What next for ocean trade?

The votes are in and the future does not look bright for a collection of marine species that are getting a pummeling from international trade. Fans of bluefin tuna sashimi and anyone outraged at the idea of taking a global stance against shark fin soup can heave a sigh of relief. Don’t worry: it’s business as usual.

Hammerhead shark. Photo by petersbar

Hammerhead shark. Photo by petersbar

In the build up to the 15th biannual meeting of CITES held in Doha, hopes had been high among some conservationists (I was one of them) that protection might be granted to some of the most threatened marine species that cruise the oceans in ever decreasing numbers thanks to human appetite for sushi, soup, and shark steaks.

But alas no. Despite all the scientific evidence that points towards extinction-by-overfishing, nations at the CITES meeting voted overwhelmingly not to offer any of these species international protection.

The trade in fins and meat will carry on regardless of massive, worldwide declines. Same goes for the imperiled bluefin tuna.

Porbeagle steaks on sale in Borough Market London. Photo by pfig

Porbeagle steaks on sale in Borough Market London. Photo by pfig

At the end of 2009 I helped research and write scientific reviews for IUCN and TRAFFIC of proposals to restrict international trade in 4 shark species: Oceanic whitetips, hammerheads, porbeagles and spiny dogfish (4 other sharks were also to be protected under the hammerhead proposal since their fins and meat are difficult to tell apart).

So, I’ve been through the data and I know the stories of all these sharks. And, trust me, they need all the help they can get.

The aim of these reports was to provide an expert analysis of the proposals to regulate and control the trade these sharks. We summarized the data and tried to make it easy for nations at the CITES meeting to make balanced and informed decisions.

I’ve seen the porbeagle and spiny dogfish data before – these 2 were rejected at the 2007 CITES meeting too. It leaves me wondering if the same species will keep coming up at CITES, time after time, until their numbers are so low they can be safely labelled as being “commercially extinct” i.e. don’t bother going out to try and catch them.

Oceanic whitetip shark. Photo by Tom Weilenmann

Oceanic whitetip shark. Photo by Tom Weilenmann

This latest round of CITES negotiations on marine species has been the most public and – from where I’m sitting – the most frustrating and depressing.

When I set out to review the CITES shark proposals alongside a team of other wildlife trade experts, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion and certainly not simply a case of “save the sharks no matter what the science says”. We rigorously and objectively analyzed each species against the strict criteria set by CITES and – trust me – I could only wish the picture had been less clear cut and less desolate.

To be eligible for a trade ban under CITES, species of “commercially exploited aquatic species” (including sharks and tuna) need to have declined by somewhere between 80 and 95% from a historic baseline or by just 50% more recently.

If trade looks to be threatening the survival of a species in the wild but they don’t yet meet these thresholds, then less strict trade regulations can be imposed in the hope they will stave off the need for a trade ban.

And shockingly all these sharks – except possibly a few populations of spiny dogfish that remain in reasonable shape - and bluefin tuna fall well within the trade ban criteria.

I won’t repeat all the data here (if you want to know more, do check out the IUCN/TRAFFIC review documents) but here are a few of the more worrying statistics:

  • Since the 1950s, oceanic whitetip sharks in the NW Atlantic and Central Pacific have declined by between 90-99%.
  • Since the 19th century, hammerhead sharks and porbeagles in the Mediterranean have both plummeted by 99.9%.
  • In the NE Atlantic, it took 82 years for porbeagle populations to collapse to 6% of their former abundance.
  • Between 1905 and 2005, the population of spiny dogfish in the NE Atlantic population declined by 93.4 – 94.8%.

And I’ve not  just taken the juiciest pickings of the data to try and make a point. Similar stories of demise have been going on across the ranges of these sharks.

Nevertheless all this science, all the fisheries statistics, models and projections have been ignored.

Spiny dogfish. Photo by brotherM

Spiny dogfish. Photo by brotherM

The CITES criteria are not only based on population declines. The biology of the species is also taken into account: species that are more biologically vulnerable should, according to CITES, be protected more carefully.

And sharks are some of the most vulnerable fish in the oceans. They tend to grow slowly, mature late, produce a small number of young, and live a long time.

