It Snows under the Sea

Or how to transform a scientific paper into an animated short film…

by Laura Duran Suja and Johanne Vad

In Academia, scientific publications are the main way which research is communicated to other scientists. Many studies are therefore never translated into a format that can be easily understood by non-specialist audiences. Moreover, scientific papers are usually confined to a strict format (e.g. Abstract, Introduction, Material and Methods, Results and Discussion) which doesn’t give the authors any opportunity to exercise their creative thinking. We wanted to try and change this with one of our latest publications. Thanks to funding from the Horizon 2020 Atlas and iAtlantic projects, the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences and SAGES, we decided to transform our most recent paper into short-animated movies for kids (and kids at-heart!). However, two problems quickly emerged:

  1. neither of us had any idea about how to go about making an animated film and,
  2. neither of us can draw…

Thankfully we were quickly joined in our efforts by illustrator extraordinaire Manuel Berbin. So, get your popcorn ready, here is the X-Mas release of It Snows Under the Sea, an animated movie explaining the impacts of an oil spill from the perspective of deep-sea creatures! Enjoy!

Would you prefer to watch the movie in Spanish? See here!

Our research study

Breadcrumb sponge collected at low tide from Coldingham Bay. Photo Credit: Kelsey Archer Barnhill.

Sponges are important but understudied marine animals that sit at the bottom of the sea and feed by filtering huge amounts of seawater. In the deep sea, sponges can colonise the seabed at such densities that they create sponge grounds, a type of habitat where fish, crabs and other creatures live. In Scotland, the Faroe-Shetland Channel Sponge Belt (see here for further details) is a Marine Protected Area where sponge grounds occur but also within which oil production takes place. As such, it is crucial to better understand what the impacts of an oil spill could be on these sponges and how best to clean up a spill. To figure this out, we collected samples of the ‘Breadcrumb sponge’ from the Scottish shoreline, brought them back into our laboratory in Edinburgh and exposed them to oil. We then measured the sponges’ health status, filtering capacity and microbiome activity (sponges are hosts to a large community of microbes that keep them healthy, just like humans and their gut microbiomes). Our results were compelling: all sponges exposed to crude oil stopped filtering seawater, leading to a complete change in the microbiome activity and ultimately caused all sponges to die within 7 days of exposure. We believe it is therefore crucial that we consider these results (1) when drilling for oil in new areas where sponge grounds are present and (2) when deciding on the methods used to clean up a potential oil spill.

The making of It Snows Under the Sea

Bringing our crab character to life. Photo Credit: Manuel Berbin.

It Snows Under the Sea is the result of a true collaboration between illustrator Manuel Berbin, marine oil snow expert Laura Duran Suja and me, sponge enthusiast, Johanne Vad. While Laura and I had a pretty good understanding of the facts we wanted to communicate, we had no idea how to go about it. Manuel was therefore key and suggested that we first create a script for our short movie. Manuel then drew some initial sketches, and the story came together from there. After a few rounds of editing in order to cut-down the length of our movie (Manuel showed true patience with us here), we just needed to record the voice overs. We called upon brave volunteers and recruited our friends and families to give voices to our characters in two languages. We also put ourselves forward for some of the characters. All of this was achieved at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, while we were all stuck at home in Argentina, Spain and Scotland!

Our advice for others

Are you a researcher and do you want to do something similar? Here are a few things we learned along the way:

  1. Keep your story simple and clear – You can only say so much in a short story.
  2. Recruit a great artist and follow their advice – If like us, you are not an expert illustrator, then do not hesitate to get help. We used the online tendering platform UpWork (other platforms are also available) to connect with Manuel.
  3. Have fun! – This was such an enjoyable side project to distract us from the initial rounds of lockdown and lead Laura and I to think about our research in a very different way. We would definitely recommend it!

Want to know more about the study?

If you would like to read the paper and see the full set of results we obtained, please see here: Vad, J., Duran Suja, L., Summers, S., Henry, T. B., & Roberts, J. M. (2022). Marine Sponges in a Snowstorm – Extreme Sensitivity of a Sponge Holobiont to Marine Oil Snow and Chemically Dispersed Oil Pollution. Frontiers in Microbiology, 0, 2342.

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