Friday, July 21, 2017


It was a busy day at the pier. Both Atlantis and Neil Armstrong were in port; a plankton research group was testing out a new glider; a part of the dock was being rebuilt. Trucks and cranes and people moved about on the bustling pier. Beeping and honking and shouts and loud bangs were heard all around.

Pier panorama. Neil Armstrong is to the left, Atlantis to the right.
A ctenophore, photographed by Nicole
Pittoors at the WHOI pier. 
Even the ocean was busy. As my intern and I knelt on the floating platform, reattaching fouling panels to their PVC backing, we couldn't help but notice the activity in the water. Tiny specks littered the surface, presumably the larvae of a species that had recently spawned. A large school of green minnows rushed back and forth, picking off the larvae as they swam. Two large, pink-and-blue fish swam slowly beneath, gliding and glinting in the light.

Strings of green eelgrass and brown puffy Sargassum floated on the sea surface, and then we spotted the star of the day: ctenophores.

Also known as comb jellies, ctenophores are fascinating creatures. Their bodies are made of mostly water, and they drift in the ocean with little control over their whereabouts. They have these rows of cilia called combs, though, which are totally unique to ctenophores. The combs can ripple and break up waves of light and look iridescent - they're very beautiful animals. It was a great day at the dock and another good week for my dock study!

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Well, friends, it's been over a week since my last post, so I suppose I should catch you up on what's been happening in the lab.

The fouling panels in Eel Pond are beginning to show very promising results. (Ok, let's be honest, they've been showing good results for a while.) There are now obvious, macroscopic differences between panels with different removal treatments, and I'm getting very excited about my data. (I love when my fouling panels have significant differences!)

Check out the photo below. These are three fouling panels from three different treatments, deployed right next to each other in Eel Pond. You can see right away how different they are. The panel on the left is in the "remove nothing" treatment, and you can see that a large percentage of the panel is covered by Botryllus schlosseri - that's a black ascidian that grows in sheets. However, there are also a number of yellow tree-like bryozoan colonies on the right side of the panel. It's a good mix.

The panel in the middle shows a very different community, because this panel is in the "remove ascidians" treatment. As you can see, it is dominated by those tree-like bryozoans, but it also has some flat, encrusting bryozoans - the orange circles at the top. The panel on the right is in the "remove hydroids" treatment, and it again is very different. It has some of that black colonial ascidian, Botryllus schlosseri, in the bottom right corner, but it's mostly dominated by Ascidiella aspersa, a solitary ascidian. Those are the large, blob-like animals covering most of the panel. I have no idea why a fouling panel that had its hydroids removed would come to be dominated by a different species than a panel with nothing removed.

Three fouling panels in different experimental treatments in Eel Pond.
For the record, there are four other "remove hydroids" panels in my experiment, and not all of them are dominated by Ascidiella. I think there's an element of randomness in my experiment: some panels were just colonized by a species that grew and took over.

My results are getting ever more interesting as the summer goes on. I look forward to analyzing the data!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Arts and crafts: part 2

(Former) fouling panel inhabitants
"Ooh, it kind of looks like pasta salad! Maybe like a Mexican salad, you know, with black beans and yellow corn. It doesn't look appetizing though."

My intern was standing over the lab bench, looking at a pile of ascidians and bryozoans I had just pulled off of a fouling panel. I gave her a sideways, confused look. Pasta salad, really?

We had been working all day, pulling invertebrates off of fouling panels, leaving only strategically-chosen individuals behind. We were setting up an experiment in Eel Pond to parallel one we set up at the WHOI pier two weeks ago. For both experiments, we want to find out how the first species to settle on a fouling panel and dominate the community influences other species that might settle. I suspect that the first dominant species inhibits other organisms from recruiting to the panels, either by consuming their larvae, outcompeting them for food, altering the flow of water over the plate, or just taking up space. To figure out if inhibition is happening and if so, which one of the above scenarios is true, we outplanted plates with live animals and with mimics - non-living structures with similar shape and texture. 

The experimental panels, randomly arranged on a PVC
backing and ready for deployment in Eel Pond. The top row is
not part of the experiment. You can see panels with live
Botryllus, some with globs of sealant, some with flat sheets
of sealant, and blank controls. 
The experiments at both sites are the same in principal, but the main difference is which species dominates. At the WHOI pier, hydroids covered the panels, but in Eel Pond, it's all about the ascidians. Botryllus schlosseri, to be more precise. It's a colonial species that forms thick, squishy mats and can easily overgrow other organisms. We removed all species except Botryllus from some fouling panels, and on others, we replaced the living animals with mimics. 

How does one mimic a colonial ascidian species? We used silicon aquarium sealant because it has the same basic texture as ascidians and can be easily smeared on the panels. We used thick globs on some panels to imitate the topography of Botryllus colonies and flat sheets of sealant on others just to take up space. It will be interesting to see if there are any differences among the treatments at the end of the summer!


"I am sorry for the trouble I suppose
My blood runs red but my body feels so cold
I guess I could swim for days in the salty sea
But in the end the waves will discolor me"
- "Organs" by Of Monsters and Men

Friends, I haven't told you this yet, but in addition to my experiments, I'm learning how to SCUBA dive this summer. It's a skill that will be highly advantageous for my research. As a diver, I'll be able to reach a whole new set of habitats, filling in the gap between shallow docks and the deep sea.

The training for scientific diving is much more intense than for recreational diving. I started by taking a course on diving physics, physiology, and basic skills. Classroom days alternated with practice in the pool, and after a month, I've finally moved up to open-water training. Last Friday, my dive buddy and I had a unique challenge. We had to disassemble and reassemble a flange underwater, to simulate a working scientific dive. The task was simple but actually quite challenging, because everything is slightly more complicated underwater. The visibility was very low, and at 25 feet (8 m) depth, it was actually pretty dark. Red and orange wavelengths don't penetrate far in the ocean, so everything looks bluish green at depth. My buddy and I also couldn't speak to one another, so nonverbal communication was key. We had to maintain position in the water column and be extra careful not to drop any pieces, because hardware sinks immediately.

