Archive | September, 2017

Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?

For the second time in two weeks, an earthquake has struck Mexico, leveling sky rises, splitting freeways, and killing over 270 people.  The 7.1-magnitude quake that occurred Tuesday afternoon has overwhelmed residents and officials of Mexico City.  Located in a region known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile U-shaped ring of Pacific coastline that stretches from the Indian-Australian Plate to the South-American Plate, Mexico City is an area that is notoriously at risk for major earthquakes.  Linked to 80 percent of global quakes, the Pacific Ring is considered one of the most seismically active areas on the planet.

Dogs Aid in Search and Rescue Efforts in Many Earthquakes

Dogs Aid in Search and Rescue Efforts in Many Earthquakes. Photo By DFID (John Ball with rescue dog Darcy in Chautara, Nepal) via Wikimedia Commons

What Causes Earthquakes and Can They Be Predicted?

An earthquake occurs when massive blocks of the earth’s crust known as tectonic plates, suddenly move past each other, releasing built up pressure and energy in the form of seismic waves.  These seismic waves are responsible for making the ground shake.  Currently, seismologists have not figured out a way to predict earthquake far enough in advance to avoid the mass casualties that accompany colossal quakes. Though extensive research and scientific support has yet to approve these theories, many suggest that animals have the capacity to foreshadow earthquakes before they occur.

Animal Instinct

Since the time of ancient Greece, some historians have maintained the belief that animals have the ability to predict the arrival of earthquakes. After a devastating earthquake decimated the Greek city of Heline in 373 B.C, townsfolk reported that snakes, rats, centipedes and weasels were seen fleeing the city in the days leading up to the quake.

Similarly, Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city with over one million residents, just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake in the winter of 1975. This order came after a large number of snakes in the area interrupted their hibernation and emerged from their burrows. Normally this surfacing would not be a cause for concern, but winters in Haicheng can be brutally cold and temperatures at this time were below freezing levels. Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles who must maintain a warmer body temperature to survive. During winter months, they tunnel themselves deep within the ground and remain there until spring. As witnesses in Haicheng reported the snakes leaving their burrows and exposing themselves to the frigid cold, officials became alarmed and evacuations began.  When the earthquake arrived two days later, a small portion of the population who failed to evacuate were hurt or killed while close to 150,000 evacuees were spared.

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Arguments from those who believe that animals have the ability to predict natural disasters rely on the understanding that earthquakes generate electrical fields and magnetic fluctuations.  Since many animals have the ability to hear infrasonic sounds like the low rumbling of an onrushing earthquake, it is possible that they can sense a quake before we can. Additionally, changes in the mineral and chemical composition of  groundwater have been measured before the onset of a quake. Historically, instances of entire amphibian populations (frogs and toads) abandoning their swampy homes before an earthquake have been reported. In 2010, the Journal of Zoology published a study in which a colony of toads deserted their mating site three days before an earthquake struck L’Aquila in Italy. The toads did not return back to their homes unit the last aftershock hit 10 days later. Studying a pre-quake mass exodus like the one in Italy could help scientists dechipher the connection between animal instinct and natural disaster. However, the US geological survey says there is just not enough evidence to conclusively determine that animals are accurate predictors of a quake well enough in advance.

Frogs Line the Streets Before a Big Earthquake Hits China.

Frogs Line the Streets Before a Big Earthquake Hits China.

A New Way Forward

Seismologist Joseph L. Kirschvink suggests that an animal’s instinctual fight or flight response may provide a sort of early warning system for seismic events.  Building on his theory, the German-Russian lead project, Icarus (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) uses a satellite-based monitoring system to track the response of mass migrations of birds as they pass through the epicenter of an earthquake. Icarus researchers are counting on migrating birds to cross the path of at least one of the 100 large scale earthquakes that happen each year. If the birds sense the epicenter and re-route their traditional migratory paths away from it, positive evidence that animals have the instinctual ability to foretell the coming of an earthquake can be examined.

Migratory Birds In Flight. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Migratory Birds In Flight. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

ICARUS Satellite Used to Track Migration of Birds.

ICARUS Satellite Used to Track Migration of Birds.

Earthquakes can cause serious damage in the homes and lives of the people that you love. If you live in an earthquake zone,  you should prepare an earthquake kit and check on its contents every few years.

After the Hurricane- Wildlife Watch

All week reports from a water-logged Florida, Texas, and the Carribean have been pouring in. Torrential downpours and massive flooding have devastated communities as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma passed through.  Many in the world watched in shock as the sea stormed the barriers, rushing through the streets of Miami to climb the lower levels of high-rises and tearing a path through the Carribean. Without discrimination, the maelstrom claimed humans, homes, and history for its own, leaving piles of debris as the only reminder of what formerly stood. Emergency services were called in to rescue evacuated families and their pets as their homes became victims of the flood.

