Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Explanation of why we sometimes require a break...

6/21 was the summer solstice -- the longest day of the year as the rays of the sun are perpendicular to the Tropic of Cancer and the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere. On this day the sun "set" at 11:45pm and was schedule to "rise" again at 4:20am the next day. I say "set" and "rise" because it never seems dark enough during this time of year to consider the sun to be fully set so that it can then fully rise. I took this picture at 11:30pm on the summer solstice:

After reading over my last post, I realized I haven't really given a description of what my field work entails so it would be silly for me to assume anyone would believe we found it necessary to take a break while doing research in Alaska. I guess I should explain myself...

I will start with a broad overview of the research associated with stickleback and end with the data I am collecting for my own project. There are quite a few stickleback labs all over the globe interested in different aspects of stickleback research, including genetics, morphology, physiology, life history traits, and behavior -- just to name a few avenues of research. Stickleback are quite useful for studying trait evolution and the relationship between the environment and trait evolution (this often includes the study of phenotypic plasticity -- the ability of organismal traits to change in response to environmental change). Marine stickleback have invaded different freshwater environments in the Pacific Northwest (e.g. BC and AK) and, in some cases, the freshwater regimes are very similar providing natural replication for experiments and comparisons. By regimes, I am referring to specific combinations of environmental factors whether they be related to biotic or abiotic conditions of the freshwater environment -- for instance -- presence or absence of predatory species, high or low calcium content, abundance of benthic prey or plankton. Such factors can shape the morphological, life history, and behavioral traits of a given population resulting in the population following a particular evolutionary trajectory. Some stickleback researchers are interested in what evolutionary trajectories result based on environmental conditions and the extent that the trajectories are dependent on the underlying genetics of the organism versus the environmental pressures experienced by the organism (or, many times, evolutionary biologists are interested in questions of untangling or coupling the genotype and environmental influence to determine evolutionary trajectories).

There are many great stickleback biologists who study morphology and life history traits (e.g. age and size at reproduction, traits related to egg/sperm production). This requires catching stickleback (often in small traps) so that population sizes can be estimated or males and females can be collected and used for different types of measurements (age, clutch size, body condition and body shape). Such data can provide information on the relationship between the environment encountered and the traits observed. For instance, the full pelvic girdle found in the marine stickleback (an important form of protection from many predatory fish) has been retained in many populations where predatory fish are present. Sometimes catching stickleback for such research is not very rewarding (for example, Lauren and Rachel at Trouble Lake pulling traps and counting the few fish they caught -- possibly less than the mosquito bites they caught while collecting):

Stickleback from lakes with different genetic backgrounds and different environmental regimes can be crossed in the laboratory to produce lab-reared offspring for morphological, life history, behavioral and genetic studies. Screening phenotypes is very useful procedure for studying genomes -- mapping genes and QTLs. Genetic studies involving stickleback have increased in number over the last several years and are of great potential value to the field of medicine (e.g. osteological disorders) -- and such studies are very interesting and complementary to field data unraveling evolutionary processes.

More on stickleback behavioral research and my particular interests in stickleback when I next get a chance to write...I think I need a break at the moment...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Our Talkeetna 'Break'

On Tuesday our fearsome foursome (Me, Lauren, Rachel and Jeff) took a day to travel up to the tourist hotspot of Talkeetna, Alaska. We had three goals in mind:
(1) Jeff and I wanted to check out Y Lake
(2) Lauren and Rachel wanted to trap and collect more fish from Benka Lake and X (or Trouble) Lake -- which are both near Talkeetna
(3) We wanted to purchase select jerkys and jams and have dinner at the WestRib Pub

If fewer mosquito bites = relaxing, then this was not a relaxing trip at all. The mosquitoes were abundant and it turned out they like Jeff the most (great for the rest of us -- sorry, Jeff). The echoes from the gun range near Trouble Lake wasn't the most comforting noise especially in combination with the constant buzzing of mosquitoes. The makeshift 'Caution, two bears spotted -- unafraid of people...' posting was not a pleasant note to view before the short hike down to the lake. BUT it turned out to be fairly uneventful (more eventful for the mosquitoes, I guess). Not many fish were caught but the traps were only there for a few hours. It was a good attempt and I finally got to experience the infamous 'Trouble Lake' (infamous to the members of the Foster-Baker Lab from the stories I've been told).

