Friday, July 24, 2015

Because nobody has looked

Back when we were planning this cruise, maybe a month and a half ago, we ended up with one free place on board. The spot had to be occupied by a man because it was in an all-male cabin. Well, all of the grad students and most of the undergrads currently at OIMB are female, so Craig started looking into other options. He ended up inviting a good friend and long-time collaborator of his, a sponge expert from Spain named Manuel Maldonado.

In Manuel's words, "when Craig invites you on a trip, you go, because it is always going to be an adventure." The two of them can tell stories about outrunning terrorists in Sri Lanka, diving in a sketchy tin-can submersible in the Bahamas, hiring a fishing boat to take them SCUBA diving and watching their captain find the reef by ear. Their adventures have been numerous, and it's so fun to hear the stories.

An encrusting sponge (not carnivorous) on a piece of
carbonate from a methane seep. 
Manuel and Craig traded places with two other scientists on board via an at-sea transfer about a week into the cruise, and since then, our lab has gotten sponge-ified. It took Manuel less than 24 hours on board the ship to discover a new species of carnivorous sponge living on carbonate from a methane seep, and he hasn't stopped since. I think he's up to something like 4 new carnivorous sponges and 3 new calcareous sponges. It's flat-out ridiculous, and at one point, Craig even asked Manuel if he had found a single known sponge on the cruise - if there were any species that had already been described. Manuel thought hard for a few seconds and then said, "Well, there was that one..." 

Personally, I was astounded that there could be so many undescribed species at what I feel are pretty frequently-visited habitats. I mean, we're not in the middle of nowhere; this is the eastern seaboard of the United States. The sponges are even large enough to be seen with the naked eye. We're not talking about some tiny gastrotrich in the middle of the abyssal plain.

For Manuel's first Alvin dive, we baptized him with sponges
before the traditional ice water. Photo by Laurel Hiebert.
Well, Manuel is not so surprised that cold seep sponges have been ignored up until now. To him, the reason they have not yet been found is simply because nobody has looked. Better said, the right person has not yet looked. Manuel actually gave a presentation on sponges to the scientists on board, and to conclude, he showed a photo of an anemone taken on a previous cruise for this project. Right next to the anemone, clearly visible in the photo, is a carnivorous sponge - a new species - that nobody else had noticed.

It's amazing what you can find when you look.

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