Tuesday, February 25, 2014

EchinoTravelog! Visiting Japan: The National Museum of Nature and Science

The trip begins! At the crack of dawn and off to the airport for an 8 AM flight from Washington DC!
At the "jumping off" point in San Francisco.. As if to herald my arrival in Japan! An exhibition of Japanese toys! Many provided by my friend, Ultraman fanatic Mark Nagata! These are on display at the United Terminal on my way to the flight...
Some nice art by Shotaro Ishinomori of Robot Detective K!
The flight over the Pacific is a long 10 hours. But the scenery is nice enough. The flight arrives as the sun sets in Tokyo! 

So, yes. A LONG day, where I literally saw the sun rise in the west and sun set in the east! 

Why am I visiting?  As part of my research, I am involved with a grant, funded by my colleague Dr. Toshihiko Fujita to study the asteroids (aka sea stars, starfish) of Japan!!  

The National Museum of Nature and Science is basically the Japanese equivalent of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. It is a repository of artifacts, specimens and other materials that are part of Japan's heritage. The original material from which new species are described is kept here as well as further records of species throughout Japan. 

The NMNS has many globally known authorites, including Dr. Tsunemi Kubodera-the first man to see Architeuthis, the giant squid alive! 

Much of their collection is from deep-sea habitats! Since I work primarily on deep-sea species my expertise was naturally called upon! 

The NMNS has a NEW facility in Tsukuba, Japan outside of Tokyo. Their collection room is barely a few years old and is literally spotless!! It is shiny and amazingly clean! 
The specimen jars are kept in these protective plastic boxes, which protect from earthquakes, dust and other common problems associated with museum storage.
But, Japan is a land of contrasts!  So, alongside the brand new 21st Century is the old 19th and 20th Century!

Here is a specimen of Bathynomus! A giant isopod from Japanese waters in an old display jar...
and Colossendeis! A giant deep-sea sea spider....
Perhaps MOST interesting, was the EMPEROR's Natural History Collection!! 

Emperor Hirohito, known as Emperor Shōwa in Japan (1901-1989) was a respected marine biologist, who studied hydrocorals and hydroids, tiny animals related to sea anemones and jellyfishes.

What's interesting though? There is actually a SPECIAL building, which has its own separate curator where ALL of his scientific specimens are housed!  His reprints are a deluxe printing with a special vinyl cover. How many emperors write scientific monographs?  And about invertebrate taxonomy no less?
Next time around? More on LIVING in Japan!  Do YOU have any questions?? Ask in the comments and I will do my best to answer!

Monday, February 17, 2014

For the next five weeks! The Echinoblog Goes to Tokyo, Japan!

I am travelling!  I am enroute to Tokyo, Japan where I will be spending about a month studying the starfishes of Japan at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo!!   which is approximately the equivalent of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.  In other words, their country's national repository of natural artifacts and biodiversity!

Today i recap some of my past articles on echinoderms in Japan! (but next week I will blog about the trip!)

1. All about hitode (ヒトデ) & momiji. The Blog about Japanese Starfish Names!!

2. The AWESOME Tako Hitode aka Plazaster borealis, the "octopus starfish"here.
Seriously, this thing is as large as the west coat Pycnopodia but we don't know anything about it!

3. Multiple posts about GIANT STARFISH!

Some are REAL......                                            But others are IMAGINED....

4. Japanese Cartoon mascots aka Kawaii
5. And of course TWO posts on Japanese Cephalopod Monsters in Pop Culture! Because they are awesome.

This one is more about Japanese kaiju in TV and film...

And next week I will share more details about my trip!!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reflections on Scotoplanes:Sea Pigs in Pop Culture, Facebook, Art, Octonauts and Toys!

I started this blog in 2006 without a really good idea of what I was getting into.. and it was my big Sea Pig post (here) that really gave me an idea of just how far a blog that specialized on echinoderms (of all things!) could go.

So, its now been three years and I've had a chance to look at some numbers and trends. This has given me a chance to see exactly HOW my sea pig post has presented these animals into the public eye.

Now bear in mind, that the term "sea pig" actually refers to sea cucumbers in the family Elpidiidae, mostly in the genus Scotoplanes but several genera are similar and fit the bill pretty easily.

Prior to the late 20th/early 21st Century, before we had video and crisp pictures of these animals in their natural habitat, the number of people who even knew these animals even existed was something you could count on two hands.  This included a small number of echinoderm taxonomists (no more than 6) and deep-sea biologists who had perhaps seen the dead ones or perhaps pictures from towed underwater cameras.
As the early 2000s rolled around, some pics and etc. rolled around. People were discovering some of the weird and crazy stuff that lived in the deep-sea. Giant Isopods and all of the "big stars" of a deep-sea biology book were slowly coming to life!

