Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Visit to Binyo-Penyilam Conservation Area

Written by: Mr. CK Tham

Binyio Penyilam is a wetland reserve located along the Sebuah River. A visit was made by several members of the Sarawak Natural Science Society on the 20th and 21st December 2008 to the area on the Society’s first expedition.

Day One
To make this trip, we had to travel upriver from Bintulu along the Sebauh River. Arrangements were made to meet at the Bintulu Waterfront Jetty at 9.30am. A group of twelve was supposed to join the visit. A few of us early birds gathered at a kopitiam to have breakfast. After breakfast we waited at the jetty for the others to turn up. We watched large numbers of swiftlets and swallows circling above us; busy scooping up insects for their morning feast. To our inexperienced eyes, it was not easy to distinguish swiftlets from swallows. Oh, with old age my eyesight is failing. Nearby, in the top floor of the shop lots, swiftlets were being domesticated for their valuable edible nests.
Across the river, there were rows and rows of kampung houses on stilts; houses painted yellow, green, white, orange etc. I had never realised they were so colourful. I quickly took a few shots with my camera. Despite passing by here many, many times, I had not noticed the beauty of these river houses. The time spent waiting was not wasted after all.

Finally, all had arrived after 9.30am. Two speed boats had been arranged. We quickly loaded our backpacks, food, drinking water, fishing gears, net and field gears for insect catching, not forgetting the crates of Tigers , of course.
This is my first time traveling up the Sebauh River. It had been raining for the past few days and the water level was high and the current swift. Floating debris in the river came rushing downstream. This didn't seem to worry our boatmen at all. I was pondering if we needed to have our lifejackets on, just in case. Soon we were passing the Kemena Industrial Area. We could see heaps and heaps of timber logs piled up high, close to the river edge. Sawmills and plywood factories had slowed down due to the economic downturn. These logs, especially the smaller one are going to rot away if left lying in the sun and rain. How much of the forest had been destroyed to lay these logs to waste.
As we travel to Ulu Sebauh, we see more logs piled up along the river edge. More mills had shutdown. Workers had left for their early X'mas and New Year holiday; not knowing when work will start again.

The boats sped by Sebauh Township. In the river, there stood a Taoist temple. What an odd location to have a place of worship. Maybe the local folks want to remind the river god to control the water level. If the water level rose too high, the house of worship would also become submerged.

Two hours upriver, we finally reached RH Joseph. We stopped by to pay the tuai rumah, Encik Joseph a courtesy call as he is the headman of the area. We were invited into the long house. Like most longhouses in Sarawak, not many occupants were around having found work in towns; most will come back for X'mas I guess. As we sat down, welcome drink was served. Soon, I see Lim GM, a student from UPM was getting red in his face. The alcohol must have gotten to his head fast.

Welcome drink at Rumah Joseph

Lonely occupant of longhouse

I didn't drink, scared of getting drunk. I get drunk easily. In my earlier days in Sarawak, I learned a hard lesson during one of my previous trip up river. Not knowing the potency of the welcome drink, I innocently bottomed up the glass. Later, as I was boarding the longboat, I felt dizzy and lost my balance. And the next thing I knew, I was in the chilly river water. Someone quickly grasped me before the crocodiles did.

