March 10, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Design of Life Update: Marine Biology

The animal stars of Illustra Media’s “Design of Life” documentaries are still in the news: this time, whales, dolphins, fish and sea turtles.

Illustra film Living Waters


Echolocation. Make like a dolphin! Humans can learn a form of echolocation by ear, but without the elaborate system possessed by toothed whales and dolphins (Science Daily).

Dolphin echolocation apparatus, from Living Waters (Illustra Media)

Dolphin echolocation apparatus, from Living Waters (Illustra Media)

Genes. Dolphins are not just fun performers to watch. Secrets in the dolphin genome might pay benefits in human health, says. We share many proteins in common, the article explains; for instance, “Studies have recently revealed that lesser-known proteins in the blood of marine mammals may be playing a big role in the dives by protecting bottlenose dolphins’ kidneys and hearts from damage when blood flow and oxygen flow start and stop repeatedly during those underwater forays.”

Swimming of dolphins is being witnessed in unprecedented ways, thanks to new non-invasive cameras along for the ride. Science Daily tells about cameras developed by researchers at the University of Sydney that can be held onto the dolphins’ sides with suction cups. Previous observations allowed scientists to see only about 10% of a dolphin’s life. Now, they can watch in awe as dolphins swim, hunt, socialize and move through their habitat. The researchers believe the cameras do not affect how the animals behave.

Social Life. Dolphins seem to do better at performing tricks when swimming together. New Scientist says that social activity seems to make the dolphins more “optimistic” as measured by the energy they exert in target-practice contests, although we humans may be attributing our own cognitive experience onto these intelligent mammals. Whatever is going on, “synchronized swimming” seems to play a role in their social bonding.

Sea Turtles

Conservation. The amazing ability of sea turtles to migrate thousands of miles through the ocean, where visibility is limited, is a centerpiece story in Living Waters. Our sympathies are aroused when we hear that these magnificent creatures are endangered. “Bones from dead turtles washed up on Mexican beaches,” a story in Science Daily begins, “indicate that Baja California is critical to the survival of endangered North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles, which travel some 7,500 miles from their nesting sites in Japan to their feeding grounds off the coast of Mexico.” The good news is that scientists are getting a handle on where the turtles spend their time. From concentric rings in the bones of dead turtles, and from accidental catches by fishermen, they can begin to piece together where the turtles are at different stages of their lives. Some spend 20 years in the prime feeding grounds near Baja; others spend half that time, new studies have shown.

Shell life. Current Biology published a Quick Guide to the turtle’s shell. Whether or not one buys into the evolutionary stories told by Gerardo A. Cordero, the sheer diversity of shell sizes is really quite remarkable. Over at PLoS Blogs, Jon Tennant takes it upon himself to explain the evolution of the turtle’s retracting neck. Mixing in some Darwin Flubber to his solution, he attributes the turtle’s “remarkable evolutionary success story” to convergent evolution: “neck retraction seems to have evolved multiple times to make capturing prey even easier, and originally had absolutely nothing to do with protection, as is commonly thought.” In other words, it’s complicated (for a Darwinist to explain).

Coin Bank. In Thailand, a green sea turtle in an enclosure had to have an operation to remove 915 coins tossed in by visitors superstitiously thinking it would bring them good luck. The coins formed an 11-pound mass that eventually cracked the bottom of the shell, leading to infection, Live Science reported. Green sea turtles can live up to 80 years but are considered endangered. “I felt angry that humans, whether or not they meant to do it or if they did it without thinking, had caused harm to this turtle,” the surgeon said. The turtle is recovering now; her name is “Bank.”
Update 3/23/17: Live Science reports that Bank has died of complications due to blood poisoning from the coins.

Sea turtle hatchling begins migration, from Living Waters (Illustra Media)

Sea turtle hatchling begins migration, from Living Waters (Illustra Media)


In “Olfaction: How Fish Catch a Whiff,” (Current Biology), Stephen Neuhass describes “An elegant new study” that “shows that multiciliated cells in the noses of aquatic vertebrates generate flow fields that help odor detection and processing.” For a description of the study, also published in Current Biology, see “These Fish Have Nose Turbines” in Evolution News & Science Today. Basically, motile cilia around the periphery of the nasal organ draw water into the nostrils of fish, enhancing the ability of olfactory sensory neurons to detect odorant molecules, even when the fish is not moving. The scientists liken these moving cilia to turbines.

Olfactory neurons in a salmon nostril, from Living Waters (Illustra Media)

Olfactory neurons in a salmon nostril, from Living Waters (Illustra Media)


Family dinner: a paper in PLoS One describes how humpback whales of the Southern Hemisphere like to feed in ‘whale super-groups’ of 20 to 200 individuals.

Diving. What happens physiologically when whales dive deep? Science Daily says that “Whales use nested Russian-doll structure to protect nerve tissue during lunge dives.” The nerves and muscles in a fin whale’s mouth have to expand to twice their resting length when feeding. How can that happen without damage? The whales have a trick that reminded the marine biologists of nested Russian dolls. The tissues fold up like meanders of a river, creating enough slack so that the nerves are not damaged. “The bends tend to be as uniform as possible and this minimizes the work required to make the structure. It’s a special, ideal shape.” Details are published in Current Biology.

Humpback whale with calf, from Living Waters (Illustra Media)

Humpback whale with calf, from Living Waters (Illustra Media)

Socializing. Never-before-seen congregations of hundreds of humpback whales were reported by New Scientist. Previously, sightings have been limited to solo whales or small groups, but when a “super-group” of 200 was spotted off the coast of South Africa, marine biologist Ken Findlay said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He surmised that this behavior might be re-appearing after a century due to the resurgence of whale numbers in recent years. Or, “It’s possible that the behaviour was occurring but just not where it was visible,” he said. “Because there were so few of them, we may not have seen it.” After their numbers had fallen by 90%, the recovery has been highly successful once whaling was banned. “With greater numbers, who knows what interesting behaviours we’ll happen upon next,” the article ends. Findlay’s research paper is in PLoS One.

Conservation. To conserve whales, you have to be able to count them. Live Science tells how scientists are learning to monitor humpback whale pods from satellite images. They’re scanning the images manually for now, but hope to develop software that can count the whales, providing more accurate data on their numbers and, thereby, the health of the population.

Captain Dave Anderson, who appears in the Illustra film, often sees blue whales from his tour boats off the coast of Dana Point, California. Recently, he spotted one tangled in crabbing nets and worked with NOAA to rescue it, National Geographic reports with a video clip. These magnificent whales—the largest animals on earth—are also found in the North Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean has some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, National Geographic reports, leading to harm and death as the whales are sometimes struck by ships or caught in nets. In order to protect them, marine biologists need to understand their habits. By gathering information on their wanderings off the California coast, where they have the best data sets in the world, the scientists are learning about their habitats and behaviors in order to allow the whales and humans to co-exist. Scientists in Sri Lanka are cooperating in this effort, the article says.

design-of-lifeWe hope you have enjoyed these updates on the animal stars of the Design of Life series from Illustra Media. After revisiting highlights of Living Waters on the video clips page, we are confident you will want to share the film with others. You can obtain convenient quicksleeve copies of the entire film in quantity from Let’s turn the attention away from Darwin’s vacuous theory and back to our Creator, who deserves the glory for all he has made. There’s nothing like a beautiful nature film, presented winsomely with excellent production quality, to open eyes and hearts. Consider keeping a stash of all three DOL films to share with friends, family and organizations in your sphere of influence.

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