Category Archives: Education

Bremerton wanes in water challenge; Seattle, Tacoma near top spots

Bremerton has fallen behind this year in a nationwide competition among cities to get the most people to take a pledge for water conservation.

Since the beginning of the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation six years ago, Bremerton has always ended among the top three cities in its population group. This year, the city stands in 31st place, which isn’t too bad considering that there are 4,800 cities participating in the competition.

Top-ranking cities in Washington state include Tacoma, currently in fourth place, and Seattle, which is in fifth, based on the percentage of their populations taking the water pledge.

Olympia stands at 42, Federal Way at 48 and Bellingham at 90. In Kitsap County, Port Orchard is ranked at 128th in the list of smaller towns, while Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island are not even in the game.

Bremerton has always done well in the competition, perhaps because of former Mayor Patty Lent’s enthusiastic promotion of the contest and water conservation in general, along with special efforts by Kathleen Cahall, the city’s water resources manager.

This year, Bremerton has chosen to take a break from promoting the contest, Kathleen told me, citing a number of other water-related activities in April. Mayor Lent is out of office now, but everyone who participated in past contests should have received an email notice from the Wyland Foundation, which sponsors the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

The goal of the contest — which includes hundreds of prizes for contest winners and other participants — is to get people to think about ways they can save water and to put those ideas into action. Individuals may join the competition until the end of April by going to the My Water Pledge website.

So far in this year’s contest, the city of Tacoma is leading this state in the water challenge. Promotional materials include a Facebook video from Mayor Victoria Woodards, as shown on this page.

The non-profit campaign is supported by WaterSense, a program of the Environmental Protection Agency; the Toro Company; National League of Cities; Conserva Irrigation; and Earth Friendly Products.

Kathleen, a leader in Bremerton’s longtime efforts to maintain an abundant and clean water supply, will retire at the end of June after 27 years with the city. In all, she has worked in the water business for 38 years.

I’ve always found Kathleen to be responsive to the needs of water customers as she goes about making sure that the city’s water supply will last well into the future. She has been a key figure in many stories about drinking water that I have written.

The field of water resources is “Infinitely interesting,” Kathleen told me in an email.

“It has been a joy for me to have worked a whole career for my local community, ensuring safe drinking water and protecting water resources,” she said. “There is much I will miss. I learn something new every day! I look forward to staying involved in the Bremerton area.”

Some of the events that Bremerton will focus on this month, which has been designated as Earth Month:

Amazing stories of place are retold at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

The Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference opened in Seattle yesterday with a reflection on people’s intimate, personal relationships with nature. The mood was heightened by an elaborate welcoming ceremony from Native American leaders who live on the shores of Puget Sound.

I would like to share an idea I had, but first let me report that Gov. Jay Inslee and former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell offered their own personal experiences at the beginning of the conference. Please check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The conference this year has attracted more than 1,300 scientists, policymakers and other interested people. About 700 presentations are scheduled.

The welcoming ceremony yesterday began with an Indian song accompanied by drumming. Tribal leaders continued the ceremony by presenting Indian blankets to “witnesses” who have played important roles in protecting the Salish Sea.

Personal stories told by members of the local tribes have a special significance. For native people, telling stories is part of an oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. Their strong “connection to place” reaches back well beyond anyone’s own memory.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said he is pleased to work with scientists and various officials on the problems facing the Salish Sea. Chief Seattle, a member of the Suquamish Tribe, was a boy when Capt. George Vancouver first explored Puget Sound in 1792. Vancouver anchored his ship for several days near the south end of Bainbridge Island. His crew was hungry for fresh meat, having been limited to dried rations during the long journey, Leonard said.

The Suquamish people brought the English men a deer to feast on, he said. Chief Seattle carried that experience of sharing with white settlers throughout his life until he led his people to sign over their lands in exchange for a promise that hunting and fishing would go on.

“We’re still fighting to get the government to honor that promise,” Leonard said. Still, much has been accomplished the past few years as portions of the Salish Sea ecosystem have undergone restoration, he added.

The land and water have spiritual significance, Leonard said. “Our ancestors are with us here. We have a covenant with the land and water.”

At the end of his talk, Leonard noted that he had a few minutes left on the schedule, so he asked Bardow Lewis, vice chairman of his tribe, to speak three minutes — no more. Bardow asked if people would rather have a speech or a story. Many people shouted, “story.”

