Worming out in the Southern Ocean
Latitude: -66 09.39 Longitude: 80 48.10
Here we are 3 weeks into science and my, oh my, have we gotten an amazing diversity of worms! It has been a whirlwind few weeks of collections out here and I have had an amazing time trying to identify the astounding annelids from the Southern Ocean. In my previous blogpost, I shared some photos from our previous cruise, and here you can see several new ones we have collected so far! Throughout our collections so far, we have tried to identify the worms to the genus and species level, but we have found that several specimen down here have not been described so it is exceedingly difficult to assign them names. Also, the variety of scaleworms has proven especially difficult because they are so abundant and do not seem to be well described. It is also tough to identify species with our limited internet and access to online resources, but we are hopeful that when we return to shore, we will be able to better classify what we have collected. One thing that is wonderful about worms is that we typically can collect them with every type of collection gear that we deploy, including the Blake trawl, epibenthic sled, Megacore, and the box-corer.
One type of gear that we deploy at every station is called the ‘Yo-yo’ camera. Isn’t that a fun name? I love it. It received this name because of how it bounces up and down from the seafloor (similar to a yoyo) in order to take photos of the fauna along a 1 kilometer transect so we can see them in their natural habitat. We just recently published a paper based on data collected with this system around the Antarctic peninsula (https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2023.1094283), and we are excited to use the data collected from our current expedition to describe these benthic communities in the eastern region of the Antarctic continental shelf. Please check out the photo below of a figure from our paper.
I would also like to talk about how incredible night shift has been so far! Not only have I been WORMing out in the Southern Ocean, I have also been lucky enough to be WORKing out with a fabulous group. In the photos, you can see us on the bow getting into a yoga pose. It has been such as honor to join these two for weightlifting and yoga almost every day since our science has started! We have held each other accountable and focused on strength and flexibility in our off hours. Huge shoutout to Nusrat and Victoria for being my gym buddies! I have also included two of our lovely sunrises that we have been blessed with on the midnight to noon shift.
Please keep following along as we gather invertebrates and information in this rarely sampled region of the world!
Candace J. Grimes, Ph.D
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
We’ve gotten amazing samples with the epibenthic sled, including an accidental rock! The rock had some attached invertebrates, but not any of our target species of Cumacea or Aplacophora. It has been a busy time in the lab, as we had two epibenthic sleds within 12 hours, with lots of exciting animals to be found, photographed and preserved. Days at sea are long, with 12 hour shifts in the lab, which leaves just enough time to eat, sleep and workout. Of course, we do take penguin breaks while working. Any day with a penguin is a good day! This morning, the first I did thing was go out on deck, and I saw a penguin startled by the ship running across the ice. While penguins are not invertebrates, it is fun to see them. We are on a bit of a break at the moment, transiting through ice.
During this cruise, we have found several probable new species that will need to be described and named, including a species of Atlantocuma, and two different species in the genus Holostylis. We have also seen some old favorites, including a bright orange Cyclaspis and a more gentle orange Platytyphlops. The epibenthic sled has been incredibly good at collecting a wide variety of cumaceans, with the maximum diversity at a single site of 20 species. In contrast, using other gear such as box cores, the maximum diversity we found on the 2020 Icy Inverts cruise was 10 species at one station. We have also gotten very high numbers of cumaceans, with at least two sites with over 500 cumaceans each. It turns out that Antarctic cumaceans are very colorful, with colors including pink, purple, red, orange, and some with delicate patterns of spots. Being able to see cumaceans alive and healthy, with their natural coloration, is amazing. Some cumaceans have an eyelobe that looks like a soccer ball, with a white background with red patches.
Dr. Sarah Gerken
University of Alaska Anchorage
What’s inside that sea urchin?
