Picking up dropped samples

Researcher Emma Strand preparing to carefully pipette her samples into a plate

Researcher Emma Strand preparing to carefully pipette her samples into a plate

I dropped all my samples on the ground; two full 96-well plates that held the final product from months of lab work hit the floor on the second level of a research building at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. (BIOS)

Rewind about three months to the end of August, when I started my internship with BIOS through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. It was the start of my senior year and I had unenrolled from Loyola Marymount University for the semester to pursue a research experience that had the potential to lead to a graduate program in the field I was interested in. So, I packed up my bags for another semester abroad, but this time with hopes of finding an answer to the question everyone seemed to be asking: What are you doing after graduation?

I stepped off the plane and immediately hit the wall of humidity that has always indicated field work for me. As my taxi driver turned the corner to enter St. George’s Island, the marine station came into perfect view. Resting right above the bright blue water of Ferry Reach, BIOS sits between a line of palm trees with a beautiful view of the ocean. In that moment, it became clear what this semester could mean for me in terms my career and scientific skills.

Emma Strand and BIOS team in the field, Bermuda

Emma Strand and BIOS team in the field, Bermuda

And as I stared at the two well plates upside down on the floor, my entire career flashed before my eyes. The aliquots of liquid containing thousands of copies of a targeted gene of interest from over a hundred baitfish samples were no now more than a small puddle on the floor. I could picture my mentor at BIOS telling her collaborator, the advisor whose lab I wanted to join for graduate school, that I dropped our entire project and that was just going to be it. I wasn’t going to go to University of Rhode Island because I would probably just drop all of our corals and samples there too. Ridiculous, I know. But as an undergraduate and slightly terrified (in a good way) of the powerful women in STEM that I had the potential to work with, it felt like I had just dropped my chance at impressing my current advisor and therefore my shot at my dream graduate program.

Although I had always known I wanted to pursue marine biology, I chose to attend an undergraduate university with a general Biology program, with a focus on pre-med. So being surrounded by many brilliant, marine scientists was like a breath of fresh air. I finally had other students that shared my same passion even if they didn’t want to go into the same specific field as I did. Throughout the semester, I grew close with my fellow REUs as well as the study abroad class (who were all from Rhode Island, which I took as a sign) and the graduate interns. The three months I spent in Bermuda clarified the direction and field I wanted to go in for my future career aspirations and gave me the resources I needed to pursue that. 

After about five minutes of panicking, I took three deep breaths and started to do damage control. Thankfully, in the end I was able to recover almost all of my samples from a previous step, and we could still move forward with the project. I feel like I grew as a scientist and student significantly in those several hours that I was problem solving. It’s really about what you do in those moments after a mistake (in or out of your control) that makes all the difference. I was fortunate to have many great mentors and advisors during my time as an undergraduate, and after the five minutes of panicking, it was their advice and teaching that I fell back on.

A year and a half later, I’ve now just finished the first year of my PhD program at the University of Rhode Island and our manuscript from the work I did (and dropped on the ground) in Bermuda was recently accepted for publication. The project was focused on assessing the genetic diversity, using genetic barcoding of a mitochondrial gene COI, of baitfish populations around the island of Bermuda in order to inform eco-system based management decisions. 

So plot twist, research isn’t perfect and there will be many times in your career that you will have to be creative in your troubleshooting. And the best way to learn is from others, but we can only do that if we talk about the failures as well as the successes. Not that I want to advertise on a billboard that I almost lost my project by dropping it on the ground, but there is quite a bit to be improved on and learned from that situation. Research is done by humans (for now), and I’m sure I will make another mistake just as big as this one. But each time that happens, I know I will be more prepared than the last.

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About the Author: Emma Strand is an Evolutionary and Marine Biology PhD student at the University of Rhode Island in Dr. Hollie Putnam’s lab. She studies the physiological and genomic response to climate change stressors, like ocean acidification and warming waters, in corals. Read more about Emma and her research on her personal website and on github

Robots reveal: commonly used pesticides harm bee behavior and metabolism

Scientists, automated robots, and mini-backpacks equipped with tiny QR codes team up to finally understand how pesticides harm the lives of bees. Read the full scientific article here and check out the lead author’s, James Crall’s, website for details and more awesome video.

Crall JD, Switzer CM, Oppenheimer RL, Ford Versypt A, Dey B, Brown B, Eyster M, Guérin C, Pierce NE, Combes SA, de Bivort BL (2018).  Neonicotinoid exposure disrupts bumblebee nest behavior, social networks, and thermoregulationScience 362, 683–686. PDF

Photo by James Crawl: Bumblebee  (Bombus impatiens)  wearing a simplified QR code for individual recognition and tracking

Photo by James Crawl: Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) wearing a simplified QR code for individual recognition and tracking

 

Neonicotinoid pesticides are widely used to protect our crops from insect pests, but neonicotinoids don’t discriminate, as they also target beneficial insects like pollinating bees. This class of pesticides disrupts an animal’s nervous system affecting their behaviors and physiology.

USDA estimated annual imidacloprid use in the US for 2016.