Accounts of the next storm system, Tropical Storm Jose, have made their way to headlines  and the East Coast of the US is bracing itself for its projected touchdown later this week.

Flooded Homes Near Lake Huston After Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy of NBC News and Getty Images. 2017

Flooded Homes Near Lake Huston After Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy of NBC News and Getty Images. 2017

 

It has been nearly three weeks since Harvey flooded 28,000 square miles of Texas, and almost a week since the Irma struck the Caribbean and Florida. As the flood waters recede, over 200 million cubic yards of debris have been revealed in Texas alone. The extent of damage from Irma, which is still rolling through the country as a smaller tropical storm, has yet to be determined. Today the death toll for Harvey and Irma stands somewhere around 125 people, and hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage has been reported thus far.

Unaccounted for in the post-storm figures are the wildlife populations that could not relocate to higher ground when flood waters were rising. Over the past three weeks, the World Animal Protection Charity has sent emergency teams to Texas and Florida to rescue and care for wildlife. Teams of professional rescuers and volunteers have spent countless hours locating and rehabilitating injured animals following the storms. While clean up efforts in affected areas are well underway, it will take months for teams of experts to understand the full scale impact on wildlife.

Chickens perch on the roof of a hennery to escape rising floodwaters after Typhoon Utor hit Maoming, Guangzhou province August 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Reuters. 2017

Chickens perch on the roof of a hennery to escape rising floodwaters after Typhoon Utor hit Maoming, Guangzhou province August 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Reuters. 2017

Pets Rescued From Flooded Homes. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Hurricane Irma Leaves Manatees Stranded 

Last Sunday, Hurricane Irma was still 100 miles away from Tampa when it sucked the water out of shallow Sarasota Bay, an ideal habitat for manatees. The Florida Wildlife Commission had received several calls about stranded manatees, also known as sea cows,  when a passerby and two sheriffs noticed two manatees beached in the newly-dried bay. In a heroic effort to save the protected marine animals, the sheriffs rolled the 1000 pound manatees onto a sheet and dragged them over 100 yards to the sea.

Beached Manatee In Sarasota Bay During Irma. Photo Courtesy of @ManateeSheriff on Twitter. 2017

Beached Manatee In Sarasota Bay During Irma. Photo Courtesy of @ManateeSheriff on Twitter. 2017

 

When a Tree Falls

Trees provide a habitat for already vulnerable species. During a hurricane, high winds can uproot trees and displace the animal tenants living within. Many bird species that use trees as a convenient shelter have the ability to migrate to drier areas, and often times they are aware of a storm before it arrives. Ornithologists describe that most birds can sense even the slightest changes in barometric pressure, which makes them a kind of a living barometer. Once the message has been received that barometric pressure is low, they take flight and head for dryer areas. However, powerful winds can blow the migrating birds off of their course. At best, these birds can reroute themselves back to their homes once the storms have ended, but often they are injured or weakened and have been deprived of food so many do not survive. Both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma intersected the beginning of the annual fall migration, which according to ornithologists, guarantees some level of bird displacement.

In certain cases, birds do not have the opportunity to migrate away from the storm. Take the red-cockaded woodpeckers in South Carolina’s Marion National Forest for an example.  When Hurricane Hugo hit the area in September 1989, approximately 60 percent of the 500 groups of birds perished when 87 percent of the trees containing cavities where they lived were destroyed. Thanks to extensive rehabilitation efforts, populations have been returned to their numbers in the years since Hugo slammed the state.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Photo from Flickr. 2017

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Photo from Flickr. 2017

How Are Hurricanes Formed? 

As deep layers of warm ocean waters stoke an emerging thunderstorm into a mature state, a hurricane is born. Sea surface temperature is one of five factors that influence the formation of tropical cyclones, defined as rapidly rotating storm systems categorized by low-pressure centers, the presence of thunderstorms, heavy rain, strong winds, and low-level atmospheric circulation. Specifically, a hurricane is a tropical cyclone occurring in the Atlantic and northeastern Pacific Oceans.   The warm water temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico make it a notorious landing point for hurricanes. According to oceanographers, temperatures of the oceans in the Gulf of Mexico are the highest that they have ever been in recorded history and these spikes in temperature can account for some of the increase in hurricane potency. Warm water is only one of the ingredients needed to produce a full-fledged hurricane. Humidity, wind shear, and a generally unstable atmosphere are also required to help craft the “perfect storm.”

