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Boldly going where no one has gone before — on Earth

June 13, 2019

Scientists priming to study new worlds in space by exploring the bottom of the sea

One of the most practical ways to explore strange new worlds in our solar system is to go in the opposite direction: to the bottom of the ocean.

Everett Shock spent part of the summer seeing places no one on Earth ever has before. Yes, the mountains have been climbed, deserts crossed and poles reached, but there still are unexplored places to discover.

Shock, an environmental biogeochemist at Arizona State University, just returned from a stint with the Ocean Exploration Trust in Rhode Island. The trust’s ship, Nautilus, explored the submarine hydrothermal systems of the Gorda Ridge off the coast of California. Shock was on the other side of the continent in a mission control room at the trust’s headquarters, interpreting data in real time and consulting with the crew at sea.

The trust was founded in 2008 by Robert Ballard — discoverer of RMS Titanic’s final resting place and a National Geographic Explorer in Residence — to engage in pure ocean exploration. Its international programs center on scientific exploration of the ocean floor with expeditions launched from Exploration Vessel Nautilus, a 64-meter research vessel. Teams use remotely operated vehicles to observe, survey, gather instrument data and collect samples.

The teams pored over the mid-ocean ridge because it is the site of unusual hydrothermal activity. Instead of the normal black or white “smoke” coming from undersea volcanos, these vents spew clear fluids.

Nine thousand feet under the waves, there is no light at all, but plenty of life. Hot water comes out of the vents and mixes with seawater, which gives it a very different composition. It’s far from being in a state of chemical equilibrium with seawater.

ROV arm at Gorda Ridge undersea vent, Nautilus expedition

The arm of a remotely operated vehicle provides a sense of scale. The vent is perhaps 2 feet high. Vents grow by precipitation until they collapse under their own weight and the cycle of growth begins again. Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust

“As a result, there is energy to be had because there is chemical energy to be harvested by the organisms,” said Shock, who has joint appointments in the School of Molecular Sciences and the School of Earth and Space Exploration and is director of the W. M. Keck Foundation Laboratory for Environmental Biogeochemistry at ASU.

The vents were first discovered in the 1970s. It wasn’t a surprise there’s hot water — there are active volcanos under the water — but geologists discovered there was a lot of biology down there.

“It’s a banquet table of chemical energy sources — and it’s going to be ignored?” said Shock. “It’s like putting a stack of pizzas out on campus with a sign that says ‘free pizza’ and expecting all the students on campus to ignore it. That’s not going to happen. Same thing at the bottom of the ocean with a bunch of chemical energy supplies that can support life. There’s life of every kind down there! It’s just odd to us because it’s not a photosynthetic system. We walk around the surface in the sunlight, so we expect trees and cactus and grass. There’s none of that. It’s a different world.”

The tiny organisms feed on the chemical energy, and then, as tends to happen in the natural world, bigger things eat them and so on up the food chain to tube worms and fish and other critters that are easy to see.

Question: This is pure exploration. What’s it like?

Answer: It’s pretty mesmerizing in a way. I find you can just sort of stare at the screen and watch what the remotely operated vehicle down on the sea floor is sending back. The high-resolution video is pretty amazing. Those vent fields we have been at — well, no actual people have been down there, but submersibles have been down there — just yesterday they discovered hydrothermal venting on another section in another outcrop that is completely new, and in a couple of hours they’re going to go search another spot where they think there might be some. It might not work out, but it would be another thing that would be completely new. There’s serious excitement that goes along with that. These are places on the Earth no one has seen before.

Q: Tell me about your role on the team and what you do every day.

