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2014 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

June 6, 2014

Not all interesting dives are deep

After making a couple of general collections on shallow reefs—and doing some targeted collecting of particular species for population level studies in Calatagan—the “Fish Team” spent two hours snorkeling in shallow water (1 to 3 feet deep), checking out seagrass beds and mangrove areas for potential collecting sites. Cameras are usually left behind on the collecting trips themselves, so an outing like this provides a perfect opportunity for taking photos—just as Don Dumale (Ichthyologist at the Philippine National Museum) is shown doing here.

In sandy patches there were an abundance of gobies (Cryptocentrus sp., see photo below) sharing burrows with Alpheid shrimp; the goby stands watch while the shrimp excavates and maintains the burrow. Banded sea snakes were also with us; these cobra relatives are quite venomous and curious, but thankfully, not aggressive.

The very distinctive chocolate-chip starfish (Protoreaster nodosus) was present in the seagrass beds. There were also clusters of Diadema urchins with long needle-like spines that can easily pierce glove or wetsuit. Seeking refuge among the spines, much like an anemonefish does with its host’s tentacles, small scribbled rabbitfish (Siganus spinus) stayed safely out of reach.

Not all of the fishes and invertebrates are as easily seen. The bristle-tailed filefish (Acreichthys tomentosus) blends in beautifully with the seagrass; on sand in the photo below, you can see it more easily. The mangroves were shallower still—less than a foot deep in some places (and we weren’t even close to low tide). These areas in particular presented an unusual underwater landscape. To navigate the forest of vertical shoots, I used the well-worn foot trails that are exposed at low tide.

—Dave Catania, Senior Collections Manager, Ichthyology

Clockwise from top left: A mangroves-eye view; a goby in its burrow; a bristle-tailed filefish; a striped puffer (Arothron manilensis).

Filed under: Research — editor @ 3:52 pm

A forest of sea fans

One of the goals of our NSF-funded Philippines research expedition was to explore an east-to-west gradient in the Verde Island Passage, an important waterway that separates the open Pacific Ocean from the South China Sea. Part of what makes this area so interesting from a zoogeographic perspective is that the passage has strong currents in some areas, and allows the exchange of ocean water between the open Pacific and East Asia.

Our primary job was to identify differences between the animal communities found in each coral reef region along that gradient; to determine how the species found there are distributed, and why. Along with colleagues from the Philippines and other institutions in the U.S. and Japan, we explored reefs in three areas: southwestern Luzon at Mabini, Calatagan to the west, and further to the southwest around Lubang Island, a place so remote that it was the site of the last Japanese soldier holdout from WWII, who hid in the rugged mountainous forests of Lubang for 30 years before being captured in the early 1970s.

During a series of dives, Bob Van Syoc (Senior Collection Manager of Invertebrates at the Academy) and I explored vertical walls at depths of 100 to 130 feet, finding a virtual forest of sea fans—a kind of large, fan-shaped, highly branched corals (also called gorgonians) that require substantial water currents that deliver food in the form of microscopic plankton. These corals are known as “micropredators”—that is, they use eight tiny, feather-shaped tentacles situated around the mouths of polyps to catch microscopic animals (zooplankton) and various plant-like algae (phytoplankton).

Zoogeographic and other findings will take a while to put together, but some of the more immediate results of the expedition—like these photos—can be enjoyed right now.

—Gary Williams, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology 

Filed under: Diving,Research — editor @ 10:45 am

June 5, 2014

Educational outreach: the perfect partner to scientific research

The beaches of the Philippines are beautiful, but they’re not without the environmental challenges facing many parts of the world. To help address the issue of trash along the coast, the Academy expedition co-hosted a “Coastal Clean-Up” event with our friends from the U.S. Embassy.

We focused our work on a small beach on Corregidor Island, where tons of (mostly plastic) trash littered the beach—in some places as deep as 3 feet. In addition to cleaning a section of the beach, our efforts helped to spread awareness about the importance of actions such as keeping trash out of the ocean, creating a solid-waste management plan, and encouraging better personal environmental decisions.