For the night, we were to stay at the conservation project field centre. This was only a few minutes upstream from RH Joseph along the Sg Penyilam. We had to transfer into longboats as the stream was too narrow and shallow for the speedboats. The newly built field centre is a single storied house located on a small hillock; just high enough above the flood level. There are 4 bedrooms adequate for 16 persons or more. A small petrol generator provides the power that we need at night. It is sited right in the wetland area so there is no shortage of water. Though the surrounding water is brownish colour, it is actually quite clean. If you are game enough, one can make a good cup of tea from the peat water; rich in lignin as in ordinary tea.
A quick survey was made of the surrounding compound. This hillock being slightly higher than the surrounding wetland had been used as a farm by the local folks. But this had since been abandoned. Rubber trees possibly twenty years old and nangka trees were abundant in the compound.
High up in one of the trees, a nesting place 3-4 feet across; consisting of branches and twigs was spotted. With my experience in Sabah at the back of my mind, my immediate response was "orang utan nest". My excitement was dashed when Joanes Ungga our team leader explained that bears are common here. To avoid the flood, bears had learnt to build their sleeping places high up in the trees. Upon closer inspection, paw marks were observed deeply scratched into the tree trunk. Smart adaptation.
The surrounding ground was bouncy to walk on. The thick leaf litters had accumulated into a thick carpet. Though the soil is very acidic and low in nutrient, vegetation growth is tremendous thanks to the abundant amount of water. Standing trees produced a thick layer of roots near the surface to catch whatever nutrient available. Epiphytes such as Asplenium ferns, orchids, etc. growing on tree trunk catch falling leaves. With the help of microbes, the debris is converted to plant nutrient for the epiphytes. Without human disturbance, such situation can sustain a very complex bio-diversity.
Later in the afternoon, we took a boat ride up one of the small streams. We followed the stream meandering through thickets of Pandanus. Oriental darters, black hornbills, black bellied malhokas were startled by the noise of the boat engine. Several species of orchids belonging to Dendrobium, Coelogyne, Bulbophyllum, Trixspermum, Eria etc grew in abundance with other epiphytes like Hoya and Aescynanthus.

Dendrobium spp

As we traveled upstream, the passage amongst the pandanus became narrower; we had to duck our heads to avoid being hit by overhanging branches. Finally, we decide to lie on our back in the longboat; looking at the sky as the day passes by. What a relaxing day. Epiphytes collecting debris

We stopped under some overhanging trees for tuai rumah Joseph to inspect his fish net. This he had set the night before. As he pulled in the net, we could see he had trapped several species of barbs and catfishes.
We headed home after this. On the way, we met the other group that had gone out fishing in another boat. They were not so lucky with their fishing rods. For their contribution to dinner, they were looking for ants. Yes, ants. The red kerangga species. They harvested a few nest full of them, despite being bitten by the fiery ants.
For dinner, we had barbecued freshwater fish and I found the ant wasn't so bad after all; rich in protein anyway.
As night gets dark, the crickets and frogs started to sing. The rain came down and we could not go out to see the luminescent mushroom which we had spotted earlier.
Moths, beetles and other insects were attracted to the light in the veranda and Lim GM was busy with his net and collecting bottles. These were easier to catch than the termites that he used to study; definitely more colorful.
Despite the rain, the night was stuffy and humid. I could not sleep. Tossing and turning, thinking of how to collect the beautiful dendrobium without Joanes knowing.

Day Two
Early in the morning, we were wakened by the call of the Hill Mynas.; loud and crisp through the morning air.
Joanes promised today we get to see more interesting vegetation. But be ready to get wet. We took off by four longboats; meandering through thicker pandanus thickets. “Watch out for overhanging branches”, the boatman shouted. The pandanus were in bloom; yellow flowers arising from the apex and insects attracted to the scented inflorescence. Dr Daisy caught a glimpse of the violet Papilionanthe hookeria, which was rather rare amongst the pandanus. I remind myself that we must stop to catch a closer look on the way back.
Dragonflies flew over our head as we rode into an open area. Blue ones, brown ones, red ones, damsel or dragonflies. They flew so fast that my eyes went blur. I reminded myself to sit still before I lose my balance.
At last, we reached an old camp site. There were more trees and more orchids and other epiphytes. Over the years, the accumulation of plant materials and debris brought down by the river had built up sufficient medium for the trees to grow on. As we moved further inland, we approached a depression that had formed an inland swamp. The vegetation changed. There were plants with pneumatophores; roots with prominent lenticels protruding into the air. We could see Nepenthes gracilis amongst the roots of the trees. The flowing water was brackish. The water was knee deep. The ground was muddy and sticky. But foot walks made of jungle rollers had be laid along the trail for easy movement. But today walking was not going to be easy. The rising water level had submerged the trail. The water was half a meter deep and brackish. We groped our way gently amongst the pneumatophores. It seems endless. Be careful, hang on to low branches to keep the balance. There are no crocodiles here. But you don't want to loose your camera in the brackish water.
Walking through brackish water