During my research I was astonished to learn that spiny dogfish probably have the longest gestation of any vertebrate in the world. Female spiny dogfish are pregnant longer than us human beings and longer than elephants or whales. They can gestate for up to 22 months, and even after all that waiting they may only give birth to a handful of pups. That doesn’t add up to a species that will cope well with commercial exploitation.

Hammerhead shark. Photo by Erik Charlton

Hammerhead shark. Photo by Erik Charlton

One big question that many people are currently debating is whether CITES is the right tool for conserving marine species, including sharks.

Some say this is the job of regional fisheries organizations (like ICCAT). The most vocal on this are China and Japan who seem adamant that CITES should keep their sticky beaks out.

Others say CITES lacks legal bite and with so many opt-out clauses has little effect on the species in real danger.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of sharks that have managed to get onto the CITES appendices.

At a landmark vote back in 2002, basking sharks and whale sharks were the first elasmobranchs to earn themselves international regulation, followed by great white sharks in 2004, and a trade ban in sawfish – a close relative of sharks – in 2007.

But where next for ocean trade?

Right now, I really don’t know. My only hope is that all this attention and the mixed views being spread around the media will mean that the plight of the sharks and bluefin tuna – members of that unseen and largely uncared for marine world – will be higher on the interntional agenda and maybe those regional fisheries organizations will get their act together and do their job properly.

Of course as consumers we can all boycott bluefin and shark (ask where your fish and chips came from – it could be a spiny dogfish female who’s been pregnant for 2 years). But I fear that might not be enough. International, top-down action will probably be needed too.

And if we don’t do something there might not be any more bluefins and even fewer sharks to haggle over the next time CITES comes around.

Bluefin No Vote

This week, international negotiations are raging over a group of species that conservationists say are being pushed towards extinction. The cause of the problem: uncontrolled trade.

Votes are already coming in and the first big result is a NO VOTE on a potential ban trade in Bluefin Tuna. The trade will go on. Japan must be thrilled.

Inside a net with a shoal of doomed bluefin tuna. Photo by Marco Carè Marine Photobank

Inside a net with a shoal of doomed bluefin tuna. Photo by Marco Carè Marine Photobank

The plan – proposed by Monaco – had been to add the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna to appendix I of CITES – the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora.

Every two years, CITES members meet to decide which species should be added, removed, or upgraded on their lists that offer endangered animals and plants protection from international trade. Appendix I means a global trade ban. Appendix II means global regulation, aimed  to keep the trade well within sustainable limits.

If the tuna vote had been Yes, it would have put a halt – for now – on legal trade in Bluefins from the Atlantic. Who knows what the consequences might have been: the black market might have carried on supplying anyone who wanted sushi. A new breed of sushi tourism might have opened up in Mediterranean countries that catch Bluefins (this was going to be a ban on international trade, not on catching them).

But Japan, Canada and a number of poorer nations voted against the proposal. And so the trade will continue, and we’ve missed a chance to help make sure there will still be Bluefins cruising the Atlantic in years to come.

Bluefin in a cage. Photo by Marco Carè Marine Photobank

Bluefin in a cage. Photo by Marco Carè Marine Photobank

And this is all despite overwhelming evidence that there are now few enough of these fish left in the oceans to meet CITES’ stringent rules for a global trade ban.

Many claim that the tuna is being watched over by ICCAT – the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, so CITES isn’t needed. But perhaps a more appropriate acronym could be the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas.

ICCAT set annual catch limits based on scientific data. These are not low enough and are often exceeded.

If you want a balanced and thorough overview of the Bluefin situation, I urge you to have a read of IUCN and TRAFFIC’s review of the CITES proposal to ban the trade. They have crunched a huge volume of data and offer a neat summary of the whole deal.

There’s a small chance the Bluefin No vote will be overturned at the end of the meeting. But it doesn’t seem likely.

We’ll have to wait and see if the Bluefins turn up again in the next round of CITES discussions in 2 years time.

Meanwhile, there are other threatened marine species under the CITES spotlight this week. A group of shark species have been proposed for trade regulation – not ban – under CITES. They include Oceanic Whitetips and Hammerhead sharks, both heavily exploited for their fins.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark. Photo by Michael Aston

Oceanic Whitetip Shark. Photo by Michael Aston

I’ll be watching especially closely, since I was involved in writing reviews of the CITES shark trade proposals.

I can only hope these opportunities to help protect ocean biodiversity won’t also be thrown away.

