The Adventures of Cornish Cod in the land of Scousers

Over two years ago I began a University course in Liverpool, having traveled across the Pennines from the glorious lands of Yorkshire my accent stood out while I also found the scouse accent particularly confusing – especially when drunk (student life). But it’s not just students living far from home who are getting confused. Climate change has been warming our oceans so much that cold water species have started to migrate further North. This means that the Cornish Cod are now visiting Liverpudlion waters. It’s the start of a real North/South aquatic mixer! We all recognise the differences in culture between the North and South of England but it’s also likely that these differences appear in fish culture, especially regional accents. I know aquatic accents may sound a bit fishy but this is a real phenomenon.

Cod attract a mate by making sounds, a highly specialised ‘sonic muscle’ is drummed against the swim bladder to produce a thumping sound. But, as the Cornish cod and the Scouse cod start to mingle, the differences in their ‘accents’ could actually prevent them from communicating. Reminds me of on a night out in Liverpool when the native guys try to chat you up – can anyone understand them or are the chat up lines just so bad that you’re really better off not understanding?

Males produce sounds (back to Cod now in case anyone was confused) which stimulates females to release their eggs, this allows the males to synchronise when they release their sperm to fertilise the eggs. If the fish aren’t able to understand each other it could seriously damage their reproductive success. Even if Cornish Cod and Scouse Cod can set aside their differences and develop an understanding, there is still the issue of noise pollution.

Noise pollution in an area can drown out sweet mating sounds of male cod. Boats being driven past spawning grounds could have serious effects on the cod communication. It could be that the species manages to adapt over time to overcome this dilemma (similarly to how we over act our gestures when the music is too loud for you to ask your mates if they want a drink). Perhaps the male cod will develop some epic dance moves to seduce their lady friends, or they may have to start signalling louder to be heard. This would however require more energy, meaning the Cod would need to hunt more often which could have detrimental effects on the rest of the ecosystem.

Poor Scouse Cod not only do they have to cope with noise pollution but now they are being invaded by Southerners! Could life get any worse for them? Let’s just hope there isn’t a boom in the fish and chip shop trade…

Post by: Jennifer Rasal




Cakealicious science: The science of baking

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-08-16-07Food glorious food! Cakes cakes and more cakes! These sweet creations have had people drooling for centuries. There are many variations from rich chocolate to fruit and nut, covered in buttercream or marzipan, stuffed with jam or cream, the choices are almost endless. They’re perfect for big celebrations or just a chilled out half hour with a cup of coffee. But how on earth do they actually work? How can butter, sugar, flour, eggs and baking powder combine to make a delicate mouth-watering sponge?


screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-08-15-46Well science magic anyway. Each key ingredient has its own special role, without which the cake would collapse. The major ingredients need to be roughly of equal weights. First off the sugar and fat are mixed together. During the mixing process air gets caught on the rough surface of the sugar granules and is sealed in by a film of buttery fat, this forms a light fluffy mixture akin to whipped cream. We use caster sugar in this process rather than granulated sugar because it is finer than granulated sugar and therefore has a greater surface area on which to trap air.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-08-16-25But sugar does more than just trap air within the cake batter. It softens the flour proteins tenderising the mixture, it also lowers the mix’s caramelisation point, allowing the crust to develop a crisp golden consistency at relatively low temperatures. Finally, sugar also helps keep the cake moist and edible for many days. Most of the moisture in a cake comes from the eggs, which provide the mix with the majority of its liquid. When everything is mixed together the eggs produce a foam which surrounds the air bubbles in the mixture protecting them from the heating process and which is also stiffened by starch in the flour. Proteins in the flour join together creating a network of coiled proteins that we know as gluten. Gluten is key to holding the cake together, it expands during baking and then, when cooling, coagulates and is able to support the cake’s weight.

For the bakers out there you may have noticed that we have missed out the baking powder, this may come across as some voodoo magic but it is basically just dried acid and an alkali. Adding water and heat to this mix allows them to react producing CO2.

Now it’s not just getting the right measurement of ingredients, but it’s also essential to get the temperature of the oven precisely right. Too low and the expanding gas cells coagulate producing a coarse heavy texture leading to the cake sinking, too hot and the outside starts setting before the inside even finishes baking, leading to a volcano-looking cake.

So when you next grab a cupcake just take a little time to appreciate the exact science that went into baking that mouth-watering little treat. So many things that could go wrong it’s a miracle we ever found out how to make these soft icing covered delights.


Post by: Jennifer Rasal




Marine Strandings and Selfies: Should the two ever mix?

