Designing Fake Eggs and Sperm

30 10 2012

Recap: Black abalones are awesome, hardy creatures that survive in a hostile environment.  Although they were once incredibly abundant, their numbers have dwindled due primarily to disease.  A 30-year old study has documented small pockets of recovery around San Nicolas Island, leading to an onslaught of research questions: mainly, why isn’t the recovery spread evenly around the island?

Here’s where I describe my fantastic, yet fiscally responsible project.  Our main objective is to figure out how close two spawning abalone must be in order to successfully fertilize eggs and create offspring.  But first, I will outline some obstacles that might help explain the reason behind my decisions in the design.

Stacking black abalone, San Nicolas Island, CA (G. VanBlaricom)

In an ideal world, I would be able to place two black abalone in a tide pool, whip out my handy timer, say, “Ready…set… … SPAWN!” and collect water samples.  Not only are they not that accommodating, but it would be three kinds of illegal.  The black abalone is an endangered species, listed in January 2009, so you need a permit to do any sort of work with them.  Anyone who has ever tried to get a permit of any kind probably knows the timeline you’re faced with when going through that application process, so I can honestly say it’s not a document you get overnight.  Furthermore, we haven’t been able to spawn in the black abalone in laboratory settings.  They’re a little gun-shy and prefer to keep some things private, I guess.  I can’t say I blame them; that’s an awkward moment to have an audience.

Female Ezo abalone spawning (

Now that using actual black abalone is not an option, we had to find particles that were the size of black abalone gametes, and use them as surrogates for the real thing in simulated spawning events.  That brings us to obstacle number 2: if we haven’t been able to spawn black abalone in the lab, how do we know the size and amount of eggs and sperm?

I combed through literature, spent hours and days sifting through the dry material, and was unable to find all the information I need.  All I was able to find out was the size of the pre-spawn egg size.  Fortunately, I was able to find those details and more for different species of abalone.  I looked for abalone that were most similar to black abalone and had the same pre-spawn egg size, and blacklip abalone from Australia fit that profile.  They are a temperate species, like black abalone; they live in similar and deeper depths than black abalone; they are the same size; and (although this doesn’t really relate to spawning capabilities) they have a similar name!

Green microspheres from Cospheric (

Now that I had collected the requisite information, I was ready to design the particles that will be used in my experiments.  Cospheric is an amazing company that designs particles, which come in a variety of sizes and colors.  Heck, if I wanted, they could put smiley faces on each one.  Smiling fake sperm particles.  I crack myself up…

The particles I chose to represent eggs are green (like real abalone eggs), and between 212 to 250um (um=micrometer).  To give that a little perspective, a grain of salt is about 1,000um, so an abalone egg is about a quarter the size of a grain of salt.  Particles chosen to represent sperm are white (like real sperm), and between 10 to 45um.

Now that I have the particles, I’m about ready to design my experiment…


Come Out; Come Out, Wherever You Are!

27 10 2012

E.O.D.B. (B. Blaud)

Now that you have been properly introduced to my friends, you probably want to go meet them in person.  I don’t blame you.  Any excuse to hang out on the beach is a good excuse, in my opinion.  You might have a tough time finding them though.


Once upon a time, black abalone were so common, it was difficult to walk along the rocky shoreline without inadvertently stepping on one.  Millions of black abalone sunned themselves on California beaches from Mendocino County down to Baja, where they enjoyed limes in their Corona’s and salt with their margaritas.

Black abalone infected with withering syndrome (B. Blaud)


[Cue creepy, evil sounding music] Then withering syndrome hit the species.  Strong and healthy growing boys and girls became anorexic and it wasn’t due to some fad in a magazine telling them that skinny was cool.  Withering syndrome is a bacterial disease that invades the digestive gland and prevents the absorption of materials, so although they ate and ate and ate, no nutrients were absorbed, and they were forced to metabolize their foot muscle to survive.  That continued until they were too weak to hold onto rocks, and died shortly after.  The beach party had ended.


My advisor, Dr. Glenn VanBlaricom, caught the whole story in data.  He began counting and measuring black abalone around San Nicolas Island in the late 1970s.  I enjoy teasing him, reminding VanBlaricom that his project is older than I am, but the timeline in which he has studied black abalone has been an invaluable tool.  He documented black abalone numbers in the 1970s and 1980s when they were a strong, stable community dominating the shoreline, captured the sudden and sharp decline beginning in 1992 when the disease first hit San Nicolas Island, the following years when individual abalone were rare and far between, and now the most exciting part…the recovery!

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island, CA (B. Blaud)


Beginning around 2001, abalone numbers started to grow in isolated areas around the island.  In just the last year, almost all locations that VanBlaricom has monitored annually for the past 33 years have increased by 30 to 50%, but not all.  This leads to my favorite part of research: the questions!


Why are abalone populations only recovering in some locations, but not all?  Why are they not recovering evenly, but instead at different rates?  What is so special about San Nicolas Island, and why aren’t we seeing the same recovery patterns in other Channel Islands and on the mainland?


And more!  There are so many more questions!

Next up: the project…

The Cute Black Abalone

27 10 2012


“Can you make them sound cute?”  That was my friend’s suggestion on how to get more people interested in black abalone.  To accomplish this, I would need to describe their big, expressive eyes, their soft, furry shells, and their cuddly, trusting nature.  The black abalone would end up looking more like an anime creation that belongs on Pokémon than the elegant sea snail you find on rocky beaches in California. 


