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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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    Gulf of Alaska 2004 Expedition. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration 
    This week I have been researching images from deep-sea video on the home page for the NOAA Photo Library, which has housed ALL of the deep-sea and other imagery from NOAA's deep-sea expeditions since 2003, including those of the Okeanos Explorer!

    Many of you know that I have participated in the last two R/V Okeanos ROV dives as an onshore advisor. I often identify asteroids (i.e. starfish) and provide other information as I am able. I've only helped them out since 2013 but found lots of their images useful for my research.

    You can find NOAA-Okeanos dive screengrab recaps on my bloghere for 2013 and here for the recent 2014 dive. 

    Those of you on my Twitter account (@echinoblog) have been watching me post links to various pictures as I have been reviewing these pics.. There are literally THOUSANDS of pictures of deep-sea biology, geology and history !!!  Who would be crazy enough to go through all of it one by one???  Yes. Me!

    So, for your education and infotainment I have cherry picked many noteworthy images and have showcased them below. (note that ALL images have original links below them)! Enjoy!

    Giant Amoeba Houses??
    Here's a cool structure made by a giant amoeba called a xenophyophorean! (deep-sea Galapagos) Take a moment to consider that a UNICELLULAR organism could have made this! (and yes, they will eat proper animals!)
    From the 2011 NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Galapagos Rift Expedition 2011 
    But in contrast, what about this from Indonesia??? A Mystery?? Another xenophyophorean?? 
    From July 2010 NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010

    Basket Stars Behaving uh... badly? 
    What is going on here? I've honestly never seen TWO basket stars so close to one another. What are they doing? Fighting? Doin teh sex? The gorgonocephalid equivalent of a backrub?   Only they know for sure.  (North Atlantic)
    From Lophelia II 2008: Deepwater Coral Expedition: Reefs, Rigs, and Wrecks 
    Brittle Stars Doing Crazy Things! 
    From the Atlantic... Probably just filter feeding, but I don't know that I've ever seen so many of them with their arms all curled up like that just FLAT on the sediment. Weird.
    From the Lophelia II 2008: Deepwater Coral Expedition: Reefs, Rigs, and Wrecks 
    and more of the same...
    from Lophelia II 2008: Deepwater Coral Expedition: Reefs, Rigs, and Wrecks 

    Here is what we call in science "a fancy pants brittle star" (note the gorgeous red and white pattern though) on a really extended whip coral (aka antipatharian). Video from the Bahamas in 2009. 
    From Bioluminescence 2009 Expedition, NOAA/OER 
    And still MORE!
    From 2009 Bioluminescence 2009 Expedition, NOAA/OER 
    A cool looking "pin wheel" stalked crinoid (Hyocrinidae) from Indonesia, a new species currently being worked on by colleagues in Paris. This is what it looks like "open"
    From NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010 
    and curiously, this species retracts its arm in repose like this! As the kids say these days "That is pretty whack! "
    From NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010
    Stalked isocrinid crinoids! From the Marianas Arc, Pacific Ocean! All turned into the current!! 
     Image courtesy of Submarine Ring of Fire 2006 Exploration, NOAA Vents Program 
    Also from the Marianas Arc, Pacific Ocean: A crazy huge field of basket stars (Gorgonocephalidae)..
    Image from the Submarine Ring of Fire 2006 Exploration, NOAA Vents Program 
    Some translucent Swimming Sea Cucumber intestine showing POOP?? 
     from NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Mid-Cayman Rise Expedition 2011 
    Is this Sea Cucumber Poop??
    Exotic Indonesian Sea cucumber poop?  Or possibly from an Acorn Worm? (below)
     From NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010 
    From NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010
    Deep-Sea Urchin POOP! 
    Here is a great shot of an Echinothuriid urchin (aka the pancake or tam o shanter urchin) taking a poop!! A Gulf of Mexico species. Contrary to what the labels on the website say, this is defecation and NOT gametes being released.
    NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2012 Expedition 
     Deep-sea Urchin Poop! 
    NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2012 Expedition 
    and a special non-echinoderm poop bonus! Acorn Worm POOP! 
    Images from Indonesia.. Worms leaving unique castings in the sediment...
    From NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010 
    From NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010 
    What I hope is that this will provide a spotlight on NOAA's very EXTENSIVE library of images!

    MANY valuable and interesting things in there! Enough for many more posts. But what's most amazing? A lot of it is UNPUBLISHED stuff!!

    But its hard to make a guess as to what kinds of things you will find (sometimes because you don't know what you are looking for)  This provides a taste of the diversity and abundance of tantalizing images. Sponges! Corals! Worms! Even protists!

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    Leave it to echinoderms to take even the best known of animals, like a sand dollar, and make it even STRANGER than you could have thought!!

    But first things first. Sand dollars are highly modified SEA URCHINS that live on sandy bottoms, mostly in shallow tropical to temperate water places. Please make a note of it. (or go read this post here!)

    Most sand dollars are either kind of disc-shaped such as this Pacific Dendraster excentricus.

    But then you get THESE weirdos!
    See all of those flanges or finger-like projections coming off the edges?? Those are NORMAL for these sand dollars!  Let me introduce you to the sand dollars of the family Rotulidae! 
    There are actually THREE genera of rotulid sand dollars, Rotuloidea (the oval one), Rotula (the one with holes) and Heliophora (the one without holes). And all of them seem to have some degree of these weird finger-like projections. Living rotulids seem to occur almost exclusively in the West Africa region (and some are fossils-see below).
    This image is from Wikipedia! 
    Let's go through and meet these three kinds of rotulid sand dollars!! By the way, if you want a scientific guide to ALL THE SAND DOLLARS including the rotulids, it is available as an OPEN ACCESS file here. A fine piece of work by California Academy of Sciences Curator and sea urchin/echinoderm expert Rich Mooi. 

    I should note that all members of the Rotulidae are also found as fossils...

    1. The genus Rotuloidea. The first is this relatively simple looking guy.. Rotuloidea fimbriata. This species is only found as a fossil, occurring from the Miocene to the Pliocene (that's between 3-23 million years ago).  Found in Morocco.
    Image from this Echinoids Gallery page

    2. The second member of this fantastic sea urchin trio is the genus Heliophora
     That is ONE FANCY ass name! The genus is actually Latin for "Bearer of the sun" and you can sort of see why if you see one positioned as such (upside down). This genus includes two species.. Heliophora orbiculus and Heliophora orbicularis

    This website recites a legend that Heliophora are actually coins left by mermaids! I wasn't able to verify it, but it does sound reasonable (as a legend of course. Mermaids aren't real.. :-) )

    What is going on with all of these crazy flanges??? Its not really been shown exactly what they do. Studies suggest that they might be related to feeding or play a role in keeping the animal from being swept away. (more on that below)..

    His work seems to suggest that these feed like other sand dollars, i.e. in the sand on the bottom. Ghiold suggests that the spines may further function to facilitate feeding. 

    Also of interest is that the plates which form the perimeter of these animals seems to grow a LOT faster than the more proximal areas. 

    Some members of the genus Heliophora get kinda CRAZY... 
    This image borrowed from this Excellent French site: Sciences de la Terre et de la Vie. 
    3. The genus Rotula. Last but not Least! The scientific name "Rotula"is Latin for "Little Wheel" There is one spectacular species here: Rotula deciesdigitatus. I believe the species name refers to "deci" or 10 in conjunction with "digitatus" or digit referring to the number of flanges or projections. 

    So the name literally means "Little Wheel with 10 digits"
    Note that in this species there are TWO BIG holes!! These are what's called LUNULES. While these have not been specifically tested, an earlier post I wrote summarized how these holes (the lunules) were thought to prevent sand dollars from being gaining "lift" and being "blown" away by water current!!

    And that still does not explain the MANY weird "fingers" along the edge! and on only one side! 

    I managed to snap a cool shot of a specimen in Paris awhile back showing the oral side of one of these with ALL the spines or "hair" present...

    Living sand dollars are covered by "hair" which are in fact tiny spines that move food to the mouth. 
    Here's a video of one with said spines in full motion!  This is the oral side where the mouth is located.  

    Even for sand dollars, these critters are very odd! Many evolutionary and functional biology questions! What are the flanges for? How do they develop? Why ONLY in this group???  Is there something unusual about the environment that is associated with these flanges and shapes???

    These sand dollars have been known since the 19th Century and yet we know next to NOTHING about them (relative to their more northern counterparts). These sand dollars are seen throughout hobby websites and are collected by enthusiasts! And yet we know very little about them.

     They present many tantalizing and interesting questions to the future marine and evolutionary biologists! 

