After one month in Sweden I’m nearly finished with my study monitoring the population of broad-nosed pipefish. The goal of that study is to understand which males got pregnant first, and whether larger males have the opportunity to get pregnant first. We’ve been marking the fish so that we know if we’ve already measured them. So far out of over 1000 fish tagged, we’ve only recaptured 10 fish, which isn’t too many. However, it’s better than some other mark-recapture studies that have been attempted on other species and populations with large population sizes like we have here. And we have recaptured males that have mated since the first time we caught them, which is pretty exciting!
One thing that’s been really interesting to see first-hand is how abiotic factors like wind patterns and temperature can really affect field biology. Our goal for the population was to get to the point where 80% or more of the males were pregnant. We got to 70% and then a cold front rolled through, along with shifting winds. The water temperature dropped several degrees, and all of a sudden the population was back to just over 50% of the males being pregnant! I don’t know where the pregnant males we’d already caught went, or even where most of the population goes. That’s a question that we pipefish biologists ask ourselves season after season. These sorts of setbacks and unknowns are familiar to field biologists. And I think it’s important as biologists for us to encounter these types of challenges–they remind us that there are more things that we do not know than we do know.
These abiotic factors are important to keep in mind when you wonder why some projects might get federal funding–if I wasn’t conducting this project, which is basic research with absolutely no direct benefit to humans, then these observations of how weather seems to affect the distribution and mating patterns of a species might never be observed. Climate change has many effects, and some of them are subtle. But if things like daily wind patterns, the movement of low and high pressure systems, and water temperature can affect the mating behavior of one rather species, it’s hard to imagine the many varied effects changes in these factors may have on other species.
But the water is warming up, and soon we’ll reach our goal and finish up this project. Next week I should be starting some cool behavior experiments in the lab, which will present their own challenges.