Alex Lowe: Ecology Between and Below Pacific Tides: a new field course adds a twist to a classic theme.


Field trips, travel to beautiful places, and new friends: Summer as a grad student can be a lot like summer camp as a kid, only nerdier. Several UW Biograds have had amazing opportunities to take advantage of different types of training and research during the summer. Biograd Alex Lowe discusses his participation in creating a new field course at Friday Harbor Labs.


In 1939, Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin published Between Pacific Tides, a guide to the common and conspicuous organisms inhabiting the intertidal zone along the Pacific Coast of North America. The book is a must-have for ecologists (marine or otherwise) and enthusiasts alike; John Steinbeck even contributed the foreword to an early edition, so you know it’s good. Since that time, the field of intertidal ecology has transitioned from natural history observations to experimental manipulations and spread like an encrusting Halichondria into the subtidal, using SCUBA as a method of research. UW Biology has been a major player in the development of the field thanks to research from Bob Paine and his students working along the Pacific Coast, as well as many other prominent researchers. And now the tradition continues in a new field course being taught at the Friday Harbor Labs.

UW Biograd Katie Dobkowski (@KatieDobkowski) shows the 
EBBPT class how to conduct intertidal algal surveys at 
Cattle Point, San Juan Island.
Traditionally, intertidal and subtidal ecologists live in separate worlds - the air-sea interface apparently impenetrable, methodologically speaking. These habitat zones, though often just feet apart, are accessed in different ways. Intertidal ecologists often walk down from the shore during low tides, but subtidal ecologists use SCUBA to swim up underwater. While originally proposed as two separate courses, thus perpetuating the stereotype, the evolution of the Ecology Between and Below Pacific Tides course (follow us on Twitter and Facebook at #EBBPT15) led to a joint "omnitidal" experiment in field-based science education. The course combines the intertidal experience of Tiffany Stephens (University of Otago; @tiffanybot) and Megan Dethier (UW) with the subtidal experience of Aaron Galloway (Oregon Institute of Marine Biology; @awegalloway), David Duggins (UW), Pema Kitaeff (FHL Dive safety office; @pemarami) and myself, Alex Lowe (UW; @h2_Lo). A group of good friends who are also colleagues - a stellar staff by any measure.

The subtidal methods aspect of the course introduces another novel twist for a field course: EBBPT is a for-credit class offering AmericanAcademy for Underwater Sciences scientific diving certification. AAUS certification training is required for all scientific diving operations occurring at US universities, but has been primarily a specialty course offered at a few institutions at high cost. This was a major issue I was determined to address when Pema, Robin Elahi (@elahi_r; recent UW Ph.D. from the Sebens Lab and original co-creator of the course) and I were developing the course a couple years ago. As soon as students can get credit for AAUS certification, they can get financial aid, which opens this opportunity to a broader range of people. I once missed the opportunity to conduct research using SCUBA on sea ice-associated communities along the western Antarctic Peninsula owing to the prohibitive cost of the scientific diving course. I’ll be damned if that happens again!
Group photo of the dive team during our rescue session in the San Juan Island Sherrif's pool. Author center.
The Ecology Between and Below Pacific Tides course takes advantage of the resources only available at a marine field station, and the Friday Harbor Labs in particular. All students are trained in marine identification with living organisms, first aid, field rescue techniques, snorkeling or SCUBA diving, and boat handling. In their independent research and limited spare time they have been interacting with visiting professors and grad students about ongoing research and marine ecological methods. Their course-related work affords them full-time access to faculty, TAs and experienced volunteers (but seriously, FULL TIME. Like, 9 hours a day. Try that on a college campus…).

As a developing educator, a field course like EBBPT offers me an incredible teaching experience where “Teachable moments” abound. I’m verklempt just thinking about it. This course is particularly valuable to me since I have been part of every step of the development, from lectures to field activities as well as the student research projects.

The first two weeks of class were saturated with group experiments spanning the supralittoral to subtidal. By planting kelp detritus at different tidal elevations, putting out settling plates and surveying the diverse habitats around San Juan Island, the students gained experience in natural history observation and experimental techniques that guided them into their independent research. We intentionally spanned mean lower low water to stretch our students’ concept of an ecosystem and to compare and contrast important processes driving ecosystem structure in these connected habitats. You can follow our natural history observations in the class organism ID wiki here.

University of Wisconsin-Madison student Allie Brown instructs Dr. Megan Dethier 
to, "clear all of the Ulva out of the plot." After three weeks of training, the students 
are now the researchers. Allie is interested in the influence of green algae 
blooms on cobble communities.
Three weeks into the course, our students, who are from all over the country, are hard at work on independent projects. The roles have been flipped; the instructors are now the technicians and the students the researchers. It’s a rare experience for a student to tell the associate director of a marine lab to put on her gloves and start shoveling seaweed for you. The diverse interests of the students have paired impeccably well with the diverse habitats of the San Juan Islands. Projects include work in soft sediment and rocky reef seagrass beds (studying wasting disease in intertidal and subtidal Zostera marina and influence of epiphyte load on epifaunal community in Phyllospadix beds), tide flats (effects of Ulva blooms on cobble communities), shallow rocky reefs (influence of hydrodynamics and blade morphology on Nereocystis luetkeana growth and survival and a study investigating plasticity of encrusting sponges across a intertidal-subtidal depth gradient), and large scale rocky reef habitat (the role of Mesocentrotus franciscanus in the detrital kelp food web). The students will present their research in written reports and oral presentations at the end of the quarter. Keep an eye on twitter (#EBBPT15) for updates on projects and news about ways to follow the presentations.

From Summer Camp,

Alex Lowe
EBBPT15 Students

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