Editor’s Note: “The Richest Reef” follows members of a scientific dive team as they attempt to pinpoint the center of the most biologically diverse marine ecosystem in the world. Long considered our planet’s most species-rich piece of ocean real estate, the Western Pacific’s “Coral Triangle” is a continent-sized patchwork of habitats, populations, and communities. Expedition scientists are trying to identify exactly which section of this rich mosaic is most diverse, but their effort carries with it far more meaning than a simple dot on a map would suggest. Along the way, they’ll discover dozens of new species, visit dive sites and depths no one has seen before, and gain a better understanding of the factors that promote biodiversity and the role these species-rich areas play in sustaining healthy ecosystems. See below for a list of all posts in the series.

It’s all come down to this. With the stench of an overripe dumpster heavy in the air, several of us, still jet-lagged, watch as a freight truck backs toward a loading dock alongside the California Academy of Sciences. The driver stops the truck an inch from the edge of the dock, gets out, mumbles a greeting, and raises the door of the vehicle, revealing the shrink-wrapped product of the seven-week expedition that’s just come to a close. Minus the equipment that’s bundled into this shipment, we’re staring at two pallets’ worth of neatly packed scientific specimens. It doesn’t seem like much to show for such a monumental effort, but when I think back to the activities in the field that produced this distilled version of life in the Verde Island Passage, it makes more sense.

Where to begin? The average dive in the Philippines present an overwhelming abundance of collecting options. (Photo by Rich Mooi)

You know those retail shopping sprees that occasionally make the local news, the ones in which some “lucky contestant” rushes down an aisle, pushing an empty cart, frantically searching for the store’s most valuable merchandise before time runs out? Well, a scientific dive looks almost nothing like that. But when you consider the inherent time constraint that a diver’s limited air supply imposes, and the indecision that comes from having far too many choices at your fingertips, you can see why this comparison might come to mind.

Like the shopper, scientific divers can’t collect everything they see—they have to be selective. That’s simpler when you’re in a section of the store you know well and are browsing merchandise you know the value of, but novel habitats and taxonomic groups that are outside one’s area of expertise can produce some indecisive moments, even for the most experienced marine biologist. “Is this nudibranch… or fish… or algae worth collecting, or should I move on to the next patch of potential specimens?” That’s a question we all asked ourselves on nearly every dive throughout this expedition, and the answer wasn’t always straightforward.

Kelly Markello examines a crinoid in search of symbiotic hitchhikers. (Photo by Steven Bedard)

Scientists aren’t looking to simply fill their collecting bags—they’re seeking scientific value, data that furthers their understanding of a place or process. What most often determines whether a specimen is collected or not is how novel or unusual the collector thinks that organism is. New species are the holy grail, but a new record of a species in a particular region or habitat, or a unique coloration or morphology, or a noteworthy association with some other organism, or features that make a specimen a particularly good representative of a species are all considered scientifically valuable.

Certainly there are ethical reasons not to collect more than you need, but there are practical ones as well. To extract as much information as possible out of each and every specimen, the scientists on this expedition spent far more time processing each day’s haul than they spent searching for and gathering those collections. Each specimen was identified and numbered, had its location and habitat type recorded, was photographed, had tissue extracted for later DNA analysis, and was “fixed” in a chemical that would preserve its color and morphology. Given that the scientists averaged two collecting dives per day, that added up to many long and late hours in the field lab each evening, so it paid to be discerning. Which is why the result of seven weeks of collecting in the richest marine ecosystem on the planet could fit on a large dining room table if it were arranged neatly enough.

A tray of polychaete worms needing to be processed before Chrissy Piotrowski can call it a day. (Photo by Steven Bedard)

The arrival of specimens here on the opposite side of the world from where they were collected has triggered yet another flurry of activity—work that’s necessary to convert each specimen into a useful record in the library of life comprised of the world’s scientific collections. Two weeks into that process, collection manager Chrissy Piotrowski surveys the Academy’s invertebrate zoology lab and provides a quick progress report: “We have someone rehousing tunicates over there, and someone working on corals over here,” she says, pointing to a dozen uncapped buckets overflowing with specimens, and then to tables and benches holding dozens of glass jars where those specimens will end up. “We’ll probably be doing this for a while.”

Piotrowski estimates it’ll take her and a small staff of employees and volunteers a couple of months to finish processing specimens from this year’s expedition, which will involve placing each specimen in a jar of ethanol, making sure it’s tagged, and that all taxonomic and location data and photographs are catalogued in a database and associated with that specimen and its tissue samples.

Preserving biodiversity in the Verde Island Passage will be helped by knowing what lives where. (Photo by Bart Shepherd)

Once this work is complete, scientists from anywhere in the world will be able to search that database, gather information, and request to borrow a specimen or acquire a tissue sample that might provide key information for their research. In addition to being used for species identification and to document the biodiversity of an area, scientific specimens like these can be used to document species distribution and evolution or to study the spread of disease or the impacts of climate change. While the Philippines will retain ownership of the collection, the Academy has pledged to maintain it and ensure its availability to scientists for the long haul.

The hope, too, is that this small piece of the Philippines’ national heritage will help to inform future conservation decisions and inspire the protection of the habitats, communities, and organisms the specimens represent. As a whole, the collection embodies scientists’ best understanding of the breathtaking diversity of organisms that call these waters home—a diversity that will now be harder to dismiss and more likely to be protected simply because we know it exists.

Other posts in this series:

The Richest Reef: Exploring the Most Diverse Marine Ecosystem on Earth

The Richest Reef: No Such Thing as Packing Light

The Richest Reef: Life in Layers

The Richest Reef: A Symbiotic Society

The Richest Reef: A Bagful of New Species

The Richest Reef: Deep Diving into the Twilight Zone

The Richest Reef: Where Have All the Predators Gone?