SRMP mentor Luciana Gusmao studies deep sea anemones: their diversity,
evolutionary biology, and ecology. Apparently the deep North Atlantic is pretty well studied at least relative to the southern Hemisphere where in the case of the waters off Brazil only one - ONE - deep sea anemone has ever been documented. Until now.
Luciana and her SRMP team, Elena and Sebastian, have in their possession
a treasure-trove of unidentified (and possibly undescribed) sea anemones from off the coast of Brazil. Whatever Elena and Sebastian find from these previously unexplored depths will be a valuable contribution science. The team is very likely to add new localities for species previously known from elsewhere. But it’s possible that they will uncover an anemone never seen before.
So just how do you identify an anemone? DNA always comes to mind, but is probably out of the question at the moment. The anemones were preserved in formalin which makes DNA amplification tricky at best. Next stop: old-school comparative anatomy. In this case, it’s the arrangement of muscle fibers, mesenteries and the study of small capsules found in different body tissues known as nematocyst that help us differentiate deep sea anemones. To examine these features, Elena and Sebastian need to create slides, a lot of them.
A dead bird on its own and without any accompanying data is simply a dead bird. But add some info on where and when it was collected and that dead bird becomes a specimen. The Museum’s collections - full of 33 million specimens and artifacts is the backbone of our research. They allow researchers to look back in time and peer into the biodiversity and societies that are either no more or are quite different than what they once were.
Even though our biodiversity specimens are quite dead, the collections aren’t static and take a considerable amount of attention to be continually useful and relevant. Take for example the simple idea of location. Today, each of you has a super accurate GPS device in your pocket (e.g. your cell phone) nefariously tracking your every movement with the precision of a few feet. Back in the early 00’s, I had to buy a special GPS device to do my research and it often didn’t work in a dense forest. Way back in the day - turn of the of the 20th century - researchers and collectors had to rely on maps. In some cases, they had to make their own. As to be expected, early AMNH explorers were a little more vague (aka less precise) about recording where things were collected. Sometimes they listed only a country or island name. Consider the bird research being conducted by Josh and Jannatul or Nafilah & Desiree How could they investigate questions of speciation across islands or geographic variation in a species when all they had for location was the country of origin. Not super helpful.
However, what early explorers lacked in technology they made up for in amazingly detailed journals: what bay they docked in, how deep into the forest they hiked, and what they collected. In the 1920’s, the AMNH initiated a multiyear expedition to the South Pacific, known as the Whitney South Seas Expedition. Anna and Charlie - lead by Ornithology Collection Manager Paul Sweet - are plumbing the depths of the journals written by the crew members of this expedition. They are comparing the journals of Rollo H. Beck and Jose G. Correia and the log book of the expedition’s ship, the France, to generate detailed locality data for the leg of the expedition in Vanuatu. In addition, they are working with the actual specimens collected on the expedition to standardize and complete taxonomic names. The result will be a vastly improved database from which stunning visualizations of the South Pacific’s biodiversity will be generated using the mapping software, CARTO. Check out the results of last year's SRMP team.
On my visit to the lab of Dr. James Herrera I found Ayesha and Olivia preparing to dive back into their mentor’s (many) field notebooks to digitize trap data on rodents and mouse lemurs, data collected by James when a PhD student in Madagascar. Mind you, James has already successfully completed his doctorate on the evolutionary ecology of lemurs, but seems to have enough unanalyzed data in his field notebooks for a second dissertation!
Ayesha and Olivia - joined by SRMP alumni Allison (Class of 2014) and Alejandro (Class of 2013- are chipping away at the data entry. (Apparently they are also learning a little Malagasy along the way as they translate data collected in the native language of Madagascar). The team will be using this data to investigate the impact of human disturbance on species richness (# of species in an area) and morphology (e.g. tail length, color, body size).
All too familiar issues such as deforestation, illegal wildlife trade, and climate change threatens much of this biodiversity. Ecological research such as that being conducted by James and his crew provides vital information for conservation practitioners who work to predict and minimize the impact of humans on wildlife and it’s habitat.