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!
Every once in awhile, I think that I might finally have run out of stuff to share with people and THEN something magic happens. Some fantastic new video or pic pops up and WOO! The diversity of echinoderms and the infinite resourcefulness of the Internet pop out of nowhere with some magic NEW biology to share!!
Case in point is this video, which was shot by "Dive Yos" showing various cool inverts spotted during a dive in Bali. The video was posted 2 months ago...
It starts with a few typical things, a sea anemone, sea horses, etc. a lot of typical fare...but then we see one, two, four heart urchins, six... and then at 0:27 into the video? BOOOM!!! You got this HUGE heart urchin stampede!!!
Best as I can tell, these are the heart urchin, Maretia planulata, described by Lamarck in 1816. This species of urchin lives throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific, from Tanazania to the Marshall islands...
They live in relatively shallow water on the surface of sandy bottoms.
I have no idea if this huge "herd" of urchins is "natural" or not..
But the thing is, Maretia is a heart urchin (aka a spatangoid). They are sediment feeders, so they don't really eat kelp. I suppose the absence of some predator might be the cause. And the huge numbers could STILL deplete food in a given region, but this high abundance seems to be a regular thing.
I would love to know more about whatever is going on here. Or maybe this will be the beginning of someone's Phd thesis? Don't know. But the thought of 100s (thousands?) of these things galloping along the bottom of the Indo-Pacific sandy bottoms is just... farking AMAZING!
Today.. a short instructional on tropical "cushion stars" which is a common name I HATE because it just describes so many different types of sea star species.. BUT if any one starfish species COULD be the "rightful" bearer of THIS common name, its the one called Culcita.
Why? Because its name is LITERALLY translated as "pillow or cushion" but for comparison, there's another similar looking beast called Halityle regularis. I see the two mistaken for one another all the time.. so here's the two genera for comparison...
This one is Halityle regularis. One species known, widely occurring from the Indian Ocean (Madagascar) to southern Japan (the Ryukyu Islands) and Australia and New Caledonia.
Interestingly, there are two colors I've seen on Flickr... This red one from Indonesia.
Haltyle has a very strongly defined net-like diamond pattern on the top surface and with the distinct colored region on the oral sufrace...
Here is Culcita! In terms of appearance, Culctia is a bit chubbier, and more compact, but the patterns on the surfaces are more cloud-like and are not as distinct.
Especially on the oral surface, which depending on species is a bit rougher, almost spiny
Culcita has THREE species, C. schmideliana from the Indian Ocean and C. coriacea, which is known primarily from the Oman region and finally the most widely occurring species C. novaeguineae which is found all over the Indo-Pacific. But mostly the Pacific.
Here is the Indian ocean species, Culctia schmideliana which is distinguished by the very large, dark granules/nodules on the body surface..
As with all the species, there appears to be some variation in color and degree of granular presence...
Culcita coriacea from the Gulf of Oman...These seem to have these larger dark regions and without the large granules but a more overall even surface..
And finally, the most widespread species in the Pacific Culcita novaeguineae C. novaeguineae is HIGHLY variable.. it comes in MANY colors throughout its very wide range, in the Pacific, including Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, New Caledonia, and elswhere....which suggests it is possibly a bunch of cryptic species...
Surface on these is largely covered by granules or tiny spinelets....None of which seem to get very large.
Some, such as this Japanese individual have tiny spinelets...
Based on Flickr photographer "Nemo's great uncle", the Japanese name "マンジュウヒトデ饅頭" roughly translates into "steamed bun starfish".
Mmmm...steamed bun... Awesome...
Colors in this species are HIGHLY variable.. what is the significance? Different species? Different food? Simple random variation??
More RED spines!! (Thailand)
Some interesting color contrast between the top and oral (bottom) surfaces..
in spite of their massive appearance, they are surprisngly flexible..
Here's one arched pretty strongly and doin' the cushion star equivalent of TEH SEX!! Gametes GO!!!
And on that note! Happy holidays from the Echinoblog!! I will be more irregular with posts over the next two weeks...
In 2009 (Sometimes even I can't believe how long I've been writing this blog!), I wrote a post that illustrated the results of my published papers. Most people may or may not realize that I'm an active scientist who works on the evolution and diversity of asteroids (aka starfish or sea stars). And even when I tell them.. most folks don't really SEE what it is that I've done.
