Sunday, June 26, 2016

Stunning Highlights from Okeanos 3rd leg of the Marianas Expedition!!

This last week has been a busy one-made even more momentous with all of the very AMAZING observations made by this last leg of the Okeanos Explorer as it explores various seamounts and other sites in the Marianas Islands! A whole bunch of information on the geological setting and the various study areas can be found on their website here
The entire mission overview can be found on NOAA Okeanos Explorer pages here and of course the LIVE VIDEO is on click away! (when they are broadcasting-usually from about 6pm to midnight Eastern time)

But what are some of the more SPECTACULAR animals they have been seeing?? Here's a highlight of the ones I consider just singularly amazing!

1. Big White Lyrocteis-like Benthic Ctenophore (aka comb jelly)
The last year or two has seen a HUGE awareness of these strange animals. Basically they are the bottom version of swimming comb jellies aka ctenophores. Although gelatinous, they are possibly VERY distinct from proper jellyfish.

We have seen a fair number of these on earlier Okeanos dives (as we see here) and I've written a post (here) about Lyrocteis aka the "Harp comb jelly" which occurs widely in the Pacific.

This newly discovered white animal has a very different surface texture and so far has NOT been observed to extend its feeding tentacles! It has the same "rabbit ears" or "harp" shaped body as Lyrocteis but is it even the same thing??   Interesting!

2. Stunning sea anemone in the family Aliciidae! 
This one was just stunning and weird all at the same time. It kind of looks like a strange gelatinous Christmas Tree! From Ahyi Seamount, 275 meters

Fortunately Dr. Chris Kelley of HURL had seen one of these before. The withdrawn version of a seldom seen sea anemone in the family Aliciidae.

Here's a picture from the HURL database showing it extended. You can see the knobs on the body. Beautiful..but wow. Unusual.

3. The Sea Anemone (from) Liponema
ANOTHER bizarre sea anemone. These go by the common name "pom pom anemones" or "tumbleweed" anemones... Why? Because they actually have a very loose connection to the bottoms and can actually ROLL along when they want to move!!

This pic from Pagan Volcano and Supply Reef from about 336 m
Here's a separate species called Liponema brevicornis doing JUST that thing! Rolling along the bottom like a big pink fuzzy snow ball!! 
Image borrowed from
4. Neat looking sea anemone called Isactinernus! About which it seems there is very little known.... But it has these very distinct tentacled lobes 

Here it is OPEN (seen on Pagan Volcano, 345 m)
and here it is CLOSED (this was seen on Supply Reef)

5. The Ever Majestic swimming sea cucumber Enypniastes
This splendid picture taken in the famous Mariana Trench from a dizzying 5, 775 meters!  DEEP!

Here's a stunning urchin with Christmas colors! Caenopedina probably C. pulchella based on what I've been able to find on it.. 

Handsome red cidaroid sea urchin from Moag Crater, 327 meters

An aspidodiadematid urchin, possibly Aspidodiadema from Eifuku Seamount, 420 m. Want to learn more about these urchins with crazy long spines that act as walking legs?? GO HERE.
 7. And some New Species of Snails...
This is what's called a slit shell snail or a member of the family Pleurotamariidae. Long story short: deep-sea snails but with similar shells observed in the fossil record. This gives them "Living Fossil" status and their beauty and color makes them valuable to shell collectors..

The one the Okeanos Explorer has been seeing? Probably a new species according to Chong Cheng at JAMSTEC (@squamiferum on Twitter).
and this STUNNING nudibranch, probably the genus Kaloplocamus, according to Dr. Terry Gosliner at the California Academy of Sciences! 

Those yellow balls on the body extensions? Apparently those are luminescent organs! Not previously seen in this genus..making this a very likely NEW species (thanks to Dr. Gosliner for the determination!)

And anyway.. THERE's MORE to COME! 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sea Urchin Biomimicry! Echinoids Inspiring Applications from knives to glue!

Tiny teeth
Its been awhile since i've done a "What have we learned from Echinoderms?" type post.. So, this week a news round up about the utility of sea urchins and their inspired applications!

Although I talk about several different inspriations, two of the stories below focus is the elaborate jaw mechanism in sea urchins known as Aristotle's Lantern! A nice basic definition can be found at the Echinoid page on The Natural History Museum in London (here). 

Aristotle's Lantern is this weird yellow piece in the picture below. These sit over the mouth opening and the "teeth" or jaws of the sea urchin emerge through the bottom..

This illustration gives you an idea of the orientation

Image from page 201 of "Elementary text-book of zoology" (1902)

And here's a video that allows you to see the teeth emerging through the oral opening and back again. 
Urchins use these teeth to rasp algae and other food off the substrate. They are quite effective when one considers just how much algae a sea urchin eats!

ALL of the stories below are part of a field known as biomimicry!

Basically, taking the idea/engineering from ACTUAL biological structures that have demonstrated effectiveness and reverse-engineering them so that they can be used in industrial or other applications!! Urchins have been quite the inspriation of late! Here's a round up of some of the recent and more interesting ones!

