Wednesday, November 7, 2012

From the field: In the sea, comets become stars.

I'm currently in Papua New Guinea, with John (the Slapcinsky kind) where we are participating to the expedition "Our planet reviewed" organized by the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris; and the Institut pour la Recherche et le Développement. In the following weeks, I'll try to post pictures and natural history stories about the marine invertebrates we are finding.

When it comes to plants, it is not uncommon that a small part is used to regrow a full organism. Gardeners have used this property to multiply and spread varieties of fruits and vegetables for centuries. For many species, a small branch, a leave or a root, placed in the right conditions, will give rise to a fully grown plant that will produce flowers and fruits. The plants obtained by this process are clones of their parents, they have the exact same genetic material. Many species of plants use this mode of reproduction in nature to spread. Because there is no exchange of gametes, this is referred to as asexual reproduction.

In the animal world, asexual reproduction is not very common. As I've previously mentioned, a particular group of rotifers have championed asexual reproduction. In other groups, like colonial organisms such as corals, asexual reproduction and growth are tightly linked. The colony grows by adding new individuals. If for some reason, one or a few individuals get separated from the colony, they will be able to go on with their lives and create a new colony of their own. A particular group of flatworms (planarians, class Turbellaria) have the amazing ability to regrow a full adult animal from a single adult cell (you can read more about it here). They use these regenerative abilities to reproduce asexually. They split themselves in halves, and each part regrow what is missing.

For larger and more complex animals, it is however much more uncommon to be able to regenerate the full animal from a part. Echinoderms are an exception. Some sea cucumbers can do it, but the most striking examples come from the sea stars in the genus Linckia. These sea stars can drop off an arm and from it, it will regrow a complete animal.

In the first few days of the expedition here in Papua New Guinea, divers have been bringing back many specimens of Linckia multifora. This colorful sea star comes in shapes that does not match their names. Instead of looking like stars, they often look like comets.

From the "tail" of the comet, the arm that was dropped off, 4 arms are slowly growing back to form a new complete sea star. As the process continues, the little arms grow bigger, and they will eventually end up looking like stars again.

However, the process is not always perfect, and it is often possible to say if a particular individual is the result of asexual reproduction. If you look more closely at this sea star, you can spot that it has 2 anuses (yellow arrows) and 2 madreporites (blue arrows). This is clearly the signature that this individual is the product of asexual reproduction.

Sea stars can probably undergo asexual reproduction more easily than other animals because they have most of their organs repeated in each of their arms. Also, they don't have a centralized nervous system, it would probably be a trickier thing to do if they also had to regenerate a full brain. Because of the position of their mouth, it is also one of the first thing to be regrown, so they don't have to starve for too long before they can feed again. If many species of sea stars can regrow a missing arm, only a few can, like Linckia multifora, regrow a full animal from just an arm.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Collection Improvement

A few weeks ago, we were notified that we had received a collection improvement grant from NSF (the National Science Foundation).  In our case, what this means is that we promised to catalog a large number of specimens from our backlog of donated and orphaned collections over a period of three years and to make them accessible online, which most of our database is.  Promising is one thing, but delivering is going to take more hands...a lot more hands.  So John and Gustav went on a hiring spree and we now have a small army of part- and full-time employees to help us with our follow-through.  They have been making short work of all the projects that we hand them.  Their efficiency polishes off in a few hours projects that would take John and I weeks on our own.  For instance, this aisle:

 now looks like this:

Fortunately, there are plenty of projects to go around.

One of our colleagues, Dr. Harry Lee, whom you might remember from this post, or this one, had a catastrophe at this house.  In addition to being a encyclopedia of knowledge of all things molluscan, Harry also has an extensive collection which he is generously donating to us over the next several years.  Unfortunately, a series of storms flooded the basement in which the collection (and its associated library) were housed.  For several weeks, groups of us would periodically head out to Harry's home to help clean up.

It was a large collection, and the clean-up took months, but with our help and the help of others, Harry managed to salvage most of the collection.

There is also a never-ending string of loan requests from other researchers who would like to borrow our specimens for their own projects.  I think that we currently have 5 pending requests.  That number could actually be much lower thanks to Adania, who has been hitting the loans especially hard these past few days, entering them into the database and packing them up for shipment.

In addition to several new hires, Gustav also has a new grad student.  Patrick is really excited to be here!

No really, he's excited!  Maybe he's just jealous that Jeanne gets to process and sort photos while he fills out paperwork online for registering for classes, paying fees, preparing for class (attending and TAing), and other new-student-y things.

Our dedication is also needed by the two lobby aquaria  Water changes, feedings, water chemistry tests, water level monitoring, cleaning glass (inside and out), cleaning filter media, emptying protein skimmer, animal additions, animal releases, etc, all demand our attention.  Here is an exciting water-change action shot.

