Archive for June, 2009

Why are these MBL students wading into the murky dankness of Cedar Swamp in Woods Hole, Monday at dusk ?

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Hmmm, now they have circled up around teaching fellow Alexa Price-Whalen, who is pushing the mouth of a plastic funnel down through the water, into the muck at the bottom of the swamp.

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With the flick of a butane lighter, a great ball of fire ignites above the funnel’s spout!

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Still wondering what’s going on? These are Microbial Diversity (MD) course participants witnessing the power of the mighty microbes that release methane, a flammable gas, as they decompose the detritus in the swamp-bottom mud. This year’s MD co-directors, Steve Zinder and Dan Buckley of Cornell University, are keeping a 30-year course tradition alive by leading students on this Cedar Swamp adventure, which they call “The Volta Experiment” after Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist who published the first paper on methane in the late 1700s. Thanks to course assistant Killian Sitler for taking the photos, and course coordinator Heather Fullerton for passing them on!

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Sunday, June 7, 2009
9 pm EST
The moon was full. The tide was high. And there we were in chest-waders, fanned out across Tahanto Beach in Buzzards Bay looking for the amazing horseshoe crab. Their blood is literally blue, they have eyes that detect polarized light, and they somehow know how to sense tide and moon. But we don’t know how they do it. Alison Leschen, Marine Biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries was leading us in the second annual horseshoe crab spawning survey. The fossil record tells us that these creatures, resembling nothing so much as Darth Vader’s helmet plus a tail, have remained essentially unchanged for over 400 million years. They have out-survived the dinosaurs and the splitting apart of the supercontinent, Pangaea.

Yet they may not survive us. Visions of hundreds of copulating crabs, the female burrowing into the sand to lay her eggs, the male hanging on to the back of her shell for dear life, danced before me. But the awful truth was that we saw only seven crabs,–two mating pairs and three bachelor males. Where have they all gone? Pollutants have degraded their habitat; biomedical companies harvest their blood to produce a sensitive assay for bacterial endotoxin; and fishermen scoop up what’s left for bait. I don’t begrudge the fisherman their livelihood; and the bacterial assay is the best we have. But isn’t the disappearance of this most extraordinary and hardy creature a warning sign? Can’t we find a way to balance the needs of today with those of generations yet to come, and let the horseshoe crab be a source of awe and inspiration not only to us but to Tomorrow’s Child?

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Max and a horseshoe crab