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Mysteries of the Deep

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The ocean is familiar, comforting -- and mysterious.

Whether it's a great day at the beach, fishing off the wharf with your grandfather or a scenic coastal road trip, you probably have a fond childhood memory that involves the sea.

Considering the important role oceans play in our lives, it's amazing to me how little we understand about ocean life. Put simply, we have only scratched the surface of understanding the oceans, and there's still so much to learn.

Our oceans are thought to contain far more species than on land, and almost on a daily basis scientists are discovering new organisms or new understandings about animal behavior. Some of the discoveries are delightful; others boggle the mind. For your enjoyment and amazement as we begin the new year, here are seven wonders from the seas.

1. Mysteries of the deep. Our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute study the deep sea on a daily basis and their catalog of discoveries truly boggles the mind. Consider these recent findings: Worms that release glowing green bombs and devour whale bones; sea spiders that suck the life out of bottom-dwelling anemones; and -- one of the most popular videos distributed by National Geographic in 2009 -- a fish with a transparent skull.

2. Great white neighborhoods. Our colleagues at Stanford University, who have been tagging great white sharks off the California coast for many years with support from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, have documented that these top predators stick to specific neighborhoods, to which they return after migrations that take them halfway across the Pacific. Similar research in Australia has led to a tracking system that will alert beachgoers when sharks are nearby via a text message triggered when the sharks approach acoustic receivers on the seafloor.

3. Carbon-slurping sea stars. Turns out sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and their kin are the unsung heroes of climate change. A new study published in Nature credits these humble invertebrates with sequestering 100 million tons of carbon in their tissues each year. Considering people are putting 30 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually, we can use all the help we can get.

4. Animal or plant? It should be a simple distinction (though corals and anemones blur the line by keeping algae growing in their cells). Now comes news from a University of South Florida scientist that a sea slug has developed the capacity to keep borrowed chlorophyll-producing cells alive and working in its own body after a single meal of its favorite algae.

5. The coral reef cornucopia. Coral reefs are beautiful, ecologically important and - it now appears - a significant contributor to the evolution of life on Earth. Scientists from Germany have examined a fossil record dating back half a billion years and find that coral reefs produce new species at a much faster rate than other habitats. Reefs are hot-spots of marine biodiversity, and vital to the evolutionary history of the planet.

6. Coconut-carrying octopus. Add the octopus to the list of tool-using animals. Australian scientists observed an octopus carrying coconut shells, and using them to build a spherical hiding place. They believe this is the first instance of an invertebrate using tools.

7. Penguins and people. More and more people are interacting with wildlife - sometimes in startling and inspiring ways, as revealed by two stories from Antarctica. The first involves the inadvertent rescue of a gentoo penguin from a pod of orcas. The second documents an encounter between a fiercely maternal leopard seal and an underwater photographer. (This time the penguins didn't fare as well.)

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