All posts by ssalterblog

Look at the Filters on that Rack!

I am a biological oceanographer and I study plankton – microscopic floating plants and animals. That means to do my research, I filter seawater – liters and liters of it. Why? Well, in order to study the small plankton in the ocean, you can’t use a net; they’ll slip right through even the smallest net. So, first I collect a lot of seawater with a specialized container called a niskin bottle (basically a tube with opening and closing ends that capture water), then I need to concentrate and separate the plankton from the seawater. To do this, I use an incredibly important piece of oceanography equipment: a filter rack.  To use a filter rack, you pour the seawater sample into specialized screw-on cups, hook the entire the entire system up to a vacuum pump that sucks all the seawater through a thin plastic filter membrane, and catch all the plankton you want to study on the thin filter membranes. I typically filter seawater through filter membranes that catch very small things (less than 1 micron or 1/10000 of a centimeter!) so that I can catch even the tiniest plankton. I then use these filtered samples for lots of different analyses, from genetics to microscopy, to figure out what plankton are there, how many there are, and what they’re doing.

But, filter racks aren’t just use to study plankton. Measurements of chlorophyll (the light-absorbing pigment in plants), nutrients, and trace metals in seawater all require using filter racks. So, to underscore just how important the filter rack is to oceanographic research, here is a selection of the many filter racks I have come across in my research.

Filter racks come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of sophistication, including lovely hand-crafted solid wood creations complete with the artistic stylings of bored graduate students.

White arrows indicate graduate student sharpie art.

Personally, my favorite type of filter rack is the humble pvc-pipe version that many young oceanographers create themselves after a trip to the nearest hardware store. With some pvc pipe, cementing glue, and bright red on/off valves, you can create a custom, spiffy looking filter rack all your own.

PVC filter racks: the humblest form of filter rack.

Filter racks are multi-purpose too – who needs a darkroom when you can toss a blanket or spare garbage bag over the entire filter rack to protect samples filled with light-sensitive plankton?

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Sometimes, it’s not necessary to have an entire rack of filters when just one filter will get the job done.

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It is debatable whether or not watching the seawater filter makes the process go any faster.  

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And when you’re at sea, sometimes you might need to filter with your life vest on inside the lab – just in case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But most importantly, biological oceanographers need to remember to smile while doing all that filtering because it gets us all the samples we need for our research.

 

 


freibott_authorpicAuthor: Alexandra Freibott (afreibott@ucsd.edu)

Ali is a PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California and studies microbial ecology in the California Current. She is an avid reader and enjoys taking her dog Louie for long walks on the beach during work breaks.

 

 

 

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Follow along with the El Nino Research Cruise!

The CCE LTER researchers are heading out on Tuesday for a 3 week long research cruise focused on investigating the effects of El Nino on our study site: the California Current. We are excited to get some sea time and check out what this recent atmospheric phenomenon means for the biology, chemistry, and physics of this productive region.

Keep up to date on our adventures and day-to-day oceanography research by following us on Twitter or checking out the blog website.

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Salad Cages

By Christie Yorke of the SBC LTER

My graduate student research often involves combining mesh, zip-ties, PVC piping, and massive amounts of electrical tape to create experimental set-ups. I’ve zip-tied plastic bags around kelp to measure the stuff that sloughs off and put animals in homemade cages with kelp to measure how much they can eat in a day. I’ve also designed tipping buckets that mechanically agitate kelp to test if the kelp can be utilized by animals that filter small particles out of the water for food. I often find myself designing and building things that would benefit from much larger (i.e., tens of thousands of dollars) budgets than I’m allotted. Alas, this means that I must wander the aisles of Home Depot, and sometimes Smart & Final, to find items designed for entirely different purposes that I can re-purpose for my experiments. Who said being a scientist means you aren’t creative?

