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A symbiotic relationship between sunfish and… albatrosses? Say what?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Image by Keiko Sekiguchi, from Abe et al. (2012).

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Neat observations are published on animals all the time. Many are relatively mundane, or are additional records of things we already know about. But some are really fantastic and have the potential to open a whole new chapter in our understanding of behaviour, ecology and evolution. As we’ll see, even if they’re not brand new, we all benefit once these observations are brought to wider attention. Within recent weeks a really neat new paper has appeared. It’s gotten a reasonable bit of attention online already (in the blogosphere, my homeboy Ed Yong already covered it over at NERS), but I find it so fascinating that I just have to cover it myself.

Famous old photo of a big Ocean sunfish. Proof that the almighty creator smokes a lot of crack.

Sunfish are weird, and you don’t have to be a fish-fan to find them bizarre and wonderful. No tails, no swimbladders, no ribs, no pectoral or pelvic girdles, a really short vertebral column, and so on. I’ve always been amazed by the sizes they reach (over 3 m and maybe a few tons) and also by their incredible morphology – if you want a nice review of the group, see this article at Lord Geekington. Sunfish are so-named as they’re most often seen lounging at the surface, supposedly ‘sunning’ themselves after foraging in cool or cold water. You might argue that they’re convergent with an equally bizarre and fascinating group of tetrapods, the leatherback turtles.

It’s a neat new paper in the current issue of Marine Biology that’s caught my attention. It reports observations made during June 2010 when Takuzo Abe and colleagues were aboard the Hokkaido University research vessel the Oshoro Maru in the waters of the western North Pacific. Their observations are sunfish-based, but they also involve those fantastic oceanic birds, the albatrosses.

Photo by Kota Muramatsu, from Abe et al. (2012).

A school of 57 Ocean sunfish Mola mola, all aligned and heading in the same direction, were observed at the water surface, the tips of their fins breaking the water. It was noted that most sunfish in the school carried the parasitic copepod crustacean Pennella – it buries its head in the tissues of its host, and mature individuals trail a long egg string out the host’s side (Abe et al. 2012). Pennella is the biggest copepod.

It was then observed that a Laysan albatross Phoebastria immutabilis was in close association with the school. The fish seemed to follow the bird, as if they were soliciting its attention. Remarkably, the albatross was then seen to pull one of those parasitic copepods from the body of one of the sunfish. Other albatrosses were seemingly attracted by the activity, and were seen to remove parasites from other sunfish in the school. Some were Black-footed albatrosses P. nigripes. The sunfish seem to be trying hard to attract the attention of the birds: some “appeared to present themselves by swimming sideways next to birds” (p. 2), and the authors hypothesise that this is why the sunfishes were at the surface in the first place (Abe et al. 2012). One author on the paper, Keiko Sekiguchi, observed and photographed six Black-footed albatrosses pecking at an Ocean sunfish in 2005, so it seems that the same symbiotic behaviour was going on here as well. Furthermore, Abe et al. (2012) draw attention to the fact that Pennella has previously been reported as a consistent prey item of Hawaiian Black-footed albatrosses (Harrison et al. 1983) – an observation that provides additional support for this plausibly being a routine bit of behaviour.

Image by Kota Muramatsu, from Abe et al. (2012).

Yellow-billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus), photo by Lip Kee Yap, from wikipedia.

Not unreasonably, then, Abe et al. (2012) propose that a symbiotic relationship exists between sunfishes and albatrosses. Abe et al. (2012) are the first authors to photo-document this remarkable behaviour and bring it to wide attention. However, while they’ve definitely written more about this issue than anyone else ever has, they aren’t the first to document it: seabird biologists have been saying for years that albatrosses and sunfishes have some sort of symbiotic ‘cleaning’ relationship. Dayton Alverson (2008) specifically referred to it in his autobiography on life as a marine biologist. Even better, Loye Miller (1940) wrote how “A sunfish was actually seen to swim toward a pair of resting [Black-footed] albatrosses and turn on its side. However, the birds were disturbed before I could see any actual delousing take place. It does seem likely that they might act as ‘tick birds’ for the great inert molas” (p. 236) [having mentioned ‘tick birds’, I can’t, of course, move on without reminding you that oxpeckers  - the ‘tick birds’ of popular lore - are not necessarily benign, helpful little buddies than clean host mammals of their parasites. They may be vampiric quasi-parasites themselves].

Anyway, there’s a world of difference between saying “I saw this thing happening once” (cf. Miller 1940) and documenting that thing with good photos, so I don’t want to imply that I’m downplaying the significance of Abe et al.’s (2012) paper.

There’s a lot we don’t know about seabird behaviour, and these observations raise some interesting questions. If this ‘sunfish cleaning’ behaviour is a regular thing for albatrosses, do albatrosses rely on sunfishes as a regular resource, or is it an opportunistic relationship that arises by chance? If albatrosses do rely on sunfish as a resource, do albatrosses suffer when good numbers of sunfish aren’t around, and do sunfish need albatrosses to maintain good physical condition? Is the behaviour restricted to Phoebastria, or is it more widespread in albatrosses, or in tubenoses as a whole? Are any of the morphological peculiarities seen in albatrosses (like bill-tip shape) linked to specialisation for this habit? And – given that albatrosses and sunfishes have been around for more than 30 million years – how long has this relationship been at work? Do other oceanic birds behave in the same way when confronted with parasite-laden sunfish? And are sunfish ‘partner-specific’, or are they keen to get anyone to peck at their parasites?

Changing winds have been beneficial to Wandering albatrosses

Wandering albatross, photo by Elizabeth Crapo, NOAA.

