Category Archives: Research

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.


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

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,
  • 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,
  • 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.

Amusing Monday: Using musical notes to describe salmon migration

Researchers working on innumerable scientific investigations throughout the world continue to present their findings in new and interesting ways, often apart from the usual charts and graphs. Some have turned to animation, others to interactive graphics and some to the medium of sound — a process called sonification.

Jens Hegg of the University of Idaho has collaborated with several musical composers to turn the migration of young chinook salmon into a musical score — although it doesn’t exactly have a beat you want to dance to.

In the first video on this page, you can close your eyes and imagine that you are standing at the mouth of the Snake River facing upstream, Jens advises in an email. To get the full effect, you need to listen with headphones. Fish moving on the Upper Snake River are represented by notes that sound the farthest away, the Clearwater River somewhat closer and the Lower Snake River closer still.

“The ocean is at your back, so as they enter the ocean, the washy sound sounds as if it is either behind you or directly between your ears,” Jens told me.

“Each river has it’s own set of tones that build a chord,” he continued. “The YouTube video uses the same WAV recording every time, but the actual sonification program randomly assigns fish to a new tone each time it is played, so that the music actually changes and is slightly different each time it is played while maintaining the same meaning.”

I have to confess that I’ve listened to this recording more than a dozen times and I’m still trying to visualize the movement in my mind. The map on the video actually helps with the understanding, but that’s not the movement of fish on the river that I’m trying to visualize. Jens said the program was set up so that fish in the Upper Snake are heard in the right ear; fish in the Lower Snake are heard in the left ear; and fish in the Clearwater are heard in the center.

Some sonification efforts result in music that is quite enjoyable to listen to. See Water Ways, Jan. 1, 2016. But if the point is to convey information, then the underlying music can sometimes be a distraction.

Jens told me that his experiments with sound originated in a roundabout way, somewhat out of desperation, as he tried to design his doctoral dissertation to meet the cross-disciplinary requirements for the program in Water Resources Science and Management.

“I had been told that the geology/ecology combination I had used for my master’s in the same program was not quite interdisciplinary enough, so I was in search of other possibilities,” he said.

Jens had read a newspaper profile about Jonathan Middleton of Eastern Washington University, who was creating music from protein data. He was finding that the people could discern variations in complex protein structure more easily with sonic rather than visual clues.

Jens always enjoyed music. He even writes his own songs. (See second video on this page.) Combining music and scientific data provided a fascinating challenge. “Nobody could say this wouldn’t be interdisciplinary,” he noted, “and it incorporates something I enjoy already, so it seemed like something worth pursuing.”

The data needed to create the sonic composition comes from Jens’ extensive study of salmon migration based on the ear bones of fish, called otoliths. Otoliths are composed of chemicals that build up over time as a fish grows. Rivers have their own chemical signatures, which are captured in the otoliths, so the movement of salmon can be determined by the chemical record stored in their ear bones.

Understanding the timing of salmon migration can help researchers figure out why some populations are more successful than others, especially as climate change shifts the timing of streamflows and alters the temperature and dissolved oxygen levels.

Mounds of otolith data were converted to notes with the help of Middleton at Eastern and Ben Luca Robertson at the University of Virginia. Middleton had developed a software program to help researchers turn their data into sound. Courtney Flatt of Northwest Public Broadcasting separated out some of the individual sounds in a piece she produced for Earthfix. Listen below.

      1. Tracking Salmon With Musical Notes

Part of Jens’ research was to see if people could tell when the sound pattern changed, thus discerning the movement of fish from one place to another. The complexity of the sound reduced the ability of listeners to distinguish transitions, according to a new report by Jens and his collaborators in the journal Heliyon. Check out the additional sounds and animations in the “supplementary content” at the end.

It also turned out that people were able to describe the changes more accurately if they were not watching a related animation. One reason could be that the visual clues caused people to divide their attention, focusing less on the sound.

“We have a long way to go before a sonification of a large number of fish can clearly indicate movement,” Jens told me in his email. “Our paper shows that people can accurately distinguish movement of individuals played alone, two at a time, or three at a time. But we haven’t spent as much time optimizing the sonification for a large number of fish.

