Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Zombies and Lanternfish

A researcher in an American University recently published a paper stating that were the zombie apocalypse to arise, mankind would be overrun within 100 days. I feel that this raises way more questions than it answers. To begin with is the entirely serious question of what the mode of transmission is; are we talking zombie nibbles here or is droplet infection a concern? And do we presume a 100% infection rate on exposure? Is there a 100% rate of mortality? I’m not sure that even the sweating sickness boasted those stats. How soon after infection does zombie-dom start? All films and literature seem to indicate seroconversion within minutes; that would tend to limit the disease to one geographical area. Zombies are notoriously bad at catching flights. The final concern to be addressed is whether or not our zombs are super-speedy as in 28 Days Later, or if you can go out armed with a cricket bat to do your grocery shopping as in Shaun of the Dead. “Barbara, I ran it under a cold tap.”

In short, our American researcher has made some huge assumptions in order to generate that figure of 100 days. So my advice is to read this research with a pinch of salt when preparing for your very own zombie apocalypse.  But this did make me think that possibly I should talk about some of the research that is being done by scientists on our very own research vessel.

Recently I’ve been talking to Tracey Dornan about her myctophids. Otherwise known as lantern fish, for the light generating organs on their bodies, these fish are of particular interest because of the key position that they occupy in the Antarctic food web. They prey upon zooplankton and in turn are preyed upon by the seals and the penguins. Many people will tell you that the Antarctic food chain turns on a tiny, shrimp like organism called krill. The young krill feed on the algae that bloom under the sea ice. If the sea ice melts or shifts further out to sea, the krill either diminish in numbers or shift with the ice. This is a major problem for land based predators that rely on the krill; penguins and seals have their young on land and the worry is that as the krill numbers dwindle or move they may struggle. Enter the lanternfish. Recent studies have shown that lanternfish may be more numerous than was previously supposed and they may well be able to fill the niche previously occupied by the krill.
Lanternfish (the small things that look like ball bearings are the light organs!)

The other interesting aspect of the lanternfish is their role in the carbon cycle. Lanternfish come up to the surface in the night in order to feed on the zooplankton which live in the top strata of the water. Having fed, they then descend with their carbon load to the deeper waters that form their day-time home. The carbon-bearing material that they have consumed is then digested and respired in these deeper waters and the carbon is thus locked away into the deep ocean.

Tracey’s work looks at the use of acoustics to identify lanternfish in the water. Up until now, scientists have relied on trawling for fish and then picking over the catch to see what species predominate in the water. This is a corner stone of marine research and is necessary to ground truth acoustics (i.e. verify by another source) and to analyze marine community composition. However this can only ever give a snapshot in space and time.

 Acoustics refers to the process by which the ship generates a sound wave which is then bounced back to the ship by any surrounding bodies. It’s pretty much like an underwater echo. The theory is that different organism types produce a different acoustic return according to their typical density or size. And so it might be possible to infer what type of fish are out there over much larger areas without actually needing to pluck every single animal out of the water. Regrettably lanternfish are a challenge to identify with acoustics. When the fish are young some species have large swim bladders which are filled with air and therefore they have a strong acoustic signal. As they get older and bigger, their swim bladder shrinks. So although their size is greater and therefore their acoustic signal should be correspondingly bigger, it isn’t. Tracey’s work is to try and characterise the acoustic properties for the lanternfish that she has caught so that in future we can use the acoustic signal to recognise similar types of organisms in the water. Being able to spot these little guys in the water should mean that we can estimate their numbers more effectively and to see both if they will be able to fill vital niches in the Antarctic ecosystem and their role in the carbon cycle in the face of climate change.

Returning to the theme of today’s foray into academia, I have to consider my plans for any future apocalypses. Many years ago, after reading a glut of science fiction novels, my sister and I came up with the JONES MASTER PLAN FOR SURVIVAL. She will be raiding a library for books on farming whilst I do over a hospital for medical supplies. We will reconvene and, grabbing my parents en route, head for a lonely island with a windmill so that we can have electricity. We’re taking my parents because neither of us is quite brave enough to face the wrath of a zombie-mother. Regrettably I don’t think the plans were updated since we finished reading all that John Wyndham so frankly the boyfriends are likely to be left behind unless they’re present as the outbreak happens. This IS survival people. And no; I’m not telling you the name of our island. Get your own windmill!


*I promise; I’m not actually crazy. I don’t have a survival pack. Nor do I watch Bear Grylls/Ray Mears reality TV shows excessively.

**As I type we’re rounding Adelaide Island and heading for Rothera!

Icebergs off Adelaide Island

Adelaide Island filling the horizon


  1. Ha ha, been there done that, I just hope your island is not my island (and don't forget you have to take lots of tins, dried food and water to give you breathing space on honing your farming skills). Wasn't there a programme on the TV ?Survivers, about a similar thing? Don't remember what caused it, their apocalypse, but I do remember them using a long rubber hose to suck petrol out of a storage tank - silly things!

    1. Yes indeed! One of my favourite programmes ever. "Survivors" based on the book by Terry Nation. The original TV programme was done in the 70's and was about a woman called Abi Grant looking for her son in the wake of a bubonic plague outbreak. There were a lot of flared trousers (and some interesting social commentary)! Watching stuff like that as a kid is almost certainly why I'm so weird!