Category Archives: Research

Research is science with a specific goal or a well-defined hypothesis to test. It’s the counterpart to Exploration, which has no specific goal in advance.

Creature Comparison: Corals and Sponges

Despite being frequently encountered by scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, E/V Nautilus, and other exploration vessels, much is left to learn about corals and sponges. Both are sessile (non-moving) organisms, serve as vital resources for other marine life, and can indicate the health of oceanic ecosystems. Learn more about these fascinating animals below!

Corals

Corals exhibit some plant-like characteristics, but are actually animal relatives of jellyfish and anemones. They are all within the phylum Cnidaria. All corals are classified as either “hard corals” or “soft corals”. Hard corals have a limestone skeleton, and make up the foundation of a coral reef. They can take a rounded, branching, or flat appearance. Soft corals bind together on a softer structure, and can take the shapes of whips, spirals, and trees. Hard corals can grow as much as ten centimeters per year, the same rate of growth as human hair, but most only grow up to three centimeters each year.  Soft corals grow at a rate of two to four centimeters per year. When a coral reef is damaged by a storm, pollution, or by other factors, it may take a significant amount of time before it is able to recover and grow to its former size.

A variety of soft octocorals were found on the East “Wetmore” Seamount near Hawaii at around 2,065 meters deep (6,775 feet). (Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2017 Laulima O Ka Moana.)
At almost 1,800 meters (5,095 feet) deep on Mendelssohn Seamount, scientists came across this dense garden of unusually large pink corals. (Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep-Sea Symphony: Exploring the Musicians Seamounts.)

All corals are comprised of polyp colonies. Many reef-building corals with access to sunlight also share a symbiotic relationship with a single-celled algae called zooxanthellae. The zooxanthellae live within the polyps and produce organic material, most of which is transferred back to the coral tissue (providing energy to the coral). In return, the waste produced by the coral feeds the zooxanthellae, and the coral’s structure also provides them with shelter. Some corals feed directly via their polyps, using their tentacles to extend out and grab prey (typically microscopic zooplankton) from the water column. To reproduce, groups of corals may simultaneously spawn gametes into the water column; larvae drift and develop until they find a place to settle. Other corals are able to bud off polyps to begin new colonies, or even regrow from a severed branch.

This image highlights the general anatomy of the polyps that make up a single coral. This cross-section of a singular polyp is an example of an organism which feeds by catching microorganisms drifting through the water column around it. (Image courtesy of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program)
A sea spider was seen climbing on this colony of bamboo coral on the Mendelssohn Seamount at 1,675 meters (5,495 feet). Some of the coral’s polyps are extended into the water column, while others are retracted into their casings. (Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep-Sea Symphony: Exploring the Musicians Seamounts.)

Sponges

In contrast to corals, sponges are the simplest multicellular animal, and one of the most ancient animals on Earth. They dominate the phylum Porifera, and have existed for over 500 million years. Most sponges typically have a skeleton of limestone, silica, or collagen. These skeletons are made up of small, fiber-like spicules which often aid scientists in identifying species. Unlike most animals, sponges are asymmetrical, and this varied shape optimizes  water flow through passages in their bodies. Some sponges are even stalked, with their bodies elevated above the seafloor. This is more often the case for deep-sea sponges, rather than those in shallower, more turbulent waters.

This concentrated glass sponge community was found at 2,359 meters (7,740 feet) underwater on the “Ridge” Seamount around Johnston Atoll off Hawaii. Some deep-sea corals were present, but at a much lower abundance. (Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2017 Laulima O Ka Moana.)
Spicules and fibers bind together to compose the shape of a sponge, in this case, a glass sponge. Glass sponges are not made of glass itself, but of silica, which is the same material glass is derived from. (Image courtesy of G.P. Schmal)

The small currents created by a sponge’s body allows it to draw in plankton and other organic material from the surrounding waters.  These materials then get caught inside the sponge’s fibrous body and are digested. Sponges can even be carnivorous, using hook-like protrusions to capture prey and secrete enzymes to break down the nutrients. The growth of sponges is  highly dependent on the amount and quality of available nutrients, although they generally grow at a higher rate than corals. To reproduce, some sponges produce larvae which develop within their bodies. When ready to reproduce, the larvae will exit the sponge to drift for a short period before anchoring themselves to the seafloor substrate. Some sponges are even able to release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other sponge cells in their vicinity. Since sponges are sessile organisms, this strategy allows them to prevent space and food competition with other sponges settling in the same area. Similar to coral, severed portions of a sponge may also be able to regrow if they are reattached to the substrate.

