Tag Archives: SBC LTER

A little water goes a long way

By Nate Emery, SBC LTER

How do you catch a cloud and pull it down? It’s not easy, but that’s what I have been doing for several years: investigating how fog affects shrub species along the southern California coast. Figuring out how plants use fog water is a two-fold process that involves stable isotopes and plenty of fieldwork – yeah for working outside!

The first step is catching fog. I do this with a fog collector that looks like a dual-axis harp made from PVC, fishing line and rebar. Fog and dew condense on the fishing line and drip down into the PVC gutters which funnel the water into a Nalgene container. This container has pre-weighed mineral oil in it to trap the water and prevent evaporation. It is a passive collector and as long as it stays clean, it catches fog fairly well. This water is then run through a machine called a mass spectrometer, which analyzes the isotopic ratio of oxygen and hydrogen, so I can compare fog with the composition of rain and groundwater.

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The Fog Collector. It looks like a harp with two perpendicular sets of strings. As fog water condenses on the vertical strings, it drips down into PVC funnels and is collected in a container with mineral oil in it to prevent the water from evaporating.

The second part of the analysis involves measuring the plants. Fog water can be taken up by plants through shallow roots and even leaves! To measure the stable isotopic signature of fog water, I collect stem samples and immediately freeze them for later isotopic analysis. The isotopic signature of the water that is extracted from the stem samples enables me to determine the origin of the water source for that plant – fog, rain, or groundwater. Since southern California is a semi-arid environment, water evaporates from the soil surface and I have to take this into account because this means the water taken up by plants in the ground is likely different from the original water source (fog or rain). This involved a lot of fun times coring, or digging, for soil. This is not always the easiest task when the ground is dry, rock-hard clay.

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Coring for soil samples.

One of the most interesting things I’ve found doing this research is that lots of different plant species are using fog water during the summer drought, and for some of them, this reduces their flammability! This is important because less flammable plants could potentially mean smaller wildfires – a major concern in dry California. So the next time you’re lamenting the foggy weather and wishing for a sunny California day, think about how happy the plants are for those little bits of water and maybe do a little jig on their behalf.

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Happy plants covered in dew from the fog.

Picture5Author: Nate Emery (nemery@lifesci.ucsb.edu, @FoggyIdeas, nathanemery.com)

Nate is finishing his PhD on fog and fire ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been measuring fog deposition and water use of several dominant shrub species for 5 years. What’s in store for the future? It’s a bit foggy…

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.

 

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.

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.