Coastal clean-up projects are just one method of educational outreach, which is an extremely important component of Academy research expeditions. From teacher workshops to events with local communities, Meg and I have been working hard to spread the message about the unique natural resources that exist in the Philippines, and how important it is to take action to protect these areas.

At each of our primary research areas, the expedition team has been holding community-outreach events where local students, teachers, and interested community members come to learn about the expedition and hear updates from both Academy and Filipino scientists—and to meet some of the charismatic marine invertebrates of the region.

We try to deliver our message in an inspirational, action-oriented way, and we’re happy to say it’s been incredibly well received. There are many things that can be done to ensure the biodiversity of coral reefs is protected, and the Filipino audiences we’ve encountered are up for the challenge. From minimizing plastic consumption to supporting legislation for marine protected areas (areas that are already proving themselves highly successful at protecting marine life), we’ve heard some wonderful ideas from the local communities we’ve engaged.

This kind of community outreach goes hand-in-hand with the scientific research we’re conducting on the Verde Island Passage. While research contributes to our understanding of species richness—and provides the hard data that conservation actions require—outreach helps to inspire that action. Through programs at elementary and other schools, it also helps to ensure that protections of these biodiverse areas will have many supporters for generations to come.

—Katie Levedahl, Assistant Director of Youth Programs

Filed under: Education — editor @ 2:00 pm


Greetings from the Philippines!

Reach down
I stepped off the open-air bus wearing the pair of old Sambas I’d brought solely for this day, and looked down at a small stretch of beach on the island of Corregidor. It was early still, but the sun beat down a hard 95 degrees as we clambered down wearing our work gloves and long pants, trash bags in hand.

My first day as part of the Philippine Biodiversity/Verde Island Passage expedition involved joining Meg Burke (the Academy’s Director of Teacher and Youth Education) and Katie Levedahl (Assistant Director) in the U.S. Embassy’s annual Earth Day beach clean-up. I gripped my large, black plastic bag and surveyed the area. Littered across the beach were hundreds of shoes, mostly flip-flops, some Crocs, a few sneakers, and the occasional dress heel. The vast majority of these shoes looked brand new; the time that had passed between their purchase and their arrival upon this shore was relatively short. Also worthy of mention is that these shoes were scattered atop a thick blanket of plastics.

Even after 125 full bags of trash had been packed up, the sandy bottom of the beach was still far from visible. I wanted to get some sort of idea of the scale we were dealing with; reaching down, I began filling my first bag with only flip-flops, which I was able to do while moving just a few feet away from my starting position. Within minutes, I was topping the bag off with the one-hundredth flip-flop. I looked up again. Where was this all going to end up? There is no recycling infrastructure. With sweat dripping from under my Giant’s cap, I looked around at the rest of the beach. People were picking up straws, plastic bags, wrappers, toys, and I thought about San Francisco’s new plastic-water-bottle ban. That wouldn’t even be helpful here, in a place were access to potable water itself is a challenge.

Reach forward
The morning of my first research scuba dive, I asked the Academy’s Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Terry Gosliner, for advice on collecting nudibranchs. He responded, “Look really closely.” Turns out, he’s right. My first dive, I brought back big, colorful slugs; they were about as rare as pointing out poppies and eucalyptus in a biodiversity survey of Golden Gate Park. Within my small collection of large, common slugs, two tiny, mostly white slugs passed the test and were deemed interesting enough to bring back to the Academy.

I was elated. I quickly switched my strategy to finding the smallest slugs, which meant moving slowly, recognizing where to look, and developing my nudibranch eye. I spent hours the first few days collecting, sketching, and releasing all the common nudibranchs I could find to develop my identification skills, and learned quickly what we were looking for.

Reaching into the deep to discover new species was exhilarating. Sarah was the first to find a slug in the genus I study. Having only worked with museum specimens these past two years, this was the first time I was able to see a Glossodoris alive. Incredible doesn’t even describe it. After more dives with greater success in finding less common slugs, I finally heard the words I’d been waiting for: “This is new.” Remaining calm, I replied, “awesome,” while inside I felt like I’d hit the biodiversity jackpot.

