Cover image: Live monoplacophoran sighted during a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive on Utu Seamount in the waters of the American Samoa, February 2017. Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Exploration and Research.
A February 2017 dive by the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer yielded an exciting discovery. Scientists spotted a live monoplacophoran, a rarely observed type of mollusc that is thought to be the closest living relative of the ancestors of modern day bivalves (e.g. clams and mussels) and gastropods (e.g. snails).
For years, monoplacophorans were known only as fossils. Traces of their shells have been found in rocks from the earliest years of the Paleozoic era – 345 million years ago. This changed on May 6, 1952, when a Danish deep-sea trawling research expedition off the coast of Costa Rica unexpectedly hauled up ten living specimens from a depth of 3590 meters, each only about 3 cm long. This sudden discovery of an organism long thought to have been extinct was a shock, and scientists hailed it as “the most dramatic [discovery] in the history of [mollusc science].”
Since this initial discovery in 1952, a handful of other current-day monoplacophoran specimens have been discovered and at least 5 species have been described. A live specimen remains an extremely rare sight. These small, single-shelled animals inhabit deep ocean environments, which means that their habitats are difficult to access. Live specimens have been collected at depths ranging from 2000 meters to more than 6000 meters. Interestingly, some monoplacophoran fossils are associated with relatively shallow environments, which suggests that they may have more recently evolved to live in the deep ocean.
Studying live monoplacophorans has given scientists new insight on the development of major invertebrate groups. The discovery of live specimens of an animal previously thought to be extinct allows scientist to make observations beyond what can be preserved through the fossil record. The rarity of this organism, along with the story of its rediscovery and evolutionary significance, made its recent sighting a highlight of both the ROV dive and the February 2017 cruise as a whole.
Cover image: Scientists aboard the Okeanos Explorer plan the remote operated vehicle (ROV)’s course to explore the emerging lava core inside Vailulu’u Seamount. This image shows a topographic map of the summit of Vailulu’u created using multibeam sonar imaging, with the ROV’s path charted along the red line. Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Exploration and Research.
The NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer has kicked off its 2017 field season so far with amazing dives in the waters off American Samoa, a US territory in the southern Pacific Ocean. In February 2017, the expedition team explored the Vailulu’u Seamount, an underwater volcano located east of the Samoan Island of Ta’u. This offered scientists a rare and exciting opportunity to observe the geological and ecological characteristics of an active underwater volcano.
Seamounts, like Vailulu’u, are undersea mountains formed by volcanic activity. As lava from the Earth’s interior erupts through the seafloor, it meets cold ocean water and hardens. As more lava erupts, hardens, and piles up, a seamount is formed. If the eruptions continue for long enough, a seamount can actually rise tall enough to break the water surface, which is how islands are formed. Once seen as little more than hazards to undersea navigation, oceanographers have discovered that seamounts are hotspots of biological diversity. Underwater exploration has shown many seamounts to support a vast array of marine species and emphasized their importance as vital marine habitats.
An opportunity to explore Vailulu’u Seamount is particularly intriguing because of its status as the most active submarine volcano in the waters of American Samoa. Vailulu’u is thought to have erupted sometime between 2001 and 2005. This eruption formed a new 239 meter (nearly 1000 feet) tall lava cone inside the volcano’s crater. The lava cone, dubbed Nafanua after the fierce Samoan goddess of war, was discovered during an expedition in 2005 by scientists aboard a University of Hawaii research vessel using NOAA’s Pisces V manned submersible vehicle.
The discovery of the lava core was an important finding, as the chance to study an actively-forming underwater lava core is uncommon. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) Senior Scientist, Stan Hart, said, “To actually have a documented case of an underwater volcano that has been constructed within a known period of time is very rare—this is one of those cases.” The area of Vailulu’u Seamount had originally been mapped using multibeam sonar imaging in 1991. From this baseline data, scientists estimated that the growth rate of the new lava core could have reached an average rate of 8 inches per day.
One particularly striking discovery of the 2005 University of Hawaii expedition occurred as the team explored the volcano’s hydrothermal vent system. Hydrothermal vents form at tectonically active areas under the ocean, where the seafloor is spreading or where tectonic plates are coming together. The seawater escaping from hydrothermal vents can reach temperatures of over 700° F. This superheated water is saturated in chemicals that fuel unique biological communities, many of which are found only in these very specific ecosystems. As the expedition team exploring Nafanua approached the lava cone’s hydrothermal vent area, they began to see large numbers of eels lurking among the surrounding rock pillars. When the submersible landed, scientists were surprised to see huge numbers of foot-long eels emerging from the rock caves and crevices surrounding the area – a dramatic illustration of the sort of unique communities that can found around vent systems. The memorable experience led scientists to dub this area “Eel City.”
