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A closer look at an eelgrass inhabitant – the Dungeness crab

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UCD undergraduate Jason Toy

UCD undergraduate Jason Toy

by Jason Toy (Undergraduate student in the UCD ZEN class)

Several weeks ago, I was out at Bodega Bay with my classmates from the UCD ZEN course collecting field data for our research projects.  As I stood out there in the water in my borrowed waders, I observed quite a few different species of invertebrates as they made their way through the bed of eelgrass.  Most were quite familiar to me at that point, but there were a few species, including the Dungeness crab, Cancer magister, that I had not thought of as typical eelgrass inhabitants.  I decided to do a little research on the life history of these crustaceans in order to better understand the importance of estuarine seagrass beds to this – and potentially other – important crustacean species.

Life cycle of the Dungeness crab (Tasto et al. 1983)


I was surprised to learn that these crabs move around quite a bit during their life histories.  Adults mate in nearshore coastal locations in the Pacific Northwest throughout the spring (Pauley et al., 1989), a process in which the male embraces the female for up to 7 days before she molts, after which the actual transfer of sperm occurs. She stores this sperm for about a month until she extrudes her eggs and, in the process of doing so, they are fertilized (Tasto et al., 1893).  But her care doesn’t end there.  She protects her eggs by storing them on her abdomen for several months until winter (typically December – January). Then one day, these 1-2 million eggs hatch and the baby crabs leave their mother and enter a 105-125 day planktonic larval period. During this time the young Dungeness crab goes through many developmental changes, moving through 5 zoeal and 1 megalopal stages.  After reaching the megalopa stage, the young crabs settle out onto the bottoms of bays and estuaries, where they molt into their first juvenile crab stage and begin to actually resemble real crabs.

During field sampling, Jason and classmates found a few juvenile Dungeness crabs hiding amid the eelgrass in Bodega Bay, California

During field sampling, Jason and classmates found a few juvenile Dungeness crabs hiding amid the eelgrass in Bodega Bay, California

This is where seagrass comes in!  Coastal estuaries (like Bodega Harbor) play a critical role for juvenile Dungeness crabs as a nursery.  Large numbers of juvenile crabs benefit from the protection and substrate provided by beds of eelgrass (Zostera marina). They cling to and hide within the grass, consuming other small organisms within the habitat (amphipods, isopods, polychaetes, essentially whatever they can catch!) (Pauley et al., 1989).  After several molts, subadults and adult Dungeness crabs begin to leave the eelgrass beds and move offshore, but a few do remain in inland coastal waters, hiding among the eelgrass blades.

Dr. Stachowicz and Jason pause for a quick photo during the class field trip

Dr. Stachowicz and Jason pause for a quick photo during the class field trip

The role of seagrass beds in the life history of Dungeness crabs is an important interaction to talk about because it is an example of an economic benefit (known as an ecosystem service) provided by seagrass beds.  Seagrasses are critical species in coastal environments around the globe, as they form habitat structure and promote a large diversity of organisms.  However, like the coral reefs, they are currently in decline due to the effects of human activities.  The connection of an economically important species such as Cancer magister to these seagrass ecosystems, however, can help bring attention to this issue, and provide an incentive for the preservation and restoration of this habitat. Help spread the word!

For more information, check out these references:

Pauley, G. B., Armstrong, D. A., Citter, R. V., & Thomas, G. L. (1989). Species Profiles: Life Histories and  Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (Pacific Southwest): Dungeness Crab. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Biological Report 82(11.121): 7-8.

Tasto, R. N., & Wild, P. W. (1983) Life History, Environment, and Mariculture Studies of the Dungeness   Crab, Cancer Magister, With Emphasis on The Central California Fishery Resource. California  Department of Fish and Game Fish Bulletin 172, 319-320. Retrieved June 11, 2014, from

Jason is an aspiring marine ecologist with a passion for all things science. He is a rising senior at UC Davis studying evolution and ecology. His dream job is to be a research SCUBA diver. This summer he will be working in Dr. Jay Stachowicz’s marine ecology lab at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory.

Loving science for the challenge

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San Diego State University undergraduate Chris Bayne

San Diego State University undergraduate Chris Bayne

by Christopher Bayne (San Diego State University undergraduate, ZENtern)

Field days have to be one of my favorite parts of science for two main reasons. The first reason is fairly obvious – we get to go out to the field site, which means getting some exercise, being in the sun, and working in the natural environment. You can’t beat that! The second reason is less intuitive. I really enjoy the challenges of fieldwork and problem solving. No matter how well protocols are planned and how many times you go over them, it seems that the smallest thing can turn into the biggest pain. Even though these problems can be time consuming and counterproductive, they keep you on your toes.

Along those lines, the ZEN predation intensity experiment comes to mind. The first time we deployed the experiment, which tested different materials as potential standardized prey to be used in experiments conducted by all of the ZEN partners, we used braided line threaded through different bait types. We separated each bait into separate bags for “quick and easy” deployment in the field. However, when we reached our field site we soon discovered that, when braided line goes into a bag, the mixture of moving around, getting wet, and Murphy’s law results in a knot so bad that you can barely distinguish one line from another. It just so happens that this occurred to six of our eight different bait types. What do we do?

The ZEN SDSU class conducting field experiments in the eelgrass in San Diego Bay

The ZEN SDSU class conducting field experiments in the eelgrass in San Diego Bay

We approached the problem like you do with so many other unexpected field issues. You accept it and just jump in headfirst.  You approach the knot and honestly, there is no apparent advantage of coming at it at any certain way. You just begin trying to separate each line one at a time. You try different things: weaving the bait end through, loosening the most knotted sections, pulling the line through slowly. You swear you’ve undone hundreds of knots yet the ball of tangled string never looks as if any progress was made. Finally, you notice one looks as if it is almost loose. You put all your effort into that and get it out with this silent victory to yourself. Eventually they are all loose and you re-wrap them in a way that they will not get tangled up again. You think about what you could or should have done to avoid this mess. You finish up what needs to be done, knowing you are ready for whatever comes next.

In the end, the problem of the knotted line may be small but it is symbolic of the problems researchers face all the time. Little complications creep out of nowhere, completely unexpected. You try a million different solutions and begin to loose faith when nothing seems to work. If you have enough patience, the knot will eventually loosen and you will be victorious, swearing that you will never make that mistake again. This is why I have chosen to do science. It is challenging in so many ways. Learning the correct terminology, setting up experiments, finding solutions to unexpected problems – these are just some of the reasons why science is challenging and yet very rewarding.

Working on a project as large as ZEN adds an additional level of complexity in both coordinating large teams of people distributed all over the globe. This summer I will be travelling to Japan to work with the ZEN partners in both Akkeshi and Hiroshima. It is an amazing opportunity that not many undergraduates get to be a part of. I am looking forward to all of the challenges I will be facing this summer. I’m sure there will be more than a few but, if I’ve learned my lesson, tangled fishing lines will not be one of them!

Chris is a rising senior at San Diego State University pursuing his bachelor’s in biology and Japanese. Before starting the ZEN program Chris worked with Dr. Violet Compton Renick on her dissertation research examining the interactive effects of parasites and pesticides on killifish behavior. During the SDSU ZEN course Chris led a feeding experiment where he measured the grazing rates of several different types of San Diego mesograzer. This summer Chris will be traveling as part of his ZENternship to Japan to assist Drs. Massa Nakaoka and Massakazu Hori. 

Thowback Thursday – Setting the Stage

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Experimental gear shipped to ZEN partners in 2011

Experimental gear shipped to ZEN partners in 2011

Working with a large, global network of collaborators poses unique opportunities — as well as challenges. Before ZEN’s parallel experiments could start at the 15 widely scattered partner sites in 2011, the VIMS team had to purchase, fabricate, assemble, package, and ship the experimental materials to the sites located throughout the northern hemisphere. That summer we shipped out up to 6 crates and over 500 lbs of gear per site (that’s almost 3.8 tons total!). There was a lot to be done before we could pull on the dive booties and plunge into the water at our own site! For summer of 2014 the focus is on rigorous, controlled surveys and smaller scale experiments, which has the added benefit of less international shipping!

Tsawwassen – home to big isopods, eelgrass and crabs

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College of William & Mary undergraduate Danielle Hall

College of William & Mary undergraduate Danielle Hall

by Danielle Hall (College of William & Mary undergraduate student, ZENtern)

After three days of intense lab preparation and field work, the first ZEN2 site has been completed!

I arrived in British Columbia late on May 15th and the next day we got straight to work. After prepping materials in the lab we hopped in the lab truck and headed to our field site in a town outside of Vancouver called Tsawwassen. This particular site is in an intertidal zone and we chose to work on the lowest tide of the year since, during any other time, the site would be submerged and difficult to access.

To get to the site we climbed down over two hundred steps. Next, in our fashionable rubber boots, we hiked our way through the mud to get to our site (a treacherous task since the mud had a habit of clinging to our boots). On more than one occasion help was required to extricate a sunken foot.

I was amazed at the size of the Zostera shoots. They were nearly twice the size of the eelgrass in my home field site in Virginia! Not only were the shoots large, but the isopods were comparatively gigantic as well.

