The foray into a legit office aquarium

I had a lot of aquatic pets growing up, from a betta named Neemo adopted from a friend to a Pacman frog that lived like 6 years to an African dwarf frog that killed himself by getting stuck in the tank decoration.

I tried goldfish in college, but it’s just too hard to have pets when week or two-long quarter breaks beckon ya somewhere else. Now that I have my own office in grad school (and friends who are always around taking care of their experiments if I’m out of town), it’s easier to have a pet. I’ve used a Kritter Keeper on and off for the last year, but after buying a new large pet shrimp spur-of-the-moment, I decided he needed more room.

Thus, I decided to go big…or as big as 5.5 gallons gets me. Petsmart’s Top Fin brand has quite the deal in a $30 tank that comes with a pump, filter, and an LED light. A light alone costs more than this package separately!

I’m in love with it so far, but even more in love with the little guys in it. Way more on them in the future!



Blending in or stressing out? Coloration of a grass shrimp in response to ocean acidification and ocean warming

Wondering what I spent my first year of grad school doing? Read on for a quick synopsis:

I held up the plastic tank in front of the visitor’s face.

“They’re hanging out on the seagrass,” I said. “Can you see them?”

The teenager, part of the group touring our department’s aquarium room, shook his head. None of the students had had any luck finding the grass shrimp I was studying. This was great news for these small shrimp, just half the length of a matchstick, clinging to the green blades. Predators like pipefish and surf perch roam their natural habitats scanning for such a nice little snack, but effective camouflage can help protect them.


This is a species of grass shrimp that lives in Southern California. They cling to the blades of eelgrass, a kind of marine plant that’s about the size of curling ribbon. This guy is super green, allowing him to blend in with the grass and hopefully avoid the detection of eagle-eyed pipefish.

Chromatophores, structures filled with pigments that can expand or contract, are responsible for these animals’ ability to blend in. In octopuses, these look like little dots of watercolors on crisp paper, drying up or pooling out as dictated by light sensors both in the eyes and skin. Hippolyte californiensis, the shrimp I study, instead have little starbursts of blue, white, yellow, and red splashed across their bodies, comprising an overall coloration of green or brown that matches healthy or dying seagrass.


This little shrimpie doesn’t have much color! Here, her chromatophores are contracted into little dots. This shrimp has been living in the lab by herself for about two months by this point, and most animals in these conditions lose their color. Normally, it’s because the food they’re getting doesn’t allow them to make all their normal pigments. However, shrimp that lived together and ate the same food stayed pretty colorful, leading me to believe the color of other shrimp may act as a signal.

Their coloration is likely one of their most important predator defenses, but how will future ocean conditions impact this strategy? Ocean acidification and ocean warming are two stressors that have been shown to mostly negatively affect marine organisms, but we don’t know how these conditions may impact processes that control coloration. To test this, I exposed shrimp to ambient seawater, reduced pH conditions, or reduced pH and increased temperature conditions for seven weeks. Near the end of that period, I imaged them under controlled conditions, then switched the white lights bathing their tanks to green lights that mimicked their seagrass habitat. Shrimp should adjust their coloration to blend in with their new environment, as preliminary tests indicated. Animals stressed by the unfavorable conditions may reallocate energy elsewhere or experience disrupted signaling pathways, which may result in an inability to change color and more predation.


The eye of this shrimp (top left) is really important for determining its coloration. They not only use them to see what their environment looks like (and thus what they should match), but hormones that change coloration also get released from here. This shrimp has many expanded chromatophores filled with different-colored pigments.

However, no group of shrimp changed color even after ten days. My colleagues and I then wondered if these shrimp had the diversity of visual pigments necessary to determine the difference between white and green light. After shining white light on their eyes and measuring what wavelengths were reflected back, we determined that they do have visual pigments that absorb blue, red, and yellow, but mostly green light, so they should have been able to detect our change in their environmental color. While it is still not clear what induces a color change, the shrimp in stressful conditions didn’t react differently than shrimp in ambient conditions, not only in terms of coloration, but also for growth and survival. For now, it seems that their greatest worry will be the fish lurking among seagrass beds, not the changes we expect in our oceans.

Santa Catalina Snorkels

I know I’m really procrastinating on my homework when I decide I’ll write a whole blog post instead of working on what’s due soon. Normally, I tell myself I’ll have a five minute break and then get back to it (yeah, right), but a post is serious business.

Basically, I’ve realized that this blog may not be widely read, but it’s a way for me to catalogue my memories. And now, I’m starting a PhD program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanograpy and I hope the next 5 (maaaaybe 6) years will hold some pretty amazing periods. This summer, I’m taking a class with a bunch of master’s students, and boy do we go places!

