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The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

May 12, 2011

giant parasitic flowers

Giant parasitic flower, Mt makiling

Giant parasitic flower, Mt makiling

Filed under: Philippines — cgriswold @ 12:34 am

On Mt Makiling

arachnologists on to Mt Makiling

arachnologists on to Mt Makiling

Filed under: Philippines — cgriswold @ 12:31 am

May 11, 2011

Expedition Video

Gala video

Here is the expedition video that was shown at the Academy’s Big Bang Gala on May 5th, 2011.

Watch now.

Filed under: Academy,Philippines — admin @ 1:49 pm

May 10, 2011

New species up the wazoo

Very few biodiversity specialists can look at their plant or animal in the field and immediately be fairly certain that they have found a new species or not. Working on nudibranchs provides a luxury in that regard. When we find something we can be pretty sure that whatever we find is something recognizable or something we have not seen before. That provides us with a huge advantage when undertaking surveys like the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition. Things started off slowly, and we did not find any new species on the first eleven dives we made. I was starting to get a little concerned that maybe the trips here over the last 19 years had finally reached saturation; that we had finally found everything that was here. Boy, was I wrong. The next night dive, we found 8 new species on one dive. It was a shallow dive of only 17 feet, but it was slug city. Most were fairly smallish (about 0.5-10 mm) and several were fairly cryptic, but they were clearly new.

a new species of Favorinus that feeds on the eggs of other nudibranchs

A new species of Favorinus that feeds on the eggs of other nudibranchs

A new species of Philinopsis with a tail like a spaniel.

A new species of Philinopsis with a tail like a spaniel.

Cerberilla sp., a new species of sand-dwelling aeolid nudibranch

Cerberilla sp., a new species of sand-dwelling aeolid nudibranch

It is almost as exciting to find a known species that has not been found previously in the Philippines. We have come across several of these old friends from different places. One species, Trapania darvelli is striking and had been previously known only from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Our always sharp-eyed dive guide, Peri Paleracio, turned up a gorgeous specimen in 60 feet of water on a morning dive.

The first Trapania darvelli from the Philiippines

The first Trapania darvelli from the Philiippines

Last year my former postdoctoral collaborator, Shireen Fahey, and I named a new species based on only one specimen collected from Okinawa. It is always a bit dangerous to name a new species from one specimen, but we were convinced that it was so different from all known species that we felt confident enough to name it Dermatobranchus dendronephthyphagus. And while that sounds like a mouthful, it was given this name because it was found on the soft coral Dendronephthya. One of the other season dive guides at Club Ocellaris, Alexis Principe, spotted three more Dermatobranchus dendronephthyphagus on a night dive at a dive site called Basketball, the first records for the Philippines.

The first specimen of Dermatobranchus dendronephthyphagus

The first specimen of Dermatobranchus dendronephthyphagus

Again logic prevails in the naming of dive sites. The site is located off a basketball court near the southern tip of the Calumpan Peninsula.
The hunt for new species is back on a normal pace. We are now up to 27 new species and have another four known species never recorded previously from the Philippines. We are back to the pace we have been on for the last several years of finding an average of one new species per dive.

Filed under: Diving,Gosliner,Philippines,Shallow Water — tgosliner @ 8:37 am

May 9, 2011

Team Arachnology get real

Team Arachnology (Hannah, Natalia, Matt Lewin and me, Charles) are finally on the ground in the Philippines. We arrived at Los Baños, and the foot of famous Mt. Makaling, at 0730 this morning after an overnight flight from SFO. Driving through the university campus to the guesthouse we say fallen trees and debris everywhere, evidence of a big wind. Our botanical colleagues, Peter, Darin, and Jim, were on the mountain last night when typhoon Aere blasted through. They came down this afternoon to dry out, organize their data, and prepare for another foray. The arachnologists are organizing all of our gear: pitfall traps, pooters, mini-winklers, duct tape, soap, yellow pans, berlese funnels, puffers and spoons, flight traps, beating sheets and sweeping nets, skilly jars, buckets, string and sieves, litter sifters (a left handed one custom made for Hannah!), claws and shovels. Tomorrow we will climb the mountain and get to work. Since we are still on California time, night, and sleep, should come early.

Arachnologists get organized

Arachnologists get organized

Filed under: Philippines — cgriswold @ 1:33 am

May 8, 2011

Rubble with a Cause

While other Shallow Water researchers are busily gathering sea urchins, sieving sediment for sand dollars, spotting vibrant and cryptic miniature sea slugs, stalking elusive reef fish, and gardening the reef to harvest symbiotic barnacles, I….as odd as this is going to sound….am collecting rocks.

A tub of.....rocks???

A tub of.....rocks???

Not just any rocks, mind you….. specifically coral rubble rocks. Coral rubble consists of fragments of hermatypic (reef-forming) coral which, over time and during storms, have broken from the reef and rest on the seafloor, providing habitat and surface area for the settlement of new recruits.  I collect these coral rubble fragments in search of polychaete worms.

When diving on a coral reef, several fairly obvious species of polychaetes can be observed. Polychaetes are a highly diverse (about 10,000 known species) group of segmented marine “bristle worms” distantly related to earthworms and which occur in all habitats of all marine ecosystems.  Polychaete worms vary in size from a couple of millimeters up to 2 meters in length.  These organisms serve as an important food source for birds, fish and other invertebrates, function in symbiotic relationships with various other reef organisms, and may even bio-engineer reef environments.

Examples of polychaetes you may have encountered in photos or on reefs include the “Christmas tree worms” and “feather duster worms”. These two types of sedentary polychaetes can be easily observed living in tubes deeply buried within large sections of live coral.  Many other polychaetes are free-living and do not form permanent tubes.

Spirobranchus gaymardi, "christmas tree worms", on coral
Spirobranchus gigantea complex cf. gaymardi, “christmas tree worms”, on live coral
Sabellastarte indica "feather-duster worm"

Sabellastarte indica, "feather-duster worm"

We are strongly against destructive sampling activities that would adversely affect the reef, so I don’t collect these worms burrowed in live coral. Many of these are common species, anyhow, and are quite well-studied (although others may benefit from taxonomic revision or DNA comparisons with other populations).

However…let me tell you….the really interesting stuff is in the rocks! As I dive, I typically head for the “dead” looking section of the reef.  You know, the area you might pass over accidentally on your way to the cool-looking colorful stuff but would certainly not intentionally photograph because it’s all basically one greyish color and has little interesting macro-fauna living associated with it.
This is my hunting grounds.

Searching for worms under coral rubble

Searching for worms under coral rubble

I carefully turn over all the most interesting-looking rocks and coral rubble in the immediate area. Sometimes I get lucky and there might be an obvious larger animal sheltering under the rubble, using it for cover from daylight as it waits to forage at night. Other times, there may be a nice fat worm tube stuck to the underside of the rubble…that one’s a keeper.

Most of the time, though, I just select a few rocks that I think look particularly promising, bag them up in whirlpacks and add them to my collecting bag. My rock collection helps keep me stay neutrally buoyant as my tank grows lighter at the end of the dive, but if I go overboard on collecting heavy stuff our Dive Safety Officer, Elliot Jessup, is often around with a lift bag (similar to an orange partly-deflated balloon) to help me slowly transport my rubble to the surface.

Using a lift bag makes carrying rubble easy

Using a lift bag makes carrying rubble easy

Collecting rubble may seem like sort of a weird activity, and perhaps folks don’t get quite as worked up about admiring my catch of rocks at the end of a dive as they might, say, a cool new fish. However, after the rubble sits in the tub next to my microscope for a few hours, it becomes apparent that these chunks of rubble abound with tiny yet fascinating cryptic organisms. In most cases, animals that live within rubble remain hidden for part or all of their lives, and thus are less likely to have been studied yet by humans. We can learn a great deal about the true biodiversity of a coral reef from closely examining its rubble communities.

Each batch of rubble and all animals from it is labeled with data

Each batch of rubble and all animals from it is labeled with data

Small organisms use the crevices and spaces within rubble rocks for a hard surface to attach to or for a refuge that is safely hidden from large predators. Miniature food webs occur within a chunk of rubble.  Algae is fed upon by grazers, who may in turn be fed upon by small predators.  Many organisms live within rubble crevices for much of their reproductive lives, releasing gametes or buds into the water column from these safe confines during their reproductive periods (more about this in a future posting).

Syllidae, a small but striking worm from the rubble

Syllidae, a small but striking worm from the rubble

Eunice, another resident of rubble

Eunice, another resident of rubble

Communities of organisms inhabiting coral rubble have been used in scientific studies for measuring diversity, productivity, and general reef health. Some organisms living in these communities assist in the breakdown of the rubble itself, permitting the release of calcium carbonate into the water for use in building new reef structure.

Dorvilleidae, another worm from rubble

Dorvilleidae, another worm from rubble

For me, examining coral rubble is an excellent way to sample for the small and cryptic “sleeper” critters  (such as polychaete worms) which live hidden lives buried deep within the reef ecosystem, quietly providing critical services to the community.

Once I have my samples, I can return the rubble back to the seafloor to be colonized again.

Filed under: Academy,Diving,Philippines,Piotrowski,Shallow Water — cpiotrowski @ 4:16 pm

Got the tools and they know how to use em’

Scientific Diving involves an extensive toolbox, some that might be familiar to the technical, commercial, or recreational diver, and some that are completely unique to science underwater.  One of the biggest challenges scientific divers run into is task loading.  The scientific diver is operating life support equipment while monitoring time, depth, and decompression status as they complete the scientific tasks underwater.  This can involve everything from running transect tape, laying line, working in quadrats, operating video and photo equipment, collecting, sampling, and recording all of this information accurately!

Proper education is a must and includes a minimum of 100 hrs of advanced training in areas such as physics, physiology, decompression, nitrox diving, navigation, site survey, collection, diver rescue techniques, CPR, 1st Aid, AED use, O2 Administration and more.  After scientific diver authorization the training doesn’t stop – underwater researchers are always learning new techniques and increasing their efficiency underwater with the proper tools for the job.  The following are  a few of the tools we are using on the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition:

Bob Van Syoc takes a clipping

EMT Shears double as a required cutting device and a collection tool used for taking small clips of corals without remove more than what’s needed.  “Whirl-pak” bags are used for storing specimens individually in salt water until they are preserved for future study, all the collections are then stored in a mesh collecting bag with a rigid opening and clipped to the diver with a double ended bolt snap.

Divers Notebook, Pockets, Backup lights, SMB, and Lift Bag

Underwater notebooks are a great addition to a research divers toolkit, enabling date recording and communication without the limited space of a slate which must be erased after each use. Auxiliary pockets can be useful storing smaller items that the diver might not want to clip to one of the d-rings on the backplate/wing/harness configuration. Surface Marker Buoys (aka Safety Sausages) are a must for ocean diving, they can not only be a life saver if caught in a current or diving with heavy boat traffic, but can also be used for live-boating to identify the divers location. LED lights are useful during night dives and during the day to make up for lost light associated with depth – very helpful when searching for the next new species!

Piotrowski and Jessup bring live-rock to the surface using lift bags.

Lift bags are used carefully for bringing samples such as live-rock to the surface.

Jessup using canister light to look for barnacles

The hip-mounted canister light provides considerably more lumens than the standard dive light, and allows for hands free operation.  These lights from Hollis Gear are 16 watts and provide up to 5 hours of burn time with a lithium battery. Also worn in this shot is a Datamask by Oceanic – this mask was designed for military use and provides the diver with a heads up display showing depth, dive time, decompression status, and tank pressure (via transmitter) all in the bottom right corner of the mask.  This one is new for me. I have to say I was quite skeptical at first, but after testing the mask extensively I’ve found a new tool that definitely improves a scientific dive!

Placing the camera

Underwater photo and video equipment can play a key role for the scientific research diver allowing them to document the worksite, specific species, and can even be used as shown leaving a weighted tripod at the bottom of the water column to record animal behavior without divers disturbing the habitat. Underwater housing and cameras can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands for production quality media. With recent improvements in dSLR technology a research diver can capture both high resolution photos as well as high definition video all with a single mid-range priced camera.

With 140 safe dives under our belt and 28 new species discovered, the first two weeks of 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition have been very successful for the shallow water team. Stay tuned for more posts from the rest of the team!

Elliott Jessup
Diving Safety Officer
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Academy,Diving,Jessup,Philippines — ejessup @ 3:41 am

May 7, 2011

Waiting at the SFO Airport…

The Third Wave

The Third Wave

Team Arachnology: Charles is chilling with a beer (and his last raw vegetables...), while Natalia is figuring out how to blog...

Team Arachnology: Charles is chilling with a beer (and his last raw vegetables...), while Natalia is figuring out how to blog...

The third wave of the Hearst Expedition is rumbling in SFO on its way to the Philippines! We study spiders, sea horses and molluscs and we will be joining the terrestrial and shallow water team in Luzon. Also with us is the team physician, Matt Lewin.
Our plane departs in one hour and we are really excited because it is empty! This means we will have an aisle to ourselves to sleep!

Filed under: Philippines — cgriswold @ 9:54 pm

Entomologists to the Philippines

"forest ruby" from Burma

"forest ruby" from Burma

The CAS entomologists are heading to the Philippines. We are Hannah Wood, Natalia Chousou Polydouri, and me (Charles Griswold). Hannah and Natalia are Berkeley PhD students with the joint CAS/UCB program. We are not just entomologists, we are arachnologists: we all study spiders! We’ll look for all the terrestrial arthropods, including insects, arachnids and myriapods, but spiders are our favorites. We’ll use yellow pans, berlese and winkler funnels, pitfalls, malaise traps for flying insects, we’ll shine a light on a sheet at night, and we’ll spend time hand collecting day and night. The last is my favorite: there’s almost nothing that I would rather do that walk around in the jungle at night looking for spiders. In particular we’ll be looking for goblin spiders, orb builders and the beautiful spiders that we call “rubies of the forest” (Stenochilidae: see the picture). Philippines arachnids are not very well known, so we hope to make some exciting discoveries.

Filed under: Philippines — cgriswold @ 2:34 pm

May 6, 2011

There’s just some sting about you…

This may surprise some of you out there, but I hear a lot of talk about sea urchins.  Especially from divers and snorkelers who’ve had the good/bad luck of encountering these gorgeous beasts.  The good luck is in observing some of the strangest of all the Earth’s marine animals.  The bad luck is in getting a bit too close to certain kinds.  I would like to highlight the latter concept a little bit, and perhaps clear up some of the misinformation out there.  Or simply add some information that isn’t all that easy to come by, even though urchins are among the most common and conspicuous animals you can see on a dive or in a tidepool.  Doing this during the Expedition is easy because, well, the diversity of the urchins here is pretty amazing, and they’re right out there off the place where we are staying in the case of most species, especially the ones who can cause some damage.

To recap, sea urchins (Echinoidea) are in the phylum Echinodermata (“echino” = spiny; “derm” = skin).  The urchins are related to things like starfish, brittlestars, sea cucumbers, and sea lilies.  The most familiar of the sea urchins are globose things, adorned with spines distributed over the body.  The shape of the urchin is maintained by a skeleton of tightly sutured columns of plates made of a type of limestone (a.k.a. calcium carbonate) secreted as a biological form of calcium carbonate called “stereom”, making a structure not unlike your skull in that it is covered with skin.  In urchins, this skin, or epithelium, even forms a thin layer over all the external appendages, including the spines.  The columns of plates are arranged in a radiating pattern based on five.  Why five is a subject for another day, perhaps.  Nevertheless, this is a powerfully unique way to identify an echinoderm.  Look for that 5-part radiating symmetry.  The mouth of a sea urchin is on the bottom, and the anus is on the top.  Because the skeleton is technically internal to the epithelium (and not external like the shell of a snail or clam), it gets a special name, the “test”.  There are lots of puns I could make here, but I’ll largely refrain and instead only indicate that terminology tests us all at times.  But new terms add precision, and that’s what science is all about.  So test it is.

Back to stinging.  It always startles and pleases me to learn just how many divers have learned the genus name of a sea urchin:  Diadema.  Necessity is the mother of learning, I guess, because the memory of the name is almost always linked to a negative encounter with this black-spined urchin that decorates so much of the world’s coral reefs.  I actually really like this animal, but this is not a unanimously held reaction.  However, with a little caution and awareness of where your body parts are while drifting over a mass of Diadema, you can enjoy the encounter quite unscathed.  I’ve been collecting and observing these guys for many years, and I’ve only been hit once in a way that really mattered.  It served to instill respect that I hold close to this very day.  Most of the black urchins with the really long spines belong to the genus Diadema.  There are two common species of Diadema in the Philippines’ reefs.  Here they are:


The one on the left, D. setosum, is arguably the most common species ’round these parts, and is easily distinguished from the one on the right when seen alive and under natural light by the amazingly bright red ring in the little raised area on the top of the body (called the anal sac).  In both species, there are beautiful patterns of iridescence on the top of the test, and this makes urchin-watching just that much more special.

When hidey-holes under coral rubble are available, D. setosum tends to be solitary and able to defend against attacks (usually by triggerfish if anecdotal reports hold) by directing spines outwards.  However, out in the open they become more gregarious, gathering in small gangs of nervous pincushions, with the spines just touching to maintain their own respectful distances, spines constantly waving a little, particularly towards changes in light and pressure waves from passing animals such as fish or divers.  The effect can be dramatic, with just the right hint of menace.


Look, but don’t touch.  The long spines are very, very sharp, and come to a point so fine that it’s hard to see precisely where they end in a watery medium where distances can be deceptive to start with.  The spines can penetrate flesh so easily and quickly that once you feel it, it’s way too late.  You’ve been perforated.  More than likely, the spine (or spines, if you are really unfortunate) will break off in the skin.  You can try to pull them out, but the delicate and easily broken structure of the spine (which is hollow) makes that difficult.  Most people know about the barbs, but what they don’t realize is that the barbs don’t point backwards toward the animal, but towards the tip of the spine.  So the damage is done going in.  The other common misconception is that these spines are poisonous.  It only feels that way.  Most of the post-encounter discomfort comes when tissues inside the hollow spine start to decompose and attract bacteria.

And remember that epithelium I mentioned?  It also can break down and cause infection in the wound. Best way to deal with that is to immerse the afflicted body part in vinegar.  This does three things.  It makes the urchin tissues inert to bacterial feasting, kills the bacteria themselves, and dissolves the spine skeleton, which is also made of the calcium carbonate stereom described above for the plates in the test.  Being limestony, this material fizzes and dissolves readily in any acid such as vinegar.  Vinegar adds to the hurtin’ at first, but trust me, it helps and greatly reduces future damage that can be caused by leaving the spine in there whole.  If you don’t have vinegar, you can also roll the skin around the spine or tweeze the spine in the wound until it crushes up into smaller pieces for your natural immune system defenses to deal with.

Although the long spines of Diadema are not venomous, there are toxin-bearing spines on all members of the family Diadematidae, to which Diadema belongs.  In Diadema, these are relatively short, very sharp (yes, even sharper than the long spines), and almost never reached by an errant hand or foot or whatever, because you hit those long “guard spines” first.  That generally keeps you from reaching the stinging spine layer, unless you are really unfortunate and set up for a trip to the hospital because you put all your weight down on a Diadema.  Each of these shorter spines has a slight swelling at the tip where gland cells in the epithelium make and accumulate a toxin that causes a real, honest-to-goodness sting.

Although these gland-bearing spines are hard to reach (or even see) in Diadema, they are really prominent in another diadematid genus, Echinothrix:


Again, we have two species common in the Philippines.  E. calamaris has lighter spines, with beige or brown on the test, a nicely speckled anal cone (not a phrase you will see everyday), and very obvious and exposed, light brown spines tipped with poison glands, as in the close-up below (red arrow).


Note that the long spines of this close relative of Diadema are not sharp.  In fact, they are hollow with thin walls, like a straw with the end closed off.  In the juveniles, these spines are so large relative to the test that the urchin looks like it’s carrying little, narrow vases sticking out from its test.  Weird.

The other Echinothrix, which is very black with very nice, blue iridescent patches on the test, also has these shorter, poison-bearing spines.  You can see this iridescence and the poison glands (red arrow again) well when you get close up.


Then there is the fire urchin, Asthenosoma varium.  This is an urchin whose characteristics are so unusual I just have to tell you about it.  It’s also common in coral reefs just about everywhere.  Nature has found a special way to tell us “do not touch this animal”.  The bright colors might be inviting, but when you see that in nature, it usually hints at something dangerous.   This lovely photo is courtesy of Terry Gosliner, who has the same respect for this relatively large and powerful stinger as I do:


The test of this urchin, which can exceed 20 cm across, is flexible because the plates that make it up are separated by connective tissues that allow the plates to hinge against each other.  The urchin keeps its shape by gently inflating itself with sea water, but if you poke it (use something other than a body part, please), it yields a bit like a crunchy balloon.  The fire urchin uses this feature to get into crevices, and possibly also to economize on the metabolically expensive calcium carbonate that other urchins use to make up their stiffer tests.  This isn’t so much a factor in coral reefs, where dissolved calcium carbonate is relatively abundant.  But this urchin species has as its closest relatives a bunch of equally bizarre forms that live in the deepest parts of the ocean.  Evolutionary studies show that the ancestors of the fire urchin live in the abyss where calcium carbonate is harder to come by and to shape into urchin skeletal parts, selecting for species with thin, flexible tests in which calcium carbonate is used sparingly.  And guess what?  Those deep-sea relatives of A. varium compensate for the relative lack of an armored test by having the worst stinging capability of any urchin that I know.  I got hit by one in my left middle finger while doing deep-sea work in the Bahamas — just a tiny pinprick of one spine — and my left arm was useless for several hours.

Here is a close up of the spines on a fire urchin.  Most of that blobby, balloon-like tissue on the spines is filled with toxin.  Never pick up a fire urchin.  There is some evidence to suggest that you could go into shock if enough spines zap you at the same time.


Finally, I would like to mention one more stinging urchin with a difference.  This one hurts a lot, but not because of the spines.  The so-called “flower urchin”, Toxopneustes pileolus, is another one very pretty to look at, but deserving of respect:


The flowers are not spines, but a special structure unique to urchins called pedicellariae (for you sticklers — pun intended — out there, the pedicellariae on starfish are an independent evolutionary invention and only superficially similar to urchin pedicellariae). Pedicellariae (singular: pedicellaria — not “pedicellarium”) are ice-tong-like pincers mounted on the ends of stalks interspersed all over the test among the spines.  All urchins have pedicellariae, but they are usually small and inconspicuous, and too small to do any damage unless you are a tiny barnacle larva trying to find a nice home to stick to on the top of a sea urchin.  This is the usual type of thing that pedicellariae are used to defend against.  In Toxopneustes, the spines are very short and not very sharp.  This urchin protects itself from larger animals with the grossly enlarged pedicellariae instead.  Although they look like flowers, inside the pink fleshy bit that makes the “bloom” are three tongs that meet together at their points when the “flower” closes, tearing a hole in the transgressor’s flesh and injecting a toxin into the wound:


You can tell when the animal is all worked up and in the urchin equivalent of “DEFCON 1″ when the whitish spines lie down to expose the open jaws of the pedicellariae.  Put your hand on that and you’ll get a powerful dose of toxins from several pedicellariae at once.  A complicating factor is that this urchin, like many other species, likes to cover itself with bits of coral rubble, sometimes making it hard to see in the shadows.  Still, a beautiful animal and always interesting to see in its native habitat. It’s a real favorite of underwater photographers with an interest in abstract art.

So that’s my primer on stinging urchins.  I wanted to call this blog, “Oh test, where is thy sting?”, but I wasn’t sure if that might have been a bit unforgivable — or even obscure.  Heck, I don’t know my Shakespearean sonnets or Corinthians either.


Filed under: Mooi,Philippines,Shallow Water — rmooi @ 10:41 pm
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