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Echinodermata! Starfish! Sea Urchins! Sea Cucumbers! Stone Lillies! Feather Stars! Blastozoans! Sea Daisies!Marine invertebrates found throughout the world's oceans with a rich and ancient fossil legacy. Their biology and evolution includes a wide range of crazy and wonderful things. Let me share those things with YOU!

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    Photo by Matt Kiefer via Wikipedia: 
    Greetings! Yes. I have been posting less frequently. Busy with various projects and winter season stuff!

    Today's post is a kind of response to a fairly common request I get via email: "Can you help me ID this species of starfish from the Philippines?" (paraphrased)

    A question I get from divers, photographers and students who actually live in the Philippines. And strangely enough I get it quite frequently and there are surprisingly few resources to help people with pictures.

    In the past I have done variations on this by crowd sourcing images off places like Flickr and YouTube and its been awhile since I've done an "on line field guide." So I thought it would be a good time for another one!

    With the exception of Acanthaster brevispinus (above), EVERYTHING below is taken from Flickr and recorded as being from the Philippines by the photographer.

    The Philippines has a rich, RICH diversity of sea stars (as well as many, other marine animals) and so this "guide" won't be complete, but it includes several of the most frequently encountered species which are photographed and put on the web. 

    If you are looking for professional taxonomic monography of Philippine sea stars a good place to start is the work of Walter K. Fisher at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. HERE. 

    There are many, MANY published ID guides to the Indo-Pacific area and I've identified species in many of those books. But these days, images of sea stars and other marine animals are so prolific, it became clear that it really wouldn't take much to curate a collection of these to provide help for people who want to know what the animals were who didn't have expertise to the published accounts..

    Another place to look for a nice crowd-sourced inventory of sea stars from the Philippines or anywhere is at iNaturalist! Go HERE. Identifications are not always from experts but its a good place to start.

    I always like to remind folks when actually in the field.. look but don't TOUCH (or at least put it back!)

    So here we go in reverse alphabetical order....

    Euretaster attenuatus.This species belongs to the family of sea stars which are best known as "slime stars" in cold-water habitats.There's only been one account of the tropical species using "slime" as a defense and it wasn't really in a scientific journal.

    This species has a distinct hole in the center of the disk called an osculum which allows water into the surface of the disk which is kind of like a circus tent that covers over the ACTUAL surface of the animal underneath (see the blog link above).

    Its a species we know very little about. Another species, Euretaster insignis is usually what gets encountered in the Philippines. This image however most resembles E. attenuatus which was first described from New Caledonia. This is possibly a new record!

    Oreasteridae: This is by far the most prominent family of sea stars that is encountered in the tropical Pacific. They are big, heavy and slow and usually have very distinctive spines or other ornamentation. Most are microalgae feeders. They are often taken for the pet trade or more frequently as tourist baubles which is something that is likely NOT good for their ecology.  and here.

    Choriaster granulatusAlthough this species is flesh colored and appears soft, it is quite solid to the touch and has a fairly thick and dense skeleton. 
    Sea Star (Choriaster granulatus), Sabang, Puerto Galera

    Culcita novaeguineae: This is a species that occurs widely throughout the Indo-Pacific from Hawaii and Japan down to New Caledonia and in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. I've written a short guide to telling apart this species and others here.

    It varies widely in color and has a huge diversity in appearance. Some are covered with more spines..others with more ganules. Culcita spp. are predators on corals but aren't known to take the huge amount of corals that the Crown of Thorns eats. They are important to ecosystems in that they likely help control the structure of a coral reef based on the species it eats.
    Cushen star (Culcita novaguineae)
    Cushion star

    Its worth pointing out that when Culcita is VERY small it has a more cookie shaped appearance which is quite different from the adult! You can see this change in this picture.. from a blog I wrote a few years ago

    Halityle regularis-unfortunately no image of the top surface of this cushion star which is similar to Culcita novaeguineae. But you can see a short account I've written about this one here. There are many differences but the pattern around the mouth is a sure fire giveaway...
    Starfish shrimp on a cushion sea star / マンジュウヒトデの上のヒトデヤドリエビ

    Note about Pentaceraster: Beware all those who enter here! Species are many and often poorly defined! Caution is required... I have a brief post about telling it apart from Protoreaster and other oreasterids here.

    Pentaceraster tuberculatus:Distinguished by the absence of spines around the lateral edge (on the superomarginal plates), as well as the spines and other armament on the disk.

    There seems to be some variation in color as well..
    Blue Starfish
    Pentaceraster alveolatus
    Thorny? Star
    Pentaceraster alveolatus (but close to(P. multispinus) These two species are very poorly distinguished from one another. But both have spines on the superomarginals near the middle to end of the arm (should be few to none interradially) as well as spines on the abactinal surface on the disk.

    Color seems to vary for this species...
    Knobbed starfish on the ocean floor
    Red Speckled Starfish 200309
    These are more like Pentaceraster multispinuswith the many, MANY spines present on the disk and along the superomarginal plates (i.e. along the edge).. But they overlap with Pentaceraster alveolatus type things above...
    Knobbed starfish on the ocean floor
    Dotted Blue Starfish 191108

    Do YOU see a new color or species of Pentaceraster?? Let me know!!

    Pentaster obtusatus Here's another frequently encountered species. It has the distinctive orange with white highlights. Low bumps cover the surface, etc. 

    Protoreaster nodosus: This is BY FAR one of the most commonly encountered sea stars in the Philippines and adjoining areas.  More on telling apart Protoreaster from Pentaceraster and other species here. 

    Basically- no spines are present on the edge of the animal (aka the superomarginal plates). P. nodosus is often found in shallow waters around mangroves and on sandy bottoms. They feed on microalgae and other tiny organic nutrients in the sediment.

    Stars invasion
    (note-many of these pictures are artificially arranged for photo shoots! but they are useful for showing diversity. High density like this is not necessarily common)
    A Group of Starfish

    Ophidiasteridae: This is probably the second most frequently seen group of sea stars other than the Oreasterids..especially the "blue Linckia" which is heavily "fished" by the aquarium and gift/shell trade. Most have long arms and small disks..

    Gomophia aegyptiaca A species covered by strongly expressed bumps often with nipple-like tips!

    This species occurs widely around the Indo-Pacific, extending into the Indian Ocean with many, MANY color variations. Food, biology, etc. are poorly known.
    Linckia guildingi? While this looks to me like Linckia guildingi, the truth is that I'd need to look at the underside to make a positive determination.
    Snake Sea Star- Malapascua - Philippines
    Linckia laevigata As I've written about before here, this is one of the most heavily fished sea stars in the Indo-Pacific. Not just for tourist baubles but also for the aquarium trade. Its a handsome species and frequently gets "volunteered" for tourist pictures, beach moments, and aquarium scenes.
    20151107-Philippines Malapascua - Gato Island-8.jpg

    This is most likely the orange color morph of L. laevigata but could also be L. guildingi. Hard to be sure without a better look at the details on a specimen. 
    sea star

    Nardoa frianti The genus Nardoa is named for the Italian naturalist Giovanni Nardo as I discussed in a post WAAAY back in 2008

    There are MANY species. And they are often quite complicated. Even this one with its distinctive tubercles (the bumps) is conceivably part of a broader species complex. To make things even more complicated, you will sometimes see Nardoa species with these big bumps in the genus Gomophia.
    Warty sea star

    Nardoa sp. similar to "N. novaecaledoniae" This one has flattened or at least, MORE flat plates relative to Nardoa frianti (above).

    The exact species ID for this animal can't be made from a picture like this because we need to see the underside in order for the precise details. It LOOKS like a species that I would call Nardoa novaecaledoniae but there are several other possibilities. Close up on the underside would be necessary.
    Hangin' Out
    Sea Star (Nardoa), Sabang Point, Puerto Galera 
    Ophidiaster. Here's another species that would require a full specimen (or at least better pictures) to correctly identify. At least one book id'd this as Ophidiaster granifer but I'm not sure that's correct (or incorrect) because there's not enough info...

    Thromidia catalae: These are usually MASSIVE starfish. They can get up to 2 feet across! They tend to occur in deeper water (lower end of SCUBA depth).

    They have relatively solid surfaces with spiny surfaces. There is relatively little known about their general biology.
    SEA STAR (15 cm)
    Sea Star

    Luidiidae. There's only one genus in this family,Luidia and I've written about the general biology of the group here. The genus named after Edward Lhuyd, a Welsh naturalist. 

    Most members of Luidia are 5 armed..but for whatever reason, the ones in the tropics are often BIG and have more than 10 arms!

    Luidia avicularia?Interesting to see this one since it doesn't usually occur at shallow depths. But the color pattern matches.
    Sea star

    Luidia maculata This is a fairly large predatory starfish, often found buried below the surface of the sand.
    Luidia species
    Goniasteridae This is the group that I've done the most work on since I finished my PhD. Some of my recent genetic work has also contributed to the re-classification of two species below (Fromia heffernani and F. monilis) to this family.  They had originally been placed in the Ophidiasteridae (above) until my work showed otherwise...

    Fromia (formerly Celerina) heffernani (probably) This species and the one below have been the cause of some confusion for many years. Although I'm fairly confident the pictures show the animals correctly identified, the only way to be sure that the species are 100% correctly identified is to look at the UNDERSIDE.  I've discussed the problem with these species before in this post (here). 
    Fromia nodosa
    Fromia monilis (probably). Yes. the colors are slightly different.. but when these individuals are preserved they very closely resemble one another making it difficult to tell apart.

    ADD to that? The colors can vary.. Yes. it will probably make someone a nice PhD thesis someday...
    Iconaster longimanus. A gorgeous species of goniasterid with almost surreal colors and very striking patterns.

    We know very little about it.
    Iconaster longimanus

    Echinaster callosus I've seen this species often mixed up with Nardoa frianti, above. The big difference is in the texture of the "puffy" structures on the surface. Nardoa's bumps are just that- hard bumps covered by granules.

    The surface of Echinaster callosus is covered by a bunch of big colorful puffy pin cushions. The big blobs are soft and each surround a sharp spine. When dead, they often deflate.

    Colors are quite pretty and variable...
    WARTY SEA STAR (20 cm)
    Echinaster luzonicus This is a distinctive species that is soft to the touch and often displays 6 uneven arms.

    This species appears, at first to be fairly non-descript but a lot of things are going on with this species. In addition to the asexual reproduction and arm regeneration, this species is also often the host to benthic comb jellies! You can read more about that here. 
    Echinaster luzonicus

    Astropectinidae: I've written about Astropecten on past blogs. This one summarizes some stuff about them.   Long story short: predators. They dig into sediment and look for clams and such.

    Honestly, these are a pain the keister to identify even WITH specimens in hand Working off pictures is often difficult. But there's easily two species that I've observed off Flickr. the most common name encountered is Astropecten polyacanthus, which also happens to be quite variable..but there are a few other species that show similarities and are often overlooked because people don't do the work. 