USDA estimated annual imidacloprid use in the US for 2016.

 

The neonicotinoid imidacloprid is applied to an estimated 1 million pounds of vegetables, fruit, and soy annually in the US, and the pesticide can remain in plant tissue for up to 230 days after application.

USDA estimated annual imidacloprid use by crop in the US, 2016. Celebrate in that the total estimated annual imidacloprid use has decreased by 1 million pounds of food in recent years.

USDA estimated annual imidacloprid use by crop in the US, 2016. Celebrate in that the total estimated annual imidacloprid use has decreased by 1 million pounds of food in recent years.

Harvard scientists developed an automated robot to continuously track the behavior of bees to characterize the negative effects of eating ecologically relevant levels of imidacloprid (levels of imidacloprid that they would encounter in the wild).

Specifically, researchers determined that consuming this pesticide harmed bee behavior and the colony’s ability to regulate their nest temperature. Tracking data gathered by the robot revealed that eating imidacloprid impaired normal bee behavior after both a single exposure and repeated exposure to the pesticide.

Example using the BEEtag software (https://github.com/jamescrall/BEEtag) to track individual bumblebees 24 hours after consuming 0.1 ng (blue) or 1.0 ng (red) of imidacloprid, or a control sucrose solution (green).

Bees that consumed daily doses of imidacloprid and bees that ate one single dose of imidacloprid both decreased the amount of time they spent active, the time they spent nursing, and the proportion of time they interacted with other bees compared to bees eating normal nectar. Bees eating imidacloprid also spend more time on the outside of the colony away from the food storage hub and nursery.

Crall et al. 2018, Figure 1 D-G. Colony mean percentage of time active over 7 consecutive days (with time indicating hours after exposure) during the daily imidacloprid exposure experiment . Filled circles represent mean activity levels for a single colony (averaged across all individual workers) for a single 5-min trial, and solid lines show mean values for treatment groups (control colonies, n = 9, in green; imidacloprid-exposed colonies, n = 9, in red). Gray blocks and Sun/Moon symbols show the 14:10 hour L:D cycle in the tracking arena. (E) Percentage of time engaged in nursing. (F) Mean distance to the nest center and (G) social network density [proportion of possible pairwise interactions between workers that actually occur, during a single 5-min trial

Crall et al. 2018, Figure 1 D-G. Colony mean percentage of time active over 7 consecutive days (with time indicating hours after exposure) during the daily imidacloprid exposure experiment . Filled circles represent mean activity levels for a single colony (averaged across all individual workers) for a single 5-min trial, and solid lines show mean values for treatment groups (control colonies, n = 9, in green; imidacloprid-exposed colonies, n = 9, in red). Gray blocks and Sun/Moon symbols show the 14:10 hour L:D cycle in the tracking arena. (E) Percentage of time engaged in nursing. (F) Mean distance to the nest center and (G) social network density [proportion of possible pairwise interactions between workers that actually occur, during a single 5-min trial

An experiment set in the field with natural conditions revealed that bee physiology is also harmed by short term pesticide consumption. Bee colonies weren’t able to regulate their nest’s temperature after 1-2 hours of intermittent feeding on nectar containing imidacloprid. Whereas, colonies feeding on normal nectar maintained nest temperatures above outdoor temperatures.

Crall et al. 2018, Figure 3 C. Brood versus outdoor temperatures for control, normal nectar fed colonies (C, green) and treated, imidacloprid fed (IM, red). Transparent markers show individual measurements across all colonies, and solid lines show LOESS-smoothed trends by treatment.

Crall et al. 2018, Figure 3 C. Brood versus outdoor temperatures for control, normal nectar fed colonies (C, green) and treated, imidacloprid fed (IM, red). Transparent markers show individual measurements across all colonies, and solid lines show LOESS-smoothed trends by treatment.

These elegant series of experiments present new automated technology that enables scientists to answer detailed questions about context specific insect behavior, movement, and social dynamics. The future possibilities are endless: How will bees respond to other pesticides, contaminates, or disease? How do these challenges affect other insect species? How do different insect species socially interact?

But also as a take-home message: don’t use or support neonicotinoid pesticides.
EPA’s action to protect pollinators & ways you can help

Erik Stokstad AAS Science provides an overview of the study, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/new-tracking-system-could-show-last-how-pesticides-are-harming-bee-colonies

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About the author:
Kristen J. DeMoranville @Kris10DeMo is a Ph.D. student researching the effects of diet and long-distance flight on a migratory songbird in Scott McWilliams lab at the University of Rhode Island

Source: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/f7293c_5c22905f830440dc8f24131ae5661c0b.pdf

New England is a sea duck's winter wonderland

“Flapping in a winter wonderland”, slightly alter the lyrics to Richard B. Smith’s Winter Wonderland and now we’re talking sea ducks. If you’ve had the pleasure to be on a boat off the shores of New England in the not-so-balmy winter months then you have probably gazed upon rafts comprised of thousands of sea ducks bobbing in the waves. These ducks inhabit our coasts during the winter to take advantage of plentiful food sources while their more northern breeding areas are covered in ice, but just where do these birds go during the rest of the year and what routes do they take to get there? Dustin Meattey, a recently graduated masters student from the University of Rhode Island, partnered with three other wildlife agencies to answer that very question.

White-winged Scoter Movements and Habitat Use in Southern New England, original article published in RI DEM Hunting and Trapping 2018-2019 Regulation Guide

Sea ducks are some of the most prized waterfowl species for duck hunters, wildlife photographers, and birders. The coastal waters and offshore environments in southern New England provide crucial winter habitat for several species including Common Eiders, all three species of scoters (Black, White-winged, Surf), and Long-tailed Ducks. Over the past several decades, population declines of many sea duck species have highlighted the need for a better understanding of their habitat preferences, migration patterns and timing, and linkages between important geographic areas throughout their life cycle. Reasons for these declines remain poorly understood, but habitat conditions and disturbance on the wintering grounds may have carry-over effects impacting annual survival and breeding productivity during subsequent seasons. Because sea ducks spend much of their annual cycle in non-breeding areas where human-induced threats are often greatest, understanding habitat use on their wintering grounds is crucial for conservation planning. As the development of offshore wind power moves closer to large-scale implementation in the northeastern United States, particularly in areas used by sea ducks during winter, identifying important habitats used by wintering sea ducks informs the planning process and helps avoid displacement of sea ducks from preferred habitats.

White-winged Scoter with a satellite transmitter,  Photo credit:  Josh Beuth

White-winged Scoter with a satellite transmitter, Photo credit: Josh Beuth

One species of sea duck that inhabits New England coastal waters during the wintering period is the White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca). White-winged Scoters are a long-lived sea duck species that winters along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America, with increasing numbers also wintering on the Great Lakes. White-winged Scoters nest throughout the interior boreal forest from Alaska to central Canada, with geographically separate eastern and western populations, although some studies have suggested that birds from Atlantic and Pacific coasts may overlap on the breeding grounds. Like most other sea duck species, White-winged Scoters have apparently experienced a long-term population decline throughout the last half-century.

Researchers from Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), University of Rhode Island, Biodiversity Research Institute, and the Canadian Wildlife Service partnered together between 2015 and 2018 to study the movement ecology of White-winged Scoters.  We deployed over 50 satellite transmitters in adult females on their wintering grounds in southern New England and at a molting area in the St. Lawrence River Estuary in Quebec. We were able to follow the movements of many individuals for over two years, as they traversed thousands of miles between wintering areas on the East Coast to breeding grounds across the northern boreal forest from Quebec to the Northwest Territories of Canada, on their return migration to important molting and then wintering areas, and for some back again to the breeding grounds.

Fig. 1. Estimated probability of use by adult female White-winged Scoters in nearshore and offshore waters in southern New England based on movements of satellite-tagged birds. For information on the most current wind energy areas, visit  BOEM: Offshore Wind Energy

Fig. 1. Estimated probability of use by adult female White-winged Scoters in nearshore and offshore waters in southern New England based on movements of satellite-tagged birds. For information on the most current wind energy areas, visit BOEM: Offshore Wind Energy

The data gathered from these birds allowed us to calculate the size and habitat characteristics of winter home ranges, and to identify specific areas in southern New England during winter that were preferred by White-winged Scoters (Fig. 1). Our results suggested that offshore sites predicted to be most used by scoters had minimal overlap with currently leased and proposed wind energy areas in southern New England (shown in blue). However, many birds made long-distance flights throughout the winter between areas like Montauk Point, NY and the Nantucket Shoals south of Nantucket Island, therefore they were likely often crossing wind energy areas as they moved between their preferred sites. This suggests that future wind energy development in the currently proposed lease areas could act as a deterrent or barrier to these important within-winter movements.

Using the movement data from these scoters, we were also able to identify and document their primary migration routes between breeding and wintering areas and the timing of these movements (Figs. 2, 3). This information is important for biologists responsible for designating hunting seasons and for protecting key areas used during migration, and for others responsible for managing offshore wind farms and other potential sources of disturbance. White-winged Scoters wintering in coastal New England bred throughout northern Canada from northern Quebec to the Northwest Territories. After leaving the breeding grounds, scoters underwent a month-long wing molt primarily in James Bay and the St. Lawrence River Estuary before continuing their fall migration back to their primary wintering grounds in southern New England. An important finding from this research was that migration timing was consistent among all birds in our study, regardless of where they bred or molted, and regardless of what route they decided to take. Essentially, the eastern portion of the continental White-winged Scoter population seems to function as a single, continuous population with little evidence of any geographically distinct sub-populations. This suggests that our current harvest of White-winged Scoters should not disproportionately target any particular segment of the population.

Our hope is that this project provides helpful information to policy makers, developers, and biologists to best conserve and manage this important species. This study was part of the Atlantic and Great Lakes Sea Duck Migration Study, a multi-partner collaborative project initiated by the Sea Duck Joint Venture.

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About the author:
Dustin Meattey studied Spatial ecology of sea ducks in the Scott McWilliams lab at the University of Rhode Island and is currently a wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Research Institute.