You Don’t Know What You’ve Got

Every day my mind is blown by live broadcasts of astounding, weird creatures from our deepest oceans. I’ve posted a taste of this live stream video and photography extravaganza.

In the past, it’s been almost impossible to study life in the deepest oceans. Why? Because it’s freakin’ freezing (sometimes just above zero degrees centigrade (C) or 32oF by your U.S. thermometer), or boiling hot (60 to 464 °C), and the hydrostatic pressure is enormous, almost beyond comprehension. A fish, worm, or crab living down at the bottom of the sea is experiencing literally tons of pressure per square inch, like the weight of an elephant or an SUV compared to the 14.5 pounds per square inch you are probably experiencing right now. And yet, as we speak, heroic explorers are sending live stream video directly to you. And WOW! What they are seeing is beautiful and bizarre!

My colleague from the Lehigh University Department of Biological Sciences, Santiago Herrera, is the lead biologist on an expedition to the American Samoas to some of the deepest parts of the ocean, 3,000-5,000 meters, that is, about 2 miles under the sea. He’s now aboard the Okeanos Explorer, an impressive vessel equipped with high-tech lights, cameras, robot arms and scoops, and lasers that are sent to the sea floor and manipulated by the crew with precision. They broadcast live every day from their American Samoa Expedition.

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NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer docked at the pier at the Port of Pago Pago in American Samoa. Significant outreach was conducted prior to commencing the expedition. Interviews were conducted with media, and ship tours were held for local elementary through college students, local partners, and government and agency representatives. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2017 American Samoa.

Alien life on Our Own Plant

Just this week, the Okeanos Explorer crew sent these videos of Dr. Seuss-like creatures that you might think were discovered in outer space. What’s incredible is that these creatures’ habitat is actually the most common habitat on our planet. Santiago tells us that most of our planet consists of deep oceans (about 72%), and yet we know very little about what lives there.

Sex and Food Under the Sea

The other day, as I watched the Okeanos team zoom in on some rare sponges, sea anemones, and a type of deep water clam never-before-seen alive, Santiago explained that another extreme feature of the deep sea environment is very low fuel and nutrient availability. Most animals down there depend on a small, slow trickle of organic matter that floats down from shallow parts of the ocean. The link between food and sex holds up in these alien environments. Deep sea creatures must conserve energy and nutrients by maturing very slowly. In comparison to the willy nilly reproduction that’s going on up here, deep sea creatures engage in the energetically-expensive process of reproduction only rarely.

There are many other fascinating adaptations to the extreme deep sea environment. Cell walls and nuclear membranes of deep sea creatures are made to withstand enormous hydrostatic pressure, and therefore, if they are brought up from their deep sea habitat into lower pressures, they literally fall to bits. Many of these creatures are a deep red color, owing to high levels of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the thing in your red blood cells that makes them red, and the thing that transports oxygen to your various organs. Extra hemoglobin helps deep sea organisms survive in their low-oxygen environment. So, in the Okeanos Explorer videos, you will often see bright red shrimp, psychedelic ctenophores (comb jellies), and fiery-colored fish in the deepest waters. Here are some screen shots from their gorgeous website.

Kiss it Goodbye

Now that you’re amazed by and bonded to these fascinating friends, let me crush your soul. Climate change will have a devastating impact on our deep sea organisms, and this is related to the food-sex connection and the reality of trickle-down economics. The slow trickle of energy-yielding food to the lower depths has led to the evolution of animals that are now adapted to living on very little food and oxygen. They have survived and spread their traits to each generation because they have an innate tendency to grow and mature very slowly, and reproduce infrequently. Their habitat has been very stable for long periods of time, and once disturbed, they don’t appear to have innate mechanisms to make a comeback. Their rates of reproduction are too slow, and when they experience changes in the acidity, levels of oxygen, or temperature, their populations might not  recover. Climate change, global warming, whatever you want to call it, will cause these devastating changes that disturb the deep sea conditions. Scientists from Scripps Institute of Oceanography have published a study indicating that the food supply to some areas of the earth’s deep oceans will decline by up to one half by the year 2100.

It doesn’t appear that we can count on the United States to delay the onset of climate change. Think about it. Why do we need the governments to make us install solar, purchase electric vehicles, and recycle? When you are planning your own survival and that of your children and grandchildren, think of these deep sea organisms, and our native American friends at Standing Rock, and let them inspire you.

Please let me leave you with something better than a sad Joni Mitchell lyric (“You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”). Keep learning, dig, dig, dig deeper than your initial shallow understanding. Acquiring knowledge is not elitist; it’s freedom and it’s fun. In the words of the B52s, There Goes a Sea Robin!

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