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    Something a little different today! There have been some plates from old 20th Century starfish & other echinoderm monographs in storage in and around our lab space and they are just gorgeous! I've shared some of these before (several years ago here) But there are MANY of them....

    Image from this MBL page
    Fisher wasn't perfect, but he is considered one of the giants of starfish taxonomy and described about 312 species of starfishes that continue to remain in use. He also described sea cucumbers, peanut worms, stylasterine corals and probably more.

    Much of his work was done as huge monographic tomes which included hundreds of pages of scientific descriptions including some of the finest photographic figures available. 
    And he did this way before computers. No word processing. No internet. 
    Before we had photoshop and imaging software, publishing was a very physical process. Photographs were mounted to cardboard as seen below. So, the "plates" were quite literally so. These got quite big and cumbersome.
    No photoshop, so images were pasted together by hand as so..
    Here is a plate from an ophiuroid or brittle star plate from a monograph by French researcher Rene Koehler. Also assembled from a photograph.
    If you wanted to modify or target images for plates, there was no image modification software to do it for you, you literally had to take an exacto knife or razor blade to photographs, cut them out and affix them to the hardboard plates...
    But the images were done in amazingly high quality and remain attractive to this day.. Here are scans of the ORIGINAL plates from Fisher's Philippine Starfish monograph. No Instagram. No other photo modification.  These are directly off the original plates..

    some from before...

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    Ophiuroids (aka serpent stars and brittle stars) do some pretty remarkable things, BUT They are often tiny and cryptic so we don't get to see the cool array of things they do.

    Flickr and YouTube have provided us with a HUGE quantity of imagery of interesting aspects of ophiuroid biology. Here is a sampling of the ones I found worth sharing!

    1. Swollen Disk! This is the deep-sea serpent star Asteronyx! which live with arms wrapped around deep-sea cnidarians, such as sea pens. But this one has a fully inflated disk! When we study them in the lab, these are deflated and flattened. What do they do with them when inflated?  Why? 

    This one is probably a different species, but it gives you an idea of how these live...with their arms wrapped around a cnidarian called a sea pen..

    2. Brittle Star Burrowing!?  See those two brittle star arms emerging from the burrow?? That means the disk is buried within the sediment. But WOW! Look at the sediment being dumped out of that burrow in a continuous string! Maybe something else is in there putting that out? or is the brittle star doing that??

    One of the rays of an amphiurid. Note the tube feet/spines fully occupied by sediment as it digs its way into the bottom.

    That arm is probably part of this critter.. an amphiurid brittle star

    3. Brittle Stars Feeding: Tube feet in ACTION!! How often do you get to see a brittle star in full feeding action??

    and even MORE ophiuroid feeding action!!!

    4. Brooding Brittle Star CT SCAN! Here is an internal CT scan of a BROODING ophiuroid! The ones inside the disk are juveniles!

    5. Brittle Star "SWIMS"! This looks like Ophiocnemis, the brittle star which seems to find itself hitching a ride in jellyfishes! I've written about these here! 

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    This image from NOAA Photo Library. Here. 
    Brisingid starfishes were my first professional "love".. I wrote my Masters thesis on them and it was almost 2 years after studying specimens like this...
    Before I saw one that was alive!  Now, THAT is dedication for you! 

    What are brisingid starfish?? Long story short... Strange deep-sea starfish. They are proper, albeit highly modified sea stars that use their spines, covered with tiny claws which act as velcro to capture tiny prey as food.
    This is Novodinia.Photo form NOAA Okeanos Explorer

    I was just noticing that there's been a great critical mass of REALLY wonderful pictures of these animals.

    For example, here's an amazing close up shot of Novodinia, possibly N. americana from the R/V Okeanos Explorer cruise to the North Atlantic canyons in 2013.  What you're seeing is the disk at the center, surrounded by the many spines covering each of its arms...
    This image originally from NOAA Photo Library here. 
    shots like these are increasingly common..but trust me when I say that scientists from the mid late 20th Century would have KILLED to have nice high definition picture like this!
    Another Pic of Novodinia americana? from 2013. NOAA Photo Library. 
    And here was one AMAZING bit of anecdotal observation/biology from the 2013 North Atlantic Okeanos Explorer cruise, this brisingid, unclear which genus, based purely on the pic not only caught a fish but HELD onto it using ONLY its pedicellariae.
    Owly Images
    Pedicellariae are tiny claw-shaped structures that cover each of those spines..sort of like staples embedded in a sock. These capture various food and prey items.. but mostly it was thought they captured crustaceans. Capturing fish is a bit unusual....

    Food caught by the spines and on the surface are then moved down to the underside to the mouth...

    Colleague Jackson Chu, provides us with a GREAT pic of the UNDERSIDE of a brisingid, showing the mouth, tube foot grooves and etc.. just what you would expect from any proper sea star...

    Here are some stunning panoramic shots of brisingids. Presumably, these occur on places where water currents are favorable for them to capture food...  Both of these are from the North Atlantic via Okeanos Explorer..

    These animals feed by holding their arms up into the water and capturing food/prey as it is carried by on the water currents...

    This shot was from a spur projecting from the canyon wall in the North Atlantic (Block Canyon) in 2062-2131 m. 

    This pic from 2013 Atlantic Canyons Expedition
    Here are some great shots from Neptune Canada via Flickr...  A large individual, maybe Brisinga? on a sunken barrel..
    some very "at attention" individuals...
    Not all species occur on hard bottoms.. Some live on mud and sediment...
    This one from the NE Canyons expedition in 2013
    And just for a little diversity, From Japan, here is the underside of what I think is Brisingaster or Novodinia... These likely represent an unpublished record of this species in Japan..

    Here is what the top side looks like...

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    From NOAA Photo Library here. 
    HOLY CARP!! So, as you know, I've been going through and finding some GREAT stuff in the NOAA Photo Library (see this post from a few days ago) but every once in awhile you find one that is especially... striking!

    This is the "golden ticket" so to speak.. from Charlie & the Chocolate Factory! that moment when Charlie finds that rare golden ticket from millions of chocolate bars! That special ticket to the rare tour of the chocolate factory! From MANY, MANY hours of going through these pictures I've found several GREAT items.
    To be sure, there were quite a few "golden tickets" to be found among the thousands of pictures in the NOAA Photo Library (and for professional reasons I haven't shared all of them), but this one made me especially excited!!!   Why??

    Because this is probably one of the FIRST public images of the "proper" Swimming sea cucumber Pelagothuria, possibly Pelagothuria natatrix!!  See my post here.  Dr. Dave Pawson at the NMNH confirms its identity. The image was taken from the Galapagos Rift Expedition in 2011. So its been sitting around for several years! 

    Translation: A TRUE SWIMMING SEA CUCUMBER and probably the ONLY swimming (i.e. pelagic) echinoderm known!!! 
    From NOAA Photo Library here. 
    What you're seeing above is the swimming "umbrella" around the mouth, which is facing upwards! The body is the cone -shaped bit below it. 

    This species occurs between 570 and 6000 meters in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans but is poorly known. 

    Previously.. this animal was known only from pictures....
    Or from these grainy videos....(from Miller & Pawson)
     I have no doubt that there's scientists (my colleagues) out there who have seen this before and probably have video of this species..but this is the first that is available to share with ANYONE!!

    So that's why you guys are getting TWO posts this week!!

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    So, following up with all of the NOAA deep-sea Okeanos Explorer stuff, I've found that I am just FASCINATED by these things called Xenophyophores!! The name means "Bearer of foreign bodies".

    But what are they? To put it they simply, they are giant, deep-sea amoebas that live in large, sediment "houses" called "tests" (similar to the way that echinoderm skeletons are also known as tests).

    Footnote on the classificaiton: a quick survey of the various Protist classifications tells me that even calling these organisms "amoebas" is probably incorrect. But the nuances of this dynamic are for another day..

    This one group, the Xenophyophorea live in the deep-sea.. DEEP in the deep-sea! Xenophyophores were observed as deep as10 KM (over 6 miles!) in the deepest of marine trenches (the Mariana) and occur in almost ALL of the world's oceans (except the Arctic).

    They are considered among the world's largest living SINGLE CELLED organisms.

    Xenophyophores create these large tests which they inhabit. The tests come in a variety of forms. There are 42 known species in 13 genera. As I understand it, xenophyophores are considered as a subgroup within the Foraminifera (these are amoeba-like unicellular organisms with tests).

    Here's a variety of xenophyophore tests spied by the Okeanos Explorer below..but other patterns include big leafy structures and more network-like arrays of tubes. They vary quite a bit...
                                  From the NOAA Photo Library here.                            
    From the NOAA Photo Library here
    From the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA photo library
    Here's some fun facts!  Several different sources including the "Paleoecology and ecology of Xenophyophores" by Lisa Levin and others cited below...

