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Heteropod snails by Mike Vecchione

                I am out here on the R/V Point Sur primarily to study cephalopods, the squids, octopods and their relatives. However, I have decided to write about a different group of very interesting animals. The swimming snails called heteropods are a group about which most people know nothing and nobody knows much. They are not closely related to the other, and somewhat better known, group of snails that spend their entire lives in the pelagic environment, the pteropods.

                Heteropods are active visual predators and, although most are small (planktonic), some can get quite large -- up to a half meter in length. I studied them many years ago and am now becoming reacquainted because we have been catching them regularly in our samples from the upper water layers. Three families exist, which seem to show a progression of evolution into pelagic life. Animals in the family with the smallest animals but most species have a coiled transparent shell into which they can withdraw their body and seal it off with a standard snail trap door, called an operculum. The shell has a keel on it, similar to what you might see on the bottom of a sailboat. The second family gets much larger but still has a keeled shell; for most species in this family the shell covers the guts like a hat. The third family loses the shell during transformation from the larval stage. They are streamlined and can swim quite fast. They should definitely be considered nekton rather than zooplankton.

                All heteropods have well developed, but peculiar, eyes. They have a narrow retina that the can rotate up and down. They probably form an image much the same way that the image forms on a TV screen, aggregating one line after another rather than the whole picture forming at once. Another characteristic of all heteropods is a single fin on the belly. They normally swim by undulating this fin. Additionally, the larger species can swim in rapid bursts by eel-like undulation of the entire body, which is shaped somewhat like a fish including a flattened tail. The bodies, especially in the larger species, are remarkably transparent except for the eyes (which have to catch light), the guts, and the organs of the mouth. Often when we are sorting our catch, the only way you can tell that there is a large heteropod is by the eyes, guts, and mouth.

                The mouth, located at the end of a trunk-like proboscis, has a structure characteristic of snails and most other molluscs, a tooth-covered tongue called a radula. This is used to grab and tear the heteropod's prey. The proboscis is why these animals are sometimes called "sea elephants". What they eat varies among the three families. The small species in the fully shelled family eat other snails, especially pteropods. They have a sucker at the base of the fin and use it to hold the shell of their prey. Not much is known about the natural prey of the other two families. It has been proposed that they eat a variety of prey, ranging from jellyfish to arrow worms, perhaps even including small fishes. Incidentally, the sucker is reduced in the other families and seems to be used to hold a sexual pair together during mating, so that the male can transfer a packet of sperm (spermatophore) to the female.

                We are finding that these active predatory snails are quite common out here, It will be interesting to figure out their importance in the pelagic ecosystem of the open Gulf of Mexico. 

Carinaria lamarcki is an example of heteropod from the family Carinariidae (top image).


A close-up of the shell of Carinaria lamarcki


An example from the another family of heteropod - the Pterotracheidae.  This is Pterotrachea coronata.


An example of the heteropod family Atlantidae.  This is Oxygyrus inflatus.


                For more imformation, see

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Seed shrimp are crustaceans (related to shrimp, crabs, and lobsters).  They belong to a group known as ostracods.  There are roughly 8,000 extant (living) species.  Ostracods have five paired appendages on their heads and one to three pairs ​of appendages on their bodies.  Another common name for the group is “mussel shrimp” because they have a two part, hinged shell (known as a carapace) that envelopes their bodies…like a clam or a mussel. 



Giant ostracods, Gigantocypris sp., are deep water seed shrimp.  Members of this genus appear to be among the largest of ostracods on earth, reaching a total size of 32mm diameter.  This one was the size of a green pea.  The eyes of these crustaceans (“nauplius eyes”) are divided into two lobes and have reflectors built in.  The eyes can detect bioluminescence from potential prey items, such as is produced by copepods.  Prey items include copepods, mysids, chaetognaths, medusae and other small invertebrates – even very small fish.  Gigantocypris store their eggs internally, in a brood pouch.  The eggs develop there until they hatch (as miniatures of the adults).  Juveniles are released into the pelagic environment.  This individual is brooding purple eggs inside its carapace.  Populations that have been studied are biased with 3 to 6 times more females than males.  Roughly five species have been described inhabiting all of the world’s major oceans.

More Soon!


