The spring 2018 lecture series began in March. Registration is requested. All programs start at 7 p.m. in the Aquarium’s Simons IMAX® Theatre unless otherwise noted. Programs last approximately one hour. Most lectures are recorded and available for viewing on the lecture series archive page.


Distance Vision and the Early Origins of Awareness

Thursday, May 31

David Edelman, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College

The ability to resolve distant objects within a complex visual scene probably emerged more than 500 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion, a period characterized by the appearance of diverse new sensory innovations, including every major type of eye found in living vertebrates and invertebrates today. David Edelman, Ph.D., argues that distance vision and its underlying neural circuitry provided the first critical substrates for sensory consciousness. Seeing objects from afar engendered a new sort of neural faculty that effectively linked space and time. Animals equipped with this faculty were able to not only monitor their environment for salience (e.g., identify and track predators or prey), but also make predictions about future outcomes on which their survival likely hinged. Making such predictions must necessarily have relied on an ongoing linkage between perception and memory: a connection that, some suggest, is a critical requisite for conscious experience. He makes the case that, as a capable predator with acute vision, the octopus provides a striking test case for subjective experience in an animal quite distant from the vertebrate line. Indeed, probing the octopus visual system could conceivably help identify neuroanatomical and neurophysiological properties of conscious states that are universal among animals with sophisticated sensory faculties and complex nervous systems, regardless of profound morphological differences and divergent evolutionary histories.

Breaching right whale

Marine Mammals in the Anthropocene: Keeping Endangered from Becoming Extinct

Thursday, June 7

Scott Kraus, Ph.D., Vice President and Senior Science Advisor, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium

Recent marine extinctions suggest that humanity does not have a good record of coexisting with marine mammals. Given continuing human population growth, ocean industrialization will expand, raising questions about the balance between human needs and wildlife. This is a battle that marine mammals are currently losing, but there are actions we can take to change the outcome.

First, we scientists should get better at telling our story—why wildlife matters, how marine mammals are a critical part of a functioning ecosystem, why human activities continue to threaten both marine mammals and the oceans, and no, the whales are not saved yet. Endangered species need constituencies and public support, and most don’t have enough. Second, assessment methods for rare species need improvement. Elegant population and viability models may be of limited utility in small populations because inherently small sample sizes yield large variances with little ability to detect trends. Other robust biological signals can be better at predicting impending changes in small populations. Third, small populations of marine mammals require more protected habitat, better definitions of what that means, and prohibitions on harmful activities in those areas. In some marine mammals this may mean protecting migratory corridors, from breeding to feeding grounds, across international boundaries. Fourth, the permitting and funding of rare population conservation and recovery efforts are inadequate, partly because of limited public support. Finally, although counterintuitive, scientists should work with all stakeholders, including the oil, gas, and seismic industry, the fishing industry, wind utilities, and aquaculture facilities, to help them make their activities less detrimental. We do not yet have a collective view of how marine mammals will survive in an industrialized ocean, but if we take these steps, the next generation of scientists will be able to bring a vision of coexistence closer to reality.

entangled North Atlantic right whale

Right Whales, Right Gear: Finding New Ways to Fish that Avoid Entanglements

Tuesday, June 19

Panel discussion with John Haviland, South Shore Lobster Fishermen’s Association; Laurens Howle, Duke University; Amy Knowlton, Senior Scientist, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium; and Kristan Porter, President, Maine Lobstermen’s Association

Moderated by Tim Werner, Senior Scientist, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium and Director, Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction

Fishing is an important economic mainstay of New England and part of its cultural heritage. North Atlantic right whales are a critical natural component of the region’s coastal waters. Where the two meet, entanglements happen, mainly as whales become wrapped in buoy ropes used to locate and haul pots resting on the seafloor. Two unlikely bedfellows—fishermen and research scientists—are working collaboratively to save whales and pot fisheries alike, studying solutions that include novel designs for ropes that are strong enough for fishing but weak enough for right whales to release themselves. Come listen to members of an expert panel discuss their perspectives on right whale entanglements and ideas for solving them.

Kara Yopak, Are Sharks Smart? spring 2018 lecture

Are Sharks Smart? Exploring the Brain of Sharks and Their Relatives

Thursday, June 21

Kara E. Yopak, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Selection for cognitive ability has been proposed as a key factor driving the evolution of larger brains and/or the brain structures associated with problem solving, social behavior, and other cognitively demanding tasks. These brain structures are often subject to different selection pressures, resulting in a significant degree of variation in brain size and complexity across vertebrates. Kara Yopak, Ph.D., explores major evolutionary patterns of brain organization in fishes, with particular emphasis on one of the most basal vertebrate groups, the cartilaginous fishes, which includes sharks, skates, rays, and chimaerids. Across a dataset of more than 150 species–including iconic species such as the great white shark to species with extreme morphological specializations, like the filter feeding whale shark–Yopak will explore how the variation in the size and complexity of major brain structures reflect an animal’s ecology, even in phylogenetically unrelated species that share certain lifestyle characteristics. These data may pave the way for predicting cognitive function and/or more complex behavioral repertoires in fishes, with implications for how “intelligence” has evolved across vertebrates.

polar bear swimming in ocean. Andy Mann photo for Spring 2018 lecture series.

