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SEA Days: Sharks on the Line

Fri, 07/17/2015 - 12:59pm

Written by: Marissa Mangelli, Volunteer Programs Assistant

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego or local researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

Have you ever wondered why sharks are shaped like a bullet, or why their dorsal fins are pointier than a dolphin’s? Questions like these can be answered by studying the physiology of different organisms. Physiology relates the form of different body parts to their function. Scientist Laura Jordan-Smith focuses her research on how different habitats can affect animal physiology. If we understand how sharks and rays function then we can help create bylaws or fishing nets that allow them to be released if accidentally caught as by-catch. Below Laura answers some questions and gives us advice on how to become a scientists.

 

Scientist Laura Jordan-Smith focuses her research on how different habitats can affect animal physiology.

Scientist Laura Jordan-Smith focuses her research on how different habitats can affect animal physiology.

Where did you go to school?

Undergraduate- Cornell University, PhD- UCLA

What is your area of research?

Generally, I study vertebrate functional ecomorphology (how various structures, from sensory systems to body shapes, provide functional adaptations to different environments and lifestyles in vertebrates, animals with backbones), much of my research has focused on elasmobranch (shark, skate, and ray) sensory biology and fisheries bycatch reduction.  You can see a little more about my research in this recent article (http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=18605)

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

I loved family trips to the ocean (I grew up in upstate NY) and my high school biology class finalized my fascination with learning more about marine life.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Endless curiosity and dedication to learning, careful record keeping while repeating experiments, creativity in finding new solutions to problems and looking at questions from different perspectives, motivation to find opportunities and make connections in fields you want to study.

Dr. Laura Jordan-Smith  on a research vessel.

Dr. Laura Jordan-Smith on a research vessel.

Why is your research topic important? 

Elasmobranchs are currently recognized as one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates and most of that threat is related to fishing activities.  Many species are caught unintentionally by fisheries as bycatch.  Through learning more about how these animals sense and respond to fishing gear we can potentially reduce their chances of being caught and help populations recover.

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days? 

Some videos of sharks and rays responding to sensory signals including water flow and electric fields, some examples of potential bycatch reduction devices, and some interactive activities about the various sensory systems of sharks and rays and studying populations using genetic techniques (Dovi Kacev’s research).

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research? 

Understanding biology means learning physics and chemistry and doing research involves math, specifically statistics, along with writing and communicating clearly- so learn as much as you can about all of these areas!  I also recommend learning how to SCUBA dive so you can really experience the ocean environment with the organisms you want to study.  Look for programs where you can interact with people doing marine science- from marine labs like Shoals Marine Lab (the first one I studied at, http://www.sml.cornell.edu/sml_students.html), to online resources like The Gills Club (https://www.facebook.com/groups/155497421325778/), to local educational programs like World Below the Waves (www.worldbelowthewaves.com).

Dr. Laura Jordan-Smith  shows students a ray at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

Dr. Laura Jordan-Smith shows students a ray at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

What is your favorite ocean organism? 

So many to choose from, but my current favorite is the whale shark.  I just had the opportunity to swim with them earlier this year and it was incredible to be so close to something so much larger than I am!  It was amazing watching them filter feed their tiny plankton prey and seeing remoras dance along the surface of their bodies or hold on tight for a free ride.

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

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SEA Days: Shark Celebration

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 10:49am

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego or local researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft. June’s SEA Days will kick off our annual Shark Summer Celebration

Compared to the billions and billions of tiny creatures in the ocean, sharks can seem powerful, intimidating and mysterious. The whale shark is the largest shark species and can grow to be over 10 meters in length. Even though sharks are massive animals, they are made up of microscopic cells. Scientist Martin Tresguerres, is cell biologist focusing on the relationships between the micro cellular level of sharks and their macro physiology. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to sharks, and below Martin shares his advice for future shark scientists.

Martin Tresguerres

Dr. Martin Tresguerres at the experimental aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD.

Where did you go to school?

I took my bachelor and master degrees at the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina).

Then I did my PhD at the University of Alberta (Canada), and my postdoctoral training at the Weill Cornell Medical College (New York City).

I joined Scripps as an assistant professor in November 2010.

What is your area of research?

My laboratory studies cell physiology of diverse marine organisms, including sharks, bony fish, hagfish, coral, algae, oysters, worms, and a few others.

