OF THE DEEP"
Spineless But Smart
ALAN ALDA On her back like this, this tiger shark's in a hypnotic
trance. When she wakes up, she'll lead us on a chase through
the Hawaiian Islands.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We'll also dive deep into an unknown and alien
world. Learn by touch alone...
ALAN ALDA Yoo hoo. Lunch!
ALAN ALDA ...of an ancient arms race. Meet a very smart octopus...
ALAN ALDA Look, he got in. He got it open.
ALAN ALDA And see how an ear...
KETTEN It's gigantic.
ALAN ALDA ...keeps whales out of trouble
ALAN ALDA I'm Alan Alda. Join me and the Creatures of the Deep
on Scientific American Frontiers.
back to top
ALAN ALDA What do you think? Are we there yet?
CAPTAIN Yeah, we are just about to the canyon now.
ALAN ALDA We're less than 10 miles off shore from Monterey California.
We're just coming up to a place called the Monterey Submarine
Canyon. Which until recently was almost completely unexplored.
I'm going downstairs.
CAPTAIN Take care.
ALAN ALDA It is sometimes said that we are less familiar with the
Earth's oceans than we are with the surface of the moon. There
is a lot of truth to that. When this research team started
studying the Monterey Canyon 6 years ago, they immediately
began discovering strange new creatures that were completely
unknown to science. We are going to take a look down there
in the canyon and who knows, we might discover a new species.
First, we are heading 2000 miles across the Pacific to meet
a more familiar, but much scarier kind of creature.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The balmy waters of Hawaii. Tourists by the
tens of thousands splash in these waves every year - while
just below them glide hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the
deadliest killers in the ocean. Every now and then, shark
and human meet.
BROADCAST This morning a BYU student was attacked by a shark
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As predictable as the breathless media coverage
are calls for shark control programs that would literally fish
the killers out of Hawaii's coastal waters. Which is why this
University of Hawaii research vessel regularly sets out from
HOLLAND You can actually dictate the size of the shark you
catch by the size of the bait you use. So a good big tuna,
nice and bloody, just what we need.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Kim Holland and a team of graduate students
are baiting lines to catch tiger sharks - the species that poses
the greatest threat to Hawaii's humans.
HOLLAND That's a tasty morsel.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But the team isn't fishing for sharks in
order to control them. They're on a research mission to find
out if tiger sharks can be controlled - and what the consequences
of killing them might be. The baited hooks are left out overnight.
When morning comes, the research crew gets an extra hand for
HOLLAND Okay, Alan, do it. Oh man, you've done this before.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As we headed for the first line of hooks,
I asked a question I've always wanted the answer to.
ALAN ALDA Is there any evidence at all that there is such a thing
as a killer shark, a shark that goes after humans?
HOLLAND No, in terms of the tiger sharks and as far as I know
with other species of sharks, there is no evidence of that
what so ever. And when you think about it, sharks evolved
in the ocean, man did not evolve in the ocean. If they have
evolved eating man, or mankind, they wouldn't have gotten
very far, because until the tourist industry hit there wasn't
very many people in the water. You can't make a living eating
something that is not in your realm.
ALAN ALDA What about if a shark bites a human?
HOLLAND Which doesn't happen very often.
ALAN ALDA Right, how often does it happen?
HOLLAND In the state of Hawaii, it only happens maybe twice
a year. And when you think of how many people that are in
the water all year round, and how many sharks there are...
ALAN ALDA How many sharks are there?
HOLLAND There are a lot of sharks, because we catch sharks
all the time. There is no problem.
ALAN ALDA So, the interesting thing is, with all of those sharks
there are only 1 or 2 bites a year.
ALAN ALDA Now, how many of those bites are fatal?
HOLLAND Good point. Very, very few. In Hawaii in the last
30 years, only 3 attacks have been fatal.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) All that didn't sound so bad. And the first
shark we hauled in looked reassuringly harmless - especially
when Kim rolled it onto it's back.
HOLLAND If you turn it over like this, these fish go into
what we know as tonic immobility. So, even if this fish wasn't
very tired, it would basically go to sleep in this position.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It was a 5 foot long sandbar shark - not
a species much given to biting humans.
HOLLAND What Carl is going to try to do now very carefully,
is take the hook out of her mouth. Well done, mate. And then
we are going to let her go.
ALAN ALDA Is there any relationship between these smaller sharks
and the tiger sharks?
HOLLAND One of the few things we do know about tiger sharks
is that one of their main foods is smaller sharks. So, if
you kill the large sharks, the number of medium and small
sharks will probably increase. Their food is frequently the
commercially important fishes. So, by affecting the top predator,
you may end up perturbing the ecosystem such that the commercially
valuable fish will decrease in numbers.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So trying to rid Hawaiian waters of tiger
sharks could reduce the populations of fish Hawaii and it's
tourists like to eat. It was beginning to sound as if tiger
sharks don't deserve their reputation. Of course, I'd yet
to meet one.
