Friday, October 31, 2014

So you don't think it's all smurfs and raisins

Yeah, I have a great job.

But sometimes, you gotta admit sitting warm and cozy in an office might be preferable.  Especially at the tail end of a nor'easter, with gusty winds, cool temperatures, drizzle, and gloomy skies.  On a day when the tide is particularly low, so collecting for class specimens is on the agenda.

Nothing to do but put on the foul weather gear, grab a bucket, and stop whining!

It wasn't all that bad in all these layers.  There's no bad weather, just bad clothes.

I walked along the shore from Dick's Lobster to Potts Point.

Talk about grey . . .

. . . but beautiful.

No one hides from me!  I see you.

Ha!  A tiny little dogwhelk.  There were tons of them, probably freshly hatched.

Now that's some beautiful seaweed.

And the sun tried it's hardest to cooperate!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Just One More Moment of Summer (Holbrooks)

It's been pretty warm in Maine, even during most of October.  Still shorts weather, still sitting on the porch eating dinner weather, still walking on the beach weather.  It's spectacular -- crystal clear air, warm sunshine, and not too many tourists.  But there are hints of what's to come.  The leaves start to turn; just a little at first.  The days grow shorter, with sunset arriving earlier and earlier.  And eventually, there's a hint of frost on the leaves in the early morning.  Summer ends, fall begins, and Mainers start to think about finding the snow shovels, maybe buying a new pair of boots, and breaking out the skis and snow shoes.

An ocean lover knows winter isn't a kind season for exploring beaches and tidepools.  I still have plenty of collecting to do for this semester's marine bio class, but I know soon it'll get too cold to reach a hand into the Gulf of Maine with anything but a grimace, and eventually the trails down to the water will ice over.  So I have to make the most of every moment in the fall -- hit one more beach; drive to one more lighthouse; lie on more dock and gaze over the edge to see who's living on the piers. 

One of the things I feel driven to do in fall is stuff all the lobster rolls I can into my face sample just a few more lobster rolls before the seasonal shacks close down.  Many of the best spots for seafood in Maine are only open in the warm months, so it's important to get your fill of rolls before these shacks close for the season.  One of my favorites is pretty close to home, and luckily, it's right on the way to some of my best collecting spots.  Why not kill two birds with one stone, and stop for a lobster roll on the way to my field work?

HOLBROOKS:  I love Holbrooks.  Tucked up at the end of Cundy's Harbor, you can't get more Maine than this.  Lobster boats?  Check.  Beaten up working pickups?  Check.  Old Maine homes built too close to a twisty-turny road?  Check.  Spectacular sunsets, and foggy days, and the smell of bait?  Check.

We're lucky we still have Holbrooks.  Like so much of Maine's working waterfront, it was threatened by private development back in 2005.  What had for years been a spot devoted to commercial fishing was up for sale, and everybody feared it would turn into a private home, or worse yet -- condos.  So a group of local residents formed the Holbrook Community Foundation; raised money, bought the place, and today is devoted to keeping the coast clear for local fishermen and tourists.  Their snack bar, located on the wharf, is found at one of the prettiest spots in the country, and lobster has never tasted so good.

GETTING THERE:  From US1 in Brunswick, take Rt 24 south and go 5 1/2 miles south.  Turn left onto Cundy's Harbor Road, and go 4 1/2 miles; Holbrooks will be on the left.  BYOB, or better yet, support the local economy by getting a bottle of wine at the General Store just in front of the snack bar.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Searching for Ciona (see-o-na)

Ciona intestinalis; note the two "siphons" that the animal uses for filter feeding.
Ciona intestinalis is probably never going to be the star of its own Nat Geo special.  Charismatic it is not; nor is it megafauna.  But this small tunicate (or sea squirt) is a major player in the Gulf of Maine, and believe it or not is our kissing cousin.

Both my marine bio and my friend Beth Richard's developmental bio labs are interested in Ciona.  Tunicates (which include the sea squirts as well as colonial tunicates) are urochordates -- somewhat similar to the chordates (the group we belong to, along with birds, reptiles, fish, and other mammals).  Chordates have several features in common because we all evolved from a common ancestor.  Some of the characteristics we have in common are a notochord during development (a rod-like structure akin to our backbone); a nerve chord; pharygeal slits (in tunicates, these are used for filter feeding; in humans, these have evolved to become part of our faces and other parts of our anatomy); and a post-anal tail (we've lost ours, but still have a "tailbone").

The similarity of tunicates -- which really look pretty blobby compared to us -- is most apparent in its larval form. Beth searches out tunicates so her students can observe the eggs, sperm, and if they're lucky, fertilized eggs and the larval "tadpole" form.  I've only seen this form once, by chance, and let out a whoop that probably confirmed my students' suspicion that I'm a bit nuts.  So I was more than happy to go out collecting with Beth, in exchange for getting to spend some time checking out the eggs, sperm, and maybe larvae.