    Astropecten sp. 1
    Comb Star
    Astropecten sp. 2
    Seastar Burying Itself


    Archaster is kind a weirdo. they ALSO dig into sand and sediments but do so with different kinds of features.

    friendly sea stars

    Acanthaster planci (or A. cf. solaris). The notorious Crown of Thorns starfish has recently been studied using molecular techniques and revealed to actually be SEVERAL species. The one occurring in the Pacific has been referred to an older name, Acanthaster solaris. But presumably there are still several details to work out..
    Crown Of Thorns214
    Acanthaster brevispinus There is actually ANOTHER species of Acanthaster other than the one traditionally identified as A. planci. This one has relatively short spines (hence the name brevispinus). 

    And yes.. there are many MORE species known.. but for the moment, that's what Flickr gives us!

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    Ophiuroids on Jelly in Mozambique. Photo by Andrea Marshall, Daily Mail,
    And a HAPPY NEW 2017 to everyone! Yes. Obviously everyone has noticed the Echinoblog has gone to an "irregular" publication schedule. This is one of those "be careful what you wish for" issues- a lot of museum travel = a lot of new discoveries and thus papers and more work!  And so, like a lot of artisan comic books.. I'll be publishing when good topics and/or when the inspiration strikes me.

    Their work presents NEW data on the relationship between the "jellyfish hitchiking" brittle star Ophiocnemis marmorata (on the moon jelly Aurelia aurita)! The species occurs widely throughout the Indo-Pacific from Japan to India. I previously wrote about this phenomena back in 2009! here.

    1. How many different types of Jellyfish species does Ophiocnemis marmorata occur ON??
    The paper reports at least five or six, including at least 3 species of Rhopilema, Cephea cephea (the cauliflower jellyfish), Netrostoma and Aurelia aurita. But other internet records  and social media show further hosts.. such as this hydrozoan, Aequorea from Thailand..
    From Chaloklum Diving in Singapore,

    And here's a blog that documents this brittle stars on the "hairy" jellyfish. Lobocnema

    2. Where/How many are present on a jellyfish host? 
    Based on their sample of 92 Aurelia aurita, the authors, found that 79% of them (n=73) hosted brittle stars! quite a large number. Most of them were present under the bell or on the "oral arms" (the lobes hanging down from the bell)
    Image by Thomas Peschak,
    The authors observed that brittle stars ranged widely in size (1.0 to 6.0 mm) but MOST had a disk diameter of greater than 3.0 mm.  Medusae with MORE brittle stars were LARGER than those medusae without brittle stars. 
    The largest number of brittle stars recorded (n=14) occurred on a medusae with 155.0 mm bell diameter. 

    Its also worth noting that the brittle stars stay on the medusae ONLY within their home range. Many of these jellies, such as Aurelia (i.e. moon jellies) actually go beyond tropical settings and they really aren't seen on jellies in cold to temperate waters.. 

    3. So, what are the brittle stars EATING??
    The authors used a novel new method which basically breaks down the organic components of specific isotopes (Carbon and Nitrogen) and looks for how much of those isotopes is present in the subjects versus that which is provided by the environment.

    Long story short: The data indcates that most of the food sources in Ophiocnemis seems to come from PLANKTONIC SOURCES! (i.e. the mesozooplankton) and NOT from the medusae itself and there were not any observations of Ophiocnemis filter feeding (i.e. arms up in the water).

    And so the authors suggest that they are what's called KLEPTOPARASITES (a great word-really!). In other words, they take food directly away from the jellyfish out of the mouth or the oral arms, stealing or scavenging food from the jellyfish which are known as big pelagic predators.. What would be called "indirect food sources"...

    There are several reports of other brittle stars that practice "kleptoparasitc" behavior.. i.e. moving down into the feeding arms or near the mouth and stealing food directly from the host. Some of it might not be a big deal to the host.. scraps and etc.. but meaningful to the ophiuroids..
    Image by Ron Yeo at Tidechaser,

    4. Growth and Settlement..aka Living on a Changing Jellyfish World
    Although its not entirely clear HOW these brittle stars get up onto the jellies, one reasonable hypothesis is that they settle there as swimming larvae. Many of the brittle stars observed were tiny (smallest =1.0 mm disk).

    Larger medusae seemed to carry a higher "brittle star load" than smaller ones. Its not clear exactly how/WHY certain species are chosen. Whether it is simply the physical dynamic of having a larger  medusae that facilitates more larvae to settle or if perhaps there are other cues??

    It also turns out, based on further obsevations by others,  that this species DOES occur on the sea bottom on its own. So, its possible that as they get larger.. the brittle stars fall/jump/ or otherwise "settle" away from their floating substrate.

    Or perhaps the jellies themselves die, as we see here on this unfortunate jelly in Singapore! 
    Image by Ron Yeo at Tidechaser

    5. Why go to all the hassle?? 
    Well, one must ask, WHAT does a brittle star get OUT of basically jumping onto a jellyfish as a freshly settled larvae and living on it until it gets too big and falls off??

    Obviously, they are getting FOOD. So that's one thing. And to a certain extent they are being PROTECTED..because what better thing to live on that a giant stinging gelatinous mass that eats fish! 

    but perhaps the most important benefit is DISPERSAL.. that is the species is carried wide and far.. 
    It was suggested that some medusae could carry these brittle stars up to 1000 kilometers from their point of colonization! 

    The apparent range of possible hosts adds further questions about the life mode and just HOW many different types of Ophiocnemis are present? And how do the different jellies affect how the brittle stars diversify and spread?  

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    So, here is a nice highlight of various wonderful invertebrates observed by NOAA's deep-sea research vessel, the Okeanos Explorer which for all of 2016 and 2017 will be studying the massive marine reserves of American territory in the tropical Pacific!


    But obviously, not everyone can watch EVERY day during the entire dive. So I present some cool highlights (but invertebrates) from the last leg of the research dive.  

    My thanks to Santiago Herrera and Matthew Jackson the biology & geology science leads for this last epxpedition!!

    If you have missed it and are interested you can always go to Twitter and search for #Okeanos often with #Samoa or other similar terms.

    Also a reminder based on recent news about significant budget cuts to NOAA Remember that NOAA operates the Okeanos Explorer program!!  The oceans represent a HUGE unknown quantity and yet, we have no exploration arm to explore the amazing deeps of the Earth. Deep-sea News has made a GREAT argument about why we need an "Ocean NASA"! And right now, the closest thing NOAA gives us the closest thing to that! 

    So, if you enjoy these and other images as well as the livestream RESEARCH and DISCOVERY please contact your congressional representative and LET THEM KNOW: DO NOT DEFUND NOAA.

    and now.. onto some cool beasts!!

    Most of what I'll present here are animals, but in the deep regions of the ocean, single-celled organisms that are basically HUGE amoebas can develop fairly LARGE structures out of sediment. I've written about them here. Some are called xenophyophores but it turns out that there's a fair diversity of them.

    Here's at least one structure observed on Utu Seamount at about 3030 meters! 

    SPONGES!! Some of the most commonly encountered animals on these Okeanos dives are sponges. Sponges are relatively simple animals that are basically big masses of cells but some of them use specific kinds of materials to create skeletons.  Some use calcium carbonate, some use a fiber called spongin..and one group which is seen commonly in the deep-sea: glass or silicon dioxide.

    Here's a large one with a thick stalk and a large opening on the "head"
    This is a cool one: this is a cladorhizid sponge. Many cladorhizid sponges are predatory and I think this one is as well..

    those spines emerging off the edge makes it a deadly deep-sea umbrella!
    Here's another one from a different angel from Rose Atoll, about 2525 meters! 

    This is a glass sponge in the Euplectellidae, which is often identifiable by the unusual "cap" on the top of the sponge.. These are known for having 2 commensal male and female mated shrimps which do not escape from the internal cavity.. 
    I missed the name/identification on this one..but I like to point out that those brown "roots" are actually GLASS. Glass sponges often seem to be growing "living" fiber optic cable and have been studied for their optical properties! 

    Cnidarians are of course-those animals with stinging cells and radial symmetry. Jellyfish, sea anemones, hydras, hydroids and so on.They account for a huge diversity in deep-sea habitats! 

    This "cosmic jellyfish" has been making the rounds. Its been identified as Benthocodon hyalinus by my colleague Allen Collins at NMFS. It was observed on Utu Seamount at about 3006 meters!! 

    Its not unusual for us to see a giant hydroid on these dives.. This one identified tentatively as Corymopha

    One of the most noteworthy of the cnidarians observed was this Dandelion or benthic siphonophore. Siphonophores are colonial animals which are mostly found swimming though the ocean in long chains which in some instances can be meters long!  Familiar species include the painful Portuguese Man o War. 

    BUT the species in this group live attached to the bottom, apparently with a huge array of feeding tentacles extended.. there's a blog about these waiting to be written! hopefully soon...
    Similar in lifestyle-check out this tiny bottom living (aka benthic) ctenophore (or comb jelly). I've discussed these at length before here. Again, most comb jellies swim-but then you get these oddballs that have an active bottom life using their long tentacles to capture prey.
    A mushroom coral! Rose Atoll, 680 m

    Probably the BIG, weird star of this leg was this BIZARRE blobby tree shaped thing! Turns out its a bizarre sea anemone in the family Aliciidae! Its tentacles had been withdrawn...
    It turns out we saw one of these during the Marianas expedition LAST year!  Which makes the one above a likely DIFFERENT species from the other one we saw which had yellow buttons rather than white ones..

    Dr. Dave Pawson at the National Museum of Natural History was apparently stung by one of these (only 6 inches long) and reported that each of these buttons are batteries of STINGING cells which can cause painful stings that last for several hours!! (click here

    Unsurprisingly, some of the most exciting observations on this last cruise were MOLLUSKS! We don't normally see a lot of snails or clams on these cruises..but we made up for it on this dive! 

    Neopilina, MONOPLACOPHORAN! 
    Few animals that I know of have what might be considered "holy grail" status. THIS is one of them..

    In this case, the mysterious mollusk known as Neopilina! This mysterious mollusk has previously been collected from abyssal and ultrabyssal depths between 4000 and 6000 meters. From both the Atlantic and the Pacific. 

    These are rarely collected and in the past were perceived as being VERY important to evolutionary or other ecological studies.  Basically these animals were regarded as ancient AND ancestral mollusks-the "Ur mollusk" if you will. They inspired a LOT of questions about what they were related to and how other mollusks were related to one another.. 

    But I think this might be the FIRST time an in situ (in place and ALIVE) observation has been made! I admit that this tiny brown limpet thing does not have the same... presence as say some giant octopus  or squid, but once you know all the history behind it.. well, I say this with no irony-seeing it alive in its habitat was HISTORIC!!

    Octopus!  So, of course we are always fond of cephalopods when they turn up! This white translucent octopus species was observed at least twice on the dive at relatively "shallow" depths between 380 and 400 m. This first shot was from Tau seamount.