I have to admit, I was pretty proud of how well we worked together. It took us the full alloted time to complete the task, but we didn't drop anything!

The video below was shot by our dive supervisor, Giorgio. It shows my dive buddy and me getting ready to remove a rubber gasket from one side of the flange. We had to rotate out the rubber disc and then secure the two metal sides with a bolt. As you can tell, everything takes longer underwater. I'm the one with the sparkly white gloves!


Thursday, July 6, 2017

The day the hydroids died

"Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys was drinking whiskey and rye
Singing this'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die"
- "American Pie" by Don McLean

Friends, ecology is full of surprises. I never thought that hydroids would dominate the fouling community at one of my study sites. I never thought that my experiment would start to look like it was covered in shag carpet from the 60s. I never thought that hydroids would hold the #1 position for so long. And I certainly never expected them to die all at once.

Dead, headless hydroids on a fouling panel being examined
under the microscope. Check out the clump at left, then
compare to live hydroids with pink heads.
It's not because of something I did (trust me, that was my first panicked thought). Almost overnight, all the hydroids have disappeared from the WHOI pier. Not just from my experiment, but from the walls of the instrument well, the lines from which instruments hang, my monitoring plates - everywhere. Dead. Headless. Nothing left but thin, rubbery stalks.

My best guess is that it's the temperature. The water around Woods Hole has been warming rapidly over the past few weeks, and considering that the hydroids started settling back in January, maybe they can't handle the summer heat.

The WHOI pier has actually started to look more like Eel Pond as the hydroids die off. Ascidians are recruiting to the empty space on the panels, and my "remove hydroids" plates are already almost covered by the squishy creatures. This shift again supports my temperature hypothesis because Eel Pond has been warmer all along. Maybe the WHOI pier is just now catching up, both in temperature and recruitment.

In case you're wondering, I am recording water temperatures at both sites. I have loggers out with my experiments, so I'll download the data at the end of the summer and compare patterns in water temperature to what I'm seeing in the recruitment. I'm glad that I have such clear patterns, both between sites and over time. This project just keeps getting more and more interesting!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Chainsaw carving: part 3

Every data analysis has its ups and downs. My analysis of oyster larvae behavior has been mostly up recently. But after about 6 months of work, the analysis still isn't quite finished.

In a meeting, one of my collaborators on the project pointed out some nonsensical numbers in the dataset. She asked me to take another look, and I discovered that my code was miscounting the number of larvae entering each experimental flask. You'd think that counting the larvae would be the simplest task, right? It's surprisingly difficult, because no single set of parameters applies to all experiments without error. There was no way to automatically count larvae.

So I started over and did it manually.

Friends, this is just how it goes. In fact, I don't think I can name a single scientific paper I've published for which I haven't had to start over at least once. Every analysis requires at least one trip back to Square One.

The good news is that now the data look a lot cleaner, and we're mere steps away from finishing the analysis. To continue my chainsaw metaphor, I haven't scrapped my sculpture; I've hollowed it out. I have used my chainsaw to carve large swaths of wood from the inner regions of my creation. Wood chips flying, I have sliced and dug and carved until the interior was empty. It began as a tree trunk, and my sculpture is almost done.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Arts and crafts

"I craft a lot, ok?!" Nicole exclaimed.

Nicole and Meghan, two summer interns at WHOI, helping
me make hydroid mimics.
Meghan and I burst into laughter. The three of us were crammed into my office, surrounded by plastic mesh and elastic cord. Nicole was threading the cord through the mesh in immaculate patterns - not a stray strand anywhere - almost like cross-stitch. It was impressive. The task required a lot of dexterity, and our afternoon ended up feeling like an arts and crafts class. The three of us spent hours carefully threading stretchy strings through tiny holes, making what looked like tufts of synthetic hair. Trust me, friends, it was for science.

You see, one of my sites for the succession study is dominated by hydroids. They showed up in droves and have grown to cover almost all of the available space. One of my questions for the succession study is how the first species to settle and dominate a substratum influences the development of the community, and the hydroids are obviously an important group. There is lower diversity at the hydroid-dominated site than at my other site in Eel Pond, so I want to figure out how the hydroids are affecting the organisms around them.

I expect a couple of things could be going on. First, the hydroids could be actively consuming larvae of other species and preventing them from settling or just eating all the food there is. If that's the case, I should see lower recruitment of benthic invertebrates on panels with live hydroids. However, the hyrdoids could just be passively preventing other organisms from settling by blocking their particulate food from reaching the panel or by occupying space. To see which one of these scenarios is true, I had to build structures that were exactly like hydroids but non-living.

A fouling panel with hydroid mimics (left) and
live hydroids (right)
Enter the elastic cord and plastic mesh.

Using fouling panels that had already been colonized by hydroids, Nicole and I set up an experiment this weekend. Some of the plates were "live hydroid" treatments and remained largely as-is. Other plates had their hyrdoids removed and replaced with synthetic mimics. We also had a "mesh only" treatment and a control with no inhabitants.

I'm very curious to see what recruits to the different types of panels. I suspect the hydroids have a significant effect on their community, so I should see some differences between the treatments. We'll check back later in the summer to see!

Friday, June 16, 2017


Friends, I hope one thing you can learn from this blog is how many diverse and fascinating creatures there are in the ocean. Even a habitat as ubiquitous and mundane as a floating dock can be covered by all sorts of captivating fauna. I have told you about the ciliates; I have impressed on you the importance of hydroids. I have shown you barnacles and spirorbids and bryozoans. I have drawn your attention to the ascidians. But there is one organism I have not yet shown you - sponges.

