August 11, 2010

A gecko in the fridge, killer stone fish in the sea

Assistant Professor of Biology, Queens College and The Graduate Center

Students Francois Desinor and Chris Ludvik collect samples from the dock of the research center on Moorea

Students Francois Desinor and Chris Ludvik collect samples from the dock of the research center on Moorea

MOOREA, Society Islands | We took the 30-minute ferry to Moorea and and were greeted by the friendly personnel from the Biocode Project field station. We settled into our bungalow, which included finding a gecko in the fridge (a real-life version of the ubiquitous Geico lizard), along with a semi-feral kitten friend who has been happy to take care of our food scraps and a multitude of roosters running around and making a racket. Then we were off to go snorkeling around some dock pilings to find … well we wouldn’t know until we looked.

Dock pilings are a likely home for invasive species because many of them are coming in from boats. On the next day and our first day of sampling, we found a number of potential invasive species, most notably a sponge that is not normally found in Polynesia (usually it’s found in the Indian Ocean and the West Pacific). We took our specimens back to the lab to be photographed, tagged for time and location and then sub-sampled for subsequent DNA analysis. It will be compared—and maybe added—to the biocode database.

Okay, so here we are in paradise snorkeling among beautiful coral habitat with multitudes of colorful marine species, but we have to be very cautious. This tropical paradise has many dangers. First on our caution radar is the deadly and sneaky stone fish, which likes to linger hidden on the sandy bottom. Bites are rare and can be avoided. Just don’t surprise them. Two scientists found that out the hard way only recently. We heard about this at the end of our first day of sampling, while hanging out with some of the other scientists at the research station, which of course entailed hearing about recent brushes with dangerous animals.

The first stone fish attack involved a researcher who was stepping out of a kayak and stepped on the stone fish. This is one way to surprise a stone fish. According to the story, they immediately applied some extract from a local plant, which prevented the onset of necrosis and decreased the pain. It was a less serious case than the second attack, which involved a researcher at the nearby French research station. This victim was sent to a hospital, given morphine and poison absorption, but his condition didn’t improve much. Finally they sent him back to France.

And since our arrival, a researcher was attacked by a grey shark. But he was all smiles when I asked him about it later on. Still, my graduate student, J.T., should be extra cautious when he nocturnally snorkels and collects tonight—in the same place and time as the shark attack. If all goes well, he should be returning with several samples to better understand this component of biodiversity.