(Left) Kelp secured with zip-ties and plumbing hardware in big plastic bags. (Top Right) Yeah, those are filter feeding tunicates secured to bathroom tiles with super glue… (Bottom Right) DIY tipping buckets. Take note of the yellow pool noodle used to cushion the buckets when they tip.

Recently, I volunteered to lead community college students through a small experiment in order to expose them to kelp forest research. I was excited to be a mentor because I too was once a community college student and I now do my own graduate research. I thought it would be fun to take a well-tested kelp grazing rate experiment and add a fish to the mix in order to test how the sight and smell of a fish might affect the grazing rate of invertebrates that feed on kelp.  Seeing and/or smelling the fish might frighten small invertebrate grazers, leading them to spend all of their time hiding rather than eating. I thought this was a relatively straight-forward experiment that would allow these young scientists to be wow-ed by the experience of handling live animals in a real research setting.

A week before the experiments were set to begin, I realized that I needed 40 cages that would be the size of a kelp blade (the algae equivalent of a plant leaf), as well as see-through. I needed my invertebrates to be safe from being eaten but be able to both see and smell the fish! I had no such cages. Additionally, there is often very little to no budget for volunteer or side projects such as these. This is how I found myself wandering the aisles of Smart & Final, looking for something clear that would work as a cage that I could cut holes into and then glue in mesh panels. I originally thought I might find clear plastic tubs with a snug screw on lid. I did find those tubs, but they were $5 a piece and I could not afford to spend $200 on such a small, but necessary, part of this project. What I needed was some inexpensive, clear containers that I could cut up to fit my needs. I continued to wander around the store for about an hour, gazing discontentedly at various pieces of frosted, costly tupperware. People came and went as they completed their shopping and the employees started looking uncomfortable with my continued presence in their store. Finally, I found the perfect thing – clear plastic disposable salad containers – $24 for a 100 pack!

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The “Cages”

I promptly bought them, made a cage prototype, and set our summer intern to work with a hot glue gun and a bolt of nylon mesh. The final product was something that I (and our hard working intern) am truly proud of to this day. The experiments went off without a hitch, though the data was pretty messy, which is the case with a lot of ecological data. The results seemed to indicate that only some of the invertebrates were truly scared by the presence of the fish, while others grazed normally. It’s possible I need to change the experimental design and add more fish in each tank next time. Clearly, more trials are needed in the future, and now that I have my great salad box cages, I can perform the experiments again next summer with more students!

Students working hard and testing out those salad containers.


Picture1Author: Christie Yorke (christie.yorke@lifesci.ucsb.edu)

Christie is a 4th year PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara studying the transport and fate of kelp within the kelp forest. She likes to go SCUBA diving and loves taste testing her study organisms.

Ants, parasitoid wasps, and bears, oh my!

By Alexandria Wenninger of the BNZ LTER

Being a field ecologist is a really fun job, where a day at the office could mean anything from tromping through a peat bog in muck boots, scuba diving off the coast, climbing trees, or hiking Antarctica. While the biggest obstacles we face at our indoor offices are usually running out of printer paper or forgetting to refill the coffee pot, the occupational hazards of our outdoor offices are often unexpected and bizarre.

I study ants and parasitoid wasps in Alaska’s boreal forest, and when I first started my work I spent a lot of time designing the perfect pitfall trap to collect them (pitfall traps are small containers placed holes in the ground so that insects walking by fall in and can’t escape). I thought I had everything figured out; what I had not anticipated was black bears ruining my traps.

Black bears, in my experience, are driven by curiosity and hunger. My traps are new and exciting to them, and as an added bonus, the traps are filled with dead insects, delicious!

ants1 The bears pull my traps out of the ground and then eat and/or spill the contents before tossing the cups aside. (Normally the white plate would be held over the pitfall trap with the plastic nails to act as a rain cover).

Surprisingly the story is not over yet; I thought I was smart and figured I could make the traps taste so terrible that the bears would either leave them alone entirely or would have one taste and never touch them again. I needed something serious to do this task, so I employed “the bitterest substance known to man”, denatonium benzoate (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denatonium ).

ants2 Another example of what my pitfall traps look like after a bear encounter.

