Monday, December 8, 2014

Oh, Christmas Tree Worm, Oh, Christmas Tree Worm...

In honor of the season, today I present you with the beautiful, captivating Christmas Tree worm, Spirobranchus giganteus.

The colorful set of trees in this picture actually belong to a single, lowly worm. Yes, believe it: It's a worm. This diminutive annelid (same phylum as earthworms) is a marine organisms and those swirling "branches" or radioles are the paired tentacles it uses for capturing food from the water. The spiral "trees" also helps with gas exchange.

As divers and snorkerlers will tell you, when disturbed, these whorls instantly retract and the worm pulls its door-like operculum closed behind it. Here's a Youtube video of some Christmas tree worms retracting.

Christmas tree worms take their common name from their appearance, of course. Their scientific classification tells us lots more about these animals. As annelids, they have segmented bodies. Segmentation was an important evolutionary step that allowed greater diversity in organisms' body plans. Digestive tracts could differentiate into separate parts, each with its own role: mouth and esophagus to bring food in and move it through the passage, crops, gizzards, and stomachs to store, grind and process food, intestines to absorb nutrients and water. Segmentation also lets organisms develop differentiated limbs. We see segmentation in humans through our vertebrae. Turns out, all organisms that exhibit segmentation share a similar gene, the Homeobox, or Hox gene, which serves as a molecular architect and directs the building of bodies according to definite detailed plans.

Our annelid, the Christmas Tree worm, belongs to the class of marine worms called polychaetes (along with fireworms), subclass sedentaria (along with feather duster worms, because they once the larvae settle, they secrete a parchment-like calcareous tube and then never move from that location), family serpulidae (this means creeping and probably refers to the larval stage. When ready to settle down, the larva creeps around a potential home in search of a good place to dig in.)

Spirobranchus come in a variety of bright colors, each worm with two "trees" poking out from its tube. Most often, they burrow into living coral, although sometimes they'll live in a rock or sponge, and secrete their tube.

S. giganteus possesses a complete digestive system and has a well-developed closed circulatory system. Like other annelids, they possess well-developed nervous systems with a central brain. They have fully developed nephridia simple kidneys) used for excretion. When they reproduce, they simply shed their gametes (eggs and spermatozoa) straight into the water and leave fertilization to chance and cooperative currents.

Christmas tree worms eat by capturing food from the plankton. "Capturing" sounds a bit more active than it really is. When currents carry tiny plants and animals floating in the water into the radiole, the tentacles direct that particle to the worms mouth. They don't really hunt anything down. Filter feeders wait for the food to come to them. They have few, if any, natural predators and no commercial value aside from as fascinating aquarium animals so they aren't endangered or threatened in and of themselves. With loss of their preferred habitat--coral reefs--their numbers could possibly decline, but for now, we get to easily and readily enjoy these colorful organisms while snorkeling and diving in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide.

Enjoy, and Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Merry Solstice, and a happy 2013!

Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

TMI! TMI! Science in the Information Age

Douglas Hine wrote a great article on Aeon: What is Information? Where he talks about how we use the internet compared to the promise and potential of the internet. "The internet promised to feed our minds with knowledge. What have we learned? That our minds need more than that."

I found that clarifier misleading. Our minds may not need more than that, but for information to be valuable, our minds have to be able to do something with that information--put it into context, understand it, synthesize that into other knowledge we have and see how it relates. Hine does go on to discuss all that in the article, so read the whole thing--he makes a lot of great points that will get you thinking.

And that, my friends, is the big difference between having access to information and having knowledge.

At the CZ 99 Conference, the keynote speaker talked about how much better/easier things would be in the future for those of us working in natural resource management because of the Web, where everyone would have access to the same information. He spoke of our next big challenge being getting all the available information out to everyone by using this resource, so that better decision could be made! How exciting.

I turned to the person next to me and said something to the effect of, "That's ridiculous. Information isn't knowledge. The next big challenge is going to be differentiating valuable and correct information from garbage. Most people can't. The real challenge is going to be overcoming all the misinformation that will spread." She looked at me like I was nuts and I wondered if I was being too pessimistic.

I'm not making any claims to being prophetic here. Honestly, at the time, I hoped I was just being pessimistic. Yet, all we have to do is look to the discussion of climate science--and the fact we're having a discussion instead of doing something about it?!--to see I was on to something. Even more than I feared. Consider, more people understood and "believed" the science of climate change and global warming in the pre-internet 80s than in the 00s. It has been studied since the 1800s, with a lot of focus and progress through the 50s and 60, so scientists had a pretty good, but not great handle on it back then. They knew it would be big, if we didn't change our dependence on fossil fuels. They were confident we'd have better, cleaner technology before it became a problem. Little did they know the influence oil and gas lobbies would have on our ability to make any meaningful progress in that direction.

The information that was generated back in the 50s and 60s was analyzed and critiqued through the peer-review process, found to be robust and accurate, and then moved into the public realm through popular media--National Geographic, Scientific American, and then on into public policy discussions. By the end of the 1950s the consequences of CO2 release were clear enough for policy makers to take note. In 1965 President Johnson told the nation "[t]his generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through ... a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels." In 1969 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was warning of a dangerous sea-level rise of 10 feet or more. "Goodbye New York" he said. "Goodbye Washington." (NPR, 2014.)

"...climate science and climate change are older than the atom bomb, older than the discovery of penicillin and the older than recognition of DNA. It's older than trans-Atlantic jet flights, digital computers and moon rockets. Climate science and its conclusions are now venerable, established science. To claim anything else is to rewrite history" (NPR, 2014.)

The evidence is overwhelming, the course we have to take (should have taken) is clear, but instead of moving forward, making progress, and at the rapid pace technology would allow us to, we've instead taken a step backward as a society, thanks largely to the information age being the success that it is.

"We're a nation of information illiterates."

As I, and a whole lot of people smarter than I am, saw coming fifteen years ago, our biggest challenge in managing the Earth's valuable and limited natural resources, in managing human health and well-being by ensuring the health of those resources isn't a lack of information, but a lack of knowledge. Too many people confuse information with knowledge, are happy to accept anything they find on the internet as "fact," never using any critical thinking to evaluate the legitimacy of that information, and never using any brain power to take the next step of analyzing it in the context of all other knowledge to make valid assessments about how it applies. We're a society of information-rich illiterates. (For a more in-depth look at the extent of that illiteracy, here's a great article at Open Education.)

Bloom's Taxonomy is a tool that explains how we learn and how we move from information to understanding, to real knowledge--with the ability to apply information appropriately in the correct situations to make valid decisions, then moving to fully understand the implications to other areas, not just the specific situation in which we've learned that information, and finally, the highest level of learning--being able to make valid assessments and evaluate new information and situations with that.
Bloom's Taxonomy

Our overwhelming access to unlimited, unfiltered information, and our indiscriminate use of the internet to get at it and spew it without thinking has led to us lopping off the top 5 layers of Bloom's pyramid. We've become complacent about learning--a society that thrives on information, but cares nothing about comprehending what that information means. Without that level of the pyramid, all the other layers crumble. We can't effectively apply information if we don't understand how and where it's appropriate to do so. We can't analyze bigger related concepts and link together the component parts--synthesize information--if we don't get what those building blocks of knowledge mean and how they relate to each other; we can't expand our use of these concepts and this information to other areas if we don't even understand it at it's simplest level, and without any of that, how do we ever evaluate the real significance of a problem so that we can then solve it?

"Maybe in the next incarnation of technological advancement, instead of being excited about a plethora of information, we'll focus on a plethora of learning and understanding...The Knowledge Age."

As the Information Age has played out so far, the answer to all those questions is, we don't. Is it any wonder I'm a curmudgeon?

