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Explore21: The Magic of the Deep

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From the Field posts

This month, Museum Curator John Sparks is leading The Explore21 Solomon Islands Expedition. A part of the Museum's Explore21 initiative, this three-week research journey is headquartered aboard the Research Vessel Alucia.

Expedition member Chris Filardi, who is the director of Pacific Programs in the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, recently wrote in with this dispatch.

"Alucia" research vessel at sea in the daytime
The Research Vessel Alucia allowed Museum researchers to explore the waters, mangrove forests, and coral reefs of Solomon Islands in 2013
© AMNH/John Sparks

One of the primary directives of this expedition is to probe depths rarely surveyed in this or any part of the world, and one of the primary ways we are doing this aboard the Alucia is by trawling.  With a specially designed winch and several thousand meters of steel cable, the trawl is a 5-meter-wide net that funnels down to a fine mesh tube entering a collection cylinder is towed through the pitch black underworld far below Alucia’s stern. 

Today we trawled at 800−1000 meters depth (2,600 to more than 3,200 feet) over 1500−2000 meters of water, and what came up is nothing less than spectacular. As John Sparks delicately emptied the contents of the collection cylinder into a basin, collections manager Bob Shelley rushed off to bring in cold seawater from the aquarium room to keep the fragile animals alive as long as possible.  

Explore21: Deep Sea Treasure Trove

Everyone on deck literally catches their breath at the colors—velvet black, blood red—the bizarre shapes, fangs, orb-like eyes, ragged fins, a mesmerizing pin-prick into the most geographically extensive biomes on Earth, the lightless black of the deep ocean.

As John gently sorts the fragile creatures, miraculously intact after travel up from crushing pressures of the deep, he quickly gathers individuals that made the journey alive. With quiet precision and encyclopedic knowledge, John moves through the treasure-trove of living variety: bristle mouths, constellation fish, lightfishes, deepwater snipe eels, viperfish, black and barbeled dragonfish, dreamers and black sea-devils (fantastic beasts out of a child’s storybook, an uncommon find), lantern fishes [pictured below], and stoplight loose jaws, so named for rare red bioluminescence. Once in Alucia’s saltwater aquaria, these living aliens to the surface world offer rare opportunity to observe the luminescent features that have drawn John to the vipers, dragons, sinister anglers, and dreamers of belly of the sea.

Explore21: Lanternfish
Lanternfishes, which like many deep sea organisms are bioluminescent, were collected using a deep-sea trawling net on the research vessel Alucia during the 2013 Explore21 expedition to the Solomon Islands. 

As with most fieldwork, even with the technology aboard starship Alucia, we will not know the full impact of what we are finding until many months of grueling work back in the museum’s collections and laboratories. What we do know now is that knowledge, and wonder, about our living world is expanding in ways we are only beginning to understand and cherish.

Read more dispatches from the researchers aboard the Alucia.