HOLLAND Okay. We got a tiger shark on this line.
ALAN ALDA Good.
HOLLAND It's alive, and it's a medium size one. Here it comes
right now in the water behind us. Well, that's a big one.
ALAN ALDA How long do you think he is?
HOLLAND That is about a 13 foot long shark.
ALAN ALDA 13 feet. And would you say he's tired?
HOLLAND He's just the way we like him. He is still obviously
very healthy, but very tired so we can work with him. Put
a transmitter on him and let him go. He's safe, we're safe,
we get what we need. He's just the way we like him.
ALAN ALDA Let me ask you a serious question here. When the shark
has that hook in it's mouth? Is it just as able to bite as
without the hook?
HOLLAND No. And the other thing you have to realize is that
sharks don't use their mouths for defense or for aggression.
Their mouths are for feeding. So, it's not like a dog that
is cornered and strikes out to you with his mouth. These animals
don't think about taking their vengeance out, or being so
frightened they come and bite you. All this shark wants to
do is get that hook out of his mouth and go about his business.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And it was finally time to go about our business
- which was to tag the tiger shark with a radio transmitter
so that we could track it. Killing the tiger sharks around
Hawaii's beaches would control the threat they pose only if
they don't travel very far. And until this research project,
no-one has known how far tiger sharks roam. It was time to
meet the tiger face to face.
ALAN ALDA It's a gigantic head on this shark.
HOLLAND Yes, it's like a big tadpole.
ALAN ALDA It's doing what? It's biting the boat. That doesn't sound
like what you said before about not biting people that aren't
HOLLAND That's the great thing about science, it's the world
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Like the little sandbar shark, this one was
supposed to go into a trance when belly up.
ALAN ALDA You had her over on her belly, how long do you have to
keep her on her belly for this effect to take place?
HOLLAND It varies, but usually just 3 or 4 minutes and she'll
ALAN ALDA Oh, 3 or 4 minutes? Oh, I thought it was a couple of
HOLLAND No, well, it depends, sometimes it can be. There she's
going now. Okay, see, there, she is gone now. As long as we
can keep her belly up she will be alright. Look at that. Rub
ALAN ALDA Does it make any difference if you rub her tummy? I mean,
does that help her quiet down?
HOLLAND I don't know. But you know, it's a very , very calming
phenomenon in all vertebrates that...
ALAN ALDA Oh gee... Oh boy... That's why I'm, I'm playing the part
of Richard Dryfus. What, was he busy today?
HOLLAND And if you like to...after Brad makes this initial
incision here like that..; you're welcome to put it on if
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) After they'd made the shark really mad by
sticking a knife in her skin, I got the privilege of implanting
the radio transmitter.
ALAN ALDA All right. Here's the transmitter. What do we do with
HOLLAND We are gonna put it right in the incision on the back
of the shark. Right here where we made this small incision.
Right there. That's it, right in that hole. Right there. Push.
Beautiful. Give it a not, one more not, there you go, a little
bit more, perfect. There it is right there. There is the transmitter
in place, we can follow her wherever she goes. Because it's
a depth sensitive transmitter, we not only know where she
is going sideways, but how deep she is, weather she is near
the surface, near the bottom, 10 meters or 100 meters deep.
That's perfect, you should do this for a living.
ALAN ALDA Ha, Ha.
HOLLAND All right.
ALAN ALDA No, I shouldn't even do this for a living.
HOLLAND Ha, Ha.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The shark and I weren't unhappy to see each
other go. Now came the easy part. Kim lowered a directional
antenna below the boat.
HOLLAND Okay, if you just wag the nose we should start picking
up the signal. Here it is. That's our fish. That's the transmitter.
And it's at the surface, because it's a very steady, once
per second. If it was deeper, it would be faster.
ALAN ALDA I see.
HOLLAND So, our fish is now dead ahead of us at the surface.
Okay, this fish is doing about 100 degree course right now
which is going to take us right off the tip of diamond head,
which is a very familiar theme for us. Three or four of the
previous sharks we tracked have come along exactly this path.
Cut off the tip of diamond head and then strike out into blue
water between here and the next island of Molokai.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Typically, Kim and his team stay on the track
of a shark for as long as the batteries in its transmitter
last - about 48 hours. They've tracked about a dozen tiger
sharks so far - and every one has wandered far away from where
it was caught. This was a big surprise - and bad news for
advocates of shark control.
ALAN ALDA What would happen if there was a really bad attack here
by a shark and the people went out in boats and killed all
the sharks, all the tiger sharks, they could? What effect
would that have?
HOLLAND It probably wouldn't have any effect on the number
of shark attacks on people. The reason being that we are showing
that these fish move much greater distances than we anticipated
they would. And that means if you take out some sharks from
one beach, they could very easily be infilled by other sharks
coming from 30, 40 or 50 miles away. So, at this point it
looks as thought it would be difficult to have a surgical
ALAN ALDA Okay, okay, look, alot of people don't care if there
are fewer sharks. I mean, I think some of us think of them
like rats. If there were a few less rats, it wouldn't hurt.
