Sunday 23 March 2014

Slow Life

The most important living organisms that play the key functions in the biosphere might not seem exciting when it comes to motion. Plants, fungi, sponges, corals, plankton, and microorganisms make life on Earth possible and do all the hard biochemical job. Similarly to all living things, they are dynamic, mobile, and fundamentally have the same motion properties as us. They grow, reproduce, spread, move towards source of energy, and away from unfavorable conditions. However, their speeds happen to be out of sync with our narrow perception. Our brains are wired to comprehend and follow fast and dynamic events better, especially those very few that happen at speeds comparable to ours. In a world of blazingly fast predators and escaping prey events where it takes minutes, hours, or days to notice any changes are harder to grasp.

"Slow" marine life is particularly mysterious. As colorful, bizarre-looking, and environmentally important as we know corals and sponges are, their simple day-to-day life is hidden.  We know some bits about their biochemistry, corals’ interaction with
zooxanthella algae, their life cycles, and systematics. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell what we don’t know about the rest. Particularly when it comes to interaction with other organisms happening over long periods of time.

Time lapse cinematography reveals a whole different world full of hypnotic motion and my idea was to make coral reef life more spectacular and thus closer to our awareness. I had a bigger picture in my mind for that clip. But after many months of processing hundreds of thousands of photos and trying to capture various elements of coral and sponge behaviour I realized that I have to take it one step at a time. For now, the clip just focuses on beauty of microscopic reef “landscapes.” The close-up patterns and colors of this type of fauna hardly resemble anything from the terrestrial environments. Corals become even less familiar if you consider their daily “activities.”

By day most hard corals are cute and colorful (more about coral colors). Their polyps coexist with their symbiotic algae and depend on light for nutrients produced by their photosynthetic symbionts. By night these polyps open up like flowers. But unlike flowers they turn into fierce predators, extend their tentacles, and sometimes invert their guts to digest the crap out of everything that they can reach. Coral colonies have to compete for substrate with other species, sometimes in violent battles. The winner is usually the species who digests faster or can resist digestive enzymes of the attackers better.

A major part of their daily lives is getting rid of any stuff that falls on them. All sorts of sediments such as sand, silt, and fish poop block sunlight and constantly burry them. Motion of individual polyps or whole colonies moves sediments away. Certain corals such as members of Fungia can deal with something more extreme than fish poop. They can excavate themselves even if they are buried deep in sand. Such ability is quite handy for a coral that does not normally bother to attach itself to a substrate and can be carried away with currents and swells.

Sponges can employ a different strategy of desedimentation. Individual cells on their surface are capable of capturing big particles and dragging them for miles millimeters. However, there’s a faster solution than relying on slow cell motion. Brittle stars, relatives of sea stars, feed on random stuff on the bottom and their arms are designed to collect this random stuff. As a result, they would gladly clean sponge surfaces (citation) – a process that takes a long time to capture on video.  

Sponges, in fact, deserve a lot more than their reputation of the most boring creatures. Recent research has brought to light a lot of important functions, such as nutrient recycling that most likely makes coral reef existence possible in the ocean deserts. All their life fundamentally happens in microscopic scales at cellular level and is only accessible with high-end microscopes. A very superficial insight into their dynamic cellular organization can be seen in the sequence with a sponge osculum changing its diameter. That's one of the methods with which sponges regulate water flow rate inside. You might spot individual cells moving around in circular motion and making the seal. What an observer can spot from outside with the naked eye is so limited that it takes weeks of continuous observations to understand what sponges are actually doing and capture their motion.

A lot of other representatives of “slow” marine fauna become fascinating when speeded-up and I hope to show more in my future work.

Life has a very broad spectrum of speeds. While we associate plants and even faster creatures such as corals with something still and immobile, particular lifeforms would be hard to even perceive as living objects at all. Kilometers underground, under ocean floor, in ice, and in permafrost metabolic rates of organisms are dramatically slower than on the surface. A simple event such as a cell division can happen over several millennia in those habitats. To our perception such life is literally indistinguishable from rock. 

When I first heard about this type of “slow” existence I realized how little separates the part of the universe that we classify as life and inanimate one. My time-lapse inspired imagination started drawing unusual scenarios in which one can start perceiving a bacterium that divides once every 10000 years as alive. At such rates you could see mountains rise, landscapes flow like waves in the ocean, and patterns of night sky change as stars revolve around the center of the galaxy. These intraterrestrial creatures live in an absolutely different universe where our existence is less than a fraction of a moment.

Not surprisingly, this underground fauna unhurriedly thriving under high pressure provokes arguments about how to fit it into our definitions of life. Similarly to viruses that some researches refuse to classify as living objects, deep-earth biosphere might be considered to be frozen in time and non-living. I believe that the narrow anthropocentric perception of time flow puts a lot constrains on our understanding of life. My past involvement in astrobiology taught me that we might not have enough biological knowledge to even consider looking for extraterrestrial life. The speed of life might ultimately be one of the major limiting factors in this endeavor. If slow metabolical processes create enormous challenges for detection, a type of life that operates faster than ours is hard to even imagine, let alone come up with ways of studying it. Perhaps somewhere out there a “fast” creature would perceive us as we perceive “slow” sponges and need time lapses to recognize us as living beings.

Difficulties in understanding “slow” marine life and interpreting its behaviour, unfortunately, are aggravated by its decline caused by human impact. Marine systems are extremely delicate and react to the tiniest perturbations of the environment. Although such alterations in the environmental parameters appear small to us, they are catastrophic to corals, sponges, and numerous other representatives of marine life that create entire ecosystems in the ocean. Through long chains of connections coral reef deterioration is catastrophic to us as well, for we are ultimately as sensitive to our habitat as the colorful creatures appearing in my time lapses.

Although the topic of ecological problems seems to be brought up quite frequently, I’d like to send another message with my short and clip. I know how many people out their love marine life. I have worked with aquarists and commercial coral collectors to make this movie possible and I could see how much people are ready to invest in what they love. I have almost no problems with keeping corals in aquaria and commercial collection (when it's done properly and on license), which is a mosquito bite to the Great Barrier Reef compared to pressure for the expanding mining industry. Yet after showing first drafts of my clip to a few people I got a reaction that made me extremely sad. It was like “Cool! Now I want more corals in my tank/get a marine tank!” It made me sad because I could see people putting so much money (and finding it in any financial circumstances!) into an outrageously expensive hobby. Unfortunately, the desire to have something beautiful at home and posses fancy stuff (even when it's a living object) is usually stronger than the desire to contribute to environmental protection. I know that my clip will be shared largely in aquarist circles and I’d like to say: I’m not asking to throw away your passions and hobbies, but please think carefully about what you really love, protect, and invest in. The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger and you have the power and finances to change its fate instead of scavenging what's left of it.


I'd like to thank everyone who helped me with this video at initial stages. Particularly Yolana Kailichova for introducing me to several helpful aquarists in Brisbane and Benny Jacob for being one of them ) Finding right coral and sponge specimens is a lot harder than it seems. Great Barrier Reef Marine Pty Ltd kindly let me do some of the filming at their facilities, which is enormously appreciated.

Then, I'd like to thank everyone who purchased licenses for images and video from me, bought prints, or financially contributed to my activities in other ways. Your money wasn't wasted and made my work possible.

Lastly, community is a very helpful place for learning fancy photography techniques and even getting advice on how to build motorized stages that I needed for this project.

Want to contribute to protection of the Great Barrier Reef? Consider this option:

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