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Harbor Branch Senior Scientist discusses recent technological studies on deep sea life

<iday February 22, Edith A. Widder, Senior Scientist of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, presented convocation. Her talk was entitled “New Technologies to Discover our World.”

Widder’s many accomplishments include co-founding the Ocean Research Conservation Association (ORCA) in 2005, the creation of the Eye in the Sea camera system, and the education of people across the USA, including students at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Florida, where she served as a senior scientist and acted as a consultant for the deep sea portion of Blue Planet. Widder graduated from Tufts University and then continued on to receive her PhD in neurobiology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is considered to be an expert on bioluminescence.

Widder’s most recent studies have focused on deep sea life that produces bioluminescence, which is the ability of living creatures to make light. She strives to “use technologies both to discover and to protect our world.”

In addition to having the opportunity to see bioluminescent plankton, Carleton’s convocation audience was the first large group to witness the deep sea footage that Widder recently collected in August. The footage included deep sea creatures never seen before. Part of the reason for these creatures’ elusiveness, Widder said, is that machines typically used to observe them are loud and use bright lights. However, the new technologies Widder has developed minimizes disturbance.

Marine biology, according to Widder, has too long depended on outdated methods—for example, collecting species via nets dragged behind vessels. “If you want to study life in the ocean it is far better that you go to it, rather than bring it to you,” Widder said.

Widder’s first experiences of deep sea exploration included submersable exploration. Submersables are similar to submarines though they have more limited power supplies. Using a diving suit, Widder dived to the depths of 2,000 feet. The experience, Widder said, “changed my understanding of life in the ocean and my understanding of the expression ‘colder than a witch’s tit.’” It was her firsthand viewing of deep sea life that sparked Widder’s interest of bioluminescence and changed her career path.

Bioluminescence, Widder explained, is an evolutionary- based trait. It is used by animals for attracting mates, defense, and finding food. And although bioluminescence is considered rare, Widder argues that it is not necessarily uncommon; rather, specimens brought up in nets have exhausted their luminescence. This is another reason why Widder is not satisfied with this traditional way of collection; as a colleague of hers says of using nets, “We only collect the slow, the stupid, and the greedy.”

Widder continues to pursue her interest in bioluminescence. Her most recent creation is the Eye in the Sea camera system (EITS), which uses luminescence to attract animals and capture them on film. When her original attempt to gain funding for the project in 1994 proved unfruitful, Widder turned to the Harvey Mudd Engineering clinic in L.A. and proposed it as a student project. The National Geographic and Atmospheric Administration then funded the building of the underwater housing and camera frame work. Finally, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute funded the battery and early field test. The system uses far red light which is not seen by the animal, has an intensified camera to view the luminescence, and has a glowing “jelly fish” to attract the animals.

The first expedition was in Brind Pool in the Gulf of Mexico. Eighty-six seconds after the activation of the jelly fish, a squid over six feet long, an animal that is “so new to science it cannot even be placed in any scientific family” by the experts at the Smithsonian, came into view. Based on her footage, Widder was awarded half a million dollars by the National Science Foundation to “do it right.”

The new version of EITS does recordings in Monterey and has gathered footage in the Bahamas. Part of the Bahamas footage has cleared up a mystery behind the six-gilled shark. From the recordings, it appears that the sharks suck up sand in order to eat isopods and then shoot the sand out of their gills. Isopods were only considered “the cockroaches of the sea” and not a possibility as a primary food source until Widder’s footage proved this wrong.

The footage is also important for protection of these creatures. For example, the six-gilled sharks are being threatened by the Asian market for shark fin soup. Other than this isolated case, though, Widder offers a clear message about the state of the environment. “The oceans are in trouble,” she said. Among the problems, Widder pointed out, are loss of habitat, over-harvesting and fishing, red tides, and pollutants.

Widder’s response? “It’s the optimist in life who sees new possibilities. This is a philosophy we need to be embracing right now because we have a tremendous number of challenges in front of us.” This was part of Widder’s reasoning behind her co-founding of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. For more information or to see some of the videos mentioned above, visit

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