Sunday, August 31, 2008

Cynthia Ahearn Passes Away

It is with great sadness that I must report that Cynthia Ahearn at the National Museum of Natural Museum passed away today (Sunday, August 31st).

Cynthia Anne Gust Ahearn was born October 17, 1952, in Minneapolis, MN. A graduate of Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross, Washington D.C., she began her Smithsonian career in 1973 as a Museum Specialist, Department of Invertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History. At the time of her death, Cynthia curated the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of echinoderms (sea stars), and was conducting research projects on shallow water, deep water and Antarctic sea cucumbers. Cynthia was a pioneer in the Natural History Museum’s public education outreach program. She developed the popular Echinoderm Discovery Cart, which entertains and educates thousands of museum visitors, young and old alike, hosted a segment of the Discovery Channel’s ‘Young Scientist’ Program, and spoke to the Smithsonian Board of Regents, the Department of Agriculture School of Continuing Education, the Wellesley alumna society, and to local schools and universities. Each year Cynthia hosted scientists and students from around the world in her home while they conducted research at the museum. In 2005, she was presented the Natural History Museum’s Public Outreach Award, and in 2007, a new species of seastar (Narcissia ahearnae) was named in her honor in recognition of her achievements in curation of the echinoderm collection, her research on echinoderms, and in facilitating the research of so many visitors over the years.

Cindy is survived by her husband John.

Cindy was a good friend to me and always had a cheerful thing to say about everything I did and had a positive thing to say about everyone else. She was intelligent, insightful and observant in a way that few people are.

She supported echinoderm research with a pride and an energy that was hard to follow. She did it all-curation, identification of specimens, hosting visitors, measurement of specimens, gathering data for databases.

She was one of a kind. A friend. A wonderful person. A scientist and an echinoderm biologist par excellence. She thought of other people before herself and was an example for people that many could learn from.

She will be greatly missed.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Wisdom of Miscellaneous Junk in an Echinoderm Scientist's Office

Everybody has weird stuff in their office. Here is a bunch of weird odds and ends...all of which have some professional bearing....but all come with some wisdom and lessons for alll!

1. Ethanol! my get a lot of ethanol. For preservation, fixation of specimens and what-have you. This is probably just your basic dilution of 75%..but when you get up to 95%?? It strips wax off tables, does horrible things to plastic.

Sometimes you have to be careful about working without gloves too long in the day...lest the ethanol seep into your skin and cause uh...."ethanolic effects" from too much fixed starfish...

2. Bleach!

101 Household Uses! Primarily for disarticulating echinoderm endoskeletons into their component ossicles. But don't let it go for too long!! Weak bleach just does NOT break down ambulacrals the way that new, fresh bleach does!!

Plus be careful disarticulating ossicles when wearing sheik black, or otherwise dark colored clothing....lest it become a sheik, bleach-splattered smock!!!

3. Toilet Paper!

Useful for sopping up the moisture for dryin' out those specimens!! A surprisingly indispensible tool. But one of those things that always gets a strange look from visitors...

4. I hate Cotton!
So, let me educate all those people out there who are drying echinoderms?
(well...except maybe for holothurians).

Basically, cotton is made up of a whole bunch of little fibers. Echinoderm stereom usually has a bunch of tiny spinelets or bunches of other little natural snag-prone features...pedicellariae, ossicles, spines, what-have you.

You put any kind of echinoderm with a dry skeleton into contact with cotton..and it will make off with all the fine stuff..snagged into the cotton. It never truly ever gets cleared off and is just A royal PAIN in the butt to deal with.

So there.

NO COTTON for ECHINODERMS!! (well...except the sea cucumbers...but you have to be careful...)


Quite possibly one of the grossest things in my office is this toothbrush sitting around my sink, which fortunately, has never been accidentally used by anyone....yet!!

You will often find stiff-bristled toothbrushes in the offices of many an-echinoderm taxonomists and morphologists.

These are used in conjunction with bleach to clean off accessory structures so that you can see the plates of various animals...This is used on starfish, sea urchins, ophiuroids, and who knows what else..

