Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Fish get wasted on wastewater

ResearchBlogging.orgIn most cities sewage is treated to remove most of the things that we don't want going into the environment. But, some things get through and out to sea. The Western Treatment Plant in Melbourne, which treats over 50% of Melbourne's wastewater (including my contribution), releases large amounts of nitrogen into Port Phillip Bay. Indeed, a 1996 report from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation recommended that nitrogen released from the Western Treatment Plant be reduced by 1000 tonnes per year. Nearly 20 years later they've achieved half that amount.

The Western Treatment Plant. Covering 10,500 hectares it treats about 50% of Melbourne's wastewater.
Nitrogen pollution is significant issue. It, along with other types of nutrient pollution, has been linked to coral and seagrass declines, and jellyfish blooms. Other things that cause problems in the ocean also slip through sewage treatments plants. From the relatively large things, like plastic fibers from clothing, to the very small, like the drugs we take.

Not all drugs remain active after they've done their job in the human body, but many do. One of the best known and most researched drugs to escape sewage treatment is ethinyl oestradiol, the active ingredient in birth control pills. Decades of research has shown that ethinyl oestradiol has negative impacts on fish and other aquatic organisms. Even very small doses can lead to male fish that produce eggs in their testes, leading to reduced fertility and potentially to population collapse (Kidd et al. 2007).

Sections through the testis of two male fish showing developing eggs, which are the large circular cells surrounded by purple staining tissue. The smaller purple staining flecks are the sperm cells.
Many recreational drugs also make it through wastewater treatment, such as illicit  amphetamines (Kasprzyk-Hordern et al. 2009). To my knowledge, it has not been shown that these arrive in the environment at high enough doses to cause any negative effects. Caffeine, my favorite recreational drug, is detected in seawater at concentrations high enough to produce measurable, but probably minor effects in mussels (del Rey et al. 2011, 2012).

Exposure to the concentrations of caffeine that are normally found in the environment probably have little or no effect on fish. Unlike caffeine, some drugs can build up in the body tissues of fish, making chronic exposure to even low concentrations a risk. Recently a study found that the concentration of a common anti-anxiety medication, oxazepam, was six times higher in the muscle of redfin perch (Perca fluviatilis) than it was in the surrounding river water (Brodin et al. 2013).

A redfin perch, Perca fluviatilis, in an aquarium (photo Wikipedia)
Interestingly, Brodin et al. went on to test what effects oxazepam had on the redfin perch. Annoyingly, they used concentrations of the drug that were three times higher than they recorded in the river and higher than other studies have documented. But, their treatments produced levels of the drug in the muscle tissue of the fish that were comparable to the fish in the river, indicating their results are probably biologically relevant. They found that the fish exposed to the drug exhibited increased activity, reduced sociality, and higher feeding rate relative to control fish.

Although they scuffed their experiment a little with their choice of concentrations, they did do something that few other ecotoxicology studies do. They looked at behavioural traits that are important for the survival of fish in the wild. Too slowly are excotoxicologists moving away from testing the lethal effects of pollutants, often requiring doses that never occur in the wild. Hopefully, the publication of the Brodin et al. paper in the prestigious journal Science will encourage more researchers to examine the effects of pollutants at the levels which they typically occur and on a greater range biologically interesting traits.


Kidd, K., Blanchfield, P., Mills, K., Palace, V., Evans, R., Lazorchak, J., & Flick, R. (2007). Collapse of a fish population after exposure to a synthetic estrogen Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (21), 8897-8901 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0609568104  

Kasprzyk-Hordern, B., Dinsdale, R., & Guwy, A. (2009). The removal of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, endocrine disruptors and illicit drugs during wastewater treatment and its impact on the quality of receiving waters Water Research, 43 (2), 363-380 DOI: 10.1016/j.watres.2008.10.047  

Rey, Z., Granek, E., & Buckley, B. (2011). Expression of HSP70 in Mytilus californianus following exposure to caffeine Ecotoxicology, 20 (4), 855-861 DOI: 10.1007/s10646-011-0649-6  

Rodriguez del Rey, Z., Granek, E., & Sylvester, S. (2012). Occurrence and concentration of caffeine in Oregon coastal waters Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64 (7), 1417-1424 DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2012.04.015  

Brodin, T., Fick, J., Jonsson, M., & Klaminder, J. (2013). Dilute Concentrations of a Psychiatric Drug Alter Behavior of Fish from Natural Populations Science, 339 (6121), 814-815 DOI: 10.1126/science.1226850

Friday, February 22, 2013


Seaweek is coming up fast. It's organised by the Marine Education Society of Australia and running from the 2nd to the 10th of March. I've been invited to participate in a day of activities at Rickets Point Marine Sanctuary on the 7th. I'll be talking to primary and high school students about marine introduced species. The day will bring together marine experts from MESA, Parks Victoria, Melbourne Aquarium, Monash University, the Earth Watch Institute, the Ocean Ark Alliance, the Gould League, Marine Care Ricketts Point, Pelican Expeditions, Nautilus Educational and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (and me, who is not from any of those organisations).

