NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 12 – May 24, 2018
Mission: Conduct ROV and multibeam sonar surveys inside and outside six marine protected areas (MPAs) and the Oculina Experimental Closed Area (OECA) to assess the efficacy of this management tool to protect species of the snapper grouper complex and Oculina coral
Geographic Area of Cruise: Continental shelf edge of the South Atlantic Bight between Port Canaveral, FL and Cape Hatteras, NC
Date: May 22nd, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 32°54.0440 ’ N
Longitude: 78° 12.3070’ W
Sea Wave Height: 1-2 feet
Wind Speed: 10.29 knots
Wind Direction: 196.7°
Visibility: 10 nautical miles
Air Temperature: 25.5°C
Sky: Scattered clouds
Science and Technology Log
Interdependence and Energy Pyramids
Every ecology unit from elementary to high school incorporates these 2 essential learnings: matter cycles and energy flows. This flux of energy through biotic factors is depicted in diagrams like the one below. This survey work involving an inventory of biotic and abiotic factors in and outside the MPAs (Marine Protected Areas), reminds me of the relationships and connections between the organisms in these pyramids and food webs. Organisms with their niches (role or position in the environment) need to be counted and understood. These marine creatures play important jobs in a complex ecosystem of our oceans. I decided to dedicate this last blog to highlighting some of these underappreciated marine organisms and their contributions to both the marine ecosystems and mankind.
Seeing the beauty underneath the waves convinces me of my obligation to educate, protect and recruit the next generation of stewards for this fragile environment. Below are images of some of my favorite organisms photographed during the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) dives and an explanation of a fraction of their significance to a healthy marine ecosystem. I insist that my students approach their labs in class with background research that addresses why we should care about any given topic of scientific study. So here are only a handful of the many reasons we should care about these critters of the sea.
Phylum Porifera – Sponges
What are they?
Phylum Porifera, considered one of the oldest animal groups, may have existed as far back as the Pre-Cambrian period (577-542 millions years ago). This group derive their name from a Latin root meaning “pore bearer”. These animals are filter feeders that have a unique body design made up of asymmetrical bodies of specialized cells. Although multicellular sponges do not have tissues, they are comprised of two layers of cells, epithelia and collar cells, with a jelly-like substance in between. Sponges are covered with tiny pores (ostia) that bring water into canals and that empty out to larger holes (oscula).
Why we should care?
Research indicates that sponges play huge roles in filtering the water column, recycling 10 times as much organic matter than bacteria and producing nutrition for both corals and algae. Studies have traced the matter from shed dead cells (choanocytes) of a certain species of sponge that appear (after ingestion) within 2 days in the tissue of snails and other invertebrates.
If their valuable ecosystem services are not enough, remember that over 5000 different excretions from sponges have demonstrated medical uses from fighting cancers to arsenic detoxification.
Phylum Cnidaria – Anemones, jellyfish, corals, and more
What are they?
Very diverse group with over 9000 species. Unlike the sponges, with their asymmetry, anemones possess radial symmetry and the ability to sting. Cnidarians includes organisms such as the jellyfish, box jellies, hydras, moon jellies, purple jellies, Portuguese man-of-war, corals and sea anemones. Their stinging cells (nematocysts) have Greek roots, “cnidos” means stinging nettle. Some of these organisms have nematocytes (stinging cells) that eject poison infused barbed threads when touched. Organisms of this phylum generally have a central gut surrounded by tentacles, but take on one of two body forms, either a medusa (free-floating with mouth down), or a polyp (attached to a surface with mouth up). Cnidarians in the polyp stage can live in colonies made up of many similar individual organisms (called zooids). In the case of corals, these zooids are connected by an exoskeleton of calcium carbonate which form coral reefs in the tropics. Cnidarians are diverse in form and function, serving as both predators and prey within many food webs and establishing critical habitat, like coral, for innumerable species.
Why we should care?
They provide homes for other organisms, such as shrimp and reef fish. Sea anemone venom has been found to have biomedical importance in treating conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, other autoimmune conditions, gastrointestinal disorders and even chronic pain. Toxins from sea anemone are often bioactive compounds that interfere selectively with certain ion-channels in cell membranes. This specificity makes them good potential tools for therapeutic treatments for a variety of human ailments. Their physiology, and use of a nematocyst, is being studied as a potential drug delivery method. Scientists are studying the biomechanical method that Cnidarians evolved millions of years ago to deliver poison to their prey. Recently, Cnidarians role as biological indicator species has also made them a valuable tool for use in monitoring contaminants in aquatic environments.
Phylum Echinodermata – Sea Cucumbers, Starfish, Sea Urchins
What are they?
This phylum includes the sea cucumbers, sand dollars, brittle stars, crinioids, sea stars, and sea urchins and derives its name from Greek roots meaning spiny (echino) skin (derm). 8000 species make up this radial symmetrical group. All members have an internal skeleton made up of ossicles below a layer of skin that can possess pigment cells or mucus and toxin secreting cells. A water vascular system in starfish acts like a hydraulics system using canals networked though muscles and valves to control pressure to provide movement, respiration and the ability to deliver nutrients to tissues and remove waste products. Many starfish are featured in environmental science textbooks as keystone species. A keystone species is one that if removed, the ecosystem could change significantly or collapse.
Why we should care?
Echinoderms are used for food, from making certain soups to being considered a delicacy in some southeastern Asian countries. Echinoderms skeletons are even used in farming to provide lime for soils. The ability of the species for regeneration of muscle tissue is a feat of intense interest in the biomedical world. Echinoderm musculature most closely resembles human smooth muscle tissue (such as lining arteries, veins, and intestines) than skeletal muscles. Not to be out done by Cnidarians and Porifera, sea cucumbers also release toxins that have been demonstrated to slow the growth rate of tumors. Other bioactive compounds isolated from echinoderms have demonstrated potential anti-coagulant (blood clotting) properties.
These species of the marine world possess information that could be critical for the survival of humans and for the health of marine ecosystems. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that “Today’s massive loss of species and habitat will be slowed only when the human community understands that nature is not an inferior to be exploited or an enemy to be destroyed but an ally requiring respect and replenishment. We are part of the web of life. Many strands already have broken. We must act quickly to repair what we can. Our lives and livelihood depend on it.” I do hope we act quickly and that we can be dedicated and devoted to their protection for future generations.
Phylum Arthropoda – (Marine) Crabs, Shrimp, Sea Spiders
What are they?
Greek arthron meaning ‘joint’ and pous meaning ‘foot’ representing their segmented bodies and appendages. Fossils of some of the simplest jointed animals date back to the Cambrian (545 million years ago). Arthropods have a hard exoskeleton made of chitin (nitrogen-rich polysaccharide). This body armor protects the soft body, and provides attachment sites for muscles. Their bodes are made of 2 or 3 sections, the head (cephalum), chest (thorax), and an abdomen. This phylum is incredibly diverse and has the most individuals and number of species of animals on the planet. 10% of the roughly 1 million species are found in the marine environment. Subphyla include Crustacea (crabs and shrimp), Phycnogonida (sea spiders) and Merostomata (horseshoe crabs). In this blog I am going to focus on only a small subset of this phyla seen on the dives, like the especially creepy looking sea spider and squat lobster (found in a glacial scour area at a depth of 250 meters among phosphoric rock boulders on ROV dive 2 on 5/21/2018).
Why we should care?
First, many people find some species of this phylum very tasty, such as some of my favorites – shrimp, lobster and crab, which belong to the subphylum Crustacea. Crustaceans are considered an important link in the marine food web that provides a connection between the benthic (bottom) and pelagic (open sea). Some species filter water, others break down organic matter, while others are critical in the food chains of fish such as cod, eels and herring. Research shows that chitin particles in clam, lobster and shrimp shells may have anti-inflammatory properties. In the future, shellfish waste could be turned into medical ingredients for products that could reduce suffering from conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.
For teaching about this Phyla check out the link to this
Arthropoda Lesson Plan.
Other Cool Creatures Caught On Camera:
After looking through the photos of the organisms of these deep coral ecosystems I couldn’t help but want students and society at large to care about the protection of these biological communities. Not just because of the aesthetic value but for their roles in food webs, medical value and economic significance to our food industry. One major theme in environmental science is this idea of interdependence and interconnected systems. We are part of this system, but we also have a unique ability and obligation to preserve the stability and diversity of these areas.
What pictures I chose not to share on this farewell blog have another message, disturbing images and captions that could have spoken to fishing lines, trawl nets, coral rubble remnants (from shrimp trawling), red Solo cups, water bottles and plastic sheets that are scattered in even these deep reaches of the ocean floor. I like to hope these found their way to these deep locations because of ignorance not ambivalence. I hope to hear stories from my students on how they develop technologies to clean up our mess and lead their generation in establishing as a priority putting in place protections for these habitats.
On break between dives these spotted dolphins put on a 15 minute show playing in the waves at the bow of the ship. It is easy to love these larger charismatic megafauna, performing their leaps and turns in the waves. But just like us, they are part of a complex food web and a delicate system of interdependence. I am reminded of the quote by John Muir, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We need to limit how much we are picking out of systems and through scientific knowledge assure our children and grandchildren inherit a healthy planet where these marine environments recover to their original thriving communities of marine organisms.
My time at sea passed quickly. I am thankful for the opportunity to experience jobs of those at sea that are collecting the information that contributes to better protections for these habitats. I appreciate all the lessons and stories that crew members and scientists shared throughout the trip. This experience awakens the scientist in me and inspires action in my classroom and community. I am extremely thankful for such an amazing experience.
What can you do to protect Marine Ecosystems?
Donate and participate in organizations that work for preservation and conservation
Know and follow the fishing and other marine life regulations
Educate others – use your voice and your vote
A Census of Marine Life
To learn more: Habitat conservation for Deep-sea coral
Advice for other Teachers at Sea Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces
Print a copy of all crew members full names, titles, emails (if possible) and pictures
For the first few days take your seasickness medicine early and keep your stomach full
Read a few of the articles or scientific studies published by the scientists on the cruise
Recheck that you packed your reusable water bottle and coffee mug
Did You Know?
Certain species of sea cucumber have a type of fish, a pearlfish, that have found a happy home inside the cucumber’s bum (cloaca).
You can determine the validity to this statement by checking out this video clip:
Fact or Fiction?
Certain species of fiddler crabs use a wave of their larger claw to entice the female crabs, and if you don’t have the right wave, you don’t get the girl.
Sexual selection for structure building by courting male fiddler crabs: an experimental study of behavioral mechanisms
What’s My Story? Andrew David
The following section of the blog is dedicated to explaining the story of one crew member on Pisces.
What is your specific title and job description on this mission? Research Fisheries Biologist. For this study he is the co-principal investigator.
How long have you worked for NOAA? 28 years.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job? His favorite part of the job is getting to see things that most people never get to see in their life. Not many people get to see the fish and other invertebrates that live at 800 feet. His lease favorite part of the job is the government bureaucracy involved in being able to perform his job.
When did you first become interested in this career and why? In middle school, he also was inspired from watching the documentaries created by Jacques Cousteau. The discovery and adventure presented within the ocean in this series appealed to this son of a Navy diver. Growing up in central and northwest Florida, the ocean was always part of his life.
What science classes or other opportunities would you recommend to high school students who are interested in preparing for this sort of career? He recommends students take chemistry, biology and anything with math in it. He also stressed that English is important in his career or any STEM related job, so that you are able to express your science in writing.
What is one of the most interesting places you have visited? He found Australia, due to its unique flora and fauna, to be very interesting as evolution has allowed the adaptation of totally different species to fill niches found in other reef habitats. There are fishes which have evolved the same body plan to take advantage of certain feeding opportunities which are completely unrelated to fishes in other parts of the world that utilize those same feeding opportunities.
Do you have a typical day? Or tasks and skills that you perform routinely in this job? Half of his job involves being the diving officer for NOAA Fisheries and this always brings up unexpected action items. As a manager for diving supervisors, he makes suggestions to avoid accidents and incidents that arrive randomly and so there is a level of uncertainty to any given day. If a diving related issue arises he may spend a portion of his day on the telephone. With the diving officer duties he deals with situational incidents that aren’t written into policy already that need oversight and decision-making. He makes suggestions and recommendations in novel situations that are diving related. From the science side his time is involved in working on paper publications and the data analysis from ROV dives such as this one.
Has technology impacted the way you do your job from when you first started to the present? He mentioned that when he began this career he was using floppy disks and a 4 color monitor, now he has computing power that is incomparable. Internet and email did not exist when he began. The speed of data transfer and the ability to communicate information now occurs at a rapid rate. The science side with that of the ROV sophistication has improved with the ability to capture details with the high definition cameras, for example the ability to count tentacles on a polyp. These technical advances have allowed much more precise identifications and observations of the animals they study.
What is one misconception or scientific claim you hear about how the ocean and atmosphere works and/or NOAA’s mission that you wished the general public had a greater awareness of? On the broader scientific community, there are very few issues which foster a consensus of opinions. The public may think scientists all see the world from a liberal perspective, but there are many conservative scientists as well – they just don’t get as much media attention. From the fisheries perspective, he encounters the misconception that there are only 3 groups studied in fisheries; sharks, dolphins/whales, and turtles. The vast majority of fisheries work is done outside of these groups.