Monday, March 19, 2018

Taxonomy Day 2018! Museum Trends from Starfish Travels!

So for the last 3 years, I've been lucky. There have been multiple opportunities for me to do field work but more importantly to visit museum all around the world in order to study the animals I love so much! I've been away for up to four months every year for the last few years. 

Australia, Japan, South Africa, Paris, Honolulu, San Francisco..and probably more in the years to come..

So, today.. some impressions of common trends that I've observed in honor of today.. TAXONOMY DAY! aka Taxonomy Appreciation Day! 

1. Museums Remain THE HUB for discoveries!
I've been in the field plenty of times. Intertidal zones on various continents and islands. Two submersible dives, out on plenty of ships.. but in terms of finding a BUNCH of new species all in one trip?? NOTHING beats a visit to see the collection of a good natural history museum!!

Everything from natural history surveys, research expeditions, to simple donations by well-travelled museum patrons you can find all manner of important specimens that result in new species, rarely found species, juveniles and even specimens showing ecological interactions!

My recent travel has been VERY fruitful. Mainly resulting from recent deep-sea expeditions to exotic lands!

In the MNHN in Paris, their recent expeditions to the Indian Ocean, particularly their expeditions to Madagascar and nearby areas have resulted in a forthcoming paper where I will describe over a dozen new species of goniasterid sea stars! and there were more....
Other museums have been similarly fruitful!! 

The Museum Victoria in Melbourne for example includes recent work by Australian colleagues including Dr. Tim O'Hara returned last year with thousands of specimens, ranging from worms to sea stars to fishes! from a survey of the deep-sea habitats of Australia! 

Their work recovered hundreds of new records and many new species of sea stars. Its gonna take awhile to work that up!! As I've mentioned before.. prior work has recorded that it takes on average about 21 years for a specimen to go from collection to shelf to publication! 

I've been ahead of the curve in describing many of these species!

2. When a Good Thing Becomes a Challenge: Space the Ongoing Frontier!
So. Here's the thing. A reality of ANY kind of collection. At some point, if it is growing at a healthy clip, EVENTUALLY you will have problems with space.

That is to say.. not enough of it. You have more and more specimens.. and eventually every shelf, every inch of space gets used up.

Its not unusual for some museums to literally inherit a collection from ANOTHER collection, often from universities or other academic institutions, instantly doubling the contents but also the workload and burden on resources.

This post from Science highlights this issue of "orphaned" collections. Some collections, containing scientifically valuable and important specimens ranging from fishes to plants often face problems due to lack of support..

This is an issue that has come up at EVERY museum collection I have visited!

This especially becomes an issue if you work on big, ungainly shaped animals such as sea stars! Some animals are conveniently small and "stack" conveniently..but others.. not so much.

Museums are often judicious in what they accept..but in other cases they are obliged either legally or  scientifically to accept valuable specimens.  Sometimes museums are faced with inheriting important historical collections-lots of type specimens, rare or even extinct (non fossil) species..
Solutions are buildings. Fund raising. Remodeling to maximize space! This is an ongoing challenge even in the most modern of institutions with natural history collections (or any kind of museum really)  These types of challenges keep a future vision for natural history collections important.

3. Databasing & Cataloging! Making Collections Available to everyone!
This is, of course, a natural function of any natural history museum collection.

Keeping track of what's available.. BUT lately there has been a HUGE push to make sure that materials have not only been cataloged and database but ALSO available to the scientific public!

This has been especially important for historically important scientific collections such as the one at Paris, which has specimens that have been around since the 1800s and the time of Lamarck!

Museums have taken to making creative use of volunteers and citizen scientists to help with cataloging specimens.  I've seen "cataloging parties" where volunteers help to sort and catalog specimens en masse (simple locality data) into a database leaving the more complex entry tasks to the staff.

Museums with Online Catalogs!
Museum national d'Historie Naturelle:
Invertebrate Zoology at the NMNH, Smithsonian Institution:
Invertebrate Zoology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco:
Collections Search at Museum Victoria:

4. Digital Imagery: More of it and its increasing significance!
The last few years have seen a HUGE uptick in the abundance and availability of imagery.

Everything from live-streamed deep-sea biology such as Okeanos Explorer :  (returning in April!)