Marking experimental plots in the eelgrass bed in Vancouver, British Columbia

Marking experimental plots in the eelgrass bed in Vancouver, British Columbia

I was joining on day two of the field work and so the 20 experimental plots were already marked with orange flags. On this day, our job was to deploy the predation assay. The purpose of this assay is to understand the relative predation rates across the different ZEN site. The experimental units, or ‘PTUs,’ consist of a piece of bait tethered to an acrylic rod. The baits ranged from local animals, like the giant isopods, to a standard control, a piece of cut dried squid. A PVC quadrat helped visualize where to place our PTUs.

Inside the eelgrass in Vancouver, BC

A hermit crab crawls along the eelgrass bed in Vancouver, BC

Having spent several summers helping deploy previous ZEN projects in the Chesapeake Bay, I was very curious to discover the differences in eelgrass beds between the two coasts. Here, anemones abounded right on the eelgrass shoots. I was amazed that they were able to make a living on plant tissue since in all my past experiences I had only ever seen anemones attached to a hard substrate (There are anemones living in eelgrass beds in the Chesapeake Bay as well, but they are generally small and scarce.)



Our lab group got particularly excited about a pair of nudibranchs who then became the stars of a Hollywood-esque photoshoot. Meanwhile a bald eagle joined us for a bit, clearly finding a tasty meal within the seagrass.

The BC team poses with a Dungeness crab found in the eelgrass bed

The BC team poses with a Dungeness crab found in the eelgrass bed

Our second day in the field was filled with surprises. After recording the results of the predation assay (the bait was either gone – eaten, presumably – or present), we continued with collecting samples. After combing through the plots at least two times, Celine – another ZEN participant – uncovered quite a surprise: a huge Dungeness crab hiding in the mud! And he was not too happy that we were intruding in his home. One of the other women, Jemma, mustered up the guts to pick up the feisty crab, and we all gathered around to take a picture with our new friend.

The ZEN team in BC hard at work

The ZEN team in BC hard at work

Day two was a long afternoon of working in our plots. So long in fact that the tide decided to turn despite the fact that we still had half our plots to process. A race ensued. We were optimistic. The tide was persistent. We lost. I was in the process of taking sediment core samples when I noticed the tide line getting ever so close, though I was determined to finish. When I peeked over my shoulder, I decided I could finish three more plots. I didn’t even finish the one I was on.  Soon water was rushing into our site.

Danielle (left) and the BC team celebrate a successful ZEN sampling

Danielle (left) and the BC team celebrate a successful ZEN sampling

I abandoned my own task to help others finish collecting algae. We developed an effective method of the two hand scoop, where we quickly ran both hands through the plot to work like a sieve. Soon the water engulfed our boots which was followed by multiple exclamations, but together we finished all the plots. Looking towards the shore, our samples and coolers were being carried by the tide. It took all our effort to traverse back to the shore, and on the way retrieve the heavy, runaway samples.


Danielle is a rising senior at the College of William and Mary. As a ZENtern she will be working with the lab of Dr. Mary O’Connor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, as well as back at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science with Dr. Emmett Duffy’s Marine Biodiversity Lab during summer 2014. She has been volunteering in Dr. Duffy’s lab for the past two years and is from Massachusetts. Aside from her passion for science, Danielle is an avid dancer.

The Adventure Begins

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Dr. Duffy and the College of William & Mary ZEN class

Dave Godschalk (second from the right) poses with Dr. Duffy (left) and the College of William & Mary ZEN class

Dave (second from left) and ZEN classmates survey seagrass in the Chesapeake Bay before beginning their ZENternships

Dave (second from left) and ZEN classmates survey seagrass in the Chesapeake Bay before beginning their ZENternships

Zadar, Croatia

Dave will be assisting ZEN partners this summer in Zadar, Croatia

Crystal clear water in Croatia

Crystal clear water in Croatia

ZEN field site, 18 km away from Zadar, Croatia

ZEN field site near Zadar, Croatia

by David Godschalk (College of William & Mary undegraduate, ZENtern)

On my very first day of the ZEN Seagrass Ecology course at the College of William and Mary, I learned perhaps the most important lesson of the class, if not my scientific career. Our professor, Dr. Emmett Duffy, stood in front of our class and said these striking words:

“Things will not work out. You will mess up. Experiments will go wrong… Science is like that. The key, as an ecologist or any scientist for that matter, is to be able to adapt to those situations – to be creative and turn failures into successes. If you can do that, you will be successful not only as a scientist, but also as a person.”

As a geology major in an ecology class, this struck a chord with me. While I can go on and on about the structural and material properties that govern the Earth, different types of sandstones, and all those things near and dear to geologist’s hearts, I was out of my element in this course and I knew it. A fish out of water, one might say!

Those words on the first day are what saved me and I am so glad they did. Since then I have absolutely fallen in love with seagrass – the environment and the dynamics which govern the system.  Even that particular seagrass-mud smell has grown on me. I will be writing entries for the ZEN Blog throughout the summer and one of my goals is to share with you my fascination with this unique environment. I hope to inspire you to feel the same way I do about this precious habitat and unprecedented project.

