Glorious sunshine and clear blue skies greeted me when I arrived this afternoon at the Phillip Island Nature Park. We were greeted by Geraldine from Earthwatch and given an introduction to the house and our TeachWild housemates for the next four days.
After settling into our fabulously spacious room and a rundown on procedures for our stay we set off on our first learning adventure – the arrival of the penguins on the beach. Graeme, an educator here gave us a great introduction about the types of wildlife we are going to come across over the next few days including the following amazing things:
The little penguins are laying eggs already, and some have hatched. Rather early this year. It was amazing watching the rafts of penguins appear between the breaking waves. They group together before they race to the shore. When they get shallow enough to stand, they pop up all together and begin the toddle up the beach and straight onto the rocky shore and off to find their burrows. The adults that have young in the burrow fish all day and come back at night to feed their young. It was interesting to hear that the young don’t recognise their parents, they just squawk at every adult that comes past. The adults find their young by sound.
The photo that you see above comes from the Phillip Island Nature Park website. You are not allowed to take pictures at all outside the building.
The Silver Gulls (Seagulls) have yet to nest this year. Apparently they are running late. They lay their eggs on the ground, not in a tree, so they have to wait until the ground warms up otherwise their eggs get too cold at night to hatch.
The short tailed shearwaters have arrived and partnered up for this season. Some nest in the same areas as the penguins so there are some arguments going on. The shearwaters are not here all year, so the smart little penguins take advantage of the empty nests and move in. When the shearwaters return, they are upset to discover new residents in their homes. A bit like if you went on holidays and came home to find someone had decided to take advantage of the empty house. I’ll have to ask who wins these arguments.
There are Cape Barron geese here. Lots of them. The 6 week old young are already big – bigger than chickens.
Tomorrow we are starting early with some necropsy work on shearwater birds that have been waiting in the freezer for us.
North Stradbroke Island, Queensland.
There are eight teachers here on North Stradbroke at this time working with three scientists to help collect data about marine debris. This data will help inform scientists about the impact that human debris has on marine life. At this research station, we are looking at the local mutton bird and turtle populations.
What a busy day. Today our teams were involved in beach surveys, emu bob, ocean trawl, sorting and identifying debris, logging the data and watching another necropsy. Our morning beach survey collected over 800 pieces of plastic in just 50 metres of coastline. Many of these pieces were very small and white. They looked very much like shell but of course plastics are made of very different compounds than shells. Have you ever tasted a shell? If you rub a clean shell against your teeth you can almost feel the chalkiness and the salt. Plastics have a very different taste and I would not recommend you go tasting them either.
This evening we were treated to a fantastic lecture about turtles and human impact on marine wildlife from Kathy. I’ve taken lots of notes so that I can tell you all about it when I get back. In the meantime you can look at some really cool turtle photos and learn a bit more about Kathy, turtles and her work on their Facebook page – Turtles in Trouble. Kathy would love you all to ‘like’ her page and become regular readers of her cool turtle facts.
Having read over this blog again tonight I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have not been editing very well as I go. I can only say that these blogs are being written quite late at night after a long day’s work so that may have something to do with it. However as you all know I am a stickler for correct punctuation and editing in published pieces so I apologise for my mistakes!
My trip is almost over and how privileged I feel to have been able to spend this week with some very amazing and clever people. Firstly there are the other seven teachers who came on this trip. All the kids they teach are just so lucky to have them because they have worked so hard and they have taught me heaps!!! Then there are the scientists some of whom work at the station full time and some who work for CSIRO and Earthwatch. Thank goodness there are people who care so much about our planet that they are willing to spend their whole lives trying to work out ways of making it a more liveable and sustainable place for all of us! Finally there are the Uni students who are living up here and working to complete science degrees. I’ve met some wonderful young people who’ve helped us all week to successfully engage in all our activities.
Thank to everyone who is reading this blog and a special thanks to those who are sharing their thoughts in the comments below.