Results? After accidental exposure I can safely say that the denatonium benzoate is plenty disgusting, but it turns out that some bears really don’t care! It does seem like I lose less traps to bears now, but whether it is due to the bitter substance or coincidence I don’t know.

Bears: 1, Field Ecologist: 0.

ants3Mom and two cubs crossing the road near one of my field sites.

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Alexandria Wenninger is a graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks studying post-fire succession of ant and parasitoid wasp communities in the Bonanza Creek LTER site network.

 

Deep Sea Diving on Shallow Reefs

I’m a coral reef ecologist. This means I go SCUBA diving every day to conduct my research in lovely tropical places where corals grow. It is pretty amazing work. During the months that I have to study the coral reefs in Moorea, French Polynesia (an island a few miles from Tahiti) I set up experiments in the ocean and sometimes in large salt water tanks on the shore. We (myself and other researchers I work with) drive small boats out to our research sites, gear up and hop in to do our work. Here, I am on my way out to a research site to set up an experiment using small cages. You can see my boat is absolutely loaded with equipment; I’m in for a long day in the water.

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I’m often asked how deep I dive when I’m conducting my research and the answer is usually a surprise to my friends and family. Shallow! Holy moly it is shallow where I do my studies! The average depth on a typical dive is between 5-7 feet. You may ask, why the heck are you SCUBA diving if you can just stand up and breathe the air? That’s a great question, and sometimes I do snorkel while I do my work, holding my breath while I need to be under the water and coming up for air. But other times I need to be down on the sea floor for hours at a time counting or measuring small corals and would easily lose track if I went up for air. Here is a photo of me snorkeling on a typical day estimating how much coral is present on this coral reef. And another where I’m SCUBA diving to set up an experiment hauling heavy cinder blocks around with my experimental corals attached (and dancing around like they’re pom poms); so grateful for the lack of gravity under the water.

One reason why I can do my research so shallow is because most corals grow very shallow. Corals rely on photosynthetic algae living within them and need clear water and lots of light to grow. On a coral reef most of the action happens in the first 30 feet of water depth. This turns out to be pretty convenient for coral reef scientists like myself because the deeper you SCUBA dive the more safety precautions you must take and the shorter the time you can be down at your maximum depth. If you dive super deep (near 100 feet) your time at the bottom can be limited to just minutes! It would take me a whole lot of dives to get to find and measure 500 corals at that rate.

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Author: Stella Swanson

Stella Swanson is a PhD student from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She studies how sea urchins and fish can influence the recovery of damaged coral reefs.

 

LTER Student Science at the 2016 Ocean Sciences Meeting

While this blog will mainly feature our research stories, we thought it would be relevant to share another important experience as a scientist: attending scientific conferences. Scientists often attend conferences where they present and discuss their research with other scientists. These conferences are amazing opportunities to meet with colleagues in person because they draw people from around the world together to discuss their research. Everyone from students, both undergraduate and graduate, to seasoned experts in their field, attend conferences.

The 2016 Ocean Sciences Meeting (OSM) is one such large scientific conference that focuses on all aspects of marine, and sometimes freshwater, science. Many graduate students from the Santa Barbara Coastal (SBC) and California Current Ecosystem (CCE) LTER sites attended this year’s OSM conference held in New Orleans two weeks ago, and it was a great opportunity to share our science and have fun with our colleagues in a great city. Here are some of the sights and sounds of our student experience at the conference!

At conferences, researchers can give talks or poster presentations of their research. When conferences have thousands of attendees, like OSM, only a fraction of the scientists have time to give talks about their research, while the rest present their research in poster format in a very large room with rows and rows of posters.

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One of the two poster rooms at the 2016 OSM.

