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2005 Questions & Answers

11/01/05

Melissa from Guilford county asks, "Is cold-water coral as vulnerable to what is killing the coral reefs in Australia?"
One of the largest threats to the coral reefs off the coast of Australia is coral bleaching. This occurs when the algae living inside the coral die due to increases in water temperature, overnutrification, or other factors. Since cold-water coral have no symbiotic algae, they do not suffer coral bleaching. According to Cold-water Coral Reefs: Out of sight no longer out of mind, a United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre publication written by a number of scientists, including Life on the Edge 2005 research scientist Dr. Murray Roberts, "active gear that comes into contact with the sea floor is considered the greatest threat to cold-water coral reefs and includes bottom trawls and dredges." These bottom trawls and dredges are weighted to ensure their contact with the sea floor and can therefore be used over rough seabed with rocks and corals. Other threats listed in Cold-water Coral Reefs include hydrocarbon exploration, cable and pipeline placement, bioprospecting, pollution, waste disposal and dumping, and coral exploitation and trade.

Ginny from Wake county wonders how many different animal species have been collected so far.
There is no easy way to answer this question as many species have not yet been identified and it will take months to record everything that has been collected. A conservative estimate is between 80 and 100 different species. The taxonomy of invertebrates is not very clear; some species are not well known, and some may be new species. Furthermore, invertebrates cover a huge range of disciplines (as compared to fish), so identifying species is not a clear-cut procedure. Dr. Murray Roberts mused that one sample brought up the other day, a rock on which many different organisms were attached, could easily keep a team of scientists busy for months. A few scientists tried to help me categorize what we have so far: fewer than ten fish species, seven or eight coral species, and approximately 50 invertebrates. These numbers do not reflect those species yet to be identified.

Could you name a few of the species?

  • Laemonema melanurum, a blue fish with black tipped fins edged in white, and a striking black caudal fin also edged in white. Called a "coral hake" by the science team, it is related to shallow-water hakes and cods.
  • Eumunida picta, a squat lobster that waves its front legs at the sub when it passes by.
  • Several species of Nezumia, or rattail fish, whose front half looks like a fish, but whose posterior end more closely resembles an eel.
  • Rochinia crassa, a spider crab with brigth white and red legs and a spiked carapace that looks armed for battle
  • Conger oceanicus, the Conger eel, a slate blue fish that excels at hiding within the coral.
  • Lophelia pertusa, the framework of the entire reef system. Lophelia comes from the Greek language and literally translates to "tufts of sun," an apt name for an organism that appears to be sprouting sunbursts up and down its stalks.

Taylor, an eighth grader from Orange county, wonders how many new species of fish you have found during this mission.
We have not collected any new species of fish during this mission. We have seen many types of fish that are common to this area and some that are not generally found here as our sampling areas are outside of their range. Dr. Steve Ross has been involved with the identification of one new fish species found in 2001. The fish was found near Cape Hatteras. The fish's scientific name is Pseudnos rossi. Its common name is snail fish.

Ally, an eighth grader from Orange county, wants to know how you identify a new fish species.
Traditionally, animals are identified taxonomically, meaning by their physical characteristics in relation to other animals that are similar to them. It is a very long process. First, you have to be very familiar with the group of animals that you are studying. Then, you must make detailed observations of the physical characteristics of the animal you are trying to identify. After that, you must compare your findings with those of other scientists through literature, museum collections, and by consulting with colleagues. You do your best to identify the animal down to species, but if you reach a point where nothing else like it exists, then you have a new species. This is when the real work starts. You must then collect more of this same species and make sure that the original observations you made hold true for all those collected. Once you have collected several samples and confirmed it is not a known species, you are done. Examining DNA can also be used to help prove or disprove the existence of new species by comparing the DNA of two similar animals.

Erika, an eighth grader from Orange county, wonders, "Do you find new species each time you go on a mision or just once in a while?"
Finding and identifying a new species does not usually happen during every mission. When you do find an animal that you suspect is a new species, it may take years of research before you know for sure. It depends on how well that particular species has been studied. See the question above to learn about the process of identifying species.

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