April 20, 2023
Hello! It’s been an exciting few days for animal spotting! Just in one day, we saw between 5 and 10 seals! We think they are Crabeater seals. We also saw Adélie and Emperor Penguins and surprisingly, both swim differently. Adélie penguins will jump out of the water and dive back in, but Emperors will bob their heads out of the water. It’s amazing to see! However, the best vertebrate we have seen so far is the Antarctic Minke Whale. This individual swam up to the surface so we could see the dorsal fin and a white spot on the side.
But now I will talk about animals with a different kind of spine than vertebrates. Sea urchins (or echinodudes as I like to call them)! For my research, I study molecular genetic pathways in sea urchin embryos to see how they grow. So, I am very interested in learning more about their development. For the species I study in the Atlantic Ocean, the offspring will undergo indirect development (from embryo to larval stage to juvenile stage) in the water and not in the parent. However, since I have been here, I have seen sea urchins brood their young instead. It turns out that many Antarctic echinoids go through direct development where the offspring will skip the larval stage and develop straight from embryos into juveniles. This is very unusual in the sea urchins that I am familiar with so you can imagine my excitement and slight confusion when I found at least 20 tiny juveniles in the brood pouches of adult urchins. Depending on the species, the juveniles can be found either inside the female in brood pouches or found outside on the test, protected by spines. A possible reason why brooding is more common in Antarctica is that the water conditions are too harsh and cold for indirect development. This way more juveniles will survive, but this leads to different implications for gene flow, migration, and speciation.
More interesting organisms we found inside sea urchins include parasites. Most of the time, there are parasitic marine worms, but we found a parasitic copepod! It was shaped similar to a pair of lungs, but it was light pink with orange veins. When it popped open, more copepod juveniles spilled out! I have never seen anything like that before and that was the highlight of my day. You can learn so much about an organism by looking at its internal anatomy including ecological interactions, development, and diet. Though sea urchins look very simple from the outside, there is so much more to learn!
University of North Carolina Wilmington
Comma shrimp galore
Hi! My name is Victoria Vandersommen, and I like to look for crustaceans in mud. I’m a master’s student at the University of Alaska Anchorage in Dr. Sarah Gerken’s lab. We are particularly interested in a type of crustacean called a cumacean, which are also known as comma shrimp due to their body shape. These little critters (1-30 mm) are incredibly important to marine ecosystems by feeding larger animals such as whales, birds, and fish. They live in the surface layer of mud, feeding on dead organic material, which is then recycled to higher trophic layers; this where the fun begins with sampling. When you don’t have a ship with an epibenthic sled to collect sediment (2nd photo), you manually poke in the mud to make an impression that fills with water and little animals, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see cumaceans flicking around in the pool of water! Fortunately, the RV/IB Nathaniel B. Palmer has an amazing new epibenthic sled that has been a dream for collecting an abundance of cumaceans and other tiny invertebrates.
Cumaceans vary greatly in their appearance, ranging from white to multi-colored, smooth to spiny, eye lobes to none- all based on their species. For my research, I am aiming to determine the baseline biodiversity in the circum-Antarctic; currently, there are 100-150 species recorded. On a larger scale there are 1,900 species of cumaceans that have been described worldwide to-date! We have 515 animals from the West Antarctic from a 2020 cruise, are hard at work collecting samples here in the East Antarctic (over 1,000 animals collected to-date!), and will be traveling to the Ross Sea in 2025 to collect samples. This information will help us monitor changes to cumacean distribution with warming Antarctic regions, and also infer dispersal due to currents, as cumaceans are poor swimmers.
As an undergraduate, I studied in Dr. Gerken’s lab to determine if cumaceans contain gut microbes (spoiler alert: they do!). I collected the samples from the live-aboard M/V Discovery while working as a wilderness guide in Prince William Sound, AK. Without a microscope on board, I would preserve them without getting a good look at the animals until I was back at the lab. One of the most amazing parts of this incredible experience has been to see such colorful, lively cumaceans under a microscope. There’s a thrill with each petri dish you look at for first time, not knowing what animals you’ll encounter.
