive colonies are exposed to contrasting temperatures.

Fortunately, most people in Western societies already perceive that we live in a complex blend of sexual identities, far beyond the kind of genitals we are born with. Those identities start to establish themselves in the embryo before the sixth week of pregnancy. In the commonest scenario, for a human foetus XY with one maternal chromosome (X) and one paternal (Y) chromosome, the activation of the Sry gen (unique to Y) will trigger the differentiation of testicles and, via hormonal pathways, the full set of male characteristics (1).

Absence of that gene in an XX embryo will normally lead to a woman. However, in just one of many exceptions to the rule, Sry-expression failure in XY individuals can result in sterile men or ambiguous genitals — along a full gradient of intermediate sexes and, potentially, gender identities. A 2015 Nature ‘News’ feature echoes two extraordinary cases: (i) a father of four children found to bear a womb during an hernia operation, and (ii) a pregnant mother found to host both XX and XY cells during a genetic test – with her clinical geneticist stating “… that’s the kind of science-fiction material for someone who just came in for an amniocentesis” (2). These real-life stories simply reflect that sex determination is a complex phenomenon.

Three ways of doing it

In nature, there are three main strategies of sex determination (3) — see scheme here: Read the rest of this entry »





Personal deterrents can reduce the risk of shark bites

19 06 2018

Shak deterrent testing

Photo: Charlie Huveneers

A little over a week ago, shark ecologist, Charlie Huveneers, and I attempted to write an article in The Conversation about a report we co-wrote regarding the effectiveness of personal shark-deterrent devices (see below for more on the report itself). It’s a great little story, with both immediate policy implications for human safety and great, big potential improvements to shark conservation in general (i.e., if sharks kill fewer people, then perhaps governments would be less inclined to invokes stupid laws to kill sharks). Indeed, sharks aren’t doing very well around the world, mainly because of over-harvest and persecution from unfounded fear.

Anyway, all was going swimmingly until our editor at The Conversation suddenly decided that they wouldn’t publish the piece based on the following funding disclaimer that we had submitted with the article:

This project was funded by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Shark Management Strategy Competitive Annual Grants Program, the Government of South Australia, Ocean Guardian Pty Ltd, and the Neiser Foundation. We openly and transparently declare that Ocean Guardian contributed financially to the study, but that Ocean Guardian was not involved in the study design or implementation, nor did they have access to the data post-collection. Nor did Ocean Guardian provide input into data analysis, interpretation, writing of the report, or the conclusions drawn. The study design followed a protocol developed for a previous study, which was not funded by Ocean Guardian. In summary, Ocean Guardian had no opportunity to influence any aspect of the study or its conclusions, apart from providing some financial support to realise the field project (e.g., boat hire, equipment purchase, etc.) in the same manner as the other funding agencies. The South Australian cage-diving industry provided logistical support during the testing of the deterrents.

The long and short of The Conversation‘s negative decision was that one of the companies contributed financially to project. However, as we stated above, they had absolutely no influence in the subsequent experimental design, data collection, analysis, interpretation or report writing.

While normally I’m a big fan of The Conversation, I really think they dropped the ball with this one. Their decision was illogical and unsupported for five main reasons:

  1. There were many funding partners involved, and the Ocean Freedom contribution was in no way the major or even majority share of funding.
  2. Other companies with devices tested could have contributed, but only Ocean Freedom offered.
  3. The study was commissioned by a state government agency (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries), which is not a commercial entity.
  4. As stated in our disclosure, there was no opportunity for manipulating experimental design, data ownership, or post-collection analysis or writing that could have influenced the results, by any funders or contributors.
  5. The disclosure is open, honest, comprehensive and in every way truthful.

So, I’m more than just a little disappointed — and my opinion of the organisation has dropped considerably. That, with the constant barrage of donation requests they send makes me think twice about their journalistic integrity. I challenge others to think carefully before giving them any money.

Regardless, let’s move on to the article itself (which I can publish freely here without the Draconian oversight of The Conversation):

Many things might explain why the number of shark bites appear to be increasing. However, the infrequent occurrence of such events makes it nearly impossible to determine why. Recently, an atypically high rate of shark bites occurred in Western Australia in 2010-2011 and on the north coast of New South Wales in 2015-2016. These highly publicised events — often sensationalised in both traditional and social media — have pressured governments to implement new measures to reduce the risk of shark bites.

