WYPR

Explore the Aquatic World With John Racanelli

A Blue View

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

September 23, 2014: Saving the Scalloped Hammerhead Shark

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With a wide, thick head shaped like a double-headed hammer—one eye on each end—the scalloped hammerhead shark is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, this unusual-looking creature could disappear from our oceans if steps aren’t taken to protect it.

In July 2014, the National Marine Fisheries Service classified the scalloped hammerhead as endangered, making it the first species of shark to be protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Holly Bourbon, curator of large-fish exhibits and diving safety officer for the National Aquarium, is here today to share more about this fascinating animal and the threats it faces.

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September 16, 2014: Atlantic Sturgeon: Back to the Future

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Consider the Atlantic sturgeon. Huge, silvery-brown, snout-nosed, covered in horny plates called scutes, prehistoric-looking. Like sharks, Atlantic sturgeon have been swimming the seas and breeding in East Coast bays and rivers since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Some of the earliest vertebrates on the planet, their fossil record dates back 150 million years.

Along with cod, Atlantic sturgeon are one of our nation’s so-called "founding fish." The residents of Jamestown, the New World’s first English settlement, would have starved were it not for the protein these fish provided. Early colonists described Native American Powhatan men climbing onto the backs of adult sturgeon and riding them, as a rite of passage. Don’t try that at home …

Atlantic sturgeon were so abundant in the Chesapeake and Delaware bays in the 18th and 19th centuries that they comprised the two largest caviar fisheries in North America. In those times, it was a spring ritual to watch the annual sturgeon run up the rivers and streams of our region. In fact, Chesapeake mariners of the time complained that there were so many of these lumbering giants that sturgeon constituted a hazard to navigation.

Almost unknown to us today, Atlantic sturgeon still carry the distinction of being the largest and longest-living organisms in the rivers of the Eastern Seaboard. Historically, they have been measured at up to 14 feet, weighed in at 800 pounds and proven to live up to 60 years.

But there’s a wrinkle to this story. For today, you won't find one of those 800-pounders, because for all intents and purposes, they no longer exist. In annual sturgeon surveys in the Chesapeake Bay since 1950, no young fish have been counted. That’s zero. In 1997, a moratorium was placed on all catches, and the Atlantic sturgeon is now listed as a critically endangered species.

How did this this big, strong, long-lived fish, once so numerous that we complained about it, come to this? The answer is simple and blunt: Humans overfished them, and we made their habitat almost unlivable.

At the peak of the Chesapeake Bay sturgeon fishery in the 1890s, 7 million pounds of sturgeon were harvested and shipped off to New York, Boston and Chicago to satisfy an insatiable demand for smoked Atlantic sturgeon and pricey caviar. By 1920, there were no more fish to catch, and the fishery collapsed.

Due in part to its unique characteristics of long life and slow reproduction, the Chesapeake’s Atlantic sturgeon population has not been able to recover. They spawn only once every two years and, like humans, don’t become reproductive until their teens. As an anadromous species—one that lives in saltwater for most of its life and then seeks freshwater to spawn—sturgeon need clean, sediment-free rivers to reproduce. Unfortunately, dredging, damming of rivers, agricultural runoff and growing urban areas mean the Chesapeake region has historically neglected to provide these conditions.

But as in every such saga, there is hope. The unsung heroes of this story are fisheries biologists, whose sturdy goal is to bring the Atlantic sturgeon back to viable populations in the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay and the James, Hudson and Delaware rivers. The Departments of Natural Resources for Maryland and Delaware; the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and our own University of Maryland, through its Finfish Aquaculture Program, are currently building up a broodstock of young sturgeon, with a target of releasing them in a few years to repopulate their historic range, in waters now much improved.

To see this prehistoric fish again in the mighty Chesapeake will be one of those back-to-the-future moments we dream of. Can we do it?

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September 9, 2014: Bayscaping to Reduce Runoff

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Around the Chesapeake Bay area, we have a specific word for landscaping with the environment in mind: Bayscaping. This eco-friendly, holistic approach to gardening helps conserve water and prevent pollution that may otherwise end up being carried into our waterways. Suzanne Etgen, coordinator at the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy, is here with me today to discuss how we can create beautiful lawns and gardens while minimizing the polluted runoff that eventually enters the Bay.

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September 2, 2014: Shark Trivia: Little-Known Facts

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Forget “Shark Hunters.” There’s a wealth of fascinating facts that rarely get told. These unbelievable creatures are more diverse and intelligent than most people realize. Here to share some of the most surprising truths about sharks is Holly Bourbon, curator of large-fish exhibits and diving safety officer at the National Aquarium.

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August 26, 2014: The Wandering Albatross

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Perhaps you are familiar with the saying “an albatross around your neck.” This phrase, coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” refers to the association of the albatross with bad luck, mishap, struggle and worry.

But fevered sea dreams of ancient mariners aside, the albatross is magnificent, not only in size but in its incredible adaptation to the extreme dynamic, and—most important to the bird's flight—windy environment of the open ocean.

The wandering albatross, the largest of the 20-plus albatross species, has the largest wingspan of any bird on Earth.

Its wings are 11 feet long. That’s right: 11 feet. Move over, Big Bird. This is the big bird. It can weigh up to 22 pounds and eats mostly squid and fish, but it has been known to follow ocean-going boats in hopes of scavenging for galley scraps.

Why does it have such a wingspan? To ride strong sea breezes. Other than breeding, which it does on remote islands, the wandering albatross never sets its webbed feet on land. This animal spends its entire life—up to 50 years—in the air at sea.

For the 10 years before it reaches sexual maturity, it soars above the waves, seemingly effortlessly, gliding for hours on its giant wings. At times, it pauses and rests, bobbing on the waves.

It is a truly marine animal, as comfortable in the water and waves as a porpoise is.

It drinks saltwater. Without freshwater, most other animal species would dehydrate and die. But not the wandering albatross. So how does it survive on seawater?

Seabirds like albatrosses have their own desalinization system. They have adapted a salt gland over their eyes, with a structure like that of the kidney. The salt gland filters salt from their bloodstream. The extra salt is then excreted through grooves from the birds' nostrils to their bill and shaken off, back into the water.

A wandering albatross can fly more than 500 miles in one day without drinking freshwater or flapping its wings once. Over the course of its lifetime, it will fly a distance equivalent to the moon and back several times. It routinely maintains a speed of 50 miles per hour.

The albatross's ability to fly fast and far with minimal energy expenditure is called dynamic soaring. This practice has confounded and interested scientists and the aeronautics industry for years. Wouldn't it be great if our planes could do the same thing? Some engineers think so. And in fact, biomimicry is the process of using nature's blueprint to inform the building of our own devices.

The albatross has a fixed-elbow design of its wings, and its flight constantly curves into and out of the wind. Because of this, the albatross disproves the adage that the easiest way to go from Point A to Point B is a straight line. Wandering albatrosses never fly in a straight line. Instead of fighting the wind, they use it.

In fact, these remarkable seafarers are completely dependent on the wind. It’s no coincidence that they live in the far Southern Ocean, in an area of the globe known to sailors as "the Roaring 40s," where fierce, constant westerly winds predominate. Albatrosses are wind-powered animals.

Scientists who study albatrosses have noticed that, with the increase of wind velocity in the Southern Ocean due to global climate change, these birds themselves have become faster and are shifting their habitat slowly poleward, continuing the fascinating process of adaptation that goes back to their origins.

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August 19, 2014: A Place Like No Other

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Scientists have long known that there are places in the ocean that are deep—really deep. In fact, the ocean’s deepest point was named in 1876 after the Royal Navy’s Challenger expedition that discovered it. In the broad Pacific Ocean near Guam, Challenger Deep descends to 36,000 feet. How deep is that? Turn Mount Everest upside down, add a mile and you still wouldn’t touch bottom.

For centuries, the assumption was that nothing could live in the deep ocean because of the enormous pressure, lack of sunlight and extreme cold at such depths. But no one really knew, and exploration was impossible until the advent of deep submersibles, like the Alvin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's now famous little snub-nosed sub.

Its cockpit is a titanium sphere, with walls 2 inches thick. Its working depth is 15,000 feet—almost 3 miles. It can carry enough oxygen for three scientists to remain at depth for nine hours. And if this sounds like the start of an adventure story, that’s because it is.

Thirty-seven years ago, off the coast of the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin more or less worked out his theory of natural selection, another major discovery occurred. Deep into the Galapagos Rift, oceanographer Bob Ballard and his team rode Alvin 8,000 feet down and witnessed life not as we knew it. They became the first humans to view deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

Deep sea vents are associated with cracks and volcanism on the sea floor caused by the gargantuan shifting of Earth's tectonic plates.

In the total darkness, chimney-like formations appeared, spewing shimmering, inky, sulphurous and superheated water—up to 750 degrees—that was remarkably acidic, with a pH close to that of vinegar. Yet, around these "smokers"—in conditions seemingly toxic to life—there was … life!

It was like something out of a science-fiction movie. The deep-sea vents were oases of life amid miles of featureless sea floor, teeming with animals unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

Microbial mats that looked like fur. Clams, mussels and crabs scrabbling about giant 9-foot-long tube worms with stunningly red plumes. Around the vents were swarms of amphipods that might be the densest concentrations of invertebrate life on the planet.

It was a unique and ancient chemosynthetic food web unchained from— and completely independent of—the sun, which scientists had up to that moment assumed was the source of all life. In this ecosystem, life depends on heat and a soup of chemicals and archaic bacteria, some related to the very first life on Earth.

Impossible though it seems, the biomass of these hydrothermal vent communities is equivalent to that of a rain forest.

In the years since Alvin’s record-breaking dive, scientists continue to discover unique arrays of animal species at each new vent field they study. In 2012, in deep-sea vents around Antarctica, researchers found hairy-chested yeti crabs and predatory sea stars not seen in any other vent system.

The discovery of hydrothermal vents and their associated life forms blew the doors off our understanding of the parameters necessary to life. It also opened up a new era in the search for life in other extreme conditions on Earth, and perhaps other planets, too.

Now known as “extremophiles,” these creatures that live where we said they couldn't have been found in a range of other extreme habitats once thought inhospitable: ice, boiling water, acid, the water core of nuclear reactors, salt crystals and even toxic waste.

And it all began with that 1977 dive in the Galapagos Rift, when biologists learned that, when it comes to life, we can never say never.

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August 12, 2014: Landscaping and Gardening Without Polluting the Bay

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Summer is prime time for gardening and sprucing up our lawns—but what we do to our yards impacts our waterways than you might expect. As we go about planting this season’s flowers, trees, produce and herbs, it’s important to keep the health of our watershed in mind. Here to discuss some eco-friendly landscaping tips today is Suzanne Etgen, coordinator at the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy.

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August 5, 2014: Rising Seas

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On these hot summer days, our thoughts tend toward ice cream cones and tall glasses of ice water on a sweltering afternoon rather than the melting of ice sheets around the world. But just as the ice melting in your glass causes the water level to rise, so too does the melting of the world’s ice shelves.

Perhaps you’ve seen the incredible videos of massive chunks of ice breaking away from a glacier, causing crashing impressively into the sea. Until recently, it was thought that this was the primary cause of ice loss in Antarctica. But in fact, a study by NASA and university researchers indicates that warming oceans are also dissolving the ice from underneath the ice shelf at unprecedented rates, causing the greatest loss of Antarctic ice shelf mass. Scientists plan to use these data to help determine how ice shelves melt, improving projections of how the ice sheet might respond to a warming ocean and contribute to sea level rise.

Ice loss is not just occurring at the poles: NASA researchers have discovered that glaciers outside of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica lost an average of 571 trillion pounds of mass each year during the six-year study period, causing sea levels to rise almost two-tenths of an inch during that time. This actually matches the sea level rise attributed to the combined ice loss of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets.

Ice melting isn’t the only contributor to sea level rise. Warming temperatures cause waters to warm and expand. In turn, warming waters take up more volume. This phenomenon is called thermal expansion. The combination of ice melting and thermal expansion means that sea level rise is not just a possibility…it is happening now, and the only question is how fast it’s going to rise.

Many scientists now believe that sea levels will rise by no less than one to two feet by 2100. And without dramatic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, the threat could be much more substantial.

The East Coast in particular is at greater risk from sea level than other areas of the world, mainly due to ocean currents and differences in seawater temperature and ocean salinity, according to climate scientists. The U.S. Geological Survey found that sea levels from North Carolina to Boston climbed by about 2 to 4 millimeters a year between 1950 and 2009 as compared to a global average of one-half to 1 millimeter.

These amounts may seem small and unimportant, but the repercussions from these rising levels are anything but. Imagine increased coastal flooding, shoreline erosion, loss of wetlands, and destroyed homes and businesses on the order of superstorm Sandy. Sea level rise does affect us all.

We need to take steps to control warming, as sea surface temperature and sea level rise are inextricably linked. According to the U.S. EPA, sea surface temperatures have risen at an average rate of 13 one-hundredths of a degree per decade since 1901. As small as that may sound, over 112 years, that’s an increase of one and a half degrees, which is already impacting not only sea level, but also coral reefs and other essential ocean habitats, migration and breeding patterns, the intensity of storms, and the spread of invasive species and marine diseases.

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July 29, 2014: Secrets of Seaweed

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Have you ever felt the tangle of seaweed around your ankle when wading in the water? For many beachgoers, it’s enough to send them scrambling for shore. For them, the most common words used to describe seaweed are “slimy” and “disgusting.”

If you’re one of those people, over the next three minutes, I hope to change your mind—for seaweeds, in addition to being the most common plant forms on earth, are both beautiful and necessary for life.

"Seaweed" is a common name for marine plants and algae, but marine scientists use the word macroscopic algae. Macroscopic, multicellular, benthic marine algae, to be precise.

Some algae are microscopic, like the phytoplankton. Some are huge, like giant kelp. Most, however, fall somewhere in between, in saturated hues of green, red and brown.

In all of its various forms, seaweed is the cornerstone of life on Earth.

Did you know that three of your next five breaths come to you courtesy of phytoplankton, the tiny marine algae that produce most of the planet's oxygen? In fact, it’s because of phytoplankton's production of oxygenthat air-breathing life exists. That means us!

California's giant kelp, is arguably the classic example of seaweed. It grows in undersea forests and appears to have roots, a trunk and even leaves. But in fact, macro algae have none of these things.

For roots, they have what marine scientists call holdfasts. Their branches are called stipes, and their leaves are fronds. Many function in very similar ways to their terrestrial analogs, with one key difference: The holdfast is the plant’s anchor—it has no role in taking up nutrients the like the roots of a land plant. That process occurs throughout the kelp stalk.

Many macro algae also have the addition of special structures called floats or air bladders. They’re the plant's little life jackets, keeping it buoyed up and near the surface of the water, near the sunlight that it needs to grow.

And grow they do. Giant kelp can grow up to 2 feet per day, faster even than bamboo.

But, macro algae can live only as deep as sunlight can penetrate. Where the water is clear, such as in Hawaii or the Caribbean, algae can grow at depths of up to 800 feet.

Red algae grows best in the deep and can appear almost black due to a high concentration of a red pigment in its cells that helps the plant absorb blue light.

You’ve likely eaten algae. Nori, which holds together sushi rolls, is from the genus porphyra. Carageenen, derived from red algae, is added to ice cream, sauces and even beer, to which it adds a smoother, more viscous texture.

And your car is probably burning old algae. That’s right; much of the oil we use comes mostly from cretaceous deposits of marine algae.

In the future, you might also refuel on algae. Researchers have "cooked" algae in water to produce a kind of light sweet crude biofuel. Produced on a large scale, algal biofuel could bring the price of gas down, reduce our carbon footprint and hugely raise algae's stature.

Artist Josie Iselin recently released a book titled “An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed,” which shows the myriad forms and brilliant colors of algae she found simply by beachcombing near her home. She’s allowed us to post some of these stunning photos on our website, aqua.org/ablueview. Give it a look. I guarantee you’ll never look at seaweed the same way again.

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July 22, 2014: Seaside Wonders: Sea Stars and Urchins

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A common decorating theme for beachside cottages and inns, sea stars, sand dollars and sea urchins signify summer vacation.

Collectively, these animals are called echinoderms—part of a phylum that contains more than 7,000 living species. All dwell in seawater and are benthic, meaning they live on the seafloor from the shallows to the deep, where they creep about on little tube feet called podia.

The largest phylum without any freshwater or terrestrial forms, all echinoderms are sea creatures, and it’s no wonder we associate them with summer. Beachcombers find sand dollar skeletons at the water’s edge. Some consider them good luck.

The word echinoderm comes from the Greek for "hedgehog" and "skin." Many of these animals—the familiar tide pool sea stars, for instance—do have rough, spiny skin. But others in this large phylum do not.

Take the sea cucumber. About the size and shape of a soft-bodied cucumber you’d find at a farmers market, these grazers travel the seafloor searching for microscopic plankton to eat. Like terrestrial grazers, they travel in herds and feed on vegetation, but the comparisons stop there with these boneless invertebrates. In fact, sea cucumbers have some pretty awesome talents worthy of a superhero—or perhaps an anti-hero. When faced with danger, for example, they can expel their internal organs in front of a predator. After escaping, they quickly regenerate them. Pretty nifty.

Also from the department of the weird-but-true is the Northern sea star. Through a truly unique feeding strategy called eversion, the sea star extrudes its stomach through its mouth and into the shell of its prey—for example, a hapless mussel or clam—where it digests its meal before retracting its stomach back into its body. Don’t try THAT at home.

This amazing behavior aside, sea stars are most famous for their incredible ability to regenerate their arms. In some species, a whole new body can be recreated from a mere piece of a single arm. While we humans are capable of this on a much smaller scale—we can regrow a fingertip—sea stars have taken it to high art.

Scientists in the field of restorative neuroscience are working to understand this capacity of sea stars with the hope of translating it to humans to cure brain and nerve injuries.

What unites this large and disparate group is not their spiny skin, wandering stomachs or “Matrix”-like regenerative ability. It is their design. They all have an outer skeleton that forms tubules or spines. A vascular system pumps water in and out of their tube feet, enabling piston-like locomotion.

And, the echinoderms are all radially symmetrical, meaning that their body parts radiate from a central point like a bicycle wheel, which may explain why they appeal to us symmetry-loving humans.

Five is the magic number for echinoderms: Their appendages almost always occur in multiples of five, making them “pentameric.”

And some, of course, are delicious to eat. In California, the fishery for sea urchins is a big export, where the roe, or eggs, are a sushi delicacy in many parts of Asia.

As a matter of fact, this appetite for sea urchins is a good thing, as the sea urchin population on the West Coast has exploded due to a decline in sea otters, the urchins’ main predator. Fewer otters mean more urchins, with herds of urchins marching and voraciously munching, causing what scientists call "urchin barrens," areas of kelp forest degraded to desert-like conditions.

Sea otters aren’t just cute—they’re the police of the kelp forest, keeping the crop of sea urchins at bay.

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July 15, 2014: Transient Giants: How Sand Dunes Protect Our Beaches

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Anyone who has visited an Atlantic beach for a summer outing remembers its undulating sand dunes. But few know they’re also experiencing coastal geology that evolves in real time. Dunes move, grow and disperse, rolling along like land-based waves.

These transient giants are the dynamic protectors of your favorite beach—and even entire communities. Half the world's population lives near a coast—and three-quarters of its cities are also found there.

Dunes buffer the coast like natural sand bags, protecting the land behind them from wind and waves. They provide substrate and soil for plants to take root, stabilizing coastal areas much as marsh plants do for wetlands.

Dune vegetation like beach grass provides shelter for shorebirds and sea turtles to nest and for small mammals like wood mice to burrow. The dunes support an entire ecosystem—a micro-center of biodiversity at the beach—based on nothing more than sand stabilized over time by the complex interaction between plants, sand, animals and ocean.

Shifting sand, baking sun and high winds have caused dune animals and plants to specialize. The piping plover, a stocky little shorebird, nests directly on the sand, raising its young in the dunes. These habitats are critical to the survival of this threatened species.

American beach grass is one of the dune’s pioneer species, hardy species that are among the first to colonize previously damaged ecosystems. It quickly spreads, sending shoots up and roots down, its root structure acting as a sand anchor. Communities often plant this hearty grass in an effort to preserve their shorelines.

Dunes change and reform with the forces of the wind, water and time.

The movement of sand by wind is called aeolian transport. When the wind reaches 15 miles per hour, it's powerful enough to pick up grains of sand and deposit them against driftwood or vegetation where they eddy and build. This is the birth of an aeolian dune, wind-formed in layers over time, in much the same way that an oyster accretes its pearl around a particle of grit.

Dunes are monumental structures, but they’re also fragile—so they’re constantly on the move. Coastal geologists call the movement of dunes "migration." Dune migration happens when the dune grows so large that it buckles under its own weight. Its leeward side—called the slip face—slumps. Sand falls and collects at the dune's foot.

The prevailing wind pushes still more particles of sand, and they begin to pile up again at the foot of this new dune, and the process repeats. Face over feet, the dune appears to tumble forward. The "youngest" dunes are closest to the beach, and the "oldest" rise behind them.

Throughout history, humans have altered the coast. There is even evidence of native people's use of Atlantic dune grasses to make baskets, using the sharp pointed leaves as needles. And, as our communities have grown, we've wanted sand to stay put in some places, using groins and jetties. In other communities, we’ve worked mightily to remove it, choosing instead to dredge. In Ocean City, every few years the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pumps sand from offshore back on-shore in an effort to replenish the beach. In addition, they have created artificial dunes for beach protection.

The shoreline is forever being formed and broken down, yet one thing is constant: Dunes shore up the shore, and without them, there would be no beach.

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July 8, 2014: More Than Meets the Eye

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Take a walk on your local shoreline and you might be lucky enough to spot a blue heron fishing for its next meal or sand crabs disappearing back into the sand after being exposed by a crashing wave. But while these creatures might be the ones to catch your attention, many of our watershed’s more overlooked inhabitants are playing an equally critical role in maintaining this complex ecosystem. The National Aquarium’s visitor programs manager, Megan Anderson, is here with us to share how you can find some of the seashore’s hidden treasures..

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July 1, 2014: From Backyard to Bay: The Impact of Planting Native Plants

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The colorful Black-Eyed Susan and the sweet-smelling magnolia are just two of the many stunning flowers and trees native to the Chesapeake Bay region. As if their beauty wasn’t enough of a reason to add them to your backyard, these iconic plants also offer plenty of perks—both for you and the Bay. Here today to share their many benefits with us is Suzanne Etgen, coordinator at the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy.

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June 24, 2014: Survival Skills of the Elusive Giant Squid

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Its eye is the size of your head.

It lives more than 3,000 feet deep in oceans around the world and is 30-feet long, yet it lacks a backbone. With eight arms and two tentacles, it is the origin of the myth of the Kraken.

Its only predator is the sperm whale, whose numerous battle scars show evidence of this strange, epic battle between mammal and mollusk.v

I speak of the giant squid. Architeuthis. The only invertebrate larger is the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis { Me-ZONN-ee-ko-TOOTH-iss}, that lives in the frigid depths of the Antarctic Ocean and about which little is known. But stay tuned. The deep sea is a frontier.

Teuthologist (that's squid scientist for the rest of us) Rui Rosa of the University of Lisbon says the colossal squid "weighs half a ton, with hooks in its tentacles." But is the colossal squid the stuff of nightmares? Not really, he says. His findings show it's more like a giant blob.

These squids, both giant and colossal, have evolved through "abyssal gigantism" —the tendency of deep water creatures to get much larger than their shallow water cousins. Think of the Alaskan king crab, a single leg of which can feed a family, compared to the Chesapeake blue crab, which can take a bushel.

This gigantism also applies to the squid's nervous system. Most invertebrate nerve cells are visible only under a microscope, but all squids have a large nerve cell—the squid giant axon—that is as thick as the diameter of a felt-tip pen and extends the entire length of its body. This giant axonal network enables a terrifically fast startle-escape response. It can contract its mantle and jet-propulse out of the way of danger.

Though adept at self-preservation, the giant squid is also a hunter. It can whip-crack its long tentacles like a net full of deadly, razor-sharp suckers. It can be cannibalistic. Scientists believe some may even attack and eat small whales.

But how does it find food to eat in the dark abyss? Incredibly, in a habitat that's always midnight black, the giant squid hunts by sight.

With its gigantic eye, it can detect the faintest glimmers of bioluminescent light. Bioluminescence is chemical light, generated by plankton, jellies, anglerfish, and many other creatures who signal for food and mates, much like deep-sea fireflies.

American marine biologist Dr. Edie Widder used bioluminescence to her advantage when she recently captured on film, for the first time ever, an adult giant squid.

She and her team designed a biomimic lure, a blue pinwheel of light, identical to the distress signal of a common deep sea jellyfish, specifically to attract the squid.

It worked. The giant squid, the stuff of sailors' legends, zoomed into view, sinuous, metallic-golden, making history in both filmmaking and marine science. In the cockpit of their submersible, the scientists' elation can clearly be heard—like kids at Christmas!

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June 17, 2014: Reducing Your Footprint While Enjoying the Shore

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The Chesapeake Bay is a playground in the summer, with people using this amazing natural resource for fishing, boating, even simply enjoying a relaxing day on the beach along its shores. While we’re enjoying ourselves, though, it’s important to leave it as you found it—or even better. Megan Anderson, our visitor programs manager at the National Aquarium, joined Aquarium CEO John Racanelli to discuss the do’s and don’ts of exploring the shore responsibly.

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June 10, 2014: Unusual Fish Dads

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Seahorses, sea dragons and pipefish are among the most flamboyant fish in the ocean. Not only do they have a strange look that allows them to expertly camouflage themselves in their environment, but they exhibit some unusual behaviors, too. More on that in a moment.

Early scientists questioned whether these animals actually were fish. Seahorses, so named by Roman historian Pliny (“plinn-ee”) the Elder, have a snout and a neck bent like a Pimlico racehorse. However, they also hold the distinction of being among the slowest swimmers in the animal kingdom. They lack a tail fin, and their tail is elongated and prehensile, like a monkey's. They use this very un-fishlike tail for grasping and anchoring themselves to seaweed and sea grasses.

In another unusual characteristic, seahorses can move their eyes independently, allowing them to keep one eye on the lookout for predators and the other eye on the task at hand, which is usually eating. They may be slow swimmers, but they are ruthlessly efficient hunters, using that horse neck to lash out and nab their prey in an instant.

Cousins of the seahorses, pipefish, orient themselves in a very strange fashion: vertically, head-down, tail-up among the sea grasses, where they feed on tiny crustaceans. There, they can sway in the current, imitating the movement of the plants. By design, they are easily mistaken for a collection of reeds. Their mimicry of sea grass and seaweed is comparable to that of stick insects, who disguise themselves as leaves, bark and branches.

Similarly, the leafy and weedy sea dragons of Southern Australia have evolved elegant, translucent appendages—like garish gowns—that look like the fronds and holdfasts of the seaweeds and kelps in which they hide. The sea dragons barely appear to swim at all, rendering them virtually invisible to both predators and prey.

These fish—and they are emphatically bony fish—share similar physical characteristics: sinuous elongated bodies and small, tube-like mouths with no teeth at all. They use these highly adapted mouths like straws to slurp up crustaceans and plankton.

The vast majority of the members of this family share an unusual reproductive strategy. The males have a specialized pouch into which the female deposits her eggs. It's the fathers who brood the eggs. That’s right: Males brood and bear the young.

Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised.

We humans have a mammalian bias toward the way we do things. The parental behavior of seahorses is what scientists call a "black swan." It up-ends standard biological biases, profoundly reversing our understanding of the complexity of adaptations that can arise via evolution. It's amazing, and in all the incredible species that exist in our world, it is clear that there is no one right way to bring forth life.

May and June mark the peak breeding season for the Chesapeake's two species of pipefish: the Northern and the dusky pipefish. The males brood their eggs for two weeks before giving birth to fully formed baby pipefish. And with that thought, I bid you a Happy Father’s Day.

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June 3, 2014: Mapping the Seafloor

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Oceanography and seafloor mapping have been headline news recently in the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. State-of-the-art sonar and robotics have been deployed to search the ocean floor, an area that’s been dark, deep and remote for all of time. More than 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by the ocean and, until recently, most of the seafloor lay far beyond our technological capabilities.

Out of necessity, sailors and fishermen were the earliest oceanographers, navigators and cartographers. They needed to know the locations of reefs and shoals to ensure the safe passage of ships and cargo. The first true charts of the seafloor were rendered in the 16th century using sounding lines.

This tedious method involved lowering a weighted hemp rope into the water. When the tension on the line slackened, sailors would call out the depth marked on the line. Hence, the term “soundings.”

It was primitive, and the margin of error was huge. Sometimes, an entire day was needed for just a few depth measurements.

Early explorers assumed the seafloor was uniformly flat. However, as soundings became more accurate, charts showed something striking: The seafloor was far from featureless and included canyons, ridges and even cliffs.

Thus was born the science of bathymetry, the study of the shapes and depths of underwater terrain. As topography is to overland terrain, bathymetry is to the land under the sea.

The 19th-century expedition by the British Navy’s HMS Challenger is considered the first true oceanographic voyage. Its express purpose was to collect information about the ocean’s biology, chemistry and geology—and especially the seafloor.

Using an elaborate version of that sounding line, the Challenger discovered the ocean’s deepest point, near Guam, in 1875. Now known as “Challenger Deep,” modern sonar soundings tell us its depth is 36,200 feet. That's a lot of hemp rope.

The ocean averages 14,000 feet deep, but only after World War II, as seafloor mapping improved with sonar, were scientists able to visualize the totally unexpected geology beneath the waves.

One such feature is a massive underwater mountain chain called the Global Mid-Ocean Ridge. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Mid-Ocean Ridge encircles the Earth like the seam on a baseball and is the planet’s most prominent topographical feature. The island nation of Iceland is, in fact, part of it, one of the few places where the underwater mountain range rises above sea level. Actively volcanic, the entire Global Mid-Ocean Ridge system is a volcanologist's dream dissertation. The ridge was formed by plate tectonics, the movement of mammoth masses of the Earth’s crust. Here in the Mid-Atlantic region, our oceanographic address is the eastern edge of the North American plate.

The ocean is vast, and even today, with all of our modern technological advances, barely 5 percent of its floor has been described in detail.

We've left the weighted hemp ropes behind and now map the ocean floor using exotic technologies like side-scan sonar, remote submersibles and autonomous underwater vehicles—a major improvement, to be sure. But, as scientists have pointed out, it would take a ship equipped with the latest sonar capabilities about 200 years to map the entire ocean floor in high resolution. Sounds like we have our work cut out for us.

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May 27, 2014: Bob Talbot: Redefining Ocean Conservation

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Marine photographer, videographer and environmentalist Bob Talbot has been working in and around the ocean since he was a young man living along the California coastline. His experiences have led him to believe that in order to achieve real positive change in our ocean, we need to change the conversation about the environment. Bob sat down with National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli to share his views on ocean conservation and what needs to be done to protect our blue planet.

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May 20, 2014: Go with the Flow

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Go with the flow. For some people, this is a life philosophy; for oceanographers, it describes the very dynamics of our global ocean.

Early seafaring cultures knew of dependable ocean currents that moved their craft swiftly across the sea, like conveyor belts. The Polynesians were among the first to develop oceanographic maps. Made from shells and sticks of bamboo, these stick charts enabled them to deftly navigate Pacific currents.

Mapped in 1762 and named by Benjamin Franklin, the Gulf Stream is the Atlantic Ocean’s best-known current. Functioning like a gigantic river, it carries a greater volume of water than all of the world’s freshwater rivers combined.

Starting with the Gulf of Mexico’s loop current, the stream flows around the southern tip of the Florida peninsula and runs up the Eastern Seaboard. Here in Maryland, at Ocean City, Gulf Stream eddies make for great sport fishing. It then speeds up the coast into New England, finally taking a right at Cape Cod to cross the Atlantic to Europe, influencing the climate of every landmass it passes.

For example, Penzance, on England’s southern tip, is warmer than any other area at that latitude thanks to the Gulf Stream's tropical effect. In spite of its location, its environment even supports palm trees!

But the map of global ocean currents wasn't drawn with precision until fairly recent times. And that was literally a windfall, involving a now-famous shipment of rubber duckies.

In 1992, a ship on its way from Hong Kong to the United States was carrying, among other things, a container of bath toys. The container was accidentally lost overboard in the middle of the Pacific, where it broke open and 28,000 plastic ducks were let loose to sail (or more accurately, bob) across the high seas.

Oceanographers call this fleet the "Friendly Floatees," and they became a boon to science, functioning as current-tracking mini-buoys for years.

Among other things, the duckies provided proof of the existence of the North Pacific Gyre, where 2,000 ducks still float, locked in a loop with other plastics from all over the world in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In 2007, a duckie appeared on a beach in France, marking a 15-year, 12,000-mile journey around the globe, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Another was found trapped in Arctic ice. The message from the duckies is clear: Our one world ocean is truly interconnected.

While the Gulf Stream and the North Pacific Gyre are composed of surface currents driven by wind and the Earth's rotation, there are also great, moving rivers in the deep ocean.

Driven by temperature and salinity gradients, the thermohaline conveyor—called thermo for temperature and haline for salt—begins as the warm Gulf Steam cools in the northern Norwegian Sea. Ice forms, taking with it freshwater and leaving behind dense, salty, cold water that sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

Amazingly, this global ocean conveyor carries a volume of water almost 5,000 times greater than Niagara Falls, transporting 20 million cubic meters of water per second. That's equivalent to half a million Olympic-sized swimming pools every minute.

This global circulation system slowly mixes and churns all of the planet’s seawater in a process that can take a thousand years.

Scientists believe climate change may already be impacting this important system and, by extension, the nutrient distribution that is the foundation of the world's fisheries, underscoring again the importance of mitigating the effects of global climate change.

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May 13, 2014: Inside a Cleanup Event: What We Find in Our Waterways

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Most of us probably believe that we do a pretty good job of picking up after ourselves, but the reality is that trash does, in fact, make its way into our streets, our communities, our shores and our waterways. To help critical habitats in the Chesapeake Bay area, the National Aquarium’s Conservation Team regularly hosts cleanups where Aquarium staff and volunteers pick up what others have left behind. Charmaine Dahlenburg, conservation project manager for the National Aquarium, talks with Aquarium CEO John Racanelli about this important work.

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May 6, 2014: Raising a Child with the Environment in Mind

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For many parents, raising a child to appreciate the natural world is a priority. And the good news is that the cultivation of this environmental awareness can start from a very early age. Heather Doggett, director of visitor programs at the National Aquarium, talks with Aquarium CEO John Racanelli about raising an ecologically aware child.

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April 29, 2014: Getting To Know Bob Talbot

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As a world-renowned marine photographer, award-winning filmmaker and dedicated environmentalist, Bob Talbot uses the power of film to advocate for the ocean. A true friend to the Aquarium and the creator of our new video wall at the entrance to Blue Wonders: Reefs to Rain Forest, Bob sat down with CEO John Racanelli to talk about his work on the ocean conservation front lines.

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April 22, 2014: Bringing Back Atlantic White Cedars

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Historically, Atlantic white cedar forests were common to the Eastern Shore. Over time, these trees were harvested, and the swampy areas they depend on for survival were drained and replanted with fast-growing loblollies as part of the forest industry to produce lumber and paper pulp. Now, the National Aquarium, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, is trying to bring these unique native Atlantic white cedar forests back to the Eastern Shore. Charmaine Dahlenburg, conservation project manager for the National Aquarium, talks with Aquarium CEO John Racanelli about this important work.

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April 15, 2014: Floating Forests

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Gardeners in Maryland know that most trees in our temperate climate don't like having wet feet. And water that's salty? Forget about it. Around here, having tree roots submerged in saltwater is guaranteed to kill off your landscaping.

But far south of the Chesapeake, fringing tropical and subtropical coastlines, there exist floating forests of mangroves, whose roots grow in a luxuriant tangle at the ocean’s edge. And there, they thrive.

Botanists call the 50 species of mangroves halophylic, or "salt loving." Mangroves have adapted to putting down roots where other plants can't: in areas inundated daily by the tide; in thin, nutrient-poor, low-oxygen soils; and in water that varies from fresh to brackish to salty.

Just how much salt can mangroves tolerate? Well, typical seawater has a salinity of 35 parts per thousand; in other words, about 35 grams of salt for every liter of sea water. Some species of mangroves can survive in salinities of more than 90 parts per thousand!

To thrive in this salty abundance, these plants need strategies to clear the excess salt. Some species excrete it through glands in their leaves. Others use their roots.

Another adaptation of some mangroves is the ability to live in anoxic soil by "breathing" through pneumatophores, specialized roots that grow up instead of down, rising from the muddy substrate above the water like thick fingers.

The weird, knobby roots of mangroves actually make traveling to paradise for a tropical vacation possible—tough, woody evergreen mangroves stabilize the soil and prevent many islands from simply washing away.

Thank the mangroves, too, for the colorful diversity of fish and invertebrates you see on your next coral reef dive. Many oceanic and coral reef fish—including snapper, tarpon and lobster—spawn in the nursery provided by the mangrove’s submerged tangle of roots.

A mangrove forest is a rich hub of biodiversity, supporting a unique ecosystem of bacteria, plants, mammals, amphibians, invertebrates and birds—some found nowhere else.

Earth’s largest mangrove forest—the Sunderbans of India and Bangladesh—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to at least 250 species of birds, endangered estuarine crocodiles and even Bengal tigers.

In North America, mangrove swamps are found throughout the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas. The largest mangrove forest in the United States is in Florida’s aptly named Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. This special place is home to many endangered species, including West Indian Manatees, and clouds of scarlet ibis and white pelicans.

Although mangrove forests host so-called “charismatic megafauna” like manatees and tigers, truly their greatest treasure may be the thick mud of mangrove leaf litter—fertile with bacteria and fungi—that accumulates in the water below the trees. There, detritivores, like crabs and other animals, feed on decaying leaf litter and contribute to a complex food web that begins, literally, in the mud.

Other microfauna encrust the mangrove's submerged roots, including a profusion of filter feeding mussels and barnacles. Like Chesapeake’s oysters, mangrove barnacles efficiently filter pollutants from the water.

These crustaceans and mollusks in turn support populations of shrimp and fish that are economically important to Gulf of Mexico fisheries.

So, the next time you’re dining on sustainably caught shrimp, take a moment to thank a mangrove for your meal.

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April 8, 2014: The Colorful Poison Dart Frog

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Blue as sapphires, red as rubies and black as onyx—there are more than 100 species of beautifully colored poison dart frogs. There is even one called "the blue jeans frog," because its bottom half is the color of designer denim.

These small creatures live in tropical forests of the New World from Costa Rica to Brazil. In a defensive tactic known as aposematic coloration, the graphic patterns on their skin and their stunning hues serve as a warning to would-be predators.

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April 1, 2014: The Challenges of Polluted Runoff

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One of the most challenging environmental issues in communities across Maryland and, in fact, around the world is polluted runoff. As solutions are considered and implemented, what remains abundantly clear is that we have to do something. To talk to us about polluted runoff and what we can all do to make a difference is Charmaine Dahlenberg, conservation project manager for the National Aquarium.

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March 25, 2014: Why Turtle Rescue is Important

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Did you know that every species of sea turtle in US waters is endangered? Preserving these amazing and essential sea creatures is of the utmost importance. Manager of Animal Rescue at the National Aquarium, Jenn Dittmar, talks with John Racenelli about the work her team is doing on behalf of sea turtles and why this work is so important.

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March 18, 2014: The Sounds of the Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers

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Through the winter, woodlands and meadows are mostly quiet at night. But with the arrival of spring rains and warming temperatures, that silence is broken by loud choruses of wood frogs and spring peepers. These are the first frog species to come out of hibernation and begin the year’s amphibian breeding season.

Spring peepers are small, just one inch in length, but you wouldn’t know it from their sound. Each peeper can produce a call as loud as 90 decibels. Multiply that by the number of frogs in a wetland habitat, and you have a sound that can rival that of a rock concert.

Why so noisy? That’s how the male spring peepers attract females from the surrounding woodlands. As the females come out of hibernation, they are carrying between 200 and 1,000 eggs, and the females are outnumbered by the males at about 9 to 1. Competition is intense, and females choose males based on the quality of his song.

Because of this competition, males wrestle for the best spots at the chorusing site. Interestingly, Dr. Don Forester and David Lykens of Towson University discovered that some spring peeper males were successful in breeding with females through a very deceptive strategy. Because calling requires a huge amount of energy, some spring peeper males, known as satellite males, don’t call at all. Instead, these satellite males save energy by positioning themselves near the top singers. They then intercept females moving toward the calling males. Satellite males are smaller than calling males and would probably be at a disadvantage in trying to attract females with a less impressive voice.

Once the female spring peeper makes her choice, she releases eggs, which are fertilized externally by the male’s sperm. She can lay more than 1,000 eggs, which are attached individually or in small clusters to underwater vegetation, sticks, and fallen leaves.

Though the spring peeper is often considered the first frog to emerge from hibernation and therefore an early sign that winter is indeed over, the wood frog is usually ahead of the peeper. In fact, in mild winters, wood frogs have been observed arriving in woodland pools as early as February. In Maryland, they are the earliest frog species to mate and reproduce.

Wood frogs are often referred to as “explosive breeders” because they arrive in large numbers and have a short breeding season, usually only lasting the first few weeks of late winter or early spring. Wood frogs almost exclusively lay their eggs in vernal pools, which are small temporary bodies of water that form in depressions. Because these pools dry over the summer, wood frogs must lay their eggs, the eggs must hatch, and tadpoles must fully develop and metamorphose before the pools dry. The wood frog’s strategy is to arrive first and maximize the time needed to make it the entire way through the process. Wood frog tadpoles often dine on the newly laid eggs of later arriving frog species.

Another survival strategy of the wood frog is the practice of literally putting all its eggs in one basket. They lay their eggs in a communal mass in the vernal pool.

Even as these frogs perpetuate their life cycle, they do face challenges. Their well-being is intricately linked to the survival of their woodland home and their vernal pools. Be considerate of these habitats in your neighborhood by preventing trash and other pollution from traveling through your waterways. Slow down while driving on warm spring nights, allowing amphibians to migrate safely across roadways. And when you pay these amazing creatures a visit in their natural habitat, observe but don’t disturb.

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March 11, 2014: Impervious Surfaces

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The phrase “impervious surface” is used by city planners, developers, real estate agents, lawyers, and citizens in Maryland and beyond. So what are they all talking about?

How water flows, or more accurately, doesn't flow.

Impervious surfaces are those through which water cannot penetrate, and most developed areas rely on impervious surfaces—in the form of roads, parking lots, highly compacted surfaces like athletic fields or construction sites, concrete canals, and the roofs of every building—from big box stores to our homes. All of them prevent rainwater from doing its thing, which is to naturally percolate through the soil and into streams and aquifers. Like a sponge, the soil soaks up and releases water, slowly, much like a filter.

By far the largest contributions to impervious surface area in almost any community are surfaces built for our cars.

Impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots don't sponge or filter; instead they act like sluices, funneling huge volumes of urban water speedily into storm drains and sewers, overwhelming them, and damaging local streams and watersheds. One recent study indicates that, when the imperviousness of a watershed exceeds 15 percent, stream health invariably gets rated below acceptable standards.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, impervious surfaces are harmful to streams for three reasons: water quantity, water quality and water temperature.

This too-much-too-fast flow of water from roads and roofs—imagine watering your lawn with a fire hose—causes stream-bed erosion, severe degradation of the habitat for fish and aquatic insects, and increased sedimentation and debris in the water column.

If you’ve ever fished for trout, you know how important cool, clean streams are. The formula is clear: No cool, clear, well-oxygenated stream water means no trout.

Regarding water quality, the DNR notes that pollutants such as spilled gasoline, engine oil, heavy metals, detergents, fertilizers and pesticides accumulate on impervious surfaces during dry periods, then are flushed directly into nearby streams by heavy rainfall. This polluted runoff is toxic to stream life.

And finally, temperature. In the summer, when rainwater falls on hot pavement, the water becomes superheated as it flows into your local stream. Animals like trout and salamanders suffer and can die from these instantaneous hot baths.

In fact, there are certain species of salamanders so sensitive to habitat disruption that they disappear from watersheds where there is less than one percent of impervious land cover.

Stream habitats across the state are adversely affected by urban sprawl. But it's not just animals that live in or near them that are paying a price. We are too. Every Maryland citizen lives within 15 minutes of a stream or river, and our health is closely tired to theirs.

Polluted run-off increases accumulation of E.Coli bacteria and with it, drinking water contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent National Water Quality Inventory noted that runoff from urbanized areas is the leading source of water quality impairments.

So, what can be done?

Developers are working with biologists and wetland ecologists to create man-made wetlands that mimic the percolating effect of the natural stream banks and uplands.

Individuals and families can install rain barrels and living roofs, choose biodegradable detergents, and let their lawns go fallow in the summer.

Engineers are working to create roadways made of porous concrete that looks like a rice-crispy treat, but can stand up to traffic.

For all of us, the goal must be to keep fast, superheated and polluted runoff out of our streams, and to let nature guide the way we develop the land. A healthier habitat for salamanders and trout is every bit as healthy for humans.

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March 4, 2014: Inside Giant Clams

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In the vastness of the ocean, there are many so-called animal to animal symbionts, seemingly odd-fellow relationships from which both species benefit. The movie Finding Nemo made famous one such partnership, that of the clownfish and anemone.

But what about symbiosis between an animal and a plant? Or more specifically, a plant-like alga called zooxanthellae? It’s a surprisingly common phenomenom, especially in the shallows of warm equatorial reefs where there’s abundant light for photosynthesis. Corals, jellies, even sea slugs participate.

And so does Tridacna gigas, the giant clam of the Indo-Pacific, the largest bivalve mollusk on Earth and the world's only sun-powered clam.

The giant clam hosts a thick layer of zooxanthellae in its tissues and gets up to 90 percent of its nutrition from their photosynthesis. Imagine if we could do that? Just stand outside on a sunny day and photosynthesize? That's pretty close to a free lunch.

The giant clam does its part, too, by providing the zooxanthellae with a habitat protected from hungry predators.

During the day, the giant clam extends its mantle tissue, allowing sunlight to reach the zooxanthellae. In fact, full-size giant clams cannot fully close their shells. You're less likely to get your foot stuck in a giant clam like in one those ‘50s-style horror movies than to get a hernia from trying to pick one up.

Because of their symbiotic relationship with the zooxanthaellae, giant clams can photosynthesize their food like plants, even as they carnivorously filter feed, sieving out plankton from the water as all clams do. No Omnivore's Dilemma for the giant clam.

And with this abundance of nutrition, giant clams have gone turbo—at least in terms of size. Giant clams grow and grow. In the wild, they can reach a length of four feet, weigh up to 500 pounds, and live for a hundred years.

Scientists have also discovered the giant clam can even “farm” its zooxanthellae. At night, specialized cells called amebocytes search out and digest old algal cells, keeping the "farm" clean and healthy, and in the process aiding the entire reef. The giant clam's vigorous filtering keeps reef water crystal clear and free of fouling organisms.

But these giants are becoming rare, and near some Pacific Islands, are already locally extinct.

There is a huge demand for every single part of the giant clam. For Pacific Islanders, who rely on the ocean’s bounty for most of their diet, giant clams have been a traditional food source for millennia. The clam's mantle and dried adductor muscle are considered a delicacy in Asia.

Further, every year approximately 200,000 live giant clams are taken for the ornamental aquarium trade. Their shells are, of course, sought-after as souvenirs. The zooxanthellae make the clam's mantle look glamorous, in hues of electric blue to malachite green. Each clam's pattern is unique and has long caught the eye of humans.

To save the giant clam, and the reefs on which they make their home, mariculturists are learning to farm them on Fiji and other islands, much the same way oysters are raised in the Chesapeake Bay. The goal is to reintroduce them into the wild, where they can filter and photosynthesize to their hybrid heart’s content. As happy as clams.

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February 25, 2014: Sylvia Earle

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It’s been said that hope is the most powerful motivator in the world…a principle with which I happen to agree. I came to this, in good measure, due to a remarkable person named Dr. Sylvia Earle, oceanographer, scientist, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, and one of this blue planet’s most ardent champions.

I had the good fortune to work with Dr. Earle a few years ago in launching a new organization called Mission Blue. And what I learned while working with this ardent advocate for what she calls Earth’s blue heart, is that conservation is ultimately about the power of hope.

In this time of 24/7 news cycles, we hear endlessly about the world’s “hot spots”… bleak stories of civil wars, droughts and degraded ecosystems… But, Sylvia took an entirely new tack when she launched the idea of “Hope Spots,” special places in our ocean that are critical to our planet’s health and worth restoring and preserving as marine protected areas.

These hope spots are found throughout world, from the Coral Triangle in the western Pacific Ocean, perhaps the most diverse marine ecosystem on earth…to the deep underwater canyons of Alaska’s Bering Sea, home to whales, fur seals, king crabs, and even cold water corals. From the evocatively named White Shark Café, an area of several thousand square miles in the deep Pacific where large numbers of great white sharks aggregate every winter to feed and breed…to the Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second longest coral reef, spanning three Central American nations. The message that Sylvia wants to share is that there is still hope, provided we take decisive action, now.

In fact, she has identified 51 existing or potential Hope Spots …impressive, until we learn that less than 2 percent of the ocean is currently protected, in contrast to over 12 percent of the world’s land area. Considering that the ocean covers 71 percent of the planet, we have a long way to go.

When Sylvia received the coveted TED Prize a few years ago, she declared that the next 10 years would likely be more important than the next 10,000 to the future of the ocean. What we do right now will set the tone for our relationship with this ocean planet for a long time to come.

So, where do we stand? Well, it would be easy to despair… we humans have eaten more than 90 percent of the sea’s big fish, nearly half the world’s coral reefs have disappeared or are at risk, dead zones continue to increase around the mouths of many of our mightiest rivers, and we have now identified five massive trash gyres in the world’s largest oceans.

But in the midst of all this negativity, Sylvia reminds us that there is hope. Ten percent of those big fish still live—enough to restore most fish stocks, given time. Fifty percent of coral reefs are still thriving and worthy of saving. And we can bring those dead zones back to life just by taking better care of the water that flows down our rivers. In fact, the percentage of marine protected areas has doubled since Sylvia began this mission 7 years ago by deftly steering former president George Bush into declaring two of the largest marine protected areas in US history, one of them Papa Hana Mokuo Kea…the Northwest Hawaiian Islands national marine monument.

In a storied career that includes leading more than 100 ocean science expeditions and logging more than 7,000 hours underwater, Sylvia knows the ocean as few do. She believes that a global network of Hope Spots can support biodiversity, absorb our carbon, generate life-giving oxygen, preserve critical habitat and allow low-impact activities like adventure travel and artisanal fishing to thrive.

Now that’s reason for hope.

Learn more about our 2014 Marjorie Lynn Bank Lecture Series and get tickets and information on upcoming events.

February 18, 2014: Clownfish

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Parents of young children know a thing or two about clownfish. These adorable orange- and white-striped fish rocketed to stardom in the animated classic Finding Nemo, which featured an adventurous clownfish hero.

Clownfish popularity, however, extends far beyond the preschool set. The movie led to an upswing in their capture for the exotic pet trade, and they are now one of the most popular saltwater aquarium fish.

That was the downside of the Nemo-effect. The upside? More people became interested in coral reef conservation. It is an ecosystem of tremendous importance, fragility and interdependence, and clownfish are an indicator species for reef health.

Further, they are truly fascinating creatures. When Nemo's dad, Marlin, names all of the eggs Marlin Junior, the moviemakers got the science right: all clown fish are born male. Many fish species are able to change sex, almost always from female to male. But the clownfish is different, changing gender only to become the dominant female of the group, and that change is irreversible. In a clownfish group living in an anemone the largest fish is female, the second largest a male. They are the mating pair.

But the adventure story of Nemo's dad traveling far and wide to find his son? Unscientific. In the wild, clownfish never venture far from their anemone. It's home...and pantry. It's this interdependence that has earned the fish their full name: the anemone clownfish.

The relationship between anemones and anemone clownfish is a classic oceanic partnership of mutualism.

In science, mutualism is defined as a relationship between two species in which both benefit from the association. In fact, clownfish and anemones probably couldn't live without each other, which qualifies them as "obligate symbionts."

They couldn't be more different, yet they need each other to survive. The clownfish is a vertebrate, while a sea anemone is an invertebrate, closely related to corals and jellyfish. And like them, its sting is deadly to most other creatures.

So how does the clownfish manage to live among the anemone’s lethal tentacles? Well, very cautiously. As the clownfish gets to know its anemone, it does an elaborate ballet of tentative darting movements, touching the anemone's stinging tentacles gently, working up immunity and a protective layer of mucus.

Once they've acclimated to each other, they eat each other's food scraps. The anemone's tentacles provide the clownfish with protection from predators. The clownfish protects the anemone from predators like the butterfly fish and nibbles the anemone free of parasites.

Cozy, right?

But scientists have recently discovered that there is additional complexity to the relationship.

The anemone benefits from the clownfish's ammonia-rich waste. It’s like anemone fertilizer: it helps the animal grow.

After all, a bigger anemone is better for both; its larger tentacles can snare larger, more nutritious prey and the clownfish gets better leftovers and more spacious living quarters.

There's also a fascinating nocturnal half to the anemone-clownfish routine. Scientists used to think that at night the clownfish snuggled quietly inside the anemone. But Dr. Nanette Chadwick and her team at Auburn University recently discovered that the clownfish moves around more than was suspected, reminiscent of a dog trying to get comfortable on its dog bed.

The clownfish's movements oxygenate the water deep within the anemone's tangle of tentacles. In effect, the clownfish helps the anemone breathe.

Clownfish and anemones literally cannot live without one another. In the sea, as in Hollywood, they call that chemistry!

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February 11, 2014: Seals on our Coasts

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Spotting seals on Mid-Atlantic beaches at this time of year is a lot more common than you think. Manager of Animal Rescue for the National Aquarium, Jenn Dittmar, talks with John Racanelli about these special visitors and how to act when you spot a seal on our shores

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February 4, 2014: Mysteries of the Deep

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Thousands of feet beneath the surface of the ocean, animals live, even thrive, in conditions that are impossible for most of us to even imagine.

Our blue planet is indeed a water planet, yet incredibly, over 90 percent of the ocean remains unexplored and unseen by humans. In a world that’s increasingly tamed and catalogued, it’s astounding to learn that there have been only two journeys to the ocean’s greatest depth, Challenger Deep, off the Mariana Islands—in 1960 and 2012. That first epic descent occurred in 1960…before we’d even ventured into space!

At that deepest point, the dark waters of the ocean extend 36,000 feet down—nearly 7 miles. For comparison, the recommended maximum depth for recreational scuba divers is just 130 feet. Photosynthesis is no longer possible at 650 feet, with sunlight gradually diminishing until approximately 3,300 feet, below which, no light ever penetrates.

But far, far down at the bottom of the ocean is an environment unlike any other place on earth. It is frigid—between 30 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit, but never frozen, because salt lowers the freezing point of seawater. The complete darkness is broken only by the light emitted by animals themselves, called bioluminescence. And the intense pressure at these depths is the equivalent of supporting 50 jets on your back!

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know about this mysterious region—earth’s largest habitat. Experts believe that up to two-thirds of the plant and animal species in the world ocean may still await our discovery, with as many as one million species of non-bacterial life yet to be identified. In other words, we’ve only scratched the surface.

What we do know is that life is abundant in the deep sea. Since plants can’t survive at these depths, hardy animals like crabs, sea stars, anemones, sea slugs, sponges, and fish are uniquely adapted to these extreme conditions.

Some prey on other bottom-dwelling creatures while others eat marine snow, the remains of plants and animals and other biological detritis that drift down from the ocean’s upper layers. Some species of fish have large jaws and enormous stomachs that allow them to consume vast quantities at one time since meals are so rare.

Most deep-sea creatures are transparent, black, or red, allowing for effective camouflage since red is invisible at these depths. Some, like the bioluminescent lanternfish, send messages to other animals or attract prey via their light-emitting organs. Species like the vampire squid have huge eyes that enable them to use what little light exists, while others have no eyes at all, instead employing smell, touch, and vibration to visualize their surroundings. Many fishes have strong gills, the better to extract what little oxygen does exist there. And every animal at these depths has to be able to withstand crushing pressure.

As a result, many of these creatures are unable to survive the trip up to the surface when collected for research purposes, so scientists who study these marine species now use pressurized containers to replicate their environment.

Increasingly, deep-sea submersibles, both manned and unmanned, are making the long journey to the deep ocean, enhancing our knowledge exponentially with each dive. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they will discover next.

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January 28, 2014: Seafood: Watching What You Eat

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We’ve heard a lot about seafood fraud and why it is detrimental to consumers, but what’s being done about it? Beth Lowell, Campaign Director for Oceana, the largest international advocacy group wor king solely to protect the world’s oceans, talks with John Racanelli about accountability in the seafood industry.

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January 21, 2014: Importance of Satellite Tracking

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Animals come to the National Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in need. Once they are fully rehabilitated, they often leave our facility with a little something extra—a satellite tracking device. Manager of Animal Rescue for the National Aquarium, Jenn Dittmar, talks with John Racanelli about the importance of satellite tracking and what it means for the health of wildlife in our oceans.

