Sunday, March 20, 2011

FUM 2 (FUM Rides Again)

This past February 19th our division hosted the second annual Florida United Malacologists (FUM) meeting over at Powell Hall. You might remember that several of our ranks attended last year's meeting in Sanibel (although I erroneously called it "Florida Union of Malacologists"). The first sign that something was up could be seen in the range.

That table is completely devoid of clutter! But it isn't the Twilight Zone, we tidied the place up. Another sign that we're hosting a meeting can be seen here:

Giving a presentation to a room full of malacologists, however friendly they might be, can be a nerve-wracking experience, and we have to keep our strength up with some fortifying snacks. The line of food actually extended on behind me, cutting the photo off at the [2 trays of] bagels was merely an aesthetic choice.

There were 15 presentations from various shelled-mollusk enthusiasts. Jodi and I actually gave our talks on slugs (no shells!) which were kindly received nonetheless. Here is John Starmer in action giving his talk on work that he and Chris Meyer did on Rapa snails.

That's right, Gustav's long-lost grad student John Starmer had returned to us just in time to be roped into a presentation, but he totally nailed it. In fact, all the presentations were interesting as demonstrated by this audience reaction shot.

We also had a good time socializing over lunch.

And dinner. (I know, I should really stop writing posts when I'm hungry).

Looking forward to seeing you all again at next year's meeting!

:) Mandy

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Leg 2: deeper, colder, and with 80% more jellyfish

After a brief weather delay leg 2 commenced with 14 scientists on board and plans to explore the deeper northern waters of the Gulf. This included trawls up to 500 feet deep and dives up to 90 feet deep! We didn't know what to expect down there so Fran├žois went into ninja mode.

Unfortunately for us, dive knives aren't an effective weapon against jellies. But once we made our way through smacks of them (that's right, a group of jellyfish is called a smack, I totally looked it up), the scenery on the bottom was actually quite nice.

We did a lot of dives at the Florida Middle Grounds where hard bottom substrate is covered with sponges, bryozoans, and soft corals. It was also really cold. Remember how I talked about leg one and how we were sooooo cold in 64 degree water? Well, this time my dive computer said 57. And my wetsuit wasn't any thicker. The cold is distracting, but so is all the cool stuff down there. For instance, check out this irregular urchin with his extra long spines.

And this anemone

Despite Rob's absence on this leg, we couldn't help but notice all the fish (even though we tried not to, they have a backbone and all).

Gustav also found a sea slug or two.

Back on the surface things were no less eventful. This is a picture of the frenzy on the deck after we return from a dive and everyone opens up their collecting bags to stabilize the animals that they have collected. The frenzy is also heightened by cold and usually meal anticipation.

Sand samples that we bring up are swirled in a giant bucket with water which is then sieved to extract animals that live in the sediment. Since polychaetes are commonly found using this method, Jenna is usually at the helm. In this instance she has recruited Antonio to help her.

After things are sorted on deck they are brought into the lab for processing. Although this picture makes it look fairly organized, don't be fooled. This picture captures an island of calm in the tempest of processing fever, which is also heightened by meal anticipation.

While in the lab one day busily anticipating the next meal we were also visited by a pod of dolphin. A few got pretty close to the boat.

All in all the trip was a great success and we found many animals that seem to be new records for the region; some might even be new to science. Thanks to all the visiting scientists for lending their expertise and thanks to the FIO crew for being the glue which holds the operation together, oil that keeps things running smoothly, and the hand that feeds us. For now, goodbye R/V Weatherbird II!

:) Mandy

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

They study what?

That's right, despite what you may have heard and believe, sponges are animals too! On this trip we were lucky enough to have three sponge experts on board. Brendan, Anna, and Nicole from FSU had the daunting task of processing and identifying the sponges we brought on board. Here they are staring at a dredge full of sponges and possibly wondering why Poseidon is punishing/blessing them with 10 gazillion sponges to process.

I realize that talk of sponges causes many people to react like this:

Even amongst invert lovers like us, sponges often remain a mystery, and I confess that while I might be able to slap a family or generic level identification on an arthropod or mollusc, the best I can do for sponges is "Porifera" (the phylum of all sponges, essentially identifying them as "sponge"). But both vertebrate and invertebrate marine biologists can agree that sponges are cool. Not only do they filter water in impressive volume and velocity (while still being sessile and lacking musclature to do so), in many of the areas we explored sponges provide most of the structure on the sea floor and are therefore important habitat. A single sponge can reveal a whole community of animals. Here is Rob slicing up a sponge looking for gobies (fish) which live within.

In addition to fish, sponges also host lots and lots of invertebrates, including this Synalpheus. If only Art had been there.

We also found this large and awesome nudibranch, Hypselodoris picta, which dines on sponges. Surpringly, even after seeing a sea slug this cool, Rob still insists on working on fish. I know, we couldn't believe it either.

Even trying to identify invertebrates from so many diverse phyla, many of the animals we study still have a body plan that is somewhat recognizable. They have characters based on feeding structures, tentacles, reproductive structures, color pattern, shape, claws. They often have something resembling a head or even a face. While color and shape play a role in sponge identification, most sponge characters are much more cryptic. Please forgive the blurriness of this picture, it was night and it was very choppy.

In addition to all the information we record about specimen location, habitat, depth, and so forth, the sponge team also records data on texture, compressibility, color, shape, and even smell. They take pictures underwater because many of these characters can change once the sponge is brought to the surface. When they get back to their lab at FSU they will also examine the microscopic spicules that many sponges have that are often an important character for sponge identification. These same spicules can also be a severe irritant often requiring sponge workers to wear gloves (and avoid rubbing their eyes, as I found out the hard way on a previous trip). While our work area was an explosion of marine life and field equipment that often spilled over into the two square feet of counter space that we generously allotted to Rob to work on fish, their work area looked like this, with many tiny cups filled with drying pieces of sponge:

Despite all these obstacles to studying sponges, look how happy Brendan and Anna are, possibly because they're about to go diving, possibly because no matter how many sponges they find on a dive they can't possibly bring back the work load that was pulled up in that trawl, and possibly because they know that when they get back it will be time for dinner!

No matter why they do it, we are grateful that they do. Not only are sponges important from a marine biologist's perspective, but their many toxic chemicals make them prime candidates for potential new medicines. Thanks sponge team!

:) Mandy

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Bon Voyage!

From March 4th through the 14th several representatives from the FLMNH, along with scientists from many other institutions, will be sailing the high seas on the R/V Weatherbird II of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. And by "high seas" I mean the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. We've been doing a lot of diving, but since I'm one of the divers (and therefore not wielding my camera) I hope you enjoy this picture of our dive gear.

We have had several dives a day for collecting. So far, they have usually been around 40-60 feet, with the temperature hovering around 64 degrees. Please take a minute to let that last number sink in. That's 64 degrees Fahrenheit. But while some of us are diving, others on the surface claim that they are actually too warm. I find that hard to believe, but Rob, the collections manager of the fish range at the museum is seen here wearing short sleeves while he tries to net a pelican.

Ok, so Rob is not actually trying to net the pelican, he's after floating clumps of sargassum and the fish hidden within. The pelican is probably after the same thing. In addition to the fish team composed of Rob and the pelican, we also have a sponge team, an amphipod soloist, a bryozoan soloist, and Nat, Jenna, Gustav, and I on general invert duty. There are 12 of us in total so that means a lot of specimens to sort and process back in the lab and a lot of data to keep track of.

So you'd better believe that at the end of the day we are ready for some hard-earned rest. Here's a picture of us at night.

I'm sorry, did I say rest? I meant trawl. The trawl was missing a part the first night, but we managed to get a few in tonight, and I have no doubt that we'll be making up for lost time. The trawl brings up a variety of fish as well as inverts, including the biggest sea star I have ever seen!

We've only just begun. I'll keep you posted!

:) Mandy