Calling deep sea species ‘monsters’ may harm their conservation


Carla Litchfield, University of South Australia

Fans of the movie Finding Nemo may remember the terrifying fish that scares Dory (a blue tang) and Marlin (a clown fish) at the bottom of a trench.

But in reality this “monster”, a black seadevil, is only about 9 cm long, which would make it about a third of the size of Dory and potentially smaller than Marlin or Nemo.

In 2014, researchers at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute began studying a single black sea devil. It was caught and moved to a special darkroom laboratory designed to simulate its dark and cold natural habitat.

While this misconception or inaccuracy may seem harmless, it could pose problems for future conservation efforts, as people are more likely to support conservation of cute rather than creepy-looking animals.

While the angler fish is easily turned into a scary monster, the similar-sized tiny Pac-Man looking octopus is cute and popular with the public.

Deep sea commercial fishing nothing to celebrate

From 2000-2010, scientists described about 1,200 new species in the Census of Marine Life Program. While this figure may seem astounding, a further 5,000 individual dead creatures are in specimen jars, waiting to be described. The scientific process of describing new species is slow.

Specimens must be methodically collected, identified, and then the identity of new deep-water species must be confirmed.

People have always had a fascination for unusual creatures that they may never see. Many exotic land animals can be seen in zoos around the world, but few deep sea species are on display in aquaria. In the meantime, people on social media are hungry for images of strange and exotic animals of the sea.

As a result, a Russian fisherman working on deep sea commercial trawlers last year gained huge numbers of social media followers after posting photos and videos of some of the deep sea creatures caught on his ship, with some even stuffed by craftsmen on board.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Presumably, many of these specimens are bycatch, accidentally caught in nets trawling for other species popular with consumers. Sometimes bycatch, which includes marine mammals, is thrown back into the sea but it may end up on consumer plates.

If images are posted on social media by laypeople in a way that appears sensational and even heartless, and without any accurate information about the animals, then there is no resulting respect for these sea creatures or educational value. Simply viewing these creatures as freaks, ignores the importance of their role in keeping our oceans healthy.

A tripod fish deep below the Atlantic Ocean.
NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Deep in danger

Most people will never spend time on a trawler fishing in deep oceans, but marine conservation and management policy depends on all of us being aware of the risks that human activities pose to marine ecosystems, such as deep water fishing, off shore mining and pollution.

If we call unusual deep sea animals monsters or demons or freaks, then we may harm their conservation as people are unlikely to connect with them or care about saving them.

On the other hand, their rarity clearly makes them popular on social media sites. For other species, this has resulted in increases in illegal trafficking for exotic pets, and aquariums. Deep sea species may potentially become illegally sourced taxidermy curiosities or food. Humans may end up eating these animals of the deep to extinction before their species are even known to science.

Rhinochimaera.
NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Saving our ‘blue heart’

We still have so much to learn about deep marine ecosystems and their inhabitants, which have special adaptations for living in these typically cold and dark waters. With new submarines and technology, scientists are able to explore the ocean more easily.

The deepest part of any ocean is the Challenger Deep valley in the Mariana Trench, part of the Pacific Ocean, which is about 11,000 metres deep. By comparison, Mount Everest is about 8,550 metres tall.

The cold water of the North Atlantic, down to depths of about 1,800m, is home to the Greenland Shark, which can live for as long as 400 years!

A new species of beaked whale has also been discovered recently. It is smaller and darker than other beaked whales, perhaps because it forages for deep sea fish and giant squid at depths of up to 3,000m below sea level.

The public’s perceptions are often based on how ‘cute’ an animal is.
NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Every habitat on earth is interconnected, and whatever we as humans do on the ground, or in the oceans has an impact on marine ecosystems. Removing deep sea predators and prey, and disturbing deep sea habitats, will change marine ecosystems in ways that we do not yet understand.

Some experts have compared the rapid global spread of unsustainable fishing technologies and practices to a pathological disease outbreak. Oceans are sometimes called the lifeblood of our planet, while rainforests are its lungs.

In reality, about 80% of our oxygen is produced by microorganisms in the oceans. This makes our oceans both the lungs and lifeblood of our planet. In fact, oceans are the blue heart of our planet and we must all try harder to save them.

The Conversation

Carla Litchfield, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Welcome to Australia, a land of creatures out to kill you… maybe


Ronelle Welton, University of Melbourne

Welcome to Australia, a place that is the focus of regular reports that nearly every creature is ready and waiting to pounce. If it rains, it brings warnings of venomous snakes. If the weather is dry, then giant spiders can set up house in your power box.

But as Australia prepares once again to welcome many new citizens this Australia Day, it seems appropriate to take a closer look at how deadly our creatures really are.

There is no doubt Australia harbours venomous animals and encounters that can be traumatic and need a rapid emergency response.

We must we careful not to understate the impact of any encounters with venomous animals on families and the sufferers themselves. Nor must we play down the highly specialised management, effective treatment and medical care required.

But is this reputation of a land of deadly and aggressive creatures well founded?

Detail in the data

My colleagues and I recently published a review of hospital admissions and deaths caused by venomous animals in the Internal Medical Journal.

We sourced data from 2001-2013 from national hospital admissions and national coronial information, which showed more than 42,000 hospitalisations from venomous sting or bites. Most – not all – are shown in the graph, below.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/UINJU/1/

Over the 12 years that’s an average 3,500 people admitted to hospital every year for a venom-related injury. This can be loosely averaged 0.01% of the Australian population per year, or roughly one in 10,000 Australians.

Allergy or anaphylaxis from insect stings such as bees or wasps were responsible for about one-third (33%) of hospital admissions, followed by spider bites (30%) and snake bites (15%).

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/PJ4fJ/1/

Over the 12 years, 64 people were killed by a venomous sting or bite, with more than half of these (34) caused by an allergic reaction to an insect bite that brought on anaphylactic shock.

Of these, 27 deaths were the result of a bee or wasp sting, with only one case of a beekeeper being killed. Anaphylaxis to tick and ant bites combined caused five deaths, the box jellyfish caused three deaths and two deaths were from an unidentified insect.

Given there are 140 species of land snakes in Australia, snake bite fatalities are very rare, at 27 for the study period. To put that in perspective, the World Health Organization estimates that at least 100,000 people die from snake bite globally each year.

The red belly black snake is not as nasty as it looks.
Flickr/Derek A Young, CC BY-NC

While it’s natural to be frightened of snakes, the reality is the number of deaths from snake bites in Australia is very small. In the same time frame, for example, figures from the National Coronial Information System (NCIS) show nearly 5,000 people died from drowning and 1,000 from burns in Australia.

Nevertheless, snake bites do hold the crown as the most common cause of death, with nearly twice as many deaths per hospital admission than any other venomous injury, making snakebite one of the most important issues to address.

Deadly creatures elsewhere

Understandably, living in a country with creatures that can potentially kill us is a daunting prospect. As you can see from the figures, though, they don’t kill as many people as you might think and other countries have their own potentially deadly creatures.

In the United Kingdom there are reports of deaths or injuries from bees, widow spiders, jellyfish and adder snakes.

The continent of America has a menagerie of reptilian assassins such as vipers, and its mammals also pack a punch, with reports of attacks from bears, wolves and mountain lions.

A sturdy Australian would surely quake at the thought of being faced with an offensive grizzly, with no amount of Crocodile Dundee-esk buffalo hypnotism techniques going to get us through that encounter.

Sure Australia also has sharks and crocodiles, but it’s important to note that the majority of our critters do not come after you.

Minimising the minimal risk

Our report, while giving a broad overview of envenoming trends in Australia, does raise more questions than it answers. Questions such as: who is most at risk and how can we support them? Do we need more localised guidelines? And how do we maintain knowledge for such a rare injury?

No one died from a spider bite during the 12 years of our study.
Flickr/Corrie Barklimore, CC BY

This work seeks to initiate new conversations in regard to potential gaps in knowledge in both the public and health domains, and find solutions. We’re currently seeking funding to continue this research.

From an individual or national public health perspective, we can’t make informed decisions until we have a much clearer picture of what’s going on. The big question is how can we manage this coexistence with the creatures around us, without being detrimental to people and the creatures themselves.

It comes down to understanding, appreciating and respecting the amazing diversity nature has provided us. We need to learn about prevention methods and understand correct first aid.

This, together with the ongoing research and improvements in clinical care and the accessibility, affordability, effective management and treatment of bites and stings in Australia, actually make it one of the safest places in the world, and certainly not one of the deadliest.

The Conversation

Ronelle Welton, Scientist at the Australian Venom Research Unit, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.