Snorkeling for Sea Stars and Urchins

A few months ago, researchers from the Coastal Studies Center traveled up the coast to Rockland, a scenic, artsy fishing town with some fantastic marine life. Students and professors from the College of William and Mary, Stony Brook University, and Bowdoin College donned their snorkel gear  and wet suits before they walked down the nearly mile long interconnected slabs of granite known as the Rockland Breakwater.

Koko Novak rockin the snorkel gear
Koko Novak ’16 collecting sea stars for her lab.

The goal for the day was to collect sea stars and sea urchins for various projects at the college. Amy Johnson’s lab is working with the biomechanics of the various species—how their size affects how they move. Jon Allen’s lab (from William and Mary) is studying elements of sea star reproduction through experimentation.
Sea stars of all sizes were easily found in cracks and behind some of the larger rocks, out of the way of direct wave exposure. Sea urchins were grouped in colonies, and could be particularly difficult to pry off of the rock surface, not only because of their spines, but because when you removed one, all of the others in the area would cling tighter to the rock.

Researchers from three colleges at the Rockland Breakwater.

There were occasional hazards, primarily slippery rock, sharp barnacles, and very, very cold water. Despite the 80 degree day, the water was in the low 50s and researchers needed frequent breaks to warm up.

At the end, researchers sorted out the findings into what they needed–sea stars and urchins that would live in the marine lab for the remainder of the summer, throwing back all those that would not be used for research.

Interested in how sea stars move? Check out this underwater video filmed in the Marine Lab from David Conover’s Sea Shore Digital Diaries course from last year.

Summer Wrap Up

Horseshoe CrabAs the summer draws to a close, we would like to share some of the goings-on in and around the Coastal Studies Center. Most researchers at the Marine lab have ended the research portion of their projects, or are finishing up this week. Bowdoin Students are now beginning prep work for the President’s Science Symposium, that will take place this fall. Check out some of the happenings from this summer!

Snorkeling for Sea Stars and Urchins
HHLT Nature Camp
Coastal Studies Center Symposium

New Semester offers Old Opportunities

As professors prepare and plan for the autumn debut of the Bowdoin Marine Science Semester (BMSS) at the Coastal Studies Center, it is a nice time to reflect on some invaluable historic resources that the college has to offer.

The Schooner Bowdoin was a sailing vessel built in the early 1920s intended and designed for Arctic exploration. After being stranded for several years on an expedition to Crocker Land, Bowdoin alumnus Donald B. Macmillan decided to commission a ship that could withstand such conditions. The Schooner Bowdoin is 88 ft long, 21 ft wide, and equipped with a thick, sturdy frame and a large rudder to protect against ice. Throughout many exploratory expeditions to the arctic, this ship and its captain cultivated Bowdoin’s arctic legacy, placing itself at the forefront of polar research.

Now, the Schooner Bowdoin is in use at the Marine Maritime Academy as a training vessel for northward sailing. Last year, Bowdoin’s growing marine science program allowed for a weekend sailing expedition for biology students to gain a small taste of what living and working on a boat is like as a scientist. After a successful weekend, BMSS plans on making this an annual excursion.

The Bowdoin Marine Science Semester is a small, tight-knit program where students take all of their classes at the Coastal Studies Center, utilizing the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in their coursework and special projects. This semester is designed to give students incredible research tools, knowledge and experiences that will draw from Bowdoin’s previously underused resources.

BMSS also plans to offer a trip to Hurricane Island and a 10 day research expedition to Baja, California.

Students Communicate Science Through Film

Science to Story, the second of Professor David Conover’s two courses offered this academic year, examines the translation of science into stories and digital media that successfully engage public attention.

This semester, students began the immersion into science communication by analyzing psychological and behavioral studies relating people to climate change. Early research included an introduction to Dan Kahan’s study on the Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus and Anthony Lieserowitz’s work on the public’s perception of climate change. Furthermore, the class had the opportunity to speak with MIT’s Professor of Atmospheric Science, Kerry Emanuel, as well as with Discovery Channel’s executive producer, Paul Gasek, in order to get a better sense for what real-world challenges arise when communicating science to the public. Students have viewed various films and television shows such as The Day After Tomorrow, Earth Underwater, and the 2014 Emmy Award winning television series Years of Living Dangerously, analyzing these productions for their accuracy and effectiveness in conveying climate science.

Throughout the course of the semester, students have taken a creative approach to filming and editing and will continue to practice setting up green screen shoots and interviews as they prepare for a major final production. The class has spent time filming at the Coastal Studies Center working with Marine Biology Professors David Carlon and Sarah Kingston. While scientific accuracy and creativity are paramount, students are encouraged to take strong consideration of who their audience is and how the tones and undertones of their productions shape the way viewers connect with the scientific concepts being presented.

Perspectives on Climate Change is an early semester submission by Emi Gaal ‘15.

Bowdoin Coastal Studies Center courses, Fieldtrip to Hurricane Island

Written for Hurricane Island by Sarah Kingston

hurricane-island-coastal-students crop
Bowdoin College is running two new field-based courses this fall out of their Coastal Studies Center on Orr’s Island: Dimensions of Marine Biodiversity (David Carlon, Director of the Coastal Studies Center) and Marine Molecular Ecology and Evolution (Sarah Kingston, Doherty Marine Biology Postdoctoral Scholar). Students and Instructors from both courses spent a weekend on Hurricane Island in October, 2014 as a portion of their field seasons.

The Dimensions of Biodiversity class is starting the collection and curation of a long-term dataset to assess changes in the intertidal community as climate changes in the Gulf of Maine. The Marine Molecular Ecology and Evolution course is executing a population level study of Littorine snails (periwinkle snails) in the Gulf of Maine (utilizing next generation sequencing technology).

The Bowdoin group arrived on a bit of a grey Friday afternoon. Despite the cloudy skies, hurricane-islandthe ride over from Rockland was a beautiful panorama of rocky shores and pine-crested islands. Hurricane was welcoming with warm food and drink as well as cozy cabins. The students were embarking on quite the field adventure, given the rain in the forecast for the next day.

The Bowdoin visitors targeted two sites: a sheltered section at Gibbon Point, and an INTERTIDAL MONTORING 2exposed, wave-impacted, portion across from Two Bush Island. The Dimensions of Biodiversity class installed permanent markers (bolts drilled into the rock) for three different tidal level transects: low, medium, and high. They dutifully collected the first year’s worth of data using quadrats and microquadrats to subsample the area along the transects. Students noted presence and abundance of organisms in the community like algae, snails, crabs, and barnacles. The Marine Molecular Ecology and Evolution students collected Littorina saxatilis from rocky crevices in the upper intertidal as well as Littorina obtusata hiding amongst the rockweed in the mid- and lower intertidal before helping their classmates on the transect surveys.

Rain, from mist to a steady fall, persisted throughout Saturday’s work. The chilly water did not dampen spirits, however, as students and instructors alike explored tide pools, evenBanner-seastar-student crop small happening upon a resident starfish.

Nightfall brought about another warm meal gathering. Students shook off the cold, damp day, and embarked on course discussions and mid-term studying. Hurricane Island turned out to be the perfect place to focus on scholarship after a long day in the field.

girls-hurricane island

Aidan Short and Invasive Green Crabs

What central questions did your summer research address?

AidenDissectsCrabs1My research focused on determining what species invasive green crabs (Carcinus maenas) are eating and how frequently they are eating specific prey species. Specifically, I wanted to know if soft shell clams make up a large part of green crab diet. Green crabs are believed to be one of the major causes in the decline of the soft shell clam industry, and in past studies an inverse correlation has been observed between the abundance of green crabs and the abundance of soft shell clams. By understanding how often green crabs are eating soft shell clams, I would provide valuable insight into how green crab presence affects soft shell clam populations. As well as being a major predator to soft shell clams, green crabs are believed to be mowing down eel grass (Zostera marina) beds in the pursuit of prey species that live in these eel grass beds. I want to determine what green crabs are eating in eel grass beds, and possibly whether green crabs are eating eel grass.

