Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/November 1903/A Laboratory for the Study of Marine Zoology in the Tropical Atlantic

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 64 November 1903  (1903) 
A Laboratory for the Study of Marine Zoology in the Tropical Atlantic by Alfred Goldsborough Mayer



MANY able naturalists have discussed the question of the advisability of establishing a marine biological laboratory for research within the West Indian region, and the advocacy of the idea by Huxley and Lancaster is a matter of recent memory. While none of these discussions has resulted in the establishment of a permanent laboratory they have served a useful purpose in keeping alive the interest of

Track of Loggerhead Turtle (T. caretta) made in crawling up the Beach to lay its Eggs. Loggerhead Key, Tortugas.

biologists, and also in proving that it is very difficult to bring about a combination of colleges or learned societies which will lead to the establishment of such a station.

Indeed the realization of the establishment of such a laboratory might be considered well-nigh hopeless were it not for the recent creation of the Carnegie Institution. If it be the aim of this institution to maintain researches which no existing agencies have been able to perform it would appear that an excellent opportunity is presented in the possibility of establishing such a laboratory.

Each of our universities and learned societies represents a more or less well-defined and consequently narrow clientage, while the Carnegie Institution alone is truly national in its scope and influence. Also while our national scientific bureaus must devote their energies chiefly to the solution of practical problems, the Carnegie Institution alone may devote even the major proportion of its funds to the advancement of pure science. As no permanent laboratory for research in marine zoology exists in the West Indian region the Carnegie Noddy Gull (A. stolida) upon its Nest, Bird Key, Tortugas, where several thousand of these birds nest annually. Institution would have an absolutely free hand in determining the situation, scope and destiny of such a. station.

The present movement appears to have been initiated by two articles in Science advocating the establishment of such a laboratory at the Tortugas, Florida. Considerable discussion ensued; the chief questions being those of the most suitable site for the station, its auspices, and the character of its work. Opinions upon these important points were expressed by fifty naturalists, such as Barton. M. A. Bigelow, E. P. Bigelow, Chapman, H. L. Clarke, J. F. Clarke, Conklin, Dall, Davenport, Dean, Dodge, Duerden, Edwards, Evermann, Gill, Hargitt, Herrick, L. O. Howard, Jennings, H. P. Johnson, D. S. Jordan, V. L. Kellogg, Kingsley, Lillie, Lucas, McBride, McMurrich, Metcalf, Mills, Minot, Montgomery, Morgan, Neal, Nutting, Ortmann, C. H. Parker, E. Rathbun, Richards, Ritter, Rolfs, Sedgwick, Springer, R. M. Strong, Treadwell, Verrill, H. B. Ward and four others. It is evident that a large number of our most active biologists have interested themselves in the project.

Twenty of those who have expressed any opinion upon the question of site have favored more or less strongly the placing of the laboratory at the Tortugas; six recommend Jamaica; three Porto Rico; two the Gulf Coast; two the Bahamas; the Isle of Pines, Miami, Florida, and the Bermudas each one.

Although the number of naturalists who have advocated the placing of the laboratory at Jamaica is small, their opinion is evidently worthy of highest respect when we consider that among them are such investigators as Barton, H. L. Clark, Conklin, Duerden and Morgan. The advantages claimed for Jamaica are a healthful climate, the best of social conditions, a rich land and fresh-water as well as marine fauna and flora, and the accessibility of the island. The land flora and fauna of Jamaica are stated on good authority to be the richest of the Antilles, while the coral reefs and marine fauna, although possibly

The Parade Ground of Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, seen through one of the Casemates.

not so rich as those of the Tortugas, are said to be remarkably varied. Unfortunately none of the gentlemen who advocate Jamaica have been at the Tortugas, and it is therefore impossible for them to make any direct comparison between the marine faunæ of the two places.

The advocates of the Tortugas, Florida, claim that here we find by far the richest pelagic fauna of the tropical Atlantic which is driven upon the shores by the prevailing winds from the Gulf Stream.

The Tortugas reefs, while not so rich in corals, are richer in fishes and invertebrates than are those of the Bahamas and probably of other West Indian Islands. The nearness of the Pourtales plateau would give the station an enviable opportunity for deep-sea dredging, while the remarkable purity of the ocean water surrounding the Tortugas would provide the laboratory with an almost unique advantage in the rearing of larvæ, and prosecution of physiological work. The Tortugas is now a naval coaling station, and a naval surgeon is stationed at Fort Jefferson, which is in telegraphic connection with Key West. A large naval tug makes two regular trips each week to and fro between Key West and the Tortugas, completing the journey in less than six hours. The climate is rendered cool by the small land area and the almost constant breeze. There are no sand flies and practically no mosquitoes on Bird and Loggerhead keys, while the few mosquitoes

Gulf-Weed and Marine Animals cast upon the Beach of Loggerhead Key, Tortugas, by A Gale of seven hours' Duration.

at Fort Jefferson could be eradicated by screening the cisterns. The quarantine station has been removed, and the place is most healthful on account of its isolation.

