Andy Bentley removes specimens from a cryogenic dewar.
The KU Biodiversity Institute stores thousands of tissue samples from species found around the globe at a frosty -175 degrees Celsius. The specimens are stored in dewars, which are large, vacuum-sealed containers with a pool of liquid nitrogen at the bottom. While -175 degrees is hard to imagine, the newest dewar at KU dips even lower.
“The latest one we’ve acquired runs at -190 degrees Celsius, but otherwise functions much in the same way,” said KU Ichthyology Collections Manager Andy Bentley.
East Antarctica, warmer than a cryogenic dewar.
Tissues preserved in the dewars are in constant demand. Researchers from all over the world review online catalogs of stored specimens and send requests for tissues that could further their research. Upon receiving a request, the specimen is carefully extracted from the dewar and thawed on ice. Once thawed, a tiny piece of tissue is sliced from the sample and shipped in ninety-five percent ethanol.
The number and variety of specimens available for research is growing rapidly. The two dewars currently used are quickly filling with tissue samples. Bentley expects the newest dewar to see use before 2017.
“There’s new material coming in from the field at a rate of ten percent a year,” Bentley said. “In ichthyology we expect another 1,100 tissues a year, so with that kind of growth across all departments we expect to fill the two current dewars in six to eight months.”
When the first two dewars near capacity, the third will be filled with eight-to-ten inches of liquid nitrogen. This level is monitored 24 hours a day to maintain the crucially cold temperatures. Once filled, the third dewar stands ready to support the growing collection.
“There is a fairly large portion of material that is unique to our collection,” Bentley said. “The ichthyology collection, we think, is probably one of the largest ichthyology tissue collections in the world, based on taxonomic and geographic scope.”
The Aug. 6 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences included a large-scale analysis of bony fishes using DNA sequencing. One of the major conclusions is that tarpons, eels and their relatives (Elopomorpha) is the sister group (branched first) of all living teleosts.
Gloria Arratia, research associate in ichthyology, first published this idea in 1997 (see reference 11 in the PNAS paper). Her conclusion was based on morphology. In short, molecular analysis confirms a careful morphological analysis conducted about 15 years ago. More interesting is the fact that Gloria’s results were not widely accepted because the dominant figures in the field had championed the idea that the Osteoglossomorpha (mooneyes and bonytongues) were below the tarpons and eels on the tree. This inhibited some other ichthyologists from accepting Gloria's findings, in spite of the fact that she had the evidence and presented it clearly.
Like any good ichthyologist, I keep saltwater fish. When I lost a Banggai cardinalfish recently, how did I deal with this tragedy? Not by flushing it or starting a pet cemetery, but by turning that loss into a gain for the Biodiversity Institute's Ichthyology collection.
It is true that aquarium fish make less than ideal specimens. It is impossible to get accurate, reliable information on the natural habitat, behavior, distribution, and population structure of such a specimen. However, for large-scale genetic studies, a specimen without such data can still provide valuable insight into the evolutionary relationships among fish species. Likewise, we can gain important morphological information to further inform our ideas on the evolution of structures like jaws and tails.
So how does a fish reach scientific immortality after passing on to the great aquarium in the sky? First, and not surprisingly, it's important to get the fish into the freezer as soon as possible to keep it from decomposing (genetic material starts to break down quickly as the fish decomposes). When we are ready to process the fish, we first take photos of it, since preservation often causes bright colors and patterns to fade. Then a small piece of muscle is taken from one side and added to our tissue collection--this leaves the other side of the fish intact for morphological studies. We then inject the fish with formalin and store it in alcohol, or clear and stain it.
While at first blush this may seem perverse, my cardinalfish now lives on as frozen tissue and fluid specimens, where it will provide valuable genetic and morphological information for researchers and students. I know I would much prefer that to being flushed.
A week before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, an omen washed up on its beaches. The appearance of the oarfish, a ribbon-like, deep sea fish has long been perceived as a warning that seismic activity is on the way. This fish has become a feature of speculation as to whether they can be used to predict an incoming earthquake.
There are many news reports that speculate on the issue, as well as impressive photos of this critter, which can reach lengths in excess of 50 feet.