    Note that the webs of skin between the arms were translucent! 
    This one was seen at Rose Atoll at about 393 m and it was investigating a series of little holes and caves.. presumably looking for food..

    ECHINODERMS!! So, where MY group is concerned I'm always a little biased and have more imagery than of other groups (not as many corals for example). And because I work on starfishes-there's enough pics that I will get to those in another post!

    but for now, here's some striking "spiny-skinned" friends that I saw...

    This funny beast which I think was in the Deimatidae? Note that as with many deep-sea sea cucumbers, the body wall was translucent and we can see the sediment eaten by the animal THROUGH the body wall! 
    The bizarre semi-swimming sea cucumber PsychropotesI blogged about this genus of sea cucumber and the number of species there might in the world oceans! 
    This sea cucumber (Paelopatides?) in free swim glide! Moki Seamount about 2083 m WHEEEE!

    This interesting fold over backwards behavior of a sea cucumber at Utu Seamount

    A sea urchin the family Pedinidae I think? Lovely greenish coloration!
    A reddish.. echinothuriid urchin? Aka a "pancake" or "tam o shanter" urchin. I've written about these before  here.  We saw a few different species of these kinds of urchins. But they are difficult to ID from pictures..

    There were at least two interesting cases where we saw crustaceans "team up" with another animal that one does not normally associate.....

    1. Decorator crab + cidaroid urchin! This was an odd one. The ROV was observing this cidaroid urchin..and as it changed angles.. it noticed this majiid type "decorator" crab hanging on with its rear legs. We've seen other crabs hanging onto fire urchins in tropical shallow-water habitats as protection-but not seen something like this. Unclear if it is incidental or something that happens regularly...

    2. Zoanthid "anemone" PLUS hermit crab! A relationship that has been seen before but no less weird whenever we see it. Basically a sea anemone-like animal called a zoanthid rides and replaces the shell that this hermit crab would normally be wearing..

    The crab benefits from the protection and the zoanthid gets driven around by the crab for dispersion, food, etc.. Interesting commensalism!

    Here's a nice one seen back in 2015 by Diva Amon!

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    Over the last 10 days or so since Okeanos Explorer has resumed its ROV-telepresence based exploration of the Phoenix Islands and adjacent areas in the tropical Pacific they've seen some REMARKABLE animals of all kinds, from corals to siphonophores, crabs to ribbon worms, etc... but particularly ECHINODERMS!

    Before I get into the cool pix.. remember NOAA OPERATES Okeanos Explorer!! NOAA has been threatened with severe budget cuts. CONTACT YOUR CONGRESSIONAL REP AND TELL THEM THAT NOAA IS AN ESSENTIAL Agency!

    1. PELAGOTHURIA!  The "TRUE" swimming Echinoderm!!
    I have written about this amazing animal before when I found an image of it misidentified as a jellyfish in the Galapagos Rift 2011 Okeanos photo gallery and have written at some length about swimming sea cucumbers here.

    Basically, almost all sea cucumbers and indeed most echinoderms are benthic..that is they live entirely on the sea floor and never get into the water column the way fish or jellyfish do.. Yes. Some sea cucumbers can swim but ultimately they return to the bottom.

    Pelagothuria is unique because it LIVES SWIMMING in the water column! Similar to the way a jellyfish does. As a result of its strange lifestyle, it has MANY bizarre adaptations and looks unlike most other sea cucumbers much less other echinoderms!

    Its not a commonly encountered animal..and we live in a wonderous time that we can see several minutes of HD video of this seldom seen animal swimming by...

    The video for this can be found HERE:
    Here are the feeding arms extended into the water...

    Pelagothuria is contrasted with this other swimming sea cucumber which, after landing on the bottom, poops and then takes off! (from that unnamed seamount off Winslow Reef)

    2. The strange irregular urchin Phrissocystis! From Polo Seamount, about 2100 m we saw one of the most seldom seen spatangoid urchins known! These are highly evolutionarily derived sea urchins which live by digging through and swallowing sediment looking for food.

    Although they are bristling with spines, they are actually quite delicate. One collected many years ago apparently collapsed as soon as it was brought out of the water in the submersible collection box!

    3. A stunning new phyrocrinid stalked crinoid! From an unamed seamount in the Phoenix Island chain, this bold and striking stalked crinoid was observed..and ultimately collected after it was identified as a new species by crinoid scientist Chuck Messing (based on a paper by Tunniclife et al.)

    It was quite large with an unusual texture to the stalk and the cup...

    4. The "jumping" brittle star Ophioplinthaca
    Brittle stars, distant cousins of sea stars, are EVERYWHERE in the ocean. And especially in the deep-sea you can see them inhabiting numerous cracks, crevices and living on corals!

    Some are VERY spiny.. such as this species, what I think is called Ophioplinthaca. We've been seeing these ever since the first leg of the Samoa Expedition.  They seem to occur on corals with the tissue removed.. possibly by the ophiuroid itself..

    Another curiosity is that these seem to "jump" off their perches as soon as the ROV approaches. Whether this is due to light, vibration, the bow wave of the D2 or disturbance in the "ophiuroid force" (NOTE: Ophiuroid force does not exist) is unclear...

    5. The enigmatic sea star Tremaster mirabilis Here's another strange one! A sea star that basically looks like a bowl on the top of a table!

    We've seen these before on Atlantic Okeanos dives (see that here) and I wrote about this animal many years ago before people started seeing them alive..

    There is nominally ONE species present in almost every ocean in the world.. they've been found in the Atlantic, around New Caledonia, near Hawaii and in the Antarctic. Not sure if they've been found in the Indian Ocean.

    Interestingly, these were found in astonishing abundance on one of the seamount dives

    5a. The Deep-Sea Slime Star HYMENASTER 
    From Titov Seamount was this glorious, glorious deep-sea SLIME STAR, in the genus Hymenaster.

    I've written about the shallow water representatives of this genus here. and explored the diversity of Hymenaster in the deep-sea here

    *EXTRA! and of course a bunch of weird sea cucumbers!!
    A deimatid sea cucumber with many tentacular extensions, this one from Swains Atoll
    and this one from Titov Seamount  but they look to be similar if not identical

    This one has been seen repeatedly rearing back and presenting what I think is its mouth into the water. so maybe feeding?

    A red one from Polo Seamount
    This interesting purple/translucent one from Polo Seamount

    Some kind of translucent "sea pig" (family Elpidiidae?) also from Polo Seamount

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    Many of you know that I occasionally "call in" when the NOAA deep-sea research platform Okeanos Explorer goes out to see on its missions. (remember the next leg BEGINS APRIL 27

    Mostly I call in on starfishes or echinoderm biology..but I do have a broad interest in deep-sea biology. And I just LOVE seeing observations like the one above: a weird animal doing something no one is familiar with!

    And the BEST thing about Okeanos Explorer? EVERYONE can enjoy it along with you!! Here's a BUNCH of Sea spider observations from the Atlantic Okeanos Explorer in 2014! 

    ...BUT of course, our ship and shore-side scientists can't know EVERYTHING. We'll often observe an event, many of us make note of it in case we see it again and often times we'll move on.... forgetting about it until such a time when the observation comes up again.

    ONE such observation was one from 2014 on the Atlantic Physalia Seamount wherein we observed a sea spider in the genus Colossendeis sp. with its proboscis (that's the long cigar shaped feeding tube) stuckINTO into this hydroid (an animal similar to a Hydra from freshwater)! Was this feeding? Was it NEW?
    Physalia Seamount in the North Atlantic
    A brief into: Sea spiders are not spiders. They belong to a group known as the Pycnogonids (also called the pantopods) which are mysterious arthropods. Some folks consider them distantly related to the greater group of arachnids whereas others think they are even more unusual...

    Most sea spiders are pretty tiny and are less than about an inch (2 cm) across and its not unusual for them to be quite cryptic. So even though they can be present, you really DO have to look for them...
    Here a photoessay of tropical, shallow water species by scientist/photographer Arthur Anker displaying some spectactular colors!   Here's a spectacular male carrying eggs..
    Male ovigerous sea spider (Pycnogonida)

    Many live in shallow water but are never seen (hidden and small)... but that's NOT a problem with the deep-sea and Antarctic species!  There's one frequently encountered genus: Colossendeis which is one of the largest known sea spiders reaching a leg-to-leg diameter of over 50 cm! that's almost a FOOT and a HALF!

    Most members of Colossendeis live in the proper deep ocean abyss: roughly 1000 to 5000 m and also in Antarctica where the cold-waters allow them to occur in relatively shallow water settings.

    Note also the sizeable cigar shaped projection at the top end! That's called the PROBOSCIS! That will be important later! That is presumably what they use to feed.
    Image from page 96 of "A contribution to American thalassography; three cruises of the United States Coast and geodetic survey steamer "Blake," in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Caribbean Sea, and along the Atlantic coast of the United States, from 1877 to 18
    Unfortunately, there is relatively little information known about sea spiders..... And the deep-sea species? Even less!

    So, were the observations something unusual? Has science encountered something like that before??

    But much to my delight: YES! There WAS a previous account of sea spiders feeding! and WOO HOO!  It turns out my friends at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California actually observed something JUST LIKE THIS in 2010!!! Here was their blog post about it! 

    The paper, by Caren Braby, Vicky Pearse, Bonnie Bain and Bob Vrijenhoek was published in Invertebrate Biology in 2009, 128(4): 359-363. and it documented "Pycnogonid-cnidarian trophic interaction in the deep Monterey Submarine Canyon"

    They observed the same genus, Colossendeis, but at least two species, C. gigas and C. japonica feeding on commonly encountered sea anemones in the deeps of Monterey Canyon.
    Braby's paper reveals that only Colossendeis in Antarctica had been observed feeding. These animals fed on limpets and bristle worms and in 1999 sea spiders were observed feeding on sea anemones

    Braby et al.'s observations were the first for deep-sea Colossendeis (as opposed to Antarctic) species. Her team's work focused on their feeding on the deep-sea "pom pom anemone"Liponema brevicornis, an unusual sea anemone which literally "rolls" along the bottom of the deep-sea in a manner similar to a tumbleweed!

    After the last 2017 Okeanos leg in the Phoenix Islands, I rounded up a BUNCH of the sea spider-feeding observations and decided to share them here as a comparison! Who knows? perhaps it will inspire a further paper!

    Remember that NOAA's Okeanos Explorer program has captured these images and made them available for EVERYONE's enjoyment! Please remember that the next time someone talks about government funded science!

    Pacific Observations! Over the last few weeks of the Phoenix Island expedition, we saw a BOUNTY of sea spider feeding observations!  

    Winslow Reef: This one had its proboscis firmly ensconced into this flytrap anemone and was apparently sucking something out of it! The rather lethargic looking appearance is likely the result of being on the receiving end of whatever is going on here...

    And ANOTHER on Winslow Reef! that was QUITE a dive! Here's another flytrap anemone with a sea spider attacking it!   As we saw earlier from Monterey Canyon, sea anemones and other cnidarians seem to be one kind of preferred food!

