Field Notes: Out with the New, in with the Old… and then Back in with the New?

Sometimes fieldwork goes exactly how you planned, however, most of the time you end up getting to Plan C before anything starts working. Let me tell you about my week of making all the plans and changing them over, and over, and over again.

Black Band Disease on a Brain Coral (Wikipedia Image)
Black Band Disease on a Brain Coral (Wikipedia Image)

For the next 5-7 weeks, I am running an experiment at Mote Marine’s Tropical Research Lab (TRL) in Summerland Key, FL, on the effects of black band disease (BBD) and ocean acidification (OA) on the health of the great star coral, Montastraea cavernosa. I’m calling this experiment my “fieldwork” for the summer, even though technically I’m just working in another lab in a much warmer climate. I’ll describe the project in a bit more detail in a later post, first let me back up a couple of weeks.

On July 25th, I started my two day drive from Richmond, VA to Summerland Key, FL; halfway through South Carolina I got the call that the new OA system I was planning to use wasn’t working, and that I should wait a week before coming down while they try to get it running. I turned around and went on vacation at the beach with my family – not the worst alternative to doing science. Fast forward to last Sunday (July 26th), I finally arrived at Mote TRL! … And the new OA system still wasn’t working.

New OA System at Mote TRL
New OA System at Mote TRL

Instead of starting my experiment this past week, I re-built the old OA system, “OA in a box,” that I originally helped put together while I was an intern in the summer of 2013. I even recognized my handwriting on some of the old labels. After cleaning 20 tanks, cutting a ton of flexible tubing, getting a tank of Carbon Dioxide from Key West, going through a roll of labeling tape, and many many hours of plumbing, our New Old system was finally up and running. And of course by the time we got it working and it’s temperatures and pH’s stabilized, the New OA system started working!

New Old OA System we built in the last week!
New Old OA System we built in the last week!

So, by Friday, I had not one, but two OA systems! But how do I choose which one to actually use? Since Friday, I have been measuring the pH and the temperature of each tank and source tank for both systems three times a day. That’s 132 measurements a day, just to keep track of how each system is holding up! They’ve both had their ups and downs this weekend, but I have until Monday afternoon to pick which one I will use.

Cutting a Coral Colony on the Tile Saw
Cutting Corals is Very Messy!

Right now, I am finishing up very last minute initial measurements to get a good idea of how healthy the coral are at the beginning of the experiment before I put them under the stress of lowered pH and a disease infection. One measure of coral health, is to measure how well their algal symbionts are photosynthesizing, or their photochemical efficiency. I am measuring photochemical efficiency by using a Walz Imaging-PAM, which is really cool because it can take a picture of the coral and create a “heat-map” of photochemical efficiency. However, this week has been the first time that I have ever used an Imaging-PAM and it has taken all week to troubleshoot the instrument and get it running. Thus, I am up at 3am finishing my very last PAM measurement as I write this.

Last Measurement of the Night (Morning)!!
Last Measurement of the Night (Morning)!!

The other main way that I am measuring coral health throughout my experiment is by measuring their respiration rate. This involves quite a bit of electronics and then sticking the coral in a closed container with an oxygen sensor for a bit to see how fast they are consuming oxygen. And those electronics will only work if they are charged correctly… SO tomorrow morning, I will finish the initial respiration rate measurements for all of my coral colonies, go collect the disease from the reef, and finally start my 5 week experimental run.

Corals in their Respiration Chambers
Corals in their Respiration Chambers

The start of this experiment has really been one thing going wrong after another. But this is my first large scale experiment in the field, and I’m really excited to see what sort of results I get! Science is about doing what hasn’t been done before in order to learn something new… there’s always going to be some speed bumps along the way.

Sara Williams


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