Showing posts from 2022

Palau paper number one

This morning, I received a text from my collaborator and former postdoc, Hanny: "IT IS OUT!!!!" The "it" in her exclamation needed no explanation. Neither did the ambiguous adjective "out." She was referring to the paper she had worked immensely hard on over the last several years. This paper is the first to report on our team's research in Palau, and I am immensely glad to see it in print.  The story of this paper is a story of scientific women. It actually starts with Anne Cohen, another scientist at WHOI, whose lab had been going to Palau for years. They noticed that corals in the semi-enclosed Rock Island lagoons in southern Palau had fewer stress bands than other corals. They bleached less often. This was completely counter-intuitive, because the lagoons are actually warmer than the surrounding reefs. What could be the explanation?  Hanny had an idea - she thought the genetics of those corals could possibly explain the differences in their bleachi


I awoke to the surprisingly loud sound of toddler feet pounding on the floor above my head. My nephew's high-pitched voice was exclaiming about something. The smell of coffee percolated down the stairs. From my basement guest room sanctuary, I could tell that the main floor of my sister's house was already chaotic - and it was only 7 am.  After delivering my seminar and exploring Alpena with my parents, I ventured up to Michigan's Upper Peninsula (also known as  the U.P. ). I went to college in the U.P., and two of my roommates and my sister are still there. I don't make it back to Marquette very often, but it's always a warm, uplifting trip when I do.  This particular trip had a theme: children. Between playing dinosaurs, attending a dance recital, and stopping for frozen yogurt in the middle of the winter, I talked about, held conversations with, and acted like a child the entire weekend long. That's life in your 30s.  There are so many stories I could tell.


"Nobody ends up in Alpena on accident." - Cassandra Sadler The first thing I knew about Alpena, Michigan was its location. When I was in high school, I would see the tiny point on weather maps on TV. It looked fairly isolated, just a name on the edge of a mitten-shaped peninsula, usually predicted to get hammered with snow.  I spent the first 21 years of my life in Michigan. Despite claiming once that I could drive anywhere in the state without having to look at a map , I somehow never passed through Alpena. It's a shame, really, because I missed out on an adorable little town and a hub for Maritime Heritage Ecology. Until now, that is.  I was invited to deliver a seminar on my research at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, headquarters of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan. So I packed a bag, texted my mom, and flew to one of the tiniest little airports I've ever seen.  Presenting my seminar. Photo by Angela Meyer. Thunder Bay is an incr

Genetics Unzipped

Recently, I was asked to participate in an episode of the Genetics Society's podcast, Genetics Unzipped. The interview focused primarily on my eDNA project ( you know , the one where we're trying to determine if environmental DNA could be an effective way to locate human remains from past wars). We also covered a little Maritime Heritage Ecology, too. I had a lot of fun with the podcast and encourage you to check out the episode here:


Are you ready for your vocabulary word of the day? Historiography.  History, obviously, is the study of things that happened in the past.  Historiography, it turns out, is the study of how events were written down in the past - basically the history of history. It's also used in some academic journals to mean a summary of previous work on a subject.  These are the types of things you learn when you collaborate with an archaeologist .  Calvin and I are writing a paper right now that we're planning to submit to an archaeology journal, and we had to include a "historiography" section. This is a new experience for me. My papers usually appear in journals like Marine Ecology Progress Series , Limnology and Oceanography , Polar Biology , and Invertebrate Biology - all of which are specifically geared toward an audience of ecologists. You know, people who spend their days with animals, trying to figure out how they live and relate to their environment. People who don'

Wrecks of the semi-deep

Friends, you might not realize this, but I have actually been working on another project while in Palau. Do you remember the expedition I went on in the Gulf of Mexico last June? That's right, the one where we investigated shipwrecks and natural hard-bottom habitats in the mesophotic zone. Well, the education component for that project happened to fall during November - while I was in Palau - so I undertook an extreme exercise in telepresence. Thanks to the internet, I could actually be in two places at once.  The team for the mesophotic project connected with classrooms across the US for conversations about our project, shipwrecks, and marine science in general. We had live viewers at middle schools and high schools across the Gulf Coast and the Northeast, but we also recorded everything on YouTube! If you're interested, you can check out our broadcasts at the links below.  Program 1: Program 2:

Island home: part 2

If you had asked me 10 years ago where my career was heading, I never would have guessed the tropical Pacific. It was 2012, and I was just starting grad school. Having just discovered the magnificence of the high Arctic, I would probably tell you that I wanted to continue heading north. Maybe I would have said I wanted to go to Antarctica next or explore new regions of the deep sea. Coral reefs never would have even crossed my mind. But here I am.  Tropical Kirstin paddling back to the boat with her bright  pink fins, dressed like a lionfish. Photo by Kimberly  Collins Jermain. There's even a Tropical Kirstin taking shape in my mind. Some of you might remember me referring to German Kirstin or Norwegian Kirstin - versions of myself that developed during stints in those countries. I can even feel the gears shift in my mind when I go back to visit or do field work. German Kirstin has different facial expressions (which conform to German cultural norms); Norwegian Kirstin is extreme

