Friday, January 2, 2015

A new place for a new year

Bienvenue. Since I wrote last I have finished my Ph.D., uprooted my entire life, and started a postdoc in a foreign language, in a faraway land. But I think about this space periodically, and so here I am again.

I miss my field site in New York. I knew I would, and I felt a little sad every time I went out there last summer, knowing it might be the last. When I was sure it was the last time, I was very sad. But the snails are still there, doing their snail thing, whether or not I am there to check on them.

My new job involves a lot of deskwork right now, and will involve a little bit of lab work, but nothing in the field and precious little with live larvae. I'm trying not to be too bummed about it. I mean, if this is the view from the lab, how bad can it be to have to stay there?

Isn't it wonderful? This photo was taken in early December.

Plus, I finally have running seawater, which is something I've wanted for years. I spent an absurd amount of time and mileage hauling seawater during grad school (and I was lucky to have it within hauling distance, rather than having to make my own). I calculated that during peak seawater use that I was hauling around 30 gallons a week, in muscle-building three-gallon jugs. It's rather ironic that I didn't have running seawater when I really could have used it and now that I have it, I won't be needing it very much...but so it goes. I'm still hoping to be able to get some experiments done here.

Here are a few cool things I have seen since moving.
Winner of coolest animal seen so far. This is a crinoid. It's an echinoderm, like sea stars and sea urchins.
Many crinoids are stalked and live really deep, but these feather stars live in warm, rocky habitats.
It's the first time I'd seen one, meaning I got to add a whole taxonomic class to my life list.
Everyone has an invertebrate life list, right?

The lacy fan in the middle is a bryozoan, or moss animal.
They are all colonial, and are really common members of the hard-substrate fouling community.
This particular guy is called Neptune's Lace, and the squiggly white things are worm tubes.

One bonus of living here rather than in New York is that we have true limpets.
Crepidula are called 'slipper limpets' but they're actually a totally different group of
molluscs from these guys, the true limpets.  (Probably genus Patella.)
I spotted them in the pitifully small intertidal zone here, during my first couple weeks.
Hopefully I can get back to this space more often this year, now that the rush of graduating and moving is mostly done. But we will see.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunrise on the Sound

I am currently recovering from my dissertation defense, which happened last week. It was a success, which means that I have more work to do revising the written document (yes, more writing, and more analyses too), but also that my time in this part of the world is running to a visible end. It's a strange thing, spending seven years of my life working towards a single goal, a single day of talking and one (albeit very long) document, and then to be declared finished with this part of my life.

Anyway. There's a lot more philosphical ramblings to be written, but the point of it all is to say that each time I go out into the field it is with the sense that maybe this is the last time at this site, and with the absolute knowledge that this has been the last year I would see the seasons unfold here. This morning I woke up at 4:45 to do a collection, because the tide was early. Earlier than the sunrise, in fact, which meant that I drove all the way in darkness, not seeing even the start of the sunrise until I pulled into the parking lot at the beach. The darkness also meant it was chilly on the beach, so I was out in long sleeves with a hand-knit headband for the first time since May.

I couldn't find my headlamp this morning (no, it's not in the mess in the trunk of the car, I'd moved it to my purse and left it at home), so I was glad to see the rapid lightening of the sky. Crepidula fornicata are pretty conspicuous on this beach -- larger than most other shells, and at this time of year attached to large clumps of Codium fragile (dead man's fingers or spongeweed, an invasive species of algae). The algae grow on the snails themselves or on the cobbles with the snails, and by this late in the season it serves as a sort of sail that gets caught in a current and drags the snails up from the deeper water and onto shore. (here's a great blog post from Jarrett Byrnes with some more details of this dragging effect.) But even though the snails are easy enough to find, doing it in the pitch-black is a royal pain.

I also found lots of whelk shells in the dawn light, and many of them had C. plana inside, so it was overall a successful collecting trip. And if this was my final morning at this site, it was a beautful one. This is why I get up at 5 a.m. on the weekend when all I want to do is sleep.

The site right about ten minutes after my arrival, with the sky just beginning to lighten.

Beautiful colors reflected on the deep blue Sound.

After an hour, the light had progressed to grey morning colors.

After an hour, right at sunrise.

