Meet the Zooplankton: Tiny and Tenacious

featured image from: https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-158c32204a03fad7ca982d1082a9f97f-c

The ocean is home to so many amazing creatures. Compared with sleek and streamlined sharks, majestic whales, or colorful coral reefs, tiny drifting organisms might seem a little boring or insignificant. However, these microscopic organisms are incredibly diverse, exhibiting a variety of strange forms and strategies for surviving in an unforgiving environment where they compete fiercely for food and struggle to avoid being eaten.

Plankton are organisms that cannot swim against currents. Instead, they move with bodies of water throughout the oceans. Some plankton have a limited ability to swim; several species are known to migrate from deep waters, where they hide from predators, to shallow waters, where they feed. Most of the time, though, they are at the mercy of currents. The term plankton is derived from the Greek word planktos, which means drifter or wanderer.

In general, plankton are divided into two major groups: the phytoplankton and zooplankton. Phytoplankton, like plants and trees on land, are autotrophic; they make their food by photosynthesizing, using energy from the sun, carbon dioxide, and nutrients in their environment. Zooplankton are heterotrophic, which means they do not make their own food. They prey on other organisms in the oceans, including phytoplankton or other zooplankton. Zooplankton are an important component of marine food webs and healthy marine ecosystems. Over the next several weeks, On the Ocean will describe several species of zooplankton, their role in the world’s oceans, and the challenges they face to survive.

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Script Author: James M. Fiorendino

Meet the Zooplankton: Tintinnopsis

Living in the ocean are tiny marine sculptors known as Tintinnids. Tintinnids are a group of zooplankton that build shells around themselves using primarily organic material, such as proteins, but often incorporating minerals and sediment. Tintinnid shells, known as loricae, are marine works of art, taking many different shapes but most often resembling a vase or bell. Scientists typically classify tintinnids based on the shape of the lorica; within the Tintinnopsis complex, there are roughly 100 described species. The ability of these organisms to gather particles and form shells is currently their only unifying feature; identifying other traits is difficult, as the organisms are obscured by their loricae.

Figure 1: Diagram of a typical tintinnid
Figure 1: Diagram of a typical tintinnid. From: Zaid, M. M. A., & Hellal, A. M. (2012). Tintinnids (Protozoa: Ciliata) from the coast of Hurghada Red Sea, Egypt. The Egyptian Journal of Aquatic Research, 38(4), 249-268.

Zooplankton belonging to the Tintinnopsis complex are present in coastal areas of North America, Europe, South America, and Eastern Asia, where sediment is plentiful for them to cover themselves with. Tintinnids can be found in surface waters to depths of over 300 meters. They are commonly present at densities of roughly 100 per liter but can reach densities of thousands per liter. Tintinnids are grazers, feeding on phytoplankton and bacteria. At one end of the lorica, the Tintinnid beats tiny hair-like appendages known as cilia, creating a current that draws prey toward the cell. These cilia are also used to move the cell through the water.

Figure 2: Loricae of various species of tintinnids collected from the Egyptian Red Sea (1: Tintinnopsis cylindrical, 2: Tintinnopsis campanula, 3: Tintinnopsis gracilis, 4: Tintinnopsis davidoffi, 5: Tintinnopsis radix, 6: Tintinnopsis corniger, 7: Tintinnopsis lobiancoi, 8: Tintinnopsis tocantinensis, 9: Tintinnopsis nana, 10: Tintinnopsis compressa, 11: Tintinnopsis orientalis, 12: Tintinnopsis rotundata)
Figure 2: Loricae of various species of tintinnids collected from the Egyptian Red Sea (1: Tintinnopsis cylindrical, 2: Tintinnopsis campanula, 3: Tintinnopsis gracilis, 4: Tintinnopsis davidoffi, 5: Tintinnopsis radix, 6: Tintinnopsis corniger, 7: Tintinnopsis lobiancoi, 8: Tintinnopsis tocantinensis, 9: Tintinnopsis nana, 10: Tintinnopsis compressa, 11: Tintinnopsis orientalis, 12: Tintinnopsis rotundata) From: Zaid, M. M. A., & Hellal, A. M. (2012). Tintinnids (Protozoa: Ciliata) from the coast of Hurghada Red Sea, Egypt. The Egyptian Journal of Aquatic Research, 38(4), 249-268.

