Friday, May 29, 2009

Coastal Ecology Field Trip - 2009

The view from the south side of Horn Island. Tech students in the water.

Camera used was a $11 water-resistant disposable Kodak

I was quite impressed with the people and facilities at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. A co-worker of mine teaches a summer Coastal Ecology class at Arkansas Tech, and my boss was kind enough to let me tag along with him and his class of budding biologists during their field trip to the Gulf.
   We spent a week on the campus, briefly sleeping in the dorms and eating cafeteria food when we weren't seining for fish and crabs. We had learned how to use the nets in a creek on the Tech campus, but that was in no way adequate preparation for the challenge of holding a seine steady in the ocean.

   The boat trip to Horn Island was definitely a highlight for everyone. During the two-hour trip to the island, several water-spouts were popping out of the dark lingering clouds. In the middle of our journey, the captain stopped the boat and I asked what was going on. Captain Larry said, "That water-spout has the right of way." The dang water tornado was directly in front of the boat, and you could see the bottom swirling out much wider than the middle and top of the spout. I had never seen anything like it before in my life.

   Several dolphins appeared unexpectedly, chasing the trolling net and jumping out of the water alongside the boat. We squealed every time one jumped out of the water.

   The island itself was a pristine and vacant looking piece of paradise. It was also a refuge for the Osprey birds, and there were wicked looking trees scattered about with humongous nests at their tops. It looked like a scene from natural history in years past. Many, MANY years past!

   A few of the students and I had brought our fishing poles, and we caught a fish every time we threw a line in the water. I only caught a catfish, but one student caught a ladyfish. Another student caught something much larger, and we all crowded near him in the water as he fought it. The fish pulled free before he could tow it in, but we had seen it jump out of the water a couple of times before it was liberated. It was white with black stripes, and Captain Larry told us later is was probably a Sheepshead.

   During the trip back, we used the trolling net to catch a multitude of strange sea creatures. I was so fascinated by the Atlantic Brief Squid that I picked one up and help it in my hand. The small pigmented spots on its face, called chromatophores, faded and reappeared so quickly it looked computer-animated. I watched the squid closely, and it began to move its tentacles to reposition itself in my hand. I could feel the tiny suction cups take hold, and then it bit me! I screamed and shook it off my hand. I'm not sure where the poor heavy-headed thing landed, but I wish I had tossed it back into the ocean. Now, it will surely remain pickled in ethanol on the shelves of the Arkansas Tech zoology lab for eternity.

   I had been told there was a famous invertebrate zoologist who taught at the research facility, so I grabbed two of our students and gathered a few jars of unknown jellyfish and we walked over to Dr. Heard's lab. He was incredibly nice. He looked at our jellyfish - which were translucent-looking blobs floating in ethanol - and identified most of them at first glance. He talked nearly non-stop, showed us a few parasites with his microscope, and drew out life cycles of creatures we had never heard of. He let me borrow an expensive plankton net and gave us an armful of posters featuring beautiful line drawings of some of the different shrimp species he had described over the years. The students said he was the most intelligent person they had ever met.

   I did not want to come home. I wanted to go back to Horn Island, with my fishing pole, and sit for a very long time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Magic of Spring

   I left work late, much later than I had planned, and went to Margaret's house for a walk. I had never walked around her neighborhood before, and I was pleasantly surprised by the leafy green remoteness of it.
   It had been raining for over a week now, and things were incredibly lush around the country side of Arkansas. And the weather was still Spring-like, cool and light, just perfect for long walks.
We came across a little snake warming itself on the paved road. My first impulse was to catch it and bring it as a gift to the herpetologist in my department. Margaret stopped me because she was concerned that it might be venomous. I didn't think it was large enough to carry a significant amount of venom, but it was too small for either of us to tell what kind of snake it was. It slid right under the arch of my tennis shoe, and we watched it slither away into the tan pine needles next to the road.
Margaret took me to see a beautiful house up a pebble-stone driveway. The yard had been wonderfully landscaped with roses and peonies and many other types of flowers. We walked around the house, smelling all the different flowers and looking at the view across the valley below. The owners were sitting on the back porch, sipping wine and watching two baby foxes that were perched on a rock facing the back of the house. I had never seen a baby fox before! They were fiery orange in color, with black legs. They were not afraid of us, and they were so adorable I wanted to pet them.
   Margaret and I joined her friends on the porch and we were given wine glasses of our own. The sun was almost completely gone, and the foxes eventually slipped away into the brush. We sat for a long time, talking, sipping our wine, until the full moon came up and we decided we should probably head back home.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Evolution and iPhones

   Consider the Pacinian corpuscle. This is very specialized type of sense receptor, called a mechanoreceptor, located deep in your dermis. It is only 1 mm in length, and it is responsible for detecting deep pressure sensations. It is oval-shaped, displaying concentric circles of a type of insulated cell called Schwann cells. In the center of the Pacinian corpuscle, there is an uninsulated, or unmyelinated, nerve that, upon stimulation, will send signals to your brain.
   The usefulness of this type of receptor is not difficult to imagine. The skin provides a critical barrier against the constant barrage of microorganisms in our external environment. An invasion of certain types of bacteria or viruses, perhaps by a splinter or some other undetected vector, into our body can cause a nasty infection. If the infection is severe enough, it could potentially kill us.
   So, where did these interesting little pressure detector instruments come from?
   All humans have them, so presumably, they were the result of a mutation, or many mutations over the course of thousands or millions of years. And since we all have these corpuscles of touch in our deepest layers of skin, we must all be related to the one individual who was born with the precise genetic make-up to code for these wonderous little receptors.
Do other animals have Pacinian corpuscles? Do amphibians have them? How common are these things, and could they themselves indicate a common ancestry amongst the animal kingdom?
   I was sitting in my office today, trying to understand this hypothesis when a student worker walked in. She had a beautiful shiny white iPhone in her hand. I stared at it, and asked her about some of the features. She effortlessly checked both of her e-mail accounts, searched a map for the quickest route to a Florida beach, and taught me how to "shady button" someone undesirable who was trying to call her at that moment. Cell phones have evolved, I thought. I looked at my own little flippy-phone in disgust. It had no Internet capabilities. It did not have the effortless, gliding-touch software of the iPhone. Soon, I thought, little cheap flippy-phones like mine will become the market minority. The buyer's market will select for all cell phones to have user-friendly access to the web.
Like the Pacinian corpuscle, a mechanoreceptor with a useful enough function to contribute to the survival rate, and therefore the reproductive success of humans, which ensured the survival of the corpuscle itself, the iPhone and its vast capabilities will be selected for by the hungry market of cash-bearing individuals in constant need for access to information, immediately. Could having an iPhone directly contribute to the survival rate and reproductive success of humans? I don't know about that, but I am going to test my hypothesis. :)