The sun finally peeks over the horizon and the cloud cover.
I wish my camera could capture the brilliant red-orange of the sun and sky.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Snail survey (and a horseshoe crab)

Well, obviously it's been a while. This is mostly because I've been writing a lot and that's not really good inspiration for a) writing more for fun or b) writing about things that you (presumably not a member of my committee, given the odds) want to read.

In brief, since my last post I got a paper accepted (more on that when it's actually out), and have been frantically trying to finish up my dissertation.

Today I went out in the field for the first time in 4 weeks. I know this because apparently it is a supermoon again, and the moon sure was beautiful as I was driving to the field this morning. I didn't really have to go out, but I wanted to -- and as I'm not sure how many more times I'll get in the field while I'm in my present location, I'm glad I did. Plus, I got some more C. fornicata babies for a last-ditch attempt at an experiment.

There were lots of birds out today, and this horseshoe crab that found herself stranded well above the tide line. She has dug into the sand to keep her undersides (especially her book gills) damp.
Large female horseshoe crab, with my hand to scale.
She's decorated with a Crepidula fornicata and some barnacles.
I also found all of the common intertidal snails that exist at this site. The only species I didn't see (alive, anyway) were the two large whelks and the moonsnail. Those three are all predators that live subtidally and bury in sand -- it's very, very rare to spot them crusing around in the mornings, though I see their empty (or reclaimed) shells all the time.

In addition to the three species of Crepidula discussed in the last post, I turned up these guys:

Lots of Litorina saxatilis (rough periwinkles) on some rocks. These guys give live birth to their babies (viviparity). They're common all over both sides of the Atlantic, and in Europe are being heavily studied to understand how new species form. Because they disperse so little, populations of snails seem to have genetically adapted to different habitats they live in (ecotypes).

Contrast those little guys with the snail on the left in this photo. This is L. littorea, and it's shown up on the blog before. It is the common periwinkle, introduced from Europe, and has planktonic larvae. Because of those larvae, its populations are much more mixed than the ones of L. saxatilus. The snail on the right is Nucella lapillus, first appearing on the blog here. I don't usually see them at this site but I know they are there, because I often find their vase-shaped egg capsules attached to the underside of empty C. fornicata shells.

Ilyanassa obsoleta, the mud snail. Incredibly common here and very good at getting in my shoes. They make appearances on the blog more often than not, I think, because they're really everywhere.
Here's hoping I get out in the field again this season -- it's been very light this year, with not even much lab work. My office makes me crazy. But either way, it was a good morning and worth dragging myself out of bed.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A tale of three snails

This entry is a week overdue. Last Sunday we had a 'supermoon' around here. Basically all that means for me is an exceptionally low tide, and boy was it ever. As it turned out, I had to go look for more Crepidula egg masses to get more larvae, so off I went on an early Sunday morning.

Just about at the lowest point of the tide.
If you look back through my archives, you can see this jetty at various tidal heights --
but trust me, this is very low for around here.
It was a beautiful morning to be out. I saw several black-crowned night herons, one of my favorite shore birds. Lots of crabs, several egg masses of various gastropods, and very few people. (It was quite early on a Sunday.) But the morning was particularly notable because I saw all three species of Crepidula that exist in this part of the world.

First, here are some C. plana living inside a whelk shell. Tucked way back in the shell was a large hermit crab, who declined to be photographed.

C. plana in a whelk shell. These are all pretty big organisms, and almost certainly all females.
These guys are called "plana" because they are flat. There's several species of flat, white slipper snails around the world, but the ones we have here are C. plana. Once you take them off their substrate, they look just like C. fornicata, except a little paler and a lot more delicate. Their larvae are identical to C. fornicata, though a little smaller.

Second, here's the recurring star of the blog, C. fornicata. This stack is noteworthy because you can see some of this year's new recruits on it. They're 1-2 mm in length and have just settled and metamorphosed on this stack. Not all of the adult C. fornicata had recruits yet, which isn't unexpected given the slow spring start this year.

