A Placement Year at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML)

On some University of Exeter courses there is the option to take a professional placement, where students can gain valuable experience with an organisation relevant to their degree. Below we hear from Sophie Armitage, now in her final year of her BSc Zoology course, who decided to undertake a professional placement with Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). Sophie discusses her experiences working on a plastics and machine learning project, which was recently published.

Author: Sophie Armitage

Data collection of plastics whilst out at sea in Cawsand Bay, Cornwall on the PML Explorer.

After spending my first two years of university in and out of lockdowns, I decided to take a placement year to try and gain some more practical experience. A placement year is a brilliant opportunity to obtain skills and learn more about your industry of interest, with both the financial support of being a student and the protection of being part of a university.

I spent my placement year at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), a marine research organisation based in the South-West. Whilst at PML I worked on a project which aimed to create a standardized, automated approach to collecting in-situ data of floating marine macroplastics. These observations are very limited in current literature and often involve costly and labour-intensive methods. Our approach used a trained Artificial Intelligence (AI) model which was able to recognise and classify the different types of marine plastic captured in images shot by a boat-mounted video camera. The overall aim of this project is to increase the number of in-situ floating macroplastic observations to support the validation and development of remote sensing methods. These methods could subsequently be used to further our understanding of the global abundance and distribution of marine plastic debris.

Whilst searching for possible placements I was firstly interested in working abroad, however most of the opportunities I found at the time were limited due to COVID-19 and were very costly. To avoid this, I contacted PhD students and researchers in my area of interest which led to me finding work experience. This involved a significant amount of perseverance as a large proportion of my emails weren’t answered. Despite this, I would highly recommend using this approach to find work experience as it can lead to some amazing opportunities. I found the Plymouth Marine Laboratory when looking at marine research industries in the South-West. Having seen the wide variety of exciting and influential research at PML, I was eager to get involved. After sending out numerous emails to scientists at PML I received an offer to work on this project.

During my time at PML I had the amazing opportunity to work on every step of the project, starting in the planning stages all the way through to writing the scientific paper. I spent my first month at PML researching and learning more about machine learning and remote sensing. Both topics were very new to me, so I had a lot to learn. To aid this process PML sent me on a week-long NEODAAS Earth Observation and Machine Learning training course. This was an incredible opportunity to meet scientists from around the world who had a similar interest and to understand my project further.

I was also sent on a sea survival course so that I could go out to sea on PML’s vessels: the Quest and the Explorer RIB. Next, I worked on developing and testing methods to collect footage which we would use for training and testing our machine learning model. To achieve this, I worked in collaboration with a local software engineering firm called Marine AI. The team has developed and created the impressive Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), which recently crossed the Atlantic. We hoped our algorithm could be used on that crossing, so most of our data used to train our model was collected on the MAS prior to its departure and whilst it was moored. Data was also collected on the PML’s RIB, which allowed us to go out to sea and record macroplastics. After all our footage was collected and labelled, I spent the next few months converting our data into the right format for training the machine learning model using Python. This stage of the project was the most challenging for me as I had no previous Python experience. Therefore, I had a huge learning curve to overcome, which was sometimes very overwhelming. However, I had a great team who were very patient and always went above and beyond to teach me as much as possible and support me throughout the project.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship, used for collecting footage of plastics using their vessel-mounted camera.

Once our data was in the right format we could then train and test our machine learning model. Our model was able to successfully detect the presence of plastics with an accuracy of 95% and could differentiate between plastic object types with an accuracy of 68%. This was a great achievement and meant we could publish our results. Writing my first scientific paper felt very exciting and also very challenging. On reflection, this process was made so much easier because I had deliberately ensured I had a record of the details of the methods I was using throughout the project. This, alongside the training I received from Exeter University in my first and second year, helped me overcome this demanding task. The final version of our paper was published by the journal Remote Sensing, which can be found here: Remote Sensing | Free Full-Text | Detection and Classification of Floating Plastic Litter Using a Vessel-Mounted Video Camera and Deep Learning | HTML (mdpi.com). I responded to my supervisor’s encouragement to be involved with the whole process of publishing a paper, from picking a journal, submitting it and replying to peer reviewers’ comments. This was an amazing opportunity, which led to me learning a huge amount which will hopefully benefit me in my final year.

Example labelled image used for training our machine learning algorithm.

Once our paper was published, we received some media attention. This meant I had the incredible opportunity to be interviewed by BBC Devon and Times Radio, as well as have our project featured on BBC Spotlight.

Photos from the BBC Spotlight piece, where we demonstrated the process of collecting training footage and running the footage through our machine learning algorithm.

During my placement year, I learnt a huge number of not only academic skills but also life skills. For instance, I learnt the value of seizing as many opportunities as possible. This allowed me to work within other departments such as the microplastic department, where I gained vital lab experience and in the ecology department where I was able to gain some more fieldwork experience during benthic surveys. By doing this I was not only gaining a wider variety of new skills and experiences, but also expanding my network. During my placement year I also massively improved my communication skills and confidence from having to communicate my work with other scientists and to the general public during the media coverage. This experience allowed me to learn new skills which go beyond what can be learnt in a classroom and I am very grateful and proud of what I achieved.