    1. How Big Are They??So, here's the thing. I've read plenty of accounts that jump to the conclusion "These are the MONSTER AMOEBAS!!!" But what a lot of these accounts seem to forget is that the large sizes considered by a lot of popular accounts are the TESTS (i.e., the skeletons).

    To be sure, these structures can be pretty big (for something made by amoebas!) The example below is apparently about 25 cm (almost a foot!) across!

    Most of the accounts I've read sort of assume (and I suppose this is reasonable) that the animal inhabits ALL of the test all the time, or perhaps with pseudopods or tentacles extended throughout? Frankly, none of the accounts I read could clarify how much of the test, the actual organism inhabits.

    However, One estimate (here) indicates that the test volume might be as little as < 1% "protoplasm" (which if I understand the terminology includes cytoplasm, etc.).. so, the actual organisms are probably not as monstrous as some folks would think. I would imagine its quite difficult to measure an amoeba for something like this.

    2. What Do They Eat?
      So, when you think of big deep-sea amoebas, perhaps automatically we think "oh WOW! Wouldn't it be NEAT if they actually could eat ANIMALS?" Just like in the movies??  And in truth, there ARE marine amoebas which probably devour animals ... but to date, very little evidence is available on the full range of what xenophyophores actually eat. and the truth is sadly not likely to be as romantic as some would think...
    One paper by Laureillard, Mejanelle and Sibuet from 2004 studied the xenophyophore Syringammina corbicula and utilized a study of various lipids and amino acids to look at their nutrition. Their study showed that bacteria were present in great abundance!

    Xenophyophores have strings of mucus which are deployed along the test which build up feces and sediment called stercomes. It was suggested that a flora of these bacteria were present in abundance on these mucous threads. Perhaps being farmed and being utilized as a source of food.

    Their mucous threads also are constantly pulling and trapping particles from the surrounding area, presumably in part to provide further nutrition.

    Here is an Scanning Electron Microscope Image of a stercome showing up close details of what's on them...

    So, there seems to be a heavy dependence on poop and other "marine snow" that falls down to the bottom.. as well as bacterial/microbial growth. But very little is known about feeding in xenophyophores, so who knows what else they do??

    3. What are those structures (tests) made of? 
    Tests on xenophyophores are made up of a patchwork of different bits. Sediment, but also the shells of other marine organisms such as radiolarians, other foraminiferans, and so on...

    The test is the outer "crunchy" later... Within the test are a series of tubes called granellare, through which the animal's cytoplasm and etc. flow through...

    These tests are actually an important part of xenophyophores ecological role, as they provide habitats and such.....

    4. Ecology!
    Probably the most interesting thing that I've picked up about Xenophyophores?? Is how potentially important they are to deep-sea ecosystems. Xenos are VERY abundant in the deep-sea, sometimes reaching up to 2000 per 100 square meters!

    Lisa Levin published this neat paper in 1991 about their roles in deep-sea communities.  Basically it turns out that where xenos are found, there are "hotspots" of animal diversity!

    The pic below shows two big xenophyophore tests with brittle stars on them...
    Why might a cluster of xenophyophore tests represent a "hotspot" of animal diversity?? They apparently present both food AND habitats for a plethora of deep-sea animals!

    Examples of how animals use these tests?
    • Habitats for worms, copepods, crustaceans, ophiuroids, and even snail embryos!
    • Peanut worms that live IN "dead" tests
    • Eggs from various animals (worms or snails) on xenophyophore tests.
    • Suspension feeding colonial animals called bryozoans sometimes are found "intergrown" on tests
    • Some xenophyophores found ON sea urchins.
    • Some amphipod crustaceans are thought to prey on the xenophyophores
    • Plus other MORE! Possibly/probably associated with the bacteria growing on the surface?? 
    5. Mystery fossils: Xenophyophores??
    So, one of the aforementioned articles by Levin on Xenophyophore paleoecology makes the case that tests and other modern examples of sediment structures by these organisms can explain various trace fossils, and other mysterious fossil structures.

    Perhaps one of the best known is that of the fossil ichnogenus (like an organism name but for a trace fossil) Paleodictyon!

    Paleodictyon was famously studied by oceanographer Peter Rona who made it an obsession of his career. It has covered by many other natural history blogs such as this and this. 

    Basically.. a trace fossil which looks like this.
    This is seen throughout the deep-sea in many places. The above image from the Gulf of Mexico but its been seen throughout the deep-sea, sometimes as deep as 3700 meters!!

    Its also been seen in the fossil record.. dating back to the Paleozoic...  The parallel and similar appearance has led to much debate over whether the same type of organism has created these patterns in the sediment.. namely, did a xenophyophore or something similar create them?? 
    And anyway, there's a LOT more on them in this regard and there seem to be more questions than answers.... A neat group of critters! (can I use that for amoebas?) 

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    This week's post is a bit late but trust me, you will LOVE THIS. Thanks to a new round of scanned images on Flickr via the Internet Book Archive  (from the Internet Archive) and from the Biodiversity Heritage Library a host of EPIC  images from the classic 1841 A history of British star-fishes, and other animals of the class Echinodermata by the famous naturalist Edward Forbes.

    Brittle stars ARE THE DEVIL'S SERVANTS! (this one NEEDS to be turned into an animated GIF!)

    When Sea Cucumbers fought Poseidon FOR THE WORLD! BE THANKFUL TO THEM!

    Starfish! Always between the Devil and a hard place!


    Even in 1841, Echinoderms were ever subjects by Women in Science!

    Field Work was an arduous task in those days!

    Young Men & Women Studying the Sea Urchin in Ye Olden Times! Note the humor! "urchin" in Latin meant hedgehog! And in olde English meant "unkept little child" And what's that next to it??? (thanks to Emily for her tip!)

    And finally.. for David Shiffman at @WhySharksMatter MERMAIDS fighting over the Star-Fishe! 

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    So, over the weekend, the livestream of Okeanos Explorer briefly mentioned and entertained the idea that they might head back to Indonesia for a revisitation of their inaugural expedition from 2010! (The INDEX-SATAL Mission). (I think someone mentioned the ambassador was on ship?)

    That expedition was, of course, 4 years ago and the program had just begun. Updates were not as forthcoming. But an opportunity to RETURN to Indonesia? With the benefit of hindsight, experience and further preparation?? That would be awesome!

    That area is known as home to probably one of the MOST diverse marine faunas of anywhere in the world.  And although there's a lot known from shallow and deep habitats, the deep sea areas (below 200 m) in the Indonesian area will likely make all the stuff R/V Okeanos Explorer and E/V Nautilus have been observing in the Atlantic look like a goldfish bowl by comparison! 

    A LOT of the species in this area are likely undescribed. A veritable gold mine of biodiversity to be studied! Some of these taxa have no Atlantic members. (It would be even better if these were enhanced by collections of course!)

    Here's some highlights that I would love to see again!  

    1. The Sea Cucumbers
    I don't think I've seen ALL the pics but the ones I have were brilliant. This red elasiopod would be something I think everyone should see again... 
    Okeanos from expl2168

    The oddball swimming sea cucumber with the big lobe: the appropriately named Psychropotes
    From Okeanos expl5494
    and this gorgeous swimming Enypniastes? Or something similar to it.. But wow! Transparent body! You can literally SEE the sediment filled intestine THROUGH the body wall!
    from Okeanos expl5475
    2. The Hydrothermal Vents
    When people talk about hydrothermal vents, there's 2 or 3 places that register as the most iconic spots.. the Mid-Atlantic and the East Pacific Rise.  There's others but one vent site that no one really talks about much?  The ones surveyed by Okeanos in Indonesia! 

    These are the hydrothermal vents found on the undersea volcano Kawio Barat (West Kawio) 
    from Okeanos expl2184
    Amazingly gorgeous spires created by hydrothermal activity. 0.5 to 1 meter tall active and inactive spires on the summit of the Kawio Barat submarine volcano. Spires observed at 1849 meters depth. 
    From Okeanos expl2188
    Further venting through some of these chimneys gives us these amazing structures covered by barnacles! 
    from Okeanos expl 2195
    What's that? you want to see those barnacles more close up? here ya' go...
    fr. Okeanos expl 2196

    3. The Insane Stalked Crinoid Diversity
    One of the very interesting animals noted in the expedition pictures notes was the incredible diversity of stalked crinoids which were observed.. I've only shown two of them below..but the gallery shows many different types of stalked crinoids.. to say nothing of the feather stars (aka unstalked crinoids)

    This red one, as identified by Dr. Marc Eleaume in Paris is likely Proisocrinus ruberrimus 
    From Okeanos expl5403
     And an likely unidentified member of the Hyocrinidae...                                     

