A group of 23 researchers led by Florida Museum scientist Gustav Paulay will leave from St. Petersburg Friday on an expedition to survey the biodiversity of the Gulf of Mexico’s ocean floor.

Funded by BP through the Florida Institute of Oceanography, the scientists will make the 10-day trip aboard the institute’s 115-foot research vessel. The divers, scientists and photographers will document hard bottoms of Florida, from the Keys to the Panhandle, to gain a better understanding of these sponge- and coral-dominated communities.

“Certainly we will potentially notice effects from the oil spill, but the primary issue is that we have an oil spill in our backyard and we have a very limited understanding of the marine communities and diversity of organisms out there,” said Paulay, curator of malacology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “How can you tell what’s changed if you don’t know what’s out there?”

James Thomas, a researcher from Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center, will collect and observe arthropods that live in sponges, which are hyper-sensitive to organic pollutants, including pesticides, dyes and crude oils.

“If they’re not there inside the sponges, it will be a signal that some kind of toxic event occurred,” Thomas said. “If we don’t find what we expect, it’s an indication there’s been some kind of an impact.”

Pinpointing the cause of a change will be much more difficult because a baseline for the biodiversity in the Gulf has not yet been established, he said.

“We’re actually creating a baseline,” Thomas said. “This is one of the first comprehensive surveys in that area that’s ever been carried out.”

The expedition is the most comprehensive biodiversity study of the hard grounds along the west Florida shelf and includes researchers from other Florida institutions as well as Old Dominion University, the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution, Paulay said. Researchers plan to repeat the survey next year to observe short-term changes in biodiversity. The data will be useful for science as well as the fishing industry.

“Every fisherman knows if you’re bottom fishing, the most important word is ‘structure,’ ” Paulay said. “Wherever you have structure on the bottom, you will have fish – hard bottom allows structures to develop.”

Scientists will post initial findings and photographs on the Florida Museum’s invertebrate zoology blog, Adventures in Spineless Science. Further results will be posted online as the information is analyzed.

The trip will be carried out in two legs, with 14 researchers on each segment. The 194-ton R/V Weatherbird II will travel south from St. Petersburg to the Florida Keys March 4-9, then north from St. Petersburg to the Panhandle March 10-14. Researchers will focus on two areas: a quantitative assessment of marine life and an observational survey of the species found.

Divers will venture 30 to 100 feet underwater to reach the hard-bottom communities, which in Florida are typically fossilized limestone reefs and beds, with a thin sand veneer in places. These support large, attached animals like sponges, corals, sea fans, sea squirts and sea weeds giving structural complexity to the bottom.

Researchers who are not certified divers will collect by dredging and trawling the waters as the ship travels. Stops for observations will take place about every 10 to 20 miles. The divers will work only during the day, but the dredging and trawling will continue through the night, Paulay said.

Funding for the project was part of a $10 million grant to the Florida Institute of Oceanography by BP, and Paulay’s proposal was one of 27 the institute selected from 233 submissions.

Jenna Moore and Mandy Bemis, research technicians in the Florida Museum’s department of invertebrate zoology, are among the two-thirds of the group who are certified divers. They expect of be part of the “underwater vacuum team.”

“We’ll be brushing off rubble and suctioning off things that were missed,” Bemis said. “While we’re vacuuming, people will be collecting things you can see with the naked eye.”

Richard Pyle invented the underwater vacuum tool the team will use, which scientists call “The Pyleizer.” The hand-held device carefully vacuums tiny marine organisms easily missed by eye.

About six divers at a time participate in the surveys, recovering specimens that will undergo Paulay’s efficient method of labeling, photographing and tissue sampling everything on deck before being prepared for the trip back to the laboratory, Moore said.

Learn more about Invertebrate Zoology at the Florida Museum.

Read the invertebrate zoology blog, Adventures in Spineless Science.

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