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 long...in 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 sponges..so 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)..so, 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 lengths..so 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!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

BIG NEWS!!! Echinoblog Will be ON Okeanos Explorer!!

Some EXCITING news! I have signed on to join NOAA's research vessel Okeanos Explorer as the Biology co-Lead for their July Expedition Broad casting from (approximately) July 13 to August 1! 
This expedition will research the coral habitats around the Johnston Atoll unit of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) spending about 2.5 weeks performing ROV operations, mapping and exploring the biology and geology of the Johnston Atoll region! 

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I have live-tweeted the Okeanos Explorer dives for a couple of years (here)  in addition to providing identifications for the Facebook Screengrab Group as well as blogging about highlights observed during the dives (here). 

I have been a long-time "shoreside scientist" contributor providing identifications of starfish/sea star identifications as well as whatever knowledge about deep-sea echinoderms (or other animals) I can contribute.

Will you still be live-tweeting your dive? 
Unfortunately, I won't be providing quite the same level of social media coverage since I will actually be working ON The ship, but when I can, you'll definitely continue to see me on Twitter. Its going to be busy onboard the Okeanos Explorer-but I will try to tweet as opportunity permits.

But I WILL be tweeting about as many aspects of the experience as I have an opportunity to!

Will you be Answering Questions via Social Media???
Yes! If you leave questions in the comments of my blog or on Twitter/FB (@echinoblog) with #askEchino (along with #Okeanos) I will try to answer your question when I am aboard ship during the live stream.  So, I probably won't immediately answer questions until I start the live stream. Questions answered will be at my discretion. 

I will share more on my Twitter feed as information becomes available. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Five Highlights from my NEW paper about the genus Ferdina and its relatives!

GREETINGS! Last week, a new paper I've literally been working on since I finished my PhD has FINALLY been completed! Its easily my largest monograph at the moment and includes a whopping 14 new species, 3 new genera and a new subfamily!

For those who are interested, it was in the latest issue of Zootaxa, published online here (I don't believe the print version is out yet). 

The paper focuses on a group of tropical shallow/deep goniasterid sea stars which include reef setting genera such as Neoferdina but also seldom studied genera such as Ferdina and their relatives. I actually ended up describing 3 additional new genera and MANY new species!

Its always nice when the work is done and the specimens can go back to their home institutions.. many of these specimens were from the echinoderm collections at the Museum national d'Historie naturelle! 

Although the paper is "old school" and was done without molecules, to me it still represents a good example of taxonomy in the 21st Century?  I've written about how taxonomy has been done with new technology and other aspects here..

The whole thing is a lot to unpack.. and so here's some take away lessons that I thought I would share from writing it!

1. Citizen Science & Social Media Made a Significant Contribution! 
I've talked about this before.. the world is flooded with divers, photographers and interested people with cell phones all over the world! 

Thanks to a combination of museum collections and divers I was able to identify and describe several new species and even add color variation to poorly known species in the group I published on! Many times these get misidentified as people try to "shoehorn" them into known species in field guides. 

This new species for example, Neoferdina oni from the Philippines! I actually identified this species based on material collected by the California Academy of Sciences from one of their recent expeditions (such as this one)

The photographer of this specimen, Martha Kiser was incredibly helpful in allowing me to see her photos of this new species. You can see more of her work on Flickr here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/martykiser/sets/with/72157634344493477
Neoferdina glyptodisca sea star ind10 3429
I will likely do a separate post on the etymology of these new species a bit later, but the species epithet of this one "oni" represents a horned demon from Japan which alludes to the two spines on each plate along the side!

Images such as this one gave me more insight into how the colors vary in already established species! and provide leads to possible NEW species...
Sea Star, Neoferdina insolita
Cuming's Sea Star (Neoferdina cumingi)

2. The Mesophotic Zone: New studies and new Species! 
There's a depth region in the ocean that falls just below "coral reef" (~30m) depth but just above the "deep sea" (above 200m).. that's roughly between 100 and 500 feet. More about this area here. and this entire website devoted to this area! 

This area is also known as the "Twilight Zone" aka the "sub Reef area" and contains a fauna that is related and similar but distinctly different from those seen at the surface. 

The California Academy of Sciences's research division as well as their Steinhart Aquarium have both been studying this area in the Philippines. In 2015, they collected this lovely beast, (and here was a news account showing it off) which I had also been observing in the Paris collections from areas throughout the Indo-Pacific!

