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Visiting Scientists

Students from Simon Fraser University continue their research on the invasive lionfish in Eleuthera

Three months ago, the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) welcomed back Simon Fraser University (SFU), and their 2015 field team of seven researchers.  Based in British Columbia on the west coast of Canada (with two more collaborators joining them from the University of Bristol, UK), they made the trip down to Eleuthera to continue their research on various aspects of the lionfish invasion in The Bahamas. From acoustics to nutrient dynamics projects, the summerwas a dynamic one for SFU, filled to the brim with scientific escapades. And the most important thing they’ve learned? Every problem can be solved with cinder blocks and cable ties. Field assistant Emma Atkinson and Fiona Francis ''discuss'' logistics while repairing one of Fiona's cages.

May kicked off with an exciting collaboration between the SFU team and Brendan and Sophie Nedelec from the University of Bristol that delved into the effects of lionfish on the acoustics of a coral reef – are reefs with lots of lionfish perhaps quieter than those with fewer or no lionfish? To tackle this question, the team needed more than keen eyes, and their ears certainly weren’t sharp enough to pick up on any differences. Sophie and Brendan came down equipped with a hydrophone, accelerometer, DJ-like switchboard, and a lot of cords that were loaded onto the boat and brought out to patch reefs to take sound recordings during the day and at night (when lionfish are typically hunting).

So what exactly do coral reefs sound like? Well, kind of like frying bacon! It was pretty magical to listen to the cracks of snapping shrimp complimented with the periodic grunt of a fish swimming by. Sophie and Brendan, along with two members of the SFU team, departed at the end of May, but the remaining five researchers were kept busy for the remaining two months, pursuing their questions surrounding the lionfish invasion.

Fiona Francis and Nicola Smith roast up some lionfish for bait!

Nicola Smith came down to Eleuthera this summer seeking to answer questions surrounding both the lethal and non-lethal effects of groupers (native predators) on lionfish. In other words: (1) are groupers eating lionfish (lethal), and (2) even if they’re not necessarily a direct predation threat, is it possible that their presence has an indirect, fear-induced effect on lionfish (non-lethal)?  In their efforts to address the first question, Nicola and the team could often be found collecting grouper stomachs from the fishermen around Cape Eleuthera. These stomachs will be dissected to see what the grouper are eating, and if there are any lionfish in there!

To look into the non-lethal effects of grouper on lionfish, we kicked off the summer by catching 40 lionfish, and giving them each a unique UV tag to identify them. After these lionfish were distributed across 12 patch reefs (of varying grouper densities), the team conducted dawn and mid-day behavioural surveys for the remainder of the summer. These surveys required (very) early mornings, but by the time the team was in the water at 5am surrounded by bioluminescence, they were pretty happy scientists.

Adrienne Berchtold maintains laser focus as she herds parrotfish into the binky net

Do prey fish learn to recognize lionfish as a predator with a hungry appetite? If they do, are their antipredator behaviours effective against lionfish? Adrienne Berchtold, an MSc student, spent the summer answering these questions. Her project required catching parrotfish off of high lionfish density and low lionfish density patch reefs throughout the summer. Why the density difference? Adrienne is interested in whether parrotfish from high density reefs have perhaps learned to recognize lionfish as predators and as such are more effective at evading them than parrotfish from low density reefs that may not recognize lionfish as predators and are more susceptible to predation.  Adrienne and the team exercised laser concentration and perfect silence as they observed parrotfish behaviour in response to lionfish and grouper (a native predator) during behavioural trials conducted in the CEI labs.

Fiona Francis is interested in nutrient dynamics in tropical marine systems. Fiona spent the summer quantifying how fish aggregations can influence primary production by providing essential nutrients for seagrass and algal growth. To do so, Fiona and the team created 24 cages filled with varying densities of grunts and measured seagrass and algal growth around them. Using 120 cinder blocks, endless yards of mesh and more zip ties than one can count, Fiona and the team created some beautiful “grunt condos”! On days when she wasn’t switching grunts in and out of cages or collecting tiles for processing, Fiona could be found taking over the boathouse with coolers, fish, and a whole lot of Ziploc bags! Part of her project continued from her work last year at CEI involves measuring the nutrients that different species of fish excrete, and to do this she incubated individual fish in bags of seawater for a short period of time. By taking water samples before and after incubation, she is able to look the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that each fish excretes. Fiona can then look at the relative nutrient contributions different fish species make to coral reefs. The biggest challenge for the team came when they had to figure out how to measure excretion from a lionfish without them puncturing their bag (hint: it involved A LOT of buckets!).

