Submarine field expedition
by Amanda Bates 12.05.2020
After reaching the seafloor on the Endeavour segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge 200 km off the west coast of Vancouver Island in the human operated vehicle Alvin, we spent a very focused morning searching for a vent called “Hot Harold” to sample fluids thought to exceed 350ºC. The time ticked by as we circled through a maze of chimney formations, my list of tasks feeling heavier and heavier on my lap as we searched without success. It was a relief when we finally located the vent, obtained our water samples, and then moved on to our next task.
I remember thinking that I had neglected to savour being a junior scientist on similar submarine expeditions, where my responsibilities had included taking pictures and watching out the porthole window for octopus, where I had the time to worry about whether I would have to use my allotted pee-cup in such close company. But I was able to relax for a few minutes as my team members tested some sampling gear. I realized I was hungry and opened a chocolate bar. Scrunched up under a blanket, 2000 m under the sea, I turned to look out my port-hole window to enjoy a literally stunning view of a large black smoker chimney pumping out hydrothermal fluids, shimmering in the submersible lights, and the tubes of worms forming a garden of red and white. The venting fluids and animals were so close and vivid that I felt I could reach out with my hand to feel the warmth. It was this moment when I was struck by how bizarre and wonderful it was that I was sitting on the seafloor with 2 km of ocean above us, brand-new sparkling, black, basalt beneath us and a view like no other, eating chocolate.
Amanda Bates @AmandaEBates
The strange incident with the giant clam
by Maria Dornelas 19.05.2020
This stretch of the reef between South and Palfrey Islands feels like home. I have been coming here almost every year for the past 12 years. I can draw the contour of the reef crest with my eyes closed. I can tell you in excruciating detail how many species of coral there are here, and how rare or abundant they are. I mostly have my head in the coral when I am here, but I have seen sharks and turtles around. There are rumours of dugong sightings, and photographs of manta rays. But my favourite story about the reef we call Trimodal is about a giant clam. We started calling this reef Trimodal, because of the species abundance distribution of the corals on this reef crest. We counted over 42 thousand coral colonies there in 2005, and the SAD had a funny shape with three modes.
I can’t remember why exactly, but on this occasion we decided to park the boat in the lagoon area, at the back of the reef. We looked for a patch of sand and rubble and dropped anchor. We got our gear on and I braced myself for the swim across the reef flat towards the crest where we were more likely to find the species we were looking for. Because we were anchoring rather than using the mooring we normally used, we checked the anchor before we swam across. This is always a good idea, as coming back from a dive to find your boat gone is not much fun. Much to our surprise as we looked down, we saw that a giant clam had caught our anchor chain and closed up.
We tried to pull the chain out, with no success. I just sat at the surface having a giggling attack. I laughed and laughed and laughed picturing us explaining this to staff at the research station: we lost the anchor because a giant clam ate it. This would take “my dog ate my homework” to a whole different level. Laughing made my snorkeling mask fill up with water, which made me laugh even harder. We took photos and decided there was nothing we could do at this point.
The clam was not willing to let it go, so we decided to carry on with our job, and deal with the anchor on our return. At least the boat was definitely not going anywhere.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and I didn’t even complain much about the long swim. One of my legs is slightly longer than the other because of a motorcycle accident I had when I was 18. You probably won’t notice if you know me, and Ionly notice when I am swimming with my fins on. It makes long swims always interesting. In the British sense.
We got on with our job. Eventually, we were done for the day and headed back to the boat. By then the giant clam had decided the anchor chain was not tasty and had let it go. We headed back with a full day of data and an interesting story. In the literal sense.
Maria Dornelas @maadornelas
Seagrasses - unsung heroes!
by Jon Lefcheck 26.05.2020
Seagrasses are the underappreciated heroes of coastal ecosystems. As heroes, seagrasses are vital nurseries for many species of fishes and invertebrates, contribute roughly one-fourth of global fisheries production, and store as much carbon as some terrestrial forests! But they are sometimes lost in the public eye: a recent scientific study has shown that of all ecosystems on planet Earth, seagrasses have the fewest songs written about them, fewer than marshes, bogs, or even steppes (can you think of a song that you listened to that mentioned the word ‘steppe’ in it? Well, turns out it appears in 36x more songs than the word ‘seagrass!’)
