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!

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2 thoughts on “Mobile, AL: Updated

  1. […] This is written by another PhD candidate in biology, and touches both on science and geeky stuff. This is another blog that talks about what it’s like to do science, and the author’s experience is completely different from mine. Maybe because we’re in completely different areas of biology. Something cool that she did on her blog was documenting one of her field research experiences. […]

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