“Knowing how it is set up helps in interpreting it,” he said. “On repeated listenings, you can hear times where larger numbers of fish are all moving at once from one place to another. These are the kinds of trends we want to highlight in terms of understanding salmon migration timing.”

Sen. Kevin Ranker breathes new life into Orca Protection Act

The proposed Orca Protection Act, which was declared dead last week in the Washington State Senate, has sprung back to life with the addition of a budget provision that offers a new chance of passage.

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya, 2013

The newly resuscitated bill, approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is nearly identical to the original bill, which includes special protections for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. If approved by both houses, the legislation would impose new restrictions on boaters and drone pilots, increase on-water patrols by state law-enforcement officers and support studies regarding what people can do to save the whales.

The original legislation died on Feb. 14 when the Senate failed to approve it before a deadline passed for bills that had no budget impact, as I described in Water Ways last Saturday. The bill was revived this week when its sponsor, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, used a procedural maneuver to add a new budget provision.

Specifically, Ranker proposed a $5 increase in the cost of special vehicle license plates that depict endangered species, including orcas. The extra money would be used by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for marine patrols and other orca-related activities.

As a result of Ranker’s maneuver, the original bill, SB 6268, will get a new bill number, SB 5886, which is a bill originally submitted by Ranker in March 2017 with no text. A wholesale amendment on Thursday planted the text of the Orca Protection Act into SB 5886, which still carries the title “Relating to natural resources.”

Dave Pringle, Democratic policy analyst who works closely with Ranker, told me that the senator heard support for the maneuver from fellow legislators who wanted a chance to vote on the bill. Ranker expects it to pass the Senate with strong support from fellow Democrats as well as a number of Republicans. Action on the Senate floor could come next week, when the bill would move on to the House.

The bill describes the 76 Southern Resident orcas as “critically endangered” with a population falling to a 36-year low. The whales are important to the ecosystem and to the culture of Washington tribes. The Southern Residents also provide the foundation of a $60-million tourist industry, according to the bill.

The legislation calls for at least 100 law-enforcement patrols during whale-watching season. Remotely controlled aircraft, known as drones, would not be allowed to come within 200 yards of any Southern Resident orca — which is the same limitation for vessels under existing law. The bill also would require vessels to slow to 7 knots within 400 yards of a whale. Current law has no speed limit.

The revised bill adds an exception from the requirements for distance and speed when vessel operators cannot tell that they are too close to the whales because of fog, rain or other weather conditions.

The bill also would require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to make recommendations about what further actions could be taken by the Legislature and state agencies to help restore the orca population. It also calls for meetings and collaborations with wildlife officials in British Columbia to discuss protecting and restoring the orcas.

Amusing Monday: The secret to the midshipman’s song

Among the wonders of nature in Puget Sound is a chunky little fish with bulging eyes called a plainfin midshipman. The species includes two very different types of males, and one type tries to attract a mate by emitting a continuous humming sound for up to an hour before stopping.

An hour-long mating call is rather remarkable, considering that most animals use short intermittent bursts of sound followed by periods of rest. Until recently, scientists were not sure how the midshipman could keep its call going so long.

When large numbers of midshipman are calling at the same time, the effect can be disconcerting. Years ago, folks living near Quilcene on Hood Canal reported an eerie humming sound that kept them awake at night. Since Quilcene is located near the Navy’s acoustic-testing range on Dabob Bay, some speculated that the Navy was up to something.

Other people living along the shores of Puget Sound have reported the same strange humming sound from time to time. Midshipman appear to be the primary prey of bald eagles that congregate along Big Beef Creek near Seabeck each spring before the first salmon runs provide larger fish to eat. Do you remember the award-winning photo by Bonnie Block featured in the Kitsap Sun?

Plainfin midshipman caught in a beach seine off Bainbridge Island while surveying for surf smelt // Photo: U.S. Geological survey

Hums produced by Type-I males can be heard great distances underwater, all the better to attract mates in murky waters. The sound is created when the fish contracts and relaxes the muscles around its swimbladder, causing the gas-filled organ to vibrate.

The contractions in the midshipman are extremely rapid, up to 100 times per second, or some 360,000 times during an hour-long call, according to Lawrence C. Rome, professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania who has published a new paper in the Journal of General Physiology.

“The midshipman swimbladder muscle generates more contractions per hour than any other known vertebrate muscle,” Rome commented in a news release from Rockefeller University Press.

Muscle contractions are triggered by the release of calcium ions into the muscle tissue. In other species, the calcium ions are pumped back into storage before the next contraction. But the speed of the contractions in the midshipman has forced researchers to look for another explanation. The secret turns out to be the tiny amount of calcium needed to cause a contraction — just one-eighth as much as in the Atlantic toadfish, a related species.

“The small amount of calcium released per stimulus is the key element that permits the calcium pumps in midshipman swimbladder muscle to keep up over long periods of high-frequency stimulation,” Rome said. “The combination of fast calcium pumping and small calcium release permits the midshipman to maintain the correct balance of calcium ions during its long-lasting mating call.”

One mystery still remains, he added. How do such low calcium levels cause the swimbladder to contract with enough force to generate the distinctive hum heard over great distances?

For a more detailed explanation of the physiology, review the news release or read the research paper (subscription required).

The name midshipman apparently comes from having a series of photophores — light=producing organs — along its sides used to attract prey. Someone apparently thought they looked like buttons on a naval uniform, according to an entry in Wikipedia.

Midshipman fish are nocturnal, swimming just above the seabed at night and burying themselves in the mud or sand during the day. When out of water, these unusual fish have the ability to breathe air.

While type-I males use sound to attract females, type-II males have a different reproductive strategy. Their sex organs are seven times larger than those of their type-I counterparts.

Bringing modern technology to an age-old pastime called fishing

Fishing, which I hear was fairly straightforward in days gone by, has grown more and more complicated in today’s modern world, with growing concerns about fish extinction, poaching and the protection of natural resources.

Technology cannot return us to a simpler time, but there is an event scheduled for next weekend that is designed to make life easier for those interested in fishing, research or environmental protection.

Known as Fishackathon, the two-day event brings together thousands of designers, software developers and fishing experts. Seattle is one of about 40 locations throughout the world where experts will put their heads together to invent technological solutions to some fishing-related problems.

Seattle Fishackathon, which is Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 10 and 11, is still looking for developers who can design and code/build a project, mentors who have expertise in fishing and outdoor issues, and volunteers who can help run the event. Teams can organize in advance and bring any hardware if they plan to build a device.

On Sunday afternoon, spectators are free to watch the demonstrations of projects developed during the weekend. The location is Epicodus vocational school, 1201 Third Ave., in downtown Seattle.

Among the 11 formal “challenges” are these problems looking for solutions:

Easy access to rules: With all the regulations governing fishing today, it is easy to get confused. Wouldn’t it be nice when you’re out in a boat to pull out your smart phone and obtain the fishing rules for that exact location? To meet the challenge, designers are expected to use GPS to map the location on the phone and link to local rules. Among other things, the app would be capable of sounding an alarm if the boat drifts into a closed area.

The worldwide winner of the 2016 Fishackathon was a team from Taipei, Taiwan, which developed an inexpensive sensor that can alert authorities to spawning activities by invasive Asian carp.

Fish identification: For people who have trouble telling one fish from another, this proposed app would use “facial recognition” technology to convert a picture from a smart phone into a positive identification. By stamping the time and location onto the photo, volunteer observers or anglers themselves could help build a database to assist fisheries managers.

Illegal fishing detectors: The goal is a network of small, unobtrusive and inexpensive floats containing electronic equipment that could be deployed over large areas where poaching is suspected. The equipment would include a listening device and software able to distinguish the sound of fishing activity. It could make an audio recording and transmit its location via satellite. A network of such devices would allow for triangulation to the location of the fishing boat, allowing enforcement officials to determine whether the fishing is legal. The equipment could make ocean patrols by authorities far more efficient.

Condition alerts: Fishers and other outdoor enthusiasts would have access to an app for sharing environmental information with authorities and each other in real time. For someone who wants to make a report, the app would call up the location on an interactive map for the person to mark the extent. One could report environmental problems, including algae blooms, fish kills, oil spills, invasive species, and high wind and waves. It could also be used to report conditions at boat ramps, crowded parks, availability of restrooms and poaching activity. The app could also receive reports from others.

Teams may come up with their own concepts, provided they follow the guidelines spelled out on the Fishackathon website.