1. Self Sharpening Blades/Knives! 
Based on this account in Advanced Functional Materials and a summary in National Geographic (here) sea urchin teeth were studied with x-rays and determined to occur in separate layers with different structural textures which are interlaced between softer organic layers.                                       
One of the textural layers breaks very easily but is also replaced very easily. These areas get "torn away" whenever the teeth on sea urchin jaws are used.. but are also replaced quite quickly! 

Thus, functionally, the teeth grow continuously and are thus CONSTANTLY being rejuvenated and are essentially always sharp! 

2. Sea Urchin Jaws Inspire Space Exploration??

You can also just watch this video account of the whole thing...

Here's an Italian "bionic model" of how the Aristotle's Lantern jaw might work.. Kind of similar to the way a claw in one of those arcade "grab claw" games works! 

3. Architecture: Urchin Test Shape distributes Stress! 
Its been commented upon at sites such as these that the "oblate" shape of sea urchin skeletons (i.e., the test) is very effective at distributing stress evenly over the surface. Thus, the shape of urchin skeletons might actually be useful for inspiring better shapes in building! 
urchin test
...and then of course, there's the TARDIS in Doctor Who! 

4. Sea Urchin Spines Inspire Idea for Concrete! 
A paper by Seto et al in PNAS from 2012 studied the physical structure of sea urchin spines and discovered that they were composed of crystals that were bound together with a second type of calcium carbonate, acting as sort of a mortar, but with no crystal structure. These give the spines a highly resistant texture that suggest a better way to make fracture resistant materials.  A summary of this was in this BBC story.  and yet even more can be found on this blog about Mesocrystals and concrete! 
Sea Urchin spines
5. Adhesives!
Amazing sea urchin tube feet

Instead of "suction" as had been believed for decades, it turns out that urchin tube feet work on a chemical adhesive basis! In other words,, they STICK instead of SUCK!  You can go through a brief summary of these details here. 

These provide a lot of potential for marine adhesives if the means of adhesion can be understood and "reverse-engineered"!

Other posts in the "What good are echinoderms" series to be found HERE   
and here

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Echinoderm Research at Museum Victoria! So long and thanks for all the Starfish!

Tropical brittle stars (2)
In the same way that a particular class of echinoderms is made up of diverse members, so are the research labs which study them!  So, in my last installment of #EchinoblogInAustralia I thought I would do a brief profile of researchers doing various kinds of echinoderm research at Museum Victoria in the Marine Zoology Department!

I've done similar profiles for the researchers in Paris at the Museum natioinal d'Histoire naturelle (here)! I think this gives everyone a bit of insight into the many different crew members which staff the various roles in the big research seen in scientific papers. And Dr. Tim O'Hara's lab has had a good week for "big research paper drops" with more to come!!

Just as a refresher though.. Here's a pic with the BIG project that Tim O'Hara's lab has been working on for the last several years: the BIG ophiuroid (aka the brittle and basket star) phylogeny! aka the "family tree" of the ophiuroids!

As I've mentioned previously, the new phylogeny is a BIG deal. It involves a group with over 2000 species which has been a taxonomic headache to scientists for over 100 years. Their research has literally turned this whole field on its head! (if brittle stars had a head!)

The tree clarifies which groups show support for being "real" and elaborates on how different brittle star and basket groups are related to one another.  It will almost DOUBLE the number families!!!
The tree itself is HUGE. Here it is below printed out and mounted on the wall for easy reference. You can see that it extends from that lower bookshelf to the that top shelf-so the printout is easily 6 feet tall (or two meters)!!

The tree was made using a phylogenomic data set. This is different from a lot of the molecular trees made in the last 20 years because it includes a whopping 425 genes and over 60 taxa! (other trees generally use only 3 to 10)  You can see the big paper as published in Current Biology here.

The Echinoderm researchers at Museum Victoria includes a diversity of workers!

1. Dr. Andrew Hugall
Where Tim O'Hara provides the "Ophiuroid Taxonomy and context", Dr. Hugall is the phylogenetics and analytical guru part of the "Big Ophiuroid" team. Although he is currently working on marine invertebrates, he worked previously on birds, discovering "Accelerated speciation" in highly colorful birds, a paper which was published in Nature in 2012. You can see that here. 
Dr. Hugall worked on the analytical aspects of the project and, in conjunction with Dr. O'Hara, cleaned up the genetic data in order to make it ready for analysis. He also provides a good complement to the "natural history" side of the lab with a powerful analytical background.

