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Planetarium will be closed Sep. 22, 23, 24

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

May 28, 2011

Mt. Banahao rim of caldera

The botany team made it to the rim of the caldera at Mt. Banahao, at 2080 meters elevation. This is an image of the rim, taken from one side and looking out at the other through the clouds. Very exciting to have been able to climb and survey this peak!

The botany team made it to the rim of the caldera at Mt. Banahao, at 2080 meters elevation. This is an image of the rim, taken from one side and looking out at the other through the clouds. Very exciting to have been able to climb and survey this peak!


Filed under: Philippines — pfritsch @ 4:16 am

May 27, 2011

Taal Tails – May 12, 2011

The initial timing was unfortunate, a storm kept the Hearst Expedition divers out of the sea for two days, but as the storm abated and the nearshore water became clearer, several of us made a trip to Lake Taal, an hour and a half north of Club Ocellaris, the base of operations for the expedition’s shallow water marine component. Compensation for not diving those two additional days was a glimpse at a truly unique place.

habitat1

For the purpose at hand, the timing couldn’t have been better. A stage 2 alert had virtually shut down the local tourist industry, which exists to take people to and from the island in the Lake and show them around on horseback. What is this alert? You see, the island in Lake Taal is an active volcano, with the most recent eruption having ended in 1977. The alert was issued and remains in effect because monitors recorded several seismic events early on, a rise in magma level, and an increase of noxious emissions.

Why visit an active volcano? Well, the surrounding lake has a very interesting history. Lake Taal is the third largest lake in the Philippines in terms of surface area and possibly the deepest (approaching 200 meters). The surface of Lake Taal lies at an elevation of less than 30 meters which means that a significant part of the lake water lies below sea level. Lake Taal used to be broadly open to the ocean, but volcanic activity approximately 250 years ago closed it off, and over time, runoff from the surrounding mountains has lowered the salinity to a point where it is essentially freshwater. Many of the Lake’s native fishes are derived from marine species that have adapted to freshwater, including the Lake’s most famous inhabitant, the world’s only freshwater sardine, the Tawilis (Sardinellla tawilis), an endemic species found nowhere else.

The logistics for our half-day excursion proved more challenging due to the presence of an ABS-CBN news team doing a documentary on the Hearst Philippine Expedition tentatively due to air in September. Upon arriving at the Talisay Yacht Club, we began unloading our gear and obtained gasoline for the electroshocker. Representatives from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and PUSOD (a non-profit Philippine environmental organization) were present along with the TV crew. While we discussed our plan, the Invertebrate Zoology team made a small shore collection. With our gear finally loaded on two bangkas, we set off for Volcano Island.

img_8390

Lake Taal is home to extensive aquaculture operations with thousands of floating cages for raising tiapia and milkfish. The heaviest concentration of cages lies in the northern and western parts of the lake. It was in this region we made our first stop, at a particular place where Philippine scientists reported netting two or three kinds of gobies new to science. These are species not yet named in the scientific literature. En route to this first stop, the bangka carrying our invertebrate zoologists experienced engine trouble and put to shore. In a wonderful turn of events, there were two pipefishes in the water next to the boat that they were able to collect. This was one of our targets for this trip. The operable bangka went to pick-up the Invertebrate Zoology team and bring them to the first site. The second boat joined us later, after repairs were made. It was time to begin our search in earnest.

fishing

Our primary tool for this hunt was an electroshocker. This is a device primarily used by fisheries biologists to capture fishes for tagging and/or data gathering. It is essentially a sophisticated power supply using two electrodes to create an electric field in the water, stunning fish that can then be netted. Our unit consists of a small gasoline generator to power the electronics box both of which are mounted on a pack frame. Everything checked out fine, but each time we started to fish, the unit registered an overload. Our backup plan called for dipnets and a small seine. While executing this “plan B,” we noticed areas of hot water in excess of 50 deg. C. that had seeped up through the sand plus plenty of sulphurous odors. It then occurred to me that this might provide an explanation for why the electroshocker failed to work. Volcanic activity increased the amount of dissolved minerals in the lake water near Volcano Island increasing the conductivity to a point where the unit could only register an overload. Subsequent inquiry not only confirmed this but also revealed that the entire lake has high conductivity.

Fishing

Regarding the specimens we did manage to collect, no conclusions could ever be drawn from a sample that small, but there are some highlights. We did collect seven gobies, of which three are common and the remaining four, very small. We will probably seek the help of specialists to determine what they are or if they might be new to science. The three freshwater pipefishes are of particular interest to Dr. Healy Hamilton and the researchers in her lab at the California Academy of Sciences who are working on a molecular phylogeny of the seahorse / pipefish family Syngnathidae. Probably the most significant aspect of our visit to Lake Taal concerns the jaguar fish, an aggressive, fish-eating, Central American Cichlid, introduced a little over 15 years ago. Since then, this invasive species has increased to the point where it is now ranks fourth in number of individuals caught per year. We were able to provide limited anecdotal evidence of just how pervasive the jaguar fish has become. We also observed first hand, it’s tolerance for poor water quality, a definite competitive advantage. Finally, for our mini-expedition to Volcano Island, a delicious lunch was provided by Ipat Luna of PUSOD, and even though we weren’t able to collect the famous freshwater sardine, the Tawilis, we were able to taste it.