How specifically did you conduct this research?

crabsAwaitingFreezing1I answered these questions using next generation sequencing to sequence DNA extracted from green crab stomach contents. More specifically, I set out traps in two eel grass sites and two mud flats, fished the traps, removed the stomachs of the captured green crabs, and extracted the DNA from the stomach contents. I then used general primers to amplify DNA with PCR, and I sent out these amplified samples to be sequenced.

What did an average day of your work entail?

AidenDissectsCrabs3An average day of work varied for me. Most days I was in the lab, either performing dissections on green crabs or doing bench work, but about twice a week I got the opportunity to go out to the Coastal Studies Center and do field work. This field work usually entailed going out on the skiff to check my green crab traps.

What was one of the biggest challenges of your research?
One of the biggest challenges was trying to determine how many samples to run in a single lane for Next-generation sequencing. If we put too many samples in one lane, our reads turned out incomplete because the amount of DNA overpowered the sequencing capabilities, and if we used too few samples, we risked paying for the Next-Generation sequencing without using it to it’s full capabilities.

What was the most rewarding part of your research? What have you learned?

BenModelsWithCrabsThe most rewarding part about my research was getting the opportunity to apply what I have learned as a biology major to an actual problem. The data that I received from this project will hopefully help future conservation projects.

Do you see yourself continuing to do research on this topic?

I would like to continue to learn about applied biology, and the invasive green crab is a particularly interesting case that I believe can be solved using applied biology.

Jenna Watling: Pacific Parrotfish at the Marine Lab

Pacific parrotfish.

This summer, I worked on three different projects. For my primary project, I assisted Dave Carlon in his research on parrotfish speciation. Professor Carlon has found evidence of speciation through hybridization in parrotfish in the Pacific, and he and I extracted DNA from fin and scale samples and amplified specific genes (both nuclear and mitochondrial) using PCR. PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, is a biochemical technology used to amplify the number of copies of a particular stretch of DNA, generating thousands of copies of small pieces. We then confirmed the success of this amplification using gel electrophoresis. Once those initial steps were completed, we prepared samples and sent them away to have the specific genes sequenced. Genetic data was then analyzed in a computer program called Geneious. If, for example, we observed distinctly different patterns of similarity between the mitochondrial versus nuclear genes, that lent support to the hypothesis that some of our parrotfish species arose through hybridization. Speciation through hybridization has not been frequently observed in the wild, which is part of what made our project so interesting.

Jenna Watling ’16

Additionally, I helped Aiden Short with his study of the diet of green crabs. He collected many crabs from several sites, and I helped him by dissecting them and collecting tissue samples. We collected muscle samples from their claws and then remove their entire stomachs. Aiden used next generation sequencing to discern what the crabs were eating and in what quantity–an improvement from the old technique which mostly consisted of looking at their stomach contents under a microscope–and he used the claw muscle as a safeguard to ensure that he wasn’t including the crabs’ own DNA in his analysis of their stomach contents. His project was especially interesting because green crabs are an invasive species here in Maine, and they’ve been implicated in the decline in quality of our eelgrass beds and possibly even soft shell clam populations. (Soft shell clams are economically important to our state, and eelgrass beds have huge environmental importance.)

Harvested Blue Mussels

Finally, I assisted Sarah Kingston in her study of calcification rates in blue mussels. Sarah collected blue mussels from various sites, labeled each individual mussel, and took the mass of the mussels. Then she divided the muscles into different tanks held at different temperatures and acidities. Her schemes were selected to simulate likely conditions under climate change. At the end of her testing period, she collected all the muscles, reweighed them to see how the masses of their shells changed (calcification rates), and took tissue samples from every mussel. We spent three days opening the mussels and collecting their feet and adductor muscles. One likely use of the tissue samples will be to look for connections between their genomes and responses to different temperature and pH schemes. I also assisted in further sample collections with the mussels and acted as mussel caretaker, feeding them and recording day-to-day information about temperature, pH, CO2 concentration, and so on.

