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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Oregon Site Scouting

Last weekend I went to the Oregon coast to look at the sites I want to sample. Primarily, though, I was in Portland for my old college roommate's wedding; congratulations, Rachel and Max!

Purely by curious observation, I learned a lot about intertidal life in Oregon and how it's different than in California. This seemed backwards to me because I grew up in Oregon and was first inspired to study intertidal ecology because of Oregon tidepools. Fifteen years later, I finally feel like I understand something about them... but only in California. I won't give up on you, Oregon! I'm still charmed by your windy coasts and incredibly productive intertidal communities, and I have many years left to learn about them.

To spare your eyes a block of text, and since I took many photos, here's a picture montage of where I went and what I learned. All of these are original photos with no digital editing.

The bridge in Newport, OR over Yaquina Bay.
Near OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center.

The bridge in Newport, OR over Yaquina Bay.
Near OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Rouge Brewing's world headquarters. 
Near OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center.
Yaquina Bay Bridge in the background.

Yaquina South Jetty. I looked for mussels here,
but found none.

A research vessel entering Yaquina Bay.

Oregon coast beach. I never suspected my first thought would
be: I'd surf that. Santa Cruz is getting to me.

Looking for more places off Hwy 101 to collect just mussels. 

Another field site: Strawberry Hill (STR). I'm not sure yet how it
was named. I didn't see strawberries, but they might come out in 
the summer. This was actually the wrong spot...

...this is the spot at STR where I am going to sample. This is
where there is (I think) some long-term diversity data. The
following photos are all from STR.

Nucella whelk on a mussel at STR. It's probably not 
eating the mussel because apparently the whelks in 
Oregon rarely eat mussels, and when they do, they 
eat a different species than the one shown here.

View of the land from the intertidal at STR.


Some super cute green anemones showing off their bright green 
photosynthetic symbionts in the full Oregon sun. 

Was something boring into this whelk? Can you feel the irony?

That's a huge mussel! It was the size of my hand! I've never
seen them that big in California.

Ha, I caught you! Those two whelks were totally eating mussels. 
Maybe they gave up on barnacles because they just kept settling
on the whelk's shell, mocking it.

S/he was determined not to let go. I left her/him attached
so s/he could finish eating when the tide came up.

There were so many whelks here, I had a really hard time not 
stepping on them. 

View of the ocean from the STR intertidal site.

Evidence of whelk predation? Maybe, but there's
no way to know which species made that hole...
unless there is, but no one has studied that yet. 
Thesis chapter?

A cheery tidepool. 

A whelk doing its whelky thing.

Is this what the world looks like from a whelk's point of view?

Albino mussel? Why is it orangey-tan? There were about 1 in
1000 of this color.

Whelks will be whelks.

I spy a bright orange Nucella

 I saw several healthy sea stars—at least a dozen—and no diseased
stars. Yay! This one is having a meal. 

See how beautiful this site is? Don't you want to help me collect field data?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Volunteer Waiver Form and Research Calendar

I'm so excited to have many people wanting to help me with my research!

There are certainly things I need help doing right now. I am planning to do field work next week, and I don't have collecting bags made or proper tanks for the whelks I'll be bringing back. After that I'll need help photographing, measuring, dissecting, and whole bunch of other things I haven't thought of yet. If you plan to help, please see the links below.

Volunteer waiver form

Please fill out and sign this volunteer waiver form before coming in to help. It gives you medical coverage in case you get hurt. Link: Volunteer waiver form

Research events calendar

Here is my calendar with specific dates and times for when I'll need help. Please let me know at least a day in advance if you are planning to come to LML to help me. Link: Research Events Calendar

Check out how cool you could look doing intertidal research:

Thanks again, everyone!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Oregon intertidal sampling with PISCO

Here is a story from last summer I've been meaning to post!

How often do you start your day with a hike to the ocean

...wearing knee-high rubber boots,

...bright orange weather-proof waders,

...carrying 10 three-foot quadrats and a metal detector,

...before 4 am?

If you're not obsessed with algae, chitons, and sea stars, probably never. But if you are paid to know every single species of alga and animal in rocky intertidal habitats, you would do it a lot.

This is what the Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO, pronounced "peace-co") rocky shores field team does. Nearly every spring tidal series (when the tides are lowest), this group of about seven employees counts and measures species three hours before the low tide to three hours after. So if the low tide is at six in the morning, you can count on them being on the mussel beds at three in the morning.

I got up before dawn every day for the last week to help the PISCO group. We counted sea stars and barnacle recruits (babies); identified at least a hundred different species of algae and invertebrates along transects and in quadrats; accounted for sea star disease, and attached temperature and salinity sensors to the rocks. We did this at five sites along the Oregon coast, from Cannon Beach to Brookings. There was no lack of adventure on this exhausting trip, and while I'd love to write pages about the adventures we had, I'll leave you mostly pictures and a story of just the most spectacular "rock" we sampled.

Just north of Cannon Beach, Oregon, there is a beautiful stretch of beach and rocky shore emerging from a Sitka spruce forest. In this stretch lies Ecola State Park. Unlike E. coli and Ebola, two words that first came to my mind when I heard the park's name, this park is pleasing and refreshing. There are many hiking trails through the forest and down to the beaches, but you don't take any well-maintained trails to get to the PISCO field site. Oh no. That would be too easy.

