A Different World: ISU voyages to the seafloor

July 2, 2009

Under the sea, in the darkness where the sun's rays do not penetrate, live creatures that almost seem unearthly.

"It looks like something out of ‘The Abyss;' it looks like something alien," said Brian Wrightsman, a North Central High School biology and earth science teacher. "The lights came up, you could see the seafloor, you could see some little starfish and things cruising around out there and then all of a sudden here comes this bright pink thing by my window and I'm like, ‘Ahh! What is that?'"

The thing, a "giant tube sock" as Wrightsman described it, actually is a pyrosoma and exists because tiny filter feeder organisms called tunicates bond together to float on the underwater currents for meals.

With that encounter, Wrightsman began his adventure on the bottom of the seafloor off of Costa Rica in a manned submersible called Alvin. Indiana State University Associate Professor of Geology Tony Rathburn invited Wrightsman, an ISU alumnus, on the research cruise near Costa Rica aboard the RV Atlantis. After receiving his school board's approval, Wrightsman accepted the opportunity to show his students what is possible.

"My main hope is just that students will see how fun and exciting science can be and they'll be inspired," he said of his trip. "You know, maybe that will encourage them toward a career in the sciences, and we need all the good scientists we can get."

To that end, Rathburn helped arrange an opportunity for Wrightsman to speak to North Central High School students through a call relay while he conducted research on the seafloor at a water depth of about 1000 meters (3,281 feet). A handful of students gathered in a conference room to ask questions of their science teacher.

"It's the first time that I've been on a cruise where we've actually tried to facilitate a conversation between Alvin scientists and students on land, and this is the only call from the deep that we did on this cruise," said Rathburn, who is one of the leaders of the team that includes scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and California Institute of Technology.

"It was really very rewarding and they had some really great questions for me," Wrightsman said about the phone call. "My main focus in getting to go on these trips in my position is coming back and telling my students about my experiences. Hopefully, I can ignite some sort of fire in them. There are some that have an interest in science and a lot that have a natural ability to understand science and to process the information, but a lot of them don't realize that they could be whatever they wanted to be."

On the National Science Foundation-funded expedition, scientists used the Alvin to explore methane seep habitats at about 1,000 meters below the surface. There researchers examined organisms that have evolved to survive around methane seeps. The seeps occur where buried methane finds its way up through rocks and sediments and emerges from the seafloor.

"One of the main objectives of this voyage was the examination of communities specifically associated with the rocks that actually are created from the unique chemistry of the methane bubbling out of the seafloor and we believe that the precipitation of these rocks is facilitated by microbes," Rathburn said. "This is the first study where the focus is on ecosystems of methane seep rocks."

"What was fascinating about it was that it (the rock) was being formed by microbes and altered, bored and shaped, by the animals that live on and within the rock itself," Wrightsman said.

Some methane seep microbes excrete hydrogen sulfide and bicarbonate. The bicarbonate reacts with the water, solidifying and creating carbonate rocks (limestone).

"The organisms that live on the rock were the organisms making the rock and they're creating their own ecosystem, they're building as they grow. As they reproduce and thrive, so does their ecosystem," Wrightsman said. "It's a growing community all the time and it's really fascinating."

Jason Waggoner, an ISU graduate student in geology from Hutsonville, Ill., said it was interesting to have four different groups of researchers on board looking at different aspects of the carbonate ecosystem.

"It was neat to see just a wider variety of things happening and at different paces aboard the ship than just our quick, chaotic pace of just slicing as much for the foraminifera as we can," he said.

Rathburn's group studies foraminifera, which are single-celled creatures that secrete a shell-like skeleton and are among the inhabitants of seeps. The "shells" of foraminifera can be preserved in the fossil record and are used extensively to assess climate changes of the past.

The Alvin took samples while on ocean floor during the day and the students also sent down a multi-corer from the ship to take samples from other areas at night. Waggoner, Wrightsman, Neil Toth, an ISU senior geography major from Terre Haute, and Elena Perez, who works at the Natural History Museum in London, worked to process the core samples, which included slicing off pieces of the long tube of mud that the multi-corer captured. The samples were brought back to Terre Haute for further study. As part of a Research Experiences for Teachers grant from NSF, this summer Wrightsman will continue to develop educational tools based on his trip and will conduct research on some of the samples collected from the Costa Rican seafloor.

For Toth, the research cruise and slicing mud samples provided a new opportunity.

"I've been studying tree rings so this was a little different than being in a forest. It was out in the middle of the ocean. I think it's broadened my horizons a lot. I've been kind of focused in one area," he said. "Obviously we don't have any oceans around even to study oceanography in Indiana. I think is a pretty interesting thing and to come to ISU and have the opportunity to be on a ship like that and do that kind of research was something I never even dreamed of."

Though Toth did not visit the seafloor as did Rathburn, Waggoner and Wrightsman, he did fulfill a childhood dream. As a child, Toth read about the Alvin's use in discovering the Titanic and dreamed of going inside of it.

"Being inside of a ship where it actually works and to see it go down day in and day out, I think that was just the neatest thing," he said.

But it got better.

"Getting to crawl down inside it and be inside that titanium ball for a second was pretty neat," he said about seeing the inside of Alvin.

Other research team members agreed, especially about their visits to the seafloor.

"It was just -- as it's been said many times on shows and in books - a different world in itself," Waggoner said. "In certain places, it's just an abyssal, flat floor of mud as you would imagine and then you would get to the carbonate rock system and it would be just a mountainous terrain so the sub would float around this particular area. You would have cliffs on one side and the critters, the seafloor animals, were just abundant everywhere."

As part of their duties on the seafloor, researchers recorded everything they saw through a six-inch window.

"One thing that was interesting to see on the seafloor was you'd be traveling along and almost like a small kid with your excitement, looking out the porthole and you'd make a note in your logbook of anything you saw," Waggoner said. "You'd be traveling along and, unfortunately, even at the bottom of the ocean, you'd be moving along and see a Faygo pop can on the seafloor. You'd write down" fish, tubeworms, Faygo pop can" and you kind of drive on by."

The tube sock-shaped pyrosoma was not the only creature Wrightsman saw during his time under the ocean.

"You think you're going down to the bottom of the ocean and that probably there's not going to be a whole lot there because there's no light, it is cold, and there is a lot of pressure from the overlying water. What could live here? Plus there's methane seeping up from the bottom," Wrightsman said. "Doesn't sound all that great to me. It doesn't sound like a nice, sunny beach somewhere, so what's going to be living there? Well, a lot. A whole lot."

During the cruise, Wrightsman blogged about his adventure. His blog can be found at http://blogs.indstate.edu/~wpmu/brian/

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Contact:
Brian Wrightsman, North Central High School, biology and earth science teacher, at 812-397-2132 or at WrightsmanB@nesc.k12.in.us

Tony Rathburn, Indiana State University, associate professor of geology, at arathburn@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jsicking@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/528790699_nUCVe-L.jpg

Cutline: Brian Wrightsman, a North Central High School science teacher, and Tony Rathburn, ISU associate professor of geology, discuss research in front of the submersible Alvin while onboard the RV Atlantis. ISU/Courtesy photo.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/528785912_Xza5X-L.jpg

Cutline: Jason Waggoner, an ISU graduate student, and Brian Wrightsman, a North Central High School science teacher, prepare to slice the core samples for further research. ISU/Courtesy photo.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/528801328_mhcbE-L.jpg

Cutline: Brian Wrightsman, a North Central High School science teacher, gets drenched with ice water after his journey to the seafloor in Alvin. As a tradition, first-time divers in Alvin get doused with ice water upon their return. ISU/Courtesy photo.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/528839271_Jz2qR-L.jpg

Cutline: Brian Wrightsman, a North Central High School science teacher, and Neil Toth, ISU senior, prepare to slice the core sample for further research. ISU/Courtesy photo

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/528844384_rEwGZ-L.jpg

Cutline: (back row)Brian Wrightsman, a North Central High School science teacher, and Tony Rathburn, ISU associate professor of geology, (front row) Neil Toth, ISU senior; Jason Waggoner, ISU graduate student, and Elena Perez, who works at the Natural History Museum in London, pose aboard the RV Atlantis.

Story Highlights

Indiana State University Associate Professor of Geology Tony Rathburn invited Brian Wrightsman, an ISU alumnus and high school science teacher, along with two ISU students on a research cruise near Costa Rica aboard the RV Atlantis.

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