This is just the beginning…
This morning my teacher team learned all about spectrophotometry. This science field studies the light emitted by different colours. It also looks at different light frequencies and spectrums such as ultra violet and infra red. Of course with the naked eye humans can see certain colours and we see the spectrum of colours in good light. When it gets dark our eyes don’t see colour anymore because we rely on light reflecting off colours to see them. Other animal species however have more complicated eye structures that allow them to detect objects and light at different frequencies than we see as humans. In fact a recent study on land turtles has proven that they can see objects in the ultra violet spectrum. We were doing very methodical and organised tests on plastics and debris found on the local beaches. We placed each object under a light emitting diode. The technology is designed to emit and receive light. The signal is then sent through to a computer where the light reflected is graphed on a line graph. We then saved the graph for each piece of debris and logged the measurement into another computer.
Why were we doing this?
Qamar’s PHD is focused on whether turtles see human debris as a potential food source as it may look to the turtle like other possible food sources. To determine this she is testing all the things found in the turtle’s digestive system and all the things found on the beach and trying to find out if the turtles see this debris the way we see them or whether they see something different. The possibilities include – maybe a plastic bag actually emits the same ultra violet rays as a jelly fish and therefore looks like a potential food source to the turtle OR maybe sea turtles see everything in a similar way as humans and they are just ingesting plastics because they are caught up with the other stuff they eat, like sea grass and other little plankton. Qamar’s study is the only one in the world that she knows of that is focused on looking at this. Isn’t that exciting!
Of course there are many things that contribute to sea turtle deaths all over the world – weather events, fishing, poaching eggs and hunting for food. Scientists studying all these factors all compete for funding to help them investigate these factors so we are very lucky that Qamar has the support and funding to be looking at this factor in our country. It makes me appreciate what the CSIRO do and how important it is that our government continues to fund their work.
This afternoon we did more necropsies on mutton birds. We almost finished the necropsies on the birds collected at the weekend. (My partner and I did three birds!) My partner was Andrew, a teacher at Melbourne Girls’ College who is way, way clever. He is teaching me so much about bird biology and how to look closely for clues. In fact Andrew is so clever that he selected a bird for dissection that had the most amazing secrets to share. The bird was a juvenile and still moulting its feathers. The way you tell this is to pull out a wing or tail feather and you can actually see the bottom part of the feather (nearest the body) still contained in the wing shaft – it hasn’t broken free of the shaft cover yet. This particular bird did not look as starved as some of the other birds we had examined. It had a thicker flight muscle structure and good layer of body fat so we thought straight away that it looked different. When Andrew opened the stomach cavity we found the cause of death. This greedy bird had scooped up and swallowed a Toadfish! We found the whole fish undigested in the bird’s stomach. Toadfish are poisonaous. They contain the same poison as the Blue Ringed Octopus. This is a neurotoxin – and you can google what this means but it is NOT GOOD for the bird. The bird’s stomach was red and irritated looking. Kathy thinks that samples from this bird and the swallowed toadfish could make the basis of an interesting scientific paper since there is very little known about natural poisonings. WOW what a hoot! I am so excited that I was around to be part of this.
But why did the mutton bird eat a poisonous fish? Was it a bit inexperienced and didn’t know that it was potentially harmful? Was it just so hungry that was in the mood to eat anything? Was this fish swimming with other fish that looked OK and just caught up in the bird’s diet? We will never know this information but we sure know what killed this otherwise healthy bird and it is amazing!
Tonight we are entering in all the data from the samples we have collected from the beach surveys and necropsies. So much for TV and sleep!
Today we began by performing necropsies on some of the birds recovered from the weekend stranding. We learned how to dissect the birds so that we did not accidentally cut any of the internal organs; how to rate the bird’s fat content (which is an indicator of health) and where to locate the internal organs. Kathy says that many
scientists doing this sort of thing have a general look inside to determine cause of death, take some tissue samples and then finish with the bird. We did a way more intensive look at the inside of the stomach, gizzard and intestines. We had to empty each of these organs and sieve the stomach contents to identify what was inside. The group found plastics, squid beaks of various sizes, thread, sea grass, fish bones, small undigested sea creatures and pieces of pumice stone inside the birds. 80% of the birds necropsied had some traces of plastic in their systems. Almost all of the birds probably died from starvation as their fat content was very low and their pectoral or flight muscles had wasted away to being very small indeed. Even though the plastics probably did not contribute to these birds’ deaths we can imagine that if they went on consuming plastics at this rate they might cause death to otherwise healthy birds. Remember most of the birds that were picked up were only juveniles (in first year of life) and mutton birds can live up to 20 years. The tissue samples we took will be analysed chemically and will also give us some indication as to whether the plastics leach toxins into the bird’s blood and muscle systems. The process was labour intensive and time consuming. Each necropsy took about one and a half hours for each team of two people. When the scientists don’t have volunteer groups to help they do all this work themselves. It is a big job!