Downside is you often end up doing this on VERY old or very trashed specimens that have usually dried or just preserved poorly...So you get to accrete the weird, brown stuff and/or other uggy organic tissue which is just, uh.... well bleargh.

So, there you have it, your lesson of the day about Why You Should NOT use a Toothbrush in an Echinoderm Biologists' Room.....

Saturday, August 23, 2008

THAT is one big ass brittle star!

At the CAS collections with a specimen of Ophiopsammus maculata from New Zealand.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Echinoblog: Foggy San Francisco Edition

This week I am visiting San Francisco to tie up some research loose ends at the California Academy of Sciences and get in some R & R.
Note the substantial difference in August weather in San Francisco, CA !! vs. the very sunny, hot, 90ish degree, humid weather one encounters in Washington, DC!! That is actual FOG. I don' t get to see REAL fog any more. So..I'm jazzed to have it around this week!

The New California Academy of Sciences
The Academy is just recently returning to its historic home in Golden Gate Park after about 6 years or so in downtown San Francisco at an interim facility. The new building is a fantastic engineering feat! And you can read about it everywhere, including Wired , USA Today, and heck! Even Popular Mechanics!
Although there has been a LOT of PR, much of the internal details are still hush-hush. But here's a snippet. They introduced two of the alligators (one of which was a rare white, albino alligator speceis) to their new Swamp Pit Exhibit while I was visiting.
and of course, there's always Flickr...

I have a long history with the Invertebrate Zoology & Geology Department at the California Academy of Sciences. My masters degree research was performed here in conjunction with San Francisco State University.

Back in 1995 or thereabouts, I began volunteering in IZ & G and later began working as a "curatorial assistant" and ended up sorting, identifying and curating the entire asteroid+ophiuroid collection. So, you could say, I "cut my teeth" here...
I still return regularly to collect data, tie up some loose ends and regularly identify specimens for the CAS collections. And with the growth of the CAS collections-they always have something for me to do..

I also visit to enjoy professional discussions with the first-class research staff, including my former advisor Dr. Richard Mooi, one of the world experts on sand dollars, sea urchins and echinoderm phylogeny in general. Here's a shot from his new office!

Other luminaries in the department that I always enjoying talking to:

Peter Roopnarine. The new paleontologist/paleobiologist/all-around math dude. He writes this nifty climate change blog but mostly works on evolution, paleoclimate and various aspects of bivalve systematics and evolution.

Terry Gosliner, who works on the systmatics of nudibranchs-primarily in the Indo-Pacific but his work carries him all over. Terry's opisthobranch lab is the largest and one of the most productive for his group in North America.

Rebecca Johnson, a postdoctoral scholar in Terry Gosliner's lab.

Gary Williams, octocoral specialist and current department chair.

Collections staff: Bob Van Syoc & Jean deMouthe-Collection Managers, Liz Kools and Chrissy Piotrowski (collections technicians) are also ever-welcome to put up with my demands and listen to my off-beat stories!!

The CAS-IZG collections have an interesting mix of fossils, minerals, and of course, one of the largest collections of west coast and Pacific invertebrates to be found anywhere in the world.

Echinoderms make up a huge chunk of those collections and many of their holdings are closely tied to the history of marine biology and natural sciences in California.

Here for example, is a specimen of Heliaster kubiniji, an asteroid from Baja California collected by Ed "Doc" Ricketts of Cannery Row fame.

Echinoderm holdings are strongest for fossil & living echinoids and asteroids with good collection representation for holothurians and crinoids. Most of the fossil collections for echinoderms is relatively young, but there's some older material available. Click here to check out their online collections database.

The new facility is awesome with new wet-lab space, metal compactor cabinets and shelving, secure climate controlled areas and inevitably, Wi-Fi all around for immediate database access.
Oddly enough, enormously huge, mutant amphipods keep on finding their way into things!!

I'll post a few more pix over the next few days!!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Goniasterid Friday: playing with the new camera....

