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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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    Japan is known for some of the biggest and most successful and widely known toys throughout the world. Giant robots! Godzilla! Pokemon! Sailor Moon! Hello Kitty!  For whatever reason, when you think about toys, Japan comes to mind.

    During my travels, it's also become apparent how the interests of the people reflect on the diversity of toys that are available to everyone, from casually interested kid to hardcore collector.

    Japan amazingly produces several toys of different species from not only the deep-sea but also from "deep time" with many fossils and so on. What makes these so amazing to me is that they were even made!  

    Although some of these (the plushies) might have been made as part of the US show, many were simply made, for the general populace as either collectibles or items that interest the consumer.

    To me, THAT is a huge message. There's folks in Japan who buy these because they think these creatures are interesting! You can even buy deep-sea biology books at 7-11 in Japan! 

    1. Enypniastes! Take for example, the swimming deep-sea sea cucumber Enyniastes. You can read about this and other swimming sea cucumbers here
                                                  
    This amazing species is captured as a tiny highly detailed replica, known as a gashapon. They are obtained from specific gashapon machines, but these days most folks just buy them individually at special shops throught the "hobby" distrcts of Japan, such as Akihabara or at Nakano Broadway. 

    These are highly detailed, come with a stand and are about 1-2 cm tall. 
    Somewhat more specialized is the plushy Enypniastes obtained via the gift shop at the National Museum of Nature & Science! These are larger ad more hand size as indicated.
    2. Sea Pigs! Yup. they got em'... Remember my original post here??  Deep-sea sea cucumbers with legs that for some reason combine cute and creepy!
    No fewer than TWO brands of sea pig gashapon (again, small highly detailed plastic models of Scotoplanes globosa)                 
    This cool plush toy from the gift shop at the National Museum of Nature & Science in Tokyo!
    3. We've all heard/seen of the famous Japanese giant plush Bathynomus/giant isopod toy! 
    and yes, it is indeed soft and cuddly! Perfect for those cold nights when your teddy bears and undependable stuffed mammals have run out on you! 
    BUT what about the Giant Bathynomus-inspired designer vinyl action figure! Stands a good 10 inches tall with ray-gun!
    Made by and for collectors, I've seen diferent sizes and color variations of this toy...
     ranging from 60 to $600.00! Some of them even glow in the dark! 

    Plush toys are gaining momentum, there's even a set of Paleozoic invertebrate plushies!!
        The National Museum of Nature and Science of Tokyo had a fun set of Paleozoic invertebrates made into plushies!  Here's a carpoid! (Paleozoic echinoderm) But there was a whole Cambrian set which I'm not showing here...
                                         
    4. But the BIGGEST THING? small toys.  Also known as gashapon!  As mentioned earlier, tiny little 2-6 cm replicas of the real thing. Part of different sets following various themes for collectors..

    For example, highly detailed Paleozoic invertebrates! Eurypterids and trilobites! (carpoids & others are also available).


    Ammonoids! and more!
    You want crabs and other crustaceans?  YOU GOT IT! Anatomically accurate tiny plastic replicas of different crab families! Calappids! Portunids! Leucotheids! There's actually a second set with various lobsters and so forth...
     You want NUDIBRANCHS? Done.
    And of course there's a lot of your requisite whale, deep-sea fish, jellies and so on.. But here's a pretty cool commemorative set!  Remember back when they had FIRST footage of the living deep-sea giant squid Architeuthis?? 

    Yup, a commemorative and official (by the NMNS),Architeuthis squid gashapon set! With sperm whales and everything! 


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    Travel is about experiences. Here are some of mine.... Starfish and not....

    1. Starfish Story! 
    Found this cool disk from the starfish Plazaster borealis the other day.  I am somewhat obsessed with this starfish (see this blog). It goes by the common name "tako hitode" aka the "octopus starfish" and we know next to nothing about it.  Sadly, this specimen was found without arms. Probably something that happened when it was collected....

    Cool thing about this and the specimen lot it was found in?? Collected in 1932.  This species of starfish was originally described in 1938. That means, this specimen was actually collected SIX years before the species was actually described by Dr. Tohru Uchida.
     Here's what the animal looks like in its natural state. Almost 40 arms! But they disarticulate pretty easily.

    2. Starfish-Worm Story!
    The other day, I encountered this: polynoid polychaete worms which live commensally on the starfish Solaster borealis! STILL attached and living to their "host".

                                            
    To give you some perspective, here is what the animal looks like in situ (from the North American side of the Pacific). 
    This image from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute! 
    And here is a close up of the worms living inside the mouth and tube foot grooves of the starfish...
    With this Japanese Solaster borealis, we are seeing the relationship among some relatively deep-sea species but this type of relationship is also seen on several North American species of Solaster, such as this one from a shallow-water Washington species.

    Where better to live/feed than on the "top dog" starfish predator like Solaster?  (or any starfish for that matter!)

    3. Tunicate Food Story!
    Travelling to foreign lands and new places means trying new foods and dishes that you don't normally get to try when you are at home. Sometimes, these dishes can be quite exotic.

    Case in point: after a presentation at the University of Tokyo, I was treated to some hospitality including the opportunity to try hoya aka raw sea squirt or tunicate! 
    I wrote a post about exotic invertebrates eaten around the world here. Here is a picture of what hoya looks like alive.
    What does it taste like? Hm. An acquired taste certainly. Kind of sour and medicine-like is probably the most polite way to put it... Not one of my favorites but glad that I tried it!

    4. Bathroom Story!
    This one is a simple lesson in keeping track of different kinds of plumbing! Behold my bathrooom set up!

    The shower is nozzle connected to the sink faucet. Very efficient. There's a shunt switch that routes water either to the faucet OR to the shower head. The shower head is used in the bathtub, where it can drain. But it is stored on the wall up there over the sink.

    Sometimes you forget that the shunt switch is turned to "shower" instead of "sink" AND you have replaced the shower head on the wall.

    Looking to brush your teeth and BOOM!  That was messy. 

    5. EARTH Story! 
    So I'm workin' one night, when "I-san" a worker in the lab, who speaks only a little english, gets up and starts saying "oscillate" ????  Odd.  

    So, I get up and he's pointing to the mini-fridge shaped air vent sitting above my seat (above). Big, but held up by big metal struts. It is ROCKING back and forth. The rest of the lab, the floor seems perfectly stationary.  "Ground is shaking because of Earth moving" He says. My eyes open wide, as I grasp what he is saying and realize, "Oh crap, we're having an earthquake!" 

    It was a 5.1... and I very nearly ignored it. Yow. 
    Info for the quake can be found here. 

    There's a HUGE Diversity  of starfishes in Japan...
    Whew! I'm winding down the trip to Tsukuba/Tokyo and the National Museum of Nature and Science!  I'm finding a HUGE diversity of sea stars in the collections. When I arrived, there was an estimated 200 species in Japan. When I leave, this number will be significantly higher!  Many of them will be from deep-sea habitats.

    Hopefully, this trip will only be Part One!

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    Just got back from Japan and the 15 hour flight just wiped me out... so today is pictures!
                                            
     See-through starfish! (Anseropoda petaloides)

     Densenman! 
    Matching Socks!
    Sweets!but not chocolate or the usual western types...
    Nakano Broadway...
     and some of its unique and interesting goods... (cleared and stained fish skeletons for sale)
    KAIJU! Ultrakaiju Gomora! (and other Japanese science fiction)
    Starfish Kaiju(weird deep-sea starfish!, this one, Hymenaster is about a foot across)
    FOOD! Ramen and gyoza!  (mm... tempura not pictured)
    And special mention to KABOBS! After a long day of running around Tokyo? These are surprisingly satisfying....



    and of course, big expensive toy robots! (shown here is Big Dai X)

    Until next time Tokyo! 

    P.S. These are surprisingly accurate....
     

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    (Happy April First! based on an old joke by Alex Kerr!-used with apologies)

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    The depth of the ocean has been in the news a lot lately. Here's Virgin Oceanic planning to send someone down to the bottom,  as well as this excellent infographic from the Washington Post about how deep a challenge MH370's recovery might be..  

    and of course 2012 was James Cameron's big dive in the Marianas Trench!
    Image from NPR
    The other day this came up in conversation "Blah, blah... but its not like echinoderms occur in the deep sea? I mean, I've only seen them inshore, they are mostly shallow water aren't they??" Au contraire mon frere!!
    Echinoderms are DEEP. They live in the deepest depths of the ocean..

    But how deep are we talking?? Most folks think of "deep" as anything beyond the intertidal.

    Many biologists think of "deep-sea" as anything below 200 m, which is where roughly where light stops penetrating. But then you get beyond THAT... then you start entering the REAL deep sea... the ones where biologists start saying stuff like "THAR be where dragons have lease..."
    Via Wikipedia! 
    To me, this starts at around 1000 m..and these zones include
    1. the Bathyal at roughly 700 to 1000 m
    2. the Abyssal at about 2000 to 4000 m
    3. the HADAL from 6000 to 10000 m
    Basically, the true BOTTOM of the ocean is around 6000 to 10,000 meters. ABSOLUTE FARKING cold, dark, BOTTOM of the ocean.! And yes. Cameron's sub got down to 10,000 ish meters at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.  These are places where it is cold and dark. The coldest and the darkest in that there ocean!

    Here is a chart from CNN (from the Cameron dive) which gives you a sense of scale about what these zones mean..
    Image from CNN here
    Echinoderms are among the DEEPEST living of all animals known on the planet. HOW DEEP? Which ones?? Let's find out!

    Sources for this survey include Belyaev's "Hadal Bottom Fauna of the World Ocean", the former Online Echinoderm Newsletter World Records page and the Smithsonian NMNH specimen database!

    1. Sea Urchins (Echinoidea) I start with one of the most familiar but also unfamiliar of sea urchin groups! There are many deep-sea urchins. Such as the echinothurioids (the tam o shanter urchins). or the bizarre Dermechinus.  Many of these urchins go deep, but still remain one of the "shallowest" of the Echinodermata. Many urchins occur at depths >1000 m but "only" go down to about 7000 meters.  Which urchins live at that 7000 meter threshold??

    Pourtalesiidae: The "coke bottle" urchins! I have written about these bizarre deep-sea sea urchins before.  YES, these are sea urchins, albeit highly strange ones.

    They have EXTREMELY thin and delicate skeletons, which can be almost paper thin. They live by burrowin through and digesting mud on the deep-sea bottoms. Records for the genus Pourtalesia sp. (usually only fragments are recovered) have been collected from 6,850 meters in the Java Trench.

    2. Sea Stars (Asteroidea) Next up is my favorite group! They go deep but are not among the deepest. They go 2000-8000 m. That's not to say that there aren't a bunch of DEEP weird looking critters to look at! Here are the records!

    Freyellid brisingidan starfish:  Freyastera sp. and Freyella sp. Brisingids are starfish that use their arms to pick food out of the water (more here). All the members of the Freyellidae occur in the VERY deepest depths. Typically below 1000m, but many occur between 4000-6000 m. But the deepest record for a freyellid was Freyella kurilokamchatica from 6860 meters.
                                          
    "Mud Stars" Family Porcellanasteridae. NOW we're talkin. This entire family lives on muddy bottoms deep on the ocean floor, where they swallow massive amounts of mud for food. Similar to the mud star Ctenodiscus (here).  The specimen figured below from the NMNH collections is from 6, 250 METERS below the ocean surface!  Deepest record for this species, Eremicaster vicinus is from 7,614 meters! These live in the deepest abyssal-hadal bottoms around 4000 to 8000 meters.
    Finally,Hymenaster, aka deep-sea slime stars. Here's a post about their shallower relatives. And you can always find more on my blog about them. Pic below is from 2000 m.

    The deepest record for Hymenaster is for a species from 8,400 meters in the Kurile-Kamchatka trench!  So, Hymenaster (species remains undetermined) currently holds the record for deepest starfish. But who knows what new specimens and video remain to be discovered!

    2.  Brittle Stars (Ophiuroidea)As with sea stars, their close relatives, the brittle stars don't seem to be quite as deep as some of the others but are still plenty deep. Plus, there's probably a bias of sampling as many brittle stars are tiny and more difficult to collect via nets and so forth..

    The plate below is from this paper by Belyaev, G.M. & N.M. Litvinova, 1972: New genera and species of deep-sea Ophiuroidea. - Byull.mosk.Obshch.1spyt. rir. 77, 3: 5-20. (In Russian)
    From Belyev & Litvinova 1972
    The plate above conveniently displays three of the deepest occurring brittle star records known.
    1. In the upper two boxes is Perlophiura profundissima, which has been collected between 2265 and 8015 meters.
    2. Lower, left box is Homalophiura madseni, collected from 6156 to 7,230 meters! 
    3. and finally in the lower right hand box is Bathylepta pacifica which occurs between 5740 and 8006 meters! (thanks to Sabine Stohr for tipping me off to the correct species!)
    There's easily a dozen species of brittle stars found below 6000 meters! Probably more...
    4. Crinoids (Crinoidea) Down to the deepest TWO groups! 
    Bathycrinus carpenteri from the SERPENT website
    Among the crinoids, stalked crinoids are famous members of the deep-sea fauna. There are fossils of stalked crinoids which date back to the Paleozoic and there's always been sort of an unusual mystique to them.  Members of the family Bathycrinidae are recorded from 8,175 to 9,050 meters in the Kurile Kamchatka Trench! 


    5. Sea Cucumbers (Holothuroidea)  So, which group takes the deep-sea CAKE for being deepest?? How could it be any other group than the Sea Cucumbers??? 

    There's a LOT of diversity of sea cucumbers at the >5000 meter depth range. All of the swimming sea cucumbers live at these depths (click here

    And of course, our old friends, the SEA PIGS!! (the one shown from 1500 m). Many members of the Elpidiidae, the group to which the sea pigs belong are among the deepest known. Several species occur as deep as 9,500 meters! 


    But the winning sea cuke? the DEEPEST ones? Members of the Myriotrochidae, including Myriotrochus.  Records for these sea cucumbers go down to 10,687 meters!!! The NMNH has records of Myriotrochus bruuni from the Philippine Trench at depths of 10150 to 10190 meters! So yeah, if Cameron didn't see any of these when he was down there? That's HIS problem! 

    This pic is from a Myriotrochus from the Kara Sea, but you get the idea.
    this image from this Russian page 
    This Russian Livejournal page actually has a nice photogallery of various cold-water deep-sea sea cucumber groups. Myriotrochids, molpadiids and sea pigs! Check it out..

    There's a lot of weird stuff going on and through deep-sea sea cucumbers! Here's some of it.

    So, yeah. Sea Cucumbers. Deep. And don't you forget it! 

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    Today, a cool assortment of unusual videos of brittle stars digging themselves into the sediment!

    hmm.. yes, I know that doesn't sound all that special but brittle stars are some of the most abundant animals on the planet. In some settings, such as the deep-sea they are thought to comprise an incredible amount of biomass.  As I've written about before, the Amphiuridae, which often make their home in sediment and hiding in mud are among the most diverse groups of brittle stars.

    For the topic at hand, some of these videos are pretty amazing. Enjoy!

    We start with an Antarctic species, Ophionotus victoriae doing its thing in a special aquarium and its thing is AWESOME.


    A gorgeous video of Amphiodia occidentalis from Bodega Head in the North Pacific! 


    Here is a typical burrowing type of brittle star from the family Amphiuridae, in the genus Amphiura shot here moving through some loose sediment. 


    If you want an idea of how important the movement of these individual brittle stars is ultimately importatnt, scientists have made videos of their communities in the sediment. They "turn over" and process the sand/mud pretty readily. 


    Being buried all the time also helps in preservation of brittle stars as fossils...


    and we close out with one of the most gorgeous brittle star videos ever shot "Emerging" by Robert Suntay featuring what looks to be Ophiopsila sp.  as it emerges from its burrow..
    EMERGING from Robert Suntay on Vimeo.



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    Luidia clathrata from the Wikipedia page! thank you!
    Probably one of the most frequently encountered but unappreciated of starfish is Luidia, a genus of seastar that occurs in tropics all throughout the world. Often times, in shallow-water and seen by MANY but known by few.

    Some species, such as this Luidia alternata from the Southeast United States were recently mistaken for brittle stars by some, no-doubt, well intentioned but misinformed journalists! (here) Just to clarify: these are NOT brittle stars. Go here to see some characters you can use to tell them apart.  
    I'm talkin' about sea stars in the genus Luidia, which is the only genus in the family Luidiidae. There are 49 species which are found all over the world, mostly in shallow tropical to temperate waters. Some get deep, but not very.. None occur at high latitudes (i.e., Arctic or Antarctic).

    This group of starfish is named for the Welsh naturalist Edward Lhuyd who went by the latin name Luidius!

    Luidia was an important animal in the big "Which starfish is primitive" arguments in the early 20th Century, and there was one time when this animal was part of a big argument that raged in the pages of the journal Nature...

    Let's learn about Luidia!

    1. Where Do They Live?
    Sea stars in the genus Luidia typically inhabit shallow-water, tropical to temperate water places among sand or mud.  Basically, wherever loose sediment is found. In this respect, they are similar to the better known "sand stars" in the genus Astropecten. (Also a reason why common names don't have much use for scientists).

    They use their spines and feet to bury themselves into the sand, or mud or whatever sediment they live in/on....




    Here's a big Luidia maculata buried in the sand. Disturbed and then turned over..


    I would note that the reason you often see these washed up after storms is because so many of these stars live on sandy bottoms. When you have any kind of turbulence they get "blown" up and washed onshore.

    2. What Do They Look Like? 
    Luidia can be pretty plain looking. But body form in these is pretty distinctive.

    Arms are long and straplike (Luidia clathrata from the SE Atlantic shown here).                                  
    And kinda flat... (Luidia clathrata shown here)
    A close up look shows a lot of square-shaped plates known as "paxillae" with many tiny spinelets...

    These vary in size on the center of the disk relative to those on the sides.. Spines are present on the lateral edges of the animal....


    Some have elaborate patterns.... (L. maculata from Singapore)

    Some with sharp spines!
    Even the pointed tube feet have stripes sometimes...!


    3. Diversity: How many kinds are there?
    As mentioned earlier, there's some 49 species of Luidia known. They occur in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans in temperate to tropical waters. A few live in deeper water.

    Some, such as this Luidia clathrata from the SE Atlantic coast of North America are 5-rayed and kind of plain looking. Albeit with some coloration..These are pretty medium sized (see pic above) but the disk is maybe about the size of a quarter or a half dollar...
                                
    Others, such as this Luidia superba from the Galapagos are HUGE. This species is one of the largest known (see here).  This species gets to be easily 2 feet across....
    Others, such as this Luidia latiradiata have kind of a throwing star shape...
    Several Luidia species have MORE than 5 arms, often 12-15.  You can see from some of the other videos and pics..these get pretty big also!!


    4. What Do They Eat? and How?
    Luidia (and the family Luidiidae) are members of the Paxillosida, which is to say the "Mud stars." Almost all of these swallow either prey in sediment or sediment in order to find food.

    Luidia is predator and feeds on a variety of prey which live in mud, sand or other sediment. Prey items vary but they include sea urchins, snails, clams, brittle stars, other starfish (see below), sea cucumbers and even tiny crustaceans...

    But, as with other members of this group, they lack an eversible stomach (such as what you would see in say, common intertidal starfish). So, they actually just SWALLOW what they eat WHOLE.

    You can get an idea of how this works by watching this..

    Or this...
    From the SERC Invertebrate Gallery
    Here's the Galapagos Luidia superba which was caught with a sand dollar in its gut. These usually just spit these out after they're done...


