Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rewind: BioBlitz 2010

Back in April/May our lab participated in the National Geographic BioBlitz down in Biscayne Bay. BioBlitz is a 24 hour biodiversity survey (from noon to noon), where we document as many species as possible. Groups of scientists lead groups of science enthusiasts on short forays to see what we can find using various collecting methods. We were involved in both the marine and terrestrial invertebrate surveys. There was a base of operations at Convoy Point, but we were involved with the survey based out of Elliot Key. While the tour groups would come and go throughout both days we the scientists spent two action packed nights camping on Elliot Key. So what does it look like when 12 scientists go camping? Something like this.

I realize that's it hard to really grasp the scale of supply-mountain, but we and our gear filled the deck of our the boat that ferried us to the island. And it was all deck. It was a landing-craft designed for transporting vehicles.

The eating/sciencing portion of the excursion was conducted on one side of the island, and the sleeping portion was conducted on the other. To travel between them one had to go through The Gauntlet.

I know, it's so scenic and tranquil. We too were lulled into a false sense of security, but a few steps into The Guantlet and we realized why the woman on the boat had been so insistent about bug spray.

What appears to be a diseased limb swiftly traveling down the road to amputation is actually a buffet of culinary delights from the perspective of the aggressive and bountiful mosquito and no-see-um populations of the island.

So how did we avoid the bugs (besides employing hazardous level of DEET)? By getting in the water! In this picture Jenna and Sam are showing a school group how to use a yabby pump and sieve to collect critters from burrows in the sediment. I realize you can't see the yabby pump in this picture, but the good news is I'm not holding out for a career in photojournalism.

Unfortunately I also don't have any pictures of John braving the wooded areas searching for land snails. Except for my sprints through The Gauntlet necessitated by some desperate need (food, sleep, more bug spray), I avoided the woods whenever possible.

Throughout the day, groups would come in from collecting trips and some animals would be displayed in trays on outside tables so that people could admire them. A group of us would man the tables to tell people about what they were looking at. For instance, dig this lobster.

Now dig Jenna, Nat, Gustav, and François showing this group of children a thing or two about biodiversity.

That tent in the background was the headquarters for this operation. Many animals were admired and released, but many also ended up in the tent where they were anesthetized. Then they were photographed, subsampled, and preserved to go back with us to the museum. Sarah is photographing, while Julie and Hsiu are subsampling.

Having a physical specimen, accompanied by a live photo and DNA sequence, allow diversity information to be preserved in such a way that others can use it for their own research.

All in all it was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and we expanded our knowledge and collections of Florida's biodiversity, but we weren't done yet. After BioBlitzing most of us continued taking our show on the road and headed down to the Keys Marine Lab on Long Key. More on that in another post.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sea cucumber workshop in Guam

Part of the lab is currently in Guam because of sea cucumbers.

In the context of the PEET project, we brought together 15 sea cucumber specialists and students -- from 10 countries -- in Guam to share knowledge about field and lab techniques for taxonomic studies of our favorite echinoderm group. We are now half-way through the workshop (it started on June 7th) and we have been very busy.

Our days are filled with field trips where we collect sea cucumbers in their habitats, time in the lab where we dissect the animals collected and look at their ossicles and time in the classroom where sea cucumbers specialists give lectures and students present their research.

We have been really successful in the field and found several species that haven't been recorded from Guam before, and even maybe a couple of new species. There are two main reasons for these new records.

First, it highlights the progress that the PEET project has made since it started. By visiting museum collections to find type specimens, by collecting sea cucumbers in many places to understand morphological variation in species and by sequencing all this freshly collected material, we have a better idea of the characters that are useful to identify sea cucumber species and we have refined our understanding of some enigmatic species. For instance, there is a genus of sea cucumber called Labidodemas that live among coral rubble in lagoons. In the past, most Labidodemas were assigned to a species called semperianum. The reason is simple, most Labidodemas species look almost alike: they are whitish, have long tube feet on the ventral side and a dark red/brown coloration around the anterior and posterior ends. However, by looking at their ossicles (microscopic skeletal elements found in their skin), it turns out that it is fairly easy to identify the other species of this genus. During the workshop, we thus recorded for the first time in Guam the species called Labidodemas pertinax. By looking carefully at the live specimen, we are now able to tell the two species apart.

The image at the top is Labidodemas semperianum and the one at the bottom is Labidodemas pertinax.  Can you see the difference in the color of the tentacles and the tube feet? (click on the images to enlarge)

The other reason that we are finding new records and new species in Guam, is because it's the first time there are so many people looking for sea cucumbers at the same time. It's amazing what 15 pairs of trained eyes can see when they are specifically looking for sea cucumbers.

I'm sure we'll catch many more interesting things before the end of the workshop and I'll keep you posted!