In 2016, a team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium developed a basic app for helping fishermen follow local regulations in the Philippines.

Fishackathon is coordinated by HackerNest, a nonprofit organization of 75,000 technically inclined people in communities throughout the world. The event was originally supported by the U.S. State Department, which turned it over last year after three annual events, according to Colombe Nadeau-O’Shea, an organizer for HackerNest.

The event is run entirely on donations, and the group is always looking for sponsors, whether it be for the national program or local events, she said.

Amazon Web Services, a primary sponsor, is offering $5,000 to the top winner in each city and $25,000 to the global winner selected among all the city winners. Other prizes are offered at the global level and in some cities.

Learn about ecosystem indicators and the quest for Puget Sound health

More than 100 people tuned in today to an online presentation regarding the Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs indicators and the quest for ecological health.

While there was not much breaking news, the session turned out to be a very nice summary of progress toward restoring ecological functions in Puget Sound — or rather, in too many cases, the ongoing declines in species and habitats.

One can review the entire two-hour webinar, in which a variety of our leading Puget Sound experts chime in on their areas of expertise. Go to Puget Sound Partnership’s webpage and click on “Vital Signs Webinar.”

Because of the linkage between Vital Signs and Implementation Strategies, many of the issues under discussion relate to stories that I have been writing for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound over the past two years. Check out 16 stories by various writers on topics of ecosystem health found on the Puget Sound Institute’s website.

Other key documents on this subject:

One emerging issue brought up during the question-and-answer portion of today’s webinar was what will happen to the Vital Signs indicators and targets as the year 2020 approaches. The targets were all established with a notion that if we could meet certain goals by 2020, Puget Sound would be in pretty good shape. As it turns out, almost none of the targets will be met by 2020, so the struggle must go on.

Sometime this year, work will begin on a possible overhaul — or at least a major update — of the Vital Signs indicators and targets, according to officials with Puget Sound Partnership. Some indicators, for example, reflect the success of restoration projects by reporting the number of acres restored with no accounting for acres lost somewhere else.

The targets were originally established with a sense of optimism but without a clear understanding of what it would take, nor was there any commitment of funds for improving a specific type of habitat. As I see it, the uncertainty of financing will remain a problem until the Legislature comes up with a dedicated funding source.

Even if the targets remain the same, the target date of 2020 will need to be changed when we get to that year, if not sooner. I discuss some of the benefits and pitfalls of changing the indicators in a Water Ways post I wrote in November while going over the 2017 State of the Sound report.

The Puget Sound Science Panel, a team of expert advisers within the Puget Sound Partnership, is expected to play a primary role in revising the indicators and targets. I’m sure the discussion will address implementation strategies, adaptive management and a process to get Puget Sound on a more certain path to recovery.

Amusing Monday: Octopuses, the aliens we can encounter on Earth

Octopuses are among the coolest creatures on Earth. Not only are they dexterous, with an amazing ability to grasp and manipulate objects, they also seem to know what they are doing.

In tests, octopuses have proven that they can solve puzzles, and they certainly have some sort of memory. They can tell people apart, even if dressed in the same uniform. This may be surprising, especially since octopuses don’t really have a brain like that of humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone).

Not having a backbone — or any bones for that matter — allows octopuses to escape from places where much smaller invertebrates would get stuck. Check out the first video on this page, a popular clip taken by Chance Miller, an Alaskan fishing and tour guide for Miller’s Landing near Seward.

Chance tells his skeptical passengers that the large octopus slithering around his deck would escape out a tiny drain hole, that is if and when the creature decides to go.

No way, says one man heard on the video. “That’s like trying to get my wife in her wedding dress; it ain’t gonna happen.” But, of course, it did.

As for intelligence, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith says it is not so much a question of which animals among all the species are smarter in an formalistic sense. It’s about which animal best uses its intelligence to solve problems that relate to survival and success in other ways. The octopus is thus worthy of attention.

In his new and highly acclaimed book “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” Godfrey-Smith talks about how octopuses and other cephalopods have a disbursed nervous system with neurons throughout their bodies. In some ways, a single tentacle may think for itself.

Mammals and birds have long been regarded as the smartest animals on Earth, but that may reveal a bias based on our similar patterns of thinking. After all, mammals and birds are closely related to us in an evolutionary sense, compared to all the invertebrates in the world.