How do you collect Ciona?  Well, they grow all over docks, so we headed out looking for a likely spot.  First it was off to Dolphin Marina, where we had a lot of luck finding colonial tunicates -- mostly invasive species that smother whatever their larvae land on.  It's hard not to feel bad for that kelp!

Then we hit a lobsterman's dock, where we had terrific luck.  Beth scooped up a "hunk of junk" as I like to call it, and we'd hit the jackpot.  Take a look at all the amazing organisms attached to the side of docks next time you head to the shore -- you might find some Ciona, and you can impress your friends by telling them the blobs are just your kissin' cousin!

Beth, sneaking up on tunicates.
Searching, or napping?  You be the judge.
A "hunk of junk".
Colonial tunicates of several species.  Poor kelp.
More of the blob.
Ciona intestinalis.
The side of the dock at Dolphin Marina.  Interesting hydroids, mussels, anemones, and tunicates.
A wonderland!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mudflat Moon Snail Mania

No lab is anticipated more than the mudflats lab I lead each fall.  For some, the anticipation is tinged with dread, as they envision themselves dirty and cold and wet, pulling up unrecognizable worms.  For others, it's all an adventure to be enjoyed.  For me, it's the best lab of the season -- one where we always encounter new habitats and organisms.  This is when my appreciation of a student increases exponentially when I see her kneeling in the mud, quietly picking through the algae looking for organisms.  When we are children again, turning over rocks and digging up thick muck.  Squealing with delight over our finds.  And yes, getting dirty.  For some people, really dirty.  You can't explore a mudflat without falling over once in a while.

I give two excellent prizes for this lab:  One for the muddiest person,  one for the person who finds the coolest thing.  This year we had two candidates for muddiest person, but making the choice for coolest find will be tough -- in that we found more moon snails than we've ever found, and many other amazing things -- rock gunnels, tiny sipunculids (peanut worms!), nemertians (ferocious wrom predators), crabs the color of shells, etc. etc.  It'll be a tough decision . . . .

I could go with the obvious choice, moon snails.  They are my favorite.  But there were so many of them -- exponentially more than any other trip -- that is seems difficult to say they are particularly rare this year.  How many did we find?  This many:

I love hearing a student say "What's this?  OH MY GOSH IT'S HUGE!"

Steve Dudgeon came along and shared his considerable knowledge.

Passing one around to amaze ourselves.

This is an odd place to find two -- count 'em two -- moon snails.  Rocks?  Odd.

Brave student!

Look at that foot!

A little one!

Our cup runneth over.

She's thinking "What the . . . ?"

This is more commonly where I find them!

Sarah Kingston found this hard-shell clam with a drill hole from a moon snail!

Well, after all those moon snails, everything else might just be icing on the cake.  But really, all this stuff is amazing in and of itself.  Take a look:

Green crabs in the most beautiful shell hash colors.  What camouflage!

Loads of Mercenaria!  Quahogs or hard shell clams.

I do love a rock gunnel!

Two is even better!

Whoa!  Lady Asian shorecrab.

Peanut worms.  A big one and a baby.  Don't you dare say "ew".

Annie's not freaked out.  Why should you be?
All this bounty wasn't easily won.  We got a little stuck in the mud.  That's half the fun.

Boot stuck?  Pull it out with your hands!

Oh, I hate it when they fall.  I know what it's like.

This is why the mudflats are poorly studied.

Using a bucket for help.  Smart.

Oh, this is a serious case of mud.  Annie's in the running for a prize!
I have to thank my wonderful students letting me drag them along on my adventures.  They think I'm doing it for them!  Ha.  Seriously, they pay me for this?

Monday, October 6, 2014

What could possibly be better than this?

Yesterday, I dragged Damon to Freeport to do a little shopping.  It couldn't be helped.  There is a wedding to attend later this month, and even an Ocean Lover wants her guy to look sharp.  So we dragged the dog along, found a parking spot in the garage under the Bean outlet (lest Dory get too hot), and fought our way through the leaf-peeping shoppers to the fitting rooms.  It all worked out just fine, as Damon found two really nice pairs of LL's pants that cost a grand total of $3.76 (yes, you read that right).  What could be better than that?

Well, maybe a waterfront lunch at Piney Point.  What could be better than that?

An exploration of the dinghies next to the restaurant.  What could be better than that?

Going barefoot -- in October.  What could be better than that?

How about a big, wide, flat beach.  What could be better than that?

A dog-friendly beach?  Is this what the big deal is all about?  Nope, it gets even better.

Everything was just a prelude to a nerd's paradise: BABY MOON SNAILS. Nothing could be better than that.  Nothing.

I've written about big mamma moon snails.  They're rather extraordinary.  But never have I seen babies, and yesterday I saw not a few -- I saw hundreds.  Old Orchard Beach was rotten with them.  And they're so stinkin' cute!  With their little con-trails they leave behind, and their tiny feet bulldozing through the soft sand, and their exquisite little shells.  I mean really, what's a girl to do?

Ain't life grand?