Bioinspiration Expedition 2019

The Bioinspiration Group not only observes animals, they collect them using suction samplers and detritus samplers. A member of the science team operates the suction pump while the ROV pilot maneuvers the vehicle to capture the animal.

MBARI Expedition #470

Expedition goal: We will be using a new suite of imaging tools and ROV collections to understand the form and function of midwater animals for bioinspired design applications.

Expedition dates: August 14—20, 2019

Ship: R/V Western Flyer

Research technology:  ROV Doc Ricketts, MiniROV, DeepPIV, EyeRIS imaging systems

Expedition chief scientist: Kakani Katija

For the last two years, the Bioinspiration Lab has been working closely with scientists and engineers to develop technologies that enable the study of animals in the deep sea, in particular in the ocean’s midwater, or the twilight zone. Animals at this depth are uniquely adapted to live in a dark, deep, and cold environment with patchy distributions of prey and other animals, and we want to know how do they do it. What are the mechanisms they use to survive in such a challenging place?

To answer these questions, we team up with researchers across disciplines to study these animals in a difficult-to-access place like the ocean’s midwater, and use instruments and platforms that the Bioinspiration Lab develops. Using ROVs and imaging tools, we hope to learn how elusive animals are uniquely adapted for their environment and how these adaptations can be reverse engineered and utilized for other engineering applications.

Updates from researchers on the R/V Western Flyer:

Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Alison Sweeney

I have been invited along on this expedition as a guest with Kakani’s group, from my biophysics lab at Yale University. Kakani’s group is interested in mechanical bioinspiration—how do very small animals move through water? The answers are often very counterintuitive. In my case, I am interested in optical bioinspiration, where life’s solutions are often similarly surprising.

Midwater animals are covered in a spectacular array of lenses, mirrors, and fiber optics, which allow them to see in the very dim light in this environment, to hide against the background of this dim light, and to direct bioluminescent beams to hunt prey and scare away predators. Since these optical devices, in essence, “build themselves” out of proteins, this would be a spectacular thing to learn how to do in an engineering lab. Recently my lab discovered how squid proteins “know” how to build “graded refractive index”, or GRIN lenses. GRIN lenses for cameras and imaging systems are extremely expensive since they must often be built by hand. Squids make these optical components essentially for free out of a gram or so of fairly simple proteins.

Photograph of the head of the Alciopa worm we found, with its very large eyes prominently visible. Photo by Alison Sweeney.

On this expedition, I was most excited to find a midwater worm called Alciopa. They are related to the earthworms you find in your backyard, and in many respects are fairly similar: they have a segmented body, and bristles on each segment. The midwater version, however, is completely transparent and has two giant eyeballs that look like they belong to an anime character. The lenses in these eyes are also made of protein and have a graded refractive index like the squid lenses do. If we can figure out what proteins these worms are using, and if their self-assembly properties are similar to those of the squids, we’ll be able to learn general lessons about how self-assembly works in nature to make cheap, sophisticated optics.

Today, we got super lucky and found an Alciopa! Susan Von Thun, the midwater identification expert who came with us, spotted an Alciopa well before anyone else in the control room could tell it was on the screen. The animal was a few millimeters wide and about twenty centimeters long. We captured it in the ROV’s suction sampler and I was able to work with it in the lab this evening. Alciopa says hi!

Updates from researchers on the R/V Western Flyer:

Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Joost Daniels

A Phronima amphipod inside its salp house, as captured by the main camera of MBARI’s ROV Doc Ricketts.

Hi, I’m Joost Daniels and I’m a research tech in the Bioinspiration Group. In true Bioinspiration fashion, my main job on this week-long cruise consists of two parts: bringing the lab to the ocean, and bringing the ocean to the lab. For the former, we’ve brought our DeepPIV instrument along, mounted on the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts, for deep-sea flow measurements. DeepPIV uses a laser to illuminate a thin sheet of water, showing the movement of particles in the water. In conjunction with a dedicated camera we can use it to study animal kinematics and the way animals use and modify water flow to their advantage.