What place in our lives do they hold? Why should I care if
the tiger shark disappears or not?
HOLLAND The proliferation of rats is a manmade phenomenon.
They live in towns and cities that we've created. Tiger sharks
live in an environment which is still essentially unchanged.
And as such they are in balance with their environment. And
the balance between them and the food that they eat, and they
food that their food eats, is still pretty much the way we
think it evolved over evolution. And so by perturbing the
system by taking out the big sharks, you will actually have
an effect all the way down through the food chain.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The tiger shark is just one of 19 shark species
that live around Hawaii. All have their mysteries. But none
is stranger than this one - the hammerhead shark. A day after
wrestling tiger sharks, I joined Kim and his student Chris
Lowe in Oahu's peaceful Kane'ohe Bay...fishing for baby hammerheads.
ALAN ALDA Yea, there it is. I see it. It's a little guy.
HOLLAND That's the most common top level predator in the bay.
There's thousands of those pups of that size in the bay. So
we are going to drop it in the tank now and we can just run
a couple of hundred yards back to the lab, and we've got our
ALAN ALDA How big do they get to be?
HOLLAND An adult scalloped hammerhead would be about 14 feet.
ALAN ALDA 14 feet, so these guys are really little, they are young.
HOLLAND These are neonatal pups, they have only been born
maybe, the biggest one maybe 3 or 4 or 5 weeks ago, and the
smallest ones, maybe a few days ago.
ALAN ALDA This is the most interesting looking fish I have ever
seen. Why do they have a head like that? Why is it shaped
HOLLAND Probably for several reasons, one is that they have
an eye on each end of the head, so it helps them with binocular
vision, they also have a nostril on each side of the head.
So that probably helps them to orient to smells in the water,
they also have an array of electroreceptors all the way, see
those shadows there, those are electroreceptors. They can
detect the electrical currents emanating from small prey that
they feed on that might be buried just under the sand.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The hammerhead certainly appears to use it's
head like a metal detector when searching for prey. But Chris
Lowe wondered if the head's wing-like shape also gives it
a lift - literally - when it comes to swimming.
LOWE So we can look at this by placing the shark in my swim
tunnel, or my treadmill for fish.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Water flows through the tank from left to
LOWE So what happens is I can change the velocity of which
the water moves through the loop. And once the sharks are
conditioned, they will swim in place.
ALAN ALDA This shark always has to keep swimming.
LOWE Exactly. I mean, as an obligate swimmer, meaning that
from the time it's born to the time it dies, this shark has
to swim in order to respire.
ALAN ALDA Day and night?
LOWE Day and night. Constantly.
ALAN ALDA Otherwise, what happens?
LOWE Otherwise it will suffocate.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) If you have to swim to breath, it pays to
be as efficient a swimmer as possible. And for the first time,
Chris' shark treadmill has allowed him to compare the swimming
efficiency of hammerheads to that of sharks with more conventional
ALAN ALDA Have you been able to show doing this experiment that
the head does give the fish an advantage?
LOWE These sharks, compared with other species, are very efficient
swimmers. And if you look at, for example, the tail, compare
the tail of the hammerhead with another species of shark,
the tails are fairly similar. So if the tails are similar,
how can the hammerhead be more efficient? The only thing I
can think of is their wing-shaped head.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A couple of days with Kim Holland and his
students was an exhilarating - if scary - reminder of how
much there is still to learn about the creatures of the deep
- even such celebrities as sharks.
ALAN ALDA You know when we were out on the ocean there, I felt
like we were chasing Moby Dick a little bit. I was a little
worried first of all that he was going to come and smash our
boat apart the way he did in the book. But you're chasing
something, like Ahab, what are you chasing?
HOLLAND I'm chasing an understanding of how the parts fit
together. Even when it's a big ugly part like a tiger shark,
which after a while aren't so ugly. But I have a feeling of
real urgency about how fast our marine resources can be frittered
away. And I and my students are trying to get the kind of
scientific information that will allow us to use the marine
resources without squandering them, so that they are going
to be there for the next generation.
back to top
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Early morning fog shrouds the harbor of Moss
Landing, 75 miles south of San Francisco, as the research
vessel Point Lobos heads out to sea. Operated by the Monterey
Bay Aquarium Research Institute, its destination is the edge
of the last great unexplored region on earth. Just 10 miles
out, the ocean floor plunges into a canyon bigger than the
Grand Canyon, poising the Point Lobos over water as deep as
almost any in the world's oceans. Below the top few hundred
feet, these depths were until recently almost entirely unknown,
though by volume they make up more than 90% of the earth's
living space. On board the Point Lobos is one of the first
regular visitors to these hidden depths, the submarine Ventana.
ALAN ALDA What is all this stuff here?
ROBISON Well, we've got a variety of tools that we use at
depth. These are samplers that we use to collect the more
fragile and delicate animals. Down here is the big eye. Up
here along this middle bar are four metal halogen lights.
The depths we'll be working at today are very dark. Less than
a hundredth of a percent of the sunlight which reaches the
surface penetrates as deep as we'll be working today.
ALAN ALDA If we were down there without a light, what would it
be like? Would it be like being in a room that just has a
tiny crack somewhere under a door?
ROBISON Even less than that. About the only thing you can
see is that looking up towards the surface is less dark than
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Bruce Robison has been using the Ventana
to explore the darkness below for some 7 years now. The submarine
has no crew. Bruce and his crew operate it remotely from the
surface, where the ocean swell is making life distinctly uncomfortable
for me and our camera crew. Unfortunately, going below only
makes things worse. The control room is small, dark, hot and
constantly pitching. As I munch saltines to settle my stomach,
the pilot takes the Ventana on a dive that will penetrate
a half-mile into the darkness. The view from Ventana's camera
is like something out of Star Wars...
ALAN ALDA So we're just traveling through space here, it looks
like we're, oh what went by? Something good went by. What
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) ...complete with aliens.
ROBISON Oh, Peralia. Peralia.
ALAN ALDA What's that?
ROBISON These are great big, brown colored medusi.
ALAN ALDA Oh, that's gorgeous.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In a sense, the creatures down here are like
ALAN ALDA Look at this guy.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) ...adapted to an environment quite unlike
the one the rest of us who live on earth inhabit. This creature
is called a siphonophore.
ROBISON This is the propulsive end. There are two swimming
bells, one on either side, that allow the animals to pull
itself through the water.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In fact, the siphonophore may not be a single
animal at all but an assembly of many. Until it was seen here
in its habitat, no-one knew much about it.
ALAN ALDA You couldn't have ever brought this up in a net, could
ROBISON No. We would have had only bits and pieces. We wouldn't
have known how many siphonophores were there, whether there
was 1 or 100. These animals get to be extraordinarily large.
We have measured them up to 120 feet long. That is a very
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And it makes it one of the longest creatures
on earth. Capturing siphonophores and the deep's other gelatinous
creatures in one piece is a job for one of Ventana's specialized
ALAN ALDA You gonna put him up the vacuum cleaner there?
ROBISON That's right. We're gonna draw this siphonophore into
the suction sampler. So that we can look at it's stomach contents.
ALAN ALDA You can get a big guy like that into one of your containers?
ALAN ALDA And it wont break?
ROBISON It will be, what's the polite term, "wadded up".
ALAN ALDA Ha, Ha. This is why I don't believe in flying saucers
coming down and taking samples of humanity. I don't want to
be "wadded up" by one of those things.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The siphonophore is gently sucked aboard
in one piece - accompanied by some of the dust-like particles
that are everywhere down here.
ALAN ALDA What's all this snow-like stuff we are seeing around
ROBISON You called it by the right name. We refer to it as
marine snow. It's sort of all of the junk and detritus and
dust of the upper layer of the ocean.
ALAN ALDA So, that's stuff falling off of animals up above. And
it passes through this region and continues on it's way all
the way down to the bottom?
ROBISON That's right.
ALAN ALDA And animals are feeding on it all the time?
ROBISON Yes, certainly bacteria feed on it while it descends.
But there are other animals, filter feeders, that occur in
mid-water, and they process these particles. But eventually,
they all reach the sea floor.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Since Bruce Robison and his colleagues began
their deep water explorations, they've identified dozens of
new species. Creatures down here range from the gruesome fangtooth...
to the angelic-looking ribbonfish. Some 2100 feet down, the
Ventana passes through a layer where oxygen levels are very
low. Among the creatures adapted to hanging out here is the
splendidly named Vampyroteuthis infernalis, a distant cousin
to octopus and squid. It glares at us balefully through a
huge blue eye.
ROBISON Oh boy, time out. This is a paralepidid. A very, very
beautiful little fish that we don't see all that often. It's
nose is up, it's keeping itself almost vertically in the water
column. It's looking up trying to see it's prey silhouetted
against the surface. Very soon, it's going to take off and
it will be gone just like it vaporized. There he goes. He's
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) To evade shadow stalkers like the Paralepidid,
potential prey are often transparent... Or, like this little
fish, they generate their own internal light. When viewed
from below, this makes them less visible against the lighter
surface. Bioluminescence is used a lot down here. The otherwise-black
angler fish has a luminous beard to attract prey. But why
so many animals glow in the dark is still a mystery.
ROBISON This is a red-bellied tomachtarid. It's a type of
polechite worm that lives down here. This animal has bioluminescent
organs at the ends of all it's legs.
ALAN ALDA What a great shot that is.
ROBISON It's like having glowing toes.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) There are so many questions down here. This
catcher's mitt shaped creature seams to propel itself along
with shimmering hairs along its edge, but otherwise is utterly
ALAN ALDA How does this animal reproduce?
ROBISON Good question, I don't know.
ALAN ALDA Ha, Ha. Well, you know what's wonderful is how much there
is to learn down here.
