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In Pursuit of the Wily Harpacticoid

RESEARCHER: David Thistle

Professor of Oceanography David Thistle ranks as one of the foremost deep-ocean benthic biologists in the world. For nearly three decades he has made the study of the ecology and biogeography of deep-ocean harpacticoid copepods his specialty. David earned his doctorate in oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, and joined FSU's oceanography faculty in 1977.

Few things fire up the blood of an oceanography grad student as much as thoughts of going to sea for the first time to do real, in-the-salt research.

And so it was that on the cool Saturday morning of September 13, 2008, six students—three from Florida State and three from Texas A&M, Galveston—were eagerly checking and re-checking their equipment aboard the 135-foot R/V Point Sur. The research vessel's twin 550-horsepower Caterpillars

The Point Sur was headed due north on a 21-day research cruise out of its home base at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, located just above Monterey, California. Leading the contingent of students was David Thistle, a veteran member of FSU's oceanography department faculty.

A specialist in biological oceanography, Thistle was returning to familiar waters. In the 1970s, he earned his doctorate at Scripps Institute of Oceanography at San Diego. It was there he first learned about a group of deep-ocean animals called harpacticoids (har•PACK•tih•koids).

Thistle's team had spent the better part of three years getting ready for this dedicated harpacticoid hunt. They would be "fishing" in the deep, lightless voids beyond the continental shelf off the Pacific west coast. Using some of the most sophisticated gear yet devised for such work, they would be attempting one of the trickiest feats in marine fieldwork—gathering undisturbed samples of the ocean floor from depths reaching close to three miles.

Thistle is a widely recognized authority in the ecology of harpacticoids, which are one of several types of tiny crustaceans known as copepods, the Lilliputian cousins of crabs and shrimp. These minuscule animals live in great profusion throughout Earth's waterways, from freshwater lakes and tidal streams to the deepest ocean floor. Copepods eat dead plant and animal matter and help keep the planet's waters clean. Some groups also play vital roles in the food webs of fish and other marine organisms.

But mainly because of where they live in the oceans—smack on the bottom—scientists know comparatively little about the harpacticoid group of copepods. Thistle's mission on this cruise was to capture as many samples as possible of deep-ocean mud—with harpacticoid populations intact—to determine what species live off the west coast and where. But a big part of the mission also was to give a small contingent of tomorrow's ocean scientists a taste of real-time experience aboard ship, something no amount of time in even the finest land-based lab can match.

Research in Review editor Frank Stephenson was invited along to chronicle the venture. Thanks to an unusually benign stretch of weather and sea conditions—and the Point Sur's ability to keep an almost unbroken connection to a constellation of communication satellites—the effort paid off much better than expected. The Point Sur returned to port Oct. 3 with a freezer-chest packed with nearly 800 samples and a happy, if tired, science team. Since they've returned to campus, Thistle's students have been hard at work analyzing their finds, work expected to extend well into 2010.

To follow the adventures—and misadventures—of the Point Sur expedition almost as they happened, visit www.rinr.fsu.edu/GoesToSea. Thistle's team—and this magazine—are indebted to the National Science Foundation for funding this project and the magnificent crew of the R/V Point Sur for making it happen. —F.S.


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