Deep Thoughts with Cephalopod Biologist Mike Vecchione

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I can remember being enthralled by Jacques Cousteau, watching his television shows about his ocean exploration adventures aboard his famous ship, the Calypso. That feeling of wonder has never really left me; I'm still a sucker for a good deep-sea documentary. So, as soon as I heard about the "Deeper Than Light" exhibition opening at the National Museum of Natural History this Saturday, February 20, I was all over it.

In 2004, an international dream team of six scientists was sent on a two-month voyage to research marine life along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean and the resulting traveling exhibition, consisting of photos, film and even specimens, is one of the results.

Recently, I spoke to Mike Vecchione, one of the scientists from the voyage and the director of NOAA’s National Systematics Laboratory, located at the Natural Museum of Natural History. Vecchione is an expert in cephalopods, as in squid and octopus – especially the deepwater variety.

Now this exhibit is based on a cruise that took place in 2004, but there’s been a few more voyages since then. What was so essential about that particular 2004 expedition?

There are a couple of things that are unique. For one thing, we were able to use a lot of different types of gear, so we were able to sample a very broad spectrum of biological diversity out on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. And we were using a brand new large research ship that the Norwegians provided which was capable of doing all this work and staying out on station for a long period of time.

It was kind of a Mission: Impossible team of six scientists assembled for the cruise, with each scientist having his own particular specialty. I imagine you were constantly in pretty close quarters on the ship. Do things ever get testy, even between scientists?

No, not on this cruise (laughing). I have seen it happen before, though. Everybody was so excited about the work we were doing that everything went really well, as far as interpersonal actions and collaboration.

What was the typical day like on the expedition?

We would steam for a little while and then arrive at a sampling location—what we call a station. The ship would actually map the bottom of the ocean using sonar to determine what the best places were to put down our gear. And then we’d have a fixed schedule of deployment of different kinds of gears.

We would do things like drop down a baited camera lander that would go down to the bottom. It would have bait (mackerel) on it, and there’d be a camera pointed at the bait taking pictures every once in a while to see what fishes were attracted to the bait. While that was going on, we would lower instruments that would measure temperature and salinity. And after that was over, we would start putting nets in to collect various things. At many of the stations, we also had robot submarines called ROVs, remotely operated vehicles. We would deploy those to go down and actually look at what things looked like down there and what the animals were actually doing for a living.

I imagine you were studying some pretty deep sections of the ocean. So you were just reeling cables all the way to the bottom for those landers and instruments?

Right. It’s very rough terrain there on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, so we were sampling at depths of anywhere from a little less than 1,000 meters deep down to the deepest areas we worked were about 4,500 meters deep—almost 3 miles.

Of the gear you get to use, which do you find the most interesting?

Well, for my particular research on the squids and octopods, the gear that’s most important are the nets to collect samples so we can actually study the animals, get tissue for DNA analysis and look at details and morphology. And the robot submarines that I mentioned are very important. They give you a completely different perspective than the net sampling, because whereas nets catch a lot more of a variety of things, the robot subs give you a very detailed picture of what things are doing, and who’s sitting beside what.

It took about two years to document and identify everything you found during the cruise (over 1,200 cephalopod specimens). Aside from the sheer volume, what do you think is the most difficult thing when it comes to processing what’s found?

Oh, we’ll still be working on this material for many, many more years. We had some results that were immediately obvious. Some of the things we saw, for instance, were noteworthy as soon as we got off the ship. Other things required a lot more study in comparison with existing specimens in museums. I can tell you that material from expeditions that went out and sampled as much as 100 years ago is still being studied and contributing to advances in science. I expect that material from this cruise will be important for a very long time as well.

What were some of your favorite discoveries in particular, and why?

We discovered a new species of squid (Promachoteuthis sloani) that we described and named after the Sloan Foundation, because they’ve been very generous in support of the Census of Marine Life (the 2004 expedition was part of the Census). It’s actually a cute little squid, a bright little red thing.

Would you liken deep-sea exploration to the “new outer space,” when it comes to finding new life?

I’ll tell you a couple things about that. One is that most of the living space on our planet is in the deep sea. It depends how you do the calculations, but it comes out to more than 95 percent of the living space on earth is in the deep sea, and we know very, very little about what lives in that area. We know a lot more about what lives close to the shores and about what lives up at the surface of the ocean. But when you get down into the deep sea, we’re finding new stuff all the time. Basically, our planet is unexplored.

Another point, you know people like to compare it with outer space. I have heard that more people have been in outer space than have dived to over 4,000 meters in the ocean, which is basically the average depth of the ocean. In a 2003 expedition out to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, I got to make a dive in a Russian sub to 4,500 meters. That was kinda cool.

Recently there’s been a great deal of public fascination with large deep-sea squid. Can you think of any reasons for that?

Well yeah,  squids are cool (laughing)! But there’s a reason squids are cool. They are very much like vertebrates. They have eyes that are very similar to ours. They have well-developed brains and complex behaviors. They’re actually the only organism that you could think of as being intelligent that’s not a vertebrate. If you think of things that are intelligent you might think of dolphins or parrots, or even fish. But those are all closely related to us. The squids and octopuses are completely different. They’re related to snails and clams and things like that. They’re cool animals.

And lastly, when I told my dad I was interviewing a cephalopod expert, he really wanted to know if you ever eat calamari.

I do (chuckling). I do like calamari.

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