Part of my research involves TAXONOMY. The description and classification of different species. Biologists who are specialists in taxonomy are present for all organismal groups-from folks who work on protists and fungi to insects, parasitic worms, dinosaurs and the list goes on.
Sadly, the ranks of scientists who practice any kind of taxonomy is shrinking. Why? There are a multitude of reasons that have been offered... -the need to work on research that secures larger funding sources -the lack of universities that continue to teach organismal coursework -the absence of perceived importance of taxonomic research -changes in the basic pace and emphases of evolutionary research..
In the time since I've started my professional career, I've described (as of Sept. 2011) over 2 dozen new species (plus some new genera), I have about 3 dozen publications and I oversee the World Asteroidea Database.
Most of these are present in the Goniasteridae-one of the most diverse groups in the Asteroidea and thankfully, a group that I know a thing or two about.....
What I hope to accomplish here is to give some substance to my accomplishments and a tangible sense (limited by the fact that they are pictures of course!) of what diversity remains to be found. And what sorts of animals have been described only in the last few years!
And many more remain to be discovered..
Some various miscellany that you may notice.. So some answers to anticipated questions..
Yes. I do occasionally name species to honor people who have supported or contributed to echinoderm research.
No. I wouldn't name a species after myself. That's considered poor form within the profession...
The CAS specimen (CASG 68139) is also from the Cretaceous of California... (my thanks to Dr. Peter Roopnarine @peterroopnarine and Collection Manager Dr. Jean deMouthe for their help!)
If some of you are "old timer" San Franciscans.. you may even recognize that this fossil was originally on display in the old CAS Life Through Time Exhibit!! These specimens (and others like them) are powerful pieces of evidence for how the distributional ranges of marine animals has changed over time.
but first.. just a little introduction so we're all on the same page...
Note the purple arrow below. The Stichasterids are down at the base of the tree. Given that the record of this whole group goes back to the Triassic, the fact that they are still around is pretty cool.
BUT most members of the Stichasteridae in MODERN oceans live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere (shown here by Stichaster australis), usually seen in Australia, New Zealand and/or the cold-temperate part of South America
But most members of the Stichasteridae are absent from the Northern Hemisphere EXCEPT in the deep-sea, such as this Neomorphaster we saw in a 2013 Okeanos Expedition, where they can be surprisingly abundant..
The only other EXCEPTION to this occurrence in the northern hemisphere is from FOSSILS!!
Behold this awesome specimen of the Cretaceous stichasterid, Pegaster stichos!!
So, this shows that at ONE TIME, this group of sea stars lived in the Northern Hemisphere and in the Pacific, perhaps even more widely than was previously known. Note also that in this time period, a good chunk of the west coast of North America was underwater...as well as a good parts of Texas and the south..
AMPHIPODS! What are they? Small, very diverse crustaceans that occur all over the world in marine, freshwater and even terrestrial habitats. They are distinctive in that their bodies are laterally compressed, in other words, their bodies are "taller" than they are wide.
There's a bewildering diversity of them with over 9500 species known. Most of them are pretty tiny (about 1.0 to 20 millimeters) but some giants approach 34 centimeters (13 inches!).. such as these supergiant amphipods which live in the abyss of the deep-sea at 7,012 meters!
There's a MASSIVE amount of diversity within the group. Some are transparent, while others are colorful. Sometimes they occur in huge densities and are often thought of as the "bugs" of the sea. They often act as detritivores/scavengers as well as predators..
I thought today might be a good idea to share some of the more unusual body forms, courtesy of the highly talented photo naturalists on Flickr. Enjoy! Epimeria loricata by Olga Zimina
Apparently 2 different color morphs of Paramphithoe hystrix by Olga Zimina
A "Jewel beetle" amphipod by Arthur Anker
A stunning podocerid? from Arthur Anker
A stunning hyperiid...
Some interesting "reef aquarium" species by Waldo Nell
the same under green filters/light!
Some Antarctic amphipod goodness (Echiniphimedia hodgsoni ,family Iphimediidae-ID by Marie Verhaye!) from US Antarctic Research Program at the NMNH
and a delightful species from the White sea.. by Alexander Semenov
There's this stunning beauty, ..also by A. Semenov
I'm here visiting the National Museum of Nature and Science, Japan's equivalent to its Smithsonian or National Museum of Natural History, where I am studying Japanese starfishes and trying to identify the total number of species in the region. This includes the discovery of new species, clarifying the taxonmy and relationships of known species and etc..
