Sunday, June 12, 2011

Stickle-ventures in Alaska

I am lucky enough to have spent the past week in Alaska (and lucky enough to be spending one more week here!). I have explored the stunning lakes, mountains, wildlife, glaciers, and much more with a great crew from the stickleback lab at Clark. My time here started off with adventures to a number of lakes to drop traps so that we could make collections and do crosses in the lab here at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. We had varying degrees of trapping success across lakes (Cheney Lake is driving us mad; where are all the stickleback?!?), but got to explore different views of beautiful Alaska. Several lakes, namely Kings (pictured) and Falk, among others, have the most gorgeous views of mountains and I could imagine myself living beside them and waking up to a postcard view. But only in the summer as the darkness and cold in the winter is much less appealing.

In the free moments between trapping and crossing, we like to go exploring. One stop along the way to and from Wasilla (where several of our sampling lakes are located) allowed us the opportunity to meet Harmony, the wolf. Miguel is on the hunt for handmade masks, so when we spotted a shop on the side of the road, decorated in ornately carved figures, we decided to take a look. As we approached we saw a very wolf-looking dog leashed to a tree outside the shop. There were no masks to be found, but Audrey asked the owner about this dog on our way out and he replied with 'That’s no dog. That’s a wolf!' To our excitement he let us pet this beautiful creature and oh what a sweetheart she was! After a nice backrub from Audrey and me (Miguel had to wait because she is wary of men), Harmony rolled onto her back so we could scratch her belly. Then Miguel came over and introduced himself to her and she was just delighted to have three people petting her. We wave to her every time we pass by, now.

On a girls' day out to the field, Dani, Audrey and I took another detour, this time up to Hatcher Pass. First, we gazed out along the rocky path of the Little Susitna River (pictured) and then made our way up the pass where we stopped to take in the breathtaking views of the mountains and valley surrounding us. We made our way to the top where we explored Independence Mine State Historical Park, an abandoned gold mine. It turned out to be a fantastic day of moose sightings (see Audrey's P.S. moose post), stickleback trapping and detouring.

Adventures continued the next day when Lauren, a former Clark stickleback lab member, joined Dani, Audrey and me for a trip to the Portage Glacier in the town of Whittier. When we arrived at the visitor’s center, I was astounded to see several icebergs floating in the nearby glacier lake. I don’t think they were quite as large as the iceberg that took out the Titanic, but they were pretty cool nonetheless! We then ventured into the creepy one lane, miles long mountain tunnel that took us into Whittier and closer to the glacier. After a brief exploration of the tiny town and much hypothesizing about the extremely large and sketchy abandoned Buckner Building not far off in the distance, we made our way to the hiking path. The path was a fairly steep, one-mile trek to one of the most breathtaking places I have ever seen. In one direction was the Portage Glacier, a grand piece of ice to say the least, and in the other an amazing view of the Prince William Sound and the mountains that line it. We spent a lot of time at the top investigating the wild flowers and many paths, each of which provided a different, but equally incredible view. We ended the day with a delicious home cooked meal of stickle-tillas (or open faced quesadillas to non-stickleback folk). Turned out to be quite an epic day of adventuring and I am very much looking forward to the adventures to be had in the coming week when Miguel and I will be focusing on collections for his Ph.D. research.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Waiting for Moose

There are so many wonderful things about Alaska-- the hundreds of majestic lakes, the breathtaking mountains, the thousands of brilliantly colored stickleback, but most important is the awe-inspiring moose.

I have lived in Maine all my life and even so I have never seen a moose in the wild. Working in Alaska is an amazing chance for an undergraduate student to experience both field and lab work, but for me it is also an opportunity to see a real, live moose in all its glory!

Summertime is the moose calving season here in Alaska. Moose mothers and their offspring are roaming around and foraging during the long, sunlit days. I have been told that moose are everywhere; they are on the side of the road, on the highway, on the campus, and around the lakes. This news confirmed that, in Alaska, it must be easy to see a moose and for many people it is a frequent occurrence in the summertime; however this moose spotting luck, for some reason, seems to have bypassed me.

Whenever we are in the car driving to the grocery store, walking to the lab, or working out in the field I am constantly looking for them. I even took a walk with Shannon in the woods specifically to the search for a moose. Even with hard work and dedication to the moose search, the past six days in Alaska have yielded no moose. There have been several false alarms involving rocks, twigs, and trees, but the search still continues for a real, live moose.

Although the moose hunt proves unfruitful, I have still had many fantastic experiences. The most remarkable task to date is making stickleback crosses. To begin, we collect live stickleback from several different lakes in the Mat-Su Valley region. Then, we pick a male and a female from a single lake collection and go through a process that ends in fertilized eggs. These stickleback embryos, which we ship back to Clark, will develop into adults and be used to conduct research experiments in our lab. It is exhilarating to know that those fish that are later used in research experiments were created by the members of the 2011 Alaska Stickleback Crew.

