Catherine Fuller: From Microplankton to Megafauna, July 13, 2019


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 13, 2019

Science and Technology Log:

Through the Microscope

Gwenn with microscope
Gwenn using one of the microscopes to look at phytoplankton.
Gwenn and labels
The Lady of a Thousand Labels, hard at work.

Dr. Gwenn Hennon will be starting as an Assistant Professor with the University of Alaska in the fall.  Her interest is in the types of microbes, especially phytoplankton, that are in the water and what they are doing. She is studying what limits them, whether it is nutrients, light or other factors.  She finds it interesting to try to find interactions between phytoplankton and other organisms, such as ciliates that are filled with chloroplasts that they steal, termed “kleptoplasts.”  She investigates what microbes they stole them from, how the ciliate steals the plastid and how they maintain it. While a lot of algae have photosynthetic genes and controls in the nucleus, ciliates wouldn’t be expected to have those controls, but they must have some in order to keep plastids alive, and these need to have specific genes in order to control specific plastids.  There is a trade-off between specificity of genes for certain plastids and being able to keep the plastids alive for a long time.  Ciliates can also live by just eating other organisms, so another field of investigation would be to look at which genetics are used when organisms are switching between strategies. One goal of this research would be that, when looking at samples from various stations, someone would be able to say what the ciliates are doing without having to do experiments. 

The NGA is a very complex ecosystem, and this cruise has shown me that any scientific investigation needs to have a very specific focus rather than a shotgun approach, in order to have productive results. There is so much to be studied that the potential amount of data that can be gathered is staggering.  

Because the LTER has been funded for many years, there are great sets of time series to look at for some studies, but molecular data is fairly new and adds a lot to the picture.  Gwenn’s work, and the work of others at the molecular level are just the beginning of an understanding of life at the microscopic end of the scale. 

observation deck
Dan and Gwenn on the observation deck. Dan’s always on the lookout!

Through the Binoculars:

Fin whale
Fin whales come fairly close to us out in the deeper Gulf waters.

Dan Cushing is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife seabird and mammal specialist and is here to investigate organisms at the large end of the size spectrum, compared to everyone else on board. His workstation is primarily the bridge of the ship, where he is on the lookout for birds and mammals. He records the species and number spotted, and the time and the GPS location of each sighting. He also logs environmental conditions such as fog and wave height that can affect visibility.

Dan comes from a small fishing town with a population of 3000. He wasn’t necessarily interested in birds specifically when he was young, but developed a gradual interest in them. He likes that working with seabirds combines aspects of being a wildlife biologist with aspects of being a marine biologist. Dan has done both land-based projects at seabird breeding sites and ocean-based surveys on small boats and large research ships. One project that he worked on included attaching sensors to diving birds to record water temperature, depth, and location. This provided information about water conditions as well as about the behaviors of the birds and their feeding patterns in those conditions.

The variation in distribution and feeding strategies of bird species make them a good indicator of what is happening to the environment at different levels in the ecosystem. For example, Dan used small-boat surveys to look at changes in marine bird populations in Prince William Sound. He found that, over a period of two decades, declines had occurred in almost half of the species he looked at. In general, species that occurred farther from shore and fed on zooplankton and fish had greater declines than those that fed on prey along the shoreline and the nearby seafloor.

Studying the changes in a bird population leads to investigations that connect down the food chain through fish species to plankton (which, of course, is the focus of this cruise) and finally to climate change. Dan sees changes in the availability of fish species having a direct effect on the economic health of Alaskan communities that depend on fishing to survive. Coming from a fishing community, this hits home for him. As smaller species respond to climate change, a ripple effect works its way up the food web and so human populations must also alter their survival strategies as well.

coming in for a landing
One of Dan’s feathered friends coming in for a landing off the working deck.
albatross
An albatross follows along behind us.
Gulls
Gulls watch the working deck with interest in hopes of food (not going to happen).


Personal Log:

The longer I’m on board, the more the pieces of the puzzle seem to come together.  On thing that really strikes me about the teams on board is the intensity of their research and the drive they have.  Each person here is making the most of their opportunity for data gathering. Gwenn, for instance, I have nicknamed “the lady of a thousand labels” because her work ethic and preparedness are so impeccable.  She is just one example of the discipline and passion I see on board. 

There is enough potential data to be gathered here to provide for years of research.  Each of these researchers is not only singularly focused on their specialty but also well aware of the underlying premise of their research, i.e. that what they’re studying will serve to document climate change.  Already, this year has brought anomalous weather to the Gulf, which, in a sense, makes conclusions about how and why changes occur a bit difficult.  Another thing that is noteworthy on this cruise is that, because there are PIs (Principal Investigators) on board, there is a lot of discussion of ideas and plans for collaboration.  Already, Gwenn, Suzanne, Hana and Clay have been talking about a potential project where their ideas intersect.  The amount of time we’re out allows for more interaction between people and more room for ideas to develop. 

Finally, as I ask each person what they want kids or the public to know from their research, the answers I am getting all focus on the same thing: change is happening and every organism on the planet is affected by it.

map of the shelf
An image of the shelf; the data station lines cross over this to get a complete range of samples from shallow to deep in order to understand the complexity of the ecosystem and the changes happening within it.


What do you want kids to know about your research?

Gwenn: All things are related to each other.  All species on earth developed from the same ancestral single-celled organisms.

Dan: If you don’t pay attention to what’s around you, you won’t see how it changes.

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