Marsha Skoczek: There’s No Place Like Home, July 17, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marsha Skoczek
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 6-19, 2012

Mission: Marine Protected Areas Survey
Geographic area of cruise:  Subtropical North Atlantic, off the east coast of Florida.
Date:  July 17, 2012

Location:
Latitude:  30.4587N
Longitude:  80.1243W

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temperature:  26.8C (80.24 F)
Wind Speed:  10.8 knots (12.43 mph)
Wind Direction:  From the SE
Relative Humidity: 79 %
Barometric Pressure:  1017
Surface Water Temperature:  28.9C (84 F)

Science and Technology Log

South Atlantic MPAs

During the thirteen days we have been out to sea doing research, we have sent the ROV down both inside and outside of five different MPAs  from Florida to North Carolina and back again.  This allows the scientists to compare fish populations and densities both inside and outside of the MPAs.  Since we left Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Florida, we have been averaging a distance from shore of between 50 and 70 nautical miles.  It will be fourteen days until we see land once again.  From this distance, the ocean seems to stretch on forever.  Gazing at the beautiful blue water, it is easy to forget an entire other world lies beneath us.  Not all of the ocean floor is flat, there is a small percentage that does have some elevation and structure.  The type of structures on the ocean floor determine what types of species will live there.

For this mission, we have mainly been studying areas within the mesophotic zone of the ocean ranging from 40 to 150 meters (130 – 500 feet) below the surface.  Temperatures here range from 12 – 23 degrees Celsius (50-70 F). Very little sunlight reaches the mesophotic zone, but zooxanthallae are still able to photosynthesize at this depth.  Corals and sponges will also filter feed using the abundant particulate organic matter drifting in the water column they will filter out and eat the plankton.

Tomtates hide in crevices.

The multibeam images help the scientists determine where to launch the ROV.  Areas with a change in elevation tend to indicate that there are rock structures below the surface.  It is around these rocks that the majority of fish prefer to live, so these are often the areas at which the scientists chose to collect data.

The ridges we have seen range in height from 1 meter to 5 meters.  The fish really like areas in the rock that have cracks, crevices and overhangs for them to hide.  Many times as the ROV approached the fish, they would scurry into a nearby hiding place.  I can’t help but imagine that the ROV with its bright lights and unnatural features must seem like an alien spacecraft to these fish that have never had contact with humans before.  But ROVs aren’t the only thing that these fish need to hide from.  I noticed that the larger fish that are toward the top of the food chain were not as skittish as the smaller reef fish.  Sometimes amberjacks and scamp would even follow the ROV as if curious about we were doing.  And lionfish never budged as the ROV passed unless it happened to be sitting in the ROV’s path.

Lobster hiding in rock. Notice how his coloring resembles the reef behind him.

Eel hiding under sponge

Scorpionfish against Diodogorgia

The fish are not the only living things that like these rocky habitats.  Usually when there are rocky surfaces, we find sponges, corals, hydroids and algae growing on top.  These creatures not only give the reef its beautiful appearance, but they also help to provide habitat as well.

Notice how the flounder blends in with the sand?

Sand tilefish make their burrows in the rubble under the sand.

Spider crabs on sandy bottom

Species that live in the sandy bottom habitat have their own set of adaptations. Animals such as the flounder and sea cucumbers have skin colorations that match the speckled appearance of the sand itself.  Sand tilefish carve out burrows from the rubble beneath the sand.  The spider crabs have a carapace that mimics the texture of the rocks it lives near.  The stingrays, with their low profile, sit on the sandy bottom and use their mouth to scour the sand in search of crabs and clams to eat.

Lophelia at artificial reef

Anemone at artificial reef

artificial reef

Artificial habitats are also full of life.  At the shipwreck we visited, not only did we see fish living here, we also saw anemone, tube worms, Venus flytrap anemone, hermit crabs, eels, Lophelia coral to name a few.  Other man-made habitats can help rebuild coral reefs.  John Reed has placed reef balls on the Occulina Reef in an effort to rebuild the original reef damaged by bottom trawling. These reef balls provide a structure for the corals to anchor themselves to and give the fish places to hide. Even oil platforms can be considered as an artificial reef structure giving a wide variety of species a sturdy structure to call home.

 

Personal Log

The Science Party

While aboard the Pisces I have learned to identify well over 100 different species of fish and invertebrates.   Andy and Stacey quiz me as we are watching the live footage, and I think I finally can tell the difference between a reef butterfly and a bank butterfly.  John frequently hands me a text book and challenges me to look up the species we see on the ROV live feed.  I am extremely appreciative of everyone being so helpful and sharing their knowledge with me.  Each of the scientists have taken the time to answer all of the question that I have.  The crew of the Pisces has also been wonderful to work with.  Everyone has done their best to make me feel at home. This has been such an amazing experience, I am excited to bring it all back to the classroom this fall!  I will never forget my time on the Pisces.

Ocean Careers Interview

In this section, I will be interviewing scientists and crew members to give my students ideas for careers they may find interesting and might want to pursue someday.  Today I interviewed John Reed and Stephanie Farrington.

John Reed

Mr. Reed, What is your job title?  I am the Research Professor in the Robertson Coral Reef and Research Program at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University (FAU).