Controversy has been found as some scientists have argued imagery itself can be used in stead of specimens:

But more commonly throughout the museum world I've merely seen that almost EVERYPLACE I've been has uploaded imagery of their collection, making those specimens available to anyone with internet access.

This is particularly important for those ever so rare specimens known as TYPES (here for full explanation) basically the specimen or specimens designated by the original researcher which defines a new species.
What's interesting is that while some people argue that this is a huge BOON to the community: 
"Digital images of the specimens will make it MUCH easier for people to see the specimen so we don't need to ship it or so they won't need to visit!"

Others have expressed the opinion that these images will DOOM the museum!
"Digital images of the specimens will make it MUCH easier for people to see the specimen so we won't need to ship it or so they won't visit!


4a. Biodiversity Heritage Library!
I remember the olden terrible days before the days of the Internet..but ESPECIALLY before the days when the Biodiversity Heritage Library was available!!

At the very least, having to carry along the photocopy or notes of the huge taxonomic monograph was just a huge pain in the ass. Unfortunately, especially for marine invertebrates such as echinoderms the really IMPORTANT taxonomic references tend to be in huge oversized, heavy folios like these...

thanks to the online version of these books I can now carry a global-scale library for starfish taxonomy on my laptop.. almost anywhere in the world! Not everyone has a Smithsonian or Paris-level library.. but now you can.

A list of starfish BHL references can be found here:

5. Shipping & Customs! New Challenges!
What might surprise many people is just how IMPORTANT shipping and customs regulations are to museum "business."

Specimens regularly ship back and forth between natural history museums, mostly as loans for researchers to study specimens they wouldn't normally be able to study.  Specimens would be analogous to rare books being sent back and forth between different libraries so that scholars in different parts of the world can refer to then..

Shipping unfortunately always seems to come with some risk..and more lately. Scientific specimens in preservative run afoul of safety shipping and biosecurity protocols. Many specimens, such as corals,  are now protected by international law, making them difficult to ship. and so on and so on...

In one high profile case in 2017, Australian customs officials who were ignorant or unaware of the value of museum specimens destroyed unique and priceless French holotypes... which led to an international incident.

Undoubtedly.. there are those who would say that nothing I've summarized here is necessarily new...and perhaps to the museum worker or working taxonomist..probably not. But the common travails of the natural history museum to the public are often hidden and I hope this helps to communicate the challenges that these museums face in the 21st Century! 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Unusual Surface Texture in Luidia ciliaris! Unknown natural history or ???

GREETINGS! and Happy New Year! Yes.  Sorry. Its been awhile since I've blogged.. Lots of travelling and research are a good thing...but time for essential outreach can sometimes be fleeting!

For my inaugural 2018 post: a MYSTERY!

I've written about the genus Luidia before.. these are predatory sand stars which are found all around the world.

They can vary in appearance and in some places they are very abundant.. Most species are shallow and occur in temperate tropical habitats. Although many species are five rayed.. some such as L. ciliaris can have seven or more arms. Some species in the tropical Indo-Pacific have very striking patterns and can reach almost 2 feet in diameter!

Luidia ciliaris is found pretty much only in the North Atlantic although it has likely close-relatives in nearby areas. This species is regularly seen by divers in the United Kingdom, France, Spain and etc..
Image from
Today.. Andy Jackson, an underwater photographer grabbed this wonderful time lapse video of the North Atlantic 7 armed sea star Luidia ciliaris IN ACTION!  Doing a move through this field of brittle stars! 

seven armed starfish with banding - Luidia ciliaris from Andy Jackson on Vimeo.

Interestingly, he noticed that THIS one had a VERY unusual banding or strange segmentation on the arms!
He came to me with the question.. WHAT IS the BANDING??? That strange surface texture that is visible on the surface of the animal???

You see it in headlines a lot...but I will actually say it "Scientist (in this case-ME) was baffled!!"

