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Click below to go to the Cruise Logs - (photo credit: Lophelia Coral - Open-File Report 2008-1148 & OCS Study MMS 2008-015)

DISCOVRE 2009



Cruise Log: 9/15/2009    



After The Cruise, The Real Work Begins

Cheryl Lewis Ames

Specimens are first sorted into major taxonomic groups while at sea - click to enlarge
Specimens are first sorted into major taxonomic groups while at sea - click to enlarge
Since one of the main objectives of our research expeditions is to characterize biological diversity, population dynamics and food webs of deep-sea coral reef communities, it is vital that we correctly identify and classify the associated invertebrate catch. This is often easier said than done. We still have much to learn about the invertebrate fauna associated with deepwater corals, but these habitats are becoming well known as biodiversity hotspots that support a wealth of invertebrates.

How do we know what invertebrate species we have collected? How do we identify these sea creatures? What is the likelihood that we will encounter an animal that has never been observed before? What happens to the invertebrate specimens once we have identified them? These are examples of some of the questions we are asked by people who have taken an interest in our research.

Cheryl Ames is identifying a shrimp collected from a Lophelia pertusa colony - click to enlarge
Cheryl Ames is identifying a shrimp collected from a Lophelia pertusa colony - click to enlarge
Many of the invertebrates we collect can be quickly identified on the ship to family or genus based on certain physical (morphological) characteristics, such as number of legs, arms or spines, body shape, size, etc. Where the animal was collected - on the bottom (benthic), in midwater (pelagic) or on the surface - also aids in pin-pointing a name. Species level identifications, however, often require the use of specialized identification keys that involve following a series of fixed steps based on morphological characters, to arrive at a specific identification. We often identify specimens to the species level back in the lab.

Once preliminary identifications have been made onboard the research vessel, measurements and photos are often taken and tissue samples are sometimes removed for future molecular (DNA) analysis. Then all the specimens are preserved in either Ethanol or formalin solution or dried. Following the research cruise, the invertebrate catch is brought back to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to be sorted, identified to the lowest possible taxon (group) and prepared following the museum collection management protocols for long term storage. Next, specimens are catalogued into the Smithsonian collections and will serve as vouchers (reference material) for future study.

Animals collected from deep corals are then labeled and preserved - click to enlarge
Animals collected from deep corals are then labeled and preserved - click to enlarge
Identifying the invertebrate catch is a major challenge partly because of the rich diversity, but even more so due to the lack of reliable identification keys available. Many keys are old and predate major taxonomic revisions; others focus on large geographical areas or deal only with family-level identifications. Literature on deep-sea invertebrates is scarce and older material is often difficult to acquire, however, we are fortunate to have access to original monographs, specialized books and other pertinent publications in scientific journals available at the National Museum of Natural History Libraries.

Correctly identifying associated deep-sea invertebrates, and describing new species when we encounter them, provides us with a valuable opportunity to contribute to the understanding of these complex deep-sea coral communities. In addition to publishing our findings from the Gulf of Mexico and South East United States in reports and scientific journals, the specimens we deposit in the Smithsonian collection are available on loan for comparative studies on deep-sea research by researchers world-wide.



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