C. fornicata stack, with a couple of the tiny recruits indicated with blue arrows.
But I've saved the best for last: C. convexa, or the convex slipper snail. These guys look like tiny C. fornicata unless you know what you're looking for. They are smaller overall, so big C. convexa females are the same size as pretty small C. fornicata males. This actually was how I first identified them at my site, in my first graduate school summer: I found individuals that should have been males, based on size, but were obviously females brooding large embryos. I worked through some keys for the species, which included taking animals out of their shells to look at the shape differences in their interiors. To me, this is the most obvious morphological difference between them.

C. convexa and C. fornicata shells, animals removed. Not to scale. The blue arrows indicate the 'shelf' of the shell. When the snail is alive, its digestive gland and gonad are tucked behind that shelf, and the foots sits on the other side of it. It's all that remains of a more standard-looking coild snail shell. The difference is that C. convexa, on the left, has a shelf edge that looks something like a Nike swoosh, while C. fornicata (right) has a wavy shelf edge. Photo of C. fornicata from Wikipedia.
Anyway, eventually I got to the point where I can see the differences in the live animals without even removing them from their substrate, and now the two look very different to me -- but it took a lot of practice to get here.

One of the cool things about C. convexa is that they do not have swimming veliger larvae. Instead, they are direct developers: the mothers brood their embryos all the way through development, and they hatch as tiny crawl-away juvenile snails. They therefore have much less dispersal than either C. fornicata or C. plana, which can travel on ocean currents as larvae. I've spent a fair amount of time researching what the consequences of these dispersal differences might be.

One of those consequences is definitely that C. convexa is very patchily distributed within an area, and is usually hard to find. I knew they were at my study site, but it's probably been two years since I found more than one or two at a time. Last Sunday, though, the tide was low enough to expose their hiding places.

C. convexa living on top of a mud snail shell that is currently occupied by a hermit crab.
There's two C. convexa in that blue circle: a large female on the bottom and a smaller male on top.
You may just have to trust me on that, though.
There's also another C. convexa on the lower left edge of the shell, just to the left of the crab's legs.
I was thrilled to find these guys here in large numbers. I think they're my favorite Crepidula species, mostly because of those adorable crawl-away juveniles.

And when I got back to the lab, I did in fact find the C. fornicata larvae that I had gone out to get, so now more experiments are happening.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Snail shots

I was setting up an experiment this morning when I remembered this post from the Collin lab in Panama, describing unusual lab and field equipment used in tropical fieldwork. (Read the post. It's entertaining.) Writing about my unusual uses of supplies seems like a good followup to a post about the myriad random items I carry around in my car for fieldwork.

I have made my share of runs to Target and Home Depot for supplies to use in the field: hardware cloth, epoxy, cable ties, bricks, etc. I also have used nail polish to mark snails in the lab, and I discovered that nail art pens are handy for writing individual numbers on snails (I put a dab of colored polish on the snail before writing identifying info with the pen).

My personal favorite weird item from the field is definitely the 600 or so ping-pong balls that I used in a series of field experiments. With the help of an undergraduate, I diligently sanded all of them so that small marine invertebrates would think they were a great place to live.

675 ping-pong balls in a cooler, sanded and dirtied and ready to go.
The reason I was thinking about this today, though, is that I was setting up a lab experiment with strange equipment. This is a little more unusual than throwing together a field experiment with dross from Home Depot. If I'm doing molecular work, I have to work with precise, sterile, and (usually) expensive supplies. Even most of my non-molecular work happens in lab glassware like this:

Photo from Wikipedia. I'm almost never playing with colorful solutions, though.
As anyone who has ever broken anything in chem lab knows, these things aren't terribly cheap. But sometimes I need several dozen small containers that fit under the microscope, can hold lots of larval snails, and can be easily and thoroughly cleaned. So today, my lab bench looks like this:

Those are shot glasses, in case you can't tell.
Shot glasses really are the perfect solution. They are small, cheap (less than $1 each), easy to clean, easy to sterilize, and the perfect size to go under the microscope. Best of all, the curvature at the bottom of the glass makes it easy to see everything under the scope -- there's no corners for the snails to hide in. 

Using shot glasses like this is not my original solution to this problem, but it's still infrequent enough that every time I give a talk someone makes a joke about it. 

Fingers crossed that the experiment works today.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On being (over)prepared

As my brief post from last week showed, things are finally moving in the field over here. That meant a couple field days, several lab days, and generally being more excited about my work again. Everything was so slow that I'd been wondering if somehow I was so inept in the field that I had managed to miss an important (and large!) hatching period.

