The Extreme Life of the Sea – review

7 July 2014 by GrrlScientist, posted in Biology, Book review, Video

SUMMARY: Marine biologist Stephen Palumbi and his science writer son Anthony Palumbi's engaging book beautifully captures the long history and immense diversity of life in the world's oceans

As you may know, yesterday was World Oceans Day so I spent part of the day reading a newly-published book about the world's oceans: The Extreme Life of the Sea [Princeton University Press, 2014; Amazon UK/audio download UK; Amazon US/kindle US/Audible book US]. Written by marine biologist Stephen Palumbi and his son, novelist and science writer Anthony Palumbi, this engaging book eloquently captures the long history and immense variety of life in the world's oceans, and provides a glimpse into what makes the seas so special.

Starting with the Cambrian explosion, this book follows the birth and diversification of marine life through modern times. Better than science fiction, this book is filled with amazing stories about amazing creatures.

All the hundreds of thousands of crustacean species on modern Earth can be grouped into four major groups. They are as different as crabs and sea monkeys (Artemia, brine shrimp), though they share a set of common traits like paired legs and segmented muscles. In the Burgess Shale -- a spot of land so small that it is just one mudslide the size of a city block in one tiny corner of an enormous planet -- crustaceans have been classified into twenty-four different groups. Multicellular life poured down many channels, but then subsequent evolution took a few of the most successful anatomic designs and used them as the basis for everything that would follow. [Pp. 16-17.]

In contrast to the crowded snapshot provided by the Burgess Shale, most people view modern oceans as a vast empty space. But in fact, the world's seas are a microbial soup, home to uncounted species of microorganisms that have yet to be described by science. One of those marine microbes, Prochlorococcus, may possibly be most abundant creature on the planet; a photosynthetic bacteria whose estimated population dwarfs the number of stars in the nightsky. Even amongst microbes, Prochlorococcus is special because it is incredibly tiny -- so tiny that barely 100 proteins can fit end-to-end inside the cell. "Space inside the cell is so valuable that even DNA gets compacted, stripped down to just 1,700 crucial genes", making it one of the smallest genomes in nature. Yet how this particular organism managed to become superabundant despite this sparse genome remains mysterious.

Nevertheless, the oceans are not ecologically dominated by Prochlorococcus -- nor by any other microbe -- because their numbers are held in check by vast armies of viruses. These viruses specifically bind to a surface protein carried by the victim, which allows the virus to gain entry into the cell, where it forces the cellular machinery to build millions of viral copies until they burst the hapless microbial cell wide open and spill out into the sea.

The Pompeii worm, Alvinella pompejana, lives on hydrothermal vents many thousands of feet deep on the seafloor. They don't harvest their energy from sunlight as Prochlorococcus and countless other microbial species do, but from hot water created by hydrothermal vents. These, surely, must be the all-time champion extremophile: their tails are attached to black smokers, in water that's hotter than 120oF (50oC), and their bodies bake inside worm tubes where interior temperatures reach nearly 180oF (82oc) whilst the fluffy crimson plumes on their heads are awash in water that is 40oF (4oC). How do they do it? How do they thrive even though each end of their body is located at opposite temperature extremes? No one knows.

Hot water specialists are not limited to squishy creatures like worms nor to invisible creatures like bacteria. Crabs, shrimps and corals have evolved extremophiles, each special in its own way. There even is a "extreme" mammal: the vaquita, or "little cow", Phocoena sinus, which is the smallest cetacean -- just five feet long -- and the rarest, with a population estimated to number in the low hundreds. They are "extreme" mammals because they live in the warmest open waters in the world, the northern Gulf of California. Curiously, their closest relatives live thousands of miles away in Antarctica. Although there are several hypotheses for how the vaquita came to live in and adapt to this hot tub, we still don't know how this happened for certain.

At the opposite end of the extremophile scale are cold water specialists. Even though polar fishes, for example, have proteins in their tissues that act as antifreeze, they are constantly working to remove ice crystals that form in their bodies, since failure to do so could cause a stroke. When ice crystals do form, they are bundled up in a protective protein coating and removed to the spleen, where they are stored. This prevents the growth of more ice crystals. Studies have found that Antarctic and Arctic fishes have independently evolved the same mechanism for dealing with the cold -- as have cold-adapted terrestrial insects and plants. But more than just being a scientific curiosity, these proteins are important to a warming world because they've inspired the development of heat-resistant ice cream -- ice cream that also resists freezer burn.

After reading roughly 200 biographies of remarkable marine creatures, I had to know which animal in the book is the authors' favourite. Tony Palumbi's response revealed that here is a man after my own ornithological heart.

"My favorite animal from our book is the wandering albatross. They lead long, lonely lives flying endless gyres around the South Pole, locking their shoulder joints in place to glide without burning calories, riding swells for thousands of miles", Palumbi writes in email.

"When they return to land, it's for only a few weeks each year to breed", he added. "They're the world's greatest flyers and they live for flight."

But seriously, my question was unfair: in the face of such a riot of exuberant adaptation, can one really choose just one favourite creature? I certainly cannot!

Although the writing is uneven in places, it is always sweetly enthusiastic, enlightening and witty and, at times, inspired. Quotes from Darwin and other scientists provide context, and the magic of the science is enhanced by well-chosen quotes from literature and poetry. Carefully researched, this book contains 30 pages of notes containing references to cited material and a 17-page index. It also includes informative black-and-white diagrams, drawings and photographs embedded in the text as well as 16 full-colour photographs in a special insert.

The book is surprisingly slim -- only 225 pages long -- and is a fast read. It is filled with short but informative biographies that examine how some of the sea's most extreme creatures survive -- the earliest, the smallest, the deepest, the oldest, the fastest sprints and longest journeys, and the strangest family lives, just to name a few. It also mentions how lessons learned from sea creatures have sparked new innovations and development of more efficient technologies. Regardless of your level of knowledge, this quietly joyful and informative book has something of value for everyone.

You might enjoy watching this amusing video, which shares a little about the fastest fish in the sea, the marlin:

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Stephen R. Palumbi received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in marine ecology. He is the director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. His primary research focus is the use of molecular genetic techniques in conservation, including the identification of whale and dolphin products available in commercial markets. The Extreme Life of the Sea is his third book, and his first co-authored with his son, Anthony.

Anthony R. Palumbi received his English degree from Stanford University and wrote and edited for film before moving to video games. He also is a freelance science writer and novelist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and other publications, and he's a veteran blog writer. His current blog project is writing and publishing a weekly sci-fi serial at I Drop Things. He also pops in almost daily on twitter: @TonyPalumbi. The Extreme Life of the Sea is his first book.

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Disclaimer: GrrlScientist has no known connection to the book's authors. Outside of receiving a free review copy of this book, no compensation was received by GrrlScientist for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, written by GrrlScientist and published on The Guardian.

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When she's not reading books, Grrlscientist can be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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