Thursday, September 26, 2013

Answer: What IS that thing? Another undersea mystery.

Yesterday's challenge wasn't all that hard.  There were a number of good clues here. 
I'd said "In around 30 feet of water (10 m), I found several instances of this... " 
General world knowledge tells you that this is something in a tropical reef, and it occurs not too deeply.  
I also gave you a few clue words:  "spheres" and calling them "pearly."  I wanted to say that because the opalescence doesn't quite come across in the photos.  

When I started this search, I really didn't have any clue what they were.  I figured they were some kind of algae, but that was a pure guess.  The ocean has all KINDS of mysterious creatures in it, ones that defy your normal terrestrial boundaries.  
So I started this search as several others did.  I used "plant" rather than "algae" since I really wasn't very sure: 
     [ spherical reef plant ] 
And that was enough to get me to a page on "Coral reef plants" which mentions "...Grape algae (Valonia ventricosa) - this odd algae grows in a spherical form with peg-like attachments that fasten it to a hard surface..."  
In this case, it was the text, rather than the image that caught my attention.  I'd described it as "spherical" because it (and the pearly quality) were the most striking characteristics.  I figured that anyone writing about it would comment on that.  
So I next looked up the scientific name, Valonia ventricosa, and I knew I had the answer.  The Knowledge Panel (see below) had an image that was striking. 

Valonia ventricosa, also known as "bubble algae" and "sailors’ eyeballs" (a remarkably vivid common name) is a species of oceanic algae around the world in tropical and subtropical regions.
Even more amazing: These things are single cells, one of (perhaps THE) largest single cell organism around.  
 Clicking on the Wikipedia entry, I read a bit about them, and then, as I often do, I clicked through the links on the article.   
The first link was broken.  It was a link to:
I thought this might be an interesting article, so I did a query to see if that article was still on that website: 
     [  Gazing_Balls_in_the_Sea ] 
Sure enough, it's still there (I should go fix up the Wikipedia entry to reflect this).  And it IS an interesting article.  These things are also called "sea pearls" (makes sense), AND the article mentioned "...Ventricaria ventricosa, or Valonia ventricosa..."
Well.. that's interesting.  Two names for the same plant?  
I kept following up the other links (and found other problems), but was impressed when I followed the last link on the Wikipedia article, a reference to the AlgaeBase site.  The link is to the AlgaeBase description of the "sailor's eyeballs." 
This is pretty clearly the definitive site for questions about algae.  And here you can see the story.  
The original publication describing this plant was published in: 
Agardh, J.G. (1887). Till algernes systematik. Nya bidrag. (Femte afdelningen.). Acta Universitatis Lundensis 23(2): 1-174, 5 plates.  
If you're curious, you can see the original publication.  (PDF)  This is the way science used to operate--it's in Latin.  It's long text passages.  There are a few lovely sketches at the end. 
But what's with the two names? 
The original name was given by J. Agardh in the late 19th century.  But as AlgaeBase points out: “This name, Ventricaria ventricosais,  currently regarded as a taxonomic synonym of Valonia ventricosa."  
Renaming and reclassification happens all the time.  What USED to be called a brontosaurus is now called an apatosaurus. A similar thing happened here.  A newer publication came out put Valonia into a new category, Ventricaria.  

In that paper, Olsen and West point out that our favorite algae actually belongs to a newly described genus that they call Ventricaria.  If you look at publications since 1988, they all (well, nearly all) use the new name. -- tells that it’s a problem
1.  What IS that thing?  Answer:  Ventricaria ventricosa, previously known as Valonia ventricosa.  Common names:  bubble algae, sailor's eyeballs, sea pearls.  

The second question asked how to control it.  To answer this, I thought I'd try asking an easy query: 
     [ bubble algae aquarium problem ] 
That took me to which has a long, really interesting article with more information about Valonia / Ventricaria (including great photos of other forms of the algae).  
It ALSO has a long section about controls, including the use of snails and crabs to eat them.  In particular, the article mentions the crab Mithrax sculptus (aka "green" or "emerald" crab) as a way to control the spread of bubble algae in your tank.  
2.  What biological agent might you use to control them in your salt water aquarium?   Answer:  You might try using a crab in your tank to eat up the bubble algae. 

However, not everything is perfect. 
3.  (Extra credit)  Why does it now seem that the use of this biological agent might be a really bad idea? 
The article also mentions that the crabs, as they dine, might well end up spreading spores from the interior of the bubble, and end up making matters worse.  You start with one algal cell, but end up with them infesting the tank.  
I also checked on Google Scholar for: 
     [ emerald crab control bubble algae ] 
And found this interesting article that confirms what we read at ReefKeeping: Efficiency of using emerald crabs Mithraculus sculptus to control bubble alga Ventricaria ventricosa (syn. Valonia ventricosa) in aquaria habitats  (see (2) below).  " the crab tears the algal cell apart, the cell liquid that contains juvenile cytoplasmatic spheres is released into the water; this behaviour might contribute to algal dispersal and consequently algal infestation. These results seem to indicate that M. sculptus might not be such an efficient bio-controller of the pest V. ventricosa as previously thought..." 

