Monday, April 26, 2010

Live Blue Ambassadors hit the ground running

Lugging boulders and clearing debris are among the activities that helped kick off the Live Blue Ambassador program on Saturday, April 3. 17 teens from the Greater Boston area, including towns on the South Shore, Weston, Boston and Dedham, participated in a herring run clean up in Weymouth.

All smiles during the clean-up

Joined by Aquarium staff Scott Dowd, Jenna Sigman, Liz Whitlinger and Heather Deschenes, the group removed debris and created natural fish ladders within one of the most productive herring runs in New England. In addition to the clean-up effort, participants learned about the challenges fish face each year as they make the journey to spawn. The teens also got to see first-hand the many human impacts affecting this very important migration.

Surveying the scene

"Wet shoes and pants were totally worth helping out the fishies," says participants Jen and Carly F. "The clean-up did change our thoughts, and also made us think of re-doing that whole area to make people aware of what happens each year."

The Live Blue Ambassadors at the herring run clean-up in Weymouth

"The clean up did impact my thoughts on the ocean because we actually saw how much trash and stuff helped make the herring struggle much more than they need to," adds Emily N.

Trash pick-up

The Live Blue Ambassadors are pioneering the way teens interact with the Aquarium well beyond the confines of Central Wharf. Similar activities are planned throughout the year. This exciting program is open to teens interested in a robust field and community-based conservation program with an education component.

For more information on the Live Blue Ambassador program, contact Heather Deschenes at or by calling 617-973-0253.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Smithsonian Look at Sea Turtles

The New England Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Team is featured in a fantastic article about sea turtle rescue appearing in May's Smithsonian Magazine. Readers follow one little Kemp's ridley turtle from the beach on Cape Cod through triage at the Mass. Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay Audubon all the way to the Aquarium. Several Aquarium staffers are quoted as you get a unique perspective on the hard work that goes into rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles.

Visit the Rescue Blog to get some of the rescuers' perspectives and some insider information about the turtles mentioned in the article!

Here's a link to the article Saving the World's Most Endangered Sea Turtle.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Podcasting sea monsters

Aquarium researcher Randi Rotjan, PhD, recently sat down with the host of Podcast of Life to talk about sea monsters. When she says sea monsters, Randi is referring to corals. Well, you'll just have to listen to the program to hear her explanation.

This podcast from Encyclopedia of Life also talks about a massive coral bleaching that happened around the Phoenix Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Follow Randi and other researchers to the Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA) by reading the archived Phoenix Island Blog. Learn how the marine protected area is faring today. Or check on her current coral studies in Belize on the Global Explorers Blog.

Still itching for another podcast? Listen for a longtime Aquarium researcher in this Podcast of Life. Scott Kraus, PhD, Vice President of Research, recalls an afternoon with some frisky right whales that left another researcher a little rattled and extremely awe-struck. A team of Aquarium right whale researchers just wrapped up another successful season tracking these whales in the calving grounds. Check in with the mother-calf pairs on the Right Whale Blog.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Talking trash in honor of Earth Day!

The New England Aquarium's monthly Ocean Detectives programs involve young learners 5 to 7 years old and their parents. By studying turtles, crabs or penguins, kids develop their math, science and literacy skills. The next program on May 1 will focus on whales! Click here for more information or to sign up.

A young student of the Ocean Detectives programs is doing some teaching of her own. Check out Anna's terrific video about trash in honor of Earth Day on April 22!

Earth Day is a great time for you and your ocean detectives to reevaluate your impacts on our Earth and oceans. Anna definitely has some great tips! Visit the Live Blue Initiative to learn more ways you can live lightly on the blue planet. Take a moment to claim your own plot of ocean and even make a pledge to live blue, too!

Come April 22, celebrate Earth Day with the Aquarium and The River during a free concert by They Might Be Giants on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Then on Sunday, April 25, bring the family to the Aquarium for free activities in honor of Earth Day. Look for your artwork at the Earth Day Art Show, and take advantage of other hands-on activities throughout the Aquarium campus. There's still time to submit your family's artwork! Learn more about Blue Discoveries Family Day and get an application to submit artwork.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A prescription for the ocean's ailing health

Gregory Stone, Ph.D., Vice President of Global Marine Programs at the New England Aquarium and Senior Vice President for Marine Conservation and Chief Ocean Scientist at Conservation International, has seen first-hand the surprising amounts of debris littering our ocean floor, even at the most remote and inhospitable depths. Plastics are among the many symptoms of our ailing oceans, which are replete with massive dead zones and dying wildlife.

Gregory Stone, Ph.D.