    4. Bizarre and wonderous Deep Sea Sponges (Hexactinellid or Glass Sponges? I think)
    A wonderous cladorhizid carnivorous sponge from about 1000 m! 
    from Okeanos expl5560
    A bizarre sponge with unusual body morphology
    from Okeanos expl 5599
    5. And the underappreciated Slit Shell Snails (Pleurotamariidae)! 
    I'm honestly not sure how many people recognized a majority of the animals observed on the 2010 dive but some of the shots from the NOAA Photo Library showed some awesome images of that most treasured of marine snails: The Slit Shelled Snail (family Pleurotamariidae).       

    These snails have always held a certain appeal to shell collectors. The shells are known from the fossil record and have a distinct slotted opening near the shell's opening. They are one of the largest marine snails observed in deep-sea settings..
    from Okeanos expl5650
     The images place the slit-shell moving into this gorgeous field of corals..                                  
    From Okeanos expl 5648
    Some of these snails are predators on echinoderms, such as sea stars and possibly serpent stars (ophiuroids). So, conceivably this one is about to feed...
    From Okeanos expl5646
    PLUS! those Hermit Crabs with shells replaced by sea 
    fr. Okeanos 5671
    fr. Okeanos 5672
    ONE More GREAT thing?? In situ observations of WOOD FALL COMMUNITIES! These are some of the weirdest, rarest of deep-sea habitats as written by Craig McClain at Deep-sea news as he's documented here and here.  What are they? Deep-sea communities based entirely on wood from the surface that have fallen to the deeps!!

    Some of these species are known ONLY from wood substrates!

    But how often do you get to see an established wood fall community??  Here's what looks like those wood-eating urchins I wrote about a few years ago...
    Okeanos expl 5968
    and here's a close up of some more urchins and polychaetes
    from Okeanos expl 5972

    and yeah, there was a LOT more...

    So, Okeanos Decision Committee?? LET'S GO BACK TO INDONESIA!!! 

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    Austin H. Clark, first curator of echinoderms at the Smithsonian's NMNH. Also, butterfly enthusiast.
    This week, a post about my broader field.. TAXONOMY, evolution and the discovery of new species!

    Many of you may or may not realize that, although I am widely studied in echinoderms, my *actual* research focuses on starfish, specifically the diversity of starfish, including the description of new species and how they "fit" into the evolutionary classification of the echinoderms and all other animals.  I've written a bit about the description of new species before (many years ago now) here.  here and here.

    Taxonomy is often one of the first things you learn about biology. How do you classify the organism? Plant? Animal?  Phylum? Class? Family? Genus?  Species?
    There are scientists (and citizen scientists) whose entire expertise is devoted to studying a singular group of plants, animals, or "other" (protists, fungi, etc.) just as mine is devoted to studying sea stars.

    These scientists, such as myself, discover which species are new, which are known and place them within a broad "family tree" of relationships. It is the ongoing effort of these scientists to document potentially important new species for a variety of reasons. Some have important medical uses, others are economically important.. while others are ecologically important.

    Some, such as the recent and mysterious genus Dendrogramma may have broad evolutionary relevance to our understanding of life on Earth.  Or at the very least, might just be some odd, evolutionary novelty which has peaked everyone's curiosity.

    New species are exciting! and hold the promise of new knowledge. A new predator?? A living member of an extinct group?? Or perhaps a new species with an unusual adaptation??

    This whole process of discovering new species has changed over the years. So, here are some recent discussions/dynamics/opportunities that I find worth mentioning and that might be surprising.

    A caveat: the points below are skewed towards what I have experienced and how the broad patterns have relevance to what I've done. So, yeah, plants, fungus and protists are a bit different but much of the essential dynamic remains the same. And yes.. there's undoubtedly some stuff I've left out.

    5. There are a LOT of new species left to be found, but are there enough scientists to describe them? (Data fromCostello et al. 2013. Science 339: 413-416) and Tancoigne & Dubois 2013. Cladistics 29: 567-570
    In 2002, a one month survey of the seabed in New Caledonia found 127,652 specimens and 2,738 species of mollusks. 80% of them were new to science!  

    MANY new species await discovery and description. But do we have enough scientists who can do so?? Are we losing that expertise? Is there not enough taxonomy being done to document organisms before extinction overtakes them?? This is part of what is called the "Taxonomic Impediment",i.e. the number of species/taxa described is limited (and possibly declining) relative to their need.  

    One interesting contradictory result in answer to this question in the the two recent papers above, is that both of those papers allege that there are MORE taxonomists (people who describe new species and etc.) and MORE papers about new species being published now than there have been in the past.

    But then, WHY is there still a perception that there STILL aren't enough taxonomists? And is that expertise decreasing?
    Tancoigne & Dubois have argued that essentially, even though there are MORE people working, the problem is BIGGER. And so, we haven't really upped our game so much as we have just "kept up" rather than made a real dent in the problem. Taxonomic inertia rather than momentum.

    Remember that there is an urgency to describe the world's biodiversity before it goes extinct. This is the so-called "6th Extinction" or "Holocene Extinction."You can go here to see more about it. 

    The question is complex.. but I can tell you that from my experience, I am currently considered one of the only regularly publishing, broadly trained starfish taxonomists/systematists. There are a couple of regional specialists and maybe 3 starfish paleontologists but very few people work on the broad biodiversity of starfishes.  (as I did here in Japan early this year..)
    I have a backlog of easily a dozen or more species currently "cued up" in my "immediate projects" list. With many, MANY more waiting my attention. Remember that trip I took to the North Pacific with MBARI?  Almost ALL of the species I found were new! Who knows how many more new species await discovery with more workers in the wings?? So I guess that boils down to the question "Is that enough?" 

    There are easily whole phyla of animals for whom there may be all of one or two specialists in the world. Based on what I've read the estimates for undiscovered marine biodiversity, especially for invertebrates is pretty high.  And I can definitely tell you that the number of staff or faculty jobs for invertebrate zoologist/taxonomists is pretty small.

    So, yeah.. we're gonna need more taxonomists! But also jobs!

    4. Most new species are "found" in museum collections rather than immediately on expeditions.
    So, you know how I'm always taking these big trips to Paris, here and here. and Japan? This is because I'm visiting museums which have extensive holdings of deep-sea Indo-Pacific starfishes.

    While its certainly true that I go into the field to collect starfishes in remote and exotic places (e.g., Antarctica-see below)
    The truth is that many of the new species I've described are found from rooting around through buckets and which looks more like this.
    Every time I go back to say, the collections in Paris I can reliably depend on finding several new species.

    A paper by Fontaine, Perrard and Bouchet (2012) report on time between museum storage & publication (more on that below) but they review one important point: Most specimens accumulate in museums following collection. Its often a misconception that new species are automatically recognized in the field and whisked away to be instantly described.... (although yes, it does depends..)

    They are often stored in a museum, where they are sorted, preserved and shelved until a scientist can work on them.

    How long does that take between museum storage to publication??

    3. It takes on average about 21 years for a species to be described from "shelf" to publication
    This is something I can verify: A new species can take a LONG time to reach publication. Note this new genus and species from Antarctica I described in 2011. Collection date?? 14 March, 1966!! This was collected 4 years before I was born!! Ha.

    The Fontaine et al. paper further sampled researchers from a variety of fields and found that for a variety of disciplines, it took on average about two decades for a new species to be described following collection and museum storage.

    There are a LOT of considerations of course.. Some specimens undergo years of study. DNA is extracted. Comparisons are made. Histology is performed. It depends on what kind of work is done.
    Some fields have lost their only workers for literally a decade. There was easily a gap for about 10 to 15 years, when there was no one who was "the starfish  expert"until I came along.

    2. Taxonomy from Images: Flickr & More!
    So, image proliferation on the Internet has started to make a HUGE impact on natural history and taxonomy.

    There is now a massive proliferation of images of habitats, organisms, and etc. via MANY different crowd sourced  (e.g., Flickr or Youtube) or other conveniently available resources. For example: screengrabs/twitter pics of the live stream Okeanos Explorer deep-sea feed!
    From crowd-sourced photo hosts?  There was THIS famous story on the news in 2012 about an entomologist who discovered a new species of insect on the crowd-sourced photo bank Flickr! 

    I've actually spoken to several of my colleagues about whether images they've seen on Flickr or Facebook could be new species and indeed, it is surprising HOW many there are! And why not? People who post their pictures travel all around the world or are in very distant settings. Some with great camera set ups and a good eye. There's a HUGE potential for data mining here with a nearly infinite number of pictures (many are never labelled).
    Some might argue that usefulness of pictures remain limited, since no specimen is available for positive identification or vouchering in a museum. But who knows what kind of behavior? or habitat is spied by these videos?