A: I spent the first week in Rhode Island at the headquarters of the ship. They have a mission control setting there. It’s got all these big screens and computer connections and so forth. My role and that of the postdoc who is working with me on this — his name is Vincent Milesi — Vincent and I are in charge of the geochemical modeling, the computational side of things. As data appears from the measurements people are able to make, even on board ship, we are trying to help figure out what that might mean. "We’ve measured the dissolved methane in the water. Great. Let’s see what that might mean." That’s our part in it. On board ship are the people who know how to take those samples and run the (remotely operated vehicle). … We fit into that in that we’re trying various ideas that we get about why the water has the composition that it does, the temperature, everything else, against computer modeling. The computer modeling is really independent of the observations we might make, so it’s a good way of testing things.

Q: How does this work set up the exploration of other worlds, specifically Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, and Europa, a moon of Jupiter, both of which have oceans beneath ice crusts?

A: These worlds are extremely cold. There’s no liquid water at the surface. The liquid water is underneath a bunch of ice. Guess what? It’s going to be dark. On the Earth, one of the places to go to get some sense of what it is we’re actually talking about on these other worlds to do this exploration is the bottom of the ocean. In fact, it is the discovery of all the life around submarine hydrothermal systems … that cause people to think that life on these other worlds is a reasonable thing. Before we knew about that, we thought, "Oh, you’ve got to have photosynthesis. Oh, you’ve got to have water at the surface." … That’s a big deal now with NASA’s efforts to explore these worlds. They realize they need input and suggestions from the ocean science researchers who have never really been involved with NASA programs. It’s a serious effort on many fronts, not just this project, to try to combine ocean exploration with planetary exploration.

Top photo: First video images of the newly discovered Apollo vent field reveal a penumbral landscape of dark, encrusted chimneys emitting shimmering vents of superheated water. Images from Lead Science Communication Fellow Jon Willis, Ocean Exploration Trust/Nautilus Live. 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU biologist’s research is for the birds

June 13, 2019

Kerrie Anne Loyd’s work fills in important gaps in knowledge about owl activity

The western burrowing owl is like no other bird: It lives underground, is adaptable to urban environments and its idea of a show of force is to surround its nest with dog waste and neighborhood trash.

These are just some of the nesting and habitat characteristics brought to light by Kerrie Anne Loyd, a wildlife biologist at Arizona State University at Lake Havasu.

The ongoing research, now in its sixth year, will fill in important gaps in knowledge about owl activity and population trends in human-dominated environments.

“I love birds, and my objective is to help people get along with wildlife,” said Loyd, whose work on domestic cats and wildlife has been highlighted on "NBC Nightly News," NPR’s "All Things Considered" and ABC’s "20/20." “By studying animals and helping to understand their habits, I can find what they need in order to thrive in human-dominated environments.”

Woman peering through camera

Kerrie Anne Loyd sets up a movement-triggered camera outside one of the burrowing owl habitats in Lake Havasu City on May 24. The urban/suburban ecologist is gathering data as part of her research on the owls funded in part by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Loyd began studying the bird, which stands about 10 inches tall and has round, yellow eyes and long, skinny legs, in 2013. For decades their numbers were declining across western North America due to loss of natural habitat and lethal control of burrowing rodents. The birds shifted to more developed habitats such as agricultural areas, golf courses and undeveloped lots. In Lake Havasu City, they set up house in desert washes, using existing burrows created by ground squirrels and wood rats.

Because of their proximity to humans in Lake Havasu City, these raptorsA carnivorous medium- to large-size bird (such as a hawk, eagle, owl or vulture) that has a hooked beak and large sharp talons and that feeds wholly or chiefly on meat taken by hunting or on carrion. seem more naturally tolerant of people.

“They’re super charismatic because they’re cute, out during the day, easy to see and fun to watch,” Loyd said. “People in town have an interest in them and can get up close to them. The owls don’t find observant people a threat.”

However, Loyd said, if someone gets too close to a nest while the birds have babies, usually in May and June, they could feel the sting of a parent’s talons. Loyd herself has felt those at times, spending close to 20 hours a week conducting research at nest sites.

