Unbeknownst to me until very recently, July 14th was Shark and Ray Awareness Day! In honor of these amazing elasmobranchs, I have decided to write a little about this cool group of cartilaginous fishes! Around the time of Shark and Ray Awareness Day, I decided that it would be as good a time as any to reach out to my friend Elana Rusnak, a shark biologist who started her master’s research on sharks at the same time I started my own research on Fish Aggregating Devices at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in 2017. Although we focused on different research topics, we’ve had a great few years talking about everything from the ocean to our shared love of punk rock music to the joys of rollerblading! It was really exciting to talk to her about her work for the purpose of sharing information about some of the coolest fishes swimming!
Shark photos by Stephen Trbovich.
Because of movies like Jaws and The Shallows, sharks and their brethren get a bad reputation, so I brought in Elana to talk to This Blog Is Trash a little about sharks and how she got to work with them for her career!
Shark Facts with Elana:
Elana and me at the Wetlab in our matching Great White Shark Socks.
To start: sharks and rays are cartilaginous fish belonging to the scientific group Chondrichthyes, which means that instead of ossified (or calcium-rich) bones like you and I have, they have bone structure made of cartilage (which we have in our ears and noses!!!). There is incredible shark and ray diversity in the oceans – they’ve been around for 450 million years – which makes them older than TREES!!
Elana’s favorite shark is the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) - in part because they’re just so darn cute and because they’re low key SO COOL. When most people think of nurse sharks, they think of them laying on the bottom of the ocean, which Elana admitted is essentially what they do, but she also says that they’re practically indestructible. They’re really tough and just hang out on the seafloor essentially straight vibing.
Nurse shark photo by Matthew Bernanke.
While we were talking, Elana also shared with me some amazing fun facts about my favorite shark, which is of course, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which is THE BIGGEST FISH IN THE OCEAN, growing up to 18 and 19 meters long or about 60 feet long!!! They can sustain this because they eat KRILL which are very small animals that live at the surface! Whale sharks are usually nocturnal and often feed vertically with lots of tiny teeth that point in towards their throat to trap their prey. Each whale shark pattern is unique to each individual - just like zebra stripes! In addition to being uniquely identifiable, they live for a really long time too!
Here's a picture of me with my favorite shark...in Animal Crossing New Horizons on my Switch.
When asked what were some common misconceptions about sharks, she responded: “I think sharks are kind of portrayed as mindless killers when really they’re mindful killers.” After a small chuckle, she explained what she meant - sharks are smart and they’re curious, and the only tool they really have to explore the world is with their mouths, so that’s what they use. Sharks aren’t killers, they’re predators in their natural environment, and when it comes to eating, sharks are like us - they have taste buds and preferred foods, some like octopuses (like catsharks), and others like seals and sea lions (like great whites). Elana wants to remind everyone that sharks don’t infest waters - they live there! As a reminder to beach and ocean goers, Elana wanted to reinforce that “sharks should not be feared but they should be respected.”
Elana also wanted to dispel a common misconception that sharks can smell a drop of blood a mile away. She says that while this misconconception is based in fact, it has to do more with the fact that the strongest sense a shark has is chemoreception, which is similar to the way we use our noses to smell. In order for the sharks to pick up on smell it has to reach them, usually via dispersal due to water movement. Something that is really nifty about their sense of smell is that they can smell in stereo! We humans hear in stereo - for example if you were to close your eyes and someone were to snap their fingers, you would know which direction it was coming from - and sharks can do that with SMELL!!! How cool is that? Sharks have an incredibly keen sense of smell and can pick up on extremely low chemical concentrations - somewhere between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 1,000,000 depending on species. This is the reason people say they can smell a drop of blood a mile away - it’s not instantaneous, but in a large volume of water they would be able to pick up on very few molecules of that smell reaching them and would be able to track it to the source using their stereo olfaction. And while this could be a potentially scary factoid, science has found that sharks aren’t really all that attracted to human blood, they respond more to blood from fish and crustaceans - their normal prey.
Sharks have social hierarchies and behaviors - in the shark world, if you’re bigger that means you’re the boss. They are usually sexually dimorphic (meaning that males and females look different) and in general, mature female sharks are larger. That said, there are over 500 species of shark, and most of them are small! The smallest shark is the dwarf lanternshark (Etmopterus perryi) which is only 6 inches long when fully grown!
So now that we all agree that sharks are excellent - what is going on with them in the oceans?
According to Elana (and my own field of fisheries science), sharks are being overfished, so they are well below their natural levels in the ecosystem, but thanks to increasing knowledge and education, some shark populations are on the rise! This is a good thing for our oceans because we need sharks as an important part of the balance in the ecosystem as mid- and high-level predators. What are sharks fished for - is it fear alone? No we actually harvest sharks for their meat, their fins, and their oily livers (which they use for buoyancy instead of an air-filled swim bladder found in other fish). The oil from their liver is called squalene and is used in lots of different products including cosmetics, however the use of squalene is contributing to overharvesting.
In order to help sharks, Elana recommends education: learning about the relationship they have with the environment, and the relationship you can and should have with them. In order to help prevent further overfishing of sharks for their squalene oil, Elana recommends shopping vegan and/or avoiding products with squalene in them.
So who is Elana Rusnak, and how did she get to be a shark expert?