    For the deep-sea species.. even seeing the life mode and color is a HUGE step in knowledge over what scientists in the 20th Century, who often worked with a dead, dried specimen. 

    1. New Specimens via... Ebay?? 
    Back in 2006, Dr. Simon Coppard, a sea urchin taxonomist recovered specimens of a new species of sea urchin, Coelopleurus exquisitus from the online auction website, Ebay! 

    This sounds kind of ...unusual, the truth is that scientists and natural historians have been buying exotic shells and items from vendors of "exotic goods" since the 1800s. Many species described from this time period were based on specimens obtained from "Far East" purchases. The Internet auction house puts a 21st Century spin on 19th Century practice.

    Fortunately, this species was described in good order and with apparently little hassle (and I can only hope- good locality data!)
    I have heard of subsequent "finds" via Ebay and as remarkable as it sounds, there are unusual and rarely encountered animals which sometimes come up for sale as "dried curios" or "seashells" or what have you.  Fossils also.

    Relying on vendors isn't a good option relative to a formal expedition or even just a professional scientist collecting on his/her own. MANY issues can be at play. Permits are common place and some specimens may have been illegally collected. Some organisms, such as coral are protected by international regulations. Obtained specimens could be poorly preserved or have incomplete or downright incorrect locality data (i.e., where they were found). But sometimes, it can be another way to discover new biodiversity. Strange but there it is.

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     This week a special OKEANOS Explorer Treat!              

    Owing to a fantastic combination of various technologies: deep-sea subersibles, HD cameras, quick and efficient internet transmission and the wonder of social media, not only do we have LIVE streams of deep-sea biology and exploration via the R/V Okeanos Explorer, BUT we have for the ability for almost ANYONE to tune and watch discoveries as they happen! AND watching and observing the scientists making these discoveries as they happen!

    Thanks to Twitter and even a special Facebook Group that takes screengrabs of things seen by the ROV we now have a unique circumstance:  Exploration of the deep-sea being seen by everyone!! and not just scientists!!

    But, the starfish you encounter on these dives are not exactly common place. Starting to learn about them first entails knowing which ones are which! Not an easy task given how poorly known how some of these species are. Some of these have never been seen alive! And that's where I come in.

    And so as my BIG GIFT to people (scientists AND non-scientists) who are following the Okeanos Explorer  2014 LIVE deep-sea feed, here is a gallery/field guide of deep-sea starfishes observed along the North Atlantic east coast!! 

    To be clear, this list of starfish species that is known from the deep-sea Atlantic region (>1000 m in this case) is likely INCOMPLETE.. It is biased by what I've been able to identify and the limits of the known science of each species. So, yes we WILL still probably see things that are not on this post. And eventually, these things will see many are new records.

    A caveat about use: This is mainly for use in the North Atlantic along the east coast of North America. Some of the genera (e.g., Novodinia, Hymenaster, Pteraster) occur world wide so you'll see them in deep-sea pictures in many places. Some, such as Porania pulvillus may also occur in very shallow water, which is unusual. But you can' t necessarily expect to find all of these species in say, Hawaii or even the nearby Gulf of Mexico.  Where species occur is often a funny thing in biology, likely dependent on a number of factors that make those places suitable for a specific species.

    My thanks in advance to Dr. Chris Kellogg (@DrChrisKellogg ), Carina M. Gsottbauer (@CarinaDSLR) AND the members of the Facebook Underwater Screengrab Group for their diligence!

    1. Tremaster mirabilis(Asterinidae)
    Here's an animal we don't know much about. Go here to see more of what this species looks like. It occurs widely in the Atlantic, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Antarctic in fairly deep water. Video images from OE were the first time that I'd ever seen this species alive. Its been imaged alive in tropical Pacific but never quite this nicely...
    2. Chondraster grandis (I think). (Poraniidae)
    We don't know much about this. Someone collected it and named in back in 1878 but we really don't have any info about its biology. Its living color wasn't even really known until recently.

    The body form in these is very unusual. Very soft and has kind of the texture of a mango.

    Which brings us to this mystery. Same animal... I think?  But TWO colors?? Is one a new species? Or could the body color simply be variation??  This is where collected specimens permit us to examine the body and perhaps extract DNA to study the possibility that there could be separate species being seen...

    3. Porania pulvillus(Poraniidae)
    I have previously written about this species from shallower water, feeding on various cnidarians based on crowd-sourced images!   Whereas once thought of as a fairly passively feeding species, new observations now suggest its a bit more of a predator than had previously been thought. 

    The white patterns show the papulae (or gills) as well as folds in the skin of the body. The entire body is overlain by a kind of thick tissue which makes it soft. So, like Chondraster grandis, this species also feels kind of like a mango if you touch it. 
    Interestingly, here is a shallow-water individual (from Norway) of what I think is the SAME species for comparison. Similar pattern but different color!  Based on the museum specimens, morphologically, these are nearly indistinguishable. but does this indicate a separate species??

    4. Neomorphaster forcipatus (Stichasteridae)
    This is by FAR one of the most commonly encountered species during the Okeanos Explorer expeditions.

    We don't know much about the actual biology of this species. We don't know anything about how/what it eats or what/how it reproduces or even anything about its ecology.  The genus Neomorphaster also occurs in the eastern Atlantic in the deeps off Europe.

    These are deep-sea members of what is mostly a Southern Hemisphere group, the Stichasteridae.
    Stichasterids are a basal group within the  Forcipulatacea (i.e., an early branching within the evolutionary history of the group), a large group of starfishes which also includes the common starfish Asterias as well as the brisingids and 6 rayed starfish below. A post about their family tree is here
    5. 6-armed starfish? Ampheraster? or Unknown Asteriid/pedicellasterid?
    This one is kind of a mystery. It could be several possible genera or species. The names probably mean nothing to most people. But basically, this is likely a distant relative of Asterias. But we've not collected one. So uncertainty remains. It could be new! Or it could be known. I briefly discussed this in an earlier Okeanos post here. 
    6. Novodinia americana? (Brisingidae)
    BRISINGIDS!  My favorite critters! These are actually starfish which use tiny little wrench-like structures called pedicellariae to capture food as water currents  carry it through their arms. Sort of like velcro. See my full article on brisingids here

    Brisingids are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to identify from pictures. Usually, you can't because the features used to identify it need to be studied under a microscope.

    Fortunately,  Novodinia has a large swollen arm region around the disk with very thick spines as you can see below..

    7. "Brisingid" Not sure which...
    BUT after you get past Novodinia, the identifications of different brisingid sea stars becomes pretty difficult since none of the diagnostic features are visible from pictures..There are MANY encountered in these deep-sea habitats and probably several species which are not easily registered from pictures.

    But they remain striking members of the deep-sea community.. Go here to see more of this
    8. Evoplosoma sp. (Goniasteridae)
    Evoplosoma!  A deep-sea octocoral predator! Often seen feeding on various bamboo "corals" (i.e. members of the Isididae). I wrote at some length about these here.  There's several species of this genus in this region and its difficult to make the call on these from pictures.
    From one of the recent dives:  you see all those bare branches on this bamboo coral?? That's Evoplosoma chowing down on the "meat" of the coral... Its not unusual to see them climbing high up into the branches of such a colony..

    9. Ceramaster granularis? (Goniasteridae)
    A so-called "cookie star" This species might be the shallower-water C. granularis or maybe something else?  Likely, feeding on encrusing organisms or the "goo" on the substrate but we really don't know.
    10. Pythonaster, probably  P. atlantidis
    This was a RARE one. Barely known from 2 or 3 specimens, this is probably one of the FIRST living pictures of this species ever taken! We know NOTHING about its biology.

    I wrote about it in more detail here.  Let's hope we see another one in the next few weeks!
    11. Peribolaster or ??
    Another rarely encountered species. Haven't even quite figured out what this one is yet. But it has what looks to be an osculum, i.e., an opening on the central disk to allow water onto the body surface.

    What is an osculum?? Look to the links on pterasterids below....
    12. Hymenaster? (probably)
    This genus of sea star, is widespread around the world's oceans. Another poorly known group of animals..but with a very distinctive appearance and the ability to produce mucus as a defense mechanism! Go here to see more on this..
    13. Pteraster sp. 

    14. Lophaster
    Wasn't sure what this one was for certain. But it has spines along the surface that suggests a widespread cold-water group. We'll have to keep our eyes open for more of these...

    If this IS Lophaster, then it would be the 5-rayed relative to Solaster, the sun star (below... )
    15. Solaster sp. 

