Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Marthasterias vs. food! Scallops and Clams on the RUN!

Happy Holidays to Everyone!

Yes, its that time of the year..and I hope everyone has made their way to wherever they were going for the holidays! I'm still taking a little time off, but here's a bunch of neat videos of the Atlantic sea star Marthasterias glacialis attacking various clams and scallops!

Most mollusks can detect the "odor" or presence of predatory starfish immediately and many species can implement an extreme or emergency type behavior (i.e. an escape response) in order to escape being eaten. This can be quite different from the regularly encountered behavior associated with these species.

This one has the ol' "I am a clam with a big FOOT that I use to push myself away" response!

M. glacialis Vs. Scallop! (aka Coquille Saint Jacques)

"Un amor gourmand" aka "Greedy Love" (I think?). TWO starfish species for the price of one! Marthasterias pursuing a scallop (with a dramatic soundtrack) followed by some cool Astropecten burrowing video! Some interesting French narration follows...

Happy New Year (Bonne annee!) to Everyone from the Echinoblog!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiday Treat! Japanese Astropecten burying/unburying video!

I just HAD to post this.. VERY cool Japanese Astropecten unburying itself in reaction to some food.. A little holiday treat!!

Happy Holidays from the Echinoblog! Here's a little break...

So, between my being snowed in at the Paris airport and being delayed for awhile from travel and other general holiday transit issues, the echinoblog will be been pretty quiet this week... But I won't leave without giving people something! So, here's a little set of videos that mainly features some neat looking sea slugs!

*gasp* yes. Just letting the echinoderms take a little holiday rest..... So, enjoy!

A tropical sea slug, called Kalinga ornata that in one video tries to feed on a brittle star...

and here's just a cool video of it

and here's just one weird-ass sea slug called Melibe viridis

Happy Holidays to everyone from the Echinoblog!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Meet the French!! Echinoderm Research in Paris (& Marseille)!!

For the last 3 weeks, I've been blogging from the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle (MNHN) in Paris France.

As indicated in a prior post, I've been working on the diversity of starfishes in the invertebrate collection, looking for new species and additional data for my research.
The MNHN is the French equivalent of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in the United States, and carries an equally esteemed reputation for research excellence.
In spite of its incredible age (founded in 1793, making it nearly 220 years old!), the museum has shown no signs of slowing down and hosts a number of modern, cutting edge research laboratories that work on ecology, deep-sea biology, paleontology, and more!

Usually, when someone like me visits a museum as a researcher, I am hosted by a research lab, in this case-the Echinoderm laboratory at the MNHN which is headed by Dr. Nadia Ameziane!

Her lab works primarily on crinoids (i.e., the feather stars) but has included work on sea urchins (asteries) and sea urchins (oursins). Much work is done in the Antarctic and in the deep-sea-but scope of the lab is global.

Dr. Nadia Ameziane. Nadia has been a curator at the MNHN since the early 90s and has been very influential in the growth of the echinoderm collections in Paris throughout the last two decades. She oversees the people and echinoderm research at the museum...
and is one of the world's experts on the evolution and diversity of living stalked crinoids. Her papers include this recent one in conjunction with Marc and Lenaig (below) which I blogged about here. Other papers include this one , this one and this one!
(photo by David Clague, MBARI)

Nadia does just about everything!

She oversees the MNHN Echinoderm site, advises students, helps to manage the invertebrate zoology collections, attends committee meetings, and of course, continues to do her science. I tried to catch a picture of Nadia above-but she was busy preparing for an Antarctic cruise to Adelie Land (aka Terre Adelie)!!

Dr. Marc Eleaume got his Phd in 2006 from the Museum national D'Histoire naturelle (yes-they actually grant degrees!) and was promptly hired by the museum about one year later.

Marc is sort of the First Officer of the lab/echinoderm collection. Sort of Commander Riker to Nadia's Captain Picard. He takes care of a lot of the day to day while she manages her senior duties.
Marc also works on the evolution and diversity crinoids, especially those in the Antarctic. He focuses on their evolution and taxonomy, but also their ecology and community structure (see one of these papers here). I blogged about one of his papers on crinoid current flow only about a month ago, here.

Marc is currently in the process of describing a new genus and species of Ptilocrinus (which is in the jar he is holding), a stalked crinoid from the Antarctic to be published in the journal Polar Science.

