Less than a mile from the marine lab there is a state park called Natural Bridges. It seems like a strange name until you go there and see the natural bridges!
Source: Wikimedia Commons. But really, I could have taken this photo.
I went with another new ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) grad student, and we explored the intertidal environment under this very rock and the pools along the shore for hours. I wish I could have explored more under the natural bridge, but the tide wasn't low enough and I didn't feel like swimming or being thrust against mussel beds.
The tidepools there are part of a Marine Protected Area where one of my advisors, Pete Raimondi, bases some of his work. He heads a long-term project called the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (called PISCO for short, prounced like "peace-co"). In this project, lots of teams of researchers take biodiversity and geography data on intertidal areas from Alaska to Mexico.
One of highlights of my trip yesterday to the Natural Bridges tidepools was testing the stinging cells of a green anemone. When you touch the tentacles of an anemone with your fingers, you don't feel a sting because the skin on your hands is too thick. However, a thinner, more membranous epithelial surface, like the lips or tongue, would be affected. So I reached over, stuck out my tongue...
Credit: Carla S.
...and licked an anemone's green tentacles. My tongue stung (not too seriously) for four to five hours after that. It was a great experience and I encourage everyone to try.
Ideally, I will study evolution (or lack thereof) in tidepool organisms. I am thinking the intertidal might be a good model system because there are lots of environmental constraints and extremely fluctuating conditions which cause organisms to become very specialized. That way, if one part of the environment changes that an organism was well adapted to, those well-adapted (fit) organisms are no longer so well-adapted (their fitness decreases), and they might reproduce less. This changes the types of organisms that remain in the environment and the population is said to have evolved. What I have just explained here is natural selection.
However, sometimes individual organisms are really good at adjusting to change (this is called plasticity--think of plastic and how it can be melted and reformed), which would mean they would tend not to evolve. Instead, they'd just get used to the new environment and continue living like normal.
So far I pretty much have no clue how to study this sort of phenomenon in tidepools (i.e. what organisms to use or if there are measurable environmental changes taking place in tidepools near me). Hopefully I will figure that out soon, or at least come up with a good idea or two! I'm not worried. Things will come together. Now to end on one of my favorite biology quotes:
"The true biologist deals with life, with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living."
J. Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez