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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in Masters Monday Blog

Howdy! My name is Ryan Bos and I am here to aid in the fight against plastic! I am a Masters Candidate in Marine Science at Nova Southeastern University working with Dr. Tamara Frank and Dr. Tracey Sutton. Currently, I am doing an appraisal of microplastic ingestion in deep-sea fishes and crustaceans in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM). 

Each day, nearly every person on Earth uses plastic items. It is all around us. It is in our clothes, cosmetics, vehicles, and if you carry a smartphone around with you, odds are that it has a plastic component. As humans, we manufacture and use plastic at alarming rates, and take it for granted. Plastic production is projected to increase with increases in the human population, yet plastic pollution is already infesting our oceans and will continue to persist for hundreds to thousands of years because of plastic’s inherent resiliency. I want to put the plastic crisis we are facing into perspective.  There are ~34,000 extant species of fishes with the most abundant genus of fish, Cyclothone, consisting of 13 species. These 13 species are comprised of an estimated 1,000,000,000,000,000 individuals. By the year 2050, the number of fishes in our oceans will be equal to the number of plastics. What’s alarming about this statistic other than the number of fishes and plastic particles being equal? There are 33,987 more species that contribute to the total number of individual fish in our oceans, and most of these plastic particles can’t be seen with the naked eye!

Microplastics, as the name implies are small pieces of plastic that range in size from 1 - 5 mm that are categorized as being a fragment, film, spherule, foam, or fiber. These five categories can be further broken down into subcategories known as mini-microplastics that range in size from 1 µm - 1 mm and are named microfragments, microfilms, microbeads, microfoams, and microfibers. Once ingested, an animal may experience pseudosatiation (the feeling that they are full but have not received any nutrition), obstruction of feeding appendages, decreased reproductive fitness, and death. Pictures of these categories are portrayed below *excluding foams*. To determine if a particle is a piece of plastic, we are using what’s called the ‘hot-needle, or burn-test’. It is a rapid and cost-effective technique for plastic determination. If plastic is probed with a hot-needle it either leaves a burn mark, melts, or in the case of fibers, curls up or is repelled from the needle.

                                                                 

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Pictured from left to right: Fragment, film, spherule, fibers

 

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Pictured from left to right: Microfragment, microfilm, microbead, microfibers

 

Deep-sea animals are integral parts of pelagic ecosystems, as they serve as the base of the food web, contribute significantly to the overall abundance and biomass, make substantial contributions to carbon flux, and serve as a link between shallow and deep-pelagic waters. Regrettably, there are no previous estimates of microplastic ingestion by deep-sea fishes and crustaceans in the GoM. We discovered that approximately 28% of fishes (69/245) and 28% of crustaceans (83/292) have been shown to ingest at least one piece of plastic with 7% ingesting two or more pieces! One individual Sternoptyx diaphana (diaphanous hatchetfish) and Stylopandalus richardi ingested five spherules and six fibers, respectively!

 

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Pictured from left to right: (Left): Two beautiful deep-sea hatchetfish (Argyropelecus aculeatus) that use photophores (light-producing cells) to counterilluminate rendering themselves less visible to predators lurking below. (Middle): A stunning shrimp (Oplophorus sp.) that can produce a bioluminescent spew (vomit) as a defense to distract potential predators. The spew can adhere to predators, which makes them visible to any other predators in the area. (Right): A formidable deep-sea dragonfish (Idiacanthus fasciola) with a smile not just used for good looks! This dragonfish and many other deep-sea piscivores (fish eaters) possess recurved teeth for capturing prey and not letting them go!

 

Our data reveal that more scrutiny should be given to deep-sea ecosystems with regards to plastic ingestion. Deep-sea food webs are largely understudied and have a stunning complexity to them. These food webs are understudied because of the enormous expense and difficulty of obtaining deep-sea samples. This makes the DEEPEND Consortium incredibly important for gathering these data and beginning to develop a story of community dynamics in the GoM.

 

A resource for learning more about plastic: https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/plastic.html

A brilliant new way to aid in the fight against plastic by doing laundry: https://coraball.com/

If you are interested in learning more about our work or how to aid in the fight against plastic, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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Hi folks, welcome back to the blog!  This edition of Master’s Monday will be brought to you by Mike Novotny. I am a Master’s candidate at Nova Southeastern University, working under Dr. Tracey Sutton in the Oceanic Ecology Lab, where I study the bathypelagic zone and the fishes that call this environment home. 