The water is flowing from that carboy in the upper right corner, so it technically is an action shot.  A picture of the time I dumped the cart and busted open the huge carboy containing the salt water would be arguably more exciting, but hopefully less typical.

The aquarium is a lot of work, but totally worth it.  We have so many cool new additions, all from Florida.  Check out Scyllarides nodifer.

She eats clams that she opens with no claws, an iron will, and her chomptacular mouth parts.  I'll try and include photos of other interesting aquarium dwellers in future posts.

:) Mandy

Friday, May 25, 2012

St. Martin wrap-up

Our last days on St. Martin were a flurry of activity.  Our last day was spent draining ethanol in preparation for our flight and packing up all our specimens and gear.  The four of us who were returning to Gainesville checked a total of 9 bags eliciting the curiosity of our fellow passengers and the patient consternation of the airport personnel.  But as the end of our trip approached we kicked it into high gear and on our last day of fieldwork we did a total of 3 dives (or snorkels).  One of those dives was on a deep(ish) sand flat, which was habitat we hadn't hit before.  We found several new species for the project and had a hard time abandoning the bottom when it was time to come up.  This is especially true of Gustav who couldn't let the idle time of the safety stop go to waste and continued taking photos while hanging on the buoy line.

The sand flat was an ideal place for employing the yabby pump.

The rubbley reef we hit after that was an ideal place for some vacuuming.

As you may have noticed, neither spot was especially ideal for taking video.  After our final collecting binge we hastily dumped our equipment into our rustic rinse tank and pushed through the processing with the deadline of our departure looming.

I spent lots of quality time at the processing table which I shared with some urchins fixing in ethanol.  You'd be forgiven for thinking I had a tray of tea on the edge of my work area.  If only this photo were scratch and sniff, then you'd know better.

François took the opportunity of some time away from the photo station to do some picking through mass samples, and have a little QT with Holothuria mexicana, the donkey dung sea cucumber.  I can't imagine why it's called that, must be its pink belly.

 Our report with the final species list is due in August, and even though we're back in Gainesville our species count continues to grow as George combs through the sand samples we brought back for him.  He has already found 40 different species of ostracod!  We were able to identify many of the animals to species while we were in the field by emailing photos to experts in the various groups, but as we go through the collection we will continue to improve the IDs and sort through lots that were fixed as bulk lots with mixed species.  I'll let you know the final species count after we submit the report.  Even at this stage it is clear that we boosted the number of species that were known from within the reserve.

 It was a great trip and everyone from the Reserve was a great host.  Next step, cataloging!

:) Mandy

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tiny Science- The Scanning Electron Microscope

Stichopus ossicle microphotograph.
There is perhaps some subtle irony in that studying animals that can weigh several kilograms and can be longer than a loaf of French bread require a microscope to study.  Yet this is the case with sea cucumbers as their 'skeleton' is made up of bony plates called ossicles and these ossicles are the main character used to distinguish closely related species.

Just to add another layer of difficulty to the proposition of looking at these wee bones, most of them are also clear. On the right is an image of ossicles from a Stichopus species taken with a standard compound microscope using polarizing filters.  Light is passed up through a slide with ossicles on it and it is then possible to observe the image through the eyepiece or take a photograph.

Now trying to visualize, let alone illustrate, something that is tiny, clear and in many cases three-dimensional is challenging. Think of trying to take a photo of a glass with someone standing behind it shining a flashlight at you!  Happily, here at the University of Florida several departments have scanning electron microscopes (SEMs). Now SEMs bounce electrons off the surface of objects and the imaging system provides an opaque view of the object- imagine the image you would get spray painting the glass from our previous example with white paint before taking a photo.

What does an SEM look like? Below is a picture of George Hecht, FLMNH's resident ostracodologist, using the UF Geology Department SEM to image a valve of one of the tiny crustaceans he studies. Below that is an image of George's ostracod and it is followed by an example of sea cucumber ossicles.
George takes an ostracod image with the UF Geology Department SEM.

Ostracod SEM image from the Florida Museum collection
George Hecht's final SEM image of a Pussella species.
Stichopus chloronotus ossicles from the Florida Museum
An SEM of Stichopus ossicles from a specimen in the FLMNH collection.

The Stichopus ossicle SEM above provides a much clearer representation of the three-dimensional nature of the ossicles compared to the light micrograph image that started this article.  Look for more photos in coming weeks as we expect to do quite a bit of imaging of not only of ossicles, but other tiny organisms, or at least tiny pieces of larger organisms, over the course of this summer.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Field agents still at large

As expected, after 2 weeks of searching it's becoming more difficult to find different species.  We no longer need to pick up every brittle star we see, or every hermit crab, as they have likely already been documented.  We've had to start looking with a finer-toothed comb.  In fact, John's comb has gotten so fine that I often have to ask him which speck in the container is the snail that I'm supposed to preserve and which is a grain of sand.  We've also hit some different habitats.  Here are Gustav and François bagging a giant crab at a brackish pond that we visited.