Owl standing on rockA previously banded adult burrowing owl watches ASU at Lake Havasu City wildlife biology senior lecturer Kerrie Anne Loyd work. She makes sure not to disturb the 10-inch raptor during its nesting season. Photo by Charlie Light/ASU Now

Loyd’s director said her research is important to the species, the city and the 6-year-old ASU location.

“Kerrie Anne Loyd’s success in acquiring research funding for her burrowing owl and domestic cat studies reinforces the notion that faculty at rural campuses like ASU at Lake Havasu are also making strong contributions to their fields,” said Raymond Van der Riet, director of ASU at Lake Havasu. “The landscape and environment surrounding ASU at Lake Havasu offer the perfect field laboratory for applied research.”

Loyd and a team of ASU students have monitored 136 active nests within the Lake Havasu City limits over a six-year period through the use of remote cameras and on-site fieldwork. Briana Morgan, a 2016 ASU graduate, worked alongside Loyd for three years.

“Through Kerrie Anne’s work, I truly learned the impact that humans have on wildlife and the environment,” said Morgan, who today is a water conservation specialist for Lake Havasu City. “The best word I would use to describe her is dedicated. She’s 100% dedicated to her research, and her passion influences her students without pushing it on them.”

Among Loyd’s key findings:

  • A burrowing owl family is estimated to eat up to 1,800 rodents and 7,000 arthropods (scorpions and beetles) in a single summer.
  • Nest success averaged 70% from 2014 to 2018, and the average number of juveniles produced was 4.2.
  • Burrowing owls are opportunistic hunters and prefer small mammals and arthropods.
  • In addition to Loyd’s research, there are only five studies on burrowing owls in urban/suburban locations.
  • Owls live in Lake Havasu City year round, but north of Arizona they are migratory and usually head to Mexico for the winter.
Underground nest

A movement-triggered camera outside of a burrowing owl habitat in Lake Havasu City helps to inform the research ASU biologist Kerrie Anne Loyd, who has been studying the raptor since 2013. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

One of her most important discoveries was that the primary cause of owl mortality in Lake Havasu City was due to increased use of pesticides in an attempt to remove mice, rats and ground squirrels. Loyd said that 24 owls in one year experienced secondary poisoning through consumption of rodents contaminated with rat poison. Dogs, cats and other birds can be unintended victims as well.

That particular finding led ASU, Arizona Game and Fish and Wild at Heart to support a combined “owl-friendly” educational campaign in Lake Havasu City. This included the distribution of 6,000 brochures and three permanent interpretive signs, asking community members and residents to be vigilant about use of rat poison and encourage other methods of pest control.

The western burrowing owl is listed as a species of conservation concern in Arizona and its numbers are declining, but the birds seem to be thriving in Lake Havasu City.

Much of the credit should go to Loyd, said an associate.

“Kerrie Anne’s research and her ability to convey that to the public has helped immensely with the owl population,” said Pam Smart, founder of Havasu Wildlife Rehabilitation, a nonprofit that helps wounded and abandoned animals. “Before Kerrie Anne came here, I don’t think the concern and the visibility of the owls was there. She’s helped a great deal in getting the word out.”

But there are some questions that Loyd doesn’t have the answer to. Like why do the male owls spend an inordinate amount of time and energy decorating their nests with dog waste, which can often attract predators like dogs, roadrunners and coyotes?

Loyd believes the male owl is simply marking his territory.

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ASU at Lake Havasu City wildlife biology senior lecturer Kerrie Anne Loyd spends up to 20 hours a week doing on-site research. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“The hypothesis is now that the owl is stating, ‘This spot is occupied. I’m the best bird in the neighborhood because look at all this energy I have to gather dog poop and trash to put around my nest!’” Loyd said.

The current phase of Loyd’s research, which will continue at least through 2020, is focused on dispersal distances of juvenile birds and behavior of adults at nest sites year to year. She will also continue to work on public education efforts to ensure long-term population growth.

“I’m so lucky to be able to study such an interesting species and involve so many students in conservation research right here in our small desert city,” Loyd said. “It’s been a fun project to do.”

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU News