As soon as the five-gallon bucket gets pried open, the smell of preserved sea creatures captured from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico pervades the LSU laboratory.
“They are very lipid (fat) rich, and the lipids don’t preserve very well, so that’s what you’re smelling. That rancid smell,” said Robert Carney, a retired professor of oceanography and coastal studies at LSU.
The giant isopods in the bucket — a football-sized crustacean that looks like it emerged direct from the fossil record — are just a portion of the 28-year collection of deep sea marine life that Carney is donating to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Three employees of the national museum are camped out in Carney’s lab this week bubble wrapping individual specimen jars and placing them carefully in 55-gallon barrels for eventual shipping to the museum’s collection. They could be used by scientists looking to compare organisms taken from the Gulf before the BP oil spill four years ago to those living there now.
One of the strangest of these creatures is the giant isopod, which Carney called “a roly-poly bug. A pill bug.”
“One of the questions we get is are they good to eat,” Carney said, after pulling one from the bucket for a better look.
It wouldn’t be a great idea, he said.
Other than the fact that there’s not much meat on the giant isopod, the organism also contains high levels of mercury and other accumulated toxins because of its scavenger diet.
Carney explained several of the other organisms he’s collected from the hydrogen sulfide seeps that come up from the deep water floor of the Gulf of Mexico.
Tubeworms grow throughout these areas of hydrogen sulfide and sometimes they get a tag along called a Acesta oophaga. This scallop-looking shellfish attaches itself to the end of female tubeworms and waits for it to lay eggs, which it then feasts upon. The one in Carney’s laboratory was bleached white, an effect of being preserved in alcohol, but in real life, he described it as having a beautiful apricot color.
Other specimens don’t preserve well at all, he explained, as he pulled out a handful of what looked like long strands of uncooked rice noodles. It’s all that remains from a deep sea sponge that consisted of bundles of these small, glass-like rods topped by what looked like a flower.
It’s not always living things that get discovered in these deep water dives. From another container Carney pulled out a piece of wood he rediscovered while organizing his collection. Within that container, he said, he also found a metal fastening rod that had come loose from the wood over the years, indicating that all of it was the product of a ship wreck.
A marine archeologist in Lafayette is going to get those finds, he said.
One of the biggest surprises so far in re-examining his collection was a container of samples that had gotten lost in the busy shuffle aboard a research cruise. No one had added formaldehyde, and opening released what could only be called a stench.
“Imagine 20-year-old crawfish tails,” Carney said.
Moving to the other side of the laboratory, Carney said the collection still contains some mystery.
“This? I have no idea what this is,” said Carney holding up a small vial.
In total, the approximately 5,000 individual specimens reflecting about 75 species will be a valuable addition to the Smithsonian because so much of it helps shine a light on pre-Deepwater Horizon conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, said Cheryl Bright, collections manager of invertebrate zoology at the National Museum of Natural History.
One of the museum’s missions is to fulfill critical collection needs, including for scientists at federal agencies who are studying environmental conditions, she said.
“These collections represent the animals and density and population pre-spill,” Bright said. “He (Carney) wanted to be sure his collection was placed somewhere it could be cared for and available to the greater scientist community.”
These deep sea collections are expensive to put together, with the cost of research vessels ranging from tens to hundred of thousands of dollars a day, she said. It would be a waste of money to not continue to preserve the collection for future researchers.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.