The rising pressure to do something to reduce shark bites has prompted the recent development or commercial release of many new personal shark deterrents. Yet, most of these devices lack any rigorous scientific assessment of their effectiveness, meaning that some manufacturers have made unfounded claims about how much their devices dissuade sharks from attacking humans.

However, if a particular type of commercially available shark deterrent happens to be less effective (or completely ineffective) as advertised, it can give users a false sense of security, potentially encouraging some to put themselves at greater risk than is necessary. For example, some surfers and spearfishers probably ignore other mitigation measures, such as beach closures, because they ‘feel safe’ when wearing these products.

Read the rest of this entry »





Predicting sustainable shark harvests when stock assessments are lacking

26 03 2018

srb 1

© Andrew Fox

I love it when a good collaboration bears fruit, and our latest paper is a good demonstration of that principle.

It all started a few years ago with an ARC Linkage Project grant we received to examine how the whaler shark fishing industry in Australia might manage its stocks better.

As I’m sure many are aware, sharks around the world aren’t doing terribly well (surprise, surprise — yet another taxon suffering at the hands of humankind). And while some populations (‘stocks’, in the dissociative parlance of the fishing industry) are doing better than others, and some countries have a better track record in managing these stocks than others, the overall outlook is grim.

One of the main reasons sharks tend to fair worse than bony fishes (teleosts) for the same fishing effort is their ‘slow’ life histories. It doesn’t take an advanced quantitative ecology degree to understand that growing slowly, breeding late, and producing few offspring is a good indication that a species can’t handle too much killing before populations start to dwindle. As is the case for most large shark species, I tend to think of them in a life-history sense as similar to large terrestrial mammals.

Now, you’d figure that a taxon with intrinsic susceptibility to fishing would have heaps of good data with which managers could monitor catches and quotas so that declines could be avoided. However, the reality is generally the inverse, with many populations having poor information regarding vital rates (e.g., survival, fertility), age structure, density feedback characteristics, and even simple estimates of abundance. Without such key information, management tends to be ad hoc and often not very effective. Read the rest of this entry »





Offshore Energy & Marine Spatial Planning

22 02 2018

FishingOffshoreWind

I have the pleasure (and relief) of announcing a new book that’s nearly ready to buy, and I think many readers of CB.com might be interested in what it describes. I know it might be a bit premature to announce it, but given that we’ve just finished the last few details (e.g., and index) and the book is ready to pre-order online, I don’t think it’s too precocious to advertise now.

9781138954533-2

A little history is in order. The brilliant and hard-working Katherine Yates (now at the University of Salford in Manchester, UK) approached me back in 2014 to assist her with co-editing the volume that she wanted to propose for the Routledge Earthscan Ocean series. I admit that I reluctantly agreed at the time, knowing full well what was in store (anyone who has already edited a book will know what I mean). Being an active researcher in energy and biodiversity (perhaps not so much on the ‘planning’ side per se) certainly helped in my decision.

And yes, there were ups and downs, and sometimes it was a helluva lot of work, but Katherine certainly made my life easier, and she has finally driven the whole thing to completion. She deserves most of the credit.

Read the rest of this entry »





Tiny, symbiotic organisms protect corals from predation and disease

20 12 2017

hydrozoan polyp

Hydrozoan polyps living on the surface of a coral (photo credit: S. Montano)

Corals could have some unexpected allies to cope with the multi-faceted threats posed by climate change.

In a new study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Montano and colleagues show how tiny hydrozoans smaller than 1 mm and commonly found in dense colonies on the surface of hard corals (see above photo) play an important ecological role.

Visually examining ~ 2500 coral colonies in both Maldivian and Saudi Arabian reefs, the scientists searched for signs of predation, temperature-induced stress, and disease. For each colony, they also recorded the presence of symbiotic hydrozoans. They demonstrated that corals living in association with hydrozoans are much less prone to be eaten by corallivorous (i.e., ‘coral-eating’) fish and gastropods than hydrozoan-free corals.

A likely explanation for this pattern could be the deterring action of hydrozoan nematocysts (cells capable of ejecting a venomous organelle, which are the same kinds found in jellyfish tentacles). An individual hydrozoan polyp of less than 1 mm clearly cannot cope with a corallivorous fish that is a billions of times larger, yet hydrozoans can grow at high densities on the surface of corals (sometimes > 50 individuals per cm2). This creates a sort of a continuous, ‘urticating‘ carpet that can discourage fish from foraging. Read the rest of this entry »





It’s not all about temperature for corals

31 05 2017

CB_ClimateChange6_Photo

Three of the coral species studied by Muir (2): (a) Acropora pichoni: Pohnpei Island, Pacific Ocean — deep-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; (b) Acropora divaricate: Maldives, Indian ocean — mid-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; and (c) Acropora gemmifera: Orpheus Island, Australia — shallow-water species/IUCN ‘Least Concern’. The IUCN states that the 3 species are vulnerable to climate change (acidification, temperature extremes) and demographic booms of the invading predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci. Photos courtesy of Paul Muir.

Global warming of the atmosphere and the oceans is modifying the distribution of many plants and animals. However, marine species are bound to face non-thermal barriers that might preclude their dispersal over wide stretches of the sea. Sunlight is one of those invisible obstacles for corals from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

If we were offered a sumptuous job overseas, our professional success in an unknown place could be limited by factors like cultural or linguistic differences that have nothing to do with our work experience or expertise. If we translate this situation into biodiversity terms, one of the best-documented effects of global warming is the gradual dispersal of species tracking their native temperatures from the tropics to the poles (1). However, as dispersal progresses, many species encounter environmental barriers that are not physical (e.g., a high mountain or a wide river), and whose magnitude could be unrelated to ambient temperatures. Such invisible obstacles can prevent the establishment of pioneer populations away from the source.

Corals are ideal organisms to study this phenomenon because their life cycle is tightly geared to multiple environmental drivers (see ReefBase: Global Information System for Coral Reefs). Indeed, the growth of a coral’s exoskeleton relies on symbiotic zooxanthellae (see video and presentation), a kind of microscopic algae (Dinoflagellata) whose photosynthetic activity is regulated by sea temperature, photoperiod and dissolved calcium in the form of aragonite, among other factors.

Read the rest of this entry »





Noses baffled by ocean acidification

18 04 2017

Clown fish couple (Amphiprion percula) among the tentacles of anemone Heteractis magnifica in Kimbe Bay (Papua New Guinea) – courtesy of Mark McCormick. Clownfish protect anemones from predators and parasites in exchange of shelter and food. The fish tolerates the host’s venom because its skin is protected by a mucus layer some 2-3× thicker than phylogenetically related species (12); clownfish fabricate the mucus themselves and seem to obtain anemone antigens through a period of acclimation (13), but whether protection is acquired or innate is still debated. Clownfish are highly social bony fish, forming groups with one reproductive pair (up to 11 cm in length each) and several smaller, non-reproductive males. Reproduction is protandrous (also known as sequential hermaphroditism), so larvae are born male and, as soon as the reproductive female dies, her widower becomes female and the largest of the subsidiary males becomes the alpha male. The IUCN lists clownfish, generically named ‘anemone fish’, as threatened by the pet-trade industry and habitat degradation, although surprisingly, only 1 species has been assessed (A. sandaracinos). The clown anemone fish A. ocellaris is the species that inspired Nemo in the 2003 Academy-Award fiction movie – contrary to the logical expectation that the Oscars Red Carpet would generate support for conservation on behalf of Hollywood, of the 1568 species represented in the movie, only 16 % of those evaluated are threatened (14).

Smell is like noise, the more scents we breathe in one sniff, the more difficult it is to distinguish them to the point of olfactory saturation. Experimental work with clownfish reveals that the increase in dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater, mimicking ocean acidification, alters olfactory physiology, with potential cascading effects on the demography of species.

Places such as a restaurant, a hospital or a library have a characteristic bouquet, and we can guess the emotional state of other people by their scents. Smell is critical between predators and prey of many species because both have evolved to detect each other without the aid of vision. At sea, the smell of predators dissolves in water during detection, attack, capture, and ingestion of prey, and many fishes use this information to assess the risk of ending up crunched by enemy teeth (1, 2). But predator-prey interactions can be modified by changes in the chemical composition of seawater and are therefore highly sensitive to ongoing ocean acidification (see global measuring network here). Experts regard ocean acidification as the ‘other CO2 problem’ of climate change (3) — just to emphasize that anthropogenic climate-change impacts terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems alike. Acidification occurs because the ocean absorbs CO2 at a rate proportional with the concentration of this gas in the atmosphere and, once dissolved, CO2 becomes carbonic acid (H2CO3), which in turn releases protons (H+) — in simple terms, pH is the concentration of protons (see video about ocean acidification): Read the rest of this entry »