Maybe in the next incarnation of technological advancement, instead of being excited about a plethora of information, we'll focus on a plethora of learning and understanding...The Knowledge Age. We can only hope.

Krumme Family, 2012. Major Categories in the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, 1956). Available at:

NPR, 2014. The Forgotten History of Climate Change. Available at:

Open Education, 2009. In the Midst of the Information Age, Why Are We So Uninformed? Available at:

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Climate Change: Are You Cool? (RUCOOL)

One of the most frequent arguments voiced by climate change deniers is, "there's no data that show that." I have to chuckle every time someone says that because what the rest of us hear is, "I'm too stupid to find the data." A plethora of data, analyzed and raw, is out there for you, me everyone, and anyone to examine.

Even better, much of that data has been made available in user-friendly formats. One of my favorite places to visit to see and play with the data is the Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observing Lab, RUCOOL.

Sea Surface Termperature Data available at RUCOOL

For those who like to get right to the end result, check out COOL Research, where you can download the latest research reports.

If you want to know about the technology used to collect and analyze data, check out the COOL Technology page.

Want to get right to the sea surface temperature data to see it for yourself? You can do that here and here.

Climate change and rising seawater temperatures are complex topics and making sense of the data can be a challenge. Scientists have been studying climate change for over a century, and have spent a good deal of time learning about the chemistry, physics, biology, and geology that go into understanding the Earth, and a lot more time gathering and analyzing data on it. It is true that for as much as we know about the Earth, there's a whole lot we don't know. It's also true that just because we don't know everything doesn't mean that what we do know is wrong.

What we do know, without any doubt, is that the ocean is getting warmer, and at a faster rate than has happened in millennia. Why should that matter? Because the oceans continuously interact with the atmosphere, sea surface temperature has a profound effect on global climate. Increasing sea surface temperature can affect what species of plants, animals, and microbes are present in a location, threaten corals and other sensitive organisms, and change the frequency and intensity of harmful algal blooms HABs (discussed in my previous post).
Bleached coral due to increased water temperatures.
(Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library.)

Don't care about any of that? Consider those changes could reduce fish populations, including popular food species, leading to less (and more expensive) seafood, and job losses to the fishing industry.

Commercial fishing fleet, LI, NY.
(Photo courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library)

Don't care about any of that?  Increases in sea surface temperature mean more atmospheric water vapor over the oceans.  This water vapor feeds weather systems that produce rain and snow, meaning more frequent and more severe storm events. Changes in sea surface temperature can also shift storm tracks, potentially contributing to droughts in some areas.

Folly Beach, SC after Hurricane Hugo, 1989
(Photo courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library)

With any luck, climate change deniers and those on the fence will get their heads out of their asses before it's too late, stop listening to politicians who don't know anything except how to get re-elected, and start listening to scientists who have devoted their lives to understanding what's happening in the world around us--the one we live in. Even if it's already too late to reverse the trend, as many scientists believe, it isn't too late to start preparing for and mitigating against the future impacts.

For more information, data, and details on how scientists study global climate change, check out these sites.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) occur when usually harmless phytoplankton--microscopic or very small, photosynthetic marine organisms--reach high densities. Their numbers rapidly increase in a given area to the point where they go from harmless to hazardous.

The hazard they present can come from their anatomy, physiology or metabolism.

Some diatoms, like those pictured below, have sharp spines that can cause fish to suffocate by getting lodged in their gills and causing acute inflammation. Some microscopic algae produce mucus, clogging gills and leading to fish's respiratory failure.

Fish with spiny diatoms in its gills.
(Image from
The spiny diatom Corethron pennatum 
(image from

Some phytoplankton affect theorganisms that prey on them by interfering with feeding. The mucus the phytoplankton produce might make them unpalatable or indigestible. Others have such low nutritional value that the organisms that eat them actually starve to death!

