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Where can I get that squid’s makeup?

How many times have you looked at a squid and thought to yourself, man does that squid have a flare for style! I wish I could look that good! Well look no further my friend, because the scientists at the fabulous Central Institute of Fisheries Technology have heard your prayers and answered them in full by creating and safety testing lipstick made from squid chromatophores.

For those of you who don’t know, squid chromatophores (like all cephalopod chromatophores) are small sacs of pigment that cover the animal’s body. The squid can stretch these sacs to make them bigger or smaller, and in this way change the color of their skin.

Now before you ask no, this lipstick will not change colors after you put it on. However, it is apparently free of toxic metals and considered safe for human use. Since, as the study points out, a great deal of lipstick ends up getting eaten, there is a push towards more natural lipsticks free from toxic ingredients.

What this lipstick actually looks like it unknown. Chromatophores are limited in their color range (mostly yellow, brown, or red), and the lipsticks will probably also be somewhat limited though I’m betting enough mixing and matching could be done to create a pretty wide range of shades. Some names I’d like to throw out there for consideration: Sultry Squid Sienna, Calamari Crimson, and Opulent Octopus Orange.

So while we might not yet be able to match the squid in its ability to flawless change looks without having to run home and change, we’re still managing to steal a few tips from these divas of the deep-sea.


What are you strange blue creature?

Last weekend I was walking my dog along the beach, an almost daily ritual for me and my very energetic canine. While he runs around sniffing (and attempts snarfling) everything he can find and trying to engage every dog (and sometimes human) he can find in a rousing game of chase, I

What are you and why are you so pretty/strange looking?! Photo by yours truly

What are you and why are you so pretty/strange looking?! Photo by yours truly

usually occupy my time looking for squid eggs along the water line or chiton plates by the tide pools. This time though, I didn’t have to look very hard for something interesting to look at. Mixed in with the kelp and debris usually found on the beach were tons of these weird 3-4 inch long blue squishy things with what seemed like a piece of plastic jammed in the top. I had never seen anything like it. Immediately the phone came out, pictures were taken and sent to fellow marine biologists, squishy things were poked, and guesses were made. Egg sac? Weirdly deformed limpet? Finally a friend responded that they were some type of cnidarian but she couldn’t remember the name. Hmmm…cnidarian did you say?

For those of you who may not know, cnidaria is the group that jellyfish and sea anemones belong to. But my brilliant blue friends were neither jellyfish nor anemone. They belong to another group within cnidaria called hydrozoa. Many of you have heard of a hydrozoan before, but you might have always thought it was a jellyfish. The Portuguese man o’ war known for its extremely painful sting (and is coincidentally, also blue) is not a jellyfish but is in fact a hydrozoan. What’s the difference you ask? A jellyfish is one animal, while a hydrozoan is a colony of lots of little individuals.

So what sort of hydrozoan are these little guys? In times like these I say thank goodness for the internet. They are Velella velella, also known as by-the-wind sailors, because they use that plastic headpiece as a sail and must, quite literally, go where the wind takes them. So while no one is certain why so many of these guys are washing up right now, it is probably due to the way the wind blows. And if you see these little critters on the beach not to worry, they don’t sting humans. They prefer delicious little plankton. So feel free to give them a poke!

The squid and the bacteria have teamed up to doom us all

Chances are you’ve heard about antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Due to our rampant overuse of antibiotics, many bacteria (like those that cause staff infections) can no longer be killed by those antibiotics. You see, when a population of bacteria is exposed to antibiotics, it will of course kill most of them. MOST being the operative word here. Some of the bacteria will be immune to the antibiotic. Since these guys are the only one left to reproduce, pretty soon the whole population is made up of bacteria that can’t be killed with that antibiotic.

Up until now, these bacteria are most commonly contracted when people are exposed to places where antibiotics are used on a regular

Look at how smug they are. Like delicious little sleeper cells just biding their time.

Look at how smug they are. Like delicious little sleeper cells just biding their time. (Vaigimeasun)

basis. Namely, hospitals. But for the first time researchers have found antibiotic resistant bacteria in food. Most shockingly, it was found in the place I would least expect it. My wonderful little friends, the squid.

I can’t help but think that this was actually a botched attack on me. That this squid had totally intended to end up in my hands as revenge for having killed his great-great-grandfather in the course of my research, but tragically he ended up in a Chinese grocery store in Canada instead. Regardless, this is surprising to me because I would have expected the first antibiotic bacteria to be found in some sort of livestock, like beef or chicken, since factory farms treat antibiotics like they’re vitamins.

And yet the mild mannered squid has taken this trophy. The good news is that the bacteria the researchers found is unlikely to make humans sick. The bad news? Bacteria have this neat little trick where they can share their genes with each other. Unlike you, who are stuck with whatever genes you happen to get from your mother and father (love you guys!), bacteria can trade around their DNA like Pokemon cards. Now, this happens more or less randomly. A bacteria with evil world domination inclinations can’t see that another bacteria has the antibiotic resistant gene and steal it away. But it could certainly happen through random chance, and the more antibiotic resistant bacteria out there (even if they are harmless to us), the more likely it is those genes will be transferred to a more harmful bacterium.

So what do we do now that the squid and the bacteria have formed an evil alliance against us? We have to reach a temporary truce with the viruses to take these SOBs down. It may be our only hope.

Squid ink fights tooth decay

Antibiotic resistant bacteria has become a huge problem in the medical world. The overuse of antibiotics to treat infections that aren’t caused by bacteria (since antibiotics can only kill bacteria, they are helpless against illness caused by viruses like the cold) has resulted in the weeding out of all the bacteria that can be killed by antibiotics. This leaves only the resistant “super bugs” which make people sick but can’t be treated with traditional antibiotics. This means scientists are being forced to look for more creative and new options for treating these diseases.

Enter, my friend the squid! Fear not humans, my faithful companion is rising from the depths to save you from tooth decay. A recent study found that an ingredient in squid ink can be used to kill the bacteria that causes dental caries. Maybe some of you read that and thought, “Dude, just brush your teeth.” Tooth brushing, or as the paper calls it ‘mechanical removal,’ combined with professional dental care is by far the best method for preventing tooth decay. Unfortunately, those in less developed countries don’t always have these options. Dental care is extremely expensive (as anyone who’s ever had a tooth extracted knows all too well), and the use of antibiotics can help those without the more urban options.

And squid ink doesn’t just clean your teeth. It has also been used as a preservative, it is an anti-oxidant, and apparently even has anti-retroviral activity (some retroviruses can cause cancer, and perhaps the most famous retrovirus is HIV*). So next time you order calamari, make sure to ask for the ink sac to use as a post-meal mouth wash (but not really though).

Soon to be the number 1 ingredient in Scope mouthwash

Soon to be the number 1 ingredient in Scope mouthwash

*Note, I am NOT saying the squid ink can cure cancer or HIV. At least not yet…

News flash: Tuna don’t like being soaked in oil

Just in time for Valentines Day a new study* was just published in the prestigious journal Science showing that crude oil, like all the oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, can have a pretty negative impact on tuna heart function thus giving everyone the opportunity to use all their stored up broken-hearted tuna jokes.

But it really isn’t all that funny. Basically, toxins in the oil are messing with the potassium currents in the tuna’s heart. As any athlete knows, potassium is really important to keep your muscles working properly. The heart, well that’s a pretty important muscle. And it turns out this toxin is particularly bad for developing embryos. Oh and guess what! That Deepwater Horizon spill happened right around the spot where bluefin and yellowfin tuna like to spawn (as well as a bunch of other fish who will probably be affected in a similar way). So it’s not like a bunch of old tuna who have already lived a long life with lots of babies are going to get heart attacks and die. A bunch of their babies will also have heart attacks and die. No so great for an endangered species.

But hey, who cares if our food gives us cancer or goes extinct because all the babies have heart problems as long as we have cheap oil right?

Well, at least there's no oil here Photo by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC.

Well, at least there’s no oil here
Photo by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC.

*Full disclosure, this study was done at the marine lab I’m currently doing my PhD work at, and I might have dated one of the authors on the paper, so I might be a little biased towards thinking this is an awesome study, which it is!

Megalodon: The Monster Shark that Lived a Really Long Time Ago

And people actually wish these guys were still swimming in our oceans?

And people actually wish these guys were still swimming in our oceans?

I was recently asked about the possibility that the megalodon might still be swimming in our oceans today, despite the fact it is believed to be extinct. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the megalodon was a huge prehistoric shark thought to have been an average 60 feet long. Its name means “big tooth” and for good reason. But fortunately for beach goers everywhere, it went extinct millions of years ago.

Or did it?

The idea is not as crazy as some might think. The oceans are a huge place. They make up 99% of our planets livable space, and we humans have explored only about 5% of it. In fact, it was only recently that anyone saw a giant squid in the wild, and it has been estimated that  131 million giant squid are eaten by sperm whales every year. An animal that was once thought to be a legend is real and in much higher numbers than probably anyone imagined.

But could this also be true for the megalodon? Unfortunately, probably not. You see, even before we saw a live giant squid, there was evidence of their existence. Dead giant squid have washed up on beaches or been found floating in the water. And we would expect to see even more evidence for a creature like megalodon, because it had hard parts that would stick around way longer than anything from a squid.

A giant squid washed up on a beach in 1954. Proof of the giant squid's existence and that scientists in the 50s were totally OK with getting squid guts on their suits. Photo by NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet

A giant squid washed up on a beach in 1954. Proof of the giant squid’s existence and that scientists in the 50s were totally OK with getting squid guts on their suits. Photo by NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet

The very reason we know megalodon existed is because we have found fossils of their bones and teeth. Unfortunately, all of this evidence disappears in any formations less than two million years old. Some may argue that since the conditions in which a bone can be fossilized are so unusual then maybe they really exist but just haven’t met the right conditions. But two million years is a long time, and something that was found all over the world would be expected to have at least one of them fossilized during that time. And if that won’t convince you, scientists say there just isn’t enough food for the megalodon to survive where it wouldn’t have been seen by man. They would have to live near the surface to survive and yeah, I think they’d be kind of hard to miss.

So then why do these rumors still persist? Well, I think it has largely to do with The Discovery Channel’s desperate attempt at hooking in a wider audience. “Shark Week” is Discovery’s most popular program; in 2012 it was the #1 non-scripted cable program. But as its popularity increases, the programs seem to be less about shark education and more about “Woah this guy totally got bit by a shark and it was SO EXTREME!! SHARKS = BLOOD AND DRAMA!!!” Which really kind of hurts my soul. But I get it, you need to draw in the audience some how and at least they do sneak in a few quick shark facts so overall yay for getting people interested in nature.

But last year they took it too far by airing a “mocumentary” about megalodon and why it probably still exists. The entire show was fake, with actors playing scientists (from real institutions like NOAA) and false eyewitness accounts. Oh, and there was a short little disclaimer at the end saying non of it was real. Totally clear.

Sure enough, the stunt worked; Discovery pulled in its largest audience in twelve years. But at what cost? I grew up loving the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and even the History Channel because I wanted to learn. Now I can’t even bear to put them on because all I see are log men, cute kittens (which admittedly I will watch from time to time because, I mean come one, kittens), pawn shoppers, and guys in heavy Brooklyn accents supposedly making aquariums but really just goofing off and yelling at each other. I understand this stuff is popular with a lot people, but what about my people? The ones who want to watch a tiger living in the jungle without any gimmicks? But I digress.

The point is that shows like “Megalodon: The Monster Shark that Lives,” when aired on supposed educational television can misinform the public. And they are convincing too. A few months ago I was watching TV with a friend who happens to also be a marine biologist, when we saw a documentary on Discovery about mermaids and how they really exist. We flipped out. We watched this thing for an hour trying to figure out if they were for real or not. And the thing is, even though we KNEW mermaids do not exist (sorry for destroying yet another childhood dream) we still couldn’t figure out if they were trying to be legit. We actually had to go online to find out that this was another phony mocumentary.

It makes me mad because if they would only be more upfront about these things, I think it could be a really fun exercise. When I was a kid Discovery ran a program where they did a fake autopsy on a dead dragon they “found.” It was awesome. The difference is they advertised it for weeks as a staged program. They made tons of disclaimers even in the commercials, but even knowing it was never going to be real my sister and I were so excited to watch it. We knew dragons weren’t real, we knew Discovery knew dragons weren’t real, but for a moment we could all pretend that they were real together. There was no “gotcha” moment, and it didn’t need one.

The point is, the world is awesome enough without needing to come up with all sorts of gimmicks to get us excited. Just look at everything we’ve found in the deep-sea. Seriously, click here and look at it. If that isn’t enough to make you feel like the world is an awesome place then a megalodon or even a mermaid isn’t going to help you either.

Whither thou goest, I will go

It seems like more and more often in the news you hear stories of whales getting stranded on beaches. But here’s something you don’t see every day: conjoined whale twins (what do you call that, a pair of conjoined twins? I feel like that sounds like four twins) washed up on a beach in on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The whales were joined at the hip which, while cut for some twins, did not work out so well for them. The whales (which from behind look kind of like they tried to get Ursula to make them human, but I guess that spell only works on species that are half human to begin with) each had separate tails and separate heads.

When you look at the twins, it’s kind of hard to imagine that these guys ever had a fighting chance. But then again, there are some pretty amazing success stories out there. A couple of years ago I went to the Mutter Museum with a couple of college friends. We later found out that we were perhaps a little too squeamish for the experience. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Mutter Museum is this quaint little building in Philadelphia that houses the most grotesque things you could possibly imagine. There was an entire wall with pictures of eye diseases. EYE DISEASES!!! As a person who has spent most of her life with a bit of a phobia for eye damage, this was kind of a living hell.

But next to all the deformed fetuses in jars and pictures of disgusting skin infections was one of the most interesting

The Bunker families in 1865. The smile wasn't invented until 1920.

The Bunker families in 1865. The smile wasn’t invented until 1920. US-PD

stories I’ve ever heard. This was, of course, the story of Chang and Eng Bunker, twins who spent their entire lives conjoined at the abdomen. And when I say life, I don’t just mean they ate, slept, and performed as side-show freaks. These guys had lives. They married sisters (because they had to at least do something cliché) and had 21 kids between the two of them. They each had their own farms, switching back and forth every few days.

But here’s the real kicker. The twins had very different personalities. According to the museum’s display, one of the twins (I can’t remember which) was pretty quiet and laid back. The other one has quite the temper and also happened to be an alcoholic. Let me let that sink in a bit. One of the conjoined twins was an alcoholic, and they SHARED A FREAKING LIVER! Apologies for the superfluous use of caps lock but seriously, how is this even possible? I am flummoxed.

It’s just too bad the baby whales did not get to live such full and enriching lives.