Posts Tagged ‘NOAA’

If You Were a Superhero

January 18, 2010

If you were a superhero- what would your powers be ?  I have always been impressed by echinoderms as they harness the powers of water to leap over small boulders,  pry apart shells and stick to vertical or inverted surfaces.  Ok, maybe leap is not the right word- crawl.

Touch tank 3, Marine Exhibit, Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Ft. Worden State Park, Port Townsend, Quimper Peninsula, Jefferson County, Washington State, USA.

I am regular a volunteer for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.  I am on the “home crew”.  I do maintenance every Tuesday morning with a small crew of other volunteers.  We range in age from 20’s to 70’s.  That means I go in the morning and help keep the aquariums health and the critters taken care of.  That involves scrubbing, siphoning detritus and feeding the critters.  We usually do it to the sound of some soundtrack or discussion about current events.  The best part is watching nature unfold in front of us.  This includes births and deaths.  We watched an octopus lay 2000 eggs- Ruby the East Pacific Red octopus.  She died just last week- that is what they do naturally after laying eggs.   We have watched the Giant Pacific octopus come out of her brick-shelter and eat a Squat lobster with much enthusiasm.

Sometimes it is the little details that I find amazing.  Every marine creature has its own specialized adaptations that allow its species to compete and thrive in the marine environment- by the way, which makes up 99 percent of earth’s habit.  It such a foreign environment to most of us that is hard to understand our marine critters.  We also don’t spend much energy on learning about them.  The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cite that we only know about 275,000 marine species and that we have only explored 5% of our Earth’s oceans.  I find the adaptation of the taxonomic group (phylum) Echinodermata- absolutely fascinating.

What is the difference between adaptation and acclimation?  If it is hot during the summer where I live, my body will have to acclimate to the difference.  When I hike tall mountains in low oxygen, my body will have to acclimate and my blood will be thicker. All creatures have a range they can live in and the ability to acclimate a little depending on the species.  If Earth’s conditions changed dramatically, our species will likely adapt over time.  That will only happen if our species has the right stuff- combination of DNA and the resulting attributes that help people survive.  We could also get lucky and new DNA will arise as a result of random mutation.  They key is how quick your generations can turn over as to how quick those mutations show-up in large enough numbers to compete.  That’s right, smaller life forms have it easy- bacteria, fruit flies, etc.  Yep- that is right we are lucky to be here.

I chose to start my feeding rounds with the Red urchins last Tuesday.  Urchins can be found in the San Juan Islands- as well as other places.  They eat Bull kelp as well as other algae.  You can think of them as the undersea equivalent of a lumberjack in a kelp forest.  Their natural predators are Sea otters.  We feed them little squares of kelp as well.

I lower the kelp into the water and hold it next to the urchin.  Almost immediately I see little red tentacles waving in the water toward the kelp.  I put it closer and they have a hold of the kelp and begin pulling it tighter.  I do this for the other dozen or so urchins- greens too.  I look back to where I started and see the kelp has nearly disappeared underneath the urchin’s body.   They look slow but they are steady and certainly persistent!

Urchins are members of the phylum Echinodermata.  As an echinoderm they pull in water to fill a specialized system.  You can think of them as the caterpillar tractors with all their hydraulic hoses that move the bucket arms around.  The specialized system is series of tubes with pumps called the water vascular system.  These tentacles I am witnessing are actually tube-feet that extend out from within the skeleton and through the skin.  With more pressure they extend and retract.  There are still conventional muscles that do the pumping and guiding.  These tube feet are handy in keeping the place tidy as others try to make a home among the spines and also for feeding apparently.  Everything found is headed to the mouth- yum, yum.

I can’t help but wonder how the urchin is even aware the kelp is there.  If you know urchins it is likely they don’t know you because they have no eyes.  That must mean that they are chemically sensing the “taste” of the nearby algae.  Where are the receptors?  On their tube-feet?  In the main body?   I don’t recall them having a tongue.  How does the tiny molecular signature of the kelp can travel through the water and alert the urchin?  How close does it need to be for them to sense it?  Wow what a superpower!  I will to have answers those questions another day.