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NOVA ScienceNOW

Edith Widder: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 07.29.08
  • NOVA scienceNOW

On July 29, 2008, Edie Widder answered questions about her research, what inspired her career in marine biology, and how to protect our endangered oceans.

Edith Widder

Edith Widder

Edith Widder is a biologist and deep-sea explorer and cofounder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association Full Bio

Photo credit: Courtesy Edie Widder

Edith Widder

Edith Widder is a biologist and deep-sea explorer who combines expertise in oceanographic research and technological innovation with a commitment to reversing the worldwide trend of marine ecosystem degradation. A specialist in bioluminescence, she has been a leader in helping to design and invent new submersible instrumentation and equipment to enable unobtrusive deep-sea observations. She is cofounder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA, see Links & Books), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of marine ecosystems and species through development of innovative technologies and science-based conservation action. In September of 2006, based on her work with ORCA, she was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She graduated Magna cum laude from Tufts University where she received her BS Degree in Biology and then went on to earn a Masters Degree in Biochemistry and a Ph.D. in Neurobiology awarded by the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Q: What is the most effective way that we, as individuals, can conserve and rehabilitate our oceans? Laura, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada

Edie Widder: Hi Laura,

We all need to reduce our footprint on the planet. If you go to our website at www.teamorca.org under "How you can help" there's a list of "10 Ways to Save the Ocean" that includes very specific things that you can do that will help make a difference. Also, under the picture of the crab, there's a link called "Yankee's pet care tips" that's a list of things that pet owners can do.

Additionally, the lower you can eat on the food chain the better. It takes about 16 pounds of grain to generate one pound of beef and three pounds of grain for one pound of chicken. All that grain involves a lot of agricultural land use and results in a lot of run off of nutrients, much of which ends up in the ocean. Nutrients may not sound like a bad thing, but in a well-balanced ecosystem nutrients are generally limiting, so when you add fertilizer to the system the weeds grow like crazy. In the ocean some of the weeds are microscopic plankton that turn the water brown or green or red and block out the sun to the precious sea grasses on the bottom that serve as a nursery to many ocean species. Then when the weeds die, they get eaten by bacteria that end up sucking so much oxygen out of the water that you end up with massive fish kills.

In the ocean, eating top predators like tuna is even more inefficient because it takes about ten pounds of small fish like herring to produce one pound of tuna, and those 10 pounds of herring had to consume about 100 pounds of zooplankton and those 100 pounds of zooplankton had to consume at least 1,000 pounds of smaller zooplankton or phytoplankton. So our need for meat is having a terrible impact on the ocean any way you look at it.

If you don't want to become a vegetarian then consider trying to go without meat just one or two days a week. Check out Meatless Monday: A Weekly Start for a Healthier America (in association with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health).

Small changes can make a big difference.

Another thing that everybody can do to help is pick up plastic. Plastic is having a terrible impact on sea life. Whenever Yankee and I go for a walk on the beach or a walk anywhere we take along a bag and pick up any plastic that we see along the way. If you want to find like-minded friends, you can also check out the International Coastal Cleanup-scheduled for Saturday, September 20 this year.

Thanks for asking!

Q: Hello and congratulations on your love for the oceans and for starting ORCA. I too love the oceans and have spent most of my life on them and am very interested in your association. My background: Unlimited Master Mariner, B.S. degree in oceanography & meterology, and A.S. in mechanical engineering. I would like to contribute somehow... I'm 56, retired now and cruising on my sailboat. You can reach me via my email.

Thank you and Good Luck!!!
Capt. Chris Capt. Christopher O'Brien, Cruising on my sailboat, Presently in P.V., Mexico

Widder: Hi Capt. Chris,
You are now on our e-mail mailing list, and you'll be hearing from us. Thanks for caring, and many thanks for your offer of help.

Q: Dear Edie,
How can you look at these monsters over and over and not get nightmares? Stormy Burns, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Widder: Hi Stormy,
I think they're beautiful-well OK- maybe I should say beautifully adapted!

If you'd like to see more beautiful "monsters" check out our website http://www.teamorca.org/cfiles/images.cfm

I was also a collaborator on a lovely book entitled The Deep by Claire Nouvian. If you are interested in the beautiful mysteries found in our oceans, purchase this lovely book and prepare to be amazed!

