Ocean Change and Beach Health

— Written by Megan Guidry

Sand beach habitat across the street from the lab

I’ve escaped the Louisiana heat for a summer in sunny California. In a shocking turn of events, I, once a child who despised sand and all of its clingy properties, have ended up in a sandy beach ecology lab for the summer. My project focuses on how grain size effects the burrowing abilities of endemic beach invertebrates (sand/mole crabs, beach hoppers, clams, and even worms).  These highly mobile little creatures need to move constantly to adjust to ever shifting waves and tides and must burrow quickly in the sand to protect themselves from predators, waves, sun and desiccation.

Sand crab on top of the sand and furiously scurrying/swimming away- a rare sighting.

As beaches erode and sea level rises, humans are filling many beaches with imported sediment, which is, in most cases, a different size and type than the natural, local sand the animals are used to. The introduction of new non-native sediment can alter beach ecosystems and cause ecological change both at the original beach and downcoast where the new sand moves. A previous study suggested that the burrowing creatures of beaches have a hard time burrowing into the muddy sand added from salt marsh channel dredging which affected their ability to survive on a filled beach. My project will test the other end of the sediment size spectrum and compare burrowing times of these animals in natural sand and in coarse poorly graded sand.            

Burrowing success and resulting health of these spineless creatures at the base of the food web could be the key to maintaining healthy beach ecosystems as a whole. More knowledge about how filling in disappearing beaches can alter beach ecosystem diversity and productivity will help us inform decisions about adapting to shoreline change and conserving these dynamic coastal ecosystems.

Beach hopper “playing dead” before jumping across the sand

The Race Is On, Mile One

— Written by Ileana Fenwick

The race is on to gain as many skills as possible before the summer’s out and I just crossed the marker for mile one! I’ll be here in Santa Barbara for eight weeks this summer, and here we are at the beginning of week two. This is my last summer before applying to graduate school in the Fall, and there are a number of skills I would like to have in my toolbox before doing so. Amongst my list of skills include: proficiency in R, additional scientific diving experience, DNA extractions and additional microbiology skills. Thanks to my amazing PI, Dr. Holly Moeller and awesome grad student mentors, An Bui and Sevan Esaian it looks like all of my dreams are going to come true!

Coming out here to Santa Barbara feels like a huge blessing. During the summer program I completed last year we visited UCSB for a tour and I had the chance to meet my now mentor Dr. Holly Moeller. Working with her and coming out to UCSB were goals I set shortly after the summer concluded and needless to say I am super excited to be here. My lab even has a book club! Literally, the best thing ever. So far, so good. I have been learning my way around the campus (no bike just yet, but now I have a bus pass!) and everyone in the lab has been so welcoming and friendly. I’m really looking forward to getting to work on my project and learning new skills.

My project will be looking at the kelp wrack (wrack being the washed up material from the water) on the beaches and how the amphipods (for example, sand fleas) consuming the wrack contribute different amounts of organic matter to the sand below them depending on the health of the kelp. Looks like I’ll be digging for plenty of amphipods in the sand this summer! Can’t wait to see what the rest of the summer has in store.

Low Tide

— Written by Xavius Boone

The Santa Barbara coast is lined with many wonderous creatures and year around people flock to the beaches and head out on boats to explore all that it has to offer. Jellyfish are famous for their tentacles armed with many stinging cells, but the average beachgoer is unaware that their anemone cousins share the same defenses. This was something I learned and shared with visitors during my time volunteering at the Sea Center on Santa Barbara’s Wharf while I attended Santa Barbara City College. Now, exactly a year later and after transferring to UC Davis, I am back studying the effect strawberry anemones have using those stinging cells to deter and dictate sea urchin feeding behavior.

Strawberry anemones

There are many different anemones that inhabit California’s coastal waters, each with varying levels of aggression as well as varying strength in regard to their stinging cells. The strawberry anemone is known to be one of the most aggressive anemones and is equipped with some of the strongest stinging cells as well. These two characteristics make patches of the clonal animal quite a formidable barrier for predators perusing the area to deal with. Interestingly enough, strawberry anemones have been found to exhibit several different color morphs and it is speculated that behavioral characteristics such as aggression may differ by color. My research seeks to investigate just how much of a deterrent strawberry anemones really are. Is deterrence linearly related to anemone patch population density? Does it vary with urchin density? Is it decreased when urchin food availability is scarce? In the first few weeks I am determining what questions I want to answer and what is possible to accomplish in the time I am here.

