Monday, November 15, 2010

The final day of the workshop is upon us!

Group picture of participants:

Top row left to tight: Jane Read, Amy Taylor, James Mclaine, Khanyisile Ngomane, Oddgeir Alvheim, Julian Badcock, Monica Mwale. Middle row left to right: Nosiphiwo Springbok, Gildas Todinanahary, Nicole Du Plessis, Peter Konstantinidis, Eric Anderson, Alex Rogers, Vladimir Laptikhovsky, Riaan Cedras, Vijay Mangar. Bottom row left to right: Philipp Boersch-Supan, Stela Fernando, Kirsty Kemp, Nkosinathi Masangula. Absent: Tinus Sonnekus, Tom Bornman and Rainer von Brandis (photographer)

Participants have worked incredibly hard this last week spending on average 12 hours per day at the world-class facilities generously provided by SAIAB (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity). More than 200 species of fish and 74 species of squid have been identified during the workshop. Additionally, the fish larvae expert Peter Konstantinidis has identified the larval stages of approximately 30 fish species. Although there were far too many samples to work through during this workshop, many of the participants will continue working on them during the ensuing months. Phillip Boersch-Supan and Kirsty Kemp have extracted several hundred biological samples from fishes including stomach contents, otoliths, scales, muscle tissue and brain tissue. These will be used for various studies related to deep-sea fish ecology and physiology. Although the taxonomic data still need to be analysed, the principal scientist, Alex Rogers, expects to find interesting latitudinal differences in the composition of seamount-associated species. Given that this is the first time that these specific seamounts have been studied, this information and the anticipated publications arising from it, should greatly assist in the management of deep-sea ecosystems and allow us to gain a better understanding of how they function ecologically.

The Participants would like to thank the project partners, namely:

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)

ZSL (Zoological Society of London)

ASCLME (Agulhas and Somali Current Large Marine Ecosystems

GEF (Global Environment Facility)

UNDP (United Nations Development Program)

IMR (Institute of Marine Research)

NERC (Natural Environment Research Council)

ECOMAR (University of Reunion Marine Ecology Lab)

SIODFA (Southern Indian Ocean Deepsea Fishers Association)

ACEP (African Coelocanth Ecosystem Prgramme)

Total Foundation (Fondation Total)

CenSeam (Global Census of Marine Life on Seamounts)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A new species of squid has been discovered!

Dr. Vladimir Laptikhovsky has discovered a new species of squid this week belonging to the chiroteuthid group of families. Members of this squid group are generally long and slender and are capable of remarkable bioluminescent displays. Some also have club-like photophores along their arms which are believed to act as lures to attract prey (similar to the anglerfish). More than 70 species of squid have been identified from the seamounts cruise samples thus far. Incredibly, this represents in excess of 20% of the global squid biodiversity! More information regarding workshop findings will be posted tomorrow, the last day of the workshop.

Picture 1: Dr. Vladimir Laptikhovsky displays the new Chiroteuthis species.

Picture 2: A closer look at the new Chiroteuthis species.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Here are some strange and particularly frightening looking fish from the deep!

Picture 1: James Mclaine holds up a ‘humpback blackdevil’ Anglerfish (Melanocetus johnsoni). This fish dangles a bioluminescent light from its forehead in order to lure prey within gulping range. Because this method of feeding is so effective, this fish has little need of swimming muscles and hence the tiny body in relation to its ferocious-looking head.

Picture 2: Oreo fish (Neocyttus rhomboidalis). While the adult stage (top) has a weird prehistoric shape, juveniles (bottom 2 images) have incredibly alien-like features.

Picture 3: As opposed to the other fishes on this post, these juvenile toadfish (Chaunax pictus) look rather lovable!

Picture 4: Lancetfish (Alepisaurus briverostris) have a massive head, incredible teeth and a serpentine body that can attain 2m in length.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Zooplankton, miniature aliens

During the seamounts cruise, specialized nets were regularly deployed to capture zooplankton; tiny creatures that drift in the open ocean and feed predominantly on even smaller plant-like organisms called phytoplankton. Zooplankton comprise several groups of small pelagic animals such as krill, jellyfish and fish larvae and because they are incredibly abundant, form an integral part of the marine ecosystem. Notably, they are the primary food source for a variety of fish and sea mammals including the largest animal on earth; the blue whale. The objectives of the plankton netting survey were primarily to determine species diversity and to estimate abundance around seamounts. Workshop participants Riaan Cedras and Gildas Todinanahary calculate the volume of zooplankton biomass per unit of water trawled over the seamounts (the collection net was fitted with a water-flow meter). Then they extract random samples from each lot (there are too many creatures to count, never mind identify!) and stare through their high-powered microscopes for hours on end to identify the tiny creatures.

Picture 1: Gildas (left) and Riaan hold up examples of zooplankton captured over seamounts using ‘bongo nets’.

Picture 2: Examples of larger zooplankton species: A = Krill, B = Benthic Polychaete, C = Chaetognath, D = Pelagic Polychaete, E = Larvae of a fish and a squid, F = Amphipod (The movie “Aliens” was inspired by a similar species to this one!)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Calamari anyone?

Dr. Vladimir Laptikhovsky and Amy Taylor have been examining the Cephalopods (squids) collected during the seamounts cruise in 2009. There are around 300 species of squid that live in the open ocean and larger individuals tend to inhabit progressively deeper waters. Squid are considered the most highly developed of all invertebrates due to their sophisticated nervous and circulatory system, and the fact that they continue to survive in the absence of a hard outer shell. By squirting water out through their siphons, they dart through the water column and catch fish with their tentacles. Using this jet propulsion, they are capable of extreme speeds and some even launch out of the water to ‘fly’ for considerable distances. Their skins are covered in chromatophores which enable them to instantly change color to suite their surroundings and effectively become invisible when they need to. Some species are also able to eject dark ink into the surrounding water to temporarily confuse attacking predators.

In these first three days of the workshop, Vladimir and Amy have already identified approximately 30 different species… two of which have not been collected before in the Indian Ocean!

Picture 1: Dr. Laptikhovsky and Amy Taylor.

Picture 2: Some interesting examples of squid species: A) Onychoteuthis sp: This species is known for its elaborate hooks at the ends of its tentacles which aid it in grasping its prey more securely. B) Pyroteuthis margarititera: Being less streamline, this squid probably relies more on camouflage than speed. C) Pterygioteuthis giardi: The smallest species known to man! D) Cranchia scabra: Although probably quite slow, this squid has some elaborate defense mechanisms. Firstly, it can suck its head and tentacles into its mantel cavity! Next, it injects ink into the cavity and because the mantel is translucent, it is able to match the color of the surrounding water and become invisible. In case all this fails, it sports tiny spikes all along its outside which may irritate the alimentary canals of some predators.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The work begins!

Twenty one scientists and students representing seven countries have gathered in Grahamstown at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) to identify some 7000 samples collected during the seamounts cruise in 2009. Workshop participants include: Alex Rogers (UK, Oxford University); James Mclaine (UK, Natural History Museum); Jane Read (UK, National Oceanography Centre); Julian Badcock (UK, Natural History Museum); Kirsty Kemp (UK, Zoological Society of London); Monica Mwale (SA, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity); Nicole Du Plessis (SA, University of Cape Town); Nkosinathi Masangula (SA, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity); Oddgeir Alvheim (Norway, Institute of Marine Research); Peter Konstantinidis (UK, Natural History Museum); Philipp Boersch-Supan (UK, Oxford University); Stela Fernando (Mozambique, National Institute of Fisheries Research); Rainer von Brandis (SA, International Union for Conservation of Nature); Riaan Cedras (SA, University of the Western Cape); Eric Anderson (SA, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity), Tinus Sonnekus (SA, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University); Tom Bornman (SA, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity); Vijay Mangar (Mauritius, Albion Institute); Vladimir Laptikhovsky (Falklands, Fisheries Department); Amy Taylor (UK, Royal Holloway University of London) and Gildas Todinanahary (Madagascar, University of Toliara)

After familiarizing themselves with the laboratory facilities, participants eagerly fell in behind their microscopes and began working through intimidating rows of jars containing fishes, squids, zooplankton and other interesting creatures. Many specimens look similar to each other and scientists have to use elaborate morphological features such as muscle orientation and gut length to differentiate between them. Although no new species have been discovered as yet, the really interesting samples from the colder waters are still to be brought to the workbench during the ensuing week.

First picture: A jar of lanternfishes wait to be scrutinized by Peter Konstantinidis.

Second picture: Hatchetfish (Argyropelecus aculatus). These small (5cm), unusually shaped deep sea fish use bioluminescence (lights on their bodies) to escape predators. By matching the light intensity of their bodies with the light penetrating the water from above, the fish does not appear darker if seen from below and can therefore not be seen by predators.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Let the taxonomic analysis begin!

Almost one full year on, the partners on the SW Indian Ocean seamounts project are ready to start the painstaking task of identifying and cataloguing many of the species sampled in the water column above the six seamounts visited during the 40-day expedition in late 2009.

From the nearly 7000 samples gathered, there are almost certainly going to be previously-undiscovered species as well as new information on where known species congregate, what they eat and how they behave.

The results of this exercise will not only have a scientific interest, but will directly feed into recommendations to help improve conservation and management of Indian Ocean resources and future management of deep-sea ecosystems in the high seas globally.

IUCN, on behalf of all the partners in the project (GEF, ASCLME, EAF-Nansen, ACEP, ECOMAR and the Zoological Society of London) as well as the Total Foundation and Censeam, who have financially supported this workshop, wish the taxonomists success in their endeavours and invite all interested parties to Watch This Space for breaking stories!