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!
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.
As a child, I remember spending hours collecting trash from the street ditch, woods, and ravine around my house. It was something that I felt very strongly about even as an 8-year old. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could just throw their trash out the car window without a second thought. Today, as an avid outdoor enthusiast, tour guide, and lover of all things nature, or as I like to call it “neature”, helping out mother nature has now become a passion and life-long pursuit.
Chemical pollution is a huge problem across the globe and many contaminants are released into the natural environment daily. Concern over chemical pollution can be dated back as far as the 13th century when England’s King Edward I wanted to use penalties to reduce air pollution if the residents of London did not stop burning coal. This threat, however, had little effect, and it was not until after the industrial revolution that the concern of pollution resurfaced.
I'm happy to share that we've had a total of 13 students students defend their theses in 2019! Please join me in congratulating the students, and read below to learn a little more about their research.
SCIENCE often brings to mind measured and exact descriptions. But, often the process of conducting science requires curiosity, creativity, and a willingness to take an experimental risk. Qualities that are more often associated with art. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, these two fields collaborate more often than expected. A local artist, author, and phycologist, Josie Iselin, recently held a workshop at her studio where participants could explore the collaboration of seaweed science, art, and a little bit of history.
The colors and textures of seaweed create a kaleidoscope of diversity along California’s coast that has drawn artists and scientists to the shore for decades. To preserve these species for study, they are usually pressed and dried. But preserving specimens in this way makes them difficult to incorporate into an identification manual. Photography, illustration, and printmaking offered solutions to this problem. In the early ages of photography, a type of print making, called cyanotype printing, began to expand how field guides could be created. Today, high color photos in books and on our phones or apps like iNaturalist make identifying and enjoying our beaches very easy. However, these classic techniques of pressing and printing are still valuable to studying seaweed.
Joise’s workshop focused on the cyanotype printing technique. Cyanotype prints are made by coating thick paper with two chemicals that react when exposed to sunlight. Objects, or seaweed, are placed on the paper. The sunlight reacts and turns the exposed paper a deep blue, and the paper covered by the object remains white. The paper is then rinsed in a water bath and dried flat. Simple straightforward process, except of course the weather, the day of the workshop it was raining in the Bay Area.
Under Josie’s kind and attentive guidance, we began a cyanotype first: experimenting under rain conditions. We began by placing delicate fronds and branches on paper. To protect the paper and seaweed from the rain they were placed under glass before being placed on a flat outside surface. It took between 20-40 mins for the print to develop, but it worked! Producing the prints in the rain resulted in some varying hues of blue, abstract shapes, and some beautiful pieces of art from the combination of sun and rain. The contrast of the white and blue reveal the playful and unique shapes algae and marine plants create.
To learn more about the history, science, and art tied up in seaweed explore Josie Iselin’s new book The Curious World of Seaweed, released in August 2019.
This post is a companion to the recent post about the Global Kelp Systems course. While both Chile and Monterey are dominated by kelp, they are not identical. Part of the fun of the class was the ability to compare and contrast the local environments.
One of the unique advantages of Moss Landing Marine Labs is the opportunity to participate in international science education. This winter a small group of MLML students traveled to Central Chile to participate in an international class focused on kelp ecology. In Chile, kelp --mainly the genus Lessonia-- doesn’t stop at the subtidal but instead comes all the way into the intertidal. What’s even more surprising is the first glance of the Las Cruces’ Chilean coast looks like it could be the rocky shores of Monterey or Pacific Grove. But, looking closer it is quite a different world.
We're going to take a brief break from highlighting the Habitat Mapping class's work to talk about another class that just returned from the field: the Global Kelp Systems course held in Las Cruces, Chile!
Every other year, a small group of students have made the journey south to study kelp forests in the lower latitudes. Kelp forests are found throughout the world --although the dominant species may differ-- but the research that comes out of each region often fails to link each system together. Or worse, findings from one part of the world will be applied broadly to all kelp forests, despite the huge differences in local conditions.
We'll have a blog specifically discussing the differences between the kelp forests of California and those of Chile in the next few weeks --courtesy of Phycology lab student Ann Bishop-- but for this post we wanted to discuss what we actually did during the class.
After much contemplation, I decided to bring my laptop along on this journey to the unfamiliar coastal desert in Baja California. A laptop would facilitate more efficient data entry at our site and allow for statistical analysis on the return trip. The morning after our arrival at Punta Eugenia, however, made me question my decision. On that day, we packed all of our belongings on a number of panga boats and ferried them and ourselves from the mainland to Isla Natividad - and the journey was fairly bumpy.
Powerful currents and swell defined the "yellow" conditions that were the last categorical color for allowable transit. I was on the last of the boats and all of my gear was sent over on the first boat, which did not ease my nervousness. Once I was aboard the last panga and underway on the wavy route, my unsteadiness was quickly replaced by thrill, excitement, and anticipation. The opportunity to explore an unfamiliar place and dive into a rich and bountiful system is an opportunity not to be missed. If you are presented with that opportunity, prepare wisely, facilitate your safety responsibly, and journey into the unknown.