Finally, I have one request to anyone reading this post- please send all of your moose spotting vibes to Shannon and me in Alaska because it seems that we need all of the help that we can get!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Life After Alaska

Alicia Barlow

I spent three weeks in AK driving to lakes, emptying traps full of stickleback, fertilizing innumerable clutches of eggs by dissecting those stickleback, and then sending mass shipments of embryos back to our lab at Clark University (among other things). A daunting yet satisfying workload, to say the least, but what happened after Alaska?

Well, I flew home to Boston, rested up for a couple of days, and got right back to work monitoring my Master’s thesis at Clark. Some of the embryos we fertilized while in AK were destined for my experiment and they became my life (with the help of many others who were kind enough to lend a hand or two) for the rest of the summer. I said goodbye to the luxury of having weekends off and got to know my stickleback babies on a more personal level. Sounds like hard work, you say? Hardly. Compared to the three weeks I spent in AK previously, my summer was a breeze. I am extremely thankful to have been sent into the field, particularly at the beginning of the summer where I was suddenly kicked into high gear and forced to reevaluate my priorities. By the time I got back to Worcester I was so used to days packed to the brim with excitement and responsibility that I actually found my thesis work to be quite relaxing. I actually enjoyed taking a few hours a day out of my weekend to visit my developing embryos, and the satisfying sense of accomplishment I was left with afterwards. I think it is safe to say that my time in AK was actually life changing, and allowed me to grow up a little and become more confident in myself in the field and in the lab. Who knew?

I am currently still at Clark continuing my fifth year and moving into the next stages of my thesis work. I have finished my data collection and am currently immersed in the wonders of effect sizes and power analysis, (yay statistics!). I am ready and willing to see where this next year of my life will take me.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Final Days in British Columbia

A belated post this might be, but I felt it necessary to share with our readers the last days of the 2010 expedition to the north.

After a week in Alaska, the strangest thing about British Columbia was that the sun actually set. Granted, it set fairly late, around 9:00 PM, but there was still definite night and day.
For the end of our trip to British Columbia, Team Animal Behavior was on the BC mainland. Instead of a motel, we stayed with one of Susan's old friends, Norma, a sweet lady who had a great many stories to tell and who is very used to stickleback research.
(It seems that everyone up north is. We would be working at lakes and people would drive by us and ask "Are you the stickle folks?")

Our primary goal on the mainland was to investigate Hotel Lake. Lily and gang had scouted it out earlier in the summer to try and find courting and parental males, but the lake was empty then.Unfortunately, when Dianne, Lily and I explored the lake, we had similar bad luck. There were fry everywhere, clouds and clouds of them, but very few adults, and even fewer breeding ones.We tried twice, and laid out traps, all met with minimal success.

A view of Hotel Lake from the shore. Stickleback fry congregated near the shorelines.

Another day saw us trekking to the well-hidden Ambrose Lake. To get there, we had to drive up rocky trails and hike through thick forests and over muddy ground. The lake, however, was beautiful, and there were plenty of parental stickleback.

The parental fish in this lake were very brightly colored. Even the females, usually drab or silvery, were shades of bright gold and copper. Unfortunately, if the captured fish spent about twenty minutes in a bucket, they lost their coloration. Our collection, then, looked less impressive when preserved then they did in the water.

A courting male in Ambrose Lake.

Our last day was spent preserving all the stickleback we'd caught so they could be shipped back to Massachusetts. Working with that many dead fish and that much formaline is unpleasant, but with three of us working on it, the job didn't last long.

The trip back to the east coast required a long car drive back to Seattle and early flights. And then, we were all back in Worcester, where there were dishes upon dishes of stickleback eggs that needed attending to and fry that needed feeding.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Being a Journey Across the Border

The Canadian border, that is.

Team Animal Behavior departed for British Columbia on Tuesday night. The flights landed in Seattle at 5:30 AM, but there was no rest even then. The car had to be picked up (a monstrous Jeep, the only thing that could fit all the luggage) and it was a three-hour drive over the border to the ferry which would take us to Vancouver Island. Well, needless to say we were all very tired, but there were fish to collect and lakes to explore, so we could not be stopped! The following day saw us traveling to Sproat Lake to collect females for color observations.
On the way, though, we had a chance to stop at the Cathedral Forest.

It's an amazing place. The trees are immense and almost everything is smothered in drooping moss. The ground is covered in large ferns and the whole place feels primeval, like something time forgot. I like to think of it as Jurassic Park, minus the dinosaurs.

The trees are quite big. This one was over 500 ft tall.

Sproat Lake was very nice, despite being cold. The females there are very pretty. There was one that was gold and iridescent. Unfortunately, we came a bit early in the mating season to see much. About all we could see were some very eager males, some who would court with anything that moved.

