Ask an Explorer

Questions were sent to the science party during this expedition. Selected questions and answers are offered below.

Question from: Karin Cather

I've noticed that you guys seem to pluck sea stars, sponges and other animal life out of their habitat for dissection, etc. with complete aplomb. Doesn't it bother you that you're killing these animals? I saw one disturbing video that purported to be about a star fish preying on coral. We didn't get to see the starfish preying on coral; what we saw was a claw removing the starfish, and the narrator laughing, and then them pulling bits of food out of the starfish's mouth with a metal instrument. All of this was done with an atmosphere of great hilarity. Why is it necessary to "collect" these animals, and, if you are going to insist, why can't you at least do so under conditions that ensure the animal's survival?

Answer by: Dr. Steve W. Ross, Chief Scientist Life on the Edge 2005

Thanks for the question. It is one that concerns many people because it
is often difficult to understand that our collections are both important
and in the greater scheme of things do not impact the overall
populations. We have a daily log going up on the web site soon (by Dr. Nizinski) that addresses some aspects of this issue, and that may help you.

I have just a few other brief thoughts to add as well. Much of the deep
sea fauna is almost impossible to identify visually, and if we do not
collect sub-samples of the fauna, then our time and money spent here are wasted. Secondly, there is no way to study feeding habits, reproductive condition, diseases, age or growth without having the animal itself. While we need some numbers of animals for such studies, we try hard to make our collections reasonable and conservative. We generally use each animal collected for multiple purposes. Unfortunately, this is the
state of the art: the samples are needed to gain knowledge without which there could be no management or understanding of the environment. Our
sampling is relatively microscopic compared to the amount of habitat and fauna that exist, and our collections are a very small fraction of that impacted by other non-science operations. Because of our collections (which validate our visual data), we have provided a great service to some management agencies that are using our data to protect deep coral and other habitats.

It is unfortunate that some laughter (seemingly misplaced) was
associated with your concerns for the starfish. I do not think this was on my cruise, but keep in mind there is much happening outside the video you see, and the laughter could have nothing to do with the collection.(Editor's note: We believe the video referenced by Ms. Cather is found here.) Most scientists I know recognize the necessity for collections while also being staunch defenders of the environment.

Hopefully this is helpful.

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