Halichondria panicea on one of my fouling panels, surrounded
by two spirorbids and a bryozoan. Photographed at 50x
No, not the kind you use in your bathtub, although bath sponges were harvested from the ocean in centuries past. Marine sponges are sessile animals that filter the water for food.  If you've been reading this blog for a while or clicked on any of the links above, you'll notice that this is lifestyle is a common theme - fouling communities are by definition made up of animals that attach to a surface, and animals that live attached to surfaces tend to filter the water for their food.

There's only one species of sponge showing up on my fouling panels right now, and it only appears in Eel Pond. It's Halichondria panicea, and it's actually a non-native species. It was introduced to New England, presumably a long time ago, though nobody is quite sure when. It's been around long enough to become well-established in the fouling community.

When I first started seeing Halichondria on my panels, I didn't know what it was. It took me a little while to clue in that it was a new organism. Once I recognized its porous texture, though, I could identify it almost immediately!

Sponges are typically slow-growing but are good competitors, so they tend to dominate older communities. I anticipate that Halichondria will come to occupy larger and larger amounts of space on my fouling panels as the summer goes on. We'll see if I'm right!

The elephant

"You can eat an elephant in small bites." - Ed O'Brien

This week was an elephant. A big, heavy, brute of a week, full of data collection and field work and counting and counting and counting.

Two species of ascidians on my fouling panels:
Botryllus schlosseri (black and yellow), and Botrylloides
(red). Photographed with a dissecting microscope
at 6.5x magnification.
To put it succinctly, my fouling panels in Eel Pond have been taken over by ascidians. Also known as sea squirts, they're squishy, gel-like, blob-shaped animals, and they have absolutely covered my fouling panels in Eel Pond!

Some of you might remember the "mystery blobs" I started finding about a month ago. At the time, I was pretty sure the blobs were ascidians, but I couldn't identify them to species. Well, now I can confidently tell you that the blobs are ascidians, but they are not one species. There are four. Four species of ascidians. All. Over. My. Panels.

As you can imagine, the copious ascidians took a lot of time to count. It was a mammoth task, but I'm no stranger to long hours at the microscope. I actually removed the ascidians from a sub-set of my panels to see if the fouling community would develop any differently in their absence, and as you might imagine, that took a ton of time too. I kept reminding myself to take it in small bits, to take breaks and pace myself. This week was a beast - an elephant I had to eat in small bites.

A species of solitary ascidian, Ascidiella aspersa (white
arrow), on my fouling panels. You'll notice Ascidiella
is much bigger than individuals in the colonial ascidian
next to it. Because it's so clear, most of the time I only
noticed Ascidiella on my panels because of its colorful
digestive tract.
Ascidians are fascinating creatures, though, and I was happy to see them recruiting to my panels. Ascidians have two different life-styles - some species are solitary, while some live in colonies of clones - but despite this difference, they all have the same basic anatomy. Each ascidian individual has a incurrent and excurrent siphon to draw water into and push water out of their body. The water gets filtered through a mesh structure inside the ascidian's body called the pharyngeal basket, which catches any particles that could be used for food. The outside of an ascidian's body is covered in a fleshy, skin-like layer called a tunic. They're actually pretty fun to dissect.

Eel Pond is notorious for its diverse and abundant ascidians, so their dominance on the panels actually fits one of my hypotheses. I think their high numbers on the Eel Pond panels shows the influence of local retention and larval supply. It will be interesting to see how the fouling communities continue to develop this summer!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Shag carpet

My monitoring plates on the WHOI pier.
You can't even see the plates!
Friends, I am running out of ways to describe the dense, heavy hydroids that have colonized my fouling panels at the WHOI pier. Every time I think I've reached the maximum hydroid biomass that my panels can hold, the hydroids kick it up a notch. Compare the picture at right to what I termed "hydroid city" just a few weeks ago. The pictures show the same apparatus, only this week, you can't even see the plexiglass monitoring plates underneath.

I've told you before that my dock study concerns succession in fouling communities. Since starting the study, I've actually gotten a few questions from both scientists and the general public about why subtidal hard-bottom communities on docks are termed "fouling." I think my experience with the hydroids at the WHOI pier should give you some idea. Fouling fauna make things foul. They're heavy, they're wet, they cover everything and are difficult to manage.

When I first started my dock study, I thought I would study facilitation. I thought the first organism to settle on my plates would alter the environment in such a way as to facilitate the settlement of other organisms, thus driving succession forward. I've since started to think that facilitation isn't taking place, at least not at the WHOI pier. When I look at my fouling panels under the microscope, I used to see numerous hydroids but also a variety of other organisms - bryozoans, ciliates, barnacles. My experiment on the WHOI pier has now been going for about 10 weeks, and every time I look at the panels, there are fewer non-hydroid organisms on them. I'm beginning to think that not facilitation but inhibition is at work. Inhibition means that the first organism to settle and colonize the panels takes over and inhibits anything else from settling; succession can only move forward when the first dominant organism is removed by predators.

One of the fouling panels for my experiment, photographed
in a dish of water in the lab to show all the hydroids on it.
I'm not sure if there are any hydroid predators at the WHOI pier, but the good news is that I can become the predator. I added a "remove hydroids" treatment to my study a couple weeks ago, so now a subset of my panels is cleaned of all its hydroids every other week.  If the hydroids are inhibiting the recruitment of other organisms, then the "remove hydroids" panels should be colonized by a wider diversity of organisms than the panels with hydroids. I'm very interested to see if any differences develop. Only time will tell!