So, it is my great pleasure to publicize the humble seagrass, and the valuable services they provide. Beyond the services mentioned above, seagrasses are vital to the coastal ‘food web.’ They host a wide array of small and tasty critters, including small shrimps and crabs, that are essentially ‘fish food’ for the many species that utilize seagrass beds at some point in their lives. Which is why our group has been monitoring these animals—and the things that eat them—in their seagrass habitat for 15 years at a place called Goodwin Island, at the mouth of the York River Estuary in Chesapeake Bay, USA. This study has generated thousands of samples and taken dozens of dedicated scientists, students, and citizens to collect and process.
Chesapeake Bay is notable for a lot of reasons—it was, of course, the site of the first British colony in the Americas at Jamestown…ok, well, the first reasonably successful one—but what a lot of people don’t know is that it is one of the most dynamic environments on the planet. I have seen icebergs float by on the river in the same year I have sat in water approaching 35°C (that is as warm as, if not warmer than, your bathwater). Working in such a place presents a unique set of challenges.
My most vivid memory was heading out in one brisk November wearing the thickest wetsuit available, hood, gloves, a hat, and a nice warm float coat, speeding out the field site and then having to jump in the freezing cold water and work until my fingers were numb. On the other hand, the water was crystal clear (a rarity in the heavily populated and therefore polluted Chesapeake Bay), allowing me to snap beautiful photos such as this:
Seeing the healthy grass, especially at a time when nearly one-third has been lost in the last 20 years, was a uniquely gratifying experience. That trip was actually the last time we sampled this grass bed, beginning in 1998 and ending in 2013. It was humbling to be there at the end, given that I was only 11 years old when the survey began. Hopefully, someone else will take up the mantle of monitoring this grass bed and continue our efforts. Until then, we will work hard to learn as much as we can from the volumes of data we have collected, to understand and best conserve this valuable ecosystem.
Jon Lefcheck @jslefche
The life of a transect tape
by Rick Stuart-Smith 02.06.2020
Laying out a transect line over the reef becomes one of those things you no longer realise you are doing – you hit the bottom, tie it off and start swimming. But when you turn to start the survey, your brain switches on again, and on coral reefs, can overload while trying to jot down the names of everything swimming in the vicinity of the line. Trying to recount the amazing marine life seen along reef transects can be hard to do justice. So many good memories. Instead of the usual tales of mantas, whales and endangered red handfish, this time I’ve stopped to consider the life of the transect line itself. This 50-m long piece of flattened fibreglass goes through more than most people crunching the numbers at the other end would imagine.
To start with, it apparently looks tasty. Sea urchins are notorious transect line-munchers. They hone in on the line during the survey, and start longitudinal tears, stripping pieces off the edges. Reeling the line in at the end of the survey can sometimes require tugging it out of the jaws of numerous urchins, using all their tube feet to hang on to the reef surface without letting go of the line. Parrotfishes are less secretive about their intentions, swimming along the line inspecting it before deciding on a place to have a taste. They take very clean bites out of it, with cookie cutter precision. Herbivores tend to do the most frequent damage, but large triggerfishes probably give the best bang for the bite, adopting more of a smash-and-grab approach. Seeing what they can do to a pretty hardy piece of fibreglass provides plenty of motivation to steer clear of the big ones!
Transect line attack by marine life has never prematurely ended a survey though, that I know of. Anthropogenic disturbance is more serious, and has resulted in abandoned surveys, wasted effort, air and time. Regardless of how isolated a site may seem, other dive groups can sometimes show up. A few times I’ve been swimming along the line to meet a stranger coming back towards me reeling in my line. Who knows if they thought they were cleaning up some rubbish or thought they could use the line for something themselves. But once a situation like this escalated into what was almost my only underwater fight. Surveying a deeper, high current site with only just enough air to safely do the survey and finish the dive promptly, I met a dive guide followed by group of less-than-expert divers. We were on a coral reef, and he had been stripping up my transect line off the reef and had made a huge tangle out of it. He was waving his arms around at me and pointing at the reef, presumably indicating that he thought the line had been damaging the reef, while beneath him the big tangle he had generated in the line was tearing a bit of soft coral as he was aggressively tugging the line up, and behind him his dive group were crashing around the reef like bulls in a china shop. Regardless of his good intentions, the mess he made took me a very long time to sort out on the bottom, fighting the current and watching my air running down. No data could be collected from that site, which was very hard to get to and became a wasted opportunity.