During the February 2017 dive on Vailulu’u Seamount, the Okeanos Explorer collected further data on this active volcano in the Samoan region. The information collected during this dive will provide scientists with a critical view of the geochemistry of the early stages of a young volcano. In addition, comparing this dive to the ones in previous years will allow scientists to study the changes in biological communities that occur as an active volcano alters its environment.
Investigating the Vailulu’u Seamount has been just one highlight of the 2017 Okeanos Explorer field season thus far. With many more ROV dives planned, there are doubtless many more intriguing discoveries to be made. Stay tuned to see what else the Okeanos Explorer finds as it continues to explore the unknown waters of the Pacific Ocean.
We are pleased to announce the launch of our Northwest Passage Project’s website, www.northwestpassageproject.org. The Northwest Passage Project (NPP), an innovative science and education initiative that includes an expedition into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project will engage intergenerational cohorts of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students in hands-on research exploring the changing Arctic and collecting data.
The NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer has recently started another expedition exploring the waters off of Apia, Samoa, in the western Pacific Ocean. Live-streamed through ISC’s Mission Control, NOAA’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will take place throughout the cruise, March 7- March 29. Baseline data will be collected on deep-water ecosystems in and around U.S. marine protected areas in the central and western Pacific. Be sure to follow along and tune into what should be some amazing exploration opportunities.
Registration is now open for the ISC’s Summer 2017 session of Ocean Science Exploration Camp! This year’s camp will take place from June 26th through 30th, 2017, and will focus on geological oceanography. During this week- long day camp, campers will conduct field investigations and apply scientific techniques to sample sediments, survey beaches, and investigate how coastal RI habitats differ and may be changing. Register for camp on the ISC Camps page.
Northwest Passage Project
The Inner Space Center (ISC) Associate Director Gail Scowcroft is the Principal Investigator and Project Director for the groundbreaking Northwest Passage Project (NPP), which will explore the dramatically changing Arctic by taking a team of natural and social scientists, students, and a professional film crew into the Canadian Arctic’s Northwest Passage during August 2017. The expedition team, including ISC staff members, will make the five-week journey aboard the Newport-based SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, the first full-rigged sailing ship to sail into the Passage in over a century.
Through exploration at sea and on land, the team will conduct groundbreaking ocean science research in a region that is now experiencing unprecedented environmental change, while actively engaging 35 graduate, undergraduate, and high school students in hands-on research activities. The project’s activities and findings will be shared with diverse audiences through real-time interactions, an ultra-high definition, two-hour documentary to be broadcast by a major television venue, and related community events. The project’s goal is to increase public understanding of the environmental and social consequences due to Arctic climate change; inform decision makers who influence policy development and action; and inspire students to become the next generation of scientists who will help lead efforts to ensure a more sustainable and prosperous future. Links to the live programs from the Arctic will be shared this summer. To learn more about the different science activities planned for the NPP expedition, please go here.
To learn more about the expedition, project partners, and more, please visit the Northwest Passage Project website. For project updates, please be sure to follow the ISC on social media (#NWPproject).
In April 2016, the ISC team worked with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to help investigators find the data recorder of the El Faro cargo ship that sunk during Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015. Transcripts from the El Faro‘s voyage data recorder (VDR; similar to an airplane’s black “box”) have been released by the NTSB. The VDR’s recording covers the last hours of the voyage and reveal what happened on the El Faro during its final moments. The ISC was integral in the discovery of the VDR, installing cutting-edge telepresence technologies on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s research vessel (RV), Atlantis. These efforts werepraised by federal investigators. 60 Minutes recently released a piece, “Voices of the Lost”, which tells the story of the El Faro’s unfortunate encounter with Hurricane Joaquin, the NTSB’s efforts to locate and decode the VDR, and the what the recordings revealed. The piece is available on the 60 Minutes website.
The NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer has been very active as it starts its 2017 exploration season. In conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, HI, the ship conducted a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive on two Japanese mini submarines. Highlights of the dive are available on the Okeanos Explorer website. The historic dive was also broadcast live on USA Today and ABC News. Additional images of the dive are available on NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries website.