When I’m not hunting for cumaceans, I’m on deck looking for penguins and admiring the massive icebergs. We have been incredibly lucky to have two southern lights shows, Adele and Emperor penguin sightings, Minke whales, and gorgeous sunrises. Antarctica is a mesmerizing and grand place that I will never forget.
University of Alaska Anchorage
“Nevertheless, We Persisted”
The last time I posted onto the blog, the most exciting thing was having seen Southern Lights during our transit to Antarctica. Now, I am so happy to say that we have many days of science under our belts. But one thing about field work that many may not realize is that it is almost inevitable for things to not go as expected.
As many other posts have mentioned, we had delays in embarking and transit to Antarctica that were out of our control. But so many more things happened since we have gotten down to the ice. These waters are covered in ice that we can break through and icebergs that we must stay very far away from (see image 1). Weather can even make the waters dangerous to deploy certain pieces of equipment whereas other weather conditions make for some exciting photos that show how special this science is (see image 2). Our group has depended on our ability to get cores back up from the seafloor, and sometimes our equipment comes up with very little mud if not empty.
Even after all these curveballs that seem to come daily, we have persisted. We pivot. Fellow scientists reimagine their procedures that optimize their research goals with the mud they’ve been dealt with. Technicians work around the clock to make sure equipment is ready and operational for the small window that water and weather conditions give us to sample. Crew members have done an incredible job at maneuvering the Palmer to keep both the passengers and the science safe. This vessel is full of well-experienced and skilled individuals that have allowed us to be as fruitful as possible with the obstacles we have been thrown thus far.
And with a positive attitude, those woes turn into beauties. The icebergs become a beautiful backdrop with pink and blue sunrise skies (see image 3). Unsuccessful core recovery leads to searching for unanticipated sites that have more unique characteristics. And even if our microbiology group is left empty-handed at a site, it has resulted in us being able to witness exciting invertebrate research and maybe throw in a hand or two in processing occasionally.
In time, once samples return to our home institutions, we will be able to share what scientific discoveries we have made with this cruise. And we wouldn’t have anything to share without a team effort in rolling with the punches of East Antarctica. In between all the chaos, we continue to keep our cool and always find time for a break to go animal watching (see image 4).
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
OMG! It has been a very long journey: flying out from the US to Brazil first, then to Chile and last New Zealand. After isolating for two and half weeks in a hotel in New Zealand due to the COVID-19 protocols and then an additional ten-day transit onboard of the Research Vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer (NPB), we have finally arrived at our research destination, Eastern Antarctica! Differently from other regions of the frozen continent, Eastern Antarctica has been much less explored and information about their marine biodiversity is still limited, especially regarding small metazoans. This makes our expedition even more exciting as we will have the opportunity to discovery and characterize many marine species new to science. In Eastern Antarctica, we will be studying the benthic microeukaryotic communities, in particular free-living nematodes, and their associated microbiomes along the continental shelf with depths ranging from 200-800 m. Nematodes are exceptionally abundant and diverse in marine sediments and the likelihood of finding new species in this remote region of the globe is extremely high.
During this cruise, most of our work will be concentrated in collecting sediment samples using a mega core sampling device. On deck, these cores will be sectioned into fractions of 2 cm (0-10cm depth) using an extruder so that we can also understand how these communities change vertically in the sediment, that means, things will get muddy! As we hit our first scientific stations, we started to get a sense of how our next month onboard of the NBP will be, lots of sediment cores, lots of sectioning, and lots of astonishing views. It was an amazing experience to see huge icebergs for the first time so close as we waited for core deployments. The white icebergs really stand out from the darkish blue ocean. Also, working in 12-hour shifts give us the opportunity to experience spectacular sunrises and sunsets. Overall, the weather has been pleasant thus making our work even more enjoyable. As we continue our adventure in Eastern Antarctica we will have more updates, so stay tune!
