NOAA Teacher at Sea: Sue Zupko
NOAA Ship: Pisces
Mission: Extreme Corals 2011; Study deep water coral and its habitat off the east coast of FL
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States from off Mayport, FL to Biscayne Bay, FL
Date: June 10, 2011
Time: 09:30 EDT
Weather Data from the Bridge
Position: 26.0°N 79.5°W
Present weather: 5/8 Alto Cumulus
Visibility: 10 n.m.
Wind Direction: 066°true
Wind Speed: 16 kts
Surface Wave Height: 4 ft
Swell Wave Direction: 120° true
Swell Wave Height: 4 ft
Surface Water Temperature:28.5 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1011.8 mb
Water Depth: 307 m
Salinity: 36.187 PSU
Wet/Dry Bulb: 28°/24.8°
This blog runs in chronological order. If you haven’t been following, scroll down to “1 Introduction to my Voyage on the Pisces” and work your way back.
Take the quiz before reading this post.
Are all cnidarians corals or are all corals cnidarians? Definitely, all corals are cnidarians (pronounced nye-dare-ee-ans). Hydroids, corals, jellyfish and sea anemones are all cnidarians, so all cnidarians are not corals. Part of our mission is to study deep-water corals in the Gulf Stream. My berth (room) mate, Jana Thoma, is working on her doctoral dissertation (thesis) on corals. She gave me an elaborate chart explaining all the branches of cnidarians the first day because I couldn’t remember the difference between hexacorals and octocorals. So, do you know what these are? If not, you are in good company. Octocorals are like octopi (octopuses?) (octopodes?) . As I’m writing this the scientists in the room are discussing the proper plural form of the word. Checking the internet we have found the answer is…all are correct. Back to the coral/octopus example. An octopus has eight tentacles (or arms). An octocoral has eight tentacles. Cousins? I think not, but the prefix octo- in Greek means eight and they both have eight tentacles. The octocorals are usually soft. Sea fans, sea pens, and soft corals are all examples of octocorals. Originally people thought these were plants because they look and act like plants waving in the current. Jana is helping me write this, and it’s obvious I’m still having trouble. So, here is a quote from Jana to help us all better understand corals.
“Uh…great, this is for posterity. Okay.” So, when most people hear the term coral they think of hard corals like brain coral, staghorn, or elkhorn coral that are known to build shallow-water reefs. However, I study those corals that bend and flex in the water current – like sea fans or gorgonians. As with all rules, there are exceptions and confusion ensues (follows). Hexacorals are those animals that have six, or multiples of six tentacles; examples include hard corals, black corals, and anemones (that sometimes house clown fish). Octocorals have……that’s right, eight tentacles; examples include gorgonians (sea fans), soft corals, sea pens, and the strange blue coral. Last major group of “corals” are…stay with me folks… lace corals, which are actually hydrozoans and more closely related to the Portuguese Man o’War (the colonial jelly-fish like animal that partially floats on the surface and has long tentacles dangling in the water).” (Jana Thoma, doctoral candidate, University of Louisiana Lafayette )
So, if I’m understanding this correctly, the hard corals, such as the Oculina varicosa, more often than not are the primary reef building animals. They can provide an exposed hard surface for the sea fans to attach to. This hard surface can also be covered with sediment that can be home to other sessile (sedentary like a couch potato that can’t ever get up) cnidarians. Jana is nodding to this last statement. Yeah! Further, the living portions of corals are made of polyps, the hard skeletons are calcium carbonate and are formed by the polyps. One sea fan is not a single polyp, but perhaps thousands. All stacked up like an elaborate apartment building, they create a beautiful sea fan (or things which look like a sea fan).
What do scientists do when they have a few minutes not looking through a microscope or classifying new species? At my request, they create songs about what they study. Here is one, written today by Stephanie Rogers, Chuck Messing, and Jana Thoma:
Marine Snow (set to the tune of “Let it Snow”)
Oh, the sea is quite inspectable
Where the light is not detectable
And since we’ve got funds to go
Marine snow, marine snow, marine snow
Oh, the ocean’s gently rolling
And the crew is out aft trolling
The fish are goin’ to an’ fro,
Marine snow, marine snow, marine snow.
When we finally get to depths,
Oh, the critters swimming around
And I start to hold my breath
When we collect from the mound.
The R-O-V is slowly flying
And the scientists are sighing
Since we can’t collect no mo’
Marine snow, marine snow, marine snow.