A few weeks ago, we took a field trip to Catalina Island off the coast of CA. The boat ride over there was not as bad as I had expected–my parents both provided a horror story of their own less-than-pleasant rides years earlier. We docked at the USC Wrigley marine station, which they graciously let other institutions use. The first problemo was getting our stuff up the dock to a truck to get up the hill (how did a desert island in the middle of the ocean get so elevated?!?!). Thankfully, it turns out 30 of us did a fantastic hand-off line and the 10 boxes of beer and dozen bottles of wine our program provided made it safely to our dorms (apparently: college=alcohol no bueno; grad school=bring on the beer).

The USC marine station! Of course, the dorms were alllll the way at the top

The USC marine station! Of course, the dorms (and food!) were alllll the way at the top.

Also, Imma take this time to apologize for the lack of above-water photos. This is one of the few you’re going to get, likely due to my painstakingly expensive acquirement of an underwater camera (finally!). I seemed to forget I could actually use it out of water.

We soon hopped in the water for some initial snorkeling exploration, then wrapped up the day with a lecture by the most wonderfully relaxed yet innocently excited professor, Dick Norris. He even led us in a drinking game during his lecture of Catalina geology!

The next morning involved a closer study of the geology by kayak, so we set off for the diatomaceous cliffs just outside the harbor.


Thousands of years of diatoms, little marine algae, dying and landing on the ocean floor. This is proper wonderment, people!

Thousands of years of diatoms dying and landing on the ocean floor. This is proper wonderment, people!


Entering a dark and previously unexplored realm. JK, it was a fairly short tunnel. Watch your head on high waves though!

The next few days found us working our science magic and completing a series of transects both in our little bay and at Little Harbor. We counted fish, invertebrates, and algae. While a useful way to quantify what an area has in terms of life and then compare it with other area, transects can be hard to do and even harder to do well. Tom (my summer field trip buddy!) and I had a difficult time in the shallows as waves tried to pick us up and drive us five feet up into barnacle-encrusted rocks. Try bushwhacking giant pieces of algae out of the way while counting snails on the  12′ bottom on one breath. Science is not all glamour, kids! Thankfully, our data wasn’t destined for publication in Science, so our class used it more as an experience in the difficulties of field work.

I honestly know I’m happier now with rooting all my work in the lab, which I was a little bummed about at first. I appreciate how so many variables can be controlled–out there, scientists have to worry about how their introduction into the environment is affecting animal behavior, whether they accidentally missed a really important species, or something as simple as how much air they have left in a SCUBA tank.

So all my complaints aside, spending so much time in little plots of shore has its benefits. We saw some sights that makes Catalina famous!


Leopard shark! These guys adored the warm pool of water near the dock. Shy and small, they stick to the bottom and don’t bother snorkelers desperately chasing them with cameras. This one is about to make an about face and head away from me.



Classic kelp forest, complete with a garibaldi!



A kind of kelp called Macrocystis, which is recognizable with a bulb for every frond. Very common!



Beneath the dock, a kelp bass lurks. This part of Catalina is a marine protected area, meaning fish like this can’t be speared. It’s almost impossible to find fish this big elsewhere on the island, which our data supports.



First fish on our data sheet in Little Harbor!



The first time I’ve ever seen a wild octopus! What a beauty 🙂



More Macrocystis. Catalina is well-known for its kelp forests.

Something I think everyone should do is peer a little closer to what’s around them in the water.  I often find the coolest things when I don’t just have my eyes peeled for bigger animals. So grab a rock and pull your face in! Just check for any eels first…


This species of anemone grabs little bits of shell and rock to its body for protection.



A species of nudibranch that I didn’t even see until I stuck my hand on him!



Man, I don’t even know half of what’s in this picture. The brown/black circle is the opening to a stationary snail, there’s some turf algae (green bits), some coralline red algae (pink/red stuff–it’s actually got a “skeleton” of calcium carbonate), and I think the orange is a sponge.

We even got a whole day to do paired projects. I worked with a classmate on identifying zooplankton from two different areas. I’ll leave you with one last shot through a fancy microscope/camera combo! Talk about looking closely!

Spionid larval worm (left) and a fish egg (right)


Thank you

Dear readers,

I hope you have enjoyed popping by my blog the last few weeks as much as I’ve enjoyed picking out pictures and jotting down memories. Sadly, the academic quarter is wrapping up, which means that soon I won’t be in a blogging class anymore. Thus, no more assigned blog posts. Now don’t get me wrong; writing for this blog has felt like more like a break in studying rather than a task.

Still, homework has always been the most important thing to me while I’m in school, followed by swimming, working, and dominating my roommates in the hangman game we have going on a whiteboard (not necessarily in that order). So, many other things will probably be queued up on a to-do list before “write blog post.”

While future posts may not be as frequent, I hope to still post every once in a while (probably on breaks). I’ve got some exciting things coming up that I’d like to share: yesterday I decided I’d be swimming at USMS Nationals in Indianapolis in May, plus I have an internship in Maine this summer, radio-tagging salmon. Like many of my classmates, I’ve chosen a topic–actually two!– to blog about that will thankfully never be fully explored.

Since I won’t be posting as frequently, posts will probably be longer and ideas more carefully fleshed out. So, my lovely readers, do you have any suggestions as to what you’d like to see in the future? Has it bummed you out that I haven’t posted very many beginner swimming tips? Let me know about anything you’re interested in, and I’ll try to make sure to cover it in the future!

Whew, too much talkie, not enough pics, right? Let’s wrap this up; throw out your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond!




Book Preview

Exciting news guys! I’m writing a mini-book! I’m deep in the process, cranking out plenty of new material, and it will be completed in a week or two. For now, enjoy an excerpt from the book (I’m also still looking for a title–any suggestions?). This part delves right into more of the Mexico study abroad, weeks after the camping trip I’ve been focusing on lately:

After the final presentation was given, after the final paper was turned in, we loaded backpacks and sleeping bags onto a dive boat in the hotel’s marina and headed north as the sun set right over islands in the distance.



Such a phenomenal sunset requires over-the-top modeling

We snorkeled once that night, and I slept in my swimsuit in a bed below deck, struggling to fall asleep as first my feet jammed into the wall and then my head hit the headboard, over and over again.

We were already on the move when I woke up the next morning, and soon we were snorkeling with a small colony of sea lions.


During lunch, I was presented with a piece of cake—my roomie had remembered it was my birthday! I hadn’t mentioned it for a few days since I didn’t want it to overshadow the trip. Salwa, one of the local students, taught me a bit more about Mexican tradition when she shoved the cake in my face. The resulting picture is one of the worst photos of me ever taken. Let’s not post it.

A few hours later, we had snorkeled twice around Los Islotes, one of the most popular islands with a sea lion colony in the Sea.


A male watching over his territory and females during breeding season–it’s terrifying!



The problem with mask tunnel vision: you don’t know a large male is sneaking up behind you until BAM! there he is. We weren’t supposed to swim too close, but this guy was calm since he chose to approach me. Aggravated sea lions will sometimes dart at a swimmer and end up within inches of his or her mask, bare their teeth, and blow warning bubbles.



Me and a baby!!! OMG so cute.



Snoozin’ in the sun. Sea lions can also regulate their body temperature in the water by sticking up a single fin as a sun catcher and float in the shallows like that.


The boat turned around and began its journey back to the marina a few hours away. We sprawled across the forward deck, perfecting tans before heading back to the US in two days. There was always at least one of us on the very front of the boat with a pair of binoculars, looking for spurts of mist on the horizon, a sign of whales.

When someone spied splashes in the distance, my professor Ben determined it was jumping manta rays. As we got closer, however, the number of splashes grew exponentially and a small yacht appeared in the middle, apparently an attractant. The captain steered that way, and before too long, a few of the splashers had moved over to our bow. They were dolphins! The captain kept us at a speed to keep a bit of a bow wave and more and more dolphins began surrounding the boat. Dozens crisscrossed under the bow, taking turns popping out into the air before arcing back down to the depths. Hundreds more spread out far into the distance; my three professors estimated we had chanced upon a pod of about 1,500.


For every dolphin jumping, there’s at least ten chilling below the surface! This was also at the tail end of the experience; they had tired of us and we didn’t chase them.


It was honestly a challenge to put down the camera and enjoy the experience–there are so many times when I’ve been too busy trying to adjust the shutter speed or get a good angle instead of enjoying the experience. Alas, I didn’t get as many good shots as I would have liked, but I do have some great memories. My whole class gathered on the bow, leaning over the railing and darting from side to side. It was perhaps the most exciting birthday present ever–the crew members hadn’t seen a pod this large in years.


I’m still not sure what species they were. There wasn’t a consensus on the boat. Some thought they were common dolphins; others thought they were Pacific white-sided dolphins. To me, they don’t match online images of either of those species.





Check out the fish on the side of this dolphin! I’m not sure if it’s a cleaning remora or a parasite, but it sure is hanging on at top speed.

The group began dispersing, perhaps chasing schools of fish elsewhere. However, we were left smiling for hours.