In the afternoon we learned how to survey for beach debris in a very methodical and systematic way. We went to Home Beach on the north east corner of the island.
Whilst there we performed three transects looking for beach debris. On first glance this beach looked to be a pristine coastline, kind of what I was used to in Broome.
We measured 50 metres from the entrance point to the beach, then took a straight line from the shoreline up the beach to two metres into the surrounding scrub. Then we walked the line with two people searching one metre each side of the line for debris while one person recorded everything we picked up. This gives us a slice of the profile of this coastline. We repeated this process at 50m intervals another two times. We
were looking for anything that looked like debris and once you get used to the process you start finding 5mm sized pieces of coloured plastic, rubber and styrofoam. It is amazing how many pieces we found. Most were very small but these are just the right sized pieces to get caught up in sea grass and add themselves to the diets of fish, turtles and birds. If we found so many in just 6 metres of beach imagine how many more pieces are out there floating in the ocean! I wonder how many metres of coastline there are around Australia and how much plastics cover it? In fact this is one of the things Earthwatch are trying to find out by mapping the
whole coastline with this process and this is where we all get to help out. Earthwatch are training us so we can go back and do these surveys with kids and parents in our own locations. I can’t wait to get started in Williamstown and see what we find!
This morning my team of four teachers joined Kathy on the research vessel Glaucus to trawl the top of the ocean for marine debris. We took the boat out to Peel Island and trawled for a half hour in two different locations. To catch the debris, Qamar has designed a very clever catchment net. Being a scientist here means that you can also apply your creative design skills to building new equipment with which to carry out some of your research investigations.
The catchment net is fitted with a flow meter that measures the amount of water that passes through it in litres. Kathy says this is essential because even if you time the trawl exactly from day to day, the boat speed, wind speed and swell can affect how much water passes through the net on any given day. Of course we know that for any investigation to be a valid and fair test we should only be measuring one variable so measuring the water volume gives the scientist a way of comparing like amounts of water and thus debris amounts taken from same water volumes. This afternoon we sorted the debris. We were looking for any human debris but in particular plastic particles. The plastic can be as tiny as the tip of a pin so we had to sieve all the debris collected through two sets of sieves, the smallest gauge being one third of a millimetre! We used fine pointed tweezers to move the small bits around. Most plastics float so the first thing we did was look at the water surface of the collection. After that we sieved and sorted until we looked through every piece of debris. My eyes and my patience were really tested during this activity that lasted three hours! Luckily there were a few high points that kept us going – like finding a beautiful pipe fish specimen amongst the debris. We also found baby squid and prawns no bigger than the size of your fingernails! Of course we had to identify all of our findings with a microscope and then record everything we found.
It might sound silly to be looking for plastic particles so small but if you remember that many marine species depend entirely on the sea grass that is also floating on the water, then you might also see how dangerous it could be for those animals to regularly ingest plastics with their food. We know how toxic man made substances can be to humans so imagine how the toxin in plastics might be to marine life.
My work day ended with data input of all the evidence collected today, a lecture about beach debris collection and blogging.
Our adventure began this morning with an early car ferry ride from Cleveland, on the mainland to Dunwich on North Stradbroke Island.
On the way we passed a smaller island called Peel Island. Apparently this place was home to a leper colony in our distant past. It was a rocky, barren place and not a nice place to be sent if you were sick with leprosy.
