The HMS Challenger Project Team visiting museums

Hello! Heather here. Recently Holly and I spent the week at the Natural History Museum in London. This is packed with specimens dredged and trawled by HMS Challenger – most departments will have some sitting in their store cupboards somewhere! NHM (previously the British Museum) took in all the types collected from the expedition before passing off some duplicates to many museums around the world (Sydney, Lisbon, Toronto, Berlin just to name a few of the international ones). They were left with well over 10,000 Challenger specimens. A couple of weeks ago we visited both the life sciences and the palaeontology departments looking at bottom sediments, ostracods, forams, dry corals, echinoderms and sea pens. We found a big starfish…

Holly and Heather with a big starfish collected on the Challenger Expedition

Holly and Heather with a big starfish collected on the Challenger Expedition stored at NHM

A big box of blue mud dredged up from station 45 (3rd May 1873). Dredged from 1240 fathoms…

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Blue mud dredged off the East coast of the United States stored at NHM.

And then we found the sea pen. There was a particular sea pen we were wanting to find for a while. It didn’t come up on the NHM database search but we were determined that it was there somewhere! It is Umbellula thomsoni. It is in the class Anthozoa and the order Pennatulacea. The Umbellula genus was a rare zoological curiosity that was probably one of the first signs of deep-sea life and so it was a very exciting find for the Challenger crew! On top of it being rare, this particular specimen was an amazing example of bright phosphorescence exhibited in some marine life.  We are waiting for the specimen to be professionally photographed so I can’t show it to you yet but hopefully will be able to soon! Once back from NHM I had one week back in the office at RAMM and then disappeared off to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff for 4 days to photograph some molluscs, including lots and lots of tiny shells! The majority of these were 6mm or smaller and so it was quite a fiddly job. We also got to photograph some bigger molluscs though – like octopus and squid.

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Shells found off of the Azores, Portugal stored at NMW

Some squid caught at station 313, by Argentina

Some squid caught at station 313 by Argentina stored at NMW.

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Some true whelks found off of Brazil stored at NMW.

Next stop is Dublin in 11 days time to visit the National Museum of Ireland. We are keeping busy here on the Challenger project!

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Scientific Equipment on HMS Challenger

Hello! This is Peter (the Challenger Project’s volunteer) writing. I’m a history student at the University of Exeter, and I’ll be working here until the end of June.

This map was made using data from the Challenger expedition

This map was made using data from the Challenger expedition

As you probably know, the Challenger project is bringing together data from museums all over the country. It’s great that there’s so much information, but it can be pretty overwhelming! HMS Challenger stopped at over 400 locations (at 354 unique stations) during its trip around the world. At each of these stations, the crew and scientists took detailed scientific readings about the sea and the weather with barometers, hydrometers, thermometers and other instruments, as well as dredging or trawling the seabed for specimens. Just the data we have amounts to well over 15,000 specimens! So far, most of what I’ve been doing is going through spreadsheets of information, matching up station numbers with data like ocean depth and temperature, or filling out taxonomic data for several hundred specimens (so far!).

This temperature data was collected by the scientists on board the Challenger.

This temperature data was collected by the scientists on board the Challenger.

Something more interesting I’ve been looking at recently, though, is the equipment used on board HMS Challenger. Though the Challenger was a corvette, a small war ship, most of her guns were removed to make way for all the scientists, their equipment, and a pair of laboratories. A small steam engine was also fitted to the upper deck, to be used as a sort of winch for towing, raising and lowering the dredge and trawl. The dredge was a net fitted to an iron frame which would be dragged along the seabed on a long rope, stirring up the bottom and scooping up samples. The trawl was a more simple net which could be used where the bottom was smoother.

The dredge could also be dragged behind the Challenger's steam pinnace.

The dredge could also be dragged behind the Challenger’s steam pinnace.

The specimens brought up would be sorted in the port-side natural history laboratory, which was equipped with microscopes and a wide variety of bottles, jars and spirits in which to preserve animals and invertebrates. Botanical specimens would be pressed and dried out in a warm area near the ship’s funnel (this was found to be far more efficient than using the purpose-built press that they brought with them!), and then everything would be catalogued and put into storage in the hold.

In the Natural History Laboratory, specimens could be examined and preserved with the use of scientific equipment. Note the microscope.

In the Natural History Laboratory, specimens could be examined and preserved with the use of scientific equipment. Note the microscope.

But it wasn’t just the living creatures that they were interested in. At one point, barometer and air temperature readings were taken every two hours for a whole year! At every station, the sea temperature was taken at various depths with a special pressure-resistant thermometer, and samples of the sea floor (using a Baillie’s sounder) and sea water at various depths (using a slip water bottle or a stopcock water bottle) were brought up for analysis. This was done in the starboard-side chemical laboratory. This was equipped with state-of-the art equipment for testing what gases were dissolved in the seawater, a glass-blowing bench and a hanging spirit lamp, designed to heat substances without spilling them in rougher seas.

