The Pets of Moss Landing Marine Labs

By Lauren Cooley, MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab

At this point in the pandemic, I think we all know that working from home is a real drag, but for many of us, one of the few redeeming aspects is getting to spend way more time with our pets! From quarantine puppies to beloved bunnies to troublemaking cats, these creatures have brought us comfort and joy during these deeply stressful times. Sure our whole lives take place on Zoom now, but there is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing your professor hold up their cat to greet the class or watching your colleague's dog chase their tail in the background during an important meeting.

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Nine students defend thesis research in 2020!

By June ShresthaMLML Ichthyology Lab

2020 was a big year. We saw a global pandemic, protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and wildfires raging across the state. Despite all of this, we had nine students pull through to defend their thesis research in 2020! Please join me in congratulating the following students:

  • Lindsay Cooper, Phycology Lab
  • Kenji Soto, Geological Oceanography Lab
  • Amber Reichert, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Mason Cole, Vertebrate Ecology Lab
  • June Shrestha, Ichthyology Lab
  • Dan Gossard, Phycology Lab
  • Jacoby Baker, Ichthyology Lab
  • Emily Pierce, Invertebrate Zoology Lab
  • Miya Pavlock-McAuliffe, Physical Oceanography Lab

Please read below to learn a little more about each student's research. As always, please also check out the posts highlighting student research from previous years as well at the following links: 2019, 2018, and 2017.

Special author note: As I am one of the students that defended and graduated this year, this will be my last post for The Drop-In. From writing about classes to conferences and student research, it's been a pleasure writing for this blog. Hopefully someone else will carry the torch forward in the new year to highlight and celebrate the research of graduating students!

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COVID-19 Vaccine Resources & Links

By Kali Prescott & Lauren Cooley

Hello from The Drop-in Blog team!  It's been almost a year since the first COVID-19 shutdowns and with the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine we may finally be rounding a corner. To help with the Vaccinate all 58 initiative by Governor Newsom, we have decided to provide links and information on vaccine distribution in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in an accessible blog post.

Although it may be a few more months before many of us will be offered the vaccine, we wanted to ensure anyone in the MLML community that is higher risk has access to resources to answer any questions they might have regarding the vaccine and how and where to get one. We will continue to update this page as more information becomes available and as both counties move through the vaccine distribution tiers.

Monterey County COVID-19 Vaccine Resources


Active vaccination tiers as of 2/17/21

Santa Cruz County COVID-19 Vaccine Resources

Santa Cruz Vaccination Tiers as of 2/22/21

Marine science snapshots: Fieldwork, wildlife, and community at Moss Landing Marine Labs

By Lauren Cooley, MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab

While working on the latest Moss Landing Marine Laboratories Annual Report, my friend and fellow MLML student employee Caroline Rodriguez collected a bunch of amazing photos from the Moss community. While she used many of the best shots in the final report (check it out here!), there simply wasn't enough room for all of the great photos she had amassed. So Caroline reached out to me and asked if I was interested in compiling all these images into a post on The Drop-In blog. And as you can probably guess since you are reading that very post, I said yes!

After a year of mostly staring at screens and working from home, looking through these images of fieldwork, amazing animals, and beautiful scenery taken by my wonderful peers, professors, and colleagues over the last few years has been a great reminder of why I chose to come to MLML in the first place. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. So, without further ado, I present a glimpse into the highlights of life at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories as told by photos from the MLML community.

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Grad school: pandemic edition

By Lauren Cooley, MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab

I think it’s safe to say that before the start of this year, no one could have possibly predicted the truly wild twists and turns of 2020- and the year isn’t even over yet! The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has radically altered the world and for most folks, life over the past 8 months has been pretty chaotic and stressful. I never imagined that on top of all the regular day-to-day stress of graduate school, I would also have to deal with a deadly pandemic, but here we are!

So what exactly has life as a grad student been like during these very strange Corona-times? Lots of people have asked me that question since March, and I typically respond some variation of stressful/overwhelming/profoundly boring/way too much time spent on Zoom. If they happen to catch me on a good day where I have made some big breakthrough with my thesis or had a super productive morning then I might even tell them it’s not so bad. In truth, grad school during a pandemic is a lot like grad school during a normal year: highs and lows. Except now I (almost) never leave my house. So, without further ado, I present a brief Buzzfeed-style look into my life as a Moss Landing Marine Labs (MLML) grad student during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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How 4Ocean Made Recycling Economically Sustainable

By Kali Prescott, MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab

An estimated 5.25 trillion tons of plastic is currently adrift in the ocean having extensive deleterious effects on wildlife (Erikson et al., 2014). Reduce, reuse, recycle has been the battle cry of environmentalists and ocean clean up organizations since the public first realized the severity of marine plastic pollution. For decades plastic producing companies have touted recycling as the solution to plastic pollution in the ocean while simultaneously shirking responsibility—claiming that recycling “is not economically viable”. Continuing to produce virgin plastic unfortunately remains cheaper than producing products from recycled materials even with technological developments.

