Marine Science Short Course Training

Are you a science student with an interest in marine biology? Do you want to spend part of your holidays on an island learning a little bit more about marine biology? If you are, then this just might be the thing for you. Duke Bursary Ad_2014

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Mysterious light in the sky

Below is a picture taken from a mobile phone at 7 am, Thursday, 26th June, 2014. According tot he person who took the picture, the glow seemed to have a tail, was very bright and was stationary in the sky (well if it was moving, it was very slow).

The descriptions provieded so far tend to point to a comet. While internet searches does indicate that 5 commets will be passing by earth this month (June), none of these would be visible without a telescope. So what exactly could this unexplained light be?

Mysterious light in Port Moresby

Mysterious light in Port Moresby

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Reptiles of Papua New Guinea: Sea Turtles – Flatback Sea Turtles

Adult flatback turtle. Image courtesy of Jarrad Sherborne

Adult flatback turtle. Image courtesy of Jarrad Sherborne

While discussing the Reptiles of Papua New Guinea, Rom and Zai Whitaker (1984) have done very little to talk about sea turtles eventhough their fresh water cousins are widely represented. In my discussions of the Reptiles of Papua New Guinea, I will go out of my way to provide some information on the sea turtles of Papua New Guinea. All information provided for sea turtles are readilly available on the net, I will only attempt to capture the relevant information and provide links for further readings.

Rom and Zai Whitaker (1984) have done very little to talk about sea turtles

Flatback sea turtles (Natator depressus) get their name from their flat carapace or shell, which is unlike the curved shell of other turtle species. The carapace on flatbacks are greyish-green in color with the outer margins distinctly upturned. Other distinguishable features include a single pair of prefrontal scales at teh front of the head and four pairs of coastal scutes on the carapace.

 

Flatback hatchlings are proportionally larger than other species, a trait which is believed in aiding hatchlings evade predators

Flatback hatchlings are proportionally larger than other species, a trait which is believed in aiding hatchlings evade predators

Flatbacks have the smallest distribution of all sea turtle species and only breeds and nests in Australia although their distribution range can span tot eh southern part of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Flatbacks are also small in size, reaching up to 1 m in length and weighing up to 90 kg.

Flatbacks are omnivores, feeding on a variety of prey including sea cucumbers, jellies, soft corals, shrimps, crabs, molluscs, fish and seaweed.

Current status can not be classified internationally because of their restricted range, however, in Australia, flatback turtles are listed as Vulnerable under the Australian Commonwealth’s Endangered Species Protection Act. The main threats to this species include;

  • habitat loss and degradation
  • wildlife trade
  • collection of eggs and meat for consumption
  • incidential catch (bycatch)
  • climate change and
  • pollution

Flatbacks are also threatened by predation by other animals including foxes, feral dogs and pigs. Despite their limited range and non-migratory behaviour, this species remains the least studied sea turtle species.

Links and resources

Flatback sea turtles

Flatback turtle

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Reptiles of Papua New Guinea: Sea Turtles – Loggerhead turtles

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is home to six of the worlds seven sea turtle species of which all but the flatback turtle come ashore to nest. Sea turtles have always been part of PNG culture providing meat, eggs and ornaments that hold special places in the PNG culture but would these animals be here forever?

15,120 turtles are killed in PNG each year

Right now all seven sea turtle species are endangered. A study released by the United Kingdoms University of Exeter showed that approximately 42,000 sea turtles are killed worldwide every year and PNG contributes more that 36 percent of this figure, thats a whooping 15,120 turtle deaths each year.

Where the harvest of sea turtles was once for “home use” only, this practice is now being expoilted for money.

Sea turtles that migrate through the waters of PNG include the Loggerhead, Flatback, Green, Hawksbill, Pacific Ridley and Leatherback turtles. All but the Flatback come ashore to nest. Turtle nesting season in PNG is usually between the months of November through January.

Loggerhead turtles are widely distributed throughout the world.

Loggerhead turtles are widely distributed throughout the world.

Loggerhead turtles

Loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta)are the second largest hardshelled turtle species and can grow up to 95 cm in length, reaching weights up to 200 kg although the heaviest one tipped the scales at 545 kg. Loggerheads can be identified by their yelow-orange to reddish-brown carapiece and pale yellow plastron (underside). Loggerheads also have five vertebral scutes rinning down the turtles midline bordered by fove pairs of coastal scutes.