The Zostera Experimental Network (ZEN) is a collaborative, global study to examine what affects seagrass, and what role in turn seagrass play in coastal environments. What makes this project so unique is: (1) standardized experiments are performed worldwide, when often experiments in science can only be performed locally or regionally, and (2) undergraduate students (like me!) are sent to these global sites to practice and hone skills learned in class and contribute to the overall scientific study.

This summer I will be contributing to the ZEN research efforts in Zadar, Croatia, located across from Italy on the Adriatic Sea. It is a beautiful place and I am unbelievably excited to get things underway here. I will update you soon on how the experiments are going!

Dave is a graduating senior at the College of William & Mary and will be working with Dr. Claudia Kruschel in Croatia. His major is in geology with a marine science minor. Prior to studying seagrass ecology, Dave worked for Dr. Mark Patterson at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) and completed an honors geology thesis. His favorite class at WM was structural geology – and rock climbing. When not snorkeling in the seagrass beds or surveying rocks he can be found running marathons.

Science boot-camp at the Bodega Marine Lab

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UC Davis undergraduate Julie Blaze

UC Davis undergraduate Julie Blaze

by Julie Blaze (UC Davis undergraduate, ZENtern)

Marine biologists don’t often find themselves trekking through dense remote jungles or climbing desolate mountains to conduct their research.  Some would say we’ve got it pretty easy – the ocean covers around 70% of the earth’s surface, and studying biodiversity can be as easy as walking out to the coast and digging in the sand.  The only downside to the job is that we are captives to the ebb and flow of the tides.  My classmates and I in the ZEN class at UCD found that out the hard way when we took a field trip to the Bodega Marine Laboratory to survey the eelgrass growing in Bodega Harbor.

The UCD ZEN students began sampling with the rising sun in Bodega Bay, California

The UCD ZEN students began sampling with the rising sun in Bodega Bay, California

As someone who enjoys sleep, I can honestly say it is difficult to wake up at 5:30 am for any reason.  Awake before the sun and trudging across the mud flats before its first rays had even reached the water, I know I wasn’t the only one thinking of the warm, comfy beds we had left behind.  My boots were a little too big and kept getting stuck in the mud – I almost went sprawling face down into the mud more than once.  As the sun rose, I wondered what we must have looked like to anyone watching from the shore – a zombie-like group of college students floundering in the mud.  Slowly we gained more energy and set about surveying a large expanse of the seagrass bed collecting samples and taking measurements.  We worked efficiently and conversation picked up as excitement and adrenaline grew with each new discovery and lapping reminder of the incoming tide.  At first glance the mudflats and seagrass meadows look barren, but we quickly found that they teemed with life.  Critters clung to the grass or buried themselves in the mud – making this eelgrass bed, similar to other seagrass meadows, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the ocean.

The UCD ZEN class samples an experiment in Bodega Bay, California

The UCD ZEN class collect mesograzers from the eelgrass for a class experiment

After a few hours the water had crept too high for us to work and we headed back to the lab to  begin processing our samples.  We put in a long day, getting as much done as we could before calling it quits. We all found those cozy beds soon after a late dinner, with the promise of another early field day tomorrow.

The next morning we again rose before the sun and stumbled out into the mud. But this time we were more familiar with the science – the methodology and how to work as a team – and we finished before the water chased us out.

By the end of the weekend I was  thoroughly exhausted, but I didn’t care.  We had spent an incredible weekend having an amazing adventure.  Not only did I learn about the animals and ecosystem we were exploring, but I also learned several things about myself that weekend.  First, I learned that I am willing and able to wake up before the sun to do research.  Second, not even the wilds of a remote jungle can tempt me away from the mysteries of the ocean.  And, finally, one lesson I will never forget – it’s easy to stay awake once your boots flood with freezing cold seawater. But, it’s even easier when you’re also out exploring a location as interesting as a Bodega Bay seagrass bed!

Julie is a graduating senior at UC Davis majoring in Biology. This summer she will be a ZENtern working with Dr. Nessa O’Connor in Ireland. Julie is a true team player and earned the nickname “den mother” during the 3-day, marathon class field trip and subsequent weeks of sample processing back on campus.

Photos contributed by Aaron Goodman.

Importance of knowing how to communicate science

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College of William & Mary undergrad Jessie Viss (right) sets up an experiment with a classmate

College of William & Mary undergrad Jessie Viss (right) sets up an experiment with a classmate

by Jessie Viss (College of William & Mary undergraduate, ZENtern)

My bags are packed, my first hostel booked, and a pretty decent travel playlist has been downloaded to my iPod—I’m just about ready to head off to Portugal to work at the ZEN site there.  Before this semester I didn’t even have a valid passport, and the farthest from home I’d ever been was when I left California to go to school in Virginia.

