In this dispatch from the field, Chris Filardi reports on his first 24 hours aboard the Research Vessel Alucia in the Solomon Islands. Filardi, director of Pacific Programs at the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, joined The Explore21 Solomon Islands Expedition last week.
Yesterday evening, my life as it was in the Solomons ended. After nearly two decades of small open boats, sun-blasted, chilled-in-the-rain beauty, I stepped aboard M/V Alucia. It was as if a new island had emerged where before, only waves, and the odd tern skittering after bait.
Aboard Alucia is a buzzing community of science, filmmaking, and discovery; a tiny nation describing a world hidden by deep ocean and a bewildering variety of ocean life. Stepping past subs and video gear, SCUBA tanks, lights, and underwater housings to protect delicate cameras and sensors, and then platforms of intricately jury-rigged machines and robots, it takes some time to begin understanding all that is going on, constantly.
And then, the conversations start registering: Which animal glows under what kind of light? Can a lizardfish see the striking colors that glow all over its body in fluorescent light? What cameras, crazy inventions, or twists between light and dark can extend our senses to capture it all?
And that’s just it. This whole endeavor is a brilliant experiment in seeing the unseen, capturing glowing, luminescent life that extends the boundaries of science and knowledge beyond our vision and into the abyss.
A day aboard Alucia is full of wonder and surreal juxtapositions. Against a timeless view of windswept uninhabited islands, the high tech Titan sub Nadir submerged at dusk. Monitors showing 20, 60, 95, 150, 200, 500 meters… and then, just the excited radio chatter of discovery.
Because this work probes worlds only seen with technology and clever twists of light, it is hard to know exactly what we are finding. This will take time in the lab and in the Museum reference collections back in New York, but Alucia enables some sophisticated preliminary results are exciting and lead to new questions.
Vipers, Dragons, and Living Lanterns
A one-barbeled Dragonfish © AMNH/J. Sparks
John Sparks’ sampling suggests intriguing differences between the Solomons and many other sites. By pulling nets 700 meters or so down, slowly through the water at night, he is finding levels of diversity that exceed most other places and surprising novelties in the species found. Because midwater organisms are so widespread, new species are rare. Somehow the Solomons may be violating this assumption.
What he is finding is other-worldly. Among the bioluminescent shrimp and pyrosomes (pulsating tubes of geleatenous life), one of John’s specialties, Dragonfish (Stomioforms), have elaborate chin barbels specific to individual species as well as suborbital (below the eye) light organs that glow white and red in various shapes, again according to species. It is hard to tell these guys apart, but they are common and diverse here.
Viperfish, Stomiidae, Chauliodus © AMNH/John Sparks
Equally difficult to discern are nightmarish viperfish, fish-eating beasts of the black depths, glowing and surprisingly hyper-abundant here. More familiar lantern fish are also unexpectedly diverse and abundant. We will have to wait to get back to the Museum to know, but the list of our sea brethren is growing by the hour out here.
In the end, mapping this growing list of glowing, flashing animals on a tree of evolutionary relationships is enabling John, and all of us, to better understand why these fish light up the night marine world like they do.
Tiny is not Small Enough…
While John is sorting and photographing invisible patterns in deepsea fish, Eunsoo Kim is searching for invisible creatures in crystal clear water. She too is breaking new ground, but for her, overcoming invisibility is not a matter of illumination, it is one of magnification.
© AMNH/CUNY/D. Gruber
Eunsoo wants to stay real small—between 0.2 and 20 microns—because the tiniest of tiny protists (the simplest single-celled organisms) include some of the most ancient forms of life. Visualizing and studying them can inform our understanding of the earliest beginnings of life, and Alucia enables a rare chance to visualize the invisible in real time, freshly plucked from their liquid haunts.
Kim is also collecting “big stuff,” like radiolarian protists at 50 microns or so (about half the diameter of a human hair), as the Solomon Islands is rich in them, and numerous colleagues are keen to have access to material from this remote region.
Back on the small side, photosynthetic prokaryotes, such as cyanobacteria, are the likely source material for one of the primary engines of the entire natural world. The origins of chloroplasts, the energetic generators that make photosynthesis happen, are believed to stem from some cyanobacteria getting ingested by larger cells retaining the ability to function and thus providing Sun-generated food for the host and the bulk of primary energy production on the planet. Small critters but not small stuff.
Small protists that are at the heart of Dr. Eunsoo Kim's work, and key to understanding the beginnings of complex life. © AMNH/E. Kim
Kim's big challenge now is trying to isolate individuals from field collections – it's hard to pick out single cells that are only a few microns across. Some of this will have to wait, but not all of it. Alucia enables significant labwork to be done in the field so already we are seeing the unseen and probing the depths.
Near midnight and the ship is quieting, a big moon aglow above the surf and islets, luminescent worlds unfolding below.
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