Reach out
A week into our stay at Lago de Oro, I hopped into an “aircon” van with Terry, Meg, Katie, and Meg D. and drove out of the resort for the first time since arriving. We passed roadside shops with hand-painted signs advertising what was sold inside and the name of the owner. One of the things I love about the Philippines is how colorful everything is, and the local elementary school was no exception.

We walked across a sandy lot landscaped with low-hanging trees and into a room full of excited students and teachers. The classroom had been expanded to three times its normal size by pushing back dividers, like in the ballrooms of hotel conference centers.

The chair desks had been painted aqua green years ago, and the small stage featured a mural of a yellow-pink sunset with small frames containing their own maritime pictures painted on as if they were hanging on the wall themselves. As soon as we arrived, everyone rose for the national anthem, amplified by a microphone held up to a tiny recorder. It was beautiful. The energy inside the walls of this classroom with students from all over the county was nothing short of alive. After Meg and Terry’s outreach talks, the students lined up in one of the most organized, attentive, non-pushy lines I’ve ever seen. And slowly, with the littlest kids first, they came to see the creatures we’d brought from the reef in their own backyard. What never gets old? Watching kids light up when they see their first nudibranch.

Reach up
It was late into our last night in Calatagan after an exhausting day of packing the lab and cataloging all of our specimens. One by one, we all ended up in the pool under a cloudy night sky.

It was hard to tell whether the water or the air was warmer, and lightning lit up in the distance across the passage. Our group had shrunk considerably in the previous two weeks. Talk of logistics for tomorrow’s move to Lubang and reflections on this leg of the trip were interrupted by loud booms of thunder moving closer.

Amanda told us about an article she’d read stating that reaching your arms up above your head triggered a hormone release that raised confidence. So there we were, on our last night in Calatagan—standing in the swimming pool, hands raised over our heads, laughing as the rain poured down.

Reach in
As the team loaded up the van to head to Lubang, I was preparing to embark on my own adventure. I handed off the expedition baton to my lab-mate, who’d flown in that morning to join in the last leg of the trip, and headed off to the beach to relax and reflect (this is in fact where I’m writing from now).

I learned a lot these past two weeks. Besides increasing my nudibranch vocabulary ten-fold, I figured out what I want to include in my field tool-kit on my next expedition, from the obvious—field microscope—to the less obvious, like spoons and droppers. I was also exposed to a lot of the ins-and-outs of the planning that goes into a trip of this caliber. Perhaps the best part was seeing the curators happier than I’ve ever seen them before—yup, this was the right career choice.

On a more personal note, I experienced (and made it through) what it was like to be on an expedition not only as a graduate student, but also as a man. The day of my departure for the expedition, I celebrated four months on testosterone. My department at the Academy has been on board with my transition from female to male, but I’d been incredibly nervous about the new scientists I would be working with—how I would be read, and how gender would play out in general in the Philippines. I can’t say it was a walk in the park, but I can say I had a lot of unexpected and wonderful conversations (along with a few hiccups), and that overall things continue to get easier. I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be navigating these waters.

—Shayle Matsuda, grad student and assistant to the Academy’s Invertebrate Zoology and Geology department  

Filed under: Research — editor @ 1:00 pm

May 27, 2014

Amazing Sea Hares from Anilao Pier

Anilao Pier, home to the notorious bobbit worm, is my favorite site in the Philippines for night diving. I first dove here in 2012, during my graduate studies at San Francisco State University and the California Academy of Sciences. The diversity of marine invertebrates here is astounding, especially with respect to sea slugs, snails, and anemones.

I’m particularly interested in sea hares, a group of sea slugs in the order Anapsidea. They’re called sea hares thanks to the horn-like structures on their head, known as rhinophores, which allow them to sense their environment—and which happen to resemble rabbit ears. Like the nudibranchs they’re related to (same phylum, different order), sea slugs have evolved potent chemical defenses to deter predation, since they’re soft-bodied and possess either a reduced shell or no shell at all.

On one of my night dives during the expedition, I came across two beautiful, large, lime-green sea hares crawling through the sand and sea grass about 3 meters down. Overwhelmed with excitement upon spotting them, I actually squealed through my scuba regulator! I picked one up and let it go, watching it swim gracefully with its wing-like dorsal appendages (called parapodia), and later collected both for the Academy’s sea slug collection.

This was my first encounter with a species I later learned was Syphonota geographica, the only species within the genus Syphonota. Despite it being circumtropical (distributed throughout the tropics) and an invasive species in the Mediterranean, the Academy’s Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Terry Gosliner, had only encountered this species once before in the Philippines.

I’m thinking about investigating its taxonomy and chemical composition for my PhD, since it may actually represent more than one species and contain variable chemical composition, depending on where it’s found and what it eats. Syphonota geographica in the Indo-Pacific have been reported as feeding on brown algae, while those from the Mediterranean are considered specialists, feeding instead on the invasive seagrass Halophila stipulacea. Representatives from Greece have been studied chemically, but specimens from the Philippines haven’t been researched—offering a great chance to add another chapter to our understanding of the area’s biodiversity.

—Carissa Shipman, PhD student at University of the Philippines Diliman

Filed under: Research — editor @ 11:13 am

May 19, 2014

Return from Lubang

Well, we’ve just returned from Lubang Island, and I’ve never been to a more remote, more rustic place in the world.

The boat ride we were told would take three hours ended up taking five, but the sea was calm and we had a beautiful ride out. We saw dolphins, jellies, and tons of flying fish. When we first pulled up at the port, there were probably 50 people who came out to look at us. I have no doubt we were the first Americans many of them had seen—kids were yelling, “Power boat! Look, a power boat!” and running over to check out our relatively modest, 15-foot whaler-type boat.

As soon as we arrived, four of us took off in the power boat to scout for the dive locations for the next two days. We looked for rocky outcrops on the end of the island facing the drop-off into the South China Sea, and we used side-scan sonar to find rocky areas in the 200- to 350-foot-deep range. After a few stops, we found a spot to dive, so Elliott and I suited up and dropped into a dive site we named “The End of the World.” We did a (relatively) quick pass on the site—buzzing down to 300 feet on scooters and then taking our time coming back up—the total length of dive was 71 minutes, which is about as quick as you can do a dive like that.

We saw all kinds of interesting fish and invertebrates even in that short time, so we knew this was the spot we’d be diving over the next two days. What’s really amazing is that I have no doubt Elliott and I were the first people ever to see this reef. It’s mind-boggling to realize that more people have been in space than have been to this spot on the Earth!

We spent the next two days revisiting the site and collecting animals (both live and preserved) to bring back with us. It was a series of really long days, as it took close to three hours to motor from our hotel at the port to this site on the other end of the island. We’d do a dive, then try to motor back in time to beat the sunset so that we could actually see the channel back to the port! We did two big dives there, including my own longest (290 minutes) and deepest (354 feet) dive to date. The surface water was 90 degrees, but the deep reef was 73 degrees, so we really felt that temperature drop on the way down. Brrrrr!

We collected an undescribed species of damselfish—a cute little orange-and-white fish—to bring back to the aquarium as well as a bunch of other rare fish. The two guys we’re diving with from Hawaii are really good at catching fish underwater—they got ten fish for every one that I could catch!

This morning, we packed up the ferry and came back to Mabini. (We’ve got the fish we collected swimming in two kiddie pools here at the resort where we’re staying—pretty cool that we can build a temporary, portable aquarium wherever we go!) The sea was fairly rough, so we had a pretty bumpy ride for the six hours it took us to get “home.” I’m feeling the rocking right now, and will definitely be rocked to sleep soon!