Q: Gosh, what to ask?! Was the squid you saw the famous Giant Squid? How is your research funded? Was that the Johnson Sea Link I saw? What do you think is the real state of our oceans? How long does it take to become a marine biologist? Do you need any help? (lol) Kyle Christensen, Dayton, Ohio

Widder: Hi Kyle,
It was even better than the famous Giant Squid because it was a squid that no one has ever seen before-either dead or alive.

My research is funded by federal and state grants, foundations, and private donors.

Yes that was the Johnson Sea Link.

I think the Oceans are in serious trouble. But you don't have to take my word for it. There have been several scientific reports that have come out recently-the Pew Ocean Commission, The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, and the Ecosystem Millennium Assessment-that have all said the same thing. We need to act quickly to reverse the degradation while the ecosystems have sufficient resilience to recover on their own.

To become a marine biologist it took me four years for my bachelor's degree, two years for my master's, and five years for my Ph.D. It was hard work but very, very worth it.

We do need help, mostly financial at this stage, while we're developing the Kilroy networks, but as we expand these networks along our coast lines we're going to need a lot of hands-on help from local communities.

Most people are unaware that even though we live on an ocean planet, most of the dollars donated go to support land conservation organizations! In fact, less than half of one percent of all of the money donated to conservation organizations supports the oceans-even though the oceans cover 71 percent of our planet.

We're hoping to change that-starting with the younger generation! Right now we have children as young as five supporting us financially. If you are interested in receiving information about our school programs, e-mail me at info@teamorca.org and we will sign you up!

Q: My Lord... They broke the mold when you were born. How do you actually feel when you see some of these fantastic creatures that heretofore have never been seen? Where can I find out more info about ORCA? My kids and I would love to follow your expeditions. Never, never quit! Please!

Love,
The Schessler Family Lynn Schessler, Waukesha, Wisconsin

Widder: Hi there, Schessler Family,
The thing that drew me to science the most was the chance to explore a frontier. When I started out, I assumed this would be an intellectual frontier-figuring out something that no one had ever known before seemed intoxicating. But now that I get to explore parts of the planet and see creatures that no one has ever seen before I can't begin to describe how privileged I feel. It is beyond my wildest dreams.

You can find out more about ORCA and follow our adventures at www.teamorca.org. We plan to be expanding our website a lot over the next year, so keep checking back. I think you'll see some very exciting things!

If your kids are interested in helping us, e-mail me and we'll send you some cool fundraising ideas-including a phosphate-free car wash!

Q: Dear Edith,
I was interested to see your deep-sea section on NOVA and have a question I would like to ask. Are there any autonomous robotic systems like the Mars rovers at work in our oceans? Or at least permanently linked deep-sea cameras or the like? From reading about the subject-Richard Ellis, Beebe etc.-I have not seen anything other than the eye of the ocean.

Yours sincerely,
Steve Towers Steve Towers, Lymington, Hampshire, U.K.

Widder: Hi Steve,
Yes, there are autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which are untethered, and remote operated vehicles (ROVs) which are tethered, i.e., connected to a surface ship via a cable. The first permanently linked deep-sea camera will be the Eye-in-the-Sea when it gets installed on a cabled network called MARS Ocean Observatory Testbed. (MARS stands for the Monterey Accelerated Research System.) You can read more about that at this site http://www.mbari.org/mars/general/eits.html. At the bottom of that page there is a link to an animation that shows what the new version of the Eye-in-the-Sea looks like. It's built and ready to be installed as soon as the testbed is ready-possibly by the end of this year.

Q: Could some bioluminescent animals be captured and displayed at a marine aquarium? Anonymous

Widder: Hello,
Flashlight fish have been successfully displayed in aquariums. If you want to, you could display bioluminescent plankton in your school. You can order bioluminescent dinoflagellates from Sunnyside Sea Farms, 475 Kellogg Way, Goleta, CA 93117-3804 (Tel 805-964-3755, e-mail: sunnyside@seafarms.com ). These dinoflagellates have the scientific name Pyrocystis fusiformis, which literally means spindle-shaped (fusiform) fire (Pyro) cell (cystis).

These cells need to photosynthesize in order to make their bioluminescent chemicals, so you will need to set them up under fluorescent lights. Although they are usually only bioluminescent during the night, you can fool them by having the lights on during the night and keeping them in the dark during the day. Then if you take them out and shake the container you will see them flash.

