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Life on the Edge: Extreme Corals 2010

November 3, 2010

November 9–23

During their 15-day mission, Life on the Edge: Extreme Corals 2010, a team of researchers and educators will explore new features found on acoustic seafloor maps from the Gulf of Mexico to northern Florida east of Jacksonville. Mission scientists will map live coral and associated animals and strive to understand the importance of deep coral ecosystems as fisheries habitat, reservoirs of ocean biodiversity, and recorders of past changes in climate and ocean conditions.

Museum educator Mike Dunn (ncmuseummike) and science teacher Beverly Owens (owensscience) will be blogging on this site from the ship during the mission, and will be pleased to answer your questions via comments on their posts.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has been involved with Life on the Edge missions since 2002. You can review information collected during past missions by visiting the links at right.

Curriculum Materials are also available for educators.

Extreme Corals 2010 is supported by NOAA Deep Sea Coral Research & Technology Program.  Please go to NOAA’s expedition portal for more details and background on the mission.



November 23, 2010
Galatheid crab claws

Galatheid crab claws. Photo by Mike Dunn

This trip is one more example of the amazing opportunities that come up when working at such a dynamic place as the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. We have been collaborating with Dr. Steve Ross for several years on his deep-sea research and have had other Museum staff and NC educators on board to send back curriculum, images, interviews, etc. This time, two of us from the Museum (myself and Peyton) were the lucky ones. We also had Beverly Owens, an outstanding teacher from Shelby, and Art Howard as videographer/photographer. Together, we have tried to share some of what it is like being on a ship and what the realities of deep-sea research are as well as something about a few of the amazing creatures found at these depths.

Sea cucumber

Sea cucumber. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

This is an environment that none of us knew much about before this trip. It is great to be surrounded by so many experts who can tell us something about the community or the particulars of one species or another. And when the specimens from the ROV are brought on board, there is excitement as scientists scramble to retrieve what they need and we begin the barrage of camera flashes as deep-sea paparazzi. It is mainly then that I am able to appreciate the incredible beauty and diversity of the deep. On video screens you see the large thickets of coral, some amazing sponges, some fish, and some crabs and the occasional other invertebrates. When you get the samples on board, you begin seeing all the amazing variety of tiny organisms — the brittle stars, tiny starfish, minute crabs, worms, soft corals, cup corals, encrusting sponges, and even some things people aren’t quite sure about. Each sample is a treasure trove of knowledge from a place so few scientists have been able to study.


Squidlet. Photo by Mike Dunn.

So, looking back on this experience, I have learned how difficult this type of deep-sea research can be — expensive, may require months, if not years, of planning for a single cruise, requires a team effort, and yet you are still at the mercy of the ocean’s winds and currents, and there is always the possibility of a technology malfunction. And yet these scientists continue to do what they do — discovering new things, sharing what they find with the rest of us, and encouraging us to care and to understand. I admire them for what they do and what they know. This experience has made me more aware of an amazing world just off our coast. It has made me want to know more and, maybe some day, see it again.

I asked several of the science crew to give me a highlight from this trip. Here are some of their answers:

  • We got 75% of the planned dives accomplished — had 12 planned and we were able to do 9. With these currents in November that can be difficult.
  • There’s more diversity in the ocean than I ever realized and that coral reefs don’t have to be tropical warm environments but they can be deep cold environments. Everybody does research in their own way with their own interests — lots of different topics in this type of habitat because it is such a diverse area.
  • Starfish

    Starfish. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

    I liked seeing all the different kinds of things — different crabs, urchins, starfish.

  • The bioluminescent bamboo coral.
  • I have an appreciation and respect for a different environment and a basic understanding of how marine research is conducted; how technology is used in exploring the ocean and how different types of organisms rely on one another in these types of habitats.
  • It reinforced how important it is to have a sense of humor; a sense of common mission can get folks through unexpected delays; loving what you do is very important, that too will carry you through.
  • The big roly-poly
  • The importance of teamwork in getting the job done — there is 274 ft to work in and people have to work together toward a common goal.
  • Slit shell

    Slit shell. Photo by Art Howard.

    Finding the shallow water reef.  It was in a place that it shouldn’t exist. The science team decided to dive at this location on a hunch based on some second hand information. We really had no clue what we might find, but it paid off. This location is way out of the usual depth range for Lophelia.

  • Discovering a shallow cold water community that was documented off Jacksonville. There is an entire cold-water community there, which may be due to upwelling of cold water in this location. This will lead to additional studies of this region.
  • Diving the on the reef where I had been 28 years ago and to have a chance to come back and explore it was truly amazing; that first dive was when we first realized there were deep water reefs out there — geologists thought they were just sand dunes.
  • Crab

    Crab. Photo by Art Howard.

    Surprised that the area was covered with sponges, an unusual site compared to other sites.

  • The best thing was learning from other people; learning something new from everybody every single day; how to take better notes; appreciate sunrises and sunsets.
  • There’s still a lot out there to discover — saw some things I have not seen before.
  • The tissue from stony coral reminds me of snotty gossamer.
  • Getting some samples — that’s what I came for; that’s what I got; that’s what I’m leaving with.
  • Seeing and learning more about the deep-sea environment

Scientist Spotlight: Steve Ross

November 23, 2010
Dr. Steve Ross

Dr. Steve Ross

Steve received his bachelor’s degree in zoology from Duke University and his master’s degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his Ph. D. from NC State University. Steve is a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His research specialty is ichthyology, which is the study of fishes. Steve always had an interest in the ocean and enjoyed sailing growing up. Several scientists also served as role models to him and encouraged his interest in science.

Steve’s research interests in the Extreme Corals Expedition are varied, trying to answer questions that arise related to cold water coral habitats. These deep sea corals are located between 200–2000 meters below the ocean’s surface. For this research trip, Steve put together a team to study deep sea coral ecosystems. In any research expedition, they identify problems and bring in scientists to help answer those questions. For example, in trying to study how corals are related, they invited geneticists to participate in the research. Another problem currently being studied is trying to learn about past climate change through corals.

“There is an amazing diversity, colors, topography, mountains never seen before in the deep sea.” The Extreme Corals Expedition is bringing to light these deep sea habitats that many people are not very familiar with and have never had the opportunity to experience.

For Steve, the highlight of the research trip was discovering a shallow cold water coral community, which was documented off Jacksonville. There was a whole cold water deep sea coral community at this locality, which is possibly due to upwelling.

One interesting adaptation of organisms in these deep sea environments is trying to take advantage of limited food sources. Some organisms are bioluminescent. This means that they can generate light. For example, the bamboo coral is tan with black bands across it, and it bioluminesces bright blue. Bioluminesence may help lure food, can help identify animals of the same species, and may also be released as a defense mechanism.

In determining the locations to study during this trip, Steve and other scientists refer to prior knowledge they have about certain locations. They also utilize multi-beam data and contact colleagues in selecting research locations. They try to include areas of different depth ranges and different latitude ranges to give diversity in their samples.

Interview with Steve (mp3)

Scientist Spotlight: Sandra Brooke

November 23, 2010
Dr. Sandra Brooke

Dr. Sandra Brooke

Sandra received her bachelor’s degree in biological science and a master’s in bioaeronautics in England. She also received a master’s degree from William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Her Ph.D. is from Southampton Oceanographic Center in England.

Sandra works at the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. Her specialty is deep water corals, studying their anatomy, biology, and physiology. Sandra became interested in marine biology through her time spent at the Cayman Islands, where she learned to dive. She was fascinated by marine research and in “learning to see what was below the ocean.”

Sandra’s role as co-chief scientist in the Deep Corals Expedition is to help the chief scientist run the cruise. When finished with field research, they will describe the habitats and animals found living around the corals. Her personal research is examining oxygen consumption and reproductive ecology in organisms such as Lophelia pertusa, a type of cold water coral. Back in the lab, she will examine feeding habitats, growth, and coral biology in a manner that can’t be conducted on a research vessel.

Public outreach is important to Sandra because many people never have the opportunity to come in contact with these ecosystems. It is difficult to understand something you can’t see. These deep sea coral habitats are at depths of 200–2000 meters. She feels outreach is important in helping the public understand these coral systems. The science is important to protecting and conserving resources around deep sea coral reefs. “They’re beautiful systems….One of our goals is to bring that beauty into people’s lives.”

The corals are fascinating to Sandra, and she finds the number of animals that live around the deep sea habitats interesting. “So many animals are packed into these coral colonies. There is a lot more to find. We’ve just scratched the surface. Every time we leave, we know we’ve left so much down there.”

The highlight of the trip for Sandra was finding the 200-meter-deep sea coral reef. They were working on a hunch that Lophelia might be found in this area, but had no idea what they might find. Their work paid off; they found Lophelia growing in a place it shouldn’t exist. This location was way out of the depth range for Lophelia.