So, no big beautiful eyes, no soft, otter-like fur, and no outgoing nature; but what they do have is a lovely, smooth black shell and a hardy nature that survives in one of the most turbulent, hostile environments.


Black abalone are just one of eight species along the Pacific Coast of North America, and one of hundreds of species around the world, but they are unique.  Almost all other species are subtidal, meaning they live below the tide line, while the black abalone are exclusively intertidal, living on beaches where oftentimes they are exposed at low tide.  Beachcombers and shell collectors can’t resist them. 

Abalone jewelry (


The shell itself is beautiful.  Abalone shells in general are oval, ear shaped shells, which is where they get their witty nickname, the ear snail or sea ear.  There are holes (respiratory pores) around the outer third of the shell, which act as vents for water that has passed through the gills or to release gametes (eggs and sperm) during spawning events.  The most popular part of the abalone shell is the inner surface, which is covered with nacre, a mother-of-pearl iridescence that gets all the shell collectors hot and bothered.  While many other species shells’ get encrusted with algae and organisms as they hang out under the sea, black abalone shells remain fairly unencumbered except for the odd barnacle here and there, and are simple, smooth, and have a nice bluish-black hue.


What makes abalone such good eating is their strong foot muscle that makes up about a third of their body weight.  They use this invaluable muscle to cling onto rocks and snag any nearby kelp for a snack.  While black abalone is not the preferred species among seafood connoisseurs (with red abalone being the escargot of choice in California), it was commercially harvested for a period in the late 1960’s when all other species were depleted due to overharvest.


I’m not a seafood eater, and I don’t really collect shells, so why do I find black abalone so darn awesome?  I admire them for being tough buggers!  They live in one of the most hostile environments and have managed to survive the ravages of a devastating disease.  In their habitat, they are covered with a couple feet of 57°F seawater one moment, and a few hours later, they are exposed to direct sunlight and air with temperatures in the mid-90s, common in Southern California.  They are pounded by waves, which have forces that bend and break steel bolts.  A disease, called withering syndrome, has decimated the population.  They once numbered in the millions and now have disappeared from some areas altogether.  Remaining individuals have held on for more than 20 years, and are struggling to bounce back.

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island, CA (B. Blaud)


Although you’re probably not going to find the black abalone featured on the next Sponge Bob episode enjoying a crabby patty with Patrick, they’re definitely a main character in my adventures.  Now that you have been properly introduced, please don’t be afraid to say hi more often, especially if you’re in the neighborhood.  The ones that I know and am familiar with are easy-going and humble, just going along with their lives in the instable rocky intertidal, and don’t mind visitors just as long as you look and don’t touch!

The Beginning

24 10 2012

I’m new to the whole blogging thing, but aim to do it justice, so I thought I would start where all logical things must start: the beginning…

Killer whale in San Juan Islands, Washington (B. Blaud)


I promise to keep the background brief, so stay with me.  I have been passionate about marine biology for as long as I can remember – my grandparents said it was impossible to drag me from the beluga exhibit at the aquarium when I was three, I fell in love with killer whales while camping on San Juan Island when I was four, became a proficient beach comber in Golden Gardens at six, and that all led me to the career choice to become a marine biologist at age eight.


After I earned my bachelors degree in marine biology from the University of Washington, I wanted to work in the field for a while.  I became a fish biologist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.  Although I was working on some incredibly wonderful, relevant projects implementing policy to protect our endangered salmonids, I missed the research.  There’s something incredibly sexy about developing a question, coming up with a plan of action and following it through.  The most fascinating aspect about research is that you never really get answers, just more questions…

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island, CA (B. Blaud)


The next logical step from there was to go back to school and pursue my Master’s degree.  One important thing about developing a project is that it’s not necessarily where the interest is, but where the money lies, and the money here is with an endangered black abalone.  I devoted all my time into learning everything I could about this intertidal sea snail.  My professor had spent almost 25 years working with black abalone on San Nicolas Island in California by that time, so a project was easy to develop with a quarter century worth of data on abundance, density, and size of black abalone around the Island.  But more on the project later…


So I come up with this kick ass project, to be humble.  It has all the bells and whistles.  It’s both impressive and ambitious.  The only thing needed was more money!  Unfortunately, due to a fluke and missed information, I lost funding.  Practically overnight, I go from developing a strong project to wondering how I’m going to pay tuition for the next quarter.  We scrambled and scraped and managed to make it through fall quarter, pay for tuition, a salary, and some field experiments, but we couldn’t make it work for winter quarter.  This led to my employment as a Starbucks barista to pay the bills (I have a weakness for pretty shoes).


After six months of making lattes and revising my project to become more financially achievable, I received an interesting email about crowfunding.  Crowfunding is the act of promoting and reaching out to a “crowd” of funders to micro-fund a project.  I write a project description, create a video, set up some rewards for different levels of funding to go on RocketHub, and shamelessly promote myself on Facebook, through emails, and blogs (hence, this blog).


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason I am developing this blog.  I am entering the new age of science, where researchers sing and dance on street corners to generate money for their projects.  I also would like to stay in touch with the public, because I think my work is fascinating and hope others find it awesome as well.


I look to forward to any feedback, comments, or suggestions any of you might have, so please, don’t be afraid to post comments!