Quest of the curly-tailed horses

A few weeks ago at the University Library, here in Cambridge, I made a rather wonderful discovery. I uncovered a forgotten hero of underwater filmmaking (and I found some seahorses).

Cambridge University Library. Photo by Nick in exsilio

Cambridge University Library. Photo by Nick in exsilio

I was doing some research for my next book proposal (and no, I’m not going to say what it’s about yet), and I did my usual trick of browsing a few books up and down from the one I came for. Unlike many other research libraries, the UL lets you walk among many of the shelves which means you often stumble on hidden treasures you weren’t expecting.

It’s interesting to see what books the library staff have chosen to catalogue together, using their baffling numbering system that seems determined to keep me wandering the shelves, cursing under my breath when the clockwork egg timer on the light runs out, plunging me into mid-isle darkness.

This time, on a shelf of natural history books I had passed by before, I noticed a title that set my eyes popping:

“Quest of the curly-tailed horses.”

How did I manage to miss this one when I was researching Poseidon’s Steed?

Big belly seahorse. Photo by Doug Deep

Big belly seahorse. Photo by Doug Deep

I was kicking myself. Surely, I’d been exhaustive in my search for seahorsey literature, and yet here was a neat volume, with a cute seahorse on the frontispiece. Of course the curly-tailed horses came right home with me that day. And over the following week I devoured the book in blissful evening installments while wallowing in the bath (one of my guilty pleasures).

And to my surprise, it wasn’t just the seahorses in this book that I adored, but my discovery of the man who wrote it. This book, it turned out, was the autobiography from the 1960s of an important, but virtually forgotten character in the world of underwater filmmaking and exploration: Noel Monkman. And what a life he led.

Monkman was born in New Zealand at the turn of the 20th century. The book begins in his troubled childhood spent in sullen boarding houses, being shifted from place to place by his father who attempted to keep him away from his mother after she made the unpardonable decision to continue with a music career instead of devoting herself to family life. Times were very different back then.

In delightful early chapters, Monkman describes his time spent on the New Zealand coast where he made friends with a local maori boy and together they discovered the extraordinary wildlife of the beach. They built a rock corral on the shore and filled it with their favourite creatures, including the curly-tailed horses.

Big belly seahorse. Photo by Richard Ling

Big belly seahorse. Photo by Richard Ling

They must have been Big-Belly Seahorses, Hippocampus abdominalis, since it’s the only species native to New Zealand. And at up to around 30cm or a foot from head to tail, these are the biggest seahorses in the world.

An amusing section in Chapter 6 describes his frustrations in trying to persuade the seahorses to eat. He offered them fish, bits of mussel, and all his own favourite foods: cake, biscuits, strawberry jam, plum pudding, apples, pears and plums. He even thought – being horses – he should try them on oats or bran. But no. The seahorses were having none of it.

Eventually, though, he cracks the puzzle of what seahorses eat, writing:

“As I lay beside the pool watching them, I noticed that occasionally one or other of them would turn slowly sideways as if watching something; then there would be a sudden flick of the head as if it had given a dainty little sneeze.”

Sneezing seahorses. What a lovely image!

Big belly seahorse. Photo by tassiesim

Big belly seahorse. Photo by tassiesim

And how thrilled he was when he discovered the seahorses were feeding on minute animals.

“The worry about food for the curly-tailed horses had ushered us into a world of wonders.”

I’m not going to give too much more away because a big part of why I loved this read was knowing nothing at all about Noel Monkman before I started and uncovering so many gems along the way.

What I will say is that his childhood love of the seashore, and seahorses, stayed with him and through a series of jobs and adventures, work as a portrait photographer, building laborer and concert cellist, until Noel Monkman eventually found himself exploring the Great Barrier Reef in the 1930s accompanied by his wife, Kitty, making the first ever underwater films of the world’s biggest reef.

Their story echoes the famous explorations of another husband and wife team, Hans and Lottie Hass, and yet few people have heard of the Monkmans.

When I finished his book and began looking around online for more information about what happened to Noel Monkman, I was shocked to find so little.

So, I definitely recommend you track down a copy of Quest of the curly-tailed horses. Monkman led an extraordinary life with tireless dedication and ambition who we could all learn a thing or two from, and his book gives a vivid insight into what life was like back then. He truly is someone worth remembering.