2. Lupita Bribiesca
Lupita is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne and got her undergraduate degree from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She's not only very proficient in computer coding and analysis but she's already a prolific author in echinoderm systematics! Especially in anchialine cave echinoderms!
In Mexico, Lupita worked on echinoderms which lived in submarine caves fed by the ocean. Some of her work can be found

3. Skipton "Skip" Woolley

Skip is a relatively new name on the echinoderm scene! But started out in grand fashion! His name of course headlines last week's BIG NATURE paper on ophiuroid deep-sea diversity! (here)

He's been doing analytical work looking at "big picture" diversity patterns in ophiuroids. His prior paper looked at biogeographical subdivisions in Western Australia in the journal Diverstiy & Distributions

4. Dr. Kate Naughton
I featured Kate Naughton's work on the blog back in 2009 when she and Tim O'Hara discovered a brooding "cryptic" species of the Australian Biscuit Star Tosia using molecular tools to understand the relationships of Tosia australis along the Australian coast. (see this story here)

Since then Kate has received her PhD and continued to do her awesome work combining ecology, taxonomy and molecular phylogenetics at Museum Victoria.
These days she's been working a LOT on feather star (i.e., crinoid) taxonomy and diversity in Australia. It turns out that there's a LOT of these in Australia that remain to be discovered and what's known requires a lot of work. 

As with many of us, she seeks a good job, funding for her research and all of life's finer things!

She HAS however also been working on new species of brittle stars in the genus Ophionereis
photo by John Keesing

5. P. Mark O'Loughlin and Deep Sea Sea Cucumbers
One of the most established echinoderm researchers at Museum Victoria was actually Tim O'Hara's original mentor!  

Mark O'Loughlin has been a fixture of the "marine invertebrates" scene in the Melbourne/Victoria area of Australia for decades. He's published a huge volume of work on echinoderms,  including sea stars and sea cucumbers. Here's his profile at ResearchGate! 

here's a sclerite from a new species of "sea pig" (Family Elpidiidae) that Mark is currently working on from the the Great Australian Bight (979 m)
Mark has been working steadfastly into his 80s but has assisted by many student workers (one of which is seen here)

My thanks to the Museum Victoria for my visit! About 1000 specimen lots identified! 
Until NEXT TIME, Melbourne!! 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

BEHOLD: The GAME OF THRONES BRITTLE STAR! & new ophiuroids from New Caledonia!

As many of you picked up on last week, I've been busy working on starfish at Museum Victoria in Melbourne working with my colleague Dr. Tim O'Hara, one of the world's leading authorities on ophiuroids! aka the brittle stars and basket stars!

He's had a BUNCH of big research news drop lately (here's the link to last week)

While talking to Dr. O'Hara he informed me of of some neat, NEW SPECIES he's described from the deep-sea habitats of the South Pacific New Caledonia in late 2015! These were just too neat to pass up a post on!

I've reported in earlier posts (here) about working with Dr. O'Hara on echinoderms in the Paris collections! 

All of these species were published in the Memoirs of the Museum Victoria, vol. 73: 47-57 published in 2015. Co-authored by Caroline Harding, also at Museum Victoria!  This article is OPEN access and can be downloaded HERE. 

1. The Impeller Brittle Star

As Dr. O'Hara tells the story, he was once called upon to aid a ship's engineer during his attempted crossing of the Bass Strait on the yacht Irene. A similar looking impeller failed the yacht's engine thus indelibly impressing its shape onto his mind's eye!
Fast forward many years.. and Dr. O'Hara is describing this new amphiurid brittle star from the deeps of New Caledonia.

The large shields on the disk trigger a memory that reminds him of the impeller's shape! and voila! 
Enter: Ophiodaphne impellera 

2. The Game of Thrones Brittle Star: Ophiohamus georgemartini!!
Probably the most STRIKINGLY amazing brittle star Dr. O'Hara described was this one, a new species in the genus Ophiohamus (family Ophiacanthidae), collected from a depth of 275 meters off New Caledonia!

Here's a nice shot of it holding onto this sponge stalk... Note that its most striking feature? Those big crazy spines that are coming off the disk!

If we take a closer look at those big thorny spines coming off the disk...
and compare them with the sharp thorns coming off the crown depicted on the cover art from Game of Thrones: CLASH OF KINGS!                                                                 This provided the inspiration for the Species name for THIS new species of brittle star!        
BOOM! Tim named this one in honor of the AUTHOR of one of his favorite shows: GAME OF THRONES!! 
Ophiohamus georgemartini!! 

3. Ophionereis sykesi (family Amphiuridae) in honor of his wife who as Tim O' Hara put it "has had to put up with him rummaging around the world's museum collections for years"

An animal with a gorgeous disk plate field which I'm sure is a fitting honor for the Mrs! 

4. And finally, Amphipholis linopneusti, described by Dr. Sabine Stohr in 2001.  

NOT a new species but an interesting one from the New Caledonia region in that its one of the few echinoderms that I know of which is actually sexually dimorphic!  That means there are actually ways of determining males from females using external characters! 

The lowermost basal arm spines of males are enlarged, sometimes flattened and hour-glass-shaped, whereas on the females they are cylindrical with a blunt rounded apex.  Its a subtle difference to be sure but it exists, which is more you can say for a lot of echinoderms!