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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Experimental design

Before I can begin any actual experiments, I need to get scientific collection permits so I can legally take animals from the field. In order to get scientific collection permits, I have to know how many animals I will be taking. In order to know that, I have to plan out my experiment in great detail so I know how many animals I will need.

Today I spent all day doing just that! I did so by making LOTS of figures. I tried to think of several ways to do what I wanted, then choose which was the best for the question I was asking. Of course, I messed up and had to reorganize so many times that the number of figures I created and their level of detail soon became overwhelming! I want to share them with you so you can have a glimpse at how hard my brain has been working. They are approximately in the order in which I created them. The last red and blue one is all I'm going to do for today. The rest are updates from later on when I needed to plan a design not using pH as an independent variable; instead, I use average site mussel shell thickness.

Please don't try to understand them all! Just appreciate them as part of the process of experimental design.

Friday, December 5, 2014

How cool would it be

to own a blue whale skeleton?! The Seymour Center lights up its blue whale skeleton at night, and it's pretty awesome. See below for an actual recent post.

Whelk surprise

About a month ago, I put some whelks in a tank of flowing seawater and gave them a hundred mussels.

The water level was a bit high, so I set up some slightly precarious way to siphon it out of one hose as it entered from another hose, and then I promptly forgot about it.

I took my comprehensive exam, applied for the NSF grant, and visited Oregon, and when I came back to Santa Cruz, I knew I'd have to deal with whatever nonsense was going on in that tank. Since I wasn't doing any actual experiments, I didn't care too much if when I finally checked on it again the hoses were out of place, the tank empty, and it reeked of decaying snails and mussels (i.e. if they were all dead). 

So one not-too-rainy afternoon last week, I meandered into the dungeon-like RC wet lab #1, inhaled the familiar musty organic smell that comes with a shared biological research space (regrettably, I am getting used to this smell--I don't like the idea of offensive odors becoming a normal part of my life), switched on the lights and was pleased to find that my tank was still flowing with seawater just as I had left it. The mussels had moved, and they were alive! But when I looked for the whelks, I didn't see any.

Since it didn't reek of decaying snails, I figured there were still in there somewhere out of view. I emptied the tank, tried with difficulty to rinse out much of the silty particles that I could only assume were whelk and mussel poop, and picked through the mussels in search of whelks. Sure enough, I found at least a dozen under and in the mussel matrix. There was the familiar brown-striped one, the black ones, and the big pearl-colored one (my favorite. It has purple undertones).

The whelks as of December 1, 2014.

After rummaging through the matrix some more, I found a whole bunch of empty mussel shells with tiny holes in them--obvious signs of whelk predation. I've been dying to collect some data, so I decided to gather all these empty shells with holes in them and measure them (length, width, dry mass, hole diameter, etc.).

Check out that hole right in the middle of mussel #17. 
(Click here to learn the dot tally method.)

Then, after rummaging even more, I found the most exciting thing: whelk egg capsules! All this time I thought I was irresponsibly neglecting the whelks, I was actually giving them privacy to mate. Now I'm excited to see if I get whelk babies in three months. I just have to find mussels small enough to feed them, because they start feeding exogenously just two days after hatching! 

These are whelk capsules: beige-colored, vase-shaped gelatinous "cups" that contain not only a dozen or so whelk embryos but also hundreds of nurse eggs. The nurse eggs are food for the embryos as they develop into juveniles inside the capsule. Then they emerge as 1 mm baby whelks and crawl away to live in the real world--or in this case, in my tank. 

Now that I have this awesomeness going on, I'll promptly forget about it for another few months and see if the babies hatch! If only kitties and puppies were this easy to raise. One more reason to study invertebrates. 

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.