a natural history of the ocean

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When Scientists Get Accidentally Artsy

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History lies right at the intersection of art and science, showcasing the inherent beauty of skeletons — that is, fish skeletons.

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We’ve got your weekend inspiration! #DiscoverTheCoast with us in California

The California Coastal National Monument preserves important habitat for coastal plants and animals, and protects cultural sites that provide insight into the people who lived along the California coast thousands of years ago. Many of the new units of the monument are also culturally and spiritually important to local tribes.


Cotoni-Coast Dairies
in Santa Cruz County extends from the steep slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains to marine terraces overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This portion of the California Coastal National Monument encompasses ancient archaeological sites, riparian and wetland habitats, coastal prairie grasslands, and woodlands that include stands of coast redwood. Photo by Jim Pickering, BLM. 

A respite from the modern world, complete with historic architecture and abundant natural life, awaits visitors to the California coast at Piedras Blancas.

Only 40 miles north of San Luis Obispo, California, the large white coastal rocks for which Piedras Blancas was named have served as a landmark for centuries to explorers and traders along the central coast of California.

Built in 1875 as a safety aid to mariners, the light station once cast a flashing, oil-flame light 25 miles out to sea, warning ship captains to steer clear of the white rocks that would mean certain doom for a vessel.

Today, the light station, its first order lens and light structure long ago removed, casts a beacon to travelers on scenic California Highway 1. It continues to provide a navigational aid to ship traffic, as well. Photo by David Ledig, BLM.

Keep reading

Within sight of downtown Miami, Biscayne National Park in Florida protects a rare combination of aquamarine waters, emerald islands and fish-bejeweled coral reefs. There’s also evidence of 10,000 years of human history, from pirates and shipwrecks to pineapple farmers and presidents. Outdoors enthusiasts can boat, fish, snorkel, camp, watch wildlife or simply enjoy a gorgeous sunrise over the ocean. Photo courtesy of Andrew R. Slaton.

The Boy Who Launched The Vanilla Industry

Réunion, a departement of France, is a small island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar and south-west of Mauritius. The island is famous for its vanilla. Called “bourbon” after the island’s former name, the vanilla comes from orchids’ pods which are sweetly scented and ideal for perfume and food spicing. Unfortunately, this particular variety of orchid is pollinated naturally only by a small bee, Melipona. And the bee lives only in its habitat of Central America.

Réunion has the perfect climate for vanilla orchids. But when the first rooted cuttings were shipped to the island, they failed to produce pods, because they had not been pollinated. A 12-year-old enslaved boy, Edmond Albius, developed a way to pollinate each orchid by hand. Edmond’s technique made vanilla profitable to grow outside of its native Mexico, and is still used around the world, including on Réunion. Which means you need to thank a hard-working orchid pollinator every time you taste or smell real vanilla.

About 1,000 species of brightly colored nemertean worms—also called ribbon worms—inhabit the world’s oceans. One specimen reached an extraordinary length of about 177 feet (54 meters). But most are less than 10 inches (25 centimeters) long. Most nemertean (ribbon) worms are active predators. Some emit sticky toxic secretions to immobilize prey, which includes annelid (segmented) worms, mollusks, crustaceans—and other nemerteans. German zoologist Otto Bürger researched nemertean worms at a famous marine zoological station located on the waterfront in Naples, Italy. In the late 1800s, new marine laboratories in many countries opened opportunities for scientists to study ocean life at the shore. This illustration comes from his 1895 Die Nemertinen des Golfes von Neapel und der Angrenzenden Meeres-Abschnitte. 

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Steffen Dam’s Cabinets of Curiosities

Danish artist Steffen Dam’s grandfather, born in 1893, was a passionate amateur in the field of natural history.  As a child, Dam enjoyed pouring over his grandfather’s library of scientific books full of illustrations of specimens.

Today Dam, a highly skilled glass blower, uses his affinity for natural history to create his imaginatively wonderful backlit “Cabinets of Curiosities”. 

Mimicked oceanic specimens in glass cylinders seemingly containing liquid and air bubbles become optical illusions; the translucent character of the glass object in the cylinder imitates sea life. His specimens aren’t actually objects found in nature, rather a quirky re-writing of the biological world.

“I have been working with glass for 25 years. Initially I was blowing glass, but over the years casting, grinding and techniques from other crafts emerged. My aim is to describe the world as I see it. One could also say to describe what’s not tangible and understandable with our everyday senses. My cylinders contain nothing that exists in the ocean, my specimens are plausible but not from this world, my plants are only to be found in my compost heap, and my flowers are still unnamed.”