Once on the island we headed for the Moreton Bay Research Station, administered by The University of Queensland. The station sleeps and caters to about 40 people at a time. Bigger groups like ours usually stay here to carry out research or attend lectures organised by the university. It is situated in a very picturesque location overlooking Moreton Bay. (see map and images at http://www.stradbrokegetaways.com/pages/northstradbroke.php?page=17)
Denise is our project leader. She is a CSIRO scientist with many years experience in marine scientific research. She told us that she has lived on every continent in the world at some stage and she has some amazing stories to tell. We were given a brief introduction to the centre before being whisked away for our first taste of quantified research.
Our first task today took us to the eastern side of the island where there is a beautiful white sand beach that stretches north and south for 33 kilometres. Eleven of us piled into a troop carrier, were asked to count the number of dead mutton birds that we could see every 500 metres. This type of research is called transect survey. We were trying to establish how many dead birds had been washed up on the beach.
This type of research activity is not a regular occurrence on North Stradbroke. It usually only occurs after somebody reports an unusually large number of birds or other wildlife being found on the beach. On this occasion, one of the scientists here, Qamar, was simply driving along the beach on Saturday when she noticed an unusually large number of mutton birds lying dead on a 10 kilometre stretch of beach. Being a clever and inquisitive person, Qamar immediately took advantage of this situation and began bagging the birds for research purposes. She knew this type of thing had happened before.
In 2010 a strange thing happened in October when hundreds of adult mutton birds began washing up on the shores of the eastern beach. At the final count 1,800 adult mutton birds were found washed up on the shores. The scientists collected 100 of these specimens at random to ‘necropsy’ (autopsy on a dead animal other than human) to find out what had caused their deaths. It was concluded that an unusual weather event caused this many birds to lose their way from breeding ground to food sources and thus have them die by starvation and exhaustion. To understand more about this you can go to http://www.birdsaustralia.com.au/homepage-news/short-tailed-shearwater-deaths.html. It should be noted though, that 67 out of the 100 birds ‘necropsied’ did indeed have evidence of plastics in their digestive tracts.
As it happens the count today did not reveal many more dead birds than those Qamar had collected on Saturday (26 in total). The scientists concluded that this event is probably very different to those deaths that sometimes occur around October. This time of year is fledging season for the mutton birds. That means the adult birds have left Australia to fly north to a warmer climate whilst leaving their fattened up young birds in their nests. At some point every young bird realises that if it does not get off its behind and go and find its own food it will probably starve. Some birds leave their search too late and get caught up in nearby storms. The scientists think that this might be what happened to the birds picked up on the weekend.
Those birds have not been necropsied yet, nor the two cormorants (gannets) that we collected on our survey. However in the afternoon we did get to observe a necropsy. It was conducted by Kathy and Qamar and we watched them dissect and examine a dead turtle. Kathy is the co-director of the research station and has been working at this station for 12 years. Her two main projects are investigating human debris effects on sea turtles and learning more about manta ray populations/breeding patterns/locations/migrations etc. This afternoon Kathy and Qamar necropsied a turtle that had been brought to the turtle rescue station farther north. It died at that location and was then sent to Kathy since most scientists around Australia are linked and know what each one is studying.
We teachers were assistants during the necropsy. There were two recorders, written and photographic; tissue preparation team and instrument assistant. I was a recorder, thank goodness, because I did not feel comfortable about working closely with the tissue samples. Each organ and part of the turtle was closely examined to determine cause of death. Our turtle had an unusually thin intestinal tract and seemed to have little body fat. The turtle died last August and had been put on ice since then. This coincides with another weather event that caused a lot of silt to build up over the turtle’s natural eating ground. The silt covered the sea grass beds and made it hard for young and inexperienced turtles to find food. It was thus concluded that it had died from starvation. So you see scientists use empirical evidence (the dead turtle, tissue samples etc) and knowledge of weather events and human impacts to draw conclusions.
Another researcher here is investigating whether plastics can break down in the animal’s body and cause toxic change to the animal’s tissue. That is why we had to take tissue samples to be analysed at a later time. All these procedures take lots of time and need to be done in a methodical way. There are no fast answers to important scientific questions!