A few more details:

  • Noel Monkman died in 1969
  • He wrote another book, Escape to Adventure, which is next on my reading list.
  • This is the only other description of Monkman’s life and works I’ve found online so far. Don’t read it until after you’ve finished Quest of the curly-tailed horses, otherwise it might spoil the ending.

Marine reserves good news for penguins

When it comes to measuring the benefits of marine reserves (or Marine Protected Areas aka MPAs, or marine parks, or no take zones, or whatever you want to call them) it’s usually fish populations or marine habitats that we focus on. Now it seems that protecting areas of the sea from fishing pressure can very quickly help ocean predators – including penguins.

African penguins. Photo by ClifB

African penguins. Photo by ClifB

A new study from South Africa reveals that when a 20km stretch of ocean – not a lot really – was declared off-limits to fishing fleets, a local colony of African penguins spent on average 30% less time out fishing for themselves. Within 3 months of the fishing ban, the penguins found more to eat inside the protected area now that the human hunters weren’t competing for fish.

Spending less time hunting for their dinner is good news for penguins because it cuts down their exposure to other ocean predators that are partial to a penguin-dinner including great white sharks, orcas and cape fur seals.

African penguins. Photo by Paul Mannix

African penguins. Photo by Paul Mannix

At the same time, another penguin colony 50km away weren’t so lucky. With no protection of their local fish stocks, they had to spend longer in the sea finding enough food for themselves and their youngsters.

African penguins are considered to be vulnerable to extinction, so it’s certainly very encouraging that they can benefit so rapidly from the careful siting of relatively small marine reserves.

Hopefully more reserves like this will be created to help secure the penguins’ future.

In detail:

  • African penguins, also known as the black-footed penguin live on the SW coast of Africa.
  • They are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist.
  • Population declines are mainly blamed on overfishing of their target prey including sardines and anchovies by purse-seine fleets.
  • In 2000, a catastrophic oil spill affected nearly half the entire population of African penguins and spawned the world’s largest sea bird rescue operation.
  • The paper by Pichegru et al is published in the journal Biology Letters.

Protect Chagos

Did you know that the world’s largest coral atoll is British, and that it could become the world’s largest marine reserve?

View from Diego Garcia. Photo by sushicam

View from Diego Garcia. Photo by sushicam

Those are two impressive facts and they apply to the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, some 300 miles south of the Maldives.

The coral reefs of the chagos are among the most untouched and healthy reefs left on the planet, mainly because they happen to be a long way from any major human settlements.

I’m writing this post partly just to tell you about the Chagos – if you haven’t already heard of them – and also to ask for your help.

We have until Feb 12th – this Friday – to show support for the protection of the Chagos Archipelago and all the thousands of marine species that live there. The UK government – in a rare demonstration of expansive environmental thinking – is considering plans for a marine reserve that could cover 500,000 square kms. That is truly huge and far, far bigger than any other marine reserve anywhere today.

Containing hundreds of coral species and thousands of fish species (including, it’s thought, important tuna breeding grounds), this area is of extraordinary biodiversity value. And yes, as I’ve mentioned a few times already, this is the International Year of Biodiversity, so what better time to make this monumental pledge to the natural world.

Specifically, there are three proposals under consideration:

  • Strict protection for the entire archipelago i.e. no fishing at all, anywhere
  • Moderate protection for the entire area, with some deep sea fishing allowed
  • Protection of only the “most important” areas of reef

Conservationists are united in their support for option one. Over 10,000 members of the public have already showed their support, signing a petition urging the UK government to Protect Chagos.

chagos map

The Chagos archipelago is part of the British Indian Ocean Territories and consists of 55 islands, including Diego Garcia, home to a joint UK/US military base since the early 1970s when the native Chagosians were relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles. This, quite rightly, stirred up a huge human rights debate that continues to rage on today.

I don’t mean to brush the human issues aside, but I’m not going to talk more about it in this post. Only, I do want to point out that plans for a marine reserve should not go against plans to allow Chagosians to return. If or when that happens, there is flexibility in the marine reserve plans to make allowances for the native islanders to come back and make a sustainable living from the seas around the archipelago. So this isn’t a case of people versus wildlife – there should be room (to some extent) for both.

