Monday, November 24, 2008

A day in the Life: US Antarctic Research Program= Starfish Fun!!

Today, a little photoessay about some of my work with our ever-productive and efficient United States Antarctic Research Program (USARP) office!

As many of you know, I work on asteroids (aka starfish, aka sea stars) and am particularly fond of them if they occur in either the deep-sea or the Antarctic (and to all the people who are seemingly surprised by this-YES there are starfish in the Antarctic!).

Among my primary skills is knowing how to identify asteroids from just about anywhere in the world. This skill comes in handy in my research for any number of reasons.

I am currently collaborating with the USARP to get through a massive collection of unidentified Antarctic starfish recently returned to us from our New Zealand colleagues at the National Institute of Water & Atmosphere (NIWA) in Wellington, New Zealand. Two of those colleagues are pictured below, holding Macroptychaster accrescens in this now iconic picture from the popular press.

Below, I "photo essay" what a typical processing/specimen identification/ curation process actually looks like!!

This is part of the bread and butter of what museums actually do.

1. Specimens arrive. This happens after a couple of weeks of shipping, paperwork, and then another cycle of processing and registration once it arrives at the Smithsonian.
Tubs are opened to reveal....

2. OMG! Its FILLED with Stars!!
There are FOUR tubs full of starfish...somewhere approaching a thousand specimens! Many are rare and some are potentially new.

3. Sorting, Rehousing & Identification! Next, there is sorting and the part where I make my special magic!! (and no..not the kind after I've had too much eggnog!)

The specimens are re-housed from the shaggy baggies to these optimal display, multi-dimensional, gem-quality, archival storage systems. (=simple plastic boxes in different sizes).

I take my trusty copies of A.M. Clark (1962) and Fisher (1940) and get to work with 'dem keys and such.

Because I am SUCH a starfish identifying badass I am going to say it only took me a few minutes to whip out several HUNDRED identifications. (Disclaimer-this is not actually true-it actually took a bit longer than that, about 2-3 weeks here and there)

On each snappily re-housed specimen is a personally created identification tag! Where I leave my mark and the date I was working to ID that particular beast! (yes, I have identified starfish on holidays.)

Note: Even though there's a lot here? These were actually from a PREVIOUS batch. Still several THOUSAND starfish to go!

4. Processing!

(Emily is a data entry commando!!)
Following my Antarctic Asteroid Taxonomic Frenzy, a telepathic (actually email) summons to USARP Project Majestrix Dr. Jenn Hammock initiates a dispatch of one of her many highly ranked top-service, data entry commandos!!!

Specimens are computer cataloged!!! Databases are amended! Labels are Printed!!!

Resulting in THESE smartly labelled specimens which are then SHELVED by the Shelf-Label Commandos!!
These specimens are NOW available to the research community for their uh..research community STUFF!!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Clypeaster subdepressus Video Friday!

For your Friday viewing pleasure: A neato video from a Masters student at the Biosciences Institute at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil

A Sea Biscuit's Life from Bruno Vellutini on Vimeo.

He adds the following details from his website:

We collected adults from sand beds of São Sebastião Channel (São Sebastião, SP, Brazil) and induced gamete release (eggs and sperm). We did the fertilization in vitro and followed the embryonic development in the laboratory, under light microscopy. Embryos become swimming larvae, approximately 0.2 mm wide, which we fed with microalgae until metamorphosis. A diminute sea biscuit grows inside the larva. When the minuscule podia and spines are formed the larva sinks and undergoes metamorphosis. The juvenile sea biscuit resorbs the larval tissue and begins to explore its new habitat, between sand grains.
We did the footage in the Marine Biology Center of University of São Paulo (CEBIMar-USP), located in São Sebastião, SP, Brazil, northern shore of State of São Paulo.

You can find more information about this project in the website.

and here in English..

Happy Weekend to Everyone!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Big Echinoderm Big Book Blog!!!

(bronze bust of NMNH Echinoderm Curator Austin H. Clark!)
This week, I thought it would be nice to do a nice change of pace and do something a bit odd (and ironic) for the Internet and talk about BOOKS.
So, ya know where a good chunk of those echinoderm (and other) species names come from?

Books. Specifically...monographs.

Monographs are big (LITERALLY-they are Folio oversized!!) collections of taxonomic descriptions, usually to publish on an expeditionary voyage (such as the Challenger) or simply to produce massive compendia of knowledge.

In Taxonomy and Systematics, there are several huge compendia of new species which were written during the late 19th and early/mid 20th Century when people were still exploring the world. What kind of world was this?
  • Biodiversity was called "Natural History".
  • No computers, internet or any electronic media-Communication between scientists was mostly by postal letter, photographs and/or drawings.
  • No electronic databases and until much later not even in-print Zoological Index. Mostly, unfamiliar species were described as new. Comparative information was often hard to come by. No way for people to know if what they had collected in the far-away new land of California if the species they had was even known.
  • The Smithsonian on the east coast was paralleled by the west coast Stanford University Museum of Natural History (the latter no longer exists).
Big Monographic treatments were ways of integrating VERY disparate taxonomic information and were often places to get the most up to date on the thoughts of classification, keys to identification, and relationships/similarity between species. They often had early ideas on evolution and phylogeny reflected in them..

I thought I would introduce everyone to some of the fundamental bases of echinoderm taxonomy. This is the starting point/BIG treatment for just about every major group of Echinodermata....

The citation metrics for these papers would be through-the-roof if each one were measured today in terms of their overall contributions.

I've undoubtedly missed someone's please feel free to correct/comment and who knows? I may follow up with a second post on the subject! (I certainly will follow up with additional monographs of the latter 20th Century)

1. The Austin H. Clark Crinoid Monographs
Austin H. Clark was the first curator of Echinodermata at the Smithsonian's newly developed National Museum of Natural History. He was considered in his day, by many, to be the world's undisputed expert on crinoids (feather stars and sea lillies) but wrote on all of the various echinoderms which came across his door at the Smithsonian.

Austin's crinoid opus was the starting point for modern crinoid systematics-his 5 part "Monograph of the Existing Crinoidea" which covered largely comatulids.

But Austin wrote on more then crinoids and had published papers on butterflies, the sociology of war, science education and a GREAT deal more then I can completely summarize here.
2. The Mortensen Sea Urchin MonographsPerhaps one of the most remarkable echinoderm workers from the early 20th Century was Theodor Mortensen, who was a curator at the Zoological Museum at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
Dr. Mortensen's work was amazingly diverse. He worked on a huge number of groups and on different aspects of echinoderm biology from across the globe and studied such diverse aspects as larval mode to taxonomy, especially from taxa in the Southern Hemisphere and throughout the tropics.

Mortensen was also quite a character and in future blogs, I hope to share some of his uh, published..wit and wisdom with everyone..
Mortensen worked on nearly all of the echinoderm groups, but was particularly passionate about sea urchins..and produced one of the most definitive encyclopedic monographs about echinoids ever published.

His "Monograph of the Echinoidea" is physically massive (each book is about 15 x 18 inches, and about 3-4 inches thick) and includes 16 huge books on EVERY sea urchin group, fossil and living and includes comprehensive summary of literature as well as the most detailed figures and plates available for each group at the time (which are in most cases STILL the most detailed!!)

While dated, Mortensen's monograph remains the starting point for MANY a taxonomic identification/systematics project. The Mortensen monograph had a relatively limited print run and while not ultra not commonly encountered intact....
3. The HMS Challenger Echinoderm Monographs

Hopefully, everyone who has taken Basic Oceanography has heard about the HMS Challenger. It collected a huge number of the species known to humans today. Wikipedia put it most succinctly:
... the Report Of The Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873-76 which, among many other discoveries, catalogued 4,000 previously unknown species of animal. John Murray, who supervised the publication, described the report as "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries".
They WEREN'T KIDDING. A good majority of starfish names were described from Challenger material. And a host of other echinoderm taxa are all covered in loving detail in the Reports of the Challenger expedition. Each is a HUGE oversized book...sometimes easily 6-8 inches thick!

Seven massive volumes cover echinoderms of various kinds by several of the most prominent taxonomic names of the day...

Some are quite old..but they were books meant to last..even from the 19th Century!!

