Archives for : sharks

Short and sweet

Every since Science Online 2013 ended, I have been very busy with a variety of things including work, developing some super-secret side-projects and more. But being busy is often a double-edged sword.

While these projects are developing and turning into some fantastic stuff that I am sure you all will enjoy – it has left me with little time to read the ever-increasing amount of books I endlessly accumulate and post on this blog.

But, take heed loyal reader, as I have not forsaken you.

Over the past week and a half, I’ve been communicating with experts in various fields, and asking them questions that can come up in normal conversation – for example: How can black holes exist if we cannot see them? Or, how hot is magma locked in the Earth’s core?

The process is simple – I ask an expert in a field four questions. They pick two and answer each in four sentences of less so that anyone can understand.

I hope to continue this series going, so if you have any ideas for experts or questions to ask, please do so in the comments!

Man, that’s heavy
The first expert is David Shiffman, a shark conservationist and ecologist graduate student in Florida. He blogs regularly at Southern Fried Science and tweets at @WhySharksMatter.

Question 1: Since it is right there in your Twitter handle, I must ask – Why do shark matter?

Answer: Many species of sharks are top predators in their food chains. Top predators can influence their ecosystem both by regulating populations of prey, and by influencing the behavior of prey. In short, they help keep ocean ecosystems healthy.

Question 2: How can whales grow so big in the water, but the biggest animal on land (the elephant) is only a fraction of that?

Answer: The answer to this is simple- gravity. There’s a limit to how big things can get on land because after a certain point they get too heavy. Water provides increased buoyancy. Blue whales are bigger than the biggest land dinosaurs ever were.

Short, stocky and strong

This leads perfectly into our next expert, Brian Switek, a freelance science writer who spends his life getting to know anything and everything he can about dinosaurs. He blogs at National Geographic and is on Twitter as @Laelaps.

Question 1: Who would win in an arm wrestle, an average man or a T. rex?

Answer: There would be no question. Tyrannosaurus rex would win. Estimates based on bio-mechanics indicate that the arm of T. rex was about three and a half times more powerful than that of the average person. The arms of T. rex were short and stocky, but very powerful.

Question 2: How did mammals survive the extinction event 65 million years ago and the dinosaurs didn’t?

Answer: Actually, dinosaurs did survive. Avian dinosaurs – birds – escaped extinction and carry on the dinosaur legacy today. And even though mammals also survived, many mammal lineages died out in the catastrophe. Exactly why birds, mammals, and other creatures persisted while the non-avian dinosaurs died out, however, is a mystery that hinges on how climate change, volcanic activity, and asteroid impact translated into pressures that changed the world.

Invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there

The final expert is Matthew R. Francis, a physicist and science writer who writes at Bowler Hat Science and tweets at @DrMRFrancis.

Question 1: How do we know black holes exist if we cannot see them?

Answer: We can’t see black holes directly, but many of them are surrounded by matter – mostly gas stripped off stars or from other sources. When that gas falls toward the black hole, it forms a fast-rotating disk, that heats up and emits a lot of light in the form of X-rays and radio waves. So, even though black holes don’t emit any light of their own, they can be some of the brightest objects in the Universe.

Question 2: What does E=mc^2 actually mean in terms of everyday life?

Answer: “E= mc^2” literally tells us that mass is a form of energy, and anything with mass will have that energy even if it’s not moving. Most of the mass of your body is in the protons and neutrons in its atoms, but those are made up of the smaller particles known as quarks. The mass of a proton is a lot greater than the mass of the quarks that make it up; the rest of the mass comes from the energy that binds the quarks together. In other words, “E=mc^2” is responsible for most of the mass of your body!

Thank you very much to Brian, Matthew and David for all their help, time and effort – and remember, if you have any ideas for experts or questions to ask, please let me know in the comments.

The Deepest Blue

The history of our planet is an interesting one, and I want to share this video that was forwarded to me by my dad. This perfectly shows where we’ve been, what we are and even, where we are going.

Please give it a watch:

It is incredible how far we’ve come and what we have done to get here.

Because of the video, I reflected on those special times of the year that bring joy, such as birthdays and anniversaries. They are mostly sprinkled throughout the year like little surprises, giving you something to look forward to.

All those are all well and good, but my favourite time of the year has a more dark twist – Discovery Channel’s Shark Week!

