EcoWatch is a community of experts publishing quality, science-based content on environmental issues, causes, and solutions for a healthier planet and life.
Mentioned by:
Nasa Smithsonian BBC The Washington Post NPR

The deep, open ocean may seem like an inhospitable environment, but many species like human-sized Humboldt squids are well-adapted to the harsh conditions. 1,500 feet below the ocean's surface, these voracious predators could be having complex conversations by glowing and changing patterns on their skin that researchers are just beginning to decipher.

The deep, open ocean may seem like an inhospitable environment, but many species like human-sized Humboldt squids are well-adapted to the harsh conditions. 1,500 feet below the ocean’s surface, these voracious predators could be having complex conversations by glowing and changing patterns on their skin that researchers are just beginning to decipher.


In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of United States of America, scientists from Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) captured and analyzed footage of Humboldt squids off the Northern California coast using unmanned, robotic submarines called remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to better understand this squid’s visual communication.

Humboldt squids hunt in groups, and their collective foraging has been described as a “feeding frenzy.” The ROV footage and new research, however, suggest that the squids actually communicate with each other as they hunt and socialize. They do so by changing patterns of light and dark pigmentation on their skin, the study shows. The changes can be seen even in pitch-black deep ocean because the squids make their entire bodies glow in the dark, reports MBARI.

Humboldt squids have numerous, small bioluminescent organs called photophores embedded subcutaneously throughout their muscle tissue that make them glow, the study’s abstract explains. They use this “backlighting” to “boost the contrast” for skin patterning changes, says a Stanford University news report.

Chromatophores, or pigment cells embedded in the skin, create those pattern changes, reports Scimex. MBARI reports how those are then “backlit like words on an e-reader screen.”

“Maybe they need this ability to glow and display these pigmentation patterns to facilitate group behaviors in order to survive out there,” suggests study collaborator Ben Burford in the Stanford report. “Many squid live in fairly shallow water and don’t have these light-producing organs, so it’s possible this is a key evolutionary innovation for being able to inhabit the open ocean.”

Burford and senior author Bruce Robison compared where the light organs are in Humboldt squid to where the most detailed skin patterns appear. They found an overlap of where the most densely-packed photophores were and where the most intricate patterns occur, the Stanford report explains. The finding lends weight to their hypothesis about the squids’ evolution and use of background glow and changing skin patterns to communicate, the study postures.

Burford analyzed ROV video of 30 Humboldt squids, identifying individuals and observing their interactions. Keeping track of behaviors and skin patterns while squids were swimming alone, in small and large groups and while feeding, Burford realized that Humboldt squids exhibit specific color patterns when interacting with one another in groups, reports MBARI.

The scientists suggest these color changes are a way for the squids to communicate with one another. MBARI explains that a half-light/half-dark pattern that Humboldt squid often display while feeding could be a warning: “Look out — I’m going to grab that lanternfish!”

The squids are able to move through the darkness with exceptional precision, never colliding or competing for prey, the Stanford report notes. “This suggests that their pigmentation changes may be an effective means of communication, analogous to humans using turn signals in traffic,” explains MBARI. Scimex reports that the changes could be a “signaling of intent during competitive foraging.”

The scientists also found that the squids used patterns in specific sequences, “similar to how humans arrange words in a sentence,” describes MBARI. A small sample size prohibited the researchers from understanding the meaning of these sequences, but they believe that certain patterns modify the meaning of other patterns, creating a form of “syntax” or something akin to an alphabet, MBARI continues.

In squid talk, “One sequence of patterns might mean ‘Look out! — I’m going to grab that lanternfish,’ but a different sequence might mean ‘Look out! — If you don’t get out of my way, I’m going to eat you!'” reports MBARI.

Though the exact meaning of the signals remains unknown and though it is too early to conclude whether the pattern changes constitute a “human-like” language, the findings suggest that the squid communications could be a complex form of animal communication never-before described in deep-sea animals.

