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Nearing the End

Posted by: | September 8, 2009 | 1 Comment |

With only three days left on Lee Stocking Island, it’s hard to believe this summer is already coming to a close.  There are mixed feelings involved as my departure date grows nearer.

On one side, I can hardly wait to board the plane back to my family, my friends, and my  home.  Missing them has been a challenge in and of itself.  Three missed birthdays, a trip to Alaska with the family, and watching my brother play football were a few of the sacrifices I made in coming here.

On the other side,  it will be hard to leave this place.  I will miss the simple lifestyle that comes from being so far from civilization.  I will miss the ocean being just outside my back door.  I will miss the island itself and the brilliant, blue waters that surround it.   This island has become my home.

under: Uncategorized

The Invasion

Posted by: | August 29, 2009 | 3 Comments |

   I had the morning off today and thought it would be a great opportunity to bring you all up to speed on the lionfish invasion. 

     Lionfish were first spotted off the coast of Florida, far from their native range in the Indo Pacific. It is currently under speculation how lionfish were first introduced into the Atlantic, however most agree it was likely due to multiple releases along the Florida coast.  The only documented release of the species was near Biscayne Bay, Florida where a small aquarium was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  Apparently these releases were all that lionfish needed to start a full blown invasion. Within the past 20 years, lionfish have spread as far North as Rhode Island, South to Jamaica, East to Bermuda, and West to the Yucatan Peninsula, now threatening to invade the Gulf of Mexico as well.

     Lionfish are the first marine fish species from the western Pacific to be apparently successful in the Atlantic coastal waters of the United States. Which sparks two big questions:  What is making lionfish so successful in the Atlantic?  And what is controlling them in the Pacific?  These are a couple questions Mark Hixon and his team are trying to answer.   

     Just last year, research conducted by Mark Albins (the grad student I’m working with) and Hixon found that a single lionfish reduced recruitment of native fishes by 79% during a five week span. Native fishes hardly stand a chance against this invasive predator with such a healthy appetite and unique hunting style. Lionfish hunt by herding their prey with their wide, feathered pectorals, trapping fish in front of their enormous mouths.  Not only are lionfish eating a ton, they don’t appear to have any natural predators resulting in a population explosion. 

   What this means for the future of coral reef ecosystems is not yet known, but will likely put significant strain on the already struggling coral reefs.   Understanding the impacts of such an invasion and forming potential strategies to control it are scientists’ primary goals and concerns.

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Live Video Feed

Posted by: | August 29, 2009 | No Comment |

There are two cameras at Lee Stocking Island that are constantly running.  One is a dock cam, the other a reef cam.  You can access these live video feeds and more information about the Perry Institute for Marine Science at www.perryinstitute.org .  The links to the cameras are on the home page.

under: Uncategorized

Working with Mother Nature

Posted by: | August 26, 2009 | No Comment |

When your office is the ocean and your co-workers are wild animals, new challenges present themselves in exciting and unpredictable ways.  No matter how much you plan for the unexpected and prepare for the worst, mother nature never fails to surprise… This is the beauty of fieldwork.

The first challenge of fieldwork is getting there.  Keeping boats running, radios working, and first aid gear on board are a  few ways we try to prepare for the worst.  Inevitably boats will break down, loose steering, or run out of gas.  This can happen right at the dock where it can be quickly attended to or it can happen in the middle of relentless wind and waves where the nearest help is an hour away.

The second challenge of fieldwork is staying there.  Weather is the biggest contributor here.  Most times we are forced to go back to base due to stormy weather.  Either there’s too much wind chop and swell that we can’t anchor or the lightening and rain scare us off.  We are also at the mercy of hurricanes.  Luckily for us, both hurricane Anna and Bill spun off  in different directions, their only impact being a decent swell to body surf on.

The final challenge of field work is designing an experiment that is not only doable, but that actually works. On paper, most experiments look bullet proof.  But put them to action in the field and more often than not something slips through the cracks.  Maybe an animal doesn’t behave like you predicted or keeping a treatment in place is harder to accomplish than expected.  Flexibility and persistence are crucial when designing experiments in the field.

