One recent Friday morning I received an email that started like this:
Dear MBL-ersFor your information we can confirm that specimens of Portuguese man o’ wars in the waters in the vicinity of Woods Hole. This species, known as Physalia physalia, is a marine “jellyfish” within a group called the Siphonphores.
… super painful sting etc etc. The point is, they’re siphonophores, and my lab lives and breathes to unearth the secrets of these strange animals. So I forwarded the email to my lab peeps, and then continued to nom me lunch while reading the New York Times online. Fast forward 45 minutes to Freya Goetz, our lab tech, rushing into the office asking, “So, are you coming!?” While I had been reading all about gut bacteria and enjoying my sandwich, the rest of my lab had been in a frenzied email discussion about driving the 2 hours to get some Portuguese man o’ war. Right. Now.
So I put my snack away, dusted off my gear and 15 minutes later we were all pilled in my advisors car, ready to do what we do best: collect some muthafuckin siphonophores!
2 hours and some awesome nerd talk later, we landed in Woods Hole, MA, complete with the crowds of tourists and terrible traffic. We wandered out to the ocean with all our buckets and cups-on-sticks in hand. Where we found all of… … … … nothing. No Portuguese man o’ wars in sight. Fortunately the folks at the Marine Biological Labs are all kinds of awesome, and they’d collected some for us just in case they’d blown away by the time we arrived.
Because these guys have a big blue float on top, they’re one of the few planktonic animals you can spot while driving, so after we loaded our MBL animals into the truck, we did some mobile looking too, just in case.
With no man-o-war spotted and the truck getting hot, we decided to head back to home base, and learn all about our new catch. Once in the lab, we set up our three man-o-war in an aquarium, to get a better look. Moving them from the bucket to the tank was no easy task.
The siph experts then set off dissecting them, to better understand their anatomy and organization. But for me, it was amazing enough just to watch them move. Their foats are muscular, and can crumple and bend. This isn’t one single animal, but a colony of clones, all doing a different task. As they sit in the tank, different clumps of clones move and sway. We are using these animals to learn how these different clones develop and differentiate. And even how they evolved from single-bodied ancestors. Much like our multi-celluar bodies evolved from single cells a billion years ago. Watching the man-o-war, I’m reminded of when I was little. I wanted to study alien life, and with siphonophores I feel like I’ve gotten my chance: