Ends and Beginnings

Dear Readers,

I promise that Agent Red Squirrel isn’t gone. The past week or so has been super hectic, with packing and last days on the water, saying goodbye to friends and to Ningaloo reef… but there are still a thousand things left to blog about! I may have left Exmouth but as I am able, I will continue writing away. Upcoming highlights include a Meet the Locals feature, a post on mixed-species dolphin groups, and possibly a little bit of my own personal speculation about the research we’ve done this season.

THAT BEING SAID, I am currently located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and am therefore super excited to bring back travel-bloggy Agent Red Squirrel! As usual, expect biology and curiosity and adventure, but with more history and cultural stuff. And with that, here’s an update on what I’ve been up to the past few days:

First, we left Exmouth. Packed up the whole house, books and papers and computers and food, football and port-a-crib, binoculars, posters, clothes, beach towels, scuba gear… the lot. It all (mysteriously and magically) fit back into the big truck, and we took off at 6 am for Geraldton, our Exmouth-to-Perth roadtrip stop. (In case anyone is unclear here, I’ve been in Australia for three months, so this is the tale of how I left my field research position at the end of a wildly fun and scientifically successful season.)

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I snapped a last emu photo for the road. Of course.

After a quick stop in Coral Bay to drop off our beloved boat:

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We booked it down to Geraldton and in the morning, we took off for Perth. But you know Team Sousa- first we had to make a pilgrimage to one of the most biologically exciting and real-people boring tourist sites in the world!

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Stromatolites are the oldest extant living things in the world. The earliest known fossils (3.5 billion years ago???) are layers and layers of these same kinds of cyanobacteria, the primary engineers of our current oxygen atmosphere. They converted the carbon dioxide that used to dominate into oxygen, which poisoned most everything else living at the time but allowed for some bigger stuff to develop, like… us. As these particular cyanobacteria grew, they accumulated dust and grime and calcium carbonate in layers corresponding to periods of activity in their clustered flagella (wiggly external bacteria bits that move stuff around, or in this case attach things together), probably as protection from strong ultraviolet light. All told, they are big piles of ex-bacterial film growing in shallow sunny water, and they look a little like ossified elephant poops, but symbolically represent the very beginnings of the field of biology and so there we were. We saw them. We nodded in respect/camaraderie. We got back in the car and continued south.

We finished our last few hours together in typical Team Sousa style: Tim and me singing the Pitch Perfect soundtrack and Kaja and Nat gritting their teeth and bearing it. With some lovely hospitality by Luke, Nat’s brother who very conveniently lives in Perth with some awesome housemates and, you know, a house, we got some last-minute Australia points out of the way:

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Yes, Kaja finally did eat the Vegemite under Australian supervision. But we still just called it all a tie. Highlights from the Australia Points list may make up a future post- I feel like we did pretty well in terms of covering the main stuff! (Sports, naming the states, eating native flora and fauna, not getting eaten by the native flora and fauna…)

And then, at three in the morning, I bade goodbye to my most excellent and cherished science companions (L) and headed to the airport. A few hours of flapping my wings REALLY HARD, and I was in Cambodia, wherein I took a nap and met up with the coolest person in the world (you think this is hyperbole but it isn’t). More on Cambodia and its many delights tomorrow, dear readers. For now, I bid thee to have a good night and to dream of guppies and lotus flowers until the morn.

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Ba-Bopsy

“Okay. All my life, I had a lump at the back of my neck, right here. Always, a lump. Then I started menopause and the lump got bigger from the “hormonees.” It started to grow. So I go to the doctor, and he did the bio… the b… the… the bios… the… b… the “ba-bopsy.” Inside the lump he found teeth and a spinal column. Yes. Inside the lump… was my twin.” – Aunt Voula, My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Andrea Martin is a genius, a straight-up acting genius. She was genius on Sesame Street and on Broadway and of course in this movie, and as a result since 2002 I’ve been:

  1. Terrified of any sort of bodily lump
  2. Sympathetic to the plight of vegetarians trying to explain themselves
  3. Aware of the concept of biopsy.

A biopsy is an investigative surgery; it doesn’t kill the subject, but provides information to the doctor or researcher performing the operation. In Aunt Voula’s case, it provided some really unexpected news, and Team Sousa hopes for revelations of the same magnitude (if not the same comedic heights).

That’s right, in addition to our observational data, we’ve started collecting genetic information via dolphin biopsies. Using a special rifle and large, red, sterile, buoyant darts, we (really just Tim, but it’s a team effort) take careful aim at a peduncle (dolphin back, below the fin) and fire, hoping to remove a neat plug of skin and blubber. This sample gets preserved on ice, shipped back to Adelaide, and analyzed to determine the sampled dolphin’s sex and potential genetic relationships.

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*This photo shows the whole red dart en route to contact with a Sousa peduncle. The actual sample taken is much smaller (5mm in diameter) and likely couldn’t be seen from this distance.

It does feel like a drastic procedure- I mean, we do actually shoot at the dolphins with a rifle. But the dolphins barely react, generally diving on hearing the noise of the dart hitting skin or water, and then returning to whatever it was they were doing before. (According to Krützen et al., 2002, dolphins react the same way whether they were hit or missed, indicating that it’s really the sound and disturbance of the dart that causes them to duck.) Additionally, the scar created by the biopsy rifle has been observed in several dolphin populations (this method is well-documented and historically proven among people who study cetaceans) to disappear within a month or two. Compared to the gouges and scrapes we see and recognize on Sousa sahulensis and Tursiops aduncus fins, the plug is hardly noticeable.

I don’t advocate shooting anything at dolphins or really bothering them at all (how would you like it?) but short of waiting around for all of our catalogued individuals to turn upside down and wave their genitals through the air, there’s no other way to determine the sex of the various members of our study’s social groups. And the other data (relatedness, genetic distance, etc.) that we will gain will be a fascinating addition to our observations of the fission-fusion groups of mixing dolphins. Do related dolphins spend more time together? How long does a subadult or young adult stay near its mother? Are allied males related to one another?

Most of the time the biopsy rifle stays in its box at the back of the boat. But we’re hoping to collect as many samples as possible to unlock the genetic gold mine that could be present and underlying our Sousa sahulensis’ behavior and environmental needs.

Krützen, M., Barré, L.M., Möller, L.M., Heithaus, M.R., Simms, C., Sherwin, W.B., 2002. A biopsy system for small cetaceans: darting success and wound healing in Tursiops spp. Marine Mammal Science 18, 863–878.

Lines

After another data processing day, Karl and Cindy planned a low-tide excursion to the tidepools out by the Bundegi mangroves. On our way through town I looked for other good photo-ops, but Exmouth is not an easy place to photograph.

Because the terrain is relatively flat and unoccupied, the lines of the road are wide and straight, with street lights and telephone poles stretching with impunity through town and out into the bush. Paved and dirt roads divide the spider-webbed shrubs and emus with their chicks cross boldly in front of cars. Kangaroos appear to be less lucky with the crossings, as evidenced by the orphaned joeys we met last week and the roadside remains we pass daily en route to our boat ramps.

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Out on the road Australians wave to one another, each driving his or her own white truck trailered to his or her own white boat. It’s very interesting walking the neighborhood in the evenings- the houses are colorful or drab, clean or dingy, landscaped or bare- but nearly everyone has a truck or “ute” (utility vehicle) of some kind, and a boat parked out front or in a shed around the side of the house. You’d be crazy not to, Tim says, in an area as rich in interesting sea life as the North West Cape and Ningaloo Reef. It’s certainly a life that agrees with us, or did when we were out on the water a few days ago:

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Anyways, out at the low tide we saw a tiny nudibranch, some hairy crabs and a blue swimming crab, and of course our friends the brain-footed (cephalopod) octopuses. We’re still pretty sure these aren’t blue-ringed, due to the lack of… blue rings… but they look like pretty effective predators even lacking the potent venom as they crawl through tide pools and flush little fish from their hiding places. Few things are as fun to watch as a hunting octopus, and if you stay still and quiet enough they go about their business as if you weren’t there. They swell and stretch, by turns delicate and strong, prodding and sweeping and peering around in shallow puddles. There isn’t a straight line in their bodies, nor do they search in grids like humans draw across maps of the cape, but they master their environment more completely than any creature I’ve seen.

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Boat Days

This post is officially dedicated to my uncle Tom, aunt Kailane, and cousins Liam and Aidan! They have most generously contributed to the Vicky-Has-Internet Fund, in addition to being longtime readers and supporters of Agent Red Squirrel. Their questions were about the lay of the land in Exmouth- I know I’ve skipped a fair bit of background in terms of this project and the area I’m living in.

First of all, I’m living in a town called Exmouth, which is on the North West Cape of Western Australia (state bird: the black swan; state flower: the red and green kangaroo paw). I’m working as part of the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project, NWCDRP for “short.” It’s a small town- about 2,200 people here year-round, and since it’s off-season for school holidays in Australia and the whale sharks have mostly moved on for this year, that’s probably a reasonable estimate for the current population. It borders the Indian ocean and the Exmouth Gulf, clearly a sea-oriented town though it appears surrounded by low striated bluffs, red sandy soil, stunted eucalyptus trees, and myriad other dusty shrubs and grasses that shelter ‘roos, emus, echidnas, and other exotic fauna (cockroaches, spiders, ants… you know, cool stuff).

Every reasonably-sized house in this town of reasonably-sized single-family houses and rentals has a boat parked out front, along with some palm trees and plumerias. The more landscaped ones have sunflowers, and maybe a little bit of lawn. But the rainy season is over here, and despite the 30-year flood that washed out levees and kangaroo corpses in town this winter (northern hemisphere’s summer) the ground is dry again. Green grass may not last long as we edge our way into spring and summer.

I’m cooking dinner tomorrow night, so hopefully I’ll have a few more photos of “normal life” here at the house. But for now, here’s what we’ve done in the past few days on the boat:

Since the weather has turned, we have been out from basically sunrise (or slightly thereafter) until sunset (or slightly thereafter). Smooth seas, light breezes, turquoise water with more than 11m of visibility straight to the bottom… life ain’t bad on the North West Cape right now. We load up the boat in the morning, rubbing sleep out of our eyes and sunscreen on our faces, and truck over to one of three boat ramps with the trailer rattling along behind us. Tantabiddi, Bundegi, and Exmouth Marina are our three points of entry, and we motor along from there to wherever our transects for the morning begin.

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We science away for a few hours- scanning quadrants of the water and horizon for vessels, whales, obviously dolphins (Tursiops aduncus or Sousa sahulensis, our study species), and anything else that catches our eye. Here’s Kaja science-ing:

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Kaja Wierucka

And then we break for a very civilized morning tea.

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Sometimes we also break for some penalty push-ups. They’re extra fun when there are swells.

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Meanwhile, marine life continues around us. We spot dolphins every few hours, which prompt rapid-fire photography and driving a boat in circles amid much cursing and sometimes ooh-ing and aah-ing (especially if there are calves present); sea snakes aren’t uncommon, nor are breaching humpbacks and calves. We saw a dugong yesterday, and a young hammerhead shark! Tim and I saw Pseudorcas, or False Killer Whales, for the first time today as they came flying by our boat on some unknown mission, spooking two 5-foot sailfish into their wake. I’ve been assured there will be no lack of photographic opportunity, and I’m excited to post more photos for you soon.

Amidst all this ocean nonsense, we make time for lunch and water breaks, but for the most part we spend our time with binoculars and clipboards, searching for the elusive fins and short blows of our dolphin buddies/nemeses. Today as the sun was setting and a mother humpback was breaching in front of the rising moon, we cruised back in to the Bundegi boat ramp. Exhausted dinner, spreadsheet entry, hosing down equipment, blogging, and now sleeping. Lots of stored up good stories for the coming days, plus a special guest appearance by an early-morning dingo and THIS ON THE DASHBOARD OF THE TRUCK:

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Yup. This is Australia. Ain’t nobody gonna forget it. Exhausted Agent Red Squirrel signing off- stay happy, readers.

By Any Other Name

Scientific names are very important- not only are they identifiers for different species that simultaneously differentiate groups and unify them under larger categories, but they also tend to provide some information about that species, even if the information is the name of a researcher who did seminal work in the area, or that Stephen Colbert is awesome (see Aptostichus stephencolberti and Agaporomorphus colberti, a spider and a beetle respectively named for the comedian).

For instance, upon seeing and naming this new friend:IMG_0662

I can be sure that she’s a relative to someone that long-time Agent Red Squirrel readers might recognize. Nephila clavipes was my research subject in Corcovado, Costa Rica, which is why her legs, which look like the graceful result of some dreadful hair-growing (or hair-shaving) experiments, are so familiar. This lady here is a large female Nephila edulis, which translates roughly to “edible spider who is fond of spinning,” which is illuminating if not entirely explanatory or comforting to the Western palate.

The dolphins I’ll be studying here have been, until I think today, actually, been officially known as Sousa chinensis, but have acquired independence from their northerly cousins and become recognized as Sousa sahulensis. Though not named after me, as they should have been, S. sahulensis do gain potential protection due to their smaller numbers, which brings me to my point: S. chinensis, S. chinensis, wherefore are you S. chinensis? For a research project by any other name would be as wicked sweet.Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 12.25.46 AM