    Baker Island we saw one attacking what was identified as a cup coral...The proboscis seemed to be "drinking" pretty heavily on this one...

    Howland Island.....and just for good measure they saw this one crawling over a glass sponge

    More Atlantic Feeding? Here we had a sea spider in the Atlantic Nygren Canyon which has been identified as Pallenopsis (thanks to Bonnie Bain), climbing and possibly feeding on this sea pen.

    So, unfortunately I'm not really a sea spider taxonomist, so beyond the genus Colossendeis, I'm not sure how many species we are looking at here..but images such as this inspire many questions: Is predation specific to species? Or generalized?  How significant are these events to the ecosystem?
    Do sea spiders attack the big colonial corals as well?

    Stay tuned for the next exciting episode!

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    This Saturday we were witness to one of the most AMAZING echinoderm related ecology/natural history moments that I've seen in awhile!

    Namely watching this brittle star CAPTURE and EAT SWIMMING PREY!.. and this happened all LIVE on Okeanos Explorer's live stream deep-sea research!

    The Okeanos Explorer was surveying Jarvis Island in the central Pacific at a depth of about 400 to 500 m. They were watching a tiny squid swimming through a thicket of deep-sea "bushes" composed of hydroids and worm tubes, covered by many, MANY animals including brittle stars!

    Most times we see brittle stars, they have their arms up in the water, presumably filter feeding... Brittle stars are frequently numerous as I've written about here. 

    The tiny squid (apparently in the genus Abralia (as identified by Mike Vecchione at NMFS) was moving along its merry way..when suddenly.... (at 0:25 to 0:30) the tiny squid is knocked around and then CAUGHT by the arm of one of the ophiothricid brittle stars!!!

    (video captured by 2011ACVVV)
    (video captured by Steve Hornik of the Facebook Underwater Screengrab Group)

    As indicated by the Biology Co-lead Dr. Scott France "Did that really happen?"

    Here it is again blow by blow...

    Spines in these brittle stars is sharp and often with jagged capturing something soft-bodied isn't TOO surprising..

    Brittle star eating dead squid! followed by many OTHER brittle stars sharing the prey!
    The GIF 
    WHAT?? Brittle Stars feeding on swimming prey? THAT'S CRAZY! but, its happened before...

    Yes! Most of us don't think of sea stars OR brittle stars as capturing fast moving or SWIMMING prey!  Strangely enough, THIS WAS CAUGHT ONCE BEFORE!!

    Once, back in 1996 at the San Francisco International Echinoderm Conference Dr. Steve Stancyk and C. Muir at the University of South Carolina and Dr. Toshihiko Fujita of the National Science Museum in Tokyo presented some fascinating data showing the very abundant deep-sea brittle star Ophiura sarsicapturing and then swarming over and DEVOURING fish and shrimp as they got too close to the abundant carpets of brittle stars on the deep-sea bottom!!!  Here was my blog post about back in 2008! 

    I remember seeing the presentation of this talk at San Francisco State University. The room was Standing Room ONLY! EVERYONE had to see the famous video of the brittle stars capturing swimming prey!!

    BUT ! Dr. Stancyk has graciously NOW permitted his VIDEO of this event to be put up on Youtube making it AVAILABLE FOR THE FIRST TIME!!Basically... at about 4:48, a myctophid fish (and later a squid) gets too close to the "brittle star carpet", gets caught in a loop by the arm, gets DRAGGED down and then overcome by DOZENS of brittle stars!!! 

     Perhaps the most...striking part of this and the Okeanos Explorer video is how.. BRUTAL the brittle stars are when finally tearing apart their prey. Ophiura sarsi was literally rending those fish and squid apart! 

    Similarly.. the ophiothricids seen by the Okeanos were carrying off their tiny squid prey..likely to be devoured by many, brittle stars which collaborated in the capture... Ophiuroids have teeth! and presumably DO use them on food! 
    What will Okeanos Explorer see next??

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    Baker Island
    Back in 2008 I wrote a post about a great looking starfish that I wanted to know more about, a weird looking deep-sea star called Tremaster mirabilis!  

    Its a striking looking animal and its not unusual for odd looking animals to have some kind of story attached to it..and as we learn more about it, the more intriguing it becomes! 

    The species name "mirabilis" is Latin for "wonderful" or "to marvel at" and as we'll see the genus name Tremaster has an equally appropriate descriptive etymology! 

    Since I wrote that introductory post in 2008 not only have I learned more about it-but we've now seen it ALIVE all over the Atlantic and  the tropical Pacific thanks to the livestream videos of Okeanos Explorer!

    Brief Introductory Details: Tremaster is a starfish in the family Asterinidae, that puts in the same family as "bat stars" and a bunch of other sea stars you probably recognize from shallow waters and home aquariums. Go read this account on this huge and diverse group, which I wrote a while back...
    Bat star
    image via Flickr by Ed Bierman
    But one of the people I/we owe the MOST to is a diligent and smart-as-a-whip young researcher named Ms. Katie Gale (more at her website here) who was working in the deep-sea biology/ecology & reproductive biology lab of Dr. Anne Mercier at Memorial University in Canada! 

    Katie published this great paper on feeding biology and ecology of deep-sea asteroids collected off the coast of Canada in the North Atlantic in Deep-Sea Research in 2013.  I blogged it up here.

    During the course of Katie's research she collected a fair amount of cool "anecdotal data" which amounts to singular observations and some other stuff which furthers the "natural history observation" of a starfish about which we know very little!   So her observations along with some further observations from the 2017 research legs of the NOAA Okeanos Explorer, some further homework on my part and voila!

    Let us learn MORE about the weird starfish Tremaster mirabilis!

    1. It eats coral (possibly)
    Probably one of the BIGGEST questions I had for such a strange looking sea star! As we'll see, this species is seen quite a bit and yet one of the most immediate questions about it seemed elusive!

    Fortunately Katie Gale was quite lucky and was able to capture and image of this specimen of T. mirabilis taken by the fine people who operate the Remotely Operated Vehicle ROPOS/DFO. Gale's paper cites this image showing our mysterious starfish feeding on CORAL! 

    Specifically the octocoral Acanthogorgia!  
    Tremaster mirabilis occurs widely around the world and of course, its always possible that there is variation in feeding or that possibly the animal in the picture has somehow been caught doing something completely else that we have no clue about-BUT our best guess is that its feeding. So, we continue on with that notion..

    BUT we have THIS image taken on Whaley Seamount during Leg 3 of the Okeanos Explorer mission at 875m!

    Could its location on the rock surface be because its near a yummy food source? Another coral predator to add into our understanding of deep-sea coral ecosystems???

    2. Time lapse movement and?? 
    This probably seems like a common sense thing-we KNOW starfish move albeit VERY slowly. and can actually show some behavioral complexity (here) 

    Katie nabbed some of this GREAT video showing this species moving around its aquarium and more importantly NOT attacking this sea anemone in the aquarium.

    This is actually an important point because we know MOST starfish CAN move but they often don't.

    So, ACTUALLY capturing it doing so gives us some insight into what they do when we aren't watching them..
    Tremaster mirabilis and Flabellum
    Katie for example caught THIS unusual variation in posture:  Could this be avoidance of the bottom somehow? Filter feeding? Some kind of stress response? 
    Tremaster mirabilis
    Note in this image that the "skirt" is lifted compared to the in situ Okeanos images below where the animal is flush with the bottom..
    Tremaster mirabilis
    What is it doing?? This is a bit of a A mystery. 

    and on Pau Pau Seamount and elsewhere Tremaster is CRAAZY abundant! Are they moving around to feed? to reproduce?  How does all of this come together??? These behavioral bits add to our understanding but also to the mystery!

    If we sped the movement of this "constellation" of Tremaster mirabilis up, would we still see no movement? or  is it a Times Square of Deep-Sea Starfishes??? 

    3. One species lives in at LEAST THREE Oceans?
    It USED to be that everything we knew about this species was taken from museum specimens and indeed we are STILL dependent on samples from throughout the world for new records of where many species live.

    There is some question about whether or not this one species "Tremaster mirabilis" is actually one species or possibly several 'cryptic' species disguised by the fact that all the individuals observed all appear to be the same.

     The external characters vary only slightly and its not unusual for a widely occurring species to demonstrate some... variation throughout its range. However, when we examine dead museum specimens we are often missing data such as color and behavior which can be important.  Especially when its range where it lives is at least THREE oceans!

    Tremaster is a moderately occurring deep-sea species.. occurring roughly between 200 and 600 m

    Thanks to submersibles such as Okeanos Explorer we now have VIDEO and ON SITE (in situ) observations of LIVING animals!

    Tremaster mirabilis is supposed to be one species..but as you can see there is a SLIGHT difference in body form..

    North & Central Atlantic:An image from Nygren Canyon (top) and the lower image from Puerto Rico. Note there's more of a "skirt" around the edge versus the Pacific ones.
    Throughout the tropical Pacific
    Here's a brilliant deep-orange one seen on the recent Okeanos leg from Jarvis Island..

    And interesting brick colored one from Pau Pau seamount
    and this interesting lighter colored individual from Baker Island..

    Other Records show this species in New Caledonia and throughout the Pacific. I've not yet seen it from the Indian Ocean however..

    Another place where Tremaster shows up? Antarctica and nearby...

    4. There are Jurassic Fossils
    As if dealing with living animals weren't enough, these intriguing beasts show a CLEAR relationship to at least TWO Jurassic fossils!

    Bear in mind that the Jurassic is quite a LONG time ago. These sea star were living in the world's oceans while dinosaurs roamed the Earth!

    AND like its modern descendents-these were quite spread out. Antarctica versus Switzerland!

    Here's Protremaster felli, from the Jurassic of Antarctica! Described by Andrew Smith and T. H. Tranter in Geology Magazine 1985

    and YET another "Tremaster" like fossil sea star, described in 1981 from the Jurassic of Switzerland: Mesotremaster  zbindeni described by famed Swiss paleontologist Hans Hess!
    Image from the Wikipedia file:
    Close up of the plate detail showing a familiar pattern for "Tremaster" like asteroids...

    4a. Interesting Evolutionary History...  I had also mentioned briefly in my account of the importance of the family Asterinidae (here)  And well, Tremaster is possibly VERY important to the evolution of starfishes. It has a history showing them in the Jurassic.. and to those in the know.. these show a close resemblance to several weird deep-sea species! 

    5. What does "Tremaster" actually mean? And"brood chambers"??
    FINALLY! What does the genus "Tremaster" actually MEAN anyway?"aster" is obviously "star" but it turns out "Trema-" refers to "aperture" or OPENING!

