How strange to call this planet 'Earth' when quite clearly it is ocean. Arthur C. Clarke

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Checkered snail

Yesterday, I was helping a fellow graduate student replace the recruitment collectors she had drilled to the rocks just outside the marine lab. The purpose of these is to collect the very tiny mussel larvae that would be settling on the rock to begin their development into adults. The collectors are small dish sponges called tuffys, about six inches in diameter, and we replaced five of them just below the mussel beds she is studying. 

A tuffy dish scrubber. Image from Google images.

Changing the tuffys wasn't the cool part, though (okay, it was kinda cool, but not the subject of this post). After we were done, we explored the local intertidal area a bit, trying to identify all the species present. I am still so overwhelmed by the diversity of organisms in this habitat. I had an eye out for whelks, of course, and we found a few with some nice stripes, as they usually have. After looking a bit closer, though, we found a snail with the coolest design I have ever seen! Instead of stripes, it had checkers! 

According to the PISCO* intertidal experts, this snail is Littorina scutulata. Now, I will always be on the lookout for snails with checkers!

*Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Comprehensive Exam

As a graduate student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, when I take a class, I never have to take a test. There are no midterms or final exams. We don't even get graded. It's a self-motivated student's dream! Instead of learning in order to receive a good grade, we learn them to increase our personal knowledge and improve our own research.

We also learn in order to pass the most important exam we'll ever take. It is quite literally a final exam; there are no more exams after the Comprehensive Exam.

This upper room is where I took my Comprehensive Exam orals on Tuesday, October 28 at noon.

Preparing and taking the Comprehensive Exam happens in four main parts:

(1) Forming the committee of professors who will deliver the exam. In Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, this includes one ecologist, one evolutionary biologist, one study system specialist, and one scientist whose specialty you get to choose. These members assign you books and papers to read for the exam.

(2) Reading and studying the material assigned by the committee. This takes anywhere from two to four months and is extremely time consuming.

(3) Taking the written portion of the exam. You have four days to answer the questions the committee members ask of you. Answer one set per day.

(4) Being orally examined. This is distinct from dental care, because instead of opening up for someone to poke around inside your mouth, your committee members poke around in your head, trying to figure out the breadth and depth of your knowledge. Also unlike the dentist, this lasts about 2.5 hours, eating junk food is encouraged, and there is no relaxing fish tank. After the first hour of questioning, there is a ten minute break in in which the committee members deliberate in your absence. After twiddling your thumbs outside the room, you are allowed to reenter and continue to be drilled on things you've studied and things you may know nothing about, like banana slugs or corn refuges. After another hour, you leave, and they decide if you pass. When you reenter the room the second time, you are either greeted with furrowed brows or congratulations.

Can you guess with which I was greeted?! :D

In case you can't, I'll tell you: I passed unconditionally, meaning I proved to my committee I understood as much as any Ph.D. student should about ecology, evolution, my study system (intertidal), and behavioral ecology. It is an enormous relief to be done; now I can focus on applying for grants and getting collection permits so I can start my own experiments!

Here are some memorable questions I was asked:

Are banana slugs hermaphrodites? (Yes.)

What does this picture mean in the context of evolution in metapopulations?

(Plant a refuge crop of corn that is not genetically modified to have insect resistance, otherwise the insects will quickly evolve resistance to the modified corn.)

What else eats sea urchins? (California sheephead!)

Monday, October 6, 2014


Here is a picture of whelks in the lab. There may be as many as three species here--it's very hard to tell them apart without a genetic analysis. As you can see, there is a lot of variation in their shell color. The one in the upper right is on a mussel--probably drilling through its shell to eat it!

The three species are all in the genus Nucella: emarginata, ostrina, and canaliculata. The mussel is Mytilus californianus. In the bottom photo, can you see the soft white foot of the whelks below their shells? Look for their antennae, too. There is one whelk with two hitchhikers--limpets that have stuck themselves to the whelk's shell for a free ride. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Once a Kayak Guide, Always a Kayak Guide

Did I tell you I figured out how to get paid to kayak again? This time in Santa Cruz!

Since I don't get summers off from school anymore and I couldn't move to San Juan Island and kayak there again, I got a job as a kayak guide with a small company on the Santa Cruz Wharf.

View from the wharf of the dock where we launch the kayaks.

Even compared to the San Juans, working in Santa Cruz is totally fantastic. It's a great job with great people and very diverse and exciting marine life. On every tour, I lead the group along the one-half-mile-long wharf, then around it and to the kelp forest just off lighthouse point. There, we see snails, sea otters, and the occasional kelp or decorator crab. Recently there were by-the-wind sailors (Velella velella) with their bright-blue tentacles floating on the surface, but their presence was quite ephemeral--just a few days later only their clear membranes remained tangled in the kelp canopy. There are always California sea lions and harbor seals, and it's not too rare to see pods of dolphins and harbor porpoises. We even came close to a grey whale once! 

Today, I helped lead a tour in Moss Landing, which is about 30 minutes south of Santa Cruz. This was exclusively a whale watching tour, because humpback whales are feeding in Moss Landing a lot this time of year. Since it was foggy, we heard the whales calling and breathing at the surface before seeing them swiftly emerge from the fog, swimming and diving past us.

After seeing the whales, we sailed and paddled into Elkhorn Slough. There are dozens of different birds there, including brown and white pelicans, three species of cormorants, grebes, gulls, and godwits. I am very lucky to live in and be able to fully enjoy such an enriching place. Come visit me sometime!

A kayak tour with my Ecology and Evolutionary Biology cohort. I was only
mildly reprimanded for bringing 12 friends on a private tour in the middle
of a busy Saturday afternoon. Woops.

Humpbacks in Moss Landing.

Sailing into Elkhorn Slough.

A double-crested cormorant about to take flight.

Brown pelicans in Elkhorn Slough. I liked to see them stretching their necks
because they are so long and fleshy! 

Mostly, the job is great because I get to share beautiful marine life with people who haven't seen it before or just don't know much about it. It's very easy to inspire a sense of appreciation in people for the ocean when they get to see, hear, feel, taste, and (usually unfortunately) smell it all around them. I love this job because it is so much bigger than me. 

I wanted to post about that since the only other thing I've been doing recently is studying for my comprehensive exam. I'm sure I'll have something to say about that after I take it in late October. 
Bye for now!

A sample of what I am reading for my comprehensive exam.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Update to new research project

I think I finally know what I'm going to study for the next five years. Check out the "Research Interests" page for more details!

To entice you to read what's in that page, here's a picture I took June 17, 2014 in Oregon of my study system:

Here you can see whelks surrounded by their food, barnacles and mussels. Not a bad way to live!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

New research project

My new research project involves examining local adaptation in the intertidal snail Nucella canaliculata. I am interested in examining how it is locally adapted to its mussel prey and seawater pH. I hope to identify adaptive traits and quantify their genetic basis. My study sites will be along the west coast of the US. I will of course post more details on this when I have written a formal proposal. I'm excited!

Here is a picture from Sanford and Worth 2009 of the Nucella canaliculata with its egg mass:

I'll need help with field work starting in about a year, so if you are interested in looking through some rocky intertidal habitats, keep it in the back of your mind, and I will ask for formal help when the time comes. 

Paper reference: Sanford, E., and D. J. Worth. 2009. Genetic differences among populations of a marine snail drive geographic variation in predation. Ecology 90:3108–18.

Friday, April 25, 2014

New study system ideas

Someone at UC Santa Barbara has basically already done my sheephead project, but she hasn't published anything on it yet, so I didn't know until I emailed her. I should probably switch study systems! Follow the link to this google presentation about my ideas for a new study system.