At last, we saw some palms nearby. We were on higher ground. R ed stems started to appear everywhere; beautiful Cyrtostachys lakka. More palms caught our eyes as we looked around. Eugenssonia with stilt roots; Pinanga with cluster of scent flowers and orangey fruit; Salacca with 3 inch thorns; Licuala with typical palmate leaves; Dendrocalamus rattan climbing up trees. There were more and many more palms.
Red Palm Cyrtostachys lakka
As we moved forward, we came across the odd Dacrydium tree. And then we came into an open area and felt water again with our feet. Pitcher plants can be seen everywhere. Nepenthes gracilis with reddish pitchers; Nepenthes rafflesia with bulky lower pitches and long slender upper pitchers. Ant plants were common amongst the taller trees. Having satisfied ourselves with the photo session, we proceeded to go back. Nepenthes rafflesia

Termite nest
Joanes showed us a tall tree which had been badly mauled a few feet off the ground. Sign of bears again. This one was probably digging into the tree trunk looking for the stingless bee hive. Bear loves honey.
We moved through the submerged walking boards again; this time nobody fell into the water.
We stopped at a tree next to the jetty. Looking up there was this large clump of Trichostia orchid in flowers. From a distance, they could be mistaken for miniature Dimophochis.
We hopped into the long boats and headed towards the camp.

Dr Daisy, where's the Papilionanthe hookeriana you saw earlier?
I can't remember; the pandanus are all the same. There is no landmark.
No, no. It was around here. Keep looking.
At last, we saw the violet flowers overhanging the pandanus. Quickly, took some photos and off we went.
Papilionanthe hookeriana amongst the pandanus

We went meandering through the thickets of pandanus again. Watch your heads.
The boatman took a corner too fast, lost control and smashed into the pandanus.
I never realised the pandanus leaves were so thorny until I was propelled against a clump and having my hands badly cut.

Soon, the boatman straightened up and we were on our way again.
Back at camp, the river water was fresh and cool. Jerry, Daisy and Ivy couldn't resist the temptation to take a dive off the jetty. Oh how refreshing.

Lunch was ready. But last night, we had devoured the fish we caught and we had to eat sardine for lunch.

It was time to go home. The speedboats that brought us here were waiting. We left without collecting the Dendrobium.
Traveling downstream was faster. It only took us 1 and a 1/2 hour to get to Bintulu.

We said goodbye and hope to see each other again on another trip.
I hope by then, Lim GM is more dexterous with his insect net and catches more dragonflies. To think of it, he needs a bigger net.
I look forward to hear from Dr Bong that he had identified the microbes that attack his termites.
Next trip, I hope there will be more dendrobium to collect.

Though during the trip, we didn't see large mammals. But we are glad to know of their existence. The deer had left droppings and foot prints amongst the pepper plants; the honey bears prominently left his paw marks up the tree and strangely built his nest several meter high in the air; the wild boar had been scavenging under the rubber trees eating up all the fallen seeds and uprooting the farmers' tapioca roots.

Monday, December 22, 2008

NSSB visit to Binyo Penyilam Conservation Area

This is my post for the recent trip to Binyo Penyilam Conservation area.

Binyo Penyilam Conservation area

The boat ride from Bintulu to Rh. Joseph by speedboat.

Arrived at Rh. Joseph and received a warm welcome from the Tuai Rumah himself followed by a special welcoming drink the “Tuak”.

Leaving the longhouse and ready to go to Binyo Penyilam Field Station

After a good meal, went on to the next program that afternoon for a boat ride along Sungai Penyilam

Among the orchids flowering Dendrobium sp

The rare Dendrobium kenepaiense found flowering. First record for Malaysia.

The next day we went upriver through Sungai Penyilam. Sitting on the boat cruising through the black water to Pengkalan Resam

Once at Pengkalan Resam, we began our walk through a swamp

Back to basic of walking? Balancing themselves on small poles laid down under the water

Boots filled with water!

Some interesting fungi along the trail

A tree trunk damaged by sun bear in order to get the honey from the stingless bees inside

Then we reached the Padang vegetation.

Nepenthes rafflesiana var elongate that we observe in the area

An inflorescence of Nepenthes rafflesiana var rafflesiana

A small tree of gymnosperm probably a Dacrydium sp

The ants collecting nectar on the picture plant

Nepenthes rafflesiana var rafflesiana

And lastly..a group photo at the small lake inside the Padang vegetation

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year 2009!

