Take a deep breath, and dive in with our new Vertebrate Ecologist!

September 15, 2014 by
Dr. Gitte McDonald

Dr. Gitte McDonald

Next semester, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories will welcome a new faculty member: Dr. Birgitte I. McDonald.  She is replacing Director Jim Harvey as the new head of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab.  Gitte agreed to answer a few questions about herself in advance of her much-anticipated arrival! Read the rest of this entry »

Projects in Baja – Parrotfish Behavior

September 7, 2014 by

Some of you may have been following the blog way back in March, when the “Baja class” traveled to the Gulf of California for two weeks in the field (as a refresher, you can check out the previous posts here and here). Jackie promised some photos and stories from the trip, so I’m going to highlight my particular research project down there and toss in a few of my own photos (better late than never, right?)!


SeaLife DC1400

Panoramic view from our campsite on the beach at Bahia de Concepcion, our second of three overnight stops in Mexico on the way down to El Pardito.


SeaLife DC1400

Our trip wasn’t all marine science!  We stopped in the desert on the way down for a natural history lesson from our knowledgeable professors, where we learned about desert ecology and geology!


SeaLife DC1400

El Pardito provided some stunning views of the sunrise from the top of the island.


Maybe we’ll have to put together a full-on photo post from everyone’s photos of the trip, but for now, let’s talk science!  For my project, I studied the grazing behavior of herbivorous parrotfishes around El Pardito. Parrotfishes inhabit mostly tropical waters and are well-studied on coral reefs, because they graze down algae that can outcompete the reef-building corals – and also sometimes consume the corals themselves.  However, their range also extends up into the Gulf of California and other subtropical areas where their role in the ecosystem hasn’t been studied as well. Therefore, for my project, I sought to collect preliminary data on the grazing behavior of these fishes.

To do so, we (myself and other students/instructors in the course – gotta have dive buddies!) followed individual parrotfish around on SCUBA and recorded what they were biting (e.g., fleshy algae, calcified algae, coral, etc.), how frequently they bit each item, and how big their bite scars were.  In addition to feeding behavior, we also noted any interactions with other fish.  For example, we noticed that some parrotfish chased one another, with the larger individuals being the aggressors.  We did this for almost 200 individual fish, spread across four species (we spent a LOT of time underwater), so we were able to collect some good data!  The following are some photos of the four species in question (credit goes to Dr. Scott Hamilton for the great photos!).


S_ghob feeding
Scarus ghobban, the bluechin parrotfish (can you guess how it got that name?), grazing on small, filamentous algae (Photo: Scott Hamilton)


S_comp close-up
The azure parrotfish, Scarus compressus, another common parrotfish at El Pardito (Photo: Scott Hamilton)


S_perr swimming

The bumphead parrotfish, Scarus perrico.  Kind of goofy-looking, but certainly has charisma! (Photo: Scott Hamilton)


S_rubr swimming

The bicolor parrotfish, Scarus rubroviolaceus, with some small sergeant majors in the foreground (Photo: Scott Hamilton)


Overall, the trip was a big success, as all the students were able to complete awesome projects, and we all gained firsthand experience in conducting field work in a remote setting.  Not everything went according to plan, but everyone adapted on the fly and made it work.  I know that I’m looking forward to seeing what the next “Baja class” will accomplish!

Invertebrate Spotlight: Protulophila Hydroids

August 6, 2014 by

It was just announced a couple months ago that researchers in New Zealand found a specimen of the hydroid Protulophila that was previously believed to be extinct for 4 million years.  Before this discovery, these organisms had only been found in fossil records in the Middle East and Europe, some of which dated back 170 million years.

Awesome discovery, right? But to take a step back now, what exactly is a hydroid?

It’s a Cnidarian, which is a phylum of aquatic invertebrates; other cnidarians include corals, sea anemones, and jellyfish.  Through their lifecycle, cnidarians have two basic forms: (1) a polyp that is sessile and attached to a substrate, and (2) a free-swimming medusa.