While I’m here, there’s one other bit of albatross news that’s very much worth reporting. Most aspects of the global climate crisis create new problems for animal species. Increasingly, birds aren’t able to synchronise their migrations with the availability of the resources they rely on, or to maintain good plumage condition in the face of declining resources and degrading habitats. Rainforests are dying due to drought, polar and tundra habitats are disappearing, and avian diseases (botulism, West Nile virus, avian cholera and so on) seem to be on the rise as temperatures at higher elevations and latitudes become more equable. And so on. Sticking with albatrosses, most data indicates massive decline due to mortality caused both by plastic pollution and by the longline fishing industry. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources estimated that 10,000-20,000 albatrosses are killed each year in the southern Indian Ocean alone as a result of the Patagonian toothfish industry.

Photo by Eric van Poppel, from wikipedia.

However, another recent paper shows that some changing climatic conditions can be of benefit to some species. Weimerskirch et al. (2012) used decades worth of data on the foraging ranges of Wandering albatross Diomedea exulans to show that the birds have been able to exploit the increasingly strong, more poleward, westerly winds that have developed as a result of global climate change. Now, the albatrosses fly faster and move further than they did a few decades ago. The consequences are that they don’t have to spend as much time foraging to get the food they need, their breeding success has improved, and the birds themselves have increased in weight by more than 1 kg (Weimerskirch et al. 2012).

In this time of doom and gloom, it’s so nice to hear a positive story. But, alas, it seems to be a short-term thing, since “these positive effects may not last in the future” (Weimerskirch et al. 2012, p. 213). Projections are that the westerlies will continue to move poleward, with wind conditions in the region currently favourable for Wandering albatrosses degrading substantially beyond 2080.

We’ll be coming back to tubenoses, and other kinds of seabirds, at some point in the near future. For previous Tet Zoo articles on seabirds, see…

Refs – -

Abe, T., Sekiguchi, K., Onishi, H., Muramatsu, K. & Kamito, T. 2012. Observations on a school of ocean sunfish and evidence for a symbiotic cleaning association with albatrosses. Marine Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00227-011-1873-6 [free pdf]

Alverson, D. L. 2008. Race to the Sea: The Autobiography of a Marine Biologist. iUniverse (Bloomington, Indianapolis).

Harrison, C. S., Hida, T. S. & Seki, M. P. 1983. Hawaiian seabird feeding ecology. Wildlife Monographs 85, 3-71.

Miller, L. 1940. Observations on the Black-footed albatross. The Condor 42, 229-238

Weimerskirch, H., Louzao, M., de Grissac, S., & Delord, K. (2012). Changes in Wind Pattern Alter Albatross Distribution and Life-History Traits Science, 335 (6065), 211-214 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210270

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com!

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Cameron McCormick 9:19 pm 02/1/2012

    No tails

    And to cover their shame, a fake caudal fin which develops from the dorsal and anal fins. Because why not.

    Mola mola

    Or maybe Mola species B…

    it buries its head in the tissues of its host

    Which I guess could make it otherwise hard to dislodge. Molids can breach, possibly the dislodge parasites.

    Under refs you accidentally give 2011 instead of 2012 for Abe et al.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Cameron McCormick 9:36 pm 02/1/2012

    no pectoral or pelvic girdles

    They have pectoral girdles.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Dartian 1:37 am 02/2/2012

    Darren:
    Do other oceanic birds behave in the same way when confronted with parasite-laden sunfish?

    Don’t know if they quite fall under this particular definition of ‘oceanic birds’, but gulls, of course, definitely do (as anyone who’s seen Blue Planet knows).

    Link to this
  4. 4. Jerzy New 4:06 am 02/2/2012

    I think various species of seabirds picking parasites of various species of large marine animals are a normal occurence.

    Marine fish apparently have serious problem with parasite infestations, some desperate individuals try to scratch themselves on sides of large sharks…

    I wonder if pterosaurs picked parasites off plesiosaurs and mosasaurs?

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  5. 5. Jerzy New 4:12 am 02/2/2012

    Re: global warming vs albatrosses – actually there is plenty of data that warming climate will be benefical for many species. Unsurprisingly, given that biodiversity in warm climates is higher.

    It is popular science which cherry-picks only the worst cases.

    Link to this
  6. 6. naishd 4:26 am 02/2/2012

    Thanks for comments and corrections, much appreciated.

    Jerzy (comment 5): I agree that climatic warming is potentially good news for many groups of organisms. But, unfortunately, the world isn’t just getting warmer – habitats are being substantially degraded across the board and there are new problems like emerging pathogens. I’m struggling to think of any set of species that are doing well given current conditions (I’m thinking here in the short term of course, not the geological one). Which ones are you thinking of? Mosquitoes? Cholera? Arguments previously presented along these lines sound suspiciously wishy-washy and fail to cite case studies or specific examples.

    Darren

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  7. 7. Dartian 5:05 am 02/2/2012

    Darren:
    Arguments previously presented along these lines sound suspiciously wishy-washy and fail to cite case studies or specific examples.

    Erm, am I missing something? In your link to that BBC article, Russel Mittermeier is not saying that global warming in itself is good for species; he argues that global warming has forced people to become more aware about the environment and the current biodiversity crisis – and in that sense, global warming is a ‘good’ thing (which is a reasonable, if slightly cynical, viewpoint). In other words, he’s not saying the same thing that Jerzy is.

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  8. 8. naishd 5:23 am 02/2/2012

    Oh yeah, I linked to the wrong article (saw title ‘good for species’ and screwed up). Well, whatever, I’m sure you get my point: this being that it’s hard to find anyone saying specifically that any species will definitely benefit from the environmental crisis. Actually, here’s a claim that the Grey nurse shark could benefit. So long, of course, as no-one kills them all first for their fins or meat, through ocean acidification or ecosystem degradation, or through over-fishing of their prey.