In a recent opinion piece for, Dr. Stone writes, "So the bad news is that the ocean and many of its habitats and populations are approaching a state of crisis. But the good news is that they aren't dead yet...It is also good news that the ocean's problems are entirely extrinsic. They are not caused by weakness, disease or any other fault of the marine system itself, but from the activities of people. Solutions therefore must focus entirely on us and our behavior."

Click here to read more of Dr. Stone's prescription for our oceans' ailing health on

Greg Stone was instrumental in helping to create the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a vast marine protected area. Read his entries on the Aquarium's PIPA Blog here. Travel to the Sea of Cortez through his archived blog entries here. He also traveled to the Celebes Sea in 2007. Re-live that expedition to the cradle of biodiversity here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hermit Crab Shell-Choice Behavior: How to find a dream home!

Of course, everyone wants to live in the nicest possible house, along with periodic upgrades. A new study by biologists at the New England Aquarium and Tufts University reveals that hermit crabs might locate new housing by using previously unknown social networking skills.

The scientists combined field studies, lab experiments and computer models to uncover some surprising new tricks that could lead to better house-hunting strategies for humans and hermit crabs alike. Their research was published yesterday in the British scientific journal, "Behavioral Ecology," and reveals that, contrary to their name, hermit crabs often find the best new shells when they gather together. Play the video to see this happening.

Hermit crabs have an unusual lifestyle because they require empty snail shells for shelter. And, they also need to regularly search out new shells as they grow bigger throughout their lives. "Hermit crabs are really picky about their real estate choices, "Maybe it's because, in addition to having to locate food and escape predators, they're constantly being thrown back into the housing market," says Randi Rotjan, research scientist at the New England Aquarium and leader of the research team who co-authored the study with Sara Lewis, a professor at Tufts University. Rotjan will be lecturing on this new discovery April 5 at the New England Aquarium (Click here to register for the free lecture).

Sometimes there aren't enough suitable shells to go around and some crabs have to go around naked. The exposed soft abdomen of homeless crabs makes them more vulnerable to predators. "I've seen hermit crabs dragging around in bottle caps and even ballpoint pen tops," Lewis says. "It's pretty pathetic."

So how do hermit crabs win this life-or-death shell game?

It seems one strategy that helps each hermit crab find the very best shell for them is by joining a lively group activity known as a synchronous vacancy chain. When a new shell becomes available, crabs gather around it and queue up in a line from largest to smallest [photo above]. Once the largest crab moves into the vacant shell, each crab in the queue swiftly switches into the newly vacated shell right in front of them. So in the end, a single vacant shell kicks off an entire chain of shell vacancies that ultimately leads to many crabs getting new, and generally improved, housing.

By seeding vacant shells into field populations and watching night after night to see what happened, the scientists discovered some previously unknown hermit crab behaviors. When a hermit crab discovers an empty but oversized shell, it waits nearby rather than abandoning the unsuitable shell. Once a small group gathers, crabs begin piggybacking by holding onto the shell of a larger crab and riding along. Such waiting and piggybacking behaviors seem to increase the chances that a synchronous vacancy chain will happen. "They spend hours queuing up, and then the chain just fires off in seconds, like a chain of dominoes," says Rotjan.

Computer models populated with virtual hermit crabs and shells confirmed that synchronous vacancy chains depend not only on crab density, but also on how long crabs are programmed to wait near an unsuitable shell.

According to Rotjan, synchronous vacancy chains can occur with any animal that relies on discrete, limited and reusable resources, such as anemone-dwelling fish, or hole-nesting woodpeckers. Studying vacancy chains in hermit crabs might even lend some important insights into human behavior, since people regularly participate in vacancy chains, including synchronous ones. For example, every fall, many neighborhood streets in Boston, Mass., are clogged with U-Haul trucks and moving vans that signal the city's many students and residents participating in synchronous vacancy chains: everyone moves on the same day (September 1); the most popular annual lease start date. Just like hermit crabs, humans carefully assess their potential housing options before switching; and any savvy apartment-hunter knows that there is more inventory to choose from with a Sept. 1 start date, but moving fast is critical to ensure that you get the home you want.

For both humans and hermit crabs, the main advantage to synchronous switching is a bountiful inventory, but plentiful choices come with a cost: higher competition for the perfect house. Apartments with less popular starting lease dates resemble an asynchronous vacancy chain with less inventory available throughout the year, but also less competition for each house.

Social networking via internet sites like Craigslist surely wouldn't work for hermit crabs (they resort to waiting near an empty shell or recruiting other crabs to the scene), but human social networking sites have made it simpler for people to assess homes and organize moving dates. In essence, human participation in synchronous vacancy chains shows that humans have learned what the crabs have always known: social networking might make suitable new homes easier to come by. If you're organized.

[Visit the research project page for more information. Read the article abstract in Behavioral Ecology.]