A Kelpy Time Machine

This is x-posted from my guest post at Deep Sea News about the new Floating Forests citizen science project I’m part of. If you’re excited about it, go check out http://www.floatingforests.org/!

avatar_kelpThere’s something I’ve always wanted. Something that would take kelp forest science to a new level. Something that would let me do the kind of work that I dream about, quietly, secretly, peering into the mysteries of kelpiness.

It is something impossible.

It is a time machine.

And now I have one. But with a catch. For you, my dear friends, are its pilot.

OK, OK, first, why use a time machine as a tool of science, and not, I don’t know, to right wrongs and make the world a better place? Well, first off, temporal paradoxes, y’all. Come on. Be realistic. Has Doctor Who taught us nothing? Or decades of Star Trek? Or Primer? (seriously, see that last one, as it will hurt your brain in a good way).

But then, way, kelp? What? Hear me out.

There are so many things that we as marine biologists want to know about the state of ecosystems in the past. For many things, we hardly ever have records that are older than ten usually for just one small area. This is really problematic – especially for something like Giant Kelp.

You see, Giant Kelp (that’s Macrocystis to you!) is kind of the bad-ass of the algae world. It’s pretty damn huge – up to 60m long in some places – and grows up to a foot or two a day. It’s so damn big, we can see it from orbit1.

https://seaweedindustry.com/

Photo courtesy of the Seaweed Industry Association

It’s also everywhere – from Alaska to Baja to South Africa to much of South America to New Zealand to the sub-Antarctic islands. And, according to the Lane et al. phylogeny, it’s all one species2. It gets *around*. And wherever it is, it feeds, houses, and nourishes much of the life in the sea around it.

So, where does the time machine come in, and why are you piloting it?

Simply put – Keeeelllppp Innnnnn Spaaaace!

The Landsat family of satellites have been orbiting earth, taking photos of the whole globe twice a month since the early 1980s. Photos where we can se kelp. They are a time machine we as scientists can use to go back and see how kelp has changed over thirty years.

Can we see the near-extinction of giant kelp from Tasmania? Can we see it moving around the coast of South Africa? Has it been walking away from the warming equator? Is there more or less now than there was in the past?

OK, this sounds pretty cool. But where do you, our time-traveling pilots come in?

Basically computers suck.

OK, no, really, we love them. *pets shiny Apple laptop* BUT – they cannot tell kelp from waves or clouds in the Landsat images. My collaborators (the real remote sensing part of this team) have tried. It’s a no-go. We actually need people – kelp hunters, if you will, to peer at the millions of images of potential kelp habitat and help us discover these Floating Forests.

We need you.

Working with the Big Momma of online citizen science, Zooniverse, my collaborators from the Kelp Ecosystem Ecology Network (KEEN) and I have created an online citizen science project called Floating Forests. In it, we ask you to take a look at images. Help us cull out bad ones (they’re satellites – they take pictures cloudy cloudy rain or (often still cloudy) shine, or take pictures of more than we think.

And if you see kelp, circle it!

We'll give you images of coastline - like this July 2001 picture of Santa Cruz on the left. You circle the kelp beds, and that yields data about kelp abundances, as you can see on the right.

We’ll give you images of coastline – like this July 2001 picture of Santa Cruz on the left. You circle the kelp beds, and that yields data about kelp abundances, as you can see on the right.

It’s really quite meditative to see images of the land and see whisk by, pausing periodically to lasso a green bed of kelp.

Maybe you’ll see a wave-swept vista of Point Lobos. Maybe you’ll see the Googleplex (I did – by accident). Maybe you’ll see somewhere you’ve never dreamed of traveling, but with that big kelp bed sitting there, you know the destination of your next dive trip.

So, please, go hop into the pilot’s stick of this magical kelpy time machine. Poke around. And ask questions! We scientists are there to talk to you! What are you waiting for?

Yes, this is the entrance to a time machine.

Yes, this is the entrance to a time machine.

1.Cavanaugh, K., D. Siegel, D. Reed, and P. Dennison. 2011. Environmental controls of giant-kelp biomass in the Santa Barbara Channel, California. Marine Ecology Progress Series 429:1–17.10.3354/meps09141
2. Macaya, E. C., and G. C. Zuccarello. 2010. DNA barcoding and genetic divergence in the Giant Kelp Macrocystis (Laminariales). Journal of Phycology 46:736–742. 10.1111/j.1529-8817.2010.00845.x

Damn, That’s Some Big Kelp!

I’m not sure what it is this year, but the kelp we’re seeing in the Southern Gulf of Maine is just fracking huge. Last year, yeah, there were kelpy areas, and there were kelps that were ~1-1.5 meters long, which, you know, impressive. But this year…

It started when Team Dive (this summer, we have Team Marsh – #marshlife – and Team Dive going on) hit up the outer Boston Harbor Islands. We hadn’t been out much since winter. They found vasty fields of Laminaria digitata and Saccharina latissima (well, with their super-long stipes, they looked like S. longicruris, but it looks like they are now the same species – e.g., Cho et al. 2000 and others). How big? Twice the size of a grad student!

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But this was at the mouth of Boston Harbor. Maybe a fluke, or eutrophication?

As we kept working up in Salem Sound, though, the kelp seemed…well…big! But, eh, still urban-ish, still maybe an urban thing… (although it was *not* so big last summer).

If anywhere should be free of the urban influence, it should be Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals. It’s a few miles offshore, and has lots of microenvironments. And yet, everywhere we look – big-arse kelp! Super dense kelp area where last year an intern almost lost her mind counting kelp stipes? Still mind-exploding. Except now you have to count stipes by feel while your face gets wrapped up in the giant lasagna-blades of Saccharina. And it’s just as big.

OK, I’m 6’2″. And a half. (~1.88m). Here’s me, with my fins just barely touching the seafloor.
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It’s everywhere! Even in the wave-protected low-kelp density Heterosiphonia sites, while we do find lots of smaller kelps, the monsters still abound. See how it compares to the size of Team Dive.

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This isn’t to say it’s *all* that huge. A size distribution from the site that piece came from for reference:

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But, still, what is up with this? Big kelps coupled with very cold water temperatures of course has my California trained brain thinking more time with high nutrients, but I don’t know whether that relationship is as strong here in the southern Gulf of Maine. It’s making me very excited to see the oceanographic work that comes out in the next year or so to see just what forces are driving all of this!

And even more curious to know what’s going to happen next year, as we’re seeing massive numbers of tiny urchin recruits (and a lot of sea star recruits) often folded up in the eroding tips of many of these big honkers. Or on Desmerestia, like ornaments on a Christmas tree (240 in a square meter plot yesterday!).

References
Cho, G. Y., H. S. Yoon, S. M. Boo, and C. Yarish. 2000. Atlantic kelp species Laminara longicruris and L. saccharina (Laminariales) are conspecific. Journal of Phycology 36:12–13.

The Launch of the R/V Botryllid

Woohoo! It’s another amazing research season out here at the Shoals Marine Lab. We’re in the midst of our push to sample SML, Salem Sound, and the Boston Harbor Islands. The weather is glorious, and the water is…ok, not warm. 47F this year. Last summer at this time it was a good 5 degrees F warmer. But, either way, here we go on our summer Shoals sampling adventure!

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Marshall the generalists! Generalize the marshallists!

While working more on the bacterial network stuff, Jen and I realized I was wrong. Yep, I was wrong on the internet. Namely, in my post on bacterial networks, I got the answer wrong on the abundance of OTUs with different degrees of specialization. I had a rowSum after inverting a matrix instead of before, producing wonky vertex sizes. Jen cleverly discovered it when totaling up some of the data by hand, and after alerting me to the issue I produced the following plot which doesn’t agree with the network at all:

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So, I went back in, found the error, and now I give you the corrected network. Still very interesting – and it really shows that in the marsh, generalist bacteria dominate numerically, although they are relatively rare with far more specialists.

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Updating the github soon…

Beautiful Bacterial Networks in the Marsh

“So,” I’m sure you aren’t wondering, how did that creating ‘ecospecies’ from bacterial sequences based on sequence similarity, co-occurrence, and network theory work out for you?”

Quite well, thanks for asking! Heck, have a git repository, why dontcha!

Jen is furiously writing the manuscript, but, the technique indeed seems to indicate that 12% sequence similarity was the optimal number.

Once we got that down, and started plotting the network with individual Operational Taxonomic Units (OTU) each connected to one or more of the 8 plots they were found in, we started seeing some neat things. More more than that, they were just pretty pictures! I mean, come on, these plots are always cool.

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First, you can see that there is indeed some separation of species by plot and treatment (# is plot, letter is treatment). We got really excited about this, and so dug deeper to produce…

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Yes. Not you can see that most OTUs are specialists. True generalists are exceedingly rare.

We had one other piece of information up our sleeve, though. Abundance. We have abundances of OTUs. Playing around with edge widths (abundance in plot) didn’t produce anything striking. But then we looked at total abundance of an OTU across the whole marsh, and resized OTU nodes accordingly. I think this is exceedingly beautiful. And shows some striking patterns with respect to treatment and who is most abundant.

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Jen knows this experiment backwards and forwards, so is writing a much more nuanced discussion of what this means, and analyzing the data in more detail. But it’s pretty awesome. And pretty beautiful.

Just another way of viewing the wonder of nature.

p.s. I am learning to love RColorBrewer in a serious way

Walkin’ in an Invasive Wonderland

Last day of dives before heading back. We hit two sites on either side of the northern head of Appledore. It’s a remarkable break, as on one side you have fairly decent expsore to waves from the West. On the other, things are fairly protected. So, there’s a strong physical gradient. And, though perhaps just a few hundred meters apart, the two sites could not be more different. At the first site, the photos didn’t come out terribly well, but this gives you a general sense –

It was Halosiphon as far as the eye could see - like diving in a bed of furry ropes.  Or very thin muppet arms.  No, wait, that's just odd... although it would fit nicely in  Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.

It was Halosiphon as far as the eye could see – like diving in a bed of furry ropes. Or very thin muppet arms. No, wait, that’s just odd… although it would fit nicely in Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.

Lots of adorable cunner swimming about, but, man, churned up. A little Heterosiphonia about, but, not too bad.

Then we rounded the corner. And saw…

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It’s like somebody defauntated the rumpus room and decided to give the entire subtidal a nice shag carpet. I mean, sure, it hides the stains, but…

More than that, the site was quite bouldery. But what invertebrates were on the boulders?

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Oh, look! It’s my old friend Didemnum vexillum from the Left Coast. It’s here, in force. I’ve seen spots of it all week, but, nothing like the giant area covering colonies of the Bodega Harbor jetty or the docks. And yet, here it is. Sure, there’s some Desmerestia thrown in for good measure, but, more or less, it’s all invasives, all the time down here.

What is going on? How long will this state last?

Undersea Carpets?

The second site of the day was a surprise. 10 years ago, Smith’s Cove was a mixed mussel bed and urchin barren. Previous, it has been a Codium meadow. Now… It’s just a giant red algal carpet. Wall to wall. Thick, easily fragmenting, ubiquitous, invasive red Heterosiphonia japonica. Also, big tufts of Ulva. And some other bushy filamentous algae scattered about, along with a few crabs.

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What a weird landscape. What is that red carpet doing? Smothering things? Creating habitat for mobile invertebrates? Providing food, or is it not that edible? The reef was like this as far as we swam and looked around – hundreds of square meters. Weird.

Yeah, that's 100% cover.

Yeah, that’s 100% cover.

Kelp on a Ledge!

Day 2 of dives with Sarah out at SML. Today we hit two sites that were quite different – both from each other and from Norwegian Cove the other day. The Ledges are in the channel between Appledore and Smuttynose, so, they get good flow running through. This was key, as it blew sediments from the previous day’s storm out fairly quickly. And viz was really quite nice. While it used to be a barren (at least on one side) 10 years ago, it appears that it’s now a mix of kelps and Desmarestia with some Chondrus, filamentous reds, and others thrown in for good measure.

A nice mixed algal assemblage.  And a mix of kelp ages and sizes.

A nice mixed algal assemblage. And a mix of kelp ages and sizes.

Indeed, some parts were super kelpy, although, not dominated by large adults. The mix of sizes was fairly astounding, even where thing were at high densities.

Note all of the little guys hanging about.  I mean, it is still early June, so, it may be recovery.  But how cute are these little ruffled kelpies!

Note all of the little guys hanging about. I mean, it is still early June, so, it may be recovery. But how cute are these little ruffled kelpies!

Note all of the holes you see, though. The site was also packed with little snails like Lacuna vincta that appeared to be doing quite a job on the kelps.

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What will this mean for later in the summer? Particularly with Heterosiphonia around in patches.

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All in all, a nice site to sample. More soon on Smith’s Cove. Which was…

Day 1: Back in the field!

Well, today was it. After a 2 year hiatus behind my computer screen, my skin now softer and more delicate from its soothing rays, I hopped back in the water FOR SCIENCE! Not only that, but it was my return to dry suit diving. Oh, dry suit diving. I really didn’t miss you and your weird buoyancy tricks (note to self, get ankle weights, as old ones have desintegrated).

It was a great day, despite feeling kinda like the first day back at school. Ted (lab manager) and I came out to SML to work with a fantastic undergrad I’m advising for the summer, as well as do some site scouting of our own. The weather report said that things would turn awful in the afternoon/early evening (and was right), so, a morning dive on the backside of Appledore was just the thing.

This truck is loaded WITH SCIENCE!

This truck is loaded WITH SCIENCE!

Ted ready to go

Ted ready to go

We were there to help Sarah census the invasive Heterosiphonia japonica to look at its distribution with respect to a depth and exposure gradient (see also this kick butt paper by Christine Newton et al.). And the backside of Appledore is quite exposed. The transects we were sampling are next to a spot in the intertidal that got wiped bare by this winter’s storms.

Photo by Ted of Sarah (L) and I about to plop down our first transect.

Photo by Ted of Sarah (L) and I about to plop down our first transect.

What intrigued me about the transects was two things. I remember this area being super-kelpy. Indeed, the wave exposure limited Codium back when that alga was the big bad (I’ve heard it’s quite rare here, and in a quick checkout at The Cribs, I only saw 3 individuals). But now…well, there are some kelps, but, mostly, it’s red and brown filamentous algae. A lot of Desmerestia viridis to be sure, but a lot of red and brown puffiness. That, and a lot more Chondrus. I mean, we were fairly shallow, but, still. Interesting.

Photo by Sarah of one of her transects

Photo by Sarah of one of her transects

Not a lot of Heterosiphonia, though. It’s going to be interesting to see how Sarah’s project turns out. Some sites have been heavy with it, some light.

I’m just glad to be back in, and seeing how the place has changed. Steneck’s Flips & Locks paper was an interesting update on how this system is doing. I’m going to be curious to browse around and try and take the big whole community perspective I honed at the SBC LTER and see what there is to see here.

A great photo by Sarah of a school I totally missed.

A great photo by Sarah of a school I totally missed.