Needless to say I’m pretty excited about the prospect of spending two and a half months in Faro.  The funny thing is, while I’ve always had a burning desire to see the world, that isn’t what’s got me practically giddy with excitement.  No, what I’m most thrilled about is actually the work I’ll be doing this summer.

Throughout last semester we learned the methods for the different experiments that’ll be done across all the ZEN sites over the summer.  While getting to go into the field made that class by far my favorite, the frigid waters made it so that the stars of the show were pretty scarce. But now we have the opportunity to really put into practice the procedures we’ve learned, to gather data that might test the theories of the papers we’ve read, to play a very small role in research that is of growing importance given the global trends indicating a decline in Zostera marina, so on the eve of my departure I think I’m within my bounds to geek out just a little.

Jessie and her classmate Kyle and TA Jon are suited up and ready to survey the eelgrass

Jessie and her classmate Kyle and TA Jon are suited up and ready to survey the eelgrass

My mom, on the other hand, is somewhat less enthused.  Don’t get me wrong, she’s proud of me as only a mother can be, but is fairly uninterested in the scientific implications of the research.  She’s been telling people I’ve landed an internship that has me spending my summer watching the grass grow.  No attempts at explanation could convince her to phrase it any other way until one day the parents of a girl I went to elementary school with came into the restaurant where she works.  They got to talking with her, and mentioned how their daughter also had a summer internship, working to preserve salmon populations in the delta that dominates the part of California we come from.  Suddenly “watching grass grow” became an inadequate explanation, and when she got home mom asked just what exactly I’d be doing.

“Well there’s the podsicle experiment for one,” I began, “See, we take a small rod with a tether tied to it, glue some bait and put them out in the field for 24 hours.”

“Wait, what do you glue to these…popsicles…?”

“Podsicles, because we glue amphipods—little bug like things—to them to test relative predation rates,” I explained.

“And then what? Leave them out there in the water to get eaten?”


“So while Regina is out there saving the fishes you’re going to be gluing bugs to string??”

“Mom no, that’s not it. We’re testing how much predation there is at each site and perhaps the relative impacts of top-down processes—“

“I just can’t believe I raised a little mad scientist. Sure, now it’s just sea bugs, but how long until you’re in a white lab coat laughing maniacally and gluing people to rods.”

She was kidding, but has since gone back to telling people I’ll be watching grass grow. Seagrass, Mom. Maybe through my blog posts, and by the time I return from my ZENternship, I’ll be better able to show her the importance of the work I’m contributing to this summer.

Jessie is a rising junior at the College of William and Mary. She will be working with Dr. Aschwin Engelen in Portugal for her ZENternship this summer. Jessie is originally from California and this summer marks her first time traveling abroad.

Jessie was on the plane to Portugal while this post was undergoing final revisions, so, Jessie’s mom and parents of all of the ZENterns, this one’s for you:

Seagrasses are found all over the world and provide important functions and services (image courtesy of Short et al. 2007: Global Seagrass Research Methods)

Seagrasses are diverse and found all over the world (image courtesy of Short et al. 2007: Global Seagrass Research Methods)

 “Seagrass beds are an important, valuable, and widespread habitat that provide many important services to humanity. They contain many different species of plants and animals, including fishes and crabs that one day will end up our dinner plates. They help soak up the excess nutrients from fertilizers and waste that find their way into coastal waterways. Seagrasses also hold the soil together, which prevents erosion and lessens the impacts of coastal storms. They even help combat the effects of global climate change by capturing carbon, preventing it from accumulating in the atmosphere. As such, it’s vitally important that we understand what factors promote healthy seagrass beds.

Seagrasses provide many functions and services, but are threatened worldwide

Seagrasses provide many functions and services, but are threatened worldwide

 The purpose of the Zostera Experiment Network is to, quite simply, understand how seagrass beds work. We will measure a suite of variables – some of them related to the environment, like temperature, salinity, and location, and some of them related to biology, like the number and diversity of animals found in the grass beds. We will relate these variables to inform our predictions about how seagrass beds function. By partnering with institutions all over the world, we can evaluate these predictions generally. ZEN represents an unprecedented effort to link process to function in a coastal habitat. Ultimately, the information obtained from ZEN will aid us in protecting and globally conserving this ecosystem, so it can continue to provide the services listed above.”

