Collecting nuts! (and a science anniversary)

For the past two days I’ve been out in the field, driving the length of the Maine coastline, collecting “nuts”!

In our lab “nuts” is shorthand for nutrients – clearly, this was conceived amongst a small group of groggy biologists after a long day in the field, beers in hand…

So why I am I collecting “nuts”?

Actually, I am getting water samples from our field sites in downeast Maine, central Maine, and at Eastpoint near the MSC. At these sites we a have a long term experiment in which we’ve manipulated the seaweed species diversity and then monitored seaweed biomass and community structure over time. We’ve done this along the coastline of the Gulf of Maine to understand how seaweed diversity effects on the intertidal community may be enhanced or dampened by different environmental conditions (aka context-dependency). In the Gulf of Maine, temperatures (air and water) and nutrient availability and productivity change latitudinally, making it an ideal system to study context-dependency of species diversity effects.

And that’s where these water samples come in – every two weeks we collect water samples from all our field sites and eventually measure the nitrogen, phosphorous, and chlorophyll a (a measurement of productivity) concentrations of those samples. These samples allow us to quantify the environmental differences among our sites. To prep the samples, the water is filtered through a paper filter – the filter is saved for chlorophyll analysis and the filtered water is saved for nitrogen and phosphorous analysis:

Samples ready for analysis – water on the left and filter paper (with chlorophyll sample) on the right.

The water has to be filtered very soon after collection to since the micro-organisms in the water can change the water sample’s values from time of collection. Since it has to be done so quickly, I have pretty much filtered water samples everywhere… at the field site and in the lab, at fried seafood shacks, state parks, municipal parks, my tent, hotel rooms, the bf’s family’s house, and even in my car – which is where I filtered today:

Filtering water in the back of the MSC van!

And speaking of micro-organisms… On this day, in 1683, Antony van Leeuwenhoek sent one of his many letters to the Royal Society outlining his observations of the microscopic world. In this particular letter, van Leeuwenhoek first reported on the “animacules” between his teeth – quite possibly one of the first observations of bacteria. van Leeuwenhoek was no trained scientist, rather he was a skilled lens maker and put that skill to use in making some of the best and most powerful microscopes of his time. Because of his observations an entire new branch of science was created – microbiology. Thanks to van Leeuenhoek, I know the micro-organisms in my water samples exist. Thanks Antony!

Of course I didn’t have this geeky science fact saved in my brain, I heard it on NPR’s writer’s almanac… one of many radio programs I hear on my 7 hour drive up the Maine coastline. I’ll be at it again in two weeks – maybe I’ll hear another science tidbit to share with you!


One thought on “Collecting nuts! (and a science anniversary)

  1. My favorite Leeuwenhoek story is the one in which he was so fascinated by his own terrible, protracted bout of diarrea that he poke around in some “samples” and was delighted to find his “animacules” swimming around here too. Now that is how you know you are born to science!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s