    So, yeah. You get the idea. 

    5. Ecology! What does Luidia interact with? 
    If its one thing I've observed a lot of since starting this blog is how many sea stars are actually HABITATS for other animals. aka 'commensals' wherein the host is unaffected by the presence of the critter taking advantage.

    I've written about how closely some polychaete worms have relationships with sea stars before. (here).

    A 2002 paper by H. Kohtsuka at Notojima Aquarium and my colleague Toshihiko Fujita at the National Science Museum of Tokyo (Reports of the Noto Marine Center 8: 17-27) shows that several polychate worms live in association with at least two different species of Luidia, including Luidiaquinaria and the large, multi-armed L. maculata in the Sea of Japan.

    See below Fig. 1 from their paper showing worms in various living positions...

    And from awhile back, was this fascinating video by Blennywatcher of this crab running along in association with this L. maculata.  Undoubtedly there are more associations but these two are good examples....


    Other BONUS FACTS about Luidia??
    A big multi-armed Luidia on its tippy toes?  is REALLY WEIRD... For more info on this GO HERE.
    From Catala's Treasures of the Tropic Seas
    More cool movement videos! 




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    As a big marine/deep-sea biology nerd, I've been following the recent NOAA Gulf of Mexico Expedition undertaken by the Okeanos Explorer via the live stream on their website. For those who may not be familiar, the Research Vessel (R/V) Okeanos Explorer deploys an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) aka a robot submarine which can deploy to 6000 meters.

    The ROV has cameras that basically broadcast a High definition signal back to the ship, which then provides the stream to everyone via the Internet. You can see this here. The feed is usually narrated by two scientists who provide running commentary on the many biological and geological points of interest which they observe.

    BUT they have a direct line to scientists on shore, who can instantaneously provide their expertise and/or knowledge without having to actually be on the ship. I am one of these experts and I've called in every so often to observe or point out some interesting and/or useful point.

    Last year I was able to help provide some identifications and/or commentary for the 2013 Northeast Atlantic Canyons Expedition undertaken by the Okeanos Explorer. Go here to see a roundup

    The current expedition was from April 10 to May 1st and its last cruise will be this week.

    I've been watching their live feed as best as I can between various projects and day-to-day work. Many screengrabs and so forth have been made by several folks on Twitter, including myself (@echinoblog), Dr. Chris Kellogg(@DrChrisKellogg), the Voss Laboratory (@VossLaboratory), Steve Auscavitch (@steveauscavitch), NOAA Ocean Explorer (@oceanexplorer) and of course, the Okeanos Explorer itself (@okeanosexplorer)...

    BUT, the video feed can be long and filled with mostly uneventful transit and/or deep-sea bottoms until something interesting pops up!   And even under the best of circumstances, important observations are missed and/or the ROV has to move on.....

    So today, I've taken the liberty of rounding up 5 echinoderm-related observations condensed from the last 2 weeks of expedition video stream which I thougtht were interesting!!  (sorry if you were more drawn to fishes, sedimentary structures or coral....)

    These are presented here with my own personal comments on each!   Enjoy!

    5. Swimming Sea Cucumber Pooping!
    Swimming Sea Cucumbers! MANY were seen in the first couple of weeks of the expedition on the abyssal bottoms! (>2000 m depths).  They in fact, saw many different species. I've written about swimming sea cucumbers here... 

    But perhaps one of the most photogenic and frequently seen is Enypniastes. These live a combined bottom and swimming life.  They live primarily on the bottoms, extending their mouth tentacles to the bottoms looking for fresh, organic (but nutritious!) goo which has fallen to the sea bottom...

    When done, its off to the next! They take off in search of the next new spot with freshly fallen food!                                   

    But what made this Okeanos observation so memorable?? Enypniastes was shot not only eating.. but DEFECATING!!!

    You can see its intestine RIGHT THROUGH the transparent body! And that's the "cleaned" sediment pooping out of the end!
    Shallow water sea cucumbers act in an ecological role similar to earthworms. They digest organic materials, leaving inorganic sediment which aids in aerating soil for other organisms. (see here for this).

    Its likely that the processing of organics through these sea cucumbers is important for organic and carbon cycling on the deep-sea floor...but here are FIVE good reasons why sea cucumber poop is so important!  (not all reasons may apply to deep-sea species but these give you a good idea why seeing this happening is important).


    4. Goniasterid starfish (Peltaster?) feeding on glass sponges
    All throughout my PhD, I worked on goniasterid starfish. This is a family of sea stars with over 256 species! One of the most diverse among the Asteroidea. But there was maybe less than a dozen species that we knew anything about their biology or had even EVER seen alive.

    What do they eat? What color are they alive? Most goniasterids live in deep-sea habitats and so, very few of them had ever been observed doing well... anything, really.

    So, every new observation, even anecdotally is potentially important and definitely interesting!

    So, here we have a "cookie" shaped goniasterid, possibly Peltaster or something related (positive ID unclear from the pics)... but hunched over some glass sponges upon which it is most likely feeding.
                                           
    A closer look.... I can only wonder what it gets out eating a glass sponge which really doesn't have much in the way of tissue to digest...

    3.  Watching Dytaster insignis (Astropectinidae) & Nymphaster arentatus (Goniasteridae) ALIVE!
    When we talk about deep-sea starfishes, ESPECIALLY the ones that live below 2000 meters, we really don't know a lot about their biology.  At one time, seeing ANY deep-sea starfish alive was biased by having to keep it in a cold-water aquarium AND by having to bring it up to the surface. RARELY have these species been seen alive, much less in situ (i.e. in their natural setting)

    But even basic questions were often unknown. What was its natural posture? What color was it when alive? What was it eating? What was it doing? How was it moving?

    This species, Dytaster insignis has been known primarily from dead specimens, usually with a gut, gouged full of mud similar to this porcellanasterid...
    Here, Dytaster insignis is alive and observed in the "wild" doing what it does naturally...This is probably one of the first times its been observed with such clarity..
    What's MOST interesting about the next two shots is the disk? See how its swollen like that? Like its just about to pop??  You just don't get to see that in a preserved specimen.  
    Filled with mud? Sure. But probably also with water. Is the swelling just mud?  Is there perhaps more going on as there are with deep-sea sea cucumber guts??? (here)

    Another great starfish we got to see alive and in situ (i.e. in its natural setting) is a goniasterid starfish species called Nymphaster arenatus.
     See those long arms? Always wondered what they were doing with em' Looks like they help to distribute the weight on the muddy bottoms??  Curious.

    2.  Mysterious 6-rayed starfish. Ampheraster alaminos or ???
    Perhaps the BEST of the various stories that come out of watching these videos is wondering which ones are possibly NEW species.

    So, take this for example. Seen on this expedition in the Gulf of Mexico but ALSO on the North Atlantic cruise last year.
    This 6-rayed star is a deep-sea species, from the Gulf of Mexico and superficially kind of looks like this rarely seen starfish Ampheraster alaminos. Described only in 1971 (ha! I was only a year old!). You can download this paper here.
    There is a WORLD of difference between seeing an animal living and seeing a 43 year old dead, dry specimen. 

    What's curious is that I've seen similar looking species (the reddish 6-rayed one) in the Pacific as well. Is this the SAME? Or just a similar appearance that superficially looks similar??   Unfortunately, the Okeanos does not yet collect specimens for examination. Could it be new??    So, we shall see some day....


    1.  What are Sea Urchins doing on Seep Mounds?
    Perhaps one of the most intriguing series of observations on this expedition came from a group that I don't personally work on: the sea urchins aka the echinoids.

    So, early on in the dives the ROV spied these huge chemosynthetic communities, including MANY mussels as well as bacterial mats and other associated faunas...including these sea urchins (genus Echinus perhaps? )

    What's weird about this? Well, most echinoderms are pretty dang sensitive to water quality, especially when the water's filled with hydrocarbons or other unpleasant materials in it. So that's one thing.  But okay... let's say they are tolerant, what's ANOTHER weird thing?....
    What are they EATING??
        When you take your basic Invertebrate Zoology course, you get told that "regular" urchins (i.e., those which are ball shaped like this one vs. sand dollars, and etc.)  mainly eat plant matter, kelp, etc.  Now, I've discussed in past posts how diverse the feeding modes of sea urchins can be...ranging from herbivores to filter feeders or even carnivores!  

    But we don't see any of the usual food. So WHAT are they there for?  Bacterial food? Perhaps something growing on the chemosynthetic mussels??
    The urchins certainly look happy enough. So, one wonders what it is that makes their survivorship in this region possible??  When we wouldn't necessarily expect them to do well?? 
    Interesting. 


    1a. BONUS Sea Urchins Feeding on Corals!
    First.. a big THANK YOU to Steve Auscavitch and the Voss Laboratory for capturing this image while I was off doing other things...

    But yes. Sea urchins feeding on corals. We saw lots of this in the North Atlantic Okeanos expedition last year.  It was new then and remains new here....

    Extra Non-Echinoderm Observation: PALEODICTYON
    These were traces observed on the deep-sea bottom. Its unclear exactly which organism creates them but similar traces have been see since the Paleozoic.

    One famous oceanographer, Dr. Peter Rhona made it a life obsession to find out what they were... (see this piece in the NYT).

    and another account of these as "crop circles in the deep sea" at Hindered Settling. According to various sources on Twitter, Paleodictyon was also a favorite topic of the famous paleontologist Adolf Seilacher, who passed away recently..
    But what are they?? I don't know but by putting it out there again maybe someone out there will be intrigued and find out some day.  Drop me a note when you find out!





    P.S.  Just to clarify, these bottom living brittle stars? Probably Ophiomusium. These don't live in corals unlike euryalid ophiuroids, which have the thick, branching fleshy arms arms and mostly live in the branches of various corals..



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  • 05/06/14--20:51: Stalked Crinoid Round-Up!