Just want to wish everyone Merry Christmas & Happy New Year 2009! May all of you be bless richfully for this coming of Christ birth celebration.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New Population of Extremely Rare Snub-Nosed Monkey Discovered

ScienceDaily (Dec. 5, 2008) — A new population of the extremely rare Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, so-called because of its unusual and distinctive up-turned nose, has recently been discovered in a remote forested area of northern Vietnam. The exciting finding made by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) provides new hope for the monkey's future.
Believed to be extinct until the late 1980s, only around 200 Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys (scientific name: Rhinopithecus avunculus) are left in the world. As a result, the primate is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. Unique to Vietnam, the species is now known to be present in just two of Vietnam's northern-most provinces - Tuyen Quang and Ha Giang.Villagers reported sightingsThe new finding came about after FFI set out to discover whether any more populations of the rare monkeys existed. While interviewing communities near the Chinese border last year, it emerged that villagers in the Tung Vai Commune had sighted the strange looking monkeys after seeing rare film footage of them that FFI had supplied to a national television network.On the strength of these reports, in April 2008 an FFI-led team of biologists managed to observe 15-20 individuals in the nearby forest, including three infants - an encouraging sign, indicating that this is a breeding population. The monkeys were located in a small forest patch in Quan Ba District, Ha Giang Province, near the Chinese border. While observing this group, the biologists noted that the monkeys were very sensitive to the presence of people, giving warning signs to one another and fleeing the area whenever the team approached. It was apparent that the monkeys associated humans with danger - perhaps due to ongoing threats from hunters.Excitingly, local reports indicate that another - possibly larger - group also exists. During the work, FFI's team managed to take a photo of one member of the new population - capturing a fleeting glimpse of an adult male scampering through the trees. This is the only photographic evidence of Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Quan Ba District.Future hope for the speciesThis new population provides hope for the future of this species, as the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey is now known to survive in no more than five locations in Vietnam, and at some locations the populations are probably in decline. Habitat loss and hunting for the bush meat and traditional medicine trades have been pushing the species to the brink of extinction. At this new location, cardamom plantations and logging for the Chinese timber market are clearing the few forest refuges left for this unique primate and it looks as though FFI has arrived in the nick of time to drum up the local and international support necessary to protect it.With urgent funds provided by Twycross Zoo in the UK, the first significant steps have been taken to protect this population and FFI has brought together a range of stakeholders, from provincial officials to village heads, to plan the way forward. Added to the mix is support from the Swiss development charity Caritas, which is working alongside FFI in the same district. They are now planning to provide support to the poor rural communities living next to the monkey's forest, to improve local livelihoods and reduce human pressures on the forest ecosystem, thereby increasing the monkey's chance of survival. Already, cardamom production has stopped expanding in the forest and there has been a government programme to confiscate hunting guns.'All recent indications suggest that we have a fantastic opportunity to secure this population and significantly increase the chances for the survival of this species', said Paul Insua-Cao, FFI's Vietnam Primate Programme Manager. 'Most significant is all the excitement this has generated locally and the support that is coming from the local Vietnamese government agencies and Caritas Switzerland . With almost half the world's primate species under threat from extinction, we must do everything we can.'In 2002, FFI and its partners discovered the largest known population of Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Khau Ca forest, Ha Giang Province. With an estimated 70 individuals, and the only population not in decline, this group is now considered the most important for the survival of the species. FFI began working to conserve this group immediately upon finding it and continues to support forest patrols and conduct ecological research, while this year supporting the establishment of a protected area at Khau Ca forest.Conservation biologist Le Khac Quyet, has made a name for himself as one of the few people in the world who can claim to be an expert on this mysterious species and, while working for FFI, is credited with discovering both the new population and the one in Khau Ca in 2002. It is fitting that he should have the last word:'When I saw the Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys in Tung Vai Commune I was overjoyed. This new discovery further underlines the importance of learning more about the Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys' range and distribution. There is still time to save this unique species, but with just 200 or so left and threats still strong, we need to act now.

