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JSU Students Get Rare Opportunity
on Floating Sea Lab

The Gordon Gunter R-336 was commissioned as a research vessel on Aug. 28, 1998 in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The ship was fit out with modern navigation electronics and oceanographic winches, sensors, and sampling equipment. It collects fish and crustacean specimens using trawls and benthic longlines and fish larvae and eggs, and plankton using plankton nets and surface and midwater larval nets.

Graduate student Clifford J. Webb holds up an angel shark in the lab of the Gordon Gunter. The shark, while not especially dangerous to people, is known by the egg case it lays that resembles a drawstring purse sometimes called mermaid’s purse.

By Sherry Kughn
News Bureau

January 21, 2005 -- Three Jacksonville State University students sailed the Gulf of Mexico twice last fall in search of unknown species of marine life.

Megan Baskin, Robert Dafoe, and Clifford J. Webb accompanied JSU Professor Frank Romano on trips to collect samples of mud and sand from the bottom of the Gulf. Dr. Romano was looking for microscopic life.

Baskin is an undergraduate from Glencoe; Dafoe is an undergraduate from Southside; and Webb is a graduate student from Tampa, Fla. They worked aboard the Gordon Gunter R-336 research vessel, a converted navy sonar boat.

According to Webb, every time the nets brought up fish, there was at least one species that he had never seen. “Often, there were species in there that even the scientists could not identify,” he said.

Due to equipment failure, Romano and his students were unable to collect mud samples, but they gained other valuable research experience. The trips are part of a five-year grant arranged with the help of JSU alumnus Walter Ingram, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), a unit of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. JSU alumnus John Moser also joined the crew and assisted on a recent trip.

Baskin said she was honored to be chosen. “There are techniques you learn that you can apply in other ways,” she said.

Dr. Romano, head of the biology department, has worked for JSU 15 years. An expert in aquatic and marine biology, Romano studied at The Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass.

Romano said, “It is great for these guys to be out with NOAA. Only a handful of students get to go out each year.”

Dr. Romano studies meiofauna, microscopic animals that live in the mud and sands of the ocean floor, and is an expert on taridgrades, commonly called water bears -- clear, microscopic, cell-like creatures that walk bear-like through the muck of the ocean floor. To study their habits and contributions to the food chain, he stains them with a pink dye in order to see them.

Romano’s students performed research during the trip. Webb was interested in the offshore lizard fish, which is about three inches long. He collected them at each site, froze them, and brought them back to JSU.

“I am examining their gut contents to see what they eat,” he said.

The students said dining experiences on the ship were great. Two Filipino chefs prepared such fare as giant shrimp, fresh flounder, and even larger fish.

The crew’s living conditions required coping skills. The students had to develop “sea legs” to be able to walk around the ship. Sometimes they were almost thrown from their beds by rough waves. And when they returned to land, they had to cope with “dock rock,” a feeling of still being on the waves.

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