One week in the land down under

Dr. Allen and I have been in Australia for a week now, and it has been a whirlwind!

 

We left Williamsburg on Sunday December 3rd at 7AM and reached Orpheus Island where we’re conducting our research Tuesday December 5th at 7PM ET. (Or something like that; it’s tough to keep track of time here given this place is 15 hours ahead of Virginia.)

Our time here has been full fun and failures. The fun comes from snorkeling nearly every day. The other day we snorkeled the giant clam garden–a huge area of thousands of giant clams! It was low tide, so we were able to swim really close to them. A little beyond the clam garden was a great spot on the reef; it was a clear day so we could see all the way down to the bottom about 15 feet. I saw several giant sea cucumbers, beautiful reef fish, but my favorite of all are the massive corals–they create structures the size of large boulders!

More fun came today when we hiked to the west side of the island. It was only about a mile and a half hike but straight up and straight down a mountain. Once we got there it was a wide, expansive cobble beach with gorgeous rock structures and lots of cool shells to collect!

But with such fun comes great responsibility. We’ve gotten our fair share of work in these past six days. Dr. Allen and I are collaborating with a lab from the University of Sydney on the crown-of-thorns sea star (COTS). This sea star is native to Australia, but doing quite a bit of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef. This sea star has larval development, meaning microscopic larvae develop in the water column before settling down on the bottom and metamorphosing into a sea star shape we all know and love. These larvae feed on algae while they’re in the water column, and it seems that fertilizer used in the sugar cane fields along the eastern coast of Australia is giving nutrients to for the algae to bloom. Each female sea star┬áreleases millions of eggs, so with more algae in the water, more larvae are surviving to metamorphosis and ultimately the adult stage.

So what’s wrong with a bunch of sea stars on the reef? Well, crown-of-thorns feed on coral, so with more COTS around, the coral┬áhas been decimated and doesn’t have time to recover. Australians have begun removing COTS from the reef and just earlier this year up in Cairns, thousands of COTS were removed.

Our lab and our collaborators are interested in the factors that are influence the prolific survival of COTS larvae. We know that they’re likely eating a lot of algae, but our hypothesis is that their larvae can clone as well. Larval cloning has been shown in other sea stars, including Asterias forbesi, the star I work on for my Master’s thesis. Cloning means the larvae can bisect (split in half) and both halves develop into suitable larvae. They can also bud off arms that likely develop as independent larvae. If COTS larvae do in fact clone, this could be a significant factor contributing to population booms.

Dr. Allen and I would like to see whether COTS larvae clone and also what factors induce it–food, egg size, density, etc. However, we haven’t gotten very far yet. Our collaborators who got here a few weeks before us were having no luck rearing the larvae. Upon our arrival we figured out their problem–they had bleached all of their glassware, which is a big NO-NO in larval culturing. We’ve been restricted to only using the glassware we brought from Williamsburg, and most of that broke on the plane.

Despite this, the research will go on! We’re hoping to get some new glassware in a few days, so we can start doing larger experiments. We’re still sorting out how to rear them–it turns out they only like glassware, no plastic and only really low densities (few larvae per dish).

We’ll be starting some new experiments in the next few days, and we’re hoping for some success. Until then, I’ll be enjoying some snorkeling!

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