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Project Lab 

January 25, 2013

Tales from an Expedition

So I’ve been back from the field for about a month now, but there is still so much to tell about my experience as a part of the ‘Our Planet Reviewed’ Initiative, Papua New Guinea 2012-2103 Expedition.


The goal of the expedition was to document as many species as possible from the Madang Lagoon, to get a sense of the level of biodiversity of this part of the Coral Triangle.  Through this kind of fieldwork, not only do we discover new species, but we also collect baseline data to see how diversity can change in a region over time.   I was part of a team that was looking specifically for nudibranchs and other sea slugs.  For four out of six weeks, our opisthobranch (sea slug) team consisted of two graduate students: myself and Jessica Goodheart from Cal Poly Pomona. My advisor Terry Gosliner joined for the last two weeks of the expedition. Though it was only a few of us as the main sea slug collectors, other divers also brought us specimens and were huge help.

Opisthobranch team

Of the three legs of the expedition (terrestrial, shallow water, and deep water), the shallow water marine part (the part we participated in) had about 120 different participants from at least 18 different countries!  About 90 of these were scientists and the rest included photographers, people involved with SCUBA logistics, a scientific illustrator and even a sociologist. The whole expedition involved a HUGE amount of coordination!

As you can imagine, an expedition of this size needs a laboratory so that all of the scientists can observe and process their specimens. This temporary lab space must be able to accommodate many scientists coming and going over 6 weeks. We would spend anywhere from about 6 to 10 hours daily in the lab (others spent longer hours in the lab, but we spent several hours diving everyday in addition to lab time). Here is what our temporary lab space looked like:


There were lots of stations with the essentials: power outlets and desk lamps, and for many stations, microscopes. Our setup for sea slug collecting was pretty basic. Here is a peak at what our workstation looked like with some notes on the tools of the trade:


So what was it like to be in this temporary lab space?  HOT!!! The weather in Madang was roughly in the high 80s with high humidity.  It was also apparent that the heat would prefer to hang out in the lab with all the scientists rather than disperse elsewhere.  Imagine trying to take a photo of a slug that is the size of a grain of rice while you have sweat dripping down your face!  Good thing we had a fan, even if it did break during the last week.

That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for more about how we actually collect these slugs and preserve them…

Vanessa Knutson

Graduate Student, Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology

Project Lab Coordinator

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:48 pm

January 18, 2013

Threatened Beetle

Scientists agree that the beetles (Order Coleoptera) contain the highest number of species of any animal on earth, with 400,000 described species and an estimated 1 million described and un-described species together. However, even their great numbers do not protect them all from threats of extinction. Environmental scientists have realized that the greatest threats to most species are the destruction of habitats caused by expanding human activities, and the introduction of invasive species, also linked to globalization and human activities.


This blog will examine the effects of habitat destruction and invasive species on a California native beetle, Elaphus viridis, the Delta Green Ground Beetle. This small green beetle is now only known from parts of Solano County, but it is thought to have once inhabited much of California’s central valley. It has been federally listed as Threatened since 1980. The main reason for its decline appears to be the destruction of its habitat, vernal pools. Vernal pools are perhaps one of the most delicate and threatened habitats in the central valley. Found in poorly drained low lying areas, vernal pools fill seasonally from winter rains, and by summer are dry. Their presence and quality have been diminished and degraded by tilling for agriculture, draining by landowners to grow crops, and poor management of grazing animals. In addition, remaining vernal pools are often infested with an introduced plant, the Garden Lipia, (Phyla spp.), which forms a dense mat, crowding out native species and making foraging for the beetle very difficult. The beetle’s life cycle is intimately synchronized with the wet-dry cycle of the pools. The beetle emerges in January, mates in February and March, and goes dormant by May when the pools dry up. Like all ground beetles (Carabidae), it is an active predator, feeding on soft-bodied arthropods. Vernal Pools are classified as wetlands, and are officially protected by the federal government. While some vernal pools are on protected lands, like the Jepson Preserve, many are on private property and are difficult to find, protect or conserve.


Till next time,

Vic Smith

Imaging Specialist /Curatorial Assistant

Entomology Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:20 pm

January 11, 2013

Bills, Bills, Bills!

What’s one of the most common things that everyone does multiple times a day? Sometimes we even do it without thinking about it, even though it’s one of the most important. We EAT! This morning for breakfast I had a cup of coffee, a piece of toast and an omelet. In order to eat my meal I used a fork and a cup for the coffee. Have you ever stopped to wonder why we use utensils to eat? Most likely it helped us get food into our mouths more efficiently. The Academy’s Anthropology department has a fascinating history of eating utensils at http://researcharchive.calacademy.org/research/anthropology/utensil/index.html for those who are curious.

Here’s another question: what if you had wings instead of hands? Since birds wings are used for locomotion rather than grasping, their bill is their eating “utensil”. Depending upon their diet, birds will have bills that maximize their ability to catch their meal. The variety of bird’s bills never ceases to amaze me. Let’s discuss a few different birds to see how they use their bills.


This past week in the Project Lab I prepared a Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis) for the research collection. This bird belongs to a group of birds (family Tyrannidae) that are insectivores, meaning they eat insects. Often one can see flycatchers perched on a branch or on a fence and then in the blink of an eye they seemingly burst into the air, landing back onto their perch. What you may not have seen is that they snatched their meal out of the air, and if you had been listening carefully, you could have actually heard their bill snap shut! Just as if you wanted to swat a fly by clapping it between your two hands, these bird’s bills work the same way. Flycatchers have flat, wide bills that increase the surface area the birds have to catch their prey. Catching a flying insect with a bill like two straws would be difficult for even the most able acrobat, so the flycatchers have a wider bill best suited to their diet and hunting method.

Anna's Hummingbird

The hummingbird diet requires a bill more like a straw. It’s easy to see the large difference between the bills of Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna). Hummingbirds use their long, thin bills to reach nectar at the base of the flower. Having a bill like the flycatchers would serve little purpose in reaching into a delicate flower!


The Crossbills of the Fringillidae (finch) family are another excellent example of bill specialization. Their bills are exactly like the name implies- crossed! Their diet consists of coniferous cone seeds, which are often closed tightly, keeping the seeds from being easily accessed. Similar to pliers, the mechanism of the crossed bill closing wrenches the seed from the cone. The Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is a bird that can be seen wintering in the Bay Area as long as there are some good conifers nearby. It’s definitely worth taking a trip out to see these birds!

Today we’ve discussed only three different birds and there are over 900 bird species in North America. One last question- what does this mean? The answer is- it’s time to go birding!!!

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:30 am

January 8, 2013

Sea Slug Respiration

Note: See previous post on December 9

In my prior post, I talked about how sea slugs sense their environments using rhinophores (horn-like appendages on their heads). In this post, I will describe how sea slugs get oxygen from their environments. Unlike land slugs, which use lungs to breathe, sea slugs breathe using their gills. Like the rhinophores, the gills of sea slugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and are often used in identification and classification. The gills can be quite beautiful and ornate, giving each slug a unique appearance. The gills are usually located on the backs or the sides of their bodies. However, there are exceptions to this. Sea hares, a group of sea slugs that have rhinophores resembling rabbit ears, have gills found deep within the body cavity.


Most dorid nudibranch sea slugs possess a feather-like plume on their backs, which surround their anus. Yes, they breathe in the same region of their bodies in which they poop! Despite this, the gills provide the slugs with enough oxygen from the water for them to survive. Some dorids, in the group cryptobranchia, can pull their gills into a pocket on the surface of their bodies. The name cryptobranchia describes their ability to do this. When touched or threatened, the gills will retract into the body as a form of protection.


Some slugs lack well-defined gills. Instead, gas is taken in through the tissue of specialized body appendages. These include cerata, which are finger-like appendages that run along the backs of the slugs in distinctive rows. These cerata come in an assortment of shapes, sizes, and colors depending on the species. These appendages are elongate to increase the surface area through which oxygen can be absorbed. The gills of some nudibranchs are tree-like in appearance. Each branch aids in the uptake of oxygen from seawater.


The sapsucking slugs are a group of sea slugs that retain and utilize chloroplasts from their algal food to produce energy. The Lettuce Nudibranch, Elysia crispata, a sapsucking slug, breathes through ruffled extensions of its body. These extensions resemble the edges of kale leaves, hence the name Lettuce Nudibranch. I should point out, that this slug is not a nudibranch, like its common name would suggest. It is a sacoglossan sea slug. Common names can be misleading with regards to classification. This is why scientific names are designated.


As you can see from the photos, sea slug gills are quite elaborate. As a side note, if you ever want to dress up as a dorid nudibranch, I suggest creating gills by pinning feather-dusters in a plume to your back-end! They look authentic!

Carissa Shipman

Gradute Student

Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:42 pm

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