The overwhelming unknown of marine biology

anemone battle strike sm copy

From algorithms to explain gravity’s place in the universe, to characterizing battles of anemones, research at Swat teaches us about the complexity of something as “big” as gravity to as physically small as an individual A. elegentissima anemone – that’s where Mark Levine-Weinberg comes in. Last summer, he conducted research at Friday Harbor labs off the coast of Seattle.

Levine-Weinberg developed his own research project pertaining to marine biology and the ecology of the island where he conducted his research. His decision was inspired by a place. “My favorite field site was a place called Cattle Point. I guess I was most dumbfounded by this place because the tide is particularly rough, and there are lots of jagged rocks and anemones. So I knew I wanted to study something there.” With this specific location as a starting point, and a little help from his advisor Rachel Merz, Levine-Weinberg set out to study the dispersion of anemones in the island’s inter-tidal zone. The intertidal zone is a region of the ocean that is covered during high tide and exposed during low tide.

With excitement in his voice, he explained an epiphany moment: “I noticed that these patterns of distribution were different between lower intertidal and higher intertidal, and so that got me thinking about energetic tradeoffs for living at either level.”

In the lower intertidal zone, anemones were exposed to more predators, like sea stars. Since there were more anemones at this region, there was also more competition for space. At higher intertidal, these burdens are very different. The anemones are dealing with the incoming and outgoing tide, so they are in a constantly changing environment. When the tide is in, they are submerged in water and so are in a colder environment, and when it goes out, there is less water, causing the water to heat up faster in the sun. Additionally, because they are intermittently living in this shallow-water environment, rain really affects the anemones, and they have to deal with the change in salinity brought on by the rain.

This results in changes in the anemones behavior. And this is where the battles come into play. The way A. elegentissima compete for space is by fighting each other with their given weapons—their tentacles, called, dauntingly, acrorhagi.

“My hypothesis was that because they have to spend more energy in the higher intertidal to osmoregulate and thermogregulate, [deal with the changing salinity and changing temperatures] they would devote less energy to aggressive behavior.”

To test this hypothesis, Levine-Weinberg set up battles between anemones from the high intertidal and the low intertidal and recorded which one won each battle. He also scored different aggressive behaviors that were displayed during these battles. He found that there was no difference between number of battles won for high intertidal and low intertidal anemones. But, anemones from the high intertidal (more changing environment) have fewer acrorhagi, suggesting that they spend less energy growing these arcrorhagi to devote this energy to other things. He also noticed, “anemone personality. I did some correlations and found that anemones with more acrorhagi move more during battle and also tend to leave their battles more quickly. ”

When asked about his personal experience of conducting this research this summer, Levine-Weinberg talked a lot about the excitement of starting from pure curiosity and exploration and developing this into a focused investigation. “All I knew was where I was going, and I had read up on the habitat and the species of this island. I found the landscape overwhelming, because I grew up on the east coast and  had never been on a rocky intertidal.”

He continued, describing the habitat, “And I found out that there’s so many different places for organisms to live. They’re living in crevices, and in rocks, and on top of each other, and in anenomes, and there’s algae on top of them, and you can pick up a leaf of algae and find a starfish underneath.”

Levine-Weinberg was also inspired by the collaborative nature of Friday Harbor. He said, “[Initially] I was worried about being on this island, I thought I would feel so cut off from civilization. But there were grad students, undergrads, and twelve other REU students. The REU students were inseparable. And what was also great was that there wasn’t really a hierarchy for scientific conversations to occur. Everyone there, about 150 people, eats in the same dining hall, so even the most senior researchers who have published landmark papers will sit down with you and talk to you about what you’re investigating. I even got to meet the woman who published the landmark paper on sea anemone aggression. I was so star-struck, and so excited that she was interested in what I was studying.”

Doing research over the summer offered Levine-Weinberg the opportunity to meet renowned scientists and to contribute to their work with his studies. But research was more than a scientific endeavour. While learning about the natural world, Levine-Weinberg discovered not only new information, but a whole new world between the tides.

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