Tuesday 1 March 2016

Mojito.... I mean... Puerto Rico!

I seem to have gone on a rampage about lobster blood over my last few posts. I will relieve you of the science with a tale of some exciting sunny marine biology!

As some of you know, as well as my research, I work at Swansea University as a part-time teaching assistant, and last year the university started it’s new Tropical Ecology Field Course, in Puerto Rico. Now, as most of you will not know, over the past year I have been in talks with a university in Mexico about applying (and indeed applying for) a postdoc. I found out in October that I got the funding for the project and I have been planning my departure from Swansea. However, I decided to go out with a bang and volunteered as a member of staff for the field course in Puerto Rico (hard life, I know). My Caribbean Sea-life knowledge wasn’t really up to scratch so I thought this would be an excellent chance to get to grips with what will probably be the next two years of my life. The trip was lead by Dr. Richard Unsworth (seagrass lover extraordinaire) and Nicole Esteban (sea turtle expert) in addition to Dr. Ed Pope (of PhD viva fame), Dr. Ian Horsfall (sea cucumber hugger) and Dr. Penny Neyland (plant fondler…. hang on, what’s she doing there?! Tehe)

So, in the early hours of a cold January morning we set off from Swansea, armed with foldable quadrats, dissection trays and bikinis (all the essentials... ya know). After a 4-hour coach to Heathrow, a flight to Houston Texas (where we may or may not have left the bags on the luggage carousel and Ed may or may not have tried to exit the airport without the students).. another flight to San Juan, and another 3-hour coach we arrived in the little town of La Parguera and our home for the two weeks; Isla Magueyes Field Station. Which by the way, was just a field station, on an island. I was picturing a larger island, with roads and stuff (as were some of the officers at the American immigration apparently, when they tried to get some students to write a street address.. another story!)… it was paradise.

There were a few iguanas.

Luckily, Rich and Nicole had been there for a few days already getting everything ready for our grand arrival (oh yeah, did I mention we were bringing 22 students as well?). We had a briefing in the classroom followed by an introductory snorkel. Although at the time not everybody was up for it, this was probably the best idea - we had been travelling all night and most of us were zombies but if left to our own devices we would have just slept and jet-lag would have ruled!

The first ‘official’ day was snorkelling practise from the various wharfs and docks around the island, with a fish measurement and biomass estimation activity, whereby we set out a line of wooden fish (lovingly transported by students last year) which we knew the size of, and the students had up to 3 tries to improve their guesses. This is really important for things like AGRRA surveys where you can use the length of a specific species to estimate it’s biomass using info freely available on FishBase. Other activities were fish ID (self explanatory), fish behaviour (trying to follow a fish for a few minutes is HARD), fish species and fish abundance, where students experienced the difficulty in estimating fish abundance underwater. 

Day three involved boat based snorkelling… now here let me introduce you to something essential that we all loved to hate. An SMB, or surface marker buoy... is, as the name suggests.. a buoy which marks the surface where a diver/snorkeller is underneath the water. In a tourist hotspot like Isla Magueyes and around, these were essential for safety.. but sometimes.. they got in the way. Now, not naming any names… but I’m pretty sure that we didn’t end the week with all the SMBs we started with (I’m looking at you, Jack.. Elizabeth…). Having an SMB entangle itself around your neck/snorkel/weight-belt, let me tell you, is not a nice experience... but neither is Richards face when you have to tell him you tried to tie one to a rock then lost it! Anyway, SMBs aside.. today we used the carefully re-assembled quadrats to look at percentage cover of corals, sponges, algae, seagrass (because nope, they are not the same thing) plus the invertebrates on the seabed.. in both the day and the night (spooky!!). This activity essentially taught me how bad my coral ID skills were but hey! I had another week to improve. And to play with the territorial damselfish... 

The next couple of days were based on teaching and learning AGRRA. AGRRA, or to use it’s full name; Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment is a technique used to assess coral reef benthos. This includes understanding how to assess coral reef health, and for our students, to assess coral reef health of reefs in Puerto Rico by examining how the biota of healthy reefs changes as they become degraded. There is also a technique for assessing coral reef fish assemblages, which applies the knowledge of reef fish we developed on day 1 to assess coral reef fish communities in Puerto Rico. Again, we used it to examine how the fish communities of healthy reefs change as they become degraded. Now obviously, our surveys were small, but when used for research projects, these techniques are widely comparable and are used by scientists in Universities, Government and NGO’s for assessing coral reef health in Caribbean and Pacific.
Early morning commute to the sampling sites. Life is hard.

Even though it was a marine ecology field course, a super important part of tropical marine ecosystems are mangroves. So, under the supervision of our resident plant lover Penny, we headed out to Laguna Monsio José to learn about these fascinating ecosystems.. because yes, although a mangrove tree is a plant, the forests mangroves form are among the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on Earth. As described in this great NatGeo article.. “birds roost in the canopy, shellfish attach themselves to the roots, and snakes and crocodiles come to hunt. Mangroves provide nursery grounds for fish; a food source for monkeys, deer, tree-climbing crabs, and a nectar source for bats and honeybees”. As well as squelching through the mangrove mud, we snorkelled through the roots to check out diversity of fish that live there... maybe plants are pretty cool after all.

The students also learnt how to seine net.. and this was an interesting one. As marine biologists, they are lucky in the fact that they have already taken part in a field course in the UK (at the Field Centre in Orielton) so are familiar with netted species back home.. so here we did it at night and in the morning. Both of which I missed as I was asleep very busy science-ing. 

Now.. we also did a lionfish dissection. In the Caribbean, the lionfish (Pterois volitans) is invasive. That means, it's not supposed to be there. Native to the Indian Ocean, Southern and Western Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea, it is speculated that they were introduced to the Atlantic when released by "retired" aquarium enthusiasts. Luckily, cold water temperatures are keeping numbers at bay in the north, but this is not the case in the south where lionfish are spreading rapidly through the South Florida coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. But so what? They are just fish right? Wrong. Lionfish are are voracious predators and non-selective feeders, with virtually no natural enemies due to their toxic spines. Studies have shown that a single lionfish can reduce juvenile fish populations by 79% in just 5 weeks. Wow.

We found some pretty cool stuff in our lion fish stomachs... including a mantis shrimp!!

Mantis shrimp! Fresh from a lionfish tummy
My favourite day by far had to be the seagrass sampling.  SeagrassWatch is the internationally recognised method for assessing seagrass meadows. It allows scientists to examine the differences between healthy and degraded seagrass meadows and our students were able to help establish a long-term seagrass monitoring site in Puerto Rico! If you are a marine scientist that is interested in taking part.. check out the manual here

Seagrass are important; like mangroves, they support whole ecosystems. The habitat complexity within seagrass meadows enhances the diversity and abundance of animals. Seagrasses on reef flats and near estuaries are also nutrient sinks, buffering or filtering nutrient and chemical inputs to the marine environment.... They also stabilise coastal sediments. Most important of all, they are a nursery for all sorts of reef critters... including my buddy, the spiny lobster. Below is a video of me doing what I do best, harassing a couple.

The last few days were reserved for the students to undertake their very own 'mini research projects'. These 5 projects ranged from tarpon behaviour... to abiotic driver of benthic composition, the latter of which I was lucky enough to take part in! 

Overall, a great week was had by all. I can say that although I went as a member of staff, I was constantly learning and I feel safe in the knowledge that I now know my squirrelfish from my angelfish. A must, if you plan on undertaking a postdoc in the Caribbean... (but more of that in my next post!)