Since 1987, Shark Week has been delighting fans and scientists alike, and I am no exception. And in its 25th anniversary, I thought I would spell out why sharks are so important to me.

I saw the movie Jaws over 20 years ago, and while my parents told me that it was ok to be scared of the water, it seemed I was immune to the fear that gripped the world shortly after its release. Sure sharks were scary (anything with that many teeth is), but I was more interested in the how and why of it all.

Why are sharks so powerful? How do they track their prey? What do they normally eat?

This lit a fire under me, and I began to learn everything I could about sharks. Granted, not a lot was known and many aspects of their life cycles still remain a bit of a mystery, but being the precocious animal-obsessed child that I was, I didn’t care.

If it wasn’t known, I figured I would find it out.

Hence my want to be a marine biologist.

Shortly after, I discovered I had a life-threatening allergy to fish and seafood. Suffice to say, I was not happy. It was not what a future marine biologist, who usually has to handle a lot of fish, wanted to have.

I came to terms with it however, and while my future career in the marine animal sciences was closed, my passion burned brighter. I inhaled books and documentaries about sharks with abandon, even the sequels to Jaws (which are horrible, never ever watch them), just so I could see more.

There was something about their streamlined shape, serrate teeth and unblinking eyes that transfixed me. Add in the fact that they have a ‘”sixth sense” that can detect electric fields through receptors on their noses called the ampullae of Lorenzini (in the running for one of the best names ever), who wouldn’t want to learn about these animals that have been around longer than dinosaurs?

This passion for sharks and rays stayed in me even into university, where I dissected a spiny dogfish (called a dogfish, but actually a shark) and wrote a research paper on shark predation behaviour. The best part was when I presented the paper, I utilized a stuffed shark from the Jaws ride at Universal Studios in Florida I bought years back to show how the shark positions itself and the different attacks they use.


No discussion of sharks and Jaws may be complete without the mention of the ruthless killing of sharks done every day in the name of “sport,” “protecting the public” or for “food.” Shark attacks are exceedingly rare – In fact, I am more likely to be killed in my car, crossing the street, eating a hot dog, being killed a cat, getting struck by lightning, being killed by a falling over vending machine and more.

Are we outlawing cars, vending machines or relentlessly murdering cats?
No, of course not, that would be silly.

So why sharks?

Yes they attack people on the rare occasion, but so do lions, tigers and bears.
Sure, they are scary, but so are snakes.
And sure, they look weird, but so does an aardvark (PLEASE do not kill aardvarks, they are amazing).

But because a movie told you so?


Even the man who wrote the book Jaws, Peter Benchley, was shocked and appalled by the killing of sharks that resulted from the movie. He spent the rest of his life diving with sharks, filming documentaries and educating the public about how beautiful, important and magical sharks are.

So the next time you sit down and watch Jaws or Deep Blue Sea,  Mega shark or any other movie that makes sharks into villains, enjoy it!

But they call it the magic of the movies for a reason, and don’t take it as the truth. Do your own research and you’ll find out that they really are not all that scary or evil, just misunderstood.

September Synergy

It’s been a hell of a month filled with experiences that have made me soar and those that sent me crashing back down to Earth. Been quite a ride so far, with no sign of slowing down.

So, let me catch you up.

In the past month, I had two articles published on Scientific American regarding two very different subjects.

The first article came about when I was asked by noted Scientific American blogger, Jason Goldman, to write on his blog, The Thoughtful Animal, a post about animal behavior when he was on vacation last month. Knowing that I studied animal behavior and physiology, Jason couldn’t have asked a better person.

The resulting article, entitled “The Right Stuff: What It Takes To Be The Ocean’s Top Predator,” takes a closer look at the behavior of one of the most feared predators in the world – the Great White Shark.  In the article, I discuss how sharks hunt using some very impressive adaptations, as well as how they adapt their attack strategies based on the prey they are attempting to catch. It was one of the most fascinating articles I’ve ever written, and I hope you all find it as interesting as I did!

The second article stemmed from a conversation I had with my sister Sara about how much I love animals and visiting the zoo, and that her 16-month-old son Anderson enjoys going as well. Therefore, we packed up a week or so later with my twin brother in tow, and ventured off to the Toronto Zoo.
The article, “In the flesh and before your eyes,” was published last week on the Scientific American Guest Blog and uses the narrative of our trip to the zoo to discuss a wide range of issues, including conservation efforts, does a zoo do more harm than good and the price of poaching.

While it may seem like a very negative article, I believe it actually is rather hopeful and optimistic. But, you be the judge.

Lastly, I’ve been mulling over something different to do with my blog, and this month will be a little different. Every Monday starting September 5th, I will be putting up a very different kind of post. Some will touch on news and politics, others science and the natural world, and maybe even some pop culture or musings about life, the universe and everything in between. But rest assured, every post this month will deal with something note-worthy.

Keep an eye out for the first of these posts at the beginning of next week dealing with a topic that has never been discussed on my blog before. Stay tuned!

The Art of Dissection

The smell in the air was pungent and nauseating during that day in grade 10, you could smell it throughout the school. Students were talking cheerfully, as they were clearly excited to begin today’s big project, despite the smell emanating from two large plastic buckets at the front of the class.

Looking at my lab partner, we exchanged hesitant glances before lining up to receive our experiment for the day on a large black pan. Looking around the room, some students looked enthusiastic about what was about to occur, while others looked pale and scared.

“Ok class,” said the science teacher. “Time to get started.”
Grabbing the sharpest of the implements on the lab bench, I brought the business end of the tool into the pan. Getting the nod from my partner, I used the scalpel and cut into the animal before me, beginning the classroom required earthworm dissection.

As “gross” as some people considered the dissection, I enjoyed it. I liked seeing what I had read in real life and finally make sense about the inter-connectivity of the biological systems. All the five dissections I did in high school (earthworm, locust, perch, cow eye and fetal pig), all presented different challenges and learning experiences to discover.

My favourite part of dissections was learning about an abstract idea from a lecture or the textbook, like that pigs have three bronchial tubes (one goes to the left lung, while two go to the bigger right lung), and actually observing it in front of you. Seeing a picture in a book is not the same as seeing it in the flesh (pardon the pun).

The best way to remember those observations, at least for me, was by drawing pictures of the lab animals. I knew some people in university who took pictures of the specimens with a digital camera, but that felt like cheating.

I don’t draw on a regular basis, but I occasionally doodle things of a scientific nature, such as beakers, chemical structures and viruses. But the most detailed pictures I ever drew in my life, those I spent a lot of time to make as good as my limited art skills would allow, were for university dissections.

Take, for example, the picture of a squid below that I drew in my second year of university in a class called “Animals.” It may not be the greatest quality or even that life-like, but I was happy with the result.

The pre-dissection squid (genus Loligo)

The post-dissection squid

These types of drawings, both in review and even now six years later, I can remember various aspects of the dissection. I remember my friend accidentally punctured the ink sac in her specimen, and how I was shocked to see how spotted with pigment the mantle of the squid was.

My drawings may not be colourful or even drawn very well, but you can tell I enjoyed doing the dissections. I enjoyed it because it was my experiment, my results, and my observations.

Now, there are individuals who are anti-dissection. The proponents of this say that dissections show disrespect for the life of an animal, desensitize students to animal cruelty and is a traumatic experience for those forced to do it. Meanwhile, there are others who say that dissections are the only way to understand some abstract concepts, that it provides hand-on experience that is vital to understanding anatomy, and it can act as a potential catalyst for students to become interested and enter science careers.

I tend to fall in the positive camp, but there is one anti-dissection statement that I’m on board with: that dissections should not be mandatory, but optional. And that alternative solution should be available to everyone, but emphasis should be placed on completing physical dissections, but the computer simulations should be available if wanted.

I only used a computerized dissection in lieu of the real thing once.

Back in grade 10, one of the animals we had to dissect was a fish, which was a problem. I have an allergy to fish and can suffer from anaphylaxis if I eat it, and the smell of fish makes me nauseated.

After bringing in a doctor’s note (required by my teacher), I was excused from the physical dissection and allowed to use the “new” virtual dissection program on the class computer. It was one of the most boring and un-educational experiences in my biology career. The interface was horrible, the animation and graphics looked terrible, and after pointing out an organ, it would disappear from the screen and never re-appear.

Suffice to say, I learned nothing.

For the end of year exam, we had questions based upon the animal specimens we dissected, and I knew nothing about the perch. My memory was blank, because the dissection did not hold my attention. In fact, I had to spend a lot of time reading and re-reading the textbook and notes to understand it. But, with the earthworm and locust, I remembered the dissections vividly because I experienced it and made notes based on my observations, not those of other people.

