What is That?

We’ve seen amazing and beautiful animals living in these deep water canyons, many of which I did not recognize. During the progression of each tow I find myself asking the scientists around me, “What is that?” But that is what science is all about: being curious and trying to obtain the answers.

No matter how many hours I’ve sat on watch, or how many TowCam images I’ve looked at on the computer monitor, it’s still exciting to be one of the few people that get to see images directly from the ocean floor! It’s incredible that a large metal apparatus with a camera can send images and data thousands of meters through a tiny cable back to computers on the ship. As the pilots navigate TowCam through the water, images are sent back to the ship every 10 seconds.

Image highlights from the 2013 Canyons CSI research expedition.

Image highlights from the 2013 Canyons CSI research expedition.

 

Corallum

The structure of a coral.

So what do we see in the images that are being sent back? I’ve gotten to see amazing things living more than a mile below the ocean. These include octopods and squids,  skates, sea pens, anemones, delicate brittle stars, bivalves, and lush colorful coral gardens. All these organisms live on the  bottom of the ocean in cold, dark water and under extreme amounts of pressure.

How many different kinds of deep-sea corals are living at the bottom of the ocean? At least 71 species are known to occur  off the northeastern coast of the U.S.; and new species are likely to be discovered.  Many of the deep-sea corals look similar in color or structure. How do scientists tell them apart? They use taxonomic keys and DNA analysis to identify species.  Dichotomous keys are a systematic way of identifying organisms by making a series of choices based on an  organism’s characteristics. These keys are particularly useful if you don’t have instrumentation to conduct a DNA analysis.

 

Earlier this week, marine ecologist Dave Packer from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service taught me how to use a dichotomous key for deep-sea corals. Corals are actually animals, even though many of them look plant-like in shape, so they belong in the Kingdom Animalia, the Phylum Cnidaria, and the Class Anthozoa. We began by discussing animals in the four Orders of deep-sea corals within the Anthozoa that are found off our northeastern coast: Scleractinia (stony corals), Antipatharia (black corals), Alcyonacea (soft corals and sea fans), and Pennatulacea (sea pens). Compare  the corals shown below. You will notice that each group has a different style or appearance.

Four Orders of Corals

Four Orders of Corals

 

Even though corals appear to be morphologically simple animals, they are highly detailed. Individual corals can be very small. Look at the image to the left to become familiar with some of the structures. Below are some additional features that may be found on different types of corals.

Some additional features of corals.

Some additional features of corals.

Can you identify this coral?

Can you identify this coral?

 

Mr. Packer showed me a piece of coral that we would be “keying out.”  By looking at the surface of it, we could tell it was a stony coral and belonged to the Order Scleractinia.  Stony corals are usually very hard to the touch.  Then, we examined its characteristics. Look at the picture to the right, and see if you can identify the characteristics that we examined on this coral:

 

  1. Is it solitary (grows alone) or is it colonial (grows with other coral polyps)?
  2. Are the septa (fins sticking out at the top) smooth or rough?
  3. Are the coral polyps only on one side, or scattered in a random pattern?
  4. Is the coenosteum (portion of the skeleton between the polyps that looks like tree branches) porous or smooth?
  5. Corals reproduce by “budding.” Do new corals bud inside an older coral (intratenticular) or are polyps added to the outside near older coral polyps?
  6. Does it have 24 septa?

Check your answers below to see if you got these questions correct!

Drum roll, please… This coral is Solenosmilia. Try pronouncing that one! Going through an actual dichotomous key requires answering many more questions and making more choices. Coral polyps and structures can be so small that often a microscope is necessary to look at some parts. Sometimes corals may look very similar, so DNA testing is conducted to confirm the identification.  Dichotomous keys can be used in identifying many other types of organisms as well. Check out the pictures below to see other uses.