Through this first week and a half it has been a bit like what I imagine low tide feels like to an exposed anemone. Much like being exposed to direct sunlight, I have been exposed to tons of new information and tasked with running my own experiment which I have never done before.  My duties thus far have been reading through many scientific articles that look at strawberry anemone physiology as well as their associational relationship with kelp via herbivory deterrence, coming up with methods and procedures to follow, and feeding the anemones we are currently keeping for the experiment. In the coming weeks I look forward to finalizing the project goals and running through the trials with the anemones.

Thermal Tolerance of Tigriopus californicus

— Written by Asher Albrecht

Tigriopus californicus

Global warming is one of, if not the most, significant issue causing changes in our oceans today, and along with other more publicized factors like increased ocean acidity and widespread increases in ocean temperature, unprecedented heat waves are another one of the new challenges that ocean life must face. These sudden and drastic surges in water temperature have been shown to have an even more detrimental effect on certain marine copepods than other effects of global warming. Other invertebrates are being affected as well; only a month ago scores of mussels along the coast have reportedly cooked in their shells while still attached to the rocks around California due to summer heat waves. Learning about the ability and extent to which marine fauna can adapt to these events is an important question when assessing potential changes and damage we may encounter as our planet’s temperature continues to increase. A plentiful, adaptive, and important marine species here along the California coast is Tigriopus californicus, a very small intertidal copepod that is used the variable environment present in tide pools along the coast. The relatively short spawning time of T. californicus, ease of feeding, size, significant role in the food web, and extreme adaptability all make it an ideal model organism to study this important phenomenon.

Water baths for accurate water temperature and circulation

The specifics of the project I am working on is still being finalized, and once we have some healthy populations up and running, a better sense of our resources, and I have read a couple more studies on similar topics, I will nail down the details of my research. For now, some specific areas of interest are the effects of increased temperature on female T. californicus fecundity, the tolerances of the various life stages of T. californicus, if increased temperature effects developmental timing and to what extent, and oxygen consumption. Just because I haven’t set my project in stone doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy in the lab! I have been working with another undergraduate named Michael who will be carrying out his own project involving T. californicus and heat tolerance, specifically the epigenetic mechanisms of temperature adaptation. Together we tested the heat tolerance of a sample of adult T. californicus from Point Dume in Malibu. First, we added between 4 and 6 random individual copepods to their own PCR tube. It’s difficult to truly appreciate the speed of such small animals until you have had to collect them by sucking them up individually with a micropipette. We filled 8 rows of tubes, with 10 tubes each. We exposed individual rows of copepods to a gradient of temperatures ranging from 36˚C to 38˚C and finished by counting the number of survivors in each tube underneath a dissecting scope. The eye strain was considerable, but it was exciting work none the less. We also recently constructed the baths that we can use to circulate water of a constant temperature around small holding tubs in order to test larger numbers of individuals. My plumbing skills have increased drastically, and Teflon tape is my new best friend. Tomorrow, we are leaving at 5 a.m. to go collect new samples from Point Dume!

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

— Written by Maggie Slein

I know, you’re thinking, “What does poetry have to do with marine ecology?” Keep reading and you’ll find out…

Day 1: To kill or not kill (“To be or not to be”–ecology style)

Within the building we did ascend 
I watched my hopes and dreams upend 
From crack to crunch and snap to pop,
Each lobster friend begging us to stop.

For one, for all, for coveted scientific gain; 
We euthanized each lobster, again and again 
Traumatic as it may sound, I learned today,
Being a marine ecologist is not about the praise.

It’s about being inquisitive and having no fear 
And that is what it takes and sometimes, that includes tears. 
So wipe those tears away in the name of tomorrow 
It is time to overcome the undertow. 

Day 2: Who are you, are you a marine ecologist too? (Project progress and life advice via Haiku)

Thought provoking ask 
Maze of complicated paths 
Design, data, repeat

Air in, exhale out 
How much? How little? When? Why?
Allocation varies 

How are you here, now,
In this place, doing this work 
With maturity and luck.

Day 3: Discovery is the thing with tentacles (“Hope is the thing with feathers”–science style)

I see my future flash before my eyes, each night when I close them 
Eyelids become heavy, breathing becomes instinctual and my thoughts soar 
Like shooting stars, the questions enter and leave my mind, one by one 
Where will I go? Who will I be? What will I do? How will I do it?
They consume me until the sun smiles again and the cycle repeats once more 
Am I making the right choice? Will this choice lead me to the choices I want later?
I don’t know now, I never will and that is the terrifying part of the equation. 
Neither the plethora of possibilities nor the myriad of machinations do I find horrifying; 
It is the sheer reality of never knowing which choice is truly the right one, until later. 
What do I do? How do I carry on? Which choices do I make? How do I make them?
A wise professor bestowed upon me some of the sagest advice I will ever come to receive. 
Asking her as a naive nineteen year old how to design an experiment:
A series of questions that would produce novel data.
My imagination sprinting until she pierces my dream with a chuckle
”That isn’t how science works. You follow each question through. Rinse and repeat,” she punctuated.
Funnily enough, that is even more applicable in life; 
It isn’t about reaching some far off goal, like publishing.
Follow what calls to you until it’s natural end and when that fateful day comes, find a new one. 
The journey of life is about finding the calling that shouts to you for decades.
So here is what I know now, after one week in this mere eight-week journey:
I want to go to graduate school. 
No, I don’t know where and no, I’m not quite sure when (just yet)
But the important discovery, is that I know I want to go and yearn to embark
Thus, it’s not a matter of if, but when and that is where I will close my eyes, for now.

In summary, my first week here in Santa Barbara has been eye-opening. I am excited for more poetry inspiration and most importantly (jokes aside), for all the growth to come. My project regarding lobster respirometry and installing heart rate loggers will be an adventure nonetheless (I can’t wait!). More to follow soon! Until next time:

Day 5: Shall I compare thee to Kryptonite? (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day–avid cyclist style)

Ticking and tocking, clicking and snapping; 
These are the sounds of yesterday’s rapid entrapping. 
We arrived home to find, in almost no time, 
That our bicycles were indeed gone.
They’d be carted away, where they would forever stay, 
Until we released them tomorrow. 
What we didn’t know then, is that we have fairies in our den;
All of which made our wishes come true.
In very little time, and without so much as a rhyme, 
We received our bikes and more.
So thank you to the staff, who floated us our “safety raft”, 
To continue our journey onward.

Urchin Crusher Robin: Part 1

— Written by Robin Grathwohl

One memory comes to mind when I think about sea urchins: my 10-year-old-self pulling spines out of my feet after a poor ending to an afternoon snorkel. Since I was 10, I have not been very fond of urchins. However, after just one week in the Caselle lab I have an entire new perspective on urchins and their role in a much larger marine system.

Off the Santa Barbara coast, these spiny little creatures help sculpt the kelp forests that fill the waters. Urchins are part of an important food chain that ultimately impacts the abundance of kelp. California sheephead and spiny lobsters prey on the urchins who rely upon algae such as kelp for sustenance.

Throughout the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California, the numerous marine reserves further the complexity of this food web. The contrast between marine protected areas and fished areas plays a direct role in the relationship between the urchins, its predators and its prey. Overtime, as more marine reserves have been introduced to the area, the structure of these kelp forests are changing, and urchins are a crucial factor in these adjustments.

In areas that are fished, fewer predators threaten the urchins, allowing the urchins to take over forming barrens. However, in the marine protected areas, where fishing is restricted or banned, more predators roam, jeopardizing the urchins, permitting more kelp growth. Different levels of restrictions in marine reserves alters the abundance and size of the urchin’s predators and prey, resulting in changes to urchin densities. There are cascading effects starting from the people who prey on the waters all the way down to the kelp, and the urchins play a principal role in this flow. Finding the perfect balance between predators, urchins and kelp is the challenge at hand in the marine reserves in the Channel Islands. These variables paired with a changing climate raise many questions for the future of the kelp forests off the coast of Santa Barbara.

This summer, I am on a journey to discover how the differing marine reserves and fished areas around Anacapa Island impact the resiliency of the urchins. In areas where fishing is prohibited or restricted, there are more fish that prey on the urchins. How will this impact the strength of these urchins to withhold predation? Will these urchins be tougher because their predators have consumed all of the weak-links and they have a larger food supply? Meanwhile, in fished areas, will the urchins be weaker because they do not have the food supply to stay strong and there is not the same abundance of predators to consume the weak-links? I plan to find these answers. Understanding the differences in urchins’ ability to resist predation is vital for grasping the relationships within these complex, ever-changing kelp forests.

How will I pursue this discovery of urchin toughness, you ask? Call me Urchin Crusher Robin because I will be spending the next seven weeks physically crushing urchins to find the toughest and weakest victims. I am finally getting revenge on the spiny little creature that punctured my 10-year old toes.