Working for the Marine Lab this summer, and on such a wide variety of projects, was very rewarding. This experience has inspired me to pursue more research opportunities in the future.

Interested in Marine Sciences?

On Friday, September 26th, 12:00-1:00 pm Jon Witman will join students and faculty in the ES Common Room, Adams Hall for an informal lunch and a short video about Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine— one of the most Capture2dynamic hotspots of biodiversity in New England and the entire North Atlantic, an area where he conducts research and collaborates on conservation efforts. Professor Witman will also share his insight into field-study based marine science programs – an area particularly relevant to Bowdoin as it prepares to launch the new Marine Science Semester program next fall.

Professor  Witman is professor of Biology in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University. Having spent a lifetime studying and researching marine ecology around the world – and more specifically in six out of the planet’s seven ocewitman-calendarans – Professor Witman is passionate about developing and promoting marine conservation science.

He received a B.A, M.S and Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of New Hampshire. Witman has taught at Northeastern University, where he helped develop the Three Seas Marine Biology Program. He has also worked as a collaborating scientist at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands. His research interests primarily include the effects of large-scale processes on local communities, benthic-pelagic coupling, biodiversity and supply-sided and trophic ecology. Currently, his lab is conducting research focused around three themes: 1) physical forcing of marine benthic ecosystems, 2) studies on the origin vs. the maintenance of pattern, and 3) marine biodiversity. How community structuring processes vary with scale is a consideration that pervades all aspects of the lab’s research.

Professor Witman will be delivering a lecture on Thursday, September 25th, 4:00-5:00 pm in Druck 20 on the development of marine communities in the era of climate change.


Summer in Maine: Islands, boats and the search for mussels

Last week I travelled with Dr. Sarah Kingston (Doherty Marine Biology Postdoctoral Scholar), Dr. Dave Carlon (Director of the Coastal Studies Center), and Marko Melendy (Animal Care Supervisor) to collect mussels at two sites here in Maine: Hurricane Island and Mt Desert Rock. We collected blue mussels (Mytiulus edulis) and bay mussels (M. trossulus) for an experiment Sarah is conducting. She is examining the genetic basis of variation in shell calcification under environmental conditions possible due to ocean acidification. In this round of experiments (the first round was conducted to determine which experimental scheme yielded the greatest variation in shell calcification), there will be one control tank (some food, ambient temperature, and ambient pH) and three identical experimental tanks (no food, high temperature, and low pH). After two weeks, the mussels will be removed from the tanks, their change in shell calcification recorded, and samples of the mussels’ muscles collected. The DNA in these tissue samples will analyzed by a technique called next generation sequencing, and Sarah will look for genetic variation that is associated with calcification rates.

Our trip began at eight on Tuesday morning (August 12, 2014), when we drove to Rockland and then boarded a boat that took us to Hurricane Island. 01By the standards of places that are off the power grid, Hurricane Island is luxurious. They have an impressive solar array that enables hot showers, phone and computer charging, and electric lighting. Hurricane Island was also surprisingly busy; in addition to our little group and the people who work on the island, there was a high school group and some wilderness-first-responders-in-training. Once we arrived on the island, we dropped our things off and hopped back on the boat. Mussels live in the intertidal zone, and it’s easiest to collect them at low tide. Sarah had already asked around for likely sites, which we approached by boat. We hopped ashore and began our search, looking under rockweed and in crevices beneath and between boulders. Our first several sites were rich with periwinkles, whelks, and barnacles, but the only mussels to be found were some solitary horse mussels (M. modiolus). This was what we had feared might happen. When asked where to find mussels, people commonly told Sarah to try such-and-such place, but that there weren’t as many as there used to be. At least the day was beautiful. I’m from Hawaii, and let me tell you, there’s nothing more scenic than Maine in the summer time.