Please join over 10,000 other people in signing a petition calling for the highest level of protection in the proposed marine reserve: no fishing at all.

I’ve signed it. And I urge you, dear, thoughtful, planet-loving readers, to do the same.

And don’t just take my word for it. Here is veteran environmental campaigner Tony Juniper saying much the same things as me.

The story of the red grouper

As I mentioned in my last post, 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. And what better way to start things off than with a neat study from Florida telling us why some fish species are especially important.

This is the story of the red grouper.

Red grouper. Photo by NOAA.

Red grouper. by NOAA.

As their name suggest, these chaps are usually red. They can grow to over a metre from head to tail although 50cm (or nearly 2 feet) is more common. They can apparently live for up to 25 years, which is quite a lot for a fish. And like many other fish, red groupers are sex shifters: they are all born as females and after between 7 and 14 years they reajust their sexual organs, transforming into fully-functioning males.

The warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and central west Atlantic, between North Carolina and Brazil, are where the red groupers call home. And it now turns out these fish help to build and maintain their complex reefy  habitats.

“Red groupers are the Frank Lloyd Wrights of the sea floor” said the study co-author Susan Williams, from University California-Davis.

Red grouper. Photo by tiswango.

Red grouper. Photo by tiswango.

Felicia C. Coleman from Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory led the study in the West Florida Shelf, sending both scuba divers and mini-subs down to spy on the red groupers. The researchers watched on as the fish got busy, digging great holes in the seabed to live in – up to a few metres wide and deep. The fastidious fish then keep their homes neat and tidy, ejecting mouthfuls of sand and sweeping the rocks clean with their tail.

In a series of experiments, the research team temporarily kept groupers away from their excavated abodes (by putting a cage around them), showing just how well they maintain their burrows.

And it turns out that this meticulous housekeeping creates important three-dimensional habitat that many other species rely on, giving a boost to biodiversity wherever red groupers are present; it clears areas of hard rock for corals and sponges to settle on and provides hiding places for spiny lobsters and dozens of other fish species including many that we like to eat such as snappers.

No-one has yet experimented with taking away red groupers permanently to test out this theory; somehow that doesn’t seem like a very good idea, these days.  But this study from Felicia Coleman and colleagues gives us a strong hint that all would not be well if red groupers were to disappear. In their own habitat-building way, they could well be what ecologists call “key-stone species”.

So, without the red groupers it seems likely that a whole host of other species would suffer.

And in the end that’s why red groupers really matter.

In detail:

  • Red groupersEpinephelus morio – are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, which is a fairly low threat category but means they are certainly not safe. Many populations are considered to be overfished, especially parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and despite a few recoveries declines have been particularly bad in some areas.
  • They are ambush predators, sneaking up on their prey and swallowing it whole, including shrimp, octopus, squid, fish and crabs.
  • Other key-stone species include sea otters and starfish. They exert a disproportionate influence (for their size and abundance) on the rest of the ecosystem mainly because of their voracious appetites.
A pair of sea otters holding hands. Just too cute. Photo by joemess

A pair of sea otters holding hands. Just too cute. Photo by joemess

A new decade for biodiversity

I welcomed in the new decade under a stunning blue moon here in Cambridge, and it’s got me to wondering whether the brand new year, and decade, that lie ahead of us might also be full of other rare and beautiful things.

2009 was undoubtedly the year when more people than ever before began paying attention to the problems of climate change. It was incredible to see these issues climb so high in the international agenda, even if the outcome might not yet be what most of us were hoping for.

But has all the talk about climate change distracted us from many of the other threats to the natural world?

Biodiversity – the wonderful diversity of wild species and the threats they face from human actions – is an issue that has been patiently waiting in the wings, waiting for the UN to push in out onto centre stage in 2010. Because this year is the UN International year of biodiversity.

un biodiversity yearThe question is, will the dwindling populations of so many important, breathtaking, extraordinary species command as much global attention in 2010 as the climate change debate did in 2009.

Perhaps, if we’re lucky.

Coming up in the following months are a few major international meetings that could decide the fate of some of the world’s wildlife.

The international trade in bluefin tuna – highly prized for Japanese sushi – could be banned in March at the latest conference of CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Following the failure last November of management bodies to take bold steps to help stop these magnificent fish being hunted to extinction, CITES could be the bluefin tuna’s last hope. But will countries with a vested interest in the trade be prepared to vote for a ban? The pessimist in me says, not likely.

