Sea cucumber surgery

I spent the first week of August back aboard the Norseman II for another research cruise! This time, our objective was to visit as many areas as possible in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea. We visited over 20 locations– some as shallow as 13 meters and others as deep as 1000 meters! At each station, each disciplinary team (benthic, sediment, water column, etc) had a set of samples to collect and instruments to deploy. We used the transit time between stations to process our samples.

Coastal Beaufort Sea with a view of the Brooks Range

I was, again. a proud member of the “benthic team”, which consisted of my advisor, Ken, his  taxonomist, Susan, and grad students, Christina and me! We hope to learn about what critters live on (and in!) the seafloor and determine the feeding relationships among them (who eats who? What primary producer is most important?).

The first step of this process is finding the critters! To find the organisms that live in the sediment, we collect several intact chunks of the ocean floor (i.e. mud), called grab samples using a metal-jawed instrument that takes a microwave-sized bite out of the seafloor. Each grab sample is painstakingly sieved over fine mesh to remove the mud and sand, but retain the organisms buried inside. Another group collects organisms living on the sediment for us, using a trawl net.

sorted and labeled tray of critters from the trawl group

The next step is sorting the critters by type and identifying each one to the lowest taxonomic level possible (ideally the exact species). Luckily, we have several expert taxonomists on board who make this daunting task look easy!

Once all the critters from a station are identified, my main job begins. To better understand feeding relationships among species, I use stable isotope analysis, and this method works best on muscle tissue. So, I isolate and remove the muscles (or the next closest tissue) from some truly strange critters. Like sea cucumbers (lines of muscle attach their feeding apparatus to their body wall). And sea anemones (no muscles- I remove a body wall segment). And urchins (mouth membrane) and seastars (tube feet) and isopods (abdomen muscle)…. This process is easier with animals like fish and clams and snails that have more obvious muscle tissue.

clockwise from top left: 1) intact sea cucumber 2) open the ventral section and scoop out the guts 3) remove the lines of stretchy muscle tissue 4) store muscle samples in a pre-labeled vial

I spend long hours with my scalpel and dissecting scissors and forceps removing these muscle samples and storing them in small plastic vials. These vials are frozen on the ship and will be mailed back to our lab in Texas for future analysis!