Friday, April 22, 2016

Reef Ecology in Panama

After an hour-long boat ride, we arrived at the edge of a mangrove forest. I heard that our next site would be in the mangroves, but I thought we would find a dock at the edge of the forest. Instead we found an opening not wide enough for two boats and barely tall enough to stand up in at high tide. As we passed through the entrance it really felt like a scene from River Monsters. Two minutes later, we arrived at the dock and another drastic change of scenery. As we stepped off the boat, we looked up to see a large pastureland and followed a lightly tamped down path through the grass up to the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC). The station manager, Pete, gave us a friendly warning not to tread on a fer-de-lance, and the reef ecology segment of our trip was underway.
That night, our guest professor, Mark Ladd, arrived and the next day he gave an introduction to snorkeling around the reefs of Bocas del Toro. After a swim test and snorkel orientation, we headed over to Pete’s Reef where we got our first taste of what a tropical reef looked like, teeming life and diversity. You could look at one spot for an hour and be entertained the entire time. Besides the colorful and friendly looking fish, you might also stumble upon a barracuda in the distance, lurking just barely in your range of visibility. Little squid traveled in small groups and would turn white if you approached them too quickly. Needless to say, everyone was beside themselves thinking about what a normal marine biology course would entail at our respective schools in the states.
After the initial shock of how incredible a tropical reef was, Mark helped us to start wading through what we were actually seeing with his lectures. He went through the basics of reef ecology, explaining things like coral establishment and their relationship with the herbivorous parrot fish, before introducing us to his own research. His area of focus is in coral reef restoration. He looks into things like what genotypes of certain coral species allow for temperature resistance as well as interactions between different species off coral. His lab’s results were really cool, they were able to identify that certain genotypes are definitely more resistant to higher temperatures and also that certain interactions can be detrimental to species growing in direct contact with one another. These kinds of studies can have a huge impact on reef restoration efforts. For example, with rising ocean temperatures, the identification of certain genotypes with naturally occurring temperature resistance can greatly increase success rates of restoration efforts. Also, when trying to restore a reef, there’s a great benefit to know which species do not interact with each other well and which ones do.
Mark guided us through the reef, always excited to answer any questions we had. It felt like every ten minutes he would tell us to come look at something cool he found. Although the reef was intensely interesting, it definitely took its toll. Chafing, sun burns, and scratches from being a little too interested in the coral were not uncommon and each night consisted of heavy recovery time before the next morning.
It’s so good to see all of the different methods for research in all the drastically different life zones we’ve seen. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to narrow down what kind of work I want to do than actually talking to people who do the work and then seeing it done first hand. In our faculty led project, we constructed and used feeding assays that Mark said his lab uses all the time. It’s one thing to read the methods section of a paper and think, “oh that’s clever” or to even hear someone tell you about using it, but doing it yourself is the only way to know if that is the direction you want to work towards in your career. I’m so grateful to have had these opportunities and excited to see what lies ahead at our next and final site, La Selva, the tropical biology research Mecca of Costa Rica. 

Peter Saunders 
Providence College

Underwater Explorations

The archipelago of Bocas del Toro is a biodiversity hotspot with both lowland tropical rain forest and coral reefs, which are the most biodiverse terrestrial and marine ecosystems on earth, respectively. For this reason, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to study in this location. I had never visited a coral reef, not to mention snorkeled or observed any marine ecosystem firsthand, and coming primarily from an entomological background, I really lacked knowledge in fish biology and other invertebrate life, most of which occurs in the ocean. Because of this, everything I experienced both at the coral reefs and out of the water in lecture was new to me. Before speaking about the coral reefs as I experienced them, it is important for me to emphasize the vulnerability of the both the forest and marine ecosystems. Islands consist of extremely diverse habitats packed with high biodiversity and intricate interspecific interactions that maintain balance, making them both unique and fragile – perturbations in ecosystems (including human-induced ones) such as decline/loss of certain species can have profound cascading effects if there is no other species to fill in their functional role. Island species tend to be distinct from mainland ones since geographical isolation has allowed for divergence as well as the accumulation of adaptations specific to the island dynamics. One example that was evident in Bocas del Toro was the yellow morph of the poison dart frog Oophaga pumilio, most famous for its red and blue (strawberry/blue jeans) morph that can be found in areas such as La Selva. Since each island in Bocas del Toro has been isolated for thousands of years, there is a distinct color morph found on each of them.
            Because I had never snorkeled before, it was exhilarating to be able to see the expansive coral reefs through almost crystal clear water just a few meters below me. Prior to this moment, I had considered myself as a very terrestrial-oriented person, but watching all the fish and invertebrates at work made me realize the complexity and richness of life that was occurring in this foreign world. It was as if I was swimming in an aquarium, except with seafloor activity packed with unexpected creatures: sea urchins pulsated as I approached, starfish were plastered against the sand, and coral reefs, sea grass, and sponges of every color imaginable were present. I saw brain corals half the size of a small car, teeming with tropical fish of assorted and attractive coloring. Many moments left lasting impacts for me, and here I will share just a few of them. As I entered the waters connecting the mangrove forest with the coral reefs, I saw a large cloud of dust as if a large animal was kicking up sand. As I neared, a large stingray exited the cloudy waters and rested on the sea floor under me. I could see the edges of its body fluctuating as it moved and the gills near its eyes open and close every second or so. Its large barbed tail was both impressive and mildly alarming since it measured a little under a meter. When my friend, Sequoia, moved around to the backside of the ray I was able to get a better idea of its size, and I felt honored that this sea animal would allow us humans as poorly-equipped aquatic beings to observe it. One of my goals of the trip was to find a cephalopod, so I was very excited to find several squid in deeper waters. I am not a very good snorkeler, so diving down to get a good look at the squid took a lot of effort on my part, but I ended up diving down dozens of times just to be able to be in closer proximity to these remarkable beings. Cephalopods intrigue me since such a developed nervous system and intelligence has evolved in a taxon that fundamentally differs in structure to that of humans and other vertebrates.
            Another time I was following a large school of fish, each about 1/5 of a meter in length. Since these fish were larger than fish in other schools I had been surrounded by, I briefly thought: how cool would that be if I saw a predator nearby? Almost instantaneously, I decided to look in front of me in the water, since I had been looking down, and a couple of meters ahead floated a large barracuda. I could not believe how big it was at first, but after moving my head and realizing my depth perception was accurate, I understood that I was looking at a 4.5-5 foot animal, almost as long as I am tall. Although the barracuda held a stern and focused expression, it didn’t seem to mind my presence or perceive me as a threat. After a couple of seconds it slowly swam away from me, and as I followed, it casually slipped into the darkness. Like in most of my experience underwater, I felt such a privilege to be able to see life that lives in a medium that is not my element.

Christian Perez
Harvard University

Just Keep Swimming

Growing up on Long Island Sound, I always loved hearing the sounds of the ocean, swimming with the fish, and traveling along the water on a boat. I knew that I would not get to spend a lot of time in the water this semester, but by the time it was finally the day to go to Panama and begin a week of underwater field work I could not wait.
            I had previously done work in lakes and streams throughout Vermont with some of my classes and had learned about marine systems, but actually being able to learn about the ocean by snorkeling in the clear, warm water of the Caribbean with colorful fish, crabs, and squids all around me was almost too good to be true.
            For our faculty led project with Mark Ladd, we looked at whether chemical or physical aspects of algae deterred herbivores. To do this we built feeding assays that we placed along the reef and waited for the fish to eat them so we could measure which groups of algae had the most herbivory. While we were observing and setting up the experiment we had to be sure not to harm the coral or sponges by stepping on them, while also avoiding stepping on the urchins as they would harm us. Being able to do research on the coral reef was an amazing experience as it is a very vulnerable ecosystem that few people get to experience.
            While we left the fish alone to nibble at the algae, we were able to snorkel in the surrounding area and see the marine life. While we have been able to see and experience many different ecosystems in Costa Rica, this one really felt like another world. The mask and snorkel over my face and the fins on my feet were a constant reminder that I was not well adapted to live in the water like the organisms I saw below me. The equipment necessary just to survive underwater, let alone to conduct research, adds an extra level of excitement to studying coral reefs and other aquatic systems.
            When it was time to measure how much algae the fish had eaten in each treatment, we swam over to collect our assays, and to our surprise, no algae had been eaten. After a second day of no herbivory, we had a discussion to hypothesize why this might be happening. While it may seem like having no data is boring or disappointing, it is actually the opposite because it means there are more questions you need to ask and test and therefore you get to spend more time observing the reef. We came up with some ideas about how the interactions within the reef may not have been exactly like what we thought, such as the importance of the urchins as herbivores in the system or the number of fish in the area feeding at that time of day. After some more discussion however, Mark pointed out that a likely reason the experiment didn’t work was that we had sunscreen on our hands when we handled the algae, therefore it was our method that deterred herbivores. A future study will have to be done that involves a method of building the assays with less possibility of sunscreen affecting the algae.
            After a week of observing life in the ocean and learning about the challenges of conducting research underwater, I could definitely see myself doing more marine ecology in the future.

Kali McGown
Middlebury College