Fortunately, the NMNS has some ties with the oceanographic institution JAMSTEC, which is sort of the Japanese version of Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution or NOAA... and so, a visit!
My gratitude to Dr. Toshihiko Fujita for arranging the visit! And my thanks to his student Miki for making sure that I did not get lost in the THREE hour trip via the Japanese rail system to get there!
Deep-Sea Invertebrates!! The JAMSTEC collections had many interesting specimens.....
In addition to my research, I also got to see some unusual species I don't ordinarily get to see.. for example the armored snail, Cyrsomallon sp. , which you can read about here...
Along side a 500 yen coin for scale...
Later that day, we got a fantastic opportunity to tour the two JAMSTEC research vessels!
the R/V Kairei (Japanese for ridge), which operates the research ROV Kaiko 7000. I've never seen what shipboard life has been like on board vessels in other countries, so this was pretty neat!
The ROV Kaiko 7000 was not on board the Kairei.. but you could see that its a HUGE submarine robot!! That blue carrige on the left?? THAT is where the Kaiko usually sits before being deployed by the crane on the right...
Here's the Bridge
Here is their ROV control room.. normally completely darkened with big computer/TV screens... NOTE how clean the floor is.. The WHOLE computer and video room is IMMACULATE...
It is kept SO clean, that you actually take your shoes off before entering INTO the control/video ROV room!!! Which frankly.. was a first for me...
MESS HALL! Yes. they have a rice cooker...
In the Mess Hall, one of the things I loved was that ALL of their tea pots, cups, etc. have the JAMSTEC logo on them!!! How cool is that??
The bathrooms were different compared to a western ship, which typically only use showers. Here's the men's common area bathing room.. two showers PLUS a BATH TUB! Its customary to take a nice hot bath in Japan.. but still, a shift from what I'm accustomed to...
Still... a bathtub at sea?? Sure. I'd try it!
And of course, a highly sophisticated Japanese electric toilet!!!
The R/V Kaiyo (Japanese for ocean)
Is a bit different..a catamoran with twin hulls... which is similar in overall morphology to the R/V Western Flyer operated by MBARI.. The Kaiyo is a bit older and due to be retired next year..
My Japanese colleagues discovered more specimens of this species a few years ago in Japanese waters and named it 竜宮桜ヒトデ aka the "deep-sea cherry blossom starfish". The english name was more like "Pumpkin Starfish" But cultural differences, dontcha know...
I've certainly been present as an eyewitness to feeding by Evoplosoma on Okeanos Explorer dives in the last two years, such as the one above from the September mission....
but there were several that occurred well before I became more deeply involved. It often takes a taxonomist (or any scientist) who has become SO familiar with the subject animals that you can recognize when something is new and something is old and rare.. sometimes from plates and figures that are over 100 years old!
Ya see how the stalk with starfish is barren? and the "healthy" branch to the right still has tissue and polyps (i.e feeding structures) on it?? We're seeing feeding by the sea star which digests that tissue off the white center stalk..
These types of observations have only recently been more frequent in the last few years..
So, everyone "sees" these observations on the expeditions. But what most folks don't realize is that this is SCIENCE IN ACTION. Observations and data being recorded while they are watching the live stream!
This blog post and the paper are the FORMAL RESULT of these pictures and video!!! The science entered into the formal record.
Lets see what we've got!!
1. Some deep-sea seastars will feed on deep-sea "corals" for at least a YEAR! or more!
So, one cool thing I came upon during my providing "scientist on shore" input for the Okeanos Explorer live streamed expeditions was an anecdote by Dr. Scott France, who mentioned seeing a piece of "bubblegum coral" (not a true coral, but an octocoral called Paragorgia) on Manning Seamount in the North Atlantic, which had been knocked over at some point and was being fed upon by some sea stars, which at the time were unidentified..
This account and this picture were taken in 2004...
ONE YEAR LATER! the Okeanos Explorer again was on Manning Seamount and had returned to the same spot and BEHOLD the sea stars were STILL there feeding on the bubblegum coral...
The colony was still "alive" but being slowly fed upon by the sea stars!! Almost 15 MONTHS later! The feeding rate was incredibly slow compared to those measured in shallow water coral predators such as the Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci).
Lots of thoughts and comments have probably jumped into my head and probably yours as well. "Are you sure those are the same four (three) sea stars?" "Couldn't they have moved on and come back?"
