Beauty and the deep

By
July 4, 2010 02:34

Odd, newly discovered creatures from the deep sea.




Dumbo Octopus at the Bloomfield Science Center

dumbo octopus 311. (photo credit: 1999 MBARI)

More people have visited the moon than have visited the surreal frontier deep in the oceans, which was long thought to be lifeless.

It turns out that from 150 meters to thousands of meters below the surface, beyond the range of the sun’s rays, there exists a vast menagerie of creatures whose appearances seem to have been created by science-fiction writers. Only within the past three decades has science discovered that this incredible world exists – yet many of the species face extinction.

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A recent study at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US recently published in Science found that human activities everywhere have reduced the amount of oxygen in the oceans, changed the chemistry of seawater and are having a “profound impact.” Thus if action is not taken to stop the destruction, the images in the French exhibition could become a museum rather than a display of existing life.

BUT NOW, before it is too late, Israelis and foreign visitors are privileged to take a peek at Deep, a traveling multimedia exhibition from the French Museum of Natural History in Paris. One of two copies has come to Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum after they were on display in France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai and Angola, and will remain here until the end of August.

Bloomfield Museum director Maya Halevy and public relations director Dea Brockman expect that 100,000 people will have experienced it before it is packed up for its next destination. It cost more than $300,000 to rent the exhibition, bring it here, insure it, translate it into Hebrew and Arabic from tEnglish and mount it in two very large rooms in the capital’s museum. Funding came from Teva Pharmaceuticals and the Ted Arison Family Fund.

But the greatest credit must go to globtrotting journalist and film director/producer Claire Nouvian, who spent more than 10 years shooting wildlife for French and international television.

Her passion for undersea fauna and deep-sea diving was kindled by a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and further spurred in 2005 when, as a correspondent on a mission of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, she traveled 1,000 meters down onboard the submersible Johnson Sea Link-1.

She said of the experience: “That was the most amazing, the most incredible moment of my life...

Afterwards, for weeks I couldn’t talk about it without crying. I’m still not entirely over it… It was so beautiful and so intense, it changed me forever.”

She founded BLOOM, a non-profit organization for spreading scientific knowledge and protecting vulnerable environments.

Her love of the sea and its creatures induced her, with the help of prominent international researchers, to create The Deep, an encyclopedic book with 220 color photos that introduce the undersea creatures to the world (www.thedeepbook.org). Some were photographed from submersible vessels or robotic undersea vehicles able to go to the depths of 6,000 meters (the height of a 42-story building), while some specimens were collected with nets by trawlers.

A selection of the the most spectacular photos from a collection of 7,000, along with detailed but viewerfriendly explanations, are the basis for the Jerusalem exhibition. Mounted on the walls of the darkened rooms, they are displayed in lightcases. The museum was unable to find official translations for some of the animals’ names. Some things have no Hebrew names, so it intends – with the Hebrew Language Academy – to run a public competition to name them. The exhibition also includes a mind-boggling film and – suspended in resin in large spotlighted fish tanks – the preserved remains of some of the creatures, which look like living fossils. Music specially composed for the French Museum of Natural History provides an eery background.

NOUVIAN, who was present at the opening of the Jerusalem exhibition five weeks ago, said she was amazed that in the beginning of the 21st century, two-thirds of the Earth – its oceans – was still largely unexplored.

On dry land, most organisms are confined to the surface, or at most to altitudes of a hundred meters – the height of the tallest trees, Nouvian noted in her $60 book. “In the oceans, though, living space has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. With an average depth of 3,800 meters, the oceans offer 99% of the space on Earth where life can develop.

And the deep sea, in total darkness since the dawn of time, occupies 85% of ocean space, forming the planet’s largest habitat. Yet these depths abound with mystery. The deep sea is mostly uncharted – only about 5% of the seafloor has been mapped in detail, and we know very little about the creatures that call it home. Current estimates about the number of species yet to be found vary between 10 and 30 million. The deep sea is without doubt Earth’s largest reservoir of life.”

To create something beautiful for beauty’s sake “isn’t my thing, even if I’m delighted that others do so and I can enjoy such creations... I know that evolution is a slow process, that, for example, our society cannot become more environmentally conscious in a few months. I hope that my actions may eventually have an effect on the course of events, on laws, and the status of conservation.”

