Feeling Washed Up? Consider the State of the Ocean on World Oceans Day

Recently I’ve been to the beach. I went down to visit an old friend, the USS Lexington. I had stayed aboard her back when I was in 9th grade, about a couple of decades ago, and hadn’t seen her since. It was good to see her again. While down on the beach I went for a quick run for a couple of miles. Sand is much harder to run on than a sidewalk. Much better to get my heart rate up. While I was running I happened along some jellyfish. I made sure not to touch them, but it was fun to look at and ponder them. It’s hard to image a being able to function without a central nervous system. How does a jellyfish gather its thoughts? And it’s not the strangest or most wonderful creature in the sea.


Whenever I think of the beauty of the sea, I think of sea turtles flying through the water or the majestic blue whale, the largest mammal ever. There are extremophiles, bacteria that use heat and chemicals instead of light to sustain a life so far down in the oceans that sunlight has never reached them. Or the mantis shrimp. Which is neither a mantis nor a shrimp. But in addition to having claws that move at the speed of a .22 bullet, they have the best eyes in nature. Where we have three types of color-receptive cones in our eyes, the mantis shrimp has 16! It can see colors no other animals can perceive.


Unfortunately, with all this beauty and wonder, we have put the oceans and their bounty in danger. If you have seen the documentary Trashed or the less depressing Majestic Plastic Bag, you’ll know of the danger of plastic bags. The purpose of this plastic is to keep your food clean and make access to it more convenient, but the plastic never goes away. It never degrades; it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s tiny enough for marine life to swallow. Plastics contain toxic chemicals and have the ability to absorb other compounds, which both leach out of the plastic over time. Fish eat the plastic, as do turtles, birds and whales, and if it doesn’t get caught up in the digestive tract and disrupt the absorption of nutrients, then the chemicals in the plastic inevitably poison them. Fish and creatures pass the plastics in their guts on to the larger predators, until eventually, you have a whopper mackerel some fisherman pulls out of the ocean for sushi, its belly full of the plastic it has collected from the bellies of other fish, flesh tainted with chemicals that have entered its bloodstream. And then we absorb all those toxins into our bodies, poisoning ourselves with each wonderful, tasty bit of sushi.


What’s the solution, you ask?  It’s certainly not giving up sushi. Never. In the short term we can use reusable bags when we get our food at the store. And gaining more knowledge about how the oceans, their creatures, and how they interact with each other is another great place to start.

So join us at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to celebrate World Oceans Day this Saturday, June 4 and learn how you can help the oceans, sushi, and yourself!

The ocean is the heart of our planet. Like your heart pumping blood to every part of your body, the ocean connects people across the Earth, no matter where we live. The ocean regulates the climate, feeds millions of people every year, produces most of the oxygen we breathe, is the home to an incredible array of wildlife, provides us with important medicines, and so much more! In order to ensure the health and safety of our communities and future generations, it’s imperative that we take the responsibility to care for the ocean as it cares for us.


With a goal to stop plastic pollution, “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet” is this year’s theme for UN-designated World Oceans Day. Celebrate at HMNS with a “dive” on life-size 2D coral reefs of the Gulf of Mexico with a marine biologist of the BioSciences Department at Rice University. Free with museum admission.         

And join us June 7 at 6:30 p.m. for our distinguished lecture on a major concern in coastal marine habitats: The Global Coral Bleaching Event: Causes, Consequences and What You Can Do.

Massive die-offs are occurring on reefs around the world due to the ongoing global coral bleaching event. Join marine biologist Dr. Adrienne Correa to learn the science behind bleaching, how scientists are tracking and studying the event, and the role you can play in the future of coral reefs. As a coral reef ecologist Adrienne Correa, Ph.D. works at scales that range from individual microbial strains and meta-organisms to entire ecosystems researching the diversity, stability and function of symbioses. Correa’s recent research targets novel viruses associated with stressed corals-and has documented viral outbreaks in conjunction with bleaching. She is a faculty member in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Program of BioSciences at Rice University.                                                                                                                                  

Beach Bugs!

I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Galveston. It was so relaxing, sitting on the beach, listening to the waves and watching the birds. The beach is such a peaceful place and Galveston is very close to my heart because my husband and I got married there! Although I escaped with nothing but a few mosquito bites (my husband was not as lucky!), I got to thinking about bugs at the beach and the horror stories I have heard. I’ve heard about sand flies, sand fleas, sea lice; all kinds of crazy stuff. I decided to do a little research to see what was true and what was nothing but beach bug lore. I was absolutely shocked at some of the things I read, especially when Googling “sand fleas”! Most of the things I found were contradictory, inaccurate, and just plain ridiculous! The biggest problem seems to be the confusion between all of the common names. People in different parts of the world may refer to the same organism as several different things. That’s why scientists use Latin scientific names that are consistent across the world. So, here it is, the skinny on some of those beach pests we all hear about, what you should worry about, and what is no big deal!