    16. Henricia sp. 1
    I have not written much about this group because the genus Henricia is a huge mess for taxonomists (i.e., people who describe new species and new diversity)..  Why?  Because these starfishes are all VERY similar in appearance to one another on a widespread scale! There are at least 2 species in this region. 

    Yes, species in this group occur all around the world. VERY widespread. But even in a very specific area, they can be nearly identical in appearance.  So, unfortunately, unless the species is highly unusual (has > 5 arms, etc.) these are quite difficult to tell apart...

    So, is that it?? Have I revealed ALL the STARFISH SECRETS???   Nope.  But knowing the names is the START of knowledge! I encourage everyone to let me know if you see any on these dives that is NOT on this post. Or if you see ANY of these species doing something, eating, spawning etc. 

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    Just a bit of off-topic this week. Saw this GREAT dumbo octopus during the Atlantis II seamount dive on the Okeanos Explorer cruise this weekend and thought it was too great not to share.

    NMFS cephalopod expert Mike Vecchione has identified this one as Grimpoteuthis sp. Generally speaking though, "dumbo octopus" applies to one of two genera, Grimpoteuthis or Opisthoteuthis.

    The two genera are quite diverse. Grimpoteuthis includes about 18 species (according to whereas Opisthoteuthis includes about 20. Although these two genera are separated into distinct families, my understanding is that there is some disagreement over the taxonomy of the group.

    The video followed this guy around from the water column down to the rock, after which it eventually swam off..

    This was kind of a neat moment, when it sort of inverted and we could see the webbing between the arms.. 

    Close up on the head, eyes and flippers..

    And from the 2014 Gulf of Mexico cruise, THIS Awesome video which showed some of that unusual tentacle folding during the swimming motion.  Based on the original account here, I believe Dr. Vecchione has also identified the one in the video as Grimpoteuthis.
    and I suppose I'll cheat a bit and include the E/V Nautilus dumbo octopus video... I'm not sure if this one is the same genus as the one above however...

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    So, after a few days of bad weather, we finally finished this last round of the 2014 Okeanos Explorer's dives into the North Atlantic! 

    BUT we were not left high and dry! There was an unusual abundance of GREAT observations! But wow! there were some SPECTACULAR SEA SPIDER aka Pycnogonid biology events seen! Especially on the last few dives.. 

    I don't know a lot about pycnogonid biology, but its a pretty sure bet that a lot of what they do is poorly known, especially in deep-sea species. 

    Most of the observations below took place below 1000 m, most were probably between 1000 and 2000 m.  Some pretty rarely seen (or maybe first time) sightings. 

    Most of these were screen grabs I took.. but my thanks to the Facebook Underwater Screengrab group, Carina Tsottbauer (@CarinaDSLR) and Nicole Morgan (@coralnerd)! for their help! 

    1. From Atlantis II Seamount. This Daddy Pycnogonid with a brood clutch of eggs!

    2.  From Nantucket Canyon. This pycnogonid with an arcturid isopod on its proboscis (ID thanks to Tammy Horton). Not sure why its there. Possibly food or??

    3. From Physalia Seamount! A big sea spider, possibly Colossendeis, caught in the act of extending its proboscis into this large solitary hydroid! Woo! An in situ feeding observation! 

    4. From Physalia Seamount, a pycnogonid in this sediment depression! Possibly feeding on a burrowing anemone? 

    5. This pycnogonid in Nantucket Canyon hanging out with some single cup corals.. 

    6. From McMaster Canyon! A swimming pycnogonid! 
    Wow! at first I thought this might be novel.. but thanks to Twitter (@tammy_horton) and quick communication with Tammy Horton, curator of the Discovery collection at Southampton, and deep-sea arthropod biologist extraordinaire! It turns out that there ARE some records of swimming sea spiders in the scientific literature from 1977!! 

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    So by now, everyone and their 3 best friends have seen the critter above and the video on Facebook (below) which seems to have freaked everyone the frack out. Its been circulated and seen by over 5.6 million people!!

    And everyone keeps on asking WHAT IS IT?? I've received this video now, what feels like a million, jillion times from people who want.. nay, DEMAND to know:  What IS IT???

    Answer: A basket star. A distant relative of sea stars.

    First thing: HARMLESS.  and out of its element. But we don't know much about them.

    This was even given time by IFLS but not being echinoderm specialists, their answer was a bit over generalized... So, here's MORE. Its actually a pretty neat beast.

    1. This is a BASKET STAR.These are specialized ophiuroids. Ophiuroids are members of the phylum Echinodermata. In other words, its related to Sea Stars, sea urchins, etc. Basket stars in particular have a highly branched system of arms which they use to feed. I've discussed the feeding biology of basket stars here They have hooks on those branches with which they feed on tiny bits of food.

    There are actually several different groups (i.e., families) of ophiuroids which have these fleshy arms and highly branched arms.They occur widely and vary from habitat to habitat.

    2. Euryale aspera?  I've consulted with one of the world's experts on basket stars and euryalinid brittle stars, my colleague Dr. Masanori Okanishi, currently at Kyoto University. Discussions with him and checking my own resources suggests that the animal above is a shallow-water tropical species, called Euryale aspera. Identification of the species is uncertain since there was only a picture and no specimen but based on my cross-check, this seems like a likely name.

    3. Where and HOW does it live? Euryale aspera is a shallow water species which occurs widely across the Indo-Pacifc. This species is found throughout the Indo-Pacific, from Asia but as far west as Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

    As with other basket stars, feeding is accomplished via tiny hooks present on the MANY branching arms spread out into the water column when they feed.

    Here are some videos of various Japanese basket stars which MIGHT be Euryale aspera. Its difficult to ID these from images, but these give you an idea of how they live. Arms up in the water during ideal water flow, but withdrawn when not feeding.

    4. What does the name mean? So, as you may have noticed from one of my earlier posts, one of the better known genera of basket stars is called Gorgonocephalus. "Cephalus" means head while "Gorgon" refers to the head of Medusa and her sisters: The Gorgons of ancient Greek Myth. One of Medusa's sisters is named EURYALE. She was identical to Medusa in appearance with snakes for hair and transformed men into stone with her gaze. Thus, the genus of this other "basket star" follows the theme of a "medusa's head" type appearance. The species name "aspera" is Latin and a references a descriptor for "rough" which likely alludes to the spines and other tiny accessories on the body surface.
    Euryale aspera was described in 1816 by the famous zoologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck himself!

    5. What about OTHER BASKET STARS???
    The term "basket stars" informally refers to several groups of ophiuroids within the order Euryalida, which all have thick, fleshy arms. Some are more serpentine (i.e. serpent stars) whereas others are branching and appear to form a "basket" (i.e., basket stars). But they are often similar in appearance leading once again to some "blurred lines" where common names are applied. There are about 177 species in five families.

    Members of the Euryalida occur widely throughout the ocean depths. Many are shallow water, occurring in both cold and tropical habitats whereas others occur in the deep, deep sea (> 1000 m). Many of them occur at depths in between. But you can encounter basket stars at SCUBA depths on reefs or other shallow habitats, which is where the "creature" above was apparently collected from.

    A "serpent star" (Asteroporpa annulata from the tropical Atlantic)
    A "basket star"

    And by the way, these have been caught on deck and seen before... 

    The original video indicates that the one collected was returned to the ocean. These don't take exposure very well.. but perhaps more adverse to the animal was its ability to re-establish a perch to resume feeding. But, frankly our knowledge of their biology is very poor. We don't know much about them.

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    Happy National Fossil Day!
    Every few years I'm in a position to share some more love about echinoderms and fossils. I've done this on previous National Fossil Days and tried to shed some light on the often arcane world of fossil echinoderms...

    Here's one on paleocology & fossil parasites..

    A nice gallery of fossil crinoids..   and this classic piece on giant floating/pelagic crinoids! 

    Paleozoic Echinoderms: The Ophiocystioids! and the Helicoplacoids! 

    A LOT of the REALLY weird stuff in echinoderms takes place in the days of the Paleozoic, some 245 to 541 MILLION YEARS Ago... There was a lot of crazy stuff (evolutionarily speaking) happening then. Echinoderms, as a lineage PREDATE Dinosaurs and they've been around since before vertebrates walked on land.

    But here's a bunch of interesting facts I've cobbled together to better understand and appreciate fossil echinoderms and their history!!

    5. Animal Body Type can bias preservation. This is really a dynamic of fossil preservation which is true for almost ANYTHING. In order for animals or any organism to undergo the fossilization process, it has to "survive" long enough to be buried and then kept together so that it undergoes the process.  MANY factors can affect which animals/organisms/whatever are preserved in the fossil record. The study of how different factors affect fossil preservation is called taphonomy and it affects our perception of the history of life on the planet.