Friday, June 2, 2017


When I was doing my Arctic recruitment study in Svalbard in 2015, I leaned heavily on my collaborator, P. He's a bryozoan expert, and since many of the animals on my settlement plates were bryozoans, I was constantly asking him to look over my shoulder and help me identify the organisms I was seeing. P has a unique accent, a slightly nasal voice, and a generally relaxed demeanor. He liked to draw out the "O" sound on the second syllable of "bryozoans" so it sounded more like a surfer dude speaking. Nowadays, if I ever say or think the word "bryozoans," my brain hears it in P's voice: "bryo-zooons."

I'm currently studying dock fouling communities around Woods Hole, as many of you know. I've told you about the ciliates that inhabit my fouling panels; I've told you about the barnacles. I've shown you the hydroids, the worms, and the sea squirts. Today, I'd like to focus on the bryozoans (bryo-zooons).

Like most things on my panels, bryozoans are sessile benthic invertebrates. They spend their entire adult lives attached to a surface, feeding on small particles and plankton in the water around them. They have a two-part life-cycle, though, and young bryozoans don't look like bryozoans at all. The common larval forms are cyphonautes (looks like a triangle with a red spot) and coronate larvae (looks like a fuzzy cylinder).

I actually think bryozoans are quite beautiful. The adults build colonies of clones, often with ornate calcareous shells. Check out some of the pictures below!

Microporella ciliata

Conopeum truitti

Electra pilosa

Cryptosula pallasiana

The Svalbard recruitment paper

If you've been reading this blog or a while, you'll remember I lived in Norway in 2014-2015. In fact, my move abroad was the motivation to begin sharing my experiences online. I got a research grant to study recruitment of hard-bottom benthic invertebrates in the Arctic. Using Stavanger as my home base, I went up to Svalbard to deploy and recover fouling panels in Arctic fjords. Altogether, I made three trips to Svalbard in 2014 and 2015.

I bring up my time in Norway now because the research study I did there has finally been published. The results from my fouling panel experiment appeared this week in the journal Limnology and Oceanography. Several co-authors are listed alongside me on the paper, because I received a lot of assistance with my study - my co-authors contributed their resources, ship time, taxonomic skills, and oceanographic data. I am grateful I had the chance to work with such helpful and knowledgeable scientists.

I hope you enjoy reading my paper! You can download it here:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On the rocks

It started a few weeks ago. I was sitting around my kitchen table with friends, sipping wine and chatting after dinner.

Wood Neck Beach
"Hey Kirstin," my friend and fellow postdoc, Cassidy, called from across the table, "Can you recommend a good field guide for the New England intertidal? I need to get familiar with the local organisms this summer."

To my left, my boyfriend almost snorted. "Cassidy," he informed her, "Kirstin is a field guide to the intertidal. Just take her with you!"

So she did.

Yesterday after work, Cassidy and I headed out to Wood Neck Beach, just north of Woods Hole. Unlike most beaches on the Cape, Wood Neck is covered in rocks of all sizes - gravel, cobbles, boulders. We went at low tide so we could see the organisms when they were exposed.

Semibalanus and Littorina on a rock on Wood Neck Beach 
The main organism we saw was the northern rock barnacle, Semibalanus balanoides. Barnacles are especially common in the high intertidal because they are outcompeted by other organisms at lower tidal levels. They are also well-adapted to survive in the high intertidal, an area exposed to air for long periods each day. Their shells can shut tightly, sealing water inside and helping the barnacle avoid dessication. Semibalanus was all over the rocks on the beach. We also saw a number of black snails, Littorina littorea, known as the common periwinkle. Littorina is a common herbivore with a smooth spiral shell.

A boulder with barnacles, oysters, and mussels
On some of the larger boulders, we could see eastern oyster shells (Crassostrea virginica) and blue mussels (Mytilus edulis). Whenever we did find blue mussels, they were on the underside of a large boulder. Mussels prefer to be lower down in the intertidal zone so they don't dry out. They're also pretty good competitors, so they can hold their ground in preferable habitats. If you look on the boulder here at right, you'll see Semibalanus all over the face of the boulder. The two large white spots are Crassostrea oysters, and then on the bottom, you see dark lumps. Those are Mytilus, blue mussels.

I absolutely love tide-pooling, and if you've been following this blog for a while, you have read about my intertidal excursions in Oregon before. Tidepooling became almost a hobby for me. I haven't gone nearly as often since moving east, though, because intertidal communities in New England are much less diverse than on the west coast. Still, it was great to get outside with a friend and explore some of the local biodiversity!

Cassidy and I on Wood Neck Beach

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mystery blob

A Mystery Blob, photographed at 50x magnification.
I checked my dock study in Eel Pond yesterday, right on schedule. When I put the first fouling panel under the microscope, I was happy to see many of the same organisms I have come to recognize: spirorbids, hydroids, and a barnacle or two. I was chugging along, counting organisms, until something orange caught my eye. It looked like it was encased in a ball of mucus, so it might have been nothing. I increased the magnification on the microscope just to make sure.

What I saw was definitely not nothing, though what it is, I cannot say for sure. I'm calling it the Mystery Blob.

Once I saw the first Blob, a strange thing happened. I used the microscope to zoom back out, decreasing the magnification so I could see more of my panel, and when I did, my eyes started seeing Mystery Blobs everywhere! Once I had a search image for them, my brain was able to detect other Blobs on the fouling panels. They were actually pretty abundant.

So what is a Mystery Blob? I still can't say for sure, but my gut says it's an ascidian, also known as a sea squirt. Ascidians are tiny invertebrate animals that live in colonies and filter the water for food. They have the same squishy texture as my Mystery Blob, and I think the faint orange ring on the left side of the blob in the photo is a siphon, something all sea squirts have. If I'm right, then over the coming weeks, each Mystery Blob should grow into a colony, cloning itself over and over and spreading across the plate. Larger colonies will be much easier to identify than single, newly-recruited individuals. Hopefully, I can identify the Blobs to species soon!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Chainsaw carving: part 2

Crassostrea virginica larvae, photographed using a dissecting
microscope at 10x magnification. Photo by Erin Houlihan.
There's something very satisfying about finishing a manuscript. As you know, I've been analyzing data on oyster larvae behavior, whittling the results down to reveal a meaningful story. As of today, I am finally finished! I drafted two complete manuscripts, both about settlement behavior of the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica. One focuses on larval behavior at different ages, while the other is about how oysters settle in low pH conditions brought about by ocean acidification.

