Marine biologists probe 'black box' mysteries of the sea

ld survive that kind of super-duper hurricane, but that's what these things put up with every 10 seconds when waves break on the shore," he noted.

To measure the force of individual waves, Denny and his colleagues developed a decidedly low-tech device that consists of a plastic golf ball attached to a spring scale.

"We call it a dynamometer, to give it a fancy name, but it's cheap to make, and we make them by the hundreds," he said. To measure wave forces along Monterey Bay, Denny and his coworkers drill holes into the rocky shoreline, then insert a dynamometer into each hole. When a wave hits the plastic golf ball, it stretches the spring, giving researchers an accurate measurement of the amount of force that struck the shore.

"The dynamometers see a lot of force, but it varies from place to place," Denny noted. "For instance, we have one transect with about 100 dynamometers placed about 18 inches apart. What we found is that the most exposed place will see about 13 times the force as the least exposed place just a few feet away."

Denny and his students are in the process of designing a high-tech version of the dynamometer that will replace the metal spring with an electronic sensor that continuously transmits wave force data back to the lab. He and his colleagues also are using nickel-size computers called I-Buttons that record the body temperature of shoreline organisms every 10 minutes over a two-week period.

"The take-home message is that the technology is available to measure these kind of small-scale variabilities," he concluded. "Doing big science on a big scale is important, but if you're really interested in opening the black box, you also have to look at smaller scales to be able to get the whole picture."

Barnacle babies

At the Palumbi lab, researchers have turned to genetics to unravel one of the great mysteries of the ocean black box: Do newborn marine organisms travel vast distances, or do

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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