Elana grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan in the Windy City, Chicago and found her way to marine science in a similar way to me – she grew up going to the beach and absolutely fell in love. Having spent time at the Shedd Aquarium (which does BOSS research btw), Elana also spent time on the Jersey Shore with her grandparents.
When asked how she found her way to the marine science path, Elana responded with a common theme that I’ve encountered from fellow marine scientists: “I had never really decided what I wanted to do – we all know how broad Marine Biology is.” A huge part of the separation that I feel scientists have from the average non-scientist is the ultra sterile image that scientists are presented as in the media, and I think it’s important to show the world that we are normal(ish) just like everyone else and above that, we just love our jobs and our research. So how does one go from loving the ocean and going to the aquarium to a full-fledged scientist? In Elana’s case, she went on high school trips with Broadreach and Odyssey Expeditions in the Caribbean and absolutely fell in love with sharks. From there it was all about getting into a shark research lab in college which led her directly to the University of Miami.
Shark research is pretty tough to get into however. Elana spent every semester for her first five semesters at UM trying to get a position in the RSMAS Shark Research and Conservation Program, finally achieving her goal during her junior year of college. Upon graduating from the University of Miami, Elana applied to be a master’s student in the SRC and was not initially accepted, as the position was for shark movement ecology, which she later realized would not have been a good fit for her (silver linings!). She instead found herself being offered a spot in a master’s program on shark eco-immunology, and jumped at the opportunity.
The first thing Elana wants you to know about her research is that “shark immunology is dope!” Sharks have incredibly robust immune systems that contribute greatly to their overall health – just like people! For the basics of immunology there are two systems we need to consider: the innate and adaptive immune systems. Innate immunity is a nonspecific response that fights pathogens and adaptive immunity is the part of our immune system that learns what pathogens look like and is able to mount an immune response more quickly and efficiently the second time a pathogen is encountered - this is why vaccines work!
Sharks are the most ancient animal that have an innate and adaptive immune system comparable to mammals - as such sharks have been used as immune models for humans! The reason Elana is so excited about shark immunology is because our scientific knowledge of the shark immune system is relatively limited.
Let’s dive into Elana’s research!
Elana taking a blood sample on a nurse shark (photo courtesy of Elana Rusnak).
Elana’s research was separated into two parts. The first part of her research was studying a specific protein - C-reactive Protein or CRP - that has a naturally low baseline (meaning that there are relatively low concentrations of the protein in an mammal’s blood normally) which skyrockets during an infection and drops back off once the infection has run its course. Cool, right?! Elana spent 2 years looking for the CRP gene in nurse shark liver tissue RNA and DNA. For this part of her project all she could conclude was that CRP is present in the nurse shark genome but was not able to conclude that it acts in the same way during an inflammatory response in sharks as it does in mammals. Elana said of her work on CRP: “It took me 2 years to get the CRP result and 99% failure - that’s a really important part of science. Trying something and failing.”
The second part of Elana’s research was looking at transcriptomes, which detail the active cellular and protein processes occurring in that part of the body at the time of sampling. For this project, she had the novel opportunity to look at a sick and healthy nurse shark’s liver transcriptome to compare the two. In order to compare them, she built the transcriptome and looked at the differences in gene expression between the two sharks. In order to understand what was happening in these different sharks, Elana used gene matches from genetic databases (which are apparently out there like little libraries for genomes!!!) and found that the genes and proteins from the complement pathways were really active, which shows that the complement pathway is a fundamental part of the shark immune system! The complement system is a part of innate immunity that functions to clear infection in the host by boring a hole into the pathogen’s cell wall, causing it to burst open and die. Conveniently, this is Elana’s favorite part of the immune system, and she’s really looking forward to learning more about this process in sharks!
Elana’s research has contributed to a greater understanding of the role different genes play in shark immunity, and she hopes to pursue a PhD learning more about shark or other fish eco-immunology.
You can see Elana giving a lecture about obscure sharks as part of an online series with Broadreach here.
Connect with Elana on Instagram: @elasmo_elana
or Linked in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elana-rusnak-marine-bio/
Elana Rusnak recently completed her MSc degree in Marine Biology and Ecology at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. She worked both as an undergraduate and a graduate researcher in the Shark Research and Conservation (SRC) program for 4.5 years. Her work focused on the immunobiology of the nurse shark (her favorite!). She was able to isolate some potentially important immune genes for the first time, and learned more about what an immune response looks like in a sick shark's liver! She hopes to continue on and get a PhD in the field of Eco-immunology, where the immune function of an organism, like a shark or a bony fish, is related to how it interacts with its natural environment (ecology). Elana loves to teach and would like to become a university professor after she completes her doctorate.
During the Covid-19 Lockdown in California, I joined a Climate Change Book Club. This experience has been both exciting and more than a bit surreal as I read about one impending global crisis, while living the shocking reality of an entirely different global crisis. The club is made up of some of my peers and friends in marine science careers as well as two friends in other biology doctoral programs. This group brings super interesting perspectives to the problem of climate change because we all have different backgrounds (even those of us in marine science focus on different topics, and it’s been super interesting to try and take the additional time offered by not having ANY commute (or a whole slew of other time consuming activities) to dedicate to a topic I care rather desperately about.
We are reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Captialism vs. the Climate. The book is about how Climate Change and Capitalism are fundamentally at odds with one another, and how despite the fact that we’ve known about anthropogenic (man-made) climate change for decades (Plantico and Karl, 1990), the interests of free trade and the economy have always come ahead of the needs of our fragile environment.
I went on a (socially distant) walk with a close friend during the first week of being a part of my climate change book club and we were talking about the implications of climate change to our generation – catastrophic changes to our climate that cannot be predicted exactly but what we do know is that we can expect increased intensity of storm events like hurricanes, enormous rain storms and flooding, as well as hotter and drier droughts. My friend looked at me and said she didn’t know how I did it – working with climate change as a biologist, how to not get depressed in the face of all of these uncertainties, in addition to the knowledge that there is an alarming number of people denying that these changes are occurring in the first place.
To be honest, I don’t know how or why we are able to keep our heads up, but every other scientist I know working in the field of marine or atmospheric science has something they hold on to in the face of climate change – be it coming up with resilient solutions for communities using natural barriers, or researching the aspects of a creature’s biology which allow survival in changing environmental conditions.
So why start a book on climate change in the midst of a global pandemic?
Well to be honest, I had been meaning to get around to books about the climate and more “serious” books than the escapism fiction books I normally read, but realistically it took my friend reaching out to me and asking if I was interested in joining the book club before I could actually commit to the task that is reading about how badly we’ve messed up our wonderful planet. I’ve struggled throughout my academic career to look at extinctions caused by humanity as a whole because it’s such an emotional topic for me but at this point climate change is coming, and I’d rather be informed about all the steps we took to get here so at the very least I can be a little more prepared.
This topic is inherently uncomfortable. It’s close to home because it quite literally is going to affect our home and the world at large in ways we can’t know until it happens. And that’s scary. Now what’s fascinating about reading this book has been the reaffirming of the beliefs that I’ve held for quite some time about the uncertainty we face due to climate change. Now as a young overly progressive ridiculously loud environmentalist, I’ve been told for YEARS that I’m overreacting or that “it’ll work itself out”.
Klein’s book has highlighted a lot of the changes that we can expect to see in the face of climate change, especially given that we’ve been operating business as usual in terms of our emissions for the past 30 years in spite of scientific evidence clearly stating that increased emissions WILL impact our climate in ways that will become additive and unpredictable. And although this knowledge isn’t comforting, it is refreshing to hear about climate change in direct terms rather than the wishy-washy watered-down nonsense that has been such a large part of the political discourse since I was old enough to listen to what politicians were saying.
Yeah. I’ve been hesitant to talk about the current Covid lockdown/social distancing/whatever exactly is happening because it’s equally uncomfortable for me to talk about. But one day on a walk down to the beach near me, I set up a towel on the grass about 100 feet from the closest person and laid down to read the introduction of This Changes Everything. It was a Thursday afternoon, and you wouldn’t know that it wasn’t the middle of summer for how many people were at the beach. In fact, you’d have no idea that there was a disease ravaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in our country because there were very few people wearing masks or practicing social distancing at the beach park. I don’t claim to know the circumstances of every group of people hanging out in the park, but it felt out of sync with the events transpiring from Covid.
While I was sitting at the beach, reading the beginning of this book I was met with this quote about climate change in the introductory chapter: “Faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, our entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of elbow grease behind it.” As I read this chapter, a large family moved a whole picnic’s worth of stuff onto a table nearby and started blasting music. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t think twice about a family having a picnic in such a wonderful location but I live in a place where people are adamantly ignore the CDC recommendation of wearing masks in public places, and seeing everyone behaving like it’s just an extended break and there aren’t people on ventilators in our hospital just up Pacific Coast Highway feels icky. And putting some learning about the impending climate crisis was just a little too much for this young scientist.
There is a silver lining somewhere here, I just know it.
A recent paper in Nature found that the shut-downs caused by the pandemic have decreased daily global carbon dioxide emissions during the lockdowns by 17% by early April as compared with the average 2019 values (Quere et al., 2020). While cool, without significant changes to how we as a planet, as a country, as a society decide to return to “normal”, the drop in emissions may be just a small blip in the increasing trend of climate emissions over the past few decades.
Quere, C., Jackson, R., Jones, M., Smith, A., Abernethy, S., Andrew, R., De-Gol, A., Willis, D., Shan, Y., Canadell, J., Friedlingstein, P., Creutzig, F., and G. Peters (2020). Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change.
Plantico, ,M. and T. Karl (1990). Is recent climate change across the United States related to rising levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases? Journal of Geophysical Research. 95(D10): 16,617 – 16,637.
Science is a funny hobby. Sometimes you get to go out to sea for months on end for your work. Sometimes you spend hours in front of your computer staring at a blank Word document wondering how exactly you should write the results of your study. And sometimes we get to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and put on your blazer and pj pants to give a presentation at an international meeting on the research you’ve spent 6 months working on. You know – that casual first scientific paper presentation vibe you know?
Socially distant science presentation
How did I get here? Great question!
Back in October of 2019, I was wondering what I should do with my life – I had defended my master’s thesis, finished my seasonal job at the Miami-Dade County Sea Turtle Program, and was mostly done with writing my thesis manuscript. And I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do: with my time, with my life, with my career. Those pre-graduation jitters are REAL. So I started casting around trying to make connections and put in my due diligence towards finding what I wanted to do.
Looking around South Florida for work in the field of fisheries science is a surprisingly small pool to draw from. I was watching the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center job board like a hawk, but in the meantime I was trying to find a way to get my footing in the field. I found The Billfish Foundation through a really cool Miami-based company called Waterlust that makes super cool water apparel AND donates 10% of their profits to different organizations working to help environmental conservation.
ANYWAY The Billfish Foundation is a non-profit with a mission of conserving billfish worldwide through research, education, and advocacy. For those who don’t know, the grouping “billfish” includes sailfish, marlin, and swordfish – the pelagic fish with big noses, um I mean rostra. These big pelagics are super cool fish with enormous migrations that can be thousands of miles long. According to this article in Marlin Magazine a study found that one blue marlin had traveled over four thousand miles in 120 days! That’s SO MUCH SWIMMING! I love pelagic (open ocean) species because they have cool life histories and are just the epitome of world travelers. These wanderers span ocean basins in search of food and breeding grounds WHICH IS SO NEAT.
But I digress from the topic at hand…
Having a love of big pelagics and a strong background in fisheries science, The Billfish Foundation seemed like the perfect place to start my science career after receiving my Masters. I was pleased to begin the Wintrhop P. Rockefeller Fellowship at the Billfish Foundation in October of 2019. For this fellowship, I was tasked with writing a paper, and in order to explain the topic of my paper/project we’re going to dive into a brief lesson on fisheries management.
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) is an intergovernmental organization that manages tuna and tuna-like species (including billfish!!!) in the Atlantic Ocean. There are other organizations that manage highly migratory species in other parts of the ocean, but since I went to school in Miami, which is on the Atlantic, we are gonna focus on ICCAT. Because big pelagic species like tuna and billfish wander the oceans, it is most effective to manage them jointly by the countries that fish for those species. ICCAT was established in 1966 and has been managing highly migratory species ever since!
SO ICCAT has lots of meetings where they assess the status of the various highly migratory species that they are responsible for managing. My introduction to the ICCAT was at the 2018 Blue Marlin Stock Assessment as a member of the U.S. delegation where we learned about and discussed the management of – you guessed it – blue marlin! I also had the privilege of participating in the 2019 White Marlin Stock Assessment. The way we assess fisheries is through complex mathematical equations. The standard way we measure “stocks,” or the amount of fish in that population, is something called Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE). Looking at trends of CPUE over time can indicate how well or poorly a stock of fish is doing in the ocean, since it’s incredibly difficult to physically count every single fish that is out there.
What does this have to do with my project? Everything!
The models that we used in both the 2018 Blue Marlin and 2019 White Marlin Stock Assessments assumed that for recreational catch (tournament fishing and charter trips) it is as easy in 2020 to catch a billfish as it was in the 1970s. Both anglers (fishermen) and scientists have expressed concerns that this is not the case, and we should be changing our models to reflect these concerns – which is where my project comes in! For my paper, I conducted a literature review and 8 personal interviews with anglers and fisheries managers to determine what pieces of technology and fishing gear have made it easier to catch marlin over the last 46 years.
After 6 months of working on the paper, I finally had the opportunity to present our results to the ICCAT meeting for the Working Group on Stock Assessment Methods on May 7. This was an incredible opportunity because I presented to scientists from all around the world who work on all sorts of highly migratory species. However, the meeting started at 12:00 in Madrid which is where ICCAT headquarters are located. For those keeping track, 3:00am PST is noon in Madrid so I got to wake up and dress up for a presentation to almost 50 other scientists!
I was talking about the presentation to a friend of mine and had made a joke about playing at being a real grown-up scientist and he laughed and fired back that it couldn’t exactly be considered “playing at being a scientist” when I was presenting my own research at an international meeting. It didn’t really feel super “real” presenting my results over a Microsoft Teams meeting, but when we got through the end of my presentation and I got to answer questions about the project, it hit me that after almost 7 years since graduating high school with the goal of becoming a marine biologist – I’ve done it!
I guess I’m a “real” scientist now. And I’m so excited to see where this career takes me.
The Connection Between Single Use Plastics, My Paddleboarding Weekend Adventure, and the 2020 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference
This weekend I went paddleboarding – a sport and workout which is both immensely peaceful (for me at least) and able to be done while social distancing. Really a big win in my book because let’s be real, I have been LUSTING for some time outside of my backyard/neighborhood/solid land in general.
While out on the water I had some time to actually breathe and think with clarity that I haven’t really experienced in these odd socially distant times, and while sitting on the Pacific I had some time to process what happened this week. For my job up in Washington I am going to be the Lead Educator for Deep Green Wilderness where I will be teaching middle- and high-school students about ocean conservation and sailing on a ship called Orion.
A really exciting part of my new job was attending a conference on the Salish Sea Ecosystem. For those who are like me and didn’t grow up in northern Washington or BC Canada, the Salish Sea is the ecosystem which encompasses the Puget Sound, Straits of Juan de Fuca, Straits of Georgia, the San Juan Islands AND the watershed that feeds into these bodies of water.
Map of the Salish Sea & Surrounding Basin, Stefan Freelan, WWU, 2009
The 2020 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference was held online and took place over 2 days that were filled with Zoom sessions and SO MUCH LEARNING for me! I went to sessions about contaminants in the ecosystem and learned about where large sources of toxins come from in the environment – I went to another session on microplastics in the Salish sea ecosystem which reinforced a lot of the themes I took away from my Master’s thesis, and I got to learn about kelp and the environmental stressors they have been facing over the past decade.
What stuck the most for me about this conference was the microplastics talk. Now I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to plastics I am fascinated scientifically and disgusted as a citizen of Earth, but I really am interested in learning more about the fate of much of the debris that we are polluting our oceans with.
So that I don’t immediately lose all my non-trash scientist readers, microplastics are generally defined as plastics which are smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Typically, microplastics do not get to the ocean in such a small size (though some like nurdles do). Instead microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastics – things like bags, bottles, synthetic fibers – take your pick.
Microplastics on Long Island, Bahamas. Photo by Grant Bemis.
But Bree, what causes macroplastics to break down, and why are microplastics so bad?
WELL dear reader, I’m glad you asked! Macroplastics undergo what’s called photodegradation, which causes them to go from being recognizable – like the plastics I found while paddleboarding this weekend – to microscopically small. Now not only do microplastic particles remain a marine pollutant, they also act as tiny toxin sponges, absorbing toxins from the water column like persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (Andrady, 2011; Bakir et al., 2014).
This whole microplastic/toxin sponge situation wouldn’t be all that bad if it didn’t do anything after it became a toxin sponge, but microplastics are pretty much everywhere. Plankton, corals, and other invertebrates (like mussels and clams) are all ingesting microplastics (Desforges et al., 2015; Hall et al., 2015; Shim and Thomposon, 2015; Lusher et al., 2017). These microplastics carry toxins which get carried up the food chain into higher trophic levels throughout marine ecosystems. These higher trophic level organisms, including seabirds as well as fish and crustaceans, can also ingest mircoplastics directly (Cole et al., 2016; Lusher et al., 2017). Basically they’re just the worst. And it’s not just in the oceans: people like you and me are ingesting microplastics from a wide variety of sources including our DRINKING WATER (Barboza et al., 2018)!
So what you’re saying is microplastics are the worst and they’re everywhere?! Why are you writing this blog Bree?
That’s true! Microplastics are pretty ubiquitous, AND there has been some really interesting research done to show just how pervasive the problem is! Take for example experiments like the one the Seattle Aquarium is conducting looking at the amount of microplastics and microfibers in the waters of Puget Sound, or the research done by NOAA employee Kim Parsons and master’s student Jenna Harlacher at the University of Washington studying microplastics in orca poop!
Although the issue of microplastics is one that scales from some of the smallest particles in the water column all the way up to the top predators in the Salish Sea, the microplastic problem is one that spans all seas – I couldn’t escape it in a short paddle in my local harbor, and I can’t escape it even when I’ve been out to sea for days on end. As inescapable as plastics are in the marine environment, I believe that talking about them can bring about a positive change too. I was talking to a colleague about marine debris and my master’s thesis and we got onto the topic of picking up trash when he goes to the beach and it made me smile. Sometimes being an environmentalist and conservationist makes it seem like it’s me versus the whole world, but in talking to people and attending conferences like the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference I get to remember that there are so many people out there trying to help the planet, and it gets a little less lonely.
In light of COVID-19 and the quarantine and the huge move across the county and and and I’ve been struggling to get the creative juices flowing to write something for this blog. Even though there’s a voice in the back of my head yelling about how now is the time to write because for the first time potentially ever since this blog was started, people have time. And it may be egotistical to think people would spend their time reading my blog with their newfound time BUT WE’RE HERE AND WE’RE WRITING SO HERE WE GO!
I did a very (un)scientific survey of blog reader (yes I did mean for that to be singular), and 100% of blog reader requested a manatee blog post (shoutout to Katherine thanks girl) – so here are some of the things I find coolest about the manatee.
1) Sailors mistook manatees for mermaids back in the day. A wild and weird idea in our times but come on. These gentle giants more closely resemble floating rocks than Ariel and her sisters, but I mean to each their own I guess? Now I picked up this incredible tidbit from a book called Manatees for Kids – a book about an almost 11 year old girl who goes to Florida to see manatees. Guess who was ALSO almost 11 when she visited Florida to see manatees for the first time! It was me!
Definite mermaids spotted in Virgina Key's best lagoon.
I guess this is as good a time as any to address this problem: if any of you readers ever had any questions about why I became a marine biologist the answer lies somewhere in hearing bedtime stories about dolphin’s first day and sea lions roar and an oceans A to Z book rather than I guess normal bedtime stories? I never had a chance.
2) Manatees are herbivores – they’re vegetarians! Like me! I love that we share a love of green things. Are manatees aware that we have similar dietary preferences? Absolutely not. Does it change the sense of camaraderie I feel for this species? OF COURSE NOT.
3) Manatees have 3 toenails on their front flippers. One of their close living relatives is the ELEPHANT! Elephants share these 3 toenails, and as my coworker pointed out in response to this photo…
Look at those toenails AND biologically accurate lettuce!
…though elephants are cousins of manatees, their closest living relative is the Hyrax – a mammal found in Africa (if you think this blog is really just an excuse to put my most embarrassing photos on my blog…you’d be absolutely correct).
4) Manatees are HUGE. And by huge I mean 800 – 1200 pounds and up to 10 feet long, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And I guess that there are a lot of big animals in the ocean, but the scale of swimming with a manatee is hilarious. Like definitely the biggest animal I’ve been in the water with so far and even though they move slowly there’s such a presence associated with them. 100% was very nervous the first time I swam with them even despite knowing that manatee attacks are VERY VERY rare ;p
5) Manatees have their nipples in their armpits! So when the calves nurse they swim up to mom’s flipper and nurse from there (as pictured here!!!)
Manatee calf nursing in Crystal River, FL
6) Mother and baby manatees communicate through chirps – and you can hear the babies communicating with their moms if you’re lucky enough to be in the water with a pair of them! It’s so cool!
7) Manatees migrate between fresh and salt water! It’s super weird to me because I learned about them as a species that lived in the rivers of Florida, but you can see manatees right off the beach at my grad school – and that was the very place I saw my first manatee while living in Florida. I screamed so loud everyone in the restaurant stopped to stare at me…I really like them, okay?
Manatees cruising through a saltwater lagoon
8) They have MANATEE LICENSE PLATES IN FLORIDA (this may be a cool point in Florida’s corner over the manatee BUT STILL!!!) And the money generated from the purchasing of these plates goes directly to manatee conservation!
9) Manatees have gone from “Endangered” to merely “Threatened” on the Endangered Species List because of conservation measures and population recovery! This change in status happened in 2017, but the manatee is on the rise. This of course continues protection for the species but in case you were worried, manatees are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as well as the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Lots of love for these grey nuggets <3
10) Manatees don’t like cold water. In fact, they cannot survive in water colder than 68°F (I mean honestly same) BUT they have a pretty wide range in U.S. coastal waters venturing into the Gulf of Mexico and up the Southeast Coast. HOWEVER in 2006 one adventurous (or potentially lost?) manatee was spotted in New York City in the Hudson River! Talk about an epic manatee spotting!
So anyway. Was this post just an excuse to post a bunch of pictures of my favorite animal? Yes. Did I relish the fact that I could also post embarrassing pictures of me in my manatee onesie? Absolutely. But I also hope I have given you at least one reason to smile or shake your head about how excellent these ecologically irrelevant* floating potatoes are. They are the best animal on earth, contrary to my high school marine ecology teacher’s loving moniker for them of “ocean speed bumps”, these peaceful lil dudes are straight up chilling.
Turning 25 with the best animals on Earth!
*A note for curious readers. Why did I call my favorite animal ecologically irrelevant? WELL BOY OH BOY DID YOU COME TO THE RIGHT BLOG. Basically manatees were really just out here minding their own business for a few million years munching on sea grass, making sure the sea grass was in check and BOOM humans come in practically out of nowhere and have the audacity to take over the manatee’s role in the ecosystem AND cause crazy high rates of mortality for manatees leading them to drop precipitously in population numbers. For those paying attention, this crazy drop in manatee population numbers led to the West Indian Manatee to being listed on the Endangered Species List in the first place.
In honor of the state I just moved out of, I thought I'd share some about one of the most ridiculous laws in effect in the State of Florida: the Plastic Preemption.
The State of Florida has a preemption that prevents local governments from passing laws to regulate polystyrene products including plastic bags, Styrofoam containers, and plastic drinking straws to list a few. Florida’s economy is largely driven by tourism, much of which is ecotourism for our coral reefs, beautiful beaches, and amazing fishing grounds. As someone who has spent the last 2.5 years of her life learning about plastic and its awful impacts on the environment, I have a few opinions on why this bafflingly backwards piece of legislation is a really really dumb law.
Plastic pollution is a problem that has been documented to affect not just beach aesthetics but has environmental impacts on resident marine life and can threaten human health. The effects on marine life include engtanglement of marine mammals and sea turtles, as well as fish, birds, mammals, and over 800 species of marine animals that consume plastics in their environment. Even if you can push empathy for marine organisms out of your mind, WE ARE DRINKING MICROPLASTICS IN OUR DRINKING WATER!
For coastal cities like Miami, the plastic pollution problem is not some abstract environmental problem, but rather is something that we see when visiting the beaches in front of our homes and parks. Some concerned citizens might argue that cities should have the right to pass legislation that would protect their environment, but the Florida’s preemption has not only deterred, but actually fully prevented cities from doing exactly that.
Florida Statute section 500 Section 90 has proved a looming threat to cities like Coral Gables trying to ban plastic containers for takeout in businesses. In 2016, Coral Gables passed a law banning plastic containers and was promptly sued by The Retail Federation on the basis of Florida Statute sections 500.90, 403.708(9), and 403.7033. The court ruled these statutes unconstitutional and decided that the city’s Ordinance was not preempted. Following this ruling, the case was then taken to the Third District Court of Appeals which ruled in August that the preemption superseded the City’s ability to pass this Styrofoam ban. The City of Coral Gables has taken this case to the Florida Supreme Court.
Multiple cities around the state have passed plastic bags bans in the past year including Surfside, Gainesville, and Palm Beach. In response to the Court of Appeals ruling however, all three of these cities overturned their bag bans.