Perhaps the most well-known HABs are those that produce toxic blooms. We commonly call those "red tides" although the water color isn't necessarily red, but can be yellow, green, or brown due to the sheer numbers of phytoplankton. Some of the algae that cause the color changes are capable of producing powerful toxins that are harmful or deadly to other species. The toxins may kill fish, injure marine invertebrates, and cause human illness or death from ingesting shellfish that have accumulated the toxin in their tissue. Some of the human illnesses from ingesting contaminated seafood include Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP), Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP), Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP), Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), and Ciguaterra Fish Poisoning (CFP).

A "red tide" bloom.
          From The Baltic Sea Portal (Itameriportaali).

While phytoplankton use photosynthesis to create their food source and release oxygen into the environment, their high productivity and short lifespan means a high turnover of biomass---lots of dead microalgae. As those decompose, they quickly deplete all the oxygen in an area, resulting anoxia---low or no oxygen in the surrounding water. Their decomposition also results in the formation of toxic sulfides in the water. The lack of oxygen and production of sulfides creates a deadly scenario for most marine life that can lead to massive fish die-offs.

Fish die-off due to anoxic conditions from a HAB
(photo from G. Pitcher, via

At least one species of phytoplankton, Pfiesteria piscicida, is actually a predator, killing and then feeding on fish in the waters they inhabit.


We all should. HABs affect everyone! They're a global threat to living resources, fishing, tourism, and human health because the number and intensity of these events appear to be increasing in many countries. In the last two decades, HABs are estimated to have caused as much as $1 billion in losses to coastal resources and communities (NOAA). Check HERE for more information on the socioeconomic impacts of HABs (WHOI).

Preventing and eliminating harmful algal blooms is no easy tasks. There are numerous factors that influence the formation, distribution and duration of blooms. It’s difficult to control one factor in the environment, let alone all factors for all algae in all locations. In addition, any action taken to prevent or to remove a bloom has consequences for the other organisms in the environment.

A combination of factors contribute to the development of HABs such as the presence of  nutrients, warm temperatures and lots of light. Rising ocean temperatures from climate change, increased nutrient run-off from land due to poor land-development practices and a loss of wetlands, and the break down of marine food chains due to overfishing all play roles and are all increasing, so we can most likely expect to see more and more HABs in the future. 

Researchers are constantly trying to gain a better understanding of HABs to help find ways to control their development and reduce their impacts. Early detection of their formation is critical to prevent impacts to human health by issuing fishery and beach closures in impacted areas. 

If that makes you feel helpless to do anything about HABs, you're NOT! You can help by asking state and local lawmakers to implement better land-use planning and wetland preservation to protect coastal water quality, learning the facts about climate change, and demanding good, research-based science, not hype, someone's political- or financial-gain, or fear, drive government decision-making.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Long Overdue "Thank You!" to My Mentors, or How I Became a Marine Scientist

"The fact that I can plant a seed and it becomes a flower, share a bit of knowledge and it becomes another's, smile at someone and receive a smile in return, are to me continual spiritual exercises." --Leo F. Buscaglia

I received a lovely message from one of my former students who took an Intro to Oceanography class from me a few years ago. What a lift to read that I'd had a positive influence on him! Because of me and my class, his career went in a completely different direction than he'd planned. He'd taken my class to fulfill a science elective requirement toward his business degree. He's now working on his master in environmental chemistry. He changed majors because I "got him excited about science," and made him "believe I could do it."

Maybe I've had that impact on other students--I hope I have--but to have it acknowledged...Wow. It made my day and more.

It also made me reflect back on the influential teachers I've had along the way. I am the person I am today, not only a marine scientist, but all of me, because of them. If I am a fraction as helpful to my students as these people were to me, my time in the classroom and lab, office and field will have been well-spent.

To get me started on my journey, I have two professors I need to thank whose names I can't even recall. As an undergrad at SUNY-Binghamton (now Binghamton University), I floundered from one major to the next, excelling most at partying. Until my introductory biology class. In a lecture hall with 300 students, I felt this now nameless professor was speaking directly to me, and I found my major. The second nameless zoology professor recommended I spend a summer at a field station. Although he gave that advice to a lecture hall with about 100 students in it, I again felt he was talking directly to me. I found Shoal's Marine Lab, and found my passion: marine science.

My Alma Mater's Logo

After a summer at Shoals, I transferred to the (then) College of the Virgin Islands (now University of the Virgin Islands) and that's where I had the honor, pleasure, and pain of being instructed, scolded, harangued, and mentored by the five most influential people in my life. I can't pick one above the others because each provided me with some different thing that I desperately needed at the time. Together, their guidance--sometimes loving, sometimes with a swift kick as needed--formed me into who I would become, and continues to mold me. Their influence put me on the path to my career in marine science, and made me want to "pay it forward" as a college professor. They also gave me the audacity to dream big and live big--enough to pursue my second career as a writer.

Long overdue as it may be, "THANK YOU"--and that's hardly sufficient for the debt I owe them--to my mentors: Sabino, Watlington, Ragster, Gorham, and MacLean.

When I arrived in St. Thomas alone, not knowing a soul, and somewhat adrift, Mark Sabino, took me under his wing, included me in the group, made me part of his family, and helped me feel I belonged. Sabino accepted each of us for who we were, and let us feel that was okay. He showed by example how to embrace life on our own terms, not those of anyone else. From him, we learned that fun, hard work, and excellence aren't mutually exclusive. Mark showed me how to embrace life, and live it well.

My favorite view in the world:
UVI, Brewer's Bay, and Saba and Flat Cay in the distance.

Professor Watlington made us all better than we were. He saw the potential in each of us, even when we didn't. In his eyes, the most irresponsible among us, the biggest partiers, the screw-ups, still had it in us to go on and become PhDs, MDs, community leaders--productive, intelligent adults. And we did. We fed off his positive energy and got excited about physics, about geology, about the natural environment, and the history of the Virgin Islands. We learned through his example, that we could and should have a wide range of interests, hobbies, and activities; to not be one-dimensional. I became better and more than I ever thought I could because he believed I could, because he acted like I already was, and so I lived up to it. Roy showed me how to exceed expectations, my own and others.

Dr. Ragster became my undergraduate advisor and I became her headache. She set some pretty high standards for herself and expected us all to do the same. One of the worst days of my life was when I had to explain to her that I'd failed statistics because it was an 8:00 a.m. class and I bartended until 4:00 a.m. then had after-hours parties to go to until 6 or 7. Her look of disappointment devastated me. She didn't give me the benefit of the doubt, but instead demanded better. She asked for results, not excuses. She made me work harder than I wanted to. I must have done okay because a few years later, she hired me to work for her. LaVerne showed me how to challenge myself.

The William P. MacLean Marine Science Center.
When I returned to UVI with the Sea Grant Program in 1992,
my office was behind that window to the left of the door, steps away from Brewer's Bay. 

Dr. Gorham was my de facto advisor both in school and life. He mentored me in the best way possible: He gave me the latitude to screw up--at times royally--and the trust to let me find my way back after I did. He never told me an answer, but kept questioned me, making me look more closely, forcing me (sometimes kicking and screaming) to think critically, making me figure it out and draw logical, evidence-based conclusions. Because he didn't tell me the answer, but made me work things out, I gained a real appreciation of the power of the scientific method, and the nuances and structure of it. The most amazing part of Dr. Gorham's influence on me is that I rarely felt it. It wasn't until later, in grad school and in life, that I realized what an incredible gift his guidance was. He let me go, falter, stumble, and back-track while he just stood back, letting me know he was there if I needed him, not judging me, not doing the work for me, but supporting me. How much easier it would have been for him to step in and tell me the answer, tell me what to think, tell me what would or wouldn't work. But he didn't. He trusted the scientific method--critical thinking--and my own intellect enough to patiently wait for me to get there. He gave me the confidence to make mistakes, and the knowledge that our greatest progress comes from them, as long as we learn from them. He encouraged me to go to grad school and made me believe I could succeed. Bill gave me confidence in myself.