The important message here is that so little is known about the habits, breeding, biology, and ecology of these fishes – and deep water species in general. It is difficult to say what they are reacting to – small tremors signaling a larger quake to come, poisonous gases released by shifting tectonic plates or perhaps water temperatures affected by subtle movements in these plates. So little is known about deep water fish species due to the difficulty involved in studying them in their natural environment. They do not survive long (or act erratically/unusually) in shallow water, making it difficult to glean anything about their behavior based on these shallow water sightings. Their natural environment, depths below 1000 feet, is the place to study them, only possibly by using submersible or Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) but these tools are very expensive and not very numerous.
It is estimated that we have only described about a quarter to half of the species in the deep oceans. Who knows what lives down there and what sort of interactions they have with their deep water environment, as well as what sort of future events they may be able to sense before we know anything about them?
It is also interesting that local folklore (dismissed or ignored by many in the scientific community) says that these fish appearing in shallow water signal not only an earthquake, but also a good catch! These two are likely related in that tremors or earthquakes will scare or force deep water fish into the shallows.
And so, a scant 10 days after it began, my Greenlandic adventure is at an end. I got to experience big polar science, witness the first suggestions of climate change in the form of retreating glaciers and early mosquito and flower emergence, and eat some delicious whale and cured fishes of many sorts.
Camping near the ice edge.
Talking arctic science with grad students from other universities.
The Søndrestrom Incoherent Scatter Radar Facility.
Three things I still can’t wrap my head around:
I met the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark.
The ice sheet is huge. Really, really huge.
I went to Greenland?!
It was a fun trip, both too short and just long enough. Until my next adventure, kasuuta and takuss!
Our final day in Greenland was best characterized by last-minute good intentions and chaos as we tried to do everything we had been putting off all week. After breakfast, we visited the Kangerlussuaq Museum. As we were driving up, the man who is the museum (ticket taker, curator, and docent) ran up and greeted us enthusiastically and followed us around asking if we had any questions and telling us all about the history of the army base and airstrip known as Kangerlussuaq. One gets the impression that his summers (he goes back to Denmark in the winter—there isn’t a lot of activity once the snow and darkness set in) are usually spent in quiet contemplation of the photos documenting the comings and goings (glamorous actresses, well-known politicians, and eminent scientists--Niels Bohr once sat on the porch outside!), the history of aviation, polar science and the military in and out of Kangerlussuaq, and the occasional rogue wildlife that has wandered in from the tundra (including the skin of the only documented polar bear from the area and photos and cartoons of “Terrible Willie”, the musk ox that held Kangerlussuaq in his sway, often thwarting capture attempts and running amok on the runway and through the streets).[ibimage==694==310-scale-rounded==none==self==ibimage_img-left]
After that enlightening stop, a few of us did some sight-seeing, including driving up to the TACAN radar station, which offered great views of Kangerlussuaq, as well as the surrounding tundra and lakes. While up there, we ran into an international group of wealthy tourists (accompanied by a police escort) that were taking a “study tour” of Greenland, including several men in dress shoes wielding very nice birding telescopes and fancy SLR cameras and several women in precarious heels that were much more interested in picking an herb that looked like rosemary and smelled like Lysol to steep for aquavit. It was a little surreal.
We came back for lunch, wrapped up souvenir shopping, and returned all our glass bottles to collect the deposit. This involved feeding each bottle onto a conveyor belt with a scanner that counted and verified that the bottles were the appropriate size. It was very cool, and made me once again yearn for a similar system in Kansas. Once business in town was wrapped up and all the students and professors were rounded up, we ran back out to the tundra, where Sharon Billings, KU’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology professor on the trip, taught us about how tundra soil forms, including mechanical and chemical weathering, as well as decomposition (which is MUCH slower in the Arctic than elsewhere, since colder temperatures impede the metabolism of bacteria that do the decomposing). We then ran back to pack and eat dinner. After dinner, there was more packing, hunting down equipment we had borrowed from KISS, and socializing with the other scientists passing through Kangerlussuaq on the way to or from fieldwork.
The next day was a lot of hurry up and wait with the Air National Guard before getting on the C-130 back to the States—it was a straight shot back, since it is the beginning of the field season and much more equipment is being flown into Greenland than out. I got to go up in the cockpit, which was awesome—there is a ridiculous amount of equipment and space up there, including a bunk where one of the crew members was taking a nap. Dinner was a much-anticipated slice of pizza at New York Pizza and Fried Chicken in Schenectady—it turns out I really missed pizza! The following day, Thursday, was another day of travel from Schenectady to D.C. to Kansas City on United Airlines regional jets that made me long for the freedom of a C-130, where you can get up and move around as much as you like. Up next, the wrap up.
