Under the Sea in Coastal Maine

Long time, no blog? I’ve been crazy busy down here in Boothbay balancing classwork and independent research. It’s a busy semester, to say the least, but I’m loving it!

My research project has been going swimmingly this fall. I’m developing a technique to detect and quantify the amount of the invasive lacy bryozoan, which encrusts on kelps and makes them susceptible to detachment and inedible for humans.

A ragged, dying kelp covered in lacy bryozoans

Half of the time, I’m going scuba diving with Doug Rasher! And yes, we DO dive around here in Maine and we DO see lobsters!

Lobster coming out of his cave to check out my flash

Right now in October, the water’s about 55-57° F. Diving in Maine is nothing like diving in the Bahamas- all the divers around here say, “If you can dive in Maine, you can dive anywhere!”. It’s more difficult to manage all the gear and weight to keep you warm, but all the kelps, sponges, and crabs have so much character.  Though it’s a spectacular place, we’re not just diving to enjoy Maine’s coastal ocean. We’re diving for science!

First, I collect my water samples and kelp tissue samples, then I assist Doug and his postdoc Thew in a long-term kelp forest time series project. The weather hasn’t always been perfect, but in the world of field research, you always have to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

And the other half of the time, I’m working in Pete Countway’s microbial ecology lab extracting environmental DNA (eDNA) from my water and kelp samples!

What the heck is eDNA? It’s all the DNA organisms leave behind in the environment, and it’s all over the place! For example, if a whale happened to swim past a coral reef, some of its DNA will get left behind. A scientists wanting to figure out where whales are would just have to sample some water and pull out the whale’s DNA to know if it was there or not instead of spending a lot of time and money tracking whales constantly. And with a little bit of math and a lot of time, scientists can also figure out how much whale eDNA is in each sample and could estimate how many whales pass through the area! You can use these eDNA techniques for all creatures big and small. I happen to be focusing on the small. The lacy bryozoan has a tiny larval stage that floats all around its potential kelp hosts, but you can’t count them under a microscope. We’re going to compare visual estimates of adult lacy bryzoans with my new (work-in-progress) eDNA method.

As you can see, this off-campus study is no seaside vacation, though I do get woken up by ocean sunrises and loon calls most days. But it is exciting to help solve emerging problems in science! Bye for now!