    Darren

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  9. 9. naishd 5:26 am 02/2/2012

    Incidentally, for – I think – the first time ever, I’ve just made the ‘Latest Headlines on ScientificAmerican.com’ section.

    Darren

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  10. 10. Dartian 6:47 am 02/2/2012

    Darren:
    I linked to the wrong article

    Ah, I suspected it was something like that. ;)

    it’s hard to find anyone saying specifically that any species will definitely benefit from the environmental crisis

    Actually, I think there has been several studies showing that some vertebrate taxa do indeed seem to benefit from global climate change (if by ‘benefitting’ you mean increasing their numbers and/or widening their distribution) – at least in the short term. But that shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Of course some species will be more adaptable than others to changing conditions. (And – assuming that they don’t go extinct before that – at least some of the less adaptable species would eventually be able to adapt too, given sufficient evolutionary time.)

    Back to albatrosses; I notice that you’re recognising other genera of ‘white’ albatrosses than the traditional Diomedea. I know that many people are doing that now, but what was the phylogenetic rationale for that again? Did the traditional Diomedea genus turn out to be paraphyletic?

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  11. 11. MikeTaylor 8:09 am 02/2/2012

    I used to think that frogs had the stupidest skeletons of all vertebrates until I saw this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mola_mola-Skelett,_Naturhistorisches_Museum_Wien.jpg

    Link to this
  12. 12. BilBy 10:04 am 02/2/2012

    Sunfish! I saw one in the exotic location of just off the coast of the Isle of Wight. Astonishing thing. Happy memories!

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  13. 13. victorg 10:21 am 02/2/2012

    I’m struggling to think of any set of species that are doing well given current conditions (I’m thinking here in the short term of course, not the geological one). Which ones are you thinking of? Mosquitoes? Cholera?

    A lot of tetrapod species have historically benefited (and still do) from climate changes, habitat destruction (and fragmentation), predator suppression, translocations and even pollution, at least in a numeric- and area of distribution-based sense. Animals that thrive in peri-urban/anthropic environments (including those that benefit from farmland/pastures or even different fire regimes, as opposed to original vegetation and old growth), introduced species, those resistant to pollution, etc.

    Now, you (Darren) ask about “sets of species”, but Jerzy only mentioned “many species”. It’s trivial to show many (often native, even easier for invasive) species “doing well” (at least in the very short term) due to impacts that reduce overall diversity, ecosystem resilience, etc. What did you mean by “sets of species” (or perhaps by “short term” or “doing well”) that makes it hard to enumerate dozens of cases?

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  14. 14. naishd 10:25 am 02/2/2012

    Dartian (comment 10): I confess that I used Phoebastria in this instance simply because the authors did – it’s usage is not universal and some authors are sticking with the more conservative taxonomy. In their cytochrome-b based phylogeny, Nunn et al. (1996) found Diomedea of recent tradition to be paraphyletic with respect to Phoebetria (sooty albatrosses). But while mollymawks (Thalassarche) formed a clade with sooty albatrosses, N. Pacific albatrosses still grouped with great albatrosses. One option is to then use Diomedea for all members of the great albatross + N. Pacific albatross clade; another is to restrict Diomedea to great albatrosses and use Phoebastria for the N. Pacific ones (Nunn et al. 1996). A third option is to recognise Phoebastria within Diomedea, but I suppose Nunn et al. didn’t go with this because they were using the traditional idea of genera. The new ‘generic’-level taxonomy has been supported by some seabird phylogeneticists (e.g., Kennedy & Page 2002, Abbott & Double 2003, Penhallurick & Wink 2004), even if the species-level recommendations made by Robertson & Nunn (1998) haven’t been. The latter authors recommended that the Wandering albatross, for example, be split into five separate species.

    Refs – -

    Abbott, C. L. & Double, M. C. 2003. Phylogeography of shy and white-capped albatrosses inferred from mitochondrial DNA sequences: implications for population history and taxonomy. Molecular Ecology 12, 2747-2758.

    Kennedy, M. & Page, R. D. M. 2002. Seabird supertrees: combining partial estimates of procellariform phylogeny. The Auk 119, 88-108.

    Nunn, G. B., Cooper, J., Jouventin, P., Robertson, C. J. R. & Robertson, G. G. 1996. Evolutionary relationships among extant albatrosses (Procellariiformes: Diomedeidae) established from complete cytochrome-b gene sequences. The Auk 113, 784-801.

    Penhallurick, J. & Wink, M. 2004. Analysis of the taxonomy and nomenclature of the Procellariiformes based on complete nucleotide sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. Emu 104, 125-147.

    Robertson, C. J. R. & Nunn, G. B. 1998. Towards a new taxonomy for albatrosses. In Robertson, G. & Gales R. (eds) Albatross Biology and Conservation. Surrey Beatty, Chipping Norton, pp. 13-19.

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  15. 15. naishd 10:39 am 02/2/2012

    Victorg: ok, forget what I said above – yes, there are species that benefit from climatic warming. Which species do you have in mind? You see, the implication I immediately took from Jerzy’s comment (ok, perhaps very much incorrectly) is that tropical rainforest species, or coral reef species, or tropical savannah species, or whatever, are doing very nicely thank you very much, thanks to climate change, whereas they nearly always aren’t due to the problems that accompany the climate crisis (ecosystem degradation, habitat loss, drought etc.). I wasn’t thinking about suburban coyotes and raccoons, alien muntjac deer, slipper limpets and introduced ringnecked parakeets, for example.

    Darren

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  16. 16. Jerzy New 6:02 pm 02/2/2012

    Hi Darren,

    Coming to climate change – lots of plants and animals restricted to South Europe are now increasing and spreading to Central and West Europe. Well known examples among birds in Britain: little egrets, spoonbills, bee-eaters, Cetti’s and Dartford warblers… hardly suburban pests.