Jeff and I had a nice cold swim in Y Lake -- a very quiet and picturesque lake (I wish I took pictures but left the camera in the car and was in my drysuit and flippers before it occurred to me). And it was cooooold in the lake. We split up and swam in separate directions out of the public access. At first all I found were a few bright males with large fry clouds but after swimming along the shore for a while I found a handful of newly nesting males near fallen trees. There were some fairly large shoals of fish close to shore as well. Most of the newly nested males were still very drab and not ready to court with the gravid females that would approach them. Despite the lack of action and the abundance of cold water, it was a fun lake to jump into. I left fairly consumed by mosquitoes but with a better idea of the microhabitat in which males were nesting, which could be useful when comparing prevalence of sneaking between populations.

Before Y Lake, we stopped to eat lunch at one of the scenic roadside viewpoints for Denali (Mt McKinley). Here is what we could see of Denali from the roadside viewpoint:

Originally, we didn't think we'd see Denali at all, considering the sky was completely overcast when we left Anchorage, BUT the clouds slowly parted as we drove along until we saw the peak -- not bad for expecting to see absolutely nothing but clouds. Here's an artist's rendition of what we could have seen from the viewpoint on a cloudless day:

Me + where Denali might be in relation to the Talkeetna River:

Some Denali facts:
  • It is the tallest mountain in North America at 20320 ft (6194 m -- for those that love the adorable metric system)
  • Denali is the Athabaskan name for "The High One" -- officially called Mt. McKinley
  • Average number of earthquakes in Denali National Park per year: 700
  • WestRib Pub is named after one of the most difficult routes to the summit
  • Youngest person to summit: Galen Johnston, 11 yrs old (June 17, 2001)
It was a late night returning and then it was back to work as usual the next day. We did welcome the addition of a new colleague the next day -- Dr. Matt Wund, who studies behavioral and morphological plasticity in stickleback populations in relation to food sources and presence/absence of predation and the role of ancestral plasticity in shaping evolutionary trajectories. He arrived on 6/17 and will be doing some field work and lab work while here. Tonight we are packing up Lauren to send her home to Tacoma early in the morning :(
I'm sure we'll see her again soon seems she can't stay away from Alaska for too long...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Today it rained and then it was sunny...and then it rain...and then it was sunny...and then it rained...

As we left this morning headed for Wasilla AK, we discussed the weather. Jeff said his weather search suggested rain while Lauren pointed out that her weather widget mentioned some sun. This OBVIOUSLY meant we would be experiencing both on and off all day long -- as we would soon find out....

Today Jeff and I remembered why it was we decided to jump into the water early afternoon rather than late morning as we stood at the public access of Big Beaver Lake and watched the rain lightly hit the water and were chilled by the breeze. Last spring/summer, we jumped in later because the sun didn't usually come out in Wasilla on yucky days until the afternoon this time of year -- 12pm at the earliest it seems. We experienced that pattern today as well. In cold, cold Big Beaver Lake we muttered in the water through our snorkels and agreed we should wait until we talk to the residents around the area in the lake we wanted to grid before we grid, i.e. we didn't set out grids today. In general, we set out grids when we do behavioral observation so we have a set area to observe nested male stickleback and their territorial and courtship behavior within replicated subsets of the lake. We try to do four grids per lake when it is possible. In one BC lake, North Lake...

...the males were breeding so far apart that it was difficult to set up grids so we chose a transect and did observations along that transect and later determined transect size so that we could compare our transect males to grid males in other populations. Of course, the point I wanted to make here is -- as soon as we got out of the cold, cold water and were packing up our dry suits, it was ~12pm and the sun was coming out.