This is the lifecycle of Obeila sp., a hydroid with a global distribution. Photo at: http://www.njscuba.net


The fossilized symbiotic hydroid was found inhabiting the tube of a one-million year old serpulid tube worm fossil in Wanganui, New Zealand.  Because they are found within fossilized rocks, these cnidarians have been deemed “living fossils.”  This finding gave the researchers an idea: maybe the hydroid could be found alive somewhere in New Zealand waters.

An artist’s rendition of the symbiotic relationship between Protulophila hydroids and serpulid tube worms. Image credit: Dennis Gordon/Erika MacKay/NIWA.

Sure enough, the scientists examined samples taken from Picton, NZ that were collected in 2008 and found preserved Protulophila specimens.  Dr. Dennis Gordon, one of the scientists involved in the finding, says, “Finding living Protulophila is a rare example of how knowledge of fossils has led to the discovery of living biodiversity.”

A scanning electron microscope image of a resin cast of Protulophila polyp chambers and connections in a serpulid worm tune. Photo by: Paul Taylor, Natural History Museum, London.

He also said that “Our detective work has also suggested the possibility that Protulophila may be the missing polyp stage of a hydroid in which only the tiny planktonic jellyfish stage is known. Many hydroid species have a two-stage life cycle and often the two stages have never been matched. Our discovery may thus mean that we are solving two puzzles at once.”

MPAs we’re diving today!

July 21, 2014 by

One of the great things about being a student at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories is going diving with your fellow students.  You get to see what they are studying and hopefully get some good karma or pay them back for helping you out.  I was able to get back in the water after a couple months of drying up on land and dive with Devona Yates.


Devona Yates with a kelp headband that is becoming all the rage now.

She is interested in predator-prey relationships and how predatory fishes can have cascading effects on lower trophic levels as they consume invertebrate prey.  This cascading effect may differ inside and outside Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), as it appears MPAs may have different, larger, and more abundant predatory fish.  Devona is using tethering and survey methods to quantify mortality of these invertebrates and how that may vary as a function of MPA status.  It will be interesting and exciting to look at these MPA effects on the survival of these important prey sources for fishes.  We use MPAs as a way to protect and increase important ecosystem members we depend on for food and are necessary for maintaining ecosystem function.  Predator depletion and recovery may cause changes that were much more complex than we had thought.


David sampling to estimate the number of small invertebrate prey in different habitat types.

(LOOK) Here is a link to a short video clip of the dive, even harbor seals are interested in science.

The Ballast Team Goes to Sea

July 17, 2014 by

Those of us working on the ballast project in the Biological Oceanography lab are closely tied with the Cal Maritime Academy and their training ship, the Golden Bear. So, wherever the ship goes, we go! This summer’s training cruise for the cadets took the Golden Bear across the Pacific from San Francisco, California to Busan, South Korea, then throughout the South Pacific and eventually to the island of Saipan. One of our team members, Marilyn Cruickshank, volunteered on the trans-Pacific crossing, gathering surface water samples along the way and conducting a variety of assays to get an idea of the biomass out in the open ocean.

Beautiful sunsets every evening

Beautiful sunsets every evening

Once in Busan, the rest of our team joined Marilyn to test the ballast water treatments systems currently onboard the Golden Bear.  In order to determine if the treatment systems are truly effective, it is important to test in environments that are challenging enough and have a high number of organisms. We were able to conduct a few tests in the productive waters near South Korea and once again when the ship took a quick detour to Manila Bay in the Philippines.

Counting zooplankton for ballast testing

Counting zooplankton for ballast testing

When we weren’t testing ballast treatment systems, the team continued surface water sampling and analysis of biomass in the waters of the South Pacific. Specifically, we were interested in the new ATP measurement method that Jules Kuo developed as part of her thesis project in comparison with the traditional oceanographic ATP measurement methods that have been used for decades.