    Of course you can say “yeah, but humans might wipe them by other means, still” but this is shifting the topic of discussion to those other means.

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  17. 17. accipiter 6:41 pm 02/2/2012

    as said dartian, i’ve often red of sunfish beeing cleaned by variety of seabirds but rarely saw any good footage or photos of it. i had never heard of albatrosses in particular doing this; and to see 50 of them awaiting cleaning on surface together is an amazing observation!
    sunfish far from rely only on seabirds however. as a diver i can say that at least in some parts of the world they regularily visit cleaning stations on reefs that are also used by a wide range of other oceanic fishs. but it’s possible that only the sharp, hungry beak of a bird can remove copepods in particular.

    earlier this year i came across a big sunfish off san diego while our diving boat was at stop. at first i only saw a silver, shining, perfect sphere far away in the water. it is a very strange sight and definitely makes the name sunfish very fit. they are really visible from far away , i wonder if their silvery sides isn’t in part an adaptation to be spotted easily by seabirds
    not thinking of a sunfish wondered what that was for a moment until i realised it was definitely getting closer, against the waves. after 5 minutes it had arrived just 5 metres away from the back of the boat and was just staying there on his side,i can swear you it looked like he was requesting cleaning from our boat, he really went straight for stern without any hesitation or slowing down, from about 100 metres away.
    i grabbed my camera and jumped in the water with him as he was not looking shy or decided to go anywhere. i tried to enter the water as quietly as possible, sunfishs are famous for being generally very shy towards divers and snorklers. but as soon as i got in the water he swam slowly towards me, and then allowed me to come within armsreach. if i whould swim away a bit, he whould swim back to me within armsreach again, and i noticed he was maneuvering his fins to show me his flank and stay as steady and stable as possible in the waves. once agin, i could swear he was requesting cleaning. i noticed he had some tiny shrimps (no copepods) running like fleas on his head so i tried to grab them many time, but they were too fast and agile for my fingers. again, during the whole thing the sunfish was apparently trying maneuver to stay stable and close to me.
    at one point i accidentaly scratched his skin with my fingernails because of a wave, and he vommited a bit of food matter on me, apparently surprised, (or as a mean of distraction?) he then half-heartedly moved away just a tiny bit, then came back again. the boat had to leave so i left the sunfish and came back after 10 minutes of this interaction. it was a beautiful moment for me but i whould have liked to be able to actually deparasite him as it really seemed to be what he was asking me for…

    i filmed the whole thing i can put it on youtube and link it if anybody wants to see it.

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  18. 18. naishd 6:49 pm 02/2/2012

    Jerzy (comment 16) – you are totally right, I just hadn’t thought to consider species like this. Others: Cattle egret, Mediterranean gull, Greater and American flamingo, possibly Eurasian bittern, Red and Black kite.

    As you note, we should still be wary about hailing any of these cases as success stories: most of the species concerned are now doing poorly in other parts of their range.

    Darren

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  19. 19. naishd 6:55 pm 02/2/2012

    accipiter (comment 17): that’s really neat, thanks for sharing. It could suggest that sunfishes aren’t at all choosy about who does their parasite removal and simply solicit the help of any species. You might consider publishing this observation, especially if you have photographic documentation.

    Darren

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  20. 20. HowardRichards 12:08 am 02/3/2012

    There are a number of environmental problems of human origin, of which I suspect the most important are invasive species (my guess for #1) and pollution. Climate change, on the other hand, is not convincing to me — not because I don’t believe the climate is changing, but because it seems to imply that there was a long period of climatic stability before the industrial revolution. In fact we’re still adjusting to the end of the last ice age.

    We all have a tendency to think that the conditions of our own childhood are the “normal” conditions that should be expected to last practically forever. I grew up in the 1970′s and ’80′s, and everyone took for granted that the Cold War would last forever. Then again, each of us has a tendency to think that he is *so important* that surely his must be the pivotal generation of human history; hence the LEFT BEHIND series. These two tendencies taken together might explain a great deal of the hype around global warming.

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  21. 21. Dartian 3:56 am 02/3/2012

    Darren: Many thanks for the exhaustive albatross phylogeny reply!

    As for other seabirds than albatrosses cleaning sunfishes… I wonder how giant petrels Macronectes would react if a sunfish presented itself to them for cleaning? Would the giant petrels be contented with merely picking off parasitic copepods, or would those voracious beasts try to bite off chunks of flesh from the poor sunfish instead?

    You might consider publishing this observation, especially if you have photographic documentation.

    I agree; your observation definitely sounds publication-worthy, Accipiter.

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  22. 22. naishd 4:28 am 02/3/2012

    HowardRichards (comment 20): what you say underestimates the magnitude and speed of anthropogenic warming. However, the problem isn’t just global warming (even runaway warming well exceeding that which occurred during and after the Pleistocene): we have a crisis, where changing climatic conditions are often tightly linked with substantial environmental degradation. Is it possible to doubt that anthropogenic changes to oceans, wetlands, rainforests, grasslands and so on are NOT a major, global problem? Basically, I don’t think it’s at all helpful to imply that climate change can be set aside as a “separate”, not-necessarily-all-that-bad issue from ocean acidification, rainforest drought, tundra degradation, desertification of grasslands, and so on.

    Darren

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  23. 23. SRPlant 5:48 am 02/3/2012

    Accipiter’s fascinating encounter with “a perfect, shining silver sphere” is an excellent example of why some languages evoke the moon rather than the sun when describing sunfish (French; Poisson-lune. German; Mondfische. I presume there are others…)

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  24. 24. Dartian 6:11 am 02/3/2012

    SRPlant:
    French; Poisson-lune. German; Mondfische. I presume there are others…

    Italian: pesce luna; Spanish: pez luna; Dutch: maanvis; Norwegian: månefisk

    (The Danes and the Swedes, by contrast, have given this fish a rather more prosaic name: klumpfisk.)

