Scientists Bring Species From Antarctic Seas Back to Peabody

Five Yale scientists were the only academic representatives on a Russian research vessel that plied iceberg-strewn waters for five weeks this past February and March. Their “catch” was a trove of living aquatic treasures that now enrich the Yale Peabody Museum’s collections of Antarctic fish and invertebrates.

In the late 1970s and early 1980 over-fishing of Antarctic waters by Eastern Bloc countries decimated many species of fish unique to the region. This expedition set out to look for patterns of species recovery and to expand the range and depth of sampling in earlier studies. The 300-foot Russian vessel, the R/V Yuzhmorgeologiya, held a crew of 62 plus 24 scientists — three from Germany and 16 from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, in addition to the Yale team.

It was the fourth such trip since 2001 for Thomas Near, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and assistant curator in the Peabody Museum, whose research focuses on Antarctic fish. “The fish and fauna of Antarctica are unique,” says Near. “There are species found nowhere else on earth, and species common everywhere else are not found in the Antarctic.”

Near’s first expedition to Antarctica, in 2001, was at the invitation of Christopher Jones, a fisheries scientist at Scripps, who led a study sponsored by the federal National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to examine the status of fish populations in the Southern Ocean. That voyage took place south of the South Orkney Islands in waters that were closed off to fishing since the early 1980s.

In exchange for recording information about the fish for NOAA, Near was allowed to bring back many specimens to the Peabody Museum to start a unique and growing Antarctic collection.

Three trips later, he notes that reestablishing depleted populations of Antarctic fish has been a particular problem. “Many of these fish live five to seven years before reaching sexual maturity, and then expect to live another 25 to 30 years - if they are not caught,” says Near. “When most of the adult population is removed, it takes many years to rebuild their numbers.”

Examining varieties of marine life pulled up from the bottom of the ocean was a daunting challenge, for although it was summertime in the Antarctic, daytime temperatures on deck hovered around the freezing mark, and some days the researchers did not go out on deck because of rough seas.

During this latest trip, the researchers dragged their nets at greater depths — which, as expected, brought in a host of new information. Because there is limited shallow water habitat surrounding Antarctica, the highest diversity of fish species were encountered at greater depths than is typical for all other marine areas of the world.

The 1,800 fish specimens gathered are now being identified, cataloged and stored in the Class of ‘54 Environmental Sciences Center at Yale. Many of the specimens in the collection are extremely rare and, according to Near, there are potentially two species that are undescribed and new to science.

“Some of these new samples will fill in information on the biology and diversity within species that previously had been known only from a few specimens existing in collections,” he says.

Other kinds of samples were also collected. This was the first expedition for Eric Lazo-Wasem, curator and senior collections manager of the Yale Peabody Museum’s division of invertebrate zoology, who gathered 1,100 invertebrate specimens of sponges, coral and crustaceans for the museum.

“We had an average of about three or four hauls a day,” Lazo-Wasem says, noting the net dredged specimens from 300 to 2,000 feet below. “There was an amazing amount of life in that cold water. Sorting and identifying for each haul would take about two or three hours. Then there would be many hours of photography and recording specimens for the museum.”

Other Yale team members on this voyage were Kristen Kuhn, a postdoctoral researcher in Near’s laboratory; Jillian Pennington ‘08, who majored in ecology and evolutionary biology; and Jon Moore, a Yale Ph.D. specializing in fish evolution, who is currently an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University Honors College.

Kuhn had been on a similar trip through Antarctic waters in 2004 while working on her doctorate at the University of Delaware. Her interest in Antarctic fish drew her to seek research with Near. “Antarctic trips don’t happen often due to climate, cost and the kinds of ships suited to haul up these specimens,” Kuhn says. “So when the opportunity comes, you go for it.

“Since there are not many specimens of these Antarctic fish available, it was wonderful to see them alive on deck as opposed to being in a jar — the way they’ll end up,” she adds.

As the specimens from this voyage are being indentified, catalogued and displayed, plans for the next NOAA expedition in 2011 are beginning, and Near has just been notified of funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue this area of work. He says he hopes there will be future collaborations between NOAA and NSF so that even greater depths and diversity of Antarctic ocean life can be studied.

“We would love to see studies that circumnavigate Antarctica,” Near says. “Now we only have knowledge about the areas off the tip of South America. There is so much more out there.”

The push for collections of aquatic life from the Antarctic began in the 1950s during the post-Stalin reawakening of the sciences in the Soviet Union, and Near says the Russian specimen collections in St. Petersburg are currently the most extensive in the world.

“Realistically, 10 years down the road, we could have the premier Antarctic collection in North America at Yale. Before I started going on these trips,” Near says, “all the fish brought up were thrown back overboard.”

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