Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Five Cool Things we have already seen on the Okeanos Oceano Profundo Expedition!


This week: Some echinoderm highlights from the 2015 Okeanos Oceano Profundo cruise! 

I've made the point in the past about how AWESOME it is to be able to see so many deep-sea animals alive!

As a scientist who works mostly with preserved specimens, our typical perception of these species from dead material is something like this:
The above specimen is a species of Freyastera, a deep-sea brisingid asteroid. Brisingids have special suspension feeding arms with very delicate arms covered by needle-like spines. I've discussed them at length here.

In stark contrast, here is one alive: 
Dang. THAT's a world of difference!! And the living observation gives us basic info like color and basic posture. Surprisingly important information when you consider how badly deformed and damaged specimens collected by trawl net can be....

But on the other hand, it is FROM these specimens that we are able to have records of these rare species from past expeditions.  

Case in point: 

1. Laetmaster spectabilis 
We saw this Tuesday. At a depth of 3915 meters from the east wall of Mona Canyon. This is a member of the Solasteridae, which are the "sun stars", which I have written up briefly here. 
This is one of the rarest known sea stars, which was known previously from one or two specimens in the late 19th Century on which the descriptions were based. Collected in 1878 by the Blake, a famous oceanographic vessel!

That pretty much means that no one has collected this species for over 130 years! It gave a hard pass to the 20th Century. yow.


2. Plinthaster dentatus feeding!
Another cool thing that we often encounter on these dives is basic aspects of biology which, for deep-sea species, are unknown. 

This "cookie star" is in the family Goniasteridae. These get collected quite a bit but we know very little about them. I wrote about some Hawaiian ones here.

Now, we know this one fees on sponges (or hydroids)!
                            

3. Holopus sp. Bizarre stalked crinoid! 
This was a great pleasure to see... These are unusual types of stalked crinoids which I have written about before.
This sequence nicely shows the arms extended and withdrawn...

4. Oneirophanta mutabilis! A different kind of "sea pig"!! This one is in the family Deimatidae, so it is different from the classic sea pig Scotoplanes globosa.. So what is a "sea pig" anyway? A discussion for a different day...

5. Big Unknown Spiny Cidaroid Urchin!
with ophiuroid (Asteroporpa annulata? I think?) living on the spines!

But who is it? Not sure..
Note that there's some striped ophiuroids living on the spines...
They could be this species? Asteroporpa annulata?

Other noteworthy observations!!
Swimming sea cucumbers (Elasiopoda mostly) were everywhere...

A Enypniastes like species (possibly Amperima or Peniagone?) with transparent body.... That's the gut you are seeing THROUGH the body wall.
And a Benthodytes also with clear body wall showing the gut! 
And a white one.. but again.. transparent body wall...

And finally... one pic full of intrigue! my "phantom" wood starfish?? Did I see it or not? A revisitation to the HD is in the stars....

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Astrosarkus idipi A species I described is now a toy! Pt. 2

Earlier this year, I discovered that a Japanese company had decided to make a toy out of a species I described in 2004!

Well, today the one I ordered finally arrived and BEHOLD!!!

This is one of a set of "candy toys" or miniature models of deep-sea animals from a set entitled "Deep-sea Sushi" which was just released in mid- March of this year.

As I've made frequent mention of in past blogs, the Japanese have a VAST love of the natural world and have made MANY toy series which depict various members from different habitats. This post from my trip to Japan shows several of these different types.. deep-sea, fossils, etc. 
                                 

A full figure by figure walk through is in this convenient video! The set has a cute theme and even comes with little dishes for each one..
So, the big orange thing is a starfish I described in 2004! Go HERE to read the blog about it.  In Japan it goes by the name 竜宮桜ヒトデ aka the "deep-sea cherry blossom starfish"

So, this was kind of cool and sort of weird. How often do you get a toy made out of a species you described?? and that toy was something I had NOTHING to do with?? 

Here are a bunch of questions that I was asking myself which others might have as well...

1. How Did They come up with THIS as a subject for a toy???

The best answer I can come up with is that they saw the picture of it in this book by Quentin Wheeler and Sara Pennak  from 2013 featuring the "100 most amazing new species"

The pic used in the book looks pretty much exactly like the toy...


2. Is this something I was planning? 
Nope. One of my colleagues in Japan saw it and informed me of it. The first I ever heard of this was early this year in February. I only wish that there was a western market for accurate starfish toy collectibles! 

3.  You're getting paid for this aren't you? Are you just advertising? 
 I'm not.  When I described this new genus and species back in 2004, it was part of my science. A remarkable new animal that was radically different from almost anything else I had seen. New species are discoveries that everyone can and should enjoy, and are essentially in the public domain.

and I'll be honest, of all the various things that I thought could happen, someone making a toy out of this wasn't one of them! 