Here are a couple CCE and SBC students by their respective posters:

And here is grad student Jennifer Brandon (CCE) giving a talk about effective outreach techniques related to her marine debris research:

In addition to the talks and poster presentations, there is ample time to mingle with other scientists (including LTER student alums) over libations and snacks during breaks and evening mixers.

The student SBC and CCE attendees even met for a get together at an historic New Orleans spot, Pat O’Briens:

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The fountain behind had fire in addition to the standard water.

Conferences are an amazing experience as a graduate student, giving us a chance to share our research, meet with colleagues from around the world and form new collaborations for the future. The CCE and SBC students represented LTER marine sites well at this year’s OSM – and had a lot of fun while doing it!


freibott_authorpicAuthor: Ali Freibott

Ali is a 5th year PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California and studies microbial ecology in the California Current. She is an avid reader and enjoys taking her dog Louie for long walks on the beach during work breaks.

What do you do at sea for a month without good internet?

For our research in biological oceanography, we often have to go to sea to collect our biological samples or to measure the temperature, salinity, and chemical components of the water at different depths. We often have to go to sea for days, even weeks at a time without coming into port. Going to sea is a very fun and unique part of our jobs, and allows us to answer really unique questions, like “What are the ecological effects on plankton and fish communities when a large El Niño is occurring?” or “How much plastic debris is in the water in the middle of the North Pacific Gyre?” These are questions we can’t answer from land, or from satellite images. But it does lead to one unique problem that we get asked quite often: What do you do to entertain yourself for a MONTH at sea without good INTERNET??

1. Watch a lot of movies.

a. You can’t rely on Netflix or hulu out there at sea, so you better have that series you’re ready to binge-watch stored on your computer or on DVD. I foolishly brought my own DVDs on the R/V Melville the first time, only to walk into the movie room and discover hundreds upon hundreds of DVDs. On shelves in rows three DVDs thick, in binders that were once organized, in binders where there were unlabeled DVDs, in binders where you find the occasional mix CD from a decade past. So needless to say, there are hundreds of DVDs to watch, if you have the patience to find what you’re looking for.

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There are no pictures of us watching movies, so here’s a lovely sunset view from the ship instead.

2. Read books. That’s right, books.

a. This one fully depends on your ability to read without getting seasick, and thus also on the calmness of the sea. But it is actually really nice to disconnect, unplug, and read those books gathering dust on your shelves rather than yet another buzzfeed article. Because buzzfeed is not loading at sea, friend. So stop trying. The R/V Melville and some other vessels even have libraries where you can read the books left behind by past sailors and scientists. Both the library and movie room shelves have brass bars across them to keep the books and DVDs in place on rough seas.

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Library on the R/V Melville.

3. Play cribbage.

a. I had never played cribbage, and had really barely heard of it, before my first cruise. This is an old sailor favorite, and the crew of almost any ship will be playing it after dinner. If you’re nice, they’ll teach you how to play. One of the benefits of playing at sea is that the pegs won’t move in rough weather. Not so with Mah Jong tiles, which was a sailor favorite on one of our cruises due to the ship having just been dry-docked (laid up for service) in Asia. Those tiles are slippery, and moved all over with the roll of the ship. It was quickly abandoned for cribbage.

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Cribbage time!

4. Draw on cups. And foam heads.

a. What? You’ve never done this? This age-old seafaring tradition actually can’t be any older than 1954, when Styrofoam was invented. What we do is draw on Styrofoam cups and heads with sharpies at the sea surface. Then we attach the cups to a CTD rosette, a water sampler, as it goes down on a deep dive. The air in the Styrofoam escapes under the increased pressure at depth, and the now air-free cups shrink. This shrinking is a one-way process, and the cups come back to the surface much much smaller! The deeper the dive, the smaller the cups. These shrunken cups and heads are a triple-threat as a favorite cruise pastime, our favorite cruise souvenir, and the cheapest gift to make for friends and family.

