Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Ocean - Mysterious and Odd: large one-celled organisms and walking fish

It sound a little well-worn or even a bit corny, but the ocean is full of mysteries. It's no joke - and a sad commentary on our priorities - when we say that we know more about the back side of the moon than we do about our oceans right here on Earth. And we keep finding more surprises.

Take for example, a single-celled organism the size of your fist. In the deep abyss regions of the world's oceans, that's actually not that uncommon. They're called xenophyophores and there are dozens of different types that live in the cold, dark areas of the world's seas, like the Mariana Trench - an area that culminates in the deepest known spot in the ocean at a depth of nearly seven miles. reports of a recent research study conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the Mariana Trench that found xenophyophores living at a new recorded depth of 6.6 miles. The organisms were discovered using a high definition "dropcam" - a remote camera developed by Scripps and the National Geographic Society.

Xenophophores previously studied have been found to be a home for a variety of multicelluar organisms, so what has been traditionally thought of as one of the most desolate and lifeless regions on the planet may turn out to be otherwise, much like the profusion of unique life forms found at supposedly inhospitable deep sea ocean vents.

"As one of very few taxa [genus or species] found exclusively in the deep sea, the xenophyophores are emblematic of what the deep sea offers. They are fascinating giants that are highly adapted to extreme conditions but at the same time are very fragile and poorly studied," explains Lisa Levin, director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. "These and many other structurally important organisms in the deep sea need our stewardship as human activities move to deeper waters."

Also in, Jeremy Hance writes about another oceanic oddity: the handfish. This small fish, unique to Australia, has pectoral fins that allow it to walk on the bottom. Well, more than just allow it to; it prefers to. And that makes it distinctly different from other fish that have fins that can act like terrestrial limbs but also swim conventionally.

There are 14 species of handfish, all living in Australia, and one species in particular, the spotted handfish, has the distinction of possibly being the first marine fish to go extinct in recorded history. The IUCN gives the spotted handfish its most alarming status label of Critically Endangered. The spotted handfish lives in just one location: Tasmania's Derwent estuary, a body of water that is threatening the handfish with decreasing habitat, warming water temperatures, and even poaching.

Several Australian marine conservation organizations, including the Derwent Handfish Recovery Project, are working to protect the future of these small ocean oddities. The loss of any one of these small bottom dwellers may not be catastrophic in and of itself, but their fate can be emblematic of a larger future waiting to befall entire marine ecosystems due to man-made activities. While sea creatures evolved out of the oceans, switching from fins to limbs, the poor handfish is not quite ready to get up and simply walk away.

Read more about xenophyophores in
Read more about handfish in

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