 

 

Next week: Flatback turtles

 

 

Source

Rom and Zai Whitalker (1982) Reptiles of Papua New Guinea

Sea Turtle Population Endangered

Loggerhead turtles

 

 

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Crocodiles of Papua New Guinea: Part 2 – Saltwater Crocodile

After the New Guinea Crocodile (Crocodylus novaeguineae), the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is the only other crocodylian species found in Papua New Guinea (PNG). C.porosus has a wide distribution ranging from the Solomon Islands to Sri Lanka and India and is the largest of all the worlds crocodiles, growing up to more than 6 m (20 ft) long and weighing over a tonne (2,300 lbs).

this is a picture od Lolong, a saltwater corcodile that died in captivity on Feb 10 2013. Lolong was the longest crocodile ever caught and placed in captivity http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lolong

this is a picture od Lolong, a saltwater corcodile that died in captivity on Feb 10 2013. Lolong was the longest crocodile ever caught and placed in captivity http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lolong

Saltwater crocodiles share lowland river and swamps with freshwater crocodiles and are more common closer to the coast. In New Guinea and in particular, PNG, they can be found on all the island provinces and have been known to inhabit crater lakes too. Their typical habitat is mangrove and coastal swamps and roundwaters and despite their name, are quite at home in freshwater too.

Like their cousins, the New Guinea crocodile, saltwater corcodiles make mound nests from vegetation, guard their nests from predators and release their yound from the mounds at hatching time. In the Sepik, saltwater corcodiles tend to nest between the months of April and June and often ues the same nests as the New Guinea crocodile although by this time all eggs of the New Guinea crocodile would have been hatched and gone already. For populations on the southern side of PNG, nest time is between November and Jamuary although some can nest as early as September or as late as March.

The feeding habits of saltwater crocodilesa re similar to those of the freshwater crocodile, with the exception that they will take much larger prey more often and occassionally kill humans. Outside of PNG, saltwater crocodiles have been hunted to near extermination for its valuable skin but PNG and northern Australia still harbour safe breeding populations for this species and represent the last strongholds of this great reptile.

Reference

Rom and Zai Whitaker, (1984) Reptiles of Papua New Guinea

Wikipedia

 

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Crocodiles of Papua New Guinea; Part 1 – New Guinea Crocodile

I know of the existance of clans outside of the Sepik that have different animals including crocodiles as their totem but a part from the Sepiks, this is the first time I have seen a reference made to people outside the Sepik, in particular, the Manus people

In discussing the Reptiles of Papua New Guinea (PNG), it is only fitting that we start with crocodiles who not only are at the top of the food chains in their local habitats but also hold important roles in art and tradition and form the basis of a major skin industry that is also a means of sustenace to many river dwelling people. Crocodile meat is also eaten by many people but notably not by members of the crocodile clans like some in Manus (this is facinating to me since, I know of the existance of clans outside of the Sepik that have different animals including crocodiles as their totem but a part from the Sepiks, this is the first time I have seen a reference made to people outside the Sepik, in particular, the Manus people).

PNG has only two species of crocodiles distributed throughout most of the lowlands; the New Guinea Crocodile (Crocodylus novaeguineae) and the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus).

New Guinea Crocodiles grow up to 3.6 m (12 feet) though there have beed unverified claims of 14-footers being sighted. They can easily be identified by the presence of prominent, pointed post-occipital scales on the top of the neck just behind the head. These scales are absent in salt water crocodiles. New Guinea crocodiles inhabit swamps, rivers, lakes, roundwaters and streams throughout the lowlands of the main island of New Guinea and are not recorded in any of the major islands.

New Guinea Crocodile. (a) is a picture by Rom Whitaker in the 1982 issue of Reptiles of Papua New Guinea, while (b) is a more recent picture of the animal at Bandhung zoo, West Java, Indonesia (Wikipedia)

New Guinea Crocodile. (a) is a picture by Rom Whitaker in the 1982 issue of Reptiles of Papua New Guinea, while (b) is a more recent picture of the animal at Bandhung zoo, West Java, Indonesia (Wikipedia)

Rom and Zai Whitaker, (1982) claim that females reach maturity when they are about seven years old, measuring between 2 and 2.5 meters long, however, current records show that female maturity can come much earlier when the animals are between 1.6 and 2 m long. Nesting season is around the same months, usually between August and January but because of the terrain, these months can mean a drier season for the northern population and a much wetter one for southern populations of this species.

New Guinea Crocodiles have a range in body colour from grey to brown with darker bandings on the tail and body which becomes less noticeable as the animal grows. Snouts are long and pointy when young and becomes wider as the animal matures.

Reference

Rom and Zai Whitaker, (1982). Reptiles of Papua New Guinea

Wikipedia

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A look at Reptiles of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) rich biodiversity has always facinated both scientists and ordinary people the world over but apart from the few documentaries and beautiful images very little is done in documenting this rich biodiversity.

