Ocean Extremists and the Strange World of Bomb Dating
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 11, 2014
One problem with a lot of writing about the natural world is that it’s all plotline, and the plotline is depressingly familiar: The world is a mess, it’s getting messier by the minute, and in the end, or probably sooner, everybody dies.
Oh, and it’s your fault.
“How can you care about the plot,” asks Stephen R. Palumbi, a biologist and director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University, “until you care about the characters?” That’s how he and his son Anthony R. Palumbi, a science writer, came up with the idea for their new book The Extreme Life of the Sea, a tour of “the fastest, the deepest, the coldest, and the hottest” creatures in the oceans, minus “the sensational fearmongering of ‘Shark Week.’ ”
The result is a giddy scientific tour of weird underwater life, or what the elder Palumbi calls “a collection of guiltless wonder about amazing things going on in the oceans, things that are mostly secrets, except to marine biologists.”
For instance, the authors point out that some Antarctic fish can die of heat stroke at 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Many corals, meanwhile, falter at 90 degrees. But hold that guilt! They mean this by way of introducing the Pompeii worm, Alvinella pompejana, which looks like a red-and-white feather boa and lives around deep-sea hydrothermal vents. These bizarre creatures, five inches in length, somehow live with their hind ends tucked into burrows where the temperature can surge to 200 degrees, while their heads “may as well be on another planet,” in icy 40 degree currents.
Seeing or reading about such creatures as they go about their natural lives has a way of eliciting strong feelings, bordering on awe. The Pompeii worm made me think of an old poem about the sinking of the Titanic and about the cold ocean currents flooding its fiery boilers: “Steel chambers late the pyres / Of her salamandrine fires / Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.” The author, Thomas Hardy, had no idea that hydrothermal vents could superheat the bottom of the ocean. Or that a sea bottom creature could live simultaneously in the boiler and the icebox. No one had any clue about such things until scientists began to describe the life around hydrothermal vents in 1979.
Researchers still can’t say how the Pompeii worms manage it. But billfish—including marlins, sailfish, and swordfish—employ a thermoregulatory mechanism that’s visible to anyone who has ever seen a swordfish steak: That dark-brown flesh on either side of the spinal cord is specialized muscle that cannot contract but instead converts calories directly to heat to keep the core of the body warm. The same sort of tissue turns up in the braincase and next to the eyes, giving billfish a kind of stop-motion ability to spot the flashing maneuvers of smaller fish. They pursue their prey at high speed and then—poetry again—“the vorpal blade” goes “snicker-snack,” that is, they slash with their long, sharp bills and gulp down the stunned victims with toothless mouths.
As plotlines go, this is juicy stuff. The authors also occasionally dabble in playful sensationalism. One way creatures in the deepest parts of the ocean endure the “enormous, crushing hydrostatic pressure from all the water above them,” says Tony Palumbi, is with gigantism, becoming “movie-monster variants” of familiar species. He describes the giant isopod, Bathynomus giganteus, as “a bloodcurdling beast from a sci-fi movie: a pill bug the size of a small dog, scuttling across the blackened sea floor devouring the dead.” This is, he admits, just another way of saying that it is a docile scavenger.
Sharks inevitably also turn up here and there in the book. But the authors are more interested in talking about the biggest creatures in the history of the planet, blue whales, which still thunder thousands of miles down migratory corridors off California and other coastlines around the world. “The tail fluke delivers thrust at 90% efficiency—far higher than the best commercial ship propellers,” they report. Tony Palumbi adds that a blue whale can hold half its own 200-ton weight in its mouth but “cannot swallow anything bigger than a basketball.”
So beyond the colorful characters, what’s the point? Stephen Palumbi tells a story—OK, it is a disturbing kink in the plotline—about what marine biologists call “bomb dating,” which isn’t something fun to do on Saturday nights.
In March 1954—60 years ago this month—the United States dropped the largest nuclear bomb ever tested, with a yield of 15 megatons, more than twice what had been expected. Radioactive carbon-14, which had existed only in trace amounts until then, drifted far beyond the test site, and recently, it dawned on researchers that this carbon-14 is useful as a biological marker: If a fish was born before 1954, a bone in its ear called the otolith is free of carbon-14; if born after that date, carbon-14 is present.
Once they knew that, researchers were able to determine that fish commonly found in supermarkets labeled “Pacific red snapper” can be 100 years old. Likewise, discoveries beginning in the 1990s that freshly killed bowhead whales had 19th-century spear points made of ivory, slate, or jade embedded in their flesh led scientists to recognize that these animals may be as much as 200 years old.
“The basic point,” says Stephen Palumbi, “is that there are all these amazing creatures out there, living their lives in amazing ways. A lot of people just think of them as seafood.”
The Extreme Life of the Seas argues that we should think about them instead almost as characters in a novel. The more we become invested in their lives, the more likely we are to find the plotline of environmental destruction unthinkable. And thus the more likely we are to push for a happier ending.