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Marine snow & climate change

By Annie Bodel, Plankton Ecology & Biogeochemistry Lab

Endings are Beginnings

In a forest when something dies--a leaf, a plant, an animal-- it likely settles onto the ground where it begins a process of decay and integration into the layers of earth beneath. Unless it's carried far away by a scavenger, it mostly stays local after it dies, becoming a part of soil nutrient and mineral cycles at most a meter deep.

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Shifting Foundations

By Acy Wood, MLML Phycology Lab

When I was a child, I used to be mesmerized by seaweed swaying in the surf when I went tidepooling or kelp flowing back and forth in the currents at the aquarium. I loved finding underwater plants because it always meant that I was going to find some amazing animals, too. Whenever I went wading into a meadow of seagrass, I would place my feet cautiously to avoid the crab claws that could suddenly shoot up. If I brushed aside some sea lettuce near a cluster of rocks, a fish might quickly flutter away into a new hiding place. Aside from the plant properties that they all share, these seagrasses and algae also have something else in common: they served as foundation species for their communities.

Just like trees in a forest, these underwater plants are essential to the very identity of their ecosystems. They dominate them, shape them, alter them, define them. A kelp forest ecosystem doesn’t exist without the kelp, nor is a seagrass meadow a meadow without the seagrass. All the other members of their ecosystems directly or indirectly rely on the foundation species in some way. For example, young rockfish tend to gather in kelp forests to hide from predators.  I’ve always loved to learn about foundation species, even before I knew what the term was. It’s almost an instinctual thing that we already know. When you enter a new place or conjure an image in your mind, foundation species are usually the first to stand out, such as corals in a coral reef or evergreens on a mountain.

The reliance on a single species means that researchers need to give special attention to the conditions that species thrives in. Any changes that the foundation species experiences will inevitably trickle down to the other community members. Going back to our example, if the kelp that make the kelp forest are unable to thrive, then the young rockfish will have to go somewhere else to hide. Oftentimes, underwater plants are sensitive to specific temperatures or specific depths. They may grow very well in places that have the right mix of conditions, but will no longer flourish if those conditions happen to change from what the plants need. Similarly, if an area nearby changes to suit them, then they can move right in.

The combination of suitable conditions for underwater plants helps define their range, or the area an organism can be found. Over time, that range can shift. Our planet is experiencing a period of rapid climate change, which is predicted to shift the ranges of underwater plants as coastlines experience new sea levels, new temperatures, and more. Since so many underwater plants serve as foundation species, the range of the animals that rely on them may shift also.

By understanding what our underwater plants need to survive and flourish, scientists can model and predict where we can expect to find these foundation species over time. In general, since many underwater plants are limited by temperature, most are seeing a shift northward as global temperatures warm up. We can then predict that the organisms attributed to these foundation species could see a northward shift as well. This could mean in the future, if I want to wade out into a seagrass meadow and try to find my crabs, I’ll have to drive further north a little longer.

Holly visits Cawthron!

Blog post from the MLML Environmental Biotechnology Lab

Credit: Marine Biosecurity Toolbox

Dr. Holly Bowers had an awesome experience as a visiting researcher at the Cawthron Institute in New Zealand in 2020! Although she has previously collaborated with some of their team, those relationships were expanded upon and new ones were formed during this visit. She worked closely with the Biosecurity Team to run two experiments testing different filter types and filtration times for efficient eDNA and eRNA capture, using the dinoflagellate Alexandrium as a model species. An eDNA/eRNA review paper with a biosecurity angle is in the works.

With the Safe New Zealand Seafood Programme she worked to expand geographic specificity testing for qPCR assays targeting four species within the toxin-producing genus Pseudo-nitzschia. A continuing collaboration with the team aims to characterize species diversity and toxin production of a subset of Pseudo-nitzschia species around New Zealand. She returns with an expanded knowledge base and heaps of ideas for future collaborations!

Check out this article from the Marine Biosecurity Toolbox to learn more about Holly’s trip to New Zealand!

Heading back to Picton after a successful dolphin watching trip!