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January 14, 2014: Pain Killer from the Sea

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Over 100 million American adults live with chronic pain—more than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined. It is a significant public health problem.

In the 19th century, scientists discovered that opiates such as morphine could relieve pain. Opiates, however, are associated with many adverse side effects and carry the risk of addiction.

Enter the lowly cone snail.

There are more than 3,200 species of marine predatory gastropods assigned to the genus Conus. You may recognize some of them from their beautiful shells, ranging from thimble- to palm-sized, colored in artful speckles and zig zags of brown and white. They are prized by shell collectors.

Cone snails live primarily in warm tropical and subtropical seas. Scientists became interested in cone snails as potential pharmaceutical agents because of the way they capture their prey, like which is right out of a science-fiction movie. Like archers, snails launch a venomous harpoon, a miniature hypodermic needle filled with poison, instantly immobilizing or killing their prey. To most, not a very snail-like things to do.

The venom contains conotoxins, some of which are mild central nervous system neurotoxins that cause numbness and pins and needles, but others can even kill a human.

So, if you're ever on a tropical vacation and see a cone snail, by all means admire it’s beauty from afar, but don't pick it up. Instead, leave the snail-wrangling to people like Dr. Baldomero "Toto" Olivera.

As a child in the Philippines, Toto witnessed cone snails bringing down large fish and wondered what exactly made it such a potent toxin…so he decided to devote his career to finding out.

Toto and his team were the first to isolate a powerful analgesic compound from the magician's cone snail. It is non-addictive, does not cause tolerance, has few side effects and, amazingly, is 100,000 times more powerful than morphine. Marketed under the name Prialt, it was approved in 2004 by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of severe pain. It must be administered by a spinal pump, but oral formulations are in the works.

These clinical human trials will, if successful, be the biggest leap forward in pain management since the 19th century discovery of morphine. That is joyous news to the 47 percent of American adults who suffer from chronic pain.

However, as fast as we are learning about the cone snails (and other plants, animals, and microbes whose beneficial compounds are yet to be discovered), they are being lost because of pollution, overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change. To protect cone shells, biologists are asking nations in tropical zones to take new steps to monitor the shell trade and protect reefs.

Tropical oceans are places of obvious beauty and home to thousands of creatures, including cone snails. If for no other reason, we would do well to conserve their biodiversity and reverse habitat loss to protect the largest pharmacopeia in nature, one that could save us from a world of hurt, as long as we can keep its world healthy.

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January 7, 2014: From the Bottom of the Food Chain

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The ocean food web is much more than the dramatic clash of sharks devouring marine mammals and large fish. While many of us know that the ocean food web is complex, it’s easy to focus on the apex predators at the top. But the view from the bottom up is an essential component in understanding the ocean and all of its inhabitants. Microscopic drifting organisms, called plankton, serve as the foundation upon which the ocean’s entire food web is built.

The very definition of these tiny drifters is formed from the Greek word planktos, meaning “wanderer.” And that’s exactly what these tremendously important animals and plants do, touching all the creatures of the sea as they flow along its ever-changing currents.

Plankton include both phytoplankton and zooplankton. Phytoplankton are tiny microscopic cells that include bacteria, plants, and algae found near the surface of the water where photosynthesis occurs. A single drop of water contains thousands of phytoplankton.

Not all zooplankton is tiny. After all, jellies are a type of zooplankton. But most zookplankton are microscopic, including the tiny larvae of crabs, jellyfish, corals, and worms as well as adult animals like tiny shrimps, copepods and krill. To understand the size of these small zooplankton, consider this analogy: to fill a coffee cup, it would take a quarter of a million copepods, small crustaceans that are the most common zooplankton in the ocean. A single gallon of water from the Chesapeake Bay can contain half a million zooplankton.

Zooplankton eat phytoplankton, and are themselves eaten by small fish and a few large species like the whale shark and baleen whales. Small plankton-eaters are, in turn, eaten by larger fish, and so on until you get to the apex predators: large squids, fish, marine mammals, and, yes, the voracious human species.

All levels of the food chain are critical to ensuring a healthy balance in the oceans, but as we grapple with issues related to sea level rise and ocean acidification, scientists are studying what these changes will mean for the base of this complex web—the consequences of which will affect literally every marine species in the world.

One very important ecosystem service that plankton provide: they produce as much as 70 percent of the world’s oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis, an essential function that impacts the very air we breathe. Ocean scientist and explorer Sylvia Earle estimates that one family alone—Prochlorococcus—is perhaps the most abundant photosynthetic organism in the world and provides the oxygen for one in every five breaths we take.

This is even more incredible when one considers that all of this activity is happening in just the upper layer of the ocean, the epipelagic zone, where sunlight can reach. Though this zone is just a drop in the overall makeup of the ocean, what plankton do there reverberates from the deepest parts of the ocean to the upper atmosphere.

Plankton are not normally visible, except when huge blooms show up as blue/green swirls of color when viewed from above. Scientists are able to monitor the distribution of phytoplankton from space by analyzing the reflected light from the water’s surface. The Climate, Ocean, and Sea Ice Modeling team at Los Alamos National Laboratory is at the forefront of the development of these computer simulations. This group is focused on understanding how global climate change may impact the world’s phytoplankton population.

Dr. Richard Kirby, a Royal Society University Research Fellow at Plymouth University, collected plankton from the Atlantic and photographed them in a laboratory using a high-resolution microscope. To see these beautiful, otherworldly images, visit aqua.org/ablueview.

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December 31, 2013: Ocean Victories of 2013

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We hear a lot about the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing our ocean, yet the ocean has some powerful friends working on its behalf. Beth Lowell, Campaign Director for Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans, talks to National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli about some success stories of 2013.

Organizations like National Aquarium and Oceana are dedicated to protecting and preserving the ocean and all of its inhabitants. From volunteering at conservation cleanups to signing petitions, there are many ways to show you love the ocean.

Oceana has compiled a list of ways to show you love the ocean

December 24, 2013: Inside Bioluminescence

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In the ocean’s deepest reaches, sunlight cannot penetrate, and yet, there is light. From softly glowing to dazzlingly brilliant, it is not the light of humans and their machines. It is called bioluminescence—literally, “living light”—and it provides a bewildering variety of species the means to seek prey and elude predators in a world as alien to us as space

Bioluminescence occurs when living creatures convert chemical energy to light energy, resulting in the production and emission of light. Here in the mid-Atlantic, we experience bioluminescence in our own backyards on many a summer evening. Fireflies are among the few terrestrial species that glow, joined by certain species of bacteria, insects, and fungi. Beyond these, there are few other bioluminescent animals found on land.

Under the sea, however, it is a remarkably different story. An estimated 90 percent of deep-sea marine creatures are able to produce bioluminescence in some way. Most emit blue or green hued light, though some creatures employ a red-light strategy—taking advantage of the fact that red is the first color in the spectrum to be refracted. At great depths, red is invisible to many animals, giving predators like the dragonfish who emit this color a handy advantage over unsuspecting prey.

In the deep, where food is scarce and conditions unforgiving, bioluminescence is critical to the survival of countless aquatic species.

For those defending themselves against predators, bioluminescence can be used to distract or even divert attention. Bomber worms actually eject glowing green masses that redirect a predator’s attention. Incredibly, some species are able to illuminate an attacker. The goal? To turn the tables on a would-be predator, making it the target of a larger species lurking in the dark depths and giving the victim time to escape.

Other marine animals use the light as a lure to find food. Consider the anglerfish, which has a light rod protruding from its head. This light coaxes prey to come closer, at which point the anglerfish snaps its impressive jaws around its meal. Certain squids flash light to stun their prey. In one of the most fascinating uses of bioluminescence, counterillumination, the light pattern on the bottom of a fish replicates the appearance of faint sunlight from above, so the fish is invisible to predators looking for food from below.

For all we’ve learned, we still known very little about how these mysterious creatures use their bioluminescent capabilities, and access to these incredible animals is a challenge for researchers. The very qualities that make them so fascinating also make them almost impossible to study. Artificial light scares them away and can even blind them in some cases. Some deep-sea animals are even transparent, rendering them virtually invisible in the darkness of the benthos.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations are researching this deep frontier in an effort to better understand the 90 percent of the ocean yet unexplored.

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December 17, 2013: Taking Care of Turtles

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Last winter was an historic year for turtle rescue, with a cold-stun incident stranding hundreds of turtles along the northeast coast. Now, this year is off to another quick start, with many turtles stranded already and more coming in every day. Manager of Animal Rescue for the National Aquarium, Jenn Dittmar, talks to John Racanelli about the cold-stun season and what it means for animal rescue organizations all along the coast.

We have already admitted a dozen turtles to our Animal Care Center this season, and will likely welcome more before the cold-stun season is through. Visit our blog, and meet some of our recent additions, like Charlie, Maverick, Goose, Chipper, and Wolfman (named for Top Gun characters).

December 10, 2013: Coral Reefs: Rainforests of the Sea

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Sometimes called the rainforests of the sea, coral reefs are colorful, intricate ecosystems—among the most incredible natural wonders in the world. Their brilliant hues and diverse inhabitants make them a favorite of scuba divers and ocean enthusiasts around the world. But, coral reefs are also in grave danger—and saving these ancient splendors is both a necessary and feasible goal.

According to a report by the World Resources Institute, 75 percent of the world’s reefs are considered threatened due to a combination of risks. Climate change has made bleaching, which is a massive dieoff of coral polyps, and disease outbreaks more common. Increased carbon in our oceans results in ocean acidification, which, in turn, destroys the very structure of the reef. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices are disturbing the balance of these complex ecosystems. Coastal development, pollution, coral mining, and unsustainable tourism activities are adding additional stresses to an already challenged habitat. Some scientists fear that at this rate, living coral reefs could vanish from earth within a generation unless drastic action is taken.

Surprisingly, while coral reefs make up just two-tenths of a percent of the ocean floor, they support about 25 percent of all marine animals. They are critical spawning, nursery, breeding, and feeding grounds for thousands of species.

Many people don’t realize that corals are in fact animals, closely related to jellyfish and anemones. There are both hard and soft corals, and all live together in colonies, creating a foundation for all the other inhabitants of the reef, from tiny darting fishes to large apex predators like sharks and everything in between.

There’s no question that these ecosystems are environmentally critical, but they are also important economic drivers, creating millions of jobs and providing a sustainable tourism resource when properly managed. Coral reefs also serve as natural barriers for islands and other communities, helping to prevent erosion and minimizing the impact of waves and storms. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, up to 90 percent of the energy from wind-generated waves is absorbed by reefs.

NOAA also estimates that ocean temperature will rise nearly two degrees within this century from the greenhouse gases already released, which will undoubtedly threaten these critical ecosystems even more. As marine scientists explore just how coral reefs will cope with increasing acidity in the world's oceans, it is abundantly clear that we must act to save these oceanic treasures.

Scientists are now studying coral reefs along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where underwater springs naturally lower the pH of the surrounding seawater. There, researchers are learning how corals respond to higher acidity in a natural setting. On the other side of the world, a U.S. climate scientist is conducting an experiment on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to see whether antacid could boost coral growth by slowing seawater acidification.

These researchers are taking threats to our coral reefs seriously, and we need to do the same. The single biggest thing you can do to slow the deterioration of reefs is to reduce your own carbon footprint by driving less and conserving energy at home. We can also to make sustainable seafood a priority and vigorously support steps to enforce proper management of these resources. We do well to remember that our actions on land—our stormwater, trash, and yard runoff—all eventually work their way to the sea and impact coral reefs. We can all keep coral reefs in mind as we go about our daily lives—and remember that water connects us all.

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December 3, 2013: The Battle to Save Sharks

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When Maryland became the first East Coast state to ban the sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins into law, it served as a much-needed victory for these essential ocean-dwellers. However, sharks are still facing an uphill battle. Beth Lowell, Campaign Director for Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans, joins John to talk about this important battle.

November 26, 2013: Bring the Aquarium or Zoo Home with You

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Visiting a zoo or aquarium can challenge the mind, spark curiosity, expand our vision of the world, and challenge what we understand. As zoos and aquariums aim to wow and inspire, it is up to the families to go home and take what they’ve experienced and apply it to their own lives. Think there’s nothing you can do to bring lessons from a coral reef into your home? Think again. Heather Doggett, Director of Visitor Programs at the National Aquarium, joins John to talk about how to expand your zoo or aquarium experience.

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November 19, 2013: On the Ocean Floor

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Vast mountain ranges, active volcanoes, deep canyons and seemingly endless plains…can you guess what land I’m describing? It’s a terrain few have ever seen or visited, for it’s all underwater It’s the deep ocean.

The ocean floor is often thought of as a continuation of the land, a featureless sandy plain stretching across the sea to another shore thousands of miles away. Yet, this could hardly be further from the truth. The deep ocean seascape boasts mountains that would tower over the Himalayas and canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. In fact, Earth’s largest volcano was recently discovered 1,000 miles west of Japan…a behemoth the size of New Mexico that rises four miles from the floor of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Just as on land, the ocean bottom is a diverse blend of terrain and geology. Heading out to sea, the continental shelf forms a relatively shallow stretch of sediment created from land sources washing into the ocean over millennia. Transitioning steadily to a depth of about 430 feet, this continental slope encounters the shelf break, a point at the ocean bottom drops off towards the deep ocean basin. At an average depth of nearly 3 miles, this is the dominant seascape. The deep ocean basin covers about 30 percent of Earth’s surface and contains vast abyssal plains, deep-sea trenches, millions of seamounts, and the mid-ocean ridge system, an undersea mountain range that extends 40,000 miles around the planet.

What is perhaps most astounding about this part of the world is what we don’t know. Less than 5 percent of the deep ocean has been explored. The Mariana Trench in the South Pacific Ocean, the ocean’s deepest at 35,000 feet, has been visited just twice—in 1960 and again in 2012. And of the estimated 100,000 seamounts that rise at least 3,000 feet above the seafloor, only a few hundred have been studied.

Still, with organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mapping what lies beneath with amazing new technologies, some of these secrets are coming to the surface. Using sonar to scan seabeds, NOAA ships collect data as they zigzag through the water. This sonar-gathered information is then combined with other observations, such as remotely operated vehicle-generated imagery. From these information sources, detailed maps are created. The eventual goal? To map the entire ocean floor.

In this era of in-the-moment information and real-time imagery, NOAA has made some of these explorations available to everyone. During its recent US Northeast Canyons Expedition, NOAA’s research vessel Okeanos Explorer broadcasted the expedition live from depths sometimes reaching 10,000 feet!

As researchers try to learn the intricacies of our ocean terrain, once of the most fascinating things about it is that it is already changing. Ocean crust is being created and destroyed; tectonic plates are moving, converging, and constantly transforming. Seamounts become islands and volcanoes collapse into undersea valleys. Humankind, meanwhile, is making exciting discoveries daily, including new species, previously unseen natural wonders, and shipwrecks unseen for a thousand years. Storms, like Hurricane Katrina, are revealing treasures like a 50,000-year-old underwater forest of cypress trees off the coast of Alabama, changing the face of the sea floor yet again.

Even in this ever-changing seascape, one thing is certain: we still have a lot to learn about what lies on the bottom of the ocean.

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November 12, 2013: Talking to Kids about the Environment

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Kids are curious, and want to soak up all the knowledge they can about our natural world. Yet the approach one needs to take in order to effectively communicate about the environment is very different depending on the age. Heather Doggett, Director of Visitor Programs at the National Aquarium, talks to National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli about the challenges and opportunities in opening up to young people about the planet.

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November 5, 2013: Protecting Our Coasts

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Coral reefs are amazingly diverse ecosystems, serving as essential breeding, nursery, and feeding grounds for countless species. Wetlands, too, are thriving environments, teeming with life and serving as stops for millions of migratory birds. Other coastal ecosystems as well—like oyster reefs, sea grasses, and mangroves—all play important roles in the life cycle of countless inhabitants.

These incredible environments are not just doing the essential job of providing habitat for wildlife, though. They also protect coastal areas—and the humans that live there—from flooding, sea level rise, erosion, and the impact of waves.

In the Central American nation of Belize, for example, the World Resources Institute estimates that coastal protection by reefs and mangroves avoids between $231 and $347 million dollars a year in damages. Looked at another way, a square meter of coral reef can protect up to $47,000 in property value!

For years, humans have tried to curb erosion and protect against storms though the use of manmade structures such as sea walls, jetties, and breakwaters. These constructed solutions have mitigated some of the problems they set out to fix, yet they have also created others—altering ocean currents and diverting erosion to other areas. In addition, these so-called “armored shorelines” are extremely costly to build and maintain.

Increasingly, people are trying to understand how natural solutions can be incorporated into emergency planning. A recent study by the Natural Capital Project found that sand dunes and reefs protect fully two-thirds of US coastlines from sea level rise. It noted that 16 percent of US coasts are considered high-risk areas, and the number of threatened residents could double if these critical natural habitats—including sand dunes, coral reefs, sea grasses, and mangroves—are not protected. The study offers the first comprehensive map for the entire US coastline showing where and how much protection we get from these habitats.

It’s been a year since Hurricane Sandy profoundly impacted the way that we look at our shorelines, especially given the dense population of coastal areas in the United States. To help communities at risk, proposals such as sea walls and other “hardening” projects continue to be evaluated.

In just one example, two hurricane-ravaged towns in New Jersey have received federal and state approval for a sea wall that will extend 16 feet above the beach and 32 feet below it. It will be covered by sand and form the base of a makeshift dune system at a total cost of $40 million dollars. Yet some argue that figuring out how to make the most of natural barriers can be less expensive—and just as effective—in some cases.

New York State is particularly concerned about positioning its infrastructure, both natural and artificial, to mitigate against flooding and storm damage. Along with California and Florida, it is considered a high-risk state based on its coastal population and property values.

Working with the US Army Corps of Engineers, New York is creating a Natural and Coastal Infrastructure Planning Fund of $850 million dollars to help deploy what’s called “natural infrastructure” to mitigate the impacts of future storms. The plan includes constructing wetlands, marsh islands, oyster reefs, and dunes to protect against future storm surges and sea level rise.

For those of us who love the ocean and its coastal ecosystems, we want to see these areas protected. What’s increasingly clear, however, is that we need these areas also to protect us.

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October 29, 2013: Do You Know What You’re Eating?

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Are you getting what you’re paying for when it comes to seafood? Maybe not. Thirty-three percent of seafood samples were mislabeled nationwide, according to a study by Oceana. Beth Lowell, Campaign Director for Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans, joins National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli in the studio to talk about what this means for consumers.

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October 22, 2013: Teens Taking Action

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When it comes to paving the way for the next generation of environmental advocates, you may not have to look any further than the teenager sitting across from you at your dinner table. To talk to us more about why teens have such great potential to make a difference in our natural world, Heather Doggett, Director of Visitor Programs at the National Aquarium, talks with National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli about why teens can make a powerful difference in their our natural world.

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October 15, 2013: From Bait to Plate

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It’s National Seafood Month, and there’s more to talk about than what is to eat for dinner. During the month of October, smart seafood choices, sustainable fisheries and the health benefits of eating a diet rich in seafood are highlighted to encourage consumers to make good decisions about their seafood selections. We talked about the journey that seafood takes from boat to plate with Beth Lowell, Campaign Director for Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans.