So next time you are using reef survey data, instead of only thinking about the diverse array of fishes and invertebrates represented by the numbers, spare a thought for the charismatic macro-equipment that we all rely on!
Rick Stuart-Smith @RickStuartSmith
A thrilling and scary encounter
by Samanta Iop 09.06.2020
From 2008 to 2010 I worked on a large remnant of the Atlantic Forest in southern Brazil. This incredible area contains the largest longitudinal waterfall in the world, the ‘Salto Yucumã’ (meaning “big falls” in indigenous language), with about 2 kilometers of extension in the Uruguay river. It is also home for many threatened animal and plant species, including the iconic tropical jaguar and the beautiful jararacuçu, a large viper with a powerful poison.
There, I studied the diversity of amphibians in two ways: using pitfall line traps buried in the ground to capture leaf-litter species, and surveying amphibians in calling activity in ponds and streams deep into the forest.
Salto Yucumã in the Uruguay River, Turvo State Park, southern Brazil.
Every morning began with the duty of reviewing the traps to check if there was something new - and to free the captured amphibians preventing their deaths from “cozy” tropical heat exposure. Because there were eight-line traps located kilometres apart from each other, this task would often last most of the morning and afternoon. Once the sun went down, it was time to go to the ponds and streams in the forest to get dirty and wet amidst loud choruses of calling frogs. We would have several hours of identifying frogs, estimating their abundances, and moving from one water body to another before finishing.
Pitfall traps installed to capture amphibian species that live in the forest ground.
Most days this job was peaceful and pleasant - though utterly exhausting as we would walk a minimum of 8 kilometers every day. Each day a different animal fell into the traps and filled us with joy and excitement. But in one lazy, rainy day, things took an unexpected turn with a bizarre plot-twist. I woke up as usual, had breakfast with my field colleagues and got prepared to start another morning of pitfall trap inspection. Eventually, my team and I had to acknowledge that we couldn’t locate two of the trails, despite the fact that we had been successfully finding them for the last 6 months. Shame on us! However, we didn’t give up and this paid off as we finally managed to find the trails. But that’s not all. It suddenly began to rain torrentially, and we found ourselves in a hurry to move forward and finish the inspection of the traps. When we were on the last trail, we decided to leave unnecessary equipment such as thermos bottles and backpacks on the road to pick up on the way back, this would make the task of walking through the dense forest trail easier and allow us to finish the job more quickly. As we reviewed the traps, we shared the impression that there was something, or someone, around us. A subtle, but powerful presence. “We need to keep up with work because the rain doesn’t look like it’s going to stop, come on team!” I remember someone saying that. As we walked back to the road to pick up our stuff and head to the accommodation, that powerful presence seemed to be following us, somehow observing, inspecting us from a few metres apart, just as we had been doing with the animals in the pitfall traps. “Keep moving guys, rain is getting heavier!”, someone said as if we were afraid of the rain at that moment!
Finally, on the road to pick up our things, I looked at the ground and noticed huge footprints all around the thermos and backpacks we had left there. So, I looked across the road towards the trail entrance, and I saw the silhouette of a huge animal getting engulfed by the forest. My heart raced. Excitement was making my breath run out. It was that iconic, endangered carnivore species. If we still have had some doubts, the fresh footprints confirmed it: our silent secret admirer was a jaguar. We had been so close to each other, and for a considerable amount of time! I tried to recall what the survival manuals say about close-range encounters with a jaguar: run? Stay still? Shout out loud? I could not remember anything. An adrenaline rush took over my body. Maybe the jaguar was as scared as we were, and fortunately didn’t see us as a threat. We did not think twice: we gathered our belongings and left the road in a hurry towards our accommodation. There we dried ourselves off and shared our feeling for having lived such an incredible experience. But the thrilling experience left a permanent marker, as we have been known to good-humoured local residents as "the biologists who fled the jaguar" since then
Jaguar footprint with an old, wet cellphone for size reference.