Jeff and I are interested in several aspects of stickleback behavior. Jeff is interested in territoriality and I am interested in courtship behavior and alternative mating strategies. Luckily, watching stickleback for several hours a day will give us enough information to investigate both of these research topics. We collect data on all that we see with our nested males during the time we are observing and then Jeff will focus on the male-male interactions while I will focus on the male-female and male-female-sneaky male interactions. Here are some pictures of nested males with adjacent territories and guarding nests in Francis Peninsula Lagoon, BC -- an anadromous population (marine stickleback that breed in freshwater):

Of course the fish are much more interesting in action. A still photograph cannot possibly capture all the drama in their lives -- drama which includes fighting with neighboring males to establish their territories, attracting females to their nest, not attracting cannibalistic foraging groups to their nests, caring for the eggs and young fry they manage to acquire in their nest, and looking out for sneaky males that have an eye on their territories or nests. Here is Jeff (front right) and Greg (middle) observing fish at Francis Peninsula, BC -- to give an idea of how easy, dry and warm it is to make shoreline observations:

We made a good connection with a resident of Big Beaver Lake who will let us use his access and dock for future observations so Jeff and I will jump in tomorrow to set out the grids and set up traps. The next day we will pull the traps and sex the fish. All the males we collect will be weighed and measured and tagged so that we will be able to identify them if they end up in one of our four grids or we happen upon them elsewhere in the lake. More on tagging at a later date...

'In the field' sometimes means no internet....

Have just settled into a routine here in Alaska. We arrived two days ago -- 6/10/09. Jeff, a Clark University master's student and I flew straight to Anchorage from the first leg of our field excursion along the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. We were staying in Egmont, BC but drove up from Seattle since it is easier and less costly to rent a vehicle there and drive up than fly into Vancouver and rent a vehicle there. Egmont (upper left corner of map) is about a six hr drive north of Seattle and included a ferry ride....

Lovely views from the ferry:

The Sunshine Coast definitely lived up to its name -- sunshine all the time (except for one rainy morning that turned into a beautiful afternoon) with temperatures ranging from 65F - 80F. It was a welcomed change from last year when it was rainy and dreary my entire stay. We stayed at a wonderful lakehouse while in BC. This was the view from my bedroom window....

...pretty spectacular, huh? No complaints here. Egmont is a small village on the Sechelt Peninsula. Very friendly people too. Outside of all the usual amenities, we didn't have any cell phone service or internet access, except when we ventured to the internet cafe in nearby Madeira Park so I didn't have many opportunities to write about how wonderful it was while we were actually there. Jeff and I, along with Greg, an undergraduate from the Clark University Foster-Baker Stickleback Lab, arrived on 5/21 and then Jeff and I headed out of BC on 6/09. We were there for several weeks and during those several weeks we watched fish for an average of 5 hrs a day and typed up handwritten notes regarding fish observations for several more hours of the day. Why, as we both embarrassingly admit, we have even been dreaming about watching fish during the nights of some of those days. To top it off, those fish-watching dreams are usually pretty uneventful -- probably less eventful than the real-life behavioral observations. My point is, even if we had access to internet, when would we have found the time to write about our fish-watching with all the fish-watching going on?

More on the actual fish-watching (i.e. behavioral observations) and the lakes involved at a later date. Now that I have a few moments of down time while we take the first couple days to set up our lakes for observation here in Alaska I can give a few accounts of our BC travels. To begin with, this is Andre:

Andre is a Steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) that frequents the lakehouse where we stayed -- along with several other Steller's jays -- all chattering, rambunctious characters. I thought a pair might have been nesting in a tree across from my window considering their morning routines consisted of dropping sticks on the porch, watching them fall and then flying the select sticks up to some high branches of a conifer facing my window. Those were some large sticks and some early nesting building hours if that's what they were up to....still pretty entertaining although sometimes I would rather have been sleeping.

Right now i'm wondering why the rainy, cold weather had to rear it's ugly head now that we've arrived in Alaska (according to Lauren -- the AK stickleback collections expert -- this ominous weather didn't exist until we arrived). I was hoping for a lucky streak but today the clouds gave up around late afternoon and there have been showers on and off since. Hopefully, the rain will pass tonight so that tomorrow is fairly decent as Jeff and I scout out our second lake for grid locations.