When I arrived with the PISCO crew at Ecola State Park at about 4 am, we quickly rendezvoused with a few other volunteer helpers in the parking lot before strapping field equipment to ourselves and making our way seaward. The trail was paved for about five minutes of our journey, after which it became a muddy slip n' slide down a steep hill. Luckily, there were foot holes and no one fell.

After landing on the beach, we trekked a few hundred feet over rocks and sand toward the ocean. I stopped briefly once to check out a rock that appeared to be covered with my study organism, but I had to keep going or I'd miss seeing the correct passage. I caught up to the group because they were standing at the tide line scouting out a path we could follow that wouldn't involve walking in waste-deep water. The problem with this site is that the sand level changes frequently, so while one year you may only have to walk through ankle-deep water to access the plot site, the next year the sand may have shifted and you'll be up to your waist via that same route. Somebody tall went first and found a relatively dry passage, and we all quickly followed. We scuttled through the water around a rock (cliff?) about 100 feet tall where many seagulls were nesting. On the other side of this rock were the plots. We all climbed up the final short "cliff side" to the rocky area where the plots were.

The Ecola State Park PISCO field site is on the other side of the big rock where the red arrow is pointing. The dashed line shows how we got there. I got this picture from the Ecola State Park website, and I'm not 100% sure it shows the exact location of the plots. In any case, it was very similar to this photo, which is a good representation of what we went through. 

Ecola is notoriously one of the toughest sampling sites for PISCO. This is because it is difficult to tell when the water level in the passage back is too high. You can work for hours past low tide on the rocky field plots, but then when you go to leave you will find you are on a small island surrounded by deep, breaking waves.

To make things worse, the plots are not identifiable with permanent bolts. Normally, the researchers drill about one-inch bolts into the rock sediment at the corners of their plots so they can easily identify them the next years. However, at this site the bolts had to be removed due to extreme complaints from a concerned citizen. Apparently, one year PISCO was surveying this site, a park visitor saw the bolts and demanded they be removed because they could injure resting seals. The park staff was alerted, but since drilling bolts was already part of PISCO's approved permit, the bolts were allowed to stay there. This was to the PISCO field workers' great relief, since they really rely on having those bolts there—you would too if you had to find the exact same 0.5-by-0.75 meter-squared plot every year for 15 years.

However, this concerned citizen would not accept no for an answer. He eventually got the phone number of the principal investigator and left him threatening messages. At this point, to avoid further conflict, PISCO removed the bolts at the site. So how do they find the plots? They use very specific rock formations and marine epoxy as landmarks from which they measure to each plot corner. It gets really crazy (but kinda fun) when there are nine or ten tape measures all strung out at once across the slippery rocky site, but that's the only way to do it. Sometimes I wonder why they don't use GPS; it must not be accurate enough.

Once we found the plots, we identified and counted the species in them. This is a very tedious process, but I was totally okay with it because I was learning how to identify so many new species in my favorite habitat and I loved being on that secluded rock. Since it is so hard to access, it is really pristine. Five or six hours later, we decided the water level was getting high and we had to go! Quickly! Since there was just the tail end of one transect left, a couple of us stayed behind to finish it up so we wouldn't have to come back again the next day, even though it meant risking having to swim back.

We climbed down off the rock with our gear and saw our friends that left earlier wading through the water. I looked to see how much water they were walking through. The tallest person was up to about his thighs, and the other women about my height were deeper, but not swimming. Phew! I quickly splashed, waded, and hopped from underwater rock to underwater rock in the same path they were taking. It was a challenge, and some people had to hold their field gear over their heads so it wouldn't get water logged and ruined. I ended up waist deep at the deepest, which was cold but doable. Everyone made it through and was glad we didn't wait a minute longer to go back.

By the time we drained our boots of seawater and climbed up the slippery, muddy hill back to the parking lot, we were all ready for breakfast. Yes, breakfast, because though we had been working for around six hours, it was now only 10 am. The biggest problem was deciding if we should shower and warm up before or after eating, because deciding between warmth and food is pretty challenging; luckily, it doesn't really matter which you pick first because both things are super awesome after doing what we just did.

Another view from Ecola State Park from the state park website. For obvious reasons, I didn't bring my not-waterproof camera on this outing. 

Wow, done working by 10 am? That's like having the whole day off, right?! Not quite. We'd get a few hours of rest at most, but some days, after working in the field in the morning, we'd have a six-hour drive to the next field site. Upon arrival, we'd set up camp and go to sleep by 8 pm since we had to get up at 3 or 4 am the next morning to sample. The biggest break was always at breakfast, when we could really relax, feeling quite good about ourselves for having just completely sampling a site. After breakfast it was often right back to work, figuring out our itinerary to catch the next tide.

So, next time you see someone working out in the intertidal, I hope you recall this story and remember how much careful planning and physical endurance it takes to learn about this charming and dangerous habitat. This sampling experience was truly humbling for me, and I gained a lot of respect not just for the PISCO field workers, but for all the plants and animals that live their whole lives in the intertidal. The rocky intertidal is one of the most extreme environments I can imagine, which is why it's so mind-blowing how much biodiversity it sustains!

I am constantly awestruck by what evolution produces. It gives me hope knowing that life can thrive in such a harsh place. In the midst of the current extreme environmental changes, sometimes I fear for the future of life on Earth (er, Ocean, as it should be called). But when I recall how well and quickly organisms can adapt to their environments, I am hopeful. Thank God for evolution.

"As long as there is life, there is hope." -Unknown (though the actor who played Stephen Hawking says this in the movie The Theory of Everything. Good movie!)

"Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." -Theodosius Dobzhansky