- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

Things are going swimmingly in some parts of the ocean. Smithsonian Institution scientists announced yesterday they had discovered a “biodiversity bounty” in the Eastern Pacific — snails, crabs, shrimp, worms, jellyfish and sea cucumbers, half of which previously were unknown to science.

“Overwhelming diversity,” said Jon Norenburg of the National Museum of Natural History, who journeyed to the tropical waters off Panama aboard a 95-foot research vessel with an international team of investigators.

Mr. Norenburg is considered the main worm guy — he is the museum’s “curator of worms,” in fact — and has been privy to the secrets of wigglers the size of a speck and 6-foot monsters capable of devouring a crab. His discoveries on the 11-day expedition near Coiba Island left him enthusiastic: More than 50 percent of the ribbon worms he collected have never been seen before, he said.

Rachel Collin of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute also was surprised by the “sheer number” of creatures found scuttling, swimming, drifting and lurking in the vicinity of the research boat on any given day.

“It’s hard to imagine, while snorkeling around a tropical island that’s only a three-hour flight from the United States, that half the animals you see are unknown to science,” Miss Collin said.

Among the stars of the collection was the Tylodina fungina, a brilliant yellow marine snail that lives among and dines upon a species of brilliant yellow sea sponge of the same shade.

Darryl Felder, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette biologist, was particularly taken with the Hymenocera picta — harlequin shrimp — with its bold brown spots and feisty, paddlelike legs. The shrimp are travelers, drifting east from their home waters of Australia.

“To think that the larvae of Hymenocera picta, a little shrimp we collected on Isla Seca, can survive a journey of more than 3,000 miles from the Indo-Pacific to the coast of Panama is mind-blowing,” Mr. Felder said.

The samples he found will be shared with the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is assembling a crustacean “Tree of Life” that traces the complex familial relationships between crabs and shrimps.

The NSF had its own news this week. Scientists working on behalf of the group’s ongoing Marine Census managed to affix electronic tracking tags on five 60-foot sperm whales and three 6-foot jumbo squid, allowing them to monitor the critters in the Sea of Cortez off Baja California. Researchers discovered, among other things, that the 100-pound squids were “stressed out” at times, making them appetizing targets for hungry whales.

“Although human observers at the surface of the sea must still infer what the mysterious squid and the leviathan are doing at great depths, the use of modern electronic tagging methods will surely guide those inferences,” said William Gilly, lead investigator and a biology professor at Stanford University.

The new method of co-tagging the creatures could lead to “insights that even Melville might not have imagined,” he said.

The research will be published in the March 12 edition of the scientific journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.


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