A post from the Bowdoin Marine Science Semester- fieldtrip to Baja California Sur!

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The echo of scales slapping still water en mass reverberates between steep rock walls, jolting me awake. The school of jack responsible for the dawn racket darts out of the cove toward deeper water. I sit up, squinting in the new day’s sunlight. I wiggle my legs out of my sleeping bag and swing my toes down into the cool sand. It takes me a minute to register the reality that I’m on a literal desert island in the middle of the Sea of Cortez: Isla Partida. Isla Partida is separated from her larger sister, Espiritu Santo, by a narrow sliver of the sea. Both are situated in Baja California Sur, Mexico. We, a group of students and scientists from Bowdoin College and Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, are camping in this amazing and intimidating place to experience Marine Science in a truly unique way. Scientists, students to professors, from Maine and La Paz are coming together to exchange ideas, observe an extraordinary ecosystem, and experience all the Gulf of California has to offer.

Two pangas, longboats common in Baja, bob expectantly on the moorings in the cove. Fire-warmed coffee, chorizo, and eggs provide much needed sustenance and set us on course for the day. We wrangle snorkel gear, wetsuits, ripening salt-soaked clothing, and bathing suits from their overnight drying spots. Students and professors alike are eager for the surprises of the day.

We head for another adjacent island to the north, a rocky outcrop host to thriving sea lion and frigate bird colonies – Los Islotes. The guano-stained shell visible protruding out of the ocean tells only a fraction of the story; under surface of the sea, the wall of rock drops off precipitously. A coral reef, teeming with diversity, clings to the side of the drop-off, fed by the nutrient rich waters coming up from the deep. It is an El Nino year, so the waters are unusually warm. We observe some coral bleaching, as well as crown-of-thorns starfish preying on the vulnerable colonies. Students add to their species list with each glance, king angelfish, a variety of parrotfish, skipjack tuna and grouper darting briefly out of the deep blue depths. Coral polyps dangle their tiny tentacles into the water column to catch a passing meal.

The windward side of Los Islotes is connected to her leeward side through a spectacular archway. The reef wall extends from the precipitous deep water, through the arch, to the calmer, shallower waters. Swimming toward the safety of calmer waters, we are greeted with playful sea lion pups, eager to tug on fins, hands, or even a lock of hair or two.


Pruned hands and a chill through the wetsuit, even in the El Nino warm waters, signals it is time to lug ourselves back on board the pangas and head for the next chapter of our day’s adventure. Post written by Sarah Kingston, Doherty Marine Biology Postdoctoral Scholar, and faculty member in the Marine Science Semester.

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.