Meredith collects a sample via a bucket cast

Meredith collects a sample via a bucket cast

Our trip concluded in Saipan, where we were able to enjoy a little time off to snorkel in the beautiful waters surrounding the island. The ballast team flew back to California but the Golden Bear will continue sailing throughout the Pacific. Later this summer, we will re-board in southern California for another round of tests!

Looking forward to the second part of the cruise!

Looking forward to the second part of the cruise!

Fog Blog: the June Edition

June 20, 2014 by

By Alex Olson & Holly Chiswell, Chemical Oceanography


Fog Tower deployed, the crew of the R/V Point Sur spotlights night waters to avoid crab pots during fog collection operations off the California Coast (Photo by Alex Olson)

On June 5th, members of the Marine Pollutions Studies and Chemical Oceanography Labs under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Coale, began a week-long journey on the R/V Point Sur to investigate the recent findings of mercury in coastal marine fog. Dubbed “The Fog Cruise”, the crew and science party aboard sampled near and offshore waters using oceanographic tools for signs of methylmercury (MeHg), from deep sea sediments to fog above the sea surface. Read the rest of this entry »

10 days at sea: Research Edition

June 11, 2014 by

Like the previous post mentioned, I went on a 10 day sea voyage with NOAA’s FRAMD (Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division) survey. This is annual survey that NOAA conducts during the summer to look at the fish community, by taking measurements of weights, lengths, sex of the fish, as well as selecting individuals to extract their otoliths. Otoliths are used to determine the age of bony fish. In many species rings are formed in the ear bones of the fishes. Biologists extract the ear bones from these fish and read them. There are three sets of ear bones, we use the largest set the sagittae. The information then will be used for fish stock assessments.

On my way to Portland, I found out that the fishing vessel I was assigned on wasn’t in the water yet, so at the last minute, I reassigned to the fishing vessel, the Last Straw.

The Fishing vessel

The Fishing vessel

Here’s a sign that was required on these fishing vessels involved in NOAA’s groundfish surveys! Doesn’t it look official?

NOAA's Official sign!

NOAA’s Official sign!

So each fishing vessel had specific areas to sample, and when they found a suitable area to sample on their site, they set the net.

Hauling the catch back up.  Old tires were used to make up the 'cookies' used to for the trawl net

Hauling the catch back up. Old tires were used to make up the ‘cookies’ used to for the trawl net

Sometimes the hauls would range from an hour to three hours to haul back depending on how deep the trawls were.

Unloading the catch from a deep trawl.

Unloading the catch from a deep trawl.

Lots of deep sea creatures waiting to be sorted!

Lots of deep sea creatures waiting to be sorted!

Here’s a sample of what we would find in our deep trawls. Sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria) aka black cod, shortspine thornyheads (Sebastolobus alascanus) , longspine thornyheads (Sebastolobus altivelis), tanner crabs (Chionoecetes spp.) , and pacific grenadiers (Coryphaenoides acrolepis), were common in our deep sea trawls.

Sablefish, tanner crabs, and long and shortspine thornyheads waiting to be sorted

Sablefish, tanner crabs, and long and shortspine thornyheads waiting to be sorted

Sometimes we would get invertebrates intact in our trawls. Here we found two deep sea octopuses. I even saw one ink while it was trying to situate itself from the whole ordeal. Most of the deep sea fish didn’t survive because of change of pressure and ended up mangled up from being in a tight enclosure, but it was pretty neat to see specimens of viperfish and hatchet fish in our deep trawls!

We managed to keep these deep sea octopuses alive!

We managed to keep these deep sea octopuses alive!

Other times, we would have hauls that overflowed the fish trough which left fish scattered on the deck floor. Days like that we had to scramble and sort the fish, because there were times when we wouldn’t have a break when the next trawl would set. I had to learn how to be very efficient in my fish sorting abilities!

Sometimes hauls overflowed the fish trough!

Sometimes hauls overflowed the fish trough!

One day, I managed to find a glass float from the Japan tsunami that occurred 3 years ago. There’s still lots of marine debris.

I found this glass float. Marine debris is still being found from the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami.

