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See All the Sea Creatures

Behind the scenes in the Marine Biodiversity Center

Out on a table in the Marine Biodiversity Center, an East Pacific red octopus (Octopus rubescens) awaits DNA sampling.


This is the scene when researchers in the Marine Biodiversity Center are getting ready to pull DNA samples from lots and lots of different marine invertebrates (animals without a backbone). There are jars everywhere! Octopuses, crabs, snails, shrimp — you name it, it’s out on the table.

a photo of dozens of jars out on a table
When the team is taking tissue samples, they line up jar after jar of specimens.

This work is part of the ambitious Diversity Initiative for the Southern California Ocean (DISCO) — an ongoing inventory of the invertebrate creatures that live off our coast. The team is building a list of DNA barcodes — short snippets of DNA that can be used to identify each species. DISCO is a team effort that involves several departments at the Museum, including Malacology (such as snails, squid, octopuses), Crustacea (like crabs and shrimp), Polychaetes (marine worms), and the Marine Biodiversity Center.

This is incredibly work-intensive. First, you actually need a specimen for each species, so that means the scientists in the Marine Biodiversity Center go out to tidepools, docks, and the open ocean to collect representatives for each of the estimated 5,000 species that call the Southern California ocean home. Back in the lab, specimens need to be identified by an expert, and then, on days like today, the jars are lined up so the team can get a small sample from each one — a shrimp leg, an octopus suction cup, a scoop of nudibranch, or a tiny crab in its entirety — so its DNA can be extracted and analyzed.

a photo of the lab in the Marine Biodiversity center and 4 people working at their stations
The researchers in the Marine Biodiversity Center are hard at work preparing samples. From left to right: Jenessa Wall, Kathy Omura, Regina Wetzer, Adam Wall.

After carefully labelling vials with tissue samples from each and every specimen, Crustacea Collections Manager Adam Wall and Marine Biodiversity Center Assistant Collections Manager Jenessa Wall will bring them to a special lab at the Smithsonian Institution to sequence the DNA and get species-specific genetic barcodes. From this growing database of unique DNA fingerprints, researchers can more quickly identify ocean creatures, possibly even from DNA animals leave behind in the salty water, providing a snapshot of biodiversity in the ocean.

A photo of Regina Wetzer holding a small vial with liquid and a tissue sample
Associate Curator Regina Wetzer holds a small tissue sample in a tube that will go to the Smithsonian Institution for analysis.
a photo of a large shrimp inside a jar
A small tissue sample will be taken from this caridean shrimp.



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