  • CRINOIDS!  These are considered the oldest of all the living echinoderm groups. Fossils of crinoids are commonplace in the Paleozoic (see examples here). 

    Most modern crinoids go by the name "feather stars" (for example here) because their adult forms no longer retain the long stalk present in these older forms. This heritage, however, IS retained in feather stars, which have a stalk when they are juveniles (see this post)

    Crinoid feeding biology is fundamentally a simple matter. Arms are outstretched into the water current and food is caught by the branching on the arms and moved to the mouth present in the cup (also called the calyx which is a damn good Scrabble word).

    Of the approximately 600 species of crinoids alive today, about 95 of them are stalked but belong to a diversity of different genera, family and species. Nearly all of these live in the deep-sea where they occur at great depth, ranging down to the deepest known depths (9000 meters!)

    NEW species of stalked crinoids continue to be discovered!! Such as this Antarctic species described by my French colleagues at the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris.

    One of the primary differences in overall morphology is how and whether they are attached.. As you can see, the yellow Hyocrinus  (family Hyocrinidae) on the left side is permanently anchored to the rock, whereas the Endoxocrinus (Isocrinidae) on the right side has a stalk that ends as kind of a tail, which allows it to crawl around and move. (presumably to escape predators as outlined here).














    Feather Stars (i.e., unstalked crinoids) occur mostly in shallow water and can actually swim if threatened.. (see here). 




    Today, I just thought it would be cool to share the diversity of stalked crinoids that are around TODAY.   Life modes of fossil species can be pretty amazing as outlined here.

    We start with an unusual stalked crinoid.. Neogymnocrinus richeri in the Sclerocrinidae...

    These have a short stalk with these thick, unusual arms and a palm-like cup. Its possible these feed a little more aggressively than their other filter-feeding cousins... 


    Endoxocrinus? (I think) from the tropical Atlantic


    An interesting stalked crinoid I don't recognize with distinct segments on the stalk..  from Indonesia)

    Another interesting one (unidentified) with only 5 arms..(from Vailu'lu Seamount in the central tropical Pacific)

    The distinct yellow stalked crinoid Hyocrinus  from the North Pacific


    A red stalked crinoid species from Indonesia

    Close up


    Another interesting red stalked crinoid from Indonesia. Note the weird fuzz on the stalk? Possibly hydroids or some other kind of animal.... 

    Some of you may remember that we saw a stalked crinoid in the North Atlantic via the Okeanos dive last year which ALSO had these interesting growths on the stalk... 
                                
                                      
    Here's one of the deepest occurring kinds of stalked crinoids, a bathycrinid which seems to be anchored in sediment..
    image from SERPENT archive
    Like their shallow water counterparts, its not unusual to find several stalked crinoids in the same place, taking advantage of a good water current for feeding... which makes for an almost surreal deep-sea bottom...


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    When I started writing this blog back in 2008, one of the biggest questions I had was whether or not the blog would have ANY sort of impact on my primary studies in starfish diversity and evolution. 

     How could something that I thought would essentially be only an educational platform benefit my research??? 

    Well, with a recent publication by myself and colleague Dave Foltz at Louisiana State University, which was just published in the journal Zootaxa, you can see how! 

    So, the paper's primary focus was on the family Poraniidae, which is a small but unusual group of cold-water starfishes which have kind this weird fleshy covering over their skeleton. 

    The surface of these animal is soft to the touch and they look sort of velvety like so.... (Porania pulvillus is shown).

    Truthfully, no one has known much about them and as such, it was unclear what kind of relevance they had to the bigger scheme of biology.

    A few years ago, starfish paleontologist Dan Blake described Noriaster barberoi from the Triassic of Italy. Triassic starfish fossils are incredibly rare and potentially provide insight into the early evolution and history of all starfishes. 

    Dr. Blake identified these fossil starfish as members of the Poraniidae, making them potentially important in the "big tree" of starfish evolution.  
    photo by Dan Blake, via the ATOL website.
    Later, my work with Dave Foltz from 2011 showing the "family history" of one major group of starfishes, based on evidence from DNA suggested that their position in the big "family tree" might indeed be important to understanding the early evolution of all starfishes.

    But we understood very little about the ecology and life modes of LIVING members of this group.

    But usually, one of the first steps towards understanding these "family trees" is to "straighten out" the many different kinds of genera and species in the Poraniidae. (or any discrete group of starfishes).

    There's a LOT of stuff in a paper like this..so here are some highlights... 

    There's an overview of known genera and species
    Chondraster grandis? from the North Atlantic. We know almost nothing about this species..
    Here is Poraniopsis inflata, which occurs along the Pacific coast from Japan to Alaska and south along the west coast of North America to California. A related species occurs widely in the Southern Hemisphere. 
    Some new genera and species...
    One of the delights in looking through big museum collections and specimens from an endless number of research expeditions is the possibility of finding a new species or even a new genus! 

    In the bigger, evolutionary sense, this would be like finding a long lost member of your family you never knew about. Then, you need to figure out how/where/who it is...

    Among the neat new species found? First was this weird thing from deep-sea habitats (roughly 1600 meters!) south of Macquarie Island on Hjort Seamount. This specimen was "hidden" among the collection of the US Antarctic Research Program and collected in 1965!! (you may recall I wrote of this collection awhile back)  I've found other new species from the US Antarctic Research Program... its the gift that keeps on giving! 

    First..may I present the new genus and species:  Clavaporania fitchorum!
                                                  
    The new genus is named "Clava" or club shaped which refers to the spine and "Porania" which is the name from which the family Poraniidae derives its name.  The species is named for Mason & Lisa Fitch, who are ardent supporters of my research! 
    The OTHER new, cool species we found was a tiny little (it was about 1.5 inches across) animal collected by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) from Davidson Seamount in the North Pacific from an astonishing 2669 meters!  I have much thanks to benthic ecologist Jim Barry and biologist Lonny Lundsten for their help in making the animal available to me. 
    with new species, come NEW observations!  MBARI was working on/collecting this deep-sea "black coral" aka an antipatharian..

    The new species (note the white arrow) was found among the other echinoderms present on the branches
                             
    My take on the pictures was that this starfish was feeding on the fronds since to my eye, some of those fronds are gone..So, PREDATION??? 

    I couldn't help notice that the animal had actually crawled UP into the branches. And from that I gave the animal its species name- Bathyporania ascendens.  The genus was Bathyporania which comes from "Bathy" for depth and "Porania" which again is a the primary name for taxa in the Poraniidae. species is called "ascendens" for "ascent" or to climb because of the fact that it climbed up into the branches of this black coral...

    This ecological observation nicely dovetailed with BLOG STUFF! Ahoy the Internet! I wrote this post in 2013 (last year) about what I thought might be a bunch of neat observations on feeding in poraniids based on observations present on the Internet...  such as Porania pulvillus shown here feeding on a sea pen.
    From this EOL page via SERPENT
    And the case I made there was simply this: Poraniids had always been thought of as fairly passive feeders. What if they AREN'T?? Maybe they feed more aggressively as predators?? 

    And this line of thinking from the blog eventually made its way into a nice part of the paper discussion!  which for me, leads to a nice paradigm shift about this poorly known group of animals! 

    The internet observations had colored and further fleshed out my published work! Who knows how it will be corrupted by blogging next? Woo!

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    fringehead1Jan19-14
    Brittle stars are EVERYWHERE. They are not only the most diverse (over 2000 species), but also the most ABUNDANT of echinoderms (go here for the full thing)

    The truth is that they live frakkin' EVERYWHERE. The diversification of brittle stars is thought to have been successful mainly because they've found a niche just about anywhere and everywhere they can! They live in all the nooks and crannies on the marine bottoms: buried in sediment, rocks, sponges, corals so on and so forth..
    Tiny in-a-sponge brittle stars (Ophiactis savignyi) in chocolate sponge (Spheciospongia cf. vagabunda)

    Some Brittle stars live in some of the deepest places on earth down to >8,000 meter depths! (here)

    But brittle stars also manage to find some pretty crazy, unusual and just downright SURPRISING places to live. Are there ANY habitats which which they cannot exploit???

    Here's a few of them....

    Ophiuroids GO where other Echinoderms fear to tread! 

    1.  Floating Plastic Garbage.

    garbage-patch-19-hoshaw_lindsey
    A recent paper by my colleague Miriam Goldstein et al. (2014) in Marine Biology has documented ophiuroids among the plastic garbage debris "islands" found in the North Pacific.  In this case, I'm told, there were hundreds among some of the ropes on these bundles... (my thanks to Miriam and her co-authors for the paper & sharing their info!)

    Although garbage/debris is created by humans, it may functionally serve as just another venue for brittle stars to practice rafting, which is one means for animals that don't swim as adults, to be dispersed widely via ocean currents. 

    I've also written about the tiny, 6-rayed brittle star, Ophiactis which has likely been transported all around the world via human activity, probably like this and several other ways.....

    2.  Jellyfish.
    Speaking of one of those other ways??I wrote about brittle stars "rafting via jellyfish" in one of my posts from 2009! (here But the short version is that some species are regularly found inside jellyfish for uh..... various possible reasons (go see the post to see the discussion why..)

    another great pic of this can be found over here! 
    via Thomas Peschak Photography
    3. Hydrothermal Vents.
    Here is ANOTHER place you generally don't expect to find echinoderms. Why? Because most of the environment around hydrothermal vents is not just, very, VERY hot but also filled with toxic chemicals, such as hydrogen sulfide.
    East Pacific Vent from this R. Blake's page
    Given how sensitive most echinoderms are to having clean, seawater these factors probably exclude most other echinos from being present in these poisonous areas. and YET somehow brittle stars have found a living here.

    Observe Ophiolamina eprae from the East Pacific Rise. And there are actually about three others that live in and around vent settings...

    This species actually looks like it lives directly in the path of some of the hot water and toxic materials...
    From IFREMER
    4. Brackish Water (i.e., nearly fresh water)
    Image via Florida shellfish ID guide
    Echinoderms are exclusively marine and they don't handle shifts in the amount of salinity in the water well. Some echinoderms, such as sea stars will often die from a significant drop in ocean salinity from say, a big rainstorm.

    Salinity in ocean water ranges  about 30-50   (ppt)  and freshwater is generally less than 0.5  (ppt). A lot of sea stars, for example start to get unhappy when you drop below 30ish  (ppt). 

    But some brittle stars? Brittle stars are probably the toughest of the echinoderms with some species, such as the above Ophiophragmus filograneus (Amphiuridae) can withstand up to 7.7 ‰ (or ppt-parts per thousand). 

    Another species in the Amphiuridae, Amphipholis squamata has been recorded as withstanding salinity as low as 5  !!
    from Wikipedia! 
    In the salinity battle, brittle stars are tough, little bastards.

    5. Crinoids! 
    Here's one species, Ophiomaza chaotica a strikingly black and white species which famously lives on feather stars! A short write up on it at Wild Singapore here
    Pale feather star (Class Crinoidea)  with Feather-hitching brittle star (Ophiomaza cacaotica)
    Blue feather star (Class Crinoidea) with Feather-hitching brittle star (Ophiomaza cacaotica)
    Feather-hitching brittle star (Ophiomaza cacaotica)

    BONUS!
    and I found this pic of a tiny striped brittle star living on Ophiomastix annulosa  Another example of commensalism?? Maybe one just incidentally crawling on the other? It wasn't actually clear and unfortunatley I couldn't actually find a record Ophiomastix-on-Ophiomastix action..so for now a mystery...
    Ophiomastix varabilis brittle star ind11a 1086

    There ARE some accounts of brittle stars living symbiotically on other brittle stars but for various reasons, those are the subject of a future post!

    UPDATE:  Should also have mentioned that brittle stars live on that other extreme deep-sea habitat-WOOD. But that's a story for another day...
    Borrowed from my friends at Deep-sea News

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    In cold and temperate water habitats, starfish, especially asteriid starfish are often predatory. ESPECIALLY on mollusks! Famously on bivalves and clams but also quite a few gastropods aka snails.

    But in the tropics, we often find the tables are turned! Snails, especialy giant snails, such as these Giant Tritons (Charonia sp.) are big, ol' meanie predators on several often, equally large and heavily armored (or at least well-defended) starfish species...


    The Triton Vs. Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci
    Just walked out of Godzilla and want to see two big monsters fight it out?? You've come to the right place!

    The "Triton's Trumpet" is a large snail with a shell that is often up to two feet long. Because it is large and showy, it is often sought after as a souvenir.   Here we have not one but TWO videos of these giant snails attacking the very spiny Crown of Thorns starfish, a voraceous predator of corals





    When the snails get to work, they often appear to be successful. But even if not, with the crown-of-thorns starfish there's *literally* many more fish (or starfish) in the sea!

    this did not end well for the starfish.


    The Triton vs. the "Blue Linckia" aka Linckia laevigata
    Here..what you are seeing is NOT a hermit crab, but one of these giant triton snails finishing off its dinner, a blue Linckia laevigata, eating it disk first with the legs sticking out of the shell's opening..


    Here's what this looks like with a bit more perspective...

    The Triton vs. the Cushion Star (Culcita novaeguineae)
    Another target species?  The big, round, almost pillow shaped starfish Culcita novaeguineae!

    A pic to give you some perspective...


    Other Indo-Pacific species include Choriaster granulatus 

    Nardoa novaecaledoniae (Ophidiasteridae)


    And in the Atlantic Caribbean (Cozumel), this "triton" snail attacking the tropical Oreaster reticulatus.  Honestly, I'm not sure if I've ever heard of this.. maybe something new? Will have to check...

    Attacking a small specimen of Oreaster.. maybe O. clavatus?
    via Wikipedia from NOAA photo library


    And of course, its not always, the BIG snails.. the tiny ones can be predatory as well.. Here are individuals of Phos nodicostatum (Buccinidae) feeding on the arm of a crown of thorns..


    At some point.. I will add Pt. 2 to this.. PARASITES!! WOOO!!

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    From the Eulimidae EOL image gallery-Moorea Biocode
    Last week, we saw some pics of big predatory snails feeding on starfish!  This week, we turn our attention to smaller snails with a more insidious means of feasting on their hapless echino-prey!

    Behold the Eulimidae! A family of snails, whose primary means of nutrition is feeding on echinoderms...specifically as PARASITES! They pretty much attach themselves to every class within the living Echinodermata: urchins, crinoids, brittle stars, sea cucumbers (remember the sea pigs?) and today's subject... starfish!!

    Eulimids are insanely diverse. There's over 85 genera and easily hundreds of species. With likely more being discovered as they are found on their hosts..

    If you guys ever need a one-stop shop paper on the Eulimidae, you are in luck! This paper (behind a paywall) includes a summary of biology as well as an overview to all the genera.   The acknowledged world expert on these is Anders Waren,  a scientist at the Swedish Natural History Museum

    Basically, eulimid snails feed by sticking their proboscis into their host and sucking the tasty, delicious juices out of them. This in itself is kind of interesting because most echinoderms use a kind of specially treated seawater (filled with body cells called coelomocytes) as a bodily fluid.

    Apparently, its these cells-the coelomocytes upon which the snails feed... Note below, the extended probsocis...

    This snail was described as Melanella with what appears to be its proboscis extended and gives you a general idea of how these snails operate...
    Image from EOL's Eulimidae image gallery
    Here is a snail in the genus Parvioris with its proboscis extended and the animal hard at work..
    From the Eulimidae EOL image gallery-Moorea Biocode
    From what I've been able to determine, certain snails DO tend to occur on certain hosts, but the pattern doesn't always seem to be consistent. Some specific species of snails apparently occur on different starfish hosts but some are specific to types of hosts, e.g. sea urchins or sea cucumbers.. Many of these are undersampled, and so it still remains to be seen how much host variation is observed..

    1. Ectoparasites. Some eulimids are ectoparasites, that is they are attached, but only on the exterior.. Here's one hunkered down on the disk of the very gorgeous goniasterid Iconaster longimanus.




    Here's another one attached to the sand star Archaster from Singapore, but several species of starfish are often hosts. Here's a short write up on their page about them..



    Some of the hosts get pretty badly torn up...

    Another well-known ectoparasite is the eulimid called Thyca crystallina...

    These are famously parasites on the blue starfish Linckia laevigata where they are often found on the oral surface around the tube foot grooves..

    We often see these snails well-camoflaged as the same distinctive color which identifies their host...

    Some are not so well-hidden.. (and yes, sometimes Linckia laevigata is orange!)


    2. Endoparasites!  On the OTHER hand..some eulimid snails, get pretty "dug in" and have literally buried themselves in their work!

    They basically embed themselves in the host, attach their proboscis directly to the internal arm canals and just suck on em' all day....  This one, Parvioris fulvescens looks like its embedded itself in what looks like Ophidiaster (?)
    From Femoreale Shells via EOL
    Here..we have some which have embedded themselves in Neoferdina, a goniasterid... Note how they've pretty much buried themselves INTO the skeleton of the animal. The starfish are strongly calcified.. and since there's no clear damage, I wonder if  these get in as juveniles...

    Here's one called Stylifer which has buried itself in the arm of the ophidiasterid Linckia multifora


    3. Parasites of the Deep! 
    and lest, you think that eulimids only parasitize shallow water reef species, let it be known that many deep-sea starfish are also parasitized by snails! Here is Asterophila japonicus as reported by Sasaki et al. in: Sasaki, T., Muro, K. & Komatsu, M. 2007. Anatomy and ecology of the shell-less endoparasitic gastropod, Asterophila japonica Randall and Heath, 1912 (Mollusca: Eulimidae).Zoological Science 24(7): 700-713.

    This species seems to be a host in the astropectinid sea star Leptychaster,where it has burrowed UNDER the disk and lives right above the stomach!
    Several of the deep-sea snail parasites are VERY unusual and some have bodies which are SO reduced that you can barely recognize them as snails..  One deep-sea snail parasite, Asterophila rathbunasteri described only in 1994! lives as a gall in the arms of the deep-sea, multi-armed asteroid which lives off the west coast of North America...
    Which they were actually unable to ID to phylum until they realized, when it was spawning, that it was producing veligers (snail juveniles)!!

    the HORROR!

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    Research! People often speak of the rigors, hardships and even agony of their research. The long days in the field to the writing and so forth.. But what a lot of folks don't often spotlight is how damn satisfying it is (at least for me) to see something you've been doing for several YEARS come to fruition in a paper! 

    Case in point is my newest starfish monograph, just published a week ago in the prestigious Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society!  You can go here to find it (sorry-paywall).

    This was part of a project that began years ago in 2011 or so, as I discovered several of the specimens described below in the collections at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle during one of my visits to study their starfish from far and distant lands! 

    This, then combined with a project I was working on with my colleague Dave Foltz at Louisiana State University and eventually snowballed, adding on Marc Eleaume, my colleague from Paris and Kate Neill from the New Zealand Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). 

    What's it all about?? 
    You may remember a post I wrote last year about some work I did with my colleagues where we discovered that the starfish species Hippasteria phrygiana was not simply one species in the Atlantic but in fact one species that was found across THREE OCEANS! (here to see the full story)

    Part of this work involved not only Hippasteria phrygiana, but testing whether or not the OTHER species of Hippasteria were the same! And what about other potentially new species?? Were those new?? 

    My colleagues, especially Dave Foltz analyzed tissues sampled from samples of multiple Hippasteria species taken from all around the world. From the Atlantic to the North Pacific to New Zealand (South Pacific) to Kerguelen Island in the southern Indian Ocean! 

    We sampled for genes and compared them using analysis software to get this tree, which showed us which were the mostly strongly supported species..
    We ended up with 7 species, 3 of them were new to science!  Of the other 4, H. phrygiana we kinda changed (see below) and here. Hippasteria californica had some weird dynamics (see below, Hippasteria heathi was a "good" species but we found out that it had cousins which were found WAY beyond where  it was found and the final species Hippasteria lepidonotus turned out to have been "oversplit" into the genus Cryptopeltaster. That is, it turns out to be a redundant name which was likely created because of the deceptive amount of differing morphology in that species (and thus thought to be more different than it actually was).  

    So, let's see some new species!!  Many Hippasteria related species are predators of deep-sea coral predators and I've described other new starfish species related to these, which you can read about here.  

    1. Hippasteria muscipula
    This one is the biggest and neatest of the new species I described.. A big, massive critter about 30 cm (about a foot across)! 

    It was collected from various tropical Pacific localities: Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand south of New Caledonia in deep-water. 425 to 1500 meters!

    What's cool about it?? The name.  The species has these very big and toothy pedicellariae (aka claw like structures on the surface, possibly used for defense)
    The species was Hippasteria muscipula after the pedicellariae's resemblance to the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula)!
    One other cool thing we found? The specimen from New Caledonia had its stomach wrapped around a deep-sea "coral" called Metallogorgia, which is kind of an odd looking gorgonian that looks like a living wire hanger! Possibly feeding on it??  Interesting. 

    2. Hippasteria tiburoni
    This new species was a little tiny thing collected by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute from Pioneer Seamount in the North Pacific (southwest of San Francisco) in 2005
    This species was distantly related to Hippasteria heathi, which occurs primarily in the Aleutians..
    This species was named for its "collector" the now defunct Remotely Operated Vehicle Tiburon which served science and MBARI well between 1996 and 2008!
    Hippasteria tiburoni, despite its size was observed feeding on deep-sea bamboo coral!!  Ain't it an awesome little critter?? 

    3. Hippasteria mcknighti
    The third new species we described was found among specimens sent to us from the New Zealand Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.  It resembles the North Pacific Hippasteria heathi but the genetic and morphological data support it as being distinct..

    4. Big Taxonomic Changes! 
    The rest of the paper addresses multiple taxonomic changes (i.e. names of species).  Among the most significant of these was the big discovery of how wide-ranging a species, Hippasteria phrygiana turned out to be!!   This was a species found in THREE OCEANS! 

    The problem with this discovery was that historically, folks would often describe a new species if it was not previously known from that part of the world and sometimes there are widely occurring animals which do form regional subspecies. It depends.
                        
    But in this case, thanks to our genetic data, we could tell that a great many described species, which were likely separated as distinct species based on minor differences are in fact, just minor variation of one wide-ranging species!

    In this case nearly a dozen species, were found to be "redundant" or were applied to Hippasteria phrygiana throughout different parts of the world. 

    We also looked at the other species of Hippasteria, H. californica which occurs in deeper water habitats than H. spinosa... 
    Image by Dr. Steve Lonhart Via SIMON
    What we had found, up this point had been pretty consistent with what had been known until we found two individuals of this species which were revealed by genetics to have been Hippasteria californica BUT in SHALLOW WATER habitats in British Columbia AND which looked like H. spinosa!

    Weird.
    Image by Neil McDaniel (check out his website here)
    STRANGE! And a mystery that we shall have to investigate for another day....

    OTHER Related Posts:
    New genera and species of Hippasteria related starfish species! 

    Deep-sea Corallivore Video from MBARI!

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    SEA URCHINS!  Everybody knows the familiar spiny balls that live in the ocean. But fewer people realize the many unusual KINDS of sea urchins.  In the past, I have written about the most highly modified sea urchins aka the sand dollars! 

    As I've discussed, urchins can be loosely divided in the "regular" urchins-round spiny balls and the "irregular" urchins- the ones with a right and left side with highly modified body, spines and jaw parts which are used for moving through sediment (mud, sand, etc.).


    But it occurred to me that I had never outlined how a more typical "irregular urchin" lives.. So, I thought I would illustrate with one of the most widely occurring of irregular urchins a species called Echinocardium cordatum, described in 1777 by Pennant. A member of the family Loveniidae. 

    These go by the common name "heart urchins" or as I've been observing lately, the "sea potato" (not what I would call them, but there ya' go...)

    Interestingly, this species occurs widely around the world. They are present in the Atlantic but also in Australia, New Zealand, the East Pacific, and South Africa across a broad depth range (0-250 m). 

    Interesting side note:based on some genetic work on various populations by some of my French colleagues (here) The global occurrence of this species may actually represent SEVERAL closely related species! 
                        
    At first glance, some of these urchins are just covered in spines! and its difficult to determine what end is up! Kind of like Cousin Itt from the Addams Family! 
                                               
    So, I thought I would compare with some specimens without the spines.... The genus name Echinocardium means "Spiny heart" and cordatum which also means "heart shaped", so the whole "heart shaped" thing seems to be a theme...

    Here's the skeleton (called the test) of one without the spines. (individual alive with spines is the white one shown above) so, yeah, they have a heart shaped skeleton. This is the top surface..
                                                        
    The skeletons on these urchins has evolved for living in sediment (i.e., sand, mud, etc.). This pic below shows the UNDERSIDE of the animal.. and that weird-shaped hole??  That's the mouth (called a peristome).
    Note all of those knobs on the surface? Those are where the spines are connected to the surface of the skeleton. 

    Basically, all these spines function to help shovel and move sediment INTO the mouth and serve to help the animal move through the sediment, etc. 
    Here's a video of one that's been turned upside down. Its nice because it shows pretty closely all of the various spine types on the underside. Some are more spoon or spade shaped. And all of them are pretty agile..  Another nice shot of these spines is here. 
              
    And of course, here is the anus (aka the periproct). Where the poop (sediment, etc.) comes out! 

    How does this species live?? 
                         
    According to various accounts by John Buchanan from 1966 and Dave Nichols (1959) [figure below from Nichols (1959)]  these bury themselves but run a respiratory tube foot up through the sediment.

    The folks over at the British Museum have this GREAT pic of Echinocardium (below) cleared away from sediment but with the channel clearly present! Original source with a more detailed explanation is here

    This video isn't terribly exciting but it DOES give you an idea of how Echinocardium starts to bury itself into the sediment. These vary around the world in terms of how they behave when burrowing.
                
    One more cool thing?  Echinocardium has a decent fossil record!  AND one of the neat things that have been found are the filled in casts of the BURROWS  of Echinocardium (or something related) that these animals lived in.. (this one from the Pliocene near Tuscany, Italy)
                       


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    As many of you may have noticed from the news or from my Twitter feed (@echinoblog), the National Zoo's Invertebrate House (here in Washington DC) will be closing its doors for good on Sunday, June 22nd.  So, if you're in DC on Saturday GO see it before its gone! 


    A very passionate and concerted effort to save the Invertebrates Exhibit was started by Terri Jacobsen. As of this writing (Friday, June 20)  it has garnered the support over over 2,281 signatures!   While this may not change the outcome on Sunday, I hope that her good efforts will result in some influence and/or demonstration that invertebrates are worthy of a full presence in ANY "zoological park"...

    I dropped by to give my regards to my friends (both vertebrate and invertebrate). Everyone I spoke to was disappointed and like myself, sad to see the exhibit go. 

    But in the meantime, as we proceed to the weekend, I thought I would offer some of the things/critters that I will miss after the closure...

    1. Stomatopod! 
     2. Ant Traffic Camera! 
    ANT TRAFFIC! 

    3. AWESOME Marine Invertebrate Art in History! 
    Nautilus
    Japanese Crustacean Art! 
     Bronze Shell!  
    Minoan Stirrup Jug with octopus motif! 

    4. BIG HERMIT CRAB!
     5. Giant Pacific Octopus! 
    6. Ctenophores & other Jellies!
    7. The AWESOME behind the Scenes where the zoo folk work! !!! 
    8. That BIG spider that they let live out in the open without any glass! 
    9. Watching them feed that AWESOME Cuttlefish!
                                
    10. Those AWESOME colored cerianthid sea anemones!



     11. Sunflower Stars! (Pycnopodia helianthoides)
    12. And of course, the AMAZING coral reef exhibit..

    My BEST to everyone at the Invertebrate House! 
                                                        

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    Image from STRI's O. reticulatus page
    Today, I thought I would treat all of you with some info about one of the most strikingly colored of Atlantic echinoderms.. the so-called "Cushion Star" of the Caribbean aka Oreaster reticulatus.

    The species name "reticulatus" refers to the net-like pattern on the body surface whereas "Oreas- refers to "mountain"... So breaking it down, the latin name means "Reticulated Mountain Star."

    O. reticulatus is a pretty iconic animal for this region. It is so, distinguished that it even occurs on the 1 cent coin on the Common Wealth of the Bahamas!!                       
    These have been made into CUFFLINKS!
                             
    and postage stamps!

    The genus Oreaster only in the tropical Atlantic, on both the east and west side and is known only to occur in shallow water.  Oreaster reticulatus tends to be thought of as being primarily a west Atlantic species.

    The east Atlantic/African species of Oreaster is called Oreaster clavatus and varies in color and spination...
    Image borrowed from this excellent French site for identifying marine fauna "Sous les Mers"
    I would comment that although they are known from shallow water doesn't mean they are really a good intertidal species, so its preferred to leave them as-is where they live underwater. Propping them up on sandy beaches with their arms propped up like a tentpole in the sand is pretty much a death warrant for this or any starfish....

    Moving on! Adults do vary somewhat in color (note also juveniles below)... Some lighter
                        
    Some darker...
                        
    Most times, these are 5 rayed, but occasionally you get the odd one with 4 or 6..
                        
    But enough with the intro!!  Here we go!

    5. Oreaster reticulatus are omnivorous feeders but eat a lot of algae and encrusting food. Often, they feed in feeding "fronts"
    So, one of the seemingly constant assumptions (I would say misconceptions) that are often made of sea stars is that they ALL adhere to the feeding modes of shallow-water asteriids, such as Asterias.. i.e., the old trope of "all starfish feed on mussels or clams"I have written at length about the diversity of feeding modes in sea stars. You can see more of that here and here..