A test worth taking

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UC Davis undergraduate Ellie Marin in the field

UC Davis undergraduate Ellie Marin in the field

by Ellie Marin (UC Davis undergraduate, ZENtern)

Exams are inherently nerve-wracking. First there’s the main concern – did I study enough? Did I study the right material? And then there are other details –  I have nightmares about running out of ink in my pen, accidentally missing questions on the back side of an exam

page, or even forgetting to write my name on the top of the exam paper. But, one thing I’d never feared was being stalled by accidently super gluing my hand to the exam paper itself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Seagrass Ecosystem Ecology course taught by Drs. Pamela Reynolds and Jay Stachowicz that I’m taking at UC Davis, it’s to be prepared for the unexpected.

Ellie (front) and classmates process samples collected by the UC Davis ZEN class.

Ellie (front) and classmates process samples collected by the UC Davis ZEN class.

Ellie (left) and classmates conduct research at UC Davis' Bodega Marine Laboratory for the ZEN undergraduate course in Seagrass Ecosystem Ecology

Ellie (left) and classmates conduct research at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory for the ZEN undergraduate course in Seagrass Ecosystem Ecology

This hands-on field methods course was designed to educate the undergraduate students participating in the ZEN research (the “ZENterns”) on the methodology, theory, history, and purpose behind seagrass ecology and the Zostera Experimental Network. Our class featured a weekend trip to Bodega Bay, California to conduct field research, student presentations of papers from the primary literature, lectures, and group research activities. Today’s lab practical exam was intended to assess how much we learned from all of the different aspects of the course. In preparation for the exam, I read through my notes. It is a fairly hands-on class, so I wasn’t exactly sure how to study. Chatting with my 11 classmates revealed that we were all in the same boat.

UCD ZEN students perform the class practical exam, which involved traditional written questions on the course subject matter as well as demonstrating skills developed during the course.

UCD ZEN students perform the class practical exam, which involved answering questions on the course subject matter as well as demonstrating skills developed during the course.

Similar to other laboratory courses, our class practical featured a written portion as well as directed questions from a series of different stations setup around the laboratory. After a timed 30 minutes to complete the 5 pages of short answer questions, I started on the first lab station and the clock ticked down for us to rotate every 5 minutes. Some stations had microscopes with animals under them for us to identify and others materials for us to perform targeted lab skills. I glanced upon the familiar mesograzers under the scope, stumbled through some exotic amphipod identification, measured eelgrass shoots, and even wrote a haiku about epiphytes. The 5 minute periods per station rushed and rushed. I scribbled until the last second. And then I got to one station that fortunately, didn’t involve writing. Yes! Something I’ve done before! “Tether an isopod. Next, tether an amphipod.” We’d done this during our field trip at Bodega Bay to assess predation rates on mesograzers in the field. I got out the glue, set the line, caught the mesograzer. I was all set. No tricks. No doubts. I just had to tether the little guys. But this time it was different.

UCD students tether mesograzers in the lab

UCD students tether mesograzers in the lab

When we tethered the animals on the field trip, our instructors did not time us. This time I was racing against the clock. I quickly trimmed 20 cm of fishing line for the tether and began tying the proper knots to secure it. It wasn’t this difficult before! This line seems different! The sweat on my hands is not helping! After finally succeeding in tying an appropriate knot, I trimmed the line down and began looking for my first bug. I spotted one and bypass the forceps to plunge my hand into their housing container. I gently grab an isopod and place him on a paper towel to dry off. He’s sedentary. Good news. I grab the glue and squeeze a blob on the knot in my line. The next part is tricky. I have to glue his line – his crustacean leash – right onto his back. Success! After getting it to stick, I put the little guy into a water cup and watch him swim around with his little line in tow.

A tethered ampithoid amphipod

A tethered amphipod

I’m half done now! I next set my sights on the amphipod. In the heat of the exam, I forget the order of the tethering process and plunge my hand into the container to grab the only amphipod I see. It’s a lively gammarid who undulates all over the paper towel, nearly off the table. This isn’t right! I put him back in the water. Focus! I grab the line and begin to cut to 20 cm again. The knot tying frenzy begins. Just go slow. I make a proper knot and grab the glue. It’s not coming out! I squeeze the glue harder than usual until a thick blob encases my knot… it’ll do. I grab my lively amphipod and he begins twisting and spinning – he’s expected me this time. I use a dropper to drip water on him as he lays on the paper towel. This appears to have a calming effect, and he ceases his tantrum. Now the tricky part. The isopod was big, but this guy is small, just under 1 cm in length. I have to get the glue right on the middle of his back or I risk injuring him. I go for it and miss, somehow getting glue all over my fingers. My fingers start to stick together. I unstick them and attempt to refocus in order to finish out this station – I know I’m almost out of time.

I rearrange my station for better focus, and this involves moving my exam out of the way. Big mistake. I have glued my hand to my exam. I rip the paper off, revealing a thumb and palm covered in ripped, sticky white paper. The timer goes off and I put my amphipod that wouldn’t get tethered back for the next student. “Next Station.” The test continues with new, equally challenging tasks and I proceed, with the paper still glued to my hand

Dr. Pamela Reynolds demonstrates how to tether an amphipod during the class fieldtrip

Drs. Pamela Reynolds and Jay Stachowicz (left) demonstrate amphipod tethering during the class field trip to the Bodega Marine Lab

The exam was hard. Not because I was underprepared – there are some things in life we can never prepare for. It was not unfair – I had either seen, performed, or learned everything on the exam. It’s not that there wasn’t enough time – everything in life has a time limit. The exam was hard because I have never had so much expected of me in a college class. Our instructors believe that we can do far more than simply answer A, B or C, or regurgitate a paragraph that we memorized from our notes. Our instructors dare us to reveal what we can actually contribute to science. They challenge us to be creative, resourceful, and clever. The point was to experience the exam, not just complete it. Success in research can be measured in how well we perform under stress. Things may not go as planned, but at the root of ecology is evolution, and we must all continue to adapt. This involves accepting our failures, building on our strengths, and focusing on how to move forward.

Some amphipods are meant to be free. Some tests are meant to be stressful. And some hands are meant to be glued.

Ellie is a rising senior at UC Davis pursuing her bachelor’s in biology. Her favorite aspect of the ZEN course was the exposure to field research, and her favorite experiment involved tethering amphipods to test for predation in the Bodega Bay seagrass beds. Her dream job is to be a science communicator and educator. She will be traveling to Ireland and Oregon to assist with ZEN research this summer with Drs. Nessa O’Connor and Fiona Tomas Nash, respectively.

Photos contributed by Aaron Goodman, Pamela Reynolds and Jay Stachowicz.

Surrounded by Science

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Kendra Chanby Kendra Chan (UC Davis ZEN course undergraduate student)

Over the past school year, I have finally found my people and my calling. I’ve been lucky enough to participate in the UC Davis ZEN course this spring quarter. Unlike your typical research university lecture hall of 300+ students, this class was limited to only 12 undergraduates.  But it wasn’t the 6:1 student to faculty ratio that made this class special – rather, it was the people themselves.

As an underclassman, I was herded around the general biology pre-requisite path with the several hundred other students in the college. I found the intro biology series fascinating, but to my dismay, the majority of my peers expressed boredom even in the lab sections. However, this ZEN class was entirely different—it has been one of the few times I’ve been completely surrounded by people that are just as interested in marine ecology as I am, if not more (which I didn’t know was possible). Instead of being held back by classmates that lacked knowledge and interest about the subject at hand (e.g., marine communities), I was motivated and inspired by the passion and expertise demonstrated by the eleven other students and two instructors. Because of this, we were able to progress quickly through lecture topics and have intellectually stimulating discussions.

ASUs (artificial seagrass untis) deployed in Bodega harbor for one of the UCD ZEN class experiments

ASUs deployed during one of the UCD ZEN class experiments

During the first class period, I knew I had found the right class because we had a lengthy and heated debate about how exactly to deploy the ASUs (Artificial Seagrass Units, or glorified green plastic ribbon) we had just built in order to get the most interesting data. This time, we the students were in control or our own experiment, and we had a plethora of scientifically interesting questions to ask. We weighed the pros and cons of each scenario, and after much discussion settled upon an experimental design.

Needless to say, the past 10 weeks have been a great learning experience for me. Not only did I become well versed in eelgrass ecosystems, but I also learned more about how to be a scientist through lectures, discussion, and my favorite, hands-on field work.

The UCD ZEN class can get a bit silly, especially when asked to act out their favorite mesograzer

The UCD ZEN class can get a bit silly, especially when asked to act out their favorite mesograzer

Although I won’t be exclusively working for ZEN this summer, I will still be immersed in eelgrass research. I’m excited to once again be surrounded by marine ecologists in Bodega Bay, and know I will continue to be inspired by both the scientists and the sea.




Kendra Chan is a rising senior at UC Davis. Her favorite experiment in the ZEN class was an assay of predation intensity in Bodega harbor. Her dream is to save the world with science – combining science and education with conservation and sustainability to better understand and utilize natural ecosystems.

Photos contributed by Kendra and Matt Whalen.

Meet the ZENterns

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We are excited to be sponsoring 19 undergraduate students (hailing from the College of William and Mary, University of California, Davis and San Diego State University) to engage in hands on research with the ZEN program this summer. These “ZENterns” recently completed the ZEN Seagrass Ecosystem Ecology course at their home institution and will travel to different ZEN partner sites to assist with the 2014 field and laboratory experiments. They will be sending back blog posts periodically to report on their adventures – both domestic and abroad.

College of William and Mary

W&M ZENterns (left to right): Austin, Aly, Danielle, Chris, Kyle, and Dave (not pictured: Kara)

W&M ZENterns (left to right): Austin, Ally, Charlie, Danielle, Jessie, Kyle, and Dave (not pictured: Kara)

Kyle Belfort, double major in Biology and Environmental Science and Policy (2015). Kyle is from Virginia and is interested in restoration ecology. Outside of science he is competitive in both mock trial and volleyball. This summer Kyle will be working at the ZEN site in San Francisco, California.

Charles (Charlie) DeatonGeology and Environmental Science double major (2015). From Virginia, Charlie is completing an honors thesis on barrier islands geology. He pays the sousaphone in the W&M Pep Band. Charlie will be working on ZEN projects in both Virginia and North Carolina this summer.

Allison (Ally) Farnan, Environmental Policy and Economics major (2016) . Ally grew up in Tokyo and Maryland and loves to sail, ski, and travel. This summer Ally will be assisting ZEN partners in both Connecticut and Quebec.

Kara Gadeken, Biology major (May 2014). Hailing from Northern Virginia, Kara is a competitive synchronized swimmer. Kara will be assisting with ZEN research in both Vancouver, British Columbia and back in Virginia.

David (Dave) Godschalk, Geology and Marine Science major (May 2014). Dave is originally from Virginia and completed an honors thesis in geology. He’s an avid rock climber and marathon runner. Dave will be traveling with Austin to assist ZEN partners in Croatia this summer.

Danielle Hall, Biology major (2015). Danielle is originally from Massachusetts and has been working with Dr. Duffy studying eusociality in Caribbean shrimp. She loves to dance – both inside and outside the seagrass beds! Danielle will spend the summer with ZEN partners in Vancouver, British Columbia as well as in Massachusetts.

Austin Ruhf, Biology major (May 2014). Originally from Virginia, prior to this summer Austin has only traveled outside of the USA once. When he’s not in the field he loves to play Beatles music and runs a coffeehouse. This summer Austin will be traveling with Dave to assist ZEN partners in Croatia.

Jessie Viss, Biology major (2016). Jessie is originally from California. She will be spending the summer with ZEN partners in Portugal.


University of California, Davis

The UC Davis ZEN class

The UC Davis ZEN class including ZENterns Julie, Josh, Natalia, Ellie, and Austin (not pictured: Nina).

Julie Blaze, Biology major (2014). Julie will be traveling with Ellie to assist ZEN partners in Ireland and then returning to assist with projects in Bodega Bay, California, and up in Oregon.

Joshua (Josh) Chow, Biology major (2014). This summer Josh is traveling to assist ZEN partners in Wales.

Elizabeth (Ellie) Marin, Biology major (2015). Ellie will be traveling with Julie to assist ZEN partners in Ireland and then returning to assist with projects in Bodega Bay, California, and up in Oregon.

Austin Greene, Biology major (2014). Austin is a budding photographer and research SCUBA diver. This summer Austin will be assisting ZEN partners in South Korea.

Nina Nichols, Biology major (2014). Nina speaks fluent French, loves baguettes and silent movies. This summer Nina will be working with ZEN partners in both Quebec and France.

Natalia Villegas, Biology major (2014). This summer Natalia will be working with ZEN partners in both Mexico and France.


San Diego State University

SDSU students (left to right): Whitney, Shay, Jen, Chris, and Josh

SDSU ZENterns (left to right): Whitney, Shay, Jen, Chris, and Josh

Christopher (Chris) Bayne, Biology and Japanese double major (2015). Chris hails from San Diego, California and loves everything water related – kayaking, surfing, swimming, you name it! He is also an AAUS trained research SCUBA diver. This summer Chris is traveling with classmate Josh to the ZEN sites in Japan.

Whitney Dailey, Environmental Science major (2014). Whitney grew up in Washington state. She plays almost every kind of sport and loves photography. Whitney is an AAUS trained research diver, NAUI Master diver, and PADI drysuit certified diver. This summer Whitney is traveling to the ZEN site in Sweden.

Joshua (Josh) Jaeger, Marine Biology major (2015). Josh is from San Diego, California and one of his favorite classes at SDSU was a philosophy course on knowledge and reality. Josh is also an AAUS trained research SCUBA diver. This summer Josh is traveling with classmate Chris to the ZEN sites in Japan.

Jennifer (Jen) Joseph, Marine Biology major (2015). Jen is from Northern California and is a research SCUBA diver. Jen loves everything Harry Potter and is a huge fan of the San Jose Sharks ice hokey team. Jen is traveling to the ZEN sites in Mexico and Massachusetts this summer.

Shay Hengen, Marine Biology major (2016). Shay grew up in Northern Idaho and has been working in Dr. Hovel’s lab since her freshman year at SDSU. Her hobbies include drawing, snowmobiling, and everything related to Batman. She will be traveling to assist with ZEN research in Finland this summer.

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