    When Addison Emery Verrill described this genus in 1880 he made allusion to these FIVE openings present in each interradius! These were one of the distinctive characters he used to diagnose his (then) new genus!! and "mirabilis" of course refers to "wonderful"

    Here's a photo of the underside of a Tremaster specimen.. the openings are indicated by yellow circles!
    So, as it turns out if you look more CLOSELY at these openings, they are actually OPENINGS into chambers present INSIDE and THROUGH the body wall and open up on the TOP:

    Here are images of a dissected individual from the underside showing these openings (i.e. these are close ups of what's in the yellow circles above)
    According to the author who described this species (and subsequent literature), there are actually BROODED young in these chambers! Its not clear to me if they are simply embryos or actual juvenile individuals. Strangely enough, these have not been least not in the literature that I could locate. and I have yet to actually spot them. But perhaps I've simply not been looking at the right ones...

    Thus, the openings appear to provide an opening for water to circulate into these chambers which could serve any number of purposes.. Possibly to aerate the "brood" chambers? Or perhaps they assist in the degree of arching the dome-like shape is capable of??  Filter feeding? Predation??

    One of the great things about science is how it marches on! Its been 9 years (!!) since I wrote that first post and I LOVE that what in addition to what I've learned from reading, there has ALSO been genuine progress in learning NEW information on the biology of these animals..  And one of these days we will more FULLY understand it and its strange signficance!

    Also GREAT to see that animals like this INSPIRE! Here is a GREAT illustration of this species by "Cartoon Neuron" on Twitter...

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    GREETINGS! Last week, a new paper I've literally been working on since I finished my PhD has FINALLY been completed! Its easily my largest monograph at the moment and includes a whopping 14 new species, 3 new genera and a new subfamily!

    For those who are interested, it was in the latest issue of Zootaxa, published online here (I don't believe the print version is out yet). 

    The paper focuses on a group of tropical shallow/deep goniasterid sea stars which include reef setting genera such as Neoferdina but also seldom studied genera such as Ferdina and their relatives. I actually ended up describing 3 additional new genera and MANY new species!

    Its always nice when the work is done and the specimens can go back to their home institutions.. many of these specimens were from the echinoderm collections at the Museum national d'Historie naturelle! 

    Although the paper is "old school" and was done without molecules, to me it still represents a good example of taxonomy in the 21st Century?  I've written about how taxonomy has been done with new technology and other aspects here..

    The whole thing is a lot to unpack.. and so here's some take away lessons that I thought I would share from writing it!

    1. Citizen Science & Social Media Made a Significant Contribution! 
    I've talked about this before.. the world is flooded with divers, photographers and interested people with cell phones all over the world! 

    Thanks to a combination of museum collections and divers I was able to identify and describe several new species and even add color variation to poorly known species in the group I published on! Many times these get misidentified as people try to "shoehorn" them into known species in field guides. 

    This new species for example, Neoferdina oni from the Philippines! I actually identified this species based on material collected by the California Academy of Sciences from one of their recent expeditions (such as this one)

    The photographer of this specimen, Martha Kiser was incredibly helpful in allowing me to see her photos of this new species. You can see more of her work on Flickr here:
    Neoferdina glyptodisca sea star ind10 3429
    I will likely do a separate post on the etymology of these new species a bit later, but the species epithet of this one "oni" represents a horned demon from Japan which alludes to the two spines on each plate along the side!

    Images such as this one gave me more insight into how the colors vary in already established species! and provide leads to possible NEW species...
    Sea Star, Neoferdina insolita
    Cuming's Sea Star (Neoferdina cumingi)

    2. The Mesophotic Zone: New studies and new Species! 
    There's a depth region in the ocean that falls just below "coral reef" (~30m) depth but just above the "deep sea" (above 200m).. that's roughly between 100 and 500 feet. More about this area here. and this entire website devoted to this area! 

    This area is also known as the "Twilight Zone" aka the "sub Reef area" and contains a fauna that is related and similar but distinctly different from those seen at the surface. 

    The California Academy of Sciences's research division as well as their Steinhart Aquarium have both been studying this area in the Philippines. In 2015, they collected this lovely beast, (and here was a news account showing it off) which I had also been observing in the Paris collections from areas throughout the Indo-Pacific!

    I initially identified it as a familiar genus, Neoferdina, but eventually realized it was actually a separate and undescribed genus which I named Bathyferdina! 
    I've actually been describing Mesophotic Zone starfish for quite a long time. Here was Astrosarkus idipi from many years ago aka the "Great Pumpkin Starfish" and there were several more as well...

    One important take away message: Describing new species is PART of understanding the biology of a NEW ecosystem. This was the same thing that happened with understanding all of those predatory coral starfish.. new species led to understanding each "character" of a new ecosystem!

    3. Museums & Travel: Where the New Species Roam 
    Here's a neat new species from the western Indian Ocean-Madagascar and the east coast of South Africa.. Ferdina mena! Identified by the two distinctive bald patches present in each interradius (i.e. the "armpit") of the starfish.

    Thanks to the stunning photos of "Optical Allusion" I was even able to find living images of this species in South Africa!
    Starfish, Ferdina sadhensis
    I have a strangely long history with this species.. I identified one of these (mistakenly) for the field guide Coral Reef Animals of the Indo-Pacific by Terry Gosliner, Gary Williams, and Dave Behrens- as Ferdina sadhensis which was known only from Oman.

    During one of my recent visits to Paris and the Museum national d'HIstorie naturelle in Paris, I discovered that this wasn't just an odd specimen with the twin bald, red spots in each was present on ALL of the specimens collected from a collection made from Madagascar!!
    Starfish, Ferdina sadhensis
    Following this, I was visiting the Iziko Museum in South Africa in 2015 and discovered the SAME species from the east coast of South Africa! Citizen scientists in South Africa also showed me MANY photos of starfishes which confirmed the specimens.

    and to return to the citizen science angle.. images on Flickr further showed this species in Mozambique as well as further color and pattern variation of this species from South Africa thanks to photographer Derek Keats and others!
    Sea star at Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
    In both cases, these specimens had been collected and sitting in these museums awaiting discover for YEARS. In Paris-2007 and 2010 and from the Iziko Museum collections-in 1986!!!

    So, somewhere in there, this seems to be consistent with the "21 years" which malacologist Dr. Philippe Bouchet has published as the average time it takes for a specimen to get from collection to publication! 

    4. Conservation: Aquarium shops & Misidentified starfish
    This was an interesting lesson.

    For one of the new species I had discovered, Paraferdina plakos, I only had one or two individuals on which to base my new species description. Were they the same? Was it variation? How do different individuals differ from one another? Are the defining characters the same across the species range?

    SO, I took advantage of some aspects of the internet which I usually list as pet peeves...

    1. Misidentified species made by people who don't want/need to figure out the correct species
    2. Pictures of species collected by Internet aquarium and pet shops

    I was actually able to make OVER TWENTY OBSERVATIONS of this species misidentified as the common "peppermint star"Fromia monilis!!
    This led to ANECDOTAL information about its color and how individuals varied in shape. One or two sites actually were pretty up front about declaring how their specimens had been collected from Sri Lanka, suggesting a further occurrence point for this species.

    What does this tell us? Not ONLY are A LOT of new species yet to be discovered but we are ALREADY seeing them sold in the pet trade.. and with no correct identifications by scientists to recognize them, are they endangered? For a species that has just been described we know NOTHING bout its reproductive biology, populations, can they handle the strain of being "fished" for this trade???

    5. Mysterious Crystalline Nodules! MicroLenses? or just developing granules? 
    On several of the species of starfish I've worked on, close examination of the surface revealed that there were HUNDREDS of these glassy crystalline nodules embedded on the surface of the skeleton!

    In this  newly discovered genus and species from New Caledonia, Kanakaster solidus shows these crystalline bodies as a sort of pebbling all over the body surface, which is pretty suggestive of the microlens idea.. but I suppose they could also be incipient or underdeveloped granules which cover the body surface as almost a kind of thick tissue.
    from Kankaster solidus, holotype

    Whereas, in this species, Kanakaster discus, the crystalline structures are actually arranged in stellate formations rather than simply as granulated pebbling. Much more suggestive of a "lens" type function I would think.. but hard to say without more data.

    from Kanakaster discus, holotype

    If these ARE lenses? Why do the patterns differ? Some "lenses" are present in shallow-water species whereas others are present in deeper water species! And how are the patterns adaptive? If that's indeed the case? 

    Many, MORE questions! and probably at least one more post about these newly discovered animals! 

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    Some EXCITING news! I have signed on to join NOAA's research vessel Okeanos Explorer as the Biology co-Lead for their July Expedition Broad casting from (approximately) July 13 to August 1!
    This expedition will research the coral habitats around the Johnston Atoll unit of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) spending about 2.5 weeks performing ROV operations, mapping and exploring the biology and geology of the Johnston Atoll region! 

    Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I have live-tweeted the Okeanos Explorer dives for a couple of years (here)  in addition to providing identifications for the Facebook Screengrab Group as well as blogging about highlights observed during the dives (here). 

    I have been a long-time "shoreside scientist" contributor providing identifications of starfish/sea star identifications as well as whatever knowledge about deep-sea echinoderms (or other animals) I can contribute.

    Will you still be live-tweeting your dive? 
    Unfortunately, I won't be providing quite the same level of social media coverage since I will actually be working ON The ship, but when I can, you'll definitely continue to see me on Twitter. Its going to be busy onboard the Okeanos Explorer-but I will try to tweet as opportunity permits.

    But I WILL be tweeting about as many aspects of the experience as I have an opportunity to!

    Will you be Answering Questions via Social Media???
    Yes! If you leave questions in the comments of my blog or on Twitter/FB (@echinoblog) with #askEchino (along with #Okeanos) I will try to answer your question when I am aboard ship during the live stream.  So, I probably won't immediately answer questions until I start the live stream. Questions answered will be at my discretion. 

    I will share more on my Twitter feed as information becomes available. 

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    I'm BACK! After a month at sea with 2.5 weeks worth of dives I've safely returned to "home base" in Washington DC! I was out in the central Pacific with NOAA's R/V Okeanos Explorer on their Laulima O Ka Moana expedition, exploring the deep-sea of the Marine National Monument in the Central Pacific! 

    1. Forest of the Weird: Land of the Glass Sponges!
    This was probably the most amazing thing I have seen in awhile! (at least since that Basket Star community in the Marianas a few years ago!)

    So, the key thing about nearly ALL Of these sponges? Many of them are what's called GLASS SPONGES aka members of the Hexactinellida. That means they have bodies which are made out of silicon oxide!

    These often have bizarre and weird shapes. I have done a post about these before here in 2015.

    Here's a highlight video of the discovery-basically water currents ran at an ideal rate at the top of this geologic feature making it IDEAL for what seems to be a huge abundance, if moderate diversity of glass sponge species!

    Note also how all of them are turned into the current!! We were in this "forest of the weird" for the remainder of the dive (over an hour) so there was quite a lot of it..
    Here's few more that show off the crazy architecture.. These varied in height from one to four feet in height..

    2. The Carnivorous Sponge Field
    This area was kind of the opposite to the one above. Rather than big and obvious, it was quite dense and discontinuous, being present on one big boulder to another...