Tiago José Pereira
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Georgi
Hi! My name is Coral Halanych and I am currently an undergraduate majoring in Biology at the University of Washington. My dad has been going on Antarctic research cruises for longer than I’ve been alive. I was always the one on the other side of the world reading this blog and waiting to hear from him. He would tell my sister and I about the cool animals he saw or the giant icebergs the ship passed. Now being on an Antarctic research cruise with him, I can see how much of this experience can’t be shared with just words or pictures. Seeing the icebergs, that are ten times bigger than I ever imaged that are sitting on the horizon or forty yards from the boat. Being able to stand out on the bow for hours, just hoping to get a glance at a seal, penguin, or whale. Then feeling the excitement from everyone when someone sees them or even finds the organism they set out on the cruise for. Some days I’ve walked outside after working and had to sit there and tell myself that I’m actually in Antarctica and this isn’t just my imagination.
After a few delays on the onset of the cruise, we’ve finally being doing science for the past few weeks. We’ve been collecting a diverse group of organisms and I’ve seen firsthand how much life can be at the bottom of the ocean floor. I also never realized how much I would look forward to waiting for a ball of mud to reach the deck so we could dig through it. When we find organisms that get everyone excited or something we’ve never seen before, it really is special.
Being with a group of scientists that specialize in the animals we’re collecting, really shows how unique and amazing each animal is. For example, the other day we found a Syllidae worm with a bioluminescent tail which it uses to distract predators. We’ve also seen symbiotic relationships between annelids and sea cucumbers, urchins and brachiopods, and annelids and soft coral. But since there is not enough research or evidence on the symbiotic relationships we don’t know for certain if all of these are mutually beneficial to the organisms or harmful. This puts a new perspective on the work we’re doing here. Half of the time, we’re making our best “educated” guesses on how the organisms act, or sometimes, what they even are because of how vast, diverse, and unknown the Southern Ocean seafloor is.
(HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!!!!!)
University of Washington
Intro to myself
Growing up in south central Pennsylvania, my access to the ocean was limited. Even on the occasional family trip to the beach, I could but sit on the shore and wonder what lay below those ocean waves. Windows into this mystery from programs like Planet Earth captivated and inspired me. They were able to do something science communication often struggles to do. They showed us the amazing animals of our planet instead of just telling us about them.
As a member of this exciting expedition to Antarctica, I have unprecedented access to the biodiversity of the Southern Ocean. Seeing all of these amazing animals alive has been an incredible experience and something I wish I could share with others. Taking inspiration from my favorite science communicators, I hope to show people these incredible animals instead of just talking about them. To do this, I have been using any free time from science to photograph and record the fascinating creatures we are studying.
I have been using a really cool tank built by Nick Roberts. This tank is designed so that water can continuously flow through the system allowing us to keep animals in it for hours without water quality or temperature issues. The water is pumped from the ocean directly into our lab. This saltwater hose is placed into the side most fraction of the aquarium. Baffles in the tank prevent bubbles from reaching the main chamber and make the flow more even and gentle. The tank has a narrow design. This is because the more water you must shoot through, the lower the image quality will be. This has to do with the refraction of light through water.
By staging the tank with sand, rocks, and coral we can make the animals seem like they are “’in-situ” or in their actual habitat. Images like these would be otherwise impossible, given the remote locations and extreme depths we are sampling in.
Here is an example of the amphipod that I photographed in this tank. It is called Podoceras septemcarinatus. They have this interesting life strategy of perching on coral branches and using their large front arms to capture food in the water column. In this tank I was even able to get video of this behavior.
I usually wouldn’t consider sea cucumbers to be particularly interesting. However, this particular species is able to swim away when feeling threatened. They do this by extending their feeding tentacles and thrashing their body back and forth. It was such a cool thing to witness and I got a great shot of it happening!