Happy Friday! Goniaster tessellatus from the tropical Atlantic...playing around with my new camera...

next week...Blogging from San Francisco, California!!!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Tropical Starfish Conservation: A partial guide to other fished species

Last week I looked at Protoreaster nodosus, one of the more frequently encountered dried tropical starfish species and I thought I would partly continue that theme and continue looking at other species that I've encountered which are probably fished a LOT of in the dry shell trade.

There are some regional species that one sees on sale, but that don't seem to make it far beyond their home range (although they still make it to online sales).

In nearly all cases below, biology about reproduction is absent or poorly understood. Archaster is a predator of small sand invertebrates and the rest are all essentially microalgal or biofilm feeders similar to Protoreaster.

I'm omitting cold-water species like Pisaster or Asterias, which are also heavily "fished" because there's so much known about these species relative to their tropical counterparts.

Most of the following taxa are species I've seen over and over again in shell shops or for sale online. Some of these species are also seen a lot in the pet trade, which is another issue.

The most frequently encountered species I've encountered include: Protoreaster and Archaster, followed by Linckia with the others occurring less frequently.

Archaster (probably Archaster typicus, Fam. Archasteridae)
Apparently one of the most commonly encountered shallow-water tropical species. Known professionally as the "faux Astropecten" because of its convergent appearance with astropectinid sand stars.
Archaster occurs with some abundance on sandy bottoms throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Archaster gets collected by the THOUSANDS. and in different size classes. Large to small sized individuals get collected and sold. The lot below was 100+ specimens at a size range of about 2-5 cm diameter. This begs any numer of questions about this species' carrying capacity.Linckia spp. (Fam. Ophidiasteridae)

The most commonly encountered tropical Pacific species is Linckia laevigata, but other species of Linckia exist throughout the tropics in the Pacific and the Atlantic which are used in shells and artsy things. Linckia columbiae from the Mexico/Baja area and Linckia guildingi from the tropical Atlantic/Pacific.
Members of this species occur with some abundance in the shell-trade. Mostly those species that aren't asexual. The fissiparous ones are presumably not as visually appealing.
Oreaster reticulatus (Family Oreasteridae)

This species occurs in the tropical Atlantic and has been heavily fished, leading to localized extinction in some parts. Unlike its Indo-Pacific counterparts, quite a bit of this species biology has been studied by Rob Scheibling and Anna Metaxas.
This species is heavily fished, dried and sold. I haven't see this species as frequently on sale as Protoreaster and relative to Protoreaster, the populations are apparently larger (see Scheibling & Metaxas 2008).

That being said, they have been rendered locally extinct in different parts of the tropical Atlantic.
Pentaster obtusatus (Fam. Oreasteridae)

Not as frequently seen in the shell-trade, but where Protoreaster is found for sale, this species is usually present. They co-occur and are often collected together.

Its not known how abundant this species is and whether it has anywhere near the capacity to withstand the fishing pressure.

Pentaceraster spp. (Family Oreasteridae)

There are several species in this genus and biology isn't well known for most species in Pentaceraster. I haven't seen too many of these. They don't seem to be nearly as abundant or as frequently available as Archaster, Protoreaster, or Linckia.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Starfish Conservation: Protoreaster nodosus? the new Indo-Pacific buffalo??

There's always been a lot of attention paid toward coral reefs and with good reason. Lots of tropical animals face environmental and threats from overfishing..especially in the days to come. Among them? The starfish.

Members of the OREASTERIDAE, are pretty conspicuous members of tropical-shallow water habitats in both the tropical Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific in particular has a rich diversity of oreasterids, including Protoreaster nodosus and its relatives (e.g., Pentaceraster, Pentaster, Poraster, Culcita, etc.)
Today we feature Protoreaster nodosus (Fam. Oreasteridae, Order Valvatida)-a species which occurs widely throughout the Indo-Pacific, including the Philippines, Palau, Thailand, New Caledonia, Indonesia, and Madagascar.
Also known as the "knobby star" or the "chocolate chip" star among many other names. A species collected primarily for the dried shell trade..but also for the aquarium trade and its ilk. Robert Scheibling and Anna Metaxas have authored a recent paper which describes abundance, distribution, reproduction and other aspects of biology of this species, including notes on feeding. Their study assessed a pristine population of P. nodosus in Palau. Summary Factoids of this post are based on their data:

Predation The big spines? Probably defense against predatory triggerfish. Apparently fish-bite scars were reported. It turns out that fish predation is a probable selective pressure on these animals across their size range.
Feeding P. nodosus is a microbial/microalgal feeder. That is they evert their stomachs to feed on REALLY SMALL biotic materials-meiofauna, algae, etc. which live on seagrass and sediments exisiting in their natural habitat.
I have found reports in numerous pet and aquarium accounts that this species will feed on clams, sea urchins, and other various kinds of fed or scavenger-type meat. Unfortunately, there are also widespread reports of this species DYING in captivity, days to weeks after purchase-probably due to starvation.
This, in conjunction, with the fact that P. nodosus has not yet been observed feeding on meaty tissue in nature suggests that in all liklihood, the exact nutritional needs these animals require to survive is not easy to mimic in an artificial environment.
Many of the differences in density and distribution between populations MIGHT actually be related to the availability of food and other edibles. Population densities might be higher relative to areas where microbial films, and organic food particles are more abundant or of higher quality.

Population Density & Natural History
P. nodosus has been considered a "common" species-but how many of them are there? And what factors dictate those distributions?? In the densest regions, P. nodosus was present at 50.8 individuals per 100 sq. meter (this was in the seagrass bed).

Other regions were also high..some with 31.8 indiduals per 100 sq. meter with other areas having much fewer densities (3.5-8.5 individuals per 100 sq. meter). Interestingly, if P. nodosus was moved around, they would re-establish "natural" densities and spacing within 2-5 days.

 In some cases, some individuals had moved 2-3 meters (1 meter=3.3 feet) after only one hour! This suggests that these populations rapidly re-adjust to a random distribution.
Based on the correlation between the relative size, patterns and high densities-it turns out that seagrass beds act as a nursery for smaller P. nodosus, which can eventually grow up to 30 cm (little over a foot) in diameter! Populations of these juveniles are thought to feed on seagrass beds and then move out onto the open sandy fields to forage.

Conservation When compared aganst the Caribbean O. reticulatus which numbered in the order of hundreds to thousands of individuals, P. nodosus only numbered in the order of hundreds of individuals. So, a smaller population vs. the Caribbean species. This species is apparently collected en masse wherever its found. HOW LONG can it hold out??
(yes, that's P. nodosus from the Philippines being dried en masse for a wholesaler)

Continued harvesting of this species for the shell trade can potentially lower the rate of fertilization of populations of this species to a level below which the species cannot persist locally. Anthropogenic effects may, of course, also deleteriously affect populations of this species. These may have already affected populations of P. nodosus in local areas throughout the Indo-Pacific region. 

Protoreaster nodosus has become locally extinct from Guam. Protoreaster nodosus has not been collected from Guam since 1945!

At one time-the buffalo roamed freely over the American plains....taken recreationally and for any number of frivolous reasons...from a seemingly endless population.

Will Protoreaster nodosus share the same fate?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Why Dogs shouldn't Toss or Eat Starfish

I have discussed in past posts why dogs should not chew on oreasterids....

Oddly enough, this has come up again in the Associated Press...

ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada (AP) — Tourism officials on the Caribbean island of Grenada say they are concerned about dog owners snatching starfish out of the sea and throwing them like flying discs for their dogs to catch.

Russ Fielden is president of the local hotel and tourism association. He says officials have received several reports of the practice and are launching an education campaign to stop it.

Fielden said Saturday that treating starfish this way is "cruel and should be strongly discouraged." He said the sea creatures are being left to die on the island's popular Grand Anse beach and also are creating a foul smell.

The species is almost certainly Oreaster reticulatus (Oreasteridae). The practice of throwing the starfish is certainly not good for the starfish but dogs eating them could very likely end up poisoned or choking to death.