Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An extremely young group of scientists process animals in the Drake Passage

May 31st

How many doctors (of philosophy) does it take to ensure a successful research cruise? Well, that depends on whether you take the census at the front end or back end of the cruise. One of us (myself) boarded this cruise as a PhD candidate, and will return as a doctor. Two other biologists, Michelle from Imperial College London and Eric from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, submitted their dissertation to their advisors only moments before and during the cruise respectively. Although a few years away from being a doctor, biologist Sebastian successfully completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Maine only days before departing for Punta Arenas, Chile.

Eric and Michelle lead the midnight to noon biology shift while Mercer and Chris (graduate student at the University of Maine) head the noon to midnight shift. Sebastian supports the former shift, while Argentinean observer Mariana supports the latter. Both parties are responsible for processing animals obtained during overboard operations. ‘Processing’ is a broad term that refers to the following activities:

1) Mixing formaldehyde with seawater to make formalin, a (nasty) reagent that preserves morphological structures very well, but not DNA.

2) Mixing ethanol with pure water to make a reagent that preserves DNA (i.e., genetic information). Ethanol is very dry and distorts morphological structures.

3) Filling 20+ buckets with ice-cold seawater for temporary specimen storage

4) Aiding in the deployment and recovery of sampling gear.

5) Removing large boulders from the opening of sampling gear to allow the bulk of the material (generally much smaller) to be removed.

6) Removing mud and other sediment from the trawled material using a high-pressure seawater hose in combination with sieves of different mesh size

7) Conducting a gross sort of the trawled material on the back deck of the ship and placing animals into ~8 buckets based on very broad categories (e.g., cnidarians, crustaceans, sponges, mollusks, worms, fish, etc.).

8) Moving the buckets, filled with animals, into the first wet lab for sorting into more defined groups (e.g., soft corals vs. hard corals, shrimp vs. crabs, etc.); each specific group is placed in its own bucket of ice-cold seawater.

9) Moving the ever-growing number of buckets to a second wet lab for identification and preservation of the animals contained within them.

10) Laugh politely, but nervously, when a paleoceanographer asks you “What is that?” because you have no clue. Stumped by external features, you begin dissecting the animal, only to become more confused. Now the paleoceanographer asks “What was that?” You still have no clue. Perhaps the animal in new to science. Perhaps it’s simply new to you.

11) Count the number of individuals within each type or species.

12) Photograph a representative of each type or species.

13) Subsample select individuals twice for subsequent DNA analysis. Place subsamples into screw cap tubes filled with either ethanol or seawater. Tag select individual using fishing line and an archival-quality paper label. Take photograph of individual that was subsampled. Run sample to the -80°C freezer located in the aft dry lab.

14) Determine if all the individuals of a single type or species will fit better in a bottle or jar, or if the specimens are destined for the -80°C freezer, determine what size Whirl-Pak should they be placed in.

15) Label the outside of each bottle, jar, or Whirl-Pak appropriately.

16) Panic because the principle investigators are bringing yet another dredge to the surface before this one, or the one before it, are processed.

17) Include an archive-quality paper label inside of each container that contains the same information as written on the outside of the container.

18) Cringe as someone picks up a container you just wrote on and smears the label.

19) Place all individuals of a single type or species into the container.

20) Walk the animals from the second wet lab to the biology lab, where the preservatives noted above are stored in a fume hood.

21) Release expletives as you realize the last shift left you with no formalin or ethanol.

22) Cringe as you walk back to the wet lab and realize that you forgot to include the archive-quality paper label in the specimen container that now contains preservative.

23) Realize that the next trawl is already on deck (and full of new animals to process). Panic. Contain panic. Panic.

24) Look outside and realize you’re in the Drake Passage. Not only are you overwhelmed with samples, but you are in the roughest seas in the world trying to process them. Pray for a weather delay in overboard operations. Prayer granted….

By Mercer

Weather: temperature 37 °F, windchill 12 °F, wind speed 20-30 knots, cloudy

Chris and Mercer sweating over some buckets in the first wet labs… the number of buckets only increases from here… (R. Waller).
Rhian, Shannon, Melissa, Andrea, Kate, David and Kais waiting for the otter trawl to arrive on deck last night (S. Jennions).
Sandy and Skip deploying the otter trawl, which is closed using the two metal doors just visible above the sea (A. Margolin).
Kais and Stian landing the otter trawl, overflowing mostly with giant sponges (S. Jennions).
Michelle, Sebastian, Andrea and David… and many sponges… (S. Jennions).

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