Archive for the ‘Hannah Wood’ Category


Week 3; melting, freezing, Norwegian victory & urchin babies

May 19, 2009

up the fjord without a paddle

View up the now mainly ice free fjord this week. Photo: Hannah Wood

A catchy title! It seems to have been a while since I have written a blog. I think because we have settled into life here all the amazing things we do each day seem somehow less newsworthy. However I thought I would give you a general update on the goings on over the past week, both inside the laboratory, and generally about town. So perhaps I should start with the science as this is the bit that occupies most of our waking hours.

Helen and I have been working on the urchin fertilisation experiment this week which has been interesting, hardwork and a lot of fun too. It started off with selecting some urchins to spawn. We chose mainly larger urchins for this in the hopes they would contain more eggs or sperm. One of the main problems we faced is that unlike a lot of animals, particularly mammals, there is no easy way to tell whether a sea urchin is male or female. Because of the way in which they reproduce there is also no particular need for the urchins to be able to tell whether the urchin next to them is male or female. When they reproduce they do so by what is known as broadcast spawning. Based on some cue from the environment (with urchins this is usually a mixture of light levels and temperature increase) the urchins all release their eggs or sperm in a big synchronised event. The sperm then fertilises the eggs in the water column, the eggs develop into larvae which looks very different from an adult sea urchin. Then when they are developed enough the larvae settle on the sea floor and turn into the form a of a sea urchin that you would recognise. Broadcast spawning may not seem the most effective method of reproducing at first glance, particularly as a high degree of synchronicity is required to ensure  that the eggs are fertilised. However it is effective and the most common method of reproduction in marine invertebrates; for example the corals on the great barrier reef in Australia all spawn each year in one event so big that if you dive at that time you can hardly see through the water. Anyway enough of that, back to the cold cold waters of the arctic and the urchins. As I said we did not know which urchins were male and which were female. For our experiment we needed to collect the eggs of five females and mix it with the sperm from one male; that way all the developing larvae would be half siblings. Based on our earlier trials I though we’d have plenty of females. So we set up 8 urchins over pots in which we were to collect the eggs, then injected potassium chloride into them; this chemical should be kept well away from humans (it doesn’t have the same effect so no home experiments please) but in invertebrates it makes them spawn their eggs/sperm. We ended up with more males and females on our first attempt. So we started some more and had just the right amount to begin.


spawning urchins

Spawning urchins; a male on the left and a female releasing eggs on the right. Photo: Bonnie Laverock

 We mixed a known amount of eggs with a drop of sperm in water collected from our tanks- so we had 5 different pH treatments under which we carried this out. Then the hard work began; over the next 24 hours we had to check the stage of development. Initially this was just looking for a fertilisation membrane which shows that the egg has been fertilised. As time progressed we also had to count the cell stages. Just like the beginnings of a baby, the process begins with a single cell dividing into two, and then 4, and then 8 and so on.  We have since repeated this experiment at a warmer temperature to see if this too had an impact on the speed of development or survival. Have a look below and see if you can see the ‘halo’ like fertilisation membrane around the yellow looking egg, and then at the 2 cell and 4 cell stages where the fertilised egg has begun to divide:









Top: Urchin eggs with fertilisation membranes & one 2 cell. Bottom: 4 and 8-cell stages. Photos: Hannah Wood

In other news spring has begun here in Ny Alesund- the first sign of which was the melting fjord. Since then we’ve noticed the roads around town turning slushy and eventually revealing the gravel underneath. The Eider ducks have arrived now that there is open water in the fjord and every now and again I hear the honk of a barnacle goose flying by. They will soon be arriving properly from their overwintering site in Scotland to lay eggs and rear their chicks.Helen measuring conditions under the snow As the surrounding environment was changing so rapidly, Helen and I took the opportunity to go out and measure the conditions in the slushy seawater just accessible through the ice cracks, and also to see the conditions on the newly exposed rock where Helen’s barnacles are.




Helen Findlay measuring the temperature at the barnacle site. Photo: Hannah Wood

The Sunday just gone was Norwegian National day so the locals (and a few game scientists too) had a day of games and celebrations that began with a ‘wake  parade’ with very loud drums banging and a badly played trumpet! There were several people wearing traditional Norwegian costumes and the day ended with a special barbecue at Magrallet Cafe. There were added celebrations when Norway won the Eurovision song contest the night before! It is quite an international community here so we all joined in and helped the Norwegians celebrate.

