Researchers Race to Catalog Arctic Species

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Hear Part 1 of the Report

The Arctic Ocean is home to species completely unknown to science — and also a place of rapid change. The summertime ice is melting and could be gone entirely by the end of the century. In the second of a two-part series, NPR's Richard Harris continues his journey with a biological expedition to this remote part of the world.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

For the fourth year in a row, there has been a dramatic melting of arctic sea ice. Today researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center said there's 20 percent less sea ice this September than there was in the year 2000. The melting is apparently linked to a significant warming trend. Ice normally reflects sunlight back into space and helps keep the Earth cool. So the researchers are concerned that lack of summer sea ice could accelerate future warming.

BLOCK: This summer a team of biologists set out on a voyage to study life in the Arctic Ocean. One of their objectives was to figure out how this ecosystem would be affected by melting sea ice. As NPR's Richard Harris reports, the expedition discovered animals entirely new to scientists.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

The Arctic Ocean is a glorious landscape of contrasts, dark sea and bright ice, blue sky and clouds that shade from white to gray to orange. But the action on a July evening is not out on the ice but, instead, inside a windowless room in the bowels of an icebreaker. Half a dozen scientists stare at high-definition TV screens that reveal a drama occurring more than a mile and a half below them.

(Soundbite of gathering)

Unidentified Man #1: Ohhh-ho-ho-ho.

Unidentified Man #2: Easy, easy, easy! Easy!

Unidentified Woman #1: Let go, let go.

Unidentified Man #2: Easy.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh...

Unidentified Woman #1: No, no, no. Get...

HARRIS: A robotic submarine, controlled from this room and equipped with a suction attachment, is chasing an otherworldly creature through the waters, a fleshy blob about a foot long that seems to be swimming by flapping its ears.

(Soundbite of gathering)

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: What is that critter?

Mr. MARSH YOUNGBLUTH (Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution): It's an octopus, a pelagic octopus you're witnessing for one of the first times these ever have been seen, let alone collected.

HARRIS: Marsh Youngbluth, from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Florida, has been glued to the screen for the past 10 minutes as the submarine pursues the octopus.

Mr. YOUNGBLUTH: And it's getting closer and closer, and we're almost there.

Unidentified Man #5: Oh, he's big.

HARRIS: Yet again the octopus eludes capture by the submarine's suction arm. The pilots maneuvering the sub from this windowless room are undaunted.

Mr. YOUNGBLUTH: OK, we're close. We're close.

Unidentified Man #6: Rock 'n' roll. There you go, right there.

Mr. YOUNGBLUTH: There he goes!

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Man #7: Easy does it. Easy, easy.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #7: There! It's inside.

HARRIS: Well, almost all the octopus ends up inside. One leg still seems to be hanging out of the collection bucket. The scientists can do no more than hope that the animal will be alive and intact when the submersible returns to its mother ship.

Mr. YOUNGBLUTH: Well, we've got some other specimens that we need to work on now, but we're going to be coming up with this, and we'll pop the bucket as soon as it hits the surface.

HARRIS: While he waits, Youngbluth wanders back through the laboratories of this 420-foot-long Coast Guard icebreaker. The Healy has been designed and outfitted as a research vessel, and the purpose of this cruise is to find out exactly what lives in the Arctic Ocean. And there is a sense of urgency. In recent decades the ice has been melting fast, so this environment is changing rapidly. And global warming could melt the summer ice entirely in the decades to come.

Unidentified Woman #2: Most of the time, unless you spend all your time...

HARRIS: The Healy's labs are by now a menagerie of marine life that Dr. Seuss himself would have had trouble inventing. Russ Hopcroft from the University of Alaska shows off a bright-orange animal nicknamed the carrot worm. It doesn't live in the mud, as you'd expect, but it swims free through the deep ocean.

Mr. RUSS HOPCROFT (University of Alaska): Well, if you look at the back of this animal, the back of the animal is actually flattened into a paddle. I think you could say it swims comparable to what a fish does...

HARRIS: Really? A worm?

Mr. HOPCROFT: ...in terms of, you know, the ability to go where it wants to directionally and in terms of the ability to get some speed behind it.

HARRIS: And if that's not strange enough, Hopcroft says consider how this animal hunts.

Mr. HOPCROFT: It has in it a dart that is sucked into the middle of it that with--by squeezing the body, it can fire it out. And it's attached to a long rope, which is called the proboscis, and that's actually what it uses to spear its prey. And then it will reel them in next to the mouth, and then the mouth will actually chew them in and pull them into the body.

HARRIS: That's bizarre.

Mr. HOPCROFT: Yeah. So--and this animal is about, let's see, 4, 5 inches, so the proboscis might reach a foot. Depending on how elastic it is, it might reach farther.

HARRIS: The biologists have hauled up animals that look like translucent oranges. They found plankton that look like miniature gladiators coated with armor and brandishing lethal sickles on their front legs.

Mr. HOPCROFT: There's an awful lot of plankton you would not want to run into, you know, human size, in an alley.

HARRIS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. HOPCROFT: Yeah, a lot of these are fairly vicious.

