Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Very Late Update!

Unfortunately the end of the term study craze precluded any updates. Stone Lab is a great experience for field science, but it is also very academically rigorous. There's basically no reason to not attend Stone Lab if you can manage it.

That said, two Fridays we managed to catch some birds on South Bass Island. Including a cardinal. Unfortunately we didn't catch enough red-winged blackbirds off of Gibraltar, and only one cardinal in total so our experiment was basically a bust. This is part of the nature of Stone Lab, each year the labs are different and sometimes won't go as planned.

Regardless of the success of your labs you will still get to travel across Lake Erie to visit many of the islands.

You can see the photos from the trip to South Bass (including photos of the bird banding tools we used) here. Look for a few youtube videos in the next few days as I recap the entire experience now that I've had time to think on it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Salamanders at Kelleys Island

Apologies for the lack of updates. We've been having on-and-off internet (and power!) at Gibraltar recently, but that's life on an island. I've got a big backlog of things to work through, including videos of the fireworks on the 4th viewed from the island (one of the best views available on the lake).

For now, here are some pictures of salamanders you can find on Kelleys Island.

These things are pretty much all over the place. Turning over five or six big, flat rocks can easily uncover an equal number of salamanders. To people familiar with them, this may seem unusual. Salamanders typically begin to burrow to conserve moisture when the summer months come in, but the islands on Lake Erie are basically solid dolomite with a thin layer of soil over it. They can't burrow very deep.

This makes the islands a great place to study salamanders and this particular population has some interesting features. The marbled and red/lead-backed salamanders are fairly typical, neat to look at and play with, but what's really fascinating is the species of salamander from the genus Ambystoma. These salamanders are unisexual (that is, they have gender, but reproduction is possible without gametic combination).

Males deposit sperm and females collect the piles to expose to their eggs. It is not yet understood how, but some eggs combine with sperm in the typical sexual reproductive fashion, others are simply initiated by sperm into growth and development (with no transfer of genetic information). Still others seem capable of "stealing" genetic information of sperm from males of other species, effectively permitting the female to acquire a fully-adapted genome for her offspring within one generation.

While out in the field we collected about twenty individuals to study (along with several red/lead-back salamanders and marbled salamanders who we were not scientifically interested in). Each individual was marked by clipping toes and the clipped tissues were collected and frozen for genetic sequencing. Study of these salamanders may provide insights into various aspects of sexual reproduction, speciation and genetics.

Unfortunately my camera was dying while out in the field and I forgot to bring replacement batteries. Otherwise there would be more photographs of all the salamanders we caught and collected samples from, along with the species we weren't there to sample.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Kelleys Island Bird Banding

Back to Kelleys Island we went on Friday. This time our goal was to capture, band and release several birds for our primary lab exercise this quarter.

Unfortunately, we captured two birds. And I only had my camera ready to take a picture for one of them. And neither bird was a red-winged blackbird or a cardinal. Our study may be in peril.

Fortunately, there were several nesting boxes for purple martins nearby, each with several families of newly-hatched birds waiting to be banded and photographed. Contrary to what your first grade teacher may have told you, handling hatchlings and eggs won't make the mother abandon them. In fact, many of the adults waited patiently with food in their mouths while we banded their offspring, after which the parents quickly entered their nests to put food in their babies' mouths.

You can see the album of this trip here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Field Trip to Kelleys Island

Monday we took a trip to Kelleys Island, which is about 20-30 minutes by boat from Gibraltar, depending on lake conditions. The primary reason was to hunt for fossils at the abandoned quarry on the island, but I wasn't complaining about getting to have lecture someplace new. This is one of the advantages of Stone Lab; you don't really spend a lot of time in the classroom, even in a classroom-oriented course such as EEOB 400. We may not be out there taking samples of lake water to study like the people in Limnology, but we still have opportunities to get our hands dirty (literally and figuratively).

Aside from fossil-hunting, we also examined and identified individual fossils and made an attempt at dating the quarry we were digging around in (probably not original research). Afterwards we visited grooves left behind when the glaciers receeded after the last ice age, and had a fine lecture by the beach.

You can see photos from the key points of the trip at my Picasa album for this field trip, located here. Each photo contains a small caption. I wanted to include more pictures from the trip back, but the weather was against us and as the winds picked up the lake grew progressively choppy. This made it too difficult to take any quality photos (I was too busy hanging on to keep from getting bucked off the boat).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Relaxing and Studying

The pace of five week courses at Stone Lab is pretty brisk. You have to keep on task just as you do in regular academic year courses at main campus. This means keeping up with your reading and homework assignments (yes, homework assignments). Fortunately, this is a really relaxed place to study. There are only about 30-40 people on the island at any given time so things aren't very crowded. Plus, you have some excellent places to sit and read. It isn't very hard to keep up on your reading when you can read by views like this, in a cool lake breeze, surrounded by the singing of families of birds and the occasional sigh of wake-waves tumbling against nearby rocks.

Friday, June 26, 2009

We Went Birding

I've been meaning to update this many times throughout the week. My only excuse is that time on the island seems to behave differently than time in the real world. I study from a spot that overlooks a lake and my lecture halls have been in a forest, a park and outside of a literal castle. My time keeping has shifted from days and hours to a simpler construct: day time, night time and meal time. If I didn't need to know when to show up to eat I wouldn't wear a watch.

That said, there have been some interesting events over the past week. Yesterday we sat in on a guest lecture from the Director of Ohio's Department of Agriculture. There were some power issues as a large storm coincided with dinner that evening and a good bulk of the lecture was in the dark. While this lecture was open to the public, as a student at Stone Lab I was able to attend with no complications, it was given on Gibraltar Island following the evening meal. Students here have access to not only high profile instructors, but there is opportunity to meet individuals from various fields that intersect with science, politics being one of them.

That said, the first really exciting day of class was today. On Monday our class went to look for salamanders in a forest on South Bass Island, but we found none. Otherwise I would have talked about those. The forest was nice, but pictures of overturned logs with no redback salamanders under them just weren't that interesting.

Today's lecture was much more interesting. For the first half of class, our lecture was entirely outdoors. As part of EEOB 400 at Stone Lab, we have a large lab component that involves capturing, banding and measuring red-winged blackbirds and cardinals to compare the two populations on Gibraltar and the surrounding islands. In the above photo our instructor, Dr. James Marshall, is holding a second year male red-winged blackbird that we had just put through the measurement gauntlet. Which is why he doesn't seem to be very happy with us.

The purpose of our major lab is to examine the differences in various measurements (wing length, leg length, beak size, etc.) between populations of red-wings, which are migratory between many islands on Lake Erie, and cardinals, which tend to be permanent residents of each island they live on. In theory, we should notice larger differences between the cardinal populations measured on each island and the red-wing population on each island, as the red-winged blackbirds will exchange genes with other populations, potentially mitigating any local adaptations that may occur. This is less likely to happen with cardinals as they have much less frequent gene exchange with populations on neighboring islands.

We don't know if the differences between each bird population will be significant, but not knowing something just means you have to do science to know that something. So we're going to do science.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Some Sights Around the Island

My first day up at Gibraltar, it was a bit of a drive and a long luggage haul, but I wanted to go around and snap a few quick pictures from some of the views available to island residents. Many thanks to my dad for helping me haul a bunch of heavy things on Father's Day and giving me a ride so I don't have to deal with parking up here for five weeks.

Here are a few quick photos I took from various points around the island.