Ocean Conservation Storytelling

Thursday, June 28

Andy Mann, Conservation Photographer and Filmmaker, National Geographic, SeaLegacy

With the magnificent honor of documenting the world’s oceans comes the incredible responsibility of telling these stories correctly and to the right people. Through photo and video storytelling, Andy Mann and SeaLegacy aim for the highest level of cinematography and social impact in order to bring change and raise awareness for our most threatened marine ecosystems. Through multimedia, Mann will share stories (and misadventures) from his excursions in all seven continents, including recent diving expeditions to Antarctica, the Arctic, Cuba, Macaronesia, and other locales, shining light on our most precious and threatened ecosystems.

Roger Gentry, lecture

Up Close with the Northern Fur Seal

Tuesday, July 10

Roger L. Gentry, Ph.D., Director, ProScience Consulting, LLC

In 1974, Roger Gentry started gathering detailed information about the lives of the individual fur seals on land and at sea. This talk focuses on the social behavior of this species as seen from observation blinds, some laboratory experiments using captive adults to study their mating system, and pioneering work on their diving behavior at sea. The first-ever Time-Depth Recorders, invented by Gentry’s colleague Jerry Kooyman, will be shown.

Florencia Vilches, MCAF Fellow, Spring 2018 Lecture series

The Southern Right Whales of Argentina: A 47-year Story Written by Biological Research and Citizen Science

Thursday, July 12

Florencia Ornela Vilches, New England Aquarium Marine Conservation Action Fund Fellow* and Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas researcher

Right whales can be identified by the callosities pattern on their heads. A photographic catalog of 3,200 individually identified southern right whales has been built up on their calving ground at Península Valdés, Argentina, through annual aerial surveys since 1971. This long-term database is a unique resource for research, conservation, and education, and is the backbone of the Right Whale Program, run by Ocean Alliance and Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB) in the United States and Argentina, respectively. However, the database still represents a relatively small sample of whale life histories occurring in Valdés. To increase this sample size, eight whale watch photographers have contributed 460,000 photographs of whales taken between 2003 and 2016. The operators want to share the life histories of the individual whales they are seeing with about 110,000 tourists they host each year.

Supported by the Marine Conservation Action Fund, ICB researcher Florencia Vilches and Victoria Rowntree, the director of the Right Whale Program in the United States, created a way to integrate these boat-based photographs with the aerial survey catalog. Florencia is directing this project and working with members of the whale watching companies, volunteers with ICB, and local students. Join Florencia in learning how a long-term study resulted in whale life histories, how each of them has contributed to the knowledge about this population, and how a combination of scientific research and the active participation of citizens succeed in filling critical data gaps for a better assessment of the health of Valdés whales and their habitat.

* The MCAF Fellows Program is supported in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Paul Greenberg, Spring 2018 lecture series

The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet

Thursday, July 19

Paul Greenberg, James Beard Award-winning author

Omega-3 fatty acids have long been celebrated by doctors and dieticians as key to a healthy heart and a sharper brain. In the last few decades, that promise has been encapsulated in one of America’s most popular dietary supplements. Today, Omega-3s are a multibillion-dollar business, and sales are still growing apace, even as recent medical studies caution that the promise of omega-3s may not be what it first appeared.

But a closer look at the omega-3 sensation reveals something much deeper and more troubling. The miracle pill is only the latest product of the reduction industry, a vast, global endeavor that over the last century has boiled down trillions of pounds of marine life into animal feed, fertilizer, margarine, and dietary supplements. The creatures that are the victims of that industry seem insignificant to the untrained eye, but turn out to be essential to the survival of whales, penguins, and fish of all kinds, including many that we love to eat.

Behind these tiny molecules is a big story: of the push and pull of science and business, of the fate of our oceans in a human-dominated age, of the explosion of land food at the expense of healthier and more sustainable seafood, and of the human quest for health and long life at all costs.

James Beard Award-winning author Paul Greenberg probes the rich and surprising history of omega-3s, from the dawn of complex life, when these compounds were first formed; to human prehistory, when the discovery of seafood may have produced major cognitive leaps for our species; and on to the modern era, when omega-3s may point the way to a bold new direction for our food system.

Paul will sign copies of his new book, The Omega Principle, in the Simons IMAX® Theatre lobby directly following his presentation.

These programs are made possible due to the generous support of the Lowell Institute. Founded in 1836 with a mission to inform the populace regardless of gender, race, or economic status, the Lowell Institute has reached thousands of Boston-area residents by sponsoring free public lectures and other educational programs.
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