I was disappointed I did not get the chance to dissect a fish, but with my allergy, I understood the precautions. But, I was determined that the next time I had to dissect a fish, I would find a way to do it.

My next shot would not appear until the end of the Animals course.

That course took us through all major groups of animals, and each lab was devoted to a different type of phylum. As part of the course, we got to dissect and observe a lot of different animals, from nematodes to locusts, which all culminated in the massive two-day dissection of a dogfish shark.

The spiny dogfish shark (Genus Squalus)

Knowing this was coming, I spoke to my professor and we took all types of precautions: I had a change of clothes in case anything got on me, my Epi-Pen was nearby on the odd chance I had a reaction, and I wore less absorbent gloves. The precautions might sound a bit much, but the university, my professor and I did not want to take any chances. There were other options available to me, but I did not want to take it.

The experience with the dogfish shark was incredible, as we not only explored various organs, but also the circulatory system, eyes, reproductive organs and cranial nerves. The animal stunk to high heaven, and I had to excuse myself more than once to get away from the putrid smell, but it was a great experience.

In my life thus far, I have dissected countless animals, including a few rats, snakes, lizards, lots of insects (locusts, cockroaches, etc…), a sea urchin, some puffer fish and almost 100 frogs (a few Leopard frogs, but mostly Xenopus for my thesis).

Below, you will find a selection of some of the dissection drawings I did in the animal course. I am extremely proud of the crayfish and starfish ones, as my dissections and drawings were so good they were saved and used as demonstrations for other classes.

I spoke to a lot of my friends in real life and over Twitter about the dissection debate, and there was no consensus. But no one I talked to, even those who didn’t go into science, said they despised the dissection component of their school experience. In fact, everyone said they either enjoyed the experience, or at least found it interesting

However, the debate over dissections will never go away. There will always be students who do not wish to participate and those who do. But, at least for me, the combination of hands-on experience and drawing what you see (not what you wish to see) helped cement me on my scientific career.

I could not possibly put it better than noted doctor and author Abraham Verghese on the subject of dissections in schools, “The living studying the dead. The dead instructing the living.”

Note: The topic of art in dissections came to mind when I read a recent blog post by a friend of mine, Andrea Kuszewski. She discussed how to create scientific-based art, as well as how it can be used to enhance learning. Since I will not win any awards for my art skills, far from it in fact, it was fascinating to read about the amazing learning experiences that can come up from an illustration and brought to mind the idea for this post.

Also, you can click on any of the illustrations in this post to see a high-quality version of my drawings (if you want to see that kind of thing).

The noble crayfish (Genus Cambarus)

The scorpion (Genus Centruoides) and the garden spider (Genus Argiope)

One of my proudest dissections ever performed – the starfish (Genus Asterias)

If I had the power to smite …

Well, the talks to end the bus strike have broken down yet again. It appears that for the foreseeable future, the citizens of Ottawa will have to do without public transit.

If I had the power to smite … I’d be having such a blast right about now 😉

Other than that, my life is still pretty much the same.
School. Work. TV. Sleep.
Rinse, lather and repeat.

One other thing is interesting in J-school, is that in order to get our journalism degree, the Masters students need to come up with an idea for an large news piece, either in TV, radio, print or multi-media.

I have a few ideas that I’m going to submit in a proposal this week, but here are two ideas that did NOT make the cut into the final three.

1) As anyone who knows me, you all know that I have a bizarre fascination with sharks. Therefore, I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity for me to learn more about them. Almost like my own personal “Sharkwater” documentary!

However, upon further reflection, there were 2 things wrong with this scenario.
A) Money to get to where the sharks are can be a problem
B) I have an allergy to fish!

So, that one was immediately taken off the table.

2) I thought that exploring the Great Barrier Reef’s declining biomass and biodiversity is a story that is worth being told. However, like the sharks, the monetary issues were far too large to ignore. Even with what little funding I could receive, it would be far too costly. And, also, the allergy.

Stupid fish allergy.

The three ideas that I’m going to submit for the professor’s consideration all fall under the general umbrella of biodiversity and conservation.
Who ever would have thought I’d choose topics like those, right?

Ohh, by the way, I am also applying for internships over the summer months (May to August 2009) at various scientific publications. If anyone has any ideas/hints/tricks/connections, I would be most appreciative.

And now it is time for my daily Journalistic routine of pondering about my life, feeling an increasing sense of dread and crawling up into a ball and moaning like a harp seal until it passes.