Every day on the ride out to work, I am taken by the beauty that surrounds me and even more amazed that this is where I work.  Sure, fieldwork is challenging, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.

under: Uncategorized

Behavior Study

Posted by: | August 17, 2009 | 5 Comments |

September 5, 2009

Looks like there won’t be enough time to replicate all of my observations. With only five days left on island our main focus is to tie up any loose ends to other experiments. 

The past few days I have been going through all my data, which supports that lionfish are crepuscular.  This means that an animal is primarily active during dawn and dusk. It looks like my data will produce a nice curve that shows lionfish activity throughout the day.  However there is a large gap in my data from late evening until early morning.  This was because we could not take boats out at night to do my observations.  I went on a snorkel just off the dock last night to see if I could get an idea of lionfish activity.  I found most lionfish were out in the open; some swimming about while others just rested on coral and rock, but none were hunting.  This data is not conclusive as I have not done enough night observations, but it would make sense that lionfish do not hunt at night because they are such visual hunters.

  September 1, 2009

Finished my last observation today.  Depending on how much time we have left here, I might try to replicate them all. It will also depend on if tropical storm Erica decides to head our way.

August 29, 2009

Only a day’s worth of observations left!  

 August 23, 2009

The behavioral study is going very smoothly and data is rolling in!  I have made a goal to visit three specific sites, each at first light, late morning, afternoon, and dusk.  My three sites double as sites Mark Albins has been using for his lionfish density experiments. Should my data show any interesting trends, for example that lionfish are eating a specific species more frequently than others, it may be used to support any similar findings in Mark Albins’ research.   

August 17, 2009

For the past week I have been starting the second part of my project: the behavior study.  This study requires almost no supplies; just a slate, pencil, and a lot of time.  The procedure is very straight forward.  I observe all the lionfish on a reef for 10 minutes each, taking notes on everything it does… and I mean EVERYTHING.  Sometimes it’s very interesting to watch, for example counting how many fish a lionfish can eat before actually exploding.  Other times it can be very dull, such that the most exciting thing noted during the entire ten minutes was that a lionfish moved from one part of the rock to another. 

So far, the most interesting observation has been the drastic increase in activity towards the end of the day, usually around 5 o’clock.  Lionfish come pouring out of their holes in a huge wave almost, all with their pectoral fins flared ready to eat the next unsuspecting fish.  My goal is to observe lionfish during all times of the day, from first light until dusk.  The hope is that I will see a trend in activity levels as the day progresses.

under: Uncategorized

Life on an Island

Posted by: | August 13, 2009 | 4 Comments |

The Perry Institute for Marine Science is located on a skinny piece of land just 3 miles long called Lee Stocking Island (LSI). There are no hotels, no stores, no coffee shops.  The nearest civilization is on Great Exuma about a 20 minute boat ride away. 

There are some tricks to living on an island.  Most are challenges you don’t even think about until you’re surrounded by all that water. Here are some random things I’ve noticed and consequently some new habits I’ve developed.

Fine Dining

All food on the island is ordered from SYSCO, a company most school cafeterias order from .  Fresh fruits and vegetables are brought in every couple weeks by boat and non perishables are ordered in bulk at the beginning of the summer.  When I say bulk, I don’t mean your average Costco pack.  I’m talkin enough cereal, maple syrup, and hot sauce to last an entire summer. 

What this means for those of us living on the island:

First, there will always be two choices of cereal: cheerios and rice crispies…ALWAYS. I’ve found that it helps to get creative with your food.  Mixing cereals, adding granola or peanut butter for flavor and crunch, even hot sauce are all good ways to change the same ole thing into something new and exciting.  (To clear things up, I do not put hot sauce on my cereal.  However, I did whitness someone eating a banana doused in hot sauce one morning )

Second, the fake milk will always contain small, round, flubbery chunks at the bottom of every carton.  Avoiding this is simple.  If you notice the milk carton is getting low, simply allow the person behind you to cut in line. Its a win, win.  You look like a nice person and they get to suffer through the flubbery chunks, not you. : D

Lastly, fresh fruit is rare on the island.  Get it while you can; even if it means being overly helpful and nice to the cook.