    O. reticulatus feeds primarily on microalgae and/or on other kinds of encrusting food. Work by Scheibling (1980 in Marine Ecology Progress Series 2: 321-327) shows them feeding on a seagrass bed where they obtain nutrients from a likely combination of organisms on the seagrass, the seagrass, and organic materials in the sediment, etc.  but what's interesting? is HOW they do this...
                       
    When Oreaster reticulatus feed, they do so in a FEEDING FRONT!! Kind of like an army across the sand bed...

    The pic below hails from the paper cited. The authors describe this feeding front:
    A feeding front of the sea star Oreaster reticulatus off St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. The front is moving from left to right. Feeding mounds (fm) of darker sediment surrounded by lighter halos can be seen behind the front on the highly turbated sand bottom. In advance of the front, the sediment appears darker because of a microalgal film which has developed in the absence of sea star grazing in the previous weeks. Average sea star diameter is 0.26 m
    This from Jean-Sébastien Lauzon-Guay, Robert E. Scheibling, and Myriam A. Barbeau. 2008. Formation and propagation of feeding fronts in benthic marine invertebrates: a modeling approach. Ecology 89:3150–3162.
    So, you may see this just sitting there on the sea bottom by themselves. But "on their own" in the wild?? These guys form organized feeding groups. Think about it too, they feed on algae and possibly clear the sediment. Maybe their effect is similar to that of some sea cucumbers? 

    Also worth noting?  Food varies with location. Some feed on algae, but others feed on sponges. In some places, up to 61% of the species were feeding on MANY different sponge species (see Wulff 1995 in Marine Biology 123: 313-325)

    Even MORE interesting? Feeding by O. reticulatus is so specific that they can actually tell apart different species of sponges that humans cannot recognize!  (see Wulff 2006 in Biol. Bulletin 211: 83-94)


    3. Juveniles are a different color/appearance than the adults.
    Oreaster reticulatus are members of the family Oreasteridae.  As adults, these are big, massive very heavily armored individuals.   But when smaller, most have a VERY different looking juvenile form.

    This, for example, is a photo of the many growth forms that the Indo-Pacific Cushion star, Culctia novaeguineae undergoes as it gets bigger.
    The same is true for Oreaster reticulatus, which undergoes size AND color transformations as it increases in size.... This probably varies even MORE depending on where the animal lives, and what its food might be...


                         
    This one is more brown...
                        

    3. O. reticulatus "home in" on large aggregations of other O. reticulatus 
    Image from Echino LifeDesks. Photo by Simon Coppard
    One interesting paper by Bob Scheibling (1980-in Marine Behaviour & Physiology 7: 213-223) studied a population of O. reticulatus in the US Virgin Islands.

    They performed an experiment, where a big bunch of individuals present on a large sand patch were moved off the patch to about 20 m (about 66 feet) into the surrounding seagrass bed.

    As the internet is fond of saying "What happened next, WILL AMAZE YOU!" (or at least, I thought it was interesting...) the starfish then, re-oriented and then moved BACK to the patch, re-grouped with the others within 24 hours!  That is, they HOMED in on the OTHER starfish and MOVED there.

    How? Probably through some kind of chemosensory cue in the water. i.e., something that those starfish leave behind that informs the others how to find them. So, yes, they can tell where they are and determine where others are as well.


    2. O. reticulatus is closely related to another species in the East Pacific!
                      
    One of the cool things about many of the animals which are found in the tropical Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, is that you can often look toward the East Pacific (i.e. the other side of the Panamanian isthmus) and find ANOTHER species which often bears a close resemblance!

    I wrote a story awhile back about a starfish species, Heliaster kubiniji, found as a living from in the East Pacific, but ALSO as an extinct, fossil form from Florida.

    Long story short? About 10 million years ago the isthmus of Panama was not yet closed. And it was an open waterway between the "Gulf of Mexico" and the eastern Pacific (south of Baja California).

    There were MANY species in this area were once connected. Some were one continuous species while others just kind of showed a close genetic connection. Then the isthmus formed about 3-5 million years ago and formed a barrier, separating these two populations.

    Before we had better genetics and fossils to tell us about the precise timing, these were often assumed to be "sister" species. In other words, two sides of the same coin.. closely related by only a few million years of separation. But it is now clear to us that several of these diverged from one another much earlier than that. And are thus much more distantly related than was previously thought...


    1. O. reticulatus faces "predation pressure" from tourists and studies on populations and reproductive biology do not suggest it will do well if overfished.
    Yeah, sorry, this one is not quite as fun or neat as the others, but its important.  I've written about the pending threat of "overfishing" starfish species in the Indo-Pacific. This includes the widely occurring Protoreaster nodosus as well as several other fished species (Archaster, etc.).. 

    In the tropical Atlantic, O. reticulatus is regularly taken as fodder for tourist shops and so forth. The pressure on this industry has become significant and in many places the populations of this species have become locally extinct.

    Based on work by Scheibling & Metaxas (see this and MANY other refs) the population of this species are relatively low, ranging from 1 to 5 individuals per 100 sq. meter and don't turn over very quickly. It is unclear how much growth goes into a large sized, adult individual, but it doesn't seem that these are very fast growers.

    The species is dependent on the algae and other food found on seagrass beds, which suggests that between collection of the adults and habtiat destruction or disruption, this does not bode well for the big familiar "cushion stars" of the tropical Atlantic..
                        
    So, here is a species that seemingly everyone takes for granted but if it has an ecologically important role, maybe one we haven't fully understood? and we're taking it for tourist baubles and souvenirs??

    Something to think about...

    ....and one extra! .. I'll be honest and say I'm not sure if this is pooping...or spawning..
                       

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    From the Toba Aquarium's Twipple Account
    Since my trip to Japan, I've been watching a LOT more social media from Japan. Their culture, for many reasons, has a deep appreciation of ocean life, especially of invertebrates. The weirder and the more unusual, the better. 

    Japan is an ocean-nation and as such, via fishing, swimming, and etc. their country encounters one of the richest faunas of invertebrates anywhere in the world.  Japanese pop culture has recently seen a HUGE uptick focusing on interest in deep-sea animals, especially ones like the Giant Isopod: Bathynomus

    This is in part, due to the various aquariums which have had this species on display, including the Toba Aquarium and the Numazu DeepSea Aquarium. 


    Defining my Terms. What Species of Bathynomus
    In the big world of the Internet, its easy to start dropping names. Not many taxonomists, and too little information. So, let me take a moment to talk about diversity in "giant isopods" aka Bathynomus.

    Bathynomus is a genus of deep-sea isopod which occurs throughout the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, roughly between 200 to 2140 meter depths. Isopods are of course, crustaceans. You may be more familiar with their terrestrial counterparts which go by many common names: "potato bugs", "rollie pollies" or "wood louse". But they're all members of the same group of crustaceans, the Isopoda.

    Its easy to get caught up with the excitement associated with the most famous of all the Bathynomus species, Bathynomus giganteus. It is among one of the largest of marine animals and has an easy name to remember. Its species name literally means "Gigantic"Bathynomus.
    There are about 18 species of Bathynomus occurring all around the world. According to an account by Lowry & Dempsey in 2006, Deep Sea Benthos (here)  they divide he various species into "Giants" which only reach 150 mm (about 6 inches) and "Supergiants" which reach up to 500 mm (almost 2 feet long!).

    Yes. They can get to be bigger than a CAT.

    B. giganteus, which occurs only in the western Atlantic is a "Supergiant". About half of the known species are "supergiants". A great summary to B. giganteus was written by the famous (now retired) Kevin Zelnio here, from many years ago..

    The Japanese species, Bathynomus doderleini gets to be a decent size. About the length of a hand or foot. But it is apparently collected with some abundance in Japan and as such, has been put on display in several aquaria, permitting many interesting things to be learned about its biology.

    There was one account earlier this year of an individual (apparently B. giganteus brought from the Gulf of Mexico) at Toba Aquarium which famously refused food for FOUR YEARS before it finally died in 2013.
    From the Toba Aquarium Twipple
    Interesting Names of Giant Isopods in Japan
    The Japanese have a surprisingly consistent naming system used in labelling animals. As far as I can tell, this system is used in addition to the standard Latin names used for various significant species around the world. I've discussed some of these for starfish here

    The popular term for Giant Isopod in Japanese is the word for the armor worn by shogun! Gusoku!  You can sort of see the resemblance: the overlapping plates and the helmet, etc..
    The  name for Bathynomus doederleini, is Oo gusoku mushi
    オオグソクムシ(大具足虫)
    "oo" basically means "big", "guosku" refers to the armor of the samurai. and "mushi" refers to "many legged insect", "bug", or "critter"
    From the Numazu Twitter pics
    There is actually a separate name for the Atlantic Bathynomus giganteus,Daioh-Gusoku-mushi which roughly translates to "Grand King Armored Critter" ("dai" means grand or BIG).
    ダイオウグソクムシ(大王具足虫)

    What's that? You want MORE??? here's a bunch of amazing observations, spied via social media and etc. about everyone's favorite deep-sea isopod! Some biological. Some cultural...

    5. Bathynomus feeding.  
    Here is a tank in Japan filled with what is presumably Bathynomus doderleini, Watch the fish put in at 0:15-0:20 then, followed by FEEDING FRENZY and subsequent flesh-free fish skeleton!! Forget piranha.. throw James Bond into a pool full of these sometime!


    4. There is a surprising abundance of Japanese Bathynomus products
    I gotta say. They KNOW a good thing when they got it!!  I'm an echinoderm fan, but I respect a culture that loves deep-sea crustaceans!

    Oh man. I don't even know where to start.
                                         

    3. People EAT Bathynomus??
    Yes. The full story is over here at Rocket News 24.  From what I've seen, this tends to be only B. doederleini, and not the Atlantic B. giganteus.

