The 100th Year of the Western Society of Naturalists

By Vicky Vásquez

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Western Society of Naturalists (WSN) meeting as well as the 50th for Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML). Fittingly, this year’s WSN conference saw MLML emeritus professor, Dr. Michael Foster, receive the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for crucial work studying the population and community ecology of marine macroalgae.

Six of MLML’s specified laboratories were represented by students, past and present, as well as one faculty member at this year’s WSN conference. A total of 21 presentations were given with 10 being oral presentations and 11 being posters; 11 MLML alumni presented, 12 current students and 1 faculty member. They Phycology and Invetebrate labs led the pack with the most presentations. Below is a list of highlights from those presentations.

MLML faculty along with students, past & present, taking a group photo with Lifetime Achievement Award winner Mike Foster. (Photo Source: Heather Kramp).

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Support ‘Lost’ Shark Research this SharkWeek

By Vicky Vásquez

The diversity of sharks, rays, skates and ghost sharks has increased exponentially with nearly 20% of all new species described over the past decade.

Unfortunately, the majority of these sharks and their relatives have largely been “lost” in a hyper-driven media age whereby a few large charismatic shark mega-stars overshadow the majority of shark species, especially during SharkWeek!

While these mega-star’s, such the Great White Shark, receive much media adulation and are the focus of numerous conservation and scientific efforts, the “Lost Sharks” remain largely unknown not only to the public, but also to the scientific and conservation communities.

Please help MLML’s Pacific Shark Research Center to discover and name these ‘Lost Shark’ species. Our campaign is raising funds to do just that.

Check out the video about our project to learn more. Thanks to the support of so many, we have almost met our goal of raising $2,800. Any donation helps!

As a bonus, anyone who donates $100 receives a limited edition print of a new species of ghost shark recently described by the PSRC by world-renowned artist Marc Dando.

Thank you for supporting shark science!

marc dando blueshark
Marc Dando's amazing illustrations were featured in the book Sharks of the World.

What’s in a Name? Part I: The Race to Ninja Lantershark.

By Vicky Vásquez

On December 21st, 2015, another ‘Lost Shark’ was officially found by the Pacific Shark Research Center (PSRC). PSRC is one of the world’s leading labs in chondrichthyan taxonomy research and I had the opportunity of being lead author on the paper for this discovery (how sweet is that?!). For this study, I described a new species of dark-sleek Lanternshark from the genus Etmopterus. And the coolest thing about describing a new species? Naming it!

INTRODUCING the Ninja Lanternshark!
INTRODUCING the Ninja Lanternshark!

    When I was given that chance, I didn’t hold back. This is the story of how the Ninja Lanternshark got its name.


Let’s begin with ‘Lost Sharks’. The term was created by my professor and co-author, Dr. David Ebert to identify lesser known species that attain little public or scientific attention. Examples of more charismatic species would be Great White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) and Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus). The genus Etmopterus and its 38 species (current to the publishing of this post) are a perfect example of the ‘Lost Shark’ dilemma. That’s because despite being one of the most speciose genera of sharks in the world, it is also one of the least studied. Common names, though not official, are another reflection of the anonymity the Etmopterus genus faces. Names like Brown Lanternshark and Lined Lanternshark are certainly helpful in describing the shark’s appearance but they are not particularly memorable. But that’s not even the main issue! My gripe is with the fact that there are two Brown Lanternsharks (E. compagnoi and E. unicolor) and two Lined Lanternsharks (E. bullisi and E. dislineatus). To be fair, overlaps in common names happen a lot (just Google ‘Yellowtail’ and see how many different species you get). More so, they can even change overtime for a particular species. To avoid confusion, this is why many scientists are far more interested in the universal and permanent scientific name (assuming no changes occur to the status of the species). However, in the case of Lanternsharks, these are deep-sea species people rarely see and therefore rarely talk about. For just a moment, let that sink in- there are 38 relatively unknown species of shark that GLOW IN THE DARK. If that’s not cool enough, they even have spines on both their dorsal fins for protection. So why are spine-wielding Lanternsharks not getting any attention? The answer is certainly up for debate but overlapping common names are certainly not helping. To be fair, there is one more very good reason why common names get so little consideration in taxonomic papers.

