August 13, 2010

Shallow waters, deep data

Assistant Professor of Biology, Queens College and The Graduate Center

On Moorea, we’re finding sea creatures in the strangest places.

For the last few days we have been snorkeling near docks, pilings and sea walls, collecting colonial animals and then processing these collections in the lab. Yesterday we collected in an area adjacent to an abandoned beachside hotel. There was an old broken dock over a sandy area, and the hotel itself gave us a nice scene out of a dystopian J.G. Ballard novel: a defunct concrete swimming pool with pate tiles broken up by tropical vegetation in full bloom and roots intermixing with the shards of broken glass. Check-in was free and nobody was around to ask us what we wanted from the poolside bar.

Later we collected at a very active marina in the town of Papetoai on the northwest coast of Moorea. This place was a treasure trove for finding creatures that like to literally hang out on tires and sea walls. We spent several hours underwater with our knives and bags in hand scraping off colonial ascidians, sponges, and bryozoans, as well as a giant oyster that we think had 20 or 30 species living on its shell (picture below; check out the scale size in the bottom right).

For every hour in the water we are spending two hours in the lab, so before lunch we headed back to the research station for an afternoon of work. Here we recorded locations, times, dates, identifier numbers. We took digital photographs of every  specimen we collected that day, followed by sub-sampling each animal for DNA extraction and sequencing. All told, we processed more than 80 different species of animals, and we suspect that several of them are non-native and not yet recorded in the Moorea DNA Biocode database. We will repeat this kind of sampling at different distances from the main port on eastern Moorea to quantify colonial animal biodiversity and their suspected conduits of invasion, ballast water from cargo boats.

Today we will head for collecting spots on the western portion of the island followed by another full afternoon of processing in the lab. We’ll get back to you in a few days, toward the end of our collecting expedition, hopefully with a full data set in hand.

The Hickerlab crew hit the surf for invasive species

Hitting the surf in search of invasive species.

The giant oyster with uninvited guests
The giant oyster overtaken by uninvited guests

J.T. and Francois inspecting the encrusted tire

J.T. and Francois inspecting the encrusted tire
Prof. Mike Hickerson (standing) and Chris Ludvik examine the findings
Prof. Mike Hickerson (standing) examines the treasure with Chris Ludvik