The deepest undersea floor, in the Pacific, reaches 11,000 meters, according to Esty Brezner, a trained biologist who heads Bloomfield’s educational projects. As the waters are very cold, the creatures have a very slow metabolism, which gives some of them a life expectancy of 100 years or more – if they are not consumed by predators. Without sunlight, no plants live there and thus cannot be a source of food, said Brezner during an extensive personal tour for The Jerusalem Post.

Many whale carcasses drop to the ocean floor and provide a source of food. But that is not enough for the denizens of the depths. The cannot rise close to the surface because their bodies are suited to a high-pressure environment. Without light, there can be no photosynthesis, a process that converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from sunlight. Most life on Earth is fueled directly or indirectly by sunlight. So for many years, it was thought that no living creatures existed in the midwater (pelagic) zone down to the ocean floor (the benthic zone).

But surprise! Scientists discovered that food can be produced without light in a process called chemosynthesis, in which carbohydrates are manufactured from carbon dioxide and water using chemical nutrients rather than the sunlight used for photosynthesis. Certain groups of bacteria, referred to as chemosynthetic autotrophs, are fueled not by the sun but by the oxidation of simple inorganic chemicals, such as sulfates or ammonia. Some of these bacteria groups, scientists say, are well suited to conditions that would have existed on Earth billions of years ago, leading some to suggest that these are living representatives of the earliest life on the planet. This view has been supported by the discovery of small ecosystems that thrive in the hot water found around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor that form when tectonic plates move as a result of undersea earthquakes. In these ecosystems, the primary producers in the food web are bacteria whose life functions are fueled by inorganic chemicals that seep up from the earth’s crust. The warm water provides the conditions for oases of life for numerous species, which suddenly appear in magnificent colors and variations.

OBSERVING THE photos of display – creatures with antennae that beam light (produced by chemicals) like fireflies, odd shapes and “faces” – some so ugly that only their mothers would love them – one might think that God let His imagination run wild in creating the weird denizens of the deep sea so the isolation in hostile environments would not be boring. But in fact, each characteristic suits a species to its cruel enviornment.

Anglerfishes have glowing “bait” at the tip of a “fishing rod” that is part of its body. Many species have weird eyes at the end of filaments, hairs and tentacles used as sensors when they swim about in the darkness.

Some look like flowers or have bird-like plumes. Many mouths remain open to catch a meal that serendipitously comes near. Colonies of small creatures form incredible structures that seem like fireworks displays when they produce their light. The bioluminescence is used to attract prey or divert predators. Some species spurt out toxic ink to overcome their victims, and the breakdown of chemicals make them toxic to others but not to themselves.

The researchers’ biggest surprise in recent years was was their discovery that many gelatinous animals have adapted to a life in mid-ocean without any floor or walls. Numerous creatures are gelatinous and transparent so that in midwater they will not be seen by larger ones. As their bodies are comprised mostly of water, trawlers’ nets turn them into unrecognizable slime. But measured by biomass, these are the most abundant creatures on Earth, and some are the longest. The giant Siphonophore Praya dubia can reach 50 meters long and Apolemia siphonophore up to 100.

The deeper in the ocean, the more the animal skin is pigmented with dark colors such as brown, black and dark red. Red is the first wavelength to disappear in water, experts say, so it acts as a black cape that camouflages the animals. Most creatures avoid areas with minimal oxygen, but the vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, can spend most of its existence there and is said to go back more than 200 million years. Even farther below, there are creatures with a set of huge teeth, giving them a better chance to catch rare victims.

The sea depths constitute the greatest reservoir of life on Earth and a large number of species, but each one has a small number of animals because of the limitation of food. It is certainly worthwhile for children and adults of all ages to visit DEEP at the Bloomfield Science Museum (www.mada.org.il), where you’ll be greeted at the doorway by this message, which will put you into the mood: Perpetual darkness, Bone-chilling cold and crushing pressure, Alien creatures and jaw-dropping geology, The infinite mystery, our planet’s last true frontier…


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