ROBISON Oh sure.
ALAN ALDA It's a whole other universe.
ROBISON That's part of what makes it so exciting. Each dive
can, and often does, bring us something new, something unexpected.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Unfortunately, my own curiosity had begun
to lose its battle for attention with my stomach.
ALAN ALDA I think I have to go up and get some air.
ALAN ALDA It's not that this isn't fascinating. But I think staying
in one piece will be more fascinating.
ROBISON Certainly more enjoyable.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Up in the light and air, it's hard to believe
that just beneath us lies the earth's strange final frontier.
Pioneers like Bruce Robison will be exploring its mysteries
for many years to come.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Low tide at Pillar Point, a scenic spot on
California's coastal highway.It's a favorite spot, too, for
biologist Gary Vermeij, when he's out searching for insights
into one of nature's longest running arms races. Gary searches
- or as he puts it, sees - with his hands and fingers. Blind
since the age of 3, it's through touch that he sees things
most of us with sight would miss.
VERMEIJ Lets see what he's up to. What are you doing? Ah ha!
What have you got there. Looks like a tegula. Yes indeed,
absolutely, he had a tegula, a tegula funebralis - a snail.
He had this snail sitting right like this, and his mouth was
over the opening of the snail, and he was clearly digesting
it. What they do is, they have this stomach that they can
extrude through the opening of the shell into the snail and
digest it externally. It's kind of a slow, miserable way to
go, but it's what they do. You just do your thing here, find
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It was no contest between the starfish and
the snail. But Gary is fascinated by how mollusks like the
snail have evolved defenses against their predator's weapons
- leading him occasionally to confront those weapons himself.
VERMEIJ Yes, I'm afraid of getting bitten or something, but
it doesn't happen very often. In any case I think it's worth
the effort because you always find something interesting.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) To Gary, no shell is without interest - even
one that's been almost entirely demolished.
VERMEIJ This is a lethaly broken tegula funebralis. I don't
know who killed it, or what killed it - it could have been
a crab. It's been pretty badly mashed. That was definitely
a fatal wound.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But it is shells that have survived the attacks
of their predators that Gary finds most intriguing. Because
in their scars he sees their life stories
VERMEIJ I imagine a crab or something got at this shell, broke
the lip back about 90 degrees. The animal survived and repaired
the damage and is now back to normal. This animal had a rather
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The daily skirmishes along the seashore that
Gary reads in the shells he finds are the latest in a confrontation
that's lasted hundreds of millions of years. Back in his office
at the University of California in Davis, Gary uses his Braille
typewriter to catalogue the thousands of shells he's collected
in field trips around the world. He keeps abreast of what's
happening in evolutionary biology with Braille transcriptions
of the journals - including the leading journal in the field,
of which he is the editor. Gary Vermeij has never let his
blindness stand in his way.
ALAN ALDA You must have had a very, very strong upbringing.
VERMEIJ I had an exceedingly strong upbringing. My parents
were, what I consider to be quintessentially level-headed
Dutchmen. They never heard of failure, they never heard of
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) On our way to his office, we stopped at a
ALAN ALDA Actually, this one looks a little like a crab claw.
VERMEIJ Ha Ha.
ALAN ALDA But the claws are up high here.
VERMEIJ Yea, now that part is nice and smooth. Would you feel
this, this is ugly, it's rough.
ALAN ALDA I don't focus on this cause I'm looking at the whole
VERMEIJ People look at this, so they don't have to feel it.
If they had to feel it, they'd say "ugh, it's just a rock".
And of course now it's nice and warm because it's in the hot
ALAN ALDA Yea. That's right. That's something that you get that
you don't get if you're just looking at it.
VERMEIJ That's right. You can't feel the cold stone.
ALAN ALDA You're getting the changes in temperature on various
sides of this. The idea that you may see things that we don't
- like this texture and temperature - things that I would
never have thought of as part of the enjoyment of the sculpture.
It's very interesting because do you suppose you see things
therefore in shells that other people don't see?
VERMEIJ I'm not sure I see things that others don't see. I
may emphasize some things more than other people would. But
I think I essentially see the same thing.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We began our tour of Gary's lab with a demonstration
of what shells are up against.
ALAN ALDA How strong are those claws?
LEWIS Oh, I'll show you.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This is Ed Pearson, one of Gary's graduate
LEWIS Grab on to my pencil here, and give it a little shake.
ALAN ALDA She's really clamping down now. I can really see how
she could break a shell with that strength.
LEWIS Oh yea, I've broken a few pencils this way too.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The crab's claws made short work of the snail
Ed gave it. But then I got to serve up a different tid-bit...
ALAN ALDA Yoo hoo, lunch.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It was potentially as tasty but in a trickier
package. And this time, despite several minutes of probing
for a weak spot, the crab gave up and the shell survived unscathed.
ALAN ALDA That is a teradactyl.
VERMEIJ Yes it is, a teradactyl.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION)Gary's passion is to learn how these survivors
ALAN ALDA Do any of your shells go back that far, or further?
