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Blog Post: The Hunt for Bryozoans

Getting ready to snorkel in the cold (!) Bodega Bay Harbor.
Getting ready to snorkel in the cold (!) Bodega Bay Harbor.

Isabelle Neylan

“Oh sweet Jesus!” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop myself, as fast as the cold water making it through the zipper of my wetsuit. I never seem to remember how cold the water is here in Bodega Bay until I’m in it. “Ah! Alright, let’s go!”

We wade the rest of the way into the water and put on our fins and prepare our snorkels. Yes marine scientists do get to snorkel for work sometimes, but no we are not in bikinis wading into tropical turquoise waters on our way to swim with dolphins. We’re here on this cloudy day in a boat marina scoping out the invertebrates that live on the docks and pilings in the harbor. 

I’m on the hunt for bryozoans. Unless you’ve taken an invertebrate zoology class, you may never have heard of them. The species I am hoping to study, Bugula neritina is probably one of the most innocuous, uncharismatic animals you will ever encounter. They resemble a very lackluster clump of algae or a sad tumbleweed. 

Believe me, I wasn’t sold the first time I heard about them either. But it turns out they are perfect for the kinds of questions I want to study. I’m interested in how the experiences of previous generations affect the current one.  For example, if your mother was stressed by something in her life, can that affect how you yourself handle that same stress in your own life? More and more evidence seems to say that the answer is yes. This type of parental effect is often called transgenerational plasticity. “Trans-” because the effects are across multiple generations and “plasticity” meaning an organism’s ability to change. It allows organisms to adapt more quickly to their environment because they are not just relying on their genes or their own current experiences. This ability may be important in our rapidly changing world and has been shown in a wide range of taxa from plants to humans. 

These bryozoans are weedy and grow quickly, have lots of babies, and are all over the docks and easy to collect. They’re also stuck in place so being able to adapt to a changing environment may be especially important. If temperatures rise, the pH sinks, or heavy metals are introduced into the harbor they can’t just swim away and find a better home. Can this type of plasticity help them cope with human created stressors? I’m very curious to find out. 

Marine science is filled with these kind of unsung heroes, the organisms that allow us to ask interesting and important questions. You’re probably not going to see the effects of climate change on multiple generations of whales for example, but you might be able to with an unassuming but still pretty amazing marine invertebrate. Back at the docks we slowly climb out of the water. The trip has been a success; I found my bryozoans! It means I can start my experiments and begin to tell their story.

An adult Bugula neritina collected from the docks.
An adult Bugula neritina collected from the docks.

 

An adult Bugula neritina seen under a microscope (x10 magnification). Each little animal is a clone that makes up one colony. The tiny tentacles are called lophophores and are used to feed on particles in the water.
An adult Bugula neritina seen under a microscope (x10 magnification). Each little animal is a clone that makes up one colony. The tiny tentacles are called lophophores and are used to feed on particles in the water.

 

A baby Bugula neritina
A baby Bugula neritina! (x40 magnification) The larvae swim for as little as a few minutes to a few hours in the water before finding a place to settle and begin to grow into adult colonies. With the naked eye, they look like little poppy seeds and are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. 

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Blog Post: Empathy as a Universal Language

Ashley Collier Smart

In spite of the environmental disasters that are caused by mining and burning coal, I cannot help but be at least a little fond of it, if only for selfish reasons. For the last 300 years, coal work has provided a livelihood for my relatives—I have the family name of Collier to attest to this fact. During an age when people adopted their trade as a last name my relatives were employed as Colliers, or coal miners. I come from a line of Colliers dating back to the 1700’s with relatives working in coal in western Europe before immigrating to America.

My family’s story is the story of coal and the American Dream, where workers believed hard work could translate to economic freedom. Nearly one million people a year were involved in mining coal at the peak in the 1920’s. These jobs provided a stable source of income that did not require an extensive skill set for native-born and recently arrived immigrants. However, coal mining was a dangerous profession fraught with lax worker regulations and precarious mine construction. The lives of coal miners became collateral for keeping up with the increasing demand for heating fuel and electricity that drove the greatest advances in the quality of life ever known.

burning coal
Burning coal and the release of carbon dioxide is one of many ways coal disrupts the environment. Mountaintop removal is a method of coal extraction which negatively alters the surrounding ecosystem (Photo: Wikipedia).

As the scientific process chugged along and coal burning was discovered to be a potent contributor to climate change, coal gained a dirty reputation and rightfully became a target for regulations. A new generation, my generation, has grown up with increasing alarm at the prospect of irreversible climate change and the coal industry a political issue. It wasn’t only coal that was vilified, but it was also the people who mined coal. Simultaneously revered and disenfranchised, coal workers moved from providing the fuel for the engines of the American economy to being unemployed en mass in economically depressed regions as green energy alternatives became more popular.

As a climate scientist, I study the consequences of increased oceanic acidity which is a by-product of fossil fuel combustion, but because of my coal connections I recognize the complexity of the human element of coal. My association with coal is not simple, but nuanced, filled with both rational and emotional connections for and against coal–and I don’t think that this is an uncommon position. In an increasingly partisan environment where dog whistling defines the political norm, we risk creating false dichotomies that pit coal workers against the environment.

Coal burning contributes to climate change and must be reduced, but it has historically provided a reliable livelihood for many people in impoverished areas. We should be more cognizant of the regional impact of reducing coal mining and empathetic to facilitate productive conversation. We need to lie down our verbal weapons and listen. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the decisions people make, but an awareness of why people feel the way they do fosters trust and allows these conversations to take place to develop solutions.

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have rapidly risen since the industrial revolution. The NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory has tracked levels of carbon dioxide in the air starting in 1958.
coal workers
Coal workers traditionally engaged in dangerous mining work where they were exposed to a number of toxic substances (Photo: Wikipedia).
Av number of coal workers
Average number of coal workers in the United States from 1890 to 2015. The number of coal workers has declined over time resulting in displaced workers in economically depressed regions (Photo: Wikipedia).

 

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