Ironically, the “perfect storm” is just that for certain plants and animals that survive its force. While hurricanes can be devastating to many wild animal populations, other animals manage to survive and thrive during and after the event. Orchids, gopher frogs, raccoons, and brown bears are among the animals that are generally positively impacted by a hurricane (so long as they survive).  Orchids use intense winds to spread their seeds, frogs breed in heavy rainfall,  raccoons scavenge for food, and bears use the fallen trees as shelter.

Sea turtles, marine life, small ground animals, livestock, and domestic pets can all fall victim to the destruction of habitats and the scarcity of food sources that are associated with hurricanes.

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Baby Sea Turtle on the Florida Beach. Reuters. 2017

Wild West Wildlife Rescuers Rehabilitate Over 200 Baby Squirrels After Harvey. Photo from Facebook. 2017

Wild West Wildlife Rescuers Rehabilitate Over 200 Baby Squirrels After Harvey. Photo from Facebook. 2017

As another Tropical Storm Jose matures in the distance, rescue efforts are still underway for the countless animal victims of the latest natural disasters. While it’s too early to fully estimate impacts of Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma on wildlife, it is important to recognize that recovery efforts will need to extend beyond far beyond human development. Locals in affected areas have begun reporting injured animals to their local officials and people around the world are making donations to support habitat conservation and protection efforts. You can help provide relief for human and wildlife foundations by donating to organizations that you trust.  For more information on individual organizations, click here.

Until next week, remember to appreciate your life, give to those in need,  and keep exploring your world.

Ecosystems: Kelp Forest Part 2

Last week’s adventures took us through the California Science Center Exhibit- Ecosystems. Continue the Journey with us this week as we learn about life inside wild Kelp forests. 


In the wild, the bottom level of the ocean is known as the benthic zone. All bodies of water have a benthic zone where creatures like snails, sea stars, oysters lobsters, and other crustacean reside. Organisms living in the benthic zone are called benthos and play a fundamental role in ecosystem management. Since light does not often penetrate the benthic zone, benthos feed on the dead and decaying matter found on the ocean floor, benthic algae, and young kelp.  Areas outside of the ocean’s benthic zone are either a part of the supratidal and subtidal zones (the areas found on the coastline that are impacted by high and low tide), the neritic zone (the shallow part of the ocean that extends to up to 200 meters in depth) or the pelagic zone (the area between the benthic and neritic zones). Most of the sea life that lives away from land or outside of the benthic zone is found in the pelagic zone.

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Often miscategorized as a plant, kelp is actually a species of brown algae (Macrocystis pyrifera), that grows in dense groupings, similar to the way a wooded forest grows on land.  The strands of kelp found in the controlled environment of the California Science Center grow to an impressive height, but are significantly smaller than the wild kelp forests, which can reach up to 175 feet in length. Kelp is prolific in growth and in ideal circumstances, can gain anywhere from 10 and 12 inches in a single day.

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Kelp. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Much like a buoy, the gas-filled bladders located at the base of the kelp leaf are responsible for holding up the kelp as it spreads from the bottom of the ocean floor to the surface of the water. Once the kelp has reached the surface, it forms a dense canopy that provides shelter and food for thousands of invertebrates, fish, and marine mammal species.

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp forests cross the benthic, pelagic, and neritic zones, and are home to a diverse group of marine life. In fact, the kelp forests found off of the California coast can accommodate over 1,000 species in a single forest, and are among the most diverse ecosystems found on earth!  Many organisms use the dense blades of the kelp to hide from predators and rear their young. Seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, fish, gulls, and other sea birds are some of the many animals found in the canopy’s armor.  Rich in varied food sources, the kelp forest ecosystem offers a perfect example of the hierarchical nature of the food web. As numerous species thrive in the shelter of the kelp, predators have greater access to food.  For example, kelp is eaten by tubeworms who are then gobbled up by birds and fish. Fish are the principal food source for baleen whales and sea lions.  Sea lions become the prey of the ocean’s top carnivores including sharks and killer whales (pictured below).

Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Killer Whale on the Hunt. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

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Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal (a Sea Lion). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Like the tubeworm and other small invertebrates, the primary food source of the sea urchin is kelp.  However, urchins present a huge problem in kelp forest management because of the alarming rate in which they consume the algae matter. Sea otters and spiny lobsters are the natural predator of the sea urchin, and as such their role in the ecosystem is vital.  When an urchin population balloons, kelp forests run the risk of depletion and the animals that use the canopy as shelter become vulnerable to predation. In order to manage urchin populations and conserve the delicate ecosystem, California Science Center staff and volunteer divers have joined local forces to remove over 100,000 sea urchins from the Palos Verde Peninsula. Considered a delicacy in fine dining cultures around the world, these sea urchins are often captured and sold to the restaurant industry.

