Space & Innovation

Pacific's Palau Creates Huge Ocean Sanctuary

The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau created a vast marine sanctuary the size of Spain on Wednesday. Continue reading →

The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau created a vast marine sanctuary the size of Spain on Wednesday, banning fishing across the bulk of its waters to preserve the ocean for future generations.

At 193,000 square miles, the new sanctuary is one of the largest in the world and covers an underwater wonderland containing 1,300 species of fish and 700 types of coral.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau said the sanctuary, comprising 80 percent of the nation's maritime territory, would allow the ocean to heal after decades of industrialised fishing which has driven some species to the brink of extinction.

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"A small island nation can have a big impact on the ocean," he said ahead of a ceremony Wednesday to officially sign off on the reserve.

"Island communities have been among the hardest hit by the threats facing the ocean. Creating this sanctuary is a bold move that the people of Palau recognise as essential to our survival."

The archipelago, part of the larger island group of Micronesia in the west Pacific, has a population of just 18,000.

The sanctuary will be phased in over five years, eventually leaving only a relatively small area of Palau's waters open to fishing by locals but not the foreign trawlers which dominate the Pacific industry.

The no-fishing plan prioritizes tourism - which contributes about $160 million or 50 percent of gross domestic product annually - over the tuna industry, which contributes around $5.5 million a year.

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Palau created the world's first shark sanctuary in 2009 and about one-third of countries have now followed suit, changing attitudes to the predator and helping curb demand for shark fin soup.

Conservation efforts are underway in the Pacific to create a network of marine parks across the region to ensure one of the world's last pristine ocean ecosystems is managed sustainably.

In 2012 the Cook Islands unveiled a 1,065 million square kilometre marine park while Kiribati and Tokelau have also declared huge protected zones.

New Zealand announced plans last month to create a marine sanctuary the size of France by 2016.

Barnacles, lice and other creatures live their lives attached to the bodies of dolphins, whales and other marine species, and a new study reveals just how rewarding that choice of "real estate" can be. Some of these freeloaders exclusively attach to certain parts of marine mammals, creating their own microhabitats right on their unsuspecting hosts. Here, barnacles from the species

Xenobalanus globicipitis

hang from the underside of a dolphin fin. The barnacles are filtering organisms, trapping food particles in water as the bits of food flow by, according to Francisco Javier Aznar, senior author of the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE. "Some years ago, a colleague wrote rather poetically that riding a dolphin would be the dream of a barnacle for two reasons," Aznar, who is a researcher at the University of Valencia's Cavanilles Institute of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology,said. "First, the movement of water the dolphin produces around it during swimming is rather predictable and, therefore, can advantageously be used by barnacles...Second, no predator can chase a fast dolphin to feed on their barnacles!"

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Most barnacles use a special substance to essentially glue themselves to things, such as rocky coasts, boats and flotsam. The glue, Azar said, has "extraordinary mechanical properties," so engineers continue to study it in hopes of recreating a similar compound for human use. The various barnacle species that live on marine mammals, on the other hand, have evolved ways of attaching to skin. "Cetacean skin is constantly shedding and, therefore, no glue would work properly on skin as the barnacle would be readily detached, along with the superficial skin, in a matter of hours," Aznar explained. As a result, these barnacles use shells that elsewhere function as protection, in order to penetrate deep into the marine mammal's skin. Aznar added, "This is indeed an evolutionary novelty in the world of barnacles."

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The barnacles living on marine mammals and other marine life (such as sharks) do not seem to cause much, if any, harm. The jury is still out as to how much the marine mammal hosts feel the presence of the barnacles. Aznar said that an anecdotal story some years ago suggested that the barnacles produce itchy sensations on dolphins and whales, such that dolphins -- with nothing to scratch against -- "sometimes jump out of the water and splash to essentially scratch themselves." "As far as I know," he added, "this story has never been substantiated by solid data. In any event, no one knows whether barnacles can produce itch."

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Barnacles usually are not alone on marine mammals. This image shows both barnacles and lice atop a grey whale. Some barnacles prefer to be on top of the whale's head, while others prefer different locations. Once attached, they literally go with the flow and filter feed as the whale moves. The slightly pink coloration around the barnacles indicates the presence of whale lice. They feed on dead skin and clean wounds that might afflict their whale host, so their presence in reasonable numbers seems to benefit their hosts.

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Whale lice are members of the family Cyamidae. They take on a pink (per the prior image) or orange color, as seen here. The color comes from algae, which tend to settle on the host's body. The lice then eat the algae, along with the previously mentioned shed skin and other things. In large numbers, the lice can cause minor skin damage, but there are no reports that they have caused significant harm to their hosts. In fact, most species of whale lice are associated with a single species of whale, with the two benefiting each other over the millennia.

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Aznar said that whale lice "resemble human lice in that they require physical host contact for transmission and they use their clawed legs to attach." He continued, "Whale lice grab folds of skin in the blowhole, the eyes, or the genital slit." It could be that, before modern bathing, lice benefited our early human ancestors too, by eating dead skin, cleaning wounds and more. Now, of course, human lice are considered a nuisance, with treatments available to get rid of them.

While lice can benefit their marine mammals hosts, Aznar said, "As far as we know, marine mammals get no benefit from having barnacles." The barnacles could, however, benefit lice, sometimes providing buffers around them and attracting algae. An entire little ecosystem consisting of multiple species could therefore be living on this Southern right whale's head.

Barnacles and lice are just two types of creatures that may live on whales, dolphins and other marine life. There are also small aquatic crustaceans from the genus Pennella. Aznar said they resemble the cartoon character "

Plankton

," the archrival of SpongeBob Squarepants in the popular series for kids. Yet another small aquatic crustacean, called

Balaenophilus unisetus

, lives on the baleens of whales. Baleens are fibrous structures in the mouths of some whales that enable them to filter feed. Another research team found that the tiny freeloading crustaceans primarily eat keratin, which is the protein that makes up the baleens. This is the same protein found in human hair and fingernails, as well as in the feathers, hoofs, claws and horns of other animals.

Remoras, such as the one shown here, are slender marine fish that feed on remnants of the meals of others, as well as on parasites, such as the aforementioned whale lice. These fish, as well as lampreys, "have sometimes been reported attached to dolphins and whales," Aznar said.

If humans were aquatic animals, we would find ourselves serving as hosts for all sorts of tiny marine species too. This remora attached itself to a scuba diver's leg, even though the diver was only in the water for a relatively short period. There is still much to learn about such clingy fish, not to mention the barnacles, whale lice and additional creatures that settle on dolphins, whales and other marine life. Aznar said that research on such small species is challenging, given that the work "must rely on opportunistic sampling." For example, the single recent study on the barnacle

Xenobalanus globicipitis

took over 25 years. That's because the researchers needed to get a sample size of stranded dolphins large enough to yield findings concerning the lives of these well-traveled barnacles.