VERMEIJ A couple of them. Most of the ones I work on are since
the age of dinosaurs. Let me show you a volema, that has a
truly horrid scar on it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) His favorite fossils are survivors who lived
to repair their battle wounds.
VERMEIJ This a really dreadful, it has sustained this attack
right here which isn't so bad, and back here when it was much
younger, look at this, this is terrible...
ALAN ALDA Oh, big crack like. Now, this is all scarred, it's not
a pretty shell, and yet this is valuable to you and your work,
right? More than a pretty shell.
VERMEIJ You bet. Yes, well it tells you a lot. This is an
animal that records, it chronicles it's own history very nicely.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The history Gary sees chronicled in his fossil
shells is of repaired damage becoming more frequent over evolutionary
time, suggesting more shells are surviving the attacks of
their predators as their armor becomes more sophisticated.
Meanwhile, of course, their predators were evolving ever more
fearsome shell-crushing weapons of their own.
VERMEIJ This happens to be a box full of one set of stomach
contents of a fish.
ALAN ALDA Now, how did this get broken? Did a fish chew on it first?
VERMEIJ Yes, the fish has a jaw. This is it. Of course these
are upper and lower, and they crush.
ALAN ALDA So, they crush it between those rough plates.
VERMEIJ Yeah, like a vice.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But some shells came up with an ingenious
VERMEIJ If it has long spines, it makes the shell larger.
For example, this is a truly unusual example.
ALAN ALDA That's pretty spiny.
VERMEIJ Yea, it's pretty spiny. Well, these spines actually
make the shell, in a way, bigger than it really is. So, it's
harder to put into the jaws.
ALAN ALDA Oh, I see. It's not that, I thought the spine would act
like kind of a spear or pike or something.
VERMEIJ No, it simply makes it bigger
ALAN ALDA It doesn't have to grow so big, it just puts out little
VERMEIJ That's right.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Spines aren't the only defense mollusks have
evolved. Others grew longer, giving the soft animal inside
room for retreat. Some shells evolved buttressing to strengthen
the vulnerable opening...while others close tightly...or -
like this cowrie - have a small opening and a slippery surface.
All these adaptations are in response to predators that have
also been evolving.
VERMEIJ So, for animals with skeletons like mollusks, the
world has changed a lot. You have to meet higher standards
that one might have had to meet hundreds of millions of years
ago. Your not necessarily better off today. But it's kind
of like human beings. We have to put up with heavier weaponry,
with guns, whereas, you know, in the 1200's, or whatever,
we only had to put up with arrows.
ALAN ALDA These caught my eye. These are incredibly beautiful.
VERMEIJ Oh yes, wonderful fossil.
ALAN ALDA This incredible beauty was developed through an arms
race apparently, through conflict.
VERMEIJ For every organism that lives, an awful lot have died
and an awful lot have suffered.
ALAN ALDA Yea. You know I think about this so called balance of
nature in a different way now that you say that because I
guess nature looks like it's in balance and everything seems
comfortable unless you happen to be one of the things getting
pushed of the scale to bring it into balance.
VERMEIJ That's right. We have to always remember that the
world we are looking at for the most part is a world of survivors
and a world of the successful.
ALAN ALDA And from that kind of surviving of conflict, you get
these beautiful shells.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) One of my most memorable encounters with
a creature of the deep came last year, at a fish market on
the Bay of Naples in Italy. I was there with biologist Graziano
Fiorito - who wasn't shopping for dinner but for subjects
to take part in an extraordinary experiment.
ALAN ALDA What about these guys?
FIORITO These are good enough.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This is the animal Fiorito works with --
the octopus, one of the least-loved creatures of the sea.
At first it's hard to figure out just how the octopus is put
ALAN ALDA Where are his eyes?
FIORITO The head is this. This is eyes.
ALAN ALDA And what's this? It looks like a big nose.
FIORITO This is the abdomen of the animal.
ALAN ALDA Oh, the abdomen. It's not his nose. And where's his mouth?
FIORITO The mouth is underneath.
ALAN ALDA In the middle of his hands.
FIORITO Yes, here, you see it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Graziano Fiorito takes his subjects back
to the zoological station in Naples, Europe's oldest marine
biology laboratory. As an invertebrate, the octopus may be
spineless but it is a skilled hunter. Lurking behind a rock,
this one is stalking a hermit crab. Octopuses live alone,
so it's thought that their hunting skills are partly pre-programmed
in their genes and partly self-taught from experience. The
idea that a creature as lowly as an octopus might also learn
as we do, by watching others, would be heresy to most scientists.
But that's just what Fiorito believes he's seen. Here's the
challenge he sets for the octopuses he buys from the market
- a glass jar containing a crab, and sealed tightly with a
plug. Some octopuses, perhaps because they've opened a lot
of shells for their dinner, open the jar on their first try.
Others, like this one, can be given the jar time and time
again without getting inside. I joined Fiorito for the key
experiment. The octopus on the right is the one that can open
the jar. The one on the left can't.
