One's a Fish, the Other Isn't
CHAPTER 46 Not So Good News
When it comes to the outlook for the future of our species on this planet, the news recently has not been good. First there was the report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change), followed by the release of the National Climate Assessment released by the White House last month on May 6. Both were not optimistic about our pitiful efforts or lack of effort to address global warming. Then came the NASA press release on May 12 on the "unstoppable" loss of West Antarctic glaciers that could end up raising the sea level as much as 4 feet! On May 19 it was NASA again with the news that a paper in published in the journal Nature Geoscience reveals the discovery of canyons under Greenland's ice sheet that are deeper than previously thought. The presence of these deeper canyons means that a slowdown expected in the melting of the ice and flow of water from Greenland into the ocean anticipated when the when the glaciers melt back to a position where they were on dry land will not happen as expected. The canyons provide channels for water to continue to flow. In spite of all the scientific evidence to the contrary, there are still many who question that climate change is a problem. For example, one politician's response to the White House report was that it was "alarmist".
Well, I'm certainly alarmed! Have you ever heard of Laramidia? My spellchecker has not, nor was I familiar with the word. I found the term in an article titled "Digging Utah's Dinosaurs" by Peter Miller in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic. The article deals with the treasure trove of dinosaur fossils, many previously unknown species, out west in Utah and other locations along the coast of Laramidia. Here's what truly alarmed me. Back some 77 million years ago, when these dinosaurs were flourishing, it was hotter than it is today and the Geographic article has a map of North America as it was back in those days. What is now the United States was split into two sections by a shallow inland sea, the Western Interior Seaway, connecting the gulf of Mexico with the Arctic Ocean. There were two main bodies of land. One was Laramidia, a strip of land about 4000 miles long stretching from down in Mexico or Central America all the way up to what looked to me like Siberia. The eastern chunk of the United States-to-be was Appalachia. It looks to me as though where I live in New Jersey and New York City were under water, as were all of Florida and most of the coastal states south of New Jersey all the way around to, and including most of Texas. On the west coast, most of California appears to have been under water.
As far as I know, nobody is predicting that global warming is going to lead to a third or more of the United States to be submerged but certainly low lying coastal areas should be very worried and plan accordingly. In addition to concerns over sea levels rising, one of the major concerns about the buildup of carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels and from increasing numbers of wildfires is the fact that much of that CO2 is being absorbed by our oceans, making them more acidic. The more acid the water, the more likely that coral and shellfish will suffer. Acid dissolves the material making up shells.
An item by Eli Kintisch in the May 9 issue of Science talks about "Sea Butterflies" as canaries for ocean acidification. Actually these sea butterflies are neither butterflies nor canaries. They are marine snails called butterflies for their wing-like body parts. Their shells are normally smooth but when researchers collected a thousand samples of the snail from 17 different sites, they found 38 percent of the shells were pitted or etched and their crystals resembled cauliflower. This high percentage of damaged shells apparently surprised the researchers, who expected the animals would adapt more successfully to the changing conditions.
There was another troubling article titled "Death of the Stars" by Erik Stokstad in the May 2 issue of Science. The stars in this case are sea stars, also called starfish. Starfish are not fish, but echinoderms, typically having five arms although various species have more arms, even as many as 50 according to Wikipedia. In a column posted from Marco Island on March 17, 2004 (see archives) I described an experience I had when I picked up what I thought was a dead starfish during my early morning walk on the beach. Much to my distress I found it to be alive and felt like a murderer as I watched it die. Well, it now seems that starfish are dying in huge numbers from some kind of a wasting syndrome and it's taking place on both east and west coasts of North America. So far, the cause or causes of these massive cases of dying sea stars have not been determined but, whatever it is, one source has been found to be spread through contact or proximity to afflicted sea stars.
Sea stars did not impress me as being an aggressive type of marine life form. However, at least some species of sea stars are true predators. When going after clams or mussels or other similar critters, the sea star can use its suction cup-like tubes on its arms to pry open the shell to expose the animal inside. Then some sea star species can evert part of its stomach and extrude it into the opening, where it can envelope the contents and digest the animal outside the sea star's body. The sea star can be a voracious predator even though its mobility is not on the speedy side. Some sea stars move at a rate of just a few inches a minute while others can speed along at around 3 feet in a minute.
Sea stars have been around for hundreds of millions of years so I imagine there were lots of them in the Western Interior Seaway separating Laramidia from Appalachia. These creatures are also fascinating in that they are among those animals capable of regenerating body parts. For example, one way they defend themselves if under attack is to shed their arms, which they can then regenerate. While the starfish are not fish, another species that is capable of regenerating body parts is a fish - the zebrafish. In a column posted back on April 17, 2003, I mentioned the zebrafish's ability to regenerate parts of its body such as spinal cords, retinas, fins and even heart muscle.
Well, on the Discover magazine Web site I was alerted to a study by Maurizio Porfiri of the New York University Polytechnic Institute of Engineering on zebrafish behavior under a rather strange condition for a fish. What these intrepid researchers did was to get zebrafish drunk and study their leadership capabilities in various degrees of sobriety! To get the zebrafish drunk they let them swim in beakers of water containing various amounts of ethyl alcohol. They would then take the drunk fish and place it in a tank with four sober fish. What they found was that the moderately drunk fish swam faster than normal and the sober fish swam after that fish to keep up with it. The drunk fish was a leader!? However, the drunkest fish turned out to swim more slowly than normal and the other fish did not follow the drunkard. Needless to say, much more study needs to be done before this finding can be said to be relevant to human leadership ability and any relation to humans imbibing alcohol.
This column is being posted between Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of D-Day. At this time of year, I always think of my classmates and others who attended our high school in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania who served in World War II. In particular, I think of Bill Guyer, who lived across the street, and Ernie Martin, who lived just a few houses from us on the same street. Both died, two of at least 30 from Mechanicsburg who perished serving our country from our small town of about 5,000 in those days.
This past week I also turned to my copy of "Heroes Among Us" by John Ent, a combat veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars from Mechanicsburg. John interviewed and/or sent questionnaires to those Mechanicsburg High School veterans of World War II still living and in 2004 published this 388-page book honoring those veterans. With the D-Day anniversary coming up I read an account in the book by Carl Eugene Spahr, who served in the U. S. Navy and was on the crew of an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) carrying troops landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was one of the lucky ones, a shell bouncing off his helmet and exploding in the water; then, following an order to take the helm from a chief petty officer covered in blood, Spahr stepped up to respond and another shell came in, brushing his life jacket and exploding - the shell would have cut him in half had he not moved! Reading the several pages devoted to his experiences on Omaha Beach made me appreciate again those who risk, and too often give their lives.
I'll end with a quote from John Ent's book: "The four years America was involved in World War II was but a blip in time when viewed from the grand scheme of time itself. However, to those who lived through it and especially those who served in it, it was the single most defining "adventure" of their lives. Modern history books in schools today cannot possibly relate to the students how "things" were in those times. If it was not experienced it cannot be realistically understood."
Next column will be posted, hopefully, on or about to July 1, 2014.
Allen F. Bortrum