Today was an early start so we could do Crystal Lake before access to it was shut off. The lake is in the middle of a partly clear-cut forest, but it's still lovely, and we were much more successful today than anticipated (35 captured males. Susan is tireless).

Tomorrow is another early start to catch an early ferry off the island. Hoo boy.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Being an Expedition to Seward

Yesterday was an early start for the animal behavior group. We had a two and a half hour drive to Seward and Resurrection Bay planned to catch some fish! Along the way, we stopped many times to take pictures of beautiful Cook Inlet and the mountains.
As we drove it began to get colder. We must have been getting higher into the mountains, because there was snow everywhere. Snow. In June.

It was a strange thing to see, but this is why they call it the Great White North!

When we finally arrived in Seward we had to do a bit of off-road driving to get to the lakes. Ponds, more like. We were looking at a large group of ponds in the middle of a large muddy field filled with knee-high grass. My boots and pants were covered in mud and pollen after walking around. The scenery was great though, even though we had to listen to the sounds of seagulls and crows screaming at each other.

After lunch we got to work. Traps were laid to catch fish for our crosses and the equipment to measure color was set up. Lily manned the color station while the rest of us patrolled the edges of the pond, nets in hand, searching for courting and parental males. When the sun came out from behind the clouds, this was an easy task; the pond was shallow and the water clear, and in the sunlight we could see straight to the bottom. The males were brightly-colored and most were guarding nests built into the muskeg-y bottom. Watching them was a fascinating experience. Reading about courtship behavior is one thing. It's quite another to see it in action, to watch the males chase off rival males, to see the males and females dance about each other, to observe how diligently the males guard their nests and just-hatched fry. Watching multiples males and multiple interactions on a large scale was somewhat dizzying, but gave me a new appreciation for the stickleback mating process.

During our day we had a visitor! A woman walking her dogs saw us gathering specimens and asked about the threespine stickleback. She was treated to the full explanation of our purpose and the evolutionary significance of the fish. She seemed quite interested. It's nice to know that locals want to learn more about the work we do here.And her dogs were very friendly.

There's also nothing quite like cold pizza for lunch during field work. Mmm-mmm.


Alicia and Colin – Going Rogue. Sort of.

After our fifth day in Alaska we are still not used to the lack of darkness! Our typical Alaskan day starts at eight in the morning, the sun just rising from its laze on the horizon; it never fully sets! Our first full day was extremely busy, with setting and collecting traps from ten different lakes. Fortunately, the last lake of the day, Echo Lake, made up for the “redonculousness” of the hard day’s work with the set of rope swings we found on the shore. Of course our next most logical course of action was to come back the next day for a quick swim.

Later in the week we discovered what the Alaskan natives call “muskeg”, the swampy marshes that surround the massive amount of lakes in the region. Colin discovered that the muskeg is a force to be reckoned with; he fell into Finger Lake after his first few steps in the muskeg. Luckily he was wearing waders and didn’t get too wet.

Yesterday happened to be Matt “Dr. Wund”’s over-the-hill birthday which we celebrated with a colorful hamburger and fries cake. (He isn’t actually over the hill…yet).

Earlier in the day we managed to collect and set traps at a multitude of other lakes, leaving us tired and in need of some late afternoon fun. We were strolling through a Sportsman’s Warehouse in search of a raincoat for Alicia when Dani noticed some neon orange fisherman’s pants, after which she said to us “hold my stuff I’m going to try this on and you’re going to take pictures”. Needless to say we ended with another good day.

Our next project involves dissecting male stickleback to make crosses for the Clark lab in home base Worcester. We had a successful learning day today and plan to spend all of tomorrow fertilizing about 80 clutches to be shipped home in the next few days.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The "Sunshine" Coast

Dianne and I arrived up in Alaska a few days ago, after two weeks with Justin and Shannon in British Colombia. It was absolutely beautiful there, despite rather dismal weather (Sunshine Coast? I think not.) It did put a damper on our fieldwork. Here are a few highlights from the trip:

We hiked the Skookumchuck Narrows trail, in Egmont. The hike was a bit longer than any of us expected, mostly because none of us could convert from kilometers to miles. We had both sunshine and rain, and more notably hail. It wasn’t exactly golf ball-sized, but it did make us run back under the trees for shelter. Only a few moments later, we saw a rainbow. We even caught a glimpse of a sea lion in the inlet, but I think our oohs and ahhs scared him off.

Our trip was early in the season, and many of the lakes we went into didn’t have a lot of stickleback activity. On one of our rare nice days, we went out to Ambrose Lake. It was secluded, and there was a short hike in. We got the lab’s first collection of fish from this lake. I unfortunately lost one of my fins in the water, and Justin bravely swam to retrieve it for me.

Justin and Shannon spent a few days observing fry behavior in Garden Bay Lake. Dianne and I went in search of female stickleback for observations in Hotel Lake. Unfortunately, there was not a stickleback to be found! We’re hoping to see more activity when we return to BC in a week, with Susan and Josh.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Being a Tale of Success

A successful day for Team Animal Behavior! This was especially exciting after a washout yesterday. Our primary objective was to dive in Willow Lake to gather courting and parental males and observe color patterns on them. But with the wind and clouds yesterday, no such luck, and we were forced to return early and wait for better weather.

Today, was sunny and warm, just the sort of weather needed for this work. It was an early start for us in order to get to Willow Lake at a decent hour. Once there, Susan and Dianne suited up while Lily prepared the equipment in the rear of the car. For the next three hours Susan and Dianne patrolled the shallows for males, and Lily and I performed the tests on the fish, which culminated in dropping them in antacids and stringing them up with needle and thread. Those three hours alternated between Susan and Dianne catching more fish than we knew what to do with and us waiting for more fish to be caught, which left time to enjoy the sun on the lakeside.

A future trip would be nice, considering most of the eggs had just been laid. However, I'd still count this as a win, based on how yesterday went!

The next stop was a brief trip to South Rolly Lake in search of pike. The hopes were to confirm that pike were in the lake so that the lake could be used for future research projects. Susan and Dianne were (understandably) tired from three hours in the water so it fell to Lily and I to do the exploring.
Well, as Lily had already spent time in the waters of British Columbia, she knew what she was doing. Me, not so much. The dry suit I used was leaky and rather too large. I could feel the water creeping in as I searched for the elusive pike. The quest was in vain, though I encountered large numbers of stickleback.

When I returned to dry land some twenty minutes later and removed the drysuit, I was utterly soaked. For all the good it did, I might as well have jumped in without it. So a quick return back to home base was in order to get me into something warm and dry.
On the way back, we saw a female moose grazing at the roadside (no pictures; we were going too fast. But take my word for it!)

Here's hoping the good weather holds out for us. Tomorrow is Cheney Lake: the search for more males!


Monday, May 31, 2010

On Stickleback & Socializing

As a certain mustache-ioed lab member recently put it:
"The problem with Alaska is there are too many Alaskans!"

Miguel & I have been trapping for stickleback in the Mat-Su Valley for a week now and what strikes us is the far-reaching and very recent development in this, the greater Anchorage area. In particular the "sleepy" hamlet & hometown of Sarah Palin, Wasilla is bustling with a major highway and boasts a number of large chain stores such as Target, Super Walmart, Lowe's and Sportsman's Warehouse. As we drive this stretch of road everyday we were regaled by Mr. Mustache about the good ole days before there were any stoplights to slow us on our way to the 70+ lakes we hope to trap at in the next 4 weeks. The lakes themselves are particularly juicy targets for suburbia's encroachment. It is rare to trap at a lake (most are pond-sized) with any less than 3 or 4 houses and many have entire subdivisions catering to a lake lifestyle. We drove by a private community that was strictly for pilots of float planes. The infrastructure to support these communities is staggering. Miles upon miles of winding road systems and the gravel excavation pits from whence they came. Downed timber and trash litter the sides of the road and "For Sale" signs are just about as common as "No Trespassing/Private Property" here in the land of libertarians.

So what does all of this mean for two rogue stickleback collectors? It means that in order to collect at these lakes we often do it on private property and that means befriending the locals. On a typical day we pull up to any number of properties to inquire if we may set our traps for collecting. Most people are more than happy to allow us on their land and, in fact, often wish to learn more about the "minnows" they find off of their dock. We often find ourselves teaching the very young and the not so young that stickleback are indicators of lake health, that the beautiful birds they enjoy must feed their young something and if you let northern pike invade there will be no fish to support the birds. These impromptu opportunities to educate the locals is lovely and sometimes they even teach us a thing or two! Today a homeowner recounted observing a stickleback turn on his side & shimmy in the sun. He was quite pleased to see that this important behavior went right into the notes. Often these kind folks invite us to stay or gift us salmon fillets. In addition to humans, we often get "help" from the fuzzy family members of these properties. Today a standard poodle knocked aside our traps and a few days ago, we met monty, a three month old fearless pup who led us right down the long muskeg trail to where we might trap and bounced alongside us through the whole process. We even had a particularly curious kitty who was drawn in by the smell of fish.

Of course, the story of increasing anthropogenic inputs influencing lake productivity and the resulting behavioral and life history shifts is one that our lab continues to investigate. It seems clear that this story is commonplace across these lakes as more folks choose to live the lake lifestyle. Trapping on these beautiful lakes, across variable degrees of development, will bolster our understanding of such patterns. And in the process we will meet many a friendly Alaskan and maybe, just maybe, take home a fillet or two.