Marc speaks excellent English and has been instrumental in organizing logistics for the many English-speaking scientists who visit the museum. I (and many others) owe him a huge debt for arranging any number of important details.

Once, many years ago, Marc pointed out that what I thought was laundry detergent was actually bleach! Thus preventing my looking like I had lost a fight with a bottle of white-out!

Always good to have someone who can read French when visiting France. :-)

Ms. Lenaïg Hemery. The youngest member of the lab is Lenaig, a PhD student from Brittany (in the northwest of France).
Lenaig is working on multiple big projects in crinoid phylogeny in conjunction with Marc and Nadia.

Including a phylogeography of the Antarctic crinoid Promachocrinus kerguelensis...
but perhaps her most impressive achievement is one of the most comprehensively sampled and most complete of the DNA phylogenies of the crinoids (i.e., a family tree, including feather stars and sea lillies)!!!

Here, Lenaig holds the output of her tree which includes 200 taxa (i.e., species) and is based on 4 genes.
The tree represents a HUGE accomplishment when she finally gets her PhD thesis done! Extracting DNA from crinoids isn't easy...neither is identifying them..with Marc and Nadia's help, it seems like Lenaig's project will be a huge success!

A Visit from Dr. Villier...
In addition to the time spent around the museum I also almost always get a visit from my colleague Dr. Loic Villier from the University of Marseille!
Loic works on the evolutionary patterns of different fossil marine invertebrates, but is particularly fond of fossil sea stars and the evolution. He has a particular fondness for goniasterid sea stars (such as the Ceramaster he's holding), which readily fossilize in northern Europe....but sometimes only as individual pieces, which can make working with them a challenge... (here to see a blog about it)

That said, Loic describes quite a few complete fossil starfish, largely from the Mesozoic. Examples of some of his recent papers are here, here and here.

Loic's newest paper (VILLIER, L.: Asteroids from Barremian calciturbidites of the Serre de Bleyton (Drôme, SE France). 701-732, 1 pl., 10 figs, 2 tabs) describes this awesome looking beast: Leptaster martinii, described by deLoriol in 1880 in the Middle Jurassic!
The photo was taken by Jérôme thomas (University of Burgundy).

Fossils of this quality are VERY rare.

But this one, has a particularly unusual collection history!

This was told to Loic by Dr. Jean-Henri Delance (1937-2005) who worked as specialist in fossil brachiopods and quantitative paleoecology at the University of Burgundy.

He also was the curator of the paleontological collection at the University of Burgundy and responsible for the University Museum, the so-called "Jardin Jurassique".
Early in his career, Jean-Henri had been working in the quarry of the village Comblachien, south of Dijon (France), doing paleocological investigation of several small coral and bryozoan patch reefs. Jovial and friendly with everybody he has been invited by one of the quarryman for a drink at home. While sitting at the kitchen table and waiting for glasses and a bottle, his eyes focused on the hot pad lying in the center of the table. This was a squared limestone block perfectly jagged and polished, cut in the mid-plane of a fossil sea star. Jean-Henri managed to deal it for several bottles of Burgundy wine, and added the "sea star hot pad" to the paleontological collections of the University.
The sea star can be identified despite its uncommon mode of preservation. This is the third specimen available for the Jurassic taxon Leptaster martinii de Loriol (1880). The cross section offers a rare opportunity to described the articulation pattern of all ossicle types, and this is the reason why I have chosen to illustrate this specimen in a discussion on systematic affinities of Leptaster.

Whew! Christmas is coming up! and I'm leaving Paris look for next week's blog to be late and probably a little light as I am en transit....

Hope all of you are having a great holiday time!

J'aime la neige-I Love the snow! Break from business in Paris...

So, as you may have heard, Paris had an unprecedent snowfall of about 4.3 inches on Wednesday..the most its had since 1987! This put a bit of a cramp on getting around and etc.
So, what I had planned to report this week on new museum researchers will instead be posted on Mondayish instead of this week..

Instead, here's some various sights around Paris..

A sign of Rue Linne' aka Carolus von Linne' aka Linneaus! The famous French naturalist who invented modern taxonomic nomenclature! (i.e., the genus and species convention).
Right around the corner from the sign is a pretty cool fountain with these various herpetofauna and such.. including what looks like a six rayed starfish! Probably Leptasterias polaris...
At night..the city is adorned with lights!

and what would Paris be without windowshops FILLED with delicious cakes....
pastries of various kinds..

and freshly made chocolates!!!
Be back at ya' in a few more days with more on French echinoderm researchers!!!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Paris Echinoblog Special! 19th century OLD SCHOOL specimens!

