All the final preparations are taking place across the different labs in the ship, making ready for the science that will be starting very soon. Equipment is coming on board and getting set up and secured, labs are getting organized. Sample handling plans are in place. Cold weather gear has been issued and tried on. Excitement is in the air!
I personally am excited about getting started on my project. Cumaceans are small crustaceans (0.2-3 cm) that most people don’t know much about. Known as comma shrimp because their shape is like a comma, with a large carapace and slender abdomen, they can be quite abundant, and are eaten by seabirds in shallow areas and fish and even whales in deeper areas. It is difficult for cumaceans to be included in other types of work, such as ecology, because they are quite difficult to identify past the level of cumacean. The comma shape is distinctive, but to find out exactly what species it is can be challenging, as sometimes it means getting a very close look at a particular leg, or parts around the mouth that are very small. Adult males may not look very much like the females and juveniles, which is another challenge in identification. Thus, my overall project is to create identification resources for the cumaceans in the Antarctic and Sub-antarctic regions.
My project involves taking samples from the bottom, preferably muddy/sandy areas and sorting out the cumaceans. The cumaceans will be photographed to show their colors while alive, for two reasons. Colors disappear very quickly after animals are preserved, and the colors are made by chromatophores, little patches that can expand or contract, but after the animal is preserved the patches are contracted, thus preserved animals lose both the color and the patterns of color across their bodies. Then I will identify the cumaceans, sort them into different species, take samples for DNA and RNA analysis, and preserve them. When I return to my lab in Alaska, I will describe any new species we find, unknown life stages (such as adult males), create reference collections, and write a monograph, a specialized type of book. Reference collections are sets of identified specimens kept in a museum that can be used to compare with new specimens, to make sure that the new identifications are correct. Samples will also be sent out for DNA barcoding, another type of identification tool. The monograph will include identification resources such as photos, drawings, and keys that will make it much easier to identify Antarctic and Sub-antarctic cumaceans found in the future.