DEEPC Hawai’i Expedition 2018

Ctenophores (the “c” is silent, so it is pronounce “tee-no-fors”) are gelatinous marine predators that inhabit the ocean from the surface to great depths and one of the target species during this expedition.

Expedition goal:We are part of an international team of scientists collaborating on the MBARI- and NSF-funded Diversity, Ecology, and Ecophysiology of Ctenophores (DEEPC) project. Members of the team are working to answer questions about the biochemical, physiological, and genetic adaptations that these organisms have evolved to help them survive and diversify in the deep sea.

Expedition dates: November 1- 12, 2018

Ship: R/V Kilo Moana

Research technology:  MiniROV, Tucker-trawl net, blue-water scuba diving

Expedition chief scientist: Steve Haddock

This 10-day expedition is taking place off the islands of Hawai’i on the R/V Kilo Moana, a twin-hull scientific research vessel that now holds scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Evergreen State College, Yale University, the University of South Florida, and the University of Gdansk, as well as all of the equipment and technology we need to study the different biological aspects of ctenophores. We have the MiniROVfrom MBARI, a Tucker trawl net, and blue-water scuba divers, all of which will collect samples (ctenophores and other gelatinous animals). Each tool collects animals in a different way and samples different environments, which allows us to answer a variety of questions. We will process all these animals on the ship, even running some experiments on them while we are at sea, while others will be preserved to study later.

Updates from researchers on the R/V Kilo Moana:

Monday, November 12, 2018
Senior Research Technician Shannon Johnson, Postdoctoral Fellow Manabu Bessho, and Graduate Research Assistant Jacob Winnikoff

This year we are lucky to be able to participate in the blue-water scuba diving operations. It’s hard to describe the experience, but it’s kind of like floating in the most beautiful, ethereal, warm blue water. When we first enter the water, we connect our lines and clips to a “trapeze” (an underwater rigging system) to ensure we don’t get separated from each other or the boat. Then we descend to 15 meters and begin collecting.

Actually collecting water-column organisms is hard! They are nearly invisible and good at escaping, so it takes some practice to successfully capture them. We use the lids of the jars to carefully “vacuum” ctenophores, siphonophores, radiolarians, and swimming snails (or whatever are looking for) into small glass jars. Once our jars are full or we run out of time we ascend to the surface and climb back on the dive boat to return to the ship with our sparkly treasures.

During yesterday’s blue-water dive we were fortunate enough to successfully collect a few specimens of a ctenophore called Eurhamphea vexilligera (E. vex for short, or when you are writing underwater). When our group was here last March, this was one of the dominant species we collected, but they were tiny. This year, they are less abundant, but “giant” (about the size of a business card—almost five centimeters!). Well, maybe not giant, but this time we don’t need microscopes to identify them.

E. vex is special because it emits light not only along its comb rows but also secretes orange ink and blue-green luminous particles when it is disturbed. MBARI Postdoctoral Fellow Manabu Bessho-Uehara is studying the biochemistry of bioluminescence. He found that the light from the comb row diminishes quickly but the blue-green luminous particles continue twinkling for a while, like stars in the sky. He thinks E. vex uses the bioluminescence for misdirecting their predators. Actually, while he was filming, he said “I totally lost him right after I saw the bioluminescence.” Even, or especially, humans are distracted by pretty lights.

Evergreen State College undergraduate student Nick Leonardi is studying the structure of the luminescent organ and comparing it with other organisms that spew bioluminescence. Despite E. vex being one of the more common and abundant ctenophores that inhabit tropical waters, there is a lot we don’t know about them: for instance, what do they do with the long filaments that extend from their end away from the mouth? Ctenophores are not actually radially symmetrical: they have a unique rotational symmetry, and E. vex is one of the best examples of this. Its keels are twisted as they run along the body, causing it to spiral as it swims. Nick is studying how closely linked the E. vex we collect in Hawaii are to other populations worldwide, by comparing with samples collected in the tropical Atlantic. We are interested in connectivity of populations because it gives us clues about the biodiversity of our world ocean.

Jacob Winnikoff, a PhD student from University of California, Santa Cruz, and an MBARI research assistant, is studying high-pressure tolerance and wants to find out how much of an animal’s ability to take the squeeze of the deep sea is based on where it has spent its life, versus being hard-coded into its species’ DNA. He thinks E. vex. will help answer this question and especially looks forward to analyzing a sample collected by the MiniROV at 600 meters, the deepest this species has ever been found!

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Monterey Bay Aquarium Aquarist Chloe Weinstock

If you are a fan of nature documentaries, you may have come across a strange, gelatinous creature floating through the water with its many-colored glimmering comb rows. These luminescent animals are not, in fact, aliens or robots, but ctenophores (the “c” is silent, so it is pronounce “tee-no-fors”), commonly called comb jellies. Ctenophores are gelatinous marine predators that inhabit the ocean from the surface to great depths. And while they are fragile and delicate when removed from the water, ctenophores are a robust part of the ocean ecosystem. Of particular interest to the team assembled aboard this ship are the dramatic physiological and genetic changes that must occur for an animal to shift its habitat from shallow to deeper waters, a shift that requires adaptations to higher pressures, lower temperatures, infrequent meals, sometimes limited oxygen, and little-to-no light.

Many people may think of lounging by the pool and playing shuffle board when they hear the word “cruise”, but a research cruise is a different story. Working on a ship is hard; it requires long hours of manual labor as well as intense critical thinking, problem solving, and a great deal of collaboration on the part of both the scientists and the crew. But seeing the glimmer of a comb row or a flash of bioluminescence or the endlessly pulsing lobes of a ctenophore, and knowing that every day we are closer to understanding the complexities of these amazing creatures, makes the work more than worth it for all of us.