7 Technologies That Are Revolutionizing Ocean Exploration

©AMNH/R. Mickens
©AMNH/R. Mickens

The Earth is an ocean planet—more than 70 percent of the surface is covered by seawater. But despite being such an essential part of life, the deepest parts of the world's oceans are still largely unexplored. According to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, merely 10 to 15 percent of the seafloor has been mapped with accuracy, which means we know less about the seafloor than the surface of Mars.

But the state of sea exploration is changing fast. The dark, high-pressure conditions of the ocean depths that once made research there impossible are now being explored with cutting-edge technology. That new tech and the discoveries to come from it are the focus of a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History called Unseen Oceans. As museum curator John Sparks said at a press preview, the goal of the exhibition is to show visitors "how little we know, and to tell them how much we're learning so rapidly with technology."

Here are some of the technologies featured in the exhibition, which opens March 12.

1. FLUORESCENCE-DETECTING CAMERAS TO FIND GLOWING FISH

One of the biggest recent discoveries made in the field of deep ocean exploration is the proliferation of biofluorescence in the darkest parts of the sea. Realms that look pitch black to human eyes are actually filled with more than 250 species of fish glowing in red, orange, and green hues. One of these species is the catshark, which fluoresces green in the dim blue light that reaches the sea floor. To detect this effect, researchers built a camera that filters out certain wavelengths of light like the shark's eye does. (This is how the sharks see each other in the darkness.) Combined with artificial blue light to enhance the fluorescent color, this equipment allows scientists to record the light show.

2. AN ALL-IN-ONE ECHOSOUNDER, SPEAKER, AND MICROPHONE THAT "SPEAKS WHALE"

Listening to whales vocalize tells us a lot about the way they live and interact, but this is difficult to do when a species spends most of its time in the deep ocean. In order to eavesdrop on beaked whales, scientists needed to fit sophisticated acoustic equipment into a submersible built to explore high-pressure environments. Enter the Deep Ocean REMUS Echosounder, or DOR-E. (REMUS stands for "Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS.") Developed by marine scientist Kelly Benoit-Bird and her team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the autonomous underwater vehicle can reach depths up to 1970 feet and has enough battery life to record a day's worth of deep-sea audio. The device was named for Finding Nemo's Dory because it "speaks whale," according to Unseen Oceans.

3. SOFT GRIPPERS FOR GENTLY COLLECTING SPECIMENS

Family looking at museum exhibit
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Collecting specimens at the bottom of the ocean isn't as simple as collecting them on land; researchers can't just step out of their submersible to pick up a mollusk from the seabed. The only way to retrieve a sample at such depths is with a machine. When these machines are designed to be bulky and rigid to withstand the intense water pressure around them, they can end up crushing the specimen before scientists have the chance to study it. So-called soft grippers are a clever alternative. Memory foam evenly distributes the force around the creature being handled, and Kevlar lace keeps the fingers from spreading when they inflate with water. Even with its squishy construction, the mechanism is sturdy enough to work at depths reaching 1000 feet.

4. AFFORDABLE AQUATIC DRONES TO EXPLORE HIGH-PRESSURE DEPTHS

A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) can explore the tight, crushing pockets of the ocean that human divers can't reach. This technology is often costly and limited to research teams with big budgets. A new company called OpenROV aims to make underwater drones more accessible to everyday explorers. Their signature ROV, Trident, starts at just $1500.

5. SATELLITE IMAGING FOR MAPPING THE OCEAN FLOOR

Topography exhibit in museum.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Sometimes the easiest way for scientists to get a view of the bottom of the ocean is by sending equipment to space. Satellites in orbit can estimate measurements of the peaks and valleys shaping the seabed by beaming radar pulses towards Earth and calculating the time it takes for them to bounce back. While this method doesn't provide a terribly accurate map of the ocean floor, it can be used to gauge depths in even the most remote areas.

6. SWARMS OF MINI ROBOTS THAT BOB AND FLOAT LIKE PLANKTON

Autonomous undersea robots come in all shapes and sizes. Mini-autonomous underwater explorers, or m-AUEs, developed by Scripps oceanographer Jules Jaffe are meant to be deployed in large groups or "swarms." The grapefruit-sized devices act like plankton, bobbing at a constant depth in the ocean and measuring factors like water temperature. By studying the underwater explorers, scientists hope to better understand how plankton, major contributors of the Earth's oxygen, thrive and travel through the sea.

7. SUCTION-CUP "TAGS" FOR STUDYING JELLIES

Kids looking at museum exhibit.
©AMNH/R. Mickens

This technology is so new, it hasn't hit the water yet. Once it's ocean-ready, researchers plan to attach the miniature suction cups to the bells of jellies. The device automatically measures a jelly's movements and ocean chemistry as the animal swims around. Eventually the jelly regenerates the top layer of its bell, shedding the tag and moving on unharmed. Once detached, the tag floats to the water's surface where it alerts scientists to its location via a VHF antenna and green reflective tape.

Sssspectacular: Tree Snakes in Australia Can Actually Jump

sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images
sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is common among humans. We avoid snakes in the wild, have nightmares about snakes at night, and recoil at snakes on television. We might even be born with the aversion. When researchers showed babies photos of snakes and spiders, their tiny pupils dilated, indicating an arousal response to these ancestral threats.

If you really want to scare a baby, show them footage of an Australian tree snake. Thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, we now know these non-venomous snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis can become airborne, propelling themselves around treetops like sentient Silly String.