We presented our findings during a meeting at the town hall in Talisay. In attendance were representatives from PUSOD and BFAR as well as mayors from several municipalities around the lake. The good news is that the Philippine government approved a comprehensive management plan for Lake Taal that has strong local support. Implementation and enforcement of the plan’s provisions are the next critical steps.

halfbeak

-Dave Catania


Filed under: Academy,Catania,Philippines,Shallow Water,Terrestrial — admin @ 2:50 pm

Like…totally tubular!

Most of the critters I’m working with during this expedition are so tiny that you need a microscope to examine them…sometimes even just to locate them!   There are lots of exceptions, however, and one of them involves a very cool critter called a chaetopterid worm that I encountered the other day. Since it was fairly big and impressive (colleagues actually stopped by to gawk at it in awe) and because these are such creepy-cool worms, I thought I’d share.
seagrass-basura
While working in a sandy seagrass area the other day, I dug up a large parchment (which is sand stuck together with mucus) tube about an inch in diameter that was sticking up out of the sandy sea bottom.
tube
Typically this type of tube houses a fanworm (a sabellid) with delicate fan-shaped radioles stretched into a sort of funnel-shaped plume like this:
sabellastarte
In sabellid fanworms each radiole has tiny hair-like structures called cirri used to filter small particles of food from the water to be carried to the mouth.   So considering the tube’s appearance, I was expecting a nice fat fanworm to emerge as I eagerly cut into my tube back at the lab, kind of like I was unwrapping some sort of creepy worm shaped gift.  This tube, however, was shaped more like a “U” buried under the sand and so I suspected that it might house something a bit different. And it did…a very large chaetopterid worm!
chaetopterid-whole-body
Chaetopterids are very specialized polychaetes (marine bristleworms) that live their lives confined in tubes. These worms have 3 distinct body regions: the head/anterior region is large and equipped with bristles and a set of palps used for sensory.  The middle of the body is made up of the darkened gut and highly modified lobes that pump back and forth like big flaps to provide a steady water current used in feeding.
ant-chaetop2
The tail/posterior region is more “normal-worm-looking”, meaning long with foot appendages called parapodia carrying bristles on either side of the body.

http://youtu.be/1rIZaPXP9YM

These worms feed using mucus nets which they string across the inside of their tubes to trap food particles by pumping water through their tubes to filter food onto the net.   Once it’s full of food they eat the whole deal and then proceed to make a new net. Other critters, such as smaller worms and crabs, often live alongside chaetopterids in their tubes as commensal animals which score free food scraps and shelter while living there.

Another cool thing about these worms is that even though they live rather clandestine lives hidden in tubes, they produce bioluminescence (they emit light!). What in the world they are doing with this light-producing capability?  Well, we don’t know for certain.  Studies have shown that when a chaetopterid is disturbed, it shoots a wave of glowing particles from its tube.  One idea is that this light surge alerts prospective predators that “I don’t taste particularly good”, or maybe the light bursts are used to freak out and evict some of the free-loading critters out their tubes if it starts getting too crowded in there.

Many polychaetes and other invertebrates emit light when disturbed, either for warning/predator avoidance or for communication with potential mates.   The yellow bands shown here on a nereid “pileworm” may be bioluminescent areas of the body used for signaling.
nereid-yellow-banding
Polychaete worm behavior and physiology is as extremely diverse as their morphology.  For such “sleeper” creatures that are unfamiliar to most regular folks, polychaete worms actually have alot going on!


Filed under: Academy,Diving,Philippines,Piotrowski,Shallow Water,Uncategorized — cpiotrowski @ 4:39 am

May 26, 2011

Transition from Land to Sea.

Night prospecting in clear waters

I had a fantastic two + weeks with the Terrestrial Team. They summited Mt. Banahaw as I moved to Anilao to join the Academy’s aquatic biology research team. The snorkling and diving here is unbelievable. The forested slopes of Mt. Banahaw are treacherous and, for the most part, without trails. Travel is by foot and machete. The leech burden was too small to continue my experiments with nylons. Plus, they are too hot to wear in this climate. The botany team collected more than 300 samples on Mt. Banahaw, while the entomology/arachnology team collected more specimens than I could count.

It was hot and muggy on the mountain and I couldn’t help but think about our patients at the VA Medical Center up the street from the Academy. I’ve heard many of their stories while at work there and I still can’t imagine what it must have been like to live in the jungle with, baseline, dangerous conditions and in fear of illness or injury from combat.