And to make things even MORE awesome Many of these are now digitized..

the Asteroidea

The echinoid monographs are here.
Elasiopod Holothurians
Other holothurians

4. The Starfish Monographs of Walter K. Fisher
Probably one of my favorite professional monographs (and authors) is the Starfish Monographs written by Walter K. Fisher. W.K. Fisher was the Director of the Hopkins Marine Station, operated by Stanford University in Pacific Grove, California (now next to Monterey Bay Aquarium).

W.K. Fisher was a contemporary of the famous Ed Ricketts and via Hopkins worked next door to Cannery Row.

Fisher began much of his early career working on starfishes from all around the world...Hawaii, the Philippines and Indonesia/Sulawasi.

He also wrote THE definitive 3 part book set which provided the taxonomic foundation for our understanding of the starfish fauna of the west coast of North America (and parts of the east coast and beyond!).

In some of his later work, he finished his definitive Discovery Report on the Asteroidea but had effectively written SIX books on starfish systemtics and taxonomy. Plus a host of hundreds of papers.
But like many during that time, W.K. Fisher published and was interested in MANY things. He discussed evolution of echinoderms via letters with Austin Clark, as well as took a great interest in ornithology. He published on peanut worms, stylasterine corals, sea cucumbers and a great deal more.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Giant Green Brittle Stars of DEATH!! When they ATTACK--AGAIN!!

Ophiarachna affinis

With all of the vicious ophiuroid feeding going on, I am recently reminded by a neat paper written by James Morin at UCLA from the 1988 International Echinoderms Conference. about Ophiarachna incrassata, what he describes as "crepuscular and nocturnal predator "...

Ophiarachna occurs in the Philippines and in tropical Pacific waters and is frequently seen in the pet trade (for examples..see videos below). Its a handsome naimal that looks like this:

His paper describes an AWESOME feeding method!! Something that he calls "The Body Spiral Behavior"...and you KNOW its good when its
  1. Echinodermish
  2. Sounds like wrestling!!
This next part is pretty awesome.

At night (this behavior was only observed using night-vision), this species will sit up on its armtips and form a "pseudocrevice" , maintaining the top position for many minutes without moving. Apparently, he found many individuals found in this posture during the night.
From here, it gets interesting.

Short version: Fish get too close..and then... Ophiarchna will RAPIDLY wrap its body into aspiral (as above) ..forming the "body spiral". This action apparently takes less than a SECOND.

The fish is trapped by the elongate spines on the arms creating "bars" to a "prison" formed by the helically arranged arms.

The brittle star holds the position for several minutes, gradually lowering the disk toward the bottom and moves its arms outward.

Prey captured was digested head first as it was swallowed WHOLE by the ophiuroid.

Interestingly, Ophiarachna takes advantage of several of these fish's natural nocturnal behavior to find hiding spaces. And although they feed on a variety of items (e.g., algae, etc.) this behavior was observed to be quite successful.

And thanks to's some video footage of this beast doing something VERY close to the behavior described, but I'll betcha most people don't actually know that these critters can EAT FISH. Just let them hang naturally...and watch the wonder!

Monday, November 10, 2008

When Brittle Stars ATTACK!!!!: The Ophiura sarsii DEATH MATCH!!

(thanks to Steve Stancyk USC for many of the O. sarsii images!)

Back in 1996 at the International Echinoderm Conference hosted by Rich Mooi in San Francisco, there was one talk given that was SRO, and had a huge crowd of people billowing out of the door.

It was a remarkable presentation that for the first time showed VIDEO of what could only be called "When ophiuroids ATTACK!!" presented by Steve Stancyk, C. Muir (University of South Carolina) and Toshihiko Fujita (National Science Museum of Tokyo). All images below provided by Steve. thanks!

They showed these innocuous benthic residents-Ophiura sarsi in a new light.

These beasties can occur in some places in great density around the world...West Atlantic, North Pacific (Japan) and elsewhere along the continental shelf and deeper.

It was thought that they had been holding up their arms in these sorts of aggregations (300-350 sq. meter) in order to suspension feed. Passive, laid back and docile.

There was gut content material from fish and squid..but SURELY that HAD to be from fallen detrital rain?? What OTHER explanation could there be??
The truth was amazing.

It turns out that this species could actually catch SWIMMING prey!!

How does this happen?

It happens quite frequently that some squid, fish or euphausid swims too close or too low to the bottom...and O. sarsii can have a reach of almost 5 cm off the bottom.

In one instance where myctophid fish were moving near to the bottom, they would literally be caught by an arm loop on one animal, followed by a huge attack!!

The fish would be JUMPED by a huge CLUSTER of ophiuroids!! One would grab hold and the others would PILE ON.

Here are images of different prey: This one shows a Japanese population of O. sarsii attacking a fish, shown trying to escape!
(All images courtesy of Steve Stancyk, USC! Thanks!)

These show closer pix of a fish off the coast of Japan caught by O. sarsii.

(All images courtesy of Steve Stancyk, USC! Thanks!)
Note the eye of the squid in the pic above. What the ophiuroids DO to the captured prey is brutal. They use their arm loops to literally REND the prey (squid, fish, etc.)...APART while it is alive.

According to a paper by Stancyk et al. 1998 (from the San Francisco IEC Proceedings 1998, pp. 425-429)) sometimes up to SIX brittle stars were actively holding onto a squid during feeding.

(All images courtesy of Steve Stancyk, UNC! Thanks!)
Now, realistically, this species catching prey, probably doesn't happen too often. But do they need to? How much nutrition does one of these impart to this system?

Plus, ophiuroids have all the time in the world to just sit and wait....

BUT Wait!! It gets better! This species isn't the only one that feeds this way!!

Remember this species from New Zealand? Ophiopsammus maculata??
And how motherfrakking big it is??
These apparently have a similar MAYBE they also feed in this way????

Can you imagine that?? A big cluster of ophiuroids, EACH ONE- the size of a dinner plate jumping on top of some FISH (or ????) and then BRUTALLY tearing it apart into little pieces??


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sea Urchins Video Insanity Thursday!!

So, obviously, nothing is happening this week...and I've been distracted by a presentation and some other stuff.. So here's some weird-ass sea urchin videos!!!

This first one? AWESOME! You simply NEED to see it.

and this is a spatangoid from Thailand? Anyone know which one?

and a fire urchin being carried around by a....crab???

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Flickr Field Guide Challenge!

(Stichaster australis by fraser_88)

So, I frequently use the image host for a great many things. Many bloggers do.

The eyes and cameras of the world become multifold when you everyone is uploading their pictures onto the service. Is Flickr a new tool for documenting global biodiversity??

So, I had a curious thought, by ONLY finding pictures labelled as "starfish" and not identified as species, with NO indication that the original photographer knew much more than "starfish" (or cared if they even HAD a scientific name) could I produce a relatively comprehensive summary of the common (and even some not so common) species for a particular region??

I chose New Zealand which has a distinct and a relatively well-known shallow-water starfish fauna.

I was surprised.

You can recover quite a few large number of taxa from Flickr. I have not captured every species-but as far as nearshore shallow-water taxa?? Pretty good.

In no particular order....

(please note all pix that follow were from Flickr and were not taken by me)

Asterodiscides truncatus (Asterodiscididae) taken by TimChao
Pentagonaster pulchellus (Goniasteridae) taken by Miombori
Pentagonaster pulchellus (Goniasteridae) taken by Chooks with the Looks

Patiriella sp. (Asterinidae) taken by Padraic7Patiriella sp. (Asterinidae) taken by TimParkinson
Stichaster australis (Asteriidae/Stichasterinae) taken by Ariel Ophelia Stichaster australis (Asteriidae/Stichasterinae) taken by Sam&Onny

Astrostole scabra (Asteriidae) taken by Distorted.Vision
Astrostole scabra (Asteriidae)-w/Coscinasterias muricata in the foreground. Taken by TelPortfolio
Coscinasterias muricata (Asteriidae) taken by Ruth and Dave
Henricia (Echinasteridae) taken by Ruth and Dave
Diplodontias miliaris (Odontasteridae) taken by Hey Mambo
and for the heck of it..I found this too!

The ophiuroid Ophiopsammus maculata (Ophiodermatidae) taken by TELPortfolio.