The company who produced these, did so ENTIRELY on their own. They likely have no idea who I am and probably don't even realize that the person who described this species might still be alive (if they even understand that concept). I suppose that its sort of flattering that something I published was considered interesting enough to be part of this line up!

I paid for the toys I own myself. No "comp" toys for me in this case... 

I suppose if I was to look at the bright side of this, this could be one of the many ways that basic research "benefits" economic growth! 

4. Where do I get one? At the moment, the only place I know of that outside of gashapon shops in Japan that you can find these is Ebay. Search under "deep-sea sushi" and you'll find, at least for awhile, complete sets and individuals. Many of the single piece figures are WAAY overpriced relative to the complete sets.  And yes, the shipping from Japan/Hong Kong will either be expensive or take a fairly long tim (mine took about a month). 

5. How Many Other Japanese Starfish Toys are there?
and by that I mean proper figures. None of this cheap-ass gift store stuff...

So, there's no starfish toys that depict REAL asteroids. Or at least, not like the way there is this 90 dollar replica of Bathynomus giganteus

But there's a BUNCH of them that depict kaiju from Japanese Science Fiction!! There are a surprisingly large number of them.. So here's my excuse to show some of them!

Remember when I reviewed starfish monsters in Japanese science fiction? (here)

One of my favorites: Purple Starfish! (from the show Kikaider) who projects the deadly Starfish Sparkler! 
                        
A miscellaneous assortment of the Ultraman kaiju Pestar!! 
here's the starfish monsters from the Japanese classic, Warning from Space
There's of course, the villain Hitodanger! (Hitode= starfish, the name means "Dangerous Starfish") from Kamen Rider!  (thanks to Yoichi Kogure)
AND finally the most obscure of the obscure, the starfish mutations BAREM from Rebirth of Mothra 2!!!  

These were all borrowed from someone else's marvelous starfish kaiju collection!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Its Sea Cucumber Spawning Time!

Image from the "FunSea" video below
Springtime! Springtime! Springtime! When fertile sea cucumbers realize that its the season to begin emitting their gametes into the water! Some sooner, some later..but it eventually becomes time!

Many echinoderms appear to adopt a particular stance when emitting gametes.  This bit I wrote awhile back shows sea stars and brittle stars standing up on their tippy toes for example. 

Theyposition themselves into the water column in order to take advantage of better water currents for their gametes to disperse. Or at least, that's what seems to be the case. This reproductive posture is actually not all that well understood.

So, its time for ANOTHER installment of sea cucumber spawning!!

One important thing to realize? That in spite of their shape and the color of the materials being emitted, we CANNOT identify the sex of the sea cucumbers in the pictures. 

This diagram nicely sums up the difference in reproductive material. One emits the male gametes while the females emit the egg. But its likely not the case that they are always this conveniently near one another..
This image borrowed from A snails' Odyssey blog here! Great info! 
The eggs and the sperm meet in the water and fertilize in the water column.  Once fertilization occurs, the fertilized egg matures into a specific sea cucumber larvae, known as an auricularia (sometimes referred to as the auricularia stage): 


And it is the above larval stage which undergoes several more stages of growth until it settles onto the sea bottoms and matures into an adult sea cucumber.

BUT to get there, the adults have to spawn! Here's a great shot of what seem to be at least 2 species of sea cucumbers from the Atlantic (Stetson Bank in the Flower Garden Banks, National Marine Sanctuary).

Since these guys are likely trying to take advantage of the same water current to carry their gametes to their destination, several individuals (from different species) are likely to find locations in the same general area. 

This one seems to have found a particularly safe area around some diadematid urchins...

From Japan, we have several very nice video captures of various sea cucumbers in spawning position...

Their postures are fairly arched and position the body well into the water column.





And here are further examples of sea cucumber species emitting gametes from around the world..
In stark contrast, some other species seem to be closer to the bottom during this period, with only part of the body raised off the ground.

Interesting that both of these are on sandy bottoms. Coincidence? Difference in species? Hard to say.
                   


IN CONTRAST, there's other deep-sea sea cucumbers, as presented in the NMNH Invertebrate Zoology blog,  which actually huddle together to optimize reproductive success (image from this new paper!)
An increasingly common sight on crowd-sourced media and on deep-sea exploration! Simple observations which remain a fertile area of study... (yes. I went there!)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Five Things you live with as a Taxonomist! Taxonomist Appreciation Day!


What are taxonomists? 
Simply put, taxonomy is the subsection of biology that deals with assigning names to biological entities and arranging them in an orderly "system." Usually in describing new species or even new genera, families or higher depending on what you work on. 

Many names apply and different scientists focus on different areas of expertise: Systematist, evolutionary biologist, invertebrate zoologist, marine biologist, paleontologist, systematic biologist, entomologist, botanist, protistologist, herpetologist, etc., etc. 