"Did they REALLY stay there, eating a coral for a year?"
This feeding events gives us a rare look into how important nutrients and FOOD are to animals in the deep-sea... and the the time scale involved...
During an expedition to Bear Seamount in the North Atlantic in 2004, Dr. Les Watling spied this sea star, apparently feeding on the deep-sea corals he works on.
Not being an expert on sea stars, he tentatively identified it, and put the specimen into storage following its collection. LOTS of different animals feed or live in or around deep-sea corals and sometimes there's just not enough time to work up every single, new piece of data...or new specimen that comes up...
That's where I come in! A few years later, I'm working on this group and examine the specimen he collected now over a decade ago! and voila it turns out to be a new species!
And..thus behold the new species Evoplosoma watlingi! Named for its discoverer!!
3. Evoplosoma feeds on coral in a very particular way... what are all those spines and pedicellariae for anyway?
Everyone seems confident in assuming that sea stars feed in the same way.. that is, hump over the shell of a clam and extrude stomach into the crack and feed away, right??
Well, in coral-feeding sea stars we see a fine bit of acrobatic action involved!!! And thanks to the high definition videos of Okeanos Explorer, we can see them in VERY fine detail!
Basically, what's interesting about this and OTHER pics of these animals is how such a big, bulky animal seems able to effortlessly CLIMB up into the branches of these deep-sea coral colonies in apparent defiance of gravity!
Well, bear in mind, this is all underwater and these sea stars are mostly water inside those calcium carbonate skeletons...
Other surprisingly common features on these animals? Spines... and little claw-like structures known as pedicellariae. Are these used to help feed and climb???
The Lessons of Okeanos Explorer
Specimens are still necessary for the "nitty-gritty" biology. New species, etc.
You CAN observe behavior and with a lot of sophisticated high-def video, you can even identify some of the critters you are watching!
There's a LOT of video nobody has been watching with a TON of good stuff in it!!
You can make a paper out of it!
Thanks to The crews & team members of the Okeanos Explorer and at NOAA for the support and help! Kate Neill, from the National Institute of Water & Atmosphere (NIWA) in Wellington, New Zealand! Marc Eléaume from the Museum national d'Historie naturelle in Paris, France and Scott France at the University of Louisiana!
As many of you know, I am a big fan of the Okeanos Explorer Program and have summarized highlights from many of their dives! Here are some of them again!
JAPAN! So many amazing things! Sometimes in unexpected places!!
Today, an unusual post. As many of you know I'm currently visiting Japan to study the Sea Stars of Japan at the National Museum of Nature and Science.
In a happy coincidence with this year's visit, my trip took place at the same time as the massive Japanese science fiction/toy and model-kit show called Wonder Festival. I have a uh... passing interest in Japanese pop culture.. Godzilla, Ultraman, so forth...and so, why not? I've never been to one.. I wonder what its like??
HUGE. A massive space with a massive crowd!
Much of it was pretty much what you would expect. Renditions of everyone's favorite Japanese monsters, robots and so on...
But one of the things I had NOT expected was to see how this incredible pool of artists, craftsmakers, modellers, and even retailers were heavily influenced by Natural History!
In other words: BIOLOGY. ZOOLOGY. FISH! INVERTEBRATES! Even ROCKS!!
Here in this enclave of fantasy were an innumerable number of items which were inspired by the natural world!! I saw everything from actual animal skulls for sale to various figure kits and monsters inspired by insects, sea stars and more!
I don't know if I should have been surprised but I was VERY impressed by how creative and frankly, f*cking STUNNING some of the art and displays were... and yes much of it for sale.
I've mentioned in other posts, how the Japanese apparently have a pretty huge appreciation for natural history and an inordinate fondness, if not outright obsession with various marine invertebrates..
But pictures were encouraged and so here's a cross-sample of things that caught my eye. I'll be honest and say that at the time I didn't think to capture the names of the companies and artists who created these items. And so, the omission of their names is my fault... but knowing how much of these things exist is a pretty awesome fact in and of itself...
A steampunk Fangtooth Fish! My pictures don't do it justice..
I've been in Japan for the last 6 weeks studying Japanese sea stars at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tsukuba, Japan!
As this is my last week at the museum I thought I would share some neat pics of some of the interesting echinoderms that I've encountered over the last few weeks....
