Latitude: -63 55.147 Longitude: -57 24.880
Would a worm by any other name be as wriggly? While thinking about worm names may seem like a funny thing to do, it has dominated my days for the last two weeks. My name is Will Ballentine, and I am a Ph. D student at the University of South Alabama / Dauphin Island Sea Lab. I’m aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer with the Kocot team studying the tiny animals that live at the bottom of the sea in Antarctica. As several previous entries have mentioned, the first step in our research is collecting animals from the sea floor. While this is certainly a challenging step, it is only the first of many. After being scooped up from the sea floor, the animals (or buckets of mud in my case) are taken inside to be sorted and identified. Just as it is important for a medical doctor to know the name of the patient they’re examining, its important for scientists to know the scientific name of the animals we’re studying. Unfortunately, urchins don’t carry ID cards and worms speak lousy Latin, so its up to the scientists aboard the NBP to determine the scientific names of all the critters that emerge from the depths. In addition to helping with deck work, my primary job aboard the NBP is to identify all the worms that pass through the Kocot team’s lab. I couldn’t have been tasked with a better job because I love worms, particularly annelids also known as segmented worms.
Annelida is a hugely diverse phylum of animals and it’s my favorite because it’s completely comprised of worms. Annelids come in many shapes and sizes and range from stunningly beautiful to what can only be described as “gooey”. Because they are so diverse, identifying worms can be challenging. The first step in determining a worm’s name is the simplest and consists of looking at its face and body to see if I recognize it from memory. Worms, like all animals, are categorized according to a hierarchy of increasingly specific names, beginning with domain, and descending through phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. While I already know the phylum of all the worms I’m studying (Annelida), I can generally use the face and body of the worm to further identify it to the family level. Whereas the family level is often sufficient for our work in Antarctica, it is frequently necessary to identify a mystery worm (or any other animal we’re working with) all the way down to species. This can be much more challenging, and generally requires the use of a taxonomic key. A taxonomic key is a tool used to identify animals, and sometimes objects, across the sciences. It is a list of questions about the animal being identified that begins very broadly and becomes increasingly specific with each passing question. As more questions are answered, the list of possible species narrows until there is (hopefully) one option remaining, giving you the identity of your mystery worm. It reads similarly to a “choose your own adventure” novel, however, instead of “If you would like to enter the cave, proceed to page 16” it’s more along the lines of “If two eyes are present, proceed to line 8, if absent, line 7”. These keys are often essential to determining the exact species of a worm, and using them is a lot like solving a very wriggly puzzle.
My days on the NBP have been filled with a plethora of penguins, polar vistas, and wormy puzzles. Each morning, I wake up to a new dish of worms set aside by the previous shift and get to begin a whole new round of worm “Guess Who”. The annelid worms of Antarctica are stunning, and I’m eager to see what else this beautiful place has in store. (Worm pictures below identified to the family level)
Will M. Ballentine
Ph.D Student, Dorgan Lab
University of South Alabama / Dauphin Island Sea Lab