Daphne Fautin, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, recently helped generate a paper that plans a Biodiversity Observing Network or BON — a system that may be a key factor in encouraging sustained marine ecosystem health. The effort would create a standardized, coordinated system for measuring marine biodiversity.
"I think a major message is that we don't know what we don't know," she said. "Not only do we not know what we might be losing, we do not know the roles even known organisms play in the ecosystem. Thus the BON. An Ocean Observing System is being developed to monitor the state of the oceans — to detect rises in temperature and drops in pH, for example. But why should those parameters interest us? One reason only — because they affect the ability of the ocean to sustain life, and we depend, indirectly and directly, on life in the ocean."
Serving on a steering committee, Fautin helped identify key methods for observing biodiversity. The paper listed many recommendations, including:
1. Coordinate biodiversity sampling across taxa, habitats, hierarchical levels, and methods from microbes to mammals;
2. Maximize compatibility of BON with legacy data;
3. Establish one or more Biodiversity Observation Center(s) to coordinate sample processing, including taxonomic identifications, data management, and training and invest in the computational expertise to handle large datasets in an open access environment;
4. Synthesize and make accessible marine taxonomic resources;
5. Invest in developing new approaches for automated sample processing;
6. Modernize and enhance the nation’s physical infrastructure for marine exploration; and
7. Initiate an integrated marine BON demonstration project soon.
A view of Cook’s Bay taken from the Gump Research Station boat dock
Moorea is one of many islands making up the Society Islands in French Polynesia, an overseas collective of France. The official language is French although Tahitian is spoken by many people in the local population. Many people speak or at least understand English, which is fortunate for me as I am struggling to remember French I learned at high school!
All of the Society Islands were formed as volcanoes 1.5 to 2.5 million years ago. Moorea is a heart-shaped island situated approximately 15 km northwest of the island of Tahiti. The island is almost completely surrounded by barrier and fringing reefs, so much so that Charles Darwin, while looking down on Moorea from Tahiti commented how the island looked like a picture in a frame made by the reefs. The lush forested island surrounded by clear turquoise waters makes for beautiful scenery, and I am sure I will come back with many photos like the one posted in this blog.
There are two major bays on the island and the Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station (http://moorea.berkeley.edu/), where I am staying, is at the entrance to Cook’s Bay. I will be working with researchers on the Moorea Biocode Project (http://www.mooreabiocode.org) who are based at the Gump Research Station. The Moorea Biocode Project aims to inventory all non-microbial life of Moorea so there are people heading out to collect specimens every day. Let the fun of collecting begin!
I arrived in Moorea on a Saturday morning and quickly settled into the lab and accommodations. On my first afternoon I went out collecting with Dr. Arthur Anker and Ms. Sarah McPherson (both of the Florida Museum of Natural History) to search for sea anemones at Papetoai. At low tide, we waded in water about 0.5 m deep on a sandy/muddy substrate, flipping over dead coral boulders and rocks looking for sea anemones hidden from plain view.
Specimen of sea anemone specimens Triactis producta attached to a dead coral boulder
Sure enough, hidden under boulders we found specimens of the sea anemone species Triactis producta. This is one of the species I am researching for my Ph.D. and I have already collected specimens from the Red Sea, Zanzibar, Maldives, and Australia! The photo below shows one of the specimens attached to a rock – if you look closely, you can see transparent tentacles at the top of the animal, and a skirt of dark brown tissue about mid-way down the column. This extra tissue of the anemone is full of zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae are intracellular symbionts (organisms in a symbiotic relationship) that photosynthesize and produce sugars the anemone can use. The specimen in the photo was about 7 mm tall, so you can imagine that it takes a well-trained eye to spot them in the field!
After I collected these specimens, I took them back to laboratory at the Gump Research Station to look at them under the microscope and make more detailed observations. Once I am finished photographing and observing them, some specimens are preserved in 95% ethanol and the rest in 10% formalin. The ethanol specimens will be used for molecular studies while the formalin specimens will be used to study the morphology of the anemones. I can’t wait to get back into the field to collect more sea anemones!
Preparations for fieldwork start many months before your planned departure. After choosing where you want to do fieldwork you must start applying for permits you may be required to have to conduct research legally in that country. Some types of permits you may need include a research permit stating you are allowed to conduct research, a collection permit stating you are allowed to collect specimens, and an export permit stating you are allowed to export the specimens you collected back to the US. In some countries, you need an import and export permit for chemicals you need to bring in or take out of the country. You also need to check if you require a visa to enter that particular country. Processing of these permits and visas can take many months, so you must apply early. Once you are approved for your research activities, and your flights and accommodations are booked, it's time to get all your field gear ready! For me, this means packing a full set of SCUBA gear (wetsuit, BCD, regulators, fins, mask) and gear for collecting sea anemones (including a hammer and chisel!). Needless to say, I rarely travel light for fieldwork. The photo in this post shows some of the gear I am taking with me to Moorea.
Andrea Crowther is a graduate student at KU and is interested in the taxonomy, biology, and evolutionary relationships of sea anemones. Andrea’s doctoral research focuses on shallow tropical sea anemones that possess branched outgrowths housing zooxanthellae and defensive spheres dense with stinging capsules. Andrea will spend two weeks (13 November - 2 December 2009) in Moorea, French Polynesia collecting sea anemones for her research and working with members of the Moorea Biocode Project (www.mooreabiocode.org). Blogs and photos from her fieldwork will be entered here at Field Notes.
After two weeks of diving and snorkeling the beautiful waters of Moorea to collect sea anemones, my time on the island was coming to a close. Which meant it was time to pack all my gear and specimens. My dive gear was dried by the tropical breeze while I packed up my laboratory equipment. The specimens I had collected had been stored in 10% formalin or 95% ethanol. For transportation, I removed the specimens from their jars filled with liquid preservative, wrapped them in damp gauze, and sealed them in plastic bags. I packed them all into a box and sent them back to the Biodiversity Institute in the US via FedEx. Finally, I re-packed my suitcase with everything else I had come with (plus a few souvenirs) and flew back to the US.
Once back in the US, I sent all the paperwork regarding my collecting work to the administration at the KUBI. They checked the documents to make sure that the specimens were collected and exported legally, and then allowed them to be accessioned in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology collections. I unpacked the specimens and put them in their final resting place – jars full of formalin in our museum! The photo shows some of the jars full of specimens I have collected in my time as a graduate student, including the new ones from Moorea.