    One of those factors is the physical strength of the body itself. Is it delicate? Is it REALLY strong and tough?? Delicate, soft bodies tend NOT to preserve very well (although they can exceptionally) but some bodies with very heavy and strongly calcified bodies are MORE likely to preserve.

    So for example, these starfish, in life would have a fairly chalky body. They hold together pretty well when all the tissue is removed.
    Here's a whole bunch of crinoid stems preserved in limestone. These are pieces of the "stalk"in stalked crinoids. Hard parts that are pretty structurally solid. You're most likely to find this of all the pieces of a crinoid (aka a "stone lily").

    4. Preservation Environment is important. So, here's the thing. The fossilization process requires pretty RAPID burial of the subject organism/animal, whatever for fossilization to eventually take place.  Which brings us to another "bias" of preservation: The environment!!

    If the animal lives in an environment in which it is predisposed to be buried ANYWAY, that makes it THAT much MORE likely that it will be preserved. One good example are sand dollars (or really anything which lives buried).

    Sand dollars have a pretty solid skeleton but ALSO live buried in sand. Sometimes, they can be killed by burial and pretty much just get preserved there in the sediment as it turns into rock.

    and voila! (yes, its not the same species but play along, its not easy finding matching videos and pictures of fossil sand dollars! )

    3. There were MORE KINDS of Echinoderms in the Paleozoic!
    One of the oldest questions from biologists unfamiliar with the fossil record is, "Why haven't you completely figured out the evolutionary history (i.e. phylogeny) of Echinoderms yet?? There's only FIVE of them!"

    Yes. Only five LIVING groups (crinoids, sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins & sea cucumbers) are around today. BUT when you get into the VERY earliest days of echinoderms in the Paleozoic (245-541 MILLION years ago), you have easily TRIPLE the number of groups! (i.e. classes) and a crazy diversity of body plans NOT seen today!

    You got things that look like crinoids. Disc-shaped echinoderms. Accordian-shaped, asymmetrical echinoderms. Weird, crazy tentacle-balls. and all sorts of natural "experiments" in Echinoderm morphology.

    A crazy panoply of things! Oh, to go back in a time machine to see when rock was young!
    2. The Roots of Recent Echinoderms were there...
    Picking up on the crazy, diversity of echinoderms mentioned above its worth mentioning that the ancestors of MODERN echinoderms were seen among them.

    Ophiocistioids for example are intermediate between sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

    Also in the Paleozoic, we had the early ancestors to brittle stars and sea stars.  Today, the brittle stars and sea stars distinctive looking in appearance that we can easily tell them apart, but looking at those early forms was NOT so easy...

    Can you imagine walking around in the Paleozoic seas and seeing something that was NOT quite a starfish but also NOT quite a brittle star!! Something in between....

    That's kind of why some paleontologists get so twitchy about what you call a "sea star" versus a "brittle star". They have LITERALLY spent years arguing WHY that is the case..

    1. The Permian/Triassic Extinction Changed everything
    So, then at the END of the Paleozoic, in the Permian, you have one of the most devastating MASS EXTINCTIONS known to life on Earth at the Permian-Triassic Boundary. That is the end of the Paleozoic and the beginning of the Mesozoic (i..e time of the dinosaurs).

    This extinction was huge. 96% of marine species were wiped out. Part of this? All those aforementioned echinoderm classes.. (about 15 of them)? GONE.

    Only survivors from FIVE groups survived to live on today.   Here's a cartoon of this from Echinoblog Art Department!
    Echinoblog Art Department Lives on!
    Any one of these could be a whole blog post but this gives you a short summary of some dynamics involved with the rich fossil history of the Echinoderms! Happy National Fossil Day! 

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    This week, I thought I'd share some gorgeous sea urchin love! Behold Coelopleurus

    What's that? You've never HEARD of Coelopleurus??  Well, that's about right, I suppose. Its a distinctive looking enough species but it lives in slightly deeper water than is typical for most casual SCUBA divers or vacationing snorkelers..
    Described by Louis Agassiz in 1840, Coelopleurus is a genus in the family Arbaciidae. There are about 14 known species. Eleven living species and four fossils.  

    Coelopleurus is a deep-sea urchin, but on the shallow side, about 75 to 500 meters. They occur primarily in the tropics, but across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. 

    Biology of these animals is poorly known. 

    It is also kind of unusual because it is one of the few sea urchins that displays secondary sex characteristics.. i.e., you can tell the females from the males when the males are spawning. 

    You see that structure that the red arrows are pointing to?? 

    That is the male "papillae". And in "C" you can see sperm being ejected into the water column. Yow!! This image is from a paper by Dave Pawson and John E. Miller in the Bulletin of Marine Science, 1979. 29(4): 581-586.  
    Coelopleurus is unusual because it has these big, long curved spines BUT they are brilliantly colored in red and white!
    But even MORE than that?? The tests (i.e., the skeletons) are brightly colored with these very striking patterns that seem to be rather variable..

    Here is the test of Coelopleurus floridanus... 
    But here's one that is considered the SAME species but a LARGER specimen.... Honestly.. it wasn't clear to me how important the patterns were to identifying each species.

    The colors and patterns are embedded in the skeleton. So, if you drop them in a preservative like alcohol, the reds and purples, and etc. don't go away. They remain after death.
    Here's another species. This one is from Japan... Coelopleurus undulatus from M. Shigei. 1986. The sea urchins of Sagami Bay. Biological Laboratory, Imperial Household, Maruzen Co. Ltd, Japan.

    Gorgeous and amazing. 
    Image from the NHM Echinoid database
    Here is the most recently described species, Coelopleurus exquisitus which had the distinction of being described, in part from specimens purchased from the online auction house Ebay in 2006. 

    Here again, is the very distinctive and unusual color pattern observed in this species... 

    But wait! Coelopleurus also occurs in the fossil record!!  Here's Coelopleurus coronaformis from the Cenozoic of Mexico (< 66 million years ago) so pretty recent..

    Here's Coelopleurus coronalis from the Eocene of Barcelona, Spain... 

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    The secret of the big terrifying jaws is #1 below! 
    HALLOWEEN! Every year, I like to use the season's festive theme to try and highlight some cool invertebrate diversity! Last year I did an overview of creepy worms and the year before that, I did an overview of spooky things that echinoderms (my research focus & subject of this blog's love) are known to do. 

    So, note that I actually am using REAL aspects of these animal's biology that make them, creepy, terrifying, spooky, whatever. Unlike SOME places.. I won't just find some weird looking, random animal and just SAY its spooky or creepy. It actually HAS to do something worthy of the name!

    This year: a theme that often comes up with invertebrates: Predators that would be terrifying if they were larger!! 

    So, this is a pretty popular trope and frankly, there are ALREADY a bunch of huge, oversized marine invertebrates that freak people out. You will doubtlessly see some tweets about those beasts this week.

    Here are some of my picks for invertebrate PREDATORS that to me, have earned the RIGHT to be optioned for movie rights! or other fantastic treatment!  So, nothing that is weird looking but harmless (I mean, c'mon, BASKING SHARKS? SHREWS?)

    There were MANY to choose from of course and so perhaps next year I'll present more of them. But for now, here's some good ones.....

    5. Arrow Worms (phylum Chaetognatha)
    Imagine the oceans filled with fast-swimming, transparent worms with sharp spines for teeth on their head, and which can effectively "see" in a 360 degree field of view AND attack and devour prey several times their own size.

    Bodies are transparent and with unusual "eyes" that are arrayed in 5 directions, essentially giving them a full field view (360 degrees). Fortunately, these "eyes" lack lenses and are thought primarily to be used for orienting to light and dark.
    They feed with these big nasty hooks that emerge off the front of the head!!  Some are even known to do so with venoms like tetrodotoxin, the potent toxin from puffer fish.

    Arrow worms have been documented as having capture prey several times their fish!
    Here's an interesting video that shows the spines extending from the head on a Japanese species... 
    Sadly, or perhaps fortunately for us.. these are pretty small. Ranging from less than half an inch with monsters up to 4 inches! 

    But what if they were HUGE????  Honestly, I think one movie from 1998Deep Risinghad these things, which swam through the water at a good clip. and the spines were KINDA chaetognath like! 

    Via Wikipedia
    4. Cone Snails.  Does everyone know what cone snails are? Marine snails that use a modified tooth like a harpoon + very potent toxins to capture their highly mobile prey. Often times, vertebrates like fish..

    Some of them, however, rather than using the proboscis to directly paralyze prey, will use this  highly modified "net" which is presumably, a modified feeding proboscis.. 
    Yikes.. imagine what that would be like if cone snails were bear or even elephant sized! 