Just some quick bits... first, the above statue of some oceanic nymph or goddess doing battle with a giant fish!

One thing that comes up every so often while going through the Paris museum is how incredibly OLD it is! Nothing I've seen in any American museum comes close.

Many of the specimens were actually on display in the museum gallery up until its facelift in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

These older specimens are relicts from an era when each museum specimen was treated with a reverence (and resources) that is/are really not seen any more.

This includes some pretty intricate display bottle/jars such as this one...which is sealed with a melted metal, which I think is tin and has the specimen tied to a thread and actually suspended from a floaty glass sphere!!
Several of the specimens in the collection have been here since the 1800s..since the days of Lamarck!

Lamarck, whose full name was Jean Baptiste Lamarck (yes I know its longer) was a famous French naturalist who published widely on botany, geology, and invertebrates. But is perhaps best known for Lamarckian style evolution (aka Lamarckism).

This was an early version of the idea of evolution that "proposed that individual efforts during the lifetime of the organisms were the main mechanism driving species to adaptation, as they supposedly would acquire adaptive changes and pass them on to offspring."

A nicer summary of Lamarckism is found here. thanks to Echinoblog reader Trevor P.!

Anyway, he collected and curated MANY specimens throughout the Paris museum, including this one (a basket star)...

I'm not sure, but I think that this might even be his writing!
More to come on modern research performed in the Paris Museum!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Adversity & Splendor! Tropical South Pacific sea stars in Paris!

As promised! This week, the Echinoblog comes to you LIVE from Paris, France!

My apologies for running late this week! Travel can be fun and productive, but you invariably encounter adversity! In this case, a combination of jet lag, getting administrative stuff done, and catching a stomach bug yesterday!
The museum has a LONG history of studying evolution, practically before it was KNOWN as evolution! ("transformational: biology?)

The statue above, which sits in a prominent location in the Jardin des Plants (sort of the Paris equivalent of the National Mall) depicts Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (or simply Buffon) (click to read his Wikipedia article), who would later influence Lamarck and others...

You can tell what a bad ass he was from the fact that the statue shows him sitting on a frakkking LION!!

The museum itself is VERY old and was founded in 1793! Shown here is the Grande Gallerie d'Evolution! Paris has hosted many distinguished scientific minds, including Lamarck, and Georges Cuvier

Why am I here?

As many of you know, I am a scientist who studies sea stars (i.e., the Asteroidea) and the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle contains one of the largest collections of deep-sea asteroids from exotic locales that I know about!

What most people don't know is that BELOW the Grande gallerie is 3 floor vault -like bunker complex...
And its down here that innumerable specimens are housed and cared for!
This includes specimens from the many exotic locales sampled by French scientists, including this spiny Calliaster elegans..
these neato little "cookie" stars... (Sphaerodiscus I think)
This big cookie, Ceramaster patagonicus australis...
and finally, Calliaster regenerator-a weird starfish with screwdriver like spines!

More is on the way!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I had hoped to put together something more ambitious this week, but alas, forces have worked against me. But NEXT week and for the few weeks? Something SPECIAL the Echinoblog blogs from EUROPE!! As I work from the world famous Museum national d'Histoire naturelle in PARIS, FRANCE!!

But for now, enjoy these very keen videos of the sand star Astropecten which is found in various tropical shallow water environments on sandy bottoms around the world...

From Japan, an outstanding video of what looks like Astropecten polyacanthus gliding gracefully over a sand bottom to a French sound track!

From Tarifa, Spain, a neat vid of what is identified as Astropecten aranciacus...

An Astropecten sp. from Changi!

Painted sand star from Ivan Kwan on Vimeo.

and another one from Japan, being flipped over and turning back...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

HUGE swarms of Pycnopodia helianthoides (Sunflower Stars) in British Columbia! Starfish Swarms?? Has the Invasion finally come?

(Image courtesy N. McDaniel)
A slightly different kind of post today. One that is a little more in the category "citizen science" than my usual stuff.

So, about a week ago, I received an email report from Neil McDaniel, a marine photographer and cinematographer. (His website with stunning pix is here) regarding an unusual occurrence.