Want to try your hand at using a dichotomous key? Try this sweet activity using candy! Think about the characteristics of the candy pieces listed in the picture and key: Skittles, M & M’s, Gummy Bears, packaged Lemon Heads, unpackaged Lemon Heads, Dum Dum lollipops, Sugar Babies, Atomic Fireball, Mike and Ike’s, Tootsie Rolls, and Gobstoppers. What characteristics do they have in common? If you were going to sort them, how would you begin? We’re going to start with packaged versus unpackaged. Continue to follow along with the Candy Dichotomous Key until all the candy is sorted. How are the candy pieces similar? How do they differ?  You have now used  a dichotomous key to identify candy!

Candy Dichotomous Key

Candy Dichotomous Key

candy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check your answers to the Coral identification:

  1.  Colonial
  2. The septa are rough
  3. The coral polyps  appear to be randomly scattered
  4. The coenosteum is smooth
  5. These corals are intratenticular – notice how some appear to be budding off from one another.
  6. No.

Dewey the Dragon Tours the Bridge

 

Dewey the Dragon, all the way from Crest Middle School, enjoyed getting a tour of the Bridge. Dewey the Dragon learned how to steer the ship, read charts, and monitor activity using devices such as the alidade. Thanks to Ensigns Katie Doster and Aras Zygas for showing us around.

Dewey the Dragon charting the course

Dewey the Dragon charting the course

Science on Board the FSV Henry B. Bigelow

On a research vessel such as the FSV Henry B. Bigelow, does the ship support the science? Or are the ship’s activities separate from those of the Science Crew?  I didn’t realize how much the Ship’s Crew and the Science Crew worked hand-in-hand until I toured the Bridge.

Who's that driving the ship?

Who’s that driving the ship?

First off, what does FSV stand for? FSV stands for Fisheries Survey Vessel. The primary responsibility of the FSV Henry B. Bigelow is to study and monitor the marine fisheries stocks throughout New England (the Northeastern section of the United States). There are many scientific instruments aboard the Henry B. Bigelow that allow crew members and visiting science teams to do this and other work.

The ship has multiple labs that can be used for many purposes. The acoustics lab has many computers and can be used for modeling data collected from multibeam sonar equipment.  The chemistry lab is equipped with plentiful workspace, an eyewash, emergency shower, and fume hood. Our TowCam operations are being run from the dry lab. This space has nine computers displaying multiple data sets. We have occupied the counter space with an additional eight personal laptops; all used for different purposes such as examining TowCam images or inputting habitat data. The wet lab is where the collection sorting, and filtering take place. It is used during fisheries expeditions to process and examine groundfish.  During our research expedition, the wet lab is used mostly for staging TowCam operations. We also process sediment and water samples that were collected from the seafloor.  Sediment is collected using a vacuum-like apparatus called a slurp pump; water is collected in a Niskin bottle.  The sediment is sieved and any animals are saved for later examination.  Water samples are also filtered there, to remove particulate matter that will be used to determine the amount of food in the water column.

Walking around the ship, I noticed a psychrometer set, which is used to monitor relative humidity, or moisture content in the air. There is also a fluorometer, which measures light emitted from chlorophyll in photosynthetic organisms like algae or phytoplankton. The CTD system measures physical properties of the ocean water including conductivity/salinity, temperature, and depth. Additionally, the ship has a thermosalinograph (therm = heat, salin = salt, graph = write). Saltwater is taken into the ship and directed toward this instrument, which records the sea surface salinity and sea surface temperature.

The crew of the Henry B. Bigelow not only supports the research efforts of the science team but is also actively involved in conducting scientific research. Their instrumentation, knowledge, and team work enable them to protect and monitor the western North Atlantic waters and its living marine resources.

Crest Middle School Shout Outs Part IV

How is it to live on a boat?

Well, imagine living on a rollercoaster that never stops moving; up and down, side to side.  Sometimes it’s a big rollercoaster, like Thunder Road at Carowinds; other times it’s more like the Scooby Doo ride. It is difficult to walk straight down the passageways on Thunder Road days. Depending on which direction the ship is rolling at the moment, you will make a few slow steps (like you’re walking up a steep hill), and then when it pitches to the other side, you’ll walk a few really fast steps. All the while, probably stumbling into the wall, or trying to precariously balance your dinner plate. All in all though, it has been a very smooth trip. During these last few days the weather has been great, and the waves have been calm.

 Most of the staterooms are for two people. Each room has a set of bunk beds, two clothes lockers, two sets of emergency gear, one desk, and one bathroom. Usually the people that room together are assigned to different watches. For example, one person will have the day watch, and the other has the night watch. The day shift runs from noon to midnight, and the night shift runs from midnight to noon.

And as you would suspect, adding the movement of a rocking ship makes everything a little more interesting. Anything that is not secured will roll around, or swing back and forth. A roll of duct tape makes a good drink coaster, bungee cords prevent doors from slamming, and slip mats keep laptops from sliding off the table. There are handles in the shower and head (bathroom) to prevent accidents from occurring.

 There is a lounge available with comfortable chairs, where you can go to read or watch television. It is nice to go out on the deck to get some fresh air, and there is a small metal picnic table and bench on one of the upper decks.  If you walk onto certain areas of the ship, like the Main Deck, or the TowCam Launch area, most times you are required to wear a life vest and a hard hat for safety.

Is it going to be cold?

I thought it would be fairly warm, since it is summer time after all. But I was wrong. Yes, it is cold! Good thing I brought a sweatshirt! It is cooler on deck, and there is usually a good bit of wind coming off the ocean. It is also fairly cool in the labs, where the air conditioning is running constantly to lower the humidity. Also, when the watertight doors are open during TowCam deployment, a lot of cold air can come inside.

            If there are dolphins, will they ride behind the boat?

We finally saw some dolphins last Friday! I don’t know if they were riding behind the ship, but they were swimming alongside it. I could see them heading toward the ship from way out in the ocean, and there were at least four of them that seemed to be leaping and playing around.

What are ya’ll going to eat?

On the ship, there is a “mess hall,” which is similar to the school cafeteria, only much smaller. There are seven tables in the mess hall. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served there, and they usually leave out snacks for those who work the night shift. There is usually a mix of items present at each meal. Meals are served at specific times. If you miss meal time, then you are on your own to find something to eat. But snacks, such as cereal, fruit, Slim Jims, gummy bears, cookies, crackers, etc., are available all the time; or you can check to see if some left overs in the refrigerator.

Breakfast is served from 7 – 8 am, with things like pancakes, waffles, or French toast, breakfast sandwiches (English muffin, cheese, egg), grits or oatmeal, fruit, and eggs made to order.

Lunch is from 11 – 12:00. There is always a salad bar available, and usually multiple warm items. We have things like Spanish rice, swordfish tacos, and chicken burritos, or egg roll, teriyaki steak or chicken. Many items are also available for dessert, such as Rice Krispy treats, scones, pudding, pie or ice cream. Dinner is served from 17:00 – 18:00 (5:00 –6:00). We have had things like steak and blackened scallops or salmon, Creole chicken and shrimp or pork, fettuccine alfredo, or fish and a selection of side dishes.

Crest Middle School Shout Outs Part III

       How can coral survive in the deep ocean?

Corals can survive in the deep ocean because they are adapted to living in extreme conditions (high pressure, darkness, cold temperatures, high currents). Unlike their shallow water counterparts, deep-sea corals do not require sunlight because they don’t have the symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) that tropical coral reefs have. Whereas shallow water corals rely on zooxanthellae to  produce “food” through photosynthesis,  deep-sea corals must capture their own food from the water column.

           Are all the corals in the canyons colorful?

       Deep-sea corals, and the animals living around them, are usually very colorful. Color can vary depending on the species. There are many different colors represented in the coral habitats, but we have seen mostly yellow, red, pink, and orange corals.

            How many different kinds of corals are there?

Approximately 71 species of corals occur off the coast of the Northeastern United States (Maine to North Carolina). New species will likely be discovered as we continue to study and explore little known areas such as submarine canyons.

          What types of organisms live around deep-sea corals?

Many different types of invertebrates, including anemones, squid, marine worms, crustaceans (squat lobsters, shrimps, crabs), starfish, and deep-water octopus, as well as fishes are observed in and around deep-sea coral habitats.

          Are there sting rays?

We have not seen any sting rays, but we have observed some deepwater skates, that are relatives of sting rays.

Science on the FSV Henry B. Bigelow

On a research vessel such as the FSV Henry B. Bigelow, does the ship support the science? Or are the ship’s activities separate from those of the Science Crew?  I didn’t realize how much the Ship’s Crew and the Science Crew worked hand-in-hand until I toured the DSCI1256Bridge.

First off, what does FSV stand for? FSV stands for Fisheries Survey Vessel. The primary responsibility of the FSV Henry B. Bigelow is to study and monitor the marine fisheries stocks throughout New England (the Northeastern section of the United States). There are many scientific instruments aboard the Henry B. Bigelow that allow crew members and visiting science teams to do this and other work.

The ship has multiple labs that can be used for many purposes. The acoustics lab has many computers and can be used for modeling data collected from multibeam sonar equipment.  The chemistry lab is equipped with plentiful workspace, an eyewash, emergency shower, and fume hood. Our TowCam operations are being run from the dry lab. This space has nine computers displaying multiple data sets. We have occupied the counter space with an additional eight personal laptops; all used for different purposes such as examining TowCam images or inputting habitat data. The wet lab is where the collection sorting, and filtering take place. It is used during fisheries expeditions to process and examine groundfish.  During our research expedition, the wet lab is used mostly for staging TowCam operations. We also process sediment and water samples that were collected from the seafloor.  Sediment is collected using a vacuum-like apparatus called a slurp pump; water is collected in a Niskin bottle.  The sediment is sieved and any animals are saved for later examination.  Water samples are also filtered there, to remove particulate matter that will be used to determine the amount of food in the water column.

Walking around the ship, I noticed a psychrometer set, which is used to monitor relative humidity, or moisture content in the air. There is also a fluorometer, which measures light emitted from chlorophyll in photosynthetic organisms like algae or phytoplankton. The CTD system measures physical properties of the ocean water including conductivity/salinity, temperature, and depth. Additionally, the ship has a thermosalinograph (therm = heat, salin = salt, graph = write). Saltwater is taken into the ship and directed toward this instrument, which records the sea surface salinity and sea surface temperature.

The crew of the Henry B. Bigelow not only supports the research efforts of the science team but is also actively involved in conducting scientific research. Their instrumentation, knowledge, and team work enable them to protect and monitor the western North Atlantic waters and its living marine resources.

 

Crest Middle School Shout Outs – Part II

  How far does the ocean really go down?

The deepest point in the ocean is in the Marianas Trench where depths reach 7 miles (36,000 ft) below the surface. We are working in canyons that extend over 2000m (over 1.2 miles, or 6500ft) depth.

How far off the coast are you going?

We are currently 150 miles offshore, southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

What is the temperature at the bottom of the ocean?

Close to freezing, around 4° C (39° F).

 How deep can coral reefs grow?

Corals can grow at least in 2,000 meters depth. That’s more than a mile below the surface.

 Will sharks hurt coral reefs?

No. The sharks we have observed around the coral habitat are usually just swimming by.

How big is the ship?

The FSV Henry Bigelow is 209 ft. long, 49.2 ft wide.

Is it going to be cold?

I thought it would be fairly warm, since it is summer time after all. But I was wrong. Yes, it is cold! Good thing I brought a sweatshirt! It is cooler on deck, and there is usually a good bit of wind coming off the ocean. It is also fairly cool in the labs, where the air conditioning is running constantly to lower the humidity. Also, when the watertight doors are open during TowCam deployment, a lot of cold air can come inside.