 

Tintinnid abundance is directly related to prey abundance, light and nutrient availability, temperature, and salinity, or the abundance of salt in marine waters. In the spring, the greatest number of Tintinnid species are present, but tintinnid biomass is greatest in the summer months, usually due to the success of one or a few specific species.

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Script Author: Anum Shahid and Bradley Bryant

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Meet the Zooplankton: Globigerina Bulloides

Why did the mushroom get invited to all the parties? Because he’s a fun guy! The star of today’s show, the heterotrophic zooplankter Globigerina bulloides, is not actually a type of fungus, but it does look like a bunch of mushroom caps squished together. Globigerina bulloides belongs to a group of zooplankton called foraminifera, which are characterized by their chambered, often intricate, calcium carbonate shells or tests. These tests have pores through which the cell projects extensions of itself, known as pseudopodia, to capture food, attach to a surface, or swim.

Scanning electron micrograph of a Globigerina bulloides test; this image shows only the test,which remains in sediments after the organism dies. Image from: https://alchetron.com/Globigerina-bulloides#-
Scanning electron micrograph of a Globigerina bulloides test; this image shows only the test,which remains in sediments after the organism dies. Image from: https://alchetron.com/Globigerina-bulloides#-

Globigerina bulloides can be found globally in the photic zone, where sunlight is available throughout the water column. They are most abundant in the Southern Hemisphere, specifically the Southern Ocean. Upwelling in the Southern Ocean ensures availability of nutrients for Globigerina bulloides, particularly in the spring when they are most abundant.

A living Globigerina bulloides cell. The many spines extending outward are extensions of the cell known as pseudopodia. Image from: https://wordsinmocean.com/2012/05/16/does-phosphate-thin-foram-shells/
A living Globigerina bulloides cell. The many spines extending outward are extensions of the cell known as pseudopodia. Image from: https://wordsinmocean.com/2012/05/16/does-phosphate-thin-foram-shells/

Globigerina bulloides tests are like tiny history records, preserving indicators of Earth’s climatic conditions in the past. The calcium carbonate in their tests contains oxygen, of which there are isotopes, or atoms with different numbers of neutrons. Oxygen 18, with more neutrons, is heavier than oxygen 16. This difference in mass means the rate of exchange between the ocean and atmosphere for oxygen 18 is different from oxygen 16, both varying with temperature. Measuring the ratio of oxygen 18 to oxygen 16 in Globigerina bulloides tests allows scientists to determine what the climate was like throughout Earth’s history. When there is a greater abundance of oxygen 18 relative to oxygen 16 in calcium carbonate tests, the climate was cooler. When the ratio was lower, the climate was warmer.

Thank you for listening; this has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Script Authors: Anna Ashy and Courtney Nevels

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Meet the Zooplankton: Euphausia superba

Despite being no larger than your pinky finger, the Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, is able to sustain the largest animal on Earth, the blue whale. The Antarctic krill is a keystone species in the Southern Ocean, which means it is a species that plays a critical role in the function of its ecosystem. In addition to whales, these tiny crustaceans are preyed upon by seals, squid, and birds.

A single Euphausia superba. Photo by Martin Rauschert (http://www.marinespecies.org/photogallery.php?album=724&pic=10895)
A single Euphausia superba. Photo by Martin Rauschert (http://www.marinespecies.org/photogallery.php?album=724&pic=10895)

To sustain so many hungry predators, and maintain their population, there must be a staggering amount of krill in the oceans! The estimated biomass of Antarctic krill is around 500 million tons, making them one of the most abundant animals on Earth, with likely the greatest biomass of any multicellular animal. Krill tend to group together in congregations known as bait balls, with densities reaching 30,000 individuals per cubic meter. These bait balls can often be seen and tracked from space!

Marine predators are not the only ones chasing after krill. Krill oil is becoming a popular supplement for humans who want a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Demand for krill oil has driven the development of a commercial fishery for these animals, capturing over 300,000 tons annually to produce several products including krill oil and animal feed. There is concern regarding the potential overfishing of Antarctic krill due to the importance of krill as a keystone species and their role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Krill eat phytoplankton, which take up CO2 from the atmosphere. But krill are sloppy eaters, and the pieces of phytoplankton they drop sink to the bottom of the ocean along with their feces. The feeding activity of krill moves substantial amounts of carbon to the deep ocean; overfishing may limit this process, with consequences for Earth’s climate.

Krill feeding on algae on the underside of pack ice. Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Krillicekils.jpg
Krill feeding on algae on the underside of pack ice. Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Krillicekils.jpg

Thank you for listening; this has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Script Authors: Abby Jyrkila and Marisa Gonzales

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Meet the Zooplankton: Strobilidium

If phytoplankton are the grass of the sea, then grazers like the marine ciliate Strobilidium are the cows. Phytoplankton commonly cause harmful algal blooms when they grow to very high densities, becoming detrimental to marine ecosystems and human health. Organisms that feed on phytoplankton deter runaway growth and prevent harmful blooms.

Light micrograph of a strobilidium sp. cell. Photo by Olivier Barth, from: http://www.photomacrography.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4419&sid=5c3264cc66677387565a374beddf07b3
Light micrograph of a strobilidium sp. cell. Photo by Olivier Barth, from: http://www.photomacrography.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4419&sid=5c3264cc66677387565a374beddf07b3

Strobilidium is a naked ciliate; a single-celled organism with tiny hair-like projections called cilia arranged in a spiral around the cell’s mostly spherical body. They are called naked because they do not have a shell or other protective covering. Cells of Strobilidium are 40-60 microns in diameter, or about 2 thousandths of an inch, which is still bigger than the phytoplankton they eat!

A fixed strobilidium cell, with visible cilia. Image from: http://www.hedegard.nu/planktonbilder/
A fixed strobilidium cell, with visible cilia. Image from: http://www.hedegard.nu/planktonbilder/

Zooplankton like Strobilidium are important members of marine food webs. They are effective grazers, responsible for 30 – 50% of grazing activity on phytoplankton in some environments. Additionally, they are important prey for larger organisms, such as fish.

Currently, scientists are unsure how grazers like Strobilidium, and marine food webs in general, will respond to climate change. Research has indicated that rising ocean temperatures can promote the growth of Strobilidium, which means more intense grazing on phytoplankton populations. Increased grazing could help prevent harmful algal blooms in the future. However, phytoplankton will also respond to rising temperatures, possibly with increased growth rates of their own. The impact of climate change on marine food webs remains uncertain.

Thank you for listening; this has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Script Author: Lane Peery

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

 

Hurricane Intensity

Featured image taken by NASA astronaut Jack Fischer aboard the International Space Station.

Hurricane Intensity Part 1: Powerful Tropical Storms

Hurricanes are one of the most destructive forces on Earth. The term “hurricane” comes from Hunraken or Huracán, the name of the god of winds and destruction of the native Mayan and Caribbean people. Hurricane is a regional term for a tropical cyclone that forms in the Atlantic, eastern North Pacific, or eastern South Pacific Ocean. Tropical cyclones are a low-pressure weather system with rotating winds. Tropical cyclones with winds less than 39 mph are known as tropical depressions. Tropical storms have winds between 39 and 74 mph; when a tropical storm achieves wind speeds of 74 mph, it becomes a hurricane.

