Science from movies

This blog post isn’t going to discuss science in movies per se, but rather how the public reiterates what they think they’ve learned from movies. Recently an adult came through the STAR Center (Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation) at North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island (NCARI) asking several interesting questions about our turtles currently undergoing rehabilitation. I was preparing food and feeding one of the turtles so I was only half listening. One of his questions stopped me in my tracks, my jaw dropped, and I stared at him dumbfounded. (luckily his attention was focused on the interpreter and didn’t notice my reaction) I quickly composed myself and surreptitiously listened to the rest of the interaction. I’m going to paraphrase his question but it went something like this; “how long do these guys live? I know it is about 140 years because that is how old the turtle was in the movie Finding Nemo.” Now the interpreter, she was very professional, and handled it great. She told him that oldest verified age is around 80 years but in truth we just don’t know how old turtles live. She told him further study was needed. The customer was happy with her answer but still spoke about that turtle in Finding Nemo being 140.

I’m am not faulting Disney. They are in the business of telling stories and I think that they do an okay job at storytelling. I think that the problem lies in education and mainstream news reporting. Both are equally at fault. There should be a higher level of science taught from kindergarten through college and more kids should be engaged in science. And mainstream news should never get their science reporting from movie stars!

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To release or to not release…

I was talking with a colleague the other day about some of the sea turtles on exhibit at a local aquarium. He was of the mind that we should release all of the sea turtles. One of the turtles is leucistic and I am of the mind that she should not be released. My reasons, in no particular order, are as follows:

  • She is a bright white target and would be eaten rather quickly.
  • The Kemp’s Ridley turtle is endangered species, and suppose she does survive, do we really want this gene to remain in the available gene pool of an endangered species?
  • This condition leaves her prone to UV damage and cancers. The aquarium can protect her from those issues.
  • The community can see one of these great animals up close and be educated about their plight in the wild.
  • If an individual had the money, and proper SCUBA credentials, they can dive in the tank with this turtle.

A primary mission of aquariums around the world is conservation of endangered species. The first definition of conservation listed in the Merriam Webster online dictionary is “a careful preservation and protection of something; especially: planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect”. The US Fish and Wildlife Service defines conserve, conserving, and conservation as: “The use of methods and procedures necessary to bring any endangered or threatened species to the point at which the measures provided under the Endangered Species Act are no longer necessary; includes research, census, law enforcement, habitat acquisition and maintenance, propagation, live trapping, and transportation, and, in the extraordinary case where population pressures within a given ecosystem cannot be otherwise relieved, may include regulated taking.”

I did read a post on the Loggerhead Marine Life Center that these turtles should not be exhibited for the following reason; “…the educational value of keeping a genetic mutant is poor, as they do not accurately represent the species.”

I also found that one organization, the Marine Science Center in Volusia county FL has in the past rehabbed leucistic turtles and released them back to the ocean.

I’m sure that there are many more reasons why we should/should not release this turtle and should/should not exhibit such animals. If you have any ideas or opinions please feel free to comment on this post.

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STAR Center rehab: Day One

        In an effort to become gainfully employed as a scientist I began volunteering with the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) and was lucky enough to be asked to be a part of the expanding ranks of volunteers at the brand new S.T.A.R. Center located at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island in the town of Manteo. 

        I apologize for having no pictures as yesterday was filled with the huge amount of information and on-the-job training for what my role is to be in rehabbing the turtles sent to the STAR Center. If you google star center pictures you can see many pictures from the grand opening.

       My duties are varied. They include feeding the turtles, preparing food, cleaning equipment, doing laundry, assisting staff with medical treatment and creating objects for the turtles to use as developmental toys to mimic behavior in the wild. 