All in all it was an amazing adventure. I was really shocked by the isolation and simplicity of the lives that the people there are living, and the reefs were very healthy, with loads of fish—including some really big and rare species. A few folks on our team saw a manta ray, and we saw several napoleon wrasses, which have been really fished out in most areas.

—Bart Shepherd, Director of Steinhart Aquarium

Filed under: Aquarium,Diving — editor @ 11:30 am

May 8, 2014

A Return to Devil’s Point Pinnacle

Yesterday we returned to the deep pinnacle off of Devil’s Point, with the intent of collecting live fish for the aquarium. I had my eye on a particularly colorful species from one of my favorite families of fish, the anthias.

Pseudanthias fasciatus, the one-stripe (or red-stripe) anthia, is found on deep reefs in harems of several dominant males and larger groups of females. The males are a gorgeous orange with pink and yellow highlights, and they have a thick, red stripe running down the length of their body.

In order to get fish like this to the surface safely, Steinhart Aquarium biologists Matt Wandell and Richard Ross constructed a fish decompression chamber. The fish are sealed in the hard, plastic container, which prevents a rapid decrease in pressure as they’re brought to the surface. Once on land, they’re slowly “brought up” to surface pressure by decreasing the water pressure on the pump loop.

In a similar manner, in order to get the mesophotic divers to the surface safely, we must spend one to several hours making a long sequence of progressively shallower decompression stops. These stops, which can last from one minute to more than an hour, are a great opportunity to pause, get out the camera, and spend some time snapping photos of the amazing creatures that live in the center of marine biodiversity—like this one I took of a commensal shrimp living on a Stichopathes wire coral.

— Bart Shepherd, Director of Steinhart Aquarium 

Filed under: Aquarium,Diving — editor @ 3:43 pm

May 7, 2014

We Brought an Entire Aquarium With Us (and Built a Fish-Sized Hyperbaric Chamber)

When I tell people that we’re in the field collecting saltwater animals for display and research at the aquarium, most of them imagine that the actual catching is the hard part. In reality, the hard work starts after we collect the animal.

Keeping animals healthy in the field—and then healthy while en route back to Manila for a 14-hour flight to their new home in Golden Gate Park—entails an entire slew of life-support equipment (LSS). We have that stuff at the Academy, obviously, but right now we’re out in the field. Where it’s too hot. Where there isn’t a store to buy what we need. Where we have to constantly battle a continually moving colony of fire ants that appeared right where we set up our equipment.

Fortunately, all the pre-planning we did to prepare for this is paying off. Want the laundry-list of what came with us on the plane? Two 200-gallon inflatable kiddie pools (plus a third, just in case), 220-bolt air and water pumps, rolls of tubing, nets, containers, coral-holding devices, fish-holding cups, seeded biofilters, and an assortment of valves, glue, patch kits, rubber bands, cable ties, etc.

We knew we’d need to keep water temperatures down in the pools so the animals could survive (from 94 degrees to a reasonable 82), so our original plan was to give the pools water-changes every few hours, which would have required many trips hauling 5-gallon buckets of water 30 feet back-and-forth from the shore. Luckily, our hosts were able to find a powerful sump pump and modify it so it could stay in the ocean while plugged in. We were also able to connect the two pools via four siphon hoses, basically turning them into one body of water. Then we able to fabricate drains in the pools, which gave us not just cooler temps, but also stronger water flow—much better for the shallow-water corals (which are, as the kids say “money”), two coconut octopuses, and selection of fish we’re caring for (which includes ghost pipe fish and white mushroom coral pipefish). And today we’re going to attempt to collect pigmy seahorses.

Many of the fish collected deeper than 300 feet have a gas-filled swim bladder. When they’re brought to the surface, the pressure on them decreases and the gas in the swim bladder expands in the same way a sealed bag of chips does when you take it on an airplane. When the bladder expands, it can damage the internal organs of the fish—which is, well, very bad for the fish. Traditionally, collectors have used a hypodermic needle to relieve pressure from the swim bladder, but that’s a less-than-optimal solution, resulting in unreliable survival. To combat this problem, we designed and built a fish decompression hyperbaric chamber based on some larger designs that have been used for collecting cold-water rock fish. Our design is light, relatively portable, and the collection chamber itself doubles as the decompression chamber. The deepwater team collect the first deepwater fish yesterday, and our chamber is working very well.