MJ's house

I consider it an honor to be invited into someone else's home, especially if I am abroad . So when MJ , the expat who has been volunteering on our project, invited the team to her house, I immediately said yes.  Palauan homes don't look like much from the outside. They're made of cinder blocks and sheet metal. Their color is a dull version of whatever paint was applied years ago. The driveways are mostly dirt. In an American town, they would be described as "run-down." But anyone who spends more than 3 seconds in Palau will realize that this place is as humid as anywhere. Construction in this country is driven by practicality, not appearance - cinder blocks and sheet metal don't mold.  Once you enter a house in Palau, the interior feels like a different world. MJ and Lauren's kitchen has bright white linoleum on the floor, relatively new appliances, and colorful curtains. It feels clean and welcoming. The main difference between American and Palauan homes

Clam City

One of the (medium) clams at Clam City.  Photo by Cas Grupstra. For our last Found Color class, we wanted to have a fun, easy day and just take the kids out drawing . We chose a site called Clam City that has a lot of giant clams. Their curved, complex shapes and electric-bright colors were the perfect finale for our drawing class. It was actually very fitting that are our artist, Kim Jermain , wanted to go there because clams are called "Kim" in the Palauan language! I do have to be honest - Clam City was not quite as impressive as it should have been. A decade ago, the site was full of unfathomably enormous clams in shades of bright blue, green, and yellow. There are still clams at the site - even a few of the impossibly large ones - but there are also a lot of large, empty shells. Smaller individuals are more easily found. It seems to me that there must have been a mortality event in the last 10 years or so, and now new individuals are recruiting to replace the lost popul

Palau in photos

Friends, I want to show some of my favorite photos from our trip. As the saying goes, each photo is worth a thousand words! Cas taking some samples from the reef. Photo by Kimberly Collins Jermain. The water was so clear at one of our study sites, you could barely tell where the sky ended. Photo by MJ Shanks.  Cas working on an experiment below. Photo by Kimberly Collins Jermain. Our CBASS rig looks pretty awesome with the lights out! One of the seaplanes we found was hidden in a limestone cave. One of the students in our Found Color class said on the first day that he was never  going to get in the water. This is him two days later, having a blast.  Photo by Cas Grupstra.  Cas found a nurse shark stuck in a coral at one of our study sites. At first he thought it was dead, but  when he pulled its tail, it swam off! We're not sure what it was after in the coral, but it was probably  grateful to be freed! Photo by Cas Grupstra.  After finishing research one day, we went by a touris

Art lessons

The primary objective of Found Color is to educate Palauan students and help them learn to notice and appreciate nature. But when the science team isn't busy wrangling children in the water, we get to listen, draw, and learn from Kim too! I want to show you some of what I've learned from her.  Here's a drawing I did at a coral reef site last week:  It's...ok. I have some color blending in there, I got some texture on the green coral. It's strongly mediocre. Kim saw my drawing once we got back to the lab and asked if I was interested in adding some shadows. We had a slow afternoon the next day (a rare occurrence on a research trip, so I seized the chance while I had it!), so I sat down with Kim for some spontaneous tutoring. Her first piece of advice was to reverse my light and dark tones in the background. I was thinking too much - sure, light comes from the top in the ocean, but that's not what I was actually seeing when we went out snorkeling. Kim showed me ho

Bleaching pairs

You might not know this, but Palau is currently experiencing a coral bleaching event. We found out the day before we arrived, when PICRC posted on their social media that researchers were going out to monitor bleaching at sites around Palau.  One of our coral pairs at Risong PICRC actually has a really unique community-based monitoring program. They engage citizen scientists around Palau to make periodic observations, and when those community members notice bleaching, they alert PICRC. The research team is activated and collects data from 80 sites within 3 weeks. It's an incredible feat that results in thousands of photos and tons of data. Using these observations, PICRC staff can keep track of bleaching extent, duration, and mortality around Palau. I think using the citizen science observations is a really unique and effective way to engage the community and gain valuable information at the same time.  Thankfully, this bleaching event doesn't seem too horrible. Corals are blea