To get here we braved cactus and wasps, both of which claimed John as a victim.  From the look of that water, and the smell, and the proximity to the sewage treatment plant, we might have been braving other things as well.

We've also stepped up the number of collecting events per day including shore dives in addition to snorkeling on the weekend when the boat is not available.  We've also been going through lots of mass samples.  Here are John and Art bashing rubble.

Art is hoping for shrimp; John is hoping not to add "hammer smash" to his list of injuries.

Our project is to document the biodiversity of 3 major phyla:  mollusca (snails, bivalves, octopus, etc.), arthropoda (crabs, shrimp, ostracods, etc.), and echinodermata (sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers, etc.).  But who can resist the wormy phyla, especially when you find a worm like this!

This nemertean worm was over 4 meters long!  Art and Jean-Philippe collected it on our night dive, and somehow managed to get it all in one jar without breaking it.

For all this collecting, we have to keep our energy up.  At night we all gather around the dining room table...

...for processing, and keep our energy up with energetic music and frequent snacking.  But sometimes all the energetic music in the world can't sustain you, or isn't available, so you nap when and where you can.

Yes, that's a pile of tanks and regulators that Gustav is laying on, but he does have a nice buoy for a pillow.

Ever attentive to the caloric needs of active field workers such as themselves and the rest of us, François and Jean-Philippe have been keeping us very well fed.  This is in spite of our fridge and freezer being full of things like this:

That sign says "Shhhh...sipunculans relaxing."  The cold augments the anesthetic effect of the magnesium chloride.  It's just common decency, I'm sure you all do it.  What kind of person are you if you don't have worms in your fridge?

Only a few more days to pack in the biodiversity!

:) Mandy

Monday, April 23, 2012

FLMNH Earth Day Exhibition

The FLMNH research departments set up displays at Powell Hall this past Saturday to showcase the importance of biodiversity and of museum collections in understanding that diversity . Invertebrate Zoology students and volunteers showed up to help educate visitors about the wonder of (mostly) marine invertebrates and the occasional land snail. Ashley, Jeanne, Tina, Rob, John and Eva all pitched in, helping to wrangle the stuffed squid, small children and the microscope stations.

Ashley surveys the final setup.

Rob educates visitors on the wonders of crab diversity.

Jeanne, Teena and Ashley enjoy a break in the action.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Come rain or shine or wind or surf or ear infections...

So, we've been generally doing two simultaneous field excursions per day, one group goes diving and one group goes snorkeling/wading.  Usually we split up at the dock, but one day we all piled onto the boat (9 of us, plus dive gear for 5).  Here is the boat from the water, once the snorkelers have abandoned ship, with one of the divers hidden, taken while treading water without fins with a collecting bag in one hand and a camera in the other while trying to keep one's delicate ears out of the water.

Our numbers have grown.  Both Art and Zach have come to join us.  Art was immediately up to his old tricks.  Our yabby pump might still have the impression of his hand on the handle.  He has recruited Jean-Philippe to help him and they have pulled shrimp after shrimp out of their burrows.  Looks like he's got the hang of it.

Zach is here to help out and see how we do things.  Unfortunately, the weather has kept us from diving for the past several days and limited our collecting to sheltered areas that we can reach by car.  But science waits for no one so we've hit up a lot of habitats and utilized our numbers to employ a diverse array of collecting techniques.

The technique at this spot involved trying not to get shredded to ribbons by violent waves on rocky daggers of doom...also, collecting rock for bashing, and reaching brazenly into clumps of seaweed.

Right on the other side of the peninsula from this spot was an idyllic beach with sand and seagrass flats with lots of burrows for Art and Jean-Philippe.  John spent a lot of time here snorkeling through the seagrass with a sieve to see what he could shake off.

We also recently hit up some mucky mangrove habitat.  Before getting in the water, Gustav laid a crab trap.  My attempted action shot ended up as a picture of Gustav with a string in his hand, but you can use your imagination.

François tried to sneak up on crabs with a metal basket net and hand net.  Zach went through the silt and seagrass with a fine mesh net.  We all tried to keep our faces out of the green, opaque water.

So, even without diving, we've been keeping ourselves busy.  With so many people now staying at the house, the gear-explosion has reached epic levels.

Keep in mind that this is just (most of) our gear.  Some more gear, all the specimens, and all the processing stations are not pictured.

Tomorrow heralds the return of diving (fingers crossed).  We'll see what we can find!

