Singing Whales, Flying Squid and Swimming Cucumbers: The Discovery of Marine Life
By Richard Ellis
The news from the sea is depressing these days: depleted fish stocks; turtle, shark and dolphin numbers dwindling at alarming rates; Antarctic blue whales hovering on the brink of extinction; and, looming over all the wanton destruction, are the spectres of pollution, climate change and inexorable acidification. Neptune will be getting very sour. Spreading the bad news is the best one can do these days, hoping that the public at large will realize that the reports warrant red alert.
But not all is gloom and doom. Scientific understanding of how oceans and their biota function, and how they interact with the rest of the Earth system to maintain our planet in a habitable state, is growing steadily. But this endeavour of mainstream marine science is more like writing a symphony than painting a big picture. To appreciate the news, one needs to be familiar with the context. Luckily, the sea is also full (or used to be full) of eye-catching animals that appeal to the innate curiosity stimulated by large size and strangeness. Such newsworthy animals continue to be discovered, literally brought to light by the increasing number of searchlights probing the inky vastness. Spreading this type of news is also necessary, as it increases public awareness of the ocean as a fascinating and exciting habitat well worth protecting.
As suggested by its main title, Richard Ellis's book is a collection of short stories on marine animals, selected on the basis of how likely they are to fascinate the reader. The subtitle refers, with few exceptions, to discoveries made by the human eye, and hence on the periphery of mainstream research, which relies on instruments to make its observations. Ellis writes for the public in a breezy, light-hearted style, sometimes struggling to keep up the entertainment level with liberal use of superlatives. He has written many books on good and bad news from the sea, and a glance at some of the titles leaves one wondering how regular readers cope with the repetition. Perhaps the denizens of the deep are indeed so strange that one can write several eye-catching headlines on the same topic.
Ellis is most comfortable writing about big animals and seems out of his depth in the microbial world. He says nothing about the discovery of the archaea, life-forms genetically as distant from bacteria as we are from them. They were first reported from extreme environments but are now being found thriving everywhere in oceans and lakes. The discovery of such strangeness in our midst could surely be made palatable to the public without having to tell them much about the inner life of bacteria. Instead, the single chapter on the microbial world makes news by wrongly downplaying the role of chlorophyll-driven photosynthesis in conditioning the biosphere and exaggerating that of a very different type of photosynthesis driven by rhodopsin. Both pigments capture photons to reduce carbon dioxide to organic matter, but only chlorophyll generates the herculean energy required to split hydrogen from water in order to do the job. Oxygen is the waste product here. All other types of photosynthesis get their hydrogen from energy-cheap sources such as dissolved organic matter or hydrogen sulphide. Their waste products are modified organic molecules and sulphur. So the recent discovery of an abundance of rhodopsin-bearing bacteria in the open ocean is interesting, but not quite as Earth-shaking as portrayed here.
Similarly, the much-touted independence from solar energy of the peculiar animals that flourish around deep-sea hydrothermal vents overlooks the fact that, although they might not be fed by chlorophyll-driven photosynthesis, they are certainly breathing its waste product, oxygen. Indeed, they are as dependent on chlorophyll as all the other animals living under the Sun, down to the depths of the deepest trenches.
The book provides a healthy mixture of good and bad news from the sea. Hopefully, its portrayal of wondrous worlds inhabited by all manner of huge and strange animals will attract the public and draw much-needed attention to the ongoing harm being inflicted on the oceans. Serious readers looking for more information may be turned off by the overpowering hyperbole, the eclectic selection of topics, and the giddy leaps from one to another.