Our Changing World

Thursday 18 September 2014, with Alison Ballance, Ruth Beran & Veronika Meduna

On This Programme

Colossal Squid Revealed

The colossal squid (left) on the deck of the Antarctic toothfish fishing boat the San Aspiring, with skipper John Bennett; (right) Kat Bolstad and a team of students holding the body of the colossal squid after it was thawed, during the live stream of their examination.

The colossal squid (left) on the deck of the Antarctic toothfish fishing boat the San Aspiring, with skipper John Bennett; (right) Kat Bolstad and a team of students holding the body of the colossal squid after it was thawed, during the live stream of their examination.

Photo: Sanford San Aspiring crew (left) RNZ / Alison Ballance (right)

Scientists from the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) got a rare chance this week at Te Papa to examine a whole colossal squid. It’s only the second time that one of these giant cephalopods has been collected intact, and a team of squid experts, led by Kat Bolstad, were keen to get new insights into this enigmatic deep-sea creature.

Colossal squid are slightly shorter but much heavier than giant squid, making them the heaviest invertebrate in the world. They have hooks and suckers on their eight arms, and swivelling hooks as well as suckers on their two long tentacles. The heaviest reported specimen weighed almost 500 kilograms; this new specimen weighed about 350 kilograms, and its body was more than 2 metres long, while its arms measured about one metre.

The dark beak of the colossal squid, which looks just like an enormous bird beak, is larger than the hand photographed alongside it for scale.

The beak of the colossal squid, shown with a hand for scale.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

They are found only in Antarctic waters, and are believed to live as deep as 2000 metres.  They have the largest eyes recorded of any animal, and it is thought that these large eyes help them to hunt in the abyssal depths. This specimen had eyes that were about 35 centimetres in diameter, which was larger than the 27 cm recorded for the previous specimen.

It is not known what they feed on, but both intact specimens have been fished up by the Sanford long-liner San Aspiring, in the Ross Sea, under skipper John Bennett. On each occasion the squid was clinging to an Antarctic toothfish that had been hooked. The stomach of this specimen contained the remains of some of its prey, and these will be analysed to give the first-ever glimpse into the animal's diet.

The colossal squid was first recognised in 1925, from a partial specimen that didn’t fit the description of any other squid, but it was many years before it was officially classified and named. Its scientific name is Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. It belongs to a family of squid called Cranchiidae, which are known as glass squids, as other much smaller members of the family are translucent.

The first intact colossal squid was gifted to Te Papa in 2007, and examined in 2008. Since then this female has been a popular exhibit at Te Papa in Wellington. Dr Bolstad and her team had hoped that this new specimen – which they think is slightly smaller than the Te Papa squid – might be a male, as no male colossal squid have ever been seen. But soon after the defrosting began they found immature eggs, indicating that this is another female.

Map showing where the colossal squid was caught on Mawson Bank in the Ross Sea.

The colossal squid was caught on Mawson Bank in the Ross Sea.

Photo: Te Papa / Google Earth

Our Changing World producer Alison Ballance visited Te Papa as the specimen was removed from the freezer and put in a tank of water to begin defrosting, and the science team were already making their first observations of the frozen mass. “We can see some very beautiful arms, and hooks and suckers, right up at the surface” said Kat.

When Alison returned the next day the squid was mostly thawed, and the team had collected a range of tissue samples. These samples will be used for later genetic work to determine how the colossal squid it related to other squid species, for stable isotope analysis that will allow its place within the Antarctic food web to be determined, and for metabolic work that might shed light on whether it’s a slow-moving animal or an energetic one.

Colossal squid are known to be commonly eaten by sperm whales in Antarctic waters, with research showing they make up nearly three quarters of the sperm whales diet.

After the colossal squid was thawed and examined, it was preserved in formalin and will be kept as part of Te Papa’s natural history collection. The examination of the colossal squid was live streamed, and more than 33,000 people tuned in at the beginning to see this rare event.

Kat Bolstad inspects one of the colossal squid's eight arms to count the suckers and hooks (left), and holds half of the lens of one eye: the entire eye, which is larger than a human head, is in the tank below (right).

Kat Bolstad inspects one of the colossal squid's eight arms to count the suckers and hooks (left), and holds half of the lens of one eye: the entire eye, which is larger than a human head, is in the tank below (right).

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Audio of Colossal Squid Examination


Healing Wounds

‘I cannot describe the feeling that you get from taking something that you’ve developed from nothing … put it into a patient and seen a result … that night I just lay in bed and gazed at the ceiling with a smile on my face.’

Colin Green, from the University of Auckland

Colin Green, at the University of Auckland, was one of the first recipients of a Marsden grant.

Photo: University of Auckland

When Colin Green, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Auckland, had a student come to him and say her experiment hadn’t worked, he had no idea it would kick-start nearly two decades of ground-breaking research into wound healing.

Direct cell-to-cell communication through structures called gap junctions has been shown to lead to wound lesion spread, inflammation and scarring. Having set up a procedure to block cell-to-cell communication on a brain lesion, Colin Green says the expected outcome was that the tissue damage would grow larger. Instead it grew smaller, thanks to the use of an experimental gel containing short single-stranded antisense DNA designed to stop the “chatter” amongst cells.

“When we wound a tissue, wound a cell, death signals get sent to neighbouring cells and that’s what we were preventing from happening … from that initial observation we then went down the road of wound healing that we’ve been going down for nearly 20 years now,” he says.

This research led to one of the first Marsden-funded research programmes. Collaborating with David Becker, a London-based cell biologist, the pair continued their research into the biology of connexin and gap junctions.

And as a result, they developed Nexagon™, a gel which works by interrupting cell communication and prevents the production of a protein that blocks healing. The first human application of the gel was in Auckland in 2005, with stunning results.

Used under compassionate consideration, the gel was applied to the eye of a patient with a severe chemical burn that was refusing to heal. Today, the man has full 20/20 vision.

This research led to the establishment of CoDa Therapeutics New Zealand and later CoDa Therapeutics Incorporated in the United States. Investment in the company and its research has come from around the world and Colin Green says they’ve raised the equivalent of NZ$90 million in investment over the last eight years.

This has enabled CoDa Therapeutics to run clinical trials on the skin and eyes.  Two phase-two trials have been completed and the team hopes the next trial will lead to Phase III trial and the eventual licensing of Nexagon. Possible applications are continuing to open up, with the realisation that people with chronic wounds such as venous or diabetic leg ulcers are responding best to the drug.

'The drug triggers the epithelium to heal over. It dampens down the inflammatory response but it also, I believe, brings back the blood vessel bed and it’s those small blood vessels that seem to be the common denominator in so many wounds that we have.'

He is now taking his research a step further to challenge a 40-year-old concept that neovascularisation feeds cancers. “We are suggesting instead, and counter intuitively to current thinking, that we need to restore or protect blood vessels in cancers - at the very least enabling better chemotherapy delivery or radiation treatment.”

But Professor Green admits he wouldn’t be where he is today without the initial help he and his team received from the Marsden Fund. “Absolutely not. By being able to explore the basic original research ideas from which, by chance almost, this commercial development came from … the whole thing skyrockets.”

Colin Green is one of the speakers in the Royal Society of New Zealand 10 by 10 lecture series which celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Marsden Fund. He will present his lecture in Wanaka on Thursday 25 September and in Rotorua on Tuesday 14 October.


'NZ Wild Life'

The cover of the book 'NZ Wild Life – introducing the weird and wonderful character of natural New Zealand’

'NZ Wild Life' cover.

Photo: Penguin NZ

‘NZ Wild Life – introducing the weird and wonderful character of natural New Zealand’ is a recent book by Palmerston North-based biologists Steve Trewick and Mary Morgan-Richards.

The book features 10 chapters, each of which centre around a single species. These species provide the tent pole around which the authors weave themes about ecosystem function, for example, or evolution. The chapter headings include two birds, four plants, two invertebrates, as well as reptiles and koura or freshwater crayfish.

“It’s definitely eclectic, but we set out not to try and write about everything because there’s just too much diversity and too much complexity,” says Steve.

“We chose just 11 or 12 main groups of plants or animals so that we could give some detail about their biology, their life history, and maybe their evolution, but also use each group to help illustrate some general principles about biology and the way biodiversity works.”

Both authors teach in the Institute of Agriculture and Environment at Massey University, and the book is based on species and research topics that the pair work on together, and on which they lecture.