Finally, Dr. MacLean, who had been something of a bogey man to me as I progressed through my classes, became my hero. Dr. MacLean had a reputation as a hard-ass. The sign on his office door announced, "Be aware that if you ask me to write you a recommendation, it will reflect the grade you received in my class. A B-grade gets a B-recommendation, a C gets a C-recommendation, etc." While students occasionally received an A on his tests, the number who'd gotten an A in his classes could be counted on one hand. He made us work, he demanded that we not only read the book, but understand it. We couldn't spit back memorized words, but had to think and explain ourselves to demonstrate real understanding. There was no leeway between an almost right answer and a wrong answer. He assumed we were all capable and competent, assumed we could all keep up or we wouldn't be in his class. He didn't talk down to us and didn't slow down his lectures for us. We surprised ourselves my keeping up. He gave us a glimpse into what our science careers would look like by inviting us to his house to have discussions on breakthroughs in the field  over dinner, and going on impromptu field trips. He gave me my first glimpse into what it would feel like to not be a student, but a scientist, a colleague. When I received the first 100 he'd ever given on an exam, I cried. Getting one of the few, hard-earned As in his class, and his recommendation for grad school gave me real pride. He made me believe I could be more than I'd ever imagined. 

Each of these five people are larger than life to me. The are my heroes, mentors, and role models. Eventually, they became my colleagues and friends, as well. I wouldn't be who I am today if it wasn't for them, individually, and together as my UVI professors. I swell with pride thinking about my alma mater, the University of the Virgin Islands, because it--and they in particular--made me who I am today.

I caught my love of science and teaching, and of sharing my passion for discovery with my students from Sabino, Watlington, Ragster, Gorham, and MacLean. I hope it's as contagious to my students as they made it for me. I'm so pleased that, for at least one of my students, I succeeded.

Who were your role models and mentors? Leave a comment and tell us about them. Better yet, give them a call or send them a message letting them know it!
Here's another testament to the impact Bill MacLean had on us from another former student:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


That day has finally come! Ye Gods! A Tale of Dogs and Demons is officially released by Casperian Books today!

Stop by the Facebook Virtual Party celebrating the release and discover some amazing authors who will be joining me to discuss their writing, and be entered to win their books!

The schedule of authors and links to their bios and books is in the previous post, so scroll down to see that.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Ye Gods!" Virtual Release Party Details: Schedule, Authors, and Books!

Only ten more days until the release of Ye Gods! A Tale of Dogs and Demons -- and the big Virtual Release Party on Facebook! You're all invited, so stop in and add it to your Facebook Events calendar by clicking HERE.  

 To help you plan your day around the authors you want to chat with and books you'd like a chance to win, here's the Author Appearance Schedule." Click on their names to read about them and their books.

 Click on the author's name to get to their website and on the book title to see it on Amazon.

12-1 pm
Lynne M. Hinkey

Ye Gods! A Tale of Dogs and Demons
Marina Melee
1-2 pm
Normandie Fischer

Sailing Out of Darkness
2-3 pm
Peter Bernhardt
The Stasi File
Kiss of the Shaman's Daughter
3-4 pm
Amy Biddle

The Atheist's Prayer
4-5 pm
Tom Mahony
Pacific Offering
Flooding Granite
Imperfect Solitude
5-6 pm
Jo Anne V. Simson
Korea, Are You at Peace?
The God that Says I Am
6-7 pm
Bob Sanchez

Getting Lucky
Little Mountain
When Pigs Fly
7-8 pm
Lynne Hinkey