Today was full of wow! It was another day of driving, hiking, sun, and awe in the vicinity of Russell Glacier. On the way there we spotted our first real live musk ox, an enormous hairy mound of beast that seemed to remind everyone either of Snuffleupagus, a bantha from Star Wars, or Ludo from Labyrinth. This was followed by our first caribou, a young one with tiny velvety nubs of horns that ran toward us, around us, and off to the river again.
We stopped for lunch at part of the glacier that ends in a pool which emptying out into the river next to a really nice beach. The wind off of the glacier was bitterly cold, but once we got within fifty meters of the glacier, it blocked the wind and made plopping down on the glacial till for a sandwich and a Coke absolutely lovely. We sat around for awhile waiting for the glacier to cave, but no such luck. Extra-special bonus: first Gyrfalcon of the trip!
As we drove on, we also spotted a flock of what else but Canada geese. Kind of annoying, since we see them all the time at home, but neat since they were the first Greenlandic Canada geese of the trip (does that make sense?). We also spotted another duck, this one closer and in better light, but still from a moving car—my guess would be a male pintail, but I may correct that in a later post…
At last, we arrived at a spot from which we could hike out onto the glacier. At first, it looked like huge, random piles of gravel and mud, but as we went father, jumping across a shallow stream, the crunch of ice underfoot and the suddenly visible infinity short snowy spires and cliffs let us know exactly where we were. There was an abundance of melt-water streams with tasty cold, clear water—unusual this early, or so I'm told. The two professors on the trip that had previously visited the glacier commented that they had never seen streams this large or plentiful on the glacier before. We also found a moulin, or glacial mill, which is a large funnel in the ice where melt water streams drain onto the glacier bed below. Tomorrow we're camping, so I’ll be taking a brief hiatus. Cheers!
This morning getting up early to look for birds, this time down by the rapids at the bridge, proved sadly fruitless. Except there were rapids, which was in itself neat.
After breakfast and through incredible serendipity combined with finagling by our project leader, we met with the United States’ ambassador to Denmark (which still retains some degree of control over Greenland), Laurie Fulton. She was on her way back from visiting a research facility further north, and graciously made time for us—and seemed genuinely interested and engaged! She is very involved in encouraging intellectual trade between the U.S. and Denmark. Denmark has been very committed to green technology since the seventies, and by sharing their ideas with the U.S., the U.S. need not reinvent the wheel. Likewise, she is trying to encourage researchers, especially those working in Greenland, to take on Greenlandic students and trainees to help elevate the level of education in the country, only one third of which are considered "educated." She was a very neat lady.
After that meeting, we had some time to kill, so a few of the other students and I went with Kees, one of the KU Geography professors that is along on the trip and visited Kangerlussuaq in the1980s, to find the Inuit ruins located near town. We did not find them. Instead we found a firing range, a caribou antler, and a very scummy pond with three minnows in it. Lunch at the airport was fantastic. Many kinds of cold cuts, delicious smoked and pickled fishes (salt cod and pickled herring!).
After lunch, we drove to NSF’s Sondrestrom Incoherent Scatter Radar Facility (we saw a couple of ducks in random lakes along the road, but they were all far away and horribly backlit. Curses!!). Our host there, Eggert, was the head engineer (from Iceland, wearing black socks, sandals, and shorts. He’s my favorite!) showed us around the facility, which shoots high-powered microwave and lasers into the atmosphere in order to measure fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. There were huge magnets, transformers, and an enormous satellite dish that looked like something out of a James Bond movie (incidentally, it replaced an older dish elsewhere that actually appeared in GoldenEye!!). We also got to hear about the dangers of building on permafrost, which then melts and causes buildings to shift, windows to crack, and pipes to break, all things that tend to be a concern as summers increase in length and temperature.