King without a crown: bowing to snakes in the Thai jungle
by Felipe Serrano 16.06.2020
The before nearby voices of my colleagues of the Sakareat Conservation and Snake Education Team were now only getting dimmer and dimmer. “I am getting behind”, I thought. It probably was due to having to navigate through streams, slippery fallen logs and thorny bushes. It could also be due to only knowing those Thai evergreen forests for about a month now. It was only when I heard the growl that I realized that it most likely had something to do with the 2.5 kg and nearly 3-meter King Cobra I was carrying in a box. The King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the longest venomous snake in the world, ranging from India to China, and it feeds mostly on other snakes such as the Reticulated Python, the longest snake in the world. For those who have not been lucky to hear it, its growling hiss is somewhere between an alert Rottweiler and the heavy breathing of a certain masked black-dressed lightsaber-wielding space father
It weighed as much as my responsibility to carry it: it was a sexually-mature male, being released just before the mating season, and the largest individual the team had caught so far. It was now fitted with a transmitter and ready to be followed by radio-telemetry up to four times a day for the next six months to understand the spatial ecology of King Cobras and the threats they face in rural north-eastern Thailand. While you would think locating a 3-meter snake is not that difficult, King Cobras are simultaneously very secretive - often living nearby (and inside) homes without people realizing - and highly mobile. You can easily find them deep into the forest in the morning and under a pile of trash in a village during lunchtime, and they can cover 1.5 kilometers in just 10 minutes which causes their radio signal to quickly vanish. And if the signal is nowhere to be found or if it keeps moving, you keep moving, often through the night.
I eventually found my colleagues sitting in a forest clearing, waiting for me. Coincidentally, it would be that exact clearing where, a few months from then, we would have to carefully dig out from a burrow a very stressed King Cobra whose transmitter was dying, as paradoxically as that sounds. But for now, the clearing was peaceful. The snake had stopped growling and we had begun to prepare to photograph it as it left the box. We took some time to choose which angles would be best, which settings would best capture it slithering away, discretely as most King Cobras had done before. With all cameras in place, one of us carefully opened the box and let the snake go free. However, instead of slithering discretely towards the direction the box was facing, it lifted a great portion of its body and spread its hood moving towards our general direction. With its non-threatening but “Do not mess with me” demeanour, it moved gracefully across the clearing, overcoming fallen logs as a scaly war tank. As it safely passed in front of us, shaky hands holding shaky cameras failed to capture its regal aura, leaving only blurry pictures with a reminder: “The King Cobra bows to no one.”
Felipe Serrano @FilipeSerrano7
Love comes from the sea!
by Viviana Brambilla 23.06.2020
For someone doing a PhD on coral ecology while based Scotland, fall fieldwork in the Tropics is a real game changer. The chance of longer daylight and sunshine lifts the mood and gives us the vitamin D boost we need to face Scottish winters. Fieldwork is what you look forward to the most, since day 1. Or, at least, that is how I feel.
In my fieldwork, I joined a team of marine biologists and engineers to collect data for my research and survey coral reefs around Lizard Island in Australia. Every year we spend about a month at the research station on the island, collecting data for producing 3D maps of reef sites and identifying all the fish and corals we find around our maps. There are so many stories I could tell about how human behaviour changes during those long trips – you could say people loosen up a lot and maybe even lose their mind a bit – but I want to focus on animal encounters, which are the very gems of fieldworks.
One year, 2017, was particularly strong in those encounters. Maybe animals couldn’t be bothered to hide after 2 years of coral bleaching and would rather just be on-your-face most of the time. Anyway, that year we had a few episodes worth of mention. For example, a juvenile fish shoal decided to take shelter in the space between our legs while we were working underwater. We ended up with a bunch of inappropriate close-ups of our groin area in wetsuit just to have a picture of those tiny little fish. But out of all that happened that year, today I chose to tell a (n interspecific) love story.
That day, we had a team three (co-PIs Maria and Josh, and I) and we were heading to survey the corals of our northernmost site with the boat the research station assigned us. Josh was on driving duty, Maria was sitting on his side back in the stern, and I was on the bow, enjoying a PI-free ocean view.
People were seeing a solitary dolphin wandering around on that side of the island, so I was particularly focused on the sea surface, despite the sun reflection and the fact I forgot my sunglasses that day. All of the sudden, I saw something moving out fast from the sea surface
“flying” towards me and hitting my right cheek! I was puzzled and turned back to see if it landed on the boat. Josh, who saw the scene from behind, was already slowing down the boat and after a few seconds, Maria saw our visitor and pointed towards it: it was the smallest and cutest squid I ever saw!
We chorused a “Ooooowh” and I instantly decided that the squid came out from the water just to kiss me on the cheek. Maybe I was losing it a bit as well…
“I think she kissed me!” I immediately said – causing loud laughs from all of us!
In my native language (Italian), “squid” is a noun with female gender (“la seppia”), and sometimes, especially when I am excited or want to say things fast, I use gendered pronouns instead of the neutrals while speaking English as well.
I took the squid in my hands and gently put it back home in the water. I lowered it down by the side of the boat and as I put the squid back into the water, it started swimming down into the blue, disappearing. We had kissed “hello” already, so we didn’t kiss goodbye.
The anecdote has stayed with me since then. We couldn’t stop bringing that up at every occasion that year. Last time I was on the island, I got the nickname of “the Mother of the Squids”, even though I don’t know anything about them and I only know that Squishy - that’s what we called her – came into my heart in the nicest way ever.
Viviana Brambilla @viv_brambilla
On the Edge
by Fritha West 02.07.2020
Standing at the top of Hermaness, peering down at a raft of puffins below me, I wonder how much further I can creep forward. The edge here is rocky and sandy, and it’s hard to know where to put my feet as the ground slopes slowly but surely towards hundreds of meters of sheer cliff below. At least it isn’t raining, I tell myself. When it rains here the grassy fescues and sedges become as slick as ice. A dry day, windy or not, is as rare as it is welcome in the Shetland Isles.
When the rest of the team are here, the moment they see someone getting too close to the edge, up goes the cry of “Amber!”. A teasing tone, accompanied by finger wagging and tutting, telling you you have left the comfort of the Green safety zone and need to watch yourself. They can see what you can’t - perspective is a tricky thing on a clifftop- and it’s good to know someone is looking out for you. But sometimes, it’s a louder shout of “RED!”, when you are contravening the at-least-2-meters-from-the-edge-at-all-times rule - and if you are, this shout is emitted with such ferocity it might shock you into to jumping either way. It can be frustrating; many of us have been in far more dangerous situations than this, on far less stable edges, toes hanging over the ends of the thrift tufts with one hand balanced against the rock, eyes fixed on a mass of birds below, each no more than specks on the rolling sea. Smaller than the tiny black dots of frogspawn on the surface of a pond. But that has been on our own time. And this is work.
Birds counted must be within 200m of the shoreline, in case your view intersects with that of the volunteer on the next transect section. So you have to learn to read the landscape features, the height of each stack, drawing invisible lines on an ever moving canvas, memorizing the maps in your pocket because if you got them out, they’d be blown away. No getting distracted by the gulls or the skuas (also known as bonxies, probably for their tendency to “bonk” you on the head as they fly past), or stopping to watch the gannets chattering on the outcrops. This survey is critical, a vital contribution to the national Seabird Census, monitoring what may be one of the worst colony declines in recent years. So there are rules that must be followed, and there isn’t time to rescue wayward surveyors who have been too cocky for their own good.
It’s a strange feeling. Almost dreamlike, to be standing so close to such a huge drop. 200m of crumbling gneiss above crashing waves. And the winds here rival hurricanes, the air feels solid when it hits you. I don’t get vertigo- I usually pride myself on having a head for heights - but as the gusts pick up again and lurch me forward, I almost cry out in panic. Staggering back and swearing quietly under my breath, I glance around for another team member, someone to share my close shave with. But they are all walking their own transects, the other side of the cliffs. I am alone, just me, and a nearby bonxie, watching me keenly. I shake my head and lift my binoculars, recommencing the count. 2 meters now feels a little too close.
