Conservation & Science

Take the plunge: an online guide to deep-sea life

Have you ever wanted to know more about the strange animals that live in the deep waters off California’s coast? A new online tool from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) makes it easy for anyone to search MBARI’s vast database of deep-sea observations, including thousands of species of amazing deep-sea animals. The Deep-Sea Guide provides access to photos and a wealth of observational data that can be used by scientists, students and the interested public.

The black sea devil anglerfish is among the images in the new Deep-Sea Guide. Photo courtesy MBARI.
The black sea devil anglerfish is among the images in the new Deep-Sea Guide. Photo courtesy MBARI.

For 25 years, MBARI has been sending robots down into the deep sea. Over that time, they’ve collected over 24,000 hours of video. In an amazing feat of scientific data analysis, MBARI’s video-lab staff compiled a database of every animal and seafloor feature they could identify. Now they’ve put the information into an online tool accessible to all.

The Deep-Sea Guide is a treasure trove of images and scientific information, some of which has never been seen by scientists or the public.

Multiple search options

It’s possible to search for a particular animal by its common name (“blob sculpin”) or by its Latin name (“Psychrolutes phrictus”) – or even for groups of animals (“sculpin”). Users can also search for a geologic feature (“hydrothermal vent”) or a specific research tool (“suction sampler”).

It's possible to learn where the barreleye fish was seen, and the habitats it prefers. Photo courtesy MBARI.
It’s possible to learn where the barreleye fish was seen, and the habitats it prefers. Photo courtesy MBARI.

Animal information typically includes still images and a physical description, as well as background on the range of the animal, the depths it favors and the time of year it was observed. There’s even information about the water temperatures and oxygen concentrations measured when the animal or animals were observed.

The Deep-Sea Guide provides an easy method for searching MBARI’s vast MBARI’s Video Annotation and Reference System (VARS) database. What started in the early 1990s as a box of hand-written notes and Polaroid prints has evolved into an online system that now holds almost five million records.

Sharing the wonder

MBARI scientists and their colleagues have used the VARS database for several years to glean material that has been incorporated into dozens of published research papers. By making some of this information easily available online, MBARI staff hope to expand its usefulness – and improve the contents of the database as well.

Little-known and rarely seen seafloor animals like the harp sponge are included in the Deep-Sea Guide. Photo courtesy MBARI.
Little-known and rarely seen seafloor animals like the harp sponge are included in the Deep-Sea Guide. Photo courtesy MBARI.

As Video Laboratory Supervisor Nancy Jacobsen Stout explained, “Our hope is that the guide will serve as a tool to foster more in-depth engagement with our colleagues in science and education, and will help us share the wonders of the deep sea with general audiences.”

The database continues to grow and change. Researchers will update names, descriptions and visual information as their knowledge grows. They anticipate that other marine scientists will suggest improvements and explore potential collaborations. They also hope that schoolchildren and members of the public will be fascinated by the diversity of animals and geologic features that MBARI researchers have found in the deep sea.

Quick tips for using the Deep-Sea Guide:

Basic searches:

  • Use the search bar. As you type, the Deep-Sea Guide will suggest relevant words or phrases. (If the word turns red as you’re typing, it’s not in the database.)
  • A search will bring up one or more items that match your search term. For each result, you’ll see a photo (if one is available), a species name and a common name. A “Taxonomy” diagram on the right shows how the term you typed fits into the hierarchy of terms in the database.
  • Click on the photo or the name for more information and more images. Click on items in the Taxonomy diagram to search for those related items.
  • If you just want to search for photos, click the “Image” button at the top of the Deep-Sea Guide, then start your search. However, due to a bug, not all images may show up in these results.

 

– Kim Fulton-Bennett

Learn more about the work of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

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