With the first complete draft of the manuscripts finished, it's my co-authors' turn to sculpt. Four other people are involved in the oyster studies - scientists who designed the studies, ran the experiments, and collected the data. The project has really been a team effort - I was just the one designated to write up all of the results. It's been fun, though. I've gotten to know a phenomenal undergraduate and another postdoc in the process. Often, the best part about science is the people I get to work with.

It feels like I've been climbing a hill and finally reached a crest at the top. To stick with my chainsaw metaphor, though, I should tell you I've finally turned off my beastly, gas-powered tool and let it fall from my hands into the sawdust. Taking a breath of sweet-smelling air, I step back, rip off my dusty gloves, and gaze at my creations. I push a sweaty lock of hair from my face. "That'll do," I whisper to myself, "that'll do."

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hydroid explosion!

A large colony of Obelia geniculata on one of my
fouling panels in the lab
"I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion"
- "Fight song" by Rachel Platten

Kneeling on the dock, I undid one rope, then another. I pulled up on the white thread, grabbed the edge of the PVC, and flipped my experiment up onto the dock.

And gasped in awe.

My panels were covered in hyrdoids. Big, stringy, wet colonies of Obelia. Pink buds of Tubularia all over my plates. It was a hydroid explosion!

I should have known it was coming. I mean, the hydroid colonies on my monitoring plates exploded after a few weeks. Just a few individuals can grow into a massive colony. I had thought it was already too late in the spring for hydroids to dominate the community. Guess not.

Discovering the hydroids on my experiment yesterday is an example of one of my favorite parts of ecology: the element of surprise. When I first formulated the hypotheses for my succession study, I didn't even think hydroids played a big role. I thought they might show up in small numbers with the first wave of barnacles, but that they would quickly be outcompeted by other organisms. This prediction was based on my experience with fouling panel studies in both Oregon and the Arctic. But I was wrong.

A colony of Obelia geniculata, photographed using
a dissecting microscope at 50x magnification
I actually had to adjust my experiment a little, because I hadn't been planning to consider the hydroids' role in succession. I selected a random sub-set of panels and designated them "RH" for "remove hydroids." From now on, whenever I curate my dock experiment at the WHOI pier, I'll remove all the hydroids from that sub-set of panels and see if the communities develop any differently.

I'm excited to include the hydroids as an important group in my study now. Hydroids increase habitat complexity (by forming their big, stringy colonies), so I'm curious if they have any effect on other organisms settling on the panels. I shall see! More surprises await!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Noticing beauty: part 2

Woods Hole, MA
Falmouth, MA

Sunset from the WHOI pier

Moon over Falmouth Heights

Swan in Vineyard Sound

Vineyard Sound color palette

More interesting: part 2

"There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." - German proverb

I was covered head-to-toe in waterproof fabrics. I wore my rain jacket, rain pants, and even my thick, hard-core field boots. Wheeling my formidable fat-tire bike out the door of the research building, I greeted the rain. It was now or never - if I wanted to go home, that is.

It's supposed to rain 2 inches (5 cm) all over Cape Cod tonight. Strong winds, coastal flooding - we're getting hammered. On my bike ride home, I had to cinch my hood around my face to reduce drag and lean my bike into the cross-shore wind to keep from tipping over. The waves on Trunk River Beach were the highest I've ever seen. My waterproof clothing shield was quickly covered in puddle splashes and salt spray, but I pressed on. Biking level: Expert. (For the record, the levels are Novice, Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Expert, Legendary, and Dutch.)
A spirorbid polychaete (tube worm) on my fouling panels.
Even though it's magnified 50x, it's still small in this
photo, demonstrating just how tiny these organisms are.
Scroll down to part 1 of this post and check out the barnacle
photo - both were taken at the same magnification, so you
can see just how great the size difference is! 

Considering the logistical difficulities today's storm brought, I was very glad to have curated my dock study yesterday. Every time I check the fouling panels, my study gets more and more interesting, and this week was no exception. I retrieved panels from Eel Pond and discovered ciliates, barnacles, and two new organisms - a spirorbid polychaete (tube worm), and a bryozoan.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll remember I talked about spirorbid polychaetes when I was studying recruitment in the Arctic. They live inside little calcium carbonate tubes and filter the water to feed. The species on my fouling panels now is actually one of the same species I found in the Arctic. Its distribution extends throughout the north Atlantic and even up to Svalbard - pretty cool, right?

The coolest thing about my dock study is that so far, the data I've collected fit my hypotheses perfectly. I expected the first organisms recruiting to my plates to be all hard-shelled, calcareous species - and that's exactly what I've found. I have a whole other set of hypotheses about how the communities will develop if I remove those calcareous organisms or leave them be, and I won't be able to tell if those predictions are true for another couple months. I'll keep collecting data every week and update you as I learn more. For now, I'm staying inside and out of the rain!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

At the library

It was dark on Water Street as I stepped out of the library. I waved goodbye to J and headed down the sidewalk. Across the street, small white lights glowed around the sign for Pie in the Sky, our local bakery.

"Kirstin!" I heard someone call to my right. My friend, Kristina, stepped towards me, hands in her red jacket pockets. I thought she had already gone home but was glad to see she was still there.

"Do you want to go for a tea?" she asked, nodding toward Pie in the Sky. Of course I did!

