Dolphins Use Corals as Medicine Cabinets

Dolphins think of corals as sort of the medicine cabinet of the ocean.  They rub against them to treat skin conditions.

Researchers studied Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) in the Northern Red Sea in Egypt. They noticed that they lined up to rub certain body parts against certain corals and sponges.

Scientists found these specific marine invertebrates have medicinal capabilities, which suggests the dolphins use them to self-medicate skin conditions.

“Bottlenose dolphins have highly developed cognitive skills such as self-recognition, tool using (for example foraging with a sponge in Shark Bay), learning from each other and transferring the knowledge to the next generation (culture),” Ziltener says.

“They also have a long-life history and a fission and fusion society like humans and a highly developed communication system.”

In 2004, when Ziltener first went diving in the Northern Red Sea, Egypt, she witnessed wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins rub against gorgonian coral. She and her team noticed the dolphins were picky about which coral they rubbed against and were curious why they were so choosy and why they did it in the first place.

“On the gorgonian coral, dolphins slide into the branches of the coral and rub several body parts against it. Upon rubbing, the gorgonian coral polyps start to secrete mucus and to close and the mucus secreted by the corals can then be transferred to the skin of the dolphin,” Ziltener explains.

“Through the closed polyps and resultant harder and rougher surface of the coral, skin contact via abrasion and subsequent absorption might be even more efficient. For example, the dolphin rubs its ventral, lateral, or dorsal body part on the leather coral and its head and fluke [tail fin] often touches the coral, too.”

Researchers studied the dolphins as they rubbed against gorgonian coral (Rumphella aggregata), leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.), and a sponge (Ircinia sp.)

“Dolphins queue up behind each other and wait for their turn to approach the invertebrate,” Ziltener says. “This group event has been observed for the gorgonian coral and sponge, but not for the leather coral. The leather coral rubbing appears more randomly, mostly alone.”

Mucus and the Microbiome

The Telegraph have a video of Dolphins seen queuing to use coral to treat skin infection, see link https://youtu.be/nJd_aGlMJuI

“Leather corals and sponges are more compact and harder in their texture than the soft gorgonian coral branches, so the dolphins push one particular body part strongly into the selected substrate,” Ziltener says. “Repeated rubbing allows the active metabolites to come into contact with the skin of the dolphins, which in turn could help them achieve skin homeostasis and be useful for prophylaxis or auxiliary treatment against microbial infections.”

The results were published in the journal iScience.

Coral Reefs for Rest and Fun

Coral reefs act as both bedrooms and playgrounds for dolphins, Ziltener says. They go there to rest and to have fun.

“The reefs give them shelter and protection from predators like sharks,” she says. “They are hunting in the deeper water in the night and coming to the reefs during daytime to rest, socialize, and clean their skin.”

She says it’s almost as if they are cleaning off before they go to sleep at night or get up to start the day.

“Because the dolphins chose particular corals or sponges to rub specific body parts,” Ziltener says. “The more sensitive calves aged under one year have not been observed engaging in the group rubbing on these particular organisms, instead they watch the adults doing the rubbing. We know that dolphins learn from each other and transfer the knowledge to the next generation (culture).”

Ziltener and her team started an organization called Dolphin Watch Alliance, a nonprofit group focused on research, awareness, and conservation of wild dolphins. One focus is on protecting the animals from human threats such as unregulated dolphin tourism.

She says, “The aim is respectful and regulated encounters between humans and animals in the wild, taking into account the needs of all parties.”

Read article by Mary Jo. DiLonardo on Treehugger

Ocean plastic pollution threatens marine extinction says new study

  • Ocean plastic pollution is set to grow fourfold by 2050, says a new report.
  • And there may be 50 times more microplastics in the sea by 2100.
  • Plastic pollution is pushing some species to the brink of extinction.
  • But technological innovation and combined global action can help avert disaster.

The level of microplastics in our oceans is set to grow 50 fold by the end of the century raising the risk of widespread extinction of marine life in the most polluted areas, according to a new report.

Analysis for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that an ocean area more than two and a half times the area of Greenland could exceed ecologically dangerous concentrations of microplastics by 2100.

“Plastic pollution is now found everywhere in the ocean, and almost every marine species is likely to have encountered it”, says WWF, adding that a total of 2,141 species have so far been found to encounter plastic pollution in their natural environments.

The report states that some marine environments – including pollution hotspots like the Mediterranean, the East China and Yellow Seas and the Arctic sea ice – have already exceeded a safe level of plastic pollution.

Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) with a plastic bag, Moore Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. The bag was removed by the photographer before the turtle had a chance to eat it.
More than half of all sea turtles have ingested plastic.
Image: WWF

By 2050, the report predicts the total amount of plastic in the oceans will have quadrupled.

