When people find out that David Stein is an ichthyologist, they usually ask "what is that"? To which he replies, "a fish doctor" that is, a scientist who studies fish. Then they invariably ask if he keeps an aquarium at home. Without fail, his answer is always, no, "I study dead fish, not live ones."
Sounds pretty harsh but, as a fish taxonomist, David’s mission is to identify, describe and classify the finny creatures — and that means dissecting them. Stein works in the NOAA/NMFS Systematics Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.
As an expert taxonomist who studies deep-sea fishes, David was invited to join the ICEFISH (International Collaborative Expedition to collect & study Fish Indigenous to Sub-Antarctic Habitats) cruise, a scientific voyage aboard the 308-ft. Antarctic research vessel NATHANIEL B. PALMER, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. NSF is an independent U.S. government agency that funds science, scientific education and engineering through grants to highly qualified experts. It invests over $5.57 billion per year in almost 20,000 research projects, including the U.S. Antarctic Research Program.
Taxonomy is the identification and classification of organisms. Taxonomists identify known organisms, name and describe previously unknown ones, and place them in the scientific classification of all life. David explains, "Species are the fundamental units of the living world, and without being able to identify them, no studies of their evolution, relationships to other organisms, or biology can be accomplished."
During the next two months, David will share with us his observations about shipboard life, his work and the work being conducted by the PALMER’s other marine biologists, who hail from six countries in addition to the U.S. David will also write about the isolated, thinly populated and sometimes inhospitable subantarctic islands of the southern Atlantic Ocean.
The NATHANIEL B. PALMER will leave Punta Arenas, Chile, on May 17, 2004, and arrive two months later in Capetown, South Africa. Along the way, the scientists on board will sample the marine fauna of the sub Antarctic Atlantic islands and banks, including Burdwood Bank, the Falkland Islands, Shag Rocks, South Georgia, South Sandwich, Bouvet, and Tristan da Cunha. These rocky, often volcanic islands lie between 50°S and 60°S and will seem familiar to readers of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels and to readers of the accounts of James Cook’s voyages in the 18th century and Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition in the early 20th century.
David’s goal on the cruise is to collect bottom fishes, especially
snailfishes, found in shallow intertidal waters around the islands and
banks to hadal waters (8200 m or about 26,600 ft.) of the South Sandwich
Trench. "Hadal," the word used to describe the deepest, least
hospitable parts of the ocean, derives from the Greek "Hades," the
name of the underworld abode of the dead. Never was a word more evocative
"I’ve worked in this field since 1969 and I am still astonished by fishes," he says. "How have such strange creatures come to exist and how do they make their living in such a harsh environment?"
published over 50 scientific papers in the past 30 years, mostly describing
his research on a variety of
particularly the little-known but widely diverse family
of fishes called Liparidae,
Liparids are distinguished by a sucking disc located on
their bottom surface below the gill openings. They also are nicknamed "snotfish," because
they have a thick layer of gelatinous mucous between the skin and body
muscles. The mucous may serve a buoyancy function, he says.
They are of great scientific interest because of their extremely wide distribution: snailfish species occur from estuaries and the intertidal zone to below 7000 meters (23,000 ft.) depth, and are in all the oceans where water temperatures are cool or cold. They have no commercial significance, although a closely related species, the lumpfish, yields tasty caviar.
David’s research has taken him to almost every continent and he has logged over three years of sea time on more than 60 scientific cruises, including over 40 dives in a variety of small scientific submersibles. He often works closely with colleagues at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, and travels to Russia almost every year to continue research on on-going projects. David’s also something of a collecting gear guru and has designed special trawls and nets for collecting fish and plankton at various depths.
Having already described more than 80 new species of snailfish, almost a quarter of the 350 species known to exist, David expects (and hopes!) to find a few more on this trip, particularly because some of the deeper areas the PALMER will visit have not been plumbed for fish before.
So, how does a nice boy from Bennington, VT, end up on a 308 ft. ship trawling for fish in 50 ft. seas (about the seas he says, "We hope not!") off Antarctica in the dead of the austral winter? "There are a lot of ocean scientists from landlocked states," he says. "For me, it happened by accident,"
"It," the fish science thing, began in the early-1960s when he, like many other young people, migrated to California. After spending a few years at Berkeley, giving in, shall we say, to the lure of fast motorcycles and the counter-culture, David took a marine biology class at the local community college "because it seemed interesting."
"Two of my professors saw that I was enthusiastic and they hired me as a technician," David recalls. That means he learned fish science from the ground up by tending to laboratory equipment, keeping lab specimens alive (this pre-dates his taxonomy days) and acquiring the discipline needed to study and observe.
After getting a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA, he moved north to Corvallis, OR, where he worked as a technician under the tutelage of Bill Pearcy, Professor of Oceanography (now retired) at Oregon State University. Pearcy is himself a world expert on nekton, or free-swimming aquatic animals (fishes, squid, and mammals), and the early life history of salmon. During that time, David became very interested in the lives of deep-sea fishes.
While earning his Masters degree in Fisheries at OSU, David worked on a project funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (now part of the U.S. Department of Energy) to study the fate of radioactive materials in the deep sea. "We needed to identify the critters we saw. First we studied grenadier (also known as rattails because of their tapering bodies and pointed tails) because they were the most abundant, then I started looking at the snailfish."
He discovered that there were 28 liparid species in deep waters off Oregon, and these included two new genera (a genus is a group of closely related species) and eight new species, all of which he described and named — but not after himself. Contrary to popular belief, it's not considered good form to name species after yourself!
He continued studying snailfish and earned his Ph.D. by describing and contrasting the biology and natural history of snailfish and grenadiers found between 800 m and 4200 m (2,600 ft. to 13,800 ft.). He remained at OSU on the research faculty until moving to Washington, DC, in 1991 to work at NOAA. Although his job there did not require him to do any research, he continued on his own time, often using his own money. "Relocating to the Systematics Laboratory at the Museum of Natural History has made it possible to do science full time again," David says.
"Participation in this cruise is a once in a lifetime opportunity," David says. "I’ve worked on fishes of the Antarctic since 1989, but I’ve never been there."
"On the way to the ship and back from it at the end of the cruise, I will be able to visit fish collections at scientific institutes in Santiago and Valdivia, Chile, and Grahamstown, South Africa."
On board, on the off chance that he’ll have time on his hands, he’s packing a selection of science fiction paperbacks and some Russian scientific papers to translate, so he can keep current on his language skills.
Is there a downside to the trip?
"I'll miss my regular exercise of swimming a mile three times a week and I won’t be able to ride the new motorcycle I just built." "Blue Ruin," whose name derives from a particularly potent form of moonshine, is a vintage British "special," a Vincent 1000cc twin engine in a Norton frame.
"Blue Ruin" will have to wait even longer. Several weeks after returning from the ICEFISH cruise, David is scheduled to join a Russian research vessel for a three-week cruise to the Arctic ice edge of the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Strait.
Come September, when he’s back home in the Washington, DC, area, he has no intention of going anywhere for some time. For now, however, we get to travel along with him.