My first time at a conference

by Susan Anthony

I’m unsure as to why I have never been to a conference before, but I haven’t. I have almost completed my 2nd year as a graduate student at U of A, having done 2 field seasons, and finally have data worth presenting. So I ventured onto unchartered territories.

Palm trees

Classic California shot. Credit: S. Anthony 2013

The conference I chose was the Western Society of Naturalists. This year it was held at the Embassy Suites in Oxnard California.

Oxnard marina

Oxnard marina. On my afternoon off, I went for a walk along the boardwalk. Credit: S. Anthony 2013

After frantically analyzing data and producing graphs, formatting Powerpoint and practicing my talk, I hit the road and air for sunny Southern California. The conference was at a swanky resort on the beach, which allowed very brief beach walks at lunch break. The mornings were busy with symposia, and the afternoons were packed with back-to-back 15 minute presentations: you were running out of one talk to get to the next.

WSN name tag

It’s official. Credit: S. Anthony 2013

It was a great experience. I met some wonderful people, and learned about research that was being conducted, and results that were being found. There were lots of parties, a lively auction, and inspirational talks: most notably the final speech by the secretariat, on the subject of being a naturalist.

Presidential banquet

Figure 5: A toast at the Presidential Banquet on the last night of the conference. I was lucky enough to get a ticket from someone who couldn’t make it, and in return placed bids on many books in the silent auction. Credit: S. Anthony 2013

The speech reminded me about the joys of being a naturalist (along with the annoyance faced when people mistake “naturalist” for “naturist”). He spoke of the history of naturalists; those that observed and wondered. They were interested in how things are in the natural world. This type of science is falling out of favour, perhaps because funding has declined. If we lose naturalists who can tell us how things are, and as our Earth gets damaged, how things might react.

Sunset in Oxnard

Sunset on my last night in Oxnard. The weather was beautiful. Credit: S. Anthony 2013

Coming to do research at BMSC? Take the tour, learn the facilities.

by Amanda Kahn

So you’re coming out to Bamfield to do some research.  How does it all work?  Can you order supplies out here?  Are there incubators, shakers, PCR machines, balances, ultrapure water?  Where do you go if you run out of tubes?  Need advice about shipping or receiving a package someone ships to you (after all, who hasn’t forgotten to pack something while coming out to the field?)?  Where is this Rix building everyone keeps talking about??

This is my third year coming out to Bamfield, but I never got a proper tour and so didn’t know the way everything worked.  Fortunately, this year Eric Clelland, the Research Coordinator, is providing tours for students and PIs coming to BMSC to do research.  Tours begin every Friday at 1:00 in front of Eric’s office, which is in the bottom floor of the Rix building (the building that looks like a sea shell).

Rix building

The Rix building at BMSC. Credit: A Kahn 2012

One of the most valuable things I learned from my tour was that there is an equipment inventory that lists all of the equipment available throughout the buildings of Bamfield.  The list is accessible online and is something good to check out before coming to BMSC to see what kind of lab work is possible. (The short answer is: quite a variety!).  You can find the inventory and a lot of other really useful “So you’re coming to Bamfield…” information from the BMSC Research website (specifically, check out this PDF: General Information for BMSC Researchers.

Morphing Pisasters, Batman!

Amanda loves tide poolsby Amanda Kahn

One day while exploring an island in Trevor Channel during a low tide, I happened across this sea star.


It’s Pisaster ochraceus! And the logo of the Madreporite…almost in the correct pose too… Credit: A Kahn 2012

Apart from looking like it was dancing a happy dance on a barnacle-encrusted rock, there was something notable about this individual.  This species of sea star usually comes in one of three colors: orange, reddish-brown, or purple.  However, this one was orange with purple tips on its arms.

Pisaster arm tip

Credit: A Kahn 2012

The purple tips on the sea star I found made me wonder what causes colors to change in these sea stars. It’s not fully known yet, but people are thinking about it.

Pisaster ochraceus is commonly found in the intertidal zone around Barkley Sound and is known to be a keystone predator for intertidal habitats.  This means the sea stars are largely responsible for the way intertidal communities are arranged, with bands of mussels in the middle intertidal zone and very few mussels and barnacles beneath that zone.

What is known is that color variation is not genetically determined, at least not directly.  A study done partly in Bamfield by Chris Harley and co-authors found no meaningful distinctions between orange versus red versus purple sea stars, even though they looked very different.  Instead, within an area, such as within the San Juan archipelago or the Strait of Georgia, all sea stars had very similar gene sequences, indicating that all color morphs can and do breed freely and easily with other color morphs.  Fitting that idea with the commonly-accepted theory that confines individuals within a “species” (two individuals can’t reproduce to create viable offspring that are also capable of reproduction if they are different species), Harley and co-authors concluded that there don’t seem to be multiple similar-but-not-quite-the-same species, called cryptic species, living amongst each other on the intertidal rocks of Barkley Sound.


Different colors of Pisaster ochraceus coexist along the Bamfield shoreline, but why they are different colors, and what determines what color they grow to be, remains unknown. Credit: Jackson Chu via Flickr

Orange and purple (and sometimes white) color morphs have also been observed in a deep-sea heart urchin, Echinocrepis rostrata.  Urchins are part of the same phylum as sea stars, so they are expected to be similar to each other.  The color morphs of E. rostrata were also not genetically distinct from each other, indicating that the colors do not seem to be cryptic species of each other either.

So if colors are not related to the genetics of the sea stars, then what’s left?  Well, as in the debate of nature vs. nurture, if the sea stars are not born with the genetic predisposition to be purple or orange (the “nature”), then it must be something in their environment that determines their color (the “nurture”).  This is where it gets really interesting, with Harley and co-authors finding that the differences in diet might affect the colors of sea stars (though that was not conclusively tested), while size and location did not.  The authors in the paper even noted,

“Notably, small fractions of orange stars have purple coloration at the tips and along the undersides of their rays, especially if a ray is actively growing (e.g., following injury; CH, pers. obs.). Even smaller fractions have a tracework of purple coloration on their aboral surface (CH, pers. obs.). Very small Pisaster are not chromatically differentiated, and some orange adults may turn purple when held for long periods under laboratory conditions (J. Pearse, Long Marine Laboratory, University of California Santa Cruz, pers. comm.). These observations imply that individuals express different pigments as they grow or age; however, the effects of age and diet remain confounded for the time being.”

The idea that sea stars may change colors depending on changes in their diet or age was a new concept to me.  Why do you think different color morphs happen?  Is it related to diet, like Harley and co-authors suppose?  Or age-related?  Maybe you’ve read a more recent paper about it in a class?  Please let me know in the comments section below–I’d love to learn more about this!

Literature Cited

Harley, C. D. G., M. S. Pankey, J. P. Wares, R. K. Grosberg, and M. J. Wonham (2006).  Color polymorphism and genetic structure in the sea star Pisaster ochraceus.  Biological Bulletin 211(3), 248-262.

Vardaro, M. F. (2010).  Genetic and anatomic relationships among three morphotypes of the echinoid Echinocrepis rostrata. Invertebrate Biology 129(4), 368-375.

Exploring the deep sea

The Madreporite’s Amanda Kahn is currently exploring the deep sea off the coast of California on MBARI’s “Climate and Deep-Sea Communities Pulse 80 Expedition”.  Check out the cruise’s logbook for some of her exciting stories and amazing photographs of the expedition so far!