Trophodiscus almus. This is an unusual species, which brood baby sea stars on its top surface! You see those weird round to star shaped white spots on the surface? Those are the juveniles which live on the surface among the "forest" of spines present..
Close up of the stalked crinoid Saracrinus nobilis! This closeup shows us the arrangement of plates on the various arms and how they fuse together to form the various skeletal architecture used to identify them and to compose the arm structure..
A picture of the stalk.. note the angles!! Cool!
A slightly different crinoid.. a feather star. (an unstalked vs. the stalked species above).but a closeup of the arms and how they articulate and form different fused pieces...
So, just got back from Japan and busy playing catchup and recovering from jet lag... so in the meantime, here's some cool ammonite art to go along with the #sciart hashtag currently producing such neat things on Twitter!
Lu took a chance on me, early in my career and funded a visit for me to study the Bishop Museum echinoderm collections back in 1997 (or thereabouts). The funding was basic. I stayed at the YMCA and worked at the museum for about a month. No air conditioning. I ate at Zippys every day. Got lost on the bus pretty regularly, but swam in the pool every day. A difficult but fond time in my life.
This was one of my first "real" museum visits and I learned a lot about being a research scientist and got my feet wet doing basic field work (we did some collecting) and studying museum collections.
While I was working, I found this specimen which I initially misidentified but later discovered was a species previously undescribed from Hawaiian waters.. A genus known as Astroceramus!
The genus name is very descriptive. In the latin, "Astro" refers to the star shape and "ceramo" (or -ceramus) refers to "tile" So "Star shaped tile". This probably alludes to the very tile-shaped plates that comprise the animal's surface
And so, I have named this handsome starfish species for Lu : Astroceramus eldredgei which loosely translates to "Eldredge's ceramic star."
and more than that! they have observed it feeding on some of the deep-sea corals in the area.. Here is one image showing it feeding on the distinctive blue-colored deep-sea plexaurid octocoral, Astromuricea theophilasi
So, not only is it a cool looking beast but it is also likely an ecologically important one! and joins the ranks of the many other deep-sea corallivores I have written about...
Chris does a lot. In addition to managing their video database, he runs any number of deep-sea and submersible projects and has done a LOT to further our understanding of marine resources (including fisheries) in the Hawaiian region.
Apollonaster is genus in the same family as Astroceramus, the Goniasteridae. The name has an interesting history.. as it was named in honor of the Apollo 11 voyage which landed the first men on the moon. An apt genus to honor a deep-sea scientist!
Prior to this species being discovered, Apollonaster was known only from the tropical Atlantic! Could this be evidence that this was a species which occurred in both oceans before the closure of the Panamanian ishtmus??
This week, I crack open my geology files and tell you a little about an interesting preservational process known as pyritization! This is actually a special type of preservation called permineralization, where an inorganic mineral "replaces" or forms a cast of a particular structure. Mostly hard parts, but soft parts are also replaced, as we'll see.
Pyritization involves the mineral iron sulfide (FeS2), (also known as pyrite or fool's gold)..which will replace the 'hard parts' (shells, skeletons, etc.) present on animals during preservation.
This mode of preservation actually involves biology!! Bacteria, which are present during the decay of the original organism will produce sulfide. If you've ever seen something dead and buried, that rotten egg smell that accompanies the blackened tissue is the sulfide.
The bacteria in combination with minerals in the sediment/soil can lead to unusual conditions leading to the formation of pyrite which eventually becomes infused with the fossil, sometimes replacing the hard parts and sometimes even the soft parts..
Here are some neat examples...
Pyritized Devonian brachiopod! Paraspifier bownockeri. Image by James St. John
A Devonian goniatite (fossil cephalopod), Tomoceras unlangulare. Image by James St. John
unidentified pyritized ammonite
Some show exceptionally fine details! Here are sutures on the shell..
And pyritized detail inside the shell
Endoskeletons and soft parts can also be pyritized, resulting in exceptionally preserved specimens!
Here is the Devonian Furcaster paleozoicus..a Paleozoic brittle star from the famous Hunsruck slate in Germany
Simply put, taxonomy is the subsection of biology that deals with assigning names to biological entities and arranging them in an orderly "system." Usually in describing new species or even new genera, families or higher depending on what you work on.
Many names apply and different scientists focus on different areas of expertise: Systematist, evolutionary biologist, invertebrate zoologist, marine biologist, paleontologist, systematic biologist, entomologist, botanist, protistologist, herpetologist, etc., etc.
