A Steller Menu

Often, when I was out on the floor monitoring the touch tank and pointing out California sea cucumbers to curious guests, people would strike up a conversation, asking how long I’d been working here. I would tell them that I was here for a 3 month internship doing research, and that this had been a great first time experience in Alaska. When they inevitably asked what I was researching, I attempted to boil down the project that I was contributing to into a couple small sentences, roughly:

“My project is about the habitat of wild Steller’s eiders (Point out the window to our captive flock of Steller’s eiders). Researchers took benthic samples at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which is an important molting site for eiders, and I am looking at these samples under the microscope to identify tiny critters that the ducks might be eating.”

While this is a very brief descriptor of the eider project, I think it encapsulates the basic gist of it. If the person still seemed curious, I would elaborate and tell them how the ducks are listed as threatened species and climate change may be affecting their ecosystems and possibly changing what food resources are available, etc., etc.

After having a number of these conversations, I decided I wanted to write this blog to be able to go into a little more detail about what I actually spent three months doing here, show a few pictures of these “critters”, and highlight why this work is so important for understanding Alaska’s Marine Ecosystems.

Preliminary Work

One of the goals of this project is to characterize current biological conditions in lagoons that Steller’s eiders use along the Alaska Peninsula, and compare that to prey data collected more than 20 years ago. This will help us to better understand current habitat conditions and characterize any changes in these lagoons that have been designated as critical habitat areas for Steller’s eiders.

When I first arrived, my tasks were to learn about the project, organize data sheets from the previous sampling at these sites, and create a photo guide. Compiling the photo guide was my favorite part. Using data about what “critters” were dug up before, I made a sort of cheat sheet that would help a bit to get my bearings when starting to identify. Here are some examples of the types of creatures I was looking at.

First, what we are calling “Larval bivalves,” and two types of amphipods: Ampithoe and Caprellidae (commonly called “skeleton shrimp”):

Clockwise from top left: Larval bivalve, amphipods (Ampithoe), and skeleton shrimp (Caprellidae) (Gunter, 2019)

After all this, we got started in the lab, where I learned to sort and strain the samples, and dye them so we could see the organisms easier. Looking at all the little bright pink worms was very exciting, but there was so much tiny gravel to sift through! The first sample also happened to have a ton of worms, and it wound up taking a while to sort through.

It was exciting to start working with the samples, and start to take reference photos of what stuff looked like in the samples, rather than using general images from the internet. I even found a few new types of specimens that hadn’t been found in the previous sampling, such as hooded shrimp (Cumacea)!

Left: Worm (Polychaeta) Right: Hooded shrimp (Cumacea) (Gunter, 2019)

Working through more samples

After the first sample was finished, I started to get more up to speed, and the next couple went much faster. It was interesting to see the ways the different samples were structured; the first being lots of worms, the second being lots of broken mollusk shells and not much else, and the third full of eelgrass, tiny clams, and crustaceans.

During this internship, I updated the photo guide, adding hundreds of specimen reference pictures. Since this is a multi-year project, there will still be many samples coming in that need sorting—so hopefully by making a visual guide to the sample types, I will have laid some groundwork that will help get the next person up to speed even faster than me. While I wish I could have stayed a bit longer, I feel pretty good about the work I have completed here!

Final Thoughts

Adding Rose Bengal to benthic sample (Gunter, 2019)

This was an amazing experience overall! After several months of being out of the research environment, it was nice to be in a lab again! I’m proud to know that I have contributed to important research being done at the ASLC, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing what they accomplish here next. I’ve gotten to really like it here, and I’ll be sad to leave. But, I’ll always look back on my experience here fondly. Hopefully, after a few more months we’ll have a better idea of what’s on the menu for Steller’s eiders at Izembek Lagoon. But, for now, I must say goodbye and thank you!

Written by: Stephanie Gunter, ASLC Research Intern

This work is funded by the North Pacific Research Board.

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