Arrangements of organisms are known as classifications which are dictated primarily by the evolutionary relationships of the organisms in question..be they single celled amoebas, fungus, plants, or any number of animals..starfish, cats, water bears, fish, dinosaurs, etc. 

BUT the first part of that process is to figure out exactly WHICH species you are studying. What phylum of worm? What kind of single celled animal? What kind of plant?  Out of the hundreds to millions of known and unknown species in the world??  

Some species are well known, but others, especially those that live in poorly studied or out of the way habitats: the deep-sea, the distant tropics or even the microfauna and flora of your local pond these can be highly varied and you need a specialist to tell you what they are..(if you can't figure it out yourself!)

It was said for magic that knowing a demon or magical creature's name gave you power over it. This is the same for our knowledge of organisms. Knowing which genus, species, family, etc. allows you access to all the previously known knowledge about it. 

Do we have hundreds of articles on its biology? Or is it something completely unknown?

Thus: TAXONOMISTS! 
                      

What do I do??
Even though I know a little bit about everything, my expertise focuses primarily on the diversity of sea stars, especially those in the deep-sea but you can read about me here.  There are other scientists who work on sea stars of course. Marine biologists, paleontologists, ecologists, and so on..  But at the moment, I am one of the only people who specializes in the evolution and identification of living sea stars (aka starfish or asteroids).

So, that's my bias.   

That said, I've been doing this for awhile now so here's a five ups and downs that I think I've experienced in my career as a taxonomist/biologist/paleontologist/whatever that I thought might provide some insight into why you should support a taxonomist (and taxonomy!)

As a taxonomist, these are dynamics that one comes to accept as part of the profession. They are challenges and we always hope that things will be better. But for the moment, this is how they are.. Most folks in the taxonomy field live with these things every day.

These are my opinions/perceptions and not the perspective of any organization I am affiliated with. 

1.  Taxonomy is biological infrastructure: everybody wants/needs what you offer but its often (still) professionally taken for granted.

For many decades, taxonomy was considered as almost a service to the rest of the scientific community. Say, you had some scientific study X, that focused on a weird deep-sea worm..but you didn't know what it was!!  Send it off to the local museum. Or to the Smithsonian or wherever.
They would often identify these things (and yes, of course for free) and there was not even a suggestion that the name of the taxonomist would be included anywhere but in the acknowledgements.

So, the scientists were held in high regard but never got full credit.
This happened to me a lot early in my career. but not any more...

TODAY, I usually insist on co-authorship on anything that involves a significant amount of work. Credit where credit is due.  

But, its still commonplace for papers that use one or many species to omit the name of the scientist (or whomever) who described it in the paper's references.

Its often convention to list the author and date of description after the species name, especially if it was described recently (i.e., in the last 50 years or so). This is usually done only in formal taxonomic papers. But in journals which use taxonomy outside of "formal" use (e.g., in ecology, physiology, etc.), its not unusual for the author and date to not be cited and the reference (and thus the credit) for scientific papers is denied to taxonomists. Thus lowering their status in the scientific community. This paper documents this issue. 

2. You get to travel.....but then spend months to years writing up the results

This is a good problem to have. Being a taxonomist has taken me all over the world and to the bottom of two oceans. You've seen my travel posts about working in Japan, Paris and out on ships to the middle of the North Pacific among the many places I've experienced and shared on the blog.

BUT these trips last for only so long. The exotic adventure stuff gets balanced by the more mundane preparation and wrap up. Some expeditions or even just museum trips take months to YEARS to completely "finish".
Why?  Most day to day work involves a lot of standard office work. Papers have to be written. Specimens have to be cataloged. Reports have to be made on the expeditions. Receipts have to be tallied. Meetings and responsibilites have to be met. Sometimes classes have to be taught.  For new trips.. proposals have to be written and logistics have to be made. 

So yes. cool things to be done and seen but a lot of the time. Work. Meetings. Etc. 

3. Most discoveries happen in museums....

I've written about this dynamic in past posts (here). Some specimens await discovery for decades before being found by someone who writes it up. On average this turns out to be about 21 years from the time the specimen is discovered until the paper is published..

As much as I've gone to sea and travelled to exotic places, I find the most number of new discoveries in buckets and jars of preserved specimens.

The museum is practically the HABITAT for the taxonomist. So, like any endangered species, one needs to save it to save the species!  If you support natural history and taxonomy, support the museum!! 

A lot of museums with natural history collections have also been struggling. Funding is almost always below what is necessary to maintain a collection at optimal levels. Other challenges to museums I've observed

  • Space! So many jars, specimens, etc. fit into a storage room and real estate can be expensive. Universities and private collectors are prone to give up their collections, which often end up at museums overwhelming the in-house resources.
  • Personnel! People are one of the most important ingredients to a good museum collection. Specimens require upkeep. They have to be cataloged. Shipped. Mailed. Received. Sorted. Some materials are protected by law. Training museum professionals is now its own field separate from what scientists do. Collection management is a challenge.
  • Resources! Specimens require material. Jars. Archival storage boxes. Tissue samples require freezers. Shelving. The list goes on. Individually, some of the items may not cost much..but remember these are used at a pretty regular clip.                                

and.. the resources above speak NOTHING of research materials.... DNA labs, microscopes, computers, etc. etc. which is another matter entirely.

4.  You belong to a small community which is growing smaller 
In this regard, taxonomy isn't all that much different from other academic fields or even other professional or business fields with a very specific focus.

Most taxonomists are unique experts in their group. As I said above, I am one of the world's only practicing taxonomists specializing in living sea stars (there are paleontologists around though). In the early 20th Century there were up to 5 to 7 sea star experts at any given time. Yes. there are people who work on regional faunas (i.e. starfishes of island X) but folks who work on all of them? That's me. 

For marine invertebrates, there is a perception that there is a serious lack of taxonomic expertise which I think bears some concern. You do get students who train and get degrees, but not a lot of jobs or positions are available. Some of us have gotten by but I've seen many of my gifted colleagues move on to other fields for lack of a stable position.

I've always seen the demand from other fields (ecology, physiology, oceanography etc.)  for MORE people who can ID or describe the "creature X" that they collected, etc.. but "Nobody works on those any more, since Dr. Y died..."


Which is a segue to...

5. There are new discoveries to be made!! but where are the jobs?

There are many places where you can read about the "Biodiversity Crisis" and the corresponding "extinction of taxonomists". Wired did a nice bit on it here. 

One of the things I always clarify to folks is that even though there's always something to DO, there's not always someone who will hire you to do it. 

I love what I do. But I don't have a "proper job" (I get by on soft money and other funds) but I feel compelled to continue (and I continue to hope!). My career is a good one but I've been lucky. Its a difficult field to survive in.

So, yes. There's an avalanche of undescribed species awaiting description! But whether you are a classical (but modern!) taxonomist like me, a person working on protists, or a barcoding guru, these are all pretty specialized positions. And getting a job doing what we're trained for is, at best difficult.

What happens when the last person working on a big or important group retires or dies?

There's been an unfortunate decline in jobs for taxonomists in recent years. This seems to accompany the various funding issues which accompany universities which have shifted their emphasis away from programs focusing on general knowledge.

Many reasons have been offered for this decline but ultimately I think the best I can do to support future generations and my other colleagues is to continue my outreach and shed a light on the challenges faced and why supporting taxonomists is worthwhile!

At this point, someone will bring up privatization or "Why don't you charge people for what you do?" And yes. Its crossed my mind..but that's a discussion for another post..

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Pyritized Fossils! All that Glitters is not gold...sometimes it's MORE!

this image via Wikipedia
This week, I crack open my geology files and tell you a little about an interesting preservational process known as pyritization! 

This is actually a special type of preservation called permineralization, where an inorganic mineral "replaces" or forms a cast of a particular structure. Mostly hard parts, but soft parts are also replaced, as we'll see.

Pyritization involves the mineral iron sulfide (FeS2), (also known as pyrite or fool's gold)..which will replace the 'hard parts' (shells, skeletons, etc.) present on animals during preservation. 

This mode of preservation actually involves biology!! Bacteria, which are present during the decay of the original organism will produce sulfide. If you've ever seen something dead and buried, that rotten egg smell that accompanies the blackened tissue is the sulfide.

The bacteria in combination with minerals in the sediment/soil can lead to unusual conditions leading to the formation of pyrite which eventually becomes infused with the fossil, sometimes replacing the hard parts and sometimes even the soft parts..

Here are some neat examples...

Pyritized Devonian brachiopod! Paraspifier bownockeri. Image by James St. John




A Devonian goniatite (fossil cephalopod), Tomoceras unlangulare. Image by James St. John

unidentified pyritized ammonite


Some show exceptionally fine details!  Here are sutures on the shell..

And pyritized detail inside the shell

Endoskeletons and soft parts can also be pyritized, resulting in exceptionally preserved specimens!

Here is the Devonian Furcaster paleozoicus..a Paleozoic brittle star from the famous Hunsruck slate in Germany

A nice write up of this area, and the exceptional preservation seen there can be found on this website.                    .
A Pyritizied Devonian crinoid Arthroacantha

But probably one of the most exceptional examples of pyritization is when it captures soft tissues, such as on the trilobite, Triarthus

There were actually soft parts preserved on these trilobites, allowing for some fairly accurate reconstructions of the morphology...

Here's some with a size reference... the soft tissue preservation is remarkable...



and even trace fossils! Here's a worm tube with crystalline pyrite!