BUT, it turns out other people on social media have seen it before.. even if they didn't realize what it was... 
 A seven armed starfish on a maerl bed with red seaweeds
Here is a normal one again for comparison.. the top surface is even.. NOT with the strange surface segments present along the arms..
Image from

So, when I see deformations like this.. I always have to wonder about two possible hypothesis:

1. Is this a "normal" part of this species' behavior?? Something which we have simply never seen before?  
2. Or could it be NOT normal... What could this mean?? I don't know. But years ago? Sunflower stars in British Columbia began experiencing weird "arm twists"  and it wasn't much longer after that, that the entire population of sunflower stars suffered from SSWD

One might see from Andy's video that the animal was in the process of moving through a field of brittle stars..could the odd surface texture have been caused as a defense? from irritation? stress? 

This is why "Natural History" becomes important! and how citizen scientsts, including everyone from divers to intertidal naturalists have something to contribute! 

For example, this Twitter thread from July 2017 shows a specimen of Luidia ciliaris washed up on a beach with the"banding" on its arms.. (note arm in front above the person's left hand)
Photo by Chris Orr via Twitter
One person in the thread speculates that the star was not in good health...was it? Possibly just stressed from being washed up??  Certainly, this was idle speculation and it is difficult to know what was going on... 
So, I am putting this OUT THERE to let people be aware of it.. and who knows? 
Perhaps a pathologist, natural historian, ecologist and more? Might take up an interest... More data and MORE OBSERVATIONS could well help us figure out if this is something to be concerned about..
(thanks to Andy Jackson and Bernard Picton!)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Pacific Northwest Sea Stars Names: EXPLAINED!!

Sea Stars
So, a bit of bookkeeping- yes. I've been writing the blog less regularly. This has been largely a good problem to have: lots of other projects have been keeping me busy.. So, I'm mainly just writing when a good topic strikes me.. but I tweet a LOT more often than I used to.. so you can keep up with new posts that way...

Today.. some interesting etymology: i.e. the origins of scientific names!!!

I actually used to think that I was going to be writing about the origins of scientific names WAY more often then I ended up doing.. I wrote this post early on back in my first year (2006) here and I've written about some deep-sea starfish names (such as brisingids) with many more little bits about scientific names scattered throughout my long blog history!

The other day, someone asked me about one of the most familiar sea stars that I've worked with.. the Ochre star on the west coast of North America.. and shockingly. I didn't know.

I've also been working on some very old literature associated with the World Asteroidea Database and have been becoming familiar with many of the first descriptive papers used for species that are familiar to many a marine biologist!

So, this week: A short feature on FIVE (ish) names of very common sea stars encountered on the Pacific coast of North America!

What's interesting is that MANY of these species were NOT described by Americans or by American scientists. They were described by scientists in Europe! Many of whom probably regarded North America as exotic as Australia or "the Orient"..

But now, thanks to many, MANY field guides, textbooks, scientific studies and citizen science many of these names are practically a household name! But what do they mean? How does the original Latin/Greek break down..especially in the context of its taxonomic history.. HIDDEN SECRETS of the Pacific NW starfish fauna begin!

1. Pisaster
This species is of course, famous internationally. Pisaster ochraceus is the "poster child" for the keystone species concept among other things..and is well known on mussel beds..and while the other two species aren't as well known-they are still familiar species..
Who Named Pisaster?: This genus was named by two German biologists in the 1800s, Johannes Müller and Franz Herrmann Troschel, in an important monograph published in 1842, the System der Asteriden which established names for a huge number of the known species at the time.

The name: Descriptions were quite brief at the time and many taxonomists never bothered to include the rationale for the names because scientific names are written in Latin and everyone who was considered educated at the time was already assumed to have KNOWN Latin..

I'll be honest. This one was a bit of a puzzler.  The latter half of the name "Pisaster" has an easy enough translation "aster" for star.. but the former half?  What did the "Pis-" mean???

Some accounts online suggested that the name meant "fish" but that makes NO sense (sorry Merriam Webster!)   As Adam West's Batman would say "NOT SO FAST, old chum...."

Fortunately my former Masters degree advisor Tom Niesen (formerly of San Francisco State University) came through!  He pointed out that the name ACTUALLY refers to the Latin for "pea" ... PISIUM!
The genus Pisaster makes reference to the small bead like spines present on the surface of the body!
Starfish Macro
and what about the species names?
Pisaster brevispinus is the easiest. "brevis" and "spinus" aka "brief or short spined" So, the short spined Pisaster. This makes reference to the short spines present on its body, which differ somewhat from the other Pisaster spp..

Giant Pink Star Surface Close-up
Pisaster ochraceus: "ochraceus" refers to the color: orange of the species first collected. Again, likely without too much sampling of the other individuals. This species occurs in purple, red and so forth..
      So TECHNICALLY... the common name for this species "Ochre stars" which is usually taken as a translation of the scientific "ochraceus"  name actually means "pale yellow" (possibly orange) stars
Ochre star 1
and perhaps one of the biggest mysteries, Pisaster giganteus? This one is a favorite story of mine because it is based entirely on knowing the history of the specimen.

The original holotype of this species was described  in 1857 by William Stimpson. (specimen shown here)

It lives here in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History and it is CRAZY BIG, almost 2 feet across! (sadly, nothing this big will likely ever be encountered in the wild again..)

So, it was quite the monster for its time.

But they clearly had no reference to the greater variation of this species which is in most cases.. nowhere nearly as large as this

This kind of thing is the poster child example for why you need to study variation in a new species..especially if you're going to NAME it based on a characteristic seen only in a single individual!

2. Orthasterias koehleri
 Who Named Orthasterias?: The genus was named by Addison Emery Verrill in 1914 who was an American naturalist that named pretty much everything in the Americas in late 19th Century and early 20th Century. He was a bit of a whirlwind who named everything from sea stars to cephalopods!

The genus name means: "Straight star" with "ortho" meaning "straight" likely in allusion to the spine series on the body which form regular series and "-asterias" referring to the animal.

Species? Probably what throws people the MOST about this animal is the species name.. "koehleri" and most people always try to find a Latin root for it.. except that its NOT a word that is made out of a Latin adjective!

This species was originally described as Asterias koehleri by a Swiss worker, Perceval de Loriol who mainly worked on fossils in the late 1800s. In 1897 he described this species from Vancouver Island and named it after prominent echinoderm worker, Professor Rene Koehler (photo courtesy of Dr. Dave Pawson, NMNH!) who taught at the University of Lyon  and was a later president of the Société zoologique de France.

Interestingly,  the species was described in 1897 but the genus, Orthasterias was not described until 1914. So, it was SEVENTEEN YEARS until the modern version of this name (Orthasterias koehleri) came to pass..
3. Evasterias troscheli
Mottled Star  (Evasterias troschelli)
Who named it? Another one by Addison Emery Verrill! 
Named for? Evasterias is I believe the root "asterias" with the prefix "ev" meaning "primeval" likely alluding to this species resemblance to other Asterias like species.

The species? This one is another one named by some folks in Europe that might not be obvious to people working with the Pacific fauna.. 

The original name for this was Asterias troscheli and it was named for the aforemntioned German biologist Franz Herrmann Troschel, who worked on fishes and mollusks!  A Wikipedia article is here.

4. Stylasterias forreri
Velcro Star
Who? Another species placed into a genus named by Addison Emery Verrill in 1914!

What does the name mean? The genus "Stylasterias" has the same root as "stylet" or "stilleto" referring to a "sharp stick" or needle. Plus "-asterias" (for sea star).  The "Styl-" prefix alludes to the sharp spines covering the surface.

Who was the species named after? This was another species originally described by a European (in this case, Swiss) worker, Perceval de Loriol in 1887. This was collected and brought to deLoriol's museum by a "M. Forrer" (I'm unsure if "M" is the first initial or shorthand for "Messieur" but that is who the species is named for and was almost certainly described in a vacuum by deLoriol.  Basically.. described purely as an object without much if any ecological information.

Again, this is a species which had a name for 30 years before being assigned its new name Stylasterias in 1914!

5. Leptasterias spp.  
Leptasterias aequalis (Carmel Point)
Who Named it? Another genus named by Addison Emery Verrill!  This time in 1866! 

What does the name mean? This one is actually pretty straight forward. There's of course, "-aster" for star and "Leptos" which is from the Greek for "small" or tiny..sort of like the word Lepton. 
Leptasterias hexactis
And this is appropriate given how many of the species are pretty tiny (about the diameter of a silver dollar or 50 cent piece.. or 1.00 euro if that's more your speed).. and some up in Washington can get bigger up to the size of maybe a small cookie..
Six armed sea star - Leptasterias hexactis

There are a TON of Leptasterias species of course, both in the Atlantic and the Pacific..but the name was clearly designated BEFORE they realized just how big some of the species got! Leptasterias polaris for example, is easily 1 to 2 feet across!

BONUS. Pycnopodia helianthoides & Rathbunaster californicus
Pycnopodia helianthoides
Pycnopodia is arguably one of the most immediately recognizable species in the world given its size and unique appearance.. and interesting.. it wasn't named all at once!

This species was originally named as Asterias helianthoides and was described by J.F. Brandt, a German naturalist who apparently worked mostly in Russia in 1835 here Asterias was the name they assigned to practically all sea stars back then.. with some species in different families sharing the same genus. and yeah.. if you looked it up the description is basically two short paragraphs Latin. That's why taxonomy gets such a bad rap in the long run..

The species epithet helianthoides is Greek for "like a sunflower" making the common name Sunflower Star one of the best fitting of all of these older species.

On the other hand.. it wasn't until 1862 when a second biologist, an American named William Stimpson (who described the misnamed "Asterias giganteus" (now Pisaster giganteus) rightly thought that this animal belonged in a new and separate taxonomic category..

Stimpson named it Pycnopodia, which in Greek translates to "pycnos" as dense or thick and "podia" referring to its tube feet.. Hence "Dense Tube feet", almost certainly in reference to its very numerous and abundant podia..

Stimpson was actually SO impressed by this animal that in the original description of the genus, Pycnopodia he actually created a new FAMILY to accomodate it: the Pycnopodiidae. This new family hasn't been widely accepted but hasn't quite been disproven either...

Pycnopodia has a SISTER species in deep-water called Rathbunaster californicus.. and I wrote a WHOLE blog about it and its name here. So go check it out! 

Some common trends then...
1. Many of these species were named by Europeans in the 19th Century. Many of them had almost certainly NEVER even been to North America!

2. Many of the genera? Described in the early 20th Century probably in 1914, by Addison Emery Verrill.

3. There were a LOT of names which were based on a bunch of old European guys honoring each other. What you're seeing here doesn't even include ALL of the species that were described.  It was typical of a lot of taxonomists from this era to oversplit.. that is designate a new species based on some highly variable detail. These "oversplit" names were often deemed to be redundatt by later
authors and made obsolete.

4. One important lesson? Try to see some variation in the species before assigning it a name based on that one character!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Okeanos Explorer Communities & Deep-Sea Discoveries!

I'm BACK! After a month at sea with 2.5 weeks worth of dives I've safely returned to "home base" in Washington DC! I was out in the central Pacific with NOAA's R/V Okeanos Explorer on their Laulima O Ka Moana expedition, exploring the deep-sea of the Marine National Monument in the Central Pacific! 

1. Forest of the Weird: Land of the Glass Sponges!
This was probably the most amazing thing I have seen in awhile! (at least since that Basket Star community in the Marianas a few years ago!)

So, the key thing about nearly ALL Of these sponges? Many of them are what's called GLASS SPONGES aka members of the Hexactinellida. That means they have bodies which are made out of silicon oxide!

These often have bizarre and weird shapes. I have done a post about these before here in 2015.

Here's a highlight video of the discovery-basically water currents ran at an ideal rate at the top of this geologic feature making it IDEAL for what seems to be a huge abundance, if moderate diversity of glass sponge species!

Note also how all of them are turned into the current!! We were in this "forest of the weird" for the remainder of the dive (over an hour) so there was quite a lot of it..
Here's few more that show off the crazy architecture.. These varied in height from one to four feet in height..

2. The Carnivorous Sponge Field
This area was kind of the opposite to the one above. Rather than big and obvious, it was quite dense and discontinuous, being present on one big boulder to another...

But what was amazing was that this was composed of a different type of sponge in the family Cladorhizidiae. (possibly in the genus Asbestopluma..) Cladorhizids are not glass sponges and have physical properties more like what's seen in many other sponges. EXCEPT...

...that they are CARNIVOROUS!!!

Wait.. WHAT? Yup. MOST sponges are filter feeders. But in this group, they use glue or spines to capture prey, which are then digested by the animal in question. We've seen different types of these carnivorous sponges before, including some possible new species..  These sponges kind of look like a feather.. a central stalk with fine hairs or spines coming off the sides

Similar to this species in the NOAA benthic inverts guide...

Here..they were present in HUGE densities.. alongside some frond-like bryozoans! and some stoloniferous zoanthids (a sea anemone like cnidarian)  These actually seemed to be pretty thin at first but got bigger, longer and thicker as we encountered them!

Yes.. I suppose I'm overhyping them..but that's basically a "killing field" of carnivorous sponges!  with these projecting into the
Interestingly, this shot above looks like there might be a snail on one of those even more going on!

3. This Amazing Farreid Sponge/Acanthogorgia Wall! 
Shallow-water dives can be VERY productive but because of the nature of Okeanos Explorer we tend not to do many of them relative to the really deep dives (>1000 m).

The one we did at Johnston Atoll did NOT disappoint!

This large block and several like it had this AMAZING side flanked on one side by sponges in the Farreidae, but then on another side covered by octocorals in the genus Acanthogorgia!

The coral side (Acanthogorgia) was relatively high current...
versus the "sponge side" which was relatively low current...

and many critters were to be found amongst the corals (such as this... sea slug)

3. Astrophiura! the "sea star ophiuroid" Probably one of the MOST memorable observations for me OUTSIDE of the starfishes was this weird little brittle star!

One of the videographers, Bob, saw it adjacent to the base of one of the sponges. And there it was plain as day!

These animals are TINY. Maybe dime sized. So, the D2 camera's caught a really RARELY ENCOUNTERED and SMALL species.. (about 2000 m depth)
This genus of brittle star was described in the 19th Century by Walter Percy Sladen, the author of the HMS Challenger sea star monograph. He hypothesized that it was some kind of "missing link" between brittle stars and sea stars... (since been disproven)

Here is some imagery of as illustrated by H. Matsumoto.. It has rather famously been shown in echinoderm books as an example of a bizarre form.  Its shape is very similar to those caymanostellids and is thought to be an adaptation to lying flush on the substrate..

Astrophiura kawamnrai n. sp.
Image from page 210 of "Aus den tiefen des weltmeeres" (1903)
Image from page 662 of "Annotationes zoologicae japonenses / Nihon dōbutsugaku ihō" (1897)

4. Pumpkin Sized Echinothuriids Sea urchins! 
This dive started out pretty uneventfully up slope along a cone, resulting in the discovery of a pretty amazing colony of plexaurid corals

As I've mentioned with some of the OTHER high density communities- not only were there corals present but LOTS of other animals living among them.. 

One of the most remarkable? These HUGE echinothuriid urchins!!  For those who might not be familiar.. these are aka "pancake" or "tam o shanter" urchins. You can see more about them here (with links therein). 

Basically, these are soft-bodied sea urchins which often have poisonous spines and little walking legs.

But the ones we saw on this peak? just ENORMOUS.

The lasers are 10cm across,(about 4 inches), okay this one is only about 8 inches across
but we panned across to another ledge and found a few more...
This darker brown one ended up being about 2 laser about 8 inches across! that's basically the size of a small pumpkin! do they get bigger?

Wikipedia lists the "largest" species at 14 inches (36 cm) but did not elaborate on species..(will need to check). But if that's the upper limit, then 8 inches is definitely monstrous!

5. A deep-sea... NUDIBRANCH??
This one was quite a surprise, because I had largely thought that sea slugs were limited to relatively shallow depths, much less PROPER nudibranchs which are overwhelmingly found in nearshore settings.

This looked pretty bigh on camera and was about 5 inches long? when we collected it..

Amazingly, there is one genus of proper nudibranch in not only the Antarctic but in the deep-sea: Bathydoris!  I'm not sure quite yet what they eat but will find out!

How will the species we collected compare??? Stay tuned! (and thanks to Vanessa Knutson for her help with the ID!)

That's a quick recap of some of the non-sea star events..but I'll post more as opportunity permits!  THANK YOU to the crew of the Okeanos Explorer, NOAA and my science team colleagues for inviting my participation!