On the Extreme Corals Expedition, we have been using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) called Jason to collect samples from the ocean floor. Sandra stated that Jason is a world class vehicle and has a good collection capacity. One difficulty scientists have to work around in this area off Florida’s coast is maneuvering the Gulf Stream. Jason is capable of handling it because of its structure and its capable crew.  During past mission, scientists have used human occupied vehicles, called submersibles, for research, but Jason has the ability to stay on the bottom for a long time, where a submersible does not.

Interview with Sandra (mp3)

Scientist Spotlight: Scott Hansen

November 23, 2010
Scott Hansen

Scott Hansen

Scott Hansen grew up interested in sailing, knowing that he wanted to spend time out in the ocean. Today, he has a career that allows him to do so in a unique manner. Scott is a mechanical engineer who does contract work with the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Scott is a pilot for Jason, in charge of manipulating Jason’s mechanical arms in order to collect specimens.

Many times he has piloted Jason on expeditions to collect specimens for geology, biology, and archaeology. In the Extreme Corals Expedition, Scott is using Jason’s mechanical arms to collect coral samples in the Gulf Stream region.

Scott compares operating the Jason ROV to playing a video game. The ROV control booth is where the crew is stationed to control and monitor Jason as it moves through the water. Seven joysticks are used to operate Jason, as well as a touch-screen graphical user interface (GUI). Sixteen different screens provide views and information about Jason during its operation. Scott states that all of these parameters have to be monitored at once to build “a 3-D image of whats going on around you.”

At any given moment, Jason can be 500–6500 meters away from the ship where the ROV control center is located. As the pilot, Scott must pretend that he is in the center of the ROV, thousands of meters away, and make decisions based on the parameters provided by the monitors and GUI in the control booth. He must also stay aware of Jason’s buoyancy and the ship’s location compared to Jason’s, all the while trying to collect delicate pieces of coral and other specimens from the depths of the ocean. Scott has demonstrated his skill and expertise in piloting the Jason ROV through the Extreme Corals Expedition.

Interview with Scott (mp3)

Scientist Spotlight: Andy David

November 23, 2010

Andy David

Andy received his bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Stetson University in Florida, and his Masters degree in marine science from the University of South Florida. Andy is currently working on his dissertation for his Ph. D. in biology from Florida State University. His dissertation is about the recruitment of snappers and their early life history in sea grass areas.

A native Floridian, Andy has always been near the water. Science has always interested Andy and marine science was a branch of science he was naturally interested in.

Andy has worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries for 20 years. When he started, Andy initially worked on a project re-stocking Florida waters with red drum. These fish were raised in saltwater ponds and then re-introduced into coastal areas. In order to evaluate how successful this program was, project staff had to determine a way to detect the stocked fish in mixed schools which also contained wild red drum fish.

They decided to study the otoliths, small bones inside the ears of fish. The otoliths are used for hearing and to help with the fish determining position on three different planes. The otoliths are interesting bones because a specific protein-bone pattern is made on this otolith as it grows with approximately one ring being made each day. The bones end up having rings, similar to tree rings, as indicators of growth. These otoliths can be used to determine the age of the fish. As the growth slows down, the growth rings are spaced closer together. Growth rings in the wild fish and the stocked fish were used to compare the ages of the fish specimens collected. The wild fish had a moderately constant rate of growth. The stocked fish had spurts of much faster growth followed by periods of slow growth; this variability was based on the kind of pellets they were eating.

Andy has also studied grouper. Grouper are protogynous, and are all born female. At approximately 6 to 7 years old, some are able to change to the male gender. The problem studied in the Gulf of Mexico was that many grouper were being harvested before the age in which some are able to switch to the male gender. This project looked at protecting certain spawning locations so that groupers had a chance to reproduce before being harvested.

Andy now works with a team of five scientists to study deep corals habitats, like the Extreme Corals Expedition. They select experts from the field to help with their research and data collecting. The deep water coral research in the southeast is a three-year program to collect and analyze data from the field for the advancement of science and to help resource managers make better informed decisions.

Scientist Spotlight: John Reed

November 23, 2010

John Reed

John is a research professor at Florida Atlantic University, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. He has been studying deep-water coral reefs for 35 years, doing basic research on these communities, and specializing in the ecology and distribution of bottom-dwelling fauna such as gorgonians, sea fans, and sponges. The science of deep-water coral reefs is a relatively young one with many of the discoveries being made in the past ten years. Surprisingly, as with many of the scientists on this trip, John was not raised near the ocean; he grew up in Ohio. He attributes his early interest in becoming a marine biologist to watching the Jacques Cousteau television series and thinking, “I want to do those sorts of cool things.” And done them he has. He started his college career at Duke, continued at the University of Miami and finished with graduate work at Florida Atlantic University. He has been working in deep-water environments ever since.

