Dr. Timothy Shank : What Was Learned on the Expedition
I learned many things on this cruise. I'm a hydrothermal vent biologist for the most part working in chemosynthetic habitat. This was really my first cruise to look at seamounts. The reason why I want to look at seamounts is because the populations are somewhat similar. They're isolated. Hydrothermal vents are discreet patches on the sea floor along the ocean ridge system. Well, populations on the sea mounts are very similar. Seamounts are very isolated too. So for me, it was seeing just how patchy these communities were. It was so amazing. There would be stretches of hard bottom sub stream that you'd think they would love to be on and they're not there.
Then all of a sudden you come around a corner and there they are. It's clear to me by depth they were isolated and by distance they were isolated and that was the immediate impression that I got. It's helping to form my ideas about what isolation really means in the marine environment and that's going to help me with all my work the proceeds; that goes on from this.
The other thing, we saw such intimate relationships between the invertebrates. The crabs, the sea stars, with corals that I didn't think we would see, exactly. We know that coral provides habitat. They're very important for habitat for lots of different animals. Things we call ophiocreas and sea stars, snails and worms and crabs. I could go on, but what I didn't think we would see is that certain coral have certain species on them only. Certain corals have one sea star. That sea star lives there his whole life and other sea stars don't get in there somehow, for some reason. Another black coral, for example, has these crabs on it. What we call squat lobsters. There're two crabs on there. One's a female, one's a male and the female seems to always have eggs. And how they find these corals that may be kilometers apart. I mean they're very sparse, they can be. How they find these things. How they disperse from one seamount to another could be thousands of kilometers, and they find this little thing that sticks up a foot out of the seafloor. It's just fantastic! And that's what we’re trying to figure out.
We're going to compare the genetics of crabs from one seamount to another that live of these black corals. And tell us how they're migrating with the corals somehow... they figured out some strategy to do it. They're doing it really well and I never expected to see such intimate relationships among some things and not among others.
Two other things that were very interesting to me are that we came across a couple of seamounts that showed extensive trauma used to be fisheries. For 20 years it was fishery activities going on at these seamounts. And one of these seamounts was completely diluted. Completely wiped out of all fauna and I had never seen that before. You could really see the trail marks that dug into the seafloor. And then I think about how long it takes these corals to grow. I think about how specific these fauna are to these corals. Take the corals away... what are these species going to do? They're all going to risk extinction, possibly. So that was a critical message to me that we've read about, people talked about it, but I saw it first hand.
The other thing was of real interesting to me was what exploration can be all about. You go out with a set of ideas and thoughts and then you find something totally serendipitously. And that's what happened to us. On the very first dive we recovered a coral species that had this round egg shaped casing on it and it had been broken open, clearly. None of us knew what it was. There was a very intelligent biologist out here. Very experience biologist that goes to seamounts and everywhere else and no one knew what it was. After a couple of dives we recovered some others ones and finally found one that was intact. I opened up the case and an egg rolled out. I took the egg and cut it open and this very small.., just a miniature octopus. A dumbo octopus is what we call it. These are cirrate octopods that have these big fins on the side of their heads that they flap. There known to the deep sea. They're considered to be quite rare. Very few have been captured live. Those that have been in museums have degraded over time so they don't know a lot about them. So we saw one. It didn't appear to be alive. Several dives later on another seamount, we saw another egg. We knew it was an egg by this time. We brought it up and in the process of getting it into the cold bucket looking at it, the egg broke open. One of these big fins flopped out and within five minutes or so this whole beast was out flapping around, swimming in the bucket. No one's ever seen this before. You wouldn't do it unless you were exploring getting these kinds of samples. I mean just spectacular natural history. I’ve got many octopus specialists calling me right now wanting to know more about it, learning more about it. I mean this will be the first time this has ever been seen and documented. So it's just fantastic. We've got great footage of it swimming and we're just elated. And so that's one of the things that will forever be etched in my brain about this exploration.
What we've done is go out to sea with certain questions, knew this was really interesting, and now we're coming back with loads more. Really focused, directed questions that are going to help build my career and keep my career going for years to come.