But no, all is well. And as I was out collecting in everything from misty cool rain to driving sun in a few days, in a couple locations, it occurred to me that it might be fun to talk about the mass of stuff that I keep in my car for these occasions. This was reinforced on Monday, when I quite suddenly needed a small jar to put thousands of little hatching larvae before transporting them back to the lab. I was running through the mental list of things that I had or have had in my car (could I use that old paper coffee cup sitting in the backseat? did I have a water bottle in the car? a plastic sandwich container? a Mason jar?) -- but when I started rummaging around in the trunk, I found just what I was looking for: a tiny Nalgene bottle for keeping plankton samples.

So what does live in my trunk? Clothes for all seasons. I have a baseball cap, a knitted headband, and a knitted hat to be worn and layered as needed. There's an oversized denim long-sleeve shirt for chilly weather and a lined, waterproof windbreaker for rain. I have a pair of yellow rubber dishwashing gloves for cold winter water, and a pair of thin knit gloves to put under them. I have hip waders for cold water and water sandals (the kind with the rubber toes, that look like sneakers) for warm water. And, of course, there's a towel.

And then there's the gear. A bucket, a small lunch cooler, the aforementioned collecting jars, an aquarium bubbler, cable ties, a Leatherman, a mesh bag, an empty water bottle, a stopwatch, a meter tape, a net.

Sometimes I wonder if it's really stupid to haul all of that around, everywhere. It probably is. It would be smarter and more gas-efficient to have a couple of crates in the lab that I could grab before I go out: summer gear, winter gear, collecting gear, field experiment gear. But I really like knowing that I don't ever have to worry about forgetting things. And then, every once in a while (like on Monday), I really need some obscure thing that I'd forgotten about that's stashed back there.

I probably could vacuum out the sand, though.

Spotted (but not collected) this week in the field. Those are Crepidula plana, and they are enormous.
This is the species whose larvae were suddenly hatching and that I needed to transport safely back to the lab, though the individual in question was about half the size of the big ones on this piece of ceramic. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

A little delayed

Larvae. Lots of larvae. The yellow masses are eggs and young embryos. The brown masses in the foreground are larvae that are ready to hatch, and the little dots in the water are larvae that are hatching.

Yup. It's finally time to hit the experiments pretty hard, because I finally have the larvae I need. This is the great time of year, where nearly every female has larvae near-hatching. I took pretty much the same picture for you last year. Except I took it on May 26th. Cold weather = late snails.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Science reading 2: Spillover

I’ve been holding off on writing my next book review for a couple reasons, but the most important one is that I was finishing the book in question. I went back and forth about writing the review here. After all, this is pretty far from marine biology, and surely there are more relevant works I could point you towards. But this is the latest by my favorite science writer, and in the end I couldn’t pass it up.

I first encountered David Quammen at my undergrad institution. He had just published a short biography of Darwin and was, I guess, on his book tour. We were lucky enough to snag him as a speaker in our weekly colloquium series. I was doubly lucky in that I got to go to lunch with him (at the faculty club, so make that triply lucky). My loss, though, because I’d never heard of him before. Lunch was interesting, and I remember Quammen telling us some story of boating down the Amazon, and caimans, and pirahnas, or was it some other river in South America? His talk was about Darwin’s formulation of the theory of natural selection. Afterwards there was a book signing and I remember sort of wanting to buy one but it seemed like an absurd, expensive frivolity. I continue to regret that decision.

For Christmas that year I got the Darwin biography and a copy of The Song of the Dodo, both amazing, both long since read. I now own his book on man-eating predators (Monster of God) and one of his several collections of essays from Outside magazine. I’m hoping to write future posts about these but just in case I never get there, seriously go get these books. Read them.

Quammen started out in life as a graduate student in English, studying Faulkner, and it shows. The man can write. He also isn’t afraid to go anywhere in the world to get a science story, and the more remote, the better. Best of all, he’s just as interested in the scientists as he is in their research. His books, therefore, read as a wonderful mix of scientific fact and cultural anthropology of research scientists. And the science in them is not just accurate, but not all that simplified. Just explained really well.