    3. Rhizocephalans! Barnacle Parasites that take command of your Body! 
    Imagine  a fleshy parasitic network that works its way into your body, commandeering your all your bodily functions, INCLUDING your gonads, such that all you do is produce eggs to make NEW parasites.

    These don't really NEED to be bigger..but merely adjusted to parasitizing MORE than crabs.

    These have been written about in some detail by Rebecca Helm over at Deep Sea News. Her account is quite chilling. I recommend reading it in the dark, while you are alone with some seafood....
    Or, watch this video from Casey Dunn's "Creature Cast" series which also very ably explains the life of this creepy parasitic barnacle... 

    2. LEECHES! This is kind of a cheat, since I put leeches into my "Creepiest Worms" post last year.  I just thought this was kind of awesome... 

    1. Labidiaster annulatus, the giant 50 armed star of the Antarctic!
    This is one of my FAVORITE beasts.. which I wrote up here, early on in the blog (and on numerous other occasions).
    But the short story:  Giant 1.5 foot wide starfish with 50 arms, catches krill and other prey with arms!!                  

    The surface of the starfish, especially on the arms is covered by THESE.. 

    Jaw like structures called pedicellariae which act as "bear traps" to capture krill and other prey if they get too close to the arms. 
    Thanks to Bob Ford & Taylor Steed of Frederick University for the SEM pics
    These are ALREADY pretty big. About 1-2 mm. But look at those fangs!!  and the shanks on the teeth!

    Can you IMAGINE if this critter was DOG or even BEAR sized on the land????  Catching everything from tiny mammals to birds!!! 

    For the Next few weeks:Echinoblog Returns to PARIS!

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     Bonjour from Paris! This week: a new post looking at some cool specimens I'm looking at while researching at the world famous Museum national d'Historie Naturelle!   Home of Lamark and many other natural history legends!

    Today...two neat specimens with some interesting commentary and history, respectively...

    First, a rarely encountered species & some taxonomic commentary... 

    Paraferdina sohariae! It LOOKS like Fromia monilis, but isn't....  (as I said here awhile back..)
    They Key is in the arrangement of spines (or the lack thereof) on the underside of the tube foot groove...

    which is unfortunate, as you often don't see people with pictures of these in the wild...
    This looks like Paraferdina 

    Here's a "proper"Fromia monilis.. similar but with smaller marginal plates and more slender arms. 

    I will be going back to Flickr, where I will be beating my head into a hole in the wall, trying to figure all these different things out now... 

    A starfish from Cousteau?? 
    Here's some cool shots of the Atlantic "cookie" star Peltaster placenta, which I 'm showing you, to give you an intro to ANOTHER specimen of this species below... These generally live at SCUBA depth and much deeper...
    A pic of this species alive...Note how the disk is much more swollen
    I showed you the pic above, so I could share a cool specimen of this species I found... 
     WOW! Look at the name of the collector! Could this be THE Calypso of Jacques Cousteau fame??? 

    The MNHN is of course, the "national repository" (i.e., where they put all their stuff) of France, in the same way that the Smithsonian is the national repository of the United States. So, yeah, in theory anything they collect would be here. 
    The tag indicates "1964 (May), Greece".  Cousteau was in the nearby Red Sea in 1964 shooting his epic "Le Monde Sans Soleil" aka The World without Sun in 1964!! Could this have been collected before or perhaps as an excursion by the Calypso away from Red Sea??
    What other interesting specimens will present themselves?? 

    BONUS: And if you like the food porn? Here's some fresh, hand made donuts from a Farmer's Market.. Mmmmm....

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    Bonjour! Greetings to everyone from Paris! My apologies for the brief silence. Trips do not always go as planned and my laptop decided it had other plans a couple of weeks ago. "Technical difficulties"..  Ah well.. C'est la vie!

    As I am trying to get stuff done before my return to the United States, I thought I would offer a follow up to my artsy octopus post from last year (here)

    As a bit of contrast, here was a hyper awesome (and realistic) brass octopus at the gates to the Institute d'Oceanographie....
    But I think most of the rest of these are more reminiscent of "dumbo octopuses" which we saw recently on the Okeanos Explorer... 
    These are placed all throughout Paris and its often a treat to go hunting for them in various corners of this wonderous city! 

    They  are all the work of a street artist, GZUP Stretart (his facebook page is here) But many are goofy or otherwise "interpret" popular media icons.. 

    Here for example.. ZOIDBERG!! 
    Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow! 
    Oprah? I believe?  (Reader Claire clarifies that this is in fact Rhianna! thanks!)

    The Mouse! 
    And just more....
    An interesting one....


    More sciency stuff next week...! after I've gotten more caught up! 

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    Bonjour once again!! So, my trip to Paris has all but ended and I'll be returning to the United States in a few days. The trip has been a challenging one. The laptop crashed and was out of the loop for two weeks and left me without a computer for data collection and etc..

    So, much of my trip has been "old school".. working with paper and notes labelling jars with species names as best as I can...
    Although data collection has not been as efficient as I like, I have done the Paris Museum (my host) some good by identifying a massive number of specimens in the collection...
    I not only got through many of these older specimens but several of the newer ones as well...
    All said and done, I've identified around 900 specimen lots for the museum. Given that Paris probably contains the largest collections of asteroids in the world, that is no small feat!!

    But one of the GREAT things about this trip is that my visit, inadvertently overlapped with a trip being undertaken by one of my colleagues. Dr. Tim O'Hara at the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia!! One of the world experts on ophiuroid systematics and ecology! 

    I have written about Tim's work before:
    1. This new species of the Australian starfish Tosia, which was described by one of his students.
    2. This fantastic biogeographic pattern in brittle stars which he published several years ago! 
    3. Tim was also the one who identified and, in part, documented "Brittle Star city"
    Tim and I are friends from waaaay back. We worked together in the museum in 1999 before either of had our PhDs and its strange to think of that being almost 15 years ago...  

    I had a great chance to learn about weird brittle stars from Tim and so I did!!

    Learning about weird, deep-sea brittle stars with Dr. Tim O'Hara from Museum Victoria! 
    Tim was working with deep-sea biologists at the Paris Museum who are interested in New Caledonia.  (I am one of them).  Some may remember that this time last year, a huge new marine reserve was created in the New Caledonia region. 

    Thus, Dr. O'Hara's ecological and taxonomic expertise was brought to bear... not only to identify brittle stars...
    but ALSO to share his new cutting edge research with the greater scientific community! A recent paper by Dr. O'Hara has used cutting edge "Next Gen" technology, using over 425 genes to reconstruct the "family history" of the Brittle Stars.  

    Its noteworthy not only for the fact that he used an exhaustive amount of genetic data, but he was able to sample and identify ALL the brittle stars necessary for the study! Not an easy feat when you can count the total number of brittle star  taxonomy experts in the world on one hand! 

    Here is Tim giving the presentation to a full room of French scientists and colleagues (myself included) in the Paris Museum...

    The important part of ALL of Tim's work is being able to identify all of these strange, deep-sea brittle stars from distant parts of the world...  and he was happy to share several of these with me...

    1. Amphiophiura insolita!! Don't know much about it, but its got a spectacular rose-like disk pattern...
    This specimen of Amphiophiura bakeri was huge! Almost 2 cm across! It looked like an egg had grown five arms! 
    2. These two different species of the deep-sea Ophiomusium make it easy to see why brittle stars are so difficult to work with and identify.

    3. The tiny male living on the large female Ophiosphaera insignis!!  Notice all the white arrows.. Those point out the arms of the tiny, smaller male.  He lives on the female.

    Its unusual for there to be two distinct sexes in echinoderms. In this case, it is thought that this might be a pattern similar to that observed in anglerfish. The male is essentially a parasite on the female. 

    4. One of the strangest of deep-sea ophiuroids is almost never seen by most people. This is the ophiuroid Ophiomyces, which has this bizarre sac-like disk membrane..  

    Its certainly freaky enough that its hard to believe that the picture really captures what the animal looks like, so here's an actual specimen. Its only a few cm across..
    Here's one museum specimen, which as treated with metal for scanning electron microscopy...Its still kind of a surreal looking animal....

    5. A related brittle star is this genus, Ophiotholia, which differs in having funny little hooks on its spines... but has a more distinctly conical disk and specimens are always found with arms locked upwards.

    Again, a fairly small animal, only about 1-2 cm across. The drawn image on the left is from a plate of this species from the HMS Challenger vs. the right one which is an actual specimen...

    And amazingly, thanks to all of his molecular work, Tim now also has a very good idea where these strange critters go in the big "tree" of ophiuroid evolution!! 

    Ophiuroids are just a whole bunch of crazy sh*t that just makes my mind POP!!  

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