Already 88% of marine species studied have been negatively impacted by plastic pollution and it is estimated that up to 90% of seabirds and 52% of sea turtles ingest plastic.

Extinction threat

“For already threatened species, some of which live in such hotspots, such as monk seals or sperm whales in the Mediterranean, plastic pollution is an additional stress factor pushing these populations towards extinction”, says WWF.

The root systems of Mangroves, which provide coastal protection and act as nurseries for many marine species, suffer among the highest density of plastic pollution in the sea. Plastic is also playing a part in the destruction of coral reefs.

The report’s findings are based on a review of 2,592 studies by scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, and WWF. They conclude that humans are also at risk from eating seafood polluted with microplastics.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

“Without a doubt, unchecked plastic pollution will undoubtedly become a contributing factor to the ongoing sixth mass extinction leading to widespread ecosystem collapse and transgression of safe planetary boundaries”, said Ghislaine Llewellyn, Deputy Oceans Lead at WWF.

Describing the situation as “a planetary crisis,” WWF says that almost two thirds of all plastic ever produced had already become waste by 2015 and it estimates that 86 million-150 million metric tonnes of plastic have now accumulated in the oceans.

The different size categories of plastics polluting our seas.
Plastic Classifications.
Image: WWF

Innovative solutions to tackle plastic pollution

The United Nations Environment Assembly is due to meet in Nairobi, Kenya at the end of February and WWF says pressure is mounting on nations to agree a treaty to reduce the production and use of plastics worldwide.

“We know how to stop plastic pollution and we know the cost of inaction comes at the expense of our ocean ecosystems – there is no excuse for delaying a global treaty on plastic pollution’,’ said WWF’s Llewellyn.

“The way out of our plastic crisis is for countries to agree to a globally binding treaty that addresses all stages of plastic’s lifecycle and that puts us on a pathway to ending marine plastic pollution by 2030.”

The Global Plastic Action Partnership, convened by the World Economic Forum, says eight million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean each year and predicts that, without urgent collective action to stop it, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

Five nations are currently signed up to pilot the Partnership’s national model for accelerating plastic action to reduce the use of plastic. Meanwhile, the Forum’s Uplink innovation crowdsourcing platform is running the Global Plastic Innovation Network Challenge.

Among the innovators is Australia-based gDiapers who say they have invented the world’s first fully compostable disposable nappy and Nigeria’s Waste Bazaar, which uses mobile technology to help developing nations tackle the problem of indiscriminate waste dumping.

In Lebanon, Diwama has developed artificial-intelligence-based image recognition software that identifies different types of waste to allow municipalities to separate and recycle it. Individuals can also use the software on their smartphones to sort waste into the correct bin.

The Forum’s report, The New Plastics Economy, said that without innovations like these around a third of the world’s plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled.

Read full article on World Economic Forum

Is your Sunscreen harming the Ocean?

While eight million metric tons of plastic pollution enter the ocean annually, it’s estimated that six to fourteen thousand tons of sunscreen are also entering our oceans each year. The first you can see, the latter (known as “swimmer pollution”) you can’t really see and this makes it even more dangerous. These days most people are coming to understand just how dangerous plastic pollution is to the ocean due to increased education through social media channels. But there isn’t much awareness out there regarding the damaging effects that sunscreen lotions inflict on our sensitive marine animals and ecosystems.

While we have all been taught to use sunscreen as a way to protect ourselves from skin cancer, we are only starting to understand how harmful the chemicals contained in these products are to the oceans.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. About 2,000 people die from basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer each year and older folks with suppressed immune systems have a higher risk of dying from these types of skin cancer, according to cancer.net.

Effects of sunscreen chemicals in our oceans

The average sunscreen product contains many harmful chemicals, many of which include synthetic organic molecules exactly like those used to make plastic. These molecules do not break down. Instead, they wash off your body once you enter the water and penetrate marine ecosystems, causing havoc and destruction.

Harmful chemicals in sunscreen include Oxybenzone, a common chemical that protects our skin from UV light. Once in the ocean, however, this particular chemical damages the DNA structures of coral reefs and their entire reproduction processes. This, in turn, causes bleaching, deformities, and growth anomalies in the coral. Coral reefs don’t just benefit the ocean, but healthy coral reefs provide billions of dollars in economic and environmental services, such as food, tourism, and coastal protection. The most vulnerable coral reefs under threat from these sunscreen chemicals include fringing reefs that are critical for protecting coastal regions from erosion. Not only that, but dangerous chemicals in sunscreens actually prevent the recovery and restoration of reefs that have already been damaged, creating a vicious cycle of degradation upon degradation.