 Ana-Kristoph in traditional Norwegian dressBendik Halgunset in traditional Norwegian dress

Ana-Krostoph (Left) and Bendik Helgunset (Right) in traditional Norwegian

costumes in National Day. Photos: Hannah Wood


So that’s us up to date. We put another urchin treatment in today so Thursday and Friday will be very busy sampling. The good news for us is that we have all the urchins we need now so have no more demands to make of the hard working divers. We are even hoping to spend an entire day out of the lab this weekend with a trip to a cabin. . .it’s a good incentive to work hard this week anyway 🙂


Husky adventures

May 12, 2009

Tinker & IThere are around 12 dogs that live here in NyAlesund. There is a long history of people bringing dogs to the poles with them, from the early polar explorers, to  more recently Ranulf Fiennes who’s Jack Russell overwintered in Antarctica! Here in Ny Alesund though you are only allowed to keep Arctic breeds, like huskies. The main reason is that the dogs all live over at the dog yard, sleep in little kennels and have snow in their yards. So that is fine if you  have nice thick fur to keep you warm, but the more delicate breeds would end up with very cold paws! They are not allowed to live indoors because everyone changes accommodation at times and huskies are a little stinky!


sledgingI always associate the arctic with huskies, partly because I have dogs of my own so notice them, and partly because they form a large part of the  character and feel of the place. Early in the evening you can hear them howling- more like a pack of wolves than dogs! I have since found out they howl like this when some of the dogs go out with their owners- the ones left behind get jealous and howl! The dogs here at Ny Alesund are all pets of the permanent staff, and in the long light evenings you often see people out with the dogs being pulled along on skis or maybe even a small sledge!


So with this in mind I was quite excited when I found out that Elin, the manager of the marine laboratory, now has a dog at the yard, called Tinka. I asked if I could perhaps walk her and it turned out that Elin was away for the weekend and so I arranged to take Tinka out. I was warned that she was a little stubborn and sometimes didn’t like to go out beyond the village but I figured I could be fairly convincing!


The first thing that is different when walking a husky in the Arctic, is that you first have to make sure you have all of your polarbear protection equipment with you. . .  so I went off and arrived at the dog yard adorned with a rifle, flaregun, radio and first aid kit, not exactly travelling light! Next I had to add a waist harness to which the lead and then dog are attached to me. Because the dogs are quite strong they could easily yank a lead out of your hand, and if you ski with them you need both your hands free for the poles.


I met Tinka, she was very nice, a little shy to start with, but when she which way?!saw her harness she gave a little bark of impatience as I stood there trying to work out which way round it went on!  Helen and Bonnie joined me and we set off. We started with a trip round the village where I had a go being pulled along on a small sledge chair- this began successfully but kind of fell apart with a difference of opinion between Tinka and myself on the direction we should go- I thought the road track would be best but Tinker decided a sharp turn and into thicker snow would be better. I fell off. Okay, ski-chair abandoned we reached the corner of the village where we could go left to head out into the countryside towards the glacier, or right back to the dogyard and a bowl full of seal meat for dinner. After a brief exchange of words and battle of the wills Tinka decided maybe I was right and a walk would be nice so we headed off.


Once we were out past the edge of the village it became beautifully quiet and the landscape seemed to grow- the mountains looked bigger, the snow whiter,a nd the crunch of the ice beneath our feet sounded louder. On the way out we followed some snowmobile tracks. There was a mini panic at one point when our resident into the wildernesstracker (Helen) spotted some suspiciously large paw prints  in the snow, but we concluded that it was from a dog a bit bigger than Tinka, phew! After about 4km we turned down towards the edge of the fjord. Typically they say to avoid the waters edge (polarbear risk) but as it is completely frozen it doesn’t really make any difference, but all the same we didn’t go right down to the edge! Once we moved away from the snowmobile tracks it was a lot harder to walk through the snow.  Some parts were fine then you’d suddenly sink down to your knees in thick soft snow! I was able to use Tinka as my snow tester (unfortunatley I weigh a little more than her and she spreads her weight on 4 points not 2 so occasionally this plan failed) but Helen and Bonnie had no such help! Eventually we came across a reindeer track and followed this back to a scooter trail to make walking a little easier.following the reindeer tracksdinner


When we got back to the dog yard I think everyone (Tinka included) felt a lot better for a few hours escape from the village, staving off the cabin fever for a bit longer!  My next challenge is to go skiiing with her! This should be interesting- I don’t yet know the Norwegian for left or right, but even if I do I have a feeling she may ignore me! I can’t ski either, but hey, how hard can it be?! Tinka also has now decided we are not so bad or scary and when I went to take her out around the village the next day she was alot more vocal when hurrying me up to sort the harness out.