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  25. 25. SRPlant 8:27 am 02/3/2012

    I found the following at http://wiki-fish.22web.net/Ocean_sunfish.html

    “In German, the fish is also known as Schwimmender Kopf, or “swimming head”. In Polish it is named samoglow, meaning “head alone”, because it has no true tail. The Chinese translation of its academic name is fan-che yu, meaning “toppled car fish”.”

    I don’t know what is meant by “academic name” (“Mola” is Latin for “millstone”, which makes sense).

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  26. 26. David Marjanović 8:50 am 02/3/2012

    In fact we’re still adjusting to the end of the last ice age.

    LOL! No, that recovery phase ended around 10,000 years ago. Right now we’re surpassing the temperature high of the early Holocene.

    Really, you should get out less and read more before you talk about such things.

    it seems to imply that there was a long period of climatic stability before the industrial revolution

    And indeed there was. Things like the infamous Little Ice Age were regional, not global, and happened at different times in the places where they did happen. In terms of global climate, there’s been quite remarkable stability – as apparently usual in interglacials – from the end of the recovery from the last ice age till right around now.

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  27. 27. David Marjanović 8:53 am 02/3/2012

    German; Mondfische

    That’s the plural. To get the singular, drop the -e (which isn’t silent, BTW).

    I don’t know what is meant by “academic name”

    All scientific names seem to have official Chinese versions. But I suppose that for extant species they’re identical to one of the vernacular names…

    klumpfisk

    :-D

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  28. 28. Halbred 1:29 pm 02/3/2012

    _In fact we’re still adjusting to the end of the last ice age._

    _LOL! No, that recovery phase ended around 10,000 years ago. Right now we’re surpassing the temperature high of the early Holocene._

    I’ll try to remember that next time it’s -11 F and I’m brushing and scraping my car. ;-)

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  29. 29. Kogar 4:30 pm 02/3/2012

    Darren, is now a good time to remind you “to relate the curious tale of ‘Gibsone’s nondescript’”?

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  30. 30. HowardRichards 7:29 pm 02/3/2012

    @David Marjanović

    Wrong. Very wrong. The end of the ice age is not the same thing as the end of the adjustment to the change.

    The northern continents are still rebounding from being under a mile-high ice sheet. That rebound is still affecting sea levels in Scandinavia and the shorelines of the Great Lakes. If the land itself has not settled down yet, you can bet ecosystems haven’t either.

    Or, if you prefer, we can pretend you are right, and ecosystems come to a new, stable equilibrium within one human lifetime after a major disruption. No problem, then; we’ll be in the same cheery scenario soon enough.

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  31. 31. vdinets 12:38 am 02/4/2012

    It appears that some species are still in process of slowly colonizing post-glacial landscapes. The Siberian chipmunk, for example, has been slowly advancing north and west since the earliest records of its range were made in the 17th century (well before the global warming).

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  32. 32. Jerzy New 8:30 am 02/4/2012

    @Halbred
    Yep, preaching global warming is a bit stupid in the middle of a cold spell gripping most of Europe.

    RSPB asks us to feed birds to help them survive the cold… you will see that in a few months the same RSPB will fight global warming.

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  33. 33. Heteromeles 9:43 am 02/4/2012

    I first learned about climate change back in 1989, when I had John Holdren (now at the Obama White House) teaching us a bit of climate science.

    The point he made then was that it wasn’t just about higher ocean levels and higher average temperatures. The real danger of climate change is that the extremes get more extreme. Bigger droughts,hotter hot spells, bigger winter storms, wilder swings in temperature. For all I know, jet stream wanderings will get wilder too.

    So yes, the wild weather we’re having right now could easily be due to climate change.

    It’s hard to say, because it’s harder to create a summary statistic for a system that’s inherently chaotic. Perhaps someone could calculate the fractal dimension of weather data from Europe, and see if that dimension is increasing over time?

    Link to this
  34. 34. Andreas Johansson 10:59 am 02/4/2012

    Jerzy wrote:

    Yep, preaching global warming is a bit stupid in the middle of a cold spell gripping most of Europe.

    That statement makes no sense whatsoever.

    Link to this
  35. 35. naishd 11:24 am 02/4/2012

    I’m really surprised that people can still say stuff like “If global warming is such a problem, how come, brrrr, my back yard is so cold right now, brr”. The evidence presented for global warming (and its associated problems) is vast. As for cold spells in the Northern Hemisphere – you guys do know that global warming probably drives winter cooling, right? (covered just this week in Science). Melting sea-ice and increased cloud cover = more snowfall.

    I find it amusing that people who point continually to the inherent complexity of nature/the existence of shades of grey (and not black and white) fail to appreciate how an overall anthropogenic warming trend might have complex consequences. The breaking up of sea ice, consequent increased number of ice bergs and consequent cooling of certain ocean currents is not exactly a new idea. I think there’s even a particularly bad movie about it.

    Darren

    Link to this
  36. 36. Jerzy New 12:05 pm 02/4/2012

    @Heteromeles
    “The real danger of climate change is that the extremes get more extreme. ”

    Where did you hear that? I distinctly remember that global warming was supposed to bring warm Mediterranean winters to Europe. The theory went further, that without cold winters, agricultural pests and disease-carrying bugs will not die in winter, which will create disaster for agriculture and human health.

    Link to this
  37. 37. Jerzy New 12:16 pm 02/4/2012

    @naishd
    You are duped here. Evidence for global warming is vast indeed. But evidence that it will cause more problems than good is very weak. And, unfortunately, overwhelming evidence is that policies implemented against global warming are very, very wrong.