One of the more poignant moments on the trip came when we dived a site (known as the CORD site) that John had first discovered almost 30 years ago. In 1982 he was testing the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s CORD ROV.  John was on the Harbor Branch research vessel Sea Diver and they wanted to see if they could get the ROV to the bottom in the Gulf Stream.  So, they went out to 2300 ft of water to dive it.  He remembers watching the depth finder seeing the ROV dropping down toward the flat bottom a half-mile below.  Just before it got to the bottom, the depth finder showed the bottom shooting up as they were drifting north over a big pinnacle.  The engineers were frantically trying to haul in the winch cable and then suddenly John got a 30 second glimpse of the side of the pinnacle.  He saw corals and sponges and sea fans; at that time, no one knew there were deep-water reefs out there. Then the CORD ROV crashed into the side of the mound losing the video signal.  They recovered the ROV and he still has that videotape.

Friday we got to bottom at the same site with the Jason ROV and started going up the reef slope where he had seen corals, sponges and sea fans 30 years before. As Jason climbed the side of the mound, it suddenly lost its thruster power and we eventually had to bring it to the surface. Unfortunately, John has still not been able to see the top of this reef (maybe in another 30 years, he joked).  The CORD dive was the first time these deep-water reefs were discovered off Florida.  This week we are discovering even more reefs and just this year NOAA designated nearly 23,000 square miles of these reefs as a marine protected area, the deep-water Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.

The value of these incredible deep-water communities is just now being realized. Some of John’s findings have been in conjunction with the biomedical research group at Florida Atlantic University. They have looked for novel compounds in these communities that might have biomedical applications. One deep-water sponge was found to have potent chemical compounds that, in the laboratory, can kill pancreatic cancer. Who knows what remains to be discovered?

Interview with John (mp3)

Faces from the deep

November 22, 2010

“It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us.” —Arthur Shopenhaur

The faces on this trip have been interesting. There have been tired faces, happy faces, excited faces, and a few stressed faces when weather or technical issues delayed dives. The views of the deep have been mesmerizing, but the video coming back from Jason has told only a part of the story. When we get the specimens in the lab to photograph them, the personalities come out in the faces of the many creatures of the deep.

“So many faces in and out of my life; some will last, some will be just now and then.” —Author unknown

Many of the faces I encountered on this memorable trip will last….


Squid. Photo by Art Howard.

Giant isopod

Giant isopod. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

Cancer crab

Cancer crab. Photo by R.Peyton Hale.

Bat fish

Bat fish. Photo by Art Howard.

Spider crab

Spider crab. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Galatheid crab

Galatheid crab. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Species Profile – Giant Isopod

November 22, 2010
Underside of the Giant Isopod, Bathynomus giganteus, showing its heavily armored covering and numerous legs.

Underside of a Giant Isopod. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

On a recent night sample, there were gasps of both delight and horror when the ship’s fantail lights illuminated one of the samples. I was, unfortunately, already in my bunk and so missed it when they brought up a Bathynomus giganteus, a Giant Isopod. This thing looks like the stuff of horror movies to some, or nature in the extreme to us naturalist types. The Giant Isopod is related to the sow bugs so familiar to us back home (aka pill bugs, roly-poly, and many other common names), but it looks like a mechanical one on steroids. In fact, it doesn’t even look real and it reminds me of something we would sell at the Museum store during our annual BugFest event.

But real it was. Ours was medium-sized, probably 8–10 inches in length and 4–5 inches wide (it might fit in a shoe box, maybe). I have read reports of some monsters reaching over 2 feet in length! A head-on view looks like a heavily armored vehicle in some sci-fi movie. Giant isopods have been found in depths from 200 to over 2000 m. They are believed to feed on dead whales, squid, fish and other material that fall into the depths in addition to devouring slow moving prey such as sea cucumber, sponges, and other creatures found on the deep-sea floor.

Giant Isopod, Bathynomus giganteus, showing its heavily armored covering.

Head-on view of a Giant Isopod. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

Females have a brood pouch, or marsupium, formed by overlapping plates on their underside. The fertilized eggs are huge — up to 0.5 inches — and are believed by some to be the largest eggs of any known marine invertebrate. Young are retained in the brood pouch until they emerge looking like miniatures of the adults (young isopods are known as mancae).