      Most of my tasks this first day was working with Kristan (husbandry employee of the aquarium) feeding and giving medical attention to one of the turtles. I assisted in preparing food which involves checking previous feeding to make sure the turtle is eating. Selecting proper protein, cutting up in to bite size pieces, weighing all food and then placing all the numbers in the forms. Each turtle has a feeding schedule and log. The turtles are fed six days a week and every bite is logged down to the gram. This turtle is in rehab because he suffered frost bit this past winter and lost a large portion of his carapace (including the bone underneath), exposing a portion of his spinal chord. He is healing well an he is a picky eater. He would not eat the heads which is the portion of the fish with a good deal of nutrition. 

       I can’t wait until I work again! (which is today since I was kicked off line while writing this post)

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Gowanus Canal Conservancy

In my search to find volunteer opportunities (and possibly a job) I worked this past Sunday with a group of amazing people. The Gowanuc Canal Conservancy (GCC) is an organization which, for the past seven years, has been working to clean up the Gowanus Canal, add green space, and bring environmental information to the community in the form of speaker nights at local venues.  We met at the Salt Lot located at 2 Second St. in Brooklyn. This is where the GCC has its composting operation. Five of the workers were employees of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC). The volunteers were young people (a group of high school students) a couple of people, like me, new to the area with a smattering of regular GCC volunteers.

They greeted us with hot coffee, cider, and home-baked goodies. The goals for the day were to recycle Christmas trees into mulch, trim trees in the local area, and turn the  compost windrows. Using bikes w/trailers, SUV’s, pickup trucks and a dump truck we collected several hundred Christmas trees from the curbs of Brooklyn. I worked with the dump truck crew. We would walk a block and pile up all the trees found into one or two big piles. The dump truck would drive up and we would fill it up. Then we moved to the next block and repeated the process. Handing a Christmas up to the waiting hands of the guy in the truck is harder than it looks. Some of the trees were pretty dry, so I could almost toss the tree up and over the side, but a surprising number of trees were still in fairly good health and thus were still hydrated enough to be heavy.  All in all a really good work out.


This truck, on loan from Aborpolitan, made four trips during a three- hour period. We estimated that over 200 trees were collected by our crew. 

A little history of the Gowanus Canal: It is a superfund site. The Gowanus canal was built in the 1860’s as a piece of maritime infrastructure to support the industry of Brooklyn. The stagnant water of the canal was a dumping ground for all the heavy industry located along the canal. In order to alleviate the issue (and the smell) a flushing tunnel  was built to move the polluted water out of the canal. It is what we do in America. Move it down stream and it doesn’t exist. From the 1960’s through the 1980’s, due to the combined factors of the flushing pumps no longer functioning, industry shutting down, and few people living in the area, the canal became a noxious mess. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s residents began to demand a change.  In 2008 NYC conducted an environmental assessment of the canal. The flushing tunnel and pump are now in working order and the water in the canal is now refreshed 6 times daily. After reading the history of the canal I was struck by what a big job this tiny organization took on. Kudos to the GCC!

Mulch Fest 2013 was hard work but a lot of fun. Great conversation. Learned a lot. Had a lot of questions. Met interesting people that I never would have otherwise. Got to know the Park Slope/Gowanus area of Brooklyn a little bit……..  six square blocks of it anyway.

A big thank you to the GCC for the opportunity. Hope to see you all soon at another volunteer event. 

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A Great Big Thank You to all my Professors

This morning while reading through my twitter feed I came upon a discussion about why individuals with PhDs are moving away from the university track and into different types of careers. You can read the blogs posts at Scicurious and Perlstein and Easternblot. Two sentences in Scicurious’s post mention the lack of instruction and opportunity for conducting unique research and it got me thinking about my undergraduate experience.

Every class in the UCA biology department involved some type of independent research. Culturing (we need how many agar plates?!) and identifying bacteria found on everyday surfaces (My throat. What? I use it every day.) Conducting a plant population study (we need how many transects?!) for acreage placed into a mitigation bank. IMG_0159??????????????????? Developing a stream restoration (capacitydischarge, capacity ≠ discharge, capacity ≠ discharge) project within the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve. Mini projects such as does vinegar deter mosquitos from ovipositing? (no)  and do sun-grown linden trees have higher stomatal density than shade-grown linden trees? (maybe)

Most of these research projects were focused on learning a specific skill such as how to conduct research, design a project, conduct statistical analysis, conduct a prescribed burn,  or write a proper scientific report. In entomology class we were learning about hormones that effect whether a nymph will metamorphose into a larger instar or an adult. I spoke up saying, “I want to grow really big bugs!” The professor offered then and there to allow me lab space next semester to try it. Alas I was graduating and did not get to take him up on his offer. He will be pleased to know that on my own I learned about the Square-cube law and now know that there is a limit to the size of bug I could have grown.

The stream restoration was a complete foray into restoration ecology. We conducted historical analysis of an ecosystem, designed a restoration project, and worked as a team in deciding what were the most important issues to address in this restoration. We took preliminary data on biotic and abiotic conditions in the streams, assessed riparian vegetation, and even designed a community garden; complaining the whole way “we can’t do all this work in a semester.” But we did it!

  IMG_0787                                           IMG_0803

An important takeaway for me from this experience was how challenging it can be to effectively communicate with a research team. The restoration project team was composed of undergrads and grad students, environmental science majors and pre-vet majors, traditional students and non-traditional students. Some of us wanted to work with animals, some of us with people, and some preferred to never interact with a living thing.  Our schedules never matched so managing times to get together required flexibility, patience and a lot of texting. The professors were always there to keep us on track, to keep us motivated, and to keep us from killing each other.

The best part of the past 3 years by far is that all of my professors are passionate about their work and equally passionate about teaching. They laugh at us. They laugh with us. They take students into the field as often as possible. If you are lucky enough to take a summer class (I took plant taxonomy), you can count on being in the field 3 to 4 days a week. Students are encouraged to work on their own both in the lab and in the field. If a different or new type of equipment is needed the professors ensure that it is available. There were times when we got to keep a piece of equipment for the entire semester.

The blog post links in the first paragraph are about making career changes and how difficult that can be. It was just a couple of sentences in the middle of one post that got me thinking about how fortunate I was and I wanted to let everyone know.  I understand that there are many programs in which students  are used to further the professor’s work. I also know there are many schools where undergraduates are not afforded the opportunity to learn how to conduct research.


A big thank you to all my professors in the biology department at UCA! (I formally apologize for using wikipedia as a source.)

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Field Work is Done!

The fourteen hour days are over and they were a success. Well, we have crunched any of the data so there is no one to dispute my claim.We save the life of a box turtle (Terrapene carolina) at brown creek. It was trying to climb the steep creek bank and not having much success. It would misstep and tumble end over end back to the bottom. Sometimes knocking down rocks as big as it was. I finally took pity on the poor thing and lifted it on to the top of the bank (6 feet up above the water).

At Choctaw creek was saw a Spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera hartwegi) turtle. Those things are fast! We aren’t sure if it swam away or buried itself in the mud substrate of the creek but it was gone in the blink of an eye.

We finished working up the fish that were preserved for later identification. Minnows and darters. Bass and sunfish. Topminnows and chubs. Shiners and madtoms. Bullheads and silversides. We sampled 18+ creeks over six weeks. Next month we start snorkel surveys.

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A skink is not a salamander

We are pulling net after net after net. We sample, identify, or fail to identify (take those back to the lab to key out later) fish after fish after fish. We are also getting quite a few salamanders. I think they are Red River Mudpuppies but that remains to be verified. (brought two specimens back to the lab) The other day we sampled Brock Creek in Van Buren county here in Arkansas and I found the strangest looking salamander. (If you clicked on that link you found Scincella lateralis. Not a salamander but the Ground skink.)

Me: Hey I just found the strangest salamander.

Grad Student: Luise, that’s not a salamander that’s a skink (followed by much laughter)

I drop the skink, grad student grabs the skink, skink escapes, second grad student grabs tail, skink escapes. 

Grad student: I thought you took herpetology?! (more laughter)

Me: I’ve slept since then.

gotta love field work


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