Freshwater Pipefish

If I haven’t said this explicitly yet, pipefish are typically saltwater fishes. We knew of the populations in Alabama, which I’ve already written about, and had heard rumors of Florida populations. One thing we’re interested in is local adaptation, which we can address using freshwater colonizations by saltwater fish.

So while we were in the Jacksonville area (where we went after our collections in Perry), we decided to check out the St. Johns River. We ended up driving much further south than the outlet of the river to the ocean, but we found the eelgrass that our fish love so much and found a decent population! The next day we decided to try another site further south, and again found fish! Finally we decided to try Lake George, which is likely the furthest away from saltwater the fish would probably go in this river system. After gaining access to the eelgrass in the lake by some incredibly helpful and friendly homeowners, we found a third population! It was really exciting. We’re hoping to discover how isolated the freshwater populations are from each other and from saltwater populations using population genomics approaches. Here’s a map of where we collected the freshwater fish (the yellow pins). The closest saltwater source would be the Atlantic ocean up near Jacksonville, and the pipefish would have had to swim upriver.

Another interesting thing about the freshwater populations is that they all had odd sex ratios–we found very few adult males, and even fewer that were actually pregnant. There were plenty of females and lots of juveniles. These unusual ratios could be explained by several things:

1. Maybe the adult males tend to be in deeper waters than in which we were collecting (this would be surprising, as saltwater males are usually found in shallower grass beds than the females).

2. There could be some physiological tolls that exist for males but not for females as a result of living in frehwater instead of saltwater.

3. There may be more pollution, in either amount or concentration, in the freshwater lakes and rivers than in the saltwater ocean. Pollutants like endocrine disruptors could alter sex ratios by feminizing males and biasing the development of the offspring.

We’re pretty excited about the possibilities that these collections present!

To put a damper on our excitement, we failed to find any viable seagrass beds anywhere near Jacksonville or St. Augustine, meaning that our closest saltwater populations to the freshwater fish are in Titusville.

We do now have three sites in Titusville, and tomorrow may be adding yet another–this one near a power plant! Today was a good day, in which we collected fish from two different sites near Cape Canaveral, saw a baby alligator at a very high salinity site (that was also really mucky), and saw a couple dolphins and a couple manatees.

Perry, FL

Goals: Collect 25 males and 25 females from a saltwater site near Perry, FL; avoid thunderstorms; avoid erosion-preventative remodeling of our site; avoid getting eaten by alligators; and drop our frozen samples of in a freezer at FSU.

Achievements: Collected 30 males and 30 females in saltwater near Perry, avoided storms, worked around the crews laying down sand, and did not see any alligators!

Yesterday we collected fish in Perry, FL. Perry is a town tucked away in the corner of Florida where the panhandle meets the peninsula (about 1 hour from Tallahassee). We had found the site the day before–there was a whole bunch of grass right off the public beach where people are allowed to swim. Some locals had warned us to be careful because someone had been bitten by a gator in the saltwater just a week before. That made us a little nervous, but there’s nothing we could to about it. So we got up early and headed out there, only to find the water at high tide was at least 2 feet higher than it had been the day before, making the seagrass too deep for us to access on foot! So we had to wait out the tides, putting us at higher risk of running into the PM thunderstorms that are constantly predicted by weather.com. When we returned to the site around noon, the water was lower, which was good, but there was a crew of prison workers on the beach laying new sand! Luckily there was a side access to the water through a marsh, so that didn’t slow us down all that much.

As we started pulling, we noticed some dark clouds off on the horizon and the wind started picking up. We didn’t hear any thunder or see any lightning, so we didn’t stop working, but we did pull a little bit faster, despite the wind making our jobs more difficult. We ended up catching our pipefish in record time–just over an hour! We got off the water without having been hit by any storms or having seen any dangerous creatures, other than stingrays. After loading up the car and driving about 20 minutes, we saw a few picnic tables under a thatched covering at a gas station and decided that it seemed like as good a location as any to stop and process our fish. So we set up our gear and started working. As we worked, we were interrupted by every single local who stopped by the gas station–including all the workers in the store! They all were fascinated by what we were doing and by the pipefish. One of them exclaimed, after hearing about the genetics work we’ll be doing, “That’s some CSI shit right there–on fishes!” We definitely felt like we were educating the masses.

