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The Gritty Truth Blog

Let's get down and dirty!  Well-grounded.  Down-to-earth. Getting to the bottom of it. English is full of idiom telling us that if we really want to understand something, to get to the root of a problem, we have to go down, down until we are digging in the dirt.  For those of us spending much of our mental time below the tide that means leaving our comfortable everyday world behind, getting wet, and getting stuck into the mud, the sand, the bedrock of the planet.  Metaphorically, literally, and occasionally littorally, I examine the world through an evidence-based perspective.  I love the lore of the sea, but our world runs on the laws of the universe.  We survive and prosper only when we understand those unwritten rules.  Here you'll find benthic ecology thoughts from a muckraker intent on reforming, revolutionising, and popularising how we see the world under the waves. 


Unless otherwise stated, any writing or media in this blog is the sole work of Brian Paavo.  I am personally, and solely responsible for its content and I reserve all rights for its use.  You are welcome to link to this page, but you may not store or reproduce it in whole or in part without my permission and full and clear citation. I will tell the truth as I understand it to be, but the names of people, places, and organisations will frequently be changed to keep me out of my lawyer's office.



Some of the entries from The Gritty Truth are temporarily offline.  I apologise for any inconvenience and hope to bring them back up as they get processed for the new format. 

17 November 2013 - The Alien Queen!

Phronima sedentaria (C) Brian Paavo 2013Yay!  I've been searching for this beautiful little beastie for years and today, betwixt my toes, it unwittingly lands on my shore!  This is Phronima sedentaria, previously known as  P. novaezelandiae until folks decided that they're really the same critter all around the world.  They're also known as pram bugs, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.  I've loved this amphipod before I knew what amphipods were and it is my 'go to' critter when I chat with folks about movie monsters from the real world. Visit Pål Abrahamsen's Arthropoda blog for a cool summary about whether or not it inspired that nasty mother from Aliens!  It's also a fantabulous example of fibre-optics in animals, planktonic adaptations, and necroparasitism in general.  NIWA's Critter of the week (#27) also has some photos of NZ specimens on Facebook.

In the photo on the right you can see the red retinas surrounded by the lightguides of the sideways-looking eyes, while the ginormous upward looking eyes (taking up most of the head) bulge up and left. The Phronima sedentaria (C) Brian Paavo 2013photo on the left shows how it looked washed up on the beach. For size comparison each one of those squares is 10 mm per side.  That clear barrel was the extravagant house/filter-feeding machine lovingly made by a Doliolum larvacean. Like all salps, Doliolum are close relatives to people (relatively speaking), and look like little tadpoles, pushing their little net houses around the ocean with a lovely tail.  Until, that is, a male pram bug spots the doddling wanderer with his bulging eyes, climbs inside, eats the larvacean, and pushes the little house around the ocean for its own perambulations.  


Phronima sedentaria (C) Brian Paavo 2013My! What big eyes you have! Oh! What big claws you have!  Now tell me, if this animal were much bigger than your thumbnail, wouldn't YOU avoid going in the ocean again?  There's eyes, jaws, claws, legs, sniffing antennae, and spikes being driven by a tiny little brain hunting down your close relations! 

15 November 2013 - Serpulids

Galeolaria (C) Brian Paavo, 2013Somewhere, under the waves behind my garage lies a little world I've never seen.  I've been watching Brighton Beach for about 18 months now.  Like the ocean everywhere its endlessly entertaining.  Animals cast ashore are intrinsically uber cool, but they also hint at the landscape hidden by those breakers.  With the turn of the season, uncounted thousands of tonnes of sand are being pushed around right now.  Surface grains are being stripped offshore and, supported by larger grained bulwarks, temporary piers project out into the surf.  They force shoaling in an area typically protected from the most destructive parts of the breaking waves and great gobs of tube mats (Spiophanes bombyx mostly) with associated soft-sediment algae are heaved onto the shore first.  The sandy bottom must host at least scattered patches of mussels (Mytilus) with their attached animals because the next lot of castaways aren't big fans of crawling around in mobile sand.     


Galeolaria (C) Brian Paavo, 2013In terms of shear audacity, it's hard to beat serpulids in terms of colour and habit. This one was cast away on a broken bit of mussel shell also sporting a stalked tunicate (Pyura pachydermatina)  .   Like all serpulids, this Galeolaria hystrix has a chalky protective tube, but this one has had a rough life, with the distinctive double-keels ground down, presumably, by the constant sandblasting.  Frilly and concrete, delicate and tough, G. hystrix pops out to feed and breathe with two lovely red crowns, but when it retreats into its tube it pulls its operculum in like a tight stopper that kept this one alive for at least a few hours when stranded high and dry by the tide. The operculum also bears what Geoff poetically and accurately calls "a dense palisade of calcareous white spines." 


I really enjoy the stories polychaetes tell, but I also like how well they stretch through time.  The genus this specimen belongs to was originally described by Lamarck in 1818...yes...THAT Lamarck.  Being bright and beautiful meant that early naturalists were likely to pick them up and jot them down in books creating a pretty, but jolly literature mess for taxonomists to clear up later on.  This one has been known by at least seven names in four genera! Once you start looking though, theres always another worm; making choosing a name on-the-fly when you're heaving across the planet difficult.  Vermilia dubia?  Schmarda? Really?  The doubtful worm?  Oooh! Weird worm names!  That's gotta' be a topic!Galeolaria Operculum (C) Brian Paavo, 2013


Galeolaria (C) Brian Paavo, 2013

31 January 2013 - Extrapolation!

Hyperiid Amphipod EyesI live on a beach, not so much of a surprise for someone in my line of work right?  I've lived on this particular beach for over a year and I walk or run on it a couple of times a week.  I haven't once, yet, lay down on a towel there...too much is happening.  Today's surprise (there's always at least one) was a mass stranding!  Walking along at low tide there were millions of eyes looking back at me or glazed over in death.  Had these been dolphins, I'm sure a news crew would have been on the spot, but instead they were hyperiid amphipods.


Hyperiids are very cool planktonic (ocean drifter) predators eating just about anything they can catch.  They eat copepods (Plankton for Sponge Bob fans) and even ferocious arrow worms (chaetognaths) - the 'Jaws' of the zooplankton (animal drifter) world. They're also important as food for a lot fish. I presume that a ginormous cloud, like a wet swarm of locusts, was drifting by my section of the coast, the winds and currents brought them close to shore, and a fraction of that swarm were stranded on the beach by the waves as the tide receded.  


I looked up the long, long, beach and wondered. If you don't wonder, you've forgotten how to be a scientist (it happens to many sad people around age 10).  I wondered how many there were, it sure seemed like a lot.  I would never be able to count them before the tide came back in so I had to extrapolate - make a guess at a larger number by measuring a smaller one and guessing at the relationship between the two.  Yes, I know it sounds like a middle-school math lesson, and yes, this is the way I enjoy my time on the beach rather than working on a case of melanoma in the name of fashion!  Anyway, back to the extrapolation.  I walked 2.3 km of the 6 km long beach (I LOVE mobile phone GPS).  There were generally three strands of amphipod bodies along the whole way, sometimes 4, sometimes two, but usually three left by the receding waves, each about 30 cm wide.  There were very few birds munching on them (I wonder how amphipods taste? How advantageous is it for a seagull to taste anyway?).  beach sample of amphipod driftExactly as you'd expect I found an area that looked like an average density, got on my knees, traced an approximately 30 x 30 cm square in the sand and counted the amphipods in it.  There were 367.  We're going to multiply a lot, so any errors away from the real average will also get amplified a lot (that's a problem with extrapolation!), so I could have done this a few more times, but I wanted to bring some back and look with my microscope so I only counted one square. 


Right, for this back-of-the-envelope calculation I had 367 hyperiied amphipods in a 0.3 x 0.3 m space.  There are 7,666 such spaces along the line of the beach I walked. The line was not straight, but wavey so lets say that each line of bodies was 10% longer than the straight line I walked (multiply by 1.10). There were 3 such lines up the shoreline. I extrapolated that there were 367 amphipods x 7666 squares x 1.10 x 3 lines = 9,284,292 (let's say 9 million) of them on my section of the beach, probably around 24 million on the whole beach.  Cool!


Hyperiid AmphipodsHyperiid MeasurementsWhen I got back to my microscope I could measure a few of these amphipods.  As quick swimming little predators their bodies are rougly cylindrical with a rounded head (ALL EYE) and a trailing abdomen, almost fusiform - fishlike.  An average one was 5.6 mm long and 1.6 mm in diameter (0.8 mm radius).  The volume of a cylinder is pi * radius * radius * length.  This means each amphipod was  11.2 cubic mm in volume.  One truly awesome thing about science is finding out that someone else has wondered weird things too.  Two lovely people, Tstomu Ikeda and Naonobu Shiga, had already figured out how much an amphipod (which is very similar in size and shape to this amphipod) weighs, 4 mg.  Multiply it all out and there were about 96 kg of amphipods with a volume of about 0.27 cubic metres!  That's about three times the size (and a fair bit heavier) than my friend BryanHyperiid Biomass and certainly big enough to eat Jenee!  I bet the news crews would show up if THAT crawled up on the beach!       