Bluefin tuna in Tsukiji Market, Tokyo. Photo by Sanctu

Bluefin tuna on sale in Tsukiji Market, Tokyo. Photo by Sanctu

Also on the agenda at the CITES meeting will be a group of sharks that conservationists fear are being driven towards extinction by demand for their meat and most notably their fins, to be made into the Asian delicacy sharks fin soup. I’ve been working for the last 6 weeks assessing the proposals to have hammerheads, oceanic whitetips, spiny dogfish and porbeagle sharks join a trio of awesome sharks that already have trade restrictions – the basking sharks, whale sharks and great white sharks.

Hammerhead shark. Photo by gnuru

Hammerhead shark. Photo by gnuru

I’ll be blogging more about sharks and tuna this year, so watch this space.

Then, November will see another landmark UN meeting and with it another opportunity to make global deals that could help secure the future of the planet, this time at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Back at the Rio Earth summit in 1992 nations pledged to put a halt to the loss of biodiversity. And they were going to do it by 2010.

Everyone knows that this has not happened – no where near it. We are barely even starting to understand how human actions are affecting biodiversity, let alone figure out ways of stopping extinction.

So this meeting will be a tricky one, but could be vital if a way forward for global action against extinction is to be found.

But ultimately what I hope this coming year will do is help people appreciate why biodiversity matters, just like many people in 2009 began to realise why climate change matters.

The link between biodiversity loss and our own lives may not be as obvious as the threats from climate change, but there are so many ways in which we depend on healthy, diverse, functioning ecosystems. And that’s something else I’ll be writing about more this year.

For now, Happy New Year to you all. May 2010 be full of rare and beautiful things for us all.

Merry Xmas Tree Worms

Christmas is here and I couldn’t resist writing about one of the most festive ocean inhabitants, the Christmas Tree Worms.

Xmas tree worm. Photo by Alain76

Xmas tree worm. Photo by Alain76

It’s their outrageous headgear that gives the Christmas Tree worms their name. Most of the worm we don’t see. They hide their rather normal-looking segmented bodies inside boulders of coral. But each worm has a pair of frilly bits called radioles, which they poke out of their burrows to sift food and oxygen from the water.

These scuba-divers’ favourites can put on eye-popping multicoloured displays on coral reefs, like forests of miniature Christmas trees.

Xmas tree worms. Photo by will48324

Xmas tree worms covering a coral boulder. Photo by will48324

Creep up slowly on one and it will stay out and let you peer closely at its extraordinary spiraled protuberances that can be yellow, orange, brown, blue, red, or white or almost any colour at all. Waft a current of water past them and they flicker out of sight. (I admit that I like to watch for a while, then play magician, waving my hand above them and watching them disappear).

Xmas tree worm. Photo by Tim Sheerman-Chase

Xmas tree worm. Photo by Tim Sheerman-Chase

So, how do these festive critters take up home in coral in the first place? Well, they may look like nothing but feather dusters, but these hermaphrodite worms come fully equipped with reproductive organs and from time to time will shed sperm and eggs into the sea in the hope they will collide with each other, mixing the gene pool up a little. The resulting larvae then drift through the water for a while before finding a patch of coral they like the look of, settling down and building a chalky tube to live in. The coral polyps then grow around the worm until it is embedded inside the coral skeleton.

And of course these critters don’t come out only at Christmas, but you can see them decorating reefs all year round.

Xmas tree worms. Photo by Nick Hobgood.

Xmas tree worms. Photo by Nick Hobgood.

As well as looking irresistibly pretty, Christmas tree worms might help to protect corals from attack by canivorous crown-of-thorn starfish, shoeing away any hungry predators that get near, tickling and irritating their sensitive undersides.

Anyway, I think that’s enough facts for Christmas (although do scroll down to the end for some more if you want them), so I wish you all a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS 2009 and leave you with some more photos of these wonderful beasts. Enjoy!

Xmas tree worm. Photo by sarsifa.

Xmas tree worm. Photo by sarsifa.

Xmas tree worm. Photo by jtu.

Xmas tree worm. Photo by jtu.

Xmas tree worm. Photo by Nick Hobgood.

Xmas tree worm. Photo by Nick Hobgood.

