Friday, October 28, 2011

Weird Batman-shaped floaty thing in the deep-sea puzzles Neptune Canada!

Some weekend fun!

UPDATE-Dr. George Matsumoto has identified the weird beast as a lobate ctenophore (a jellyfish like animal) probably one called Lampocteis.

Neptune Canada just posted this video of a Batman-shaped (actually more like the Batwing)... thing floating over the surface of the deep sea bottom.

They don't know what it is. And I'm not entirely sure I do either!! Sea Cucumber? Jellyfish? Ctenophore? Cthulhu's Dandruff flakes? What could it be? WHEEE!

THIS is the fun part of science! See something totally weird that you don't recognize and proceed to find OUT! Got a good suggestion? Or better yet-is there a grad student/engaging scientist out there who knows what it is??

Go ahead and leave an answer in the comments!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Plumbing the Depths of Guts in Deep-Sea Sea Cucumbers!

(Deima validum from the ECOMAR site Photo by David Shale, 2010)
Deep-sea sea cucumbers (including sea pigs!) are weird, funky animals.

And yet for all of their bizarre appearance their fundamental appearance seems remarkably simple..

They troll around on the deep sea floor (and by deep-I mean the TRUE abyss over 1000 meters-and usually 2000 to 5000 meters deep!) rooting for food as these elasiopods are doing...

When biologists started seeing these bizarre animals-they also realized just how MANY of them seem to be present in any one spot.
Sometimes numbering in the 100s in quite a small area! And so naturally a LOT of important questions began popping up.
  • What are they eating exactly?
  • Is digestion part of what makes eating scum so good?
  • What down there is so dang nutritious-that it supports a kajillion deep sea cukes??
  • How can a place that seems wholly depauperate of plants, life and light be supporting SO MANY animals?
In addition to all of this, awhile back, I happened to get a classic question relating to sea pig biology- "Can I have one as a pet???" And the answer was "No." for various reasons. (click here to see that post).

But today I have yet one MORE reason why deep-sea sea cucumbers (including sea pigs) just won't make good pets! (and delve into the biology of these weird deep-sea animals!)

Data for this paper comes from two sources: A paper by Jody Deming and Rita Colwell (University of Maryland, 1982-go here to see it) and another by Teresa Amaro and others in Deep-Sea Research from 2009 (here to see it).

The paper by Deming and Colwell looked at the microbial floras of three genera of abyssal sea cucumbers sampled from the South Atlantic.....

the genus Deima

and Pseudostichopus
(Pseudostichopus tuberosus from BOLD Systems Taxonomy Browser)

Deming & Colwell sampled the microbial faunas from the intestines of these various holothurian species, sampling different cultures from the gut (# 2) and parallel to stomach in humans) versus the hindgut (#3) (parallel to our long intestines)..Here's a nice image from Amaro et al that shows this...
Fig.2 from Amaro et al.
It turns out that microbes..specifically bacteria WERE present in the intestinal lining of these sea cucumbers! And in significant abundance!!

Here's what they looked like..
(Fig. 5. Transmission electron micograph of the bacteria in the intestinal lining)

These microbial floras were 1.5 to THREE times higher in sediments that had been recently ingested than those where present in the surrounding sediments.

The abundance of these microbes was HIGHEST in the hindgut..where digestion in the intestine occurs (again the equivalent of our long intestine).

But perhaps what was most significant was that these microbial populations were actually MORE ACTIVE under deep-sea pressure (about 400 atmospheres given that "home" pressure was from about 4000 meters!). "Pressure loving" bacteria are what's known as barophilic
(etymological note-that's "baros" for pressure-like in barometer and "philos" for attraction or lovin'...oh yeah...)

Dynamics of the bacterial/microbial community:

  1. Various trivia of sea cucumber digestion. By their estimates, it took about 16 HOURS for the organic materials in the sediment to be affected and cleared through the gut. This resulted in about 105 grams of sediment passing through one animal per day (which may not seem like much-but consider that its deep-sea mud and how many animals are in play)
  2. Commensal Flora? The authors argued that the bacteria assisted or was involved in digestion or in their terms..."transformation" of the organic materials present in the ingested sediments
  3. Food? They did not rule out the possibility that the bacteria were somehow directly involved in providing nutrients via the gut to the sea cucumbers.. perhaps as food? or perhaps contributing to the minerals or the energy of the sediment being digested??
At this juncture I can take a moment to further embellish the answer: Why would deep-sea sea cucumbers make lousy pets? Well, these things have a community of microbes that live in their intestine that they need to survive. And they are MOST successful at deep-sea pressure! (400 atm!)

So-food would likely have a lot of problems metabolizing in these beasts at the surface..assuming they could get the right kind of fine quality, organic scum to begin with!

Adding Further info with studies from MOLPADIA!!

A study that further added some understanding to our knowledge of these gut communities comes from a recent paper by Teresa Amaro and others in Deep-Sea Research from 2009 (here to see it).

Their study focused on the North Atlantic deep-sea sea cucumber Molpadia musculus which is just a lovely animal that is basically a big mud-eating yam-shaped bag..

Yes, I've seen them alive, they are THAT glamorous. Sometimes they are purple.
Amaro and her associates characterized the microbial community within Molpadia with DNA fingerprinting and discovered that in fact, these communities can be quite diverse, with many lineages of bacteria present...
But perhaps what is most interesting was their study that compared two populations of Molpadia-each population present in a different canyon. Each canyon with a different nutritonal setting!

How might these different food rich/poor settings affect the microbe fauna of each sea cucumber population??
The authors compared the bacterial communities present in a canyon with a sediment bottom that was rich in organic matter (i.e., food!) versus one which was poor in organic food.

They found that in the canyon with a rich sediment bottom with lots of yummy organic food, the Molpadia did not need to develop a specialized community of gut bacteria!

In contrast, the population of Molpadia present where the sediment was poorer DID have a more specialized community of bacteria.. Does this augment or provide further nutrients to the host cucumber?

So-getting back to some of the questions asked earlier.. these bacterial communites seem to be an important part of how these weird critters live their lives- as they trundle around on the sea bottom picking up delicious scum from the abyssal mud of the sea bottoms! Perhaps they carry it with them or perhaps they are feeding on them? Many questions remain!

It always seems kind of a funny contrast to me as I observe individuals become so paranoid about bacteria on door knobs and small microbes everywhere in the air.. that at 4000 to 5000 meters below the Earth's surface bacteria (yogurt?) are actually essential to this abundant form of weird life....

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Haunting "Faces" (well...disks!) of Ophiurid Brittle Stars!

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to some festive, neat looking brittle stars from the tropics-mostly from the genus Ophiolepis!

Weird Antarctic Brittle Star love can be found here!

Well, I am STILL on that ophiuroid kick and wanted to show you guys even MORE of the strange and wonderous beauty of brittle stars. Except, today, I thought I'd show you some from the deep-sea!

These are all members of the family Ophiuridae, one of the world's most diverse groups that occur all over the world, but particularly well represented in the deep-sea (>200 meters) with many more new species likely to be discovered.

Most of the ones shown below belong to the genus Amphiophiura which is distributed throughout the world...but down at the bottom you'll see one of the more... UNUSUAL brittle stars that most people would ordinarily never get to see!

What's important to realize about most of these species is that, aside from the fact that we know they exist-we know almost NOTHING ABOUT THEM.

But they are interesting-and frankly, not everyone gets to see them like this-so I thought it fun to show the world! Plus, with Halloween just around the corner..I thought some weird echinoderms would add to the overall ambience!

So here's
Amphiophiura insolita (=Ophiura monaria) from Hawaii. The disk is about the size of a dime.
Amphiophiura pomphophora (from Japan-the Albatross Collection)
Amphiophiura coronata from the Caribbean (Puerto Rico!). Weird how the primary disk plates form that sort of pentagonal pattern on the center! Also, note how small it is-that's a penny in the background for scale!
When these are found, they can be abundant...but not much is known about them..

Amphiophiura bullata convexa from the North Atlantic
The animal's disk is strikingly dome-shaped and kinda looks like a soccer ball...

Amphiophiura superba (from Baja California, Mexico-the Albatross Collection). These can be quite thick and are surprisingly large. Sometimes, its hard to believe they are alive!
Stegophiura sterea from Japan!
And just for kicks.. what does the MOUTH and/or oral surface look like? Here ya' go!
and one of the strangest...a brittle star that LOOKS like a starfish... I give you..
Astrophiura marionae from off the Channel Islands in California!!
But other species in this genus are found all over the world.. Go here to see which ones!!Astrophiura is a weird beast and is unusual in that it displays a convergent/parallel/analogous appearance shared with the weird deep-sea starfish which are members of the Caymanostellidae.

A species of which was recently found by the recent California Academy of Sciences Expedition to the Philippines.
Some of the best echinoderms are the tiniest ones!
Until Next Time-Stay Outta Trouble!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cephalopod Awareness Days! Echinoblog Off Topic!

This week- a little diversion as I have the pleasure of honoring our Oh-so-lovable tentacled invertebrate bretheren the Cephalopods (squids, octopuses, cuttlefishes, nautilus, vampire squids, and ammonites) as "Cephalopod Awareness Days" takes place from Oct 8 to the 12th!
Now, ANYONE could just do a blog about cephalopods and frankly, there are several good ones (see the sidebar) that focus entirely on cephalopods. So, what odd or unique thing can the Echinoblog bring to the table?