Advice I would give to other students:

• When looking for placements try emailing students/researchers in your area of interest. To do this you can create a general email in the style of a cover letter explaining who you are, what you are hoping to gain from your placement year, why you want to work for that specific company/industry and what skills and experience you can bring to the company. You can always speak to Career Zone, tutors and placement leads for advice on how to do this.

• Try not to be too disheartened by rejections. It is very hard to find work experience and sometimes it takes a lot of time and rejections until you find the right fit, especially in such a competitive industry like marine biology. For example, I didn’t find my placement until the end of August and I had been looking for one since December.

• Once on your placement volunteer for as much as possible; this will not only impress your employer but can lead to some invaluable learning and experiences. For instance, originally it was not planned for me to have such an involvement in the whole process of my project, to be doing any Python or writing the paper. However, I volunteered for as much as I could while at PML, which led to me having an amazing experience.

 

 

 

Marine Biologists on Lockdown

Hello to you all from our collective living/dining/bedrooms! As we are all adjusting to working from home we thought it would be interesting to write a collaborative article on working from home as marine biologists. What are we up to? How are we coping without our beloved snorkels or hugging a dolphin? Or perhaps most importantly, how do we see the world post pandemic and what impacts do we think COVID-19 might have beyond the lockdown of society on our seas and oceans?

Who are we and what do we do?

We are a motley crew of biologists and ecologists from all over the world all working within the snappily named “Invertebrate Ecotoxicology Lab Group” at the University of Exeter. 

Invertebrates are animals without a backbone and ecotoxicology is the study of how pollutants affect biological life. Based on the Streatham Campus in the City of Exeter we normally fill our time working in the laboratories running experiments relating to marine pollution or processing samples taken from all over the world to find out where are the problems facing life on the planet and how bad are they. 

We have a very broad focus; from a global scale looking at how pollutants are spread across the planet, down to their effects on individual organisms or even the cells within an organism. Trying to understand the impacts of pollutants in the environment such as nano- and micro-plastics, oil, heavy metals or broadly carbon dioxide (from burning fossil fuels) can be a daunting task but by asking specific questions and then working towards answering them, we develop little pieces of the global puzzle to work towards solutions. We hope that our pieces match with the work of others across the world, and together, we build a picture of how the planet is now, how it may be in the future, and hopefully how we can work together to conserve it rather than damage it. 

How do you do biology from home?

Although testing snorkelling techniques in the bath tub may be a worthy use of time for a land-locked marine biologist, the lack of lab access and vitamin sea is challenging and so is navigating a fundamental change to the focus and nature of your work. Although we may rather be in wetsuits, preferably in tropical destinations, or in our thermals out on the polar seas, there is actually quite a lot that can be done at your desk to progress your science.

Marine biologists across the globe are resorting to snorkelling in the bathtub to get their fix of vitamin sea (Source: Max Mayorov)

Firstly, as researchers, we have a responsibility to communicate our work to other scientists, policy-makers and the general public, and, when productivity allows, a lot of us are writing at the moment. We are writing up our research for publication, writing and amending plans that must be more adaptable than ever and even writing songs lamenting how much we miss the lab. There is also a wealth of reading to be done, catching up with the new findings of colleagues around the world to inspire us to critically analyse our work and think creatively of the next steps.

The humble art of meta-analysis is our friend right now, gathering data from a variety of sources to piece together evidence from decades of scientific investigation looking at different aspects of a particular problem and how this changes over time and with geography. During this time of societal reflection, we can also spend time reflecting on science in a methodical way, pulling together all of this research, collecting the facts and figures from hundreds of papers, and then stepping back to look at the bigger picture unfolding before us. The amazing thing about the global science community is the amount of data that are out there and now is certainly a time to celebrate how lucky we are to have good access to the internet and these amazing resources of human knowledge.

An example of an eye watering meta-analysis and a much prettier chart of microplastics in the mediterranean (Source: Adam Porter)

Some of us are learning new skills such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS) that allow us to create visual maps of data such as how plastics and other pollutants spread globally to pinpoint future intervention areas. Others are learning new data analysis software and some of us are improving our foreign language and sourdough making skills. The wealth of free software through open-source platforms (such as R and QGIS) and access to education (through sourdough YouTube videos and the like) is another thing we are grateful for during lockdown here in the UK, learning from millions of other users across the world.

Also, we have been enjoying teaching from home, doing sessions with undergraduates as well as giving public outreach talks and supporting home-schooling families. Arctic Live has proven to be a huge success reaching 60,000 kids across the world (Encounter Edu have loads of online and importantly free teaching resources for use at home or school) with a number of staff and PhD students from Exeter as well as Plymouth Marine Laboratories teaching from their homes. This has been bittersweet as these lessons should have taken place whilst on location doing fieldwork in the Arctic but it has been amazing to provide this free resource to kids across the world.

