Mummified slugs, snails, and sponges float lifelessly inside
jars of ethanol, at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Every now and
then, a researcher asks for a sample and the preserved life forms gets mailed
off to a lab on the other side of the world.
Jenna Moore casually removes a worm from its glass jar and lays it in a dish. She first visited an island in French Polynesia called Mo’orea as an undergraduate Zoology major.
She’s now a graduate student. The Florida Museum of Natural History Marine Malacology lab's Mo'orea project funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation ran out years ago, but scientists have plenty more bookkeeping to do.
Marine invertebrate zoology is all about studying different kinds of animals without spines, that live in or near water. Marine Malacologists study an assorted box of these spineless water animals.
Marine Invertebrate team leader and lab curator Paulay Gustav began working in French Polynesia over thirty five years ago, fresh out of college. He documented some life on Mo'orea in 2006 and led exploration for the Mo'orea Biocode Project - field trips to find as many new species as possible - between 2008 and 2012.
Moore and about 49 other researchers worked as life librarians called taxonomists: grabbing pictures or samples and identifying what they saw when they could. They grabbed stuff like plants, fungi, or sponges.
"The main legacy is to show that one, we can build a library of life on the planet that links taxonomy identifications and DNA," said Gustav, "and two, we can use that to really explore ecosystems and biology in many different facets."
The UC Berkley Richard F. Gump South Pacific Research Station, housing 2 marine labs on Mo'orea, is almost 15,000 km away from the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida - the length of 80 million pencils or 58,000 Roman Coliseums stacked side by side.
The Floridans took planes to nearby Tahiti, leaving early one morning and arriving the next day. A Google Flight search estimate said a flight from Jacksonville, Florida to Mo'orea would take 22 hours with 3 stops.
They then took a cheap boat ride or 10-15 minute flight from Tahiti to the Gump Station.
"It was a really great experience because all the taxonomic experts there - they were the best in the world," said Moore. "They're all working together on a common goal."
A volcano made Mo'orea millions of years ago. One half of its cone fell off at some point, giving the island its W-shape.
The ground is a couple of thousand feet above water. There are steep climbs from one spot to another, and the steps are rough and uneven.
"The island makes its own weather," said Florida Museum of Natural History Marine Malacology Lab Collections Manager John Slapcinsky.
Somebody like Moore would take a boat out onto the water in the morning to dive for specimens, while the sky was usually clear. "As the day goes along, the winds are going over the island and getting raised," said Slapcinsky.
By afternoon, when Moore went out for a second or third dive, the air had so much moisture, clouds had formed. Occasionally, there was a light 10-15 minute rain shower.
"Most of the time we were there it was fairly sunny and very nice," said Slapcinsky.
Weather Underground logged warm weather around the time of the project's duration. Slapcinsky said the temperature was about 70 degrees, with mid-80 highs by day and mid-60 lows by night.
Florida Museum of Natural History Marine Malacology Lab Collections Assistant Amanda Bemis visited Mo'orea waters during the last official year of the project, when all the big, obvious species had been found and it was time to find the tiny things. “No one’s like, 'I wanna see a tapeworm,'" said Bemis. "Except for us.”
A big part of her mission was to find new species of sponges. Sponges – the creatures, not the things in a shower – live above and below water on Mo’orea.
When they're removed from water and get bothered, some sponges change color and texture, or they become slimy and dissolve. The team spent hours setting up Nikon SLRs or personal point and shoot cameras underwater and taking pictures and measurements.
"We get a bunch of sponge specialists to come in and I’d dive with them and I’d point to a thing and they’d say, 'no, that's a tunicate*'" said Bemis. "Point to this thing and, 'ok that’s a sponge.'"
*tunicate - common spongy-looking marine animal
Moore, Slapcinsky, and Bemis call themselves "wranglers" because they spent a lot of time collecting specimens. They looked for new, rare species that hadn't been found before.
“It was a small enough island that we thought we had a reasonable a chance of getting most things,” said Bemis.
Underneath rocks or in dark corners, tiny critters are hard to see. For crabs or snails in the water, they used a special vacuum cleaner.
Its battery looks a little bit like an explosive device called a pipe bomb. "It's gotten Gustav pulled off a plane once," said Slapcinsky.
There's a propeller that spins, creating a pull called suction. A hose sucks up water and the animals inside.
Many of the crabs Bemis and Moore picked up were half-grown babies called larvae.
Water fills up the bottom of the container, it flows out towards a hall, and a small net catches animals before they leave.
