2015 Expedition: How is there so much life?

Aquarium researchers and staff are on expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to study the natural history of the islands, surrounding reefs and connecting open water ecosystems. Research on the 2015 expedition will directly inform the management and maintenance of this world-renowned MPA. Today's post comes from Rob Lasley.

Kamil Kemer, the ship’s Turkish boson, knows what he’s doing. With over 20 years of experience at sea, he is full of knowledge on knots, weather and beyond. “Secure everything tonight... The sea is no joke,” Kemer said one evening before going to bed. A couple hours later, the ship rolled like mad. He was right. He knows the sea. And yet, every day when I return to the Hanse Explorer with dead coral heads and begin the slow process of chiseling out every small animal that lives inside, Kemer looks on with wonder. “How is there so much life?” he asked. The question, from someone so familiar with the ocean, is inspiring. I cannot even begin to answer it, especially not in a short blog, so I’ll focus on why the question arose: the life. Biodiversity, that is, and there is a lot of it.

Photo: Sangeeta Mangubhai
A typical day on the Hanse begins with an early morning splash onto a reef after a short ride on a Zodiac (everything before that is grogginess and daze). Most folks, scientists included, focus on what is apparent immediately after the splash: the charismatic reef fish, sharks aplenty (small ones, moms), and corals of numerous types, textures, colors, and morphologies. However, to resist these immediate treasures and to sink and shrink below, into deep crevices and between lobes of living and dead corals, is to find where most marine diversity lies. Squirming, writhing, snapping and clicking, invertebrates make up the bulk of marine diversity. There are millions of species. Many or most are completely unknown, and at best they are only known as a name, without any additional information on diet, behavior, evolution, etc. As such, marine invertebrate biodiversity is as mysterious as deep outer space, except with abundant life of every conceivable shape and color.

"My job is to document the unknown invertebrate diversity of the Phoenix Islands." 

My job is to document the unknown invertebrate diversity of the Phoenix Islands. The task is impossible, but try we must, and science has shaped the goal into something reasonable and quantitative. On each island, one of my responsibilities is to collect dead coral heads. This probably sounds like a weird thing to do, but I can explain. The skeleton of many types of corals, such as Pocilopora, comprise numerous flattened, finger-like projections and lobes. When a coral head dies, its hard skeleton remains, and the nooks and holes between the lobes are prime real estate. Everybody wants to move in. After a few postmortem weeks or months, a dead coral head will be full of snapping shrimp, porcelain crabs, cone snails, polychaete worms, and many, many relatives. Collecting and documenting these diverse apartment buildings from the fore reef of each island provides a good slice of comparable biodiversity.

Rob extracting cryptic inverts from a dead coral head (S. Mangubhai)
So every morning, I SCUBA-scour the reefs of PIPA in search of the right dead coral heads—the right species, the right size, the right depth, the right time since death, just right. This takes time. Then I return to the Hanse and chisel away, removing every squirmy little tenant. This takes more time. Much more. Hours and hours, deep into the night, I extract every living thing from the coral heads. Tons of animals make their homes in dead coral heads. They literally fall out when I set the dead coral head on the deck of the Hanse. Each specimen is documented, photographed, and preserved. Back on land, the preserved specimens from the trip will be identified, and fauna from different islands will be compared. The dataset will also be compared with similar efforts east and west of us, from the Line Islands to the Philippines to the Red Sea.

"All of these dead-head collections will give scientists an idea of how populations of species are connected through the vast oceans, what species occur where and why, and where species are the most abundant and diverse." 

All of these dead-head collections will give scientists an idea of how populations of species are connected through the vast oceans, what species occur where and why, and where species are the most abundant and diverse. Furthermore, specimens collected during the trip will be catalogued at the Florida Museum of Natural History and will provide valuable material for taxonomic and other studies. In fact, all of the material collected will be available for loan to scientists anywhere and accessible online—photos, geographic coordinates, habitat information—meaning that our 2015 PIPA collections will aid in scientific research for as long as the specimens are preserved and the data remain available online. This means the PIPA 2015 dead head specimens, and others collected during the cruise, could potentially inform environmental and biodiversity science for a hundred years, or more. Pretty good stuff, if you ask me.

Returning to the question, “how is there so much life?” I can’t fully answer that, but I can tell you that coral reef diversity is grand and full of surprises and beauty, and much of it remains unknown and ripe for discovery by able seafarer and scientist alike.

Photo by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Robert Lasley, PhD, completed his PhD at the National University of Singapore in June 2015 on the systematics of the ubiquitous Indo West-Pacific, coral reef crab subfamily Chlorodiellinae (Brachyura: Xanthidae). Prior to his appointment as Curator of Collections at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, St. Petersburg, Florida, in February 2015, he completed a predoctoral fellowship at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. The focus of his research is mainly true crab (Brachyura) systematics and biodiversity, but he is broadly interested in marine invertebrate biodiversity, biogeography, and conservation. He is an Adjunct Scientist at the New England Aquarium.

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