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Wanted to share a few images from the last couple of days.  This Waryfish, Scopelosaurus smithi, has an impressive set of teeth.  This specimen came up in beautiful shape.


This is a Deepwater Flounder (Monolene sessilicauda).  It is in an immature phase and is still developing toward the adult stage.


I have always loved the group of deep water crustaceans which are sometimes referred to as "Blind Lobsters." These crustaceans pass through their immature stages in the water column. Once metamorphosis is complete, the animals descend further to live a life on the sea floor, often at abyssal depths.


More soon......

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Hello everyone,

My name is Ruth A. Musgrave and I write for kids and teach about the ocean. My favorite place is the deep. My favorite kind of animal...a deep sea animal. Why? The deep is a beautiful, complex, and mysterious part of our world. It is filled with weird and wonderful creatures. 

As Dante shares the photos of this first cruise, you might think it must be Halloween 24/7 down there!  But once you understand the purpose of massive teeth, a see-through head, or bulging eyes, then you'll see why all of us with DEEPEND find these creatures fascinating, enchanting, and sometimes even cute! Really! (Okay, cute might be a bit of a stretch with some!)

Before we wade in to the science and animals of the DEEPEND, you should meet our science team.  The DEEPEND project is so exciting and has so many extraordinary scientists all with different areas of expertise that, I admit, I was a bit awe-struck and overwhelmed at our first meeting earlier this year. For a person who would brush past a movie star to have a chance to talk to scientist, it is exciting to be a part of this three-year mission and share it with kids and teachers.

What kind of animals do you like? Fish, squid, shrimp, jellies? You name and we have an expert! What if you're a technology enthusiast, don't worry, we have experts for that, too! Acoustics, optics, genome research, and other kinds of technology are an essential part of the DEEPEND research. Oh, and we have people, like me, who will take the exciting discoveries and share them with you through this blog, programs like Postcards from the Deep, Creep into the DeepTeacher workshops, fun activities, and other Education and Outreach opportunities.

But first, meet our science team by clicking on this link:

Thanks for joining me at the DEEPEND!


WhaleTimes, Inc.


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 Working as a wildlife photographer on board a research ship provides endless opportunities.  What I think I enjoy the most is capturing the detail in a specimen.  For example, this beautiful Threadfin Dragonfish (Echiostoma barbatum) has an amazing pattern and texture to its skin.  The photophores (light producing organs) add to the pattern.  The detail of the barbel, with its glowing end, fascinates me.  I wanted to take the opportunity to share a series of images I took trying to highlight the detail of a dragonfish.


The red photophores (light producing organ) behind the eyes of the fish generate red light.  This is significant because most deep sea life can't see red light.  This fish makes red light and can see it.  Potential prey items are illuminated by the red light and don't know they have been spotted!


The feathery gills of the fish extend out from behind the gill cover (opercula).  The circular objects behind the opercula are photophores.  Dragonfishes may use photophores on their sides to recognize fishes of the same species, even the opposite sex, in the dark.


The barbell of the dragonfish has an end that glows in the dark.  Similar to anglerfishes, dragonfishes attract their prey using glowing lures.


The sides (or flanks) of dragonfishes are decorated with lines of photophores.  These light producing organs may convey important messages between members of the same species.


Even the tail end of the dragonfishes can be adorned with photophores.


Lots more to come but I wanted to share the detail of a particular fish today.  Working on this ship is really a wildlife photographers dream!


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Wanted to post a few quick images of the work going on in the labs.  Folks are busy!  Here is how it all starts...  The nets are opened at specific depths and there are multiple nets on the Mocness - so you can trawl different depths with the same trawl.  The work in the lab starts once a batch of deep sea life is brought in from a net.  The first job is sorting the catch by taxonomic group and then getting each group of organism to each specialist.



Fish identification


Crustacean identification.  After an ID is provided, further data/materials may be collected - such as a DNA or stable isotope sample.


DNA samples being collected from specimens.


Data is also collected for the physical conditions in which each trawl is made.


April keep everything organized and manages the master database.  Everything goes through April and is recorded.  


Sometimes a specimen is sent to the photographic lab for further documentation.


The photographic lab is located on the front deck of the ship.


This is the inside of the photolab.