One of the few guides available on reptiles of Papua New Guinea. J

One of the few guides available on reptiles of Papua New Guinea. J

Pictured here is one of the rare catalogues available that can be used to identify different reptiles in PNG. This is a copy of “Reptiles of Papua New Guinea” by Rom and Zai Whitaker. Although I am inclined to say the year of publication is 1982, I am hesitant in mentioning this as there is no clear indication of its year of publication. What I am confident in saying is that this article was published a long time ago because the script looks to have been typed out on a typewriter and the images are clearly from a very old camera. Despite its intended purpose, I do not know just how effective this book would be for someone on the ground  trying to learn something more about an interesting reptilian species in front of him.

With that being said, I am now embarking on a quest to make a comparision on the information available in this article with what is available today and see how much the information has changed over time.

The article is divided into four parts; Crocodiles, Turtles, Lizards and Snakes. As I go through each section, I will give my own assessment of how resourceful this article would be today and how I feel the sections should be changed to be useful today. I will ask reviewers to rate my assessments and suggestions. I hope this would be fun for everyone involved and should also teach you a little about the rich reptile diversity of Papua New Guinea.

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Nago Island, Kavieng

Here are some pictures from Nago Island in Kavieng, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea. To my followers, this will be the site for a very exciting event later this year. 2014.

Looking towards the jetty

Looking towards the jetty

Our ride in

Our ride in

Jetty

Jetty

Picnic Area

Picnic Area

Crystal Clear waters

Crystal Clear waters

Do I have your attention now? Stay tuned

 

 

 

 

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Could the presence of giant isopods be an indication of whats below the surface?

When stories of a fisherman in Florida, USA catching a goblin shark made headlines all over the world, something else caught the attention of inquisitive deep sea biologists as they questioned why there were so many giant isopods in the same net? Giant isopods are insect like creatures that are scavengers only found in large numbers around a food source. This was also a possible explanation to why there are so many of these deep sea scavengers in the same place.

Dependind on where you are in the world, sunlight can not go beyond 200 m in the water column, so beyond this point, there is no photosynthesis. Animals that live below this depth depend mainly on surface detritus which is made up of dead plankton and fecal pellets from zooplankton (marine snow) or through symbiotic relationships with chemosynthetic bacteria for nutrition. Once in a while, a large food source like a tree trunk or the carcas of a dead animal from the surface finds its way to the ocean floor providing a feast for scavenging animals.

So what kind of food source would we have here to attract a goblin shark and such a high density of giant isopods. One thing for sure is that whatever it is, I am willing to bet my money that it is not woodfall.

Interestingly, on the same day (May 7th 2014) that stories of the goblin shark made headlines, PLOS also published an article by Nick Higgs and others on the role of large food falls on deep sea communities. In this paper, the authors looked at the remains of one whale shark and three rays of the order elasmobranchs in off the coast of Angola. Elasmobranchs have cartilaginous bones, lack a swim bladder and depend on oil in their livers for buoyancy, in simple terms, elasmobranchs are sharks.

image of a whale shark (top left) and three rays on the sea floor off the coast of Angola Higgs, 2014

image of a whale shark (top left) and three rays on the sea floor off the coast of Angola (Higgs, 2014)

One thing the data presented in this paper failed to show was the presence of any deep sea sharks or scavengers, in particular, the giant isopods. So why would the presence of giant isopods indicate a possible food source that is not woodfall when none of these scavengers are reported here? One possible esplanation Nicholas Higgs and his team proposed was that decomposing elasmobranch flesh contains high concentrations of ammonia that comes from their physiological mechanisms used in buoyancy control.  This and other unclassificed chemicals that are found in rotting elasmobranch flesh (necromones) have been proven to strongly deter shark scavwenging and invoke alarming response, even among different species of elasmobranchs.

Going back to the giant isopods in Florida, it is only fair to conclude that whatever food source is at the bottom of the ocean that is attracting these scavengers, is quite possibly the carcas of a dead whale. That being said, it will be very interesting to send probes to scout the ocean floor to find this carcas because apart from whale falls that have been created in the name of science, a natural whale fall is very rare. Statistics have shown that in the last 50 years, only 9 natural whale falls have been documented. If this is indeed a whale fall, then vital information on the decomposition rate of the particular species, the types of communities hosted over the duration of decomposotion and many other information can be collected.

Nicholas D Higgs, Andrew R Gates, Daniel O B Jones (2014) Fish Food in the Deep Sea: Revisiting the Role of Large Food Falls PLOS doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096016

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Magnitude 5.6 earthquake strikes Port Moresby

Eventhough Papua New Guinea sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, locals will tell you that earthquakes are a rarity in the southern region. That being an exception last night when an earthquake measuring 5.6 on the richter scale struck just minutes before midnight.

The USGS report here provides full details of this earthquake.

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