I initially identified it as a familiar genus, Neoferdina, but eventually realized it was actually a separate and undescribed genus which I named Bathyferdina! 
I've actually been describing Mesophotic Zone starfish for quite a long time. Here was Astrosarkus idipi from many years ago aka the "Great Pumpkin Starfish" and there were several more as well...

One important take away message: Describing new species is PART of understanding the biology of a NEW ecosystem. This was the same thing that happened with understanding all of those predatory coral starfish.. new species led to understanding each "character" of a new ecosystem!

3. Museums & Travel: Where the New Species Roam 
Here's a neat new species from the western Indian Ocean-Madagascar and the east coast of South Africa.. Ferdina mena! Identified by the two distinctive bald patches present in each interradius (i.e. the "armpit") of the starfish.

Thanks to the stunning photos of "Optical Allusion" I was even able to find living images of this species in South Africa!
Starfish, Ferdina sadhensis
I have a strangely long history with this species.. I identified one of these (mistakenly) for the field guide Coral Reef Animals of the Indo-Pacific by Terry Gosliner, Gary Williams, and Dave Behrens- as Ferdina sadhensis which was known only from Oman.

During one of my recent visits to Paris and the Museum national d'HIstorie naturelle in Paris, I discovered that this wasn't just an odd specimen with the twin bald, red spots in each interradius..it was present on ALL of the specimens collected from a collection made from Madagascar!!
Starfish, Ferdina sadhensis
Following this, I was visiting the Iziko Museum in South Africa in 2015 and discovered the SAME species from the east coast of South Africa! Citizen scientists in South Africa also showed me MANY photos of starfishes which confirmed the specimens.

and to return to the citizen science angle.. images on Flickr further showed this species in Mozambique as well as further color and pattern variation of this species from South Africa thanks to photographer Derek Keats and others!
Sea star at Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
In both cases, these specimens had been collected and sitting in these museums awaiting discover for YEARS. In Paris-2007 and 2010 and from the Iziko Museum collections-in 1986!!!

So, somewhere in there, this seems to be consistent with the "21 years" which malacologist Dr. Philippe Bouchet has published as the average time it takes for a specimen to get from collection to publication! 

4. Conservation: Aquarium shops & Misidentified starfish
This was an interesting lesson.

For one of the new species I had discovered, Paraferdina plakos, I only had one or two individuals on which to base my new species description. Were they the same? Was it variation? How do different individuals differ from one another? Are the defining characters the same across the species range?

SO, I took advantage of some aspects of the internet which I usually list as pet peeves...

1. Misidentified species made by people who don't want/need to figure out the correct species
2. Pictures of species collected by Internet aquarium and pet shops

I was actually able to make OVER TWENTY OBSERVATIONS of this species misidentified as the common "peppermint star" Fromia monilis!!
This led to ANECDOTAL information about its color and how individuals varied in shape. One or two sites actually were pretty up front about declaring how their specimens had been collected from Sri Lanka, suggesting a further occurrence point for this species.

What does this tell us? Not ONLY are A LOT of new species yet to be discovered but we are ALREADY seeing them sold in the pet trade.. and with no correct identifications by scientists to recognize them, are they endangered? For a species that has just been described we know NOTHING bout its reproductive biology, populations, can they handle the strain of being "fished" for this trade???

5. Mysterious Crystalline Nodules! MicroLenses? or just developing granules? 
On several of the species of starfish I've worked on, close examination of the surface revealed that there were HUNDREDS of these glassy crystalline nodules embedded on the surface of the skeleton!

In this  newly discovered genus and species from New Caledonia, Kanakaster solidus shows these crystalline bodies as a sort of pebbling all over the body surface, which is pretty suggestive of the microlens idea.. but I suppose they could also be incipient or underdeveloped granules which cover the body surface as almost a kind of thick tissue.
from Kankaster solidus, holotype

Whereas, in this species, Kanakaster discus, the crystalline structures are actually arranged in stellate formations rather than simply as granulated pebbling. Much more suggestive of a "lens" type function I would think.. but hard to say without more data.

from Kanakaster discus, holotype

If these ARE lenses? Why do the patterns differ? Some "lenses" are present in shallow-water species whereas others are present in deeper water species! And how are the patterns adaptive? If that's indeed the case? 

Many, MORE questions! and probably at least one more post about these newly discovered animals!