Failure in the Field

3 11 2013

Recap: I have completed three successful experimental releases of surrogate egg and sperm in the tide pool habitat, and three successful experimental releases in the crevice habitat.  To support my project design and give plausibility to the experiments, I wanted to replicate the experimental release using live gametes from red abalone.  Last November, I received red abalone with which to practice the spawning protocols, and learned how to spawn pinto abalone up at the Mukilteo hatchery.  Now it’s time to do it in the field…

 

I realize that my last post alluded to the devastation I have felt with some of my experiments, and yeah, this is going to be the post that goes more in depth about that topic.  In truth, science makes me feel bipolar.  I reach such highs, such levels of excitement, triumph, and pure, unadulterated joy when things that shouldn’t possibly work do; but the higher the climb, the steeper the fall.

 

Camp at Site 8 (B. Blaud)

Camp at Site 8 (B. Blaud)

Once my 12 abalone (4 males and 8 females) arrived following the last experimental particle release in the crevice habitat, we set the abalone up in their temporary San Nicolas Site 8 hotel, and made our own camp.  Glenn and I would spend the next two nights camping at Site 8.  Camping was an unforgettable experience, both exciting and exhausting.  The abalone were set up in their temporary home mere feet from high tide (which happened in the middle of the night), and our tents were a short distance up the hill.  The wind was extremely high, reaching speeds of almost 35 mph, and made sleeping both uncomfortable and difficult.  That, combined with the required call-in checks every 4 hours to the Navy, and the water changes to keep the abalone clean, made solid sleep an unachievable luxury.  Did I forget to mention the sea lion serenades – it’s a thing of beauty.  These are not complaints though!  I loved every second of this – ok, I could have done without the cold, wet socks at 4am – but I loved everything else!

 

Finally, spawning day arrived.  It was a gorgeous day, like many days on San Nicolas Island.  No clouds, uncharacteristically low winds, air temperatures in the low-70s (in March – love it!!!), and I was ready to do this.  When everyone arrived, we scoped out the two areas for potential spawning (the crevice habitat and the tidepool habitat) and decided to aim for one spawning release in the tide pool habitat.  Each abalone was placed in a separate bucket, Tris and hydrogen peroxide cocktail, and then we waited.  To get the abalone in the reproducing mood, John played some Hot Chocolate, Barry Manilow, Madonna, Salt N’ Pepa, and other sexy tunes.

Spawning red abalone, marinating in a Tris and hydrogen peroxide cocktail (B. Blaud)

Spawning red abalone, marinating in a Tris and hydrogen peroxide cocktail (B. Blaud)

The spicy cocktail and sexy music worked for two abalone.  Of the 12 we brought to the island, only one male and one female released their gametes, but that’s all we needed!  Once egg and sperm were released, there was so much activity and we needed all sets of hands.  While someone attended to the abalone, getting them into clean, cool water, the gametes were taken to be washed of any residual hydrogen peroxide and be distributed between 21 canisters.  No water was added to the sperm to keep it as concentrated as possible.

 

Anchored canisters located  at -1 m, 0 m, 1 m, 2 m, 4 m, 8 m, and 12 m from the sperm release location (B. Blaud)

Anchored canisters located at -1 m, 0 m, 1 m, 2 m, 4 m, 8 m, and 12 m from the sperm release location (B. Blaud)

The live-gamete release experiment is set up much similar to the previous simulated spawning experiments.  Three canisters containing live eggs are anchored with fishing weights or sandbags at -1 m, 0 m, 1 m, 2 m, 4 m, 8 m, and 12 m from the live sperm release location.  The live sperm is released through an IV bag in the same method as the surrogate sperm in previous experiments.  There was only enough sperm for 13 minutes of release, and the canisters remained in the tide pool for an additional 30 minutes.  Once removed from the water, the eggs were preserved in falcon tubes with Lugol’s solution, and taped up for transport.  The rest of the short day was spent packing and hauling everything up the hill, everyone elated with the apparent success of the venture.

 

From my foreshadowing early on, you, my intelligent reader, may have surmised that something went horribly wrong.  Once the eggs made it back to Seattle, I opened the tubes to discover they have all degraded beyond identification.  I had not properly mixed the Lugol’s solution with the iodine, and therefore no preservative was added to the eggs.  It’s still difficult for me to think back on these moments when I discovered that all the work that everyone put in to getting abalone to the island, the nights camping on location, all the gear carried to the location, the sweat, the tears, the highs of perceived success on spawning day were all for nothing when the eggs became unidentifiable.  I won’t go into detail about the tears shed over this loss.  I had amazing support, and was heartened as several other researchers shared their tales of woe and failures in the field.  It is common for the first, and even the second field experiment to not work.  Unfortunately, I had everything riding on this one spawning release.

 

 

There were many things I learned from this venture, the most obvious being to mix the iodine into the Lugol’s solution before adding it as a preservative to the eggs (duh).  I also later learned that the larger abalone are more difficult to spawn, and more successes are achieved with younger, smaller abalone.  While this experiment would have strengthened my project and supported my results, it is not my only experiment.  I still have a Master’s project without it.  I would like to try again.  It can still be done and may support my project once published.  I promise, I will keep you updated on any more ventures.  This part of the story is not over…