Hurricane formation is driven by heat. During hurricane season, which falls between June 1 and Nov 30 each year, hot air from over the African continent warms ocean waters, causing evaporation. This warm, moist air rises, creating an area of low pressure. Surrounding air flows toward the low-pressure area to replace the rising air, before warming and rising itself. As air travels over the rotating surface of Earth, it is deflected and begins to rotate, High in the atmosphere where it is much cooler, water vapor condenses and forms clouds, and the system continues to grow and strengthen. Eventually the characteristic ‘eye’, is formed. This is an area of generally clear and calm weather at the center of the storm roughly 20-40 miles across. Hurricanes can be up to 11 miles high; there are, on average, 12 hurricanes a year that form in the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

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Diagram of hurricane formation, structure, location and movements, and major United States hurricanes. Image from: http://www.relativelyinteresting.com/hurricanes-explained-how-they-form-and-their-anatomy/ (Original source: NOAA, USGS Infographic World/Popular Science)

Thank you for listening; this has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Contributing Professor: Dr. Henry Potter

Script Author: James M. Fiorendino

Hurricane Intensity Part 2: Could Future Hurricanes Be More Intense?

Hurricanes are already one of the most destructive natural forces on the planet, but could they be worse in the future? Tropical storms like hurricanes require heat energy to grow and sustain themselves; severe hurricanes might occur more frequently due to greater availability of heat energy.

The Saffir-Simpsons Hurricane Wind Scale. Image from: https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/10/6/13191010/how-hurricanes-form-tropical-storms-guide
The Saffir-Simpsons Hurricane Wind Scale. Image from: https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/10/6/13191010/how-hurricanes-form-tropical-storms-guide

Currently, hurricanes are classified according to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, which ranges from 1 to 5. A category 1 storm is characterized by winds between 74 and 95 mph, which may cause limited damage to homes, such as blowing shingles off roofs, or snapping tree limbs. In comparison, a category 5 storm has winds of 157 mph or greater, and is capable of destroying homes and blowing over trees, causing massive power outages.

An early map predicting of the movement of Hurricane Harvey when it was still a tropical storm moving over the Windward Islands. The solid cone denotes 1-3 day position predictions, while the dotted cone shows predictions for the storm's position after 4-5 days.
An early map predicting of the movement of Hurricane Harvey when it was still a tropical storm moving over the Windward Islands. The solid cone denotes 1-3 day storm track predictions, while the dotted cone shows predictions for the storm’s track after 4-5 days. Predictions farther in the future are less certain than short-term predictions, so the area of the cones (i.e. the track the storm might follow) increases. Image from: http://www.weatherboy.com/tropical-storm-harvey-heading-west/

Predicting hurricane strength, or where a hurricane will make landfall, is essential for effective preparations and evacuations. Several factors impact hurricane formation and movement. Generally, hurricanes travel east to west, following trade winds along the equator; areas of high and low pressure in the atmosphere guide the storm, like hills and valleys guide a river. Hurricanes require warm air and ocean water to form, yet as they move they stir up the ocean, bringing cold water to the surface, reducing the energy available to them. Scientists are working to better understand hurricanes and improve models forecasting hurricane strength and movement.

Thank you for listening; this has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Contributing Professor: Dr. Henry Potter

Script Author: James M. Fiorendino

Hurricane Intensity Part 3: Studying Hurricanes

Understanding how hurricanes form and move is essential for accurate forecasting of storms, allowing effective preparations and evacuations to be made. But how do you study something so massive and powerful? Scientists rely heavily on satellites to gather data on hurricanes. Heat acts as fuel for hurricanes; satellites orbiting the Earth gather important data about the temperature of the oceans and atmosphere. Additionally, satellites measure sea surface height. Water expands and contracts as it warms and cools; consequently, warmer areas of the ocean will be higher than colder areas. Measuring sea surface height helps scientists determine how much heat is stored in the ocean that may contribute to hurricane intensity.

The above image from NASA's website visualizes sea surface height data from the SARAL and Jason-2 missions. Image from: https://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov/images/latestdata/ssh/2018/SSHA_20180404_010000.png
The above image from NASA’s website visualizes sea surface height anomaly (SSHA) data from the SARAL and Jason-2 missions. SSHA is the difference between observed sea surface height and an average sea surface height. Image from: https://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov/images/latestdata/ssh/2018/SSHA_20180404_010000.png

Unfortunately, temperature data collected by satellites is limited to surface waters. Hurricanes mix the ocean as they move, bringing deep water to the surface. While satellites can tell how much heat is stored in the ocean, satellite data do not describe how heat is distributed between deep and surface waters. To supplement satellite data, scientists observe the ocean directly using buoys, autonomous vehicles, and research vessels. By combining data from these various instruments, scientists are able to gain a more complete description of how much and where heat is stored in the ocean before and after a hurricane.