02As we cruised around, we decided on a whim to check an old pier for mussels growing on its sides. Finally we found them hiding in a generous crack just above the water level. With a certain amount of stretching and the help of the boat’s gaff, we were able to collect our first mussel specimens. However, we didn’t want just any mussels. They had to be two to three inches long. Recall that Sarah is interesting in calcification rate; mussels within this size range should still be adding to their shells because they’re in a growth phase. We collected approximately twenty appropriately-sized mussels, put them in a mesh bag, and placed them in a cooler with seawater and ice packs to keep them comfortable. Our luck held at our last two sites. The mussels in those places were not attached to rock as we expected—they were partially buried in the sand like clams. “The cool new lifestyle,” as Marko put it.

04With about seventy mussels in hand, we returned to Hurricane Island. It was only around three in the afternoon, and we had the rest of the day to walk around the island, read, or nap.

Wednesday morning was foggy, but that’s to be expected on the water at five in the morning. We took the boat back to the mainland and separated into two groups. Dave and Marko returned to Brunswick with the mussels we had collected. Sarah and I continued northward to Bar Harbor. From there, we departed for Mt Desert Rock. The fog followed us on our boat ride to the rock.

08Mt. Desert Rock is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a six hundred by two hundred yard chunk of granite that protrudes from the sea.

It’s about twenty-six miles from shore and, like Hurricane Island, is completely off the grid. A lighthouse—built in 1847 using stone quarried on Mt. Desert Rock itself—stands next to the small house that housed the lighthouse keeper in the days of lighthouse keepers. 09There is no running water on the rock. Drinking water is brought by boat along with other groceries. The coast guard has a solar array for the lighthouse, but power for the island’s crew is provided by their own small solar array and a backup generator. Non-electric lighting is provided by lamps that burn propane with kerosene. It’s bare of trees, which makes it look bleak, but it’s far from barren. There are grasses, wild rose bushes, and droves of sea gulls. Herring gulls (common gulls) and black-backed gulls (larger and more aggressive) share the island, and it’s almost impossible to walk five feet without getting screamed at by at least one. Juveniles are everywhere, some of them already flying and some still downy and small. 10More exotic than the gulls, however, were the seals. Gray seals and harbor seals haul themselves out from the water onto the island every day. The island’s crew counts them daily, and counts of several hundred have been recorded. Our group was large for Mt. Desert Rock—the island’s crew, Sarah and me, and a group of fifteen high school students and their two counselors—so more seals than usual opted to remain in the water instead of facing the human horde. The seals that hauled out slept in the sun.


The wary seals floated offshore with their heads and necks out, looking like solemn mermaids.

We arrived on the island in the afternoon, with the high tide. Collection took place at low tide the next day, around two in the afternoon. The mussels on the rock were difficult to find. We were warned they would be small, but I didn’t process that until we were out looking for them. The first ones we found were nestled in among the barnacles; some had even grown in the shells of dead barnacles. These mussels were small enough to balance on the tip of my finger. I think the constant wave action may be responsible for their small size. We collected twenty or so of these tiny mussels, but we also found some larger ones—exceeding an inch in length—in the cracks in the rock.

16An hour and a half later we had collected approximately fifty specimens, and the rest of the day was free to spend watching the gulls, seals, and sea. I didn’t see any whales while I was on the rock, but we had seen porpoises on the boat ride out to the island. I was told by one of the crew members that minke whales can sometimes be seen from the rock—this testimony was supported by the sad, surprisingly small skull that was all that remained of a minke that had been beached on the island several years ago. When we left on Friday morning, there was a basking shark hanging out near the island. It wasn’t much to see—just a black fin—but knowing it was there was exciting. By Friday night we were back on Bowdoin’s campus.

This is just the first step for the next phase of the project. This week we will travel even farther north to Cobscook Bay in pursuit of more mussels. When we have all our specimens, we will label each one and record its buoyant weight. They will be subjected to the ocean acidification manipulations for two weeks, after which they will be weighed again and dissected for muscle tissue samples. The DNA libraries will then be sent away for next generation sequencing, at which point Sarah can finally begin her true analysis.

Jenna Watling, ’16
Jenna has a faculty-student research fellowship working with Dave Carlon and Sarah Kinsgton on her project: “The evolutionary response of populations of the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) populations to climate change”.