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You are here: /main/research expeditions/CReefs 2006/features/ask_a_scientist

Ask a Scientist!

Your questions answered:

Are there any giant squid in the NWHI?

A: Tito Lotufo: Not in the shallow areas. Giant squids, of the genus Architeutes are inhabitants of very deep waters, which occasionally are found in the surface (usually dead).

A: Sea McKeon: Unknown. Most truly "giant" squid come from open ocean, deep water habitats, but there are several "really big" (>1m) squid genera that could be present here.

A: Joel Martin: I don’t know for sure – but I don’t think this area is known for giant squid. Our fisheries folks should know the answer to that one. Hawaii in general is not known as a place where these beasts are seen, but there may have been a rare sighting that I am not aware of.

Is Arthropoda still the same phyla that contains crustaceans, annelids, and insects?

A: Tito Lotufo: Arthropoda is a taxon that contains crustaceans, insects, arachnids (spiders and scorpions), centipedes, horseshoe crabs (they are not crustaceans!), but not annelids. The trend today in the taxonomic field is disregard the usual Linnean categories (Phylum, Class, Order etc.), and consider only taxa, because the number of categories available are not enough for the number of natural taxa. Another important fact is that, except for the species category, all other categories are arbitrary, and are not comparable between different taxa. For example, a family of crustaceans is by no means comparable to a family of molluscs.

A: Joel Martin:There is still some debate about the relationships among these three groups, but the general consensus is that crustaceans and insects are in one phylum – the arthropoda – and that the annelids are not members of that group. Some recent molecular evidence seems to indicate a clade (natural grouping) of all animals that molt – called the ecdysozoa – but not all scientists agree with that at this point. But for now, the more conservative view would be to treat crustaceans and insects as arthropods, but to maintain annelids in their own phylum (the Annelida).

What Taxon is crustacean? And what is Insecta? It seems that many of the phyla have changed recently. What the heck is Uniramia?

A: Tito Lotufo: Actually, what changed was the way we organize the information, not so much the taxons. Crustacea is still a valid taxon, which comprises shrimps, crabs, lobsters, and other less known forms as copepods, amphipods and others. Insecta, along with Myriapoda (centipedes and others) form the taxon Uniramia, comprising the arthropods with a single limb in each locomotory appendix. Crustaceans, on the other hand, possess 2 limbs in each appendix.

A: Joel Martin: The frequent changes are because these taxon names – class, order, subclass, etc. – are really just man-made categories that we propose to reflect (hopefully) the relationships of the groups. Currently, most people treat crustacea as a subphylum of the phylum arthropoda, or as a superclass, or as a class. In the most recent treatment of the entire group (Martin and Davis, 2001), I think we called it a subphylum. That paper is available on the web and can be checked if you search the pages of the crustacean society webpage. The taxon rank we give these groups is less important than understanding their relationships; taxon rank names are really just for our convenience.

Uniramia is a name that was applied to the insects myriapods, as it was thought that these groups, which have legs that do not branch, composed a monophyletic (natural) group of animals. In comparison, the crustacea all possessed branching (biramous) legs. So the word uniramous (and the taxon uniramia) was proposed for the non-crustacean arthropods such as insects, millipedes, and centipedes.

What happened out there when we had the earthquake? Was anyone in the water? Did the fish act differently? Anybody notice anything weird?

A: Jim Maragos: I did not notice anything. We were about 700 miles from the epicenter of the quake with most of the main Hawaiian Islands between us and the quake.

A: Joel Martin: We did not notice anything, really (at least I did not). Because we are on a ship, we did not feel a thing.

Were you afraid of a tsunami because of the shallowness of the reef/island? Did you notice bigger waves?

A: Jim Maragos: There was no evidence of the quake at all including changes in the waves.

A: Joel Martin: The shallowness would certainly be a reason to be concerned about a tsunami, but I did not fear one because I was not aware of the earthquake. There are other people more familiar with the history of these islands and any tsunami action out here, so I should let them answer that question, as I really have no knowledge of tsunamis out here in the Central Pacific.

No, I did not notice anything – but to be sure, you should ask one of the boat captains or other crew members who pay more attention to waves and currents and things like that. As a biologist on board, I would have been completely unaware of an earthquake if we were not connected by e-mail messages to the mainland.

Did you always want to be taxonomists? How do you explain what you do to regular people?

A: Tito Lotufo: No, it happened during my graduation, because I noticed that we were approaching the 21st century and we still ignore many of the life forms that share this wonderful planet with us. Today most people are not pure taxonomist, but are interested also in answering important questions regarding the evolutionary history of the organisms and how they are distributed in our planet.

