Marine Biology Professor to Explore Gulf’s Deep Canyons

Professor Heather Judkins on board a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico analyzing a recently captured squid.

Professor Heather Judkins on board a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico analyzing a recently captured squid.

(Dec. 6, 2017) – Even today, the deep sea and the marine life it contains is still largely mysterious. USFSP Marine Biology Professor Heather Judkins and a team of researchers were just awarded a NOAA Ocean Exploration Grant to reveal a bit of that mystery and explore never-before-reached canyons in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The team will spend two and a half weeks aboard a research vessel in the summer of 2019 conducting bioluminescence experiments and collecting rare and potentially new species from the deep ocean.

“The techniques and knowledge I will learn from this experience and from my colleagues makes this such an incredible opportunity,” said Judkins. “We will explore one part of the deepest areas in the Gulf of Mexico – the Sigsbee Deep Escarpment approximately 200 miles southeast of Texas – and possibly discover new marine life and findings related to how animals use bioluminscence.”

Bioluminescence is the light produced by living organisms using various mechanisms of chemical reactions. The team will examine different properties of bioluminescence used by marine life such as cephalopods, fish and crustaceans living at 1,000-2,000 meters deep in the sea. They will do so using a remote operated vehicle system to take images and record video, an illumination system with LED lights – dubbed “Eye in the Sea” – that will display different biolumescent patterns to attract creatures towards it and a Tucker trawl net system that will collect live animals and bring them up to the ship for onboard studies.

For Judkins, a cephalopod expert who will focus on identifying and understanding the bioluminescence properties of various octopus and squid, the research expedition will be her eighth time out to sea.

“It is amazing, exhausting and absolutely rewarding in terms of what you can accomplish with two to three weeks on a
ship,” said Judkins.

Some of her previous expeditions were part of a consortium funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to study short- and long-term impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on marine life and ecosystems below 200 meters depth. This ongoing multi-year project is collecting data on contaminants from the spill and impacts on food webs to determine changes in the ecosystem and to marine life from the environmental disaster. Data and findings from these research trips are used by Judkins for publications and graduate student research.

In addition to the data collected, the out-to-sea experience provides valuable educational lessons that Judkins brings back to her USFSP students.

“It is one thing for me to tell students that I read in a book that this is how marine life act at a specific depth or how they move within a water column,” said Judkins. “But to bring back actual examples from these cruises, to share data and findings we collected, to get ideas from students about naming a new cephalopod species we discovered, it gets them so excited for the science.”

The NOAA Ocean Exploration research team, which was awarded $565,000, will include scientists from Duke University, Nova Southeastern University and the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. The expedition will also include graduate students in all parts of the two-year project.

The NOAA Ocean Exploration Grants come from its’ Office of Ocean Exploration & Research, which seeks to enhance ocean exploration and scientific knowledge of unknown or poorly known areas of the ocean.