Arctic Live in full flow featuring Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop of encounteredu.com and Dr. Clara Nielson of the University of Exeter talk to a classroom on Arctic Live 2019 – no such luck this year but it did still happen beaming into roughly 60,000 homes (Source: Twitter)

For others, lockdown is a time to process data already collected. Research expeditions whilst incredibly exciting are often chaotic with little time to rest. As scientists, we want to maximise our opportunities to collect information from the unique locations we have access to, such as the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.  Lockdown has given us time to step back and look at the breadth of information we have already, as well as planning how to move forward when we return to some form of normality. 

Those of us with children were thrown into a hectic working environment at home during lockdown as schools and childcare closed and time outdoors was restricted. Finding ways to get an hour of work done was an achievement in itself, with entertaining and home-schooling a child often taking priority. It was quite clear to supervisors early on that ambitious targets were not going to be met, zoom meetings are constantly interrupted and the newly purchased office chair was used as a merry-go-round. However, home-grown experiments and learning have taken place! Sink-or-float, ‘making floods’, planting seeds, bird spotting, flower identification and watching for hedgehogs are all good sessions. Despite the challenges, and the impact to work, spending more time at home as a family has been a privilege, something we will always treasure.

Self-made experiment by Omar, age 3, during lockdown: ‘Making a flood’ of ‘muddy soup’ with soil, grass and sticks from the garden (unbeknown to his parents) (Source Daisy Harley-Nyang).

What do you think the bigger implications of this global pandemic might be for the planet’s health?

The global pandemic has the opportunity to be a huge reset button for how we interact with the natural world. Whilst we have all had to make huge changes to our daily lives, and the impacts of this pandemic are painful and serious, we are seeing some positives in all of this. Wildlife is returning to urban spaces, like the mountain goats that took over a town in Wales, Pandas in zoos that with added privacy are mating naturally (New York Times), noise in the oceans has reduced giving whales and other marine organisms a reprieve from the constant hum of boat traffic (The Narwhal); all of this because human activity has stopped.

Conservation Concerns

There is, however, evidence to suggest that some areas of the environment are now at greater risk of being exploited. As the world’s attention has shifted to an almost myopic gaze on COVID-19 (who’d have thought we’d stop talking about Brexit!), in Brazil, deforestation has increased by 50% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time period last year (Simon & Castano, 2020). The Amazon rainforest is considered to be a carbon sink which can absorb around 600 million tonnes of carbon annually (phys.org), playing a key role in climate regulation. The reduction in funding (as fundraising activities have mostly ceased for conservation groups) is also putting many conservation projects at risk and the disruption to long-term data collection and monitoring work in Marine Reserves is a concern. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is one of our major study sites and there are concerns around illegal shark fin fisheries operating whilst tourism is shut down and Park Rangers are not permitted to do their usual patrols. The severity of this risk has been recently highlighted with the seizure of 26 tonnes of Ecuadorian shark fins in Hong Kong in May 2020 (primarily protected silky and thresher sharks), the largest seizure in history (Oceanographic Magazine) and an example of wildlife trafficking continuing at full throttle. Ensuring that marine protected areas are monitored is a high priority to limit these potential threats.

A haul of illegally fished sharks caught in Galapagos waters captured during a Galapagos National Park Authority seizure in 2017 (Source: Galapagos National Park Authority)

Consumerism, Waste Management and Global Pollution

A decrease in global pollution, specifically air pollution has largely been attributed to a lack of travel and decrease in industrial work. The ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) have reported that the release of the gas Nitrous Oxide (NO2) into our air, which can have implications on human health, has decreased by up to 30% in areas (Dantas et al., 2020). Also, declines in beach litter have been noticed and attributed to the lack of tourism (Zambrano-Monserrate et al., 2020). Although these may only be short term effects, they allow both scientists and the general public to envision what a future could look like with reduced pollution. 

As we have seen, plastic has an essential role in protecting people, especially frontline workers, during the COVID-19 pandemic. However it has driven an increased use of single-use plastics, especially by the general public in the form of gloves and face masks that may have impacts in the environment. There are numerous anecdotal reports of gloves strewn across parts of the UK and a similar picture has emerged as fast food restaurants re-open drive-thrus and customers dump waste out of their car windows to maintain a contact free dining experience (BBC News). There is also a systemic fear that industry may try to take advantage of the uncertainty around the pandemic to push back against hard-won environmental measures to reduce plastic pollution however there is some evidence that Corona viruses may persist longer on plastics (van Doremalen et al., 2020).

The European Commission has uploaded a document online entitled “Waste management in the context of the coronavirus crisis”, where you can find advice on the best practises to dispose of waste while protecting human health and the environment (European Commission). According to this report, “each person produces nearly half a tonne of municipal waste per year in the EU on average, which means that every week more than 20 kg of municipal waste is generated per household.” People are producing more waste during this pandemic as they spend more time at home and buy more food to cook at home or take away food with their disposable containers and cutlery. 

