What

Well done. You’ve made it to round 2.

What.

In my previous post I promised an insight into what I do; my research and how I got to where I am. I shall deliver on my promise.

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Me on Sydney Harbour during a day out sampling. I’ve had a haircut since then!

My background was not in science. I did physics in high school, but struggled through it (I am terrible at maths), and that was the extent of my scientific knowledge at the age of 20. I’d been out of school for a few years and had been to Tafe in an attempt to pursue a career in music event management (peak emo stage). That didn’t go to plan. Looking back, I didn’t get a whole lot out of the course. I met some great people and had some great teachers but all in all I didn’t put in the effort and when you don’t put in the effort you don’t get much in return. It was in a year away from study that I had the time to create a pretty amazing marine aquarium. It was a 200 L system and the show piece was a pair a breeding clownfish. I bloody loved that thing. The more I got into that, the more I was learning about different species and how to keep marine fish. This started a desire to constantly learn more about the ocean. By the end of the year I had decided I wanted to become a marine biologist. To be honest, at that point I wasn’t even sure it was a thing. But I applied to university and got accepted. Boy, was I unprepared!

Anyone who thinks university is too hard in the first few semesters and feels that they’ll never finish or get where they want to go, just stick with it if you have any sort of vision about what you want to be. I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. That was all I knew and all I needed to get me through my first three semesters of study. I struggled. In my third semester my academic standing was ‘pending’ because I had failed too many courses. But I wanted to be a marine biologist.

Along came the relevant subjects (about fucking time!). Ecology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate zoology, INTRODUCTORY MARINE SCIENCE!!!! At last I was happy with university. And my grades showed how much I was enjoying myself. Never again did I receive a grade lower than a credit (these mostly came in courses I ‘had’ to do but I had learned how to learn! and made my way through them). By the time I was in my final semester (after 4 years) I was filthy if I didn’t get a distinction, actually I was generally disappointed with my grades because I wasn’t getting HDs. I did end up with 1! (2 if you include honours). My weakness has always been exams and due to their heavy weighting I would always end up below 85 even if my progress mark was 90+ before the exam. I personally think exams shouldn’t hold such a heavy weighting, but you can see why. Luckily my marks were still strong enough for possible honours supervisors to be impressed with my CV.

Honours. I knew I wanted this research experience, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do after that. I’ve never been one to plan five years ahead. Anyway, first step is finding a supervisor. I had known who I wanted to be supervised by for a while and after consulting with a couple of academics I was lucky enough to end up with who I wanted. Now, this can be a tricky process for some. But the best thing to do is talk to as many potential supervisors as possible and see who’s research interests you the most. So my supervisor was happy with my undergrad marks and took me on board. Funny story: my academic transcript, obviously, showed my early failures and he had a giggle as this saying that it is typical of someone who starts doing subjects that they’re actually interested in in second year. This made me feel a lot better about those early semesters! Fast forward to the end of honours and I loved it, nailed it, and got accepted into a PhD.

My research!

“Beyond the border: effects of an expanding algal habitat on the fauna of neighbouring habitats”. Put that into Google Scholar and you’ll be up to date with my honours research. If you’re a researcher, you go right ahead and cite it. Please and thank you.

My PhD research topic? A good question. As with most environmental PhDs, mine is constantly changing as new opportunities arise and others diminish. This is part of the reason for the stress involved in doing a PhD. It’s something that plays on your mind, but has to be dealt with as opportunities, ideas, and funding comes and goes. Half of my thesis has a clear picture though, and I can tell you a little about that.

So, a fair chunk of my time up until now has been working on a project on the fine-scale effects of boat moorings. My role in this is studying the fish community using GoPro’s!

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My high tech camera stands each mounted with GoPro

By placing up to 20 GoPro’s on the seabed within a 120 m diameter area I was able to detect the effects of boat moorings on fish over a matter of meters! Turns out fish aren’t big fans! Very cool, I know. Considering fish are mostly thought to be attracted to man made structures, and their perceived high mobility, this is a pretty cool result.

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A Whiting being followed by a Silver Trevally at Manly, Sydney Harbour

An honours student in our lab also found a similar effect on the invertebrate community living in the sand around the moorings (tiny little worms and crustaceans). Super cool! This work is still ongoing and will go through to the end of my PhD, but hopefully i’ll have something publishable by the end of the year that I can share.

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Diver entering the water to collect sediment. Communicating with the surface through tethered comms)

The other side of my research is working in a coastal lake in southern New South Wales; St Georges Basin. It’s a few kilometres south of Jervis Bay. It’s a really nice spot and it’s always great to get out of the city. We’ve got a very cool system down here. I’ll try and explain it the best I can. SO! There’s a bit of bushland with a rocky point (small headland, see picture right at the top), with a rocky reef. On the reef is a multi-species seaweed patch that is dominated by one of those species (Cystoseira trinodis).

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A forest of Cystoseira trinodis

This is a species of brown macroalgae (seaweeds are algae, not plants). Seaweeds generally need a hard surface to settle on and establish themselves. So when the rocky reef ends and becomes sand, the algae can no longer settle. UNLESS!! There’s a hard surface scattered among the soft sand.

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Seagrass (species: Zostera capricorni) in the foreground, with Cystoseira in the background

In many sandy marine habitats you will find seagrass! Because of a number of different processes the seagrass tends to create a low oxygen environment in the top few centimetres of the sand. Now, stay with me, these sandy habitats are home to other animals! Whaaaaaaaaat! Who knew right? In this case, one of those animals is a species of clam (Anadara trapezia, or the Sydney Cockle). The Sydney Cockle prefers to live its life buried in the sand, hiding away from the real world. But! The seagrass means that it has to face reality (oxygen = reality. Remember how I said seagrass lowers the oxygen levels?) You see where this is going? The Sydney Cockle has to come up for air! It pops up and exposes part of its shell. You know what this means? THERE’S A HARD SURFACE IN A SOFT HABITAT (seaweed fans rejoice!) Now we have a habitat where there’s seaweed settled in the sandy habitat (actually settled on the Sydney Cockle who just wants to be able to breathe). This is what we call a facilitation cascade, and i’ll explain what this means in a later post.

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Cystoseira settled on a completely unburied Sydney Cockle, surrounded by seagrass (species: Halophila ovalis)

So i’m looking at a few things here. Mostly, whether the seaweed settled on the Sydney Cockle is different from those settled more conventionally on the reef. The questions i’m asking are: Is the seaweed itself structurally different from those on the Sydney Cockle? Before the next question I should probably mention that seaweed is ABSOLUTELY COVERED in tiny little animals. So so so so many worms, snails, crustaceans (and more!) live on seaweed, providing nutrition from the primary producers (photosynthetic seaweed eaten by the creepy crawlies) to higher trophic levels (fish eating the creepy crawlies). Second research question! Is the creepy crawly community on the seaweed from the rocky reef different from those on the Sydney Cockle? Thirdly, what ecological role do fish play in these somewhat similar, but also distinct, habitats? I know! You want to know the answers too! Early stats say yes to the first two questions! But why????? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Maybe the answer to the third question will help us understand why.

This project involves a lot of time in the lab, measuring different seaweed characteristics as well as counting all the animals. But i’ll leave details of this until i’m at it again and can add some pictures.

I hope I explained this well? I’m not sure. Fingers crossed you now have an idea of what I do.

As I’ll address in a later post, i’m looking to improve how I communicate my science. So as time goes on, everything will become clearer.

Later skaters.

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