That’s Dendrelaphis pictus, which was caught zipping through the air in 2010. After looking at footage previously filmed by her advisor Jake Socha, Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michelle Graham headed for Australia and built a kind of American Ninja Warrior course for snakes out of PVC piping and tree branches. Graham observed that the snakes tend to spot their landing target, then spring upward. The momentum gets them across gaps that would otherwise not be practical to cross.

Graham next plans to investigate why snakes feel compelled to jump. They might feel a need to escape, or continue moving, or do it because they can. Two scientific papers due in 2020 could provide answers.

Dendrelaphis isn’t the only kind of snake with propulsive capabilities. The Chrysopelea genus includes five species found in Southeast Asia and China, among other places, that can glide through the air.

[h/t National Geographic]

9 Facts About Narcolepsy

Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images
Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone experiences occasional daytime sleepiness, but just a small fraction of the population knows what it’s like to have narcolepsy. The disorder is defined by persistent drowsiness throughout the day, and in some cases, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and the sudden loss of muscle control known as cataplexy. Having narcolepsy can make doing everyday activities difficult or dangerous for patients, but unlike some chronic conditions, it’s also easy to diagnose and treat. Here are some facts you should know about the condition.

1. There are two types of narcolepsy.

If everything you know about narcolepsy comes from movies and TV, you may think of it as the disease that causes people to go limp without warning. Sudden loss of muscle control is called cataplexy, and it’s the defining symptom of type 1 narcolepsy. Type 2 narcolepsy, on the other hand, is mainly characterized by fatigue. Losing motor function while awake isn’t a problem for those with type 2.

2. Type 1 narcolepsy stems from a chemical deficiency.

Almost every patient with type 1 narcolepsy has low levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical that regulates the wake-sleep cycle. When there isn’t enough of this chemical in the brain, people have trouble staying conscious and alert throughout the day. Most people with the second, less severe type of narcolepsy have normal hypocretin levels, with about a third of them producing low or undetectable amounts. Type 2 narcoplepsy has been studied far less than type 1 of the disorder, and scientists are still figuring out what causes it.

3. The exact causes of narcolepsy aren’t always clear.

So why do some people’s brains produce less hypocretin than others? That part has been hard for scientists to figure out. One possible explanation is that certain autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack the healthy brain cells that make this chemical. This disorder can be the result of genetic and environmental factors. Although people with narcolepsy rarely pass it down to their offspring (this happens less than 1 percent of the time), the sleep condition does occasionally crop up in family clusters, suggesting there is sometimes a genetic component at play. Head trauma that impacts the area of the brain responsible for governing sleep can also lead to narcolepsy in rare cases.

4. There are tests to diagnose narcolepsy.

If patients believe they might have narcolepsy, their doctors might ask them to detail their sleep history and keep a record of their sleep habits. There are also a few tests potential narcoleptics can take to determine if they have the condition. During a polysomnography test, patients spend the night at a medical facility with electrodes attached to their heads to monitor their breathing, eye movement, and brain activity. A multiple sleep latency test is similar, except it gauges how long it takes patients to fall asleep during the day.

5. Strong emotions can trigger cataplexy.

Cataplectic spells can sometimes be predicted by triggers. In some patients, feeling strong emotions—whether they’re crying, laughing, angry, or stressed—is all it takes for them to lose muscle control. These triggers vary from patient to patient, and they can even affect the same person randomly. Some people deal with them by avoiding certain situations and closing themselves off emotionally, which can disrupt their social lives.

6. Narcolepsy can make sleep terrifying.

Narcoleptics don’t just worry about their disorder during their waking hours. When they’re trying to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning, narcolepsy can complicate things. One symptom is experiencing vivid, dream-like hallucinations while transitioning in or out of consciousness. These visions are often scary and may involve an intruder in the room with the sleeper. If they happen as the patient falls asleep, the hallucinations are called hypnagogic, and if they occur as they wake up, they’re hypnopompic.

A related symptom is sleep paralysis. This happens when a person’s brain cuts off muscle control of their body before they’re fully asleep or as they’re waking up. This combined with hypnagogic or hypnopompic nightmares can cause frightening experiences that are sometimes confused for real encounters.

7. Narcoleptics sometimes do activities half-asleep.

To outside observers, narcolepsy is sometimes hard to spot. A narcoleptic patient overcome by sleepiness won’t necessarily pass out in the middle of what they’re doing. Some act out “automatic behavior,” which means they continue with their actions—whether that’s walking, driving, or typing—with limited consciousness. This can cause poor performance at work or school, and in worst case scenarios, accidents while driving a car or operating machinery.

8. Harriet Tubman may have had narcolepsy.

One of the most famous likely narcoleptics in history is Harriet Tubman. The African American abolitionist was known to suffer from what were probably sudden narcoleptic episodes. The condition may have stemmed from the severe head trauma she sustained when a slave master threw an iron at another slave and hit her instead. The injury left her with permanent brain damage: In addition to narcolepsy, she also experienced chronic seizures and migraines throughout her life.

9. Medications and lifestyle changes are common narcolepsy treatments.

Though there’s no way to cure narcolepsy completely, there are many treatment options available. Taking medication is one of the most common ways to manage the disorder. Stimulants such as modafinil and armodafinil can be used to combat mild sleepiness, while amphetamines are often prescribed for more severe forms of fatigue. For hallucinations and sleep paralysis, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors—drugs that suppress REM sleep—can help.

As an alternative or supplementary treatment to medications, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes. Sticking to a sleep schedule, exercising regularly, avoiding nicotine and alcohol, and taking naps during the day can all reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER