Friday, April 18, 2014

Diving on the Reef and Dancing on the Roof

I joined the Childress Lab spring semester 2014 as a volunteer laboratory technician.  At the time, I was about eight months into my gap year from graduating the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a B.S. in Marine Biology and Environmental Science and a minor in chemistry. Needless to say I was a tad burned out by the end of my senior year of undergrad so I chose to take a year off for myself before pursuing graduate school. At the start of my year, I contacted and applied to graduate schools and obtained a short-termed scientific diving job. However, eight months out, I was living at home, and was in need of something to preoccupy my day with so I linked up with a local dive shop to increase my diving experience. It was that one step that changed the rest of my gap year for the better.  Through SCUBA, I met Kylie Smith, an open water SCUBA instructor and a master’s degree student at Clemson University studying ecological dynamics between parrotfish, corals, and macroalgae in the middle Florida Keys. After speaking with her for a while and meeting with Dr. Childress, I officially became part of the lab. I was willing and ready to take on anything they asked of me because it meant that I was staying involved with a lab and being a science-nerd, it also meant I was having fun. I spent a good part of my time in front of a computer analyzing images taken in the field and estimating coral area, perimeter, and macroalgae abundance to better understand what was happening to the corals Kylie and her previous research team transplanted on the reefs.  

In March, I was finally able to see first hand what the reef environment in all of the photographs truly looked liked by traveling to the Keys to help with Kylie’s research. Since I was the newbie, I carefully observed and assisted when I needed to and learned to identify the various parrotfish species that reside on the reefs. Although we had a few misfortunes (spun propeller, crazy winds, huge waves, and Portuguese Man-O-War) that prevented us from visiting all of the sites; even on the worst day, I couldn’t help but to smile and enjoy my time there. Nothing beats being out on the water with a great team of people.

From the Keys, we drove to Jacksonville, FL to attend the 2014 Benthic Ecology Meeting (BEM). From my research experience as an undergraduate I heard how great of an opportunity the BEM was so I was honored and thrilled to be attending with the Clemson/Childress crew. I conversed with several members of the marine science community, presented a poster on the coral transplant data, and listened to various research focused oral presentations. The last day of the conference was very entertaining as we were able to tour the Science and History Museum in downtown Jacksonville, mingle, and enjoy dinner and dancing on the roof of the museum.

When we returned to Clemson, I was asked what my favorite part of the trip was…my reply: “Diving on the reef and dancing on the roof.” However, in all honesty my favorite part was everything. My opportunities in the lab have not only allowed me to stay busy and have fun with marine biology, it has allowed me to enhance my lab, field, and diving skills as well as make friends with a great group of people. Although, I am not sure where I will be by the end of this year, be it as close as attending graduate school in Charleston or as far as New Zealand, I will always be able to look back on my experience in the Childress lab and smile. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Spring Semester Adventures

This semester has been an incredibly busy and productive one for the Childress lab! We started out presenting four posters at the Clemson University Biological Sciences Annual Student Symposium. We had a poster that examined the relationships between macroalgae, parrotfish and coral in the middle Florida Keys and one that looked at the dietary preferences of the parrotfish species in on the reefs in the Keys. We also had a team present a poster on the denning behaviors of juvenile spiny lobsters and the population structure and adaptations of the Hawaiian stream goby. Each of our presenters did a great job. Congratulations to Sarah Hoffmann for winning third place for best undergraduate poster!
This semester, we conducted our first spring monitoring trip in the Florida Keys during spring break! We were excited to see several of our cages still in place and coral transplants still doing well. The parrotfish were still as abundant as ever and continued grazing during observations. I am looking forward to spending another summer in the Keys.