The specimen is documented photographically and then returned to the main lab for preservation.


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We have had some questions come in about the MOCNESS that we are using to collect our deep-sea animals. “MOCNESS” is an acronym for a Multiple Opening/Closing Net and Environmental Sampling System and it comes in a variety of sizes. The one we are using is called a 10-meter MOCNESS because it samples an area of about 10 square meters. It has a rigid frame and six different nets with codends attached that can be opened and closed at different depths through the touch of a button on the MOC10 operator’s computer. We know the exact depth of the net due to the conducting cable that attaches the MOC10 frame to the ship. This allows information to be sent back to the ship from the many sensors mounted to the frame. In addition to depth, the MOC10 sensors include temperature and conductivity (salinity). The multiple codends allow us to sample within particular depth zones so that we can learn where the organisms live. For example, whalefishes, like the one pictured here, live only below 1000 meters and the lanternfish is only found above 1000 meters.


                                  Whalefish                                                                                    Lanternfish

The nets only fish one at a time and are attached to the frame in such a way that as one net closes it opens the next net. The MOC10 is sent down to its max depth of 1500 meters with the first net open which is called an oblique trawl since it samples from the surface to depth. At 1500 meters, a signal is sent through the conducting cable to tell the MOC10 frame to open the next net, which closes the first one. Our sampling plan is to target the following depth layers: 1500-1200 m, 1200-1000 m, 1000-600 m, 600-200 m, and 200 m-surface. Keep an eye out for a later post on the layers of the ocean to find out why!

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The long drive from San Antonio, Texas, to Gulfport, Mississippi, gave me plenty of opportunity to think about the various deep sea creatures I hoped to see on this trip.  You could cut the excitement with a knife by the time I crossed the border from Louisiana to Mississippi.  Loading gear onto the Point Sur brought all of the anticipation to reality, and then we were off.  The seas have been calm and we made it to our first trawling station without incident.  Then we started to fish as the trawling nets disappeared into the depths.  A few hours later and the biologists on board, including me, were giddy – a net full of deep sea species was hauled on deck.  It always seems like Christmas morning when a net is hauled up; you really never know what you are going to get…and these first few trawls have not disappointed.  Cup after cup of great wildlife were handed to me.  One of my jobs is to photographically document our encounters, which included a beautiful Johnson’s Abyssal Seadevil, Melanocetus johnsonii.  These small predators have enormous teeth for snaring other small animals.  Anglerfishes are also known for the glowing lure that they use to hunt. The technical term for the lure on an anglerfish is an “esca,” the fishing pole that connects it to the anglerfish’s forehead is an “illicium.”  Anglerfishes are among my favorite fishes…hopefully more of these!


Another of my favorite groups of fishes, the dragonfishes, has made several appearances so far.  This Scaleless Blackdragon, Echiostoma barbatum, is a deep-water predator.  In contrast to anglerfishes, dragonfishes have a “fishing rod” hanging off of their chin with a lure attached.  The entire structure is known as a barbel. 


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The DEEPEND cruise on the R/V Point Sur is underway and currently at their first station!  We are out in the northern Gulf of Mexico until May 8th where we will be hoping to hit 8 stations during our journey.  This is the first time out for the ship's crew, first time using this MOCNESS net system on this ship, and first time to try out all of the science protocols that we have set up for our cruises. The first cruise of a survey is usually called the "shake down" cruise, designed to work out glitches that may come up during the trip with quick troubleshooting and lots of problem solving by the DEEPEND Team which is extremely important to set the stage for efficient future cruises.  We have quickly discovered, for example, that the internet is currently not reliable and Dante (on board) has sent me pictures to put into this blog so you can share our experience with us!  I am not on board but can relay questions to the DEEPEND Team if you've got any!  Post them and we can answer!

b2ap3_thumbnail_The-Point-Sur-GOM-Cruise-May-2015-LR-C.jpg The R/V Point Sur at the dock in Gulfport, MS

The team is at the first station working through the deployment of the MOCNESS net (Multiple Opening/Closing Net Environmental Sensing System) which is a multi-net system that drops into the water at the same time with each net settling at different depths from the surface down to 1500m..  We are going to collect all organisms from each of the 5 nets and take tissues samples, identify the crustaceans, fishes, and cephalopods, and freeze some animals for lab studies back on land.  We will detail our projects as the days progress. Stay tuned!

b2ap3_thumbnail_Checking-the-nets-GOM-Cruise-May-2015-LR-C.jpg  One of the MOCNESS nets being checked before assembled on the deck

 b2ap3_thumbnail_Prepping-the-spool-No1-GOM-Cruise-May-2015-LR-C.jpg  Team checking the spool of wire that will deploy the net system....  SO much cable!

