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