Single image from a series images that are part of a 3D reconstruction of Phronima inside a salp. The laser illuminates only a slice of the subject, allowing us a unique look inside. Phronima’s head is visible on the left, as well as several pairs of claws and swimming appendages (right). All that’s left of the salp is the elliptical structure surrounding the parasite.

One example of an animal we’ve looked at with DeepPIV on this cruise is an alien-like crustacean in the genus Phronima. It is a hyperiid amphipod and has a big head, multiple jointed appendages, and sharp claws. If that wasn’t enough, its lifestyle completes the nightmare: it will find a salp, eat the salp’s insides, and then take up residence inside the zombified host, and even lay eggs in there. The amphipod continues to swim around with its head inside the salp, and that’s how we often encounter them in the deep sea.

We have also taken the ocean to the lab, in the form of five combinations of instruments that allow us to do various types of imaging, including two that employ lasers and cameras like DeepPIV does, but with high-speed cameras to reveal fast and fine-scale motion. This also enables us to do 3D reconstruction of certain semi-transparent subjects. So far, we’ve been using these setups for a range of subjects including various siphonophores and Tomopteris worms; we even made a 3D reconstruction of a Phronima. We are hopeful we’ll find a few more interesting targets in the coming days.

Cruise participants looking at a siphonophore that is prepped for flow analysis in one of the laser-based lab experiments. Top, left to right: Kakani Katija (MBARI), Diana Li (Hopkins Marine Station), Joost Daniels (MBARI). Bottom: Alex Hoover (University of Akron).

Updates from researchers on the R/V Western Flyer:

Monday, August 19, 2019
Paul Roberts

I joined MBARI in February of this year to work with Kakani Katija and the Bioinspiration Group to build EyeRIS, perhaps the first ever deep-sea plenoptic (3D) imaging system. This project, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, aims to develop a suite of 3D imaging systems for studying particle fields, small-scale fluid mechanics, and deformable surfaces.

We worked intensely between February and August this year to design and build the first version of the system with the hope we could deploy it on the MiniROV during the BioInspiration Group’s Western Flyer cruise this week. Everything came to together and we had the system working well in the test tank last week with high hopes for a successful cruise.

EyeRIS was deployed for the first time at the Midwater 1 site in Monterey Bay on August 14, 2019. To our delight, the hardware performed well and we recorded 3D video of a variety of gelatinous plankton, particle distributions, and flow fields.

The next day, building on the success of the previous dive, we aimed to complete a vertical transect to 1,000 meters to study changes in the concentration and spatial distribution of natural particles as a function of depth in the water column. However, as we descended we lost communications with the plenoptic camera at a depth of 300 meters.

Fearing the worst, the dive was aborted and we returned to the surface to find that one of the subsea fiber-optic cables that connect EyeRIS to the MiniROV had fractured. This was actually great news as it meant the sensitive electro-optics inside the pressure housing were okay and all that was needed to resume operations was a replacement fiber-optic cable (we had two spares).

Dive operations for EyeRIS and the MiniROV resumed bright and early on Friday morning and with the new cable we successfully completed a six-hour dive down to 1,000 meters, recording over 2 terabytes of 3D video data from a variety of animals.

Below is an example on an animal swimming in the field of view of the camera with a 3D depth overlay (orange is near, blue is far). Surrounding the animal we see a field of particles distributed in 3D that vary in size from a few hundred micrometers to a few millimeters.

Updates from researchers on the R/V Western Flyer:

Sunday, August 18, 2019
Susan von Thun

MBARI’s Deep-Sea Guide is a tool that allows a user to search for concept names (for example, animal species) that have been used to describe observations in MBARI’s video database. There are over 4,000 concepts in the database and over 6 million observations from the 30 years of remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operations.

I’m Susan von Thun and I work in MBARI’s video lab. The video lab is the group that takes all of the video produced from the many MBARI video platforms and archives it in a centralized video library. We watch the video, recording observations about the ocean life, habitat, equipment, and anything of interest that we see. Over three decades of video observations has yielded a database filled with incomparable deep-sea knowledge. We also created MBARI’s Deep-Sea Guide, which we use to help our scientists identify what they find. Using the public version of the Guide, you too can peruse this valuable resource to learn more about the life we see during ROV dives.

Working in the video lab at MBARI, I’ve watched and analyzed thousands of hours of video from our ROVs. I’ve also spent countless hours in the ROV control room spotting tiny, transparent animals that most people don’t notice until we stop and zoom in with the camera. My expertise is in midwater animals—the ones that swim well below the surface, but never touch the seafloor. Kakani and her group have come up with a list of animals that they would like to study with  the imaging tools they’ve developed, and I’m here to help them find those animals!

In addition to spending lots of time in main ROV control room on the Western Flyer, it has been fun to work with Dale Graves and the ROV pilots in the MiniROV’s control van on this expedition. The MiniROV is a small, portable underwater robot that can be shipped with its control van anywhere in the world.

One of MBARI’s missions—to bring the lab into the ocean—can be seen in action everywhere I look on this expedition. We’ve got experts in biology, physics, mathematics, and engineering collaborating on challenging problems to learn more about how life on our ocean planet thrives. They are bringing tools used on land into the harsh environment of the deep sea—a formidable challenge. The high-tech tools, when integrated with underwater vehicles like ROVs, are allowing us to study these animals in their habitats and get insights we never could gain in the lab.

I’m also MBARI’s social media specialist, so be sure to check out our Twitter and Instagram accounts (@MBARI_news), which we’ve been updating while at sea. The science team on this cruise is especially adept at using Twitter to communicate their work in a an informative, yet entertaining way!

Updates from researchers on the R/V Western Flyer:

Friday, August 16, 2019
Diana Li

Beautiful sunset from the ship

This year, I received the best birthday present—an invitation to go on a six-day expedition out in Monterey Bay on the R/V Western Flyer with Kakani Katija’s BioInspiration Group at MBARI! Hey y’all, my name is Diana Li, and I’m a recent graduate from Stanford’s Ph.D. program in Biology.

I studied how the physics of the ocean influences squid swimming, and Kakani was one of my research mentors. I love learning about how animals use their bodies to move through different environments; this is my first time exploring that on the Western Flyer. All of my previous research focused on squids found in relatively shallow water. Here we are not only seeing animals who reside hundreds of meters below the surface, but we are fortunate enough to bring them up and onto the boat to study them further.

Tomopteris as seen by the ROV

Yesterday morning, we deployed the ROV Doc Ricketts in search of deep-sea worms and jellies. One of the worms we’re very interested in is Tomopteris, a strange but cute creature that has a bunch of fat little paddles along its body to help it swim.

The ROV Doc Ricketts returns to the Western Flyer through the moon pool which then closes for the ROV to rest upon.

As with many animals that live far away from us, we don’t know much about how Tomopteris is actually swimming and how it coordinates all those little paddles. We combine many modes of observation to learn about these deep-sea creatures. We start with video from the camera on the ROV of the animal in its natural habitat. Then we collect it either by guiding it into a sample bucket attached to the ROV or gently suctioning it into a bin. Once the ROV comes back to the surface with the animals, we get to work by videoing them in the lab.

We are also hoping to use a special technique called particle image velocimetry (PIV), which allows us to observe and analyze the flow of water around the animal. This allows us to actually measure not just animal speed and acceleration but also the forces generated by its movements and how efficient its swimming is. PIV involves lasers, high-speed cameras, and even more animal luck. As I’m writing this, the ROV has just descended from the ocean’s surface—fingers crossed we collect some more deep-sea squishies for our experiments tonight!

The most cooperative siphonophore we’ve ever met. Left: real life view from the tank. Right: as seen by the high-speed camera.

MBARI Cruise Participants

Other Cruise Participants:

Clara Fannjiang, University of California, Berkeley
Alex Hoover, University of Akron
Diana Li, Hopkins Marine Station, Monterey
Aaron Ray, MBARI summer intern
Mitchell Scott, National Geographic Society
Alison Sweeney, University of Pennsylvania