ISLAND ESTATES – They’re out there — more than we know. In her presentation, “Fascinating Cephalopods,” Heather Judkins, Ph.D., shed some light on just some of the amazing marine animals that inhabit the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
An assistant professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, she spends the other half of her time doing research.
Her specialty is cephalopods, the class of marine animals that includes squid and octopuses. These eight-armed invertebrates, which are sometimes recognized for their extraordinary ability to camouflage their soft bodies, may be found in all oceans at all depths. Resembling miniature versions of their adult parents when born, they have a short life span, typically a year or two.
Life is slower in the deep sea, which the speaker defined as a depth of 2,000 to 3,000 meters, or 1.14 to 1.86 miles, as oxygen is not as plentiful. Neither is there any light, and many creatures that inhabit those depths have features of bioluminescence. Rather than just being beautiful, that ability might offer some protection, as in scaring off a potential predator.
In another species, like the tiny gelatinous octopus Japetella diaphana, it might serve to attract a potential mate.
As humans can safely scuba dive only to a depth of 200 to 300 feet, according to the biologist, other means of deep sea research have been developed. In early 2010, Judkins participated in the Sperm Whale Acoustic Prey Study, a cooperative effort of the Minerals Management Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. The NOAA ship Pisces, carrying a number of scientists, journeyed south from Mississippi to study how the endangered sperm whale is able to survive in the Gulf of Mexico, where some 1,600 of them live year-round.
Necropsy and excrement studies revealed that such whales consume extremely large quantities of squid; in fact, it may be their main prey. Dozens of species of squid and octopus get eaten by sperm whales, and it was found that larger populations of cephalopod species coincided with the presence of larger numbers of sperm whales.
Some little-known and unusual species of marine life were included in the nearly 4,000 individual animals identified in that exploration. Among them were the vividly red-colored velvet whale fish, the little strawberry squid and a pesky parasite aptly named the cookiecutter shark. Though the latter grows to only about a foot long, it feeds by attaching its mouth through suction to its victim before rotating its body to slice and extract a circular plug of flesh.
Someone in the audience shared that it was thought that Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s eldest resident dolphin, Panama, has scarring indicating such an encounter.
Another exploration in 2012 by the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer involved a new technique that employed the use of a remote-operated vehicle and a camera platform to investigate the deep-water habitat of the northern Gulf of Mexico. The team included a scientist and several technicians who searched for deep-water corals and shipwrecks, observed marine life and explored the sandy sea floor. At least 40 new species of fish were reported.
Other participating scientists were able to watch in real time and communicate from their home-based computers. Judkins confessed it was hard to tear herself away from her desk to attend to other duties at the university.
But such exploration is expensive and requires the partnering of a lot of people, she said. As only a small fraction, perhaps 5 percent, of the deep sea has been studied, there is much more to learn.
Video footage of cephalopods and other sea creatures is accessible at oceanexplorer.noaa.gov.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which rescues, rehabilitates and whenever possible releases marine animals, hosted the presentation on Sept. 19 as part of its Evenings with Experts educational speaker series. CMA board Chairman John Draheim suggested that as more is learned about the different elements in the environment, the ecosystem and how to take care of it, perhaps fewer animals will need to be rescued.
He also announced the temporary closing of the aquarium in early October to facilitate the filming of the movie “Dolphin Tale 2.” For the next two months, the speaker series presentations will be held at Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure in downtown Clearwater. Visit seewinter.com to view the schedule.