A: Sea McKeon: Biologists often wear many hats - so while some of us are taxonomists in that we name and describe taxa, others are systematists (search for relationships among organisms), or evolutionary ecologists (study the interactions between organisms on evolutionary timescales). All of these subdisciplines are part of organismal biology, or natural history. So we could all be called 'Natural Historians'.

Did I always want to be a Natural Historian? I think that most kids have an innate curiosity for the natural world and an urge to explore it- many of us feel like we were lucky enough to be able to take this curiosity into adulthood. Personally, I was also looking into careers as a hang gliding instructor, surfer, or puppeteer- but biology worked out.

A: Jim Maragos: I am an ecologist but had to become a taxonomist because no one else at the time in Hawaii (1968) knew the corals. Taxonomy to some degree is needed by many kinds of biologists and ecologists in order to correctly identify the critters they are studying.

A: Joel Martin: I always wanted to be a marine biologist, but it was not until college and then graduate school that I began to be more interested in taxonomy (usually defined as the naming and classification of species) and systematics (usually defined as the study of the relationships of these organisms). Sometimes the two are used interchangeably.

It’s pretty easy to explain to people why I do what I do. Most of the world’s species are unknown. Not only do we not know their names or relationships, we know nothing about their ecology, natural history, behavior, etc. The world is still a virtually unexplored place when it comes to marine invertebrates, and I have always felt that we owe it to ourselves, and to all people, to learn as much as we can about this planet in order to better care for it. On a more pragmatic side, it’s much easier to argue for protecting an area if you can say with some certainty what’s there to protect. The same is true for examining any changes over time. We cannot really measure the effect of ecological changes, or global warming, or pollution, for example, if we do not first have some sort of baseline knowledge about what’s there.

Can you work for anyone besides the government or scientific agencies? Who is interested in what you do? What do you do with the species after you name them (i.e., are they of commercial value)?

A: Tito Lotufo: A typical taxonomist, or zoologist, will work in scientific institutions, such as natural history museums, universities, and marine laboratories, but a few can work for large industries, such as oil companies, or conducting assessments for other private companies. Once you describe a species, it becomes part of the scientific knowledge.

A: Sea McKeon: Other employment options are available- for example, many marine biologists teach for a living. Anytime anyone uses the scientific name of an organism, they are expressing an interest in what we do.

A: Jim Maragos: Non-government organizations, provate foundations, or volunteer as a biologist in your spare time or after retirement.

None have commercial value. Examples of all new species and many other rare corals need to be placed in a museum or university reference collection so that future scientists can verify what they feel are the same species.

A: Joel Martin: Yes—Universities, museums, ecological assessment firms, coastal planners, marine resource agencies, and more all have a real need for people who can identify marine animals and plants. There are many options.

I have found that the public in general is fascinated with what we do. To hold a crab in my hand, and realize that it is an undescribed species, never seen or photographed or described before by anyone, is pretty amazing, and people seem to understand and feel that excitement. Students especially, are often surprised to learn that new species are being described literally everyday, and that there is more unknown than is known. In general, I don’t think I have ever found anyone who was not interested in what I do, which is very rewarding and satisfying.

A “species” is of course the entire population of that species out in the wild – so in that sense, we don’t really “do” anything with the entire species — but do you perhaps mean specimens, rather than species? If so, the specimens are usually placed in a natural history museum so that they can be cared for and maintained in perpetuity for future comparisons and research. Some species are indeed of commercial value, and it is useful to continue to study even the species that we feel are “known” to learn more about their biology.

Who learns more about the new species, you or other kinds of scientists?

A: Tito Lotufo: The other scientists would not know that that is a new species without a taxonomist. The taxonomist usually has a good knowledge of other aspects of the life of the animals they study.

A: Jim Maragos: All biologists learn from new species. For example, yesterday we found a very rare coral that has never been found on a shallow reef before. How did it get there? Did it evolve into a different species from the deep? Or is it a living relic of the past? The isolation of the NWHI from other coral reefs makes these discoveries very important, because they provide evidence that the islands and their reef life has undergone evolution in isolation of other areas leading to new (endemic) species only found in those islands.

A: Joel Martin: There are so many fields of biology and so many scientists who study marine organisms. Taxonomists and systematists are one group, but there are also ecologists, physiologists, behavioral scientists, molecular biologists, and many more. Anyone studying the new species will learn something, and so it’s not really possible to figure out who might be learning “more” than someone else, and it’s not really that important (that is, nobody is keeping score or anything). It’s all good.

Did you ever name a new species after yourself?

A: Tito Lotufo: No, and this is not recommended by the rules of zoological nomenclature.

A: Sea McKeon: This is generally considered 'bad form' among taxonomists. Sometimes folks will name a new species after a family member though, and it'll end up with the same name as their own. :-) More often, a species is named for a distinctive feature, geographic region, or as an honor for someone appreciated by the authors.