So, post any questions you have about our journey!  Anything about life on a research ship, the science we're doing, what the crew does to run the ship, you ask it, we will try to answer the best we can!  There will be great pictures of the other equipment and of course, the animals once these nets come up!

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The first GOM Exploration Teacher Workshop (grades 6-12) through the DEEPEND Program was held Saturday, April 18th at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and was a great success!  Teachers joined us from Florida and Alabama for the day-long workshop and learned about DEEPEND projects, background content and classroom activities they can take back into their classrooms. Activities included exploring the dark with bioluminescence, exploring cephalopod and plankton taxonomy as well as practicing with DNA extraction methods!

They also received details about the first DEEPEND cruise that is scheduled for May 1- May 8th where they will be able to follow the DEEPEND crew as they begin their science adventures.  Teachers and their classes can follow along, ask the scientists questions, and receive feedback from the crew as the cruise progresses on the Point Sur, our vessel for this year which calls Gulfport, MS home.

I am thrilled that the first workshop went so well with only a few minor things to adjust for next year's workshop for grade 6-12 teachers which will be in Dania Beach, FL at the Nova Southeastern Oceanographic Center.  The group was enthusiastic and I was excited to share our upcoming experience with them all!  Out of this first group, 3 teachers will be selected to join us at-sea.  There is an application they submit, the DEEPEND team reviews the applications and will be announcing the teachers by May 2nd.  Stay tuned to hear who will be joining us!

b2ap3_thumbnail_tchgroup_2015c.jpg b2ap3_thumbnail_squid_id2_tch_2015c.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_plank_tch_2015c.jpg

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The DEEPEND Consortium held it's Kick-off meeting February 23-25th at the Nova Southeastern Oceanographic Center on Dania Beach.  It was an all-hands meeting where science projects were shared, the education/outreach plan was finalized and break out sessions focused on the finer details of collecting organisms and samples at sea.


I thought the meeting was well-organized and full of positive energy as we were able to all come together to share the vision that was created during the grant proposal process.  We have a robust game plan and I have no doubts that the next three years will be full of excitement, great scientific findings, challenges and lots of laughs.

Our first cruise will be coming up in late spring if the plan stays on track.  There will be 2, 1-week ichthyoplankton (fish larvae and juveniles) cruises in June and July with a final cruise this year slotted for late August/early September.  All dates are tentative pending weather and gear availability.

We are moving full steam ahead as we head down into the deep this year! 


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FORT LAUDERDALE-DAVIE, Fla. – It has been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own planet’s oceans. That especially applies to the deepest parts of our oceans – depths that are 200 meters or deeper.

Researchers from organizations around the world who specialize in studying and exploring the deepest regions of our oceans have come together to pen a cautionary tale that urges we take a critical look at how we’re treating our seas.

“We need to consider the common heritage of mankind - when do we have the right to take something that will basically never be replaced or take millions of years,” said Tracey Sutton, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center.

Sutton, along with scientists and professors from California to Germany to the United Kingdom have written a paper that is being published by Science magazine that calls for increased stewardship when it comes to our oceans. The paper can be found online at 

The paper addresses the many ways the oceans are currently being exploited (i.e. mining, over-fishing, etc.) and says that we have to “make smart decisions now about the future of the deep ocean.” The goal is to reach a “happy balance” that weigh benefits of use against both direct and indirect costs of extraction, including damage to sensitive and yet unknown ecosystems.

“There’s so much more we need to learn about these deep, mysterious places on our planet and our fear is some ecosystems and marine species will be eradicated before we even know they existed,” said Sutton. “The deep ocean is already experiencing impacts from fishing, oil and gas development and waste disposal, and we are trying to get people to pause and see if there are better ways to do things before we negatively impact our seas.”

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