    You are also a taxpayer and as a paleontologist, standing in a queue for government money. So better start noticing a difference between climate models and subsidies to wind turbines, carbon trading, climate bonds and derivatives etc.

    And now, this blog will be invaded by astroturfers of oil companies and astroturfers of wind energy and other subsidized technologies, which would make 500 nonsense comments as elsewhere at SciAm. :D

    Link to this
  38. 38. naishd 12:21 pm 02/4/2012

    Oh well, I guess I should stop paying attention to the technical literature, since all of it is written by people who only do research in order to get grant money. When I see comments like this, I have to conclude that the individual concerned makes a point of not looking at actual evidence. After all – they know best :) So – habitats and ecosystems worldwide are doing fine in the face of climatic change, or are even improving? Yes?

    Darren

    Link to this
  39. 39. David Marjanović 1:01 pm 02/4/2012

    The northern continents are still rebounding from being under a mile-high ice sheet. That rebound is still affecting sea levels in Scandinavia and the shorelines of the Great Lakes. If the land itself has not settled down yet, you can bet ecosystems haven’t either.

    Complete and utter non-sequitur. Almost as bad as “the moon moves the oceans, so of course it must move human moods”.

    Or, if you prefer, we can pretend you are right, and ecosystems come to a new, stable equilibrium within one human lifetime after a major disruption.

    Where on the planet do you take “one human lifetime” from?!? It did take a couple thousand years.

    It appears that some species are still in process of slowly colonizing post-glacial landscapes. The Siberian chipmunk, for example, has been slowly advancing north and west since the earliest records of its range were made in the 17th century (well before the global warming).

    Did that part of Siberia experience a Little Ice Age?

    Yep, preaching global warming is a bit stupid in the middle of a cold spell gripping most of Europe.

    Did you just seriously confuse weather and climate? Climate is the average weather over 30 years or more.

    I distinctly remember that global warming was supposed to bring warm Mediterranean winters to Europe.

    That’s exactly what we had this winter till last week!!! Where have you been?

    You are duped here. Evidence for global warming is vast indeed. But evidence that it will cause more problems than good is very weak.

    Fine, you evacuate Bangladesh.

    And, unfortunately, overwhelming evidence is that policies implemented against global warming are very, very wrong.

    Policies?

    What policies?

    A mostly symbolic meeting every 10 years?

    subsidies to wind turbines, carbon trading, climate bonds and derivatives etc.

    LOL! The really big subsidies go to coal and nuclear energy.

    Oh well, I guess I should stop paying attention to the technical literature, since all of it is written by people who only do research in order to get grant money.

    Except, of course, by people like Lindzen, Soon or Baliunas who get their grant money from oil companies and coincidentally find that global warming doesn’t exist and isn’t our fault. That never happens.

    Link to this
  40. 40. Jerzy New 1:04 pm 02/4/2012

    @naishd
    Actual evidence is that the current climate is still colder than climatic optimum in the first centuries A.D. So if anybody tells you that animal or ecosystem is suffering NOW from warming climate, ask him how the creature survived A.D. 100 or Lower Dryas climate flip?

    Link to this
  41. 41. Jerzy New 1:12 pm 02/4/2012

    @David Marjanovic
    “Fine, you evacuate Bangladesh.”

    I indeed remember people claiming sea level will rise by 6 m and flood Bangladesh. It turned that sea rise will be 1-2 m at most. Scientists swallowed it as nothing happened. Sorry, our model was wrong. Not even wrong, just we can’t take all variables. All is fine. Nothing happened.

    Now imagine how much money would be wasted had anybody actually started needlessly moving whole coastal communities inland and build hundreds of km of needless flood defences.

    This may make you think how climate models have potential to wreck lives and why public is suspicious about climate policies.

    Link to this
  42. 42. CFowler 1:59 pm 02/4/2012

    Jerzy – I don’t even follow the climate change debate, and I graduated college nearly 10 years ago, but even I know that the “everything will get warm and sunny” theory went out of the mainstream 10-15 years ago. In my general geology/biology classes, they taught, as Heteromeles mentioned, that the extremes will probably get more extreme. I have to say I don’t generally get the debate. We actually can’t know 100% what all of the long term effects will be, but I can’t see it being a waste of time and money to moderate the release of toxins and preserve as many habitats and species as is reasonable. And there’s the crux; it seems a lot of people on both sides are particularly unreasonable, either spouting wild doomsday theories that garner no support, or stubbornly refusing to admit that human activities are having a significant effect on the world’s climate, habitats, and species. Good thing there is one last bastion of rational thought, here on TetZoo. :-)

    And in an attempt to keep on topic, sunfish rock!

    Link to this
  43. 43. vdinets 8:56 pm 02/4/2012

    David: Little Ice Age had negligible effect on the Urals and Siberia. Besides, there is no evidence of chipmunks ever occurring west from Ob River before the LIA, while in East Siberia they are regularly found in archeological digs.

    Link to this
  44. 44. Heteromeles 12:31 am 02/5/2012

    @Jerzy New: The guy who taught that to me was John Holdren, back when he was at Berkeley. You can check his bio at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Holdren. Apparently both Clinton and Obama thought he was credible enough to hire him as a science advisor (so did the US Senate, amazingly enough–unanimous vote to confirm him in 2009).

    The general point is that storms disperse heat in the atmosphere, so if you heat up an atmosphere, especially over an ocean, you’re likely to get more storms. These can also be winter storms, which is what some of us are seeing now. I’m seeing a drought right now, but whatever.

    Since the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) is in part powered by differences in ocean temperatures across the Pacific, adding heat to that system might increase the effects of El Nino/La Nina oscillations. Since these oscillations tend to bring droughts and floods, we’re likely to see more of these too.

    Hope this explanation helps.