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October 8, 2013: Otherworldly Octopuses

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With eight arms, a bulbous head, thousands of suckers, a tongue covered in teeth, and three hearts, the octopus is like something out of a science fiction movie. And the more you know about these fascinating creatures, the stranger they seem.

They can change body color, texture, and shape to blend in with their surroundings. Even large octopuses can fit through seemingly impossibly small spaces. They can open jars and dismantle objects. Their suckers can actually taste and feel. Some species glow, while others are transparent. Add powerful jaws with a venomous bite and the ability to regenerate limbs, and this is a creature with truly astounding capabilities.

Part of the cephalopod family, which also includes cuttlefish and squid, octopuses can range in size, from the octopus wolfi at half an inch and only a few ounces to the giant Pacific octopus, averaging 16 feet across and 110 pounds.

Solitary creatures, most octopus species live alone in dens. Females are known to eat their mates, and females often die after laying and caring for one clutch of eggs.

Octopuses can be found around the world, from the equator to the poles…from warm shallow seas to frigid canyons of the deep ocean. Researchers have found that genetic alterations in an octopus’ blue-hued blood make it possible for certain species to live in these diverse conditions. Instead of hemoglobin carrying oxygen through the body, octopuses rely on a copper-based transporter protein called hemocyanin. Octopuses that live in colder, deeper areas have been found to actually make the hemocyanin less attractive to oxygen so that the animal can distribute enough oxygen throughout its body. This is just one of the characteristics that make octopuses so remarkable.

Most of us don’t perceive mollusks as intelligent creatures, but the octopus isn’t a mindless invertebrate – far from it. Octopuses are surprisingly smart, with one report claiming that their intelligence is on par with that of a domestic cat. The nervous system includes a central brain and a large ganglion at the base of each arm that controls movement. These eight arms operate both independently of one another and together to accomplish tasks. And no doubt about it, octopuses are built to survive.

Should an octopus lose one of its arms, due perhaps to a near-miss by a predator like a shark or seal, the octopus immediately starts regenerating the lost limb, somewhat like a starfish that loses an arm or a lizard that loses a tail. Because octopuses are so effective at this, scientists are studying them to learn the secrets of regrowth in hopes of applying those findings to humans, particularly in regards to tissue regeneration.

Octopuses also avoid predators through camouflage. Masters of disguise, they can change color, texture, and body shape to hide from predators, instantaneously blending in with almost any background. In another protective strategy, octopuses can release ink that obscures an attacker’s view and dulls its sense of smell, allowing a hasty escape. And because it they have no bones, this invertebrates can fit into incredibly small spaces and crevices, making the octopus extremely adept at staying out of harm’s way.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and amazing tactics in all of the animal kingdom belongs to the aptly named “vampire” squid, which is in fact an octopus. This wily deep sea dweller can bite off the end of one of its bioluminescent arms, which then floats away, luring a potential predator with its light and allowing an escape.

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October 1, 2013: Why Animals Strand

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2013 has been a record-breaking year for dolphin strandings, with more than 500 dolphins stranding along the East Coast from New York to North Carolina since July 1. This number is almost 10 times the historical average for our region, and as a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared an unusual mortality event, or UME, working with partners throughout the region to respond to strandings and attempt to discover their causes.

A UME is declared when marine mammal strandings are unexpected, involve significant mortalities, and demand immediate response. Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs are important because they often serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues. Since 1991, 60 UMEs have been declared nationally with the most common species cited as bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, and manatees.

NOAA has tentatively attributed the mid-Atlantic dolphin die-off to a deadly strain of a measles-like disease, morbillivirus, based on tissue sampling. This same virus caused more than 700 dolphin deaths in 1987 and 1988, and—sadly—this current outbreak isn’t expected to fully subside until next spring.

Many marine animals, including dolphins, whales, seals, turtles, and sea lions, are known to strand. In late 2012, frigid waters off the coast of New England caused a severe cold-stun event, resulting in sea turtle strandings in record numbers. This winter was unlike any other for our partners in New England, who called in the National Aquarium and other animal rescue organizations to help with a mass stranding of more than 400 sea turtles. Over the next 6 months, more than 240 were rehabilitated and released into warmer waters.

On the West Coast this year, more than 1,000 sea lion pups washed ashore in Southern California, many starving and dehydrated. Though the cause of this mass stranding is still officially unknown, scientists believe that the young sea lions aren’t getting the food they need due to environmental factors that are limiting prey availability for pups. An investigation is ongoing.

These are just a few recent examples, and the fact is, animal strandings—of both individuals and entire populations—can occur for many reasons. Sometimes an animal is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, an animal gets caught in fishing gear or is struck by a fishing vessel. Or, as in the case of the dolphins this year, an illness spreads through a population.

Those who spend time at the shore have probably seen a stranded marine animal. Even still, it can be difficult for even the most savvy beach-goer to know what to do.

First, you should never approach a stranded animal. If you encounter a semi-aquatic marine mammal resting on land, such as a seal, count yourself lucky. Appreciate the animal from a safe distance of at least 4 or 5 car lengths, take plenty of pictures, and remember that these are wild animals.

If you encounter a seal in obvious need, or a fully aquatic animal like a dolphin or turtle on the beach, document the event with photos or video from a safe distance, then call the local authorities or the National Marine Fisheries Service Stranding Hotline. While it is tempting to want to help stranded dolphins, whales, and turtles by pushing them back into the water, this can actually be more harmful to the animal, as it will likely re-strand in another location where first responders may not be prepared.

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September 24, 2013: The Chesapeake Bay as a Classroom

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2013 has been a record-breaking year for dolphin strandings, with more than 500 dolphins stranding along the East Coast from New York to North Carolina since July 1. This number is almost 10 times the historical average for our region, and as a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared an unusual mortality event, or UME, working with partners throughout the region to respond to strandings and attempt to discover their causes.

A UME is declared when marine mammal strandings are unexpected, involve significant mortalities, and demand immediate response. Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs are important because they often serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues. Since 1991, 60 UMEs have been declared nationally with the most common species cited as bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, and manatees.

NOAA has tentatively attributed the mid-Atlantic dolphin die-off to a deadly strain of a measles-like disease, morbillivirus, based on tissue sampling. This same virus caused more than 700 dolphin deaths in 1987 and 1988, and—sadly—this current outbreak isn’t expected to fully subside until next spring.

Many marine animals, including dolphins, whales, seals, turtles, and sea lions, are known to strand. In late 2012, frigid waters off the coast of New England caused a severe cold-stun event, resulting in sea turtle strandings in record numbers. This winter was unlike any other for our partners in New England, who called in the National Aquarium and other animal rescue organizations to help with a mass stranding of more than 400 sea turtles. Over the next 6 months, more than 240 were rehabilitated and released into warmer waters.

On the West Coast this year, more than 1,000 sea lion pups washed ashore in Southern California, many starving and dehydrated. Though the cause of this mass stranding is still officially unknown, scientists believe that the young sea lions aren’t getting the food they need due to environmental factors that are limiting prey availability for pups. An investigation is ongoing.

These are just a few recent examples, and the fact is, animal strandings—of both individuals and entire populations—can occur for many reasons. Sometimes an animal is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, an animal gets caught in fishing gear or is struck by a fishing vessel. Or, as in the case of the dolphins this year, an illness spreads through a population.

Those who spend time at the shore have probably seen a stranded marine animal. Even still, it can be difficult for even the most savvy beach-goer to know what to do.

First, you should never approach a stranded animal. If you encounter a semi-aquatic marine mammal resting on land, such as a seal, count yourself lucky. Appreciate the animal from a safe distance of at least 4 or 5 car lengths, take plenty of pictures, and remember that these are wild animals.

If you encounter a seal in obvious need, or a fully aquatic animal like a dolphin or turtle on the beach, document the event with photos or video from a safe distance, then call the local authorities or the National Marine Fisheries Service Stranding Hotline. While it is tempting to want to help stranded dolphins, whales, and turtles by pushing them back into the water, this can actually be more harmful to the animal, as it will likely re-strand in another location where first responders may not be prepared.

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September 17, 2013: Every Drop Counts

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A lot of us take water for granted. We simply turn on a faucet, and there it is, in seemingly endless supply.

Freshwater, however, is not as plentiful as you might think. Yes, the world is 70 percent water, a staggering amount. Of that water, 97.5% is salt water. The rest, just 2.5%, is freshwater. And of that, less than 1 percent of the world’s freshwater is available for use by people.

According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population in the last century. Around the world, many people don’t have enough water. Even in the United States, water shortages as a result of drought or environmental issues are on the rise. In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that more than 1,100 U.S. counties—one-third of all the counties in the lower 48—now face higher risks of water shortages by 2050.

According to the National Geographic Society’s website Water Currents, the average person in America uses nearly 2,000 gallons of water per day. Only 5 percent of that, however, is traveling through your faucets or watering your lawn. In fact, the water consumption is hidden in the food, products, and services you use every day. Our diets in particular are responsible for the majority of our water consumption. Take milk, for example. 880 gallons of water are required to generate that one gallon of milk sitting in your fridge. And getting beef on the dinner table is one of the biggest diet-related water consumers: every pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water. Even a cup of coffee takes 55 gallons of water, due primarily to the water used to grow coffee beans.

Beneath all these statistics, there are ways that you can effect real change. Keep a pitcher of water in the refrigerator so you don’t have to wait for the tap to run cold when grabbing a cup of water. Consider going meatless and dairy-free once a week to reduce the tremendous water cost of meat and dairy products. And of course buy local whenever possible.

Around your home, fix leaky faucets and running toilets. One estimate indicates that each of us loses 10 gallons per day due to leaks. Aim for quick showers instead of baths, and turn off the faucet while washing dishes and brushing your teeth. In fact, instead of hand-washing your dishes, run your dishwasher, but only when it’s full. Water your lawn in the early morning or late evening, and if you have a pool, cover it when it’s not in use to prevent evaporation.

To help consumers make more water-friendly choices, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established a program called WaterSense. This program certifies products and services that meet a set of water-conservation standards so that consumers can look for the WaterSense label on products like faucets, showerheads, and toilets, and know it meets performance standards and is also 20 percent more water efficient than average fixtures. The EPA estimates that if one in every 10 homes in the United States were to install WaterSense-labeled faucets, we could save 6 billion gallons of water per year.

Of course, people need water to support the many activities in their daily lives, but if each of us just takes a few small steps to reduce our water consumption, we can make a big difference, not only in gallons but in the health of our planet’s finite supply of freshwater.

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September 10, 2013: Masters of Disguise: Marine Animal Camouflage

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This world of ours can be a dangerous place—and for many undersea creatures, camouflage means the difference between life and death. In some cases, it’s a strategy for defense against predators; in others, it enhances their pursuit of prey. One thing’s certain: a good camouflage can be an effective way to survive and thrive in the sea.

Take the ornate wobbegong, for example. This unique shark species is the opposite of eye-catching. Blending easily with the sea floor, a wobbegong can flatten its body, while spots and patterns resemble coral and rock. Skin flaps under its chin appear like seaweed, luring prey toward the shark’s mouth.

Other species employ different strategies. The double-ended pipe fish is actually able to emulate the swaying motion of sea grass. Decorator crabs adorn their shells with items from the sea floor to mimic their surroundings, often clothing themselves in sponges and seaweed. Peacock flounder settle into sandy bottoms appearing as one with the ocean floor. In laboratory tests, this fish has proven itself capable of matching striped, polka-dot and checkerboard flooring virtually instantaneously.

The camouflaging capabilities of ocean creatures take many different forms. A particular coloration may help an animal blend into its environment. Patterns can allow some creatures to better hide. Others may have the ability to morph their bodies into a particular color, shape, or texture to fool predators. And some animals can move in a distinctive way—or appear very still—in an effort to avoid detection.

Cephalopods, which include squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish, are the ultimate masters of disguise. Some species show 30 to 50 different appearances and can use every camouflaging strategy to maximum effect.

Scientists are still trying to understand the full scope of what these aquatic animals are capable of. Remarkably, octopus-like cuttlefish are able to rapidly adapt their body patterns and coloration—yet they are in fact colorblind. What’s clear is that some of these sea creatures are far more sophisticated in their use of camouflage than scientists currently understand, and this area of study is rapidly evolving.

A recent article in Current Biology examined the color-changing capabilities of the octopus and squid. Researchers found that some species can actually become transparent as they swim along the ocean’s surface, helping them avoid hungry predators. But in deeper waters, they can adopt a different behavior—turning red.

At depths below 2,600 feet, that same transparency that is so helpful along the surface actually becomes a liability, when light reflects off the transparent beings. Instead, it is more effective to be red, as red is the first color to lose visibility in deeper water, allowing creatures to become virtually invisible, albeit in a different way.

Some animals have different strategies for camouflage depending on the conditions they find themselves in. Exactly how these animals are able to interpret those conditions, and then change their appearance as a result, is still unknown.

As research on these animals and their amazing capacity for camouflage continues, a search for terrestrial applications is underway. Roger Hanlon, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and a leading expert on marine animal camouflage, is collaborating with engineers across the country to develop a material that mimics this camouflage capability. The hope is that their research with cuttlefish may hold the key to creating new kinds of camouflage for clothes, buildings and vehicles.

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September 4, 2013: Protecting Terrapins in Maryland

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At the National Aquarium, terrapins bring to mind more than great intercollegiate sports. The word terrapin comes from an Algonquin word meaning “edible turtles that live in brackish water.” The popularity of terrapin soup nearly wiped out the iconic diamondback terrapin, but the population of Maryland’s state reptile have recovered in recent years thanks to careful regulation and the dedicated efforts of concerned citizens.

Distinctive in appearance, diamondback terrapins are distinguished by the diamond-shaped markings on their carapace, or shell. Skin color ranges from pale to dark gray or black, and can be flecked with dark spots, blotches, or stripes. Much like fingerprints, no two individual turtles are exactly alike in coloration and pattern. Males can reach a maximum shell length of 5.5 inches, and females can grow to 11 inches.

Believed to be the only turtle species that lives exclusively in brackish water, the diamondback terrapin inhabits marshes, estuaries, rivers, and tidal creeks along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, from Massachusetts to Texas.

A strong swimmer, the terrapin’s webbed feet make it ideally suited to life in the tides and currents of brackish waters it inhabits. Female turtles usually lay eggs two to three times a year, in clutches ranging from 4 to 23 eggs. Usually nesting along sandy shores or in seaside vegetation, females lay their eggs and then return to the water. Diamondback terrapins are uniquely adapted to life in waters of varying salinity, and can spend time in salt water environments for extended periods.

Though the current population of the northern diamondback terrapin—the subspecies found here in the Mid-Atlantic—is listed as “apparently secure,” terrapin populations have long been at risk due to overharvesting for meat and to habitat destruction. Commercial harvest of terrapins ended in Maryland in 2007, but the species still faces many threats, including road mortalities, destruction of nesting beaches, predation from other animals, and continued harvesting in other states.

Unfortunately, crab pots also continue to contribute to the decline of this species. Terrapins are attracted to the same bait used to lure blue crabs, and when air-breathing terrapins are caught in crab pots or commercial fishing gear, they drown. Maryland crabbing regulations now require that all recreational crab pots be outfitted with bycatch reduction devices, or BRDs. These turtle excluders allow larger crabs to enter, but keep adult terrapins out.

In Maryland, various conservation groups are working to restore salt marsh habitats throughout the Chesapeake Bay, which, in turn, provide vital nesting and nursery habitats for diamondback terrapins. In particular, the restoration of Poplar Island in the middle of the Chesapeake has given terrapins food and access to prime nesting beaches with very few predators.

For a small population of terrapins in Maryland, September marks a different kind of adventure, one that takes them outside of their usual habitat. Every year, through the National Aquarium’s Terrapins in the Classroom Program, students from 30 schools receive a hatchling diamondback terrapin to care for during the year, eventually releasing the turtle back to Poplar Island in the spring. Students collect growth data, observe behaviors, learn animal care techniques, and research the history of the species—and most importantly, are inspired to understand and conserve the important animals and habitats in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. The hope is that these little hatchlings spark a lifelong sense of environmental stewardship and respect for the natural world.

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August 27, 2013: Surprising Sharks

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In your mind’s eye, picture a shark for a moment. Perhaps it’s 9 or 10 feet long, with a mouth full of razor-shark teeth and a menacing look. Now, take that mental image…and forget it. John Racanelli talk with Jackie Cooper, senior assistant dive safety officer aquarist at National Aquarium, about the sharks that people seldom consider: the hundreds of species of smaller sharks that inhabit every ocean on our planet.

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August 20, 2013: Bringing Oysters Back from the Brink

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Oysters are a huge part of the Chesapeake Bay culture—its past, present, and future. Even the name “Chesapeake” means “great shellfish bay” in Algonquin. Yet since the early part of the 1900s, oyster populations have been in crisis.

The health of oyster populations in the Bay is critical to providing habitat for aquatic animals, supporting feeding grounds for migratory birds, and enhancing water quality as oysters filter their food from the water. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. To put this in perspective, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out that oysters once were able to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay in a week. Today, it takes a year.

Researchers are beginning to understand the importance of oyster reefs in protecting coastal areas. Along with coral reefs, wetlands, dunes, and other coastal habitats, oyster reefs actually help prevent erosion, reduce the impact of storm surges, and protect against sea level rise. In fact, part of New York City’s $19-billion-dollar plan to combat the effects of climate change includes building large underwater oyster reefs around the harbor.

Over time, oyster populations have been devastated by overfishing, disease, pollution, habitat destruction, and urban runoff. NOAA reports that the oyster population of the Chesapeake today is less than 1 percent of its historical level. In fact, oyster harvesting peaked in the 1880s, when 20 million bushels were harvested in a single year. In 2012, only 135,000 bushels were harvested from the Bay…less than one percent of those historic levels.

Still, all hope is not lost, and efforts are underway to solve the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster problem. These include an ambitious plan to restore oyster populations throughout the area by spreading hundreds of thousands of tons of granite and old oyster shells along Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River. Shells seeded with baby oysters are then placed on this substrate using a high-pressure hose. Then, nature is left to do its work.

The Chesapeake Bay region isn’t the only one looking to improve the prospects for oysters. In New Jersey, for example, an advocacy group called ReClam the Bay is caring for seven oyster nurseries in the hopes of helping populations in Barnegat Bay to recover. Protected nurseries allow the oysters to grow without the risk of predators dining on them. Visitors are welcome to come by these nurseries and get their hands wet in what ReClam the Bay hopes will be an educational opportunity that will encourage people to make better choices for the health of the shellfish populations and the bay.

Out on the West Coast, efforts to save Oregon’s only native oyster species, the Olympia, have proven largely successful. Though previously declared “functionally extinct,” after 8 years of work by the Nature Conservancy and watermen, the 1.5 million oysters now inhabiting Netarts Bay seem to be reproducing successfully.

In Maryland, a “No Shell Left Behind” oyster recycling tax credit of one dollar a bushel became official on July 1. Its aim is to encourage the recycling of valuable oyster shells to help restore oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay. Empty shells, which are necessary for hatcheries to replenish the oyster population, are extremely valuable, as each shell can host up to 10 young oysters, known as “spat.”

You can play a part in this, too! Whether by recycling oyster shells, participating in Chesapeake Bay conservation events, or even running in next year’s “Sprint for Spat” 5K race, sponsored by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, get involved! A healthy oyster population helps us all.

