October 17-19, 2006
By Andy Collins,
NOAA, NOS, NWHIMNM -
Education and Outreach Specialist
The scientists on this expedition are collecting so many organisms that may be new species or new records for French Frigate Shoals every day. In the last few days they have found a new species of coral that our coral expert cannot even determine which family it belongs to. Usually Jim Maragos, with his many years of experience working on corals across the tropical Pacific can identify the broad category a coral may belong to, whether it looks like this species or that. Yesterday, he just threw up his hands in astonishment at a new species he photographed off the East side of the atoll, commenting, “I have no idea what it is. I have never seen anything like it.”
The invertebrate folks working away downstairs have found species of crabs they don’t know the genus or species for, several of which have come up in the deep traps, and many that have been hand collected, or brushed from coral rubble. At our evening meetings they call off the new finds – three crabs we cannot identify, two possibly new species of ascidian (sea squirt), a worm with strange parasitic crustaceans, a known crab carrying an unknown anemone, a species of algae never described from this area, and the list goes on. I feel like I am aboard Charles Darwin’s H.M.S. Beagle with dinnertime conversations focused on the strange organisms we have collected and their adaptations. Why does this giant spidery crab have such long arms that it almost never extends? Why is a certain species of crab so prevalent here? Most of this conversation is composed of a litany of scientific names that sound like a foreign language to me, but to the scientists this precise language, in which they are fluent, imparts not only a description of an organism but its relationship to other organisms, and its evolutionary history. What little understanding I can skim from the surface is but a glimpse of a giant shifting puzzle inside these scientists brains, where organisms are moved from this organizational line to that one as new understanding arises, and the puzzle pieces are re-shuffled, one step closer to an accurate picture of life on Earth. This expedition is but one tiny piece in the overall puzzle, but it is an important piece in gaining an understanding of how marine organisms, isolated from their parent stock, have evolved into the unique organisms we have in Hawaii, and to understanding evolution more broadly, just as Darwin did over a 100 years ago with his voyage to the isolated Galapagos Islands.
One tool that Darwin did not have in his toolkit was that of genetic analysis. This did not arise until Watson and Crick discovered DNA late in mid 20th century, and today is a critical tool in looking at how organisms are related to one another, and in organizing this massive puzzle of life. All of the organisms the scientists are collecting will have a tiny section of their genetic material removed, sequenced, and entered into massive world wide databases of genetic material that are tools to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. Using these genetic tools, which work better for some groups of organisms than others, the scientists are attempting to tease out information about how organisms are connected, and their evolutionary development. This information will ultimately be useful in understanding the biodiversity of life on Earth and hopefully how we can conserve this diversity, as well as understanding the diversity that we have lost in areas that have been impacted by human activities. This last item is particularly relevant to this expedition since the fully protected environments of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands provide us with a window into Hawaii’s past, and a reference point by which to compare, and hopefully restore, the human impacted environments of the main Hawaiian Islands.
*All images and information from French Frigate Shoals are provided
courtesy of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument,
Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, the Northwestern Hawaiian
Islands State Marine Refuge, and NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries
Science Center in accordance with permit numbers NWHIMNM-2006-015,
2006-01, 2006-017, and DLNR.NWHI06R021 and associated amendments.
on one of the following areas to follow the expedition.
activities of the ship: what research is being done that
day, what the weather is like, what's for dinner, etc.
or semi-daily personal journal entries by the particpants
in the expedition. These journals do not necessarily reflect
the positions of any of the agencies connected with this
Interviews with expedition participants, scientists,
vessel crew, educators, etc.
Highlights or special information such as interesting
discoveries or related research.