Seamounts Species Spotlight: The Jelly-Like Ctenophore

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post in part 4 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

Glowing water is not just the stuff of sailor stories and fairy tales. In tropical regions, when the briny depths appear to be glowing, it is most likely a result of bioluminescent plankton. But here in the North Atlantic, there may be another culprit: the ctenophore.

Also known as “comb jellies” and “sea walnuts,” the ctenophore is a nearly transparent floating creature frequently misidentified as jellyfish. While similar, the ctenophore is actually in a phylum of its own (lower than kingdom; higher than class). This is due to differences in ctenophores and jellyfish in how embryos develop, and the physical appearance of adult individuals. Scientists estimate there are 150 species of these jelly-like creatures, found throughout the water column and in all the world’s oceans.

Important Differentiators 

Don’t worry if you see a ctenophore in the water – unlike jellyfish, ctenophores aren’t able to sting humans. To hunt for food, some do deploy tiny stinging cells, while others can engulf prey even larger than they are!

While there is no “typical” way to describe the ctenophore’s physical features, scientists can agree on a few facts: First, ctenophores are invertebrates, meaning they have no bone structure. This makes them appear to be simply floating in the water. Almost all species are small and transparent. One exception to this rule is the beautiful and large “Venus’ Girdle.” This species can grow up to a meter in length, is pale violet in color, and is found in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost all ctenophores are bioluminescent, meaning they glow.

A ctenophore can appear to be rainbow colored because when it swims, tiny hair-like structures on the outside of its body beat together so quickly that it deflects light into tiny rainbows. These fast-beating hairs are called cilia. Cilia are found arranged in eight rows on the outside of all ctenophores.

Although the ctenophore can live in many places throughout the water column and in most habitats, benthic (seafloor) varieties are difficult to come by. This makes them very challenging creatures to study, leaving scientists with much to learn about them.

In 2013, NOAA conducted an Okeanos Explorer Program Expedition within the New England Canyons area and had the rare opportunity to view and record a number of ctenophores (and many other unique critters). Clearly, an abundance of research opportunities lay in the lively communities of the Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

This is another reason why permanently protecting unique ocean habitats is so important. Who knows – this research that may provide marine science with its next big discovery!

Seamounts Species Spotlight: Bluefin Tuna

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post is part 3 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

Just imagine a 10-foot long, steel blue, torpedo-shaped body darting through the water of the open ocean and it’s easy to understand why the Atlantic Bluefin tuna is at the top of the oceanic food chain.

This predator is one of the ocean’s most impressive swimmers, built for quick and calculated movements as its body is smooth with retractable fins, allowing it to minimize drag and maximize speed. Tuna also go far: some individuals have been observed making multiple migrations between the United States and Europe each year.

These world travelers spend their summers feasting upon herring and eels in the waters of the Gulf of Maine. At some 1,500 pounds, tuna prefer to swallow prey whole and are considered a very aggressive predator. To maximize vision (presumably helping with predatory ability), tuna are even partially warm-blooded, a rare trait for a fish.

Mating Grounds Discovered Near Canyons and Seamounts

Many details of the fish’s behavior were unknown until recently. A study released this year revealed the discovery and confirmation of a previously unknown mating ground in the “Slope Sea,” an area of ocean between the Gulf Stream and continental shelf, which includes much of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area. The area was identified after poppy seed-sized larvae were detected in the waters with further analysis confirming their birthplace.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the Atlantic Bluefin tuna’s close relative, Pacific Bluefin tuna, an incredibly popular and valuable commodity in places across Asia. In 2013, a Pacific Bluefin went for a record $1.76 million in Tokyo.

The Pacific Bluefin’s global fame has, unfortunately, spelled collapse for global stocks. All three species of Bluefin tuna – Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern – are at risk of collapse because of human predation. The Atlantic population has decreased by as much as 51 percent in just three generations.

As a completely migratory species, comprehensive management has proven difficult, with responsibility currently falling to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). Currently, there is effort being placed on monitoring and accurately reporting the origins of each landing along with strict catch limits.

As we continue to discover more about these powerful fish, it is important that we protect the areas that they rely on, such as their feeding and breeding grounds. The discovery of a North Atlantic breeding ground requires much more study so managers can learn more about how to better manage this species. Permanently protected the New England Canyons and Seamounts is an excellent step in the right direction.

Seamounts Species Spotlight: North Atlantic Right Whale

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post is part 2 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

A rare sight in the open ocean, the North Atlantic right whale depends on the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area as a rich feeding zone each year beginning in early spring and lasting through the end of August.

A right whale is easily distinguishable from other species by its large head, two blow holes, and bumpy patches that dot its head and jawline. These rough patches of skin, called callosities, are frequently covered in microscopic sea lice which makes them appear white or orange. Each whale has a different callosities pattern, making individuals easily distinguishable from one another.

These massive critters can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh in at more than 70 tons by consuming hundreds of pounds of zooplankton and copepods each day, making them one of the largest baleen whale species. Right whales feed using the same method as all baleen whales: by taking in a huge mouthful of water and then pushing the water through its tooth-like baleen plates to catch tiny organisms.

The canyons and seamounts make for a reliable feeding area for the right whale, with high concentrations of food sources, and relatively few human disturbances (most of the canyons and seamounts don’t see much commercial fishing activity).

Despite their impressive size, right whales are very slow and were historically an easy and popular target for human hunters for centuries. Currently, the North Atlantic right whale is listed as endangered on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.

What’s in a Name?

Back during the heyday of whaling, this graceful creature was the “right” target for a whaler’s harpoon because of its high blubber content and tendency to float on the surface once killed. This is largely thought to be what first caused the population to crash.

Although the species has been internationally protected since 1949 by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the global population is estimated to be hovering between just 300-500 individuals. These low numbers may be in part due to small litter sizes, making it more difficult for populations to rebound – or because of continued accidental human interference in a variety of ways: Just this spring, a baby right whale died after an apparent ship strike near Cape Cod.

Reducing Human Threats

Right whales can frequently find themselves sharing the waters with boats, resulting in seriously harmful or fatal collisions. Off the coast of New England, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has been successful in moving shipping lanes to reduce the risk of commercial vessel strikes; a small 12 degree shift has the potential to reduce strikes by 58 percent. There has also been progress developing technologies to track whale activity that boats can use to help avoid collisions.

In other cases, development projects can pose threats, such as the Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm off Block Island. Deepwater Wind successfully worked with Conservation Law Foundation and other organizations, however, to halt pre-construction activities during times when right whales were known to be in the area.

Another significant threat to the right whale is fishing rope entanglement, which causes lacerations and infections and can make it difficult for the whale to dive and resurface. But, not all hope is lost: recent innovations in fishing rope production hope to minimize rope entanglement threats.

And, NOAA recently moved to significantly expand critical habitat for right whales, meaning federal agencies conducting permitting activities must work with NOAA Fisheries to avoid or reduce impacts on the critical habitat areas.

These actions are hugely helpful for this struggling species, but more will be needed to ensure population recovery. Comprehensive protection of feeding grounds, such as the canyons and seamounts, would be another big step in the right direction. With little fishing activity occurring in these areas, the canyons and seamounts are a relatively safe place for whales to live and eat, away from busier places where threats are higher.

 

Seamounts Species Spotlight: Atlantic Puffin

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Its unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post in part 1 in a series that profiles some of the incredible species that call this place home.

Atlantic Puffins – tiny 10-inch penguin lookalikes – are some of New England’s most fascinating and beloved seasonal coastal and island visitors.

These seabirds can both swim and fly, with top flying speeds clocking in at 55 miles per hour! Underwater, the birds appear to be flying, using their wings for power and their feet for direction as they dive up to 200 feet below the surface. Their speed is helpful as they search for small fish like sea lance and herring to feed on. Individuals frequently return to the surface with about 10 small fish stuck in their beaks.

Most of the fish caught by adult puffins from April to August is given to hatchlings for feeding. The birds typically keep the same mating partner each year, and produce one egg that they raise in burrows rather than nests. They like to create burrows about one to three feet in length in between craggy rocks, such as those found on Maine’s coastal islands, using only their beaks and feet. Once the couples establish a burrow, complete with a nursery and lavatory, they will share incubating and feeding duties through the mating season.

Atlantic Puffins tend to leave their mating grounds in August. For years, scientists have been stumped about exactly where these birds go to spend the winter months. But through the analysis geolocation data last summer, scientists discovered puffin winter grounds within the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area.

There has been a good deal of research done on these birds, in part because of their long lifespan. The oldest known puffin lived to be at least 34 years old; a typical lifespan is about 20 years.

Despite this longer than usual lifespan, Atlantic Puffin populations struggle with longevity, facing continued threats from human activities like overharvesting and habitat disruption. Overharvesting impacts both food sources and the Atlantic Puffin themselves. Because they are a small and easy target for hunting (outlawed in the U.S., but legal in Iceland and the Faroe Islands), and because they prey on fish species that humans also rely on, these birds are quite vulnerable to human behavior.

Atlantic Puffins in northern New England, in fact, were only recently brought back from the brink of extinction, despite having once been prolific on Maine’s islands (and still enjoying steady population levels in more northern habitats).

Protecting habitat for puffin colonies is especially important, because they return to the same areas each year for breeding and possibly for wintering. If humans don’t protect these places, the future of Atlantic Puffin populations are increasingly uncertain.

Read more about the efforts to restore this species at the Puffin Project website.