In 2009, I came across an unusual spike in readership (probably from a Facebook quiz) that was focused on a "sea pig" I had posted from a blog about a scientific meeting on image analysis. I rapidly figured out (thanks to some help from friends on Facebook) that people had seen this strange beast and wanted to know what it was. So, I took the July 4th weekend and wrote that up and posted it!

The result greatly impressed me.  And then, hot on the heels of my post, Animal Planet followed up with a piece on Sea Pigs that same month! (July 2009)

Here are the Google Search trends graph for "sea pig" and the term "sea pigs".  Basically, there is a HUGE spike in hits for July 2009 (when my sea pig post went up, followed by the Animal Planet post), and a significantly greater interest afterwards...

What do the numbers mean?  Here's the explanation from Google Trends: 
The numbers on the graph reflect how many searches have been done for a particular term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over time. They don't represent absolute search volume numbers, because the data is normalized and presented on a scale from 0-100. Each point on the graph is divided by the highest point, or 100. When we don't have enough data, 0 is shown.
Its fascinating to see how outreach and social media have affected the perception and awareness of a weird, little sea cucumber, which frankly, nobody gave a damn about throughout most of the 20th Century. And I'll be honest, research on this species has not perceptibly jumped but perhaps that's just a matter of time as inspiration and funds dovetail...

Where has the "concept" of sea pig gone? How have they entered into the culture? 

1. There is ART.

They have replaced reindeer on Holiday cards!
I love this one.
The Sea Pig as Meme.

2. There are toys (albeit Japanese candy toys)

3. Sea Pigs were on OCTONAUTS! (and were scientifically accurate!) My thanks to "Skymouse" who sent me the original link!

4. and of course the famous "voice guy" from Buzz Feed and so on Ze Frank did one of his famous "True Facts about the sea pig" videos!

5. and MOST recently, Kronos Quartet has been inspired to compose music from/about/by Sea pigs??

Did I directly participate in getting sea pigs on Octonauts? No, but would Octonauts have a show featuring sea pigs without my blog back in 2009? Who knows?  But its nice to know that contributions and/or influences from the Echinoblog can be seen in a variety of places.....

Have you seen some new art/statue/show/pop culture reference to sea pigs? Let me know! I'd love to continue seeing how sea pigs become part of popular culture..

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What we know about the world's most venomous sea urchin Toxopneustes fits in this blog post!

Toxopneustes! aka the "Flower Urchin" is one of four species of Toxopneustes (all of which occur throughout the tropical Pacific). One species, Toxopneustes pileolus is one of the most frequently encountered and as such, this is the name most often applied to sea urchins that have the distinct appearance (as seen above).

Toxopneustes literally means "toxic foot"undoubtedly alluding to the MANY venomous pedicellariae that compose the animal's appearance. I'll explain "pedicellariae" more below..but just so you know what I'm talking about? ALL of those yellow circles and traingles in the picture above? Those are tiny little claws and each one of them is toxic. So be careful around these guys..

Toxopneustes has all of the other stuff that you see in other sea urchins, such as spines and tube feet.

The circles and triangles below are pedicellariae. Round means the pedicellariae are "open" and the triangular ones indicate the pedicellariae are either closed or are closig.  The brown rods below that kind of look like toothpicks? Those are the spines, which are actually not themselves toxic (as far as I've read).

Toxopneustes has been known for quite a long time. The genus was described in 1841 by Louis Agassiz, so we've had some time to think about it.

This then, is the puzzle. Why do we seemingly know so little about it?? As we'll see, it has a formidable reputation as a highly venomous species and its a prominent tropical sea urchin but really, a lot of what we know essentially boils down to this....

1. Toxopneustes pileolus displays covering behavior. 
I have discussed and blogged about "covering behavior" in the past (here). Toxopneustes is a "collector" urchin, which means that it shows the curious behavior of adding rocks and other debris using tube feet and/or pedicellariae to cover over itself.

Although the reasons are not well understood, it is thought that this could serve to protect the urchins from ultraviolet rays. In some cases with other urchins, its thought that the materials serve as defense, but given the highly venomous pedicellariae on this species, I kinda doubt that's the case here.

One paper, which studied the East Pacific species, T. roseus (here) suggested that the covering response protected the animals against wave surge while they fed on coralline algae in rhodolith beds. 