After initial shakedown cruises off Honolulu, HI, the ship then sailed to explore the waters surrounding American Samoa, a U.S. territory covering seven South Pacific islands and atolls. Data and information from this expedition will fill gaps in knowledge about the deep-sea habitats in the region and improve overall understanding of the deep-sea biogeography of the Central Pacific. American Samoa lies at the boundary between major biogeographic provinces, and thus is a key area to understand the biodiversity transitions that occur in the deep Pacific Ocean. It is also an extremely important area for deepwater circulation. During the first part of the American Samoa Expedition, from February 16 – March 2, 2017, many amazing discoveries
American Samoa Expedition, from February 16 – March 2, 2017, many amazing discoveries were made including the siting of a new species of cookie brittle star, an unusual stalked crinoid, and even a “living fossil”. The team discovered a living specimen of monoplacaphora mollusk, a species of snail that scientists had never seen alive.
The second leg of this expedition will be a mapping leg to create images of the sea floor, and will take place in April 2017.
The OkeanosExplorer’s has begun its next expedition, “Discovering the Deep: Exploring Remote Pacific Marine Protected Areas”, which will take place from March 7 – 29, 2017. The goal of this expedition is to collect critical baseline information about unknown and poorly known deep-water areas in the Howland and Baker Unit of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). Live footage from the ROV dives are streamed through the homepage of the ISC website as well as the NOAA Okeanos Explorer website. To learn about all, planned Okeanos Explorer activities for 2017, please read the ISC’s latest Okeanos article.
The E/V Nautiluswill begin their 2017 expedition season this spring off of Southern California. Until then, catch up on all of their highlights on nautiluslive.org.
Registration is now open for the ISC’s Summer 2017 session of Ocean Science Exploration Camp. This year’s camp will take place from June 26-30, 2017, at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography in Narragansett, RI, and will focus on geological oceanography.
Geological oceanography is the study of the sea floor, including its composition, structures, and history. Geological oceanographers study processes of the ocean to discover how the Earth and oceans were formed and how ongoing processes may change them in the future. They examine the ocean from the deepest depths to the shallow coasts, including beaches, estuaries, and rivers. New underwater mountains, seamounts, vents, and seeps are discovered during geological oceanography research expeditions. These undersea features are home to many kinds of marine life.
For more information about this summer’s Ocean Science Exploration Camp program and registration details, please visit the ISC Camps webpage.
ISC Education Program Spotlight: “The Unknown Ocean”
The ocean covers nearly 71% of the Earth, yet approximately only 10% of the ocean has been explored.
Scientists are continuing to explore the ocean’s biology, geology, chemistry, physics, and history. This program covers the tools and technologies that scientists use to explore the deep ocean, how animals have adapted to survive in extreme ocean environments, and the technology used to investigate the deep sea. Through videos, demonstrations, and conversations with scientists, participants will go on a journey into the unknown ocean.
All ISC education programs align with the U.S. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as the Ocean Literacy Principles and Fundamental Concepts. ISC education programs can be booked at the ISC, at your site, or virtually (online).
If this program interests you, take advantage of our “monthly spotlight special.” If you book a The Unknown Ocean program in the month of March (actual program does not have to occur in March) you will receive a 15% discount.
Special Programs with the Girl Scouts of Southern New England
The ISC continues to offer ocean science education programs through the Girl Scouts of Southern New England (GSSNE). Programming will continue through June with topics to include hurricane science and forecasting; plankton biology and ecology; and ocean exploration. Individual girls, or whole troops, can register for these programs. Specific dates and registration details are available through GSSNE website.
This month’s #TBT video takes a look at an uncommon creature found during a NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer ROV dive last month. Scientists were intrigued by this dandelion siphonophore found on the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument (American Samoa). It could be a new species!
It’s been another eventful year here at the Inner Space Center (ISC)! We outfitted two research vessels and a merchant vessel with telepresence technologies, and supported over 100 days of telepresence on the E/V Nautilus, and on the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Our services facilitated the investigation the El Faro shipwreck, supported a 5-year study of submerged tribal cultural sites in Rhode Island Sound, and enabled the first ever telepresence broadcast from a manned submarine! During the summer, we hosted the next generation of deep-sea scientists at ISC Mission Control as they participated in a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) dive-planning boot-camp. Meanwhile, the Nautilus and Okeanos Explorer continued their ground-breaking deep sea explorations of offshore California, and the Marianas region. Continue reading 2016 – A Year in Review→
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.