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Close-Up of the Urchin's Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Close-Up of the Urchin’s Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Currently, the California Science center offers visitors the opportunity to pet urchins, sea slugs, eninimes, and other invertebrates. During our visit, I felt like a child who had returned to the coastal tide pools I loved so much as a kid. Using two gentle fingers (as advised), I stroked the back sides of sea slugs, explored the spines of urchins, and shook tentacles with an anemone.

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Throughout history, humans have devised numerous uses for kelp.  During World War I, kelp was harvested to make potash, a manufactured salt that contains potassium in water soluble form. During the war, potash was a major component of fertilizer and gunpowder. Following a German embargo on potash in 1914, American scientists and businessmen turned to the sea to extract potash from California’s giant kelp. By the 1930s, food and pharmaceutical corporations began extracting algin, a thickening, stabilizing, and gelling agent from kelp. Currently, algin is a popular additive used in a number of processed foods.

Visiting the synthetic kelp forest at the California Science center was truly a treat. Now, it is time to put on my fins and explore the wild forests off of the California Coast. I know that not everyone will have the opportunity to dive into the ocean ecosystems, but no matter where you live, some form of wilderness is available to you. Remember to get outside, ask questions, search for answers, and explore your world!

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Inside the Ecosystems- Kelp Forests Part 1

The Ecosystems exhibit at the California Science Center is a permanent fixture of their wide-ranging offerings. Visitors of the museum can explore eight diverse environments and ecosystems alternating between the “Extreme Zone” and “Rot Room” to the “Forest”, “Island,” and “River” zones. On Saturday August 26th, 2017 the Havasi Wilderness Foundation was given a private tour of the Kelp Forest exhibition, which has been open to the public since 2010. Dr. William Johns, Director of Life Support Systems at the California Science Center, acted as our personal guide for the day.


Beneath the floors of the California Science Center a deep humming emanates from a complex electrical grid that powers much of the facility. Thick pipes carrying water to and from the 188,000-gallon salt water tank housing the Kelp Forest Ecosystems exhibit line the walls and ceiling of the ground level. The area is cooler, wetter, and louder than most other parts of the museum, but the constant purring of water rushing through the pipelines had a soothing effect on me.

The kelp forest at the California Science Center is home to hundreds of marine animals across dozens of species, ranging in size from a microscopic crustacean to a five-hundred-pound giant sea bass. To feed the animals, on-staff divers and volunteer divers are employed to enter the tanks. Some fish require spot feeding methods (picture a scuba diver using tongs to feed chopped pieces of fish or crustacean to other carnivorous fish) to ensure that they receive the proper nutrients. The marine life in the kelp forest ecosystem exhibit eat and excrete several times a day, generating a sizeable amount of waste. Engineers and Technologists at the California Science Center work to develop systems that manage all of the waste.

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Just around the corner from the bottom floor elevator, sits an intricate filtration system comprised of giant cylinders measuring eight feet round and sixteen feet long. Dr. Johns explained that these tanks are packed with pressed gravel to filter out large and small waste matter from the water so that it can be recycled back into the kelp forest ecosystem. Unlike the Long Beach and Monterey Bay aquariums which discharge their marine exhibit waste back into the ocean, the California Science Center relies on sophisticated equipment to recycle and treat their wastewater. After the wastewater is filtered from the aquatic tanks, it starts a complex process wherein the concentrated salt byproduct from filtered saltwater must be flushed with fresh water to avoid an over-concentration of salts, maintaining the delicate salt to water ratio in treatment facilities.

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Fifteen minutes into the tour, the elevator dings and the doors slide open, inviting us to move on. We exit and begin our exploration of the dark rooms that provide an ideal viewing space for the saltwater tanks that make up the kelp forest installation. The exhibit itself is two stories tall. At the bottom level, visitors discover the ecosystem from the perspective of the marine life inside of the kelp forest.  As we approach the glass, I see two giant sea bass weaving between the leopard sharks and bright-orange garibaldi that surround them. In the corner of the tank, a moray eel pops its head out from behind a rock and floats, one eye locked warily on visitors to its home.  Three large splashes coming from the top of the exhibit indicate that it is feeding time. The divers, who are extensively trained to distinguish between different species of fish, pull out their tongs, grab a chunk of fish meat, and get to work. When we meet with a shivering volunteer diver later that day, he explains that the challenges of spending an hour in 56-degree water include being extremely cold. “However”, he says, “I love coming to the California Science Center to learn more about the marine life that we feed, and cold or not– I would gladly give up a few of my weekends to keep doing it.”

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Stay tuned next week as we explore the bottom level of the ocean floor and take an educational tour through the wild kelp forests.

 

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.