A Slocum glider ready for deployment. Gliders fly through the water by altering their buoyancy, causing them to sink or float. Their wings help to propel them forward.
A Slocum glider ready for deployment. Gliders fly through the water by altering their buoyancy, causing them to sink or float. Their wings help to propel them forward. Image from: http://gcoos.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/HMI_GliderDeploy.jpg
This image shows a visualization of temperature data collected  by one of TAMU's gliders in the Gulf of Mexico. Image from: http://gcoos2.tamu.edu/gandalf_data/deployments/tamu/unit_540/plots/
This image shows a visualization of temperature data collected by one of TAMU’s gliders in the Gulf of Mexico. Image from: http://gcoos2.tamu.edu/gandalf_data/deployments/tamu/unit_540/plots/

Thank you for listening; this has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Contributing Professor: Dr. Henry Potter

Script Author: James M. Fiorendino

Hurricane Intensity Part 4: Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey struck the coast of Texas on August 25, 2017, becoming the costliest hurricane in United States history, having caused nearly $200 billion in damage. Most of the damage from Harvey was due to flooding; 33 trillion gallons of water fell in total, with some areas of Houston reporting as much as 60 inches of rain. What was unique about Harvey was the speed with which it developed into a severe hurricane. On August 22, Harvey passed over the Yucatan Peninsula as a weak tropical storm before moving into the Gulf of Mexico. While traveling over the warm waters of the gulf, Harvey intensified from a tropical storm to a category 4 hurricane in just 40 hours before striking Texas, an unexpectedly rapid increase in strength.

The total rainfall from Hurricane Harvey amounted to 27 trillion gallons; the above image visualizes that volume of water in a single rain drop, with the city of Houston below for comparison.
27 trillion gallons of water fell over Texas and Louisiana in 6 days; the above image visualizes that volume of water as a single rain drop over the city of Houston, compared with the volume of water dropped by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Image from: https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/8/28/16217626/harvey-houston-flood-water-visualized

Currently, scientists at Texas A&M University’s department of oceanography are studying the factors that contributed to Hurricane Harvey’s intensification as well as the effects of the storm. Luckily, oceanographers from Texas A&M University conducted a research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico shortly before Harvey struck Texas. After Hurricane Harvey, a team of scientists convened for the Harvey Rapid Response cruise to investigate the impacts of the storm, collecting physical, chemical, and biological data to determine how Harvey affected the Gulf of Mexico, particularly regarding the massive influx of fresh water. These data may also offer insight into why Harvey intensified so rapidly.

A suite of oceanographic instrument known is lowered through the water column from the RV Point Sur during the Hurricane Harvey Rapid Response Cruise. Image credit: James M. Fiorendino
A suite of oceanographic instruments is lowered through the water column from the RV Point Sur during the Hurricane Harvey Rapid Response Cruise. Image credit: James M. Fiorendino.
Chief Scientist Dr. Steve DiMarco and TAMU students carefully wrangle a cage containing several oceanographic instruments back onto the deck of the RV Point Sur during the Hurricane Harvey Rapid Response Cruise. Photo Credit: James M. Fiorendino
Chief Scientist Dr. Steve DiMarco and TAMU students carefully wrangle a cage containing several oceanographic instruments back onto the deck of the RV Point Sur after a nighttime deployment during the Hurricane Harvey Rapid Response Cruise. Photo Credit: James M. Fiorendino

Thank you for listening; this has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Contributing Professor: Dr. Henry Potter

Script Author: James M. Fiorendino

Climate Spotlight: Arctic Seals

Featured image by Cassandra D. (https://goo.gl/9zBtnw)

Climate change is sealing the fate of Arctic seal populations—especially the ribbon, bearded, and ringed seal species. Long-term observations have shown that the Arctic is losing large amounts of sea ice between the winter and summer seasons each year. Ice reflects sunlight striking Earth back into space; less ice lowers Earth’s albedo, or reflectivity, resulting in less energy, and consequently less heat, being reflected into space, creating a positive feedback loop contributing to temperature rise and ice loss.

