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.