The theme for Seaweek 13 is ‘Sustainable Seas’. The theme provides a focus for students in schools and for communities to inform and inspire them about the diversity of our marine and coastal environments and how, through good management and individual action, we can all contribute towards the sustainability of these environments.


  • Highlight the sustainable management of Australia’s marine environment;
  • Identify factors that threaten the sustainability of marine and coastal ecosystems;
  • Facilitate the communication of sustainable marine management projects to the education community;
  • Initiate interest and actions for supporting sustainable marine management that help us learn more about and contribute towards the sustainability of our marine and coastal environments; and
  • Provide schools with educational resources available on the MESA website for school’s classroom based activities.
Find out more about Seaweek here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The anti-science, anti-environment Victorian Government

The Victorian Government is at it again. They've allowed a "scientific trial" of cattle grazing in Victoria's Alpine National Park against all scientific advice (why conduct a trial when you've already got a robust answer?). They've provided funding to find the Victorian panther, the Australian version of Bigfoot. They've decided to allow private tourist developments in National Parks, when the best thing that National Parks do for the environment is to limit access to people. Now they've decided to redraw the boundaries of the Alpine National Park to allow business at the Falls Creek ski resort to expand. You'd probably be surprised to know that the Victorian Premier is a former director of a real estate company...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Flying squid really fly

ResearchBlogging.orgMany pelagic squid are able to launch themselves into the air using jets of water expelled through a funnel beneath their head. There are a number of photos online that show squid out of the water and holding their fins and tentacles in a gliding position. But it has been unclear whether the squid where using simple gliding, like a paper plane, or actively controlling the flight.

The neon flying squid, Ommastrephes bartramii, holding its fins and tentacles for flight (photo Geoff Jones).
Now researchers have taken photographic sequences for two schools of the neon flying squid, Ommastrephes bartramii, in flight. The sequences captured the entire flight process, from exiting the water to reentry. Their analysis of the photographs provides the first compelling evidence that flying squid are performing true biomechanical flight.

Neon flying squid in flight with a red footed booby looking on (photo from Muramatsu et al. 2013)
The researchers identified four phases of the flight; launching, jetting, gliding and diving. During the launch phase the squid's fins and tentacles are held in a streamlined position and the squid propels itself out of the water. The squid then spreads its fins and tentacles jetting through the air. Once the water within the mantle cavity is expended the squid continues to glide. Finally, the squid folds its fins and tentacles back into a streamlined position, changes is pitch and dives into the water with barely a splash.

The phases of squid flight; a) launching, b) jetting, c) gliding and d) diving (from Muramatsu et al. 2013)
Using birds within some images the researchers were able to estimate the length of the airborne squid and therefore their speed and distance covered. During the jetting phase the squid travelled at between 8.8 and 11.2 meters per second, which is about human sprinting speed. The squid covered up to 33.5 meters in flight, substantially less than a flying fish (~400 meters***), but better than previous estimates for flying squid (~10 meters).

*** Correction - While flying fish have been documented to travel over 400 meters in a single jump, their typical jumps are about 50 meters.

Muramatsu, K., Yamamoto, J., Abe, T., Sekiguchi, K., Hoshi, N., & Sakurai, Y. (2013). Oceanic squid do fly Marine Biology DOI: 10.1007/s00227-013-2169-9

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A stepping stone of rotting wood

ResearchBlogging.orgMany of the animals living at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps carry chemosynthetic bacterial symbionts in their body, which convert methane or hydrogen sulfide into food. Some have lost the ability to feed on anything other than what the bacteria living inside their tissues provide them. Almost all cannot survive without a sufficient supply of methane or hydrogen sulfide. One hypothesis is that decomposing organic matter that has sunk from the surface, like whale carcasses, seaweed, and wood could serve as a food source, providing stepping stones between vents or seeps.

A field of mussels at a cold seep (photo Wikipedia)
Animals more typically found at vents and seeps are known to colonise the remains of whales in the deep sea. Smith et al. (1989), were the first to report vent animals colonising whale skeletons. They also provided a conservative estimate of the distribution of whale carcasses on the ocean floor and suggested that they would provide a persistent and abundant habitat for cold seep and hydrothermal vent animals. Adding sunken wood and seaweed to the list only increases the amount of available habitat.

A whale skeleton in the deep sea with patrolling hagfish (photo Wikipedia)
A gap in our understanding, though, is how enough methane or hydrogen sulfide is produced to support populations of chemosynthetic animals by decaying wood. The deep sea is a cold place, which is not conducive to the rapid breakdown of organic material. A large amount of wood would be required to provide the surface area necessary to produce enough gas. One hypothesis though, is that the surface area of wood might be increased by larger organisms, such as wood-boring bivalves, breaking it up first.

Researchers tested this idea by depositing wood logs on the Eastern Mediterranean seafloor at 1700 meters down and returned a year later to examine the animals and bacteria the had colonised the wood. They also measured the chemicals in the water released by the bacteria breaking down the wood. Using underwater robots, they observed that wood-boring bivalves had indeed broken the wood into smaller pieces, which were further broken down by other organisms. 

The activity of the organisms digesting the wood reduced the amount of dissolved oxygen, resulting in anoxic conditions that allowed sulfate-reducing bacteria to move in and produce hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide then attracted a species of mussel, which usually found at cold seeps where it gains energy from symbiotic chemosynthetic bacteria. The mussels seemed to preferentially colonise cavities under the bark of the wood, presumably because sulfide levels were higher there.

The chemosynthetic mussel Idas modiolaeformis was found in the sunken wood piles (photo from Bienhold et al. 2013)
So it appears that wood boring organisms are able to pave the way for chemosynthetic organisms to colonise sunken wood in the deep sea. Their burrows, feces and the chips of wood that they produce all increase the surface area of material available for hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria to digest. Moreover, their activity and the activity of other organisms produce the anoxic conditions required for sulfate reduction, which is necessary to support chemosynthetic life.

A hypothetical succession of animals on submerged wood in the deep sea over a year. Initially wood-boring bivalves move in, followed by predators and detritus feeders (e.g. polychaetes and sipunculids). The respiration of the colonisers creates anoxic niches that allow the chemosynthetic mussels to move in (diagram from Bienhold et al. 2013).

Smith, C., Kukert, H., Wheatcroft, R., Jumars, P., & Deming, J. (1989). Vent fauna on whale remains Nature, 341 (6237), 27-28 DOI: 10.1038/341027a0  

Bienhold, C., Pop Ristova, P., Wenzhöfer, F., Dittmar, T., & Boetius, A. (2013). How Deep-Sea Wood Falls Sustain Chemosynthetic Life PLoS ONE, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053590

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Attack of the jellyfish swarm

ResearchBlogging.orgJellyfish are not as charismatic as some marine species and consequently they have not received much research attention. Recently though, there has been increasing interest in them because their numbers appear to be on the rise worldwide. There are a few hypotheses about why this might be the case floating around in the literature.

The beautiful and under appreciated jellyfish, Cyanea capillata. Perhaps the World's biggest (photo Wikipedia).
Corals, which are in the same phylum (Cnidaria) as jellyfish, have been on the decline in northern Australia and other parts of the world. Two major hypotheses have been proposed to explain this; overfishing reducing herbivorous fish numbers leading to algal overgrowth and agricultural runoff decreasing water clarity through sedimentation and by promoting phytoplankton growth. These same pressures are thought to have a positive effect on jellyfish populations.

Overfishing is argued to increase jellyfish numbers by reducing predation and competition for food, particularly of young jellyfish. While agricultural runoff stimulates phytoplankton blooms that directly or indirectly provide increased amounts of food to jellyfish. Some others argue that changes to marine communities that are occurring as a result of climate change are tipping the ecological balance in favour of jellyfish. But there isn't much agreement, even among experts, about whether jellyfish have actually increased globally.

Nomura jellyfish, Nemopilema nomurai, causing problems for Japanese fishermen (Photo Shin-ichi Uye)
Recently, a collaboration of scientists from around the world have conducted one of the most comprehensive and rigorous analyses of the available data on jellyfish numbers. Condon et al. found that jellyfish numbers go through cyclical population booms roughly every 20 years. Their data suggest that increasing jellyfish numbers in the last few years are simply a part of this 20-year population oscillation. But, there is a hint in the data that since 1970 jellyfish numbers have be increasing.

During the last population minimum, which occurred in 1993, jellyfish numbers were higher relative to previous population minimums. This resulted in a weak, but statistically significant trend towards increasing jellyfish abundance in the last 40 years. The authors caution that the trend is too weak, given the limitations of the data set, to conclude that jellyfish populations really are on the increase. Data collected in the next few years should be able to determine, with confidence, whether the upwards trend is real.

Although they found no strong evidence that jellyfish numbers are increasing worldwide, there was good evidence that numbers are increasing in some regions. These regions included the Sea of Japan, North Atlantic shelf regions, the Barents Sea, and parts of the Mediterranean Sea. All of these regions exhibited the 20 year oscillation, but local factors seem to have acted in concert with the global population fluctuations. Notably, fishing is heavy in many, if not all, of those regions.

Condon, R., Duarte, C., Pitt, K., Robinson, K., Lucas, C., Sutherland, K., Mianzan, H., Bogeberg, M., Purcell, J., Decker, M., Uye, S., Madin, L., Brodeur, R., Haddock, S., Malej, A., Parry, G., Eriksen, E., Quinones, J., Acha, M., Harvey, M., Arthur, J., & Graham, W. (2013). Recurrent jellyfish blooms are a consequence of global oscillations Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (3), 1000-1005 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1210920110