Why did you decide to become a marine biologist?  I always knew that I wanted a career where I could do my work outside.  My biggest influence came when I was around 13 – 14 years old, I remember watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” every Sunday night with my family and thinking that’s what I want to do!

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  Currently I am studying deep coral reefs as part of the Robertson Coral Reef and Research Program and several NOAA grants. My focus is primarily off the Florida coast and up through the Carolinas.  My objective is to protect and conserve deep sea coral ecosystems.  Around Florida alone, our group has discovered over 400 individual deep coral mounds some over 300 ft tall.  We have calculated that the area of these deep water reefs may exceed that of all the shallow water reefs in the United States combined.  These reefs habitats are incredibly diverse with hundreds of different species of bivalves, crustaceans and fish just to name a few.  Deep water hard corals grow very slowly, only about half an inch per year, core sampling has dated deep coral mounds at over 1,000,000 years old.  It is vital that we protect these deep reefs from destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling or energy projects.

I also manage the archives for the biomedical marine division at Harbor Branch where we have over 35,000 deep and shallow marine specimens from around the world.  Each specimen has video footage of it in its natural habitat (in situ from the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible), still photos, museum samples as well as several smaller samples for our biomedical research.  We have discovered novel compounds from some of these marine organisms which may be future cures for cancer or other diseases.  Currently our chemists and biologists are working on the chemical compounds that we discovered in a deep water sponge that grows off Florida.  In the lab it is potent against pancreatic cancer which is a very deadly disease.

What type of education did you need to get this job?  I earned my Bachelors Degree in chemistry and biology from University of Miami and my Masters Degree in marine ecology from Florida Atlantic University.  My Masters Thesis was on The Animal-Sediment Relationship s of Shallow Water Lagoons and took me four years to study and wrote.  While working on my thesis, the Smithsonian had a branch at HBOI, so I would ask the scientists there for help in identifying the animals in my study.  Working with these scientists helped me make the connections that eventually get my job with HBOI.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  I have been fortunate enough to travel the world visiting over 60 countries and collecting thousands of marine samples for biomedical research at HBOI.  I have been able to dive in the Johns0n-Sea-Link submersible to depths of 3000 ft and scuba dive to 300 ft.  My research on the deep water Oculina coral reefs off the east coast of Florida allowed me to use our submersibles as well as lock-out diving to study the growth rate and fauna associated with these deep water coral.  It is very humbling that my research on these reefs helped to establish the Oculina Marine Protected Area which was the first marine protected area in the world to protect deep sea corals, and more recently the 24,000 sq. mile deep sea coral habitat area of particular concern off the southeastern U.S.

What advice do you have for students wanting a career in marine biology?  Even if people tell you there are no jobs in marine biology, find a way to do it!  Follow what you are passionate about.  Get experiences as an undergrad, do internships, build your resume.  Make the effort!  Do things that are going to set you above everyone else.

When looking at graduate school, compare the course offerings of several universities.  Research the Principal Investigators (PIs) at those same schools and make contact with them.  Get a position as a Teaching Assistant or Lab Aide to build on your resume.  All of these things will help you to get the job you want once you graduate.

 

Stephanie Farrington

Ms. Farrington, What is your job title?  I am a biological scientist for John Reed at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  I accompany John on his research expeditions and help collect data.  When we return to HBOI, I analyze the data and program everything into GIS maps to give us a visual layout of the different habitats we saw and the species that live there.

What type of education did you need to get this job?  I earned my Bachelors Degree in biology and marine science from the University of Tampa.  My Masters Degree is in marine biology from the NOVA Southeastern University Oceanographic Center.  My thesis was on the Biogeography of the Straights of Florida which gave me a solid background in the marine invertebrates of our region.  This is one of the reasons John hired me to work with him.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  I have been fortunate to travel in our Johnson-Sea-Link submersible six times, twice sitting up front in the bubble, one dive went down to 1700 feet below the surface.  I have also been on 8 research cruises since I started at HBOI two years ago.  I also had the opportunity to sail on the Okeanos Explorer for three weeks.

What advice do you have for students wanting a career in marine biology?  Marine biology is about collecting and analyzing data and doing research and there is so much cooler stuff in the ocean than just dolphins!

Sue Zupko: 14 Cnidarians–Get the Vinegar!

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.

 

Purple pink sea fan on a cobble bottom

This octocoral is a sea fan

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.

a forest of white-colored black sea coral whips

Stichopathes sp

“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 )

white hard puffy ball of coral

Oculina varicosa

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.

Grey anemone waving tentacles in water catching food

Anemone

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.

Colorful reef shot with pink, purple, white corals

Protected reef

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.

Feathery creature like a duster

Hydroid

What did C3PO say to R2D2?

Hi, Droid!

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.

Blue-gloved hands taking black coral sample from the manipulator arm of the ROV

Retrieving a sample from the ROV arm

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.

Coral oozing

Oculina varicosa with mucus

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.

Stuffed toy grey pelican lying on black backgroun with id numbers and ruler below

Bigbeakus zupkoii

Yellow toy stuffed duck with a black shirt on, lying on black background with identification numbers and a ruler below it.

Yellowduckus thomaii