The Malacostracans gastric mill and other reasons to not dispair.

•July 8, 2014 • 1 Comment
photo: James Reardon

photo: James Reardon

 

The closer you look at nature, the more marvellous and intriguing it becomes. Our species has doubled in my lifetime; there are now more than 7 billion of us, all clutching to, or aspiring to clutch to a smart phone.  Phytoplankton can reach that sort of population figure in a few square meters of well-lit ocean surface. They’re autotrophs, obliged by their biology to absorb soluble carbon dioxide and excrete organic compounds that underpin ‘the life aquatic’ and a great deal more, all via the engine of photosynthesis.  Being more of a zoologist than a botanist, that’s all well and good but where do the animals come into it? Well, feeding on this phytoplankton and the organic matter synthesised by it are the zooplankton. Excepting marine mammals, reptiles and sharks just about every other order of life represented in the oceans will have a few species or life history stages that constitute zooplankton. Some are single cell protozoa and a few are the tiny larvae of future giants but most are copepods, tiny crustaceans. These tiny beasts might seem incredibly vulnerable in the open ocean but it’s all a matter of scale. Most copepods are only 1-2mm (~0.05″) in length and at that size the world behaves quite differently. If you’re that small water is less of a liquid and more of a thick soup.

Copepod, one of the mirriad tiny ocean organisms that make our planet work.

Copepod, one of the mirriad tiny ocean organisms that make our planet work.

Usually with the second set of cephalic appendages (read: legs growing out of head), copepods swim through the marine soup doing all the same things we do (minus the smart phone thing), enjoying their youth, looking for food, finding a mate etc. Because of the very different world they live in their behaviour can appear strange to our eyes. Watching copepods in a small aquarium makes them look more like little rocket ships than tiny crustacea to the anthropocentric eye. They seem to be able to change the trajectory of their travel without need of a turning curve, acceleration and deceleration appear instant. They are also semi transparent, allowing the observer to look at the internal workings of a set of organs pretty much as complex as our own.

Of course larger crustaceans often provide the same opportunity. The New Zealand shore shrimp is much like hundreds of other shrimp species around the globe and uses transparency to aid its camouflage against detection by predators. If you can’t mimic the environment perfectly you might as well let it shine right through you! Shrimps like Palaemon affinus are detritivores, they eat anything organic, usually the dead or the dying that they can find or capture as it floats past. In a dynamic environment like the ocean, food is washing about everywhere and these shrimps manage to make a modest living from the simple act of keeping themselves clean. If transparency is your cloak against predators you’d better stay clean and smart and so these shrimps are permanently attending to their ablutions. And what they collect becomes a tasty treat.

Palaemon affinis, New Zealand shore shrimp, pulping detritus and the primary producers and consumers of the ocean. Photo James Reardon

Palaemon affinis, New Zealand shore shrimp, pulping detritus and the primary producers and consumers of the ocean. Photo James Reardon

Shrimps and other crustaceans don’t have grinding teeth in a mouth as us vertebrates would understand it. Rather they have a section of foregut that is known as the gastric mill. This muscular tube is filled with ossicles or little hard calcified plates that grind against each other and reduce whatever is ingested into a paste ready for digestion. Literally peristalsis with teeth. I wish I had one, then I could enjoy a movie whilst eating without the annoying interuption of the sounds my jaw and teeth make grinding food in my head.

So why bother putting this in a website post? Because sometimes it’s good to re-engage with the spectacular wonder of the microscopic world. No matter what sort of a mess we can make of things, these tiny organisms are going to find a place to survive. Sure, ocean acidification is decimating zooplankton and shrimps will have problems of their own no doubt, but in  general their world continues on as strange and wonderful, even to a zoologist, as life from another universe.

 

 

Chatham Island Snipe

•June 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

These little birds sum up the word ‘charming’ for me. Whilst filming for a documentary we were commissioned to make earlier this year I had the very good fortune to spend a few days and nights on the remote and precious Mangere Island, a small island off the east coast of Pitt Island, which itself is rather small and to the south of the Chatham Archipelago. These islands, free of the introduced predators that have decimated the fauna and flora of the New Zealand mainland are gems to be cherished. Most folk with the good luck to access these islands are most interested in the black robins and it’s easy to understand why. During the 1970s and 80s black robins were recovered from the brink of extinction, indeed, they were down to one female, known to conservation biologists as ‘Old Blue’ thanks to her colour band. I too was delighted to finally see the descendants of the fabled Old Blue but the unexpected joy for me were the snipe.

The Chatham Island snipe Coenocorypha pusilla, at home in the forest of Mangere Island. Photo: James Reardon

The Chatham Island snipe Coenocorypha pusilla, at home in the forest of Mangere Island. Photo: James Reardon

I think it was their shyness and the delicate way that they picked through the leaf litter in search of invertebrates that captured me. There is always something magical about watching shy and reclusive animals go about their business and I had the good fortune (after a fair bit of effort it should be said) to enjoy such viewing.

This was also the first proper test of the Black Magic Cinema Camera as a field unit for wildlife camerawork and as far as I’m concerned, I think it did a damn good job. The snipe is a tiny element in the finished film on the Chatham Islands but I think it deserves it’s own slot so here is a little sequence re-edited just for the snipe. There are a few other rare and endemic species thrown in just for the real bird nerds out there, enjoy:

The Rainbow Warrior – new life at rest

•May 25, 2014 • 3 Comments

I was a spotty 12 year old when the French Government bombed the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour as it was on it’s way to the site of French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Nearly thirty years on we might have left behind the threat of mutually assured destruction agreed between NATO and the Warsaw Pact but the world feels decidedly closer to calamity, even from my relatively safe vantage point in the quietest corner of New Zealand.

Rainbow Warrior at rest. View ofd the stern. Photo: James Reardon

Rainbow Warrior at rest. View of the stern. Photo: James Reardon

As a spotty 12 year old I remember going to visit a publicity caravan of Greenpeace in the town of Pontypool in a school lunch hour. I don’t remember if they were there because of the bombing but either way I remember making a small (tiny) donation and getting a little enamel rainbow peace dove badge for my generosity. The badge is long lost but the sense that I had somehow taken a position on an issue that was larger than the world I lived in has stayed with me.  Lives were lost in the French terror attack on the ship and I’d like to think that I’m not alone in being awoken from a complacent belief that authority and governments ‘know best’. Some small return on the ultimate sacrifice. Governments aren’t evil, indeed I make much of my living from being a minion within the civil service but they do act on their own interests as much as those of the electorate. Its a perversion of the democratic process that can only be tempered by the reaction of the voting public. Today it seems, we go where apathy, the media and marketing takes us. That is, until impassioned people with determination make a stand for the values and ethics they hold dear.

Bigeyes and snapper in the hull of the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

Bigeyes and snapper in the hull of the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

Today the ship is much more than a rusting wreck. It harbours some wonderful marine life and makes a superb wreck dive. The area known as the Bay of Islands in northern New Zealand suffers a fair bit of recreational fishing pressure so any voluntary no take area such as this wreck soon fill with fish.

Today shoals of bigeye (Pempheris adspersa) fill the cavernous hull with snapper (Pagrus auratus) seeking refuge. Shoals of blue maomao (Scorpis violacea) and New Zealand demoiselle (Chromis dispilus) cruise the sheltered waters around the wreck. Smooth leatherjackets (Meuschenia scaber) hang in the kelp and crop the hard corals, polyps and tubeworms that encrust the hull, whilst Eastern red scorpion fish or grandfather hapuku (Scorpaena cardinalis) stalk the seafloor beneath.

Smooth leatherjacket lurks in kelp. Photo: James Reardon

Smooth leatherjacket lurks in kelp growing on the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

I don’t think that as a twelve year old a hemisphere away I could imagine that I’d be enjoying the wonderful life I do, having the privilege to dive the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior decades later, make my living as a conservation biologist and filmmaker, have a wonderful little family and a home on the edge of the most dramatic National Park I know of. A life of possibilities stolen from Fernando Pereira, the Greenpeace photographer killed in the bombing of the protest vessel. Squeezing the most out of life isn’t easy, but to do anything else is an irresponsible waste and an affront to those without the privilege.  It won’t be long, however, before this ship will disintegrate into the ocean floor. Already the sheet metal of the hull is rusted and thin, a good storm would tear most of it off. But as it is, it makes a wonderful diving experience and fantastic photographic opportunity. I hope Fernando would have approved.

 

Chatham Island Albatross – New Beginnings

•January 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Lots of species are threatened with extinction around the globe, those found only in one small area, usually referred to as ‘point endemics’ are especially vulnerable – one chance event or disaster doesn’t just cause a fluctuation in a single population, it can threaten the existence of an entire species. So it is with the Chatham Albatross (Thalassarche eremita), also known as the Chatham Mollymawk.

Chatham albatross chick (Thalassarche eremita) photo: James Reardon
Chatham albatross chick (Thalassarche eremita) photo: James Reardon

With this concern in mind the Taiko Trust (taiko.org.nz) who have already secured the future of another critically endangered species, the magenta petrel, have set out on a bold venture to establish a second colony of these oceanic wanderers. The logistical challenge, technical demands and sheer nerve required to pull off such an operation in a remote environment like the Chathams deserves recognition. Look them up on facebook and lend some support after you’ve had a look at the work involved:

Edge of the World – Chatham Islands

•January 21, 2014 • Leave a Comment

It a commonly used phrase when out of your own culture and environment, to tell the folks back home that you feel like you’re as far away as it’s possible to get. So it’s with surprise and excitement that I find such a feeling whilst still being only a few hours flight from my home on the shores of lake Te Anau, NZ. I’m on the Chatham Islands,  a mere 800km east of New Zealand. This little archipelago of islands nestled deep in the South Pacific was one of the last places on the planet to be reached in our species radiation. It remains home not only to a fascinating human history to which the contemporary inhabitants are still inextricably linked but also to species found nowhere else and a fragile island ecology requiring our care to persist. The species here rely on isolation from threat for their very existence. Albatross are a perfect example of this. Why do they only nest on remote islands nestled in the roaring forties or furious fifties? Because on land they are hopelessly vulnerable to the predators that are common on all continents and also because without a stiff breeze these birds struggle to get into the air. Stiff breezes are no rare thing down here.

These islands are amongst the most important bird islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Photo: James Reardon

These islands are amongst the most important bird islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Photo: James Reardon

But that’s only part of the story, the tiny islands surrounding the Chathams and Pitt Island are the scene of some remarkable conservation stories, the black robin the most notorious, but several others equally fascinating. Is it impossible to recover a species that has declined to a single female? Pioneering conservationists and the black robin itself say no.

Pitt Islands only current albatross, a Northern Royal patiently awaiting it's mate. Photo: James Reardon

Pitt Islands only current albatross, a Northern Royal patiently awaiting it’s mate. Photo: James Reardon

The community on these islands know the value of their home, both as a rich and diverse playground, as a larder and as a farm. The desire to see wildlife prosper along-side their farming and fishing enterprises is an inspiration. I’m privileged to be here making a film on this community and the way it relates to that environment and it’s history. It’s not without its challenges but the hard won rewards are more than worth it. Here’s a tiny clip to give you a wee taste of the conditions.

Abi Yanga – meeting a dinosaur

•November 24, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I’m finally over the inevitable snowdrift of emails any trip away guarantees and starting to find a few moments to work with the stills and film captured in PNG during October. Being a herpetologist I usually go straight to the frog, snake and lizard images, diving into Lightroom and the literature but this time I went straight for something a little different. My love-affair with herpetology stems in a large part to my childhood obsession with dinosaurs. As any evolutionary biologist will tell you, we still coexist with dinosaurs, but not the lizards that my childhood mind made the logical connection to, but birds. The problem is, birds are generally small flitty things that fly and are delicate. That’s not very dinosaurish really. For the most part, that’s true but there are exceptions and for me the best extant example is the cassowary. Not only do they live in the deepest rainforest, but they are big, gloriously menacing at close quarters and simply exquisite.

Head thrown forward and apparently every air-sac in it's body inflated the dwarf cassowary calls. Photo: James Reardon

Head thrown forward and apparently every air-sac in it’s body inflated the dwarf cassowary calls. Photo: James Reardon

No encounter with wildlife is without some effect on most of us, but having the opportunity to meet animals that are both shy, elusive, and a little bit dangerous, on their own terms is a special privilege indeed.

The dwarf cassowary (Casuarius bennetti) of New Guinea is a near threatened species of large ratite, so the same family as the ostrich of Africa, rhea of South America, emu of Australia and little kiwi of New Zealand. Standing at a little over a meter at the shoulder these are birds that genuinely look you in the eye, and whilst they are a widely hunted species across New Guinea, their powerful legs equipped with a long defensive claw means they’re quite able to defend themselves from potential predators, meaning man.  Just look at them: they’re dinosaur feet.

Dinosaur feet looked just like this, it's as simple as that. Photo: James Reardon

Dinosaur feet looked just like this, it’s as simple as that. Photo: James Reardon

Meeting one is, as I keep saying,  like meeting a small dinosaur and an experience that will stay with me. They’re also critical to forest health performing a function that no other species can achieve. Without cassowary, the forests of New Guinea would not be as they are. I hope you enjoy this little sequence of footage, which will eventually become part of a larger project for the Wildlife Conservation Society and the people of Ikundi in PNG.

Support the (extremely challenging) conservation efforts to secure the future for cassowary and other threatened species in PNG at: http://www.wcs.org/where-we-work/asia/papua-new-guinea.aspx

Progress for Protestors

•November 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

At last, a reasonable decision by the Russian judiciary. Phil and most of his fellow Greenpeace activists have been granted bail. They will still be restricted in their movements and don’t have their passports but the whole situation has moved to a far more reasonable state. The Arctic 30 still face their hooliganism charges but the profile of their situation and the facts of the matter make clear that they are of no risk or threat to anybody, thank goodness. No doubt Phil will now enjoy a decent skype catch-up with his little family, and a beer with his colleagues. Hooray.

Phil Ball, emerging from prison, now, rightfully on bail. photo: Greenpeace

Phil Ball, emerging from prison, now rightfully on bail. photo: Greenpeace

Thank you if you took the time to contact your local MP to raise the matter, or if you signed the Greenpeace petition.  It makes a difference to make your views known.

 

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 446 other followers