Arrangements of organisms are known as classifications which are dictated primarily by the evolutionary relationships of the organisms in question..be they single celled amoebas, fungus, plants, or any number of animals..starfish, cats, water bears, fish, dinosaurs, etc.
BUT the first part of that process is to figure out exactly WHICH species you are studying. What phylum of worm? What kind of single celled animal? What kind of plant? Out of the hundreds to millions of known and unknown species in the world??
Some species are well known, but others, especially those that live in poorly studied or out of the way habitats: the deep-sea, the distant tropics or even the microfauna and flora of your local pond these can be highly varied and you need a specialist to tell you what they are..(if you can't figure it out yourself!)
It was said for magic that knowing a demon or magical creature's name gave you power over it. This is the same for our knowledge of organisms. Knowing which genus, species, family, etc. allows you access to all the previously known knowledge about it.
Do we have hundreds of articles on its biology? Or is it something completely unknown?
That said, I've been doing this for awhile now so here's a five ups and downs that I think I've experienced in my career as a taxonomist/biologist/paleontologist/whatever that I thought might provide some insight into why you should support a taxonomist (and taxonomy!)
As a taxonomist, these are dynamics that one comes to accept as part of the profession. They are challenges and we always hope that things will be better. But for the moment, this is how they are.. Most folks in the taxonomy field live with these things every day.
These are my opinions/perceptions and not the perspective of any organization I am affiliated with.
1. Taxonomy is biological infrastructure: everybody wants/needs what you offer but its often (still) professionally taken for granted.
For many decades, taxonomy was considered as almost a service to the rest of the scientific community. Say, you had some scientific study X, that focused on a weird deep-sea worm..but you didn't know what it was!! Send it off to the local museum. Or to the Smithsonian or wherever. They would often identify these things (and yes, of course for free) and there was not even a suggestion that the name of the taxonomist would be included anywhere but in the acknowledgements.
So, the scientists were held in high regard but never got full credit. This happened to me a lot early in my career. but not any more...
TODAY, I usually insist on co-authorship on anything that involves a significant amount of work. Credit where credit is due.
But, its still commonplace for papers that use one or many species to omit the name of the scientist (or whomever) who described it in the paper's references.
Its often convention to list the author and date of description after the species name, especially if it was described recently (i.e., in the last 50 years or so). This is usually done only in formal taxonomic papers. But in journals which use taxonomy outside of "formal" use (e.g., in ecology, physiology, etc.), its not unusual for the author and date to not be cited and the reference (and thus the credit) for scientific papers is denied to taxonomists. Thus lowering their status in the scientific community.This paper documents this issue.
2. You get to travel.....but then spend months to years writing up the results
BUT these trips last for only so long. The exotic adventure stuff gets balanced by the more mundane preparation and wrap up. Some expeditions or even just museum trips take months to YEARS to completely "finish".
Why? Most day to day work involves a lot of standard office work. Papers have to be written. Specimens have to be cataloged. Reports have to be made on the expeditions. Receipts have to be tallied. Meetings and responsibilites have to be met. Sometimes classes have to be taught. For new trips.. proposals have to be written and logistics have to be made.
So yes. cool things to be done and seen but a lot of the time. Work. Meetings. Etc.
3. Most discoveries happen in museums....
I've written about this dynamic in past posts (here). Some specimens await discovery for decades before being found by someone who writes it up. On average this turns out to be about 21 years from the time the specimen is discovered until the paper is published..
As much as I've gone to sea and travelled to exotic places, I find the most number of new discoveries in buckets and jars of preserved specimens.
The museum is practically the HABITAT for the taxonomist. So, like any endangered species, one needs to save it to save the species! If you support natural history and taxonomy, support the museum!!
A lot of museums with natural history collections have also been struggling. Funding is almost always below what is necessary to maintain a collection at optimal levels. Other challenges to museums I've observed
Space! So many jars, specimens, etc. fit into a storage room and real estate can be expensive. Universities and private collectors are prone to give up their collections, which often end up at museums overwhelming the in-house resources.
Personnel! People are one of the most important ingredients to a good museum collection. Specimens require upkeep. They have to be cataloged. Shipped. Mailed. Received. Sorted. Some materials are protected by law. Training museum professionals is now its own field separate from what scientists do. Collection management is a challenge.