Back in Canada now, the team is excited to dive (pardon the pun) into their data, and answer the questions they came to CEI with 3 months ago! Field season 2015 was a busy one for SFU, and they couldn’t have pulled it off without the fantastic support of everyone at the Cape Eleuthera Institute – thanks!

Professor Duncan Irschick of University of Massachusetts visits CEI!

Professor Duncan Irschick, integrative biologist and innovator at the University of Massachusettes, recently visited Cape Eleuthera Institute for an exciting week of field work with the Sea Turtle Research and Conservation (STRC) team. Far from being his first visit to CEI, Prof. Irschick is working in collaboration with the STRC team on a novel project to investigate the relationship between life stage and body shape of green sea turtles; how does flipper shape and carapace (shell) shape change with age and what implications does this have on the animal’s fitness? Over the course of the year, STRC researchers have been capturing digital images of the flippers and carapace of individual green turtles as data for investigating this interesting question. Prof. Irschick takes a series of digital images of an individual green turtle for input into the 3D modelling software

The primary focus of Prof. Irschick’s visit this time, however, was to take a series of high quality digital images for each turtle that was captured during the week. With each photo in the series taken from a different angle to the turtle, Prof. Irschick is able to use a software program to create a 3D digital model of the turtle. His hopes are that with the use of 3D printing, these perfect replicates of real-life turtles can be used as an interesting and interactive educational tool. During the week, we caught a total of 11 turtles for Prof. Irschick’s 3D modelling – a very successful week!

Mid-week, the staff and visitors of CEI were treated to an evening presentation by Prof. Irschick entitled ‘Bioinspiration as a way of understanding the world’.

Prof. Irschick delivering a presentation entitled ‘Bioinspiration as a way of understanding the world

This talk gave insight into how biological form can inspire synthetic design and touched on the striking similarity between the shape of bicycle helmets and sea turtle carapaces and how, by studying the form of gecko feet, a collaboration at the University of Massachusetts was able to apply anatomical principles to create a gecko-like adhesive called GeckSkin TM. His presentation was met with a host of questions on this inspiring topic and has certainly left us looking at the form and function of organisms in a new light.

Graduate student update: Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith is a Master’s student of the Ecology and Environment Lab from the University of Exeter in the UK. The main focus of his study is the effects of anthropogenic noise on reef fish populations, vocalisations and behaviour. There have been many studies on the effects of anthropogenic noise on marine mammals, but substantially fewer studies have be conducted concerning how noise pollution is affecting reef fish. Hearing and vocalisations are very important to many species found in the patch reefs such as those off of the coast of Cape Eleuthera. Boat traffic is an emerging threat that is often forgotten when assessing the threats to marine populations. The team out on the boat, simulating acoustic pollution near experimental reefs

The primary study has involved selecting pairs of patch reefs with similar characteristics before splitting the pair into either treatment group, to receive increased or reduced boat traffic. By conducting fish surveys at regular intervals and recording using a hydrophone, Matthew is able to decipher if the changing levels of boat traffic is having an effect on the community living on each patch reef.

A secondary study is looking at the effect of boat traffic on damselfish (Stegastes spp.). Damselfish aggressively defend territories within which they preen a ‘garden’ of algae and have a heavy influence on algae populations on reefs as well as the behavior of fish in and around their territories. Using reefs that are less frequently exposed to boats, cameras are set up in front of damselfish territories to record how exposure to boat traffic affects their behavior. The end goal is to be contribute towards a better assessment of how anthropogenic noise pollution is affecting fish populations.

The Island School Partners With Hurricane Island Outward Bound to Offer Sailing Expeditions

Hurricane Island Outward Bound School (HIOBS) is partnering with The Island School to launch an expeditionary sailing program to be operated out of The Island School’s campus in Cape Eleuthera, The Bahamas. Thanks to seed funding from the Mactaggart Third Fund, the two organizations are looking forward to hosting groups and students starting in 2016. Outward_Bound-4

In 2012, The Island School developed the concept of a sailing program. After deciding a partnership was the best option, The Island School was introduced to HIOBS’ Executive Director Eric Denny in 2013. It was in May 2015 when the dream took shape when a veteran crew from HIOBS sailed on an epic expedition from Florida, across the Gulf Stream and the Bahamas Bank to Eleuthera to deliver two sailboats, Avelinda and Eliza Sue, to The Island School’s Cape Eleuthera campus. Avelinda and Eliza Sue are 30-foot twin masted sailboats designed to sail quickly and navigate into shallow waters with extractable center boards. In keeping with the “human-powered” expedition ethos of Outward Bound, these open boats are oar powered by students when there is little wind. Designed and built specifically for Outward Bound, the boats can carry up to 8 participants and 2 instructors and will allow expeditions to sail out across the Exuma Sound to the Exuma Sound to the Exuma Land and Sea Park, the oldest marine protected area in the world.

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“I see this partnership as a model for non-profits in the coming decade,” states Denny. “It brings two world-class organizations together to share their complementary areas of expertise to create an exceptional program that neither organization could accomplish on its own.”

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The first step in this partnership is to integrate sailing into the existing expeditionary curriculum of The Island School’s 100-day fall and spring semesters and Gap Year program beginning fall 2015. In 2016, HIOBS and Island School will launch a 21-day expedition that includes sailing, exploring and studying around Eleuthera’s neighboring islands. The trip will include research, a coastal marine ecology and conservation course, focus on island sustainability, teach seamanship and leadership skills, and allow for team and leadership development.

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About Hurricane Island Outward Bound

Outward Bound is a non-profit educational organization and expedition school that serves people of all ages and backgrounds through active learning expeditions that inspire character development, self-discovery and service both in and out of the classroom. Outward Bound delivers programs using unfamiliar settings as a way for participants across the country to experience adventure and challenge in a way that helps students realize they can do more than they thought possible. The organization established its first sea-based school on the coast of Maine in 1964. Hurricane Island, a remote island approximately 75 miles northeast of Portland, served as the summer base camp for sailing, sea kayaking, and rock climbing programs. For more information, visit www.hiobs.org.

Graduate student update: Ian Bouyoucos on the Shark Team

Longline fishing is the predominant capture method of sharks in both targeted fisheries and fisheries that incidentally catch sharks. There is a growing body of research determining the immediate physiological responses of sharks to this prolific capture method, but researchers are just beginning to skim the surface on understanding the long-term responses to capture that may influence vital life-history processes such as growth and reproduction. The extent to which sharks allocate energy to recovery from capture away from processes like locomotion, growth, and reproduction is completely unknown and a compelling question toward shark conservation research. An acceleration data-logging tag used to observe activty and behavior in wild sharks.

A juvenile lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) in a respirometry chamber that is used to measure metabolic rates, or rates of energy consumption.

Researchers at the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) have recently begun conducting research to determine how much energy (i.e., calories) sharks consume when caught by longline gear relative to the energy consumed during routine, daily activity. This project combines biotelemetry (tracking behavior and activity in wild animals) and respirometry (a method of estimating energy consumption by measuring rates of oxygen consumption) approaches to estimate energy consumption in wild sharks. Specifically, acceleration data-logging tags will be used to characterize routine and exhaustive activity in wild sharks, and respirometry techniques will be employed to quantify the energetic costs of those activities. These data have the potential for conservation and fisheries management application by linking behaviors exhibited during the capture response with adverse physiological outcomes.

University of Illinois M.Sc. student, Ian Bouyoucos – a previous CEI intern – will be heading the field and lab work on site in The Bahamas. This research is being conducted in collaboration with Dr. Edd Brooks of the Shark Research and Conservation Program at CEI, and longtime shark program collaborators, Dr. John Mandelman of the New England Aquarium, and Dr. Cory Suski of the University of Illinois.