Me, a delicatessen for groupers?
by Daniel Gomez Gras 17.07.2020
To divers, the Medes islands of the Spanish Mediterranean are a veritable paradise. Located in the upper-right corner of the Iberian Peninsula, this group of seven islets are teeming with life, which attracts thousands of marine adventurers per year. The Medes are where I did most of my PhD fieldwork, and where I had some of the most magical (and strange) moments I have experienced as a marine ecologist.
Because the Medes are a designated Marine Protected Area, the marine fauna remains abundant and large. So, while my work focuses on benthic species that are found amongst the beautiful Mediterranean coralligenous reefs, which are coral-dominated reefs formed by the accumulation of calcareous algae, I got used to working surrounded by large friendly groupers.
Medes Islands from L'Estartit. Photo by Eneko Aspillaga
Friendly, that is, most of the time.
One day, my lab mate Ignasi and I were heading down to a coralligenous wall at a dive site called La Vaca (The Cow). Our mission: find the 30 gorgonian colonies that we had tagged the previous year and collect new samples. Ignasi was carrying the scissors and had to find the colonies. I had to put each sample into the sampling bags that I was carrying. Relaxing dive, I thought.
A grouper in Medes Islands. Photo by Eneko Aspillaga
When we spotted the wall, I pulled out the sampling bags from my carrier bag. To my surprise, five massive groupers came straight to me. I gave them a friendly greeting, much as a human can greet a fish; however, I soon realized they weren't just coming to say "Hi". They were coming for me!
The groupers started biting the bags around my hands like no tomorrow. I felt like I was fighting for a toy with some big dogs. Maybe they were just trying to tell me that I wasn't welcome there?
My lab mate Ignasi and a grouper in Medes Islands. By Eneko Aspillaga
I remembered titan triggerfish attacking divers in Mabul island (Malaysia) to protect their brood and thought that maybe the groupers were just doing the same. My immediate reaction was to kick off horizontally into the blue to have some distance from the wall.
However, the groupers continued to chase me and kept trying to swallow all the bags around my hands in a vicious feeding frenzy. The water was speckled with bits and pieces of my sampling bags. That's it, I thought, the sampling is over.
Fortunately, Ignasi, who seemed to be less tasty for the groupers and managed to avoid the frenzy, was more level headed and signed for me to hide the bags. In my initial confusion, I had pushed my hands with the bags away from my body to protect the diving gear (and my vital organs). But Ignasi had realized that the groupers were just interested in the bags, so maybe hiding them against the chest would do the trick.
And it worked! The bags were likely just the same size, colour, and shape as the fish they normally eat. Or maybe someone used to illegally feed the groupers from bags that looked like ours. In any case, the groupers stopped attacking me as soon as the bags were out of sight. We could even get back to the wall and finish sampling.
"I thought the sampling was over," I confessed to Ignasi when we were back on the boat.
"At first, I thought that too," he replied, "but then I thought how quickly we would have been sent back to the water if we had told our supervisor Cristina that we couldn´t finish the sampling because of the groupers".
I laughed, he was right.
Daniel Gomez Gras @danigomezgras
The joys of unexpected field work
by Claudia Faustino 30.07.2020
How does one study vultures?
In my case, I got lucky and got access to an untouched dataset. Then, I got a weeks notice for a fieldwork opportunity in Namibia, which I enthusiastically took. I knew very little about vultures when I first went, and I will never forget the experience.
My PhD project used data collected from satellite-based tags attached - with care, by our experienced field colleagues — to the back of the vultures. Back in St. Andrews (where I live and study, in Scotland), I analysed the data to see how vultures move and interact with their environment.
As exclusive scavengers, vultures do the vital work of keeping the environment free of rotting carcasses, and are as such considered "ambassadors" of ecosystem health. Nonetheless, their populations have been declining steeply mainly due to food shortages and mass poisoning.
Some people never get to experience how their research data is collected, but I got lucky. When the opportunity to do a two-week stint in the field came up, I jumped on a plane to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.