    But what was amazing was that this was composed of a different type of sponge in the family Cladorhizidiae. (possibly in the genus Asbestopluma..) Cladorhizids are not glass sponges and have physical properties more like what's seen in many other sponges. EXCEPT...

    ...that they are CARNIVOROUS!!!

    Wait.. WHAT? Yup. MOST sponges are filter feeders. But in this group, they use glue or spines to capture prey, which are then digested by the animal in question. We've seen different types of these carnivorous sponges before, including some possible new species..  These sponges kind of look like a feather.. a central stalk with fine hairs or spines coming off the sides

    Similar to this species in the NOAA benthic inverts guide...

    Here..they were present in HUGE densities.. alongside some frond-like bryozoans! and some stoloniferous zoanthids (a sea anemone like cnidarian)  These actually seemed to be pretty thin at first but got bigger, longer and thicker as we encountered them!

    Yes.. I suppose I'm overhyping them..but that's basically a "killing field" of carnivorous sponges!  with these projecting into the
    Interestingly, this shot above looks like there might be a snail on one of those even more going on!

    3. This Amazing Farreid Sponge/Acanthogorgia Wall! 
    Shallow-water dives can be VERY productive but because of the nature of Okeanos Explorer we tend not to do many of them relative to the really deep dives (>1000 m).

    The one we did at Johnston Atoll did NOT disappoint!

    This large block and several like it had this AMAZING side flanked on one side by sponges in the Farreidae, but then on another side covered by octocorals in the genus Acanthogorgia!

    The coral side (Acanthogorgia) was relatively high current...
    versus the "sponge side" which was relatively low current...

    and many critters were to be found amongst the corals (such as this... sea slug)

    3. Astrophiura! the "sea star ophiuroid" Probably one of the MOST memorable observations for me OUTSIDE of the starfishes was this weird little brittle star!

    One of the videographers, Bob, saw it adjacent to the base of one of the sponges. And there it was plain as day!

    These animals are TINY. Maybe dime sized. So, the D2 camera's caught a really RARELY ENCOUNTERED and SMALL species.. (about 2000 m depth)
    This genus of brittle star was described in the 19th Century by Walter Percy Sladen, the author of the HMS Challenger sea star monograph. He hypothesized that it was some kind of "missing link" between brittle stars and sea stars... (since been disproven)

    Here is some imagery of as illustrated by H. Matsumoto.. It has rather famously been shown in echinoderm books as an example of a bizarre form.  Its shape is very similar to those caymanostellids and is thought to be an adaptation to lying flush on the substrate..

    Astrophiura kawamnrai n. sp.
    Image from page 210 of "Aus den tiefen des weltmeeres" (1903)
    Image from page 662 of "Annotationes zoologicae japonenses / Nihon dōbutsugaku ihō" (1897)

    4. Pumpkin Sized Echinothuriids Sea urchins! 
    This dive started out pretty uneventfully up slope along a cone, resulting in the discovery of a pretty amazing colony of plexaurid corals

    As I've mentioned with some of the OTHER high density communities- not only were there corals present but LOTS of other animals living among them.. 

    One of the most remarkable? These HUGE echinothuriid urchins!!  For those who might not be familiar.. these are aka "pancake" or "tam o shanter" urchins. You can see more about them here (with links therein). 

    Basically, these are soft-bodied sea urchins which often have poisonous spines and little walking legs.

    But the ones we saw on this peak? just ENORMOUS.

    The lasers are 10cm across,(about 4 inches), okay this one is only about 8 inches across
    but we panned across to another ledge and found a few more...
    This darker brown one ended up being about 2 laser about 8 inches across! that's basically the size of a small pumpkin! do they get bigger?

    Wikipedia lists the "largest" species at 14 inches (36 cm) but did not elaborate on species..(will need to check). But if that's the upper limit, then 8 inches is definitely monstrous!

    5. A deep-sea... NUDIBRANCH??
    This one was quite a surprise, because I had largely thought that sea slugs were limited to relatively shallow depths, much less PROPER nudibranchs which are overwhelmingly found in nearshore settings.

    This looked pretty bigh on camera and was about 5 inches long? when we collected it..

    Amazingly, there is one genus of proper nudibranch in not only the Antarctic but in the deep-sea: Bathydoris!  I'm not sure quite yet what they eat but will find out!

    How will the species we collected compare??? Stay tuned! (and thanks to Vanessa Knutson for her help with the ID!)

    That's a quick recap of some of the non-sea star events..but I'll post more as opportunity permits!  THANK YOU to the crew of the Okeanos Explorer, NOAA and my science team colleagues for inviting my participation!

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    Sea Stars
    So, a bit of bookkeeping- yes. I've been writing the blog less regularly. This has been largely a good problem to have: lots of other projects have been keeping me busy.. So, I'm mainly just writing when a good topic strikes me.. but I tweet a LOT more often than I used to.. so you can keep up with new posts that way...

    Today.. some interesting etymology: i.e. the origins of scientific names!!!

    I actually used to think that I was going to be writing about the origins of scientific names WAY more often then I ended up doing.. I wrote this post early on back in my first year (2006) here and I've written about some deep-sea starfish names (such as brisingids) with many more little bits about scientific names scattered throughout my long blog history!

    The other day, someone asked me about one of the most familiar sea stars that I've worked with.. the Ochre star on the west coast of North America.. and shockingly. I didn't know.

    I've also been working on some very old literature associated with the World Asteroidea Database and have been becoming familiar with many of the first descriptive papers used for species that are familiar to many a marine biologist!

    So, this week: A short feature on FIVE (ish) names of very common sea stars encountered on the Pacific coast of North America!

    What's interesting is that MANY of these species were NOT described by Americans or by American scientists. They were described by scientists in Europe! Many of whom probably regarded North America as exotic as Australia or "the Orient"..

    But now, thanks to many, MANY field guides, textbooks, scientific studies and citizen science many of these names are practically a household name! But what do they mean? How does the original Latin/Greek break down..especially in the context of its taxonomic history.. HIDDEN SECRETS of the Pacific NW starfish fauna begin!

    1. Pisaster
    This species is of course, famous internationally. Pisaster ochraceus is the "poster child" for the keystone species concept among other things..and is well known on mussel beds..and while the other two species aren't as well known-they are still familiar species..
    Who Named Pisaster?: This genus was named by two German biologists in the 1800s, Johannes Müller and Franz Herrmann Troschel, in an important monograph published in 1842, the System der Asteriden which established names for a huge number of the known species at the time.

    The name: Descriptions were quite brief at the time and many taxonomists never bothered to include the rationale for the names because scientific names are written in Latin and everyone who was considered educated at the time was already assumed to have KNOWN Latin..

    I'll be honest. This one was a bit of a puzzler.  The latter half of the name "Pisaster" has an easy enough translation "aster" for star.. but the former half?  What did the "Pis-" mean???

    Some accounts online suggested that the name meant "fish" but that makes NO sense (sorry Merriam Webster!)   As Adam West's Batman would say "NOT SO FAST, old chum...."

    Fortunately my former Masters degree advisor Tom Niesen (formerly of San Francisco State University) came through!  He pointed out that the name ACTUALLY refers to the Latin for "pea" ... PISIUM!
    The genus Pisaster makes reference to the small bead like spines present on the surface of the body!
    Starfish Macro
    and what about the species names?
    Pisaster brevispinus is the easiest. "brevis" and "spinus" aka "brief or short spined" So, the short spined Pisaster. This makes reference to the short spines present on its body, which differ somewhat from the other Pisaster spp..

    Giant Pink Star Surface Close-up
    Pisaster ochraceus: "ochraceus" refers to the color: orange of the species first collected. Again, likely without too much sampling of the other individuals. This species occurs in purple, red and so forth..
          So TECHNICALLY... the common name for this species "Ochre stars" which is usually taken as a translation of the scientific "ochraceus" name actually means "pale yellow" (possibly orange) stars
    Ochre star 1
    and perhaps one of the biggest mysteries, Pisaster giganteus? This one is a favorite story of mine because it is based entirely on knowing the history of the specimen.

    The original holotype of this species was described  in 1857 by William Stimpson. (specimen shown here)

    It lives here in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History and it is CRAZY BIG, almost 2 feet across! (sadly, nothing this big will likely ever be encountered in the wild again..)

    So, it was quite the monster for its time.

    But they clearly had no reference to the greater variation of this species which is in most cases.. nowhere nearly as large as this

    This kind of thing is the poster child example for why you need to study variation in a new species..especially if you're going to NAME it based on a characteristic seen only in a single individual!

    2. Orthasterias koehleri
     Who Named Orthasterias?: The genus was named by Addison Emery Verrill in 1914 who was an American naturalist that named pretty much everything in the Americas in late 19th Century and early 20th Century. He was a bit of a whirlwind who named everything from sea stars to cephalopods!

    The genus name means: "Straight star" with "ortho" meaning "straight" likely in allusion to the spine series on the body which form regular series and "-asterias" referring to the animal.

    Species? Probably what throws people the MOST about this animal is the species name.. "koehleri" and most people always try to find a Latin root for it.. except that its NOT a word that is made out of a Latin adjective!

    This species was originally described as Asterias koehleri by a Swiss worker, Perceval de Loriol who mainly worked on fossils in the late 1800s. In 1897 he described this species from Vancouver Island and named it after prominent echinoderm worker, Professor Rene Koehler (photo courtesy of Dr. Dave Pawson, NMNH!) who taught at the University of Lyon  and was a later president of the Société zoologique de France.

    Interestingly,  the species was described in 1897 but the genus, Orthasterias was not described until 1914. So, it was SEVENTEEN YEARS until the modern version of this name (Orthasterias koehleri) came to pass..
    3. Evasterias troscheli
    Mottled Star  (Evasterias troschelli)
    Who named it? Another one by Addison Emery Verrill! 
    Named for? Evasterias is I believe the root "asterias" with the prefix "ev" meaning "primeval" likely alluding to this species resemblance to other Asterias like species.

    The species? This one is another one named by some folks in Europe that might not be obvious to people working with the Pacific fauna.. 

    The original name for this was Asterias troscheli and it was named for the aforemntioned German biologist Franz Herrmann Troschel, who worked on fishes and mollusks!  A Wikipedia article is here.

    4. Stylasterias forreri
    Velcro Star
    Who? Another species placed into a genus named by Addison Emery Verrill in 1914!

    What does the name mean? The genus "Stylasterias" has the same root as "stylet" or "stilleto" referring to a "sharp stick" or needle. Plus "-asterias" (for sea star).  The "Styl-" prefix alludes to the sharp spines covering the surface.

    Who was the species named after? This was another species originally described by a European (in this case, Swiss) worker, Perceval de Loriol in 1887. This was collected and brought to deLoriol's museum by a "M. Forrer" (I'm unsure if "M" is the first initial or shorthand for "Messieur" but that is who the species is named for and was almost certainly described in a vacuum by deLoriol.  Basically.. described purely as an object without much if any ecological information.