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August 13, 2013: Jellies: Oceans Out of Balance

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Beautiful, eye-catching, and otherworldly, jellyfish are dazzling creatures to look at, though not something you want to run into at the beach.

Not technically fish, jellies have drifted through our seas for more than 500 million years. They range in size from that of a pinhead to more than 8 feet in diameter, with tentacles 130 feet long. Most species have tentacles that sting, even when they become detached from the jelly’s body. And, as many a beach-goer can attest, those stinging cells can make for some less than pleasant experiences when our paths accidentally cross.

Related to sea anemones and corals, jellies have no heart, brain, blood, or bones, and are 95 percent water. Contrary to popular myths, jellies are not out to get you. As ocean drifters, they are carried along on ocean currents. But their vast numbers in certain places have made them a menace, and their unique ability to thrive in less-than-ideal conditions has scientists keeping a close eye on these fascinating creatures.

Jellies seem less susceptible to algae blooms, pollution, warming waters, and reduced oxygen levels, meaning that the more the environment deteriorates, the better it is for jellies. In an alarming phenomenon dubbed “jellification” by some scientists, jellies in some areas of the world are literally taking over the seas.

The role of jellies in the ocean ecosystem and whether or not their increasing numbers are displacing other ocean inhabitants are both matters of active debate in the marine science community. There are several reasons attributed to the rise of jelly populations. In addition to their ability to thrive in inhospitable conditions, jellies benefit when the fish, turtles, and other species that normally eat them are overfished. Then, as jellies eat zooplankton, fish eggs, larvae, and even fish, they further impact the food chain, perpetuating an imbalance that’s difficult to correct.

An overabundance of jellies isn’t good for tourism around the globe, particularly when they wash up on beaches. Depending upon the species, a jellyfish sting can cause anything from mild discomfort to severe pain and in rare cases, like the box jellies of Australia, even death. Jellies also affect fisheries—and fisherman—when they collide with nets, sometimes even killing the catch with their toxins. Jellies can also cause power outages and equipment damage at power plants by clogging cooling intakes.

Considered a delicacy in China, some see dining on these unique creatures as a creative and efficient way to control the jellyfish population. The European Union has embarked on an international research program to evaluate the spread of jellies in the Mediterranean and other regions and develop a coastal management strategy accordingly.

For all the issues that jellyfish blooms can cause, they are essential and active participants in the ocean ecosystem. They belong there. The best way you can keep bays and oceans healthy is to make smart choices at home. One important place to start is in your yard. Avoid overfertilizing your lawn and garden. Excess fertilizer washes into our waterways, reduces oxygen, and contributes to harmful algae blooms—conditions that are great for jellies but terrible for fish populations. You might even consider opening your mind to a new delicacy when jellies show up on a restaurant menu near you.

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August 6, 2013: Sharks: Separating Fact and Fiction

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As the popularity of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week demonstrates, people are fascinated by sharks. Despite their curiosity, however, people have a lot to learn about the sharks that inhabit our world’s oceans and, yes, even freshwater lakes and rivers. John Racanelli talks about shark facts, myths, and mysteries with Jackie Cooper, senior assistant dive safety officer aquarist at National Aquarium.

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July 30, 2013: Stormwater: A Search for Solutions

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We hear a lot about stormwater, but many of us still don’t exactly know what it is and why we should care. In Baltimore and all across the country, however, stormwater runoff is a major issue. Blue Water Baltimore Executive Director Halle Van der Gaag and National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli talk about this major problem and some possible solutions.

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July 23, 2013: Coral Reefs: Rainforests of the Sea

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Sometimes called the rainforests of the sea, coral reefs are colorful, intricate ecosystems—among the most incredible natural wonders in the world. Their brilliant hues and diverse inhabitants make them a favorite of scuba divers and ocean enthusiasts around the world. But, coral reefs are also in grave danger—and saving these ancient splendors is both a necessary and feasible goal.

According to a report by the World Resources Institute, 75 percent of the world’s reefs are considered threatened due to a combination of risks. Climate change has made bleaching, which is a massive dieoff of coral polyps, and disease outbreaks more common. Increased carbon in our oceans results in ocean acidification, which, in turn, destroys the very structure of the reef. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices are disturbing the balance of these complex ecosystems. Coastal development, pollution, coral mining, and unsustainable tourism activities are adding additional stresses to an already challenged habitat. Some scientists fear that at this rate, living coral reefs could vanish from earth within a generation unless drastic action is taken.

Surprisingly, while coral reefs make up just two-tenths of a percent of the ocean floor, they support about 25 percent of all marine animals. They are critical spawning, nursery, breeding, and feeding grounds for thousands of species.

Many people don’t realize that corals are in fact animals, closely related to jellyfish and anemones. There are both hard and soft corals, and all live together in colonies, creating a foundation for all the other inhabitants of the reef, from tiny darting fishes to large apex predators like sharks and everything in between.

There’s no question that these ecosystems are environmentally critical, but they are also important economic drivers, creating millions of jobs and providing a sustainable tourism resource when properly managed. Coral reefs also serve as natural barriers for islands and other communities, helping to prevent erosion and minimizing the impact of waves and storms. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, up to 90 percent of the energy from wind-generated waves is absorbed by reefs.

NOAA also estimates that ocean temperature will rise nearly two degrees within this century from the greenhouse gases already released, which will undoubtedly threaten these critical ecosystems even more. As marine scientists explore just how coral reefs will cope with increasing acidity in the world's oceans, it is abundantly clear that we must act to save these oceanic treasures.

Scientists are now studying coral reefs along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where underwater springs naturally lower the pH of the surrounding seawater. There, researchers are learning how corals respond to higher acidity in a natural setting. On the other side of the world, a U.S. climate scientist is conducting an experiment on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to see whether antacid could boost coral growth by slowing seawater acidification.

These researchers are taking threats to our coral reefs seriously, and we need to do the same. The single biggest thing you can do to slow the deterioration of reefs is to reduce your own carbon footprint by driving less and conserving energy at home. We can also to make sustainable seafood a priority and vigorously support steps to enforce proper management of these resources. We do well to remember that our actions on land—our stormwater, trash, and yard runoff—all eventually work their way to the sea and impact coral reefs. We can all keep coral reefs in mind as we go about our daily lives—and remember that water connects us all.

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July 16, 2013: Clean Water Starts On Land

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It’s not just about what we can do in the water that’s important. Clean water starts on land. The fact is, people in the community can make a major difference for the health of the water supply. Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, and National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli talk about ways that everyone can get involved.

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July 9, 2013: Sharks Unfairly Attacked

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Sharks have long captured the imagination of the public. These days, even shark sightings make national news. Just this past June, great white shark sightings in Massachusetts and New Jersey cleared beaches and were widely reported across the country.

Often thought of as mindless, aggressive killers, sharks—and their toothy jaws—are featured prominently in movies and TV shows, always adding drama with a hint of fin visible above the water’s surface. Despite the fascination that we all feel for sharks, these important apex predators remain seriously misunderstood.

Most people think of great whites when they think of sharks, but there are actually more than 375 shark species, ranging in size from the 8-inch dwarf lantern shark to the 65-foot whale shark. The vast majority of sharks are carnivores, but exactly what they eat depends on what they can catch. Larger shark species may prefer seals or large fish. Other species may opt for mollusks, clams, squid, and other small marine animals. One thing is certain—humans are not the preferred menu choice—far from it.

Of the hundreds of shark species, only 12 are considered even potentially dangerous to people, with great whites, bull sharks, and tiger sharks responsible for most attacks on humans. In 2012, approximately 80 shark attacks occurred worldwide, with seven fatalities. When one considers how fearful the general public is of sharks, it’s remarkable to learn that as many as 100 million sharks are killed by people each year. The fact is, sharks have far more to fear from humans.

While sharks may be at the top of the food chain, they are susceptible to threats such as shark finning, overfishing and bycatch. As top predators, most shark species produce relatively few offspring and take years to reach reproductive maturity. The whale shark, for example, doesn’t reproduce until the age 30. When killed in great numbers, sharks don’t have the opportunity to reproduce, and the long-term viability of the population is threatened.

So why should we worry about sharks? Let’s start with the fact that they’re absolutely critical to healthy ocean ecosystems. Scientists refer to sharks as a keystone species, meaning that the whole complex food web relies on them. From their perch at its top, sharks keep populations of other fish in check, naturally select out old and sick fish, and control populations so that other prey fish can’t cause an imbalance in the ecosystem. By doing the essential job of population control, sharks actually ensure adequate biodiversity in marine habitats.

Besides regulating the food web, sharks are believed to keep coral reefs, sea grass beds, and other vital habitats healthy. Essentially, sharks regulate the behavior of other species by intimidating them, preventing any one species from over-consuming critical habitat.

Because of the severe population decline of many shark species, several states, Maryland included, have taken steps to protect sharks by prohibiting the sale, trade, and transfer of shark fins, and many conservation organizations are advocating for even greater protection of these ocean-dwellers.

This summer, if you’re fortunate enough to spent time at the ocean, don’t let fear of sharks prevent you from enjoying the water. Be sensible, but not afraid. As you’ve no doubt heard, you face much greater risk driving to the shore than you do from the sharks that live there.

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July 2, 2013: The Pollution We Cannot See: Toxins in Our Waters

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When it comes to cleaning up the Baltimore Harbor, most of us think about trash cleanups. While keeping garbage out of our waterways is critically important, there’s another source of pollution infecting the Bay—bacteria from wastewater. Blue Water Baltimore Executive Director Halle Van der Gaag and National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli talk about the toxins in our waters and what needs to be done about it.

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June 25, 2013: Rising Seas

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On these hot summer days, our thoughts tend toward ice cream cones and tall glasses of ice water on a sweltering afternoon rather than the melting of ice sheets around the world. But just as the ice melting in your glass causes the water level to rise, so too does the melting of the world’s ice shelves.

Perhaps you’ve seen the incredible videos of massive chunks of ice breaking away from a glacier, causing crashing impressively into the sea. Until recently, it was thought that this was the primary cause of ice loss in Antarctica. But in fact, a study by NASA and university researchers indicates that warming oceans are also dissolving the ice from underneath the ice shelf at unprecedented rates, causing the greatest loss of Antarctic ice shelf mass. Scientists plan to use these data to help determine how ice shelves melt, improving projections of how the ice sheet might respond to a warming ocean and contribute to sea level rise.

Ice loss is not just occurring at the poles: NASA researchers have discovered that glaciers outside of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica lost an average of 571 trillion pounds of mass each year during the six-year study period, causing sea levels to rise almost two-tenths of an inch during that time. This actually matches the sea level rise attributed to the combined ice loss of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets.

Ice melting isn’t the only contributor to sea level rise. Warming temperatures cause waters to warm and expand. In turn, warming waters take up more volume. This phenomenon is called thermal expansion. The combination of ice melting and thermal expansion means that sea level rise is not just a possibility…it is happening now, and the only question is how fast it’s going to rise.

Many scientists now believe that sea levels will rise by no less than one to two feet by 2100. And without dramatic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, the threat could be much more substantial.

The East Coast in particular is at greater risk from sea level than other areas of the world, mainly due to ocean currents and differences in seawater temperature and ocean salinity, according to climate scientists. The U.S. Geological Survey found that sea levels from North Carolina to Boston climbed by about 2 to 4 millimeters a year between 1950 and 2009 as compared to a global average of one-half to 1 millimeter.

These amounts may seem small and unimportant, but the repercussions from these rising levels are anything but. Imagine increased coastal flooding, shoreline erosion, loss of wetlands, and destroyed homes and businesses on the order of superstorm Sandy. Sea level rise does affect us all.

We need to take steps to control warming, as sea surface temperature and sea level rise are inextricably linked. According to the U.S. EPA, sea surface temperatures have risen at an average rate of 13 one-hundredths of a degree per decade since 1901. As small as that may sound, over 112 years, that’s an increase of one and a half degrees, which is already impacting not only sea level, but also coral reefs and other essential ocean habitats, migration and breeding patterns, the intensity of storms, and the spread of invasive species and marine diseases.

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June 18, 2013: Dolphin Earthquake Study

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On August 23, 2011, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit 118 miles from the National Aquarium, Baltimore. Approximately 20 seconds before the buildings started shaking, the four dolphins in a back pool started rapidly swimming together in an unusual formation. In this segment, National Aquarium marine mammal researcher Dr. Mark Turner talks about his study analyzing the dolphin’s reaction to the earthquake.

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June 11, 2013: Explore the Shore

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Whether boating, fishing, or just walking along the sandy shore, spending time on the water is a classic summer pastime. For many of us, these visits are an opportunity to explore. From birds, crabs, and fish, to the occasional dolphin and seal sighting, an amazing diversity of life lives in harmony along the shore. It is critical, though, as many of us make our way to the water, that we take responsibility for the ways that our actions impact the environment.

When we get too close to certain wildlife, for example, we can unintentionally cause a nest failure or force an animal to flee, putting its survival at risk. Never feed wildlife, not even the bread scraps from your beach picnic, and avoid sensitive sand dunes by sticking to walkways. And when boating, obey posted speed limits and slow down while motoring through shallow waterways. Respect these natural habitats by observing wildlife from a distance—close enough to appreciate the beauty of these incredible ecosystems but far enough away to leave wildlife and plants undisturbed.

It’s also essential to dispose of trash properly. Every summer, people leave their footprints—and a whole lot of trash—along our coasts. From fishing line to plastic bags, our throwaways can throw our oceans into turmoil if we don’t dispose of these materials responsibly.

Fishing line is particularly dangerous to animals. Wildlife often eat or become entangled in monofilament line, which is practically invisible. One unfortunate sea turtle was found with an astounding 590 feet of fishing line in his gut. One study showed that more than 50 percent of sea turtles stranded on a beach contained traces of debris in their digestive tracts. Sixty-five percent of those animals had ingested plastic bags, and it’s no wonder: the U.S. International Trade Commission reported that 102 billion plastic bags were used in the United States in 2008 alone—that’s a bag a day for every woman, man and child.

Though there are many statistics citing the numbers of animals that die as a result of marine debris each year—one estimate in fact is 100,000 marine mammals and millions of birds and fishes—this area of study is evolving. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program is taking essential strides in supporting efforts to research, prevent, and reduce the impacts of marine debris, but it’s clear that we can’t afford to wait to take action. The bottom line is that even one piece of garbage on the beach is one too many.

This year, think about your impacts as you pack for your day at the beach. A great place to start is reusable goods. It’s often windy by the shore, so keep your trash and belongings from blowing into the ocean. Some popular fishing areas provide safe recycling containers for monofilament line. You can also ship monofilament to the Berkley Recycling Center in Iowa. This company will use your line to create Fish-Habs, which are four-foot underwater habitat structures made from recycled fishing line, milk cartons, and soft drink bottles. These cubes attract fish and encourage plant growth, providing natural cover necessary to maintain healthy habitats.

Whatever you do, follow this one essential rule when you’re at the shore this summer: When it’s time to go home, leave nothing but your footprints.

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June 4, 2013: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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How many times have you been out for a walk and noticed a piece of trash or a plastic bottle carelessly discarded in the gutter? Someone may come along and pick it up. More likely, it will make its way through the streams and waterways and end up in our ocean. Once there, it will follow the prevailing currents and either wash up on a beach or end up in one of the gyres that exist in each ocean.

Gyres are large areas of calm water that are encircled by ocean currents formed by the earth’s wind patterns and rotation. Debris that drifts into these areas stays there for years—pushed gently in a slow, spiral toward the center.

There are 5 major oceanic gyres, with several smaller gyres near Alaska and Antarctica. The North Pacific Gyre, one of the most infamous, is commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is twice the size of the state of Texas.

Within these enormous ocean junk yards, plastic breaks down over time and smaller pieces are suspended on the surface to many feet down. They can be as small as plankton and even more concentrated. Plastic particles that circulate through oceans act as sponges for waterborne contaminants that have washed through our watersheds. Fish cannot avoid eating these minute particles, so plastic enters the ocean food chain at its most basic levels. These fish are then eaten by other fish and organisms, delivering this pollution straight to our dinner plate. That’s right; the fish you eat could be contaminated with microscopic plastic particles. In addition, birds and marine mammals ingest larger pieces of debris and become sick or die.

So who is responsible for cleaning up these oceanic garbage dumps? Because the North Pacific Gyre is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation has been willing to take responsibility. Several organizations have stepped up to raise public awareness about this issue. One, called 5 Gyres, recently held events at the National Aquarium in both Washington and Baltimore. 5 Gyres aims to conduct research and employ strategies to eliminate the accumulation of plastic pollution. Since plastics aren’t going to go away, we as a culture need to figure out how to balance our use of these items with awareness and concern for their impact on the environment.

Fortunately, there are some very simple ways that each of us can make a real difference. The next time you go out to lunch, forego the straw and the lid on your drink. Bring your own reusable mug when you stop for coffee. Stuff a trash bag in your pocket when you go for a walk, and pick up the pieces of trash you see on the sidewalk, along the trail, or on the beach. Choose products that come with less packaging. And bring your reusable bags, not just to the grocery store, but to everywhere you shop.

A Chinese proverb suggests, “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” We are not going to reverse decades of damage in just a few years, but every one of us has the power to make a small change that when taken together can and will make an enormous difference. I encourage you to join me today and do just one thing in your daily life to reduce your consumption of plastics.

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May 28, 2013: Understanding Ocean Acidification

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Say you visit the same spot on the same ocean every year. You take a swim, and it feels pretty much like the last time. The temperature doesn’t seem all that different. You certainly can’t tell that the pH is changing.

Yet just as the global climate is changing, so too is the ocean’s chemistry. Alongside atmospheric climate change, ocean acidification is one of the most serious issues affecting the waters of our planet and all of its inhabitants.

Ocean acidification has only recently entered the public’s consciousness, though scientists have been studying and predicting the phenomenon for some time. Many estimate that the ocean absorbs approximately 30 percent of human-generated carbon dioxide, which reacts with sea water to form carbonic acid. The resultant decrease in pH means the water becomes more acidic, with disastrous effects on animals that depend on their shells and exoskeletons to survive.

Though the media has taken to calling ocean acidification our “new climate threat,” it is not a new problem. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide has been increasing in our atmosphere and therefore our seawater. Now, over 200 years later, we can no longer ignore the threat. Even conservative estimates suggest that by 2100, global ocean waters will warm nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average and acidity will increase by 150 percent.

So what does this mean for ocean wildlife? Clearly, the sea’s complex food web will be disrupted. Highly mobile animals will be forced to expand their home ranges as they search for more hospitable waters. Sadly, coral reefs as we know them will be forever altered and could even disappear. Animals will struggle to build skeletons and shells in waters that literally dissolve them. And growth and reproductive capabilities of numerous marine animals will be at risk.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is not immune to these dramatic changes. In fact, according to NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, the Bay is being affected at a faster rate than the global average because land in this region is already subsiding naturally. Bay temperatures have already increased almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960 and are projected to increase by an additional 3 to 10 degrees by 2100—a tremendous change that will have a profound effect on the nation’s largest estuary. Increased acidification of the Bay will alter its delicate balance in other ways. For example, according to marine geologist Justin Ries of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, blue crabs could grow larger, while the creatures they eat, including oysters and clams, could suffer from weaker, slower-growing shells. These bivalves, in addition to being an integral part of the food chain, also contribute to healthier water quality by filtering huge quantities of Bay water. The moral: damage one small species and you affect the entire Chesapeake Bay.