Head view of Giant Isopod, showing the compound eyes, each of which has an estimated 4000 facets.

Head view of Giant Isopod, showing the compound eyes, each of which has an estimated 4000 facets. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

Giant isopods were first discovered in 1879 at a time when there was still debate whether there was life in the deep ocean. I can only imagine what stories must have been told about this seemingly alien creature from the depths back then if it evokes the variety responses I saw on board our ship the next day. And if, in its strange appeal, it garners interest in (and hopefully more awareness and concern for) these deep-sea environments from those that might not otherwise care, then the Giant Isopod is a worthy ambassador.

Species Profile – Cutthroat eel

November 21, 2010
Cutthroat eel brought from about 250m off the Florida coast.

Cutthroat eel. Photo by Art Howard.

The dive site Thursday was a relatively shallow one for this mission (~250 m) but one that has been suspected to have species characteristic of greater depths. This may be explained by extremely cold water at this site — perhaps from upwelling of colder waters from deeper areas nearby — although no one knows for sure. Indeed, the ROV recorded deep-water species such as Lophelia corals and several Cutthroat Eels. The eels were spotted near some coral and were moving about in their characteristic sinuous swimming motion, staying near the corals that were gently waving in the current. The scientists decided to collect them as we had not yet collected any fish on this mission. The method chosen to collect these slender fish was to use the ROV’s suction hose (aka slurp gun). The suction hose looks like a large dryer hose that you can find at your local home improvement store, but this one is attached to a multi-million dollar machine. To collect a specimen using the hose, the manipulator arm grabs a handle on the hose and directs it toward the intended specimen. One of the crew inside the van pilots the arm while another controls the suction.  When the time is right, the crew coordinate a giant gulp by Jason and the specimens are swept into a multi-chambered collection bucket monitored by a video camera. Inside the van, everyone can see whether the collection was successful.

Cutthroat eel showing the bluish color that is so beautiful on this species.

Cutthroat eel. Photo by R. Peyton Hale.

The data is recorded and the specific collection bucket that the target was sucked into is logged and sealed.

The collection bucket rack is then rotated so a fresh bucket is ready for the next specimen. The suction hose is quite useful for delicate specimens or for quick ones that are tough to grab with the manipulator arms.

The eels are beautiful, bluish-silver in color, and range in size from 146-188 mm total length.

Cutthroat eel head close-up

Cutthroat eel head. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Cutthroat eels are in a family of eels (Synaphobranchidae) found worldwide in temperate and tropical seas. They are bottom-dwelling fish, found in deep waters down to about 3,700 meters (12,100 ft). The specimens collected during this mission will be taken back to the lab at UNCW as voucher specimens for this locale and habitat.

Species Profile – Brittle Stars

November 21, 2010
Brittle star central disk top surface

Brittle star with one missing arm. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Brittle stars are aptly named — when specimens are brought into the lab for us to photograph they are generally missing arms. We always get blamed, but our response always is, “they came to us that way, honest.” Seems their arms tend to fall off when touched by a scientist or grabbed by a predator.

Brittle star arm

Brittle star arm. Photo by Art Howard.

Brittle stars, or ophiuroids (ophis means snake in Greek), are echinoderms and are closely related to starfish. They crawl across the seafloor or in coral or rubble using their flexible arms for locomotion.  The movement of their arms is indeed snake-like. They generally have five long, slender, whip-like arms, which may reach up to 24 inches in length on the largest specimens.

Luckily for them, in spite of being fragile, ophiuroids can readily regenerate lost arms or arm segments. They use this ability to cast off an arm in a way similar to how some lizards deliberately shed part of their tails to escape and confuse predators. Some brittle stars are also able to emit a green light when disturbed. Each arm is supported by a central internal skeletal support (ossicle). Like starfish, brittle stars have tube feet, but those of brittle stars lack suckers. The tube feet help more with feeding than with locomotion.

Brittle star - underside of disk

Brittle star - underside of disk. Photo by Art Howard.

The central disk of ophiuroids contains all of the internal organs of digestion and reproduction.  So, unlike starfish, these organs are never found in the arms of brittle stars. Look closely at the underside of the disk. The star shape is from the five moveable jaw segments surrounding the mouth. Ophiuroids are generally scavengers or detritivores. Small organic particles are moved into the mouth by the tube feet. They may also prey on small crustaceans or worms. The paired sacs between each arm are called bursae. These are the primary sites for gas exchange and excretion in brittle stars. In some species, the bursae are also used as brooding chambers for developing larvae.