ALAN ALDA You already gave him a jar and he couldn't do it?
FIORITO No. Half the population of animals that come from
the sea are able to do it and the other half they are unable
to do it. So it depends let's say from the individual's experience.
There are some octopus that are more skilled than other ones.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The unskilled animal will be given a chance
to watch how it's done.
ALAN ALDA So now the octopus over here in this tank is going to
watch this one open the jar.
FIORITO That's right.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Even knowing how to do it didn't help me.
ALAN ALDA I need suction cups on my fingers here. I can't do it.
ALAN ALDA Does he see it yet do you think?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The skilled octopus sees the crab immediately
and moves in. The unskilled octopus seems to be watching intently,
as the skilled one explores the jar.
FIORITO It's crawling now on the jar and it recognizes the
plug. Now its behavior is changed - now it's carrying it right
back home to be more safe from the other animal.
ALAN ALDA He doesn't want the other animal to interfere?
FIORITO That's right.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The performer pulls the plug and the crab
is his. Meanwhile, the observer octopus is scrambling for
the best view.
ALAN ALDA Do you think that this animal from observing that this
time may know how to do it?
FIORITO We can try.
ALAN ALDA Great, can we see?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Now remember, this animal has never before
been able to open the jar. What's new is that he's observed
ALAN ALDA Oh here he goes, here he goes. Look, look, look, look.
Oh wow, look at him. Just went right at it.
ALAN ALDA Look, he got in, he got it open. And he was never able
to do that before?
ALAN ALDA This is unbelievable.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) What Graziano Fiorito has shown for the first
time is that an invertebrate can learn by observing. Social
learning like this is a domain of intellect usually reserved
for mammals like us. But as I learned in the fish market,
you have to you know how to handle an octopus if you want
it to show you its secrets.
ALAN ALDA Why do you need to be relaxed with an octopus?
FIORITO If you would like to study behavior of animals the
animal must be sure that you would never kill him. There is
such a kind of, let's say, good relationship between you and
the animal, a good feeling.
ALAN ALDA You have to have a sure touch, huh? Well I don't have
it. I think these animals can sense it.
FIORITO Yes, they are sensitive.
ALAN ALDA What's the best way to pick them up?
FIORITO Here ...
ALAN ALDA Oh, ho. Ohhh. How do you get used to this? You like that?
ALAN ALDA It's a little like a hand full of worms.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The mournful cry of a humpback whale. Racing
to saving its life is a team of biologists from Memorial University
of Newfoundland, led by Jon Lien. The whale is trapped in
a fishing net. Unless it can be freed, it will probably die.
This scene was filmed in 1992, at a time when it was tragically
common in the fishing grounds of Newfoundland's Grand Banks.
The work was difficult and dangerous. Jon Lien had to repeatedly
plunge himself into water just a few degrees above freezing
as he tried to free the 30-ton whale. He's been involved in
some 500 such whale rescues. This time the struggle has already
lasted almost 3 hours. Partially free, the whale is now dangerously
mobile. Then with one final cut - freedom. The whale had been
entangled in a cod net. And it was as important to save the
net as it was to save the whale.
LIEN Our fishermen do not earn a lot of money, they have a
big investment, they have a very short season, and it's a
real tough job. So, when a whale comes and hits their nets
right in the middle of fishing season, they might lose enough
time that they could lose their whole years voyage. So, it's
a serious problem for the fishermen.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But the Newfoundland fishermen were facing
an even more serious problem - the near total collapse of
a fishery that had sustained this region for centuries. When
John Cabot discovered Newfoundland 500 years ago, he reported
cod so plentiful he didn't need a net to catch them. As recently
as the 1950's, Cabot's claim was believable. But in the decades
that followed, local fishermen using traditional dories and
much larger foreign fishing vessels - had so overfished the
Grand Banks that cod nets were coming up emptier and emptier.
Just after FRONTIERS filmed here in 1992, the Canadian government
closed down the Grand Banks to all commercial fishing. The
decision was a reprieve for the humpback whales. But its intent
was to allow cod stocks to replenish, so that one day fishing
can resume. By the time it does, researchers hope to fully
understand why whales apparently don't detect cod nets until
it's too late, but rarely get entangled in the finer nets
used to catch smaller fish like capelin. That's why Sean Todd
of Memorial University is setting out to compare cod nets
and capelin nets. But not to find out if they look different
to whales. Sean wants to learn if they sound different.
TODD What we're doing is we're basically just comparing cod
traps, capelin traps, and any other gear we can find in the
water and see what kind of sound they make. And hopefully,
by looking at the kind of sounds they make, we can get an
idea of how probable it is that a whale will hit the trap.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Using an underwater microphone, Sean has
recorded the sound of dozens of different nets. The sound
is made by the water rushing through the net's mesh.
TODD What I'm hearing right now is basically acustic nonsense.