In a place like Ny Alesund while our surroundings are fantastic, we spend a lot of time in the laboratory. It is great that the nights are light as we can then do things like this in our evenings. Not only is it a good chance to see more of the area, but you start to get a feel for what it actually feels like to live here. If I could bring my dogs with me I reckon I could live here for a few months ( average contracts for the permanent staff are 3 years!) but even with the huskies, I don’t think my dogs would forgive me for leaving them for that long!into the horizon


Urchin sampling; a tale of guts and courage

May 9, 2009

So today was day 7 of the urchin experiment and time for the first set of samples to be taken. This is supposed to be Steve’s masterplan so he left a detailed plan of wheat was to be done when. . .  which samplingwe looked at decided was wrong. . . and instead spent the morning moving around equipment and forming a plan of action that looked a bit like a urchin processing factory (do you get those. . ?). We had lots of urchins to get through and  for each urchin the journey went something like this:

urchin weight watcherUrchin plus pot was brought to the sampling by Karen Tait, the weight was recorded by Bonnie Laverock  then I carefully extracted some coelomic fluid, which is a bit like having the doctor take some blood from your arm except it is done from near the urchin’s mouth. Some of this coelomic fluid was used to measure the total carbon dioxide, then Helen Findlay measured the pH of the fluid. Simple!

What this doesn’t tell you is that the coelomic fluid can be a little gloopy- a bit like runny snot!!- and doesn’t smell very nice! On top of that, the space inside the urchins are nearly full of ripe gonads (eggs or sperm), which is great for my other experiment on urchin fertilization which I am starting next week, but today it meant I had to be careful when drawing their ‘blood’ that I did not end up with the wrong fluid- luckily the colours are different so it is easy to tell when you get the wrong stuff!

The divers are out again at the moment and should be bringing in the rest of the urchins soon so that we can begin the short exposure (one and three day) experiments which with the sampling next week and at the end will complete our part of this experiment. All the rest of the coelomic fluid is being taken home to measure calcium levels so we have just got to keep that in the freezer.

 So there you go- an insight into a Saturday in the boots of three marine biologists and a microbiologist living the dream in the arctic! Although I can’t complain too much, check out my next blog on the husky adventures from last night . .  the benefit of 24 hour sunlight is that you manage to squeeze plenty into your evenings!


The great escape: the tale of a sea urchin

May 5, 2009

collecting urchinsThe sea urchin experiment (Study 6)  is now up and running so I thought now would be a good time to fill you in on what we have done.

Luckily, even with the fjord frozen we were able to get enough sea urchins for our experiment. The divers had made a big hole in the ice near the old pier outside the marine laboratory, and there happened to be urchins on the seabed below the hole ( not all the experiments have been so lucky and are waiting for the sea ice to melt!).

urchins in holding ank

The urchins were brought in by the divers in big plastic tubs. They had to keep the collected urchins in bags hanging through the icehole until the moment they were leaving when they were transferred to the transporting tubs. This is because it is so cold that the water in the tub freezes very quickly and would kill the urchins. Even leaving it to the last minute the water looked like a giant slush puppy by the time it was handed over to us back at the laboratory. We put the urchins into holding tanks supplied with fresh seawater, and with some kelp- a type of seaweed that the urchins eat.

Steve putting the urchins in their potsThen on Saturday the mission to begin the experiment began. It took three of us working together; I used a net to fish the urchins out of the holding tanks. I then weighed them and passed them to Karen, who measured their diameter. Steve then took the urchins through to the main experiment room and randomly put them into the exposure pots. We were quite pleased with our efforts and the whole thing took about three hours. We went off to dinner quite satisfied with our work.Karen measuring the urchins

After dinner we popped back to the lab and something didn’t look quite right. . . .


