Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Natural History Art Spotlight: John Meszaros & Nocturnal Sea!

I haven't done an art blog in quite awhile and this week I thought it would be cool to feature one of my favorite natural history illustrators! John Meszaros at Nocturnal Sea!   and here is John's Deviant Art Gallery! if you'd like to see more.  and his Facebook Page with many cool pictures! 

You may already be familiar with some of Jon's work as he illustrated the recently described new species Xenoturbella monstrosa based on research at Scripps by Greg Rouse et al. 
Here's the real deal for comparison. The illustration above shows the ecology of Xenoturbella as described by Rouse et al.. so however.. unusual the image may seem it is based in real science!

Another striking image that I LOVE is this one from Jon featuring the hydrothermal vents of Antarctica, featured a few years ago here. But specifically.. the unusual multi-armed STARFISH that live there!

They apparently fed on the weird fleshy barnacles that live there as well as possibly the "Hoff crabs"! 
For comparison..
Jon has always had great taste in subjects for his paintings! (and good colors to match) Here is the famous swimming sea cucumber, Enypniastes exima. Which you can also buy as a shirt! 

and Yes....the swimming sea cucumber is REAL

Another one of my favorites is Megalodicopia hians! the deep-sea predatory tunicate! Another lovely painting! And yes.. here's where you can get the shirt! 
Jon draws inspiration from a wide range of habitats in nature! Fortunately they are all unusual!!

Here's a GREAT one called "Inner Space 2" which shows a bunch of very small pond-water type animals and protists...

The big "tree-like" things are actually rotifers in the genus Floscularia! He actually goes into a detailed description of everything in this picture on his Deviant Art page for this illustration.  All of the things in this painting are actually microbial organisms that you might find in a drop of water in a freshwater pond or lake! There are bryozoans and even ciliates (protists)! 

Inner Space 2 by NocturnalSea on DeviantArt

Another great piece of art shows none other than one of the weirdest, little animals known-the Loricifera! Here as part of this anoxic habitat inspired by a brine pool from the Mediterranean.

Cabinet of Curiosities:  An Anoxic Metazoan by NocturnalSea on DeviantArt

Here is a nice cross section of tropical invertebrates.. including not just the colorful and already surreal nudibranch Bornellia, but also one of my favorite sea urchins, the "shingle urchin" Colobocentrotus as I wrote about it here.  and here for the biophysics of their ability to hold on...

John also does some pretty AWESOME paleontological reconstructions! 

Here we have some art depicting the Sirius Passet laggerstatten from Greenland. A Cambrian deposit which is faunistically similar to the Chiangjiang and actually pre-dating the Burgess Shale fauna..

Sirius Passet fauna by NocturnalSea on DeviantArt

The following two are more of my favorites taken from the Cambrian faunas.

LOBOPODS! Remember Hallucigenia and the other weird critters from the Burgess Shale? These were arthropod-worm like animals that were thought to be distant ancestors to velvet worms..

Lobopods by NocturnalSea on DeviantArt
And in the same vein, here are anomalocarids.. species of Cambrian arthropods related to/inspired by the famous Burgess Shale Anomalocaris

Anomalocaris group by NocturnalSea on DeviantArt

And as all artists are want to's a more fanciful creation inspired by real Paleozoic animals. Included here just for the sheer fantastic artistry of it!

False Ammonite by NocturnalSea on DeviantArt

Here he's clearly taken a VERY echinoderm-centric take on the Great Race. We have some echinoderm larvae in there as well as a brittle star and some five-part symmetry that any worshipper of the great Cthulhu would approve of (if they were not seeking to bring about the end of humanity that is! )

Haeckel Yithian by NocturnalSea on DeviantArt

Friday, March 18, 2016

Taxonomy Day 2016! Museum Collections are the Taxonomist Habitat!

TAXONOMY DAY will soon be upon us!  On March 19th Several years ago, biologist Terry McGlynn declared a DAY FOR APPRECIATING TAXONOMISTS! who had supported his work.

In Biology, Taxonomists are those scientists who IDENTIFY species and work towards classifying and understanding their evolution and "place" in the natural world. Which species is it? The common one? The one we eat? The poisonous one?? 

Much of our understanding of ecosystems and conservation STARTS with knowing which species is which! 

I recently discovered that the  NSF program funding for "Biological Infrastrucutre" aka.. natural history collections has been put on "hiatus" as of this month while it is "being evaluated for the long term resource needs and research priorities in the Biological Sciences Directorate."

If you have FEEDBACK to the "evaluation" for NSF's Collection in Support of Biological Research, please send email to them on the email address located here:

So, I don't know anything about the issues surrounding this hiatus BUT I thought that this year for TAXONOMY DAY, it would be a GOOD time to refresh the public as to what services natural history collections perform for both the scientific and "greater good" of society...

As I described in one of my last posts, the Natural History Museum is essentially THE HABITAT for the taxonomist (as well as many other scientists!)

1. Specimen libraries that help us ID and understand biodiversity

Most people don't realize that behind the exhibit floors of dinosaurs, shells, minerals and other awesome displays there are actually large collections of natural history artifacts- shells, plants, insects, skeletons, and many more specimens of different organisms and mineral specimens from all over the world. Some local, some from very far away.

Just to be clear, these aren't just "stored" to get them out of the way, these specimens are ACTIVELY STUDIED and researched by scientists all around the world. I would say that this is the primary function of natural history museums. They house and care for biological (and in some cases geological and cultural) specimens that serve the scientific community.

Collections like this one are RESEARCH centers for these kinds of natural artifacts. In the context of biology, if you want to know what some Antarctic fanged rotifer looks like? Find the museum with all the Antarctic rotifer specimens and compare yours with professionally identified one in the collection!

If you think you have some kind of fossil that you'd like to check as being from specific stratum of rock? Compare it against the one in the natural history collection!

At one of the museums' I've worked at, they actually have a representative of EVERY phylum of animal! So yeah, you wanna know what a loriciferan is? And finding one isn't convenient? You can go look it up and find it!

Identifying animals, plants, minerals, etc. aka "collection based research" has all sorts of pragmatic applications (note all of these are based on REAL cases):
  • Identifying economically important pests or invasive species
  • Long term environmental monitoring (such as this one in the Gulf of Mexico)
  • Identifying species used in medical research
  • Identifying species with direct economic importance (i.e. corals or shells for jewelry)
  • Geochemical analysis to study past environments
  • Identify toxic/poisonous/venomous species
  • Identifying bird feathers involved in airplane accidents
  • and of COURSE my favorite application of museum research collections: Identifying weird bugs from a crime scene to help locate a murderer! 
Natural history collections and museums are thus part of our "knowledge infrastructure." It is here that we begin to identify many of the organisms around us.. be they animal, plant, fungus, mineral...or "other"..

What makes Natural history collections so critical to taxonomy? This is frequently where  the vouchers or TYPE COLLECTIONS are deposited.
These are specimens that are the original material used by scientists to describe new species. As I've described earlier, these are sort of the "first issue" of a new species. Essentially the voucher showing the original "intent" or concept of a species by its original author

These type specimens are kept for collections of all sorts of plants, animals and fossils in natural history museums all around the world. They allow scientists and other researchers sometimes HUNDREDS of YEARS down the road to confirm what a particular species looked like based on a particular author's description..

Sometimes, this preserved material also retains useful DNA for subsequent extraction and study to understand ancient relationships or other study areas.

2. New Species are Described from Natural History Collections
So, if you remember from the recent Okeanos Explorer dives to the Hawaiian Islands, we saw on several occasions, THIS starfish species. A goniasterid, called Circeaster arandae, was a species I described in 2006! 
BUT When I found it, it was this. A dry specimen that had been sitting on a museum shelf for about 30 years with only a few collection notes. As I've mentioned in prior blog posts, it takes an average of about 21 years for a specimen to go from "shelf" to published description!!

And that doesn't count the time it takes to reach the "shelf"!! Thus, the museum collection plays one critical role in how biologists "find" new species. The natural history collection plays a role in providing a "stage" for a new "actor" (in this case a possible new species) to be discovered!! 

On multiple occasions I've described how I've descried new species from different parts of the world. I've got the new species I've described listed here and I'm up to around 31 of them by now.

Natural history museum collections are a natural place to describe new species because in many instances, you ALREADY have the other species present as a reference species for comparison as well as much of the literature.
So, whether this is just comparing the morphology (i.e., the external or internal appearance) or if you are taking DNA from tissues, museums with their many, MANY other specimens are often critical for such a study.

Once a new species is described. It remains with the museum until one of three things happens: the specimen fades away OR the museum collection fades away OR human society ends.

Either way.. vouchers for species are supposed to be kept "in perpetuity" and that's a LONG time...

I have literally met the 4th generation of descendants of scientists visiting the museum who had specimens deposited in the museum based on work finished in 1846!!!

3. Museum Collections: Where Scientists Gather
In places where collections are present, they serve as a focal point for scientists, politicians, and even activists and other folks to meet. You have the collections that everybody needs in one place. Travel often takes place at the same time (e.g., during the summer or winter when school is out) and before you know it, you've got a workshop or collaboration happening! New projects! New species!

During one of my last visits to Paris, a convergence of about half a dozen scientists from 4 countries led to a workshop on New Caledonian marine biodiversity!

These efforts benefit everyone as folks get their "heads together" to pool data and resources in order to solve bigger problems and to examine big issues in conservation, biology and other related fields.

4. Museums & their Collections are Research/Conservation Hubs
 Another aspect of research that ties directly to the collections: research and database hubs are often associated with museums. It makes sense that as researchers use additional tools, that these will be accordingly part of the modern museum infrastructure. Got the specimen with database information cataloged? Extracting tissue AND keeping track of that information are critical parts of the process.

As part of this whole dynamic, many, MANY government and non-profit organizations hang their hats in and around natural history museums. You've got biodiversity databases and taxonomic information?  Then you've got researchers and others who need to research that information and manage it.

5. Biodiversity Education
The collections motivate and spur a lot of research and research-related activities. But one of the greatest non-research things about natural history collections is their ability to inspire and educate!

Showing people "the real deal" is the often the BEST way to educate. Models and such are nice but when you are able to hold a 450 million year old fossil shell in your hands?  A REAL piece of history???

Plus, you often have scientists and educators who know their way around specimens and are more than happy to share the details and explain in the best way possible??

AND, many, many citizen scientist and natural history fans gather at museums. Many, MANY artists often sit and draw/illustrate specimens in the main display halls of many museums. Many citizen organizations meet at natural history museums..essentially inspired by the collections!!

Collections motivate all of the activities above! But remember that they don't necessarily happen on their own! Sometimes you can take one from column A and one from column B!!

How can you beat that??
So.. SUPPORT your natural history museum and their COLLECTIONS. They play an important role in supporting biology and research.

Even WITHOUT money for research activities, there's a lot of costs that go toward supplies.. labels, boxes, and most importantly trained personnel to help maintain the collections.

Supporting science and biodiversity:  the discovery and understanding of new life on the planet is the mandate of every natural history museum I know of!  Natural History Collections are ESSENTIAL to this. If you can support collections- PLEASE do so!  Happy Taxonomy Day!!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Purple invertebrates in the Abyss!

Another week and another bunch of deep-sea Okeanos dives in the French Frigate/Hawaiian Islands region!

One thing I noticed while reviewing the recent dives and those from last year was just how much COLOR you see in the deep-sea.. black, white, ORANGE... and purple!

Purple is of course, the color of kings! In Chinese painting, purple represents the harmony of the universe because it mixes red and blue. There's a whole bunch of meaning which you can find on Wikipedia..

Functional explanations for animals with black, white (such as this Henricia) or transparent/translucent body walls seem to be explained pretty readily by light-related/lack of pigment type explanations.
And even the bright orange colors in species are considered adaptive.. as orange/red does not reach into the depths, rending animals these bright colors effectively black.
It is interesting then, what about those animals that AREN'T any of these colors??

Why are SO MANY deep-sea animals purple?  

I'm not sure if I'm missing some biophysical explanation.. whether this color has some adaptive significance? Or perhaps simply results in some modification of pigments due to some physiological/defensive/efficiency?? 

Purple (or at least a bold blue) seems to be present in several different phyla of animals in the Hawaiian deeps as observed by the Okeanos Explorer ROV..  Note: These are all pretty deep. 1000-4000 m or thereabouts..

How many purple invertebrates are there??

1. There's this big echinothuriid urchin, Tromikosoma As discussed last week, these walk around on the deep-sea floor with spines modified into walking legs.

The shallow water relatives of these urchins are VERY poisonous and brilliantly colorful! As presented here, a few years ago.

Curiously, another purple echinoderm is this feather star (crinoid), Sarametra triserialis (Zenometridae) as ID by Chuck Messing. 

This "slime star", Hymenaster sp. As has been mentioned before, these are big blobby pillow shaped starfish that emit a noxious mucus when annoyed..
Here is a violet/purple euryalid ophiuroid aka a "serpent star"...

But echinoderms aren't the only purple animals down there! 

We've also observed this squat lobster (Crustacea) on several occasions.. Possibly a new species! (I believe they said it was a chirostylid?) 

 Gorgeous and with a very striking color against the otherwise grey and dark deep-sea bottoms! 

In the phylum Cnidaria we have....

There was this dark blue/purple sea anemone! I believe this was a cerianthid? 

AND this handsome soft coral, Clavularia!
and this very interesting purple coral (apparently a "proper" coral, a scleractinian)

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Echinoderms with Spines for Walkin'

OKEANOS Explorer is BACK!!! And even though they've only been able to venture into the field for two days, there's already some AWESOME video which inspires this week's post!! 

Sunday, the ROV spied this awesome beast, a weird sea urchin in the genus Aspidodiadema. Although there's at least one species known in this area, A. hawaiiensis, I'm not sure that this is the same thing.

I've talked about this urchin before.  The spines bow out from the central body and touch the bottom rather than simply projecting outward as they do in other species. They are unusual in that they use their spines to "walk" along the sea bottom.

Here's a diagram of another species but with the "walking tips" clearly deployed on the bottom

On Sunday, they spied ANOTHER Aspidodiadema sp. But the video actually captured the unusual TIPS of the walking spines!!!
Do you see those round, circular tips that are on the tips of the spines??

Look at the red arrows below pointing to the "walking cups" on the spines that the urchin uses to move!
What's also kind of interesting is that this animal (and I think a few others) were actually CLIMBING a rock face and not just walking along a flat surface as diagrammed by Mortensen back in the day. So, these do a lot more than just just support..

Think of the spines like the long legs on the spider robot from Johnny Quest!

The "walking tips" of the spines look sort of like little hooves that the spines use to gain purchase on the substrate probably in conjunction with the tube feet. The center illustration shows what the bottom of that "hoof" looks like as you look directly up into it.. basically a modified spine tip adapted to aid in movement!

So, we HAVE seen something like this before in  Echinothuriid or "tam o shanter" or "pancake" urchins! 

I've done this story more than a few times..with one of the most recent accounts here.

Long story short: The urchin walks on a bunch of little legs with modified tips that ALSO resemble hooves! 

Look for the little white tips on the spines around the bottom edge!! Those are how it moves around on the soft-muddy substrate.
Spiny sea urchin
Sea Urchin underbelly
Here's a close up of what those look like!!! Superficially similar to the ones in Aspidodiadema!  At least in shape..
But wait.. There's MORE????   How about in STARFISH???
That's right! I'm pretty sure I've found spines that might serve in a similar (or maybe opposite?) fashion in deep-sea sea stars!  The filter-feeding Brisingids!! (here)

I just published a paper last year which documents some work I did recently on Hawaiian brisingids!
The starfish actually live on old munitions and junky metal debris.. I wrote about it here

The species was named Brisingenes margoae in honor of Dr. Margo Edwards at the University of Hawaii! She is a professor of geophysics working on mapping this unusual munitions filled terrain! 

She was head of the project and invited my participation! 
After collecting these starfish I noted something rather interesting.. the tips of the spines that occur on along the tube foot grooves were stained brown from contact with the metal casings they were sitting on! 

The one on the right shows the brown tip on one spine..
 This suggested that these were actually inset or even anchored into the surface rather than just kind of pointing away as has been suggested from watching them filter feed..

But when you look further at some other species, you see that there's probably an additional way for them to remains stabilized on whatever bottom they happen to be sitting on..
Here's a close up of some of those spines in one species from the North Pacific.. The tips are kind of wide and hoof-like! Similar to what you see in Aspidodiadema and the echinothuriid urchins! 
The case for the functioning of these spines is still sort of at the "hypothesis" stage at the moment..but it seems like a good argument all things considered. It seems likely that they serve at least in part as anchors. But do they use them to move also? Little walking legs? Something in between? Do they vary depending on where they live?

This all makes sense though. Spines are how these animals interact with their environment. In these deep-sea habitats where you have a lot of water currents and unstable bottoms, these spines help them. Either as support or to help move efficiently where a soft tube foot might not.

Weird. But I love figuring out strange sh*t like this!!