The case of the sea lion: stranding events linked to domoic acid outbreaks

By Sophie BernsteinMLML Ichthyology Lab

When I moved to the Monterey Bay area for graduate school, I found myself most excited to be immersed in a new ecosystem. I couldn’t wait to learn about what the Monterey Bay was known for: the kelp forest. But I never considered the marine life I could see from shore until my scientific diving course, when we would spend several hours a day loading and unloading boats near Moss Landing Harbor. I felt like a little kid in an ice cream store, excited by all the resident sea lions perched on the dock and nearby boats! Needless to say, as an East-coaster, I was in awe. Meanwhile, the Californians who surrounded me did not look twice. Whereas I thought these sea lions were outrageously cute, and had never seen something like this in the wild, my peers simply rolled their eyes at the barking and obnoxious smell coming from the large animals.

Soon enough, I came to realize that California sea lions are a commonly observed, charismatic marine mammal found along the entire California coast. They are top predators in the local ecosystem, and spend extensive amounts of time at sea foraging on a variety of prey items. Common food for these sea lions include anchovies, sardines, squid, and salmon. When not actively feeding, sea lions may be found on shore breeding in groups called rookeries. A single breeding site can be home to several hundred breeding individuals, with one large male dominating the pack! Because they are such large predators who spend time on coastal shores, they are highly visible to the public.

Rookeries are not the only location where sea lions are seen in large numbers onshore. Every few years, sea lions strand in high numbers along the coast. This is particularly noticeable to the public, because when stranded, they displaying incredibly abnormal behavior, such as excessive head weaving, seizures, or even unusually large mortality events. Unfortunately, mass sea lion strandings usually indicate a larger problem occurring in the marine system: harmful algal blooms.

Red tide events, which cause coastal waters to appear red and make the headlines in California newspapers, are one type of harmful algal bloom visible by the naked eye. Another type of bloom that is not necessarily visible in the water itself causes mass sea lion stranding events along the California coast. These blooms are caused by a different type of algae known as Pseudo-nitzschia, and are capable of producing a harmful neurotoxin called domoic acid (DA).  Similar to a canary in a coal mine, California sea lion stranding events are often the first indicator of a domoic acid outbreak.

The most recent DA events were in 2015-2016 and 1998 and both coincided with unusually warm oceanographic conditions. These warm oceanographic conditions are characterized by a decreased supply of cold, nutrient rich water (scientifically known as ‘upwelling’), resulting in water that is comparatively warmer and depleted in nutrients. The changes in upwelling alter how the larger ecosystem functions, by changing the distribution and amount of prey available. Major DA events occur rather infrequently because they require a specific combination of environmental conditions, but when they occur, they are visible to the public. Similar to other threats to marine ecosystems, these stranding events are tied to climate change. The frequency of DA events and marine mortality events may increase as climate change pressures alter upwelling patterns, creating environments prone to toxic outbreaks.

But if sea lions are top predators in California waters, how and why would a tiny algae cell impact them? While we don’t know yet for sure, scientists think sea lions are impacted by domoic acid through the food web. The Monterey Bay ecosystem is amazingly rich. It is home to thousands of fish and invertebrate species, all of which are connected to each other through predator-prey dynamics. For example, a sea lion may eat a squid, which eats smaller invertebrates and phytoplankton. Through this chain, sea lions and the phytoplankton come in contact.

Scientists recognize that sea lions are exposed to DA through these food chain connections. Sea lions are opportunistic feeders who consume a variety of prey items, including anchovies. Anchovies feed directly on algae and other phytoplankton. Since anchovies are important prey items for predators throughout California, the sea lions who consume them might be directly exposed to DA.

Yes, we’re talking about the same anchovy that may be sitting on your pizza! Anchovies are one of the largest fisheries in central California that contribute > 13 million pounds to commercial fisheries. This creates another question: Does DA threaten seafood consumers? Indeed, humans can be exposed to DA through the same food web connections that make sea lions vulnerable.

An important remaining question is: where are sea lions foraging when they’re exposed to DA? Scientists at The Marine Mammal Center have been researching related topics based on the stranded animals they respond to. Researchers have found that DA toxicity in sea lions can result from ingesting prey items which have accumulated DA, but where were these prey items consumed? And what is the relationship between ocean warming events, climate change, and DA outbreaks? With a better understanding of where prey items accumulate DA, monitoring agencies can more adequately test high risk regions, and increase the chances of detecting a toxic event early on rather than waiting for another biological indicator, such as mass sea lion stranding and mortality events.

To learn more about how The Marine Mammal Center is researching and helping during DA stranding events, check out this article.