Rolling "Sea Grape" Rocks the Fossil Record

(Dec. 4, 2008) — A submarine expedition that went looking for visually flashy sea creatures instead found a drab, mud-covered blob that may turn out to be truly spectacular indeed.
See also: Plants & AnimalsMarine Biology Fish Soil Types Science & SocietyOcean Policy Transportation Issues Resource Shortage ReferenceMicroorganism Paleozoic Animal Symmetry (biology) The grape-like animal, tentatively named the Bahamian Gromia, is actually a single-celled organism, fully one inch long. But what makes it really fantastic is that it moves -- very slowly -- by rolling itself along the ocean floor."At first, we assumed they were snails, because they had trails," said Sönke Johnsen, an associate professor of biology at Duke University. But after sucking up a few with the tools aboard the NOAA research submarine Johnson-Sea-Link and having a look, they figured the soft, nondescript blobs were simply some kind of elaborate poop. "We called them doo-doo balls," Johnsen said."We watched the video over and over," Johnsen said. The trails couldn't be the result of currents because they went in several directions at the same spot, and sometimes they even changed course. And they weren't the result of rolling downhill. In fact, one trail was found that went down into a small depression and came back up the other side."We argued about it forever," Johnsen said. "These things can't possibly be moving!" But they are, at a rate too slow to be captured on the sub's video. Johnsen guesses they move maybe an inch a day or less.The distinctive trail that the Gromias leave is identical to mud tracks found in the fossil record, which throws a big wrench into one long-standing argument in biology. The fossil tracks pre-date the so-called "Cambrian explosion" 530 million years ago, which was a blossoming of multicellular life and complex body plans from what had previously just been simple, blobby life forms. Many paleontologists and evolutionary biologists have argued that such a trail couldn't possibly have been made by a simple organism, meaning complex body plans were around before the Cambrian explosion. But the Gromia show that simple blobs can indeed move and make tracks in the light, silty bottom.We're confident that drawing attention to these bizarre mega-protists will provide a powerful new spin to the debate," said biologist Mikhail Matz of the University of Texas at Austin, who is first author on the paper in Current Biology. Matz worked out the genetics of the new creature and found it's a giant amoeba closely related to similar blobs found in the Gulf of Oman, near Antarctica, off Guam, and in the Mediterranean. None of them are known to move.The surface of the cell is covered with tiny ports. Its interior is just a fluid; the important working parts of the cell are all near the surface. Think of the working cell as a very thick balloon, Johnsen said.These sea grapes are almost neutrally buoyant, so they barely rest on the ocean floor 800 meters down. It's possible, Johnsen said, that they're sort of eating and rolling at the same time, pulling new sediment in on one side, and pushing "pseudo feces" out on the other, leaving the distinctive trail.What "eating" they do is pretty rudimentary, he added. If they're like other large amoebas, they're really just relying on resident bacteria to ferment their food for them and living off the byproducts. Unfortunately, the Gromia are too fragile to study in captivity.Johnsen also couldn't guess how the critters reproduce. "They obviously do, because there sure were a lot of them," he said. They all appeared to be about the same size however, so it wasn't obvious if there were any young Gromia.The Gromia were found on a relatively sterile area of sea bottom on the eastern side of the Bahamas, near Little San Salvador Island, where the current is extremely slow. "It's actually kind of a spooky habitat," Johnsen said. The expedition made a series of dives on the area in August 2007, with support from NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Johnsen was chief scientist on the expedition.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Alien-like Squid with "Elbows" Filmed at Drilling Site

Kelly Hearnfor National Geographic News
November 24, 2008
A mile and a half (two and a half kilometers) underwater, a remote control submersible's camera has captured an eerie surprise: an alien-like, long-armed, and—strangest of all—"elbowed" Magnapinna squid. (See photos of Magnapinna.)