I saw Quammen speak a second time in 2012, at the Evolution meeting in Ottawa. He talked about his soon-to-be-released book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. He talked about emerging zoonotic diseases. He talked about Ebola and walking through Congolese forests and HIV. There was no book signing, which was just as well because I’d forgotten mine back in the States.

Spillover, by David Quammen.
The topic really does need a scary cover.
It’s taken me until this year to read Spillover. I am so glad that I finally did. The book is about emerging diseases, particularly zoonoses, or diseases we get from animals. As he says so well, this category includes all kinds of nasty things: influenza, rabies, hanta, Lyme disease, SARS, AIDS, Ebola. But this isn’t just a study of the pathology of these diseases in humans. These diseases come from animals, by definition, and their emergence, virulence, and duration in the human species is a complicated mix of ecology and evolution, the story of humans and their altered environments. People interacting with animals and therefore with their diseases. The take-home message is that the more often that happens, the more likely a spillover of an animal virus into a human is, and the more likely that these viruses can be transmitted human-to-human. These diseases frequently have long evolutionary histories with their animal hosts, and in many cases are relatively benign. But in humans, it’s a different story.

Quammen bookends the meaty chapters in the book with the showstopping diseases: Ebola to start and AIDS to finish. These two are different in many ways, but similar too. They both seem to come from infected apes. They both have their origins in Africa. They both have sky-high fatality rates. In between these two monsters are lots of other diseases, some of which you know (Lyme, malaria, SARS) and some of which you probably don’t (Hendra, Nipah, Q fever). I am admittedly squeamish and had to skim the descriptions of human symptoms for most of these, but the ecological and evolutionary sections are lengthy and fascinating. For starters, why are so many of these viruses, rather than bacterial diseases?

This book is scary. I know I never want to be within miles of a bat in the tropics after reading it. (Spoiler: bats seem to be responsible for more than their share of these spillovers…or are they? The evidence isn’t completely clear.) But it ends on a somewhat hopeful note. He does say, based on interviews with many esteemed disease scientists, that the “Next Big One,” the next large human pandemic, will almost certainly be a zoonosis. There’s several reasons for that, discussed at length in the book. We have no idea what or where or when. But despite that, there are scientists on the case, standing ready, and working as hard as they can to minimize impact.

I’ll leave you with some of Quammen’s own words:
This whole subject [of zoonotic diseases], like an airborne virus, is at large on the breezes of discourse. Most people aren’t familiar with the word ‘zoonotic’ but they have heard of SARS, they have heard of West Nile Virus, they have heard of bird flu…They are concerned. They are vaguely aware. But they don’t have the time or the interest to consider a lot of scientific detail.
If that describes you, but you have time to read a book, go get this one. You will get lots of well-written, digestible scientific detail. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Algae and medusae

Spring is still lagging behind, predictably. I went out this morning to find Crepidula eggs to hatch for experiments, and although the eggs are there, they aren't anywhere near hatching. So back to waiting and trying to farm eggs in the lab.

Stuff is definitely happening in the field, though. Most notable since my last trip was a serious explosion of macroalgae. This site is full of really thick growths of large algae through the late spring and early summer, until it gets really hot. The algae is sort of a pain -- it's probably two inches deep to wade through and covers the snails that I'm looking for. At least I was out in boots today, because walking through two inches of algae in my sandals is a little icky.

A thick bed of algae on the beach. Normally there's just sand and small cobbles here.
The small 'creek' that has been created by flowing water allows you to see just how thick the mat is.
I did find some snail eggs from other species, including this nifty sand collar.

A sand collar, or moon snail egg mass.
But by far the coolest thing I saw today was a jellyfish (species unknown). I noticed something funny-looking floating in ALL OF THE ALGAE and at first I just thought it was a dead Chondrus or something. Lots of the algae turns white when it dies. But this seemed to be weirdly radially symmetrical and, upon further inspection, to have tentacles.

Lucky I had my rubber gloves, because I do usually draw the line at handling unidentified jellies.

I was surprised to see this guy so early in the season. The jellies get super-abundant around here by August, but are pretty rare in May. It's also unusual at this particular site to see them washed near shore, though other places I work they are pretty common.

Scyphozoan jellies have a totally awesome life cycle. It has two basic stages: the medusa form (think typical jellyfish) and the polyp form (think sea anemone, to which they are related). A medusa makes gametes that turn into a larva, which grown into a polyp, which then buds into little medusae. Sound complicated? It sort of is. Here's a picture to help.

Life cycle of a scyphozoan. Photo from Wikipedia, with more details.
My favorite part of this life cycle is strobilation, step 11 in the figure above. Here's a fabulous video. And another one. Something that doesn't come across in the not-to-scale diagram but does in the video is just how small the polyps and strobilae are. They really are fascinating. I haven't ever seen a strobila in the field, but it's on my invert life-list.

For today, though, I'll settle for an adult scyphozoan. And maybe some larval Crepidula, if that's not too much to ask for.

Today's jelly, adrift in the algae. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Science reading 1: Lazy Point

And now for something completely different. No new pictures this week, but I thought I would honor a request: the lovely Carolyn, a high school acquaintance of mine and the literary blogger at Rosemary and Reading Glasses, would like recommendations and reviews of science books.

As it happens, popular science books are among my favorites, so I'm happy to oblige. When I got the request, though, I wasn't quite sure where to start. Aldo Leopold? Rachel Carson? or newer authors like Carl Zimmer and David Quammen? or Stephen Jay Gould? or Neil Shubin? Hopefully I'll get to all of these and more.

But to start, someone who is a contemporary Ph.D. scientist and conservation activist, as well as a relatively prolific writer, filmmaker, and compelling speaker: Carl Safina. Dr. Safina got his Ph.D. at Rutgers studying the ecology of seabirds, and since then has become one of the most public advocates for seabirds, marine mammals, fish, and the marine realm in general. He's also got an appointment at Stony Brook, and I've been fortunate enough to hear his talks and take a course he co-taught in science communication.

Dr. Safina has written several books, and his first, Song for the Blue Ocean, is supposed to be quite stunning. I say 'supposed to be' because my copy is sitting on my bookshelf, embarrassingly untouched. I can wholeheartedly recommend his Eye of the Albatross, in which he travels to an albatross colony in the northwest Hawaiian islands to study the world's largest seabirds.

Those of you familiar with A Sand County Almanac may
recognize the general zeitgeist of the cover of the paperback edition.
But the book I want to talk about today is one of his most recent, The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. The structure of this book is based on an ecological classic, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Safina goes month by month through the year, discussing the natural world around his house. I was drawn into the book in part because the locations he describes and the animals he sees are very close to my house, but I don't think that would be a deterrent for anyone, no matter how far from Montauk you might be.

One of the scenes that has stayed with me in the years since I read this is the one where the author encounters poachers of horseshoe crabs. He does an excellent job describing the horror of these crabs being taken en masse, but also explains the economics and politics behind why this happens, as well as the ecological consequences (beyond the mortality to the crabs, there are potential consequences to seabird species that depend on their eggs). It is this description that I return to each time I am out on the shore and fortunate enough to see a female crab buried in the sand.

Interspersed with these snapshots from Lazy Point are chapters where Safina travels to the tropics, the poles, Alaska, and so on to see the global consequences of human impacts on the ecological world. The result is the impression that everything that we do to affect the planet matters, both close to home and far away (even in seemingly untouched, pristine habitats). To quote from the opening pages:
So this story is also about the tension created when those things mistakenly called the "real world" -- though they are entirely artificial -- continually intrude on the real real world. In a real place, the mysteries of ages pile on thick with enduring truths and complex beauties
There is no place, in other words, that is safe from our influence, and no place without its own natural beauty. And later, in those same opening pages, while contemplating migrating seabirds, where they go, where they have been:
They all remind me that the world is both much bigger than Lazy Point, and yet surprisingly small. "I have traveled a great deal in Concord," reported Henry David Thoreau. And how much greater he might have thought his travels if he'd lived at Lazy Point instead. The coast and its migrants bring to Lazy Point a much bigger picture than any map of the place suggests. I sometimes tell friends it's possible to see the whole world in the view from Lazy Point.
 We are all interconnected with the natural world, and our actions have consequences far away from where we can see. It is a familiar narrative, but the details in this book drive it home.