Scientists found this bright yellow glass sponge at a depth of 2,479 meters (8,133 feet) on the Sibelius Seamount. (Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep-Sea Symphony: Exploring the Musicians Seamounts.)
In 2016, 2,133 meters (7,000 feet) down in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off of Hawaii, the Okeanos Explorer discovered the largest sponge on-record, measuring 2 meters (7 feet) long and 3 meters (12 feet) across. At this size, this new species was estimated to be over 2,300 years old. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

Corals and sponges can each be precious resources for humans. Precious corals are vital to national economies all over the world, as they are harvested for fertilizer, consumption, and even jewelry. While sponges are also utilized for some of the same purposes, some scientists believe their potential can be expanded to aid in the fight against cancer. The composition of the growth-prohibiting chemicals some sponges secrete may lead scientists to a breakthrough in cancer research, since these sponges are able to kill other cells of the same species without harming their own cells. These innovations are just a few reasons to continue investigating these amazing creatures!

Follow the Inner Space Center on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube for more information and exciting discoveries!

Sources:

NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program

NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center

NOAA United States Department of Commerce

Ocean Exploration, “Olympic-Style”

Boundary map for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary- yellow dots outline sanctuary waters. Image credit: NOAA Sanctuaries.

From August 18, 2017, to September 3, 2017, the E/V Nautilus will be exploring the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (NMS), located along the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.  The sanctuary encompasses 3,189 square miles (8,260 km2), an area equivalent to the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.  It extends 25 to 50 miles (40 to 80 km) from the shore, including most of the continental shelf, as well as three important submarine canyons: the Nitinat Canyon, the Quinault Canyon and the Juan de Fuca Canyon.  The main objectives of this expedition are to explore and characterize seafloor resources and features associated with these submarine canyons. Quinault and Quileute Canyons have never been explored by remotely operated vehicle (ROV) or autonomous underwater vehicle ( AUV).

Another important expedition objective is to collect information about the ocean’s chemical and physical properties and associated biological communities. The Olympic Coast marks the northern reach of the California Current, which seasonally upwells deep, nutrient-rich waters nearshore.  This process supports the sanctuary’s highly productive ecosystem. Twenty-nine species of marine mammals reside in or migrate through sanctuary waters; the area provides critical nesting habitat for numerous seabird species; and the region is also among the most productive fish-growing habitats in the world.  However, due to ocean acidification (a continued decrease in the global ocean’s pH, caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere), the California Current is now also delivering low-pH, and often low-oxygen (hypoxic), waters to the region, which can negatively impact many marine species.  The Olympic Coast NMS is thus considered a “sentinel site” for ocean acidification.  Monitoring and research take place to enhance the understanding of natural and historical resources in the area and how they are changing, as well as provide and early warning capability to detect changes to the ecosystem itself.   

Map showing major ocean currents along the Pacific coast of North America. Note coastal upwelling associated with the California Current, in red. Map credit: NOAA.

In addition to its ecological richness, the Olympic Coast NMS sanctuary is also culturally and historically rich. Over 200 shipwrecks are documented in sanctuary waters!  The Makah, Quileute, and Hoh Tribes, as well as Quinault Nation, all have strong, historical ties to the region.  NOAA sanctuary staff work cooperatively with the tribes to strengthen sanctuary resources and respect the longstanding relationship of coastal Native Americans with the marine environment.

Live video from the Olympic Coast NMS expedition will be broadcast on the Nautilus Live and Inner Space Center websites.  ROV dives should start August 19, 2017!  For more information about this expedition and the Olympic Coast NMS, visit the Nautilus Live expedition webpage, and the Olympic Coast NMS website. And be sure to follow the ISC on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube for more updates and discoveries from the E/V Nautilus and the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer!  Explore with us!

Tuning into the Musician Seamounts

During their 2015 Hohonu Moana expedition, the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer discovered and mapped an unnamed seamount in the Central Pacific Ocean Basin (shown in the image above). The ship and scientists are now returning to this region, “Musician Seamounts”, to conduct additional mapping and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operations over two consecutive cruises. These efforts will be focused north of the Hawaiian Islands, close to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM).

From August 8th through August 31st, 2017, the Okeanos Explorer will map the area using multibeam sonar technologies aboard the ship.   Operations will start and end in Honolulu, HI. The additional mapping data will assist in better understanding the geologic history of the seafloor in the remote Pacific Ocean.

During the second cruise, from September 6th through September 30th, 2017, the ROVs Deep Discoverer and Seirios will explore the waters around the Musician Seamounts. By observing the marine habitat and organisms in this area, scientists hope to learn more about life in the Pacific Ocean Basin and the composition of the ocean ecosystem of this region.

