This Week In The Lab

Gettin’ Dirty in Sydney Harbor

It’s been a week of gettin’ dirty in what must be the world’s most beautiful urban waterway: Sydney Harbor. After several early mornings, a bit of sea time, and some good ole manual labor, I’m happy to say our field work is complete! We’ve collected sediment samples and epilithic (animals that live on rocks) specimens from four sites and are now ready to hit the lab.

Top: Sydney Opera House as seen while underway to Gore Cove, one of our field sites. Bottom: Side of our SIMS-based research vessel, heading west past the opera house and towards Balmain, another inner-harbor site.

We launched out of the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS), a marine lab in the heart of Sydney Harbour that was established just over a decade ago in a collaboration between four major universities: University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the University of Sydney, Macquarie University, and UNSW. SIMS has provided easy boat access, lab facilities, and much more established means for collecting samples than I’m used to in Seattle. Sample collection didn’t even require trespassing or intertidal bouldering with heavy equipment! It was lovely.

The only downside was learning that Bull Sharks are not just a curse inflicted on the good people of Florida; these aquatic hunters also patrol the waters of Sydney Harbor and also happen to be to source of all my deepest darkest fears (“great whites? tigers? no problem… wait did you say bull sharks?”). So, my usual approach of diving in to collect samples by hand was not going to work. Luckily we were able to deploy tools from the surface to collect samples at the murkiest of our sites. I’m happy to say all samples are now safely stashed in cold storage awaiting analysis, and I still have all my appendages and a beating heart.

Data collection in Sydney Harbour. Left: Deploying the “Van Veen grab” to collect sediment. Right: Transferring a small amount of sediment into tiny vials for DNA extraction, while intern Henna Wilckens deploys the Van Veen grab over the side for another sediment sample.

Stay tuned for more on the wild and beautiful creatures in our samples, and on my adventures in lab as I explore food web relationships in Sydney’s urban marine ecosystems.


Greetings from Down Under

Greetings from down under! I’ve just arrived in Sydney to work with one of my all-time top science heroes, Dr. Emma Johnston, at University of New South Wales (UNSW). It’s all thanks to support from the National Science Foundation and the Australian Academy of Science, through a program they jointly fund called EAPSI – East Asia Pacific Summer Institute.

Twitter post following rocky landing in Sydney

My Twitter post after landing amidst Sydney’s 100-year storm

Of course, it’s not at all summer here in Australia. My approach into Sydney Airport was among the most exciting aviation experiences I can recall due to a 100-year winter storm that was pounding the coast of New South Wales. Upon deplaning, I discovered a usually fair-weather city deep in the throes of winter weather chaos. City buses were rerouted, sirens of emergency vehicles chirped persistently in the distance, and Hassan, my Uber driver, had to turn around on three different occasions to avoid downed power lines.

Of course, my first reaction as a wise American tourist was to instantly flock to the water’s edge to watch. Here was the scene above iconic Bondi Beach in East Sydney:

Zaza Silk (pictured) lost her swimming pool and her mother’s ashes as the sea gobbled up her yard and home. Photo credit – top: © Seven/Sunrise, bottom: Peter Rae.

Harrowing stories from the storm’s victims have since emerged. Storm surge and wave action seized up to 50 horizontal meters of shoreline in a single night in some locations, wreaking havoc for residents and businesses.

Of course, the fact that the sea poses such a risk to coastal communities (both in Australia and around the world) is a small part of why I am here conducting research. I study the artificial structures we build to protect shorelines from seawater inundation, also known as shoreline armoring. As climate change raises sea levels and human populations migrate towards the coasts (Neumann et al. 2015), the need for shoreline armoring is more critical than ever. Yet, we must balance this need with the potential negative consequences of armoring. Previous research suggests that artificial structures such as seawalls and breakwaters alter the composition of marine ecosystems (Bulleri and Chapman 2010). These changes could influence the goods and services that marine ecosystems provide to coastal communities, such as pollution processing and recreational fishing.

Over the next few months, I will work closely with researchers at UNSW to examine how marine trophic (feeding) relationships compare between natural and armored shorelines in Sydney Harbour. Sydney is the epicenter for research on urban marine ecosystems, and researchers here have unparalleled knowledge of the species that live on artificial structures locally. This knowledge will enable me to use stable isotope analysis and next generation sequencing to identify the position of each species in the food chain and its original source of photosynthetic energy. By comparing these characteristics between organisms living on altered and natural shorelines, we will gain insight into how the structure and function of marine communities may be influenced by shoreline armoring.