See Video at:

PHOTOS: Colossal Squid Revealed in First In-Depth Look (April 30, 2008)
PHOTO: Giant Squid Captured, Filmed for First Time (December 22, 2006)
VIDEO: Giant Squid Dissected in Public (July 21, 2008)
In a brief video from the dive recently obtained by National Geographic News, one of the rarely seen squid loiters above the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico on November 11, 2007.
The clip—from a Shell oil company ROV (remotely operated vehicle)—arrived after a long, circuitous trip through oil-industry in-boxes and other email accounts.
"Perdido ROV Visitor, What Is It?" the email's subject line read—Perdido being the name of a Shell-owned drilling site. Located about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Houston, Texas (Gulf of Mexico map), Perdido is one of the world's deepest oil and gas developments.
The video clip shows the screen of the ROV's guidance monitor framed with pulsing inputs of time and positioning data.
In a few seconds of jerky camerawork, the squid appears with its huge fins waving like elephant ears and its remarkable arms and tentacles trailing from elbow-like appendages.
Despite the squid's apparent unflappability on camera, Magnapinna, or "big fin," squid remain largely a mystery to science.
ROVs have filmed Magnapinna squid a dozen or so times in the Gulf and the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
The recent video marks the first sighting of a Magnapinna at an oil development, though experts don't think the squid's presence there has any special scientific significance.
But the video is evidence of how, as oil- and gas-industry ROVs dive deeper and stay down longer, they are yielding valuable footage of deep-sea animals.
Some marine biologists have even formed formal partnerships with oil companies, allowing scientists to share camera time on the corporate ROVs—though critics worry about possible conflicts of interest.

The Perdido squid may look like a science fiction movie monster, but it's no special effect, according to squid biologist Michael Vecchione of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who is based at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
In 1998 Vecchoine and University of Hawaii biologist Richard Young became the first to document a Magnapinna, based on juveniles of the Magnapinna pacifica species. M. pacifica was so unusual that the scientists had to create a new classification category to accommodate it: the family Magnapinnidae, which currently boasts four species.
In 2001 the pair released the first scientific report based on adult Magnapinna specimens, as seen via video. The study demonstrated that Magnapinna are common worldwide in the permanently dark zone of the ocean below about 4,000 feet (1,219 meters).
(See "'Weird' New Squid Species Discovered in Deep Sea" [December 20, 2001].)
In 2006 a single damaged specimen from the North Atlantic led to the naming of a second Magnapinna species, M. talismani. And in 2007 the scientists documented two more: M. atlantica and a species based on a specimen from the mid-Atlantic.
That fourth Magnapinna species remains nameless, because its arms were too badly damaged for a full study. "However, it was clearly different from the three known species," Vecchione said.
The Magnapinna species apparently have only slight physical differences, mainly related to tentacle and arm structure in juveniles.
The subtlety of those variations makes it impossible to identify which species is in the oil-rig video, given that at least two Magnapinna species—M. atlantica and M. pacifica—are known to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, Vecchione said.
Enduring Mystery
Based on analysis of videos not unlike the one captured at the Perdido site, scientists know that the adult Magnapinna observed to date range from 5 to 23 feet (1.5 to 7 meters) long, Vecchione said. By contrast, the largest known giant squid measured about 16 meters (52 feet) long.
And whereas giant squid and other cephalopods have eight short arms and two long tentacles, Magnapinna has ten indistinguishable appendages that all appear to be the same length.
"The most peculiar structure is that of the arms," said deep-sea biologist Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.
Referring to the way the tentacles hang down from elbow-like kinks, Robison said: "Judging from that structure, we think the animal feeds by dragging its arms and the ends of its tentacles along the seafloor as it drifts slowly above it."
The elbow-like angles allow the tentacles to spread out, perhaps preventing them from getting tangled.
"Imagine spreading the fingers of a hand and dragging the fingertips along the top of a table to grab bits of food," he added.
But NOAA's Vecchione suggests a feeding behavior that is more like trapping than hunting. He speculates that Magnapinna passively waits for prey to bump into the sticky appendages.
Strange Bedfellows?
As oil companies and their ROVs spend more time in the bathypelagic zone, more discoveries are sure to follow, experts say.
Eager for hard-to-come-by deep-sea video and data, some biologists are formally aligning themselves with the companies.
The U.K.-based SERPENT (Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership using Existing iNdustrial Technology) project, for example, matches oil companies with researchers "to make cutting-edge ROV technology and data more accessible to the world's science community," according to the project's Web site.
Despite such partnerships, Monterey Bay's Robison said, most sightings of the Magnapinna squid have come from research vessels, not oil companies. The November 2007 video, for the record, was captured without scientific involvement.
Some scientists, including Robison, are not entirely comfortable relying on corporations for new data.
Andrew Shepard, director of NOAA's Undersea Research Center, is excited about the potential for new ocean resources, but he does have concerns.
"Oil companies are there to develop hydrocarbons, not find new species," Shepard said.
"These discoveries may, in fact, have a negative impact on very expensive and valuable lease tracts if someone decides a rare species needs to be protected."
But given how expensive and time consuming ROV-based deep-sea research is, scientific cooperation with industry is crucial, SERPENT project oceanographer Mark Benfield said.
"There are relatively few research vessels and far fewer ROVs and manned submersibles capable of working down through [extremely deep regions of the ocean]," said Benfield, who teaches at Louisiana State University.
Research funds are getting scarcer, he added, and "with SERPENT we gain access to sophisticated ROVs for free.
"These systems are based on vessels or rigs that spend months to years at a single location. This allows us to build up a much more complete picture of life in the deep-sea than would be possible with [only] academic ships and deep-submergence vehicles."
NOAA's Vecchione said he has "gotten a lot of interesting observations from the SERPENT project and other petro sources."
But the oil-industry collaborations "should not get in the way of purely scientific exploration," Vecchione said. "We need to be careful about deep-sea conservation."
National Geographic Digital Media researcher Liz Cosby contributed to this report.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Solar Powered Sea-slugs Live Like Plants

ScienceDaily (Dec. 3, 2008) — The lowly sea slug, “Elysia chlorotica,” may not seem like the most exciting of creatures, but don’t be fooled: it behaves like a plant and is solar-powered, says a Texas A&M University biologist who has been studying these tiny creatures for the past decade and, along with collaborators from several universities, has identified a possible cause of their ability to behave like plants.

Biology professor James Manhart is a member of a research group that believes they have identified some of the secrets of the sea slug and its curious plant-like behavior.

Manhart says plants can be compared to solar-powered machines—their cells contain tiny organelles called plastids that trap sunlight and convert it into energy by a process known as photosynthesis. Animals, on the other hand, depend on plants or other animals for their energy needs.

The sea slug, however, works a little differently. Its main food source is a specific type of alga. “It makes a cut in the alga, sucks out the cytoplasm [the material inside the alga] and digests most of it,” explains Manhart.

But there’s a twist—it retains the plastids that trap the solar energy.

These plastids remain in the slug, continue to photosynthesize and provide food for the slug. In effect, the creature becomes a solar-powered slug and is able to make its own food like plants do.

“Photosynthesis needs around 2,000 to 3,000 genes, and animals do not have many of the critical genes,” says Manhart. So Manhart and his co-workers looked into how the plastids consumed by the slug can continue photosynthesizing.

“We found that the slug has at least one gene required for photosynthesis in its nuclear genome, which has never been found in any animal,” says Manhart. “The critical thing is the plastids come from the alga, but the slug nucleus contains at least one, and probably more of the genes required for plastid functioning,” he adds.

“The slug needs the alga to mature and complete its life cycle,” Manhart says. “It is totally dependent on the alga to survive. Once the slug has acquired a sufficient amount of plastids it can survive, like plants, for at least nine months by trapping solar energy and converting it into food.”

That means the “baby” slugs are born with genes that support photosynthesis, but they have to gather their own plastids. Manhart says that if the slug and the alga both brave the ever-changing climatic conditions, the slug might evolve into a truly photosynthetic animal—that is, one born with the plastids. But that might be looking too far into the future. For now, he says, the next step would be sequencing the slug’s genome.