In detail:

  • The Latin name for Christmas Tree worms is Spirobranchus giganteus meaning ‘enormous spiralled gills’. How apt.
  • Christmas Tree worms are serpulids, a type of polychaete worm.
  • Their radioles grow to about an inch tall.
  • There are considered to be two subspecies of S. giganteus, one living in the Indo Pacific the other in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Both subspecies come in a range of colourmorphs.
  • Study of the protective role of Christmas tree worms. De Vantier et al, 1986.
  • Study of the different colours of Christmas tree worms. Song, 2006. The most popular colour is white.
  • Christmas tree worms can live for over 40 years.

Life goes deep

Now that I’m back from snowy adventures in the Swiss Alps (under the guise of giving a graduate seminar on science communication – not bad at all) I must tell you about the latest episode of the BBC’s Life series. Because this week they went underwater again, and it was brilliant.

Centre of attention were the invertebrates, a crazy diverse group of ocean critters that get up to all sorts of tricks and never fail to amaze.

Among them were big-brained Australian Giant Cuttlefish.

Giant australian cuttlefish. Photo by Jacob Bridgeman

Giant australian cuttlefish. Photo by Jacob Bridgeman

We watch on as the huge males (up to half a metre long plus tentacles) attempt to woo the opposite sex by putting on a flashy colour display and getting in raucous fights with each other over who’s boss.

Less well-endowed cuttlefish males adopt a very different strategy for passing on their genes to the next generation: cross-dressing. Not very macho, admitedly, but it does the job nicely. By mimicking female colouration, the little males can wander into the mating arena without being chased off. The dominant male thinks he’s lucked out with another female showing up, while in fact the intruding male gets a chance to nip in and mate with the real female. Clever, eh?

Sticking with the cephalopods, we also revisit the Giant Pacific Octopus we met in the first taster episode.

Giant Pacific Octopus. Photo by Schristia

Giant Pacific Octopus. Photo by Schristia

The female lays thousands of eggs inside a cave, tending them like a conscientious farmer tends his crops. It’s such a gargantuan effort for the female that as soon as her young have hatched, she dies. But now we discover that the story of the octopus doesn’t end there.

We get a glimpse of the gruesome reality of what goes on beneath the waves when a giant Sunflower Star (a huge variety of starfish) arrives on the scene – sped up by time-lapse photography – crawls into the cave and drags out the dead mother octopus using thousands of sucky tube feet. Sunflower Star plus a gang of other scavengers swarm over the dead body getting a good feed. It’s not pretty, but it is important, otherwise the oceans would soon fill up with dead octopodes lying about the place.

Sunflower Star. Photo by Ed Bierman

Sunflower Star. Photo by Ed Bierman

Scavenging echinoderms also make an appearance in an extraordinary Antarctic scene (you can watch this clip outside the UK). The time-lapse photography is simply stunning, as we watch the sea floor crawling with colourful starfish (and rather terrifying three-metre carnivorous worms). All very pleasant until we find out what brought them there: a dead baby seal. But like I said, the world needs its carrion-eaters, scavengers and recyclers to clear things up for us.

In this underwater episode of Life we also see jellyfish eating jellyfish, peep at some on the invertebrate wonders of the coral reefs (including boxer crabs – so cool!), and watch on as herds of spiny Spider Crabs gather together by the thousand to moult and, pairing up, they tumble across the floor in a tight mating clinch.

And I’m now convinced that I don’t ever want to find myself amid a gang of Humbolt squid. If ever there was a creature in the ocean to be a bit wary of, then these are most definitely them.

A razor-sharp, flesh-ripping beak and 70,000 hooks on each one: that’s quite enough to put me off. And it seems they are very clever beings, communicating with flashes of red across their bodies.

Humbolt Squid. Photo by MBARI 2006

Humbolt Squid. Photo by MBARI 2006

But I would like to go diving beneath the Antarctic sea ice. Hang on for the making-of segment at the end of the episode to find out how the film crew took the astonishing footage of the starfish scavengers. An enormous drill makes a tunnel through eight-feet of ice, opening up an eerie blue doorway for the divers to plunge through to another world, somewhere I would certainly like to visit.

And so, once again, the BBC have gathered together some eye-popping footage that serves to remind us just how wonderful, diverse and surprising the oceans can be.

Thank you BBC.