Effects of sunscreen chemicals in humans

Research has shown that the damage Oxybenzone causes is even more far-reaching, creating gender shifts in fish that cause female fish to produce fewer eggs. If this chemical can affect reproduction in marine animals, imagine the effects on humans. Recent studies have shown that human females with higher concentrations of the chemical in their bodies had a much harder time falling pregnant, while the high concentration in males caused diseased sperm.

Effects of sunscreen chemicals in algae

Oxybenzone doesn’t only destroy certain coral reefs, it also impairs algae growth and photosynthesis, while harming other marine life in the process.

Algae contribute to a healthier ocean since they use up the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then release oxygen back. Algae also maintain a highly symbiotic relationship with various ocean organisms including sea sponges. Since the algae live near the sponges’ surface, they actually metabolize and produce sugar and oxygen that the sponges need for their very survival. The sponges, in turn, help to protect the algae from their natural predators in the ocean.

Krill feed primarily on algae. Krill are shrimp-like organisms that are fodder to many marine animals including whales, seals, and penguins.

The ocean is an ever-changing watery world filled with marine plants of every kind that are subjected to ocean currents and environmental conditions.

At times certain environmental conditions can cause cold, denser water to sink to the bottom of the ocean, thereby causing other waters to rise in replacement. When this happens you get algal blooms. When there are more algae, there are more compounds produced for organisms such as oysters, mussels, and ultimately, humans. But algae blooms can also be harmful to marine life since a proliferation of surface floating algae can diminish the sunlight reaching marine plants causing dead zones.

While algae blooms can be very problematic, certain algae are very necessary for the maintenance of ecosystems.

Regulatory agencies

There are many regulatory agencies monitoring the damage that chemicals have on our health.  Including the European Chemical Agency that lists many chemicals most commonly used in sunscreen products in Europe. The list is called the Community Rolling Action Plan (CoRAP) and includes ingredients like Formaldehyde, Carbon Tetrachloride, and Methanol. Due to their potential threat to the environment and our personal health, this list has raised the ultimate possibility of a ban. In Hawaii, for example, bans on certain sunscreen product ingredients have already been implemented to safeguard coral reefs in certain coral hotspots.

Harmful chemicals in sunscreens

Another common ingredient in sunscreens is the preservative paraben that inhibits fungal and bacterial growth. Lower concentrations of this preservative can act as endocrine and pheromone disruptors.  Higher concentrations can be acutely toxic to invertebrates.

According to savethereef.org you should avoid sunscreens containing these harmful chemicals:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium (if it doesn’t explicitly say “micro-sized” or “non-nano” and it can rub in, it’s probably nano-sized)
  • Any form of microplastic, such as “exfoliating beads”
Looking to the oceans for a solution to improve sunscreens

Just because your sunscreen might be labeled “organic” or have an “organic certification” doesn’t mean it’s safe for the environment. Several plant-based oils can also damage marine life. Take for example 3 common essential oils like neem, eucalyptus, and lavender that are present in some organic sunscreens. These oils act like insect repellants suggesting they are relatively toxic for invertebrates (crabs, squid, lobster, coral, etc).

Sunscreen is vital in protecting us from skin cancer and UVR damage.  But what are the alternatives to commercial sunscreens that are damaging our marine life?

We can actually look to the oceans for protection against UV rays and sun damage. Many marine species who are exposed to the sun on a continual basis have effectively evolved to protect themselves from UVR damage. The way this works is fascinating.

Algae, for example, produces MAA (mycosporine-like amino acids) which act as natural UVR filters. These amino acids then make their way up the food chain. Once they reach coral and other marine life they are essentially stored in the very tissues exposed to UVR like skin, eyes, and eggs. MAA then absorbs the UVR and converts it to light and heat which isn’t broken down by the radiation. Scientists are only beginning to explore the potential that these compounds can have in the production of ocean-friendly sunscreens.

Reef-Safe Sunscreen

So before heading out to enjoy the beach this summer, grab a reef-safe sunscreen. This typically means that the sunscreen contains only mineral UV-blocking ingredients like oxide and titanium dioxide. Be aware that the label “Reef Friendly” isn’t regulated.  Meaning that some products that contain this label don’t necessarily mean what they imply.

Check out this list of reef-friendly sunscreen products at Save the Reef (they also list the sunscreen products that are harmful to reefs).  Be the exception on the beach this summer. Our marine life depends on humans educating themselves about the damaging effects of the chemicals we put on our skins.

For more information, watch our video: Ways to Protect Coral Reefs