Hello readers! Given that I spent much of this week waiting for the arrival of my sequence results from my putative cryptic species samples, I’m devoting this week’s blog post to describing my experiences collecting nemerteans in the local mudflats. Engaging in hands-on fieldwork is one of the primary reasons I love to study science, and after weeks of studying nemertean DNA in the lab, I found it highly satisfying to observe live nemerteans in their natural habitat.
We arrived at the mudflats midmorning with the primary objective of collecting a specific nemertean species (M. alaskensis) for a graduate student’s research on egg parasitism—however, this objective didn’t stop us from having fun looking at all the worms (nemertean and non-nemertean) we found in the mudflats! I was surprised by the number of graduate students who volunteered for this excursion, and I was reminded of how distinct the OIMB community is in its enthusiastic devotion to research. In my experience, it’s not often you find a large number of people who’d gladly spend their morning digging in mud for worms, and I feel immensely lucky to be part of a community of scientists who (while engaged in demanding projects of their own) consistently find the time, energy and curiosity to engage in data collection for research done by others.
We located nemerteans in the mudflats by digging into the sediment with shovels. Despite their somewhat desolate appearance, mudflats are diverse ecosystems. Migratory shorebirds hopped about, hungrily eyeing the sediment surface for indications of burrowing clams, their efforts perhaps less successful than those of the local residents armed with shovels and buckets. We students, however, had no competition for the mudflat’s nemerteans (which have few natural predators due to their toxicity). Our biggest challenge was correctly identifying the wriggling, mud-covered worms, and extracting them from the sediment without damaging their fragile bodies. An added excitement was observing how nemerteans, when threatened, extend their proboscis. Check out the length of the (white) proboscis on this nemertean!
We transported our collected nemerteans back to the lab in small test tubes, gently rinsed the sediment off their bodies, then placed them in a container of filtered seawater. I am fascinated by nemertean locomotion—look at how gracefully this Cerebratulus cf. marginatus glides through the water!
This excursion incentivized me to study nemertean taxonomy. In a classroom setting I often struggle with motivating myself to memorize taxonomy; in the field however, I found myself wishing that I could identify and describe all the nemerteans I was observing (luckily, I was with knowledgeable graduate students). While I’m still struggling to train my eyes to recognize identifying characteristics in nemertean morphology, this week I’m challenging myself to study nemertean species local to the Pacific Northwest in preparation for future mudflat excursions.
Next week I’ll describe the process of analyzing gene sequences and update you with pictures of my larvae (they’ve gotten so big!). Until then, take care, and comment below if you have questions.
“Instructions for living a life./ Pay attention./ Be astonished./ Tell about it.” (Mary Oliver)