Taxonomy – an animal obsession

The weather has descended upon us. Gale-force winds and a 9 m swell have made it impossible to deploy any more gear for today, but, fear not, for in this breather from our frenzied sampling, there is finally time for us taxonomists to delve into the collections already made.
FYI – taxonomists are scientists with an unnatural obsession with categorising every specimen they get their paws on of usually just one group of organisms – e.g. just deep-sea spiders, or just Antarctic deep-sea spiders… I kid you not. Some may call us myopic in our focus but it’s the in-depth knowledge of one group of organisms that makes that special species-level identification possible. Species-level is after all what most diversity assessments are after.

Taxonomists are known for deriding other taxonomists’ choice of study organism: “worms, who would study worms???”, “tell me, what exactly is the point of molluscs?”, and, my personal favourite so far, “you study sponges… why, just why?” – said when finding a sponge squashed literally between a rock and a hard place…another rock. All this is said in jest and lovingly of course; it’s the academic equivalent of mocking someone’s football team, without the cup finals (unless you are a Man City fan that is, we do cup finals).

I, Michelle, am a deep-sea soft coral taxonomist and, since reaching the northern shores of South Orkneys, I’ve had a sample bonanza. Corals galore. I will now be spending the rock and rolling hours we have left on shift identifying these beautiful animals. Incidentally, of beautiful and important soft corals found so far (cough, listed as vulnerable marine ecosystems by the UN, cough – just sayin’) one doesn’t look like any I’ve seen before…. Drum roll….. new species! Which brings me onto a taxonomist’s other job, describing newly-discovered species. And before you ask, no I cannot name it after you, or myself for that matter (that’s considered too self-indulgent by fellow taxonomists). So, without further ado, I’m off to measure colonies, count polyps and illustrate this new and exciting coral of the deep.


First impressions of life aboard the James Clark Ross

Now that we’re firmly at sea (our current position is 58.08S, 48.88W), I feel that this is a good time to run through some of the expected and some of the more unexpected aspects of life aboard the James Clark Ross.

Let’s start with some expected events:
• Being chosen to model the full emergency immersion suit during the safety briefing.
• Being chosen to model the deck harness during the science familiarisation meeting.
• A not insignificant dose of sea sickness.
• Sightings of albatross, penguins, seals, dolphins and whales.
• Some icebergs.
• The cold (current air temperature is 1.1C, current sea temperature is 2.4C).
• Exiting the toilet to find the ex-prime minister of Uruguay inspecting my cabin.

Actually, in hindsight, that last point was relatively unexpected.

More unexpected events:
• Exiting the toilet to find the ex-prime minister of Uruguay inspecting my cabin.
• Full cooked breakfast, 3-course lunch and 5-course dinner with waiter service.
• An accessible and well stocked bar.
• Finding my sea legs on the second day from port.
• Being excited by the mere sight of kelp.
• The difficulty of making a decent cup of coffee aboard.

More news to follow once scientific sampling starts, but for now, I leave you with a picture of me and Michelle taken just as we left Stanley:

Brimming with confidence


Michelle and Oli are heading to the Southern Ocean!

Michelle Taylor (St Anne’s College) and I (Oli Ashford, Merton College) will be leaving the comparative safety of Oxford to join the RRS James Clark Ross in the Falkland Islands on the 21st of February. From there we’ll be steaming towards the South Orkney Islands (dodging the icebergs) taking part in a British Antarctic Survey-organised research cruise. We’ll be sampling deep-sea creatures living on the seabed hundreds to thousands of metres below to get a better picture of the benthic communities in the region.

You can follow our progress on twitter (@Dr_MTaylor, #SOAntEco), and via blog updates posted here and on the official BAS website. You can even check out what we’re up to real-time using the ship’s webcam!

Ready to go!