Search lessons:  There are a couple of things to note here. 

1.  Keyword choice:  Try to use terms that you think someone else would use.  If it's not working for you, ask someone else for the words they would use to describe it.  

2.  Wikipedia as a starting point: As we've discussed, Wikipedia is a great place to start your research on a topic, but don't think of it as the ending point.  In this article, Wikipedia has dead links (easily fixable), and uses outdated names in the article.  

3.  Triangulate what you find:  Look for multiple sources to get the same data in different ways.  I used Scholar to find that article about emerald crabs, and I found AlgaeBase as a great authoritative source for the latest on algae from a botanical perspective.  

Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did! 

Tomorrow, the resolution of the parrotfish problem! 

Search on!

(1) Olsen, J.L. & West, J.A. (1988)."Ventricaria (Siphonocladales-Cladophorales complex, Chlorophyta), a new genus for Valonia ventricosa."  Phycologia 27: 103-108.  

(2) Figueiredo, Joana, et al. "Efficiency of using emerald crabs Mithraculus sculptus to control bubble alga Ventricaria ventricosa (syn. Valonia ventricosa) in aquaria habitats." Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the UK88.01 (2008): 95-101.  


  1. Question about terminology? You used the term "knowledge panel" and I used the term "knowledge graph." Doing a search for [ knowledge panel knowledge graph ] I see a few posts with both used. Is the knowledge graph the over all linkage of knowledge panels? Just trying to use the correct terms.

    1. Good question. There's been some ambiguity here, so let me clarify.

      A "knowledge panel" is the UI in the upper right corner that shows up ("triggered") when a query matches some major entity in the "knowledge graph." The "knowledge graph" is the giant database of facts that Google knows about the world. You can think of it as a vast repository of knowledge. It's a "graph" because its made up of entities that are related to each other by relationships, which we think of as links between the nodes.

      So the PANEL is driven by the GRAPH, which accumulates a bunch of facts and relationships on that topic.

  2. Good morning, Dr. Russell!

    I enjoyed this challenge as usual. I chose the wrong words and even when I tried many, they were not the right ones. I tried with sphere, pearly, inhabitants, pest. I thought it could be an animal or a plant so that is why used inhabitant. Reading the answers found 2 good words that I didn´t try. Sphere-like and marine life.

    Another mistake I made is that used more image search than web search.

    I learn a lot...Again! Thanks Dr. Russell and all my SearchResearch friends!

    1. The word "inhabitant" is a bit too specialized (in English) to be a good search term for this challenge. It would be if you were searching for the occupant of a shell (e.g., the "inhabitant" of a discarded shell, as you'd see with a hermit crab).

      A big part of search skill is knowing the fine distinctions between search terms and how they'd be used.

      My searching in Spanish would be terrible for that reason. I know the words, but not all of the interesting context that goes along with that term's use.

    2. Thanks Dr. Russell, for your answer.

      I agree with you. I know the words and not always the concept fits to the term.

      That is why your Challenges for me have more advantages. I learn new words, terms, uses; and I practice English.

  3. Dr. Russell & searchers

    I am currently learning spanish on line and I've been thinking about the difficulties I would have in seeking effective keywords in spanish. Ramón assuming English is your second language I would think this makes it much more difficult. Finding the right words & word order makes searching efficient. I wish I was better at crossword puzzles because I think that would help.

    I have a question about a video I happened to see today, date unknown. It was Matt Cutts(?) from Google discussing "Search Results Snippets". He mentioned a tool called "note this" which I understand would appear on results. It seemed like it would be a great tool for saving results automatically in Google Notebook (now Google Documents). My method is to use Google Drive. I copy the links and paste them into Google Drive in a document for the current challenge. It would be great if I could just automatically save these links in a Google document. This challenge I forgot a couple links and had to go back through my history to find them. I usually bookmark them as well. It would be wonderful if I could make a note to myself without switching in and out of Drive. Is there a better way to automatically track my work?

    1. Hi RoseMary!

      Yes, English is my second language. I have been learning through reading, watching tv with Closed Caption, with the Internet. Sometimes is hard to understand like Dr. Russell says the term and others you mix one word with other.

      I have to say, SearchResearch Challenges are great to learn English because you search for things you don´t know and that expands your vocabulary, creating at the same time links to the images and information you find.

      About your question, maybe you can use Save to Chrome

      Also you can create note to self if in Android. That saves in Google Keep and also you can save in PC.

      Hope it helps.

  4. Alas... Poor Google Notebook. I worked on it (one of my first Google projects) and felt terrible when it was sunsetted.

    That was exactly the behavior we had.

    What *I* do is to use my large monitor to keep a Google Doc open in another window. I then drag & drop the links (and often a bit of the surrounding text) out of the SERP and directly into the Doc.

    Did you know you could do that? Incredibly handy.

    If not many people know about this, I'll make a 1MM video about it over the weekend.

  5. Hello! I just found a new article about Coral Reefs and Darwin Paradox. It is very intersting and related in a way to Valonia Ventricosa, because of the reef.

    Sponges help coral reefs thrive in ocean deserts