Illness (most commonly, diarrhea and febrile illnesses such as malaria) and injury are common during expedition travel, even in ideal conditions. To date, from a medical standpoint, we have been lucky about major trauma in the field. The worst injury, thus far (and for the entire expedition, I hope) occurred when a porter caught a machete by the blade.  The injury occurred late in the afternoon, far from camp (about 2 hours hike). By the time we got back it was dark.  During exploration of the wound and irrigation with more than a liter of sterile saline, my headlamp and the other lights were attracting insects to the surgical field. It was an anxiety provoking injury for both him and me. He could not feel three fingers (thumb, index and middle) when pricked with a sharp needle, compared to brisk hand withdrawal when his ring and little fingers were pricked with the same pin.  I couldn’t find any obvious nerve injury on exploration of the wound.  I suspect he had spasms of the underlying muscles or the nerve was struck, but not cut. He did well, with return of normal sensation within 24 hours and no infection after 4 days.

Additionally, during a deep dive, one of our crew was envenomed by a large lion fish. The pain was excruciating and the currents strong. It was about 3 hours to get to shore and by the time he arrived at camp, the pain had spread from his lower leg to his knee and hip. The venoms in the family are protein-based and effectively treated by immersion in warm water (not more than 115 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat denatures the proteins and decreases the pain.  At least three barbs penetrated his wet suit and he reported losing some power in his right foot because of the pain. In the conditions he was working, this type of impediment can create dangers much greater than the painful injury, itself.  Lion fish have invaded (i.e. been introduced by humans) to the warmer waters skirting the U.S. and Caribbean. Thus, lion fish stings are becoming significantly more common in areas outside their native waters. They are voracious predators and poorly controlled because their natural enemies are not present in their new habitats.

We saw a similar thing in the forests of Mt. Banahaw in the form of cane toads…an invasive species from the America with a voracious appetite for endemic species and it has few predators here to keep their populations in check. They are not dangerous to humans like the lion fish, but are a distressing sight in the rain forest knowing they are potentially permanent residents.  At a dive site near Anilao nicknamed “Basura” (Trash), divers found incredible quantities of trash intermingled with the corals and fish life. Included among these discarded objects were a headless Ken doll and a green, stuffed Tele-Tubby.  Every piece of garbage reminds me that our children might not have the same privileges we have had on this visit to the beautiful and hospitable Philippines–Save Our Planet!

Finally, with respect to this part of my commentary I want to raise awareness of several disturbing events that occurred during May: First, a park ranger from the Mt. Makiling preserve was murdered after reporting illegal squatters and poachers in the forest. This occurred in broad daylight, in front of the courthouse in Los Banos. The work of conservation is highly political and is in direct conflict with lucrative, illegal practices such as poaching. On the slopes of Mt. Banahaw, Dr. Darin Penneys and I came upon a loaded civet (endangered cat) trap in the forest. Later in the week, when the birds and mammals team joined the Botany/Entomology crew on the mountain, mist nets used to catch, tag and release flying animals were stolen.

The work and logistics of field work are hard enough without these additional complications. On this expedition, the typical day starts at sunrise (~0600) and often ends well after midnight because data have to be processed. The incredible volume of information that needs to be recorded, transferred to computers and stored with accuracy is a labor intensive activity taking place each night after field work is completed for the day. Keeping up takes significant mental and physical discipline as any delays in data transfer processing increases the risk of error and confusion, later. Also, procrastination would result in an unmanageable volume of work. The Cal Academy crew and our colleagues from the University of the Philippines are true professionals: They get this job done every night no matter how tired they are from the exertion of the day’s work. It is a simple concept, but far from easy!

I’ve attached photographs–in no special order, yet–taken by members of the terrestrial team now hunkered down in Isarog because of the typhoon. The majority of these were taken by Nataliya Polydouri, a graduate student from U.C. Berkeley after I drowned my camera during a river crossing.

I’ve been away from the forest for almost a week and already it feels like a long time ago. The ocean life in Anilao is magnificent, but I miss the forest and my botany and invertebrate (scientist) friends, already. I can hardly wait to see my family and share my experiences with them. Similarly, I can hardly wait to revisit the Philippines. I have more than 20 expeditions under my belt and I’ve never seen worked with such a fascinatingly diverse group of scientists in one place as extraordinary as this one.

Briefly:  I have received several inquiries about whether the application of insect repellent should precede or follow the application of sunscreen. Traditional teaching is that insect repellents (e.g. DEET-based products) should be applied after sunscreen. The evidence for this is unclear from the literature as I interpret it. Both insect repellent and sunscreen require multiple applications during the day and both seem to have the intended effect when they are applied diligently. In my experience:  Complete coverage by clothes is the most effective way to keep the sun and pests away from skin.

Please send your questions and comments to me, here, and/or to the Center for Exploration and Travel Health at the California Academy of Sciences (CETH). I will try to answer them, promptly.  To learn more: http://research.calacademy.org/ieth or contact me at mlewin@calacademy.org


Filed under: Academy,Philippines,Web — mlewin @ 10:17 am

May 24, 2011

Pahiyas harvest festival, Lucban

During our expedition to Mt. Banahaw the botanists and entomologists were able to take a small break to tour the annual harvest festival in the nearby city of Lucban. The tradition is to decorate your house with plants of the harvest, especially rice and coconuts but also many other plants. There is a competition and a large sum of money for first place. The botanists enjoyed identifying the plants that the entomologists were busily consuming from the street vendors.

The festival is the feast day of the patron saint of the city.

The festival is the feast day of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of the city.

Here's a house decorated in colored eggs. The "paper" lantern to the left is made of a dried rice, which can later be fried and eaten.

Here's a house decorated in colored eggs. The "paper" lantern to the left is made of a dried rice, which can later be fried and eaten.

How many vegetables can you recognize in this decoration?

How many vegetables can you recognize in this decoration?

Charles Griswold, Hannah Wood, and Vanessa Knutson enjoying the festival.

Charles Griswold, Hannah Wood, and Vanessa Knutson enjoying the festival.

Some entomologists pollinating one of the festival flowers!

Some entomologists pollinating one of the festival flowers!

 

A sunflower decoration made of coconuts, pandanus, an epiphytic fern, and a rice sifter.

A sunflower decoration made of coconuts, pandanus, an epiphytic fern, and a rice sifter.

 

More vegetables! There are coconuts, white radishes, tomatoes, cheyote (in the cucumber family), rice, bird's nest fern, and others.

More vegetables! There are coconuts, white radishes, tomatoes, cheyote (in the cucumber family), rice, bird's nest fern, and others.

Vanessa eating pancit "hab hab", the local noodle dish traditionally eaten without utensils from a banana leaf.
Vanessa eating pancit “hab hab”, the local noodle dish traditionally eaten without utensils from a banana leaf.
We had heard that Medinilla magnifica, a spectacular flowering plant in the princess flower family (Melastomataceae) was cut and displayed in the festival. Nowadays it seems that only stylized rice paper versions of the plant are used.

We had heard that Medinilla magnifica, a spectacular flowering plant in the princess flower family (Melastomataceae) was cut and displayed in the festival. Nowadays it seems that only stylized rice paper versions of the plant are used.

This is the real Medinilla magnifica, which we found growing in the type locality (that is, where it was originally found) at Mt. Makiling.

This is the real Medinilla magnifica, which we found growing in the type locality (that is, where it was originally found) at Mt. Makiling.


Filed under: Philippines — pfritsch @ 7:41 pm

Mt. Makiling plant

Osmoxylon! If you're familiar with the flower arrangement of carrots or Queen Anne's lace, you might recognize this genus as a woody tropical member of the flowering plant family Araliaceae. The old Apicaceae (carrot family) turns out to be a mainly north-temperate component of this much larger family.

Osmoxylon! If you're familiar with the flower arrangement of carrots or Queen Anne's lace, you might recognize this genus as a woody tropical member of the flowering plant family Araliaceae. The old Apiaceae (carrot family) turns out to be a mainly north-temperate component of this much larger family.


Filed under: Philippines — pfritsch @ 5:59 pm

Mt. Banahaw de Lucban

Mt. Banahaw de Lucban  The terrestrial team spent 10 days at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban in SE Luzon at the top of the Bicol Peninsula.  Mt. Banahaw is an old volcano that is covered with forest from 700 to nearly 1800m.  The team previously accessed the top of Mt. Makiling and the summit of Mt. Banahaw gives important comparative information on plant and animal distribution on mountain islands.

Mt. Banahaw de Lucban The terrestrial team spent 10 days at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban in SE Luzon at the top of the Bicol Peninsula. Mt. Banahaw is an old volcano that is covered with forest from 700 to nearly 1800m. The team previously accessed the top of Mt. Makiling and the summit of Mt. Banahaw gives important comparative information on plant and animal distribution on mountain islands.

Base Camp at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban  The base camp is at a forestry station at about 750 meters, where we camped for 6 days.  There we had a table covered with a tarp and access to lower elevation forest for our traps and collecting.  Food was cooked at the station and, as always in the Philippines, was very good.  Here Hannah, Vanessa and Natalia are preparing collected specimens.

Base Camp at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban The base camp is at a forestry station at about 750 meters, where we camped for 6 days. There we had a table covered with a tarp and access to lower elevation forest for our traps and collecting. Food was cooked at the station and, as always in the Philippines, was very good. Here Hannah, Vanessa and Natalia are preparing collected specimens.

After the rain: Base Camp at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban  On the third days we had several hours of torrential rain.  On the sunny morning after the base camp tried to dry out.

After the rain: Base Camp at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban On the third days we had several hours of torrential rain. On the sunny morning after the base camp tried to dry out.

800 meter forest at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban  The low elevation forest here is very rich in species, and also in things to bite, sting, and slash.  Mosquitos, land leeches, and stinging trap jaw ants are common, and plants include Pandanus with saw-edged leaves and spiny, climbing rattan palms that grab you with thorns.

800 meter forest at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban The low elevation forest here is very rich in species, and also in things to bite, sting, and slash. Mosquitos, land leeches, and stinging trap jaw ants are common, and plants include Pandanus with saw-edged leaves and spiny, climbing rattan palms that grab you with thorns.

Night collecting at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban  Collecting arthropods requires lots of work, and lots of tricks.  Many are only active at night, especially web-building spiders.  The Arachnology team, Vanessa, Natalia, Hannah and me, are collecting at night in lowland forest.  We have the “stenlites” favored by cavers, which can light up the forest.

Night collecting at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban Collecting arthropods requires lots of work, and lots of tricks. Many are only active at night, especially web-building spiders. The Arachnology team, Vanessa, Natalia, Hannah and me, are collecting at night in lowland forest. We have the “stenlites” favored by cavers, which can light up the forest.

Psechrus, Mt. Banahaw de Lucban  The huge (0.5 to 1m diameter) sheet and funnel webs of Psechrus are common on tree trunks in lowland forest at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban.  Psechridae are endemic to Asia and combine a strange combination of characters: their feet are modified for running on smooth surfaces yet they hang beneath their sheet webs.  Psechrids are related to the worldwide wolf spiders.  The web was photographed at night, after being dusted with corn starch.

Psechrus, Mt. Banahaw de Lucban The huge (0.5 to 1m diameter) sheet and funnel webs of Psechrus are common on tree trunks in lowland forest at Mt. Banahaw de Lucban. Psechridae are endemic to Asia and combine a strange combination of characters: their feet are modified for running on smooth surfaces yet they hang beneath their sheet webs. Psechrids are related to the worldwide wolf spiders. The web was photographed at night, after being dusted with corn starch.

Cyrtarachnine spider, Mt. Banahaw de Lucban  The cyrtarachnines are orb builders (Araneidae) with webs higher modified by evolution for catching moths.  The web is reduced, sometimes to a single line, but incorporates large droplets of ultra-sticky glue.  Moths easily escape from most spiders webs: their scales come off the moth and stick to the glue, allowing the moth to escape: a little balder, but safe.  The ultra-sticky glue of cyrtarachinines defeats the moth’s defense by removing most of the scales and holding the moth fast.  This unidentified species from low forest makes a simple web with few vertical lines.  Many cyrtaracinines produce an airborn chemical that mimics the sex pheromone (like perfume) of common moths: maybe this one does too.  The web was photographed at night, after being dusted with corn starch.

Cyrtarachnine spider, Mt. Banahaw de Lucban The cyrtarachnines are orb builders (Araneidae) with webs higher modified by evolution for catching moths. The web is reduced, sometimes to a single line, but incorporates large droplets of ultra-sticky glue. Moths easily escape from most spiders webs: their scales come off the moth and stick to the glue, allowing the moth to escape: a little balder, but safe. The ultra-sticky glue of cyrtarachinines defeats the moth’s defense by removing most of the scales and holding the moth fast. This unidentified species from low forest makes a simple web with few vertical lines. Many cyrtaracinines produce an airborn chemical that mimics the sex pheromone (like perfume) of common moths: maybe this one does too. The web was photographed at night, after being dusted with corn starch.

Extraction methods, malaise trap.  One of the tricks that we use to catch flying insects is the flight trap, or malaise trap.  This is basically a fine-mesh tent that intercepts and funnels flying insects into a capture bottle at the top.   Here Hannah and Natalia are setting a flight trap in the forest.

Extraction methods, malaise trap. One of the tricks that we use to catch flying insects is the flight trap, or malaise trap. This is basically a fine-mesh tent that intercepts and funnels flying insects into a capture bottle at the top. Here Hannah and Natalia are setting a flight trap in the forest.

Extraction methods, winkler.  The soil and leaf litter harbor a diverse and interesting but hard to access fauna of arthropods.  Another of the tricks that we use to arthropods is the winkler funnel.  Leaf litter from the forest floor is sifted, concentrated and placed in a bag inside this cloth funnel.  Small arthropods fall into the capture cup at the bottom.  Here Vanessa is hanging winkler funnels at Banahaw base camp.

Extraction methods, winkler. The soil and leaf litter harbor a diverse and interesting but hard to access fauna of arthropods. Another of the tricks that we use to arthropods is the winkler funnel. Leaf litter from the forest floor is sifted, concentrated and placed in a bag inside this cloth funnel. Small arthropods fall into the capture cup at the bottom. Here Vanessa is hanging winkler funnels at Banahaw base camp.

TaiTai River  Mt. Banahaw de Lucban is very wet, with more than 280 days of rain per year, and is the essential watershed for the surrounding towns and farms.  But, like most volcanic mountains in the tropics, the mountain is very porous and there is little surface water.  Rivers and permanent streams are few.  The Taitai River is one of these few.  This beautiful river is just a few hours’ walk from base camp, and provided some welcome relief from the steamy heat as well as some unique collecting.

TaiTai River Mt. Banahaw de Lucban is very wet, with more than 280 days of rain per year, and is the essential watershed for the surrounding towns and farms. But, like most volcanic mountains in the tropics, the mountain is very porous and there is little surface water. Rivers and permanent streams are few. The Taitai River is one of these few. This beautiful river is just a few hours’ walk from base camp, and provided some welcome relief from the steamy heat as well as some unique collecting.

Theridiosomatidae Theridiosomatids are micro-orb weaving spiders and are mostly less than 3mm in length.  They make modified, often asymmetrical orb webs and actively manage these webs by pulling and jerking the lines with their short, powerful legs.  It has been said that to collect theridiosomatids your feet must be wet.  This was the case: I photographed these  on the cliffs along the Taitai River near Mt. Banahaw de Lucban.

Theridiosomatidae Theridiosomatids are micro-orb weaving spiders and are mostly less than 3mm in length. They make modified, often asymmetrical orb webs and actively manage these webs by pulling and jerking the lines with their short, powerful legs. It has been said that to collect theridiosomatids your feet must be wet. This was the case: I photographed these on the cliffs along the Taitai River near Mt. Banahaw de Lucban.

Banahaw summit  Tropical mountains are like islands, harboring a cool-adapted flora and fauna that is typically very different from that of the surrounding hot lowlands but may be similar to other mountaintops far away.  Most of the early part of my career was spent studying the spiders of mountain islands in Africa, and my discoveries suggest that for spiders Africa’s mountain islands are very old, with their last connections severed long before the Pleistocene, i.e., more than 5 million years ago.  Are Philippine mountain islands equally old, and unique?  The summit of Mt. Banahaw de Lucban is at nearly 1800m, more than 1000m above the base camp.  To study it we must go there, which means hiking.  For me this meant 5 hours of steep, hard climbing, the last 2 hours in pouring rain.  Here Orly and Lando make steady upward progress in the rain and mud.

Banahaw summit Tropical mountains are like islands, harboring a cool-adapted flora and fauna that is typically very different from that of the surrounding hot lowlands but may be similar to other mountaintops far away. Most of the early part of my career was spent studying the spiders of mountain islands in Africa, and my discoveries suggest that for spiders Africa’s mountain islands are very old, with their last connections severed long before the Pleistocene, i.e., more than 5 million years ago. Are Philippine mountain islands equally old, and unique? The summit of Mt. Banahaw de Lucban is at nearly 1800m, more than 1000m above the base camp. To study it we must go there, which means hiking. For me this meant 5 hours of steep, hard climbing, the last 2 hours in pouring rain. Here Orly and Lando make steady upward progress in the rain and mud.

One of the steeper parts.  Like most mountains trails in tropical countries, the Banahaw trail has no switchbacks.  It is just up, up, up.  Roots and trees provide useful handholds.  Here is one of the steeper parts of the summit trail.  At age 60 this is really hard work for me, but the prospect of finding new spiders species at the top makes it all worthwhile.

One of the steeper parts. Like most mountains trails in tropical countries, the Banahaw trail has no switchbacks. It is just up, up, up. Roots and trees provide useful handholds. Here is one of the steeper parts of the summit trail. At age 60 this is really hard work for me, but the prospect of finding new spiders species at the top makes it all worthwhile.

Arrival at Banahaw summit.  The summit of Mt. Banahaw de Lucban is at nearly 1800m.  Entomologists, porters, Botanists, a cook, cook’s helper, and guides all arrived after a rainy hike from the lowlands.

Arrival at Banahaw summit. The summit of Mt. Banahaw de Lucban is at nearly 1800m. Entomologists, porters, Botanists, a cook, cook’s helper, and guides all arrived after a rainy hike from the lowlands.

Camp at Banahaw summit.   We settled in to spend three days and nights at the summit.  The weather at the summit is a dramatic change from the lowlands.  With occasional cloud and fog, the weather at the peak of Mt. Banahaw de Lucban is much like San Francisco.

Camp at Banahaw summit. We settled in to spend three days and nights at the summit. The weather at the summit is a dramatic change from the lowlands. With occasional cloud and fog, the weather at the peak of Mt. Banahaw de Lucban is much like San Francisco.

 Collecting at the summit.  We did the standard array of entomological collecting methods at the summit: hand collecting day and night, yellow pan traps, pitfalls, a flight trap, a lighted sheet at night, and sifted leaf litter.  Here are three winklers filled with concentrated leaf litter.

Collecting at the summit. We did the standard array of entomological collecting methods at the summit: hand collecting day and night, yellow pan traps, pitfalls, a flight trap, a lighted sheet at night, and sifted leaf litter. Here are three winklers filled with concentrated leaf litter.

Forest at the peak.  The forest at 1800m differs from that of the lowlands.  For CAS people from San Francisco it is very comfortable: cool with occasional fog, no land leeches, no mosquitoes, very few ants (we caught the rare ones that we found), and high abundance but low species richness of spiders.  The trees here are covered with climbers, mosses and epiphytes.

Forest at the peak. The forest at 1800m differs from that of the lowlands. For CAS people from San Francisco it is very comfortable: cool with occasional fog, no land leeches, no mosquitoes, very few ants (we caught the rare ones that we found), and high abundance but low species richness of spiders. The trees here are covered with climbers, mosses and epiphytes.

Micro-orb builder

Micro-orb builder


Filed under: Philippines — cgriswold @ 5:41 pm

Diving on the moon

The stargazer, Uranoscopus sulphureus, eyes a passing fish

The stargazer, Uranoscopus sulphureus, eyes a potential meal passing over the muck

In stark contrast to the beautiful many-colored coral reefs of the Philippines, muck diving is a lot like being on the moon. You float over seemingly endless plains of desolate grey substrate. The major difference is the life; here in the ‘center of the center of marine biodiversity’ the silty muck is packed with animals. Tube anemones with commensal shrimp using their tentacles for protection dot the landscape. As you swim over the silty substrate, flatfish that were perfectly camouflaged in plain sight become visible only when spurred into motion by your passing. Feather Stars move their arms in slow motion, revealing commensal shrimp and squat lobsters hiding amongst the ‘feathers’. Venomous predators like Lionfish, Stonefish and Seagoblins hide in the muck looking for an easy meal. Ambush predators like the Stargazer lie mostly buried in the silt, just their skeletal face showing as they wait for an unlucky fish to swim by.

http://www.vimeo.com/24176960

One of the animals that we have been looking forward to collecting for display at the Steinhart Aquarium  during the Expedition is Amphioctopus marginatus, the Coconut Octopus. This is a little octopus, with a maximum 3 inch mantle and 12 inch arm span.  It is plentiful in the Philippines, personable, tenacious, and has a habit of using found objects as temporary homes. Clay pots, bottles, tin cans and clam shells are all used as mobile homes for these octopus, complete with doors to close themselves in tightly and safely. They also will defend their homes, batting away anything that comes too close; even pushing a probing finger away with surprising strength. Sometimes they extend their arms and crawl around in the muck with their temporary home on their back, as if they are transforming into snails. All of this behavior should add up to a fantastic exhibit in the Steinhart Aquarium. Two Coconut Octopus have already arrived safely back at the Academy, and we look forward to putting them, and other animals collected on the trip, on display in the near future.

The eyes of this flatfish look like two different animals as they protrude from the substrate while the rest of the fish remains perfectly hidden

The eyes of this flatfish look like two different animals as they protrude from the substrate while the rest of the fish remains perfectly hidden

Tiny shrimp and squat lobsters live mostly unseen amongst the arms of a Feather Star

Tiny shrimp and squat lobsters live mostly unseen amongst the arms of a Feather Star


Filed under: Philippines — ejessup @ 5:33 pm

Mt. Banahaw de Lucban

Mt. Banahaw de Lucban


Filed under: Philippines — cgriswold @ 2:47 am

May 21, 2011

When it comes to echinoderm collagen, there is always a catch

I was taught a lesson in self control the other day, while snorkeling in an area that had lots of rocks. In between the rocks were lots of crevices, and in those crevices we found some of the most magnificent of all the sea urchins. The self-control of the sea urchins (which I will talk about in a moment) inspired self-control in me with respect to scientific collecting as well.

The aforementioned magnificent urchin goes by the mellifluous name of Heterocentrotus mamillatus, and here is the creature, securely jammed into its urchin home:

heterocentrotus-mamillatus1

That is the correct spelling of the species name. Some of my colleagues might be tempted to put an extra “m” in there to make it “mammillatus“, but that is not what the original author of the name, none other than Carl von Linné (a.k.a. Carolus Linnaeus) himself, had in mind back in 1758. The reference is to more or less the same mammalian attribute in either spelling, but there are nuances of the usage that have to be respected, and Linnaeus knew that. He was nothing if not a smart guy who knew his human anatomy. He wanted the mammalian reference in the name because when cleaned of its spines, Heterocentrotus mamillatus displays the most beautiful of smoothly domed, glassy spine tubercles that reminded him of… well, a certain mammalian attribute. Maybe he had spent too much time in the field. The big, heavy spines of Heterocentrotus sit neatly on end, one spine over each of these tubercles.  Think of balancing a baseball bat on a half-buried baseball. In the base of the spine is a neatly polished little hollow, or socket, making a finely honed ball and socket joint that any car mechanic would greatly appreciate. To think that this piece of urchin machinery, with its very fine engineering tolerances, is made basically of limestone is simply to wonder at it all the more.

At this point I feel it necessary to mention that you might have encountered these spines, minus the urchin, in various tropical places where a certain type of wind chime might be offered for sale. Turns out that when a Heterocentrotus spine is gently tapped with a hard object, such as another spine, it sounds with a gentle ring that some find pleasing to the ear.

Frankly, I am not a fan of wind chimes of any kind. The only place I have these big spines installed in my lab in San Francisco is in the form of my “Acme Echino Quake Detector”, which is a strange composite “decoration” that hangs from the ceiling with my hope that it will jangle in time to warn of the next “big one”. Otherwise, I don’t think the natural and soothing sound of any breeze that would activate a set of wind chimes needs any enhancement whatsoever, as the breeze has its own kind of auditory beauty. Humans can be strange animals sometimes.

Before people get upset, I should also chime in that Heterocentrotus spines for the “wind music” industry are not usually harvested from the living animals.  When the urchin dies, hopefully after a long and happily productive life (however that is measured by urchin standards), the spines remain so durable that they wash up in large numbers on certain beaches, where they can be picked up and employed in the noble noisy cause described above.

The genus name, Heterocentrotus, is in reference to these incredible spines, which come in two basic varieties: big and strong, and small and stubby. You can see these in the close-up below:

heterocentrotus-mamillatus-close

“Hetero” means “different”, so this urchin is named for the fact that is has two very distinct types of spines. As I’ve said before, I love it when scientific nomenclature makes sense. But if you really insist on a common name for this creature, you could call it the “slate pencil urchin”. Does that feel better? In my opinion, it shouldn’t.  There is a reason that biologists coin scientific names. How many of you out there have ever encountered a “slate pencil” in this day and age of electronic gadgetry? Would you even recognize one if it flew up your nose and did the lambada? Heck, even pencils come in mechanical form now, and not to write on slates either. And just to make matters worse, sea urchins in a completely different order, the Cidaroida, are also called “slate pencil urchins”. So much for common names.  Heterocentrotus it is. It’s really not that hard after all. If a 5-year-old can remember “Triceratops“, an adult can surely come to grips with “Heterocentrotus“.

Speaking of grips, Heterocentrotus is nearly impossible to remove from its stony home. Actually, make that fully impossible, at least without dynamite, a crowbar, or otherwise hurting the poor thing. The primary reason for this is in the spines, which are, appropriately enough, called primary spines. As I mentioned, primary spines sit on a ball and socket joint. They are held down to the urchin’s skeletal test by a ring of muscle that can be differentially contracted around the ring to point the spine in different directions. This is a handy attribute to have if you are nearly spherical, and want to point your spines at an incoming enemy, or to wedge yourself into a crevice in the rock. However, muscles are metabolically expensive to run, and sea urchins are not what you would call physiological dynamos. So there must be something else going on to keep these animals in place 24/7, safe from dislodging by waves, predators, or marauding echinodermologists.

Turns out that inside the ring of muscle is a second ring of connective tissue, which is not muscular, but composed of a connective tissue made of collagen. This tissue is ubiquitous in animals, and is usually used to connect muscles to bone, or bone to bone, amongst other uses. In the case of the sea urchins, the collagen is found in a ring just inside the muscular ring.  I’ve shown this in the diagram below (which I have modified from a couple of images in Clarke and Rowe, 1971).  In this diagram, all the spines have been removed except one primary spine, so that you can see the connection to the surface of the body, or test:

ball-and-socket1

The collagen in this inner ring is rather special — it’s so-called “catch collagen”. It’s stiffness is under voluntary control by the sea urchin, probably through nerve action. When the urchin wants to move the spine, the collagen ring becomes soft and pliable, allowing the muscles to place the spine… just so… perhaps to brace against the rocky wall of a cozy reef nook or cranny. Then the urchin stiffens the collagen in the inner ring, effectively locking the spine into position. The muscles can now relax, and ta-da! A powerful brace is in place in the space with energy of zero trace. With a bunch of these spines employed in this way, the urchin simply canNOT be dislodged without breaking something — usually the spines. But in the case of Heterocentrotus, the spines are so big and so powerfully built, any prying force strong enough to make the spines move away from the rock wall usually ends up breaking the urchin’s test. And that is truly a shame, given just how beautiful this animal is.

A few other last words about catch collagen. This substance is part of a group of such tissues in echinoderms known generally as “mutable collagenous tissues”. These have been found in all the major echinoderm groups. In fact, alongside the special stereom version of calcium carbonate used to make echinoderm skeletal elements and basic 5-part symmetry in adults, I would list mutable collagenous tissue as a unifying characteristic of the phylum. In the body wall of a starfish, for example, mutable collagenous tissues can be softened to allow the animal to glide neatly over uneven surfaces, then stiffened to lock the animal into place in an infinite number of what look like the most awkward poses that would be the envy of any acrobat. Such staying power, with no energy output! In sea cucumbers, we have arguably the most extreme usage of mutable collagenous tissues. The entire body can soften to allow movements into the tiniest of holes and cracks, yet stiffen again in an instant to hold the front end of the animal up to filter feed with elevated tentacles around the mouth, or wedge the animal into a small crack.

Okay, I lied. There is one more thing I wanted to add. Turns out that there is at least one other place where similar mutable collagen can be found. This is between the pelvic bones of human females (and perhaps other mammals). One of the many hormonal changes that happen in women during child-bearing is the softening of this connective tissue to loosen the bones in the pelvic girdle, allowing them to move a bit relative to one another. With a 10-pounder in the womb, many women have been the perhaps unknowing, yet ever-so-slightly happier beneficiary of collagenous tissue softening. With all that yelling going on, most women aren’t thinking about that during the joyous occasion of childbirth, and who could blame them?

(Almost) all of this ran through my head as I looked at Heterocentrotus locked into its home, and after a few attempts to brute-force them out of there, I gave up. It felt like picking the rarest and most beautiful of flowers in the woods with a weed-whacker.

Rich


Filed under: Mooi,Philippines,Shallow Water — rmooi @ 3:24 am
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