Looking back in time, it is difficult to come up with a common ancestor to both humans and octopuses, Godfrey-Smith said. “It was probably an animal about the size of a leach or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.” Check out the fascinating article in Quartz magazine by Olivia Goldhill.

This line of reasoning suggests that intelligence evolved on Earth in two very different ways. Studying the octopus could be the closest encounter that humans have with an alien creature, according to Godfrey-Smith. I may never think of an octopus quite the same way again.

Other interesting findings about octopuses are revealed in a 2009 Scientific American article, in which writer Brendan Borrell interviews Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

The second video on this page shows an octopus solving a real-world problem of grabbing a meal by taking advantage of a human, while the third video is a 43-minute Planet Earth documentary released last summer about the intelligence and alien nature of the octopus.

I leave you at the end with a brief clip from the Cirque du Soleil performance of “Octopus’ Garden” by the Beatles.

In climate change, heat extremes tell a bigger story than average temps

News reports about climate change often focus on how the average global temperature is rising, but perhaps more attention should be paid to some alarming trends in extreme temperatures — the conditions that are more likely to kill people and push species toward extinction.

From 1986 to 2015, hottest-day-of-the-year readings climbed by 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade, the UCI study found. Some megacities saw a rise of 0.60 degrees Celsius per decade.
Map: Simon Michael Papalexiou, UCI

A new study published last week revealed that temperatures across the Earth’s surface went up an average of 0.19 degrees C (.34° F) each decade over the past 30 years, whereas the highest temperature recorded each year has gone up even more — an average of 0.25 degrees C (0.45° F) per decade.

The study, led by Simon Papalexiou of the University of California at Irvine, calls out even greater changes in the extreme temperatures in specific locations. Average change per decade of 0.33 degrees C (0.59° F) were measured in some parts of Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa. Download PowerPoint map (PPT 1.4 mb) from the report in the journal Earth’s Future.

Meanwhile, hottest temperatures recorded throughout the world grew even faster in some of the largest cities, according to the study. Of the cities for which reliable data are available, the increased temperature in the “megacities” rose an average of 0.33 degrees C (.59° F) per decade, and numerous cities exceeded 0.6 degrees C (1.08° F).

Over a 50-year time period, Paris had the fastest change, with the hottest temperature of the year growing by 0.96 degrees C (1.73° F) per decade. Over the past 30 years, Houston’s hottest temperatures grew even faster, rising 0.99 degrees C (1.8° F) per decade.

The urban heat island effect, which is caused by solar heat absorption in concrete, steel and glass structures, is “likely to have contributed to the observed alarming changes,” the report says, adding that a better understanding of the causes could help reduce the risks for people living in cities.

“More than just temperature readings on a map, these events have taken a severe human toll,” states a UCI news release on the paper. “A heat wave in Europe in 2003 caused roughly 70,000 deaths, and another in Russia in 2010 killed nearly 55,000 people. In the United States, an average of 658 deaths due to excessive heat were reported per year between 1999 and 2009.”

Amir AghaKouchak, a co-author of the study, said government officials will need to pay more attention in the megacities, where the risks are greatest.

“In France after that massive heatwave (in 2003), now all nursing homes or places where there are a lot of vulnerable people have to have at least a common room with air conditioning,” said AghaKouchak, quoted in a Reuters story by reporter Laurie Goering.

“That can be done and it’s already happening in some places,” he said. “But some countries don’t have the resources to do that.”

Architectural styles and green areas with trees and plants may help reduce the everyday risks to those who don’t have the resources to protect themselves.

The greatest problems surrounding climate change won’t be seen in the averages but in the new extremes — the temperatures, sea levels and rainy downpours never before experienced at a given location.

The website WX shift (pronounced “weather shift”) was designed to tell people about changing climate trends, including “The 10 hottest years.” For example, of the 10 hottest years on record, only two occurred before 1998 (1934 and 1990). The five hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 11 years.

WX shift also contains predictions for the number of days a given location will reach a high temperature. See “Future days above 95° F. This interactive graphic is said to be based on historical records and climate change models, as explained at the bottom of the page.

Another graphic on Climate Central’s website helps explain how a small change in average temperature can lead to an increasing number of record-breaking temperatures and more extreme conditions.