Posted by: Jill | August 24, 2011

Southern Hemisphere Science

After a hiatus in which I actually focused on my academic work (my advisor would be so proud!), I’m back with more stories from the sometimes-glamorous life of a marine biologist.

One of the most things I learned early in my PhD at Scripps is how important it is to be flexible. So at the end of July, when Jen asked, “Do you want to go to Brazil? I need to know by 4 pm today…” I didn’t hesitate. I got a friend to cover my TA responsibilities (thanks, Lauren!), dusted off my dive gear, and worked closely with three other Scripps grad students to arrange the necessary research permits, travel logistics, and science gear. And then there I was, just a few weeks later: en route to tiny Santa Barbara island in the Abrolhos archipelago, 40 km off the mainland of the state of Bahia in Brazil.

For me, this was an exploratory mini-research expedition. Brazilian scientists have worked in this system for decades, but it is entirely new to me. My goal was to jump in the water, collect some samples, and talk to the experts. Hopefully, I (and the rest of the Smith lab) will be back there soon with full-fledged experiments.

Our group had 8 people from American universities and 7 from Brazilian universities, and we come from the US, Brazil, Australia, the UK, Germany, and Colombia. We had our own little international science community on this dive boat, and similar to my last expedition to the Northern Line Islands, there were scientists studying the corals, the algae, the fish, and the microbes in this ecosystem.

The ecosystem in the Abrolhos islands is unlike most other coral reefs that I have studied. In places like the Philippines, the Bahamas, Hawaii and Palmyra, the seafloor is literally built of coral reef: thousands of years of coral skeleton have built up a solid bottom on top of which living coral grows. In contrast, the Abrolhos ecosystem is not a true coral REEF. It is a shallow, tropical marine environment that was formed when rising sea levels caused a shallow piece of land to get submerged. The Abrolhos islands look like rocky sea floors with corals (and algae) growing on them.

Although the landscape was different, I still found plenty of beautiful, strange, and interesting things underwater. More photos and stories, and even some science, coming in the next couple of posts!

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