Sweat the small stuff is the unofficial moto of the Kocot lab. While some other labs on the ship focus on easier to see larger invertebrates like sea stars and sea pigs, the Kocot lab choses to focus on animals that are best observed using a microscope. These small animals we have chosen to study bring with them challenges to studying them. The Kocot lab, particularly Kevin Kocot himself, has reveled in this challenge, creating new and interesting ways to circumvent these challenges.
On the NBP, one often used piece of equipment is the sieving table. This comes into use whenever the Blake trawl, a device with a net used to collect our ocean bottom dwelling critters, comes up with a glob of mud. The sieving table is made up of a series sieves, which act as flat strainers with different sized holes. These sieves act as a tool to help hold animals and allow the muddy water to escape through the holes when rinsed, revealing the animals hidden within the mud. The issue here is that this sieving table, for the most part, works best for the larger animals, leaving the smaller animals to be rinsed through. The solution created was a design which the lab calls the “mud bong,” named for its shape which resembles a beer bong. Though this isn’t used for consuming beverages faster, it does have a similar mechanism of moving large quantities of liquid to one location. The original mud bong used in the NBP 20-10 cruise two years ago, caught the muddy water after being washed through the sieve table using a tarp attached to a tube, leading towards fine meshed sieves, which are fine enough to catch the animals our lab is interested in. The difference between these fine mesh sieves and the sieves used on the sieving table is the size of the holes which the water can run through. The fine mesh sieve which is used in our lab are designed to catch much smaller animals, but still let the mud and sediment wash away. The mud bong itself used in this cruise has been improved on thanks to the MLTs (Marine Lab Technicians), especially Hila, who put a built-in wooden structure on the bottom of the sieve table and attached it to a much longer tube than the original design. April 3rd was the first day it was officially put into use when the day’s trawl came up far muddier than was originally hoped for. As soon as the trawl came up, a few of us hustled to move the sieving table out into an area where it could be accessed. Since the main portion of the mud bong was built onto the structure itself, all that had to be done was attach the tube leading to the fine mesh sieves. The original version of the mud bong had too short of a tube, which required the individual manning the mud bong to sit next to the sieving table. This caused some difficulty as the rest of the science crew on shift tends to gather around the table to help sort animals and the individual manning the mud bong was right where other scientists needed to stand. For the mud bong 2.0, the tubing is now much longer. So long in fact, that in order to avoid twists and kinks in the tubing, this person manning the mud bong (me) ended up sitting on the far side of the deck from the rest of the sieving action. It was a bit odd in a way, on one side of the deck was much action and screams of delight over the sight of various animals becoming unveiled as the mud slowly rinsed away. Whereas I was on the other end of the deck, with a nice view of the moon, sieving the muddy water coming out of the tube in front of me excited for the tiny organisms I was picking up. Overall, it worked like a dream, and I’m excited to use it again the next time the trawl comes up with glorious deep-sea mud.
Once our animals are in the lab, animals are sorted under microscopes. This is when the real fun begins. We often don’t know what animals have been obtained until we get it all under a microscope. We usually put half a spoonful of sieved material, which to the naked eye looks like muddy particulate matter on a dish, adding extra sea water. It doesn’t look like much at this point but put it under a microscope and a whole other world opens. All sorts of adorable animals emerge. It’s really exciting sampling in an area that hasn’t been sampled much in the past because many of these animals are completely new to science. Every day I have been seeing species that I have never seen before.
A bit about me: I’m a PhD candidate in the Kocot lab. I study Solenogastres, a group of worm shaped molluscs. I fell in love with these little guys when I was working in the Rouse lab in San Diego studying feather stars. I came upon some of these molluscs when doing fieldwork off the coast of California. Solenogasters are very understudied and much of what I do is create a foundation to make it easier for people to study them going forward. I grew up in Custer, Washington and now live with my partner, M’Kayla, our two cats, Mochi and Toasty, and my corn snake, Scarlett in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.