Amanda Kahn, onboard MBARI’s Pulse 60 Expedition, is watching intently as the ROV pilot carefully places a dye chamber over a plate sponge. Photo credit: MBARI

Collecting… without SCUBA

Pam Windsor Reidby Pam Windsor Reid


Do you SCUBA dive? Then you probably know exactly how you’re going to collect your organism of choice. But… what if you don’t have SCUBA certification?
This doesn’t mean you can’t collect at all. I have been going to Bamfield on and off since 2006 for collecting trips. I don’t have SCUBA certification, and I’m not even that strong a swimmer. So, how do I get my animals?
There are a couple of ways to get my animals. Don’t get me wrong, you pretty much need SCUBA for some things, but there are often options to get around that.

1. Settlement ropes. These babies are simply tied to the south dock, and hung over the edge to allow critters of all sorts to make that their home. We use a weight at one end (a brick or something heavy), and hang upside-down plant pots to provide a little shelter for animals that need it.

Rope collections on a sunny July day. (Photo credit: A. Riesgo)

2. Snorkeling. If you’re not SCUBA certified, and you’ve never snorkeled, this might make you nervous. The thing is snorkeling is pretty easy, and this is coming from a bad swimmer! The only issue you may come across here is not being able to get down deep enough to get your stuff. This takes practice, but you can dive down… just remember not to inhale down there, because you’ll end up with a mouth full of water!

This is me snorkeling for sponges, about my third time snorkeling in my life. I was already able to dive down a little to get sponges off the rocks about 5-6 feet down. (Photo credit: A. Riesgo)

3. Make friends! There are plenty of people around Bamfield who LOVE to dive, and often they are willing to swap a collection dive for a favour or two: maybe a dinner, maybe some field work of theirs. Definitely be willing to make time for them, since they were willing to make time for you.

Jackson suiting up and diving in. (Photo credit: E. Adams)

Ana is ready for anything! (Photo credit: E. Adams)

I’ve left out other options (dredging, for example) here only because I haven’t had personal experience with these. If you have used any alternate methods of collection, please comment on that. If you need to collect an animal or other organism and you’re not sure how, ask a question!

This is what a (BMSC) scientist looks like

Amanda loves tide poolsby Amanda Kahn

What do you picture when you think of a scientist?  I recently read about the Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST), which asks people to draw a picture of what they think scientists look like.  In one case, seventh graders were asked to draw a picture of a scientist before and after meeting scientists from the Fermi National Laboratory in the United States, with some interesting results.  Drawings made before the scientists’ visit involved lab coats, beakers, mad scientists, and mostly men.  Drawings afterwards showed men and women dressed in normal clothes, working in a lab, out in the field, or just looking like, well, a normal person!

Science doesn’t always have to happen in a lab.  In fact, it happens all over the place!  To do marine science, we go out on ships, to the intertidal zone, scuba diving, and yes, we do spend time in labs.  But sometimes labs are on ships, or in beautiful field stations like Bamfield.

Rix building

The Rix building at BMSC, which has lab space for us to work in, plus incredible views of Bamfield Inlet. Credit: A Kahn 2012

Check out some of the faces doing science at Bamfield below and decide for yourself what a scientist looks like.  And to see non-Bamfield scientists from around the world, check out This Is What A Scientist Looks Like, a tumblr site dedicated to “Change the perception of who and what a scientist is or isn’t.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bamfield folks: help us add to this slideshow!  Email your photos to with pictures of YOU, doing science or just enjoying everyday life.

Cool Papers! Part 1: An appetite for glass

By Danielle Ludeman

As scientists, we all have to keep up to date on the happenings in our field.  Although reading papers is not usually my favorite part of doing research, I love that moment when I stumble across a really cool paper and immediately want to run and share my find with someone.  Whether you react that way or not, cool papers help to remind us of why we do what we do, and motivate us to keep plugging away at our own research, because we just might get a cool paper out of it too.  So to share some of the cool papers in marine science that are out there, I am going to post them to this blog.  And what better way to start off the cool papers section than to post about a paper from the Bamfield Marine Science Station’s very own Jackson Chu (and former member of the Leys lab) and his recent paper on predators of glass sponge reefs published in Invertebrate Biology.  Now I may be a little biased in thinking this paper is really cool because it’s about sponges.  And I was part of the 2009 research cruise when the first nudibranchs on the glass sponges were found.  But seriously – glass-eating nudibranchs?! Super cool.

Alright let’s back up a second here – glass sponge reefs?  Yup, glass sponges (Class Hexactinellida) in the deep, deep waters off of British Columbia form huge reefs, much the same way that corals form reefs in tropical waters!  These vast and majestic glass sponge reefs span hundreds of kilometers along the coast – one of them even lies just at the doorstep to Vancouver, at the base of the Fraser River.  Yet even though they live just below our feet, their deep-water habitat of about 100-200m deep meant that we only discovered them about 25 years ago, and we still have much to learn about this important ecosystem!

Glass sponge reef in the Strait of Georgia, viewed from ROPOS. Photo credit: A Kahn

Glass sponges are made out of just that – glass.  They form a silica-based skeleton that comprises >90% of their body weight, leaving less than 10% to organic living tissue. Because of this, very few animals are expected to feed on them.  But in 2009 and 2011, while surveying the reefs aboard a research vessel equipped with the remotely operated vehicle ROPOS, Chu and Leys noticed two species of large dorid nudibranchs, Peltodoris lentiginosa and Archidoris odhneri, sitting on top of some of the glass sponges on two of the three reefs visited.  Now because nudibranchs are notorious sponge-eaters, they had a hunch that these cute little guys may actually be voracious predators in disguise.

Glass sponge-eating dorid nudibranchs found during the 2009 cruise of the Strait of Georgia glass sponge reefs. Photo credit: D Ludeman

So how do you know the nudibranchs are actually eating the sponges? By looking inside their stomachs!  By doing so, Jackson found that their stomach and fecal contents were full of spicules unique to both of the main reef-forming species of glass sponges, making these two species of dorid nudibranchs the first known predators of BC’s glass sponge reefs.  And the small amount of organic tissue compared to glass in the sponges must mean the nudibranchs have to eat A LOT of glass to sustain their large size! Nom nom nom.

Graduate Student Research at BMSC

by Travis Tai

Below is a subsample of what graduate students are studying RIGHT NOW at BMSC. This isn’t a complete survey of all graduate students at BMSC and it’s also not a complete summary of each person’s research.  If you’re interested in hearing more about anyone’s particular projects, leave a comment below and we’ll feature that student’s research in a separate post.

Suz Anthony, University of Alberta, MSc student with Dr. Rich Palmer

Sea slugs. Delicate, beautiful, DEADLY! These squishy creatures, most notably the opalescent sea slug, have the ability steal stinging capsules (cnidae) from their cnidarian prey, and sequester them in their colourful back projections (cerata). These cnidae are then used to defend the sea slugs from their own predators, including crabs, sea stars, and fish. But not all cnidae are equal; some cnidae can inject toxins, some are long and stringy and will entwine the mouthparts of arthropods, and some are more suited to piercing soft tissue. What I want to know is: If the sea slug is in the presence of a specific predator, will the sea slug preferentially select cnidae that will be most effective against that particular predator?

Mónica Ayala-Díaz, University of Victoria, MSc student

Monica in the field

Credit: M Ayala-Diaz

My name is Mónica Ayala-Díaz. I am doing my Masters degree at the University of Victoria. The purpose of my study is to evaluate the changes in behaviour of the marine snail Littorina sitkana due to the presence of trematodes, as these parasites can alter the behaviour of the snail in order to favour its predation by the next host so they can complete their life cycle. I am focusing on trematodes that have birds as their final host and I am testing if the parasite can get to the bird via direct predation of the snail or if it has another intermediate host. To achieve this, I am performing survival experiments in the field. To test changes in behaviour, I am tracking movement and grazing performance of L. sitkana.

Amanda Kahn, University of Alberta, PhD student with Sally Leys

Amanda on a ship

Credit: A Kahn 2012

I’m studying hexactinellid, or glass, sponges: a unique group of sponges that are unique because they are syncytial, meaning that instead of cells they have many nuclei all encased within a common cell membrane.  While other animals have small syncytial regions in their bodies (for example, human muscles), for the most part other animals (and even all other sponge groups) are composed of cells.  I’m studying how hexactinellid syncytia form and grow–from food capture to assimilation to growth of tissue, and finally excretion–which, beyond being really cool because it’s so unique to this group, is important to understand because a small group of glass sponges form reefs, just like corals, off the coast of British Columbia.  The reefs aren’t known to form anywhere else in the world today and are habitats for fish, crabs, sharks, and invertebrates; however, they are fragile and how the reefs grow and why they are so rare (the same sponge species can be found as individuals elsewhere, but only form reefs in a few places) isn’t understood.  Human activities such as trawling can destroy the fragile glass skeletons that form the reef, so understanding more about how the sponges work and what their effects are on animals living alongside them are the aims of my research.

Danielle Ludeman, University of Alberta, MSc student with Dr. Sally Leys

Danielle in the intertidal

Credit: D Ludeman

I study how the canal system in sponges (Porifera) is designed to allow both water flow and particle capture, and then how sedimentation can impact these filtration systems. Sponges are found in high densities worldwide, and as suspension feeders, they play an important ecological role in the recycling of nutrients.  A single 20-hectare glass sponge reef is estimated to filter 80,000 litres of a second!**  Increasingly, sedimentation from resource exploitation such as oil exploration or fishing trawls is having severe impacts on benthic suspension feeders including sponges, which, as filter feeders, are sensitive to materials that can clog their filtration system.  By understanding how their water filtration system works, we can begin to understand the potential impact of sedimentation. This knowledge can be used to predict what level of sedimentation sponges can tolerate to help manage important ecosystems such as the glass sponge reefs off the coast of British Columbia and the ‘ostur’ in the fjords of Norway.

** Chu WF and Leys SP 2010 MEPS 417:97-113

Travis Tai, University of Victoria, MSc student with Dr. Brad Anholt

Travis in the field

Credit: T Tai

I am a Master’s student at UVic, currently working on the evolution of sex-ratios in Tigriopus californicus.  T. californicus has a natural sex-ratio distribution that is extra-binomial, which suggests a polygenic sex-determination mechanism—multiple genes (environmental and/or heritable) contributing to sex-determination.  I am interested in Fisher’s theory of frequency dependent selection and modelling the heritable and environmental effects on sex-determination.  Fisher predicts that selection should select for balanced sex-ratios with respect to the relative costs of sons and daughters.  If sex-ratio should deviate from the balanced equilibrium, individuals of the less abundant sex will have a higher per-capita genetic contribution and frequency dependent selection will drive the sex-ratio towards equilibrium.  After many rounds of artificial selection for sex-biased genes, I have established population lines with male- and female-biased sex-ratios.  With relaxed artificial selection, I have been measuring brood sex-ratios for each treatment population for 8 generations.

Nicole Webster, University of Alberta, PhD student with Dr. Rich Palmer


Credit: N Webster

I am a PhD student working on the growth and development of shell ornamentation (ridges, ribs, lamellae, varices) in gastropods (snails). I want to know how a snail controls when and where to put ornaments, and how that affects them. My work at Bamfield is on two species, Ceratostoma foliatum, that has three, regularly spaced varices, that are precisely placed in the same position on each whorl, and Nucella lamellosa, that has many varices placed in a less controlled fashion. It is thought that Ceratostoma knows where to place each varix by encountering the previous one, and growing a new one in the same place, which I am testing with some shell manipulation experiments. I am repeating the experiments in Nucella lamellosa to determine how these less constrained varices differ in their growth pattern.

Want to learn more about any of these students’ research?  Or do you have questions about what you read about here?  Leave your questions or comments below!