The hard truth

6 02 2012

I’ll be honest: the month of January was one of those times when doing science seemed hard. To finish my Sapelo project, I had to analyze data (lots of math – not always my favorite thing), write papers to convince people my ideas made sense (usually when I start writing about my ideas is when they make the least sense of all), and stand up and talk to everyone about my research, knees knocking and hands shaking…presenting always makes me nervous. And then, when all that was behind me, instead of pulling the covers over my head and sleeping for 3 days like I wanted to, I had to come up with new ideas for the next project coming up (and often new ideas are the hardest part). GEEEEeeeezz. Maybe later I’ll write more about those challenges and how I try to deal with them, because you might face some of the same things with your own class projects. But right now I want to bring you up to date on how the Sapelo research finished up, so I don’t leave that story hanging…


Edison's light bulb didn't work the 1st time... or the 2nd... or the 999th.

First of all, I need to admit that a lot of our work TOTALLY FAILED. Fortunately, failure is an indispensible part of science. Even some very smart, successful people have admitted this. Einstein said something like, “You never failure until you stop trying” and – I love this one – after thousands of failed attempts at building a light bulb Edison said, “I haven’t failed; I’ve just found 10000 ways that don’t work.” The point is if you’re trying you’re not failing, even if things don’t turn out like you hoped. Ben succeeded at finding a few ways that don’t work when you’re trying to map crab burrows; Kaitlin learned how not to compare a salt marsh to a field of soybeans; Ali perfected a couple techniques that don’t get accurate measurements of snails; and I was a master of how to get completely wrong estimates of salt in the soil. I can’t pretend that’s not discouraging—but if you learn from it, things turn out OK. So, in spite of ourselves, here are some things we discovered:

     + Snails can avoid getting eaten by crabs if they get far away from the water, because when the crabs “ride the tide” into the marsh, they munch on the snails closest to the bank and pay less attention to the ones at the back of the marsh

    + The snails that survive close to the water (somehow not getting eaten by crabs) are actually shaped differently than the ones far away (but we don’t really know why)

    + Mussels get fatter (and when you’re an animal, that’s a good thing) when they live together than when they live alone

    + If a plant in the marsh has stem boring insects living inside it (remember those?) then it is more likely to get eaten by snails, maybe because it’s easier for snails to farm fungus on plants that are already stressed out

There were lots of other researchers on Sapelo too, who (just like our group) made a bunch of mistakes but learned some cool things along the way. This experience reminded me that when people talk very seriously about “The Scientific Method,” that makes it sound like something you have to get right the first time…like if you don’t know what you’re doing and you might screw things up, then you better not get anywhere near it. But I’ve finally learned that’s not true! It’s a process after all. Succeeding is not the important thing; what matters is getting started and sticking with it even through the hard parts.


Some lessons learned

12 12 2011
I think I’ve discovered something that’s actually more work than being a graduate student: hosting my family for the holidays. For starters, I invited everyone to my house in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving, cooked a big meal, and turned myself into a tour guide for the weekend. It’s taken me the last two weeks to recover. (And Christmas is still coming…yikes). Talking about Thanksgiving reminds me that the holiday before that—Halloween—I was working in the lab on Sapelo Island when my friends came in with rolls of toilet paper and made me an on-the-spot mummy costume!

I’m getting myself organized again this week, because my Sapelo research has been neglected for too long. Remember: I still have to figure out what the data I collected actually mean. I will update you on that later, but for now I want to tell you about an “interview” I did with other Sapelo researchers to learn about the best and worst moments of their trip to the island, and what important lessons they learned there.

Ali in the lab

Ali measuring snail after snail in the Sapelo lab on a night when the bugs were so bad we had to wear mosquito head nets inside! (This was probably my fault, because my smelly samples of salt marsh grass attracted them)!

First I talked to Ali, who was studying how snails avoid the crabs that want to eat them. Speaking of eating… she admitted that her favorite thing about Sapelo was dinner. And if you had seen some of our meals (homemade, chili, pizza, pastas, fresh-caught seafood) you would understand! If I’m honest, eating is usually one of my favorite research activities too. Working outside is hard! The days can be long, and at the end you’re starving! Aside from missing her chance at a second helping, something that discouraged Ali was finding that most steps of the research process take 5 times as long as you think they will. For example, she had to weigh and measure hundreds of snails in the lab. No big deal, right? BRahhhh hahahh hhahhhaaa! It took forEVVVer. But—another high point!—she said that in the end, when you can actually start looking at your data and seeing some conclusions emerge—it makes all the effort worthwhile. We’re all looking forward to that.

Ben, who was studying crab burrows, said his favorite thing was exploring the island (no surprise there; he’s a natural adventurer). His low point was that some of the measurements he wanted to take on crab burrows just didn’t work, so he had to move on to Plan B…and Plan C… This is a common frustration in research. No matter how great an idea seems, you can’t predict how well it will work until you try it. If you have time to make changes and try your idea again, gradually working the kinks out, the problem solving can be a lot of fun. But our time on Sapelo was too short for much trial-and-error, so if something didn’t work we usually abandoned it and took a new approach.

Kaitlin, like me, was studying snail feeding habits, especially how they farm fungus. As part of her project she wanted to grow fungus to take a closer look at it. She ran into a few unexpected disappointments: first some of the preparation she tried to do before leaving for Sapelo went badly, leaving her without things she needed to grow the fungus; then she thought she would be able to use some important equipment that, it turned out, wasn’t available; so she did her best using what she had, but the fungus just wouldn’t grow so she focused on other things. On the upside, Kaitlin also had a great time exploring Sapelo and especially loved walking the Nature Trail that led from the inner island toward the coast. She loved observing how the plants, animals, and habitats change as you move from the inland forest to the dunes to the ocean. Sapelo is not a big island but (like most places, when you take a closer look) an amazing diversity of organisms make a home there.

After talking through these ups-and-downs we asked ourselves what research lessons we learned from Sapelo. It came down to two key things:

1)    Get prepared! The more prepared you are, the more flexible you can be. If you’re only prepared to do one thing one way, you’re risking total failure if it doesn’t work. But by learning and thinking in advance, you will be more able to create a solution when things go wrong. In research you HAVE to be adaptable, but it’s hard to be adaptable if you aren’t prepared.

2)    Help each other! A group of people is smarter than the “sum of its parts.” At some point each of us benefited from advice, encouragement, a brainstorming partner, or an extra pairs of hand. And helping someone else is an equally great opportunity! You can learn other interesting science stories, see things from a different angle, and get new ideas. We each did our own separate projects, but we definitely didn’t do them alone.

My Sapelo team had this talk around a table by a stone fireplace, on a night when you could feel the winter setting in. Even though we’re back from the beach, there’s a lot of work still to do! Starting now, the highlight of my Sapelo research is the fire and a chance to work with friends on a stormy night.

still at it

What Sapelo research looks like now.

Profiles from the marsh

3 11 2011

By now I’ve said goodbye to the island life, and I’m writing from Wisconsin again. We just got back but I already miss spending my days with the friends I worked with in Georgia. To give you a better idea of who kept me company in the salt marsh I’ve written some character profiles of the main players. Some of them have two legs, some one, some more! It’s been a pleasure being with all of them.

Salt Marsh Periwinkle Snail (Littoraria irrorata)

This little guy is the focus of several research questions for my group. We hang out with the snails all day long while they do their thing on the marsh grass. At first we weren’t sure what their “thing” was … they mostly hide inside their shells, stuck on blades of grass. Boring company! But later we learned that they do most of their crawling and feeding at night! So if you want to party with the snails, you have to stay up late. Why? Not totally sure, but one explanation is that they shelter in their shells when the sun is out and it’s hotter (during the day) so their squishy bodies don’t lose water from evaporation.

Kaitlin – Marsh Grass Ecology & Snail Fungal Farms

Kaitlin and I look so happy because we just managed to get her unstuck from the oozy marsh mud, which is Sapelo's version of quick sand!

There’s a large ongoing study on Sapelo called Long Term Ecological Research (or LTER). Unlike our work—which lasts less than 2 weeks—this project continues for years! We thought it would be funny to call our research group SISTER, which stands for Sapelo Island Short Term Ecological Research, since our project is about as short-term as they come.

So Kaitlin is one of my salt marsh SISTERs. She has traveled the globe to learn about the ecology of agricultural crops. People need to grow crops to eat, but it’s important to understand how farming affects our planet’s organisms and ecosystems. On Sapelo Island the salt marsh is ruled by one kind of plant (the grass I’m always talking about). In that way, it’s similar to an agricultural crop, which is also all the same plant (something we call “monoculture”). She wants to compare places in the marsh that have only grass, to places that have grass plus other plants to see if there are differences in the number of animals that eat the plants in those areas. Because she’s into farming, it’s not surprising she also likes the snail fungal farming story. Related to that, she wants to know how often and how fast snails move through the marsh? This would give us a clue to how extensive their crops might be, and whether each snail eats the fungus that it farms itself or whether, like most people, it eats food that’s grown by another individual. To figure this out she painted snails with different (s)nail polish colors so she could leave them and recognize them again later. Day after day she can go back to see where the pink snail is, where the red snail is, the green snail, etc. and measure how far each snail traveled…a very easy but effective strategy!

Phil –Snail Predation

Phil is another SISTER, who usually studies plant communities in North Carolina, but on Sapelo he’s interested in snail predation. On one end of our marsh is a saltwater creek that connects to the ocean; it fills to the brim when the tide is high, and drains to a trickle when the tide goes out. (WARNING: because these creeks are saltwater, sometimes sharks swim into them! So you will never find me wading). Like the sharks, snail predators come from the ocean and swim to the marsh in these creeks. Therefore, we expect snail predation and death to be higher close to the creek, and gradually become lower as you move farther away.

To measure predation Phil’s used a classic “tethering experiment.” I’ll come clean: this is creepy. It’s not something we would ever do with more advanced animals, but we know simple organisms like snails don’t experience fear or pain the same way we do. It goes like this: Phil glues snails to pieces of fishing line that are tied to a nail. He then puts a bunch of these (s)nail combos across the marsh. Because the snails are tied—or “tethered”—to the nail they can’t escape predators. So Phil can go back a couple days later and count the number of snails that were missing from each nail to see how much predation happened in that location. Yikes. Snails fear Phil on the salt marsh.

Look closely and you'll see the fishing line that connects each snail to its nail in Phil's predation experiment.

Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus)

These crustaceans get their name from the vibrant blue color of their claws. I think they are beautiful, but they are the villains of the snail world: a vicious predator that invades the marsh by swimming up the creek when the tide comes in, and preys on snails by crushing their shells with its claws. Although these guys are big, they hide well so it was always a fun surprise to see one.

Ben – Crab Burrows

When I said earlier that biologists never really grow up, I had Ben in mind. He has some of the best traits a field scientist can have: childlike curiosity and a tireless sense of adventure. One sign of this is that he’s muddy all the time. He absolutely cannot stop exploring or keep his hands clean. Ben came to Sapelo to study crab burrows. My favorite of Ben’s ideas was to map the shapes of crab burrows by actually pouring liquid plaster into the burrow holes, letting it flow through all the tunnels and rooms of the burrow, then waiting for it to harden and digging it up to reveal a plaster “sculpture” of what the burrow looks like. This ended up being very tricky to do, but we learned that these guys build subterranean mansions! You would never know from the surface how large and complex their shelters are.

On this blue crab claw that washed up on the beach, you can see the brilliant color that gives the crab its name.

This is Ben on the first day -- already his hands are muddy, and it only got worse!

Ali – How Do Snails Avoid Predators?

As another example of her resourcefulness, Ali found her Halloween costume in the marsh: she's wearing a hollow horseshoe crab shell on her head!

In addition to being in graduate school Ali studies lakes for the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources and she has a lot of experience doing research outside. She’s an expert on research tools and techniques and a wizard at improvising when we’re missing a piece of equipment. I actually thought it would be fun to hide all of our stuff (oops! No measuring tape! Can’t find those buckets anywhere… Sharks ate the data sheets!) just to see what ingenious solutions she would come up with. Ali was interested in learning how snails escaped predators…one way they might do this is by predator-avoiding behaviors, like climbing so high on a tall grass stem that crabs can’t reach them. Another way is by having a shell that is very thick or big and hard to crush. A third way could be having a shell color that blends into the background and provides camouflage. Ali wants to see if these traits change in areas where there are more (or fewer) predators, and also see if snails have all of the predator-avoidance traits at the same time, or if just one might be enough.

After concluding our research projects, I asked my colleagues to reflect on some of the best and worst moments of their research trip and tell me what lessons they learned. This turned into a really interesting conversation, and I’ll share that next time.

Unexpected friends?

30 10 2011

Working in the marsh is like being in one of those nightmares where you want to run, and strain and pull to lift your feet, but you can only inch forward in slow motion. The salt marsh grass is rooted in a mud so thick and oozy that you cannot wade through it, let alone walk through it, the only reasonable option is to give up and wallow in it. I’ll admit the wallowing gets frustrating but the marsh is a fascinating place and (generally) a pleasure to work in. So after a day or two of wallowing and exploring, I and my collaborators came up with our plan of attack. We will all work together (5-6 of us, depending on the day) to collect the data each person wanted. Since all of us are interested in very similar things about snails and their role in the food web, overlapping our projects is easy.