Pycnopodia helianthoides, the large sized and immediately recognizable "sunflower star" present on the west coast of North America, from Alaska to Southern California was being observed in MASSIVE numbers in British Columbia. In Mr. McDaniels' own words:
....Hordes, and I mean hordes of Pycnopodia can be found in the shallow subtidal in Howe Sound, a coastal fjord near Vancouver. During one dive where I covered all of 100 metres horizontally I found densities like this in a band perhaps 3 metres across starting at about 2 m below datum and extending downward to about 5 m below datum. It’s not an exaggeration to say there were several thousand just in this area. Not all of Howe Sound is like this but many areas are. So what’s happening here?
Normally, when one encounters Pycnopodia, its found by itself or rarely in the company of one or two other individuals and they're usually competing for food.. This video gives you a general idea of what Pycnopodia is typically like...

But pictures from Howe Sound in BC shows this:
(Image courtesy N. McDaniel)
(Image courtesy N. McDaniel)
(Image courtesy N. McDaniel)
(Image courtesy N. McDaniel)
and then, I put it together with a Vancouver Aquarium video on YouTube from August 2009. Note the ABUNDANCE of sunflower stars! Based on what I know of, that's unusual....

The Vancouver Aquarium account reads
Research diver Donna Gibbs was able to record on videotape a remarkable event that occurred at the time of an extreme low tide along the shoreline of West Vancouver, just east of Whytecliff Park. As Donna prepared to start a dive with Jeff Marliave at Kettle Point, the crew exchanged comments about the strong shoreline current, as well as the apparent red tide condition. The sea surface was also at a record 23 degrees Celsius. Donna and Jeff went down on a planned drift dive toward the west, counting rockfish at an artificial reef and along natural shoreline reef areas that have been monitored for this entire decade.

The water clarity was excellent at depths below the red tide, and the dive plan proceeded normally until an area was reached where vast numbers of the giant sunflower sea star were covering the rock surfaces. At this point, a down-welling component of the shoreline current was evident and the sea stars were rapidly moving down the slope of the rock. The sea stars were traveling so quickly that they were running over each other, creating slow-motion landslides of sea stars tumbling down the slope.
So, what's going on???
I've asked around my network of scientist and diver colleagues in more southern regions..i.e., California and none of them has seen more than a couple of individuals of Pycnopodia together at one time.

I've even consulted with my colleagues who work in the deep-sea around California.. They see the deep-sea cousin of Pycnopodia, Rathbunaster...and although it can occur in high numbers, its generally different than what's being seen with Pycnopodia... Here's a couple of examples:

Are there possible explanations? Sure. For example....

1. Populations are high because juvenile survivorship is high. This is basically what happened with the crown of thorns (Acanthaster planci) in Australia.

Some environmental factor is different leading to a high survivorship of juveniles leading to a huge abundance of adults. In the case of Pycnopodia, this has not been documented. Could it be Food? Water temperature? Nutrients? Hard to say.

2. Could they be spawning? A lot of invertebrate species gather in large aggregations in order to facilitate spawning. The males produce their sperm and the females are handily nearby to facilitate fertilization between sexes.

That said, most observations of Pycnopodia have never documented more than a few specimens at a time at most... and none of the pictured/recorded individuals seem to be producing reproductive material...
(pic courtesy of Allison Gong, UCSC)
Speaking of which, one of my colleagues Dr. Allison Gong has helped produce an account of the subsequent development of Pycnopodia. You can see that here...

So where does that leave us??
This huge, dense clustering of Pycnopodia is something that I, and many of my colleagues have never seen before. And when the combined experience of close to a dozen scientists haven't seen something on the west coast of North America??? Something weird is going on..

What could be causing it? What could be causing these mysterious swarms of giant, sunflower starfish? Are they just well-fed starfish? Climate change? Food? Social gathering? How does this affect the ecology of the area? How often do these high populations persist?
Could they be preparing an invasion? :-) (disclaimer: the great starfish invasion may not be real...)
(please note that this photo was performed by a professional-please don't try this at home!)

Unlike my other posts-this is NOT a report on a paper...I thought I would throw this out there as a general announcement to divers, scientists and interested folk!

Has anyone out there seen these massive, dense aggregations of sunflower stars? Do you have additional video? Pictures?

Contact me through my profile and let me know!
(THANKS again to Neil McDonald for allowing use of his pictures!)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Yale Peabody Museum Part 2! A.E. Verrill, Cambrian Invertebrates, and mmm..Waffles!

(Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, YPM # 220638, Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven CT, USA)

And now the conclusion of my travel to Yale's world famous Peabody Museum in New Haven, CT where I was visiting the Department of Invertebrate Zoology and the adjacent Dept. of Invertebrate Paleontology!

I stayed at a local hotel which included waffles made with a waffle-making-machine which was part of their complimentary "continental breakfast" offerings!
This and a cup of coffee later..I'm off to the museum!

After a search through the collection and working on their newly collected specimens from deep-sea Seamount expeditions and other exotic locales, I proceeded to review the older parts of their collection, and many interesting historical items presented themselves!

This dried and brilliantly painted asteroid, Dermasterias imbricata
Also came upon a very amazingly dissected Aristotle's "Lantern" in the collection.. Really hard to find one that is quite so well prepared...
I was also able to delve more deeply into the historical artifacts and lore of the Yale Peabody Invertebrate collections!

Here, Collections Manager Eric Lazo-Wasem showcases a portrait of the noted Harvard biologist and naturalist, Louis Agassiz
And one closer...
I was also got a full dose of the history of famous American zoologist Addison Emery Verrill, whose full bio can be found here.

An incredible painting of Verrill can be found in the Invertebrate Zoology offices...
Here is a photo of Verrill for comparison..
What did A. E. Verrill do for us?

Well, in his day, (roughly the 1860s to the early 1900s) Verrill was one of the most prolific and pre-eminent invertebrate zoologists in the United States. He described over 1200 taxonomic names of various marine species, including corals and worms!! (although to be fair-not all of them remain valid, but still...) Approximately 290 of these names were starfish.

If you work on the Pacific Northwest coast, here are a couple of Verrill's starfish names that have remained "good species" in spite of taxonomic changes over the last 100 years or so...

Solaster dawsoni was described by Verrill in 1880!!

and the North Pacific coral and sea pen predator
Hippasteria spinosa which was described by Verrill in 1909.

and there are many more...

Shifting Gears-A Visit to Invertebrate Paleontology!

So, during this visit, I also took some time to visit the equally world famous Invertebrate Paleontology department at the Peabody Museum to examine starfish fossils.. (which for various reasons I won't be showing you here...)

But here is an excellent shot of a nicely preserved Paleozoic crinoid, Seirocrinus subangulatus YPM specimen 210116. A species that some people think was pelagic...(click here)
(Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, YPM # 210116, Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven CT, USA)

The Yale/Peabody museum is home to the Lab of Dr. Derek Briggs, an expert on Cambrian invertebrate forms, especially those associated with the Cambrian Explosion.

As a result, there are some awesome models representing the living interpretations of various Paleozoic invertebrates that were in the Paleo department collections! Many of these were made by the masterful artist George S. Rennie III who produced models for many different departments in the Peabody Museum.

Here is a good-sized model of the Cambrian predator Anomolocaris nathorsti..Wiki on Anomalocaris is here. (Note that All images below are courtesy of the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT, specimen YPM 203911)
View from the perspective of potential food!
And a dorsal view...
Here is model of the Cambrian Priapulid worm, Ottoia prolifica (wiki article is here), which could get to up to 80 CENTIMETERS in length!! (All images below are courtesy of the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT.specimen YPM 203912)
So, with me there for scale, we see that this model was actually close to life sized!
Now THAT is a big worm.

Another cool giant Paleozoic invertebrate-A huge stylonurid!! Based on an actual head-shield, making this model a reconstruction of a LIFE SIZED individual!! (All images below are courtesy of the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT.specimen YPM 220638, )
Stylonurids were related to eurypterids-Giant predatory "sea scorpions" that swam through the shallow seas on the Paleozoic.
Here is a schematic from one of the hallway displays showing how big some sea scorpions (not stylonurids but related to) got relative to humans..
Yet, another reminder of how, if you find yourself in the Paleozoic, you should NEVER go into the water!

And here is a model of the Paleozoic worm Plumulites which is thought to have been ancestral to modern polychaetes. (gratefully, this was not life sized! )
And here we have some hallway displays of more giant Paleozoic arthropods, such as this eurypterid!
A close up of this mean beast!
and finally a Trilobite display!
I had a very productive trip to Yale and was enthusiastically recieved/hosted by Yale's friendly and gracious staff! In Invertebrate Zoology: Collection Manager Eric Lazo Wasem and museum assistants, Lourdes Rojas and Daniel Drew and in Invertebrate Paleontology: Collection Manager Susan Butts and museum assistant Jessicz Bazeley!