Sleeping Arrangements

The room I’m staying in is very nice; much bigger than any dorm room.  There are two bunks, one on each side of the room along with a dresser and shelf in the center.  When I first arrived, I was told I had the room all to myself.  However, I later found this wasn’t completely true. 

I currently have three roommates.  The giant moth in the dresser that likes to flutter out on occasion when I forget which drawer he’s hiding in.  The cockroach on my pillow who enjoys tickling my ear while whispering bedtime stories each night. And the gigantic spider, with whom I made a deal:  he gets one half of the room, while I get the other.


When on an island, it is practically guaranteed you are going to run into some repetition.  You see the same people at dinner every night, walk under the same coconut tree on your way to breakfast, almost step on that same lizard living on the third step.  It’s important to break routine now and again, just to keep from going crazy.  Well maybe not crazy, I exaggerate a little.

Playing card games, reading books, and watching every episode of Family Guy have been my main forms of entertainment.  Some days I even resort to making beaded bracelets like I used to in 4th grade.  Whatever it is, finding YOU time after a long day of work is both relaxing and necessary.

I decided to write this post mainly to give a better insight into what island life can really be like.  Some days are challenging being so far away from the people you love.  Missing birthdays, holidays, and other event have been difficult.  After living on this island for 3 months, I think I will have learned to appreciate some of the small things.

under: Uncategorized

One Month…

Posted by: | August 11, 2009 | No Comment |

Exactly one month left here on Lee Stocking Island.  Where has the time gone?

under: Uncategorized

Prey Preference Study

Posted by: | August 3, 2009 | 5 Comments |

September 1, 2009

Finally my fish are hunting again. I think part of my problem was that the lights in the lab were constantly on.  This could have stressed out my fish and might explain their apparent grogginess during the feeding trials.

August 29, 2009

Still having some issues with this experiment. The last two trials were unsuccessful.  One fish gained a bulgy eye overnight, so I will be cleaning the tank and starting over with that one.  The second fish showed no interest in the feeder fish.

August 23, 2009

Unlike my behavioral study, my prey preference study has run into a brick wall.   When my fish aren’t cooperating tanks are overflowing, dividers are failing to keep fish separate, and time is constantly ticking. I have not yet given up on the experiment as I have high hopes for Jaba the Hut, Yoda, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. The fish seem to be fully acclimated to the tanks and trials will start soon.

 August 10, 2009

For the past five days I have been attempting to run my first prey preference trials with my two new fish: R2D2 and Luke Skywalker.  I say “attempted” because thus far I have observed R2D2 stare mindlessly into the corner for his entire 30 minute trial while Luke Skywalker swims up and down the tank, enthralled by his own reflection on the glass.  I’m allowing more time for my fish to acclimate, but I may have to be flexible and go back to the drawing board. 

August 5, 2009

Finished the rest of my feeding trials with Obi Wan today.  He was exposed to the last two pairs:  Bridled Gobies and Blueheads, then Blueheads and Damselfishes.    In the first pair, Blueheads were the only fish eaten during the thirty minute period.  The second trial resulted again in the consumption of Blueheads.

These trials that I have been doing with Obi-Wan are more test runs before the real thing.  This is because Obi-Wan has become so accustomed to eating mosiquito fish in a tank.  Tomorrow I will be catching all new feeder fish and two more lionfish.  The idea is that the more trials that I can run this summer, the more accurate and hopefully conclusive my data will be.  I will keep you all updated on any interesting observations and hopefully get some new pictures posted soon.

August 4, 2009

I ran my first trial this afternoon!  Last night I left my feeder fish and lionfish in the aquarium so they could acclimate to their new habitat.  On one side of the divider I had three Damselfishes and three Bridled Gobies while on the other I had a very hungry lionfish.  ( I decided to run my trials with only two different species of feeder fish because it will make analyzing my data easier.  This means that each lionfish I use will go through three trials: A- Damselfishes and Bridled Gobies, B- Damselfishes and Blueheads, and C- Blueheads and Bridled Gobies).  The trial procedure is very simple: I remove the divider, start my stopwatch, and take notes on everything the lionfish does for 30 minutes. 

