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Express your inner scientist

Friday, July 8th, 2011
  • Get home from a day’s labor, crack a beer, sit on the porch and appreciate a butterfly nectaring on a nearby flower and the evening summer sun that makes a dragonfly glow while it hunts with incredible speed and precision, eating on the fly.
  • Is that bush blooming already?
  • You just won a tough case and you’re doing your best Leonardo DiCaprio against the forward fence of the ferry observation deck, a smile on your face, the wind rushing by. You look into the water… SMACK! (no, not sea gull poop to the side of the head or a disgruntled defendant… we’re talkin’ jellies!).

What do these scenarios have in common? Citizen scientists. Elements of science may remain in an ivory tower, but in ever-increasing numbers and in very accessible ways, scientists and managers are harnessing the interests and time of every Tom, Dick and Jane to explore difficult issues like climate change, water quality and habitat loss. We can also add to the understanding of the what, where and when for our favorite groups of critters in ways we were never able to in the past.

All fair game for easy reporting by citizen scientists. Clockwise from top left: lion's mane jelly, hermit thrush, small magpie moth (non-native) and common whitetail dragonfly. Photos: Jeff Adams

There are lots of opportunities out there, but I’ll highlight a few of my favorites. Under the unofficial category of “report what you see, where you see it, when you want to”…

Don’t have experience in identifying critters? No worries. Some programs simply require you to know/report on a single species or, in the case of Sound Citizen, to collect and return a sample. For butterflies, birds, dragonflies and jellies, there are excellent physical and online guides and identification resources available. On top of that, people like me love to get the email with a subject line “what’s this?”.

I recently posted a YouTube video that should help with common jellyfish ID’s. With all the ferry riders, dock and beach visitors, boaters, divers, harvesters, anglers and shoreline homeowners in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea… we should be able to help scientists at jellywatch.org better understand jellies and blooms in our region. It’s an area of increasing interest as our climate and ocean activities evolve.

The opportunistic reporting of the list above can give a scientist valuable information in part by sheer volume of data. Volunteers willing and able to put in more time can get involved in a project that typically includes some form of training and standardized protocols and reporting. Some excellent examples in our region include…

Bainbridge Beach Naturalists (part of the Kitsap Beach Naturalist program) conduct a profile assessment of the beach slope, substrate, plants and animals. Amazing what you see when you look close! Photo: Jeff Adams

Other programs like  Nature Mapping are geared toward schools, but also give individuals an opportunity to report findings. You can even explore lots of potential projects on your own at sites like scienceforcitizens.net and citizensciencecentral.org or like citsci.org for projects geared specifically toward invasive species.

Washington Sea Grant will go live with a Washington-specific citizen science clearinghouse some time in the next year. Or you can just contact local organizations to explore opportunities. In Kitsap you might start with me at Washington Sea Grant (contact info below), or with organizations such WSU Beach Watchers or the Stillwaters Environmental Education Center.

The best of the citizen science networks provide something in return for our efforts. No, not a key chain or a shopping tote (although some provide those as well). We get maps and checklists and image collections and newsletters and data analysis and publications… All of which reflect our contributions to scientific exploration and the greater body of scientific knowledge. None of which would have happened without our participation.

COASST is an excellent example of providing feedback to volunteers. In return for their dead bird surveys, COASST volunteers receive a newsletter explaining some of the trends in the data and featuring natural history information about sea and shoreline birds. … Plus, volunteers get cool bird postcards (pictures tend to be of the live birds and a bit more attractive then the dead ones). A free COASST training will be hosted by Washington Sea Grant and WSU Kitsap Extension in Bremerton on July 28th (RSVP to info@coasst.org). Other dates and opportunities are available on the COASST calendar.

Thanks for your interest in contributing to the body of scientific knowledge that we need to make informed decisions and to effectively care for the Puget Sound, Salish Sea and beyond. … Oh, gotta go… I need to chase down a dragonfly!

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, SalishSeaLife tweets and videos, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


Thingy Thursday: The Blob

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

You know how images and thoughts evoke emotions or sensations? Well, considering La Nina’s recent fury and the approaching dark of the winter solstice, I figured I’d share a creature that takes me back to the heat and sun of August.

