An expedition to study the life in the waters around the Solomon Islands launched a new generation of exploratory fieldwork under the banner of the Explore21 scientific initiative.
The Explore21 program was established to support multidisciplinary expeditions that draw on cutting-edge technology and focus on delivering real-world applications by discovering new species, preserving biodiversity, and uncovering new knowledge about the natural world. For the inaugural trip, a team of Museum scientists led by Curator John Sparks traveled to the Solomon Islands aboard the research vessel Alucia to learn more about the fish, microbes, and other life in the region’s exceptionally rich marine ecosystems.
“Discoveries of living species, important fossils, new geological phenomena, and buried archaeological treasures still await in many places around the world.”
During their three weeks in the field, the Solomon Islands team carried out groundbreaking work studying marine biofluorescence and bioluminescence. Beneath the surface of the ocean, the light from the Sun is quickly absorbed, leaving mid- and deepwater animals best served by making their own light, a feat they accomplish through two means: bioluminescence and biofluorescence. In bioluminescence, animals produce light via reactions between organic chemicals, while biofluorescence occurs when organisms absorb light and change it, reflecting it as a different color.
While biofluorescence and bioluminescence are not uncommon in nature, scientists have until recently understood little about how they factored into the lives of fish. Dr. Sparks and his team shed some light on the subject with their work on the Explore21 Expedition. Using a suite of cutting-edge, custom-made cameras, an enviable onboard laboratory, and a submarine with room for a crew of three, the Explore21 team documented many examples of biofluorescence and bioluminescence and collected more than 7,000 fish specimens during their trip.
The results took the team by surprise. Far more fish species than expected demonstrated biofluorescence, suggesting the trait could be much more common among bony fish than was previously thought. Fish were found with stripes, spots, and whole bodies that produced wild fluorescent colors, which may be used for camouflage among fluorescing coral reefs, for flashy courtship displays, or for other, still unknown, purposes. Initial findings have already produced several papers, including publications in Marine Biology and PLOS ONE.
“We still have so much to learn about how these animals use bioluminescence—for predation, camouflage, communication, or something else,” says Sparks.
The team also gathered examples of 100 species of biofluorescent invertebrates, and the trait was observed in many of these animals for the first time. These unexpectedly bountiful research findings are about more than identifying new traits in sea life, however. Fluorescent proteins have been used in medicine to help doctors trace the actions of living cells, and some of these newly discovered proteins could someday provide new diagnostic tools.
In the course of their three-week journey aboard the Alucia, the Museum team, led by Assistant Curator Eunsoo Kim, also performed a thorough survey of the microbial life around the islands. “Being able to collect from several water body types—from shallow water to blue ocean water, surface to deep water—I was really excited about [the prospect of finding] interesting, rare material,” says Kim. She is working to analyze the variety of collections from the Solomon Islands trip with the assistance of colleagues around the world.
The second Explore21 Expedition has already returned from the remote central highlands of Papua New Guinea, and an additional field program is planned for 2015.
The Museum greatly acknowledges the Dalio Foundation for its generous support of the inaugural Explore21 Expedition.
The Explore21 Initiative is generously supported by the leadership contributions of Katheryn P. and Thomas L. Kempner, Jr., and Linda R. and William E. Macaulay.