Resources! Specimens require material. Jars. Archival storage boxes. Tissue samples require freezers. Shelving. The list goes on. Individually, some of the items may not cost much..but remember these are used at a pretty regular clip.
and.. the resources above speak NOTHING of research materials.... DNA labs, microscopes, computers, etc. etc. which is another matter entirely.
4. You belong to a small community which is growing smaller
In this regard, taxonomy isn't all that much different from other academic fields or even other professional or business fields with a very specific focus.
Most taxonomists are unique experts in their group. As I said above, I am one of the world's only practicing taxonomists specializing in living sea stars (there are paleontologists around though). In the early 20th Century there were up to 5 to 7 sea star experts at any given time. Yes. there are people who work on regional faunas (i.e. starfishes of island X) but folks who work on all of them? That's me.
For marine invertebrates, there is a perception that there is a serious lack of taxonomic expertise which I think bears some concern. You do get students who train and get degrees, but not a lot of jobs or positions are available. Some of us have gotten by but I've seen many of my gifted colleagues move on to other fields for lack of a stable position.
I've always seen the demand from other fields (ecology, physiology, oceanography etc.) for MORE people who can ID or describe the "creature X" that they collected, etc.. but "Nobody works on those any more, since Dr. Y died..."
One of the things I always clarify to folks is that even though there's always something to DO, there's not always someone who will hire you to do it.
I love what I do. But I don't have a "proper job" (I get by on soft money and other funds) but I feel compelled to continue (and I continue to hope!). My career is a good one but I've been lucky. Its a difficult field to survive in.
So, yes. There's an avalanche of undescribed species awaiting description! But whether you are a classical (but modern!) taxonomist like me, a person working on protists, or a barcoding guru, these are all pretty specialized positions. And getting a job doing what we're trained for is, at best difficult.
What happens when the last person working on a big or important group retires or dies?
There's been an unfortunate decline in jobs for taxonomists in recent years. This seems to accompany the various funding issues which accompany universities which have shifted their emphasis away from programs focusing on general knowledge.
Many reasons have been offered for this decline but ultimately I think the best I can do to support future generations and my other colleagues is to continue my outreach and shed a light on the challenges faced and why supporting taxonomists is worthwhile!
At this point, someone will bring up privatization or "Why don't you charge people for what you do?" And yes. Its crossed my mind..but that's a discussion for another post..
Theyposition themselves into the water column in order to take advantage of better water currents for their gametes to disperse. Or at least, that's what seems to be the case. This reproductive posture is actually not all that well understood.
So, its time for ANOTHER installment of sea cucumber spawning!!
One important thing to realize? That in spite of their shape and the color of the materials being emitted, we CANNOT identify the sex of the sea cucumbers in the pictures.
This diagram nicely sums up the difference in reproductive material. One emits the male gametes while the females emit the egg. But its likely not the case that they are always this conveniently near one another..
The eggs and the sperm meet in the water and fertilize in the water column. Once fertilization occurs, the fertilized egg matures into a specific sea cucumber larvae, known as an auricularia (sometimes referred to as the auricularia stage):
And it is the above larval stage which undergoes several more stages of growth until it settles onto the sea bottoms and matures into an adult sea cucumber.
Since these guys are likely trying to take advantage of the same water current to carry their gametes to their destination, several individuals (from different species) are likely to find locations in the same general area.
This one seems to have found a particularly safe area around some diadematid urchins...
From Japan, we have several very nice video captures of various sea cucumbers in spawning position...
Their postures are fairly arched and position the body well into the water column.
And here are further examples of sea cucumber species emitting gametes from around the world..
In stark contrast, some other species seem to be closer to the bottom during this period, with only part of the body raised off the ground.
Interesting that both of these are on sandy bottoms. Coincidence? Difference in species? Hard to say.
The pic used in the book looks pretty much exactly like the toy...
2. Is this something I was planning?
Nope. One of my colleagues in Japan saw it and informed me of it. The first I ever heard of this was early this year in February. I only wish that there was a western market for accurate starfish toy collectibles!
3. You're getting paid for this aren't you? Are you just advertising?
I'm not. When I described this new genus and species back in 2004, it was part of my science. A remarkable new animal that was radically different from almost anything else I had seen. New species are discoveries that everyone can and should enjoy, and are essentially in the public domain.
and I'll be honest, of all the various things that I thought could happen, someone making a toy out of this wasn't one of them!