Back on the shore, Bemis and Moore used their hands, nets called sieves, or a handheld plunger called a Yabby pump.
Sometimes they took out buckets and scooped up sand, bringing worms along for the ride. Sometimes they used a net called a sieve, tossing soil inside, banging out the dirt with leaves, and trapping critters.
Animals like clams like to dig tiny holes in the sand. Moore would take a Yabby pump, line it up with a hole, and suck up the sand.
She'd dump the pump's contents onto a sieve.
Another collection tool is called the ARMS - Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures. It's used for catching algae or animals that feed on particles in water called filter-feeders.
The ARMS is a column of different compartments. The wranglers would lay it out on a reef and hammer it down to the ground so it didn't wash away.
When the wranglers came back later, they would find specimens. Animals and algae would stick like gum to the compartments.
Each of the different methods captured different groups of animals. After a long field day, the wranglers would come back to the lab and go through the dirt with a microscope.
Slapcinsky came to Mo’orea for about a month to look at slugs and snails on land. Bemis and him saw a photograph of a pink slug and he took a road around the mountain to find it, picking up and turning over 10 or 20 rocks by his count.
He found it halfway up the mountain and brought Bemis back to see. The slug liked to live under old rocks made by Mo'orea's sleeping volcano.
Daisuke Uyeno looked for tiny shrimp-like crustaceans on Mo'orea - specifically animals that take over a host called parasitic copepods. They're found on fish gills or the ball-shaped sea urchin.
"I don’t know why but I couldn’t quite find any new species, unfortunately," said Uyeno.
One day, Bemis found him giving a sea urchin a haircut. He was chipping the urchin's burning spines into his hand.
"I was like Daisuke, don’t you have some gloves?" said Bemis. "Daisuke's like, 'no, it's fine. Looking for copepods, it’s a hazard of the job.'"
Once specimens were back at the Gump Station, an on-site researcher had to guess whether the wranglers had found something new. "If you don't know what you're doing you're going to select a whole bunch of stuff that's a common species," said Gustav.
The Floridians took some of the specimens back on the flight home, while others remained at the Gump Station and got mailed to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Part of the documentation process was cracking into an animal and taking DNA samples. They'd use a particular individual of a species, called a holotype, as a representative - sort of like how the United States President speaks for America at international events.
Back home, Gustav and his collaborators could sequence these DNA samples - describe how they look with a pattern of DNA letters A, C, T, and G, called base pairs. The human species has about 3 billion base pairs, for reference.
As a readable example, GCAT could be a sequence for one organism, and CTAG could be another sequence for another organism. In real life, Gustav uses 658 base pairs to create a kind of barcode that represents an organism.
If two different organisms have a different barcode, then a taxonomist could scan them and say they'd discovered a different species.
There was a risk a researcher could accidentally grab two of the same species of animal, so Gustav oversaw collection and made sure taxonomists separated things before bringing them back.
"We don’t want to sequence it over and over and over again," said Gustav.
Some species, like a lobster named Galathea polyphemus, look a lot like another species of lobster. In the field, the two species have different colors, but when they're preserved, their color fades away, making identification without DNA basically impossible.
Gustav pointed out that although there are more animal species discovered on land than in the water, it doesn't mean that the land has more different kinds of animals than the ocean. Yet because of this misconception, said Gustav, some people think ocean identification is done, even though there are lots of animals that are still not described.
"What they don’t realize is that all the work was done on preserved material," said Gustav. "You cannot be everywhere and see them alive."
Before DNA sequencing, taxonomists could only use stuff like notes, pictures, video, and x-ray scans to tell species apart. Because color fades and the two crabs are pretty much identically shaped, a taxonomist could confuse something like the two crabs as the same species.
"The color stories and the DNA stories lined up really quickly," said Gustav, "and showed that these things that people thought looked the same were actually multiple species."
Enrique Macpherson, a marine ecologist and taxonomist at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Blanes (CEAB-CISC) in Spain, spent 7 years of his life and identified 92 new species of lobster in the Pacific and Indian oceans. A handful of them, like Galathea polyphemus, were from the Florida Museum of Natural History's Mo'orea expedition.
Macpherson found out about the Florida Museum of Natural History collection when Gustav contacted him. Macpherson co-authored a paper with all the results in a January 22 2015 publication of the Zootaxa journal.
"We are very few experts in the world on this organism," said Macpherson. He's been studying lobsters for about 30 to 40 years, and he said taxonomists normally specialize in 1 to 3 different groups of animal.
For his paper, he looked at about 9,000 different-looking lobsters and tried to describe their differences. "This is like a game," he said. "If you know the rules it’s relatively easy."
Before the paper, there were less than 100 known species of the genus Galathea identified, he said.
Now, he can tell 92 new lobsters apart because he put in the hours to study their colors and shapes. "You need to work very slowly because they are very small," he said.
Specimen by specimen, he handpicked certain characteristics, writing up everything he found. The Galathea polyphemus looks identical to another species he identified, the Galathea pilosa, when color fades away, so DNA information helped there.
There were also species that were easy to identify without DNA.
Macpherson named Galathea paulayi, a lobster with a distinctive color and spine, after Gustav. "It’s sort of cute," said Gustav, who helped out with the DNA analyses.
Gustav remembered sorting through thousands of crabs on Mo'orea. Species like Galathea paulayi, which were easy to pick out from the crowd, made his life easier.
Although the Mo'orea team could tell certain things looked different from stuff they'd already found, or whether it belonged to a certain group of animals, they didn't always have enough information to call it a separate species, right away.
Some of the Mo’orea specimens are still not catalogued because nobody’s had time to identify them past their group name. They exist, not alive but preserved without names, inside boxes marked “Moorea”.
The problem with species identification is that there aren’t a lot of specialists like Macpherson to recognize tiny differences. A species might have already been identified on a different island, or a discovered crab having a new red dot just meant that it had a red dot and not that it was a new species.
"How quickly we’re finding we’re finding different things on Mo’orea," said Moorea Biocode Project Director and Smithsonian Museum biologist Chris Meyer, "but whether that’s new to science or not, it’s a lot of detective work."
Meyer started out years ago as Gustav's graduate student at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and now he's working almost daily with Gustav to release a big list of Mo'orea DNA sequences. They think that this database will help future research, as soon as they can work out all the data problems.
"It's a slow battle," said Meyer.
Most problems are accidental, Gustav and Meyer said. Maybe somebody made a typo when typing data into a spreadsheet or somebody dropped a piece of crab into a sponge DNA sample.
"We’ve drawn a line in the sand, we’re not going to try to get more sequences," Meyer said. "Now we have to sit back and look at all this data and just make sure that there aren’t any glaring errors."
They can spot errors by looking at pictures, comparing sequences against an existing database, or building family trees.
If a crab appears in the middle of a sponge family tree or a animal sequence says lobster and its picture shows a worm, then something went wrong somewhere.
“You have to be really careful that the the data we put out in the public domain is accurate," said Meyer, "and is a correct voucher or correct sequence for the expected target."
Otherwise, researchers would take the information for granted and mess up their own work.
If there's a problem, then Gustav has to go back to the original specimen, if it exists, and take a new DNA sample. For some specimens, the collectors had to make a choice between getting a DNA sample and keeping the specimen - so this isn't possible for every animal collected.
Gustav and Meyer get asked all the time how many new species they've found. They're getting close to releasing the database, but the project wasn't just about making a list of new animals.
"Mo’orea is, as an island, not that spectacular or interesting," Gustav said. The real benefit of this life library, he said, is all the scientific studies that are now possible.
For example, a researcher could make a food web of all the species on Mo'orea and see who's at the top of the food chain and who's at the bottom. Or figure out all the different growth stages of larvae like the crab - previously impossible because researchers couldn't tell them apart.
"You can go to Mo’orea and you can do these studies that you can’t do anywhere else because you don’t have this library," said Gustav. "Obviously there's things we missed, and there's more to be found, but we have most of it found."
Looking at DNA sequences of plankton larvae, the Mo'orea team realized that all the adult sequences were missing. It's impossible, they said, to ever grab 100% of the diversity on Mo'orea, because the number of animals keeps growing.
Christopher Freeman, in Fort Pierce, Florida, is trying to aid marine conservation by studying how many different species of sponges are located in different spots on the island. "It’s taking us quite a while because there’s some information about the sponges from Mo’orea," Freeman said, "but not necessarily high resolution papers."
He didn’t know about the Florida Museum of Natural History Mo'orea collection. "I think I was actually supposed to contact somebody there,” Freeman said, chuckling. "But it never happened.”
Freeman plans to reach out soon to compare species lists. Macpherson, meanwhile, has shipped the lobsters he studied in Spain back to Florida.
"You feel very lucky to be part of something this big," said Meyer, fresh off another conference call with Gustav. "It’s not just the diversity of animals, it’s the diversity of people as well."
You can read more of my work at science.atavist.com. Follow me on Twitter @asilver360