Bardow began a condensed version of his tale by describing Doe Kag Wats, a near-pristine estuarine marsh near Indianola in the northern part of the Kitsap Peninsula. The name means “place of deer.” To tribal members, it remains a “spiritual place,” he said, just as it has been since ancient times.

One evening as the sun was going down, Bardow said he was digging clams with his daughter, who he could observe by watching her long shadow without having to look up. He kept his head down, focusing on the clams buried in the beach at Doe Kag Wats.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bardow saw a deer approaching, but he kept his head down to keep from frightening the animal away.

The deer kept approaching until she was standing right next to him, he said. She nudged him with her head, which alarmed him, but he kept digging until she nudged him again, practically pushing him over. Bardow got up, and when the deer started walking away, he followed her. She led him to the stream that feeds the estuary. There, stuck in the mud, was a baby deer.

Bardow said he was able to free the fawn from the mud, and a wonderful feeling came over him. “I cried — in a joyful way,” he said. “I learned more that day than I did in my lifetime.”

The event has opened his eyes to the possibility of other experiences, Bardow said., But his three-minute time limit was up before he could share another story.

“I think I might have been a deer in a previous life,” he said. “We have to keep these beautiful places and spread that out to all places where you live.”

While I may never enjoy such a profound experience, I would like to think that I would be open to that. Still, I would think that everyone who has spent meaningful time on or around the Salish Sea probably has had at least one experience to share.

One of my own favorite stories was from a dark night in 1997, when I was out in a boat on Dyes Inlet with whale researcher Jodi Smith. I was watching the lights of Silverdale when we were suddenly immersed in the sound of orcas speaking to us over a hydrophone. You can read the story as I originally wrote it on the Kitsap Sun website, and you can listen to the recording that Jodi made that night (below).

      1. whale

I know that many researchers presenting their work at the Salish Sea conference have exciting findings to convey, and I listen with keen interest, even though the talks are sometimes dry. I also know that the speakers feel a bit rushed to explain everything in 12 to 15 minutes. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could find a way to reduce their discussion about scientific methods — such as how they control for variables — and tell us a brief story?

I don’t think we lose our scientific or journalistic credibility if we allow ourselves to be captivated by a special moment that we have experienced in the Salish Sea.

Amusing Monday: Wacky steelhead return for new ‘Survive the Sound’ game

“Survive the Sound,” an online game that features cute little fish swimming for their lives, is back for a second year with some new additions, including free participation for students and teachers in the classroom.

The basics of the game remain as I described them last year. You pick out a wacky cartoon steelhead and then receive daily reports as the fish makes its way through a perilous Puget Sound over a 12-day period. The journey starts May 7, and signups are now open. See Water Ways, April 29, 2017.

As in real life, many fish will not make it to the ocean because of the effects of disease and pollution along with the constant risk of predation. But a few lucky steelhead will survive, and the winners will be recognized.

Individuals join the game with a $25 donation to Long Live the Kings, which will use the money to further research, ecosystem restoration and education. This year, anyone can start a team and encourage others to participate, sharing the joy or heartbreak of the salmon migration. Prizes will be awarded to the winning teams.

This year, teachers can sign up their classrooms for free and play the game while learning about the Puget Sound ecosystem. Extensive educational materials have been developed to go along with the game. Check out “Bring ‘Survive the Sound’ to your Classroom!”

The game is based on the real-life travels of steelhead, which have been tracked using implanted acoustic transmitters. Some fish swim faster than others and some even reverse course. This year, participants will be able to watch the progress of all of the fish making the journey, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings.

Last year, more than 1,100 people joined the game, and organizers hope for even greater participation this year.

If nothing else, you should check out the cartoon fish and the clever things they have to say by clicking on the individual steelhead in the “Survive the Sound” fish list.

If you would like to learn more about the person who turned the concepts for these odd and wonderful fish into creative works of art, check out “Meet the Artist Behind Survive the Sound.” To see more of Jocelyn Li Langrand’s work, go to her website, her Instagram page or Facebook.

Amusing Monday: Film students find creativity in Eco-Comedy videos

Amateur filmmakers have focused their talents on environmental issues to produce some of the most creative short videos in the eight-year history of the Eco-Comedy Video Competition.