My first trial resulted in the consumption of two Bridled Gobies; leaving one goby and all three Damselfishes to live another day.  When I first removed the divider, the lionfish (named Obi-Wan because his owner, an 8 yr old boy named Nash, is currently obsessed with Star Wars)  immediately started stalking the Damselfish. This is likely because lionfish are very visual hunters and Damselfish are very quick and flashy fish.  The Damselfish were very good at avoiding Obi-Wan ,however, by staying close to the rock and quickly retreating when he approached. 

 It took a bit longer for Obi-Wan to notice that the Bridled Gobies were even there, but when he did the hunt was on.  Because gobies rely on their camouflage, Obi-Wan was able to get very close to them before striking.  In addition to this obvious advantage I watched Obi-Wan demonstrate a very cool behavior that I’ve heard of from other researchers here, but never witnessed.  As the lionfish approached, he used his mouth to puff jets of water at the goby, likely trying to simulate a current. Nearly every time the goby would turn straight toward the stream of water the lionfish was producing and right at that moment Obi-Wan would strike.

I watched this pattern of behaviors continue with each goby throughout most of the trial.  During this time it seemed Obi-Wan had completely forgotten the Damselfish were there, as he was extremely intent on catching the gobies.  Near the end of the trial one of the gobies escaped death when it was startled under a rock by Obi-Wan’s jets of water.  For the remaining time Obi-Wan went back to stalking Damselfish but was unsuccessful.

August 3, 2009

I just finished getting an aquarium set up that is half rocky substrate and half sandy bottom with the goal of making the tank as close to realist as possible.   The day before I captured three different fish species for the feeding trials: Damselfish, Blueheads, and Bridled Gobies.  I chose these fish because each represents a larger group of fish. Damselfish represent fish that are generally tied to the substrate. They swim around in the water column, but tend to stay near a rock or shell they can hide in.  Bridled Gobies represent the bottom dwelling fish.  They are usually found in the open sand near rubble or substrate that they can swim to when approached.  Generally they stay very still in the sand, relying on their camouflage to protect themselves from predators.  Lastly, Blueheads represent fish that swim freely in the water column.  They aren’t generally attached to any one coral head and they swim higher in the water column than Damselfishes.   The plan is to expose these three species of fish to a lionfish and allow the lionfish to hunt for 30 minutes.  Any attempts to feed and successful feedings will be recorded along with how long it took the lionfish to do so.

under: Research

My Independent Research Project

Posted by: | August 3, 2009 | No Comment |

I’m officially starting my research project today!  There are two main parts to my study; one is looking at prey preference and the other is a behavioral study.  Right now I’m getting all geared up to start my prey preference section.  As the experiments progress I will keep you all updated on both setup and any interesting findings.

under: Research


Posted by: | July 28, 2009 | 6 Comments |

As of today I am half way through my Bahamian adventure here on Lee Stocking Island.  I have had the privilege of meeting some very interesting people whom I’ve learned a great deal from along with many experiences I will never forget.  Living and working here has challenged me both physically and mentally, resulting in a few changes I would like to share.

#1- My skin keeps getting darker and darker while my hair gets lighter and lighter (we’re talkin on the verge of platinum blond here).  I’m pretty sure my parents will hardly recognize me as their own child when they come to pick me up at the airport. 

#2- My once scrawny, little arms seem to have developed small bulges, which I guess can legitimately be called muscle now. Must be from all the heavy lifting of scuba tanks and gear in and out of the boat every day.  (I should note that this was a VERY small change, but still a change all in all)

#3-  My dependency on the internet has increased drastically.  Facebook is my only contact with friends from home and Skype has been a lifesaver to keep in touch with the family.  My cell phone on the other hand has sat on my dresser gathering dust since the day I got here. 

#4- Scuba diving is as natural as walking for me now. I hardly think about the fact that I’m underwater anymore. In fact, most times I’m actually more comfortable and relaxed underwater than on land because I am free of all the outside stresses.  On my wall I have a clipboard to keep track of all my dives this summer and as of today I am up to 117 scientific dives.

#5- I have gained new insight on the rigors of fieldwork and the excitement of finding answers to your own questions.  Being surrounded by curious and knowledgeable minds is extremely interesting and inspiring.

under: Daily Life

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