It's just nothing but, what we call, white noise. It's kind
of like a noise. You can't make any sense out of it because
our ears really aren't sensitive enough to hear what's going
on. But, we do have machines back in the laboratory that can
work out exactly what this sound is saying.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) When the sound is analyzed, capelin nets
- with their fine mesh - are far noisier than the wider-mesh
cod nets, which under water are almost silent. This discovery
led the Newfoundland researchers to a simple idea: make cod
nets noisier by fitting them with alarms.
LIEN If we pull up along side here we can give you some alarms
and have a chat.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In the last year of cod fishing here, Jon
Lien paid a visit to fisherman Ken King. King was trying out
an experimental alarm - which was still having problems.
LIEN When you haul, do you lift up your alarms and listen
KING The boys lifted them up Thursday past.
LIEN And you can hear them ticking?
KING Everyone was ticking except the one on the inside end
of the leader, it was a real low tick.
LIEN I don't know, we're having some problems with them in
the cold water. We bought cheap batteries this time, trying
to save a bit of money.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Jon Lien's experimental alarms didn't save
this humpback whale - one of the last to die entangled in
a cod net before the fishing moratorium took hold. But its
death may help make the alarms more effective once commercial
fishing resumes. Because buried deep within the whale is the
key to the alarms' effectiveness - if only they can get to
it. For the whale alarm to work, the animal must be able to
hear it. And very little is known about what whales hear for
one very good reason. Its ears are buried under layers of
blubber. It's not an operation for the faint-hearted, when
every cut releases the gases of decomposition.
LIEN Oh gees, watch out, I'm going in. Oh, God! I filled my
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But for Jon, it's all worth it.
LIEN Well I think for a scientist, it's just amazing how this
huge animal works. We only understand it very poorly. And
it's a rare privilege to be able to get inside of it like
this. Even though its kind of gross. To begin to see how the
parts fit together. How they might make the animal work. So,
it is a little smelly, and it's a little bloody, and you get
wet, but it is absolutely fascinating.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) After hours of work, Jon finally finds what
he is looking for - the humpback's ear. To find out if it
can hear his alarms, we went to the Massachusetts Eye and
Ear Institute - and the lab of Darleen Ketten.
KETTEN This is what I call an ear. Look at that. What a beauty.
A whole ear, it's gigantic. All right, so what we've got is
the middle ear portion, the bone that makes the middle ear,
the eardrum coming out, it's called a glove finger for obvious
reasons, and then this is the section that's of the most interest
to me, the inner ear part, which sits down on here. And then
there is a flange, which is currently broken off, but which
attaches to that and connects the whole ear to the skull.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Occupying the spot more usually taken by
the head of a human patient, the ear is CAT-scanned and the
scans are assembled by computer into a 3-D image.
KETTEN Yes. There it is. Here is that inner ear spiral, just
sitting right in there as it ought to be with 2 1/2 turns
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's this spiral that holds the key to exactly
what the whale can hear. Because within it - as this computer
graphic shows - there's a flat membrane that vibrates in response
KETTEN You can think of it as a whole series of guitar strings
of different stiffness and different mass, all strung together
each one of these bits as it gets narrower, it gets thicker
or stiffer. So, that's the most taut string. And at this end
it's where it's very thin and floppy is the least taut string,
and that's where the lowest frequency parts are.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) To determine the range of frequencies the
membrane detects, the spiral is sliced into ultra-thin wafers
that can be viewed under a microscope. The alarm Jon Lien
is testing to warn humpback whales away from cod nets rings
at a frequency of 4 kilohertz. From her measurements of the
membrane - and a mathematical model she's devised - Darleen
Ketten can confirm that this is an ideal frequency for alerting
marine mammals to danger.
KETTEN What I've done is to plug it into the model and out
of that we get a range that goes, in this case for the humpback,
from about 20 hertz up to about 30,000 hertz or 30 kilohertz.
It's actually pretty close to what a human hears. So, an alarm,
for instance, that's around 4 kilohertz to 5 kilohertz is
good for the humpback. It's pretty much smack dab in the middle
of what it can hear as a total range. It's good for something
like a sperm whale, and it's even good for a harbor seal or
a sea lion, say, or even a human.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The clinking of the alarm fisherman Ken King
was testing before fishing stopped seemed to be successful
in warning off whales without frightening away the cod.
KING Last year when I had a cod trap here in the same area,
it was tore up every day, never missed a day, had a tear up,
holes in the leader, holes in the trap, and then I contacted
Jon. I got 7 of these alarms, I put 4 on the box, and 3 on
the leader. And the sound that they made, I thought they would
frighten the fish, but the best catch I ever had for the season,
for one day at 22,000 the day after we put these things on.
I knew it didn't frighten the fish, and for the 6 or 7 days
after that we had them on, the fish got a little less because
it was gettin toward the end of the season. But, no more whales,
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) One day, cod nets will again hang in the
waters of the Grand Banks. When they do, the clinks of Jon
Lien's alarms could be a life-saving accompaniment to the
songs of the whales.