Q: When sea creatures are brought up from extreme depths and pressures, why don't they explode when they come to the surface? Rich Gruber, White Oak, Pennsylvania

Widder: Hi Rich,
Some of them do explode, or at least their gas-filled swim bladders expand until they protrude out of their mouths. However, animals like squid and shrimp that don't have any gas-filled spaces in their bodies don't have that problem. The trick to keeping them alive as you bring them to the surface is to keep them cold, which you can do by collecting them in a thermally insulated container.

Q: If there were one thing the average person could do to help with ocean conservation, what would it be? Judy, East Syracuse, New York

Widder: Dear Judy,
If there were one thing the average person could do to help with ocean conservation it would be quietly educate your friends about the need for ocean conservation! Although the ocean is in terrible trouble, we haven't done an effective job of getting the word out.

The second thing the average person could do would be to get their hands on a Seafood Watch card. http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/SeafoodWatch.asp If you'd like one with an ORCA logo, send me your mailing address and we'll send you some (for you and all your friends!) This card will tell you the best seafood to safely eat-for your health and the health of our planet.

And lastly, it would be to pledge even a small amount of money to an ocean conservation organization you believe in. Land conservation organizations have done a terrific job of protecting some of this planet's most bio-diverse places; we need to do the same thing in the ocean!

Q: How come the fish can't see red lights? Levi, age 7, Baldwinsville, New York

Widder: Hi Levi,
If you've ever opened your eyes under water, you may have noticed that everything looks blue. That's because water acts like a filter and filters out all the reds and yellows and oranges. The color that travels the furthest through seawater is blue. As a result, most animals have evolved light organs that produce the color that travels furthest- blue-and all the sunlight filtering down from above is blue. So, because the only color that's generally available to see is blue, that's the color that most deep-sea eyes are adapted to see. Humans can see more than one color because we have different color sensors in our eyes while most deep-sea animals only have one sensor type that's sensitive to blue light.

Q: What is the most surprising deep-sea discovery you've made? Bill

Widder: Hi Bill,
The most surprising was how effective my electronic jellyfish lure has turned out to be. The first time we tried it during an Ocean Exploration mission to the Gulf of Mexico, 86 seconds after we activated the bioluminescent burglar alarm display, we recorded video of a squid that was completely unknown. The following year we saw what appeared to be the same unknown species, again attracted by a burglar alarm display. Last year, when we used the system in the Bahamas, we had some impressive "conversations" where if we flashed a certain pattern we saw an unidentified crustacean answer back.

I can't wait until we get the camera and the jellyfish lure on the cabled MARS network (see answer to Steve Towers above) so we can do more controlled experiments of the lure without the complicating factor of the bait. Right now our deployments are so brief that we use every kind of attractant we can in order to optimize our chances of seeing something new.

Q: As an aspiring marine research scientist, I was absolutely thrilled to watch your program on the technological advances regarding deep-sea exploration. I know this is what I want to dedicate my life and career to. What advice can you offer to someone looking towards your field of study? What resources can you recommend tapping into? What kind of education is required to get to where you are today? Any advice would be appreciated! Thank you so much,
Jackie Brown Jackie Brown, Camosun College, Victoria, Canada

Widder: Hi Jackie,
It's a lot of hard work and study, but it's definitely worth it. You need to get a solid backing in the basics, especially math. Concentrate on your strengths. It doesn't have to be marine biology. You could emphasize chemistry, molecular biology, biophysics, engineering, the law, or any number of other disciplines. They all have applications in the marine sciences. Try to get hands-on experience wherever you can. Student internships are a great opportunity to get real-world experience. Don't assume it will be a straight shot and smooth sailing. It won't- but success in life depends on how well you handle Plan B. Anybody can handle Plan A.

Q: Did you say you had written a children's book? If so, what is the title? Thank you. Miriam Selig, Chatham, Massachusetts

Widder: Hi Miriam,
I've written two children's books. The first is "The Bioluminescence Coloring Book," which will be available on our website shortly. The second is "Lucinda's Lamps-A Mermaid's Guide to the Lights in the Sea," which is a children's picture book, beautifully illustrated by Janeen Mason. That book hasn't been published yet. We are looking for a publisher or sufficient funds to publish it ourselves. Descriptions of both books are available on our website at http://www.teamorca.org/cfiles/store.cfm Proceeds from their sale will go to support ORCA's important ocean conservation efforts.

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