Finally we finished up with just enough time to make it to the Florida State University Marine Lab back near Apalachicola around 5pm. My labmate has a friend who works there, and he had offered us some space in their -80C freezer for our 5 collections worth of samples. Upon our arrival, he realized the freezer was locked and he didn’t have any idea where the key was kept! We finally found it after calling around and asking other folks from the Marine Lab, and we were able to safely stow our first set of samples, putting our minds at ease.

So despite overcoming several significant hurdles, we got our datapoint at Perry and got our samples safely frozen!

Today we drove over to the Atlantic coast and scoped out sites–tomorrow we should be able to collect some freshwater pipefish in Florida, which is pretty exciting!!!

Port St. Joe, Take Two

Goals: To collect 25 males and 25 females in another saltwater ‘control’ site in the Port St. Joe/Apalachicola area

Achievements: Collected 45 males & 21 females in addition to 4 developing females and 14 non-pregnant males

Today we decided to try another site here in the Port Saint Joe area since our collection yesterday was from the strangest population we’ve ever really seen. This time we decided to try on the island on the other side of Apalachicola Bay.

We had some trouble locating a site initially, but with the help of a friendly ranger at St. George Island State Park, we found promising seagrass beds and collected some pipefish. We caught all the fish we needed in a couple hours of pulling nets. During that time we also saw a bonnethead shark (which are pretty harmless), several stingrays, and a dolphin chasing fish. It was a pretty exciting day!

Second Stop: Port Saint Joe, FL

We’ve been in Apalachicola, Florida for the past couple of days, which is a small town near Port Saint Joe. Yesterday thunderstorms all day long prevented us from collecting anything, so today we got up early and tried to get our control site here in Port St. Joe. We’re really only trying to do one site in this area, since there aren’t any power plants that dump hot water into the salt water bays. So today we got up early with these goals: to collect 25 males and 25 females from a ‘control’ saltwater site.

Achievements: Collected >25 females but only 8 males. This is one of the weirdest collections we’ve ever experienced; usually pipefish populations have a 2:1 ratio of males : females, so having such a skewed distribution towards females was incredibly irregular. Additionally, we found a large number of juvenile or intermediate-looking fish that we had difficulty determining sex. There were at least 30 of these intermediate fish, which also is unusual. In general, it was just an unusual and weird day of collecting. But at least we got enough fish for our population genetics!

Me with a fish in a ziploc to photograph it.

Today we also found the most wonderful website: Where to Buy Dry Ice. We’ve got to keep all of our samples good and frozen, but it’s not very easy to find the dry ice we need to keep them cold. That website told us that the piggly wiggly down the street would sell some to us! It made us very very happy.

Mobile, AL: Updated

***I’m re-posting yesterday’s post with updates about our Alabama trip–all inserted notes and updates will be in this blue color***

As some of you know, I have just embarked on a collecting trip that will last the rest of the summer and into September. My labmate and I are collecting pipefish across the Gulf of Mexico. Our projects are looking at variation in population dynamics, sexual selection & sexually-selected traits, and local adaptation in populations of Gulf pipefish along the Texas coast, the Florida gulf coast, and the Florida Atlantic coast. We had our first day of collecting yesterday, and I figured I would update my blog along the way so that people can (a) keep track of me if you are worried about my well-being an (b) learn a little bit about how field research works. So these posts may be fairly intermittent, but I will try to keep up with it!

Day 1: Mobile, Alabama

Goals: to collect 25 males and 25 females at a ‘control’ saltwater site and the same number of fish at a saltwater site near a powerplant. Powerplants leak hot water into the natural waters, creating natural ‘experiments’ with higher temperatures than their ‘control’ counterparts.

Achievements: Collected <20 males and <20 females at a freshwater site. After finding nothing at the powerplant site, we proceeded on to a freshwater site.

We got to go on some pretty nice boat rides through some of Mobile Bay because a couple of folks from the University of South Alabama (USA) helped us out and took us out in their research boat. That was a definite highlight–it almost felt like vacation! However, our moods were dampened a little by seeing a baby dolphin and a shark carcass near the power plant site. Luckily we didn’t see any gators where we were catching fish in freshwater, even though we saw one in another channel on our way out. We got chased off the water by thunderstorms, and headed back to the USA campus to process the fish. To process the fish we’re photographing them and then temperature-shocking & storing them on dry ice. Unfortunately our processing methods didn’t go as smoothly as we would have liked, and it took us a while to work the kinks out of our plan (luckily just barely avoiding my labmate’s panic attack). It turns out that photographing live fish is a lot harder than you might think. And we weren’t entirely sure if temperature-shocking was the most humane way to euthanize the fish. After a (panicked) cal to our advisor, we wound up doing everything exactly the way we had planned it. Luckily we made it back to the hotel with our samples stored on dry ice just before a huge thunderstorm rolled through.

Day 2: Mobile, Alabama

Goal: Find a saltwater site and catch 25 females and 25 males.

Achievement: Caught 23 females and 42 males at a freshwater site.

We get up bright and early this morning (5:30am) to get out to Dauphin Island (just south of Mobile Bay) to try to find a good saltwater site to catch our pipefish. Unfortunately, after driving around Dauphin Island for about 1.5 hours, we found out from a group at Sea Lab that studies seagrass that there aren’t any easily-accessible seagrass beds. While on Dauphin Island, we also got our van stuck in the sand. Luckily, the person who we had pulled aside to avoid was driving a pickup with a towing line, and he was able to pull us out of the sand. Today we didn’t have access to a boat, so we were more limited by what we could drive to, and so we abandoned Dauphin Island. Luckily, we knew an exact location for a good population of freshwater pipefish, so we headed there and got enough fish. As we were processing them (which went much more smoothly today), we saw a huge alligator swim by, going really fast! S/he was probably at least 8 feet long, maybe even bigger.

We were just happy we were already out of the water when s/he came by.  After that we finished up processing the fish and headed out just before a thunderstorm rolled in. So today was a day of good timing!

Tomorrow we’re hoping to actually get a freshwater population, and after that we’re headed to Florida! I’ll try to post as often as possible to keep people up to date. Let me know if you want more/less information on certain aspects of the collecting trip–I’ll try to answer your questions and keep you interested!

Day 3: Mobile, Alabama

Goal: To find our 25 males and females at a saltwater site, then drive to Florida.

Achievement: We found our 25 males and females at a saltwater site, then drive to Florida.

Our third day in Mobile was much better than our first two. We had heard of a potential site from another A&M grad student, and we decided it was our best bet for finding a saltwater site after Dauphin Island didn’t work out. There’s a little peninsula hanging down into Sandy Bay, and we followed a windy, mildly soggy mud road down to the end of the peninsula (about 30-45min of driving)–until the mud road ended in a huge puddle. That drive was pretty terrifying, as I was afraid of getting stuck and at certain points the tracks already embedded in the mud seemed to be doing more steering than I was. We eventually ended up driving down someone’s driveway, and the owner of the house very kindly allowed us access to his seagrass. It turns out that he is one of the only commercial oyster bed cultivators and has hosted other researchers in the past. We found all of the fish we needed and got out of the water by 9am. We loaded the live fish into the back of our car and drove back out on the muddy road just in time to avoid a thunderstorm. We then drove about 3 hours in torrential downpour towards Florida. Once we crossed the state line we decided to stop and process our fish in the back of our van, because it appeared that we wouldn’t be getting out of the storm anytime soon. So we sat in the back of the car on coolers, photographing and killing our fish. After about two hours of hunkering down in our van, weathering out the storm, we finally finished up with the fish and drove the rest of the way to Apalachicola, where we’re now staying near Port Saint Joe.

Today there were thunderstorms all day long so we didn’t get to sample at all-hopefully tomorrow will be better!

Field Season 2012: Mobile, AL

As some of you know, I have just embarked on a collecting trip that will last the rest of the summer and into September. My labmate and I are collecting pipefish across the Gulf of Mexico. Our projects are looking at variation in population dynamics, sexual selection & sexually-selected traits, and local adaptation in populations of Gulf pipefish along the Texas coast, the Florida gulf coast, and the Florida Atlantic coast. We had our first day of collecting yesterday, and I figured I would update my blog along the way so that people can (a) keep track of me if you are worried about my well-being an (b) learn a little bit about how field research works. So these posts may be fairly intermittent, but I will try to keep up with it!

Day 1: Mobile, Alabama

Goals: to collect 25 males and 25 females at a ‘control’ saltwater site and the same number of fish at a saltwater site near a powerplant. Powerplants leak hot water into the natural waters, creating natural ‘experiments’ with higher temperatures than their ‘control’ counterparts.

Achievements: Collected <20 males and <20 females at a freshwater site. After finding nothing at the powerplant site, we proceeded on to a freshwater site.

We got to go on some pretty nice boat rides through some of Mobile Bay because a couple of folks from the University of South Alabama (USA) helped us out and took us out in their research boat. That was a definite highlight–it almost felt like vacation! Luckily we didn’t see any gators where we were catching fish in freshwater, even though we saw one in another channel on our way out. We got chased off the water by thunderstorms, and headed back to the USA campus to process the fish. To process the fish we’re photographing them and then temperature-shocking & storing them on dry ice. Unfortunately our processing methods didn’t go as smoothly as we would have liked, and it took us a while to work the kinks out of our plan (luckily just barely avoiding my labmate’s panic attack). It turns out that photographing live fish is a lot harder than you might think. And we weren’t entirely sure if temperature-shocking was the most humane way to euthanize the fish. After a (panicked) cal to our advisor, we wound up doing everything exactly the way we had planned it. Luckily we made it back to the hotel with our samples stored on dry ice just before a huge thunderstorm rolled through.

Day 2: Mobile, Alabama

Goal: Find a saltwater site and catch 25 females and 25 males.

Achievement: Caught 23 females and 42 males at a freshwater site.

We get up bright and early this morning (5:30am) to get out to Dauphin Island (just south of Mobile Bay) to try to find a good saltwater site to catch our pipefish. Unfortunately, after driving around Dauphin Island for about 1.5 hours, we found out from a group at Sea Lab that studies seagrass that there aren’t any easily-accessible seagrass beds. Today we didn’t have access to a boat, so we were more limited by what we could drive to, and so we abandoned Dauphin Island. Luckily, we knew an exact location for a good population of freshwater pipefish, so we headed there and got enough fish. As we were processing them (which went much more smoothly today), we saw a huge alligator swim by, going really fast! S/he was probably at least 8 feet long, maybe even bigger.

We were just happy we were already out of the water when s/he came by.  After that we finished up processing the fish and headed out just before a thunderstorm rolled in. So today was a day of good timing!

Tomorrow we’re hoping to actually get a freshwater population, and after that we’re headed to Florida! I’ll try to post as often as possible to keep people up to date. Let me know if you want more/less information on certain aspects of the collecting trip–I’ll try to answer your questions and keep you interested!

Evolution 2012

You may all have wondered why I haven’t posted on the blog in over a week. The reason is that I was at the Evolution meeting in Ottawa, which was a joint congress of five different international evolutionary biology societies. There were over 2000 attendants, and the conference lasted for four days. Over the course of those four days, I went to a myriad of talks by fellow graduate students, as well as post-docs and faculty members. There were a wide variety of subjects covered, including genomics, mate choice, hybridization, and more. There were also two poster sessions, each with about 300 posters (one of them mine!), and those two sessions provided an important time for attendees to mingle. I met a great many interesting people and had some wonderful talks about my research and theirs. It was a really fun week, although really tiring!

**Just to prepare everyone, I will probably not be blogging much for the rest of the summer, as I am leaving for a month-and-a-half-long collecting trip to catch some more pipefish to study!