Marine lab mania

Banyuls-sur-Mer at sunrise, the marine lab is the big white building on the right.

Flashback to June 2012 —

I have just finished my wonderful week as a snail apprentice in Stockholm and I am feeling greatly inspired and ready for my next adventure, which is rapidly approaching. I am off to a marine station in the south of France for 10 days with my German mentor and colleague, Gerhard Haszprunar. When I booked my flight from Stockholm to Munich for June 17th with the knowledge that the trip to France started on the 18th, I thought, “oh, an afternoon and one night’s rest will be plenty before the drive down.” But wait — the 18th is actually when the course Dr. Haszprunar is teaching STARTS…IN FRANCE…so in actuality I had approximately 4 hours between landing in Munich, and getting to the museum to hop in a van for the 15 hour drive down to Banyuls-sur-Mer, France, right on the border of France and Spain, Mediterranean side.  Anyway, it all worked out, but it goes to show how important getting your details straight before booking flights really is and maybe I should give myself more of a buffer for future trips.

Ok, so although the drive was exhausting (even though I just had to take shifts being an attentive co-pilot since I couldn’t drive the van), we arrived in Banyuls about an hour before sunrise and man oh man was it worth it to see that!

Alright, so what were we doing down here anyway? Well, Dr. Haszprunar teaches a field course in marine biodiversity every two years here for a group of Masters students who are part of a program that brings them from everywhere, I think we had around 20 countries represented and only around 30 students! I had the lucky coincidence of having planned my research in Munich with Dr. Haszprunar on a limpet that comes from Banyuls for the same season he would be going there for the course, thus allowing me an opportunity to try and get some fresh specimens and have a great experience at this oldest of marine labs. Did I say, “oldest of marine labs?” well, yes! the Laboratoire Arago was founded in 1880 by the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie and is one of the first marine labs of its kind (I don’t know if it is THE oldest, if you do please let me know in the comments). It allowed scientists to study marine life in it’s natural environment and also keep it alive for study in the lab with sea water readily accessible, rather than preserving it and trekking it back to the university or museum in Paris. You can learn a lot more from animals and plants that are still alive rather than preserved, but if you’ve read my other posts you know I can still get lots of valuable information out of preserved museum specimens! Regardless, the institution of marine labs was a huge step forward for marine biology and these kinds of institutions continue to support valuable marine research, courses at all levels, and public outreach and education (eg. the aquarium in Banyuls is free!). Many similar venues for marine science sprang up around the same time including the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, USA, which was founded in 1888. I’ve also had the pleasure of spending a summer there as an undergraduate course assistant and my experiences there solidified my desire to pursue graduate studies in marine biology and actually led to meeting my current PhD. advisor, David Lindberg (through the course director, Nipam Patel, who is Berkeley faculty and encouraged me to apply to Berkeley to work with Dr. Lindberg). So basically, only good things can come from taking opportunities to visit marine labs!

the view from the lab

the view from the lab

the lab

the lab

Historical interludes aside, the 10 days I spent in Banyuls were some of the most relaxing yet productive days I have ever spent. The morning would start with cafe au lait and pain au chocolat (coffee and chocolate croissants) before donning snorkel gear and getting in the water for the students to collect critters to practice identifying and preserving marine life to bring back to the museum in Munich. I was off the hook since the limpets I was looking for live at around 100m, so we would be trawling for them later in the week. So, I could stare at algae waiting for small vibrant nudibranches and other small beasts to appear to my heart’s content! After snorkeling, we’d get all the collected material back to the lab and in water tables or under microscopes for a closer look. Then it was time for lunch and a siesta in true Catalonian form before heading back to the lab to work in the afternoon. Generally while the students worked on their projects (I had no responsibilities regarding the course), I worked on the manuscript for the work I did the months prior in Munich. With this picturesque setting, big chunks of time with nothing else to do, and access to Dr. Haszprunar (who is incredibly busy when in Munich, so 10 days of solid time was a treat!), I was able to write up basically the whole paper (coming soon, I promise! things always take longer than you think they will…).

We also did get to spend a day out trawling, and although we did pull up several worm tubes of the kind the limpet I was looking for likes to live on, unfortunately the worms inside the tubes were mostly still alive, and of the four or so empty tubes I only found one limpet living inside one of them, so not a great day for catching limpets (sneaky devils) but a nice day out on the boat nonetheless.

Dr. Haszprunar enjoying the time at sea

Dr. Haszprunar enjoying the time at sea



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2 thoughts on “Marine lab mania

  1. John Vonderlin

    Hi Jenna,
    I ran into your blog (Making Science while chucking….) while investigating the Purisima Formation’s fossils. Though Sinksam (benthic marine debris) is my passion, “Neptune’s Vomitorium,” the source of my 50K+ collection of non-buoyant litter, also regurgitates large amounts of waterlogged, eroded driftwood. I have tens of thousands of pieces. Many of them are “wormy” as I call them, including rock hard, polished branch cores. Could you direct me to any papers you participated in or know of that deal with the time scales, etc. involved in colonization of the highly durable areas of waterlogged driftwood? I have done a lot of forensic research of the sinksam items I collect, as to their point sources and probable benthic movement to where I collect them. Adding knowledge of the regurgitated driftwood’s sub-surface lifespan (taphonomy?)would be helpful to my understanding of the overall dynamics of this unique phenomenon and its ejecta. I’d be glad to share specimens or links to the pictures of the material I collect in return. Thanks for your time. John Vonderlin

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your interest! I am new in the game of sunken wood research, so haven’t published anything yet, but I can direct you to people who have been sinking things in mesh bags for much longer than I have. Sally Walker at the University of Georgia focuses more on taphonony of sunken organic materials including wood and shells and crab carapaces etc, and Janet Voight at the Chicago Field Museum is an expert on the wood boring clams (and has been a great colleague to me!) and she also has several papers from wood colonization experiments. You might also be interested in a paper by Marie Pailleret from 2007, “Identification of natural sunken wood samples” and other papers by the group in Paris (Sarah Samadi is often leading). Also, since you read the other post, you must already be aware of Craig McClain’s project, which sunk Acacia, which is quite a hard wood. He has a recent publication out on it. Overall, I wouldn’t feel confident drawing conclusions about the amount of time a piece of wood had been on bottom based on the “worminess” however. It seems rather variable even between neighboring logs of the same type, some pieces come up completely eaten through and others have barely been colonized, but maybe this would all just be background noise given enough time!

      Also “Neptune’s Vomitorium” sounds quite fascinating! I’m actually starting to get more interested in the intersection of natural and anthropogenic inputs to benthic marine habitats. Have you noticed any trends in artificial debris displacing natural debris (ie. less wood, more plastic?). Have you been successful in determining the point sources and movements of the sinksam, especially the wood? I’d definitely be interested in hearing more about it. Also, please let me know if I can be of any additional help.

      Best fishes,

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