Burford concludes, telling MBARI, “What I like about this paper is that we’re investigating really basic questions about life in the deep sea. Even though the deep sea is the Earth’s largest habitat, it’s also the least known. So we’re still making a lot of exciting discoveries in natural history and animal behavior.”

Read More
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Islandic Horses walk around grazing and trampling over snow. A new study found that herds of horses, bison and reindeer could be used to fight off the melting of the permafrost in the Arctic. Susanne Stöckli / Pixabay

Arctic winters are meant to be frigid, but because of rising temperatures and climate change, they aren't cold enough. The permafrost, the thick subsurface layer of frozen soil that stores one of the world's largest natural reserves of carbon, is thawing. As it does, it releases potent greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. European scientists have now found that resettling massive herds of large herbivores could combat this effect and save up to 80 percent of all permafrost soils around the globe until 2100.

Arctic winters are meant to be frigid, but because of rising temperatures and climate change, they aren’t cold enough. The permafrost, the thick subsurface layer of frozen soil that stores one of the world’s largest natural reserves of carbon, is thawing. As it does, it releases potent greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. European scientists have now found that resettling massive herds of large herbivores could combat this effect and save up to 80 percent of all permafrost soils around the globe until 2100.


The study, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports on Tuesday, focuses on wholistic “ecosystem management practices” that “[integrate] fauna dynamics into complex Earth System models.” Lead scientist and permafrost expert Christian Beer from Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN) found that introducing and managing reindeer, horses, bison and other herbivores into Arctic ecosystems can save the permafrost soils and stall climate change.

Beer drew inspiration from the late Pleistocene era, when large herds of herbivores roamed most of Northern Eurasia maintaining a grassland ecosystem in the Arctic called the mammoth steppe ecosystem, notes the study.

The productive ecosystem actually pulled large quantities of carbon from the earth’s atmosphere into the soil where it froze, reports Climate CoLab. Over tens of thousands of years, the carbon-infused soils built up into our modern permafrost.

This ecosystem existed up until the end of the last ice age when wooly mammoths and other big mammals died off and the mammoth steppe vanished. Today, as the permafrost thaws, ancient methane and carbon dioxide are released.

Beer’s study explores what would happen if a similar ecosystem could be recreated in the modern era to prevent loss of the permafrost. Luckily, he doesn’t need to find wooly mammoths.

Russian scientists Sergey and Nikita Zimov resettled herds of bison, wisents, reindeer and horses at Pleistocene Park in Siberia 20 years ago to study how restoring the mammoth steppe ecosystem will positively affect global climate, reports Climate CoLab.

At Pleistocene Park, the winter air (minus 40 degrees Celsius) is far colder than the permafrost (minus 10 degrees Celsius), the study notes. “Thick snowfall insulates the ground from the much colder air, keeping it ‘warm.'”

As the animals graze, their hooves scatter and compress the snow cover, dramatically reducing the insulating effect and allowing for more “freezing Siberian air [to reach] more deeply into the ground’s permafrost,” explains Pleistocene Park. This slows the thawing of the permafrost even in a warmer climate, reports Climate CoLab.

Beer, the Zimovs and their research partners compared the effect of grazing herds on snow depth and soil temperatures at Pleistocene Park and other Arctic locations in Europe. The study reports that herds in the Park cut snow cover height in half and reindeer in Sweden lowered snow cover by 73 percent. Comparing soil temperatures inside and outside of the fenced Pleistocene Park during winter revealed a mean annual difference of −1.9 degrees Celsius where animals had grazed.

The study explains the huge potential upside of this experiment. “Since most populations of large herbivores like reindeer and muskoxen are directly managed by humans, either by hunting or management,” it reports, “the herbivore community can also be manipulated even more by reintroducing lost components of the Arctic herbivore assembly.”

Beer said, “This type of natural manipulation in ecosystems that are especially relevant for the climate system has barely been researched to date – but holds tremendous potential,” reported a Universität Hamburg article.

