Take Two

1 02 2014

Recap: I am a Master of Science (and the Universe, according to my nephew when he wants the tickle attacks to stop), and my experiments in the intertidal were mostly successful, except for the live spawning attempt.  Again, to validate my project design and strengthen my simulated spawning results, we tried a second live spawning experiment at the end of last year before the permits expired… 

Me showing some abalone love (B. Blaud)

Me showing some abalone love (B. Blaud)

San Nicolas Island is one of my favorite places on earth, if you haven’t picked that up from my previous posts.  I feel incredibly blessed to have the unique opportunity to venture back, even after my schooling is complete.  I was plotting ways to get back to SNI, thinking of leveraging my experience on the island and in the intertidal to get a volunteer position with another group, when I got an email from Glenn that we were on for another live spawning experiment, and they would like me to be involved.  I didn’t even need to think about it before quickly replying, a hearty and enthusiastic “YES!  When do we leave?”

 

Withering syndrome is still a concern, even though it doesn’t appear to be as virulent as it was in the 1990s during its initial appearance on the island.  Although the disease presence has been documented on the island, the conservative approach to preventing further spread of withering syndrome dictates using only disease free animals.  The last spawning experiment involved naïve animals that were never exposed to the disease.  However, the difficulty we experienced spawning the larger animals and the learned knowledge that smaller animals are more gravid and easily spawned encouraged us to get younger red abalone.  To stay within the permit guidelines and only bring disease free animals to the island, the thirty red abalone we got for the experiment had to be treated with oxytetracycline (OTC), a broad spectrum antibiotic active against many types of bacteria, including rickettsiales.

 

The most ripe red abalone with bulging gonads were hand-picked by an abalone expert, Jim Moore, to improve our odds of a successful experiment.  Unfortunately, the OTC treatment is rather stressful, and involves the abalone sitting in a series of eight baths for 24 hours each over the course of three weeks.  During this time, the horny little abalone reabsorb their gametes, or may spawn in response to the stress.  To reduce their stress and hopefully maintain fuller gonads, the abalone were fed during the treatment.  They were allowed to recover for an additional three weeks after treatment concluded, and we hoped it would be enough.

 

Armed with a greater number of smaller abalone and knowledge from what led to failed experiments previously, we headed out to the island.  I think I inadvertently cursed myself after my last blog, Failure 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.

In this second field experiment, I was in no way about to be in charge of the Lugol’s solution, and we brought formalin as a back-up preservative, just in case something else went wrong.  It’s science, and “things going wrong” is the name of the game. 

 

Red abalone in 3L of sexy spawning cocktail (Tris and hydrogen peroxide) (B. Blaud)

Red abalone in 3L of sexy spawning cocktail (Tris and hydrogen peroxide) (B. Blaud)

We set up the abalone in the temporary housing outside the archeological labs and storage, and less than a mile from a good release location at Site 2.  The plan was to spawn the abalone in the comfort of civilization, near electricity and running water, then take the gametes down to the experimental site, run the experiment at Site 2, and transport the canisters back to the lab where we would distribute eggs among the transportable tubes and add preservative.  That was the plan.

 

Now we just need the little buggers to spawn!  We added the sexy cocktail of Tris and hydrogen peroxide, ran down to quickly set everything up, and then waited… and waited… and waited…  When the tide started coming back in, and only one female had spawned a small amount of eggs in 6 hours, we decided to call it a day.  We put them all back in their temporary tank, and prepared to try again the next day.

 

Unfortunately, we were out of 6% hydrogen peroxide.  Luckily, someone thought ahead and brought back-up 3% hydrogen peroxide, purchased for $0.89 a bottle at the local pharmacy.  We doubled up the dose to try, try again.  Feeling slightly less optimistic, but still hopeful, we tried all the tricks we had learned in our combined spawning experiences and reading: temperature stress (exposure to sunlight to increase water temperature to 20°C in their 3L buckets, then water changes to bring the temperature back to 14°C); mechanical stress (EARTHQUAKE!  Shaking the buckets, tapping the buckets, mainly just agitating the poor abalone); musical stimulation (Barry Manilow, Madonna, Bruno Mars, Rhianna and Brittany – don’t judge!  It worked last time, and I was willing to try anything).  Our efforts were rewarded with some stressed out abalone that released several mucus plugs and poop, and appeared to want to spawn but had nothing to give.

 

Our conclusion: they hadn’t had enough recovery time after the OTC treatment.  Next steps include renewing the permits, applying for grants, and praying that the third try does the trick.  On the bright side, I get to go to the island at least one more time.  Can’t complain about that!