Our journey thus far had been filled with friendly interactions with the locals at every stop. We ate goat tacos and were pleasantly surprised to discover that they were some of the best tacos we've ever had. Our boat operator was no exception and pleasantly exchanged conversation with the few of us that also spoke Spanish. This conversation was multi-tasked over concurrent concentration and deft navigation through these dangerous waters. This most definitely wasn't his first trip. I wouldn't be surprised if he had thousands of these trips under his belt. Hindsight has provided me with multitudes of questions I would love to inquire of the islanders and their way of life. For someone who thrives in a coastal environment, someone like myself, it seemed to be a very enjoyable way of life.
At the end of the day, muscle soreness was a poignant reminder of the amount of gear we had hauled on these pangas. The local method of hauling gear utilized designated truck drivers to navigate pick-ups into the surf zone to connect with the pangas and transfer gear. As a reminder, metal and saltwater aren't the best of friends - one could say they have a corrosive relationship. The saltwater and the bumpy dirt roads are the likely culprits for the average island truck life expectancy of 3 years. If the amount of gear that was frequently transported throughout the year equated to anything near to what we brought to the island, that was likely another contributing factor.
Prior to the start of the trip, I decided to study the most abundant understory kelp (and the only observed understory kelp) at Isla Natividad: Ecklonia arborea. Ecological interactions between understory and canopy kelps have been well established; the niches of the two subtidal kelps E. arborea and the giant kelp (you may be more familiar with) Macrocystispyrifera overlap along the California and Mexico coast. E. arborea and the giant kelp M. pyrifera compete for resources in the subtidal kelp forest within this range, however M. pyrifera favors colder waters while E. arborea favors southern, warmer waters. Additionally, E. arborea have the capability of persisting in high wave energy environments, which allow them to form forests within exposed areas and within the intertidal zone. Established forests of E. arborea can prevent the inside establishment of M. pyrifera. Oceanographic disturbances such as El Niño events ) favor the understory kelp as well by the combination of warm water exposure and heavy wave action.
I didn't know what to expect, but my 8 days of diving around the island introduced me to a new underwater world. Forests of Macrocystis pyrifera around the 7km by 3km island contained individuals with differing densities. Understory forests contained forests of Eisenia arborea as far as the visibility allowed and further (with exceptional visibility, keep in mind). Within both of these ecotypical forests, the dominant kelp was interlaced with its competitor. Assemblages with these two kelps appeared to vary in terms of the density relationship between the two species between sites (data pending). Field collections of whole individuals at non-protected sites were used to compare some of these appearance characteristics to see whether they vary between sites or whether certain morphological characteristics correlate with others. These collections were analyzed immediately following diving and typically lasted through dinner (even with the gracious help of my colleagues).
The Flavors of Baja
The food at the island was understandably a delicious melange of various seafood. I experienced one of the most exceptional snacks between our daily dives. Surface intervals between dives were accompanied by delicious wavy turban snail treats courtesy of our divemaster and boat operator. The efficient and quick chopping apart of numerous snails' shells with an onboard machete yielded a small bucket's worth of tasty morsels. These snails were less like the escargot from the land and more like an abalone. This treat itself highlights the bountiful harvests that the ocean can yield. Further so, this treat highlights the necessity of managing these resources in order to preserve and allow for their continual use for future generations. The wise implementation of the islanders' Marine Protected Areas illustrates a clarity that I wish was more prevalent in American coastal communities.
Reflections on my experience
Science is not typically described as "easy". This trip to a beautiful, remote, desert island wasn't the easy-going vacation-esque experience one may have expected. Hard work was paramount to collect as much data as possible in a relatively short amount of time. My colleagues and I took apart and measured 137 individuals and conducted 16 dives in a total of 9 days on the island. Conducting science at Isla Natividad was a privilege that I greatly appreciated. I hope to return there one day to follow up on my research with Eisenia arborea.
Saying goodbye is also never easy. The relationships we've developed with the community on the island were very rewarding and positive. I also hope to return to the island just to touch base with the islanders there, be it the island's head of ecotourism, the island's divemasters and boat operators, restaurant owning family, head of aquaculture, our drivers, or the multitudes of others that showed us an amazing time. Our departure marked the end of our time at Isla Natividad, but just another step in our progression as aspiring scientists. We continue forward with our studies with the aspirations to explore and discover the unknown.
I would like to introduce myself; I am the field notebook of Sloane Lofy. She is a student of Moss Landing Marine Labs, and this Fall 2018 decided to take the Marine Environmental Studies of Baja California, or as everyone at MLML calls it, the “Baja Class.” This is where I come in, as a requirement for the course each student must keep a field notebook so that thoughts, ideas, and notes from the field can be used in their research papers later. To give you a feel for what the trip to Baja was like from leaving the parking lot to coming home I will share with you some of her entries.