We are especially interested in how these organisms can sense and regulate changes in their internal pH (“acidity levels”).

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

As a kid, I was fascinated by marine biology documentaries (especially the great French marine biologist and adventurer Jacques Cousteau), as well as by the possibility of scuba diving to see marine life. Also, my parents, grand parents and brother were a great influence by always promoting and appreciating reading books of all kinds (including, but not only, biology books).

Martin Tresguerres

Scientist Martin Tresguerres, is cell biologist focusing on the relationships between the micro cellular level of sharks and their macro physiology.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Curiosity. Training in the “hard” sciences (Math, Chemistry, Physics, and then Biology). Dedication and hard work.

Why is your research topic important?

Every single living organisms in the history of the world has or has had to be able to sense and regulate its internal pH. This is because maintaining a stable internal pH is essential for cells to work properly, as slight variations in pH can result in protein function, and therefore in cell and organism’s function. In humans, imbalances in pH are associated with several diseases, for example cancer. In marine organisms, pH sensing and regulation is essential to be able to carry out key functions such as photosynthesis, calcification, and metabolism. Several environmental stressors (including but not limited to ocean acidification), might challenge internal pH balance, so how organisms compensate for this type or stress (or not) is very important for their well being and survival.

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

I will be sharing some images and shark biofacts that support my work.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Learn the basic, fundamental concepts in “hard” sciences. Don’t be intimidated by seemingly complicated subjects,

What is your favorite ocean organism?

I can’t pick just one. I equally like sharks and corals, hagfish and diatoms, orca whales and bone-eating worms. To me, the fascinating thing about biology is that such diverse organisms are very similar or even identical at the cellular level.

Please join Birch Aquarium in welcoming Dr. Tresguerres at SEA Days Shark Celebration on Saturday June 20!

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Octopus Research at Birch Aquarium

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 12:24pm

Kelley Voss, graduate student at the Behavior and Benthic Ecology Lab at Alaska Pacific University, spent last week at Birch Aquarium at Scripps studying our Giant Pacific Octopus. Aquarists, educators, and visitors were all excited to learn more about Kelly’s unusual and exciting research. Kelly graciously took some time out her busy schedule to answer some questions about her research. Find out what it takes to study octopus below.

Graduate Student Kelly Voss explains her experiment to young aquarium visitors.  She is standing in front of a sheet covering the Giant Pacific Octopus tank, and is using a camera hooked up to a tablet to monitor and record the octopus' behavior.

Graduate student Kelly Voss explains her experiment to young aquarium visitors. She is standing in front of a sheet covering the Giant Pacific Octopus tank, and is using a camera hooked up to a tablet to monitor and record the octopus’ behavior.

Where did you go to school?

I got my Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology at California State University, Long Beach. (Go Forty Niners!)

What is your area of research?

My Master’s thesis investigates how the personalities of Giant Pacific Octopuses (Enteroctopus dofleini) change in the presence of a conspecific. This means that I want to know if Giant Pacific Octopuses act differently if they think there’s another octopus of the same species close by.

A young Giant Pacific Octopus. Full-grown Giant Pacific Octopus can weigh more than 50 pounds. The record was an individual weighing 600 pounds and measuring nearly 30 feet across!

A young Giant Pacific Octopus. Full-grown Giant Pacific Octopus can weigh more than 50 pounds. The record was an individual weighing 600 pounds and measuring nearly 30 feet across!

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

I grew up going to a marine park near my home in Northern California, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a marine biologist for a living until I was in college. I have had so many incredible professors in my school life, but Steve James at Sacramento City College inspired me to take my passion for marine biology and turn it into a career.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

The number one quality every scientist needs is perseverance. All good science takes time. If you can be patient and persistent when things aren’t going the right way the first (and second and third) time, you will eventually find a solution. This doesn’t just apply to doing science experiments–if you want to do well in school, or you really want an internship, it is important to keep trying until you find your way.

Why is your research topic important?

It is important to know whether or not we have been missing a part of octopus behavior this whole time because many marine biologists didn’t think it was possible. We have always thought that octopuses are not social: they don’t live in structured groups, they don’t seem to have a language to communicate ideas to one another, and most importantly, they’re known to eat each other. However, I have seen more and more cases of octopuses living safely together, not just for mating. Since they are so intelligent, I want to know why they choose to behave the ways they do in different situations involving other octopuses. 

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

VOLUNTEER, VOLUNTEER, VOLUNTEER. I worked for over 250 hours as an undergraduate student volunteer in the CSULB Shark Lab. I took many shifts that nobody else wanted, spending many days and nights in a kayak or a boat working on tracking California Halibut, Grey Smoothhound Sharks, or White Croaker. The experience I gained helped me get internships, jobs, and now, my graduate student position, as well as a side project tracking octopuses. Dedication and persistence will take you very, very far in marine science, and volunteering in different areas of research will help you figure out what you really want to do.

Octopus research is important to learn more about these intelligent creatures.

Octopus research is important to learn more about these intelligent creatures.

What is your favorite ocean organism?

Take a wild guess! I am SO lucky to work with my very favorite animal. Aside from octopuses, I really like all other cephalopod species, as well as Sea Hares, California Halibut, and Leopard Sharks.

Come meet Birch Aquarium’s Giant Pacific Octopus on display in the Hall of Fishes!

 

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Your Sea Turtle Questions Answered!

Sat, 05/23/2015 - 3:00am

To celebrate World Turtle Day on May 23, 2015, Aquarist Ryan Schaeffer took some time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from followers of @birch_aquarium on Instagram. Thank you everyone who submitted questions!

Aquarist Ryan gives Birch Aquarium's Loggerhead Sea Turtle a scrub to remove algae on its shell.

Aquarist Ryan gives Birch Aquarium’s Loggerhead Sea Turtle a scrub to remove algae on its shell.

What are captive sea turtles fed?

We feed our Loggerhead Sea Turtle a good variety of restaurant quality seafood, including Blue Crab, Mackerel and shrimp. We add special vitamins to the food to be sure it is getting all the nutrients it requires for be healthy and happy.

How hard is a turtle’s bite?

I don’t know the exact amount of pressure a Loggerhead’s bite can be, but it is powerful enough to break thick crustacean and shellfish shells.

Loggerhead Sea Turtles can be found in tropical and temporate waters around the world. Here at Birch Aquarium, you can find the turtle in the Magdalena Bay Tank, next to the Kelp Tank.

Loggerhead Sea Turtles can be found in tropical and temperate waters around the world. Here at Birch Aquarium, you can find the Loggerhead in the Magdalena Bay Tank.

Are you guys helping with removing tumors from sea turtles suffering from fibropapillomatosis*?

Birch Aquarium not have the proper facilities to help with sea turtles suffering from fibropapillomatosis.

*Fibropapillomatosis is a disease that causes large tumors on sea turtles. These tumorshamper swimming, vision, and feeding. It most commonly impacts Green Sea Turtles.

How intelligent are sea turtles?

Based on my experience working with sea turtles I can say they can be pretty smart. For example, our Loggerhead Sea Turtle quickly learned that coming and touching a specific target we put in the exhibit it will be rewarded with a treat. We do this target training as it allows us to monitor the turtle’s food intake.

How fast does a turtle swim? 

Sea turtles may look slow having to pull around a large shell and all, but, when needed, they can get up to speeds as high as 15 miles per hour.

 

Thanks Aquarist Ryan for answering some great Sea Turtle questions! Be sure to keep an eye out for our Loggerhead Sea Turtle in the Magdalena Bay Tank, next to the Giant Kelp Tank.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle at Birch Aquarium.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle at Birch Aquarium.

 

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SEA Days: Turtle Detectives

Wed, 05/13/2015 - 11:34am

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego or local researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

Terrestrial reptiles are known for their resilience and long life spans and marine reptiles, like sea turtles, are no different. The life expectancy of sea turtle ranges between species but unfortunately there is no easy way to determine the age of a sea turtle. Scientist Cali Turner-Tomaszewicz is a PhD candidate at UCSD and focuses her research on age determination of sea turtles, specifically the duration of the juvenile life stage. Turner uses skeletochronology, which works very similar to counting rings on a tree to determine age. Age determination can aid scientists in understanding sea turtles life history and therefore help in conservation efforts. Below Cali tells us more about her research and her best advice for future researchers.

 

Where did you go to school?

Undergraduate at Claremont McKenna College (Environment, Economics & Politics major)

Masters at UCSD Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Marine Biodiversity and Conservation)

Current: PhD Candidate at UCSD, Biology Division (Ecology, Behavior & Evolution)

Scientist Cali Turner-Tomaszewicz is a PhD candidate at UCSD and focuses her research on age determination of sea turtles, specifically the duration of the juvenile life stage

Scientist Cali Turner-Tomaszewicz is a PhD candidate at UCSD and focuses her research on age determination of sea turtles, specifically the duration of the juvenile life stage

What is your area of research?

Marine conservation and ecology. I study the life-history and habitat-use of sea turtles. Particular focus is on determining the duration of the oceanic juvenile life stage of two endangered turtle populations in the North Pacific using two techniques called skeletochronology and stable isotope analysis. These techniques allow me to age marine turtles, and determine what habitat turtles live in over a period of time (typically up to 10 years).

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

My parents receive credit for me loving nature and science, and my grandparents were the ones who first introduced me to the ocean and sea turtles. And once I began to love these things, I learned more and realized the great need for interdisciplinary conservation in order to protect these things. And I’ve worked with many incredible mentors along the way.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Dedication, curiosity and passion. If you have these things, then your work will be enjoyable – and you’ll be good at it!

Why is your research topic important?

I work in close partnership with the Marine Turtle Ecology & Assessment Program, in the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division at NOAA-NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center. My research is directly addressing key research priorities concerning the management of endangered sea turtle populations that interact with US and international fisheries.

Cali Turner-Tomaszewicz believes dedication, curiosity and passion are all important characteristics for a scientist to have.

Cali Turner-Tomaszewicz believes dedication, curiosity and passion are all important characteristics for a scientist to have.

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

Sea turtle artifacts (carapace shells, skull, bones & etc.) as well as equipment that I use in my research: sea turtle humerus bones, cross sections of bones, microscope

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Find a problem that needs attention and that you’re passionate about. Then start learning about it and getting involved in anyway you can. Volunteer, do internships, talk with people who do what you’d like to do… and don’t give up!

What is your favorite ocean organism?

It would have to be sea turtles, of course! Loggerheads have a special place in my heart!

Cali Turner-Tomaszewicz inspects an injured Sea Turtle.

Cali Turner-Tomaszewicz inspects an injured Sea Turtle.

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Whale Watching Season 14/15 – The Best Yet!

Fri, 05/08/2015 - 3:03pm

By Audrey Evans, whale watching coordinator

The 2014-15 whale watching season provided thousands of guests with spectacular whale and dolphin sightings. Mostly calm seas and many clear days made for great whale watching conditions. Winters off the San Diego coast are a great time to search for migrating gray whales. This year’s gray whale count aboard Flagship’s Marietta surpassed recent seasons topping off at 825! Comparatively, we spotted just shy of 600 gray whales last season. Although gray whales are the most frequently sighted baleen whale, guests and naturalists were also treated to other species such as Humpback Whales, Fin Whales, Pilot Whales, as well as Common, Pacific White-Sided, Risso’s and Bottlenose Dolphins. Here is a breakdown of the 2014-15 season sightings:

Gray Whales: 825 (the most we’ve ever seen in one season!)

Fin Whales: 31

Humpback Whales: 24

Common Dolphins: 21268

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins: 1350

Bottlenose Dolphins: 559

Risso’s Dolphins: 233

Pilot Whales: 30 (never before seen on the Marietta)

Some notable highlights included whale breaches on 40 separate cruises, 13 gray whale cow/calf pairs, 1 sea turtle, 1 swordfish, and mola mola fish spotted on four separate occasions. This is in addition to countless birds such as brown pelicans and cormorants as well as California sea lions spotted on nearly every cruise.

Want in on the action next season? Join Birch Aquarium and Flagship Cruises and Events in December 2015 as we kick off the next amazing whale watching season!

Gray Whales off the coast of San Diego

Gray Whales off the coast of San Diego. Photo by Audrey Evans

Common dolphins were plentiful this season! Photo by Caitlin Scully

Common dolphins were plentiful this season! Photo by Caitlin Scully

A humpback whale breaches in the late afternoon light.

A humpback whale breaches in the late afternoon light. Photo by Caitlin Scully 

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