Sooo...what exactly is it that you do?

I am asked this question so often that you'd think I would know how to answer it by now. My response varies based on the person's knowledge of ecology, whether or not I think they really want to know, my understanding of what it is that I do, and my mood. This is all confounded by the fact that my research focus changes every time I sneeze. As you can see, there is a lot of confusion around what I do. I thought with my first official post I would try to explain some of the nuts and bolts with pictures. Words haven't really been helpful in my explanations thus far.

Last July, Bethany and I went down to Liberty Island (my study site) for a two day/see what was there/mini field work extravaganza. Liberty Island is that piece of land pictured above.

It is an area that was once a freshwater tidal marsh, which was then filled in and converted to agricultural land. In 1999, its levies were breached and the state decided not to repair it, but instead to allow it to return to its original state. I work (or was supposed to work - but that's an entirely different story) with a team of biologists that want to study what trajectories this marsh takes while in the process of restoring. In other words they want to answer at what point will sediment start to collect on its own (these areas are heavily subsided due to being levied for so long i.e. they sink below sea level over time), when does vegetation start to develop, when do fauna return, when does diversity return, when, if ever, does it start to function and have the benefits that marshland once did (water filtration, floodplains, wildlife habitat), etc. That's where I come in. I was slated work on the invertebrate part of this whole shebang. Most people look at them in relation to their use as fish food, but I am more interested in their functional role in this marsh (water filtration, sediment turnover, primary food source/consumer) as well as the dynamics between native and invasive invertebrates in this restoring marsh.

Oh dear. I've gone and done it again. Too many words. Not to mention that the above is like a really broad definition of what I do, and not really what I do at all. So anyway, last July this all started for real, sort of. Here is what happened:

Traveled around the site on a boat driven by USFWS agent Pete. He's awesome.
One thing we did was to set up fall out traps to catch terrestrial insects.
Basically, they are large tupperware bins, filled with soapy water, flanked on all four sides by the PVC pipe so they can rise and fall with the tides (they float!). But, I am really not too keen on terrestrial insects so we will just skip over any more details. Move along people! Nothing to see here!
The other thing that we did was to take benthic cores. This involves using that tube thingy you see above to literally take cores out of the mud. Later on I count all the little guys under a dissecting scope back in the lab. Last time I went out we took cores all over the marsh in three different types of locations: vegetation, mudflat (what you see above), and channel.
That brings us up to speed with last month (well, there was a lot of lab time, classes, etc. between last June and now...). This past March I was sent back down with the instructions to make a plan, decide what I was going to test, and do it. Oh, I had such big plans. But, the best laid plans have a way of falling apart. What ended up happening was that we set up transects (above) and we took benthic cores (below) to look at the transition of invertebrate composition from withing the vegetation to the edge of the vegetation to 10 m (go metric!) out from the vegetation. We took 10 cores from each of these transects. Side note: That's my great field hand Lishka above. She was a trooper for a few days last month and she took some of these photos. She's in the mud club is Erin (one r), a new addition to our lab, and Emily a pro, who helped out a bit too.

Each core was immediately labeled and emptied into a jar that will be shipped back for me to sort through under the scope. Being out in the field collecting them was great fun... but every time I saw the pile of jars in our hotel closet expanding I wanted to cry. My fate was sealed. I will be taking up residence at a dissecting scope for the next few months.
We collected some other data too (mud, basically) and also tried to get a variety of vegetation patch sizes like the small one above to simulate a "young" area and
this large one above to simulate an "older" area.
At the end of the day I have a canoe full of samples (we just pull the canoe along with is through the marsh like kids with their red wagon).
Then we either sieve out all the extra dirt and whatnot onsite (or not, and I have to do it in the lab later).
That's all our gear. Sieves, jars, formalin, and a cooler full of coca-cola and chocolate.

Well, that's it in a nutshell. I think that's enough for now. My head hurts just from that. Hopefully, yours doesn't.


  1. LOVE IT. I miss you, dirt, the west coast.. bugs, birds, blah blah blah. Don't go visit my blog- it's for my 10th grade students. SOO not worthy. :O)

  2. Looks like you're a "mudder".

  3. I am so jealous. I want to play in waders with you and take benthic cores. *sigh* I'll settle for food, books and girl time in the city. :)


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