Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Some Okeanos Explorer Dumbo Octopus Love!

Just a bit of off-topic this week. Saw this GREAT dumbo octopus during the Atlantis II seamount dive on the Okeanos Explorer cruise this weekend and thought it was too great not to share.

NMFS cephalopod expert Mike Vecchione has identified this one as Grimpoteuthis sp. Generally speaking though, "dumbo octopus" applies to one of two genera, Grimpoteuthis or Opisthoteuthis.

The two genera are quite diverse. Grimpoteuthis includes about 18 species (according to marinespecies.org) whereas Opisthoteuthis includes about 20. Although these two genera are separated into distinct families, my understanding is that there is some disagreement over the taxonomy of the group.

The video followed this guy around from the water column down to the rock, after which it eventually swam off..

This was kind of a neat moment, when it sort of inverted and we could see the webbing between the arms.. 


Close up on the head, eyes and flippers..

And from the 2014 Gulf of Mexico cruise, THIS Awesome video which showed some of that unusual tentacle folding during the swimming motion.  Based on the original account here, I believe Dr. Vecchione has also identified the one in the video as Grimpoteuthis.
and I suppose I'll cheat a bit and include the E/V Nautilus dumbo octopus video... I'm not sure if this one is the same genus as the one above however...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Let's Meet the Deep-Sea Stars of the North Atlantic Canyons! Your Guide to Starfishy Okeanos Exploring!


 This week a special OKEANOS Explorer Treat!              

Owing to a fantastic combination of various technologies: deep-sea subersibles, HD cameras, quick and efficient internet transmission and the wonder of social media, not only do we have LIVE streams of deep-sea biology and exploration via the R/V Okeanos Explorer, BUT we have for the ability for almost ANYONE to tune and watch discoveries as they happen! AND watching and observing the scientists making these discoveries as they happen!

Thanks to Twitter and even a special Facebook Group that takes screengrabs of things seen by the ROV we now have a unique circumstance:  Exploration of the deep-sea being seen by everyone!! and not just scientists!!

But, the starfish you encounter on these dives are not exactly common place. Starting to learn about them first entails knowing which ones are which! Not an easy task given how poorly known how some of these species are. Some of these have never been seen alive! And that's where I come in.

And so as my BIG GIFT to people (scientists AND non-scientists) who are following the Okeanos Explorer  2014 LIVE deep-sea feed, here is a gallery/field guide of deep-sea starfishes observed along the North Atlantic east coast!! 

To be clear, this list of starfish species that is known from the deep-sea Atlantic region (>1000 m in this case) is likely INCOMPLETE.. It is biased by what I've been able to identify and the limits of the known science of each species. So, yes we WILL still probably see things that are not on this post. And eventually, these things will see publication...as many are new records.

A caveat about use: This is mainly for use in the North Atlantic along the east coast of North America. Some of the genera (e.g., Novodinia, Hymenaster, Pteraster) occur world wide so you'll see them in deep-sea pictures in many places. Some, such as Porania pulvillus may also occur in very shallow water, which is unusual. But you can' t necessarily expect to find all of these species in say, Hawaii or even the nearby Gulf of Mexico.  Where species occur is often a funny thing in biology, likely dependent on a number of factors that make those places suitable for a specific species.

My thanks in advance to Dr. Chris Kellogg (@DrChrisKellogg ), Carina M. Gsottbauer (@CarinaDSLR) AND the members of the Facebook Underwater Screengrab Group for their diligence!

1. Tremaster mirabilis (Asterinidae)
Here's an animal we don't know much about. Go here to see more of what this species looks like. It occurs widely in the Atlantic, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Antarctic in fairly deep water. Video images from OE were the first time that I'd ever seen this species alive. Its been imaged alive in tropical Pacific but never quite this nicely...
                            
2. Chondraster grandis (I think). (Poraniidae)
We don't know much about this. Someone collected it and named in back in 1878 but we really don't have any info about its biology. Its living color wasn't even really known until recently.

The body form in these is very unusual. Very soft and has kind of the texture of a mango.

Which brings us to this mystery. Same animal... I think?  But TWO colors?? Is one a new species? Or could the body color simply be variation??  This is where collected specimens permit us to examine the body and perhaps extract DNA to study the possibility that there could be separate species being seen...

3. Porania pulvillus (Poraniidae)
I have previously written about this species from shallower water, feeding on various cnidarians based on crowd-sourced images!   Whereas once thought of as a fairly passively feeding species, new observations now suggest its a bit more of a predator than had previously been thought. 

