DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
(December 1871- August 1872)
The Hassler Expedition, a deep-sea dredging operation, circumvented South America and the Galapagos Islands with the goal of collecting deep-sea specimens. The expedition sought to amass marine life to compare to fossils from earlier eras, and observe the glaciers and moraines of the Southern Andes. In addition to the collection of marine animal life, hundreds of samples of algae were pulled off the ocean’s floor, coastal rocks, and skimmed from the sea-surface.
Professor Louis Agassiz of Harvard University was invited to lead the coastal voyage that would explore the sea at greater depths than ever before. Agassiz’s own personal objective was to “consider the whole Darwin Theory free from external influences and former prejudices,” by analyzing and evaluating the specimens collected. The Hassler steamship, commanded by Phillip Johnson, was equipped with new technologies for the purpose of probing the life at the bottom of the sea and was described by Agassiz as, “potentially the most significant accomplishment in ocean science since the voyages of Captain Cook.”
According to the Annual Report of the Coast Survey, over 7,000 specimens were accumulated over the course of the eight month exploration. Many specimens were sent to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, while others were sent to the Smithsonian Institution. The majority of plant life collected were samples of algae from many remote areas along the Magellan Strait, Galapagos Islands, and the eastern coast of South America.
Thomas Hill, a former President of Harvard, was employed as the official botanist of the expedition. Hill collected alga such as the Buellia stipitata and the Sargassum cymos near the Karahy coast of Brazil attached to the surface of rocks. Sargassum cymos is also referred to as “Sea Holly” due to its leaves, which are pointed similarly to the shape of thistles, and its hollow, “berry-like” pneumatocysts, which are gas-filled bladders that allow the leaves to float. The “Sea Holly” has recently been used as a fertilizer in Australia and New Zealand.
Several specimens from the Red Alga family were also collected. Examples of these red-tinted specimens include Polysiphonia paniculata and Gelidium filicium, both found in the Galapagos Province. Gelidium algae are used to derive agar, a gelatin substance used in many Asian desserts. Another alga acquired by Hill was Chaetomorpha linum, or “Spagetti algae.” This marine plant is a green-colored alga with hair-like formations emerging from it. It forms dense masses of tangled strands that provide a safe haven for small invertebrate creatures.
Algae are commonly used by marine animals for shelter and nests. Agassiz’s noted in his journal that one of the most interesting finds of their journey was a ball of seaweed that the Chironestes pictus, an aquatic marsupial nicknamed the “water opossum” or “frog-fish,” entangled to form a nest for its eggs. The seaman who discovered the nest described it as a “ball of Gulf Weed.” Agassiz explains, “It was a round mass of Sargassum about the size of two fists, rolled up together.” He continues, “it became apparent that this mass of sea-weed was a nest [and] the eggs [were] scattered throughout the mass of the nest.”
The Hassler Expedition was just the beginning of scientific exploration into the deep-sea. The official report states that a vast variety and volume of specimens were discovered, many of which were previously unknown. In The Edge of an Unfamiliar World, Susan Schlee wrotethat the Hassler expedition, “[has] shown other nations the way to the treasures of knowledge which lie in the recesses of the ocean.”
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"Chaetomorpha linum - Microcosm Aquarium Explorer." Your Portal to Aquatic Discovery - Microcosm Aquarium Explorer.
Harvard University. "Open Collections Program: Expeditions and Discoveries, Hassler Expedition to South America, 1871–1872." Harvard University Library: Open Collections Program: Home. http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/expeditions/hassler.html.
NOAA. "2007 Hassler Expedition - The 1871 Hassler Expedition ." NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries: Oceans, Marine Life, Shipwrecks, Diving, Whales. http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/maritime/expeditions/hassler/expedition.html.
"Sargassum (algae genus) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia ." Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/524242/Sargassum.
Schlee, Susan. The edge of an unfamiliar world; a history of oceanography. 1st ed. New York: Dutton, 1973.