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 08.40.05No doubt everyone has heard about the dolphin that was passed between tourists for endless selfies, sparking debates over animal cruelty and inhuman acts. Of course the idea of a dolphin being dragged from the ocean and killed is diabolical, but probably what is most upsetting is that it is believable. It has been claimed that the dolphin was dead when it was found and did not die due to dehydration during the selfie frenzy that ensued, but this may be a lie formed by the offenders who felt guilty after the event – we’ll never know for sure.  Whichever story you decide to believe the sad fact still remains that humanity has become more obsessed with trying to snap the ‘perfect picture’ to get a few facebook ‘likes’, rather than trying to help an animal in distress.

Shortly after the baby dolphin story emerged, a video went viral of a man holding down a shark on a beach – again for photos. This time the video does confirm that the shark had been caught by a fisherman and was also filmed being released into the water. As far as I’m aware sharks can’t suffer psychological damage and if no physical harm was done it is no different from fishermen who visit fishing ponds. Assuming the animal isn’t away from the water from too long, a quick photo won’t kill it. However, it is setting a dangerous precedent for people to start deliberately seeking out marine animals to take selfies.

Sadly we have around 500 recorded marine animal strandings per year on Britain’s coasts. There are many reasons why these animal become stranded, it may be due to injuries, disease, or entanglement in fishing gear. Many strandings occur when young animals become separated from their mother and can’t survive. Whatever the reason these animals still deserve to be treated with respect.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 08.41.07But, how many of us would really know what to do if we found a dolphin washed up on the beach? Well there are plenty of ways to find out. The WDC (Whales and Dolphins Conservation) have step by step instructions of what to do and who to call in such a situation. Or, if you are feeling more adventurous and want to be able to physically help a stranded animal, you can look out for training courses in your local area. The BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue) provide a single day course on how to rescue a beached animal, currently a training course is also being organised in the North West area, (follow the link below for more information).

It’s important that people start to appreciate the world without the need of a lens between them – isn’t a story about rescuing a stranded animal better than a picture with a dying one? So, let’s try and see more stories of people saving stranded animals rather than prolonging their suffering for a photo that will probably get lost in the many thousands we take over our lifetime.

Post By:Jennifer Rasal

For information about the training course-

WDC’s guide of what to do in a stranding situation-

The Whaling Industry – Dubious or Justified?

Whaling is a big part of human history. The Norwegians have been whaling for over 4,000 years and the Japanese for even longer. No matter what your personal feelings and opinions of whaling, it is a historic practise that is still being used today.

800px-Whaling_in_the_Faroe_IslandsBeginning in the 1960s there has been a sharp decline in the number of whales killed by hunters. This hasn’t been due to a lack of need for whale meat but, rather, as a result of there simply being fewer whales. Whales have gestation periods of 7-13 months and very rarely have more than one calf at a time. When you consider that thousands were once being killed each year, it’s easy to understand why they were unable to maintain their population numbers.

As fewer and fewer whaling ships were meeting with success, the International Whaling Commission was set up in 1946 to try and solve this problem. It tried to help by placing protection orders on certain species of whales that had suffered the most. All whale populations continued to decline though so, in 1986, the commission placed a complete ban on whaling for all its members.

This ban is still in place, however, due to loopholes, over 30,000 whales have been hunted

and killed since 1986 by members of the International Whaling Commission. This mainly comes from three countries – Iceland, Japan and Norway. Iceland left the Commission and then re-joined under a ‘reservation’ whereby it didn’t have to recognise the ban, although this has actually caused some countries to not recognise Iceland as a member.

Japan makes use of a loophole permitting hunting for scientific research, however they have just last year been told that at least one of these research programmes involved killing unnecessarily. Killing whales for research purposes may first appear to be more understandable than commercial hunting but in Japan, when the research has finished, the whale’s carcass is sold and a profit is made. Of course, not everything is as straightforward as it may first appear, but it really does seem to be a commercial venture that just has to allow the bodies to be first used for research.

762px-The_King_of_the_Seas_in_the_Hands_of_the_Makahs_-_1910Out of the three countries, Norway is the only one that appears to be upfront about its opinions. The Norwegians made it clear when the ban was coming into place that they didn’t agree with it and, instead of trying to use smoke and mirrors to hide their intentions, they have carried on whaling openly. This may not be agreeable but somehow appears a lot less morally dubious to my mind.

There is one final exception to the ban, which pertains to Aboriginal Substance Whalers. These are communities that hunt using traditional methods, carrying on the practises their ancestors began. The International Whaling Commission recognised the need to preserve this way of life and protect these communities’ culture. Therefore, in the terms of the ban, they are allowed to hunt whales if no profit is made.

There can be a lot found about whaling in the media, often from very extreme sides. It’s not just whales that are hunted in the oceans (think of all the fish in the fishmongers). Yet even species whose numbers are running low don’t receive nearly the same attention from the media as whales. Why? Well, simply because we are humans and can empathise with mammals more easily than with other animals.

This doesn’t mean that caring about whales is wrong, it just means we need to view the facts when it comes to the whaling industry. We need to think about which countries allow whaling, and why they do it. We need to think about the role the whales have in the ecosystem. We need to balance facts. You may be for whaling, you may be against it, but a clear fact is that hunting is possible without causing such a crash in the population numbers as has been seen in the case of whale species.

Post by: Jennifer Rasal


Why are whales killed?

Rock pooling isn’t just for children!

First year Marine Biology students exploring the rock pools. Photo by Jack Davis
First year Marine Biology students exploring the rock pools. Photo by Jack Davis

Just recently, my University course took a trip down to Plymouth, during which we went down to a rocky shore covered with rock pools. Now, on a field trip at University level, you would probably expect some complex sampling, evaluation and weird but wonderful science experiments to take place. Amazingly, however, our assignment was simply to look into the pools.

As someone did joke, that is something toddlers do when they are on their summer holidays. But the lecturers did have a point with this apparently simple exercise: rock pools are not as basic as they might first seem.

The variety of life found in these isolated little lagoons was astounding. In a pool of water measuring just 1 square foot, you could find animals and organisms from so many different phyla: crustaceans, Macro algae, polychaetes, echinoderms, molluscs, bryozoans, hydrozoans. Such a diverse cross-section of life in such a relatively tiny home, and each organism with its own stories to tell and secrets to keep.

The Wordly and the Wary
Now, if there was ever an old man with a tale to tell it would be the chiton. The one we managed to find was only 2cm long and crawled around showing off its species’ distinctive body armour-plated back, which made it look almost like a cross between a woodlouse and a limpet. Incredibly, the chiton species evolved over 400 million years ago (in comparison, humans only just came along around 250,000 years ago). For me, that is an incredible thought. This species has seen so much and lived through so much, whilst it’s unlikely that the human race will survive for that long itself.

Next we come to the crabs, probably the best-known of the rock pool dwellers. Fast in their movements and partial to hiding beneath seaweed, they can evade rock-pooling beginners. However, in just one trip, we uncovered members of 3 different species: a velvet swimmer crab (Liocarcinus depurator), an edible crab (Cancer pagurus) and a common shore crab (Carcinus maenas). All display the same stereotypical crab shape, but each has its own variations. Edible crabs have blac-tipped claws and, like the name suggests, the velvet swimmer crab’s back feels velvety if you are lucky enough to get close. Of the three crabs this one is the most aggressive, so watch out for the claws!

Balanus sp. Photo by Xanthe Ginty

The Well-Endowed Barnacle
Barnacles covered the area we explored and, whilst they usually close their shells when isolated in rock pools, we were lucky enough to find a couple actively feeding. It’s a strange sight to see – the barnacles open their shells and stick their ‘feet’ out (yes, they technically lie on their backs with their legs in the air) which look like tiny rakes that fan through the water before being pulled back inside again.

Speaking of probing protuberances, I’m very sorry, gentlemen, but prepare to feel emasculated. If a barnacle grew to the size of a human then its penis would be over 20m long! Very impressive but also a clever adaptation. Barnacles are sessile organisms (meaning they don’t move) so a male’s large penis allows him to reach females that might not be right next to him.

Actinia sp. Photo by Xanthe Ginty

Tentacles and Terrors
Moving on, we also found in our rock pool a number of alien-like anemones, tentacles ready and waiting for something to float by to pull in and eat. The most common anemone we found was the usually red, occasionally green, beadlet anemone (Actinia equine). It’s simple to distinguish beadlet anemones from other species – just stick your finger in (gently, so as not to hurt them)! Dangle your fingers amongst their tentacles and you’ll feel them trying to pull you in. You might even feel a slight painless tingle as they try to sting you  However, once they realise you’re too big, they will close up to hide away. It’s this closing up that reveals their identity, as other species can’t draw completely into themselves.

Finally, we came across a ferocious predator – the dog whelk (Nucella lapillus). This mollusc hunts related species and drills a hole in the shell of its prey before injecting digestive enzymes. Trapped by its own shell, the prey is completely helpless as the enzymes break it down whilst it’s still alive. Once it’s reduced to a soup of body parts, the dog whelk sucks out the juices, leaving behind the coffin of its victim.

These were just a few of the different species we found on our trip to Plymouth. Our lecturers were right though, spending time just looking in rock pools can really teach you a lot. You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy rock pooling and you certainly don’t need to be an expert to identify things. A sea shore identification guide will cover the basics.

So, next time you’re heading down to a beach in England, look out for that rock pool and go exploring in a whole different world. Don’t overlook the small white barnacles clinging to the rock, keep a careful eye open for what treats you may find hidden in the cracks, and don’t forget to play with the anemones. Even 30-year-old marine biologist lecturers can’t resist that temptation!

Post by: Jennifer Rasal