With the exception of several species of gulls, numerous migrating birds and a few insects, the land fauna of the Tortugas is uninteresting, and the flora is limited to the few plants which can cling to beaches of coral sand. In these respects Jamaica is incomparably superior to the Tortugas. The social conditions, and opportunity for the study of a diversified land and fresh-water fauna and flora in Jamaica are far superior to those which may be enjoyed at the Tortugas. On the other hand, the Tortugas has a far richer pelagic and certainly equally good littoral fauna, the purest of ocean water, and it affords the best situation in the world from which to study the life and conditions of the Gulf Stream. To students from the middle west the Tortugas are more accessible than is Jamaica.

The discussion has at least succeeded in establishing the fact that the Bahamas are on the whole inferior to the Tortugas, for despite their good coral reefs, their pelagic and littoral faunæ are relatively poor. Nutting who directed one of the most successful biological expeditions ever sent to the Bahamas, is emphatic in declaring the superiority of the Tortugas. The prevalent winds prevent the floating life of the Gulf Stream from reaching the Bahamas, whereas they

The Queen's Stairway, Nassau, Bahamas. A cut through aeollan rock.

constantly drift the pelagic creatures of the stream upon the Tortugas.

Next to Jamaica, Porto Rico appears to be the favorite among the Antilles; the southern shore, Mayaguez, and Culebra Island being especially recommended. Judging from the published results of the Fish Hawk expedition of 1898-99 under the auspices of the United States Fish Commission, the littoral fauna is remarkably good, although I am informed on excellent authority that the pelagic hauls of the expedition were poor. The social conditions of Porto Rico appear to be not so good as those of Jamaica, and its land fauna and flora are said to be poorer than those of the English island, but there are certain advantages in having the station established upon land possessed by the United States. This also applies to the Isle of Pines, which has been ably recommended by J. Fred Clarke.

The marine fauna of the Tortugas is greatly superior to that of the Florida mainland or Gulf Coast. Moreover, while the ocean water surrounding the Tortugas is of the purest the shore waters of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico are often charged with silt, and sullied with the drainage from mangrove swamps to such a degree as to be rapidly fatal to pelagic life. The littoral fauna of the mainland shores is

Beach Rock at Mastic Point, Andros Isd., Bahamas. A typical sea-worn rocky beach composed of agglutinated fragments of shells, corals, etc.

inferior to that of the Tortugas, and the greater heat, mosquitoes and occasional epidemics of mainland places render them undesirable.

The fauna of Bermuda is subtropical and consequently poorer than that of the Bahamas, Tortugas or West Indies. Judging from the results accomplished by Fewkes and others the pelagic life appears to be even poorer than that of the Bahamas, although the expeditions under Verrill have demonstrated that the littoral fauna is very rich.

Summing up, the question of site appears to have been narrowed down to a choice between the Tortugas and one of the Antilles, the favorite island being Jamaica. Before this question can be definitely settled some competent naturalist who is already familiar with the fauna and flora of one of these places should investigate the other with a view to drawing a just comparison between them. It is remarkable that no biologist familiar with either one of these situations has ever studied at the other:

Concerning the scope and auspices of the laboratory all the correspondents are agreed that it should be national in character, and that every possible aid should be given to all competent students, both in the prosecution of their studies and in the publication of results.

Although a tropical laboratory may well remain open during the entire year, the most available months for study are May 1 to August 1. This is the period of calms, which follows the trade wind period of the winter and precedes the hurricane season of the autumn. During late spring and early summer months one may safely go out to sea in small sail boats, and may wade and collect on the windward sides of the reefs, an advantage rarely enjoyed during the winter, when the almost constant trade wind lashes the ocean into foam. There is yet another advantage gained by selecting the summer months for study, for this is the period when numerous larvæ and young forms appear; and few realize who have not been there that there is almost as much difference between the fauna of summer and winter in the tropical ocean as there is along our own temperate shores. With the exception of the Siphonophoræ, almost all forms of pelagic life are much more numerous in spring and summer than during the winter months. These remarks apply especially to the Tortugas and Bahamas, where the calm period is well marked.

This appeal for this laboratory may seem to some to be worthy of but little attention; for abstract laws and facts having little or no bearing upon the practical things of life would chiefly concern its thought, but who may dare to predict the outcome of the study of pure science? Polarized light by means of which we now analyze our sugars, the principles underlying the working of the dynamo, telegraph and telephone; the great law of evolution and the germ theory of disease were all discovered and made known by men who had in mind only the advancement of the sum of human knowledge totally apart from practical results or the acquisition of wealth. Our national progress vast in material has been insignificant in abstract science, yet underlying all practical applications are the laws which men who have studied nature for the simple-love of her ways have found. Too much of our energy is withdrawn from the study of cardinal principles, and too much devoted to the application of established laws to the serving of mere practical ends. Let us have at least one laboratory devoted exclusively to research in science, both pure and applied, and let its course be free from criticism if it be so fortunate as to lead to the discovery of laws even if no money be made thereby.

  1. With illustrations by permission of the Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.