Confirming the discovery of a new species consists of hard tedious work that takes a long tedious amount of time…. trust me.

Note the evolution of the nailposh throughout the study.
Note the evolution of the nailposh throughout the study: a fin for Shark Week (lower right), a turkey for Thanksgiving, (upper left), and red for Valentines Day (lower left).

Luckily, in the case of the Ninja Lanternshark, my other co-author, Dr. Douglas Long, has you covered with an easy and exciting read. Delving passed the Ninja Lanternshark, taxonomic research often involves the examination of a much larger picture. For instance, work conducted in the lab of Dr. Gavin Naylor aims to describe the entire chondrichthyan tree of life. Despite the small ripple I was making in the sea of chondrichthyan taxonomy, I still felt like I was a part of a huge moment. I was confirming the discovery of the very first Lanternshark ever found off the Pacific Ocean along Central America.

Map of where each of the eight specimens were collected. Depth ranged between 836-1443 meters.
Map of where each of the eight specimens were collected. Depth ranged between 836-1443 meters.

"What's in a name? That which we call a Lanternshark by any other name would glow as bright." -Sharkspeare

Of equal weight on my mind was therefore the concern that such an interesting discovery was doomed to the ‘Lost Shark’ fate. It was actually Dr.  Long who gave me the idea to think innovatively. For a different taxonomy project, he chose the common name Jaguar Catshark, after the fictional shark in the movie, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The decision ended up getting Dr. Long a photo with his new buddy and Steve Zissou actor, Bill Murray, which he has also written about. This isn’t the first time a clever name has received public attention. There is actually a long history of biologists coming up with attention grabbing names, though again these tend to be scientific not common names.

    Side note, too cool not to mention: One of my favorite examples is the arachnologist who named a species of trapdoor spider after his favorite singer, Neil Diamond. Stephen Colbert caught wind of this story and had the biologist along with some unnamed spiders as guests on the Colbert Report. By the end, one lucky spider was chosen and named Aptostichus stephencolberti.

California Trapdoor Spider, Aptostichus stephencolberti
California Trapdoor Spider, Aptostichus stephencolberti

As I realized all the potential circling the naming process, I was PUMPED-UP and ready to give this new species a clever name! I should mention that at this point in the story, I had been going to the California Academy of Sciences for months, examining and re-examining my new specimens. I wanted to ensure my specimens were nothing like the other 37 known etmopterids; and they weren’t. These specimens were jet-black with none of the classic body marking that other Lanternsharks possess. They were also much smaller and didn’t seem to glow as bright as most other species. Thinking about a name to reflect those features felt like proof I was almost done.

Holotype images of the Ninja Lanternshark (Etmopterus benchleyi)
Holotype images of the Ninja Lanternshark (Etmopterus benchleyi)

Almost done? I wasn’t even close.

What if another researcher had stumbled upon some specimens too? At the same time I was sitting in a lab endlessly pouring hours of honed attention into every minute detail of every shark I had, somewhere… someone… could have been doing the exact same thing! It may sound farfetched but the threat was quite real. During background research for the introduction of my paper, I realized new species were being discovered all the time! In 2015, nine new elasmobranch species (included this one) were discovered, with most being deepwater species. When I thought about that, my work became a race against time and a shadow competitor. The first of us to publish would be the official discoverer.

    Suddenly, a clever name seemed like a foolish concern. Worst, was the encroaching threat of losing the accolade entirely. My mind was flooded at the time with urgency but haste was its own kind of enemy. It’s not uncommon for taxonomists to write papers proving that what were previously believed as separate species are actually one in the same. One way an error like this occurs is when an established species is mistaken as new because it was found outside its known distribution range. Correcting or preventing such errors is often done through genetic analysis. Looking at the work I had done, I not only had something in a new region for any Lanternshark, I had no genetic analysis. Was I about to make this classic species mistake? Multiple reviews of my work was imperative to assuring my discovery would not be undone …and that takes time.

Interestingly to me, my co-authors did not seem as panic stricken by this cataclysmic, yet still theoretical, threat haunting our research. Why weren’t they more concerned?!?!?!?