RECORD BREAKERS

Life on earth, as magnificent and versatile as it is, is seemingly tame compared to the weird and wonderful creatures that once existed. All categories of life have reached unimaginable sizes, here are just a selection of prehistoric record breakers!

MEGALODON
The biggest shark known to have existed, ruling over the oceans as recently as up to a million years ago. A length of almost 20 metres and weighing in at an estimated 48 tonnes, Megalodon could deliver a crucifying bite of up to 110,000N. It is no surprise that the Megalodon was dubbed the “whale killing shark”.

MEGATHERIUM
Our early ancestors would have been quite familiar with Megatherium as they existed up to 8000 years ago, they were in fact the largest sloths to have existed. Sloths have a reputation as being lazy, slow and docile, but Megatherium was a 6 metre long, 4 tonne monster with a killer instinct and knife-like claws. Megatherium’s discovery came before that of the dinosaurs. Skeletons of these prehistoric beasts were a delight to the Victorian public and paved the way for the science of palaeontology.

ARCHELON
Literally meaning “large turtle”, Archelon certainly was just that. Existing during the cretaceous, the time of the dinosaurs, Archelon could reach 4.5 metres long and may have lived to over 100 years old. Archelon could not compete with other cretaceous beings in speed and agility, but its blade-like beak was able to slice through flesh and crush though the toughest ammonite shells. Unfortunately Archelon appears to have been a popular snack for other marine dwellers, skeletons are frequently missing flippers or heads and covered in slashes.

TITANOBOA
When the dinosaurs reign ended, a new era saw the rise of new super-predators, one was Titanoboa, the largest snake ever with a body up to 13 metres long, standing a metre off the ground and weighing up to 2500 pounds. Titanoboa was 30% longer than even todays largest species. Scientists believe this humongous snake hunted like its modern relatives, the boa constrictors, by winding around prey and suffocating them.

IRISH ELK
Owner of the largest antlers of any animal, up to 3 metres wide, the Irish Elk gets its name from its frequent discoveries in Irish peat bogs. Existing up to 10,000 years ago, these would have been a common sight in grasslands for our ancestors. Many fossils indicate the animals died of starvation which is why the antlers are thought to have been part of elaborate mating contests between males, often resulting in one being fatally injured and unable to feed itself.

DEINOTHERIUM
A distant relative of the elephants and mammoths, Deinotherium was more sinister, its name translates to “terrible beast”, they would have most likely caused trouble for our ancient ancestors around 1.5 million years ago. Deinotherium is actually considered to be the second largest land mammal of all time, behind Paraceratherium and is iconic in appearance due to its sharp, downward facing tusks.

ARCTODUS
Known as the short faced bear, they were the biggest bears on record and one of the largest mammal carnivores to have existed. Whilst their skull was short, they were packed with piercing teeth that could deliver a bone crushing bite. Existing up to 11,000 years ago, out ancestors would have stayed well clear of this 900 kilogram predator, with slender limbs and knife-like claws, Arctodus was deadly.

SARCOSUCHUS
One of the most infamous fossil discoveries in history, Sarcosuchus was the largest crocodile to walk the Earth up to 112 million years ago, this was a crocodile capable of killing dinosaurs. Sarcosuchus was twice as long as a saltwater crocodile, that’s 11-12 metres long and could reach over 8 tonnes. Its jaw was packed full of 66 teeth either side of its jaw and would have clamped down on prey that wandered too near.

ARGENTINOSAURUS
One of the largest lifeforms that has ever stood on the Earth, Argentinosaurus could grow up to 30 metres long with its hind limbs standing 4.5 metres off the ground. They existed between 97-94 million years ago and at adulthood would have been virtually indestructible to predators. Its weight is estimated at a staggering 80-100 tonnes. There hasn’t been another land mammal on the same scale as Argentinosaurus since and it’s unlikely there ever will be.

SPINOSAURUS
The largest discovered therapod ever, a group that includes Allosaurus and Tryrannosaurus. Spinosaurus remained an enigma to scientists for decades, the only discovered specimen was sadly destroyed during World War 2 and was not rediscovered until the 21st century. Spinosaurus is thought to have reached up to 16 metres long and weighed in around 12 tonnes, that is almost double the weight of a T-rex!