The currents and upwelling of nutrients occurring in seamounts creates optimal habitat for high-density coral communities, as shown here in this image taken during a 2015 Okeanos Explorer dive on the Swordfish Seamount, in the Pacific Ocean. (Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

Tune in  LIVE to  this expedition via  footage streaming directly from the ship!  Also be sure to follow the Inner Space Center on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube for more updates and discoveries!

Northwest Passage Project

The Northwest Passage Project (NPP) will explore the changing Arctic environment during an innovative expedition that will engage diverse audiences through real time interactions from sea, an ultra-high definition 2-hour documentary, and related community events.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the NPP is a collaborative effort between the University of Rhode Island (URI) Inner Space Center (ISC) and Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO), the film company David Clark, Inc., and several other collaborators, including six U.S. Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and the tall ship SSV Oliver Hazard Perry (OHP).

Two cohorts, each consisting of 18 students (six high school students, nine undergraduate students, and three graduate students), will sail on board the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry for 2-2.5 week legs. These students will receive science content instruction as the ship is underway, gain navigation and sailing skills, engage in hands-on projects while aboard and during site visits on land, and contribute to live broadcasts from the Arctic.

The student participants will be sailing on the OHP, the first ocean-going, full-rigged tall ship built in the U.S. in over 100 years. The students, scientific party, film crew, and ship’s crew will journey through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage in August of 2017.

For more information on the NPP, please read a recent press release.

 

New Year, New Field Season!

The NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer‘s 2017 field season will kick off January 18, 2017, with a mapping expedition from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Pago Pago, American Samoa. This field season marks the third year of CAPSTONE, the Campaign to Address Pacific Monument Science, Technology, and Ocean Needs. The goal of which project is to collect data necessary to support science-based decision making for marine protected areas (MPAs) in the central and western Pacific. Continue reading New Year, New Field Season!

Discoveries from Leg 3 of the Okeanos Explorer’s EX1605 Expedition

Completed on July 10th, leg three of the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer‘s EX1605 expedition was chock-full of discoveries. The Okeanos‘s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) conducted 22 dives, exploring many recently-mapped sites in the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument (MTMNM). They ventured where no ROVs have dove before.

Ship-based sonar mapping, along with ROV imaging and rock sampling, revealed new hydrothermal vent sites, deep-water coral reefs, the first petit-spot volcano found in US waters, and a new mud volcano in the MTMNM.

ROV Deep Discoverer images a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field at Chammoro Seamount.

Amid the geological findings, biologists cataloged many new species. The pictures and videos below highlight some of the newly-discovered inner-space aliens (strange alien-looking creatures) from leg three of the Okeanos Explorer‘s EX1605 expedition.

This cusk eel, found at Unnamed Forearc on June 28th, 2016, was among the first new species discovered during this leg of the expedition.

 

This ghost-like fish, dubbed “Casper” by land-based scientists, is a species in the fish family Aphonoidae. Until June 30th, 2016, when the ROVs came across Casper, no fish in this family have ever been seen alive.

After a long geology-based dive, the ROVs came upon this undescribed species of Pachycara, commonly called eelpout.

  The scientists wished they had enough time to collect this new species of hard sponge that they discovered on July 6, 2016.

But, they were able to collect this new species of stalked glass sponge!

For more ocean exploration and discoveries be sure to check out the Nautilus Live website for updates from the E/V Nautilus! Situated of  the California coast, the Nautilus is currently (pun intended) mapping and conducting dives off the Channel Islands.

The Okeanos won’t be diving again until June 27th, 2016. Until then, check out dive highlights on our YouTube channel, and the NOAA Ocean Explorer YouTube channel! For more details about individual dives from the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer visit the NOAA Okeanos Explorer website.

 


Images and videos courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.

Northwest Passage Project Press Release

URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography receives $2.9 million grant for groundbreaking Arctic expedition

Team will sail into Northwest Passage next August to conduct research, education aboard tall ship, Oliver Hazard Perry

NARRAGANSETT, R.I., Sept. 7, 2016—The University of Rhode Island has received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a groundbreaking research and education expedition into the Canadian Arctic’s Northwest Passage.

URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography’s Inner Space Center, an international facility that supports and conducts ocean science research expeditions, will lead the expedition, which will begin in August 2017.

The three-year Northwest Passage Project is a collaboration among the GSO, the film company David Clark, Inc., and several other partners, including America’s newest tall ship, the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, three science museums, PBS NewsHour Reporting Labs, and six Minority Serving Institutions: California State University Channel Islands; City College of New York; Florida International University; Texas State University; University of Illinois at Chicago; and Virginia Commonwealth University.