Mary Morgan-Richards in the containment facility where New Zealand stick insects imported from the Scilly Isles are being hatched and raised in captivity. Mary holds a plastic storage box containing some eggs and small nymphs being reared under controlled conditions.

Mary Morgan-Richards in the containment facility where New Zealand stick insects imported from the Scilly Isles are being hatched and raised in captivity.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

One of the study animals of the Phoenix Lab are stick insects, and Mary takes Alison Ballance to a containment facility where they are hatching a New Zealand species of stick insect from eggs collected in the Scilly Isles in the UK, where two species of New Zealand stick insect have established in the wild. Different populations of the common tea-tree stick insect can reproduce either sexually or parthogenetically, and the Scilly Island insects form part of an on-going study looking at the genetics, behaviour and distribution of the 23 species of New Zealand stick insect.

One of the features of this book is the use of research data, both published and unpublished.

“We actually present some data that we haven’t published anywhere else,” says Steve, “showing how tui eating the fruit of fuchsia trees enhances the germination of the seeds of tree fuchsia. So we use, in that case, just a simple graph … and we do that quite a lot in the book. We have some simple graphs, diagrams or maps, showing distribution patterns or processes, or actually expressing some data, and that is usually something that is absent in popular biology books.”

Steve Trewick has appeared on Our Changing World previously talking about tree weta diet, and you can also hear Mary Morgan-Richards talking more about stick insects in an earlier story.

Tree Weta ( 12 min 53 sec )

Stick Insects ( 12 min 54 sec )

'NZ Wild Life' Audio


Reducing Carbon Emissions, Saving Money

A small council north of Wellington leads they way in climate change mitigation by cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by half, in just three years, and saving money along the way.

Jake Roos and plant manager Dave Bassett (left) at the Paraparaumu waste treatment plant.

Jake Roos and plant manager Dave Bassett (left) at the Kapiti Coast District Council's waste treatment plant in Paraparaumu.

Photo: RNZ / Veronika Meduna

By putting a transparent sun roof on the new local swimming pool, switching to LED street lights, deploying a prototype electric rubbish truck and switching to renewable wood energy at the waste water treatment plant, the Kapiti Coast District Council has cut its carbon emissions by 12,000 tonnes per year and is saving $330,000 (at current diesel prizes) each year. But the council’s advisor on climate change and energy, Jake Roos, says that is only part of the way towards the ultimate goal.

'Our goal is to cut the council’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2022, and we have an interim target of achieving a 45 per cent reduction. We’re on track because we’ve already gotten down below that target in years gone by.”

The Kapiti Coast District Council is the first local authority in New Zealand to be verified under CEMARS (Certified Emissions Measurement and Reduction Scheme), which requires a detailed carbon emissions inventory and a plan to reduce them. Jake Roos says the verification process meant that every aspect of the council’s operations has been audited and scrutinised for any potential to reduce emissions or to save energy. The waste water treatment plant is the council’s biggest emitter, but the decision to switch from diesel to renewable wood pellets for its boiler saved enough money to put some back into other energy-saving efforts.

“At the time the boiler went in the council also decided to set up an energy policy to ringfence those savings, obviously to pay for the boiler in the first place, but also to then start channelling that money back into other energy and emissions saving projects.”

Apart from the wood-fired boiler, the council is also installing a 32kW array of solar panels to reduce operating costs at the plant. “A lot of emissions actually cost money,” says Jake Roos. “Energy is expensive and getting more expensive all the time. There are a lot of cases where you have to spend money but you will save it within the lifecycle of the asset, or even a long time before that and actually produce net savings, which can go back to rates.”

The Kapiti Coast District Council won double honours in the 2014 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Awards for its proactive approach to energy and a range of inventive projects to improve residents’ energy efficiency and awareness.


OCW Opening Theme - Mystery Sound 12

The Our Changing World opening theme is made up of 17 sounds that appeared on the show during 2012 and 2013. The 12th mystery sound is an explosion at a science magic show.

Science Magic Show ( 12 min 5 sec )


Coming Up - Thursday 25 September

We meet Tyrannosaurus Rex and her cousins at Te Papa, join some school kids on the Great Kereru Hunt, find out about protein crystallography, and hear about the spine and how healthy discs herniate.