Sea Lice

she don't use jelly
Creative Commons License photo credit: brainware3000

Well here’s a misnomer for you! I’ve never even heard of sea lice, but one of my co-workers mentioned them while I was researching. Many of you may have heard of them because apparently they can be quite a problem! It’s a misnomer because the real sea lice are tiny crustaceans that live in the ocean and feed on certain types of fish, but don’t bother humans at all. What we call sea lice are actually larvae of jellyfish that float around in clouds in the ocean. Although they are tiny, they still possess those nasty stinging cells or nematocysts. If you’re swimming in the ocean, they can become trapped between your bathing suit and skin. This is when you can be stung. The stings cause intense itching and burning which result in a rash with small raised blisters.  The rash can last anywhere from two days to two weeks, but most of the time they go away with no medical attention necessary, just lots of cortisone cream and Benadryl! Sea lice are common along the gulf coast, the Caribbean islands, Mexico and South America. Most beaches have warnings if the waters are heavily infested. The season for these pesky baby jellyfish usually runs from April through August.

Sand Fleas

It took me forever to get to the bottom of this one. I asked people I knew if they’d ever been bothered by what are known as “sand fleas”. The general consensus was, no. I read some of the most ridiculous things, however. I read that they attack your feet and burrow into your skin. I read that they attack fish and kill them. I read that they are crustaceans with wings, that feed on seaweed and also suck blood, but only from your feet. What?!?! So, this is what they really are. The common sand flea (Orchestia agilis) is an amphipod, or a small, terrestrial, shrimp-like crustacean. They burrow into the sand and they feed on decaying plant and animal matter that washes up on the shore, especially seaweed. They do not want anything to do with people. They obviously are not fleas, not even insects. However, they jump, similar to the way fleas do and they live in the sand, so hence the name sand flea. They are found all along the Atlantic coast, so you’ve probably seen them before. There is a more malicious animal that sometimes goes by the name sand flea, but more often is referred to as the chigoe flea. Tunga penetrans is actually a type of flea, but they are not like the more common cat flea that bites our domesticated pets. They are the smallest known species of flea. The chigoe flea lives in soil and in sand. They feed on the feet of warm blooded hosts such as humans, dogs, cattle, sheep and mice. When the female is ready to reproduce, she will burrow into the skin of the host, which is where she stays until after she releases her eggs, in about two weeks. After this, she dies and is sloughed off with the skin of the host. They can jump no higher than 20 centimeters, so they usually burrow into the foot or ankle. So, this is a little creepy, but don’t worry, they’re only native to the tropics, such as Central and South America.

Sand Flies

Female horse fly
Creative Commons License photo credit: Radu P

This is a pretty general term that can really refer to any biting fly you would encounter at the beach, besides a mosquito. This could even be a type of horsefly that is associated with that type of habitat. Most commonly, the name sandfly refers to flies in the family Ceratopogonidae. These are small biting midges, only 1-4 millimeters in length that live in aquatic habitats all over the world. Like mosquitoes, it is only the female that sucks blood to get protein in preparation for laying her eggs. The bite itself is too small to feel. It’s not until later when your skin starts to react with the proteins in their saliva that you start to feel the itch.  Because they go unnoticed, they can bite you a lot, that’s why they are such a pest! Bug spray is sufficient protection against these flies, but I never wear bug spray and haven’t been bothered by them, so I don’t think they’re much of a problem around us.

Salt marsh mosquitoes

I’m sure almost everyone has run to the car to get away from these vicious mosquitoes and their painful bites! Aedes taeniorhynchus and Aedes sollicitans are two common species found along the Texas coast. They lay their eggs in brackish and saltwater pools left over from the tides. There is no mystery about these ladies. They’re big, they’re hungry and they will come after you any time of the day whether you’re swatting at them or not. They are larger than many freshwater mosquitoes so they’re bites actually sting a bit. In other parts of the world, they are vectors of Venezuelan and Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Luckily, in our area, this is not a problem, but they are a prime vector of dog heartworm, so if you live near the beach, keep your dogs on a heartworm preventative.

I certainly had my fair share of them at the beach, which is what got me thinking about other parasites that may be lurking at some of our favorite vacation destinations. My conclusion: wear bug spray and heed any warnings at the beach and you should be in tip-top shape. You’ll hopefully leave with nothing worse than a minor sunburn and relatively few mosquito bites! Until next time, happy bug watching!

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.14.08)

Granny Smith
Nutritous and delicious.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Navarro

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

For the 2008 Olympians, what’s nutritious and delicious? Powdered apple peel.

Humans and wild elephants in Indonesia have come into repeated conflict over habitat – resulting in property losses for humans and deaths of wild elephants. So, locals have developed a squadron of trained “flying elephants” that patrol the perimeter villages and warn their brethren away.

Insects that dive underwater create an “underwater lung” – an air bubble they carry with them as they swim – in order to breathe. Scientists have just figured out how it works.

Don’t forget to sleep on it: sleep plays a sophisticated role in what we remember – and what we forget.

Geographic profiling: what works for bees also works for serial killers.

Ready the wonderment: the Moon goes into partial eclipse this Saturday night.

Where have all the sea monsters gone? A variety of factors are transforming Earth’s oceans into “simplistic ecosystems dominated by microbes, toxic algal blooms, jellyfish and disease.”