Tomorrow morning, Aquarium Team One heads home to the Academy with the live animals we’ve collected. Packing and shipping them is a story in and of itself, which I’ll try to write up on the plane. Next week, Aquarium Team Two arrives for more collecting with a focus on the deep-water fishes. I’m looking forward to getting home, unpacking the animals, and seeing what the second aquarium team achieves next week.

—Rich Ross, Aquatic Biologist 

Filed under: Aquarium — editor @ 7:21 pm

May 5, 2014

“Like Something Out of a Nightmare”

There are two Academy groups currently in the Philippines for the 2014 Biodiversity Expedition: one from Research, and the other from the Aquarium. Though we’re staying at different locations, we collaborate when we can, like tonight.

It all started with a 90-minute night dive at Anilao Pier to try to collect a Bobbitt worm—a creature that lives in the sand, has jaws like a bear trap, and might be several meters long. It shoots up with lightning speed to catch fish and other animals, yanking them down into the muck like something out of a nightmare. In the 1990s, Academy Senior Curator Terry Gosliner named the Bobbitt worm after Lorena Bobbitt (and her legendary attack on her husband), and Academy crews have been trying to collect this animal both for display and for our preserved collection ever since. One look at the photo shows you why catching this animal isn’t easy, but take a look at this video for an even better demonstration.

Tonight’s effort was unsuccessful, though I did get my hand on one of the worms—yes, my hand. My wife is less than thrilled about these attempts, but she understands that we have to do what we have to do for science. More efforts are planned, and hopefully there will be success. Hopefully.

After the worm hunt, there was a party—a party that started without us. Apparently it began with a whole roast pig (enjoyed by both Research and Aquarium Staff), but by the time the worm hunters arrived, things had changed drastically. Let’s just say that while there was still much fun to be had, there wasn’t much pig.

Expeditions like this are an amazing amount of work, similar to running a triathlon. Instead of the events being swimming, running, and biking, the events are collection, processing, and animal care. The endurance needed to put out so much energy every single day is huge, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling when everything’s going well. Tonight’s party was a short break from the draining but rewarding work of the expedition … and the only picture I can find of the event is this one of me gnawing on a pig’s head.

Ah, science—we love you.

Rich Ross, Aquatic Biologist

Filed under: Aquarium — editor @ 6:04 pm

Ghost Pipefish in the Bag; Ever-elusive Bobbitt Worm … Still Elusive

Greetings from Aniloa! After three and a half days of collecting in the field, we’ve amassed a nice collection of corals, invertebrates, and fish to ship back to the Academy—here’s a quick overview.

The sites we’ve visited thus far include Twin Rocks, Devil’s Point, Bethlehem, Mapating Point, Dari Laut, Matu Point, and Anilao Pier, and we currently have 70 specimens on hand. They come from varying genera—Acropora, Fungia, Turbinaria, Tubastrea, Sinularia, and Sarcophyton—and they’re being kept in a temporary field aquarium set up at the Anilao Beach Club. (Rich Ross will be blogging about that setup later, so I won’t go into it here.)

We were also able to acquire three snake anemones while on a night dive at Anilao Pier, and we’ll continue our quest for the elusive Bobbitt worm tonight during another night dive at the same location. Oh, and one more highlight: On this afternoon’s dive at Matu Point, Rich was able to collect a pair of ghost pipefish, which were way up there on our list of acquisitions for this expedition.

With a couple more days of diving and collecting ahead, Aquarium Team One should be on track to collect most, if not all, of what we have set out for on this trip.

—Seth Wolters, Assistant Curator for Steinhart Aquarium

Filed under: Aquarium — editor @ 10:26 am
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