(Top left) Styrofoam  heads and odd scientists, before shrinking. (Bottom left) Shrunken styrofoam cups that went 3500 meters under the sea!(Right) More shrunken sytrofoam heads and cups. 

5. Do science.

a. What we actually spend almost all our time doing is of course not watching movies or playing cribbage, but collecting samples and deploying equipment. Going to sea is amazing because we get to interact with all those preserved animals we have seen back in the lab freezers and in jars of formaldehyde, but we see them in vibrant color, alive and moving. I get to see how that salinity and temperature data is collected, and what all those labs on my hall actually do to get their samples. The best thing to do when your shift ends on a cruise is to volunteer at least once a cruise to help with every other shift to really see what each group does and how they collect their samples. Then when you need that data back in lab, you have a holistic understanding of where it came from, and how the CCE functions together.

(Top) Scientists enjoying the sun on deck during a break. (Bottom left) Setting up scientific equipment in the ship’s lab. (Bottom middle) Deploying an enormous net, called an Oozeki net, that will be dragged behind the boat to catch fish and other exciting creatures from deep in the water. (Bottom right) Sifting through what was caught in a trawl net, including an absurd amount of urchins.  


brandon_authorpicAuthor: Jennifer Brandon

Jenni is a fourth year PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of
Oceanography in San Diego, CA. She quantifies the spatial and temporal distribution of marine microdebris and studies the ecological effects of marine debris.  She loves Duke basketball, Giants baseball, and traveling as much as possible.

 

Poopy Penguins

After spending 30 days on a ship conducting research on the Antarctic ocean, I was going to get to visit my first penguin colony and I was so excited! I pictured in my mind cute little penguins, like the ones in the movie Happy Feet, jumping around rocks and playing in the water. When I stepped on the island where the colony of penguins were located I immediately asked myself, “what is that smell?” I looked around to see most of the rocks on the island covered in this reddish brown gook. It didn’t take me long to realize this was all poop. Gross poop. Honestly, the worst smelling poop that has ever graced my nostrils.

We often think penguins look like this:

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When, actually, they look like this most of the time:

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Photo credit: Dr. David Johnston, Duke

And even this:

penguin4Photo Credit Dr. David Johnston, Duke

The penguin colony I got to visit, located on Anvers Island, Antarctica, is home to a species known as Adelie (a-deli) penguins. Unfortunately, due to warming temperatures in Antarctica and ice melt, their populations have decreased rapidly. However, a small community still remains and scientists have been studying the population for almost 30 years.

In early January, penguin chicks will hatch and they look like cute hairy puff balls. The first few months of their lives, they are fed by their mother, who collects krill in surrounding waters. This process is similar to birds we see in our backyards where the mother bird collects worms for their chicks to eat. Like the birds in our backyard who need to learn to fly, penguins need to learn to swim and this can take some time. Before chick penguins learn to swim, they are continually eating and pooping all day long (just like human babies)! Hence, most of the penguins on the colony I visited, looked and smelled like poop because the chicks didn’t know how to swim. Most were just a month old.  

While my research focuses on krill, the food that penguins eat, it was a highlight of my time in Antarctica to see these amazing creatures, which only exist on that continent. As a scientist, getting to explore new places is one of the highlights of my job and one of the main reasons I decided to go into grad school in the first place.

So, the next time you see a cute penguin on tv, just remember that most of them aren’t really that pretty, but they’re still awesome!


thibodeau_authorpicAuthor: Tricia Thibodeau

I’m a graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science studying zooplankton in Antarctica. Zooplankton are the tiny drifters of the sea that eat phytoplankton, the plants of the ocean, and are also eaten by larger predators. Every January, during Antarctica’s summer, I spend 30 days on a research ship along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (below Chile) catching zooplankton, such as krill, with nets we tow behind the ship. I hope to understand how the abundance of zooplankton is impacted by climate change, which is important for determining how larger animals we’re familiar with, like penguins and whales, may be affected.