A: Jim Maragos: This is a common misunderstanding, that scientists name things after themselves. More than 200 years ago when the modern system of naming species started, a few of the old guys named things after themselves or their co-namers. However, this is hardly ever done anymore if at all. The person who names the coral is also credited as part of the name. For example, James Dwight Dana, a naturalist on the U.S. exploring expedition named a coral from the Hawaiian Islands Porites lobata. However a taxonomist or biologist referring to this species would also need to name the source of the species name and would normally add “(Dana 1846)” to the end of the name. So in this case Dana still got the credit for the name without naming it after himself. In the modern world naming a species after yourself would seem silly and egotistical, and it is unnecessary.

A: Joel Martin: No, that’s sort of frowned upon, kind of like bragging or self-promotion or something. (Although it has happened in the past!) But I have named new species after some other people in recognition of their contribution to marine research, and I have had some species named after me by other scientists. Last year I did name a species of shrimp after my children, and that was fun. (They were not too impressed but I think they kind of enjoyed it.)

How many new species have you ever discovered?

A: Tito Lotufo: About a dozen new species, and a new genus.

A: Jim Maragos: In the NWHI about 15 new coral species since 2000 and about 10 on this trip. However we are prevented from collecting reference specimens (types) on this cruise for corals and so the corals cannot be officially named until the type specimens are collected and added to a museum and the new species published in scientific literature.

A: Joel Martin: I have not kept count, but it’s not that many really. Most of my work has been with relationships of the species rather than with the naming of new species. I have probably named fewer than 30 new species, mostly crustaceans but also including one large jellyfish. That was fun. Some taxonomists describe 50 or more each year.

Sometimes we also name new genera and families, and even higher levels of taxonomy, in order to accommodate some really unusual species that we have found.

Thanks for you interest, and feel free to ask more questions if you wish.

With Best wishes, Jody Martin

Talk About It!

Fancy-schmancy molecular tools

Asked by Dave on Sep 1, 2007.
Question for the "Ask the Scientist" series:
What is "molecular ecology"? I've heard a lot about it in recent years, particularly in terms of population-level studies and phylogeography stuff. Are fancy-schmancy molecular techniques useful at the community-level (e.g. examining food web dynamics)?

Answered by Malia from Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on Sep 25, 2007.
Aloha Dave,

The answer is YES, molecular tools developed in the laboratory
are being used to understand what's happening "out in the
field". This relatively new approach has provided conservation biologists and ecologists with powerful tools to answer traditional ecological questions on biodiversity, species and community-level relationships. Yes, these tools are often referred to as "fancy-schmancy" but are becoming more common place in many areas of ecology.

Human Impacts: Runoff Pollutants vs. Fishing

Asked by Keaka from Marimed Foundation on Oct 5, 2007.
A comment was made regarding human impact that was not seen as important that was expected. I am wondering what Mr. Yasutake was saying regarding reef importance, to clarify what he was saying. Human impact is what the 8 main Hawaiian islands is seen as the main problem, i.e. run off, pollution, etc. Is it more fishing/consumption and not so much run off? Mahalo for your time.

Answered by Yumi Yasutake at NOAA on Oct 12, 2007.
Thank you for the question Keaka, I would be glad to clarify. Although pollutants in runoff carried from developed areas on land can have a negative impact on marine organisms, it seems that "unsustainable" fishing practices is the largest factor contributing to a lack of apex predator abundance nearshore in the Main Hawaiian Islands. In the article, I used the reef outside the Hilo Breakwall as an example. Today, fishermen think of it as a poor area to target large species such as uku and ulua. There are a few small species present such as manini, kole, and uhu, but there is a lack of consistent apex predator presence. The reef at French Frigate Shoals (FFS) looked very similar, not too many caves, flat and hard, just a few species of small reef fish present. Therefore when I first jumped into the water, I didn't think that I would see large predators because I have been conditioned to judge the probable types of species present with the complexity of the reef structure (more coral cover and caves = more complex, diverse, and higher probability of large predators. Also, less coral cover, flat and hard substrate = less complex and diverse, usually resulting in a lack of consistent apex predator presence). However, on that dive I encountered large ulua, uku, and even two gray reef sharks, thereby proving that the less diverse and simple reef structure could in fact support carnivores of the top trophic levels, and that the only factor not influencing the relative abundance of fish was the lack of human impact. You could address the lack of terrestrial runoff at FFS as a positive factor for the reef as well, but as I described earlier, coral cover at this particular site isn't much more developed than at the Hilo Breakwall.

I hope this helps, please feel free to contact me directly at if you would like to discuss the topic in further detail.




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