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sitting in a folding chair, I leaned over to arrange a few items in my backpack. The lower floor of the library was probably as full as it had ever been, with seminar attendees milling about and chatting. I was proud of the job I had done. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see someone in a flannel shirt and jeans approaching me. I looked up.

"I have a question, if you don't mind," he began. "Can you define 'benthic'? Because I always thought it meant things that were deep, but your research is right off the docks."

I explained that "benthic" referred to any organisms that lived on a surface, no matter what their depth. It was a good question, and I chatted with the man for a few more minutes.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I stood up at the front of the room, laser pointer in hand. Someone dimmed the lights. My title slide formed a white square on the projector screen. Orange stripe at the bottom for color. Text in blue for contrast. I called it "Fauna most foul: discovering how and why dock fouling communities change over time." I thought my title was pretty clever.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Backpack on my shoulder, I walked into the seminar room. Folding chairs were set up in rows with a projector in the middle. Only one other person was there, typing on her laptop in the front row. I slowly approached.

"Hello, are you in charge?" I asked.

She looked up at me with thick glasses and a smile. "Nope! I'm the other speaker. Nice to meet you." We shook hands.

She was more than enthusiastic about her research, talking at lightning speed about plate tectonics. She made seismology sound like a trip to the candy store. She was a beginning Ph.D. student and actually reminded me of myself a few years ago.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I love sharing my research with others, so when an opportunity opened up to speak at the Woods Hole Public Library, I took advantage of it. The population of Woods Hole, Massachusetts has a much higher proportion of scientists than your standard small town, so I was glad for the chance to practice communicating my science to an educated, albeit non-specialist, audience. I also got to connect with new acquaintances and spend time with a good friend. It was a great evening.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Like a bullet

"Happiness hit her like a bullet in the back."
- "The dog days are over" by Florence and the Machine

I am sitting on a bench on Water Street in Woods Hole. There's this little grassy area across from the WHOI/MBL library with a huge sun dial and a statue of Rachel Carson. A stone retaining wall separates the grass from a narrow sandy beach. I've heard it called Garbage Beach, because apparently some researcher back in the day wanted to study how garbage was broken down in the ocean and did so by covering the whole beach in trash. Ah, the good ol' days. 

To my right, Nonamesset Island is shrouded in fog. To my left, R/V Neil Armstrong is parked at the WHOI pier. I actually just ran into an oceanographer I had been to sea with two years ago, strolling along Water Street after arriving in port on the Armstrong. Small world. A red-and-white dive flag bobs on the surface of the steely blue water in front of me. My boyfriend is underwater, practicing diving with some of his new gear. I take a deep breath of damp, foggy morning air and curl up in my fleece jacket on the bench. Life is good.

I have now lived in Falmouth, Massachusetts for 6 months. When I think about that number, there is just no way it can be accurate - it's either too large or too small, and I can never decide which. Because if I think back to the first 6 months that I lived in Oregon, then 6 months is a blink of an eye, and I've certainly been here longer than that. But if I think about the slightly less than 6 months I lived in Norway, then 6 months is an eternity, and there's no way I've been here that long.

In a lot of ways, Falmouth represents a new phase in my life. I'm out of grad school and finally have a "real" job. I'm independent in ways I have never been before, and I'm starting to view the world more maturely. I am in a relationship with someone wonderful. But in other ways, life in Falmouth is the perfect continuation of the life I've always been building. My research at WHOI directly builds on the work I did for my Ph.D., and as new scientific questions develop, I see my work getting more interesting and more impactful. I'm returning to old collaborations to strike out in new scientific directions. I find myself dreaming about meaningful contributions I could make to our knowledge of the world. I still think about new places I want to go, other parts of the world I want to explore. But for the first time, I don't find myself thinking about where I want to move after I'm finished in this place; I fantasize about returning here, to this place that feels like home.

Since moving to Falmouth, I have been struck by happiness in a way that I've never experienced before. It has been sudden, unexpected, and all-consuming. And friends, this is not a passing feeling or a superficial joy. I am happy in my bones. I have found a place in the world where I belong, and a person that I belong with. I have never felt more like myself.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

More interesting

A juvenile barnacle on my fouling panels, photographed
under a dissecting microscope at 50x magnification
Another week, another check of my succession experiment! I have my experiments at two different docks, the WHOI pier and a floating platform in Eel Pond. Each week, I collect the fouling panels, examine what's on them, perform any experimental manipulations I need to, and change out the larval trap. I alternate docks each week (so each dock gets checked every other week), and this week, it was the WHOI pier's turn.

I wasn't quite sure what I would find on the panels, since the last time I checked the WHOI pier, there was literally nothing on my panels. This week, I brought the panels into the lab, bracing myself for disappointment, but was pleasantly surprised to find I had a few recruits!

I had four species on my panels this week. There was Folliculina, (the same ciliate I had seen in Eel Pond), two hydroids (Tubularia and Obeliaboth of which had been on my monitoring plates before), and then the star of the show: barnacles!

I had been waiting for barnacles to settle because a major part of my study concerns how barnacles influence the communities they live in. There were a few individuals on my panels this time, and I'm hoping they'll increase in abundance over the next few weeks. Every time I check my panels, the results get more and more interesting. Let the experiment continue!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Chainsaw carving

In Reedsport, Oregon, just north of where I used to live in Coos Bay, there's an annual chainsaw carving festival. Yes, you read that right. Artists from all over gather on the Oregon coast, where they carve delicate sculptures out of tree trunks. With chainsaws. The process always fascinated me. I was astounded at the complexity of the resulting sculptures, the level of detail they expressed, especially considering they were created with such a loud brute of a tool.

I've previously described the process of scientific data analysis like making a pot. I've equated it with walking two steps forward, one step back, and one step sideways. As you know, I'm currently in the middle of a data analysis on larval behavior. But this time around, the data analysis doesn't feel like pottery or a crazy walk. It feels like carving a tree trunk with a chainsaw.