We cannot simply undo the impacts of ocean acidification. The carbon dioxide we are putting into the atmosphere today will continue to accumulate for decades. There is hope, however, and as always, it starts with each of us. Reducing our consumption of fossil fuels and minimizing our collective carbon footprint isn’t just the best way forward, it’s the only way. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said in The Brothers Karamazov, “For all is like an ocean. All flows and connects. Touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world.”

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May 21, 2013: Studying Dolphin Behaviors

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Dolphins are highly intelligent, social, playful animals. As we work to understand these amazing creatures, research is an essential part of the mission at the National Aquarium. Our Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are participating in a study consisting of enrichment trials in an effort to understand more about dolphin behaviors, namely, emitting large bubble spheres from their blowholes. In this segment, National Aquarium marine mammal researcher Cynthia Turner, Esq., describes using enrichment as a research tool and discusses bubble spheres as a possible reaction to novelty.

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May 14, 2013: A Devastating Year for Manatees

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Gentle giants with few enemies, manatee populations have nonetheless long been threatened. The species has been on the federal endangered species list since 1967, when the list was created, and has been protected by Florida state law since 1893. Thanks to this, manatee populations have grown in recent years.

Typically, manatee deaths and injuries are associated with boat strikes. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a manatee without tell-tale propeller scars. But this year, a particularly aggressive red tide along Florida’s southwest coast has killed more than 265 manatees. Combined with other causes of death, more than 580 manatees have died out of an estimated population of 5,000—a staggering number that has erased those recent population gains.

Red tide is an algae bloom that occurs naturally every year, though the 2013 bloom has proven to be more deadly than any previous year on record. Characterized most often by a red discoloration of the water, the algae produces toxins that affect the nervous system of vertebrates. These toxins can settle on sea grass and blow through the air when waves break the algae apart. Since manatees eat up to 100 pounds of sea grass per day, this can have devastating effects.

Symptoms of red tide toxicity in manatees include muscle twitching, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing, and seizures, but they aren’t the only ones affected. It can also cause human respiratory distress, shellfish poisoning, and the deaths of other marine mammals, fish, and turtles.

So what can be done? The truth is, when red tide strikes, little can be done besides just waiting it out. Florida state wildlife officials believe that this year’s red tide is subsiding, but the effects of the bloom are likely to be seen over the next weeks and months, resulting in more deaths.

Several facilities in Florida are equipped to handle critical care of manatees, but the Lowry Park Zoo’s Manatee Hospital is the only one rehabilitating red tide patients. Not many have been rescued, though every life saved is a victory for this endangered species. To date, 13 manatees with red tide toxicity have been admitted to the hospital for care. Staff members monitor each sick manatee around the clock until the danger has passed, holding up the manatee’s head so it can breathe. Once out of the red tide environment, manatees recover fairly quickly. Unfortunately, there really isn’t anywhere for them to go.

Manatees are migratory animals, and staff at the hospital don’t want to release their patients only to have them wind up in danger again. They are working with state and federal partners to determine when the manatees can be safely returned to the open waters.

Efforts are ongoing to understand why this year’s red tide bloom was so toxic and long-lasting. An uncommonly mild winter most likely contributed because the algae bloom didn’t die off as quickly as normal. Manatees swam right into the red tide in their search for warmer waters. There’s also speculation that phosphorus runoff from farms and lawns are been a factor in the red tide’s severity. The hope is that as scientists better understand the reasons behind this extraordinary red tide event, the lessons learned can better prepare us for the next time, and more manatees can be saved.

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May 7, 2013: Not-So-Silent Sounds of the Sea

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In our oceans, where distances can be long and visibility can be short, many animal species rely on sound to communicate, navigate, and monitor their surroundings. Today, the industrialization of our marine environment is having a profound impact on life in the sea as underwater noise affects feeding, mating, and migratory routes. But for the first time in history, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will document human-made noises in the ocean and use the results to create the world’s first undersea sound map, aiding in understanding sound pollution and its affect on marine life.

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April 30, 2013: An Up-Close Look at the Patapsco River and the Harbor

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As captain of the Snow Goose, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 46-foot workboat, John Tapscott takes students and teachers through the Port of Baltimore and the Patapsco River to learn about an array of issues that affect the Chesapeake Bay, including human impact, trawling, oyster dredging, and water quality. John is with me in the studio to talk about challenges facing the Patapsco River and the Harbor.

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April 23, 2013: Seafood Fraud Uncovered

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When we go to restaurants and grocery stores, most of us assume that we’re getting what we pay for. But as a recent study shows, that’s not always the case—especially when it comes to seafood.

Seafood fraud is not a new issue, but according to a recently released study from Oceana, it continues to be a pervasive problem. From 2010 to 2012, Oceana conducted a seafood fraud investigation, collecting more than 1,200 seafood samples in 21 states. Using a DNA barcoding technique, a short DNA sequence was obtained from each sample and then compared to a catalogue of sequences from more than 8,000 fish species. This DNA testing showed that 33 percent of the samples analyzed were mislabeled, though there was tremendous variation depending on the type of fish purchased.

Red snapper in particular was the most commonly mislabeled—113 out of 120 samples were a fish species other than red snapper. Twenty-eight different species were substituted for red snapper, and 17 of those weren’t even in the snapper family at all. In one instance, the red snapper was actually tilefish, which the government advises sensitive groups to avoid due to high mercury levels.

Also raising health concerns, escolar was a substitute for white tuna in 84 percent of samples. Escolar is a snake mackerel that contains a naturally occurring toxin and can have serious digestive effects on people who eat more than a few ounces. The Food and Drug Administration actually advises against the sale of this species, and some countries have banned it outright. Consumers are not protected, though, when it’s mislabeled as white tuna.

The Oceana study reports that 44 percent of retail establishments sold mislabeled fish, with sushi outlets far outstripping restaurants and grocery stores. In fact, 74 percent of sushi venues mislabeled fish, compared to 38 percent of restaurants and 18 percent of grocery stores.

There are many reasons that seafood fraud occurs. They include a lack of understanding, a desire to increase profits, and attempts to launder illegally harvested seafood. Somewhere along the supply chain, someone may substitute a lesser-valued fish. Others may short-weight the product, meaning the seafood processor misrepresents the weight of a seafood product so the customer gets less food for their money.

The consequences of this fraud are considerable. In addition to affecting human health when one species is swapped with another that may have contaminants, allergens, or toxins, seafood fraud disguises what is truly happening in the marketplace, incentivizing illegal fishing and threatening conservation efforts.

To address this critical issue, the SAFE Seafood Act was recently introduced to the House of Representatives and the Senate. This bill requires that seafood in the U.S. be traceable from its origin, standardizes seafood names, keeps illegally caught fish off the market, and increases inspections.

So what can you do to protect yourself from seafood fraud? Show curiosity about where your fish was caught and how. This will increase the dialogue around these important issues and hopefully encourage restaurants and stores to ask questions of their suppliers. Be knowledgeable about what you’re buying—and if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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April 16, 2013: A Look at Vernal Pools

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When most of us think of aquatic ecosystems, what usually comes to mind are oceans, rivers, bays, lakes, and streams. But there is another essential body of water, one not commonly known, that provides critical habitats for many woodland animals.

Vernal pools are similar to swamps or small ponds in appearance, but there’s one key difference: They fill and dry cyclically throughout the year. These temporary woodland ponds occur in shallow depressions and typically fill in the spring and dry out during the summer only to fill once again in the fall. Small in size, usually less than an acre, vernal pools are often surrounded by woodlands.

Several species of frogs, toads, salamanders, and numerous invertebrates use these pools as their primary breeding habitat, making their role in landscapes in the northeastern United States even greater than one might expect given their small size and temporary nature.

Vernal pools usually are at their deepest in the spring, which is where these pools get their name: vernal comes from the Latin “vernus,” meaning “belonging to spring.” They fill with rainwater, snow melt, and runoff from higher areas, and though small, they are literally teeming with life. The first warm rains of March and April set off mass migrations of frogs and salamanders from the surrounding woodlands into the pools, which provide a space for all sorts of plants, insects, and other animals to grow and thrive.

Take marbled salamanders, for instance. At summer’s end, many of the vernal pools are completely dry. By the end of September, prior to the onset of fall rains, hundreds of female marbled salamanders assemble and lay up to 200 eggs in depressions under logs, vegetation, and leaves in the lower areas of a vernal pools. The eggs are guarded until rains fill the low-lying areas, and the eggs hatch soon after coming into contact with water.

Fairy shrimp eggs that have been lying dormant in the dry mud also start hatching when these pools fill with water. Species such as wood frogs and spotted salamanders almost exclusively utilize vernal pools for breeding. Even mollusks, such as fingernail clams, can be found in vernal pools, surviving by remaining dormant in pool sediment during the dry season.

This wetland-then-drought cycle means that fish and other species that depend on permanent water cannot survive, providing an ideal habitat for the aquatic larvae of insects and amphibians. Any frog or salamander that lays its eggs in a vernal pool benefits by not having its offspring eaten by fish. These species would otherwise be challenged with competition or predation from larger aquatic species. The inhabitants of these vernal pools aren’t without predators, however. In April and May, snakes, turtles, birds, and mammals visit the vernal pools to feed on amphibians and their larvae. As the year progresses other species are drawn to vernal pools as well for food, water and shelter.

In addition to the providing a diverse ecosystem for wildlife, vernal pools help to gather and hold runoff from heavy rains, serving as storage tanks and settlement ponds for areas such as the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Without vernal pools, the runoff and silt load is increased and delivered directly into larger water sources.

Despite their vast importance, these wetland ecosystems are threatened. Because they are temporary, they are often not protected by wetlands laws. The study of these vernal pools is evolving, and ecologists are steadily increasing their understanding of these pools as a healthy habitat and breeding ground for many species.

This spring, you can see these vibrant ecosystems for yourself as you hike or bike through the forests of Maryland. These specialized, woodland wetlands can often be located by following the sounds of calling frogs. Take care not to disturb them, but by all means pause and look at the diversity of life that exists in these vernal pools.

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April 9, 2013: The Chesapeake Bay as a Classroom

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The Chesapeake Bay Foundation employs many strategies to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay. A major component, education, utilizes field experiences to transform the Bay into a classroom. John Tapscott, captain of the 46-foot workboat, the Snow Goose, guides students though the Port of Baltimore and the Patapsco River to study how people and the Bay affect each other.

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April 2, 2013: Bayscaping

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For many of us, spring means we can get our hands dirty. We bring out the mowers and the yard tools, head to the nurseries to buy seeds or plants for the garden, and enjoy spending our weekends outdoors working in the yard.

Increasingly in our region, a conservation-minded landscaping trend is taking hold. Sometimes called “bayscaping” here in the Mid-Atlantic, conservation landscaping incorporates sustainable strategies. The goal is to create an outdoor environment that reduces pollution and helps combat the contaminants that run into the Chesapeake Bay every day. These practices require less mowing, weeding, and watering, significantly reduce or eliminate the need for fertilizers, and attract wildlife.

When we look at our expansive green spaces, it’s hard to believe that we aren’t already making healthy environmental choices. The fact is, those very same things that keep our yards in pristine condition can do serious damage, and our waterways in particular are at risk.

According to Blue Water Baltimore, Americans use 5 million tons of fertilizer and more than 70 million pounds of pesticides every year. Many times, these treatments are over-applied or applied at the wrong time, and they run off into our waterways.

To minimize the use of these types of garden treatments, one of the first things you can do is eliminate invasive plant species and instead incorporate native plants into your yard. Native plants are those that are naturally present in your region, while non-native species have been brought to the region at some point in history. Because native plants are uniquely adapted to a particular region, they don’t require as much water, fertilizer, or pesticides to be healthy. If you do find it necessary to use pesticides in your yard, first try alternatives, such as horticultural soaps. Pesticides not only kill the pests, but they harm other inhabitants of your yard as well.

Healthy soil is critical to a vigorous, sustainable yard. Let grass clippings and leaves naturally decompose, and conduct a soil test every three or four years, which can inform your decision on lawn treatment. It’s better for the environment if you work with what you have and only take action when absolutely necessary.

Another key goal of bayscaping is the establishment of your green space as a dynamic wildlife habitat. According to the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council, minimizing the amount of lawn and replacing it with layers of plants—including trees, shrubs, and perennials—make yards wildlife friendly by providing a variety of shelter. Less lawn also means less mowing, which is another environmental plus. It’s also important to provide year-round water and food sources for your yard inhabitants.

Use natural water resources effectively by directing downspouts and drains away from paved driveways and sidewalks and into green spaces. Natural ground cover, as opposed to paved surfaces and compacted soil, can reduce the amount of runoff and help contribute to groundwater recharge.

Incorporating bayscaping strategies may mean that your yard doesn’t look like your neighbor’s, but that’s not a bad thing. Take the opportunity to educate them about sustainable landscaping practices. You may start a neighborhood trend that the Chesapeake Bay will thank you for.

Once your yard is bayscaped, there are several certification programs that will validate your conservation efforts. To achieve Bay-Wise certification, a Master Gardener will assess your property and give your yard a score. You can also create a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat by providing appropriate shelter, food, and water for the animals in your yard.

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March 26, 2013: The Sounds of the Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers

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Through the winter, woodlands and meadows are mostly quiet at night. But with the arrival of spring rains and warming temperatures, that silence is broken by loud choruses of wood frogs and spring peepers. These are the first frog species to come out of hibernation and begin the year’s amphibian breeding season.

Spring peepers are small, just one inch in length, but you wouldn’t know it from their sound. Each peeper can produce a call as loud as 90 decibels. Multiply that by the number of frogs in a wetland habitat, and you have a sound that can rival that of a rock concert.

Why so noisy? That’s how the male spring peepers attract females from the surrounding woodlands. As the females come out of hibernation, they are carrying between 200 and 1,000 eggs, and the females are outnumbered by the males at about 9 to 1. Competition is intense, and females choose males based on the quality of his song.

Because of this competition, males wrestle for the best spots at the chorusing site. Interestingly, Dr. Don Forester and David Lykens of Towson University discovered that some spring peeper males were successful in breeding with females through a very deceptive strategy. Because calling requires a huge amount of energy, some spring peeper males, known as satellite males, don’t call at all. Instead, these satellite males save energy by positioning themselves near the top singers. They then intercept females moving toward the calling males. Satellite males are smaller than calling males and would probably be at a disadvantage in trying to attract females with a less impressive voice.

Once the female spring peeper makes her choice, she releases eggs, which are fertilized externally by the male’s sperm. She can lay more than 1,000 eggs, which are attached individually or in small clusters to underwater vegetation, sticks, and fallen leaves.

Though the spring peeper is often considered the first frog to emerge from hibernation and therefore an early sign that winter is indeed over, the wood frog is usually ahead of the peeper. In fact, in mild winters, wood frogs have been observed arriving in woodland pools as early as February. In Maryland, they are the earliest frog species to mate and reproduce.

Wood frogs are often referred to as “explosive breeders” because they arrive in large numbers and have a short breeding season, usually only lasting the first few weeks of late winter or early spring. Wood frogs almost exclusively lay their eggs in vernal pools, which are small temporary bodies of water that form in depressions. Because these pools dry over the summer, wood frogs must lay their eggs, the eggs must hatch, and tadpoles must fully develop and metamorphose before the pools dry. The wood frog’s strategy is to arrive first and maximize the time needed to make it the entire way through the process. Wood frog tadpoles often dine on the newly laid eggs of later arriving frog species.

Another survival strategy of the wood frog is the practice of literally putting all its eggs in one basket. They lay their eggs in a communal mass in the vernal pool.

Even as these frogs perpetuate their life cycle, they do face challenges. Their well-being is intricately linked to the survival of their woodland home and their vernal pools. Be considerate of these habitats in your neighborhood by preventing trash and other pollution from traveling through your waterways. Slow down while driving on warm spring nights, allowing amphibians to migrate safely across roadways. And when you pay these amazing creatures a visit in their natural habitat, observe but don’t disturb.

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March 19, 2013: The Streams of Maryland

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Held annually on March 22, the United Nation’s World Water Day brings attention to the importance of freshwater and advocates for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. Globally, freshwater accessibility is critical for the survival of all living things, yet it is a significantly threatened resource. In Maryland, our own freshwater streams and rivers need our help as they run to the largest estuary in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay.

Even if you don’t live on the water, the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which encompasses more than 64,000 square miles to six states and the District of Columbia, affects each of us every day. More than 100,000 streams, creeks, and rivers weave through the Chesapeake’s vast watershed. In fact, according to DNR, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, we all live within 15 minutes of a stream, making freshwater health not just a Maryland issue, but a backyard issue as well.

Healthy streams are organically balanced, with enough oxygen to support life. Decaying plants and animal waste provide a balanced amount of nutrients, and the water is not too acid or too alkaline. In these healthy streams, runoff is kept to a minimum, and chemicals from farms, factories, and residential areas do not make their way into the stream. Countless species rely on healthy freshwater ecosystems to thrive. Fish, snakes, turtles, frogs, invertebrates…DNR states that Maryland is home to more than 100 species of fish, 20 species of salamander, and 10 species of turtle, just to name a few stream-dwellers.

In a recent assessment by the EPA, just 45 percent of sampled streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed were rated fair, good, or excellent. As outlined in the EPA’s Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the goal is to improve the health of the watershed so that 70 percent of sampled streams measure fair or better by 2025.

To help increase our understanding of stream health, DNR coordinates a team of volunteers who collect important stream quality data across the state. This program, called Stream Waders, is the volunteer component of the Maryland Biological Stream Survey. The use of these volunteers allows more streams to be sampled, giving a big-picture view of Maryland’s waterways. Volunteers participate in a one-day training session, then spend a couple days in March or April collecting aquatic invertebrate samples from stream beds.

The study of aquatic invertebrates, such as mayflies, caddisflies, and dragonflies, is instrumental in the analysis of streams. Because invertebrates vary in their sensitivity to pollutants, a healthy stream has both sensitive and tolerant invertebrate species while an unhealthy one would have only pollution-tolerant species. Ultimately, the Stream Waders data is used in DNR reports and is available for review on their website. For a link to the site, visit aqua.org/ablueview.

In our daily lives, each of us can take steps to help keep our community streams healthy. Take a walk along a nearby stream and properly dispose of trash you find along its banks. Limit pesticide use in your yard so that it doesn’t make its way into freshwater supplies. Many local organizations host stream cleanups or wetland restoration events, so volunteer your time. Even just one day a year can make a real difference to a stream in your community.

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March 12, 2013: Lionfish Invade Our Seas

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Since 1992, when Pacific lionfish were first sighted in South Florida waters, this fish has become widely established all along the southeast United States and the Caribbean Sea, even being spotted as far north as New York. These distinctive looking fish—red and white striped with long pectoral fins and needle-like dorsal fins, have profoundly impacted the health of the ecosystems where they now reside. National Aquarium aquarist Ashleigh Clews talks about the invasive species in this week’s radio show.

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March 5, 2013: The Truth About Invasive Species

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This week is National Invasive Species Awareness Week, a week dedicated to raising consciousness about invasive plants and animals and their effects on our environment and our economy. This week, National Aquarium aquarist Ashleigh Clews talks about the very real costs of invasive species in our waterways.