Dinner was had at the Polar Bear Inn, home of the best Thai in town. For real, it was AMAZING—I had musk ox panang!! This was followed by a hike to Lake Ferguson, where we didn’t see any more new birds (goes without saying at this point), but we did find the Kangerlussuaq rowing club, a sign warning passers-by about musk ox, and a rock with a musk ox painted on it. Now it’s time to bury my head in the blankets and try not to imagine the sun sneaking in around the blackout shades. Till next time…
Morning in Kangerlussuaq was not much different from afternoon or evening—sun shining cheerfully away, temperatures of around fifty degrees, and a light wind keeping away the hungry swarms of Satan’s air force known colloquially as “mosquitoes”. I got up early so I could get a first crack at wildlife, Greenland-style. It turns out KISS is right on the Watson River, which was a lovely morning scramble down fine silt dunes and over glacier- and water-carved rocks. I got my first looks of the trip at Snow bunting, Common redpoll, and Northern wheatear. On the way to breakfast at the canteen by the airport (where we will be eating our dinners as well) I spotted a raven.
After breakfast, we explored “downtown” Kangerlussuaq, which is heavily concentrated in approximately ten utilitarian buildings near the airport. This included a trip to the “grocery store”, where you can find oranges, pineapples, a variety of canned fishes, salt-covered licorice, beet salad, and waders. Pretty much all of the written labels and signs are in Danish, which not an area in which I am proficient. My great achievement at the grocery store was finding frozen torsk, or Atlantic cod. This may be the closest I get to a fish on the trip.
We spent the day driving and hiking around northeast of town, toward Russell glacier. We got to frolic on the tundra, which was delightfully spongy—like running on a wet mattress. There were lots of wildflowers, moss, lichens, and Lapland longspurs. There was also evidence of ptarmigans, but none were to be found. Too bad, but I’ll keep looking. We also climbed Sugarloaf, from which we got some AWESOME views of the glacier and fjord.
We then travelled further upriver and got our first looks at the ice sheet, which still seems very unreal, despite the fact the 80% of the people at KISS are various types of geoscientists, desperate to get out on the ice. Some Danes just came back from an attempt to get to Summit, the base of ice sheet operations. They got all the way there, and had to turn back without landing because one of the airplane’s engines failed, which would have made taking off from the ice impossible. They’re still in a pretty good mood, and helped us translate the canteen menu for the week. Sky sauce is “the fat and proteins that drip off the meat during cooking, and congeal into a sort of pudding”, which is a much more interesting way of saying “it’s gravy”.
Of special note: talk around KISS is that not only has the yearly thaw of the glacier come two weeks early this year, but so have the mosquitoes and the wildflowers. Is it a signal of climate change? Only time will tell.
This morning we woke up at 4 a.m. in Schenectady, New York, after an uneventful day of travel there from Kansas. The Air National Guard picked us up at the hotel and took us to the base. Once they had corralled all the scientists into a little room in a warehouse, they showed us the C-130 safety video. It turns out that the “Herc” comes equipped not only with flotation devices, but exposure suits for all passengers, full Arctic survival gear and something called an EPOS. Like its counterpart, the yellow-cup-and-don’t-worry-if-the-bag-doesn’t-inflate, the EPOS is what a passenger would use if cabin pressure were lost. UNLIKE the yellow-cup-etc, there are approximately 13 steps for correct use, and it is basically a plastic bag that one puts over one’s head. This, strangely, was not reassuring.
After a few hours of waiting (we were the second flight to take off that morning. The first flight had technical difficulties and had to turn back. Twice. Once because the number 4 engine wasn’t working), it was finally time to take off. After we were in the air, the loadmaster let us get up and wander around the plane. Approved activities included climbing up on top of the cargo crates and taking a nap. I found a box of my approximate length and width, and promptly fell asleep. That’s first-class flying.
We stopped to refuel in Goose Bay, Canada, at a tiny airport that boasted bathrooms, complimentary ice cream, and little else but tantalizingly close coniferous forest. After half an hour, we were back in the air. Shortly before landing, we flew over Greenland with clear skies and AMAZING views of the mountains and glaciers. There was no feigning blasé professionalism now—everyone on the plane was glued to a porthole ooh-ing and ah-ing.
On arrival and debarkation from the airplane, we were instantly swarmed by mosquitoes—the worst the pilot claims to have seen it in the years he’s been flying to Greenland. We were then bussed to the Kangerlussauq International Science Support (KISS) building, which is a homey mix of ex-military barracks, scientific enthusiasm, and Ikea flair. It is now 12.30 a.m. and the sun is still shining. Although the sun “sets” at midnight and “rises” at two, there is not even appreciable twilight. Tomorrow: ruins?