Of course, it should’ve dawned on me sooner, it wasn’t their first rodeo. And quite literally so. Dr. Ebert and Dr. Long recently published another elasmobranch discovery from the very same research expedition. Like many seasoned scientists, my co-authors juggle multiple projects in collaboration with many different colleagues. So needless to say, the time-crunch I was feeling was not mutual. In fact, before I was brought onto the Lanternshark project, the specimens had been sitting in a museum for five years; again a common occurrence when there’s many projects to conduct.

Regardless if my “race against time” was as dramatic as I thought, the ‘Lost Shark’ dilemma never changed nor my desire to address it. So how did I find time to come up with a clever name amidst the race to publish our findings?

Turns out, the answer was easier than I thought! I asked four very short people for help. Well… they’re short for now. Since my little cousins are between the ages of eight and fourteen years old, they are literally growing as I type!

The minds behind the Ninja Lanternshark at the California Academy of Sciences (missing in photo is one older female cousin).
The minds behind the Ninja Lanternshark at the California Academy of Sciences (missing in photo is one older female cousin).

I had no idea how successful this approach would be. By incorporating my co-authors suggestions and a little creativity, my cousins and I came up with both a common and scientific name that drew a media storm just in time for the winter holidays! I say this quite literally as my family delayed opening Christmas presents on the 25th so the local news station could finish my interview. Most recently, the Ninja Lanternshark was incorporated in a 10-strip series (beginning here) for the comic, Sherman’s Lagoon by Jim Toomey.

Call me Arturo
Copyright: Sherman's Lagoon by Jim Toomey

The innovation didn’t stop there. My cousins and I recorded our shark conversation and we created a short film about it. I would now like to introduce you to, “We Named a Shark!” the video of how the Ninja Lanternshark got its name.

Click above for a direct link to video!
Click above for a direct link to video!

And stay tuned for What’s in A Name? Part II: The JAWS Effect, where I delve into the story of the Ninja Lanternshark’s scientific name, Etmopterus benchleyi.

Conference in Catalina? Yes, please!

By Jessica Jang

Three weekends ago (3/18~3/20), the Pacific Shark Research Center (PSRC) had the opportunity to attend the 2nd Northeast Pacific Shark Symposium.This symposium was to gather elasmobranch biologists and aquarists from the west coast and share their research and potentially collaborate on future research. People from Canada and Mexico were able to join us for this bi-annual event. What better way to have this conference at the famous USC Wrigley Center in Catalina!

All of us board the ferry at 8 AM and then prepared to spend two days talking about elasmobranchs!

The USC Wrigley Institute

We had a couple hours to explore the island before the first set of presentations, I had the opportunity to hike around the island and look at the beautiful scenery.



After having lunch, had people present about their research and learned lots of really neat things about elasmobranch research; the talks ranged from the charismatic white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) to the less attentive batoids (flat sharks). We also became aware of the new opportunities to collaborate with other scientists.

After learning two long days of hearing interesting talks, we had a group photo of everyone in the conference and had some downtime before getting on the ferry to head back to the mainland.

NEPSS 2016 group photo ful res

We were greeted with a stubborn individual that refused to leave the dock when the ferry approached.

Sea lion_bud

It had to take one of the brave deckhands to scare him off so we could disembark off the boat. But what a way to wrap up our successful conference at Catalina!

Thank you from the MLML students

By Kristin Walovich

Dear MLML Open House Visitors,

As a recipient of the 2016 Wave Award, I would like to sincerely thank the visitors of the 2015 Open House Event.

The Wave Award, funded by the generous contributions of Open House attendees, was established by the MLML Student Body to recognize graduate students who have generously given their time and shown continued dedication to MLML community service. At last year’s event, more than 2,000 attendees contributed $5,000 to student scholarships. The seven Wave Awards given this year will directly support our thesis research.

Students at MLML often juggle full time school, multiple jobs, a family, and maybe even some free time to complete our degrees. The financial support provided by this award is a welcome and wholeheartedly appreciated gift from the community, and I greatly appreciate your support.

Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to the 2015 Open House Event. We hope to see you this year again April 30th and May 1st! Please visit the 2016 Open House Event Website for more information about this year’s very special 50th anniversary event.