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February 26, 2013: Every Drop Counts

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A lot of us take water for granted. We simply turn on a faucet, and there it is, in seemingly endless supply.

Freshwater, however, is not as plentiful as you might think. Yes, the world is 70 percent water, a staggering amount. Of that water, 97.5% is salt water. The rest, just 2.5%, is freshwater. And of that, less than 1 percent of the world’s freshwater is available for use by people.

According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population in the last century. Around the world, many people don’t have enough water. Even in the United States, water shortages as a result of drought or environmental issues are on the rise. In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that more than 1,100 U.S. counties—one-third of all the counties in the lower 48—now face higher risks of water shortages by 2050.

According to the National Geographic Society’s website Water Currents, the average person in America uses nearly 2,000 gallons of water per day. Only 5 percent of that, however, is traveling through your faucets or watering your lawn. In fact, the water consumption is hidden in the food, products, and services you use every day. Our diets in particular are responsible for the majority of our water consumption. Take milk, for example. 880 gallons of water are required to generate that one gallon of milk sitting in your fridge. And getting beef on the dinner table is one of the biggest diet-related water consumers: every pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water. Even a cup of coffee takes 55 gallons of water, due primarily to the water used to grow coffee beans.

Beneath all these statistics, there are ways that you can effect real change. Keep a pitcher of water in the refrigerator so you don’t have to wait for the tap to run cold when grabbing a cup of water. Consider going meatless and dairy-free once a week to reduce the tremendous water cost of meat and dairy products. And of course buy local whenever possible.

Around your home, fix leaky faucets and running toilets. One estimate indicates that each of us loses 10 gallons per day due to leaks. Aim for quick showers instead of baths, and turn off the faucet while washing dishes and brushing your teeth. In fact, instead of hand-washing your dishes, run your dishwasher, but only when it’s full. Water your lawn in the early morning or late evening, and if you have a pool, cover it when it’s not in use to prevent evaporation.

To help consumers make more water-friendly choices, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established a program called WaterSense. This program certifies products and services that meet a set of water-conservation standards so that consumers can look for the WaterSense label on products like faucets, showerheads, and toilets, and know it meets performance standards and is also 20 percent more water efficient than average fixtures. The EPA estimates that if one in every 10 homes in the United States were to install WaterSense-labeled faucets, we could save 6 billion gallons of water per year.

Of course, people need water to support the many activities in their daily lives, but if each of us just takes a few small steps to reduce our water consumption, we can make a big difference, not only in gallons but in the health of our planet’s finite supply of freshwater.

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February 19, 2013: Snakes In Our Backyards

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As spring approaches, the stray warm, sunny day is going to start waking up our natural world from its winter sleep. Grass will grow, buds will burst from trees and shrubs, birds will migrate, and yes, snakes will come out of hibernation.

For many, the thought of a snake basking in the sunshine on their driveway is enough to send them running for the moving boxes. There’s no doubt about it, snakes—often thought of as creepy, crawly, slimy, and scaly—have an undeservedly bad reputation. Yet these creatures fill a critical role in our environment, and they’re pretty amazing animals, too.

Did you know that some snakes, despite their lack of legs, can climb trees and cave walls in search of food? Or that all snakes can swim, with some, like the water snake, able to dive beneath the surface to feed on fish and frogs? Some species even have infrared heat receptors, allowing them to find prey in the dark.

Snakes are uniquely designed to locate their prey. Though they don’t hear very well, they pick up vibrations from the ground. When snakes stick out their forked tongues, they actually smell the air, using the two-prong shape to establish a direction. “Odor” molecules caught on a snake’s tongue are translated by something called a Jacobson’s Organ in the roof of its mouth, so snakes literally taste the scent. This forked tongue is also used to avoid predators and to help male snakes locate female snakes during the breeding season.

Like other reptiles, snakes are ectotherms, meaning they control their internal body temperature from heat derived from an external source. When cold, they move into the sun; when hot, they move into the shade. Extreme heat or cold can kill them. In winter, snakes hibernate in areas below the frostline, and their dens can be found in narrow crevices in rocks, under trees and wood piles, and occasionally in basements. When snakes bask in the sun—like on those early days of spring—people are often faced with an animal they aren’t comfortable seeing up close.

It’s when snakes seem to encroach on our human space—like our yards or roadways—that many people get distressed, and they often take drastic action to get rid of snakes without thinking about the consequences. After all, snake populations are vital to maintaining balance in our ecosystems, helping to effectively control the population of small mammals, like mice and rats, and also serving as a valuable food source for hawks and other predators.

Here in Maryland, we have 27 species and subspecies of snakes. Of these, only two are venomous, the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead. Neither is aggressive unless provoked, preferring instead to remain motionless and blend into their environment. Two species are endangered, but all native snakes in Maryland are protected under the state’s Endangered Species Conservation Act. This means that native snakes cannot be killed, possessed, bred, or sold without acquiring the proper permit from the Department of Natural Resources.

This spring, if you see a snake, don’t run in the opposite direction. Instead, reach for your camera. DNR’s Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project, also known as MARA, is conducting a five-year program, using data collected by people to create a current distribution map of Maryland reptiles and amphibians. If you see a snake or amphibian, simply take a photograph of it, record the location, and e-mail it to the DNR. This information helps the DNR to develop conservation strategies for native species so snakes and humans can live peacefully together.

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February 12, 2013: Seal Season

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Seal sightings are rare for even the most frequent beach-goers to the Mid-Atlantic shore. In a typical year, about 20 are spotted in Ocean City, Maryland. Because seals prefer a cold-water environment, they tend to visit our area as they travel south from subarctic regions in the winter months and return north during summer months. Healthy seals regularly rest on land in a behavior called "hauling out."

If you're lucky, harp, gray, hooded, and harbor seals can be spotted on our beaches from late winter through spring. These four seal species are semi-aquatic, meaning they can survive for lengths of time both in water and on land. When seals are spotted on land, they are usually resting after long swims or warming up in the sunlight. Seals will also haul out on stormy days to wait out the rough seas.

Because seal sightings are rare, people often assume that a seal on land is injured or sick. Fortunately, there is a fairly easy way to determine if an animal is healthy. The key is to observe the animal's posture. When a seal is lying in a "banana-shaped" position with its head and body curved and facing upright, the animal is simply resting and will more than likely return to the water when it’s ready. Enjoy the sight from a distance, though, as seals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and it is illegal to disturb them.

If a seal is lying in a "bear rug" position, however, with its stomach and head on the ground, the animal is in need of further monitoring and, potentially, rehabilitation. In those cases, contact local authorities or animal control. It's important to remember never to approach a seal that looks like it may be in distress. Even though your intentions may be good, the animal will be under an enormous amount of stress. The animal may flee, even if injured, decreasing the chances that a rescue team will be able to help it.

If you see a seal on the beach, give the animal lots of space, at least 150 feet, and avoid loud or sudden noises. Stay downwind from the seal if possible. Keep pets on leashes, and if you have to walk around a seal, walk on the land side to avoid blocking its path to the water. And never offer food to a seal—it's not only bad for the seal, but it's illegal and could result in a large fine. Disturbing the seal by making it change locations or flee back into the water is against the law.

The National Aquarium Animal Rescue works with local authorities and a network of animal rescue and response organizations along the East Coast to respond to reports of seals on beaches and animals that appear to be in trouble.

Our team of first responders is specially trained to evaluate an animal's health and behaviors. They are looking for any signs of injury such as entanglement, sores or abrasions, open wounds, bleeding, cataracts, dehydration, or emaciation. The team will determine the appropriate intervention for the animal, and may bring the seal back to our Animal Care Center for rehabilitation and later release.

If you see a seal that may be in need of medical attention, please call the National Aquarium's Stranding Hotline or Maryland's Natural Resources Police. In a real emergency, you can simply call the local police or beach patrol, and they'll contact the proper authorities.

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February 5, 2013: Sea Turtles and the Challenges They Face: An Interview with Dr. Kat Hadfield, Associate Veterinarian at National Aquarium

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The 33rd Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation is happening in Baltimore, Maryland, this week. To talk about sea turtles and the challenges they face in our world, we’re talking to Dr. Kat Hadfield, associate veterinarian at the National Aquarium.

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January 29, 2013: Turtle Rescues: An Interview with Dr. Kat Hadfield, Associate Veterinarian at National Aquarium

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In a normal year, the New England Aquarium takes in between 25 and 60 sea turtles. In 2012, that number was more than 200, with an extraordinarily high number of loggerheads—10 times the usual number seen in a year. With the strain on staff and resources with the influx of rescues, New England Aquarium reached out for help from other stranding partners. Dr. Kat Hadfield, associate veterinarian at the National Aquarium, was among those who headed to Quincy, Massachusetts, to help.

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January 22, 2013: Menhaden Makes a Splash

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At first glance, the menhaden is not a glamorous fish, and not one that you would find on a restaurant menu. Also known as bunker, pogy, or bugmouth, the bony, oily fish, which is silver with black spots on its sides, is a humble fish. But there's more than meets the eye when it comes to the menhaden. For countless creatures under the sea, the menhaden has several critical roles, leading some to refer to it as "the most important fish in the sea."

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January 15, 2013: The Environment Up Close at the 2013 Maryland General Assembly

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The 433rd legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly opened on January 9, and with it, several environmental issues that will shape the future of life in Maryland are being debated. Issues like shark finning, plastic consumption, hydraulic fracturing, and wind energy affect the people of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed every day, and the quality of life in our state going forward.

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January 8, 2013: Not-So-Silent Sounds of the Sea

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In our oceans, where distances can be long and visibility can be short, many animal species rely on sound to communicate, navigate, and monitor their surroundings. Today, the industrialization of our marine environment is having a profound impact on life in the sea as underwater noise affects feeding, mating, and migratory routes. But for the first time in history, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will document human-made noises in the ocean and use the results to create the world’s first undersea sound map, aiding in understanding sound pollution and its affect on marine life.

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January 1, 2013: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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Ever noticed a piece of trash or a plastic bottle carelessly discarded in the gutter? Someone may come along and pick it up. Or perhaps it will make its way through the streams and waterways and end up in our ocean. Once there, it will follow the prevailing currents and either wash up on a beach or end up in one of the gyres that exist in each of our oceans. Gyres are large areas of calm water that are encircled by ocean currents formed by the earth’s wind patterns and rotation of the planet. Debris that drifts into these gyres stays there for years—pushed gently in a slow, spiral toward the center. Approximately twice the size of Texas, the North Pacific Gyre, one of the more infamous, is commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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December 25, 2012: 40th Birthday of NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries

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For 40 years, the National Marine Sanctuary system has preserved some of the most treasured and endangered resources in our oceans. This underwater network of national parks was first established by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 1972—exactly 100 years after America’s first national park was created. Today, it protects more than 150,000 square miles of ocean waters and habitats.

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December 18, 2012: "Global Weirding": Climate Change and the Rise of Mega Storms

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Until recently, scientists and meteorologists have been hesitant to make a direct connection between climate change and rapidly changing weather patterns. Coined "global weirding," distinct trends and records for nearly every type of extreme weather are occurring: high temperatures get higher, rainfalls set new records, droughts get deeper, wildfires burn more acres. But with the increasing frequency of these events, and particularly with the devastation brought to the East Coast by Hurricane Sandy, climate change is becoming far less taboo in discussions about the causes of these mega storms.

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December 11, 2012: Oysters

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The Eastern oyster, one of our region’s favorite delicacies, can be enjoyed raw, grilled, fried, or as the main ingredients in stews andstuffings. Historically, the popularity of the Chesapeake Bay oysters fed athriving fishery, and by the end of the 19th century, more than 60 million pounds of oysters were being harvested annually in Maryland’s portion of the bay alone. These days, oyster harvests are weighing in at less than 1% of historical levels. There are now measures in place to help restore oyster populations, and everyone can help.

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December 4, 2012: Dolphin Underwater Keyboard Study

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Dr. Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist, professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York, and research scientist, joins John Racanelli to discuss her one of her studies on the cognition of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Dr. Reiss took an innovative approach to working with these highly intelligent mammals: she gave the dolphins the ability to choose by teaching them to use an underwater keyboard to ask for things.

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November 27, 2012: Man, Eating Shark

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Shark populations in all of the world’s oceans are in danger of collapse, mainly due to overfishing. Commercial and recreational fishing kills up to 73 million sharks every year—including tens of millions just for their fins. That’s roughly 200,000 sharks every day. Why have these predators become prey?

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November 20, 2012: Sustainable Seafood

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Sustainable seafood: hopefully, it's a term you're hearing more and more lately. Similar to "buy local" and "farm to table," it's a term centered on a rising consciousness of what we put on our plates. After decades of extravagant eating habits and a dependence on fast food, Americans are becoming reconnected with food. We go to farmers markets. We buy local and organic. We are paying attention.

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November 13th, 2012: The Dolphin in the Mirror

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Dr. Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist, professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York, and research scientist, joins John Racanelli to discuss her studies on the intelligence of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Dr. Reiss made a remarkable discovery: that dolphins, like humans, can recognize themselves in a mirror.

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November 6, 2012: The Importance of Sand Dunes

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If you regularly visit the beach in the summer, than you have surely noticed the sand dunes that line the Maryland and Delaware shore. We all know what a dune is, but how are they formed, and why are they so important not only to the health of our coastal habitats, but for the safety and protection of our beachfront communities? Dunes provide a natural barrier for the ocean and can slow or prevent coastal flooding, provide protection from high winds and damaging storms, and prevent saltwater from reaching inland, threatening farming and ground water supplies.

For these reasons, many coastal communities in the United States have made dune preservation and restoration a priority. The paths and fencing to keep tourists off the dunes are part of these initiatives. Other, more aggressive restoration projects are underway at shores around the country, and the National Aquarium has been particularly involved in dune restoration in Virginia Beach for several years.

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October 30, 2012: True Blue Crabs

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A true Marylander knows a crabcake, but did you know that the crabmeat you are eating could have been imported from as far away as Asia? Maryland Department of Natural Resources has launched a new program to make it easier to tell where your crabmeat came from, and to identify it as "true blue" Maryland crab meat. This is important for local industry, but it is also an important part of a larger discussion on sustainable seafood. Knowing where food comes from can help us all make better decisions about what we eat, for our health and the health of our planet.

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October 23, 2012: WIDECAST

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The National Aquarium has had a long partnership with WIDECAST, particularly in Costa Rica, where the leatherback sea turtle, one of the primary species of concern, comes ashore to nest. This species has been listed as endangered since 1970. Very little is known about the turtles’ migratory behavior, population genetics or dynamics, inherent diseases, or mortality rates.

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October 16, 2012: Clean Water Act

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, or Clean Water Act, the nation's law for protecting our most irreplaceable resource. The Act set a new national goal "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters," with interim goals that all waters be fishable and swimmable where possible.

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October 9, 2012: Dolphin Underwater Keyboard Study

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Dr. Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist, professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York, and research scientist, joins John Racanelli to discuss her one of her studies on the cognition of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Dr. Reiss took an innovative approach to working with these highly intelligent mammals: she gave the dolphins the ability to choose by teaching them to use an underwater keyboard to ask for things.

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October 4, 2012: Oysters

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The Eastern oyster, one of our region’s favorite delicacies, can be enjoyed raw, grilled, fried, or as the main ingredients in stews andstuffings. Historically, the popularity of the Chesapeake Bay oysters fed athriving fishery, and by the end of the 19th century, more than 60 million pounds of oysters were being harvested annually in Maryland’s portion of the bay alone. These days, oyster harvests are weighing in at less than 1% of historical levels. There are now measures in place to help restore oyster populations, and everyone can help.

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September 25, 2012: Dolphin Bubble Ring Play

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Dr. Diana Reiss has conducted research on dolphin cognition all over the world, including at the National Aquarium. One of the studies Dr. Reiss has conducted examines something she calls “bubble ring play.” The National Aquarium’s youngest dolphin, Bayley, when she was just 2 years old, was already doing some pretty sophisticated behaviors with bubble rings.

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National Public Lands Day

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This September 29 across the country we will celebrate National Public Lands Day. This annual event is designed to highlight the cultural, economic, and environmental value of our public lands—places like National Parks and Wildlife Refuges.

September 18, 2012: Fall Bird Migration

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Summer is on its way out, and the fall bird migration has already begun. Some species begin to move through Maryland as early as July, heading south where resources are more plentiful in the upcoming months; many more will hang on until November or December. For others, the Chesapeake Bay is their final winter destination. Whether you are a serious birder or simply enjoy watching the parade of visitors pass by, this is an important time to do your part to support migrating birds.

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September 11, 2012: Sustainable Seafood

Play The Sustainable Seafood Audio

Sustainable seafood: hopefully, it's a term you're hearing more and more lately. Similar to "buy local" and "farm to table," it's a term centered on a rising consciousness of what we put on our plates. After decades of extravagant eating habits and a dependence on fast food, Americans are becoming reconnected with food. We go to farmers markets. We buy local and organic. We are paying attention.

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August 28, 2012: International Coastal Cleanup

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September 15 is International Coastal Cleanup Day. An annual event started 27 years ago by the Ocean Conservancy, the International Coastal Cleanup has become the world’s largest volunteer effort for ocean health. Every year, countless marine animals, seabirds, and other animals are sickened, injured, or killed because of trash that is made by and falls from human hands. We caused this problem, and it's up to us to fix it.

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August 21, 2012: The Dolphin in the Mirror

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Dr. Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist, professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York, and research scientist, joins John Racanelli to discuss her studies on the intelligence of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Dr. Reiss made a remarkable discovery: that dolphins, like humans, can recognize themselves in a mirror.

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August 14, 2012: The Research Vessel Falkor

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The R/V Falkor, which just paid a visit to the National Aquarium on her maiden voyage, is an example of an entirely new generation of ocean research vessels. Outfitted with some of the world's most advanced deep ocean sensing technologies and onboard systems, the research facilitated by the Falkor will surely contribute to our understanding of the ocean, so much of which still remains a mystery.

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August 7, 2012: The Truth (About) Stings

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For summertime beachgoers in the Mid-Atlantic region, the appearance of stinging jellyfish is dreaded—particularly when it’s in the form of a swarm. There have been news reports lately that we’re expecting a large number of these hard-to-see stingers in the Chesapeake Bay this summer. You may be surprised to learn that, from an environmental perspective, this is actually not scary news.

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July 31, 2012: Man, Eating Shark

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Shark populations in all of the world’s oceans are in danger of collapse, mainly due to overfishing. Commercial and recreational fishing kills up to 73 million sharks every year—including tens of millions just for their fins. That’s roughly 200,000 sharks every day. Why have these predators become prey?

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July 24, 2012: Catch Crabs, Not Terrapins

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With the recreational crabbing season underway, we need to remember another of our favorite animals: the diamondback terrapin, Maryland's state reptile.

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July 17, 2012: Mahogany Tide

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If you walked around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor this spring, you may have noticed the water had taken on a murky, reddish-brown appearance. That’s if your nose hadn’t already alerted you that something’s fishy. A dense bloom of algae invaded our local waters. And it was causing fish in the area to go belly up. So what is this water-fouling, fish-killing bay monster, exactly?

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Conservation Events

October 11th, 2014- Masonville Cove Field Day

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November1st, 2014- Farring-Baybrook Park Tree Planting

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