That’s just my opinion, but I’ve been watching this competition for years, and I know it is not easy to combine humor with a sharp message about protecting the environment. Usually, one or two videos stand out in the contest sponsored by The Nature Conservancy in Maryland/DC and the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, D.C. But this year seemed to be different.

Although the number of entries was down from last year — 30 compared to 48 — I found something unique in all the finalists as well as the honorable mentions. I was also pleased to see an elevation in the production quality, as well as improved acting over what I’ve seen in the past. I could envision some of these short pieces going forth as public service announcements on television.

A panel of five judges selected the best videos based on the level of humor as well as the ability to deliver a clear message about the environment to a broad audience in three minutes or less. The winners were announced last week as the DC Environmental Film Festival on the American University campus.

The Grand Prize winners, Theodore Blossom and Robbie I’Anson Price, will receive $2,000 from the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. Their video, titled “@Humanity,” is the first on this page. Theo, based in London, is a science communicator who presents and produces stage shows, films and comedy. Robbie, a doctoral student and filmmaker from Lausanne, Switzerland, studies communication and learning in honeybees with the goal of determining how communication can improve fitness.

The Viewers Choice Award went to a video titled “Journey to the Future” by Stephanie Brown & Tim Allen, shown second on this page.

Here are the YouTube links to all the videos recognized by the judges;

Grand Prize Winner: “@Humanity” by Theodore Blossom and Robbie Price

Viewer’s Choice Winner: “Journey to the Future” by Stephanie Brown & Tim Allen

Finalists:

Honorable Mentions:

Can people distinguish the taste of tap, bottled and recycled water

If you are thirsty and someone hands you a glass of water, you might or might not ask where the water came from. If you trust the person, you probably don’t worry much about the health risks of drinking the water.

On the other hand, if you are told that the water comes from highly treated sewage effluent, you might think twice about taking a drink — even if you are assured that the water is cleaner than tap water, bottled water or any other source.

It’s a matter of perception, which is why some people drink only bottled water. They think it must be more pure than water from the faucet. But studies have shown that much of the bottled water on the market is just someone else’s tap water, and often the source is unidentified.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, conducted a taste test to see if people’s perceptions about drinking treated wastewater has any connection to the actual taste of water. Findings were reported in the journal “Appetite.”

The 143 participants were provided three samples of water in a blind taste test, meaning that there were no clues about the source of water. One was a brand-named bottled water, which had been purified through reverse osmosis; another was tap water from a groundwater source; and a third was tap water that came from an indirect reuse (IDR) source. IDR processing, which is used in at least six California water systems, involves treating the water to a high degree through reverse osmosis and putting it into the ground, where it mixes with existing groundwater. From there, it is pumped back out and treated as a normal groundwater source.

Many of the findings of the study were surprising to the researchers. For example, the IDR water and bottled water were preferred over the groundwater source by many of the tasters.

“We think that happened because IDR and bottled water go through remarkably similar treatment processes, so they have low levels of the types of tastes people tend to dislike,” said co-author Mary Gauvain, professor of psychology at UC Riverside in a news release.

The groundwater source had the highest amount of sodium and carbonate, while the IDR source had more calcium. Concentrations of chloride and bicarbonate were similar for all three.

Another interesting finding: Women were twice as likely as men to prefer the bottled water.

Individuals who described themselves as more nervous or anxious than others had less preference for the IDR water, perhaps because of the higher mineral content. Individuals who described themselves as more open to new experiences showed a somewhat greater preference for the IDR water.

In describing the tastes, individuals often said their preferred choices had “no taste” or “no aftertaste,” which may be related to the mineral content. The IDR process may remove some unpalatable minerals during filtering, the authors said. Since IDR water goes into the ground, it may pick up other minerals that improve the taste.

The authors acknowledge that the preferences in the study may be more related to mineral content of each source than to the process that the water goes through before it gets into the drinking glass.

The taste of water involves many factors, starting with the makeup of a person’s own taste buds and saliva, as I described in a story last year in the Kitsap Sun:

“Experiments have shown that when a group of people with normal taste buds is given pure distilled water to drink, most people do not believe the water tastes normal,” I wrote. “Some even say it is slightly bitter or sour, perhaps because it contains less salt than saliva, or perhaps because it is totally lacking in minerals that people come to expect.”