Removing spines from a purple urchin to practice preparations for urchin crushing.

Can kelp help mitigate against ocean acidification?

— Written by Spencer Johnson

Here in Southern California, the most prominent and productive marine habitats are the underwater forests of Macrocystis pyrifera, or giant kelp. One of the ways kelp affects seawater is that it slows currents. Like a group of trees providing a wind shelter on an open hillside, kelp creates a lot of drag. As a photosynthetic organism, kelp also removes carbon dioxide from the water and releases oxygen. These effects can work together: the more that currents are slowed, the longer a given parcel of water stays in the kelp forest, allowing more carbon dioxide to be removed. Increased carbon dioxide is the root cause of ocean acidification; kelp forests may act as refuges in an increasingly acidic ocean.

The Santa Barbara Channel is a long-term ecological research (LTER) site, so a wide variety of data have been collected and compiled in it over the last few decades. A number of locations within the channel have been designated as marine protected areas (MPAs), which preserve thriving kelp forests. We have data for currents from moorings called acoustic doppler current profilers (ADCPs), and we have data for kelp biomass derived from mathematical calculations on satellite image pixels. We also have data for dissolved oxygen, which can be used as a proxy for pH. My goal for the first part of my project is to analyze these data and solidify the relationship between kelp biomass and pH. Ultimately, we want to be able to quantify the positive effects of MPAs for use in ecosystem models. However, the data collection sites don’t line up cleanly with MPA boundaries, so I’m planning to compare data inside and outside a healthy kelp forest. One site, Arroyo Quemado, got new ADCP moorings last year inside and just outside the kelp forest, augmenting the long-term mooring outside the kelp forest. These 3 moorings give me a convenient comparison to explore.

Figure 1: Screenshot of some of my initial work: From left to right, a graph of water level and tidal currents at Arroyo Quemado, tidal component data for Arroyo Quemado, and a 3-D graph of East current velocity versus North current velocity versus height above the bottom

The second part of my project will involve going out into the field and collecting some targeted physical data to expand on my findings from past data. The details for this part of the project are still very much up in the air. So far, my work has mostly involved learning how to use Matlab, a programming language that’s good for complex calculations and attractive graphs, such as the ones shown. With the help of some prewritten code and a function that runs harmonic analysis to determine tidal components, I’ve analyzed the tides for a couple LTER sites and for NOAA’s Santa Barbara data. Harmonic analysis allows me to determine the strengths of the components that go into tidal currents (most are related to the sun and moon). In doing this, I can compare current strengths and figure out how much they are slowed by kelp forests. My work with currents will help me determine a rate constant for the biological activity that controls dissolved oxygen changes. I’m excited to get further into my analysis, and to eventually go out into the kelp forest and collect some new data!

Raines’ First Blog

— Written by Raines Warren

Welcome to my first blog post! My name is Raines Warren and this summer I’m working in Dr. Deron Burkepile’s lab with Joey Peters. The majority of Deron’s more recent work focuses on how nutrients are recycled through a system and how marine vertebrates release those nutrients. Similar to the majority of Deron’s work, Joey’s previous work focuses on the lobster’s impact on the nutrient cycling in the ecosystem. Through the week we discussed many possibilities of reasoning behind why some kelp was thriving in areas and some wasn’t as well as examining different predators and prey relationships in the system. Otters were the primary predator controlling the species of sea urchins protecting the kelp which in turn recycled the nutrients…until their unfortunate demise in the area. During this time sea urchins had a field day, population exploding to a point almost uncontrollably feeding on the kelp in the area. The temperature of the water warmed and an MPA (Marine Protected Area) was formed meaning this was an area no organisms were poached. A new, tastier (dipped in a bath of melted butter of course) organism took up residence here, the lobster. These new predators came in controlled the sea urchin population as well as successfully cycled the nutrients. At the moment we were determining what the best course of action would be for a project in the short eight (now seven) weeks that remain. A possible project we want to explore is the relationship between the lobsters and the feeding of the lobster and determine if there was a likely hood that competing lobsters would have better nutrient recycling than non-competing lobsters or vice versa. We also may explore the effects of temperature of water on the amount or ability for lobsters to recycle nutrients. After this week and our primary check out dives to solidify the ability to dive with the project, we will have a better, more concrete plan of what we will do as our next step. I’m excited to dive deeper into this!