HARRIS: The list goes on. Kevin Raskoff is from California State University at Monterey Bay. He shakes his head in wonder.

Mr. KEVIN RASKOFF (California State University at Monterey Bay): Some of these regions up here in the arctic are more productive and have more life in the deep oceans than other areas of the planet that are supposedly supposed to have more life than we have up here. So I think we've all been incredibly surprised, just the sheer number of animals that we're seeing--and large animals.

HARRIS: On this one trip alone, he says biologists have discovered perhaps a dozen species entirely new to science. Raskoff's favorite is an inchwide jellyfish never seen before by anyone. Most amazing is they didn't just find one; they found hundreds and hundreds of them. In fact, they are the dominant species in the part of the ocean where they live.

Mr. RASKOFF: I'm not sure if we'd be able to find that in any other ocean on the planet, but up here there's just so much to be discovered that we're finding incredibly important keystone animals for their habitats. And they're new.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HARRIS: Part of the challenge is not only identifying animals but figuring out their roles in the marine ecosystem. Basic questions, like how much animals eat, how fast they grow and how much oxygen they consume, are pivotal to understanding this realm, not only today but in a changed tomorrow. To do that, some animals need to be captured alive.

(Soundbite of water)

HARRIS: So Coast Guard divers pile into a landing craft and set across a small patch of open water to an ice floe.

Unidentified Man #8: Is it a good spot to unload?

Unidentified Man #9: Yeah, pretty good actually.

HARRIS: The divers put on thick suits to protect themselves from the 30-degree water and rig up air hoses under the watchful eye of dive officer Lieutenant j.g. Jessica Noel.

Lieutenant j.g. JESSICA NOEL (Coast Guard): Today we are collecting jelly ctenophores actually for the science party, targeting two species. I won't butcher the scientific names of them. We simply go by the tentacled ones and the non-tentacled ones.

HARRIS: Ctenophores are like jellyfish, except they swim by waving rows of tiny hairs that run up their bodies. Biologists are especially interested in them these days because jellies are proliferating rapidly in some parts of the world, and nobody's quite sure what that means.

Lt. j.g. NOEL: Green diver, are you ready to enter the water?

HARRIS: Green diver Ariel Piedmont steps off the end of the landing craft...

(Soundbite of splash)

HARRIS: ...and yellow diver Keidi Neimann follows close behind.

(Soundbite of splash)

HARRIS: They've been tasked to collect five samples of each species. The pair quickly sets to work at the end of their air hoses, staying in touch by radio with communications officer Mike Huff.

Mr. MIKE HUFF (Communications Officer): You guys got any down there already?

Unidentified Diver: Well, we have three tentacled ones.

Mr. HUFF: Three tentacled ones, aye. We only want five tentacleds.

Unidentified Diver: OK. I'm going for a tentacled now.

Mr. HUFF: Aye.

HARRIS: It's a challenge to collect even a few samples from the surface of this ocean. It also costs real money. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shelled out more than $2 million for this monthlong expedition, which they've dubbed The Hidden Ocean. The scientists are certainly earning their keep. Research, like summer daylight in this latitude, persists around the clock.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HARRIS: Back on the Healy, the team that captured the octopus grabs a quick bite of dinner, then rushes back to the stern of the ship as the unmanned minisub breaks the surface.

(Soundbite of minisub surfacing)

HARRIS: The craft, with its yellow floats, is hoisted aboard. Marsh Youngbluth and his colleagues huddle around excitedly.

So where's this famous octopus?

Mr. YOUNGBLUTH: Oh, the octopus is on that side of the vat.

Unidentified Man #10: It's on the other side.

HARRIS: So how does it look, Marsh?

Mr. YOUNGBLUTH: Well, it looks in reasonably good shape. There is a part of it that was caught by the door, so we're going to have to try to deal with that and get this other canister out here. I can take that.

Unidentified Man #11: Oh, man.

Mr. YOUNGBLUTH: All the way from the deep sea.

HARRIS: The octopus is whisked to an aquarium in a dark, walk-in freezer. Biologist Kevin Raskoff scans it up and down with a flashlight. It moves like an orange-and-white ghost. Its eight legs are hidden under a skirt that ties them together like webbing. It's hard not to feel a connection to this animal.

Mr. RASKOFF: They are charismatic. You know, they've got big eyeballs; they can look back at you. And they have some bright colorations and some interesting behaviors, and they're quite intelligent animals. So they are--it is very exciting.

HARRIS: And that goes for everything on this journey that's new and different.

Mr. RASKOFF: I guess I'm a kid at heart, and I guess I sometimes feel like I was born in the wrong century. And maybe I'm sort of a naturalist at heart, and, you know, I'd fit in well in the 1800s when people were going around on wooden ships and discovering animals for the very first time and species were being described left and right. And so I think of ours--us up here as doing very 18th-century science using 21st-century tools.

HARRIS: He says this is the first time they've really had the technology to explore this ocean. And he wonders, with the climate changing, whether scientists who come here in the next century will still be able to see what he has witnessed. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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