These research findings have been published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Farming and Chemical Warfare: A day In The Life of an Ant

ScienceDaily (Nov. 30, 2008) — One of the most important developments in human civilisation was the practice of sustainable agriculture. But we were not the first - ants have been doing it for over 50 million years. Just as farming helped humans become a dominant species, it has also helped leaf-cutter ants become dominant herbivores, and one of the most successful social insects in nature.According to an article in the November issue of Microbiology Today, leaf-cutter ants have developed a system to try and keep their gardens pest-free; an impressive feat which has evaded even human agriculturalists.Leaf-cutter ants put their freshly-cut leaves in gardens where they grow a special fungus that they eat. New material is continuously incorporated into the gardens to grow the fungus and old material is removed by the ants and placed in special refuse dumps away from the colony. The ants have also adopted the practice of weeding. When a microbial pest is detected by worker ants, there is an immediate flurry of activity as ants begin to comb through the garden. When they find the pathogenic 'weeds', the ants pull them out and discard them into their refuse dumps."Since the ant gardens are maintained in soil chambers, they are routinely exposed to a number of potential pathogens that could infect and overtake a garden. In fact, many of the ant colonies do become overgrown by fungal pathogens, often killing the colony," said Professor Cameron Currie from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. "Scientists have shown that a specialized microfungal pathogen attacks the gardens of the fungus-growing ants. These fungi directly attack and kill the crop fungus, and can overrun the garden in a similar fashion to the way weeds and pests can ruin human gardens."A curious observation was that some worker ants had a white wax-like substance across their bodies. When they looked at it under a microscope scientists discovered that this covering was not a wax, but a bacterium! These bacteria are part of the group actinobacteria, which produce over 80% of the antibiotics used by humans. The bacteria produce antifungal compounds that stop the microfungal pathogen from attacking the garden. This discovery was the first clearly demonstrated example of an animal, other than humans, that uses bacteria to produce antibiotics to deal with pathogens."Research in our laboratory has revealed a number of interesting properties between the bacteria and the pathogenic fungus. The bacteria appear to be specially suited to inhibiting the pathogenic fungi that infect the ants' fungus garden," said Professor Currie.The interaction between the ants and their fungus crop, and the ants and the bacteria is known as a mutualistic relationship. In general a mutualism is established when both members of the interaction benefit from the relationship. In the ant–fungus mutualism, the ants get food from the fungus. This mutualism is so tight that if the fungus is lost, the entire colony may die. In return, the fungus receives a continuous supply of growing material, protection from the environment, and protection from disease-causing pests.So what do the bacteria get out of producing pesticides for the ants? "For starters, they get food. Many species of fungus-growing ants have evolved special crypts on their bodies where the bacteria live and grow. Scientists believe that the ants feed the bacteria through glands connected to these crypts," said Dr Garret Suen, a post-doctoral fellow in Professor Currie's lab. "Also, the bacteria get a protected environment in which to grow, away from the intense competition they would face if they lived in other environments such as the soil.""Interestingly, the tight association between ant, bacteria and pathogen will sometimes result in the pathogen winning. This interplay has been described as a chemical 'arms race' between the bacteria and fungus, with one side beating the other as new compounds are evolved," said Professor Currie. "At the moment, we are beginning to understand the chemical warfare at the genetic level, and it is likely that these types of interactions are more prevalent in nature than previously thought."So how exactly does an ant go about forming partnerships with a fungus and a bacterium? No one really knows. With new advances in molecular and genetic technologies, such as whole-genome sequencing, Professor Currie and Dr Suen hope to discover how these associations were established, and to understand how these interactions resulted in the remarkable fungus-growing ability of the ants.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Natural Science Lecture "Mushrooms Cultivation"

Natural Science Lecture Series

Lecture Title: "Mushrooms Cultivation"

Speaker: Miss Wong Ling Chie

Date: 13th December 2008 (Saturday)

Time: 2-4 pm

Venue: New World Suite 3, Level 5, Park City Mall, Bintulu.

Speaker Profile:

Miss Wong Ling Chie is a graduate student at the University Putra Malaysia. She took her Bachelor of Science in Bio-Industry degree at the same university where she did research and wrote her thesis on the growth performance and quantification of beta-glucan for different species of Ganoderma, commonly know as Lingzhi or Reishi. Ganoderma species are well known to contain various bioactive compounds capable of curing diseases and improving health conditions, some possessing anti-tumours properties. This lecture will cover methods of cultivating Ganoderma species which is also widely used to cultivate other types of mushrooms such as the Pleurotus species (Oyster mushroom) etc, and the key factors determining the optimal production including cultivation conditions, substrate used and selection of the mushrooms.