    Link to this
  45. 45. Heteromeles 9:23 am 02/5/2012

    Late edit: was it TetZoo readers who make this blog post popular?

    Link to this
  46. 46. Jerzy New 1:22 pm 02/5/2012

    @Heteromeles
    I am indeed, suprised that nobody comments there, but I suppose paid astroturfers on both sides really don’t work in weekends.

    To sum up: the biggest problem with climate is that policies put into place in Europe and Britain are very costly for society, but will not be effective. They would cost several percent of PKB, will make entire communities relying on some branches of industry jobless, but will not reduce planet-wide carbon pollution, which is generated largely by Asia and USA.
    Indeed large corporations simply relocate factories to Asia, European long-distance air traffic will be taken over by airport in the Middle East etc.

    I am not buying the logic that because much money is wasted on coal and oil subsidies, for a good measure we should waste even more on ineffective climate subsidies.

    Most sensible strategy appears to be mitigation of eventual effects, not prevention. First, it is less costly (estimated 1% of PKB in 50 years time vs 5% now), then we know precisely how situation develops. Unfortunately this doesn’t provide so clear payments for big business, who invest in wind energy, dubious carbon trading etc.

    And another, secondary topic is check and credibility of scientists. I pointed how predicitons about climate changed between years, but always were dramatic.
    Although I am a scientist myself, I cannot ignore that these models were not checked eg. for accurately modelling past climate using data from the even earlier past. And that climate scientist who makes dramatic predictions is rewarded by more grant money. And that scientists models are used as a basis for policies which cost billions, but those scientists take little personal responsibility. In climate science, unlike eg. engineering, there is no quick check for quality of models. We all believe in scientist’s reliability, but, as we all know, relying on human honesty alone is never a good thing.

    I think the latter problem, credibility of science, will become broad and general problem in the next years, as society becomes more dependent on science and technology. I will watch it with interest.

    At least, you, as paleontologists can be sure that if you make wrong models, nobody will be harmed by rampaging Tyrannosaurus. ;)

    Link to this
  47. 47. David Marjanović 1:28 pm 02/5/2012

    Actual evidence is that the current climate is still colder than climatic optimum in the first centuries A.D.

    Show us.

    I indeed remember people claiming sea level will rise by 6 m and flood Bangladesh.

    I actually don’t

    It turned that sea rise will be 1-2 m at most.

    2 m was in the latest IPCC report. Several papers have since shown that this is estimate is too low.

    If it rises 3 m in 100 years, the rest of the country will be under water every time a storm comes. It’s already bad enough now

    public is suspicious about climate policies

    Again, what policies? What is being done?

    David: Little Ice Age had negligible effect on the Urals and Siberia. Besides, there is no evidence of chipmunks ever occurring west from Ob River before the LIA, while in East Siberia they are regularly found in archeological digs.

    Thanks. Are there enough archeological data to tell when the range expansion started?

    Link to this
  48. 48. David Marjanović 1:33 pm 02/5/2012

    Although I am a scientist myself, I cannot ignore that these models were not checked eg. for accurately modelling past climate using data from the even earlier past.

    Dude, do you read the climatology literature?

    And that climate scientist who makes dramatic predictions is rewarded by more grant money.

    Right, and evilusionists who continue to suppress evidence of Intelligent Design are rewarded by more grant money.

    You’re a scientist? Then surely you’re familiar with the phrase put up or shut up.

    relying on human honesty alone is never a good thing

    Do you seriously believe hundreds of thousands of scientists worldwide are capable of sustaining a conspiracy?!?

    At least, you, as paleontologists can be sure that if you make wrong models, nobody will be harmed by rampaging Tyrannosaurus. ;)

    Then let me introduce you to paleoclimatology…

    Link to this
  49. 49. vdinets 2:10 pm 02/5/2012

    David: I’ll have to check, but I don’t think there is much. The core range was probably up to Amur River valley. The area north from it is not terribly rich in archeological record. The westward spread through Baikal region and Altai might be better documented.

    Link to this
  50. 50. Heteromeles 3:57 pm 02/5/2012

    It’s probably too late to say “don’t feed the troll,”

    Oh well. I love it when people throw out accusations of being an astroturfer. Making such accusations can be a sign that someone’s got a financial interest in whatever it is they’re saying.

    And, if my handle wasn’t clear enough, I’m a botanist, not a paleontologist. I read this blog to further my education into plant parasites and predators, and the peculiar ecosystems they support.

    Link to this
  51. 51. naishd 4:46 pm 02/5/2012

    This isn’t necessarily relevant to the discussion here, but I note a fairly consistent correlation between (a) people who seem to know what they’re talking about, and can cite studies and data that supports the compelling reality of anthropogenic climate change, and (b) people who claim to have special personal insight into the way the world works, make vague and arm-wavy claims about policies and funding sources, and typically assert that everything is rosey and that there’s nothing to be concerned about.

    After all, there’s no evidence whatsoever of a recent rise in sea level.

    Darren

    Link to this
  52. 52. David Marjanović 4:51 pm 02/5/2012

    The current cold spell is apparently caused by global warming… specifically by the fact that the Barents sea and the Kara sea are currently ice-free and heat the air above them.

    It’s probably too late to say “don’t feed the troll,”

    I come from a cyber-place where we feed the trolls till they explode. We love the sound that makes.

    Link to this
  53. 53. Dartian 4:18 am 02/6/2012

    there is no evidence of chipmunks ever occurring west from Ob River before the LIA

    That’s not quite true. Siberian chipmunk remains have been found at some mid-Holocene sites in the northern Ural Mountains (west of the Ob River). See:

    Bachura, O. & Kosintsev, P. 2007. Late Pleistocene and Holocene small- and large-mammal faunas from the Northern Urals. Quaternary International 160, 121–128.