Football-sized Pectinatella magnifica bryozoan colony. Photo: Jeff Adams

One of the more common summertime unknowns (often presented with concern or disgust!) is a freshwater colonial invertebrate called Pectinatella magnifica, the magnificent bryozoan. Magnificent is part of its scientific name, but dragon boogers seemed more appropriate to my 5 year old.

These gelatinous blobs feel kind of like a jellyfish, can grow larger than a basketball and are made up of thousands of tiny individuals living on the surface. At their healthiest, they tend to be a beautiful purple color with hundreds of white-speckled groups of living individual called zooids. These clusters look like snowflakes or rosettes.

Like a jellyfish, much of the blob’s mass is water. In this case, that mass is a non-living part of the colony in which the living zooids are embedded and contribute to its formation. The tiny individual zooids are ecologically similar to corals or hydra, in that in that they have delicate tentacles that they expose to the water and use to capture fine, drifting organic material (the hydra are after tiny animals). They can also pull those tentacles into the protective, non-living body of the colony when disturbed.

Close up of Pectinatella colony and clusters of individuals. Photo: Jeff Adams

These large gelatinous blobs form in warm (>16°C or 60°F) slow or still water (the images to the right and below are from the Columbia Slough in Portland, OR).  Smaller blobs may be free floating, but larger ones usually grow on branches and vegetation. Those growing on plants may also float when plants begin to die off and drift in the late summer and fall. Sometimes, the blobs become so numerous they clog water intakes and requiring 24 hour attention.

By the time vegetation starts breaking down, the colony is probably dying off as well.  However, they leave behind an unusual reproductive structure that can withstand cold, heat, drying, and time. These seed-like statoblasts are a collection of cells inside a protective shell, and they carry on the lineage of the parent colony. The statoblast is formed out of a connection to the parent zooid’s gut and can either cling to the colony or drop to the sediments or be transported to new locations by other wildlife. Each little survival pod can start a new colony whenever and wherever conditions are favorable.

Microscope photo of Pectinatella statoblasts. Each is only slightly larger than the thickness of a dime, but can produce an entire colony. Photo: Jeff Adams

Statoblasts are a specialized characteristic of freshwater bryozoan species. Marine waters are where bryozoans are truly diverse with thousands of ocean dwelling species, while there are only a couple dozen species known in freshwaters of North America. The magnificent bryozoan is certainly the most… magnificent among them.

The magnificent brozoan is classified by the USGS Non-indigenious Aquatic Animal database as a native transplant – native to the warmer water east of the Mississippi and transplanted out west. Though it may have just been widespread and no one gave it much attention. Maybe climate change will allow it to be happier in our usually colder waters?

Now when you take a break from your winter labors, close your eyes and imagine yourself floating on the surface of a warm lake or down a slow river… Please forgive me for the slimey blobs that start bumping up against your imagination, leaving you speckled with statoblasts, and cursing me for having wrecked your perfectly good escape. Happy daydreaming!

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


Lethal libelulas

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Adult darner dragonfly head on in flight. Photo by: Jeff Adams

I was enjoying a beverage and good conversation at a friend’s house last weekend when I couldn’t help but interrupt to marvel at a darner dragonfly’s aerobatics in the late afternoon sun. The dragonfly glowed as it flew this way and that, then instantly dropped a foot or two to pluck a tiny glowing speck from the air. Without missing a beat, the aerobat continue its remarkable hunt.

The time for dragonfly watching in 2010 is nearly over. The last dragonflies on the wing tend to peter out in October, but if you’ve got a break and a sunny day, your may still be rewarded on a field trip to your local pond or wetland.

I’ve no evidence for it, but I’d wager adult dragonflies take a back seat only to butterflies as North America’s most popular insects. Many bird watchers are now turning their binoculars toward these denizons of the sky with their pursuits fed by such books as… Dragonflies through BinocularsDragonflies of Washington, and our local dragonfly expert’s recent tome Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West. Those who really get into it can visit OdonataCentral to find checklists, maps and even report sightings.


An emerald dragonfly nymph opens it's formidable labium - in front of its head. Photo: Jeff Adams

Though not as strikingly colorful, or as likely to be encountered in daily human life, the aquatic dragonfly nymphs arguably exceed their adult forms in their predatory prowess and unique anatomy.

The predatory weapon of a dragonfly nymph, called a labium, brings to my mind the notorious extra terrestrials Alien and Predator. Probably not just by coincidence. As they create terrifying big screen OMD’s (organisms of mass destruction), cinematic monster makers regularly draw inspiration from small products of nature.


Spiketail dragonfly nymph showing toothed labium used for catching food. Photo: Jeff Adams

Anyway… once prey is within striking distance, this labium is propelled forward by hydrostatic pressure to either spear or grab and scoop prey. The labium then reels the prey in to the mandibles, where it is chomped and swallowed.

Perhaps more intriguing than frightening, is a dragonfly nymph’s butt. A nymph’s rectum actually has three jobs to do. First, as might be expected, it’s the end of the digestive tract and is where poop comes out. However, it also has gills and is water’s port of entry to a specialized respiratory chamber in its abdomen. Finally, the water it draws in to breathe can also be expelled with force as jet propulsion resulting in rapid movement through the water. Pooping, breathing, swimming – not bad for a single part of the anatomy, in an organisms that evolved to something near its modern form 250,000,000 years ago. Enjoy October! JEff

PS – Libelula is Spanish for dragonfly and is no doubt related to Libellula, the Latin genus name for the skimmers – some of our most striking dragonflies.

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


Sea life on the back of my neck

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Here’s where I start to explore a broadened definition of “Sea” in Sea Life to include all things aquatic. Fresh and saltwater are one continuous body of H2O (water) molecules. However, tossing a bunch of salts in the mix makes for a major division between things that live on the salty side of the line and those that live on the fresh.

Forestfly (Nemouridae) with an Ensatina salamander. Photo: Jeff Adams

The community of visible critters in freshwater (streams, lakes, rivers, etc.) is dominated by aquatic insect larvae, but these juvenile insects are nearly absent in salty waters. There are some groups in which species have crossed over. Snails, clams, mussels, sand fleas, rolly pollies and crabs all have relative in fresh water. I’m sure I’ll touch on some of those over time, but first I wanted to get to the bug on the back of my neck.

A couple weeks ago, I swatted at something that was sending shivers down my back as it crawled across my neck. When I drew my hand away, the small, dark insect had decided my hand was an equally suitable crawling space. It was small and delicate, with long thin wings that laid flat on its back. When I finally blew it off outside, this forestfly (or little brown stonefly, Nemouridae) fluttered clumsily away from the relative safety of my hand to the dangers of the air.

Final molts (exuvia) of large predatory golden stonflies (Perlidae: Calineuria). Photo: Jeff Adams

Forestflies are a family of stoneflies (Plecoptera = Greek for braided [plekein] wings [pteryx]) and very primitive insects. Like dragonflies and several other insect groups, the larvae (or nymphs) look similar to the adult insects. Instead of having the pupa stage that a caterpillar uses to change into a butterfly, these nymphs just shed their skin one last time, extend their wings and fly. Flying is clumsy business for a stonefly though. You’ll most often find them hanging out on vegetation, relatively close to water. As a group, they are particularly sensitive to human activities in the watershed and effective indicators of stream health.

Three different forestfly nymphs. Photo: Jeff Adams

The forestflies and a few other small, vegetarian species of stonefly crawl from the water and sprout their wings  in the winter or early spring. Forestflies are particularly big fans of small streams and and are often the last of the stoneflies to remain in streams that have been impacted by human activities. They aren’t predatory like some of their larger stonefly cousins, but serve an important role helping break down leaves and other plant matter.

Forestfly (Visoka sp.) with gills on the underside of its head. Photo: Jeff Adams

Something I find pretty cool about the forestflies is that several species have gills on their neck and head. These gills aren’t like those of fish. They look more like little soft fingers but provide that important function of helping them get extract dissolved oxygen from water. Hard to imagine those gills don’t get in the way though. Because their metamorphosis is so simple, you can often spot nubs of gills on the underside of the adult’s head as well, even though they’re no longer needed.

So next time you want to squish an unseen creepy crawly, maybe try to take a closer look. Your friendly neighborhood stonefly may be paying you a visit during it’s short adult life. Hope you’re having a wonderful spring! JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Ocean and Fishery Sciences, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


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