“If emissions continue to rise unchecked … we can expect to see a 3.8-degree Celsius increase in permafrost temperatures, which would cause half of all permafrost to thaw,” the article reported. Adding animals lowers that warming by 44 percent, to 2.1 degrees Celsius, which is enough to preserve 80 percent of the world’s permafrost.

Beer’s team also explored what would happen if some, but fewer, grazers were resettled. He admitted, “It may be utopian to imaging resettling wild animal herds in all the permafrost regions of the Northern Hemisphere,” reported Universität Hamburg.

Critically, Beer’s results show that fewer animals would still produce a cooling effect. “What we’ve shown here is a promising method for slowing the loss of our permanently frozen soils, and with it, the decomposition and release of the enormous carbon stockpiles they contain,” the earth system expert told Universität Hamburg.

Read More

Around 300 researchers are slated to join the R.V. Polarstern on her MOSAiC mission over the course of 13 months. Stefan Hendricks / Alfred Wegener Institute

The coronavirus crisis has spread far and wide, indiscriminately affecting civilians, celebrities, sports stars and politicians and touching all parts of society. Now, the pandemic is impacting scientists on a large research expedition in the frozen Arctic Ocean, delaying critical climate research.

The coronavirus crisis has spread far and wide, indiscriminately affecting civilians, celebrities, sports stars and politicians and touching all parts of society. Now, the pandemic is impacting scientists on a large research expedition in the frozen Arctic Ocean, delaying critical climate research.


The researchers are part of the MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) project, which is one of the largest-ever research missions to the polar region.

The scientists use the German research vessel Polarstern, which they intentionally froze into Arctic sea ice last October, as their home base. By trapping the ship – and themselves – in floating ice for over a year, the scientists created a “drifting polar-research laboratory” from which they hope to get a closer look at the Arctic’s rapidly changing climate, reported Nature as the expedition began. The researchers and technicians sample the ice, atmosphere and ocean to better understand the intricate Arctic climate and how it affects global climate.

Throughout the 13-month study, 600 people from 19 countries will rotate onto the ship via other icebreakers and aircraft.

While the crew on the ship are currently infection-free, a team member slated to join the expedition this month tested positive for the virus right before departing for the field.

The infected individual attended a pre-expedition workshop in Bremerhaven, Germany on March 5 with other members from the aircraft team. MOSAiC chief scientist Markus Rex told Nature that 20 other team members who had contact with the person are being quarantined for 14 days in their homes by German health agencies. Until the quarantine is lifted, the airborne component of the expedition will be delayed and postponed for the safety of those onboard the ship.

“We don’t want any exposure out there at the Polarstern,” mission co-coordinator Matthew Shupe told The New York Times. As such, all team members scheduled to join MOSAiC are tested twice – two weeks before leaving their homes and once before leaving for the ship. This testing protocol uncovered the infection before it reached the field.

Lynne Talley, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, explained the risk. Given the close quarters on the ship and the virus’s long incubation time, keeping the virus from getting on the ship is critical. Talley told Nature, “Suppose someone inadvertently does end up on the ship with a virus. It would just pretty much take the entire ship.”

Talley’s warning comes on the heels of two major coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships – the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Japan last month, and the Grand Princess, which was held offshore March 4 to 9 in northern California.

Shupe told Nature that the postponement should only minimally disrupt MOSAiC’s scientific objectives. Assuming the quarantine is lifted and no others test positive, “the plan is to carry forward with the activities,” he said to The New York Times. Shupe also confirmed that a separate airborne unit scheduled for April to bring fresh supplies and new researchers remains unchanged. “That part, so far, is on target.”

Shupe did caution that further delays would “shrink the window for the airborne mission” and worried about future complications for the expedition as the pandemic continues to intensify around the world.

Setup of the MOSAiC ice camp in front of RV Polarstern during leg 1 of the expedition on Oct. 11, 2019. Stefan Hendricks / Alfred Wegener Institute

Read More
Spinning icon while loading more posts.