Lasers And Glowing Dye Illuminate Ocean Processes

John Dabiri, bioengineer at Caltech, has developed new techniques for studying the motion of aquatic animals. In a recent study in the journal Nature, Dabiri and colleagues explain how swimming animals contribute to ocean mixing — the process that distributes heat, nutrients and gasses throughout the sea.

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I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Joining us now is Flora Lichtman.


FLATOW: …Video Pick Of The Week today. What have we got this week?

LICHTMAN: So this week we have a video that features a researcher, John Dabiri at Caltech, who kind of specializes in making invisible processes visible, especially under the sea. So his - he studies jellyfish.

FLATOW: Jellyfish? Woo, don't get stuck.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: It sounds simple, right?

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: They kind of float along. But it turns out that their motion is sort of more complex than that. And he's figured this out using these kind of unbelievable sci-fi techniques.

(Soundbite of whistling)

FLATOW: And you contacted him. And he gave - donated some of his film for us, right?

LICHTMAN: Right. And I think the neatest one, he has these two techniques and one is spraying jellyfish with fluorescent dye.


LICHTMAN: And when you do that you can see the movement of water behind the jellyfish, it's lit up. So you can sort of see that the movement of the jellyfish is more complicated than maybe…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: …well, than I thought.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And if you want to see these videos, you can go to our Web site at where our video's up there on the left side, Video Pick Of The Week. And in these videos, it was surprising what you saw and how they - you always see this pulsating jellyfish, right?

LICHTMAN: Right. And they push up - the kind of neat thing is that they, when they're moving, they're making these doughnuts structures behind them, these sort of swirling vortexes.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And then they push off of those doughnuts and they sort of get more push.

(Soundbite of mooing)


LICHTMAN: So they create this environment around them that they can propel themselves off of.

FLATOW: And you can only see that by putting the dye in the water.

LICHTMAN: The dye and there's also a laser. I mean, I feel like, there's…

FLATOW: You got to see.

LICHTMAN: You have to see it to believe it, really.

FLATOW: Friday night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And you can see - it's great because of - you can see how far behind, right? And how far they push back with the water?

LICHTMAN: Right. So their recent study was that how this motion of aquatic animals actually affects the marine environment. And what they found out was that - animals play a sort of significant role in mixing up the ocean water. And that's important for carrying nutrients from the…


LICHTMAN: …bottom to the top…


LICHTMAN: …and distributing heat. So, you know, it's not just doughnuts find the jellyfish.

FLATOW: Right. And it's not - it's also solving the mystery of how motility - is that's the right word, happens in water. Maybe other fish swim different ways, if he puts dye on the other fish, we see something else?

LICHTMAN: I think he's working on squid. So we should stay tuned and see if we can check back in.

FLATOW: Squid?



(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's just not food for other fish.

LICHTMAN: Okay. Why not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right, that's great. It's Flora's SCIENCE FRIDAY Pick Of The Week. It's - you go to on our Web site. Well, video there of the - what do we call the fluorescent jelly? What's our name for this one?

LICHTMAN: This one I think is using fluorescent dye and lasers…


LICHTMAN: …to illuminate…

FLATOW: …It's…

LICHTMAN: …ocean processes.

FLATOW: Turn the lights off when you watch this one.


FLATOW: Nice and spooky. Thank you, Flora.


FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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Jellyfish That Glow



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