I found this glass float. Marine debris is still being found from the Tohoku Tsunami.

Sometimes our trawls would have 10 to 15 species that we had to extract otoliths from. In some species we had to extract quite a range of otoliths from two individuals to fifty!

This the highest number of otolith boxes we had to extract from species in a trawl.

This the highest number of otolith boxes we had to extract from species in a trawl.

The best of all was this surprise! We found a common murre egg from one of our deep trawls. It survived the ordeal from being snatched from the nest, and unscathed from our deep water trawl. I brought the egg home as a souvenir! Overall, I enjoyed my first long sea voyage on the FRAMD survey. I hope to have the opportunity to go back again to experience what life is like out at sea. There’s always lots of surprises!

This egg was found from one of our deep trawls. It was pretty amazing to see it survived, unscathed!

This egg was found from one of our deep trawls. It was pretty amazing to see it survived unscathed!

Survivor: Ocean edition

May 30, 2014 by

Two weeks ago, my fellow labmate Jessica Jang and I headed to Newport, Oregon to learn how to survive the high seas in preparation for some trawls in which we will be participating later on this year. The FRAMD trawls (Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Divison), associated with NOAA Fisheries, survey groundfish along the Western US coast, collecting age (using otoliths), sex, and length information on 90 groundfish species, as well as more limited information on other species collected in trawls, and more detailed information for scientists conducting special projects. Students in our lab (Pacific Shark Research Center) have, in the past, gathered specimens and data from these trawls for their thesis projects, and both Jessica and I are hoping to collect specimens for our own theses.

We arrived in Portland, and first made a pitstop to obtain some good food and the famed Voodoo Donuts. At the time, I didn’t realize I would be eating donuts nonstop for the next 4 days. We then drove to Newport, only getting lost a few times…

Voodoo Donuts!

Voodoo Donuts!

The next day, we started off the day with some extreme videos of ships crashing and sinking, then had some lectures about safety, which emphasized the main objective of the course: develop the will to survive! Being prepared for the situation, being able to stay calm and respond efficiently to any circumstances that might arise, and knowing when to abandon ship would strongly enhance our chance of survival.

Next, we went outside, where the Coast Guard taught us about the balance and period of a ship’s roll, and then showed us how to pump water out of a boat in the case of a flood. We took turns in their special training trailer, which was filled with leaky pipes and crevices that would begin spouting water at any given moment. I was Captain of my boat, and gave the Mayday! call to the Coast Guard while communicating with my crew members, whose job it was to plug the leaks with rubber wrapping, pieces of neoprene, and variably-shaped wooden wedges.

US Coast Guard setting up the pump

US Coast Guard setting up the pump

Using wedges to fill a pump

Using wedges to fill a pump



Later that day, we took our only test – unwrap and don our immersion (or survival, or gumby) suits within 60-seconds, which required multiple rounds of practice. The hardest part was doing anything that required fine motor skills (like zipping up the suit) with your fingers in a giant inflexible glove/ mitten. Some of us also tried the 60-s test in darkness, which was a whole other challenge. Although I wasn’t the suit’s biggest fan during the training, I came to appreciate it when we entered the water in our suits the next day (really toasty and kept me dry!), and understood how important it would be in the case of an actual sea emergency.

Me in my immersion suit

Donning my trendy suit

Later in the day we put out some fires (set on a grill), learning to work in a team and stay low to the ground, and tested some expired signal flares, one of which lit up the sky with orange smoke.

Jessica and I putting out a dangerous fire

Jessica and I putting out a dangerous fire

Handheld flares

Handheld flares

Orange smoke flare

Effective orange smoke flare

The following day, we had some role-playing drills, one person in each group being selected to fall overboard, while the other teammates worked on communicating with the Captain, Coast Guard, and each other to make sure the person was safely rescued. A second drill started out with a fire (which was hidden somewhere, represented by a glowstick, and simulated with a smoke machine), and quickly escalated into an abandon ship procedure. We had to grab the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, which is one of the most important pieces of equipment during an emergency, sending a signal to the Coast Guard alerting them of its position), a box of signal flares, and deploy the life raft, then hop into a demonstration raft.

The gap between the ship and water was substantial – but somehow everyone succeeded! Unfortunately, I lost both my team’s EPIRB and flares when I turned my back on them to get into my survival suit and a “rogue wave” (aka Dan, one of our instructors) swept them away. Both our teams got Bs for the day, but we did successfully get off the ship and “survive”!



Graceful leap into the life raft

Jessica’s graceful leap into the life raft

Dan, the rogue wave, holding the EPIRB and flares

Dan, the rogue wave, holding the EPIRB and flares

After the demo, we went into the water in our suits, and practiced our safety positions (in case we were being located by helicopter or other boats), and each practiced overturning the life raft in case it deployed incorrectly.

On the final day, we had biological training. We learned about the high-tech equipment we would use out at sea (magnetic strips would send the lengths of the fish to a computer, instead of us having to read and manually record each measurement), the giant multi-ton hauls we would potentially recover (which could supposedly include anything from military and medical waste to fully packed suitcases to sheep and cats), the species we would likely observe (rockfish, chimaeras, skates, urchins, flatfish, sea stars, squid), and then practiced sorting, sexing, and taking otoliths out of a sample of a discarded haul.

Special scale

High-tech fish scale

Fish about to be sorted

Fish about to be sorted

After a long 3 days, we enjoyed some fresh seafood with some fellow scientist-survivors and said goodbye to the beach, knowing that this was only a gentle preview for what was to come in the open ocean. Jessica is currently at sea, traveling in Washington and Oregon, and I won’t be deploying until October – hopefully these survival skills will stick until then!


The Success of Open House 2014

May 10, 2014 by

By Melissa Nehmens PSRC

This past weekend, Moss Landing Marine Labs opened our doors and welcomed everyone to our annual Open House event. For those of you new to Moss Landing traditions (as I am as a first year student), it is an event we hold every year in the Spring that is organized by the student body and hosted by the students, faculty, and staff.

We take Open House as an opportunity to share our research in a fun, yet educational way. Just to name a few exciting activities:  the Invertebrate Zoology and Molecular Ecology lab had an invertebrate touch tank where you could see, touch, and learn about all of our interesting local invertebrates.


Graduate students Melinda Wheelock and Emily Schmeltzer, educate visitors about the wonderful world of invertebrates! Photo Credit: Heather Kramp

Graduate students Melinda Wheelock and Emily Schmeltzer, educate visitors about the wonderful world of invertebrates! Photo Credit: Diane Wyse

Read the rest of this entry »

MLML Open House!

April 23, 2014 by

openhouse_fbcover (1)

We know what you have been waiting all year to hear: our Open House is just over a week away!

Every year our facility opens it’s doors and invites the public to come explore with us. This year we are open from 9 to 5 on May 3rd and 4th.  This event is completely free and great for all ages. We welcome you to check out our invertebrate touch tanks, watch our marine themed puppet show, check out our raffle, see the sea lion show, and participate in our other fun activities.

Open House!

Entry Way to MLML. Dive into Open House! 
Photo by: Scott Gabara

If you have been able to attend in previous years, you know that we will even cook for you!  Here is a teaser recipe from last year’s table of baked goods:

Chocolate peanut clusters (gluten free & vegan)

By Jen Raanan

Shopping List:

1 bag chocolate chips (I use dark/semisweet)

1 cup peanut butter

1 large canister dry roasted peanuts (salted or unsalted, depending on your taste. I use salted because my peanut butter is low-sodium.)

1) in a double-boiler, melt chocolate & peanut butter. Don’t get water in the mixture. It ruins the chocolate!

2) Remove mixture from heat and stir in peanuts until they’re completely coated.

3) Spoon mixture into bite-sized or cookie-sized drops onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper

4) Chill in fridge until chocolate sets

5) Clusters can be stored in fridge or freezer



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