The ocean is commonly divided into three layers based on sunlight penetration with depth.  The midnight (aphotic/bathypelagic) zone is the deepest layer, which starts around 1000 meters.  The bathypelagic zone receives no sunlight, has consistent near-freezing temperatures, contains pressures exceeding 100 times that found at the surface, and is the planet’s largest ecosystem!  It is within the depths of the bathypelagic zone that you will find the very intriguing group of fishes that belong to the family Platytroctidae, known also as Tubeshoulders.  Due to the rarity of specimens, there is very little information known about these fishes, which is where my research takes off! 

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Tubeshoulders get their name due to a unique tube-like structure that can be found in the shoulder region of all fishes in this family.  This tube leads to an organ that contains a luminous blue/green fluid, which allows the luminescent material to be expelled, possibly, for a potential defense mechanism by temporarily distracting the would-be predator.  Below is a great video about bioluminescence, but jump to 10:40 to see how platytroctids get their name!  

 

Tubeshoulders have very large eyes, especially for a deep-sea fish!  These large eyes are excellent at detecting low-level, point  source light and distance ranging, suggesting they may be visual predators, however, the diet of tubeshoulders has yet to be examined.  My thesis research addresses this crucial data gap by exploring the feeding behavior and documenting prey preferences of this bathypelagic fish family.  Based on stomach content analysis these fishes seem to feed infrequently. I visually examined and identified the gut contents under a compound microscope, which revealed that members of this family tend to be generalist zooplanktivores, consuming a wide variety of taxa such as, copepods, ostracods, chaetognaths, gelatinous taxa, and even the occasional squid! This study represents the first investigation into the diet of this fish family, and adds to the sparse community data of the bathypelagic zone, by identifying nutrient pathways that connect this deep-sea ecosystem to the upper ocean.

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Hello! My name is Richard Hartland, I am currently working on a Master’s degree in marine environmental science at Nova Southeastern University. I am a part of Dr. Tammy Frank’s Deep-Sea Biology laboratory. My thesis is focused on performing a taxonomic and distributional appraisal of the deep-pelagic shrimp genera Sergia and Sergestes of the northern Gulf of Mexico, in the area where the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in 2010. The shrimp I study are important members of the oceanic community, both as consumers of zooplankton and as prey for higher trophic levels (e.g., tunas, mackerel, oceanic dolphins).

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Left: Sergestes corniculum. Right: Sergia splendens. Images courtesy of T. Frank.

 

I will be examining the abundance (how many) and biomass (how much they weigh) of the shrimps in the Gulf, and whether or not these values have changed over the years, starting in 2011 (six months after the oil spill) and continuing from 2015, through 2016, and into 2017. The boxplot below shows changes in the patterns of abundance for the most abundant species, Sergia splendens. These data seem to show a sharp decrease in abundance between 2011 and 2015, while slowly increasing in the years to follow.

 

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Boxplot of Sergia splendens abundance from 2011 through 2017.

 

What we are seeing is a reduction in the number of individuals caught from 2011 and 2015, then we see an apparent increase from 2015 to 2016 and into 2017. Although there appears to be a dramatic drop in the abundance from 2011 to 2015, we cannot state that this is due only to the oil spill in 2010, as there are many other reasons the numbers could be different. What we should do is continue to sample in the same areas and monitor how the population changes over time. I am also looking into how these shrimp move up and down the water column during daylight and nighttime hours. This daily vertical migration is one of the many ways that deep-sea organisms are important components of oceanic ecosystems – this movement takes carbon from the near surface (in the form of their food) and transports it deep into the ocean, thus helping mitigate the increases in atmospheric carbon due to the burning of fossil fuels.

 

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Hello Everyone! My name is Devan Nichols, and I am a master’s student at Nova Southeastern University working in Dr. Tamara Frank’s deep-sea biology laboratory. Our lab specializes in deep-sea crustaceans (aka shrimp!) and my thesis focuses on a particular family of deep sea shrimp known as Oplophoridae. As we all know, shrimp are fairly small organisms in the grand scheme of creatures that live in the deep sea, so why is it important that we study them? Great question! The deep-sea shrimp that I study range in size from 2-20 cm in length. Organisms this small, are perfect prey for larger animals such as deep-sea fish, squid and marine mammals. This means that Oplophoridae make up the base of the food chain, and act as primary producers for many organisms that are higher in the food chain. When the base of the food chain is impacted, even in a small way, it can throw off the balance of an entire ecosystem. These little guys are important!

  b2ap3_thumbnail_zzzz.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_zzzzzzzaaaaaa.jpg                         Two species of Oplophoridae; Systellaspis debils (left) and Notostomus gibbosus (right). Images courtesy of DEEPEND/Dante Fenolio 2016.