    Link to this
  54. 54. Jerzy New 5:52 am 02/6/2012

    @David Marjanović
    “Dude, do you read the climatology literature?”
    Dude, do you read about social costs of EU carbon policy?

    @Heteromeles
    Sorry, i thought you are paleontologist, in any case I hope you understand the distiction between pure science and responding to it with practical (or impractical) policy.

    About astroturfers, I meant people (or possibly one person changing nicknames) from Observations and other SciAm blogs.

    Link to this
  55. 55. David Marjanović 8:18 am 02/6/2012

    Dude, do you read about social costs of EU carbon policy?

    Don’t change the topic. When was the last time a climate model wasn’t “checked eg. for accurately modelling past climate using data from the even earlier past”? 15 years ago?

    Link to this
  56. 56. accipiter 12:57 pm 02/6/2012

    darren on comment #19 “You might consider publishing this observation, especially if you have photographic documentation.”

    here is the video i was talking about on comment #17. sorry for delay, i was buisy those last few days.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnVeOUKdOw8

    the video is only 1 min long but the whole thing lasted 5-10 minutes. sorry for the shaky camera and extreme zoom-in on his head at one point: there was waves and i was holding my camera in one hand, trying to deparasitate him with the other… after he vommited on me at 0:55 (see comment #17), i stopped filming altogether to avoid scratching him again by accident; but as i siad he did came back after it.

    also, sorry for cross-posting with the whole global-warming “debate” :-x

    Link to this
  57. 57. accipiter 1:00 pm 02/6/2012

    dammit where does this smiley at the end of my former comment came from?! they turned the keybord-typed smiley into an image of a smiley that doesn’t have the same expression at all as what i typed. eh…? thank you for that, scientific american…?

    Link to this
  58. 58. Halbred 1:29 pm 02/6/2012

    To be clear, my snarky comment wasn’t to question global warming, but just to say, “boy if this is a warming period, I’d hate to have lived in AK during the cold period!”

    It’s been a bad winter this year. We have well over 100 inches of snow in Anchorage (twice the average) and we’ve been getting three-week cold snaps of below-zero temperatures. One wonders what motivated ancient man to live in this horrifying climate in the first place.*

    *This is a question I’ve posed to Alaska archaeologist David Yesner. He said that food was a primary motivator: if you kill a mammoth, you’re good for a long time. But at what cost? Surely there was no shortage of megafauna in warmer climates, and you didn’t have to go to the effort of staying ALIVE against the elements all the time.

    Link to this
  59. 59. vdinets 1:32 pm 02/6/2012

    Dartian: perhaps I am wrong… I’ll look it up, thanks.

    Link to this
  60. 60. llewelly 8:47 pm 02/6/2012

    This realclimate article:

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/09/how-much-will-sea-level-rise/

    is from 2008, and thus does not take into account some of the more recent findings to which David alludes. However, two paragraphs are nonetheless still quite relevant to Jerzy’s remarks:

    “Lest readers think this is no big deal, the estimates for the number of people who would be affected by 1 meter of sea level rise is more than 100 million – mainly in Asia. Of some recent relevance is the fact that the storm surge caused by Gustav in New Orleans was within 1 foot of the top of the levees. Another 3 ft caused by global sea level rise would have put a lot more water into the ‘bowl’. ”

    “There have certainly been incorrect assertions and headlines implying that 20 ft of sea level by 2100 was expected, but they are mostly based on a confusion of a transient rise with the eventual sea level rise which might take hundreds to thousands of years. And before someone gets up to say Al Gore, we’ll point out preemptively that he made no prediction for 2100 or any other timescale. The nearest thing I can find is Jim Hansen who states that “it [is] almost inconceivable that BAU climate change would not yield a sea level change of the order of meters on the century timescale”. But that is neither a specific prediction for 2100, nor necessarily one that is out of line with the Pfeffer et al’s bounds. ”

    The article itself is full of links and references to more scholarly material, but I am not willing to struggle with SciAm’s annoying commenting system long enough to figure out how to get them all in.

    Link to this
  61. 61. ekocak 9:27 pm 02/6/2012

    As for some species finding climate change/translocation/differing weather patterns advantageous; the recent discussion about introduced pythons in the Everglades came to mind. Matter of fact I have a pair of Phelsuma madagascariensis grandis in my study that were wild collected from Florida.

    Link to this
  62. 62. Joe Eaton 11:04 pm 02/6/2012

    I know this thread has drifted far from the albatross, but thought I’d add an observation from Robin Love, author of “Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast” (2nd edition, 1996): “On two occasions, I have seen sunfish come to the surface, flop on their sides and wave their exposed pectoral fins about. On both of these occasions, a sea gull paddled over and pecked at the fish for a little while. When the bird finished, it moved away and the fish turned over and went through the same motions. The gull returned and pecked for a few minutes more. Perhaps heavily parasitized fish come to the surface to elicit cleaning.”
    Also, a friend who used to be the naturalist-on-board for whale-watching trips off California recalls having seen albatrosses standing on sunfish.

    Link to this
  63. 63. Joe Eaton 11:08 pm 02/6/2012

    Re #61: sorry, that was Milton Love. Robin Love is someone else entirely.

    Link to this
  64. 64. Tarratian 4:15 am 02/20/2012

    This a well-known issue for sea-watchers and fishermen at the Basque side of the Bay of Biscay, in the Atlantic, referred to Mola mola and Larus michahellis. Sunfishes use to lie on the sea surface on one side while yellow-legged gulls deparasite them.

    Link to this
  65. 65. Hugo.costa 8:21 am 01/22/2013

    I guys,

    Check mola mola (the ocean sunfish) page here, a comprehensive catalogue of marine species to sea lovers.

    Link to this

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