:) Mandy

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The first few days: hit the ground running

These first few days have been busy!  We arrived Sunday evening after a quick 2 hour flight from Miami.  We settled into our place, had a good meal and got up the next morning ready to get to work.  We have been brought on board to do a biodiversity survey of the French Marine National Park on St. Martin.  So the first morning we met with the staff there to do some general strategizing and introductions.

The meeting was conducted largely in French, which everyone speaks but John and I.  We did a lot of smiling and nodding.  I assume that Gustav and François weren't making any extravagant promises on my behalf.  After the meeting Gustav took them out to gear-mountain, which we had brought with us to the station, to demonstrate some of our collecting techniques.  Here is what brushing off an overhang into a net looks like (or maybe it's a scraper, I can't be sure).

After that we were released on our own recognizance, and we took off for some some snorkeling and intertidal wading.  Gustav and François donned snorkel gear.

John, Jean-Philippe, and I braved the sun for some intertidal wading.

Of course, in our enthusiasm we bit off almost more than we could chew, collecting over 100 species the first afternoon and turning our nice, spacious accommodations into a crowded field station with an explosion of specimens sorted into tupperware, photo equipment, anesthitizing chemicals, preserving chemicals, vials, tools, field notes, collecting gear, computers, buckets, and bags as far as the eye can see.  Behold this tiny subsample of our handiwork (before things got really crazy, before they brought us as extra table, before we started mass sampling).

What is a mass sample you query?  Instead of picking animals up one at a time we sample by habitat and then pick through later to pull out tiny or hidden animals.  One example is sand sifting, which is exactly what is sounds like.

Another is rubble bashing which is also just what it sounds like.  Here is some ideal rubble, pre-bash.

Mass samples deserve the lion's share of the blame for keeping us up processing until midnight.  They also deserve the lion's share of the credit for the fact that we've documented around 300 species in 3 days (and the reason I haven't been able to post until now). Despite these long hours, for some reason people still think we're on vacation when we head to the field...well, maybe I know the reason...

Check out all those invertebrates (plus host)!

:) Mandy

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Something is brewing...

Have a gander at this picture.

It means one of two things:
1)  Um, the lab always looks like this.  A lab with supplies and equipment everywhere is an action packed lab, a lab like ours.  This picture means nothing is up!
2)  We are preparing for a trip.

Lets see if this second picture helps sort things out
So now you're probably thinking either:
1)  Yeah, I've read the blog.  You guys are waaaaaaaay into photography.  It's only natural that you'd have a mountain of photo supplies laying around.
2)  What?  Those are photo supplies?  Isn't that a baking dish?
3)  That's a lot of photo stuff, even for you, you must be preparing for some fieldwork

This last picture should seal the deal:

Gustav, François, John (Slapcinsky variety), and I are all heading out to St. Martin tomorrow morning.  This vehicle we fit us and all our gear (barely) for the drive to Miami where we will catch our plane.  I'll keep you posted on what we're up to.

:) Mandy

Saturday, February 18, 2012

HQ News

We've had a lot going on these past several months.  At the end of 2011 we did some more Gulf of Mexico survey dives.  Check out the size of this sponge as compared to the size of that diver (me), keeping in mind that I was making myself as small as possible to conserve body warmth.

In addition to my role as sponge-scale-provider, I have also functioned as a pack mule.  John and I spent some time moving a donated collection from the nearby Bartram Hall over to our space in Dickinson.

The collection includes Bryozoan specimens as well as reference material.  We tackled the reference material first.  Finding a space to store it seemed a daunting task, but John undertook it with confidence.  Remind me never to challenge John to a game of Tetris.

We've also had a fair share of visitors these past months, although not up to the flood levels we have experienced in the past.  A group of art students came in for a couple of days to sketch some of the more comely and/or dramatic specimens in our collection.

Also back to visit us is Rob Lasley, now a grad student in Singapore.  As this touching photo of Rob and François can attest, Rob has integrated right back into the group.  He'll be here for a few months to look at our collection and get some additional data for his research on Chlorodiellinae, a group of marine crabs. We'll hate to see him leave us again.  The reason this picture is a little grainy-looking is because I took it surreptitiously through my dusty window.

We also spent some time tending to the giant squid that I mentioned in a previous post.  He had to spend some time soaking in formalin, but once he was sufficiently saturated we had to then soak him in water (to rinse him out) and then preserve him in ethanol.  Here are John and I pumping out the formalin (which is toxic, hence the respirators).

The other significant cephalopod in our lives also underwent some housing changes.  The Octopus was recently moved to a new mansion that we procured for her.

Unfortunately, she has since adopted some brooding behaviors and stopped eating; we are afraid that she might have laid eggs in her rock cave.  If that is indeed the case, she probably won't be with us for much longer.

And just so we don't close on that is a picture of Julie competing in the arm wrestling tournament this past fall.

:) Mandy