As for mixing highly treated sewage effluent into the water supply, there are two hurdles to overcome. The first is convincing people that the water really is safe, such as by providing a clear assessment of the water content — including minute constituents that can make it through the treatment process, such as some pharmaceutical drugs.

Beyond an honest assessment of water quality, water managers need to address the emotional response of people when it comes to anything dealing with sewage. Revulsion is a deep-seated emotion designed to help people avoid contamination and disease.

One way to make treated effluent more palatable is to “naturalize” it by putting it into the environment, such as infiltrating it into the ground — even if that process makes it less pure before it goes through another step in purification. Removing or adding minerals may improve the taste.

Water itself — the H2O molecules — are no different in sewage than they are in bottled water or coffee. Water cycles through people, plants, clouds, soil, the ocean, and on and on. It gets used over and over again. The only real issue is the other chemicals that may go along for the ride.

Alex Spiegel of National Public Radio did a nice job analyzing the psychology behind the aversion people have to using treated wastewater and why people are more accepting of indirect use. Read or listen to “Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds.”

So far in Washington State, nobody is talking about using highly treated sewage effluent (“reclaimed water”) as a direct supply of drinking water — or even as an indirect supply where injection wells are close to extraction wells, as done in some areas of California.

Nevertheless, people’s concerns about the quality of their water may impair the acceptance of reclaimed water for irrigation, groundwater recharge, stream restoration or even industrial uses. Addressing both factual and emotional aspects of this issue should help get us over those hurdles.

Related Water Ways posts:

New ways of fishing could better protect endangered salmon

Higher standards of “sustainability” for salmon — recently developed by the Wild Fish Conservancy — are designed to put salmon on people’s tables with virtually no impact on depleted salmon runs.

The new standards, which could become part of a certification program, are built upon the concept that fishing should take place closer to streams with abundant runs of salmon. The standards call for fishing methods that can take a portion of the fish from the abundant runs while allowing fish from depleted runs to pass on by and spawn naturally.

“We want to get away from open fisheries, where you are capturing multiple populations all at once,” said Nick Gayeski, a scientist with Wild Fish Conservancy whose studies have raised the bar for sustainable fisheries.

“If you fish much closer to the estuaries, the fish will sort themselves out,” Nick told me, “and you can fish with much more confidence about taking fish from a specific population.”

This idea of “placed-based fishing,” as described by Wild Fish Conservancy, would surely be good for the wild salmon, including Puget Sound chinook and steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It would also be good for a dozen listed species in the Columbia River system. But, if carried out to its full extent, the idea would just as surely create an upheaval for fishermen and fishing communities from Alaska to California.

Much of the chinook salmon caught in the ocean off Southeast Alaska come from the Columbia River, Oregon Coast, Washington Coast and Vancouver Island, according to a draft of the Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook (PDF 6.5 mb).

“Most Puget Sound Chinook stocks are subjected to very low or zero mortality in Southeast Alaska,” the report says, “but there are notable exceptions. On average since 1999, 48 percent of the fishery-related mortality of Hoko, 7 percent of Stillaguamish, and 23 percent of Skagit summer Chinook occurred in Alaska.”

Those last numbers are significant for the listed Puget Sound chinook, considering the distance that these fish are from home. Although salmon managers have taken significant steps to reduce the take of listed chinook, the fish are still caught in significant numbers along the coast and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Despite the ongoing harvest of threatened and endangered species, many of the fisheries taking these fish are certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international group. Most are also listed as “good alternatives” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

Nick Gayeski acknowledges that the “placed-based fishery” he is promoting cannot be accomplished overnight. Much of the salmon in Puget Sound are caught in fairly long gillnets, which ultimately kill the mixture of salmon caught in open waters.

Key criteria for place-based fishing include an assurance that essentially no fish are killed except for the target stock. If fishing close to the stream cannot offer that assurance, then the fishing gear must allow the non-target fish to be released without harm, according to an article by Nick along with Misty MacDuffee of Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Jack A. Stanford of the University of Montana. The paper, titled “Criteria for a good catch: A conceptual framework to guide sourcing of sustainable salmon fisheries,” was published this week in the scientific journal “Facets.”

Carefully managed set nets, which are gillnets usually attached to the shore, may allow for survival if the fish are removed within an hour or so, Nick told me. The big purse seines may also are able to save the non-target fish from harm if the net and the fish remain in the water while the crew removes and releases the non-target fish. Obviously, these aren’t the most efficient methods from a fisherman’s perspective.

Fixed gear that catches fish with little handling, such as reef nets, work well to protect the non-target fish, Nick said. Reef nets harken back to a time when fixed gear along the shore was more common. (See the first video above.)

Wild Fish Conservancy has been working with Patagonia, the sustainable clothing manufacturer, to find fishing operations that meet strict standards of protecting non-target fish. Because of the huge impact that food production has on the environment, Patagonia decided to go into the business five years ago with a line of food products called Patagonia Provisions. The video below is a short preview for a longer video called “Unbroken Ground.”

The first product sold was sockeye salmon caught with a set net in the Situk River estuary in the Gulf of Alaska, where nearly all of the sockeye are associated with the river. Other species are released unharmed.

More recently, Patagonia Provisions began buying pink salmon from a company called Lummi Island Wild, which operates a reef net on Lummi Island in northern Puget Sound. The reef net allows fish to be lifted gently out of the water. Any chinook or sockeye caught during the process are returned to the water unharmed.

The pink salmon taken in the operation are bled out immediately and placed on ice to produce the freshest fish possible.

“We think this is a good place to begin the educational process,” Nick said. “The fishers are handling the fish less and getting more money. We hope that restaurants and other retailers will see the value.”

Other fishing operations are under review by Wild Fish Conservancy to see if they can meet the stricter criteria.

Even if the fishing industry does not change overnight, when enough people purchase fish caught in place-based fisheries, it could reduce the pressure on endangered salmon trying to make it home to spawn while also providing some chinook to feed Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales.

“This is part of a transition,” Nick said. “It’s not only a down-the-road reconfiguration of West Coast salmon fishing but it involves long-term recovery of the wild runs.”

Amusing Monday: World Water Day addresses natural purification

World Water Day, coming up this Thursday, is an annual worldwide event designed to focus attention on the importance of water to all living things.

Promoted by the United Nations, the 25-year-old World Water Day has always raised concerns about the 2.1 billion people in the world who don’t have easy access to clean water, creating a major health crisis in some communities.

This year’s theme is “nature for water” — although the discussion remains focused mainly on humans. Human actions have contributed to increasing flooding, drought and water pollution — and humans are able to use natural systems to help reduce the problems.

So-called “nature-based solutions” include protecting and improving water quality by restoring forests and wetlands, reconnecting rivers to their floodplains and creating vegetated buffers along lakes and streams, even in urban areas.

A fact sheet (PDF 2 mb) put out by UNESCO (U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) lays out the arguments on behalf of nature-based solutions. A larger 150-page report, titled “Nature Based Solutions for Water” (PDF 42.7 mb) can be downloaded from the UNESCO website.

A series of posters and cards related to this year’s theme can be downloaded from the World Water Day website. For the creative, I’m intrigued by the idea that you can create your own collage, using individual elements taken from the four posters. See “collage kit” on the same resources page.

Considering that this is the 25th World Water Day, I anticipated more events and celebrations. The one event listed for Washington state is a guided tour of Edmonds Marsh, one of the few urban saltwater estuaries still remaining in the Puget Sound region. Details of the walk are provided in a brief article in Edmonds News.

The first video on this page is a promotional piece by UNESCO.

Official poster of World Water Day
Source: UNESCO

I found the second video, filmed in Istanbul, Turkey, to be revealing about people’s attitudes about water. I imagine the reaction might be the same in some U.S. cities — although the specific location probably makes a lot of difference. The video, produced in 2015, was created for Standart Pompa, a manufacturer of water pumps.

The video shows a video screen next to a water faucet with a dying tree depicted on the screen. When passersby turned off the water faucet, the tree suddenly transformed into a healthy green condition. Although the weather was cold during the filming, nearly a third of the people going by took their hands out of their pockets and turned off the water, which was actually recirculating from the drain so that no water was wasted.

The third video is a cartoon designed to drive home a message about the importance of water, beginning with the simple act of brushing your teeth. It was produced by TVNXT KIDZ.

Nitrogen and plankton: Do they hold the missing keys to the food web?

In a way, some of Puget Sound’s most serious ecological problems have been hiding in plain sight. I have been learning a lot lately about plankton, an incredibly diverse collection of microscopic organisms that drift through the water, forming the base of the food web.

Sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

To put it simply, the right kinds of plankton help to create a healthy population of little fish that feed bigger fish that feed birds and marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. On the other hand, the wrong kinds of plankton can disrupt the food web, stunt the growth of larger creatures and sometimes poison marine animals.

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Puget Sound researchers are just beginning to understand the profound importance of a healthy planktonic community to support a large part of the food web. That’s one of the main points that I try to bring out in five stories published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. I am grateful to the many researchers who have shared their knowledge with me.

Average daily nitrogen coming in from rivers and wastewater treatment plants (1 kg = 2.2 pounds)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

These stories tie together several major issues all related to nutrients — mainly nitrogen — that feed the marine phytoplankton, which use their chlorophyll to take energy from the sun as they grow and multiply. In the spring and summer, too much nitrogen can mean too much plankton growth. In turn, excess plankton can lead to low-oxygen conditions, ocean acidification and other significant problems.

The complex interplay of planktonic species with larger life forms in Puget Sound is still somewhat of a mystery to researchers trying to understand the food web. As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Ecology is working on a computer model to show how excess nitrogen can trigger low-oxygen conditions in the most vulnerable parts of the Salish Sea, such as southern Hood Canal and South Puget Sound.

Areas of Puget Sound listed as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

Stormwater is often cited as the most serious problem facing Puget Sound, and we generally think of bacteria and toxic chemicals flowing into the waterway and causing all sorts of problems for the ecosystem. But stormwater also brings in nitrogen derived from fertilizers, animal wastes and atmospheric deposits from burning fossil fuels. Stormwater flows also pick up natural sources of nitrogen from plants and animals that end up in streams.

Sewage treatment plants are another major source of human nitrogen. Except for a few exceptions, not much has been done to reduce the release of nutrients from sewage-treatment plants, which provide not only nitrogen but also micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some experts suspect that nutrients other than nitrogen help to determine which types of plankton will dominate at any given time.

I plan to follow and report on new scientific developments coming out of studies focused on the base of the food web. Meanwhile, I hope you will take time to read this package of related stories:

Amusing Monday: Water bears live in fire and ice, maybe in your driveway

Plump little microscopic creatures, commonly called “water bears” or “moss piglets,” have gained a reputation as the most indestructible animals on Earth, with some species living in the cold Arctic and others living in flaming hot volcanoes.

New species of tardigrade, Macrobiotus shonaicus // Photo: Daniel Stec, PLOS One

They have been known to survive 30 years without food. Researchers have dehydrated them, frozen them, bombarded them with radiation and even sent them into the vacuum of space. While a few died along the way, a remarkable percentage have lived through extreme endurance trials and just kept on going.

I’m talking about a group of more than a thousand species known collectively as tardigrades, whose largest members are no bigger than a pinhead. Many are much smaller. These tiny lumbering little creatures with short appendages occupy the phylum Tardigrada, Latin for “tortoise-like movement.”

Amusing just by being themselves, tardigrades also have been featured in cartoons — including an entire episode of Southpark, in which science students teach them to dance to Taylor Swift songs and then do the Hokey Pokey before the little guys are accidentally turned into football fans destined to save the NFL.

More worthy of note is the real-life story of Kazuharu Arakawa, a researcher at Tokyo’s Kelo University who had been studying and reclassifying tardigrades in Japan using refined morphological criteria along with advanced DNA analysis.

On a whim, Kazuharu picked up a clump of moss that he found growing in a concrete parking lot near his apartment complex. He took the sample to his lab, placed it under a microscope and found viable tardigrades, supporting the notion that these creatures can live anywhere. Further study revealed that Kazuharu had discovered a new species of tardigrade, whose defining features include its eggs, which seem to reach out with tentacle-like appendages.

Egg of Macrobiotus shonaicus, showing filaments of varying lengths (scale: microns)
Photo: Daniel Stec, PLOS One

For confirmation, Kazuharu called on tardigradologists at Jagiellonian University in Poland. They eventually named the species Macrobiotus shonaicus and wrote up their technical findings, which were published last week in the journal Plos One.

