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The University of Alabama

UA Professor to Join Scientists Exploring the Deep Ocean

Dr. Kevin Kocot, an assistant professor of biology at The University of Alabama and curator of invertebrate zoology at the Alabama Museum of Natural History

Kocot is an assistant professor of biology at The University of Alabama and curator of invertebrate zoology at UA’s Alabama Museum of Natural History.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — While the unique environment of the deep ocean would likely prove nightmarish and panic inducing for many people, it’s just another day of fieldwork for The University of Alabama’s Dr. Kevin Kocot.

The light fades.

Deep, inky darkness swallows the submersible.

The descent is slow and steady. Soon, miles of black ocean serve as the only ceiling in sight.

The submersible is small and tightly confined, and air is limited. But its lack of comfort is an easy trade considering the conditions outside of it. Atmospheric pressure that could crush a person like an elephant stepping on a peanut presses on the sub from every conceivable angle. But, it was built for this. It holds together and protects its human cargo.

This is an experience that Kocot, a UA assistant professor in the department of biological sciences and curator of invertebrate zoology at UA’s Alabama Museum of Natural History, will soon experience again.

On Thursday, he begins his ninth marine research expedition into the dark depths. This time he’ll be joined by 21 other marine scientists from universities across the nation who were selected from a pool of 31 applicants to participate in this year’s Chief Scientist Training Cruise put on by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System.

The purpose of the expedition is to train early-career research scientists in the use of research submersibles. In doing so, they’ll collect biological and geological samples from the Atlantic Ocean’s bottom.

Cindy Van Dover, principal investigator of the training cruise, said Kocot was selected for the project because of his expertise in biological oceanography and evolutionary biology.

“Like other participants, he was identified as an individual who would contribute to and benefit from a leadership experience in the field and whose research approach depends upon field research,” she said.

Research Vessel Atlantis and the human-occupied vehicle (HOV) Alvin. Divers meet the sub when it surfaces to attach it to a hoist rope and bring it back on board. (Image Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Research Vessel Atlantis and the human-occupied vehicle Alvin are shown. Divers meet the sub when it surfaces to attach it to a hoist rope and bring it back on board (Image Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

The nearly two-week cruise – July 28 to Aug. 9 – aboard the RV Atlantis will depart from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts after a two-day training session at the institution on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Once the team reaches its destination, scientists, grouped by their interests into teams of three, will descend into the ocean aboard the famous deep-sea research vessel Alvin, which can drop to a maximum depth of 14,764 ft.

Scientists will also use the autonomous robotic submersible named Sentry to map the bottom of the ocean, a part of the Earth where less is known than the surface of Mars.

“I’m really excited about this expedition,” Kocot said. “I think it will be a great opportunity as I’m hoping to use Alvin again in my future research.”

During the expedition, Kocot will collect invertebrates including corals, octopods and a poorly known group of deep sea worm-shaped mollusks called aplacophorans.

“Because they’re mostly found in the deep sea, they’ve been understudied,” he said of Aplacophora. “Everywhere I go, I find new species.

“Something my lab always focuses on is the process of biomineralization, which is the process of producing a skeleton or a shell. These worm-like animals don’t have a shell like other mollusks, but they are covered in tiny spines. I want to compare these mollusks that have spines to ones that have shells, like snails and pearl oysters.

“We think the evolution of the genes involved in biomineralization evolve rapidly. With respect to biomineralization, Aplacophora seem to be a more primitive group. If we look at the fossil record, there are a lot of animals that look like Aplacophora.”

Aplacophora are worm-like mollusks characterized by their lack of shells and tiny calcareous spicules.

Aplacophora are worm-like mollusks characterized by their lack of shells and tiny units called calcareous spicules.

The deep-sea corals Kocot and his colleagues will be sampling are a lot different from the coral reefs found in shallower tropical waters.

Most corals have a symbiotic relationship with algae that obtain energy from the sun and to grow, but deep-sea corals are cut off from the sun. He said they obtain nutrition from the water through suspension feeding.

“Because they do not obtain energy directly from the sun, they grow very slowly. It’s thought that some deep-sea black corals may be over 1,000 years old,” he said.

Once samples are collected using the submersibles’ manipulator arms and nets, the team will haul their catch back to the ship and conduct morphological work, putting the animals under microscopes and performing DNA sequencing.

“My goals are to try to document the diversity of the animals that I work on in this region and improve understanding of their evolutionary history and the evolution of the process of biomineralization in general,” Kocot said. “I suspect we’ll find new species, which is always exciting.”

The venture is being funded by a National Science Foundation grant, “EAGER: Developing At-Sea & Telepresence-Led Deep-Submergence Science Leadership.” It was awarded to Duke University.

If anyone wants to follow the adventures of Kocot and the rest of the Chief Scientist Training Cruise team during the expedition, they will be found on Twitter at @kmkocot, @AT36_EAGER and on Instagram at @at36_eager. Also, look for the hashtag #SeaFloorSci on social media.

To find out more details about how the expedition went and to ask questions about it, a live, 30-minute Q&A session will be held on Facebook Live and Periscope at 9:30 a.m. (Central) Aug. 3, 4 and 5. Questions must be submitted beforehand on Twitter.

The department of biological sciences is a part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes, Goldwater and Truman scholarships.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.

  • CONTACT: Jamon Smith, UA media relations, 205/348-5320
  • SOURCE: Dr. Kevin Kocot, or Twitter at @kmkocot