From CalAcademy.org and AdvnacedAquarist.com

When I tell people that we’re in the field collecting saltwater animals for display and research at the aquarium, most of them imagine that the actual catching is the hard part. In reality, the hard work starts after we collect the animal.

Keeping animals healthy in the field—and then healthy while en route back to Manila for a 14-hour flight to their new home in Golden Gate Park—entails an entire slew of life-support equipment (LSS). We have that stuff at the Academy, obviously, but right now we’re out in the field. Where it’s too hot. Where there isn’t a store to buy what we need. Where we have to constantly battle a continually moving colony of fire ants that appeared right where we set up our equipment.

Fortunately, all the pre-planning we did to prepare for this is paying off. Want the laundry-list of what came with us on the plane? Two 200-gallon More »

From CalAcademy.org and AdvancedAquarist.com

There are two Academy groups currently in the Philippines for the 2014 Biodiversity Expedition: one from Research, and the other from the Aquarium. Though we’re staying at different locations, we collaborate when we can, like tonight.

It all started with a 90-minute night dive at Anilao Pier to try to collect a Bobbitt worm—a creature that lives in the sand, has jaws like a bear trap, and might be several meters long. It shoots up with lightning speed to catch fish and other animals, yanking them down into the muck like something out of a nightmare. In the 1990s, Academy Senior Curator Terry Gosliner named the Bobbitt worm after Lorena Bobbitt (and her legendary attack on her husband), and Academy crews have been trying to collect this animal both for display and for our preserved collection ever since. One look at the photo shows you why catching this animal isn’t easy, but take a look at this video for an even better demonstration.

Tonight’s effort was unsuccessful, though I did get my hand on one of the worms—yes, my hand. My wife is less than thrilled More »

From CalAcademy.org

RichRoss_final1

Checking in for a 14-hour flight is always a good time. Checking in for a 14-hour flight with 11 items (three suitcases, five Action Packers, two bags, and Steinhart Director Bart Shepherd’s guitar) between three people is an amazingly good time.

We started planning for this expedition in earnest five weeks ago, and considerable effort went into making sure our bags were under size and weight limits—a not insignificant task when equipment needed for the expedition includes Bobbit-worm catching devices, a series of newly designed hyperbaric chambers (for decompressing fish hand-collected below 300 feet), a ton of SCUBA and rebreather gear, and myriad other critical items needed to collect and ship live fish and corals from the Philippines back to Golden Gate Park.

As it turned out, our packing efforts were worth the time we put into them, as all of our luggage was deemed to be within weight limits. Sadly, though, there was one piece of luggage that stayed in San Francisco because it couldn’t be hand-carried onto the plane, More »

From the California Academy of Sciences

First sunset after the first day in the Philippines

After a 14 hour plane flight and a 3 hour drive, Steinhart Aquarium biologists Bart Shepherd, Rich Ross and Matt Wandell arrived at Club Ocellaris and were treated to a breakfast of garlic rice, eggs and French toast. After filling our bellies, we suited up, went diving and have been on the move ever since. The first night, after a spectacular sunset,we dove on a stony coral dominated site called “Dead Palm” (apparently there used to be a dead palm tree under water). At the end of the dive we encountered something that we never imagined we would run into, never mind on the first night – Acropora sp. corals spawning. Thousands of egg/sperm bundles released into the water by branching corals filled the ocean with a peach colored ‘snowstorm’ rising towards the surface. Many screams of excitement could be heard under water. We collected some of the spawn, and after email discussions with friends from project SECORE (SExual COral REproduction – http://www.secore.org/ ), we tried to mix the gametes to harvest and settle ‘baby’ corals.  The effort was not completely successful because Acropora corals cannot self-fertilize and we couldn’t collect material from multiple corals. Regardless, the experience was worth the effort, and sets the stage for future work.

The collection of coral fragments has been moving along well, and we are getting ready to pack up the first shipment back to the Academy. We have been collecting fragments that have naturally detached from mother colonies, or harvesting small fragments from the growing edge of large colonies.  The parent colony should quickly heal and show no sign of disturbance within a week or so.

Traditionally coral fragments are collected and either glued to something (rock, a concrete disk, or a plastic plug) or left loose and stored in some kind of rack land in a holding tank. This presents a a couple of problems with water flow and water quality.  It also can cause shipping problems, as the coral either sits unsupported in the shipping bag, or is rubber banded to some Styrofoam (both of which can stress the coral and involve additional handling). Inspired by the work Ken Nedimyer is doing in Florida at the CRF (Coral Restoration Foundation –http://www.coralrestoration.org/ ), and after prototyping the system in the Philippine Coral Reef at the aquarium, we placed our coral strings about 50 meters off shore.

Coral fragments waiting for shipment to CAS

This system keep the fragments up in the water column with good water, flow and light until we are ready to ship them. For shipping, we simply snip the middle of the zip tie chain ( leaving the rest in place for future use) and attach the coral to another zip tie looped through some Styrofoam. This way the fragment is suspended in the shipping bag, and it will be hard for it to bump the sides or bottom, which can cause damage. The lines themselves are silicone airline tubing strung between repurposed plastic water bottles (floats) and dive weights (sinkers). Additional lines can be added to an existing float to quickly and simply extend the system. It seems to be working well and we are anxious to hear how the corals arrive at their new home in San Francisco.

Last night we spent two hours muck diving collecting cephalopods and seeing amazing and bizarre creatures, but we are out of time so that will have to be covered in a future blog as we are off to Manila for meetings and shipping.

Richard Ross, Bart Shepherd and Matt Wandell.

From TONMO and The California Academy of Sciences

The stargazer, Uranoscopus sulphureus, eyes a potential meal passing over the muck

In stark contrast to the beautiful many-colored coral reefs of the Philippines, muck diving is a lot like being on the moon. You float over seemingly endless plains of desolate grey substrate. The major difference is the life; here in the ‘center of the center of marine biodiversity’ the silty muck is packed with animals. Tube anemones with commensal shrimp using their tentacles for protection dot the landscape. As you swim over the silty substrate, flatfish that were perfectly camouflaged in plain sight become visible only when spurred into motion by your passing. Feather Stars move their arms in slow motion, revealing commensal shrimp and squat lobsters hiding amongst the ‘feathers’. Venomous predators like Lionfish, Stonefish and Seagoblins hide in the muck looking for an easy meal. Ambush predators like the Stargazer lie mostly buried in the silt, just their skeletal face showing as they wait for an unlucky fish to swim by.

One of the animals that we have been looking forward to collecting for display at the Steinhart Aquarium during the Expedition is Amphioctopus marginatus, the Coconut Octopus. This is a little octopus, with a maximum 3 inch mantle and 12 inch arm span. It is plentiful in the Philippines, personable, tenacious, and has a habit of using found objects as temporary homes. Clay pots, bottles, tin cans and clam shells are all used as mobile homes for these octopus, complete with doors to close themselves in tightly and safely. They also will defend their homes, batting away anything that comes too close; even pushing a probing finger away with surprising strength. Sometimes they extend their arms and crawl around in the muck with their temporary home on their back, as if they are transforming into snails. All of this behavior should add up to a fantastic exhibit in the Steinhart Aquarium. Two Coconut Octopus have already arrived safely back at the Academy, and we look forward to putting them, and other animals collected on the trip, on display in the near future.

The eyes of this flatfish look like two different animals as they protrude from the substrate while the rest of the fish remains perfectly hidden

Tiny shrimp and squat lobsters live mostly unseen amongst the arms of a Feather Star