Massive New Marine Reserve – Thanks Obama!

There is lots I wanted to talk about this week and wasn’t sure where to start. There has been quite a lot of interesting marine mammal and marine developments going on.

What has most excited me and come back into the news a lot is the expansion of the marine protected area in the Pacific – Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument – which has been massively expanded through President Obama using his executive powers and the antiquities act to bypass congress and set up the largest marine protected area in the world. The area is being enlarged to more than 490,000 square miles from just over 87,000 square miles that were initially protected by President Bush.

Melonhead whales (Peponocephala electra) Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Photo credit: Kydd Pollock

Melonhead whales (Peponocephala electra) Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument [Photo Credit: Kydd Pollock].

This creation is very positive news as the area is going to be a fully protected no take zone with no commercial fishing or other marine degrading actives allowed. This large area will protect deep sea coral reefs and underwater sea mounts which, are hot spots for biodiversity alongside large areas of ocean that are important for migrating species including marine mammals such as humpback whales as well as sea turtles, bull sharks and tuna species.

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What Went Down: International Whaling Conference 2014 – The 65th Meeting

The meeting took place recently in Slovenia with over 60 member countries in attendance. Here are some of the issues and resolutions that came up for discussion and vote at the meeting.

International Court of Justice Ruling

The previous ruling by International Court of Justice (ICJ) earlier this year that Japan’s “scientific whaling” is illegal still stands and therefore no further permits for “scientific whaling” to be issued. Further to this a vote (35 yes, 20 no, 5 abstentions) was passed to allow the IWC Scientific Coommittee to implement various provisions which should make “scientific whaling permits” aka Special Permits Programmes more difficult to secure in the future under Article VIII.

The judges of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) during the session at which the court delivered its judgment in Whaling Case: Australia v. Japan. (Image: UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ)

Cross Boarder Protection

There has been moves to provide greater protection across international boarders for cetaceans. As highly migratory species cetaceans need protection that crosses boarders and oceans. If a species is protected in one country and then not in another then the protection will not be as effective as it could be because it will only cover a small amount of their range. This proposal was put forward by Monaco to allow for greater co-operation between the IWC and the United Nations and would be to allow for enhanced collaboration in the conservation of migratory cetaceans. This was passed by a vote of: 37 yes, 15 no, 7 abstentions.

Humpback whale and its calf (Credit: NOAA).

Whale Welfare

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Pelvic Bone aka The Sex Bone…?

Did whale evolution keep the unconnected “floating” hip bone due to sexual selection? They have not been lost over evolutionary time as would be expected vestigial of bones serving no function so…have they remained to serve some function? Indeed they have believe scientists at the University of Southern California and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The cetacean pelvic bones (Image: Wikipedia user Andrew Z. Colvin)

Dines et. al. published their research in Evolution. Through analysis of cetacean pelvic bones they have determined that cetaceans with relatively large testes also have relatively large pelvic bones irrespective of their overall body size. The size and shape of cetacean pelvic bones are evolutionary correlated to relative testes mass. However, their rib bones (used as a control anatomical feature) have not increased in size alongside the pelvic bone increase therefore it is not just a complete bone size increase but a specific correlated increase.

What could be the reason for this?

Firstly large testes are linked to promiscuous species because bigger testes means more sperm which, means greater mating potential and subsequent offspring. More offspring mean that their sexual advantages (large muscles and large testes) are passed on.

A further hypothesis is that the large pelvic bones could provide a mechanism for the enhanced manoeuvrability of relatively large penises by providing a greater surface area for muscles to attach to! These muscles are called the ischiocavernosus and enable enhanced manoeuvrability of the penis from side to side and may also enable the maintenance of an erection. In female cetaceans these muscles insert into the clitoris leading the scientist to speculate that it could be possible that clitoral movements play a role in female mate choice, potentially meaning the female pelvic bone is also subject to sexual selection.

Courtship between a male and female beluga whale. (Photo : Flickr: Brian Gratwicke)

So in essence the large pelvic bones could have been sexually selected for to be larger to support larger muscles and therefore larger male penises in cetacean (with more manoeuvrability…?). Could this be for the pleasure of female cetaceans or is that all being spun around to create media excitement? I guess since we can’t yet ask female cetaceans we shall just have to keep speculating and researching. It would be pretty interesting if these highly social species have sexually selected for highly manoeuvrable penises to please and entice female cetaceans into copulation.

What we do know is that this is probably the first time that scientist have shown sexual selection affecting the internal anatomy that controls the male genitalia of a species.

Exciting News: New Species

A newly published paper in PLoS ONE has revealed that two new species have been discovered off the coast of south-east Australia and….AND they may be from a whole new branch on the Tree Of Life! Not fitting into any of the known Animal Kingdom divisions.

How blooming exciting is that!!

There is a newly names genus – Dendrogramma, a newly names family – Dendrogrammatidae and the two new species called D. enigmatica and D. discoids were actually dredged up from the ocean in 1986 and have been fixed in neutral formaldehyde and stored in 80% ethanol since then.

Dendrogramma enigmatica sp. nov., holotype. A, B, lateral views; C, aboral view, D, adoral view. Photographs taken after shrinkage. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102976.g003

Dendrogramma enigmatica sp. nov., holotype. A, B, lateral views; C, aboral view, D, adoral view. Photographs taken after shrinkage. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102976.g003

To find out more new specimens are going to have to be found to enable molecular analysis, tissue and structure analysis as well as DNA as the fixing process has prevented this. A lot of physiological questions remains and new specimens will allow for fuller descriptions of each species to be made so that the proper phylogenetic placement of Dendrogramma can be identified. There is still a long way to go in placing these species but you have to start somewhere!

Don’t you just love new discoveries. It is exciting that there is still so much out there to discover and that there are people still out there doing it!

I’ll leave you will some words from Dr. Jørgen Olesen:

We published this paper in part as a cry for help, there might be somebody out there who can help place it.

So if you are a scientist and you discover any specimens….Get In Touch with the corresponding author – Dr. Jean Just (email: jean-just at mail.dk)