The white patterns show the papulae (or gills) as well as folds in the skin of the body. The entire body is overlain by a kind of thick tissue which makes it soft. So, like Chondraster grandis, this species also feels kind of like a mango if you touch it. 
Interestingly, here is a shallow-water individual (from Norway) of what I think is the SAME species for comparison. Similar pattern but different color!  Based on the museum specimens, morphologically, these are nearly indistinguishable. but does this indicate a separate species??
               

4. Neomorphaster forcipatus (Stichasteridae)
This is by FAR one of the most commonly encountered species during the Okeanos Explorer expeditions.

We don't know much about the actual biology of this species. We don't know anything about how/what it eats or what/how it reproduces or even anything about its ecology.  The genus Neomorphaster also occurs in the eastern Atlantic in the deeps off Europe.

These are deep-sea members of what is mostly a Southern Hemisphere group, the Stichasteridae.
Stichasterids are a basal group within the  Forcipulatacea (i.e., an early branching within the evolutionary history of the group), a large group of starfishes which also includes the common starfish Asterias as well as the brisingids and 6 rayed starfish below. A post about their family tree is here
                             
5. 6-armed starfish? Ampheraster? or Unknown Asteriid/pedicellasterid?
This one is kind of a mystery. It could be several possible genera or species. The names probably mean nothing to most people. But basically, this is likely a distant relative of Asterias. But we've not collected one. So uncertainty remains. It could be new! Or it could be known. I briefly discussed this in an earlier Okeanos post here. 
                             
6. Novodinia americana? (Brisingidae)
BRISINGIDS!  My favorite critters! These are actually starfish which use tiny little wrench-like structures called pedicellariae to capture food as water currents  carry it through their arms. Sort of like velcro. See my full article on brisingids here

Brisingids are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to identify from pictures. Usually, you can't because the features used to identify it need to be studied under a microscope.

Fortunately,  Novodinia has a large swollen arm region around the disk with very thick spines as you can see below..

7. "Brisingid" Not sure which...
BUT after you get past Novodinia, the identifications of different brisingid sea stars becomes pretty difficult since none of the diagnostic features are visible from pictures..There are MANY encountered in these deep-sea habitats and probably several species which are not easily registered from pictures.

But they remain striking members of the deep-sea community.. Go here to see more of this
8. Evoplosoma sp. (Goniasteridae)
Evoplosoma!  A deep-sea octocoral predator! Often seen feeding on various bamboo "corals" (i.e. members of the Isididae). I wrote at some length about these here.  There's several species of this genus in this region and its difficult to make the call on these from pictures.
                            
From one of the recent dives:  you see all those bare branches on this bamboo coral?? That's Evoplosoma chowing down on the "meat" of the coral... Its not unusual to see them climbing high up into the branches of such a colony..

9. Ceramaster granularis? (Goniasteridae)
A so-called "cookie star" This species might be the shallower-water C. granularis or maybe something else?  Likely, feeding on encrusing organisms or the "goo" on the substrate but we really don't know.
                             
10. Pythonaster, probably  P. atlantidis
This was a RARE one. Barely known from 2 or 3 specimens, this is probably one of the FIRST living pictures of this species ever taken! We know NOTHING about its biology.

I wrote about it in more detail here.  Let's hope we see another one in the next few weeks!
11. Peribolaster or ??
Another rarely encountered species. Haven't even quite figured out what this one is yet. But it has what looks to be an osculum, i.e., an opening on the central disk to allow water onto the body surface.

What is an osculum?? Look to the links on pterasterids below....
12. Hymenaster? (probably)
This genus of sea star, is widespread around the world's oceans. Another poorly known group of animals..but with a very distinctive appearance and the ability to produce mucus as a defense mechanism! Go here to see more on this..
13. Pteraster sp. 
The other genus of "slime star" with shallow and deep-water members. The link about slime stars is here.. Note the osculum.. the opening that allows water in and shoots mucus out

14. Lophaster
Wasn't sure what this one was for certain. But it has spines along the surface that suggests a widespread cold-water group. We'll have to keep our eyes open for more of these...

If this IS Lophaster, then it would be the 5-rayed relative to Solaster, the sun star (below... )
15. Solaster sp. 

16. Henricia sp. 1
I have not written much about this group because the genus Henricia is a huge mess for taxonomists (i.e., people who describe new species and new diversity)..  Why?  Because these starfishes are all VERY similar in appearance to one another on a widespread scale! There are at least 2 species in this region. 

Yes, species in this group occur all around the world. VERY widespread. But even in a very specific area, they can be nearly identical in appearance.  So, unfortunately, unless the species is highly unusual (has > 5 arms, etc.) these are quite difficult to tell apart...

So, is that it?? Have I revealed ALL the STARFISH SECRETS???   Nope.  But knowing the names is the START of knowledge! I encourage everyone to let me know if you see any on these dives that is NOT on this post. Or if you see ANY of these species doing something, eating, spawning etc. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Five Surprising Points about Discovering New Species & Taxonomy

Austin H. Clark, first curator of echinoderms at the Smithsonian's NMNH. Also, butterfly enthusiast.
This week, a post about my broader field.. TAXONOMY, evolution and the discovery of new species!

Many of you may or may not realize that, although I am widely studied in echinoderms, my *actual* research focuses on starfish, specifically the diversity of starfish, including the description of new species and how they "fit" into the evolutionary classification of the echinoderms and all other animals.  I've written a bit about the description of new species before (many years ago now) here.  here and here.

Taxonomy is often one of the first things you learn about biology. How do you classify the organism? Plant? Animal?  Phylum? Class? Family? Genus?  Species?
                                               
There are scientists (and citizen scientists) whose entire expertise is devoted to studying a singular group of plants, animals, or "other" (protists, fungi, etc.) just as mine is devoted to studying sea stars.

These scientists, such as myself, discover which species are new, which are known and place them within a broad "family tree" of relationships. It is the ongoing effort of these scientists to document potentially important new species for a variety of reasons. Some have important medical uses, others are economically important.. while others are ecologically important.

Some, such as the recent and mysterious genus Dendrogramma may have broad evolutionary relevance to our understanding of life on Earth.  Or at the very least, might just be some odd, evolutionary novelty which has peaked everyone's curiosity.

New species are exciting! and hold the promise of new knowledge. A new predator?? A living member of an extinct group?? Or perhaps a new species with an unusual adaptation??

This whole process of discovering new species has changed over the years. So, here are some recent discussions/dynamics/opportunities that I find worth mentioning and that might be surprising.

A caveat: the points below are skewed towards what I have experienced and how the broad patterns have relevance to what I've done. So, yeah, plants, fungus and protists are a bit different but much of the essential dynamic remains the same. And yes.. there's undoubtedly some stuff I've left out.

5. There are a LOT of new species left to be found, but are there enough scientists to describe them? (Data from Costello et al. 2013. Science 339: 413-416) and Tancoigne & Dubois 2013. Cladistics 29: 567-570
In 2002, a one month survey of the seabed in New Caledonia found 127,652 specimens and 2,738 species of mollusks. 80% of them were new to science!  

MANY new species await discovery and description. But do we have enough scientists who can do so?? Are we losing that expertise? Is there not enough taxonomy being done to document organisms before extinction overtakes them?? This is part of what is called the "Taxonomic Impediment",i.e. the number of species/taxa described is limited (and possibly declining) relative to their need.  

One interesting contradictory result in answer to this question in the the two recent papers above, is that both of those papers allege that there are MORE taxonomists (people who describe new species and etc.) and MORE papers about new species being published now than there have been in the past.

But then, WHY is there still a perception that there STILL aren't enough taxonomists? And is that expertise decreasing?
Tancoigne & Dubois have argued that essentially, even though there are MORE people working, the problem is BIGGER. And so, we haven't really upped our game so much as we have just "kept up" rather than made a real dent in the problem. Taxonomic inertia rather than momentum.

Remember that there is an urgency to describe the world's biodiversity before it goes extinct. This is the so-called "6th Extinction" or "Holocene Extinction." You can go here to see more about it. 

The question is complex.. but I can tell you that from my experience, I am currently considered one of the only regularly publishing, broadly trained starfish taxonomists/systematists. There are a couple of regional specialists and maybe 3 starfish paleontologists but very few people work on the broad biodiversity of starfishes.  (as I did here in Japan early this year..)
                                
I have a backlog of easily a dozen or more species currently "cued up" in my "immediate projects" list. With many, MANY more waiting my attention. Remember that trip I took to the North Pacific with MBARI?  Almost ALL of the species I found were new! Who knows how many more new species await discovery with more workers in the wings?? So I guess that boils down to the question "Is that enough?" 

There are easily whole phyla of animals for whom there may be all of one or two specialists in the world. Based on what I've read the estimates for undiscovered marine biodiversity, especially for invertebrates is pretty high.  And I can definitely tell you that the number of staff or faculty jobs for invertebrate zoologist/taxonomists is pretty small.

So, yeah.. we're gonna need more taxonomists! But also jobs!

4. Most new species are "found" in museum collections rather than immediately on expeditions.
So, you know how I'm always taking these big trips to Paris, here and here. and Japan? This is because I'm visiting museums which have extensive holdings of deep-sea Indo-Pacific starfishes.

While its certainly true that I go into the field to collect starfishes in remote and exotic places (e.g., Antarctica-see below)
The truth is that many of the new species I've described are found from rooting around through buckets and which looks more like this.
Every time I go back to say, the collections in Paris I can reliably depend on finding several new species.

A paper by Fontaine, Perrard and Bouchet (2012) report on time between museum storage & publication (more on that below) but they review one important point: Most specimens accumulate in museums following collection. Its often a misconception that new species are automatically recognized in the field and whisked away to be instantly described.... (although yes, it does happen..it depends..)

They are often stored in a museum, where they are sorted, preserved and shelved until a scientist can work on them.

How long does that take between museum storage to publication??

3. It takes on average about 21 years for a species to be described from "shelf" to publication
This is something I can verify: A new species can take a LONG time to reach publication. Note this new genus and species from Antarctica I described in 2011. Collection date?? 14 March, 1966!! This was collected 4 years before I was born!! Ha.

The Fontaine et al. paper further sampled researchers from a variety of fields and found that for a variety of disciplines, it took on average about two decades for a new species to be described following collection and museum storage.

There are a LOT of considerations of course.. Some specimens undergo years of study. DNA is extracted. Comparisons are made. Histology is performed. It depends on what kind of work is done.
Some fields have lost their only workers for literally a decade. There was easily a gap for about 10 to 15 years, when there was no one who was "the starfish  expert"until I came along.

2. Taxonomy from Images: Flickr & More!
So, image proliferation on the Internet has started to make a HUGE impact on natural history and taxonomy.

There is now a massive proliferation of images of habitats, organisms, and etc. via MANY different crowd sourced  (e.g., Flickr or Youtube) or other conveniently available resources. For example: screengrabs/twitter pics of the live stream Okeanos Explorer deep-sea feed!
From crowd-sourced photo hosts?  There was THIS famous story on the news in 2012 about an entomologist who discovered a new species of insect on the crowd-sourced photo bank Flickr! 

I've actually spoken to several of my colleagues about whether images they've seen on Flickr or Facebook could be new species and indeed, it is surprising HOW many there are! And why not? People who post their pictures travel all around the world or are in very distant settings. Some with great camera set ups and a good eye. There's a HUGE potential for data mining here with a nearly infinite number of pictures (many are never labelled).
Some might argue that usefulness of pictures remain limited, since no specimen is available for positive identification or vouchering in a museum. But who knows what kind of behavior? or habitat is spied by these videos?

For the deep-sea species.. even seeing the life mode and color is a HUGE step in knowledge over what scientists in the 20th Century, who often worked with a dead, dried specimen. 

1. New Specimens via... Ebay?? 
Back in 2006, Dr. Simon Coppard, a sea urchin taxonomist recovered specimens of a new species of sea urchin, Coelopleurus exquisitus from the online auction website, Ebay! 

This sounds kind of ...unusual, the truth is that scientists and natural historians have been buying exotic shells and items from vendors of "exotic goods" since the 1800s. Many species described from this time period were based on specimens obtained from "Far East" purchases. The Internet auction house puts a 21st Century spin on 19th Century practice.

Fortunately, this species was described in good order and with apparently little hassle (and I can only hope- good locality data!)
I have heard of subsequent "finds" via Ebay and as remarkable as it sounds, there are unusual and rarely encountered animals which sometimes come up for sale as "dried curios" or "seashells" or what have you.  Fossils also.

Relying on vendors isn't a good option relative to a formal expedition or even just a professional scientist collecting on his/her own. MANY issues can be at play. Permits are common place and some specimens may have been illegally collected. Some organisms, such as coral are protected by international regulations. Obtained specimens could be poorly preserved or have incomplete or downright incorrect locality data (i.e., where they were found). But sometimes, it can be another way to discover new biodiversity. Strange but there it is.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

(More than!) Five Cool Things We Could See if the Okeanos Went Back to Indonesia


So, over the weekend, the livestream of Okeanos Explorer briefly mentioned and entertained the idea that they might head back to Indonesia for a revisitation of their inaugural expedition from 2010! (The INDEX-SATAL Mission). (I think someone mentioned the ambassador was on ship?)

That expedition was, of course, 4 years ago and the program had just begun. Updates were not as forthcoming. But an opportunity to RETURN to Indonesia? With the benefit of hindsight, experience and further preparation?? That would be awesome!

That area is known as home to probably one of the MOST diverse marine faunas of anywhere in the world.  And although there's a lot known from shallow and deep habitats, the deep sea areas (below 200 m) in the Indonesian area will likely make all the stuff R/V Okeanos Explorer and E/V Nautilus have been observing in the Atlantic look like a goldfish bowl by comparison! 

A LOT of the species in this area are likely undescribed. A veritable gold mine of biodiversity to be studied! Some of these taxa have no Atlantic members. (It would be even better if these were enhanced by collections of course!)

Here's some highlights that I would love to see again!  

1. The Sea Cucumbers
I don't think I've seen ALL the pics but the ones I have were brilliant. This red elasiopod would be something I think everyone should see again... 
Okeanos from expl2168

The oddball swimming sea cucumber with the big lobe: the appropriately named Psychropotes
From Okeanos expl5494
and this gorgeous swimming Enypniastes? Or something similar to it.. But wow! Transparent body! You can literally SEE the sediment filled intestine THROUGH the body wall!
from Okeanos expl5475
2. The Hydrothermal Vents
When people talk about hydrothermal vents, there's 2 or 3 places that register as the most iconic spots.. the Mid-Atlantic and the East Pacific Rise.  There's others but one vent site that no one really talks about much?  The ones surveyed by Okeanos in Indonesia! 

These are the hydrothermal vents found on the undersea volcano Kawio Barat (West Kawio) 
from Okeanos expl2184
Amazingly gorgeous spires created by hydrothermal activity. 0.5 to 1 meter tall active and inactive spires on the summit of the Kawio Barat submarine volcano. Spires observed at 1849 meters depth. 
From Okeanos expl2188
Further venting through some of these chimneys gives us these amazing structures covered by barnacles! 
from Okeanos expl 2195
What's that? you want to see those barnacles more close up? here ya' go...
fr. Okeanos expl 2196

3. The Insane Stalked Crinoid Diversity
One of the very interesting animals noted in the expedition pictures notes was the incredible diversity of stalked crinoids which were observed.. I've only shown two of them below..but the gallery shows many different types of stalked crinoids.. to say nothing of the feather stars (aka unstalked crinoids)

This red one, as identified by Dr. Marc Eleaume in Paris is likely Proisocrinus ruberrimus 
From Okeanos expl5403
 And an likely unidentified member of the Hyocrinidae...                                     
                            

4. Bizarre and wonderous Deep Sea Sponges (Hexactinellid or Glass Sponges? I think)
A wonderous cladorhizid carnivorous sponge from about 1000 m! 
from Okeanos expl5560
A bizarre sponge with unusual body morphology
from Okeanos expl 5599
5. And the underappreciated Slit Shell Snails (Pleurotamariidae)! 
I'm honestly not sure how many people recognized a majority of the animals observed on the 2010 dive but some of the shots from the NOAA Photo Library showed some awesome images of that most treasured of marine snails: The Slit Shelled Snail (family Pleurotamariidae).       

These snails have always held a certain appeal to shell collectors. The shells are known from the fossil record and have a distinct slotted opening near the shell's opening. They are one of the largest marine snails observed in deep-sea settings..
from Okeanos expl5650
 The images place the slit-shell moving into this gorgeous field of corals..                                  
From Okeanos expl 5648
Some of these snails are predators on echinoderms, such as sea stars and possibly serpent stars (ophiuroids). So, conceivably this one is about to feed...
From Okeanos expl5646
PLUS! those Hermit Crabs with shells replaced by sea 
anemones! 
fr. Okeanos 5671
fr. Okeanos 5672
ONE More GREAT thing?? In situ observations of WOOD FALL COMMUNITIES!  These are some of the weirdest, rarest of deep-sea habitats as written by Craig McClain at Deep-sea news as he's documented here and here.  What are they? Deep-sea communities based entirely on wood from the surface that have fallen to the deeps!!

Some of these species are known ONLY from wood substrates!

But how often do you get to see an established wood fall community??  Here's what looks like those wood-eating urchins I wrote about a few years ago...
Okeanos expl 5968
and here's a close up of some more urchins and polychaetes
from Okeanos expl 5972

and yeah, there was a LOT more...

So, Okeanos Decision Committee?? LET'S GO BACK TO INDONESIA!!!