What's in a stomach?

Researchers and students at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab are working on a number of projects. Some projects require digging into the stomachs of fish.

For example, you may remember Dr. Marcus Drymon's discovery of land birds in tiger shark stomachs. It's a discovery that was highlighted on Nat Geo Wild's Blitzkrieg Sharks earlier this year

Sharks aren't the only marine animals with some interesting eating and digesting habits. Miaya Glabach, a research technician in Dr. Will Patterson's lab, spends her days looking at the contents of a variety of fish stomachs. Glabach answered a few questions to help us understand why scientists are interested in what fish eat. 

What's the importance of knowing the contents of a fish's stomach?

By identifying what a fish is eating, we can learn many different things about a fish; where they are eating in the water column, how their eating habits change seasonally, how they change regionally as well as what types of communities on certain sites based on what has been found in stomachs. 

What's the most interesting stomach you've worked with?

One stomach I have had the most fun with has been lionfish stomachs. I have only started processing them within the last few months. Lionfish are such voracious eaters, and eat anything they can fit into their mouth, you find a large assortment of different prey items. We have found that the smaller lionfish seem to eat more shrimp and small crustaceans; whereas the larger lionfish will still eat crustaceans, but eat far more fish. 

How do you identify the contents of a stomach?

When I first started on stomachs, a lot of it was asking others. Now that I have been doing it for a while, I have learned different resources that I can use to aid in the identification of different items. We have some invertebrate guides that we use as well as several different fish guides with keys to help us identify based on characteristics what species of fish we have since most times the skin is the first item to digest, we cannot use that as an indicator of species. 

What's the most shocking thing you've found in a stomach? 

The most shocking thing I have ever found in a stomach was a telemetry tag from a fish that we had tagged the previous day. The fish was pulled up as our team tagged red snapper. The back end had been bitten off by a shark.  Instead of tagging the fish and releasing it with almost full certainty that it would die quickly, we sampled the fish with our usual protocol (tissue, stomach, otoliths). When I went to go and process the stomach, I opened it up and found a partial skeleton of another fish, as well as one of the telemetry tags from a fish that we had tagged the day before. We were able to see the ID number on the telemetry tag and see what size fish it had been on. 

How did you get into looking at fish stomachs?

When I first joined the lab, there was a huge backlog of stomachs that had not been processed, and this is where my involvement of stomach analysis started. It was a long process of working with students in the lab and learning how to identify, as well as learning all the different items that could be in a stomach. Even a year later, I am still finding new prey items and have to do research to identify what they are.

What's in a fish's stomach? from Dauphin Island Sea Lab on Vimeo.

ACER outreach highlights tools of the trade and more

The Alabama Center for Ecological Resources (ACER) dedicates time to helping the public understand the coastal Gulf of Mexico habitats by sharing and simplifying the jargon often used by scientists.

ACER’s education and outreach team created three educational blogs to focus on a variety of topics and ideas.

The Word Wednesday series explains the meaning behind scientific terms like ecosystem services and benthic macrofauna.  For example, learn what is meant when scientists discuss trophic cascades in food webs and what is top-down and bottom-up control.

Complementary to Word Wedensday is the Tool Talk series where you can learn about the common methods and technologies used by scientists to answer their questions and test hypotheses. For example, how and why does the ACER research team use a mass spectrometer in understanding the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The mass spectrometer, or mass spec for short, has become an important tool in many aspects of science including genetics, biochemistry, pharmaceuticals, environmental science, geology and ecology.

The third blog, Habitat Focus, explores the habitats and ecosystems scientists are working in daily such as the salt marsh and oyster reefs.

Follow ACER on Facebook to learn more about their work.

NOAA grant includes Dauphin Island Sea Lab expertise in sea level rise project

This photo shows old snags from the historic pine flatwoods near Bayou Heron. Sea level rise has changed the soil salinity of the area, so, it is now composed mostly of salt panne vegetation. (Courtesy: NOAA) 

The Dauphin Island Sea Lab will have a hand in a recently funded NOAA project to help managers evaluate options for natural resource management in the context of sea level rise in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana State University is the project lead on the $1.2 million grant titled, "Dynamic sea level rise assessments of the ability of natural and nature-based features to mitigate surge and nuisance flooding."

Renee Collini, coordinator of Northern Gulf of Mexico Sentinel Site Cooperative (NGOM SSC) and based at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, is the co-principal investigator for the management engagement portion of the project.

"There is global sea level rise, but what that looks like here in Mobile Bay or in the Gulf of Mexico is very different than what it would look like somewhere else," Collini explained. "It's important to understand what we're facing locally in order to better manage and preserve our natural resources and ecosystem."

Collni added, “The work done prior to this project did very detailed research into understanding the dynamics and impacts of sea level rise in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Now, we're working with and expanding that understanding to assess different natural resource management options."

Collini will provide engagement expertise to the project and, with co-PI Denise DeLorme, bring together a network of managers and decision makers to form a Management Transition Advisory Group (MTAG). The MTAG will provide guidance on management options to assess and utilize the research results of the project in their work. A critical portion of the assessments will be linking changes in the ecosystem to economic impact and valuation of ecosystem services.

This will provide decision makers with additional information to consider when determining state and regional resource management. Other partners in the project are University of Central Florida, University of South Carolina, and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. For more on the project, visit www.coastalscience.noaa.gov/publications

Marine educators gather for annual conference at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab

A group of marine educators from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and northwest Florida gathered for a weekend of marine debris education, comradery and business at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab during the Southern Association of Marine Educators (SAME) annual conference in November.  SAME is a regional chapter of the National Marine Educators Association (NMEA).  

DISL"s Caitlin Wessel, the guest speaker, shared captivating information about her past and current research and valuable resources from NOAA’s Marine Debris program.

The weekend provided SAME attendees with gorgeous weather for the activities planned such as wrack-line micro-plastic sampling on the beach, a trip to the Shell Mounds to look at ancient marine debris and a sunset beach clean-up walk on Dauphin Island’s public beach.  

Holding the conference at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab offered a perfect opportunity for these fellow educators to review the year past, plan for the next and share stories of their passion for marine education and the northern Gulf of Mexico.  

Discover the deep with DHP and NOAA

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer berthed at the NOAA Ford Island facility located in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (Courtesy NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

For several years now, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab's Discovery Hall Programs has been fortunate in being able to offer teachers and other educators a single day training workshop on the deep sea and NOAA’s Ocean Exploration program. The workshop, "Exploring the Deep Ocean with NOAA", is set for Saturday, December 3.

Many say that the deep sea is mankind’s final frontier for exploration, at least on Earth.  While more than 95 percent of the living space on Earth is in the deep sea, almost all of this immense habitat has not been seen by the human eye.  To date, humans have explored less than 1 percent of the total volume of ocean and less than 5 percent of the ocean floor.

The deep sea is certainly the environment we know least about. It is so different from what we consider to be characteristic of ‘normal’ habitats. It’s dark, it’s cold (~2°C), and the pressure can be thousands of times greater than our one atmosphere environment at the surface.  

The deep sea contains unusual habitats such as brine pools, hydrothermal vents and underwater mountain chains. And best of all, there are some very unusual animals living in the deep sea such as vampire squid, tube worms which are as tall as people, angler fishes that are more mouth than body and the barreleye which is a fish with a clear dome for a head.  If you are interested in exciting others about the process of discovery, the deep sea is a gold mine.  

While exploring at depths of over 4,000 meters northeast of Necker Island in the Hawaiian Archipelago, Deep Discoverer encountered this ghostlike octopod, which is almost certainly an undescribed species and may not belong to any described genus. (Courtesy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Hohonu Moana 2016.)

In 2008, the ship Okeanos Explorer was christened to explore the deep sea and ‘to go where no ship had gone before.’  Known as America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration, she is the only federally funded U.S. ship assigned to systematically explore the unknown ocean for the purpose of discovery and advancement of knowledge. The Okeanos Explorer is equipped with the latest technologies including multibeam sonar for high resolution mapping of the sea floor, two ROVs or remotely operated vehicles (unmanned tethered underwater robots) equipped with high definition cameras, banks of powerful lights and capable of reaching depths of 6,000 meters (~19700 ft; 3.72 miles) and an array of sensors.  

The vessel's most unusual capability is what NOAA calls telepresence.  Equipped with a huge satellite dome and lots of bandwidth, this ship can communicate directly and in real time with scientists across the globe, sharing high definition videos from the ROVs, and allowing these scientists to direct exploration by the ROV.  These exploration videos are streamed live through the Okeanos Explorer website and can be watched by anyone with internet access.

"Having spent many hours watching them, I can attest to the excitement and fascination of seeing something for the first time ever," Dr. Tina Miller-Way, Discovery Hall Programs' Chair said.   "Archived videos as well as photos and cruise logs from all of their exploration cruises are available through their website. I suggest checking out the Gulf of Mexico cruise in 2014."

The teacher workshop is filled with with great resources, fun and educational hands-on activities, and friendly and helpful colleagues, this workshop helps educators of all types tap this gold mine of excitement and discovery.  

If you are an educator, make plans to join us on Saturday, December 3. Just give us a call (251-861-2141, ext. 7515), send us an email to sejohnson@disl.org or go to disl.org/educational-programs/professional-development-for-educators/list-of-workshops/ to learn more.

If you are not an educator, but want to learn more about this program and the deep sea, go to their website and explore.  

A word of caution from Dr. Miller-Way, "there are so many videos and photos available, you will lose many, many hours."

Discovery Hall Programs announces Summer 2017 camp dates

Bay Voyager campers explore the salt marsh with Marine Educator Greg Graeber.

Discovery Hall Programs (DHP) is once again gearing up for a summer full of fun! Summer 2017 dates are set, and enrollment in summer camps will begin January 1.

DHP is excited to offer a new overnight camp called Marine DeTECHtives!  Rich in STEM components, this 3-day camp immerses rising 6th-8th grade students in the world of marine technology. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) take the helm, with campers learning about the different components, and building and driving their own designs! Marine DeTECHtives will only be offered July 5 through the 7, so be sure to sign up early to secure a spot.

A hit among students, the residential camps Barrier Island Explorer, Gulf Island Journey, and Bay Voyager always fill the fastest, so parents should plan on enrolling early. Ocean science and hands-on adventures are packed into every second of these popular programs. For rising 5th-6th graders, Barrier Island Explorer will have three sessions to choose from; June 4-7, June 11-14, or July 23-26. Gulf Island Journey, for rising 7th-9th graders, will be offered in four sessions; June 4-9, June 25-30, July 9-14or July 23-28. Bay Voyager, for rising 9th-12th graders, will again be offered once; June 18-23.

Day camps are a great way to add some fun activities to your summer, without the commitment of an overnight or multi-day program. The ever-popular Oceans Alive mini-camp for 5 to 8 year olds will be offered June 16, July 21, and July 31. Also returning in 2017 is the BIO Blitz camp for 8 to 10 year olds. BIO Blitz will be held June 9, June 23, and August 1. Survivor: Dauphin Island is also back on the schedule for 10 to 13 year olds and you can choose to participate on June 16, July 28, or August 2.

Finally, the Marine Science Course for high school students currently in 9th through 12th grade will begin accepting applications after the first of the year. This month-long academic program is ideal for students interested in pursuing marine science in college, and is approved for high school science elective credit by the Alabama State Department of Education. The Marine Science Course will take place June 25 through July 21, 2017.

For more information on any of these camps, click here or contact DHP Registrar Sara Johnson for more information via email at DHPSummer@disl.org or by phone at (251)861-2141, x7515.

If you are interested in giving a gift of a camp enrollment to that special young one, please do not hesitate to contact us for details on how to do so.

The faculty and staff of Discovery Hall would also like to wish everyone a very happy holiday season, filled with the company of family and friends!

DISL Spotlight: Hazel Wilson retires after 25 years of teaching

Hazel Wilson teaches students during the Oceans Alive Summer Camp.

It's been three months since Hazel Wilson retired from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. For a quarter of a century, Wilson was a Marine Science Educator for the Discovery Hall Programs. 

Wilson said she loved teaching the students, and helping them appreciate the world of marine science. Wilson enjoyed seeing the thrill on a student's face as they caught a hermit crab, or the excitement as dolphins swam alongside the Research Vessel Alabama Discovery. 

Wilson's first trip to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab was in 1983 for a teacher workshop. She was teaching in Mississippi at the time, and remembers Dr. John Dindo talking to the teachers about being counselors for the high school program at the time. She also remembers meeting fellow DHP educator Jenny Cook at that workshop. 

Wilson spent nearly a decade, taking a trip down to work as a counselor before she joined the team as a full-time educator in 1990. When asked what was her favorite topic to teach, Wilson had trouble choosing just one. 

"The beach walk was one of my favorites to show them how diverse the island is with dunes and the maritime forest. 

Also the salt marsh, getting out there to see it. And of course, the boat and the excitement of seeing dolphins," Wilson said.

In 25 years with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Wilson has taught many a student.

"I taught JoAnn Moody (current DHP Marine Science Educator) in the high school program, and this past summer I ran into three students I taught several years ago. They are all majoring in Marine Biology," Wilson said. 

Her advice to those students, "study hard and study something that you like and enjoy. I used to tell my students that I get paid to do this, and I love it."

Wilson feels she grew up at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, and appreciates those she met along the way. However, she is enjoying retirement.

"We went to the Badlands, Yellowstone, and I'm headed to New York soon," Wilson shared. "I loved my job, but it's nice to explore."

Sea Lab Nibbles

Magnolia the Manatee's Long Journey Home is in production and should be on shelves by Christmas. The book written by Mobile area photographer and writer Simone Lipscomb is based on the true story of Magnolia the Manatee. Magnolia was the first manatee in Alabama history to be successfully rescued after she became stranded in the cold Alabama waters in January of 2015. The book can be ordered online through this link or you will soon be able to find it in the gift shop at the Estuarium. If you order your copy online, you can choose to pick up if you live in the Mobile area.  

Applications are being accepted for the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Students chosen to participate in the 10-week REU program perform independent research projects with the guidance of a Dauphin Island Sea Lab mentor. 

The Port City Pacers donated a portion of the proceeds of the 2016 Hurricane Run held on Dauphin Island in September to Discovery Hall Programs. The monies will be used by DHP to bring in a high school age intern during the 2017 summer. DHP Chair Dr. Tina Miller-Way accepted the check and thanked Port City Pacers Treasurer David Dutton for their continued support. The Dauphin Island Volunteer Fire Department also received a donation from the Port City Pacers.