The company who produced these, did so ENTIRELY on their own. They likely have no idea who I am and probably don't even realize that the person who described this species might still be alive (if they even understand that concept). I suppose that its sort of flattering that something I published was considered interesting enough to be part of this line up!
I paid for the toys I own myself. No "comp" toys for me in this case...
I suppose if I was to look at the bright side of this, this could be one of the many ways that basic research "benefits" economic growth!
4. Where do I get one? At the moment, the only place I know of that outside of gashapon shops in Japan that you can find these is Ebay. Search under "deep-sea sushi" and you'll find, at least for awhile, complete sets and individuals. Many of the single piece figures are WAAY overpriced relative to the complete sets. And yes, the shipping from Japan/Hong Kong will either be expensive or take a fairly long tim (mine took about a month).
5. How Many Other Japanese Starfish Toys are there?
and by that I mean proper figures. None of this cheap-ass gift store stuff...
So, there's no starfish toys that depict REAL asteroids. Or at least, not like the way there is this 90 dollar replica of Bathynomus giganteus
But there's a BUNCH of them that depict kaiju from Japanese Science Fiction!! There are a surprisingly large number of them.. So here's my excuse to show some of them!
This week: Some echinoderm highlights from the 2015 Okeanos Oceano Profundo cruise!
I've made the point in the past about how AWESOME it is to be able to see so many deep-sea animals alive!
As a scientist who works mostly with preserved specimens, our typical perception of these species from dead material is something like this:
The above specimen is a species of Freyastera, a deep-sea brisingid asteroid. Brisingids have special suspension feeding arms with very delicate arms covered by needle-like spines. I've discussed them at length here.
In stark contrast, here is one alive:
Dang. THAT's a world of difference!! And the living observation gives us basic info like color and basic posture. Surprisingly important information when you consider how badly deformed and damaged specimens collected by trawl net can be....
But on the other hand, it is FROM these specimens that we are able to have records of these rare species from past expeditions.
Case in point:
1. Laetmaster spectabilis
We saw this Tuesday. At a depth of 3915 meters from the east wall of Mona Canyon. This is a member of the Solasteridae, which are the "sun stars", which I have written up briefly here.
This is one of the rarest known sea stars, which was known previously from one or two specimens in the late 19th Century on which the descriptions were based. Collected in 1878 by the Blake, a famous oceanographic vessel!
That pretty much means that no one has collected this species for over 130 years! It gave a hard pass to the 20th Century. yow.
2. Plinthaster dentatus feeding!
Another cool thing that we often encounter on these dives is basic aspects of biology which, for deep-sea species, are unknown.
1. FIRST starfish from a Hydrothermal Vent Habitat!! There aren't many echinoderms that live in these types of environments, such as brittle stars, sea cucumbers but this species is the FIRST starfish/sea star to be found in association with a hydrothermal vent habitat!
Why? Hard to say, exactly but it probably has to do with the fact that most echinoderms can't process toxins very well. Their "body fluid" is basically sea water. This is probably why there are no freshwater or land echinoderms.
These starfish aren't "primary" vent fauna, such as big vent worms or clams that can manufacture food out directly of toxic sulfide.. These exist at the edge of the community feeding on the animals that ARE part of the primary vent community. BUT that said, they are pretty important (see below)
Among their food? The weird stalked barnacle, Vulcanolepis The zonation above is probably not that discrete but it does suggest that animals on the "periphery" probably move inside and among all the inner zones, although there are probably several of these that are at the "edge" of their overall zone...
and the very abundant "hoff crab"
There's obviously a LOT we still have to learn about the ecology of this habitat! But as far as understanding a habitat 2000-2500 meters down, in the Antarctic?? Knowing the top predator is a good start!
3. NEW family, new genus and two new species! So, we have a weird, deep-sea habitat with weird inhabitants. What does the starfish look like?? The skeleton is pretty reduced. A fairly soft and fleshy body wall.
Are both distant relatives of these two weird deep-sea species! What character is shared between them? Features such as these pedicellariae! Tiny wrench shaped claws that cover the body...
5. Named for some deep-sea biologists! So... WHAT TO NAME THEM?? As a taxonomist, one of my super powers is that I can honor a person, place or thing by converting their name into Latin, thus immortalizing them into the history of science!
As a matter of good practice, its considered more informative to use descriptive terms, but ultimately species names are at the discretion of the author.