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There is Science in Sherman’s Lagoon

Drawing of Earl the OpahJim Toomey is one of my favourite cartoonists. His Sherman’s Lagoon is right up there among the first comic strips that I check out each day. Toomey has been taking us on a tour of Sherman’s Lagoon since 1991. Of course he brings a lot of creative skills and talent to this comic strip, but one additional important detail - Jim Toomey is a #STEM cartoonist. He is an engineer by academic training and he has a Master’s degree in Environmental Management. In my experience, when Toomey brings in a new character to the strip, bonus! I learn something new.

This year beginning December 1 to December 12, we met Earl the Opah fish. In his own words, Earl told us he was a “colorful fish with a rare attribute… Opahs happen to be warm-blooded”.

When the original research paper describing opahs as warm-blooded was published in May 2015, it was perhaps predictable that there would be controversy since the idea of a warm-blooded fish challenges much long-held understanding. Part of the debate also centered around one of the identified skills of a scientist: what we call ‘operational definitions’. Different scientists have different definitions of what it means to be warm-blooded.

The following is a paragraph from Modern Biology, a textbook widely used in Canada and the United States in the 1980s:

Many animals do not have a constant body temperature. These animals are “cold-blooded,” or poikilothermic. They include fish, amphibians and reptiles. Their body temperatures change with the temperatures of the environment. Birds and mammals are “warm-blooded” or homoiothermic. Their body temperatures remain fairly constant even when the temperature of the environment changes.”

Many introductory courses in Biology use an approach we call the ‘waltz through the kingdoms’ looking at the distinguishing features and building knowledge of the organisms from the simple to the complex. There may be many good pedagogical reasons for doing this, but one negative is that students get the impression that everything is fixed. Thus we have cold-blooded fish appearing about 530 million years ago and warm-blooded mammals arriving 160 million years ago. We need to remember though that fish have had that entire 530 million years to evolve themselves.

At this time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the major group supporting research on opah fish. What they tell us may not be entirely reassuring. They say that:
  • “little research on the basic biology and ecology of opah has been conducted.
  • Opah is not currently managed under a Fishery Management Plan (FMP). In fact, little is known about the biology, population status, and ecology of opah in the California Current.”

Search for opah recipes and you will find many results because this fish has become a very popular seafood. [Spoiler Alert] Even in Sherman’s Lagoon, Earl the Opah was eaten by Sherman on day 10. We don’t know if opah fish will return to the lagoon. And without a lot more research by NOAA, we don’t know what will be the fate of opah in the open ocean either.

Jim Toomey was awarded the NOAA Environmental Hero Award in 2000. If he has got us all thinking about the fate of the opah fish, perhaps he will be winning awards like this again.

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There is Science in Sherman’s Lagoon

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