The consequences of climate warming are more pronounced and observable in the polar regions than any place else on Earth. The team will explore the changing Arctic through unprecedented educational and scientific endeavor, which centers around a five-week expedition on the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, the first full-rigged sailing ship to enter the Northwest Passage in more than a century.

Two groups, each consisting of 18 students—six high school students, nine undergraduate students, and three graduate students—will sail for 17-day legs of the expedition. The students will receive science instruction as the ship is underway, gain navigation and sailing skills, and work alongside ocean scientists as they conduct Arctic research. The 18 undergraduate students will be from the Minority Serving Institutions. There will be an application process for high school and graduate students.

The students will also contribute to daily live broadcasts from the Arctic that will stream from the ship via satellite to the Inner Space Center, which will then send the live broadcasts to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, where audiences will be able to interact in real time with the scientists and students aboard the ship.

In addition to the live broadcasts from sea, the project will result in a two-hour, ultra high-definition documentary for television. The Minority Serving Institutions and the three science museums will host screenings of the film and events where the public can meet the expedition’s students and scientists.

Gail Scowcroft, associate director of the Inner Space Center and principal investigator and director of the project, says she is delighted to receive the grant.

“The rapidly changing Arctic environment is an issue of global importance,’’ Scowcroft says. “Broader impacts of Arctic research must include informing policy, educating the citizenry to make sound decisions, and inspiring students to become the next generation of scientists. Challenges to educating the public and communicating the realities and impacts of the changing Arctic must be overcome with credible, understandable science and proven methods of climate education. The project meets these challenges. We are extremely grateful to the National Science Foundation for giving us this opportunity, and we look forward to bringing high school, undergraduate, and graduate students along on the expedition of a lifetime. We fully expect that the onboard team of filmmakers led by David Clark, an award-winning film producer and director, will capture the participants’ excitement so that the public can share in our journey.’’

“We are blessed with a top shelf team,’’ says Scowcroft. More than 25 ocean science researchers and educators from throughout the country will be involved. Brice Loose, GSO scientist and co-principal investigator of the project, will be the chief scientist for the expedition and will lead the students in conducting cutting-edge research. Inner Space Center Director Dwight Coleman, an international leader in telepresence technology, will direct the shore-side operations of the expedition.

The team will depart from Newport in August 2017. The ship will sail to Pond Inlet in Nunavut, Canada, where the scientists and students will begin their research. The film crew will join the ship there. “Our Northwest Passage Project team will be part of history,’’ says Clark, “as we provide a visually stunning and historically poignant platform from which diverse audiences will experience a dramatically changing Arctic.”

For more information, visit www. Innserspacecenter.org or contact the Northwest Passage Project Coordinator Andrea Gingras at 401-874-6524.

Photo above: SSV Oliver Hazard Perry. Photo by Onne van der Wal.

Courtesy of the University of Rhode Island. Media contact Elizabeth Rau, 401-874-4894

Telepresence on the R/V Sally Ride

From November 28 to December 5, 2016, the Inner Space Center (ISC) supported a science verification cruise for the R/V Sally Ride, one of two, new vessels in the U.S. Academic Research Fleet.  These short cruises are intended to test the ship, crew, and science systems to make sure that all are in proper working order before the ship  departs for its first research expedition. The Sally Ride was named after the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who was part of the space shuttle Challenger crew in 1983.


The ISC team tested
the ship’s capabilities to support the Jason remotely operated vehicle (ROV) system as well as ship-to-shore telepresence technologies and protocols that will enable shore-based participation during ROV dives. Director of the ISC, Dr. Dwight Coleman, installed a mobile telepresence unit (MTU) on board. This unit allows for any ship to have telepresence capabilities.

jason_870_0
ROV Jason deployed off the R/V Sally Ride.

During the cruise, ROV Jason was used for a variety of exploration activities. Geophysicist, Dr. Mark Zumberge, and his group from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, used Jason to attach geophysical sensors to the sea floor. Dr. Lisa Levin, also from Scripps, used the ROV system to continue biological survey of the seafloor around the Del Mar methane seep near San Diego, CA.

View from ROV Jason.

Along with ROV operations, the R/V Sally Ride was able to connect to the Birch Aquarium. Amanda Netburn, Bruce Applegate, and Dwight Coleman hosted live  broadcasts to the aquarium’s new Sally Ride exhibit.

Birch Aquarium audience.

For more details about the R/V Sally Ride, visit their website.