Sincerely, Kristin Walovich

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Seeking new species of Ghost Shark

By Kristin Walovich, Pacific Shark Research Center

White Sharks, Manta Rays and Tiger Sharks are easily identifiable to most, but there are more than 1,200 species of sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras, collectively called Chondrichthyans, known to science.

For my Master’s thesis I study a unique group of fish known as ghost sharks, chimaeras or ratfish. They are related to sharks and rays because of their cartilage skeleton, but look quite different. They have large pectoral fins, rabbit-like teeth and a long tapering body (check out an amazing video here). We know very little about these deep-sea creatures, in some cases something as simple as their name.

The Spotted Ratfish is a species of Ghost Shark found in California.

There are 49 species of Ghost Shark, however several additional species are known to exist, but have yet to be officially named. Under Dr. Dave Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center (PSRC), graduate students at MLML have named five new species of Ghost Shark since 2006. In fact the PSRC has described 25 new species of Chondrichthyans since its inception in efforts to help the 'Lost Sharks' of our oceans.  The most recent edition, the Ninja Lanternshark was officially published last month and received quite the media buzz!

DSC_6505Last year fellow graduate student Paul Clerkin and I traveled to South Africa to search for new Ghost Shark species. For more than 15 years local researchers speculated two new species existed in the region, but no one had taken the time to look for them. It may seem counterintuitive, but a museum is a great place to find unknown species. If researcher or fisherman encounters an unidentified chimaera, it's often placed in the museum collection and forgotten.

We arrived at the South African Museum in Cape Town to gather morphometrics, a series of 96 measurements per animals that we use to describe and differentiate species. Together we measured 90 specimens for a total of nearly 9,000 unique measurements. Finding and measuring specimens isn’t as glorious as it sounds, the specimens are preserved in alcohol and stored in large tubs; one never knows what you might find. It’s a smelly job, but stay tuned over the next few months for several new species of Ghost Shark!

The South African Museum houses hundreds upon thousands of fish in their collection.

Happy Holidays!

By Jessica Jang, Pacific Shark Research Center

Happy Holidays to all, and what better way to share the season with some festive themed marine animals and some information about them!

  1. Christmas Island Land Crab  (Gecarcoidea natalis)   
    Photo credit:

This brightly colored land crab is found only on Christmas Island and the Cocos Island and live in the rain forests; they are diurnal despite the lower temperatures and higher humidity. During the wet season (October-December) adult crabs go an arduous migration to the beaches to spawn. There are even road signs in Christmas Island to protect the crabs from during their mating season. Here's a clip about the migration of these interesting invertebrates!

2. Christmas Feather worms (Serpulidae)

Christmas Tree Feather Worms; photo courtesy of Becky

These worms make their own tubes and are commonly found in corals and come in a variety of colors. The colorful 'tree-like' appendages are used to capture food. Any slight pressure change alerts the worm to withdraw those appendages safely into their tubes. They are a common species for aquarium users, but are a challenge to maintain.

3. Sea Angels (Gymnosomata)


While these sea angels won't be singing a chorus, they are a sight to behold. Found in the arctic seas, these translucent and gelatinous gastropods (snails and slugs) have lost their shells, and evolved their 'sticky' foot into 'wings' to swim gracefully in the water column. There are a variety of species and they are no more than a couple several inches long. Below is a clip of how these angels move around!


4. Sea Stars (Asteroidea)

Chocolate-chip sea star (Protoreaster nodosus) photo credit: Marta RubioTexeira

These (usually) five-armed echinoderms are a perfect addition for our list! However do not let its looks deceive you. Sea stars have a very effective way of eating, prying the shell opening and then sticking its whole stomach inside a bivalve (mussel, clam, scallops, or oysters) and slurping the whole organism leaving an empty shell! Here's a link of a time-lapse video of it!


5. Angelfishes (Pomacanthidae)

Juvenile emperor fish (Pomacanthus imperator) (top); adult (bottom) photo from

Not to be confused with the freshwater angelfishes, marine angelfishes are found in shallow tropical waters around the world, these ornate and festive looking fishes consist of 87 different species that reside in coral reefs. Juvenile species have a color variation different than the adults. Many of these species are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning while one male control his harems of females, if that male dies, the largest female will then become a male!

A bridge, some boats, and a boom!

