Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
2013 midwater ecology cruise

Day 7 – Patience and the money shot
March 28, 2013

If you follow MBARI expedition blogs (and you should!), you’ve surely read a lot about deep-sea species. But how do we define a species? And how can we tell which individuals belong to a given species? Those may seem like simple questions, but in fact, sometimes they are not. Scientists generally think of a species as being composed of those individuals that are able to successfully reproduce with each other. However, scientists clearly cannot observe each animal to determine which other animals it is mating with. So instead, we group individuals that have the same morphological appearance together as a species. For example, black versus red coloration. Big eyes versus little eyes. Ten teeth versus eight teeth. This method of categorization works for the majority of cases…

However, there are some instances where animals that have the same appearance, and are therefore considered to be the same species, have actually been found to be separate species based upon significant differences in their DNA. These unknown species are termed "cryptic species" because they were "hidden" until their DNA was sequenced. But, how can this be? How can two individuals that look exactly alike be different? The answer is that they can have differences in behavior, physiology, or ecology, all of which can’t be determined from what the animal looks like.

So I am looking for cryptic species among the Pteropoda, which are snails that grow up to about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) (but are usually smaller) and live their entire lives in the water column. They have a reduced or absent shell and a foot modified into wings for swimming (pteropods means "wing-foot"). These midwater organisms are important as food for many fish, cephalopods, and even marine mammals. They are potential indicators of global climate change as the composition of their shells makes them especially vulnerable to disintegration as the oceans become more acidic. However, there is a lot of disagreement regarding how many species of pteropods there are and which individuals belong to each species. For these reasons, I am collecting specimens via SCUBA, ROV dive, and trawl nets from broad geographical locations, and sequencing some of their DNA to determine the number of pteropod species and find out whether, for instance, individuals collected in Hawaii are from the same species as those that look exactly the same collected off of California.

Before taking a piece of tissue for DNA sequencing, however, I have to get a good picture of each individual. This is very important because I may find new species among my samples and need to have detailed images of what they look like—I’m going to have to describe the mouth-parts of animals the size of my pinky nail after all! The process is not as simple as taking one or two snap-shots and moving on to the next task. Most of the pteropods are less than a centimeter (half an inch) in length, so the first step is to have a good macro lens on the camera. But the closer you are, the more any movement is magnified, so the camera needs to be attached to a stand to stabilize it. Then there is the requirement of having the animal in a tank of seawater. Correction: a sloshing tank of seawater due to the constant movement of the ship. And then there is the animal that, not used to being in the limelight, desires escape from the whole scene and constantly swims to the edges of the tank, where it is impossible to get a nice picture. So you gently prod the animal to the center of the tank and get the composition you want, but in the half second it takes to press the shutter button the animal has shifted a fraction of an inch and is therefore out of the shot. Imagine taking a close-up shot of a flower in bloom. And then imagine that it’s windy. And that your dog is pulling the leash that you're holding. Getting a good picture of a pteropod is somewhat like that. So you often spend one or two hours, taking 50 to 150 shots, and you might get one or two decent images. But it’s a necessary part of the science I’m performing. And the money shot is so worth it.

Stephanie Bush's camera set-up involves a high-resolution camera with a macro lens, a stand to stabilize the camera, and many flashes to help her get a great photo of her small species of interest.
Examples of bad and good images of the pteropod Notobranchaea macdonaldi. Stephanie took 116 images of this animal to get the money shot!
Examples of bad and good images of the pteropod Clio recurva. In the left image, you can see a great view of the mouth parts (the dark part in between the wings), but the wings are obscured due to movement of the animal in the tank.

— Stephanie Bush

Previous log


Day 7 Day 7 - Patience and the money shot
March 28, 2013
How do we define a species? And how can we tell which individuals belong to a given species? Those may seem like simple questions, but in fact, sometimes they are not.

Day 6 Day 6 - Finally, a vampire squid (or two)!
March 27, 2013
For those of you who have been following the midwater lab’s blogs over the last couple of years, you know that one of our target animals is the vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis.

Day 5 Day 5 - "Let's descend fast to the bottom – wait, no STOP!!!!"
March 26, 2013
MBARI has some great pilots - we certainly put them to the test today with: "Let's go down fast... Wait.... Stop...Okay, keep going...Wait... "

Day 4 Day 4 - Collecting Octopoteuthis deletron.
March 25, 2013
Today we collected two Octopoteuthis deletron.

Day 3 Day 3 - Here's looking at you!
March 24, 2013
It was a great day today as we filled up the MRS and made some collections.

Day 2 Day 2 - Cephalopod Day
March 23, 2013
Cephalopods! The ROV Doc Ricketts got into the water today where we completed our midwater transects and found some animals.

day one Day 1 - Setting Sail
March 22, 2013
Alicia Bitondo sorting through the trawl specimens for squid. The wind was high enough to keep us from collecting with the ROV, but not with the trawl net!