Just a reminder, marine snow is the detritus and plankton floating along in the current. Most cnidarians are filter feeders, meaning they grab particles passing by.
We have visited several deep-water coral sites to check on their health and condition. I know we visited places where we expected to find colonies of Oculina and Lophelia. The first few we visited were in and near a new Marine Protected Area (MPA), others have been in or near a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) established in the 1990s and in a giant HAPC established last year. The soft bottom areas reminded me of the surface of the moon. However when we reached the coral mounds the abundance and variety of life was amazing. You can see where we went on the NOAA Shiptracker.
The difference between the protected and non-protected areas was striking. In the areas protected for over 20 years I almost felt like I was watching a National Geographic documentary, with lots of beautiful fish, interesting coral, and unusual creatures like the sea cucumber. While there was still life in the non-protected areas, the corals were in much worse condition and there were fewer fish. Corals are the architects and builders of elaborate reef habitats that provide habitat and shelter for a huge diversity of life. Coral reefs are complex ecosystems. Many reef species are important fishery resources, or the food for important commercial species; some are sources of compounds with medical uses, others help us understand basic biological, ecological and physiological processes. Reefs offer protection to coastlines from erosion by waves and currents. Coral reefs are very important. I think I prefer the ones which look alive and healthy because of protections. We will all benefit as a result even if we do not see the evidence on a daily basis.
What did C3PO say to R2D2?
Jana’s purpose for being on this cruise was to collect samples of the coral gathered from the bottom. These samples would undergo testing and DNA analysis later in the lab. It’s a challenging process. Salt water was refrigerated in clear plastic containers to help keep the samples cold and avoid necrosis (death) of the polyps. Identification tags were prepared. The numbers help them catalog the specimens they collect. John Reed uses the following system: 10-VI-11-201 means the specimen was gathered on the 10th day of June 2011 and 201 is a the category of specimen–in this case a dugong rib. Every scientist has their own way of cataloging their specimens and this is just one example.
Cnidarians have nematocysts with either sticky, spiraling, hooking, or some other form of “harpoons” which sting and/or capture their prey. If you happen to get in contact with these nematocysts, you might suffer an adverse reaction (like it might hurt or itch). So, grab the vinegar and pour it on. Jana tells me urine is a traditional home remedy that she says she has heard of (she won’t tell me if she has experimented with this or not). The chemicals in these liquids often help ease the sting from contact with nematocysts.
When the ROV brought up a coral sample in its manipulator arm, the biologists were prepared. Wearing latex or nitrile gloves, like what doctors and nurses snap on with a flourish in the movies, they are ready to catch the coral before it hits the deck and gets contaminated. Cameras at the ready, the specimen is put on a black background with the prepared tag and a ruler to show its size and a photograph is taken. Parts of the specimen are put in different containers. Animals are preserved in different chemicals which have different purposes. Formalin fixes tissues, but can degrade deposits of calcium, and can be used for future morphological (the study of shape or form of an organism). Ethanol can be used to slow down the process of decay. Acetone does an even better job, however, its use is limited because it is more difficult to obtain and isn’t what people normally use. Additionally, you can freeze the specimen, which slows down decay. This is when they use the cold sea water, put the specimen in that, and place it in a very cold (-80°C) freezer. Sometimes it is kept dry and frozen. On the Pisces I saw them use all of these methods to preserve the specimens. The specimens which must be kept frozen will be packaged in dry ice for the journey back to the lab. Andy David, our lead scientist, has developed a strategy for getting people to the airport to catch planes or rent a car for their journey home. After dropping other scientists off to get their cars, he will stop at the grocery store and pick up some dry ice. We literally had a meeting to discuss needs and time schedules to be as efficient as possible.
I also learned that when they are stressed, corals ooze mucus. Every creature gets stressed. When I’m stressed I eat. Others can’t eat when they are upset. I witnessed the oozing coral when it was brought into the lab.
I felt the scientists were often speaking a foreign language. Guess what–they were. Latin. I learned that in scientific classification different endings mean different things. Phylums end in -a such as Porifera (sponges), Mollusca (sea shells) or Cnidaria (coral, anemones, jellies). Classes end in -da, -iae, -ta, -ea, or -oa. When writing the genus and species of an animal, you capitalize the genus, but not the species name, and italicize both.
Last, what do you do when you discover a new species? You get to name it. We found a couple I want to share.