Friday, December 18, 2009


These past few weeks have been very plate-centric. Jenna and Derek have be photographing and subsampling bivalves from the ethanol collections. Nat has dipped his toes into the arthropods, and I have been hammering away at the echinoderm tissues pulled from the cryofreezer. The details are hazy, but I'm pretty sure I dreamed the other night about affixing the small adhesive labels to the subsample vials. In the picture below Jenna's purple gloves demonstrate her dedication to both sterile subsample conditions and a festive work environment. Ok, the purple ones were on sale last time we bought gloves.

So why isn't Nat wearing purple gloves? Somewhere he must have found a stash of the older latex gloves, but you can see his dedication to office-festiveness in the classy pink fingernail polish at his workstation. We use this to denote which specimens have been subsampled. It looks like Nat has chosen "A Dozen Rosas," I usually opt for "Fuchsia Fever."

Machel also joined us in the lab. She and Nat must have heard that I was thinking of heading up to the grad student offices to try and get a photo of them in their natural habitat for the blog. François escaped back to France for the holidays before I had fully committed to the expedition.

Plate-frenzy and ID frenzy go hand in hand. Below, John is identifying some bivalves to add to the queue of specimens to be sampled. He and Gustav have been making sure we don't get bored, run out of things to do, or see anything other than bivalves seared into our retinas when we close our eyes.

That's right, Gustav is back from Moorea (again), and you know what that means...buckets! Buckets and buckets of baggies and vials of specimens that need to be rehoused and stabilized in ethanol. I got a picture of a portion of it.

Processing the specimens fixed in ethanol goes fairly smoothly, but the ones which are formalin fixed require a little extra attention since it is a more hazardous material. Like a responsible scientist, Nat took a few bags over to the fume hood in the herpetology range to safely drain the formalin and replace it with ethanol. I hope you're looking Department of Environmental Health and Safety!

Processing buckets means we use hundreds and hundreds of small wet vials. We have many sizes, but these are the most popular. Just to give you an idea, we buy several cases at a time, several times a year. Each case contains 750 vials. In this next picture Derek is replenishing the lid stash.

At our last discussion-group meeting of the year (pictured below), Nat gave a practice presentation of a talk he will be giving in January on Myxozoa. "Myxozoans," you're thinking, "are those cnidarians like corals and jellyfish or more closely related to the bilateria such as worms?" Good questions, Nat's master's research brings us a few steps closer to the answers we seek.

Happy Holidays!

:) Mandy

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tonna perdix eating Stichopus sp.

Not many animals are known to eat sea cucumbers. There is a good reason. Most of them have chemicals in their body, which probably doesn't taste too good but more importantly may intoxicate the potential predators.

Humans have found a way to deal with these toxins. In the preparation of the bêche-de-mer, sea cucumbers are boiled for a long time which breaks down these chemicals.

If toxicity is a good way to avoid generalist predators, other animals have evolved to become specialists and can deal with the cocktail of toxins found in the skin and organs of sea cucumbers. In coral reefs, among the specialist predators, Tonna perdix is known to feed regularly on sea cucumbers, and in particular, on the species of the genus Stichopus.

After finding a Tonna perdix during a reef walk on Heron Island, I decided to keep it in a tank hoping to observe its feeding behavior. A few days later, Rob brought me back some Stichopus (that I can't identify to the species level) and decided to put it in the tank with the Tonna perdix. Before the Stichopus even touched the bottom of the tank, the Tonna perdix became really active. After a few minutes crawling around the tank, Tonna perdix used its proboscis to detach its prey from the wall of the tank, and in just a few seconds, the gastropod extended its proboscis around the sea cucumber swallowing it whole. Holly Heiniger had her camera with her to record this.

Sea cucumbers have also evolved ways to escape predation. In particular, Stichopus can shed its body wall to only leave pieces of it to the predator. However, in this case, the attack was so fast that the sea cucumber didn't seem to have any time to escape.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visiting Artist: David Liittschwager

The Moorea Biocode project is currently hosting the photographer David Liittschwager ( His amazing works have been showcased in the book "Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World's Most Remote Island Sanctuary", which he co-authored with Susan Middleton. He has a few projects he is working on that document coral reef organisms, so he is collaborating with the Marine Invertebrate Group of the Biocode project and the Invertebrate Zoology department of the Florida Museum of Natural History. He has spent the last week or so taking the most interesting and beautiful creatures from our collections into a lab-turned-studio and coming out with intensely detailed portraits of a fauna rarely seen, let alone celebrated.

One of his projects will be coming out in the February issue of National Geographic.

It has been a treat having him around, lending an artistic perspective to a world view dominated by scientists.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

New Genus!

Sarah McPherson has become our expert in collecting the hidden organisms in the vast areas of sand around Moorea. The habitat is one that is frequently overlooked, and turns up all manner of surprises. You will see her patiently fanning, stirring up huge clouds of sediment, and revealing one pale tan critter after another. After today's dive she came back with a collecting bag full of creatures new for the project including one inconspicuus, transparent, Alpheid shrimp. Art Anker, a post doc in the Paulay lab and one of the few world experts in the identification of shrimp in this group, was on hand to announce that Sarah had found a very special shrimp. Not just a new species, but a new genus! He also promised to name it after her.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Packing up, moving on...

Rob has a distinctive packing style

Our three weeks in Australia have ended, so we are packing up all of the specimens, and shipping them back to the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Packing, itself, is a long drawn out affair- all the containters need to be drained of Ethanol, then packaged together with other specimens, heatsealed into a plastic bag, and then packaged into small barrels. With over 2000 specimens, it takes HOURS. But if it means that they make it back to the museum safely, it is time well spent.

The trip was interesting in terms of what was on the island, and what wasn't. As expected, rarity was the rule, and some groups that we expected to be common were all but absent. Unlike many places in the Indo-Pacific, the coral genus
Pocillopora was largely absent from the area- and certainly not a reef dominant group, as it is in Moorea. The same could be said of many types of Sea Cucumbers. Parasitism of echinoderms and crustaceans was common.

The large scale questions remain: What drives these patterns of diversity? Why is this place different from others?


Preparations, Celebrations, and Geneious Fever

Another busy week! François has returned to us from Heron Island and Gustav has left us to return to Moorea (he might be on a plane right now). While he was here he entered into an ID frenzy. The first group he tackled was the gall crabs, Cryptochiridae, which live in coral. It's hard to detect the frenzy in the picture below, but it is there. And yes, that is Jenna in the background still toiling away at Geneious. Lest you think she is a Geneious slave, I'll have you know that not only has her tether recently been lengthened, but we also unchained her completely last weekend so she could spend Thanksgiving with her family.

Don't be alarmed, but Geneious Fever has spread from Jenna and JD to the office I share with John. Because his back is to me, I can't see the glassy-eyed stare that is characteristic of Geneious Fever, but the beautifully aligned and colorful DNA sequences on his computer screen give away his condition.

We've also spent some time gathering supplies for Gustav to take with him back to Moorea. A sampling is in the photo below.

Now I realize that to the untrained eye, this assortment of equipment might look vaguely suspicious, but don't worry, the scientific eye can discern that this stuff looks...ok it looks hilariously suspicious, that's why we took a picture of it! But Gustav should have no trouble at the airport, not only does he have museum credentials, but he also has a beard and an accent. In reality, what looks like three sticks of dynamite is actually a battery for an underwater vacuum and the white cylinder is its case. The bags of expensive looking white powder contain the salt magnesium chloride. This substance is used to relax mollusks before preserving them. Relaxing them has a dual purpose, it acts like an anesthetic so it is more humane than just plopping them in ethanol, and it causes them to release their body out of their shell. Some gastropods and most bivalves can be difficult to preserve without relaxing because they seal themselves in their shell and end up rotting because the ethanol can't penetrate.

In the picture below Derek is working on the construction of the battery case. It has been quite a project, and although Derek did most, if not all, of the actual construction of the case, I have a proprietary sense of pride and feel I really contributed to it's construction since I wielded the pcard that made the purchasing of the components possible.

This week the GRR (Genetic Resources Repository) division of the musuem celebrated its 20,000th accession, so they threw a party to celebrate. The GRR is responsible for managing the tissue subsamples for the museum division's wet collections. Our division felt especially proud since we contributed over 54% of the subsamples and the 20,000th lot was an isopod from our collection. Chelsey, Derek, and I posed with the cryofreezer...

...but not before stuffing our faces with cake! While Pam cut the cake Lorena opened the freezer for us to see. This picture was taken after the freezer was open for a while and so it didn't capture the huge billow of steam when the freezer is first opened. Very dramatic!

Now we'll get back to work on the next 20,000!

:) Mandy

Monday, November 23, 2009

Museum Happenings

It's been a relatively busy week at HQ. In addition to lending field support to our agents throughout the globe (Australia, New Zealand, Moorea) with supplies and data entry, we kept up a brisk pace of other activities as well.

In the picture below, Jenna is spreading the Geneious love. She is now so skilled in the program that she is sharing her knowledge with others. JD is hanging on her every word. Also, Julie is delighted by ossicles, the calcarious particles in the skin of sea cucumbers. She is preparing slides so the ossicles can be viewed under a microcscope. They are often a diagnostic character in distinguishing species.

John is taking a break from the land snails of Madagascar to ID some snails that were given to us from marine lakes in the Pacific. Not to worry, the 10,000 lots of land snails that recently arrived from Madagascar will not let themselves be forgotten. They have numbers on their side and know that John needs them for his PhD work.

Before we put tissue samples in plates to be sent off and sequenced, it is helpful to have an accurate ID on the specimen, so Gustav called for backup. Harry Lee is an expert malacologist whom Gustav recruited to help us ID to species some of the snail families in our collection.

Jada and Anthony are plating some some her Moorea specimens for sequencing. Not pictured, the actual plates. I think they're hidden behind a bag of subsample vials.

This was Walter's highly anticipated vermetid ID-stravaganza. As you can see it was well attended, even though it was postponed until Thursday due to schedule conflicts. These worm snails can be easily confused, not only between species, but with other families of snails such as the Turritellidae, and even with actual worms, a completely different phylum (Annelida). We are now armed with the necessary arsenal to fend off such mis-IDs.

We have a shortened week due to the Thanksgiving holiday. After gorging ourselves on turkey we'll be ready to spring back into action. Or if not spring, at least sluggishly haul ourselves up to our desks.

:) Mandy

Friday, November 20, 2009


For the last few years our lab has been involved in putting ARMS on reefs. These are Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures. The idea was to come up with a standardized unit to measure reef biodiversity. Each unit consists of PVC plates, spacers, and some wire mesh. The whole thing is anchored to the reef, and left to sit and get settled for a full year.

With Creefs back at Heron island for another season of biodiversity surveying, it was time to pull out the ARMS that had been placed last year. The video is of Shawn removing an ARMS from the bottom, and carefully boxing it and carrying it to the surface.

Taking them apart and sampling them fully is time intensive- and quite a few of the species we have gotten so far have not come from any other method of sampling, including the "Muppet Crab" featured at the bottom of the post.


The ARMS is carefully released from it's box....

The layers are unbolted

The mesh layer is on top.

Then several PVC layers

Everything is brushed carefully and all obvious creatures and plants are removed.

Everything is carefully rinsed and the rinse-water strained for small organisms

And then the specimens are carefully sorted to species in the lab.

And the treasures appear!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Large Octopus

There is no doubt about it. Octopus are amazing creatures. We encountered a large one on the reef the other day and I got a short video of it. Unlike most I've encountered it was not terribly shy, and stayed in view for more than a half hour. At about 5 feet across, size may have had something to do with it. The video gives a good sense as to how rapidly they can change color and texture to match the surrounding environment, or to send a signal. What it doesn't portray as well is the amount of -for lack of better words- personality that these animals have.

Enjoy. I sure did.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Meanwhile, back at HQ... continues apace. With Gustav and John out of the country (as well as Sea, Sarah, Art and François) we set our noses to the grindstone and held down the fort with a skeleton crew. We did an admirable job, but now Gustav and John are back so we canceled Pajama Thursdays, received our commendations, and abandoned the tiller. But of course they didn't return empty handed. John was touring musuems in Europe photographing holotypes for his (and Chelsey's) research on land snails. "Type" specimens are the individual specimens on which species descriptions are based. The picture below is of the holotype of Ampelita souliana, which John photographed while in Paris.

Take a look at these pictures and see if you can tell who went to Paris with John and who went to France at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival.

Gustav also returned bearing gifts. In addition to several hundred specimens from Moorea (a small sampling of what we will face in December when the whole expedition heads back to Gainesville), Gustav also brought some of his field notes for us to enter into a spreadsheet. We had already begun this task on Sarah's behalf so we knew what we were facing.

If you can read this you're either a huge invert-nerd, a cryptologist, or Gustav. Don't limit yourself, you might be more than one.

A couple more pictures of what we've been up to: Jenna is becoming a genius at Geneious, a software program for aligning DNA sequences.

We aim to sequence to bulk of the species in our ethanol preserved collection in the coming months.

Also, Derek has begun tackling the crab family Portunidae, the swimming crabs. Using a key (and the assistance of Gustav) he has been assigning the correct species name to the specimens which have either been unidentified (or identified only to family level) or misidentified in the past.

Walter Kelly has also been busy identifying our collection of vermetid snails (family Vermetidae) and will be giving a presentation later today which will turn us all into expert vermetid IDers. Ok, maybe it'll take more than a day, but we can dream can't we, and we'll still have Walter around for a while to show us how it's done.

I hope all you field agents are remembering the sunscreen as you languish on various tropical isles!

:) Mandy

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Farming on the reef

There are a few animals that farm. Humans, and ants on land, but what about the oceans? Jada-Simone White ( has been studying the details of one marine farming relationship- that of the "farmerfish" Stegastes nigricans (a type of damselfish) which actively cultivates an algal "turf farm".

Yesterday I had the opportunity to observe another type of marine farm. Throughout the Pacific Ocean, you can often see odd, short crevasses in large heads of coral. Sometimes they appear to have been carved in- like Petroglyphs.

These burrows are made by an Alpheid shrimp. If you look carefully, you can see that the edges of the burrow are lined with a hydroid, while the walls of the crevasse are covered in an algae, carefully cultivated by the shrimp from holes at the bottom.

The shrimp in this group typically have rather short limbs. In this case though, the secondary chela is very, very long and flexible, to be able to tend to the garden from the saftey of it's holes.

Most of the time you can't see how this works very well, but yesterday, I found a garden that was exposed on one side. I'm posting a video below, along with a little map. The two pink arrows are the first and last access points the shrimp has to its garden. The green arrow is the hole to watch in the video. Starting around 12 seconds into the vid, you can see an arm flash out of the hole, grab some algae, and be retracted. Pretty neat for a shrimp!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

First Impression = heavily parasitized

First impressions of the Southern Great Barrier Reef: Diversity is high, with a few species familiar to us from Polynesia, but most are new. Decapod abundance seems lower in comparison, but that could just be the microhabitats that we dove on yesterday. One thing does appear to occur in serious abundance: parasitism. In the samples from Biocode on Moorea, it is an unusual occurance for us to encounter a parasite on a crustacean or seastar- perhaps one in one hundred. Here in Australia the rate seems much much higher- perhaps one in five.

Here is an externally parasitic snail, Thyca, on the seastar Lincka multiflora

And here is an internally parasitic snail, Stylifer, on the same species of seastar.

Understanding the pattern behind these differences is the trick. Part of it may be that diversity begets diversity, creating what Phillipe Bouche has called "the russian dolls of biodiversity." This is where one organism may have a commensal organism living with it, that commensal may have a parasite, and that parasite may have a parasite. We certainly see it with coral, where one species of coral may host many symbionts and each of these may have their own set of commensals and parasites. By increasing the number of species of structural species (corals in this case, but could just as easily be trees in a rainforest) by one, we increase the over-all diversity by many.

This Pink Coral Guard Crab (Trapezia serenei) is a good example. It lives exclusively in one family of corals. If you look at the carapace, you can see that it is asymetrical. In this case that is indicative of a Boporid- a crustacean parasite on crustaceans that has infected the crab.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Creefs- Heron Island Australia

Part of the team has just landed on Heron Island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef in Australia. After a rather "lumpy" two hour ride on the catamaran out to the island, we've started to settle in for a few weeks.

The island is absolutely alive with birds. During the day, noddies, egrets, rails, and plovers go about their business with cacaphonous ablomb. Now that the sun is setting, the shearwaters are arriving in droves, crash landing into people and buildings, then running to their nests in burrows in the sandy soil. It is new and amazing, though I am told that after a few weeks, you relish the comparative silence to be found underwater.

Our first dive will be tomorrow, so tonight we are setting up our equipment. We are here as part of the CReefs program to explore and document tropical marine biodiversity. As with Biocode, the efforts revolve around bringing in taxonomic and systematic experts to quantify as many taxa as possible during the short time we have here. FLMNH is represented by three people: Francois Michonneau, an expert in Holothurians, Rob Lasley who works on crabs, and myself, working on coral symbionts.

Hide and Seek

What can you find in the photo above? Many of the organisms that our group studies are cryptic- hidden in their environment. Sometimes a trained eye can spot them- a slightly different texture, motion slightly out of sync with the rest of the setting- but most of the time we swim right past, just like everything else. When people think of the biodiversity of a coral reef, most think of colorful fish, or the corals. Yet the real bulk of diversity, and some of the most amazing creatures are the little things, the hidden things.

An interesting idea to think about is the coloration of reef creatures. Out of their habitat, some appear very colorful- almost psychedelic. But when placed on the reef with it's complex colors and shapes, they disappear. A good example of this is the shrimp Saron, photo below.

Both crabs and shrimps are very good at hiding, and several families of each group have specialized in crypsis, or camoflaouge. The family Majidae, or 'spider crabs' are a great example. Some members of this group are known as 'decorator crabs' because they gather material from the world around them and attach it to their shell and legs in order to hide.

Others, such as the shrimp family Crangonidae, rely on the coloration of the body itself to provide the protection. Can you find the shrimp in the photo below?

So how are you doing with that photo at the top? Here's a photo of the Leucosid crab that is in sand. See it now?