After a week in the Florida Keys, we headed north to Jacksonville for the annual Benthic Ecology Meeting. We were so proud to represent the Childress lab with three poster presentations and three oral presentations. These included oral presentatio
ns by Seniors Sarah Hoffmann and Brandt Quirk-Royal, a first for the Childress lab!
Back in Clemson, our lab presented four posters at the Focus on Creative Inquiry Poster Forum on April 3rd. Each poster was judged by faculty and graduate students on objectives, clarity of the project and results, and overall presentation. Congratulations to Brandt Quirk-Royal for winning first place out of 140 posters!

This semester, our Creative Inquiry will be graduating four senior students. Their contribution to our lab and family has been monumental and we are so proud to see them continue on. Katie Cunningham will be attending dental school at the Medical University of South Carolina this summer in Charleston. Sarah Hoffmann will be moving to Boca Raton where she will be attending graduate school at Florida Atlantic University, where she will be studying lionfish. Brandt Quirk-Royal will be heading to North Carolina to work with the Bald Head Island Conservancy with their sea turtle protection program. Julianna Ellis is currently in the interviewing process with Disney to work in the Nemo and Friends Exhibit with the dolphins and manatees.
Congratulations to all of our graduates! Good luck with your future endeavors and keep in touch!
This summer we will also be welcoming four new students to the Creative Inquiry team: Kelan Drake-Lavelle, Daniel Coster, Randi Sims, and Jared Stevens. They will be joining Emily O’Connor and Taylor Burgess in the fall to begin a new year of data analysis and presentations! Welcome!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Our Conservation of Marine Resources Creative Inquiry Team created this informational video highlighting student research being conducted in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.  In this first episode of Bottoms Up in the FKNMS Kylie Smith from Clemson University describes her ongoing research project.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Childress Lab Summer 2013

The Childress lab spent this past summer back in the middle Florida Keys. We started the summer out with a new course in Marine Ecology, where 6 undergraduate students from Clemson made the long drive to the Keys while towing our 18’ Parker. Each day in the field the class set out on the water to learn about a new ecosystem.

We started out with a snorkeling journey through the mangroves where we identified algae, sponges, fish, and other organisms. We also did plankton tows from the Everglades National Park in the Florida Bay across to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way we took water samples, visibility information and substrate composition data. From the data collected, we tracked changes in water quality, plankton abundance and substrate composition over several miles.
During this course, the undergraduate students picked a topic to study as an independent project. Sarah and Katherine decide to study the distribution of queen conch off Indian Key State Park. With the help of the class, they set up transects in the water and marked the location of each conch. They also noted the substrate composition near each conch. Their results showed that conch distribution is best predicted by the presence of other conch.
While snorkeling off Indian Key, I looked out of the corner of my eye and saw a large, dark object coming towards me. Panic filled me as I thought of bull sharks but once I focused, my fear became joy as the manatee swam past me. The animal glided past not being slowed by the presence of observers. 

For the next project we rented kayaks from the Long Key State Park and paddled our way around Long Key Lake. We stopped at different stations to take water quality data and estimate the abundance of upside down jellyfish at each station. Teams of two paddled their way down a 25 M transect line, attempting to keep the kayak straight. Rachel and Justyn found that upside down jelly fish distribution can be predicted by higher salinity and lower pH.

The third project for the Marine Ecology class was studying lobster behavior in a salinity gradient. Juvenile lobsters collected from sites in Florida Bay were used to determine the salinity preferences and tolerances of the Caribbean spiny lobsters. Kelsey and Alex found that juvenile lobsters preferred the higher salinity water no matter the gender or presence of another lobster.
During the Marine Ecology class we found time to play hard as well as work hard. We took a day off the water and toured the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. We learned about how they take turtles in, provide treatment and homes for them, and how they release the turtles back to the wild.  After the tour, we headed to Key West to show the class members the Key West aquarium, historic restaurants, and even stopped at Margaritaville for dinner. At sunset, we made our way to Mallory Square to watch street performers, a Key West tradition.

We wrapped up the Marine Ecology course by celebrating with another Keys tradition, the Full Moon Party at Morada Bay. Great food, music and dancers filled the evening followed by fireworks. At the end of June, the Marine Ecology course traveled back to Clemson with Dr. Childress. I stayed behind with two undergrad assistants, Brandt and Sarah, to conduct my own research.
This summer marked the second field season for a new project in the Childress Lab. We are observing parrotfish grazing behavior to study their impacts on coral species in the Florida Keys. We started the month of July off by conducting surveys of patch reefs to collect data on parrotfish abundance, parrotfish behavior, and substrate composition. Each reef was swarming with colorful reef fish, barracuda, turtles, and even sharks. Brandt and even saw a pod of dolphins swim past. Every day we got in the water, we never knew what we would see.

Just like the Marine Ecology class, not every day was all work. We headed to Key West for a day of fun diving, sightseeing and shopping! We also took a day to visit The Theatre of the Sea to watch the dolphin and sea lion shows.

In July, Dr. Childress came back to the Keys to help us install cages on the reef. These cages will allow us to monitor the impacts of parrotfish grazing on specific coral fragments that we transplanted. They will also allow us to monitor the impacts of macroalgae competition on coral growth. Every day we loaded the boat down with cages, diving equipment, and hammers to install the cages. Dr. Childress hammered in four rebar stakes for each cage and I affixed the coral fragments to the reef. Brandt and Sarah, an extremely helpful part of our team, came behind to install the cages made of vexar mesh and PVC pipe to the rebar. We photographed the corals once they were installed in the cages to monitor the condition of each fragment. It is our hope to visit the cages in October to collect additional data.
The summer was an incredibly productive field season and I owe it to the many assistants that helped. The members of the Childress lab and Marine Ecology course were an incredible asset in the field helping to collect algae, build cages, swim cages to divers, install the cages, and many other tasks.  We look forward to returning back to the Keys in October. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

After a week of checking our field site, our first batch of lobsters is no where to be found! Although none of our experimental lobsters were located, we did have three resident lobsters stay on the site for the entire week. We tracked each resident lobster by a unique color combination of antennae tags. We also determined the sex and carapace length of each resident lobster.

Today we released our second batch of lobsters at a new site. Our second site contains no artificial shelters unlike our first site (which contained artificial shelters). We will continue to monitor our first site along with our second site. It is important to continue checking our first site in case our experimental lobsters return. This will help us determine whether we should check sites for more than one week after an experimental release.

Monday, May 23, 2011

As promised here are some pictures of our first site release. The first step was to catch all the lobsters out of our mesocosm using hand nets and tickle sticks. The tickle sticks are a great tool that we use to help walk our lobsters into our nets.

Then, the lobsters were loaded into a cooler and placed on the Parker. We drove out to our first experimental site, which was where we set up our transect the previous day. Each lobster was removed from the boat and gently placed into or near a shelter. Both artificial and natural shelters were used. To observe the denning behavior and dispersal of resident lobsters, we also tagged lobsters that were already on the site. These were lobsters that were not used previously in our experiment, but happened to be utilizing shelters within our site. During the next week, we will be checking the site daily to see where our lobsters are!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Field Release Tomorrow!

For the past week, we have been examining the denning behavior of 20 spiny lobsters in an enclosed area (mesocosm) that contains ten artificial shelters. Each morning, we snorkeled the mesocosm and recorded where the animals are. We can tell each animal apart because they have a unique combination of colored antennae tags. After four days, we reduced the number of artificial shelters in the mesocosm to five to examine whether habitat loss will result in a change in denning behavior.

Now that we know the dominance status of each individual and have examined their denning behavior in an enclosed area, we are ready for the final stage of our experiment. Tomorrow we will be releasing our first set of 20 spiny lobsters onto a field site to examine their denning behavior and dispersal in the natural environment. To prepare for our first release, we placed weighted transect lines along our sites. Using transect lines allows us to locate specific structures and to easily navigate our sites. Some great pictures of this process will be posted soon!