By Catarina Pien, Pacific Shark Research Center

One of the unique consequences of being a student at MLML is the opportunity to participate in research opportunities outside of the institution. Many alumni from MLML end up working at surrounding research agencies and organizations, and thus will turn to the lab to look for students to help out with various projects. For example, while being a student at MLML, I have been able to participate on consulting projects and assorted research cruises, allowing me to gain valuable research experience and insight into my future career goals.

This past month, two of our ichthyology faculty members, Drs. Richard Starr and Scott Hamilton, were contacted by alumnus William VanPeeters, who now works for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), to work on an exciting project involving the demolition of a portion of the old Bay Bridge.

Bay Bridge (new bridge, not being demolished), Photo credit: Ryan Fields

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Halloween’s Most Festive Ocean Creatures!


Vicky Vásquez is a graduate student in the Pacific Shark Research Center and serves as Deputy Director of the Ocean Research Foundation.


Just in time for All Hallow’s Eve here’s a line-up of the ocean’s most festive Halloween animals! Check them out in all their ghastly horror, they’ve been waiting all year to get some haunting attention.

Halloween Crab (Gecarinus quadratus)

This list certainly could not begin without the arthropod waiting all year for its time to Trick and Treat. The Trick? Halloween crabs are not as beachy as you might think. They spend most of their lives in mangroves and rainforests along the Pacific coast of Mexico down to Panama. Since they have a planktonic larval stage, they only head to the ocean to spawn. The Treat? Racoons love them! Halloween crabs are an important food source in areas where the range of these two animals overlap.

Species: Gecarcinus quadratus Common name: Halloween Crab. Photo by E. Mena
Species: Gecarcinus quadratus Common name: Halloween Crab. Photo by E. Mena

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What’s in a Mermaid Purse? (Part 2)

By Jessica Jang, Pacific Shark Research Center

In public aquariums, you might had the privilege of viewing an embryo developing in its egg case watching it grow from a little alien-like body to a fully developed shark or skate.

Big skate embryos developing. Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium

But, have you wondered how did the aquarists were able to exhibit this without harming the developing embryos? I'll tell you! For my thesis, I have been monitoring the development of a species of skate called the Big skate (Beringraja binoculata). In order to do that, I had to learn how to cut open the egg case, and what better way to learn this technique from than from the experts at the Monterey Bay Aquarium?

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a popular exhibit where they display embryos developing in an egg case, so I was very lucky to have one of the aquarists, Kelsey Barker teach me how to implement this.

First of all, we need fertile egg cases. Similar to birds, skates can lay unfertilized eggs in their egg cases, but dissecting an infertile egg case is not the best idea as it becomes very messy. This species, the Big skate (B. binoculata) is really interesting, because unlike other species of skates (currently 287+), it is one of TWO species of skates that have the ability to produce multiple embryos within an egg case! How cool is that? All other sharks, skates, and chimaera species produce one embryo per egg case. These Big skate egg cases range from 20 cm to 32 cm in total length (TL).

Egg case ready to be dissected.
Egg case ready to be dissected.

Once we have a fertile egg, we make sure that the horns of the egg case have opened up. These horns will allow us squeeze trapped air once we enclosed the egg case back up again. This protocol only requires several minutes, we have to take the egg case out to make sure the embryos don't float away! We carefully make an incision with a scalpel on the flat side of the egg case, as it's easier to glue the viewing window. Then using scissors, we cut a square opening in the middle of the egg case.

Cutting open the egg case to reveal embryos!
Cutting open the egg case to reveal embryos! Photo credit: M. Cruickshank
Embryos present! Cutting a square to place the viewing window. Photo credit: M. Cruickshank

Once the egg case has been successfully dissected, we dry the outer corners of the square, and use the two most highly 'scientific' items to place the viewing window; super glue and sheet protectors! We wait for the glue to dry and then immerse the egg case back into the water, squeezing any air bubbles out.

Skate embryos; photo credit: J.Jang
Finished product! Viewing window with embryos photo credit: J. Jang

Now the egg case is ready to be on exhibit or observed. Here is a picture of my tank setup!


These embryos will fully develop within six to eight months, this is around the time when they used up their yolk sacs, then they emerge out of their egg cases ready to show the world that being a baby skate isn't easy!