The good news is that, although more plastic waste is being produced at home, consumer mindsets are changing. It seems that, overall, people are centered on their most basic needs, spending less and only essentials. People are shopping more consciously, buying local and are embracing online shopping and it is predicted that these changes may persist beyond this pandemic.

The Impact on Travel and Tourism

We all love to visit far off distant places in the world, those picture perfect postcard locations… but how has the COVID-19 virus affected travel and tourism? The travel and tourism industry globally supports 330 million jobs and has been severely affected by the pandemic. It has been predicted that over $2.7trillion (WTTC) will be lost as a result of travel restrictions and lockdowns. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on travel and tourism, we have all seen the before and after pictures of beaches, cities and airports normally busy, now deserted. Not even the economic crisis in 2008/9, MERS, SARS or even the September 11th terrorist attacks have had such an impact on International travel as the COVID-19 virus has had (Gossling et al. 2020).

Planes grounded due to the Coronavirus pandemic (Source: BBC)

Despite the immediate and severe impacts of this pandemic, there is hope that it will lead to a positive change in attitudes towards travel and tourism. In the UK, since the start of lockdown, cycling has increased which has prompted many towns and cities to widen or increase the number of cycle lanes, allowing for safer travel and increased distance between commuters (BBC News). Many other cities across the world have carried out or pledged similar improvements since the start of lock down, the challenge remains in keeping or making these changes permanent. There are signs of this happening already as The Mayor of London recently announced an ambitious plan to close off parts of central London allowing for safer walking and cycling (The Guardian) and France has announced schemes funding bike repairs and cycle training to encourage people to continue cycling after the pandemic (BBC News). 

Cities such as Venice, Italy; Amsterdam, Netherlands and Barcelona, Spain all experience what is termed as overtourism. Overtourism occurs when too many visitors visit a certain destination at once leading to congested streets. The drop in tourism has had significant effects on these economies but many cities are using the time as an opportunity to look towards more sustainable travel. Venice for instance is looking to implement a tourist tax on day trippers in 2021 to attempt to curb visitor numbers (The Guardian). A term now being used is ‘SlowTravel’ – using sustainable transport or taking fewer but longer trips (Smarter Travel) and perhaps this will be one way we make a change for the planet whilst still enjoying the benefits of a global society.

So What Comes Next?

If we can come out of lockdown in the right way, there could be huge positives to come in the wake of tragedy. Economic instability is a big concern in terms of willingness to invest in conservation and sustainability innovations but this time to reflect may be just what we need as a society to start to hold industry and politicians more accountable for the way we are treating the planet. The opportunity to build more cycle paths and reduce our reliance on carbon based transport beckons, the fragility of our reliance on oil exposed and perhaps investment in green energy and technology will follow. We are seeing universities and other businesses considering whether this represents an opportunity to “press reset…on the business model….to give ourselves a more sustainable future” (World Economic Forum). To quote The Guardian newspaper in their environmental editorials “We’ve never had a better chance to make a greener world. COVID-19 has delivered unusual environmental benefits: cleaner air, lower carbon emissions, a respite for wildlife”, the question remains as to whether we will all take this opportunity or squander a chance to make huge leaps in transformative change for people and the planet.

The Authors

 

 

Jen Jones is a marine biologist, conservationist and marine iguana fanatic researching the impact of plastic pollution on the marine foodweb of the Galapagos Islands. University of Exeter PhD student and Galapagos Conservation Trust Project Manager; she is a wonder multitasker! @Jenguin_Jones

 

 

 

 

Alice Wilson McNeal is a University of Exeter PhD student and marine ecotoxicologist happier in the sea than out of it, researching how climate change affects the toxicity of ocean pollution. @MarineBioAlice

 

 

 

 

 

Francisca Ribeiro is a marine biologist with a recent interest in analytical chemistry, who is trying to create easier ways to give an estimate of the amount of plastic a consumer might be exposed to by ingesting seafood. She is a PhD student and part of the QUEX partnership between the University of Queensland Australia and the University of Exeter. 

 

 

 

 

Stephanie Andrews is a marine biologist, lover of the outdoors and happiest either by or in the sea. Interested in the functioning of aquatic ecosystems in a changing world, currently researching the ecological impacts of microplastics in river systems for her PhD at the University of Exeter. @CidtheSquid57     

 

 

 

Daisy Harley-Nyang worked as a scientist in microbiology laboratories for the Environment Agency and APHA before returning to university. She is now a PhD student at the University of Exeter researching microplastics in wastewater and sludge. She is learning to juggle PhD life with family life; her three year old son, Omar, is a keen environmental activist and she likes nothing better than running, cycling or walking the North Devon countryside where she lives or wild swimming in a river, lake or sea.