Sea ice in the Arctic is declining. The above figure shows sea ice cover decline since 1970, as well as projected sea ice extent by 2100.
Sea ice in the Arctic is declining. The above figure shows sea ice cover decline since 1970, as well as projected sea ice extent by 2100. Image from: https://blogs.mprnews.org/updraft/2015/05/arctic-sea-ice-on-pace-for-new-record-low/

Loss of sea ice also means the loss of habitat for many marine mammals, such as arctic seals. The Ringed, Bearded, and Ribbon Seals all depend upon sea ice for breeding, shelter, and rearing of their young. For Ringed Seals, the most common Arctic seal, this is quite devastating because Ringed Seals rarely venture onto land. Additionally, Ringed seals create shelters for newborns by tunneling in pack ice, where they give birth. These tunnels both provide shelter for the newborn seal pup and create a microclimate to keep the pup warm, like an igloo. The breakup of ice can result in the separation of mother and pup, which may be fatal. Without sea ice, not only do seals have to give birth in the water, they cannot create shelters in the ice, which decreases the odds of pup survival. Warmer temperatures also allow pathogens and parasites to thrive; less sea ice area results in seals living in close proximity, which increases the chance of spreading parasites or diseases to other individuals.

Mother harp seals identify pups by scent; here a mother harp seal sniffs her pup. Photo by Brian J. Skerry, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/a-mother-harp-seal-sniffs-her-pup-brian-j-skerry.html
Mother harp seals identify pups by scent; here a mother harp seal sniffs her pup. Photo by Brian J. Skerry, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/a-mother-harp-seal-sniffs-her-pup-brian-j-skerry.html

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

To learn more about Arctic seals, check out these links:

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/seals/ringed-seal.html

https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/nmml/education/pinnipeds/ribbon.php

Script Authors: Brian Buckingham and Andrew Watts

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Climate Spotlight: Beluga Whale

Featured image from: http://savenaturesavehuman.blogspot.com/2012/04/beluga-whale.html

If you placed a waterproof microphone in the Arctic Ocean, you might hear the squeaks and whistles of the “Sea Canary,” or Beluga Whale. This vocal marine mammal is completely white and is only found in Arctic and Sub-Arctic waters. Belugas are one of the smallest whales, growing to roughly 3000 pounds (1400 kg) and reaching fifteen feet (5 meters) in length. Compared to other whales, Belugas have a highly flexible neck, which allows them to turn their heads in a wide range of directions to spot predators such as killer whales or polar bears. Like other whales, belugas have a fatty layer of insulation known as blubber that keeps them warm and protects their organs from frigid Arctic temperatures.

Migrating beluga whales in the Chukchi Sea. Image from: http://marinesciencetoday.com/2017/01/17/climate-change-altering-some-beluga-whale-migration/
Migrating beluga whales in the Chukchi Sea. Image from: http://marinesciencetoday.com/2017/01/17/climate-change-altering-some-beluga-whale-migration/

Belugas are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and have been designated a “near threatened” species. Though climate change threatens Belugas, the most concerning factor impacting the Belugas environment is not rising temperatures or an acidified ocean, but increased human activity in the Arctic. As ice melts and opens channels through which ships may traverse the Arctic Ocean, the likelihood of Beluga deaths due to collisions with ships increases. Additionally, sound emitted by ship engines disrupts communication between whales. Ice loss and rising temperatures in the Arctic may also result in a shift of species toward the poles, which will compete with Arctic animals for food. Currently, it is unclear how or if belugas will be able to cope with the environmental impacts of climate change.

To learn more about Belugas, visit these links:

http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/cetaceans/threats/climate_change/

https://insideclimatenews.org/species/mammals/beluga-whale

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Script Authors: Daria Mrugala and Alessandro Scinicariello

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino