When visiting schools and museums our Street Scientists often get asked a variety of questions from curious children. Here are the answers to some of our favourite questions!
This week, we’re answering questions on Marine Biology and Oceanography, ahead of World Ocean Day next Monday.
How do they (fish) breath under water?
-asked by Maisie, 9, from Kells Lane Primary School
Fish can breathe under water because they have lungs that are adapted to work under water. These are called gills. Gills are feathery organs full of blood vessels, fish use them to take up oxygen that is dissolved in the water. Oxygen is taken up through the thin walls of the gills and the travels into the cells in the body. However, there are some mammals that are mistaken as fish, such as whales and dolphins. They are just like us and they need to breathe air to survive. Therefore, we often see them swimming into the surface and take up some oxygen from the air. – Aurelia, Dentistry Student
What is the fastest fish in the world?
-asked by Isobel, 11, from Marden Bridge Middle School
The fastest current known fish is the sailfish, it can swim at speeds of up to 68 miles per hour which is around the same speed as cars travel up the motorway! – Demi, Marine Biology Student
How are waves formed?
-asked by James, 10, from Ravenswood Primary School
Most waves are formed by wind blowing over the top of the sea. The stronger the wind the bigger the waves! However there are a couple of different types of wave that aren’t formed by the wind for example the tides are actually a form of wave, which are formed by the gravitational attraction of the sun and the moon on the water. Also tsunamis are a type of wave that is formed by under water earthquakes or eruptions! – Demi, Marine Biology Student
How big is the sea?
-asked by Iyla, 7, from Grace Darling Primary School
The sea covers about 71% of the world’s surface and although it is all connected it is usually split into 5 oceans called: The Pacific, the Atlantic (this is the ocean the UK is in), the Indian, the Antarctic and the Arctic ocean. All combined that is 1.3 billion cubic km of water, that’s about 3.47 Quadrillion swimming pools which is 462,667 swimming pools for every person living on the planet! The Atlantic ocean where we are is the second biggest ocean in the world and if you tried to swim from here to America it would take you 50 days if you swam non stop. The deepest bit of the ocean is called the Mariana trench and it is 11,034 metres deep that’s more than mount Everest which is the highest mountain in the world, it’s so deep that only 3 people have ever been there (that’s fewer than have been to the moon). -Lizzie, Biology Student
Marine Biology student, Demi, tells us all about why she decided to study Marine Biology, here at Newcastle University
When researching where I thought I would want to go for university I simply googled ‘best places to study marine biology in the UK’ and Newcastle was one of the first to come up. The main thing I looked on the website for were the course content and the University’s reputation, neither of which disappointed! I found the course content and module choices at Newcastle were much more suited to my interests than any other universities I researched. Newcastle ranks 4th in the UK in the Earth and Marine Sciences category, has the TEF Gold award and is the only course that I researched which is accredited by the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST). All of these things were really important in making my decision.
The specific marine science facilities at Newcastle are another reason I chose to study here. They have their very own research vessel, the RV Princess Royal which gives us the opportunity to carry out our own research in the North Sea. On top of this is the Dove Marine lab, a university building right on the beach which is purpose built for marine research which I found very exciting!
Field trips/ Placement
One of the main things I looked for in university courses was the opportunities for experiences in the field. Newcastle university offers two field weeks in different coastal habitats around the north east plus a residential field trip to Millport in year one alone!
As well as the opportunity for a work placement at any organisation in the world between years 2 & 3 and the overseas field trip to either Portugal, Mexico or Bermuda in year 3.
My Open day experience at
Newcastle was what confirmed the Newcastle was the city and the university for
me. Attending open days for universities is so important and I would definitely
recommend it if you can! The minute I stepped on campus I felt excited, it was
this gut feeling (that I couldn’t get from the website alone) along with the
amazing campus, extremely friendly student and lecturers that were happy to answer
all of my many many questions that ultimately made my decision for me.
The PARTNERS scheme was something unique to Newcastle that I didn’t find in any other university I applied for. It gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds a better chance at getting into university by reducing the grade boundaries subject to certain criteria and you attending a summer school. I attended the PARTNERS summer school in the July before I started and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, it gave me a head start to the lab equipment and online material as well as allowing me to make friends before I started in September!
Newcastle is a relatively
small and lively city; similar to my own home city so I instantly felt at home
here! It’s perfect for student life with the campus and student accommodation
so close to the centre of town meaning everything is within walking distance
which I really enjoy. The campus is extremely pretty and the people, both
students and locals are all positive and friendly making Newcastle a home from
home and the perfect place to spend my university years.
First-year Marine Zoology student, Demi, tells us about her experience of a spending a week at our Dove Marine Lab in Cullercoats and in the surrounding coastal area.
To start off the week we boarded the coach to the Dove marine lab; the university’s specialised research facility right on the beach. In our morning activity we learnt about the different types of keys that can be used to identify marine organisms, which is very important so that when you find animals out on the shore you can tell what they are. We then split into groups and tried making our own keys to identify people in our groups; this was a great activity as it allowed us the get to know our course mates better.
The afternoon was spend looking through seaweed samples and
identifying all the little organisms living within the seaweed. I really
enjoyed this as it highlighted that all the little and “less exciting” animals
can be just as fun to look into as learning about the larger animals!
Back at the Dove Marine lab, Tuesday morning was spent out on the rocky shore of North Cullercoats Bay (battling the northern wind and rain), collecting all the organisms we could find (essentially rock-pooling). We found everything from crabs and fish to starfish, snails and limpets. In the afternoon we did scientific drawings of the organisms we found. For this we used the keys we learnt about the day before to identify the scientific names for all of the animals. My favourite was the bloody henry starfish (Henricia sanguinolenta)
On Wednesday morning we went to Black Middens, at the mouth of the River Tyne. Here, we had the chance to look at different sediment types in an estuarine environment and how this influences the organisms found there. It was such a beautiful place! We did field sketches, which is an important skill for ecologists and looked at the human impacts on the site. In the afternoon we visited the commercial fish quay at North Shields to look at the fishing boats and the types of fish caught in the North Sea. We also met the Quay Master who spoke to us about management mechanisms and fishing quotas, which was very interesting!
Thursday was spent at St. Mary’s Island; a small island near Whitley Bay where we experienced a different type of rocky shore to the one at Cullercoats. We were introduced to the key identifying features of common rocky shore plants and animals and how they’re adapted to their place on the shore. We also had time to get all our notes and field sketches up to date before heading back to campus.
To end the week, we were back on the rocky shore at Cullercoats assessing the abundance of 3 common rocky shore animal species: the limpet, Patella vulgata; the dogwhelk Nucella lapillus; and the barnacle Semibalanus balanoides. In the morning we were out with quadrats collecting data, in the afternoon we were back in the classroom at the Dove Marine Lab where we learnt how to do basic statistics on our data in order to analyse their distribution patterns.
Newcastle was my first choice university for many reasons, the biggest one being the feeling of community and connection between the course and student. It really does feel like your degree doesn’t just matter to you, which makes studying much more enjoyable!
Another benefit of being here is the incredible city itself. From stunning architecture and high culture art installations/indie digs, to the wide array of bars/social spaces, restaurants and shops, it’s easy to find something new to do or a place to relax.
University and student life are, as everyone likes to joke, very different to anything you will have come across before.
Most of my days will start anywhere between 9am and 12pm and typically I will have at least 3 hours of timetabled activity, but this can easily be as much as 7 hours at the busiest times of the semester. The amount of contact time may seem big, but this is a blessing in disguise really! On any given day I will tend to do 2-3 hours of additional work in the many libraries/study areas around the university and I use this to keep on top of the lecture content and complete any additional work needed to do well in assignments and exams.
The lectures and content studied are quite varied; compare pure Engineering Maths with a wordier Production Management module; which provides a nice mix of study. Personally, I really enjoyed the Marne Engineering and Naval Architecture modules, as they had a good balance between the science and maths you’d expect to study.
Something I didn’t expect to do was coding and some of the Computer Aided Design, like modelling a single-cylinder engine. Although not easy to start with since I had no prior experience, I did find both very interesting and satisfying once I got the hang of it.
Outside of academia I am a member of the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme (DTUS), as a Royal Navy sponsored student. This means I attend the local naval base once a week and develop the skills I will need in order to be a technical officer. Alongside this I also get the opportunity to lead and develop various Adventurous Training, specifically for me Offshore Sailing.
In my downtime I like to experiment with cooking, picking up various bits and pieces to try from the massive Grainger Market. I also enjoy watching the rugby at the nearby Newcastle Falcons Kingston Park stadium and there is also the compulsory night “Ooot in Toon” which you will no doubt experience at least once (a week).
Feel free to send me a message on Unibuddy, you are more than welcome to ask me more about my daily happenings, the course or any concerns you have about the step up to university!
This series of Blue Planet has enabled us to see so much of the ocean that we are normally unaware of; we’ve been able to truly appreciate the magnificence of the seas all the way from the deepest trenches to the rocky coasts. But for many, with this appreciation has come the realisation of the devastating impact of human activity on our planet’s marine life.
Marine researchers at Newcastle University have been working to assess the extent of human impact on the ocean, looking at everything from chemical and plastic pollution to CO2 levels and increasing sea temperatures.
A research team led by Newcastle University’s Dr Alan Jamieson, used deep sea landers to reach the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana and Kermadec trenches, to bring up samples of the organisms that live there.
The fatty tissue of the amphipods they sampled contained extremely high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants – or POPs – including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the 1970’s. Such pollutants are invulnerable to environmental degradation and will remain in the environment for decades.
Dr Jamieson believes these pollutants will have found their way to the depths of the trenches through contaminated debris and dead animals sinking to the bottom of the ocean, which then work their way up through the food chain.
Sending the deep sea landers down to the ocean floor.
Man’s plastic footprint
Following on from this study which revealed shocking levels of chemicals in the deep, Dr Jamieson began to investigate whether plastics had also polluted to the same extent.
Using the deep sea landers to bring samples to the surface, the research team examined 90 individual animals and found ingestion of plastic ranged from 50% in the New Hebrides Trench to 100% at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Dr Jamieson explained that this type of work requires a great deal of contamination control, but that the results were undeniable, with instances where synthetic fibres could actually be seen in the stomach contents of the specimen as they were being removed.
“The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants in one of the most remote and inaccessible habitats on earth really brings home the long term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” says Dr Jamieson.
“It’s not a great legacy that we’re leaving behind.”
Pollutants such as plastic and chemicals are not the only issues our seas face; the oceans also absorb a large amount of heat and CO2 from human emissions. Of the emissions absorbed by the global ocean, the Southern Ocean takes a staggering 75% of the heat and 50% of the CO2.
A team from Newcastle University, comprised of Dr Miguel Morales Maqueda, Alethea Mountford and Liam Rogerson, are in the Antarctic as part of the ORCHESTRA research project (Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transports).
Explaining the involvement in the project, Dr Maqueda said: “We have been invited to participate in ORCHESTRA on account of our expertise in the use of surface robotic systems to carry out sea surface measurements.
We use a Wave Glider, which is an unmanned vehicle, to conduct surveys of the ocean surface, measuring properties such as near-surface meteorology (wind, air pressure and air temperature), waves, ocean temperature and currents. The Wave Glider relays this information back to base via satellite.”
The aim is to use these oceanography surveys to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that lead to the transfer of heat and greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into the ocean and how they are subsequently distributed globally.
Research vessel RRS James Clark Ross, where the team will be based.
Humans are undoubtedly having an increasingly negative impact on the ocean. When faced with this fact it becomes all too easy to lose hope, but pioneering research such as that from Newcastle University works to highlight the serious issues at hand and as such people are becoming more aware of how everyday actions can have wider consequences for the environment.
We need only take a look at the solutions that Newcastle researchers have developed for the disastrous episodes of coral bleaching around the globe to illustrate that advancements in ideas and technology are being made all the time to work to reduce and reverse negative human impact.
If you feel inspired to make a difference to the marine world, take a look at the courses offered at Newcastle University in Marine Science and Marine Technology.
DNA is the building block of all living things. Our own DNA dictates what we look like, how we behave and even how we think. The Human Genome Project sequenced all of our DNA to unravel the code that creates us to give a better understanding of how it all works. From this we’ve learned more about how we’ve evolved and which animals are our closest relatives.
The Wellcome Trust are planning on sequencing the DNA of 25 more animals next year and you get to have a say in which animals will be studied. Scientists from across the country have been championing species which they believe should be sequenced next. Our very own team of researchers from Newcastle University are campaigning for the Abyssal Grenadier, a deep sea fish which has evolved to live in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.
The competition is being held online on I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here where our researchers, Johanna Weston and Thom Linley have already participated in 19 online chats with school children. Anyone can vote and ask the scientists questions about their chosen species.
Here are Joanna’s top 3 questions that they’ve been asked:
1. How did the fish come to be named grenadier?
This question totally stumped us and I have been on an adventure finding the answer! I have been asking ichthyologists (fish scientists) all over the world and the answer I got was from the head of fishes in Te Papa Museum in New Zealand (told you I looked far and wide!). The first grenadier described was the roundnose grenadier in 1765! That’s where we first get the name. The grenadiers were a type of soldier that specialised in grenades in France in the 1700’s. They wore pointed hats based on the Mitre (a Bishop’s hat). The pointy hat looks like the high triangular first dorsal fin of the grenadier fish!
2. Why do they use their eyes less?
The deep sea is a very difficult environment to live in for a variety of reasons – not a lot of food, lots of predators, and the crushing weight of all the water above these animals. But one of the main problems with living in the deep sea is that below 200m of water there is very little natural sunlight getting that deep. The abyssal grenadier lives all the way down to 4000/5000m where there is no natural light so it is hard for them to see anything. (Although some other deep-sea animals produce their own light using bioluminescence!) Because it’s very dark the abyssal grenadier relies more heavily on its sense of smell to detect food.
3. What is your most unique feature and why has it happened (what genes cause it)?
We have lots of cool unique features!
We can survive under high water pressure. At the moment we know that we store a lot of an enzyme called TMAO which helps to keep our cells happy and stop them from being crushed by the pressure. We also live in the complete darkness, except bioluminescence which is light produced by some bacteria that live in some deep-sea species, but we can still see these flashes of light. We can go very long periods of time without eating so we have become very good at storing energy in our bodies. And we can also swim really slowly to help keep our energy stores high too.
At the moment we don’t know all the genes that help us live in such an extreme environment! That’s why we would love to have our genome sequenced so we can start to understand how animals can live in such a difficult environment. Because we are closely related to cod it would be really cool to compare our genome to the genome of a cod to see what lets us live deeper! This could be really valuable in understanding fish, like cod, as well as the abyssal grenadier.
If you would like to ask a scientist or place your vote for the next genome to be sequenced you can do so imascientist.org.uk. Voting closed on the 8th December.
Programmes like Blue Planet 2 have been fantastic for igniting our curiosity in marine life and broadening our knowledge of the oceans.If inspired, we can venture out from our living rooms and onto our beaches and truly get involved in the conservation of Britain’s rich marine diversity.
Capturing Our Coast
Newcastle University is the lead partner in Capturing Our Coast, a marine citizen science project which works with members of the public to contribute to the greater understanding of our UK seas and the rich diversity that they host.
Capturing Our Coast is the largest marine citizen science project of its kind, facilitating as it does, members of the public to contribute, not only to collecting information on where marine species occur, but also to addressing scientific questions through experimental approaches on our shores.
A national network of marine research labs, NGOs and research institutions, provide training and support which allows thousands of volunteers to map abundances of a number of key species around our coasts. This will provide a database against which changes in the future can be measured, allowing conclusions to be drawn on the effects of human activities on biodiversity.
Dr Jane Delany, Project Lead said: “Huge value is derived from having lots of people out and about, collecting more results than scientists working alone could ever hope to gather. We need these large scale data sets collected over wide geographic areas, to pick up patterns and trends that have a lot of natural ecological ‘noise’ or variation; the findings will be particularly useful as the effects of climate change alter the way in which our coastal habitats and species communities are structured.”
The project aims to address a variety of questions surrounding the species who make their homes on our coasts. The future of some animals and habitats is uncertain as sea temperatures change and coastal storms increase in frequency as a result of climate change.
The range of issues that the Capturing Our Coast volunteers and scientists investigate vary from things such as where marine non-native, “invasive”, species have established on our coasts to how kelp, which provides a fantastic habitat for a whole range of tiny animals, varies around UK shores and the reasons for these variations.
Over 4000 citizens have registered their interest in this 3 year Heritage Lottery Funded project so far and as it enters it’s final year Capturing Our Coast are after more volunteers who want to make a difference.
Dr Jane Delany says that the Capturing Our Coast team have been “overwhelmed by the dedication and enthusiasm of our volunteers”, going on to explain that “conservation of our rich marine diversity is the responsibility of us all, not just the policy makers and scientists. We can all contribute to understanding what is happening, and how we can each make a difference.”
To get involved, enrol via the website. There is no charge for any training or support provided to enable you to become a ‘CoCoast’ volunteer.
In this blog post, Dr Will Reid shares his story of how he became a marine biologist and the inspiration that led him to his exciting career choice
Blue Planet II is well underway now and for many a marine biologist, like myself, it is an opportunity to say, “I work on those” and get a bit giddy with excitement. We have seen some wonderful footage of walruses, the graceful Ethereal snailfish and colourful coral polyps. The bobbit worm seemed to get the hospital that my partner works at very excited and I’m sure last week’s episode about plastic pollution will get many people thinking about the impact our daily lives have on the ocean.
For me personally, sitting watching the second episode of Blue Planet II and seeing those hydrothermal vents was a personal highlight. It will also go down as a big landmark in my research career. I spent about four months at sea in the Antarctic across three research expeditions, during my PhD at Newcastle University. I was part of team working on the hydrothermal vents where those crabs covered in bacteria live. The inspiration that lead me to sitting on a ship, watching a video feed from a remotely operated vehicle over two kilometers below, began with another David Attenborough documentary. This was not Blue Planet I but an even earlier BBC documentary series called Life in the Freezer, which planted the seed in my mind about becoming a marine biologist.
Becoming a Marine Biologist
Life in the Freezer aired in 1993. I was thirteen at the time. The opening scene where David Attenborough was standing in a vast snow and ice landscape was mesmerising. The series covered the ebb and flow of the ice around Antarctica and the animals that depend on the productive waters of the Southern Ocean. The part that really caught me was all the amazing life on the island of South Georgia. The coastal areas were packed full of elephant seals, fur seals, penguins, petrels and albatross. Little did I know that in just over ten years I would be living and working on the island.
I realised during that series that I wanted to be a scientist but not just any scientist, one that went to the Antarctic. I took Maths, English, History, Biology and Chemistry Highers and got onto a marine biology degree course. In my final year, I got my first opportunity to do some work related to South Georgia. I spent hours watching video footage of the deep-sea Patagonian toothfish and crabs attracted to baited deep-sea landers as part of my final year project. This was very fortunate because just as I was about to graduate a job working for British Antarctic Survey was advertised for a two-year fisheries scientist working on South Georgia on these animals. I applied. I got an interview. I didn’t get the job.
First disappointment, then an opportunity
The great thing about getting an interview is that you can often ask for feedback. So, I just asked the question “What skills and experience do I need to get the job?”. The answer sent me on a two-year mission in order to get what I needed second time round. This included: going back to university and doing a masters in Oceanography; learning to drive boats; sea survival training; and going to sea as a fisheries observer on a Portuguese deep-water trawler off Canada. My decision paid off because the job was advertised again. Once more I applied. Once more I got an interview.
Second time lucky
I got the job at British Antarctic Survey second time round. I was finally going to South Georgia! The next few weeks were a whirlwind of activity: medicals; advanced boat driving training; first aid courses; and learning to drive a JCB. Then I was finally deployed. I flew to down through South America to the Falkland Islands with part of the team that I would living and working with for the next two years. We sailed from the Falklands on the UK research vessel, the James Clark Ross, to South Georgia. I arrived in South Georgia on the 22nd November 2004.
The island of South Georgia was truly stunning. I spent two years on the island doing science that helped manage the commercial fisheries around the island. The research was varied. I worked on fish larvae, managed an aquarium which housed crabs, aged Patagonian toothfish using their ear bones called otoliths, undertook diet studies on icefish and went on fish stock assessments around the island.
The scenery and animal life were also truly amazing. I would go camping and hiking in order to visit Gentoo, king and rock hopper penguin colonies; climb snow-capped mountains; walk where explorers like Shackleton had been; and visit old abandoned whaling stations. The research base where I stayed was also in front of an elephant seal breeding beach for a couple of months of the year. I even met my current partner on the island. She was the doctor in my second year. But life on South Georgia had to come to an end.
Getting into hot water in Antarctica
Once I left South Georgia, I had a couple more months working for British Antarctic Survey back in Cambridge. I was wondering how on earth I would ever get back to the Antarctic. I stumbled across my next opportunity in the photocopy room. On the wall was an advert for a PhD at Newcastle University working on Antarctic hydrothermal vents. I applied. I got the PhD position. I moved to Newcastle.
The PhD was part of 5 year NERC programme trying to find and understand hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic. Hydrothermal vents are sites on the seafloor that release very hot fluids, rich in minerals into the water at the bottom of the ocean and are surrounded by high densities of life.
In 2010, I went back to the Antarctic as part of the first scientific expedition to sample these truly amazing habitats. We sailed on the UK science vessel, the James Cook with scientists from different universities around the UK. When we arrived at our first location, we used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to dive down over 2 kms to hunt for the vents. After a number of hours searching the seafloor we eventually found our first hydrothermal vent field. There was a huge amount of relief on the boat as the scientists got to work.
We visited a series of sites over the next 6 weeks along the East Scotia Ridge. We discovered whole new communities and species and mapped where the different animals lived around the vents. My work focused on what the animals were eating and constructing food webs at each of the sites we visited.
This brings me back to those hydrothermal vent crabs in The Deep episode of Blue Plant II. The crabs live in areas where hot water pores over them which provides the conditions for the bacteria to grow. We collected the samples from the vents using a suction sampler on the ROV Isis. I then looked at the biochemical composition of the crabs and the bacteria. They were very similar. This indicated that the bacteria living on those crabs were its food source.
These large-scale scientific expeditions are collaborative efforts. Scientist never undertake their work in isolation on these types of projects. They are a team effort, bringing together scientific disciplines. I worked with scientists that had backgrounds in chemistry, geology, microbiology, biology, computer science and supported by mechanical and electrical engineers, technicians and a large ships crew. There is no way I could have undertaken this work without the support of so many scientific and technical disciplines. They helped me add meaning to my work and place the results in the context of the system.
Will there be another Antarctic adventure?
Watching Blue Planet II the other weekend gave me a huge amount of personal pride. To sit there with my kids and my partner and show them on TV the Antarctic crab that I helped discover felt like a massive landmark in my scientific career. I was even there at the moment when the crab stuck its claw into the hot water. Life in the Freezer was the series that inspired me to work in the Antarctic, which set me on the road (or boat) to South Georgia for 2 years and then to studying for my PhD at Newcastle University.
For many people, Blue Planet II will inspire them too, some of whom will go into marine science as well. Whether you are into maths, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, geology or microbiology, there is a career for you that involves our Blue Planet.
For me, I am about to start another Antarctic adventure. Next year, I am going to explore the seabed that has not been exposed to open waters for approximately 120,000 years. I’ll be spending about 3 weeks working in the area where a large chunk of the Larsen C ice-shelf broke off. The research team has been assembled from a number of different universities and institutions and will once more be a collaborative effort. It just goes to show that sometime adventures never truly end.
Coral reefs are among the most bio-diverse eco-systems on the planet, but climate change and human interference threaten to destroy these essential marine environments. Research led by Newcastle University focuses on adapting and restoring coral in order to protect reefs.
What is coral and why is it important?
Corals are what are known as “sessile” animals, this means that they permanently take root to the ocean floor, much like a plant, however, corals are not plants as they do not produce their own food. Each coral is made up of thousands of tiny coral creatures known as polyps. Corals have a symbiotic relationship with a form of algae known as “zooxanthellae” that lives inside the corals’ tissues – the algae are what give coral its bright colours.
Coral reefs provide a habitat for around 25% of all marine life, with estimates suggesting reefs support the livelihood of around 2 million different species. In addition to the essential role they play in sustaining ocean health, coral reefs also contribute to the prevention of coastal erosion as well as helping to provide food security and income for millions of people in coastal communities.
Beautiful, bright coral reefs provide homes for an array of creatures such as this crinoid. Photos by Tim Dixon.
What threatens the survival of coral reefs?
Human interference with marine life, through practices such as fishing, tourism and pollution have a negative effect on the health of coral reefs. One of the biggest threats which is likely to cause coral reefs to bleach, and eventually die, is climate change. Corals are sensitive to changes in water temperature and cannot survive if the temperature rises too much. Climate change has already had an effect on water temperatures in certain areas of the world, and this is predicted to get worse over the coming decades.
A clown fish peeks out from a sea anemone attached to a coral reef. Photo by Tim Dixon.
What is being done to protect coral reefs?
Whilst existing conservation measures such as Marine Protected Areas are vital when it comes to protecting reefs from the damages of human impact, other solutions are required to help coral species adapt to changes in environmental conditions such as increasing sea temperatures.
