The Search for Blaschka Matches at FHL

by Drew Harvell and Reyn Yoshioka

Drew is a Professor of Marine Ecology and Curator of Invertebrates at Cornell University and an FHL Researcher for many years. She is also an FHL Instructor for the summer course “Ecology of Infectious Marine Disease” and a member of the FHL Advancement Board.

Reyn Yoshioka is an incoming Ph.D. student of the Galloway Lab at University of Oregon’s Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) in Coos Bay. He grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, where he first found his love for the marine environment. He has most recently been the coordinator for the CORALS undergraduate program at FHL and a lab tech of the Harvell Lab at Cornell University. Reyn has particular fondness for metazoan parasites, but loves just about anything to do with marine invertebrates.

Our passion is invertebrate biodiversity. Unfortunately, not everyone has quite the fondness for squishy things with too many or too few legs. However, we have a not-so-secret weapon: glass masterpieces we use to stir the public’s appreciation for our ocean’s shimmering invertebrate diversity. As it turns out, art has unusual power to translate nature and to entice a new way of seeing these creatures. And what better place to pursue this project than Friday Harbor Labs, positioned in the unusually diverse Salish Sea?

Drew is the curator of Cornell’s Blaschka Collection, delicate models made in the 1860s by the father-son team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. The glass invertebrates are a stunning depiction of our invertebrate tree of life; in all, more than 10,000 models were made of approximately 700 different animals like jellies, anemones, corals, squid, octopus, nudibranchs, polychaetes, sipunculids and sea stars. Over 60 universities around the world have Blaschka collections, although Cornell’s is thought to be the largest at 570 different pieces.

Fig. 1: Stomphia coccinea, the swimming anemone. Alive in Friday Harbor (left, credit D. Harvell) and in glass (right, credit C. Smith).

Our quest is to find the living matches to the Blaschkas' spectacular glass, and to use that collection as a time capsule of species that were plentiful when the models were created. Drew’s book A Sea of Glass explores how some of the animals are faring in today’s seas. The book's recent release was accompanied by some nice articles explaining the book, including slideshows of glass and living animals: one in Science Friday and another in The Guardian.

Fig. 2: Aeolidia papillosa, the sea mouse nudibranch. Alive in Friday Harbor (top, credit R. Yoshioka) and in glass (bottom, credit Corning Museum of Glass).

The award-winning short film Fragile Legacy chronicles our searches for Blaschka matches in Indonesia, Hawaii, Friday Harbor, Maine, Italy and Spain. Our videographer, David O. Brown, hopes to make a full-length documentary and filmed with us recently at FHL and other locations for the bigger project. This spring, we worked hard to find matches here at the Labs while we were teaching Invertebrate Biodiversity to our Cornell students.

Confirming whether we have found an animal that is exactly the same species as one of the Blaschka models turns out to be challenging, and requires higher level work with invertebrate systematics and sometimes even genetics. To start with, two-thirds of the species names that the Blaschkas used in 1868 have changed. For example, the Blaschka nudibranch Aeolis rufibranchialis is now called Flabellina verrucosa. Our first job, then, was to research each and every species name, so we could know where to find their modern representatives. Jim Morin initiated this in a class which he and Drew taught, putting our students to work tracking down the current organism names. More recently Reyn has advanced this further, really becoming a Blaschka-naming scholar through this project.

Fig. 3: Doto coronata, a nudibranch from the Atlantic. In glass (left, credit C. Smith) and alive at Shoals Marine Lab in Maine (right, credit R. Yoshioka).

The Blaschkas lived in Dresden and did not visit Friday Harbor circa 1865 when they were creating their masterpieces, so we do not have a lot of exact species matches. However, some of the Blaschka invertebrates have circumglobal distributions and we do have a few matches here! Three of our favorites from this spring are the anemone Stomphia coccinea, the predatory nudibranch Aeolidia papillosa, and the tubeworm Serpula vermicularis (Figures 1, 2, and 4). Stomphia and Serpula are long-term pets living in the lab of FHL Associate Director for Academics and the Environment Megan Dethier, so they were not hard to find. Stomphia is well known as a swimming anemone; Megan loves to show guests how the anemone shimmies away from a leather star’s touch. Reyn found our Aeolidia at Argyle Lagoon on San Juan Island, but we often see them in tide pools near Cattle Point eating the elegant green anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima), also a close match to a Blaschka species. Other exact matches we filmed or photographed are the nudibranchs Onchidoris bilamellata, Flabellina verrucosa, and Dendronotus frondosus, the pteropod Clione limacina, the lion’s mane jelly Cyanea capillata, and the siphonophore Nanomia bijuga. You can find beautiful still pictures of these on Reyn’s new website, and some on Ken Sebens’ site and in the Labs’ image gallery.

We also found some stunning close matches, like our crystal jellies Aequorea spp. and our cold water coral Balanophyllia elegans. Many of you know that JISAO's new postdoc, Anne Gothmann, is studying effects of ocean acidification on Balanophyllia elegans at FHL. One reason for writing A Sea of Glass was to use the glass masterpieces to tell of the risks faced by invertebrates in our changing ocean. Certainly shelled pteropods, which are dissolving in our increasingly-acidic waters, are a poster child for communicating about the disastrous effects of rapid acidification, and cold water corals like Balanophyllia could also be among the first impacted. So in addition to hunting down all our Blaschka matches, we are also on the lookout for stories to build around each of the species, to show that we cannot be careless with our oceans. We want to express that marine biodiversity is as fragile as glass.

Fig. 4: Serpula vermicularis, a tubeworm. Alive in Friday Harbor (left, credit R. Yoshioka) and in glass (right, credit Corning Museum of Glass).

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