    I only add that Bathynomus is probably NOT a good animal to depend on as a sustainable food source. But according to my colleagues, yes they are edible and not surprisingly, they taste like crab. and are pretty crunchy. Mostly they seem to be deep-fried. But I've heard they also eat them as sushi.

    Video report in Japanese is here. But you'll get the idea.

    2. Bathynomus Molting
    Its not a secret that crustaceans molt. Crabs, lobsters, shrimps. All of them shed their exoskeleton as the body grows. And yes.. isopods also molt. Its been observed in more conventional species.. But has it ever been observed in Bathynomus?? (I couldn't locate an account but maybe it is out there?)

    But here is something from the Toba Aquarium's Twipple Account (Twipple is a photohost service).  An AWESOME sequence of a deep-sea Giant Isopod undergoing a MOLT!

    How many times do you get to see THAT??

    First photo was recorded at 9:21 AM (Japan Standard Time),
    From Toba Aquarium Twipple
    This took place at about 10:00 AM. You can see more of the latter part of the exoskeleton beginning to come off..                                  
    From Toba Aquarium Twipple
    Based on other pics in the sequence, it got that older bit off around 2pm (JST). This is the fully removed latter half (new skeleton is brown) by about 5pm.
    From Toba Aquarium Twipple
    1. Bathynomus Brooding Juveniles! I thought this was amazing. So, I am not a crustacean biologist, nor am I one who knows everything there is to know about deep-sea isopods, but I did a non-trivial search in the literature for an account of Bathynomus bearing live young and I couldn't locate anything.

    The Atlantic species. B. giganteus broods eggs, and some terrestrial isopods brood, so brooding juveniles in this species is not a big surprise. Its not clear to me if the Atlantic "gigantic" species does this.

    But, clearly, this Japanese species does this. Priceless and awesome.
    From the Numazu Aquarium's Twitter Account
    There is VIDEO OF THIS!!!!

    Here's one of those baby isopods... Not sure of the exact size..but looks to be about 1.0 cm long based on some of the other pics.. Awww...,
    From the Numazu Twitter pics
    and finally, BONUS! a common question I always get, can Bathynomus roll up into a ball like their smaller, terrestrial cousins? 
    From the Toba Aquarium Twipple
    yes. 

    (with the disclaimer that these are species kept in aquaria, which may provoke unusual behavior not typically seen in wild populations)

    Whew! How can Japan LOVE a crustacean so much??? 
    From this website

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    From Wikipedia! 
    Identifying animals is tricky business.

    The other day, I was helping some folks out with an identification of a starfish they had photographed diving, but I stopped short of giving them the full species. "Why?" they asked. "Isn't this just the the XXX?" (they quoted the most common and easily identified species).

    "Well.  Its complicated."

    Hard to explain these things in a a few lines on Facebook or on Twitter so I thought I would take an example of how complicated the whole taxonomy and identification process is, using a widely photographed example, a starfish called Fromia monilis.

    F. monilis occurs widely throughout the Indo-Pacific. It goes by many common names, Necklace star, Tiled star, Candycane star, Peppermint star, etc.  Scientists don't use those names because they're so inconsistently used and often because its a contrived name in a field guide, created as a convenience for readers.

    This species is often seen in the wild and is a common species in the aquarium trade. You can see it in shallow-reefs from Okinawa to New Caledonia, in the Philippines, Indonesia, etc. and over to the edge of the Indian Ocean.

    Bottom line: This species is distributed over a VAST area. Because it does, the range of variation (discussed below) is likely to be greater.

    F. monilis is a bright red and white species with a distinctive color pattern. The plates on its body surface (i.e., the many circles and shapes you see on the body) are also pretty diagnostic. Most of these starfish are about 2-3 inches (about 5-6 cm) in diameter. So far so good.

    Here is what I would say is the most commonly encountered and "typical" form of this species.
    From Wikipedia. Here
    But bear in mind, that often times, as biologists (such as myself) who specialize in describing and identifying these species, what we often end up working with is a specimen like this...
    The dry specimen isn't as impressive as the real, living color one of course, but specimens like this are extremely useful for understanding the species definitions, evolution and ultimately, the taxonomy of these animals.

    Some of these specimens have been in museums for, literally hundreds of years and remain essential to our understanding of how these species are defined.

    Many of these species get distinguished by fine character differences on these specimens. Some might vary by plate pattern arrangements, or by the number of spines present on the underside, or the particular shape of granules present on the surface.  Its often difficult to synch up these characteristics (i.e. the species definitions) with qualities of the animal when it was alive.

    BUT, because of dry specimens above, we can usually look at a specimen like this crazy thing below and tell that it is STILL Fromia monilis.
                     
    Why?

    Specimens in museums, accumulate over time and can be very abundant, giving us an idea of the natural VARIATION of a species. Size. Body forms. Aberrant shapes. etc.

    So, you know how, some people have blond vs. brown hair? Or how some people can roll their tongue or perhaps more exceptionally,some folks have an extra toe or finger? Well, this kind of variation is present in all species and can make understanding classification and understanding evolutionary relationships...interesting.

    For a species that we have virtually no understanding of, any character variation (without seeing its presence in the population) might be used to distinguish a separate species. Without an understanding of this kind of variation (or having population genetics data of course), someone who has never seen a human being before could separate me from Morgan Freeman as a different species. 

    In the case of the above specimen of Fromia monilis, having seen MANY other specimens of this species, and understanding (we think?) the variation at play,  we know that most known individuals have 5 arms that don't bifurcate. The bifurcation is perhaps due to an attack or some damage during the animal's life time. The extra rays are just an unusual trait, perhaps equivalent to a person with an extra finger. 

    Color in the individual above is also consistent. Red disk with red armtips. White in between. Okay. What could be more unusual than the 7 rayed crazy thing above??

    Enter the 21st Century (and late 20th Century) and the era of Flickr and digital cameras ALL OVER THE WORLD!
    So remember how the "typical"Fromia monilis had that particular color pattern??

    What happens when you don't have the red color on the armtips?? Could this be a juvenile? (no size indicator on this pic unfortunately)?  This specimen is from Indonesia. Could these vary by region?
    The one above (w/the red disk) is from Borneo.

    Is this the same species? But simply with a different color pattern?? Or a different species??  Some species of starfish are thought to vary by color based on their food, does this one as well??  How important is the color as a feature in identification?

    The same questions here. Color patterns vary even more drastically. No red on the disk, but there IS red on the armtips! The patterns are a little different?  Is this variation? Size? Or a new species? This one is from Lembeh Strait (Indonesia). 

    This one from Papua New Guinea. Same color pattern as above. 
    Here is a Fromia sp from Thailand. Color and plate patterns are different. Is this a new species?? Or the same species (F. monilis) showing the starfish equivalent to having lactose intolerance? Or blond hair?

    Here is another closely related species, Fromia nodosa which occurs primarily in the Indian Ocean. This species is primarily distinguished based on the larger and more prominent round plates running down the radius of each arm. But it looks familiar, doesn't it??

    This individual is from the Maldives (tropical Southern Indian Ocean). It shows the same pattern as F.monilis above and the distinguishing characteristic is kind of variable itself. In other words, it doesn't always hold up.  Does that mean it should just be consolidated into F. monilis??

    Here's another indivdiual of Fromia nodosa, also from the Maldives. On both of these individuals, we also see the marginal plates as larger and uneven in one but NOT the other?? 
    This one is from Thailand... Mayyybe?  its F. nodosa?? And what's going on with the dark armtips???
    This strange thing is from the Philippines. It adheres to the definition of Fromia nodosa (big radial plates, etc.) but its a different color (or at least I assume this is not some photo artefact)!!
    And then to make it even MORE confusing.. we have these things from the Red Sea and adjacent areas...

    I initially thought this was Fromia monilis but in fact, they might actually be a separate, already established , but this species might actually be a species in a poorly known genus called Paraferdina. Further examination of specimens and research is needed to figure out which one is which... This specimen is from the Red Sea.

    This one is from Egypt. The color pattern is familiar but the plate patterns on the arms?? Very different and yet, similar... F. nodosa? F. monilis? Paraferdina???


    ..and so on...

    This is mainly to demonstrate the limits of how the colors and patterns get complicated quite quickly.

    And yes, at some point, someone may work this out.. Lots of diving and subsequent DNA lab time. Plus looking over photos and museum visits! Woo!

    But this also explains why scientists, such as myself,  are often more reluctant to give you a full species name for a picture when its sent for identification without a specimen. Are these one species? MANY species? Which ones correspond to pre-existing species?

    Falling back on the one, most common name can often disguise the truly rich diversity in these wide-ranging, closely related species which are only now, just becoming understood. I argued that this was also the case with the "Bobbit worm" (Eunice aphroditois)

    So, yes. Knowing more doesn't necessarily give you all the answers, but it does give you some pretty exciting questions! 

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    Thelenota ananas Via Wikipedia commons. Photo by Nick Hobgood
    Cool Crowdsourced Photo time! This week..some gorgeous closeups of the neat skin textures on tropical sea cucumbers!

    Some of these give you an idea of how colorful and unusual the skin in sea cucumbers can be. This one is called  Thelenota rubolineata (the species name literally means "red lines"). This is an example of what the whole animal of one of the pics below looks like...

    What do they feel like? Sort of soft and rubbery. Firm. And yes, people eat these species...

    Here's a nice roundup of similar closeup photo essays of other echinoderms 
    1. Here's the one for Up close Starfish! 
    2. Another one showing close ups on Crinoids (aka Feather stars)
    3. COLORS! in brittle stars! 
    4. Crabs that live in sea cucumber anuses! here.
    5. Worms & Snails that live on sea cucumbers! here
    Below.. you will find many different close ups of the skin of sea cucumbers.






    this one is Thelenota I think...





    Some striking full body pics...




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