With the continued threat of climate change and how it might affect corals hanging over their heads, scientists at Newcastle University are conducting a pioneering study into the “feasibility of using selective breeding and an innovative mass re-population method to help corals affected by bleaching.”
Professor of Coral Reef Biology, John Bythell, explains: “During coral bleaching events, it is possible to observe healthy colonies next to bleached colonies, suggesting that some corals are better adapted to higher temperatures. This means that one possible solution could be to selectively breed corals that can withstand higher than normal temperatures and successfully pass this onto offspring.”
The ground-breaking five-year “Assisting Coral Reef Survival in the Face of Climate Change” project will face many challenges; Dr Guest explains that the assisted evolution approach will “involve certain risks for recipient populations such as resource trade-offs between heat tolerance, growth and reproduction.”
If the team are successful in passing on the desirable traits to coral offspring they will then transplant the coral onto damaged reefs using a technique already developed by Newcastle University.
Coral reefs support the livelihood of a huge array of creatures. Photos by Tim Dixon.
After challenging expensive and often ineffective existing coral transplantation strategies which focus on “attaching fast-growing coral species onto damaged reefs to speed their recovery”, a team of scientists at Newcastle University developed a more cost-effective solution centered around the use of more robust, slow-growing coral species.
Using plastic wall plugs, an object more commonly used to fit screws into brickwork, Newcastle University’s team created coral “plug-ins”, where they grow healthy corals on cement cylinders which have been embedded with the plastic wall plugs. These coral “plug-ins” can then be slotted into pre-drilled holes in damaged reefs.
The hope is that through the use of the innovative techniques developed by Newcastle University led research, coral reefs will be given the ability to thrive and continue to provide a habitat for millions of marine species for generations to come.
A pygmy seahorse camouflaged among the coral. Photo by Tim Dixon.
If this post has sparked your interest and you want to find out more about Newcastle University’s research then head over to ncl.ac.uk/nes/research/marine.
This week we’ve been helping out with the Engineering Education Scheme. Lots of year 12 students from the local area have been working with industry to come up with a project based on real scientific, engineering and technological problems. The students have come in and had a chance to work in the engineering laboratories and workshops that university students and researchers would use. After lots of problem solving and hard work, they presented what they had done so far. These are just a selection of some of the projects.
Mechanical Engineering – Lifting
This group was working on creating a lifting mechanism for a heavy item/box. The current method of lifting isn’t very good as its centre of gravity is in the middle so it wobbles when they lift it. They created a design with a cradle for the box which spreads out the centre of gravity. It is more stable and quicker to lift, saving the company time. The use of shackles mean the box can attached by hand, no tools are needed, again saving time.
Mechanical Engineering – Shield
A mechanical engineering group created an extendable shield. This is important for keeping people safe in war. In general all shields appeared to be really big or small, but there were none that could adapt to the situation. Use of cogs allowed the shield to be extended or retracted, solving the problem.
Electrical and Civil Engineering – Solar Power
The brief from WSP Global was to provide renewable energy through use of solar panels to the 350 people who work in the office. The students made a to scale model of the office based on blueprints and used a fixed angle light (as the sun) to look at the shading on the roof of the building. They also ran computer simulations to look at which areas would capture the most sun.
Civil Engineering – Leisure Centre
The brief was to design a leisure centre on land near to St James Football Park. There were lots of problems to be overcome in the design. The centre was to be built on top of an old mine shaft, which might mean the building would fall into the ground. They calculated that it was too expensive to fill the land underneath with concrete, so calculations had to be made for how heavy each part of the leisure centre would be.
Marine Engineering – Underwater vehicles
This marine engineering group was helped by engineers from BAE systems. They looked at making an underwater unmanned vehicle. They had to do some problem solving with getting the submarine to sink, working out the exact amount of weight required to make it neutrally buoyant. They used electromagnets to power the vehicle.
Marine Engineering – Underwater pipes
This group worked with GE oil and gas looking at using flexible pipes underneath the seabed. They compared two different materials; thermoplastic and thermoset. They did lots of tests, looking at things such as compression (squashing) and torsion (twisting) to find out its properties. They also looked at factors such as the price. Testing found that it was really important that there were no faults in the thermoplastic as it broke a lot easier. Underwater pipes are really important for transporting things like oil and gas.