Very little is known about the effects of oil spills on the deep sea. When people think of oil spills what usually comes to mind are the impacts it has on the ocean surface. When these disasters occur, the deep sea is not often thought of. It is kind of an out of sight out of mind situation. The Deepwater Horizon oil Spill (DWHOS) occurred in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th 2010 releasing an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil per day for a total of 87 days into the Gulf. This oil was released from a wellhead located approximately 1,500 m deep.

 

My thesis is unique in that I have the opportunity to examine data collected one year after the oil spill (2011) and compare it to data collected five, (2015) six (2016)  and seven (2017) years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I am looking particularly at oplophorid assemblages. This means that I am looking at how the numbers of shrimp may have changed (abundance) and how the weight of shrimp may have changed (biomass) over these sampling years. The boxplot shown below, shows the patterns that I am seeing so far in oplophorid abundance as time goes by. These data seem to show a sharp decrease in abundance in 2011 to subsequent years.

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Boxplot of oplophorid abundances during the four sampling years.
 

Although we cannot attribute any of these changes to the oil spill directly because we do not have a baseline (data from the area collected before the spill), we can still monitor how this oplophorid assemblage has changed over time, and use this information as a baseline to monitor future changes in the Gulf of Mexico. Along with assemblage changes, my thesis will also provide information on whether or not certain species are seasonal reproducers, and if the presence of the Loop Current has any significant effect on oplophorid ecology. The deep sea is a mysterious place, and scientists still have a lot to learn about its complexity and the organisms found there. The picture below shows the net we use to catch these deep sea shrimp, and some of the equipment we use to lower the net into the deep sea!


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A 10-m2 MOCNESS net being towed behind the RV Point Sur during a DEEPEND cruise.

 

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Hello, my name is Max Weber and I am a Masters candidate in Marine Biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston.  I study deep-sea fish genetics in the lab of Dr. Ron Eytan.  Genetics are a powerful tool that can reveal a lot about the fishes that inhabit the deep-sea.  One of my areas of research involves the investigation of population size over time in a large number of deep-sea fish species.

We used to think that even though sea surface temperatures change a lot day to day and season to season, that deep-sea temperatures were very stable (cold, but stable!). However, recent long-term monitoring studies have shown evidence of rapid alterations in deep-sea temperatures and other studies on benthic deep-sea communities have shown that those communities are currently being altered as a result of climatic changes.

Historic changes in population size (the number of individuals of a given species in a population) often reveal the effects of major ecological events on the genetic diversity of a population or a species.  These fluctuations can be inferred through the use of molecular data.  Global climate conditions have varied greatly since the last glacial maxima, approximately 20,000 years ago, leading to changes in global currents, oceanic temperatures, and sea level.  Several studies have recently uncovered sharp declines in population sizes of coastal marine fishes attributed to these changes in the marine environment. 

My Master’s research focuses on whether fluctuations in the population sizes of deep-sea fishes mirror those found in coastal/shallower water.   If I find evidence of recent population expansions in deep-sea fishes, it would suggest that the deep-sea environment is more volatile than previously imagined, however, if I find that the populations of deep-sea fishes are stable, it would suggest that the environment is stable as well. To answer this question, I am using several different methods of analysis to look at DNA sequence data. One method is the Extended Bayesian Skyline Plot (see example below).  This presents a visual representation of population size going back in time.  Some of my preliminary analyses have revealed major population expansions in recent history.  These are exciting results and may help to give us a better idea of how the deep-sea habitat has changed over time.

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This is a photo of the lovely hatchetfish, Argyropelecus aculeatus, which lives between 300-6,000 feet deep. It is one of the most common species we capture on our cruises.

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This is an Extended Bayesian Skyline Plot (EBSP) showing the population size of Argyropelecus aculeatus over time.  It shows that the population had a major expansion followed by continued growth.  I am currently working to calibrate a molecular clock that will allow me to assign dates to these changes.

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This is a deep-sea dragonfish, Echiostoma barbatum, collected during one of the DEEPEND cruises.