All hope on the plastic problem is not lost however; there are multiple ordinances around Miami-Dade County that were passed prior to Statute section 500.90. The City of Miami Beach has an Ordinance passed in 2014 which banned the use of Styrofoam city-wide. In addition, the voice of the people can act as a powerful call to action for our government. When faced with the environmental crisis of toxic algal blooms in 2018, the state created a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, whose job it was to figure out what to do about the environmental crisis. With this precedent, I think there is definitely the hope to reverse this ridiculous assault on the environment.
Will I ever stop putting colons in my titles for blog posts? Probably not. But we’re not here to talk about me. We are here to talk about a personal hero of mine and #nastywoman, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Her name is common one in South Florida, but why do I consider this legendary woman a Nasty Woman? Read on and see what this COOL LADY accomplished in her 108-year life.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1890, Marjory grew up in the Northeast U.S. and received her degree in English from Wellesley College in 1912! What a cool lady! What were women doing in 1912? MOST OF THEM WERE MOST CERTAINLY NOT GRADUATING COLLEGE – ESPECIALLY with a degree in English.
Marjory left the Northeast, and her garbage brief marriage to a con artist, to work as a reporter for her father’s newspaper in Miami, you know, the newspaper that casually became The Miami Herald. After serving as a nurse in Europe in World War I, she returned to the Herald to serve as an editor – because why wouldn’t she??? Because she’s the absolute coolest! Did I mention that she was the ONLY woman working at the Herald? No? WILD.
And then in the 1920s, because she had some important things to say, Marjory started her career as an author, writing books and short stories for the rest of her life. Now naturally, she was known for being an environmentalist (which we will talk about later), and has been recorded fighting for Women’s Suffrage, fighting against slum-lords, and for free milk for babies whose parents needed aid.
Douglas is best known for her work titled River of Grass about America’s Everglades. Now as we are all aware, I am a HUGE fan of the Everglades, but Marjory took her passion for this incredible ecosystem to the page and the people. The book begins: “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them…” Not only does she capture the essence of a natural place so perfectly in this opening, she goes on to describe the natural history of the region in a way that transports the reader to the swamp where she invites everyone to see and love the Glades for the natural wonder they are.
In an NPR article about Douglas, one of her old English teachers, Kevin McCarthy stated Marjory “was fearless, it didn’t matter who she was talking to, with engineers, or governors or even presidents. She believed so strongly in preserving the environment that she was very effective.” For her environmental activism and writing, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993, when she was 103 for those keeping track of the years, and was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the year 2000.
Fun fact: Marjory and I love the same Miami parks! Here is one of them (Matheson Hammock) at sunset.
Douglas lived in a cottage she designed in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami from 1926 until she died there in 1998. Do I take inspiration from living in the same place as this incredible woman?! Every freaking day! But she also recreated in the same places I do – in the beautiful Everglades, in Matheson Hammock Park. She loved southern Florida for what it is and was – a beautiful, wonderful swamp. And in case I haven’t proved how motivating and incredible this lady was, I’m going to end this blog post on a quote from this lovely lady and real #nastywoman.
“Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public… Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action … Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening efforts of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics – but never give up. You have to stand up for some things in this world.”
My love affair with alligators is one that is well-documented, but it came from an abject fear of them as a child. Big scary lizard = bad news was about the metric that young Bree had, but since moving to Florida in the Fall of 2017, I have discovered a soft spot for the reptiles that even my college self would have been baffled by. So how do you go from a manatee-loving, marine biologist to loving a freshwater dwelling ambush predator? I think it relates to my love of comics and all things nerdy, and of course, the fact that everyone loves a good redemption story.
My embarassing love affair is documented here (we're making the same face)
Photo credit to my father, without whom this moment would have been lost to memory
Alligators are organisms that are well-associated with Florida (and the South), and have numerous headlines associated with them. My favorites include:
The formidable gator in her natural habitat/also my most frequented National Park in Florida - the Everglades
Alligators are large reptiles found throughout the southeast United States, occupying an important role in the swamp as ambush predators. They can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and grow to more than 12 feet. They have characteristic toothy grins (you can see both top and bottom teeth when their mouths are shut), and nice round snouts. During the winter, they can be found basking in the sun near water bodies – Shark Valley in Everglades National Park is a great place to find these toothy bois. They are cold-blooded reptiles so they spend that time basking warming up through the scales along their backs. They feed on fish, invertebrates, frogs, bids, and mammals.
A resting juvenile gator.
Now personally, I understand the fear of a large dinosaur-looking swamp dragon (or alligator if you insist). However, fear is not what caused the precarious dip in population: instead it was people hunting for alligator hides which drove their populations into a state where they were listed as federally endangered. The hide trade began in earnest in the 1800s, and by the 1950s, this species was severely depleted. Upon federal protection in 1973, alligator populations were able to begin the process of recovery. Alligator farms also aided in wild population recovery as they allowed for decreased pressure on wild populations to meet the commercial demands for alligator hide.
As of today, you can find alligators in most fresh water bodies in Florida (and throughout the South, but my focus is of course where I live), and they are an amazing sight at that. I love a good redemption story as much as the next comic book fan, but I really think that the American Alligator is an unsung hero of the American South.
Happy 2020! Is it almost the end of January? Absolutely! Do I still date things 2019? Definitely! AND IT WON'T STOP! Gotta love that first few months of the year where I don't have a CLUE what's going on, but I figured it would be a good time to stop and take stock of everything. And it is looking like it is going to be a good year! So without further ado, here's some updates to This Blog Is Trash.
First, and foremost, I have some AMAZING new art for the blog, created by my talented little sister Karen Gibbs. You can see more of her art here! Woo supporting new artists! And just look at it! It's SO COOL
Second, I want to post more frequently than once every few months! This goal was inspired by the Everglades Coalition Conference (which I just wrote about a week ago! AND JUST LEARNED I CAN LINK BLOG POSTS TO OTHER BLOG POSTS WOW!!). I had an amazing time, met some amazing people, and was reminded that not everyone knows a scientist, or even what scientists are up to these days! So I've decided to hold myself accountable - both by writing this post AND putting my blog on my business card. A BOLD PLAY BUT HERE WE ARE!
Third, I think I'm going to change up the blog a little bit. I know that all of my adoring fans only want to hear about trash, fish following floaty things, and of course the occasional extra long stint on big boats (ships... I know but some habits die hard), but I have a lot of friends doing incredible work for their research, jobs, and hobbies so I thought maybe I could include interviews of professional non-trash scientists to see where that takes the blog. If you have thoughts, concerns, topics of interest, or just want to say "hey", please feel free to leave me a comment, drop me a line, or maybe send me a message in a bottle! Writing this sort of feels like standing at the top of the Maersk Launcher talking to the ocean because I have no feedback without comments, so feel free to say something (if only to help me out).
Lastly, I'm really excited to start blogging back up and hope I can find a way to encourage people to keep up! Happy 2020!
Early January, I had the pleasure of attending the Everglades Coalition Conference in Captiva Island, a small beautiful place on the Gulf Coast. The conference was filled with a diverse group of people dedicated to the conservation and restoration of what has come to be one of my favorite National Parks. The weekend was filled with invigorating discussions of the challenges the Everglades faces including limited water flow, decreased space (because of pesky people moving onto Everglades land), as well as the all-present problem of pollution. To a newly inspired Everglades advocate, these challenges seem insurmountable, however, without skipping a beat the panelists at the conference presented numerous ways to face each of the listed challenges. The sessions were filled with nods to environmentalism - "Climate Voter" buttons, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax making his appearance on one attendee's shoes - and it was frankly inspiring to be in a room of people not daunted by the local apathy or corporate greed which threatens the very existence of our Park. A Park that I might add that is not only valued in the United States as a region of important value, but has also been listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 2020 Everglades Coalition Conference Scholarship Recipients (photographed by Cara Capp).
I was among a lucky 20 students who were granted a scholarship for participation in the conference by the Everglades Coalition and the National Parks Conservation Association. These students were fellow graduate students as well as undergraduates who had a passion for the Everglades and conservation on their mind. Our weekend was filled with panel discussions, breakout sessions, and more networking than you could shake a stick at! From 8:00 in the morning at breakfast until 9:00 in the evening we were learning and listening and trying to keep up with the science, policy, and politics of an enormous Everglades watershed. One inspiring notion that I know I and a number of the other scholarship recipients was spoken by Dr. Melissa Abdo of the NPCA; "we have hope instead of dwelling on doom and gloom."
Another wonderful feature of the Conference was something organizers did not take advantage of (in my opinion): the Full Moon. Walking down the beaches of Captiva Island with nothing but the moon shining bright enough to cast a shadow while discussing all of the things we learned was one of those nights that I think I will carry with me for a long time coming - along with all of the friendships that were solidified in the nights after the lectures had stopped with boisterous conversation ringing out into the chilly nights.
Jumping dolphins in Captiva Sound
The end of the conference was a trip out on Captiva Sound, the water body to the east of the hotel we had been staying in. During the tour we learned about the cultural and natural history of the water body, punctuated with visits by diving cormorants, leaping dolphins, and a single bald eagle staring out at our boat from a sandbar within the sound. Each piece of the trip was a reminder of the importance of protecting beautiful natural areas, and the value of raising your voice. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Everglades Champion and personal hero of mine, once said, "Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public ... Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action ... Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics - but never give up. You have to stand up for some things in the world." Between this incredible woman who fought for what she believed in for her entire life, and the energy at the Everglades Coalition Conference, I have been inspired to continue raising my voice for what I believe in, which in this day and age is the protection and conservation of natural places in the world.
Mangroves in the morning sun
In addition to the conference attendees who have dedicated their careers to the conservation and restoration of the Everglades, I find myself inspired by the amazing women I got to spend time with at the conference. Women who have such passion and drive for the outdoors that they all collectively decided to get up and explore the Ding Darling State Park before our wildlife cruise on the sound, just to get a sense of the place we had been staying in. The crisp morning air and the shared sense of wonder wandering through mangroves brought a hushed chapel like atmosphere rather than the exuberant one expected from a group of twenty-something year-olds. Caroline Lewis of the CLEO Institute looked out at the conference and told us "I'd rather choke on greatness than nibble on mediocrity," and I think these young women are doing just that.
Bree Gibbs, here. I'm a recent Master's Grad just trying to share what it's like to be a trash scientist (for those who aren't in the know, I'm a marine biologist).