Monday, February 18, 2013

A Day at the Museum

A typical visit to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco involves checking out the albino alligator, the Indo-Pacific reef exhibit, the living roof of the new green building, and dazzling planetarium.  All well worth a visit!

What a great location!

But for a taxonomist it is a completely different experience.  Behind the scenes museums hold millions of biological and geological specimens.  The fruits of recent biodiversity surveys and environmental impact studies, as well as samples collected from famous and not-so-famous historical expeditions.

Just one row of cabinets
in the Mollusc collection 

In many cases materials donated to museums have not yet been sorted and identified to species.  The shortage of experts and budgetary constraints mean that most museums do not have enough personnel to identify the flood of incoming samples, let alone update the existing collections every time there is some kind name change or taxonomic update.   

So when taxonomists are in town they always spend a few days looking for hidden treasures in the collections.  And of course, helping out the overworked curatorial assistants and collection mangers.

In January I spent a couple of days working on the calyptraeid samples at the CAS.  Check out the draws of unidentified Crepidula.  The Bostrycapulus were pretty easy to sort out.  I just published a revision of the genus.  And the collection team had the labels printed on archival paper in a flash.  

I started with the species 
I've revised most recently.  
There were 3 draws full of un-indetified Crepidula alone! 

Each lot is in a single box. With a label and any
revisions, like my updated species name.
The next day it was all typed up nicely!
Oooops!  Calyptraids from unusual locations - Cook Islands
in this case - often turn out to be imposters.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Nature Comes Out in Support of National Football - Panama Marea Roja!

Last night the Marea Roja, Panama’s national football team tied Costa Rica 2-2 in their struggle to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. 

And this morning it seems that even nature is trying to show support for the team.  Go Panama!


We had a great view from the lab as this intense algal bloom developed along the edge of the causeway. 

We started to see it at low tide in the very shallow water.

Noctiluca occurs in shallow water all around the world

Looking at the cells through the micrscope it's easy to identify the single-celled alga Noctiluca, a dinoflagellate.

This big cells are giants among single-celled organisms - reaching up to 2 mm across. You can usually only see one of the flagella (which it uses to feed)  moving slowly back and forth across the cell. They look like pigtails.

Unlike a lot of dinoflagellates which are often highly toxic, Noctiluca appears not to make toxins.  Nevertheless the blooms can secrete high concentrations of ammonia and deprive the local water of oxygen, so these blooms are sometimes associated with fish kills.  Luckily we haven’t seen any dead fish. 

The orange color of our bloom dissipated by the end of the day. But we still had the chance to check out their impressive bioluminescence.  

We had fun shaking tubes of algae in the darkroom.
The blue-green glow was bright enough to photograph
You can see the individual cells glowing as
waves hit the rocks at night!  

Photos by Julia Schmidt-Petersen and Rebecca Rissanen