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!!


Kevin Zelnio said...

Is dry storage the norm for echinoderm? Do you keep a snippet frozen or in 95% ethanol as a genetic voucher?

ChrisM said...

These specimens are from the 1960s..and were likely fixed in formalin..but we keep a variable % of starfish dry and wet. For asteroids, one is not necessarily inferior to the other since dry specimens are more easily studied for characters and such..

Anonymous said...

chris, you are crazy


Anonymous said...

My 12 year old daughter has been writing an assignment on Luidia Ciliaris, is a little bored and uninspired. Well that changed when we wandered onto your page. Thankyou for a brilliant educational page ( for young and old) . We are very impressed by the GIANT starfish !!!
Katya and Hannah Wynyard
Sydney , Australia.

ChrisM said...

Happy to help! Although I must admit to being curious as to why she's writing about an Atlantic species in Australia! Still...I suppose its exotic in that sense..