 

 

 

 

 

Katherine Colvin is a sailor come marine biologist investigating methods to rapidly assess the environmental impacts of oil spills. She is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, happiest on or in the water, and interested in human impacts on marine life and effective mitigation. @ColvinMarine

 

 

 

 

 

Emily Rowlands is a marine biologist happiest in the choppy seas, with a recent interest in the polar regions. A collaboration between University of Exeter and British Antarctic Survey, her PhD investigates plastic pollution in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. @EmilyRowlands89

 

 

 

 

 

Jake Bowley is a rockpool specialist and an Exeter University PhD student in marine biology and microbiology, researching the attachment of harmful bacteria to microplastics and their role in disease transfer to animals and humans. @Jake_Bowley

 

 

 

 

 

Adam Porter is a mad mix of scientist and artist with a love of the outdoors, photography and exploration with a passion to help reverse negative human impacts on the planet. He finished his PhD at the University of Exeter in 2019 (and still feels weird about being a Doctor) and is now a NERC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter. @ap3489

MSc Graduate in Focus: Sarah Nelms

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Sarah Nelms, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2014) and now a Post Doctoral Research Associate with the University of Exeter!

Sarah Nelms in Svalbard during her PhD Credit: Rachel Coppock

Hi Sarah! First off, why don’t you tell us what you are up to now and how you got there?

After completing my MSc I immediately began a graduate role with my master’s thesis supervisor which then led to me getting a PhD scholarship at Plymouth Marine Lab and University of Exeter. Upon completing my PhD earlier this year, I was offered a postdoc position back the UoE Penryn campus.

 

It’s lovely to have you back with us! What do you enjoy most about studying and working with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

I loved everything about studying in Cornwall! The campus is beautiful and Falmouth and the surrounding areas are friendly and relaxed. The beaches and countryside are fantastic for an outdoorsy person like myself. The department is very welcoming and I felt like a member of a community that celebrates the achievements of staff and students alike.

The small and friendly campus is what makes UoE Penryn so special. It’s easy to meet people and connect and there are plenty of spots around campus to inspire you.

A Microplastics Survey, Credit: Emily Duncan

How did the MSc help you in your career, and do you have any advice for students looking to pursue a similar career?

One of the most important things I gained during the MSc was confidence. The support I received was hugely influential in helping me realise my potential as a scientist and I thrived in that environmentThe network of friends and peers I was able to build has also benefitted me since finishing my course. 

Additionally, the practical skills I learnt during the MSc, such as science communication, statistical analysis, time-management, were essential during my PhD.

I’d advise anyone looking to follow a career in academia to gain as much practical experience as possible and try lots of things so you can make an informed decision about what direction you want to head in.

Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

Work really hard but take quality time off, meet lots of people, be organized and enjoy it!

You won’t regret it! 

Thanks Sarah!

Analysing seal scat for microplastics

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

My ExeterMarine PhD: Carbon dioxide – an unexpected ally for fish faced with low oxygen?

Many of us know how climate change is causing an increase in ocean acidification, warming sea water temperatures and coral bleaching, but did you also know it causes an increase in the number and severity of ‘hypoxic’ or low oxygen events? Understanding how this decrease in oxygen (and its reciprocal increase in carbon dioxide) impacts species dependent on oxygen is important if we are to effectively predict and manage the impacts of future climate change on marine life.

University of Exeter PhD student Dan Montgomery tells us about his new paper, working to understand the tolerance of European Sea Bass to hypoxic events.

Words by Dan Montgomery, PhD Student, University of Exeter

Key message: During periods of low oxygen in the oceans fish are also faced with high CO2 levels. Previous research investigating responses to hypoxia by fish hasn’t considered this change in CO2. We found that including realistic changes in CO2 during hypoxia tolerance tests increase hypoxia tolerance of European seabass by 20 %. This has important implications for assessing impacts of hypoxia on fish species and predicting potential effects of climate change.

Oxygen is key to most animals found on earth and a lack of oxygen has large consequences, potentially including death. For animals that live on land or in the air low amounts of oxygen (otherwise known as hypoxia) are relatively rare, however for animals that live in water (like fish) hypoxia is much more common 1. In order to determine the impacts of low oxygen on these animals we need to know how tolerant they are to these low oxygen conditions. Scientists have been conducting research to discover the tolerance of fish species to hypoxia for over 50 years but crucially these experiments are carried out in laboratories and aquariums where oxygen is reduced in water by bubbling them with nitrogen (or a mix of nitrogen and air). Whilst this reduces the oxygen levels in the water it does not account for changes in another key gas, carbon dioxide!

European Sea bass in Exeter University’s aquarium

Low oxygen levels in the world’s oceans are usually caused by respiration of bacteria. As a by-product of this respiration carbon dioxide is produced. This means that whenever oxygen levels are reduced carbon dioxide levels increase. The reciprocal relationship between carbon dioxide and oxygen is well known and has been recorded many times in oceanographic surveys 2,3. Our research, using European sea bass, aimed to understand if this increase in CO2 during a hypoxic event changed the hypoxia tolerance of fish when compared to normal experimental techniques which induce hypoxia without changing CO2.