This sounder was used to measure the depth of the ocean and collect samples from the seabed.

This sounder was used to measure the depth of the ocean and collect samples from the seabed.

March’s Molluscs

March’s Molluscs!

 

Today I will tell you about some of the molluscs found on the Challenger expedition along the way – more specifically, the octopus (read about January’s jellyfish here). Above are pictures of cuttlefish and octopus found on the expedition.

Firstly – what are molluscs? These are a very large phylum of invertebrates with about 100,000 species! They are soft-bodied animals, some with shells (such as snails and scallops) and some without (such as slugs, octopus and squid). There are quite a few classes of molluscs but I won’t go through them all – the octopus belongs to the Cephalopods.

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So let’s get started with the octopus. These are fascinating creatures. There is one species of octopus known as the ‘mimic octopus’. This is because it can make itself appear to be many other sea creatures! There is another octopus which is known as the ‘hardest working mum of the planet’. The mothers guard their eggs, protecting them from predators and keeping them oxygenated. Unfortunately, this means that the mother never leaves their side to even eat. Many die very soon after their young hatch. This particular octopus though, Graneledone boreopacifica, has been found to guard its young for 53 months! The most well-known octopus is Octopus vulgaris – also known as the common octopus. This may seem a little boring but these well-studied creatures are still pretty amazing. It has recently been found that these clever octopus’ can recognise ones that they have previously seen in the past day.

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The big blue octopus (now Octopus cyanea)

Many octopus’ were found on the HMS Challenger expedition – Octopus cyanea (the big blue octopus) and  Enteroctopus dofleini (the giant Pacific octopus) to name two. The giant Pacific octopus is one of the largest octopuses and  they can also live the longest. The largest recorded has grown up to 30 feet and weighed over 270kg! They are very intelligent – like the mimic octopuses and the big blue octopus, they can change colour to match their surroundings due to their skin pigments.  They have also be known to solve maze puzzles in the laboratory and recognise individual human beings! The giant Pacific Challenger specimen was found at station 232, off of Japan on May 12th 1875 and the big blue octopus was found by the Hawaiin Islands in August 1875.

The crew on the HMS Challenger pulled up many species that have not been often seen since. The species of octopus in the image below was found on route from New Zealand to Indonesia (stations 171 and 214) and so few have been found, it is down as data deficient on the IUCN red list (showing the abundance of species and change in numbers over time). This shows how extensive the work was that the crew on HMS Challenger did!

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Grimpoteuthis meangensis (Hoyle, 1885)

Keep your eyes peeled for April’s Anemones!

January’s Jellyfish

Hello and Happy New Year to you all!

January’s jellyfish! For this month’s post I am going to tell you about two species of the jellyfish found around the seas from the HMS Challenger expedition. They are named differently now but after a bit of research we found out what their current names/species are.

Carybdea murrayana

Carybdea murrayana

Let’s start with the genus Carybdea – the jellyfish belonging to this genus are known as box jellyfish – you don’t want to mess with these! They are highly venomous and their sting attacks the heart and nervous system, which can instantly kill prey. These jellyfish have tentacles from each corner of their bell, each one with about 5000 stinging cells.

 

Carybdea murrayana

Carybdea murrayana

The two females found by the Challenger (Charybdea murrayana, now Carybdea murrayana) were found on April 9th 1876 at station 348, off the West Coast of Africa, not far from Sierra Leone. An interesting fact about box jellyfish is that they have ‘true’ eyes (as well as simple eyes). The simple eyes just detect light but the ‘true’ eyes have a retina, lense and cornea. It has been shown that these are used to help navigate by looking upwards to the mangrove canopies. This is where they usually feed and by detecting the canopies they stay underneath them to ensure they don’t stray too far from home. If cover is removed, they have no sense of orientation.

Carybdea murrayana

Ptchogastria polaris

Next up we have the genus Ptychogastria. These don’t have a common name and only one of these jellyfish was found on the expedition. These attractive jellyfish are from the order Trachymedusae. A lot of jellyfish have two body forms – polyp (stationary) and medusa (free-swimming). However, this order of jellyfish just grows in to the medusa stage. Although they grow only into the free-swimming form, they have suckers to attach themselves to rocks, waiting for prey to pass so they can reach out their tentacles to capture them. So they don’t swim that much after all! The one Ptychogastria jellyfish found was from station 50 – on the 21st May 1873 near Halifax, off the east of Canada. It was then identified as Pectyllis arctica but has since been updated to Ptychogastria polaris.

Carybdea murrayana

Ptychogastria polaris

Thanks for reading and see you next month!