The study of marine invertebrates is not always a glamorous endeavor done behind underwater cameras and looking at videos, or by peering from the command deck of a ship, as often seen on TV. Those observations may be very useful, but in fact, more often than not, the study of marine invertebrates involves back-breaking collecting, followed by tedious sorting and specialized processing in temporary field lab settings of thousands of samples that contain minute invertebrates. It is in that minute world where the greatest diversity of invertebrates exists. Every specimen has to be meticulously recorded, counted, photographed, labeled with locality and environmental information, and tissue removed for molecular barcoding and other DNA analyses. Subsequently, the specimens are transported far away from the collecting site to museums or formal laboratories where the anatomy and molecular makeup of specimens can be studied in more detail by specialists who will identify with certainty the species found. Although scientists can sometimes recognize a new species in the field, it is during the formal laboratory study stage where new or rare species are usually discovered. When this happens, the atmosphere in the lab can boil with excitement. However, formal documentation and naming of new species can take time if specimens are not studied quickly after collecting and are instead shelved in museums to await critical study by specialists. A recent study, for example, has found that on the average it takes 21 years from the time of discovery to the time a formal description and new name will appear in a publication (Fontaine et al., 2012: “21 years of shelf life between discovery and description of new species”, Magazine, R943). No wonder we are behind in documenting the world’s biodiversity!
To speed up the process of discovery and documentation of species, my Paris Museum colleague, Philippe Bouchet, uses an efficient strategy: he assembles large groups of specialists and locks them in a remote lab for several weeks in the winter, uninterrupted, to study samples brought from the field. For such purpose, a team of 22 scientists (myself included) and technicians, gathered recently for a workshop at a biological station in Besse et Saint‐Anastaise (see photo), a small medieval village situated in the Auvergne Country of France, atop the snowy Massif Central mountains. There, I worked with an international group of carcinologists and malacologist invited by the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle (Paris), to identify thousands of marine specimens collected in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, as part of a faunistic inventory of a marine park. Frankly, it was much cheaper and more efficient to rent the biological station facilities of the Université Blaise Pascal in Besse (where accommodations and labs are all in the same building and one can literarily work in pajamas) for 18 scientists and museum support staff, than to do it in Paris! It was truly a “biological retreat” of 15-hour work days, with little distractions except 10-minute walks 2 times each day to “Les Jonquilles”, a small restaurant in Besse contracted to provide meals for the group.
Already, 1500 species of mollusks and nearly 400 of decapod crustaceans (see photo for examples) alone have been identified so far from Guadeloupe, including numerous new records and new or rare species. Many of the decapod species are quite small in size, and only recognizable by specialists.
Preparations of manuscripts have already started. This time the world will not have to wait 21 years …