R/V Western Flyer

The R/V Western Flyer is a small water-plane area twin hull (SWATH) oceanographic research vessel measuring 35.6 meters long and 16.2 meters wide. It was designed and constructed for MBARI to serve as the support vessel for ROV operations. Her missions include the Monterey Bay as well as extended cruises to Hawaii, Gulf of California, and the Pacific Northwest.

ROV Doc Ricketts

ROV Doc Ricketts is MBARI's next generation ROV. The system breaks new ground in providing an integrated unmanned submersible research platform, with many powerful features providing efficient, reliable and precise sampling and data collection in a wide range of missions.

Midwater respirometry system (MRS)

The MRS conducts oxygen consumption rate measurements in situ gauging the metabolism of animals without subjecting them to the stresses of transport to the surface. MRS has been modified to operate in deeper water with an expanded capacity, enabling respiration studies on animals that live deeper than 1,250 meters.

Detritus sampler

Detritus samplers are large plexiglass containers with lids that can be controlled by the pilot of the ROV and gently closed once an organism is trapped inside.


The CTDO is mounted on the ROV and takes in situ measurements of environmental parameters such as conductivity, temperature, depth, and oxygen concentration.

High frequency suction sampler

This sampler acts like a vacuum cleaner sucking up samples and depositing them into one of the 12 buckets.

 Research Team

bruce robison Bruce Robison
Senior Scientist, MBARI

Bruce Robison's research is focused on the biology and ecology of deep-sea animals, particularly those that inhabit the oceanic water column. He pioneered the use of undersea vehicles for these studies and he led the first team of scientists trained as research submersible pilots. At MBARI, his research group has focused on the development of remotely operated vehicles as platforms for deep-sea science.

kim reisenbichler Kim Reisenbichler
Senior Research Technician, MBARI

Kim's general area of interest is the study of midwater and deep sea animals. He has developed many tools and techniques to observe, manipulate, and collect these organisms, and to maintain the animals in the lab.

rob sherlock Rob Sherlock
Senior Research Technician, MBARI

Rob is interested in the ecology of midwater invertebrates. He has worked in the Robison lab and been involved with the Midwater Time Series since he came to MBARI in 1996, identifying and quantifying mesopelagic animals and the changes in that community over time and depth and relative to other physical factors.

kris walz Kris Walz
Research Assistant, MBARI

Kris works with the midwater ecology group, analyzing ROV video transects between 50 and 1,000 meters in depth to identify biological organisms from all taxonomic levels. Kris started working at MBARI in 1996 after finishing her master's degree at University of California, Santa Cruz. She's looking forward to going to sea this month to collect video transects and to search for deep-sea lobster larvae from the family Polychelidae.

susan von thun Susan von Thun
Research Technician, MBARI

Susan works in the MBARI video lab, where her primary responsibility is to watch video taken with MBARI's remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and make observations about the organisms, behaviors, equipment, and geological features that she sees. While annotating video, she's become adept at identifying numerous deep-sea organisms, specializing in midwater organisms. She works closely with the midwater ecology group and the bioluminescence lab to expand her knowledge of the fish, jellies, cephalopods, and other groups in the midwater.

henk-jan hoving Henk-Jan Hoving
Postdoctoral Fellow, MBARI

Henk-Jan is a postdoc in the midwater ecology group of Bruce Robison, investigating the life history strategies of pelagic cephalopods. Cephalopods have one reproductive cycle after which they die. Henk-Jan is interested in how long deep-sea cephalopods live, and how different species shape their reproductive strategies to optimize their single reproductive event.

Alicia Bitondo
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Alicia is an aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she specializes in the care and display of cephalopods and jellies. She is also a graduate student at Moss Landing Marine Labs, where she where she is focusing on the developmental changes in the ecology and morphology of midwater cephalopods.

Kat Bolstad
Auckland University of Technology

Kat is a lecturer in the Earth & Oceanic Sciences Research Institute at AUT (New Zealand), where she leads a cephalopod research group, focusing largely on systematics of deep-water Pacific species. She is also interested in ecology of and vision in deep-water squids, and is a science moderator on the cephalopod enthusiast website

Stephanie Bush
Postdoctoral Fellow, Smithsonian Institution

Stephanie is currently working in the lab of Karen Osborn at the National Museum of Natural History. She is broadly interested in marine organismal ecology, and her current research explores the connectivity between populations of planktonic animals and how it relates to speciation and biodiversity in the open ocean. During this expedition, she will be collecting pteropods, a group of midwater snails with reduced or absent shells and a pair of wings that propel them through the water column.

Chris Payne
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Chris has been an aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for two years. His focus is mainly on the husbandry and rearing of syngnathids—the family of fish that includes seahorses, pipefishes, and leafy and weedy sea dragons—though he also works with jellyfish and cephalopods.