Music of the night

One of our students drawing at night in the Palau Aquarium. "Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation Darkness stirs and wakes imagination" - "Music of the Night" from The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Weber My first night dive was a revelation - the reef was fuzzy because all the corals had their tentacles out to feed. Megafauna like sea urchins, brittle stars, and sea cucumbers that stayed hidden during the day inched their way out into the open. Small reef fish were all hidden away, but large nocturnal predators loomed. It was magical.  Coral reef spawning happens at night - not just corals themselves, but worms, snails, and all sorts of species release their gametes by the light of the moon. I wanted our Found Color students to experience this. We had talked about natural cycles in class, such as how the sun's motion through the sky impacts the colors we see in nature. I wanted to tie this concept to science by showing our students that anima


Parts of a plane wreck emerging from the water We rounded the corner and cruised into a small bay. The water was surrounded by a dense jungle that acted as a natural humidifier. Birds sang from somewhere deep in the trees. Our driver, Lee, shifted into neutral as we coasted cautiously into the shallows. The water was almost perfectly still, disturbed only by our gliding wake. I could see something sticking out of the water. It was metallic and had a smooth, curved edge - obviously a man-made structure. Could that be the plane?  As we inched closer, it became clear that the plane wreck was just that - a wreck. Scraps of metal were strewn about the muddy floor, and nothing seemed to live on them. This was obviously not the wreck we wanted. Even if the wreck was uninteresting, there was a tall limestone cave adjacent to it that caught our attention. Apparently the Japanese hid planes in caves during WWII. This one must have just missed the entrance before sinking.  Cas and I at the surfac

Recruit hunt: part 3

Here are more of my favorite baby coral photos! There's a zip tie in each image for scale. I think this is Favites pentagona . I love how colorful it is! Another colorful faviid! This is a juvenile Porites coral. Look at the color! We only found two of this species - it's a mussid coral.

Recruit hunt: part 2

I love looking at baby corals! There's something so satisfying about scouring a reef for the smallest individuals possible and then photographing them at high resolution. I imagine it will be a challenge to identify many of them to species, but that is next year's problem. In the meantime, I want to share my favorite recruits with you (zip ties for scale). These corals, if they live, will support biodiversity on reefs in Palau for hundreds of years.  This coral is a single polyp, probably only a few weeks old.  I was really glad I got the photo of this individual because it was down in a crevice and hard to see.  I think it's a species of Montipora . Another single polyp! Matthew is really good at finding them. This individual was just large enough to identify - Porites cylindrica . This was a really rare find - a small Goniopora recruit!

Recruit hunt

Every trip to Palau, we do a "recruit hunt." It started as a back-up plan - an alternate way to study how selective mortality in young corals shapes populations and communities - but now it's become a tradition. I already have data from last year on the species composition of the established communities at each site. Now we're collecting photos of the smallest corals we can find to see how they compare. Are there some species that have high recruitment but die off before they get very old? Are there corals recruiting at sites where adults of the same species do not occur? We're hunting for baby corals , and we're searching for anyone who is out of place.  Recruit hunts are super fun. We set a timer and put in an hour of effort at each site - that provides at least a modicum of standardization. Using the macro lens on my DSLR camera and any other good macro camera we can find, we scour the reef and take photos of the tiny baby corals.  Here are some of my favo

Site 29

We put all our skills together in Found Color class - color blending, using shade variations to create depth, snorkeling, observing the reef in detail. We drew coral formations at a colorful site in a bay near PICRC. Surrounded by jungle, steamy but mercifully shaded, with coral formations like sculptures in a vertical wall, site 29 deserves a much more grandiose name than it has. We tied the boat to a tree and invited the students to explore. And it was magical. The younger kids who had a hard time focusing were suddenly fully engaged. The older students who had hesitated before jumped into the water to draw. Even I got to try my hand at portraying the reef. Found Color has coalesced into something that is more than the sum of its parts.  Think for a second - how would you draw this coral?  Could you capture the color, the texture, the shape?  Seen at Site 29. Photo by Cas Grupstra. One of our students painting while snorkeling. A student hard at work underwater. Capturing the colors

Found Color

"[Painter Paul] Cézanne believed that light was only the beginning of seeing. 'The eye is not enough,' he declared. 'One needs to think as well.' Cézanne's epiphany was that our impressions require interpretation; to look is to create what you see. We now know that Cézanne was right. Our vision begins with photons, but this is only the beginning. Whenever we open our eyes, the brain engages in an act of astonishing imagination, as it transforms the residues of light into a world of form and space that we can understand. By probing inside the skull, scientists can see how our sensations are created, how the cells of the visual cortex silently construct sight. Reality is not out there waiting to be witnessed; reality is made by the mind." - Jonah Lehrer in Proust was a neuroscientist Kim teaching a lesson on creating three-dimensionality with color.   When Kim first approached us, I wasn't quite sure what to make of her idea. "Photography is inaccur