Working in the lab to measure blood chemistry of sea bass

We found that sea bass which experienced environmentally realistic increases in CO2 during a hypoxia challenge were 20 % more tolerant to hypoxia than fish exposed to a hypoxia challenge with no CO2 change. We believe this increase in tolerance is related to changes in the chemistry of the sea bass’s blood which increase the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen in their red blood cells. This means that as O2 levels drop in water the bass can maintain transport of oxygen in their blood for longer! This result may mean that previous research investigating hypoxia has miscalculated the true tolerance of fish in the wild.

Juvenile seabass in the holding tanks in the Aquatic Resources Centre at the University of Exeter

Improving our understanding of how hypoxia impacts fish species is crucial as climate change is causing an increase in both the prevalence and severity of hypoxic events. If calculations of hypoxia tolerance are incorrect this could affect our ability to predict impacts of climate change on fish. Our aim is to now investigate whether this response is common in marine fish or if individual species have differing responses.

The study, published by Scientific Reports, is freely available at here.

You can follow Dan on Twitter @DanWMont

References:

  1. Breitburg, D. et al. Declining oxygen in the global ocean and coastal waters. Science (80-. ). 359, (2018).
  2. Melzner, F. et al. Future ocean acidification will be amplified by hypoxia in coastal habitats. Mar. Biol. 160, 1875–1888 (2013).
  3. Sunda, W. G. & Cai, W.-J. Eutrophication Induced CO2-Acidification of Subsurface Coastal Waters: Interactive Effects of Temperature, Salinity, and Atmospheric PCO2. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 10651–10659 (2012).

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

A Day in the Life of an Arctic Field Scientist

Words by Clara Nielson, University of Exeter PhD Student

A day in the life of an Arctic field scientist

Hello! My name is Clara Nielson and I am a PhD student from Exeter University studying the impacts of global change on marine species in Dr Ceri Lewis’s lab. We are currently at 78 degrees north in a place called Ny Alesund, in Svalbard at the UK NERC Arctic Station for AXA XL Arctic Live with Encounter Edu. We are here to both conduct important research but also to communicate what we are doing to schools around the world.

Clara Nielson and Dr Ceri Lewis in the Arctic

Pulling open the curtains to a view of snow covered mountains and glaciers on the edge of a fjord will guarantee to put a smile on your face and put you in a good mood for the rest of the day. Our usual day starts waking up in the base and heading to the canteen for breakfast. Ny Alesund is home to a range of international scientists all coming and going at different parts of the year and the canteen is the communal hub where everyone can share a meal, and a story or two, before heading off for the day.

Arctic View

Weather permitting (we have had a few base days where we are unable to get out onto the boat due to high winds) we usually spend the day out on Teisten, the research boat, collecting water samples from different parts and depths of the fjord. We are out here to monitor the pH and carbonate chemistry of the seawater, as part of a global ocean acidification project. Ocean acidification is the change in ocean chemistry as a result of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and this process is happening fastest in the Arctic. The samples we are taking will help fill in the global picture of just how fast this process is happening. We are also sampling for any microplastics that may be in the seawater as the Arctic is also thought to be a hotspot for microplastic accumulation due to ocean currents. We were here last year doing the same sampling, and we did find some plastic, so it will be really interesting to compare our data and that of other long term projects to see how the Arctic is changing. Today it was -7oC, which is pretty cold but add to that the wind chill and we were out in temperatures of about -25 oC. This made sampling slightly trickier than at home as the seawater and all of our sampling gear was freezing pretty quickly, not to mention how cold my hands were getting! Its hard to describe how that sort of temperature feels but basically it’s painfully cold. Thankfully team work, biscuits and a kettle kept everything working!

 

The cold is soon forgotten as once the days sampling is over we can head back to our heated base but the hot shower has to wait just a little longer! First, we need to make sure all our kit is cleaned ready to go again tomorrow and the samples are stored away correctly.

After dinner we spend a bit of time looking through samples and manage to show our Arctic base manager Nick his first sea angel! This is a type of zooplankton called a pteropod, which flapped around our petridish and made this seasoned field man swoon at its beauty.

Frozen equipment is a daily challenge.

Before bed I spend a bit of time with Jamie, from Encountered Edu, going through what I shall be doing tomorrow as it is my day to take part in Arctic Live. Arctic Live is the other important reason we are all here, as alongside our research we are taking part in a live streaming educational lessons and question and answer sessions where we speak to school children live from around the world about our experiences and answer their questions about the Arctic and what it is like to work here. I am looking forward to hearing what questions the children have come up with! Its really cool that we can share what we are doing live from this amazing place, I hope it inspires them.

It is time for bed once we are all set for tomorrow, the 24-hour daylight is making it slightly harder to get to sleep as you feel like it should be the middle of the afternoon, not 11pm but it is important that we all get a good rest.

I feel very privileged to be out in such a stunningly beautiful place and it is without doubt the best place I have ever done field work in. The wildlife here is amazing too, today we saw a Minke whale from the end of the boat which was incredible. The Arctic is at the forefront of climate change where the impacts are being felt first and fastest and is also a hotspot for plastic pollution so it is probably the most important place to be doing this kind of science right now.

All images a courtesy of Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop of Encounter Edu.

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

 

It’s Stressful Being a Coral! Declining Coral Cover on the Great Barrier Reef

Author: Jennifer McWhorter

Jennifer McWhorter is pursuing her PhD in a joint program between the Universities of Exeter and Queensland. Using various climate and ecological modelling techniques, Jen hopes to improve our spatial knowledge of coral reef stressors.

 

The above diagram describes the process of coral bleaching followed by mortality. Source: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)

 

Similar to humans experiencing a fever, coral reefs undergo similar stress. The more frequent the fever and the longer the fever lasts, the more life threatening it becomes. Sea surface temperatures in the ocean are increasing at an alarming rate due to human inputs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Ekwurzel et al., 2017). In 2016/2017, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) experienced two back-to-back severe warming events that caused widespread coral bleaching[1]. According to the Australia Institute of Marine Science, hard coral cover on the GBR has declined at a rate that has never been recorded.

 

Figure 2. “Large-scale spatial patterns in change in coral cover and in heat exposure on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. A, Change in coral cover between March and November 2016. b, Heat exposure, measured in DHW (in degree C-weeks) in the summer of 2016. Map template is provided by Geoscience Australia (Commonwealth of Australia (Geoscience Australia) 2018).” Source: Hughes, T. P., et al., 2018

 

In addition to coral bleaching, cyclones and crown-of-thorns sea star outbreaks have been the main cause of decline in coral cover on the GBR within the past four years. The northern area of the GBR is expected to have lost about half of its’ coral cover. This estimate reflects the impacts of two episodes of severe coral bleaching from 2014-2017 and two cyclones.  The central reef has experienced a decline in coral cover from 22% in 2016 to 14% in 2018 due to coral bleaching and the ongoing southward spread of the crown-of-thorns sea star. Even though the southern portion of the GBR was not exposed to the 2016/2017 warming events, coral cover has dropped from 33% in 2017 to 25% in 2018. On the southern reefs, the crown-of-thorns sea star outbreaks appear to be the main cause for the most recent decline.

 

During my last trip to Australia, I assisted in injecting vinegar into the crown-of-thorns sea stars at Lodestone Reef on the GBR. The vinegar kills the sea star within 24 hours potentially reducing their threat to hard, or stony corals. Photo Credit: Chris Jones

 

“Clearly the reef is struggling with multiple impacts,” says Prof. Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “Without a doubt the most pressing of these is global warming. As temperatures continue to rise the corals will experience more and more of these events: 1°C of warming so far has already caused four events in the past 19 years.”

“Ultimately, we need to cut carbon emissions, and the window to do so is rapidly closing.”

 

 

[1] Coral bleaching – Coral bleaching occurs when the relationship between the coral host and zooxanthellae (photosynthetic algae, NOAA), which give coral much of their colour, breaks down. Without the zooxanthellae, the tissue of the coral animal appears transparent and the coral’s bright white skeleton is revealed. Corals begin to starve once they bleach. (GBRMPA)

 

Additional Resources:

Ekwurzel, B., Boneham, J., Dalton, M. W., Heede, R., Mera, R. J., Allen, M. R., & Frumhoff, P. C. (2017). The rise in global atmospheric CO2, surface temperature, and sea level from emissions traced to major carbon producers. Climatic Change144(4), 579-590.

Hughes, T.P. & Kerry, J.T. Back-to-back bleaching has now hit two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef. The Conversation https://theconversation.com/back-to-back-bleaching-has-now-hit-two-thirds-of-the-great-barrier-reef-76092 (2017)

Hughes, T. P., Kerry, J. T., Baird, A. H., Connolly, S. R., Dietzel, A., Eakin, C. M., … & McWilliam, M. J. (2018). Global warming transforms coral reef assemblages. Nature556(7702), 492.

Media Release: Two Thirds of the Great Barrier Reef hit by back-to-back mass coral bleaching

Long-term Reef Monitoring Program – Annual Summary Report on coral reef condition for 2017/2018

 

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Scientists at Sea Podcast: Sail Against Plastic

Show Notes

 

 

 

Guests – Flora Rendell and Lowenna Jones

 

 

 

Sail Against Plastic started as an idea to simply undertake a sailing expedition, over just a few months it developed into an Arctic mission to investigate unseen pollutants, namely microplastics and noise pollution.

 

“We are a collaborative expedition hoping to unveil and reveal the invisible pollutants of the arctic”

 

The Sail Against Plastic team. Photo credit – Ben Porter

 

Why the Arctic?

It is well documented that plastic debris has been circulating around our oceans via 5 ocean gyres. It is now thought there maybe a sixth gyre that carries plastic up into the Arctic circle. Recent discoveries supporting this theory have shown that plastic has been found in sea ice.