The paper’s lead author, Daniel Stec, describes why the study of tardigrades is important to humanity in an interview with Tessa Gregory, of PLOS Research News:

“The most basic reason is human curiosity,” Daniel said, “and once you fall in love with tardigrades you only want to know more, especially since there is still so much to discover about them. However, there are also other reasons. Recently, tardigrades started to be used as model organisms in a variety of studies ranging from astrobiology, developmental and cell biology, physiology, evolutionary ecology and many other disciplines, in hope to address more general questions.”

The ability of a living creature to survive extremes could have useful applications on a human scale.

“Tardigrades became very famous in popular culture thanks not only to their undeniable cuteness, but mostly because of their ability to enter into cryptobiosis, a latent state in which virtually no metabolic activity can be detected. Yet, when dried or frozen tardigrades are provided with liquid water they come back to life as if nothing had ever happened,” he continued.

“This ability to withstand harsh conditions and to suspend their lives inspired researchers to produce dry vaccines that don’t require refrigeration or create transgenic human cells that are more resistant to irradiation. Who knows, maybe someday, thanks to tardigrades, we will be able to preserve organs for transplantation, extend our lifespan, or travel to other planets and stars, not worrying about detrimental effects of cosmic radiation.”

Stories about the new findings and other details about tardigrades:

Tardigrades are the subject of many amusing products, including T-shirts with the slogans:

You can even find tardi-games, like the one by Schell Games below.


Amu

Volunteering can be rewarding in more ways than one might think

With spring around the corner, thoughts go to outdoor activities, and it’s always nice to include some community volunteer projects among the things we do.

Crab team members count and measure crabs caught in shallow waters on Zelatched Point in Jefferson County. Team members are part of a major effort to locate invasive green crabs before they gain a foothold in Puget Sound.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

As social media consumes more of our time, I’d like to consider the real values of dedicating some time to volunteer work: meeting people, enjoying friends, helping those in need and learning about new things.

On the environmental front, a wide range of activities allows people to find something that fits their style — from improving parks to battling invasive species, from teaching kids about nature to helping plan for a better ecosystem.

In Kitsap County, many volunteer jobs require no training. But those who are able to get some training — such as becoming a Kitsap Beach Naturalist — may find some expanded opportunities. Training for 30 beach naturalists will begin in April, and people are advised to sign up early. Go to Brown Paper Tickets or contact Lisa Rillie, (360) 337-7157 #3244 or lrillie@co.kitsap.wa.us.

WSU Kitsap County Extension has compiled a list of volunteer opportunities (PDF 300 kb), some requiring special training and some not.

Here are some volunteer opportunities worth considering:

  • Kitsap Water Festival, April 17, a major educational event for selected elementary school classes. Sign up through the Kitsap Public Utility District or contact Kimberly Jones, (360) 728-2222, kimberly.jones@kitsappublichealth.org
  • New members are being recruited for the Crab Team, a group of volunteers and professionals searching for invasive green crabs in Puget Sound. The next training, March 12 in Poulsbo, involves identifying various crab species and learning to use traps to sample the waters. See “Get Involved in Crab Team.”
  • Kitsap County parks need volunteers for tasks ranging from trail maintenance to planning for improved forest ecosystems. Visit Kitsap County Park Volunteer Program.
  • Monthly water-quality monitoring is underway for Clear Creek, both the stream and estuary. Contact Mary Earl for details and schedule, (360) 434-7665. Volunteers also are needed for salmon releases this month as part of the Salmon in the Classroom program. See schedule and sign-up list.
  • SEA Discovery Center, Poulsbo’s marine science center, offers monthly training for a variety of volunteer opportunities. For information, visit the SEA Discovery Center website. No advance training is required to help monitor changes in the native Olympia oyster population as part of an ongoing restoration effort. For details, email Sylvia Yang, sylvia.yang@wwu.edu.
  • Kitsap Public Works is seeking volunteers to monitor amphibian eggs in area stormwater ponds, particularly those ponds that have been “naturalized” as wetland habitat. The program includes brief in-field training. See sign-up sheet for details and contact.

Other Kitsap County volunteer websites

In Clallam County, the Marine Resources Committee is offering training to help recover wildlife in the event of a major oil spill.

One’s own interest can point to possible volunteer efforts. Inquire at your favorite museum, animal shelter, community theater, library, emergency management office and so on.

National databases — some better than others — list volunteer opportunities. Some provide easy searches by geographical area or type of organization:

If anyone knows of other volunteer opportunities of interest, feel free to add them in the comments section.