J. Rudi Strickler clicked on a video player and monitor, producing the white outline of an oval animal with long, curvy antennae bobbing up and down against a black background.
As the ghostly figure moved in a steady current, similar shaped animals sped past horizontally."Females go horizontally and males go up and down to increase the probability they they'll meet so they can mate," said Strickler, a marine biologist and director of the Boston University Marine Program.
"It's a problem in the ocean for these tiny animals," said Strickler. "It's not New York. There's no disco to go to."
Strickler uses lasers and high-quality video technology to catch glimpses of the world of tiny animals that live deep in the world's oceans.
The animals, a type of crustacean known as copepods, eat algae and are in turn eaten by fish, making them a vital link in the aquatic food chain.
It's important to learn more about them, Strickler said, to avoid disrupting their environment with pollution and in other ways that would have a devastating impact further along the chain.
The best way to learn more about these organisms is to watch them. But since they are so small, live in near total darkness and move incredibly fast, that requires special equipment.
"In marine science, the problem is it's down there," said Strickler, pointing at the floor during an interview in his satellite office at the Marine Biological Laboratory.
"When we want to know anything that goes on in the ocean we have to be a fly on the wall. We have to either go down or bring it back to the lab. That's where I'm involved. I'm the fly on the wall," he said.
Copepods range from about the size of the head of a pin to about a quarter-inch in length. But when magnified, they are revealed to be highly complex.
Strickler puts the animals in specially designed tanks and uses an air pump to recreate current. He then uses lasers to provide light because they can be aimed specifically. He points the lasers at the animals and then films them with high-powered lenses. The films can then be magnified and slowed down to study the animals' behavior.
On one tape, a copepod known as a euchaeta was glued to the hair of a dog with crazy glue to hold it in place and make it easier to observe. In one sequence, a larger copepod ate a smaller one, showing researchers how they capture certain prey.
On another tape, a copepod known as a daphia was seen eating particles that had been made fluorescent so researchers could study their digestive system. The tiny particles quickly filled up the tiny animal's tube-like stomach.
"It's like filling up a garbage bag. These animals find a whole bunch of food at once and fill up the garbage bag. This tells you algae is not evenly distributed in the ocean. If it was evenly distributed these animals wouldn't do it this way," he said.
"That's an old argument among scientists, whether the algae is evenly distributed in the ocean," he said. "This is important for calculating the amount of algae in the ocean, which is important for projecting food sources down the food chain."
Other researchers come from around the world to use Strickler's equipment to study small creatures.
He is also experimenting with holograms - three-dimensional images created with laser light - to study how fish feed on the copepods. He wants to find out, for example, whether it is the copepods' movement, smell or shape they are attracted to. Experiments Strickler has conducted so far using holograms that resemble copepods indicate it's their movement.
Stricker is also collaborating with researchers at the nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to gather the first undersea film of these animals.
He designed a tiny laser-camera system, which the researchers planned to drop 12,000 feet into the North Sea between Norway and Iceland during a research trip involving the Knorr, the vessel used to find the Titanic last year.
"They could bring back films of animals we've never seen before," said Strickler.