Feb252010
Deep-Sea Biodiversity
Written by Ava

Before even taking one look at Dr. Paul Yancey's Deep-Sea Biology page, one really gets the feeling that he's a marine biology and oceanography expert.  After all, he did get his PhD studying biochemistry of fish and sharks at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He's currently a Professor of Biology at Whitman College in Washington. He also knows all about current issues facing our ocean and he is a devout marine conservationist.  He's pretty much experienced every aspect of the ocean, from researching sharks to completing deep sea shipboard research along the West Coast (California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, to name a few.) 

He knows tons of great facts and has analyzed marine specimens with the best of them!

Not certain he's a true marine expert yet? I have proof! Just check out his fine answers below! 

How did you develop your interest in marine biology?

As a youth, my parents frequently took me to the beaches and rocky tidepools of California and Baja California (Mexico). One of my main hobbies was making a shell collection. We also watched Jacques Cousteau's show on TV. Plus my mother was a cell biologist. All this inspired a life-long interest in biology, especially in the oceans.

What did you study in marine biology when you received your Ph.D? Describe your research.

I got my PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where I studied the biochemistry of bony fishes and sharks. I discovered one way that fish are adapted to different temperature habitats, and I discovered how sharks survive with their unusual water-balancing (osmotic) system. Seawater has too much salt in it for most lifeforms, tending to draw water out of bodies by osmosis. Sharks and their relatives stop water loss by building up urea throughout their bodies (the level of the urea makes their bodies just as concentrated as the salt of the sea, so their water is also balanced). But urea is a toxic product of protein metabolism--it's one of the main things our kidneys get rid of in our urine. I discovered that another molecule in sharks, called TMAO [trimethylamine oxide], protects them from urea's harmful effects. TMAO is familiar to most people because it is responsible for the "fishy" smell of fish and shrimp. My discovery led to medical researchers (whom I helped with their research) discovering that our own kidneys have a  molecule similar to TMAO that protects our kidneys from the toxic urea they are processing when we eat a lot of protein.

Is there anything you in marine biology you would love to study but haven’t yet?

The life in the Mariana trench!

What are some of the current issues facing marine life and the ocean today?


So many issues!

  1. Fisheries are collapsing worldwide due to overexploitation.
  2. While the earth's atmosphere has not been warming much since about 1998--making the public believe that global warming is over--heat HAS been building up since 1998 but it's gone mainly into the oceans (which, by the way, causes more evaporation, and so more rain and snowfall on land--so those commentators who say the recent record snowfall on the East Coast  shows global warming is false are simply flat out wrong). Warming waters, pollution, and so on are causing coral reefs to die off, ecosystems to shift, and plankton growth to decline.
  3. Worse perhaps, all the carbon dioxide we are pumping into the air is dissolving in the oceans, acidifying them (think about soda pops--they are acidic in part due to all that bubbly carbon dioxide in them). Acid dissolves shells and coral. This is already happening. SO even if carbon dioxide does not heat the atmosphere in a simple linear fashion, it most certainly is acidifying the sea.

Are you a marine conservationist?

Yes. I not only support several ocean conservation groups, but one of my non-deep-sea research projects is working with a conservationist at the Smithsonian to find a way to cryopreserve larvae of endangered corals--we hope to create a "gene bank" of such corals so we can restore reefs if conditions improve. I also have my website, which has a conservation-oriented section ("Oceans in Trouble").

Tell me about some of your deep-sea expeditions around the world.

Well, this would take a long time to do completely. However, the expeditions I have been on were all on the West Coast of N. America (off California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia). Many have involved old-fashioned net tows, but several used manned and robotic submersibles. The most recent one was off Monterey, where we (me, my student, and Jeff Drazen's team of the University of Hawaii) used trawl nets and remote instruments to study adaptations of deep-sea fishes, many of which are now being targeted by fisheries because shallow-water fish stocks have been depleted. Unfortunately, these deep-sea fishes (like grenadiers and certain rockfish) are very slow to grow and reproduce, and so fisheries can wipe them out quickly. This has already happened in the Southern oceans to deep-sea orange roughy and Patagonian toothfish (marketed falsely as "Chilean seabass" in restaurants).

Before that expedition, I went on three expeditions with the Alvin submersible (expeditions led by Lisa Levin of Scripps and Ray Lee of Washington State Univ). We have been studying how animals adapt to hydrothermal vents and gas seeps. Most people know about the fantastic vents, but the seeps are also amazing. They are places where cold gases leak out of the seafloor in the deep near most continents, where there are huge deposits of frozen natural gas (kept frozen by a combination of cold and high pressure). These deposits contain more fuel energy than all the known oil reserves in the world. Marine biologists have discovered that the gases are the base of entire food chains (very similar to those of the vents).

I have analyzed specimens from many other parts of the world but they were sent to me by other researchers.

Tell me about your Deep-Sea biology page.


I started the page in 1997 initially to get help identifying species we were catching from the abyss --many we could not identify from published guides. SO I posted pictures on a site I created, and emailed my site to experts around the world. But almost immediately, I started getting emailed questions from school kids, teachers, reporters, etc., about life in the deep, I guess because there were no other deep-sea sites on the internet then. So I decided to turn it into an educational resource. I added lots of info on deep-sea life, and started an "Oceans In Trouble" conservation section that may have been one of the first of its kind.  I still get lots of emailed questions, and the site is used in many classrooms. I update the NEWS feature of it monthly, and whenever I return from a deep-sea expedition. My main problem is that I do it all myself with my limited knowledge of html code. Someday I need to find a real web programmer who can make my site more professional looking.

Do you think an aquarium owner can also be a marine conservationist?

Sure, if he/she does not keep endangered species and supports some ocean conservation efforts…even if it's just educating his/her friends and family.

How can we educate others on the issues facing our marine environment?

Websites such as yours and mine can help as long as they are made well-known to the public. We can support the outreach efforts of various ocean conservation societies like Oceana and the Ocean Conservancy. We also need more public talks by scientists. Educated/aware individuals need to insist on responsible reporting (by newspapers, TV, etc.) and to harangue their political representatives to take action. And we can all speak out to friends and family.

What is one thing we’d all be surprised to learn about an aspect of the marine world?

Well, there is so much to say, but let me just give one amazing statistic: We humans have only explored about 5% of the oceans! That's right, over 90% of the deep has never been sampled by net, sub, diver or any other method. New species, new seafloor features are being found all the time.

What are your future plans?

I am hoping someday to get animals from a deep trench like the Mariana, to see how they can survive there. I am continuing my collaboration on the coral preservation work I noted earlier.

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