    Again, this is a species which had a name for 30 years before being assigned its new name Stylasterias in 1914!

    5. Leptasteriasspp.  
    Leptasterias aequalis (Carmel Point)
    Who Named it? Another genus named by Addison Emery Verrill!  This time in 1866! 

    What does the name mean? This one is actually pretty straight forward. There's of course, "-aster" for star and "Leptos" which is from the Greek for "small" or tiny..sort of like the word Lepton. 
    Leptasterias hexactis
    And this is appropriate given how many of the species are pretty tiny (about the diameter of a silver dollar or 50 cent piece.. or 1.00 euro if that's more your speed).. and some up in Washington can get bigger up to the size of maybe a small cookie..
    Six armed sea star - Leptasterias hexactis

    There are a TON of Leptasterias species of course, both in the Atlantic and the Pacific..but the name was clearly designated BEFORE they realized just how big some of the species got! Leptasterias polaris for example, is easily 1 to 2 feet across!

    BONUS. Pycnopodia helianthoides& Rathbunaster californicus
    Pycnopodia helianthoides
    Pycnopodia is arguably one of the most immediately recognizable species in the world given its size and unique appearance.. and interesting.. it wasn't named all at once!

    This species was originally named as Asterias helianthoides and was described by J.F. Brandt, a German naturalist who apparently worked mostly in Russia in 1835 here Asterias was the name they assigned to practically all sea stars back then.. with some species in different families sharing the same genus. and yeah.. if you looked it up the description is basically two short paragraphs Latin. That's why taxonomy gets such a bad rap in the long run..

    The species epithet helianthoides is Greek for "like a sunflower" making the common name Sunflower Star one of the best fitting of all of these older species.

    On the other hand.. it wasn't until 1862 when a second biologist, an American named William Stimpson (who described the misnamed "Asterias giganteus" (now Pisaster giganteus) rightly thought that this animal belonged in a new and separate taxonomic category..

    Stimpson named it Pycnopodia, which in Greek translates to "pycnos" as dense or thick and "podia" referring to its tube feet.. Hence "Dense Tube feet", almost certainly in reference to its very numerous and abundant podia..

    Stimpson was actually SO impressed by this animal that in the original description of the genus, Pycnopodia he actually created a new FAMILY to accomodate it: the Pycnopodiidae. This new family hasn't been widely accepted but hasn't quite been disproven either...

    Pycnopodia has a SISTER species in deep-water called Rathbunaster californicus.. and I wrote a WHOLE blog about it and its name here. So go check it out! 

    Some common trends then...
    1. Many of these species were named by Europeans in the 19th Century. Many of them had almost certainly NEVER even been to North America!

    2. Many of the genera? Described in the early 20th Century probably in 1914, by Addison Emery Verrill.

    3. There were a LOT of names which were based on a bunch of old European guys honoring each other. What you're seeing here doesn't even include ALL of the species that were described.  It was typical of a lot of taxonomists from this era to oversplit.. that is designate a new species based on some highly variable detail. These "oversplit" names were often deemed to be redundatt by later
    authors and made obsolete.

    4. One important lesson? Try to see some variation in the species before assigning it a name based on that one character!

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    GREETINGS! and Happy New Year! Yes.  Sorry. Its been awhile since I've blogged.. Lots of travelling and research are a good thing...but time for essential outreach can sometimes be fleeting!

    For my inaugural 2018 post: a MYSTERY!

    I've written about the genus Luidia before.. these are predatory sand stars which are found all around the world.

    They can vary in appearance and in some places they are very abundant.. Most species are shallow and occur in temperate tropical habitats. Although many species are five rayed.. some such as L. ciliaris can have seven or more arms. Some species in the tropical Indo-Pacific have very striking patterns and can reach almost 2 feet in diameter!

    Luidia ciliaris is found pretty much only in the North Atlantic although it has likely close-relatives in nearby areas. This species is regularly seen by divers in the United Kingdom, France, Spain and etc..
    Image from
    Today.. Andy Jackson, an underwater photographer grabbed this wonderful time lapse video of the North Atlantic 7 armed sea star Luidia ciliaris IN ACTION!  Doing a move through this field of brittle stars! 

    seven armed starfish with banding - Luidia ciliaris from Andy Jackson on Vimeo.

    Interestingly, he noticed that THIS one had a VERY unusual banding or strange segmentation on the arms!
    He came to me with the question.. WHAT IS the BANDING??? That strange surface texture that is visible on the surface of the animal???

    You see it in headlines a lot...but I will actually say it "Scientist (in this case-ME) was baffled!!"

    BUT, it turns out other people on social media have seen it before.. even if they didn't realize what it was... 
     A seven armed starfish on a maerl bed with red seaweeds
    Here is a normal one again for comparison.. the top surface is even.. NOT with the strange surface segments present along the arms..
    Image from

    So, when I see deformations like this.. I always have to wonder about two possible hypothesis:

    1. Is this a "normal" part of this species' behavior?? Something which we have simply never seen before?  
    2. Or could it be NOT normal... What could this mean?? I don't know. But years ago? Sunflower stars in British Columbia began experiencing weird "arm twists"  and it wasn't much longer after that, that the entire population of sunflower stars suffered from SSWD

    One might see from Andy's video that the animal was in the process of moving through a field of brittle stars..could the odd surface texture have been caused as a defense? from irritation? stress? 

    This is why "Natural History" becomes important! and how citizen scientsts, including everyone from divers to intertidal naturalists have something to contribute! 

    For example, this Twitter thread from July 2017 shows a specimen of Luidia ciliaris washed up on a beach with the"banding" on its arms.. (note arm in front above the person's left hand)
    Photo by Chris Orr via Twitter
    One person in the thread speculates that the star was not in good health...was it? Possibly just stressed from being washed up??  Certainly, this was idle speculation and it is difficult to know what was going on... 
    So, I am putting this OUT THERE to let people be aware of it.. and who knows? 
    Perhaps a pathologist, natural historian, ecologist and more? Might take up an interest... More data and MORE OBSERVATIONS could well help us figure out if this is something to be concerned about..
    (thanks to Andy Jackson and Bernard Picton!)

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    So for the last 3 years, I've been lucky. There have been multiple opportunities for me to do field work but more importantly to visit museum all around the world in order to study the animals I love so much! I've been away for up to four months every year for the last few years. 

    Australia, Japan, South Africa, Paris, Honolulu, San Francisco..and probably more in the years to come..

    So, today.. some impressions of common trends that I've observed in honor of today.. TAXONOMY DAY! aka Taxonomy Appreciation Day! 

    1. Museums Remain THE HUB for discoveries!
    I've been in the field plenty of times. Intertidal zones on various continents and islands. Two submersible dives, out on plenty of ships.. but in terms of finding a BUNCH of new species all in one trip?? NOTHING beats a visit to see the collection of a good natural history museum!!

    Everything from natural history surveys, research expeditions, to simple donations by well-travelled museum patrons you can find all manner of important specimens that result in new species, rarely found species, juveniles and even specimens showing ecological interactions!

    My recent travel has been VERY fruitful. Mainly resulting from recent deep-sea expeditions to exotic lands!

    In the MNHN in Paris, their recent expeditions to the Indian Ocean, particularly their expeditions to Madagascar and nearby areas have resulted in a forthcoming paper where I will describe over a dozen new species of goniasterid sea stars! and there were more....
    Other museums have been similarly fruitful!! 

    The Museum Victoria in Melbourne for example includes recent work by Australian colleagues including Dr. Tim O'Hara returned last year with thousands of specimens, ranging from worms to sea stars to fishes! from a survey of the deep-sea habitats of Australia! 

    Their work recovered hundreds of new records and many new species of sea stars. Its gonna take awhile to work that up!! As I've mentioned before.. prior work has recorded that it takes on average about 21 years for a specimen to go from collection to shelf to publication! 

    I've been ahead of the curve in describing many of these species!

    2. When a Good Thing Becomes a Challenge: Space the Ongoing Frontier!
    So. Here's the thing. A reality of ANY kind of collection. At some point, if it is growing at a healthy clip, EVENTUALLY you will have problems with space.

    That is to say.. not enough of it. You have more and more specimens.. and eventually every shelf, every inch of space gets used up.

    Its not unusual for some museums to literally inherit a collection from ANOTHER collection, often from universities or other academic institutions, instantly doubling the contents but also the workload and burden on resources.

    Thispost from Science highlights this issue of "orphaned" collections. Some collections, containing scientifically valuable and important specimens ranging from fishes to plants often face problems due to lack of support..

    This is an issue that has come up at EVERY museum collection I have visited!

    This especially becomes an issue if you work on big, ungainly shaped animals such as sea stars! Some animals are conveniently small and "stack" conveniently..but others.. not so much.

    Museums are often judicious in what they accept..but in other cases they are obliged either legally or  scientifically to accept valuable specimens.  Sometimes museums are faced with inheriting important historical collections-lots of type specimens, rare or even extinct (non fossil) species..
    Solutions are buildings. Fund raising. Remodeling to maximize space! This is an ongoing challenge even in the most modern of institutions with natural history collections (or any kind of museum really)  These types of challenges keep a future vision for natural history collections important.

    3. Databasing & Cataloging! Making Collections Available to everyone!
    This is, of course, a natural function of any natural history museum collection.

    Keeping track of what's available.. BUT lately there has been a HUGE push to make sure that materials have not only been cataloged and database but ALSO available to the scientific public!

    This has been especially important for historically important scientific collections such as the one at Paris, which has specimens that have been around since the 1800s and the time of Lamarck!

    Museums have taken to making creative use of volunteers and citizen scientists to help with cataloging specimens.  I've seen "cataloging parties" where volunteers help to sort and catalog specimens en masse (simple locality data) into a database leaving the more complex entry tasks to the staff.

    Museums with Online Catalogs!
    Museum national d'Historie Naturelle:
    Invertebrate Zoology at the NMNH, Smithsonian Institution:
    Invertebrate Zoology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco:
    Collections Search at Museum Victoria:

    4. Digital Imagery: More of it and its increasing significance!
    The last few years have seen a HUGE uptick in the abundance and availability of imagery.

    Everything from live-streamed deep-sea biology such as Okeanos Explorer :  (returning in April!)

    Controversy has been found as some scientists have argued imagery itself can be used in stead of specimens:

    But more commonly throughout the museum world I've merely seen that almost EVERYPLACE I've been has uploaded imagery of their collection, making those specimens available to anyone with internet access.

    This is particularly important for those ever so rare specimens known as TYPES (here for full explanation) basically the specimen or specimens designated by the original researcher which defines a new species.
    What's interesting is that while some people argue that this is a huge BOON to the community: 
    "Digital images of the specimens will make it MUCH easier for people to see the specimen so we don't need to ship it or so they won't need to visit!"

    Others have expressed the opinion that these images will DOOM the museum!
    "Digital images of the specimens will make it MUCH easier for people to see the specimen so we won't need to ship it or so they won't visit!


    4a. Biodiversity Heritage Library!
    I remember the olden terrible days before the days of the Internet..but ESPECIALLY before the days when the Biodiversity Heritage Library was available!!

    At the very least, having to carry along the photocopy or notes of the huge taxonomic monograph was just a huge pain in the ass. Unfortunately, especially for marine invertebrates such as echinoderms the really IMPORTANT taxonomic references tend to be in huge oversized, heavy folios like these...

    thanks to the online version of these books I can now carry a global-scale library for starfish taxonomy on my laptop.. almost anywhere in the world! Not everyone has a Smithsonian or Paris-level library.. but now you can.

    A list of starfish BHL references can be found here:

    5. Shipping & Customs! New Challenges!
    What might surprise many people is just how IMPORTANT shipping and customs regulations are to museum "business."

    Specimens regularly ship back and forth between natural history museums, mostly as loans for researchers to study specimens they wouldn't normally be able to study.  Specimens would be analogous to rare books being sent back and forth between different libraries so that scholars in different parts of the world can refer to then..

    Shipping unfortunately always seems to come with some risk..and more lately. Scientific specimens in preservative run afoul of safety shipping and biosecurity protocols. Many specimens, such as corals,  are now protected by international law, making them difficult to ship. and so on and so on...

    In one high profile case in 2017, Australian customs officials who were ignorant or unaware of the value of museum specimens destroyed unique and priceless French holotypes... which led to an international incident.

    Undoubtedly.. there are those who would say that nothing I've summarized here is necessarily new...and perhaps to the museum worker or working taxonomist..probably not. But the common travails of the natural history museum to the public are often hidden and I hope this helps to communicate the challenges that these museums face in the 21st Century! 

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    So, apparently back in 2012, the original producer of this video shot this lone sea star out on a South Carolina beach as it was struggling to get back to the ocean, likely due to a mass stranding or some other event which stranded it on the tropical Atlantic beach..

    Here's the original, very static heavy video:

    and here is the "cleaned up" version which was released in October 2017...
    This video went viral and was circulated widely in a huge number of widely read newspapers all over the world including The Sun, the UK's Daily Mail and oddly enough, the Indian Express

    These and other venues reported it with such inaccurate hyperbole as "Incredible moment starfish WALKS down the beach after getting stranded on the sand!!"with the word "INCREDIBLE" being dropped as if this was somehow aliens landing on the Earth for the first time!

    But sadly, what was happening here wasn't really THAT momentous and in fact was pretty sad.

    There was no information on what was happening, what species this was or the context of this whole thing...  So here's my attempt to shed some light on this..

    1. What species is this? And how does it live normally? 
    This is a starfish called Luidia clathrata and these are members of a group of "sand stars" called the Luidiidae. A family with only one genus, Luidia named for a 18th century Welsh naturalist  named Edward Lhuyd whose Latin handle (they all had one!) was Luidius. One of his colleagues named this genus of sea stars after him in 1840 a story was born!

    You can read lots about Luidia in a blog I wrote here in 2014!

    Long story short..they eat snails, clams and other small critters in the sand. They can bury themselves in the top part of the sediment where they live.

    This species in the waters of the tropical Atlantic on the US coast.. Florida, South Carolina, etc. are commonly encountered and commonly seen on beaches..

    2. Seen on BEACHES? Why is THAT??
     How did this individual end up on the beach? Likely due to a mass stranding following a storm, which I've written about here... But here's a video of such an occurrence featuring many, MANY of this species stranded along the shoreline

    3. What makes them so vulnerable? 
    Basically these sea stars don't have a lot of "hold" on the surface because their tube feet are pointed rather than suckered. Their little tube feet are modified to help them efficiently dig into the sand or other sediment both to help them feed and to hide them from potential predators..

    BUT when big waves or currents come along.. they can be swept away and taken to hostile environs such as this seashore..

    Bear in mind that this species is quite abundant and while its unclear what these "natural disasters" mean for the population of these animals, I wouldn't be surprised if the recovery was relatively quick given how many of them there are..

    4. What do they look like alive and "normal"???
    Here is a healthy individual of this species moving naturally underwater, albeit near the beachfrot

    As the video would indicate..these are actually elegant and very beautiful animals in their natural habitat. In fact, Luidia is one of the FASTEST known sea star species..

    5. Why is it sad?
        So, its literally been months since the original "crawling" video posted but I STILL have this being sent to me with comments about "HOW WONDERFUL IS NATURE OCEAN" or "AMAZING OCEAN CREATURE" etc. etc... when in truth this video exploits this animal desperately trying to get back to the ocean

        There's an important consideration here: Sea stars operate using a unique series of tubes in their body called the water vascular system which operates primarily using hydraulic pressure throughout the arms and so forth. This is how they move and operate all of their tube feet and so on...

      The water vascular system NEEDS SEAWATER TO OPERATE.

    Many echinoderms DO have a limited ability to tolerate BRIEF periods out of water..but this is essentially the animal with residual water remaining in its Water Vascular System, such as the tube feet and so on..

    Fluid is still required for movement AND survival. Water carries oxygen and other necessities, such as food and etc. throughout the body. 

    So, that long crawl back? is not both a crawl to return to comfort but also a return for SURVIVAL.

    Folks who express the "WONDER" over that pic are perhaps extending a... misplaced emotion.. 

    Fortunately the original producers of the video have said repeatedly that they had returned that specimen to the ocean shortly after they shot it. So, good on them. I thank you on behalf of the starfishes!!

    So, in the meantime..can we PLEASE let the video go  and LOSE  all of the sad, misplaced hyperbole about how amazing this is?? Its just painful to watch. 


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    Photo by Karen Osborn
    So, Every July 1st is the , now posthumous, birthday of NMNH curator Kristian Fauchald, one of the most prolific taxonomists publishing on polychaete worms of the 20th Century! 

    This began in 2015 following his death (see the NMNH blog:
    and has been held every year since then.. celebrated BOTH online and at the NMN itself in Washington DC!!

    I have honored this tradition with polychaete posts!

    2015: Five Things you probably didn't know about polychaete worms:

    2016: Five GREAT Polychaete Names!

    I missed 2017 because I was out at sea with the R/V Okeanos Explorer!

    But I've blogged PLENTY about polychaetes to make it up!

    A post about Polychaete Jaws!

    My post about "Who Named the Bobbit Worm?" (which actually involves Kristian Fauchald)

    Stunning Polychaete Photos by Arthur Anker!

    and Gorekia,  a polychaete which lives INSIDE an urchin!

    So, for 2018 I am BACK for #POLYCHAETE DAY!  So for this year.. a fun topic:

    So, #2 to #5 are pelagic taxa.. that is they live exclusively (or mostly) in the 3-dimensional oceanic space ! They generally don't live on the bottom of the ocean floor. and so, they have adaptations which help them to live in this unique and vast area! as we'll see...

    Swimming Polychaete
    First up are some of my FAVORITE swimming worms! Those in the genus Tomopteris!

    These are apparently VERY successful with a widespread distribution all around the world. There are apparently 35 to 50 species in this genus! About 15 of these occur in the subgenus Tomopteris (Johnstonella) which I suspect means there is some contention over how many there are..

    BUT I can tell ya' this much! The NAME Tomopteris is Latin for "Split wing" which alludes to the paddles on each of their little legs!  and the fact that it is apparently "cut" into two halves..
    Image from page 220 of "Discovery reports" (1962)

    Tomopteris is apparently a PREDATORY worm, with at least one species indicated as a predator on arrow worms !

    and as seen in many swimming species they are BIOLUMINESCENT!  I don't have great shots of their glowie powers..but they ARE very photogenic animals.. so here's some video...

    4. Alciopid Worms! 
    Image by Karen Osobrn NMNH StreamCode SMS:

    The family Alciopidae apparently includes about 12 genera, but I believe only  a few genera are actually pelagic.. that is free swimming.

    Alciopid worms are known or being PREDATORY.  They have an ENORMOUS proboscis which are presumably used to feed ON other prey...

    and They are known for having ENORMOUS EYES which are complex in a manner analogous to vertebrate eyes with lenses, irises, corneas and such.. So, they actually have well-developed VISION which is thought to assist in prey avoidance..
    Pelagic Alciopid polychaete.

    Here is a GORGEOUS chart on alciopid eyes via the Biodiversity Heritage Library Twitter:

    here was a nice back and forth about this deep-sea alciopid worm on Twitter!

    Here's some swimming video! (thanks to Jackson Chu!)

    3. The Deep-sea Pig Butt Worm! Chaetopterus pugaporcinus

    I'll be honest. There's not much that I can add to this which wasn't already said by MBARI when the species was described:

    These are part of a genus of segmented worms called Chaetopterus, most of which aren't actually swimming species.. They kinda look like this:      Many of them live in a paper-like tube..
    Large parchment worm (Chaetopterus sp) extracted from its tube

    This pelagic species was unusal in having swollen segments wich gave it an unusual appearance...And yes..the Latin name epithet "pugaporcinus".. is LITERALLY translated as "Pig Butt" 

    2. Swima bombaviridis! Swimming bomber worms! and relatives...(the Acrocirridae)

    So, this is kind of a "two for one" deal because members of this one family of swimming polychaetes, the Acrocirridae actually have TWO very interesting members

    Here were the "Squid worms" Teuthidodrilus samae whose very formidable appearance got them a notable write up in National Geographic among other places../ (
    Karen Osborn and her associates later discovered ANOTHER member of this group delivered glowing green bombs as a defense mechanism! 

    Here was a nice video of that discovery via California Academy of Sciences & MBARI!

    and of course..we have seen other members of this group on Okeanos Explorer..
    Engima Seamount 2016:

    1. EPITOKES! mmm... yummy! 
    FINALLY.. the last category of swimming segmented worms is kind of a mixed bag.  This includes worms while swimming which are NOT a specific group  and NOT a group of worms that swims its entire life..
    This is the unusual phenomena in polychaetes known as EPITOKY! 
    This is the reproductive phase for many polychaete worms in which they physically change and  shift into a swimming form or mode! these species typically are adapted to bottom living.

    Presumably this sudden ability to swim goes hand in hand with dispersal of the reproductive products.

    Here for example.. we have an example of a sexually mature worm carrying its products while also swimming! aka engaging in pelagic life mode.
    Epitoke Polychaete Worm with eggs

    This change in life mode can be a bit of a surprise when your 2 foot long bristle worms are suddenly swimming around like giant snakes!

    In the Indo-Pacific region, there are HUGE numbers of these epitokes swimming around in the water column and apparently, they are QUITE tasty..

    Although prepared in many different ways, sometimes its apparently best to just have them on toast! 
    from the original blog:
    Have I missed other examples of "proper" swimming polychaetes?  Almost certainly! 

    Here for example is Poebius meseres which apparently feeds on marine snow..
    and of course.. MBARI has a GREAT video that samples a bunch of them in spectacular fashion..

    Enjoy the 2018 Polychaete Day! 

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