Run #7

24 12 2012

Recap: My preliminary runs were exciting, although it was difficult to get used to releasing a thousand dollars in the form of small particles and watching it drift away in the ocean.  In my experiment, as designed, a single male abalone was incapable of fertilizing an egg, even if a female was spawning right next to him.  I wasn’t convince that my design was perfectly awesome since it only showed the results of a single male spawning for 10-minutes when often a spawning event takes place for up to an hour.  After revising my project design, I was ready for a second take…

My tide pool at Site 8 (B. Blaud)

My tide pool at Site 8 (B. Blaud

 

It was the perfect day for a tide-pool experiment.  The tide was low, but not too low, the sky was clear, the temperature a comfortable 72 degrees, and the waves were not too high.  By all reasoning, I should have been in a great mood, but I couldn’t relax.  The experiment has tripled in size, and we are now releasing three times as many particles into the water, which means that over $2500 is now being released into the tide pool to float away.  I couldn’t deal with any thought of failure and wanted this run to be successful so bad, I could taste it.  It tastes salty, like a combination of ocean, sweat, and tears. 

 

 

I scrambled to get everything ready: all the sample bottles clean and present, all the tubes labeled and secured, triple checked that the particles were packed (there’s nothing like hiking for an hour to realize the guest of honor is back in the room), and hoped I wasn’t forgetting anything major – I knew I would forget something, I could feel it, but was hoping it was something that could be fixed in the field.  While setting up for the run down at the site, I realized I forgot the snap-shackles, which are used to firmly anchor the nose of the IV tube in the water.  I knew I forgot something!!!  Annoying, but not major, and something that can be improvised with some well-placed rocks.  Catastrophe averted, but I still couldn’t relax.  There were too many possibilities for things to go wrong along the way.

 

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud)

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud)

I went over the choreography for the experiment, because in my mind, the whole thing is like one big dance.  It needs to be timed, everyone’s movements synchronized, and when it goes well, it’s quite pretty to watch.  Dave, to clarify after I described the process, asks if he is releasing his sperm at 0, 1, 5, 10, 20, 30, 45, and 60 minutes after the initial release.  Incredulous, and rather impressed that anyone would be able to release their sperm in timely intervals like that, I suggested that I be the only one to release sperm, as mine is in the form of surrogate, sperm-sized particles and not real sperm.  Everyone agreed that that would be best, and would collect samples at those intervals instead.

 

Everyone took their place, and I had enough amazing volunteers that each person was responsible for only one distance.  I was the bucket lady, running around rinsing sample bottles between collections to avoid left-over particles, making sure the sperm supply didn’t run out, keeping track of the time and orchestrating the sample collections.  Someone later suggested I should teach an aerobics class, because my voice barked orders in a no-nonsense way.  I took it as a compliment.

 

It all went rather smoothly.  I glared at Glenn when he suggested as much halfway through the experiment.  “Don’t jinx it!”  I know science and superstition don’t exactly go hand in hand, but science is about exploring the unknown.  I’m not about to tempt fate and will do anything to ensure a successful run, including not mentioning how well it’s going until I’m sure nothing can go wrong!  It’s along the same line as not saying the number seven at the craps table when the button is on.  If someone had suggested that I can also improve my odds of success by clicking my shiny, red heels together while exclaiming, “this WILL work” three times, I would have done it without a second thought, totally comfortable looking like an idiot as long as all is right in my world.  Essentially, even though it was going amazingly well, I still couldn’t relax until the last sample was collected and safely packed away.

Mel, Eric, and Glenn enjoying an E.O.D.B. at the top of Heartbreak Hill (B. Blaud)

Mel, Eric, and Glenn enjoying an E.O.D.B. at the top of Heartbreak Hill (B. Blaud)

 

Despite my fears and insecurities, it was perfect.  There are always things that can be corrected and perfected, but nothing major went wrong.  Once all my samples were stowed, I could finally smile and laugh at the sperm-related jokes.  At the end of the day, for the first time ever, I was able to hike up Heart Break Hill without stopping to “look for whales,” while carrying a 50lb backpack.  Although my backpack was heavier, weighed down with water samples, my burden was lighter now that the run was successfully completed. 

 

Since we were only able to find funds to pay for one run, the rest of the week was spent in the kitchen counting particles.  Planning for this, I brought a dissecting scope (I’m no longer going to even try to deal with a coulter counter) and all the supplies needed for counting the egg and sperm-sized particles.  With few distractions that life on SNI offers (mainly, no cell reception and limited internet access), I was able to buckle down and power through the counting, completing over half my samples.  It’s a good start!