 

“As sea ice melts that could be opening up more microplastics that have been trapped in that sea ice… it shows that we’ve been influencing the world for a long time”

 

A selection of plastics found on mainland Svalbard. Photo credit – Ben Porter

 

A view from the Blue Clipper: Photo credit – Ben Porter

These pieces of plastic aren’t necessarily what you would expect, while there plastic bottles and bags found in these areas, there may be an even greater prevalence of microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic debris resulting from the breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.

 

“It’s not these big large pieces of plastic, it’s not a floating island that we’re going to find’

 

At the time of recording, the team, a diverse group of scientists, artists, environmentalists, photographers and videographers, were just a few days away from setting sail on the Barents Sea from Svalbard aboard the Blue Clipper.

 

 

The team’s manta trawl, used to collect microplastics. Photo credit – Ben Porter

 

 

“I think the main thing is making issues that are so strongly linked to humans… making you feel emotive about them… through art and through film, people will feel emotive about it and will care, we hope”

 

“And make it relevant to people in the UK and Europe and connect communities that are halfway across the world that have similarities and can work together to find a solution to our crazy plastic addiction”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Website – https://www.sailagainstplastic.com/

Blog – https://www.sailagainstplastic.com/blog-1/

Facebook – @amessagefromthearctic

Instagram – @amessagefromthearctic

Twitter – @Sail4seas

Art – Jess Grimsdale & Further info

 

Hosted by Ethan Wrigglesworth and Molly Meadows

Episode and show notes produced by Ben Toulson

 

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

 

Scientists at Sea Podcast: What’s in the water? With Dr. Anne Leonard

Show notes

Ethan and Molly talk to Dr. Anne Leonard about her work studying antibiotic resistant bacteria in the waters around our coasts. How did it get there? Is it dangerous? Where are the cleanest places to swim? All these questions and more are answered in the podcast linked above.

If people are worried about where and when they should go to beaches… going to ones that regularly meet good water quality standards is probably a good way to go.

Follow Anne on Twitter – @dr_anne_leonard

 

Read Anne’s open access (free) systematic review here:

Is it safe to go back into the water? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the risk of acquiring infections from recreational exposure to seawater

You can also find out more about the Beach Bum Survey here (again, open access)!

 

 

Links to more of Anne’s work (membership to journals required)

A coliform-targeted metagenomic method facilitating human exposure estimates to Escherichia coli-borne antibiotic resistance genes

Human recreational exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria in coastal bathing waters

 

 

Bathing Water Quality Near You

Blue Flag Beaches

Environment Agency – Bathing Water Quality

Surfers Against Sewage – Safer Seas Service

 

 

The Jargon Buster

If there’s anything that came up in the episode that you would like to know more about, get in touch via our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Antibiotic medications

  • Drugs used to treat bacterial infections. These are used to treat a whole range of conditions such as acne, bronchitis, and skin infections.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria

  • Bacteria that are not controlled or killed by antibiotic medications.

Microorganisms

  • A living organism that cannot be seen by the naked eye, but can be observed under a microscope.

MRSA – Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus

  • An example of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

E. coli – Escherichia coli

  • A type of bacteria that usually live in the intestines of people and animals which can cause food poisoning.

Pathogenic bacteria

  • Bacteria that is capable of causing disease.

Agricultural run-off

  • The portion of rainfall that runs over agricultural land and then into streams as surface water rather than being absorbed into ground water or evaporating.

Systematic review

  • A systematic review has multiple stages and is aimed at the identification of all reliable evidence regarding a specific clinical problem.

Next Generation Sequencing

  • A quick way of analysing DNA.

 

Get in touch via our Facebook and Twitter pages.

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Scientists at Sea (Episode 1): Do crabs have ears? with Emily Carter

 

 

Show notes

 

Emily Carter – @E_E_Carter

How does noise pollution impact one of our coastal favourites? Ethan and Molly talk to Masters by Research student Emily Carter about her current work which investigates how the presence of ship noise affects the rate of colour change in shore crabs.

 

Other behaviours that don’t rely on noise at all can be quite drastically affected by noise pollution

Useful links from this episode:

Fiddler crab

Selfish herd hypothesis

Shore crabs

Crabs hearing noise

Gylly beach

Penryn Campus

Steve Simpson, Matthew Wale, Andrew Radford

Martin Steven’s Group/Sensory Ecology

 

 

 

 

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#ExeterMarine community highlights the impact of plastic in the Ocean for Earth Day

The #ExeterMarine research community provides globally significant insight into the effects of plastics in the Ocean and on the organisms that rely upon the marine environment, from plankton to whales, and even humans.

The focus of this year’s Earth Day is to provide information and inspiration needed to fundamentally change attitudes and behaviours about plastics and increase awareness about the impact that plastic pollution has on marine life, human health landscapes and nature. As the use of plastics increases so to is the awareness of the threats posed by plastics.

Here is a selection of what our community had to say on the subject of plastics. Read the full article here.