The following is a blog of a Smithsonian's Global Genome Initiative sponsored expedition.
How do you endure the cold winters of DC? Go to Baja California! In February of 2015, I escaped the icy rain of DC to meet colleagues and their ships down in sunny Baja California, Mexico. I worked with the Midwater Ecology group, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), led by senior scientist Bruce Robison. Their objective was to better understand the oxygen minimum zone in the southern basins of the Gulf of California and its influence on the ecology and physiology of midwater fauna. I study these animals at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).
We were using the large remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts, named after the famous Ed Ricketts, marine biologist that inspired the well known writer John Steinbeck. We also used a midwater trawl net and a new mini-ROV to observe and sample the water between 50–3200 meter depth (165–10,500 feet). The midwater is the largest habitat on earth—all the water between the sea surface and the ocean floor—it regulates our climate, absorbs our carbon dioxide, and houses billions of organisms throughout its entire depth, from viruses and bacteria to shrimps, jellies, squid and fish. I was collecting a wide diversity of hyperiid amphipods (cousins of those tiny beach hoppers that you see spring away from you as you walk along the beach), polychaete worms (the often beautiful cousins of earthworms) and acorn worms. I study the way these animals adapt to the midwater habitat where life is very different from anything we can relate to, or any these animals ancestors were adapted to.
On this trip, I collected specimens for my own research and genomic samples for the NMNH's Global Genome Initiative. For each animal collected I would identify it, describe it in as much detail as possible, photograph it, anesthetize it, take a tissue sample in chilled 95% ethanol, and take a sub-sample of tissue directly into extraction buffer for immediate sequencing upon return. The rest of the animal was preserved as the morphological voucher. I collected specimens and tissues from representatives of 5 phyla, 38 families, and 54 genera, so it was a very successful trip.
I decided to become a marine invertebrate biologist while teaching high school and diving in Pohnpei, Micronesia as a college student. Now as a marine biologist, I hope to obtain a better understanding of the midwater—how it functions, key players in the communities that thrive there, and how the animals there have changed through time to meet the unique challenges of the habitat. Also, I would like to increase awareness of this important habitat and consideration of it in our daily decisions about our planet.
By Karen J. Osborn, Research Zoologist in Invertebrate Zoology, at the National Museum of Natural History.