There, all the field equipment, collected by the lead researcher – a wildlife vet – along with my clothes and food supplies were packed into an awesome four-by-four SUV. My first job was to drive the supplies ~600 miles to Bwabwata National Park, our field site. The field work also required a plane and so the lead researcher was to join me two days later having flown a two-seater plane there himself! How cool is that!
Navigating through an unfamiliar country, on bumpy gravel roads, in +30ºC, and without AC was challenging. I needed two days to complete my drive, so I stopped to overnight at the farm of another fieldwork volunteer. The morning that I left he was tending to his cattle, and later that day he drove up to help with tagging vultures.
On our arrival, and as it was getting late, the three of us parked our respective vehicles on the airstrip and settled for the night. I'll never forget falling asleep on the car roof, under the wide open African stars, listening to an orchestra of unfamiliar animal sounds. The next morning we set out, and overall we camped in 3 or 4 other places within the Park. Other than a few villages and some tourists, there are very few people Bwabwata National Park. The nature here remains vibrant and pristine. It felt like a blessing to see all the iconic wildlife: hyenas, wild dogs, a monitor lizard, hippos and elephants, to name but a few.
Photo credits: Claudia Faustino (CC BY-NC 4.0)
The fieldwork consisted mainly in setting a baited trap, waiting for hours under the shade, and eventually rushing to the trap to release the bird – a definite rush of adrenaline! During this fieldwork, I also got to hold a vulture for the first time in my life. These are hefty birds with a strong beak and, as scavengers, they certainly didn't smell great.
Overall, the fieldwork was a success. We saw plenty of vultures, and managed to tag three. I was grateful for field colleagues who could fly planes, and those that managed to solder broken equipment in a rush.
If you get the opportunity for field work in Namibia, even if it's short notice, my advice is you take it.
Claudia Faustino @claudia_esf
Photo credits: Claudia Faustino (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Deep Sea Research Without Experience
by email@example.com 11.08.2020
Here’s how I got to do deep-sea research in my undergrad.
Too often we learn facts-on-facts-on-facts catching up on millennia of discovery in the span of - in my case - the night before the exam. The adrenaline of witnessing something fully unknown is rarely instilled in textbooks, lecture slides, or pop quizzes.
ROPOS being carefully lifted into the water
I was lucky in that I got a unique research experience during my undergrad, when I was fully unqualified. After taking a project-based course with Dr. Sally Leys, I started working in her lab as a research assistant. Sally's lab is based at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada) and predominantly studies sea sponges (Porifera), what these animals can teach us about the evolution of multicellularity, and their functional ecology.
As a research assistant, I participated in lab meetings and listened to the planning of a research cruise set to explore the sponge reefs off the coast of British Columbia (Canada). On a ship, surrounded by the open sea, studying the deep unknown? It sounded like the aspiring marine biologist's dream, but I knew that room was restricted to graduate students and PIs. Nevertheless, I never failed to mention how desperately I wanted to come; always "joking", but not really.
One week before the ship set sail, one of the graduate students sadly fell ill. To my own disbelief, I was invited as a last-minute replacement. I hopped from a plane to a zodiac, and on to the Canadian Coast Guard Ship The Vector. I was assigned a bunk and a 12-h shift, like everyone else.
The ship had a Remotely Operated Vehicle called ROPOS (ropos.com) on board. This is a roughly van sized robot decked out with over $2M in cameras, thrusters, instruments, and two WALL-E like arms which are linked to on-board mini-arm controllers. Using these hyper-precision arms, the crew can place our 1-cm diameter instruments into a 2-cm diameter sponge opening.
Watching the ROV launch felt like being on the site of a space shuttle lift-off. The deck is abuzz with the ROV crew performing necessary checks, our instruments are loaded on, and the launch is announced over the ship’s intercom. Like a kitten picked up by the scruff of its neck, a crane lowers the ROV gently from the stern deck into the water. The cameras stream live footage onto more than a dozen screens in the control room.
Controllers used to manipulate the arms on the ROV.
As the ROV descends, the water goes from teal to black. Squid, ctenophores, jellyfish, chaetognaths, and countless other animals float past on the way down. At 150 m below, the lights beam down on an expanse of sponges, far as the robot eyes can see, teeming with life. This deep, sponges have no algal symbionts, and are a ghostly pale complexion. Their rigid silica (aka "glass") skeleton, allows them to tower high over the sea floor. It’s truly an alien sight.
The reefs off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska are the only extant sponge reefs so far known; it's likely a globally unique ecosystem. Not only do they filter vast amounts of water, but the nooks and crannies of their exhalent openings provide a home to diverse species, like rockfish, squat lobsters, prawns, and octopus.
After this first accidental cruise I was invited to come on two more, each time accumulating more experience and responsibility. Six years later and I'm still analyzing the days-worth of flow and respiration data we collected. My advice to undergraduate level biologists would be to let people know what you want, and hope for the best.
Evgeni Matveev @matveev_evgeni
Stuck Between Land and Sea
by Damaris Torres-Pulliza 14.09.2020
My fieldwork days as a scientist started at the rim of volcanoes; from there, my career path slowly meandered towards the water. It took me down slopes, passed through caves, watersheds, urban areas, agricultural lands, and coastlines. But before reaching the ocean, I got stuck – quite literally – at the interface between the land and sea.
Back in 2008, I joined fieldwork efforts to characterize the mangrove forest structure and diversity in the north Pacific coast of Costa Rica. One beautiful sunny morning, after checking our gear and confirming that the tide was receding, we entered the Iguanita mangrove forest. For five hours we worked our way through the tangle of roots, going deeper and deeper into the forest. So far, everything was going according to plan. Our team leader made the call — "we have finished!"— and the plan was to backtrack our way to the entrance.
But, at that point, we were quite far from the entry point, it was hot, the chaotic root system was cruel, the mosquitoes were unrelenting, and our water supply was running low. We heard breaking waves in the distance, so we knew the beach was nearby. A new, seemingly better, plan was hatched; we would head towards the beach and walk back along the sea.
But as we moved towards the beach, the root system got crumblier, as if rotten. With every snap, someone would go down straight to the mud, to the surprise of the crabs below. I acquainted a sturdy walking stick, and named it 'Pablo'; it became my loyal companion through the treacherous terrain. About an hour later, we got to a narrow open area – probably a crusted drainage ditch. Beyond it was another strip of thick mangrove trees, and beyond that we could almost see the beach. So close! The next step was easy: cross the ditch.
CC-by Damaris Torres-Pulliza
Two of us went forth first, and within the blink of an eye ended up waist-deep in the mud. What just happened? My first thought was of an old Robot Chicken cartoon where a giraffe sinks in quicksand and goes through the "five stages of grief". Would that be me? What to do? We were utterly stuck and likely sinking. Then, I thought of the tide slowly rising above my head. And then, crocodiles. What is it with the mind playing tricks on us? As a child, I had nightmares with crocodiles, even if we don’t have them in Puerto Rico, where I'm originally from. But what got me worried wasn’t my irrational fear, but the look of the two locals scanning the area, seemingly worried. I didn’t ask why, I just knew we needed to get out of there.
At that point, I realized I had 'Pablo' the walking stick with me. Finally, my thoughts got useful: I just needed to follow the "Man vs. Wild" instructions. That is, to lay Pablo across the surface and use it to push myself up. It was working! I kept using 'Pablo' until I reached the roots at the other side of the ditch and dragged myself out. I passed 'Pablo' around, and everybody got out - distinctively ungracefully. The only casualties were several boots that stayed in the mud and were lost forever.
At last, we reached the beach, and we went straight for a swim. The plume of mud coming out from our clothes reached the surfers floating in the distance. All refreshed, relieved, and feeling silly, we got to answer questions from the curious people around. We briefly explained that we were studying the mangroves and why. They looked interested, and added, "Pura Vida, just be careful, there are crocs around"!
Luckily, I got to continue my career path across the land-sea interface into coral reefs ecosystems. Coral reefs have proved to be another quite adventurous fieldwork realm, and my true passion. All of this, thanks to trusty 'Pablo', my first #fieldmascot.
Damaris Torres-Pulliza @4reefs
CC-by Damaris Torres-Pulliza