From the Field posts
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Underwater photography is always a challenge, but try doing it at night. That’s how David Gruber, a Museum research associate and consultant for the exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, will be spending the next few weeks in the Solomon Islands as he searches for glowing organisms to photograph. Gruber is writing about his experiences for The New York Times’s “Scientist at Work: Notes From the Field” blog along with fellow Museum research associate Vincent Pieribone.
“The scientific goals of this trip are manifold,” Gruber writes in his first post, “but above all we are after elusive near-infrared fluorescent and bioluminescent molecules to aid in biomedical research.” Both bioluminescent animals—creatures that generate light—and biofluorescent organisms—which absorb light and re-emit it at other wavelengths—have wide applications in medicine by allowing certain cells, such as those within cancerous tumors, to be visually tagged and tracked.
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We wanted to include a panoramic image of a magnificent coralscape in Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, and Bloody Bay Wall [off Little Cayman Island] was the perfect place.
But capturing Ansel Adams-like vistas are impossible under water, where sections of the light spectrum—especially reds—are absorbed within a meter. We need to get in very close to our subject and use flash photography to capture the reef ’s true color. We have to repeat this process hundreds of times over the wall face. Then, the small consecutive images are painstakingly stitched together to create a life-sized, true-color view.
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Ichthyologist John Sparks, curator of Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, recalls two challenging expeditions in Madagascar in search of new species of blind cavefishes. Read an excerpt of the interview below.
We were in Ankarana Reserve in far northern Madagascar, a surreal landscape of exposed karst formations. These are one-of-a-kind formations of permeable rocks, with rivers and streams in between. It’s kind of like Swiss cheese, with water running through it. We were looking for a species of blind cavefish endemic to this region.
But first, we had to make our way through the piles of bat guano [dung]. The cavefishes, which lack pigment and have no eyes, eat some of the invertebrates that are in the water, but a lot of them survive mainly on guano. There are enormous piles of it in these caves, 20- to 30-foot mounds. When you get closer, the mounds seem to come alive, with millions of clicking, rustling cockroaches that run over your feet and up your legs. It’s just like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie.
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Although they look like alien beings right out of a (low-budget) horror film with huge, dagger-like teeth, enormous mouths, and their own lights, many of the deep-sea creatures we feature in the exhibition can be found in the deep, perpetually dark waters right off shore from our major cities, such as the Hudson Canyon near New York City and the San Diego Trough off of southern California. To collect these bizarre creatures, we tow a special net behind a boat far below the surface, an important method of collection not just for fishes, but for all kinds of invertebrates, and one that’s allowed us to learn more about the ocean’s inhabitants than any other technique. Once we retrieve the net from the depths, we sort and photograph the still-glowing catch on board. These images show some of the extraordinary deep-sea creatures we collected on a recent expedition off of southern California.
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One of the amazing things about working on an exhibition is having the chance to incorporate our own research—sometimes, very recent research.
Within the past year, including just last December, my colleague, Museum Research Associate David Gruber (CUNY), and I have gone on multiple expeditions to the Cayman Islands and the Exumas, Bahamas, to photograph a coral wall and its inhabitants at night using special lights and filters to capture biofluorescence.
The phenomenon of biofluorescence results from the absorption of electromagnetic radiation at one wavelength by an organism, followed immediately by its re-emission at a longer, lower-energy wavelength. With special cameras, we captured brilliant red, green, and orange fluorescing corals, anemones, mollusks, marine worms, and a myriad of fishes, including sharks and rays.