Prior to the class I took Dr. Vagelli’s Ichthyology course which was an awesome course and totally worth all the hard work. I really loved the field work of that course and I wanted more, so his course in Marine Field Ecology came highly recommended from several of my friends who’ve taken it in the past. So after taking it I can honestly say this has been one of the best science courses I’ve taken at Rutgers. As a science major that prefers field work to lab work taking this class was obvious choice. The course offered me many opportunities to expand my knowledge as well as my skill sets and even motivated me to getting my scuba certification before going down to Florida, all of which I think will be valuable in the natural science field that I want to get into after graduating.
Before leaving for Florida, our group met on multiple occasions to flush out the planning and logistics of the trip. The doctor had us read a bunch of papers on field experiments to help inspire us to think of experiments. I personally was inspired by a presentation I did in his Ichthyology class back in the fall semester of 2015. I knew I wanted to look for bioflorescence, in which an organism absorbs light, it’s body transforms it, and the light is re-emitted as a different color. I asked the Doctor if it were possible to do night snorkeling, and he followed through. It’s always a great feeling when a professor wants to know how the students think they can make a course even better, but it’s amazing when the professor adds your idea to the agenda.
On our night swim not even Dr. Vagelli knew what we’d expect as no one from any of the previous marine field ecology courses had done this in the past. While the sun was going down I still able to see underwater and I could begin to see the switch over in the activity of the creatures we had seen all week in this particular bay. The larger fishes like the juvenile barracudas and mangrove snappers nestled down, unmoving in the seagrasses. While smaller fishes and lobsters ventured out looking for their nightly meal. After the sun had gone completely down and under the water had become pitch black we switched on the dive lights we had and began swimming and searching. It was like a whole different world at night. Fishes that we weren’t able to get near during that day appeared almost frozen by the dive light as the slept close to the ocean floor and fishes, like batfish and toadfish, and stone crabs that we hadn’t seen active during the day were now out hanging around the large sponges that we saw every day. Eventually I swam away from the dive lights just to see if I could notice anything in the darkness and that’s when I saw it. Tiny little glowing green dots everywhere in the seagrasses. I slowly ran my hand through the grass and the glowing dots would appear again. These these tiny creatures, called copepods, that were completely invisible during they day, but at night their bioluminescence gives them away and you can see them everywhere. The day before the second night I found a few anemones that I had suspected of having bioflorescence and made a mental note of their rough location. Later that night, I brought out my UV dive light and found the two anemones that I seen earlier in the day both of which were different phenotypes, during the daylight one was red and the other was white, but at night under the UV light they both glowed a beautiful green color. After discovering the anemones with bioflorescence we swam towards the mangroves to see if we could find anything else that would glow under the UV light. Dr. Vagelli found a large lobster in the mangroves when he turned of his dive light I turned on my UV light and the strangest thing happened. The lobster walked right out of the mangrove and towards my light. Which made me wonder if there was something about my light that attracted the lobster and caused it to walk towards me. As it approached, I noticed that the feet oh the lobster appeared to have bioflorescence as well, but the rest of the carapace did not and I have no clue what might have caused this. These night snorkeling trips were absolutely fascinating and posed so many new questions that I was to explore.
One of these most interesting days of the trip for me was the day we got to scuba dive at the coral reef in the Looe Key Marine Sanctuary. It was amazing to explore a new ecosystem that I had never seen in person before. We dove down about 30 ft in between the spurs of the reef and it was absolutely brilliant to see and the marine life present here was infinitely more diverse than that of the bay where we spent the majority of our time. There was so much life covering every square inch of the reef, it was so cool to see in person that I find it hard to describe. Even though the visibility was wasn’t the best and we we’re diving in a heavy surge it was still very interesting to see such a wide range of species that I had never seen in person before. Not only would I recommend other students in the future get scuba certified so that they can see all of this first hand, I would also love to come back and dive this reef again.
I feel the most important take away of this course was the valuable techniques and field experience we acquired during the trip. I believe learning the procedures of tagging specimens and using transects lines to determine the concentration of organisms in a given area will be pertinent skills that I am positive I will use in future courses and science career. Our main experiment during the trip was the study of the Caribbean spiny lobsters, P. argus, and their relationship with large sponges in the bay. On the first day we swam the bay until we located a sponge with one or more lobsters. Once we had caught the lobsters we tagged them with ribbons around their antenna and tagged the sponges with makeshift buoys. Each lobster was tagged with a colored ribbon that matched the color assigned to the buoy attached to the sponge where the lobster was found. The lobsters were then released back into the sponges where they were found. Each day we returned to the tagged sponges and looked for the lobsters that we had we had previously found at those locations and we were surprised to see the lobster return each day, for the most part, to their respective sponges.
This was an absolutely excellent course. As a hands on learner I feel like this was the perfect course for me and allowed me to learn so much. I cannot speak highly enough of Dr. Vagelli and this course. So if you’re up for some hard work, fun, and if you fancy yourself a field scientist this course is definitely for you. I look forward to doing the advanced course next summer.