Sampling the Deep – Processing and Preservation

Over 1200 m below us lies the Anton Dorhn seamount, not only one of the UK’s largest mountains but also an invaluable habitat for marine life. At this point in the Deep Links cruise, we’ve now successfully completed the first descent to the seafloor, using an extremely complex underwater robot, which is capable of capturing deep-sea organisms with its multitude of gadgets.


Me and the ROV, the ROV in its entirety, screen shots relayed back to the ship from the first dive to over 1200 m!

First and foremost are its dexterous mechanical arms, which when operated by the skilled pilots are capable of carefully picking up animals so that we can preserve and analyse them to further our knowledge of one of the most understudied habitats on earth.

Arms on the ROV and sample collection during a dive

Arms on the ROV and sample collection during a dive

Once the car-sized robot rises from the deep, it’s all hands on deck as hundreds of individual animals must be catalogued and preserved for a multitude of different scientific purposes (this is where I come in!). The whole of Wednesday was devoted to this titanic task and it was only through teamwork and careful coordination that we managed to accomplish it.

Due to the different biology of each animal there are many different kinds of treatment that must be applied. This must be done quickly in order to preserve the animals to the best standard possible. Each animal needs a tissue sample taken. This allows for geneticists to analyse the genetic makeup of each individual organism meaning they can work out how related all the members of the same species are. Also, it is through the use of genetics that many new species are discovered, as it’s often very hard to tell how related two animals are just by looking at them: imagine an alien trying to tell two similar looking humans apart!

Every animal must also be photographed with a ruler for scale, this provides a way of seeing what the animal looked like before we preserved it as preservation often changes the colours and shape of an animal. Once the genetics samples are taken and the animals have been photographed they are then placed in alcohol or formaldehyde to keep them from rotting. By preserving animals in this way we are able to keep samples for long periods of time so that scientists can look at them a long time in the future! This process has to be done for every sample and it has to be done in a room that is maintained at 4°C, meaning it is very easy for people to get extremely cold… But when you’re as dedicated as we are, you can work on through it!


A brittle star being photographed, sample processing, close up of a brittle star

Sample processing isn’t a quick or particularly easy job and it requires careful coordination and lots of preparation, however, it’s one of the most important parts of any scientific expedition. It’s only through hard graft and teamwork that it can be done efficiently and to a high standard, something that the Deep Links team are well practiced in! This is just one of the many different jobs that the team is required to do and is perhaps one of the most important as it provides a bounty of material that can be analysed for many years to come. The collection and preservation of specimens is vital to be able to further our knowledge of mysterious habitats, such the deep sea, and I’m incredibly glad that I can be a tiny part of that!

Text by Josh Davison, Marine Biology and Oceanography 2nd year undergraduate, DeepSeaCRU placement year student, Plymouth University.

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