This animal holds a close place in my heart because it is a solenogaster, the group of mollusks that is the focus of my dissertation. This one was particularly large and I was able to capture a photo of it alive in the aquarium. Something really exciting about getting these live photographs is realizing how vibrantly colorful these animals can be. When preserved these animals usually turn white and lose their color. However, in this photo you can see in life it is very pink!
Instead of telling people about the amazing biodiversity of the Southern Ocean, I hope to show them with the photographs and video that I capture throughout this expedition!
University of Alabama
The Mud-ball Trawl
Hello from beautiful Antarctica! My name is Lindsay Uzarski, and I am assisting Dr. Mahon’s lab as an undergraduate from Central Michigan University. I am incredibly excited and thankful for the opportunity to study the unique marine life that lives in The Antarctic. Seeing Antarctic invertebrates up close is a once in a lifetime experience that is teaching me so much about this fascinating group of animals.
Recently, we experienced what’s call a mud-ball trawl. The net that brings us organisms was completely full of mud, so much so that trying to rinse the organisms wasn’t effective. To make matters more difficult, we were experiencing some of the coldest weather yet. In order to identify and sort animals, we had to use a large sieve table and spray away the mud with a hose that sprays sea water on the animals. We also had to work fast, to ensure our samples don’t get frozen. Even as we were spraying the mud off, our sieve table was freezing together! After an hour or so of digging through the mud, everyone was covered in slushy-frozen mud, and had to be completely sprayed down before coming back inside. Thankfully, our cold weather gear and plenty of layers kept us warm the whole time. This entire experience was a lot of fun and very unique to Antarctica. We also had a great trawl, which had a good range of animals including many sea pigs, sea spiders, crinoids, a variety of annelids, and more!
Not only do we get to see cool things in the lab, but the sights we see from the boat are also stunning and unique. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing some of the most beautiful sunrises in the world, seeing gorgeous ice formations, and seeing famous Antarctic animals like penguins and whales. I’ve already had an incredible experience, and I can’t wait to see what the next few weeks bring us.
Central Michigan University
A Southerner in Antarctica
Ahoy from the Southern Ocean! My name is William Farris and I am a lab technician for Dr. Kevin Kocot at the University of Alabama! I recently graduated from Bama with a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Science/Biology. Through the people I met at Bama, I have been given a whole plethora of incredible opportunities and experiences, including the chance to be on the NBP 23-03 research cruise. I was born and raised in Louisiana (shout out to Grant Parish) and, as I’m sure you can imagine, didn’t see much snow growing up. Last time I saw snow was January 11th, 2021 (which just so happened to be the day the Alabama Crimson Tide won their 18th national football title). It has been very jarring to go from back home in the Southeastern US to the continental waters of Antarctica. Back home, any temperature below 60 Fahrenheit is pants and jacket weather, often consisting of multiple layers. Here, we are lucky to have the wind chill be above 24 Fahrenheit.
As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t seen snow in over two years and now it snows every other day. I have never seen a lake frozen over, and now we see miles of water that is nothing but ice and snow. If we let water sit out too long on the deck as we are working, it becomes pure slush. I have gotten water inside my rubber gloves on several occasions and have to shut down what I’m working on until I get dry or else my hand locks up. Everything here feels so alien and unnatural when compared to what I’ve experienced before. A couple of nights ago I made what was likely the 6th snow angel I have ever made in my life, and threw snowballs at friends for the first time in over 10 years. I don’t even CONSIDER going outside without at least 3 layers of clothing between me and the outside world. Needless to say, I’ve experienced weather unlike anything I’ve seen before. The wind chill was around -22 Fahrenheit a few days ago and I shiver at the thought of it. The wind chill is so cold that the water temp (~29 Fahrenheit) is actually warmer than the surface, which is something I never would have anticipated saying. For the first time in my life, I actually miss the Louisiana heat. The trip is great, but I can’t help imagining eating some fried boudin on a muggy Louisiana summer night.