These graphs are about 1/3 of what I started with. Each of
them show valuable information about our larvae. For the
record, though, this is far from the largest number of graphs
I've ever analyzed at once
When I first started the analysis, I took a kitchen-sink approach. I tried every metric on every replicate over every time range, and I ended up with a ton of information. It was hard to even make sense of. I made graphs of all the various metrics and printed them out. I shared them with my advisor and two collaborators, spread them out, and scribbled notes on the pages.

Then the carving began.

Sometimes, it was a deep, major cut with a giant chainsaw. Other times, it was just woodchips flying away. We eliminated an entire experiment (one of four) because its results were not trustworthy. We eliminated potentially erroneous data and metrics that had meaningless results. We have shaved and sliced and sanded away at the data until finally, a carving began to emerge.

I once heard sculpture described as freeing an artwork from the prison of its material, and I really like that image. I'm finally at a point with the larvae data where I can see the end product, the scientific work of art, being freed from the superfluous surrounding mess. I'm excited to continue shaping the analysis, carving away as I go.

With a chainsaw.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One of these things is a lot like the others

"Hey Lauren, can I show you something?" I called to my advisor. I was seated at the lab bench, in front of the nice dissecting microscope.

"Sure," she strode over, and we switched places. She sat at the scope while I stood beside. Peering into the eyepieces, she could see one of my fouling panels. More specifically, she could see small organisms on my panel.

The organisms were tiny - hard to see even with magnification - and green. Their hard shells were vase-shaped and translucent. I knew I had seen them before, on fouling panels I had deployed in the Arctic in 2014-2015, but I couldn't remember what the organisms were.

Four individuals of Folliculina, photographed under a
dissecting microscope at 50x magnification
"Maybe they're foraminiferans," I suggested to Lauren. I vaguely remembered the organisms being non-animals. They were single-celled, like foraminiferans, I thought.

Lauren has much more experience looking at foraminiferans on fouling panels than me, and she actually disagreed. She continued to peer into the microscope, adjust the focus, move the plate around. "Could they be ciliates?" she asked.


Suddenly, my memories became crystal clear. A dear Russian colleague had identified the organisms for me in Svalbard. They were ciliates, a kind of single-celled organism that feeds on tiny bacteria and algae in the water. I remembered their name started with an F, and a quick online search helped me find it: Folliculina.

Because Folliculina is not an animal (animals are multi-cellular; ciliates like Folliculina are single-celled organisms), it is technically outside the scope of my succession study (my original plan was to study the benthic invertebrate animals). Lauren and I talked briefly about whether I should count the organisms on my panels, and we decided yes, I should. The more I learn about Folliculina, the more I believe we made the right decision. Get this:

Folliculina are actually unusual among the ciliates because they're sessile. They attach themselves to a surface, build a hard test, and stay in one place for most of their lives - just like the benthic invertebrate animals I'm interested in! They also feed by gathering small particles from the water around them - very similar to benthic invertebrates! As single-celled organisms, they reproduce by fission (one cell divides into two), but after division, one of the new cells will leave the test. It will swim freely in the water for a short period of time and eventually find a new place to settle. This type of life cycle - swimming babies that grow up to be sessile adults - is exactly the type of life cycle that benthic invertebrates follow. I even found a scientific paper that refers to young Folliculina as "larvae!"

Clearly, there are some strong similarities between single-celled Folliculina and the benthic invertebrate animals that are the target of my study. It amazes me that organisms that are seemingly so different - single- versus multi-celled! - can have such similar lifestyles.

I'm glad to include Folliculina in my succession study. Isn't ecology fascinating?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Noticing beauty

Back in 2007, the Washington Post did an experiment. They asked world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell to pose as a street musician and play in one of D.C.'s busiest Metro stations. During the 45 minutes Bell played, over 1,000 people walked straight past him, completely ignoring the musician. Only a handful stopped to listen, and even fewer threw money into his open violin case. It's unreplicated and uncontrolled, but this experiment suggests humans have a hard time noticing beauty when it's not placed in a context they expect.

Friends, I live in an incredible place, and I am determined to notice the beauty around me. Please enjoy the photos below, taken around Cape Cod in the past few months.

Woods Hole, MA

Sagamore, MA

Sagamore, MA

North of Falmouth, MA

Woods Hole, MA

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A tale of two experiments

My fouling panels today - empty
Early this morning, I pulled on my rain pants and my field boots. I strode across the street, through the open gate, and onto the WHOI dock. It was time to check my experiment.

I had set aside the entire day for it. I was expecting to spend hours at the microscope, examining the new recruits to my fouling panels. I was looking forward to counting and identifying little juvenile animals all afternoon.

Kneeling on the dock, I loosened the knots that held my fouling panels in place. I tugged the lines free and lifted up the PVC sheet that holds them. I laid the PVC on the dock. And I saw...nothing.

That's right; my panels were empty. I had exactly one recruit (a hydroid) on the 30 panels I examined today. Now, I know the lack of recruitment wasn't a mistake, for two reasons. First, the panels did have some detritus (organic dirt) on them, evidence that they had been underwater the whole time since I deployed them two weeks ago. Second, my monitoring plates also didn't get any recruits right away when I put them out in the fall. I thought maybe my fouling panels would get recruits faster, since it's now spring and more species should be reproducing, but I guess I'll just have to keep checking. I'll come back in another couple of weeks.

My monitoring plates today - hydroid city!
In an interesting twist, my monitoring plates were densely inhabited today! The fouling panels you see above and the monitoring plates you see here at left actually hang from the same dock. The only difference is that the plates at left were outplanted in November, while the panels above have only been out for two weeks. What a difference a couple of months can make!