The tide is rising now and I have to wonder what's eating all those little amphipod corpses?  We often take little things for granted, so even when there are a lot of little things their impact is easy to miss.  We could imagine a lot of large animals feasting on a giant amphipod, but all of those little amphipods are doing the same thing, feeding a lot of animals (and other organisms too).  Biomass is important to beach ecosystems.  Would you rather have a single turkey once a month or a hamburger everyday? The little animals, by regularly contributing, make a big difference to the big picture. 


Other bits of useful info I came across while learning about hyperiids for the afternoon:


New Zealand hyperiids - thanks Des!

Australian hyperiids

Other conversion factors, if you're interested in doing the same thing with other, perhaps more familiar animals.

 Artists Depiction of Mongolian Death Worm24 January 2013 - The Mongolian Death Worm!

Hey you cryptozoologists! Bigfoot is old news, Kraken have been bottled and classified, and the chupacabra is a mangy dog.  Strap on your pith helmet and see if you can bag an Olgoi-Khorhoi - the Mongolian Death Worm! 


Skeptoid is one of my favorite podcasts.  The topics are fun, Brian provides a transcript of each episode (with citations), and he's open to conversation. At first glance the podcast may seem like a 'debunking' effort, but listen to a few and you'll see that he's really demonstrating fundamental science and rational thinking. 

Skeptoid Logo Link

 A day in January 2013 - "We have to collect some samples."

Project Planning SchematicI answer the phone, "Hello, Benthic Science Limited." 

"Hi, I'm Jimmy from Big-Project-Planners-R-Us.  We have a client improving some coastal property. The regional council wants us to take some baseline samples. You do that right?"  Ah, it's going to be one of those calls.

"Yes, we can usually work in most coastal environments.  The kinds of samples matter and overall effort and cost can differ a lot depending on your study question.  Could you tell me a little bit more about the project?" Wait for it, wait for it...

"Well, not really at this stage, I'm just looking to get a cost estimate, then we'll take that to the client and see where we go from there." Bazinga!

"I understand. Our preliminary discussions are confidential." Please let this get us somewhere.

"Really, I just need a ballpark estimate, nothing firm, say what would it cost for say 30 samples?" Ok, remedial science coming up.

"Thirty samples of what?" 

And that's when the voice at the other end of the phone stutters and sputters a bit as it starts to realise that their view of the project was limited to timelines and dollars and that they've just used the last of their marine environmental impact assessment knowledge - you have to take some samples.


After working on marine environmental projects of one sort or another for more than a decade I've never known or heard of a project planner used to working on terrestrial projects admit to their client that they don't have the appropriate experience to handle predominantly marine projects.  Planners seem to take either of two routes: 1) they employ a knowledgeable subcontractor and listen to his/her advice, or 2) they fake it since the developer probably won't notice until they are financially committed to that planner.  I've seen planners spend thousands of dollars collecting useless samples, or - worse in my opinion - meaningless data. Sometimes the mere appearance of environmental impact assessment effort gets them over resource consent hurdles.  Thankfully, most of the time it doesn't, but then they are forced to spend thousands of more client dollars and weeks of time collecting meaningful data when stress levels are higher.


To some people 'giving it a go' is a sign of a proactive planner, but I don't believe that clients are similarly willing to support their planner's learning curve.  I've been in a meeting with a professional-appearing planner advising our mutual client on the legal aspects of their discharge project.  She talked a good game, but it was obvious that she hadn't read even the overarching legislation!  I raised the issue, but deferred to a private discussion.  Over the following day, three emails, and 40 minutes on the phone later she realised that she could be steering the client toward some major legal issues blindfolded!  I cited some relevant legislation and reports, pointed out some glaring issues. I could hear her feverishly writing notes, but then I realised that I was doing her job for her, so I said I could continue on a formal consulting basis if she wished. Blam. The conversation is over faster than saying "I'm an accountant" at a wild party. Clearly another planner willing to learn if it was free, but also willing to risk her project if it cost more and she had to admit she needed professional help.  I understand that the preparations for the subsequent environmental court case are going well.


The truth is that the whole process isn't that hard.  Terrestrial planners will have to learn some new vocabulary and realise that working on or in the ocean is just not working on land that's wet. 