Well, I DID do that story on an interesting sea star, Plazaster borealis whose name in Japanese the Tako Hidoe, literally means "Octopus Starfish" (click here to see!).

BUT as it turns out, I happen to know that a LOT of Japanese popular culture, including a lot of science fiction is inspired by marine animals...especially cephalopods!

These animals inspire a lot of toys and action figures in Japan, which in turn inspire a LOT of creative people to do some fun things.

So, a little break from echinoderms and actual biology..and a bit of a detour into art and pop culture this week!

You may recall that I did a post on Japanese echinoderm-themed monsters (called kaiju) a few years ago... (sadly the Starfish Hitler video seems to have been pulled)

But here is a creative fellow (from website Corey's Head) who has applied Photoshop to several Japanese monster toys (mostly about 6 to 9 inches tall) with cephalopod themes!! He has applied some scenic backgrounds from the Washington state area into..well... these cephalopod monster inspired masterpieces!

The monster Tagarl from the show Ultraman Taro. You can read about its "biology" here..
An attack by the 4-armed octopus themed GUYROS from the show UltraSeven!
The formidible monster cuttlefish GEZORA and yes, of course, there's a Wikipedia page on it!
and finally the weird tentacled VIRAS from the Gamera movie franchise. Look its history up here.
Here are some wacky images of something called Chibull seijin (seijin is Japanese for alien) also from the Japanese show UltraSeven.
Some artists work in the medium of a sculpted soft vinyl to produce these original ad colorful cephalopod figures/statues!

This one is called Tripus and is produced by an artist named Mark Nagata whose blog can be found here.
And here's an odd one from an old Japanese science fiction show called Barom-1. . Unfortunately, I'm not sure what its called other than "Ammonite Head Monster" .... but uh..yeah, that's pretty much what it is...
and if that wasn't enough? Go take a look at this New Zealand-TePapa Museum video of what must be one of the world's LARGEST ammonites! (a fossil cephalopod from the Mesozoic!)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Face to Disk with Ophiolepis! Let's get to know some brittle stars!

Echinoderms do a lot of weird and wonderful things-but the truth is that we know very little about most of them. Sometimes, the path to getting people interested and contributing to our study is simply being exposed to different species. And so, I present some images here of some striking species that most people may not be very familiar with

Probably the award winner of "great potential to study unknown diversity" in echinoderms is the ophiuroids or brittle stars. There are probably more species of brittle stars than any other living echinoderm. The World Ophiuroidea Database lists 2,122 species and based on what I've seen in museum collections I bet we could easily get up to 3,000 if not more.

Ophiuroids are often very small (although they are very abundant)-and so, most people don't get to appreciate the sheer diversity and aesthetic.. Especially not in the way that scientists might.

Most of the species below have a disk that is about Susan-B-Anthony size and smaller.

So, today, I thought I would just show some species in the genus Ophiolepis which have some neat plate arrangements (i.e, the skeletal structure on the arms and disk) and actually retain colors and patterns after having been preserved!

Ophiolepis is found all over the world with many species in shallow tropical Atlantic and Indo-Pacific waters.

We have records of these species-but we know almost NOTHING about the biology or ecology of most of these animals.

Click on the images below and see them up close!

The Latin breakdown of the genus name Ophiolepis breaks down to "Ophio-" refers to the snake like body (this is a common component of ophiuroid names) and "-lepis" refers to the scale-like plates..

Click on each name to head to the taxonomic summary in the World Ophiuroidea Database.

Ophiolepis superba From the Indo-Pacific and often seen in the pet trade.

The species name "superba" likely makes reference to approval of the very attractive appearance.

The patterns are variable among individuals. The patterns in preserved specimens look pretty much look the same as in the living animals... Is there significance? Is it natural variation? Related to environment?

Ophiolepis elegans A relatively familiar species (insofar as brittle stars are familiar!) from the Gulf of Mexico and the tropical Atlantic. In shallow to shelf depths (~10-100 m)

Ophiolepis ailsae. This species was discovered only in 1987!!! It occurs in the tropical Atlantic in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Some ecology and reproductive information is actually available for this species in the original citation (here).

This species was named for the noted echinoderm researcher at the British Museum Ailsa Clark.

Ophiolepis variegata A tropical shallow water species from the East Pacific, around Mexico and Baja California

Ophiolepis cincta. This is a tropical Indo-Pacific species that also occurs in shallow water. Other than some descriptive and reproductive information, we know very little about the biology of this species.
Brittle stars like this always trigger a lot of questions to me.

Why are they so ornately colored? Is there anything adaptive about the calcified scalar plates? About the patterns and colors?