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By Leonard A. Hindus
In a dark room in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), technicians called "annotators" search deep-sea videotapes looking for creatures that look like they could be the products of a mad scientist. Some species are known and familiar; some have never been seen before.
In February 2004, researchers discovered a "bumpy" jellyfish that moves through the water like a shooting star, trailing four fleshy oral arms -- but no tentacles -- behind it. This and other unique features resulted in the jelly's categorization as a new genus and species.
Each organism, once classified, is entered into a computerized database, dubbed the knowledge base, using a taxonomic annotation along with the tape identifier and time code. Sometimes a frame grabber is included.
The Institute was founded in 1987 by David Packard, a founder of Hewlett Packard Inc. "MBARI emphasizes the peer relationship between engineers and scientists as a basic principle of its operation," Packard wrote on the MBARI website. "All of the activities of MBARI must be characterized by excellence, innovation, and vision." A goal of MBARI is to "transfer research results, technology and operational techniques to the marine science community worldwide."
In keeping with these goals, the Institute uses high-resolution video equipment to record more than 300 remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dives per year. Researchers needed a system to maintain a database of the information contained on the thousands of hours of tape so that the information is accessible and useful to researchers. In the past 16 years, 11,000 hours of videotape have been annotated and archived into a centralized institutional resource. Using the videotapes, researchers and lab technicians have produced more than 50,000 frame grabs and 1.21 million interpretive annotations. All of this research is available, free of charge, over the Internet through the Knowledge Base and an archival system called the VARS Query system.