Consulting ImageSome basic ideas project planners should consider BEFORE and WHILE talking with a marine person:


  • People care about the ocean, even if your project is below the waves and out of sight. And by people I mean the public, possibly the client, recreational and professional users, and last-but-not-least the policy makers listening to your resource consent case.
  • Have you identified/involved all the stakeholders? Currents, sediments, wave patterns, breeding areas, etc. can extend a considerable distance from your project site.
  • Time.  Depending upon where AND WHEN a pulse (one-off) or press (ongoing) impact is applied can make a big difference mitigating negative impacts.  We humans love to set work schedules, but physics and biology happen on their own rules and sometimes a little environmental information early in the project can make everything run more smoothly.
  • The ocean is not the same everywhere. Take a look at the landscape around you. You might see ridges, valleys, wooded areas, meadows, parking lots, deserts, lush gardens, etc.  SAME thing underwater, but the average person just doesn't recognise those same features underwater.  Good resource consent policy makers are not average.  As an example, one major difference is that very often the structurally important organsims on land, like trees, shrubs, and grasses are replaced by animals such as reef builders, sand aggregators, and tube builders in the ocean. 
  • You have to look at the site.  On land the site visit is a no-brainer and easily done. We learn a lot about our potential impacts and problems just by looking around. In the marine environment "looking around" usually means sonar.  At the very least you need a bathymetric chart of the area extending well beyond the project site.  Depending upon the project, even many small coastal projects additionally require a simple sidescan sonar (SSS) survey. Don't let that scare you. Small areas can often be inexpensively surveyed with small vessels using small, high-frequency systems.  If you do a SSS survey you'll need to groundtruth the imagery with physical samples, divers, or underwater cameras.  Sometimes a knowledgeable consultant familiar with the habitat or area can skip the SSS and simply examine the area with an inexpensive and quick imagery survey, but not always.  Taking 'a look' underwater is much more involved than on land, but it pays big dividends when communicating later on.  It's an expense early in the project, but is often required before further work can even be responsibly quoted (e.g. you don't give your client a roading quote before you see if it's a mountainous terrain or a prairie!).
  • Involve your marine people early on and integrate them into the broader project.  As an example, I've worked on an underwater cable project where the cable-laying folks really had to pad their work estimates because they didn't know what kind of bottom they would run into.  In order to make an impact assessment I needed to examine and classify the affected bottom types.  Environmental work generates information about the environment you're working in, and that reduces uncertainties, reduces risk, and generally helps planning in addition to your EIA.
  • Clearly identify your potential impacts and get a clear statement of each stakeholder's prioritised concerns.  Government's concerns are usually spelled out in legislation, coastal policy statements, or precedent, so it is obvious to have those laid out in advance. Consider having your marine person meet with the stakeholders when the developer/planner aren't there. Sometimes this helps defuse the us/them dynamic and keeps the focus on the issues and prevents turning a meeting into a bartering exercise.  Science can make predictions, but only to very specific questions.  "What changes can we expect in this area compared to this area if the project follows plan A, B, or C?"  I've generally found the economic variables to be extremely clear and addressed in projects, that same level of effort needs to be applied to resource consent work even if you can't address them all. Doing this a priori  keeps you from making unsupported, hand waving arguments that can hurt you later on.      
  • Prepare yourself for some weirdness you may not be used to on land. To name just a few: -If there are sharks in the area then yes, you have to worry about your electromagnetic fields; not only for the sharks, but also for the long-term integrity of your cable.  -Noise travels MUCH further underwater than in air; you may not have cranky sleep-deprived citizens calling right away, but dropping catches or sightings can raise a big black mysterious cloud over your project in the long run.  -Fish are not the predominant life-form (in terms of mass) in most coastal projects; whether an inlet is a clear, property-value-raising amenity or a stinking cesspit often depends more upon the algae and invertebrates than the fish.  -Fish, birds, and other mobile animals can't always 'swim away from any temporarily disturbed areas'; sometimes they need time, warning, avoidance, or alternative habitats, but it depends on the species, location, and timing. -Little things do matter; it's really easy to reassure salmon fishermen that the project will harmlessly finish before the salmon breeding season since it will only affect microscopic harpacticoid copepods, because most salmon fishermen don't know that from hatching to 60 days salmon eat only harpacticoid copepods in the area (needless to say no larvae means no fish later on).
  • A good consultant will provide advice on the things s/he knows about and will contact others to fill in knowledge gaps
  • Every project has many impacts and it's a good thing to identify as many as you can and prioritise them. It can seem to be a gloomy exercise and it tends to overwhelm clients, but having a plan to address primary points and backup plan if other points become an issue is always better than looking like the planner and client didn't think things through that were obvious to a stakeholder.
At least this particular phone call didn't include one of my least favourite statements that I hear a lot, "We just want to get this project done, we don't want to fund a research project."  Well, in fact, to do the former you have to do the latter. It always seems like more work when the work, tools, and methods are unfamiliar to the planner and/or client.  Whatever its connotations for the client, research is simply finding information they need to get the project done and research has costs associated with it.  Environmental legislation exists partly because it's easier for most developers to conceptualise and evaluate the costs of a digger and operator than the value of a section of public ocean or the equipment and expertise required to do that kind of accounting.  I sometimes wish I could give a simple answer "You have to take 30 samples and the council will be satisfied, it'll cost $3000," but then I'd be lying and really, if life were that simple it just wouldn't be any fun!    
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