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Howdy! My name is Corinne Meinert and I am a Master’s student in marine biology at Texas A&M University in Galveston studying biodiversity of ichthyoplankton in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. When you break the word ‘ichthyoplankton’ down you get ‘ichthyo’ which means fish, and ‘plankton’ which means drifter, so all together the word refers to fish eggs and larval fish that drift in the ocean with the currents.  Studying the biodiversity of these little fish is important because it can tell us how healthy the ecosystem is where they live; in general, the higher the diversity of fish, the healthier the ecosystem. 

To give you an idea of how small these fish are, below is a picture of a snake mackerel (Gempylus serpens) on my finger:

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In the lab, we use microscopes to visually identify our fish samples to the family level. For some families, such as tunas, billfish, and dolphinfish, we use genetics to identify the fish to species level. Over the past two years, we have collected and identified over 18,000 larval fish and have found a total of 99 different families. The most abundant families we have found are lanternfish (Myctophidae) and jacks (Carangidae), when combined, these two families make up of 25% of our total catch.  Below are a few pictures of different families of fish we have collected (note: the third one is a tuna with another tuna inside of its stomach!):

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We still have a lot to learn about larval fish. Understanding how abundant they are and where they live can help us make better management decisions for the future. If you want to learn more about ichthyoplankton and biodiversity, here are a few good webpages and videos to get started:

Information on ichthyoplankton: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/textblock.aspx?Division=FRD&id=6210

Information on biodiversity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GK_vRtHJZu4


A compilation of other fish (and one invertebrate!) caught during DEEPEND sampling:

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Blog by Sebastian Velez, Master's Student at Wilkes Honors College, Florida Atlantic University, Jupiter, FL

 

    When you walk into a restaurant and order sushi, or a fish dinner, do you ever contemplate the series of events that led to that fish arriving onto your plate? Probably not…you’re hungry, but the odds that that particular animal would make it to a harvestable size are astounding. I’ll give you an example. A 10-year-old red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico can produce approximately 60million eggs annually. Of those 60 million eggs, only 450 individuals will reach a size of 5cm. At this size they are still susceptible to predation, starvation, and advection away from suitable habitats. My name is Sebastian Velez and I’m a Master’s student in Biology at Florida Atlantic University, studying juvenile snappers and groupers in the Northern Gulf of Mexico collected during the DEEPEND Cruises. I am particularly interested in what happens to these organisms when they are wafted far out to sea, off the continental shelf in areas where depths can reach 1500m.

 

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This is a juvenile Red Snapper, Lutjanus campechanus. This species supports multimillion dollar recreational and commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.


Now this concept of advection away from suitable habitat is something that occurs as a result of the life history of snappers and groupers. Both families form seasonal spawning aggregations, at which point the resulting larvae are wafted out to sea for 20-50 days, and begin settling on nearshore habitats. The currents responsible for this dispersal include; the Mississippi River Discharge Plume, The Loop Current, and a series of cyclonic and anticyclonic eddies. But every once in a while these larvae get wafted a bit too far offshore. Literally hundreds of kilometers away from their preferred habitats and so the question is; what happens to these animals when they are so far from shore?

The literature is very vague as to what happens with these expatriates, with most accounts only stating that this phenomena takes place and they most likely die as a result of starvation or predation. Thanks to the DEEPEND cruises, we have found that the biodiversity of these expatriates within both families was impressive, with some of the most notable species being; Goliath Grouper, Snowy Grouper, Nassau Grouper, Red Snapper, Vermillion Snapper, Grey Snapper, and Queen Snapper. Our study also suggests that a few members within these families have the ability to stall their settlement, specifically the Wenchman snapper. Individuals were often found ranging from 14-47mm in standard length, lengths usually attributed to newly settled individuals. We also found new depth records for Red and Wenchman Snapper down to 1500m, well past their normal distributions, most likely in an attempt to find suitable habitat where none exists.

 

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This is an unidentified member of the Subfamily Liopropomatinae, Liopropoma sp. Another type of grouper with vivid colorations and often referred to as basslets, these are very popular in the aquarium trade.

 

These fishes represent multi-million dollar industries in the form of commercial and recreational fisheries. Understanding the biology and life history of exploited species is imperative in informing future management decisions. The pelagic stages of these species have historically been very hard to sample, thus leaving a gap in the associated knowledge. The processes by which these individuals are dispersed represent a potential mechanism in the connectivity between populations and could help managers forecast future drops in stock abundance.

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An unidentified individual from Subfamily Epinephilinae. These are your classic groupers. Examples would be Nassau and Goliath Groupers.

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