There was less work for me to do today than I expected, but I suppose that was a blessing. I look forward to having results soon!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dancing on strings: Part 2

Friends, if you had been on Water Street in Woods Hole, Massachusetts today, you would have seen a tall figure in an orange fleece and gray rain pants. She would have been carrying all sorts of random tools - a power drill, ropes, electrical tape, a long wooden beam. She would have disappeared into the side door of the Redfield laboratory several times, each time reappearing to carry her supplies across the parking lot and deposit them on a floating platform in Eel Pond. You would have watched her with curiosity as you sipped your coffee on the porch of the caf√© across the street, wondering what in the world this woman could be doing. You would have seen her lay on her belly on the floating platform, scoot around on her knees, close her eyes in thought. Perhaps she was practicing a new form of yoga, you would have joked to nobody in particular. 

And then finally, she would have emerged from the stately brick building carrying two large gray PVC sheets with ropes attached to each corner. You would have seen her lower the sheets into the water one by one and attach the ropes to cleats and nails on the dock. She would have laid on her belly one last time, peaking under the platform to make sure everything was in place. Then, standing finally, she would have dusted off her hands, gathered her supplies, and headed back inside. 

Sipping your coffee, you would have noticed someone else joining you on the porch. You would have idly gestured to the dock and remarked that they had missed the show. Must be a scientist or something, you would have said.

And you would have been right.

Today, I installed my succession experiment at a second location, Eel Pond.
I'll visit the two locations in alternating weeks throughout the spring and summer
to learn how and why dock fouling communities change over time.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


When I lived in Germany in 2011-2012, I made a few notorious language mistakes. Obviously, anyone speaking their second language on a day-to-day basis is bound to. I remember the day I told a technician I was "enttäuscht" (disappointed) that he had helped me, when I meant to say I was "erfreut" (delighted). I regularly mispronounced "Kirchen" (churches) and "Kirschen" (cherries). And then there was the day I said "einpacken."

I told a colleague how excited I was to "einpack" the ship. I thought I was saying "put boxes inside the ship," but "einpacken" means something more akin to "gift-wrap." I had told him how excited I was to cover a giant research vessel in wrapping paper. The image has stuck with me ever since.

Well, friends, I've done a lot of packing in the past few days. I put together two large boxes of supplies for a cruise I'll be going on this summer and sent them off to my colleagues in Germany. The larval traps I've been building are in there, along with various other things I'll need at sea. I surrounded my supplies with bubble wrap, sealed the lids on the containers with zip ties, and sent them off. No bows on these packages - just a shipping label and a customs form.

It was a big undertaking, but I'm glad to have the boxes off my desk and off my to-do list. I look forward to seeing them again on the ship!

Not quite gift-wrapped: my two boxes ready to ship.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Dancing on strings

"Dancing on strings above the abyss, I cry
Reach for the skies"
- "Faster" by Amaranthe

My experimental set-up at the WHOI dock
Friends, today is the day! I have been waiting for barnacles to start recruiting to my monitoring plates before I could officially begin my succession study, and I'm happy to announce that my study has now begun! I saw a few barnacle recruits on the monitoring plates last week, so I knew it was time to get going. I made the final preparations, cleared my hypotheses with my advisor, and headed out to the dock with my experiment.

Working on docks is convenient because they're so accessible - literally right across the street from my office. I did run into one snag, though. My fouling panels are on large PVC sheets (see this photo), which were to hang parallel to the seafloor and upside-down, suspended from a corner of the dock by ropes on three of their four corners. However, as soon as I got the first sheet in place, I noticed that the free corner under the dock was getting caught in the current, and the sheet was getting swept up out of the water like a sail. I had to anchor the fourth corner.

Thankfully, the person responsible for the dock granted me permission to drill holes through the wooden top. I went out to the dock with a power drill, made the two openings I needed (one for each PVC sheet), and threaded the ropes through. Reaching under the dock to find the ends of the ropes was a bit tricky (I ended up taping a hammer to a broomstick and grabbing the ropes with the hammer's hook), but I made it work. With all four corners suspended by ropes from the dock, my sheets of fouling panels are in place. They can shift back and forth with the current, dancing in the water as it flows, but they'll stay suspended below the surface all summer.

I also put out a set of larval traps, and I left my monitoring plates in place. Altogether, that's 10 ropes hanging from the dock, with four apparatuses attached. I'll come back every other week to see what's on the fouling panels, collect the larval trap samples, and do any experimental manipulations I need to. It's going to be a great study!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The two-sided coin

I heard the lab door open and close, then three powerful footsteps headed my direction. Must be him. When I turned around, he was already in my office doorway. Man, he walks fast.

"Hi. I have ten minutes. Show me your thing."  He was polite but matter-of-fact.

I picked it up off the desk - a tube of white PVC with a cap on one end and three plastic tubes inside.

"See, I want it to sit like this," I explained, turning the PVC tube upright, "and I have to screw the lids on and off." I unscrewed the bottom cap and removed the three plastic tubes. "But it's leaking."

He held out his hands, and I handed him the sampler. He turned it over, looked inside, put the tubes inside, screwed the cap on. Unscrewed the cap, took the tubes back out, looked inside.

"I know how to fix this," he declared. "I have another meeting to go to right now, but I'll collect you afterward and take you up to my office. It's an easy solution."

I was stunned. That simple, really? "Can you tell me what the solution is?" I tentatively asked.

He smiled gleefully. "Teflon tape!"

Friends, I work in a very special place. WHOI is one of few research institutions that employs both scientists and engineers and puts them in close proximity to one another. I've certainly reaped the benefits of that proximity - the above example is the third time in as many months that my engineer friend has offered me a usable, affordable solution to a design problem I was having in ten minutes or less. He's very helpful. Sure, I could have messed around and maybe figured it out myself, but he saved me probably three days and a trip to the hardware store.

Engineering and science are two sides of the same coin, so it makes perfect sense to have them together. I'm grateful to work at an institution that has both.