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The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

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

May 5, 2011

Planetarium Dome Images

I work in the Science Vizualization Studio and the specimens I’m collecting on this trip are the videos and photography we shoot This footage will not only be used for current events like the Academy’s Gala on May 5th and our live webcast on May 19th, but also for future exhibits and planetarium productions.

For the dome we use a specialized camera system, which incorporates the use of fisheye lenses. The result are videos and timelapse sequences which have a field of view of 180 degrees; round and immersive, perfect for the dome.

And we are not the only ones loving our camera setup…

Filed under: Academy,Outreach,Philippines — admin @ 5:24 pm

Collecting critters and images

Photo: Sea Stewards

“All clear?” “All clear. Diver in!” Mati, our Filipino dive guide”confirms and I roll off the narrow V of the canoe hull of the wooden trimaran called Pangkas. Barely missing the bamboo outrigger I’m handed my video camera and dip down to avoid the biologists who follow. As the bubbles clear the scene beneath the boat opens, exposing one of the great wonders of the world, a coral reef so diverse in shape, and texture and color it is like staring at a canvas by Gauguin.  It is hard to determine which part to process and appreciate first, the colors or the brush strokes, the shadows or the subtleties.

The bright tropical light paints shimmering stripes across the reef
crest bringing into highlight the barrel sponges and large porites
coral heads that project like sentinel towers.  Parrotfish, wrasses
and damselfish provide a dynamic pulse against the backdrop.  It is

The California Academy of Sciences Research team settles down and each
expert scours the bottom for new nudibranchs, barnacles, octocorals
and fish to study and describe.

<i>Photo: Sea Stewards</i>

Face down, each scientist enters their own world, processing and
excluding all of the distractions and narrowing their focus down to
their organisms of expertise.  Bob Van Syoc aka Barnacle Bob points at
a tiny pock mark on the lace fan of a seafan.  An underwater thumbs up
and a new species is trimmed away from the host.

<i>Photo: Sea Stewards</i>

So small they look like flaws in the garment of the lace, this
barnacle may live only with this species of sea fan.  Dr. Terry
Gossliner, our expedition leader has found nine new species of
nudibranchs, a brightly colored marine snail.  Some of these
shell-less marine snails are so small they are almost impossible to
see among the soft corals and coral rubble. These people see things we don’t.

<i>Photo: Sea Stewards</i>

My job is the big picture. Through the viewfinder I try to convey the
fragile and irreplaceable beauty of the ocean, and the threats that
face it.  The angle is wide, the corals and fish and worms are all
there, but so are the plastic and people and the human impacts on the
reef.  Tim Horn and I have been working hard to shoot the wildlife and
expedition for the Big Bang Gala video to be premiered at the
California Academy of Sciences May 5.  Now we are onto shooting full
dome vistas of this intriguing country of islands.

Expeditions like this one are strenuous and incredibly fatiguing.  The
planning alone is exhausting, encompassing an entire team who do not
get to venture into the wild. We owe it to them and our Philippine
colleagues to work every minute we are here. The shallow water team
whom Im diving with is hitting the water 3-4 times per day, and
spending the wee hours cataloging, describing and preserving the

Well past midnight Tim and I are downloading images, performing a
quick render and edit and staying up watching the high definition
video crawl through the wire at a nudibranch’s pace back to the
Academy for the final edit.

For the Gala, our work is nearly complete and I’m excited to see the
final cut of the video, and learn the audience’s response when they
see it for the first time Thursday night.
Until then, its back in the water.

<i>Photo: Sea Stewards</i>

Filed under: Academy,Philippines — dmcguire @ 9:57 am

May 4, 2011

The Underwater Gardener

As the Collection Manager of invertebrates (except for insects and arachnids) at the Academy, I have at least a passing interest in most animals without backbones.  The variation in body forms and lifestyles among these animals never ceases to fascinate and often boggles the mind.

My research is focused primarily on barnacles, the shrimp-like animals that make a hard shell to protect themselves from the rest of the world.

Boaters are familiar with barnacles as those pests that attach themselves to boat hulls.  Barnacle guys like me, however, often look for them living attached to other animals.  Barnacles of various sorts have evolved special adaptations that allow them to live on or in whales, sea turtles, sea snakes, crabs, lobsters, corals, and sponges.

With the Academy’s Dr. Gary Williams and Dana Carrison, I’ve been studying barnacles in the genus Conopea. This group of barnacles lives only on certain types of seafan or seawhip corals.


Seafan with barnacle gall in center of image

Seafan with barnacle gall in center of image

Photo: Bob Van Syoc

IMG_3571Photo: Bob Van Syoc

In the summer of 2009, Gary and I advised Liezl Madrona in the Summer Systematics Institute program at the Academy.


Liezl studied the Academy’s current collection of Philippines Conopea and discovered 3 new species among the unidentified specimens on our shelves.  Certainly, the collections resulting from the Philippines Biodiversity Expedition will add greatly to that number.

Collecting Conopea galls requires a sharp eye, something that I have now only with the aid of magnifying lens in the lower part of my mask, and a sharp pair of sturdy shears.

IMG_2780Photo: Elliott Jessup

I’ve become an “underwater gardener” of sorts.  Looking for little bumps on seafans and seawhips, then pulling my shears out of my mesh bag and trimming them off the coral “bush”.  This method of collecting allows the coral colony to live and continue to grow and provide habitat for more of my little Conopea friends.

IMG_2747Photo: Elliott Jessup

It’s difficult to know exactly how many species of Conopea barnacles we’ve collected on our Expedition to date.  We’ll only know that after we’ve carefully dissecting them in our lab at the Academy and compared them to the known species.  However, based on our previous work with Liezl and Dana, I think we have several new species to work up and describe.

There will certainly be more.  The underwater coral gardens of the Philippines extend out for many miles in all directions.  My shears will be busy trimming away small branches.


Filed under: Academy,Diving,Philippines,Shallow Water,Van Syoc — bvansyoc @ 2:23 am

May 3, 2011

Summer of underwater slither

Been trying to find a few moments to post this, but the pace has been a little high lately.  We’ve hit many new sites since I had my first ever encounter with this gorgeous animal, and there were some exciting things to process back at the “lab” (which consists of some tables back at Club Ocellaris).  Been making great progress on the sea urchin and sand dollar fronts, but that’s not the subject of this entry.

I was searching for and collecting echinoderms around a tiny, rocky outcrop that came to the surface to make a raft-sized island at a site called Ligpo about a 45 minute boat ride from the aforementioned “lab”.  Some movement in a crevice that connected with the surface caught my eye. Turned out to be a “lifer” for me, a sea snake.  I’m an echinoderm biologist, so my powers of identification of these things with bilateral symmetry and a backbone are a bit stretched, but I believe this to be Laticauda colubrina, the yellow-lipped sea snake.  Forgive me, herps people, if I have that incorrect.  Nevertheless, I spent about 10 minutes watching this magnificent animal watching me.  I am told that if they have a brood nearby, they can get a little more “interested”, and there were points at which the coiling and aiming behavior of the snake seemed a little bit more than just curiosity, so I couldn’t help but wonder if she(?) had eggs somewhere on that island.


Sea snakes are related to the cobras, and their venom is at least as potent, if not more so.  Like all snakes, they breathe air, and need to come to the surface to respire.  Their tails are flattened from side to side (hence the genus name: “lati” for compressed from side to side; “cauda” for tail — scientific names always make sense at some level).  I am told that these animals are de facto harmless, but should be “treated as venomous”, whatever that might mean in terms of snorkeling in the snake’s native habitat.  All the authorities agree that they seldom bite.  “Seldom” implies that there are instances, and I didn’t want to add to that small dataset myself, and exercised caution.  The movements of the snake were graceful and purposeful as it took a few gulps of air, then quietly and quickly moved down the crevice and across the soft coral masses below me to go hunting for some lunch.

Just had to get this out there in this, the Academy’s summer of slither.  Looking forward to my next encounter with one of these fantastic animals.  Maybe at the Academy?  Wouldn’t it be great to have one in the exhibit?


Filed under: Mooi,Philippines,Planning — rmooi @ 4:22 pm

May 2, 2011

And the Planning Continues

High-tech communications: Skype and speaker phone

High-tech communications: Skype and speaker phone

Eleven members of the Academy expedition team are now in the Philippines, busily documenting species – including ones new to science! – attending meetings, and communicating with those of us still at the Academy. While many details on research support, educational outreach, ground transportation, and lodging are now confirmed, many more still remain to be put in the “Done” column. I’m beginning to suspect that planning the royal wedding was nothing compared to planning this expedition! Thank goodness we have such an amazing team of Filipino friends and colleagues helping us on the ground. Skyping has proved to be tremendously helpful, and with the 15-hour time difference between San Francisco and Manila, it makes for some interesting Skype times. The photo shows the “conference call” from my office at the Academy last Friday, April 29, 3:00 pm – Terry Gosliner and Rich Mooi are on the computer screen, participating by Skype at 6:00 am Saturday their time in Anilao, and Mary Lou Salcedo, our logistical liaison extraordinaire, is on the speaker phone, calling in from her home in Alameda, four hours before heading to SFO for her flight to Manila.

Roberta Brett and I are now the next contingent to head to Manila, leaving this Friday evening, May 6. Both of us are more than excited to be able to use our science backgrounds to help people in the Philippines, back here at the Academy and on the web better understand what this expedition is all about. The amount of work that I need to do between now and then is more than a little daunting, but I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of my birthday than beginning the long flight to Manila. It will be wonderful to be back in the Philippines and launching into the myriad outreach programs we have planned in Manila and in local communities where the research is being done. Utilizing the expedition’s research findings for educational outreach, to inform conservation management decisions, and to help build research, education and conservation capacity in the Philippines are all part of the major goals for the expedition and will help ensure the long-term legacy of the expedition. Can’t wait to get there and get started!

Meg Burke
Director of Teacher and Youth Education
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Burke,Planning — mburke @ 12:26 pm

First week of the Expedition

After a nice long redeye across the Pacific Ocean we touched down just after sunrise on Luzon, the largest of the more than 7,000 islands that make up the Republic of the Philippines.

Arriving in Manila

Arriving in Manila

Our team of seven researchers spent two full days in Manila dealing with logistics, picking up last minute supplies for our work at the field site in Mabini/Anilao, and interacting with local officials and scientists.  Walking and driving around this modern bustling city it was easy to comprehend that more than 11 million people live within Metro Manila.  With so many autos on the roads (and the associated traffic gridlock) the government has instituted a coding system in which cars with certain license tag numbers may not drive on particular days of the week.

Jeepneys, brightly painted military-style jeeps commonly used as mass transit (a tradition held over from the post-war period) and the tricycle taxis made for a very colorful excursion through the city to our destinations.

Jeepney on the streets of Manila

Jeepney on the streets of Manila

We “divided to conquer” with half of us heading off to meet with government officials to confirm permits and the other half setting off to organize the 46 large boxes of field supplies that we’d shipped to the Philippines National Museum from San Francisco (which somehow now seems like a galaxy far far away).

Philippines National Museum

Philippines National Museum

Loads of supplies!

Loads of supplies!

Visiting museums is always fascinating…but it’s even more interesting for museum workers to learn how other collections are curated. We met with the Curators of Crustaceans, Sponges, Fish, and best of all…Polychaetes (marine bristleworms have their own department here).  We also had the opportunity to meet with the new Director of the National Museum, who expressed his full support for this expedition and future collaborations between our institutions.  We do hope to be back!

meeting with curators and Director

Meeting with Curators and Director

Once everything was squared away in Manila it was finally time to head out to the field.  We piled ourselves and our equipment into three tightly-packed vehicles and headed south through lush farmland and lovely countryside towards Mabini.

Our first view of the ocean was exhilarating…now THIS was what we had come to explore!  We arrived at the field site and got settled in right away, everyone working to load our supplies down the steeply sloping property using a series of stairways.  One of our outrigger dive boats was on-hand at the shoreline when we arrived to complete the idyllic view from the field site.

one of our dive boats

One of our dive boats

It didn’t take us very long to get underwater….just a quick lunch and a dive briefing and soon-after we plunged into the waters just offshore to test out our brand new Oceanic gear.  I was amazed by how diverse the reef appeared right off the resort area!

We were even more amazed over the next few days as we explored several dive sites in the region.  Beautifully colored walls of corals, feather stars, huge vase sponges, pipefish, sea snakes, lionfish seemingly under every ledge, huge mantis shrimp scuttling furiously to reach their burrows, and vibrant nudibranchs just about everywhere you look (at least more than I’ve seen before on one dive).  And so many species still to be described!

Anemone fish

Anemone fish

Night diving is an entirely unique experience since different animals are active at night than during the day.  We spent some time “muck diving” the other night in an area near a sulfur springs with a mixture of sand, gravel, and mud.  As you might imagine, muck diving can be quite fruitful for someone who studies worms.  Sure enough, two fireworm species resulted from this dive.

Most species of fireworm remain hidden under coral rubble or rock during the day but can be found crawling across the sand at night in search of food. While many fireworms are “slow” carnivores that feed on sedentary animals such as corals, anemones, and sponges…the fireworms we’ve encountered so far are in the genus Chloeia and are actually thought to feed on carrion.

the fireworm Chloeia fusca

The fireworm Chloeia fusca

Fireworms can present a bit of a challenge to work with, as their bodies are equipped with long, very brittle bristles that lodge themselves in your fingers if you touch them and will remain embedded there for days producing severe  irritation.  Studies suggest that the bristles of at least some fireworm species may be filled with a mild neurotoxin that enhances this irritation.

We get around this by not handling them, obviously.  Forceps or a nearby rock are always handy!

We found a second species in the genus Chloeia during the same night dive.

another fireworm Chloeia flava

Another fireworm species Chloeia parva

Stay tuned for more images and news from the field over the coming weeks.  We’ve just gotten started!

Filed under: Piotrowski,Shallow Water — cpiotrowski @ 4:51 am

April 30, 2011

Collaboration in the Philippines

With a solid couple of days of discovery behind us, patterns already begin to emerge.  It is always that way when a group of like-minded people get together on a mission, especially one for which a major purpose is to gather expertise in an intense environment of exploration.  So when I say “like-minded”, I mean this in only the general sense of wanting to explore and disseminate information about biodiversity.  From here on in, the joys and value-added are all in the synergy of squeezing together people with less like-minded backgrounds and different expertise.  Collaboration.  Different search images, different approaches.  The result is always greater than the sum of the parts, and the 2011 Philippines Biodiversity Expedition has this firmly in mind as part of its design.

The natural world is like this too.  Organisms with very different evolutionary backgrounds come together to encourage systems and interactions in ways we have still to try and figure out.  One thing is very clear.  In the sea, everything lives on everything else.  Or nearly so.  Some organisms use others as substrates to which to attach.  Others find protection among stinging bits of the host.  And so on.

A seemingly minor observation about a strange and not very well studied little sea biscuit (a flattened sea urchin closely related to the sand dollars, family Clypeasteridae) serves to illustrate not just inter-organismal collaboration, but that among scientists with very different interests in being here in Mabini.

I have had a long-time interest in sea urchins, sand dollars, and relatives such as the sea biscuits, and my earliest work was to study how these animals feed, and upon what.  Turns out that things like sea biscuits really like to eat sand and the things living in it.  So while I was here finding specimens of one species, Clypeaster reticulatus, I couldn’t help but notice that in the hollow space around the mouth on the underside of this little sea biscuit, there were dozens of odd little stars packed in like tiny little medieval mace heads:


This photo, taken today, shows a Clypeaster reticulatus flipped over onto the sand (by me) in order to show the tiny little stars in a depression around the mouth, which is obscured by the stars.  I had never seen anything quite like this before, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was food of some kind (not baby urchins), being stored for consumption by the Clypeaster.  Michele Weber (UCLA), who is a visiting expert on single-celled algae that live symbiotically in corals and other organisms (yet another example of synergies set up by collaboration), immediately recognized these as calcarinid foraminifera.

Whoa.  What are those?  Well, it turns out that sand, especially coarse sand, is full of life.  One of the forms of this life is a group of tiny, often microscopic amoeba-like forms called foraminifera.  They are single-celled, and live in minute houses made of limestone that they secrete around themselves, much like a snail makes a shell.  In the case of these little calcarinids, the house has big spikes on it, making it look like a little star.

The “nature nugget” thing here is that calcarinids of this type are also symbiotic with tiny, single-celled plants called diatoms, which are usually the natural food of sand dollars and sea biscuits.  Diatoms, being plants, make their food by photosynthesis, and therefore need access to sunlight.  So the calcarinids themselves need to be close to the surface of sand, which puts them within detection range of the little sea biscuits that like to eat them.  The sea biscuits carefully and deliberately select them from the rest of the less-interesting and presumably less nutritious sand grains, and pile them up in the unusual depression around the mouth.  In Clypeaster reticulatus, this depression is unique among the 40 species of the genus in having almost no spines, making more room for the much spinier calcarinid foraminifera.

The calcarinid-diatom collaboration makes a whole new set of relationships possible.  The collaboration among scientists such as Michele and myself on the Expedition makes it more possible to understand some of these relationships right here, on the ground.


Filed under: Mooi,Philippines,Shallow Water — rmooi @ 9:48 am

First days of research diving in Mabini, Philippines

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition dive team has completed a very successful first few days of research SCUBA diving in the Mabini area of the Philippines. The team traveled with 4 trucks and vans from Manila, through Batangas, Anilao, and finally to Mabini.

Shortly after settling into accommodations, an orientation and dive safety briefing was held.  This included location and review of our automated external defibrillator (AED), 1st Aid, and oxygen units (brought on each dive boat), review of the dive plan, and equipment configuration overview for the Academy research divers who are using new backplate/wing buoyancy compensators and regulators and more thanks to Hollis/Oceanic.

Equipment Configuration Briefing

Equipment Configuration Briefing...

Air sharing demonstration with a 7' long hose

Air sharing demonstration with a 7' long hose...

Equipment assembly

Equipment assembly...

After the orientation, we did shore entry check out dives, getting comfortable with equipment, proper weighting, practicing a few skills, and then some collecting.  The conditions were are superb with 75-100′ of visibility in flat calm 80 degree water – perfect for a first dive!

Getting in the water

Shore entry for the first dive...

Nitrox and Carbon Monoxide Analyzers

Nitrox and Carbon Monoxide Analyzers...

Since we’re planning multiple days of repetitive diving, we decided it would be best to dive on Enriched Air Nitrox to extend our bottom time and also reduce our nitrogen exposure.  Enriched Air Nitrox is a mixed gas composed of higher levels of oxygen than air (which is composed of 21% O2, 78% Nitrogen, and 1% trace gases).  Specifically we’re diving on Nitrox 32% which is the most common and versatile mix for our use.

The last two days were packed with scientific diving involving quite a bit of collecting along with photo and video documentation. All of the collecting requires a great amount of processing lasting late into the night.

Research team processing collections...

Research team processing collections...

More to come, time to get ready for another night dive!

Elliott Jessup
Diving Safety Officer
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Diving,Jessup,Philippines,Shallow Water — ejessup @ 3:26 am

April 28, 2011

Getting a taste for marine discovery

At last, the vans are loaded with box after box of equipment, dozens of pieces of luggage, leaving just enough room for the dozen of us. As I write, we are on the highway south to Batangas at a slightly more snail-like pace than most of us would like, as eager as we are to get into the water for the first time.


Bob questions the driver about his light foot on the throttle

The highway from Manila to Batangas has been greatly improved in recent years, but we seem not to be taking full advantage of that. However, given the tonage of stuff in the trucks, maybe this nudibranch-like speed is more appropriate than the usual way I drive on 280, the autobahn of San Mateo.

We have been joined by two students from the Marine Science Institute (MSI) at the University of the Philippines. Much to my personal delight, both of them have a passion for sea urchins, and I expect lots of happy conversations with them during our hunt for the wily echinoids that form the focus of my work here.

I am certainly not the first to make the observation that in order to keep on learning, you need to have students. Already, I am learning from Inggat and Bryan. They work with a species of sea urchin harvested (and in some places, cultured) here in the Philippines for food. Aficionados of sushi will recognize this as uni, and it is best explained as the roe of sea urchins. It is, judging by the nose-upturning of some, an acquired taste. But I love it.

The local Philippine species, Tripneustes gratilla, produces uni of high quality, sweet with only a hint of the marine to it, and a slightly nutty finish. One of my aims here is to taste-test as many species of urchin as I can to make a sort of admittedly subjective assessment of tropical urchin flavors. I kind of pride myself in thinking that I have eaten roe of more species of urchins than just about anyone else (hey, everyone needs to be proud of something).


Tripneustes gratilla, interesting to look at, and fun to eat


Diadema savignyi, with spines that demand respect

So I laid out this plan to my newfound MSI student colleagues, saying that I was particularly interested in trying Diadema, the long-spined black urchin that is so often the bane of unwary divers who very quickly get the point of that protective spine cover. I figured that I might be among the first to try eating this formidable living pincushion. As usual for me, I’m behind in the game. Bryan tells me that Diadema is even better than Tripneustes.

I can hardly wait.


Filed under: Mooi,Philippines,Shallow Water,Uncategorized — rmooi @ 8:08 am
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