Tag Archives: marine biology

Life in the Clean Van

By Maitreyi Nagarkar, CCE LTER

This past April I went on the CCE LTER El Nino Rapid Response cruise, and it was my first ever time on a research cruise. My own research focuses on samples that I collect right off the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, California, so this was a new and exciting experience for me. I would say the most striking parts of being at sea so long were:

  1. Never having any privacy, ever.
  2. Not having a consistent work or sleep schedule – most of the time I was helping with CTD casts that were at 3am!
  3. Getting used to doing everything (brushing your teeth, taking a shower, eating a meal, running on a treadmill…) while the ship is rocking back and forth like crazy. We encountered some rough weather and there was a whole day where I couldn’t go even a few steps without stumbling around! I pretty much spent that day in bed.
  4. Eating amazing food all the time. Wait…I’m being told this is not always the case. But, the chefs on the R/V Sikuliaq were both amazing! They not only made delicious meals, but also kept us supplied with lots of baked goods every day.

I was helping a research group, the Barbeau lab, that studies trace metals in the ocean, specifically iron. “Trace” means that they are only present in the ocean at very low levels, but they can be extremely important in determining what grows and what doesn’t. Here’s how:

As you might know, the whole ocean food web depends on phytoplankton, the microscopic plants of the ocean. They get eaten by zooplankton, which get eaten by larger zooplankton, which are food for fish, and so on. Basically the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean determines how much of everything else can grow. For instance, if you have a pizza party, and you only order one pizza, that limits how many people you can invite!

So what determines how many phytoplankton can grow? Most of the phytoplankton in the ocean are single-celled organisms, and building a cell requires a specific ‘recipe’ of different elements. Here’s another food example – let’s say you are baking with the following recipe for a dozen cookies:

2 cups flour

1.5 cups sugar

0.75 cups butter

2 cups chocolate chips

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

0.5 teaspoon baking soda

And let’s say that you have lots of flour, sugar, butter, chocolate chips, eggs, and vanilla (enough for dozens and dozens of cookies!). But, you only have 1 teaspoon of baking soda. If that happens, then you can only make two dozen cookies because you are limited by the amount of baking soda you have.

This same thing can happen to phytoplankton with the elements they need to grow. In the ocean, there are often lots and lots of some of the ‘ingredients’ that cells need to grow, such as Carbon, Nitrogen, and Phosphorous – these would be like the flour, sugar, and butter of the cookie recipe example. But iron, which cells need only a little bit of, is often not present in the ocean in very high quantities – making it a trace metal. So, just like you were only able to make as many cookies as you had enough baking soda, in the ocean you can only have as many phytoplankton cells as you have enough iron to support.

During the cruise, we collected water at different locations in the California Current off southern the coast of California and measured how much iron was in the water. To do this we used a Trace Metal CTD. CTD stands for conductivity (or salinity), temperature, and depth. This is a standard instrument used in oceanographic research that is dropped vertically in the water to measure these water properties, and it is also used to collect seawater at specific depths with the attached niskin bottles.

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Here we are getting the Trace Metal CTD ready to deploy in the water. We have to put the gray niskin bottles on right before we put it in the water because we want to keep them as clean as possible with no metal contamination! I am in the yellow hardhat, grad student Angel Ruacho is in the black hardhat, and our leader, Kathy Barbeau, is in the red hardhat.

Once the CTD is in the water, we send it down to the water depths we are interested in and get water from each of those depths.

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Now the CTD is ready to go in the water. The ropes we are holding are called tag lines, and we use them to stabilize the CTD so it’s not swinging around and getting damaged… or hitting us in the head.

Then, we rush it into the clean van. The van is a large, self-contained labspace that is closed-off from the rest of the ship that we try to keep very clean so that we don’t contaminate our water samples with iron. This can be very challenging when you work on a ship that is made of metal! We even have to take our shoes off when we go in the clean van. Once inside the van, we begin filtering the water to measure the iron, and it can take a long time. It was quite an experience to be in a small, plastic-covered van at 3 in the morning, holding filter tubing while seriously debating with the rest of our research group who to listen to while we worked: Katy Perry or Nine Inch Nails. We also had many a conversation about whether the Jedi or the Sith were the ‘real’ good guys in Star Wars. Clearly, 3am lab work can inspire some fascinating conversations.

We collected water at many different depths in many different locations throughout the cruise. The filtered water was brought back on land for the iron measurements. After all the long, hard work, we end up with something like this:

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This is the data we end up with – it’s called an iron profile.

This is called an iron profile and shows the amount of iron at each water depth in a particular location. Iron usually gets in the ocean by being blown in as dust, so often there is more iron at the very surface and less deeper in the ocean. This is because the iron is getting taken up by phytoplankton! But, even deeper in the ocean, the iron concentration increases again. Why? Because when plankton die, they sink in the water and get eaten or decomposed by bacteria. As this happens, all of the iron they had within them gets released back into the water, increasing the amount of iron in deep ocean waters.

Because we sampled so many different locations on this cruise, we were able to create iron profiles for many different locations in the California Current. It took many long, sleepless hours in the clean van, but now we have lots of information about how much iron there is in different parts of the Southern California Current Ecosystem, and we can start to compare it to the iron data from previous cruises to see if there have been any changes in the amount of iron available to phytoplankton over time or due to the El Nino event specifically.


mnagarkar.pngAuthor: Maitreyi Nagarkar (mnagarkar@ucsd.edu)

Maitreyi is a PhD student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. In her research, she uses environmental molecular methods to characterize marine microbial communities and investigate cyanobacterial-grazer interactions.

The Rigors and Rewards of Fieldwork

As our boat cut through the chop of the Santa Barbara Channel, sending fans of spray hissing in our wake, I couldn’t help but appreciate the beautiful day and consider how fortunate I was that my job requires regular SCUBA diving. While relishing this blissful feeling and the glorious weather, I noticed that my fin strap was loose. We were in between imgboattwo quick dives at the oil platforms off of Santa Barbara, and had all of our gear on so we could immediately jump in at our next dive site. As I reached down to adjust my fin, the boat hit a particularly large swell, causing it to heave unexpectedly, sending me flying backwards in an awkward tumble off the side of the boat and into the Pacific. That sunny glow I had been feeling was immediately replaced by shock at how quickly I was thrown, embarrassment for not paying attention, and amusement at the baffled faces of my dive team as the boat wheeled around to retrieve me from the ocean.

Field research abounds with moments like these, where a switch flips and a routine day suddenly turns into chaos. These hurdles range from minor to major: weather conditions or platform operations have kept us from diving on schedule, IMG_2818equipment has fall to the depths of the ocean, a housing once failed and ruined an expensive camera, and I’m guilty of forgetting water or food out on the boat. I have to remind my envious friends that it’s not all fun and games out in the field, and that sometimes I have to overcome logistical, physical, and mental blocks that could potentially hinder successful research. However, these experiences, for lack of a better term, build character. I’ve learned to take things in stride and be a creative problem-solver. I understand my limits, but feel so accomplished when I challenge myself and succeed. Though I would consider myself to be a detail-oriented micro-manager at times, I’ve learned to be relaxed and flexible with on-the-fly decision making.

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If nothing else, the challenging days make me truly appreciate the good days that make it all worthwhile. Diving at the oil platforms is breathtaking in ideal conditions. Visibility can reach 100 feet, far more than a good day on the mainland. Huge schools of juvenile fish, large adult fish, and elusive pelagic species make appearances out at the platforms.

 

Girabaldi1 (1)The invertebrate community growing on the platform’s structure is rich and vibrant; pink, purple, and peach strawberry anemones abound, shrimp dart around mussel and scallop shells, and millions of barnacles wave their feeding combs. Playful sea lions curiously swim by and pirouette as if putting on a show.

 

BIMG_1341efore I started this thesis, another graduate student told me about the trials and tribulations of her thesis work. She told me that one needs a sense of humor when conducting a laboratory experiment. I can’t help but wonder if that means that someone doing a field work needs the sense of humor of a true comedian, because there is even more room for setbacks in the field. In spite of the challenges, I wouldn’t dream of exclusively working out of a laboratory or office; the rewards of fieldwork are a regular affirmation of my choice to pursue a career in ecology.

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viola_authorpicAuthor: Sloane Viola (sloaneviola@gmail.com)

I am a second year Master’s student at the University of California, Santa Barbara studying the effects of disturbance and community dynamics on the colonization success of a non-native marine epibenthic invertebrate on offshore structures. Prior to starting this research, I worked as an undergraduate intern and then a lab technician in a beach ecology research lab at UCSB. I did an undergraduate thesis on the effects of fine sediments from nourishment material on the burrowing ability of beach invertebrates. When I’m not being a scientist, I play beach volleyball and kickball, surf, hike, read, and I’ve been building a ukulele.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

CCE_LTER

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.

 

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.