A close up of a single periwinkle snail hanging out on marsh grass. During the day they rest in this position, then come out to graze at night. (Photo: Claudio Gratton)

We already know a lot about what snails eat (fungus on marsh grass, remember?) and what eats them (crabs—more about that later). During some exploring on the first day I saw some other invertebrates that also eat marsh grass, but using a very different strategy. These guys are known as “stem borers.” They are actually insect larvae that live inside grass stems and eat the plant from the inside out. Previous Sapelo researchers think these stem borers may prefer to live in stems of grass that have already been farmed by snails. This sort of thing is called a “facilitative interaction,” which is a way of saying that when the snails do their thing, it helps the stem borers do their thing. It’s an interesting idea because when you think about different animals feeding on the same kind of food, it’s easy to assume that they’re competitors and the presence of one is a disadvantage to the other, but that’s not always the case!

Here’s why: just like animals, plants have ways to avoid being eaten. Because they’re stuck in one place we might assume they’re easy targets, but actually they have lots of adaptations to fend off herbivores – things like tough outer coverings (think bark), spines (think cactus), and chemical defenses that make them taste bad or make the animals that eats them sick. But if a plant gets weakened or stressed, it can’t maintain its defenses and animals will munch it. So perhaps in the salt marsh, snail fungal farming is a stressor that weakens grass and makes it more desirable to other herbivores–like stem borers! Of course we can’t forget about other things that could have the same effect of stressing the plant, like physical factors such as drought or bad soil conditions.

A stem boring insect larva peeks from his tunnel in the grass stem--we had to "dissect" the stem by cutting it lengthwise to reveal the stem borer's hiding place. (Photo: Claudio Gratton)

Because I like to think about how communities of animals affect each other, I’ve decided to start figuring out whether snails and stem borers have this kind of relationship. My goal is to measure how much the grass is getting farmed by snails and also how many stem borers are living in it to see if there are more stem borers in places where there’s more snail activity. At the same time I can look at physical properties of the soil to see how that might be important too.

The genius of teamwork is that I can to link this snail/stem borer data to other things my group is studying.  Not only does collaborating make the work more fun and efficient, but when we put all our data together we’ll be able to answer more questions. The other research happening in my group is very cool, so next I’ll post some stories about my collaborators and the critters they’re studying.

Meet the Sapeloids! This is our whole gang of researchers who traveled from Madison, WI to Sapelo Island. Several of the people in this photo are working with me to study food webs in the salt marsh. (Photo: Pete McIntyre)

Getting ready, staying flexible

24 10 2011

Getting ready for a research trip is one of the most fun and challenging times that field biologists face: lots of excitement and anticipation… lots of work to prepare. That’s what all of us who were headed to Sapelo went through last week. It was a mad dash to figure out what research projects we thought we might do and trying to predict what equipment we would need. We have a group of 21 people, wanting to study everything from fish, to soil, to trees, insects, snails, crabs, in habitats that range from forest, to beach, to salt marsh (where I’ve been hoping to work). No matter how organized we are (and so far, if I’m honest, we’re not that organized) that’s a lot of stuff to pack.

Just a corner of the pile of research equipment and food we transported from Wisconsin to Georgia, and took to Sapelo Island on the ferry boat.

Before leaving, we each came up with an idea of what we might want to study, but we were warned that once we arrived at the site our original plan could change a lot. None of us has seen Sapelo Island before. We’re trying to come up with research ideas “blind,” by reading and talking to experienced people–but when we get there things might actually look completely different than we thought.  In fact, one of the things that the “experienced people” tell us is that, once you get there, it probably won’t be what you expect, so it’s important to be flexible and willing to let things change. If you have a plan, no matter how awesome the idea is, you have to be willing to let it go if it doesn’t actually work. You might realize that the data are too difficult to collect, that you don’t really have the time or tools you need, you can’t find the number of samples necessary for replicates, or the weather isn’t cooperative. That’s just a short list of things that can go wrong, but real failure only happens if you aren’t prepared to adjust, or possibly throw out your plan, after you get a closer look at the challenges!

So last week we stuffed 5 vans with research equipment, food, and ecologists, and made the looooooong drive from Wisconsin to Georgia. We arrived on Sapelo Island over the weekend, hungry and sleep-deprived, but totally excited to get going. We’re starting the trip by (sleeping, eating, and…) exploring, doing preliminary trials, and generally getting our bearings so everyone can start tailoring their research plan: weeding out what doesn’t work, and seeing what new inspiration being in this environment brings. Because the island is beautiful and new to all of us, we love the chance to explore. The field station is buzzing with giddy ecologists running around like kids, clothes covered in mud, animals clutched in their hands or stuffed in their pockets, bursting with stories to tell (in some ways, biologists never really grow up).

Dan, another Sapelo researcher, just found a mummichog...the fish he's hoping to study this week!

During the preliminary checking-things-out phase I’ve been lucky. I’m working with a group of collaborators in the salt marsh, and we’re putting together a workable plan to understand more about snail food web ecology: their food, predators, and possible competitors. This will be a big week, so I’ll make more regular posts to tell you lots about our project and other cool things we encounter on the island!

My first look at the salt marsh! These coastal areas are intimately connected to ocean processes: you can see that it's inundated with tide.


Now for the hard part…

11 10 2011

Last time I told you one of the interesting stories that’s on my mind right now. But even though I found a cool story, that definitely doesn’t mean my work is over. In fact I’m facing one of the biggest challenges that comes along, which is actually turning an idea I like into a research project that I can actually do.

For the last couple weeks I’ve been meeting with other grad students and scientists who are going on this research trip with me. They’ve offered a lot of good advice that I’m trying to use as I write the proposal for my project (which I’m working on this week)!

  • Keep it simple Because I’ll be doing my research on a field trip, we don’t have a lot of time, supplies, or money (actually, this is a challenge that comes up in research all the time). A project will only succeed if it’s simple enough to be done within realistic limits. Something that sounds glamorous can become a total failure if it’s too big or complicated to complete.
  • Work together Doing research in the field can be a ton of fun, but also a lot of work. To increase the fun and decrease the work, I’ve been trying to find creative ways to overlap my study with other researchers. Are we interested in working in the same location or with the same animals? Could we use similar survey techniques? For example, if I can find other people who are interested in studying snails on marsh grasses, we can collect data or samples at the same time, and it will be less work for all of us. It also means that in the end we will know more about what the snails are doing out there, because we can pool all our observations together.
  • Be original, but don’t reinvent the wheel Of course you don’t want to do the same study someone else has done, but that doesn’t mean you need to start from scratch. I’ve been reading other papers from people who did studies in the same place, asking myself things like, “What worked for them and what didn’t?” “What should they have done next?” “How can I answer the questions that they didn’t have time for?” It’s like a relay: picking up where someone left off. What I do will still be new but, in a way, I’ll be doing it with the help of people who have faced the same challenge before.

Sounds like you guys are busy collecting your study organisms – crickets – to get ready for the research project in your classroom. I’m excited to hear more about how it turns out!

Fungus and feces

26 09 2011

What a great combination! (Just stick with me here, and you’ll see). I’ve learned about a cool ecological story starring these two characters (with a snail and some crabs in supporting roles); how could I not be fascinated? Usually the scientific ideas that interest me most start with a good story. Since this one has caught my eye I’ve started thinking about how I could choose some piece of it to study. So here it goes:

First, it might surprise you to learn that humans aren’t the only animals who practice agriculture—in other words, we’re not the only species to grow or breed another species for our own benefit. We cultivate plants and animals for food, clothing and shelter and, in one way or another, have done this for millennia. Although our technology lets us do this more efficiently (and sometime destructively) than any other species, it turns out the behavior of farming is not unique to humans.

Atlantic coastal salt marshes like the one on Sapelo Island are covered with a tall grass called Spartina, and one of the main herbivores that eats the grass is a snail (genus Littoraria). For a long time people have observed these snails foraging on Spartina, but just recently a study showed that rather than just eating the Spartina grass, the snails actually use the grass blades as a surface to “farm” a food they like even better: fungus (yum)! The way they do this is simple. First, they use their rough, sand paper-like tongues to create a “wound” on the surface of the grass blade. Then, when the grass is vulnerable, they defecate in the wound. That serves two purposes. Not only does their poop contain fungal spores that act like seeds to grow new fungus, but it is also full of rich organic fertilizer that helps the fungus grow into lush, mouth-watering fungal beds that the snails will return to for grazing.

Sometimes people plant gardens with things called “seed bombs,” which are a mixture of seeds and soil rolled into balls. Planting them is easy. You just throw them in the garden and the bomb has everything it needs to grow: seeds plus the fertilizer to feed them. So I think of these snail fecal pellets as tiny seeds bombs that they use to plant their nutritious fungal crops.

Littoraria snails grow crops of their favorite fungal food on the Spartina grass that abounds in coastal salt marshes.

Looking for a research idea is pretty overwhelming, and I know that once the project gets started there are times when it will be a lot of hard work. That’s why for me it’s important to start with something that really piques my curiosity…something I think is just cool and memorable…basically a good story (even if it’s not one you want to hear over lunch).