. . . . some of the urchins were making a break for it and climbing out of their pots! By removing them from the kelp and holding tank walls we had activated the urchin’s climbing instinct. Because in nature if the urchins are no longer attached to the rock or kelp, it usually means they have been knocked off by perhaps wave action, or even a passing iceberg, their instinct is to then climb to regain a similar position to the one they had before. However when it comes to our little holding pots this is not such a good move!making a break for it

Our first attempt to keep them in the pots was to put netting in the pot as a barrier to put them off climbing out. However when we came in the next morning again some of the more determined urchins had climbed out! So after breakfast we left Steve to devise a new ‘containment strategy’ which involved placing plastic trays on top of the containers to keep them in. Steve was gone for about an hour and a half and Karen was a little concerned he had come across a polar bear and was stuck in the lab, but no, just battling the wills of thew urchins!  There was some debate over dinner as Helen and Steve  thought the urchins wouldn’t be able to move the tray. I was less convinced- but maybe I was just a pessimist. Back in Plymouth I had made lovely little containers for some crabs and come in several times to find them all running riot around the tank-  and I was sure that the urchins could be just as determined! Sure enough the next morning more had escaped. netted in!As we went around returning them to their pots, and finding it all quite funny, it was decided to use elastic bands to keep netting in place on top of the pots. Steve was flying out that day so the task fell to myself, Helen and Karen. It started well but putting your hands in water that is zero decrees Celsius (this is the temperature freshwater freezes but because of the salt in seawater it does not freeze until it is around minis 2 degrees Celsius) soon meant our hands became clumsy and the elastic bands seemed to have  a life of their own!

Our efforts paid off and this morning there were no escapees, all were still in their pots eating away the small discs of seaweed we put in for them to eat. So for now things are quiet on the urchin front until next Sunday when we do our first sampling. We will also be doing some behavioural measurements by timing how long it takes the urchin to turn the right way up after we turn them upside down in a tank- this will give us some idea of how changing temperature and ocean acidification may affect their ability to move- but if the events so far are an indication it seems they can still climb just fine!


Getting started in the lab

April 29, 2009

Well today I woke up for the second time and opened the curtains to bright white snow everywhere! Before we arrived I thought I couldn’t imagine what minus 16 decrees would feel like, but as I got off the plane I realised that I did- it was like stepping into a freezer. Although a freezer at home is only about minus 4, so you’d go in one to warm up here! But sitting here I have had to take off my fleece so with three layers on it is quite warm enough inside. This goes up to five layers outside plus mittens, liner gloves, hat, sunglasses (the snow is very bright with the sun shining on it) and finally a scarf wrapped around my face to keep your face warm. I can only tell people apart by their hat and scarf as you can’t really see anything else!

The EPOCA team is here!

The EPOCA team arriving in Ny Alesund. Photo: Hannah Wood

Aside from the sightseeing on the flight in where we got some amazing photos, since arriving the majority of our time has been spent in the laboratory. Initially we were busy unpacking boxes to remind ourselves what we sent up last december, and this involved my first ever snow driving experience when we went to collect the boxes. For some reason I was entrusted with driving the AWI lab (thats the German base which is hosting us here) van by Marcus. It has studs in the tyres and 4 wheel drive but you cannot put the handbrake on as it freezes on, and you have to literally plug the car in when you stop to keep it warm! Aside from this my driving experience was uneventful- although reversing down a track banked either side with 10 foot of snow walls involved Helen shouting ‘turn your way, no my way, no your way again’ a fair bit! Now Helen and myself have been working to turn the alaboratories from empty rooms into seawater acidification mesocosms. There have also been several discussions on how best to start experiments when the fjord is over a metre thick with ice in places!

Stood in front of a frozen fjord

Stood in front of a frozen fjord. Photo: Hannah Wood

For now the divers are collecting what they can by diving through to big holes in the ice. Luckily this includes sea urchins so that I can start at least one of my experiments. The brittlestars must be collected by boat as they are too deep to dive for so that study is on hold until the fjord melts. I have volunteered to be the base contact for the divers too, which means taking a radio everywhere with me and checking in with the divers throughout the day. They like to have a scientist do it so if anything unexpected turns up or changes during the days diving, then I can hopefully update or revise our ‘order’ of anmals to be collected that day.

Hard at work setting up the lab

Hard at work setting up the lab. Photo: Hannah Wood

On a more general,, less scientific note, we saw a bearded seal on the ice yesterday (although it was a bit too far awy so the photos came out like a small brown blob). I am hoping this might bring a polar bear our way – at a safe distance! The last polar bear on base was on Saturday, two days before we arrived, and he or she came and slept on the harbour in front of the marine laboratory for the afternoon. So already we’re overdue a visit by one- I have a mixture of excitement and dread for when we do see one- all depending on how close it is . . . .

the marione lab

The marine lab in the evening sun. Photo: Hannah Wood

So the carbon dioxide cylinders are arriving now so I must get back into the lab to finish setting up and start the water acidification. I’ll make sure several of the photos so far go up later on today to give you more of a flavour of what our surroundings are like.