2. Flower urchins spawn in the Spring and "undress" their covering materials to do it! 
This one is self-evident since all animals have to reproduce. And most echnoderms spawn externally. But it was only recently in a paper by Andy Chen and Keryea Soong in Zoological Studies in 2009 which showed that they showed Toxopneustes pileolus "release" all of the materials obtained via their "covering response" before they spawn.

Here is Figure 1 from Chen & Soong 2009. Showing on the left, a "covered" urchin and then on the right an urchin "uncovered" and spawning.

3. They hold the distinction of "World's most venomous" sea urchins 
     Here we have the #1 feature, this sea urchin is known for: its sting! One species in particular, T. pileolus is regarded by the 2014 Guinness Book of World Records as the "most toxic" of sea urchins (see lower left corner).

The poison is served via the pedicellariae which are all of those triangular and circular structures that you see on the surface of the urchin.. Here the pedicellariae are all agitated. How can you tell? Note that they are all triangular instead of round. That means they are closed and have been recently agitated...

Here is more of a closeup of each one. Each with a stalk connecting them to the body. They are round when open and more triangular when closed.
Here's a diagram of one, showing the hard parts within all of the softer covering. Basically, each one is a claw that injects poison.
And below is a nice SEM image of a similar kind of pedicellariae from the East Pacific species. Toxopneustes roseus showing it in  more detail.
From the Echinoderms of Panama Lifedesk by Simon Coppard
4. How Toxic are they?? 
From this Japanese blog. Do not do this. It will hurt (I mean the pedicellariae. Going to the blog shouldn't hurt). 
Well, strangely enough, there are very few modern (read-quantiative) accounts of how toxic/painful/ potent Toxopneustes poison can be. However, I did locate an older account from 1935 by Dr. Tsutomu Fujiwara at the Hiroshima Zoological Laboratory in Japan who reported his experience with being stung by one (italics and paragraph break are mine) in Annotationes Zoolgicae Japonenses 15(1): 62-68 
     On June 26, 1930, while I was working on a fishing boat on the coast of Tsuta-jima in Saganoseki, I scooped up with my bare hand an individual of the sea-urchin which had been carried up by a diver with a fishing implement on the water surface from the sea-bottom about 20 fathoms in depth, and I transferred the sea-urchin into a small tank in the boat. At that time, 7 or 8 pedicellariae stubbornly attached themselves to a side of the middle finger of my right hand, detached from the stalk and remained on the skin of my finger.
     Instantly, I felt a severe pain resembling that caused by the cnidoblast of Coelenterata, and I felt as if the toxin were beginning to move rapidly to the blood vessel from the stung area towards my heart. After a while, I experienced a faint giddiness, difficulty of respiration, paralysis of the lips, tongue and eyelids, relaxation of muscles in the limbs, was hardly able to speak or control my facial expression, and felt almost as if I were going to die.  About 15 minutes afterwards, I felt that pains gradually diminish and after about an hour they disappeared completely.  But the facial paralysis like that caused by cocainization continued for about six hours. 
Other accounts have detailed stopping oyster hearts, and contraction of smooth muscle, including cardiac (heart) tissue. Some accounts of Toxopneustes have stated that swimmers have drowned following stings but I wasn't able to verify an account of this.

Is it any worse than the venom in other poisonous urchins, such as these echinothuriid "fire urchins"??? 

5. What we DIDN'T know about commensal crabs (but do now, thanks to the internet!)
That's a bit of a cheat. We DID know that commensal crabs live on Toxopneustes.  Apparently, these striped little fellows are called Zebrida adamsii. The name "Zebrida" undoubtedly hailing from the zebra-like stripes on the animals' body.

Here's one living on Toxopneustes pileolus with some eggs! 

But what is REALLY interesting is just HOW these crabs live on the urchins! Look at the video below.
They actually CLEAR off the pedicellariae and spines and live on a bare patch of the animal surrounded by all the poisonous pedicellariae and etc. 

How far/how long do they hitch a ride?
Do they feed on the tissue from the tube feet and pedicellariae?
Are those "bare patches" long term? Or are they only from acute attacks? (those crabs seem to be pretty comfortable there!)
Are the crabs as well camoflaged as they seem?
Interestingly, note also that the pedicellariae are all open and seemingly comfortable. Does that mean they are pretty cool with the crabs living on them that way?  What do the urchins get out of it?
IS Toxopneustes REALLY the world's most venomous sea urchin???

Someone go find out and tell em' the Echinoblog sent ya! (unless you get stung-then uh.. it wasn't)